I recently noticed a pattern in my choice of films to write about. I tend to really enjoy the films I write about but the films I truly love tend to go unprocessed and un-deconstructed. I did not write about Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love (2009) and I did not write about Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Drive (2011) despite loving both of these films to pieces. In an bid to force myself out of this unfortunate habit, I decided to take on the recent Blu-ray release of one of my favourite films: Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. THE ZONE has my review.
The common thread binding these three films together is their unapologetic devotion to the grammar of film. Indeed, rather than relying upon such theatrical devices as three act structures or novelistic devices such as expositionary dialogue, Don’t Look Now, Driver and I Am Love tell their stories using mostly pictures and sounds. Don’t Look Now is particularly cinematic as Roeg uses cinematic grammar for force us into the head of Donald Sutherland’s reluctant psychic: Sutherland’s character is assailed by images and sounds that he struggles to comprehend and Roeg shares these fragments with us, placing us next to Sutherland’s character. Struggling to comprehend:
The opening scene of Don’t Look Now introduces us to a series of memorable images that Roeg returns to throughout the film. Everywhere the Baxters go, they encounter water, red hoods and shards of light. As people trained in the basic grammar of art house cinema, we know how to recognise recurring motifs and know that we are supposed to treat them as clues to the film’s hidden subtext. However, rather than allowing these clues to sit in the mind of the audience, Roeg uses the possibility of psychic powers to drag these clues into the foreground of the film.
Suddenly, those motifs and images that are normally just hints at hidden artistic meaning become evidence of hidden patterns in the life of John Baxter. Baxter’s hostility to the sisters betrays a deeper hostility to the idea that he too may be psychic and that the recurring images that plague his life might be evidence of future unpleasantness. Baxter foresaw the death of his daughter and now he sees signs that point to his own death. Everywhere he turns, Baxter is haunted by water, shards of light and the colour red. Everywhere he turns, Baxter sees proof that he too will soon be dead.
To suggest that John Baxter may be psychic is, somewhat predictably, to do Roeg a disservice as talk of mediums and psychic powers inevitably conjures up images of third eyes and supernatural powers. However, much of the power of Don’t Look Now resides in the fact that Baxter’s psychic gift is only a slight exaggeration of that very human addiction to pattern recognition, an addiction that forces the audience to hunt for subtexts and clues in Roeg’s repeated use of water, shards of light and the colour red. Indeed, Don’t Look Now is a deeply unsettling film as it forces the audience into the same position as the film’s protagonist: just like John Baxter, we know that something is coming; we know that it is not going to be good but we are powerless to avoid it. The audience are powerless to avoid it because Don’t Look Now is a film. John Baxter is powerless to avoid it because his life is like a film; it is pre-scripted with a beginning, middle and an inevitably grizzly end.
Don’t Look Now is not just a film of towering cinematic brilliance it is also, in its own way, a film about the process of taking a series of disconnected images and forcing them into a cohesive and comprehensible whole.
This review is based upon the Blu-ray special edition that was released in summer 2011. Billed as a “Special Edition”, this Blu-ray release is pretty much indistinguishable from the 2006 DVD “Special Edition” release. The extras are exactly the same. According to the sticker on the cover of the box, the colour restoration was supervised by Roeg himself but, while there is no denying that the colours are crisp and the pictures are clean, I genuinely struggle to tell the difference between this and the DVD special edition. This begs the question as to the purpose and future of Blu-ray releases.
The UK benefits from a growing second hand market for DVDs that has the effect that DVDs lose most of their value within a few weeks of release. In fact, if you are paying full price for a DVD that is more than a week old then you are nothing more than a sucker. Though Blu-ray has not yet supplanted DVD, the market for Blu-ray disks is pretty much the same as that for DVDs only with Blu-ray discs starting and remaining ever so slightly more expensive. The reason for this is that, UK consumers have largely accepted the idea that Blu-ray is a meaningful step up from DVD. Using this perception, Blu-ray distributors are re-releasing older films hoping that those of us with Blu-ray players (i.e. people who own a PS3) will replace our old DVDs with more expensive and ‘better quality’ Blu-ray editions. However, despite Blu-ray being touted as better quality, it is notable that hardly any Blu-ray releases come with any more extras than their equivalent DVD release. In short, the only difference between Blu-ray and DVD is that Blu-ray discs support HD playback meaning that if you do not possess an HD screen then there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for buying a film on Blu-ray. I bought the special edition DVD of Don’t Look Now when it was originally released and, despite clearly adoring the film, I cannot think why you would choose to replace the DVD with a Blu-ray.
The fate of Blu-ray is made all the more tenuous by changes in the US market. In the US, the online video streaming service Netflix has not just popularised watching films online it has pretty much killed both DVD and Blu-ray stone dead with the latter-most nails in physical media’s coffin being provided by iTunes and the video-on-demand capacities of cable TV, Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. Blu-ray was only ever supposed to be a stopgap measure between the latter days of DVD and the early days on online streaming that might allow technology companies to sell one final generation of media players before everyone started watching stuff through their home computer. This gap in the market has now effectively closed in the US and the UK is not that far behind.
Despite chaotically shuffling between business models in a way that has seen its share price plunge, Netflix recently announced that it is planning on bringing its subscription-based video-on-demand service to the UK. In short, Blu-ray is history in the US and the same will soon be true in the UK. If Netflix and Lovefilm do not kill UK DVD sales then Amazon, iTunes and cable TV will.
Of course, physical copies of films will continue to retain some value as people will always to want to ‘own’ the films they love rather than simply retain the capacity to access them online. Similarly, AV nuts who invested small fortunes in home cinema installations will probably not be the first in line to start watching films on their laptops. I mention this not because I have anything in particular against either Blu-ray or DVD (I own loads myself) but simply as a warning: In a year’s time, Blu-rays and DVDs will be just as worthless as CDs meaning that you will be able to buy films like Don’t Look Now on Blu-ray for next to nothing. So, instead of splashing out on one great Blu-ray, either save your money and stick with the DVD or wait a year and buy five films for the price of one. And thus the wheel doth turn…