Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Review: 'I Lost It at the Video Store: A filmmaker’s Oral History of a Vanishing Era'

Everything about film seems to be shrinking these days. I’m not just talking about the minuscule screens on tiny gadgets that people use as substitutes for theaters. I’m also referring to the way people get those films. They visit itunes, click a few pictures, and a minute later they’re streaming the latest Marvel comics movie or whatever. Seeing a movie was not always so instantaneous. If you missed it during its theatrical run, you had to wait as much as a year for it to come out on video. Then you had to leave your home to visit the local mildew-stinking video store to find out if it was available yet. Maybe the movie was out on video, but it wasn’t necessarily available because some other joker had already rented it. So you had to wait until demand died down to the point you could pay your two bucks, get it home, and shove it in the VCR.

This probably all sounds like a pain in the ass to those who did not grow up in the video store age, and it probably was, but it was all we had (well, maybe not all we had…there were also premium cable and pay-per-view channels). It was also something to do on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon. Sometimes it was more about the activity than the movie: get a few friends together and spend an hour pacing up and down the rows of garish yet empty video boxes until you just give up and grab whatever is closest at hand. I wonder how many hours I wasted doing that between 1984 and 2004. It was such a big part of my life that there’s no wonder why it makes me nostalgic.

I’m not the only one. Former editor of Premiere magazine, Tom Roston is another guy who misses those mildewy days, and he pays tribute to them by gathering a couple dozen filmmakers to gab about the video store era in his new book I Lost It at the Video Store: A filmmaker’s Oral History of a Vanishing Era. I’m glad Roston went the oral history route, because the tone of his introduction is too academic to capture the sleazy joys of visiting video stores. Fortunately, former video store employees Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith lead Roston’s roster of commentators, and they keep the discussion funny and fanatical even though the book is largely about the business side of video. We learn how the stores came to be and how they bred a new generation of filmmakers. There is an entire chapter on Reservoir Dogs and how it could have easily become a direct-to-video release. There is less about the vanished communal experience of video browsing, which was such a huge part of the era. But maybe that’s not the best way to make use of film professionals, at least not when there are only 150 pages of large text to get their recollections down. However, we do get some fascinating tidbits distinct to the era, like Smith’s adventures in the porn closet of his store or how Morgan Spurlock would watch the guy’s head exploding in Scanners or the werewolf’s snout growing in An American Werewolf in London frame-by-frame. My friends and I did the same thing with those “subliminal” images of a demon’s face in The Exorcist. Do people still do that type of thing on their iPhones or was it particular to that bygone age of crappy pan-and-scan VHS tapes? Either way it made me nostalgic, and I Lost It at the Video Store is nothing if not nostalgic and elegiac. Get it on Amazon.com here:

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