Thursday, August 15, 2013

Heath Holland On...Touchin' It

It’s important to wrap your fingers around it as often as possible.

These days, not nearly enough people are touchin’ it. We live in a society that tells us that it’s not important to touch it and that you can have just as good of a time without ever once feeling it against your fingertips. In fact, it seems like far more people have given up touchin’ it than are still regularly enjoying the tactile sensation of having it in their hand. Of course, I’m talking about the endangered species that is physical media. Wait, what did you think I was talking about?

This topic comes up on the podcast ALL THE TIME. In fact, it just came up on the State of Horror episode last week. I’ve been wanting to talk about what physical media means to me for a while now, and it seems like this is the right time because we’re all thinking about it and dealing with being collectors of physical media in a world where we are increasingly becoming the exception to the rule.

First, the importance of touching it (physical media) should not be downplayed because it’s so important in the way that we forge connections with the things that we consume. By having a tactile relationship with what you are putting in your brain/mouth/ears/anus, you are creating a connection with the object that your brain needs in order to quantify that particular thing. This is why we eat so much and take so much pleasure in doing it. How many people would give up eating if they could get all their nutrition from a little cube or vitamin (or Soylent Green)? We enjoy eating because it’s tactile and it’s pleasurable. We have a connection with the things that we’re stuffing our face with because we can look at it, smell it, and taste it. That’s why I lick all my movies constantly. Ah, I’m just kidding. No I’m not!

And that’s the same reason that there are thousands of record and vinyl enthusiasts who are desperately trying to hold onto that tactile experience where you are active in your involvement with media, not passive. I’m one of them. I grew up at the tail end of the age of records, meaning I had a record collection until I was about 12 and then switched to CDs, which were smaller and far more convenient and portable. That portability meant that I was spending a lot less time sitting in my room listening to music because I could take it with me most places I wanted to go.

Now that you can go to iTunes and buy most anything you want (including new releases of music and films), there’s no reason to even go to Best Buy anymore. We can have whatever we want with the click of a few buttons. That means we’re spending a lot less time in our living room watching or listening to the things we used to. And because we aren’t doing that, good luck finding anything at Best Buy now. I think I have more movies at my house than they have in their store. It shouldn’t be this way.
Films and music and books and all of the wonderful things that feed us artistically should not be disposable. Without a connection to them, that’s what they are. These things can easily become distractions from our day instead of commitments of our time, which can take us on a journey, entertain us, and in the best cases, help us grow.

But this is where we find ourselves with movies currently. Netflix Instant is GREAT and I watch things via streaming media all the time. I love that I can watch a movie whenever I want no matter where I am. If I’m at the airport, or stuck somewhere, or even if the TVs in my house are already in use, it’s very convenient that I am able to go anywhere and fire up a streaming movie on my phone or my iPad or my computer.

But I worry so much that this convenience has now taken the place of the actual movie experience. It started when DVDs overtook the theatrical experience and people starting staying home in droves, knowing they could purchase a movie when it was released to own and that they’d get more content than they would at the theater. They could probably see the movie for a lot less than a night at the cinema would cost, too, and that annoying kid that kicks the back of your chair probably wouldn’t be at your house (unless he’s yours). Now home entertainment is less about extra content and saving money than it is about streaming media and people choosing convenience over quality.

I see people watching movies in the strangest place. Sometimes I see people actually walking down the sidewalk watching a movie on their phone. At the job where I used to work, I’d see people watching movies while they poured themselves a cup of coffee in the break room. The worst is going to the bathroom and hearing a movie coming from the other side of a stall door. Convenience is great, but what are we saying about movies themselves when we’ve reduced them to such ephemera?

The face-to-face aspect of movies is dying, too. Most of us have had some sort of a relationship with a video store like Blockbuster. Many of us had a buddy at Blockbuster that we talked with about what was new and what was good. For some, that relationship had a huge impact on the courses of their lives. But you can’t go into a Blockbuster video store anymore. You can’t talk to your friend behind the counter and get recommendations. You can’t talk about the great movie you just came from, or walk the aisles that contain hundreds upon hundreds of viewing options. Now if you want to rent a movie, you’ll most likely find a Redbox kiosk outside your local Walgreens to be your best bet. Redbox doesn’t know you like that Blockbuster employee does, and Redbox definitely won’t go out with you if you ask it to. Plus, I heard that Redbox puts out to anyone who comes up to it with a credit card.
Hollywood is not helping. As has been said on the podcast and on the website, studios and directors are training their audiences to wait for the movie to be released on the home video market and not to bother with going to see the movie and have an actual experience with the film. I wrote in last week’s column  about how the theatrical experience is now getting harder and harder to replicate once a movie has left cinema screens. Sometimes the theatrical version of a movie can never been seen again and home release versions are filled with extra content in an effort to boost the flagging sales of these shiny discs that I’ve spent so many years accumulating and poring over. Despite these efforts, physical discs are harder to find than ever and seem to so many people to be little more than fancy coasters.

I’ve struggled with this change for a while now. I was very resistant to Netflix Instant when it first appeared. Ask my wife: more than one night was spent with me grousing about how evil it all is. I’ll shake my fist at just about any perceived danger, but for a while I thought Netflix was one of the signs of the apocalypse. I do love Netflix now, I truly do. It has introduced me to so many movies I might never have taken the risk of watching. It only costs me 8 dollars a month and my time. But when I see a movie that I really enjoy on Netflix, I want to track it down and buy it so I can engage with it on a tangible level. So that I can see the special features, have the disc on my shelf with the box art, and, yes, so I can lick it.

And it was only in the last few months that I’ve turned around on those digital copies that come with combo packs. My current position on those is that they’re a nice bonus feature on a movie for which I’ve bought the actual disc. I like the idea of having a movie I own in multiple formats, as long as the digital format is not the primary means of viewing. But it took me YEARS to get to that point. There’s no way I could own a digital copy of a movie that I didn’t have a physical copy of. No, that would drive me insane. I need to have these things. I need to own it. I need to know that I can TOUCH it at any time and that it won’t need to buffer, download, or stream. A digital collection is convenient, but a physical collection is irreplaceable.

I went through a phase a few years ago where I decided that all the things I owned really owned me and that I was being buried under a mountain of “stuff.” All these records and books and DVDs and Blu-rays and action figures were piling up around me and, for some reason, I had decided that it was all to my detriment. I sold and gave away a substantial portion of those things, thinking that freedom would come with having fewer possessions.

I was wrong.
Now, I’m not saying that it’s a good thing to be materialistic, because I don’t think that it is. I think that it’s important to live a good life and be a good person and try to make relationships with people around you instead of becoming the fool on the hill with a mountain of stuff and no friends. But when I got rid of so much of my stuff (stuff that had I’d been accumulating, in some instances, for over two decades), I realized that I was giving away part of my identity. I’ve spent the last few years tracking as much of it down as possible and acquiring it again.

What I realized was that I could spend hours and hours and hours with you and try to tell you who I am and what my interests are, but at the end of all that you would still only have the vaguest idea of who I actually am. But take a walk among my DVDs and Blu-rays, among my books and my records, and you will truly know me. We are what we collect. I am in those old Warner snapper cases and brick-boxes of television show seasons. The shelves upon shelves of my movies tell you who I am and what I care about. They reflect countless hours spent before a television: watching Robert Rodriguez teaching “10 Minute Film School” about how to make fake blood and homemade squibs, or watching interviews with Quentin Tarantino talking about what the best film stock is and the movies that influenced him.

Those DVDs on my shelf represent an education, and that education didn’t come free. It cost my time and my money. There were so many nights when I pulled double and triple features in the quiet of my room with the lights off, literally taking notes on what I was learning. The 10-second Warner Home Video screen that precedes their movies has become an old friend, and having those movies on my shelf means that I can revisit them at any time.

With streaming media and iTunes movies, special features are going to the wayside. And what’s worse, it seems like the majority of movie consumers these days aren’t particularly interested in them anymore anyway. What takes someone a year or more to create is now consumed in 90 minutes or two hours and then rarely thought of again. Perhaps I take things to an extreme here. In addition to everything else I’ve talked about collecting, I also collect and keep all my ticket stubs. I have the ticket stub for every movie that I’ve seen in the theater since 1997. Sometimes I stick my hand in that big Ziplock bag and pull out a wad of them. They’re little time machines taking me back to the night I saw Six Days, Seven Nights in 1998, or the date I took to see the De Niro movie Ronin who fell asleep half-way through the movie (an important sign if there ever was one).
At the end of the day, I’m a little bit scared. I love movies, as we ALL do here in this community. I see so many alarming trends around us and sometimes it feels like the sky is falling. I do think that as long as people like us exist, there will always be physical media. But it makes me so sad that DVDs and Blu-rays don’t have the place of importance that they once did. DVDs reigned for a solid decade before they gave way to Blu-rays and high definition storage, but Blu-rays seemed to only have a few years before streaming media and iTunes became the preferred method of consumption.

But I hold out hope that perhaps, just like the new breed of record collectors, a change is right around the corner. My hope is that all these people who watch movies on their coffee breaks or fire up a movie on their phone as they drive to work will soon realize what they’ve sacrificed for their convenience. Just like these old record collectors tracking down vintage turntables and warm, analog sound systems with wood paneling, maybe one day there will be an influx of people tracking down film prints and old projectors so that they can screen movies with film grain and dirt in their basement for their families and friends. Maybe one day, people will come flocking back to physical media.

At the moment, WE (you and I) are the last generation of physical collectors. We are the last generation who grew up not having an entire video library on a tablet device or stored in the cloud. We are the last generation who went to the video store and the record store and the book store because that’s where you had to go to get your entertainment. We’re the last generation who held a new DVD in our hands and marveled at the box art, then turned it over and read through the special features to see what audio commentaries and documentaries were on this new addition to our collection. We are the last of a dying breed.

But hopefully not for long.


  1. I was there for the VHS revolution, which both liberated movies and, somehow, cheapened them. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to watch films like Blow Out and Dressed to Kill (I am currently under contract to mention at least one De Palma film in every post - damn you, Swan!). But the specialness of movie watching was missing.

    I was there for the Laserdisc revolution, and particularly the advent of the Criterion Collection, which made movies special again. Laserdiscs were clunky and could not hope to match the quality of Blu Ray or even DVD, but I miss thumbing through my collection of platters and relishing the nice, big cover art (some of the crap adorning DVD covers these days is downright pathetic). And Criterion was like a gift to film buffs. For some time afterwards, studios took time and care to create the special features for Laserdisc (and later DVD) releases. Now so much of it is corporatized crap. Remember when every DVD came with a little booklet inside? Now you're lucky if you get a one-sheet with a chapter list.

    Still, there is hope. Criterion is still fighting the good fight - their Blu Ray of Seconds is sensational, with a nice thick booklet with a great essay by David Sterritt. And the Shout! Factory has been doing a fantastic job with John Carpenter's films - their Blu Rays for The Fog and They Live are essential. I too enjoy streaming media, but the forces of darkness will get my Blu Rays when they pry them from my cold, dead hands.

  2. I want to get Steve K.'s De Palma policy instituted site-wide.

    I'm with Heath in that if I watch something on Netflix and I really like it, my next step is to track it down and own it. Not only will I get to add it to the shelf and go through all the special features, but you never know when Netflix is going to yank something these days.

  3. Yep, I agree with the column (which Heath man. You write some great columns! They're always long but in that Once Upon a Time in America-way, where the length enhances the experience) and the comments. If I really love a movie, I'll go out and buy it. 2 of my favorite Blu-rays/Criterions are Blow Out* and Rushmore. I saw those movies and was happy to lay down my $30 for the best possible audio/video/supplemental quality. Even more recently, I rented MUD on demand, loved it (favorite movie of the year thus far) and went out and bought it. It doesn't have a ton of special features but it does have an commentary with Jeff Nichols and, watching him in interviews, I like the cut of that guys jib.

    I hope physical media doesn't go away. I too like giving my DVD's and Blu-ray's a nice rub-down. Great article!

    1. Thanks, Mike! I appreciate the kind words!

    2. I'd like to point out that you just said "the length enhances the experience". That is all.

    3. ...(looks at comment) Well played. By the way, Sol? I don't appreciate you taking MY "O". I was HERE FIRST!

      I'm actually kidding. Do you like me using "O"? I'm not trying to insult you, its just my name. I could change it to Mike OB (see changed name)?

  4. Great article, Heath! I feel the exact same way (and I too keep all of my ticket stubs.)

    There's a big disconnect that happens when I scroll through a Netflix queue looking for something to watch, rather than gazing up at my DVD collection. There's something magical about owning the DVD, popping it into the player, and spending all of that time going through the deleted scenes and commentaries. Now there are so many "featurettes" on youtube that people just aren't seeking out that material once the film is out.

    I know that in the future I'll be an old man chasing after Blu Ray discs while the kids around me are streaming video directly into their Google Glass. And that's okay with me.

  5. Fortunately for me (unfortunately for my keyboard) I had already finished before I realized you weren't talking about my penis. Too bad, he hardly ever gets mentioned outside of a courtroom.

    Great article, Heath, and definitely one that speaks to me as a blu-ray lover/collector. I think there is good reason to hope that physical media is here to stay for quite awhile longer at least - I think the relative success of blu-ray, in a market where a cheaper, only slightly lower quality (to most people) alternative exists (i.e. DVDs), proves that there is a large enough population of people out there who care a great deal about getting the best quality and who will likely never settle for the sacrifices one has to make to go digital. And even if bandwidth/data storage capabilities get to the point where streaming/storing movies at 25-50Gb a pop becomes practical, there will still be a shitload of people who get a buzz from that tactile relationship with their collection. At least until our generation dies out!

    1. I know that I will ALWAYS be a physical collector (that's the sequel to The Bone Collector) so hopefully there will always be physical media to collect. I still have a ton of DVDs that I can't or won't upgrade to blu-ray, and I even have some VHS tapes somewhere around here.