In 1971, the Video Home System (VHS) was just a dream in the minds of Yuma Shiraishi and Shizuo Takano at the Victor Company of Japan. Yet the engineers were already considering the impact home entertainment could have in forging what they called “the information society.” Affordable equipment radically lowered the bar of entry to movie production. Independent and avant garde film found niche audiences through networks of local video rental stores. The stores were a weekly ritual for many families and a gathering place for community.
This week, Alamo Drafthouse in Raleigh celebrates the transformative technology and the culture it bore with VHStival. At the four-day video party, attendees can flip through the Raleigh Video Vortex's more than 75,000 VHS tapes, bring in their own for trading, and enjoy a deep cut of VHS with screenings ranging from classics like “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” to the stranger fringes of film like “Linnea Quigley’s Horror Workout.”
Host Frank Stasio is joined by Skip Elsheimer and Josh Schafer of the Alamo Drafthouse in a discussion about VHS rental culture, technology’s role in fostering independent film, and why people can just not get enough of home videos. VHStival runs Thursday, Aug. 29 through Sunday, Sept. 1.
Josh Schafer on coming of age with VHS:
I grew up with VHS. It's just always been in my life. As I was growing up, I was just a poor teenager, and I was trying to expand my film collection, and VHS was dirt cheap. I love weird movies, and I just found out that there were so many weird movies that were just available on VHS. So I decided to start a zine called “Lunchmeat” and just write about it. And 10 years later, I have found this incredible culture that's very vibrant, alive and passionate.
Josh Schafer on lowering the price of movie production:
You could make a film with $400, put it in some artwork, and then automatically, almost, it could be in your local video store. People could see your film, and then you're a real life filmmaker. And you can speak to the community around there, because they can go into this video store and rent your film … It totally changed the way films were made.
Skip Elsheimer on the culture of trading and stealing VHS:
There was a tape trader culture as well where people would make dub copies of things and distribute it to friends. One of the films that we're going to be showing — “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” — is an example of that where somebody shot it for cable access and then made a dub of it, and then somebody made two dubs of it, and somebody made four dubs of it. And then it got this distribution. I mean, you could say “South Park” got distributed the same way. Initially, the first “South Park” was dubbed on VHS numerous times and spread across the nation.
Josh Schafer on the importance of video rental stores:
I want to help keep video stores alive because I think it is a great piece of community — something that should never go away for film lovers, for people that just want to come in and just explore film. It's such a wonderful place because ... It's not an algorithm. It's not some computer. There's no agenda. You go in there, and you can be very exploratory. And there's people around there that love film and just want to talk to you about film and just want to help you find the movies you want to see or movies you haven't seen or just have discussions about film culture. I think it's just a really cool atmosphere, and it's something that's really beautiful.
Video editing by Josie Taris from materials provided by Video Vortex.