by James Christian
Now obsolete, VHS tapes were once an indisputable force in popular culture. Home video’s impact on movie fandom should not be understated. While movie geeks once had to scour TV guides and theater listings for their favorite films, suddenly a vast selection of titles (even now uneclipsed by DVD) was at their fingertips. Devotees of foreign cinema, exploitation and art flicks no longer had to brave grimy grindhouse theaters for a celluloid fix. The same entertainment could now be enjoyed in a cozy living room, without the sticky floors and disruptive muggers. Low budget films could make a killing on home video, rather than floundering at the box office. Small studios like Troma and Full Moon made their fortunes with rentals and mail-order. The technology jumpstarted the first wave of video piracy, as film junkies recorded TV programs, copied existing tapes, or even cobbled footage into alarming cut-and-paste “video mixtapes.” A tape-trading underground was born, allowing film freaks to swap rare and bizarre footage. VHS gave viewers the immediacy and convenience we now take for granted.
The advent of DVD brought many improvements, but also many limitations. The need to rewind the tape vanished, but so did the ability to resume a film at your exact stopping place. A sharper picture came at the expense of durability. The hard plastic shell of a VHS tape could take a thrashing. Even a busted video was salvageable; an amateur surgeon could rig a fix with a razor blade, some tape, or even a new shell if need be. A scratched DVD or Blu-ray is garbage. DVD cases are thinner, but video boxes boasted eye-grabbing artwork. For some viewers, the grain of analog video is preferable to the most pristine Blu-ray. Some movies just look wrong in hi-def. A flattering layer of tape fuzz can hide slapdash special effects and even heighten a film’s atmosphere.
Of course, nostalgia aside, DVD did offer its own advantages. The lure of bonus material, shelf-saving design, and increased portability made the disc a clear successor to the videotape. VHS died a natural death. Although some fetch high prices on the collector market, tapes are thin on the ground even at the few remaining video rental spots. DVD is making its own ungraceful exit from a scene now dominated by downloads and instant streaming.
Luckily, Rohrbach Library has a whole room full of these clunky plastic gems. Head downstairs, take a right into the computer lab, then find the open door on the left wall. You’ll discover classic anime, old-school MTV cartoons, British TV, Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Scorsese, and tons of other good stuff. Okay, I hear you say, I get it. VHS is neat and all, but how do I watch them? We’ve got you covered, dear reader. The library has two VCRs available to borrow. Just ask at the front desk.