Runs Fri., Aug. 30–Thurs., Sept. 5 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 94 minutes.
Beyond irony, kitsch, or nostalgia, Austin director Josh Johnson argues in his new documentary that there’s an actual aesthetic to VHS, and I’m not so sure he’s wrong. Just as the format is disappearing, just as my own office VCR appears to have died (and was last used when?), Johnson canvasses the experts, collectors, and eccentrics who are trying to preserve a medium that had its heyday in the ’80s. Among them are locals Mike Vraney of Something Weird Video and Zack Carlson of Scarecrow Video, who even has a VHS tattoo to show his love for magnetic tape.
And about that tape: VHS wasn’t intended to last. The cheap, consumer-grade format was first marketed in the U.S. in 1976, soon beating out Sony’s Betamax because a standard two-hour tape could run an entire movie. Or most of a football game or plenty of porn, as Rewind This! acknowledges. We also learn that 2005’s A History of Violence was the last studio movie committed to VHS. Before the advent of DVD (now endangered by streaming and Netflix), tape enjoyed a quarter-century’s ascendancy, represented here by a funny, cheesy selection of VHS clips—Elvira, Frankenhooker, Jane Fonda workout videos, Basket Case, porn, etc.
How big was the VHS market? Johnson is less concerned with business history than with a survey of like-minded video connoisseurs and obsessives who glean flea markets and eBay for discarded gems. Most are VHS babies, they admit, who developed a love for movies through the family VCR. Johnson’s cheerful and informative oral history clearly places him in the same generation. Some of his fellow tribesmen also explain how tapes gained currency with the physical traces of their use: Blurred lines would announce where a tape had been frequently paused and rewound for boobs, exploding heads, or a particularly good joke. Only the cognoscenti would know, as if by a secret code. In that regard, given its poor and ever-deteriorating picture quality, VHS could be said to have a sensibility, if not an aesthetic. Note: Johnson will appear to introduce this weekend’s screenings.