Waves Blown Back: The Golden Age of VHS

Filmmaker Kevin Obsatz ponders slow watching in a streaming age with an essay ranging through Marshall McLuhan, Kubrick, and an education in moving image by way of the neighborhood video store.

1Carolyn Swiszcz, Plaza (detail) 2003, acrylic, ink, collage. Image courtesy of the artist.

“The movie, as much as the alphabet and the printed word, is an aggressive and imperial form that explodes outward into other cultures.”

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, film chapter

“The Western way of life attained centuries since by the rigorous separation and specialization of the senses, with the visual sense atop the hierarchy, is not able to withstand the radio and TV waves that wash about the great visual structure of abstract Individual Man.”

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, television chapter

Video Update was a mediocre, strip-mall video store with a handful of locations in the western suburbs of Minneapolis in the mid-1990s. There was a porn aisle that I never dared to venture into, new releases around the perimeter of the store, and surprisingly well-stocked genre aisles in the middle – action, drama, science fiction, even foreign films.

As an adolescent, I was allowed to bike there, maybe five miles along the frontage roads of Highway 7, and during long, boring summer days, my salvation was “Two for 99-Cents” Tuesdays, with a maximum of six tapes allowed, due back Friday. This seemed aimed specifically at me; at any rate, I didn’t see anyone else loading up plastic bags, three tapes on each handlebar, regularly on Tuesday afternoons.

I had heard these names – I don’t even know where I heard them – Stanley Kubrick, Jean-Luc Godard, Lars Von Trier. Most of what I watched I didn’t understand, but I knew it was worth trying, especially for 50 cents of lawn-mowing money.

When my family upgraded our TV and VCR, I was able to lay claim to the old equipment – a top-loading behemoth of a VCR and a similarly chunky but small television. I spent many hours watching these baffling and often frustrating films, slowly broadening my sense of how one could use moving images and sound to construct other worlds – rooms in other colors, speech in other rhythms.

This was how my world got bigger, before I could drive, before the internet meant more than text on a screen. Video Update played a bigger role in my becoming a filmmaker than occasional family trips to the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Video Update was, somehow, more mine – I had discovered this tiny, shabby, low-fi oasis of culture on my own, in the midst of an otherwise monotonous, uniformly unremarkable landscape.

I’m still working my way through Marshall McLuhan’s groundbreaking 1964 book Understanding Media, which was a cultural phenomenon initially, before going out of fashion, and which has recently received renewed popular attention. Among McLuhan’s contributions to our cultural understanding of how media affects our perception and comprehension of the world was the introduction of a hot-cool spectrum of media engagement. In his formulation, a “hot” medium is information-dense and demands intense and exclusive attention from a passive audience, whereas a “cool” medium is less information-dense, requiring the audience to engage with it more actively, to fill in the gaps.

In McLuhan’s formulation, as I understand it, my Video Update was an overlapping of the two mediums: the “hot” Imperialism of cinema, a canon spread across the globe, reaching even as far as my Shire-like suburb, and the still-new, “cool” mosaic nature of VHS, a low-information medium, participatory in the sense that I was selecting among the hundreds of tile-like boxes on the shelves, my choices based on an image, a few names, and a short, vague paragraph-long description. I was groping in the informational near-dark of that mosaic of boxes, curating my own cinema education, one 50-cent cassette at a time.

Much digital ink has been spilt in recent years over where the internet and streaming media land on McLuhan’s hot-cool spectrum. I’d say streaming video falls definitively on the “cool” end — though the images and sound are theoretically high definition and cinematic, this new content is being made to consume in a wide range of environments. It’s often heavily compressed, sometimes on a tiny phone screen, sometimes on a bus or in an airport… and of course, the audience has control over when and where to dip into or out of contact with any given program, sometimes for one full episode of content, but just as easily for ten hours or ten minutes.

I didn’t make it through all of the movies I rented at Video Update, but I did go through the laborious process of choosing them, hauling them home, and attempting to get through as many as I could between Tuesday and Friday.

These days, of course, all of those movies are theoretically available, along with many thousands more, in the constant, tidal ebb and flow of offerings on streaming services, whether by subscription or Video On Demand (VOD). No doubt, teenagers today are having their own experiences of cultural discovery, similar to mine in some ways and vastly different in others.

In the 1960s, McLuhan’s ideas about the future were distinctly utopian, imagining a global village emerging from the new, more engaged and participatory forms of electronic media. Clearly, that doesn’t seem to be what our Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram-connected world looks like right now. If the problem with a “hot” medium has to do with control of the narrative and manipulation of the audience, then the problem of a “cool,” low-information, participatory medium is the opposite — its potential to drift aimlessly and endlessly with the currents and tides.

It’s important to let go of our utopian ideas that this time, this new technology will somehow make it possible to preserve everything, to make everything accessible to all. We operate always within the finite – whether those confines are the shelf space and catalog budget of a suburban Video Update in 1994, or the expiring streaming contracts of a particular Netflix genre, or a slowly degrading print in a canister in a climate-controlled basement vault.

When I don’t have to make the trip to the video store and choose my six movies to take home, when those same films are instantly accessible anytime and anywhere, my participation shifts decisively from “hot” to “cool.” I watch a few minutes here and there; I save things to a queue that I may never revisit. And I almost invariably choose the easier viewing option — the smaller commitment, the path of least resistance. This may sound counterintuitive in the age of binge-watching, but I think I’m not alone in experiencing the moving image as a much more ambient presence than ever before. I often don’t even sit down to watch. Instead, I’m likely to cook, do dishes, or fold laundry while familiar voices and storylines play in the background, during my second or third lap through the six seasons of the Sopranos, for example.

It’s certainly possible that this has to do with my age and life stage as well. I just don’t have as much emotional energy to spare as I did when I was a single 20-something. But it seems to me that if I hadn’t invested the time and energy in Kubrick, for instance, on video, DVD, and in repertory theaters decades ago, I wouldn’t be able to muster the energy to become familiar with his work now.

I tried to watch Full Metal Jacket on my iPad a few months ago, and the explosive power of the images immediately overwhelmed me. I didn’t last more than 20 minutes. Rather than go through the preparatory ritual — renting a DVD or buying a ticket and popcorn, finding a seat, and settling in, braced for Kubrick-level intensity — streaming the film on a device, I was (unconsciously) calibrated for a cool-media experience, not emotionally prepared for a sudden dive into the vivid and profound insanity of the Vietnam War. Immediately afterward, I probably opened up a pleasant, light, and unchallenging episode of 30 Rock to regain my bearings — a program produced on the verge of the age of streaming, with a rhythm and emotional palette perfectly designed for the new medium.

Though the continually evolving shapes and forms of media remain fascinating to me today, I still, perhaps nostalgically, feel that I was lucky to experience a particular golden age of cinema then, from the 90s to the early 00s – the glorious overlapping of hot and cool that began for me in the video store and continued through the DVD-era of Netflix. It’s already growing hard to remember, but I spent most of a decade on the 3-4 discs-at-a-time plan; in its heyday, Netflix offered probably the largest contiguous, readily accessible collection of feature films ever assembled.

A few weeks ago, I decided to show my class at the University of Minnesota The Five Obstructions, a documentary by Danish filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Jorgen Leth, from 2003, which played all over the world in major festivals and was released widely on DVD. I saw it, initially, at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and then again, several more times, over the following years. I was surprised to find that the documentary doesn’t exist anywhere on the internet. There is a version at Archive.org with Arabic subtitles but none with English subtitles. Amazon.co.uk has it via VOD, but only to customers within the UK. iTunes, Fandor, Hulu… none of the Torrent sites I tried worked either.

Carolyn SwiszczUnidale Mall, St. Paul. Acrylic and rubber stamp (with Wyatt McDill) 2006 – 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

I could hardly believe that a relatively recent film by a major international director could be so nearly out of reach. After fruitlessly searching, I finally gave in and bought… a DVD from Amazon. It came crisp and new in clear-plastic shrink wrap; who knows for how many years it had been sitting on an incrementally dwindling stack in an Amazon warehouse. On my end, I thankfully still have a near-obsolete, towering 2009 Silver Mac Pro that I use for video editing — one of the last models with a built-in DVD tray. The whole experience was alarming – if even such a recent and celebrated film could be virtually out of print, what does that say about the promise of the internet to democratize culture and art, making everything accessible to anyone at any time?

The Five Obstructions is a brilliant film about the creative process, a portrait of a filmmaker, Leth, and a kind of adversarial love story between two artists. In the last ten minutes of the film, Von Trier finally explains himself. He describes Leth as a beautiful bird who has forgotten that he’s a bird; Von Trier has decided to chase him around until he has no choice but to fly away. That metaphor is delivered in voiceover by Leth, who is reading a fictional letter written by Von Trier, in the voice of Leth, to himself… it’s an immensely complex narrative tangle, delivered at the end of a challenging feature-length documentary – and it utterly rewards all of the effort one is required to put into the film, as a viewer, up to that culminating point.

Von Trier’s documentary is just one small example, but it brings home how much is steadily lost in the current churn of culture. Likely every artist, in every medium, has moments like these, private moments experiencing great beauty that is unknown or overlooked by most people, most of the time.

And maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s not good or bad; it just is. But I do think that 50+ years after McLuhan’s Understanding Media, it’s important to let go of our utopian ideas that this time, this technology will somehow make it possible to preserve everything, to make everything accessible to all. We operate always within the finite – whether those confines are the shelf space and catalog budget of a suburban Video Update in 1994, or the expiring streaming contracts of a particular Netflix genre, or a slowly degrading print in a canister in a climate-controlled basement vault.

We each get to decide, as artists and teachers and humans in general, what we want to try to hold onto and pass along into the future. And I think, as surely as Empire is an explosive energy that violently shatters and smothers what stands in its way, that our cool and digital information streams steadily erode the edges of things, changing the shape of the coastline and the landscape, perhaps more slowly and gradually, but no less decisively over time.

And incidentally, if you want to see The Five Obstructions, let me know – I ripped the DVD and uploaded it to Google Drive, and I’d be happy to share the folder with you. I’m pretty sure Lars wouldn’t mind.  

Featured art by Carolyn Swiszcz, used with permission. Her work is included in a forthcoming exhibition in Mankato at Minnesota State University, on view from January 9 – 27, 2017; there is an artist talk and reception at 7 pm January 23. See more of Swiszcz’s paintings via her website or follow her on instagram @carolynswiszcz.

Kevin Obsatz

Kevin Obsatz is a filmmaker and video artist with a BA in Film Production from the University of Southern California and (soon) an MFA in Experimental Media from the University of Minnesota. After a very formal, classical Hollywood film industry education at USC, he was seduced by a ragtag group of underground experimental filmmakers in Paris who taught him how to hand-process Super-8 film and question cinematic authority figures. He has worked on feature films with budgets from $15,000 to $35 …   read more