by Stephen Krock
As the Philly Awesomefest continues to roll along on its totally tubular way, we must all take a moment to remember and honor that which we have lost to the tides of yesteryear. Who of us doesn’t recall the crisp, satisfying sound of a fresh clam shell case opening for the first time just before you popped your brand new tape of Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey into the ol’ VCR? That new VHS smell? Filmmaker Josh Johnson, director of the new documentary, Rewind This!, remembers all these things. And this Monday, 6/17/2013, 8pm at the Trocadero, it is his mission to ensure that we all remember as well.
“The first VHS that belonged to me was acquired by illegitimate means,” Johnson says, waxing nostalgic. “I was obsessed with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and wanted to own a copy on video. The window between theatrical exhibition and home video release was much longer at the time, so I bugged my mother for a copy for several months. My mom mentioned my desire to own a copy to a coworker, and before long, a bootleg tape was in my possession. It was a camcorder recording taken from a local theater screen, but to me it was like precious gold. I could, and did, watch Gremlins 2 over and over again for months before it came out commercially. I don’t think my mom ever understood that she was circumventing the law.”
According to Johnson, VHS enabled him to explore film history from a young age, and also to start shooting his own movies. With countless filmmakers and historians having a similar experience, it is amazing that the story of the home video revolution had never been told on film. At least, until now. “I saw a modern day importance [in the format],” Johnson continues. “VHS had been gone long enough to recognize that there were a lot of movies that weren’t going to make the transition to newer formats. The appeal of VHS for me is [in these thousands of titles]. It is the only way to view a huge chunk of film history, and that is important to me.”
Rewind This! explores how the VHS democratized the film industry. Small, independent companies were sharing shelf space with the major studios. For the first time, there was no distinction between the two worlds. It granted control to the consumer in a way that forever altered our relationship to the media. “Audiences were no longer beholden to theatrical showtimes or the television broadcast schedule,” Johnson explains. “They could watch what they wanted, when they wanted. From a business standpoint, it doubled the profits of movie corporations within a matter of years, which is astonishing in any industry.”
Yet, all revolutions end. Gone are the days when our kids can collect a stack of big plastic cases of their favorite Disney films. And no more will we line up our Die Hards like tomes on a bookshelf. “Physical media is vanishing quickly,” Johnson says. “[It] is eventually only going to exist for a collectors market… [which] is both sad and exciting.”
One thing is for certain. Johnson says he will miss the intoxicating sense of discovery that came with wandering the aisles of the video store. “Spending countless hours imagining the experiences contained within those luridly illustrated boxes, there was a feeling of endless possibility in the video store,” he muses. “As though you had the world at your fingertips.” The irony, however, is not lost on him; the history of film is at our fingertips more than ever today. But how many of us ever get that feeling when browsing streaming services?
If the passion and know how of this talented filmmaker is any indication, Rewind This! is sure to be enlightening, entertaining, and just downright enjoyable. And dude really does know his stuff. I couldn’t let him get away without asking him about how in every single DVD, there is that one moment when the movie freezes for a millisecond. Then just continues as if nothing happens. What IS that?! Well, I can now tell you that it’s the layer change on a dual-layer disc!
“This brings to mind another memorable part of VHS viewing,” Johnson goes on to say. “It is a forced linear experience. It respects (perhaps unintentionally) that film is a continuum, not a series of disconnected moments.” And if there is one thing this world needs, it is less disconnection. What up, VHS. Respect.