Nostalgia and entertainment technology go hand-in-hand. We spend so much time with a physical device that we develop a personal bond with the joy it brings us (talk to any fan of the Sega Dreamcast, and they’ll talk about it like it was a dead child; “Gone before its time!” they’ll cry). VHS holds not only a special place in the hearts of movie fans, but it was a game-changer in the production, distribution, and viewing of entertainment. In his documentary Rewind This!, director Josh Johnson takes a fun, insightful, and exhaustive look at the history of VHS and the sub-culture that remains devoted to the format. However, even at 90 minutes, the documentary feels like it’s searching for more material, and it grasps at finding a conclusion to its thoughtful examination of VHS’ lasting impact.
After beginning with a VHS collector going through a flea market to find rare tapes and providing a brief overview of the passion still surrounding the format, Johnson methodically takes viewers through the history VHS: from how it beat Betamax, to the technological advantages and disadvantages, the support it received from the pornography industry and Hollywood, and how it managed to create a new generation of movie nerds. Johnson also goes into the fascinating details of VHS like the popularity of the “sell-through” (i.e. cheap non-Hollywood product sold direction to consumers during the VHS-era), and the art of VHS cover art. Eventually, Johnson tries to find a way to wrap up his look at VHS technology and culture, and look ahead to what the digital age will bring.
Film has always been a democratic medium, but with the advent of television and the rise in ticket prices, there has been a tug-of-war between the ownership system created by the studios and the craving for a wide variety of entertainment by consumers. In its early days before Blockbuster and cable television took over and the small rental store could thrive, VHS embodied that democratization. While some might have felt paralyzed by the lack of choice, others found an embarrassment of riches with some movies that are downright embarrassing. Early in Rewind This!, the collectors are almost having a competition over who has the most obscure title. The power to find these esoteric works speaks to the “democratic shelf” where the variety available encouraged viewers to consume more movies and take more chances.
Even though his movie can jump around a little haphazardly at times, Johnson shows a great talent for taking each topic, and clearly breaking it down without making the appreciation for VHS feel quaint or pedantic. Johnson can even take the simple remote and show how it helped filmmakers to examine the craft. Director Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun) explains how the ability to rewind provided an informal film school where he could study shots and images from movies he rented and owned.
Strangely, for all of the places Johnson takes his film, it still feels a little long. Part of that comes from his ability to take topics and talk about them succinctly, but there are other places in the film that could probably stand to be cut. Speaking to a VHS retailer who lives out in the middle of nowhere is a cute story, but it lacks the insightfulness or depth of other topics in the movie. Similarly, examining glitch lines leads to a bit where people talk about how constant rewinding could indicate to other renters or owners a place that had been popular with another person. It’s a nice bit of arcane knowledge and slightly pushes forward the notion of a VHS community, but the topic’s inclusion makes it seem like Johnson is reaching for material.
The most interesting question looming over Rewind This! is what it can teach us about the digital age. If history can’t teach us something about the present or the future, then it’s just a good story. Johnson struggles to find the conversation between physical and digital media, but it’s a big question that’s worthy of its own documentary. Netflix offers a wide range of obscure titles, but it’s not part of the ownership culture, and recommendation algorithms remove the personal touch of sharing titles and taking chances. At the same time, their instant availability makes it even easier for people to find titles rather than being at the mercy of a store’s selection (a point Johnson neglects to mention). There’s a shared spirit between VHS and the digital age, but there’s also a conflict, and it would be difficult for any filmmaker to reconcile the two, especially as the conclusion to a film primarily devoted to VHS.
As a film nerd and a huge fan of documentaries exploring sub-cultures, Johnson has created a movie that mostly kept me riveted and highly entertained. He’s a smart filmmaker who found an interesting topic that reaches far beyond a simple sense of longing for a mostly-dead technology. Even one of its adherents acknowledges the fond feelings surrounding VHS as “the qualities associated around it rather than the quality of it.” Even though the movie could stand to be about 10 minutes shorter, Johnson is still a talented documentarian, and I look forward what he’ll explore next. Perhaps in 20 – 30 years, he’ll grace us with Download This!
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