I hate to get all Grandpa Walton on you sprouts, but I really do think we should stop and spend some time thoughtfully chewing our beards over the news that the VHS format is about to join the dodo and the passenger pigeon on the dusty shelves of the Smithsonian. Talk about the end of an era!
It’s not that VHS was such a great format — it was clearly inferior to Betamax, and another reminder that quality is hardly the measure of commercial success — but as ubergeek Harry Knowles points out, that black plastic rectangle made it possible to buy and own the movies you loved, and that was no small thing. In fact, one could argue that the rise of VHS was almost as significant as the arrival of sound films in the way it transformed mass culture.
Up until the early Eighties, movies were like comets — their arrival was an event, you could only see them at certain times and in certain places, and when they were gone, that was that — until cable television became widespread, you could only hope to catch them chopped up on network TV. If you lived in an area with few theaters, you might not get to see certain flicks at all. (When the Amboy Multiplex, with its ten-count ’em-ten screens, rose from the Raritan River marshes in the early Eighties, I felt like Scrat the Squirrel glimpsing a giant acorn through the gates of heaven.) Movies lived chiefly in one’s memory, helped along by soundtrack albums and still images in magazines. When a particularly treasured film like, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was given a re-release, part of the experience was seeing how the actual film held up to the way you remembered it.
Owning a single movie, let alone a library of them, was a fantasy reserved for wealthy film buffs. Now I take it for granted that I can see just about any movie I want. It’s almost funny to recall how the first video stores required you to pay for membership and access to stocks that could fit comfortably within one medium-sized room. Now I get movies mailed to me.
The ubergeek predicts that DVD will be replaced by Blu-Ray within a much shorter span of time, which may be the case. My chief impetus for getting a DVD player in 2002 was the wish to see the new extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring that Peter Jackson had produced, and it will take a similar jolt to make me shell out for another iteration of technology. I mean, I just got my first home PC in the late-Nineties and my first iPod last week, so I’m not one to stampede out the door whenever the gods of technology exercise their whims.
I do wonder, however, if this stepped-up churning of technology isn’t going to consign many films to the same semi-oblivion that existed before VHS came along. There are already plenty of movies I would love to see again that haven’t made the jump from VHS to DVD, and the replacement of Blu-Ray with some other newfangled thingamadoohickey like digital downloading will only widen that gap.
Whatever happens, though, will only continue the change that began with the VHS tape. That’s where the seismic shift occurred, and everything after that is simply another aftershock and another cultural wave to ride.