REWOUND by Genevieve Yue

I grew up in the age of the VCR. In a cabinet next to the television, my mother kept a small supply of VHS tapes, most of which were unlabeled because she was frequently recording over them. Of the few tapes marked with her careful script were the recordings that we intended to save and savor: a copy of Peter Pan with Chinese subtitles, figure skating exhibitions, a piano recital given by Vladimir Horowitz in Moscow, Amadeus interrupted by commercial breaks. With a child’s appetite for repetition, I poured over these tapes, excavating their images carefully, learning their words and intonations as if they were a form of song. Sometimes I’d peer under the plastic bar to look at, but never to touch, the thin, shiny ribbon on which everything was magically and invisibly imprinted.

I hated endings. Moments before the closing credits rolled, I usually rewound the tape to begin it again. With the VCR, I could restore everything to where it was, from adulthood to innocence regained, life given back to death, possibility reopened. Troubled, every time, by Tom Hulce’s grim Hippocratic face at the end of Amadeus, I could push a button to restore his hale flush. Through my intervention, the composer, like his music, didn’t die, but awaited resurrection. Cinema, in my hands, was reversible. True death only happened by an accidental touch of another button, one that erased the tape or wrote over it. Even in those cases, however, there were usually traces, garbled glimpses at the beginning to show what used to be there.

In “The End of Cinema and Technological Change,” Anne Friedberg discusses how media technologies introduced in the 1970s and 80s dramatically changed the nature of television viewing: the remote control gave rise to the shortened attention spans that came with channel-surfing, cable television broadened the range of available films and programs, and the VCR allowed the viewer to selectively record, watch, or rent tapes untethered to the schedules of television networks. While television had mined the catalogues of classic Hollywood films for content since the 1950s, the VCR freed movies from their primetime slots, opening a rift between the “then” of recording and the “now” of watching. People like my mother, who often worked late hours, could set the VCR timer to capture a program when it aired, and then view it later. As television had previously distributed events spatially, which is to say, beamed them into countless living rooms, the VCR now made them temporally diffuse as well, no longer bound to a single time of broadcast. With a VCR, people could watch recorded programs at their own times and their own paces, with fast-forwards, freeze-frames, and rewinds to alter the linear viewing experience.

Friedberg describes how, with the arrival of the VCR, television could now produce a record of the past, tangible artifacts housed in sturdy plastic tapes: “The VCR treats films or videotapes as objects of knowledge to be explored, investigated, deconstructed as if they were events of the past to be studied.” [1] Those recordings are not only relics of the past, but portals that allow the past to flood into the present. The VCR splits open the time of cinema, opening to another time, one that we could call ghostly. “The machine,” Paul Virilio writes, “the VCR, allows man [sic] to organize a time which is not his own, a deferred time, a time which is somewhere else—and to capture it…” [2] This time resembles our own, but is unlocatable: always in an imprecise elsewhere, an ambiguously deferred elsewhen. And despite our best efforts to sort and catalogue this time, capture remains elusive. Something always escapes.

Here is what I mean by ghostly. In Ken McMuellen’s Ghostdance (1983), Derrida describes the cinema as “the art of allowing ghosts to come back.” Cinema and other media, as he says to the actress Pascale Ogier as they sit together in his office, open a channel for ghosts to return. Indeed they are hauntological machines, ghost-making devices that turn once-present beings into shades of their former selves, their gestures caught in interminable loops, their voices skipping as if on a record player. These technologies “enhance the power of ghosts and their ability to haunt us (recoupe le pouvoir du fantôme, le retour du fantôme).” Years later, Derrida recounted to Bernard Stiegler the uncanny sensation of watching Ghostdance after the death of Ogier. “Suddenly I saw Pascale’s face, which I knew was a dead woman’s face, come onto the screen. She answered my question: ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ Practically looking me in the eye, she said to me again, on the big screen: ‘Yes, now I do, yes.’ Which now?” [3] In our own time, our own now, we may feel the same temporal vertigo in the wake of Derrida’s own passing.

The VCR makes acute this ghostly, melancholic production as it gives us the ability to stop time, to rewind and repeat it. Through these controls we may be able to call phantoms into being, but even as we freeze their images onscreen they appear somehow distant, unstable, echoes of another, ungraspable time. Paradoxically, the machine heightens the ghostly quality of the image, revealing as if latent a series of horizontal bars as figures move too fast or are twitchily paused, and silencing everything but the gears of the machine.

With the more recent technologies of the DVR and other modes of digital playback, we’ve also lost the time of rewinding: the acceleration of the machine’s whir, the lurch of its spindles, the momentary fear that maybe this time, the tape will snap. Time rewound also opens us to its potential wound, the near-visceral intrusion of one time onto another, the very possibility of haunting. In this interval of rewinding or rewounding, the proleptic is also paranoid. We sense, in this moment more than any other, the machine’s frailty, its imminent collapse, and with it, the closing of a temporal doorway. After countless reanimations, the past might only, and finally, be retrievable as past.

Earlier, I failed to mention the set of home movies that made up part of my family’s collection of VHS tapes. Rarely watched except when a relative came to visit, these tapes were kept underneath all the others, hidden from view, both precious and forgotten. The camcorder, meanwhile, was stored in my parents’ closet, along with its padded orange pack. I recall one afternoon in which it was mounted on a tripod in my parents’ bedroom, probably because my father had been checking the equipment. I closed myself in the room with the camera, and remember little of what happened next. I’m not sure I was aware that a tape was inside the machine. Hours later, having discovered the tape, my parents were furious with me. They forbade me from touching the camera ever again. I never saw what I’d recorded; the tape was most likely scrubbed, repurposed for my mother’s weekly recording schedule. For a time, I scanned the beginnings of tapes more intently, hoping to catch a sight of myself, maybe, or some forgotten sight. I’m relieved I didn’t, however. Sometimes it’s best to keep our ghosts in the dark.

 

 

[1] Anne Friedberg, “The End of Cinema and Technological Change,” Film Theory and Criticism, Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 919.

[2] Paul Virilio, “The third window: an interview with Paul Virilio,” Cahiers du Cinema, trans. Yvonne Shafir, in Global Television, ed. Cynthia Schneider and Brian Wallis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998, 185-197. Cited in Anne Friedberg, “The End of Cinema and Technological Change,” Film Theory and Criticism, 919.

[3] Jacques Derrida, Echographies of Television: Filmed Interviews, Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler, trans. Jennifer Bajorek (Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2002), 120.