Séamas O'Reilly: DVDs disappeared without a trace, and nobody really noticed

"...their stranglehold over the culture has now gone and they exist mostly as portable landfill, tethered to us for eternity..."
Séamas O'Reilly: DVDs disappeared without a trace, and nobody really noticed

DVDs, yesterday. Pic: Mati Mango

Whenever I want to feel the cold, bracing rush of life at its most impermanent, I think of DVDs. Like anyone aged 32 or over, I’ve bought dozens, maybe hundreds, of Digital Versatile Discs, in my lifetime, all of which have now either been thrown away, or left staring at me, unloved, pleading to be used, from their lonely perch on a dusty shelf or, worse, a container that gets more distant from my eyeline with every spring clean.

DVDs are still sold, of course (around 300 million were shipped worldwide in 2021, down from an estimated 2 billion annually in their mid-00s pomp) but their stranglehold over the culture has gone, and they now exist mostly as portable landfill, tethered to us for eternity. They taunt us within our homes, from covered drawers, and unopened boxes, unloved spots above cupboards in spare rooms, pleading to be spared obliteration with every house move. And spare them we do, because that’s the thing - you have some DVDs, don’t you? Nobody has *no* DVDs, no matter how infrequently they watch them.

In my last four adventures in moving house, I’ve whittled down my own stock to about a dozen, maybe twenty, which I like to think hold some sort of personal significance. I am lying to myself, I will never watch any of them again. It’s been about five years since I last put a DVD on, and that itself was memorable for having been the first time in a long, long while. The PS4 was the last object in my home capable of playing a disc of any sort and I haven’t plugged mine in since I moved in February.

Sometimes, even now, you’ll walk into someone’s house and see a properly well-stocked shelf of DVDs. I don’t mean stored the way you and I do in our own homes; hidden away somewhere, like bittersweet love letters from a forgotten summer romance. No, I mean a full stock of DVDs, displayed with reverence and pride in a rack or shelf near their TV, right now in the year 2022. Even then, their sad catalogue of mid-00s titles always suggests what we presume to be true; that none of these were bought in the last decade. They represent a chilling personal canon of cinema, frozen in amber around 2011, and thus giving improbable prominence to classics like Fast & Furious, Click and National Treasure 2: Book Of Secrets.

It’s saddening in many practical ways. The advent of streaming platforms has decimated the DVD market, (as well as that of Blu-Rays, very much the Luigi of digital home video) and I can’t help feeling this has thrown the baby out with the bath water. In this case, the bath water is “having to stand up at any point of the viewing process”, and the baby is the many charms of disced entertainment.

I speak not of the joy of holding an object in your hand, although I understand that matters to some people. I mean the dizzying array of weird and wonderful special features which are also now all-but-extinct. For one thing, it’s sad to know that I lived through the entire 15 years in which Audio Commentaries were not just common, but ubiquitous. By turns thrilling, awkward, hilarious or fascinating, these watch-along sessions with your favourite film-makers – or the people who made National Treasure 2: Book Of Secrets - were such a universal prerequisite for any film released in that time, that speaking about them in the past tense still feels perverse.

Séamas O'Reilly: a man nearly without DVDs entirely. Picture: Orfhlaith Whelan
Séamas O'Reilly: a man nearly without DVDs entirely. Picture: Orfhlaith Whelan

I still remember hearing screenwriter James Schamus say that his script for the six-minute-long Tavern Rumble scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was written in the screenplay as “They fight”, or Ben Affleck relating Michael Bay’s increasing frustration every time he asked him why Armageddon’s plot involved training miners to be astronauts, rather than vice versa. Or the commentary for Almost Famous, which alternates between being delightful and excruciating since it’s done by Cameron Crowe and his own mother; or the one for Boogie Nights, featuring director Paul Thomas Anderson getting quite audibly pissed in the recording booth by himself, and ends with him trying to call Julianne Moore to say hello.

These are a little-remarked casualty in the surge to modernity, and it is my hope that they’ll come back in some form – and Disney+ do even include some as special features for their Marvel catalogue, so here’s hoping – but the demise of DVDs is mostly sad for a more existential reason.

There’s a sentimental quote that gets passed around the internet every once in a while, that says something to the effect that “One day you will pick up your child, without knowing it will be the last time you ever do”. I’m not saying that the knowledge that I may never watch another film on DVD is exactly as melancholy as the prospect of my children no longer needing me, I’m just saying it engenders that same, bitter twinge of time slipping away, of a frontier passed in silent complacency, spotted only many years after it’s in your rear-view mirror.

It’s not just that everyone stopped buying them, it’s that no one noticed for years afterward. Like FA Cup Final songs, or movie trailers that had narrators who said things like “In a world… where love is against the law”, DVDs were an immovable fixture of the culture, as ubiquitous as taxes, and then at some point in the last ten years, they disappeared with so little fanfare their prior supremacy seems like a fevered daydream. But not to me. Not anymore. If you’ll excuse me, I have a games console to plug in. I am raging against the dying of the light, and the director’s commentary for National Treasure 2: Book Of Secrets won’t watch itself.

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