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Interview: Lucas Hilderbrand

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 16, 2009 5:40PM

2009_6_16lucashilderbrand.jpg Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright is a new book examining the history of analog videotape, specifically VHS. Essentially introduced to consumers as a "blank format," its aesthetic properties and technological flexibility immediately placed it at the center of a legal maelstrom. At first movie studios and other copyright holders resisted VHS, but after U.S. courts reinterpreted copyright law to protect fair use by consumers they changed their tune and found ways to exploit the technology. This of course led to the VHS explosion of the 80's and 90's (by 1998 about 96.3% of all American households owned at least one VCR). Although VHS is now an "outdated" format (perhaps soon to be joined by DVD), it radically changed not only how audiences watched things but what they watched. For the first time viewers were able to easily manipulate content, via time shifting, and even create their own. In other words, at the risk of stating the obvious, VHS paved the way for TiVo and YouTube.

But what will the future of video look like, and will we be able to see it later? Aside from YouTube's lousy inadequacy as any kind of reliable archive, corporate copyright holders have proven time and again that they will protect their assets at all cost. The book uses Todd Haynes' infamous first first film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story as a case study; although universally lauded, it remains firmly in the underground because Richard Carpenter refuses to license his music for use in the film.

Lucas Hilderbrand is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and has written for Chicago-based Video Data Bank, Camera Obscura, Film Quarterly and other publications.

Chicagoist: What gave you the idea for writing the book? Why are you personally so attracted to videotape?

Lucas Hilderbrand: VHS was hugely important to me growing up, because I'm from a small town in the Midwest but was passionate about cinema. Without home video, I couldn't have discovered or seen a lot of the work that influenced me--classics, foreign films, and independents that wouldn't have played in a theater or that I couldn't have seen repeatedly and gotten to know intimately. The book came about when I was in grad school; like everyone else, I became a Netflix addict, yet I felt a pang of guilt and nostalgia when I would see video stores liquidating their videocassettes. They seemed to be dismissed so quickly and without question. I was also interested in the ways that DVD helped me to see VHS differently: the aesthetic qualities (soft colors, specks of static, degeneration) that were always there suddenly become more visible in contrast. This was also before DVD was really copyable, so I was interested in the idea that VHS was inherently more permissive. Ultimately, the intersections of analog aesthetics and copyright started to coalesce as I was researching the circulation of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story concurrently with taking an introductory course in Moving Image Archiving and Preservation.

C: People of our generation grew up with access to vast amounts of television programming and movies on video because of VHS, which was like an explosion of content compared how it had been before VHS. But it almost seems like today’s kids have too much access: the pool of content is enormously broad but also shallow. Do you agree?

LH: I've made a similar claim in relationship to YouTube--that the site has introduced a kind of access entitlement--that has been viewed skeptically. Access, of course, is in itself good for culture. My concern is that access often comes without context and that things are viewed in fragmented or distracted ways. I teach film studies, and every time I find that one of my students has watched a feature film in 9-minute installments on YouTube, I cringe a little. YouTube is very useful to access material that wouldn't circulate anywhere else and for circulating grassroots media. But it isn't the same as seeing something in a theater or even attentively watching a film uninterrupted on DVD. And of course I'm parroting the same anxieties film purists had about VHS! Sometimes I feel that the historical specificity or textual richness of some work is lost through online sharing--so my feeling about this kind of access is ambivalent: enthusiastic about the potential, reserved about the actuality.

C: Previously, accessing porn usually necessitated some sort of direct personal contact, i.e. going to the ‘adult’ section of your local video store or even venturing into a strange neighborhood that had an adult bookstore. Mail order was too slow for a quick fix, but now a consumer can download almost any kind of porn instantly. How do you think that’s changed our society’s attitudes about it?

LH: When I taught an adult cinema course at USC, I realized that all the students would have come of age after the widespread adoption of the world wide web--and that they would have never needed to be in public to experience pornography. I thought that this was a significant generational shift, so the first assignment for the course was for everyone to actually visit a public space where pornography could be seen or bought. It was a great assignment in terms of the stories the students came back with and in terms of allowing them an alibi to explore issues that fascinated them. But it also was clear that the de-socialization/domestication of pornography via the Internet has perhaps contributed to deeply ingrained ideas that people who consume pornography are dirty and perverted. Despite the pervasiveness of pornography online, it seemed like the kids were actually pretty sheltered in terms of their own exposure, and it was hard for them to imagine just how mainstream porn really is.

C: Now that the era of the video cassette is winding down, it’s gone from being an overwhelmingly consumer format to one much more closely associated with art. The general public are using their cell phones or digital camcorders to capture everyday life but there still seem to be plenty of video artists using VHS, often as source material to manipulate artistically. What’s your take on this phenomenon?

LH: Video artists have explored and exploited the formal properties of analog videotape for some time; even a cable-access show from Atlanta played up its "sherberty" colors. Artists are also often interested in the circulation of cultural works and in appropriation. All of this suggests why artists have perhaps paid more attention to video than everyday users--and why they continue to use it. Now that it is obsolete, it may become even more fetishized.

C: Television news archives, like the ones you write about, are more important than ever. But news and other historical events are now increasingly being captured by amateurs, and posted directly to blogs and YouTube. What do you think that means for the future of archives? And how will it affect how history is constructed?

LH: Some events captured on amateur video become important documents, but at the risk of sounding like a conservative fuddy-duddy, one concern that I have about the reliance of corporate news on amateur videos and blogs is that it reflects a deprofessionalization of journalism and the recirculation of uniformed opinions rather than actual researched journalism. The Daily Show did a segment on the cable news networks' turn toward Twitter sources with an appropriately skeptical spin. This may pose problems for historians of the future because there seem to be fewer and fewer reliable sources amidst more and more noise. It's also doubtful that all this material will be accessible--or if it is accessible, that anyone will be able to index or search it in a usefully comprehensive way.

C: Do you think Superstar will ever get a legit release, or will it be underground forever?

LH: Basically, Richard Carpenter would have to agree to give permission or license the music. The filmmaker has tried a few times to clear the rights to no avail, and I don't see this happening while Richard is alive. I think the film merits being released as a special edition Criterion DVD with all the extras, but it's not likely. But it's also telling that it's been available on YouTube for about a year without being taken down. Maybe there's an unofficial truce.

C: Do you think we’ll ever arrive at a coherent copyright policy, or are we all destined to remain pirates?

LH: The U.S. was always a bootleg nation. Originally, we didn't recognize other countries' copyrights and allowed publication of anything foreign that might enrich culture or make a buck. I had a conversation with an intellectual property scholar recently, and he takes the position that the courts are generally more efficient and more reliably logical in determining copyright policy than the legislature--so we should hope that Congress doesn't try to solve the problems. I agree to a point--that Congress has essentially failed to create policies that serve the public interest. But as long as the courts recognize the flexibility of the law and remember users' rights, we might be okay. And in any case, yes, we are and will always be a culture that makes personal copies, that develops new technologies to facilitate this, and that views the law as malleable.