DVDs and Defamiliarization

Cutting Room Floor

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DVDs possess a certain nostalgia for me. Every week growing up, I would head to the DVD rental shop and rent out exactly two films for Friday and Saturday night as permitted by my parents. Movie watching was a specific, allotted indulgence that I dreamt about all week. 

When streaming came along in India and I finally got a Netflix account in the ninth grade, I couldn’t have been happier. Any movie, available at any time? The ease, the convenience, the sheer variety it seemed too good to be true. I didn’t have to comb through lines of shelves or abashedly explain to the cashier that yes, I did want to watch “Shrek 2” for the third week in a row. My guilty pleasures were for me only: I gleefully binge-watched television late into the night and even into the wee hours of the morning, my laptop snuggled into my bed at a precarious sideways angle as I drifted off to sleep. 

I was always a proud proponent of streaming, championing its accessibility and convenience. I even felt a bit slighted when the directors I admired bashed streaming platforms, pretentiously calling them a betrayal of the “cinematic experience.” I had never before felt this connected to such a vast world of art available at my very fingertips, and here my idols Scorsese and Nolan couldn’t bear the thought of its existence! 

As someone who consumes far too much content, I now have about six shared subscriptions to streaming services, each for different niches: Netflix and Amazon Prime for the new and trending, Disney+ for reminiscing, HBO for all my dramatic needs, Mubi for the art house and the indie and Apple TV for the sleek, gray-scaled and formidable. Each of these services spans hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours of entertainment for me to scroll through endlessly. 

And at the peak of lockdown, when binge-watching took over just about every minute of my life, I finally felt the choice paralysis kick in. 

It became a sensory overload: I couldn’t scroll past the Netflix homepage without being overwhelmed by animated visuals and moving graphics. It was impossible to even hover on a title without the trailer, or sometimes even the film, beginning unprompted. It felt like the Big Bad Algorithm was pleading, begging me to click on the latest, glitziest reality show or flick of the moment, burying the stuff that doesn’t generate clicks anymore into the pages that can only be accessed through the search feature. 

I was completely overwhelmed. It was at this moment that I felt the need to inaugurate my newly repaired DVD player and line up a showing of “Inherent Vice.”

As a strange muscle memory, everything I remembered about the DVD experience came flooding back. 

There is no “skip intro” button, and it isn’t very easy to change the program once the DVD has begun. Instead, there is the unskippable anti-piracy ad and a menu screen that you have to wade through to begin the film. The screen erratically pauses — even new discs can get scratched — with no indication of when the screen may begin to move next. Watching a DVD is an undeniably slow and laborious process, and I was a captive audience for the entirety of those two hours and 29 minutes. 

Funnily enough, I ended that viewing with a beaming smile. Apart from the fact that it was a fantastic movie, there was something so special about keeping aside a film to watch. I could physically feel the disc in my hands and navigate its content through pressing physical buttons on a remote a film that I chose myself from a stack of DVDs. It felt refreshingly simple. 

I couldn’t help but think of Viktor Shklovsky, the Russian scholar, and his theory of defamiliarization. Shklovsky looked at art as a rescue from the numbness of everyday life because it defamiliarizes or estranges objects and form, making our perceptual process longer and more laborious. He believed that quick perception of art numbed us, that experiencing life and art on the unconscious plane was ultimately fruitless. 

At every painstaking step in the DVD watching process, I am reminded that I am watching a film, just like Shklovsky would have intended. It is not a secondary thought that is superseded by every other environmental distraction notifications of emails on my laptop or an essay I’m “working on” as I watch television. I am immersed, involved and, most importantly, aware of the fact that I am consuming a piece of art that is distinctly separate from real life.

I have since returned to saving DVD watching for weekends. It feels ceremonial a conscious choice of film is picked every week for me and my family to watch. We don’t change the movie once it has begun, and like it or not, we sit through it and absorb it in its entirety. 

I pray and hope that DVD players don’t die out. Despite all their misgivings and inconveniences, they have the power to remind us of the beauty in arduousness when consuming art.

Contact Megha Ganapathy at [email protected].