- The Forgotten Passageway from VHS to VOD
Surrealist poet Louis Aragon suggests in Paris Peasant that it was only as the arcades slipped toward the brink of obsolescence that it became possible to decipher their true nature.1 While the innovative architectural structures that encapsulated so many pleasures and paradoxes of modern life had escaped scrutiny during their heyday, the threat of complete extinction rendered their distinctive features suddenly strange and alluring. Though Aragon made this point nearly a century ago, he could have just as easily been describing the video rental store, an ingenious enterprise that took brisk shape throughout the 1980s only to evaporate into a cacophony of digital dreams less than two decades later. While Aragon’s insights may be best known as kindling for Walter Benjamin’s monumental analysis of the forgotten passageways of Paris, they provide an equally apt, if only implicit, frame of reference for Daniel Herbert’s ambitious study Videoland: Movie Culture at the American Video Store. As with the arcades, it is only as an anachronism that the video store becomes truly illuminating, and it is only now that video stores have largely disappeared that their rich and [End Page 271] telling history can be exhumed. Herbert is eloquent and insightful in recounting the video store’s rise and fall but, like Benjamin, often finds himself entangled in a recurring melancholic dilemma. Something has certainly been lost with the extinction of the video store, perhaps something akin to what Benjamin termed “aura.” It isn’t clear, however, whether this loss requires extended mourning or if it is an opportunity to celebrate the ambiguities buried within this short-lived phenomenon.
Videoland argues that the video store fundamentally transformed media and entertainment not only by reshaping how consumers accessed and viewed individual films but also by engendering new forms of appreciation, evaluation, and social behavior. Divided into three parts, each consisting of two chapters, Videoland examines the overall history of the video rental business and emphasizes the particularity of what in the late 1970s was an entirely new endeavor. Up until that time, theaters and broadcast television networks were the only outlets for films. The video store, by contrast, shifted the movie experience into a novel retail environment wherein consumers had the power to make their own choices among a collection of titles. Just as the video store became its own destination, one built around the embodied experience of wandering the aisles in order to make one’s selection, the movies themselves became more tangible as physical objects that could be touched and, at least temporarily, taken home and possessed. Even if these objects were often nothing more than an empty shell of cardboard packaging, they were deeply symbolic of an important shift in how consumers related to the movies and how movie culture was becoming increasingly intertwined with accelerating forms of conspicuous media consumption.
Herbert also situates the video store in relationship to what has succeeded it, and he makes a compelling case for how the video store has contributed to the video-on-demand, or VOD, models that currently dominate the market. For example, Herbert observes that the video rental industry accentuated the benefits of media abundance and helped inaugurate the cultural desire for infinite choice in film as well as television, music, and other media commodities. He adds that it was precisely by virtue of providing access to a broader range of films that video stores were compelled to devise new tools for navigating an expanding inventory and to provide access to information that allowed consumers to make choices according to their personal preferences. To this end, video stores guided consumers by initiating various systems of classification. Most stores were organized in ways that simply reinforced traditional access points, highlighting stars, directors, and genre. Some [End Page 272] specialty stores, among them Cinefile in Los Angeles, used ostentatious classifications such as “Pregnant Men” to foreground the idiosyncratic knowledge of their staffs and to differentiate themselves from competing corporate rental chains. These systems of classification...