Saturday, February 28, 2009

IN DEFENSE OF VHS

With digital projection and Blu-ray giving us about the most pristine picture quality we could hope for, I've been kind of wondering if there would be a VHS-throwback movement. You know, some bad tracking chic factor that makes your little indie film seem "authentic" (think of the 4-track revival of 1990s indie rock).

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?

53 comments:

hokahey said...

I have definitely held onto my VHS tapes that I cannot replace with a DVD - and I really cherish them.

Among the tapes I have that I would like to see on DVD, but just aren't, are Waterloo(1970), Germinal(1993), and
Shake Hands with the Devil (1959), as well as the aweseome TV movie Son of the Morning Star. I also have the director's cut for John Wayne's The Alamo (1960), which I have not seen on DVD.

Also, there's something refreshing about putting a VHS tape into the old VCR and not having to wait for the menus to come up.

Fox said...

Hokahey-

I looked at my VHSs today and I seem to mostly have copies of newers stuff (1970s and on). I am gonna try to keep an eye out for earlier stuff.

This list that TCM has posted of readers voting for their favorite not-on-DVD movies is eye opening to me in that I haven't heard of a lot of them.

And you're right... I always though of DVD as much faster, but with all of the pre-menu previews et al on them now (some of which won't let you skip straight to the menu) are getting annoying. Gimme that old FF button!! :)

Joseph B. said...

I have to give you props for just MENTIONING "China Girl". One that many Ferrera fans forget about. Ohh, and when the hell will they release "The Addiction", which long overdue on DVD.

Fox said...

Joseph-

I hear ya on The Addiction. That's another one I fear could get lost in the shuffle. You wouldn't think so b/c it has star names in it, but it's really been loooong overdue, as you say.

I think it could also have to do with the reality that a lot of people seem to hate that film.

Daniel Getahun said...

Fascinating thoughts here. I've definitely come to the point where I just expect that everything I'd want to see is on DVD, but that's clearly not the case. Recently I missed an arthouse screening of The Magnificent Ambersons, and I've regretted it for months (of course I can just get the VHS...). And I can't believe something like The African Queen isn't on DVD, but fortunately I have seen that one. Actually I would be interested to see how many of that TCM list are not on VHS OR DVD.

I don't think there's going to be a VHS-throwback movement anytime soon, but suffice to say they'll remain important for all of us who grew up with them.

Fox said...

Hey Daniel-

I was lucky to see The Magnificent Ambersons at a theater here in town, and I hope it gets a nice DVD package someday soon. I imagine a lot of the wait is over the three cuts of the film that existed at one time.

I think one of the two "original" cuts is gone forever, and I'm not even sure if the other one is available anymore either. For the record, I love the edited down "third" version that I saw, and hope it comes out someday. However being able to see one of those original cuts would be a thirll.

It's definitely worth a viewing on VHS.

RC said...

vhs throwback now that's an idea...

i have a feeling the idea could work, that is until people realize they have to rewind the tapes when they're don.e

Fox said...

R.C.-

I can totally see some purists wanting to films their movies with the aesthetic of an aged 1988 videotape.

It sounds weird, but hipsters will try anything to get their 15 minutes.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Fox, I just saw this. Anyway, I couldn't stand VHS for its pan and scan and poor quality. I understand not wanting to lose all those movies though, I just wish they would get transferred digitally rather than having to be kept in such poor condition on a tape. I have thrown away many VHS tapes over the years but have kept the ones that can't be replaced. Like for instance, the original Star Wars trilogy with the original effects. Still unavailable on DVD and probably always will be. I don't even know if Lucas did a separate print or desecrated the original when he fucked with it. All I know is it's the only record I've got of how the movies were originally. I got the trilogy in 91 and won't ever throw it away.

Jason Bellamy said...

OK. I'm confused by the "Star Wars" reference. I've held on to my original VHS tapes of that series, too, which I got one by one (the VHS for the 1977 original is in one of those big plastic cases...awesome!).

Anyway, I thought the LAST DVD release version of the "Star Wars" films included two DVDs, one of which included the totally original versions ... original effects and everything. I'm almost sure of this, because I think I watched one of them and -- among other things -- remember the joy of seeing the old-school explosion of the Death Star.

Fox said...

Jonathan & Jason-

I can't speak to the Star Wars stuff b/c it seems like George Lucas messes with those movies so much I don't even know which ones are in their original form anymore.

I know I saw the REVISED edition of THX 1138 and boy oh boy was it disgusting to see. Now, I may be wrong (I'm gonna check after posting this...) but I think THX 1138 is only on DVD in it's new form.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks for the quote, and for the great post. It's especially pertinent since I hear that Kim's Video, an old haunt of mine and many other's, is closing doors in New York (though apparently the collection may be sent to Italy where it will prop up a town looking for tourist dollars - apparently they hope to have endless simultaneous screenings of all the videos in the collection).

Recently I relocated to a buddy's neighborhood and he stopped by on his way back from work. I was watching a DVD of Manhattan, not Criterion-quality exactly but still relatively pristine. I asked what he wanted to watch. Nearby was a suitcase overflowing with VHS tapes and he seized on the terrible (but entertainingly terrible in this context) Batman Forever which I hadn't even meant to pack. We ordered pizza and watched Batman movies all night - complete with coming attractions, ads for the soundtracks, and that weird touchstone phone noise that sets the tone so well at the beginning of every videotape (what was that all about anyway?). I will never be getting rid of my tapes or my VCR (in fact I bought a new one last year, mistakenly thinking that my old one was gone).

Long live VHS!

Film-Book dot Com said...

I have never heard of China Girl before. Hopefully I will still be able to find a copy somewhere.

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