Tuesday 11 December 2007

The new (now old) flesh...

Admittedly there has been a nigh-on two week lull since I said I had recaptured the muse (regarding my feature comedy script)...although that time has been filled with a couple of filming/editing gigs as well as various bits of IAZM3 prep so it's not all bad. However to celebrate my return to said script, and now onto the second act no less (I'd previously found myself going over the first act again and again to get the tone and vibe right intentionally for the benefit of the rest of the script), I will regail you all with a tale from my formative years regarding VHS culture...something dear to my heart.

Now as great as DVD is - admittedly my ambivalence/anger towards the format after its release was really towards the people who were ditching VHS in a heartbeat and dissing it in the process (this leaded to a short film I made called "VHS") - VHS just has something extra, that I feel has been lost in the oft-promoted clarity of Digital Versatile Discs.

From a very young age I was using a VCR to record films (which I obsessively watched repeatedly with a spell-bound fascination), and so VHS tapes were part of my life from very early on. Around about the time I was crossing into the teenage threshold I had started to purchase official VHS tapes (my first was "Critters 2", closely followed by my then New Year's Resolution (to acquire) "Terminator 2").

At this time I was also heavily getting into the horror genre, something which grasped my imagination and never let go - the genre that has ultimately brought me to the chosen career path of filmmaking. This time was also important because the British Board of Film Classification changed leadership in 1999, which resulted in a sequel of sorts to the 1980s 'Video Nasties' era. Previously banned horror movies and other 'nasties' came pouring into the UK, many completely uncut (others which were not, now are).

This meant that these films were new to the video rental shop in town, and at this time I was a keen VHS renter (well, technically it was my parents). Either first-hand through the video rental shop, or via the second generation dubs from school friends (which I then made my third generation copies for further viewing), I was gradually experiencing the horrors & violence of two decades of cinema all within a couple of years. A baptism of fire if you will.

Where does the VHS culture really fit into this memory lane session? Well, as I'd said, I was watching these newly unleashed horrors - such as "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (banned for 25 years in the UK) on VHS tapes - more specifically second or third generation dubs. Finally being allowed to see such films (with an edge of taboo-breaking within my household) was a key experience in my formative years. There was something illicit about it all, these taboo films spooling through my VCR...the sound was degraded, the picture was gritty and rough...and it was all encased within this black plastic case - an item rendered so brilliantly sinister in David Cronenberg's "Videodrome" (methinks "DVDrome" just wouldn't work).

The VHS tape became a symbol of my formative years, of my ascension into my teenage years. A symbol of self-discovery (ultimately guiding my career choice). While I am gradually more accepting of DVD discs as a tangible item, VHS tapes just feel like a movie to me. There's something to grab hold of (rather than delicately transfer from disc drawer to disc case).

A film on a VHS tape was just that - the film - the primary, powerful focus of all your attention. There's something mini-monolithic to the appearance of a VHS tape, and a VCR itself. There is an essence of simplistic brutality there, rather than the high-browed, slim-line elegance and diet-thin presence of DVDs. Videotapes had no special features, no commentaries, no menus, no deleted scenes, no unfunny gag reels - and no fucking warning screens you can't skip through.

I feel that with DVD, the film is no longer the prime focus. I mean, yes it's what is selling the package, but - and I myself am one such person now - you find people disappointed, rabidly so, by 'vanilla' DVD releases. You feel cheated, you expect a myriad of information to drown the main feature itself. You expect multiple discs and fancier packaging (although same-artwork cardboard sleeves can fuck right off). DVDs have pitch-perfect audio, they have clean and crisp images that never falter, never warp and degrade or bleed.

Of course, a clean picture that retains its quality is superb, but with that superiority comes a lack of soul. I will point out that one problem with the picture quality of VHS tapes was the abominable Pan & Scan, which zoomed in on images (dreadfully so from 2.35:1 original ratios) and thus degraded the quality (as well as chopped the image maliciously). With videotapes there was a hint of danger, a hint of a transitory mystique - you got a sense that the more you watched this tape, the closer it approached it's final play...perhaps a home-bound version of film prints, one might say.

This image degradation of course, was one of the driving forces of the inherent power of such films as "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre". It made them scarier, more taboo ... but watching the same film on a digitally remastered DVD with a host of special features that answer every possible question you once had, removes some of the scares...the taboo is gone, it becomes acceptable. There's a soul that videotapes had that DVDs do not possess...a sense of character, a sense that everything didn't have to be perfect and intensely pin-sharp.

My exploration of the horror genre, and the effect it had on me, has just as much to do with the videotape as it does with the films themselves. If I was at the same stage, but 10 years on (by which I mean the present day) and viewing these films on DVD, a large chunk of the power would be lost...the rich texture of the culture which surrounded that time in my life (thanks to the videotape) would be absent.

While I'm a big fan of DVDs (my own collection totals well over 300, including all the films that made such a splash with me during my formative years), the VHS tape will always hold a special place in my heart ... perhaps it's odd to get so deep over a media format, but unless you shared this experience...you just don't get it.

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