Hello Blu-ray: What took you so long?

I’m not what you would call an early adopter. For one reason, I can’t afford the lifestyle. But even I am hard-pressed to explain why, exactly, I waited years to buy a Blu-ray player.

Of course, those who weren’t in a hurry to embrace hi-def had to await the format shakeout between Blu-ray and HD/DVD. After that, however, even after I bought my first hi-def TV a few years ago, I resisted. At bottom, I thought, how much better, truly, could the presentation be? And as someone who endured the VHS to DVD shift, I was not eager for another regime change.

Basically, I had consigned Blu-ray to some parallel universe to ensure it stayed off the radar screen—the same place I’ve interred hip-hop music, reality TV, organic food, and other items that for millions of people have become staples of everyday life.

Even worse, I continued to stock up on standard definition DVDs, which now, unfortunately, feels a bit like purchasing a few American cars off the lot in 1976.

A couple of months ago, however, I made the plunge, buying a Sony player on discount along with a handful of Blu-rays—and even as I did so, I had a vague uneasy feeling that this was trouble. I can be, a times, a bit obsessive. So I made some vows to myself, a Blu-ray creed if you will.

It went something like–by the purchase of this player, I will refrain from the following actions:

1)      I will not become a Blu-ray snob and sneer at standard-definition movies

2)      I will not replace SD titles I already own with their BD counterparts

3)      I will not buy titles simply because they look good in hi-def

Anyone who knows me would not be surprised that a handful of weeks later, those pledges lie in ruins. And you can blame The Searchers for it.

John Ford’s classic was sitting there at Target for the unappreciated price of $10. I snatched it up. At home, it was the first Blu-ray I slid into the new player, the trial run. I was expecting little. The film is 55 years old.

And it, well, it destroyed me. From the moment Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan) walks outside on the porch of her solitary frontier house and Ford’s camera pans out to the rocks and brush beyond, capturing it all in colors and light so stunning as to almost be disorienting, the way that a hot sun can make the ground seem to shimmer and turn opaque. It made me almost squint.

It was, I might suggest, the purest example I had ever beheld of a film as an image, a work of art. In short, it slapped me across the face.

Over the previous weeks, few people had supported my supposition that Blu-ray players offer any real, noticeable edge over a standard picture (and to muddy the waters further, there’s the whole concept of “upconversion”—a process I’m still not sure I actually believe works). But most detractors had an even more persuasive argument to make: that physical media itself is a not long for this world, that streaming video will render Blu-ray discs as obsolete as the 10 zillion CDs I have packed in boxes.

I have no doubt that will happen. Someday. The speed at which we can view web-based content is already mind-boggling, and streaming via Netflix has changed my viewing habits dramatically. Those speeds, as well as the storage capability of streaming devices, will only improve, although I also fully expect streaming to soon grow to be as expensive as cable.

But for now, even streaming HD doesn’t truly match up with the real deal, both with regard to video and audio. (It sounds ridiculous, but BD audio made we wistful for something I rarely think about—a house. Home theaters don’t really go over well in crowded apartment buildings.)

As for the idea that most people can’t tell a BD disc from a standard DVD, well, of course, I had to prove it to myself. The first tenet of the creed was tested the moment I inserted my SD version of The Departed into the drive.

It looked wrong. The film appeared, splotchy. I replayed the scene where Leonard DiCaprio’s character is recruited by Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg again and again. Why wasn’t DiCaprio’s face more sharply rendered. Why did the outline of his head look fuzzy? And why hadn’t I noticed this earlier?

Yeah, but what did you think of the image quality of the transfer?

As it is with a first-class plane flight, a four-star hotel room, box seats to a sporting event—the disparity was unmistakable. The past was rendered miserable, inadequate.

I ran out and bought a BD of the same film—and matched them against each other. Watching the first few opening scenes in a sort of cinematic UFC. The standard DVD couldn’t keep pace. It was a first-round knockout.  (It also felt like a jarringly kooky exercise, an embrace of solitary eccentricity.)

Like any newly minted evangelical, I quickly sought out those of the same faith, and wasn’t surprised to find entire online communities devoted to analyzing whether the transfer of a film to HD resulted in something akin to “reference quality” or whether it fell short (see, the much-criticized 2009 release of Gladiator), lamentations on releases lacking “lossless audio” and esoteric debates about whether Stanley Kubrick intended his Barry Lyndon to be presented in a 1.66 aspect ratio or 1.78. (The same folks who consider this a significant issue despite the miniscule portion of the screenscape at the center of the conflict are the same people who would no sooner watch a standard-def movie if they could help it than shower fully clothed.)

Ben Kenobi told Luke Skywalker in Star Wars that he had taken his first step into a larger world. But this felt the opposite. I had come across a niche, a passion. Something akin to Brooklynites who grow their own food or weave their own clothes. Because of streaming, Blu-ray is unlikely to ever catch on en masse, despite that fact that most Americans own HDTVs. Why? Because people don’t care all that much about picture quality for movies. For sports, yes. For film? Eh.

But that’s all right. For me, it’s been something like having my senses heightened. The rest of the world needn’t come along. (Although it would be appreciated if BD prices kept dropping.)

As I said, the first tenet of the creed fell swiftly aside—which inevitably spelled the end for the second pledge, as well. Before I knew it, I was snapping up Blu-ray versions of prized films, from Blade Runner, to Sweet Smell of Success, to the Maltese Falcon (and yes, Ronin, dammit), and unloading their standard-DVD cousins like shipping so many unwanted adoptees back to the orphanage.

But it wasn’t just beloved classics. I realized the fever truly had taken hold when I found a Blu-ray edition of Crank with Jason Statham in my shopping basket. Thus,  in that way, the third tenet was violated. A brainless action movie that, if reviews are to believed, delivers stunning PQ and AQ on BD. There was no going back.

And hey, at $5.99, buying it was almost the same as not buying it. At least that’s what I told myself.

The movie itself? Haven’t seen it yet.  Plenty of time for that. I’m too busy hunting for the next deal. The heart wants what the heart wants.

Off to the Criterion sale at Barnes & Noble


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