Friday, June 27, 2014

1996 Is Calling

...and it wants its rant back.

While I contemplate the future of this blog and its associated podcast, I thought I'd share something I dug up while going through some very old saved email (well, it's old for email) discussions from the mid-1990s. I'd call it a good snapshot from the time, something that among other things tells me how my friends and I treated the medium of email. The messages are often extremely long and read much like blog entries or discussion board posts. It's hard to imagine this stuff being shared over any social media today. On Facebook, no one would even get past the first couple of sentences. To bring this back to some sort of subject, I chose to post this entry because the subject loosely fits this blog. The text file this was culled from didn't have an exact date on it but it did have all the email addresses the "essay" was originally sent to. I note today that while I recognize the email addresses, not one of the people associated with them still uses the address listed here (I haven't had an AOL email address in a looooong time). I corrected a few typos and formatted it for clarity but it's otherwise exactly what I wrote so let's see what I had to say about home video in 1996:
Let's just wait for the video...(long)

Dear friends:  Today I am going to write about video (for you tech people, I mean consumer video, (IE. VHS and Laserdiscs that most people buy and rent). Since several friends have gotten on the bandwagon and purchased VHS decks somewhat recently and seeing that I am the resident authority on the subject, a dubious distinction to be sure, I thought it'd be a good time to give you all my take on video:  where it's been and where it's going, and what is both good and bad about it.

True, it may seem like a silly thing to write about (although presenting it through the Internet seems strangely appropriate), it is a device that has changed the face of home entertainment in more ways than three.

Part I:  A brief history of (video) time. Way back when, in 1976 or so, Disco was going strong and a new consumer wonder was introduced:  the video cassette recorder.  The early VCRs were large, ungainly, crude (by today's standards; just being able to time-shift a single program was quite the big event in those days--that is, for those who were adept enough to figure out how to program the beasts (those slobs have it so easy today!), and expensive (around $2,000).

And for you Betamax diehards (that would include myself and a few others whom I will not name in order to protect their families), I shall quickly cover the great Beta/VHS war that was waged in the early 80's.

1975:  Sony and JVC both introduce new VCR formats (Sony=Beta, JVC=VHS), totally incompatible with one another. Now, as we currently see it, that was a very idiotic thing for them to have done, but the entire history of the recording industry has been littered with the corpses of formats that lost the struggle. Will they ever learn?  Now, these two Japanese electronics giants had different ideas of how they should go about conquering this brave new market. Sony, knowing that they had the technically superior product, (Beta was a better format; nobody who knows anything about video would ever deny this) decided to keep it all to themselves and make all the profit since they figured that all those people out there would buy the Betamax no matter what since it was better. JVC, on the other hand, began licensing other companies to manufacture its machine (for a suitable fee, of course), to the point that anybody who wanted to could manufacture and market a VHS deck. It doesn't take much thought to figure out what happens next. By the early to mid 80's, when VCRs really started to sell, Sony was still keeping Beta to themselves (they did license to Sanyo, NEC--now out of the US market--, and Toshiba--one of the only companies to make both formats for a time--but by then it was too late), profiting in the short term, but losing the format war altogether since those few companies (at most) just couldn't get the market share that JVC and the dozen other (if you count the small fry) companies could manage. So, why didn't Beta succeed at least as well as, say, the Macintosh did?  Beta just wasn't different enough for most people to notice. The Mac, on the other hand, while performing similar functions to its competitors, had a distinct and different operation and look which attracted a loyal customer base who didn't mind paying extra and only buying Apple products. So, Beta was relegated to the consumer electronics scrapheap and we all got stuck with the inferior, but better marketed format. Life isn't always fair.

And now, back to our story:    At this point, the 80's are in full swing and a new business is being created:  the video rental retailer. Up to this point, most people who bought VCRs, did so to record television shows (there was a Supreme Court case, brought about by the networks, around this time in which it was declared legal to record broadcasts for personal use). Pre-recorded movies on tape were expensive (they were often badly duplicated television copies) and often difficult to locate, but some people got the idea that if they bought these tapes and rented them out to people (the first Blockbuster was opened in '85) that they'd make a lot of dough. Boy, were they right. By the late 80's, the price of new VCRs had dropped so much that it seemed like EVERYBODY had one (many were buying second or third machines) and the video rental retailers kept right up with them. Another force driving all this at this time  was the fact that the movie studios finally caught on and began mass producing videos and releasing a large number of titles. The demand is met.

And that pretty much brings us into the present. VCRs have been getting even cheaper (in more ways than one, but that's another topic I'd rather avoid at the moment) and video stores litter the landscape of America, there to satiate our ever-increasing appetites video movies. Laserdisc? I really don't need to say much about them since those who know, use Miracle, that wasn't it.....oh yeah, know better and the rest of you will never understand why they're better than videocassettes....Now that we all know where that grand institution known as home video came from (or was it a hideous UN plot?!), I can zero in on its effects on the public.

Part II:  What's good about video:

No one can deny the simple convenience and availability of the format. Video tapes are easy to use, cheap, and the choice of titles gets better all the time. I, as a rabid consumer of classic film, would be the first to admit that video has allowed me to see and own, for that matter, films I wouldn't have access to in theaters (cable is also getting quite good in this area and of course, cable and home video are getting closer and closer all the time) and this could get even better with the eventuality of video on-demand.
Cost. Yep, it's cheap.

Privacy. This could be lumped in with the convenience area, but there is no denying the fact that people often prefer to watch flicks in their living rooms (the video boom has breathed new life into the porn business) and to a certain point, I would agree. So, it would seem that video has it all wrapped up. It's convenient, cheap, there is a huge choice of titles, and you don't have to go to the trouble of going to that stinky movie theater just to see the latest Van Damme epic.

Part III:  What's wrong with video:  

Having said all that, I begin with this statement:  I believe that the advent of home video has had the most detrimental effect on the art of film-making in its one hundred year history.  This may sound a bit like an overreaction, but think about it:  what other factor has had this kind of negative effect? Bear in mind that when I say "negative," I refer strictly to the "art" of film-making and not the financial performance of the film industry, which has benefited from the video surge (it helps that the film companies are actively involved in the business).

Some might argue that the coming of television in the early fifties was a more serious threat. Television was indeed a threat to the film industry, that is, the companies that produced the films (this of course, was mainly due to the studios' short-sightedness and the fact that the television networks grew out of a different industry:  radio--the Sherman anti-trust act didn't hurt either). However, to the people making the films, it was a blessing in disguise.  A number of positive changes came about, mainly thanks to competition with the tube:

The elimination of the Hays production code, (named for Will H. Hays, a former RNC chairman, during the Harding administration, who headed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, which was created during the twenties by the studio moguls as a response to public pressure to exercise some kind of film censorship. Generally known as the "Hays Office," it came up with the "Hays Code" which dictated what could and couldn't be done on camera. The code was almost always strictly enforced by the Hollywood studios.) the advent of widescreen processes, such as Cinemascope (its current incarnation is known as Panavision) and the use of stereophonic sound (googlaphonic?!), and the elimination of the strict, micromanaged studio system (which is a whole other essay all by itself) which was often stifling to artists in film.

Video, oddly enough, has had the opposite effect. Instead of hurting the business end, it has damaged the creative end of the chain in more ways than one.  One problem:  video now often dictates how films are made (the marketing deals and strategies are figured out before the film is even shot, in many cases) from the types of films that get made to the way they are shot (oh, I guess I can't do this wide shot since it wouldn't look good on Joe Sixpack's 20" TV) to the material.  "Forrest Gump" is a good example of a made-for-video film.  It looks great on TV, and all those hit songs!  It has also effected the way people watch films in the theaters. To many people, used to watching videos at home on their stratoloungers, going to see a film in the theater isn't much different. They seem to act the same way in a theater as they do at home (which would lead one to believe that most people are assholes in their own homes); they make noise during the film, talk, and be generally annoyed that their collective attention spans are being stretched to such extreme lengths.

So, it would seem as though the only reason most people ever go to a movie theater at all is because they can't see the material anywhere else. Now, if all the new films were simultaneously released in the theater and on video (and, yes, let's be fair:  the price being the same to see the film), how many theaters would remain open?  My guess would be very few. Is convenience that important to people?  For you see, seeing a film in a dark theater, light through celluloid, is a different experience than watching it on television. Screen size aside, it is simply a different way to see the film for the way it is presented is different:  you are actually going out to see, that is, to give your complete attention to, a film. While when seeing it on video, you're in your house, there are distractions, you can do the dishes, and so on.  And then there's the technical end of it.  The simple fact is, that most films, made after about 1953, were meant to be shown on a screen that's not only many times larger than a tv, but one that has a different aspect ratio (why they have to crop films when they're put on video). Letterboxing helps, but relatively few video consumers understand or care about something so complicated as screen sizes.  So, am I advocating total abolishment of home video?  Of course not. I find video to be quite useful, but, and I trust I can speak for most of you, I would rather see a film in a theater every time than watch it at home.  A good Laserdisc of a film is a great thing to have around if you want to study a film; I like having certain films available to me because I am interested in how they are made. However, most people rent a video and forget all about it the next day and no wonder. The way they are watching it is so non-committal, that (those films that have material worthy of concentration) becomes meaningless, like the bad sitcoms they saw the night before.

And that brings me to another point:  television. Television and film are becoming more and more alike, each borrowing from one another. I would almost call it, the dumbing down of film. Television/video has gained the slick production values of (this is relative) Hollywood, look at ST:TNG, and many of the films produced today have been reduced to big-budget television shows with no more depth than your average episode of 90210 (and don't even get me started on music videos!).

Part IV:  Please be kind, rewind

Maybe the "American People" don't care about the art of film. Maybe they like to see good acting, writing, and direction (oh, and let's not forget special effects!) ,but only if they can see it while running on the treadmill. People obviously like to get out of their houses, but if they don't care about the films, why don't they just sit in bars and drink? There are many forces at work here and most are simply products of our society. People just don't want to concentrate on anything for very long and video is tailor made for our go-go way of living, it would seem. So, I apologize for the extreme length of this bit, but I thought some of you might be interested in this (since we are, after all, a generation of film students) to a certain extent. Chime in if you wish. I probably sound like I just joined the AARP film society, but this attitude has been built up over some time now and much of it has become more clear to me. I used to have a pretty laid-back attitude about video, but after years of use and observation, I have discovered the true, evil, twisted, government plot of this insidious device!
Help us, Sponk!!!!!  See you at the video store!  johnK

Well okay then. I really had to resist the urge to edit the hell out of that thing but the past is the past, right? I have to keep telling myself that this was five years before Wikipedia which today is a great resource for this kind of information. As far as I can remember, I really just pulled most of that essay out of my ass. There are some facts that aren't 100% correct but close enough to make the point. I like to think that I write somewhat better than that today. Oh yes, of course I do!

The other things I remember thinking as I read this piece were:

1. Where did I get off being so sanctimonious about movie and TV culture? Frustrated video store employee, guilty as-charged. I could easily write another long essay poking holes in my "video has damaged the art of filmmaking" screed but life is too short.

2. My remarks about home video:  when I stop to think of the myriad forms of technology available to me today to watch movies and TV shows, I am amazed. We have it SO much better than we did in those days. Despite my ranting about the public at large disrespecting the "classic" movie-going experience, I as a film fan have never had it so good. There are so many ways to get access to content now. Sure, it's a pain to have to navigate all the different streaming/download services to find what you want but with few exceptions, we have easier access at far higher quality than ever before. And while first run movie theater ticket prices are higher, the price for purchase/rental of video today is the same or lower than it was in 1996.

Today, whenever I have to deal with video tape, I am reminded of how crummy it is as a consumer experience. I certainly have criticisms of DVD, Blu-ray, and Internet-based streaming services, but if the long term issues with digital archiving and storage can be solved, we're all a lot better off. Related to that, I have to say that I'm impressed that the few tapes from the 1980s I've played back recently (to digitize) still play and look about as good as they did decades ago. Will we be able to say the same for the digital content that's stored on servers today? Possibly. I hope.

So, if I could reach out and respond to my 1996 self, I would have two things to say:

1.  Take it easy on the elitism.

2.  It will get better.

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