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I bet we’ve been together for a million years. And I bet we’ll be together for a million more.
But I don’t know what to do with those tossed salads and scrambled eggs. They’re calling again.
Tell me why I love you like I do. Tell me who could stop my heart as much as you.
Every time I turn around, I see the girl that turns my world around. Standing there.
Charles in charge of our days and our nights. Charles in charge of our wrongs and our rights.
I’ll be there for you – and you’ll be there for me too.
Blow the dust off your old video player, rummage around for a VHS copy of your favourite film, insert it and listen to it grind to life. Once you’re used to high definition, your enormous LCD television probably looks like someone’s coated its screen in vaseline. Could the particular qualities of the VHS tape ever become prized in the same way that vinyl’s attributes are today?
The following is a piece I recently wrote for The Big Issue. I dedicate it to the much loved, widescreen, pre-‘special edition’ VHS copy of Star Wars I have somewhere around here.
Vinyl simply produces a better sound than a CD. While music websites are still bursting with arguments about this statement – most punctuated with frequencies mapped on angrily-spiked graphs – the idea has been around for so long it’s now almost considered common sense.
“Vinyl’s just a superior sound than digital,” says DJ Andee Frost. He’s been collecting vinyl since he was sixteen and until recently ran Melbourne’s ‘vinyl boutique’ Hear Now. “There’s something more human about it. A CD is too crystal clear. Music needs the same warmth that it had when it was recorded.”
Warmer; softer; somehow more human. When asked if he could imagine someone praising video for the same attributes, Andee’s not so convinced. “I don’t know whether you’d find too many people claiming VHS is a superior format. How many people do you know who still use VHS? That’s the real question.”
Meet Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. She’s a cinema researcher with a frighteningly large (and ever growing) collection of VHS tapes. “Initially,” she explains, “it was because I never throw anything out. I never got rid of my player, because I always had stuff on video that I needed for work.”
It helps that Alex’s interest is in exactly the kind of obscure horror movies likely to be considered disposable. Her first book, Rape-Revenge Film: A Critical Study, will be published later in 2011.
“Most of what I see on VHS is stuff that’s never been put onto DVD – so I like the treasure hunt of finding it. Now I buy more VHS than I buy DVD. It wasn’t a conscious decision; I just like the look of VHS better. A video will play even if the tape is chewed and curled. It deteriorates more organically. The colours and the sound wash out, and it fades more like a painting.”
“Sometimes I don’t like the crisp HD look. It’s too harsh,” says Cassandra Tytler, a Melbourne artist working in Paris but soon taking up an artistic residency in Finland. Her work often has a pulpy, purposeful lo-fi look. “For one of my early films, I re-shot scenes right off the TV to give it a real ‘videoey’ quality.” Cassandra mentions Trash Humpers, the latest feature by cult American filmmaker Harmony Korine. Korine purposefully shot with the cheapest VHS camera he could find to give his film the authentic feel of a lost object.
As Cassandra points out, though, “I would say the real question is what format things are shot on, rather than whether it’s DVD or VHS.” Trash Humpers might’ve been shot on video – and Korine even made it available to buy on VHS – but most fans will still end up watching it on DVD.
And that ‘videoey’ quality is appearing more and more in popular culture. Just like every second music video was once filmed on Super-8 to give it that opening-credits-to-The-Wonder-Years glow, it’s now common to see the soft focus and horizontal static-lines of VHS. Mark Ronson’s new music video for the single ‘Somebody To Love Me’ looks like it’s composed of archival video footage. Even before you realise you’re meant to be watching a young Boy George, the specific quality of the image generates instant nostalgia. Is that retro appeal all there is to lingering affection for VHS?
Vinyl and VHS share another thing that separates them from their digital counterparts, and that’s their undeniable bulk. “You’re actually buying something, investing in something, when you buy a piece of vinyl,” says Andee. “And you’re getting beautiful cover art. It takes up more room; that’s how it becomes part of your life.” Alex waxes equally lyrical: “I love the materiality of VHS. I love that tapes are big black monoliths like in 2001. That’s the same with vinyl – you spend your money, and you get an art object. DVDs aren’t art objects. They’re consumer products.”
Could VHS ever make a comeback like vinyl? Andee says there’s one all-important difference: vinyl never went away. “Vinyl’s always been there,” he says, “and vinyl will still be here after CDs have gone. When no one even remembers what a CD-R was, you’ll still be able to buy records.”
Alex, however, doesn’t hesitate. “In certain circles, we’re there already. I strongly recommend that you jump on eBay and try to buy some VHS. I just thought I’d get a copy of Dario Argento’s Deep Red for a dollar or two, but I ended up paying $35 for it from a guy who only sells VHS. These people already exist. They’re out there.”
A version of this story first appeared in The Big Issue #374. I’ve edited out the embarrassing bit where I was fooled by the authenticity of the ‘Somebody To Love Me’ clip mentioned above. Damn you, Boy George!