Memento: Special Edition DVD

Columbia, 2002

“If anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself. No, this is not a joke: kill yourself.... I know what the marketing people are thinking now, too: ‘Ohhh. He’s going for that anti-marketing dollar. That’s a good market.’ ”

—Bill Hicks, comic

DVD reviewers tend to focus on several specific areas: picture and sound quality, special inclusions, and computer accessible extras being most prominently mentioned. These reviews are aimed right at the heart of the consumer. They generally presume that everyone has already seen the movie, so only the barest summation is given, and it’s right on to an assessment of the “goodies” – since after all, that’s the only reason people buy these things. Having just recently experienced Sony’s newly released Memento limited edition DVD, it’s high time someone laid waste to the entire trend of “too hip for you” marketing gimmicks.

So exactly what is wrong with Memento that would provoke such an extreme reaction? Let’s start first with the menuing system. After wading your way through the usual plethora of extraneous introductory material, the viewer is strobed through a long series of words, making you wonder if you’re going to watch a movie or be given a vocabulary test when it’s over. Once that’s done, you’re presented with a menu meant to resemble part of the main character’s psychological case file – five columns of unassociated words. The navigation for the disc, you are told, is linked to one word, hidden in each column – words which did not appear in the earlier vocab exercise. You get to figure out which, as well as speculating about the intended function. And so it continues the deeper you go. Strike one.

Next up is the packaging. In keeping with the same sense of worthlessness that inspired the menus, the packaging is also supposed to give the sense that this is Leonard Shelby’s case file. But really, all it is, is a two-disc foldout in a paper sleeve with a faux-tape spine and fake folder fasteners. Is that bad? Not exactly. At least it’s not the round tin in which Artisan saw fit to ship Total Recall (the one that matches nothing else in your collection, and keeps rolling off the shelf). Naturally, it gets worse.

As with most DVD’s, there’s a sheet detailing the contents of the disc – on the back, where it can be easily viewed through the shrinkwrap as you browse the shelves at the local retailer. But since this didn’t fit the concept of the case file, it’s just stuck on with a couple of adhesive dots. So if you want to actually retain the original packaging (as some of us semi-preservationists certainly do), you’re left with either removing and storing it – as well as remembering exactly where you put it – or gluing it the rest of the way down and trimming it to fit. (Neither of which fit into the concept of “preservation.”) Considering that the rest of the folder is four-color printed, it wouldn’t have taken anything more than a clever designer to figure out how to work that in, thus saving them time and money in additional printing and adhesion costs.

When you finally manage to extract the actual disc case from its tight-fitting sleeve, it opens to reveal several sheets of paper again extending the case file theme. One of them – as well as an included post-it note (more wasted money) – explains how to at least get the movie to play. (This is not wholly necessary, since if you let the disc sit there for a minute, it will play on its own, though the viewer has no way of knowing that until it actually happens.)

The insert then folds up to reveal the actual DVD’s, nicely silkscreened to mimic Shelby’s scribbled notes. They’re set into the now expected clear plastic retainers treating you to a look at more art beneath the tray, as well as the rectangular black eyesore of a security tag which has the same visual effect as a billboard at Yosemite and generally cannot be removed without utterly destroying the package beyond repair. Yet again, thank you for thinking this through. Strike two. (At least.)

By now you must be thinking that all of these things, while potentially annoying and poorly thought out, may still be at least slightly clever. And on a good day, I might not wholly disagree. But there’s always a clincher. In this case, the final fatal flaw. Thinking that there must be something of great import and benefit on this disc, I decided to take a listen to director Christopher Nolan’s commentary. It’s not particularly distinguished, as such things go – not clever or insightful, but it won’t entirely bore you to tears, either. And so we plodded along... Until about an hour and thirty-seven minutes in – when something happened that caught my attention from across the room and had me scrambling for the remote. The audio went completely berserk. “Great,” I thought, “On top of all this, I get a defective disc, to boot.” But the faint audio bleeding through from the soundtrack was fine. And then it dawned on me... some pointy-headed marketing moron thought it would be clever to lay the rest of the commentary audio down backwards. Just like the way the story’s being told. Get it? Isn’t that cool? We spent six weeks of development sessions coming up with that one! Now, there may be a way to access a properly oriented audio track, but by then I no longer cared to invest any more time in dealing with this ridiculous train wreck of a DVD.

This limited edition of Memento is nothing more than a collection of clever little ideas that marketroids all sat around congratulating themselves on just how deucedly clever they were being. If you bought the first disc, keep it. There’s nothing on this one worth the hassle or expense. (You can even find Jonathan Nolan’s short story on the internet.)

“So where is all this leading?” I think as I sit here, hunched over the trusty wordprocessor... “Surely this can’t be as bad as I’ve just made it out...” but the more I dwell on it, the more I’m convinced that it’s probably worse than all that. The focal issue is that the planning and marketing of these products is being driven by people that know absolutely nothing about any of the fields they overlap. And all they know about marketing is what they’ve been taught. The perspective of the consuming customer is as foreign to them as the latest overseas film they saw fit to dub and put a rap soundtrack on, in order to make it “accessible” to American audiences.

Things weren’t always like this. Once, there were laserdiscs, and the world was a much better place. Do I resent the fact that DVD was the death of my beloved twelve inch platters? Unequivocally, yes. Laserdiscs were made by and for hardcore cinephiles – film makers and film fans, alike – not college kids looking for something to play in the background during their next kegger. And they were done right. Considering that the DVD format has been around for almost five years now, and it’s just been recently that every studio in existence has started to quit listing “chapter access” as a special feature, you know you’re dealing with a market structured by and for the alternately clued. That’s like referring to “tracks” as special inclusions on a CD.

Optimally, DVD’s should behave like tapes. You put them in, and they start playing the movie. Not ten minutes of time wasting advertisements for the rest of the Fox catalogue, which you can’t skip because the designers locked out button access. Not long and pointless copyright notices that are included only because they have to be from a legal standpoint. Including them is one thing, but all they have to be, is present. The approach on a DVD is the equivalent of gluing a book shut until someone’s read the indicia page.

Play the disc. Watch the movie. If you want the menu, hit a button. Period. End of story.

Addendum:

It was brought to my attention that Columbia’s marketing department had nothing to do with the creation of this waste of time and space. Credit for that lies with squarely with the director, as indicated in the following interview excerpt:

Dean Kish: There is a special-edition DVD of the film coming out in May. Will the new DVD shed any light on the film for fans?

Christopher Nolan: Perhaps! [laughs] You will have to check it out. I think it’s a fantastic DVD. My brother, Jonah, and I put a lot of work into it. My brother has really been on the cutting edge of designing it. We did a lot of playing around with the conventions of the format. I was working on another film when the first DVD came out so we weren’t able to put the things we would have liked on the first one. We wanted to use the format to enhance the experience of the film.

I thus find myself in the awkward position of having to apologize to marketing people everywhere. Fortunately, this is more of a single use apology – like a “get out of jail free card” – since it won’t be long before this sort of behavior again rears its ugly head. Probably due to someone watching the Memento DVD and thinking it was a good idea.