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From Hammer to Nail: What We Lose When We Lose Video Stores

By Alex Ross Perry | Indiewire March 31, 2012 at 12:48PM

Perry's interview with Joe Martin, the longtime proprietor of East Village rental store Reel Life--which closes its doors for good at the end of this month--is an unexpectedly heartfelt tribute to the deterioration of the physical video store.
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ARP: When you opened the store in 2000, there’s no way you could conceive of what streaming would be. But that’s not owning a movie. Movies need to be owned after they are in the theater, so there will be some way to do that.

JM: The video stores that are here and have been doing it, I think they have a good chance of doing it as long as they want to pursue it. And thank goodness for them.

"For a kid who grew up awkward, I find it strange to say to some that the social interaction is a huge part of our everyday lives, and it’s all going to be gone."


ARP: Can the same be said for the future of the appreciation of films?

JM: No.

ARP: The store is a troubled institution. There’s nowhere to go and buy stuff anymore. I feel like human interaction is over. This has all come up this week, thinking about the store, but I think this is a sign that the people made a tiny bit of noise that what they want is to do all their stuff on their computer, and within 10 years every business, every institution has said, ‘Let’s make it so you don’t have to go anywhere.’ You can get your movies, your clothes, all of your books, all without leaving your house, without communicating with a human being. And everyone seems really okay with that.

JM: I know. It’s scary. For a kid who grew up awkward, I find it strange to say to some that the social interaction is a huge part of our everyday lives, and it’s all going to be gone. We won’t even go to a supermarket anymore, we’ll use Fresh Direct. Even Ray Bradbury or George Orwell couldn’t think the future would hold this time without face-to-face human interaction. You see it the way attitudes change 180 degrees if something is face-to-face or an email exchange. People are so aggressive one way, and not so much the other way.

ARP: It’s easier, it’s safer, it’s anonymous, it’s devoid of risk or humiliation. So my final point is that this isn’t a shame for me or for you, because I’ve

"You can’t claim that things such as a small, quaint store are uniformly unimportant to the youth of today."
lived through this. I grew up going to the store. It helped me become the person that I am, and it helped my relationship with film. The worst thing is for the young kids today. The worst part about any of this, about there not being bookstores and there not being video stores or any humans to interact with, is people that are 10 right now and want to find a way to explore that. They go online, and there’s too much. Kids are smart now, they can download 50,000 movies. That’s too much for them. They need somebody to focus it. They won’t care about a movie because a book tells them to, or because Netflix is streaming it. They’ll care about it because someone who they have a relationship with puts it in their hand. In the future, people who are coming of age now will have no relationship with speaking to other people, learning things from a person, or going out and being forced to interact with the environment around them. And there’s nothing more indicative of that to me than stores closing.

JM: I remember distinctly, the guy who worked at Video Wizard, this guy named Les giving me The Prowler VHS. I asked him for a recommendation. I must have seen that movie two dozen times, the Tom Savini The Prowler, not the noir. And I remember that. I know that some of our younger customers will remember a movie that I told them to watch, and that’s a gratifying thing but it’s also sad because there’s not going to be a lifetime of that like I had. It’s pretty much going to end here for a lot of the kids who come in here.

That last part is not hypothetical. You can’t claim that things such as a small, quaint store are uniformly unimportant to the youth of today. In the several days I spent at Reel Life during its last week, I saw youngsters (all between the ages of six and 15, I would guess, although I am pretty bad with stuff like that) doing the following: photographing every inch of the store, every director’s section, every shelf, asking for a tape of The Empire Strikes Back, bemoaning an impending gap in their cultural exposure and generally being decent, kind and thoughtful in a way I do not associate with teenagers.

I don’t want to consider a future populated by people who grew up without nice places to go and explore their developing interests with a stranger whose opinion they trust. With nobody like Joe Martin to communicate the value of unheralded art directly to their face—really, in my limited experience, the only way children will understand anything is if you present it directly to their face and give them no other option—I am afraid that the next generation of filmmakers, cinephiles and just plain movie nerds will have a pitifully limited understanding of what they might not already want to see. I met a precocious child at Reel Life (the one photographing every inch of the store) who has made it a goal to see every film in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. He refuses to see anything not in ‘the book.’ Martin has repeatedly tried to impress upon him the value of all the titles left out of ‘the book,’ succeeding occasionally. Netflix is not going to be so forceful. The day I interviewed Martin, this child had apparently gotten permission from his mother to attend a theatrical screening of Shoah. My heart really just breaks thinking about all the other ones who no longer and will never have a place like Reel Life to hang out after school.

It is hard for me to deal with another loss of a beloved spot that, as Martin pointed out, was just a place to go where you knew other people loved movies. I have taken my love of this culture out of the store and used it to make some films, which I am deeply depressed I will not see on the shelves. But more importantly, anybody who lives in some small town and is starting to think seriously about film won’t see them on the shelves either. And to be honest, they probably won’t click on them on Netflix. Maybe they will, but I doubt it. I live for the type of film that speaks to the person behind the counter, and I have trusted them to inform me.

If you deeply and passionately love film, you owe everything to what video stores have provided over the past 30 years. You wouldn’t have known what to see or what to care about. You wouldn’t love movies, you wouldn’t make movies and you might not even watch movies. Martin summed this up perfectly, and in a way finally made me understand why I personally am so bereaved when a store closes:

“THE DEBT THAT INDEPENDENT CINEMA HAS TO THE VIDEO STORE IS HUGE. IT CHANGED THE WAY MOVIES WERE MARKETED. THERE’D BE NO MIRAMAX WITHOUT VIDEO STORES, THEY WERE SORT OF THE OUTLET FOR MIRAMAX. MAYBE A HANDFUL OF THEATERS ACROSS THE COUNTRY WOULD SHOW THE MIRAMAX TITLES. BUT THEY ESTABLISHED THEIR NAME THROUGH THE VIDEO STORE. NOT EVERYONE AROUND THE COUNTRY COULD GO SEE A MOVIE LIKE RESERVOIR DOGS OR CLERKS. BUT THEY WERE ABLE TO GET THEM INTO VIDEO STORES. AND IT REALLY CREATED AN OUTLET FOR INDEPENDENT FILM.”

This article is related to: Alex Ross Perry





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