Sunday, February 02, 2014

The Mating Habits of the VCR, plus Rewind This! DVD review

Al with remnants of his old VHS collection, circa 2002. I don't own that shirt anymore, either.

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...
There were individual variants on the process, of course. Maybe you rented the second machine, or maybe your friend showed up at the door with a stack of movies and a VCR under his or her arm (and a joint or a pizza or a six pack or... whatever your preference was. It was not recommended to attempt this procedure on acid!). Maybe if you were hardcore you had two VCRs permanently set up together, so you could tape whatever you watched, if it wasn't copy-protected... I remember, once or twice a month, poring over the catalogues at rental stores in the city with my suburban film geek buddies, trying to figure out how many movies we could copy in one night: which he or she wanted, which I wanted, and which we both felt we needed copies of. There was no way to hurry the process - a two hour movie took two hours to record - so you could only rent so many movies in one go. You'd watch three in a row while they copied and leave one running while you went to bed; that would leave you time to make one more copy in the morning before you had to go back to town and return the tapes. There was even a lore around the pairing of machines - how one VCR would sometimes not like another VCR, and produce a copy where the tracking wasn't quite right; sometimes you could fix that, by having it set just so, and sometimes you had to just find a different combination of VCRs if you cared about image quality at all...
Understand that this was an at least somewhat innocent form of piracy, relative to what's going on today, since in many cases, the movies we were copying back in the 1980's were simply not being sold to the general public like they are now; the idea of movies as something that people would want to buy and own in their own home took a surprising while to catch on in the marketplace. In the early days of VHS, home videos could cost up to $100 each to buy, being sold primarily to rental stores. The demand to own was there, but distributors had yet to figure out that there was a working business model to be had from catering to it; buying movies on video was not commonplace until prices came down and quantities increased. I still did it: I remember paying around $100 for a (legit, factory-produced) VHS copy of Jim Jarmusch's 1989 film Mystery Train, getting the buyer at the video store I was working at to bring it in, because I was unconvinced it would ever come out at a cheaper price, and in any case, I didn't want to wait. I was actually kind of pleased with myself for spending that much money on the film, took it as a proof of the sincerity of my incipient cinephilia, enjoyed the puzzled looks of my coworkers ("that guy is crazy!") - though I would still wince when, in later years, I would see the film on the shelves for $14.99. When selling to home viewers became the dominant model for distributing movies - when, after a short period of selling a given title at an inflated price to rental stores, the price on it came down and the video became available to the general public for $30 or less, it would have been disrespectful to duplicate movies, and I mostly stopped and focused on getting higher-quality, legit copies for my collection. By 1995 I was subscribing to Columbia House (multiple times, to take advantage of their attractive 10-movies-for-1 cent subscription inducement), and spending hours at a time in the three-story Sam the Record Man on Seymour (they had the best VHS collection in Vancouver, and what they didn't have was probably next door at A&B Sound). I also started buying "previously viewed" VHS tapes, which began to appear in increasing number in the late 1990's, as video stores tried to weed out non-performing titles from their collection (which were often cult and foreign films, the films I was most excited about acquiring: go figure). But before the big price-drop, there was a sort of argument for sharing, preserving, and celebrating cinema culture through VCR-to-VCR dubbing. The sheer work that went into it - hauling your VCR across town to your friend's place, going through the process of hooking it up, checking the playback, the tracking, and then putting in the time to actually make the copy - was a sort of testament to the importance of movies in your life, and lent an innocence to the practice that I think people who use torrent sites wholesale can't claim...
Plus there were dozens of movies that simply weren't in print anymore by the time people like me were getting into this. I remember hunting from video store to video store looking for an old VHS of John Cassavetes' Love Streams, because it had limited distribution when it first came out, around 1982, and then was simply not manufactured anymore (even today it has only come out on DVD in Europe). In 1991, there was no such thing as eBay or Amazon, for you to buy a copy for yourself; sometimes people would advertise out-of-print movies in the classifieds section of movie magazines, but they were generally selling pirated copies themselves, and were less than reliable. It's hard to believe that I don't still have my old bootleg of Love Streams on VHS, that I didn't hang on to it for sentimental reasons. I remember that I cut an image from the film that appeared in an old Cinematheque guide, from when they ran their tribute to Cassavetes after he died, and glued it to the tape I recorded it onto, so it was like a label. Eventually I used my connections when I worked at Rogers Video to transfer a legit used VHS to our store, then, when I was getting ready to quit the job, talked one of our managers into PV'ing it for me, so I had the real deal. But the truth is - though I saw it both nights at the Cinematheque tribute around 1989, and two or three times when it played a the Vancity Theatre some ten years ago, and even own the French DVD release of it, I probably watched the film off my homemade tape more times than I've seen it any other way. Still, as paradigms and technology change (and as I've moved from place to place, shedding stuff at each step), most of my VHS collection has fallen by the wayside... I now own all of 12 legit VHS tapes; any old home-recorded ones that are kicking around are buried and forgotten and likely decayed beyond playability).
To the left: all that remains, as of 2014, of my VHS collecton - films for the most part otherwise unavailable on DVD, or only available in altered/ inferior cuts. From the top: shorter cut of John Cassavetes' Husbands (now on DVD in its full version). Bruce Sweeney's Dirty - a local classic, never on DVD. Werner Herzog's Scream of Stone/ Cerro Torre, Japanese widescreen edition. Monika Treut's My Father is Coming, starring Annie Sprinkle, never released on DVD. The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, about rogue Catholic priests/ activists Daniel and Philip Berrigan and their most famous "action."  Juzo Itami's Minbo No Onna - shit-disturbing Japanese gangster comedy that probably helped get Itami killed. Knife in the Head: Bruno Ganz in a film about radicals in West Germany, never released on DVD to my knowledge. Glen Sanford's Useless, about Gerry Hannah, available on DVD only in the OOP special edition of Bloodied But Unbowed. Three films by Wim Wenders, which remain unavailable in R1, at least one of which, Kings of the Road, has had an altered soundtrack on any DVD release I've encountered, presumably due to copyright issues. (The other two films are The State of Things and Alice In The Cities). In The King of Prussia - Emile D'Antonio doc, also about the Berrigans, but pretty hard-to-take, so I didn't replace it when the DVD came out.
The other thing is, there was actually a kind of creativity, a hands-on, "I control the media" aspect to copying movies that likely had some value in developing my interest in, attitude towards, and engagement with cinema. Much as I can anticipate certain people bristling at these shameless tales of copyright violation, copying VHS tapes in the 1980's was an early flourishing of my love of cinema, the end product of which is now a guy with a collection of legit, store-bought DVDs, whose life to some extent revolves around what movies he's going to watch (and with whom), and who writes occasionally about film for reputable publications. I don't think the film geek I am today would have existed without the film geek I was back then, even if the early expression of my enthusiam involved copyright violation.
And it WAS creative. Deciding which movies to put on a tape - back in the days of SLP - was sort of the equivalent of making a mixtape, figuring out which songs would work well after which. Friends of mine went further; I had a buddy (hi, Dave-who-will-never-read-this) who was kind of obsessed with car chases, so he would edit together his favourite moments from films like Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and The Cannonball Run and To Live and Die in L.A. into car chase compendiums, so he could re-watch only the jumps and flips and chases (and play them for friends). Once we figured out that you could mate the audio jacks on the back of a stereo to the audio jacks on the back of the VCR, if memory serves, he made his own "car chase rock videos" (I seem to recall one he did involving Motley Crue's "Kickstart My Heart"); this may seem like nothing in the age of Youtube - except Youtube didn't exist, no one had a home computer, and the word "internet" meant nothing to any of us. Compared to Dave, I was a slightly different kind of movie geek. I did try a few clumsy attempts at video collage - more abstract and artsy, including static, bits of rock videos, and other weirdnesses I recorded off TV. But the thing that I particularly recall is recording the audio tracks for my storebought VHS of Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies and Videotape (the only film of his I have ever truly loved, though Schizopolis is pretty fun) onto a cassette tape, so I could listen to it on my Walkman with no distraction of video at all. It was an interesting way to experience the movie, with a few surprises; I remember the crickets seemed a lot louder on the audiotape than when I watched the movie, which made me go back and look at the film again and think about the sound design...
Jason Eisener and Rob Cotteril, the director and producer of Hobo With A Shotgun, talk in the movie 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."
Cotteril chimes in. "And also understand and dissect the structure of editing, because usually editing was designed, often, to be very seamless.You could figure out how shots would be put together to create a flow or effect - in a gag, especially, or a stunt. It really increased the ability for people to understand the language of film."
This is one of many anecdotes in Josh Johnson's 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. 
Julia Marchese of the New Beverley Cinema and her colour-coded VHS collection

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..."
If there's a problem with Rewind This! it's that it attempts to accomplish too much; each geek interviewed has tons to say about the effect VHS had, spinning off in dozens of directions - like the importance of keeping your collection in order,  the joys of the hunt for films you needed to see, the rise of films shot on video (with, indeed, sections on the porn industry), the secrets of the tape-trading underground, and the joys of lost gems like a Windows 95 instruction manual starring Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston. Keeping all the threads in order is somewhat overwhelming, especially when any given observation will trigger a flood of memories, thoughts and insights that you'll want to explore, while the film moves merrily onto the next topic. But that's kind of meant as praise, too: this is one rich documentary, and having too much content is definitely preferable to having too little. Turns out there's so much to be said about the history of VHS that it's kind of shocking that there have been so few attempts to put this recent history in perspective. A Facebook friend points out that another film is coming out on the same topic, 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.

1 comment:

stefaneechi said...

Fantastic review and reminiscences of your days of VHS collecting! Reading on your procedures, I felt like I was there dubbing stuff again. :) The doc was a love letter to the form and very comprehensive in scope. I found the industry aspects informative and interesting, but I related most to the collector stuff. So much variety there that could have been delved into more thoroughly, but that would have been way too long for a movie. Hopefully this will inspire someone to make something with a narrower focus - a Cinemania for VHS diehards.

I got rid of the majority of my collection last time I moved, and doing that was painful. No room for 1000's of tapes in a one bedroom apt if you want living space too. I still have a VCR, but the dubbing station is no more :P