- Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright
A few years ago, a popular internet T-shirt company released a shirt with the words “Analog Is Warmer” emblazoned on the front. Though the shirt features an image of an audiocassette instead of a VHS tape, the sentiment of the shirt nevertheless perfectly describes Inherent Vice, a new book by Lucas Hilderbrand, assistant professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Irvine. Inherent Vice is on the surface a history of analog video and its relation to U.S. copyright law at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. It is when the reader really spends some time with the book that the spirit of Inherent Vice becomes apparent: the book is a paean to analog video and its heyday. Even though Hilderbrand spends much of the book in scholarly discussion of how video informed and changed (and was changed by) U.S. copyright law, he still peppers his discourse with anecdotes (sometimes personal) about his interactions with home videotape and fond reminiscences of the predigital video era. Inherent Vice also contains, in Hilderbrand’s words, an “implicit call for policy reform” (243) with regard to copyright in the twenty-first century.
Inherent Vice is not just a history of the labyrinth that is audiovisual copyright in the United States. It is an exploration of the tension between the top-down control of cultural products by their corporate producers and the (at times arguably) fair-use consumption and dissemination of these products. Hilderbrand uses case studies of bootlegged and/or homeproduced videos to explore the “self-appointed archivists”—those people who take it on themselves to copy and disseminate video copies of television broadcasts, pornography, and rare films (25). Hilderbrand, in the course of his exploration of this copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy videotape trading, introduces a key concept to Inherent Vice, which he calls the “aesthetics of access” (163). Hilderbrand uses this term to describe the look and feel of the video noise of generational decay (the diminution of image quality inherent in a many-generation analog video copy). This fuzziness and distortion of image is to Hilderbrand more than just an unfortunate defect in the process of copying a copy of a video—it is actually a part of the fun of the bootleg. In the first chapter, Hilderbrand discusses the bootleg homemade pornography of stars like Rob Lowe and Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson. According to Hilderbrand, part of the enjoyment of watching these bootlegged videos is found in the poor image quality. The image defects inherent in the analog-to-analog copying of these bootlegs obscure certain key body parts, forcing the viewer to peer closer at the image and use his or her imagination to fill [End Page 152] in what the generational decay hides. In these examples, analog video’s aesthetics of access create more of a tease than crisp, impeccable digital video can.
Chapter 1 gives us a history of analog video and its entrance into the American home. This chapter is, like much of the book, written in a colloquial style that is loose and rarely laden with scholar-speak. (I was stunned to find very few references to Foucault or Derrida in the entire book.) It is surprising to find a scholarly work that contains both the words lacuna and pussy. This mixture of tones feels at times like a collision but ultimately gives the impression that Hilderbrand is a human being first and a scholar second. When Hilderbrand does delve into scholar-speak, he almost seems to do it with a sigh, as if he knows it’s expected of him and he must oblige. Furthermore, Hilderbrand’s history of analog home video reads more like reminiscence than a dry history. Readers who grew up during the rise of home video in the 1970s and 1980s will find parts of this chapter a charming walk down memory lane. There is, however, enough serious history and discussion in the chapter to...