In today’s age of ethereal media, where films seep within hard drives and emerge on command, even DVDs and Blu-Ray formats seem like attempts to hold onto the past. The VHS tape contains a spooled tape – thus closer to film reels – along with a hollowness, room for past spirits to inspire, or haunt. David Cronenberg’s early meditation on the medium, Videodrome, suggests that the permanent ownership of video will leave its permanence in the mind. Today, the videotape remains a bizarre forefather, one that most of us have sold off and forgotten as video grew sleeker, to disc, then disintegrated into digital code.
Like any pop cultural tradition, the videotape has its diehards, who are the diverting guests in Josh Johnson’s new documentary, Rewind This! Their fanaticism veers the film toward an eccentric tribute, like Seth Gordon’s The King of Kong, and like that entry Johnson’s details the unique history behind his subject. Truffaut spoke about the great age of film going, but most of us after his time found our love at the video store. A movie on the cable schedule didn’t belong to you as much as one you could lift off the shelf – the former films were usually happy accidents.
I caught up with Johnson over email before his film screened at Philadelphia’s Awesome Fest.
Matthew Sorrento: Have you always been interested in retro subjects as a filmmaker?
Josh Johnson: I’ve always had a really broad range of interests as a filmmaker, from surrealist comedies to intimate dramas. The decision to make a film about the video revolution speaks more to the impact it had on me on a personal level than to any fixation on the past.
I assume you must be very interested in interviewing and documenting oddballs, too…
I’m an oddball myself, and I identify with people who are passionate, regardless of the form in which that passion manifests. I like celebrating people for the way they are, especially individuals who aren’t ordinarily celebrated or recognized.
What aspect(s) of this project attracted you initially? What part of it is most fond to you?
Initially, it was the realization that there were thousands of films released on VHS that had never been released any other way. I thought it was interesting that there was a huge portion of film history that was at risk of disappearing, and nobody was talking about it. That idea led to exploring other aspects of the home video revolution, including the history of its creation and the different ways it has impacted global culture. The part of that story I am most fond of is the feeling of limitless discovery that came along with the advent of video, when anything and everything was released into the marketplace.
How do you personally feel about VHS tapes, over other formats, say?
I feel a powerful sense of nostalgia towards them as artifacts of a precious time in my life. I also think they are a compromised and inferior way to view a film. I’d always prefer to see a 35mm print screened theatrically, or watch a high-definition transfer. However, there are so many films that can only be accessed on VHS, and I want to see those films in whatever form I can.
They are all tapes that are discussed by the interview subjects in the film. You can find a lot of these clips on YouTube, at least in pieces. Showing examples of these tapes was always a part of the plan though. I wanted to show the whole spectrum of material that is still only available on VHS, from art film classics to workout tapes. I think it is important to make the argument that all of this material can provide entertainment, and thus it is all worthy of preservation.
This type of footage makes your film seem like a tribute similar to Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood. Can you comment?
They are both loving and informative tributes to fondly remembered industries that hadn’t been properly documented. There is definitely a link between the two films. I think the main difference is that Rewind This! deals with a subject that had a wider reach, rather than focusing on a particular region. The advent of video had a major impact in every part of the world, and that impact was not always the same everywhere.
What films did you return to for inspiration?
Our team didn’t look at a lot of specific films for inspiration, but we did have a lot of conversations about what works best in other documentaries. In particular, we had a lot of discussions about how to present subcultures or eccentric individuals in a way that was loving, but didn’t ignore their eccentricity. Examples we discussed for comparison were Marwencol, Crumb, and Best Worst Movie.
We started with people we knew, and had access to. Those early interviewees suggested other people we should talk to, and it grew from there. Once we had a presence online, we actually had people start reaching out to us and asking to be in the movie. We also had a wish list, and getting some of those names took a lot of effort, while some were surprisingly easy. The period of time the film documents was a great period for many of the people featured in the film, so they were excited to go on the record.
I imagine that the streaming video age inspired your project. Can you tell me how so?
The streaming age is all about having immediate access to the media around us, on our own terms. That attitude towards media began with the home video revolution. It was the first time the audience had control over what they wanted to watch, and when they wanted to watch it. That shift in perception is irreversible. It has created a fundamental change in what we feel entitled to as consumers.
Did you feel obliged to cover details like aspect ratio issues and videotape’s involvement in the porn industry?
Yes, because they are definitely major parts of the home video story. The flaws of the format are just as important as the strengths, and that area of exploration offered fantastic opportunities for humor, which is extremely helpful when getting across a lot of information. And the adult entertainment industry had an impact on video that stretched well beyond porn, so the story would have felt incomplete without including it.
The video store was a major source of entertainment and education for a huge percentage of the population for several decades. The ability to document ourselves and the world around us with low-cost technology is something that is now commonplace for every person with a smart phone. The home video revolution touched every living person, even if they don’t realize it. I wanted to show those connections, and explore both the past and the future of video, in a very human way. I wanted the film to be dense with information, but also warm and funny. I hope people will walk away from the film feeling unreasonably good.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012) and a contributor to the forthcoming Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the War Film.