16 October 2009

collected thoughts about movies

Looking up at my shelves of DVDs, I see the results of a lot of poor decision making, misjudgment, and silly impulsiveness. And the occasional good film.

I could count them now, but what would be the point? At last count they numbered close to two hundred, but there's really no need to quantify them exactly. We're talking about art here, right? It should be a matter of quality, not quantity.

I didn't always think that way, I suspect. For a long time I was important to me in some way to know, to a single digit's precision, how many movies I owned on optical discs*. That, in itself, wouldn't be so significant if I hadn't spent so much time, and to some degree, money on acquiring so many of them with such frequency as to need websites and a Palm Pilot to accurately count my collection.

My rationale for buying many of them, collected together on the same shelf, oddly enough, was that I couldn't otherwise see the movies easily. I speak primarily of my thirty-odd Criterion Collection DVDs, which, back in the early years of the twenty-first century, were rare and exotic, but primarily rare enough, such that a person could conceivably be able to own, or at least watch, every one of them. Back in those days I aspired to be such a person.

Prior to college, I'd watched movies, but more or less in the same fashion as any teenager with little else to do than opt for the easy out when looking for something to do with friends. My friends weren't the sort to regularly see things opening weekend, so I'm sure to have missed out on some briefly popular turkeys, but at the same time I do recall seeing more than a few movies in an otherwise empty theater.

For some reason, a year after I'd started college I started taking a greater interest in movies. Part of it may have been that I was a projectionist in the student center, but I approached that more as a social opportunity and a job than as some gateway to becoming a cinephile. The beginnings of my DVD question had nowhere near as lofty a goal, to be sure. An avid bargain-hunter, I stumbled across an un-refusable deal to buy movies for a quarter apiece... from the notorious low-rent film studio Troma Entertainment, well known to fans of messy splatterfests and cheesecake exploitation flicks, and entirely unfamiliar to me. Not knowing anything about the movies (though I'd heard of The Toxic avenger, the cornerstone of their catalog) I picked some twenty of them, more or less at random, paid a higher-than-necessary shipping charge, and patiently waited two to three weeks for the box filled with movies I had no way to watch.

I didn't have a DVD player, you see. My dorm didn't even have a DVD player, though I think some of the more students with more well-to-do parents did. I certainly wasn't going to hang out in somebody else's room to experience Rabid grannies for the first time.

This was a bit before I was known, by some, for having a taste for bad movies.

The Troma movies were bad movies. I may well have overpaid, even without considering the shipping. But they were more than just eighteen randomly selected movies (two had been out of stock and they sent VHS tapes I quickly traded away as substitutes). They were an excuse to buy myself a DVD-ROM drive, so I could at least play movies on one of my computers.

There was a brief time when I had more computers in my dorm room than DVDs. And such was still the case when first my eighteen discs arrived, unfortunately. The only one that mattered, though, was the one inside which I installed my first-ever DVD drive and its accompanying hardware decoder--computers not being powerful enough to decode the digital movies on their own back then--and could consider such a shrewd move because the real players were still hundreds of dollars more.

Also, I had no television, so I saved the money not buying that too.

Once I bought the drive, I was able to finally watch the movies, and it wasn't long before I realized I needed some better movies in my collection. A co-worker of mine did me the favor of having a couple of the discs stolen while he borrowed them, and I replaced those with a few "real" movies I bought on eBay.

The online auction site quickly became my primary source for new and used DVDs. My early purchases were less than consistent - I bought The Matrix and Contact around the same time, even though I was less than impressed with the former and didn't particularly need to watch the latter another time. I think I bought The Matrix because everybody who had a DVD player owned it. I'm fairly certain I bought Contact because it was an early example of a studio's labor of love, as it contains considerable supplemental features including an unprecedented three commentary tracks.

I was a sucker for supplemental features. I think it was their appeal that prompted me to buy my first Criterion Collection movie. It was Terry Gilliam's Brazil, about which I'd only read, and generally the DVD set itself was lauded more than the film. So I bought it, the first of many movies I bought hoping I'd like them, and as with almost all of them I was quite right.

I did love the movie. The attention Criterion had lavished on it, providing not only Gilliam's cut, but also the butchered studio version, struck me as very promising for the future of DVDs, and quite possibly set me on my path of seeking films that ended up a little outside of the mainstream.

More immediately, though, it made me want to make more of the Criterion Collection part of my collection.

In retrospect, had I known I could watch pretty much any of them, as well as a whole lot more important movies, by visiting the school library, I might've saved a lot of trouble.

For that matter, had I not been too cheap to pay the buck or two the town library charged for borrowing their discs, I might not have 'needed' to spend twenty bucks a pop (on sale) to buy my Criterion discs from Borders.

Seems a bit silly, that, when I think about it now. Especially for how many of them I bought without having seen the movies first. I'll never know if I'd consider myself a fan of the movies of Luis Buñuel if I hadn't bought Criterion's Discreet charm of the bourgeoisie for its interesting cover art and good price (considering it was a double disc).

I did the same, more or less, with the movies of Jacques Tati, when I bought Mon oncle, though I can't recall quite why I had done so, though I am of course now quite happy I did so.

Those were not the only films I bought for less than rational reasons. I bought several movies (Repo man and the original Wicker man among them) because they came in unique cases.

That's how I ended up seeing Akira for the first time, in fact. I'm almost suprised now that I never picked up other limited edition tin-cased movies like Supergirl, attributing that to either sheer chance, or perhaps some tiny bit of common sense.

Shiny collections also caught my eye. I bought Fox's collections of the Die hard and French connection films, and was yet again pleasantly surprised to enjoy them.

For every French connection or Conversation (also purchased unseen!) I own, though, I've got an Antitrust or a Swordfish.

Along the way I picked up about ten movies from BMG, picked as much based on value for the money as for me wanting to own (or see) them. That's how I finally got to see most of the movies of Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy being a Criterion disc, and one of the most widely available, I already owned it). BMG also fortuitously introduced me to the TV series The Prisoner, a series I am proud to own even now as it is available for free to watch online.

As I write this I keep glancing back up at the shelf. I can only wonder how many other collections feature The Prisoner alongside Knight Rider and Boston legal. When I started writing this I meant it to be a rumination on what I could possibly do to begin culling the collection of stuff I don't really need to own (like the forgotten Killer elite pitting rival hitmen Robert Duvall and James Caan against each other, or my Dutch imported Raging Bull (special edition) or Things to do in Denver when you're dead, neither of which really do much for me, but neither of which are playable to most normal people here in the US). I meant to touch a little on how I ended up with multiple editions of Highlander and Starship troopers and The meaning of life, but somewhere along the way I seem to have lost track of what I was doing.

Which, now that I think about it, is as good an explanation as any for many of the discs being up there on those shelves.


* For the sake of sticking to close to a single line of reasoning, I'm not going to even mention my large laserdisc collection.

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