When Distribution Video Audio shipped its final truckload of videotapes on December 23, 2008, it was seen as the dying breath of VHS. After bringing the moviegoing experience into the homes of millions of Americans, surviving a nasty battle with Betamax, and introducing "Be Kind, Rewind" into the cultural lexicon, VHS had finally given up the ghost, usurped by shiny, sinister discs. And as with every format shift in the film world—from silent to sound, or nitrate prints to safety stock—countless works of art were lost in the transition, left to languish in obsolescence. In a 2009 interview with the Austin Chronicle, Alamo Drafthouse programmer (and VHS devotee) Zack Carlson estimated that “only 25 percent of the movies ever made prior to the birth of VHS were ever actually released on home video,” and only about 50 percent of those made it to DVD, which leaves thousands upon thousands of films that were lost forever—and thousands more that will disappear once everyone abandons their VCRs.
That's where Viva VHS! comes in: When employees at Seattle's legendary Scarecrow Video heard the sad news in 2008, they initially planned a funeral for the format. But mourning soon turned to celebration, as they opted instead to keep the spirit of VHS alive by organizing a show dedicated to mining all the magnetized cultural heritage—all those myriad Porky’s knock-offs, slapped-together slashers, and C-list celebrity self-help tapes—that the world is in danger of losing. On Feb. 24, the Alamo’s Carlson and fellow tape-head Lars Nilsen will welcome their northwest soulmate, Scarecrow Video’s Tommy Swenson, for the Austin première of Viva VHS!. Before the show, we confronted Swenson with all the supposed improvements that have been made on VHS, and forced him to defend the honor of his chosen format. (Note: Swenson asked that we point out that he’s no Luddite, and that he freely admits that DVDs have their benefits. This is all for the sake of argument.)
Tommy Swenson: A film should stand on its own. If it can't speak for itself, then no amount of filmmaker apologies are going to help you to appreciate it.
TS: This is one of the key components of why I adore VHS. The box art is incredible. On DVD, any asshole can come through and Photoshop a face above a title. But on VHS, brilliant artists labored over these incredible works of paint and ink. When you went into a video store in the ’80s, you saw just shelf after shelf of tantalizing, incredible works of lurid, exploitative art, and you could only dream what horrors—or delights—lay within. And oftentimes when you watched the tape you'd be disappointed. The art itself is a key component for why VHS needs to be preserved.
Chapter skip and scene selection
TS: Films are made to be watched from beginning to end. By jumping in at any point, you’re ruining the filmmaker's intentions. You're ignoring what comes before and after, and you’re disrupting the intended film-watching experience.
TS: I respect someone who's willing to let their work stand on its own, and not have to speak over it while I'm trying to watch it.
Better picture and sound quality
TS: It's overrated. A film is meant to be watched in the theater. That's the ideal experience. And any home video presentation is going to be a lesser facsimile. When you're watching a DVD, it's so annoying when it skips or freezes or has pixilation. It just totally takes you out of the experience. Whereas when you're watching a film on analog VHS, there's something warmer about the image. Something more alive about it. You can get drawn into it in a way that you can't on a DVD. And with a lot of exploitation films—films that were never shown in pristine conditions—watching it on videotape actually enhances the experience. It makes it more nostalgic, more authentic, more honest.
TS: The devil! Netflix is the worst offender in the home video war. They really disvalue the experience of physical media. I don't care how fast the mail can arrive. If I want to watch a movie, I like the experience of being able to go to the video store, browse the actual copies, look at the boxes, and make my choice. And Netflix is really bad about not carrying things that they don't think are worthwhile. Great video stores, like Scarecrow or I Luv [Video] and Vulcan [Video], work almost like archives, in that they're dedicated to preserving and hanging on to these remnants of the video age that Netflix is willing to let vanish into the mists of history.
Blu-ray and high-definition
TS: [Laughs.] A joke! It's just one more example of limiting the amount of things available. I don't care if I can watch Planet Of The Apes on high-definition or VHS—whatever it is, it's going to be a good movie. Recently in Seattle, SIFF Cinema [Seattle International Film Festival] started a new series called "Sci-Fi On Blu-ray," where they actually screen Blu-ray discs in a theater. And it's the most ridiculous, offensive notion to me that somehow Blu-Ray discs—which look a little bit better than DVD; if you do an actual side-by-side comparison, you can see, "Oh, okay, there are some more details in the background"—but it's such a pale imitation when compared to actual film print.
I think a lot of people with Blu-rays are convinced that, now that they've got the film experience in their house, they never have to go outside again. They never have to see a movie in the theater ever again, but they only have five movies to choose from. On VHS, you're not fooling anyone. You know that this is the home video experience, but you have the entire history of cinema there at your fingertips. If you're willing to go looking for it.