Be Kind. Please Rewind: An Ode to the VCR
Like Netflix, the VCR diluted and transformed the film itself.
"This isn't the first time a princess has been fed to a dragon."
"Talk to me of love when you're four-hundred and twenty."
These sentences are part of my idiom. Alongside lines from Zoolander and John Keats, they wander out during frou-frou dinner parties, beside Bingo cards at the VFW, and even in between the sheets of an intimate pillow talk. Where in the Sam Hill do these screwball phrases come from? Bert I. Gordon's terrible 1962 epic, The Magic Sword, starring Gary Lockwood as Sir George of course.
My Mom found The Magic Sword on VHS at a yard sale a mile down the road. We added it to the five-volume Voorhees family movie catalog just behind The Incredible Journey and before Old Yeller. My brothers and I were beyond excited. It didn't matter that we knew nothing about St. George and the Dragon, nor did we harbor any special interest in medieval tales of chivalry. It was just another visual narrative to savor when life—as a farm kid without cable—got especially tedious.
Just lay a bedsheet down on the hardwoods and litter it with heaps of hard-shelled peanuts. Wrangle the video in the slightly-warped VCR and push PLAY. Watch as the world outside begins to fail; the heifer shed slinks in a static mist, the calf hutches vanish, and even the groan of the distant John Deere fades in the triumphant horns of Sir George's arrival…
Gary Lockwood as Sir George in The Magic Sword (IMDB)
VCRs have, of course, gone the way of the typewriter and rotary phone: a piece of once space-age retro junk now laughable for its singular capability. Now 30 years later, the farm kid has a remote-controlled flat-screen TV, a Netflix subscription, and thousands of titles in his digital video collection. A simple click can shuttle him from a Sam Cooke documentary to the latest shoot-em-up, never-say-die Hollywood blockbuster.
No longer tethered to the impoverished world of five video cassettes, he can learn and experience more than I could have possibly imagined. He won't have to bike five miles—an eternity on a corroded Huffy 10 Speed—to a friend's house just to watch "skinimax" (what we kids called Cinemax's racy late night programming) or MTV. Nor will he scour outdated World Book Encyclopedias and his personal back catalog of Ranger Ricks just to finish a Science project. That hour drive to the Worcester Public Library to view a National Geographic film about the Aztec empire is a ludicrous proposition, for within his digital trove of content lie hours of compelling documentary about the storied Central American civilization. Thanks to the magic of the internet, the culture-starved hillbilly can morph into a know-it-all smarty-pants without ever taking off his barn clothes.
Ah, Netflix, provider of spellbinding, limitless content, producer of brilliant material unfit for those curmudgeons at the big four networks. What argument demotes you to the basest form of entertainment, key conspirator of the great detritus, the worldwide compression of authentic culture? Harborer of Black Mirror, BoJack Horseman and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, lecturer and confidant, why must I forsake thee? Actually, it's not you. It's us, and we're really lazy, so much so that we can transform a forum for the provocative into a silencer of expression.
Netflix has delivered us some of the best television and film we've ever seen. Sharply-written serials like Ozark tackle real civic debates and make hackneyed re-boots like CSI look like community theatre who-dun-its. Netflix documentaries like First Contact: The Lost Tribe of the Amazon provide a keyhole to neglected and isolated civilizations.
Just the same, the platform itself discourages profound interaction with its content. Though the diversity of voices enrich us and macabre humor validates our doubts and blemishes, it all happens through surface-level epiphanies. We become cheap dollar-store sponges—good for an intellectual sop or two 'til the next documentary begins and promptly wrings us out.
In 1985, 14% of American households had a VCR and by 1990, 66% of American families owned at least one of these ground-breaking devices (Overly). This machine obliterated traditional cinema and re-branded the what-should-we-do-this-weekend routine. Suddenly, a whole family could watch a new release for $3 rather than hemorrhaging half a paycheck at the movie theatre. Films, typically relegated to Arthouse Cinemas in big cities, slowly emerged on the shelves of Mom and Pop Video Shops and eventually made it down the dirt road and into the hands of content-hungry 4-H kids. Titles could at last be rewound, played and paused. Great dialog could be re-lived and deft cinematic technique could be discussed, re-hashed and discussed again.
Rather than returning to the theatre—a regular habit of bored kids from the 1940s to the 1980s—folks could return to these sagas from the comfort of their own homes, which allowed filmmakers to push experimentation down the stairs and kick it around for a while. A buried lead or hidden payoff could finally be parsed.
But much like Netflix, the VCR diluted and transformed the film itself. Towering movies meant for the big screen struggled to fit the square confines of a box TV. In 1987, cultural critic, David Denby laments, "the constituent elements of earth, air, light moisture, heat, all the vaunted sensuousness of movies, the ripples, eddies, exhalations, tremors the shadings and half-shadings of light at dawn or dusk, and everything else that gives you the overwhelming sensation of being there –all that arrives in muted form or not at all. The storm in the Bounty which Captain Bligh tries to take the ship around the Horn is now just a noisy tempest in a pisspot."
Meaning is poverty. Deep emotional truths derive from scarcity. If there's little to eat, supper is sacred. When no music is heard, the nightingale is divine. Just like that farm-kid gorging on peanuts and rooting for Sir George to prevail, we savor that which is finite even as we challenge the limitless yearnings of the soul. Endless content, while seemingly utopian, makes us more impoverished than the soul of Ebenezer Scrooge. Alone on the farm with a shaky land-line and five movies on video cassettes, I became more resourceful than Werner Herzog and James Bond.
Enslaved to the banal content, I watched The Magic Sword hundreds of times because it was still in the VCR and all that was on TV were re-runs of Night Court. Re-watching was akin to re-reading. Wading through uninspired scenes to seize on the previously un-claimed, that seemingly trivial line of dialog that suddenly screams Motif! was my form of mental Jazzercise. It was the epitome of thinking in isolation. This is how I developed ideas. This is how I learned structure even when the structure of The Magic Sword is hackneyed and ridiculous.
With Netflix, it's onto the next show before we even unpack what we just watched. We'll tell our friends that the show was really deep, that it's a fuck-the-system collage of computer geeks united against a villainous corporation, but we've thought preciously little about what the series might say about revolution and counter-revolution. Even worse, we might just say it's about society and shit, and before we can elaborate—you know actually form an idea, we're already watching that smart, Sci-Fi Drama which reverses gender roles and glorifies sexual violence in a way that both acquits and condemns the patriarchy that reinforces it—or something like that.
And we know we're wrong, and the critics are wrong. They rushed their article, so we can read it the day after a new episode aired, and they're already prepping a diatribe on Amazon's new series about Amelia Earhart; did she actually survive and sneak back to New Jersey to live the rest of her life as a housewife? Spoiler alert: she didn't.
Sarcasm aside, it's hard to parse out the provocative while we're still experiencing it. We need an empty room. A place to stew. What exactly is political subversion? Do these characters actually represent the anarchy that defines their every move? Maybe, this show is just a confirmation of Late Capitalism. Maybe despite its willingness to tackle tough issues, it's actually dangerous and ultimately xenophobic.
Instead, we forget about it. We let the previously viewed lie, and alas, we've settled merely for entertainment, and here we are back in our lives doing what we're told but graced with a badge of intellectuality because we watched a show that basic cable won't touch. The problem though—we've treated Black Mirror like Forensic Files.
I know, I know. The internet and Netflix can bolster critical thought. Maybe our zygote of an idea about a series finalé finds its legs somewhere in the swamp of possibility and through informed, engaging dialog with like-minded folks in a digital forum, we've discovered the secret ingredient which makes that show tick. And now we're jumping with joy and letting Good Art change our lives, and we're reading War and Peace, volunteering at a homeless shelter or whatever enterprise is required by our new erudite dispositions. Or….we're still watching Netflix.
Who cares? TV is just entertainment. After a 40-hour (or more) work week, are we really supposed to hurdle over intellectual barricades one after another just so we can better comprehend a TV show we happen to like? Of course not. There is little harm in occasionally sitting in front of the TV and streaming consecutive episodes of whatever tickles your fancy. The problem emerges when it's our only source of controversial or intellectual content.
Fewer people are reading nuanced literature or literary journalism, and visual storytellers have replaced the popular scholarship of centuries past (Ingram). If we are indeed seeking complex content, (and every potluck dinner or barstool conversation suggest we are) we must try to interpret its messages. Can you imagine reading Grapes of Wrath and immediately starting into Guns of the Timberland?
Guns of the Timberland (1960) (IMDB)
But what if you watched Guns of the Timberland a bazillion times because it was one of the few movies piled in the milk crate under the wicker cabinet? Wouldn't that distort your understanding of otherness? Consider my catalog: The Incredible Journey, Old Yeller, Bambi, Robocop and the aforementioned Magic Sword. Chained to these visual perspectives, I was much poorer than the barista with a Netflix account.
Through video alone, how could I have possibly learned about diversity, that authentic culture I've been harping about? How could I have reached behind the generic, completely unreal sitcoms and crime dramas that the big four networks seem content to spew forth to infinity and beyond? Is there any possible way to do this without the internet? Can you and I rejoice within challenging original stories without surrendering to the black hole of a Netflix binge?
In 1984, Berkley Professor, Todd Gitlin lambasted the VCR. "It's bad for the culture. People are retreating from the public world. VCRS are making the domestic space a sponge that sucks in the occupants to movies." The same could be said for on-demand content in 2019. Necking with your high school sweetheart at the drive-in is now called "Netflix and Chill". Both platforms encourage anti-social behavior and corrode the communal magic of cinema.
In his final swipe at the wretched VCR, Demby articulates what we stand to lose by individually curating our film-watching in customized man-caves with a smattering of friends.
That shared experience is indeed dwindling. However, in 2020 it is far from dead. Film cults exist all over the world, and though I take no pleasure in this irony, it's the VCR that has kept live cinema alive and clicking. The Video Cassette Recorder built a culture of deliberation, a manic insistence to fawn over minor directorial flourishes or a particularly poignant edit. It's because this machine was overworked by scores of kids who rewound vignettes of movie magic and fast-forwarded past generic Hollywood slop, that a viable community of movie geeks still flourish in the hills of Fantasia.
But it's that very dedication, the inquisitive eyes of the culture-starved farm kid or the wry smile of the knowing misfit and her chorus line of B-movies, which Netflix inadvertently stamps out. Though we shout, wail, and giggle through re-fillable streams of captivating story, our critical selves slowly dissolve into the moribund drama of high definition television.
So what can we do to preserve this golden age of filmmaking? How can we hone our analytical chops and demand narratives as dynamic as ourselves? Is such a transformation even possible? Uh, Duh, Mcfly! Of course, it is. All we need to do is go back to the future.
Reader, take my hand and light the lantern. Walk briskly up the rickety stairs. Pause at the landing to watch the snowflakes waltz through the bronze streetlight. Pull down the door to the attic. Pause at the shoebox filled with baseball cards and high school playbills you'll never throw out. Almost open that ancient diary, the one privy to your most vulnerable self. But put it aside and rummage instead the heavier box and find your VCR or DVD Player. Dust it off with a kiss of wind.
Go to the Thrift Store and garage sales. Meet people who live in your community. Ask for a recommendation. Make popcorn on the stovetop. Maximize mood lighting. Throw your phone out the window (out of the room works too!) Snuggle. Push "play". And descend into a world you've never seen before.
Watch as Twitter notifications fade and status updates ping unheeded. Watch until the credits roll and the static glitz conducts your screen. Yawn. Blink. Reach for the burnt kernels of popcorn in the bottom of the bowl. Pause. Rewind. Play. And don't worry, stalwart heroine, it's not the first time a princess has been fed to a dragon.