Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing by Caetlin Benson-Allott

Linnie Blake discusses a new theory of the spectator in the post-cinema age

June 27, 2013

Between 1980 and 1988 the ways in which we watch movies changed for ever. At the beginning of that period, only 1 per cent of US homes owned a VCR. By the end, the majority of feature films were watched primarily on video, with the format’s profitability subsidising the financial losses incurred by the cinematic distribution of films. In time, VHS itself was superseded, first by DVD and Blu‑ray and then by the opportunities for downloading and streaming offered by the internet.

Caetlin Benson-Allott’s highly readable study explores the ways in which such alterations to viewing practices have impacted on film form, on the ways in which we must now read film and how, indeed, we should conceive of the spectator herself. Hers is a textually sensitive and theoretically astute critique of a range of canonical horror films – horror being a genre that is uniquely suited to an exploration of cultural anxiety in the face of social change. She revisits George A. Romero’s entire zombie cycle (shot over four decades and deploying, in succession, film, video and digital formats) to illustrate how the cinematographic limitations of video came to shape the visual lexicon of subsequent horror cinema. The body horror of David Cronenberg’s controversial 1983 film Videodrome is explored from a specifically Canadian perspective – although mention is made of the British “video nasties” controversy of 1982 – evoking contemporary concerns about the intrusion of video into the home and the invasion of national film cultures by Hollywood. The Ring (2003) is shown to presage the rise of the DVD, with a haunted videocassette becoming itself a repository of evil. There is an engaging reading of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse (2007) that illustrates the impact of multiplatform distribution on film form, while the post-9/11 phenomenon of “found footage horror”, exemplified in films such as Cloverfield (2008), is linked to the industry’s concern with illegal downloading. In such films, it is convincingly argued, the ghoulish spectator watches the horror unfurl through the point of view of a film-maker who is, by necessity, dead.

The readings of each of these films are insightful and original (which is no mean feat given the enormous amount of critical attention they have received), and overall the book makes a highly convincing case for a new theorisation of the spectator in a post-cinema age. But while the ideologically manipulable cinemagoer of the 1970s (who so troubled the Screen Theory generation of scholars) would appear to have been replaced by today’s multiplatform video consumer, Benson-Allott warns that ours is only a fantasy of choice. It is this politically significant point that I would have liked to see further developed. For all the contemporary spectator may be able to stop, rewind or fast-forward film time with the click of a button or a mouse, she cannot, as the author acknowledges, re-edit the footage, add material of her own or make significant alterations to the soundtrack. The video spectator is every bit as powerless as the cinematic spectator of old, with an economy of choice that is quintessentially illusory.

It is clearly beyond the scope of this book to engage at length with the ideological implications of this illusion of choice. Nonetheless, a more concerted analysis of these films as works of neoliberal culture that respond both to real-world economics and to the postmodern turn in film-making practice and critical praxis would have granted further insight into both the films and the people who so enthusiastically consumed them. It is to be hoped that such work will emerge in response to this genuinely significant study.

Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing

By Caetlin Benson-Allott
University of California Press, 312pp, £52.00 and £24.95
ISBN 97805205102, 05126 and 0954496 (e-book)
Published 12 April 2013

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Reader's comments (1)

I am a member of one of the file sharing communities mentioned by Caetlin Benson-Allott in her above cited book. In fact I am something more than a regular user and privy to most of the behind the scenes activities involved in the day to day operations of a large private file sharing community. Recently we became aware that she had written a few words about us. We had a single page from her book and we wished to read the chapter dealing with file sharing in its full context. From the single page available to us we knew that Caetlin made statements as fact about our communities that were easily demonstrably false. This certainly calls into question the validity of any statements of fact she has ever made about anything. We can easily prove that her research methods, at least in so far as they pertain to P2P file sharing, can not stand up to even a cursory scrutiny. It came to pass they we obtained full access to her book, "Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens", and I began to read the chapter dealing with P2P file sharing... Unless I have completely lost my ability to understand the written English language, Caetlin maintains that the MPAA has chosen to wage psychological warfare against movie pirates by creating "found footage" horror films that will some how use our fear of our own mortality against us and presumably terrorize us to the point that we will stop engaging in our nefarious activities. She wrote much more, of course, yet continued to return to this (to me bizarre) theme. Today's academic standards in the USA embarrass me. I am not going to make the kind of gratuitous attacks upon Caetlin in this forum that she felt free to make about file sharing communities in her book. I do maintain that her book should be viewed more as a editorial, that at least in the case of its treatment of the P2P communities has extremely little basis in fact, rather than as any type of serious academic work. Caetlin, if you read this - you logged into our community only one time several years ago. We have never engaged in some of the activities that you state. In fact, they are anathema to us. Had you chosen to engage us in conversation you would have found that although we are not happy about the casual way in which you dropped our name, we are very reasonable people (for the most part) from all walks of life who would have been more than happy to talk to you, even though you apparently disapprove of our activities. And you would still be welcome to talk to us. I have not checked to see if your account has been disabled (it probably has for inactivity) but there are many ways to reach us. I personally have no use for "found footage" horror films. I enjoy watching film that shows how human cultures are different yet how all humans are the same. I am excited to view films that likely will never be seen in the US except by those elite few who live near one of our cultural centers. I am privileged to assist citizens of countries I know little about in their efforts to create subtitles for films seldom seen outside their countries. But now I begin to repeat myself... I find it ironic today that before I became involved in my P2P community, I thought that except in rare cases only Hollywood possessed the resources necessary to produce a film of any lasting importance. I was so naive.

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