I recently purchased a new TV. It was a long process. For weeks, I sought my elusive joybox on Craigslist, on Facebook, over the hills and the moors. It didn’t need many bells and whistles, just one essential feature: a VCR. If there was not a VCR actually built into the television, it was useless to me and unwelcome anywhere near my bed.
Finally, I found The One. I drove to Venice and ascended a narrow staircase, following a grizzly Jeffrey Dahmer type into a silent apartment. “Can you test the VCR for me?” I asked him, standing in the doorway of the peculiarly bare hovel he called a living room.
He popped in a Phillies game from 2003. The picture was semi-perfect, the sound simultaneously fuzzy and jangly like loose change. VHS-quality, like mom used to make. I was sold.
“You know, the DVD player works too,” he huffed as we threw the TV into my passenger seat. Its caboose was comically giant, pregnant with mechanical god-knows-what.
I stroked the screen lovingly. “Whatever.” I locked the seat belt snugly around the TV like it was a child. It was time to go home and explore each other.
My videotape collection is lovingly maintained, and my room is my sanctuary for worshipping at the altar of the dying VHS tape. All of my favorites, the classics I grew up with, are represented on the shelf, and there’s nothing I love more than bathing in their light late at night, reveling in their subpar visuals and audio. I love to rewind, I love to fast-forward. The quiet WHRRRRRRR that lets me know that even though I’m jumping three scenes into the future, the continuity within its universe remains intact. And when I press PLAY, it won’t be perfect. It’ll be a rough estimation of the right moment. And isn’t life just like that?
I sit far back on my bed, reveling in the fact that my face isn’t pressed up against a pixelated computer screen. This is luxury. I am the master of all. My palms get sweaty around the remote, my index finger poised on the “TRACKING” button like it’s 1994 again.
There’s just something about video cassettes. It’s the structure of them, the fact that they’re so vulnerable and OPEN. Just pull on the upper ridge hard enough and the plastic snaps will break, forever rendering the tape useless. You can even pull the actual TAPE out. It makes me feel closer to 1923 than 2013. It’s not like you can see every frame of the movie on the tape itself – it’s magnetic, all black, mysterious – but someone spent time lovingly winding it around the little plastic wheels so it unspools correctly. Mess with the structural integrity of the VHS and your tape is fucked forever. There’s no fixing it once you’ve diddled with the natural order of the tape. It’s simple but so deceptively complex.
And there’s the actual moment of pushing the tape into the VCR. I once read a Buzzfeed article about everyday things that are better than sex, and was dismayed not to find VCR-ing on the list. You slot the cassette in, wheel side down. Push it through the perfectly formed rectangle opening…is this right? Will it work? And then the internal mechanism kicks in, biting down and hugging your tape with its warm mechanical mouth. The VCR draws the tape in smoothly and automatically. It doesn’t need your help anymore. It’ll take it from here.
If you’ve recently purchased your VHS from a thrift store, or have rented it from the library, there’s also a brief moment of excitement. Will the tape start from the very beginning? A random point in the middle, maybe from the second right after a topless scene? Or will it resume from mid-credits, because the last person to touch this tape was an asshole and knows not to lay that tape down, flip it and reverse it.
And don’t even get me started on the Coming Attractions. We all know that’s the best part of watching any VHS. It’s one of the only modes of media consumption that contextualizes the work FOR you. If you feel like watching The Lion King, you get to experience delightful snippets of all other family-friendly entertainment that came out in 1994-1995. For a few brief moments, you get to remember what film trailers used to sound like and how much ridiculous plot exposition was involved (“It’s a story of a mermaid…who just wanted to be Part of Your World. A flounder and a crab are her best friends, and she falls in love with a prince…even without a VOICE!”). With the Coming Attractions, you get a total and complete picture of the bygone era you’re about to experience.
And then, when the movie is over, there’s even BUILT IN TIME for you to sit back and process what you’ve just watched (for the seventeenth time). You press STOP and then REWIND and let the sweet siren song of the rapidly cycling tape lull you into relaxation for the next minute and a half. Lest you fall asleep, there’s a jarring CLICK that lets you know the tape is now ready for a re-watch. And then the EJECT button, oh the beautiful EJECT button. One smooth motion and your VHS is served out to you, ready for the cozy embrace of its snug little box. What an experience. And I’m so practiced. It’s a multi-step, cleanly executed ritual.
TL;DR: I’m obsessed with VHS tapes and VCRs and have a hard time making human connections in a modern world.