Perhaps you need to be of a certain generation to get nostalgic over the low-fidelity, awkward, more-fragile-than-it-looks technology of movies on VHS tape. Those little plastic movie bricks storing reels of magnetic tape aren’t just outmoded twentieth-century technology, they’re downright archaic, not to mention fatally impermanent. That’s not to say that DVD is forever, but apart from the fragility of those half-inch ribbons, which get brittle over time and can get creased or crinkled or snapped as they are wound across the spinning drums of the VCR with pincers that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Cronenberg film, the magnetic seal holding the information recorded on the oxide strip of the tape decays over time. The images will eventually break up, dissolve, evaporate into the ether. In the case of many tapes from the beginning of the video era, they already have.
But as former video store mogul Sam Sherman remarks in the documentary Adjust Your Tracking, “People will collection anything,” and there is tremendous nostalgia associated with VHS tape and video culture it defined from the first “Select-a-Vision” commercial tape releases in 1977 to A History of Violence, the last movie released on VHS by the studios. It’s no exaggeration to say that the videocassette changed our relationship with movies. For the first time, anyone could program their own film festival at home and even own their favorite movies. Classics were now available to view at your leisure and even the forbidden fruit of notorious horror films and cult rarities were suddenly within your grasp. How else could a kid get a look at some of those notorious horrors glimpsed in magazines like Fangoria and Cinefantastique? Add in the romance of a technology discarded by mainstream culture, the excitement of finding rarities in the bins and on the bargain shelves of old video stores and second-hand shops, and the simple fact that thousands of films and other programs released on commercial VHS tapes have never been put on DVD, and you can see what captures the VHS collector. Most of those films aren’t particularly good and many are downright terrible, but that’s part of the appeal of tracking down cult movies, that sense of “Can you believe someone actually made and released this?” that still fuels such midnight movie phenomena as The Room or Birdemic.
Adjust Your Tracking is one of three documentaries from the last couple of years to explore the history and impact of VHS tapes on popular culture and the entertainment business. Josh Johnson’s Rewind This! (2013) focuses more on the impact of VHS in creating the home video industry and the entrepreneurs who sprang up to feed the growing video culture, while Jake West’s Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape (2010) casts its lens to Britain and specifically the hysteria surrounding horror films on VHS and the censorship that was pushed through Parliament as a result.
Adjust Your Tracking offers a general history of the format and a quick overview of the culture that was born in the seventies, bloomed in the eighties and nineties, and was replaced by DVD and VOD in the twenty-first century. But filmmakers Dan Kinem and Levi Peretic are less interested in the business or the social history of video culture than in the world of obsessive collectors who search out the rarities for their often massive collections. And for that focus, it’s as much a companion to So Wrong, They’re Right (1995), Russ Forster‘s documentary on 8-track tape collectors, as it is a piece of cultural history. Holding tight to an outmoded technology seems eccentric at best even to those who can understand the nostalgic appeal, and contrarian when some collectors celebrate the limitations of the image and sound quality as a kind of purity, since that was the way many of these films were first experienced (never mind that so many of the rarities were edited and dubbed home video versions of 35mm features). More than simply counter-intuitive, it can come off as a kind of generational Luddite-ism or an unfounded justification for a passion that’s otherwise hard to explain to the non-enthusiast (let alone a significant other who tolerates such obsession).
Passion needs no logic or explanation, however, and when the collectors interviewed for the documentary dig into their shelves and pull out some of their treasures, that passion takes over. You don’t have to share their particular affection for horror rarities or direct-to-video action films to nod in sympathetic recognition at their idiosyncratic ways of organizing and archiving their collections, whether it be by genre, actor, director, video label, box size or some particular combination of any or all of these. These shelves are more than just a personal library. They are shrines to their collections—literally, in the case of one collector who turned his basement into a fully-stocked private video store, from vintage display racks to archaic check-out computer console—and the subjective logic behind their filing is part of the ritual of devotional respect.
Yes, Adjust Your Tracking gets into the deep end of obsession, but you don’t need to be that devoted to appreciate the aesthetics of VHS collecting. I don’t mean the quality of the film-on-tape, mind you, but the package and presentation, from video logos to the distinctive, era-specific style cover designs and art that offer the promise of something inevitably more exciting and unique than the cheap exploitation films invariably found on the tape once you got it home. And for the most part, exploitation is what dominates the collections of these video hounds. The popular commercial and culturally respectable films released on VHS back in the day for the most part found their way to disc in superior editions. But what of the oddities, the dubbed foreign cannibal films and Italian gore-fests and especially the underground film culture of DIY shot-on-video features that proliferated in the early days of VHS, before the studios embraced the moneymaking potential of home video and upstarts and mavericks rushed in to fill the need for product on rental shelves? That little sliver of indie film history is the second generation of entrepreneurial independent producers, the spiritual children of the poverty row studios of the 1930s and 1940s reborn under such labels as Full Moon and Wizard Video. Adjust Your Tracking celebrates the aesthetic with glorious clips from some of the strangest and rarest tapes to occupy space on a video rental shelf. It’s an acquired taste, to be sure, but it is also fascinating to sample.
“If vinyl can come back, why not VHS?” asks one collector. Sure, it’s not a parallel comparison—the analog recordings on LPs are still considered sonically superior to the digital sampling of CD and MP3 while VHS is decidedly a lo-fi format in a high definition world. But if you live in a big city or a lively college town you’ve surely seen the rise of video nights at more adventurous venues, where everything from early music videos and campy educational tapes to off-the-wall movies shot for the young VHS market on home video camera are curated for audiences ready to see something they’ve never seen before. And a few specialty DVD labels have even taken to releasing a few choice cult horror titles on videocassette for the nostalgic collector.
VHS isn’t coming back, at least in any commercially popular way, but for the lover of the weird, the extreme, and the rare on-home video and for the movie genre-hound who came of age in the era when exploring the shelves of video rental stores big and small was the equivalent of hunting for buried treasure, it will always have a place in their hearts and on their shelves. Pop in a tape and hit the wayback machine. And please, don’t forget to rewind.