Monday, March 25, 2013

For Rent: A Look Back at The Video Store

By Brian Hackett
For the younger readers of this website, about 15 and down, I want you to imagine what your home movie viewing life would be like without Netflix or Redbox. Perhaps not a frightening thought, but an alarming one nonetheless, no? After all, it is most certainly a convenient luxury, only the newest in the ever-evolving home entertainment front.

Now to be clear, this isn’t going to be a swipe at Netflix, Redbox, or whichever method of household cinema intake you prefer. After all, video stores themselves were a business, forever at the mercy of profits. They exist now in one of two forms: a scant few locations, where only the most stalwart of cinephiles will make a sometimes formidable trek, and in the warm nostalgic recesses of the brains of some of the aforementioned ‘philes.

I certainly can’t take anything away from the Netflix business model. Delivery to your house? An impressive selection, minus rarer-than-rare flicks and some television program titles due to network disputes? At a darned good monthly price? And NO late fees? Well who in the hell can compete with that? It is certainly without peer. With Blockbuster and some of the mom’n’pop stores, you had to take your chances on new releases being in stock (short answer: they rarely were), whether or not a film was even available on VHS, let alone DVD, and of course, the temperament of the person behind the counter. But it’s for that last reason that I cherished the video store.

Since I was old enough to get a job, the only one I ever wanted was to work in a video store. The motive changed over the years, of course. At first I was a horror junkie, and oh how I wanted to lord it over the customers; sneering at them as they put down their money for a romcom, cursing them in my head for their “lack of taste”, to nod and smile in appreciation for the customers whose tastes met my very warped expectations. It’s a damn good thing I didn’t get the gig at a younger age, or my Randal Graves complex would have been airtight. Now in the years between that period and my actual tenure at a video store (7 months total before it went under. Still my favorite job), my appetite became mercilessly a little less discerning, though the desire to perhaps influence and shape the mind of a customer or two remained. Selfish and lofty ambitions, I know, but I’m sure you’ll understand.

To the 15-and-up readers of this site, I have a question for you as well: try to imagine what it was like before the home video market existed. It made theater-going a true necessity. If you missed out on a film while it was in the picture house (long before the idea of a multiplex even existed), and you didn’t have the scratch to get a print to show in your home, well…it’s safe to say you were shit outta luck. If you missed The Maltese Falcon, it must have been excruciating beyond any measure of belief. Okay, that was a tad hyperbolic, but you get the point, yeah?

Video stores were one of the prime meccas of film education, whether it was through your own experimentation, a referral from a friend, or a suggestion from the (hopefully) friendly clerk behind the desk/counter. Think of the success of guys like Smith and Tarantino. They’re household names, but neither of them had any film school experience under their belt. They both, however, had plenty of experience working in video stores. And though the style and content of their films have wildly diverged, their roots are ever-present in their work. Again, Netflix has the Suggested Films feature, but I don’t think it can really replicate the experience of human interaction. Hell, human interaction proved to be why I loved working in the store. Ironic, considering that at the outset of it, I was afraid that that was what would drive me to hate the gig. If you liked a certain Godard or Coppola film more than another, the person at the counter, if they were worth their weight in 35mm print, might be able to point you in the right direction. You could build trust, a good repartee, and who knows, maybe even a friendship.

Then there’s the underrated joy of the box browsing. The video nasties provided us with some of the most grotesque, over the top, and deliciously graphic VHS covers ever conceived. 

But that wasn’t limited to horror. All the trashy 80s T’N’A sex comedies had their share of alluring covers. It isn’t to say the 90s were lacking in those departments. But who among us saw the VHS covers like these and DIDN’T immediately say to themselves, or their friends, “Holy shit, we GOTTA see this.” 

It certainly seems a silly concept, to have our viewing choices dictated by cover art (Don’t judge a book by its cover and all that), but what’s life without taking a few chances? And NOT having access to a nearly unlimited film library forced you to really open your eyes, forever skimming for a new experience, be it from a cult film or an art house classic. On the flip side, that of course can prove to be a little frustrating. After all, if a reliable friend is railing about Death Bed, and the video store didn’t have it, and you couldn’t yet look it up on what would soon become the World Wide Web, you couldn’t be blamed for being a little perturbed.

I realize this is almost pure nostalgia speaking. I’d be a liar and a damn fool if I didn’t admit that. But there was something magical, if you’ll forgive a rote term, about perusing those shelves, grabbing a tape/dvd, and the realization that what you held in your hand could either make or ruin your night. And I think there’s something to be said for that.

1 comment:

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