2018 Theme Issue: Keepsakes
As a high school junior, I owned more than fifteen-hundred movies on videocassette. With the care of a neurotic librarian, I kept my collection alphabetized and neatly arranged on the thirteen shelves needed to contain it. Friends and family marveled at the number of titles, often remarking that I should open my own private video store. I assured them that, one day, I just might.
Even in 2002, though, I knew that my love for VHS was outdated. While the rest of the world had begun to gravitate toward the Digital Video Disc (DVD) for their home entertainment needs, I refused to concede defeat. I began to lie to others and to myself as desperation set in: the picture quality was inferior; they brought nothing new to the game; rewatching a movie more than five times corrupted the disc permanently. To give in to the truth also meant acknowledging that my years of collecting VHS tapes amounted to little more than a shoddy investment. After all, the paradigm shift to digital doomed VHS to obsolescence.
I wasn’t ready to say goodbye, couldn’t say goodbye. In the fifteen years that have passed since then, I have liquidated my collection, but I still can’t help but feel the pang of nostalgia for the good old days when watching a movie at home meant something more than browsing for the latest streaming title and clicking “play.” There’s no pride in that, no ownership, no artistry.
But the design and functionality of a videocassette? That is a true work of art. A strip of magnetic tape, half an inch wide and over 800 feet long, winds between two spools inside a plastic casing at a speed that aligns with the corresponding playback heads in a VCR. A rectangular flip-cover on the long edge protects the tape from the elements, but, when it reaches its clear end, hungry for light, the cassette stops playing; then, the only way to revisit this whole endeavor is through the antiquated process known as rewinding.
For many of us, that word — rewind — does not exist in isolation but tags along with its two linguistic buddies, frolicking through the corridors of our memory. Together this trio forms a call to action, the implicitly signed social contract that bound viewer to viewer for decades. We could not escape the internal rhyme or the lilting iambs because it was, and remains, the perfect earworm: Be Kind, Rewind.
In the heyday of the videocassette and with the surge of the video store, watching a movie in the comfort of your home became the ultimate paradox. On the one hand, this idea appealed to us because it allowed us to enjoy our entertainment privately. But when we rented a movie from our local video store, we also entered into a community of viewers. That guy behind you returning a copy of Armageddon might be the same one to snag your copy of Deep Impact once it gets reshelved. The inventory of a video store was alive, a breathing, mobile entity — and depending on the titles stocked, it could lose weight when a blockbuster jumped into customers’ hands, or it could pack on a few pounds when the latest box office flop received its unfortunate VHS release. And we, the consumers, had not just a role to play but a responsibility. We had to uphold the law of the land; we had to keep those tapes rewound.
But it wasn’t just video stores that provoked this abiding fiat to rewind. Over the years, I loaned out more than a title or two from my personal collection, and the tacit agreement between lender and borrower was that my VHS would come back to me rewound and ready for the next viewer. I remember once my grandmother returned a stack and called me back an hour later in a near panic. “I forgot to rewind Fargo,” she said. “I’m so sorry.” People took this seriously.
Because here’s the thing: Even though we might have been watching a movie by ourselves, we weren’t alone. The miracle of VHS was that, through the mandate of rewinding, it gave an inherently solitary act a communal significance. Under the reign of the videocassette, we did not hoard cinema: We consumed, we rewound, we shared. Can the same be said of today’s viewing experience? Sure, we’ll recommend the cool documentary we found on Netflix in casual conversation, but those are just words. How weird would it be to go to that same person’s house, fire up their Roku, scroll through a few titles, click Play, and leave? But with VHS, we essentially did that time and time again. Don’t watch just any copy of Arachnophobia, we’d say. Watch this one. I just finished it, and it’s all ready for you. All you need is a videocassette recorder, aka a VCR.
Since establishing mass-market power around 1975, VCRs have enjoyed considerable popularity, despite obvious waning in recent years. By 1999, Nielson tracking estimated that 89 percent of American households owned a VCR. Hell, a report as late as 2017 estimated 17 percent of people still own, and use, one. While we can contribute some of this to people who are slow to adapt to new technologies, like the octogenarian set who have little reason to switch things up now, I can’t help but think there’s more to it than that.
On the one hand, it simplifies the act of watching a movie. If you have your videocassette and have your VCR plugged into a live electrical outlet, then that’s all you need. No lightning-fast Internet connection, no infuriating pauses for buffering, no data plans. Movie plus VCR equals entertainment. Even for the mathematically challenged, that’s an appealing formula. But that does not suggest a flawless, sure-fire viewing experience. The anti-spooling mechanism in a VHS might malfunction, forcing you to wind the tape by hand. A worn idler tire might prevent the take-up reel in the VCR from rotating, giving the grumbling machine an acute case of the munchies as it devours the tape. The VCR might refuse to eject the videocassette, holding it in its mouth like a petulant child refusing to swallow his vegetables. All of these issues — and countless more — could disrupt your movie, but they have concrete solutions: Replace parts, straighten tape, call your son to come over and fix it. In an odd way, it becomes part of the experience. Nothing is without cost, without effort, even the seeming simple act of watching Ace Ventura: Pet Detective for the dozenth time. You have to earn it, and sometimes that means cursing until you’re red in the face as you try to extricate a videocassette from the unrelenting jaws of a VCR.
In the world of VHS, though, we’re expected to play our part in other ways, too. Because most videos rented or purchased were recorded in Standard Play (as opposed to Long or Extended), two hours of footage could be captured without loss of quality. When a film — say, Titanic or It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World — surpassed the three-hour mark, we had to deal with the iconic double-VHS movie. This meant we would actually have to get up off the couch halfway through, rewind the tape, eject it, and insert the second. If not for our active involvement, the viewing experience would come to a halt. Contrast that with, say, Amazon Prime. You could legitimately drop dead fifteen minutes into viewing, and your movie would continue to play in blissful, unaware mockery. The message is clear in this case: The viewer has become irrelevant.
But what of those stalwarts, you might ask, those true cinephiles who — forget about VHS for a moment — continue to drag themselves to an actual movie theatre? Surely, their participation in the film-going process proves that the viewer remains as relevant as ever. Fortunately, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) releases its Theatrical Market Statistics report every year, the purpose of which is twofold: to track the international and domestic financial gains of the year, and to provide a cross-section of the average moviegoer. The 2017 report has plenty to consider. In 2016, the MPAA estimated $11.4 billion in tickets sales across the U.S. and Canada, attributing most of this money to what they term “frequent moviegoers,” or those attending the cinema at least once a month. Unsurprisingly, millennial attendees aged 18-39 saw a drop in repeat viewership; the drop was slighter for 18-24 year-olds, from 8.7 million in 2012 to 7.2 million in 2016, but more precipitous for 25-39 year-olds: from 9.9 million in 2012 to 8 million. While the intervening years between 2012 and 2016 showed fluctuations in numbers (2015, for instance, was not a great calendar year for the box office, and 2016 did show an uptick in viewers by comparison), the overall trend seems clear: kids don’t go to the movies like they used to, or rather, they don’t seem as committed as going to the movies as they once did.
This brings us right back to home entertainment. Since VHS saw 2005’s A History of Violence the last major film released on the format, it’s certainly not the medium of choice any longer. But, even after DVD sales plummeted and VHS sales imploded, Netflix subscribership soared closer to the 100 million mark in 2017. Clearly, the convenience and comfort of streaming became the ultimate allure, and its proliferation has, in some ways, transformed consumers of media into the new porn addicts: sneaking peeks on phones or tablets, earbuds tucked in place for the sole purpose of drowning out the ocean of voices rising and falling all around. Renouncing VHS has turned us into film-watching isolationists.
Now, with a swipe of the progress bar cursor, we can transport immediately to our scenes of choice. We can build queues of 500 titles we’ll never watch. If something doesn’t grab us within the first five minutes, we click the back arrow and pick something else: no big deal. The focus has shifted dramatically — watching movies now matters only inasmuch as it affects our personal viewing experience.
But instantaneous access has a downside. Effort breeds appreciation or, at the very least, attention, but the current trend in home entertainment strives to make this process as effortless as possible. The technology associated with VHS is almost laughable now: too slow, too cumbersome, too old. But our collective movement away from it and toward cinema’s ubiquity produces a simple but devastating effect: the systematic undervaluing of the cinema we consume. We might have a limitless digital library, and these choices might in fact open up discerning viewers to new cinematic experiences, but the true experience of cinema isn’t just about the movie we watch. It’s standing in a line that wraps around the corner on a cold December day. It’s excusing yourself as you sidle past a row of people on the way to your seat, clutching a tub of popcorn threatening to overspill. It’s turning to the person sitting next to you on the couch after a trailer concludes and saying, “I’d like to see that.” It’s sprinting to Blockbuster Video, heart thundering in your chest, to ask the employee if a VHS copy of Jurassic Park III is finally in stock. It’s the polite nod you get when you slip a tape, freshly rewound, through the drop slot in the video store’s register table.
Needless to say, I long for the days of rewinding: the crunch of the VCR as it accepts the tape, the whirring click, not unlike the sound of information recording on a punch card, as the process begins, the gentle whine as magnetic tape uncoils. Such power we wielded, the ability to reset, to start over. A rewound tape boasts such a sense of closure as the VCR spews it back up, sprouting from the machine like a tongue blowing raspberries. Whatever came next, whether plucking the tape from its resting place or shoving it back inside, we had upheld our end of the bargain. We were one of many, a choir of silent voices singing the same three-word song. Now, instead, we click Play and detach, muttering alone to ourselves in hushed voices, the words dying on our lips as we realize, all at once like a gust of wind, there is nothing left for us to rewind.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Kaysha