Audiences of a certain age remember the now-bizarre struggle to maintain VHS recordings of their favorite programs and movies. During its 30 year dominance, the Video Home System was the singular standard for analog, portable video production and consumption, fully defeating Betamax’s inability to match functionality and consumer preference. The struggle, decades later, seems almost laughable: physically rewinding tapes after viewing, the constant threat of a tape jam, metallic tape depreciation – diminishing returns on each subsequent viewing – and finally physical clutter. Older audiences recall not having this struggle at all; recording anything was a tremendous accomplishment, and doing so was a marvel of technical skill and fiscal independence. New audiences, infants who can use Netflix instinctively, also recall not having this struggle given the death of the VHS when digital media, the DVD, took over.
Access to nothing and everything is almost the same. (Almost) every piece of media is available instantly now across too many platforms, so figuring out what to watch is no longer limited to what is currently on a shelf, but how long a person will spend scrolling through endless content. Both might be paralyzing, but for different reasons. For the film critic and historian, having access to an obscure title with a click is essential; but the critic likely has a decision matrix and a mental map of availability. The average viewer? The person looking to unwind after a long day? No clue, and why would they? There’s no structure or routine that the VHS, then the DVD, provided. A person’s evening would almost be better if the Internet made the choice for them, and just quit.
In 2001, my family first made the switch from VHS to DVD. The handsome Disney and Mel Brooks collections on our shelves would soon be decoration. Our first DVD was The King and I, seeing as it was the title my father recognized out of our library’s massive collection of four. At the time, my 43 year old father connected dearly with the 44-year-old movie; he was a fan of musicals of all kinds, and a fan of Oscar winner Yul Brenner as the precocious, permabanned-from-Thailand, eponymous King Mongkut. The King and I was an ideal introduction to DVD technology. It included an Overture, Entr’acte, and Exit Music to chop The King and I into halves and chapters. A VHS user would to continuously fast-forward and rewind if not interested; the DVD user pushes a single button and the only way to degrade the movie was to treat the DVD like a frisbee.
To wit: in case the DVD watcher isn’t interested in The King and I‘s Siamese take on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” it’s easy to skip. The DVD put the power into the remote control and set behavioral patterns that made watching more intuitive. It also took some autonomy away from the director, as anyone could watch the movie in whatever manner they chose. They could decide that the narrative arc at the back third of The King and I made little sense and just …skip it. They could change between English and Spanish subtitles, speed up or slow down sections, push a button to skip 30 seconds forward or backward. This feature is neither good nor is it particularly bad. But it did change how we consume media. In the future, we might no longer need screens; which means we might not know if someone is watching The King and I right this second. Someone will undoubtedly see it for the first time through ContactLens®. They’ll blink, and that’ll be it.
The King and I is arguably the most recognized film from 1956 (probably because of its many stage revivals with famous actors) but it lost to what can only be a fun adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days. Among other nominees doomed to stream, rarely, on TCM (and ABC during Passover, definitely): Friendly Persuasion, Giant, and The Ten Commandments, which grossed over $1 billion in 2019 dollars. “Home Video” certainly changed the way I watch movies, and certainly changed the way people learn about Moses, from the comfort of their own couch.