09 January 2009

The End of an Era

Requim for a VHS, photo by moneboh (some rights reserved)

I don't remember exactly what was the first VHS tape I owned. It may have been Chaplin's The Gold Rush or Danny Kaye's The Inspector General. But I do remember vividly the first thing I ever taped off of television: 1986's Dom Deluise and Friends Part 4. It was lame.

Harry Knowles points out an old (in internet years) article about the last manufacturer of pre-taped VHS tapes closing his business. This has sparked a wave of nostolgia in myself and many others, including Harry:

God. VHS changed everything. The ability to play and own something you loved when you wanted to was a miracle.

I grew up in the Nazarene Church, a relatively conservative evangelical denomination. I understand that the rules have softened (thanks to a current Nazarene minister who was kind enough to comment the last time I brought this up), but in my childhood, going to the movies was strictly verboten. I imagine few Nazarenes actually kept that rule -- heck, we had cable television and listened to rock music in the privacy of the parsonage, also against the rules -- but if a young preacher and his family had publicly flaunted the church's rules, it would have caused no end of trouble. I saw exactly two films at the movies before my ninth birthday: Popeye in 1980 and The Legend of the Lone Ranger in 1981.

As a side note, and so you really grasp the depth of what this means, here is a partial list of movies I did not see when they were released to theatres:

  • Superman
  • The Empire Strikes Back
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Superman II
  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
  • Return of the Jedi
  • Ghostbusters
  • Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  • Gremlins

... and perhaps the most depressing of all ...

  • The Muppet Movie

This isn't a plea for pity, although you have to admit, if it were, it'd be a pretty spectacular and effective plea! As a child, I read a lot of novelizations. So much so that even after my mom said
"enough's enough!" and insisted we be allowed to consume popular culture like normal kids, I still boght and read novelizations. My friends in Chicago were aghast that I was reading the paperback adaptation of Batman in the days leading up to that film's release. I am proud of the fact that I got through all 246 pages of E.T. The Extraterrestrial at age six. Not so proud of reading Spaceballs during recess.

Like I said, we had cable. This was an infrequent hook-up, as A) we lived in rural places most of the time (i.e. no cable service) and B) basic cable was pretty much all we could afford on mom & dad's salaries. (Oh! Free HBO weekends. How I miss you!)

Now when we got our first VCR, the film education of Andrew Moore began. Don't ask me why walking into a video store was less sinful than walking into a movie theatre. Perhaps one could cover and say "I was renting Billy Graham movies" when in fact the big plastic cases contained Porky's, Revenge of the Nerds and Zapped.

As Harry points out, the quality of videotape is atrocious. But at the time, the ability to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark every day after school was freedom most sweet. Who cares about a fuzzy image!

Those first tapes were damned expensive. $80 or so for a new release! So the real market was in bootleg tapings, either the "TV version" (I first saw Police Academy this way) or the pay-cable/video piracy method. The latter was obviously preferred, although copy-protection methods at the time could blur the top 1/8 of the picture. Kind of annoying, but we weren't as interested in the picture quality as we were the story.

And this brings me to the true sadness the death of VHS holds for me: The inevitable end of video stores. Yes, they've been sliding away into non-existence for some time now. Thanks to the compact and lightweight nature of DVD, NetFlix has managed to leverage the USPS (who'd have thought?) against brick-and-morter stalwarts such as Blockbuster. If DVD had never come along, this wouldn't have happened: Mailing VHS tapes would be far too expensive and problematic.

There was a time when you could spend an hour or two browsing the video aisles. Picking up boxes, marveling at the artwork and reading the back. NetFlix is lightning-fast interactive, but it lacks the real-world weight of holding something in your hand and turning it over. There was a time when you ran the risk of your preferred rental not being there when you got to the store. This made that rental far more precious. There was a time when you'd have to go by the video store before work or school to ensure you'd have a copy of that new release to watch later in the evening.

I wouldn't trade my NetFlix subscription for all the free rental tokens in the world. Video stores were notoriously limited in their selection (well, some of them were. Some video stores were run by cinemaphiles who followed their bliss when placing stocking orders.) But it saddens me that you can buy disposable DVDs of New Releases for a few bucks, watch them a couple of times and throw them away. It cheapens what was once an experience that bordered on sacred.

As it so happens, there are movies in existence that have not made the jump to DVD. One such is the next VHS on my list to buy: Penn & Teller Go Public. Yeah, I could go the torrent route and burn it on DVD, but this is the first taste of Penn & Teller I had as a young boy (back in 1985) and I'd like the nostolgic value of owning "the real thing" on VHS.

I leave you with the preview trailer of Penn & Teller Go Public as a reminder of what life was like before the age of disposable DVDs: