Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ode To A Video Store

I've spent a lot of time lately thinking about much the landscape of daily life has changed in the last decade of digital disruption.  It's been especially strange to see the destruction of Blockbuster, the behemoth that destroyed local video stores back in the 1990s.  As late as 2004 it looked to bestride the earth like a Colossus forevermore, now it's gone.  I refuse to weep a tear for that wretched chain, with its philistine insistence on fullscreen movies, censorship, and strong-arm late fee collections.  However, I do mourn the local video store, mostly because I have been lucky to enjoy some truly great ones in my life.  My favorite, That's Rentertainment in Champaign-Urbana, thankfully still stands.  Sadly, Video Kingdom, my cinematic lifeline in my isolated small Nebraska hometown, still sells electronic equipment, but no longer rents movies.

Its fate was intimately tied to the mall where it was located, a mall that might as well have tumbleweeds blowing through it nowadays.  Back when I was growing up it echoed with laughter and the sound of kettle corn popping at Karmelkorn in the Food Court.  You could spot Video Kingdom at the mall because it had one of those huge knight in armor mock-ups standing out front.  I was going there so long ago that I can remember a time when the boxes on the shelves had two colors of tags in the back that you'd take to get your tape at the counter: blue for VHS and yellow for beta.  The tape did not come home in the shiny video box (remember, those tapes cost a king's ransom back then), but in a brown container in the bland color style so beloved in America circa 1984.  (My family bought a brown 1984 Chevy conversion van, so it's a color I knew well back then.)

Although there was a rival video store opened across town shortly later, Video Kingdom would still always be hopping.  In a town with few entertainment options, it was an embarrassment of riches.  I also wonder nowadays if its proprietor was a film buff, because I was able to get my hands on lots of things that were fairly obscure, and which never would have come to the threeplex at the mall theater.  (Not only did it only show the most mainstream fare, it often took weeks or even months for movies to show up there.  I am little ashamed to admit that I drove thirty miles to see Forrest Gump with friends in another town in 1994.)  By the time I reached high school I religiously watched Siskel and Ebert, and read magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone.  I would often hear and read rave reviews of films that did not come within 100 miles of where I lived.  Without fail, I could find them at Video Kingdom.

Because of Video Kingdom I was able to rent Reservoir Dogs, the first contemporary film I'd seen that suggested something wildly different from the narrow limits of mainstream Hollywood.  I was able to see Do The Right Thing, perhaps the first film I watched that really forced me to think about how life was lived outside of the confines of my Nebraska homeland.  Video Kingdom stocked Short Cuts, a movie that began my lifelong love of Robert Altman.  One weekend my parents were out of town, and instead of throwing a party (no one would have come, anyway) I rented Taxi Driver, a film I knew would be so gritty and violent that I dare not see it in my parents' presence.  It both thoroughly shocked and excited me in ways I didn't know movies could do.  My best friend and I watched Blade Runner and Apocalypse Now! avidly, my friend going so far as to tape some of the audio track on cassette and play it in his car's tape deck.  I was a social outcast and a bit of a weirdo in high school, but having access to these films made me feel special and smart, like someone who was in on something that other people could not possible understand.  Without that video store, I would not have had such a comforting past-time, nor would my love of cinema be so well-developed today.

Of course, if I was a teenager in my hometown today I wouldn't need a video store to give me access to these things.  Netflix has pretty much any movie you could ever want.  It would have made my process of discovery easier, but by being easier, much cheaper and less thrilling.  At a time when I needed to believe that my being a misfit was actually a sign that I had transcended my surroundings, the local video store gave me hope.  For that I owe it my eternal gratitude.

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