Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Video Stores of My Youth Part I

"Everything was beautiful at the ballet."
-Sheila, Bebe, and Maggie, A Chorus Line (1975, lyrics by Edward Kleban)

"Everything is temporary!" 
-Cosmo Castorini, Moonstruck (1987, screenplay by John Patrick Shanley)


There are no video stores anymore in the town where I grew up.  In Delmar, NY, the town where I needed video stores the most and the town where they met my needs in ways that nothing else could, the video stores have all closed.  For all I know, nobody misses them.  There is Netflix, there is Redbox.  To me they are not the same.

When I was coming of age, and my life was--much of the time--painful, difficult, depressing, and seemingly hopeless, the video store became my great refuge.  When I walked in to the small, dark video store, its shelves densely covered with cardboard boxes, I left the suburbs--whose bland exteriors covered all sorts of violence, just like in the movies--and entered into a dingy, cluttered, extremely analog portal to thousands of different worlds, times, atmospheres, and feelings.  I could rent four movies and for eight hours be understood in four different ways.  I'd get to attend a swank gallery opening for a controversial fashion photographer in SoHo in 1978, sing with a man eating plant, experience the highs and lows of friendship, feminism, and *performance* in New York and San Francisco with Hilary Whitney and CeCe Bloom, and get caught up in the romantic entanglements of Elizabeth Bathory, her lesbian vampire lover, a co-dependent blonde and her sadistic bi-sexual husband during the off season at a grand hotel in Ostend.  All in one weekend.

You can still rent a lot of the movies that I rented on Netflix Instant or Amazon On Demand (and, lest you feel judged, I do).  But half the thrill for me was being physically surrounded by all of them--all of those possibilities--in one space.  Running my hands over the cardboard boxes and imagining the life that existed therein. 

These centers of ecstatic possibility, these ports of travel, are mostly gone.  I cannot find records of the video stores of my youth anywhere on the internet, even though I remember their phone numbers in my head.  If somebody doesn't write about them it will be like they never existed, like they never changed anybody's lives.

So I am beginning a series about the video stores through which I became myself: the spaces, the people, the movies I rented there and the turning points that my life took because of them. 

To this day, other than my home (in which I have, in many ways, replicated a video store), there is no space in which I feel safer or more content than a video store.  When I have good dreams, 90% of them take place in video stores.  This series is my letter of thanks to the people and places that I can no longer find, and to the one--in Los Angeles--in which I still take refuge.

I was a needy child, and--like most little gay boys--I was obsessed with my mother.  From the minute I was born I would not leave her alone, and when I learned to crawl her alone time was officially a thing of the past.  Although I could be transfixed by my favorite vinyl LP, "Carol and Paula in the Magic Garden," it didn't play that long, and pretty soon I'd seek more, more, more companionship and entertainment.  And even though I was my mother's best friend (ask her!), this could get wearing.  

In 1985 my Aunt Edith bought my parents a VCR for Hannukah and everybody's life changed (I was interested to learn, in an American Film History class, that 1985 was a watershed year for VCRs, and everybody started buying them).  One day, as an experiment, my mother took me to The Little Professor Bookstore to rent a video.

I think it is significant that I was born practically at the beginning of the VCR boom, and have thus experienced almost every phase of "video store type."  Like many video stores from the early days of VHS, The Little Professor was actually a bookstore that experimented with the newish format by putting in a rack of videos.  I don't know if I have any real memories about what The Little Professor Bookstore looked like.  My mom tells me that it was a small space, long and narrow.  I fantasize that there were paperback copies of Scruples by Judith Krantz,  Pet Semetary by Stephen King, and Go Ask Alice by Anonymous everywhere.  And of course the Agnes of God novelization by Leonore Fleischer.

For whatever reason, my mom reached out and picked Mary Poppins (1964, Robert Stevenson) off the shelf.  

Had she not selected that perfect jewel of cinematic extraordinariness, had she chosen instead to rent Herbie Goes Bananas (1980, Vincent McEveety), everything would be different.  

When I watch Mary Poppins now, I find that it contains every single thing that I love in cinema.

1) An ingenious take-no-crap modern actress who is imbued with qualities of the divine.

2) Hollywood feminism.

3) The supernatural and telekinesis.


4)  Troubled family dynamics.

5)  People jumping into paintings that become extremely stylized, sometimes even avant garde animated worlds.

6)  A happy ending that is ROOTED IN TRUTH about how people can realistically evolve.  Never since has a movie's restoration of the heterosexual nuclear family structure seemed more acceptable to me.

7)  Even the patriarchy is questioned and forced to evolve!

8)  Oh, and songs.  Even then I was prone towards melancholy and sentimentality and drawn to life's hard truths, so my favorite song was "Feed the Birds."  Although it was a close second to "A Spoonful of Sugar," the truest song ever written about getting through life.


Oh lord, even talking about it now I go into raptures.  I need a drink.

Anyway, I don't know if I became obsessed with all of these things because I have spent the rest of my life trying to get back to the primal moment of the ecstatic all consuming joy of experiencing Mary Poppins/cinema for the first time, or if my love for all of those things is embedded in my very being and always has been.  Maybe Mary Poppins just reached out and grabbed those passions for the first time.

Either way, I sat enraptured for 2 1/2 hours and my mom got a break.  Then she got 2 1/2 more hours of peace, and eventually hundreds of more hours of peace, because as soon as Mary Poppins was over I wanted, needed to watch it again.  And again.  And again.  At the age of two, I learned how to operate the VCR so that I wouldn't have to bother asking my mother to come in, rewind the film, and re-press the play button for me.  

Freud would make a lot of the fact that I dealt with the trauma of being separated from my mother (for even five seconds!) by turning Mary Poppins into my transitional object.  Ever heard of the fort da game, where a child processes a trauma by playing the exact same game over and over again 100 times?  Freud was smart.  Every time I watched Mary Poppins, I hoped, this time, she wouldn't leave at the end...  The Bankses and I needed her.  

For the rest of my life, I would use movies to deal with anything and everything.

Which brings us back to The Little Professor.  I find it revealing of life's mystical connections that because of The Little Professor, that first magic portal, I would one day seek to become a Professor myself.

1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful blog post that brought back a lot of memories. I can so relate. I loved those video stores of my childhood. Thanks for the great post; I'm excited to read more from you.