I’ve gotten a wonderful head start on becoming an old man who constantly reminisces about how much simpler, purer—and, in many cases, better—life used to be before the ubiquity of the internet made us all navel-gazing babies who expect everything short of a home-cooked meal to materialize instantaneously whenever we click on a link or shout something into our smartphones.
I’ve earned that. But let the record reflect that there are things I do not miss about the latter portion of the twentieth century.
High on that list would be that vile species of creature known as the judgmental video store clerk.
For anyone reading this who happens to be under 20, video stores were physical locations in which customers would travel (often several miles!) in order to peruse a limited selection of films in the hopes that the movie the customer wanted to see happened to be available. If the movie in question wasn’t there, the customer would often select a movie he didn’t want—you know, because he came all that way, after all.
This resulted in a lot of would-be viewers of, say, Pulp Fiction, settling in for an evening replete with Hudson Hawk.
But the convenience aspect of services like my beloved Netflix aren’t even the best part about the modern home movie-watching experience.
No, the greatest benefit that the new business model has bestowed upon our society is the extermination of the judgmental video store clerk.
The closest remaining relative of this extinct species is the commentary-happy grocery store clerk, who unhelpfully provides insights into the deliciousness or nutrition of the various items that pass over his red-lasered oracle.
Fortunately, these talkative folks are much rarer in the wild than the obnoxious video store clerks were in their heyday. Why? Because a person generally doesn’t go to work in a grocery store because of a profound love of produce, or because he intends to go to canned goods school after college, or because Cinnamon Toast Crunch “changed his life.”
In other words, there’s no emotional investment in the underlying product. It’s just a job, whether it’s a young person saving for a car, an adult making extra money to support a family, or an older person working part time to supplement retirement. They care about their job, to be sure, but one doesn’t run across many people who feel as though they have to prove to you how much they know about paper products or frozen foods.
That sadly wasn’t the case with a healthy percentage of the people manning the desk at your local Hollywood Video or Blockbuster.
Speaking as a former customer, I never knew when I would be treated to unsolicited commentary on my movie preferences. It’s true that this only occurred in a minority of circumstances, but, then again, the same thing could be said for an unhappy outcome in Russian Roulette.
And, yes, I just compared some acne-infested college sophomore raising a skeptical eyebrow at the sight of Uncle Buck or smirking arrogantly at a teenager renting Transformers: The Movie to blowing one’s brains out with a mostly-empty revolver. The revolver is quicker.
Rather than shy away from this irritating facet of their business, or discourage this behavior in their employees, video chains doubled down on the “minimum-wage-employee-as-respected-critic” concept by introducing special shelves with “staff recommendations.” These preachy displays included films that ran the gamut from proto-hipster “look at how much I know about cinema” picks to “we’re overstocked and my manager ordered me to recommend this movie” schlock.
The principle remained the same: The idea that customers wanted someone who had been a professional babysitter just a summer earlier giving preemptive advice about what movies were worth a time investment.
The unintended effects on the rental process as a result of this attitude were numerous. Recall that this was in an era before high-speed internet, but also squarely in the midst of an era with a hormonal abundance.
Suffice it to say that my rentals would occasionally tend toward the erotic. That created an obvious problem. How could I slip a Basic Instinct or a Boxing Helena past the clerk without a snicker or snide remark?
My solution was dilution.
I would rent not only the erotic thriller du jour, but also up to three additional movies for the sole purpose of overwhelming the clerk and stacking the odds in my favor.
Why three additional movies, you ask?
Because I tried checking out five once, and I was informed there was a limit.
It wasn’t just sexy films. Anything that I felt like might be perceived as weird or awful or effete needed to be sandwiched among movies that would throw the clerk off its scent. This usually worked, but it was no absolute guarantee of success. I always had a preposterous fictional backstory prepared just in case: If the clerk questioned one of my selections, I would reply that a “bunch” of my “friends” were coming over, and everyone picked one thing, thus disclaiming any responsibility for the offending selection. I would simply chuckle and shrug as if to say, “Yeah, I know! What was [my fictional buddy] thinking?!?”
I didn’t actually care what some otherwise-anonymous clerk felt about my taste in movies. However, I loathed the idea of getting into an argument with a buffoon I would likely never see again outside the confines of the video store.
Initially, I was honestly renting three “filler” titles that I wanted to see. Those ran out pretty quickly. The great thing about Hollywood Video was that they rented older movies for only $1.50 each, meaning that I was paying a self-imposed “weirdo tax” of $4.50 that easily could have been much higher.
A high school classmate of mine got a job at Hollywood in June of 1997, after our freshman year in college. Even if my selections were totally innocent, I refused to shop in the store when she was working. That summer’s activities included a lot of time spent driving around the parking lot waiting for her shift to end.
This seems stupid in retrospect, but so does almost everything from that era that technology has unquestionably rendered obsolete.
I’ll never forget the day my Hollywood Video closed for good. I had long since abandoned Blockbuster due to proximity and price. My Hollywood finally shut its doors sometime around 2005. It had long since outlived its usefulness. The national parent company declared bankruptcy five years later.
I recall driving up to return a movie I had rented (they were using DVDs by then), thinking I was also going to rent another while I was there. I noticed immediately that the store had been cleaned out and the doors were wide open. A lot of their inventory was sitting in a bin on the sidewalk, presumably about to be loaded into a truck.
A man in the early stages of middle age approached me and claimed to work for the company. He said he would take my returned movie, but that the store had closed for good as of this date. Most disturbing was the fact that nothing whatsoever appeared out-of-sorts when I was in the store making a purchase just 48 hours earlier.
I was melancholy at the time, realizing that my weekly summer tradition of going to the video store was probably over forever. I would have been less upset had I realized that Netflix would become the HD to Hollywood’s standard definition.
And, thankfully, the closest Netflix comes to rendering judgment on my movie choices is offering up a helpful Top 10 that’s usually fairly accurate.
Netflix hasn’t scoffed at me to date. As long as things stay that way, I’ll be the first to say that not everything included under the “good old days” umbrella was worth keeping.