Viewer’s Discretion: ‘Cassette: Documentary Mixtape’

‘CASSETTE: DOCUMENTARY MIXTAPE’ (AMAZON, APPLE, GOOGLE PLAY, PLAYSTATION, VUDU)

Did you know that the man who invented the cassette also invented the compact disc? His name is Lou Ottens, a Dutch engineer who worked for Phillips, where he headed the teams that developed both audio items. This affectionate, gentle documentary by Zack Taylor devotes a lot of time to visiting Ottens and hearing his memories of the cassette’s early days, but these are non-nostalgic look-backs. Ottens prefers to look forward, excited by what comes next more than what has already passed, even if he had a major role in the format many people hold dear.

That there are people so smitten by cassettes is surprising, but there’s a parade of them in the film, talking philosophically and emotionally about why they’re so attached to them. It’s odd, as Ottens himself points out, that people would embrace something with inferior sound out of nostalgia, but, of course, that has as much to do with the movements and memories surrounding the actual items as the items themselves. And, so, you spend some time poking around Henry Rollins’ huge cassette collection, as well as the cassette archive of the New York Public Library, and hearing spoken word clips from various cassettes that people have made.

These clips create a ghostly effect that mirrors the ethereal quality of what the interviewees express, but also the fact that, as archival material goes, magnetic tape is awful, the exact opposite of vinyl. But that also gives the film some immediacy, as the magnetism of these artifacts slowly leaves the surface of the tapes, cassettes become afflicted with a form of audio Alzheimer’s, which makes the sections of the film with the modern, thriving cassette factory and all the bands embracing it as a format to get your sounds out there only more poignant.

But pre-recorded cassettes were barely a thing, and what creates most of the nostalgia is the mixtape, which people get plenty wistful about in the film. But there are also of answering machine tapes and tapes of meetings, of audio letters to loved ones, of creative notes, of religious fervor, of school events, of psychological appointments, of children making up nonsense, of ambient sounds, all of which reflect the cassette’s true purpose — the first affordable recording medium that anyone could use. We used it for the mundane often enough, but it’s always the mundane that eventually becomes precious to us, and that is reflected in this low-key, surprisingly personal documentary, as people reflect on cassettes as if these are hidden parts of their own being that they desperately cling to, even as the stuff of the audio drifts away over time.

Will our grandchildren ever discover an old hard drive of audio files in our attic one day? And even if they did, would they have the cords to hook it up properly? That’s one of the beauties of cassettes that Ottens speaks about in the film. Sure they are physical forms of sound, but early on, Phillips decided to not keep the technology proprietary. The company allowed others to use it, but also created a standard that would mean that a cassette you bought in 1966 could be played on a player you bought in 1989. It’s that vision of manufacturing that we’ve lost and that the cassette stands as a symbol of. Understanding that our tools of communication require cooperation in order to keep its meaning.

I suppose capitalism has killed longevity. But I can remember having a tape recorder as a little kid, and most the people of my generation can as well. You recorded all sorts of nonsense — yourself, stuff off the television by putting the recorder up to the speaker, and more. I can take a tape I made in 1971 and still play it. Think about it. Any given cassette I made in 1971 has outlasted the iPod. If that’s not a symbol for what we’re losing, then I don’t know what is, and Taylor understands how important that difference is.


Originally published at https://www.berkshireeagle.com on February 8, 2019.

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