With the much-lamented shuttering of Blockbuster in 2014 came the realization that the once-thriving film culture of the video store had become a thing of the past. In tribute to this bygone era comes The New York Times author Tom Roston’s “I Lost It At The Video Store: A Filmmakers’ Oral History of a Vanisher Era,” a loving collection of interviews with filmmakers like Joe Swanberg, Quentin Tarantino, and Darren Aronofsky on their relationship to the dying institution.
Last night at Brooklyn’s beloved bookstore Book Court, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Tim Blake Nelson, Doug Liman and Video Free Brooklyn owner Aaron Hillis sat down with Roston to discuss his new book and the lasting culture of the film rental. Check out some of the highlights from the event below.
On Roston’s reason for writing the book
“When Blockbuster closed their stores about two years ago, there was a lot of press about it being the end of video stores,” explained Roston. “There was actually this great piece in Indiewire where a lot of critics and film writers wrote about their favorite video stores and I thought, ‘What about the filmmakers?'”
On the panel’s early memories of the video store
“I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the late 70s and early 80s, and there were no art cinemas. Ultimately, my only exposure to art films and even what you would call mildly abstruse mainstream films like Martin Scorsese’s was through video,” said Tim Blake Nelson. “It was transformative to be able to go to a video store and have access to movies that I might otherwise have never seen.”
“I had sort of the opposite experience,” countered Kazan, granddaughter of Elia Kazan. “I had parents who were cinephiles and we lived 12 blocks from ‘Vidiots,’ which is a famous video store in LA. I remember being a really little kid and my dad putting me on the counter and holding up two silent films and asking me to choose one. So for me it was always a family activity. My dad and I had a code phrase for the video store. We would say, ‘I have a good idea,’ and that meant, ‘Let’s sneak out and go rent a movie.'”
On what was lost with the demise of the video store
“So many of the filmmakers felt like it was a communal experience — a physical space where they could meet and talk about film. I think the other idea is curation, the ability to curate the films,” explained Roston. “The one thing that they all said they did was that they all went to the video store when they were into their careers a little bit, and they looked for their name on the shelf because it meant an oeuvre. Alex Ross Perry actually said that his aspiration was to make a film that could go in every section of the video store.”
On the genre that everyone had in common
“I was actually surprised how much horror was a baseline for so many directors,” said Roston. “I was so shocked that David O. Russell’s first script was actually a horror script.”
“There’s no better way to learn film language than really basic horror movies, even awful ones.The film language is so basic. Very simple sentences, with not many modifiers. Just subject, verb, maybe one adjective,” Nelson explained. “You really learn the basics, it was kind of its own films school.”
“Horror movies were also my way into becoming a film buff,” interjected Hillis.
“My earliest memory of the video store was actually just renting anything with violence or possibly with women taking their clothes off,” admitted Dano. “Mostly horror films, or ‘The Toxic Avenger.'”
On what we’ve lost on our move to digital
“I think the real problem is losing the joy of discovery. Getting lost, looking at box covers, flipping it over and recognizing an actor or director,” gushed Hillis. “Thinking, ‘I need to watch this, I don’t know if it’s going to be any good, but I need to know.'”
“I wonder almost, if the convenience hurts us. Like when we go to Aaron’s store to rent a video, it’s like, ‘We are going to watch a movie tonight.’ It could last anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours, and we’re committing to that thing,” said Dano. “But often, I feel the temptation like, ‘Do I really want to invest the time?’ It’s just too easy to watch something shorter because the investment online is so low. I think the structure is sometimes a helpful thing, which is what I like about going to a store.”
“Even the three or four dollar investment to rent a movie is still an investment, as opposed to this blanket fee we pay each month,” added Kazan. “I wonder if that concrete investment actually makes the movie feel more valuable. You’re invested in enjoying it, or if not enjoying it then at least finishing it.”
On watching and making films in the digital age
“All filmmakers but one were actually positive about streaming,” divulged Roston. Predictably, Tarantino was the notable exception.
“Even as an independent film store owner, I don’t think that Netflix is the enemy,” said Hillis. “80% of what we have in the store Netflix doesn’t have. And there’s a big weakness in image quality. What we’re watching online just does not look like Blu-Ray. Technology is not quite there yet.”
“Most of us want to make things that will last for a long time. The theater is really ephemeral, your film plays for a little while and then it’s gone and I think the internet feels the same way,” said Liman. “But a video can last a year, 10 years or longer.”
On coming to terms with the loss of the video store
“I think for this generation, we experienced this moment, and now it’s gone. The reign is over,” said Roston. “We can get sad about it, but life is constantly birth and death and rebirth. It’s amazing to think that it’s still inside these guys, in some places people are still renting stuff and that’s awesome.”
“I just want to see everything!” added Kazan. “Or I’m trying to, anyway.”
Watch the trailer for the book below.