Bangin’ Those Video Machines

Does anybody here remember VHS?

Better yet, remember Power Video? Or maybe Mega Video, or any number of those old, colorful movie libraries — the now extinct (and achingly nostalgic) Video Store? The kind that roamed the Earth before Blockbuster came along and ate ’em all up?

(Before Blockbuster itself got eaten up by Netflix and Redbox – the Circle of Life, right?).

When I was a kid, the Video Store was king. To me, it was the Red Light District in Amsterdam, each movie box a glittering window promising something new and exciting and terrifying.

The horror movies especially–lurid covers wrapped up in plastic clamshell cases promising mind bending nightmares–the kind of far out thing that just might rip your precautious, adolescent brain apart.

I don’t think there was a cooler way to grow up–I romantacize the video store the way Bruce Springsteen romanticizes the pinball machines in Asbury Park. “Bangin’ those pleasure machines,” he says, and I think that’s what a VCR was to me–a pleasure machine that banged ’til my mind lit up like Christmas.

Kids today?

Man, they aren’t ever gonna get that.

It’s the difference between growing up with a Best Buy and growing up with an independent record shop. A Barnes ‘N Noble versus a used bookstore–one’s efficient and modern and sleek (fast and lubricated for the 21st century), while the other is crammed with dusty oddball obscurities. Lazy and fat and brimming over with culture.

You know you’re well off the beaten path when you’re in a good record shop (or indie bookstore or, more rarely, video store). You’re Hansel and Gretel far beyond the purview of your bread crumbs, jonesing for candy that might be stuffed with razor blades.

I mean, you really weren’t ever supposed to be able to own a movie, much less rent one. They weren’t built that way. Back in the dusty, wild, wild west days, before video stores and even television, movies were like a traveling carnival.

You’re traveling into a kind of alternate history–a dangerous place where Pompeii Goats roam unleashed, and the weeds that have sprouted near Great Art are cherished like flowers. You carve out your own identity there, amongst the excess. Your taste forms like the ink of a fresh tattoo.

In the modern, shoddy movie aisles of your local Wal-Mart?

Not a chance.

For one thing, they all smell like chemicals and bleach.

But even beyond the brick and mortar, things are different.

Today, Netflix is king, and it’s flattened the aisles of your Power Video into a computer screen. In the bad days, the movies would gang up on you from all sides, countless titles with vampires and werewolves and heroes and heroines, forcing your imagination into anaphylactic shock. The seedlings of creativity grew in the negative spaces between the shelves–somewhere in the cracks between the Horror tapes and the Adventure, Science Fiction, and Video Game sections. That’s where your own stories germinated. You’d read hundreds of plot descriptions printed on the backs of every pulpy, illustrated VHS tape, and you’d go home and spill action figures all over your bedroom floor and recreate the plot lines ’til you were exhausted and fell into a kind of sugary, bubble-gum daydream coma.

Of course, the video stores were a freak tumor on the pop culture timeline that maybe wasn’t healthy.

I mean, you really weren’t ever supposed to be able to own a movie, much less rent one. They weren’t built that way. Back in the dusty, wild, wild west days, before video stores and even television, movies were like a traveling carnival. If you wanted to see something as ecstatic and jazzed up as The Wizard of Oz, you had to catch it on its first run, and then hope it’d show again in your home town some day down the line.

If it was Great Art, it surely would live to play again. If it wasn’t–if it was reanimated, shambling, teenage mutant mothball slop, it might not (much to the simultaneous detriment of young minds and Great Art–hence, also, the maddening formulas you find in the DNA of genre entertainment. The movie you remembered might not play again, but surely one quite similar would, returning like a zombie to play again and again, haunting your town…).

I’ve gotta figure the absence of the immediate, repeat pleasure home video offers does something marvelous to the imagination. If you wanted to re-watch The Wizard of Oz (See! The Witch dissolve into a plume of red smoke, Watch! As an army of flying monkeys descend from the skies), you had no choice but to replay it in your mind. You could buy the book, or play make believe with your friends (Tape! Fake flying-monkey wings to your brother’s back and throw him out a tree), and maybe, in the process, build muscular definition on the imagination in your brain cage. You weren’t building to the kind of positive-reinforcement endorphin squirt you know you’ll get if you pop the video into your VCR, with a buttery bowl of popcorn and maybe a Big Gulp in tow.

Nuh uh, honey.

Basically, there was no release. Your imagination was gonna build like a Tower of Babel until it popped.

I’m not insinuating that’s better, mind you. Not for a second. It’s way better to have The Wizard of Oz on blu-ray (come on, now!) and to be able to watch it any time you want (not just around Christmas, like the poor unfortunate mouth breathing desperados of previous generations, who were resigned to only seeing it once a year when it came out on TV). That’s a victory for us Millennials: We can now enjoy the intricate stitching designs of The Scarecrow’s make-up that one can only see in 1080p (seriously, take a look: dude’s face looks like burlap, unlike the version you grew up watching on a tube TV).

Never having to choose meant you could be a movie fan without really ever being a movie snob.

We, of course, take this for granted. But to suddenly be able to purchase The Wizard of Oz for home viewing after years of only being able to see it when it played in theaters? (And after years of tossing your brother out of trees with fake flying monkey wings stapled to his back?)

Shut. The. Front. Door.

It’s a bit of a psychotic hoot to see the staggering prices VHS tapes originally went for because if, in times previous, movies were some ephemeral beast (like a unicorn vomiting rainbows), then now you could actually own one of those monsters yourself. They were sure to be pretty pricey, as any monster worth its salt must be. They were captured Moby Dicks put on display in the goldfish bowl of any middle to upper class home. The prices would most certainly be worth it, if not just so you could watch the movie again whenever you wanted to, and not have to torture your poor (but imaginative) mind again and again for forgotten details.

Of course, what came along with the monster and the price tag was the idea of choice. This is a turning point in the consuming habits of our imaginations, and this is where things get tricky.

Choosing to see The Wizard of Oz (or The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, or Bloodfeast, or whatever nightmarish curio was coming to town that week) on the big screen was a no brainer when it was the only game in town. Back when movie producers were also movie distributors, you’d eat whatever slop they’d shove down your throat without a second thought (occasionally you’d swallow steak, like a Casablanca or a Maltese Falcon, but usually it was Grade D Taco Bell meat you were choking on). More to the point, you’d like it, without complication, without question.

Never having to choose meant you could be a movie fan without really ever being a movie snob.

Because if, at first, the simple fact of owning a monster is enough to define you and excite you, eventually (once enough people have little monsters of their own), someone is going to beg the question “Well, which monsters do you own?” More importantly: “Why did you pick those movies?”

Good question.

Why is your movie shelf lined with nothing but black and white classics from the forties? Times have changed–tastes have changed–yet you’re still living like VE Day is just around the corner. What’s with you? Are you an old fogey–Prudish? Squeamish? You’ve got a movie called Scarface and there’s no cocaine or eighties excess in sight. Have you never heard of my little friend, much less said hello to him?

Or maybe–ah, yes, I should have seen it before–your movie shelf is just lined with what they call Great Art. No further questions–although, secretly, we’re all still wondering how exactly you have fun.

Next up: your shelf is lined with only George Lucas films, and he didn’t make that many, and most of ’em are called Star Wars. So what’s with you? At first, I’m impressed by the wham-bam, gee-whiz, ecstatic fun you must be having every night you slide in a video. But now I’m thinking just maybe–possibly–theoretically, there’s something lacking here, too. Like some of the Great Art on that dusty old-fossil’s shelf we just talked to.

Can’t see the difference between the two shelves? Punch out the color in my eyes and neither can I (a serial’s a serial’s some cereal, know what I’m sayin’?) There is a thing called a “Bechtel Test” that’s a-rattlin’ around in my brain as I look at your shelf, though, declaring there ain’t a whole lot of women in sight (sure, there’s one, but tie me up in a gold bikini and call me representative of…what exactly?)

You know what I’m saying.

Basically, there are some flaws here.

But God forbid you look at my shelf–there’s this pointy eared Bat-dude that pops up a lot, declaring both my latent adolescence and my secret wish-fulfilment that can only be rivaled by my appreciate of a certain, smooth talking double-o agent who looks great in a tux. Scan your eyes down a couple of titles, and you’ll find all kinds of artery-squirting, Evil Dead wannabes emerging from the back-swamps of every Jungian shadow in every imaginative ghetto in every country on Earth–why you might ask? Do I love violence and mayhem and cruelty? Or do I enjoy camp, and low budgets, and the kind of ingenuity you can only really produce when you’ve got mothballs in your wallet but big dreams in your brain?

Sue me–I dunno, these are the movies I like! This is what I’ve decided is my taste–this is the economic choice I’ve made. These are the films–the monsters–I want to own. To represent myself, maybe, or to scratch the itch I’ve got when I want to kick back and eat my popcorn and drink my soda and ignore the crushing realities of the world outside.

Huff, huff, huff….

Anyway, these kinds of fascist taste parameters that you can pick apart, or defend, or do what you wish with… They didn’t exist back when your only option was simply to go to the movies and choose amongst whatever limited options were there.

Now, again, I’m not saying things got worse.

The above “DVD Collector” scenario, of course, is an insane way to live — nightmarish, probably unhealthy, probably representative of the kind of gluttony they talk about and say is bad for you (the kind that’ll make it hard for you to squeeze through the eye of a camel’s needle, or some such nonsense).

No, I’m not saying things got worse.

I’m saying they got way, one hundred, thousand, million per cent better.

It’s not as cool as having a video store, but…!

Kid’s today are being introduced to a world where they don’t really have to (compulsively, snobbishly) choose, either. They don’t buy DVDs or VHS tapes or blu-rays anymore. No, thanks to these internet video stores like Netflix Instant Que that I (so illogically, instinctively) loathe, they can watch whatever they want, whenever they want to watch it. So long as they can cough up the thirteen bucks a month (or however much), they’ve got an insanely detailed, elaborate, comprehensive movie library at their fingertips.

Enough that it might just knock them into a coma of indecision, but should they rise to the challenge, their minds will now be opened to a world of films and filmmakers that was previously cut off from them.

It’s not as physically fascinating as a video store (and it doesn’t have as much negative space or dark crevices for their imaginations to fester), but it’s got access that can turn them into rabid, die hard, red eyed movie fans without turning them into snobs, without hurling them behind the walls of their own possessions. They can move nimbly now from title to title, genre to genre — from “I Spit On Your Texas Chainsaw Bay of Blood”, to “Godfather II: The Empire Strikes Back”, without having to shore up all of their interest behind the title (the Monster) they paid an arm and a leg to acquire.

Own the entire Batman collection on super-duper hi-def blu-ray, only to find it no longer speak to you as a person? That’s a drag — gonna have to haul that down to the mall and sell its parts for scraps. Maybe you can get a bargain bin Loony Tunes DVD for your trouble, OR an internet connection, which is better. There you can enjoy Archer and James Bond (and even Austin Powers) side by side, without discrimination, without having to choose which method of getting your kicks is preferable.

This, folks, is the best time it’s ever been to be a movie fan.

Sure, the screens keep getting smaller (cell phones!), and the competition keeps getting stiffer (if you’re trying to be a filmmaker yourself). Sure, the theaters are all lit up these days from iPods and iPads and iPhones. Sure, it costs your first born child just to see a movie in theaters (much less to purchase some popcorn and candy). But I can watch the entire Hammer Film Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb RIGHT NOW, on youtube (FOR FREE!), without trying to find a used copy of an out-of-print DVD (or worse, VHS) that’s gonna cost me at least thirty dollars (and it’ll probably have dog-dookie stain in the plastic wrap, and then I’m gonna have to justify why it’s in my shelf of movies, and re-calibrate my taste once again, which is being flagellated by a kind of warped capitalism that is unsustainable).

What I’m saying is this: I’m probably gonna buy that DVD anyway, you know? And boy do I miss Power Video (I really do…the 42nd Street grindhouses of my lost youth).

But those 42nd Street pleasure machines disappeared for a reason. If I can see a movie in New York City without having to worry about sitting on a needle, or getting stabbed in the bathroom by some drug fiend, then it seems we’re better off for it.

Because there’s a better 42nd street anyway, and it’s the internet.

Weirdly enough, it’s got Great Art to boot.

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