The Editor's Spin: A Farewell to Arms
Posted Aug 8, 2003

In his 1949 film noir, The Third Man, Orson Welles plays an expatriate American named Harry Lime who gets into some nasty business in Vienna and mucks out of it by faking his own death. When discovered alive by his American friend, a fifth-rate pulp novelist hot on the trail of Lime's supposed killer, Lime waxes sardonic and cynical. "In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, da Vinci, and the Renaissance," he muses. "In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace. What did they produce? The cuckoo clock."

Italy also produced Dante Alighieri, who put pen to paper more powerfully, arguably, than anyone who ever took up the task. But even as he endeavored to make something ethereal and everlasting of unrequited love by stalking his dream girl to heaven, Dante got incessantly bogged down in the petty Florentine politics of his day. Remember when your hometown's board of aldermen voted down the stoplight at Broad and Main because the acting vice chair's mistress hated to wait in traffic? Imagine squeezing them into Canto XLV of your "unfathomable heart-song," right between the falconer simile and the treatise on Free Will.

As much as it evokes things beyond flesh, Dante's Divine Comedy is the political work of an angry man, and the lovelorn plea of a lustful man. Dante's foremost imitator, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, succumbed in different ways to the temporality of politics in his epic Station Island. Heaney's penitent art sprang from another source: amidst the violent Troubles of his native Northern Ireland, Heaney amassed prizes for "turning fact into art" while his friends got shot full of holes. Those same friends (or what's left of them) confront him on Station Island as Dante's old political foes meet him in Hell. Even as he accedes to Heaven, leaving his mentor Vergil behind, Dante gives you the impression he's happiest when he's sticking it to his old adversaries in Hell. Heaney, on the other hand, would gladly trade Station Island, the Nobel Prize, and his view of Harvard Yard for something as silly and easily derided as the cuckoo clock—if he could also erase Bloody Sunday, Ian Paisley, the Provisional IRA, and just about everything else that's made his war-torn province famous.

So was Welles right? Do we need wars, floods, and famines to make art that lasts? Edward Bellamy depicts a wonderful world in Looking Backward, his 1886 vision of a 21st Century devoid of war, class conflict, and strife or personal animosity of any kind. (Boy, did he get that wrong.) But reading his book today you find yourself wondering if things might get a little boring in the society he imagined and, what's more, if such a society could yield a work as fascinating as Looking Backward—as the mounting class war that was 1886 America did.

Would Welles cynically contend that DVD has come along at the right time—born into a world on the brink of self-annihilation or further balkanization, depending on who you ask—to become the medium of choice for the next heartbreaking work of staggering genius that drags us through heaven and hell and lives to tell?

As a monthly magazine—the anachronistic permanence of print aside—we're not overtly concerned with art that lasts. But we are about identifying trends that might lend permanence to the best-suited conduits for digital information, which aim to transcend time not so much metaphysically as physically.

Based on what I saw and heard at DVD 2002 in Gaithersburg, Maryland in June, some folks in government agencies are thinking the same thing. They're talking about big-time grants for DVD-based archiving projects via NIST and its Advanced Technology Program, about building DVD into the national digital security infrastructure, and about lots and lots of long-term high-capacity storage.

The recent pairing of SIGCAT and DVDA struck me as an odd one at first; my good friends at TPS Video notwithstanding, the DVDA never seemed a particularly inside-the-beltway crew. But SIGCAT was great for CD-R, which in turn was great for CD-ROM (and vice versa), and Jerry McFaul could always throw a great party. And somebody has got to get DVD-ROM off the ground.

I guess it was just the language thrown around in the first few sessions in Gaithersburg that rubbed me the wrong way. All this talk about using DVD to fortify the "thin blue line" ‘tween us and them, making DVD a cornerstone of the post-9/11 digital security infrastructure, and the U.S. showing the world this and that with its electronic fortress—well, first of all, it came across as loaded with more than a little hubris. If the existing DVD content protection structure (read: CSS) has proven one thing, it's that it keeps a secret about as well as a giggling gaggle of seventh-grade girls.

What's more, all this electronic homeland security talk has an eerie space-race ring to it. Just ask Neil Armstrong if he'd like to take back his "giant leap for mankind" these days to get a reasonable person's idea of what that jingoistic jaunt accomplished. Do you think old Neil would object to the between-songs patter on that 1965 Tom Lehrer record where Lehrer sneers at the U.S. spending "billions of dollars of your tax money to put some clown on the moon?" Think again. He'd gladly show you his big floppy shoes.

It seems to me that our thinking these days shouldn't be any more "America First" than it should be "DVD First." I'd stop short of saying that that's the kind of thinking that's got us into the mess we find ourselves in today, although I've been known to keep the company of people who would. But I'd be first to say it's not the kind of thinking that's likely to get us out of it.

And the day some clown makes DVD a weapon of war? Look for me on the masthead of a cuckoo clock magazine.