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Posted by on Oct 26, 2014

Ode to the Video Store

The experience of film, how we digest it, how it is presented, its size and length, has a great impact on the generation that it inspires. You read about legendary film directors who spent their youth sneaking away to cinemas for triple features. Roman Polanski watching German newsreels from a little corner in a Krakow Ghetto. Scorsese spending hours in New York cinemas. The large rectangle of light in a dark room fascinated them; the location and setting became an integral part of their relationship with the medium. It’s a romantic notion that makes a film like Nuovo Cinema Paradiso so appealing.
But what about my generation? Surely, by the time I was coming of age, sneaking away to the movie theater more than twice a week would cost probably an average of $40. I did go to the movies often, probably more than most kids, but it was too costly an activity to do every weekend.
As much as I love the romantic idea of being like Salvatore in Cinema Paradiso, the truth is I am of the generation educated through frequent trips to the relatively short-lived video store. And probably the last of that generation. I often wonder how this affects my relationship with film. I consider my favorite filmmakers: George Melies, who took a new medium from scratch and made it magical. Billy Wilder, whose adolescence (he was born in 1906) corresponded with the cataclysmic rise of the silent medium. Movies were viewed exclusively on large screens. To Wilder and subsequent midcentury masters like Truffaut and Fellini, actors were literally larger then life. My parents’ generation grew up during the peak of drive-in popularity, when watching a film became a familial, but also private, event.
But for me, born in the late ‘80s, I’ll always associate films with the beloved, and ultimately doomed, video-store. Watching rented tapes on a small TV with a built-in VCR. Those familiar tracking lines. The obligation to always rewind. The cardboard boxes. The extra-thick cardboard boxes for especially long films that required two tapes. The large plastic boxes used for animated children’s films. Having to fast-forward through trailers of coming attractions.
There were two video stores within walking distance of my house. Originally, there was the Pennsylvania-based chain West Coast Video. It later became Videoline, then became Videoline plus a dollar store, then a dollar store plus a video store, until all the VHS tapes were condensed to one shelf, selling for $1 a piece (although, the adult section in the back continued to flourish throughout this transformation).
The demise of West Coast Video was a direct result of  the opening of a Blockbuster Video just down the street (although that didn’t survive very much longer after pushing out West Coast). I spent a lot of time in those places, making trips every weekend, and often during the weekdays. I always wanted to pick out the perfect film for the night, even though I practically knew the catalogue by heart. Around age 12, my friends and I would walk to the Blockbuster and browse the horror section for a slasher film that none of us had seen. Movies like Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. We’d walk back to his house, order pizza and watch the film in his TV room. We called this The Horror Movie Club. I remember one night we rented a film called Prom Night, a 1980 slasher film with Jamie Lee Curtis. I must’ve forgot to return it and lost it because several months later my mom called me and said we had a massive late fee. The horror movie club marked my realization that I was fascinated with movies. I branched out from there, renting more and more obscure horror films, and often watching them alone, since few of my friends wanted to. I began to devour whatever Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff film I could get my hands on. I’d soon exhaust the horror section, and I’d resort to renting titles that I had already seen. I knew every video store within driving distance and what they had in their horror/sci-fi section. I know that TLA in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia had the best selection of foreign-language and classic films. Wherever I lived, I had a membership with the local video store.
I still went to the cinema often. When I was 14, the Ambler Theater opened, and was just a train-ride away. This was my first exposure to art-house theaters. They’d run classic films every Wednesday night and that’s where I first saw Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. But all the art-house cinemas in Southeast PA couldn’t quench my thirst for Universal or Hammer monster movies. The joy I felt finding Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman at the video store in Upper Dublin, Pennsylvania is what I imagine most “crate-diggers” feel when they find a rare vinyl record.
I saw the end of the video store coming, although I’ve kept up membership to video stores until relatively recently. The last store where I had an active membership was a small club in Ferrol, Spain that offered a very modest, very mainstream, selection. I still do rent movies from the local library. I like the idea of going somewhere and browsing the aisle, looking at titles I’ve seen on that shelf over and over, and selecting the perfect one. Today’s future generation of filmmakers will grow up with on-demand films, any movie they could possibly want, viewed on their TV, computer, tablet, or phone (or wristwatch? or glasses?) That’s their relationship with film.

The video store had a relatively short life span. It didn’t really have a chance of survival once on-demand streaming came about. I don’t foresee VHS tapes or DVDs ever enjoying the resurgence in popularity that, say, vinyl records have experienced. Boxes of VHS collections will find their way to a trash dump after they fail to sell at a yard sale. Today, I usually watch movies on my laptop, although I make a concerted effort to go to the cinema as much as possible. That’s my favorite way to see a movie: in a dark room, consumed by the light and sound. That’s, at least, how movies were originally meant to be seen and that’s how I want to see them. Surely, the modern consumption of moving images on increasingly smaller screens will change cinematography and alter our notion of film. Although I may come off as nostalgic, I’m not pessimistic about the future of film. Change is good. Change is exciting. Change pushes the limits of imagination, which is what film has always done best.

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