Published on January 10th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant0
Eulogy for the Video Store
On November 9th, 2013, the last corporate owned Blockbuster Video in America closed its doors, which had already occurred in 2011 in Canada. As of December 16th, 2013, Blockbuster in Britain followed them in going quietly into the night. The other big Canadian chain, Rogers Video, rebranded and stopped renting movies on April 16th, 2012. There are those that would shrug it off as the dying of a concept that couldn’t trek forth into a digital future, and it probably elicits cheers from those that had late charges racked up or just thought of Blockbuster and Rogers as evil corporations (especially Blockbuster, which was a swear word to many cinephiles). However, while there are still excellent underground mom n’ pop stores here and there, and VHS is having a resurgence of sorts, to me, the end of a video store on every block signifies the death of an era in film.
Home video was an unexpected, but colossally influential force, putting catalogues of films, old and new, right at our fingertips in a way they had never been before. My family had a Beta machine when they first came out, and my Dad had pirated a copy of Star Wars for me long before it was available on video; I’d watch it almost every day for years as a young Jedi-wannabe. I’ve literally seen that movie thousands of times. Eventually, when the Beta format died commercially, we got a VHS machine, and the first video store I remember was actually a grocery store, Food City in Calgary. As a young boy, I’d stare at the boxes on the shelves in wonder, seeing movies like Gymkata, Happy Birthday To Me, or Fun House (“Pay to Get In, Pray to Get Out!”), and being too young to watch them, I wondered what splendor these movies held. A few years later, I’d find out, when renting R-rated movies became a sleepover staple, getting popcorn in your sleeping bag while you and your friends watched anything from Chuck Norris in Invasion U.S.A. to early Friday the 13th slasher flicks.
Growing up, I was a huge movie geek, and thusly, I was never far from a video store. But for me, it went well beyond being a customer and into the realm of employee. I worked in video stores for many years, came of age in them, really, working for about five years at Rogers Video and then another few years at Blockbuster. I started as a fresh-faced high school grad bumming around, and worked there all through University and for a few years after college. It was my film education. I ended up doing some work in film, and I read every book about the craft that I could get my hands on, but nothing gave me more of a foundation than simply working at the stores, talking movies with like-minded weirdos for eight hours a day, and of course, having access to the movies themselves.
Employees got free rentals, so I watched around 10 to 15 movies a week for years (not counting theatrical releases), bringing home almost every single new release that came out as well as scouring the library section for anything I hadn’t seen yet. And in fact, because my friends and I were so entrenched in this world, we’d also pay to rent movies from competition chains that our stores didn’t happen to stock. Some stores had a ‘7 for 7 for 7’ deal — 7 movies for 7 days for 7 bucks, where you’d grab a random assortment of titles and pour over them for a week. One of the best stores I remember was called 49 Cent Video, who kept a depth of movies that many corporate video stores didn’t bother to carry, cult and sci-fi or horror flicks from Pink Flamingos to Lifeforce. I also remember Jumbo Video, which was open 24 hours; my friends and I made many a late night stop to grab a movie after a night of partying. Choosing a movie together in the store was an experience — something that you can’t replicate by reading the VOD or Netflix menu together today.
The stores lost a good measure of power when they switched over from VHS to DVD (in fact, watch the excellent documentary Rewind This for a longer version of the story). Sure, we didn’t have to use the rewinders anymore, but losing VHS cast out all kinds of foreign, classic, and cult movies because they needed to clear shelf space for incoming DVDs. These DVDs were mostly new releases or in some cases, popular (but often shitty) titles that they knew consumers would buy or rent. Gone were classics like Blow Up, Rashomon, and It Happened One Night, in favour of generic pap like Eraser or Twister. I gave those old VHS tapes a home when we sold them off, absorbing hundreds of titles into my movie collection.
Thankfully, movie lovers can once again find the great movies with the rise of digital technology and the Internet, but I also wonder how many people have such a random and comprehensive film education in an age marked by an abundance of information? Nowadays, everyone has a blog or website like this one, all vying for a moment of your time to read their thoughts on the latest celluloid adventure they’ve taken. Some of them are amazing and insightful, some of them have holes in their mental film library the size of a Blockbuster store. In the information age, people seek out the movies that they know are classics because the Internet tells them so, but if a critic never watches all the random garbage or triumphs the video store generation was privy to, I don’t think they figure out how movies operate to the same extent, especially with bad films. And I’m not talking about movies that are so bad that they beg to be seen like Plan 9 From Outer Space or The Room — I’m talking about the dredges of mediocrity, like Tarantino wannabe For a Few Lousy Dollars or Antonio Banderas’ The 13th Warrior. Losing the videostore, to a large degree, has meant whitewashing film history. Even the Filmspotting guys admitted that they don’t do a ‘Worst List’ every year with their ‘Best List’ because they only see movies that have buzz about them. I adore Filmspotting, but to me, this is crazy. I’ve sat through thousands of humdrum, pedestrian movies, which makes the great ones all the more powerful and transcendent. It even makes the really bad ones stand out as special.
The video store was also a place of taking chances and making discoveries. Yes, you can do that on the Internet or Netflix, watching something that you’ve never heard of before. But for the most part, you can also hit Rotten Tomatoes or Google some reviews to see if it’s worth your time. I remember seeing a movie on the shelf that no one would rent, a lone copy at knee level on a wall full of multiple titles, screaming for the consumers’ attention, starring Patrick Swayze and Drew Barrymore. I brought it home like everything else, and I discovered Donnie Darko. The only customers I could convince to give it a watch were the die-hard regulars that would trust my taste and ask for my opinion each week as they grabbed their Friday night rentals. I could be wrong, but I’d think that less people would take a chance on something like that these days, unless they could look it up online first. It takes away the surprise and revelation of discovering something for yourself and sharing it with others through a passionate movie tête-à-tête.
These conversations were the best part about working at video stores. It’s one thing to watch movies, but it’s another thing to talk to others who are just as fanatical as you. The video store was a place for conversation about movies. Every day was filled with exchanges with customers, friends that would drop by just to hang out at the video store, and especially co-workers. I remember playing endless hours of ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ with my friend and fellow clerk Kathy, or just dissecting movies endlessly. My once encyclopedic knowledge of film has atrophied thanks to age, booze and drugs, and the ability to look anything up on a smart phone, but in those days, we knew every movie, who directed it, what year it came out, and any number of inane details about the production. There was no IMDB, no Rotten Tomatoes; the only reference you had (besides your brain) were the cover boxes in the store itself, and maybe a well worn, dog-eared copy of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide (the movie nerd’s Bible, back in those days). Sure, you can argue about movies on Twitter, but it seems like an exercise in futility with only 140 characters to make your point, as opposed to hashing it out over an eight hour shift at the video store counter.
I know, I sound like a fist-shaking curmudgeon from another time that wishes for an era long since passed, but I’m really not. Of course, I understand that the world moves on, and I am truly excited and fascinated about the state of media. I love that I can watch the latest movie on VOD or Netflix without having to put on pants and drive to the video store and that so many classic films are available again for a new generation to find. But I do miss those halcyon days. I miss wandering the carpet of the store under the stupid fluorescent lights that would make my eyes go buggy by the end of a shift. I miss scanning the cover boxes on a boring Sunday while dusting the shelves, stopping every once in awhile to pick up a box and read the back for the 20th time. I miss looking through the special order catalogues and the coming soon magazines to see what new product we’d be getting, what movies were finally making the leap from theatrical release to home video, or what classics were getting the re-release treatment.
I miss processing the new releases and calling dibs on the titles that weren’t in great number, hoping to be the first clerk to find the gem in the bunch, the next great sleeper hit of the year. I miss lugging home a stack of tapes or DVDs after a closing shift and deciding which one I’d watch first that night. I miss screening titles while doing the morning paperwork before the store opened. I even miss the orderly democracy of putting new releases back out on the shelf, straightening them, taking pride in the appearance and straight lines of the wall.
I miss the community. I miss the ceremony of it all, digging your rental card out of your wallet at the till. While I think the world of media had to evolve and I’m thrilled about what will come as things grow at an exponential rate, I just couldn’t write it off like so many Internet pundits. I had to take a moment to remember my youth, to remember the thousands of films that made me the sum of those experiences, and most of all, to honour the village of video and the ritual of it all.