It’s 25 December, 1987 in Jack Henry Robbins’ VHYes, and 12-year-old Ralph (Mason McNulty), on the cusp of adolescence, receives a camcorder for Christmas. Over the next six days leading to the New Year, Ralph obsessively documents not just his adventures – with his family and his best friend Josh (Rahm Braslaw) – but also much of the television that he watches. Yet the more cultural ephemera that Ralph adds to his VHS cassette, the more he is unwittingly taping over the wedding video of his parents (Christian Drerup, Jake Head) – whose actual marriage is similarly falling apart.
Co-writing with Nate Gold (also the DP) and Nunzio Randazzo (who also appears as a pair of porn studs), director Jack Henry Robbins (Opening Night, 2016; Ghostmates, 2016) restricts the perspective of VHYes to what Ralph’s camera films and records – a kaleidoscopic mishmash of experiences and archived televisual materials that offer a panorama in mosaic of late-Eighties middle-class American life. Everything we see here has genuinely been shot on a mix of lo-res VHS (with all its associated visual distortions and tracking issues) and Digital Betacam (launched, more anachronistically, in 1993, but still old-school tech). Obviously all this, from the film’s content to its format, is deeply backward-looking, even as two of the programmes which Ralph records are themselves equally backward-looking: in one, the reactionary Kindly the Cowboy (William Frederick Knight) moans to his young ward Kiddo (Lucas Jave) about how much better everything was in the good old days before “a bunch of Berkeley, flag-burning commies” ruined the country; and in another, the sensationalist real-crime show Blood Files: Witch of West Covina, female convicts revisit footage from their sorority days in the Sixties and reminisce unapologetically about how they lynched one of their sisters (Madeleine Coghlan) for being a ‘witch’ (which looks even further back to America’s puritanical past).
In fact the vast bulk of VHYes comprises the shows through which Ralph manically channel-surfs, all of which are cringe-inducingly accurate-seeming, if increasingly unhinged, pastiches of the stranger infotainment, sci-fi sit coms, live jazzercise sessions, bowdlerised narrative porn, detective shows (with endlessly deferred solutions) and amateur life-guidance programming which graced the darker corners of cable television. These sections, featuring familiar comic actors like Charlyne Li and Mark Proksch as well as cameos from Robbins’ own parents (and executive producers) Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, are all funny (strange and haha) in their own right, while giving Ralph’s video a choppy, episodic texture reminiscent of the attention-deficit aesthetic of the then emerging MTV generation. As Ralph keeps taping television way past his bedtime, we also see the pre-teen’s nightmares infecting and inflecting his video, leading to a climactic sequence that irrationally combines all the recorded footage of his video-imaginarium into a single, fluid world of his anxiety-riddled subconscious.
VHYes represents a kind of found footage (with a final act that momentarily resembles conventional found-footage horror), but it is also a palimpsest. Much as Ralph’s video wipes his parents’ wedding film, many of the shows that he records are themselves repositories of cryptic content. Here the elaborate story set-up of softcore romp Hot Winter slyly dumps information on the rising dangers of global warming, while Sexy Swedish Illegal Aliens From Space: XXX hints at the unexpected benefits, economic and otherwise, of immigration. Medieval programme Serf’s Up conceals unexpected disquisitions on the iniquities of global wealth distribution. An ad on the Goods Channel sells illegal drug-smuggling and -selling gear under the guise of bakery goods, while the casual banter of its two hosts reveals a bitter breakdown in their breezy-seeming, all-smiles relationship on screen. A chat show predicts the advent of our own era of mobile phones, celebrity Presidents and technology-driven narcissism. It is as though, encoded in all these sherds of conformist Reagan-era culture there is a hidden, subversive history of America, exposing the nation in negative for anyone paying attention.
Without quite intending to, Ralph is capturing domestic as well as state affairs on camera, as he comes to realise that all is not well on the home front. Yet what at first might seem like a collection of random comedy skits comes together in the end as a bittersweetly melancholic take on nostalgia with, at its core, a strangely hopeful view of the future. “Goodbye to all those old things,” sings Natalie (Weyes Blood) on living-room music show Lou’s Interlude near the end of VHYes, “Carry me through the waves of change.” It is as good a summary as any of a film in which history is erased and covered over by new layers of experience, and Ralph learns to embrace his ‘fresh start’ with an affirmative outlook, rather than over-relying on souvenirs, antiques and the accumulated detritus of his rites of passage. In keeping with its punning title, this is ultimately a very positive film about our transitory relationship to time. It helps that it is also a hilarious hoot and a half, and full of generous, endearing charm.
© Anton Bitel