This week, the Japanese company Funai Electric announced that it wouldcease production of VCRs. Since it was reportedly the last company to make the increasingly obsolete players, the news effectively rang the death knell of a technology that had survived long past its own moment. To better understand the enduring legacy of VHS, I called Caetlin Benson-Allott, an associate professor in the English department at Georgetown, where she teaches courses on film and media studies.
Benson-Allott, with whom I went to grad school, is the author of Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens, in which she explores the ways cinema reflected on and responded to home video technology. She spoke about the strange persistence of VHS technology, discussed its role in the rise of digital culture, and reflected on what she’ll miss most about it.
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Jacob Brogan: As a scholar of video technology, what was your reaction to the news that the VCR is finally dead?
Caetlin Benson-Allott: It surprised me to find out that manufacturers were still producing VCRs, because JVC—the company that invented VHS and gave us the term VCR—actually stopped producing them in 2008. The VCR itself was outmoded by the DVD player in 2001. That’s the year that people started watching more DVDs than VHS cassettes. So, while it was refreshing to see that VCRs had made it this far into the 21st century, it was interesting that it was eight years after the very inventor of the term had given up on the technology.
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Do you think that its shelf life means that VHS is going to stick around for a while after this formal end to manufacturing?
I think it means that it should, but “should” and “will” aren’t the same thing. As a university faculty member I’ve watched multiple institutions just flat out destroy or give away their VHS collections in favor of DVD. And now they’re considering getting rid of DVD in favor of subscription services.
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You argue in Shattered Screens that VHS transformed the process of making movies. Is that a legacy that will linger?
I think it has lingered! We don’t necessarily appreciate how much our use of DVD or streaming or electronic sell-through is based on videotape—Betamax and VHS. The idea of coming home and saying, “I’m in the mood for House of Cards,” or “I want to watch all of Martin Scorsese’s movies in order,” wouldn’t be possible without VHS. The expectation that our media is there when we want it—what Chuck Tryon calls on-demand culture—was born with the VCR.
Does that mean that VCR, maybe video tape more generally, trained us for the agency that we have in our contemporary media culture?
Absolutely! VHS and videotape gave us an expectation of access that—as Lucas Hilderbrand points out in his book Inherent Vice—is foundational to the way that we approach media today. If you try to think back and imagine what television and film were like before VHS, you had to wait. To see a film that wasn’t just released, you had to make a trek to your local repertory theater on the one night they decided to play it. And if you didn’t live near a repertory theater—as most Americans didn’t—you were out of luck.
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What will you miss most about VHS?
What I miss most—and I have to say I already miss this—about VHS are the video stores. I miss walking into the cornucopia that was my local Lincoln Video of Lincoln, Massachusetts, and finding out about some guy named Scorsese when I was way too young to be watching his movies. And then working back from him to other things that he liked. I miss having a relationship with a video clerk and the esoteric taste, the evolution of taste, that I got from knowing that guy or that gal.
We have that in a sense with the you-might-also-like function on Netflix, but that’s an algorithm replacing a human relationship, which is never the same thing.
Link to the rest at Slate and thanks to Matthew for the tip.
While reading the OP, it occurred to PG that he has no anticipation of obtaining ideas for his media consumption from a physical person as part of a commercial transaction – a video store clerk or a bookseller.
While PG is a reasonably social guy and enjoys face-to-face interactions with others, he receives better suggestions for media consumption from family and friends who don’t work in bookstores, online articles/discussions and Amazon than he would ever expect to receive from a Barnes & Noble employee.
He’s not trashing those who work in bookstores, but doesn’t think they have a very good idea of what he might like. (For the record, PG is reading a history of the Congo right now, not a book he would expect to see on the front table at his local B&N.)
There is also the problem that PG hasn’t purchased a physical book in years.