When I read my colleague Glenn Erickson's piece, "Help! I'm Neck Deep in Discs!", I understood his pain. I too used to be a compulsive collector of DVDs. But I'm not anymore. In fact, I hardly own any DVDs at all, which baffles friends who assume that all film critics hoard movies the way Angelina Jolie hoards third-world babies. I have a small collection of 40 or 50 discs, and most of them I could give up in a heartbeat. But it wasn't always that way.
My collection started at the same time I began reviewing films. In fact, I bought a DVD player just so I could write DVD reviews, and I became obsessive almost immediately. I kept an eye on the release schedule and requested favorite films from my editor as soon as they were announced, kvetching when another writer got one of my picks. I saved the screeners that I didn't enjoy in a special pile, so I could haul them into the rental/second-hand shop and exchange them for movies I absolutely had to have. I wept over the cost of Criterion's issue of Brazil ($60!!), and that I missed out on getting their release of John Woo's The Killer before it went out of print. Over time my collection grew, to the point where I had to clear wall space for the shelves to house them all.
Then came a period of, well, let's call it financial mismanagement. I needed money, and I needed it fairly quickly. I went through my 2,800 DVDs and weeded out the ones I figured I really didn't need -- about 600 in all -- and sold them on eBay. A few weeks later, I cherry-picked a hundred more. The resale market for DVDs has since collapsed, but at the time I sold off my babies, the money wasn't bad at all. And some of those Criterions went for ridiculous sums, the kind of money that only collectors even more crazed than myself would pay.
And I noticed something interesting. I didn't miss the movies at all. Because the truth was that I rarely pulled them from the shelves and rewatched them. My need to display every movie that I liked was a twisted way of turning fleeting pleasure into ownership, as if the experience of enjoying these films was made more permanent by the fact that I had those plastic cases displayed on my shelf. It wasn't about showing off to other people, either -- like Jeffrey Dahmer, eating his victims so that they would always be a part of him, I felt like all of those films now belonged to me because I had them on disc. It was, in its way, a supreme form of egoism, like I was emperor of this little movie kingdom, with thousands of films just waiting for me to snap my fingers and allow them to service me at a moment's notice.
Over the last few years I've divested myself of most of my DVDs. Sometimes it was for the money, but mostly it was because I just didn't need them anymore. I'd like to say that all of the keepers are classics -- Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Sturges, Ford -- but the truth is that a lot of them are movies I just haven't gotten around to getting rid of. There are awards-season screeners that I'm not legally supposed to sell or even give away. There's also crap that no one wants, and I have as much trouble throwing a DVD in the trash as I'd have burning a book. And some belong to my husband, who refuses to discard anything that he loves. After hearing, "You're not getting rid of Ultraviolet!!!" eight or ten times, I gave up trying. Marriage is, after all, about compromise. Stupid, stupid compromise.
Really, most are movies like Support Your Local Sheriff and Tombstone that, argue their quality all you like, I never tire of watching. And some are those precious Criterion discs, like Dead Ringers and Robocop, that I still can't bear to part with. But the bulk of them are movies that I know I'll go back to sooner or later, if only because I have the flu and there's nothing on TV. Are there other DVDs that I'd like to add to what we call the "permanent collection?" Oh good lord, yes. Hundreds. But so far, I'm doing a good job of holding myself in check.
As more and more media comes available online, I feel better than ever about my decision. If I want to see The Searchers, or The Caine Mutiny, or Phantom of the Paradise, I can watch it immediately on my computer thanks to Netflix. Between Turner Classic Movies, IFC, and the vast number of films available either from my local video rental store or via download, it's not that I'm in danger of being starved for entertainment. It's also easier on my wallet, since I don't feel the need to keep filling the holes in my collection.
Do I miss the little thrill I got from looking at a wall of movies, all sitting in readiness to satisfy my every whim? Well, sure. Every addict misses their drug, even when they know they're better off without it. But there's also a sense of relief. All those aphorisms about being owned by your possessions are absolutely true. And enjoyment of something as internal, as intimate, and as subjective as a good film can't be made any more permanent by buying a copy of it on DVD -- all that you end up with is less wall space for art, and more crap that you have to dust. And I really, really hate dusting.
Dawn Taylor still hasn't bought the Criterion Silence of the Lambs, even though it's only $12 used on Amazon. But that doesn't mean she won't.