Armchair Cinephile

Armchair Cinephile

John DeFore on DVD

Notes from the peanut gallery

From the start, DVD faced design problems unknown to its cousins VHS and CD. Those problems were solved awkwardly, and things haven't improved much after seven years. In the interest of frustrated fans, we present some of the flaws that make living-room cinephilia frustrating. All this may sound awfully nitpicky to casual movie viewers, but for those of us who can watch 15 or more movies a week, the little headaches add up - and since studios are currently kept afloat by DVD-aholics, it might not hurt them to pay attention:

Stickers. Under the shrink wrap, DVD buyers find annoying pieces of tape. They're there to keep shoplifters from popping the package open and yanking the disc, but for every foiled thief you'll find ten fuming fans. Some studios have just one sticker across the top edge; MGM seals all three open edges. Warner only uses two stickers, but they're perforated so that they shred while you peel them off. Houdini himself would find them a road block.

The most confounding recent package, Field of Dreams, comes with a cardboard sleeve around the box. Here's how you get to the disc: Unwrap the package; remove stickers from the top and bottom, which attach cardboard sleeve to plastic case; slide out case and remove that shrink wrap; take off top, bottom, and side stickers from the triple-protected DVD case; enjoy! Universal is going one step further by building two plastic latches into the case itself. You can tear them off, but they're hard and pointy; watching a movie on Friday night is now more difficult than getting into a bottle of prescription pills.

Fold-out insanity. The recent Alien box set contained nine discs housed in a cardboard fold-out contraption that was longer than many of us are tall. There was no flat surface in my home long enough to spread it out - and when I finally opened it on the floor, the cardboard was already separating from the plastic.

The fold-outs are common in TV releases like the six-disc NYPD Blue set. Indie label Shout Factory gets around this for Freaks and Geeks, with a mostly nice package that opens like a book - no more juggling! Unfortunately, the plastic tray holding the disc is unusually user-unfriendly. Those trays are a universal problem: Maybe ten percent can't hold discs on them from the factory to your house; the discs pop off, bounce around inside the case, and are often scratched to the point of malfunction by the time you get them.

Menu mania. Too-fancy menu screens can be cute (witness Finding Nemo), but more often they're a nuisance and a waste of studio money. Most of us stick a movie in the player before we're ready to watch, so all the FBI warnings can scroll by while we're making popcorn. Who wants to hear a scene of the movie or a 20-second slice of soundtrack played over and over while everybody's getting situated on the couch? And once you're to the point of navigating the menus, who wants to have to wade through animated action after each menu selection? (Menus for TV shows, where viewers tend to watch more than one episode in a sitting, can be especially annoying - NYPD Blue, I'm looking at you.)

(As in many things, Criterion sets a good example here: Their menus, like the new The Lower Depths, place subtle movement and ambient sound behind elegantly designed text.)

Colorization. Didn't we kill this the first time? Evidently not. Fox's new Reefer Madness proves that colorization still looks like crap. Lions Gate promotes their documentary-ish set WWII: Road to Victory as if it were newly discovered color footage; only in small print on the back does it explain that the ugly pictures used to be in B&W. Columbia/TriStar is planning to reissue some Three Stooges stuff in "Chromachoice," at least allowing viewers to choose the original format, but I say let this idea die in disgrace.

Previews. Most discs offer previews of coming attractions, but more and more are trying to shove them down our throats. Often there's a way around the ads, but you may have to work to find it: On Monk, you can fast-forward through them but can't skip over or jump straight to the menu; on others, the remote control's "menu" button is your only hope. On Finding Nemo, the widescreen disc goes straight to the movie while the pan & scan one - the one many parents will choose for their easily influenced kids - auto-plays multiple ads for Disney products.

How time flies when you're letting off steam! As with advertisements in movie theaters, things tend to get worse as long as consumers don't balk. With DVD, obsessive movie collectors finally made a dent in the widescreen vs. pan & scan war; here's hoping the vox populi can iron out some more of the format's glitches in the near future. •

By John DeFore


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