Rewind This, Adjust Your Tracking and why I don’t understand VHS nostalgia

I love films. It’s a passion. Many would probably call it an obsession. But there’s one area of film fanaticism that I really do not understand at all, and that’s the love for the VHS format.

I used to own hundreds of VHS tapes. I lived in a flat that had one whole wall covered in them. I quickly got used to the jokes about how I should open my own rental place.

I now own two VHS tapes. They are On the Air, volumes one and two. This is the full collection of David Lynch‘s wonderfully anarchic television comedy, a series which is sadly only available on VHS or on Japanese Laserdisc. So, if it wasn’t for the high cost of owning a player and obtaining the laserdisc, I would actually own zero VHS tapes.

Every other VHS tape I once owned is now gone, sold or given away, and presumably now in the hands either a collector or, mostly likely, in landfill. And I don’t fill sad about that at all. Apart from the bit about landfill.

Every single one of those films that I owned on VHS is now available on a better format, in far greater quality. When On the Air finally gets a DVD or, even better, a Blu-ray release, I’ll be saying goodbye to those On the Air tapes pretty sharpish.  And, frankly, I can’t wait for that to happen.

Watching films at home is always compromise and it’s a compromise I often struggle with. Films are made, for the most part, to be seen in a cinema, projected from 35mm or now, from a DCP. Every step away from that, no matter how minor, results in a compromise to the intended, ideal experience of watching the film.

The first time I saw a Blu-ray on a large, high-quality flatscreen television, with the movie’s audio played through a decent surround sound set up, I realised that the compromise was becoming increasingly easy to accept. I finally found a format that my purist impulses didn’t reject.

But VHS always felt like it was far too far away from the ideal. It’s fair to say I now absolutely hate VHS and, to some degree, I always hated it. Tracking issues, distortion, incorrect aspect ratios, tape damage, audio pops and the rest of it are all things that I’m happy to see the back of.

Of course, Blu-ray is rarely perfect – you will often find me pointing out even the most minor of flaws on discs – but its imperfections are a far cry from the occasionally devastating impact that you could expect VHS quality to have on the viewing experience.

So, sure, I have warm memories of flicking through VHS covers in a local rental store, looking for the most oddball film I could find, or of the excitement I felt when my parents would rent a new VHS and we would sit down to watch it together. But those memories are tied up in two important factors entirely separate from the tape: the films themselves, and the recollection of emotion.

And I’m happy for those memories to remain memories too. I know that they’re moments that could never be recaptured. As Jay Gatsby discovered, “You can’t repeat the past.”

I’ve certainly got no nostalgia for VHS tracking, or for the hideous pan-and-scan atrocities the medium exacted on almost every movie. And no-one else ever would, right?

Well actually, a lot of people do, and I find it utterly baffling.

Two recent documentaries have taken a rather rose-tinted look at VHS. Both were clearly made with the purview that VHS is something to be celebrated. Rewind This! and Adjust Your Tracking were released in the US just a few months apart in 2013, and both are currently available to buy online via the appropriately named digital delivery service VHX.

Both films cover similar ground, though Adjust Your Tracking has more of a focus on collecting, and they each even feature interviews with a number of the same subjects. These interviewees sometimes sound utterly insane to my mind, particularly the one collector in Rewind This! who sings the praises of pan and scan and, specifically, the “aesthetic” of the pan and scan VHS version of Sam Peckinpah‘s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.

That sound you hear is cinematographer John Coquillon rising from his grave to exact his vengeance.

VHS wasn’t even the best publicly available format when we all first started using it. That crown goes to Betamax, which lost a great deal of ground because the public were far more interested in the price of the format and how much they could store on it than the quality of what they were watching. As one contributor puts it, the consumer base just didn’t “give a shit”.

The battle between VHS and Betamax is covered briefly in Rewind This! but with little detail, before the filmmakers quickly return to the task at hand: venerating VHS. Rewind This! is, for the most part, a hagiography of VHS.

Both Rewind This! and Adjust Your Tracking do bring up the importance of VHS collecting, especially in respect of the preservation of those films, and there’s some discussion of movies that are “lost in limbo,” as Adjust Your Tracking puts it, having never made the leap to a superior format.

I do believe that preservation is very important, as my copies of On The Air might attest, but neither documentary approaches the subject with any nuance whatsoever. If there are only a few copies remaining of a certain video and they’re in the hands of a few collectors, then what are those collectors doing to preserve them? Surely it now becomes a question of archivism and not collecting? Are the owners preserving the tapes in a climate controlled environment? I’ve worked in tape archives and seen first hand that it’s a serious business.

And are these collectors also ensuring that digitized back up copies of the tapes are made? As far as we can tell from these films, the collectors are just leaving the tapes on the shelf and pretending that they’re doing some good.

But thankfully, there is also some question as to whether or not these VHS tapes are really the only existing copies. Rare videos we see discussed include films that are now easily viewable on YouTube, or that exist in high quality captures from the best VHS copies on the hard drives of thousands. These dupes are certainly legally dubious but they undoubtedly provide more of a safeguard for the future of the films in question than VHS, a format that is really very prone to degradation.

What drives the desire to own VHS copies of films that are now available on newer, better formats? Is it the cover perhaps? The nostalgia? A difficult to articulate obsessive compulsion? Those possibilities all seem likely, but I’d be hard pressed to believe it has anything to with the films themselves. The VHS viewing experience is inferior and even further removed from a filmmakers’ intentions than even the ghastly alternative of watching a film on an iPhone.

So, apart from that apparently crazy guy who makes artistic claims for the pan and scan version of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, it must be simply be about the object, right? A fetishistic compulsion towards the physical object itself and a belief about what that object represents.

And that’s just something I guess I’ll never understand.

Cinephilia, I understand. VHSphilia is something that, even with the help of these two documentaries, still leaves me utterly baffled.

Rewind This is available to buy now via VHX, as is Adjust Your Tracking.