An interview on video collecting with Adjust Your Tracking: The Untold Story of the VHS Collector co-director Dan Kinem

The private collector plays an integral part in the field of moving image preservation. However, their important role is often shunted aside in favor of professional and institutional efforts. Sure, you can accuse them of being obsessive, but the media collector is the person doing the hard work in the trenches. They go places archivists don’t have the time or money to go to, saving neglected tapes and films from dumpsters, thrift stores, and estate sales. In recovering overlooked and looked-down-upon media genres they provide a needed corrective to the canons formed by academia, professional critics, and archives.

In conjunction with the Bloomington, Indiana screening of the fantastic new documentary on the cult and culture of video collecting, Adjust Your Tracking: The Untold Story of the VHS Collector, Andy Uhrich of the IU Libraries Film Archive interviewed the doc’s co-director Dan Kinem via email.

The documentary screens in Bloomington at 8pm on Tuesday, August 27th at the Fine Arts Building. Dan and his co-director Tim May will be on hand with loads of old VHS tapes. Go see the movie and catch the video collecting bug! For more information on the screening, which is being promoted by Video Boom and the IU Student Society of Retro Archivers, go to https://www.facebook.com/events/477433755684398/. The film’s official website, where you can follow the progress of the tour is at http://www.adjustyourtracking.com/.

Q: As a reader of your and co-director Tim May’s website VHS***fest, I assume you’re a video collector. But I don’t want to put words in your mouth. Would you consider yourself a video collector? If so, how’d you start?
A: I would definitely consider myself a video collector. I’ve always loved movies and have always bought movies, regardless of the format, but it wasn’t until a little over 3 years ago that I got hardcore into collecting VHS tapes. I started realizing how many movies weren’t on DVD and how much interesting material was on the VHS format. I slowly started buying movies here and there and the collection kept growing to the point where I have about 8,000 VHS.

Q: How’d you move from a collector of video to making a documentary on video collecting?
A: I started meeting other collectors and slowly realized this resurgence in the love of the format was important enough to document and the people involved in this subculture were interesting and entertaining enough to make a movie about them. It just seemed like the perfect topic for a film and something I felt could entertain a general audience and people who already loved VHS, too.

Q: In your opinion what separates video collecting from collecting film prints or DVD collecting? Or, I guess now, from a person’s Netflix queue?
A: Well, in my opinion DVDs are disposable. They are easily damaged beyond repair and in most cases done poorly. When a DVD is done well, with special features and great cover art, then it’s a great format. There isn’t the scarcity element to DVD, either. They are so easy to find, duplicate, etc. Whereas with VHS there are many tapes out there that might only have a few copies and if people don’t dig them up they might be gone forever. There is also so much more material on VHS to uncover. Collecting film prints is a great hobby and one that I really respect. It is obviously going to be the preferred way to watch a movie in most cases but it isn’t accessible to everyone, unlike VHS. Netflix queue “collections” or digital file “collections” is a joke. Watch and enjoy the movies but calling a bunch of files on a computer a collection is disgusting.

Q: What’s the relationship between the videotape as an object and the film recorded on it? Maybe this is another way of asking what’s special about videotape in relation to other media?
A: VHS has a certain quality to it that lends itself well to exploitation and obscure films. It adds a fuzziness to movies that makes them scarier and in many cases more unique/interesting. You get all the pops, cracks, tracking lines, etc. and no other format is like that. It also was so easily accessible to the common man that you get so much content that isn’t available anywhere else, whether that be home movies, weird shot on video movies, documentaries, how-to videos, shorts, etc. So much stuff that will never reach another format.

Q: Are certain genres of film more collectable on videotape now than others? What distinguishes a collectible VHS from non-collectible VHS? As a follow-up to that question, in your trailer Josh Schafer states that the “great thing VHS can do [is] bring people the weirdest s*** possible.” What happens to the more normal stuff? For example, are there VHS collectors of Tom Hanks movies?
A: Horror is definitely the most collectible genre, mainly because so much of it isn’t available on any other format and also because of the amazing box art on many of those titles. There are many different factors, but it all depends on the person. The first thing to look at is, “Is this on DVD?” If it isn’t, then it’s worth picking up for cheap because it’s another movie you wouldn’t get to see otherwise. Another factor is how often you come across this certain release/movie. People don’t buy Jurassic Park because those are everywhere and it has been released on DVD multiple times. However, if you see a copy of Lunch Meat [a 1987 horror film about cannibal rednecks], you will realize you’ve never seen that tape before and that it is hard to get otherwise. There are always people who will collect anything. There’s thousands and thousands of people out there who still own all the Tom Hanks shit on VHS, but if you want to fill your collection with rare, out of print, hard to find titles then Tom Hanks isn’t the actor to look for.

Q: Your trailer also quotes Dimitri Simakis of Everything is Terrible that “if we don’t get this stuff no one else will and that’s really scary.” I wonder if you could expand on that. What would get lost and why is it important? What else do we – collectors, archivists, genre film fans – need to do to save this material?
A: So many movies, TV shows, home videos, how-to tapes, etc. would be lost forever if there aren’t collectors out there digging for these obscure films, which in many cases only had a very limited print run. There’s so many movies out there that people will probably never see because all available copies were thrown out, destroyed, or lost. As archivists/collectors it’s our job to dig for these rare movies, bring them home, talk about them, share them with others, write about them, document them, etc. A film fan should want to devour as much film as possible and there are so many lost gems on VHS.

Q: On a similar note, what sense is there among video collectors that what they are doing is preserving this stuff? Is there any thinking about these collections as archives? Have you noticed any crossover with the world of professional film/video preservation?
A: I feel like most people who collect are preserving these tapes. Even if they aren’t sharing them online they are still keeping them safe in their collections and making sure they don’t get destroyed. Every VHS collector I know would gladly share one of the tapes in their collection with you. That is why VHS collecting is so fun and the community is so great. I have noticed a lot of crossover, I feel both come from the same mindset that “We love movies and we want to save them and watch them however they are available.”

Q: In your mind, what’s more important: the film recorded on the tape or the tape itself? Or can the two not be separated? I ask because the standard form of video preservation is to digitize it and downplay the original artifact: to save the content at the expense of the carrier. As an expert on video collecting do you have any thoughts about such a policy?
A: The film is always most important. That is why I got into collecting is because I love movies, but ignoring the significance and importance of the original box, tape, company, artwork, etc. is idiotic. That is just as interesting as the film most of the time and there’s so much history in each release that it would be stupid to ignore that. Obviously buy these tapes to watch the movie and to share with other people, but enjoy the release of the movie, too, that’s half of the fun.

Q: It’s great that you all are on going on tour with the documentary and often screen it in conjunction with VHS swaps. This makes it a communal event beyond the normal act of going to a movie theater. In your way of thinking, what’s the ideal way to see Adjust Your Tracking? At the movie theater? Off of a VHS tape on a standard def analog TV? Illegally downloaded on a computer? Or does this sort of thing not matter to you all?
A: I really just want people to see the movie. I don’t care how they see it, just that they watch it and enjoy themselves. I want to get the movie as widely seen as possible. But, if I had to answer, I would say in the theater screened from a VHS tape would be the best way to see it. Secondly, would be with a bunch of friends at your house on a VHS tape.

Interviewer’s note: since this is a blog post from a library, we’d be remiss in not mentioning books on this subject. For readings on the histories of video collecting check out the following from your local library: Lucas Hilderbrand’s Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright and Joshua M. Greenberg’s From Betamax to Blockbuster: Video Stores and the Invention of Movies on Video