I graduated from film school at UCLA but my real education began the moment I stepped behind the counter at Vidiots.
While my first film theory class found me pondering death's chess playing skills, watching Bronson Pinchot wield a rifle equipped with a microwave oven was just as important for my cinematic development. And during my first post-college year I discovered that I hated professional movie production. (Pro tip: craft services people are the best, so make friends with them and you will never go hungry.)
By that time Vidiots had been chugging along for more than a decade and its reputation as a Westside film mecca preceded it. When I heard that Vidiots was hiring, I couldn't catch the Blue Bus fast enough.
I filled out the standard job application listing references and past work experience, but the real test was on the back, where I had to list my ten favorite films. I can't remember what I wrote, probably something pretentious—several serious and important movies plus a few ultra weird obscurities thrown in for good measure — but it got me the job. Vidiots never had enough female applicants, I was later told. And the fact that I knew my Satyajit Ray from my Sergei Parajanov? That was icing.
The store's founders, Patty and Cathy ("the girls" as we all called them), were two of the nicest, most down to earth people I'd ever met. I liked the idea that two friends could start a business more or less out of love. It was the kind of store they wanted to rent from and it didn't already exist (not nearby, anyway), so why not?
Like used bookstores and record shops (remember them?), independent video stores are many things — providers of jobs for those willing to trade low wages for cultural cachet, magnets for a certain kind of pop culture man child, sanctuaries for those who have made cinema their religion. For me Vidiots, which will close April 15 after 30 years, was like a clubhouse, one where customers came to talk about movies as often as they did to rent them.
Films weren't just organized by traditional genres (foreign, action, etc.) but by director and theme. John Ford, John Huston and Alfred Hitchcock rubbed shoulders with Agnes Varda, Wong Kar-Wai and Wim Wenders (who also visited the store). It was the first place I saw an entire section devoted to cult cinema. Every so often employees would create new sections: lucha libre, '60s spy movies. We helped production company peons, deranged film scholars, aspiring Tarantinos, locals who couldn't go to sleep or didn't want to go home and more than a few loyal celebrities. I recall Gregory Hines as one of the most charming gentlemen ever. Viggo Mortenson was always super cool.
At UCLA I had seen Citizen Kane and The 400 Blows, Raging Bull and Rear Window — the Big Stuff. At Vidiots, bombarded by the obsessions and passions of my fellow film nerds, I was on a steady diet of everything else. Aquatic monster movies with cheap plots and cheaper props. Post-Vietnam vigilante flicks. Busby Berkeley musicals. British kitchen sink dramas. Perverse Czech animation. On any given evening a 1970s sci-fi space opera might be followed by Charles Burnett's neorealist L.A. drama Killer of Sheep. It was like being invited to a Vegas buffet where I could eat as much as I wanted and the bill never arrived. Film school had given me breadth; working at a video store gave me depth. At Vidiots there was no shame in loving a slapstick fart comedy as much as you loved a French existential drama.
I didn't realize at the time that I was undergoing a radical shift in the way I related not only to movies but to the world. Whatever simplistic notions I had possessed about good art vs. bad art were dissolving. Yes, I still like or dislike movies; that's my first gut reaction. But I'm not interested in judging where they fall on the spectrum of cinematic quality. Every movie will show you something — if you let it. Had my knowledge of movies remained bounded by what I learned at UCLA and read in film crit magazines, had I never ventured outside the canon of Great Cinema, I would have been a lot more stupid and a lot less adventurous.
It wasn't a conscious choice but that egalitarian ethos, one that presaged the wide open playing field of the internet, became the basis of how I approached everything that I did as a journalist. Whether I was writing about an upstart taco truck or a world class chef, a dude who organized bathroom graffiti crawls or the head of a multimillion dollar arts organization, I treated them with the same consideration.
I worked part-time at Vidiots for about two years then worked for about six years at Cinefile, a video store started by four former Vidiots employees. There may have been a brief period when the two businesses, both Westside indie operations, were rivals, but as with all dying trades they were kind of in it together. Netflix was the killer app. Who wouldn't want all those movies on demand and available without late fees? Even those of us who worked at indie video stores couldn't resist. Although I didn't shed a tear when Blockbuster with its limited selection and conservative policies went under, I knew that the forces destroying that corporate dinosaur would be just as unsparing to small businesses. RIP Jerry's Video Rerun, Rocket Video, Kim's Video and all of the other independent stores around the country that are among the fallen.
It's 2015. No one's shedding tears for the gas lamplighters and handloom weavers. In the grand history of industry, the three-decade period when renting a home movie meant walking into a store to peruse VHS tapes and DVDs will barely register as a blip on the cultural radar. Soon it will seem as quaint as it does now to dial a rotary phone.
Contrary to what people say, not everything is available on Netflix or the internet. (Who knows what'll happen to Vidiots' archive of 50,000 movies?) And while we have all the online recommendations and referrals we could ever want, what's missing are the places where fellow travelers can meet, randomly and irregularly, but in person, to compare notes. The clubhouse has been closed.
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