Against Democracy

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
— Winston Churchill

It’s Election Day in the United States. Watching this election unfold with all the intellect and decorum of a Jerry Springer episode [and not even one of the good ones, about homewrecking lesbian strippers], I’ve come to the inevitable conclusion that democracy – as it stands in 21st-century America, largely defined by this once every four years dog-and-pony show – is a failed institution.

“That’s positively un-American!” I hear you gasp. To which I respond… Well, duh – not American, remember? Because of that I won’t be voting, since I’m ineligible – which I guess counts as payback, a reversal on that whole “no taxation without representation” thing that triggered the Revolution. It will be the third Presidential election since I moved out here, meaning it has now been 15 years since I cast any kind of ballot. I feel absolutely no sense of loss at this, and heartily recommend this to others as a course of action. No matter who gets in, when they screw up – as they inevitably do – you get to roll your eyes and say, “Well, I didn’t vote for him.”

Of course, don’t ever make the mistake of confusing democracy and freedom. It’s quite possible to have one without the other, and the latter is much, much more important, obviously. The problem is not so much the concept of democracy, as when democracy gets ground down to the lowest common denominator through the mythical concept of universal suffrage – the idea that everyone, somehow, is equally capable of choosing a government, so their opinion deserves equal merit. It hardly needs saying that this is complete bollocks – and goes directly against the concepts American’s founding fathers had in mind as they set the whole thing up.

When George Washington was elected the first President in 1789, one estimate is that only 6% of the population could vote: men, over the age of 25, who owned sufficient property. This was not an accident. Founding father John Adams, one of the most revered men of his time, wrote to James Sullivan on the perils of universal suffrage:

Depend upon it, sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation, as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters. There will be no end of it. New claims will arise. Women will demand a vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their rights not enough attended to, and every man, who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks, to one common level.

It was true then, and it’s even more true now, given the vastly more complex nature of the world in which we live. How many of us genuinely understand economics or foreign policy? I know I don’t. But somehow, I’m an oath of allegiance away from being given the right to help decide the country’s direction. Frankly, this scares me, and the mob rule which results would be unthinkable in almost any area requiring expertise: “I’m sorry, doc – I know you said our kid’s headaches are just the flu, but my wife and I both believe it’s a brain aneurysm, so we’ve scheduled the operation for Monday, ok?” Lunacy. Except in politics, where it’s called “democracy.”

The most important thing about the restrictions which were set in place initially for the United States was not that only men could vote, or those who owned property – but that these limitations, as a result, meant that the voters were almost always the best-educated members of society – the ones you probably want choosing the direction of the country. It remained that was for the first half of the 19th century, but the block of voters was gradually increased, until the requirements are now a) being 18, and b) having a pulse (with the latter optional in Chicago). Standards have declined to the point where we are today, which Adams pretty much nailed, writing two hundred years ago:

Such is the frailty of the human heart, that very few men, who have no property, have any judgment of their own. They talk and vote as they are directed by some man of property, who has attached their minds to his interest.

This is what we see. The dirty little secret of democracy is that very few people vote for the candidate who would be best for the country. It’s almost entirely done on the basis of pure self-interest: which candidate would be best for me? Who’ll put more money in my pocket? Who’ll let me marry who I want? Of course, people will deny this, but you try to find someone who can honestly say, “While Party X is better for me personally, I’m voting for Party Y, because they’ll do a better job running the United States.” I’ll be here. Not holding my breath.

Think of how stupid the average person is, and then realize that half of them are stupider than that.
— George Carlin

The way the system currently stands, parties play to those stupid people, because they are so much easier to influence. You can’t possibly hope to explain the subtleties of balancing the national debt in a 30-second TV commercial. But you can make outrageous claims that the opposing side’s candidates enjoys eating babies for breakfast, because he’s a Muslim who wants to legalize rape. That’ll do just as well, because it doesn’t matter whether the voter genuinely believes in your policies or has simply been scared into voting against “the other guy,” it still goes into your box. Parties don’t want an informed, well-educated electorate. That’s too much like hard work, because they are harder to influence. Smarter voters tend to be more suspicious, simply because it’s almost impossible to be aware of what’s going on, without becoming cynical.

Parties, indeed, are a large part of the problem. They remove the need for intelligent thought at the polls: just check the boxes corresponding to your chosen tribe, and you’re done with exercising your democratic rights for another four years. That’s the way it works for most people. Remove the labels, ban the political advertising and… Wait, what? You mean I have to find out what the candidates actually stand for? And think about the issues? You mean there’s more to it than blindly following the party line which I’ve been spoon-fed?

Personally, I’d strongly favor some kind of quick test at the polling station. Nothing too taxing, mind: just locate Afghanistan on a map, say. I mean, you invaded the fucking place, I presume we know where it is? Turns out 88% of young Americans don’t. Other tests have shown similar levels of ignorance: only 36% of adults could name the Russian Prime Minister, and a third couldn’t even name the governor of their own state. These are the ones who need to be weeded out of the voting population, with extreme prejudice. Because they’re not the solution, they’re part of the problem: a system that promotes and indeed almost demands, ignorance, fear and selfishness.

As noted above, I haven’t voted in 15 years, and in all likelihood, will never vote again. This doesn’t make me feel any less invested in the economy, world affairs or any other aspect of society. And I’d fully support a return to the level of enfranchisement seen in Washington’s days. Because I’d far rather the government which oversees our everyday life was decided by the six smartest percent of the population, rather than the 51 dumbest.

Hitman: Absolution, and The Boy Who Cried “Rape!”

Oh, boy. Here we go again. Another day, another moral guardian pops up to condemn a game. Except, here, we’re not even talking about an actual game – just a trailer for one. I heard about this through a Google News alert, which brought me to this article on Forbes.

The blogosphere has tried the Hitman: Absolution trailer and it has been found guilty. In it, a group of female assassin’s dressed as hyper-sexualized nuns are brutally murdered by the ultra-masculine 47. It’s juvenile, brutal, an affirmation of every problem that video games have with women and an affirmation of the worst aspects of our culture.

I’ve never played Hitman – I saw the movie, which largely sucked, and think I spent a post-Thanksgiving sloth watching our son try to get through a mission. I seem to recall falling asleep, though that may have been as much the turkey overdose  as the game.  But, ooh! “An affirmation of the worst aspects of our culture”! I wanna see! Oh, dammit: I’m on my lunch-break. Better wait till I get home.

But in the meantime, of what did “the blogosphere” find the trailer guilty? Let’s click on the link, shall we? Turns out “the blogosphere” is apparently a guy in Melbourne called Brendan Keogh. Not sure what his qualifications are. He’s “a Media and Communications PhD student”, which I personally read as “too lazy to get an actual job.” This conclusion is confirmed by the “Occupation” listed on his profile: “Writer. Gamer. Student. Barista.”  Maybe there wasn’t enough room for “Layabout.” Among his other blogs are Feathers, Cogs and Stars, where he “will be uploading original short stories and poetry roughly once a fortnight.” This lasted three entries before he gave up, though frankly, it’s no bad thing. If you can get through them, you’ve a better stomach for shitty writing than I.

I mention all this, so you know that blogosphere thing is clearly in great hands…

Keogh starts out a long explanation of how he wasn’t going to write about the trailer – is he paid for the word on his blog or something? -then, six paragraphs in, finally gets to the issue: “My problem with this trailer is precisely its sexuality, more specifically its conflation of sexuality with violence.” Okay, let’s talk about tha… Or not. For the writer then heads off into a long discussion of “rape culture” in the video game world, though the examples offered are mostly smack-talk from Gears of Warplayers, whose relevance to the specific case I thought he was discussing is dubious. Give teenage boys headsets and an Internet connection, and you’re somehow surprised they aren’t congratulating opponents on killing them?

I disagree with the whole “rape culture” thing. Those who accept it, see the world through rape-coloured glasses and the results of that vision are unsurprising: Keogh’s statement that, “Videogame culture reinforces rape culture when 99% of videogame protagonists are male.” That’s a statement so entirely filled with delicious wrong, I don’t even know where to start, not least that videogame protagonists are not real. They’re pixels on a screen, and ascribing gender to them in a meaningful way says more about Keogh’s confused view of reality than anything. That aside, 100% of, oh, NFL players are male too. Is that reinforcing rape culture too? Like I said: start seeing the world through rape-colored glasses, and suddenly, everything potentially becomes the “conflation of sexuality with violence” which he abhors.

Now, don’t forget, I still hadn’t actually seen the trailer. But by the time I’d finished Keogh’s piece, I was very keen to see this “rolling in the digital filth”, which left him “embarrassed and ashamed and disgusted to have any part in a videogame culture that produces work like this.” Man, it’s gotta be totally out there, filled with more sexual battery than an Abel Ferrara retrospective. So here you go.

YouTube video

Well. That was underwhelming, wasn’t it?  It reached the end, I looked outside and, yep, civilization appears to be going on about its business. Dodged a (slo-mo) bullet there. Of course, unlike Keogh, I didn’t take the trailer seriously. To me, it was pretty clear that doing so would be a dumb mistake, right from the moment the killer nuns discarded their habits. This is not something that happens in real life, and from that point on, the clip ceased to have the slightest relevance at all to the universe in which I live. Maybe Melbourne is different in this regard, with packs of twisted sisters roaming the streets, launching RPG’s at random motels?

Could be, because this was the impact on Keogh: “It really upset me. Not just infuriated me, but upset me. I lost sleep over this last night.” Really? REALLY? REALLY? If that is truly the case – and it feels more like carefully manufactured outrage than a genuine reaction –  then someone needs to beg, borrow or steal a huge fucking dose of perspective. I saw a hardcore battle in which one bad-ass assassin took on an entire platoon of bad-ass enemies, who were clearly not popping round for a discussion, and prevailed over them. Once battle commenced, that was what mattered. And in support of this, it has been estimated the trailer contains, “Fewer than four seconds with the vaguest of hints of sexualization.” Oh, and I should point out, absolutely no rape whatsoever.

For those four seconds, I’ll defer to Penny Arcade in their assessment:

The cinematic ambitions of the Hitman games have always been prominently displayed on (or very near to) its sleeve; I watched the video to see what the deal was, and they’re playing around with their subtitle in a pulpy, grindhouse vein.  Robert Rodriguez through and through.  It’s fight choreography, and it may set an “erotic” stage but it quickly – and I mean quickly – gives way to a gruesome, life or death, septum obliterating struggle that might be hot for somebody but I suspect that’s a very specific demographic.  Only a necrophile could be titillated by something like this; by the end, it literally defies the viewer to maintain an erection.  As spank material, it leaves something to be desired; specifically, spank material.

That demolished, let’s go back and address Keogh’s earlier argument, that the trailer was… Sorry, what was his argument again? It was so long ago I’ve just about forgo… Ah, here we go: “”My problem with this trailer is precisely its sexuality, more specifically its conflation of sexuality with violence.” I’m not sure what he’s studying, but he appears to have majored in Missing The Point. Because that’s exactly where the “edge” here comes from: the uncomfortable feeling to be found in the juxtaposition of arguably the best and worst things about being human. It’s been that way for ever: I’m no gaming expert, but in cinematic terms, basically the entire girls with guns genre is based on skating the razor-edge of this tension.

The real crux here is not the simple equation suggested by Keogh of “sex + violence”. Even as a non-expert, I can list off any number of video games which have female characters, in costumes you wouldn’t wear to the supermarket, inflicting copious quantities of violence on (largely male) opponents. Next to no controversy have greeted these. The big difference here? The sexual, violent women here lose. It’s an interesting double-standard. Society nods its head at sexual, aggressive even aggressively sexual women…as long as they get what they want. But meet their fire with fire, as the Hitman literally does, and it’s unacceptable.

Is the trailer sexist? Quite probably. But it’s an advertisement for a series of games which, I’m pretty sure, are almost exclusively played by the male sex, from a male perspective, and can hardly be condemned for trying to appeal to the target audience. It’s not called Hitperson after all, and despite the trailer, is not likely to reach the nun demographic. There may be some hippy-dippy land where you can advertise a game about a serial killer character in a bland way, completely incapable of causing offensive in all possible interpretations, that will magically work. But in the real world, you have to grab the viewer’s attention, first and foremost, and on that scale, the trailer rates an absolute 10.

You may or may not buy the game. [By most accounts, it’s nothing like the trailer – which is a shame, I’d say] You may or may not like the trailer. You will remember it, and awareness of the product in question increases, the more the likes of Keogh whine about it. Mission accomplished, level completed. Brandon, you just got pwned like a n00b [as I believe the kids say], by the very people you’re complaining about

As usual, the moral guardians bleat about the wrong thing entirely. If there is a “problem” here – and I’m using quotes advisedly – it’s that the Hitman series encourages the player to identify with a mass murderer, and is far from alone in so doing. Never mind the “rape culture” bogeyman Keogh sees in video games, which requires the viewer to join the dots and make a picture of a penis, out of whatever might be on screen. If there’s an issue, it’s the “murder culture” far more all-pervasive in the genre (and in a pretty “ritualistic” or “fetishistic” way in this particular game) that should be of concern to those worried about such things. Which wouldn’t include me. But the implication of Keogh’s argument is that it would be ok to have the hero mow down dozens of women, as long as they were actual nuns, not sexy fake ones. Hmmm.

I did find interesting this statement, in the very article linked to by Keogh. “Rape culture is using the word “rape” to describe something that has been done to you other than a forced or coerced sex act.” Keogh uses the words “rape” or “raped” 46 times in his piece about an animated trailer for a video game. One which contains no actual sex acts of any kind done to anyone, let alone forced sex. Whoops.jpg. By this definition, the writer is actual part of the very “rape culture” problem he claims to be fighting.

One final irony: less than a week after his rant, Keogh wrote another piece, entitked Bite the bullet: videogames don’t make deadly shooters – however, in his universe, they apparently do make rapists. In that article he concludes, “Videogames are complicated things. No less than films. No less than novels. No less than any other form of media people engage with. It’s about time researchers acknowledged this instead of seeking easy, linear and lazy cause-and-effect models that insult the multitudes of people that play videogames.” Shame he was incapable of following his own advice on his own blog.

Ten Years in the USA

This week marks the tenth anniversary of my permanent arrival in the United States of America. What a long, strange journey it has been: like all of life, there have been ups and downs, highs and lows, and moments to remember in both directions. After the jump, you’ll find ten such memories, some personal and others global, to mark my decade as an American citizen…

1. November 2000: Arriving in the US.
The biggest leap in my life: quit my job, sell my house and pack up all my possessions to move over five thousand miles to live with a woman I’d only spent brief periods with. Was I insane? But on arrival, Chris told me that VNV Nation were playing in Phoenix the following day. It was not just one of the best concerts of my life, but in hindsight, a positive omen that my faith in true love would be rewarded.

2. September 2001: 9/11
This was the Kennedy assassination of our generation: everyone remembers where they were. We were hosting a film-maker whose movie we had screened at a local college the previous night. He and we watched as events unfolded through the day, but what sticks in my memory is going out for dinner that evening, to the appropriately-named Streets of New York. We were the only people in there. Phoenix and the restaurant were more deserted than I’ve ever seen them.

3. July 2002: Married Bliss
Having proposed to Chris after the Diamondbacks won the World Series the previous November, the wedding took place – by order of my parents – back in Scotland. The ceremony was in Aberdeen, at King’s College Chapel, with a busload of family having come through from Forres; we then took the bus back for the reception at Brodie Castle, and then honeymooned for two weeks in Europe. It was utterly unforgettable. But let’s not do it again, okay?

4. October 2004: Home Invasion
This was simply weird. Very late at night, we hear a banging down the corridor, as someone goes into our daughter’s room. At first, we thought it was one of her friends, but turns out to be some drunk woman, who had gone into the wrong house – we had left the front-door unlocked. And now she wouldn’t leave. We ended up having to call the police, who took her away to dry out. I guess, in the same category, there was my mid-night encounter with a Palo Verde beetle, which I saw on the floor of the kitchen and mistook for a bag of beads. The phrase “I can’t believe I picked the fucker up!” has now entered house legend.

5. April 2006: Life Begins at Forty
I turned forty and Chris decided to throw a comedy roast for me; we’d been putting on a lot of stand-up shows, and so she had easy access to a lot of comedians. You haven’t lived until you’ve been sat on a stage and been mercilessly ripped a new one, both live and “by satellite”, though I did get to fire back at the end, and think I gave as good as I got. The event also featured a set by The Strand, who supported VNV Nation for #1, who played a one-off cover of Trash City.

6. August 2006: My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult
No, not the band (though we did see them at the Mason Jar in 2002).  I mean our association with convicted serial-killer Dale Hausner: admittedly, we knew his brother much better, but had actually done Dale’s website for him – I was working for Go Daddy at the time. And then Dale got arrested. The shock of the news was only exceeded by the speed with which my employer escorted me off the premises, subsequently dismissing me, after I came forward voluntarily, and told them what had happened. Fuck Bob Parsons.

7. March 2007: Up the Ying Yang
Trash City Entertainment has hosted many fabulous, highly-successful events. But who remembers those? The one that sticks in my mind was putting on The Ying Yang Twins at The Sets in Tempe: a monstrous fiasco which left us several thousand dollars out of pocket and, in hindsight, should have sent us running and screaming rather than taking it on. The first rule of event-planning is stick to what you know. And we don’t know crap, about rap. Lesson learned.

8. August 2008: Pheel the Phear
On the other hand, we do know about horror movies, which may be why this was a far greater success! It wasn’t our first Phoenix Fear Film Festival – but it was our first “proper” one, as the original took place in an art gallery, which required us to spent some hours taping garbage bags on the windows, to get it dark enough to show films! Tn contrast, the second took place at Chandler Cinemas, a “proper” venue, and so represented the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition.

9. June 2010: Getting Press Ganged.
The Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team have become an increasing  part of my life here, since the won the World Series in 2001. But I never thought I’d end up covering their games from the press-box at Chase Field. But that’s what happened, as I guested there, in an online chat for Fox Sports Arizona. The whole “You’re not supposed to cheer in the press-box” thing proved harder to do than I thought, but it’s amazing what a fit of coughing can cover up…

10. November 2010: Another Moving Experience.
I end my decade here much as it began – by moving. Chris and I have just taken occupancy of our first home. It’s not the first we’ve lived in together, but it is the first we have bought together, and it’s surprising what a significant difference that makes. This move was less stressful than last time – November rather than June, and also felt like a positive move, being to a bigger place we own, rather than a smaller rental.

Of course, like all new houses, it’s a work in progress – and, I suspect, one that will take well into the second decade to complete. What else will the next ten years provide? Looking at the list above,  I think it would be pointless to try and predict! But whatever it is, I’m ready…

The Days of Swine(Flu) and Roses


There’s nothing the media likes more than a good pandemic panic. I recall the one that swept Britain back in 1994, about necrotising fasciitis – the ‘flesh-eating bug’ that was going to make the legs of everyone in the United Kingdom fall off. Needless to say, I type this with a count of fully-functioning limbs that does not stop at three, and that’s pretty much the way these panics work. A disease gets its 15 minutes of fame, far out of proportion to the threat it poses to the general population, and then fades back to the obscurity from which it came. See also SARS, which reached Illness of the Month status in early 2003, but worldwide killed under 800 people. To put that number into perspective, that’s rather less than die each year from being struck by lightning. Anyone remember West Nile Virus? Thought not.

And so we turn to the latest candidate: swine flu, which at the start of the week, was being promoted like with all the fervour befitting the viral equivalent of Susan Boyle [who is also viral in her own way, I suppose]. Here in Arizona, we are in a state of near-panic, being on the front-lines, and right next door to the epicenter in Mexico City. Er, ok: so Mexico City is actually over 1,250 miles away from Phoenix, and we are in fact closer to Medicine Hat in Canada. But Mexico is just over the border. And all those illegals who sneak over the fence at night, as well as bringing in crime, anchor babies and leafblowers, are now also infected with something that borders on Ebola? Little wonder the talk-radio attack-dogs on the right-wing are frothing. Witness this quote, from probably the worst of them, Michael Savage, on April 24:

Make no mistake about it: Illegal aliens are the carriers of the new strain of human-swine avian flu from Mexico. If we lived in saner times, the borders would be closed immediately… Could our dear friends in the radical Islamic countries have concocted this virus and planted it in Mexico knowing that you, [Homeland Security Secretary] Janet Napolitano, would do nothing to stop the flow of human traffic from Mexico?

Now, even as someone who favours immigration controls [dammit, I went through the proper channels to get my Green Card, so have little tolerance for those who opt to ignore the law], that’s pure bullshit, and is just being used by rabble-rousers like Savage to whip up xenophobia. There are many things for which illegal immigrants can be blamed [the inability to scan FM radio without hearing mariachi music, for one], but swine flu is not one of them. It’s reminiscent of the way, in medieval Europe, Jews were blamed for the Black Death – with the resulting pogroms also conveniently canceling the money owed to them. What brought swine flu to the US was tourism, not immigration: the infected aren’t thinking about starting a new life, they would be quite happy just to hang on to the one they’ve got, thank you very much.

There is, admittedly, a good deal of truth to the idea that immigrants carry diseases, and potentially lethal ones at that. Just ask the Native Americans: a decade after Hernán Cortez arrived in Mexico, some sources estimate that the native population had been reduced, mostly through smallpox, by almost three-quarters, from 25 million to 6.5. Things were little better further North, with smallpox – whether deliberately or unconsciously – a major factor in clearing large tracts of land for colonization. Frankly, in the unlikely event that Jose and Raul are responsible for the ‘flu, it’d hardly register a tick on the Karmic Payback scale. Thus far, Montezuma’s Revenge it ain’t.


Yes, technically, swine flu is a pandemic – since that just means an infectious disease that spreads through populations across a large region. Basically, in the modern world, just about any infectious disease will qualify, since with modern travel, the chances of any kind of quarantine being successful are slim to note. As a result, what was lurking in Kowloon Harbor on Sunday afternoon can be getting coughed up in your local pub 24 hours later. However, modern technology has also brought us much better weapons with which to fight such diseases: anti-virals such as Tamiflu and, of course, a vaccine can also be developed against the particular strain. That’s where catching this in its early stages is very helpful.

On the other hand, Vice-president Joe Biden…not so much. Here’s his quotes from the Today show on Thursday: “I would tell members of my family – and I have – I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now. It’s not going to Mexico, it’s you’re in a confined aircraft when one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft. That’s me. I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway… If you’re out in the middle of a field and someone sneezes, that’s one thing. If you’re in a closed aircraft or a closed container, a closed car, a closed classroom, it’s a different thing.” Way to maintain a sense of proportion, Biden – it’s almost enough to make you wish Sarah Palin was the Veep instead. The truth is, “deadly” and “easily transmittable” tend to be mutually exclusive, for good evolutionary reasons. It’s just not in the virus’s interest to kill the host, or do anything that stops them from being mobile and capable of spreading the disease.

Despite the basically trivial nature of the ‘pandemic’ to date, the media has been all over it, because there’s nothing they like more than generating hysteria and fear in the population. Something like, “After the break: it’s coming from Mexico, and it can kill you. We’ll be right back,” keeps people watching, in an increasingly-fragmented media world, where there is more competition for eyeballs than ever before. But, let’s be honest: what kills people in Mexico is not what kills people in the United States. Studies have conclusively shown that, there, it’s spiders, drug cartels and breathing air with the consistency and organic content of chunky salsa. Here, it’s obesity, spree killers and NASCAR accidents. And if you go into an American hospital with the belief you have swine flu, you may well die – but it’s more likely to be medical malpractice that’s to blame, rather than the virus.

Look, folks. I am a card-carrying hypochondriac. Even though I haven’t visited a doctor since graduating college in 1987, save required medicals for mortgage and Green Card purposes, I have at varying times convinced myself I am suffering from: multiple sclerosis, AIDS, diabetes, and three different kinds of cancer (skin, colon and lymph node). And I still don’t find myself in the slightest bit concerned about swine flu. Really. You people…

The Death of Laserdisc

It came quietly at the start of the year – not with a bang, followed by weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Just a two-line notice in the Akihabara Times, quoting a press release on the Pioneer website [I presume, anyway – the second link is in Japanese, so I’m going on faith with that one]:

This is a sad day for all LD (Laser Disc) fans… Pioneer is stopping the production of their three latest LD players, the DVL-919, DVK-900 and DVL-K88… For your information, Pioneer sold over 3.6 Million LD players in Japan from 1981 to 2002.


I must confess, my first thought on this was not dissimilar to my first thought on hearing about The Wrestler: “I didn’t know he was still alive.” If asked, I’d probably have said that the last player rolled off the production lines in Japan at least five years ago, probably longer. But no: though the release of software pretty much petered out not long after the new millennium, laserdisc lasted for over three decades, with more than 360 million units sold. Do you think we’ll still be watching DVDs thirty years after their arrival? I sincerely doubt it.

LDs were for the truly hardcore cinephile. Hell, I started buying discs before I even owned a player: I think the first one I got was Cat People, and had to get Lino to dupe it down to tape for me. Even though it was widescreen, this did somewhat negate the point. The 420 lines of resolution they offered may seem weak now, compared to Blu-Ray’s 720, but they kicked the arse of VHS’s 250. However, there was a price to pay for this, and it came in the form of cold, hard cash. Very few laserdiscs were made in Britain, so you almost inevitably had to rely on imports, mostly from the US, but occasionally from Hong Kong or Japan. Those movie fairs held at places like the Electric Ballroom in Camden, were goldmines for these, but some of the shops on Tottenham Court Road had a few, and there were also the Cinema Store, Psychotronic Video and Eastern Heroes, who all had their moments.

These were of extremely dubious legality, since none of the imports had been passed by the BBFC; even if there were no cuts, the higher frame-rate for NTSC made the running-time different, ergo they were uncertificated. Most stores got around this by slapping stickers on them, though I vaguely recall the late, unlamented [due to their horrific over-pricing] Tower Records getting into trouble for adopting this technique. And, like most things illegal, they weren’t cheap: the most I recall paying for a single disk, was 65 quid for a copy of Flying Daggers, though there may have been a Yellow Magic Orchestra LD – from Tower, natch – that was a little higher. If you paid less than twenty pounds for a movie in Great Britain, you were doing really well.

YouTube video

Devo do a commercial for the joy of laserdisc, 1984

As a result of these cost and availability issues, there were overseas buying trips – most commonly to the USA, but I also recall trips to Paris, and raiding stores such as FNAC. Back in 1998, on the final leg in New York, I spent an entire afternoon in the Virgin Megastore, going through their complete stock. I ended up with so many discs, that I had to take a taxi back to the hotel. No matter the haul, all these shopping-sprees ended in basically the same way. Who can forget the ripple of fear as you approached HM Customs at Gatwick, staggering under the weight of uncertificated material? Or the thrill as you exited the ‘Nothing to Declare’ channel to freedom, intent on subverting the very fabric of British civilization with your uncut copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Of course, you could order discs by mail, and enjoy the delightful game of Postal Roulette that followed. Would they arrive intact? Would they arrive at all? To this day, one of the highlights of my life remains getting HM C+E to cough up compensation, after they badly scratched a disc during one of their Naziesque inspections.

Laserdiscs were simply so much cooler than videotapes, coming as they did with extra features – again, this is now something we take for granted with DVD [“No in-depth interview with the costume designer? Wot kind of ‘special edition’ is this?”], but it opened up a whole glorious vista of experience, since VHS rarely had anything apart from the movie. The director’s commentaries were the bomb: a good one would be like having the people concerned sitting beside you, drinking a beer and telling you about the movie. Escape From New York, with Kurt Russell and John Carpenter pointing out each other’s ex-wives, would be a classic example. And much as I hate Quentin Tarantino, his and Robert Rodriguez’s chat on From Dusk Till Dawn, with input from Greg Nicotero, is another that highlights the possibilities offered by the medium.

I still watch my discs occasionally – most recently, Basic Instinct, only a couple of weeks back [Paul Verhoeven is another commentary master]. I have to admit, the video quality does look a bit dodgy, especially on a large screen, which are much more common now than they were at the time. But there’s something about a laserdisc which is more physical than a DVD, in much the same way that a vinyl LP offers more scope for design than a CD. Some of the box-sets that were released were simply phenomenal: Toy Story and Hellraiser are the first couple that come to mind, and occupy an honoured spot on the bookshelves in TC Towers. Criterion also did some impressive work, but their sets always seemed over-priced, even by the standards of the medium; I think the only one of theirs I ever got was Hard Boiled.

Laserdisc never became more than a fringe market in the West; in echoes of the VHS/Betamax battle, the technically-inferior videotape won. Though to be honest, it was never much of a battle, LD failing to capture more than a couple of percent of the market, due to various criticisms, valid or otherwise. “You can’t record on it.” “What? Turn the disc over in the middle?” “They keep falling off my record-player.” And when DVD arrived – much though I tried to deny it – I knew in my heart that it sounded the death-knell for laserdisc. However, with two bookcases, still stacked more or less floor to ceiling with the damn things, they may be gone but certainly aren’t forgotten, at least hear in TC Towers. Let’s just hope our player soldiers on for the next thirty years.

[Thanks to Alex M for being the bearer of these sad tidings!]