Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Price of Choice

Is there anything more fundamentally dreary than a Blockbuster Video? Or really ANY video rental establishment?

Until the advent of cable, once we saw a movie in the theater there was a very good chance that we'd never see that movie again. One night, whisked away to another place, another life, another story, and the second the last credit rolled, that was it. Sure, we could fork over another two bucks for one more peek, but when it reached its final showing, that was the end. Absent of special screenings, or the odd network television event, the film would find its watery resting place in our memory banks, eroding with time.

I begged my mom to see E.T. three times in the theater, (And that's a lot for a second grader - even enduring that terrifying encounter with E.T. in the corn patch), positive I would never see it again. Every time The Wizard of Oz got a TV broadcast, it was like a holiday in our house. We would make cherry turnovers to commemorate the Ruby Slippers, I would sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (in the off key way eight-year-olds do, loudly groping for a semblance of tempo), and I would clutch tight the Tin Man doll my Mom made me for my birthday. Each moment Dorothy tripped across the screen became more valuable with belief that THIS WAS IT. The end was really The End. Who knows when CBS or NBC or whoever could sell enough ad space to put it out there again?

Then came cable, and bully for us! We could watch Romancing the Stone 14 times in the month of October! 17 viewings of Little Miss Marker starring Walter Matthau! If we stayed up late enough, and tippy-toed down those damn noisy iron stairs (careful not to step too hard on the third step...) at 2am, we could sneak a sexually confusing view of some Swedish soft core porn titled I lust och nöd. (In these instances it was necessary to do some covert research in the back of TV Guide. The most titillating late night movie descriptions HAD to contain the words "Nudity" and "Strong Sexual Content" and have earned only one star out of four, if they were going to be worth their forbidden salt.)

Unfortunately, the honeymoon with cable ended fairly quickly. There was no control. What if I wanted to watch The Muppet Movie or Poltergeist? Even though I felt compelled to watch Romancing the Stone all of the 14 times it aired, it's not as if I really wanted to. (I still can recite, VER-BA-TIM, most of the script for that effin' movie. It's a scar for which I will never forgive my younger self. Bad movie dialog stains the mind like Ragu on your favorite pants.)

Where was my freedom of choice?

The first movie we ever rented for my parents' Panasonic VHS top-loader (which they still own and is fully operational, thank you very much.) was The Neverending Story. I was TOTALLY befuddled by what was happening. Sure, audio cassettes had been around for a while and what is a VHS tape but an extension of the same idea? But...really? We can watch this over and over again? Whenever we want? Are you fucking KIDDING me?

I remember the long ago days when the very suggestion of renting a movie inspired heady excitement. Renting a movie was part of a special night, probably a Friday or Saturday, or a sleepover. We'd drive to the local video store, spend a good half hour at least, glancing from title to title, reading every description, (also, of course, perusing the mysterious, but NO ONE UNDER 18 COULD RENT, Faces of Death parts 1-7), searching for the one...that ONE movie that just felt right.

What mood am I in? Rosemary's Baby? Sex, Lies and Videotape? A Room with a View? Ordinary People? The Dark Crystal? How daring will I look to the girls at my slumber party if I rent Fright Night? The world was at our feet.

These days, it's different.

With Netflix we can get whatever we want delivered right to our doors (Overcoming the stigma of video mail rental as only something pervs do - as they scoop up shrouded brown paper packages tossed on their doorsteps by an unnerved mail carrier.). On Demand gives us films by the boatload without the tedious business of having to put a DVD in any sort of player machine, and sometimes even as the picture is still in theaters.

Walking into a Blockbuster is like walking into Flint, Michigan after GM shut down the plant. The aisles are nearly deserted. Employees look empty eyed and confused, condemned to a shift of straightening askew cases and vaguely gesturing to the Drama section when someone asks for Nanny McPhee.

The scene is just as bleak, if not more so, at the Mom and Pop stores. Try to resist as they might, loyal regulars succumb to the buzzing call of convenience.

I miss the specialness of renting a movie. Hell, I miss the specialness of GOING to a movie in the theater. It's a funny thing to look back and think "I miss the days...", especially when I never thought I'd be such a fogey.

I suppose it is a good thing to have so many choices. It's what we want, right, to have, in some small regard, control over our diversions? It is so easy to be diverted these days. I have only to turn on the television, or type something into my computer and there it is! Within seconds, I can watch almost anything I want in the whole world, from across the globe, from across my memory. My satisfaction is instantaneous. So why am I getting damp in the eyeballs over the clunky old method of renting a friggin' VHS tape?

One of my favorite Shakespearean monologues is from Henry IV, Part I. In it, Prince Hal says:

If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.

I long for the rare accident. The special night that is prepared for and anticipated, to sit and be engrossed in a movie...instead of a wading through a swamp of options until the very idea of watching a picture is a bore and then giving up altogether. A night of socked feet, popped popcorn and peanut butter cups.

Maybe soon I'll have a pajama party and rent a VHS copy of The Lost Boys.

Christ, The Lost Boys? There's a rare accident.

*R. don't think that just 'cause I had to take a rain check on our Transformers viewing that I forgot. You can't escape that easily.


Jerry said...

"Nothing pleaseth but rare accidents" was once, I believe, the motto of NASCAR.

The failure of the mom-and-pop video stores helps explain why most of them, at least around these parts (i.e., the former Confederate States of America), also feature tanning beds.

-j-j- said...

Ah, yes...and it may have leader in a failed ad campaign for Huggies Pull-ups as well.

The Mom and Pops do resort to other means, don't they, when times are lean or technology becomes obsolete? Lucky for them, there will ALWAYS be a need for tanning.

regan said...

And see, this is why I want to convince the entire world to take a chance on theatre. Even big-spectacle-nearly-emotionless-Wicked-theatre. Because you only get it once, and even if that doesn't sink in, it affects me. Because at the very least, when it's done, you will try and tell someone about it, and they won't understand what you're talking about. And, heaven forbid, you'll tell a story and continue on not only the theatre tradition, but the oral tradition as well.

Btw, you had me right up until that asterisked footnote. Totally jumped the shark at that point.

-j-j- said...

Re: Jumping the shark

Dag. Somehow I knew it.

Abbie said...

J - have you been to Webster Place lately? You are now FORCED to buy a reserved seat in the movie theater (or be relegated to sitting in the first 5 rows). It's...disturbing.


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