Ed: Do you own a video camera?
Renee Madison: No. Fred hates them.
Fred Madison: I like to remember things my own way.
Ed: What do you mean by that?
Fred Madison: …How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.
— LOST HIGHWAY (1997)
Lasting from mid-1977 all the way up to its United States’ discontinuation in 2008, VHS was a revolutionary invention that changed societies’ relationship with movies, TV, time, and each other. There have been multiple documentaries about tape collectors in modern times. Many different products sold on the design and aesthetic of these video cassettes based on their cover art, or displays at the video store, and much more. But unlike vinyl, where an argument can be made for improved sound quality and fidelity to the source, videotapes are by and large a vastly inferior technology for capturing images when compared to the latest options. And although there is certainly something to be said for preservation of titles that don’t or won’t make the transfer to disc or digital, the fond look back at the video decades is less about quality and more about nostalgia. Seeing those tracking bars and static isn’t a sign of cinephiliac purity, but a way to connect with a past that has been replaced over the years.
Arguably, this is the point of Jack Henry Robbins’ narrative feature debut, VHYES. Following a young boy, Ralph (Mason McNulty), receiving a VHS camera from his parents (Jake Head and Christian Drerup) on Christmas in 1987, he then records the world around him while also taping late night television to rewatch later. Flipping through channels, Ralph watches home shopping network fare, public access content, exercise shows, commercials, heavily edited porn, true crime series, and more, while he experiences his life, and the disintegration of his parents’ marriage, through a viewfinder. Ostensibly a comedy until it isn’t, VHYES is a look back at a specific and odd time where UHF was a bit of a wasteland on television and people were just beginning to have an interceding presence between them and experiencing the moment, full of pinpoint period accuracy and lots of perfectly bizarre bits sprinkled throughout.
Created and written by Robbins, Nate Gold, and Nunzio Randazzo, VHYES has a cavalcade of strong performers like Kerri Kenney, Mark Proksch, Tim Robbins, John Gemberling, Thomas Lennon, and Charlyne Yi amongst many others do a great job of resembling the stilted personas of late night figures or delivering incredibly bizarre lines with the worst acting possible. While there is a heavy rotation through a bunch of different “programs,” enough of a pattern of recurring features show up that the absurdly funny tone is easily struck and jokes land well. With a retro feel, dealing with themes of repetition, tropes in entertainment, as well as the slow dissolution of reality, the film is very reminiscent of Too Many Cooks, the legitimately brilliant 2011 short from Adult Swim but with a more human framing set-up that suggests a bit of melancholic view of childhood.
But, at 72 minutes, VHYES either feels too long or too short which is an odd middle ground to be in (kind of like the weird Oregon Trail generation that Ralph belongs to? Hmmm?). All anthologies tend to feel a bit longer than they are, just because there is clear delineation between parts; whether it’s horror anthologies like CREEPSHOW or “sketch” comedy collections like AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON, viewers minds’ catalogue an end to each segment (as opposed to longer flowing narrative) and if there are enough of them it can begin to pile up. It also has one song performed in full, which will also always make a film feel longer. No idea the psychology behind that, but perhaps it is the fact that your mind registers a beginning and an end to one entire “thing,” as opposed to fading in and out in a montage or giving the sense that it’s a clip of a larger whole.
But the runtime also means there isn’t room to have a build-up of the recorded fare becoming increasingly ridiculous or to have a slow burn of reality subtly crumbling due to viewing the world through VHS tapes. While combining Too Many Cooks with 1984’s DECODER (or even Wim Wenders’ 1991 film, UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD) is an interesting concept and thesis, it feels like it needs either more time to be explored or less time to have any sort of fat on it and get to the fireworks factory.
Even with those criticisms, VHYES is still a thoroughly entertaining and demented bit of comedy that has a seemingly endless supply of creative curveballs and approaches to humor that will leave fans of absurdist comedy laughing incredibly hard. It is also anchored by what “real world” performances that feel lived in and those glimpses of parents that children sometimes have where it’s revealed they are just people making stuff up too. There are a few anachronisms (personalities included, technology shown, and the lack of degradation of some of the footage) which throws off the rhythm a bit, but it’s mostly because the vast majority is such a spot on recreation of the look and feel of those wild frontier days of the late 1980s where late night programming was full of the unintentionally bizarre and unfortunately untalented. There is something to be said that, as time has progressed, so many people now experience the world through the lenses of their phones. Capturing the moment rather than living it; pics or it didn’t happen.
And many is the time I’ve been watching some viral video clip and suddenly thought “why didn’t the person put down the camera and help that dog from falling, or that kid from running into the door, or stop that fight they are filming?” Before that moment, it’s easy to forget there is a potentially active participant recording the funny scene that could have missed out on retweets and shares if they had been actively engaging with the world they are recording. But luckily that naked lunch moment of clarity is quickly washed away by someone lip-synching Celine Dion or some poor unfortunate soul trying his best and just whiffing it completely. VHYES certainly has some of that on its mind—and it becomes more pronounced in the end—but it’s more a return to the grainy world of yesterday and the formative experiences of seeing bizarre occurrences outside of our own quietly troubled lives.
VHYES is currently playing in select cinemas nationwide, with an intention for it to continue to expand in certain markets in the coming weeks. It will hit VOD in a few months. To see if it’s playing near you, or to get more information, please visit the VHYES page on Oscilloscope Labs’ website here.
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Tags: 1980s, Camcorders, Charlyne Yi, Christian Drerup, Jack Henry Robbins, Jake Head, John Gemberling, Kerri Kenney, Mark Proksch, Mason McNulty, Nate Gold, Nunzia Randazzo, Oscilloscope Labs, Rahm Braslaw, Susan Sarandon, Thomas Lennon, Tim Robbins, Too Many Cooks, UHF, VHS, video