Reviewed: Portable Grindhouse: The Lost Art of the VHS Box By Jacques Boyreau

Fantagraphics Books, 200 p.

Reviewed by Matthew Caron

“I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” So said Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, to a 1982 congressional panel investigating the legal quandaries presented by the VCR machine and the Record button in particular. The movie industry’s fear of VCR was soon proved baseless as home video became hugely profitable to the studios without putting so much as a dent in the volume of ticket sales; in fact, they increased. Distinctly different from each other, tape and film happily fed a shared appetite without conflict until the age of digital, which is when Jacques Boyreau believes everything began to go awry.

Boyreau’s new art book, Portable Grindhouse, is more than a stunning collection of VHS box art. Anyone with a sense of nostalgia for cruising the shelves at the local Video Depot will recognize old favorites alongside more than a few bizarre rarities within its pages, and if you don’t feel a sense of loss over the current state of DVD box art, you just don’t have any feelings. Lurid paintings and illustrations paired with overripe titles helped move countless low-budget horror flicks, straight-to-video dreck and a few cinematic masterpieces in a way that the clean, bland Photoshop creations of the present simply don’t. The modern formula is to present a list of ingredients, usually nothing more than the lead actors superimposed on a black or white background with some red text. (Sadly, the sales pitch of movie stars suspended in a vacuum is usually an honest appraisal of the product.) The art collected here rarely even bothers with photos, relying instead on illustration and collage to create a dynamic portrait of the idea of the movie that’s often more exciting than the movie itself.

Like the VHS boxes of old, Boyreau’s introductory essay is less a history of the VHS format and the culture of the rental business than it is a heady evocation of how exciting it was when it first arrived. Rather than providing an alternative to the theater as digital threatens to do, VHS encouraged an appetite for cinema, increasing the artistic cache of film by proving definitively that movies remained relevant and desirable (not to mention profitable) long after they’d left the theater.

Basically, VHS is good to cinema. VHS is a part of film, a Samaritan-format, not a digital changeling out to usurp. While VHS and theaters competed for revenue, the value of film per se saw no dip; in fact, VHS exposed the ‘long tail’ of cinema…its archival largesse. At a personal level, video handed cinema to people, and took to the street via mom-and-pop video depots, not to mention every city’s special store with monster inventory. You’d be in these places like you were in a demagogic library made for avenging nerds, punk-intellectuals, and romantic deviants. You drifted, in the aisles, picking at boxes, scoping, digging bins, trying to keep track, agog at incongruous juxtapositions. You could be dithered by the box auras, your taste in movies – your filtration and rationality – were now victims of the postmodern clusterfuck. The silent delirium of cruising stacks on racks reminds one of Dali’s remark, “I look at all women.” I look at all VHS boxes!

The VHS box created a new category of objets du cinema. And yet, VHS never threatened the culture of moviegoing in the way that digital now does. Cassettes did not prompt film to become more video-like, as is happening now with the inevitable changeover to digital projection and filmmakers taking into consideration how their work will play on an iPod. The argument of video being different or less-than is increasingly diminished as time goes by, and this sameness is reflected in the marketing. Consider the packaging of DVDs, which are usually nothing more than reproductions of the increasingly bland one-sheets that are designed to be so basic and broadly rendered that they remain identifiable when reduced to the size and resolution of a web icon. At every level from creation to marketing and finally projection, film is increasingly digital and removed from the inimitable quality of arc light illumination passing through celluloid. It is moving instead toward a sameness with television and videogames that promises fewer distinctions over time. Whether this is good or bad is up for debate, but Boyreau’s sense of cinema’s specialness among mass media is clearly threatened.

On one hand, digital offers to restore film, but also to discredit it through unneeded “improvements.” There is a point where digital restoration becomes inner theft, if, having taken control of the stuff – the movie – it poisons the well, i.e. the movie theater. I am referring to the rise of digital theaters, which I see as a final straw in an aberrant Oedipal kill-off of the film experience.

Heavy stuff for a collection of VHS boxes for stuff like Slashdance and Going Ape!, but a book as lovingly edited as this could only have been put together by someone whose appreciation for these objects is matched by a real love of cinema. Now that he’s shared his favorite tapes, I would love to see Jacques Boyreau write a proper treatise on the past, present and future of the movies. He clearly knows where they’ve been and has an idea or two about where they might be headed.