Rob Harmon’s Picks 03/25/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksROB HARMON’S PICKS 3/25/14

Rewind This! (dir. Josh Johnson, 2013)

I do not remember when my family purchased its first VCR but it was probably sometime around 1985—I would have been about 7—when most of the rest of middle-class America was jumping on the VHS bandwagon. I do, however, vividly remember my sense of awe when we inserted the first tape into the mouth of the machine and the thing whirred to life, humming and clicking, the sound of the magnetic tape winding through the machine and wrapping around rollers and heads, and, finally, an image—a movie image—appearing on our TV screen! This instrument would prove to be a Pandora’s Box for me, tantalizing and hypnotic, one which would eventually open me up to cinematic landscapes both wonderful and sordid; whose grainy, pan-and-scan images, washed-out colors, and the sounds of crinkled tape running past video heads would substantially distort the dreams of my youth.

And then there was the packaging of the movies themselves: from the bulky, cumbersome clamshell cases to the sleeker cardboard sleeves, and the oftentimes lurid artwork which promised explosions and guns, scantily-clad women, and buckets of blood and gore for the viewer. I went to see movies in the theater, too, sure, but that was different: a videotape was brought into the home and viewed, such as the moldering library tapes early on of Disney fare like ESCAPE FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN, FREAKY FRIDAY and THAT DARN CAT, and later on, in middle and high school, taped-from-TV copies of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, STAR WARS, ALIENS and TERMINATOR 2, which were brought out on Friday nights when friends were over.

The modestly-made but hugely entertaining new documentary by Josh Johnson REWIND THIS! is composed of just this sort of gauzy, diaphanous stuff—a memory of, not just one, but many moments in time, of the nature of a decadent era not too far distant—taking the viewer on a tour through the culture surrounding the VCR which was… and continues to be.

Like many other documentaries about subcultures (TREKKIES, CINEMANIA) the meat and potatoes of Rewind This! are the obsessive-compulsives themselves who have made the VCR their life’s work. Some seem dazed and lost in time; others are bitter about society’s current obsessions with high-resolution images and streaming content. Almost all seem to survive on a steady diet of schlock, camp, and ironic patter as they sift through their collections, freely expounding upon the virtues of random violence, splatter, gratuitous nudity, rippling muscles, exercise videos, Corey Haim, Charles Bronson and Dolph Lundgren action movies, etc.

Johnson is adroit enough to recognize that kitsch alone would be insufficient and includes interviews with a wide array of talking-heads: filmmakers (Frank Henenlotter, Atom Egoyan), archivists, writers and critics, distributors, as well as technological futurists who believe that all of this nostalgia is nauseating at best, harmful to culture at worst. Various angles are examined: history, technological development, the VHS vs. Betamax format war, time shifting (taping of material to be watched at a later time), video rental, tape distribution, tape trading, and—importantly—the influence of pornography and the adult film industry on the development of the medium. Numerous clips of cheesy movies and enjoyably-dated old VCR commercials are inserted throughout.


The film employs a three act structure: introduction of characters and initial exposition; further exposition and development; and, finally, the big questions, such as what future there is for the VCR, videotape, and their adherents. This is undoubtedly a rosy and affectionate take on the past but it is well-edited, scored (sounding, at times, like unused portions of a minimal, synthesizer-y John Carpenter score), and leaves the viewer with plenty of thought-provoking questions, oftentimes only tangentially striking upon an idea (recognizing that to follow every thought to its logical end would be to rob the film of its light and airy tone).

In truth, Rewind This! is not about movies at all: it is about media, plain and simple, the ability to physically possess a medium or, increasingly, not to. With Best Video weathering the storms of media change year after year this film does an excellent job of consolidating and summarizing an immense amount of information into one entertaining and enlightening 90-minute package.

Incidentally, I had mixed feelings when it came time to switch over to DVD: sure, the new format was better in every way—better picture, almost standard letterboxing on every movie (finally!), smaller in size, no rewinding, etc.—but my heart ached a little at getting rid of the VCR. I set it on a bottom shelf, instead, where it more-or-less just collected dust.

Then, one evening a few years later, I was reminiscing with my brother about a beloved-old tape of ours named DAZZLING DUNKS AND BASKETBALL BLOOPERS, hosted by a pre-sex scandal Marv Albert and former coach of the Utah Jazz Frank Layden, who engage in witty banter and introduce various segments of gnarly tomahawk and windmill jams, shattered backboards, alley-oops, bloopers, and other wonders of the NBA in its 1980’s heyday. Before I knew it I was online hunting down a copy of this treasure (a steal at only $1!) and when it finally arrived in the mail a week or so later we popped it in and the VCR hummed back to life. The machine itself – with all of its hisses and whirs – seemed unspeakably noisy to me now but also strangely comforting, as though movies – not necessarily the same things as films – were meant to be accompanied by this wall of noise.

The VCR is back under my TV now on a permanent basis and I have a small collection of tapes sitting next to it: it may not get as much use as it once did but it pleases me to know that this faithful old workhorse is ready to go at a moment’s notice.

While renting Rewind This!—a movie about, well, videos—why not consider renting a VHS tape to go with it? Best Video has thousands, including, for example, Richard Brooks’ controversial 1977 drama LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR and Ken Russell’s 1971 masterpiece THE DEVILS, neither of which has ever been released on DVD!

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