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A Consideration of
"VideoHound's DVD Guide"

Or, Why publish a book of DVD reviews in the age
of the World Wide Web?

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Book review by D. K. Holm                    

The first thing that crosses the mind of anyone who picks up Mike Mayo's VideoHound's DVD Guide (Visible Ink Press, 728 pages, $19.95, ISBN 1 57859 115 5), is, Why? Why publish a big book collecting 3,000 DVD reviews that can only be as up to date as the summer of 2000, when there are about 200 DVD websites available that are more or less the same thing but with up-to-date information? Presumably most people with DVD players also have Internet access, either at home or at work. Presumably most DVD fanatics visit an array of bookmarked pages daily to find new release news and reviews of upcoming DVDs. So why publish a slow, clunky, out-of-date-the-day-it-was-published book in this day and age?

Well, old habits die hard, I guess. For better or worse, we are still a print-oriented society, even if hardcopy publishing is in its final stages of manic decay. And not everyone has Web access (nor does everyone like reading from computer monitors). Another thing to say for this large-format trade paperback is that it's good to have a book that acknowledges that there is a DVD revolution going on beneath the surface of movie-TV-VHS obsessed culture. If nothing else, this latest addition to the VideoHound family asserts an interest in DVD that is likely to get the attention of more mainstream folks.

Almost a stocking-stuffer, DVD Guide is an ambitious attempt to review and rank all the narrative films that have been released on DVD since the format arrived in 1997. VideoHound is, of course, the series that rates movies with bones (rather than the more conventional stars). The long series of VideoHound books have garnered appeal over the years, thanks to its supplemental elements more so than its opinions. VideoHound books such as the flagship VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever, along with VideoHound's Independent Film Guide, and many others, are distinguished by their indexes. There are the usual alphabetical listings of actors and directors, but the VH books also include lists for screenwriters, composers, and cinematographers, although these indices list only the titles found in the specific book itself. Most VH books also include website addresses and, most important of all, a lengthy Category Index section. This is probably the crown jewel of the VH supplements. If you want to find a bunch of movies about Yuppies, turn here. Lovers on the Lam, Dads, Blindness, Pill Popping, and Pure Ego Vehicles are also among the approximately 600 categories. The category your parents will want to turn to is probably the Four Bone Movies list, the book's highest rating. This is a list of all the four-star movies found in a VH book.

DVD Guide has all these usual supplements, plus a list of nearly all the current DVD websites as of publication date. But there are two big things wrong with this book. The first problem is the organization of the material — the second is what the book leaves out.

A typical entry begins with a plot summary, often referring to a cast member by his last name. This is abrupt and sometimes confusing, because unlike Maltin's famous annual paperback, the VH manner is to put the credits at the end of the listing. For example the Weird Science listing hits the ground running with a sentence that begins, "Hall is appealing, and Hughes ..." and so on. Who the heck are these people (the perpetually moist Anthony Michael Hall is one, in case you don't know). This isn't a very reader-friendly method for beginning a review, and while the en media res approach probably doesn't bother seasoned pros and informed film buffs who know something about the movie before they start reading the listing, I can imagine neophytes — who presumably are the target audience for this book — being put off by this approach. The review is followed by the bone rating, the DVD info, and then the credits and awards. This system of info organization is counter-intuitive. But then I don't expect Visible Ink to overhaul their series based on the complaints of a few grumpy readers.

But these lapses one can "read around," so to speak. It's what's missing that annoys. For one thing, it would be great to have the release date of the DVD under review. Given that so many DVDs are re-released, usually with additional supplements, the release date would help the reader wend his way through the thicket of competing discs — especially helpful if the reader is trying to pick up budget discs at second-hand stores. Also, the book is movie-centric, whereas concerts, documentaries, kids collections, adult movies, and TV shows comprise about one fourth of the DVDs released. At the risk of blithely suggesting that the book should add 200 pages to its avoirdupois, I do wish to advocate that these kinds of DVDs receive equal treatment in some future DVD guide from somebody. And in this litany of abuses let me add one more: Guides such as this are much better when written by one person, as with Doug Pratt's DVD guide, or David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film. A consistent writer presents a consistent aesthetic, and allows readers to better measure their tastes to his own.

It's at this point in the review when I'm suppose to veer toward what's good versus what's bad. And the DVD Guide does have some good points. The reviewers consistently and helpfully compare the DVD to its VHS predecessor (but not so often to the Laserdisc). Within the individual listings, there is a fine balance between movie review and technical review. Starship Troopers and The Long Kiss Goodnight provide good examples of what the book does best, as well as the kinds of movies it excels at — thorough and detailed in the small space available. And space is always going to be a problem with guides such as this. The listing for M would have been more helpful if the writer had been certain as to which version he was writing about, providing a summary of those other versions, some of which have different endings. On the other hand, the book is good at balanced accounts of more or less contemporary movies, such as Chinatown, where movie and extras are carefully praised. And several days and nights worth of browsing have not revealed any embarrassing gaffs, such as Maltin's famous dismissal of Taxi Driver, one among many films the popular editor has trashed. At the same time, many of the staff of 10 writers are delightfully unbeguiled by overrated European and Asian directors (note the fine, succinct lambasting of Kika). If taken assiduously, VideoHound's DVD Guide also can provide an education in DVD terminology — as one of many examples, Caress of the Vampire: CE "demonstrates just about every visual flaw that plagues the medium." The DVD might be worth owning for that reason alone, if it helps one nail down the meaning of various visual terms. And in his preface, Paul Culberg, president of the DVD Entertainment Group, notes an important aspect of the DVD revolution that receives little comment, namely that "sound [is] the most under-appreciated feature of this format, [and] is a very powerful part of the experience, and anyone who neglects maximizing their entertainment space with the use of sound is missing out."

But is the DVD Guide going to tell the sophisticated reader something he doesn't know? Probably not. The defining characteristic of a great movie-guide book is that it makes discoveries for you. This book is a field guide, not a pulpit-pounding screed intending to get you to change your belief system concerning movies, nor convert you to Iranian cinema. Taken on its own terms then, it is a success, even if it could be much more than it is. But that too would require more pages.

Nevertheless, VideoHound's DVD Guide is a good start. All the tough work is done now — the compiling, the sifting, the measuring; future updates can build off this database. And for those without an ISP, it provides a good resource for good solid assessments of both films on discs and their supplements.

— D. K. Holm
December 2000

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© The DVD Journal, 2000.