Monday, May 20, 2013

Ratio-bination : the case for VHS

I'm not sentimental about old technology. As soon as I bought my first cd (Bjork's Debut back in 1993) I began planning how to get rid of all the vinyl I'd amassed from the age of thirteen. Took me almost a year to give it to friends or leave in out of the weather on the doorsteps of op shops. I've kept about fifteen LPs and 12" singles that make for pleasant decor around the skirting board of my dining room. Then when I discovered the flac format I put all the cds I'd amassed from the age of thirty on to a portable hard drive and gave or donated almost all of them. The only ones I've kept have direct associations with friends or have some claim on rarity; about a tenth of the collection.

My vintage puts me in early X which tribe adopts tech early and replaces old with new never to return to it. However, talking to a friend and fellow cine-fool recently made me realise something that stopped me in mid-sentence: I miss VHS.

I don't miss the gooey image or the fragility of the tape that could render a hire movie unwatchably crinkled in  the course of a few lends. I don't miss the edgeless audio that rendered human voices into a kind of military-standard mud. The culture of VHS was a rental one. I had a lot of tv recorded over the years in a chest of drawers but very few retail copies of my favourite movies. Possibly because the rental market got in first the appeal of owning a VHS copy was no greater than having a retail cassette of a favourite album. The idea felt self-robbing.

I finally put my old VCR out with the hard rubbish two years ago. That was with some sadness. Mostly, I frowned at tossing away a perfectly good piece of kit. I hate seeing all the old analogue 4x3 tvs left out on footpaths. There's a kind of harshness to it. One I saw had the remote taped to the top of the set and I mentally transferred it into a puppy on a lead with a few tins of PAL beside it. A gaggle of twenty-somethings  wandered by the stack of things I had on the footpath and one of them looked interested in the VCR. I will never know if she took it.

But none of this is why I realised that I miss VHS.

VHS was a good technology but so completely superceded as tech and an experience by dvd and digital television that a revival is unthinkable (unlike the silly but real one of vinyl LPs). But there's still something.

I am old enough to be able to say that I saw most of the great American movies of the 70s on VHS, panned and scanned, being largely unaware of what this did to the original image. I can't miss a medium that so

I first saw Suspiria on a crumbly old hire VHS on my newer but still old cathode ray 4X3. Mono soundtrack muffled by years of play. Nevertheless when the white art nouveau titles splashed onto the screen to the cacophony of drums I was pulled instantly in. Suzy Banyon walks through the airport to the sliding doors which open and close to the din of the storm outside and the shivering musical box score. Both of which stop with the closing of the doors. She gets to them and suddenly we are thrown into the hydraulics and then back out to a sudden flash of colour which looks like violence until we see it's just her scarf flying back in the storm. The taxi she gets seems to have been shrunken in an oven. It looks cold. We go through the clangorous forest until our destination, a great red wall emerging out of the darkness.

On the remastered dvd I saw about six years later there is no heart stopping suddenness to the scarf blowing at the door and the screen filling red wall is an fin de siecle building that just happens to be red. The sound is bigger and immersive and the picture has a filmy depth to it. But in the scope cinematography that shows all this I know where I am. This was made even worse on blu-ray with a transfer so burntout I could see a lurking figure that I'd never been able to before which drained all the suspense from one of the brutal murder scenes.

I could go on. The nearly black screen scene in Phantasm that turns out to be set in an overturned truck was disconcertingly troubling on video became, oh, that's where they are on dvd. The great American movies I alluded to before, the ones new in the seventies that I was too young to see at a cinema played out the same way and a kind of fresh suspense borne of the new format's tv aspect ratio developed.

This was transported to the big screen by filmmakers whose experience of post academy ratio cinema had been squeezed back into the land of 4X3. Look at Fight Club or Being John Malkovich, The Science of Sleep, (Nakata's) Dark Water and The Virgin Suicides. The screen is wide (even David Fincher's extra-wide 2.40: 1) but the information fills it in a very familiar way. this was something I didn't really notice until the great mainstream movie year of 1999 ended with The Blair Witch Project projected in 4X3 in cinemas whose doors carried warnings of motion sickness. A big contribution to the genuine eeriness and dread of that film is our lack of control over what is waiting out in the dark beyond the frame.

Now that even the weather report on tv is 16X9 and its audio 5.1 the genie is long gone and probably boring its fellow barflies with tales of life in the bottle before life on it became the norm. 3D? Still haven't seen one. No objection jsut wariness.

My giggly neighbour or the shouting hard rubbish crew took my last VCR away and I will never get another. I still miss the effect of the imposition of the tv frame on tales that are nurtured by careful serves of information. A recent viewing of Insidious showed a kinship to this idea but mangled it so much that it started to look like an imagination-poor rip off of an old tv show, the X-Files. Somewhere, there's an approach that recalls the old and explores the unilluminated new to find the medium so it can get more extreme.

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