Sunday, February 02, 2014
The Mating Habits of the VCR, plus Rewind This! DVD review
How many people reading this have hooked two VCRs together to copy a VHS tape? It's sort of a lost cultural practice, plugging RCA cables from the video out/ audio out jacks into the video/ audio in jacks in the back of another machine. I bet at least some younger folks, accustomed to file-sharing and torrents and streaming and so forth, have no experience of this process at all, while anyone over 35 probably knows what I'm talking about. Depending on the quality of image you were prepared to settle for, you could fit three movies on to one tape and have room left over for a few rock videos. If they were very short movies, or if you were using a T-160, which gave you 2 hours and forty minutes at SP mode and eight hours at SLP, you could even fit four films onto one tape. (There was a middle speed, too, LP, which turned a standard two hour tape into a four hour tape, but it eventually seemed to disappear as the technology evolved; people either wanted quality copies, at SP mode, or they were more concerned with bulk acquisition, and used SLP). There's a whole range of sensations and motor-memories that accompanied the practice that I can bring to mind if I try: the sound of the videocassette chunking into place and the whir of internal motors as the tape was fed into the machine; the satisfying feeling of plugging in the RCA's; the peeling and sticking of the label; even the smell of the plastic of the videotape... It's strange to me that I seldom think about these things now, how small a place I reserve for them in my memory, given that I spent a LOT of time "collecting movies" this way in my teens and early 20's...
Rewind This! about this very sort of thing. "Instead of having stacks of film books, we had stacks of VHS tapes," Eisener says. "That's what helped us discover our love for cinema, it's what inspired us to go out shooting our own movies. I remember even cutting my first films on two VHS players," though here he's probably talking about cutting together footage he shot himself, of course. Elsewhere he observes that, "When VHS came out and the rewind button was introduced.... that was pretty much revolutionary for filmmakers, because you could easily, just by the press of a button, go back and constantly re-watch how Tom Savini stuck an arrow through someone's chest. You could go back and pause it and look at it closely."
Rewind This!, a history of home video and the VHS format, which is now available on DVD. With apologies to those who have been reading all this way, hoping for some revelatory observation about the nature of video, in fact, the whole point of this piece of writing is actually to give a glowing endorsement to this film, which Vancouver's own Panos Cosmatos, whom I interviewed about his film Beyond The Black Rainbow here, served as executive producer on. Thought it doesn't really get into the topic of VCR-to-VCR mating (a whole other can of worms, which is why I've opened it above), the film is a jam-packed delight, featuring the testimony and experiences of dozens of film geeks, including recently departed figures like Andy Copp and Mike Vraney, but also humble VHS collectors of no particular fame and higher-profile figures like Tom Mes, Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson, Atom Egoyan, and Ghost In The Shell director Mamoru Oshii (one of several Japanese interviewed). Together, they provide an oral history of the home video revolution of the 1980's. As with my memories of connecting two VCRs, a lot of this recent history has yet to be documented or appreciated; paradigm shifts in the way media is consumed have eclipsed the importance of VHS as a format, turned the whole story of VHS into a kind of road-not-taken, as easy to dismiss as the history of the audio cassette or 8-track tape. Except VHS is not dead: every thrift store in North America still sells movies on VHS tapes (often here in Maple Ridge at the rate of 10 for $1.00), and as the film amply proves, there are still plenty of people out there who are enthusiastic about the format, even as physical media itself appears to be on the decline.
Rewind This! deals with other issues I go into above, like the shift from the model of selling-only-to-stores to selling-to-the-general-public, with its concomitant drop in price. Cult filmmaker Frank Henenlotter talks about his experiences with the distribution of Basket Case on VHS, shows off a defunct talking-box edition of Frankenhooker, and weighs in on topics like how cool VHS box art used to be compared to what you see nowadays. He even gives a dismissive shot at Criterion - "the worst covers on the planet.,. they're the most boring covers ever made," before holding up a copy of the box for Pete Walker's House of Whipcord: "how could you not want to see this? How could you not want to own this? This is a cover. Criterion, go fuck yourselves..."
Adjust Your Tracking; I can't say anything about that - but Rewind This! is a must see. (FYI, it can be ordered through the Diabolik DVD site).
Note to my girlfriend: I promise, babe. I'm not going to go back to collecting VHS tapes. Seriously.