A Life at the Video Store

November 10, 2011

North Carolina Video, Cary, North Carolina, 1983. My technophile father, a fugitive from movie theaters after three nuns sit down directly in front of us in an otherwise empty theater and talk throughout E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, discovers this, the first video rental store in my hometown. He brings home a Sony Betamax. The first videotape I ever rent is The Last Unicorn, a now-forgotten Rankin-Bass cartoon that was also the first movie I saw on tape (when my first grade teacher showed it, illegally, in class).

The Video Bar, Cary, North Carolina, 1984-1987. The second video store to open in my hometown, in a shopping center across the street from the mall. My mother and I drop in on its first day in business and come out with membership card #2, which we share for nearly a decade, until the store switches computers and issues new cards. Instead of carrying their chosen videotape box to the counter, customers retrieve a little laminated card for each title from a hook underneath the shelf – blue for Beta, red for VHS. Red cards guarantee tantrums, until my father finally throws in the towel and switches to VHS. Though as a child I generally dislike children’s films I rent, over and over again, The North Avenue Irregulars (because I like the cars) and the Dot and the Kangaroo movies (because I like the Australian animals).

North American Video, Cameron Village and North Raleigh, North Carolina, 1986-1987; Schoolkids Records, Saltbox Village, Cary North Carolina, c. 1988; various others. The mid-eighties are a bad time for a newly-minted Trekkie. In a lull between theatrical features, classic Star Trek is atypically scarce in syndication. My long-suffering father is deputized to drive me to every video store in Wake County in a mostly vain search for the fifty-two episodes available on video at the time of my conversion. One of these stores (I can’t remember which) supplies the crucial “Balance of Terror” and “The City on the Edge of Forever,” both found on the rare double-episode cassettes that are show’s the first home video release. (When the third season of Star Trek finally debuts on VHS, my father astonishes me by pulling out his credit card and buying all twenty-four tapes on the same night I first spot them in the Waldenbooks at Crabtree Valley Mall. He is tired of driving to video stores, I guess.) Hitchcock, the filmmaker who introduces me to the idea of auteurism, first catches my eye in the “Suspense” aisle of a North American Video in Morrisville.

Videorama and Video Plaza, Cary, North Carolina, 1988-1990. Tucked into neighboring shopping centers right in front of my mother’s post-divorce apartment, these two small stores make a convenient summer afternoon destination for a bored pre-teen. The copy on the videocassette boxes in these shops becomes my first film school. At Video Plaza I discover, and become obsessed with, The Outer Limits.

Silver Screen Video, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1988. Situated far out into North Raleigh, Silver Screen is run by movie buffs and is the only store in town that carries the remaining Outer Limits episodes then available on VHS – a mere eighteen out of forty-nine. Totally unaware of how the home video industry works, I call them every few weeks to ask if they have any “new” Outer Limits episodes. My voice hasn’t broken yet, and I am infuriated when the clerks address me as “ma’am.”

Blockbuster Video, Cary, North Carolina, c. 1989. The blight first intrudes on Kildaire Farm Road, where I sniff around this neon-lit monstrosity (which will wage a protracted battle with the town council, as the overbrightness of its signs violate a local ordinance). Failing to comprehend the drawing power that 1,000 copies of every bad new release will have, I dismiss it as understocked and overpriced ($5 a night plus tax?!). A friend responds more pro-actively, by depositing an electrocuted squirrel found on his lawn in the overnight drop of a Durham branch. But the battle is a losing one; Videorama and Video Plaza, both across the street, are among the first casualties.

Carbonated Video, Waverly Place, Cary, North Carolina, 1991-1995. Along with the venerable Video Bar, now relocated to the other side of the Winn-Dixie/TJ Maxx shopping center, this new arrival is the best place in town to find classic and cult movies during my teenage cinephile years.

The Video Bar, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1993-1995. This offshoot, near the North Carolina State campus, stocks a hip slate of cassettes. Here, I discover the work of Russ Meyer – never imagining that a few years later I will spend a memorable afternoon with Russ and his sometime star Charlie Napier.

VisArt Video, Carrboro, North Carolina, 1994-1995. Having exhausted the movie supply in my own county, I begin regular trips to this college town mecca, almost an hour’s drive to the west, during my senior year of high school. I rent as many as I can, copy them all to enable time-shifting (most VCRs manufactured prior to 1990 were immune to Macrovision; I kept one operational until well into this century), and do it all over again the next weekend. I can’t remember the name of it, but a tiny little video store on a bend in the road between Chapel Hill and Carrboro supplies the life-changing Home Vision tapes of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. On the cross-country trip to college, my parents check out the Grand Canyon but I haul a VCR and my 13″ TV into a hotel room each night and watch tapes from the VisArt cache. (Teenagers are dumb.)  The only film I remember from that week is Marnie, the last major Hitchcock film I have not yet seen.  I am ready for new directors and new directions as I start my new life on the West Coast.

Tempo Music & Video and the 32nd Street Market, Los Angeles, California, 1995-1999. USC is in a low-income area that cannot support real video stores. All I find are a music shop and a dingy grocery store in a little outdoor mall, each with a kiosk full of mostly new releases. No matter: In film school it dawns on me that contemporary movies can be as good as old ones, so I eagerly set about bringing myself up to date.

Mondo Video a Go-Go and Jerry’s Video, Los Feliz, California, 1997-1999. Only a short bus ride from USC, these quirky neighborhood shops fill in more gaps, and the weird proprietors behind the counter provide added entertainment.

Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee, North Hollywood, California, 1996-2000. Perhaps the greatest video store of all time, EBSM is a long schlep into the Valley, but has no limit on rentals. I take a shoulder bag and fill it up each time. Noobs complain that the videos are organized not by genre but in alphabetical order, but of course I come with a list – and know enough to ask for the contraband behind the counter. Eddie Brandt’s allows me to become a television historian: it has a wall of bootlegs of shows like Naked City, East/Side West Side, Arrest and Trial, and others I’d only dreamed of ever finding.

Dave’s Video/The Laser Place, Studio City, California, 1999-2000. Having missed the laserdisc era almost entirely (those suckers are expensive, and therefore off my radar; as a teenager I mistake the rack of them in Camelot Music for soundtrack albums), I purchase my first DVD player in August 1999 and begin almost daily walks from my Coldwater Canyon apartment to Dave’s, one of the premiere DVD outlets in Los Angeles and soon to be a canary-in-the-mineshaft casualty of the medium’s decline. Dave’s is known for its celebrity customers, most famously Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, but I cherish meeting character actors like Bonnie Bartlett and Kurtwood Smith here.

Evergreen Video, West Village, New York City, 2000-2007. A friendlier but almost as well-stocked equivalent to the tool factory across town (see below), this tiny West Village store cuts up the video boxes and rehouses the artwork in fingertip-slicing laminated sleeves in bins. It’s even less browsable than Eddie Brandt’s, but no matter: by now I am cataloging every new DVD release of interest in a life-governing spreadsheet.

Tower Records, 4th Ave & 4th St, New York City, 2000-2006. The video rental shelf is small, but I can get new releases and TV seasons at two dollars for three nights – best deal in town. The Tower/Evergreen circuit becomes a fast-walking Friday lunch hour ritual for a few years.

Mondo Kim’s Video, East Village, New York City, 2000-2004; 2007-2008. A sluggish convert to the new DVD format, Mondo Kim’s eventually becomes the only store in town to amass a substantial library of imports and bootlegs. Relations with the legendarily supercilious staff deteriorate to the point that, following a conversation ending in the declaration “I have your money and I’m not giving it back,” a three year boycott is declared. Toward the end of 2007 I notice a “for rent” sign in the upstairs window and, although the twerps behind the counter persistently deny that the end is near, I lift the ban and manage to rent most of the expensive imports and out-of-print rarities just before the inevitable closure. In a typically shady maneuver, Mr. Kim, who once ranked number thirty-seven on the New York Press’s annual “Most Loathsome New Yorkers” list, does not sell off the videos but instead packs them away to a small town in Italy with the promise that the memberships of any old customers who happen to pass through Palermo will still be honored. Though I am happy to see my stoner asshat nemeses out of work, this still probably rates as some kind of tragedy.

Netflix, 2005-201?. I enjoy the rituals of browsing and spur-of-the-moment selections and am therefore a late and reluctant convert to rental by mail. Though impressed by the reliability of Netflix and the breadth of its library, I remain faithful to Evergreen and to Kim’s until they leave me twice widowed. (Visiting my home town, I ask around and realize that every single North Carolina video store mentioned above has closed its doors – even the Blockbuster. The final holdout, VisArt Video, hits eject at the beginning of this year.) At last almost entirely dependent on Netflix by 2008, I am unsurprised to find myself ditched once again, as company founder and nouveau douchebag Reed Hastings declares his loyalty to a deeply flawed streaming video offering and commences to throwing discs over the side as quickly as he can hoist them. The future is uncertain, but from here – on this, my thirty-fifth birthday – it looks a lot like 1982.

Minor changes for clarity made on March 28 and August 15, 2012.  Thanks to Scott, Andrea, and Toby for supplying the forgotten names of some of the stores mentioned above.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a former Angeleno, and I remain fascinated by Los Angeles locations in the movies and on television.  The film essayist Thom Andersen made a whole film, Los Angeles Plays Itself, about the schism between Los Angeles, the actual city, and Los Angeles, the cultural artifact constructed by its ubiquitous appearances in visual media.  Andersen prefers the real thing.  I’m not sure I agree.

One idea that I took away from Andersen’s film is that iconic locations, like the Bradbury Building or the Griffith Park Observatory, take on a slightly different meaning in the movies than the spaces only a native will find familiar.  The latter initiate a sort of private, privileged communication between filmmakers and a geographical subset of their audience.  Depending on how a location is depicted, it can add a layer of authenticity and familiarity for those select viewers.  Or it can be a trigger that leads those viewers to step outside the narrative, to confront the text as an industrial artifact and to contemplate how  reality has been manipulated during its creation.

For about a year I lived around the corner from the Sportsmen’s Lodge, a small hotel and restaurant in Studio City.  The Sportsmen’s Lodge is now undergoing extensive remodeling, but for nearly fifty years, it never changed.  For that reason it’s easy to spot in any number of movies and TV shows, particularly those made at Universal Studios, which lies only a couple of miles east along Ventura Boulevard.  (Columbo fumbled around the Sportsmen’s Lodge more than once.)  In its center courtyard the Lodge has a tiny pond, spanned by a wooden bridge, and its most infamous use as a movie location may be in the micro-budgeted fifties post-nuke opus The Day the World Ended.  That film used the Lodge’s little trout pond to simulate a real, outdoor body of water.

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Recently I was delighted to see the Sportsmen’s Lodge featured prominently in “The Italian Bird Fiasco,” a 1976 episode of The Rockford Files.  The Lodge doubles as the Delman Motel (allegedly in Santa Monica, on other side of town), which Rockford visits twice to meet his duplicitous client, played by St. Elsewhere’s William Daniels.  In the frame above, James Garner is standing underneath the carport outside the western entrance to the hotel’s parking lot.  The building to the right is a lobby leading, if I remember correctly, to both the lounge and the hotel.  The street behind Garner is Ventura Boulevard.  The structure in the background with the unusual windows is now a Ralph’s Fresh Fare; in the seventies, it was a different supermarket.

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Later in the same episode, Garner visits the Winslow Art Gallery to bid on an unusual art object.  The Winslow Art Gallery is also the Sportsmen’s Lodge.  It’s a different entrance at the eastern end of the hotel, perpendicular to the “Delman Motel” carport.  Below is a frame in which Garner stands just outside the Winslow Art Gallery (out of frame just to the right).  But in the background, minus its ersatz sign, is the  “entrance” to the Delman Motel.

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(At a time when many Universal shows, like Emergency! and the early episodes of Kojak, were still confined largely to a backlot that was growing ever more dated and threadbare, The Rockford Files – and Columbo as well – had enough clout to seek out practical locations nearly all the time.  But Universal’s  prop department still had some catching up to do.  In both of those series, the signage added to those locations always looked, well, like something that had just been slapped together by the prop department.  Realism came fitfully to television.)

Visible on the horizon in this sequence are both the Sportsmen’s Lodge’s own tiki-styled sign and (to the right of it in the frame below) another yellow, diamond-shaped sign in the background.  The latter is a revolving sentinel that towers over Twain’s, a twenty-four hour diner on the northwest corner of Ventura and Coldwater Canyon Boulevards.  Twain’s is another San Fernando Valley landmark that’s been there forever and is instantly recognizable to locals (and no one else).

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During my Studio City year, a co-worker described how Twain’s was a favorite hangout for her crowd when she was a Valley high schooler during the eighties.  Were Wendy to catch a rerun of “The Italian Bird Fiasco,” she would probably forget about the cat-and-mouse game being played out by James Garner and William Daniels on screen.  Her thoughts might turn back to her teenage memories – a reaction different from anyone else watching the same episode, and one wholly unanticipated (and possibly undesired) by the show’s creators.  But I suspect Wendy would find the experience pleasurable, as I do when The Rockford Files or some other show takes me back to my old neighborhood.

I have written this partly as an exercise in nostalgia, but also to illustrate the small point that TV shows reuse and disguise their locations and even their sets in all kinds of clever ways that most of us never notice.  I have a trained eye, but I’m sure I would not have observed consciously that “The Italian Bird Fiasco”’s two key locations share the same architecture had I not already been familiar with the Sportsmen’s Lodge.  As spectators, our suspension of disbelief extends to spatial geography just as much as it does to storytelling.  We allow movies and television to pull all manner of trickery on us, just so long as the people behind the curtain aren’t so manifestly incompetent that they force us to notice the strings holding everything up.

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Here’s another example, also taken from a crime program of the seventies, of a very specific kind of visual sleight-of-hand that I often catch.  In this scene from “Betrayed,” a 1973 segment of The Streets of San Francisco, Detectives Keller (Michael Douglas) and Stone (Karl Malden) study a reel of surveillance footage and detect an important clue to a bank robber’s identity.

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Keller, the younger detective, operates the sixteen-millimeter projector.  “Move in on that,” Stone tells him, when they come to a crucial moment in the footage.

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Keller complies, both zooming in and freezing the frame on the bank robber’s wrist.

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Somehow Keller has accomplished a feat that lies beyond the technical capabilities of his equipment.  He has shifted the angle to a point of view different from that established for the surveillance camera moments before.

Movies do this all the time.  They depict cuts, zooms, camera moves, and other visual effects in films-within-the-film that are blatantly implausible, at least to the trained eye.  Lately I’ve seen a few movies (George Romero’s wily Diary of the Dead is one) that make extensive internal use of “found footage” and do adhere rigorously to the spatial limitations established for that footage within the story.  But often filmmakers find it too difficult to convey a desired expository point within the limited perspective that fixed-camera footage would offer in the “real” world.

I always notice this kind of cheating, and it always gives me a chuckle.  But I wonder if it registers with most spectators, or if it’s another example – like “The Italian Bird Fiasco”’s multitude of Sportsmen’s Lodges – of the generous suspension of disbelief that we grant to visual media that attempt to give us pleasure.

Another reason we might accept rather than reject this flaw is that it enlists us in a more active kind of spectatorship than television or the movies usually offer.  In the scene described above, Detectives Stone and Keller assume the roles of, respectively, a director and a cinematographer/editor.  Stone tells his collaborator the effect he wishes to achieve – a solution to a mystery – through the process of watching (making) a film.  Keller selects the camera angle and organizes the footage in a way that will deliver that result.  Unconsciously, the viewer participates in this process with them.

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In any episode of The Streets of San Francisco (or The Rockford Files), the writer, the director, and their collaborators construct a story for us by making the same choices.  The projector scene in “Betrayed” embeds this process (or an oversimplified version of it) within the narrative.  The spectator will either play along, or else detect the shortcuts and reject them as “fake.”  How do we make that choice?  Is it conscious or unconscious?  Is one response to this scenario superior, or more “correct,” than the other?  Personally, few things annoy me more than watching or discussing a movie with someone whose refrain is “Well, that could never happen.”  My own tolerance for plot holes (and consequently my indifference to “spoilers”) is quite high, because I consider plot one of the least interesting components of a film or television show.  But based on which television shows have achieved popularity in recent years – Lost and 24, Grey’s Anatomy and Gossip Girl – I think many spectators may hold the opposite point of view.  They prize narrative complexity to the exclusion of any other kind of complexity.

Hypothetically, let’s say that the director of “Betrayed,” William Hale, had opted for accuracy at the possible expense of clarity.  In that case, the scene might have played out with Keller and Stone stopping the film and then squinting and puzzling over the blurry image.  Perhaps they would have disagreed over the meaning of the clue.  Perhaps their ambivalence would have carried over into another scene; instead of knowing already that their suspect (played by Martin Sheen) was the culprit, they would have had to interrogate him, bluff him, to elicit a confession.  Perhaps Sheen’s character would have slipped from their grasp for lack of evidence.  Perhaps Keller and Stone would never have known whether he was guilty or not.  Perhaps the viewer would have been left with less confidence in the effectiveness of the police, less certainty about the likelihood of closure in general.

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Each of those possibilities is less likely than the previous one, at least for a mainstream television show from the seventies.  That single subliminal, impossible edit may seem like a continuity error.  Instead it’s a shrewd elision that tidies the narrative of “Betrayed” in a meaningful way.  Did some viewers, even in 1973, congratulate themselves for catching a mistake that the filmmakers missed?  Of course.  But the filmmakers had the last word.  They understood that sometimes a “mistake” is more satisfying than an uncertainty.

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