Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Laserdisc Love Affair

I really miss laserdiscs. Of course there really isn't any reason for this other than nostalgia but there was something really special about them. For a time they were the great near secret club that was out there for serious film fans. They were pricey so you had to be truly in love with cinema to be a part of the club. They were also the only way to see films in Widescreen for the most part and they introduced the concept of the audio commentary...and then of course they had those beautiful large lp like sleeves.
My love affair with laserdiscs began in the early nineties when I was in a video store and came across the Criterion Collection special edition of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1990). Even though it was priced at the seemingly impossible amount of $99.99, there was something really grand and weighty about that gatefolded beauty that made you know it was worth every penny. Glancing at the back I saw all kinds of things that you would never see on the back on a VHS copy. Words like deleted scenes, director approved, widescreen and finally the mysterious audio commentary captured my young mind and I began my near ten year love affair with laserdiscs.
Of course as pricey as the discs themselves were (typically $39.99 for standard versions but up to $119.00 for deluxe packages) the players were also a pretty penny. So as a struggling college student, it took me a while to save up the money for a player but the one I finally chose, a Pioneer CLD-S104 would be a mid-line beauty that has never to do this day given me any problems.
My early laserdisc shopping days were tricky as I hadn't yet learned all the little secrets of the trade so all the early discs I got were sporadic full priced purchases and included titles like KIeslowski's RED and the director's cut of LEAVING LAS VEGAS.
I soon discovered though that the market was so small and specialized that the things simply wouldn't sell in and around Louisville Kentucky. All it took was a little patience and perseverance, and soon I was discovering racks of beautiful discounted discs marked down usually to $24.99. Although sometimes a miracle would happen and I would come across a store attempting to really get rid of the big bulky discs and I scored items like PANIC AND NEEDLE PARK and NIGHT MOVES for just $9.99. It felt like Christmas had come early.
Speaking of Christmas, that holiday quickly became the day when I would score the big ones as I could have never had afforded the Criterion collections on my own. That first Christmas after I got my player brought me that beautiful SILENCE OF THE LAMBS set and later holiday seasons would bring things like the SCARFACE box and gatefold editions of THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and LAST TANGO IN PARIS.

Some of my most pleasant laser disc memories revolve around my real girlfriend at the time, Jennifer, who would help me shop for them. She was with me in Louisville when I came across used copies of both Michael Mann's MANHUNTER (in widescreen!!!) and the Criterion set of THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. She was also with me on the numerous failed missions of coming across discs I couldn't afford like Criterion's REPULSION.
Outside of those very personal moments with Jennifer, my most exciting laserdisc moment came when I purchased an original Japanese gatefold edition of Zulawski's POSSESSION at a Chiller Convention in New Jersey. That day was particularly memorable as I not only managed to purchase the Zulawski flick but got to hold such prized uncut widescreen items like Fulci's THE NEW YORK RIPPER and Argento's PHENOMENA (with that beautiful painting of Jennifer Connelly on the front).
The arrival of the DVD just over ten years ago quickly buried the already struggling laserdisc market. Briefly it looked like their might be a fight, with laserdisc exclusives like Jean Rollins LIVING DEAD GIRL and the special edition of BOOGIE NIGHTS but once everyone, including myself, bought a dvd player it was over.
For a while it didn't mean much to me and I sold off most of my discs as I replaced them with the more portable and, lets face it, better quality DVD. I must say now though looking back, I really miss the laserdisc market. There was something special and unique about it. I miss being the only person in that section of the store and that excitement of finding a great deal or a rare disc. It was a special time.
My trusty Pioneer is under my bed now. It still works after almost fifteen years and to this day has never skipped or frozen up. On the other hand, I am lucky to get a year out of a dvd player and have went through at least eight in just the past decade. I still have my POSSESSION set for sentimental value and occasionally I will still buy a used laserdisc off Ebay or in a local record store. They usually go for around a dollar and I typically just burn them onto a blank DVD. Not a very honorable end for what were once prized collectibles but what can you do?
I still don't have that Criterion set of REPULSION and occasionally I like to look it up on Ebay and I am always glad to see it still fetching high prices. I have a lot of special memories of this market that never really took off. Laserdiscs changed the way a lot of film lovers watched and felt about movies and they quietly paved the way for today's home video market. There was something about them...


Rogue Spy 007 said...

I never had a laserdisc player. I only knew one person who had one. I know he loved it very much. It was a big deal for him. It was cool reading your story about your introduction to laserdisc and your love of it.

cinebeats said...

I wrote about my LD experiences for one of The Horror Blog Roundtables awhile ago.

I really regret paying ridiculous amounts of money for uncut Laser Disc versions of many horror films (often Japanese imports of Argento & Bava flicks) before LDs become extinct and the movies became easily available in the US on DVD. At the time it was an exciting new medium and I did make some money back on ebay but not as much as I spent. I had more money to burn at the time though.

I still have my laser discs for a few favorite films such as the Val Lewton/Mark Robson horror classic The Seventh Victim and Philip Ridley's The Reflecting Skin which has never gotten a DVD release. I also still have my Criterion Purple Noon DVD and the print is so amazing compared to the lackluster DVD that was released.

Joe Valdez said...

I have about 100 laserdiscs in my collection and will freely admit to having a fetish for them since the early '90s. I ended up buying a Pioneer CLD-S201 player on ebay pretty cheap when the DVD craze was emerging.

I say that laserdiscs are still way better. The sleeves are the main reason. Poster art is much more vivid on an square paper cover than on a small plastic box.

It was also more fun flipping through a rack of laserdiscs, then turning them over to read more about the aspect ratio and bonus features and so on.

There's the coolness factor as well. Laserdiscs are impressive to women. At least the intelligent, eclectic ones I'm interested in dating. On first sight, they usually assume I have records, but flipping through my collection, they become equally impressed with my taste.

I didn't mention that getting up four times to flip over the CAV formatted version of Alien is good cardiovascular exercise. With DVDs, I can sit on the couch for hours and never have to get up. That might lead to heart disease.

Yes, the laserdiscs cost twice as much, but laserdisc collectors were dedicated. The term "impulse buy" did not apply to us. I can never remember seeing a copy of Boogie Nights for sale in the checkout line at Ralphs. You really had to love movies to buy them.

Thanks for the post, Jeremy. I'm going to put my laserdisc copy of The Outlaw Josey Wales and reminisce of simpler times.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Keith,
I appreciate the kind words...

Hey Kimberly,
It is crazy how expensve they were isn't it? I totally agree on that Purple Noon dvd. I am still awaiting Criterion to put it back out...bloody Miramax!!!

Thanks Joe,
These comments were awesome my friend. Very funny, moving and I hope to God that some of the girls I have had over feel the way you mention!!!
I will say if I ever do find a store that has "Boogie Nights" in the checkout line then I will immediately become a regular at their fine establishment...
Hope you enjoyed Josey Wales and the side break came in a good spot!!
All the best....and thanks to all three of you for the comments to a different kind of post...

Inigo Jones said...

I still have my laserdisc player, and about 50 discs.

Two discs I own that make having an LD player worthwhile are the Complete Cartoons of TEX AVERY box set (not available on DVD) and the special edition of SEVEN, which contains a contribution from SFX artist Rob Bottin (mysteriously absent from the DVD releases).

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Inigo for the comments...I really admire Seven and had no idea the New Line DVD set was missing something...thanks for the tip