Film Review – Rewind This!
Pretty much everyone who grew up in the 1980s has a story about their family’s first VCR. My family’s was a two-piece unit: one piece for the video cassette and the other for the controls. It came with a video camera and a remote, both of which had to be attached by a cable. More importantly, of course, were the cassettes you could rent from the appliance store near the downtown area of where I grew up. At the time, there were no proper video stores; the appliance store that sold my parents the VCR was it. But they had a modest selection of tapes you could choose from by browsing through a binder, including Star Wars. If you’re reading this, then you’re probably thinking about your own childhood stories concerning VCRs, VHS, and the local video store. Whether or not you were old enough at the time to recognize it, it was a very crucial time of change. It was the first time you could make your own choice about what to watch, and it could be something that normally had to be seen in the theaters.
A self-proclaimed product of the home video generation, filmmaker Josh Johnson has set out to put together an educational homage to the video cassette with his documentary Rewind This!. Interviewing a diverse cast of people, from employees of the Alamo Draft House theaters to directors like Frank Hennenlotter (Basket Case, Frankenhooker) and Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell, Dallos), Johnson pieces together a memoir of nostalgia dedicated not just to a medium which delivered Hollywood into our living rooms, but also to the films that were created because such a medium existed. Opening on a collector going from flea market to swap meet, we quickly learn this film is mainly based on revealing foundational memories of the interviewees. Over the course of the documentary’s running time, people tell—and show—the lengths they’ll go to and the prices they’ll pay in order to gain another piece or firmer grip on the hold of those memories.
Watching VHS, as the documentary reminds us, is not the best quality delivery method for entertainment, especially in our High-Definition tech advanced world. But as the word “reminds” implies, VHS has all but become forgotten against that backdrop, which is where the people here come into play. The film covers ground from collecting, to distribution and marketing, to, finally, exploitation and self-containment, as movies were suddenly being made specifically to be delivered to the home video market. Video stores always needed more content, so quantity became necessary to keep the industry growing, and the response to that need was a wave of direct-to-video films that forwent quality in favor of just existing.
Johnson does a good job of expressing the reason for the nostalgia and enthusiasm over what’s considered a dead medium, especially given quality issues, the fact that the final film to come out on VHS was in 2006, and the last stand-alone VCR produced was in 2008. It’s both interesting and inspiring to see people who still use the medium to express themselves, such as filmmaker Rocky Nelson. For those who have forgotten the VHS tape, it’s a welcome trip down memory lane, but for those who are too young to really know much about it, this does a modest job of covering the medium’s range from sexploitation to exercise workouts. Unfortunately, it gets a bit hung up on the obvious insider’s club of interviewees and their already proclaimed obsession with video tapes. The medium’s impact on the film industry and the creation of the direct-to-video market seem to get glossed over.
Overall, any criticisms that can be laid upon the documentary are not much in comparison to what it has to offer in terms of entertainment and education. What’s surprising is how it brings the discussion of the shelf-life of video tapes into a historical context. Unlike other mediums of entertainment delivery, tape degrades over time and use, eventually leading to its own physical destruction, and there are still so many movies that only exist on VHS. It is something that both intentionally and unintentionally becomes ephemera. To me, the subject of VHS is important, especially given my passion for film, and as someone says, if you’re a lover of movies, than you should own and be watching films on VCRs. What comes together in this film is a look at what’s already been a moment in time. A moment so significant it deserves to be paid tribute to. And finely done it is.