Tapehead: Video Store Film School

This week, our featured book is The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out. Today, we are happy to present an essay in which author Wayne Byrne, reveals how the book came to be.

CUP Blog Essay – Tapehead: Video Store Film School

By Wayne Byrne

One day in the video store I noticed an iridescently colored VHS case for a film with a striking picture of Brad Pitt sporting a huge pompadour. Something prompted me to rent the film.

I cannot underestimate the influence Johnny Suede had on me; it was a culture shock…It opened up to me the doors of Cinema and all its varieties and possibilities. Films didn’t just have to be about violence and spectacle; they could be about you and me, or those people just over there. The raw human emotions of the film felt real and immediate, yet its surrealist aesthetic, absurd humour and haunting music gave it a sense of the peculiar and the exotic. The effect it had on me was hypnotic.

I immediately declared my unabashed belief of Johnny Suede to be the greatest film I had ever seen to anybody that would listen. I longed to experience more of this director Tom DiCillo’s work; his was an idiosyncratic vision that was completely and distinctively his. It felt like Johnny Suede was this little gem only I was privy to and I wanted to keep it, literally. Upon returning the video I proposed an offer to the clerk which would have resulted in the most expensive purchase in my life up to that point had he accepted: ‘I’ll give you thirty pounds for it!’ Deep down I knew my proposition was going nowhere; the kid was a mere employee with no ability to make such executive decisions as turning a rental cassette into a retail one; nor did I actually have thirty pounds to give him should he accept my offer. It was more of a desperate, knowingly futile attempt by me to cling tangibly to this videocassette that reached into my soul and dared to show me an alternative world of cinema beyond the only one I knew.”

– Wayne Byrne, The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out


In 1987, at the age of four, I had two of the formative experiences of my life; my awakening, if you will: I visited a movie theatre for the very first time, and my family bought our very first VHS machine…I also started school that year, but, yeah, whatever.

I wish I could say it was Fellini’s 8 ½ or a Sergei Eisenstein montage that nudged my brain into cultural activation, but it was in fact Masters of the Universe, the extravagantly-Eighties He-Man adaptation starring Dolph Lundgren and produced by Cannon Pictures; a picture that is, as my first theatrical encounter, perhaps the single most important piece of cinema I’ve ever experienced. The pleasures of watching that film unspool before my eyes at that age felt absolutely primal; the spectacle of not only the movie but of the movie theatre itself, with its staggered descending rows of seats and giant rippled red curtains; the spectral ray of light emanating above my head from a tiny projection room window out toward the giant screen. Reminiscing wistfully, even nostalgically, it’s easy to overestimate the minute details of the event, but there’s no denying the sense of the magical that was felt and is retained; gazing up at that projected stream of light, it was simultaneously something tangible yet completely elusive. That brief moment in time has single-handedly set me on course to be writing this very think piece thirty years later.

Yet, perhaps more so than the movie theatre, it was the culture of the video store that cultivated my obsession with film. I can distinctly recall the earliest videotapes we had around the house: Scooby and Scrappy Doo, The Quiet Man, Gremlins, Lethal WeaponGhoulies 2! My father’s tape collection of westerns exposed me very early on to John Ford’s Stagecoach, Fort Apache, and My Darling Clementine. That early introduction to the cowboy picture functioned as a bonding tool that continues to this day as a means of father-son activity: tea and Roy Rogers’ movies. These emotional subtexts to the video experience made it clear to me from a very young age that movies, whether on celluloid in a theatre or on tape at home, contained an elixir of happiness. Film screenings have provided the context for many of my most treasured memories with family and friends; these moments of movies set in motion my passion for a subject with which I would become all-consumed: Cinema.

As a sports-shy, non-academic youth, the video store was my sanctuary away from round leather-bound objects and textbooks. It was there that I could dream, that I could imagine the horrors inhabited within the cover marked Clownhouse , or where I could dare to peruse the box of lurid filth otherwise known as Wild Orchid. With the lax attitude of the young employees tending shop, renting the unsuitable and the forbidden was never really an issue. I’d seen Death Wish 2 before I’d seen Pinocchio.

It was on such a routine visit to the video store (as noted in the opening quote), around 1995, that I found myself on film safari, navigating through the foreign terrain of the World Cinema aisle towards my homeland of the Horror section, when I stumbled across Johnny Suede and the game changed irrevocably. I can’t really explain what encouraged me to take a chance on an arthouse film that I had never heard of, but something about the video sleeve attracted my attention. I rented the tape, a transaction the result of which is the very reason The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out exists.

The experience of seeing Johnny Suede and the cultural influence it had on me is something I can only equate to the effect that The Graduate, Easy Rider, Night of the Living Dead, and Bonnie and Clyde had on unsuspecting baby boomers in the Sixties. All of a sudden, film became something intellectual, something emotional, something artistic; Johnny Suede made me aware of style, of direction, of performance, and of craft; it was the first time I consciously associated the distinct aesthetic of a film with the authorial stamp of the director’s name. Tom DiCillo became the first filmmaker whose career I really took an interest in following. That in course introduced me to the whole world of American independent cinema, and to actors like Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, John Turturro, and their catalogue of work. In tracing DiCillo’s own influences I discovered the wondrous art of Federico Fellini, Luis Bunuel, Jean luc Godard. DiCillo’s films are that rare mixture of approachability, intelligence, and high art. They are not inscrutable or abstruse; they seduce the senses with exotic style and substance, they entertain with humour and levity, and perhaps most crucial, they nourish the soul with their empathy for everyday human drama and endeavour. These films feature an underlying sincerity which is often harder to find in more esoteric art films or more calculatedly cynical indie product.

Thirty years after first discovering the wonder of the moving image, long after the last video store closed its doors, and now being involved in film education, I find my eyes being opened to the contemporary manner in which young people discover and watch film these days, and how a film is valued as a product. Netflix is a thing; the internet is a thing; and video stores are no longer a thing. I have taught film studies at schools where none of the students had film collections of any size or significance, because, they tell me, they already “owned” thousands of films, intangibly, on some sort of digital media device, indiscriminately downloaded at random. This kind of media grab isn’t compiled out of any discernment of taste or judgment; it can be merely a gluttonous compilation of media for the sake of compilation. If a film doesn’t immediately satisfy in the opening minutes, I’m told, it is discarded with and the next file is loaded, until it displeases. From what I gather, films aren’t given time to breathe; instant satisfaction is demanded. It also seems that there is almost no monetary value on a film at all. “Why would I buy a film when I can just download it for free?” is a recurring rhetorical question I come across in the classroom. The whole notion of purchasing a movie, of tangibly owning a film and putting it on a shelf, is alien to many of the younger generation who have no frame of reference to the video store experience that I lament. This disposability and disesteem of film is troubling, though I realise that I am pining for an era which has no meaning or context to many students I teach.  

While streaming sites offer a plethora of titles for our consideration, I find the experience to be rather empty. In the days of VHS we trawled the video store, sometimes for over an hour, for that one film which would define our weekend. If you were lucky, the film would be worth the second or third viewing before returning it (after rewinding it, of course); if it was only worth a single viewing, well you at least sat through the entire thing, gave it your attention and made an informed decision as to whether you liked the film or not. There was an inherent mystery and thrill to the video store journey that I find missing from streaming and downloading experiences. I suspect it is partly due to the fact that back in the late-80s and early 90s we didn’t have the ease of access to films that modern technology affords us. The release windows between theatrical and rental markets were longer; it felt like an age when you missed a film on the big screen, so there was an element of anticipation and excitement when the film finally reached the shelves. Independent non-chain stores often carried only one copy per film. You had to wait to appreciate; it wasn’t immediate gratification or instant dismissal.

In one respect, it’s no wonder that kids have no value on physical product these days. In some towns I’ve lectured there are almost no outlets to purchase a film on disc. Unless one lives in the capital city and has access to Tower Records and a number of small independent stores, the choice available to rural and suburban movie fans is limited to Top Ten DVD chart displays at major retail grocery stores. This means you have your choice of whatever superhero movies came out on disc that month, or perhaps some anonymous teen romance that lasted a week in the multiplex and has now found a space on the supermarket shelf to die an ignoble death.  

Harbingers of doom have been making noise about the demise of physical media for a few years now, pointing to the fall of the video store as a death knell not only for VHS but as a sign of the premature expiry of DVD too. Conversely, I see the home video market as being healthier than ever in terms of the selection on offer and the quality of the product available. Criterion, the vanguard of high quality home video editions, continues to add to its enviable inventory. And since “the decline” a number of boutique, home video companies have come to the fore. You have purveyors such as Shout Factory (US) and Arrow Video (UK), who respectively juggle releasing independent/arthouse works with B-movie franchise sequels, while licensing and re-packaging mainstream titles from major studios such as Universal and MGM. Fans are parting ways with their cash for titles they probably own several times already, with the added incentive being the inclusion of a limited edition poster, an attractive slipcase or steelbook cover, alternative artwork, an exclusive audio commentary, and of course, a high-definition edition of the film that its parent studio would likely never have bothered with the expense of producing.

Thanks to such companies, it seems that more films are available than ever, perhaps the most comprehensive selections of titles since the advent of video, including films that have never been released on any digital format, or have never been released uncut, which now have access to appreciation. So while this piece may mourn the video store experience, a requiem inflected with a nostalgic tone indulgently owing to the passage of time and youth, I do acknowledge that for serious fans and academics – be they institutional or autodidactic scholars – now is perhaps the golden age of home cinema.  

In contemplating briefly here the culture of the VHS emporium and what it meant to those of my generation who found our passion for film amongst the rows of cassette covers, I’ve come to realise that more than any academic institution or text book, the most crucial avenue to film education for me was the video store. Discovering Johnny Suede on tape and becoming a Tom DiCillo fan became a kind of film school in its own right. It was my film school: the video store a substitute for the university library, the VHS tape as instructor, and my living room as lecture hall. It was the culture of the video store that is responsible for giving me a direction in life, to pursue something to do with film, whether it’s teaching film studies, curating film programmes, or writing articles and books. For that, I salute Johnny Suede and Tom DiCillo. Oh, and He-Man.

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