Thursday, April 4, 2013

Caetlin Benson-Allott's "Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens"

Caetlin Benson-Allott is Assistant Professor of English and Film and Media Studies at Georgetown University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship From VHS to File Sharing, and reported the following:
On page 99, I observe that David Cronenberg’s 1983 movie Videodrome stages essentially the same thesis as my book: “video means that movies no longer affect either their makers or their spectators in the same way”—that is, the same way they did when they were films. Since 1988, most US viewers have watched most of the movies they see on one video platform or another: Betamax, VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, Blu-Ray, or digital file. We still go to the theater, of course, but not nearly as often as we stay in with a video. Yet both academics and the movie industry still write about movies as though they were films, as though the cinema still dominated US movie culture. Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens argues that we need to acknowledge that watching movies on home video is different, that we experience movies differently when we pop in the tape, insert the DVD, or play the file. Filmmakers know the experience is different; Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens demonstrates how movies (specifically horror movies and thrillers) present their stories and spectacles differently for different kinds of home video spectators.

Videodrome was one of the first movies explicitly about home video technology, and as I explain on page 99, its dystopian vision of video culture seriously hampered its popular appeal. In Videodrome, a shadowy international corporation develops a new video format whose signal produces brain tumors in its viewers; these tumors produce hallucination and turn viewers into assassins for the corporation’s nefarious political schemes. Sounds like a sci-fi plot—and it is—but the same year that Videodrome was produced, two British newspapers inaugurated a public panic around “video nasties,” videotapes of foreign horror movies that were allegedly corrupting the minds and morals of British youth:
In May 1982 London’s conservative newspapers the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail ran multiple stories warning readers that “films which specialize in sadism, mutilation, and cannibalism” had become widely available to British children as video rentals. These movies were certified X or denied theatrical release by the British Board of Film Censors but were not clearly within that board’s jurisdiction once they came out on video. The Daily Mail coined the term video nasties to describe these tapes, and although the phrase was often deployed as a synonym for horror films, Julian Petley pointed out at the time that “a video nasty is not, apparently, simply a video of a film too violent to be given an X.” Rather, it was an alien threat. As James Kendrick would later prove, the video nasties were for the most part foreign—Italian or American—and were condemned as foreign assaults on British values. In fact, the nasties were routinely characterized as agents of US cultural imperialism bent on weakening the morals of working-class British teenagers regardless of their subjects or national origin.
Although Videodrome was a Canadian film about the horrors of Americanization (that shadowy international corporation seems to be headquartered in Pittsburgh), it was still suppressed in the UK. Confusion and fear about how video was different from film triggered many other social anxieties about class, gender, and sexuality.
Learn more about Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue