BE KIND REWIND This essay accompanied a VHS lending library that I curated for Gutterbox, a newspaper vending machine that was renovated into a miniature gallery in Raleigh, NC by Lewis Watts. June 2017
Hello, stranger. Go ahead. Borrow a tape. Return it in about three days.
Enjoy it thoroughly. Please. But remember this: There is a special place in Hell for thieves.
I will watch anything, movie wise. It’s slutty, I know, but an insatiable need surges when I contemplate the 2,861 movies released theatrically, worldwide, in my birth year alone. Based on that calculation, the volume of flicks that I have not yet seen provokes a staggering, lonely thought. Severe pangs take hold.
To me, watching movies indiscriminately is part of the daily work of a video artist. A chef eats plate upon plate of questionable food. A writer reads volumes, committing to narratives that could easily flatline, past the point of no return. And a filmmaker pores through innumerable hours of material, hoping to key into moments that last a few frames, as portentous as they are brief, like when a Zippo lighter glimmers, under a stack of fish, in Blood Simple.
For me, it amounts to at least one movie a day, going back 25 years, then forward; still counting. At this rate of consumption, it becomes difficult to explore the necessary material, and the deeper I dig for it, the stonier the soil. Most films, at some point, go into what the home video industry calls “moratorium.” This means that the movie is pulled from circulation for a period of time, often years, sometimes never to return.
Due North of Hollywood, in the the San Fernando Valley, there’s a video store called, Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee. It is Mecca for film geeks, in that renting from there requires equal measures of toil and faith. Its catalogue is so perversely thorough that any casual viewer would glaze over at the sight of its endless columns of titles, arranged alphabetically, with the actors cross referenced in the margin. No genres. No themes. No employee picks. Just slabs of information. The Eddie Brandt catalog requires special knowledge to decipher. You have to know what you’re looking for or suffer the paralysis of a book worm, before the Dewey Decimal system.
If you know what you want to see, the place is a trove, and for cinephiles, it loosens those difficult stones, seeded deep in the soil. Aside from sheer volume, the reason for Eddie Brandt’s hardcore repute is that the Saturday Matinee has a back room collection - a library of films that are not legally available to the public. Some are out of print commercial copies, but most are bootlegs, or dubbed off of TV. If you’re looking for a specific movie, and they have it in the back room, they will lend it to you for free when you rent a legitimate title; it’s a wink between master class purveyors of home videos and the fanatics who seek to see as many of them as possible in a lifetime.
My last receipt from Eddie Brandt’s is dated October 29, 1998. I borrowed Twin Peaks episodes 25-29, Naked Spur, and Border Incident. The latter two are Westerns that were directed by the Film Noir pioneer, Anthony Mann. As such, they are weird outliers of the genre, and Border Incident, at the time of its rental, had been in moratorium for years.
When I watched the movie, it was just okay, and having come from the back room collection, it was reduced to a jittery recording of a long expired air date on Turner Classic Movies. Robert Osborne’s standard preamble was abruptly lopped off at the head, as if someone had been fixated on their hamburger dinner when they suddenly remembered to hit record, leaving a smudge of ketchup on the button. But the degraded image was palpable, and the experience was charged with a sense of evasion. I was redeemed. Border Incident was mine, despite what the distributors had decided.
This collection of videos is made in the spirit of recovery and discovery. It is not a survey of the coolest movies. It is not even an assortment of the rarest. And its VHS format has nothing to do with nostalgia. Instead, it emulates the experience of watching indiscriminately, and taking hold of a story through the mechanism of its distribution and display. Sometimes what we see on screen is better understood, and enjoyed more thoroughly, when we embrace its physical form. A motor whirs. Play heads spin. The image crosses a precarious threshold before manifesting on screen, only to compete with the artifacts of bootlegs that inhabited the tape before it. The result is a subpar picture, with muted colors and pixels that strain to define their subject. These are the lengths to which we must go, in order to see everything we can. After all, vast swaths of film history were wiped clean by an industry that, until recent years, abused, neglected and destroyed its originals. So we take what we can get. We don’t fuss over format and picture quality, if we really want to see.
There is no outward logic to this catalogue. I like these videos for different reasons. Some are brilliant. Others are stupid. One or two, you’ll never see anywhere else. All of them are the result of indiscriminate watching. Putting the time in. I saw Brain of Blood around the age of six. It rattled me so deeply that, after thirty seven years, I finally learned its title and found a copy, going off a memory so thin that I wondered if the film existed at all. Other works are standard film school fare - easy to find if you know they exist. And with a few, I watched hundreds of hours of material before discovering them.
Two Lane Blacktop was just a title to me, for a decade. And when all of those years of imagining its cadence and texture were galvanized, in the present, by the sound of a Chevy big block engine firing across the screen, it seemed as if the movie had simply been left in the VCR. It had been mine all along. Now it is yours. But bring it back, safe. And be kind. Rewind.
1. Lick of Fury, 1994, dir Matthew Sidle, 15 min
2. Blue Velvet, 1986, dir David Lynch, 120 min
3. Society, 1989, dir Brian Yuzna, 99 min
4. Parents, 1988, dir Bob Balaban, 81 min
5. Brain of Blood, 1971, dir Al Adamson, 86 min
6. Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, 1973, dir Paul Morrissey, 95 min
7. Dawn of the Dead, 1987, dir George Romero, 127 min
8. The Fearless Vampire Killers, 1966, dir Roman Polanski, 107 min
9. Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1973, dir Tobe Hooper, 83 min
10. Outer Space, 1999, dir Peter Tcherkassky, 10 min
The Entity, 1981, dir Sidney Furie, 125 min
11. Stranded in Canton, dir William Eggleston
12. Missile, 1987, dir Fredrick Weisman, 115 min
13. Two Lane Blacktop, 1971, dir Monte Hellman, 103 min
14. Freaks, 1932, dir Tod Browning, 62 min
15. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, 1987, dir Kazuo Hara, 122 min
16. The Ladykillers, 1955, dir Alexander Mackendrick, 91 min
17. Carnal Knowledge, 1971, dir Mike Nichols, 98 min
18. Cigar Party, 1994, dir Josh Oreck, George Jenne, Sean Lahey, 50 min
19. Blood Simple, 1984, dir Joel Cohen, 94 min
Monsters TV Series: The Feverman, dir Michael Gornick, 30 min
William Wegman: Video Works 1970-1999
Another State of Mind, 1983, dir Adam Small and Peter Stuart
The Anderson Platoon, 1966, dir Pierre Schoendorffer, 54 min (incomplete)