Culture Rover

#33 - Bonus Commentary Track

Has anyone written extensively about the DVD as a cultural phenomenon?

As with websites linked to the release of entertainment commodities (films, albums, books), DVDs gain value through the inclusion of extra material (commentary tracks, bonus footage, video game, trailers). I find myself increasingly not seeing films in the theater so that I can see them surrounded by all the extra stuff on DVD.

Somewhat like the cult television show Mystery Science Theater 3000, in which we sat behind the silhouettes of a man and a few robots who made endlessly amusing quips as they were forced to watch bad old films in a secret laboratory, we now can watch films from behind the silhouettes of their makers and subjects. It's like getting invited to the private screening of the film. (Fittingly, the only way to see Mystery Science Theater 3000 now is on DVD.)

I recently watched Sam Jones' documentary about the band Wilco, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, three times: once as it was released, a second time with commentary from the director, and a third time with commentary from the band. This is not to mention the "featurette" I Am Trying to Make a Film, the seventy minutes of bonus footage, and the forty page booklet that came with the DVD.

What is it about these DVDs that has made them so attractive as commodities? Is it that we get "inside access"? Why do we fetishize this experience? Is it a longing to be in the in-crowd? Or is it a longing to take part in the production, the creativity, the craft of movie-making? What kind of access do DVDs really get us? I suspect it is more than just closeness to glamour and celebrity. We yearn to consume productivity.

One further step removed from the actual commodity (after all, companies release the DVD on the heels of the feature film in theaters), the DVD winds up bringing us one step closer to its making. We want to get close to that glowing core of labor; we want to get inside the making of things.

Thus, the making of the film increasingly replaces the film itself as the most valued commodity. The process becomes the product.

One can view this as the continual privatization of life: the replacement of the cinema theater space with the home entertainment center. True enough. We are increasingly cut off from one another in our Brave New World entertainment fulfillment. But one might also think about the desires implicit in the DVD as commodity form: suspended in the narcotizing fluid of its passive, privatized, alienating consumption there lurks the urge to make, glow, join, interact, participate, to be a part of the production of something.

This urge is worth more inquiry -- a bonus commentary track will perhaps appear on the future DVD release of Culture Rover!

1 December 2004

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