I Lost It At The Video Store

If you’re a movie fan over the age of 30 you’ve lived through some pivotal movements – your first commentary track and your first R rated movie, among others. But one of those formative experiences will be your first movie on video.

Millennials, digital natives, etc (whatever kids today are called) will never know the joy of the first time you could actually own a movie and watch it any time you wanted.

Videotape is now deader than a dodo (with DVD slowly going the same way) so the years from the late 70s to the mid 90s in the home film distribution and consumption business can legitimately be called ‘history’ and thought of with the same fondness as crystal set radios or horse drawn carriages to earlier generations.

It’s this nostalgia for a movement – that arose from pure consumer economics but which now has a lustre all its own – that movie journalist Tom Roston celebrates in I Lost It At the Video Store.

He covers all the ground you expect, like the joy of discovery that expanded all our horizons if we grew up in that era. Roston no doubt doesn’t want to sound like a grouchy old man waving his cane and saying ‘in my day…’, but the fact remains kids of the VHS era found and formed their tastes partly by accident, by being drawn in by ever-more lurid and spectacular video covers competing for their attention on shelves.

Today, with have only a single image and an army of metadata in a Netflix queue or Amazon search, the science of movie marketing has changed, and the whole VHS cover industry is just one more art form that’s no more.

As I Lost It At the Video Store reminds us, there was a way of doing things when video stores and videotape were around, a culture that’s been lost forever. It wasn’t about high art (although it helped usher appreciation of it to many people), it was the crossroads where crass commercialism met technological advancement, creating a perfect storm of artistic love and inspiration.

Here’s one example. For many in a certain age group it was the first chance to view and own moving-picture pornography (a seminal – in several senses of the word – event in many boys’ lives). When there were only multiplexes showing the big films or if you lived in a small town, it was the only way to get hold of the movies from directors or movements you wanted to experience.

I Lost It At the Video Store also reminds us that even despite the mood of gilt-edged melancholy, the times weren’t quite the land of milk and honey we’re tempted to think they are. Today we feel like the patience and effort made the achievement of acquisition all the sweeter, but we also don’t have to face the long nights poring over entire walls of ‘Sorry, I’m out’ tags any more.

It’s all the associated products, services, delivery methods and particular trappings that only applied to VHS (who else remembers the clamshell plastic covers that would turn brittle and crumble when they were exposed to too much sunlight?) that Roston begins with, but it’s so much more.

For example, you might not how much the video industry affected Hollywood directly – and not just by propping up its income through the rental market. Prior to the explosion of home viewing, the movie business consisted of the same handful of big American studios that had virtually owned film production since the 1910s.

Cheaply made, straight-to-video movies spawned a whole second-tier industry that got ridiculously wealthy on dodgy genre pics, making a whole new field of actors (Chuck Norris, Johnny Depp) characters (Jason Vorhees) and movies we now love (Office Space, The Shawshank Redemption) household names.

Soon flush with money, these companies gradually evolved into the smaller production companies and mini-studios we’ve known since the late 90s like Miramax, Lionsgate and Dimension – many of whom are still players in their own right or the genre labels of the major studios themselves. Video truly saved Hollywood.

To properly capture the love and longing many still feel for the era and the movement, I Lost It At the Video Store contains passages and reminiscences by some of the people who were there and remember it as fondly as any other Generation Xer. The difference is that Roston’s contributors are people like Joe Swanberg, Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, David O Russell, Allison Anders and Darren Aronofsky, all of whose careers the video era contributed to in some measure.

I Lost It At The Video store is a work of art itself – a warts and all look at a slice of movie history that’s as interesting as the content on screens was. It will make you laugh, (not quite) cry, and it will teach you something as well.