From the vantage point of 2013, the VHS tape is such a terrible piece of technology—ugly, bulky, easily breakable, and supremely limited—that it’s remarkable it was the dominant home-video format for so long. Yet the irresistible new documentary Rewind This! conveys that at the time of its introduction and popularization, the VHS tape wasn’t just exceptional technology: It was borderline miraculous.
The home-video revolution radically changed how people saw films. The cinematic choices of cinephiles and trash-lovers alike were no longer limited to whatever was playing on television or at the local theater; audiences could now experience decades of cinema history within the comfort of their own homes. Suddenly, everyone could be a student of cinema on the order of Peter Bogdanovich or Francis Ford Coppola.
Rewind This! chronicles, with wry humor and distinct affection, the strange permutations of this home-video revolution. The privacy afforded by home viewing made it a natural for pornography, for instance. As one of the film’s commenters asserts, the VCR was the first new technology initially driven by porn. It wasn’t the last. Rewind This! makes it clear that home video didn’t just make decades of great cinema available to the public, it also made it far easier for adolescent boys to look at naked boobs in privacy. To its credit (or shame, depending on perspective), the film is more interested in the second use of home video than in the first.
Rewind This! isn’t much interested in how shifts in technology affected the mainstream; it’s more about exploring the grungy fringes of VHS culture, such as homemade action star/outsider artist David “The Rock” Nelson—who peddled his low-budget movies door to door—or tape collectors who scour flea markets and private collections for low-budgeted, amateurish obscurities that never made the leap to DVD and never will. Rewind This! gravitates toward the scuzzier recesses of cinema history, putting a major emphasis on the packaging of low-budget videocassettes. Low-budget distributors couldn’t compete with major studios when it came to production values or stars, so they piled on the sex, violence, and sleaze in tawdry video-box tableaus that promised more than any film could possibly deliver, let alone one shot on the cheap. Mini-mogul Charles Band of Empire and Full Moon commissioned films to be made on the basis of prospective video-box covers alone. (One never-realized prospect: an erotic thriller named Cassex. It was meant as a genre film that somehow combined sex and cassettes.)
What makes Rewind This! more than a glib exercise in nostalgia is the way it highlights the human elements of this strange, outdated technology. One interviewee talks about how borrowing a home-taped video of a movie from a buddy afforded fascinating insight into his friend’s personality, since it included both the film he wanted to see and snippets of ephemera the friend taped along with it—TV shows, commercials, music videos, and random other detritus the original taper thought he might want to revisit someday. Other commenters talk knowingly about how they could always tell when a sex scene was coming in a videotape because of the telltale waviness of a sequence that had been paused and rewinded incessantly.
The documentary’s emphasis on the weird, obscure, and disreputable leads it to skip blithely over a lot of home-video landmarks. Blockbuster’s rise and fall is mentioned only in passing, and the DVD is invoked primarily as a later technology whose reign as the dominant home-video format is already coming to a close. But the film is ultimately less interested in giving an objective overview of VHS’ history than in paying loving, irreverent tribute to some of the strange subcultures that sprung up in the home-video world.
Rewind This! is pitched to the tiny segment of the population who experience shivers of nostalgia at the mere sight of the talking video box for Frank Henenlotter’s Frankenhooker, which growls one of the character’s catchphrases, “Wanna date?” It’s an unmistakably niche-oriented, geeky tribute to a world that no longer exists, even if it doesn’t make much argument for VHS’ future as anything other than an object of reminiscence. But it does a wonderful job expressing just what the medium meant, and examining the collectors who are ensuring that those irresistibly cheesy slivers of the past don’t disappear for good.