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page created: 6/10/08
updated: 6/16/08

Guest Column:

Friggin' Lasers:
Paying tribute to the audio-visual Edsel of its time

by Mark A. Altman

[Editor's Note: YES, we know that Mark made a slight mistake in the text below. As HUNDREDS of you have pointed out, laserdisc's early competitor wasn't Discovision but rather RCA SelectaVision CED (which used a physical stylus to read discs encased in plastic sleeves or cartridges). Discovision itself was an early trademark of laserdisc used by MCA. Nevertheless, a lot of people clearly enjoyed the piece, so thanks for all your responses on it.] 

Lasers are cool! Whether it's Auric Goldfinger trying to interrogate James Bond on a metallic slab in Switzerland or Dr. Evil trying to take over the world using a giant "l-a-s-e-r," these narrow and powerful beams of light have always been the stuff of sci-fi legend. So that's probably what made the seeming successor to the videotape so very cool when it first hit store shelves: it wasn't called a Movie Disc or Cinema Disc, it was called a LASER disc... and it used, what else, a laser (insert quotation mark fingers here) to read information off a shiny metal disc and present images of crystal clarity with superb surround sound and display movies in their original aspect ratio (this should not be confused with Magnavox's Discovision system of the late 70's which did not use a laser and was, all things considered, pretty lame).

Well, this year marks ten years since the unheralded demise of laserdisc, an anniversary you are unlikely to read about anywhere else. But I thought it might be worth the time to recite the final eulogy to this dearly departed format. You see, laserdiscs unlike today's DVDs were what retailers call a niche format. You couldn't find it in the corner supermarket or at Walgreen's. It required visiting speciality retailers and, often, roadtrips to visit stores hours from your home to procure the latest films on the big, shiny disc. But that's what made it cool.

Unlike my man Barack Obama, I am an elitist and proud of it. There was something special about being an owner of a rarefied format that only .001% of the United States population owned (and, by the way, I have no idea if that statistic is right and have absolutely no way of verifying the truth so we'll just go with it for now). But for those of us who did, laserdisc was something special.

Like records, they came in giant oversized packaging so the art was often stunning. In fact, some of the most prominent reminders of this antiquated format only exist in my house in framed laserdisc covers that are mounted on my living room wall alongside some of my favorite LP covers. Take that, 8 Track!). Laserdisc was really the first time you could actually play movies in their actual aspect ratio (only Woody Allen had previously mandated that Manhattan be released on videotape in its OAR of 2:35 with gray bars along the top and bottom of the screen).

It's easy now to forget the impact laserdisc had on the miniscule amount of us who owned them with DVD's being so ubiquitous. Now you can pretty much get any movie you want on disc for less than a sandwich at Quizno's. But back then, the best of the best, could cost you well over $100 (which probably helps explain why I don't own a house today). These were the Rolls-Royce of laserdisc: the Criterion box sets. Starting with the unparalleled Close Encounters and continuing with such superb releases as Seven and Brazil, Criterion was the benchmark for the format.

One of their first discs, King Kong, introduced audio commentaries to the world and later discs featured hours of bonus material including storyboards, which could be analyzed frame by frame (It's also worth noting that audio commentaries were also a lot more fun. Since the market was so small, studio lawyers rarely censored what filmmakers said, unlike today where legal departments pour over every minute of content and often take a scissor to filmmaker commentary that doesn't get the legal stamp of approval).

One of laserdiscs biggest drawbacks was they could only hold an hour of information on each side so longer movies often spanned several discs and some sets even more when they were recorded in the CAV format which allowed you to still pause and speed search. Laserdiscs felt important because of their girth, they didn't feel disposable, but rather archival. Like members of a really geeky secret society, laserdisc owners would converge at annual sales and spend thousands of dollars enlarging their collection.

I have fond memories of the annual Evolution Laserdisc sale in Woodland Hills and the insanity of Pioneer's Warehouse Sales in Long Beach which always felt like retail stores on the day after Thanksgiving. Everyone would rifle through the racks realizing they were part of a small coterie of obsessives who shared a similar passion. It was all very civilized, albeit absurd, as you would hear friends yell to each over the din, "Hey, I got myself a copy of Looker, you need one?" "No, but if you can find a copy of Sorcerer, let me know." Laserdisc fans were cinephiles who took their filmgoing very seriously.

The inane titles that would top the VHS lists rarely, if ever, were bestsellers on laserdisc and could often be found dramatically discounted on sales racks. In the age of DVD and E-bays, this kind of thing sounds positively antediluvian, but the reality is it was quite special as you spent hours on line waiting for the doors to open, swapping stories, and talking film with other connoisseurs (a/k/a geeks) in the hopes of filling in the gaps in your collection, knowing that this might be the only time during the year to procure the most eclectic and rare of the tiles you sought.

It all changed with the arrival of DVD. Some of us attempted to fight the inevitable death of laserdisc by decrying DVD as an inferior format, but it was a silly argument. DVD was clearly better with a far more reasonable retail price, storage space and instant mainstream appeal. When Robert Burnett and I were making Free Enterprise we refused to even acknowledge the existence of DVD, instead extolling laserdiscs incessantly throughout the film which was already in its death throes, a decision which dates the movie worse than any other decision we made on that film.

The death of laserdisc came quickly with the releases slowly dwindling to a trickle and then ceasing altogether as DVD replaced them. No longer a niche product, DVDs could be found virtually anywhere and with the growth of the internet, any title can be acquired at anytime of day almost instantly from anywhere in the world. I still own a few laserdiscs which haven't made their way to DVD, but I rarely play them, but I can't quite part with them either... they remain an elegant reminder of a more civilized age. And as a friend once said in explaining why so many laserdiscs in his collection remained unwatched and in their original shrink-wrapping, "Sometimes it's just enough to know they're there." Amen, brother.

Mark A. Altman is writer/producer of Free Enterprise, one of the last films ever released on laserdisc - as well as numerous other film and television productions and is founder of Geek Monthly.

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