As years draw to a close, my control of my own senses and my sensory perceptions tends to fall apart. But that is a subject for another time. It is only relevant here in the sense that I woke up at 1300 hours (which, even for me, is extremely unusual) and found a box from Amazon at my door.
Now, do not get me wrong. Amazon as a business has a lot wrong with it. But as happens in an unregulated market like home video distribution through the Internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Amazon has effectively become the sole option. So I ordered four discs from Amazon on September 23, and took delivery on October 4. Each of these four discs represent a film I saw on a prior format, and wanted to see again in high definition. I will write about them in alphabetical order.
Escape From L.A.
Like a lot of directors who made it big through the home video circuit of the early to mid 1980s, John Carpenter has some weird artistic ideals (weird, that is, to people who do not have any such ideals). One result of those is that he does not “do” sequels. But what about Escape From L.A.? I hear you cry. Well, Escape From L.A. is not so much a sequel as it is a satire of the constant cries from the money-men of the Hollywood system for him to make a sequel to one of his earlier classics.
Escape From New York was shot extremely cheaply for the times, and made a large amount of money relative to that investment. But Paramount Pictures did not see a nickel of that money because the original investment was put up by one of those small-time concerns that popped up everywhere like a rash in the early 1980s. So Paramount was pretty adamant. They wanted a sequel to Escape From L.A., and they were willing to pay for it. They were willing to pay to have John Carpenter direct it and Kurt Russell star in it, because without those elements, the core audience would stay away in droves.
But what they did not count on was that Carpenter would use this as an opportunity to subvert the whole sequel-itis thing. Critics at the time, and since, have charged both fairly and unfairly that everything that happens in Escape From New York happens more or less exactly the same way in Escape From L.A.. This is fair because it is true, but some critics unfairly proclaimed that Carpenter was pathetically ripping himself off. You see, Paramount wanted Escape From New York 2.0, and Carpenter, in his wisdom, gave them exactly that. With a slight twist, however. Every bad decision that was not made in the final cut of Escape From New York, such as making the intra-vascular explosive devices a fake-out at the end, ended up in Escape From L.A..
That is not to say Escape From L.A. is bad, either. In fact, within that limitation, it is pretty damned good. It just is not… you know… boss. The disc it is presented on, unfortunately, meets the same description. Oh, do not get me wrong. It is not the absolute limit of what is possible on Blu-ray Disc, but it is only a handful of steps down from it, which makes it a good mile above what DVD can do (is this enough of a hint for yet, distributors?).
One reason I can watch a John Carpenter film, even a bad John Carpenter film (and bad John Carpenter film means something very different to bad film in general), on near to infinite repeat, is the score. John Carpenter usually scores his films himself. He is awesome at both. The score for Escape From L.A., whilst mildly borrowing themes from its Manhattan-based cousin, follows the same tack as from the film. Basically, Carpenter figured that if Paramount was going to give him fifty million estimated dollars to make Escape From New York again, he was going to ramp everything up accordingly (this budget is about 8.33 times what it is estimated Escape From New York cost to complete).
One of the biggest reasons I would sooner pay a hundred dollars for one BD than a red cent for a DVD is because of the audio capability. When played through a lossless-capable receiver, BD can give you as many as eight channels of audio that all sound exactly the same as the master that it was compressed from. If you read enough of my writings on the subject of BD, you know this already. But there is one thing you might not know. Scores like John Carpenter‘s are the reason why lossless audio compression was invented (not really, but nobody will blame you for thinking otherwise when you hear them).
And hey, for a ticket price of $9.85 USD (plus whatever shipping you choose), you could certainly do a lot worse. It is just that, with the absence of the audio commentary that made the DVD worth a listen (Carpenter and Russell make audio commentary second in quality only to Verhoeven), it is also difficult to recommend to anyone who is not really into the film.
In 1986, David Cronenberg pulled a John Carpenter and remade an old “classic” film that people expect us to revere without question and emulate. And just like John Carpenter, contrary to the “old == good” crowd’s bleating, he improved over the original in ways that said “old == good” crowd cannot begin to comprehend. That remake was of The Fly.
Okay, let me get this out of the way. If you genuinely believe the 1958 man and fly switch heads act is the better film, you are an idiot. There, I said it. Let us move on to why.
1986’s The Fly starts Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle, a genius who, under the auspices of a corporation, is working on a prototype of a teleportation machine. The way Goldblum plays Seth is another of those characters that was not meant to resemble an autistic adult, but somehow does so so well that I cannot believe I missed it before. (Actually, I can, for reasons I will get into at another time, but that is neither here not there.) As Seth explains to Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), he is working on something that will change the world.
Anyone who knows the story knows that Seth shows Veronica a series of teleportation pods that he is trying to make work so well that the system can teleport living things from pod to pod. Whilst the setup he has so far put together can teleport inanimate objects this way, living things tend to come out mangled. And by mangled, I mean so messed up that dying of infected burns would be a kindness by comparison. So the first act is all basically Seth figuring out how to make the computer understand how to reassemble a living organism into the same form that it was disassembled from.
The Fly is also the source of one of my favourite (possibly made up) quotes about Albert Einstein. At 21:37, Seth Brundle states that he learned to keep identical sets of clothing from Einstein. This way, he explains, he does not have to expend any thought on what he is going to wear, he can just grab whatever is next on the rack. Somewhere else, I heard that Einstein once said his seeming abundance of cognitive ability was too precious to waste on such things as choosing clothes. But in the absence of a source, I am just going to presume the quote to be made up.
Anyway, some issues with (in-story, not actual) animal cruelty aside, The Fly‘s brilliance comes not from the story itself, but rather the manner in which said story is approached. Scientists do not fail to notice flies stuck in pods during experiments they conduct when stone-cold sober. Not the kind that would not do things in furtherance of Autism Speaks’ goals, anyway. (Scientists would have a whole mess of safety protocols to prevent things like this.) No, Cronenberg approaches the story like an adult and shows an understandably irritated-jealous Brundle climbing into the pod on drunken impulse and teleporting himself. At first, he thinks he is fine, but a series of curious events lead to the discovery that a confused teleportation control computer spliced him with a common housefly.
One of the fun things about practical special effects is that a good transfer on a high-definition medium like Blu-ray Disc can really allow one to assess the quality with which they were made. For a film made in 1986, fifteen million (estimated) dollars is a big, but not extreme budget. Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis were not quite celebrities, but they were well-known enough to command bigger salaries than most working-class folk see in a decade. Let us go with a realistic estimate and say three million was paid to them for their participation. (Yes, more would have gone to Goldblum than Davis. Try telling me it is pure sexism after seeing the kinds of make-up Goldblum was made to act under.) That leaves twelve million for everything else. The special effects are both very simple for the most part, but also extremely effective. The only part of the film where there is a major use of special effects is the climax, and even then it is only the right amount to properly tell the story.
As Blu-ray Discs go, it is not a demonstration piece. Hell, it is not even anything to be really impressed by, but it is by far better than the film has scrubbed up on any previous medium you care to mention. I remember writing about the DVD’s video transfer and saying that in spite of all the aliasing-prone objects in the film, I noticed little, if any, aliasing. But there is a price to pay for that. As I have explained before, for a film to be rendered in an interlaced format, one has to scrub fine details that might shimmer between fields out. Not so with a 1080 vertical line, progressive transfer. And if you thought The Fly was revolting on VHS or DVD…
This is why I bought myself a Blu-ray Disc player that can be made to play discs from Region A. It is a complicated and aggravating process to manually switch from one Region to another, but when a distributor (*cough* Fox *cough*) elects to release one of the films that shaped my view of my world when I was a boy in one place and tries to digitally lock it away from me on that basis, I get sore. But enough about that…
There are two kinds of good satire. There is the kind of satire that is so subtle one can watch it dozens or even hundreds of times without realising that it is meant to be a satire, much less what of. Then there is the kind that is so obvious, but with veiled elements, that whilst it is clearly satire, what it is satirising other than the obvious subject (in this case, space-based sci-fi) can be left up to the imagination of the viewer. Mel Brooks‘ best films are of the latter kind.
Mel Brooks‘ output has also had two phases. There’s the brilliant kind that educates the viewer about something through comedy, and the kind where Brooks seems to just be throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. Spaceballs is (mostly) the latter kind. To give Brooks his fair credit, the majority of what he throws in this case sticks, but the ratio is far lower than was the case in his more brilliant films, such as Young Frankenstein or Blazing Saddles.
The problem here is much the same as the one that has stricken George Lucas to a far greater degree. Because of his earlier successes, almost all of the limits upon what Brooks could put into his films were effectively abolished. The few that remained were upon how he could execute his ideas. In 1987, whilst all the money in the world could make a film happen, there was a very practical limit upon what the director could put in it. But this is getting away from the point here.
Spaceballs is basically a satire of Star Wars with bits and pieces from different franchises and stories thrown in for good measure. But the sad thing about the film is that it works best when the jokes are not referring to any existing franchise at all. The Asshole family, and Michael Winslow‘s cameo, are the best parts of the film. That is not to say that the whole film is bad, but a lot of it is pretty limp. The worst moment by some margin is when the heroes crash-land on a desert planet. The film was already pretty slow-paced, but the desert planet scenes seem to just go on forever.
Spaceballs was originally released in 1987, and the cover art proclaims this disc to be “The 25th Anniversary Edition”. That means this disc is part of the present generation (duh). And whilst Fox do some questionable things with BD, they do not fukk around when it comes to the quality of their present-generation product. Bill Pullman‘s beard stubble has never looked better (the ability of BD to properly resolve fine, granular details like a grown man’s face after it has not seen a razor for around twenty-four hours is something DVD would kill for). Sure, the restoration is not completely perfect. Film artefacts (essentially, black or white marks where dirt has gotten on the interpositive or emulsion has fallen off) are still visible. But there are films that are half this age, and look worse than this.
The film was also originally presented with six-track audio, at least in the few theatres that projected 70mm blow-ups. Hence, since the original audio elements were preserved, a remix was easy enough to create. Whether it is a good one or not, I leave up to the individual to decide. I tend to have a funny sense of where a sound is coming from (it is an autistic thing, sorry), so I tend to only really judge audio transfers on how much separation there is between dialogue, sound effects, and music (okay, there are other things such as the absence of clipping or the actual clarity of dialogue, but that separation is the primary factor).
I doubt I will watch Spaceballs on my own that frequently. It is one of those films one has to really watch with friends or whilst drunk. And I cannot remember the last time I was really drunk. Bad things happen when I am drunk. But every once in a while, the more clever parts of the film (“I knew it, I’m surrounded by assholes!”) provide a good distraction. But if you have not seen the other Mel Brooks films that are available on BD, especially Blazing Saddles, see those first.
The other David Cronenberg film in the foursome I received today, Videodrome is also a very early entry in Cronenberg‘s catalogue. (Edit, October 14, 2012: I did some rereading and discovered, much to my surprise, that Videodrome is actually David Cronenberg‘s eighth film. Seems he spent a long time as Canada’s best-kept secret.) As Cronenberg himself has later revealed, it was also a production fraught with problems. Financed to a good degree by a Canadian government enterprise, Videodrome had to be shot with an abbreviated pre-production schedule, and the basic story was not even finalised before shooting began.
It is therefore a wonder that it turned out as well as it did. But just as was the case with the two-disc DVD set, the case for the BD is adorned with the film’s most memorable line. “Long live the new flesh” is one of those film quotes. You can say it amongst a random group of people and determine their quality by their reactions. Most of them will look at you as if you have just announced that Einstein or Tesla should have been aborted. But on occasion, at least one will look at you and just smile knowingly, happy to know that someone else has seen Videodrome.
The basic plot of Videodrome is that a cable television producer who survives in a deregulated market by offering any smut or violence that bigger-ticket competitors will not touch comes across a recording of a show that is exotic even by his own standards. And his standards are pretty out there. In a nutshell, the footage this producer is shown consists of men in a clay-walled room torturing a virtually-naked woman. That is it. Literally. Of course, what we see and what the main character, one Max Renn (James Woods), sees are two different things. He figures that the programme will have virtually no cost to produce. Hence, he can put it on for very little and make money out of it.
Explaining the plot further is a pretty useless endeavour. Hell, I have watched the film at least half a dozen times now, and I still have no idea how to explain it to someone who has never seen it. It does have a beginning, middle, and end, but the details are like the most unpleasant acid trip you can possibly imagine.
Videodrome is also one of those films in the care of The Criterion Collection. In ages past, The Criterion Collection’s releases on DVD-Video were all Region Free. That is, regardless of whether you were in the good old USA or on the moon, your player would play back the disc without so much as a hiccup. But for reasons I am never going to understand, several independent distributors including The Criterion Collection and Anchor Bay just decided that all of their releases should be locked to one Region. Given that some of my favourite films are only available in Region A… well, you know how it goes.
Criterion try to make the best possible representations of the films they present for sale that they can. Usually, they do quite a good job of this. Videodrome is an honest-to-Odin high definition transfer. Said transfer is from the 35mm negatives, and according to the liner notes underwent quite an extensive restoration effort. It shows. The IMDB estimates that Videodrome was shot for a total of 5.952 million dollars in 1983. Whilst this means it hardly qualifies as a true indie film, it is pretty obvious even to first-time viewers where the lion’s share of that money went. In the second half of the film, as Max’s hallucinations grow more vivid, numerous practical special effects are used to make cassettes appear to “breathe”, Max’s abdomen open up in a very vaginal manner, and the gun he uses in the final act “grow” into his arm. Between those effects, Woods‘ fee, and Deborah Harry‘s fee, it would surprise me if this film had much more than half a million dollars left for negatives or other little odds and ends.
Do I recommend Videodrome on BD? Let me put it this way. If you want a case study in how a good director can make awesomeness out of elements that should add up to disaster, then sure. If you have any sense of historical curiosity and want a glance into a time when home video was a new, far-out concept, then Videodrome is it.
Okay, so this looks to most people like just another write-up of four discs the author bought. But it is also a special occasion. These discs are numbers 299 through 302 in my collection. Yes, you read that right. In spite of having less money to rub together most of the time than I really need, I have bought a total of 302 Blu-ray Discs. Do not ask me why, I cannot explain it to you.
Do not ask me why I have written all of this crap. But in light of the fact that I continue to purchase these discs, I do have something I would like the film industry to keep in mind. You need people like me. And on that note, adieu for now.