SXSW Day 4: ‘Rewind This!’ and ‘Los Wild Ones’ Explore VHS, Vinyl and Cultural Memory

[14 March 2013]

By Dorothy Burk

Medium Nostalgia

Rewind This! was one of those documentaries that everyone was talking about at SXSW. Even if you had no particular affection for the VHS format, you could easily be won over by the most amazing movie poster that a documentary has ever had. I had high expectations when I walked into Rewind This!, which explores the history of VHS and chronicles a resurgence in its popularity amongst a passionate core of collectors. Like many of my favorite docs at SXSW this year, it offered both an emotionally and visually rich experience. The filmmaker mixed interviews with collectors and VHS experts with footage from classic VHS types to tell the story of a revolutionary medium that is often maligned in today’s world of high-resolution digital images.

The audience that gathered at the Paramount Theatre for the film’s premiere responded to stories of VHS collectors with great enthusiasm. Laughter rolled through the audience as some of the most obscure (and amazing) clips ever captured on VHS were shown to a wide audience for the first time since their original releases in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Director Josh Johnson aptly demonstrated that VHS collectors are a diverse group of people interested in many different genres. One of the collector highlights was no doubt Dormarth, a horror film collector who has carefully organized and cataloged some 1,200 horror films on VHS.

At its core, Rewind This! is about more than just VHS as a particular form of media that is no longer in use and evokes a strong sense of nostalgia. It’s also about how we preserve cultural artifacts and what happens to our memories and desires when they are stored on a medium that is no longer prevalent. I thought a lot about Walter Benjamin and his concerns about what would happen to art in the age of mechanical reproduction while I was watching Rewind This! and I thought about another tape-based medium of which I am particularly fond, the cassette, and how much I miss dubbing mix tapes for my friends.

One of the more fascinating portions of the documentary discussed early tape pirating and tape trades. Individuals who had participated in such trades talked about placing ads in newspapers and journals so that they could arrange trades with other movie enthusiasts. One interviewee even talked about how tapes traded between friends provided rich archaeological evidence about what your friends had been recording. Of course, stress on tape from repeated rewinding and rewatching of certain sections of a film also leaves tell-tale marks. The doc takes plenty of time to explore the effects of VHS on the adult entertainment industry and how, in many ways, that industry was an early stronghold for VHS.

Johnson makes great use of contrast between the contemporary, digital methods he used to shoot the film’s interview and the original VHS footage shown in the film. This contrast helps viewers who remember VHS from childhood to develop a real sense of nostalgia for the medium. It also allows viewers who never watched VHS tapes to understand what the medium was all about. One of the best things about the doc is that it is rife with hilarious moments. From the collector who organizes her DVDs according to case color to footage from fabulous ‘80s action movies to a Titanic saturated flea market romp, there’s just so much to enjoy.

Rewind This! is effective in realizing a wide audience because the film doesn’t prioritize dismissing or decrying new technology. Even the collectors who criticize DVD and Blu-ray focus on the loss of cultural memory instead of simple allegiances to the medium that they most enjoy. The title itself also references a sort of cultural effect of video cassettes, which often bore “Be Kind, Rewind” labels from rental stores. The idea of being the type of person who doesn’t leave the boring chore of rewinding a tape to the next viewer is quite profound when considered against a new digital backdrop where our rentals are either never shared or have no need of our effort to prepare them for the next viewer.

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Elise Solomon’s Los Wild Ones, a music documentary, has a lot in common with Rewind This! The film follows Wild Records label founder Reb Kennedy as he guides his small, L.A.-based label. An Irish transplant, Kennedy founded the label to fill a hole in the music industry and to give talented young Rockabilly artists an opportunity to release albums and perform live shows. While the Rockabilly scene is largely considered underground in the US, it receives major attention in many European countries and is even beginning to make waves in Japan.

Most of the musicians Kennedy works with on the label are young Hispanic artists. If you’ve lived in L.A. or spent a great deal of time there, this may not come as a surprise. Many Hispanic and Chicano youth have identified with such music over the past few decades. In many cases, it provides an active link to a rich Mexican-Californian rock ‘n’ roll tradition. Solomon does a great job of illuminating the relationships between the artists on the label and Kennedy so that we really understand why he is so connected to who they are and what they do. Footage of Omar and Luis, two of the label’s earliest artists, is particularly strong. While watching the film, it becomes apparent that the artists became comfortable with Solomon. They confide their dreams, worries and concerns about the label with her without any sense of apprehension or shame.

While Los Wild Ones is about the label’s artists and their relationships with Kennedy, it’s also about the music industry as a whole. Solomon is following Kennedy at a crucial time in his label’s history. He’s trying to keep the label alive in a world where music has gone digital (something Kennedy hates). In a post-screening Q&A, Kennedy told the audience that music should never, ever be listened to on a phone or computer. He has a strong sense of nostalgia and a very particular opinion about what music should sound like. In fact, the Wild Records label almost exclusively produces vinyl albums.

Kennedy’s essential concern seems to be that if buying music becomes a non-physical experience, listening to music will also become a non-physical experience. It doesn’t seem that the Wild Records artists share this attitude, but they respect how Kennedy wants things done. In many ways, he’s made L.A.‘s underground Rockabilly scene accessible to people around the world. In one poignant scene, Luis talks about how he was treated like a king on a European tour but is depressed about returning to the drudgery of everyday life. In building Wild Records, Kennedy has offered these artists an escape from such drudgery. He’s also offered them a way to make a living from what they most love to do. At the end of the film, Kennedy makes plans to change some of his business practices not only to keep the label afloat, but also because he cares about his artists. It’s truly refreshing.

It may be easy for audiences to dismiss Kennedy as a crazy Irish guy, but the concerns he expresses about music should be important to all fans. In fact, there are many overlapping questions about medium in Los Wild Ones and Rewind This! These documentaries ask us to explore our own sense of nostalgia and how we guard our cultural memories. They ask us to consider what it is that we find so great about our preferred forms of watching movies or listening to music. Perhaps they help us realize that the get-it-now attitude that prevails in digital culture forces us to miss the pleasure of getting-it-later.

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