Judge Gordon Sullivan was not kind. He forgot to rewind.
They all thought VHS was dead…They were dead wrong!
Of the various media formats available for home use, VHS had one of the longest ascendancies in consumer electronics history. The vinyl LP held out a bit longer, but VHS was the main video format for home use for just about two decades, depending on how you measure it. Though DVD would knock the format from its throne by 2005, the sheer length of VHS dominance ensured that tapes and players were, and are, ubiquitous and cheap—that gave rise to a significant culture of collection as those who grew up on the format held onto their tapes out of nostalgia. Adjust Your Tracking: The Untold Story of the VHS Collect documents the modern-day renaissance of VHS collecting, though sadly it's a film that will likely only appeal to those who already collect.
Facts of the Case
Told through a combination of historical VHS footage and interviews with collectors, Adjust Your Tracking spends 80 minutes giving us a peek into the lives and habits of those who still look fondly on those little black tapes.
Have you ever been hanging out with old friends, maybe from high school, and somebody says something absurd like "Remember that time with the guy who had that thing on his face at that place where they used to sell those big whatsits?" then everyone laughs uproariously at the memory of the guy at the place with the thing? It happens, but have you ever been in the same situation with someone else's friends, like maybe a spouse's high school friends, and the same thing gets said? You have no idea who the guy is, where it happened, or what everybody is laughing about. That's roughly the experience of watching Adjust Your Tracking. What we have in the film is basically a bunch of VHS collectors talking about how "awesome" VHS is and that's why they collect it. When pressed, not a single one can be more articulate about why they collect VHS tapes, what's special about the format, or why anyone else should care. In fact, some of them are openly hostile to those who don't understand and/or share their obsession. This might be a slight exaggeration—some people gesture towards the fact that some movies released on VHS never made it to DVD—but it feels like the interviewees aren't communicating to outsiders at all.
So, if you share a penchant for VHS collecting, watching Adjust Your Tracking will be like a tribal reunion. The names ("Wizard Video") and the experiences (buying $1 VHS tapes when Blockbuster put mom'n'pop stores out of business) will be familiar. The awe with which they speak of the tapes, the rancor they feel for Blockbuster, and the joy in finding and discussing rare films are all on display.
The problem is that for the rest of us, those who don't collect VHS tapes, Adjust Your Tracking is like gazing into a stagnant pool—there might be some cool stuff at the bottom, but there's too much muck in the way. The first 20 minutes or so is literally a montage of collectors waxing rhapsodic about VHS. That would be fine if any one of them could articulate a single reason why anyone else would care. Sadly, they can't, and for most of them the love of the format is pure nostalgia. There's nothing wrong with nostalgia in principle, but it's a tremendously alienating feeling—if you don't share the same feelings, then the person expressing nostalgia might as well be speaking a different language. After that there's a bit of history, some discussion of different video labels, and even some discussion of particularly rare tapes. Most of these don't go beyond the level of "This video label/rare tape existed, here's a shot of the logo/box art." Interspersed with all of these segments are "tours" of individual collections. To the rabid fan it might be interesting to see how others organize their films (and in the case of one collector who uses "sub-sub-genres" it is interesting), but for the average viewer one collection looks much like any other.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's not all bad. My favorite moment comes when Lloyd Kaufman, head of Troma Studios whose fortunes were vastly improved by VHS, says he prefers DVD because of "the history" provided by the extras like commentaries, etc. It's slightly ironic, then, that Adjust Your Tracking gets such a solid DVD release. The 1.33:1 transfer isn't much to look at, but it does justice to the material, especially the usual 4:3 aspect ratio of VHS. We get a lot of stuff digitized from VHS tapes, so detail isn't great, and the interview footage looks okay, as if shot on prosumer level gear. The audio track is a simple stereo affair that keeps interviewees clear and audible. The music (most of it inspired by the 80s) is well balanced and showcases surprising dynamic range.
Adjust Your Tracking comes as a two-disc set (there's also a deluxe version that includes a big-box VHS tape). Extras on the first disc include commentaries with the director and producers that give a solid peek into the passion behind the project and how all the different pieces came together. The first disc also houses three short films focused on the VHS obsession, as well as the film's teaser and trailer. Moving to the second disc we get some deleted scenes (including a profile of the infamous Scarecrow Video store), some extended interviews, and behind the scenes featurettes. Overall, it's a healthy collection of extras that will please those with a collector's mentality.
The film isn't entirely without merit for non-collectors. I wouldn't say that Adjust Your Tracking is great for those with no interest in or experience with VHS, but it has a few interesting moments for those, like me, who have a bit of knowledge but are firmly outside the world. Discussions of the more rare videos, and the few times that history is really discussed, are actually compelling and point out where the film could have gone to be more successful with outsiders.
There are two key moments to Adjust Your Tracking. In one, a collector says "I'd rather die than sell my tapes" and in another a collector compares VHS collecting to remembering the heroes of World War I and II. If either of those sentiments ring true for you, this is a film that will feel like coming home. If, however, these sentiments are foreign, chances are the film will feel impenetrable, like listening to a conversation in a foreign language.
Guilty of needing a bit more adjustment.
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