28 October, 2015

A Passing Of The Torch

            At about 9:00 at night on May 27th, 2014, I popped San Antonio into the VCR I'd just hooked up to my laptop.  To make a test.  Diana had just bought me a device so I could digitize my parents' -- now our -- VHS Collection to something less ... bulky.  More ... easily manageable. This was Diana's idea, you see, as I couldn't see any reason to attempt such a thing.  The 1400 VHS were neatly shelved, in order, in one of our closets.  And we had my Dad's handwritten Catalog listing them all, so if one might call it a little ... bulky, well, it was certainly manageable.  As you can imagine my perfectly reasonable rationale didn't fly so well;  so Diana bought me this device and I made the test.  

Well, it worked.  

In an hour and a half, I had a good quality file of San Antonio on my laptop and a newly irrelevant VHS in my hand.  "See?" Diana smiled.  "Now won't you be glad when they're all like that and we can watch them as easily?"  I glanced at the Quicktime, then at the VHS, then back to the Quicktime, not entirely sure.  But I did what any perfectly reasonable rational man would do:  I smiled and agreed and the next day began digitizing those 1400 VHS one title at a time.  (I say one "title" because anyone that remembers recording to VHS knows one tape doesn't mean the same thing.  No no no.  There were often three or four titles to a tape.  So in terms of how many titles I'd have to get through, well, perhaps there was something to Diana suggesting I start sooner rather than later.)  

And this week -- a year and a half later -- I finished the last tape.  But more on that in a moment.

First, I suppose we should go back to the beginning.  Where those 1400 VHS came from, why I inherited them.  Rather, why Diana and I still had them, decided to keep them;  why we still treasured them.

This won’t be an article on the history of VCRs or VHS but, for the purpose of this piece, we’ll say the format hit around 1980.  And remember at that time movies cost around $100 each (that’s about $290 in today’s dollars).  Well, in just the next ten years, we’d see VCRs in over half the homes in America, and we’d see the first significant drops in the cost of movies.  In 1985, Beverly Hills Cop was about $85;  just a year later Top Gun a steal at $25;  and the Home Video Grand Poobah, we picked up 1989’s Batman for $9.99.  So significant was this new Consumer Exhibition that Congress held a Hearing at which Jack Valenti, then head of The Motion Picture Association of America, said (swear to God this a quote), “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as The Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.”  A bit theatrical?  Maybe, but you remember what people said about Napster and Music.

Why am I telling you any of this?  Because before 1980 the only way you could get a personal copy of most movies was on 16MM.  Yes, there were 16MM Prints of films floating around, and you’d buy one and hook up your projector and take two pictures off a wall and sit and watch a movie … but at a much greater cost.  A “little” movie -- say, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein -- would have run $1200 while a “big” movie -- say, Casablanca -- could have been $3000 (and you do the math on what that means in today’s dollars).  Point being when you could buy a VCR for $1500 and start recording off the TV for free?  Well, that was sweet music indeed for cinephiles everywhere.  (Sure, the cost of a blank VHS was about $20 but -- getting more than one title on a tape? -- that still felt “free” to a lot of people.)  

               And my Dad jumped on it.  

Also remember this was before Cable.  Sure, HBO was in its infancy and Showtime was right around the corner;  and who remembers ONTV and SelecTV?  But Dad was never interested in Beverly Hills Cop.  Now Abbott & Costello on the other hand;  Casablanca.  Playing those whenever he wanted would be gold.  And this is what I mean by “before Cable.”  1980 is still long before the likes of American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies, so where did Dad look?  TV Guide.  (Remember that?  This is all before Google too.)  That little magazine arriving in the mail was like Christmas morning.  Dad grabbed his black ink pen and poured through it;  going through each day and night, circling what he wanted.  KTLA was king back then with Tom Hatten’s “The Family Film Festival” by day and the network’s “Movies ‘Til Dawn” by night.  And Studios were one-offing some on Television, so you got the biggies:  Gone With The Wind and The Wizard Of Oz and (at Christmas of course) It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle On 34th Street.  And on Thanksgiving there were the great I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners marathons.  (One of the fun things about so many of the Titles being recorded off TV meant many of them have that year’s commercials throughout.)  But Dad had to hunt for them, know when they’d be on;  and often set an alarm for when they played at three or four in the morning.

Soon the library grew.  One of Mom’s favorites was Some Like It Hot so of course we got that.  And Dad appreciated how big a Star Wars fan I am -- imagine me then -- so he got that.  Soon we had twenty tapes.  As I say it wasn’t just Movies and TV Shows, he started collecting Serials too so imagine the thrill when some nights we’d watch a Chapter and a Movie!  The Perils Of Nyoka and Spy Smasher and Captain Marvel.  Soon we had fifty tapes, then a hundred.  Errol Flynn’s Desperate Journey and Danny Kaye’s The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty and Bob Hope.  I don’t need to tell some of you I like Bob Hope.  Well, imagine a ten year old that had his hands on My Favorite Brunette and The Princess And The Pirate and The Road To Morocco whenever he wanted.  I still remember a friend came over to visit and I asked, “Wanna watch The Ghost Breakers?”  He screamed with delight, “You have Ghostbusters?”  I looked at him like he had three heads.  “Um, The Ghost Breakers.”  He looked at me oddly.  To this day I think we’re both still confused.

And this brings us to a small gleaming of why I kept those VHS;  why Diana and I treasured them.  I talk a little bit more about this in my Top 5 Retrospectives but I’ll touch on it again here.  Two things, actually.  One, these are the Movies and TV Shows I grew up with so naturally they had an incredibly visceral impact.  And, two, I often say that anything artistic -- a Movie, a Book, a Song -- affects you most based on when you first encounter it.  Well, this VHS Library -- its Movies, TV Shows, Serials, Documentaries -- was very much my childhood;  very much part of who I’d become.  I remember sitting on the floor in front of the TV in the Granada Hills house where I grew up.  I remember Mom & Dad bringing a VCR and eight or ten tapes each time we went to Lone Pine so we could study the footage before going out to find its location.  I remember when I was at College and I’d go home to visit and I’d bring some back with me;  “comfort viewing.”  I remember the last movie Dad and I saw together before he passed:  Lady On A Train.  By that time I had it on DVD but of course we watched his VHS.  And I remember when Diana and I got together and I could share all of it with her and how excited she was to see me excited and we poured through The Library together.    

Of course, this was before the 1400 VHS were shelved in our closet. 

This was before the device.

So last May I started Digitizing.

It sounds easy but no;  and I don’t just mean the emotion involved when I’d finish a tape and reluctantly throw it away.  I mean the technicality of it.  Because you’d think you could launch a tape, walk away and come back when it’s done.  But no.  First of all, if there’s more than one Title on a tape -- I believe the record was seven -- you don’t want to have a Quicktime with multiple things in it, you want a list at the end of the day that’s The Thin Man;  then, separately, After The Thin Man and so on.  So I’d record whatever was first on the tape, set an alarm for its runtime, come back and continue with the next.  The other issue that all but dictated handling each Title on its own was Tracking.  Remember having to Track a VHS;  you popped it in and parts of the image were fuzzy until you dialed it clear?  Well, that had to be done per-Title.  So speed in the process went quickly the way of Betamax.

Did anything help?  Kiiiiind of.  When I came across, say, Citizen Kane and it was just the movie (just its content), I skipped it (having a pristine version on DVD or Blu Ray).  And that accounted for a good number of Titles -- a couple hundred -- throughout.  Another help was if a better print of a given movie came along, or Seven Brides For Seven Brothers was shown Letterbox, Dad would “better” the version he had, and I’d only digitize “the better one.”  But he’d not necessarily get rid of the former, causing duplicates.  (And keeping two wasn’t necessarily an oversight, rather the former might be on a tape that had other Titles on it so it had to be kept.)  For me, content dictated the choosing.  So even a “duplicate” wasn’t always just that.  For instance, even if I had a “better version,” if I came across Murder He Says taped live on “The Family Film Festival” with Tom Hatten’s wonderful commentary throughout, you bet I kept it.  So, really, I was addressing by Title.

On average, I got through about six tapes -- fifteen or twenty Titles -- a week so it’s not surprising it took a year and half.  Most of the time it was fun, revisiting The Library, often being reminded of what was there.  Of course, not every VHS made it.  Quite a few were lost to “damage;”  weather-warped or simply wouldn’t Track at all.  But those I could “save” were well worth it;  indeed keeping them alive in a technology where analog tape would only get worse as time goes by.  And, sure, The Library isn’t as “exclusive” as it once was.  I remember when certain Titles Dad had were extremely rare.  A Chapter of Daredevils Of The West, Fatty Arbuckle’s The Roundup, the Jackie Gleason Pilot for The Life Of Riley, Disney’s Mosby’s Marauders, the original two-hour Pilot for The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.  Now a lot of the Titles are on DVD or Blu Ray, and Eddie Brandt’s in North Hollywood still carries the torch, and Quentin Tarantino is showing a lot of great classics -- in 35MM! -- at his New Beverly Theatre.  Even Netflix and Hulu now have a lot.  But these VHS were Dad’s;  a collection accumulated over twenty five years simply because he was a fan.  So many great Silents, so many great Episodes of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes, so many great A&E Biographies.  The Spanish and French versions of the 1938 Lone Ranger Serial.  The Boston Blackie series.  And The Falcon and Nancy Drew

And now they’re Diana’s and mine.

At the end of the run, it’s 1130 Titles, all now individual Quicktimes on a two-terabyte drive, with a duplicate archive sitting in the closet.  1400 VHS culled down to two boxes about the size of an iPhone.  Well, to be fair, it was a year and a half well worth it.  Because Diana was right.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that the VHS are gone, but that we have what was on them.  Again, content being king. 

We still have The Library at all.

Back in the 80s, before IMDB, there was a book on Dad's shelf called The New York Times Directory Of The Film.  Published in 1971, it … well, I’ll let its own introduction say:  “Through the miracle of the computer, every name that has ever appeared in the credits of a Time review -- actors, directors, producers, writers, cameramen, composers, even animals -- has been lifted from the columns and placed alphabetically under the proper heading, with their films arranged chronologically.  This leads to some pleasant discoveries, like Akka (chimpanzee), or Dostoevski (original author), or the surprising number of films made by, say, Jean Arthur and Gary Cooper before either was officially ‘discovered.’  The original reviews are rather like butterfly specimens that have been pinned for all time in spectacular array.  But the films themselves are not butterflies;  they are not to be pinned down to one time and one place.  Whether produced as entertainment, art or propaganda, they live a life of their own, with a continuing power to affect us.”  There are even photos of about 2000 Actors and Actresses.  It was without question the IMDB of its day and remains an amazing, impressive book (and is now on Diana’s and my shelf).    

Perhaps better than anything, it shares how I feel about wrapping the last year and a half of this project.  Mom and Dad’s Library isn’t gone, it’s just a torch that’s been passed.  That will live longer now than it would have before.  To still be enjoyed.

Thank you, Diana, for reminding me of that.  And making it happen.