Arts: Pause. Stop. Rewind. Play.

Video hasn't just changed our lives, it's changed the way we watch films. All this and only 25 years old. How did we live without it? By Gilbert Adair
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There's an odd constant in all so-called technological revolutions. They tend to be so long in the offing that, during the period of their gestation, most of us adopt an attitude of indifference, if not downright disbelief, as to the likelihood of their ever coming to pass.

Computers are going to revolutionise our lives. We'll do our accounts on them, make reservations on them, chat to one another on them. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'll believe it when I see it. Then, one fine day, we take a hard look at the world around us and not only do we discover to our surprise that everything they promised has happened in precisely the way they said it would, but we actually find ourselves incredulous all over again. Incredulous this time that nobody had the foresight to realise that, so ubiquitous would computers become by the turn of the century (the same computers we once dismissed so incredulously), the way their original programmers dated them could have a devastating effect on the world's social and economic stability. Now why did no one think of that?

As far as I know, there's no video bug to worry about for the year 2000. But if there were, the consequences, though less serious, would still provoke an upheaval in most of our lives. For the video revolution over the past quarter of a century has also been more transfiguring than any of us could have predicted.

It started, as these revolutions inevitably do, with specialists - in this specific instance, with film critics and historians. In the early- Eighties, commissioned to write a book-length study of Hollywood's angle on the Vietnam war, I recall that the only way I could catch up with certain trashy but, for me, indispensable movies - a double-bill of, let's say, Good Guys Wear Black and The Green Berets - was to trek off at 11pm to a late-night screening in some dilapidated, urine-reeking repertory cinema that was invariably located at the other end of London. These were, you understand, movies you wouldn't cross the road to see, let alone cross the city.

I recall, also, wearily scribbling plot synopses and lines of dialogue in the dark, scribbles I then had to decipher and transcribe the next sandpapery-eyed morning. And I recall that when the book was finally published, I received "Dear Asshole" letters (literally) from Vietnam- movie buffs complaining that I'd confused Company "C" with Company "D" and attributed to John Wayne a line that had actually been delivered by Aldo Ray. As if anyone cared, you say, but they do. Oh, they do.

Now, by virtue of video, there's no excuse for a cinema historian getting the facts wrong. Yes, the imagery is diminished and, on occasion, if the movie was shot in a wide-screen process, cropped. Such drawbacks, though, are nothing when compared to the advantage of "reading" that imagery the way a literary critic reads the pages of a book, turning the shots back and forth, freezing one particular "page" for as long as one needs, studying the same scene over and over until it's been seared on to one's eyeballs. And there are, thank heaven, no more 3am roamings of the streets of Tooting or Croydon that are suddenly and blissfully illuminated by the bright orange glow of an unoccupied cab.

Naturally, if that were the sole change wrought by video, the word "revolution" would be an absurd overstatement. But it's not just specialists whose lives have been transformed. Take children. Now I'm conscious of the risk of slipping into fogyish mode (you know the sort of much-parodied thing - "When I was a child, I had to walk barefoot to school with half a digestive biscuit for lunch, and deliriously happy I was to have it, too" etc), but I can't be the only adult amazed at how children currently take video for granted. And I don't just mean the enviable and apparently instinctive ease with which they manipulate the machines themselves.

These days, it wouldn't be going too far to claim that, so decisive has the video revolution been, an infant in this country who doesn't have a collection of tapes, to be watched with either parents or pals, to be rerun again and again, absolutely verbatim, like some favourite, never- to-be-deviated-from bedtime fairytale, is the victim of a mild but inexcusable form of deprivation.

If that word, too, seems an overstatement, consider the case of a Portuguese family to whom I used to rent out a minute studio apartment. There were three of them crammed into one room, two parents and their four-year-old daughter. The parents, as far as I could observe, were forced to go without well-nigh everything most of us would regard as necessities. Yet on a shelf above the little girl's foldaway bed, there they all were, videotapes of the Teletubbies, Thomas the Tank Engine, The Lion King, Toy Story - you name it, she'd been bought it.

One has only to accompany a child to the cinema, the cinema proper, to gain an inkling of the influence of video on the infant mindset. Orson Welles once famously described film as the biggest electric train-set any boy ever had to play with. For a contemporary child, it's the biggest videotape there ever was. Certainly, on the first such outing, the aura of palpable and priceless wonderment that emanates from the diminutive creature hunkered down in the cinema seat next to one's own is prompted less by anything happening on the screen, however spectacular, than by the sheer size of the screen itself.

As far as adults are concerned, the most commonly cited advantage of video is, of course, its self-programming capacity. It's not only a convenience, however, but part of a whole new trend towards personal autonomy in matters cultural. When we go to the cinema, we accept (but for how much longer?) to have to arrive on time and sit through the trailers and commercials that the distributors insist we sit through. But television? Are we really expected to behave in our own homes as though we were in a public place? Now that TV sets are routinely used as adjuncts to video recorders, rather than vice versa, it seems incredible that we were content for so long to remain at the mercy of a medium that informed us not only what we could watch, but when (and even when to make the tea!).

More radically, increasing numbers of us prefer to see movies on video. It's almost as though the initial release of a new movie were analogous to the prestigious and generally pricey hardback publication of a new novel. Why not, we think, wait for the inexpensive paperback edition of video (especially as the gap between the two releases has narrowed to about three months, not the full year that literary publishing appears to require)? So we rent it, as we might borrow a new Martin Amis hardback from a public library. Or we buy it, as we might pick up the paperback edition at Waterstone's.

What's more, we "read" it in the same way - by which, I mean not necessarily at a single sitting. We "put it down", whether to answer a telephone call, or a call of nature. Occasionally, we don't even "pick it up" again till the next day, rewinding the tape a few feet backwards just as we would restart a novel a page or two back, in order to ease ourselves into a probably not all that vividly remembered narrative. Of necessity, there's never been any cultural stigma attached to reading a novel in so piecemeal a fashion, and there shouldn't be with film. It may actually be - if it hasn't already happened - that movies will one day be shot with these fragmented viewing patterns and practices in mind.

So much now comes to us courtesy of video - not just the cinema but opera, ballet, sport, self-styled "classic" TV-sitcoms, aerobics courses, cookery classes, and so forth - that one wonders why the theatre, at present one of the least "sexy" of the high art forms, hasn't availed itself of its proselytising and propagating properties. Instead of the few thousand spectators who managed to obtain tickets for The Blue Room, say, millions might be tempted to rent or buy a videotape of the play, once the run was over, and always assuming it had been skilfully recorded and packaged. In fact, the idea strikes me as so obviously beneficial - not only would it generate income for the production itself, but it would surely stimulate interest in the theatre as a whole - that, again, I think: now why has no one thought of that?