Friday, 24 February 2017

Video nostalgia

The VHS tape became a popular way by which to watch films around the same time I was old enough to watch films for grownups, even though my parents refused to let a VCR darken our apartment. But my friends had the means to play the tapes so I spent many hours in their homes (sometimes when I was supposed to do other things such as taking flute lessons) watching acknowledged classics like Miami Supercops, with Terence Hill and Bud Spencer, or the Australian nuclear waste thriller The Chain Reaction from 1980. Although mostly we would be watching James Bond, constantly and excessively. When I had trouble falling asleep at night I did not count sheep, instead I quoted dialogue from Bond films. The one I knew best was Live and Let Die, where I could all lines up until "A genuine Felix lighter. Illuminating." which would be the first 30 minutes of the movie perhaps.

At that time I was not able to explore film history, and none of my friends shared my burgeoning cinephilia. For older films, or films not in English or Swedish, I had to make do with whatever was shown on Swedish television, on one of our two channels. On odd occasions I would rent a moviebox and then I could watch a film of my own choosing, such as Hannah and Her Sisters. To clarify, a moviebox was a portable VCR without the ability to record and you rented it along with the films and returned them simultaneously. But I would say that it was always a gamble as to whether those movieboxes would actually work. They were not of sturdy quality. But eventually I got my own room and my own VCR, and things began to brighten up.

There were two video stores in the suburb where I lived; a big one, part of a chain, called Videobutiken Premiär and a small one, owned by an older woman and her 30-something son, in the basement of a high-rise. There were six of those high-rises, the video store was in the one next to the tube station and I lived in the third of them, so it was very close. I would not say I was there every day, but not far from it. I would sit at home and go through the video guides such as Leonard Maltin, VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever and whatever else I could get my hands on, and then search for the titles in the aisles. For a long time I was only interested in renting, but finally I bought two, Ice Station Zebra and Vertigo. I do not recall which I bought first, but those two were the only ones I had for some time. Later, in the early 90s, I discovered the Time Out Film Guide, which is where I came to know the criticism of Geoff Andrew and Tom Milne, both of considerable importance for me. Alas many of the films they championed were not necessarily to be found in my video stores, especially not old, black and white films. When I went to London for the first time however... I could barely contain myself. Although neither Andrew nor Milne would have been impressed by the first VHS I bought there, Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai. Then one day London came to Stockholm, in the form of Velvet Video on Birkagatan in the centre of Stockholm (so not walking distance from home). They had VHS you could either rent or buy, and all were directly imported from England. I was their most loyal and consistent customer, working my way through their stock. My first day there I rented Ford's Rio Grande. That was a good day.

But what is the nostalgia about? Well, it is not about the quality of the images. VHS is nothing compared to any streaming service available now. It is about other things, such as the personal touch. When you went to a video store you would meet other people, you would get personal recommendations, and not only deal with an algorithm. For someone like myself, who did not know anybody with a similar interest, the staff in the video stores became like secondary friends. It would have been a lonely life having only Netflix and iTunes to engage with. It was part of a community instead of a solitary home activity. To some extent it is part of a healthy democracy and society, to engage with others and interact face to face, rather than only through a computer. And besides, going out and leaving your apartment is in itself a good thing. A video store might also, as opposed to a streaming service, give you a job.

In 2003 the guy who once was running Velvet Video called me up and asked if I wanted to work with him in his new video store at the Swedish Film Institute. I obviously said yes immediately. It was stressful work at times but also a lot of fun, and many celebrities paid it a visit, like Jan Troell, Bibi Andersson, Josef Fares, Nina Persson and Thommy Berggren (who told me the story about how he was supposed to have played the part of Noodles in Once Upon a Time in America but for some reason I have now forgotten it eventually landed in Robert De Niro's lap instead). Eventually I became the manager of the store after the guy from Velvet Video lost all interest and turn to professional poker instead.

When I was working there the death and decline of the video store was already taking place and there were only two great video stores left in Stockholm besides mine, Casablanca and No 1. Video. One day I answered the phone in my video store and there was a man asking about a particular film. I said that we did not have it but he might try Casablanca. "Do you know where it is?" He answered "Yes. I'm actually calling from them. They didn't have it and suggested I call you." As I said, it was like a community.

But I too lost interest in managing a video store. I quit at the end of 2006 and began working at the Ingmar Bergman Archives, which in a way is when the present phase of my life began. Today my video store is no more, and neither is Casablanca nor No 1. Video. I miss them all.

The note on the window says "Thanks"

One reason to miss the stores is the wide selection they would have. Not just the latest blockbusters but also things like French New Wave, Italian Giallo, Akira Kurosawa and American independent cinema. In the late 1990s for example I was bingeing on indie films like the collected work of Tom DiCillo, Alexandre Rockwell's astonishing In the Soup or Gas, Food Lodging by Allison Anders, and such lesser fare like Pie in the Sky. Most importantly, this is how I discovered Nicole Holofcener, who continues to go from strength to strength. I am not saying that such films are not available today, but not all in the same place, you have to look for them and might have to take up a subscription or there might be rights issues that prevent them from being streamed in your country, or they might suddenly disappear. The video store was more stable and dependable. And more adventurous.

Catherine Keener and Anne Heche in Holofcener's Walking and Talking

In the bigger of the two video stores in Farsta, my suburb, one of the staff members was a stern woman with curly hair. After the store in Farsta closed she too disappeared from my life. Until last year. The last proper video store in central Stockholm, called Buylando, was closing down and on its very last day I went in, primarily for old time's sake but also to see if there were any good deals on DVDs. I found the whole Back to the Future trilogy for a negligible price and went to the cashier to pay for it. Behind the counter was the woman with the curly hair. It was like my whole life flashed before my eyes; she was potentially the first person to serve me in a video store and she would also be the last person to do so. She did not smile this time either.

I felt inspired to write this post after listening to a Film Comment podcast about New York video stores, and after reading Tom Roston's I Lost it at the Video Store, reviewed by Glenn Kenny here. They are about the past, as is my post. For an investigation of the present and the future, The Economist have eight articles to read:

Among the many films in which video stores play an important part (including some of the above mentioned) I would like to recommend Bleeder, a great early film by Nicolas Winding Refn where Mads Mikkelsen plays a video store clerk. I also have a soft spot for Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl, although I know I am rather alone on this one.


  1. A very nice post, though somewhat bittersweet. The day I walked into the best video store in Umeå (I had _finally_ bought a VHS player of my own) and the young guy behind the counter asked "How do you spell 'Easy'?" when I asked for Easy Rider a small part of me died there and then...

    1. Neither English nor "new Hollywood" seems to have been his thing.

  2. Tack.

    For the unexpected time jump... The moviebox, the vidoe stores, being hungover, Bond, the searching for new titles, and the endless discussion with friends about which movies to rent... Bittersweet memories.