19 January 2014 | StevePulaski
Hard to call the medium dead
I've always had a fondness for home media, the variety of formats that once existed, the obscure oddities one can find on VHS, and venturing through video stores and flea markets to make new discoveries. Because of this, I'm part of the obvious audience for Rewind This!, a delightful homage to the brilliant and once-ubiquitous home media that was VHS, and how its impact on the movie industry and the public is still prevalent today.
Here's a film that will leave the devoted fans of VHS (like me) just wanting more. For the reason that I'm a huge supporter of the VHS-resurgence movement and continue to buy and collect the media, I'm going to try to make this review not sound like simple- minded fandom constructed into an essay. The film makes a bold attempt at trying to tackle everything VHS, from its meteoric rise, its unfathomable effect on the film industry as a whole, its fan, and its differences from its contemporaries. The documentary allows several people to make statements, some directors, some preservationists, some distributors (including the late Mike Vraney of Something Weird Video) but many the fans and supporters of the medium who rekindle their love for its simplicity and its immensity.
VHS, to me, is such a unique way to watch film, mainly because of the primitiveness and sensitiveness of the device. With tape, there were many more issues that could arouse, with the worse case scenario it getting stuck in your player. But then there are the imperfections of the picture, such as the glitches, the occasional sloppiness of its appearance, the degradation of the tape when certain scenes are played too much, etc. Then there is the box art, which is a work of art in itself. A section of the film devotes itself to showing how unique and inventive the artwork to the VHS covers were, with them often being handpainted and meticulously put together rather than the depressing, effortless, digitized movie-covers/posters we're so used to today.
Furthermore, the film shows how daring and unique home video really was at the time of its inception. Had it not been for an optimistic soul like Andre Ray, who worked for a video engineering company in the seventies, perhaps home video wouldn't have come around so quickly. Ray, who helped manufacturer videotapes at the time, wondered if you could put a full length movie on a certain size tape. When he discovered it was possible, he contacted several movie studios, hoping to get them to buy into the idea of consumers having their films to cherish and watch at their leisure. Few bought in, but one of them happened to be Fox (pre-Star Wars fame), who allowed them to put several of their classic titles on tape at roughly $80 - $90 a pop.
Ray didn't even foresee the explosion of the rental industry, which simply came along because numerous people wanted a try-it-before-you-buy-it kind of system, simplifying the process of discovering a film for consumers even more. Oddly enough, that became the defining industry set forth by the home video boom. Nobody could foresee the industry taking off let the industry where people wander around a store swarmed with movies picking out whichever ones they wanted for a Friday night viewing.
The film does a good job at articulating a question I had for a while and that is why were so many film distribution companies around during the inception of VHS that have since went on to disappear or go defunct in recent times. This is because of experimentation. When rental stores started popping up, they needed films to line their shelves. And thus, numerous distributors began popping up, inquiring quirky, often weird, experimental slashers or just asinine little gems to produce and help keep stores lined with inventory. Eventually, the studios took over and it became the big five or six companies calling all the shots.
One subject that could've been explored much more in depth was the idea of cheap VHS bootlegging, which was done through magazine, handmade flyers, and communication via mail. People would make list of films they had that were either banned, rare, or out of print and would transfer them to blank tapes then smuggle them through the mail. However, due to some strict federal regulations, often times people would tape part of a TV show to play before the actual film to fool potential inspectors. Vraney talks about his experience as a bootlegger, as well as several others, but the revealing and now extinct process is a bit shortchanged and given maybe three to four minutes of attention.
Rewind This! beautifully articulates obsession, impact, and legacy, and never drags or becomes boring, mainly because its subjects have so much insight and observations to offer. It's a must see for the obvious fans of the medium, but due to its commentary on an industry most all of us indulge in, it should almost be mandatory viewing.
Directed by: Josh Johnson.