by Jessie “VHJess” Landivar-Prescott
For me, trying to remember anything (anything at all) is like trying to open one of those slightly slitted pistachio shells. You know what I’m talking about. Your fingernail may be determined AF but there’s no way you’re going to get that ‘lil nut out. Fellow Moviejawners, use this metaphor of close victory with certain defeat as my visual confession for not remembering exactly what was my first VHS tape. However, as my memory comes close enough, the first one that pops into mind is The Legend of Billie Jean, 1985, dir. Matthew Robbins.
As a result of growing up in the 80s and being a teen in the 90s, I live in the space where highbrow and lowbrow art meet, too close in proximity to avoid saying “Hi” to one another. So it gives me no compunction to rudely shout that this movie was, is, and forever will be one of my most cherished films. For nostalgic and non-nostalgic reasons alike.
In 1986/87 little VHJessiquita lived in a two-family house in Ossining, NY. Our downstairs neighbors / landlords had a comfortable couch, TV, VCR, and more than a few VHS tapes. Their three kids were all older than me and recorded their movies off of HBO. And so I was regularly in their living room watching one movie or another. The Legend of Billie Jean was one of them. Whichever one of their salty and pervy kids recorded it must have hit the record button (little red circle, remember?) too late because the first part (not the first act) was missing, but who cared?
In a nutshell, it’s a movie about a bunch of goofy and determined kids running away from injustice, violence and lies, trying to have their voices heard and a busted motor scooter paid for. Add a perfectly synced up soundtrack, several mini-climaxes throughout and a girl in the hero role (a GIRL HERO!!) and you’ve got mini VHJess bowled over in movie love, watching it as often as possible.
Their copy had a missing intro, a sudden silence right before the big chase scene in the mall, and horizontal lines scrolling up during the actual chase scene. But that was as good as it was going to get for a seven-year-old who had no cash or ride to get to Cialini’s Video Store. And looking backwards, as any analog-head knows, those “flaws” were the tape’s fingerprints, giving it that special “blanket in an air conditioned room in the summer” charm.
Fast forward to technological advancements for your home viewing pleasure: Laser Discs, DVDs, Blu-Rays and now 4K HD Blu-Rays. Each of which is fine and deserves its peg on the tree ladder going up to the treehouse. Is the VHS foothold on the tree wearing away? Is its demise one more iTunes movie purchase away? Nah. (Cue “Don’t Believe the Hype” by Public Enemy.) Just like dozens of other subcultures, VHS tapes have their own cult following (don’t believe it? type in #feedyourvcr on Instagram), their own festival in ATX and underground network of buyers and sellers. Unlike my memory, our cardboard boxed movie messengers aren’t going anywhere. Not as long as there are Gen Xers and Yers, like you and me, willing to keep them on our shelves and in our cabinets despite the bewildered, bordering on angry, protests of our partners (“Why do you need the tape if you own it on DVD?”).
Here’s WHY: “Be Kind Rewind” stickers, the click sound of the tape’s full entry into the VCR, auto and manual tracking adjustments, the slight whirring of the VCR throughout the movie, the clicks and clacks when you stop and restart the movie, the feelings of being safe and happy when you first saw a movie and loved it so much that you went on to watch it 38 times and can now repeat the entire movie verbatim, the sense of completion when you finished watching the movie and rewound the tape back to the beginning.
My VHS tapes, you are my friends. I wouldn’t have become a conscious cinephile without you. Each one of you has shown me the depths of loving movies. An intensity that no film school, nay art school could ever have taught me. Also, what small child gets an education on editorial instincts, the power of song choices, attention to the smallest details (watch for them, keep your eyes on the screen, the details are part of the director’s message!), value and impact of a good cover design (look at the cover and know exactly which genre and decade the movie belongs to), a widened vocabulary? I could go on for pages. VHS tapes gave me many lives to live, starting at a really young age. In each one, I felt understood, befriended and learned way more about the human condition than in my small non-movie life.