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Video Retro

Renting a headspace

By Annalee Newitz

THE VIDEOCASSETTE is dead. Now it's all about DVD and broadband and streaming video and various types of digital multimedia files. Indeed, I own an iMac, which is, in all practicality, merely a multimedia entertainment device (Watch DVDs! Make movies! Listen to Internet radio!). Therefore I'm part of the problem, such as it is--I'm helping to destroy the videocassette as the method by which we preserve our filmed past.

It makes me terribly sad because I've spent years building up a bizarre and noteworthy collection of videos: I have all the Godzillas (including the 1990s ones); the requisite Herschell Gordon Lewis and Ted V. Mikels flicks; and assorted science fiction/horror trash like Eve of Destruction, XTRO, Society (the one directed by Brian Yuzna, a supergenius), Quatermass and the Pit, and Frankenhooker. I have all the usual mainstream crap, too, like Monty Python and Fried Green Tomatoes and Clockwork Orange.

And I once emulated a character from the movie Clerks, falling on my knees and gazing worshipfully at racks of cult retro videos, when I first discovered my local video rental store, Le Video (www.levideo.com), which for some celestial reason appears to have been stocked by people whose tastes are frighteningly similar to my own.

My point is that my videocassettes (and Le Video's) are doomed to become incomprehensible items from a prehistoric media infrastructure: first falling slowly out of circulation, then being ridiculed, and finally coming to be handled reverentially by thrifters and museum curators 20 years from now.

Although I watch The God and Devil Show on www.entertaindom.com, and the Goddamn George Liquor Show (www.spumco.com) and various other video files secreted to my account by bandits, I'm feeling pre-emptive video nostalgia. The iMac is still not the best medium for film. (It's not even the best medium for the web!) And you can't fast-forward on a DVD in quite the same satisfying way, with a barely suppressed shriek of spinning tape issuing alarmingly from your overtaxed VCR.

I'm doing that stubborn, old fashioned thing which I always hate in print fetishist types--you know, the people who keep saying, "We'll never have books online. Printed pages are part of the reading process, part of the experience of the written word! Plus, how can you read an online book in the bathroom?" First of all, duh, we're going to have books online. And as for the bathroom question--Hello? Can you spell P-D-A?

It may seem that my bookshelves are taking over my home in the same way that outer-space fungus takes over Stephen King's body in Creepshow, but I don't really miss books. That is, I don't imagine I'll miss them when they stop being so ubiquitous. And I'm enjoying this interim media phase, where I can go online to www.AAN.com for out-of-print oddities like David Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself. It's almost as if I'm downloading the book and just printing it out, except for the part where I pay postage.

On a more general level, I wonder about what will happen to all the movies that have been preserved and distributed on video. So many small distributors--like the ones who deal with specialty stores such as Le Video--have transferred rare or unique films onto video, and that's the only format in which they're available to the public. Sure, distribution on the web is going to be easier than making Tang. But that doesn't negate the fact that when we move to a new mode of preserving film, we lose a lot of movies in the process. Thousands of films made in the early 20th century were destroyed. How many videos will be destroyed, and our memories of the past with them?

I suppose I could say a similar thing about books, but I'm the spawn of a multimedia age. Seeing a 1970s movie is, to me, more like visiting the past than reading a book from the same period. I want to hear the accents of another time, see the facial gestures that go with someone saying, "Hey, foxy!" I want to see the glimmering details of a 1920s sheath dress, the spit curls, the hair pomade and straw hats. When we lose video, we lose some of that, bit by bit. What gets preserved are the "big" films, the mainstream ones, and of course some lucky rarities that survive nestled in archives, libraries, museums.

But I doubt anyone will archive my video of XTRO. I wonder if it will die with me.


Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who worships Frank Hennenlotter. She can be reached at video@techsploitation.com.

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From the October 19-25, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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