In Memoriam: VHS and the Philosophical Rewind



On September 15th, 1830, William Huskisson died because the world sped up and he didn’t notice.

Poor bastard.  Huskisson, a man whose chief talents apparently lay in a facility with the French language and inheriting great sums of money, dove into British politics after witnessing the dawn of the French revolution as a young man. He served several constituencies with consistency if not distinction and yet will never be remembered for any of his middling achievements. Instead, he is remembered for his appearance at the opening of the LiverpoolManchester Railway, whereupon he stood on the edge of one train while misjudging the speed and proximity of another (George Stephen’s Rocket) approaching on an adjacent track. Never mind his work reforming the Navigation Acts as President of the Board of Trade and Treasurer of the Navy—Huskisson has become known for being pulled under the wheels of a train and forever after as the first railway fatality, to say nothing of his pioneering work as patron saint of klutzes.

Perhaps his story is less an ode to the comic ballet of fatal disfigurement beneath the wheels of a locomotive so much as it is a cautionary tale; one about speed, the rush of advancement and the simple pleasures of not being killed by a train.

Our family VHS machine was a JVC top-loader. Hitting ”eject‟ was followed by a glorious whirl of gears and gathering hush of elegant hydraulics, which only heightened the anticipation of a young boy whose palm gushed sweat over his rented copy of Code of Silence (which chronicled, if the video box was to be believed, Chuck Norris as a “good cop having a very bad day”).  Over time, the action of that ejection became less graceful and more like a dog cacking up a bone fragment. But when it was new, it lifted up slowly and came to a cushioned stop with an adorable sigh.

As much as I loved that sound, and the confident interlocking of cogs as the tape was pulled from the casing and run along the video heads, I loved even more when the movie was finished. Before watching the second movie (and there was always another as video renting was the last gasp of the classic double feature viewing habit), you had to rewind the tape. Instead of frustration at the curse of sitting idly by in a hopelessly pedestrian analog world, this demanded, and inspired, patience. You could always pull the tape out and slap in the next, but rewind fees were usurious and a silly thing to pay for, like the privilege of taking your own money out of the bank.

Better than forced meditation, the rewind offered a quiet break to discuss the movie you’d just watched. Later in the arc of VHS history, you were able to watch broadcast television when the tape in the VCR was stopped. But in the early top-loader days this was not an option. To press stop meant a black screen and silence. And to rewind the tape meant the same but accompanied with a lulling hum from the machine; slow at first, the wheels struggling to pull the tape back right from the end, then picking up speed mid-way. This provided the perfect rhythm for conversation, shocked into silence from the sudden halt of the end credit music, then the slow slog into review.

“So. What’d you think?”

“It was good.”

“Yeah. Yeah, it was.”

“I liked the music. It was by a band called Tangerine Dream.”


“I think that’s their name.”

“No, I mean you liked it? It sounded like elevator music.”

“That’s a little harsh.”

“No, it was just… not what I expected.”

“It does give it a weird feel. Not like any other teen comedy.”

“How many other teen comedies have the lead guy running hookers out of his parent’s house?”

“Point taken.”

Before long, a list of Risky Business virtues were judged greater than the comparative sins of Private School and all were in agreement that Tom Cruise was a better star whereas Matthew Modine was the better actor.

Then technology had to rear its ugly, ergonomically-correct head and ruin the whole thing. Once DVDs arrived we could bid farewell to the double bill (one viewing of the movie plus a cursory trip through the extra features and Jimmy Kimmel was on), to say nothing of the rewind. How, pray tell, is the modern-day film watcher supposed to accurately digest and analyze The Fast and the Furious without this forum for the free exchange of ideas?

Now I don’t want to come off sounding like a linear-minded veranda-squatting crank yelling at these digital kids to get off my damn analog lawn. There are many changes born of technological advance that aren’t soul-sucking harbingers of the coming apocalypse: self-defrosting freezers, universal remotes, online socialising that allows for contact without the messy human component. I propose that advancement simply because we can isn’t always worth the collateral damage. Haven’t we learned our lesson from Frankenstein? No? Of course not, because we haven’t watched it and then taken the time to discuss during the rewind (or at the very least reckon with the more suspect directorial choices made by Kenneth Branagh).

If you need a moral to savour, then I humbly suggest this: time-saving developments are only as good as the activities we undertake with those newly discovered moments. As long as conversation is trumped by nattering, and interaction confused with connection, we’ll never tease out the subtle ambiguities of the Kevin Smith oeuvre and that, ladies and gentleman, is a world I shudder to contemplate.

Bonus feature moral: watch for on-coming trains. They are moving faster than you think.


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