How naive, foreboding or prescient these snippets seem today. Waters, who of course recorded these comments long before the attack on the U.S., might smile to note that the FBI has given bin Laden and his gang their own Wanted wall. But as Americans look around to put something, anything, on their TV screens besides a map of craggy, bomb-pocked Afghanistan, they are turning to a new medium for their entertainment and, go figure, their cinematic education: the DVD (for digital video disc).
Consumers love the format because the image and sound are much sharper than on a videocassette, because DVDs don’t degenerate, and because there’s no vagrant tape to get torn in the teeth of a machine and drive you freakin’ nuts! Manufacturers love them because, dirty secret, they cost less than cassettes to produce. Once the hoard of film scholars, DVDs are exploding in the video market, increasing their retail take from $600 in 1998 to an estimated $7 billion this year.
In the old days (late 20th century), the discs were prized for their pristine visuals and crisp sound their technical quality. But today, with the U.S. DVD market expanding so rapidly, until the number of machines in use just passed 20 million, the buyer wants quantity. “We’re getting past that early adopter phase,” says Steve Beeks of Artisan Entertainment, which has made a bundle with specially packaged “Terminator 2” and “Total Recall” DVDs. “Now you hear that more is better. “The most popular elements are alternate endings and deleted scenes.” (And what does one learn from viewing most of these scenes? That, unless they were cut to win a softer rating, there were damned good reasons for deleting them.)
The packagers of DVDs know that scholarship can be sold faster if it’s made into a game. So they add hidden extras, “Easter eggs” to their menu. Click on the sled on a page of the “Citizen Kane” DVD menu, and find a 1997 interview with Ruth Warwick, who played Kane’s first wife. Click on a clef in the “Shrek” package,” and you’re on a road to an amusing karaoke sequence. A white rabbit occasionally flashes on screen during the new special edition of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”; click there and see the film accountant's paperwork for that shot.
Still, the best bait is a popular movie; a Warner Bros. survey indicates that 79% of consumers buy a DVD for the title, not for the extras. And the films they buy are burly actioners, to judge from the current Billboard list of best-selling DVDs: “Spy Kids,” “Driven,” “Blow,” “Exit Wounds” and “Hannibal.” (Can you tell that this is a market designed for young males?) The suspicion is validated by a look at the all-time best-seller list on the DVD Empire website. The top five: “The Matrix,” “Gladiator,” “The Patriot,” “Braveheart” and “X-Men.” The highest ranked drama is “American Beauty” (#10); the top cartoon is the “Toy Story” box set (#16); the first live-action comedy is “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” (#24).
As for films made before 1990, they are even further down the list only eight films (excluding box sets) among the golden 100. I’ll give you a dollar if you can guess the best-selling oldie. Time’s up it’s “Caligula,” the Penthouse-produced Roman porno spectacular, at #29. Other oddities: John Carpenter’s martial-arts non-hit “Big Trouble in Little China” (#54), the hip kids’ movie “The Princess Bride” (#60) and the stodgiest of all Biblical epics, 1959’s “Ben-Hur” (#86).
But this column isn’t called That Old Feeling for nothing. At the moment classic DVDs are about to storm the stores, in the biggest and most impressive onslaught of entertainment titles old as well as recent in the short history of DVDs. Among the bounty:
“Shrek” joins the “Snow White,” “Wallace & Gromit” and “Simpsons” collections to create a terrific starter set for your DVD animation library. Leave it to Groening (and I have) to put the new medium in perspective: “Welcome to the first of many deluxe overpriced DVD sets of ‘The Simpsons.’ With 280-odd shows in the can and no end in sight, you might be able to complete your ‘Simpsons’ DVD collection just before the next format comes along... So enjoy. We’ve got more ‘Simpsons’ episodes to make, then broadcast, then re-run, then chop up for syndication, then sell to you on DVD. But you know something? We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
WHY WATCH DVDs?
In 1995 I sat in a Taiwanese restaurant in Shanghai and chatted with a chauffeur who worked for the movie producer Hsu Feng. The driver was a member of the emerging Chinese middle class, and his proudest possession was a laser disc player. When I asked which film was the first he bought, he looked as me as if there were only one answer. “Well, ‘The Godfather,’ of course.”
I imagine that, this week, he and a quite a few others have begun their DVD collection with “The Godfather.” I did. For here I confess that I did not own a DVD player until TIME magazine assigned me to write this story. (The story did not run there; something about a war going on. So we’re on the web, and you, dear reader, get a story three times as long: the Director’s Cut.) When I realized than a DVD player cost less than burgers for four at the Time + Life Building restaurant $130, including tax (and tip) I was sold on this lovely and compelling new way to waste time. And, in the great Shanghai tradition, my first DVD was “The Godfather.”
With that five-disc box set in stores, and fresh from the acclaimed theatrical release of an appended “Apocalypse Now,” Coppola should again feel like Harry Hot. But the renown is poignant for the Film Generation’s own Godfather; he hasn’t directed a new film since “The Rainmaker” in 1997. “It’s ironic that people should look back decades later and celebrate films I was given a lot of trouble on,” he notes, “but that nobody wants me to make a movie right now. Talking to me about ‘The Godfather’ is like talking to me about my first wife when I’m sitting next to my second one. I’d rather get some encouragement on what I’m doing now than celebrate old projects. It was no fun 30 years ago, and I’m still doing it, and I didn’t want to. I have no interest on my old work, except in that it influences my new work.”
Still, trouper that he is, and guardian of his legend and legacy, Coppola throws himself into the task, talking over and taking over the 9hr. trilogy. He relives his fights with Robert Evans and the rest of the Paramount brass: how they wanted the first film to be contemporary, with hippies, and with Ryan O’Neal or Robert Redford as Michael Corleone; how Paramount, after nixing Coppola’s choices and insisting on a dragnet talent search, agreed to the original casting; how they nearly fired Coppola, many times, because they thought the footage was too dark and slow; how they vetoed his suggestion that Martin Scorsese (just off “Mean Streets”) direct the second film. Coppola offers bit-player details in these “films about a family made by a family.” That’s Francis’ mother in the casket as the deceased Mama Corleone (because actress Morgana King thought it bad luck to lie in a coffin). That’s Uncle Louie, a dead ringer for Marlon Brando’s Don Vito, in the Havana cake scene.
On the DVD you’ll be served on-the-set dish about Brando’s practical jokes and Lucas’ second unit work. You’ll learn who had the idea that Kay Corleone’s miscarriage should be an abortion (Coppola’s sister Talia Shire) and who was first choice to play Hyman Roth: director Elia Kazan, who spent so much time with his shirt off during a conversation with Coppola that when Lee Strasberg was hired for the role, Coppola insisted he play one scene topless. You’ll find out why Brando and Richard Castellano, who played Clemenza in “The Godfather,” weren’t in “Part II” (Brando wanted more money, Castellano wanted his dialogue to be written by a friend). The DVD box appends 34 deleted scenes, including some handsome prowling by Robert De Niro and a striking encounter of Brando and his dying partner Genco (Frank Corsaro) the first of the films’ many mortal confrontations.
Filmmakers, of course, can talk forever about their work; their job requires them to be pitchmen as well as artists, and most of them have plenty to say about a project that may have been years in the making. Some directors are happy to talk about other men’s dead men’s movies: Noah Baumbach, e.g., on “Sullivan’s Travels.” While watching the scene in which Sullivan insists on finishing a project called “O Brother, Where Art Thou” when the studio bosses hope he’ll make something like “Ants in Your Plants of 1939,” Baumbach says, “Now that the Coen Brothers have made ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou,’ someone should make ‘Ants in Your Plants.’ ... Maybe I should.”
A vagrant remark can spruce up even a DVD superproduction like Gilliam’s “Brazil” three-disc set, which contains not only Gilliam’s 142-min. Director’s Cut of a film whose studio wanted to chop it to pieces but the 94-min. chopped-to-pieces studio version. One of the film’s writers was playwright Tom Stoppard, whom Gilliam told to make the original script funnier, then complained that he didn’t get the jokes. Stoppard gives this example:
First Man: How are the twins?
Second Man (correcting): Triplets.
First man (brightly): How time flies!
Terry Gilliam: wonderful director (and interior decorator). But if you don’t understand why that snatch of dialogue is funny, you need a remedial education in wit.
One fellow who doesn’t need to attend comedy school is Waters; he’s a nonstop delight on his anti-classic of film filth, the 1972 “Pink Flamingos.” He notes that the only thing that impresses his mother John Waters had a mother? “is that I’m an answer on ‘Jeopardy.’” He defends the film’s shoddiness: “‘Just get it once, somehow.’ That was the shooting policy. ‘Limp on!’” Though he says of the movie, “It is obscene, but in a very very joyous way,” Waters often sounds a tad flummoxed by his early outrages against propriety. When one character exposes himself while sporting blue pubic hair and a sausage tied to his penis, Waters says, “I don’t know what I was thinking about... flashing wasn’t enough.” Commenting on a sex scene involving a man, a woman and two chickens, he says, “It’s like looking at your past crimes at a parole hearing.”
Yet he’s nostalgic for the sick old days. He recalls how he and the cast got around town: they’d “take cabs and run” without paying. The drug of choice was amyl nitrate poppers that “worked for three minutes or so. We used to do them in roller coasters.” One tattered waterfront location later became the Disneyish Harborplace; back then, says Waters, “It was just rats and lesbians and killers. It was much better then.” Of a second flashing scene, by a “hermaphrodite” (a man who had false bosom but had not yet had his penis removed), Waters recalls that “this was when Welfare would buy you tits but you had to buy your own vagina.” He observes that “Pink Flamingos” was dedicated to the Manson girls and that he attended the Charles Manson trials. “I love trials,” he says, “as long as they aren’t mine.” After 90 mins. of Waters’ nonstop aphorisms, the deleted-scenes footage begins. He asks, “Am I supposed to talk over this?” and does so, dandily.
It’s easy to talk about great films. And if you’re John Waters, it’s easy to talk about trashy films. But what about straight-out, non-cult, unloved stinkeroos? Plenty of meticulous, exhausting work goes into them too. It’s a pity that the new disc of “Town & Country,” a pricey flop comedy released in theaters this April, doesn’t have its own commentary a how-not-to of filmmaking. Under some lame scene, the director could be explaining, “Now here’s why we thought this bit might be mildly amusing....”
But maybe that will come on a later DVD “Town & Country: The Director’s Cut.”
With reporting by Benjamin Nugent/New York and Chris Taylor/San Francisco