A Love Letter to Physical Media
On DVD menus, liner notes, and carrying a book around in your backpack
When I was nineteen I decided I was going to listen to every single one of a favorite band’s albums in chronological order. It was a truly delightful project that deepened my love for music in a lasting and meaningful way. I went to a local used bookstore over and over to buy each CD, one at a time; I kept them all in my car’s middle console for years and listened to them whenever I wanted. I didn’t need an account or Bluetooth or a wifi connection; I didn’t have to pay a corporation for continued access to the songs I loved. Every single disc belonged to me.
But in our current subscription era, ownership isn’t as common as it used to be. Very little seems permanent; very little belongs to us. And it’s especially striking when you consider how this is playing out in the arts. Corporations are now regularly pulling films and TV from streaming for tax write-offs; one show only finished its run on June 22 and is apparently being pulled from the platform today.
Amid this new burst of streaming anxiety, I was thrilled to stumble across Justin LaLiberty’s recent essay predicting that home video is about to enter a golden age. I needed the optimism, honestly, and I’m grateful for it. Of course, I completely understand the accessibility perks of digital libraries, as well as the irony of writing about all this in an email newsletter. Ideally these two modes would work in tandem to preserve and share art with the largest possible audience, rather than one making the other obsolete.
So, as an exercise in optimism, I thought this month I’d share a few bite-sized meditations on the joy of physical media.
DVD menus. Look, if I were in charge, two things would happen: one, writers would be paid a living wage and two, there’d be an Oscar for DVD menu design. If you ask me, the DVD menu is its own art form (and frankly, a lost one!). A lot of the DVDs released these days — if a physical release happens at all — get a static image with basic menu options. People used to have fun with these, though, and they were such a joy to watch. The Girl Next Door’s is just a loop of its main character dancing. The Descent’s menu commands must be selected from the screen of a camcorder dropped on a cave floor (if you dare!). And Donkey’s alternate title suggestions for Shrek 2 are always a classic. This website has an impressively exhaustive archive — let me know if they’ve got your favorite!
Liner notes. Back in ye olden days, these little booklets were the best way to figure out what the heck the guy on the radio had been saying the whole time. Nowadays, people usually just Google lyrics — and admittedly there’s an instant gratification to matching a title and artist to the words cycling on a loop in your head. But something that gets lost on the go-to lyric websites of our current Shazam era is the cultural importance of the prose that’s contained in these booklets. Did you know there’s a Grammy award for Best Album Notes? This NYT piece sent me down a whole new rabbit hole about the secret history of the women who write them. (Not-so-fun fact: Only three women have won since award’s inception in 1964.)
When a book is more than just a book. One of the many things I admire about the writer Anne Carson is that she constantly tests the limits of what a book can do and be. Float is an excellent example of this — not the single bound tome we’re used to, but rather a group of paper booklets that come together in a plastic case and can be read in any order. (Here’s a great NPR interview where she explains a bit more about the thinking behind the collection.) Nox, too, is not a traditional “book” so much as a spiraling paper accordion housing Carson’s memories and grief in the wake of her brother’s death. (Here’s a beautiful review of that one in The New Yorker, where Meghan O’Rourke writes, “Nox is a luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of an elegy, which is why it evokes so effectively the felt chaos and unreality of loss.”)
Bonus features. Did you know that if you input the correct sequence into the psych quiz featured in the limited edition of Memento, it’ll show you a chronological cut of the film? Back in the day, there were all kinds of Easter eggs hidden away on those discs, just waiting for you to press the right combination of buttons. Looper has a pretty sweet roundup, including The Dark Knight’s “Joker-ized” trailer, Fight Club’s little Never Been Kissed menu joke, and Ben Stiller’s turn as Tom Cruise’s “stunt double” in Mission: Impossible 2. To this day, DVDs still serve as individual, dedicated archives for making-of and marketing materials around a particular movie.
The joy of discovery. I was lucky enough to catch the documentary Kim’s Video earlier this year via Sundance Film Festival. In a rabbit hole after my own heart, filmmaker David Redmon embarks on an epic odyssey to find out what happened to Yongman Kim’s eclectic collection of 55,000 movies after his New York video rental store closed in 2008. It’s a heartwarming ode not just to the power of film, but also the joy of discovery. There’s a certain magic in going to the bookstore or the library or Blockbuster and scanning through spines until you come upon one that catches your eye. Wandering around in a room full of possibilities — even the smartest algorithm can’t quite match that feeling.
Design. Sony’s DVD release of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was painstakingly created to look like a pirated disc, complete with its title’s hurried Sharpie scrawl. Intended as a nod to Lisbeth Salander’s hacker persona, the design choice ended up legitimately confusing a whole bunch of American viewers. Redbox had to issue a statement and everything. Still makes me cackle. Indiewire compiled a stellar lineup of fifty favorite Criterion covers that’s worth a look, too. (My favorites are In the Mood for Love and Wings of Desire!)
Sometimes you just gotta take a book to the function. As noted bookworm Rory Gilmore once said before her boyfriend pulled The Portable Dorothy Parker out of her purse on the night of a school dance: “I just take a book with me everywhere. It’s just habit.” Did sixth grade go any better for me because I was carrying a Tolkien paperback around in my little Jansport? Probably not! But I inexplicably felt better knowing it was there.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Sure sounds like you want me to spend a pile of money. I get it! This stuff adds up. The great news is your local library has your BACK. At least half the movies I watch these days are checked out via interlibrary loan, which gives me access to the catalogs of 30+ libraries in my region and costs exactly zero dollars. You can also usually make requests for your library to stock certain titles, which is not only a huge help for authors but also reiterates your community’s ongoing desire for physical media. (A lot of libraries are running super-fun summer reading programs right now, just saying. I am literally so determined to win a pizza through mine.)
This month’s issue was inspired by Gordon Square Review’s publication of a short essay I wrote called “Nineteen: A Discography.” It’s a love letter to summer, my first car, and all the feelings that come with living the last year of your teens. Very happy I get to share this one with y’all.
Double anthology news: Best Microfiction 2023 is now available for preorder! Very grateful to say that year’s anthology includes a piece of mine, “Selected Google Searches Regarding Peter Jackson’s King Kong.” While you’re at it, you can also preorder How to Write a Novel: An Anthology of 20 Craft Essays About Writing, None of Which Ever Mention Writing. I’ve got an essay in there about creative perseverance and Tom Cruise’s run that I’m really excited about.
Per some comments on last month’s issue, there might be more actors who reprise their roles in remakes than I first thought! Great to hear from y’all, and thanks as always for your recs — comments invariably send me down fun new rabbit holes.
Thanks a bunch for reading; see you again in July!