The Bottom Line
Lively history makes some good observations about video and the culture it enabled
South By Southwest, Documentary Spotlight
AUSTIN — Bulky, low-res and prone to degradation, VHS tape was easily abandoned by both quality-minded cinephiles and a consuming public in love with the sleek and the shiny. But some movie fans still treasure their shelves of black plastic — among them horror movie buffs, curators of cultural detritus, and knee-jerk retrophiles. Josh Johnson‘s introduces us to these fans while providing an entertaining, sometimes enlightening history of the video format; though unsurprisingly small-screen friendly, it will be a crowd-pleaser at fests and in niche bookings.
Viewers of a certain age will warm to the half-forgotten milestones Johnson recounts: The Beta/VHS war; the strange birth of video rental and its wildfire-like development; the garish but entrancing paintings that graced video releases in the days before Photoshop. Some interviewees point out things that might never have occurred to us: For instance, the way a glitchy part in a rental tape usually preceded a scene of nudity or extravagant violence, because the tape would wear out at the point where it was being rewound and rewatched over and over. As one speaker puts it, this was a built-in hit-counter in the days before the web.
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Johnson spends enjoyable time with the filmmakers who were only able to flourish in the video era — schlockmeisters and gore experts who either produced films just for video or saw their grindhouse productions become hits once kids in the suburbs had access to them.
When those kids grew up, they became programmers at places like Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse and LA’s Cinefamily — these and other cultural gatekeepers show up here, walking us through their vast collections, taking us on flea market hunting sprees, and showing off the kinds of ephemera one can hardly believe ever existed: Awkward exercise videos, Leslie Nielsen golf instructionals, and an introduction to the Windows operating system hosted by Chandler and Rachel of . They also make smart observations about how the sudden accessibility of film history, untethered from TV schedules and rep cinema calendars, turned them into a different kind of film buff from those who went before.
Easily overlooked in discussions of those who fetishize obsolete technologies is that many (certainly the LP, the 7-inch single, and VHS cassettes) are the repositories for huge swaths of culture that have never made their way onto modern formats — and likely won’t in the near future, no matter what "global jukebox" futurists tell you. Some in are quick to point out that untold numbers of movies — not just terrible ’80s action films but obscure catalog titles from Hollywood’s Golden Age — were issued during the long lifespan of video but didn’t make it to DVD before that format began its decline. If for this reason alone, it would be important not to let this unhandsome plastic shell vanish from the earth. If scholars must wade through the filmographies of Herschell Gordon Lewis and Lloyd Kaufman to get to the good stuff, that’s a price some are more than willing to pay.
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