Vaya con Dios, VHS. VHS (Video Home System) now joins its foil Betamax as an obsolete technology, ending a nearly 40-year run. Though many consumers had moved from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray to streaming services, there was still some demand, and factories still produced hundreds of thousands of VCRs each year. The last only these companies, Funai, announced this week that it would soon pull the plug on VCR production.
According to an Forbes, Funai, a subsidiary of Sanyo, saw its sales drop to 750,000 units last year, down from a peak of 15 million units per year. To put things in perspective, in 1987 VHS controlled 90% of the $5.25 billion VCR market. The decreased production made parts costly and difficult to source. Was the most difficult part to source the light for the flashing clock? The spring mechanism on the that opened and closed to protect the tape? Who knows. The answer may be somewhere on a tape that we’ll never be able to play. I know– very “Jorge Luis Borges writes ‘Betamax’s revenge.'”
So here we are–together spinning around in an on-demand, streaming world. The benefits of streaming are, of course, selection, picture quality and cost. With a monthly subscription to Netflix or Amazon Prime we get access to hundreds of thousands of titles. Movies are never “out,” digital copies are crystal clear, there are no late fees and there are no cassettes to rewind. I think we lose something, though. We lose the contact with the product, and all elements of collection and intentionality fall away. VHS was not a service or a stream; it was all mechanical movement, both for the player and the viewer. Netflix and chill did not exist for most of VHS’s run. It was Bust it to Blockbuster.
Netflix and chill did not exist for most of VHS’s run. It was Bust it to Blockbuster.
The most successful companies no longer create products (e.g. face cream), they produce platforms (e.g. Facebook). Think out with the widgets and in with the wikis. Where does the VCR/VHS combo land? In his book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, Kevin Kelly describes a dozen deep trends that will determine our course over the next three decades. These include interacting, screening, accessing and sharing. Now it would be ridiculous to suggest that VHS technology offered any of these in the way Kelly describes them. To do so would be revisionist, as neither the concepts nor the technology existed. Nevertheless, what gave VHS staying power and what has bred so much nostalgia was that VHS tapes were both personal and social. We could own them, but also share them. We could record and remix tv shows. We could use the same platform to watch Hollywood movies and film our own backyard hijinx. Does any of this sound familiar?
We could own them, but also share them. We could record and remix tv shows. We could use the same platform to watch Hollywood movies and film our own backyard hijinx. Does any of this sound familiar?
In some ways VHS spanned the gap between studio-produced content to the crowd-sourced set up we enjoy today.
Reminiscing about all this, I have put together my all-time top 10 VHS tapes. A qualifier: these are not necessarily my favorite movies or programs, they are the ones I associate most with the qualities of VHS that I described above.
10. Tie: ‘Summer Rental’ & ‘Summer School’: These were two underrated gems by director Carl Reiner. If they weren’t on tv, they were in rotation at home. There is just enough nostalgia and nonsense in these movies that they deserve to kick off the countdown.
9. Tie: ‘Ghostbusters II’ & ‘The Goonies’: Long before the reboot, there was ‘Ghostbuster II’. Though lacking the performances of the original, Ghostbusters II was a huge hit at home. ‘The Goonies’ was too, full of action, adventure and pirate treasure. (The career trajectories in this movie alone make it worthy viewing.)
8. ‘Caddyshack’: This classic holds the distinction of being among the titles that I’ve owned on VHS and DVD. All-star cast, amazing writing and jokes and characters that stand up today. “It’s in the hole” for ‘Caddyshack’.
7. Wrestlemania I-III (?): Like all boys of the 80s, I watched a Wrestlemania or two in my time. I not only watched them, I recorded them. Concepts of pay-per-view and recording were rudimentary compared to what we see in on-demand programming and DVRs today but the seeds where there. It’s interesting, if, in 1985, I had had to wager which would have a longer life in the public sphere, VHS, Wrestlemania or Hulk Hogan, I’m not sure which I would have guessed.
6. ‘Clue’: Like ‘Caddyshack’, this titles is one I’ve owned on VHS and DVD. What made ‘Clue’ work? Marquee performances by Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn and Christopher Lloyd, humor that works on multiple levels, and choose your own ending.
5. ‘Boca a boca’: This may be a wildcard for some, but for personal and professional reasons this deserves a spot on the list. It was a star-making performance for Javier Bardem, both in a real and meta way. My wife and I owned our own copies and. It is only VHS tape on this list that I still have.
4. ‘Destinos’: This one is huge for me. It sparked my study of Spanish. I used it both as a student and a teacher. The narrator was Harry Rosser, my mentor and advisor at Boston College. Beyond the personal, ‘Destinos’ represents the ways VHS opened up quality education programming to classrooms across the country.
3. Miscellaneous ‘Seinfeld’ episodes: If I taped Wrestlemania occasionally, then I taped Seinfeld episodes religiously. I couldn’t wait for syndication and the concept of buying seasons of a show were still too new. I needed my big Jerry and my little Jerry. (“I heard you really inhaled it. Did anyone tape it?” [The Lip Reader]).
2. ‘Eddie Murphy: Delirious’: Though there is no “big data” to support this statement, I’d say I rented ‘Delirious’ more than any other VHS. It was a go-to. The red pleather jumpsuit may not work today, but the performance does. This VHS selection captured a master as his peak.
1. ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’: Like with Delirious, ‘Holy Grail’ is one I’d like to see data on: rentals, likes, recommendations, Rotten Tomatoes. ‘Holy Grail’ was the go-to: whether there was a new release on the shelves at the video store or not, I remember this one more than any other. The film stands up today. In an interesting way, this film proves that Monty Python has mastered different media–tv, theatrical release, home movies and Broadway–in a way that perhaps only Mel Brooks (‘The Producers’) has.