Recently, needing some physical respite from the act of writing, I decided to reorganize a couple of shelves in my living room that hold CD box sets and laserdiscs. The object was to go through my laserdiscs and weed out the non-essentials, at least enough of them to make some room for future CD sets I may wish to acquire. A pretty mundane procedure, but it became surprisingly engrossing as I began to slide these laserdiscs off the shelf for the first time in years, and remember what they were all about.
I know that a large percentage of what I own on laserdisc has since been reissued on DVD. I should not need the larger, bulkier, less perfect-looking, older cousin, correct? That's all well and good in theory. But beyond what laserdiscs were and are in terms of pictorial quality, the laserdisc collector must acknowledge what they were and are in terms of packaging. Laserdiscs were the movie version of album covers -- something you could hold in your lap and admire, something that could psych you up for the experience of watching a movie. When was the last time you spent any quality time with a DVD keepcase, other than to curse it for being genetically unable to anchor its disc in place? I know a few people who don't even keep their keepcases; they pop the discs out, slip them into an envelope and keep them in shoeboxes. Why not?
I found that I had not one, but two different deluxe editions of TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. One was in a nice, thick, multi-platter silver box emblazoned "T2" and the other was in a luxurious, cushiony black vinyl box with a silvery emblem on the front, also emblazoned "T2." I decided to look into the dark one and slipped out a gorgeous inner drawer that pictured Arnold Schwarzenegger on one side and his skinless Stan Winston form on the other, housing three discs and two mini laserdiscs of trailers. A stunning, stunning package. So why did I keep the other version? To find out, I slipped the box set out of its plastic sleeve and took the lid off. Inside the box, atop four platters and a menu brochure, was a letter from James Cameron on Lightstorm Entertainment stationery -- facsimile signed (of course) in blue ink -- that explained in charming detail why this laserdisc was letterboxed, why it was in CAV, and why these factors added up to the ultimate home experience of the movie.
That's why I kept the set. I'll probably never actually load it up and watch it again, but owning it is like owning a piece of history. A piece of history that, once upon a time, posited me in a private club with James Cameron, fellow laserdisc connoisseur. (Incidentally, the silver box houses the theatrical edtition and the darker box houses the "special edition" -- its world premiere, in fact. Cool. Still cool.)
Some laserdiscs need to be kept, or at least burned to DVD-R, because they have audio commentaries you can't find anywhere else. Some have wonderful liner notes and pictures -- Tom Weaver wrote most of the fabulous unsigned notes you find in old MCA Universal laserdiscs, and they compile a fair number of quotes and whatnot that probably don't figure in any other commentary he's done or book he's written. Another interesting case I found was the first letterboxed issue of TOMB OF LIGEIA, whose handsome gatefold offers an article by my friend David Del Valle, copiously illustrated with stills from his archive -- including a shot of Roger Corman directing that is inscribed, strangely, "Better to be on the set than in the office." I guess he'd been having a bad day when he signed that. I've written some liner notes for laserdiscs myself, and I can remember the unique sense of pride I felt in seeing my words printed on the equivalent of an album cover. I like seeing the words of my friends printed on them, too. With that in mind, I couldn't help holding back some titles because I felt that, if I didn't preserve these things, perhaps they wouldn't be preserved. True, I can't hang onto them forever... I may live in a big house, but I'm still running out of room... but perhaps I can hang onto these things until other collectors experience a renewal of interest in them.
Everything from Criterion is numbered; allow a single disc to go and you've broken up a set. The BEATLES ANTHOLOGY laserdisc set (a mere $100 when brand new) is a beautiful thing -- it's like the Beatles album that never existed, and the individual album covers inside the box can be assembled to recreate the Klaus Voormann collage on the cover... almost as much fun as trying to guess the names of all the people in the collage of famous faces on the SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND album cover.
I find it difficult to part with any musical laserdisc because, as I remember discovering while comparing the LD and DVD versions of WOODSTOCK, the audio on a DVD is compressed. Having decompressed audio, my WOODSTOCK laserdisc set roars during The Who's set the way it did in the theater where I first saw it. Townshend's guitar sounds dirty and Entwistle's bass sounds dirtier, growling and crackling. The same performance on the DVD, on the other hand, roars... clinically. I never did get around to playing my laserdisc of YELLOW SUBMARINE -- it's still shrinkwrapped, I see -- but I imagine it's the best option I have of hearing the movie, the next time I feel like seeing it.
When all was said and done, I did clear some space -- enough to make room for the CD box sets I have, with a little room left over for inevitable expansion -- but not as much as I'd hoped to clear. Laserdiscs may be passé as tools for home viewing, but as artifacts, they remain just too damned intoxicating. To handle a laserdisc, especially a deluxe laserdisc box set, is like being reminded of a time when the home video phenomenon was more civilized, more aesthetic, and geared more to the specific concerns of the hardcore cinema enthusiast.
Nowadays, the picture quality is better, the discs themselves are more compact, and everybody's into DVD. But what is everybody buying and watching? That's right: TV shows. TV shows and CGI movies.
I still have another entire upstairs closet full of laserdiscs to process, which represents a few hundred decisions I'll have to make someday. I don't even like deciding what I'm going to have for breakfast, so I think that particular pleasure is one I'll be postponing for as long as time and space will bear.