By Elijah J. Tucker
Does technological advancement necessarily bring with it experiential improvement? A closer look at the impact VHS technology had on the film-viewing experience, and what was lost with the transition to the DVD, might suggest otherwise.
You might have been born too late to have watched your favourite childhood film on VHS, rewinding the reel manually until the production company logo appeared and the static cracked. By the time I die, I doubt I will have watched any film more times than I watched Aladdin 2: The Return of Jafar (1994) on VHS, cross-legged on the floor of my grandmother’s living room. DVDs could never be so addictive: the jarring stops caused by two or three hair-line scratches can cause our suspended disbelief to come crashing down around our ears. As I renew my Amazon Prime and Netflix subscriptions, I am well aware that we live in a golden age of media where any film, book, or album lies at our fingertips, never more than a single mouse click away. And yet, many pine for the days when discovering new media felt more like a quest or an achievement; a time when trawling the local Blockbuster might yield nothing for weeks when suddenly — BAM! It’s your new favourite film; a horror classic, or an indie gem. This process of sifting was no doubt a chore, but a welcome one. The same is true of the necessity of rewinding each tape for re-viewing, and these instances both point towards a trend which is apparent in the film-making process itself: just as we can derive enjoyment from the practical limitations inherent in the VHS format, the peaks in cinematic excellence have often been caused by technological limitation, rather than being hindered by it.
Too often, our critical stance towards the impracticalities of an antiquated technology such as VHS can blind us to the charms found in bygone ways of doing things. The view that the transition from VHS to DVD was a clear-cut improvement is simplistic and precludes the idea that the formal limitations of VHS were some of its greatest strengths. We find a clear instance of this contradiction between limitation and improvement in the case of “pan and scan” — the technique of cropping the sides of a film frame to fit a given screen — which was heavily utilised for VHS. It entailed, in the most egregious instances, the removal of over 50% of the original shot. Even after the frame had been butchered thus, the remaining visible parts of the frame were often grainy, off-colour, or distorted, and patches of darker colour often blurred into static. However, this is precisely why some films work better on VHS format; horror films, in particular. The intensity of Alien (1979), with its claustrophobic, nightmarish atmosphere and unfamiliar setting, is enhanced by the accidental qualities of VHS. In scenes where Ripley occupies the foreground but the background is darkened, current high-resolution, digital film formats allow us to clearly determine any possible threat; under layers of static, a reduced frame of focus caused by pan and scan, and muddied colours, we are far less certain about whether or not that shadowy corridor at the side of the frame contains a threat which our protagonist has not yet perceived. The fear-factor of the alien itself, ultimately just a latex suit, also benefited from this grainy muddiness. Visual imperfections and budgetary constraints were disguised by the technical flaws in VHS technology. Other cult classics such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Thing (1982) benefited from this same accidental improvement. Visual imperfections, rather than heightening a viewer’s awareness of their separation from the narrative, increased dramatic tension instead.
Film has reinvented itself with each iteration of technology, and yet we still find ourselves drawn to the charms of earlier versions of the art form. It is a fallacy that improvements in visual quality necessarily correlate with an increase in audience enjoyment or sentimental attachment: the intangible mystery of an unlabelled VHS tape cannot be matched by an infinite budget, or even by improvements in the medium itself, because these current excesses do not scratch that same itch. There can be no logical answer to a purely emotional phenomenon. As in the manner of dissecting a joke, we find that our improved knowledge of the film-making process and industry has ruined some of that magic. Our heightened cultural awareness of the film-making process is encapsulated in the idea of “The Making of….” featurettes available on the “Special Features” sections of DVD releases, something wholly foreign to the VHS model of distribution. Documentaries of this kind work to further demystify the aura of cinematic wonder which a VHS tape was capable of emanating, and seem to have led us to develop a more cynical view of visual media as a result. Film is no longer a mystery to us: art must imitate life, and so the medium reacts to our awareness of it. Ironically, the blemishes and imperfections of VHS, which we might have expected to cripple our suspension of disbelief, did far less to ruin our experience than the attempts at adapting to these problems. We can now see too much, and we know too much about how we’re seeing it. We find, therefore, that films bereft of all technological and financial limitations become cynical, because we, the audience, are more cynical about them. The lesson we can learn from VHS, then, is that limitations can sometimes be more beneficial, in the long term, than complete, unbridled freedom.