Many months ago when Nick asked me to start thinking about a personal editorial to run periodically, I seized right away at reclaiming the long defunct Videodrome column that had occasionally graced the mainpage in years past. That column was vaguely dedicated to discussing foreign films, which is a valuable topic and something I hope to do plenty of, but I knew I wanted to do something new and fresh with it. Videodrome would need to become something new, hence the idea of rebranding it “The New Flesh,” with respect to the proper ascendency of a new force. While I’ll be busting out a blog post soon to explain all of the thoughts and ideas that went into the creation of this column, I will say that the new age for filmmaking and film-watching that we are living in will be a constant theme in the pieces. You will also find a heavy focus on original photography, which will be extremely important to the pieces. Photo sets, location spotlights, editorials, and more are what you can expect from The New Flesh, and I couldn’t think of anything more perfect with which to start than a spotlight on an important Atlanta film landmark that bears the same namesake as the column, and represents something important and historical in our collective movie experiences.
Many thanks to the employees of Videodrome (website | FB) for their patience and openness. Many thanks to Nick Nunziata for his patience, and for giving me this podium.
Click on any pictures to see the high-resolution image.
It’s very difficult to make a genuinely cranky argument that the internet, Facebook and modern technology are destroying cinema and the film-watcher’s experience. It is beyond argument that the intrepid film buff has more tools at his disposal to hear about movies, to research the background of those movies, and ultimately to acquire and watch them. There are even more tools with which to find revival theaters and to keep track of what amazing theater experiences are happening out there, even if those theaters are becoming less numerous. Choice, convenience, and volume of material all mark our current film ecosystem, and frankly, I don’t think very many cineasts would want to go back to a time before the almighty red envelope.
That doesn’t mean we haven’t lost something.
As the talkbackers won’t let me forget, I’m a young guy. While I do have a couple of months on Die Hard, by the time I was born Phantasm and Hellraiser were each approaching their second entries, and there were already two Rambo‘s, three Nightmare on Elm Street‘s, and six Friday the 13th‘s. I was released onto the world the same weekend as Polanski’s Frantic, though I didn’t make anyone $4 million bucks by Sunday. In fact, whether I’d like to admit it or not, it’s a fact that I hadn’t even begun watching movies seriously when Netflix began its subscription service for the first time. All of that is to say that ultimately, if I’m to wax nostalgic about video stores, I will be looking back fondly at an experience I can barely say I ever had. I do have warm memories of discovering Godzilla movies purely by what our particular Blockbuster had on the shelves I was tall enough to see, and digging through each of them week by week (completely out of order– I went crying to my mother when Godzilla ended up at the business end of a volcano, thinking there were would be no more big lizard flicks for me), but that was a short window. My experience of perusing the rental shelves and stumbling upon things as a modern movie lover barely exists- by the time I had the inclination to start seeking out specific titles of any obscurity, a cheap used-copy from Amazon or a Netflix queue re-arranging was all it took.
I know that most CHUD readers have had a much more extensive experience with video rental stores though, all the way back to the Mom and Pop joints that existed in great numbers before Blockbuster and the other chains consumed the market (eventually sitting on their hands for a mildly important decade or so before gracelessly dying off). There are innumerable fond stories I’ve heard recounted on the boards and in person of months or even years-long searches for that one particular horror sequel or underground documentary. Stories of a time when there were movie magazines that mattered, and might have been your only way of hearing about the quirky, independent sci-fi film you love so much. Stories of the simple experience of slowly meandering through the shelves and picking up movies based purely on the cover art, a director or actor’s reputation, or how crazy the synopsis on the back sounded. Maybe you had a good relationship with the dude behind the counter and trusted his taste for recommendations to find your next favorite. Maybe you got handed a VHS of dubious origin that finally delivered that horror film you weren’t sure if you should be watching, with sub-titles in a language you couldn’t figure out. While in that era you typically had the justification that the film was available by no legitimate means whatsoever (with none on the horizon), these day bootlegs and “grey market” movies are much more industry-damaging and large scale, amounting to little more than lazy, frighteningly-easy theft. In other words, shit was different.
So walking into a store like Videodrome, a video rental joint on North Highland Avenue in Atlanta, is something of an awakening for me while it might be the return to a familiar, nostalgic experience for others.
A cerebral cortex of a film store, each title a neuron, each rental a new synapse
Videodrome isn’t especially big, doesn’t have an especially crazy look, or any kind of deliberately old school vibe- it’s not trying too hard. There are no gimmicks to the store –it’s a couple thousand square feet of shelves and discs with accumulated posters all over the place, and a few old CRT’s hanging from the ceiling– and you’ll notice right away the selection of blu-rays to the left and mainstream new releases on the big back wall. It will only take you a moment though, to start noticing the details that make it special and exciting. The little plastic sleeve with a numbered paper tag inside stuck on each DVD. The occasional orphaned (or Orphan, I wish) VHS shitting on a shelf. Soon after spotting those surprising but welcome little details, you’ll notice the slightly tucked away corner of the store with the small sign, printed in a cheesy typeface, called “Midnight Movies.” It’s here that any CHUD reader will start to light up as they spot titles like The Manitou and Q: The Winged Serpent sitting proudly on the shelves, respectfully at eye level. You’ve probably seen these films before, maybe even own them… but to spot them on a shelf in the same facility as The Blind Side… Then you’ll notice the deeper cuts… the entire collection of Ilsa films, or all of Jacopetti & Prosperi’s “documentaries.”
The most striking detail of the store cataloging scheme that bundles movies by director, and foreign
films by country (and often directors within those countries). It’s a satisfying site to have a director’s entire ouvre stretched out in front of you, in release order. It suddenly feels like a more surmountable task to consume a body of work when you can hold large pieces of it in your hands and visually tick off the holes that remain to be filled. Scorsese for example, has an entire half wall to himself, and I’ve spent several minutes drinking in the site of his filmography laid out, sort of mentally experiencing the evolution and path of his work. Moving around the room you can look in any direction and catch sections devoted to the great, the weird, the interesting filmmakers that have populated our screens.
Perhaps you’re like me and have experienced something I like to call “queue paralysis,” which is the maddening phenomenon of looking at an Instant Watch queue of 100 movies or more, all of which were added with distinct interest in the film, and yet finding nothing that jumps out at me at that moment. “100 channels and nothing on” so to speak. I know I’m not alone with this problem because there is an entire field of study dedicated to this paradox, which sees the satisfaction we derive from a choice diminish in a manner inversely proportional to the volume of choices. In other words, the more shit we have to choose from, the less happy we’re going to be when we make the choice (even if it’s ultimately the right one). There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is the idea of missed opportunities, which would apply here as; if we choose one film out of 100 we are more likely to suspect there was a better film available and thus be less satisfied, than if we chose one out of three films. While it’s never applied to films, Barry Schwartz has done a great deal of work and written several books on this idea (you can see him lecture for Google about it, here).
Now you may immediately think this isn’t a flattering concept for a video store, since you’re literally surrounded by thousands of choices, as compared to a relatively diminutive Instant Watch queue. There’s a key difference though, that makes a video store rental much more inherently satisfying than an Instant Watch stream or Netflix queue selection, which is the experience itself of choosing and renting. When you walk through a video store, especially one with such a stimulating atmosphere and layout as Videodrome, you are literally engaging each of your senses- you smell the boxes and the carpet, feel the textures of the cases, see the vivid colors of the artwork in full size, etc etc. which helps you bring emotion and instinct to the decision. Ticking a film off of your Netflix queue is a cold, mostly static process that has you looking at dinky little digital thumbnails or even worse, lists of titles- the experience becomes a purely intellectual exercise. The video store renews that feeling of discovery and that surge of adrenaline as you must physically search out and unearth anything you are looking to find, whereas an online experience tends to be a more aggressive process, where you must already know what you want in order to find it. This isn’t an absolute fact –everyday websites grow more able to accurately guess what you might be interested in– but it’s unlikely an algorithm will ever be able to fully replicate that simultaneously rational and irrational connection we make in our minds when faced with tactile libraries. The kind of decision where seeing one cover/title/piece-of-artwork, or catching that one movie title in an accidentally eavesdropped conversation, or taking one piece of advice from an actual human being leads you to that perfect, exciting rental that makes you jittery just to get home. Like the sudden, unpredictable connection of two neurons that creates a new idea in your brain, the process of making a satisfying rental in a video store is something akin to pure inspiration, and it’s the best way to get the full satisfaction from whatever you see. Naturally, I’m not talking about those times when you know exactly what you want to see but rather those moments when you’re up for anything, or are looking for something new, unexpected. It’s not due to magic that those moments are the ones that often lead us to what end up being our favorite films.
The video word made
flesh brick and mortar.
When Matt and his partner Jeff started Videodrome 12 years ago, it was ultimately because they saw an open market, and a service that could be provided better.
“…we both worked together at Video Update and Moovies… I was the manager there, and he was a manager there and we both just thought we could do a better job for what the neighborhood was like. I dunno, we came here and convinced the landlord to let us have the space, which has been a lot of different things over the years but, you know, the location has been kind of key to our success. I was young, not that far out of college. I think Jeff was 26 and we both had a lot of energy then and we worked here everyday, just the two of us, until it started making enough money to afford people. And at that point of course, it was all VHS.”
What owner Matt Booth has created over the last twelve years is a small movie-lovers oasis, right in the heart of the biggest city in the Southeast. It remains prosperous to this day due a great location, excellent inventory, and as owner Matt puts it, “I have good employees and I’m here everyday.” Almost as if there’s is some sort of film-loving gravity well in that particular area of Atlanta, Videodrome is merely a block down the street from The Historic Plaza Theater (where we held our CHUD Scott Pilgrim screening), which with its genre-friendly programming and clever film events serves Atlanta with an experience and community-of-film-lovers vibe similar to the famed Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX.
Eventually Matt saw his store shift from a house of magnetic tape to a house of shiny discs, says the store-owner, “we started slowly getting in DVDs, I remember it was one row, and then two rows, and then it was the whole store.”
This was in many ways a boon to Video Stores who suddenly saw their shelf space free up, their woes about quality degradation, rewinding, and tape jamming disappear, and their wholesale prices decline. Even better for a store like Videodrome, obscure titles that had never been shown anywhere other than the dark, frayed auditoriums of the world’s out-of-the-way theaters were being published and made available. The dial-up internet days also shepherded in a glorious (if painfully brief) transitional period when connection speeds were too slow to allow for damaging movie piracy or competing streaming services, but suddenly connected the movie fans for the world with vast amounts of previously hidden knowledge.
“With the internet, while people claim it makes you dumber, people definitely know about a lot more about a wider range of subjects. You know what I mean? In a way that stuff can help us too- people see things, there’s more out there, and they have more knowledge about film, and have broader tastes. People are definitely way more informed about film than they were 10 years ago.”
Alas, those happy days have given way to the brave new world that is marked by the obvious competition of online distribution and Netflix, but also a few, more subtle leeches on the video store business.
“There used to be 2 ways to watch a movie, you rented it or you went to theater. Now there must be 12 or 15 ways you can watch a movie- whether it’s on your phone, or torrents, or on TV. I mean, even on TV… The amount of movies that are shown on TV, cable or not… there’s constantly movies playing. It’s become a big part of programming. And TVs gotten bigger itself, just gotten better. It’s definitely affected the store, and may eventually be the death of the store, but I feel like I’ve had a pretty successful business, I’m not mad about it.”
If a place like Videodrome can comfort itself with any fact, it’s that the current world of distribution remains tangled as the quality of blu-ray competes with the quantity of Instant Watch and the convenience of an iPhone. And as Matt mentions, there’s also less of a chance that the massive wave of obscure titles going to DVD will be replicated as quickly to digital distribution, with its messy, complicated licensing.
“There’s definitely a big problem with those licenses for older films, and not all of those contracts will ever be fixed. There are still things that came out on VHS that have never come out on DVD. Companies disappear. Rights disappear and when it comes time to renegotiate the contracts, the digital rights may not be in the contract.”
And that’s where Videodrome and stores like it come in. The aforementioned VHS hold-overs and obscure DVD picks set them apart from even Netflix, which can’t match the store’s selection on the outermost edges of the bell-curve. Outliers like Last Night at the Alamo or Ninety Degrees in the Shade, which are unavailable or sometimes completely unacknowledged by Netflix and Amazon, might just be a few minutes search away at Videodrome if you’re lucky. There are dozens of lost little gems like this, floating around the store in a worn VHS copy, or in one of those cheap, independent DVD pressings that produced only a handful of copies. These are films that may not be officially published again for a decade or more, perhaps never again. Along with the obscure flicks are the employees to help make the choices. Videodrome employs a ton of people who work casual, flexible schedules, mostly because they like being there and enjoy being around the movies. These are the people that are going to be able to show you the good place to start if you want to break into the 90s American Independent movement or have an interest in Italian shockumentaries. If they’re not helping you, they’re playing movies they care about or are discovering themselves on the store TVs. It’s the perfect environment for browsing and discovery.
It’s a tough fact that while the truly special stores like Videodrome will probably be able to stick it out for a while by providing a unique, increasingly craved experience, most video stores are going the way of the dinosaur. Eventually the market will figure out exactly how it wants to buy and consume its movies, and eventually our pipes will get fat enough to provide an experience as high-quality as any physical media. It may take a while, but it’s inevitable. The online services will develop increasingly organic ways of guiding us through the available films, and our entire perception of interacting with films as “objects” will change. Nostalgia exists on a curve, and if CDs are any indication, the interest curve for physical movie collections will be particularly steep. There’s never really been a comparable throwback culture of for films like there was for vinyl –obviously you can own physical film prints, but that’s far too infrastructurally daunting to really be a thing– so as is happening for CDs (the cold bridge between the warm analog, and the convenient pure-digital), we’ll simply stop caring.
If this saddens you, fear not. Remember that video stores themselves were the expression of a revolutionary shift in the way we interacted with motion-pictures. Nearly three quarters of a century of movie making passed without any thought towards the possibility of the on-demand movie-watching paradigm that home video opened up. No one would argue that we should go back to a relationship with our favorite films that allowed us to see them only on their first-run, with a revival showing every decade if we were lucky. Despair not for Videodrome and the others, they’ll be around as long as we need them. One day though, we won’t. One day we’ll see films differently- as pure collections of ideas, and assemblages of light and color rather than objects. If the march of digital has done anything, it’s started moving our concept of modern media forms back towards what they are- samplings of actual staged events. Photochemical at the start though they may be, they are not one-of-a-kind pieces but rather ideas. Film prints and digital copies alike are simply instructions for how to arrange exposed chunks of silver (or pixels) in the proper order. What this ultimately means for us and our love of film, I don’t know. If there’s any goodness in the universe it will mean more freedom, more expression, more creativity, and more exchanges of ideas.
But we’ll always be able to look back at the Videodromes of the world as important, wonderful players on that path, and we can enjoy them while they’re here.
Long live the New Flesh.