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Dr. Superdrive or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love DVD-RAM

Stephen F. Nathans

January 26, 2021 | I'm all for making the most of the remarkable things DVD can do. But I can't deny that my two favorites among the modest set of discs in my collection are probably the two lamest, in terms of the extras that are the hallmarks of DVD-Video--Lolita and Dr. Strangelove. The late, lamented Stanley Kubrick, undisputed genius of modern film creation and direction, had his eyes wide shut when it came to DVD and what it could do. Strangelove, in particular, is maddeningly stingy with the extras. Yet limited as it is to subtitles and scene selections (thuddingly rendered to boot), I wouldn't trade it for a VHS copy any more than I'd sit through the master's career-capping yawnfest another excruciating time. Strangelove and its feature-frugal ilk make the DVD argument at its starkest, the same baseline claims that made CD-Audio indispensable nearly two decades ago: clarity, indexing, and durability.

There's just something satisfying about going to Jim Taylor's wonderful DVD FAQ and reading about how the dreaded "laser rot" that haunted laserdisc probably doesn't apply to DVD. In theory, you can expect to watch these things forever--at least until some better home video technology comes along. Taking solace in such certainties reminds me of the fateful trip to California that Woody Allen and Diane Keaton take in Annie Hall. As record producer Tony Lacey (Paul Simon) leads them on a tour of his capacious home, he proudly presents his movie-screening room, proclaiming, "It's great. You can watch a movie anytime you want. You never have to stand on line, or even leave the house." To which Allen responds, as an aside, "Yes, and you eventually grow old and die."

In 1977, the best illustration Allen could summon of California's mind-numbing solipsism (as opposed to the mind-examining solipsism that's his trademark) was watching movies at home. Perhaps Kubrick was reluctant to let us go much beyond that, but we have, not just in the feature-rich titles that win Discus Awards and such, but also in the increasing availability and visibility of entry-level DVD authoring software, writable DVD drives, and ingeniously conceived systems that integrate the two, and pack processors powerful enough to perform the software encoding that seals the deal. Much as DVD-Video itself imposed the architecture of the home entertainment center on the median-income domicile--the centralization of in-home electronic sound and vision around the TV--the entry-level DVD authoring system draws its own cultural conclusions. Our cultural self-regard plateau'd long ago when the minutia of family life became video archive-worthy; still, at least there remained a live performance art to editing the unfortunate moments of private life made less private.

The genius of a system like Apple's new Power Mac G4, which combines Pioneer's new cost-friendly DVD/CD writer (Apple calls it the "SuperDrive") with entry-level authoring software (iDVD), video editing (iMovie), and software encoding, is that these new Macs and the simultaneously released DVD-creating Compaqs will help to usher in a new DVD-fluent culture. And what will DVD fluency mean to the culture it suffuses, besides that we'll buy a lot of writable DVD drives, both integrated and after-market? Not only will it open a new window for intense self-regard, but it will provide the means to digitize personal experience, improve it with each edit, and spit it out in usable, indelible form. No more laughing off those dirty diapers, unflattering angles, or too-intimate shots with a chuckling, "That's not supposed to be in there." Not that such a moment's discomfort ever warranted a stronger corrective than that--but from today forward, it will because it can. Like seasonal affective disorder and other late-20th century inventions, now that we have a cure, we can finally call it a disease.

One of my favorite moments of Dr. Strangelove is when the Soviets reveal the existence of the Doomsday Machine, their ultimate weapon of mass destruction--which detonates automatically, without human direction or interference--after it's too late to stop it from doing its business. Dr. Strangelove shakes his head at the stupidity of the revelation's timing. "The whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost," he says, "if you do not tell the world. Why did you keep it a secret?"

I've felt that way for some time about Pioneer's DVD-R, and about Apple's acquisition of DVDirector. I make the analogy not for any ill effects, but for their immense power to shape the future intersection of DVD the consumer entertainment playback technology, and the versatile tool DVD could become in the hands of computer users who could create DVDs as they create CDs. Why were the two technologies being kept so quiet? Why were they being kept out of the hands of the users who could make their impact real? (Of course, the circumstances that constrained each were different: for DVD-R, high cost and insufficient supply; for DVDirector, its year-long limbo in the Infinite Loop.) The only writable technology team that followed the Doomsday Machine strategy, of course, was the DVD+RW camp, which merely raised the specter of all-powerful unseen products and thus provided an effective deterrent to the proliferation of fully materialized writable DVD drives. Good strategy, I guess.

But now we've seen something much more exciting materialize: systems that could in a few years put DVD creation on nearly any demographically aligned computer user's desktop. By then we'll have progressed much closer to the New Solipsism, which will make a perfect match for all these new personal video editing and finishing toys that are helping to usher it in. And soon it will be abundantly clear that I missed the point in my anti-DVD-RAM diatribes, my clarion calls for CD-R-like compatibility in writable DVD. The wonder of CD-R is the physical and logical compatibility that makes desktop-created discs distribution-ready; finding some significance in that distinction in the desktop DVD era seems increasingly quaint. At least from where I sit.

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