Lamenting the Obsolescence of the DVD and Its Distinctive Viewing Practices
The Birds (1963)
In 1984 my favorite movie was Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (they found him), which I still haven’t seen in a theater. I had the luck to grow up during the glory days of the Video Home System cassette tape. After the local video-game arcade and the local comic-book store, the finest establishment on earth was the local video-rental outlet, a paradise of garish rectangular boxes leaning precariously on wooden shelves divided roughly by genre. My town’s one theater played one movie at a time, the one the owners figured would bring in the biggest box office, which was often junk like Ordinary People, so I missed a lot of movies the first time around. And VHS taught me how to watch a movie again—E.T. or The Empire Strikes Back yielded up all manner of unsuspected goodies on a second or third screening. “Viewing any film,” writes the literary critic D. A. Miller in his new book, “we necessarily fail to see a lot of it.”
Miller came of age in the 1960s in San Francisco, so he rarely saw a film more than once “until I turned fifteen and could go downtown on my own.” “Going downtown”: a trope for rarefied or subversive cultural experience, at least in New York, San Francisco, and a few other American cities. The art houses of Miller’s youth freed him from his family’s conviction that seeing a movie you’d already seen “bespoke the indulgence of those, unlike us, with nothing better to do.”
Miller had nothing better to do, especially after technology caught up with his desire to see films a Second Time Around (Columbia University Press, $25). The book revisits newly released DVDs of pictures Miller first saw on the art-house circuit decades ago, ranging from Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff to Hitchcock’s The Birds, with no unifying theme beyond repetition (this can get too cute, though at least he leaves Kierkegaard out of it) and a pleasing idiosyncrasy of attention. The omission of streaming video, now the dominant format for home viewing, is not accidental. Miller kicks things off with an account of “The Cinematheque Today” in which he laments the obsolescence of “the DVD and its distinctive viewing practices.” Streaming “makes it onerous-to-impossible to deviate from the straight line of cinematic unspooling”—ever tried to rewind to a specific point in a film on Netflix?
So this is an old-school celebration of the possibilities of an outdated medium, as Miller pauses, rewinds (the very term, like “dial” and “hang up,” a holdover from an even more outdated medium), summons commentary on the audio track “by pressing a single button on our remote.” It is the variety of what he notices—the trajectory from fist-fucking to fist-fighting in William Friedkin’s Cruising, “Midge’s bright yellow Cosco stepstool, with retractable steps” in Vertigo—that makes the collection more than a lark. Miller, who wrote a book on Jane Austen’s style, blessedly has no truck with “film studies.” He’s just interested in watching movies, subjecting them to what he calls “close viewing,” something “everyone can do . . . the province of the laity.”
Miller’s procedure—art house to DVD—was the reverse of my own, VHS to art house.