Any film buff of a certain age (present company included) will tell you that video stores changed everything, and that nothing’s been the same since they (mostly) went away. When the home VCR became affordable in the early 1980s and the first mom-and-pop video rental outlets started popping up, it opened up a whole new world for those of us outside major metropolitan areas with their repertory and art-house theaters. I went to film school in 1985, but my real film education began several years earlier, browsing the shelves of VHS tapes (our family had narrowly avoided the mistake of buying a Betamax) for cult favorites, foreign films, and Hollywood classics. My Netflix queue may be more convenient, but the selection is limited and the thrill of the hunt is gone.
I’m fortunate enough to live in a city (Austin, TX) that still supports several terrific independent video stores, so for me Tom Roston’s new oral history I Lost It at the Video Store (Amazon) isn’t quite the elegy for a bygone era it might be for most readers. Still, Roston’s slim volume makes for a lively read as he’s assembled an impressive array of interview subjects to reminisce about the golden age of home video. These aren’t scholars or critics (although the title is a tip of the hat to Pauline Kael’s first collection of reviews, I Lost It at the Movies), but filmmakers who came of age in the VCR era.
Some, like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, actually worked in video stores. It has long been part of the Tarantino legend that he absorbed every B-movie genre from film noir to kung-fu to spaghetti western during his time behind the counter at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach. Years before expressing his enthusiasm for these works through his own movies like Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, Tarantino was pushing them on his customers. “I was very good at it,” he tells Roston. “I could definitely push the stuff I liked, or what I thought was interesting and challenging. I made fans of some very weird stuff. For the most part, I tried to gear it for the customer. A housewife comes in and, say, she wants something. I am twenty-four and she’s fifty-four, so I’m not going to try and give her Eraserhead or The Forbidden Zone or some kung-fu movie.”
For budding filmmakers, there was more upside to the video revolution than the sudden accessibility of potential influences. Stores were eager for product, which made it possible for independent producers to cut deals directly with video distributors. As producer Ted Hope says, “There wouldn’t be an American independent film business unless there had been a scarcity of content available for the American video shelf. Period.” It was home video money that financed Tarantino’s 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs, although Miramax would eventually come along to purchase the theatrical rights. Virtually every indie filmmaker of the era, from John Sayles to Gus Van Sant to Hal Hartley, benefited from home video financing, although the same kind of creative accounting used by major studios meant they rarely enjoyed a share of the profits.
The end came quickly, with chains like Blockbuster wiping out the mom-and-pop establishments, DVD providing the nail in the coffin for VHS, and finally the Internet, with both legitimate streaming and illegal downloads, serving as the death knell for most video stores. As Nicole Holofcener notes, even Blockbuster, once perceived as the villain, took on a nostalgic glow once its stores fell on hard times. I Lost It at the Video Store is far from the last word on the subject—it reads more like an extended magazine article than a comprehensive account of the era—but whether you miss the home video revolution or you just missed it, Roston’s book is a compulsively readable tribute.
Scott Von Doviak