by Melissa Strong
VHS tapes are tools for identity formation? Believe it. Browsing the aisles of the video store, selecting movies, and watching them with other weird smart kids shaped the person and movie lover I became. And because they were cutting edge during my adolescence and young adulthood, VHS and other analog technologies shaped my outlook on and continuing experience of the world. I may have been born close to the demarcation zone for millennials, but I firmly identify and relate with Generation X: I cannot be a peer to someone who did not experience the pre-digital era. Do you remember hopefully waiting to hear a favorite song on the radio? Did you attempt to record that song on your boom box as it played? Did you search the video store for a movie you had heard of, read about, and longed to see? And did you try to copy the movie onto a blank VHS tape so you could watch it again? If not, we will never understand each other.
VHS tapes at elementary school slumber parties first made me realize my taste in movies was different from other girls: I struggled to feign their excitement about Grease and The Parent Trap even as I understood that mirroring it was necessary to fitting in. But I didn’t have a VCR at home, and because my sibling commandeered the only TV, I read a lot of books. By middle school, all that reading produced a large vocabulary of words I couldn’t pronounce, dim grasp of adult experiences I couldn’t understand, growing social awkwardness I couldn’t mask, and a vague sense of a literary canon, which went something like this: Greek mythology, Shakespeare, Romantic poets and Victorian novelists, Stephen King.
The notion of canon, a definitive, important body of artistic expression, made me realize that film also had a canon, and I sought out opportunities to educate myself in it through VHS rentals. Almost innately, I understood that “important” and “favorite” were distinct, a mixed blessing now that I spend my days trying to convince undergraduates that important art need not be likeable. However, many of my pre-high school video picks were head scratchers, like Help! (1965 -- why didn’t someone hand me A Hard Day’s Night instead?), An Officer and a Gentleman, and Pink Floyd - The Wall (both 1982), the latter of which I screened for some skater kids. Meanwhile, my mother made irregular, kind attempts to indulge my curiosity and cinematic precociousness. For instance, when the Swedish movie My Life as a Dog (1985, released in the U.S. in 1987) received a series of Academy Award nominations, my mom rented a copy and watched it with me. Like the books I read, My Life as a Dog posed an age-inappropriate challenge to my comprehension. Even as the story of out-of-place 12-year-old Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius) seemed somehow familiar, and it allowed me to experience a subtitled film before turning 11.
Later, I made strides toward embracing my identity as a weird kid by renting B movies with other weird kids. My insufferable high school yearbook quote references one of these, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), along with Jack Kerouac and Liz Phair. This bizarre, campy film showed me and my friends a world beyond our small town far weirder than us. Another of these Weird Kid B movie screenings was Motel Hell (1980), selected from the video store following a mention by the AP US History teacher, whose classroom displayed portraits of the nation’s presidents from George Washington to Bill Clinton. Before class I would scramble onto a desk and adorn the portraits with heart-shaped Post-It notes bearing snarky nicknames for each of those white guys. Mr. Collet let the Post-Its remain all year, and he introduced me to low-budget horror. Motel Hell and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls also opened my eyes to cult movies, exploding my concept of canon and raising questions about which movies are important, and who determines this. B movies further expanded my sense of film genre and style, as well as the formation of my own tastes.
As late as college, I gathered with like-minded weirdos for something we called Cinenacht (why?!), which involved watching Jim Jarmusch movies on VHS. Everyone who came to Cinenacht was male, except me, and we took turns renting the videos. Being the only woman wasn’t a big deal, except that someone had an unneutered dog named Zeus that always dove for my crotch. With the Cinenacht gang, I watched Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (2000) and Dead Man (1995), a favorite of my early 20s. By this time, I had begun making peace with not being like other girls, or, perhaps more accurately, having interests and traits that failed to correspond to gender expectations. Years later, I learned that my personality is more masculine than feminine when a colleague introduced me to the Bem Sex Role Inventory, a measure of sex-typed characteristics developed by sociologist Sandra Bem in 1974 to explore responses to gender norms. But back then, Cinenacht was the Mystery Machine and I was nerdy, bespectacled, turtleneck-wearing Velma, surrounded by Honors Shaggies, Scoobies, and Scrappy Doos. Hot Daphne and Alpha Fred were too busy and too cool to adjust the tracking and collapse into a rotten sofa with the likes of us.
In hindsight, I can say it’s better that way. Perhaps I still look like Velma, but I aspire to be more like Patti Smith. I don’t bother pretending to like the movies most people enjoy. The shared experiences of renting a VHS movie and watching it with other people huddled around the VCR, that communal hearth of the analog era, helped me figure out who I was and wasn’t, determine what movies I like to watch, and formulate a film canon of my own.