Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sh!#ting on the Classics: Packaging

Halloween is over. Brush your teeth. We need to talk about Christmas.

Dear Santa,
Loved Ones,
& Home Video Departments of Major Studios,

Today officially starts the Christmas buying season. I know we all have a person on our list for whom it is difficult to choose presents. Perhaps this person is a collector. Perhaps this person is a big pain in the ass. Perhaps this person buys himself everything, so there is nothing left to “gift” around the holidays. Perhaps this person is me.

Movies have always been popular presents for the “hard to buy for.” Everyone likes movies, right? Every Christmas, just buy Mom a copy of Meet Me in St. Louis and Dad a copy of The Dirty Dozen and let them fight it out for the good TV in the family room. Hollywood knows that movies are popular gifts; the explosion of special gift sets in the last few years is testament to that.

Can I let you in on a little secret? That new “Buckaroo Bucket Chock Full o’ John Wayne Movies” – which comes with a miniature spittoon just like The Duke’s – might be okay for Grandpa, but it will not pass muster with the “cinephile” on your list. Why?

Simple – it does not match the other discs on the shelf. Collecting is a mild, socially acceptable form of OCD. One of the joys of collecting is displaying the collection, preferably on some sort of shelf. Very few collectors “hide their light under a bushel” and store everything in a closet or garage. Those collectors probably secretly drink alone too. Have you not ever seen Hoarders? The fun is that everything is on glorious display.

Real collectors would like everything to match, to line up, to look uniform, to emphasize their alphabetization or their organization by genre or director or studio or star – or else these collectors will not be able to sleep at night. Woe betide the “Collectible Special Edition” that does not fit on the shelf at all! Like this godforsaken thing:

What was I thinking when I bought this? It was not a gift; at least then I would have some sort of excuse. I love the Planet of the Apes films, and the five discs are all there, tucked neatly into a little, rectangular slot in the back under his shoulders. Not a week goes by that I do not stare at this damned thing and begin to beat myself about the head and neck with a gym shoe. An almost life-size bust of Roddy McDowell as Cornelius—really? Look closely and you will see a scrap of paper tucked into his front pocket. My wife secretly put that there for fun. It is an ape’s “To Do” list. Number one on the list is “Buy Bananas.”

I love my wife. She did not divorce me for buying the “Ape Head Special Edition” of all the Planet of the Apes films.

I recently purchased the new gift edition of Ben Hur because apparently I was in Best Buy the day they started experimenting with a special gas that they release into the store’s ventilation system that makes people do things against their own self-interest. Seriously: I had to buy the special edition because it is the only edition that contains the 1925 silent version in HD as a bonus feature, and a house without the 1925 silent version of Ben Hur is not a home.

Look at all the paper and cardboard:

I do not want the box. I do not want the book. I do not want the reproduction of Chuck Heston’s diary. I especially do not need the protective slipcover that fits over the box like a cardboard condom. I only want the disc.

The studios are doing these classics a disservice by surrounding them with cheap, carnival-prize-caliber trinkets and ridiculous gee-gaws, like chocolate-scented pencils (the new Gift Set of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), luggage tags (the Ultimate Edition of Casablanca), or an actual rubber zombie mask (the Best Buy Exclusive Edition of The Walking Dead). Here is a novel idea: take all that money used on “product development” and spend it instead on improved, higher definition transfers of the films.

While we are on the subject, is anyone still fooled by the Multiple Disc Ruse? The ads shriek, “2 Disc Set,” “3 Disc Special Edition,” and “176 Disc Completists’ Fantasy Edition,” and people think they are getting added value, but I have a sneaking suspicion (especially in the age of Blu-ray) that everything would fit on one disc.

One would think that the folks at the Criterion Collection – the Tiffany of home video – would understand their own customers. They do not. Criterion did not stop at using “unique” clear cases for its Blu-ray discs (which do not match the blue plastic of the standard cases and are wider and boxier to boot); Criterion has actually released some classics in ALL CARDBOARD SLEEVES.

I am not sure why some discs arrive housed in handsome plastic and others arrive in shabby, inferior cardboard (what my grandpappy used to call “tree scrapin’s”). Maybe there is a secret Criterion Critical Cardboard Criteria. I hate the cardboard packaging, and other collectors do too. Some enterprising individual could make a mint, manufacturing alternate packaging for Criterion’s Breathless, Carlos, Seven Samurai, and Sweet Smell of Success, to name but four. Witness how these misshapen monsters look on a shelf next to their normal brethren:

Ugh – now look away! Please excuse the fact that, for demonstration purposes, I wrenched them out of alphabetical order.

Combining enough gift sets, non-standard cases, and crazy cardboards is enough to drive any collector off the deep end:

By the way, that is not my lunchbox. It is a five-DVD set of classroom instructional films from the 1950s and ’60s. DUH.

TANGENT: This all calls to mind a letter to the editor I once read in Goldmine magazine. Goldmine is a publication devoted to record collecting, but the connection here is obvious. The letter began, “I collect only Glenn Campbell and make no apologies for this.” That the letter started off on such a defensive note was sweet foreshadowing of the horrors to come. The Glenn Campbell collector in question then described his system for buying CD’s, back in the days when CD’s were housed in cardboard longboxes. He described buying TWO of each Glenn Campbell CD; one to open for listening purposes and one to keep “mint in box.” OBVIOUSLY he had to keep the opened longbox in mint condition. He then spent three whole paragraphs describing in cringe-inducing detail how he would surgically slice the longbox with an X-acto knife so that it would remain cosmetically pure. It was compelling reading. The key seemed to be to hold the knife in such a way that…

I have forgotten what I was talking about.

Oh, yes! If your loved one is a collector, make sure said collector has approved the DVD or Blu-ray packaging in advance. Or just buy a tie… a nice tie.

PERHAPS it is best that not every “Special Edition” in the movie collecting universe matches, because if that fateful day ever arrived-- and I could get every case to line up neatly on the shelf-- I would just have to dig up my father from his grave and try to get his approval all over again.

Thanks for listening, Santa. I love you.



  1. My lord, this speaks to me. Well thought out, well said, sir. I have a room, literally a room in the house dedicated to a comic book/trade paperback collection that also houses my action figures, busts, and high end collectibles, and downstairs in our living room an entire wall (literally 15 feet or so) is devoted to the DVD/Blu-Ray collection. I certainly identify with what you're saying. It drives me particularly crazy when a series of DVDs or books changes packaging midway through the series. Uniformity seems an unattainable goal.
    All that goes to say "Yeah! I agree!"

  2. Seriously, your wife must really love you - that godforsaken Planet of the Apes head really only belongs in the pad of confirmed bachelor (and possible 40-year-old virgin). Mine would not be putting up with that! I'm lucky my just plain blu-ray collection is allowed a visible spot in the living room!

    And agreed on all points re the packaging - one thing you didn't mention are those stupid "digibooks" - they remind me of the crappy little hardcover books I had as a preschooler - knock it off with that crap!

  3. Digibooks are the WORST. I won't buy a movie in that kind of packaging, which is the reason I still don't own THE EXORCIST on Blu-ray. I also don't understand the love for those limited-edition "steelbooks" that places like Best Buy put out. There's a whole contingent of Blu-ray fans who actively seek those out. But...they look different...from the other ones...

    JB has tapped into a psychosis from which many of us suffer, and it is good to know we are not alone.

  4. Thanks for the nice words, Heath and Sol; they are appreciated.

    Actually, the post originally featured a section on digibooks, which hit the curb for space because I like to keep these rants under 1200 words. I love the way you classified digibooks, Sol. From now on, I am going to refer to them as "Little Childrens Books." I am ALMOST at the point now where I want to buy the plastic case version of How The West Was Won, transfer the digibook contents (which are more extensive), and throw the digibook away.

    And speaking of love, Sol. I have yet one more example of my wife's undying love. I own a Creature from the Black Lagoon pinball machine. It is in my LIVING ROOM. It is the first thing one sees upon entering my house.

    That's love, baby.

  5. Happy November JB. Not sure if you take requests for the column but please find a way to sh*t on Ebert's new movie review show. It's horrible and breaks my heart.

  6. Glad to know I'm not the only digibook-hater - like you and THE EXORCIST, Patrick, it's kept me from buying THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION.

    Okay, JB, now you're just bragging - Creature from the Black Lagoon pinball machine?! In the living room???! Forget this movie business, sir, you should be writing books like, "How I Found and Kept a Wife without Brutally Murdering My Inner Child and Burying Him in the Basement" or "Don't Touch My Stuff: Asserting Territorial Dominance within a Matrimonial Property". You da man - got yourself a great wife there!

  7. It can be worse if you collect foreign DVDs. You get boxes that are in weird shapes that, while they are plastic and good for keeping your discs safe, will in no way fit neatly only a shelf. I've also got things that make those wretched digibooks seem sensible by comparison.

  8. I actually like the Digibook packaging for BD's that Warner uses. It separates a few select 'important' flicks that deserve to stand out (like "All The President's Men," Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" and Stone's "JFK") with a few nice full-page pics and, sadly, usually some useless PR stuff. Takes all kinds apparently.

    If you're all abstaining from buying movies on Blu-ray because of the Digibook packaging though, you should check online or your local stores because Warner has already released most (all?) the BD movies it has on Digibook in standard-issue BD cases. If you type 'The Shawshank Redemption Blu-ray' on amazon, for example, the Digibook version is $18.99 and a BD in standard BD packaging sells for $14.99. I've already seen Digibook-free versions of "JFK," "Amadeus," "How the West Was One" and "The Exorcist" (so no more excuses Patrick!) in retail stores. The only BD on Digipak that I haven't seen in standard BD packaging is "All The President's Men."

  9. Thanks for the heads up! I've seen a few of the titles in regular Blu-ray cases, too, but the versions I've seen (in stores, anyway) are missing some features. HOW THE WEST WAS WON is missing the second disc (with the "Smilebox" version of the movie) and THE EXORCIST has only The Version You've Never Seen, which by now if the Version A Lot of People Have Seen. At any rate, I would really only the original theatrical cut -- or, even better, both versions, which the Digibook copy offers. At any rate, I appreciate your understanding of my neuroses, even if you don't share them.

  10. As I said Patrick, takes all kinds to know. Personally I need the Digibook packaging to know that I'm getting the most for my hard-earned bucks, but I won't pay full retail for them and wait for the Digibooks when they go on sale. That's how I got John Huston's "The Man Who Would Be King" for fifteen bucks at Best Buy (which, sadly, also doesn't seem to have a non-Digi counterpart).

    Yeah, double-disc movies on Digibook are getting the short-end of the stick when getting the non-Digi (kind-of like people that get rental or library DVD's are not getting bonus features on most new Hollywood flicks). Single-disc Digi's like "Amadeus," "Shawshank..." or "Natural Born Killers" shouldn't be an issue though.