Category_Cartoons, Category_Collecting, Category_Groovy Stuff, Category_Horror, Category_VHS, Category_Weirdness -

REWIND THIS! Director Josh Johnson Unreels His Love for Physical Media and Posits the Importance of Preservation!

The VCR forever changed our relationship with movies. From cinema’s earliest days, films were ephemeral experiences existing only as long as the theater lights remained dimmed. But with the explosion of the VCR’s popularity in the early 1980s, movies became something that could be possessed and explored again and again. That changing relationship certainly affected Josh Johnson. The Brooklyn-based director spent his youth shooting backyard camcorder epics with his brother and foraging through the local grocery store’s video aisle. Johnson has channeled those experiences into Rewind This!, a new documentary made in collaboration with cinematographer/editor Christopher Palmer and producer Carolee Mitchell. Funded partly through Kickstarter, Rewind This! took nearly three years to complete as the filmmakers collected 140 hours of footage and conducted more than 100 interviews to chart the past, present and future of VHS. The film premiered at March’s South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin and is currently making the festival rounds. Read on as Johnson discusses making killer potato sci-fi sagas, the enduring legacy of VHS genre films and the importance of preserving Bubba Smith in a leotard for posterity.

The absolutely nostaliga-rific poster for REWIND THIS! Wait.. what time is it? The damn thing reset AGAIN?!

MM: While there’s renewed interest in collecting and preserving VHS, formats such as audio cassettes and laser discs aren’t being gobbled up with the same enthusiasm. Why has VHS’s lifespan exceeded that of other media from the same era? JJ: I think really it’s a question of ownership. There were records and other ways to consume and experience music for generations before home video. But with movies it was this rarefied, sacred experience where you only had it for that two-hour period when it was on the (theater) screen and then it was gone. Maybe it would play on broadcast television, but you needed to know about it and you needed to be home at a specific time. So I think that for people who grew up in that period, the ability to own (a VHS tape) and have it in your home and watch it whenever you wanted had a really powerful impact. Kids of the 1980s spent many a weekend pleading with their parents to rent questionable-looking genre films with titillating cover art. Did you have any “Holy Grail” titles growing up? There were a lot of movies that I wanted to see but wasn’t allowed to… different horror titles with lurid boxes. And there was nothing that I was going to be able to do to convince my parents to let me rent those. But for whatever reason I was able, after months and months of trying, to convince my dad to rent Police Academy. To his credit, I think he thought that sexuality is not going to harm my child in the same way that extreme violence will. So we watched that together and he fast-forwarded through a few key parts.

No Blood... Just Boobs. And that's A-OK, mannnnn.

Action films and horror films have always had a reliable home video audience. What is it about the genre films of the VHS era that make them continued favorites? At that time you had a lot of independent companies that were getting into the business because of the low cost of the technology. And they smartly recognized with genre films like action or horror, you weren’t always necessarily marketing a star. The concept itself would sort of sell the film. So there was this glut of (low budget) action and horror movies. If you grew up in that time and developed an appreciation for that type of film, you associate them with seeing them on VHS. There’s just something about watching a direct-to-video action movie from the late 80s that, when you put that videotape in and it comes on, it just feels right. The low cost of the technology also led to a generation of camcorder-wielding kids creating their own backyard films. Were you one of those kids? Definitely. I was making low-budget amateur movies throughout my entire childhood. The first thing we made was at my grandparents’ house. We were staying there for a week and over the course of that week my brother and I made a trilogy of films about a killer potato from outer space. We enlisted everyone that we could, but for the most part it was just the two of us working together. On weekends or after school if a friend came over to visit, they would get incorporated into the madness. So if you look at one of our films, you can kind of see who we were spending time with during that period in our lives because those are the people that make cameo appearances. After a childhood spent creating 1950s sci-fi homages, why direct a documentary for your first feature film? I had been looking to get a narrative feature film made and the financing was proving difficult. So, I decided maybe a documentary would work better because I could finance it as I went along and the story of the home video revolution was something that was really important to me because it made me a filmmaker and enabled the pursuit of the kind of film culture that I had thrived on as a young person. So it seemed like an important story that for whatever reason hadn’t been told. Rewind This! features an eclectic mix of interview subjects ranging from flea market VHS scavengers to revered indie filmmakers such as Atom Egoyan. Do you have a favorite interview? I don’t know if I have a favorite, but the first interviews that we lined up that really seemed to legitimize our film were when we were in New York and we talked to both (Street Trash writer) Roy Frumkes and (Basket Case director) Frank Henenlotter in the span of 24 hours. As soon as you have those guys, there is a certain audience that is immediately going to be interested. Frank was really important because Frank himself is a huge video collector and has thousands of titles. During the hour that we spent in his apartment, you could really feel that it was going to take the film to the next level.

The Great Legitimizers. NO ARGUMENTS HERE.

As physical media disappears, the idea of ownership fostered by VHS is disappearing with it. However, a new kind of ownership is being created through crowdfunding. Part of your budget came from a Kickstarter campaign. How does the idea of ownership change when an audience is directly involved in getting a film made? The interesting thing about crowdfunding is that it sort of reverses the business model that people have been working on for years. Before you would create a product, then you would try to find the audience for it. But with something like Kickstarter you’re essentially starting with finding an audience and then making the product. What’s really positive about that is that it gives a lot of confidence and control to the filmmaker because you already know you have an audience waiting before you even make the film. Part of the fun of Rewind This! is seeing clips from things like Deadly Prey and the Bubba Smith workout video Bubba Until It Hurts… but at the same time your film takes the idea of preservation very seriously. Why is it important to save content that the natural selection process of new formats has failed to preserve? I think it’s important to note that the natural selection process is very flawed and there actually are classic films – important films and very well respected films – that have never made the jump (to future formats). There are films by Ingmar Bergman and Robert Altman that are still trapped on VHS. But in my opinion, it’s important to preserve everything because I don’t think we have the ability right now to evaluate what is going to be the most relevant 30 or 40 or 100 years from now. All of these things offer a certain value in terms of being able to assess what we were like as a culture and all of them have a right to be preserved.

An analog-only double-feature that'll make your trigger finger tingle and your bones sweat. DIG IT. Oh, and for some more fun, click HERE and HERE.

REWIND THIS! is currently rounding the festival circuit and invading indie and art-house theaters across the land. Groove on over to to keep up-to-date with Josh Johnson and and crew’s physical media preservation crusade! And don’t you dare forget about all the other amazing analog affirmations going out there like the LUNCHMEAT & HORROR BOOBS produced ADJUST YOUR TRACKING, Ilinca Calugareanu’s historically fascinating CHUCK NORRIS VS. COMMUNISM, Mike Malloy’s physical media opus PLASTIC MOVIES REWOUND and Thomas Edward Seymour’s blossoming VHS MASSACRE! There’s a TON of VHS love a’goin on, Tapeheads, so be sure to peep it all!

Interview with Josh Johnson by Matt Mulcahey

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