Yeah, We’re Better Than You

It’s a safe bet that all of us, at one time or another, have been tempted to indulge in a little chronological chauvinism, i.e., the belief that the age in which we live is the most advanced, the wisest, and clearly superior to all that came before. To thoroughly explode that notion with regard to the wisdom of our current age, one need only reflect for a second on the fact that Perez Hilton is allowed to roam free—at least for a while, until Congress takes up my Send Perez Hilton to the Moon initiative. Yet as far as technology is concerned, it’s almost inarguable. Advance after advance has bequeathed to our blessed generation many wonders: the crescent wrench, the George Foreman Grill, SmartWool socks, chewable vitamins, and of course, Pizzeria Pretzel Combos.

And surely this is the Golden Age of Home Theater. Blu-ray, flat screens of unparalleled resolution, A/V receivers with more digital processing power than the supercomputers of just a few decades past, speakers that cover the entire frequency range, chairs that recline and have beverage holders in their cushy arms. Upon reflection, it does make you wonder what was going through the minds of our forebears that they could be so blind and stupid to be born at a time when such things didn’t exist. But what can you expect out of a bunch of yahoos who got wound up over the opening of a new canal, or who thought the steam engine was just the bee’s knees?

Ah, but there I go. Must remember to be charitable. After all, is it really so tough to imagine how thrilling it would have been to witness the birth of analog theater? I picture a dozen or so people in smelly animal skins quietly sitting around a campfire, having exhausted all small talk about the day. Aside from a brief moment of excitement when they roasted a yak, nothing much happened. And that’s when Bob stands up (his name is actually an unpronounceable glottal sound, but I’ll call him Bob). He starts recounting how just a few days before, he’d come upon a rival tribe and threw a rock at their leader’s head. When that goes over big, Bob begins to embellish, adding a subplot about his doomed romance with the rival leader’s daughter, sprinkling it with comedy centered around his hilarious orangutan sidekick, Uncle Jumbles, and not skimping on the crotch hits. (Bob of course does all the voices—he was the Eddie Murphy of the early 5000 B.C.’s.)

Skip ahead a few thousand years to a time when Bob’s art had advanced substantially, to the point that theater could be seen in an actual theater. Yet Bob, thankfully, was long dead (his later stuff was never as good as his early, funny material). Imagine the excitement as women donned their wool undergarments, laced up their whalebone corsets with side panniers, slipped into their 45-pound mantua dresses, and shaped their hair into elaborate 4-foot-high wire-girded frontages, while their husbands geared up in ruffled shirt and topcoat so monstrously garish and feminine that it almost defies description, and then topped that off with a hat that would shame Elton John. Then it’s off to the theater, an airless, 108-degree room lit only by foul-smelling whale-blubber lamps, to stand for four and a half hours—when you’re trussed up in whalebones, sitting is quite out of the picture, and besides, reclining is for peasants—watching A Grand Masque for His Most Excellent Majesty the King, Offered in Humility, Fear, and Prodigious Trembling with Manifold Apologies by its Worthless Author (Now with 40 Percent More Masque!). Then it’s off to a local eatery for a post-theater snack, a sampler featuring their three most popular blood puddings!

And things only got better from there, especially with the introduction of the motion picture camera and its downstream partner, the carbon arc lamp movie projector. These early hand-cranked wonders could project up to 16 minutes at a time, films that depicted things like a sneeze, or a woman giving a baby a bath, or a popular one about a cop who is three days from retirement when he’s paired up with a wisecracking partner who doesn’t play by the rules. (The dialogue card that would become a catchphrase that year was, “I am getting entirely too old for this tommyrot!”) Yes, it was a marvel of its time. Unfortunately, its chief flaw was that the two carbon rods across which the arc jumped would heat up to 6,500 degrees Fahrenheit, setting the film aflame and regularly burning down entire cities, which was bad for business. The problem was ameliorated by building the projectors into fireproof, asbestos-lined rooms, ensuring that, rather than the entire city, only the projectionist would be engulfed in flames.

Of course, the world-changing revolution that is home theater would come much later with the introduction of the VCR. Sure, there were a handful of enterprising, well-off people who built their own projector-based home theaters, but most of them burnt down. I remember well the early models, most of which were top loading, heavy enough to require reinforced shelving, and evidently so delicate that rewinding a tape—a process that somehow took twice as long as the runtime of the actual movie—shortened their lives considerably. Also, they were powered by carbon arcs and would regularly burst into flames. (Not true, but such is my antipathy to them that I’m hoping my slander ensures that they never make a comeback.) The machine’s biggest vulnerability, however, was to three-year-olds who, for reasons known only to three-year-olds, find it hilarious to insert pennies into their tape doors and laugh when they break down. (But, funny, they never pony up the coins when the repair bill comes due.)

In short, our chronological chauvinism is entirely warranted. So allow me to be the first to say, “Ha ha, eat it, stupid past!”