April (Fools) 2005
A Spectre Is Haunting Our Digital World -- The Spectre Of Analog or A disquisition on the Intrinsic Superiority Of The Humble Video Cassette to that of the evil versatile disc.
'If it's good enough for Mr. Spock, it's good enough for me,' is a guiding principal of my life. So it was of course with much excitement that I learned as a child that not only did my father attend school with the good Captain Kirk (who just saw in his 75th year as I write this and even today is pitching for a new Trek series called Starfleet Academy) but that Leonard Nimoy was also a relative, if a distant and removed one, by marriage... Oh, glorious days were those.
But just as the great George Harrison coined the title 'All Things Must Pass' for one of his last gnomic albums, so, too, did these glancing brushes with fame pass when I found out that Shatner was too old to have been in school with my father and the aunt that married us into the Nimoys had just as quickly divorced us from them. Who knew, then, that the most important men on the bridge were, in their free time, Canadian? I did.
But I was now bereft of any personal attachment to those who had boldly gone where no man had gone before. And as I am sure you will understand, this was a particularly low point in my not quite yet fully formed analog life.
Actually, I can think of no darker hour than when I wallowed in the self-determining fantasy that the original series of Star Trek was inferior to its spin-offs, that Shatner only ever performed convincingly in TJ Hooker, that Mr. Spock was not even a real Dr., and that both Shatner and Nimoy's albums were so execrable on the second listen that they were not even good because they were bad.
But the real kicker was, I had all the time in the world to have made off-air recordings so that today I could watch the original series of Star Trek to my heart's content any time I wanted to and confirm the lies of the last sentence of the previous paragraph. But no, I blew it.
Analog old age increasingly reminds me that it is the sins of omission and not commission that bedevil us in our well-worn, scratchy groove years.
For some, it may be not having asked Becky to the dance. Others, avoiding Vietnam for a life in Canada's snowy climes. But for me, it was not home taping when videocassette was at its zenith and Star Trek was beamed twice a day into my basement after school. And while the radio waves that brought me those long ago shows are just now leaving our solar system for distant galaxies, they will never bless my 4 by 3 screen again.
Home taping is an art and a dying one at that and I submit to you that it is incumbent upon us that we preserve and cultivate it. For, with the dying of any tradition also dies a way of life, a manner of being and a body of implicit knowledge that once gone may never be recovered.
What if Napoleon's troops had not stumbled upon so serendipitous a find as the Rosetta Stone? Would we know of the boyhood travails of King Tut? Would Ozymandis signify anything other than a poem by Shelley best forgotten in grade 12?
We, it occurred to me with a sickening disgust, were soon passing into a world where father could not pass on to daughter the secrets of quenching the flashing 12:00, a secret so secret that it not only differed between manufacturers, but between models from the same manufacturer! How to explain to our children what it meant to live in a time before the universal remote but after the demise of the monochrome set?
This black hole of self pity led me to also think of all the wonderful episodes of Dr. Who that I failed to tape when I had the chance, Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and local cable television shows that I might never see again.
All that time in front of the TV doubly gone. Gone in the sense of well-wasted time, but time well wasted that may never be relived. Proust's madelines were nothing to my lost tribbles.
It would not, of course, be the first time that such an unfortunate series of events had trapped content on obsolete media. It happened with Edison's cylinder's, acetates, the 8-track and, for many of us, it also happened with the vinyl LP.
But what made this turn of events particularly poignant was my own participation (or lack thereof) in letting such a great medium as analog videotape gasp its last breath on my watch.
'Oh the shows I should have taped.'
But we actually saved the humble LP, a supposedly dead format that still supports a cottage industry of stylus dealers, record stampers, turntable and phono-stage manufacturers. Even in the golden age of the LP - say the mid seventies -- even though gross sales may have been higher, could there have been more turntable manufacturers than there are today? More outboard phono-stages, I ask? Imagine the economic and cultural good that would become of a similar resurgence in videocassette recorder manufacture, restoration and repair?
But there is still time for the videocassette recorder, I think. And it is time that we band together and make a concerted effort to save it and its tapes so as to preserve (and create) an analog legacy for our children and us. Moreover, and you would be a fool to deny it, the VHS is, after all, an intrinsically superior medium to DVD.
To this end, I made a list of all that is great about videotape, but I could, of course, go on forever, so superior a medium that it most obviously is:
1. Lower resolution aids realism;
The humble VHS, that much maligned component in our increasingly media and in particularly digital-media centric homes, deserves a fairer shake than we have given it. More or less replaced by that bastard offspring of the CD, the Digital Versatile Disc has shown itself less than versatile. Without protection, its bits and bytes of information are vulnerable to fingers, dust and scratches. Putting the humble videocassette recorder to the back of your closet, or heaven forbid, confining it to the children's playroom, is, I submit, a mistake. You are biting off your analog nose to spite your digital face.
Videocassette (and I will enter the debate where even angels fear to tread between Betamax and the VCR) is everyone knows easier on the eye and presents a more natural picture and sound. Videocassette has more detail, is more natural, produces less viewer fatigue, and, despite its faults, never fails to bring an analogue smile to our faces. The patina of old age that frames the tape in time is living, sepia colored memory.
Much of the reason, I suppose, that people may dislike the humble video recorder is that they have forgotten what a well tuned, clean and fine-fettled video recorder is capable of. In the way that bad, poorly setup turntables and bad pressings opened the door for the CD, substandard video recorders and execrable pre-recorded tapes made way for the DVD which, let's face it, is nothing more than a cynical marketing effort by the media to get you to replace your old for new. Resist!
So don't chuck that video recorder. Clean the heads. Adjust the tracking. And sit down with that smug feel that you're ahead of the retro curve. Watch movies old school style. Do not repurchase your libraries. Scour flea markets safe in the knowledge that you need not break a 10. Take the money you would have spent upgrading your TV to plasma and expand your tape collection instead.
Keepers of the analog flame, unite!
Friends, digerati and those who watch DVDs, lend me your eyes;
I come not to bury VHS, but to praise it;
Next Month: Isolation Platforms and Tuners