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The Editor's Spin
Mercy of a Rude Stream

Stephen F. Nathans

November, 2000 | Born equally of old New England Protestant stock and shtetl-surviving Russian Jewish ancestry, I've spent time on both sides of the assimilation divide that Philip Roth explores so wrenchingly in Goodbye, Columbus. As the earnest young paramour of one beguiling blonde shiksa with a choice chunk of Maine coastline hers for the inheriting, I was never boatsman or Brahmin enough to fit the bill. (If only I could have kept my voice down...) On the other hand, whenever I attended a wedding or other social gathering in the native environs of the only Jewish girl who ever gave me the time of day, I found myself brimming with condescension and derision. Even the genuine, heartfelt family pathos from the simha to the kaddish wasn't enough to keep me from recoiling at what came afterwards: to my jaundiced eye, a sea of rutting, middle-aged, tract-housing tux-stuffers spouting stale Viagra jokes and reveling in endless conga lines to soulless bands bleating pale imitations of "Love Train" and the like.

Worst of all was the preponderance of home-camcordings afoot, as if the ever-intrusive "official" videographer wasn't banalis in extremis enough. Then there were graduations and other rest-of-the-world events where I found myself seated with the only party in the room brandishing the garish video-taping toy. I even had to take over family taping chores now and then, and imagined myself falling prey to that old black-shoe-polish-on-the-binoculars trick, with a dark ring around my eye signifying the gaucheness-by-association encircling my soul.

At some point, my mounting bile burst forth in torrents of vitriol. I railed at her, against her family's mortifying garishness, the garden-variety vulgarity bespoken by that infernal video camera's presence in every situation that called for even a touch of understatement and grace. "Why be one of those camcord-toting fools?" I protested. "Why succumb to such pedestrian, gotta-get-it-on-tape mindlessness? Who actually watches all that fuzzy, badly framed tedium anyway?"

She thought for a minute and replied, "You know, when my parents got married, someone shot it on a Super-8 movie camera and it sat in an attic collecting dust for 25 years. Then a couple years ago, my brother had it converted to VHS, and we watched it and there were grandparents, uncles, aunts, and friends who had died years ago. It was like seeing them come back to life."

So that makes two times in my life I've admitted I was wrong.

I'm told I met my great-grandmother twice. I remember what must have been the second time. I waited patiently through a line of well-wishers and other pilgrims, watching everyone hug her after reaching the front. When I finally stepped up for my obligatory hug, she rolled her eyes at the six-year-old pishkeh before her, extended her hand with wonderful old-country matter-of-factness and said, "Shake."

Beyond that I remember little about her, but I'd be fascinated to see and hear more of her now: her manner, her stories, the way she interacted with her children, her peculiar lingering Yinglish. I'm told there's a VHS tape somewhere of a cousin of my grandfather's generation, in which he talks of his years as an Old Left lawyer defending blacklisted writers and actors in Philadelphia in the 1950s. Having only known the man much later, when his mental and physical faculties were well on the wane, I'd love to see that tape.

Any tape of him or my great-grandmother would be pretty old now, and ripe for conversion–like an old Super-8–to newer tapes or a more permanent format, such as the writable optical discs that lend physical near-immortality to scratch-susceptible vinyl LPs. At a recent press event, Pioneer VP Andy Parsons told me that this is precisely the application–personal video archiving, sharing, and preservation–that Pioneer believes will prove the breakthrough consumer application for DVD-R/RW. In other words, it will do for DVD-R/RW what audio did for CD-R.

I don't think we're there yet. We'll much sooner see the traditional PC desktop recording market adopt Pioneer's forthcoming internal, half-height drive that combines DVD-R/RW and CD-R/RW recording in a single unit. (Get the price down on that and all other pretenders will pawn their parts and go home.) However far off its acceptance may be, though, I do see the potential and appeal of the "home video" application. But it's going to take some time. Besides the prohibitive (for this market) current pricing of drives and media–even at $2,000 and $20, respectively, it just won't happen–I see significant technical obstacles to personal video's becoming a mass consumer application for DVD-R/RW. Time-shifting TV programs (i.e., recording for later viewing), with DVD as with VHS, is a no-brainer once the price is right. Indexing alone (via remote control) makes it worthwhile.

On the other hand, editing MPEG isn't for everybody; I doubt many of us know anybody with the experience and the necessary hardware and software to do it at home. But that's not to say many would-be home-DVD makers won't get there soon. Reading was once the exclusive province of monks, priests, rabbis, and scholarly elites; so was photography exclusive to photographers. Just as "Instamatic" and Polaroid cameras brought photography (of the "Kodak Moment" sort, that is, not the "artistic" kind) to the masses, so may the widely bundled Sonic DVDit! or its progenitors–though currently aimed at corporate markets–make artless MPEG editing cheap and easy enough that it becomes a natural extension of increasingly popular digital photography and videography.

And though I hardly feel demographically aligned with it, personally–especially compared to audio recording for CD-R, which nailed me with ballpeen precision–I believe that home video is indeed writable DVD's best shot at the cultural assimilation that makes fringe technologies into household words.

Stephen F. Nathans is Editor of EMedia magazine.

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