VHS Nostalgia Take Two: A Response to Topless Robot

I already wrote about my feelings towards VHS nostalgia, but I saw an article earlier today that I do feel needs to be responded to in some way.

The article was posted on a site called Topless Robot. I always thought a topless robot would have the same effect as opening the hood on your car, but then what do I know? The article details the “top ten reasons why VHS is better than Netflix.” And unlike those quaint buzzfeed lists that are meant to elicit nostalgia rather than discuss anything, it raises some good points.

Indeed, I must now concede that there are three benefits that VHS has over Netflix:

1) It is far easier to record material with a VHS than it is with current Blu Ray players. It is possible to store stuff in the DVR, granted, but this is not a portable object that can then be burned to disc.

2) They are a very low cost alternative to Blu Rays. You want be able to get any sort of new release but many films are still available on VHS, including the required viewing that everyone should have seen. In fact…

3) There are some things that never received a DVD or Blu Ray release, and likely never will be. This isn’t just minor cult stuff either. The Beatles’ Let it Be has never made it past VHS and neither has  Ridley Scott’s 1492. And the original theatrical cuts of Star Wars are more commonly available on VHS than they are on DVD. And the Star Wars Blu Ray contains even more alterations.

And that’s about it. I would be foolish to try to undermine VHS’ effect on film and film fandom. It is an important artifact. But the keyword in that statement is “artifact.” It’s outdated and unnecessary for the modern viewer. But that’s not stopping people like “Replicants without Shirts.” They wax nostalgic for tapes that look like garbage and are about as brittle as the skeletal structure of a man with Lobstein Syndrome.

So, I will be taking each of the points separately and responding to them in turn.

1. They’re Easier to Program

“VCRs required a small amount of planning (you had to check your local listings), and a simple matter of programming the time, the date, and the channel. You were in control…I got my own VCR to stop flashing “12:00″ really quick. It was easy.”

Response: Well, apparently the writer missed the experience with VCRs I had, where “programming a VCR” was akin to brain surgery and the flashing time was the norm rather than the exception.

Above: A form of torture as outlined by the Geneva Convention

It may be that today’s machines are more difficult to program, but that has more to do with the fact that people today are more tech savvy than they were when VCRs were released. VCRs could be easier to program than a Blu Ray player, but that is not necessarily a benefit.

After all, what can today’s machines do? They can connect wirelessly to the internet and stream programs themselves. They can connect to hard drives and even our laptops. They are one stop entertainment systems. It would have taken five very expensive machines to do in the ’90s what a Blu Ray player can do now. That may make it harder to program, but at the same time, it means that people are able to access technology at a lower cost than was previously available. This is a good thing.

2. They’re Easier to Edit

“I miss the magic of the mix tape. Back in high school, I didn’t have cable TV. I still don’t. Over the years, several concerned friends – worried that I was missing quality programming on MTV or the Cartoon Network – began making 6-hour mix tapes for me, crammed full of a diverse sampling of all their own favorite shows and music videos. Those tapes were great. ”

Response: We still have these today. They are called “YouTube Playlists.”

This argument is the sign of arguments to come. It has less to do with the benefit of the medium and more to do with childhood memories. Yes, tapes were an important way to spread diverse programming suited to individual tastes.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have that same capability now. It just means that we have a different format. And that format is platforms like YouTube, which can reach far more people than a single tape. How could the concept of “viral” exist in the days of VHS? The most we had was America’s Funniest Home Videos. It was a dark and dreary time.

Not even “The Sag” could help us.

So now, when people talk about their favorite video clips, they can be seen immediately by a large group of people. It’s personal, yes, but at the same time is far more of a unifying thing

3. You Could Bring It to a Friend’s House

“A huge advantage VCRs had over modern technologies was their mere modularity. You could tape something off of the TV – or you could just own a feature film on VHS – and you could slip it into your backpack and ride your bike over to a friend’s house where you could watch it together. ”

Response: I would like to introduce you to my little friend. I call him Pickles.

 

Pickles is hard core. You don’t mess with Pickles.

Now I’d like to introduce you to my other friend, Mr. Thumb Drive.

“Sup?”

 

Mr. Thumb Drive is great. He’s portable, lightweight, and holds a lot of files. Including video files, such as episodes of old shows you want to watch on your laptop or videos you might want to show your friend. In fact, he holds hours.

Most tapes could only hold two hours. That’s four episodes of a traditional sitcom if you’re lucky.

See, storage capacity has increased in vastly smaller material items. So, there is no advantage to VHS for this.

Finally I noticed this little argument: “It was also the best way to share porn.”

Hmm. I’m just going leave this little ditty here (Notice how I don’t have to bike over to your house to show it to you?) and let it speak for itself.

4. Finite Space = More TV

“I don’t know a single person who has watched everything in their Netflix queue…VHS tapes, when used in SLP mode, could record 6 hours of video, tops. This forced you, dear viewer, to be stingy and more selective. Rather than just passively recording anything you may want to watch at some point, you had to be more active about what you definitely wanted to keep.”

Response: OK, this is true. I can speak from personal experience. It’s a natural outgrowth of having all these choices. Apparently the average Netflix subscriber spends one hour and 44 minutes a day watching Netflix. That’s certainly not enough time to get through everything in the queue. (Mine currently contains 264 titles.)

But so what?

One of the big things about finite space is you have to sacrifice something to make room for something. This means that tapes would have to be reused; not just by home viewers, but by TV broadcasters in the early days. Ask Doctor Who fans how well that worked out.

Netflix doesn’t have that issue. If you want to watch something, it’s there. If you want to add something to your queue, you don’t need to remove anything else. Considering most video stores had a three-rental limit and often got rid of their stock, this is obviously the preferred choice.

5. Tapes Last Longer

“A VHS tape sits on a shelf. It just sits there. It doesn’t require tech upgrades, it doesn’t need to be ported over into a new cataloging system, and it doesn’t need to be meticulously categorized just to be located. It’s always on that shelf. For as long as you keep it there. As tech speeds up, more and more is becoming impermanent. The VHS tape would last for a good 15, 20 years. I have tapes from the 1980s that are still in perfect working order. How else could I still view “The Playgirl Morning Workout?” VHS tapes, despite their reputation, last a long time and look fine.”

Response: Oh, my friend.

Perhaps you’ve forgotten about situations like this one?

Yes, the physical tape could last a long time. But by no means does that save the magnetic tape. It degraded. It was brittle. As you rewound it, you had to You would have to fight the tracking on it CONSTANTLY. And it looked washed out compared to watching the film in theaters. This is especially true about VHS tapes on modern high def TVs.

Now, I do agree that it’s important to have some sort of physical back up for things. After all, hard drives can crash and the internet can go out. Tapes do accomplish this task. But that doesn’t mean that your choices are “bad digital file versus indestructible object.” In the long run, tapes are not going to work for you.

Also, note who in the video he had to rig his VCR up to an old TV? That’s important. The problem isn’t so much with the tape degrading. The problem is that the technology used to play them either changes or breaks. What good is a tape if you have nothing to play it on?

6. You Can Pick Up Where You Left Off

“This has always been a pet peeve of mine when dealing with streaming technologies, YouTube, DVDs and Blu-rays: there’s no way to turn off a show you’re watching, and then pick up right where you left off a day later…the disc formats are especially bad because I have to wade through the FBI logos and previews all over again, then find the menu screen, then select the scene I want, or just fast forward to where I was.”

Response: OK, this one confuses me. It’s definitely possible to do that with discs. My Blu Ray player leaves DVDs off exactly where I want them to be. Criterion Collection Blu Rays have the bookmark feature built in. Ditto Twilight Time. And Ditto Netflix. This is actually the first complaint I’ve heard about someone who wasn’t able to pick something up with Netflix.

“Would you like to continue watching? Warning: trick question.”

Besides, and I think you mention it later, discs let you skip scenes and watch your favorite moments. It’s kind of like how CDs allowed you to skip to your favorite songs. And TV? You can select which episode you want to watch without memorizing a time code. Discs have given people more control over the viewing, not less.

By the way, there is a “skip chapter” option if you want to skip those FBI warnings.

7. Hipster Cred

“VCRs – especially the old top-loading models – just look cool. They are gigantic robotic boxes that look like they can do some real effing damage. Like something designed to be chucked through the window of a passing truck. They are hefty and awesome. Substantial. What do we have now? Thin black planks with glowing blue lights on them?”

Response: Well, a John Deere tractor looks far heftier than a Jaguar. Should we get rid of luxury cars in favor of farm equipment?

How something looks is not particularly relevant. Remember Mr. Thumb Drive?

“Wanna come chill?”

It can be stepped on, but it can hold far more video than VHS. It works better at holding things than VHS. The size and heft does not matter.

8. They’re So Much Easier

“I admire the poetic simplicity of the VCR. There are shows on constantly. You choose a few you want to see. You tape them. You watch them whenever you want. There’s less visual noise to sort through. Less garbage. It’s just you and a machine.”

Response: You can carry videos on your phone. It takes a few finger swipes and  you’re good to go. And you can carry it around. What more do you want?

Now, it may seem less difficult to us. But at the time, VCRs were considered the cutting edge. We sort of went over this already. They were introduced before many homes had the internet. Things may be more complicated now, but the advantage is that we have all of this great stuff that would have seemed like science fiction a few years ago. Pencil and paper is less complicated than the printing press, but do you want to undo human civilization?

Thag Like Club. Club Simple. No Need Nothing After Club.

 

9. Tapes Don’t Rat On You to the Robots

“I’m increasingly distressed by the way online ads seem to know where I am. Or at least where my computer is. I don’t see blanket ads for national services as much as I do very specific ads based on what I type into Facebook, look at on Amazon, or merely peruse in my idle hours. There is a chip in my computer that reports me back to the advertising robots 24 hours a day.”

Response: OK, I admit this is a big problem. In the age of Saint Snowden, we are all wary of the robots and what is happening to our data.

“I died for your sins.”

But here’s the problem with this argument, and it goes back to something you said about specialized taste.

This data is being used to help build recommendations. It helps you find something new that you might not have known about before. It has to do so based on what you’ve rated and what you’ve watched.

Now, this can be used for very poor things and I think Netflix is going to have to change their methods to help reassure consumers. Everyone well. But then this is not something that was unique to Netflix. Do you think hipster video store clerks don’t judge you based on your choices?

10. Video Stores Are Awesome

“Netflix is coy about how many titles they have, although many reports put them somewhere in the 3,000 – 5,000 range. Some are as high as 9,000. My local video stores have 40,000 apiece. And while streaming services claim to have everything, they only specialize in the popular stuff, really. Heaven help you if you want something unpopular, obscure or recently canceled.”

Response: First off, I have no idea where those numbers come from. They are not cited in the story. Answers lists the number as being a little over 10,000. It’s probably going to be very difficult to tell since the catalog is constantly changing.

But I doubt the numbers you give. You say you have 40,000 at your local video stores? Are they TARDISes?

“Wait to you see all the stuff behind the bearded curtains.”

I grew up near a Blockbuster. It was about ten minutes or so from my house. And they NEVER stocked anything obscure or interesting. They did have a good “classics” section, but that eventually went by the wayside. There was also a Hollywood video filled with dopey staff that thought Citizen Kane was a seasonal candy item. And even if you wanted something, it might not be there next week. Room was made for the newer stuff, and there were some things you would never find at a major video store.

Actually, that brings me to my next point. I can summarize it in nine words:

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.

This is one of the greatest films of the ’80s. It was a brilliant satire about how culture had been replaced by mass marketed ideas that were brutish and eager to take anything over however they could. It would have hit a note with the executives of Blockbuster.

But they wouldn’t stock it. Why? Because the film was slapped with an NC-17 rating. So Blockbuster customers were denied a great film thanks to images Helen Mirren’s boobs.

Sorry, Blockbuster customers. This is not for the likes of you.

But you know who does have it? That’s right. Netflix. You can watch Dumbledore verbally abuse his restaurant customers any time you wish. You can watch documentaries that would have been impossible to find at Blockbuster. There was even a huge, huge scandal back in the day over the fact that Pulp Fiction in widescreen would not be stocked by Blockbuster. But it’s on Netflix.

There are advantages and disadvantages to any platform. People who grew up with VHS tapes associate them with a simpler time. That’s normal. But that does not make tapes better. Netflix’s flaws do not make it worse. VHS is a format whose time has come and gone. And I wouldn’t go back to it for anything.

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