Uncovering the Obscure

cellatrocThe goal here, really, is to celebrate physical media, as it is and as it was.



Before I get into this month’s topic, I’d like to welcome everyone back to Celluloid Atrocities, my long-defunct movie column here for PLAYBACK:stl. The last time I wrote one of these was exactly seven years ago, in April 2007, but with this return I intend to start this back up as a monthly column again.

We’re of course in an era where all of the major forms of mass media are trying to figure out how to successfully collaborate with the internet—newspapers are trying to monetize their web presence, as are magazines, the recording industry is squirming under how much of their profits are getting eaten up by illegal downloads, bookstores are closing because people are doing their reading on Kindles (or, even if they still buy traditional, bound copies of books, they’re buying them from Amazon), etc. Even those consumers who stay on the legal side of things are leaning toward downloading albums, TV shows, movies, etc. from iTunes and the like rather than buying their physical counterparts, like DVDs, CDs, and blu-rays. None of this is news, of course, and it isn’t my intention with this column to try to convince anyone to change their ways. The goal here, really, is to celebrate physical media, as it is and as it was.

And I’m not even talking about the obvious forms of physical media, like DVDs, blu-rays, CDs, and records, of which I own a ton and enjoy having around. Generally, I’m just a fan of A) owning physical copies of things, and B) getting them legally in the best format they’ve ever been released in, which sometimes leads to weird formats. For example, have you ever gone to, say, a V-Stock here in St. Louis, and browsed their UMD movies? Do you even know what I’m talking about? A UMD movie is a movie released in the format exclusive to the Sony PSP, the portable video game console Sony released in 2005. They’re approximately of DVD quality, but the only thing that can play them is a PSP, which have gone away in favor of Sony’s Vita, though even when the PSP was going strong no one seemed much interested in buying UMD movies. For the record, I actually don’t own one single movie on UMD, despite owning a working PSP—that’s one format I’m not aware of any movie being in the best quality in. All the same, I have to bite my lip and walk away any time I see, say, a Troma movie on UMD.

There is another mostly forgotten and maligned home video format that I do still own a handful of movies in: the laserdisc. Laserdiscs were generally the higher quality, higher priced alternate to VHS tapes in the 80s and 90s (MSRP for a single movie was often $40-100); we have laserdiscs to thank for bringing mainstream awareness to such things as commentary tracks and seeing movies in their original aspect ratios (in these pre-widescreen TV days, VHS tapes of widescreen movies tended to be horrible pan-and-scan versions, where laserdiscs would usually keep original aspect ratios intact via letterboxing), and there are a handful of movies that were digitized for laserdisc releases but then never got so far as to get a DVD release. My favorite example of this is Penelope Spheeris’ canonical 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, which has been very hard to see in the past twenty or so years due to a rights battle that doesn’t look to be cleared up anytime soon. Sure, you can illegally download it, and sure, you can get official VHS tapes or illegal bootlegs on DVD, but for those who like to keep things legal, the laserdisc is easily the best way to go.

But even with these laserdisc-is-the-best option movies, there are often caveats—for example, the last physical home video format Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 classic Greed was released in was the laserdisc, and yet the version that you can buy as a download from iTunes is preferable—it’s the integrated, as-restored-as-it-can-be four-hour Turner Classic Movies cut, where the laserdisc is the 140-minute, more common edit. Elsewhere, I have been the proud owner of Steven Soderbergh’s St. Louis-set 1993 film King of the Hill on laserdisc for many years, as, like Decline of Western Civilization above, that was the best format to own it on. That is, until the Criterion Collection released it on DVD and blu-ray relatively out of the blue back in February, rendering my laserdisc quite obsolete. But even in circumstances like this, the laserdisc is well-suited to alternate uses; laserdiscs are more or less like DVDs but approximately the same size as a vinyl record, which is to say that, like vinyl, the sleeves they come in tend to work better as pieces of art. As such, for many years I’ve had many of my favorite movies hanging on my wall in their laserdisc form, and they can even be appropriated for more highfalutin uses than that—a while back I came into possession of a vintage signed Anna Karina glossy, which I matted against a Criterion Collection laserdisc of Vivre Sa Vie and framed in one of those record frames that can be had cheaply at record stores. Voila, cool-looking wall hanging, which cost me next to nothing.

And even this wall-art use can bring surprises. Five or ten years ago I bought the Criterion  laserdisc of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, mostly for its wtf factor—Criterion hasn’t released that title on any format since the laserdisc (this goes for many other movies as well)—and had it hanging on my wall for quite some time. Recently, though, I learned that the commentary track Waters recorded for the Criterion laserdisc differs from the one he recorded for the New Line DVD. Any good commentary junkie will tell you that Waters is the best out there in terms of reliable intelligence and wit on commentary tracks, so a relatively unknown track of his, and on one of his most important movies, no less, is quite a find.

There are a number of titles like this—if you go buy David Fincher’s Seven on DVD or blu-ray, it has four (!) commentary tracks. What is doesn’t have, though, is the track originally recorded by Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, David Fincher, and some of the rest of the filmmaking team for the Criterion laserdisc release soon after the film was done with production (the Freeman/Pitt/etc. commentary on the newer DVD and blu-ray was recorded much later). John Sturges’ commentary on the Criterion Bad Day at Black Rock laserdisc is legendarily good, and it hasn’t been legally released since. If you want to hear Melvin Van Peebles’ commentary on Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, you have to go to the Criterion laserdisc. The Criterion Boogie Nights laserdisc, which I plunked down $100 for at the time of its release, has excerpts from the documentary Exhausted: John C. Holmes, The Real Story, which was a huge influence on Boogie Nights and hasn’t been included on any BN release since. The best version currently available of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons is the Criterion laserdisc. Though basically obsolete, I love my Criterion laserdiscs of Pulp Fiction, Taxi Driver, and Trainspotting for their cover art. (And the Scorsese commentary on the Taxi Driver disc only just resurfaced on the blu-ray, so for a very long time the laserdisc was worth having for that.) I could go on.

Now is a good time to be swimming upstream by going for physical copies of things over downloads; a lot of the more obscure titles on DVD are out of print or heading that way, but haven’t gotten to the point where they’re impossible to find yet. St. Louis is a good town to obsessively hunt movies in physical form down in, which I strongly recommend, as I’ve had lots of bad experiences online with receiving bootlegs or promo copies that weren’t described as such, including one instance where I bought a movie directly from Amazon and received a promotional copy (which you can easily spot by a cut or punched barcode; these copies aren’t intended for sale, and the publisher makes no money off of them when they’re sold), which is beyond shady, and this trap is harder to fall in when you’re buying stuff in person. Besides, you should be supporting your local businesses! Vintage Vinyl and Euclid Records of course tend to have good selections of DVDs and blu-rays at any given time, and Record Exchange has all of the above, not to mention a metric ton of VHS tapes and laserdiscs to sort through. So go and root around for copies of The Oldest Profession on laserdisc (it was the aforementioned Anna Karina’s last collaboration with her ex-husband Jean-Luc Godard!) or the Frank Zappa-directed, Haskell Wexler-shot Uncle Meat on VHS or the sometimes-Hayao Miyazaki-directed Sherlock Hound TV show on DVD or Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain on blu-ray, which is out of print as of this writing and has never looked better on home video. Or how about Abel Gance’s Napoleon on laserdisc? Have a Frank Perry film festival and get Last Summer on VHS and Diary of a Mad Housewife on laserdisc—we haven’t seen them since those releases, and it seems like most people have forgotten about them by now. It’s comforting to me to have these things around, ready to be watched at a moment’s notice and in reliable quality. And if you get cold feet about buying them, it usually isn’t hard to sell them for as much as you paid for them! Try doing that with downloaded media. | Pete Timmermann

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