THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Once upon a time, videotape was the primary method of watching movies at home. It was full of problems: movies were rarely shown in their proper aspect ratio, the picture quality wasn't all that sharp, and the tape could deteriorate over time, eventually becoming unwatchable. Kids who have grown up with DVDs and Blu-Rays could never understand the experience so many of us had at their age. However, VHS remains a passion with some people. There's distinct nostalgia value at work here; so many of us saw so many movies in the format that it has become ingrained upon our cinematic psyches. The documentary Rewind This! looks at the format's life and impact, as well as why some movie buffs still prefer it today.
The movie gives a very thorough accounting of how the VHS phenomenon came to be. Although the Beta format was, by all accounts, better, VHS tapes could record two hours of content rather than one; it caught on with the public for this reason. Studios experimented with releasing their films on videotape for rental purposes, only to see it succeed beyond their wildest dreams. Then they discovered that people would buy movies if the price was low enough. Pornography and hardcore horror movies – the kinds of things many people were embarrassed to see in a public theater – prospered in the format. Such things could now be watched in privacy. Among those testifying to these, and other, facts include director Frank Henenlotter (the wildly successful – and gory - Basket Case), filmmaker Atom Egoyan, low-budget horror producer Charles Band, and HitFix blogger Drew McWeeny, who offers some of the most insightful analysis. Through these interviews, Rewind This! traces how VHS changed the way we watch movies.
Director Josh Johnson brings out a couple of really fascinating ideas during his investigation of VHS. One interviewee points out that every videotape tells a story. Whenever someone would record over one of their tapes, there would always be tail ends of other things they'd recorded, thus creating a viewing history of its owner. Rewind This! also laments the deep cinematic loss that the death of VHS brought about. Many movies were never released in any other format and are now presumably gone. Film preservationists often fail to consider the wealth of material the home video boom brought with it. The documentary urges us to recognize that it needs to be saved. Once all the VCRs are gone, there will be no way to retrieve it.
Rewind This! is well organized, thoughtful, and often funny. It makes you take stock of how revolutionary VHS really was. My sole complaint with the documentary is in its choice of VHS fans/collectors as interview subjects. Most of them appear to either hate-watch things (like a cheesy old Corey Haim biography) or exude a sense of smug self-satisfaction in their hobby (organizing a VHS collection by color). Because these interviewees are all kind of the same, the film inadvertently suggests that maintaining passion for VHS today is something that's only done ironically. It fares better when it sticks with the people who assess it for its genuine worth and influence, rather than simply as an affectation.
That is a minor flaw, however, in a documentary that is both entertaining and relevant. We wouldn't be where we are now without VHS. It provided an important step in the evolution of home video, and in movie-watching in general. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay the film is to say that it made me want to go down in my basement and dig through all those old VHS tapes that I have boxed up. Who knows what might be in there? Possibly a treasure.
( 1/2 out of four)
Note: Rewind This! is available exclusively on iTunes for the month of August.
Rewind This! is unrated, but contains language and clips from movies featuring violent and sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.
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