Days of Formats Past

A few times, I’ve used this column to pay homage to those once beloved and bleeding-edge technologies that serve us well for years but when, once supplanted by newer and superior technology, are quickly cast aside and forgotten. (Today’s chunky hipster glasses are tomorrow’s zebra-print Zubaz, I guess.) I have criminally neglected one technology that probably more than any other deserves credit for creating the idea of home theater in the first place. Let us now sing the praises of Laserdisc.

Introduced at roughly the same time as VHS, Laserdisc was always the vastly superior format, but it didn’t catch on, probably because it started life saddled with one of the worst names in product history (next to Anusol cream, of course): Discovision. Consumers are understandably reluctant to open their wallets for anything that puts them in mind of Barry Gibb wearing skin-tight, buttock-revealing pants, his shirt open to the waist (the better to expose the many gold necklaces adorning his obscenely hirsute chest). That marketing blunder was corrected, and it acquired a significant upgrade. Not only a better technology, Laserdisc as a name has it all over VHS—and DVD for that matter. It provided a subconscious thrill every time you used it. There are lasers pointed at my disc. Lasers! VHS offers no such titillation. Video Home System? I’m asleep already. And DVD: Digital Versatile Disc? Really? It makes Federated Product Company, Inc. seem sexy by comparison.

For years, Laserdisc limped along as a cult format. After a time, it acquired something of a nerd reputation. It looked much better than VHS, offered multiple soundtracks, and was the first home format to carry Dolby Digital and DTS. And so too, wheeling around your neighborhood on a Segway while wearing a helmet might be a perfectly fun thing to do, better than almost any other leisure activity out there. But when you find yourself lying in the middle of the sidewalk having just been on the receiving end of a pretty good beat-down, you’ve no right to ask, “What was that for?” Laserdisc owners were happy to show off their crystal-clear pictures and foundation-shaking soundtracks. But when someone would ask how it was achieved, they knew it was best to change the subject lest they get pantsed in their own home by one of their guests.

Laserdisc was an immensely satisfying product to use because it was an immense product. Twelve inches in diameter and heavier than a pizza with all the toppings, their players required a motor as powerful as a Briggs & Stratton two-cycle to get the disc spinning up to speed. Once there, it emitted a hum that let you know in no uncertain terms that something very serious was happening under the hood. The higher-quality discs could only hold about 30 minutes of content per side and needed to be flipped over and restarted frequently—a nice resistance workout during what is normally a pretty sedentary activity. Some players eliminated the need to flip the discs by physically moving the optical reader to the other side. The process took a fair amount of time, sounded like a distant robot battle, and was not to be missed. Obviously, this much larger medium allowed for more satisfying and detailed package art. You could glance at the cover featuring Don Johnson in a cowboy hat standing next to Mickey Rourke on a motorcycle and know immediately that you were in the presence of Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. On the diminutive DVD cover of the same title, they’re all squeezed together, and the motor- cycle is barely visible. In half light, you might even mistake it for Tango & Cash, with tragic results.

Being a Laserdisc owner meant that you were automatically admitted into a secret club. The rental stores tended to be off the beaten path, tucked away near the railroad tracks, next to the places that sold welding gases. Unlike the vastly more populated VHS rental stores, the employees at Laserdisc outlets knew and loved movies. Usually great, bearded men with pale complexions, they by God knew that the four-disc Platinum Extended Edition, the one with the alternate commentary track and the included 90-page booklet, was by far the best version of Congo out there. And they weren’t afraid to tell anyone who’d listen (often, even those who weren’t listening and had simply come in by mistake, thinking it was the place to buy oxyacetylene gas). And as Laserdiscs were fairly susceptible to scratches and smudges, they were absolute iron-fisted taskmasters about properly replacing your rented disc in the special inner sleeve before replacing it in the cardboard outer sleeve. Fail at this critical task, and you risked being kicked out of the club, into the outer darkness where there is weeping, gnashing of teeth, and watching of movies with only 240 lines of perceptible resolution.

The format has been bested twice now by DVD and Blu-ray Disc—three times if you want to count HD DVD. But fortunately for enthusiasts—or those people who simply like to be walking anachronisms and just now want to get into it—there are usually a couple hundred players for sale on eBay and literally thousands of titles. Unable to find the ’80s hard-rock video Dokken: Unchain the Night on Blu-ray Disc? (Answer: Yes, you are unable.) It’s a steal at 15 bucks. Sure, you already own a pristine Blu-ray Disc of Street Fighter, but why not keep it real and watch it on Laserdisc? Five bucks, and it’s yours.

It saddens me to think of the day I tossed my own Laserdisc player ignominiously into the trash because literally no one would take it off my hands for free and laughed at me for having it in the first place. But my grief is assuaged the moment I look down and see my handsome zebra-print Zubaz that, thank goodness, I had the wisdom to save.