The video-store clerk as icon

[13 July 2006]

By Rob Horning

One of the first jobs I ever had was as a video store clerk, so perhaps I should be sad that video stores are in danger of becoming extinct. But this post by Tim Cavanaugh from the libertarian journal Reason‘s blog reminded me that there’s nothing positive you can say about them—they inhibit choice, they are inconvenient, they sometimes surreptitiously edit what you see, they subject you to the scorn of clerks (like the young me) judging your choices in entertainment (adult or otherwise). Cavanaugh writes to refute the idea floated on the Boston Globe Ideas page that indie video stores were like indie bookstores, places where nonmainstream folks could share their tastes, and with their disappearance we lose another place for“underground empire” impresarios to hang out. But as Cavanaugh points out, any tips you might have yielded from the video store, you can get online much easier, with the extra bonus automated efficiency. And the things video stores process—the videocassette or DVD—aren’t romanticized. No one will ever rhapsodize over the feel of having a DVD in the palm of one’s hand, the way some revel in the objecthood of books. There’s nothing about the medium itself that lends itself to preservation; no one makes coffee-table tomes of video box art they way do with album covers (Though Cavanaugh points out that video-box blurbs constitute a poetic genre all their own, with its own unique relation to truth.) The video store for many people is a place associated with decision-making paralysis and relationship tension—Netflix makes such choices faits accomplis.

What we will lose is the video-store clerk as icon. Video store clerks, for some reason, held a special place in shorthand language of film, where it was a convenient job to assign to the character who was meant to be a hipster nerd (as in Scream or Nicole Holofcener’s Walking and Talking or even Egoyan’s Speaking Parts). It gives movies a chance to be self-referential, which seemed an irresistible trend. Glamorizing the video-store clerk was a way to glorify the idea of knowing a lot about films—it was good publicity for the industry as a whole to suggest that encyclopedic knowledge of movies was a way to build meaningful cultural capital. (I think this a main reason why the culture industry went postmodern in the 1990s; maybe if I ever finish reading Jameson’s book, I’ll know for sure.)

My time as a independent-video-store clerk was decidedly less glamorous then the Boston Globe or 1990s films make it out to be. In my patch of suburbs, there wasn’t much underground empire culture; the store’s foriegn-film section consisted of maybe 35 titles, some of which were American films set in foreign locations. I was a nerd, for sure, but not a respected or knowledgeable one (unless you count my thorough knowledge of dialogue from such films as Stripes, Just One of the Guys and Fast Times at Ridgemont High as knowledge). There were no rap sessions with customers about Godard and Trauffaut; no discoveries of obscure Asian directors or exploitative genre films; no script writing with my clever clerk pals. Instead, much time was spent figuring out how to get away with watching movies in the store that had profanity and nudity in them and answering questions from irate customers about why all the copies of Dirty Dancing were always already checked out. I remember fighting with coworkers about who got to take which movie posters home: I really wanted Room with a View—that’s the kind of nerd I was—but ended up with a choice between Romancing the Stone and Fright Night. This seems somehow representative of my entire experience of youth.

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