The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

On why I’ll miss the good old video store…

Posted by therebelprince on February 29, 2012

Simone Simon in “Cat People”

My local video rental store is closing this week. I’m choosing not to take this personally, although it is the third time I’ve moved house and instantly seen the local infrastructure crumble before my eyes. But I can’t help admitting a pang of sadness when I saw the “closing down sale” sign. Maybe it was just guilt, that I rented Date Night six months ago and then never went back. But I think it was something more; I believe that the loss of the video store is more dangerous than just a loss of the ’90s way of life…

Sure, there are many reasons to lament the loss of the classic video store: that joy of getting your M&Ms and wandering the aisles, arguing with your partner over whether you’d rather watch the latest Terrence Malick or take in a Michael Bay; that middle-class adrenaline rush as you realise you’ve only got thirty minutes to get Four Weddings and a Funeral back to the store before you take on those late fees. At the same time, I hear you saying, there are many reasons why this loss is inevitable. Netflix and their ilk allow a less time-consuming, more streamlined approach to film watching. DVDs themselves are cheaper, and more often found these days in public libraries. And – if you’re a certain type of person – downloading has never been easier. The largely terrible Jack Black ‘comedy’ Be Kind Rewind features two hapless video store clerks who accidentally erase the store’s tapes and are forced to re-film the movies themselves. I was excited for the concept, hoping it would be a chance to lovingly and ingeniously parody a wide variety of film styles. Instead, it was your average Hollywood feel-good hokum. In the movie’s one intelligent scene, the store’s down-on-his-luck, wise, African-American owner (Danny Glover, taking a role you feel like Morgan Freeman should’ve taken) reflects on the ‘brilliance’ of modern chains: dozens of copies of a very small selection of films, removes the variable of choice and streamlines customer service. And sure, it makes sense. More people would’ve flocked to see Breaking Dawn or Transformers than The Tree of Life by a long shot. That’s how society works. As a kid, I longed to own a cult film and television store, but I recognise now that it has to be a labour of love, and one where you offset the losses to the Criterion Collection by selling True Blood action figures. (Shortly after I posted this article, the always insightful A.V. Club posted this intelligent article about other reasons to be defensive of physical discs!) 

Sir Alec Guinness as Lady Agatha in “Kind Hearts and Coronets”

But that’s not all: video stores were the way an average middle-class kid like me, with my standard BBC-watching parents and friends whose idea of groundbreaking television was… well, Friends, could expose my writer’s imagination to so many different ways of seeing the world.

I’m constantly startled by how fractured a society we live in. I could pick three friends of my age and social background, and struggle to find a current TV series, band, or literary movement that interests all three of them, or that they even know about! Yeah, until society does a full Huxley on us, we’re going to have hipsters, punks, preppy kids, theatre kids, and numerous other cultural ghettos. Yet it’s only in the last few years – since leaving that nest that was the education system – that I’ve realised how far-flung people are. Once you’ve found your suburb, your friends, your interests, there’s simply no need to listen to the radio stations, watch the TV networks, explore the areas of life that don’t grab you at first sight. We’re drifting further and further into a world where the references we get define us. I can laugh at a vague Community reference, or giggle with girlish glee every time an update is posted on Arrested Westeros, but I’ll be at a loss for your next Always Sunny gag. I’ll chortle at an opera excerpt in the Tintin film, but Butters singing “What What (In The Butt)” is gonna require some explanation.

This is natural, sure. More natural in the last twenty or thirty years, since the internet and mass media allowed people with eccentric interest to develop their taste by meeting others from across the seas, but natural nonetheless. For me, though, it’s always been harmful. Why is it such a bad thing to have eclectic taste? If I choose to see a new production of La Traviata over an alternative, politically-divisive cabaret, that’s going to reflect badly on me in the eyes of some sections of my friend group. Others, meanwhile, would be shocked if I made the reverse decision. I know people who scorn soap opera viewers but spent hours analysing every frame of Lost. I know people who scorn “geeks” wasting time watching Lost, but could recite every twist and turn of the last twenty years of Home and Away. Why can’t I like both? (For the record, in that particular example, I like neither…)

I was lucky, I think, to grow up in a house of weird tastes already. I’d swallow down classical, folk, pop, rock, between a diet of everything from 1960s sitcoms (Green Acres, I love you) to HBO. (This is surely why my pretentious 16 year old self got almost tearfully upset when some of the kids in my first film lecture at uni mocked the poor special effects and acting in a D.W. Griffith movie.) However, it wasn’t the easiest thing to be. My parents certainly didn’t know what to prescribe for me, and my tastes could be so determinedly eclectic (why would I like this one rap album and no other music from that entire genre?) that trial-and-error was the only way to find what I was after.

Tatsuya Nakadai as Lord Hidetora in “Ran”

Then, I discovered my local video store. To its credit, the place – which is, somehow, still going – was amazing. I don’t know how they could afford the rent of what was basically a warehouse, but it was clear nothing had ever been thrown out. Ever. They had every Star Trek episode on VHS (TNG and DS9)! Old miniseries in those two-VHS containers, which was how I discovered – amongst other things – Twin Peaks. Some of the dustier documentaries and obscure comedies probably hadn’t been touched in years. The movies and TV shows I found ran the gamut of genres, tones, styles, and ideologies. They weren’t all great, and some weren’t good at all. But to a kid with ridiculously lofty creative ambitions, and a young mind eager to absorb ideas, they were a treasure trove. The worst films could toss out the greatest creative challenges, and any idea of being a fan of just one ‘genre’ was rendered laughable. Whether I could understand one iota of what was being said didn’t matter either. Who was this Robert Altman, and why did his films never seem to be edited so the actors stayed in the frame? Why were all of Woody Allen’s credit sequences the same (the day I discovered that was like the day some kids discover masturbation). How could an old horror shlock called Cat People be so good, while a well-known piece like Scarface look like it was written and directed by Ed Wood?

Clerks. Husbands and Wives. Brazil. Ran. It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! Network. Paper Moon. It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Vertigo. Right through to that very silly Michael J. Fox/Kirk Douglas Greedy, or that other very silly Michael J. Fox film Life With Mikey. From the lofty excesses of Magnolia to the inadvertantly amusing excesses of The Postman, there was no crevice of film history I didn’t touch upon.

Faye Dunaway in “Bonnie and Clyde”

The video store, in other words, was a haven and a space of free thought for my mind. Star Trek‘s holodeck. The Matrix. That anonymous hotel room in Paris. Netflix couldn’t guess these flicks for me. There were no expectations from good friends giving me film advice (although part of the joy of the time was to watch films that did have reputations, and make my own). So many of these films – from a century of filmmaking before my time, and often outside the scope of knowledge of my family and friends – could have remained under my radar forever. Instead, I was able to view Strictly Ballroom and A Night at the Opera hot on the heels of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Once Upon A Time in the West. In that vacuum of my youthful mind, it was perhaps the ultimate case of “if I haven’t seen it, it’s new to me”, and I discovered one hundred years of film history in my own, delightfully fragmented order.

Wandering those hallowed aisles each week and selecting my next film experiences, was a treat like no other. Perhaps there is no way to bring that back, but I hope kids don’t close their minds because of it. We need that variety. The sweeping grandeur of the spaghetti western can go hand in hand with the lavish ’50s musical, the withering restraint of the ’70s New Wave film, and the austereness of something from Merchant Ivory. The history of film is a history of variety, and to miss out on that is a great shame.

My other late night rants can be found here.

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