Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Requiem For My Old Pal, VHS

A Requiem For My Old Pal,


by Don Guarisco

The sign in front of Greg’s Video said “VHS BLOWOUT.” It wasn’t exactly drawing a stampede of business but it sure got my attention. My first thought was “Score!” You see, I eat, sleep and breathe movies -- especially the bizarre, cultish variety. Accordingly, I adore any opportunity to indulge this love on the cheap. Interest turned to euphoria when I reached the door and saw another sign that said “4 for $10.00, or $2.95 each.”

The selection inside wasn’t the treasure trove I was hoping for but it turned up a few old favorites and a couple of rarities I had neglected in the past. Even better, a trip to the other Greg’s Video location produced the bargain bonanza I was hoping for. I also picked up a few unexpected bonuses along the way: a rush of nostalgia, an illustration of time’s relentless march and a reminder of how the past has shaped the person I am today.

Wandering amongst the rows of dusty box covers conjured up vivid sense memories of how I had spent countless afternoons and evenings doing the same thing in different VHS emporiums all over town. You see, the video rental store once occupied a very important place in my life. My intense brand of cinemania began with a move to Tallahassee at age 13. Even though I was born here, I spent most of my early childhood in Tampa. Returning here at the ever-so-unlucky 13 mark was more than a bit traumatic.

I dealt with the hassles of trying to fit into a pre-established social order by letting my dormant love of movies run wild. Thus began an era, roughly spanning from 1985 to 1998, where I satiated my need for cinematic stimulus by obsessively prowling the stacks at video stores far and wide. Using tomes from Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael (not to mention more cultist-friendly magazines like Fangoria and Psychotronic) as my guides, I dove in head-first and navigated my own personalized path through this sea of possibilities.

And it was a big sea, mind you. This was truly a golden era for a budding cinephile like myself -- the video stores were mostly mom & pop affairs and small chains that took pride in offering a wide selection of material in every conceivable genre. It wasn’t uncommon for me to spend a good hour or hour and a half perusing the stacks to make my picks. The cornucopia of titles and cheap rental prices provided room for endless experimentation and I gladly took advantage of the many options I was offered.

Through this process of trial and error, I developed an array of specialized knowledge: which companies produced the best genre pics, which directors and actors were the most reliable, the ability to determine what was an overlooked classic and what was an overrated relic, which films had the greatest durability as a repeat-viewing option, how to tell if a title was repackaged old, foreign or made-for-television film. Flailing gave way to focus; raw enthusiasm was replaced with a veteran’s experience. It was an era that gave birth to and nurtured the aesthetic that would later get me into film school and help me land a number of bill-paying film-related writing and research gigs in Los Angeles.

By the time I reached college age, I knew the town’s video selection like the back of my hand. I could take my friends to find material that reflected their interests and had a sixth sense as to where particular titles could be found. I took great pride in programming home video fests for my like-minded allies in cinematic obsession and jumped at every chance to spread the gospel. I can look at various titles in my collection today and still fondly remember the first time I viewed them, who was there and the reactions we had to the latest bit of celluloid dementia I had unearthed.

Alas, all good things come to an end whether you’re ready for it or not. As the anti-cinephile policies of Blockbuster began to take hold over the movie rental industry, video stores began to surrender their individuality for a fatter profit margin. Stores phased out their rarities in favor of more new releases and the smaller places that couldn’t keep the pace of the New Video Order faded away one by one. More importantly, DVD was blazing its digitally superior path through the home entertainment world. By the time I moved away from home, my personal kingdom has shrunk to a collection of faded memories.

The nostalgia rollercoaster came to a halt, bringing me back to the present. As I took my selections to the counter and waited for the clerk to ring them up, I felt a bittersweet melancholy creep into my mixed emotions. My personal collection of cinematic ephemera was growing by a few more titles but I was also writing the epilogue to a beloved chapter of my life.

Still, the memories linger. They’re a sweet treasure, one I will never abandon… and even though the monolith that is my DVD collection dominates my personal entertainment archive, the VHS collection retains its place of honor. After all, they were there first. And you gotta remember where you came from to understand where you need to go.


Adam Gott said...

Nice article! I miss the mom and pop video stores that were scattered amongst the strip malls and shopping centers of America during the late 80's and the early 90's. There were always lots of great gems to be found in each but it required you to scour the shelves of each store (and not just browse the new release racks).

To their defense, our local Hastings still has a pretty decent selection of out of the norm dvd's but I mostly use Netflix these days.

Unknown said...

I loved this! I can totally relate. I myself was a regular at the local mom and pop video stores back in the 80's/90's--I truly miss those days.

I use Netflix now, but it's not the same.

Robert said...

Early in July a local video store posted a notice on Craigslist that it was closing start of August, and it was beginning to sell-off its stock. Initially VHS tapes were $1.00 a pop - a very reasonable price - but as the weeks ticked by that dropped to 25 cents (with every X number of tapes free), then 10 cents. The store was adjacent to a grocery outlet, and the owner said if a person wanted to fill-up a shopping cart with tapes it would be a flat $10. The last day or two VHS tapes were free, DVDs were $1 each (with some brand-new titles going for $3), and Blu-Ray discs $5.

I wasn't there on the very last day - the shelves were already fairly barren on my last visit - but it was interesting to see men and women wandering aisles with stacks of movies cradled in their arms.

Ryan Sarnowski said...

One great fondness I have for VHS tapes is their cover art and the distinct size, shape and look of particular company's tapes. You can instantly recognize a VHS tape from Key Video, Video Gems, Paragon. Also, because these were often produced well before the era of Photoshop the cover art felt handcrafted.

Tim Mayer said...

Funny how every generation mourns the passing of something they always assumed would last forever. For me it was Drive-In movie theaters. For those who came before me, it was the neighborhood theater. Will we someday wonder whatever happened to Blue Ray?