The Videocassette or: How I Became a Fanboy and Learned to Love Explosions

Every year, I challenge my Comparative Media Studies Masters Students to tackle a piece of autobiographical prose which describes something of their own relations with media. This may at first glance seem like a pretty cushy assignment, most of us start our writing career on personal essays, but most of the students discover it can be extremely difficult to reconcile the competing modes of autobiographical and theoretical writing. On the one hand, the language of media theory is often highly abstract and for many, alienating. On the other hand, many of us fall into the trap of “overshare” when asked to recount of our own experiences, being so interested in the process of personal revelation that we don’t necessarily think through why we are sharing or how autobiography might enable us to make more meaningful generalizations about media.

In preparation for this assignment, we read and discuss such essays as Erica Rand’s introduction to The Ellis Island Snowglobe, Annette Kuhn’s discussion of a family photograph from Family Secrets, Sharon Mazer’s discussion of the power relations she encountered in doing an ethnography of professional wrestling, Robert Drew’s account of karoaki which draws heavily on his own experiences as a performer, and Geraldine Bloustein’s work on “girl-making.” (The last three can all be found in Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture, which I co-edited with Tara McPherson and Jane Shattuc.) Each of these writers make effective use of “intimate critique” as a way into dealing with complex aspects of personal identity and popular culture. As we suggested in the introduction to Hop on Pop, there are questions which we can only address through holding a lens up to our subjective experience of media — the tendency of academics to hold popular culture at a distance may distort their understanding of the work it does for individuals and the society at large.

This assignment produces some of the most exciting writing I see all year and this year’s crop of first year masters students produced work which I felt was especially rich and evocative. Last year, I shared some of the work my students produced for this assignment, including essays on what our lists on Netflix tell about us and about the world of Mexican comics. Over the next few posts, I plan to share some of the highlights from this year’s crop. This year, there was a strong focus on cult media, fandom, and personal identity formation. I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, given my own interests, so what is surprising is how very different each of these narratives about early fan experiences turned out to be.

The Videocassette or: How I Became a Fanboy and Learned to Love Explosions

by Abhimanyu Das

The cultural artifact I have chosen for this paper is the VHS tape. It is an object of resonance on two levels – it possesses enormous personal significance and, on a wider scale, it is the embodiment of a technological development that transformed the film culture of urban India. Given that videocassettes and the material they carried were a “companion for emotion and a provocation to thought” from an early point in my life, they were to me what Sherry Turkle categorizes as ‘evocative objects’.

Until the liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991, films made outside India were very difficult to access legally. Urban centers generally contained only a few theaters (multiplexes did not arrive till the 21st century) and these were mostly dedicated to screening Bollywood fare that guaranteed more ticket sales. A tiny number of foreign films were exhibited every year, usually releases that were a year or more past their original theatrical dates. The situation for Indian cinephiles was dire. All this was transformed by the VHS boom of the mid to late 80s. The introduction of videocassette technology to Indian markets did not, however, signal the beginning of the home video release boom that was witnessed by countries like the United States. The heavily protectionist economy did not lend itself well to studios releasing foreign films on a home video market and availability of video recorders was initially too limited for any kind of real profitability from the exercise. This, however, did not preclude the burgeoning of a system of piracy and peer to peer sharing that was working well in Indian cities long before any of us had even heard of the Internet and was to survive till the cable television boom of the mid 1990s.

The first manifestation, according to my father, was the appearance in many neighborhoods of the local ‘video parlor’. Some of these were larger establishments with proper storefronts while others were holes in the wall that could only be found via word of mouth. All of them, however, were stocked with pirated VHS copies smuggled in from east Asian countries. Given that the foreign studios had practically no presence or representation in India and that the police did not care the least bit about enforcing copyright laws, these parlors were free to operate. In addition to the regular Blockbuster-style services they provided, they could (at a price) copy your favourite film on to a blank videotape or even ‘order’ an ‘official’ copy of the film for you (these being a first or second generation shinier print of the film in a case adorned with color xeroxes of its American packaging as opposed to the generally fuzzy affairs in generic slipcases available for rent). The larger shops presented even more options, offering up ‘camera prints’ at half the usual rental for fans on a budget (the unwatchable prints of movies recorded in a theater) or ‘family’ versions of films with the sex scenes dubbed out (profanity and violence remained gloriously intact).

A vibrant popular film culture was to grow in the cities within years. My father tells stories of how Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone became household names within a year and I can remember passing by, on my way to school, scores of streetside hawkers selling Rambo and Terminator t-shirts when just a year previous, they had been peddling religious iconography. School-children (like myself) started up movie sticker collections that were traded aggressively. The interesting side effect of the viral nature of the VHS phenomenon was the fact that the parlors were simply one of the available options. People would copy tapes that they had rented from these parlors and circulate them amongst friends and family who would, in turn, copy them. The picture and sound would degrade with each degree of separation but this did not dissuade the enterprising cinephiles that felt like they had put one over the Man (‘the Man’ presumably being the video parlor guy that rented smuggled goods) by watching the movie for free. Neighborhoods would organize community screenings of films where they would set up a television set in a local clubhouse, rent a tape from the nearest video parlor and charge a nominal fee for entry. The transformation, then, was beginning. India had always had a rich history of movie-watching in the Bollywood tradition and the arrival of VHS expanded the film-goers horizons to include the Western market. Cinema clubs popped up across the cities, catering to tastes across the board, from a weekly dose of 80s action drama to one of Bergman or Antonioni (two especial Calcutta favourites). Indian youth culture was impacted as the fashions, music and slang of the Americans they saw on their television sets (which had hitherto exhibited nothing but the two mostly soul-crushing public TV channels) crossed over into the urban lexicon. This intrusion of globalization (for better or for worse) into a relatively closed cultural space was accelerated manifold by the advent of cable television but I would argue that this particular event was primed by the preceding decade of VHS supremacy.

On a personal level, the VHS tape could be said to have shaped my entire life. Some of my earliest memories are of my father bringing home our first VCR from a business trip abroad and the subsequent weekend film-watching ritual. The homework would get done, be checked over and the approving nod would be the cue for the Disney film du jour to begin. Just as Turkle’s closet full of memorabilia shapes the way she thinks about her family, my memories of our weekly congregation around the joys of VHS shapes the way I think about mine. In addition, these experiences contained within and associated with the tapes were to have a profound effect on my identity and interests. Pat or even cliched as these conclusions may seem, it was the memories of those early movie sessions that formed the seed for my later affinity for everything cinematic and helped push me toward the academic, personal and professional direction I am taking now. My love of music began with VHS tapes as my parents would record music videos from the half hour Western music show that aired past my bedtime on the aforementioned public television channel. I would then proceed to play these tapes all day, forming a soundtrack to my childhood that originates as much from VHS as it does my father’s LP/audiocassette collection. My affection for everything narrative probably sprang from the multiple viewings of the same films (on the same tape) that we would rent repeatedly when nothing new had come in that week, as plot threads started to get embedded into my skull, complete with dialogue and interrupted by video snow where the tape had been damaged. Even my first induction into the enticing world of ‘adult language’ was thanks to the verbal clashes (in stereo!) between the working class New York accent of John McClane and the cultured delivery of Hans Gruber. Thanks to Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, I knew how to swear in English before I learned the equivalents in any of the Indian languages.

The actual physical form of the videotape was also important. The tapes from the parlor that we rented from all had a particular smell (that I could never identify) – the first indication of an impending movie experience. Close at its heels was the mystique of the cassette itself, as my brother and I would open the protective tab and stare at the magnetic tape underneath, making wise pronouncements about the quality of the print based on the number of crinkles we could see in it. Despite our carefully performed expertise, however, we were completely in thrall to the inherent mystery of the incomprehensible machine, simultaneously imagining ourselves as a new generation of technopriests through our ability to perform a ritual around these objects and as slaves to our ultimate lack of knowledge about the object itself. The packaging was equally important (when there was any). Familiar faces of actors we were starting to recognize would create patterns in our choices. These packages were generally xeroxes of US or UK poster art and we learned to recognize the MPAA’s Restricted logo or the BBFC’s ’18’ and ’15’ symbols (ironically our parents were too frazzled and rushed to notice such things) and felt the twinge of anticipation for the forbidden darkness that we learned to anticipate within (the films rated such for sexual content were, however, generally pointed out by the ‘video parlor man’ for the benefit of our parents).

Finally, as the title of this piece indicates, the fanboy in me can actually be traced back to the magic of VHS as well. I still remember with relative clarity, the first defining cinematic moment of my life – my first viewing of Superman II. It was in 1988 and I was six. It was not the first film I had watched on our new VCR but it was the first one to leave an indelible stamp on my still-developing mind. The wonder of Superman’s flight to the Eiffel Tower, the foreboding of the criminal Kryptonians’ surprisingly brutal assault on the astronauts, the frustration of the beating suffered by humanized Clark Kent at the hands of the diner bully and – above all – the pure adrenaline rush of re-powered Superman’s return and climactic clash with the villains in downtown Metropolis are all emotions that I am reasonably sure I remember accurately from that first viewing. This may well be owed to the fact that I replicated this experience countless times over the next few years, goading my hapless parents into renting the same tape to the extent that ‘the video parlor man’ automatically reached for it when we walked in. The reactions, however, were always echoes of my original visceral responses to what remains, to this day, one of my favourite films and the reason why I instinctively associate villainy of all sorts with General Zod. Superman II was the reason I picked up my first American comic book and marks the beginning of my lifelong fondness for fantastical narratives across media platforms, bringing us to the possibility that my presence at MIT may actually be traced back to the work of Richard Lester (or Donner, according to preference).

It is important to mention that a significant aspect of this anecdote is the fact that I managed to watch Superman II through the eyes of an impressionable young child, thanks to the convenience of VHS. Had it not been for this particular technological marvel, my exposure to pop culture (as embodied by Superman) would have really begun in the mid-90s with the appearance of cable television, by which point I would have been a teenager and – undoubtedly – indoctrinated into the way of the sciences by the ever reliable biases of the Indian educational system as it deals with male students. It was VHS that made the difference between a goggle-eyed child internalizing an epic, life-changing mythology and an engineering-track teenager laughing at a campy movie about an alien in a red cape and underwear fighting two British actors (and an ex boxer from Philadelphia) dressed like dominatrices while Gene Hackman delivered one-liners in the background. And for this, I am thankful.

Abhimanyu Das

Franklin and Marshall College, BA English, 2005

Born and raised in Kolkata, India, Abhimanyu Das graduated in 2005 with a BA in English from Franklin and Marshall College. Gradually, his interests in new kinds of media texts (such as computer games, graphic novels, and serialized fiction) began to push against the outer limits of proscribed curriculum of his English department. His struggles with core questions about transmedia storytelling, the audiovisual elements of texts and social context of genre narratives led him to develop a secondary concentration in Film Studies, during which he did archival research at the British Film Institute and also read a lot of comics. His relevant professional experience includes writing about film and literature as well as a brief stint in publishing.

At MIT, he hopes to pursue a thesis project that studies “the confluence of post-colonial influences and the effect of globalization on two rapidly expanding media movements, the Indian independent film and the Indian comic book.” He is currently working at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media as an RA. His long-term goal is to be able to make a living as a cultural journalist with the clout to make a few people do more than just smile indulgently while he talks about movies and comics.