The Vanishing

The demise of VHS, and the movies disappearing along with it
by Anthony Kaufman  posted February 26, 2009
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Like the Hawaiian crow and the Chinese river dolphin, Costa-Gavras's 1972 Uruguayan political thriller State of Siege is effectively extinct. While it survives in a few, used VHS versions (you can get one through at $159.99) and presumably somewhere in 16mm or 35mm film prints, it is among hundreds of important and critically acclaimed films no longer readily accessible for home viewing.

In the wake of video-store shutdowns across the country, and a move toward DVD-only subscription services modeled after Netflix and digital download initiatives, the non-digitized movie is becoming an endangered species. The death of VHS has long been foretold. In November 2006, Variety published an obituary headlined "VHS, 30, dies of loneliness." But the industry appears to have overlooked the films themselves. VHS-only masterpieces like Erich Von Stroheim's Greed, Sam Fuller's Underworld U.S.A., and Alain Resnais’s Providence have always been difficult to find, but with the decline of the format (not to mention U.S. repertory houses), the chances of seeing them are only getting slimmer.

At least, legally and in pristine form. A number of the films mentioned in this article can be found as downloadable files on peer-to-peer-sharing BitTorrent sites. And diehard cinephiles have not always bothered with copyright law. That’s what made Kim's Video famous. One of the few centralized places in the world where one could find rare classics, bootlegs, imports, and various oddities, Kim's Video was like a BitTorrent site in the flesh. The recent collapse of the Kim's empire and owner Yongman Kim's decision to ship the company's esoteric, 55,000-film collection to the small Sicilian town of Salemi are among the latest disasters to befall the auteur-film rental market.

According to former Kim's Video clerks, the library included such obscure VHS titles as Werner Herzog's documentary on televangelist Gene Scott, God’s Angry Man; a bootleg of Robert Frank's never-released Rolling Stones doc, Cocksucker Blues; Samuel Fuller's Hell and High Water; Penelope Spheeris's The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, and several Andy Warhol titles, along with all sorts of little-seen and eccentric Asian and European imports. "They also had bootlegs of all these bizarre Turkish knockoffs of Hollywood movies," recalls Kim's-clerk-turned-critic Matt Singer. "Turkish E.T., Turkish Star Wars, and so on. I have never seen those anywhere else."

Other independent video stores exist, but for how long and with what stock? Two Boots Video, in New York’s East Village, recently conducted a fire sale of their entire VHS collection. "No one rents the videos," a clerk said. "We can’t carry VHS anymore, because we don’t have the space." New Yorkers may still be better situated than other cinephiles. A recent stop at Greenwich Village's World of Video yielded such VHS-only sightings as Kenji Mizoguchi's Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, Herzog's God’s Angry Man, Andrzej Wajaa's Fury Is a Woman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's I Only Want You to Love Me, and Margarethe Von Trotta's Rosa Luxemburg, among others. The Greenpoint-based Photoplay also has a rich selection of foreign and classic VHS titles.

But video stores will always remain at the mercy of what's available. The Criterion Collection, home video's most promiment savior of art-cinema orphans, has been steadily catching up with sought-after titles, issuing remastered editions of films previously only available as VHS imports and bootlegs. Among its upcoming releases are Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her and Made in U.S.A., neither of which has been available on DVD domestically, as well as Last Year at Marienbad, a Fox Lorber title that has gone out of print. The company also has the rights to Story of the Last Chrysanthemums.

But there's only so much rescuing they can do. With every new shift in media technology, from 16mm to VHS, from traditional broadcast to cable TV, from VHS to DVD, huge numbers of films are lost, says Facets Multi-Media executive director Milos Stehlik, who includes such titles as Robert Downey's Chafed Elbows, Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend’s House?, Glauber Rocha's Antonio Das Mortes, and Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the IRT among the films he fears will disappear in a post-VHS culture.

"What irritates me is that with each technology comes all this promise—that you’re going to be able to watch whatever you want, whenever you want. But then it turns out not to be true," he says. "Because most art films are marginal, financially, to the mainstream culture, they will always get pushed out."

"I never understood how this myth that 'everything is available on DVD' got started," agrees critic Dave Kehr, the DVD columnist for The New York Times. As evidence, he points to Turner Classic Movies' database of U.S. feature films—of the 157,068 titles listed as of late February, 2009, fewer than 4 percent are available on home video. TCM also includes a reader's list of the top 200 films not on DVD. While many of the titles are available as imports—for example, there are South Korean versions of John Huston's The African Queen (#2) and Elia Kazan's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (#67) and Spanish versions of René Clair's I Married a Witch (#11) and Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons (#100)—many others are not available at all, including René Clément's This Angry Age (#1), Frank Borzage's The Mortal Storm (#4), and King Vidor's Northwest Passage (#7).

Kehr, and others, lay most of the blame on studios that own the rights to the films. "The worst offender is Universal," he says. "They don’t have any idea what they've got in their library. They were releasing a number of films on VHS that you can’t get in any form today." In the switch from VHS to DVD, he explains, "we lost a tremendous amount of stuff, because they had to remaster them and no one wanted to spend the money."

Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who writes a DVD imports column for Cinema Scope, says U.S. home video distributors can’t simply claim "rights issues" as an excuse for not releasing films. "They always say it’s about rights issues, but people don’t care enough about these things to get the rights," he says, noting the glaring DVD omissions of Jacques Tourneur's films Stars in My Crown and Wichita. "What becomes canonized is what's available, which has always been the case," he adds.

Kehr worries that the movies of important little-known American auteurs—for example, Lew Landers and André De Toth—are simply "vanishing into the ether," he says. "They’re just gone from the conversation and that’s unfortunate. The younger critics haven't seen this stuff, but how could they?"

As the entertainment industry focuses on improvements in quality, in the move from DVD to Blu-r ay, for example, cinephiles will ironically face increasingly restricted viewing options, because the technology requires pristine 35mm negatives. "Concentrating on technical quality eliminates 90 percent of American film history," says Kehr, who notes that a film like Frank Borzage's Man's Castle could never come out on DVD, because only a dupe negative exists in studio vaults. (Someone has, however, posted the entire film, in seven parts, on YouTube.)

An all-digital future, where consumers will be able to download films directly to their computer, will only continue to curtail availability, says Kehr. "They still have to make those masters," he says. "It still costs $30,000 to digitize a film. And how many De Toth films is MGM going to digitize?"

The disastrous state of the economy, and specifically, the unsteadiness of the DVD market—which dropped roughly 6 percent in 2008—is only making matters worse. Frank Tarzi, formerly Kim's head film buyer and now an executive at Kino International, says lower advances for DVD rights may prevent some rights holders from going through with deals. And the recent shuttering of New Yorker Films, home to a rich library of VHS-only titles such as Nagisa Oshima's Cruel Story of Youth, Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore, and Von Trotta's Marianne & Juliane, may delay or prevent these films from ever getting a proper DVD release.

On the brighter side, some industry observers are quick to point out that, in some ways, the current moment is incredibly fruitful for movie lovers, what with multi-region DVD players, torrents, and lots of obscure films still somehow finding their way into the world—if you look hard enough.

Rosenbaum likens what’s happening now in the home video market to the film industry in the teens, with its ongoing patent wars and litigation. "There’s this chaos, but it has positive possibilities, because things haven’t been nailed down yet," he says. "It’s particularly confusing if you don’t have agendas or if you like your choices made for you. But as a cinephile, if you have an agenda, it’s a good period."

Bruce Goldstein, repertory programmer at Film Forum and co-founder of Rialto Pictures, even complains that today's climate isn’t challenging enough. "Cinephilia is not as exciting as it used to be, because so much is readily available," he says. "I think there’s always got to be something unobtainable—the thrill is in the chase!"


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Kim's Video
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Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, and Slate, among others. He is a regular contributor to indieWIRE, Filmmaker Magazine and The Utne Reader, as well as the editor of Steven Soderbergh: Interviews.

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Author's Website: indieWIRE blog