Thursday, December 4, 2008

Watching DVDs

This morning Steve Guttenberg began his Audiophiliac blog post on CNET with a non-rhetorical question?

What are the chances you'll actually watch a DVD/Blu-ray more than once or twice?

I am not a great fan of this particular blog and only go to it occasionally through my general CNET RSS feed. Ideologically, I am far from sympathetic with Guttenberg, particularly when he is promoting the superiority of the well-engineered studio recording over the less reliable experience of live performance. Also, this question reminds me of that most inane of questions that inevitably confronts anyone who has accumulated a sizable book collection:

Have your read them all?

Still, DVDs are not books; and, given what my wife and I have accumulated in our collection, I figure that I should treat Guttenberg's question as a fair one and dignify it with a fair answer. I do so with the caveat that our household is probably about as non-representative a data point as you can get; but I offer the answer in the Californian spirit of "sharing with the group!"

Most of the DVDs in our collection involve either opera or a few selected television series. The grounds for selecting the television series have to do with our interest in the overall narrative flow of the entire package. The best example is Babylon 5, whose entire narrative (if we are to believe the promotional background) was conceived prior to the commencement of any production. My wife and I saw most of this on television, once in Singapore and once in Palo Alto. Watching the whole thing is a bit like reading War and Peace. The content is so rich that there are always more narrative elements to discover.

The same goes for the work of David Simon. We were in Singapore during most of the Homicide series, so we liked getting the DVDs to follow the whole story as it unfolded. We have not yet bought the DVDs for The Corner but will probably do so. Our next big "project" is a "close reading" of The Wire, meaning following all five seasons without the pauses for production and broadcast scheduling. The only problem with tracking Simon's narrative so closely is doing so it at a time when his predicted chickens are coming home to roost.

On the opera side we use our Fledermaus DVD for a home version of an operatic New Year's tradition. (On the DVD the tradition is being celebrated at Covent Garden.) Beyond that, we usually take our operas on the road; so we do not have to depend on local sources when we travel. There is no substitute for live performance; but, when you are in a hotel room in a small town, it is nice to have an alternative to junk television. Back when my business travel was at its peak, most of my trips crossed the Pacific Ocean, thus inducing jet lag on a grand scale. Nevertheless, I have fond memories of compensating for the jet lag in the middle of the night (almost never in a "small town") with such DVDs as the 1954 Salzburg Festival production of Don Giovanni (with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting an up-and-coming Cesare Siepi) and the Achim Freyer staging of Satyagraha (which, according to conductor Dennis Russell Davis, is the only complete recording of the Philip Glass score). (For the record, so to speak, the DVD that my wife and I took on our getaway to Tomales was the 1978 Bolshoi Opera production of Boris Godunov; and seeing that "Polish Act," which had not been in Modest Mussorgsky's original libretto, reminded me of how accurate Alexander Pushkin had been in calling his play a comedy.)

Finally, the DVDs that take much of my time came from the Japanese Dreamlife Corporation (which, I suspect, is no longer in business). They are two DVDs of films of great conductors, mostly from the Forties. The quality is not always the best, but the content is invaluable.

My guess is that none of these examples are representative. Still, I live in a major city where, as I write this, the Public Television channel is broadcasting reruns of its pledge breaks. What the hell am I supposed to watch in a situation like that?

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