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The pros and cons of the DVD revolution

Digital video is the way to go, says David Hochman, as long as you realize even great technology can’t save ”Elm Street V”

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The pros and cons of the DVD revolution

What finally got me hooked on DVDs was the ridiculous Mexican interview with Gene Wilder. Until then, I’d been on a major anti-DVD kick. Why drop $28 or $34 or $98 for a digital video disc when I could spend about 10 bucks on a perfectly acceptable VHS cassette? In fact, why buy at all when I could just rent the tape at my local video emporium for a mere $1.99 a week?

Besides, the DVDs I’d seen early on didn’t seem all that impressive. Sure, I could click on a DVD menu screen to get cast and crew information for ”Dog Day Afternoon” or else check out the previous movie credits for the stars of ”My Dinner With Andre,” but mostly my DVD player seemed like a gadget-in-waiting. The DVD’s remote control had all sorts of cool-sounding functions — Angle, Zoom, 3-D — but the fanciest ”enhanced feature” I’d actually seen so far was a scratchy Australian trailer attached to Peter Weir’s ”Picnic at Hanging Rock.” WhatEVER.

All my griping stopped when I saw ”Young Frankenstein: The Special DVD Edition” (cue up THUNDER in digital Dolby Surroundsound). Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy classic had pretty much fallen off my movie radar, but on DVD it seemed downright…AL-I-I-IVE!! The horror spoof had been restored to amazing crystal clarity and was pumped up with a dungeon-quaking audio track. The picture tones were so crisp and vibrant that the black & white film suddenly looked like a black & white & gray & silver & raven & ivory & cream-colored film.

Then there were the extras: a 36-minute color documentary featuring the stars and writers looking back on their experience, photo stills from the production, outakes and bloopers never seen before, a running voice-over commentary by Brooks, and those wacky Mexican interviews, done in Spanish on the Fox Studios set in 1973. Wilder’s wearing his Dr. Fronkenshteen smock and Cloris Leachman’s on his lap. They’re playing doctor, Leachman says, though the joke seems lost on the Mexican reporter. All of which makes a good movie seem spectacular.

Then again, all the bonus features in the world can’t save a dog. The DVD version of ”Nightmare on Elm Street V” may let you click through the original screenplay and play a ”Nightmare” trivia game, but it’s still ”Nightmare on Elm Street V.” Likewise, the garbled Martian dialogue ”extra” on the ”Mars Attacks” disc can’t save that flick from being an out-of-this-world disaster. But there are moments on other DVDs that are downright transcendant. Well, almost. What could be cooler than selecting French dubbing to hear Austin Powers say ”Ooooui, bebe!” Or being able to jump to a really neat scene in a movie that otherwise doesn’t hold up so well (in two clicks, you can find the Bond girl covered in gold in ”Goldfinger,” then exit). And for sheer kicks, there’s nothing quite like watching ”2001: the DVD” on your Y2K-ready computer screen.

At its best, DVD satisfies a craving for that extra little something we often want when we go to the movies. It’s the same satisfaction that comes from buying a great movie soundtrack or, perhaps, from pulling the string on the talking Mini-Me doll. It lets you go beyond just watching, beyond merely sitting in the dark. With a Deleted Scenes icon here and a behind-the-scenes documentary there — not to mention that room-rattling stereo sound — a quality DVD makes you an active participant in the process. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, DVD is a movie seen so deeply that you are the movie while the movie lasts. Thanks, Gene Wilder!