streamliner

Love, Loss, and Empty Shelves

I thought nothing could keep me from my collection. I was wrong.

illustration of discs and flowers
Illustration: by Tyler Comrie
illustration of discs and flowers
Illustration: by Tyler Comrie

The Criterion Blu-rays were the best. Beautifully designed, special features for days, films that always looked immaculate. I scored as many as I could, writing about them however possible, finding excuses even when the newspaper I worked for couldn’t care less about my obscure cinematic obsessions. There were other collections I sought out too: Warner Archive, Kino Lorber, Olive Films. I had shelves and shelves dedicated to my specialty film collection — and make no mistake, it was a collection, measuring a couple thousand deep. It was connected to my work as a culture critic, but I also just liked having and displaying them. Some were never even opened; I felt a little guilty about that, but not enough to stop buying more. I rationalized it by telling myself that if I needed something for research, I could grab it off the shelf.

I was, in no uncertain terms, a hard-media junkie. My partner, Kate, put up with it, as people do when they love each other enough to overlook quirks and peccadilloes. It helped that she shared some of my obsessions, like our love of vinyl. Between Turntable Lab, Half Price Books, and Amazon, the records just kept coming, as did the books, many of them galleys to be reviewed, others ordered for potential research, still more entrenched as part of our voluminous media library. Towering bookcases in our apartment were statement pieces of furniture. Excess clutter was collateral damage. Our mailman once told Kate that I was keeping him in business. I think he was joking.

We streamed when necessary — which is to say when I wasn’t in possession of hard media or going to the movies. The convenience was undeniable. FilmStruck, for one, was a must, and I finally got rid of my Netflix DVD option in 2018, long after most people realized it was still an option. I was reluctant to even leave that behind, if for no other reason than the joyful muscle memory of tearing open that envelope. Such was my relationship to physical media: For as much as I loved consuming entertainment, holding it was nearly as satisfying.

Things changed as 2018 became 2019. It began when I was laid off from my culture-critic job, which I’d held for 23 years. (Maybe I wrote about too many Criterions.) A couple weeks later, the body blow: Kate, the love of my life, was diagnosed with a terminal brain illness. Afterward, she moved to East Texas, about three hours away, to be with her parents. I moved from Dallas to Houston to start a new job, visiting her when I could. I took all of our media with me, where it sat boxed up in my new home with most of my unpacked belongings while I plummeted into severe grief. Everything that really mattered in my life — love, work, stability — had been shattered. All those Blu-rays, records, books? Flotsam. Stuff I accumulated along the way. No longer important. How had it ever been?

The months and years got away from me. COVID. Elections. Last July, Kate died. I moved into a communal-living home, mostly because, following an emotional breakdown in 2019, my treatment team was adamant I not live alone. My media, along with the rest of my belongings, now occupies a couple of storage units in Dallas.

For a year or so during Kate’s illness, I barely watched any movies, and I couldn’t bring myself to listen to music — any music. The world was one big trigger, and besides, I didn’t think I deserved the pleasures that once shaped my life — not without her. Slowly, though, I started to get better. I began to write and work again. I gave myself permission to once again enjoy things. I could hear Kate telling me it was time to get back to business.

Meanwhile, I’ve been sharing a house with ten other guys. Even if I wanted to reunite with my boxes of media, living space is limited, which means I’ve had to turn entirely to streaming for business and for pleasure. There’s nothing terribly exotic about my new diet: Netflix, HBO Max, the Criterion Channel, Hulu, Apple TV+, and Amazon are all on heavy rotation. As I rebuild my life, I’m constantly amazed at just how much is available to stream; when I can’t find a specific film I need to watch, I’m genuinely surprised.

I put down my Blu-rays and DVDs for reasons of space, but at some point, at least for the time being, I also stopped caring about them. Where I was once filled with happiness thinking about my Criterion Ingmar Bergman set, or my Warner Archive Joan Crawford DVDs — their nearness, the cultural gold contained within their packaging — I now see them as things. Cool things, yes, but just things nonetheless. Every now and then, when a Twitter friend posts a photo of their latest finds — the biannual Barnes & Noble Criterion flash sale remains a popular event for hard-copy junkies — I may feel a pang of jealousy, maybe even grief for a life I no longer live. But on most days, I care less about such possessions than getting through the next day, or figuring out if I’m still capable of loving, or being grateful I’m alive.

And so I stream. Old movies (I got around to my every-few-years viewing of The Godfather, on Amazon Prime). New TV (I’m a big fan of Hacks and Mare of Easttown). Professional research (I’m currently immersed in Black Westerns). It’s all there, and I feel no need to own it. A specialty Blu-ray or 4K provides a purer viewing experience than a streaming provider, but a media library is also a tremendous source of ego, and ego is what has been largely crushed from my life.

Kate used to read books about decluttering and minimalizing — all while living with a media hoarder. And turns out it is oddly liberating being cut off from these things I devoured so greedily. I miss the life those things were part of. Sometimes I even miss the creature comfort I associated with my stuff. But I also feel lighter, like I’m just a laptop, TV, or movie theater away from seeing whatever I want. That simplicity means more than ever as I try to pick up the pieces of my life.

Love, Loss, and Empty Shelves