Videogroan: Bemoaning the death of VHS

By Helen Cox

In the next thousand words or so I’m going to try and explain why I am still in love with the VHS format even though there is no added value on a technical level. The only glimmer of hope I’ve found, technologically speaking, after weeks of research is a vague suggestion by some that the sound quality of VHS can be slightly better. Hardly evidence enough to persuade people to lay off buying DVDs for a while and renew their vows to video cassettes.

Consequently, I’ve been forced to get a little less technical in my explanation and focus on the personal touches that still make VHS my number one medium of choice of a Sunday afternoon. Let’s start with the grain; the gritty ghost in the video machine that once gave the picture on-screen an undeniably low grade look. Don’t you miss that? It’s kind of like the initial scratching you get before the song begins on a well-used record. Of course you could play the same tune on a CD and get immaculate, unparalleled sound, but it wouldn’t feel the same. That grainy ghost of film’s past can also be found at old, independent cinemas that have yet to go digital. The brave new world of flat screens, HD and DVD (although admittedly DVD technology was developed in 1995 so it’s not THAT new) is just far too sanitised; too pure. I want texture and distortion; something tangible rather than a flawless vision that is far off and untouchable.

Then, of course, there is the sentimentality of the adverts. Push a pre-recorded tape into the slot and you won’t just get contemporary film trailers but adverts for video collection clubs and black and white film classics (often controversially) rereleased in colour. If you watch a video you recorded yourself off television, in the days when that was necessary, so long as you’ve recorded off non-BBC channels you’ll be treated to an array of nostalgic commercial greats. “Only 24 toasters from Scunthoooorpe…” anyone? If you’re really lucky you may have caught Anthony Stewart Head in his pre-Buffy days wooing Sharon Maughan over a steaming cup of Nescafe’s Gold Blend. Your carefully recorded double bill of Throw Momma from the Train (1987) and the Changeling 2 (of the same year) may one day serve as an important relic; a candid documentation of advertising strategies and life at that time. This isn’t particularly likely but I’m just saying: it could happen.

Additionally in the current credit crisis climate we should all be looking for ways to make our film habit (you’ve read this far so I’m assuming you’ve got one) more affordable. DVDs and DVD players have come down in price, it’s true, but as VHS tapes are now considered a pretty much forgotten technology (by all but me) you’re faced with the choice of buying one DVD for £3 or between six and thirty VHS cassettes at any reputable charity shop for the same price. Don’t be fooled into thinking that charity shops only stock exiled copies of Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and Davina McCall workout videos either. Although you’ll find your fair share of those I’ve also happened across discarded gems such as The Thing (1982), The Omen (1976) and Pretty in Pink (1986). Hunting them out second hand either on Amazon or in charity shops also adds a little adventure to film collecting. It’s not quite the same as strolling down to HMV and being faced with a complete back catalogue from the last century of cinema.

On a more serious note I do believe that the dawn of the DVD could be held, at least part way, responsible for the breakdown of family communication in the 21st Century. No longer do you have to go begging to your dad in the middle of a commercial break to see if he’s got a spare half hour left on any old tape because the tape you used to record Getting Even With Dad (1994) wasn’t quite long enough. Those precious minutes of him hurriedly rooting through stacks of black, heavy cassettes in a vain effort to appease you before the advert ends and the film restarts are also forever lost. You no longer have arguments over the tea table about who is responsible for the fact that the end of Trainspotting (1996) is now the beginning of the snooker final due to a dismally poor labelling system. Families just don’t talk the way they used to; not the way they did in the day of the VHS.

Finally I’d like to point out that DVD is a truly cocky technology; it thinks it knows better than you. When you tried to fast forward BBFC classification adverts or copyright theft warnings on your video player were you ever told that you couldn’t? No, of course not. VHS technology understood its place. You were its master and it existed solely to entertain you; to please you. Try and skip copyright theft warnings on a DVD and you, the one-time king or queen of your celluloid castle, are put firmly in your place. You’re not even worthy of a written explanation but simply corrected by the red no smoking symbol (or the Ghostbusters (1985) sign as it is better known to the likes of us) which is basically the cultural equivalent of ‘talk to the hand.’ Precisely where DVD technology got these delusions of grandeur from I’m not sure and I don’t much care. The point is a DVD denying you the freedom of fast forwarding is but baby steps away from Judgement Day becoming a reality; a thought that still wakes me in the dead of the night.

For these reasons I implore you to dig your VHS player out of the attic. Your friends will scoff; mine never fail to, and the quality will be questionable in places but your bank balance will be healthier, the sacred family unit will be preserved and you’re far less likely to be gunned down by a homicidal cyborg. These are the things, I think, that are most important in life.

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6 responses to “Videogroan: Bemoaning the death of VHS

  1. Well this is a stand out example of being different for the sake of it. Would you really want to sit down and watch say 2001 on VHS? Or in HD glory? Some films don’t deserve HD/DVD treatment ala Zombie Holocaust but to say you prefer films grainy with shit sound is just silly.

    The Thing in HD is a totally different film. It seems you have a problem with the progression of technology in entertainment. Blu ray is as far as I will go but it is so worth it and it’s cheap if you look in the right places. VHS has had its time and in my opinion is good for nothing but decorative purposes.

    Comparing VHS with vinyl is also pointless. The crackle of a record is warm and welcoming, as if it was meant to sound that way. Films were not meant to be viewed as if the ariel is broken.

  2. Hi Jethro, thanks for your comment. It’s not about being different or averse to new technology as I think the tone of the piece suggests. I’m simply very nostalgic about VHS as a medium and the qualities I describe of rooting around for casettes and the distinct graininess are married with a very particular era for me. I, of course, understand that real grown ups are quite happy with their slimline DVD collections and HD TVs. Thanks for reading and contributing.

  3. i found F for fake and the American Sucess company of VHS (in a loft) i then had to find a VHS / TV compo (in anoter loft) to watch em. was worth it though

  4. I was staying somewhere without a DVD player (shock horror) recently, so I took to watching films from their VHS collection. After about half an hour of trying to remember how to work the player I fell into a very mild sort of ‘like’ with the whole concept.

    There’s something about DVDs that is clinical and outside of our control. I almost never sit down and watch movies on DVD but I couldn’t stop watching them on VHS. Don’t know whether it’s delayed nostalgia or simply that I was in a boring place but that’s what happened.

    I kept forgetting to rewind them after watching as well. Oops.

  5. Picking up on the comment ‘There’s something about DVDs that is clinical and outside of our control’ (and in addition to what Helen says about their defying you to fast-forward through the copyright notices*), I have to say that they are as prone to problems as VHS tapes:

    The latter would, occasionally, ediorially decide that the end of a film (or whatever else had been recorded) should
    be several minutes earlier than the amount of available tape. (In this, the tape was utterly dictatorial, as no amount of winding it backwards and forwards, in the hope that lack of tension in the tape was the problem, would remedy it.)

    If the play-head had become dirty (or, equally, for no good reason at all), there would be interference at the top of, or even across, the picture, which could last indefinitely (despite the deployment of the head-cleaner): it might have been a feature of the tape, from having been played on a machine with a damaged head, but one could really never be sure.

    That apart, VHS tapes (and, before them, the Betamax cartridges) were both manufactured in such a way that you would have to go out of your way to damage the tape itself directly. Contrast that with the difficulty, as with CDs, just of keeping one’s fingers off the playing-surface, let alone the danger of dropping the disc on the carpet, when trying to put it into the player, and no wonder DVDs are prone to stick and jump (and could, if one were unlucky, render some crucial scene incapable of being viewed (reliably or even ever)).

    And those errors in reading the disc do not necessarily result from the hazards of handling them at home, since a DVD that has been freshly prised off the spindle of a newly unsealed box (and I swear that one will snap in half some day at the immense amount of pressure that seems to have to be applied!) is just as capable of misbehaving when it is let loose in the player.

    That almost certainly was not the case of the screening that I was last at with my ex-girlfriend, but the freezing of the action for seconds (more like tens of seconds)
    at a time was threatening to distend a 90-minute film into infinity, so (unlike the rest of the audience) we decided to abandon it. (In fact, I only ever got to know her in the first place because the same length of time had been taken, in similar circumstances, in failing to screen a previous film at all, despite changing laptops and fiddling with the projector: ordinarily, during the showing of a film, there would have been no opportunity for the chance to talk that we had!)

    So DVDs freeze (sometimes so that fast forward is the only option), they skip, but, worst of all, they have menus that are often designed if not to be more infuriating, with their looped music, than those of the early video-games, then just in such a way that they are.

    If the fan of this format tells me that there are not menus whose operation or nesting of options is not so impenetrable that just putting a cassette in a machine and winding on or back to the bit that one wants is not obviously easier, then he or she is just lying in the cause! And a video-recorder would perform the instructed command pretty quickly (if the cat hadn’t been in the way of the signal from the remote), whereas the ‘thinking time’ that we are used to from PCs applies to a DVD player, and when we tell it to eject, thinking that it missed it the first time, it suddenly ejects and reinserts the DVD…

    * Although, if there are ones for multiple countries, one can actually skip through them all but the last, I have found.

  6. You must really hate Blu-ray then 😉

    This is similar to the CD v vinyl debate, but you never really hear anyone bemoan the loss of audio cassettes. Which, I think it pretty understandable, with the one significant exception: the mix-tape. Part of your point here is similar so I can appreciate that much. I also agree with the preference of actual film projection at the cinema as opposed to digital (as beautiful as it does look).

    However, at home I do prefer the best quality I can get. Perhaps this is down the making up for not having a massive cinema screen or surround sound, but even going back to watching DVDs after getting used to Blu-ray is difficult.

    Personally, I grew an affection for the “You wouldn’t steal a car, etc” copyright business at the start of DVDs, even creating my own ridiculous hypotheticals, but did manage to fast-forward through them (but not skip the chapter entirely). I guess I take the warning screen as a fair trade off for improved quality.

    I’m often behind on the times and not the most technologically advanced guy in the world, but I am on-board with HD. It allows for true recreation and appreciation of what we were intended to see. I think of all the time and passion that goes into a Pixar film, for example, and look how beautiful they are. For me that’s a simple pleasure, so while their may be children starving in Africa, goddamn Toy Story 3 looks amazing.

    Still, while I may disagree, I find your affinity for VHS to be quite charming. Thanks for passing on the link.

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