When was the last time you stepped into a video store? At The Video Store is a celebration of THE countless Friday nights I spent at the video store trying to plan my weekend film festival at home. I just reviewed The Last Blockbuster not-so-long-ago, which took us to the only Blockbuster left in existence. Writer/director James Westby’s documentary lifts up the brave small business owners holding on by the thinnest financial thread to keep the lights on.
Conventional wisdom would say you’d be crazy to run a video store. Westby takes his camera to several endangered video stores throughout the country, including Odd Obsession (Chicago), Scarecrow Video (Seattle), Video Americain (Baltimore), Alan’s Alley (New York City), and Movie Madness (Portland). The movie also boasts a fantastic cast of “experts” such as Bill Hader, John Waters, Nicole Holofcener, Charles Mudede, Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, and Penelope Spheeris, to name a few.
To me, At The Video Store is a testimony of a time gone by, which really wasn’t that long ago. It starts by transporting us back in time to the advent of the video store and serves as a thorough history of this small business for many. Soon, the evil Blockbuster began swallowing up or putting out of business these independent stores, and then Blockbuster’s death with the onset of streaming and Redbox.
Rather than dwell too long into video store history and lore, Westby discusses the vital part video stores played in the lives of film fanatics across America. Video stores were like churches. Each week the devoted believer could gather and talk about the latest titles to come out or a forgotten classic film. The employees were experts in every niche genre, and going to the store was often the only source of meaningful human intellectual conversation one had in their lives.
“…takes his camera to several endangered video stores throughout the country…”
While The Last Blockbuster focused on the story of the Blockbuster franchise, At The Video Store focuses on the culture of avid videophiles. A massive chunk of the documentary goes in-depth into the value of the video store compared to the popular alternatives. The independent video store was a library of movies. They had almost every film available on their shelves or at ready access. Also, Blockbuster was family-friendly, so entire classes of genre were made unavailable.
What stood out to me the most about Westby’s film is that it’s an offbeat documentary. It moves at a blinding pace, with one fast cut after the other. Its visual style mimics the old days of video editing. The interviews are fantastic, and how did they get Bill Hader, John Waters, and Gus Van Sant to talk about movies? We’re also treated to a few bizarre music videos. I’m still weirdly haunted by them.
For me, in the end, the film did what it set out to do. I now miss the video store more than ever. I miss talking about movies in person and not on social media. I kept thinking that if I had the money and the ability to sustain massive financial losses over a long time, I’d open a video store.
Films are a way for communities to bond together, even when we disagree (The Last Jedi aside), and the pandemic and lockdown only reinforce its necessity. We are social beings, and movies, comics, gaming, and cosplay are proof of that. At The Video Store nails this point perfectly.
"…I now miss the video store more than ever."