“I saw Star Wars when I was 2 and was obsessed with it,” says Hilderbrand, who added that by high school, he was a “rabid cinephile,” something that was only possible in a small Midwest town back then because of videotape. “I’d check out things at the public library. When I got older, I bought a VCR so I could show videos of old movies to friends.”

He considers Sex, Lies, and Videotape (natch) his “turning point” film. “I was 13 when it was released and 14 when it came out on video,” he says. “It was the first film that made me realize there was something out there besides Hollywood films.”

It had such an effect that not only did he repeatedly view it, but he also acquired and “consumed” copies of the screenplay and production diary. He also mentions that he’s about to knock out a short column for FlowTV.org on the 20th anniversary of Stephen Soderbergh’s breakout film.

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

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.”

“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.”

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