Wednesday, October 18, 2006

VHS Eulogy

An inferior technology nobody wants; people have not even bothered to say goodbye to VHS, and why should they? Except in the sense that a standard video dub appears--at this point--to be more resilient and lasting than a standard consumer DVD-R, there are no advantages offered by VHS (as a medium) to the average person, and hence almost no more champions for its cause.

But it has a history, and I and many other cinephiles helped forge our cinephilia from this bastard thing, home viewing on television sets. The first good video store I knew was a local branch of Potomac Video, a local DC/Virginia/Maryland chain with pretty decent selection. There was one a five minute drive from my house, and I remember that when I was 16 I went to see a movie with my Dad at the second-run theater, and on the way back we stopped by Potomac, where we signed up for membership, and I checked out two videotapes--The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and (this was the really important one) Days of Heaven. Rentals were $2.50 for a week, and through my junior and senior years of high school I made a near regular habit of two rentals a week. (The other sources of film-viewing at this time were commercial theaters and the occasional foray into DC's small but competent repertory scene, as well as my growing collection of VHS tapes recorded off of television.) The "video store" had, until this time, meant Blockbuster and its ilk--now I had films to watch that I'd only been reading about for a few years: Godard, Tarkovsky, Tsui Hark. I remember renting and watching Playtime with my friend Sahar down in my basement-room one evening, and we laughed hysterically and we're moved by this profound comedy, and it was not long after that that I started calling Playtime my favorite film. I didn't even get to see it on celluloid until 4-5 years later. I can vouch--Playtime, as much as it should be seen on the big screen, really is a durable work of art.

When I was a senior in college, someone else I knew, Maureen, left my roommates & I a few videotapes that she no longer wanted--she was also from the DC area, and used to work at another branch of Potomac Video, and had purchased these trashy tapes for a buck apiece when her store was selling them off. I still have the tapes and have watched them--Enzo G. Castellari's 1990: Bronx Warriors and Steve Carver's Angie Dickinson vehicle Big Bad Mama.

Nothing can replace--and nothing should supplant--the experience of the cinema; but VHS and the presence of movies on the tube did offer a new set of possibilities for the cinema to allow people to relate with one another, directly or not, and this way is simply continued (possibly perfected?) by DVDs. But the idea of buying a packaged object with which is something that is not "of the future," and when DVD dies out too, it will only be as a facet of the blip of home viewing tradition initiated by videotape and laserdisc. Tomorrow we pay for a streaming video, or an account with storage space on a server somewhere, or something else ...

I can't be the only cinephile out there who's interested in rescuing rejects from these videotape purges, these trash bins, $1-5 for sometimes great and sometimes rare (unavailable on DVD!) titles. I can't be the only cinephile for whom VHS still offers some attraction, because sometimes the home viewing experience for me is not about approximating the best picture and sound possible, with proper aspect ratio even!--it may also be about reviving phantoms of what you already knew and saw, what you long only hoped to see, compromises intact, and simply keeping alive a trickle of an imperfect practice that helped open your eyes when you were an adolescent.

15 comments:

David Lowery said...

I'm reminded of Vincent Gallo talking about moving from New York to LA with a truck full of untold thousands of VHS tapes. He said he saw no reason to make the switch to DVD...

I've got the same nostalgic attachment, which flourishes now and then when I check old classics out of the local library (my source for cinema during my formative years) and peer at their contents through the rolling bars of static. The one thing that trumps nostalgia, though, is shelf space. DVDs are just so nice and slim!

Incidentally, up until I ceased to be a member of a local critics' association, I watched a lot of the year-end released on VHS, since some distributors still used the format for screeners.

Noel Vera said...

Lino Brocka's Tubog sa Ginto (1972), a groundbreaking film on homosexuality, was considered lost for the longest time; I saw one reel of the last remaining print and it was a sodden, vinegary mess, the celluloid stuck together in a solid mass.

Then this guy found a video copy in some video store's garage--and it's the last remaining copy in the world. Actually watchable, too. And the film itself was terrific.

Anonymous said...

Well said! Just as I was becoming interested in film a video store opened in my hometown of Lancaster, PA that had a section consisting of videos of all of the films on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies list. They also had a "Two for Tuesdays" special: two non-New Releases for $0.99. Working my way through this list, lackluster though it may be, two films at a time every Tuesday was my introduction to "real" cinema...

And VHS preserves to this day the context in which I watched certain films that I taped from TV, like Star Wars. I have the trilogy on DVD now, but I still pop in the tape every now and again to watch USA's holiday advertisements circa 198?

Does anyone remember the ill-fated advertising campaign that had as its catch phrase, "Video: it's what you want to watch"? I see it on VHS tapes from my library that were released just around the time that DVDs were starting to become a threat.

Flickhead said...

When you people start waxing nostalgic over the '80s, I know I've got one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel.

Facets used to rent VHS tapes by mail for a rather steep fee...but they offered what the local shops did not.

In the early-'80s, Facets saved me from the local mom & pop place that rented VHS and Betamax -- for $5 per film per night, provided you had a membership, which went for $100 a year.

That place (and all the others like it) eventually went belly-up. Blockbuster was a mainstream drag, but at least they sent this kind of price gouging into oblivion.

Andy Rector said...

I have no nostalgia about vhs. I still use them, almost everyday. When making my own copies I will take an SP vhs dub of a dvd over a single layer dvd-r any day; a slight vhs "bleeding" is more acceptable to me than the non-solidity, mealy pixels, and poor rendering of gradations of a single layer dvd-r. Because of the awful pixelated black to grey gradations of my single layer dvd-r of Proces de Jeanne D'Arc (Bresson), it is totally unwatchable. I've also have had too many problems with dvd-r and +r compatibility when making or receiving dvd copies from other cinephiles to convince me that dvd, as of yet, is a reliable replacement of vhs for the underground cinema traffic (not to mention the short life of dvd-rs, which is troubling). The dvd-r traffic happens anyway and the compatibility solution is usually to play it on one's computer, but this has no weight.

Not that I don't value dvd immensely. The ease with which one can acquire and watch PAL discs is the biggest boon for us I think (I wonder if we'll ever have nostalgia about this, what with possible future copyright clampdowns always looming). Also, vhs obviously cannot compare with the improvement on image quality with, say, THE RIVER by Renoir on dvd. Yet, Bill Krohn discovered that the Home Vision vhs of THE RIVER contained a scene not in the Criterion dvd -- so I'm all for slowing down and looking at what we had with vhs in a Benjaminian way. To a certain extent I agree with Thierry Jousse (A FISH IN THE AQUARIUM on ROUGE) that the authoritativness of certain dvd editions is illusory, and perhaps a boring idea to begin with. I too value the contamination that can happen between films (more possible with a stack of vhs than dvds somehow?) as a means to see the possibilities of cinema rather than the possibilities of one particular auteur. There's something to be said for going in and coming out innocent of everything but the film one has just seen...is it possible today? I for one don't want to give up the seemingly random indissociability between films that comes about from simply putting 2 or 3 films on the same vhs...some of my favorite accidental indissociables being: NOUVELLE VAGUE (Godard) and THE YOUNG ONE (Bunuel) or SHADOWS (Cassevetes) and LEOPARD MAN (Tourneur)...And would I remember that I have CIVIL WAR (Ford), LAS HURDES (Bunuel), A CORNER IN WHEAT (Griffith) and OSAKA ELEGY (Mizoguchi) all on one EP recorded vhs tape because Straub/Huillet picked those films to be shown alongside theirs at a festival if I had them all on seperate dvds? Maybe it's all nonsense but when I want to remember my own education I turn around and look at my giant stacks of vhs, admittedly a specific kind of eyesore.

Anonymous said...

Lovely tribute. Yeah, I've got a stash of VHS that only seems to get bigger as more local video shops start closing their doors and selling off their inventory (Not long ago I picked up Svankmajer's Conspirators of Pleasure, Denis' I Can't Sleep, Sturges's Christmas In July and a stack of others for the irresistable price of a buck apiece)

Working in libraries I know that this format is still very relevant to a great many people without DVD players, some without any desire to have one. I wonder what would happen to these people's access to mainstream and foreign-language films and obscure documentaries should the public library ever decide to phase out the collection.

Zach Campbell said...

Re: nostalgia ... some of this 'eulogy' was nostalgic, as I'm a sentimental guy by temperament, and I like to remember a dead past for what it continues to mean to me. (I feel like I should (not) inject a bad pun about 'Fordian slips' here.) But it's not only nostalgia I'm interested in. Andy invoked Benjamin, and while here on Elusive Lucidity we do more like sub-sub-Benjaminian analysis (a 6th-generation VHS dub of Benjamin's 35mm 'Scope Technicolor masterpiece), yes, the basic ambition is the same. I want to keep a certain understanding of VHS, and video-as-reproductioin in general, alive in my memory, keep it more than a memory, so as to not only better understand what came after it (all the possibilities of the digital age!), as well as to help remind what came before--so as to never erase the real differences that exist between celluloid, analog chemical filmmaking and the new stuff we have these days. To insist upon remembering that there was a distinction to be made between media, that these are not just interchangeable forms of moving images whose differences are of concern only as a matter of AV geek trivia.

I went to Mondo Kim's again yesterday, and for relatively low prices I was able to pick up things that aren't readily available on DVD (as far as I know)--Joseph Losey's Steaming, Claire Devers' Noir et blanc, Jacques Becker's Montparnasse 19, a few others. I firmly believe that cinephiles should resist business' function as a tastemaker--seeking out alternatives to commercial releases in theaters or video (now just DVD) is something that, for me anyway, is both a fun and vital part of the great cinephilic hunt.

As for the unintended possibilities that VHS can illumine for us--as Andy suggested--there is the great potential for strange double or triple features on a single dub tape (maybe I'll post some favorites from my personal collection). And, perhaps I've mentioned this here before, there is the occasional film whose bleeding colors can sometimes transform a mere video reproduction into a mildly intoxicating video art piece of its own. I have a copy of Night Passage (James Neilson, '57) recorded from TV that offers this.

Mubarak Ali said...

I'll also take VHS audio echoes and chromatic noise over DVD-R pixellation any day...

There is a charming 'old-fashioned' video store right next to my place which I frequent that keeps dusty old VHS tapes on its shelves. Just this week I've rented out Pasolini's Medea and Tavernier's Death Watch on tape, neither of which are readily available on DVD here. I enjoy browsing and hand-picking out these seemingly forgotten films which no one else seems to touch (once, while renting Stanley Kwan's Actress, I was told that no one else had ever rented it before me in the 10+ years the tape had been in the store! Which made the viewing very special for me indeed). I came to cinephilia fairly recently (in VHS's autumnal years), but these images take me back to my childhood in the 80s when I came across the video image for the first time. So it's quasi-nostalgia for me really for a medium that's still alive (but only just...).

gabe klinger said...

All DVD has done is forge a generation of materialistic cinephiles for whom going to the theater is of no value.

Zach Campbell said...

Mubarak--I actually came pretty close to picking up Death Watch for a couple bucks the other day ... also James B. Harris' Fast-Walking, but at $10 a pop that didn't see like a good deal--until I saw what it was going for, used, on Amazon. (Maybe I'll run back and get it.)

Gabe--I don't think it's solely a generational thing, do you? I've talked to a lot of people older than myself (whether that's 30 or 60) who rarely go to the movies these days. First run commercial theaters sometimes seem to be havens for people with few social graces, loud cellphones, etc. I was actually talking about the film-vs-video thing with my girlfriend last night--she said she didn't really know much about differences between film & video because it's mostly about stories for her, and that I was looking at film like painting. And there's an element of truth there, but it wasn't really my main point--I reminded her that there can be (are) subtle psychological differences in quality of light, colors, depth in film-vs-video that--any evaluative or essentialist arguments aside--might simply and notably alter one's precognitive reactions to the film in question. It's the fact that this distinction is being glossed over that bothers me more than the fact that people (including myself) watch things on home video formats of whatever kind.

That all said, does anyone know of good places in NYC (or online) for VHS purges?

gabe klinger said...

I picked up VHS copies of RUGGLES OF RED GAP, THE MOON IS BLUE, MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION and a few other goodies at Hollywood Video recently. Do they have those on your coast, Zach?

I remember Vadim argued some months back that there is a fetishization among film students of the theater-going experience. I can see that, but it's nothing like the rampant materialism that is connected to the fetishization of DVD's.

Re: film as a delivery system for stories: where do we begin? OK, so visuals today should be transparent enough that the viewer is satisfied with a precognitive understanding of them. Since the two things we seem to care the most about in the films today are stories and money, why don't we photograph pages of scripts and intercut those with images of people signing checks and exchanging hundred dollar bills? Is that too transparent or would that make everyone happy once and for all???!!!

gabe klinger said...

p.s. i'm pretty sure the joke about photographing pages of scripts/money can be attributed to cassavetes in an interview.
also, when we talk about transparent visuals, and the precognitive reactions that audiences have, this mostly relates to narrative and is actually a fundamental manipulation in narrative cinema: david lynch, for example, does this extremely well. rather than refer to these "basic" visuals as facilitators of a lazy precognition, we may refer to them as "signifying" visuals. but that may also compliment them/the filmmakers more than we want to.

Zach Campbell said...

Gabe, I know there used to be Hollywood Video locations here in NYC, but I don't know if that's still the case.

Speaking of film & money, are you familiar with Jonathan Beller, about whom I posted a little bit not too long ago? He's written some interesting things about the cinema from an economic-ideological standpoint, trying to expose some things our fearless champions of mainstream culture would rather we not mention or question!

Andy Rector said...

I have a sneaking suspicion that MARIE ANTOINETTE is essentially this transparent money exchanging movie you speak of Gabe.

On the brute level of cinephile practice, I'd like to remind that, unlike dvd, when one makes a vhs copy of a movie it takes the time of the entire movie to copy it. Any good movie should slow down your rate of consumption (in other words, disarm you out of your habits). Now, the "advance" made with dvd technology to copy quicker (watch quicker?) may save you time, so that you may do something else (but don't you want to watch the movie?). It's the kind of advance made all through the history of technology/capitalism that further throws production, consumption, distribution, and time into contradictions. (see the enthralling discussion of Taylorization and the Soviet Union on THE MEASURES TAKEN blog.)

If it's true that people are opting not to go to the theater for a film screening because the film is available on dvd (and here I want to say that if I occasionally record in the offensive EP mode on vhs, its because I know if OSAKA ELEGY is playing in LA, I will be there, hell or highwater; ask Gabe about the state of my former car and you'll see that I mean highwater literally, overheating and all that) then what do we do with our theaters if they are becoming "obsolete"? Well, at least the repertory and arthouse theaters should be showing films not on dvd, forgotten and "dismal" things, and therefore open up an alternative film history. It's sad to think of the waste, all the fertile film prints and vhs laying foul.

Once again Daney made a good distinction when he started watching movies on tv:
"We are tempted to ask those who systematically denigrate cinema as it comes across on television, the following question: do you miss the film or the fact of going to the movies? In the latter case, raise your voice so that films may be made once more - real films - that will require large halls (but do not be too surprised if such films are mostly American and if there are good reasons for French cinema not being able to deliver on such a large scale). But if it is the film that counts and the film was already a work of genius in a hall, ask yourself if this genius is so volatile that it disappears with the mere change of medium. Chances are rather stronger, perhaps, that the word 'genius' has been used lightly."

About the near subversive effects of degraded video and tv recordings, I have a tape of VERTIGO taped off of early 80's tv, before the color restoration. It looks like RED DESERT!

dave said...

Andy;s comments on DVDs and Taylorism recall Godard's idea that the time it takes to make a cut is more than the time it takes to splice the film. Included should be the time to rewind the film, view the cut, etc... the tactile process of film editing. This, for him, is one thing lost in the transition to digital editing: the thoughtfulness of needing to physically manipulate the film.