Be Kind Rewind: Future Adventures in Format Nostalgia

Anthony Carew visits with pop cultural nostalgia, looking at our fetishisation of faded formats (vinyl, cassettes, CDs - even VHS) and asking what we might possibly get nostalgic about in 20 years' time. iPods? Kindles? MP3 files? Just maybe, he suggests, we might return to being nostalgic about the art itself — rather than the format it’s presented in.

In Josh Johnson’s documentary Rewind This!, a narrative history of the VHS tape is contrasted with portraits of those still devoted to this ‘dead’ format: the video-store nerds with endless B-movies in their attics and VHS tattoos on their arms (‘never forget’, one is emblazoned). Nostalgia for faded formats is nothing new, and Rewind This! plays — with nary a wobbly line, given it was shot and screened digitally — like another contribution to a canon that has already enshrined vinyl records, 8-bit arcade games, typewriters et. al within the realm of tactile fetishry.

Image: Cassette tape

A curiouser (and, indeed, curiouser) adventure in pop-cultural nostalgia comes with Downloaded, Alex Winter’s documentary portrait on the birth of Napster, the file-sharing trailblazer that detonated the music business as we know it. It pays lip-service to the legalities of the operation — Lars Ulrich still mockable after all these years; the Napster logo once a counter-cultural face to match t-shirt-Che or the Guy Fawkes mask. But Downloaded, as drama, plays like a non-fiction companion-piece to the celebrated fictionalisation of David Fincher’s film The Social Network. Again: college nerds and goof-offs write piece of visionary software, thus encounter cash, celebrity, ego, lawsuits; just, this time, with (a pre-meme-wedding) Sean Parker playing Sean Parker, not Justin Timberlake. 

Will a past generation’s love of vinyl crackle cede to a re-evaluation of the tinny compression of a 128 Kpbs VBR MP3? Or will it be software itself that gets revived?

Both Rewind This! and Downloaded recently screened late-night at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and effectively courted the same audience: nerds with fond memories of faded technologies. There’s a key difference between the two, though: one is about remembering a format, the other an apparatus. The distinction is key, and plays into one of Downloaded’s thesis statements. Napster’s brief life — and its beautiful corpse — stands as a definitive marker of the digital era’s great seachange: the beginning of the flood of once-real-world activities online, file-sharing a conduit funnelling the formatted past towards its formatless future.


The question begs, then: what faded formats will future generations get nostalgic about in the absence of actual things? At MIFF 2033, what will be the subject of geek-love documentaries? This year’s festival was notable given that every ‘film’, save for a handful of sessions, was projected digitally; but the death of celluloid has already been so widely documented on screens — from bro-monotoned celebrity talkpieces to surrealist Kylie Minogue-starring high-art hijinks — that it’s being constantly celebrated/remembered/enshrined as it goes. Cinephiles are treating celluloid like a beloved relative who, though terminally ill, isn’t actually dead yet (no surprise that cinema, that great artform of ‘time’, is so close a kin to temporality). With pop culture’s collective imminent ascension into the cloud (another great death metaphor) and the corporeal giving way to the ephemeral, whereto future paeans to simpler-technological-days?

CDs and DVDs are currently considered so much clutter, plastic supermarket consumables you can burn up at 50c a pop; but given they are existing objects, they’ll doubtlessly be revived sometime before the end of the 2020s. iPods carry with them fond associations, and seem sure to be some future fop’s madeline back to a lost time. Even their tragicomic ability to break the day after clearing warranty seems due to be fondly remembered, like the self-destructive musician or drunk uncle whose benders become warm anecdotes once they’re safely six feet under. Maybe some will even get sentimental about their Kindle one day; even if they seem too flimsy — physically, culturally, conceptually — to be anyone’s clung-to totem (and in a post-apocalyptic world, you can’t burn them for heat, either).

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Yet celebrating an iPod or a Kindle is fundamentally different to celebrating a record or a book: these aren’t decaying objects where art is literally written on their skin, but essential empty vessels, tech-gadget ciphers miscast in the role as meaningful object. To be fond of them is akin to loving the ouija board, not the ghostly beloved it summons. Ownership in the digital realm can often feel that spectral: while it’s great to shake off the parental baggage of post-war hoarding, loaning ones and zeroes from St. Jobs borders on an act of blind faith. As we move blithely into an era of streamed pleasures, actual things replaced by an Internet of Things, the absence of containers-of-information suggests, perhaps, that it’ll be the bringer to whom sentimentality is attached. Rather than shooting the messenger, they shall be hailed (pimpin’ ain’t easy, but glorification thereof sure is).

As Downloaded looks back, sans (St.?) anger, at Napster, will the world get misty-eyed recalling misty-watercolour memories of files? Will a past generation’s love of vinyl crackle cede to a re-evaluation of the tinny compression of a 128 Kpbs VBR MP3? Or will it be software itself that gets revived?

After all, The Beatles debuting on iTunes was exciting (well, for some) not due to the fact that it was on iTunes, but that it was The Beatles.

But running Windows ’95 isn’t like cranking a gramophone. For even the most romantic of computer users, turning back the operating-system clock barely borders on realist. The relentless forward-march — a collective goosestepping towards a singular digital information-state, in all its totalitarian/Orwellian/NSA horror — makes it far easier to go with the technological current than fight back upstream. The great ‘leap’ from VHS to DVD was more shuffling sidestep (the end result still sticking a movie in a player, then returning to the couch) but with computers, each digital-era epoch truly feels like one. Witnessing images of actual-13-years-ago technology in Downloaded felt like being a renaissance man boning up on the bronze age. And to celebrate fin-de-siècle internetdom for its dial-up speeds and Netscape Navigator-surfin’ would be like glorifying the Mycenaeans for their famine and pestilence.

In the absence of formats, a Polyanna may dream that, just perhaps, it’ll be, y’know, the art itself that commandeers all future nostalgia. After all, The Beatles debuting on iTunes was exciting (well, for some) not due to the fact that it was on iTunes, but that it was The Beatles. Yet, if nothing else, what Rewind This! really depicts is the eternal desire of contrarians to rummage through the cultural garbage. And the internet may not be a thing, but boy does it have garbage.

Perhaps as VHS is to 2013, so Tumblr shall be to 2033?

Portrait of Anthony Carew

Anthony Carew is a writer, film critic, radio presenter, and music journalist from Melbourne. His publication credits include Rolling Stone and the Age. He has presented The International Pop Underground on Triple R since 2000.