Describing the indescribable: The allure of VHS

There are things about Adventures in VHS that for some people just won’t make sense. At the start of 2012, I had a fairly healthy Blu-ray collection. Nothing too obsessive, but enough to fill some shelves and provide visitors with something to judge me by. Now I have none. In fact, I don’t even have a Blu-ray player.

What I do have, however, is a spare room filled with old VHS tapes, as well as a Panasonic VCR that sits comfortably below a 21-inch Bang & Olufsen CRT television. Most nights, I’ll slink away into that little den – which I’ve affectionately named The Analogue Suite – to lose myself in a film. There’s no high definition, no 7.1 Dolby surround sound, just me, some tapes and a notebook. And I can’t get enough of it.

In my living room, of course, it’s a different story. Here, there’s a 37-inch LCD TV, digital PVR and a media player that supports everything on my 1TB hard drive. The media player comes with Netflix, YouTube and a whole host of other streaming services, all of which are made accessible through my super-fast fibre optic broadband connection. The bedroom has me covered too, with a decent little TV and a Nintendo Wii to satisfy my streaming TV and movie needs. But when it comes to my collection, it’s pretty much all about plastic and tape.

There are plenty of reasons for this, the primary one being that I’m in the middle of writing a book about video tapes. But the second is that I’ve developed an appetite for the format that’s difficult to get across to other people. I’m not trying to be smart. I’m not trying to be ‘kooky’. I’m not trying to align myself with the bearded vinyl bores who insists wax is better than anything digital provides. But there’s something about the VHS experience I’ve simply fallen in love with.

I’d be an idiot not to admit VHS is vastly inferior to Blu-ray, DVD and Laserdisc. Hell, it was even inferior to Betamax. For starters, there’s the 4:3 non-cinematic ratio to consider, which even for films that were made for home video is a poor substitute for what you have on your 16:9 aspect flat screen television. Then there’s the deterioration factor. Over time, video tapes wear down in ways a disc or digital file never will, so in time you may find low resolution is the least of your worries. But while I won’t argue these are all valid points, I feel focusing solely upon them is to miss the point completely.

Take the films themselves. When I stand in front of my VHS shelves, I’m not looking at £9.99 sell-through copies of Dirty Dancing and The Shawshank Redemption. Each of the movies that stare back at me, vying desperately for my attention with their delightful sleeve art, has been chosen to join an elite group. These are the same releases I held in my hand all those years ago as a child, tugging firmly at my dad’s jacket and asking him for £1.50 to take them home for ‘one night only’. These are the films that time has largely forgotten, yet had an incredible life on home video. You won’t find them on any BFI top 100 lists and none of them are on sale in your local supermarket. Sure, a few might have had a spell on Netflix of LoveFilm, but don’t expect your work colleagues to have spent the evening in front of one after noticing Adam Sandler’s latest on the ‘recently added’ page. No, these films are the underdogs, the ones that had to try extra hard to find a way into our hearts – and for some of us, did.

So let’s say I’ve thumbed my way through the shelves and have decided which tape will provide that particular night’s viewing. I’ve slipped the glorious box out from among its label mates and have held it for long enough to take in the cover and the overzealous blurb on the reverse. I’ve popped open the case, slid the thick black slab into the awaiting slot and heard the cathode ray tube of my TV reactively pop into action. As the tracking quickly settles, I wonder what kind of condition the tape will be in. And I’m almost always surprised. It looks great. It sounds great. It feels great.

From there, I can sit back and enjoy. Though the feature presentation might often be described as an unknown oddity, it’s often nothing compared to the ‘coming attractions’ that precede it. With a bit of luck, I’ll be treated to five or six of these before we get to the film and in that rarest of occasions, there may be one or two more at the end. In the meantime, I get to see a film that probably no-one else in the world is watching at that moment. And for 90 minutes or less, I’m transported to somewhere pretty bloody special – even when the film itself is a little weak.

There will be some who say I’m simply wallowing blindly in nostalgia, or that I’m looking back at something that, by today’s standards, wasn’t all that brilliant to begin with. Maybe they’re right, but I couldn’t care less. Home video changed the film industry in the 1970s and 80s and ushered in a new era that we all still enjoy. Long before you could watch a whole season of Breaking Bad on your Xbox, you could have a movie experience in your living room every single night thanks to your local rental store – and this is something which had a major impact on my life as a film lover. I’ll continue to enjoy the fruits of the high definition, super-fast streaming, digital world we live in. But I’ll always have a place in my heart – and my home – for VHS.

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