Josh Johnson on Rewind This! and the VHS Format

Martyn Conterio

The VHS format croaked it commercially around 2008, but since then a cult of videotape worshippers has sprung up around the world. Though replaced by digital formats such as DVD and Blu-ray, the humble and crappy quality of videotape is still something movie fans and collectors adore, spending hours sifting through bargain bins, flea markets and eBay searching for forgotten treasures, or just gloriously naff movies.

Rewind This! is a fascinating documentary that plunges the viewer into the history and cultural legacy of the hallowed format. Ahead of its premiere at Film4 FrightFest, we spoke to director Josh Johnson about why VHS still matters.

GFW: Are you a VHS obsessive?
Josh Johnson: I feel like I’m a movie obsessive more than an obsessive for any particular format. I do still collect videotapes. The sort of tapes I’m after are the ones that haven’t been released any other way. It’s more about accessing a particular film and part of the appreciation is to watch it in that specific way. I collect on all formats: 16mm film, laserdisc, DVD, Blu-ray. VHS is unfortunately, in a lot of ways, the only way to access certain films.

Clive Barker’s original cut of Nightbreed springs to mind – it was lost and became almost mythical among horror fans. Then it cropped up on VHS after some researchers rummaged around in Barker’s archive and office. The print is still lost.
That’s a great example. I’m sure a lot of fans will be disappointed that the extra footage they’re going to be seeing is so poor quality. But at the same time there’s an excitement that they’ll be able to see this footage that they’ve heard about for years. That really sums up the core concept of video collecting in the modern world because it’s really about accessing things that are only available that way.

What’s your opinion of those collectors who’ll stalk flea markets and eBay for Jane Fonda workout videos or literally any tape they can get their hands on?
There are people that take sort of a black hole approach where they’ll just buy anything. You can actually build up a large collection for very cheap. Somebody who doesn’t care about optimum audio and visual quality, it’s not a bad way to do it. Another part of the collecting community has something to do with the amazing box art that we had during the mid-to-late 1980s. Maybe it’s not so much about the film contained within that box but the imaginary experiences evoked by that box.

A VHS still from 'Rewind This!'

The cover art and posters today don’t seem to inspire the same ‘imaginary experiences’, as you put it.
I think the main thing that has been lost, for me, is artistic expression. You see a lot of posters and covers now – and there’s a certain amount of art direction – but you can tell they’re designed to fit a particular formula and repeat the same basic concepts over and over. What you had in the video era was people realising they didn’t have a name to sell they could only sell a concept. So you’d get an original artist to sell this other piece of art. But it was always designed to get us to spend money. It’s always advertising and not some noble endeavour, but there was an artistic endeavour within that. I do miss that.

I don’t get as excited sometimes about a new movie I’ve never heard of because when I’m discovering it, I’m discovering a synopsis or an unexciting image. Whereas in the video era, when I would see a box on the video store shelf and never heard of that title – but it was combined with this amazing piece of imagery – it made it seem like that movie could be something impossibly entertaining.

Rather than a nostalgic trip down Memorex Lane, what was the overall aim for Rewind This!?
I think it was something we touched upon: the archival value of videotape. There were thousands of titles released that haven’t made – or are unlikely to make – the jump to other formats. There’s this chunk of film history that is vanishing and that nobody was talking about. People just assumed if something was of good quality or worth seeing that it was going to be preserved and presented in a new digital format. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. It was also about [providing] an historical account with this contemporary kind of urgency and relevance.

A VHS still from 'Rewind This!'

I noticed in the credits that Canadian director Panos Cosmatos was involved in your film. I’m a big fan of Beyond The Black Rainbow.
What happened was we’d made about 80 per cent of the film and we really wanted to go to Japan and have more of a global perspective and an aspect of the story that would give a lot of value to the film, and it was a very expensive trip. We launched a Kickstarter campaign and what we really had going for us is that we’d shot so much footage and be able to put together a trailer and be specific about what we wanted. It was a real success for us. Panos stepped into the project as executive producer. For him, it was nostalgia for the video store. A big part of the films he’s making are inspired by looking at video boxes as a kid. He came on board purely out of enthusiasm for the subject matter.

Does VHS culture have a future?
I think it’s alive and well and there has been a resurgence. There are a lot of young people and collectors now who weren’t around for the initial boom in video. It definitely has a limited future, which has seen limited editions and older movies being rereleased on videotape. It’s booming. I’m not sure if that’s going to have a long-term life. You can’t really argue that watching a VHS tape is a better experience of watching a feature film. I don’t think there are enough people to keep videotape alive as a new format.

Will you be releasing Rewind This! on videotape?
That’s definitely the plan. We’re actually finalising the home market release right now. The plan we’re approaching is to release a DVD and limited edition VHS.

Cool. Good luck with the film.

'Rewind This!' screens at Film4 FrightFest 2013 on Saturday 24th and Monday 26th August.

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