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Hilderbrand wrote about film for his high-school newspaper and made student videos, but he never owned a video camera, even before entering the prestigious film school at New York University. Once there, he found out-of-pocket costs for filmmaking so prohibitive that he quickly left and enrolled at the University of Minnesota, which did not offer film production at that time. Hilderbrand instead took those courses at a nearby community college, but he quickly realized, “It is much more fun to watch films than to make them.” Fortunately, the university had strong programs that fit his passion: He earned his bachelor’s degree in film and cultural studies.

He toyed with the idea of becoming a film critic before landing back at NYU, where he would get his doctorate in film and video studies in 2006. He then came out west for a year-long fellowship in USC’s cinematic arts program before discovering the job opening at UC Irvine. “It was the best job in my field the year I got it,” he says without a hint of boastfulness.

Hilderbrand joined a growing Film and Media Studies department that has built “a really strong faculty.”

Lucas Hilderbrand, associate professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine, is really into videotape
Corey Nickols
Lucas Hilderbrand, associate professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine, is really into videotape
Director Todd Haynes made Superstar to honor an artist he truly admired and pitied
David Shankbone
Director Todd Haynes made Superstar to honor an artist he truly admired and pitied

“We’re not as famous as UCLA, USC or NYU, but we’re one of the best undergraduate programs in the country,” he says in that same non-bragging tone. “We’re doing very well with very few resources.”

In an earlier conversation, he’d mentioned that research like his helps explain our world every bit as much as the scholarship produced by the science and engineering schools for which UCI is far better known.

“There are really innovative and interdisciplinary faculty working in the humanities, arts and social sciences,” Hilderbrand says. “It’s those programs that are the most vulnerable during this period of severe budget cuts because those programs enrich our lives in unquantifiable ways. The cuts have been brutal, and they’re about to get worse.”

*     *     *

Analog videotape was once a new technology, and before too long, DVDs and MPEGs will seem old as well. By treating magnetic-tape technologies as merely transitional and inferior to what came before and after, such work presents a distorted and incomplete account that ignores the material and experiential attributes of these recording and playback technologies—and the new modes and expectations of access that they introduced.

—From Inherent Vice

*     *     *

Inherent Vice, not to be confused with the new Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name, takes its title from a term librarians use to describe the acidity of chemically processed wood-pulp paper, the manufacturing toxin that burns through old book titles and turns interior pages brittle and yellowish brown. Videotape suffers a similar fate. But the term can also refer to the illicit phenomenon inherent to home video: piracy. Additionally, inherent vice can describe the inevitable explosion of pornography, especially the homemade kind, ignited by the home-video revolution.

Hilderbrand slyly nods to all three interpretations. This guy’s really into videotape. Inherent Vice, published by Duke University Press, is likely the only book on shelves with references to audience-gratification studies, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1984 Betamax decision and “Pamela Anderson’s pussy.” One theme he explores is the way videotape exchanges relied upon and facilitated personal connections. Hilderbrand made his own in writing Inherent Vice and seeing it hit shelves.

“I gave a lecture in Claremont about a video maker I had never been able to track down, and it turned out she had been a student of two of the people in the audience,” he recalled. “I was actually able to find her and share my work with her. I’ve also gotten out-of-the-blue messages from people who’ve had similar personal histories with home video and who’ve tracked me down by e-mail or on Facebook. It’s been really gratifying that the book resonates in that way and that it seems to be finding a receptive audience beyond academia.”

As he’s mentioning the “word-of-mouth way” his book is circulating, he’s reminded that that’s the same way bootleg videos find viewers.

“Exactly,” he says with that devilish smile. “That was one of my hopes for the book, that it would be readable and accessible. I did not want something that was just textual analysis.”

He concedes nostalgia for videotape drives some of the affection, but, as he writes in Inherent Vice, video’s unique aesthetic is undeniable. As soon as the grainy, streaked and/or skipping picture fills the screen, viewers immediately know what format they’re watching. There is no similar DVD aesthetic yet. Animated and live-action movies and TV shows even simulate grainy video to evoke that format or the years of its heyday.

His book also includes chapters on fair use and copyright, but Hilderbrand—who mostly sides with consumers over content providers—does not expect Inherent Vice to change any laws. However, his chapter on the Vanderbilt Television News Archive—which, beginning in 1968, began taping and archiving nightly news programs for historical analysis and was the subject of a copyright-infringement lawsuit brought by CBS—was picked up while the book was still in galley form and reprinted in a legal brief that’s part of Google’s defense of a suit by publishers to prevent the search-engine company from scanning and posting book pages online. Hilderbrand, who assumes Vanderbilt officials informed Google’s lawyers about his research, says, “I was happy to share it for that.”

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