Those preferring to jump ahead to my book review of Noel Mellor’s Adventures in VHS (Misticon Publishing) can skoot to the very end of this somewhat nostalgic blog that sets up the review as well as some views on the unique experiment undertaken by Mellor to ultimately fund and publicize his delightful book.
My first exposure to the lowly videotape goes back to around 1983 when my dad bought our first VCR, a RCA Selectavision which enabled us to tape whatever we wanted off the TV, and rent whatever we wanted from the local shops that were popping up at various malls and shopping centres.
Well, hold on. There was no “we.” There was just “me,” because my dad could never figure out how to work a VCR.
The “me” in this equation meant I chose what was watched and taped and viewed, although once in a while things overlapped, in terms of us watching something we both liked, like a classic film on TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies.
Jump ahead decades later, and like author Noel Mellor, I’ve tried to find some info on the local shops I used to frequent – not weekly, but once in a while. In terms of stills of these suburban haunts, well, there are none.
I’m sure Mellor would agree that had the home video boom happened today, there would be videos and stills of everyone’s haunts, courtesy of everyone’s phones. Pre-iPhone, there’s almost nothing, unless a local news crew happened to do a piece, or maybe the shop got creative and took footage of their innards. The only time a photographer or video crew capture a shop is when it’s closing, or is treated as a cultural oddity by simply existing (which in Toronto, consists of about 10 known shops).
(A colleague filmed a short at a local Jumbo Video in the 1990s, and is sitting on some ephemeral material; he also shot a short Super 8 film at another shop – both rare and early examples of Kevin Smith Syndrome: making a goofy movie where you work for fun, if not a rough calling card. I mention these here and now to ignite a spark in the hope I might one day see them…)
From my old shops, besides old rental catalogues I kept in a box over the years (see prior blogs with generous scans), there’s nothing else because, well, why would you take pictures of a place you see all the time or wouldn’t dream would vanishing 10-15 years later? It’s like making a point to document the local grocery store because you’ve a sense shopping for produce might be unique twenty years later.
(I will admit I remember the first Loblaws that opened near our house at Skymark Plaza (also the first location of the nearest The Video Station), and the normal procedure to grab fruits and vegetables was to weigh them on any one of the nearby scales dangling from the ceiling – something wholly obsolete in a prepackaged world, or even the local street vendor. If I want potatoes, I just grab what I need and assume the relationship between the final total and my wallet is sound.)
Mellor’s quest to find a still image ultimately yielded one, housed in an archive that he had to access via protocols relative to a rare piece of parchment from the Dead Sea; the viewing procedure was elaborate and security-heavy, and the picture’s reproduction in Mellor’s tome required permission and cash to reproduce, but he had proof that Video World really existed. It was not an hallucination.
With that image, he chose a unique goal: seek out the movies displayed on the wall, and watch them on VHS to see if the experience of revisiting a former weekly habit not only held up, but delivered the thrills and disappointments typical of chancing one’s money and time on a film based on the artwork and ad ballyhoo on the sleeve.
I’ll get into a few more details within my review of his book, but I’ll make this one observation: Mellor’s experiment is unique in part because it stems from a member of that exclusive VHS-Betamax generation of kids whose tastes were shaped by the weekly visits to an environs which in most cities, suburban settings, or rural locales no longer exist.
Video shops aren’t dead, but there aren’t many left, and Mellor’s experiment represents a simplified echo of something wiped out of many people’s routines, primarily due to streamlined convenience. Moreover, VHS always looked awful, and there’s no beauty in watching a panned & scanned movie when a letterboxed version exists on DVD or Blu.
Once in a while I’ll grab a title on tape because it’s available nowhere, and sure, the novelty / absurdity of piping a Betamax feed through a DVD burner that spits the image and sound onto a HD monitor via its HDMI cable gives me a giggle, but it doesn’t take long to make note of bad linear stereo, or hissy mono, tracking problems, dropouts in the tape, and / or a wrinkle or crinkled section because former renters really liked that 6 second shot of breasts or human-alien sex.
There is the inherent minor thrill of handling an artifact and knowing it’s fragile, and each playback wears it down, making that viewing Important, but with rare exceptions, the few pre-recorded tapes I still have don’t offer much nostalgic value nor cinema history. They’re more quirks and curious, because during the late 80s / early 90s, I’d ask my friend’s sister Andrea to seek out some PAL tapes of movies I’d read about in Sight & Sound magazine while she visited family in Croydon.
I rarely bought movies in NTSC land, but Mellor’s world – British PAL editions – were my forbidden fruit, offering widescreen versions of films American studios still thought unworthy (The Omega Man, Tora! Tora! Tora!), foreign classics wholly unavailable here (early Powell & Pressburger productions like The Silver Fleet, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Roselyn and the Lions), or alternate cuts of movies butchered here or offering alternate scores, edits, and endings (Ridley Scott’s Legend, William Friedkin’s Rampage, Luc Besson’s The Big Blue, Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness).
The few I did buy in NTSC land were literally just a few because I had Pay TV, so the need to drop $30+ on a tape seemed foolish when I could a) tape it off the TV, or b) use one of those black boxes advertised in the back of home video magazines that literally said ‘Even though you can use X to make perfect copies of rental tapes as good as the originals, this device is to be used only as an image stabilizer and copyrights must be respected by the user.’
I never had a black box because they were $50+ USD, but the back end of Video and Video Review magazines were filled with ads by black box makers, and one could dream about what the magic things the Video Corrector and its sequel, the Corrector II, could do. Or one could visit a few indie rental shops who carried uncut horror films (Argento and Fulci were the big stars) – NTSC rental tapes they made probably using a ‘corrector’ from a PAL edition. Ripping in the analogue era was quite possible.
Mellor’s experiment mandated tracking down original tapes because unlike a taped TV copy on a T-120 / E-180 VHS tape, you got the Big Box packaging (those chunky, smooshy brown ‘library’ rental cases made a specific sound whenever they were opened & closed), the original art and all those bits that were designed to motivate the browser into chancing a rental.
Books have been published showcasing box art alone, sites archive scanned sleeves, and many crafty minds have created bogus VHS covers for new films that are very faithful to the style of those sleeves, which certainly hark back to old posters and trailers of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, or are just plain Wrong (see sidebar picture).
So there’s more than nostalgia at play in Mellor’s Adventures in VHS. It’s a re-affirmation of the visually spirited salesmanship that once dominated the home video market and now (mostly) continues with indie labels, and filmmakers commissioning original key art created by some truly brilliants graphic designers and artists.
A case in point, if we’re talking pure salesmanship, is Harry Bromley Davenport’s nutbar Xtro (1982), which is perhaps my favourite review in Mellor’s book. The film did enjoy a minor special edition release from Image Entertainment in 2005, and I’ve added a DVD review.
Mark R. Hasan, Editor
Category: EDITOR'S BLOG