Part 1: How I Became a DVD Geek

The Panasonic A110 “Battle not with monsters,
lest ye become a monster.
And if you gaze into the abyss,
the abyss gazes also into you.”

— Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

NOTE: The following essay was written in 2000 and much has changed since then. DVD sales and marketing are drastically different and many of the online retailers mentioned here have since gone out of business. The Star Wars saga is now available on DVD. And I now own a widescreen TV with a surround sound system, and a hell of a lot more than 200 DVDs. But much of my observations on the strange geek obsessions of DVD collectors remains just as valid, even as this subculture transforms itself into high-resolution video format geeks.

Before I begin, let me state for the record that I am a DVD geek. Ever since the day I joined the ranks of DVD owners in 1998, I haven't been able to get enough of them shiny little fancy movie disks. I have amassed a library of nearly 200 DVDs, and I'm always aching to get some more. The DVD fever is in my blood, an unquenchable passion of technologically-enabled joyfulness that rages through my heart and soul.

That said, now I can announce the thesis I presently wish to expound upon. I believe that DVD geeks are among the most fucked-up people living on the planet Earth. Please note that I do include myself in their addle-brained number. We are not at all a mentally well people. Still, I will confidently say there are many, many DVD fruitcakes who are far more psychotic than I am, taking their devotion to this hobby to baffling extremes that I cannot begin to fathom. For the purposes of this discussion, I shall refer to these extra-crazy individuals as DVD freaks, as opposed to mere DVD geeks like me.

The strange subculture of hardcore DVD geeks and freaks has its roots in the videophile movement of laserdiscs and home theater systems, which predates the advent of DVD by a good number of years. Like most of the general public, I never had a laserdisc player. A couple of my friends had them, and I thought laserdiscs were really cool with their super-sharp video quality, but they were just too expensive and impractical. The discs cost in the range of $50 to $100 a pop, which was outlandish. Plus, at that point in my life, there wasn't too much attraction in the idea of owning movies. Other than a handful of obvious classics like the Star Wars trilogy and Monty Python movies, I didn't think there were too many films that would be worth buying just so I could watch them over and over.

Monty Python on VHS So I joined the millions of American consumers satisfied by the mediocrity of VHS videotapes. I had little or no awareness of the pan-and-scan frame butchering endemic to the format. It was perfectly adequate to collect movies taped movies off HBO or illegally dubbed from rentals, and much better than buying them. And there were video rental stores on every corner. At that time, it seemed to me the cheap and easy world of VHS had everything any sensible movie lover could possibly ask for.

I remember one time back then I looked at some magazine about laserdiscs at a newsstand, probably Widescreen Review. Flipping through the reviews section, I noticed that these were the strangest movie reviews I'd ever seen. Each review spent a sentence or two on the plot of the movie and who was in it before launching into an impenetrable torrent of soulless technobabble: "a stunning transfer created from a pristine 35mm interpositive... flesh tones are rendered naturally and convincingly... reds are deeply saturated, with just a hint of chroma noise... minimal ringing and banding are apparent in darker scenes... the vivid three-dimensional soundstage will give your subwoofer a real workout." And on and on, blah, blah, blah.

What the hell did all this mean? Review after review was packed with these arcane technical criteria for judging the merits of a laserdisc with the smug verbal flourishes of a wine-taster, and it sounded almost entirely meaningless. Never in all my life, up to and including the present time, have I been concerned with whether the flesh tones looked convincing when I was watching a movie. But evidently, that kind of junk was pretty important to these laserdisc guys. None of their pretentious gibberish told me anything about whether the movie was good or bad. I realized these weren't reviews of movies. They were reviews of gadgets.

Laserdiscs were apparently regarded as high-tech equipment first and movies second. The reviews in this magazine had more in common with a ranking of different carburetors in Motor Trend than with Siskel & Ebert. I was mystified. Did laserdisc reviewers assume that their readers could make up their own minds about the artistic value of a given movie, or were technical stats and specs really all these people cared about? Surely no one would go buy a laserdisc of a movie they hated, just because its spiffy audio-visual quality was perfect for showing off their precious home theater system. That would just be silly.

Now let's fast forward to the age of DVD. I remember when I first heard about this new digital video disc the size of a CD, and I saw a news report on how they could have two layers on one side read by differently focused lasers, to fit twice as much stuff on one disc. I knew at once that this was gonna be the next big thing. And this time, I knew I was going to get on board. It was just a question of when.

I was definitely ready for a digital video format. Audio had progressed from the 8-track to the CD, and video games had advanced from the Atari 2600 to the PlayStation, but the VHS VCR was still firmly stuck in the '70s, and its crappy quality was becoming harder to dismiss. Plus, I had gained more awareness of the need for home video to preserve a movie's original aspect ratio. This mainly came from my realization that about half of the 2.35:1 cinemascope picture of the Star Wars movies was getting chopped off by pan and scan, and that I could not abide. So I was pleased that DVDs as a general rule presented movies in their original widescreen format.

The first DVD players were too expensive for me to jump right in, and I was patient enough to wait about a year or so for the inevitable price drop to reach my comfort zone. But then there was another obstacle. Bunches and bunches of movies were not available on DVD, including a huge number of the big-time classics. Twentieth-Century Fox, Paramount, Disney and other studios were refusing to release any DVDs, for various corporate bullshit political reasons. There were no Star Wars DVDs, no Steven Spielberg, no Raising Arizona and no Monty Python. I was ready for DVD, but there weren't many DVDs ready for me.

The Best of Anna Nicole Smith Then one day while browsing at my local Suncoast Video, I discovered the first must-have DVD, the irresistible "killer app" that could single-handedly justify a major hardware investment: Playboy's The Best of Anna Nicole Smith. Yes! This glorious video showcase of the Goddess Supreme could now be mine in full digital splendor, with no more more worries about fast-forwarding and freeze-framing destroying the tape. The deal was virtually sealed right there. Then in early 1998, I found that three of my favorite movies were released on DVD: Brazil, Pulp Fiction and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. DVD had come of age. On the Fourth of July weekend of '98, I made the big plunge and brought home a Panasonic A110, along with seven DVDs (the four aforementioned discs, of course, plus Goodfellas, Unforgiven and R.E.M.: Road Movie.)

I was overjoyed with the world of DVD. This was the shit, I'm tellin' ya. The picture and sound quality were even cooler than I imagined, even with my modest 27" television and two-speaker stereo system. I wanted to learn more about DVD and find out when new releases were coming out and all that, so naturally I turned to the Internet. Before I bought my player, I had researched the wide-ranging community of DVD fan sites and online retailers, and I had already made a slightly alarming discovery: I was now joining the bizarre culture of videophile geeks I had once briefly encountered in the pages of that laserdisc magazine. Ye gads, I was hopelessly doomed to become one of them.

In DVD reviews on the web, I once again found myself beset by the meticulous appraisal of pristine transfers and naturally-rendered flesh tones. Laserdisc lingo was the basis of the indigenous tongue of the DVD world, and after some exposure, I began to understand what the jargon meant.

One of the earliest lessons I learned as a DVD geek was how massively important the quality of the digital transfer is. All DVDs are not created equal. The original film image has to be digitized in the proper way, and then the data must be skillfully compressed for the DVD format, or else it'll come out looking like crap. So all the carrying on about transfer quality is in fact very worthwhile, and it was in my ignorance that I found it so frivolous and superficial before.

But one of my other initial prejudiced conclusions about audiophiles has been proven true. Many DVD freaks will indeed buy a movie they dislike just because its picture and sound quality are amazingly outstanding. This is the endless quest for the ultimate "reference-quality" demo disc, a pursuit largely followed by people with enormously expensive giant-screen TVs and 5.1 Surround audio systems. These tech-heads love owning crap like Godzilla and Lost in Space on DVD simply so they can impress their friends with how cool their equipment is. Achieving the complete "theater experience" is everything, and the artistic merits or entertainment value of the movie itself are irrelevant.

Not all DVD geeks are so narrowly focused on home theater pizzazz to the exclusion of all other considerations, but a large number of us undeniably are. And if you find that hard to believe, you better brace yourself. As I have learned from inside the asylum, demo disc dementia is only the precipice yawning above the terrifying abyss that is DVD insanity.

Essentially, what I have found is this: hardcore DVD freaks are the most whiny, finicky, and unbearably anal-retentive bunch of crybabies that I have ever encountered. Speaking as a present or former member of a wide variety of geek subcultures (including but not limited to comic book collectors, Star Wars fanatics, Macintosh aficionados, import CD connoisseurs, and Anna Nicole Smith worshipers), I can authoritatively pass judgment that DVD freaks have got 'em all beat for sheer irrational geekness. Hell, I'll even go out on a limb and say they're crazier than people who collect Beanie Babies and Hummel figurines. Now that's saying something.

DVD is a wondrous miracle of modern technology that allows us to enjoy films and other audio-visual presentations in a state of intense clarity and beauty, right in the comfort of our living rooms. What could there possibly be to complain about?

A whole shitload, according to the DVD freaks.

Part 2: The Charge of the Whine Brigade
A summary of the five things DVD freaks complain about most.

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