That Old Feeling: DVDs Go Classic

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

For a few more reminders of how differently we perceive our world since Sept. 11, you need only look at the Special Features on some new DVDs. On the director’s commentary for “Brazil,” Terry Gilliam says his retro-futuristic 1985 film is about “late-night shopping and terrorist bombings.” The alien snipers on a dune in a deleted part of “The Phantom Menace” now have a disturbing al-Qaeda tinge. In Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels,” the lead character, a moviemaker, asks how he can be expected to come up with a light musical in 1941, “with the world committing suicide, with corpses piling up in the street, with Grim Death gargling at you around every corner, with people slaughtered like sheep.” And on the “Pink Flamingos” disc, John Waters declares his love for Wanted posters, adding, “In my post office [in Baltimore] they had bin Laden recently. Like he’s hiding out up in Hampton in a turban!”

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:

  • “The Incredible Adventures of Wallace & Gromit” (store date: Sept. 4). Nick Park’s three stop-motion animated shorts — “A Grand Day Out” (1989), “The Wrong Trousers” (1993) and “A Close Shave” (1994) — star a deadpan dog, Gromit, and his pet human Wallace. They could be considered a dry run for Park’s “Chicken Run” feature if they weren’t, in themselves, so minutely well-observed, so blissfully funny. The 83 min. of original footage is supplemented by modestly self-congratulatory observations from Park and his collaborators.

  • “The Simpsons: The Complete First Season” (Sept. 25). a priceless ($29.99 at my local store) package, comprising the first 13 episodes of America’s fullest depiction of small-town family life since the Louds. On these crudely-made but beguiling shows from 1990, creator Matt Groening, executive producer James Brooks and various writers and directors offer inside musings — on the characters’ pupil size (1/7th of eyeball), on the frequent appearance of the arcane inscription “A113” (it was director Brad Bird’s homeroom at Cal Arts) and on why Homer whistles “Peer Gynt” (“Because it was free”) — often interrupted by cackling. “Is it sickening to laugh at your own stuff?” wonders Groening aloud, and Brooks replies, “I think after 10 years there’s a statute of limitations.” There’s also a series of clips from foreign-language versions of the show; the Italian version is very funny, especially for those of us who don’t speak Italian.

  • “Citizen Kane” (Sept. 26). The all-time greatie, as fresh now as when it was released in 1941, has Roger Ebert’s illuminating shot-by-shot analysis. He explains why it always rains in movie night-scenes (streets look better when they’re wet) and extrapolates on the unsolvable mystery of the word “Rosebud” (no one hears the dying Kane say it). Ebert, one of the few mainstream reviewers who looks cogently at movies’ visual style, emphasizes the importance of “Kane” as a masterpiece of special effects. He also encourages the viewer to watch the film over and over — right now. In the middle of one scene he says, “I want you to play this back on the DVD and look at it again.” Ebert has the authoritative breeziness of an inspirational teacher. Enroll now at a video store near you.

  • “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (Oct. 9). This 1937 Disney film, the first feature-length cartoon, set standards that would be slavishly imitated for the next 60 years. The DVD has set a quick standard of its own: it sold 1 million copies on its first day. Your journey through the DVD is led by a magic mirror that is as petulant as it is helpful (“Hello, hello. Is anyone home? ... Don’t mind me, I’ll jung hang around till you decide... I don’t have all eternity, you know”). You get the original “Snow White” trailer, complete with critic’s rave (“Hear what the usually hard-boiled reviewer of TIME magazine says...”) and a clip from the Hollywood premiere (all seven of the co-stars showed up). But the coolest nugget is a deleted production number, “Music in Your Soup,” in which Snow White teaches the dwarfs how to sip, not slurp, their pottage. It has a lot of character humor, a bright lyric and the usual early-Disney butt fixation. (Asses were as irresistible to Walt as farts are to modern animators.)

  • The “Godfather” trilogy (store date: Oct. 9). The 1972 Oscar-winner and its 1974 and 1990 successors now have ornery inside commentary by Francis Ford Coppola, the trilogy’s director and co-writer. Coppola relives the ordeal of shooting the first film and relates on-the-set nuggets, such as Marlon Brando’s practical jokes and George Lucas’ second unit work. The DVD box appends 34 deleted scenes, including a striking encounter of Brando and his dying partner Genco (Frank Corsaro) — the first of the films’ many mortal confrontations.

  • “Star Wars; Episode I — The Phantom Menace” (Oct. 16). Cynics used to say that action movies were only prototypes for theme park rides; now we can say that the 1999 theatrical release of “Phantom Menace” was just a rough sketch for the DVD version. Not that the film’s drama is any more compelling in its new format; the acting is as stilted as ever, the plot still an elaborate snoozer. But since the whole enterprise was basically a product reel for digital moviemaking, the home viewer can appreciate this as an almost abstract film whose special effects are the subject, not the extras. The seven deleted scenes, completed for this edition, show the meticulous artistry demanded of SPFX movies. Watching the creation and completion of a waterfall scene, supervised by Dean Yurke, gives viewers an appreciation for ingenuity and sheer hard work that they may not have had yawning through the original feature.

  • “Monty Python and the Holy Grail — Special Edition” (Oct. 23). Click Play and you get the wrong film: the opening credits and first scene of a 1961 “Carry On”-style farce called “Dentist on the Job.” Then we’re on to the full Monty: the Python troupe’s most cohesive feature, with comments by all five surviving members. Michael Palin, on why King Arthur rides without a horse while his liege Patsy clops coconuts together: “Never act with animals, children or Stewart Granger.” John Cleese, relating a fit that the normally good-natured Palin threw after a day of eating mud at the insistence of co-director Gilliam: “Even he can be goaded to fury by directorial perfectionism.” A quarter-century after the fact, Palin seems almost to have forgiven his auteur: looking at one handsomely ugly scene, he mildly observes, “Wonderful interior decorator, Terry Gilliam.”
  • “‘The Matrix’ Revisited” (Oct. 23). I haven’t seen this yet (so am counting it only as 1/2 on our list), but it’s supposed to have a White House lawn full of Easter eggs. This “making-of” DVD — as much puzzle as movie — has, among other goodies, 3hrs. of hidden music tracks. “The ‘Matrix’ audience knows that the world isn’t as it seems,” says Artisan’s Beeks, “so we felt it would be natural to hide things on the menu that people would talk about on the Internet.” That’s where word of mouth is spread among DVD freaks.

  • “Shrek” (Nov. 2). The computer-animated comedy from PDI-DreamWorks is the year’s No.1 hit. It will hit the stores with some swank gimmicks: you can dub your own voice over a character’s dialogue, and enjoy a larkish new production number, the “Shrek Karaoke Party,” with all the characters taking turns on such immortal tunes as “Feelings,” “YMCA” and “Who Let the Dogs Out.”

    “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.”

    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