FEATURE ‌ A Novel Approach 

How DVDs are completely changing the way we experience film

The 37th time you spun your DVD of The Matrix, maybe you chilled out on the sofa and sat in the dark with the surround sound shaking the walls and devoted your entire and full attention to it and watched the whole film straight through. But the 36th time? Did you perhaps turn the movie on while you were surfing the Net or hanging out with friends and just let it unspool in the background, just glanced up at your favorite scenes and the moments that make you chuckle or the lines that make you go Whoa? And the 38th time, maybe you'll chill out on the sofa with the surround sound blasting, but you'll skip past Neo at the club and the escape from cubicle hell and get right to that first drawl of "Mr. Anderson" in the interrogation scene to revel in the delicious evilness of Hugo Weaving's Agent Smith, and then maybe jump to that first meeting with Morpheus and let yourself be boggled again by all the goofy-cool philosophical ponderings, and then skip on to, oh, the scene with the Oracle and her cookies and the there-is-no-spoon, and then...

Or do you always, always jump back in the middle of Casablanca to wallow in Rick's misery as he bites out, "Play it, Sam. You played it for her, you can play it for me"? Can you not get through Witness without rewinding through the beautiful barn-raising scene at least three times? Are you compelled to sit through all the musical numbers in The Sound of Music twice, once to listen and once to sing along?

Well, you get the idea. Casual movie fans, the folks who rent the new hot disc from Blockbuster on a Friday night, they watch a movie once and return the DVD and put it out of their minds. But serious movie fans, we who own dozens or hundreds of DVDs and watch them over and over, we watch movies differently. Religiously devoted movie buffs have made something of a mantra out of telling ourselves that watching a movie at home will never, ever be like sitting in a darkened movie theater with a thousand other people all gasping in terror or laughing in joy in unison. And that's true -- even the best bigscreen, widescreen, monster-stereo setup cannot duplicate the group ritual of public moviegoing. But that's a separate experience from how we view movies at home, and that new home experience has snuck up on us so gradually that perhaps we don't even realize how it has changed how we consume movies.

I used the word "unspool" before, as if a DVD were like a reel of celluloid slapping through a projector — we still love our outdated anachronisms, even with all the cutting-edge technology that lets us do what movie lovers half a century ago would have killed for: the opportunity to watch pretty much whatever movies we want whenever we want. Even more ironically, all our high-tech toys have let us film fanatics revert to a positively 18th-century realm — the way we watch, the way we use our DVDs is akin to that decadent habit of reading novels. Of course, most people don't read novels more than once any more than they watch movies more than once: slaves to film are like slaves to books (and a slave to one is often a slave to the other). We "read" movies, and reread them; intimate familiarity with a film on DVD is like that same familiarity with a book, and watching a film on DVD for the fifth, tenth, hundredth time — much more so than rewatching a film on video — is like revisiting an old, beloved book. We skip ahead to the chapters we love, we stop and go back and reread to find new and deeper meanings than we'd appreciated on earlier readings. We learn the rhythms and the moods of a film like we learn those of a book when we can deconstruct it and reconsider it and re-view it on the fly. Certainly, there have always been film lovers who attended every revival of, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark or Lawrence of Arabia, memorized their favorite movies through countless viewings in a theater, but even they did not enjoy the readerly power to skip ahead and jump back at will, or to rewatch and reappreciate on a scene-by-scene basis.

And then there are the Russian novels of DVD, big sprawling deliciously convoluted stories to consume at leisure, or all at once: TV series box sets. Even casual DVD watchers have experienced the rush of devouring an entire season of The Sopranos or Nip/Tuck over the course of a single weekend.

I don't even have my surround-sound widescreen setup yet — but I love reading movies even on my 27-inch TV. It's not a replacement for the multiplex — it's an enhancement. Though I do sometimes find myself wishing I could rewind something at the movies, hear that snarky quip or that impassioned speech once again.


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