Back in the old days VCRs (not Blu-ray players or DVRs) reigned supreme, and mom n' pop rental stores were where you got your fix. Tapes were covered with stickers that said “Be Kind, Rewind”, a simple common courtesy that was requested from shopkeep to consumer, but the makers of this 2013 documentary have found further meaning in the phrase. The sticker adorning those dusty old tapes now appears to be a request to take the time to look back and reflect. Ponder how we got to where we are now.
Like collectors of 8 track tapes (remember the documentary from 1995 about them called SO WRONG THEY'RE RIGHT?) these are passionate fans who adore a format whose time is has passed, but now seems primed to live on via cult film fans with an eye towards nostalgia and a burgeoning collectors market. Especially if the line up of documentaries about VHS subculture that have been announced continue on unabated.
Many aspects of the story are lovingly dissected with skill by the director and editor of this movie. From the history of the format itself (and its rise over Betamax), the ways in which it was distributed and marketed to the public, the ways in which it effected film making, the risk of losing content forever thanks to the lack of archiving and the unstable nature of magnetic tape, to the current argument about the pros and cons comparing physical media to streaming. The past, present, and future of the VHS format are reveled in, and there aren't many tapes unturned.
A pile of (in)famous personalities give facetime. Ghost in the Shell creator Mamoru Oshii, Elvira, director Frank Henenlotter, director Atom Egoyan, Severin films' David Gregory, Something Weird's Mike Vraney (rest in peace), Troma's Lloyd Kaufman, Synapse's Don May, Jr, porn icon Bill Margold and theater programmers from Alamo Drafthouse and Cinefamily are all here, and so are the lesser known but no less important lights to this subculture. I'm talking about my fellow bloggers, bootleggers, mixtape makers, video store employees, and of course, plenty of rabid VHS collectors. My dearly departed pal, Andy Copp, ranks amongst them here as well, and the movie is dedicated to him.
The guy from Everything is Terrible is probably a wonderful fellow and also dishes some great sound bites for this film, but if I'm being honest he also gives off the aura of the smirking, black-frame-glasses-wearing elitist from Chicago. Maybe that is because he's built his entire digital mini-empire on the basic concept of enjoying everything ironically, or maybe it isn't. As one of the two guys behind a similar venture in the Retard O Tron dvd mixtape series, I'm hardly one to presume or judge him, am I?
This movie rules. I loved watching so many of my online friends and peers (both living and passed on) talk about the VHS format, but when it comes right down to it, I have to confront something that was tumbling around in the machine dryer that is my head the whole time I saw this documentary. While I'm fascinated and enthused by the resurgence in VHS culture, I also have my reservations. When I'm on social media in these VHS fan groups I feel more like Dian Fossey watching and studying the apes fight over their rare and obscure VHS tapes than I feel like one of the apes.
I mean, fuck, c'mon. The idea of warring over or pledging allegance to a format (dying or not) seems so irrelevant to me. It's like taking a stand on which is better, Coke or Pepsi, while ignoring that, while delicious, both are loaded with high glucose-fructose corn syrup designed to make you fat and dead. I'm not going to be precious about it. Simply give me a way to have these movies I love so very much, and I'm in. And I don't mean digitally floating in an imaginary “cloud” where a company can delete them at their discretion after I buy them -- I mean actually *have* them.
And “having” them brings us to another element of what tortures me about this whole thing. Plenty of the people on the front lines of the VHS comeback thing consistently display the collector mindset that I so abhor in the world of comics fandom. Where simply collecting and displaying an item means so much more than reading/watching/enjoying it in the way it was originally intended. Where completing a collection becomes the end all and be all. Where just having it becomes so much more important to you than engaging with it. It's one of the most unappealing aspects of geekdom. Of course I'm conflicted though, because the last thing I want to be is that annoying guy who tells people the “right” way to enjoy things. Fuck that attitude and the kill-joys who trot it out right when you're in the middle of loving something with no pretensions.
So while I love that it exists, I feel removed from this retro VHS thing going on. I've never been about putting a lot of importance on format, as it has always been somewhat irrelevant to me in comparison to what it serves, which in this case is movies. The movies and the content upon those tapes has always been what is important to me. Formats and means of consumption of the artform will come and go throughout our lifetimes, but the movies themselves will be forever. In fact, I rarely mention format at all when I'm reviewing movies for Cinema Sewer, and that is primarily because of how temporary its nature is. I want my writing to remain as relevant and readable decades from now as it does now, and nit-picking run times on the latest dvd or bluray works entirely against that. Content over format has always been my mandate.
But once again, I'm conflicted. How can I not be? I too am a nostalgia-based creature. I fully understand that the temporary nature of VHS or DVD, or any format, is one of the very things that makes it valuable and interesting. It is what grounds us to that time, that time that video rental stores were a part of our lives. It helps us retain our connection with the past. You or I may not care for it today, but the fact remains that 20 years from now people are going to be wildly nostalgic for Netflix, Hulu, and whatever the next streaming flavor of the week is. All of this shit goes in cycles.
Obviously I'm of two minds on this whole thing, and a documentary like REWIND THIS is incredibly valuable because it allows you and I to really think about and confront why we are fans, and why we obsess over these films. Why we collect movies, and want to own them, and what format means to us. And like NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD from 2008, REWIND THIS this is the kind of documentary that is going to introduce you to aspects of cult film you aren't nearly as aware of as you thought you were, and make you need to hunt down a whole bunch films to add to your collection.
It's a must-see for sure.