by Terry Collins
The physical world of the film collector is not dead, not obsolete, not entombed with the ancient relics of a thousand years ago, and it certainly isn’t passé or impractical.
How many articles have we been lambasted with in the past five years screeching about the death of the home video format? Answer: too many – and yet, despite all of the doomsayers, and a generation who now views movies as they do music (i.e. disposable and on demand) people keep on purchasing films in a physical format despite the more convenient notion of streaming movies at the press of a button on a remote control.
The answer as to why isn’t complicated, and has a lot to do with the concept of ownership. Yes, in the year 2019, I don’t “own” Citizen Kane, Planet of the Apes or The Good, The Bad and the Ugly in terms of copyrights, but I have the next best thing – I own a personal copy I can watch at home whenever I like. This was once the solution to true choice and flexibility for a movie fan, but is now the answer to not being hamstrung by what is available at any given time on a streaming service.
Viewers are starting to discover that Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix offer nothing of permanence, and a selection of movies that rotates monthly and is either limited in scope or sorely lacking in depth, complete with playback that is often glitchy in visual presentation and clumsy in the immersive soundscape that modern movie Blu-ray discs provide with the proper home theater system
Another obvious part of the answer is that human beings are tactile. We like to feel objects and look at the real. There is pride in ownership of a physical object that can be shelved, filed, loaned, and treasured that electronic media will never be able to replicate. A collector isn’t happy with a digital file on a hard drive. There’s no cover, no artwork, no exclusive picture book or essay. No “second disc” with bonus features, no director’s analysis, no “making of” documentary.
You can’t display zeros and ones, and you certainly can’t fetishize having a shelf with every one of the films of Wes Anderson or Clint Eastwood at your fingertips.
When it comes to the cinema, true aficionados drink in director’s cuts, edited scenes, commentaries, making-of documentaries, isolated music scores, booklets with essays and rare photos and anything else of interest that can be added to a release to make it a package worthy of purchase.
The viewing technology and the medium of delivery for the movie collector has continued to improve over the past five decades, and now a true cinephile has shelves lined with the films he treasures, all of them waiting quietly in organized clusters to be shared with new eyes, or enjoyed repeatedly by the longtime fan.
For example, in late January, a college friend came to stay for a weekend, and we enjoyed a restored version of 1967’s The Big Gundown (La Resa del Conti), a never before available for home viewing in America (except via subpar bootlegs) spaghetti western starring he of the beady eyes and fast draw, Lee Van Cleef. A film that boasted a stunning print created with a 2K digital restoration that resulted in colors and details doubtfully seen since the original release.
Normally, that would be pleasure enough since neither of us had ever viewed the film, but said Blu-ray disc was featured in a deluxe edition combo pack from a Grindhouse Releasing that, quite frankly, sets the standard for collectible editions. The set comes with two Blu-rays, one DVD and a soundtrack CD showcasing the music of the great composer Ennio Morricone. You have the choice of watching the uncensored English language version with three additional scenes added, or the complete 110 minute director’s cut in Italian with optional English subtitles.
A slew of bonuses and supplementary materials across the discs include detailed video interviews with the director, screenwriter and stars, audio commentaries, liner notes in a full color booklet, stills galleries, trailers and TV spots. So much to drink in that several nights viewing was required, making this a film to revisit time and again.
A simpler example is using home video in educating my grandchildren of the quality works of yore. They have laughed at vintage Looney Tunes cartoons since they escaped the womb, been enraptured by black and white Fleischer Studios animated Popeye adventures, and I’m starting them on the film shorts of Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and The Little Rascals.
Now, if I didn’t own these on DVD or Blu-ray, where else would these children be exposed to the classics? A hole in their cultural memory would be the end result, filled only with newly animated offerings on the Cartoon Network and live action slapstick via the tween shows on the Disney Channel. Syndication (the way I discovered these shorts) is dead except for talk shows and Wheel of Fortune, and when’s the last time you saw a black and white movie on any high profile network except via Turner Classic Movies?
As for streaming…? Well, good luck.
So, I’m grateful to home video for this kind of preservation, and I know I’m not alone. Yes, some folks might be dumping their DVD collections, but an equal number are getting some amazing deals in the online classified ads or at stores who specialize in used media. These same collectors are also purchasing new movies on Blu-ray – the prices of which have fallen substantially on thousands of catalog titles and can be found in Dollar General chain stories discounted for as little as $2.99 each.
I mean, who can resist Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson in The Magnificent Seven on Blu-ray for less than three bucks? The rousing score by Elmer Bernstein in 5.1 surround sound alone is worth the price of admission, or in this case, ownership.
We live in amazing times to be a film fan. Once upon a time, if you wanted to watch a movie more than once, or see an offering you had only read about in a book or issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland, you were limited to a series of limited options:
The most common method involved staking out the television set. Your map to buried treasure was the new issue of the weekly TV Guide in hopes of a station playing a beloved film, or, more likely, reading the short synopsis of a flick that sounded too good to be true, and was now must viewing. These discoveries were followed by staring with wide young eyes at televised schlock with a great title.
No one is going to make a case for Robot Monster being a good film, but you have to admit … that title is golden.
Sometimes, as a kid, you got lucky – feasting on some brief nudity in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H that missed the local independent station’s censor’s fingers, or, my most memorable experience one Saturday afternoon of gaping at an uncut print of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die on WXII TV 12 with all the stripper sleaze and gore intact that somehow got into the syndication package and scarred yours truly for life.
Even after the mirthful elves at Mystery Science Theatre 3000 got their mitts and quips on the (now edited) film didn’t help my memories of shock from decades before, although Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo referring to the decapitated head (brain) in the title as “Jan in the Pan” still makes me grin.
Those moments were exceptions though, and usually in those pre-cable days you struggled to stay awake no matter your age during the hours between midnight and 6 a.m. for films, watching in a semi-conscious daze King Kong rampage or Sherlock Holmes solve another mystery in the quiet hours of the dark. There was a sense of satisfaction in enjoying Vanishing Point, Harum Scarum, or The Fearless Vampire Killers on The CBS Late Movie. Other than seeing films at a theater, in the 1970s you either chose made-for-television movies (many of which made up for limited budgets by sheer acting talent and good writing) or event films like a recent James Bond adventure, the trotting out of The Ten Commandments at Easter, the annual presentation of The Wizard of Oz, or enjoying an annual holiday screening of a classic such as It’s A Wonderful Life.
Less common was being lucky enough to live in an area with several movie theaters, or in the boon years of the 1960s to the 1980s, drive-in movie lots – enough to have one of them devoted to being content as a second run movie house or revival theater. Drive-ins were notorious for replaying older films and re-releases as second or third features, with a focus on genre and exploitation. Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Ten Thousand Maniacs played on drive-in screens well over a decade.
In a pinch, you might harangue your parents into letting you set up and use the 8 millimeter projector normal reserved for films of family vacations to try and make sense of a Reader’s Digest edit of a silent version of an Abbott and Costello flick, a classic Universal Monster movie, or a Hopalong Cassidy oater. To be fair, these improved with time, with Castle Films constructing tight edits of 8 to 12 minutes that actually made sense of 90 minute films complete with sound. However, nostalgia aside, these were in no way a good way to experience a movie.
After high school, if you went to a college with a film society, you could arrange to rent prints of Duck Soup, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman or anything else remotely affordable that could sell enough tickets to pay for the privilege of watching said movie.
Finally, if breathing truly rarified air, and you were wealthy enough (and had the connections to purchase full length prints of films), you could show movies for friends courtesy of your own in-house screening room. Of course, this was as illegal as hell, but who is going to tell Jerry Lewis he can’t watch The Nutty Professor or the latest efforts of Jean Renoir whenever he feels the urge?
Such was life in the past for the film fanatic. You bought the posters, you collected the magazines, you gobbled up the Richard J. Anobile books with hundreds of photographs that served as a “Photo Novel” of W.C. Fields films with the screenplay interspersed between the pictures. If you were in possession of a reel-to-reel or cassette recorder, you could make an audio tape of the dialogue and listen to the music and dialogue while playing back the images in your mind’s eye.
But the notion of owning a complete film, or films as part of your own movie library was sheer fantasy.
And then … came the advent of the video tape. Not a blank tape (and for the sake of brevity, we won’t get into the entire concept of home taping to buttress your growing film collection, or the obscure offerings of mail-order video bootleggers), but an actual studio-licensed, high-quality, uncut copy of your favorite movie you could purchase for your very own, and watch whenever the urge struck.
Admittedly, studios were slow to see the market for selling tapes directly to consumers. There was a ridiculous fear that movie fans would no longer want to pay to see new theatrical releases at the local cinema. The first commercial tapes in the VHS and Beta formats (Beta was a competitor to VHS. Beta lost.) were outrageously expensive to deter casual buyers, and aimed at small businesses to purchase and then rent repeatedly to recoup costs and make a profit
Local television repair shops, appliance stores, or tiny corner groceries offered a wall of tapes (the more lurid, the better) before transforming into the profitable form of the neighborhood video rental store. Then came the chains such as Blockbuster, which, regretfully helped to end the local outfits, but in trade gave consumers a vast collection of past and classic tapes to rent.
When executives finally realized the profit of selling affordable copies of movies directly to collectors – and as prices continued to fall – to the average buyer who wanted to pick up a John Wayne movie as a father’s day gift or a copy of Star Wars for the family to replay, movies in the home became as obsequious as books.
There are collectors seeking out rare or cult VHS tapes, and once the easily bored youth of America discovers the practical ease of using VHS, there will be a boom in used copies and specially manufactured limited editions. I was in Walmart yesterday and several genre Blu-ray discs such as Krull, Terminator 2, Happy Birthday to Me and Chuck Norris in Silent Rage had been redressed in slipcovers designed to look like rental tapes, complete with “Please Rewind” stickers and worn cardboard boxes.
I picked up Terminator 2 and the original Total Recall. I couldn’t resist.
Today, the format of VHS is buried in landfills from coast to coast, but walk into any local thrift store and you’ll find an ample supply – although, admittedly, some prerecorded movies on tape are more prevalent that others, as witnessed by the dark geniuses behind the multimedia experience Everything is Terrible and “The Jerry Maguire Pyramid Project.” A project of such nutty brilliance that it must be seen to be believed at http://www.jerrymaguirepyramid.com/
However, the saga of home video and movie ownership was just getting started. As VHS flooded the world and reached critical mass, with what seemed to be every film ever made showing up on tape (untrue, but you had to be there to truly appreciate the sheer magnitude of releases), a greatly superior format was on the way, and would change collecting movies forever.
The Digital Versatile Disc was about to be unleashed, and with it, the informed and movie savvy collector.
NEXT: Part Two – Scan and Pan No More … or The Letterbox Revolution!