Tuesday, September 06, 2005


Like most people, I have a few skeletons in my closet. OK, more than a few – about 227. They lie in clunky black plastic shells, white labels peeling off from exposure, stacked one atop the other like corpses laid to rest in a movie mausoleum. Or, as I like to call it, my VHS closet.

You see, I have this nasty little habit. I’m a chronic VHS taper. And to quote Eminem: “Tonight I’m cleanin’ out my closet…”

Actually, this cleanin’ will last more than one night, and without the white-rap soundtrack. In layman’s terms: I plan to watch all those movies I have collected on cassette over the years that, for one excuse or another, have never made it back into the VHS play deck. My mission: Watch them all by the end of the year so that I can finally put them in their proper resting place (i.e. The Dumpster) and move on to DVD's next era.
So how many movies is that? Approximately 120. And with only 119 days left in the year, I need to get crackin’…
I know what you’re thinking. “Why bother with VHS when there are millions of perfectly good DVDs out there?” Or “Don’t you have anything better to do with your free time?” And you die-hard film geeks are most certainly ranting: “Watching second generation VHS dubs?! What about original 35mm prints? What about proper aspect ratios?! Have you in fact GONE MAD??!!”
And I assure you I have perfectly half-assed answers for all these questions. Here they are…
For starters, these VHS tapes are like family to me. Many of them have survived numerous spur-of-the-moment moves from NYC to VA to LA and sometimes back again. Whether crammed in car trunks on cross-country road trips, wedged precariously in milk crates within milk-carton sized apartments, or loaned out to dubious acquaintances only to be later rescued by the skin of their magnetic teeth, these tapes have stuck with me through thick and thin. They have integrity, longevity. More than I can say for many of their human counterparts I’ve loaned them to in the aforementioned City of Angels.
But I digress. This is not about me. I’m here to pay my respects to a dying breed – the VHS tape. And what better way to pay tribute than to actually watch the ones I’ve loaded up with forgotten films before replacing them with their precocious digital cousins, be they DVD, HD-DVD, Blu-ray, or whatever format that next will have us all scrambling like jackrabbits for better resolution, better sound, or over 72 hours worth of unrated extras!
Let’s be honest. Like many film geeks my age, I first developed my love of film…on tape. VHS vs BETA. EP vs LP vs SP. "Please Be Kind, Rewind." These are the wars I fought in. These are the scars I carry.
Yes, it’s true that I am a full DVD convert by now. I mean, come on, you’d be crazy not to be (That picture! That sound! Those extras!). But I must admit I was suspect of the new format when I bought my first Toshiba player back in ’97. The picture looked…for lack of a better phrase…too clean. Where was that fuzzy warm hum on the soundtrack? Those intermittent rainbows? And no rewinding?! How was I to “be kind”? DVD had taken from me one of the few charitable acts I knew how to perform, and I for one was skeptical.
Well it’s time to rewind and get down and dirty once again…VHS style. And for the purists out there, no, it’s not quite as dirty as you think. Ninety-five percent of these 120 movies are in the proper aspect ratio, culled from the Turner Classic Movies archives, the intermittent spells during which I’ve had IFC or Sundance Channel, or one of the few occasions when HBO, Starz, or Encore have dared to venture down that long and winding letterboxed road. A handful are even outright cheats on the format itself – DVDs taped to VHS, not copy-protected of course.
The other five percent? Generally, they are rarities that can’t be found (cheaply at least) on DVD, or on tape at all for that matter. So to answer your burning question, fellow purists: Yes, in fact, I am mostly “keepin’ it reel.”
As for the movie titles themselves, I noticed something strange when I began compiling the list of those I had yet to watch…there were themes! Mini film-festivals in fact, very conducive to watching in week-long jaunts, one per night, one THEME per week. And I always thought my collecting was so random. (For example, one tape in my collection boasts the questionable pairing of the three hour histrionic-epic “Magnolia” with the lean eighty-minute creature feature “The Wolf Man.” Go figure.)
Some of the “film” festival themes I have lined up for the next few months will cover great directors, from Altman Odds and Ends (i.e., Brewster McCloud, Fool for Love) to Catching up with Kurosawa (i.e., I Live in Fear, The Bad Sleep Well) to Bunuel Basics (Exterminating Angel, Simon of the Desert). Some will cover particular genres, from Cheesy Sci-Fi (Logan’s Run, A Boy and His Dog) to Spy Movies (Hopscotch, The Ipcress File) to more creative categories like Rednecks and Truckers (Elmer Gantry, Coal Miner’s Daughter, They Drive by Night). A few of the “mini-festivals” will even attempt to cover whole decades, such as Overlooked ‘60s (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? to Burn!), Overlooked ‘70s (Coming Home, Joe), and Overlooked ‘80s (Tough Guys Don’t Dance, The Long Good Friday).
Some of the movies that I'll review on this blog will be a source of embarrassment to me as a tried and true film geek. For instance, I’ll have to admit that, yes, I have never actually seen Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai in its entirety (travesty!). Not to mention the fact that I call myself a Western fan yet have never seen The Magnificent Seven (outrage!). Or that I have placed the ’70s trucker film White Line Fever (Jan-Michael Vincent anyone?) alongside these classics in equal priority (Have You No Shame, Man!).
Thus, to answer your questions -- yes, I will really be cleanin’ out the skeletons in my closet. And, yes, I obviously do have a fair amount of free time to kill. But, I beg of you, consider this little quixotic VHS venture I’ve laid out for myself for what it is: part therapy/ part intervention, part hobby / part occupation, part rebirth / part funeral dirge. And, most importantly, I’ll save a bundle on gas money to and from the video store.
So turn up that warm fuzzy hum, those rainbow lines, the gentle creak of a plastic spool winding and grinding. It’s time to get down and dirty…VHS style.

1 comment:

Jordan Hoffman said...

Way to go on this -- but stay focused. If you slip one day, be sure to get back on the horse with two films the next.

And don't throw anything out that isn't on DVD!