Curated streaming services bring back just a touch of my formative movie watching experiences.
In 2011, my roommate of 6 months ditched town with some of my jewelry and around $600 of unpaid rent and bills. She left behind about 200 VHS tapes. They lined our living room and hallway, weighing down bookshelves and crates. The particolored cardboard and plastic cases were still on every single one.
It was cool to have a copy of Harmony Korine movies and horror slashers I’d never watched growing up. I would pop one in while I did the dishes or cleaned or made myself a drink in the evening. For about a month. Once it was clear she was never coming back for her videos, I put them on the curb with a “free” sign. A few people rang my doorbell to ask “really?” They flipped through them like they were in a vintage record store, picking out a few choices and leaving the rest for other collectors. The obsession with format extends beyond vinyl junkies.
Before 2011, I had gone through life only owning a copy of Ghost World on VHS. I had a single collection of Grindhouse and early Woo-Ping Yuen movies on DVD, and I never collected blu rays. Growing up, there just was no room for such things. I shared a room with both my brothers at my father’s house, and my mother slept in the living room to allow me my own room in her tiny two bedroom apartment in the Riverwest neighborhood of Milwaukee, WI.
We did have a healthy video rental and library relationship in both my divorced parents’ households. I spent several summers walking the half mile between my dad’s house and the Washington Park library every day. I’d load up my arms with books and DVDs of Masterpiece Theatre and weird foreign flicks then walk home encumbered by my finds.
At my Dad’s house we each got to rent one PlayStation game (It was always Spyro) and one movie. We would watch as a family over root beer floats and frozen pizza. I spent my gay goth tween years pretending not to read the back of the terribly exciting looking Ginger Snaps and falling asleep to the first 15 minutes of picks like Black Hawk Down.
He had one of those impressive sound systems that only an audiophile could build. There were blackout curtains in our living room and on movie night, we’d pull them tight, turn out all the lights, and crank the receiver’s volume way up. This is how we watched Scarface and the first two Godfather films on New Years. It’s also how I experienced my first Wong Kar-Wai movie, beginning a life-long love affair that would lead me to focus on Chinese art and eventually become fixated on Chinese films in college.
As news of the final Blockbuster Video (located in Oregon) pulled folks down Nostalgia Lane, I felt a pang in my heart for the weirdos and high school friends who made the video rental experience memorable.
My entry into (capital ‘c’) Cinema was always driven by people. Even my local library had its share of cinema snobs.
The beautiful goth librarian I was obsessed with told me at 13 I would “love” the adaptation of Naked Lunch. Spoiler alert: I did not love it, but I did learn that day about an entire area of film I previously had not known existed. While I lied to her about how little I loved that piece of cinema, I had been successfully initiated into the cult.
When I was in middle school a DVD distributor was sued by the library system in my city. It’s hard to remember why, but the settlement resulted in a flood of films, many of them duplicates, no one else seemed to want. They were foreign, or episodes of various shows I had never seen broken up from their volumes. We did not have cable, so much of my cinema viewing experiences were painfully analog.
Few things bring up more memories than a frayed VHS case. For some it’s a memory of childhood favorites, for others it’s falling in love (debatable) over a mangled tape of rock n’ roll period classic A Knight’s Tale. But tangled in the memories of hooking up the VCR when it was time to unplug the Nintendo for movies (yes, dear ones, there was a time when video games and movies required separated machines) is the painful search for specific films. People still spend thousands on Blu Rays and rare DVD retrospectives, but it will never be like it was.
Every time I’m visiting another city, I still scour the movie listings for indies or historic films I haven’t yet seen that might be playing in their arthouse. It’s a habit of an ancient time. If one of the independent cinemas in my small town closed, or the University couldn’t make budget to rent the reels for a film festival, it was more than just childhood memories disappearing. It felt like a part of the world was being cut off from a kid in a 6 child household, with no dial up internet.
For rarer films the library had a long backlog of people, but there was always the video stores. We had a couple of local video rental stores. A neighborhood one that is still holding on, one that specialized in porn, and a tanning salon/video place. The last one was my favorite (because I wasn’t technically allowed in the second one).
As I got older, the employees of my local store were kids I went to high school with, but as a middle schooler and freshman, they were the kids and young adults I looked up to. It was undoubtedly one of the coolest jobs in town to a budding cinephile and there was no way for me to imagine any of the tedium of renting video tapes to families who constantly fail to rewind before returning. I would like to call out the Family Video in Stevens Point, WI at this time for never letting me live the dream of working in a video rental store.
No other movie watching experience could have led you to watch Caligula and Earth Girls are Easy in one afternoon. With the closure of that industry, teens are also robbed of avoiding eye contact with the bored cashier, just hoping they don’t ask you to confirm your age. It also says something about the strangely discerning taste of those businesses that the Penthouse-produced Caligula was stored alongside all the mundane movie titles, not in the shadowed back room with the word “Adult” hanging over the doorway.
Netflix began mailing DVDs in 1999 and is still a source of rare movie rentals, some of which are now out of print. In 2007, internet had improved enough to start the streaming service that would change how we consume movies, how we relax, and even how we date. With the advent of Criterion Channel, which will hopefully last longer than the much-beloved but ill-fated FilmStruck, the 1/2 off DVD sale at Barnes & Noble has lost some of its appeal.
Streaming added more possibilities to the experience of watching film as a medium than just passing out to Sailor Moon after the bar. In 2011, I launched the International Pizza Party with a couple of friends. We invited people worldwide to eat pizza and watch 2001: A Space Odyssey with us. I set up a chat room and we watched the movie together by playing it at the same time on Netflix and all eating pizza from our local sliceries.
There are other beautiful ways we watched movies, of course. I watched all of “Con Air” in a series of 7 Youtube videos embedded into a band’s Myspace page. My brother used to go to the library with a 10 year old laptop, load several pirated episodes on a free TV watching website, and return to his wifi-less house to watch them over dinner. And then there are the people who invest in home projectors. I am not sorry to say I have dated for home projectors.
Netflix closed most of the video stores but it also streamlined the way we pick movies. Its algorithms give us tagged selections of loosely related films with “strong female leads” or an “apocalypse” story line. Gone are the staff picks and weird film-festival like selections of rare movies that we might not otherwise discover.
Except on the more thematic streaming platforms. Movie websites like Shudder and the relaunched Criterion Collection finally give us something like the old ways of finding movies. They feature directors and link themes to highlight lesser known titles. But nothing will bring back the feeling of seeing the double ear piercings and timestamped haircuts of video store employees every time we went to argue over a movie with our family or friends. And we thought it was hard to pick one to watch, then.