I’ve seen a lot of cinema in 2007, some of it demonstrably excellent, but in retrospect I find many of the past year’s cinematic highlights reducible to moments. Here are a few: the cathartic final credits in Frownland; viewing Hell on Wheels in a theater full of roller derby girls (whose resilience, dexterity, and leisurely hostility is exampled in the film); seeing Academy Award™ winner William Hurt leap onto the back of a speeding ambulance in Dick Maas’ Silent Witness; or viewing Blade Runner for the first time at the New York Film Festival, seated in the third row away from a screen so behemoth it spanned the extent of my peripheral vision. There are other moments that conjured variably emotional responses in me, and not one of them was as affecting as the death of Dennis J. Arruda on July 12th, 2007. He was a man I had never met, and whose passing I was informed of only belatedly.
Dennis was the owner of Video Oasis, a video store in East Cambridge, Massachusetts. Its name is entirely appropriate—its size a veritable warehouse, Video Oasis contained thousands upon thousands of films in every genre imaginable, including Bible epics (most each of which, coincidentally or not, spans exactly two tapes), two or three shelves devoted entirely to John Wayne, and what must have been the entire Something Weird Video catalogue. Remarkably, most of these titles were organized according to distributor, most of which haven’t been in business in well over a decade.
By the time I visited Video Oasis for the first time, in August, Dennis’ collection was reduced only to VHS cassettes, but it was nonetheless overwhelming. Imagine entire rows of old Columbia titles – the ones with a red border enclosing the spine and the film title in a consistent, capitalized serif typeface – arranged alphabetically, or dozens of bootlegged, uncut versions of Mario Bava and Dario Argento films. The horror section was replete with the most gems, titles invariably strewn in illustrations of great fantasy—vikings, zombies, or ghouls of some other sort, and taglines that readily pronounced further outrageous contents (the most outrageous of which may be read here). Incredibly, all of these VHS sleeves contained index cards, each either stamped or typewritten with checkout dates, most of which dated back to the 1980s. The corners of each sleeve were rubbed white, and I handled them delicately and with quiet reverence.
A VHS tape, unlike more contemporary formats, benefits from its inherent vulnerability because one is inclined to handle it with some consideration, for fear of tampering its contents. To view one the plastic housing is hinged open, revealing a ribbon of tape that must be threaded through more than a dozen spools, sprockets, and pins before it is violently rewound. They are organisms whose entrails are repeatedly withdrawn and replaced; owning them is doubly an act of cultivation and protection. In late August I was standing amidst thousands of them, each of which was on the verge of becoming obsolete.
Upon Dennis’ passing Video Oasis’ entire stock was being sold. This was overseen by his son, who dismantled the depleted shelving to useless scraps of particleboard, revealing a grid of time-trampled carpet in the warehouse’s interior. The son was employed elsewhere during the day, so visits to the video store were made, if not by appointment, on weeknights in the early evenings. No more than two or three other people were there at a time, picking the gems out of a collection the result of exploration and determined completism.
I returned for a second and final visit before the entire stock would be removed, before expiration of the store’s lease in September, and purchased only a few titles expressly for the sake of posterity. All of these I’d already seen (and none I’ve watched in the ensuing months), and I suppose it’s an effort to sustain some enthusiasm for these films, even if propagating this enthusiasm does not mandate actually watching them. It’s collecting stones from some ruined relic, one impossible to reconcile but tangibly potent with history.
My interest in film was founded during my teenage years, in which I lived in a rural town. The nearest theater was an hour’s drive away, and satisfying my interest regulated my browsing to local video stores with modest repertoires. My interest was facilitated immeasurably by this ability to browse, to judge titles solely by their illustrious covers and often ham-handedly adverbial critic’s quotes. On occasion, this practice ensures the possibility for epiphany.
I imagine annual year-end retrospectives are to be celebratory by some measure. These are semi-arbitrary methods of canonization, and have, to some extent, influenced distribution, as more aggressively lauded films are released toward the end of the year, intent to coincide neatly with these retrospectives. But there is another aspect to distribution that is becoming outmoded—that is, the occasion to browse, to select randomly, to eschew any endorsement or recommendation and to watch without any knowledge of what you’re going to see.
By nature I am a nostalgist in regard to film, and this marks the third consecutive year that I’ve refrained from listing my contemporary favorites in any form, and this year I find it especially daunting and uninspiring. Great cinema is often, and perhaps implicitly, something that is to be sought, and we live in an age in which the availability of film has taken precedence over the opportunity to discover it.