Just before Christmas last year, my friend and film critic colleague Craig Martin broke the news that Video Vision, a DVD rental store in the Melbourne suburb of Balaclava was closing down after 18 years. Like other similar businesses, the competition from streaming services like Netflix was simply too great for them to stay afloat. Most cities have similar stories: in Melbourne alone, Northcote’s Movie Reel met a similar fate last year, and Fitzroy’s Video Dogs stopped leasing out films in 2013.
For my generation at least, recollections of the video-store-that-got-away are becoming the new tales-of-shared-heartbreak du jour. I recall fondly the many hours spent wandering up and down video shop aisles, weighing up what then felt like substantial life decisions as I struggled to choose between Igor and the Lunatics, Space Mutiny and The Slumber Party Massacre. These moments are as much a part of my adolescence – and, frankly, far more pleasant memories – as high school socials and school swimming carnivals.
Of course, I’m not the only one with these sorts of stories, however ingrained my memories of Cheezel-sticky fingers pressing rigid buttons on archaic VCR remotes may be. Of the many tales Craig so warmly shares about Video Vision’s clientele, one has stayed with me in particular: one older customer has, according to store records, hired over seven thousand DVDs. ‘He comes in every day and has a chat,’ Craig told me. ‘Brings in the paper and leaves it on the counter for staff to read.’ Alongside their ex-hire DVD stock, Video Vision’s cornucopia of movie memorabilia was quickly snapped up, from a Spongebob Squarepants piñata to a replica of Darth Vader’s helmet, a crystal alien head from the fourth Indiana Jones film and a plastic Captain America shield – souvenirs commemorating the role Video Vision played in its customer’s lives.
These stories feel like microhistories, tiny records of the diversity of ritual practices surrounding moving image culture, that simply vanish if we don’t squirrel them away. I confess, the temptation to privilege these kinds of rituals over newer ones emerging online is strong. A century ago, I’d have been the type of person to be suspicious of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s moving image projections, out of some kind of perverse loyalty to the zoetrope.
Yet as someone who spends the bulk of their time watching, writing and thinking about cinema, I can’t disregard the vital role that VHS played in my burgeoning cinema literacy. While the bulk of video shops of course switched to DVD years ago, I still think of them as ‘video shops’, having bought up much their antiquated VHS stock. At the time I was unsure if this was merely a nostalgia-fuelled hoarding tendency, but now I cherish my video collection for what it is – an archive.
Like all moving image technologies, videotape is marked by its own formal qualities that create real, affective responses in its audiences. What I love the most about video is its volatility – the way its colours fade and blur like watercolours, how damaged or old tapes glitch and contort in ghostly, beautiful ways that other media formats do not. For Laura U. Marks, videotape has a haptic quality that locks into our senses precisely because of these flaws, rendering it ‘insufficiently visual’: as she notes in her book The Skin of the Film (2000), ‘When vision yields to the diminished capacity of video, it must give up some degree of mastery; our vision dissolves in the unfulfilling or unsatisfactory space of video’. In practical terms, 35mm film has up to 20 times more pixels per frame than VHS. As the race towards ever-higher definition continues with technologies like Blu-Ray, I can’t help but wonder if that by privileging the eye with increasing detail, the work our other senses used to do to help create the myriad universes these films presented to us are somehow losing out.
The rise of the home video revolution in the 1980s also dramatically altered how we engaged with film culture: it legitimately empowered us. For Joan Hawkins, with the power of the remote control and movies recorded on tape, ‘the viewer can replay selected bits of a film, fast-forward through unsettling sequences, watch the film in instalments, watch parts of it frame by frame, or stop it altogether’. She continues:
She can also create composite cinematic texts by alternately viewing two films or by crosscutting between a movie on the VCR and the six o’clock news. That is, she can become a truly active viewer, one who creates her own texts, one who feels free to disrupt the narrative flow.
Renowned film theorist Laura Mulvey argues that with video, and later DVD technology, we were granted the ability to reclaim time itself, with moving images rendered as something bendable, malleable, able to be manipulated. For Mulvey, just by having the option to pause, rewind or fast forward – impossible with television and cinema – we now magically became ‘possessive spectators’, with ‘the power of the Medusa’s gaze at his or her fingertips, turning the moving figure as it were into stone’.
We can see videotape’s near-mystical characteristics carry over into movies themselves. Just think of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, Kôji Suzuki’s Ringu, David Lynch’s Lost Highway or Michael Haneke’s Cache, which bestow upon the very materiality of the humble VHS tape an explicitly ominous power. Even something as comparatively innocuous as Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape imbues these physical objects with the ability to reveal truths that would otherwise remain buried in a bleak, VHS-less parallel universe.
Movies themselves have romanticised video in increasingly nostalgic, often goofy ways, with the recent V/H/S horror anthologies (and arguably the found footage horror subgenre more broadly) and Michel Gondry’s 2008 film Be Kind Rewind perhaps the most well-known iterations of this particular mode of retrofetishism. But the stories that grow out of these artefacts – both related to the objects themselves and the rituals surrounding them, once so natural but now memories – are real histories. Not just histories about movies, but about real people, and real places.