News Column

Documentary revisits the love affair with videotape

August 26, 2013


Former Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, resident Josh Johnson has a movie that will get you thinking about the days of battleship-size Betamaxes and corner stores offering row after row of VHS and Beta tapes. Of the arguments about Beta vs. VHS. Of the early days of movie rentals, choosing your next one based on the cover art ... and eventually your thinking that a video camera provided an easy way to make a movie of your own.

But director Johnson's "Rewind This!" also talks about big issues, such as the benefit of videotape distribution to independent filmmakers, among them horror-movie maestro J.R. Bookwalter, who appears in "Rewind This!" along with clips from his locally made film "The Dead Next Door." The early appetite for tape rentals created a big, new market for all movies and opened the door for direct-to-video releases.

And "Rewind This!" points to the lack of serious preservation of many direct-to-videotape movies, even though they are culturally significant, and that some movies have not made it to DVD at all.

Film fans in Ohio, for example, know that Don Bendell's local effort "The Instructor" is not in an authorized format other than VHS. Johnson said by email that he has about 1,000 movies on tape, "all of which are titles that aren't available on any other format."

Johnson's feature-film debut further notes what corporatization _ especially the emergence of Blockbuster stores _ did to the video business, and what the digital age augurs for consumers. It ably, and often humorously, blends such big issues with recollections by movie makers, distributors, historians, collectors, video-box artists and others, both in the U.S. and Japan, along with clips from vintage commercials for video recorders and from videotape features of all sorts. (The clips, which include violence and nudity, make the film suitable neither for families nor office viewing.)

It's a fascinating march through what still seems like a golden era for movie watching, when you could find all kinds of things in stores that never made it to the multiplex. Not that they always should have. This, after all, is a documentary that looks at Frankenhooker, Deadly Prey, House of Whipcord and Rolling Vengeance.

It talks at some length about people's fond memories of a button on the Frankenhooker box that, when pushed, played a catchphrase from the movie. It presents a horror-film collector so precise that he has broken his movies into categories like "outer space horror" and "pre sellout (Wes) Craven." At the other extreme is a man who sells videotapes but has no sense of organization at all _ and who assures potential customers that a movie is good even when he hasn't seen it (or knows it's bad).

Now, we can argue about a lot of things relating to videotape. One of the drawbacks to many VHS movies was the early reliance on a pan-and-scan process that changed the image from its original aspect ratio (of length to width of the image), called widescreen, to one more suited to the shape of old television sets.

But check out a site like Tumblr's What Netflix Does (, which details how that company's streaming-video service has modified the aspect ratio of some classic movies when their original shape would not fill all the screen on letterbox-shaped sets. Netflix told the Gizmodo site that "when we discover this error (in aspect ratio), we work to replace that title as soon as possible." But I found at least one example from What Netflix Does still in place not long ago, on a classic movie, no less.

"Rewind This!" argues that easier technology is not necessarily better in all ways. And it's kind of touching to hear people talk about the sense of community that came from watching a much-used videotape, and knowing which scenes had been watched a lot because of the wear on the tape.

You can guess which kind of scenes.

Those camcorders gave people like Johnson a point of entry into filmmaking. Now 30 years old, he said he was obsessed with movies from early childhood, and divided his free time between visits to the video store and recording his own videos in the backyard. "The low-cost equipment gave me the first tools I needed to pursue my dreams," he said.

After appearances at film festivals, "Rewind This!" will be available digitally on iTunes on Tuesday, exclusively for two weeks before it expands to other sites like Going digital "is merely reflective of the current marketplace," Johnson said. "It has become the dominant way people view movies."

But a DVD is coming out later this year. And yes, Johnson is looking into having a VHS release.


Rich Heldenfels:


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