Physical Nostalgia: Rewind This! + Q&A

September 4, 2013

By George Symonds

VHS or Betamax? Is video rental a good idea? Should the public even be allowed to have physical access to films? On Tuesday 3 September, these were some of the era-defining issues raised at the Frontline Club’s screening of Rewind This!

Directed by Josh Johnson, Rewind This! beamed the audience into a time when the idea of the rewind button – or even having the ability to choose when to watch something at home – was a pioneering concept. Overcoming the initial fear and resistance from major film studios, the meteoric rise and eventual demise of the home video empire draws many parallels to the expanding internet video markets today; most notably in the success of your medium being defined by its relationship to the adult film industry. The idiosyncrasies of home video, from the intricacies of box cover art to sub-genres of cult horror movies – and the impact it had on a generation – is told by the passionate characters who are trying to save home video, and perhaps themselves, from obscurity.

Director Josh Johnson taking questions from the audience via Skype. Photo: George Symonds

Joining via Skype, director Johnson began the Q&A with an explanation of his motivations:

“I feel like the home video revolution is what changed my life more than anything else and really shaped the person that I am. When I was a child I was able to wander the aisles of the video store and imagine what might be contained in those boxes. And then I was also able to take things home – sacks of tapes – and then I was exposed to all the film history from a very young age. . . . So that was a big part of wanting to make the film, because that part of the story of the home video world hadn’t been told.

 

“And then the other aspect that was really appealing about it was the contemporary relevance, because there were so many thousands of titles that were at risk of being lost. So it didn’t feel like it would just be looking back, it would also be looking to the future.”

A central theme in the documentary was archiving and the potential loss of many films. Johnson was asked if there had been improvements in the archiving or digitising process of VHS tapes.

“What is happening,” he replied, “is that a lot of these collectors, a lot of these people who have access to material are aware that it’s very scarce and that they’re at risk of losing it, and they are starting to digitise and back up things. And you see a lot of file sharing sites on the web and other ways of sharing this content. So it’s legally questionable at this point but people are trying to do it. And I think what’s happening online right now, with the torrenting and file-sharing of a lot of these rare films that are only available on videotapes, is that they’re setting up a good model for what that system should look like once it becomes a more official thing.”

An audience member then asked for the director’s thoughts on the idea of ownership – or false ownership – with the development of internet. Johnson responded:

 “I think the only risk is that people think everything is going to be made available to them and I think that’s probably not going to be the case. I think when a studio owns everything, and they are able to provide their entire catalogue, it really makes more sense for them to provide various segments of a catalogue at different times. And I don’t think everything will be widely available.”

“I think what you have now, with Netflix and other sites where they have them for a window of time, and then they go away and then they might come back a little later. But I think the idea of endless access to everything that’s ever been created is unrealistic. So for me, the value of physical media is that when something is released and I purchase it I can back it up. I can hold onto it and I have access to it when I want it. Whereas on the online space when everything goes completely digital or is hosted in the cloud or hosted elsewhere I don’t feel as confident that I’m going to  have the level of access that I want.”

 

Following on, Johnson was asked if his comparison of physical video rentals and contemporary online video consumption was pre-planned. “That was definitely pre-planned,” said Johnson.

 “We wanted to make something that was definitely motivated in part by nostalgia and would take people back to a time in their lives, or for a younger audience introduce them to a time that they didn’t live through or that they weren’t aware of. . . . But we also didn’t want to make a film that didn’t hold any contemporary relevance.
“What’s interesting about the current online distribution system is that it actually does seem to be doing what they were fearful of in the early video days, which is that people are going to be able to access so many things so conveniently and so inexpensively that they’re not as motivated to go and see movies in the theatre. So we are seeing that negative impact on the box office. . . . It’s essentially a new version of that same home video concept, but it actually is taking over and becoming the dominant way that people see films.”

In the words of a contemporary VHS enthusiast featured by Johnson:

“When you see a Be Kind Rewind sticker on it [a VHS cassette], there’s something deeply moving about that. It’s such a call to arms and a suggestion or imperative about the way to live your life. To be kind, and rewind. Go back, and  hang on to those things that are important to you; and not let them disappear, and not let other people take them away from you. Find what’s important and preserve that – and help it to endure.”

Rewind This! was the last in a series of the Frontline Club’s summer screenings, exploring the role of technology in how we document our world.

Full details of upcoming screenings for Rewind This!  in the UK and beyond can be found on the official website and on Twitter.