The shape of films to come

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The Independent Online

The release on DVD of the Pixar animated movie The Incredibles has broken many records. On its first day of release, it sold five million copies in America alone, making $100m; roughly a third more than it made in its first weekend of cinema release.

The release on DVD of the Pixar animated movie The Incredibles has broken many records. On its first day of release, it sold five million copies in America alone, making $100m; roughly a third more than it made in its first weekend of cinema release. Astonishing figures; but perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. It, like many recent films, was a film partly made for DVD. The advent of DVD technology is changing film-making aesthetics.

Ten minutes and 25 seconds exactly into The Incredibles, there is a curious sequence. It consists of that old favourite of Hollywood sensational dramas, the whirling newspaper headline. There are three front pages of newspapers, each with a different story about legal challenges to different superheroes. The sequence lasts three seconds.

By freeze-framing the DVD, I counted 50 legible words, with pastiche newspaper photographs to take in as well. They are witty and amusing headlines, which someone has written quite carefully. Very few people could absorb much of it in three seconds. There are attested cases of readers, many of them deaf, who can read at a rate of 1,000 words a minute. There is a gentleman in America who claims to be able to read 25,000 words a minute, which I frankly don't believe could be reading in any meaningful sense; that amounts to claiming to be able to read Bleak House in 16 minutes. But such cases are extremely rare.

In short, it is a sequence that can properly be appreciated only at leisure, at home. Specifically, this means via DVD technology, rather than the old video machine. There is quite an amusing joke in the film, in which the super-fast son's movements can't be caught even on slow-motion video; the owner of a DVD machine is mildly flattered.

The film invites you to slow it down, to admire its exquisite detail. But you can also move sideways, as it were, to explore how the film was made - the out-takes are not jokey ones, but glitches in computer programs that you would probably have to be an animator to understand. There is a commentary, sequences lost at the editing process, as well as two fully realised amusing spin-offs. The film, as it exists on DVD, is a more complete experience than the movie in the theatre; lower impact, but more intricately satisfying.

Many film-lovers have fallen in love with DVDs for the simple reason that they give a film an index like a book. Often, one loves a particular film chiefly for a particular sequence, and the DVD gives the viewer the opportunity to find and watch that sequence with ease. It is a delight, say, to be able to find the great drunk scene in All About Eve, or the delirious hula-hoop sequence in The Hudsucker Proxy, or a favourite song in Gypsy, or the Anita Ekberg passage in La Dolce Vita without faffing about with forward-wind buttons and timings. To be able to skip, too, awful bits of great movies, such as the dream-ballet in Oklahoma!; and, crucially, to be able to repeat passages at leisure.

They have enriched many great films in surprising ways. Details that previously slipped by may now be examined closely. For instance, in Visconti's film of The Leopard, the long and sumptuous ball scene at the end culminates in a most extraordinary shot: a room of full chamberpots. It is a brief glimpse, and so completely, shockingly, out of tone with everything that has gone before that many people, having seen the film in a cinema, flatly refuse to believe that the shot exists. The mind blankly shuts it out. DVD, with the possibility of checking, has changed the film.

Details of plot and recurrence become lucid with the aid of commentary and easy repetition. To take a more popular example, at the end of Russell T Davies's splendid TV series Queer as Folk, there is a plot development that is easily missed. The man who is about to pick up Stuart at the end of the last episode is the same man who, in a tiny role five episodes earlier, brought about the death of a minor character. I certainly missed the significance; only with repetition and the (excellent) commentary did it become clear.

But DVD is not just opening up past masterpieces. Films such as Memento challenge the viewer to construct their own order of viewing; others, such as David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, becomedramas that require the viewer to cross-reference between scenes.

DVD films are becoming much more like novels. It won't be long until someone makes a film in which the significance rests on the reader's accurate assessment of the significance of a single word, or a single detail. And the reading, as so often these days, will take place at home.