Why It Matters: VHS

Lars kicks off a new feature with a treatise on why VHS matters.

Over the last couple of years there's been both a resurgence in popularity of and a predictable backlash against the modest VHS tape. I've found myself drawn into this silly debate several times. I've grumbled a lot but I have never made a definitive statement about the matter. It feels like time.

I still have a VCR and VHS tapes. I still pick up or rent VHS tapes regularly. I am not a hipster of the walkman flask stripe, though several commenters have sought to paint VHS collectors as such. For me, it's not about fetishizing obsolescence or even making a statement about the disposability of culture. I am a power user of movies. It's important to me to explore the cinema as a whole. You may not care at all about Invasion of the Girl Snatchers, and that's fine. My own reasons for caring about Invasion of the Girl Snatchers are incredibly complicated and I wouldn't expect you to understand anyway, alright?

I want to program my own life. All day long I read and hear people spouting variants of the same tired ideas. If their excretions all resemble one another, maybe it's because their intellectual diet is so similar. When the Charles Edward Cheese Band created their "Down With Netflix" video, comment threads both on YouTube, Facebook and elsewhere were full of satisfied Netflix consumers who get all the filmed entertainment they need from streaming online sources and can't imagine why anyone wouldn't be satisfied with the wide variety of selections. I took a slug to the spirit when I read the cascade of ridicule directed at video stores and those who patronize them. If such venom could be directed at video stores full of (primarily) DVDs, just think how amazingly stupid anyone who loves VHS tapes must be.

I won't bother ridiculing the likes of Criterion collectors, though I think it's a fertile area for humor. I tend to leave other people's silly tastes alone unless they negatively affect others. As my own folly leads me to own and use a device called a "video rewinder", I'm probably too firmly ensconced in my glass house to start hurling stones anyway. But it hasn't stopped others who are thoroughly satisfied with the selection of movies available to them on DVD, Blu-Ray and streaming video from casting us as ridiculous contrarians.

Here's the deal as I see it: of all the films ever made, a small fraction have become available on VHS. Of those, a much smaller fraction has made it onto DVD and streaming media. If I want to enjoy a movie like Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight, I need to dust off a VHS tape. And if, in my capacity as a film programmer and advisor to a film archive, I want to refer to an obscure spaghetti western or kung fu movie, I'll probably be watching a video tape.

And at long last, let me make the following statement on behalf of all VHS admirers: none of us think VHS looks better than DVD or Blu-Ray. It's not analogous to the tired old LPs vs. CDs debate. DVD looks much better. If a beloved film is newly released on DVD, I'll often pick up the DVD and discard my VHS tape. But, but, BUT... optimal VHS quality is every bit as good as streaming Netflix quality, so if you're one of those trolls who criticizes VHS but is perfectly happy with Netflix quality maybe you should shut the fuck up in advance. Also, I know a number of younger people who collect VHS tapes just because it's VHS. They'll pick up, say, Aliens on VHS, just because they love the format. I won't presume to speak for this lunatic fringe of the community but when the Shit Goes Down, I'll happily fight alongside them.

I don't care if you accept the limits imposed upon your entertainment options by such lovers of film as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings or the money drunk consortia of bankers who own the studios, but I'll never do that. I want to watch what I want to watch when I want to watch it and if the only price I have to pay is one extra metal box on my entertainment console (and a lot of extra plastic boxes on my shelves), I'll pay it. It matters to me.