Daniel Herbert is an ardent film aficionado turned media culture scholar currently holding the position of Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan. His lifetime of cinematic obsession has most recently led him to pen his forthcoming tome VIDEOLAND, promising to be an academic yet accessible assemblage of thoughts on one of the most essential entities of VHS history: the video rental store. Herbert’s in-depth study goes far beyond that notion of a saccharine memoir on the rise and fall of bygone rental days. With VIDEOLAND, Herbert is delving deep into the importance and relevance of the culture that buzzed about rental stores, examining the idiosyncrasies of the film loving community that these locales created and fostered as well as the dynamics of the resultant culture, and ultimately, the paramount impact video stores had on the film world at large. Read on, my fellow Videovores, and dare to drill your eyes into an academic approach to what most hold as a nostalgia-soaked set of notions…
Dan looking dapper in his office. Yo, that sign is BOSSTIMES. Photo credit: Benjamin Rogerson
LM: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background? What led you to become an Assistant Professor at University of Michigan?
DH: I was born in 1974 and grew up in southeast Michigan. My family was one of the first in the neighborhood to get a VCR, probably in 1983 or 1984. I watched all sorts of things when I was a kid – mostly James Bond movies and all the Hitchcock films. My family didn’t let me watch violent stuff. When I was maybe 10 or 11, though, I had a babysitter that would rent all sorts of violent stuff for me – action movies mostly, but also some horror films.
I “discovered” film, really, when I was a teenager. David Lynch had Twin Peaks on TV and I thought it was great. So I watched all his stuff and discovered that movies didn’t have to look “normal.” They could be “artistic” or “alternative.” I started watching anything “indie” I could find. Gus van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy made a huge impression on me.
I ended up moving to Albuquerque to go to the University of New Mexico and to get far away from Michigan. I studied Anthropology for a little while, but then I took a film class on a whim, and it changed my life. I suddenly knew I wanted to study film and I had ideas that I could become a director. The program at UNM was good but small and badly funded. We had no resources, really, for making movies. When I first started, we shot on VHS – I still have those tapes.
During this time I got a job at an amazing video store – Alphaville Video. They mostly did foreign films, indie films, and documentaries. My first task was to build up their collection of Hong Kong action films. That whole store was great and I loved working there. I estimate I watched 3000 movies during the three years I worked there.
After I finished my degree, I applied to grad schools. I was still torn between doing film production and film studies, so I applied to two production schools and two Critical Studies programs. I got into the University of Southern California for Critical Studies and that was that.
I was at USC from 2002-2008 and I wrote a dissertation about Hollywood remakes of foreign films. In 2007 I got a visiting lecturer position at – of all places – the University of Michigan. I was thrilled, because it is such a great school, a great program, and Ann Arbor is a great town. I finished my dissertation in 2008 and I got a full time tenure track position in my department.
A tangible history of the rental era and all of its idiosyncrasies in the palm if your hand, man. Touch it. Feel it. Read it.
Tell us about your current book VIDEOLAND. What was the inspiration to go for this subject? How was the research process, and how long was this in the making?
I began researching video stores for a book project in 2008. It was intermittent research, interviewing workers at a few stores here and there. My dissertation was long and badly structured and publishers weren’t interested in publishing it as a book.
So in 2010 I decided to focus exclusively on the video store project and make it my first book. I got some grants to fund my research from U of M and so I did a LOT of road trips looking at video stores and interviewed the workers at these stores. I drove all over the place and flew to a number of cities, as well. I saw hundreds of stores and interviewed over 200 people. I also did a lot of archival research. Whereas the fieldwork and interviews gave me a lot of good information about the space of video stores, the social aspects of video stores, and the “lived reality” of video stores, the archival material helped me outline the history of the video industry. My book aims to balance these two kinds of research and these two elements of “the video store”: that is, the rise and fall of the industry as well as the social experience of video stores.
Overall, I would say that my book is about the impact of video stores on American movie culture. To “measure” that impact, I thought it was necessary to look at both the industrial and the social aspects video stores, both historically and in the present moment, when these places are disappearing right in front of us.
And indeed, part of the inspiration for the book was the decline in the industry. Many video stores were closing in 2010 and 2011, and so I was in a rush to do my research and capture this thing called “the video store” before it disappeared. Because I had grown up with video stores and because I had worked at Alphaville, I knew these places were crucial to movie culture in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. They were crucial to my own experience of movies and movie culture. I wanted to grab some of that and document it before it all went away.
I completed my research in 2012 and wrote the book during that year. I finished writing in March 2013.
You got that right, guy that named this store. How could you not love this?
As you just stated, your book isn’t only an overview of the rise and fall of the video rental store; it’s a look at the cultural and industrial changes made to happen from these rental entities, including architectural design to social dynamics within the stores themselves. Can you give us a better grasp of the different ideas explored in the pages?
Sure. It is easiest to see if I go chapter-by-chapter.
Chapter 1 does provide a broad, historical overview of the rise and fall of the video rental industry and connects it to larger cultural changes in movie culture. I emphasize how the materiality of video and the materiality of the video store fundamentally altered movie culture.
Chapter 2 might appear strange to some readers, as it provides a kind of “walkthrough” of the video store space. I talk about such mundane things as the “drop box,” the arrangement of aisles and shelves, the kinds of movie categories one can find in video stores, the checkout counter, and the POS terminals used to ring up rental transactions. But I analyze each material and spatial element and show how this re-situation of movies within a retail space fundamentally altered how we think about and interact around movies. Thus this chapter also explores new social roles related to movies – the browser and the clerk. In becoming browsers, in particular, people had a new relationship with movies that was both physical (moving through a store) and emotional (the sense of desire for a “good movie” that propelled this movement through the store).
Chapters 3 and 4 draw on my fieldwork and video worker interviews to provide portraits of different kinds of stores in different parts of the country. Chapter 3 looks at “specialty” video stores that offer lots of obscure movie titles (both high-brow and low-brow genres). I look specifically at Scarecrow Video in Seattle, several stores in Los Angeles, and two specialty stores in smaller towns. Chapter 4 looks exclusively at small-town video stores all over the United States and shows how interesting and quirky they can be. I also show how these small-town stores are intimately intertwined with the local culture.
Chapter 5 looks at video distributors, including big ones like Ingram and smaller ones like Kino Lorber, in order to show how this level of the industry impacted movie culture.
Chapter 6 looks at video rental guides, like Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever. I argue that guides like these don’t just illustrate that there were a bunch of movies made available on video, but also that they appealed to Americans’ desire for movie viewing options (even if most people only watch mainstream films). This chapter also looks at how all the information and recommendations that these books provided has now been digitized, like with IMDb or on the interface of the retailers, like on Netflix. The internet and the online retailers have displaced the printed books, just like streaming video has displaced material video commodities.
This thing is a BEAST. And there’s one for every year, man. REAL PRINT 5EVA.
You were a video store clerk yourself for some time. Can you share some experiences that helped shape your appreciation for film, media culture, the rental store atmosphere, etc.? Did your time behind the video counter help with your research for the book?
Working at the video store taught me that people like to socialize around movies as much as they like to watch movies. I watched lots of customers talk with one another about what they’d seen, what they’d liked and disliked, and what they wanted to see. Of course, lots of customers asked me and my co-workers for recommendations, so in that respect my experience also taught me that “the video clerk” was this important taste-making figure. Clerks were important and sometimes highly educated about movies, but they made very little money – a strange contradiction. Further, my experience with my fellow “video jerks” at Alphaville showed me how a community of cinephiles could form organically in this retail space. We would horse around a lot, and we also did a lot of “one-ups-man-ship” in terms of what we’d seen and what we liked. We judged each other a lot, and developed our tastes in movies by comparing our tastes with each other.
In terms of research, my experience as a video clerk made it easier for me to conduct my interviews, I think. I knew what to ask and how to ask it because I had lived through similar experiences.
A prime example of the rental store experience. Click HERE for the full effect, mang.
You’re also a media culture scholar, so you’ve seen your share of films (and their effect) to say the least! Can you give us some of your most loved films? Films that really stick out in a personal sense? Or a cultural sense? Perhaps both?
I love all sorts of things, but I have watched La Jetée, Dr. Strangelove, and Heat (Michael Mann) countless times. I still think David Lynch is amazing, and I wish he would get back in to making feature films. I know that all might sound pretentious. I do like some “camp” films and low-budget horror films, but I probably don’t watch as much of that stuff. I love Pink Flamingos, but don’t go out of my way to re-watch it, you know? In terms of video videos, I really like Video Violence and plan to write an essay about it soon. [ED NOTE: You know I can dig it!]
The quintessential Video Store Horror. And you know this, mannnnnnnnnnn.
What is your opinion on the VHS format? Do you still watch? Collect? Appreciate? What do you think of the recent revival in interest among cult film fanatics and nostalgia fans?
Well, I like VHS because it is much more durable than DVD. I can really appreciate the aesthetic of it, perhaps now more than ever – the grain, texture, and strange colors that VHS can have. I loved the way Trash Humpers looked, for example. It was a perfect match of form and content, in my opinion.
I have a small VHS collection, mainly of things that people gave to me in the 1990s, but I have never really been a “collector.” In part this is because I have always had access to whatever I wanted without having to buy anything. When I worked at Alphaville, I had the store. As a student at USC and working now at the University of Michigan, I have had access to amazing media libraries. I also don’t really collect anything, videos or otherwise.
In terms of the recent revival of VHS, with people like you at Lunchmeat putting out tapes on VHS… well, I am extremely curious and still figuring it out! Obviously, I think a lot of it has to do with nostalgia. But it is an interesting nostalgia, because it is not just for old movies but also for an old format. And for the people involved, this format signifies something very powerful. Are these tapes reminders of people’s early experiences with video? Are they reminders of early experiences looking at video boxes? Are these tapes valued for their materiality? Are they valued for other things that I can’t think of? These new VHS tapes seem to show that material objects can evoke important memories and deep emotions, perhaps better than “intangible” media can.
I do think it is curious that so many of these new VHS releases are low-budget horror films. I am still figuring out what I want to say about that. I think it is interesting the way it creates a combination of “trashy” movies with a “trashy” format – trash not being a bad thing, necessarily! But this does separate the VHS revival from people who release or collect music on vinyl, I would say. People who fetishize vinyl almost always do so because it provides “better” sound than CDs or mp3s. For VHS, it seems the “lack” of quality is what gives it value.
Say it with me nawww. Looks good on a headline, but it’s just not the same, brother.
What would you like your book to bring to the table? Do you have an intended takeaway, or is this more of an assemblage of information, open to an individual interpretation?
In the Introduction, I write: “This book aims to contribute a thoughtful but enamored voice to the discussion on home video.” That still feels accurate. It is definitely an academic book and is intended for university students and other scholars. But I think the language is (slightly) more accessible than some other academic film books. It would be great if a more general audience found the book and liked it, but I am not counting on that.
Mostly, though, I wanted to provide a deep consideration of the life of video stores. I wanted to show people why video stores were important, historically and culturally. Another passage from my Introduction gives a nice overview of the book’s entire argument:
Videoland: Movie Culture at the American Video Store offers a comprehensive view of [the] “tangible phase” of consumer video. It argues that the material objectification of movies significantly altered their social place and value and that these transformations largely occurred in and around the video rental store. Video stores changed the way Americans treated movies and thus changed “movie culture,” or the ways in which people socialize around movies and collectively make movies meaningful. From the moment in the 1970s that movies were first made available on magnetic tape, they had a newly physical presence in the world and were treated as material commodities. This transformation made movies more accessible, portable, and controllable, criteria by which consumers weighed the value of entertainment more generally. Emerging out of the theatrical and televisual contexts of the 1960s and 1970s, the video store normalized the idea that movies were commodities much like any other, and to this extent they could be shopped for like books, musical recordings, clothing, or groceries…Videoland demonstrates how video stores situated moviegoers not as spectators but rather as media shoppers who expressed their power through selection and choice. During the era of tangible video, movie culture flowed out from the theater and the living room, entered a public retail space, and became conflated with shopping and salesmanship.
The historical specificity, even contingency, of video stores is clearly demonstrated by the decimation of the brick-and-mortar video rental business. Challenged by changing patterns of media consumption and the “Great Recession” that first struck the U.S. economy in late 2007, the brick-and-mortar rental industry has all but vanished. Whereas video rental generated over $11 billion in 2002, it made about half that amount merely ten years later. Similarly, there were nearly 30,000 video rental locations in the United States in 1989, but as of 2012 there were fewer than 11,000. In May 2010, Movie Gallery Inc. liquidated all Movie Gallery and Hollywood Video rental stores. Blockbuster Video filed for bankruptcy in 2010 and closed all but 500 stores in the United States since that time, down from a peak of over 5,000 around the turn of the millennium. Rather than simply mourn the loss of these places, however, Videoland demonstrates how video stores paved the way for the many forms of media distribution that usurped them. Video stores taught us to shop for movies, and, for a time, they seemed the natural place for this to happen—public spaces that led to domestic consumption. But now that digital technologies have made shopping and consumption possible through the same device, and now that these devices are as likely to be found in public as in private, the video rental store no longer appears necessary to the distribution of movies. What is lost in this new context is exactly what this book aims to capture: the ephemeral but concretely physical interactions around movie commodities that were once so common at the video store.
Where can we pick up a copy? What’s next for you, Dan?
What’s next? Well, I am working on this essay about people and companies that are currently releasing movies on VHS, such as you. I am working on a project about “media metadata,” or information about media products, in the digital media realm. My next major project, which I hope turns into a book, is about cinema and garbage. Not “trash cinema,” but a project that is literally about the material waste that has been produced by the film industry. I’m only beginning to research this.
Anything else you’d like to say to all the home video junkies out there?
Well, I think that was enough, eh, my fellow Videovores?! Man, what an avalanche of analog era notions and insight awaiting us, indeed. And that’s just the tip of the proverbial tapeberg, really. Dan’s book is apt to be one of the most learned, ambitious and in-depth books to ever tackle the beast that is the video era, and with its decidedly academic angle, it’s sure to garner interest from video era aficionados of every ilk. And that’s pretty groovy. Be sure to groove on over to the University of California website or Amazon and secure your copy ASAP. This is analog important, Tapeheads. GO DIG IT!