Friday, July 29, 2016

When the whirring stops: the death of the VCR

The ancient top-loader. Pure steampunk.
The Funai Electric Company of Japan makes its last Video Cassette Recorder, and the last one for the foreseeable future, in August. It’s over.

The first videocassette recording of a film was released in 1967. Starting in 1977, the Video Home System consumer-level analog recording tape was the film-industry standard. In 1997, the DVD began encroaching on the VHS tape’s territory. The last major-market film (and future trivia answer), “Eragon,” was released on VHS in 2007, and a year later, tape manufacture ceased entirely.

 Now whatever is left out there on magnetic video tape that is playable will be stuck in a world that’s rejected its playback technology. Like the V-disc, the 8-track tape, the player piano roll, the filmstrip, and the LaserDisc, it has dead-ended, become a sport in the genetic sense of the word. It’s a now-pointless mutation.

VHS tapes were essential to a very particular kind of understanding of film. Not since the advent of art houses and repertory cinemas on the American coasts in the late 1950s had such a stretch on unseen films been found, easily accessible in the open market.

We viewers were previously subject to the imperatives of the market. In childhood, there were a few enthusiasts who wrangled 16-millimeter films, but these were few and far between, and well-off. We could find some of the output of the famous Blackhawk Films on 8-millimeter and Super 8 (Super 8!) at the local libraries, and we owned an old 8-millimeter job that played our family home movies, and Blackhawks of Chaplin, Abbott and Costello, and Tarzan.

Otherwise, first-run films came and went, and if they were good but not popular, you might never see them again. Broadcast television, the first great secondary market, was a yawning abyss of hours to be filled, and old movies filled them. “The Wizard of Oz” played every Easter, Christmas movies at Christmas, etc. We used to go through the pre-cable TV guides every Sunday and underline and/or circle (no highlighters yet) upcoming obscure gems, making late-night appointments to stare bloody-eyed at the boob tube, getting through a rare Douglas Sirk or Roy William Neill film, or “Alligator People,” or even some freakish stretches of quality such as Bondarchuk’s “War and Peace,” through the incessant interruptions of commercial blocks.

The bulky boxes of tapespool littered our weekend floors for decades, as we chucked them into the maw of the machine, which ground and gnawed at the boxes, straining to turn its gears and play that precious tape. (We had, and still have, a TOP-LOADER! Good times!) The revolution was us.

The VCR released us from time and space, and gave us ownership. We eagerly caught up with films we WANTED to see, WHEN we wanted to see them. We could now set timers and tape TV shows too, free our viewing schedule from the intentions and ends of the programmers. The power of the movie theaters faced its second serious challenge at this time, after the introduction of broadcast television and anti-monopoly action brought down the big studios after World War II.

All the films we’d read about that we’d never seen rained into our lives. It was now possible for the average person to self-educate about the length and breadth of cinema.

The primary downsides of the VCR were the laughably difficult programming problems the recording system always seemed to have, the clanky, cranky laboring of the devices, and the grainy, stretched, and stuttering quality of the image itself. (Anyone on the production side from the period will tell you about the hellish nightmare that was editing videotape.)

 As a legacy medium, the VHS tape still has cachet. Yale picked up 2,700 of them last year, mostly horror films. Stephanie Rogers’ story for the Yale News points out that the VHS and VCR spurred the rise of low-budget cinema, particularly in the cost-effective horror genre, and direct-to-rental market helps to undermine cinema-going. (Pornography was, as always, on the cutting edge of whatever technological development came along, and thrived as well.)

The DVD murdered the VHS tape. Its infinitely better image, searchability, and capacity made it the winner over the tape. DVDs gave every film freak far more than even they could digest in one sitting. The advent of multiple data channels on each disc gave birth to the commentary track, scads of now-expected “extras,” alternative edits, contextualizing content, gag and blooper reels, and films within films. (The damn things do scratch easily.)

Now what’s next? A few years ago, Oliver Stone held up a DVD and said, “You may be the last generation to own a movie.” The video (now DVD) rental stores are almost extinct themselves. Even the Redbox movie-dispensing kiosk service, which killed the Blockbuster video-rental chain, finds itself becoming a less profitable anachronism. Its DVD rentals were down a whopping 17 percent in the fourth quarter of 2015.

Now that we are streaming film, we are purchasing temporary access to a product that’s not material. Pay for play. Downloads are possible, but we’ve come to find that digital files are just as prone to disruption, damage, overwriting, and loss as all those playlists you made on GrooveShark.

And that’s disturbing. I have about 2,000 films on DVD, very consciously chosen to provide me with an index of great films (OK, and “The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” and “Pootie Tang”) for reference and repeated viewings. I am hoping the kids get into them and are accidentally infected with the rewards of quality viewing. How long until I have to jury-rig some kind of playback system for this collection I have no desire to rebuild again, from scratch? We all seem to end up living primarily in the last medium we are comfortable with, the one we commit to financially and emotionally.

That being said, I am still hoarding the following, as hope springs eternal – 78 rpm records, 45s, and standard vinyl; first-generation audiotape, cassettes, V-discs, CDs, DVDs, and . . . somewhere on this dusty shelf I’m probing . . . my last VHS tapes.

There are 15 tapes here I deemed indispensable a decade ago. I wonder what’s on them? Can I see the content on them some other way?

Here’s a head cleaner. “A Rugrats Chanukah,” “A Rugrats Passover,” both available via Hulu. My friends Kathy and Robin Beck’s hilarious documentary, “Grandpa’s Still in the TUFF Shed.” Keeper. Three vintage Daffy Duck cartoon compilations, one of Bugs Bunny, one merely labeled “classic.” (You can see where my priorities lie.) Keep.

Of course, I have to hang on to the Mary Martin “Peter Pan” TV production. Priceless!

Homemade mixes: here’s a John Ford triple feature, “The Lost Patrol,” “The Informer,” and “Wagon Master.” All easily found via streaming.

Here are two I can’t find anywhere else: Jack Gold’s brilliant and underrated retelling of “Robin Crusoe,” 1975’s “Man Friday,” with Peter O’Toole and Richard Roundtree. And the PBS mini-series version of Joseph Conrad’s “Nostromo” from 1996. “Nostromo” was the last, great, unrealized project of David Lean’s, and this production lacks something vital but points the way toward a truly definitive adaptation of the novel.

The first and last “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episodes. Of course. Keep.

Another compilation: the documentary on Russell Scott, Denver’s TV clown Blinky (can stream it); “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (likewise) and “The Maltese Falcon” (I have the DVD). Goodbye!

A documentary on my hero, Steinbeck; a miscellany of Laurel and Hardy shorts, some vintage Dana Gould (a criminally under-regarded standup comedian and writer), and some of those delectable vintage Fleischer Brothers Superman cartoons. Keeper.

And the family home videos. Our father’s side of the family was ravenously to new technology, and the earliest home-movie footage we have dates back to the mid-1930s. Our dauntless cousin Elaine picked up dozens of these Super 8 and 8mm home-movie shorts and had them transferred to videotape. (A dissection of moving family images from before my father’s birth to my youngest sister’s babyhood deserves another essay, and some therapy.) There are hours there to be pored over by curious descendants, discussed, laughed at, explained, and used as a springboard of associations. “That’s Aunt Emma,” I say, and her clean, damp, kitchen-y smell, her scrollwork piano, a laundry chute, the cuckoo clock, the steeply raked back yard, all manifest themselves, instantly.

The VHS tape in this last case will serve as a link to a new technology, duped to DVD and then undoubtedly to whatever new forms of recording and transmission evolve. But it’s a fact of physics that there is loss of signal, a weakening of the resolution of the image, each time a duplication to another medium is made. Will these irreplaceable ghosts of me, my parents, grandparents, sisters, cousins, and friends fade away down the years like pen strokes on a palimpsest, until finally forgotten and lost? When a medium dies, that erosion, that slippage occurs, and I worry. 

Friday, July 22, 2016

The NRR Project #15: Bert Williams and George Walker’s Victor releases

Victor recordings
Bert Williams and George Walker
Oct.-Nov. 1901; 1906
11 of 14 extant
The most masterful overview of the remarkable lives and careers of Bert Wheeler and George Walker can be found here, in a masterful,meticulous, and entertaining three-part examination by Jas Obrecht. For those unwilling to read his great non-fiction, here’s a summary.

The cakewalk was discussed by me previously here; and in thisentry from my National Film Project, I recently touched on the contributions Williams made. The important thing to remember is that these were the first African-American superstars. Their 1903 musical comedy “In Dahomey” was a hit, running for two years, and the first written and performed by African-Americans on Broadway.

Walker and Williams’ relations with the culture are complicated. On one hand, one of their gigs starting off was playing African villagers in animal skins; they were routinely rousted, robbed, and abused by white gangs as they traveled in vaudeville. Williams wore blackface, and both men housed their onstage personas in the racist stereotypes of the day – Williams as Jim Crow, the simpleton/stooge, and Wheeler as Zip Coon, the straight/con man who takes advantage of him.

Williams (left) and Wheeler in character, "In Dahomey."
Their immense popularity eventually gave them the power to move the needle a little bit. They had income and leverage, and they tried different media platforms. Ten of the 11 recordings they made were set down in 1901; four of them are from their hit Broadway show “Sons of Ham” the previous year. (“Pretty Desdamone” was a one-off in April of 1906; Walker didn’t like how his voice recorded and refused to do more.)

Some of the surviving selections are the typical ethnic “coon” or “darkie” songs of the day, sentimental tripe that paints the average African-American as a shambling comic figure. However, little gems such as the comic “(When It’s) All Going Out and Nothing Coming In” and the fanciful “In My Castle on the Nile” are charming and catchy. Despite Walker’s trepidations, his voice comes through cleanly n these recordings. However, Williams has an edge on him; he is much better able to project his persona and attitude through the medium. No wonder Walker took a pass. You can feel the energy and interplay on these discs, and get a sense of how appealing these two performers were.

In 1909, Walker began to suffer from the symptoms of syphilis. Two years later, he was dead, at the age of 38 or 39. Williams went on to even greater fame as a solo act, with song hits such as “Nobody” and “When the Moon Shines on the Moonshine.” He died young himself, at 47, in 1922.

The achievements of Walker and Williams are impressive. Practically forgotten today, they were the first African-American superstars.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘Canzone del Porter.'


1.      (When It’s) All Going Out and Nothing Coming In
2.      The Phrenologist Coon (From “Sons of Ham”)
3.      She’s Getting More Like the White Folks Every Day (From “Sons of Ham”)
4.      Good Afternoon, Mr. Jenkins (From “Sons of Ham”)
5.      In My Castle on the Nile
6.      I Don’t Like That Face You Wear
7.      Good Morning Carrie
8.      My Little Zulu Babe (From “Sons of Ham”)
9.      Her Name’s Miss Dinah Fair
10.  Junie

11.  Pretty Desdamone (1906)

Monday, July 4, 2016

Blowing up Grandma; or, the best Fourth ever

It looked something like this.
It wasn’t on purpose. We did not intend to blow her up. We loved Grandma, even though she wasn’t Nice Grandma. (Nice Grandma gave us candy and ice cream and Mountain Dew, the last of which she didn’t know was chock-full of caffeine. She couldn’t understand what was getting us ‘all whipped up.’)

Mean Grandma chain-smoked Pall Malls and pulled recalcitrant snakes that she found in her flower gardens in half with her bare hands. My sister woke up late one morning, and Mean Grandma made her eat pork chops for breakfast, a trauma that took her years from which to recover. Nobody messed with Mean Grandma.

We bloodthirsty devil-children loved fireworks. As soon as the seasonal entertainment-munitions tents were pitched by the roadside, we begged to be hauled to them. There our parents would fume as we ran crazily around the enclosure, evaluating the various Zebras, Black Cats, sparklers, snakes, smoke bombs, ground spinners, and Strobing Comet Candles, both on a per-piece basis and as weighed against the huge combo packages we could go in on together and divvy up later.

The hierarchy of fireworks was proportional to the danger they posed. Sparklers, snakes, and smoke bombs were for babies. Fountains and spinners were more our speed. We longed to dash back and forth from the middle of the street in front of our ranch house, wielding a smoldering punk just like the dads wielded their glowing cigarette butts in the night, lighting fuses and backpedaling, over and over again. Zippers were the best; they lit, spun, and then leaped into the air, increasing the odds of becoming lodged into our foreheads, and consequently more beloved.

The arsenal of choice consisted of masses of crisp, crackly packagings of pop-bottle rockets, so-called as they were cylinders of gunpowder stuck to long, thin sticks that were placed in soda-pop bottles and ignited. These could be launched for weeks before and after July 4; they were used for cross-yard wars, or shot at innocent younger siblings and other helpless animals.

We yearned to be driven north from Denver to nearby Wyoming, where explosives laws were lax and the “good stuff” could be gotten, beckoning just beyond that arbitrary, windswept border. There were the fabled M-80s. When we could get these high-powered explosives, we would use them to shoot coffee and pop cans into the sky, out in the fields and fields of unfinished suburban developments that surrounded us. We muttered darkly of one day blowing the lock on the local A & W and guzzling all the root beer we could.

The ultimate goal was, of course, to get the biggest, most beautiful, longest-lived fountain. We worked out way up to a grand finale, then hiked over the hill to see the city shoot off the big show. The year this happened, I believe I finally had a driver’s license, and had been saving my money from working at Taco Time. One afternoon, we ran up to wicked Cheyenne.

Now, I don’t remember seeing the words “mortar,” “aerial shell,” or “artillery” on the suspiciously large piece de resistance we splurged on. We set it out in line with the other pyrotechnical treats, all curated and choreographed to a nonce.

Grandma was none too sprightly by then. She was going on 80, and her reptile-dismembering day were behind her. Still, we exercised a respect tinged with fear. She insisted on being seating in a lawn chair at the end of the driveway, nearest the street, to not miss a second of the festivities.

The show progressed to the Big Finish. We set the monster out on the asphalt, and I lit the fuse. We stepped back briskly and lightly.

Then the most amazing bass CHUFF came out of the device, like it had just shat out a locomotive at top speed; like it was the Kaiser’s Paris Gun, flinging a quarter-ton into the air.

“RUN!” I yelled, and we turned as one, bolting up the driveway. Halfway to the front door, a deafening explosion rattled the area, a fantastic electric-blue burst that froze everything forever for that one second, us, the trees, the cars, our shadows that burst into life in front of us. Haloed in cobalt.

Only 50 feet above, like an enormous azure time-lapse dandelion, the obviously commercial-grade pineapple bloomed. The sparks lashed down at the surrounding roofs and ricocheted back into the sky.

The neighborhood was very quiet, save for the hysterical dogs. We peered nervously through the front door’s tiny diamond-shaped window. Then --

“Where’s Grandma?”

It would be great to pretend that she was sitting there, face comically smudged and smoke ascending from her hair. No. She was still sitting precisely as as she when we had abandoned her. She was just pissed.

She didn’t go with us to see the big fireworks display that year, either. She said she was tired.

Friday, July 1, 2016

The NRR Project #13: Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano rolls

Ragtime piano rolls
Scott Joplin
Seven recordings
One of the most cumbersome, expensive, and unique playback systems invented was the player piano. The idea of a full-sized instrument that could reproduce the playing of a human was in the air for decades, but remained unperfected until 1895. After that, it became enormously popular for a time, creating an industry that would last until the advent of electrical audio recordings in the mid-1920s improved sound playback on disc enormously, at a far more cost-effective rate.

The player piano works pneumatically; that is, through compressed air. Holes poked in a roll of paper correspond to notes played on the piano. When a hole is “read” by the mechanism, it shoots a burst of compressed air at the lever action that forces the proper key to be struck. Sounds complicated? It only took about 20 years to iron out the problems inherent in the technology.

A typical piano roll.
Once the technical aspects were figured out, the player piano became a familiar part of the culture of the period. Whether buying new rolls for the home machine, or plunking nickels into machines set up in bars and restaurants, customers spent freely on the device. Commercial customers found that, after the initial capital outlay for the machine, the cost of buying new rolls and maintaining the player were cheaper than hiring live performers – no doubt causing a wave of technology-related unemployment.

The novelty of the player piano, with its magically moving keys pressed as though by invisible fingers, was a draw, as was its consistency. (Some prominent players who grew during this 30-year span, 1895-1925, describe learning how to play by slowing down the mechanism’s action and aping the keystrokes, just as English blues players of the 1960s learned by slowing down American records and working out the chord changes.)

A short list of noted performers who “cut” piano-transcriptions includes Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, Percy Granger, Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, and James P. Johnson. These invaluable records teach us much about the players’ techniques. One of the most prominent names to record piano rolls was, of course, the greatest ragtime music composer, Scott Joplin.

 Joplin was an African-American Texan, born in the wake of the Civil War. He quickly mastered the parameters of the ragtime song (see my earlier entry on ragtime here), and by 1899 had his first hit, the familiar “Maple Leaf Rag.” Joplin gave the wild, upbeat, syncopated genre dignity by introducing complex chording and the symmetries of classical compositions. Joplin was not shooting sorely for popularity; he was a serious composer who produced more lyrical pieces such as the sublime “Solitude” and the opera Treemonisha, which went unproduced until 1975.

Joplin’s day in the sun was short-lived. He faced the typical bias against African-Americans at the time; it was fine for them to serve as entertainers and figures of fun, but white society did not accept their expressions of higher aspirations. Joplin was famous, but solely because of his rags. Joplin probably consented to record these seven rolls he did in 1916 just to make some quick cash.

Joplin’s name on these rolls was a draw for the public. Unfortunately, only one of the seven piano rolls, his second take on “Maple Leaf Rag,” seems to reflect his genuine playing, a stuttering, uncoordinated effort that speaks to his advanced stage of suffering from tertiary syphilis. The other six were edited and “corrected” by the staff arranger at the recording company, William Axtmann. Joplin would die the following year from his condition, at the age of 49.

The Joplin revival began in 1971, when Joshua Rifkin recorded a selection of his work, which received a Grammy nomination. Prominent musicologist Gunther Schuller orchestrated and produced Joplin’s Red Back Book for a 12-piece ensemble in 1973, and won a Grammy doing it. Then, of course, Marvin Hamlisch’s use of Joplin in his soundtrack for the film The Sting the same year opened the floodgates for Joplin’s rediscovery.

The player piano remained significant for only one other American composer – the amazing and still under-regarded Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997). An expatriate in Mexico due to his left-wing leanings, Nancarrow was fascinated by the possibilities the player piano gave an ambitious composer. Eventually, he purchased the equipment needed to make rolls himself, and did so from 1947 on.

Nancarrow cutting a roll.
Nancarrow recognized that the player piano could reproduce compositions impossible for one or even two keyboardists to perform. He could pile line after melodic line on top of each other, as well as multiple independent rhythms. The results, fortunately preserved, are exciting explosions of color, harmonics, and sound patterns.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Williams and Walker’s Victor recordings.

NRR Project: 'Gregorio Cortez'

  ‘Gregorio Cortez’ Performed by Trovadores Regionales – Pedro Rocha, Lupe Martinez October 1929 2:31 The corrido is a Mexican balla...