Saturday, 20 June 2015

Remote Control: Adventures with a DVD Player

I wrote the following in 2009 with the intention of developing it into something more substantial (obviously that never happened). I print it here as a mournful response to recent proclamations that “DVD is dead” (see here, for example). Additionally, my DVD player has just died, so I'm lamenting. Here is the take-away for anyone already thinking ‘TL:DR’: don’t throw away your DVDs yet.

As an avid consumer of horror, I am regularly faced with a (probably familiar) problem. Having purchased, rented or borrowed a DVD, I am confronted by the disappointment of a dull movie, founded on a clich├ęd, predictable plot. Distributors frequently cash-in on established or previously successful movies, or make promises in advertising material that are so lurid that the film in question cannot live up to the hype. Such are the perils of investing time into a particular genre. After all, in order to be identified as belonging to a genre, films have to be at least in some sense generic.
When faced with such efforts in the age of the VHS, one had three options; 1) sit through the offending film, 2) turn it off, or 3) watch it at double-speed. My personal favourite was the latter: if a film is boring, increase the frequency of apparent action by speeding it up, and slow down for the “interesting” bits. Such viewer interventions are significant, at least inasmuch as they are an important part of how viewers engage with films.
In the home-viewing context, audiences are not passive recipients who attentively watch films from start to finish in one sitting. While Klinger notes that ‘non-theatrical exhibition is little explored in the field of Film Studies’ (Klinger, 2008: 20) it is in this environment that I spend most of my time engaging with film. While VHS offered home viewers a degree of editorial control (Michelson, 1999: 22) – much to the dismay of BBFC director James Ferman (see his interview comments in Ban the Sadist Videos! Part 2 (2006)) – the DVD is a more flexible and durable medium than VHS. That is, DVD provided viewers with greater ability to manipulate films while watching them. It also provided film scholars with a host of new tools, which can  deepen our understanding of narrative and form. They can also enhance the pleasures we gain from film. My concern here is not so much about the philosophic implications or stilling images out of time (as I have discussed elsewhere [click for PDF]), but with viewing strategies; specifically the ability to partially “reinvent” a given film ad-hoc. Our remote controls give us more options than fast-forwarding, slow-motion viewing and pausing, and those options can have a radical impact on a film’s tone.
I discovered the delights of my remote control while watching the A Nightmare on Elm Street (USA, 1984, Wes Craven) knock-off Sleepstalker (USA, 1995, dir. Turi Meyer). After persisting for over thirty minutes of meandering wooden dialogue, I became restless and decided to play around with some of the options I had yet to explore on my remote control. Admittedly, turning my attention to a lump of plastic is itself a damning evaluation of Sleepstalker. Yet, I want to make it clear that I am not a film snob; I am not asserting that I am “above” the b-movie, or that I am only intellectually stimulated by French New Wave cinema, for instance. One aspect of Sleepstalker that attracted me to it is that it took the plot device of my favourite piece of cinema; the aforementioned A Nightmare on Elm Street. Unfortunately, on this occasion, Sleepstalker simply failed to engage me.
On pressing the ‘zoom’ function on my remote however, the film became much more intriguing. My zoom function is not as sophisticated as some available on the market. It simply enlarges the centre of the screen by a different percentage each time the button is depressed. Yet, doing so made the image grainier, and altered the framing. Most figures onscreen became obscured, commonly having their faces removed from the shot. The effect was astounding. Sleepstalker had almost sent me to sleep (on reflection, maybe this was the meta-function of the text). After zooming, Sleepstalker suddenly  became fascinating and downright creepy. The now faceless characters were hard to connect to. The film’s world-view became notably solipsistic and alienating. Moreover, the grainy picture and what would now be considered inadequate framing according to standard film-making conventions (excluding the faces of central protagonists from shot, for example) meant that the film seemed as if it were shot on hidden camera: it was reminiscent of undercover investigative journalism footage. This verite aesthetic was at odds with the laboured, unnatural and scarcely believable acting. With one button press, Sleepstalker had become a film about distrust, paranoia and suspicion, where all the characters appeared to be compulsive liars claiming to be plagued by a supernatural killer, all caught on surveillance camera. Sure, this may require some suspension of disbelief, but no more than Sleepstalker’s unaltered narrative or all supernaturally-themed found-footage films require.
I pursued this avenue of enquiry to what else my amateur improvised editing methodology could offer in increasing my spectatorial pleasure. In the case of hackneyed slasher My Bloody Valentine 3D (USA, 2009, dir. Patrick Lussier), pressing the “shuffle” function meant that what would have been a narrative hinging on an insultingly obvious ‘whodunit’ plot-twist and a series of unoriginal set-pieces became a kind of fun horror variant on Last Year in Marienbad (France, 1961, dir. Alain Resnais). By re-ordering the DVD chapters, the film became an imbricated web of disrupted temporalities, repeated moments, flashbacks and unexpected cut-aways. What is more, the shuffle, being randomised, means that any given repeat-viewing of the film offers a unique experience; the twist may be revealed in the opening scene, the end credits may roll twenty minutes into the film, and so forth. The function’s unpredictability works particularly well with horror films, which commonly build narratives on elements of suspense and surprise, tension and release. By disrupting the intended ebb and flow of the narrative, moments that would otherwise function as downtime in-between scares are often accidentally amplified, while climatic moments of trauma take on new meanings.
The result of the experiment was a disorientating, but I believe valuable one; and I mean that more than just in terms of entertaining people (such as myself) who have short attention spans or have invested in a genre to the point that they have little time to waste on what they  individually consider inadequate. In saying this, I do not wish to belittle the work of intentionally experimental film-makers. My use of the DVD shuffle function is not meant to suggest that a formally experimental narrative such as Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (France, 2002) should be considered the work of a filmmaker who wishes to obscure his inability to make an interesting film by randomly adopting the type of formal technique I am discussing here. I also do not wish to overlook the narrative experimentation undertaken by artists such as Margi Spzerling, whose Uncompressed (2004) encourages the viewer to move between the multiple perspectives via which narrative events are portrayed. Spzerling’s agenda in fact is similar to my own; she declares that ‘[t]he public needs to come to an understanding of what is possible with their learn the capabilities of non-linear language’ (Filmmaker, 2001). I am primarily interested in what we might learn from employing such viewing strategies, by interacting with what is presented as finished, ordered and final.
The idea to play with form came from watching two horror films, and I want to acknowledge my debt to those films before discussing the implications of using one’s remote to gain control over the text. The first was Cheerleader Massacre (USA, 2003, dir. Jim Wynorski) which is a profoundly unoriginal horror sequel (see my review here). In fact, Wynorski’s willingness to present old-as-new gives rise to the most intriguing elements of the film. Cheerleader Massacre is shot on digital camera, yet it contains inserts from other film sources: an extract from Slumber Party Massacre (USA, 1982, dir. Amy Holden Jones) is inserted as a flashback, while an explosion is culled from stock footage (which has apparently also been used in Humanoids from the Deep (USA, 1980, dir. Barbara Peters)). In both instances, the shift to film-stock  is jarring, and draws attention to how cold and cheap the digital footage looks in comparison. In this sense, Cheerleader Massacre’s visual hybridity underscores how digital filmmaking and distribution have impacted upon the genre. What may have been considered cheap or independent in previous decades (the earlier Massacre films) now seems to be somewhat aesthetically and economically lavish in the context of the new digital situ (Cheerleader Massacre). The former (flashback) sequence can be explained by its narrative position; framed as a memory within Cheerleader Massacre, it is apposite that the footage from Slumber Party Massacre is marked as visually “different” from the narrative present. In fact, the use of film footage here may be read as a comment on how ‘cinematic’ imaginations of the past can be (see Bulkeley, 1999: 101). In both cases, the motivation for using shot-on-film footage is clear; the first instance ties Cheerleader Massacre into an existing franchise, and the second avoids the cost of blowing up a building. However, the film’s willingness to remix existing elements in such a manner highlights the product’s inadequacies and Wynorski’s lack of confidence in Cheerleader Massacre as a standalone movie. The trailer for Cheerleader Massacre continues this logic, containing a plethora of shots and sequences that are nowhere to be found in the film it allegedly advertises, and placing a great deal of weight on making the connection between the standalone title Cheerleader Massacre and preceding Slumber Party Massacre and Sorority House Massacre films.
With this spirit of remixing in mind, the second film that motivated the present article is Death Screams (USA, 1982, dir. David Nelson), a standard Friday the 13th (USA, 1980, dir. Sean Cunningham) influenced “teens in the woods” slasher affair. The teens in question are introduced through their interactions at a summer carnival, then they party in the woods at night, and then a masked maniac begins to kill the teens. So far, so familiar. Yet, as soon as Sheila and Walker are killed there is a sudden jump; we see the teens in the afternoon organising their trip into the woods. ‘How clever’, I thought: ‘having set the murder-spree in motion, we are going to see flashbacks of the teens earlier in the day, and this will help us to work out who the killer is, what their motivations are and so forth. What an interesting embellishment’. While I was busy musing over the filmmaker’s commentary about viewers privileging violence “as” meaning and murder set-pieces as points of sadistic pleasure (when viewers should really be paying attention to character’s interactions so as to increase empathy for the victims), the film suddenly jumped straight back into the throes of murder. By the time the film reached its conclusion, I was reasonably certain that the jump was not evidence that the author was intentionally bucking genre conventions. Instead, I was pretty sure that the film had been transferred to DVD in the wrong order: the second and third reels had been swapped, and because the film was considered to be so poor, no-one had noticed before releasing it. I am unaware if this problem affects all versions of Death Screams, but it made my Vipco edition (released 2004) much more entertaining than it otherwise would have been.
Moreover, the odd  (albeit accidental) narrative construction accentuated underlying problems with the plot. Throughout Death Screams, a bumbling sheriff remains many steps behind the killer (and the action); he spends the majority of the film eating, being generally sleazy, blaming Ramona for the death of his son (which is never expanded upon), and entering empty houses. When the killer and his motivations are revealed (SPOILER: it has something to do with his mother being a prostitute… or at least this is what I assume from the three brief shots that constitute the backstory), the sheriff is nowhere to be seen. The killer falls out of a window, and the sheriff arrives to shoot him. But wait…we know who did it and why (just about), but the sheriff could not: he did not even discover any of the dead bodies, such was his obsession with vacant cabins and reading Hustler magazine. Not only is Death Screams’ sheriff inept, he is in the habit of turning up when someone has fallen out of a window, only to shoot them in the face. This dubious morality is underlined by the involuntary reorganisation of the narrative that returns the viewer to the plot build (reel two) instead of letting the viewer forget such details by sweeping the viewer along in escalating violence (reels three and four).
What both examples highlighted for me was how Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ may be usefully employed in the contemporary viewing context to improve our engagements with film. I am not suggesting that scholars should entirely forsake a mode of film analysis that attends to narrative structure: indeed, were each viewer to only watch a film using the shuffle function, it would lead to numerous incompatible and incomprehensible analyses. Yet remixing a given film may valuable in terms of enhancing viewing pleasure, and also in highlighting visual and thematic connections across the text that might not otherwise be apparent. In the case of Death Screams, the haphazardly reordered text led me ruminate on character motivations and the pleasures of violent spectacle in a manner that I would not have considered if the film had played out according to the author’s objectives. Purposely imposing such accidents via the DVD remote control frees the viewer from authorial intention in a liberating, Barthesian fashion.
The interactive aspect of DVD was one of its most appealing commercial features: as Taylor (2001: 3) observes, ‘DVD has many tricks to woo the weary couch potato and the multi-media junkie alike’. However, far from being sales gimmicks, I contend that we stand to benefit from taking these interactive ‘tricks’ seriously, and acknowledge the potential these interactive abilities affords for film analysis. Even though Taylor recognises that DVD does not close ‘the door on beginning-to-end storytelling, only that it opens new doors for different approaches’, when he does mention creative control he refers to producers, not participatory viewers (Taylor: 2001: 4 and 161-2). Laidler’s vision of the ‘independence and power for the consumer’ presented by video is more optimistic, focusing on the viewer’s ‘power over time’, and a ‘freedom of use  which was previously only available in print’ (Laidler, 1998: 51). My stance is somewhere in-between these two. I am cautious about the radical potentials of interactivity inasmuch as I am not proposing that established roles (creator and interpreter) should be abandoned altogether. However, I am interested in investigating the push-and-pull of that relationship. For instance, why is it typical to watch a film in the linear sequence that it is presented, when technology so easily provides alternatives? Partially, this is due to cinematic history: habits and established routines of watching films from beginning to end, following the path set by the author (see Williams, 2000: 363).
Those conventions are bolstered by a host of commercial pressures that implicitly ask us to think of the sequential, presented order as the “correct” one. Some of these are programmed into DVDs. For example, the 2002 Universal Pictures Region 2 release of Mulholland Drive (USA, 2001. Dir. David Lynch) contains no chapter breaks, thus hindering the viewer’s ability to skip  through the film. Even when a host of options such as audio commentaries and ‘making of’ featurettes are included as part of the DVD, these arguably add to the overall sense that the creator/producers’ designs are paramount. Catherine Grant argues that the DVD functions in this sense as a means of bolstering the auteurist paradigm, which is ‘interrelated film production, marketing, and reception practices and discourses which are all underpinned by a shared belief in the specific capability of an individual agent – the director – to marshal and synthesize the multiple, and usually collective, elements of filmmaking for the purposes of individual expression’ (Grant, 2008: 101).
While Grant recognizes that ephemeral material explicitly allows viewers to interact with the materials supplied, she is primarily interested in how those materials shape our reception of film texts as cultural objects. Similarly, Klinger asserts that DVD acts as an ‘ambassador of context, entering the home complete with its own armada of discourses meant to influence reception’ (Klinger, 2008: 21). Both Grant and Klinger identify ways in which these interactive features support conventional attitudes towards authorial control. In turn, that implicit pressure occludes the disruptive potentials DVD offers. Yet while the message of DVD “special features” might be that the author has control, it is notable that in order to access such materials viewers must navigate the DVD’s geography. The content may bolster preconceptions about authorial control, but accessing those messages first requires viewer agency: (inter)action is primary. The interactive possibilities offered by DVD fly in the face of the medium’s expected use.
Viewers are rarely permitted absolute control over the DVD content, however. Interactivity is limited at the point of design in the interests of commercial control. Jim Taylor observes that region locking and copy protection are built in to DVD technology to provide production companies with a means of limiting the product’s distributional flow (Taylor, 2001: 157). Supported by copyright law, such restrictions seek to impede a viewer’s ability to consume DVDs from other commercial regions. These systems also ensure that viewers cannot readily or legally use mainstream video editing software to deconstruct and reconstitute film texts contained on DVDs. Moreover, DVD design is such that ‘[a]lmost every button on the remote control can be blocked at any point on the disc’ (Taylor, 2001: 164), meaning that production companies can easily restrict the viewer’s ability to disturb the intended usage. Most commonly, this means viewers cannot easily skip past copyright notices and trailers.[1]
Pace the autuerist paradigm, these same commercial and industrial pressures undercut the notion that filmmakers have complete control over their narratives. While Benjamin (2000: 59) unfairly characterised commercial cinema as ‘films devoid of the slightest interest – when they are not, frankly, odious and stupid – films that skilfully and purposefully set out to anaesthetize the public’, he also noted that ‘the scriptwriter and director…always come up against capital’. Those commercial considerations limit creative freedom. Production studios place filmmakers under (implicit and explicit) pressure to make films that fit into intelligible commercial categories, and genre categorisation also limits the shape and tone of a given narrative. Genre pictures make a return on investment by playing on audiences’ familiarity with convention. Genre is an integral aspect of pre-selling the narrative to an interested audience. However, conformity to genre conventions can also dissatisfy a audiences who crave innovation while also not wanting a film to be so new as to become unrecognizable as part of a genre. This is an extraordinarily fine line, and thus studios and filmmakers are required to second-guess their target-audiences micro-preferences. Audiences should thus take some responsibility for their own entertainment. If a film’s adherence to genre tropes is limiting (if the film is deemed boring), viewers have various options – including those I outlined in my response to Sleepstalker – to increase their enjoyment. It might not always work, by experimenting with one’s DVD remote is surely more satisfying than whining on
Despite the medium’s more general aims (which emphasise authorial intent), DVD provides viewers with various ways to collaborate in the organisation, meanings and textual pleasures of film, even if those are limited at present. Although I advocate increased flexibility (the ability to insert randomised chapter markers, to recolour sequences, to play in reverse slow-motion with sound and so forth), some are incredulous about viewers’ desire for such facilities. Taylor suggests that even though ‘DVD brings a new level of personal control to video is not apparent just how much control the average couch potato is interested in having’ (Taylor, 2001: 163). Yet, this deferment to authorial control stems from the conventions and pressures outlined above. Were viewers primed and given opportunity to take greater creative control and responsibility, the ‘average couch potato’ (as Taylor envisages them) may make greater use of their remote to augment the pleasures on offer. Viewers already use their remotes to make editorial choices such as fast-forwarding through dull sequences, pausing on the best parts, stopping films for toilet breaks, and (r)ejecting films they consider to be unworthy of attention. These are not trivial interventions: they are core aspects of film viewing in the home context. Since these behaviours directly impact on how viewers interpret films and their meanings, they ought to be taken seriously rather than dismissed as habitual or trite. 
Part of what DVD achieves is to match the way in which other digital technologies[2] have placed ‘more and more control over viewing in the hands of the viewer’ (Barlow, 2005: 18). Yet, some critics have expressed doubt over the potentials of such interaction in allowing audiences to resist established, fixed or intended meanings (see Notaro, 2006: 95). That is not to say that creative responses to interactive ability cannot augment viewer-pleasure. In that sense, I concur with Klinger that ‘DVD has not revolutionised so much as reawakened, dramatically enhanced and/or broadly disseminated ways of watching and taking pleasure in movies’, especially ‘films that do not have wide distribution in the mainstream’ (Klinger, 2008: 21 and 27). Viewers may still be limited in various ways, but this does not mean that any attempt to use available options should be forsaken. Limitations can facilitate glorious accidents and present challenges to work around.

Barlow, Aaron (2005) The DVD Revolution: Movies, Culture and Technology. Westport: Praeger.
Benjamin, Peret (2000) “Against Commercial Cinema”, in Paul Hammond (ed.) The Shadow and its Shadow. London: BFI.
Bulkeley, Kelly (1999) “Touring the Dream Factory”. Dreaming: Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams, 9:1.
Filmmaker (2001) “Reports, Summer 2001: Interactive”.
Flint, David (1999) Babylon Blue. London: Creation Books.
Grant, Catherine (2008) “Auteur Machines? Auteurism and the DVD”, in James Bennett and Tom Brown (eds.) Film and Television After DVD. London: Taylor and Francis.
Kerekes, David and Slater, David (2001) See No Evil: Banned Films and Video Controversy. Surrey: FAB Press.
Klinger, Barbara (2008) “Viewing Heritages and Home Film cultures”, in James Bennett and Tom Brown (eds.) Film and Television after DVD. London: Taylor and Francis.
Laidler, Mark (1998) “Zapping Freddy Krueger: Children’s Use of Disapproved Video Texts”, in Sue Howrad (ed.) Wired Up: Young People and the Electronic Media. London: UCL Press.
Michelson, Annette (1990) “The Kinetic Icon in the Work of Mourning: Prolegomena to the Analysis of a Textual System”, October, 52, pp. 16-39.
Notaro, Anna (2006) “Technology in Search of an Artist: Questions of Auteurism/Authorship and the Contemporary Cinematic Experience”, The Velvet Light Trap, 57.
Szperling, Margi (2004) “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Moviemaker, 44.
Taylor, Jim (2001) DVD Demystified. Second edition. London: McGraw Hill.
Thompson, David (2007) Black and White and Blue: Adult Cinema from the Victorian Age to the VCR. Toronto: ECW Press.
Williams, Linda (2000) “Discipline and Fun” in Christine Gledhilll and Linda Williams (eds) Reinventing Film Studies. London: Arnold.
Ban the Sadist Videos! Part 2. USA, 2006. Dir. David Gregory.

[1] That said, some DVDs suffer from an authoring flaw that allows viewers to skip past these restrictions. For example, the 2008 Region 2 Metrodrome release of The Counterfeiters (2006, Austria/Germany, dir. Stefan Ruzowitzky) is designed so that the viewer cannot fast-forward or chapter skip through the trailer reel that precedes the film. On DVD players with a ‘stop and resume’ feature, the viewers can press ‘stop’ then ‘play’, and the DVD skips straight to the movie because the movie is authored as a context menu. The same trick is useful in other contexts. For example, issue 52 of DVD World magazine came packaged with a free DVD containing two films. One film (Puppet Master: The Legacy (USA, 2003, dir. Charles Band)) was free, but the other (Dr. Moreau's House of Pain (USA, 2004, dir. Charles Band) was locked behind a pin-code which had to be entered via the DVD remote. In order to access the code, the reader had to call a premium-rate number. Pressing ‘stop’ then ‘play’ on the pin-code entry screen would cause the film to pay without entering the code.
[2] These include, for example, digital broadcast recording technology and ad-blocker plug-ins, which allow viewers to eliminate advertisements that would otherwise disrupt narrative flow.

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