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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: It was kind of charming when the public fought back against Netflix’s plans last year to not offer them videos. They said, ‘We actually just want movies, please don’t take this away. We have taken it away from someone else to give it to you.’

JM: I think they really showed where their head is at with that.

"Whenever I talk about the video store, I talk about people’s investment."


ARP: It was ugly, and definitely harmful. And this goes into the next thing, which is streaming. Which Netflix has said is the future of our business, and since we are the future of video, it is the future of video. It is teaching people not to have a television in their house. Streaming or buying the movies on iTunes, as somebody who loves film and makes films, I think is incredibly destructive.

JM: It’s not conducive to good viewing.

ARP: They just said, "Now you can do this, and it is easier than anything you have ever done." People flocked to it. Why do you think that is? Were people really looking to make their lives that much easier? Now they don’t even need to go pick up the mail to get a movie.

JM: I think so. Whenever I talk about the video store, I talk about people’s investment. Their own personal investment in what their entertainment is. It’s the thing of going to the video store, and going through stacks and stacks of movies to find something. It’s an investment. And I’m not talking about the money investment. It’s an investment in your time, an investment in your senses and finding something that appeals to you, even if it is just the box art. And I’ve certainly rented movies strictly on box art. Or something on the back. Just something about it interests you, and there’s an investment of actually walking to someplace, going through it, interacting with the person at the counter and bringing it home. And knowing you only have a finite time to watch it. There’s an investment there and it is going to be a more reverential viewing experience than just pulling something up online. I made a short film and I put it on Funny or Die and I can’t stand that as the only viewing platform for it. It seems like a really disposable viewing platform. And especially with low budget independent film. How can you compete when you have something done on a low budget as opposed to something with a hundred million dollars? When people are only looking for something to instantaneously grab them. If it doesn’t have a huge scope or a visual to pull them in, what can you offer when someone’s only going to give you a few minutes of their time? They have no personal investment in it. Like iTunes gives you 10 seconds to choose if you like a song or not, and then you go to the next one. Because there are five hundred million choices. When you take a movie home you have one choice, and you are going to watch it.

ARP: When the extent of your selection is just clicking play, it reduces your film viewing to channel surfing, because if you don’t like it after 30 seconds, you just click next. If I come to the store and hand you three dollars, I’m not going to watch something for five minutes and turn it off. If it was something I felt that I wouldn’t like, I probably wouldn’t spend money on it. If people think of something as having a dollar value instead of an endless supply of free content, it teaches them to actually value it. This clicking for a minute is killing spontaneity. I wanted to mention the day of the Superbowl, my girlfriend and I wanted to watch a sports movie that was not about football. And we came here, and we got "Bull Durham." And if "Bull Durham" wasn’t here, we could have looked for ten minutes and found something else. That’s impossible with any sort of online thing. If we wanted to watch it on Netflix, it might not be streaming. If we wanted to get the DVD, we would have had to made the plan a week in advance. That experience is so human, and so important. It’s the way people should function: to have that option, to be free and pick up something that it occurs to you that you want.

JM: We used to have a really odd tape of this movie called "Ghost Watch," which is a BBC-produced mockumentary. It was made for TV, got to be one of the top five scariest things ever made for television. There’s no great special effects, but just from the second you picked up that box, with the fucked up cover, it already planted a seed of "this is going to be creepy." I took it home, turned the lights off and watched it, and it really did scare the shit out of me. That movie is impossible to find. So many people in the UK got freaked out by it, it had a "War of the Worlds"-type reaction and it was banned from being shown for 20 years. It’s on YouTube, and I have since tried to watch it. To say that the effect of watching something on YouTube kills any sort of atmosphere or ambience that has been created is absolutely true. It was not nearly as effective as when I picked up that bootleg videotape with the f**ked up cover, and brought it home. I felt immediately like I was involved with something unique. When I watched it on YouTube, I was bored.

ARP: A movie like that, the way to watch it is on tape. Why do you think that is not important to people? Do they just not notice or have we been conditioned through advances in technology to think it is better?

JM: As if clarity in picture is the foremost thing we should look for in filmmaking, this extreme reality. People don’t want reality. When people go to see movies with special effects, they certainly aren’t seeing reality. There’s something about the look of VHS that adds something. Like vinyl people love to hear the crackle of the needle. There’s something about hearing the hum of the VCR and the somewhat blurred look of a horror movie or a film noir that really adds a depth. We have a really not good version of "Detour," the Edgar Ulmer noir, and that movie looks like the movie makes you feel. The warped quality with blurred edges.

ARP: DVD was sort of the start of that. Throw away your tapes. Here is a widescreen, crisp image. And that just keeps going. I reject so thoroughly the idea that anything needs to look better than DVD. I understand how Blu-ray or what theaters are projecting now is different, but I don’t understand why that matters to people. So 1080p feels smart to people in a way that they don’t even understand.

JM: The studio jargon just clings to people, and they go out and want that.

ARP: Did that make people abandon the stuff that was just normal?

JM: Definitely. Even today, somebody said, ‘Your DVDs are picked over but you have so many VHS. No VHS is gone, huh?’ And I explained that a ton of people bought VHS. We just had a lot of it. People are always amazed when I tell them that people still love VHS, and there has been a groundswell of support for it. A movie like "Friday the 13th Part II," I don’t want to watch a DVD of that. I want to watch the tape. "Halloween," I want to watch the tape of "Halloween." I don’t need to see Jamie Lee Curtis crystal clear.

ARP: You don’t want those blacks to be black. You want it to be muddy and unpleasant. That’s just not part of it.

JM: It’s not "The Bridge on the River Kwai."

This article is related to: Alex Ross Perry







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