SXSW Review: Rewind This!

"An absolutely professional and engaging documentary about VHS."

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Rewind This Photo Credit Rewind This

You may know me as Franchise Fred, because I believe every series, without exception, should continue indefinitely. However, I am also Format Fred, because I am obsessed with all the different formats through which people consumed material. I love my Blu-rays (see Shelf Space columns) and seeing new details in the high quality, but I’m endlessly fascinated by all the previous formats that contained movies. That means the standard video, DVD and Blu-ray, but also laserdisc and obscure dead formats like Selectavision. Rewind This! is porn for Format Fred.

Read all of CraveOnline's SXSW coverage here! I actually first heard of Rewind This! on Twitter. Twitter suggested I follow @RewindThisMovie, so perhaps Twitter gave birth to Format Fred. Just the idea of a documentary exploring VHS sounded awesome. I’ve also followed director Josh Johnson and producer Carolee Mitchell and their individual VHS discoveries. The final product lived up to my expectations.

Rewind This! is an absolutely professional and engaging documentary about VHS. It’s got a digestible overview of the technical and business side of the technology for viewers who may be coming to this for the first time, though it kills me that there is an entire generation that needs to be educated on what Betamax was. It also goes in-depth so the superfans can learn something new, and springboard off the film to explore further on their own. Visit those VHS shops, or at least order some used titles online.

The history of a format is a history of culture too. The signposts of the VHS boom are tied to the era. Jane Fonda’s aerobics videos were vital to the acceptance of home viewing, and purely a product of the ‘80s. Aerobicizing was already irrelevant by the DVD era. There were DVD workout videos but they weren’t responsible for the success of the format. DVD would have to find other ways to cement itself over DIVX (remember that?), but the content exclusive to VHS was decidedly ‘80s. Towards the end of the VHS era, a Matthew Perry/Jennifer Aniston video explaining Windows 95 seems like it would never be agreed to by today’s celebrities, aware that it would be archived and seen for eternity.

In explaining technical matters, Rewind This! added to my historian’s appreciation of the format. Analog formats have a history like film prints have. A glitch on a tape tells a story about how that tape was viewed in its past. How many generations a copy degrades tells a story about the content on that tape’s journey being shared. Check out the doc’s perspective on sex scenes and pan and scan transfers for some interesting angles on historical context of an individual VHS.

There’s a certain magic to the VHS treasure hunting just because of the era in which VHS existed. If VHS were the format of the ‘90s, we wouldn’t be seeing cheap knockoff slasher movies and action movies on VHS. We’d probably have cheaper versions of the self-referential Scream rip-offs or Tarantino wannabes. It may just be our ‘80s nostalgia that we hope to find some unheard of gem on a forgotten VHS, but it certainly gives the treasures of the format a unique charm.

Rewind This! didn’t delve into every corner of VHS I might have wished, but it introduced plenty I’d never thought of. Tape trading had a culture, which is totally eliminated with torrents, which besides legal questionability are pretty much automated and impersonal. The storage of VHS alone is an awesome aspect of video culture.

It’s a little weird because I know many of the experts commenting on the history of VHS, both from the Austin film scene and the local entertainment journalist crew. It doesn’t make me like the film any more or less. It’s just nice that people I know have become famous for VHS collecting. There are plenty of celebrity experts too like Cassandra Peterson (Elvira), director Frank Henenlotter and characters like David “The Rock” Nelson. The interviews are well photographed (not to be taken for granted in documentary) and soundbites edited smoothly.

The film analyzes the trend through the YouTube and streaming technologies, so it has an eye to the future. That only makes the case for VHS nostalgia stronger. Whether you like streaming access or insist on hard copies, it’s important to know the foundation for all of this. The only reason the film industry is pursuing streaming now is because VHS made home viewing a commodity in the first place. I still want to know more about every subculture of VHS featured in Rewind This! so I hope there are lots of extras on the DVD, the and perhaps a bonus feature devoted to Selectavision! 


Read Fred Topel's interview with Rewind This director Josh Johnson and check out all of CraveOnline's ongoing coverage of SXSW 2013!

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Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.