Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Taxing DVD issues

About this time every month I log on to Amazon.com and select a few DVDs for purchase in the coming weeks. I got a shock today upon checkout: starting June 1 New York will be charging state tax on my bounty. In a way, that's not bad news: It will take the guesswork out of figuring out how much to dun myself on my tax forms every year. [Note to the IRS: I say "guesswork" as a shorthand for readers. I calculate the actual amount to the penny and never, ever estimate. I am as honest as the day is long in this regard, and can provide at least three witnesses in my defense should you decide to pursue the matter.] But, obviously, it takes some of the fun off the online shopping experience--may as well go back to brick-and-mortar stores now, if there are any left. [I get a little pang every time I pass former Tower Video outlets.]

Then again, the fun ain't what it used to be. My purchases have plummeted this year. Part of this is because of a tight squeeze at home; to paraphrase the tagline of Dawn of the Dead, when there's no more room in my cabinets the DVDs will pile up in the closets, an unacceptable situation for this semi-neat freak. And part of it is because there just isn't all that much I want. Clarification: There's plenty that I want, but it doesn't seem to be coming to a vendor near me, and the glut of new releases of tired new movies and retread "special edition" titles bore me. Time is also a factor; DVDs I'm interested in at least renting are stuck in my Netflix queue, which freezes over for long periods, and my purchases are also in permafrost. [Those venerable Western titles I picked up last week, including Man of the West, will have to wait for the next roundup, partners.]

Blu-Ray? No way. Never say never, of course, but owning pricier HD editions of current movies that weren't that good in the first place, the bulk of the HD marketplace, is a non-starter for me. And having writhed through my share of careless transfers of standard-def titles like the wire-ridden War of the Worlds (1953) I don't trust the transfer poohbahs to know what they're doing with what they've got. Who can forget the Citizen Kane DVD blunder, where background rain was removed because the techs thought it was grain?

I was I could say that was an isolated incident, but according to the Digital Bits website it looks to become the norm on DVD. Today's consumers want their movies to be as clean and shiny as their playback systems, and if that means removing or reducing grain that a filmmaker deliberately put in so be it. Pan's Labyrinth without grain just isn't the Pan's Labyrinth it was meant to be. It doesn't "look bad"; it looks eerie and spectral and nightmare-like, which was the intent. But if it means selling more product to under-educated buyers who want the latest hit (and everything else) to conform to a false standard of glossiness on movie night, so be it. The grain goes.

It's a typically low-forehead approach to a market that could stand to use more edification. I'm thrown by the number of HD-owning shops and homes I enter where the TV is set to fill the screen, no matter that the image is ridiculously stretched to get rid of whatever "black bars" there are. This can only get worse with the mandated shift from analog to digital next year. The silver lining in this is that people with unusual body shapes will soon be embraced as the norm as wonkily set TVs change our perception of the human figure.

If this keeps up, I'm putting my money somewhere else. New York will surely suffer if I withdraw entirely from the DVD market.

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