YouTube and the Indulgence of Memory

By Karen Andrews

Karen Andrews recalls the thrill of discovering old movies on her neighbour’s VHS cassette tapes in the 1980s. She relishes the comfort of reliving them - scene by scene, song by song, moment by treasured moment – using an altogether newer technology (YouTube) now.

I am a child of the eighties. During summer school holidays, on those long, yellow-stained afternoons I ventured out into the cloying heat to jump the fence and visit my middle-aged neighbour, making sure to carefully pick my way through the minefield of thorns that was her yard. Arriving at her door, I would rap my knuckles on the flyscreen and peer into the darkness beyond. The television was almost guaranteed to be playing one of her dozens of VHS cassette tapes. Shuffling across in her slippers, she would come let me in (‘Hello, love!’) and wave me over to the lounge. If she was ironing the air smelled of spray starch. I’d often already deduced by this point what movie was playing either by recognising the actors or taking into consideration costumes, dialogue, or setting. A film was rarely off limits – once she walked over to the machine and pressed stop (remote controls still being a rarity) before I had a chance to sit down. ‘You’re too young, pet. Your mother wouldn’t approve.’

I protested and picked up the cardboard cover. The title: Psycho.

‘But I’ve seen Hitchcock movies before,’ I said, reading the production details on the back. ‘How is this one different?’

‘It’s scarier.’ She put her knuckles to her ears and poked out her tongue, her way of expressing delicious tension. ‘Anthony Perkins … boy, he’s something.’ She smiled at me after coming out of her recall.

‘Come on, let’s go pick something else.’

She led me down the corridor. On a divan next to her bed were rows of shoeboxes crammed with VHS tapes. Among these were the green and white boxes of Bill Collins’ Movie Collection series and a plastic double-pack for Gone with the Wind. These were the days when it was one generally movie per tape, the epics ran over two; before long and short play taping functions were available. One eliminated the risk of losing a prized acquisition by flicking out a little black tab on the front of the tape – or so you thought, until you discovered sticky tape over the spot made it eligible for reuse.

Those occasions when I got to choose a movie were special. I remember standing there, running my fingers over the labels, weighing up my desires: dare I choose a long movie and risk trouble because it ran late, until dark? What sort of mood was I in? Drama, comedy, or musical? My neighbour waited patiently, understanding the dilemma. Eventually, I’d lean across and pluck out my choice.

‘This one,’ I said, handing it over.

We returned to the lounge room. Carefully, evenly, to avoid a jam, she would feed the tape into the machine – at least triple the size of the DVD players of today – and it fell into place with a rattle. She pressed play. Silence, static, sometimes a bit of tracking dial fiddling was required, and finally the first few bars of the score or the roar of the MGM lion ushered in the next few hours of heaven.

When the news documented YouTube’s sixth birthday, I remember this passed through my register without much of an impression. Only later did the significance sling back and hit me. Six years? Really? Is that all? The site has become such a fixture in my life that to dwell on a time before its existence is almost beyond fathoming. A search engine second only to Google in authority, its dominance and track record of creating instant celebrity is undeniable. But the major reason why I keep returning is simply this: it provides immediate access to the memories of my youth, memories based on all those times I watched old movies.

Let me describe the ritual. I wait until I am alone or my family is distracted, quickly make myself a coffee, grab a thick blanket or dressing gown and go to the computer. I already suspect this retreading of ground cannot reconstitute the past because the coffee does not taste the same as my neighbour’s. Nevertheless, I type in YouTube’s URL. Usually I have in mind a predetermined entrance point. I might type ‘Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in Notorious’ if I want to play the famed love scenes that deliberately set out to provoke censorship guidelines at the time.

A results listing shows I could watch the entire movie in ten-minute increments; similar results are returned for other movies. I never watch a full movie this way and I wonder if I am demonstrating classic Freudian narcissistic behaviour. In these YouTube gluts, as I watch and rewatch mere moments or scenes, am I merely seeking to capture the ego of childhood that enjoys pleasure in and of itself without suffering any adult imposition of cultural restraint? It’s possible. When alone, my thoughts are lead back to those sweaty summers, heat snaking its way through the weak spots in the weatherboard, the smell of lamb chop fat in the frying pan as my neighbour prepared dinner, and how she would regularly press the video pause button to tune into the radio and listen to the races. In this reflective state I am the perfect consumer; critical thought manifests only through effort and the tangled matter of possible copyright infringements I’m committing are noted before being dismissed. I am a relaxed compulsive, greedy, and my session of surfing has only just begun.

My neighbour and I had mutual favourite movies (Gaslight, Rear Window, To Catch A Thief) but we also disagreed on some matters. I didn’t really see the appeal of Susan Haywood whereas she was left unmoved by Orson Welles. Her appreciation for Rogers and Hammerstein musicals was countered by my weakness for the religious epics by Cecil B. DeMille or William Wyler. We would quibble good-naturedly and it was a happy friendship of secret understanding. Together we would sigh over a lingering close-up shot of Grace Kelly or Ava Gardner.

But these experiences alone weren’t enough. I wanted to know if our affections and passions were commonplace, or if I was merely the odd one out. As her VCR player aged there were days when the tape jammed or the film got twisted and I was sent home to wait for it to be repaired. Denied my treat, I would step outside to see the kids from around the corner sitting idly on the street curb, leaning back on their hands, chatting. We eyed one another before I turned to walk away. We lived less than fifty metres apart and yet not one word ever passed between us.

Growing even more curious, I would occasionally write up straw questionnaires to surprise my family during large gatherings. Coming from a Catholic clan, there was the usual crush of flesh at the dinner table, and kisses upon arrivals, but I didn’t feel like I knew any of the adults. These questionnaires, as carefully written on paper as a child’s spatial awareness allowed, were my attempt to understand my kin based (and judged) on their taste in movies. My request for their participation in these badly-disguised character analyses were usually met with guffaws and complaints, but they still indulged me. Those ten minutes of silence, laced with nervous expectation while I waited as answers were being filled in, as they balanced cups of tea on their laps on the verandah at my grandparent’s house, were full of the hope of discovery.

I never thought of my family as being particularly fascinating; pickled from the same jar of DNA, I often felt preserved from their uniqueness and charms. How were we individually remarkable? I came closer to knowing on these afternoons as the answers to my questions were read aloud. I discovered Dr Zhivago was the favourite movie of my sport-and-beer-loving father and I was proud – he had a romantic’s soul, after all, if he allied himself with the love story of Yuri and Lara. My grandmother loves Rebecca most of all; my grandfather Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (such disparate tastes, yet over 60 years of marriage and counting).

Once, this, from my aunt: Favourite actor, Steve McQueen.

The gathering went into uproar, past all incredulity and now enjoying the quid pro quo.

They quizzed her: Really?

My aunt grinned and gave a half-hearted shrug. ‘Yes, I don’t know why. I always liked him. I think it was his bright blue eyes.’

Heads swivelled around to my uncle, her husband, to check his eye colour. Brown.

To this day, I love my aunt, but know little that is as complete as that upward turn of her mouth when the identity of her matinee idol became public knowledge. I caught a glimpse of her taste, her truth. My heart thrummed. Weren’t people wonderful?

Yet age bred self-consciousness and as the years passed I became too shy to ask the adults to continue participating in the game. I doubted they even would have indulged me any longer. My mind invented their excuses: Do you think we’ll allow our tastes to be mocked by a teenager and then used against us? Why risk being seen as an ‘old fogie’? I felt lost and didn’t fare much better at school. My friends had crushes on Brat Packers. I could hardly admit affection for my idol in fear of the retort, ‘Errol Flynn? Who’s that?’ So I kept quiet.

For years.

Until I started at a new school and formed a bond with a girl who shared with me a most precious secret.

‘My favourite movie is Meet Me in St Louis.’

I felt like crying with relief.

I’m back at the computer again, sipping coffee. Being reminded of my deceased father almost leads me on a search for Dr Zhivago but I’m not in the mood – not today, at least – so I look at the suggestions in the sidebar. Curious, I click on a Johnny Weir ice-skating routine. I get a little bored and remember how much I liked the gold Olympic-winning Torvill and Dean ‘Bolero’ ice dance, so go and watch that instead.

More time passes.

I have a weakness for opera sequences in musicals, specifically ‘Czaritza’ (sometimes spelled ‘Tzarina’) in Maytime. The music was adapted from Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony for the movie and at the time of writing a search returns two types of clips. In the first the scene is almost all intact; the other, though more complete, has been broken into two parts to be (I’m guessing) more faithful to the flow of the movie and for time constraints. In both Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy sing their love and betray it to the public, including her husband, a snarling John Barrymore.

I justify my indulgence with the thought if I am unable to watch the movie on DVD (at the time of writing, unavailable for purchase), then why not here? So why do I just watch this part? Why impose an artificial hierarchy of worth when, if believing that full meaning stems from completeness, this editing or cutting down of scenes to allowable file sizes devalues the meaning-making experience? Because I am chasing pleasure and the easiest, and best, way to do so is via prior knowledge. It’s recyclable. A scene out of context may make no sense to a stranger – but it will to an insider, thus making the experience more individualised and therefore the public expressions of gratitude [‘Thank you so much for posting this!’ ‘This brings back so many memories’] bolsters the present identity while hat-tipping to the old. What are we all seeking in these moments – instantaneous connection with the past or an extraction from it? Who else dabbles in this restorative nostalgia? Turns out, lots of people do.

Comments sections are often as fascinating as the clip itself and show the shift and surge of generational waves. Search for the hymn ‘Nearer My God To Thee’ from San Francisco and there, among the bible-quoters, are the voices which alert us to the fact that, hey, did you know this song was in Titanic!? Everything old is made new only to be discovered to be old again. I feel compatriot with people who leave comments such as, ‘Wow – they don’t make movies like this anymore. These were way better’. I check out all other clips uploaded by a particular account user if their tastes match mine. I smell likeness. I can email the link to a clip and nail a particular image down to the second (‘The shadows of Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone being projected upon the column in their epic sword fight in The Adventures of Robin Hood occurs at [1.01]’).

Still, I know I need to exercise caution. I am also the child who ignored her mother’s warning against going over to visit her neighbour before nine-o’clock one Sunday morning. I knocked at the back door and heard her slippers on the linoleum. I knew I’d made a mistake when I saw her in her dressing gown, confirmed as she tightened the belt, before she even spoke the words, ‘No, not now. It’s too early’, before the door was shut again.

Other warnings come from my husband, monitoring our bandwidth consumption: ‘The internet isn’t free.’

So I return to another practice more in accordance with tradition: I stick in a DVD and watch from start to finish without over-thinking, like a ‘proper’ viewer should.

Our indulgences must be chosen carefully, especially if they’re memories. YouTube is an ever-growing space of cultural product used to while away time, for research, or to puzzle over the outrageous (and often dangerous) behaviour that is shared – and promoted – for others to view and share and promote all over again; a simulacra of humanity in accessible, bit(e) sizes. Sentimentalists beware.

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