The Virtues of VHS

I remember the day in the early 1980s when my father unboxed our family’s first VHS player: a wood-grained Panasonic Omnivision with a top-loading tape bay that was like a machine from the future. Soon our trips to the video-rental shop were a regular event, even though the shop had just five shelves that were mostly empty. A bead-curtained alcove at the back was for adults only. And all we would rent, I remember, were repackaged Disney cartoons and Roger Moore-era James Bond movies — which are my favourites to this day.

(I say all this because a student recently sent me  this YouTube video about the merits of VHS, and the different ways that films worked on that format. It’s worth your time.)

Later I became an avid fan of the Alien movies, and until I saw this video I didn’t appreciate that the low-resolution video of their VHS releases actually heightened their effects of horror: the way that monsters could be lurking in the background, amid the flickering blur. I didn’t appreciate how high-res images diminish the effect of these films.

Another surprising argument was that films were shot differently when filmmakers knew that audiences would tend to watch them at home rather than in purpose-built public theatres. When your TV screen sits in the corner of your living room, films have to draw your attention away from their surroundings. Whereas in a darkened theatre, filmmakers can rely on audiences to give their full attention to elements like shot composition. This argument about attention seems more relevant in 2019, when screens proliferate — and when most are designed for interaction rather than consumption.

The video’s central argument is provocative: that the format of small-screen videos alters the viewer’s relationship to the work, and so many films may be doomed by critics who simply misjudge their qualities. Those qualities may be better revealed by alternate formats like VHS. (I’m looking at you, Kevin Smith.)

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