<nyt_headline version=”1.0″ type=” “>Instant Nostalgia? Let’s Go to the Videotape
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VHS still seems less easy to romanticize than many other old-media castoffs. Plenty of audiophiles attest to the rich sound of vinyl (and even embrace its crackling ambience), just as experimental filmmakers and home-movie enthusiasts appreciate the coarse grain of Super 8 film. But VHS usually triggers negative connotations: failure-to-rewind fees, fuzzed-out nth-generation dubs, chewed-up tape and — “Be Kind Rewind” provides an extreme example of this — accidental erasure. Mr. Gondry recently recalled his dismay when someone inadvertently recorded over a beloved home video that he and his friends had made as teenagers. “Maybe that’s where I got the idea to erase all the tapes,” he said in a telephone interview.
DVDs are plainly superior to videocassettes. They offer better-quality picture and sound, occupy less shelf space and are relatively indestructible. Videotape, like film, is a medium defined in part by its material mortality. Repeated use, and even the passage of time, weakens its magnetism and erodes its quality. (The eeriest song on the new Radiohead album, “In Rainbows,” is a ballad about death and technology called, fittingly, “Videotape.”) But while VHS tapes were not built to last, they changed the economics of the film industry and shaped the viewing patterns that we take for granted today. Swaths of film history became available for home consumption, as studios dug into their vaults; a movie could be watched repeatedly or at the viewer’s chosen pace. The ownership and control we now assume over our media diet originated with VHS and VCRs.
The mottled look of hand-me-down VHS has become visual shorthand for bygone kitsch (the deliberately lo-fi video for the Snoop Dogg single “Sensual Seduction,” to name a recent example). But especially for those who remember this degraded aesthetic from a formative age, it can also be taken as a sign of authenticity, said Barbara Klinger, professor of culture and communication at Indiana University, Bloomington, and the author of “Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home” (University of California Press, 2006). “It has been interesting to see how fans responded to the digital refurbishments of the 2004 DVD rerelease of the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy,” which, she said, “seemed to violate the letter and spirit of the original videocassette release.” For those disgruntled viewers, “the true experience of films is rooted in youthful encounters on ‘ancient’ formats.”
The generation that came of age in the ’80s, as the VCR was becoming a staple, is especially prone to VHS nostalgia, a manifestation of the broader retro culture that has accounted for untold hours of programming on VH1. The first movie to be subjected to a VHS makeover in “Be Kind Rewind” is the Reagan-era hit “Ghostbusters.” In the British coming-of-age comedy “Son of Rambow” (set to open here in May), a couple of preteenagers discover a bootleg copy of the Rambo film “First Blood” and decide to shoot their own amateur-video version. (“Be Kind Rewind” and “Son of Rambow” are both descendants of the ultimate fan remake, “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation,” a shot-for-shot redux of the Spielberg blockbuster created by three teenage boys over a seven-year period in the ’80s. The story of their obsessive backyard adventure is being turned into a film by the producer Scott Rudin and the writer Daniel Clowes.)
There is also the rarer and geekier phenomenon of VCR nostalgia. Andy Hain, a software engineer in Brighton, England, maintains the Web site and “virtual museum” Total Rewind (totalrewind.org), which scrupulously charts the evolution of VCRs from prehistory to obsolescence. Pride of place is given to the 70-plus vintage video players and cameras in the collection that Mr. Hain has been building since 1993.
“It was mainly the technology that appealed to me,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “The more I discovered, the more strange and unlikely machines I came across, and I wanted to get hold of them and tinker with them. I also liked the design aspect. The early machines were very expensive and would have been proudly displayed in living rooms. They were styled like top-end hi-fi components, or in some cases like the bridge of the starship Enterprise.”
Mr. Hain prizes VCRs as quaint cultural artifacts. But there are some users, Mr. Gondry noted, who value their utilitarian simplicity. “Today new product comes so fast that sometimes the human brain doesn’t have the capacity to adapt,” he said. “I’m always having to show my mother how to use a DVD player because it’s not the same logic as a VCR. A VCR is mechanical. You get a response when you press a button. A DVD player is like a computer. You make a request, and you wait for the machine to tell you whether it’s O.K. or not to do it.”
Since they function as elegies for a departed medium, “Be Kind Rewind” and “Son of Rambow” differ substantially in tone from most other movies that have prominently featured videotapes and video technology. During its lifetime VHS often symbolized alienation and malevolence, perhaps because video quickly became the medium of choice for pornography and surveillance.
Videotape received one of its earliest and most memorable starring roles in “Videodrome” (1982), which merged the body-horror fixations of its director, David Cronenberg, with the techno-philosophical musings of the media guru (and fellow Canadian) Marshall McLuhan. In this supremely trippy film — an alternately funny and chilling meditation on the relationship between what we watch and who we are — Betamax cassettes are bearers of deranging nightmares. The most striking image is of a fleshy, throbbing videotape being stuffed into an abdominal cavity. (Mr. Cronenberg’s “History of Violence,” incidentally, was the last film to be released on VHS in the United States, in 2005.)
Some films have exploited the ghostly quality of deteriorated video images. The “Ring” series, in both the Japanese and Hollywood incarnations, takes a cue from “Videodrome” in casting videotapes as malignant agents of infection. In David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” (1997) a couple is terrorized by creepy VHS recordings of themselves asleep in bed. Michael Haneke’s “Caché” (2005) also deals with a family that is being monitored on video, for reasons unknown. In both films the mysterious tapes seem to signify the return of the repressed.
Even when the metaphysical element is absent, the use of video as a plot point often communicates an underlying unease. In Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape” and in the cool, cerebral dramas of Atom Egoyan (like “Family Viewing” and “Calendar”), video is the language of the emotionally blocked and sexually frustrated.
Professor Klinger, the media scholar, sees these VHS movies as “mini-documentaries that indicate how new media technologies are perceived — often anxiously.” Future generations will have no shortage of new media to document, analyze and be nostalgic about, provided the technologies stick around long enough to make an impression. “Really, VHS lasted longer than could have been expected,” said Mr. Hain, the collector. “Very few media formats can expect to match that today.”