Thursday, January 30, 2014

Video Store Eulogy

  I happen to collect movies on VHS. It's a nostalgic hobby, and it's fun since you have to go out of your way to find them. That same area of my brain that generates nostalgia for those large, clunky, noisy, hunks of plastic... has an eternal soft spot for video rental stores. I'm gonna break format today, and I'm not going to be reviewing any actual movie, as you can see. This is, if anything, a personal eulogy to a dead era. When I heard these stores were shutting down, I didn't run out to visit one for the last time, I didn't think about it much. I didn't feel nostalgic or sad because I didn't think about it at all. If I had? I might've been terribly sad.
Lamenting the extinction of stores like these, is no different than returning to your hometown and finding the public park you used to play at as a kid, is now a convenience store...

  Convenience. If anything, that's what killed these stores. While people were worrying about late fees and scratched discs, Netflix was pioneering streaming. It was sleeker than On-Demand, faster than renting, and all from the comfort of your living room. The concept took off quite successfully. Netflix is a wonderful program. I have an account. I dutifully pay my $8 a month for instant access to not only thousands of movies, but entire TV shows as well. Considering the price of two new releases, circa 2005, two new movies on DVD might've ran you $4 apiece. How could they possibly compete with a juggernaut like Netflix? Not possible. Their days were numbered, the writing was on the wall. The DVD era of Blockbuster isn't what I miss though. In my mind, I already had no business there anymore. It was like a massive bargain bin of movies I already had, the novelty was gone.

  What novelty? The novelty of the VHS era. One thing few of my friends know about me is that I preferred Hollywood Video to Blockbuster Video. Hollywood Video had a bigger selection of movies. Older movies. Random movies. Obscure movies. You could find everything you didn't know you were looking for at Hollywood Video. Maybe it didn't franchise like Blockbuster did, but it had guts in my opinion. My mother used to dread sending my father and I to rent movies on a Friday night. Mainly cause we'd take so damn long picking a few out. She hated video stores. Too much choice, in her opinion. Not to mention, my dad and I would hit Hollywood Video first. They had more choices. Obviously.  I still remember trolling the little aisles of shelves, looking for a title or a box cover that would catch my eye. This is where I found out they had made a movie on The Flash! Of course, later I find out it was a TV pilot episode, marketed on home media as a feature length movie. Did I know the difference as a kid? No. It was some straight up awesome stuff.

  Box art was important back then. You'd grab one of those hollow stand-in cases off the shelf, look at the front cover and if it looked interesting, you'd flip it and read the back. If you made it to reading the entire back, this meant two things. That was some damn good box art, and your mind was probably already set on renting it by now. As long as my dad and I took in these stores, there was always a few unspoken rules that anybody followed who was as religious about this stuff as us. Don't waste your own time. Ironic considering much time was wasted anyways, but odds are once you start reading the back cover of a jacket, you're sold. You can't read every tape that stands out to you. You could be there north of three hours. You had to judge on the picture first. Thus... box art was important. It was a combination of eye-catching imagery, a bold title/logo, name recognition,  and taglines. "This time... it's war."

  This whole ordeal was like a movie lovers' ritual. You found movies you've never seen, and would sometimes go home with a full bag of tapes to watch over the weekend. Sometimes, dad would remember a movie he'd seen ages ago that he wanted to watch again, usually something cool I'd never seen. Sure enough, go to a few rental stores... one was bound to have it. In this case, an 80's sci-fi/comedy called My Science Project. One of my favorite 80's movies now (which is saying a lot), I can still remember the first time I saw it. Dad rented it from Blockbuster Video. We actually had to drive a little out of town because none of the local stores had it. Not to mention it was raining like hell at the time too. To a seven year old kid, this was nothing short of an adventure. Not to mention my dad and I bonded over stuff like this.  When we got there, the attending cashier also had seen the movie before. He exchanged a glance with my dad and they both had the most visible look of nostalgia I'd ever seen, and this was before I even knew that word.

  They both kinda smiled and nodded at each other as he scanned the barcode on the case and bid us a good evening. Moments like that stuck with me for good. The movie turned out to be something special and I hunted for my own copy for the better part of a decade. It wasn't until around late 2005 that I would happen upon a copy for sale. At the time, video stores were in a hurry to purge their VHS inventory entirely, by way of sale, en masse- It was then, in a Hollywood Video, near my favorite comic book store, that I found a copy of My Science Project. The cashier couldn't believe it was one of the tapes that was for sale. Near the end of the VHS era, during the mass sales, there were movies you couldn't outright buy. Ones that remained rentals. Popular movies like, Titanic, The Matrix, Spider-Man... et cetera. The cashier looked distinctly dismayed that I was buying this movie. "This is a really good movie... the only copy I've ever been able to find really." I nodded politely, hoping sincerely there wasn't some clerical error that would prevent me from walking out with this piece of my childhood.

  The guy flipped through the logs in his binder, looking glum, double checking that My Science Project was actually for sale. Much to my excitement, it was. For a mere $2, it was mine. Permanently. I still have that tape. The case is beat up and the colors on the box art are washed out, but... I still have that tape. It defines nostalgia to me. An obscure movie, on an obsolete format, surrounded by only the fondest of memories. I collect VHS movies to bring me a little closer to those days, that era. Those stores. What we have now is convenience. Which is fine. It's progress, of course. Thousands of movies on Netflix is obviously progress. Yet I can't imagine any fathers and sons bonding over dying controllers and sluggish internet. Accessibility has it's price, yet it's once we've all paid eagerly. For convenience. Netflix is like the DVD era of Blockbuster. They had finally banished all VHS, including droves of rare and obscure movies, and they were getting with the latest cutting edge format. You found more movies that you've already seen and a lack of any sort of ceremony to the process of picking one out.

  It was simply a cheap way to see a movie you just didn't own. Nothing more. It's progress, of course. Yet like DVD killed VHS, the internet killed the video store. Those memory-generating hubs of my childhood are gone. Arguably, the first nail in the coffin was the end of the VHS era, but whatever it truly was- it's over now. The feel of the clunky boxes in your hand, the impending doom of late fees, the relevance of box art, the smell of the store, the shitty designs on the carpet, getting annoyed when a movie is mis-categorized, and lamenting when the movie you came to get is already checked out... these are things that are part of the experience. I miss that experience. It defined many a Friday night in my childhood. Countless fond memories, countless good movies. I have enough video store memories to fill a book, but for now... I feel like somehow this sums up everything the best.

 Last week, I found Mars Attacks on VHS at a goodwill, and I almost didn't buy it because I remember I was never allowed to watch it as a kid. I put it down. Force of habit. I must have looked at it's case fifty times going through those stores. Mom was a bit over-protective. Yet, now I'm older and I've already seen Mars Attacks. It's cool. Nothing spectacular. Nothing I'd go that far out of my way to own, but I remember I'm not friggin five years old anymore. So I pick up the tape, and buy it on the spot. Why? So I can look at that case fifty more times, and remember how over -protective mom was.

Not to mention I can be childish and rub it in her face now.
Definitely worth the 50 cents.

(When I checked inside the case, to make sure the right movie is in there, I found the standard Blockbuster Video "be kind, rewind" sticker on the tape. I smiled.)

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