There can be no doubt about it: we’re deep into the digital age. It seems like only a couple of years ago that experts and pundits were claiming that physical media would never be replaced in the mainstream, since the idea of ownership of a film or album was so inextricably linked with tangible products in the mind of the average consumer. But, the fast rise and mass appeal of iPods, Kindles, catch-up TV services and streaming sites such as Netflix have proven that this is not the case and the writing seems to be on the wall even for fairly recent innovations like DVD and Blu-Ray. In these confusing times, do you ever find yourself longing for the relatively simple pleasure of a Friday night trip to your local video store? If so, the recently released on DVD (and yes, for purists, a limited-edition VHS!), documentary ‘Rewind This!’ aims to prove you’re not alone.
Personally, I had something of a fractious relationship with VHS. Like many, I remember attempting to record my favorite shows with various degrees of success. Programming a VHS player to record was a delicate and frustrating process that was all too easy to mess up, especially if someone else used the deck after you. To a kid, getting ready to play your show only to find something from another channel or worse still, a screen full of static was like waking up on Christmas morning to find a lump of coal in your stocking. Then there was the pain of an existing tape getting chewed up by the machine! Oh, you could try to be crafty, physically cutting out the damaged part of the tape and gluing the ends back together, but it rarely worked and whether it was a copy of E.T. you’d recorded from TV or an official tape you’d saved your pocket money for to buy at the store, the VHS player didn’t discriminate – chewed up, spat out and gone forever.
So with all these aggravating flaws, most of which have been eased or eliminated by current technology (recording a TV show for instance, has never been easier) is there any case for keeping VHS alive in the 21st century beyond nostalgia, or that particular type of retro-hipster cool that seems to be assigned to any medium once it has fallen out of fashion? ‘Rewind This’ introduces us to a plethora of devotees and is surprisingly successful in pointing out numerous compelling reasons for their ongoing passion for the format. We follow one man who seems to be having a grand time wandering around a flea market as he seeks out knock-down-priced obscurities amongst a dearth of ‘Titanic’ videos. Many cult oddities and even some surprisingly well-loved TV shows have never made the leap to DVD, so naturally these are most sought after. A number of fans proudly display their collections and single out their weirdest acquisitions, including a peculiar but amusing looking Leslie Nielsen Golf Tutorial video, and a shamelessly pandering Corey Haim documentary, ‘Me, Myself & I’ – presumably the ‘Never Say Never’ of its day.
Along the way the full history of VHS is accounted for; such as the lukewarm initial reactions to the innovation of home video by the studios, VHS’ triumph over Betamax and the scramble to fill video store shelves that led to the straight-to-video horror boom of the 1980s. Always anecdotal and never dry, the highly relatable stories of all-night video sleepovers and the scramble to find the weirdest films to show to friends are presented side by side with insightful industry tales. Experts include the founder of Something Weird video, Mike Vraney who sadly passed away earlier this month. Cassandra Peterson, better known by fans of all things cult as Elvira, Mistress of The Dark appears to discuss the positive impact that video had on her career. The power of great box-art – something that, mysteriously does not seem to have transitioned to DVD, is also explored (including the memorably gimmicky talking box of ‘Frankenhooker’) before we get to the birth of home video cameras and some great footage of one budding young director’s earliest efforts.
To the documentary’s credit, neither the death (to the popular market at least) nor the limitations of VHS are ignored. An interesting point is made of how streaming services, reliant upon directly licensing films from studios, could spell trouble and obscurity for independent cinema. A serious point is made about the deterioration of video cassettes and the likelihood that much of the movie’s interviewees’ lovingly curated collections will be rendered unplayable in the coming decades. On the other hand, the film’s most hilarious anecdote also involves well-worn tapes – specifically the kind of tell-tale wear and tear of pausing, rewinding and replaying particular parts of a movie (cleverly equated with ‘a built-in hit counter’) loaned over a weekend by one young man to a friend. Needless to say, upon the tape’s return, the lender was left in little doubt as to which scenes had been most enthusiastically enjoyed by his pal.
Functioning as both a surprisingly entertaining history of a now perhaps unfairly forgotten format and as a breezy walk down memory lane, ‘Rewind This!’ is highly recommended. I have a feeling that in years to come, the idea that there are those who continue to stand by physical media will be looked at as completely baffling to a generation born and raised with all of their entertainment ‘in the cloud’. If nothing else, documentaries such as these and the passionate testimonials of their participants will go some way to explaining the attraction.