I have no love for physical media and society demands I feel just a little trapped. With the arrival of the holiday season and its plentiful specials, the NeRDS, and the amount of sheer rubbish we receive at FEZ HQ, I’ve acquired a lot of shiny discs in the past few weeks. Hidden within many of these amaray cases, like some kind of matryoshka doll, are nests of discs, numbered in sequence. We live in a time that streaming services and technologies are divorcing us from the necessity of acquiring a galaxy of different physical media to enjoy our content. My parents, however, were married just as a lot of this was coming home in the form of chunky black tapes and silver discs for the very first time. In thirty years, we have created the monster and are now, not quickly enough, killing it.
I was born in 1984, so when we watched movies, chances are it was because it was on a VHS tape. Theaters were a pain and, at least in Germany on the military’s Armed Forces Radio and Television System (AFRTS), the television was pretty limited. Almost religiously, my brother and I would watch every new movie mom and dad would bring home and memorize every line through repeated viewings, even after the tapes degraded. Remember when they used to include trivia questions at the end of cartoons? We knew all the answers. Land Before Time, An American Tail, Jetsons: The Movie, Inspector Gadget? All of it, over and over.
But it wasn’t just tapes they’d purchase with movies on them, our beloved VCR performed so much work that I’m surprised that it didn’t fail in a fiery blaze at some point. Not only would we record the shows, but dad would catalog them. Each new JVC-branded black sleeve got a series of numbers and an entry in his database with time stamps. Oh, sure, other kids had parents that would jot down the contents of the tape in a sharpie on the big label on its face, but could you ask them to see a specific episode of The Simpsons without digging through rows of tapes? Nope. Dad knew the tape and when it was on. To build the database, he’d spend entire afternoons fast forwarding through tapes – stopping every so often to watch a good movie or show – and scribble the metadata to paper. At one point, he said he’d pay my brother and I go through our ever-growing volume of tapes and catalog them. Maybe we enjoyed the handy results of the cataloging rather than the actual procedure, but we never did partake in it.
“‘These things will never rot’, they said!” was a common saying around the house when it became apparent that some of my parents’ Laserdiscs were failing years after purchase. Unlike VHS tapes, where the film is physically run through the heads of a VCR, Laserdiscs were spun like a vinyl record inside a massive player and read by laser, rather than needle, making their potential invincibility a solid point to advertise. Laser rot, as it’s called, happened when the adhesive that held the precious silicon data between layers of plastic, began to fail and movies began to skip or look spotty. Still, when we wanted a high-quality version of a movie that was built to last, we’d seek out a Laserdisc copy. Originally marketed as Discovision by MCA (a name they should’ve kept, to be honest) the format never dominated the much-cheaper VHS and we’d always have to seek out specialty stores or catalogs to acquire them. They were big, the size of a vinyl but substantially heavier, and early players only got you through half the movie before you needed to flip the disc. (When we got a later model that simply tilted the disc inside the player, there was much relief.)
To accommodate the two formats, my dad built a massive wooden shelf that let us slide in Laserdiscs edge to edge. Because of their size, it also allowed us to store three rows of VHS tapes end to end. It only took a few years to fill the behemoth to its gills and those slightly larger Disney Classics tapes didn’t help.
In 1997, my parents brought home our first DVD player and it was kind of a crazy sight. These were feature-length movies that (often) fit on one side of a compact disc-sized DVD and had interactive menus like the Laserdisc had with cheesy little extras. They also took up half the space – or less – of a VHS tape, making them better to store as well. Never before had I fallen so love with the idea of movies in a new format and over the years, many of those VHS tapes – yes, even the bulky Disney Classics ones – were replaced with slender, better-looking, and more functional DVD versions. But the physical tax of owning that much media never seemed to shrink as new movies were added or companies got wise on the fact that it was very effective to bundle full seasons of TV content into such tight packaging, rendering single-slot movie racks ineffective.
While a service like Netflix or Hulu dwarfs those hundreds of tapes, Laserdiscs we acquired over the years in terms of content, they both fail in regards to personalization. You still can’t find every show you want to watch at any time from any season or era as the labyrinth of rights management has obscured most of that. For my part, I never acquired that many movies, which has made the past dozen moves much easier. I just never fell in love with the idea of watching movies alone or keeping a personal copy on hand for that rare adventure. That’s changed over the years (as you can tell by the picture above) because getting specialized content always acquiring it for relatively cheap in a physical format. Do I really ever need to watch It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia more than once a year? No, but because FX has such a poor track record providing Hulu with content, there’ll be no other way. What if I want director’s commentary or bonus features? Again, only available in a physical format.
Some day that’ll all change and I can shed all of these pesky discs, but it’s just not soon enough.