Who Will Be the Next Mayor of Pompeii?


Choose your champion: Blu-Ray or HD-DVD. Just understand that whoever wins will still lose.

The fight between rival DVD formats will most likely end with the extinction of disks as video devices, as downloaded and on-demand movies become the vehicle of choice for a new generation of viewers. "Every month this battle wages, more and more people are getting used to getting video in other ways. That's the real enemy of this indecision," Richard Doherty, an analyst with Envisioneering, tells Reuters.

Let me fire up my old DIVX player and tell you about the glory of obsolete formats. As an absolute cheapskate, I get the bulk of my movies from the public library (even though, as a libertarian, I believe public libraries are a crime against humanity and I should be indicted for using one). Thus I still make frequent use of VHS cassettes, and I can tell you there's nothing worse than watching VHS when DVD exists. Nor is on-demand necessarily a step up: Last night I watched an on-demand showing of the Jim Kelly kung fu/blaxploitation/voodoo/jetpack picture Black Samurai, and it looked as bad (washed-out print, lousy sound transfer, obvious edits for content) as anything from the bad old VHS-only days. By any yardstick, DVD has been a Jolly Green Giant step forward. If there's a secret culprit in the end of the video disk, it may not be the forward march of technology but the DMCA regulations and onerous copy protections that have made disks a geek-unfriendly format—a point only Bill Gates manages to raise with Reuters:

Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates backs HD DVD and has called Sony's Blue-ray format "anti-consumer" because of a protection scheme.

"The inconvenience is that the (movie) studios got too much protection at the expense of consumers and it won't work well on PCs," Gates was quoted as saying in an interview with The Daily Princetonian earlier this month. "You won't be able to play movies and do software in a flexible way."

Still, Gates said he regarded the debate over the formats almost as an afterthought.

"Understand that this is the last physical format there will ever be. Everything's going to be streamed directly or on a hard disk," he said. "So, in this way, it's even unclear how much this one counts."

The problem for me isn't just the extinction of the format but the fact that we're nearing the end of yet another medium without the studios' having tried to exhaust their libraries in any serious way. I'm not just talking about really obscure stuff: What kind of world are we living in where Nicholas Ray's cautionary tale Bigger Than Life, a Gillespie favorite with James Mason as a mild-mannered schoolteacher driven mad by cortisone treatments, has never been available on any home-viewing format? Where is the DVD, or the VHS, or even the laserdisc, of the 1932 version of Madame Butterfly with Cary Grant as Pinkerton, Sylvia Sidney as Cho-Cho San, and a script by Joseph Moncure March? A world without a home video version of Ernst Lubitsch's last film, the sterling Jennifer Jones girl-plumber dramedy Cluny Brown, is what Krusty the Clown meant when he said "survivors would envy the dead." The beauty of DVD was that it coincided with and helped inspire vast institutional support for exploiting back catalogues. Gone were the shitty prints and full-screen atrocities of the VHS era; in came the vogue for complete collections, crisp transfers, and rediscovered sleepers. But the job is not yet done, and I suspect the market for DVD will run out before the back catalogues do. Whatever the hell Blu-Ray is, I already hate it because it slows down the rollout of the back catalogues. They're fighting over the deck chairs on the Titanic. (Speaking of which, James Cameron guarantees that the new Titanic ultimate DVD is the absolutest finalest most ultimatest Titanic DVD yet.)

Pictures of Gerry Todd, the original king of video, here.

PS: I didn't really have a DIVX player but I am writing this post on a manual typewriter, and you're lucky I've run out of paper because I was just going to start telling you how warm my vinyl records sound with all the pops and skips.