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.