Posts Tagged ‘VHS’

Easy Rider (1969) didn’t chronicle the end of the decade/era, and the death of hope and optimism that the 1960’s promised, but it certainly symbolised it. It could be argued that the loss of hope wasn’t followed by despair, but by a new more measured hope with less lofty ambitions, a more weary even cynical hope, but hope none the less. And this is what we saw on the big screen, the cinema of new Hollywood. In truth, a child of the 70s, I saw it on late night TV, and VHS in the 80s and 90s. The Watergate scandal of 1972 may have ground zero for the political and conspiracy thrillers of the time, films like The Parallax View (1974), The Conversation (1974), but the spirit, or lack thereof found a place on screen before that, it found it on the road!  There has always been a link between cars and movies, the two were invented around the same time, and both found popularity in the United States, a country built out of exploration, and a country built on a dream; and as Mark Cousins reminded us The Story of Film: An Odyssey is a (2011) “movies look live our dreams”.

While there had been movies about cars and drivers before, the road movie as we know it was born in the 70s, buit on a foundation from the Golden Age of Cinema. We are not talking the capers of Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), Smokey and the Bandit (1977), or the various Gumball/Cannonball movies (various movies from mid 70’s to mid 80s), I am referring to the existential road movies like Two Lane Blacktop (1971), and Vanishing point (1971). Existential movies, where to drive is to live, to stop is to die. Kowalski (Barry Newman), the hero of vanishing point is just driving, we never understand why. He drives for the sake of driving the way we live for the sake of living.  If you don’t know the film, the plot of the film revolves around a man delivering a car 1,200 miles from Denver Colorado, To San Francisco.  He has a week to get there but for reasons never explained is compelled to do it in a couple of days.  There is little plot, and almost no explanation, but flashbacks give us an idea of what is going on.  The Driver (James Taylor) and Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) in Two Lane Blacktop may not have names but they have more of  purpose, or do they.  They cruise around looking for action in the shape of drag races like the subjects of a Bruce Springsteen song, but when we look a little deeper, they have no purpose, they are racing for money to fund their lifestyle, so they can continue racing.  They are not the unwilling or repentant criminal looking for one last job so they can go clean, they are living day to day, a modern take on the hunter gathers of our past.  But does that make them any different to anybody working a day job, as Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt from Fight Club ((1999) said nearly 30 years later “working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need”.  Are they closer to the breadline than the average wage earner, or do they have a fallback? Both films have an other-worldly character enhanced by uncertainty and ambiguity,  this was lost in the 90s, made for TV remake of Vanishing Point, everything they gave Kowalski by way of motivation, stripped away a layer of meaning from the subtext of the movie. 

Although most associated with America, the genre isn’t exclusive to the nation. By the end of the 70’s the angst and desire had been forgotten, swallowed up by “blockbusters”.  Australian filmmaker George Miller fussed the road ideas of the road, if not the road movie itself with a dystopian future.  For a more recent generation, their knowledge of the Mad Max franchise may not stretch beyond the fourth, and most recent instalment: Fury Road (2015), but it started long before that in 1979. Inspired by the fuel crisis and economic crash of a few years earlier the first film depicted the beginning of society crumbling. Max, the movies “hero” first hits the road for revenge, but by the end of the first movie, he disappears down the road.  Not with the glory of a cowboy riding into the sunset, but a long and dark road, as a man with nothing, and nothing to live for.  Max’s only option for survival it to live, to exist, and he can find this simplicity, only after he has lost himself on the road.  A generation later, the characters of Fury Road think they can find hope, redemption, or even eternity on the road, for most none of this is true. 

Both as surreal and mainly masculine genre, director Chloe Zhao gave her a new take, and grounded and more real take.  Nomadland is loosely based on Jessica Bruder none fiction book of the same name we see real life people living a nomadic existence.  This, like many other road movies was exist in the traditional heartland of the western genre, but this isn’t a pioneering story of A to B, of someone with a destination. It is the story of a person not looking where to live, but how to live.  As the world gets smaller, and cars have begun to lose importance in the world, we may think the days of the road movie are numbered.  I don’t think they are, we may see a day were they become nostalgic chronicling relatively recent past rather than telling their own contemporarily stories, but in the hands of talented filmmakers, this artifice will not prevent the real story, one that is lingering beneath the surface. 


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How will we watch films in future? The anti piracy adverts in the cinema suggest that they are worried that cinemas days are numbered as a way of watching films. I don’t see that happening but things are clearly changing. Back in 2010 I streamed a film called Frozen, it is my understanding that it was available online, on DVD and in cinemas at the same time. Is this the future? There could be more to it than that. If I think back to my childhood around 1981 we got our first VCR, this is the moment I got hooked on movies, as I remember it the first film I watched on video was Superman (1978). Before this moment I had only ever seen films on TV, I am sure I must have seen others but the only ones I can remember were Star Wars (1977) and Robin and Marian (1976). Sometime in the mid 80’s we borrowed a Videodisc system. The quality was infinitely better than VHS, unfortunately, we only had a very limited number of films (Rocky (1976) and its first two sequels (1979) and (1982), Hang ‘Em High (1968), Blue Thunder (1983) and Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983) including a making of documentary). I watched those movies a lot!

Then at the age of eighteen, I rediscover the oldest format for watching movies, the cinema. Up until that point I can only remember going to the cinema seven times. As a child of my generation I grew up with video, but at the age of eighteen I went to university and met a likeminded group of friends who watched movies at the cinema. The first two films I saw at this time were reissues of movies that at the time had not been given a video release: Reservoir Dogs (1992) and The Exorcist (1973). I now watch at least one hundred films at the cinema each year (making up for lost time?). I still maintain that this is the best way to watch films but understand others think differently. Many people enjoy going to the cinema but for their own reasons, often financial or logistic only go on special occasions or for big event films. Other chose to watch movies at home out of preface. This is made easier by the falling price and improving quality of home entertainment equipment. But what format will people be watching? I still own many VHS videos, I caught on to DVD relatively early on in the late 90’s but have never owned a LaserDisc and am yet to get a Blu-ray player. I also subscribe to a DVD rental company that also offer a streaming service so have a foot in the old and the new camps.

The changes are easy to see, we have already seen the demise of the video store in favour online DVD postal services, then there was a report last year suggesting that Blu-ray Sales will Surpass DVD Sales some time this year. In America, Netflix reported earlier this year that it has nearly twice as many subscribers to their streaming service as the DVD service.  this may have something to do with the fact that they only offer a streaming service here in the UK. This I believe is where things are going. I remember in late 90’s a program on TV looking at the possibility of a Video on demand service via the internet or telephone lines, the conclusion was that it was not going to be feasible and would lose out to “Box Office” type services from satellite and cable TV providers. Look at how far we have come and how wrong they were! It can not be long before it is possible to stream movies the same quality as Blu-ray, Netflix already offer high definition streaming. 

Will there still be a market for owning a version of a movie on a disk/tape or similar? Will streaming take over or will people store them on some sort of hard drive the way they now do with MP3 music files? When we want to watch a movie do we go to our “library” or do we go online? Things have changed at the cinema too, I wrote a few months ago about how I miss celluloid as cinemas move over to digital projection. The greatest benefit of digital projection is the reduced cost in comparison to proving prints, this in theory makes it easier for smaller releases to make their way onto the big screen. It is also resulting in more reissues of older films. This takes us back to the start and the movie Frozen, if a movie is only ever going to exist in a digital state, it makes it easy for a simultaneous multi platform release, but is that where things are going? Some people believe that multi platform release will kill cinema trade, others think it will have no effect on cinemas but will help prevent piracy. Unfortunately it is something we will never know until we try it. On the MILFCAST earlier this month director Blayne Weaver talks about how his movie 6 Month Rule (2012) had a theatrical premier before going onto Video on Demand. Earlier this year Iron Sky (2012), in the UK it was release in cinemas for just one single day. Its popularity led to the cinema release being extended. It has been suggested that in that first day the movie was seen by more people than it would have been if it had been given a standard release for a week or two. It soon became available to rent and buy on DVD.

The simple conclusion is I don’t know what new technology will emerge and who will win the next Betamax v VHS or HD DVD v Blu-ray battle. DVD/Blu-ray will probably suffer more than cinema from internet advances, but people will continue to enjoy movie at home and in cinemas.

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“In space no-one can hear you scream.”

In preparation/anticipation of the release of Prometheus a few weeks ago I watched the first two Alien movies again. I have the directors cut of Aliens, the first sequel directed by James Cameron on DVD however I only have an old VHS copy of Ridley Scott’s original film.

Commercial towing spaceship Nostromo is on route from Thedus to Earth with a cargo of twenty million tons of mineral ore and a refinery. Its crew of seven are in stasis until they are awoken when they pick up what they believe to be a distress beacon.

Looking back at Alien, aside from the grainy image of my old VHS copy, the most notable thing about the movie after all this time is not the suspense or the horror, it’s the characters. They are different characters with their own ideas, personality, prospective and their own agenda as you would expect of a the crew of a ship (in space or a regular ship in the real world). In many ways the most significant of these are Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) who give the movie a more relevant and political edge. Kane (John Hurt) has one of the most memorable scenes in film history but within the plot it is the only important thing he does. Ash (Ian Holm) comes to represent “the corporation” this is a defining element of the movie and one that has continued through all the sequels spiff offs and the new prequel Prometheus, it is also like Parker and Brett the thing that gives the movie edge and relevance beyond the genre. As captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) is an interesting character, he is more a company man than the rest of the crew but is still his own man never forgetting how far from home he is. Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) could have been there to just make up the numbers, but she does more than that, she helps give the movie balance and prospective. And finally the star, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). It seems hard to believe now but aside from a couple of bit parts Alien was her first movie. The casting was perfect, not only did it define her future career, but it helped elevate the movie beyond its genre origins.

On the surface it is a sci-fi movie but owing far more to the horror and thriller genres. Contemporary space movies of the day like Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) have a bright an hopeful outlook, Alien has more in common with John Carpenter movies Halloween (1978) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). The basic concept owes a debt to Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel “And Then There Were None” (originally published with a less politically correct title), itself being inspired by the nursery rhyme, Ten Little Indians. In comparison to the later films (including the Predator crossovers and the prequel Prometheus) it has a much smaller story and scope, this far from being a problem, it is actually a benefit. Its not that we don’t care where the “space jockey” or the Alien come from, it is that they are not relevant to the survival of the crew. We are focussed in on a very small part of a larger greater universe and know no more, or less than the characters in the film. It is this simplicity and intimacy that helps create a bond between character and viewer making us care what happens to them.

The effects should stand out in a film that is more than thirty years old, but they don’t. The models used to recreate the exteriors and the H.R. Giger designed “space jockey” are fantastic and a relief in this over CGI age. The interiors of the Nostromo look dated just like they do in Discovery One in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and many Star Trek movies. The important thing though is the Alien also designed by Gieger, I have heard “man in rubber suit criticism”. This really isn’t fair, sticking with the first rule of monster movies, the alien spends most of its time in the shadows, when we do see it, it really stands up. The planet is a dark rain soaked inhospitable place that exists largely in shadow and half-light, the Nostromo is made up of dim corridors, this lends itself perfectly to the movie. The style of the lighter brighter Prometheus would not work in Alien.

Like no other sci-fi or horror movie before Alien redefined two genres and possibly invented there own genre. It has aged surprisingly well and could teach the makers of a few flabby overcomplicated movies a thing or two about suspense and atmosphere. The grainy VHS version seems somehow appropriate for a movie that I first saw on late night television in the 1980’s.

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