Recently, Pitchfork TV put up a recorded performance of the pop-hardcore band Fu*ked Up. It was recorded on a VHS camera, and I thought, "oh no, here we go"...
I guess for an indie band worried about purity and obsessed with hardcore-ness, using a VHS camera is kinda cute, but god, what if those flatline mumblecore nerds started using it???
However, there's another side to the sustained life of VHS tapes, and that's that they're the best we've got for a lot of older films which haven't been transferred to DVD yet... and may never be! Zack Carlson, a local programmer at a specialty theater here in Austin, puts it into perspective best:
VHS is crucial, not just as nostalgia but also because it's a viable way to grow as a person who appreciates movies. Only 25 percent of the movies ever made prior to the birth of VHS were ever actually released on home video. Today, approximately 50 percent of the movies that were available on VHS are now available on DVD. So you're looking at huge sections of films that were just lost. I think there's about 90,000 feature films – besides porn – that are available on DVD, which means that there's another 90,000 movies out there that people are willing to just let fade away if they're going to forego the VHS format.
And that alone makes VHS completely valid and an integral part of being a movie fan. I want to beseech people to not throw away their VCRs – or go get one for $5 at a garage sale – because VHS is that important. (Austin Chronicle)
I don't know if Carlson's percentages are correct, but even if they're somewhere in the ballpark, those are some frightening numbers to any hardcore movie fan. "Hardcore movie fan"... hmm. Maybe that's the problem right there. Maybe there aren't enough people around to care if small jewels like Abel Ferrara's China Girl or Jonathan Demme's Citizen's Band or Robert Altman's Brewster McCloud disappear off the shelf forever.
Moving Image Source posted an article this week about this very phenomenon of a "vanishing history":
(Dave) Kehr worries that the movies of important little-known American auteurs—for example, Lew Landers and André De Toth—are simply "vanishing into the ether," he says. "They’re just gone from the conversation and that’s unfortunate. The younger critics haven't seen this stuff, but how could they?" (Moving Image Source)
In that same article, Jonathan Rosenbaum worries about a movie renting future that doesn't offer the sweet Joel McCrea film, Stars in My Crown, as an option. The mentioning of that movie, in particular, stands out for me.
Six years ago, while unemployed, I would go to the same video store every two-for-Tuesday and rent six movies for the price of three. This was a time of awesome purging that is probably more responsible for my movie knowledge than anything else. I think I may have enjoyed "the hunt" at the video store as much the actual viewing of the films. When you have time on your hands you can take chances, so I would often randomly grab movies I'd heard nothing about.
I thought the box cover was goofy, but I liked Joel McCrea, so ... what the heck! I loved it, so I went back to rent another of the director's films. I picked out Night of the Demon. And so went my history lesson of Jasques Tournier. That video store is more important to me than the largest library in the world.
We also shouldn't underestimate the value of nostalgia that could be lost with the erosion of VHS tapes...
Recently, at The Dancing Image, MovieMan wrote about watching a recorded VHS copy of the animated-for-TV movie The Wind In the Willows. Not only was this a chance for him to watch something that wasn't available on DVD, but it served up a priceless nostalgic quality that no DVD transfer could ever duplicate:
In 1987, in an event which I dimly recall, my father taped an ABC airing of The Wind in the Willows, a Rankin/Bass animated production of the Kenneth Grahame classic (I still own a lavishly illustrated edition thereof). The cartoon, watched again and again on various occasions, was woven into the fabric of my childhood and as the years passed, it became more and more a relic of some half-forgotten, romanticized era. We only taped one commercial break, but it distinguishes the entire tape with its colorful Fruit Loops spots, uber-80s scored Capri Sun bits, and claymation galore. Every time the channel is ready to break for a commercial, a claymation cowboy stands in front of a brick wall and croons, "After these messages, we'll be riiiight back," (later a 50s chorus replaces him). The juxtaposition of these once-modern, now-fondly-dated artifacts with the wistful, pastoral Edwardian milieu of Grahame's tale only adds to the impression that one is looking through some kind of portal across time (perhaps several layers of time).
To me, getting rid of a recorded-on VHS tape like that (something we've all done) is as sentimentally destructive as burning a photo album. Did that particular videotape alter the content of The Wind In The Willows? No. But watching it/remembering it in that context is as personally valuable as me relating Stars in My Crown to a local video store.
Recently, in the clearance section at Half Price Books, I found an old copy of the Louis Gianetti textbook Understanding Movies. Was it there b/c of it's condition, or was it there because it had been on the shelf for twenty years and nobody cared to buy it? When you get down to it, the elimination of VHS tapes by video stores is just smart business. You can't blame owners for unloading stock that is generating zero money and taking up space.
But for every movie fan out there who cares about the preservation of the art they love, it is now your duty to buy as many of those $0.50 VHS tapes as you can. Yes, your spouse, parents, or roommate may hate you for bringing all of those ugly little black rectangles into the house, but just tell them you are saving the world... and, really, who can argue with that?