This one hit me right in the heart, probably because you have to be in a particular age bracket and love movies of every size and shape to remember the experience of walking into certain video stores and realizing that you were entering a world with endless possibilities and inevitable late fees. Director James Westby’s At the Video Store doesn’t care about the big chains that would only carry mainstream titles and nothing beyond an R rating—we’re looking at you, Blockbuster and West Coast Video. I remember renting an older John Woo title from Blockbuster (I think it was The Killer), which I had seen in theaters and knew it was unrated due to violence, and being shocked at how edited down the film was in the butchered edition available through the franchise store. I never rented from there again.
Instead, the film centers its attention on independently owned video stores that prided themselves on stocking foreign, rare, psychotronic, often-bootlegged titles alongside more traditional classics, new releases, and even adult films. These were the establishments owned and operated by people who got to know the tastes of their customers and so could recommend appropriately, with that perfect blend of enthusiasm and knowledge. The film moves around the country, examining the similarities and differences among stores in various regions. My old stomping ground Kim’s Video in the East Village of Manhattan is discussed at length by former employee and current filmmaker Alex Ross Perry; a spotlight is thrown on Chicago’s own Odd Obsession Movies and Facets; and my new life goal is to make it to the expansive and beautifully designed Scarecrow Video in Seattle, which looks like the New York Public Library of video stores.
The filmmaker interviews not only the men and women who ran the stores but filmmakers who were both customers and artists who saw their films become hits on home video after tanking in theaters, such as Todd Phillips, Gus Van Sant, John Waters, Nicole Holofcener, Penelope Spheeris, and Lester Bangs. Throw in famous film geeks like Bill Hader and editor extraordinaire Thelma Schoonmaker, and the testimonials here are solid. Their stories are so specific, funny and insightful that one hopes that the irreplaceable personal interactions that can only happen in video stores (and cannot happen sitting at home alone, streaming something) have a resurgence the same way vinyl has.
Naturally, you can’t tell the relatively short history of video stores without discussing how services like Netflix and Redbox put them out of business. The second you could have something mailed to your home or you could pick up a movie while also buying groceries, the time spent searching through thousands of titles at a video store was destined to go the way of the dodo. Hearing these stories of stores going out of business or on the verge of doing so sets up one heartbreak after another. As much as each indie store is different from the others, there was connective tissue (so many of them have store cats, for example); but what it really came down to was the passion, selection and customer service that made each one so special. The era isn’t quite dead, but in its heyday, it made cinephiles feel like the most coddled, loved group in all the land, and At the Video Store captures that period beautifully.
The film screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of its “Stranger Than Fiction” documentary series, on Friday, Jan. 24 at 8pm, and Saturday, Jan. 25 at 5:30pm. Director James Westby is scheduled to appear for audience discussions at both screenings.
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