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Film Friday: Your DVDs Are Rotting

October 23, 2009  |  8:00am
Film Friday: Your DVDs Are Rotting

Like the autumn tomato left on your window sill or the miniature pumpkin forgotten on the mantel until November, your DVD collection is rotting. Maybe not physically deteriorating like fall fruit (although some people worry about that, too) but deteriorating in the way that all media seems to: by sitting still as technology marches past. You can’t easily play the video games of your youth, peruse a defunct web site, listen to an 8-track tape found in the attic, or, at this point, even play an audio cassette or a VHS video in many households. The DVD is headed for the same heap.

Oh, they have a new disk now, the Blu-Ray. But Hollywood introduces a new Culkin from time to time, as well, and I’m similarly blasé. Blu-Ray’s picture is better than DVD’s, but the future does not involve shipping our data around on plastic saucers.

Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, whose sole business until recently was built around doing just that, says DVDs will be the company’s primary delivery format for only a couple more years. The LA Times reported earlier this month that studios were in a “widespread corporate panic amid sharp declines in DVD sales.”

Troubles in the industry notwithstanding, people who’ve shifted their home viewing habits from DVD to the Internet probably won’t shed many tears for DVDs. Streaming high quality video to your computer, or better yet your HD TV, is now so painless, and the selection so large, that some form of electronic delivery is clearly where we’re headed. I’ll leave it to someone else to figure out the economics. As a home viewer, it’s thrilling.

In the transition away from disks, we’re likely to lose the extra features that currently come bundled with DVDs, since Internet distribution has a tendency to deconstruct packages. Albums break into tracks, newspapers break into articles, and DVDs break into unadorned films. Recent attempts to reclaim the integrity of the bundle—like Apple’s iTunes LP—feel more like marketing gimmicks than a response to consumer desires.

I’m not sure the loss of DVD bonus features is entirely bad. It’s always felt a little funny for distributors to market a new disk’s extras as much as, or sometimes more than, the main title, or for consumers to express outrage that the latest release of a mere cinematic masterpiece doesn’t include the filmmaker’s rejected ending or a bonus featurette of flubbed lines. I do have my favorite commentary tracks (Abel Ferrara’s commentary for King of New York and Jack Nicholson’s for The Passenger come to mind), but the Internet itself is one giant bonus feature. A film’s valuable tidbits, folklore, and ephemera will surely find their way to interested viewers, even if they’re not packaged with the movie itself.

What’s gained is instant access. And it’s here. Most Netflix accounts already allow instant viewing of an ever-growing number of movies, at no extra charge. Add a Roku box to your TV—one of the best values around—and you can watch them on the same couch where you’d watch your DVDs. You supply the pizza. Amazon and Apple are digitally selling and renting new movies and commercial-free TV shows. And web sites are springing up daily to deliver classics and documentaries of all types. While the problems with funding a documentary or a small film are as real as the problems with newspapers, it’s hard not to feel that we’re on the cusp of a movie delivery renaissance, if someone can crack the code.

With that in mind, I leave you with a few good movies that you can watch right now, for free, at home. No plastic disks required.

• Two debut films by now-renowned filmmakers, available for viewing in high-quality video on you computer, thanks to The Criterion Collection and The Auteurs (free for a limited time).

The beautifully shot Sweetie by Australian auteur Jane Campion.
The intriguing Knife in the Water by the wanted, desired, currently jailed Roman Polanski.

• For Netflix subscribers, two documentaries that will rip your heart out.

Shockingly, dramatically, decisively: Dear Zachary
Quietly, gradually, decisively: At the Death House Door

• Two very entertaining classic films starring Cary Grant, free on Hulu.

The amazing, lighting-fast dialogue of His Girl Friday.
The funny, suspenseful thriller Charade (which has a somewhat lower quality picture than the other selections here).

• And a little known , 45-minute documentary that an uncredited Richard Moore made for public television in 1963.

Take This Hammer in which James Baldwin walks around San Francisco and sees the flip side of Birmingham.

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