Saturday, January 18, 2014

Rewind This!

REWIND THIS! is a scattershot but entertaining documentary about the VHS revolution that came of age in the early 1980s and changed the film industry forever. It’s ninety minutes long, which is not really long enough for director Josh Johnson to cover everything he wants to cover.

Johnson jumps around from obsessive VHS collectors (who seem self-satisfied and appear to have been chosen to be profiled because of their personal friendships with the director) to the early battle between VHS and Betamax for market supremacy to the role of adult films in home video to filmmakers and distributors who found early success in the direct-to-video realm. And so on.

Almost any one of these subjects is strong enough to carry its own documentary, and while Johnson does a decent job painting each one with broad strokes, it all comes across as a bit overwhelming and frustrating, as he moves on to the next item on his checklist right when you’re getting interested in the current one.

Johnson’s VHS collectors—who do quirky things like organize their stash by color or hide it away in their clubhouse/attic—come across as awkward hipsters who seem more interested in collecting cool points for their collections rather than watching the films that are inside the boxes, and Johnson would have benefitted from getting the added perspective of film buffs with a firm knowledge of the movies they collect. Or maybe REWIND THIS’ subjects do know the difference between Herschell Gordon Lewis and Joseph L. Lewis, but Johnson cut that footage out.

He does nail sit-downs with BASKET CASE director Frank Henenlotter and Troma head Lloyd Kaufman—both always welcome in any discussion of film history—as well as Something Weird Video’s Mike Vraney, Synapse’s Don May Jr., actress Cassandra Peterson (better known as Elvira and looking smashing), and several Japanese professionals who pitch in with information about the home video industry overseas.

REWIND THIS! also touches on the adult-movie industry’s impact on home video (I suspect one could easily get a whole documentary out of this), but oddly ignores a very important feature of VHS, which is that it allowed people to record TV shows and movies off the air and watch them later at their convenience. “Timeshifting” is touched upon, but I suspect this aspect of VCR ownership was just as important—if not more so—than the ability to buy or rent feature films on VHS. Johnson’s subjects line their walls with pre-records, but the perspective of a fan with shelves or boxes of their own VCR recordings would have been interesting.

Amiable and well-produced, REWIND THIS! isn’t the last word on a dead format (and I disagree with the film’s assertion that all physical media is in danger of dying anytime soon), but it will trigger memories of eager visits to dusty-shelved video stores and the sometimes-remarkable discoveries that hid within.

1 comment:

Grant said...

In my case (and many others) it isn't really a matter of "memories." Right now I don't have a working VCR, but that has nothing to do with "outgrowing" the whole idea.

You mention that the documentary doesn't give much time to the subject of home video recording, and there's one particular side of that it might have gone into. One of the pleasures of it (long before this was easy with PCs) is making things like "montages," sets of movie scenes, cartoons, commercials, anything. Including of course "loops" of the same things (either titillating scenes or others!). Those things were / are one of the pleasures of having a VCR for other reasons besides playing.