Jul 222013

Within the first three minutes of Rewind This! you hear that short sharp gasp: a collector spotting a desired object, the surprise and passion all rolled up in a breath. Rewind This! is in large part a documentary dedicated to the passion and nostalgia of collectors, who are themselves collected here to tell stories and remember the “good ol’ days of VHS”. However, they are but small cogs in a larger tale, one that encapsulates a historical shift in culture. VHS was so familiar to many of us that it is taken for granted how much it altered not only the entertainment industry but also how we ingest and create entertainment.

A favourite anecdote of mine – not mentioned in the documentary – from a time when broadcast television was not a 24 hour service is how the English government debated the banning of home video entertainment systems. Why? Because they feared society would crumble as civilians sat up all night watching videos and then fail to attend work the next day. Insane, and yet highly demonstrative of the kind of class based battles which would be fought over these humble little black boxes. Video formats re-shaped entertainment and the cultural landscape. It is, as one interviewee put it, a democratisation of cinema, one which didn’t require huge amounts of money or land to set-up, unlike a movie theatre. All of this makes it dangerous, which the English government so rightly recognised. It shifted the seat of power in a whole range of areas. For instance, video formats created a space in which title and cover art could dominate choice, dethroning the long-held power of the big name distributors and film-makers. One “XXX Pioneer” described it as a shift from qualitative entertainment to quantitative. While there are certainly arguments against the waves of detritus that this threw upon our cultural shores, the freedoms it opened up and the variety of choice cannot be denied. It was the beginning of widespread, affordable and diverse cinema on demand.

Video personalised cinema to a greater degree than any other format before it. For this reason Rewind This! holds primarily to a bottom-up examination of the culture which grew out of the format. A great many unknown or lesser-known figures are allowed their moment in the sun, ranging from distributors to programmers, ex-bootleggers and collectors, film-makers and even “outsider artists”. It is perhaps the only time they will be placed alongside such well-respected film-makers as Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) and Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell), who are in turn placed side-by-side with pornographers discussing the opportunities opened up by video. The selection of interviewees is varied and generally of a high quality. Highlights for myself include Frank Hennenlotter (Basket Case, Frankenhooker), home video distribution pioneer Charles Band, Cassandra Petersen (Elvira), and Roy Frumkes, scriptwriter of the truly staggering masterpiece, Street Trash.

Paracinema is the name of the game here. The weird, forgotten or never known are prized objects, and there are a wealth of clips from the video vaults to entertain those with a taste for trash cinema. The middle sags a little when the aforementioned “outsider artist”, a zero-budget ex-bible salesman one-man-trash-autuer, is given far too much screen time that could definitely have been put to better use elsewhere. Forays into the Japanese V-Cinema market are fascinating, with some great sound-bites from actors and directors, but are glossed over fairly quickly. To be honest, the majority of topics are glossed over a little too quickly, but this is not meant to be an exhaustive history, and the scattershot approach is perfectly matched to the scattershot format. This is a wall of cinema crying out for you to dig in further.

Outside of the Japanese sections, the material concentrates on the US and Canadian experience, which is limiting but nonetheless still fascinating. Additionally there are delightful digressions into the tactile history of the videos themselves, recorded over or re-viewed in orgasmic obsession till the tape itself degrades, and acknowledgement of the beautiful work done by cover artists. The glorious art of the video cover is indeed a sadly lost art, replaced by mindless photoshop jobs. Always a shit-stirrer, Hennenlotter takes a moment to even decry Criterion covers as boring, while holding up a copy of House of Whipcord (which I own & is even better in person). This is just one of many moments in which the more serious and self-important audience members might get their feathers a little ruffled. I ask you, please, if you overhear someone complain about moments like this, be sure to mock them a little. This documentary is a great reminder that cinema is for everyone, regardless of personal taste, and that joy can be found in the strangest of forms.

For those who already have a passion for VHS and paracinema there won’t be a lot of new information here, however the interviews and paraphernalia make this an immensely entertaining enterprise. For those with any interest in cultural history Rewind This!is essential viewing. It is a glorious reminder of the wealth of tastes and styles that have become ever more available thanks to the home entertainment industry. Without video you would not now have the wealth of cinema at your finger tips that you do. This story is certainly not a minor sub-plot to cinema history, this is the real deal and it is fascinating and joyful.
By Ben Buckingham

The Facts

Director: Josh Johnson
Country: USA
Runtime: 94 minutes

Rewind This! is screening at both the Melbourne International Film Festival and Possible Worlds Film Festival in Sydney. The Possible Worlds screening will take place on Saturday August 17 @ 6.30pm. More info here.