I Watched The Greatest Movies Of All Time On Pan And Scan VHS

Alex Garland’s excellent Annihilation is hitting Netflix everywhere except the United States today. In these United States we got the pleasure of seeing this beautiful and challenging scifi film on the big screen… well, those of us who bothered to see it, anyway. In three weeks of release the movie has made about $26 million, less than what Black Panther is making this weekend.

This is sad, and there are a lot of reasons why the movie didn’t do well – not least among them being Paramount’s cold feet and unwillingness to spend more money to push the movie hard – but anyone who watched this film knew it was never going to click with mass audiences. And that’s okay.

The great and wonderful Guy Lodge weighs in on Annihilation‘s overseas fate in the Guardian this weekend, mounting the familiar argument against movies like this going to the small screen:

 Watching it at home, I missed the vast, dark expanse of a cinematic environment for its gasp-worthy effects and shuddering sound design – it may be intimately, brain-scramblingly idea-driven, but Garland has fashioned it first and foremost as big-screen spectacle.

I am very glad I got to see Annihilation on the big screen, as the experience was incredible. It reminded me of other movies that are wonderful and perfect on the big screen, movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and West Side Story and Lawrence of Arabia. All movies I first saw on pan and scan VHS in the middle of the day in my childhood living room.

That the theatrical experience is the optimal experience for these movies is unquestionable. It’s how they’re meant to be seen, and they envelop and consume you in that format. Lawrence in 70mm is positively transportive, bringing you inside the brutal taking of Damascus. I love seeing this film on the big screen at the Egyptian or Aero theaters here in LA, and I am grateful to live in a city where films like it, or The Godfather, play in large format with regularity.

But I first saw Lawrence on VHS. I first saw The Godfather on television, and in the recut Saga version, no less. I didn’t see 2001 in widescreen until I was perhaps a teenager, and not on the big screen until I was in my late 20s. As a young man I sat in front of the TV and watched all the classics, riddled with commercials, as they played on The Million Dollar Movie or WPIX’s Chiller Theater. Guys, the first time I saw Planet of the Apes it was split in two and played two days in a row on WPIX. Say whatever you will about my other flaws and faults, but I think it’s pretty clear that I developed a strong interest in the movies, even with my first exposure to classics being in just about the worst formats imaginable.

The cold reality is that not a lot of people are seeing Annihilation in theaters. It’s not because it’s a small release – Annihilation opened on more screens than Garland’s previous film, Ex Machina, ever touched at the biggest part of its release, a month in to its theatrical life – but because it’s simply not a movie that’s going to appeal to a mass audience. AND THAT IS OK. Not every great movie is for everybody. On top of that, there are people who look at the cost of a movie ticket and find it exorbitant and then read the reviews of the film and fear it’s a heady and confusing trip (it is) and so would rather spend their cash on something more surefire, like Black Panther. And that is also ok.

The idea that people can watch Annihilation at home, in a low risk scenario, is a good one. It’s not optimal (although I suspect that Lodge doesn’t have as good a TV as many of his Guardian subscribers might have), but it’s not so bad. It’s better than the lofi, soft image, sides chopped off version of The Sound of Music I first saw on VHS in the early 80s, that’s for sure. The important thing is that people can see it. They can find it and they can watch it. Will everyone watch it intently? No. Will everyone get it? No. Will everyone make it all the way through? No. Will they get the same experience they might have had in a theater? No. But they will see it.

We have become weirdly snobby about watching movies. It’s a good problem, don’t get me wrong. I’m not only old enough to remember watching movies exclusively on broadcast TV – we didn’t even have cable yet! – I’m also old enough to remember when you couldn’t get your hands on any movie you wanted. You had to wait for movies to make an airing; you’d go through all of the TV Guide listings like a code breaker, searching for what movies would be popping up at what time, trying to get your hands on a blank or erasable VHS tape to record it. And I heard tales of older generations, generations who couldn’t even tape these movies and had to wait up all night to watch them.

I’m old enough to remember a time when almost nothing was on home video, and my experience of some obscure and weird movies was largely limited to reading about them in publications like The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. Forget about ever watching these movies, I was glad to get a paragraph explaining them with a picture associated with it.

This isn’t an argument for a return to those days, but rather an argument to appreciate how good we have it right now. So many movies are available to us, and in quality levels that were unimaginable in 1983. Yes, Annihilation is only available at home in the UK, but it’s available as a hi-def stream you can watch on a 65 inch TV, a TV whose size would have boggled my 10 year old mind. I had an 8 inch TV in my bedroom, and it was black and white and I watched so many movies on it.

Okay, now I’m getting into “I walked uphill to school… both ways!” territory. The important thing isn’t how deprived Gen X was when it came to home A/V, it’s that the movies are the movies. That’s what comes across when you’re watching a classic in a suboptimal format. Jaws was always damn good, no matter how I saw it. Is it better on 35mm? Having the pleasure of testing that out I will say that it was a great and amazing way to experience the film, but actually my favorite viewing of Jaws may have been when I was like 12, on VHS at a sleepover with a friend. Or maybe it was last year, when I showed the blu-ray to a friend’s 9 year old monster-loving daughter. Each of these experiences were magical, and the delivery medium was only central to one of them.

Rather than bemoan the changing face of distribution – and remember, in the words of Mr. Spock “Change is the only constant in the universe” – we should embrace the good parts of the change. Now more people can see these movies that we think are great. And if the movies are really great they work on levels beyond the visual. I always think of a movie that NEEDS to be seen on the big screen like bands that you NEED to see while high – maybe the experience is great, but if it’s not replicable in other scenarios, how great is it really? Are you loving the art or are you loving the experience of the art?

I suspect that the art of Annihilation works no matter the screen size. I look forward to testing that theory out when it comes to home video in the US and I can watch it again and again. In the meantime I am so happy for the people who will get to see the movie on their schedule, in their own comfortable surroundings, and I’m so excited for the 10 or 11 year old who is going to stumble on this movie while flipping through Netflix and have their life changed.

4 thoughts on “I Watched The Greatest Movies Of All Time On Pan And Scan VHS

  1. I live in Spain and while I am glad that I can see it now and not have to wait for a theatrical release (it can be up to a year sometimes from the US release until it gets here theatrically) and I get the point of the article, it is also good to remember that netlix is, for real, an evil company, that has been doing monopolistic practises for a long time and that buys rights for movies that would have gotten a theatrical release and doesn’t realease them in theaters because they only want their platform (as oppose to amazon who releases their movies theatrically first, for example). So while I get the point of the article, netflix is not the cool guy in the room, and it is important to acknoledge that they are not a good model for the future, although they probably will be, and we will al live in a Rollerball-like future with one company controlling all entertainment (probably Disney). A lot of times when someone talks about the theatrical experience and the dangers of netflix-like platorms they are just silenced an called dinosaurs, and that is just not the case all the time.

  2. Well, that brought back a rush of memories. Running from the dinner table to my parents’ TV to catch airings of The Great Escape on TBS. Our VHS collection of recorded AMC marathons (Danny Kaye and Jerry Lewis were my favorites). Discovering Abbott and Costello at our local library’s video collection. Now that you bring it up, going to the theatre has never been my dominant means of discovering movies, and I didn’t care until much later in life (Fellowship of the Ring really opened my eyes to the power of a big dark theatre with like-minded people).

    I guess when you’re a kid looking for escape, it doesn’t matter how big and fancy the screen is (or if the movie came out a projector or a steelbook), they’re all portals, big and small, to another world.

  3. I live in rural Southeast Kansas, and for a long time if I wanted to see anything but the giant tentpoles, a drive to Joplin, MO (and hour and fifteen minutes to the southwest) or the Kansas City suburbs (an hour and fifteen minutes to the northeast) was required. Easy when I was young and single, less easy with each subsequent kid. Things actually seemed to get easier to see theatrically over the last several years – I saw Ex Machina in Iola, KS, a town of 5400 people with a six screen theater, but now they seem to be getting worse again.

    For Annihilation, the only options were once again Joplin or KC (I gladly made the drive north, and it was well worth it). AMC recently bought the 8 screen theater in neighboring Pittsburg, KS, a college town of just over 20,000, and they *just* got The Shape of Water this weekend, and are only showing it at 6:40 and 9:00, as opposed to a full day’s worth of screenings.

    As non-tentpole releases seem to be narrowing again, Annihilation really made me think about how I will be watching movies in the future. I look forward to owning it, but a BIG part of the experience will be missing watching it on a TV, even with a good sound system. As Netflix continues to grab the distribution rights not just to studio cast-offs but marquee releases like The Irishman, that complicates things even further. A man can invest in a giant, 4K OLED TV or 4K projector and a top of the line sound system, but that still can’t replicate the theatrical experience.

  4. The single best viewing I ever had of The Texas chainsaw Massacre was on one of those TV’s that had the VCR built into it and about a 10 inch screen. It was 1996 and I was finally getting around to watching it for the first time of my life at age 19 (don’t know why it took so long being a horror junky who watched everything else at way too young an age). It was late at a friends apartment and everyone else was sleeping, so I sat about 5 inches from the screen with the sound low and the filnposotively DESTROYED me.

    I love this article. It is true as hell and as a 40 year old man I can relate to it. Also, I bought my tickets to see Annihilation on the big screen about three hours from now. Hooray for options!