Video Stores. Online Streaming, Bad Recommendations & Me
Video stores are dying. That is a fact. I have worked on and off in these bastions of popular culture for several years now. I have witnessed competing stores around the neighborhood drop like flies. First hand I have seen daily takings drop by as much as 50% over 24 months. As much as one yearns for these nostalgic spaces to remain, the fact of the matter is they are outdated and dysfunctional.
Illegal downloading is not the main problem here but rather the multitudes of alternate ways to get what one needs to watch. The recent release of items such as the Telstra T-Box, make direct streaming of content to your television as idiot proof as possible. IPTV, online streams, Iview, Bigpond TV, why go to a video store and deal with the perils of hard media when you can easily and affordably watch whatever you want almost immediately at home? Why deal with the issues of an incredibly flawed media (DVD) such as scratched discs when you can have pristine digital copies that will play back without the risk of freezing during the final scene.
Despite my overtures regarding the inevitability of the future I still remain nostalgic about what will be lost when this magical era comes to an end. I'll miss many things. The old guy who still rents soft-core porn on VHS and insists on shaking your hand every time he comes in. The group of sixteen year old boys who are simultaneously discovering the magic of marijuana in combination with the film Half-Baked. An urban hippy, fresh from yoga and ready for an epic vegetarian banquet is determined to rent The Phantom Menace thus finally showing us all that new-age enlightenment does not coincide with good taste. A young couple, seemingly out on date, spend 30 minutes browsing before finally deciding on Blue Velvet. I bite my lip, congratulating them on their taste, silently amused with the knowledge that thanks to David Lynch's masterpiece neither of them will be getting any action tonight (or maybe I will be wrong and they are about to embark on their own journey of fetish and passion, never to be the same again).
Recommendations are a tricky business. A couple of years ago I suggested to a young man that The Assassination of Jesse James was great. I warned him that the pacing was ponderous, to say the least, yet he seemed genuinely interested. Exactly one hour later he returned to the store, decidedly unhappy. He had barely watched a quarter of the film before switching it off and returning to give me an earful about how crap it was. I offered him a free change of selection and a few minutes later he returned to the counter with the latest Fast and the Furious film. It was one of the last times I specifically recommended a film to someone. Sure I misread his character, recommending him a film that any perceptive person should've known he would hate but this wasn't a totally naïve move on my part. I knew what I was doing. Does that make me a bad person?
Working in a video store also reminds you, in an often brutally depressing way, that the majority of popular taste is still reasonably low-brow. After all, most people do in fact watch films to relax, to switch off their minds. They don't want to be challenged, traumatized or affected. When someone returns a copy of Old Dogs and was so inspired by the film that they were compelled to tell me how awesome it was, what can I respond with? I can't exactly turn around and say, "Actually, you just enjoyed what I consider to be the lowest rated crud made in years, perfectly tailored to steal the money of undiscerning folk such as yourself. Thank you for adding another 20 points to my personal index of misanthropy". I simply smile, nod, look at the floor and hope the interaction ends as swiftly as possible. After all there is another customer behind me who wants my help in finding a copy Dirty Dancing and I suspect there will be no irony whatsoever is his enjoyment of it. In this case I literally put baby in a corner. I also direct him to Brittany Spear's opus Crossroads which I conveniently filed in Comedy as I couldn't stand it sitting in Drama.
How many films have ever been made? 500,000? 1 million? There are estimates that IMDB have over half a million listings. In the U.S Netflix has over 50,000 titles available instantly. Other more specialist online suppliers can probably add another good 100,000 titles that would be worth browsing through. The point here is that there are a lot of films out there. Yet any given video store will more often than not stock no more than five thousand titles (that would be a good sized store too) and I can tell you from personal experience that people tend to rent the same few thousand movies over and over. Other than the random student wanting to explore Herzog's back catalogue or the old guy nostalgically renting some Bogart, most people will choose to watch Rocky 3 for the fifth time, a straight to DVD Steven Seagal title or the adventurous young hipster will discover the early films of Wes Anderson (and by early I mean the Royal Tennenbaums and not Bottle Rocket as hipster nostalgic memory is infamously short).
A chicken or the egg argument ensues at this point. Do all video stores stock the same few thousand titles because that is what people want or do people watch those same titles because that is all they are offered? In many ways, the disappearance of hard media and the new wave of digital, online viewing is exciting. These new databases of films that suddenly become available are mindblowing. Thanks to the glory of the internet, rare titles that would've been literally impossible for one to view anywhere as little as ten years ago are now just a click away. Many piracy advocates see this as a democratization of film knowledge. The critical elite who snobbishly wore their cinema knowledge as an arrogant badge of honour are now neutered. Previously it would've taken years to track down and view the entire filmography of a reasonably obscure director. Now it takes as little as a few days. Give me a week and I can become an expert on Henri-Georges Clouzot, explaining why Le Corbeau was so significant when released in 1943 and offering frame by frame analysis of certain scenes.
The traditionalist in me inevitably feels forlorn at what is being lost. The thrill of the chase, so to speak. The experience of tracking down elusive titles was always a wonderful journey, from digging through university shelves for old crusty VHS copies of Tarkovsky's Stalker to sitting in screening rooms with other cinephiles watching early Ozu on a 16mm projector. These are moments I savor and miss. The immediacy of having to attend a Cinemateque screening is gone. I used to feel compelled to go for if missed the opportunity to see those rare Buster Keaton shorts I would never have the chance again. Now, I can obtain them within the hour, whenever I need them.
The world has opened up immensely. Maybe with too much choice people will still retreat to their old favorites but the simple accessibility of rarer items fills me with such excitement. You like Brian De Palma? Maybe give Murder A La Mod a try or even Greetings? Never heard of them? Well, consider yourself lucky. You don't need to be watching Ghostbusters for the 100th time tonight. Suddenly 20,000 new titles are at your disposal and I'm sure you will like some of them.
Legal online streaming of content is the way of the future. It is thrilling and opens up a whole new world to young cinephiles. When video stores go, sure I will be sad. An era will have ended but to be honest, that era has sadly morphed into a carbon copy Blockbuster world where people watch the same movies over and over. Specialist stores exist and they are nice but only specialists visit them. Now we enter a world where an online database will have over 100,000 titles.
What crazy alleyway will you travel down for your viewing tonight? On a swinging 60s bender? Try Dean Martin's Matt Helm movies. Feeling like some Italian horror and already seen the standard Argento fare? Try some early Umberto Lenzi. Enjoy early 70s work from James Caan but are sick of the same 3 or 4 films being available? Give Slither or Freebie & The Bean a go.
NOTE: I am not condoning illegal downloading of any kind, in fact I actually argue against it. If one can view a film legally (and preferably in a cinema) then that is always the optimum way to go. I am however looking forward to more legitimate and encompassing ways of streaming and delivering media. In the U.S suppliers such as Hulu and Netflix instant are paving the way for large databases of instantly (and legally) accessible content. My enthusiasm is directed at the opening up of peoples awareness at what is available and what they have to choose from.