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Why VHS Wasn't So Bad After All

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Wed, Aug 14, 2013 at 11:17 AM

click to enlarge The ultra-rare VHS tape Tales from the Quadead Zone, a copy of which sold for $660 on eBay
  • The ultra-rare VHS tape Tales from the Quadead Zone, a copy of which sold for $660 on eBay

As demonstrated by two documentaries screening in L.A. this week, obsolescence need not imply irrelevance. Monday night at Cinefamily, Josh Johnson's Rewind This! provided a people's history of VHS; tomorrow night at the Nerdist Showroom and then again at the Egyptian on Friday, Dan Kinem and Levi Peretic's Adjust Your Tracking: The Untold Story of the VHS Collector places a spotlight on those obsessed with what one devotee affectionately refers to as "the most maligned format since the eight-track."

Both films immediately distinguish themselves by their obvious affection for not only VHS itself but, by extension, their die-hard interviewees: There's nary a trace of ironic detachment or condescension here, which is exceedingly rare for any depiction of geek culture.

Rewind This! (which is available on iTunes as of August 27) is the more polished and comprehensive of the two, but the DIY, shot-on-video aesthetic of AYT is put together with the sort of rough-around-the-edges care that merges form and content as only a film of this sort could. Kinem and Peretic have taken great pains to emphasize that this is endeavor is for collectors, by collectors, making the proceedings feel especially personal and authentic.

Just as important, they don't hinge their arguments solely around nostalgia. More than just retrophiles or stubborn contrarians, AYT's talking heads -- many of whom have thousands upon thousands of tapes in their personal collections -- offer a ground-level perspective on how VHS was the first format to "take cinema out of the movie theater" and democratize the very act of watching movies. At the video store, several point out, it didn't matter whether a film cost $100 million to make and featured the biggest movie stars in the world; what mattered was the cover art, which continues to influence many a buying decision today.

click to enlarge Sledgehammer was re-released on VHS by Mondo Video in 2011
  • Sledgehammer was re-released on VHS by Mondo Video in 2011
The argument here isn't that VHS is the technically superior format, as it is among some CD- and MP3-hating vinyl purists, so much as it is that the meteoric ascent of DVD led to countless films being lost in the shuffle. (And it's true -- thousands of films available on VHS have never been released on DVD or, for that matter, Blu-ray.) As such, the "archaeologists of lowbrow culture" assembled here can hardly be bothered with widely available blockbusters; it's the out-of-print, never-released-on-subsequent-formats curious that pique their interest and have them returning to swap meets and shuttered stores time and again.

The most enticing of these, Tales from the Quadead Zone, is the apparent holy grail among VHS collectors. One collector estimates that fewer than a hundred copies exist in the world, and one of them sold for $660 on eBay -- something the actual buyer claims was motivated in part by the desire to lend legitimacy to the emerging subculture of which he is a part. (Another guy bought his for approximately $3.) Rewind This! and Adjust Your Tracking aim to do likewise, and are largely successful.

That much of this talk is objectively silly only adds to the fun and makes it more endearing. Not to be forgotten, however, is the fact that this subculture is also a form of film preservation, which anyone who knows what became of some 75 percent of the Silent Era -- or has read an op-ed by Martin Scorsese -- knows is important.


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