By the very virtue of you reading this, you are now enrolled in the Free Film School here in the prestigious halls of CraveOnlineU. I am your ersatz professor, Witney Seibold, and this week's lecture is going to be a little different. I hope you indulge me on this topic, as it won't be so much a regular lesson or film history lecture as it will be a general paean to something that is very dear to me, to many film-lovers of a certain age, and which, to many young people, may seem like an icon of a now-bygone era. My hope is that my story will perhaps point out to readers how important video stores are to me, and how sad it was to watch so many of them close over the last few years. Am I a little late on this topic? Perhaps I am.
Many video stores are closed. This has been happening for the last four-to-eight years or so. From the mid-1980s all the way until about 2008, video rental outlets were a regular staple of the film industry. People would visit them regularly, and I recall obtaining large chunks of my slapdash film education merely wandering around the shelves of my local 20/20 Video in Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica, CA. Just like anything, there were good video stores and bad ones. The good ones managed to carry a few copies of all the more recent releases, but were careful to amass a large collection of obscure oddities as well. My preferred type of video store was well-organized, but perhaps a little dingy. One that was dusty, and seemed to accumulate naturally all the bonkers exploitation movies that you never knew you couldn't live without. My theory for the longest time was that a video store could be identified by its horror section alone; no two horror sections, I constantly found, were ever alike. One might have somewhat mainstream monster flicks like The Kindred, while another gloried in shot-on-video gore obscurities like, say, 555. 20/20 Video was hardly perfect, but it was my regular haunt.
I have previously written about the two-edged sword of home video, but I would like to spend this week expanding on the culture of home video rental, how it shaped film-lovers' culture, and how it has recently changed for the better and for the worse. Perhaps my little tale will serve as an oblique parable of some sort. Maybe it will just be me sharing my affections with you, dear readers, who may or may not be on my wavelength. Either way, I'd like to share what I feel.
Here was my dream about the video store: It was closing. It was my local video store, and it was closing. I knew the close was coming, but somehow there had yet to be a final word on the topic. The video store was completely different from the way it looks in real life, but it was the same store in my mind. The entire stock of the video store was on VHS, and they were all very, very well-organized, alphabetized by title. I recall rifling through the shelves, very happy to see obscure movies like Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker on the shelf. There was also a 13-tape box set of WWF's The Best of the Ultimate Warrior available. The wrestling section alone took up a three-foot wide, eight foot tall section of the store's wall. The carpet was un-vacuumed, and the clerk was appropriately ornery.
The clerk was a pretty punk girl who wore brown-tinted sunglasses. She had a knuckle rings, tattoos, and purple-tipped hair. She had a piercing in her lip. She was a recognizable Suicide Girl type. I tried to talk to her, and asked her a few dopey questions about her favorite movies and what she would recommend to someone like me who has seen over a dozen Ingmar Bergman films, but didn't manage to catch Die Hard until he was in his 30s. She rarely looked up from whatever she was doing behind the counter, except to give me the finger. She was rude, yes, but I felt a kind of affection for the experience. I liked being razzed by this ultra-cool chick who worked in an ultra-cool video store. I felt like I was part of a grand tradition of mocking newbies, and keeping film knowledge kind of elite. More than being pissed off at her foul behavior, I felt the need to become more knowledgeable about movies. I have always felt that way about snotty clerks in video stores, record stores, or really hip bookshops. These people are the keepers of the keys to the kingdom. They have millions of hours of sacred knowledge waiting to be consumed, and they will only hand the keys to the people who are sincerely seeking what is great. They may snark at you, and mock your early choices, but eventually you will learn enough, and be able to banter and even show-up the gatekeepers.
The owner of the store entered. He looked like a very old young man. Still youthful, but wrinkled on the outside. Tired. Beat. He was much more gregarious than I remember from last time. He was carrying two VHS tapes in either hand, and handed them to the ornery clerk, talking about how great they were. She took them and put them in her bag. I approached the store owner, and told him how much I liked the place. I pointed to a few dozen films I had seen, expounding on how much this store had introduced me to. I felt I was being sweet and calm in my praise. Just as genuine, but just as sappy, as a farewell greeting one would give to a fellow high school graduate on the last day of school before summer vacation. The owner smiled generously, and pointed to some other films that I might enjoy, including a recent arrival in the amateur horror film section called Four Intelligent Bears, which, sadly, is not a film I can find in the waking world.
It was during his recommendations that he mentioned, almost in passing, that his video store, which had been open for 20 years, was going to close soon. Tears immediately welled in my eyes. I was in shock. I asked when the store would close. Would it be later that year? He smiled sheepishly, and declared that the store would be closing in a mere two hours, and that the entire stock was going to be picked up and sold by the new owners, who would raze the building. I cried openly. I can't remember the last time I cried in a dream. Everyone started weeping softly. I wandered around the small store a few more times, looking at videos, and thinking what would be lost. Entire film educations could no longer be distributed by this place. I wandered into a back room, and discovered an empty screening lounge. It had a large fireplace, a large TV, thick carpeting, and many comfortable looking chairs. More shelves lines the walls, this time stocked with the “special” product. The films that were so amazing and so obscure, that only the most seasoned of film fans would be able to handle them. None of the tapes were marked, but knew what they were, and I regretted that these awesome obscurities would not be able to see the light of day anymore. I felt that these kinds of movies, so well-loved on VHS, would not ever make their way to the online markets. Who, for instance, would ever watch Things on an iPhone? David Lynch's voice echoed in my ears. “Get real!”
I was, at that moment, filled with outrage. I became angry. I stormed back into the main portion of the store, and began ranting, proselytizing even, about the virtues of this store, and how much it could change the lives of the young people who entered it. My speech went on for a long time. Some listened, others didn't. The crowd in the store wasn't very big. I noticed, as I was giving my speech, that the building itself was shrinking. The rooms seemed smaller. More cramped. I noticed gaping holes in the walls where they hadn't been before. The clerk was now gone. Indeed, the register looked old and dusty, as if it hadn't been touched in many months. Soon I realized that I was only giving my speech to four people who remained gathered around me. The store was already closed. Somehow the stock had all vanished while I was talking about how important it was.
A woman in a power suit stepped forward, clearly moved by what I had been saying. She told me that if I wanted to tell that story again, she'd take me to her boss, a film producer, and allow me to tell it as if I were pitching a movie. She declared that making a film about film-lovers was the best way to get the word out. But it was already too late. The store was empty. The owner shook my hand and walked out. I cried some more in the empty building. Then I was very old.
I live in Los Angeles, and there are a few – not as many as there used to be – but a few video stores still in relatively good health. I understand that many cities across America no longer have video stores, as people have elected to either play video games, or get their movies through instant online streaming services like Netflix. And while I would never want to impugn the film education that can be reached through these services, I feel something has been lost in the transition. The most obvious things are, of course, a physical venue for seeking movies, and a staff of people who can give recommendations. The physical, brick-and-mortar store provides a different atmosphere when you're looking for movies. There is something active about it, something that activates your curiosity. Merely being outside of your house in a different building puts you in different headspace as well. When you leave the house, you are, presumably, actively seeking something different. I feel the great irony of a lot of online quests is that when people are presented with a seeming infinity of information, they tend to narrow their focus. Indeed, they narrow their focus so much, that soon they are no longer looking for anything new, but drilling down deeper in the same spots each time, hoping for oil that has long since been drunk up.
Sure, there are many who are trying out new things all the time on, say, Netflix. But browsing through online lists doesn't really provide the same experience as browsing through video shelves. Video stores offer up that headspace, and will have a knowledgeable, if somewhat snippy staff to help you. I never pay attention to the “recommendation engines” from any sort of online service. They don't know what I'm looking for.
I realize that my dream was accurate. My speech came too late. In L.A., aside from awesome specialty stores like Cinefile Video, Vidiots, and Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee, and the occasional hanger-on like A Video Store Named Desire and the odd Blockbuster, most video stores are closed down. Convenience has trumped experience, as it so often does. I also realize that this entire story is protective and defensive toward a way of life that is already seen as well out of the mainstream. It's entirely possible that kids who are in Jr. High School have never been to a video store. If you are reading this, and you've never been to a video rental outlet in your life, then consider this entire lecture to be a history lesson about an entire film culture that is now only occupied by old-school Luddites and nostalgic nerds like myself.
Who do you talk to about movies? Where do you get your recommendations? It's still with friends and from friends, I'm willing to bet. And when you go to seek out the recommendations your friends have given you, what should it matter if you go to a video store, get them online, or project them with your very own in-home 35mm projector? I suppose it doesn't matter, so long as you get to see a classic. I saw Casablanca for the first time on a VHS tape, and it's still going to be just as good if you watch it online for the first time.
But there seems to be a level of passivity that has entered the picture. A vague sense of instant gratification that has come along with the instant streaming phase of home video consumption. I sense that a lot of teenage would-be film buffs are not being treated to the full community of film snobs that was once readily accessed in video stores. Netflix will recommend you watch Thankskilling, sure, but it will take a well-informed person to recommend Lady Terminator. But the way, you should watch Lady Terminator. Y'know. If you can find it.
Netflix is the world's current video store favorite, and I don't want to sound like I'm slagging on it entirely. Netflix is like a really, really well-stocked video store that's run by an absent manager, and a teenage staff that doesn't know anything about movies. Also, they're constantly losing videos, and not replacing them, preferring to point you to the New Release wall.
Here's the way I see it: Netflix is the best possible first step in your film education. Like your first time in a video store, it will give you a brush up against some of the greats, but will seem overwhelming. But without a staff to guide you further, or a specialized section over in the corner for you to rifle through, it will remain kind of overwhelming as you go along. Consider me, you humble and ersatz professor, your ornery guide through the vast, vast world of movies. I am that rude Suicide Girl with the tattoos, only I'm a dorky white male in his 30s.
As you can tell, I miss the proliferation of video stores, and wish there were more. I cherish the ones I have, and I patronize them when I get the chance. The home video market has indeed changed, and I realize that video store will likely never be as popular as they once were, so the next time you fire up a film online or through a streaming service, I would like to ask that you close your eyes, and try to picture a video store in your head. See shelves on VHS taps, all neatly lines up. See the staff shooting the breeze about films. Imagine yourself drinking beers and enjoying their conversation, as if you're in a Cameron Crowe movie. Realize that there was a time when this was the only way to get movies in your home. Dream with me.
Homework for the Week:
If you have a local video store, go to it. You don't have to rent or buy anything, but browse for a good long time. Take in the atmosphere. The character. Imagine what it would be like to come here each time you wanted to see a movie at home. If you've never been to a video store, talk to someone who used to go. Do you think film culture has changed with the inception of instant streaming technology? Do you think the change has been for the better or for the worse? What is the ideal way to find a movie? The ideal way to watch it?
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold