Even though there are some holdout shops in certain parts of the country — notably cities with major movie scenes — the video store is now a dusty ruin of history. A downright ancient part of these Parthenons and Acropolises of old: the VHS tape. They barely issue movies on VHS anymore save for the occasional limited pressing: both Miami Connection and V/H/S had limited cassette tape releases, though for some reason it didn’t happen with Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind.
And yet, there’s something great about the VHS tape. If you’ve owned any or collected any, you know the odd feeling these objects evoke. They are an artifact with power that goes beyond nostalgia. The tapes changed the way people saw movies, learned about culture, created memories, and made friends.
Rewind This! is a celebration of the home video revolution, and even a rallying call to collectors and film fans to take these artifacts seriously since there’s more than just nostalgia at stake: VHS enthusiasts of all nations unite!
[This review originally ran as part of our South by Southwest 2013 coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the exclusive iTunes release of the film.]
Director: Joshua Johnson
Release Date: August 27, 2013 (iTunes)
Tackling the whole of the home video revolution in one documentary is a hefty task. There are so many angles that you can approach the VHS format from given what it meant for consumers and film enthusiasts throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The initial way in for director Joshua Johnson is the VHS collector community. We start out in a flea market browsing through the bins, like we’re on some kind of dig through the recent past — it’s even shot to resemble home video on magnetic tape.
It makes sense to start with the collector community. In a lot of ways these people are the hearts and hubs of the VHS world today. Not only are they actively hunting for rarities and trying to fill holes in their collection, their passion for the format is infectious. These collectors of VHS are like movie geeks par excellence, and their home décor reflects that sense of authentic, easily earned instant cred: a Hausu poster, eccentric organization methods, niche interests. One collector named Dormarth specializes solely in horror. In his attic he’s sorted his thousands of VHS movies into personally created sub-genres and sub-categories. He’s also wears a Nekromantik t-shirt, so you know he’s legit.
Related tangents: The first time I heard about Nekromantik was back in the mid-90s when I was trying to buy some bootleg VHS tapes online. I think the first time I saw it was on VHS. And on the note of Hausu, many of my friends who went to NYU in the early 2000s discovered that film thanks to a VHS copy at Kim’s Video in New York. (Kim’s is now sadly defunct, and its 55,000-title VHS and DVD collection donated to Salemi in Sicily, Italy.)
These stories of VHS discovery are not unique to me or my friends. The collectors and denizens of video stores know these tales well, and some of these rarities highlighted in Rewind This! are a hoot. The one I need to see ASAP: an awkward, two-hour western shot entirely on VHS.
While Rewind This! could have just been profiles of collectors and their passions, it expands outward from these individuals to what the VHS format meant for the history of film (and porn!). Suddenly the consumer was in control of their ability to view films rather than the studios. With video stores, people were able to browse, hunt, discover, be surprised, and be disappointed; and with video stores came an in flux of wacko movies to meet demand. The format wars are covered as well, highlighting why VHS won out in the market over Beta, complete with vintage commercials (much more charming than commercials today). The film also gives time to highlight essential to direct-to-video and sell-through heroes, like Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman, Full Moon’s Charles Band, and Basket Case and Brain Damage director Frank Henenlotter.
A few of the tangential aspects of the VHS market get quickly picked up and then dropped, though only because these is so much to cover when it comes to the format. Tape trading, for instance, gets a brief mention, highlighting the legendary short documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot and the on-camera cursefest of Jack “Winnebago Man” Rebney. And yet there’s one aspect to tape trading that wasn’t touched on: the MST3K tape circulation campaign.
But while this wasn’t included, I concede it’s more of an MST3K thing than a VHS thing per se, and it’d be hard to sculpt that into the film. Again, the VHS topic is so vast that leaving a few things out is unavoidable and necessary. What you don’t get in one spot is more than made up for by those unexpected alleys an eddies of the VHS world: outsider artists, unused box art, a look into home video marketing that goes back to the strategies of Roger Corman and other B-movie mavens of the day.
As Rewind This! winds down, the film switches from profile to history to outsider chronicle to a kind of call for advocacy and action. There are so many films out there that only exist on VHS, and the format’s life is limited. Slowly, all the magnetic tape is losing its quality, and soon all there’ll be is static and flickers of disturbance. Few beyond the collectors are taking VHS preservation seriously, and yet there’s a legitimate fear of losing thousands of hours of film history forever. In the case of movies shot on VHS, it’s almost like losing punk fanzines; in the case of movies never issued on a digital format, it’s like losing bits of cinema history — in both cases, it’s a kind of sad cultural memory loss, though it may be the cruel nature of any history, whether of ancient civilizations or entertainment.
While worrying about what the future will do to these objects of the past, the interview subjects in Rewind This! wonder what the loss of the movie in artifact form means for the future of watching film. We lose VHS for DVD and Blu-ray, and we’re losing the physical discs for clouds and other forms of digital delivery that don’t involve a physical component. While it’s a technological step forward, it may be a step backwards for people who love film given the access and ownership provided by the physical artifact the film is printed on. And with trading and swapping things to watch, it’s hard to say what these digital communities mean for members who don’t have to hunt, swap, or interact directly with others in the community — that was what tape trading and video stores provided, in a way.
I wonder if there will be a similar love for DVD and Blu-ray 10 years from now. There’s something about analog technology that’s sexier than digital stuff — look at the vinyl resurgence — so I’m not so sure. (Okay, maybe audio cassettes or 8-tracks don’t have as many champions, and there are hardcore laser disc collectors out there.) The love may be there for DVD, but it won’t be the same, at least for one generation. I can’t see a love letter/historical record like Rewind This! made for DVD or Blu-ray. This is more than just a trip down memory lane and more than just a love letter. It’s the fondness for your first love — video stores, VHS, the hunt — that leads to a lasting obsession in entertainment and the archaeology of its past. VHS, baby, where would we be without you?