Nostalgia is a tough thing. If you enjoy the past too much you can get stuck there. At the same what is our life but a collection of memories both old and new? How do we find balance? It is in having these sorts of inner dialogues that one realizes just how important the past is. And for many people 30 (maybe 25) and up, the VCR was a crucial part of those memories. It was how we first experienced "home video." How we allowed our minds to be soaked in this wonderful thing called movies that would help shape the people we would grow up to be.
The VCR and VHS in general had a good run. Brought to market in the 1970s, the VCR would spawn the need for video stores. You remember them, those places where videocassettes lined the shelves and there was also that "special room" or section where the adult films resided. Yes, millennials, it used to be a lot of work getting to see porn that is now a mere click away.
Those little boxes played movies were standard home fare in the 1980s. When the price point went down this allowed us to have more than one VCR. More than one VCR meant more movies, which also meant the ability to copy movies (rental stores even sold videotapes while decrying piracy), which also meant the ability to edit movies as long as you didn't mind your cuts looking kinda weird and wavy.
Even into the 1990s, the VCR held on despite the arrival of DVD players and their obvious superior quality. In fact, it wasn't until the early 2000s that VCRs took their biggest hit. It was in 2003 that DVD rentals finally overtook videocassette rentals. In 2007, the big VCR makers finally decided to throw in the towel on the US market. However, it wasn't until very recently (and I mean within the last week or so) that Funai, the last company making VCRs, halted production. Wow, think about that. With nearly four decades for its lifespan, it is no surprise that VCRs inherit a special place in many of our hearts. As a result, I am giving you '9 Things I miss About The VCR'.
That Comforting Sound of Inserting the Tape
Remember that noise? It was almost as like a suction cup finally attaching itself to a preferred service. In many ways it was like your VCR was a pet and that noise was its way of thanking you for a treat. I have no research with which to back this up, but in some ways could this tiny, magical electronic device had helped spur on more electronic/interactive toys in the kids market. Might the VCR be the predecessor to the Furby or the Amazon Echo? DVD's make a similar noise but it's not the same. The VCR had a warmth to it. It occupied a centralized place in our homes. The DVD player was like a land developer entering this sacred zone and claiming eminent domain and "progress."
It was an All-In-One Player/Editor
In today's world, you buy a cellphone and with a few apps you have a veritable film studio in your pocket. In the 1980s, this wasn't the case by a long shot. However, if you had a video camera and two VCRs, you essentially had a movie studio. A crude movie studio but back then you took what you were given and didn't feel entitled to more. The cuts were often weird and wavy. Many of us young Speilbergs would refer to them as a glitch. However, this could be fixed, and if you spent a little more money, or used a camcorder (remember how big they used to be?), the dreaded glitch could be a thing of the past. Also, my parents bought a VCR in the very early 80s. This is thing had incredibly robust features. One of them being the ability to overdub audio! Yes, we could actually edit our movies and add narration and audio. We could even change audio on existing movies. Like everything, early VCRs were a bit more pricey. In order to make them ubiquitous, the VCR makers released stripped down versions at lower prices. Yes, this messed with our ability to do certain tricks, but it also meant we could have a lot more VCRs in our homes.
The Tracking Knob
Often times, when watching movies on videotape, the picture would often get weird and even fuzzy. Well, all you had to do was go over to the tracking knob, turn it a little bit, and viola! Your picture went back to normal. This even applied to old tapes that you had watched a bunch of times. Make no mistake, the tracking knob didn't always do to the trick. When it did, though, it was a wonderful moment. Okay, I will concede that DVDs, Blu-ray discs and streaming devices eliminated the need for this. At the same time, when those discs have issues it is a much bigger deal. Lets say you're watching a DVD or Blu-ray and a movie starts to skip. Well, you've got to clean it and hope that that does the trick. Well, if you're in the middle of a movie that can really take you out of the story. If you're streaming something from Netflix and your connection becomes slow for whatever reason, your picture can be highly pixilated, or worse, not play at all. The tracking knob allowed you to solve problems in real time WITHOUT having to turn off the movie.
I recently found a VCR in my home. It had been in a box for years. There were books on top of it, video cassettes on top of it, shoes... you name it this thing was buried. This little unit had been in hibernation for well over a decade. Well, you never would have known it by how it performed when I plugged it in. The picture was warm and rich. The tape happened to be widescreen and not full screen (truthfully, I never really cared about such trivialities until I started watching DVDs). Now, I know, a DVD or Blu-ray player would've worked as well. However, we expect it to. We aren't surprised by DVDs in the same way we were by VHS tapes. I could go into how, in many ways, the videocassette packaging was better than that if DVDs and Blu-rays, but I will save that rant for another article. I miss knowing that my VCR was always seemingly seconds from breaking down or eating a video cassette... and it never happened.
As I mentioned, when VCRs first came on the scene they had a high price point. The big reason for this was all the bells and whistles these units came packaged with. As the VCR's life continued, as it matured, you could get very solid, very reliable VCRs player from companies like Daewood (I have a player that I still use to digitize tapes), the aforementioned Funai, Ampex, etc. This was awesome as it allowed younger people to have their own entertainment centers. Even better, it allowed nascent filmmakers like myself to have an editing console. I could pre-visualize the movie in a rough form, before going in and paying top dollar to edit on an AVID or other digital machine. The best part? If the VCR crapped out (and we've all had a VCR that simply gave up and then wouldn't eject an important tape), it wasn't that expensive to replace it. And, since there weren't a ton of bells and whistles, the workflow or movie watching went on nearly seamlessly.
The ability to connect VCRs to other VCRs was great for editing; among other things. However, what connecting VCRs to each other really allowed us budding Pauline Kael's to do was build up our film libraries. A lot of the people that came of age with the VCR, also had a lot of time on their hands. We could watch movie after movie without giving a thought to the real world. In fact, we had enough to time to watch a movie more than once and really examine it. It was almost like living in a parallel universe. Before every movie we would see a disclaimer that copying movies was a crime. We were informed that we had rented the movie, and that we weren't allowed to play or show the movie, outside of our homes, in any way. Yet, video stores sold both video players and tapes. I remember hearing people in the store discussing how they were going to rent a title, and in the same breath, they would talk about how they were going to copy it. I know all of this is moot point as VCRs are gone, tapes are gone, and everybody streams everything now anyway. However, for a long while, the ability to self generate your own movie collection in a very simple way (before that pesky internet thing came along), was a thing to marvel at.
VCP's Weren't Bad Either
Not a lot of people remember Video Cassette Players. They simply think that they are VCRs under a different name. Well, that couldn't be further from the truth. VCP's only played video tapes. Yes, you read that right. They didn't record or do anything else. So why would I miss them? Well, one showed up in my parents home one day and it resided there for DECADES. It kept going and going. I played countless video tapes off of that thing. In edition to that, when I was editing a documentary, before spending a nickel at digital facility, I used the VCP to whittle down 20 hours of footage to 50 minutes. I played the tapes and then recorded the clips I needed onto another VCR. As I said, these things were more barebones than even the most barebones VCR. However, VCPs were durable and when called on to do a job, I found that they did it until they just couldn't anymore.
Being a VHS Pirate was Fun
Back in those days piracy was fun and it didn't destroy an entire industry. Yes, it was bad to copy tapes but ultimately it was harmless. I say that because it never really stopped me, or anybody I knew, from buying a tape (or even a DVD if we really wanted it). Today, piracy is just button pushing. Sure, you get what you want, but you don't get the feeling of physical satisfaction. The feeling of holding a tape in your hand. That pride of adding that tape to your collection and just beaming at the monolithic collection you were creating. Then, in 1983 Macrovision was created and this became a game changer. This copy protection technology was said to stop pirates from being able to duplicate tapes. Sometimes this happened and sometimes it didn't. Suddenly, copying tapes became like Russian roulette. Sometimes you would dub a tape and get a copy of the movie you sought. Other times you would dub a tape and get nothing for your troubles bit a mass of gray fog. If you were really a stickler for video quality (and believe it or not, there are people that actually thought they could preserve their tapes), you would throw away that used tape and try and use another one. I never tried to bypass Macrovision. Once I saw it didn't work, I basically gave up. However, I am sure that there had to be a hack for it!
The Term 'Tape It' and SP, EP or SLP
We Say "DVR it" but Sometimes We still Say "Tape It". Sure. It's dead but will VCR's really ever die? The saddest part of talking about why I miss VCRs is that, instead of feeling nostalgic, I am saddened as I am reminded about the VCR's "passing." I tell myself to "tape" a show and then I have to remind myself that tape has headed out to pasture long ago. At the same time, I am reminded of the DVR's versatility. Sure, it can do things that the makers of the VCR never dreamed of it doing. However, even in their most bare-boned state, the VCR was quite a marvelous recording device. Remember the ability to record in SP, EP or SLP? I had countless arguments with people that never understood that even if you had an asset that was recorded in SLP, trying to record it in SP wasn't going to improve the quality. Garbage in, garbage out, right? So we no longer "tape" movies. We no longer "dub" them. Yes, the technology today is better, but when things go wrong in the digital realm (and they do), we are quickly reminded of how much easier these problems were to fix in the analog era. Unless the our VCR completely ate our videotape...