Extra-special Features

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Have you ever bought a DVD/blu-ray for one of the special features (or “extras”) rather than for the film or TV title itself? I’m not talking about upgrading something you already own by buying one of those special edition or anniversary releases, designed to make you buy the thing you already have by packing it with extra stuff that no self-respecting completist collector can be without, but actually buying a title you do not already have because you want one of the “extras” rather than (or more than) the title itself.

 

Well, I’ve just done so for the third time. The first of these was the four (DVD) or three (blu-ray) disc set of Ben Hur (William Wyler, 1959) a film which I had seen and enjoyed in the cinema as a child, but one which I had little intention of purchasing until this edition appeared, including as it does the original 1925 silent Fred Niblo version, as presented on Thames Silents with tinted and toned scenes and a wonderful, Wagner-inspired score by Carl Davis. This was a film I had been wanting to get for some time,Unknown especially this version of it, so the fact that it was available on a set which was (and still is) on sale for under a tenner was an opportunity not to be missed. I would gladly have paid double for the silent version alone.

 

As a trained librarian, my collection is meticulously and logically arranged on my shelves, and this set of Ben Hur sits where it belongs – in the silent film section. A few inches away is the second DVD I bought for the extras. Though I am glad to have the William Wyler version of Ben Hur, there is no way I would images-2have bought the silent German bergfilm The Holy Mountain had the set not come with a bonus disc containing the excellent three-hour documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Ray Muller, 1993). It is there because Riefenstahl stars in The Holy Mountain, but otherwise has nothing to do with that film beyond the brief section on her acting career.

 

The third has just been released and I have been enjoying it over the last couple of days. In this case the film is actually a very good one – Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955), which is one of only two films to win both the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Best Picture Oscar. It was one of several notable films of the mid-fifties to have been developed from scripts written originally for live US television drama: Twelve Angry Men and Requiem for a Heavyweight were notable others. And it was the presence of the original 1953 telecastimages of Marty amongst this Eureka release’s special features which was the top selling point for me. It was transmitted as part of NBC’s Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, a strand which was the recipient of a 1953 Peabody Award for the general excellence of its productions, so it wasn’t only the film version which won prestigious awards. It had previously been available only on a US-standard Criterion set called The Golden Age of Television and some interviews from that set are included as well.

 

Marty is arguably the earliest American television drama masterpiece and had a massive impact. Paddy Chayefsky wrote it for Philco Television Playhouse at very short notice (a matter of days) and it was directed by Delbert Mann. For the movie version, two years later, Chayefsky expanded his script by including a few extra scenes, but the essence remained the same. Mann directed again and included a number of location shoots to give the piece a more expansive feel, but a feeling of claustrophobia and inescapable routine was an essential part of the original and this actually works against the film version. Most important are the cast changes to the two leads: Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand (both primarily stage actors at the time) are utterly convincing as the two desperate singletons, seeing in each other a last chance to escape a life “on the shelf”. Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair are very good, but they are movie stars after all, which carries an aura of glamour, and they are lit as such.  Steiger’s trademark mumbling style also works in his favour in this role, whereas Borgnine is more affable and thus less convincing as a reject. Several of the other members of the cast of the TV version reprised their roles in the film.

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Above all, the television version has the impact that comes with the knowledge that it is being performed “live” in a few small sets and on limited resources – they only get the one take and the sense of immediacy is transmitted straight to the audience. Television pioneers made up the rules and grammar of the medium as they went along – certainly there was experience from theatre, radio and film to draw upon, but the TV version of Marty conveys the unmistakable excitement of something very new, so that even the technical limitations become part of the enjoyment of the piece. And those limitations extend also to the method of reproduction – early telerecording (or, as the Americans call it, kinescope), which was, basically, filming the picture from a television screen. This recording contains a number of technical glitches and, when the camera pans across the set, the convex nature of the monitor screen makes the set perspective shift in a very unsettling way. Not that this matters in any way – in fact it actually adds to the impression that you are seeing something genuinely pioneering.

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It is interesting to note that, while the American film industry was responding to the threat of television with widescreen, colour and spectacle, it was also adapting low-key social dramas like Marty for the cinema screen with great success and, indeed, winning major awards with them. The Marty movie cleaned up at the Oscars, winning not only best picture, but best actor, director and adapted screenplay as well. In Britain, by contrast, TV drama at this time was very much dominated by theatrical models and adaptations of literary classics. The main cinematic adaptations of 1950s British TV dramas were those of the Quatermass science fiction series. By the time Sydney Newman converted Armchair Theatre to a vehicle for socially realistic dramas, the cinema new wave was beginning and taking its cues from theatre and contemporary novels.

 

Anyway, having viewed both versions of Marty, I now have to decide whether to put my blu-ray on the shelves containing my film or my TV collections.

Trouble in Store (TV not for keeps)

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You may have realised from the headers on this site that I am an avid collector of television and film on DVD and Blu-ray. I’m often asked, not least by my wife, why our shelves are so full of these things and, moreover, why I keep buying more of them, when so much is available online or through TV subscription services. The answer came by e-mail at the beginning of this month, though I was aware it was on the way. On 1st November, the BBC Store, designed both to unlock the treasures of their archive and (ultimately, I assume) replace the distribution of BBC productions on home video formats, was closed down.

I always regretted the move away from home video release – as a former archivist, I knew that the only sure way of knowing you had something was having it on a shelf (I would certainly never have trusted the cloud, as some archives do). But I had got used to buying music as files rather than physical objects (and, indeed, I enjoy the flexibility of use that gives me) so I was resigned to the fact that it would have to apply to film and TV titles in future and I have downloaded movies and TV from iTunes where it has been the only source of things I wanted, such as the films of Henry Jaglom or the US release version of Kubrick’s The Shining. OK, I know I could get a dual-format player and import discs of these titles, but that’s not the case with Louis CK’s instant AmericanHoraceAndPete classic Horace and Pete, which was originally only downloadable from his website (which is how I bought it) and has never been released on disc.

In these cases, the files I purchased have been capable of being moved around and I have copied them from my PC to my iPod for security against machine failure. But buying files from the BBC Store was different – they couldn’t be moved and you had to download a special app on which to keep and play them. With the closure of the Store, this has gone, too. So, the prospect of buying and downloading titles to “own” (as indicated in the publicity still at the head of this post) was basically a con (though I’m sure they will have covered themselves against this accusation in the terms and conditions – who knows? Nobody reads them). Buying from the BBC Store was not buying for keeps – just a long-term loan (and not so long, as it turned out).

ddare1To be fair, the BBC are refunding money spent on purchases, so this must be an expensive mistake for them and one which has set back the aim of unlocking the archive. Which is such a shame, because there was some great stuff there and the promise of much more to come. For me, the collection of previously unreleased Dennis Potter plays was the main attraction – I had downloaded some of them and was planning on getting more when the axe fell. I’m not sure we will ever see them released on DVD or Blu-ray, but I can hope. The same goes for several recent series which were only ever available on the Store. Top of my list would be the first season of Stefan Golaszewski’s wonderful Mum – hopefully the imminent arrival of season 2 may prompt its release.

Opening up public access to the BBC Archive, which I worked at for ten years and with for a further thirty, has long been a source of both promise and frustration. I remember Greg Dyke, when he was Director General, getting up at the Edinburgh TV Festival and promising that the archive would be thrown open to all, but all that materialised in the end was a handful of wildlife footage. The idea that we, the license payers, “own” past BBC content because we paid for it is understandable but misconceived. What we paid for was a professional and creative organisation which made the things we enjoyed watching by entering into contracts with talent, who still own their individual shares of the intellectual property in the material, making it expensive to release to the public (which is why we got the wildlife – animals have no intellectual property rights though they do, we are often told, have “talent”). I imagine the limitations on how things were distributed through the Store, which I am complaining about here, may have had something to do with rights questions, as the prices were cheaper than they would have been for DVDs, even taking the cost of manufacture out of the equation.

Anyway, the e-mail that erstwhile BBC Store customers received states that “the BBC is currently exploring ways by which archive programmes can be viewed” and “we do hope to make the programmes you could only get on BBC Store available elsewhere at some point in the future”. Plus ca change……

And, while I‘m on the subject of the home video industry, I might as well air another, possibly related aspect that is also pissing me off and that is the unavailability of certain titles, film and television, in Blu-ray formats when they are being newly released on DVD, especially here in the UK. I don’t think this is a question of manufacturing costs, as Blu-rays are clearly being made for other region B/2 countries in many cases and that isUtopia where I am being increasingly forced to source them. In recent months I have received deliveries from amazon.de (the second season of Channel 4’s Utopia), amazon.fr (Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time, not released here at all – and I am currently awaiting a Blu-ray of Malick’s Song to Song from I know not where, but at double the price of the DVD version amazon.co.uk were offering) and, increasingly, from Australia (the second and third seasons of HBO’s visually splendid The Leftovers, plus Ken Burns’ The War – his Vietnam War seems only available on DVD outside the US, but, in that case, it’s OK because of the provenance of most of the footage – see my previous blog on this series). Could it be that we are being subtly nudged towards the use of streaming and subscription services by the absence of the best quality materials on disc? Certainly the BBC, as well as Channel 4, has failed to issue some of its best recent productions on Blu-ray in the UK. Hugo Blick’s The Honourable Woman was initially and for a long time only available on DVD and I bought it, only for the Blu-ray to subsequently appear, which was doubly frustrating!

Keeping a home audio-visual collection is subject to the same principles as professional ones: you can’t just put things on shelves, or into file servers, and leave them there – effort and expense must be incurred to ensure replay machinery is maintained or software is up-to-date and, in these cases, we are all at the mercy of technology companies, themselves always keen to force the consumer and the professional alike towards the next thing. But, given the choice between files and discs, it’s the latter for me for film and TV. Better stockpile some players, though.