LaserDisc pirates go America

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The Independent Culture
You'd be forgiven for supposing that the LaserDisc had gone the way of Betamax. It always seemed like a somewhat adjunctive acquisition, after all. If you want spectacle and wonder, you see your movies in the cinema; if you don't, you wait for th e video. You always felt a certain obligation to look down at LaserDisc owners in the same way you would a driver of the C5.

Things haven't changed entirely. The release schedules are still anorexic compared with traditional video: only 1,000 LaserDisc titles available, with just 120 scheduled for release this year. And the price difference demands an altogether fatter wallet.Recent widescreen editions have retailed at £35. You can find a standard player for £400 to £500, but the most up-to-date machines, which will enable you to play the American NTSC disc, nudge £700.

What exactly do you get for your money? Quality is the quick answer. The LaserDisc soundtrack is prepared the same way as a conventional CD, so the sound will always be crisp and vibrant. The visuals, too, are recognised to be some 60 per cent clearer than video.

But the real bonus for buffs is the coveted "special edition". When Robert Altman's The Player was released late last year, it came with interviews, a guide to the film's cameos and previously unseen footage. Then there's the extended, annotated version of This Is Spinal Tap. It features the movie's original 25-minute "demo" version and many scenes cut before release (some because of their high sex and drugs quotient) as well as a running commentary. It hits the shelves this month. In America.

Therein lies the industry's major obstacle: piracy. It struck video in its infancy and has proved exceptionally tough to combat because NTSC / PAL (that is, American / English) compatible machines and imported discs are on sale in Britain, allowing bootleggers to acquire copies of Jurassic Park and True Lies way ahead of their UK video release.

A £20,000 fine faces anyone caught selling NTSC discs. But if a man with an open suitcase can still sell videos of Natural Born Killers on London's Tottenham Court Road, there seems little chance of quashing LaserDisc piracy.

But back to the real world: video. Electric is releasing Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould, which puts notions of documentary and biopic in a spin, and three Bunuels. Viridiana is a once-scandalous, now merely hot-to-the-touch fable about a nun shocked to find her charity abused in the real world. The Exterminating Angel, an abstract social satire, impresses more in theory, while Simon of the Desert, the least-seen of the batch, is a mischievous religious parable. It's also a fine example of how short film-making can be both succinct and leagues-deep. All retail at £15.99, except Simon (£12.99).

Tartan offers the Werner Herzog collection, the most memorable and enduring of which is The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, and Julio Medem's The Red Squirrel, which weaves many disturbing and hilarious digressions into the tale of an amnesiac who has a new life fabricated for her by a total stranger (both £15.99).

The Long Good Friday (CIC) feels as gritty as ever. Featuring peerless performances from Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren, its hard-nosed portrayal of British gangsterdom was a big influence on Tarantino. In the wake of the latter's celebration of petty, small-time hoods, it looks like a horrifying snapshot from another age.

It's a bad month for rental. You don't need me to tell you about The Mask (Entertainment). Bold, brash but charming, this old-fashioned comedy furnished with modern SFX is the only blockbuster worth checking out. Little Buddha (Buena Vista) has stretchesof excellence, though Bertolucci's direction is a touch unsure.

The best straight-to-video release is Surviving the Game (Entertainment), Ernest Dickerson's follow-up to Juice: a thriller in the Deliverance mould with a bizarre mix'n'match cast (Ice-T, Rutger Hauer, F Murray Abraham). John Frankenheimer's Attica riotdrama Against the Wall (Medusa) has its crass theorising, but Kyle MacLachlan and Samuel L Jackson give poignant performances without tweaking heart or tear-duct.

Two newly paroled political prisoners: Menace II Society (First Independent) and Shopping (Polygram) are released from BBFVC captivity. The latter should probably have remained behind bars. But the former makes a mockery of our censorship system with a determinedly anti-violence message.

Ryan Gilbey