From the VCR to YouTube: An Interview with Lucas Hilderbrand (Part Two)

In talking with fans, it is clear that many of them began “recording” programs well before the availability of videotape. That is, many fans of the Baby Boom generation used audiotape to capture and replay moments from favorite films (smuggling it into the theater) and television shows (using alligator clips attached to their set). What would we learn about the prehistory of video by extending your count back further in time to account for the capacities of audiotape as a means of preserving and exchanging media content? This example suggests some of the challenges, since I gather such practices are rarely discussed in official records of the period, yet loom large in the popular memory of many fans of my age.

It struck me that the histories of video, as they had been written, had not paid enough attention to audio. Not only was the technology for videotape based upon audio recording technologies, but it also seemed to me that popular uses and adoption of the format were similarly modeled upon audio cassette tapes. In addition, my thinking about the grain of videotape was enormously influenced by the histories on sound recording, sound art, and music–for instance, the way intentional distortion or snippets of tape played backward in a song calls attention to a technologically specific aesthetic. Of course video bootlegging had a prehistory in music bootlegging, and of course home taping started with audio. Such audio taping would have implicitly called attention to its own limitations: both in terms of low fidelity recording and the absence of a corresponding image. Yet, such recordings were deeply personal, and likely to either be listened to repeatedly or kept as part of a personal archive.

Your discussion of Superstar highlights Todd Haynes’ origins as an independent videomaker who used “bootleg” practices to create and circulate his work. As I am writing these questions, my Tivo is already set to record Haynes’ high profile version of Mildred Pierce for HBO. What might a fuller elaboration of Haynes’ career tell us about the ways grassroots and independent media production is helping to shape the commercial mainstream? Has anything remained from the “bootleg aesthetic” as he has made this transition?

Todd Haynes was always a filmmaker rather than video artist, but his work is frequently citational. In other words, most of his work builds from pre-existing sources in cinema and popular music, which in and of itself suggests a sensibility of the video era, when one could have access to an array of old films from different periods, and to fan-based remixing. His appropriation has gone from unauthorized music use with Superstar to complicated fabulations of rock history with licensed and original music in Velvet Goldmine to a simulation of mid-century melodramas with Far From Heaven to a remake with intentions of fidelity in Mildred Pierce. Yet, even Mildred Pierce is filtered through 1970s cinematic representations of the 1930s. I don’t subscribe to HBO, so I’ll have to wait for the DVDs to be available on Netflix to see Mildred Pierce.

Much of the fascination with video has rested with the ability to form our own collections, archives, libraries of materials, which reflect our own idiosyncratic tastes and interests. As you write, “VHS and other analog formats have allowed users to own texts and to make texts their own: to keep them, study them, rework them, copy them, and share them with their friends.” Yet, with the drying up of the DVD market, some are predicting we are moving towards a world where we rent access to media but may not be able to collect and own it. Do you think this is a reasonable prediction and if so, what do you see as the losses to our culture implicit in this move towards a new model of access?

I’ve already suggested something along these lines, but basically, as we move from a tangible media model based on purchasing an object (a physical cassette or DVD) to a streaming media model based upon licensing or subscription, we may lose access to a particular title at any moment when its contract expires or it goes offline. In the tangible model, what is paid for is the hard copy, not the “content”, but that tangibility guarantees access to the recording until that copy becomes unplayable. In streaming scenario, we may find ourselves assuming that a particular video will always be available, only to find it’s no longer there. I think we’ve probably all experienced this kind of unreliability with trying to watch something that has been pulled off of YouTube. But it can also happen on Netflix or Hulu. However, the content industry, as far as I know, has never gone to anyone’s house and taken back VHS tapes and DVDs that someone has recorded or bought.

You discuss the kinds of feminist media network which emerged through the practices and ethics of video “sharing.” To what degree has this politicized conception of “sharing as caring” continued as we moved deeper into the digital era?

We can find numerous examples of using YouTube or other sites for posting and circulating grassroots, activist, or expose videos. But we also see a couple different conceptions of community video emerge. One is Kickstarter, which has become an important way for raising financing for independent media projects, which depends on social networks of friends pledging small financial contributions and an ethos that personal investments are increasingly necessary to mount radical work in an age of limited public funding. But there also continues to be a less overtly politicized model of fan communities forming around reworked media texts that circulate on YouTube yet that may do so in ways that seek to remain stealth. For instance, I have a friend who has recently become deeply involved in the numerous Glee fan videos posted on YouTube centering on Klaine (the relationship between Kurt and Blaine). The comments reveal intense emotional–and eroticized–responses to these videos that essentially form a community based upon feelings, but they are also clearly aware that the videos are uploaded without network permission. So the comments reflect contradictory impulses: the profuse emotional expressions are always in tension with self-policing tactics to never mention the name of the show in the comments, in the hopes that Fox will not track the videos and issue take-down notices.

In your concluding discussion of YouTube, you make a claim that one of its defining characteristics is that of “instantaneity”, noting “Users post television clips almost as soon as they have been broadcast,” a practice that can call attention to specific moments captured from the endless flow of the broadcast signal. From the start, video has been tied to “time shifting”, so what does YouTube add to our relations to the time of Broadcast experience? And how do these new temporal relations shape what becomes the most valued content at this video-sharing site?

One of the things that YouTube reminds us of is the complicated–and often seemingly arbitrary–rules of access for TV. Some broadcasts are truly fleeting, while other shows seem to never go away and recur in syndication with inexplicable frequency and longevity. But YouTube also expands and blurs our understanding of the boundaries of what counts as television by streaming network clips alongside webcam rants, fan remixes, and cat videos. When I’ve taught television, I have found it impossible to make any assumptions about what students watch now or what their cultural touchstones would have been growing up. The timeshifting of video, cable, and now YouTube only make this more complicated: new popular texts no longer have the same cultural dominance in their own moment, for better or worse, at the same time that our experiences of older texts seem to be less and less periodized. As YouTube comes to seem more everyday and less novel, we are amassing a history of viral videos, too, and so they may have less cultural penetration or staying power in cultural memory. What we see on YouTube are idiosyncratic viral phenomena and long tails.

Lucas Hilderbrand is faculty in film and media studies at the University of California, Irvine. In addition to core courses on film and TV, he teaches classes on popular sound media, documentary, sex in cinema, Disney, and queer nightlife. He is a contributor to flowtv.org and is currently researching the cultural history of gay bars in the U.S.

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  10. great analysis, although VCR isn't really an apt anology, a better choice would be a video camera