It should be no real surprise that certain analog media formats have survived extinction in the digital age. There’s an element of cool to the aesthetics of vinyl records and film photography, the two formats that have resurged due to their peculiar analog qualities which digital technology will forever try to replicate. But others, like daguerreotypes and 8-tracks, have disappeared all together, having nothing more than nostalgia to cling on to. But strangely enough, the fuzzy, low-fi, low-quality aesthetics of VHS have become a different kind of genre, a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, being kept alive by only a handful of collectors, aficionados, and fanatics.
In his new piece, Nathaniel Hendricks explains, “True tape loyalists stuck together and VHS culture blossomed. It inspired several documentaries, a fanzine called Lunchmeat, countless websites, blogs, subreddits, and social media accounts dedicated to selling and trading. Between collectors, filmmakers and fans, the love for this visually noisy format has never died. The consensus that VHS was dead gave real tape heads a purpose: to keep it alive.”
VHS is the only format that literally changes through the use of it. “Videotape is a living medium, and like anything living, it ages. No two viewings of a tape are the same. Every play decays the image further and the physical nature of the medium demands involvement on behalf of the spectator.”
VHS and camcorder technology democratized moviemaking by letting everyday people produce and direct VHS movies that, during the '80's, often shared shelf space in rental stores with Hollywood blockbusters. It allowed commercialized popular culture to emerge. “It was cheap to shoot and release, which explains the over abundance of horror titles, and of course, the explosion of the DIY porn industry.”
And some filmmakers are beginning to use VHS just to get that unique look. They lean into its drawbacks. An advantage to the VHS look, according to the filmmakers in the piece, is its obvious low fidelity. “We kind of made it for festival programmers who would be watching movie after movie. Then they’d see one they wouldn’t be able to forget.” Read Electromagnetic Dreams.
No two tapes are ever the same because of how distorted they quickly become. From tedious rewinding to dust in the cartridge, they are never going to give you the same picture or experience twice; a respite from the fact that digital technology makes everything look the same. Once you’ve used one Instagram filter, you’ve used them all. Old VHS aesthetics have become a brand new way to rage against the machine.
So maybe it's more than just nostalgia or a marketing scheme in a post modern age. The worn in cover art, the crazy plot lines, and disappearing images; it's a visceral medium to say the least. “It was all about ease; a system that everyone could enjoy, and that also forced you to participate in a kind of group effort. The phrase “Be Kind/Rewind” described the endless back and forth between the viewer and the next viewer, the chain reaction of the original sharing economy. The look was unforgettable; faded colors and fuzzy lines, perfect for the aesthetics of the late 20th century and all of its electromagnetic dreams.”
VHS tapes are kind of like the misfits of analog formats. And nothing taps into the idea of degraded misfits (at that exact point in time) than A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater’s 2006 adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s un-filmable dystopian novel. The movie stays true to its name. The whole thing looks like it was badly scanned. The aesthetics are weird to say the least. In order to capture the conceptual vibe of the book, Linklater used rotoscoping animation, which made the setting and actors look like strange, superimposed drawings of themselves.
Which brings us back to the actors. He rounded up some misfit, pretty-much-black-balled gen-x players for this movie, including Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Keanu Reaves, who all found themselves in various, incriminating pickles at the time. And in case you were wondering, the nostalgia factor, even then, was key.
Like VHS tapes, the film looks worn out, like someone made a VHS film and watched it a million times and then re-recorded it onto another VHS tape. Rotoscoping enhances not only the viewers experience of the film, but becomes part of the storytelling process. A Scanner Darkly is all about paranoia, desperation, and despair, which are intensified for audiences by the technique. Though perplexing, the film certainly is original and its VHS look gives it an air of nostalgia, despite primarily being a sci-fi flick. Like its cast, perhaps VHS does have the potential for a comeback. After all, we have seen stranger things.