Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Regional conflict

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

The prime minister of Great Britain goes to visit the president of the United States in Washington D.C. As dictated by protocol, they exchange gifts. The prime minister’s gift to the president is thoughtful, has multiple levels of historical and personal meaning and is truly one of a kind. It is an ornamental desk pen holder made from the oak timbers of the anti-slavery ship HMS Gannet, a vessel that had previously sailed under the name HMS President. The prime minister also gives the president the framed commission of its sister ship, HMS Resolute, a ship that came to symbolize Anglo-American friendship when it was saved from ice packs by Americans and given to Queen Victoria. Timbers from the HMS Resolute were used to make a desk that sits in the Oval Office to this day. The prime minister also gives the president a first edition set of a classic Winston Churchill biography by Sir Martin Gilbert. The prime minister’s wife gives the president’s children outfits from Topshop, a UK retailer that had recently opened stores in the U.S., as well as six books, by British children’s authors, which are to be published soon in America.

After the receipt of these gifts three weeks ago, the White House promptly issued a briefing emphasizing how much these gifts were appreciated. No statement, however, came forth from 10 Downing Street to express thanks for the prime minister’s gifts from the U.S. president. Indeed, there was no official confirmation from the Brits of what those gifts were. But the information did come out from sources in the White House, and the British papers had a field day. The prime minister received a DVD gift set of 25 classic American movies, and the prime minister’s two sons each received a model of Marine One, the presidential helicopter.

Yes, I know exactly what you are thinking. Poor Obama. He got stuck with junk made from wood from some old boat. And that lucky devil Gordon Brown got a bunch of cool movies to watch. It hardly seems fair. Strangely, this is not how the British press played it. Somehow, they reckoned, Obama had got the better of the gift exchange. Go figure. Some went so far as to point out that the gifts from the Obamas to the Browns are exactly the same items that are for sale in the White House gift shop and that they had the feel of presents that were picked up at the very last minute, perhaps by a hapless staffer. I find this hard to believe. I mean, that sounds like something that I would do.

But further reading makes it clear why Brown may not have been happy. A few papers reported that, when Brown got home from Washington, he opened up the DVD pack and put one of the discs in his DVD player. According to at least a couple of reports, it was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. We can just imagine the prime minister alone in a darkened living room late at night, with everyone else in bed asleep. He is all set for a few chills and thrills from a British-born cinematic master. And then something scary happens. A strange message comes up on his screen, saying that the DVD cannot be played because it has an incompatible region number. Argh!

All of us who have moved ourselves from one continent to another understand this frustration.

When electronics companies came out with the Digital Versatile Disc, I am sure that I was not alone in feeling anticipation and relief. Since the beginning of home video, travelers have been bedeviled by the fact that different countries have adopted different standards for television broadcasts which, when videotape became popular for home use, resulted in different standards for videos. The Americas and parts of Asia adopted the system named after the National Television System Committee (NTSC). This splintered into variants with names like NTSC-M and NTSC-J. NTSC basically defines things like frames, refresh rates, scan lines and how colors are rendered. Other parts of the world adopted different systems: PAL (Phase Alternating Line) and SECAM (Séquentiel couleur à mémoire which, as you might suspect, originated in France). For years, when Americans came home from holidays abroad with souvenir videotapes picked up in various foreign gift shops, they found that PAL and SECAM tapes did not play too well in their VCRs at home. In Europe, multi-format VCRs became common as well as television that could automatically render both PAL and NTSC. But with the advent of a new digital format, these incompatibilities looked like they could become a thing of the past. Not only did digital discs offer impeccable quality compared to tape, but there was no reason that the same disc could not work in new DVD players worldwide. The promise was there for a true universal video format.

But the electronics companies, who tend to be part of conglomerates that also own movie studios, saw an interest maintaining walls between different regions of the world, video-wise. The companies did not particularly want, for example, American DVDs of movies that had not yet had a theatrical release in Asia making their way east and sabotaging the box office receipts. So they deliberately programmed incompatibility into the players and the discs. Both were assigned region numbers (1 for U.S. and Canada, 2 for Europe, 3 for much of Asia, 4 for Latin America, 5 for Russia and other parts of Asia, 6 for China). Frustratingly, many, if not most, players are actually capable of playing discs coded for any region but are preset to refuse to play discs with all but one region code. For those of us who move back and forth between continents and maintain personal movie collections, this can be very annoying. The solution is to buy a multi-region DVD player, an item that seems to be becoming more and more common, despite the best efforts of the conglomerates. I can only assume that President Obama is as ticked off by this situation as I am and deliberately gave Brown those DVDs to make his point. Now it is up to the British prime minister to do something about it.

Anyway, this region compatibility thing is only a problem until all movies are routinely downloaded from the internet. Unless the required download software checks your computer’s IP address and… (cue Bernard Hermann’s shower music from Psycho) NO!!!!!!

Wags on both sides of the Atlantic have had a good time imagining what movies (besides Psycho) would have been included in the gift pack. Andrew Leigh, writing on Andrew Breitbart’s frequently amusing and thought-provoking Big Hollywood blog, imagined that the catalog included Iraq war movies (Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, Redacted) as well as certain classics by Oliver Stone and Michael Moore and, of course, the inevitable Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. Leigh’s list also included a true classic that, interestingly, keeps showing up on lots of humorists’ suggested lists for the gift pack: Hal Ashby’s Being There, featuring Peter Sellers’s masterful penultimate movie performance as a simple gardener who rises to the heights of power because of the willingness of seemingly intelligent people to perceive wisdom and profundity in his every enigmatic but utterly meaningless utterance. Hmmm. I wonder what their point is. Personally, I think this DVD would be a much more appropriate gift for former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan.

Anyway, the press has been way too hard on President Obama for the incompatible DVD region flap. If they dug a little deeper, they would realize that, as with most things, this is a mess that was inherited from the Bush administration. You see, eight years ago, when Prime Minister Tony Blair paid his first official visit to Washington, President Bush gave him a top-of-the-line, proudly-purchased-in-America Samsung DVD player. President Obama simply assumed that this was still being used at 10 Downing Street. What he didn’t know was that, once Blair got home and forced the two-pronged plug of the 110-volt player into a three-holed 220-volt socket, the thing exploded in his face. It was quietly put away in the back of a closet and was never mentioned again.

-S.L., 26 March 2009

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