Friday, December 17, 2010

A Kind of Memorial/Eulogy for VHS and the Video Store

"You're just a memory of a love 
That used to be 
You're just a memory of a love 
That used to mean so much to me"

- The Rolling Stones "Memory Motel"

I'm twenty-six years old, so it may be a bit of a stretch to go into a 'Why in my day you had to walk fifteen-miles in the snow just to get a video', but, when it comes down to it for me, I do feel already old in a new age.  Perhaps my perspective is off as there are a great many people- such as those who are older than me- who know of another era when there was just the movie theater and the TV, and maybe the occasional 16mm print to screen in a home or a drive-in, that would supply a cinematic experience.

But ah, to be born in 1984 (insert Orwell joke here).  I practically got an education in the world of the VHS cassette and VCR system right out of the womb.  It's impossible for me to remember it being so young as I was, but I'm told when I was a wee young Jack, at around age two, maybe three, as my father would take my older brother and I to the local video store, (which I'll expound on in a moment) Video Box Office on Cedar Lane in Teaneck, my attention gravitated towards The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

The tape was rented for me so many times - I've been told I watched the film about fifty times as a tot - that eventually it seemed good sense to just buy the bastard for me.  The cost?  Just a minor dip into the account: $100.  That was back in the day when there wasn't a system to go into a store to buy a movie, only rentals, and the sellers at the rental stores would have to order from the distributor for a special copy of such a thing (look, if you can find any, old video boxes from the 80's, and notice the pricing - you can get new rims on your car for less than that).  It was the first one I ever owned; second one came around thanks to my parents, Laurel & Hardy's Flying Deuces (the only film of theirs that I frankly get really excited about due to its instilled-in-my-youth quality to it - and Hardy turns into a horse at the end! It's gold, Jerry, gold!)

But oh, video rental stores!  And the practice, passed down through a generation (that is, my dad's way of doing things) of copying tapes for home entertainment purposes (never selling, which is wrong and the FBI should be alerted and there can be up to a $250,000 fine and/or up to five years in prison holy shit that's a big punishment).  It was one of the great innovations of technology that impacted my life and helped my childhood that I had access to various tapes, especially those of the cartoon variety (ah, Ninja Turtles, where have you gone, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you).  Then as I entered my pre-teens and especially teenage years, I amassed a much greater collection, first spurred on my trips to the Video Box Office I mentioned before, and then when I was thirteen on to Blockbuster.  That was when I really built up the collection; renting up to five movies at a time, sometimes buying others for cheap, copying them, or not, and usually in greater or lessor quality depending on the copy protection.

But yes, back to that video store for a moment, the one of my real youth and for many others who were at all interested in renting in the 80's, 90's, and into the new 00's a place that has an important quality.  Yes, sometimes there was a lack of variety with some of the movies, and yes, sometimes the porno section loomed over the surrounding like a dark street corner that winks at you and runs away.  But there's an exciting prospect to a video store, when it's got the goods, that makes its mark.  At the Video Box Office the manager organized by categories, actors, directors, Oscar winning films of old, comedies, children's films, video "Nasties" as the British might say for Horror and controversial pics, and other oddities, plus video games (ah, the Angry Video Game Nerd can attest to this yey-and-nay quality of having a game for a weekend to try and play and beat).  It was where I first rented The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the most impressionable Scorsese movies, early-period Disney (especially the cartoons, always in fine collections), and all of the good-to-shitty Nightmare on Elm Street/Friday the 13th sequels.

It's like looking into a brain
And then in 2000 came DVD, or at least for me a DVD player.  Ah, a new technology, moving on over VHS like CD's did for audio cassettes.  It wasn't an immediate losing battle for the technology, though it was a very contentious competition, at least to where I stood, for the pluses and minuses of the new format and its encroachment over what had been set up.  As Garth Algar in Wayne's World once said, "We fear change," but it's more than that.  It's a complex process to take in a format that has picture quality and audio that, in most instances, trumps the VHS-analog quality of everything on a tape.  Then there was, and still is, the issue of the scratch.  On a VHS tape this is a rare condition - you're more likely to find degrading quality over time due to it being a tape than the tape itself breaking or ripping, though it has happened - but on DVD it's hard to mistake.  I could go on about the horrors of the DVD (again the AVGN does it much better here), and then lose sight of what I want to get at here.

That is... I've had this week both a nostalgic return to the world of VHS and a reminder, perhaps pleasantly as I was surprised to find, that not only is that a technology that is a pure and amazing dinosaur, but that DVD is on its way out too.  This won't be any news to people keeping up with, well, the world of media at home.  Video-on-Demand has been around for a long time (in my day of the 15-miles-thru-the-snow it was and is some circles is still called Pay-Per-View), but it used to be the mainstay of a special event, to download something or tap into a live recording of something.  Now watching a new movie on your TV from a VOD service can be cheaper than a video store rental.  Or if you're tired of your DVDs from Redbox or Blockbuster or Netflix scratching or not being alright or wanting more than a day, the Netflix streaming service, among others, have paved the way for a new light in the path of home viewing.  There's even the possibility some years from now that everything can be available, and stored, in a box like a computer that one can attach to the TV.

Who needs all of that clutter, after all, of the video tapes or the DVDs or what-have-you?

So big the blog can't contain it!

Well... I do, possibly.  Or maybe not.

Maybe this will change over time.  This past week, as I mentioned before going on that tangent, was a mix of old and new.  As I recently took the next step and got (at a reasonable price of course) a Blu-Ray DVD player it came with the technological advancement to hook up to the internet and as well provide Netflix-Instant-Streaming service to my TV.  So now, if I plan to watch TV shows, or movies of quality both high (The Thin Red Red Line, Last Tango in Paris, Paper Moon, Pasolini films to name a few) and low (all Troma movies and the atrocious Asylum-company movies for example), I can just flip a couple of switches and that's it, movie's on, no problemo.  And I intend to use the service to its maximum potential and allowance, which is based now more on my own inclination to sit down and watch something in time I have.  The closest thing to a due-date is if the movie won't be available to stream anymore after a certain date, which is not a common occurence.

And then, on the flip-side, I did an inventory on a collection I've had sitting in my basement (pics to come later today, maybe video) that does not even include the *other* VHS tapes that are already present in the regular living quarters.  This all came about from a very generous donation from a good friend- you know who you are out there- who needed to unload the space, and so I came into possession of a few hundred or so VHS tapes, the only proviso being if any of them could sell online and sell well, a small cut would suffice.  And after letting many, though not all, of the tapes sitting there without any attention, I went down and took down all the names Schindler style of what is there.  Unfortunately, I can't see many of them being saved unlike Mr. Oskar back in the day did for his Jews.  No, I see most of these going online to sell, sending them away into the ether of the nation- nay, the world- to those who still have any kind of place for VHS.

I could have got more
To be fair, the format is not completely dead.  It's just in a kind of coma, from which there's not much likelihood it will fully revive; at best we get a flap of the eye-lids or an involuntary genital spasm.  It has a place like Vinyl records now, where collectors or people who like really cheap shit will shell out the bucks and have a copy for their collection, to display prominently or to have up there.  As for VHS as a market, it's also in a very odd place.  In some stores like CVS you can still purchase blank VHS tapes, and VCRs (or at least VCR-DVD combos) are still sold, but the last official VHS cassette for a movie (not counting the novelty nature of the release of The House of the Devil of which, as an aside, the wonderful The Big Box show does a great job reviewing) was in early 2006 for David Cronenberg's A History of Violence.

Most recently I used such blank VHS tapes to tape a few things when the DVR thing wasn't seeming so likely.  The first full season of The Walking Dead and a marathon of Dead Set were quasi-nostalgic trips of fancy for me for a format I haven't utilized in a while.  Ironically the tapes will look best on my TV in my bedroom, a regular screen that is not in HD like in my living room, which would probably prefer for viewing quality a DVD or blu-ray or right from the TV airing.

So, there is no truly feasible future for the format.  At the same time, it's not quite something one has to forget, or might want to.  No technology is ever quite dead, just in a limbo, or an un-constructed-space ala Inception where it grows into an old man, waiting to die alone, filled with regret.  You can't buy em in stores, but they're out there, on the web, or at garage/yard sales, or sitting away in the attic ala Toy Story 3, possessions not utilized to their potential.  Perhaps there is something inside of me that doesn't want to let go, as I enter into adulthood and have to leave those things that are childish or from a more inconvenient technological era.  This also goes for some videogame consoles (I have not yet moved on to the next-gen consoles like X-BOX or PS3, and am still comforted with a very old-school Nintendo and Super-Nintendo in the bedroom, however this speaks more to my limited area of expertise and/or interest in video games)

On the one hand most of us, even me after years of semi-fighting the oncoming of DVD and now VOD and streaming, have moved on from it as an every-day thing to use.  On the other hand, there are some complex emotions for me in letting go.  Memories, somewhat or mostly sentimental, are with them, and unloading the ones that are now added to the surplus of ones I have owned or copied comes with letting go of some of these memories, or letting them find new homes.  Which is maybe for the best.  Andy at the end of Toy Story 3 can attest to that.

As for Video Box Office, it's been long gone (I last went there in their closing days, buying up various video-tapes like Darkman, and somewhere the actual cassette packages are in the home), as have other "Mom-n-Pop" rental houses, or such as the one Quentin Tarantino famously got his edumacation at in the 80s,  and Blockbuster stores are in the nebulous position of still providing a service, one that I do seek from time to time, but in competition with a more convenient and (somewhat) financially feasible system (adding to that, most Blockbusters' selection in movies is at the low-end of offerings, filled up with only limited selections of the unlikely and unconventional and mostly filled with crap B-to-Z grade garbage and fifty copies of the new hit release that is never there when you need a copy, argh!)  And, very likely in the coming years, I'll likely downside much of my collection- if not for the attraction of them then for the space- with new VHS to DVD converters.

But the memories, again, still remain.  Kids today won't really have such a time like I had going to a store and anxiously picking up (yes as pathetic as it might sound) the Star Wars Trilogy special edition, and falling off of my bike on the ride home due to the heavy load of the bag on the handles.  Or the feeling of looking at Lucio Fulci's Zombie cover- again in a big box, with a warning of "No-Minors-Can-Rent-This" and wondering if it could be as fucked-up and frightening as it was (ultimately I didn't watch it until I was much older, sadly missing out on the zombie vs. shark awesomeness).

Or at another video store which is now sadly defunct called Two Boots in NYC (open until just two years ago actually) which featured all odds and ends of classic masterpieces from world directors... and some real shit as well (ever heard of Pussbucket?  no, good, don't ever watch it, ever ever ever).  Or the intended joys of watching some of my favorite films, Clockwork Orange, Manhattan, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, on rough and worn copies, usually with the cassette covers themselves.  Hell, even the trailers on VHS tapes hold a place in my big-fat heart.  Or, the very wonderful and bewildering experience of obtaining a copy from an uncle of The Star Wars Holiday Special, completely taped off TV with commercials (it's always an uncle, isn't it).  Or, the elephant in the room, all that pornography!  Where would I be without having seen Black Throat and, for a short while before it was lost or loaned to a friend and never returned, the bizarre fun of seeing pre-18-year-old Traci Lords getting (insert sex phrase here... huh-huh, insert).  This isn't even counting all of the things taped off of TV over time.

These things can remain in the consciousness as time goes on into what Patrick Carlin (George's brother) calls "The Big Electron", out in the ether of the world, to be held on to destroyed, made into coasters or held on to for ironic prop sake in movies.  Or for douchebag hipsters.  But hey, it is what it is.

So, a (Not-Yet) RIP VHS.  See you when I see you...Like later today and tonight, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday...

(don't turn this up loud)

(in the age of netflix, this is like ancient history)


Personal pictures of the VHS inventory in the basement, and my original copy of Winnie the Pooh:

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