There are many reasons to mourn the end of the video store era. Our world of curated shops with mainstream and independent cinema is being replaced with narrow, short-term selections dictated by studio agreements with streaming services. We’re losing the system that allowed for interaction and exploration before the solitary trek to pop a tape in the VCR. We’re losing the world that allowed future creatives to meet, interact, and explore together – most famously, at Video Archives, where Quentin Tarantino clerked and shared his geekery with locals like actor/writer Danny Strong.
But video stores also served many different functions in the medium. In movies, the video store is the place where geeks immerse themselves in their passion, where clerks gets creative or just condescending, where employees try to make romantic connections, and of course, the playground where characters could banter about anything and everything cinema.
At least it lives on in films like the 9 below.
The more widely recognized super-low budget video store film of the ‘90s is, of course, from Clerks. The video store, and neighboring convenience store, are the landscape where Kevin Smith’s heroes argue over everything and nothing, from films to life. They argue about the generalities – whether Jedi or Empire is a better movie – and they argue the minutia – the lives of independent contractors aboard the Death Star, years before audiences would get aggravated with the rampant death-tolls and destruction that accompany superhero fights.
And Randall Graves is one of the worst clerks on celluloid, rambling off X-rated titles in front of children and openly mocking the woman who wants to know what movie to watch.
Be Kind Rewind
Jack Black becomes magnetic and destroys all of the movies in the struggling independent video store he works at with Mos Def. This setup could be some heart-warming movie about a community coming together to fundraise for the little guy, but in Michel Gondry’s world, it becomes the perfect opportunity for them to recreate the films themselves with a little swedeing. It’s not only fun in that way Gondry alone can be, but it’s also a sweet immortalization of the video DIY that existed before all manner of cameras and editing became accessible to the general populace – especially the pause-leave frame-record version of special effects.
Walking and Talking
In Walking and Talking, the video store is where Nicole Holofcener first explored the intricacies of attraction and dating, long before James Gandolfini and Julia Louis Dreyfus gave it a shot in Enough Said. Catherine Keener’s Amelia decides to stretch her boundaries in the 1996 film, putting aside her sexy and questionable ex (Live Schreiber) to try dating “the ugly guy” video clerk Bill (Kevin Corrigan). The My BloodyValentine t-shirt-wearing Bill is both a stereotypical movie geek and one walking his own path as he spends his time reading Fangoria and writing about the life of Colette. His job becomes his drama, however, when he has sex with Amelia and never calls her.
The Watermelon Woman
In The Watermelon Woman, the video store is not just the place for a pithy scene about cinema, talking about everything from Cleopatra Jones to Repulsion – it’s the backdrop for discussions about race and sexuality. Cheryl (played by the writer/director Cheryl Dunye) orders heaps of special order tapes in her research of Hollywood stereotypes, falling for the “Watermelon Woman” – a forgotten black actress who was also a lesbian.
The film, which had a budget of $300,000, found itself in the middle of the conservative fight against the National Endowment for the Arts in the ‘90s. After a reviewer noted that it contained one of the hottest lesbian sex scenes ever captured, a staff reporter at the Washington Post questioned the NEA giving Dunye $31,500 for the production, which then prompted Rep. Peter Hoekstra to demand the endowments budget be decreased by that amount – a demand he later withdrew.
The video store is essential in Scream. It’s Randy’s home turf, where he can relay the “very simple formula” for a slasher whodunit. Yes, Randy’s uber geekery is suspect since every main character in the franchise seems to have an IMDb’s worth of information in their heads, and Randy is also known for sharing his expertise in many locales – the party, the classroom, and on videotape. But it never works better than the video store, where classic horror clips are playing, customers can interrupt to ask for the werewolf movie with ET’s mom and a whole town’s viewing habits (and not just your social media friends’) are on display.
In Ghost World, everyone is the target of mockery or derision. There is no true cool and no true uncool. Enid will mock her weirdo classmates, but get mocked for attempting to pull off a “vintage punk rock” look. And at the counter of her local video store, it’s the clueless, Hollywood-centric clerk who is mocked as he tells his 8 ½-requesting customer that they do, indeed have 9 ½ Weeks – in the “Erotic Dramas” section.
When the camera returns to Enid and Rebecca, they stroll through the store, uninterested in the offerings and choosing to do something else instead. That we used to go to our store to even decide if we wanted to rent a film now feels like the modern incarnation of the “when I was your age, we walked two hours barefoot in the snow/mud/broken glass.”
Kicking and Screaming
Noah Baumbach packs a lot into the brief video store scenes in his first film. Clerks rant over tapes mis-shelved (Terms of Endearment in the prison movie section), and the boss wants to be the next clerk-turned-filmmaker. This is a place where the manager walks around in dirty t-shirts, but in true, struggling post-grad fashion, our interviewee throws on a crappy suit for the job, trying to impress the loser as he swears that “Samuel Fuller” and “all the good ones” are his influences.
Though it’s great to be free of the tyranny of rewinding, it’s sad to have no good home for Baumbach’s clerk rhyme: “Aha. This bastard wasn’t kind, didn’t rewind, and now, mister, you’ll get fined!”
The Lost Boys
And sometimes, the video store isn’t really about movies at all. It becomes the place where the wonderful Edward Hermann can wear hideously clashing ‘80s fashion as he zeroes in on Dianne Wiest’s excellent mothering skills and schemes up a plan to make her his vampiric den mother. In some ways, it’s more of a video store than many movie attempts that just put up a few signs and shelves full of VHS boxes. But it’s also absurdly ridiculous as two parental types run the store as if it’s a decent job opportunity and not the minimum wage gig teens
would used to flock to.