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Aaron Barlow, The DVD Revolution: Movies, Culture, & Technology (Wesport, CT, Praeger, 2005, $44.95, 179 pages, ISBN 0-275-98387-0)—Anne Cremieux, Paris X Nanterre

 

Aaron Barlow’s The DVD Revolution, movies, Culture, & Technology, looks into how the sweeping propagation of the DVD has changed the way films are watched, made, and studied. Because the art of cinema has always been so dependent on technology, the idea that technological advances affect the conception and reception of movies is readily accepted and as Barlow clearly states, the DVD is only on more step after the advent of sound, color, television, or the videotape.

The book is divided into seven chapters that Barlow declares can be read in any order one may wish. Indeed, much like the bonus features on a DVD, the various chapters are units onto themselves.

The linear structure of the book is nevertheless quite natural. The introduction defends home viewing—as opposed to seeing films in the theatre—as both perfectly respectable and almost as old as the film industry.

The first chapter gives a history if home viewing, leading to the introduction of the DVD and its quick success. The main asset of the DVD, as opposed to TV broadcast or video, is its authoritative stance in terms of respecting the original film—its aspect ratio, its language, and its content—quite simply a blessing after several decades of pan-and-scan, truncated credits, deleted or blurred images, and censored scenes.

The second chapter focuses on Henri Langlois of the Cinémathéque française, and the man’s struggle for film preservation regardless of subjective criteria of cinematic quality. Barlow hails Langlois as a film enthusiast, rather than a scholar or a historian, and as such, as a man ahead of his time. Indeed it is clear from the onset that much like Langlois and Tarentino, his two heroes and main points of reference, Barlow is an enthusiast, not only of film itself but of the DVD and all its extra features, an attitude which, according to him, is an important aspect of the DVD revolution.

This is made clear in the third chapter entitled “DVD Fan Culture.” Here Barlow reports on the deployment of enthusiasm that the DVD has triggered, focusing on the DVD collectors who, unlike videocassette collectors of the past, need not be ashamed of their addiction, since the DVD, having by and large replaced the short-lived laser-disc, is the tool of the connoisseur. Barlow shows how DVD technology is complemented by the Internet, offering a few insights as to how this might yet evolve in the future, with greater interaction from would-be filmmakers practicing their editing skills on deleted scenes or alternate soundtracks.

The fourth chapter focuses on the marketing of special edition DVDs, making an assessment of the kind of films chosen to be honored by a special edition and the kind of features these higher-end DVD products offer. Barlow goes into a fascinating albeit limited survey and analysis of bonus materials available on a number of classic DVD releases, not shying away from giving them the same serious attention usually reserved to the films themselves. It is by far the longest chapter, and certainly the core of a book that does not only concern itself with the impact of DVD technology, but with the artistic production the DVD has spawned, in particular concerning the craft of cinema. Barlow explains how Criterion, a pioneer both in Laserdisc and DVD releases, first included technical information for film students, critics and scholars. But as the book repeatedly ascertains, a large part of the greater public have become great fans of the “making-of” genre, delighting in the minute details of set-design on a Jeunet and Caro film or the special effect innovations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Barlow argues that the educational aspect of the DVD is constantly being augmented, impacting on the reception of films in general.

The fifth chapter is a continuation of the fourth, with a specific detailed analysis of the audio commentary, now a set feature of any high-end DVD release. As in the previous chapter, Barlow offers a grid of various types of audio commentary, with their purpose, and their limits. He makes an interesting distinction between improvised commentary as opposed to scholarly, filmic analysis, wisely expressing a preference for striking just the right balance between the two. Examples of vacuous comments by directors and actors, as well as overly analytical hairsplitting between directors and scriptwriters, are both amusing and enlightening, much like the ideal DVD commentary Barlow is hoping for.

The sixth chapter deals with the use of the DVD in scholarship and in the classroom, again with possibilities for the future as both scholars and students become more technologically literate and can illustrate their research, lectures, and presentations with home-burned DVDs. Barlow points out how the DVD now allows for precise reference to films in the same way that books have been traditionally studied, with somewhat heightened issues of authenticity given the variations in versions and formats. He envisions a time when publishing a book about film, without its accompanying DVD, will have become unthinkable. No such DVD accompanies The DVD Revolution, and one can easily imagine why.

The final chapter gives serious yet inconclusive answers to a question yearning to be answered since the very beginning of the book, concerning copyright. Barlow does not take a dogmatic stand in defense of the author/auteur, whether in this last chapter or throughout the book, on the contrary. A historic view of copyright tends to suggest that it is a lost battle, that will be fought by great corporations to its bitter end. Yet Barlow does not affirm it so, being too wary of unexpected technological changes to predict anything with certainty. His book is both an illustration of the unfortunate disparity between quoting the written word and the moving image, while demonstrating that one may do without, as he describes images readers will undoubtedly have the urge to go back to—putting the quality of their own DVD collection to the test.

The DVD Revolution gives a thorough analysis of the impact of the DVD on American film. It will be useful especially to film students and scholar interested in keeping up with new technology when it comes to theory. Barlow himself is well-versed in theory, though he does not let it burden his prose, and leaves a good list of suggested reading in the bibliography. Somewhat in contradiction with the feel of the book, there are no pictures to rest one’s eyes upon, possibly because Barlow would have been too frustrated not showing clips. The book’s weaknesses lie mostly in the peripheral: parallels with the printed word and with previous technological changes are not thoroughly convincing, often seeming hasty and easily overturned. But when it comes to the DVD itself, and everything directly connected to it, Barlow’s concise and well paced book is a thorough presentation and analysis of the questions at stake, with only one doctrinaire theoretical positioning: DVDs are cool, and they’re here to stay.

Cercles2006
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