It’s often sad when a cherished part of your youth gets replaced by some newer hotness. Back in the day, the video store was, for me, the new new. The idea that you could watch a movie you wanted to watch, when you wanted to watch it, was a complete revelation to me.
The video store – a truly kick ass place to rent movies. Let me try and paint a picture for those of you who did or have not experienced this in real life. The only things displayed in actual VHS boxes were the new releases, on a limited real estate of wall or walls. Everything else was just covers that were kept in thin plastic sleeves, stored upright in boxes for flipping through, like at a comic book or record shop. Even then, there still wasn’t room for everything on the shop floor, and if you couldn’t find what you wanted you could turn to the massive binders kept behind the counter. They’d store them by genre, but also by director, and even label.
It was beautiful and frustrating in all the ways a good video or record store should be. It was the kind of place where you could be recommended films that would make “the masses” slightly uncomfortable, so I made it a point to consistently go back in and thank them. They were the type that had a carefully curated selection of hard-to-find cult hits. It was a place to find great films, to discover a director and then make your way through his or her entire filmography, to dig up the skeeziest of horror non-classics. Today there is no true analogue. Some debts can’t be repaid.
The experience of discovering something new was a lot of fun, and the technology of the great 80’s is part of that experience for me. I don’t think my first time watching 2001 was bad just because outer space was a washed-out navy-blue and the score warbled all over the place. Obviously certain films were shot on amazing 35mm and have really elaborate cinematography that pops with Blu-ray transfers. Some films were shot on old 16mm stock with a bad camera. 2001 vs Basket Case. Some things were made to look “bad” and actually look worse cleaned up.
Browsing for something to watch on a streaming service can’t begin to rival the experience of walking into a video store and just standing there gradually scanning a rack from left to right, top to bottom. There’s a sense of comprehensiveness to seeing dozens or hundreds of loosely related movies in alphabetical order, even if you’re just planning to rent Halloween for the fifth time.
We all make fun of the Netflix algorithm, but we should acknowledge it for what it is: an iffy computer program trying (and failing) to be a knowledgeable video store clerk. Twenty years ago people were good at saying, “Hey, if you like this movie, you might enjoy this other movie.” We don’t need generic software to assimilate the same thing only way, way worse. The serendipity of discovery is turning into an algorithmic mash.
I know things change. I can’t stand to hear my peers reminisce and talk about how younger generations “just don’t understand”, because usually these peers have long stop following all the cool ISHT others are up to; but the world without places like video stores are a less interesting world. The “comfort of our own homes” is overrated. We need places to make our fascinations tangible so they can be passed on.