Thursday, December 22, 2011

A high-definition Christmas

By this time next week it will be all over. I’m not talking about the world, however, as that is not due to expire until next year.

No, by next Thursday Christmas will already be a fading memory and life will be returning to some semblance of normality after the annual orgy of food and wrapping paper.

I know it's all meant to be about the Nativity, but let’s face it, thanks to the consumer insurgency we all buy into, it has become a desperately anti-climactic festival of spending. Right now many of us are in a state of belligerent defiance mixed with blind panic, but in a few days from now, all that preparation and the weeks spent agonizing over the perfect gift which you then wrap with the precision of a master bomb maker, will have dissolved into a flurry of ripped paper amid fleeting hope passing rapidly into barely disguised disappointment.

In case any members of my family or diminishing circle of friends are reading this hokum (and apologies to regular WWDBD viewers for the apparent break in service – November appeared to have exhausted my writing mojo), all I want for Christmas this year is shiny, circular, measures about 12cm across, and can rightfully be described as the last physical media format I will ever own: Blu-ray Disc.

Despite having played a part in the launch of Blu-ray Disc in a former life - and the format itself being on the market since 2006 - I have hitherto resisted its charms. DVD, for the most part, has been a perfectly adequate format to enjoy movies and TV series in fantastic quality at home. The arrival of high-definition digital TV services and even the availability of HD movies via iTunes has also dented any urge to start building up more shelf-swamping content in a new physical form.

I know I’m not alone in this view – Blu-ray clearly has yet to become the true high-definition successor to DVD it was touted to be. I have happily embraced renting movies online as a means of ensuring my film collection doesn't end up occupuing another post code. In fact this time last year I was completing a significant rationalisation of both my CD and DVD collections, and I’ve maintained a notable abstinence this year in building the pile back up. Dangerously, perhaps, iTunes has made it easier to buy film and music on-spec that I probably wouldn't have bought had I gone to a shop. That said, in the process I’ve come across some gems.

So what tipped me over the edge and dragged me into my local FNAC to buy a Blu-ray Disc player? There were two factors: firstly, my ageing DVD/SACD player was suffering from wear-and-tear, and it was time to buy a replacement. The good people of a particular Japanese consumer electronics brand were helpfully put on the market a Blu-ray player that also played SACDs, so my investment in that format wouldn’t be forfeited. Secondly, the price of even a decent Blu-ray player has commoditised so sharply in the last five years that it was a steal.

There was a third factor: Mad Men. Walking through one of the few remaining HMV stores in London recently I saw a box set of the first four Mad Men seasons going for an absolute song. Knowing that amongst the many things Mad Men had been hailed for was its vivid, Technicolor art direction, it seemed a perfect match for the high-definition richness of Blu-ray Disc. I plunged in.

I wasn’t disappointed. It did, however, dawn on me, as I gorged on the glorious depiction of amorality in a 1960s Madison Avenue ad agency, that it created a paradox: here I was watching a TV show in pristine high-definition picture quality which is set in an era when television was a largely grey, fuzzy and intermittent affair. Then it didn’t have so much as an ‘interactive red button’, programmes didn’t communicate via Twitter, and changing channels involved getting off your arse and turning a dial.

The other irony about Mad Men is that I doubt if any of the characters would actually be alive today. For a start, no scene seems to be possible without everyone lighting up a cigarette, pouring a large measure of scotch or both, which means that most of the employees of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce would have dropped dead long ago from some variety of cancer – lung or oesophagal, take your pick. Mad Men’s Olympian levels of smoking was established early on. Indeed Page 1 of the script of the very first episode starts thus:

Alone in a red corner booth is DON DRAPER, early 30's, handsome, conservative, and despite his third old fashioned, he is apparently sober. He is doodling on a cocktail napkin.

He crosses something out, puts down his fountain pen, and taps a cigarette out of a pack of 'Lucky Strike'.

The BUSBOY, a middle-aged black man, too old for his tight uniform, approaches.

BUSBOY: Finished, sir?

DON: Yeah. Got a light?

The busboy pulls out a pack of matches from the back of his 'Old Gold’s' and lights Don's cigarette.

DON: Ah, an 'Old Gold' man.


'Lucky Strike', here.
Man Men’s high consumption of tobacco and Johnny Walker’s is matched only by the number of notches on the bedposts of the principle characters. There is more shagging going on at SCDP than even the members of Fleetwood Mac entertained with each other during the 70s and 80s. Most – if not all – of the agency’s male staff would have succumbed to some unpleasant disease of the genital district long before AIDS came along.

But I digress. Blu-ray Disc is having to co-exist with television and the Internet unlike any other format before it. In principle, it wins hands-down on the quality front, something film director Ridley Scott recently put forward in a blog article he wrote for the Huffington Post.

"Technology will need to make many more huge leaps before one can ever view films with the level of picture and sound quality many film lovers demand without having to slide a disc into a player," Scott wrote. "The technically sophisticated Blu-ray Disc, of which I've been a supporter since its inception, is the closest we've come to replicating the best theatrical viewing experience.”

The director of Alien and Blade Runner maintains that, while iPads and smartphones have become as much a part of personal theater as the big screen TV, we must continue to maintain shelf space for Blu-ray Disc and DVD box sets.

“Physical media has years of life left," says Scott, "and must be preserved because there is no better alternative."

I’m not so sure: as Internet bandwidth improves all the time, and video technology continues to be refined further and further, it’s only a matter of time when the quality of Blu-ray Disc will be completely superceded by something which doesn’t require packaging and shelf space. And actually having to get off your fat arse to change discs when gorging on a whole season of Mad Men in one go, as that’s what WiFi is for.

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