The hiss of worn tapes, the crackle and snap of vinyl records, the warped rainbow lines of a chroma error scaling across a VHS frame: music to the eyes and ears of the retro cognoscenti.
Brian Eno best summed up the appeal of an old format’s imperfection in his book, A Year With Swollen Appendices: “Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit — all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided.”
Watching Jack Henry Robbins’ VHYES, I was struck by how his short and sweet film (shot entirely on VHS) perfectly embodies all the cherished quirks of video. Chroma lines, glitches, brief moments when audio warps, abrupt cuts to something else entirely because someone taped over the original content — all these tiny imperfections make each VHS tape its own unique experience.
These kind of flaws, much like the popping on vinyl, are what Eno calls “the sound of failure”— little moments in time when whatever is being recorded is too emotional, too big to be contained by the medium trying to box it in. Robbins uses these rinky-dink flaws in his chosen medium as a spice, adding a unique flavor to a film that’s three parts sketch comedy, one part wry social commentary, with a dash of slice-of-life coming-of-age drama and a dollop of horror thrown on top.
Robbins, the son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon (who both make unglamorous, oddball cameos in VHYES), had released a couple of short films at Sundance before putting together the movie. Those two shorts, the vintage porn parody Hot Winter (whose buff and buxom performers fret about global warming in between “FOOTAGE MISSING” romping) and Painting With Joan (starring The State/Reno 911 vet Kerri Kenney-Silver as a Bob Ross-style public access painter who likes adding some unexpected things to her pastoral landscapes), are part of VHYES. It has the feel of an anthology film — a series of clever, Adult Swim-style absurdist pieces linked by a narrative through line that looks and feels like a Terrence Malick home movie.
“It started out as just a comedy,” Robbins says over the phone. “But I knew that if I was going to spend three years of my life on something, I wanted it to say something and be layered.”
Layered is a good way to describe VHYES’s structure. It's told from the point of view of a boy named Ralph, who gets a video camera in 1987. The film cuts between Ralph’s own footage (hanging out with his friend Josh, spending time with his parents, ambling around in nature), to the video of his parents’ wedding, which he’s taping over, and clips of the TV shows he’s watching.
“You have this juxtaposition of this kid recording over his parents’ wedding tape during the same week that their marriage is falling apart,” Robbins says. “And you see how what he records and watches influences his life and shows the audience what his heart and mind is like at the time.”
While most of the scenes of Ralph and his family are played straight, the TV world of VHYES is a wild and chaotic assembly of lunatics, incompetents, and well-meaning dupes. Comedy fans will recognize some of the figures who pop up throughout VHYES: Thomas Lennon and Mark Proksch appear as (respectively) a QVC salesman and the Antiques Roadshow-esque host he's bullying on camera, and Charlyne Yi pops up as the host of a basement punk show (with real-life bands Weyes Blood and Prettiest Eyes as her guests). It looks like what would happen if Eric Andre did his own version of Wayne’s World.
The production design of VHYES does a tremendous job of simulating what the VHS era looked like, right down to the TV’s scrolling menu channel.
“Filming in VHS really does a lot of the work because as long as you have the right costumes and the right hair, you’re halfway there,” says Robbins.
Much like fellow tape-heads Tim & Eric and Andre, VHYES has that faded video aesthetic that makes everything on screen look like a dimly recalled memory. There’s an unreality to it, compared to the more pristine picture quality of modern cinematography, that makes everything feel even more heightened and strange.
For Robbins, video’s cheapness and its ability to look (and encourage) weirdness was part of the draw for shooting in VHS.
“To me, VHS was kind of the first iPhone in that it was a really cheap way to film yourself,” Robbins says. “I’ve been obsessed with collecting VHS tapes since I was little. You know how when you go into a Goodwill and you find that one VHS tape that’s super weird, like cats doing yoga or something. I think VHS’s cheap quality allowed a lot of weird people to make movies.”
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While much of VHYES is a comedy (a segment involving a true-crime show whose subjects don't understand how magic works is particularly hilarious), there are also moments of touching earnestness and horror in the film. And there’s also one scene of transcendent beauty toward the end when Weyes Blood’s Natalie Mering ends her basement performance by slow dancing with Yi in a dim room with silver streamers hanging in the background.
The lowlight of the room combines with the light bouncing off the streamers to make the two of them shimmer like they’re dissolving into mist. It’s like watching faeries dance in front of a disco ball through watery eyes —ephemeral, beautiful, and hard to see in its entirety. In this one moment, Robbins tried to capture a moment whose emotions are too big for the movie they're in.
That's the beauty of the channel-surfing chaos of VHYES: it crams an entire universe of weirdness into an hour and 12 minutes.
VHYES is scheduled are part of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema's Fantastic Fest Presents series. It runs Friday, January 17, through Thursday, January 23, at the Tempe location. Tickets can be purchased in advance via the website.