Right now there’s a raging Laserdisc blowout occurring on the mezzanine here at Amoeba Hollywood. The big, shiny discs with the high mass are blowing out at low, low prices.
Most kids today, when they see a laserdisc, assume that they’re silver vinyl soundtracks but some of us remember the extinct format, especially if we’re Japanese.
Laserdisc technology was developed in the late 1950s and demonstrated for the public in 1978. Laserdiscs were first sold in Atlanta, possibly because of its reputation as “The City Too Busy To Hate.” The first title available was, ironically, Jaws, a low budget monster film about a shark with nothing to do but hate.
Over the next 12 years, dozens of titles were released on the format. Common complaints against Laserdiscs were the limited catalog and high prices ($89.99 for Honey I Blew Up the Kid). Also, you couldn’t tape your stories on ’em and you had to flip them over just when the kid is growing into a giant! The most common rejoinder I’ve heard for the latter gripe is, “That’s when I get up and get a beer!” There’s a lot of “You too, I thought I was the only one” moments in the laserdisc section, which is one of the great things about the medium. Also, you can freeze frame and get a clear picture, maybe glimpsing some naughty bits on a cartoon character snuck in by a frustrated Disney animator.
Then there were games made for LaserDisc like the evil Don Bluth‘s quarter-devouring, impossible-to-play Dragon’s Lair.
Other cons of the format:
Of course, there’s also LaserRot, a disease brought on by poor choice in adhesives on some LaserDiscs. The most common title to succumb to LaserRot is Eraser, which could arguably be a case of planned obsolescence.
Other pros of the format:
Criterion stuff still not on DVD.
Some Lasers still have exclusive commentaries and features.
Sure they were expensive back in the day, but now most are 1.99 or 1.00.
Unlike DVDs, LDs are immune from macroblocking and contrast banding, two concepts I don’t have any interest in reading about.
And Where Are They Now, The Little People of Laserhenge?
In China, low prices trump low quality so VCDs killed them when introduced in 1993 (there are now over 500 million VCD Players in China). And VCD Players perform well in high humidity, unlike their tempermental, posh cousins the Laserdisc. In the U.S., where they were never popular, the introduction of the DVD in 1997 was the same year the last Laserdisc was released.
And now with HD and Blu-Ray, macroblocking and contrast banding are as scary as Diptheria or Scarlet Fever. The main selling point of these “Next Gen” formats is their crisp picture, which I find inartistic and unpleasant. Why hang impressionist art in your homes when you can have photos? Why not bring that Seurat into crisp, High Def focus? Or better yet, if absolute realism is the end goal of visual art, why not just go outside or to a play?
In honor of the LaserDisc blow-out and to benefit from the perspective of the experts, I wrote to all the guys who have worked Amoeba’s LaserDisc section — past and present. One said he didn’t want to be a part of anyone’s blog in any way, one said to give him time (and has yet to reply), one didn’t reply at all, even though I know he got the interview, and so here’s my interview with the sole participant, whose name I will change to Lyle Alton Blair to protect his identity. [note — an employee whom I shall refer to as “Jam” replied long after the blow-out ended and I have added his answers subsequently]
Me: What was your favorite LaserDisc moment?
Lyle: There was one laser customer who went into detail describing his very high end laserdisc player that was built like a tank and actually was used in the military. He knew one other guy who had one as well. They were quite certain that these indestructible players would ensure the longest possible life for their collections.
Jam: When Joseph L. Mankiewicz signed my laserdisc copies of Sleuth and Suddenly Last Summer and my attempt at explaining to him they contained the films and weren’t the soundtrack albums.
Lyle: That guy who would call repeatedly asking for Jim Thorpe – All American, which of course was only available on Laser and we never had in.
What was your least favorite LaserDisc moment?
Jam: When Michelangelo Antonioni informed me that a recent stroke had permanently paralyzed his writing hand and he wouldn’t be able to sign my copy of Zabriskie Point. Mortifying.
Did your time with the Laserdiscs section give you any particular insight into the HD DVD vs. Blu-Ray battle?
Lyle: No. I actually assumed that things would work out the way of the VHS/Beta battle and we would all be getting HD DVD players now.
Jam: I can’t really say, though I was confident from the beginning that Blu-Ray would emerge the victor.
Are there ways that Laserdiscs are still superior to all other formats?
Lyle: No, I think Blu-Ray trumps them all. Hard to deny it. The only thing I might suggest is that on a CAV laser you actually get every single frame encoded to the disc. No intra-frame compression B.S.
Jam: Well, if you are a music fan, the laserdisc format still provides the greatest selection of music oriented programming (concerts, music video compilations etc.) with uncompressed or “lossless” audio.
How many Laserdiscs do you own?
Jam: I don’t have an accurate figure, but the number is somewhere between 6000 and 8000 discs.
What is your favorite Laserdisc?
Jam: A box set issued by Image Entertainment called Hollywood – A Celebration of American Silent Film. It is a 13 part series on the history of American silents. Though it was also released on VHS and later announced for DVD, some unresolved rights issues arose and the DVD set was put on hold indefinitely, making the laserdisc box set the definitive way to see this beautifully produced documentary series which features numerous lovingly restored clips from some amazing silent films — many of which have not been released in any home video format, which makes these clips the only glimpses of these films available to the general public.
Me: My favorite, although I never watched it, was a Virtual Ecstasy LD– a late 80s title that came with special glasses, an acid house soundtrack and promised, with trippy visuals, to approximate the effects of rolling.
What is the best Laserdisc?
Lyle: Evil Dead 2 (Elite edition) because it was blood red, of course.
Jam: Well, that’s pretty subjective. If you mean strictly from a technical perspective, I understand the Japanese import of The Phantom Menace has one of the best combinations of picture and sound quality, but then there’s the actual content… Pioneer did a series of Oliver Stone’s films in elaborate box sets that really pushed laserdisc packaging to new heights (check out the “scrapbook” packaging on the Platoon special edition, for instance), but since the bulk of my laserdisc collection consists mainly of films made before 1980, I may not be the best person to ask. Towards the end, they began issuing laserdisc editions of blockbuster films with DTS soundtracks which had greater dynamic range and better rear channel separation than their Dolby Digital counterparts. I’ve heard that the Japanese import of Mission Impossible 2 has some of the best sound heard from any home video format, but then there’s the issue of content again…
What is your least favorite Laserdisc?
Lyle: Jaws, Aliens, ET — any of the crap I had so many of that I had to price down to a dollar and still couldn’t get rid of. However, I will say that the special edition ET set is worthwhile if, for nothing else, the amazing post-coital picture of Mac Daddy Spielberg and his leading puppet (fingers intertwined). It easily rivals that other pinup of ET with Michael Jackson.
Jam: I don’t have any one least favorite disc in particular, but there are some titles that I’ve never found the urge to toss in the old player. Among them would be The World of dBase and Muscle Motion featuring the men from Chippendale’s.
What is the worst Laserdisc?
Lyle: Goodfellas. I love the movie and I never saw a copy that didn’t have laser rot.
Jam: Well, to be honest, there are a lot of really bad laserdiscs, because it took the format 20 years to mature. The first laserdiscs released (when the format was still known as “DiscoVision”) were so bad they had a greater than 50% defect rate, and the discs could only hold half an hour of the movie per side, which means that many films stretched onto five sides, over three discs. Imagine buying a movie, taking it home to watch, and then having to get up to flip sides every half hour, only to find that the fourth side was unwatchable, at which point you drove back to the store for a replacement, returned home and then found that now a different side was defective. It got so bad; people were buying 3 or 4 copies of a new release just so that they could go home and make sure that they had good copies of every side, and then return the unused copies to the store. Thankfully, the die-hard fans stuck with the format and things began falling into place by the mid to late ’80s. There were also many technical innovations (digital sound, etc.) so by the end of the ’90s, the transfers were for the most part superb.
Why do you think Laserdisc collectors are such a unique bunch?
Lyle: Because they are dedicated to an archaic format that was only ever popular among the exceedingly picky video connoisseurs who had lots of disposable cash in the 80’s and don’t really have that anymore. You could liken them to Gloria Swanson’s character in Sunset Blvd.
Jam: Back in the days before DVD, it took a certain kind of film fan to plop down on average $35.00 to $40.00 for a single film. When most people were satisfied with their VHS tapes, if you were buying laserdiscs it meant you probably owned a big screen TV and listened to your TV through your stereo system, etc.
Got any Laserdisc jokes?
Jam: To the laserdisc faithful, this format was no laughing matter!
What are some great titles still exclusive to Laserdisc?
Lyle: Freebie and the Bean.
Jam: Like the Hollywood – A Celebration of American Silent Film box and Zabriskie Point that I mentioned earlier, most (but not all) laserdisc titles were also available on VHS or Beta. However, these and many more great titles still haven’t migrated to NTSC DVD or Blu-Ray.
Let it Be
Tonight Let’s All Make Love in London
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Many silent titles, including Greed (1924), The Crowd (1928), The Covered Wagon (1923), etc.
Do you have any Laserdisc memories that you’d like to share?
Lyle: Back in the 90’s I used to watch almost everything on Laser (several movies a week). The last laser I watched was Freebie and the Bean, on a borrowed player after mine took a shit. Sadly, it may be the last laser I ever watch.
Jam: Too many to mention.
Why were Laserdiscs so much more successful in Japan than here?
Lyle: The Japanese are CRAZY! That or they were just a little more aware of the fact that VHS looks like ass. To think we’ve gone from VHS to Youtube … In another 15 years we’ll all just be watching big ugly jittery pixels move around without ever even coming close to suggesting a real image.
Jam: For the last several decades, the Japanese have been early adopters of new and innovative technologies. When the laserdisc format came along, Japan had a larger installed customer base with big screen TVs, etc. They also made laserdisc a rental format of choice, which only happened in a few large urban centers in the U.S. In fact, the laserdisc industry was virtually dead in the U.S. due to poor pressings, etc. until the Japanese bought out MCA and DiscoVision’s interest and then retooled the U.S. pressing plants etc., thus saving the format.
Is there any chance that somewhere they’ll start making Laserdiscs again?
Kyle: No– that would be stupid… really.
Jam: I think it is extremely unlikely. Most people don’t know that in the mid 1990s, a new hi-def laserdisc format was introduced in Japan. The new hi-def discs were incompatible with regular laserdisc players, but had specs similar to and in some ways exceeding DVD. However, only around 250 titles were released in this format before it became discontinued.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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