Adjust Your Tracking: The Untold Story of the VHS Collector (DVD Review)7 Jul, 2014 By: Mike Clark
There’s enough raw material for two or three Judd Apatow boys-will-be-boys comedies in this near-singular documentary about one of the odder fan-boy subcultures, with possibly enough left over for a Ghost World chaser. It’s true, as one of the more wizened interviewees here notes, that people will collect anything, but one would have to say that VHS mania — at least at this point of home entertainment history — reflects a special breed, especially when we see what these home and apartment-based archivists are collecting VHS copies of. (One guy here is into Betamax tapes as well, but let’s not overcomplicate my reportage.)
Still, the co-directors Dan Kinem and Levi Peretic do a passionate job of profiling passionate people. And the collectors who relate their stories — near-exclusively young, white and male — are a personable lot, including the guy one might reasonably expect to be this profile’s most developmentally challenged (he’s photographed immersed in a vat of those plastic colored balls you see at Chuck E. Cheese). Though he is, instead, arguably the most articulate of the bunch, you would not want many of the subjects here teaching anyone’s advanced course in film aesthetics or appreciation; Dreyer, Bresson, Ozu and so on. These guys belong in a think tank at the Ed Wood Institute of Lower Learning.
More on this last point later, but to clear up matters in terms of potential personal hypocrisy, I myself have an entire walk-in closet exclusively devoted to just part of my DVD/Blu-ray baseball holdings, so I’m not entirely justified in casting the first stone or spitball. Collections can indeed take over your life — vinyl and comic book enthusiasts are obvious first cousins to movie maniacs — and there’s even a guy here who has converted his home into an exact replica of a vintage video store (vintage being, sigh, only 25 years ago). Trouble is, this de facto store proprietor says that “Drama” is his least-favorite section of a highly organized collection — which figures because he, like almost everyone in this documentary, is heavily or even exclusively into schlock horror, of which, say, The Toxic Avenger would qualify as “high end.” (Matter of fact, Lloyd Kaufman himself of Toxic distributor Troma Entertainment, shows up a couple times — though at least he concedes that he prefers DVD to VHS.)
So, OK. Call me sheltered, but over the course of my life, I’ve lived in two major East Coast cities, two major Midwest cities and have also spent a lot of time in the Colorado Rockies. And I have never known a single person who’d take 90 minutes out of his/her life to watch even one of the sub-Toxic cassettes brandished here as someone’s formative experience — the reason being that time is valuable and that there’s a lot of unread Henry James out there. Which is to say that we’re not talking Universal Pictures horror here — not even Universal horror as bankrupt as The Mole People (which, to earn my street cred, I saw in 1956 in a beyond deadly double bill with Curucu, Beast of the Amazon). But at least Mole People could boast having John Agar and Hugh Beaumont in the same movie. The alternatives brandished here as something special are often of the direct-to-video (and on video) ilk — stuff that was shot in somebody’s backyard or furnace room.
The subjects here say they prefer to watch the movies on cassette over DVD (or, presumably, Blu-ray, God forbid) because doing so replicates the experience they had of watching their schlock of choice while growing up (if they did). This definitely puts us into Apatow territory — and if this were all the documentary had to offer, it might exhaust itself fairly quickly. But Kinem and Peretic do a nice job of tracing what the video store experience used to be and how it collapsed so relatively quickly; the great constant here is that Blockbuster was the enemy for putting mom-and-pops out of business and by pursuing the so-called “family trade” to such a degree that finding an offbeat title in one Blockbuster was like finding an original manuscript of Paradise Lost at some mall’s used bookstore. There’s also an illuminating subplot about the prices some of these VHS tapes bring in the collector’s market and how word “gets around” about the rarer items on social media and how copies might be obtained.
This two-DVD set is packed with extras, deleted scenes and the like — my favorite being a really poignant featurette about a sweet guy in small-town Pennsylvania struggling to keep his video store alive with his teenaged son, who a) had the privileged experience of growing up surrounded by movie history; but b) also sees the handwriting on the wall. To explain what I said early on about Tracking being a near-singular documentary, there’s always 2003’s Cinemania — a huge personal favorite about New York City geeks migrating from theater to theater that now finds itself has a companion piece. Per Amazon.com, I see that a new DVD copy of Cinemania is now going for $60, which would seem to prove Tracking’s point about collector’s items escalating in price. But I see that the VHS version is only going for $6, whatever that means.