“Hit the Pause Button”:
Controlling Time, Controlling Film

Gary D. Rhodes

“[Cinema is] the only place where memory is a slave.”  - Jean Luc-Godard, Histoire(s) du cinema 

Have you been time travelling?” - H.G. Wells, The Time Machine 

Film is spooled around a reel or encoded on digital media, but that is not where the audience sees it. Rather, light pulses temporally and temporarily on a screen, presenting images to viewers. But even the screen is not a film’s permanent home, certainly not in the same way that a frame provides for a painting. The location of a film is in flux. A film is most alive while it is being projected, and yet that is when it is immaterial: virtual and intangible, the “imaginary signifier, as Christian Metz called it.”[1]  It is, and then it is not, once the projector stops.

 

The film exhibition is bounded by time. It is an event, one controlled by forces external to the audience. Producers, distributors, marketers, exhibitors, projectionists, and others plan the choice of subject material and the schedule for the same. Some of their planning results in surprises. Screenings during the early cinema period were announced, but in some cases specific film titles were not, particularly before the rise of the nickelodeon. During the Classical Hollywood era, ticket-buyers knew the titles of the features and expected supplementary content, but the particular short subjects on offer were often unknown to them. Even in the 21st century, the pre-feature content appears onscreen unexpectedly. Viewers usually do not know which particular commercials and trailers will be projected. We purchase our ticket and experience what others have prearranged, or even—in the case of technical difficulties—what they have not.

 

In the introduction to their anthology Hollywood Goes Shopping, David Desser and Garth S. Jowett write, “The cinema’s links to consumerism and consumer culture, perhaps the defining substratum of twentieth-century life and culture, make it imperative that further study be undertaken.”[2] Paying for the privilege of seeing makes us consumers, but what if we purchase not sight, but site, meaning the fourth dimension of space? What if money can transform immaterial manifestations into material possessions? Here the cinema is not only linked to consumerism, but it is also the product, a physical product. The medium transforms into audience property, all thanks to the rise of home video. Its advent has profoundly changed how we perceive film.

 

Writing about early cinema and the problems with delimiting specific historical eras, Ben Brewster importantly notes, “Periodization is a dubious enterprise; everything is always changing into something else.”[3] That said, major shifts are possible to identify. The “early cinema” period ends in approximately 1915 because of the feature film’s increasing dominance over the short subject. The shift from silent film to sound in mainstream cinema occurred in the period between 1926-1931; it is difficult to overestimate how monumentally that transformation changed narrative filmmaking. Likewise, the move from Classical to Post-Classical Hollywood cinema in the 1960s marked another significant evolution. 

 

However, I propose that the most vital change in film history was home video, that the two most distinct and discrete eras are the periods before and after its advent and proliferation. Frederick Wasser writes, “the VCR becomes widespread by the end of the 1970s and becomes the primary means for viewing movies a decade later.”[4] It is this transitional period to which I refer. Home video has remained with us ever since, even with alterations in the media used to offer the same—Betamax and VHS, to laser disc, to DVD, and then Blu-ray, as well as the concatenation of download and streaming services that range from YouTube and Vimeo to Netflix and Amazon Prime. 

 

Here is something much greater than a particularized type of cinematic consumerism. Wasser observes that “The mantra of the VCR was ‘giving choice back to the people.’”[5] Such empowerment extended beyond control over content, however important that was, to control over time. The event of film exhibition gave way to the power of instant gratification. The viewer was no longer watching the “images on the screen in a dream-like state,” as Siegfried Kracauer had once described.[6] Instead, the viewer became exhibitor, programming and projecting films.  

 

Theater projectionists had some difficulty pausing, rewinding, and fast-forwarding films while they were being screened. Home video overcame such technical challenges. “Hit the pause button” entered American slang, with ongoing resonance, displacing its predecessor “This is where I came in” (or “This is where we came in”), which referenced arriving at a screening that had already begun. The cinema became forever non-linear, with the durability of cinematic recognition achieved through re-cognition. Repeat viewings meant not only rewatching the film, but also particular scenes or frames within it, reigning over what Jimmy Stewart and Peter Bogdanovich once called “pieces of time.”[7] The audience evolved, seeing details or gaffes that would go largely unnoticed at theatrical screenings. Thanks to the power of the remote control, the viewer/exhibitor became a cinematic time traveler, one who has bested a time-based art.

 

Ownership

 

It is 1895. A large still photograph projected on the screen commands attention, but the Lumière exhibition in Paris has only just begun. Maxim Gorky described the photo’s animation. He wrote, “a strange flicker of life passes through the screen and the picture stirs to life.” The immobile becomes mobile. Then the film ends, and “everything vanishes.”[8] Here is the cinematic inheritor of Prospero’s dialogue in Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, when he announces that the actors were spirits in a “vision” who “melted into air, into thin air.”

 

During the seven to eight decades after Gorky’s article, audience members attempted the opposite, to fix the film in time, to disallow its escape, to possess it as it had possessed them. Here, though, is a mission founded on imprecision, on inexactitude. No bottle holds time, and no mind imprisons light. Efforts to replay a film, to trap it, were largely doomed. The temporality of the cinematic event resulted in a beclouded viewer, one whose memory is potent with potentiality. 

 

James Cagney never said, “You dirty rat!” in one of his movies. In no film did Mae West say, “Come up and see me sometime.” The same is true of Humphrey Bogart and “Play it again, Sam.” But cultural memory during the 20th century suggested they did, hazy recollections reinforced by impersonators like Rich Little and films like Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam (1972).[9] A 1964 episode of The Andy Griffith Show entitled “Andy and Helen Have Their Day” finds Goober (George Lindsey) asking Andy (Andy Griffith) and Helen (Aneta Corsaut) if they “remember a movie called Picnic”[10] starring Cary Grant. Andy and Helen have to explain that Cary Grant did not star in Picnic, that William Holden did. However fictional, the situation is recognizable to many of us, having forgotten something important about a given film in the years that follow. 

 

For over three decades, my father imitated a line of dialogue spoken by Ben Johnson in The Town that Dreaded Sundown (Charles B. Pierce, 1976). Once released on Blu-ray, he watched the film again for the first time in forty years and was puzzled when Johnson did not speak that dialogue, or even anything close to what he remembered. Full disclosure requires me to say that I am not immune. After seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1982) as a child, I firmly recalled Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) telling Indiana Jones, “You go first, Indy,” after learning the floor of the ark’s tomb appeared to “move” because of being covered with hundreds of Egyptian asps.  But Sallah simply says, “You go first.” My mind invented the additional word.

 

Beyond specific dialogue, though, we know that viewers replayed scenes or entire films in their own minds during the days, weeks, months, or years after seeing them in theaters. The Payne Fund Studies, which studied the effect of movies on children in the late 1920s and early 1930s, records numerous examples of everything from kids pretending to be characters in films during playtime to experiencing nightmares that refracted film plots.[11] The opening chapter of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird presents another variation of such memories, when Dill tells Jem and Scout about having seen Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931). Dill’s audience experiences the film secondhand, as does Harper Lee’s reader.   

 

To grasp a film tighter, many moviegoers attempted to materialize the immaterial. Publicity stills from a film helped, whether in the form of 8x10 glossies or as published in magazines and books. Rather than blurred memories, the focus sharpened. Our eyes could linger on the image; we could possess it. But what in fact did we really own? Not the film, of course, nor even a single frame from it. They were not copies, or even copies of copies. Publicity stills were not frame blow-ups. They generally weren’t even taken by cinematographers. They were photographs that mimicked moments in a film, sometimes closely, sometimes not. During the Classical Hollywood era, many publicity stills even depicted action not present in the released films. 

 

Much the same could be said of film plots as recorded in early fan magazines (like Motion Picture Story Magazine), photoplay editions (like those published by Grosset and Dunlap in the 1920s and 1930s), and later book-of-the-movie novelizations. Whether text alone or text accompanied by still photos, these editions always featured some derivation from the films, due in part to the intrinsic differences between literary and cinematic media. 

           

Other variances also occurred. Arthur C. Clarke’s novelization of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) makes clear that aliens are behind the monoliths; Stanley Kubrick’s film of the same year does not. When Donald F. Glut wrote the novelization to The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980), he had access to the script, storyboards, and a small number of publicity stills, but he had not seen the film.[12] Glut’s novel is extremely memorable, but it is not his memory of actually watching the movie.

 

Many moviegoers wanted to own films, though, not to experience them through secondary sources.The closest that print ever came to emulating particular movies were books of the type edited by Richard J. Anobile in the 1970s, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (both published by Universe Books in 1974). Anobile pioneered the use of frame blow-ups from film prints and exact dialogue from the same sources to do what our memories cannot, to encapsulate a film, or at least hundreds of frames from it. But only a small number of films received such treatment, and still images on paper are still not cinema.

 

Other efforts veered closer to time-based cinema. A friend of mine spent hundreds of hours plugging his reel-to-reel recorder into a projection system at an Oklahoma theater during the 1960s. He had the manager’s permission, but not the studios’. And so he illegally enjoyed the soundtracks of films that he could not see again, at least not in that era. Like Anobile’s work, his effort was incomplete. The same was true of the film soundtrack on LP or CD, which foregrounded what much of what had been background music. Fiat sonus, but certainly not fiat lux.

 

The best way to own a film was to own a film print, no easy task at any point in history. During the 20th century, various companies legally released films onto home movie formats like 16mm, 9.5mm, 8mm, and Super 8mm. However, the bulk of them tended to be excerpts from feature films. A movie fan could purchase the print and project it at his or her leisure, and repeatedly for that matter.  But only part of the film, and only from a limited catalog. Sometimes the viewer might not even have known the origins of the excerpt. In the 1960s and 1970s, companies like Castle Films retitled some of their releases, which obscured the movies’ original names.[13]

 

To own an entire feature was particularly rare, in part due to cost and in part due to legalities. With the exception of public domain titles, owning a feature film was not possible, at least not within the boundaries of the law. The studios owned their prints; exhibitors rented them and had to return them to film exchanges. Pirates sold 35mm and 16mm prints of some movies, at times in the form of poor quality dupes. In 1974, for example, Variety reported that a bootlegged print of Browning’s 1931 Dracula could be purchased for $75, far more than Dill could have afforded.[14] And individuals owning a collection of film prints risked prosecution by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. No less than Roddy McDowell was investigated by the FBI in 1974, with the agency confiscating more than 500 film and TV show prints during a raid on his home.[15]

 

Of course, we could argue that the cinema is owned by all of us, that films become a part of the culture that we share, that all films, each and every one, are theoretically part of the public domain. In “The China Problem,” a 2008 episode of South Park, cartoon characters Stan and Kyle bemoan George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s treatment of Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). While embedded in a grotesque narrative, the point is well made: famous films belong to our culture as much as they do to those who legally own them.

 

That view is not upheld by Hollywood. In 1979, Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) called piracy a “cancer in the belly of the film business.”[16] But lack of access to films during most of the 20th century had various ramifications, particularly for those who wanted to understand and study them. A lucky few had access to rewatch select films, as in the case of Orson Welles allegedly viewing Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939) more than forty times prior to making Citizen Kane (1941). A relatively small number of scholars saw films at archives. The rest of us were moviegoers in the literal sense of the word, going as we did to movie theaters.

 

During a film’s brief run, mitigated by our own schedules and finances, we could only do what movie posters for Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964) recommended: “SEE IT AGAIN AND AGAIN!” If we were fortunate, a reissue or revival screening might occur, but that too was limited. As a 1981 reissue poster for Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) declared, “The Force Will Be With You For Two Weeks Only.” Or we could hope for a television broadcast, meaning some of us even set alarm clocks in the middle of the night, as I did, to wake up and see Browning’s Dracula at 3am in 1980. But none of this constituted ownership. We still could not stop the film from ending. Like Gorky, we saw it vanish. It could not yet be frozen on the screen, as the Lumière’s first frame had been.

 

Here again, I suggest the advent of home video to be the crucial marker in film history. Memory had been a slave to the cinema, as Godard said, but, as Carolyn A. Lin observed in 1990, the rise of home video forever “emancipated” the viewer from being “passive.”[17] When I once told a particular filmmaker I owned a copy of her film on VHS, she was at first miffed. I was not the copyright holder, so how could I own it?  My rejoinder was that I did not own her film, but rather a copy of it on VHS. She joked that possession is 9/10ths of the law. We found a point of agreement. And she appreciated that I could rewatch it, time and again. Ownership is power.  After all, we do not press the pause button, or tap it, or push it. We “hit” it.

 

Time Travel

 

The same year that Maxim Gorky visited the Lumière cinematograph, readers first encountered H. G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine. In it, he described the Time Traveller, who “sat back in his chair at first, and spoke like a weary man. Afterwards he got more animated.” From stillness he came to life. And the Time Traveller admonishes a character who claims, “you cannot move at all in Time, you cannot get away from the present moment.” “My dear sir,” he replies, “that is just where you are wrong.”

 

To be sure, for 70 to 80 years, the cinema was linear, even if Hollywood occasionally told us otherwise. To serve film plots, onscreen projectors freeze perfectly illuminated images in films like Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936) and Arnold Laven’s Down Three Dark Streets (1954), when undertaking the same in real life would burn a hole through the frame. And in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) intentionally replays a projected image of the Zapruder home movie six times in row in what is meant to be a 1969 courtroom, enunciating “back and to the left” as he does. The footage repeats magically, without the need to rewind. Helen Powell writes, “Through the development of editing techniques cinema offers itself as a virtual time machine, providing the spectator with a unique experience.”[18]

 

But home video is an actual, not virtual, time machine. Repetition of the same image allowed for scrutiny, for the understanding of evidence, whether about an assassination or about the cinema. In the foreword to the “Enlarged Edition” of his landmark book The World Viewed, Stanley Cavell spoke at length about the

 

immediate and tremendous burden on one’s capacity for critical description of cinematic events. The question
of what constitutes, in the various arts, ‘remembering a work,’ especially in light of the matter of variable quot-
ability, naturally raises the question of what constitutes, or expresses, ‘knowing a  work’ (Is recognizing it enough?
Is being able to whistle a few bars necessary? Does it matter which bars?). These questions in turn lead to the
question of what I have called ‘the necessity to return to a work, in fact or in memory,’ an experience I try hitting
off by speaking of ‘having to remember.’[19]

 

He admitted that reliance on the memory of seeing films leads to inaccuracies, as it had in his original edition of The World Viewed

 

Cavell was imbued with intelligence and insight, but not the magic of time available to Jim Garrison in Oliver Stone’s JFK, or to the Time Traveller in H.G. Wells’ novel. He did not have that spell; nor did his colleagues. Cavell was simply more forthcoming than most about his limited access to that which he studied. As Eivind Røssaak wrote in 2011, “Today, it is hard to imagine that before the advent of the laser disk and the videotape, most film scholars were writing their analyses from the memory of the film they had seen in a movie theater.”[20]

 

In 1975, the Sony Corporation first began selling videocassette recorders.[21] The average price of a VCR was $2,300; it fell to $1,200 in 1976, and to $573 in 1983. From that point forward, the numbers of purchased units grew exponentially.[22] By 1987, 52 percent of American households owned a VCR; as of July 1988, the number grew to 60 percent.[23] U.S. video rental stores expanded from 700 in 1979 to 10,000 in 1983 and then to 27,000 in 1987.[24] As Alan M. Rubin and Rebecca B. Rubin wrote in 1989, VCRs “accentuate choice, involvement, and control, and highlight the active and interactive nature of personal and mediated communication.”[25] For Jack Valenti, the VCR was an “unleashed animal” that turned the world of cinema into a “jungle.”[26]

 

But the machine was leashed, under the control of its owner. Once tamed, film no longer had to operate in what Garrett Stewart has called its “automated stride.”[27] H. G. Wells wrote, “The thing the Time Traveller held in his hand was a glittering metallic framework, scarcely larger than a small clock, and very delicately made . . . ‘Upon that machine,’ said the Time Traveller, holding the lamp aloft, ‘I intend to explore time.’” 

 

No easy task, for him or for those metamorphosing into a new kind of film viewer.  In Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs (1987), Colonel Sandurz (George Wyner) commands an underling to “fast forward” through a VHS cassette of the movie Spaceballs to discover information about the film’s plot. Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) watches in dismay as the image on a monitor speeds through scenes we have already watched.  When the cassette resumes normal playback, the characters see themselves onscreen at the exact same moment. The monitor presents the present.

 

Dark Helmet is taken aback and demands to know, “What the hell am I looking at?  When does this happen in the movie?” Sandurz replies, “Now. You’re looking at Now, sir. Everything that happens now is happening Now.” 

 

Dark Helmet: What happened to Then? 

Sandurz: We passed that.

Helmet: When?

Sandurz: Just now. We’re at Now now.

Helmet: Go back to Then.

Sandurz: When? 

Helmet: Now. 

Sandurz: Now? 

Helmet: Now.

Sandurz: I can’t. 

Helmet: Why? 

Sandurz: We missed it. 

Helmet: When? 

Sandurz: Just now.

Helmet: When will Then be Now?

Sandurz: Soon.

 

Cinematic time was finally relative.

 

Unlike Dark Helmet, most viewers understood their home video recorders by the time Spaceballs was released, and their knowledge grew as the machines evolved. Bazin taught us about “change mummified”; horror films taught us about mummies that revivify. Eivind Røssaak writes, “With the VCR, films could be stopped at any point, and with the DVD-player perfect freeze-frames were easily created. The pause button and the menu button introduced new modes of analyzing film, thus opening up old films in new ways.”[28] The word “perfect” here is worth considering. Consider Walter Benjamin in 1936: “Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.”[29] Whether it was on Betamax or VHS or laser disc or DVD or Blu-ray or any streaming device, a film like Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) was not the same as viewed on 35mm in the theater. Variances in image and sound quality occurred, sometimes not for better, but sometimes—as in Universal’s restoration of the Browning film—with clearer audio than audiences heard during the original release, let alone with pirated film prints. 

 

Nevertheless, the immaterial became the material to be collected and owned—not just the purchase of a VHS, DVD, or download, but even as legally recorded off the public airwaves, as the U.S. Supreme Court famously decided in 1984.[30] Since then, FBI agents are no longer worried about our home video collections. They are ours, to be viewed, re-viewed, and reviewed at leisure: cinematic recidivism exists. Fiat Lux begets Fiat Lux Rursus Et Rursus.

 

Unbounded by time, screenings could occur again and again at the moment and location of one’s choosing. “Playback” means to play back, even if we do so tomorrow or next week. Back and to the left, or to the right (meaning the rewind and fast-forward), as given scenes can be repeated ad infinitum, outside of the film in which they appeared and out of sequence as well. Laura Mulvey explains, “The new technology offers an opportunity to look back to the ‘before,’ to the ‘then’ of the indexical image, in the changing lift of the ‘after,’ the ‘now.’”[31] Here is “timeshift,” as it was called in the 1980s. Or, as Wells wrote in The Time Machine, “We are always getting away from the present movement.”  The cinematic event thus became a set of on-demand actions.

 

The viewer makes these demands, including of content. Studio efforts to defer home video releases of major product, as Disney attempted in the 1980s, came to naught. And efforts to release disposable, self-deteriorating media, such as Digital Video Express (DIVX), failed miserably.[32] The time delay from theatrical to home distribution significantly contracted. A character in Spaceballs jokes about “instant cassettes,” which are “out in stores before the movie is finished.” As Helen Powell notes, “Each film release in the cinema is simply a starting point to extend the shelf-life and revenue stream beyond the time spent in the box office charts.”[33] Available content has multiplied from all manner of sources, from formal distribution to online sharing at YouTube and its kith and kin. And expectations of audiovisual quality continue to intensify.

 

The role of the audience member has thus transformed into an ever-more active role. Not only can we time travel, but we can also stop time, all thanks to home video and its effects on our perceptions. Hitchcock required that we see Psycho from start to finish in 1960 (as opposed to the strong suggestion that we “should see [his 1958 film Vertigo] from the beginning!”). Let us instead watch the shower scene repeatedly, skipping the first section of the film. And let us pause, technologically as well as thematically, aesthetically, and ideologically, on the brief superimposition of the skull onto the face of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), so that we can capture it. Subliminal shots in films like Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1968) and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) become liminal, become explicit, become familiar, conventional, even hackneyed. 

 

All is revealed, including that which we were never supposed to see. Here are the images that filmmakers secreted into their works. A topless woman appears in two frames of Disney’s The Rescuers (John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman, and Art Stevens, 1977), for example. And here are the images that filmmakers themselves might not have been aware of, such as the tire tracks in the sand in Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959) or the continuity error in the closing scene of City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931), in which the Tramp holds a flower to his mouth with his right hand when pictured in a medium shot. In the reverse shot, his right hand is not at all in the same position.

 

In 1895, Gorky described a “Kingdom of Shadows” that illumined a screen; he could witness it, but could not enter it. By contrast, Wells described a “dance of shadows” caused by “flickering light” in the Time Traveller’s laboratory. The other characters follow him into the lab. They see his invention and understand its purpose. Since the rise of home video, the new audience is able to follow filmmakers like never before. Their own homes become laboratories. The new audience member is literally a reviewer, a critic who shares his or her findings on internet platforms after examining the film more than once. Mr. Plinkett has millions of views on YouTube.  He has influence, but only thanks to home video.

 

Mulvey notes, “The aesthetics of the past meet the aesthetics of the present, bringing, almost incidentally, new life to the cinema and its history.”[34] Old films and new transformed, with filmmakers understanding the increased power of the audience, and of their pause buttons. Few viewers noticed the stormtrooper who hits his head on a door in Star Wars during its theatrical release, but on home video, the gaffe became legendary. George Lucas responded by adding a sound effect in the 2004 DVD release acknowledging the same, as well as drawing greater attention to it. And then there is Basic Instinct (1992), produced well after the transition to home video. Director Paul Verhoeven knew that audience members at home would push the pause button, over and over again, during the infamous scene in which Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) crosses her legs and reveals she is not wearing panties: at the movie theater, as a linear experience, the action occurs too rapidly for viewers to be certain.

 

At home, though, this image, or any image, can be owned, and screened at will. As the New York Times ruminated in 1989, “The creation of an extensive video repertory during the 1980s may, in retrospect, prove one of the more important cultural events of our time.  Video has turned the living room into the world’s principal showplace.”[25] By that time, the viewer/exhibitor could also act as architect/ interior designer/manager of his or her “home theater,” in charge even of a concession stand with popcorn popper.[26] Attraction and distraction, intervention and circumvention, selection and omission: these powers now allow us to govern the cinema.

 

 

Conclusion

 

What may be said of the post-home video epoch?  H. G. Wells wrote, “I have already told you of the sickness and confusion that comes with time travelling.” James Cagney did not say, “You dirty rat!” in a film, but in his autobiography, he writes about his poor upbringing and how much, even later in life, a napoleon dessert meant to him. He also referred to a rich man, one who had never been deprived of anything in life: “To him a napoleon is just a napoleon; to us it was, it is, an experience.”[37]

 

Once we own something, whether a napoleon or a Napoleon (Abel Gance, 1929), it is arguably not as special. To see the finest scenery every single day could eventually be to see it not at all. Discussing the “oversaturation” of film content in 2016, Martin Scorsese observed, “Images, for example, are everywhere. Cinema used to be in a building and even on television, you’d see a film or whatever.”[38] So many films are available that we are beset with content. Perhaps control exists in inverse proportion to the cinema, or at least our experience of it.

 

For films to be under our charge and at our behest might allow us to scrutinize them with far greater acumen, but is the cost one that cannot be calculated in dollars?  One of the most amazing images I have ever seen happened at a movie theater in 2008, by which time I had owned films like Browning’s Dracula (1931) on Betamax, VHS (twice), laser disc, and DVD (thrice). The screening was of a new film, Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Dave Filoni, 2008), which I presumed I would never watch a second time. At a given point, the projector jammed. The frame burned slowly, and everyone in the audience watched it, writ large in front of us. The screening was indeed an event, featuring spontaneous imagery far beyond the control of the theater, let alone viewer, and I cannot ever see it again. 

 

By contrast, my aforementioned versions of Browning’s Dracula have provided a large degree of consistency, when I choose to view them, in whatever manner, whether from start to finish or particular scenes out of sequence or even frame-by-frame. At times I rotate through favorite films to help me sleep, their dialogue and sound effects familiar thanks to watching them repeatedly. I am so conversant with those films that I no longer need converse with them. Jonathan Rosenbaum writes:

 

The disappearance of what Raymond Bellour has called ‘le texte introuvable’ (‘the unattainable text’)
and all the furtive magic that this implies has to be weighed against the appearance of the film that one
can now possess and casually read like a book, recovering favorite passages at will.[39]

 

Recovering favorite passages at will: time travel with or without purpose, moving through cinema with the greatest of ease. 

 

But we can do more, rediscovering and even recreating films that we otherwise know so very well. In 1991, Sean S. Cubitt wrote, “The domestic video cassette recorder (VCR) is itself a production device, as it can be used for seizing moments from TV’s incessant flow, compiling, crash editing.”[40] During the 21st century, editing software has allowed the owner/viewer/exhibitor/time traveller to become filmmaker in his or her own laboratory. 

 

The sheer number of fan re-edits of given films posted to YouTube attest to this claim. The moviegoer who hated Jar-Jar Binks at a theatrical screening of The Phantom Menace (George Lucas) in 1999 need not see him again; an unauthorized version of the film removes all trace of the character. Other re-edits combine films, or alter their genre by adding laugh tracks. How many times has Hitler’s rant in Der Untergang/Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004) been excerpted online, its English subtitles replaced in order to change its meaning? The number continues to increase, as do the number of fan re-edits in general. They have become a new way for filmgoers to own and control the cinema, to converse with films and to converse with one another. 

 

Even more common are film clips, gifs, and memes that populate the internet, shared ad nauseum on social media. David Lynch famously required some DVD releases of his films to feature no chapter stops; with our remote controls, we can override him by pressing pause, fast-forward, or rewind. But for some film fans, brief extracts from given films mean they need not even watch the full-length versions, chapter stops or no. The excerpt potentially becomes the whole, a cinematic stand-in for the sake of brevity. 

 

As someone who loves the cinema and writes about the same, home video has been a great gift. However, I have stacks of DVDs I have not seen; I own them, and time travel allows me to postpone them as long as I want. As H.G. Wells wrote, the Time Traveller’s eyes “twinkled,” but they were still “pale.” Repeat viewings are not always instructive or helpful. For example, reports of a suicidal Munchkin hanging from a tree in The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) are false. Sightings of an extra exposing himself in Teen Wolf (Rod Daniel, 1985) might well be incorrect. And I sorely wish that I had never observed the aforementioned continuity error in City Lights, which greatly undercuts its emotional impact. None of these declarations would likely have been made before the home video revolution. By contrast, the formal study of the cinema has undeniably improved.

 

Advantages and disadvantages can be tallied, but the second epoch of cinema will not end. According to Maxim Gorky, the cinematic image was a spectre that vanished.  But for H.G. Wells, the time traveller was the phantasm, the one who vanished, never to return. Thanks to home video, we are the time travellers. Our memory will never be enslaved again. On demand is not a request. The pause button cannot be hit on the pause button.

Notes

[1] Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier:  Psychoanalysis and the Cinema (Bloomington:  University of Indiana Press, 1982).

[2] David Desser and Garth S. Jowett, “Introduction,” in Hollywood Goes Shopping, ed. David Desser and Garth S. Jowett (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 2000), xx.

[3] Ben Brewster, “Periodization of Early Cinema,” in American Cinema’s Transitional Era: Audiences, Institutions, Practices, ed. Charlie Keil and Shelley Stamp (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2004), 74.

[4] Frederick Wasser, Veni, Vidi, Video: The Hollywood Empire and the VCR (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), 3.

[5] Wasser, Veni, Vidi, Video, 82.

[6] Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1960), 303.

[7] Peter Bogdanovich, Pieces of Time: Peter Bogdanovich on the Movies (New York:  Ann Arbor/Esquire, 1973), 5.

[8] Quoted in Jay Leyda, Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960), 407.

[9] For more discussion and examples, see Tim Dirks, “Film Misquotes,” AMC Filmsite, accessed October 10, 2018, http://www.filmsite.org/moments0.html

[10] Directed by Joshua Logan and released in 1956.

[11] See Christina Peterson, “The Crowd Mind: The Archival Legacy of the Payne Fund Studies’ Movies and Conduct (1933),” UCLA Mediascape, December 29, 2012,  accessed January 7, 2019, http://www.tft.ucla.edu/mediascape/pdfs/Winter2013/CrowdMind.pdf

[12] Donald F. Glut, Email to Gary D. Rhodes, October 18, 2018.

[13] For example, a Castle release called Doom of Dracula was an excerpt from Universal’s House of Frankenstein (1944). The Castle releases Frankenstein’s New Brain and The Trial of Frankenstein were both excerpts from Universal’s Ghost of Frankenstein (1942).

[14] “Pirated Print Fees,” Variety, July 31, 1974, 31.

[15] Kerry Segrave, Piracy in the Motion Picture Industry (Jefferson, North Carolina:  McFarland and Company, 2003), 106.

[16] Quoted in Segrave, Piracy in the Motion Picture Industry, 114.

[17] Carolyn A. Lin, “Audience Activity and VCR Use,” in Social and Cultural Aspects of VCR Use, ed. Julia R. Dobrow (Hillsdale:  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1990), 75.

[18] Helen Powell, Stop the Clocks! Time and Narrative in Cinema (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012), 21.

[19] Peter Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, Enlarged Edition (Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard University Press, 1979), x.

[20] Eivind Røssaak, “Algorithmic Culture: Beyond the Photo/Film Divide,” in Between Stillness and Motion: Film, Photography, Algorithms, ed. Eivind Røssaak, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2011), 188.

[21] Carolyn A. Lin, “Audience Activity and VCR Use,” in Social and Cultural Aspects of VCR Use, edited by Julia R. Dobrow, (Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1990): 75.

[22] Bruce C. Klopfenstein, “The Diffusion of the VCR in the United States,” in The VCR Age: Home Video and Mass Communication, ed. Mark R. Levy (Newbury Park:  Sage Publications, 1989), 25.

[23] Klopfenstein, “The Diffusion of the VCR in the United States,” 21; see also Paul B. Lindstrom, “Home Video: The Consumer Impact,” in The VCR Age: Home Video and Mass Communication, 41.

[24] Wasser, Veni, Vidi, Video, 101.

[25] Alan M. Rubin and Rebecca B. Rubin, “Social and Psychological Antecedents of VCR Use,” in The VCR Age: Home Video and Mass Communication, 92.

[26] Quoted in Peter Decherney, Hollywood’s Copyright Wars:  From Edison to the Internet (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 175.

[27] Garrett Stewart, Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1999), 1.

[28] Røssaak, “Algorithmic Culture,” 188.

[29] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt and trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 223.

[30] Eugene Secunda, “VCRs and Viewer Control Over Programming: An Historical Perspective,” in Social and Cultural Aspects of VCR Use, 20.

[31] Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London:  Reaktion Books Ltd., 2006), 21.

[32] Segrave, Piracy in the Motion Picture Industry, 129.

[33] Powell, Stop the Clocks, 156.

[34] Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, 21.

[35] Hans Fantel, “Video:  The Living Room Is Now the Stage,” New York Times, December 31, 1989, A20.

[36] “VCR Users Can Turn Room into a Movie-Theater Lookalike,” Chicago Tribune, June 16, 1989, 90.

[37] James Cagney, Cagney by Cagney (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1976), 201. Emphasis in original.

[38] Quoted in Christopher Hooton, “Martin Scorsese: ‘Words and Images Don’t Mean Anything Anymore,’” The Independent, December 13, 2016, accessed on November 18, 2018, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/martin-scorsese-silence-new-films-disposable-over-saturation-press-conference-a7471996.html

[39] Jonathan Rosenbaum, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 6.

[40] Sean S. Cubitt, Timeshift: On Video Culture (New York:  Routledge, 1991), 4.

Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.

 

Bogdanovich, Peter. Pieces of Time: Peter Bogdanovich on the Movies. New York: Ann Arbor/Esquire, 1973.

 

Brewster, Ben. “Periodization of Early Cinema,” in American Cinema’s Transitional Era: Audiences, Institutions, Practices, edited by Charlie Keil and Shelley Stamp. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

 

Cagney, James. Cagney by Cagney. Garden City:  Doubleday and Company, 1976.

 

Cavell, Peter. The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, Enlarged Edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.

 

Cubitt, Sean S. Timeshift: On Video Culture. New York: Routledge, 1991.

 

Decherney, Peter. Hollywood’s Copyright Wars: From Edison to the Internet. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

 

Desser, David and Garth S. Jowett. “Introduction,” in Hollywood Goes Shopping, edited by David Desser and Garth S. Jowett. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

 

Dirks, Tim. “Film Misquotes.” AMC Filmsite. Accessed October 10, 2018, http://www.filmsite.org/moments0.html

 

Fantel, Hans. “Video:  The Living Room Is Now the Stage.” New York Times, December 31, 1989.

 

Hooton, Christopher. “Martin Scorsese: ‘Words and Images Don’t Mean Anything Anymore.” The Independent, December 13, 2016. Accessed on November 18, 2018, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/martin-scorsese-silence-new-films-disposable-over-saturation-press-conference-a7471996.html

 

Leyda, Jay. Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960.

 

Klopfenstein, Bruce C. “The Diffusion of the VCR in the United States,” in The VCR Age: Home Video and Mass Communication, edited by Mark R. Levy.  Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1989

 

Kracauer, Siegfried. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.

 

Lin, Carolyn A. “Audience Activity and VCR Use,” in Social and Cultural Aspects of VCR Use, edited by Julia R. Dobrow. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1990.

 

Lindstrom, Paul B. “Home Video: The Consumer Impact,” in The VCR Age: Home Video and Mass Communication, edited by Mark R. Levy.  Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1989.

 

Metz, Christian. The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1982.

 

Mulvey, Laura. Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2006.

 

Peterson, Christina. “The Crowd Mind: The Archival Legacy of the Payne Fund Studies’ Movies and Conduct (1933).” UCLA Mediascape, December 29, 2012.  Accessed January 7, 2019, http://www.tft.ucla.edu/mediascape/pdfs/Winter2013/CrowdMind.pdf

 

“Pirated Print Fees.” Variety. July 31, 1974.

 

Powell, Helen. Stop the Clocks! Time and Narrative in Cinema. London: I.B. Tauris, 2012.

 

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

 

Røssaak, Eivind. “Algorithmic Culture: Beyond the Photo/Film Divide,” in Between Stillness and Motion:  Film, Photography, Algorithms, edited by Eivind Røssaak. Amsterdam:  Amsterdam University Press, 2011.

 

Rubin, Alan M. and Rebecca B. Rubin, “Social and Psychological Antecedents of VCR Use,” in The VCR Age: Home Video and Mass Communication, edited by Mark R. Levy.  Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1989.

 

Secunda, Eugene. “VCRs and Viewer Control Over Programming: An Historical Perspective,” in Social and Cultural Aspects of VCR Use, edited by Julia R. Dobrow.  Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1990.

 

Segrave, Kerry. Piracy in the Motion Picture Industry. Jefferson, North Carolina:  McFarland and Company, 2003.

 

Stewart, Garrett. Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1999.

 

Wasser, Frederick. Veni, Vidi, Video: The Hollywood Empire and the VCR. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.