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Rewind This: VHS and the End of Modern Culture

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I don’t really remember how old I was when Holiday Video first opened. I do remember, though, that it was a really big deal. My hometown (population 1,600 and falling) was a thirty-minute drive from the nearest movie theater (unless you count the one twenty minutes away that took RC bottle caps for payment and only showed stuff like That Darn Cat!), so the opening of its first video rental store was a huge deal. We–like a lot of families in those early years–didn’t have a VCR yet, but Holiday Video rented those too. So, for about twenty bucks, plus a security deposit for the unit, we were able to bring home a machine and a couple of movies, and spend our weekends in this brave new world. I’m pretty sure that the first thing we did was record an episode of Saturday Night’s Main Event.

Any use of this broadcast without the prior written consent of the World Wrestling Federation is prohibited, BROTHER.

After my parents bought a VCR, trips to Holiday Video became a cornerstone of my childhood. I must have rented The Monster Squad thirty times (and rewound the “kick him in the nards” part a million times over). Sometimes, even when I didn’t have money to rent a movie, I’d just walk around the store’s aisles, staring at the crazy cover boxes and wondering what horrors I Spit on Your Grave (sort of NSFW) or Basket Case might reveal if I could ever sneak them past my parents. The store was even essential years later, when I made the mistake of moving back home for the summer after my first year of college, and the only thing that made life sufferable was continually renting Dazed & Confused and watching it, often in back-to-back-to-back viewings, with my brother.

To this day, I'm convinced that Matthew McConaughey had no idea he was shooting a movie. That's just who he is.

To this day, I’m convinced that Matthew McConaughey had no idea he was shooting a movie. That’s just who he is.

Life is different today. Even in my tiny hometown, most kids have some combination of the internet, streaming video, and on-demand cable programming to give them something to do at sleepovers. But as the new documentary Rewind This! demonstrates, those kids have the popularity of VHS and mom-and-pop video stores like Holiday Video to thank.

Rewind This!, which was directed by Josh Johnson and premiered at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, hit streaming services like Amazon Instant Video and Youtube yesterday, where you can rent or buy it out-right. And it’s definitely worth a look (NSFW, though). Johnson delivers a solid talking-head/no narration-style documentary with interviews from avid VHS collectors, key filmmakers like Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case) and Lloyd Kaufman (Troma Entertainment), and other luminaries like Cassandra Peterson (Elvira, Mistress of the Dark). The movie also provides a nice international angle, with interviews with Japanese filmmakers and actors.

The documentary contains so many interesting nuggets of information, in fact, that it’s practically impossible to mention all of them. There’s enough here that you’ll want to exploit the 3-day rental period or download the movie altogether just for its rewatchability.

The revelation that will probably stick with most viewers, though, is that there actually are some serious VHS collectors out there. This may not be so surprising–nor would the types of collectors featured in the movie–considering the recent uptick in audio cassette fetishism typified by the recent “cassette store day” events across the country. Thankfully, though, Rewind This! offers up a few convincing and thought-provoking explanations for the trend.

Alongside basic nostalgia on behalf of people just now getting old enough to be really nostalgic, there’s the vast number of movies that were released on VHS. Because it was the dominant form of home-video media for more than a decade, and video rental stores were so popular that demand for new tapes was outrageous, there were far more movies released on cassette than there have been on DVD. In fact, only about 40-50% of the movies released on VHS have been subsequently released on DVD. On one hand, we might consider that a blessing. Many of these films haven’t been released because they’re just really awful. But on the other hand, you have to admire VHS collectors for their seemingly heartfelt concern to preserve even the dredges of our recent cultural history.

That effort becomes particularly heroic when you consider, as Johnson does, the democratizing impact that video had on filmmaking. Not only did VHS expand budding filmmakers’ ability to study editing, special effects, and other tricks of the trade straight from the source, it also made creating a film a much more accessible endeavor. Some of the best moments of Rewind This! focus on movies shot directly on video by outsider filmmakers–movies that, even if you are I aren’t particularly interested in watching them on a Saturday afternoon, will be of supreme interest of historians of popular culture in the very near future.

VHS collecting also seems to be driven by the realization that the next evolution in media will involve the total erasure of the physical medium. The VHS boom was the beginning of a new era of convenient and affordable home video entertainment, which eventually morphed into the DVR/streaming culture we live in today. But it seems clear that the next step for at-home consumption of movies and t.v. is fully digital. Digital streaming and downloading of video is becoming too convenient and is too inexpensive on the production end to envision any other future at this point.

Which puts us at a weird crossroads (warning: this is where the thought-provoking part comes in). Prior to the modern period–before, say, 1450–“popular” culture was transmitted orally. People told each other stories and sang each other songs, and the only reason those stories and songs survived was because the people who heard them told and sang them to others. You might say that culture existed in a “cloud”–an ethereal commons rooted in person-to-person information exchanges. Then, a series of developments in recording technology, including the printing press, the phonograph, the film camera, tape recorders, the VCR, camcorders, etc., revolutionized all of that. For the past half-millennia or so, instead of storing culture solely in a cloud, we’ve increasingly inscribed it into material artifacts–books, vinyl records, VHS cassettes–that we keep in our houses and share with our friends and family. When you think about the long history of cultural transmission, the transition to pure digital culture that we’re living through now is as much a return to the past as it is a leap into the future. Particularly in its etheriality, the digital “cloud” resembles the orally-transmitted culture of the premodern period much more than it does the last five hundred years’ reliance on material artifacts. Viewed in that light, VHS collecting looks a bit like a gargle in the modern era’s death rattle . . . in a good, “death is beautiful” kind of way.

A by-god still from the movie. Never forget, indeed, my homie. Never forget, indeed.

A still from the movie. Never forget, indeed, my homie. Never forget, indeed.

I loved this documentary. I’ll admit, though, that I’m right in its target audience. I’m both old enough to remember when not every home had a VCR (and to think it’s awesome that one of the interviewees has what seems to be an authentic Rock Afire Explosion robot in his office), but still young enough that I’m not offended by Johnson’s staunch denial to allow the movie to devolve into “these got-danged kids today and their dag-blasted internet” territory.

I’ve also dabbled in some VHS collecting of my own recently. I know, I know . . . the next thing you know, I’ll be espousing the superiority of analog t.v. signals, the Atari 2600 (seriously, tune in next week, kids), or atlases. But it’s just too hard to pass up those $1 copies of Monster Squad and Dazed & Confused when you see them at the flea market. My favorites, though, are the twenty-five-cent formerly-blank VHS cassettes I find in bins at the local scrap store. Last week I came across the entire 1998 NBA Playoffs, recorded off of the t.v. by some decent soul with a VCR, commercials and all. I’d like to see your new-fangled interwebs do that.

@jdholler

Article written by J.D. Holler

3 Comments for Rewind This: VHS and the End of Modern Culture



  1. Josh
    12:08 pm September 11, 2013 Permalink

    If you actually have copies of the Monster Squad or the Rescue (another gem from that era that nobody seems to remember), send them my way J.D.



  2. J.D. Holler
    12:28 pm September 11, 2013 Permalink

    I don’t remember the Rescue! I have to say that like a lot of these types of documentaries, Rewind This! has me wanting to step my VHS collecting game up (you should have seen how many comic books I bought after watching Crumb, or how much of Daniel Johnston’s discography I downloaded after The Devil and Daniel Johnston). The first step would really be picking up another VCR to dub things to share. Shoot me an email (hollerjd at gmail dot com) and I’ll let you know if I end up going there!



  3. Randal S. Morgan, Esquire
    12:22 pm September 12, 2013 Permalink

    I remember doing the same thing in the video store where i grew up. the cover of Evil Dead 2 (the one with a skull that is looking at you) gave me nightmares and i averted my eyes when i knew i was close to it. of course this did nothing, as i would inevitibly lock eyes with the skull.