Betamax Just Can’t Catch a Break.
To say that I didn’t care much for VHS is a bit of an understatement. As I became aware of film as an art form, around the age of fourteen or so, I also became aware of the limitations of the video cassette. The biggest problem that I found was improper aspect ratio. In a world where widescreens are the norm, it’s easy to forget that square CRT televisions were hard to format for a widescreen theatrical presentation. Early on, film companies didn’t even bother to adjust for this when it came to cassettes. Laserdisc was the format of preference for film buffs, so movies were just slammed onto cassettes with no real thought given to what was getting cut off. As the years progressed, VHS started using a process called “pan and scan,’ which was at least supposed to capture what needed to be on screen, although this still wasn’t exactly a precise science.
By the late 1990’s, widescreen televisions had started to come to prominence. It was also around this time that I started to find more widescreen/letterboxed films being released on VHS, and the new format of DVD was offering widescreen versions of most everything released. Within a few years DVD’s ruled the roost, and by 2006 new VHS releases stopped. All of this was just fine by me. For some people however, VHS held more sway.
Adjust Your Tracking: The Untold Story of the VHS Collector (directed by Dan Kinem and Levi Peretic) isn’t so much a love letter to the VHS format as it is to collecting in general. A film like this could probably be made about most any collectible, but VHS is a very interesting subject matter due to it’s inherent lack of “marketable” positives. VHS tapes take up a lot of space, are technically deficient compared to DVD’s or Blu-Rays, are laborious to rewind/fast forward, are more prone to wear and tear, etc. So why would anyone want to collect them?
The film posits several ideas, but probably the most obvious is the fact that a lot of VHS movies have never been released in another format. Yes, it might be possible to get some of them in bootleg form, but a large portion of these lost films will probably never be released again, studio films and independents alike. In a world where physical media formats are being phased out in lieu of digital versions, the idea that a studio is going to fork out the money for a new transfer of an b-grade horror movie from the 1970’s becomes less and less likely. This is an unfortunate side effect of the information age.
Nostalgia certainly can’t be ruled out either. Most of the people interviewed for the film, which was released in 2013, are between the ages of 25-40. Even when not made clear by the interviewees, it’s not hard to connect the dots and come to the conclusion that VHS collecting has as much to do with remembering the video culture as much as it has to do with the format itself. This I can relate to. There was a certain something that was lost after video stores started fading into obscurity, first the small stores, and then even Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. As nice as Netflix is, it doesn’t really stack up to finding something new and cool at the video store.
One of the best things about Adjust Your Tracking is that it was crowd-funded, so real collectors are the focal point. This also brings about my only real complaint about the film which is that it spends just a bit too much time covering the actual collections. This may or may not have been an incentive to get people to appear in the film, or to pad out the runtime, but either way the segments drag the pace down as a whole. For someone who collects VHS however, this might be a point of very real pleasure to them, so I won’t hold it against the film.
Overall, Adjust Your Tracking is a well-made movie that offers a glimpse into a collector’s world most people might not even realize exists. Although it didn’t really change my mind about VHS for the most part, I can at least understand the appeal a bit more than I did before, and that’s definitely something. And I really want to check out Tales From the Quadead Zone now.
Until next time…