A Cautionary Tale of A/V Obsolescence

Every hear of The Criterion Collection? No? Well, it’s the company I hold responsible for my crack-like addiction to the latest and greatest home video formats of the last 20 years.

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Founded back in 1984, The Criterion Collection entered the home video marketplace with a lofty but admirable goal, conveniently printed on each of its releases: “…to gather the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions of the highest quality.”

To achieve this, Criterion ignored the wildly popular video standard of the day, VHS, instead embracing the very niche LaserDisc format. Remember those? Probably not. They were big–12″ diameter–and consequently looked like the kind of thing Tron would plop onto his turntable when entertaining the ladies in his space-aged bachelor pad.

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So why, you ask, would Criterion go with a format popular with so few? Well, first off, the format du jour, VHS, sucked in terms of video quality, maxing out at 240 lines of horizontal resolution, which meant that it utilized but half the available resolution (480 lines, itself laughable when compared to today’s high-definition) offered by that 32″ cathode ray tube (CRT) TV you so chestily featured in your “home entertainment armoire” back in the day (“Yeah, at first I considered the 27″-er, but this 32″ monster had picture-in-picture so, like, in the end, it was sort of a no-brainer to drop the extra five bills.”) only to throw your back out years later swapping for a flat-screen.

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LaserDisc, on the other hand, delivered 425 lines of horizontal resolution, resulting in a much sharper presentation, better color accuracy, etc. So naturally a company dedicated to “gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions of the highest quality” chose the superior format, market penetration be damned. Because why expend the kind of time, effort and money that Criterion does in tracking down the absolute best source in which to use for its video transfers if they’re only going to look like crap?

Another critical reason for Criterion siding with LaserDisc had to do with sound. Unlike VHS, which could only accommodate a single analog soundtrack, LaserDiscs supported multiple digital and analog audio tracks, which not only allowed movies to be played back in high-resolution surround formats (DTS and Dolby Digital), but also allowed Criterion to offer something completely unique: audio commentary by the filmmakers (or historians, critics, etc.) that one could listen to instead of the movie soundtrack, even while the movie played on-screen.

Combine all the picture and audio improvements with the supplemental material Criterion often included (making-of documentaries, critical essays, production photos, etc.) and suddenly watching a movie on the couch with a bong pinched between your sweatpants-clad thighs was tantamount to attending a master class on the art and technique of filmmaking.

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Needless to say, as a fledgling Film Snob back in the mid-90s, I had to have LaserDiscs–Criterion especially, but others would do, too–cost be damned. After all, how can one put a price on the experience of watching the Robert Harris-supervised restoration of Lawrence of Arabia in its proper 2.20:1 Super Panavision aspect ratio. And so I took the plunge, spending a bunch of money I didn’t have (courtesy the first of many United Audio Center’s 12-month, interest-free loans) on a Pioneer Elite LaserDisc player and my first two LaserDiscs (Amadeus and a documentary on cinematographers called Visions on Light).

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Yes, I am a dork.

Two quickly became five. Five quickly became nine. Nine quickly became 16. And so on. It was like I’d become Australia and LaserDiscs were my feral rabbit pestilence. The format had its hooks in deep. And, like all the best addictions, it was expensive: $39.99 for a bare-bones release, anywhere from $59.99-$89.99 for a special edition and up to $129.99 for a blinged-out Criterion definitive release like these:

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It soon got so bad that, whenever I jogged past the Tower Records on Clark and Belden in Chicago, my legs got rubbery and my clammy palms would start patting down my pocket-less running shorts for my wallet. I was in constant need of a fix. Or should I say fixes?

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Because why buy just one LaserDisc, say the $59.99 remastered anniversary edition of The Godfather, when I could spend twice as much by adding the $59.99 remastered anniversary edition of The Godfather, Part 2 to the mix? Restraint was for wimps. What’s a $120 to a guy making $22K/year. Damn you, Criterion!

And then my painful first lesson in A/V obsolescence.

Not four years into dropping loads of non-disposable income on my LaserDisc hobby dependency, the format died an ignominious death, victim to the rise of more versatile (and much smaller) DVD. 

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Which is why, if you come over to my house (not that you’re invited) and descended into the creepy portion of our basement, something we like to call the “basement-basement,” a room in which the furnace creaks and gurgles; photos and various and sundry irrelevant junk is stored in plastic boxes; and all the bodies are buried–“It rubs the lotion on its skin. It does this whenever it is told. It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again. Now it places the lotion in the basket. It places the lotion in the basket. Put the fucking lotion in the basket!”–you would stumble upon this pathetic sight:

The Conflicted Film Snob’s LaserDisc collection (and player) is ALWAYS for sale. No reasonable offer will be ignored!

LaserDiscs were but a gateway drug; a much more intense buyer’s high was achieved via the purchase of DVDs, a format that, despite some initial disagreement from the hardcore (and overly invested) LaserDisc contingent, had a markedly better picture than anything yet devised to play back movies on television. Also, unlike LaserDisc, which could only support an hour of video per side (thus forcing the poor slob viewer to schlep up off the couch midway through a film to flip the disk like a record album), the DVD format, because of digital compression and dual-layering, had more than enough storage capacity to fit even an epically long movie on a single side. Oh, and DVDs were way cheaper than LaserDiscs. (Except the Criterion DVDs, which, like their LaserDisc brethren, carried a premium price; not that that stopped me.) Which meant I could feed my addiction for less. (Or just spend the same and have more to show for it.). And so, scraping together loose change found under the couch cushions, I starting buying the latest and greatest releases. And then I bought more. And then, despite that little voice inside my head telling me how irresponsible and unnecessary it was, I replaced pretty much my entire LaserDisc collection with their DVD equivalent. By the late aughts I had amassed a collection numbering close to 200. 

And then my painful second lesson in A/V obsolescence.

Not eight years into dropping the aforementioned non-disposable income on my DVD hobby dependency, the format was superseded by the much superior Blu-ray.

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Wait, don’t tell me you’re one of those losers still watching DVDs? You’ve got to be kidding me! DVDs suck. Compared to Blu-ray, which produces a true high-definition picture, watching a DVD is like squinting at the world through the windshield of a car just returned from a cross-country road trip taken at the height of summer.

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Why bother, right?

Oh, and let’s not forget about the audio improvement. Blu-ray, with a simple A/V receiver upgrade (the possible subject of a future “danger of obsolescence” post), allows for playback of  lossless audio formats vastly superior in terms of dynamic range to lame old DVD soundtracks, formats including:

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Which is why, if you came over to my house and descended into the aforementioned “basement-basement,” you would stumble upon yet more pathetic sights:

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DVDs for sale…

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…anything not sold will be destroyed

Yes, it’s true. I’ve spent the last six years upgrading my DVD collection to Blu-ray. Pathetic, I know. But it’s a sickness, this quest for the perfect picture and sound, the best supplementary material.

One can only imagine how difficult it must be as a piece of software in my household. Basically, unless your clamshell is filed onto one of two coveted family-room shelves–

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–you’re nothing more to The Conflicted Film Snob than a prospective garage sale item or coaster. And to take this anthropomorphizing a bit further, I’d hazard a guess that those Blu-rays pictured above are quaking in their thin, blue cases as they chew over the specter of Ultra-HD (4K/HDR) Blu-ray, which looks to be less than a year away.

They shouldn’t worry, though. I’m done with all that. Between the 12-step program, some hot yoga, a major verbal beatdown from Ms. Conflicted Film Snob and the prospect of putting two boys through college, I’ve seen the proverbial error of my ways. So I’m cured. Seriously. Even if Criterion goes 4K, forget it, I’m done.

Anyway, there it is, your cautionary tale of the day, especially relevant to video nerds.

OK, gotta wrap–need to make an important phone call before 5p EST.

[“Hello? Yeah, uh, this Visa? Yeah, I’m wondering if I might up my credit line by a couple thousand?”]

3 Comments

  • Joel says:

    You just summarized my own video addiction. But, sad to say, I am older than you and therefore have had more time to collect discs of all kinds. My Laserdisc “collection” numbers about 600 discs and my DVD/Blu-Ray collection numbers about 2500 pristine small discs. I have six laserdisc players, most used as back-up machines, since ancient tech laserdisc machines are no longer made by anyone. One thing, your article doesn’t mention the latest tech for audio/video, probably because you don’t want to bum out your readers any further regarding the ultimate consequences of technological obsolescence.

    If you were really cruel, you could have pointed out that people are now just streaming whatever they want to watch from audio/video data stored in the Cloud. So there is now no longer any need to possess physical data media. You just select whatever movie or other digital media source that you want, whenever you want it, and let it stream to your high-def display. As this streaming technology matures, there should be no need to possess data storage discs or physical media of any kind. Ultimately, there may be no market for these media, as physical storage devices are just so 20th century and it is becoming embarrassing to admit that you actually have such media displayed on shelves for all to see.

    One faint ray of sunshine; for some odd reason people have recently embraced old discarded audio record technology and are buying large old-style audio discs and record players that use Thomas Edison’s quaint playback method of physically scratching the surface of a record to produce sounds, while simultaneously degrading the record medium. If this ancient technology can be embraced in the 21st Century, maybe we will someday see laserdiscs return to their former glory. I’m not holding my breath.

  • Jim says:

    Joel, hilarious. The DSM-5 should list the inability to refrain from buying the latest and greatest A/V as a serious medical condition. Since I wrote this post I’ve upgraded to OLED, UHD Bluray and Atmos. It never ends! Regarding physical media heading the way of the dodo, totally agree. However, still seems like we’re 3-5 years out before we get true 4K/HDR and lossless soundtracks through the pipe. Heck, cable TV still broadcasts as either 1080i or 720p. They’re two generations off. I know Netflix and Amazon can do 4K/HDR but it’s not the same as what you get from an uncompressed disk. I liken the Netflix/Amazon quality to bluray. And no lossless soundtracks. Of course, 99% of the population couldn’t care less—they’re happy watching on their phones. There may be hope for your laserdiscs, though—I’ve heard the Japanese are big into collecting them. Which remains me of the line from “This is Spinal Tap”: https://getyarn.io/yarn-clip/90497c48-b2db-4a96-a365-3bae3bbcf196. Regards.

  • Joel says:

    I agree with everything you say. You are truly a master of video technology. I too have embraced OLED displays and UHD Bluray, even though my old retinas are not sufficiently sensitive to pick up the brighter brights, blacker blacks and fully appreciate truly tiny pixels. It’s nice just knowing the image is perfect, even if it now exceeds my miserable human perception. I also have right, left, center, side and rear speakers with a truly massive sub-woofer to encase me in sound as I stare at my high def state-of-the-art image. My friends do not appreciate this incredible equipment and just shake their heads and say I really need to get out more. But who needs reality when the digital fantasy is so real.

    As for my laserdiscs, I’ve decided to keep them as they should last forever nestled in their 20lb paper and polyvinyl lined envelopes and displayed in alphabetical order within my fine huge wooden laser cabinet. All my discs, laser and otherwise, are stored in alphabetical order and catalogued with special software provided by a foreign company (Collectorz.com) that caters to collector fanatics. So the Japanese will not get my lasers until I decide it’s time to leave this planet.

    One thing, I’m a little worried that someone will come up with some other far superior storage medium, even better than bluray and more efficient than cloud storage. I’m thinking holography. If this happens, I don’t know what I will do. I mean, I have no more room to store additional improved media and I just can’t let go of what I have. I’m thinking now may be a good time to get some serious psychiatric help to release me from my video technology addiction. I’ve managed to ride the technology wave for a long time, but I think if things keep improving, at some point I will just have to say “enough is enough.”

    Regards,

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