Monthly Archives: February 2009

Vanishing on VHS

VHS tape entombs so much film content; this monument to <em>2001</em> only mocks the dead.

VHS tape entombs so much film content; this art gallery monument to the already-immortal 2001 only mocks the dead.

I’ve never been to Kim’s Video in New York and I’ve only popped in once or twice at Chicago video treasure troves Facets and Odd Obsession. But I love that they exist at all. We’re on the same team, you might say. Digging undigitized VHS tapes out of thrift stores and failed video stores is impossible for me not to do. I’ve even been known to digitize content myself now and then…often immortalizing movies I have next to no interest in ever seeing again. Seems like somebody has to do it. It’s the principle, you know?

All of which is why Moving Image Source’s pair of stirring articles on the tragedy of film content shipwrecked at the bottom of the VHS ocean struck such chords in me that I had to pass a few quotes along.

“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. [According] 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.

Four lousy percent! That number blew my mind. 96% of all U.S. movies ever made aren’t even  important enough to the culture for anyone to own and distribute them. Makes me feel bad and sad about all the never-on-DVD VHS tapes I’ve found, cherished to one extent or another, and sold without acquiring myself a digital copy to have, if not to hold.

And it’s more to me than just “making a copy”—much more, in fact. I called it “immortalizing” before and so does MIS:

…having been purified down to bits, films are more or less immortal, virtually existent, having a better chance than [ever] before at being universally disseminated, immune to age, and free…from commodification. Copy-blocking programs are always circumventable….Whether a film shows up on TCM or on a DVD or in a torrent download or on a privately burned disc, it is inviolate and as impossible to “withdraw” or even regulate as a revolutionary idea or a piece of aural folklore. No one truly owns a film once it’s been digitized; it belongs to the world.

Which, as Lawrence Lessig has persuasively argued at length, is as it should be, after a reasonable period of profit accumulation by the original creator or owner or what have you.

Huge chunks of my apartment do nothing other than house my ever-morphing collection of VHS tapes, a good many of them I’ll keep specifically because they’re unlikely to ever be digitally mastered for DVD. I’ve gone through two ungodly shitty consumer VHS-to-DVD recorders in salving my need to DVD-R this sort of content for myself (and, in some small way, for others). Here’s a really select portion of my collection:

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years is cited as one of those hard-to-find titles that places like Odd Obsession specialize in having.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years is cited as one of those hard-to-find titles that places like Odd Obsession specialize in having. All but one of these happen to be in the Top 700 of TCM's Not-On-Home Video Ranking.

One last quote, then I’m out:

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.”

Ironically, I saw Chafed Elbows (and digitized it myself) on a bootleg VHS that could’ve come from nowhere but the Facets vaults.

And I’d go Milos one further: Most films [period, full stop] are marginal, financially, to the mainstream culture. Take a look at the titles pictured above: At most, only one of them (True West) could be considered an “art film.” On the one hand, it’s sad that America’s film interests are so narrow. I wish people cared enough that they’d pay real money to see a greater breadth of film content. On the other hand, the incontrovertible fact that they don’t means that there will always be something for people like me to scoop up off the sandy bottom of film culture and treasure.

For now, and hopefully forever, America’s thrift stores will keep giving me dirt-cheap VHS tapes I never knew I wanted…and the ones no one else knows they want either. Which, again, is as it should be.

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Twin Peaks Steals “The Rye”

The Setup:

By 1996, Twin Peaks had long since packed up and headed off toward staking its claim as perhaps the greatest TV drama/mystery ever aired. That same year, Seinfeld was airing its now-iconic 7th season. The Soup Nazi had de-souped basically everybody; “sponge-worthy” had already entered the American lexicon. And “The Rye” episode was about to A) be flat-out awesome and B) have nothing whatsoever to do with J. D. Salinger.

Oddly enough, it seems now to have had everything to do with Twin Peaks. Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David or maybe casting director Brian Myers had some serious Peaks on the Brain when they put this particular installment together. Prominent former Twin Peaks cast members pop up at basically every turn. Let’s join Elaine as she stares in horror at a big chunk of The Evidence:

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On top of that credit list is Grace Zabriskie, who portrayed Mrs. Ross, the mother of George Costanza “love interest” Susan Ross. Grace Zabriskie was also Laura Palmer’s mom (Sarah) on Twin Peaks.

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Next up is Warren Frost, who played Mr. Ross, Susan’s dad, on Seinfeld

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…and was Dr. Will Hayward, the father of Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle) on Twin Peaks. Not at all incidentally, Warren’s also the real-life father of Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost.

You can skip Jeff Yagher, though he was pretty “hot and heavy” as Seinfeld saxophonist John Germaine.

Last but in no way least is Frances Bay, who nobody who’s ever turned on a TV in America doesn’t remember as Mabel Choate, the stubborn old lady who turned down outrageous bucks for a marble rye before Jerry mugged the damn thing right out of her hands and called her an “old bag.”

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Frances, bless her heart at age 101 this January, was also Mrs. Tremond—that creepy old lady with the creepy little kid who makes the creepy creamed corn disappear—in that one episode of Twin Peaks, as well as the same Mrs. Tremond in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. You remember her:

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And then plus there’s Don Amendolia, credited a bit later in the credits, who kind of is the linchpin of this whole thing, really, just because he’s so easy to miss in “The Rye.” Three actors would’ve been very interesting; four is just blatant. Kramer collides with Don (as Dennis) in the hallway, and then he’s gone forever.

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Amendolia was Emory Battis on Twin Peaks, the guy who hired Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) at the perfume counter and then…did…some other things:

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Which brings us to some Conclusions:

I mean sure, you could just chalk all this up to coincidence or to incestuous Hollywood casting practices or whatever. But I don’t. No way. It’s a bit more interesting than that.

After all, Twin Peaks was a series motivated almost entirely by the mysterious death of Laura Palmer in the pilot episode. Laura’s mom (Zabriskie) and her doctor (Frost as Dr. Hayward) were huge characters throughout the show. And Seinfeld didn’t cast Zabriskie and Frost as just anybody. This genius show put them in the roles of mother and father to Susan Ross:

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Now see it says “Ex-Fiancee” there. But Susan wasn’t any ordinary “ex-fiancee.” She was a TV executive, the one George Costanza kept yearning for long after his own “Show About Nothing” got killed by the fictional NBC of SeinfeldWorld. Also, she’s a dead ex-fiancee. Susan Ross never did get married to George Costanza. Susan Ross died mysteriously. Very mysteriously. Like Laura Palmer before her, Susan Ross was murdered.

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Whodunit?

You can—and should—watch a season and a half of Twin Peaks to find out who killed Laura Palmer. As for Seinfeld and Susan Ross, I’m not going to make you wait that long:

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