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Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The Last Days of Video

I’ve addressed this topic in my blog before, but the problem won’t go away. Years pass, seasons change (not in the UK apparently), people fall in and out of love, but the crisis continues like the growth of mold in a two month old teabag (Not that I would know, my apartment is very clean). These days I think it’s more relevant than ever. Truly understanding the dilemma may be the key to unlocking not only the mystery of the credit crunch, but also perhaps the meaning of life itself. I am of course, speaking of the demise of the Video Store.

When I was 14, my first job was working as a delivery boy for The Video Connection, my local video store on 80th and Broadway. Back in the heyday of VHS, video stores had names that implied futurism while feeling ancient at the same time, as if they’d always been there and would be for millennium to come. Names like Video Vault, Pegasus Video, Royal Video, and Champagne Video, the lone survivor of the VHS boom. I recently walked through Champagne Video’s doors over the holidays. It was as if I’d entered a time warp: row upon row of rectangular plastic black boxes with poorly laminated covers. Movies grouped by section signs with cheesy, oversized bubble letters. Colorful displays on the checkout counter offering five flavors of microwave popcorn. It felt like 1994 all over again

Those were the days when the world was mine to discover. Every afternoon after school I’d pound the all-to-familiar blocks of my neighborhood, knapsack filled to the brim with tapes like Santa in his youthful prime. During the day I suffered all the indignities high school had to offer, but from the hours of 4 to 8, Tuesday through Thursday, I was in charge of my own destiny. I became a welcome sight to the uptown bourgeois elite, bringing them new releases of the day like Sirens with Hugh Grant and Elle Macpherson and Angels and Insects with Patsy Kensit. The titles and stars of countless, seemingly meaningless films were forever etched in my mind.

Back then (we’re talking the 90’s folks), movies came out on video no sooner than 6 months after being in the theater. This was when the Major Studios were king and had complete control of the supply chain. Whenever they decided to put a movie out on tape was the only time you could see it outside the cinema. Peer 2 peer networks didn’t exist. Pirated copies were made by a guy in the back row holding an off-center camcorder. If you wanted to see the movie you had to rent it. In addition, Studios would price VHS tapes at $89.99, making them impossible to buy for home entertainment. The Video Stores were the only places with enough capital to purchase cassettes and the clientele to make their money back. The Video Connection would get 5 copies at most of a new release (It was a big deal when they bought 10 copies of Jurassic Park). All these factors built up unbelievable anticipation for a movie coming out on video. Only 5 (10 when it came to the dinosaurs) lucky customers would get the latest film on a Tuesday night (Tuesday was the night we would allow customers to rent new movies. It was my most dreaded day, sometimes I would get out of there as late as 9:30!). As the delivery boy, the power was in my hands. I was Hermes, messenger of the Gods, delivering mortals fresh pop culture food for their starved brains. In retrospect, I realize Sirens was a piece of English poo. But back then, Hugh Grant was hot shit post-Four Weddings and A Funeral and pre-Divine Brown. Anything he was in sold like warm bagels straight out the oven.

It was at this job was where my love of Pop music blossomed. I have an overzealous clerk by the name of Derek Davidson to thank for beginning my education. Derek was a guy from Canarsie who’d been living on the Upper West in a one bedroom for ages, and still does to this day. Derek had a serious love of music and movies, and very definite opinions on what was good and what was crap. It was Derek who first gave me Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection, 10cc’s The Original Soundtrack, and Steely Dan’s Katy Lied. It was Derek who introduced me to the films Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorcese and David Cronenberg. Derek was the first guy I ever played in a band with, and he was the first guy to kick me out of one. I have so many wonderful teenage memories of trolling the streets of New York with a Discman in hand, discovering for the first time albums like The Beatles’ White Album, XTC’s English Settlement, Queen’s A Night At The Opera. And it’s all thanks to Derek. If it weren’t for him, you guys may not have these caustic, over-informed diatribes to read online. You’d also be less several nostalgic, sentimental Pop anthems for that matter.

After high school, things became a blur. I went off the college as big chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video pushed independent video stores out of business. A few years after graduation, Blockbuster, once a towering Goliath, was humbled by online rental services like Netflix and Lovefilm (which have a much better selection I must say. Who needs 50 copies of the new Will Smith movie?). VHS made way for DVD, which will soon make way for HD DVD and Blue Ray, or some other medium (whatever happened to Laserdisc?). In the next decade, movies and music will be usurped by video games as the main source of entertainment. Today’s Pop Stars are entrepreneurs, business moguls hyper–aware of the power of their brand. Clothing lines and perfumes are just as important as the song or the screenplay. Old-fashioned storytelling and heartbreaking performances have been replaced by CGI special effects and Super Hero movie franchises. The auteur of the future will be more informed by Halo, Resident Evil, Call Of Duty and World Of Warcraft then ET, Star Wars, Raging Bull or Clockwork Orange. The days of dreaming in the Video Store are gone. Maybe it’s for the best. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve wasted, wandering in the wonder of the aisles.

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