A Videocassette Is Also A Time Capsule

I have a Videocassette Recorder hooked up to my television even in 2010, and I pick old videocassettes up for a quarter at garage sales and whatnot. You can only find older films on videocassette these days, but I don’t mind. Putting the film into a media device that will actually caress the medium instead of bombing it with amplified light makes one nostalgic. Nostalgic enough to use “caress the medium” instead of tangling the tape.

Please keep me from going too deeply into the you have to savor the experience of the entirety sort of riff. I don’t don a special jacket or pour cognac to watch a film. But sometimes the experience can throw you back in surprising ways.

Tonight I watched The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear. I’m not sure if I’d ever seen the whole thing before, as the plot hadn’t stuck with me. So I put in the videocassette and was transported to different places. Not by the magic of Hollywood, but by my own experiences and memories.

The first coming attraction on this Paramount tape was for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. “I just watched that,” I thought. Well, not just. I watched it as part of a proto-bachelor weekend marathon. It was January 2007, and I was painting bedrooms in the house to accommodate my forthcoming son. My mother came in the morning to help me tape, I painted in the afternoons, and at night I watched the Star Trek films in order. January 2007 was a long, long time ago, but watching the videocassette (of course) Star Trek films didn’t seem like long ago at all.

Then the videocassette offered a preview of Regarding Henry. Harrison Ford had a pretty unlined face once. I saw the film on cable, once, at least part of it. This didn’t do much for me.

Finally, the last “coming attraction” was an advertisement for buying used videocassettes at the video store. Once, and you might not remember this, children, movies came out on videocassettes a couple months after the theatrical run closed. However, these initial offerings of videocassettes were priced for the video store, who would then rent it to you. The rental store price was something like $90, so typically for a couple months the movie was only available at video stores. After a set amount of time, the price dropped to the consumer price and you could buy a movie for $20-30.

Digression time: I once bought a copy of The Adventures of Milo and Otis for a girl at the rental price, a week’s wages almost for me. I had to special order it at Suncoast because they didn’t stock movies at the video store price. Obviously, it didn’t work out with the girl, and now that I have children, I have bought a copy of the videocassette for them. Which means I’ve paid an average price of $45.12 for these video cassettes. End digression.

So Paramount threw a sop to video stores by putting an actual commercial on the video to encourage its viewers to make their videocassette purchases of the excess rental stock at video stores. My goodness, I realize you can still buy used videocassettes at rental venues, but this is one dated commercial. One almost expects to see Pepsis and jets.

And then into the film. It’s set in the George H.W. Bush era. For those of you who cannot recollect the plot, like me in a week, it deals with Bush seeking the advice of a scientist to help determine the nation’s energy policy. Knowing that the scientist will espouse fluorescent light bulbs and solar and wind power, Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big Nuclear kidnap the fellow and replace him with a stand-in who will direct the government to, I don’t know, drill baby drill or something.

You know what? In 1991, that might have been funny. The bad guys were obvious caricatures, and the proposals espoused by the right-thinking people in a slapstick film weren’t the law of the land. But now that we’re 19 years later and we’ve got low flush toilets to go with the established media conventional wisdom that the people who work in the profitable segments of the energy industry are these caricatures, it just isn’t funny.

But the political considerations and the plot of the film aside, simply watching the videocassette takes me back to a number of places and times beyond the content of the film. I don’t get that with fresh DVDs—won’t until 2025 at the earliest—and not from things I record digitally. But then I am an old schooler, someone who looks for that nostalgic kick in everything.