Twilight of the Video Rental Store

Twilight of the Video Rental Store

Like someone pausing to behold and photograph a unicorn stumbled upon in the forest, Youtuber Chris Stuckmann recently filmed a visit to an open and operating Blockbuster Video store. Certainly one of the few left in the United States, it seemed unfazed by the outside world. It fully retained the crisp, bright aesthetic I remember, having somehow avoided the swing of fate's axe. This held deep sentimental value for me, as the last several years have witnessed three of the four video stores in my town go out of business and be finally absorbed by the past. First there was Movie Warehouse, which provided my first viewing of Tron, and, in its first location (it moved), the Godzilla 1985 videotape, which I rented many, many times. That particular film has not been released domestically in any other format since, and the version I rented featured the classic Bambi Meets Godzilla animated short before the movie. Our own Blockbuster, which was a massive source of growth in myself as a viewer, was the next to fall. No less than four of my all time favorite films (Blade Runner, Brazil, Seven Samurai, and 2001: A Space Odyssey) originated as rentals from here, and they were on VHS as well. Seven Samurai was comprised of two tapes because of its length, and was one of my first experiences with subtitles (luckily, they were in yellow, which should be standard for all black and white films). In fact, a majority of the movies that are most special to me were rentals from somewhere. My Dad once brought home the VHS of Aliens and I was never the same thereafter. 

The most recent of my local video stores to shut down (having oddly outlasted its major corporate rival) was a mom and pop operation: Video Productions. I remember visiting this store first in what must have been the early nineties, when it was overflowing with videocassettes, including a striking proliferation of Dark Shadows episodes, which spilled onto the floor for lack of shelf space. It was in this store that I found the bulk of Godzilla movies that I would rent, and as the Kaiju and tokusatsu genres remain to this very moment my favorite flavor of entertainment, the significance of this to me can't be understated. Video Productions had a familial quality, a small town charm, and in keeping with this I befriended a girl that worked the counter, a human interaction uncommon in the larger rental chains. She was practically the only employee the store had, working almost always by herself-the owner helped on weekends, though, upping the number of staff to two. When they announced that they were going out of business (only three or four years ago), I remember being somewhat heartbroken. The place had been around since I was a kid-I had never known my town without it, and I still rented from them regularly. Its passing painfully solidified my realization that video stores in general were turning into memories. I had spent so much time in these places, and through them had seen so many movies that are a part of who I am, that watching it go was akin to having a friend move away. 

But, cold comfort though it may have been, you could at least take a piece of it with you, because when video stores close they purge their wares at bargain prices. Having transitioned to renting DVDs, Video Productions was selling off its VHS catalog even before it was going out of business. These myriad obscure wonders lined the walls, spine out, ready to be bought for a few bucks. I was tempted by a Y2K preparedness tape hosted by the great Leonard Nimoy (!), one of my very favorite people. It's hard to imagine an artifact of obsolescence that better evokes the passing of the video store and VHS eras. Though I regretfully didn't buy the tape (picking up some cheap DVDs instead), there are many who would have shown better judgement than I did. VHS collectors are drawn to closing video stores as if by the sirens' song, or as flies are drawn to a carcass, on a quest for rare gems and titles they lack in otherwise complete sets. A documentary about this subculture called Adjust Your Tracking-seemingly shot on VHS itself-can be found on the ShoutFactoryTV website (as of this writing). Focusing on the collectors themselves, it explores the origins of the community, a nostalgia for the way we once rented and watched movies at home, and an appreciation for the videocassette as an object. Of particular interest are "big box" horror films, with their elaborate, garish, and often misleading packaging art.

When the DVD format came along to replace the old tapes, I myself was quite happy to see them go, having learned about the alterations movies underwent so that they could be adapted to the format. It turned out that "This movie has been modified from its original version and formatted to fit your screen"- words I must have read hundreds of times as a kid without knowing what they meant- referred to chopping left and right sections off of a rectangular picture in order to make it into a TV friendly square, often conversely revealing more image above and below in the process. I'm not sure exactly when I figured this out, but I own at least one or two widescreen VHS movies, so it's clear that even early on I didn't like the idea of a director's work being compromised in this way. But after watching both Adjust Your Tracking and Stuckmann's video, I realized that my formative years as a viewer are inseparable from the videotape format and the stores that rented them. If I could fall in love with the films that I love most in the world, and indeed film itself, on this boxy, analog format, then how bad could it be? If the movie is good enough, it can overcome the technical limitations associated with videotape (some horror films might actually have been enhanced by its low-fi texture). And while I wouldn't want to go back, I can look now at that old technology with affection, and can see its charm. 

But how did we come to this place of looking back, of reminiscing about the video store, with its walls and aisles of cassettes? What became of them? Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, as well as the kiosk chain Redbox (have Blockbuster's kiosks gone the way of their stores?) are the obvious answer. As soon as technology allowed films to be contained on small discs, and, more significantly, to exist as digital information alone, the need of the video rental store began to wane. It transpired that these stores had a lifespan almost exactly parallel to that of the videotape itself. The two turned out to be almost poetically dependent upon one another for survival. Sure, there was a good decade or so of renting DVDs, but it marked the beginning of the end. 

I wouldn't argue that video stores were necessarily a better paradigm for watching movies than streaming services, but I wouldn't argue the converse, either-they're just two different ways to watch movies at home. But we have lost something truly special. I remember the thrill of going to rent a movie, of skimming the new release wall when I arrived, and carefully investigating the aisles of older choices, rich with the mystique of decades past. It certainly seems that old movies used to be watched much more commonly, and maybe it's because in the video store they were only a few feet away from the recent films, and their rental costs were lower. If you couldn't find a new one, you might try a classic or two. While you'd wander through the physical space of the store, you were also traversing movie-space, a crowded nexus of genres, styles, and years. It was an upbeat environment to be in, with all of us united in the search, perhaps seeking a cinematic escape from the residual stress of a work week, or a stack of horror films for a sleepover. There was an atmosphere of excitement about movies. Nearly every videotape was adorned with a "Be Kind, Rewind" sticker, as we were expected to show this courtesy to the next viewer, a fellow renter. What a tiny, lovely, communal sentiment that was. Popping open the foggy, translucent plastic rental case to find the cassette within fully rewound was proof of a kind gesture on the part of a total stranger. I can't befriend a streaming service or a kiosk, can't exchange small gestures of kindness with them, or have a conversation with them about what's worth watching,  

Beyond the ritual, though, beyond the possibility of social interaction and the impact of being in a physical space, is there a real difference in the way we actually enjoy the movies themselves? I believe that there is, and I think it has to do with committing to a choice. When we watch a movie on a streaming service, it's woefully easy to change our minds. If something doesn't grab our interest right away? Back out and find something else-there are thousands of choices. But when you rented a movie, you committed. You brought it home, and that's what you had. If it didn't instantly grab you? Maybe you'd turn it off and count it as a loss. But it's much more likely you'd give it a shot, hang in there, and maybe, just maybe, it would win you over in the end, and you'd finish something great that you might not have stuck with if an alternative was a click away. Just think of how rare it is for people to walk out of movies at the theater-it's the same idea. In the age of shortening attention spans, this might be the most significant of the things lost when video stores began to fade away. 

Somewhere in time, on a summer night, a young couple is on their first date. They pull their big car up next to a little roadside booth and pay its occupant for two tickets. These in hand, they drive into a field packed with other large vehicles-maybe some of them belong to classmates, also out with their boyfriends or girlfriends. Like those cars, they park next to one of the many posts that are regularly spaced throughout the field. On each post is a hefty metal speaker, which the young driver later struggles to hang on the inside of the car door. The couple runs to the concession stand for some nachos and a hot dog-they should have arrived earlier, they think. They hop back into the car, food and beverages in hand, as the towering screen at the front of the field suddenly lights up with moving images-the coming attractions-and the big speaker on the door cracks and pops to life, giving voice to those images. The couple leans back into the car's big seats, hearts beating with anticipation. The Drive-In theater is all but gone now, and so too every beautiful thing that went with it. The video store will likely follow soon, and I hope we can take a moment to stop and appreciate the passing of an age.    

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