Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 18, 2014)
For most viewers, VHS died as a viable video format somewhere around 2000 or so, as DVD came to dominate the market. However, a loyal cadre of fans remained loyal to the format, and we learn about them via a 2013 documentary called Adjust Your Tracking.
Largely anecdotal in nature, Tracking tells us a little about the history of VHS and video stores, the rise of DVD and the decline of VHS, modern-day VHS collectors and reflections on their hobby.
The film features a broad array of participants. We hear from Camp Motion pictures owner Mike Raso, Destroy All Movies!!! writer Zack Carlson, 8mm Madness’s “42nd Street Pete”, Mr. Skin head writer Mike McPadden, Bloody Ape director Keith Crocker, Troma Entertainment’s Lloyd Kaufman, former Fangoria Magazine editor Tony Timpone, Video Violence director Gary Cohen, Everything Is Terrible’s Dimitri Simakis, Katie Ride and Nick Moore, collectors Edward McHale, Nick Rohrbaugh, Jimmy Turri, Chi Orengo, Grant Cornelison, and Eric Fredrich, Cinema Arcana’s Bruce Holecheck, Vulcan Video manager Bryan Connolly, Plan Nine Video’s Dave Walter, “video fiend” Phil Blankenship, Spudic’s Movie Empire’s Eric Spudic, Dormarth’s Horror Review’s Paul “Dormarth” Malleck, HorrorHound writer Matt Moore, Massacre Video’s Louis Justin, Super Video owner Samuel M. Sherman, Cinema Wasteland’s Ken Kish, Movie Madness’s Perry Horton, artist/collector “Putrid”, Video Diary of a Lost Girl director Lindsay Denniberg, Spookies singer Mayhaw Hoons, K and J Horror’s Joe Clark, VHSCollector.com’s Paul Zamarelli, Bradco Video owner Bradley Creanzo, graphic designer Earl Kess, Spectacle Theater’s Mark Freado, Salamone’s Buy and Sell’s Tony Salamone, Briarwood Entertainment’s Justin Rice, and concept artist Devon Whitehead.
Perhaps it’s inappropriate for a guy who’s spent 15-plus years on a site that endorses the highest quality home video formats to review a movie that waxes enthusiastic about VHS. People who focus on picture/audio never liked VHS; they went from laserdisc to DVD to Blu-ray.
That said, I can be awfully nostalgic, so a movie that tends to trot down that path appeals to me. While I never felt fondness for VHS as a format in terms of quality, I do look back affectionately on what a revolution VHS was in the early 80s.
I was 15 when my family got our first VHS machine, and I couldn’t have been more excited. I could watch movies at home – whenever I felt like it! No longer would I have to wait for a theatrical revival or a TV screening. So many decades after the fact – with so much material available so easily – it can be tough to remember how liberating this was. Because of those memories, I can think back on my VHS days with a smile.
I also totally get the collector’s mindset. I’ve always been into collecting; from comic books to baseball cards to action figures to CDs, I’ve constantly pursued some form of collectible since my teen years. Even now, there’s not much I enjoy more than a day at a used CD store as I peruse the racks and look for rare titles. And since I’ve been known to spend $70 apiece on CDs I never want to play, I can’t criticize these people when they pay big bucks for terrible movies on VHS.
With all that as background, I should embrace the folks in Tracking, but unfortunately, I can’t. Part of the problem stems from the film’s semi-inability to explain why these fans feel so obsessed with VHS. A few give off the vibe that they collect certain labels/titles, and others relate that they mostly dig the nostalgia.
However, those moments don’t pop up often, so much of the time, the fans seem to embrace VHS more as a “screw you” to more modern formats. None of them appear to feel that VHS looks/sounds better than DVD or Blu-ray, though we do hear the belief that VHS is more durable. Given how easily VHS tape gets mangled and/or wears down, I disagree; it’s tougher to damage a DVD than the participants believe.
Whatever the case, much of the time it doesn’t seem especially clear why those involved love VHS so much – well, other than the pretentious woman who refers to VHS as organic and “closer to the body” than DVD, which she compares to a skin graft. For the others, some embrace VHS because it offers films not available on DVD, and others seem to simply enjoy the challenge of finding rare titles.
Fair enough – I can relate to those attitudes. Unfortunately, we don’t get a lot of those sorts of explanations, as much of the time the participants appear to dig VHS more out of a sense of hipster smugness. I get a definite vibe that they pursue VHS tapes because they’re out of the mainstream more than anything else.
Some involved here liken the so-called “VHS revival” – which I’m pretty sure doesn’t exist beyond a tiny cult – to the recent resurgence of vinyl records. I do see some similarities, mainly because both focus on the retro hipster side of things, but I comprehend the return of vinyl more easily because vinyl remains a quality form of reproduction. Even as a dedicated CD guy, I recognize that at its best, vinyl sounds better. Getting the format “at its best” is a much bigger challenge, and given the weaker user-friendliness of vinyl, I’ll stick with CDs, but I do feel that a great-sounding record surpasses the quality of a great-sounding CD.
No one appears to believe that about VHS. Well, I suppose someone out there might genuinely believe that a VHS tape looks as good or better than a DVD. Heck, some misbegotten soul – like the woman who prattles about the “organic” nature of VHS – might even prefer VHS visuals to Blu-ray presentations.
But if they exist at all, those people remain in a severe minority – such a tiny group that we don’t hear from them in Tracking. The documentary emphasizes many aspects of the “VHS revival”, but “it looks and sounds great” don’t turn into parts of the discussion.
To be fair, they don’t need to be a rationalization for the folks involved. Again, I get the collector mindset and understand that the hobby isn’t driven by what’s best – it’s about what’s rarest and completing your collection.
When Tracking focuses on that side of the hobby, it works pretty well. I like the stories from VHS hounds who discuss their attempts to find rare tapes – and their occasional victories. I can relate to those tales and find them interesting to hear.
It’s the rest of the self-justification on display that can make Tracking tedious. Perhaps beaten down by constant attacks on their video medium of choice, too many of the participants feel compelled to try to prove to us that they’ve chosen a worthwhile hobby. I’d like to hear less of that and more of the fun involved.
Also, Tracking gives short shrift to the historical side of things. Even though I lived through it, I’d like to learn more about how the home video market evolved. We get a little but those elements come from a fairly anecdotal point of view and don’t tell us a ton.
Most collectors tend to be a bit nuts – present company excepted, of course! – and Tracking follows that path. We get the expected mix of hipsters – the guy whose choice to be interviewed in a kids’ ball pit made me groan – as well as stereotypical “guys who live in their mothers’ basements”. One dope actually compares the way we ignore VHS tapes to the shunning of war veterans!
Would it’ve been hard to find at least a handful of participants who seemed a bit more quote-unquote normal? These guys – and I do mean “guys”, as only two women appear here – tend to come across as such social misfits that it becomes somewhat off-putting. I get the feeling the documentary wants us to embrace the VHS collecting hobby, but too many of the speakers come across as strange for that to happen. Like I said, I know that my own love of collecting makes some of this seem like “pot/kettle/pretty dark” territory, and I suspect a documentary about CD collectors probably wouldn’t provide a radically more socially adept crew, but I still see this as a concern.
All these issues aside, Tracking does have its moments. Unfortunately, it moves in such a ramshackle, unstructured manner that it threatens to alienate the viewer, and the quality of the discussion material doesn’t add as much as I’d like. This becomes a sporadically entertaining piece but that’s about it.