It's a spool world: A new film is paying tribute to the legacy - and afterlife - of VHS
Chris Beanland rewinds with the film's director Josh Johnson.
In among the roll call of hipster rom-coms set in craft breweries or bicycle shops at last month's SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, one gem shone out. It was a low-budget look at the fag end of film – the video tape.
"Video shaped who I am more than any other presence in my life," muses Josh Johnson. "My obsession with film flourished because a wealth of cinema history was available to me on video." The New York-via-Austin director felt he owed so much to tape that he had to pay the little black box back – by making a documentary about video's unsung role in film history.
On the opposite side of the Atlantic, long before the internet enabled easy global communication, video touched Manchester writer Noel Mellor in the same way at the same time. "I remember the first time I walked into a rental store in 1983 with my parents, feeling like a kid in a sweet shop," he reminisces. "It didn't take long for my mum to realise this was no sweet shop! She had her hands bolted over my face and I was blindly marched out. I spent the next 30 years hunting down those titles I got just a glimpse of that day." Mellor is now writing a book – Adventures In VHS.
Video was ejected from our lives long ago in favour of DVD, Blu-ray and now cloud storage. But it lingers in our collective consciousness. Johnson and Mellor are just two of video's growing band of aficionados; people who remain obsessed with an obsolete, if much-treasured format.
"The video revolution democratised media in a profound way," reckons Johnson, whose film Rewind This! is a tender look back at home-made horror, lurid box designs and forgotten straight-to-video clangers. It narrows its focus on the way video could be made and shared cheaply – telling stories like that of Mississippi school friends Jayson Lamb, Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala, who shot a scene-for-scene remake of Raiders Of The Lost Ark on a borrowed camcorder in 1982 – the same premise which was borrowed for Britflick Son of Rambow 25 years later.
Without home video could we ever have had YouTube, Dailymotion and Vimeo? "YouTube has made it much easier to share and distribute self-made content," says Johnson, but he believes "that ability to create and share footage at low cost is just a continuation of the early video boom".
YouTube paid homage to the 57th anniversary of the first video cassette recorder earlier this month by adding a "VHS button" allowing some clips to be paused and rewound, complete with that authentic fuzzy freeze-frame effect familiar to anyone over 30.
The most eye-opening part of Rewind This! is where pornography's role in shaping video culture is enthusiastically probed. "Most people would gladly pay a premium price to avoid masturbating in public," deadpans Josh Johnson. "The ability to watch triple-X material in the privacy of one's home was a massive driving force in the success of video."
Those YouTube retro effects are enough to bring back memories of damaged erotic tapes, where static told its own story of pause and rewind buttons being greedily over-deployed. Men of a certain age might recall surreptitiously recording mild TV titillation such as Eurotrash. "I used to tape all sorts off Channel 4 on a Friday night," admits Mellor.
Some of the home video howlers'sent into You've Been Framed proved that access to a video camera didn't necessarily correlate with any cinematographical talent. At Adam Buxton's music-video evening Bug last month, the VHS-obsessed director of Shaun of The Dead, Edgar Wright, revealed that while working as a 20-year-old researcher on YBF spin-off Jeremy Beadle's Hot Shots, viewer footage was often so bad he had to go and re-shoot submissions himself.
But video had a serious side too. There was barely a stills camera at Orgreave Colliery in Yorkshire during the 1893 confrontation between soldiers and striking miners. But in 1984, at the very beginning of home video, it was a different story. At the Battle of Orgreave on June 18, camcorders captured the violent reality of the largest British industrial confrontation of the 20th century. And that public access; that ability to shape the news, would only mushroom in years to come.
Three decades on, interest in video is being piqued again despite everyone having a video recorder in their pockets. "VHS is seeing a resurgence of late," agrees Dale Lloyd, who has some 2,500 tapes. "But I don't think that it will come back around like, say, vinyl has. Vinyl sounds better than any CD or download – you can't say the same about VHS."
Lloyd enthusiastically reminisces about renting titles from Video Vision in Tipton, West Midlands, and now screens rare videos at the Prince Charles Cinema in London and The Electric in Birmingham. He features briefly in Rewind This! with David Baldwin, The Electric's assistant manager.
Baldwin's cinema was a place where men went to watch X-rated features in the 1970s. Now it's a swish art-house. Did video also kill the cinema's star? "VHS didn't kill cinemas, but it did make them better," says Baldwin. "Also, remember the 'Theatrical Window'? There was a huge gap between the film being at the cinema and being on VHS; maybe a year. That gap is nearly nonexistent now."
Surprisingly, some films are now only available on VHS – so tapes have a kind of archival value that goes beyond their more obvious charms as time capsule trinkets from simpler days. Also, points out Lloyd: "Some movies, mainly low budget 1980s horror, just work better with a bit of grain. Hi-def isn't as scary."
'Rewind This!' and 'Adventures In VHS' are both out later this year.
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