Monday, January 26, 2009

The End of Laserdisc and the End of an Era

I will never hesitate to admit to anyone that I am a movie geek. I love motion pictures with a passion. Movies are not an "escape" for me. I truly believe the old statement that film is truth at 24 frames per second. I remember when I was about 12 I found out that the movies released on VHS tapes were panned and scanned. I saw Siskel & Ebert do a side-by-side comparison of the letterboxed and pan and scan versions of Star Wars. From that moment on I only wanted to see movies in their original aspect ratios. But how could I see them? A magical format known as Laserdisc.

As a kid, the one thing I wanted more than anything else was a Laserdisc Player. I guess most kids were already bugging their parents about cars. Not me. Whenever we were in a Circuit City, I would show my mom the LD players and would explain why they were better than video tapes. My life would just never be complete without one! When she finally bought me one, she got me the best there was. I got a Pioneer that didn't require you to get up and flip the disc. The laser would move in the machine when it was time to change sides. It was glorious.

So many of the things people now take for granted on DVD were born on Laserdisc. On LD you could get widescreen versions of films, audio commentaries from directors, trailers, interviews, and behind-the-scenes documentaries. Any old LD afficianado will remember the awesomeness that was the Criterion versions of Halloween, Taxi Driver, and Blade Runner. The only problem was, Criterion typically charged anywhere from $100 to $150 for their movies. Then there were the much coveted Japanese imports you could order from Ken Crane's. There was the original cut of Highlander and the four hour version of Dune. The pride of my collection was the Star Wars Trilogy: Definitive Collection. It cost a whopping $350, came with a hardback book, and all three films in CAV, the highest quality presentation available at the time.

I got my first job at Suncoast to support my Laserdisc habit. The old Columbia House Laserdisc Club was a lifesafer in getting bargains on this far too expensive format. My vivid memories of the cost of Laserdiscs are what always makes me scratch my head when people complain that Blu-Ray is too expensive. Fuck. Compared to $100 per title, a Blu-Ray for $30 is a steal! Considering I was a teenager of modest means I had a pretty decent LD movie collection.

Well, as you all know, DVD came along and ended the Laserdisc as a viable format. Hell, even I converted right away. I was about to buy the Criterion LD of Boogie Nights. But before I did, I compared the specs to that of the DVD. The LD was going to be $200 but the DVD was only $20. The only difference in the content was the LD had the original documentary about John Holmes called "Exhausted." I went ahead and bought the DVD and put the rest of the money towards a DVD player.

Here we are in 2009 and Pioneer announced that they will no longer produce Laserdisc players. That means one day in the near future it will become impossible to play your LD collection. It's a moment that makes me kind of sad. I hate to admit it, but it makes me sad because I enjoyed being an elitist prick. Owning a Laserdisc player said something about you. It said you were a serious film lover and a videophile. It was like being in an exclusive club of movie geeks. If you were at the store looking at Laserdiscs, you could easily strike up a conversation with the other guys perusing them and have a great conversation about film. Other LD owners knew who directed the films they owned, they knew what year they came out, they weren't just interested in the newest movies made, they loved film the same way you did. The same cannnot be said of DVD or even Blu-Ray. Just try going up to a random person in the DVD section of Best Buy and striking up a conversation about which is Scorsese's best film. Enjoy the blank stares.

Rest in Peace Laserdisc. You were too expensive, you were not the best in terms of video quality, and you didn't have a very long life. But damn it, you were first! You will always be special in the hearts of film geeks everywhere.


Jim Blanton said...

An elegant video player for a more civilized age : ) I still treasure my Criterion LD's, and my crown jewel - the Japanese import of the Mark Hamill film Slipstream (the only widescreen edition ever produced)!

And I do have that Criterion Boogie Nights which I snagged at Ken Krane's LD blowout for $40 (it was worth it)!

Anonymous said...

I was a fan of the laser disc and still have the player but not too many disc. I also had a phillips CDI interactive game player and encyclopedia which never caught on. In fact I may have the only one.