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Book Review: "I Lost It At the Video Store" by Tom Roston

Tom Roston’s “I Lost It At The Video Store” may be the breeziest, most engaging film book you’ll read this year. This longer-than-usual longform oral history, published in a handsome hardcover edition by the adventurous house The Critical Press, lets a very voluble and opinion-generous (not the same thing as opinionated, although the border between the two states can be unusually porous) group of filmmakers tell a fascinating story: how the availability of movies via home video changed cinema’s aesthetic, the movie business, and the way future filmmakers and other artists got their educations in the craft.

Author Roston is an old colleague and an old friend; we worked closely together at Premiere magazine from the late 1990s until the magazine stopped publishing in 2007. A couple of things I always admired about Tom were his commitment to Getting The Story Whatever It Took (he actually got tattooed with Angelina Jolie while working on an early profile of the future diva) and his ability at cultivating and maintaining meaningful contacts/sources in the industry. It’s the second talent that serves him particularly well here. His cast of characters, so to speak, is wide-ranging, reasonably diverse, and pretty heavy—from Allison Anders to Quentin Tarantino, with a lot of names you want to hear from in between. It’s not just directors; the book’s subtitle “A Filmmakers’ Oral History of a Vanished Era” notwithstanding. Several one-time video company execs and distributors are also interviewed. These characters, who include Richard Gladstein, whose LIVE Entertainment was a driving force behind “Reservoir Dogs,” and Larry Estes, who helped get “sex, lies, and videotape” made with home video money, provide what I found to be the most interesting anecdotes about how the business of home video provided a quantifiable shot in the arm to independent film production. I began my career in journalism at a magazine called Video Review, so the video store was part of my “beat” in the mid-80s; like a lot of the filmmakers interviewed in the book, I saw firsthand the way an education via home video could influence both a creative aesthetic and a critical one. (Video Review actually ran a debate about “letterboxing,” as the pre-widescreen-TV practice of preserving a widescreen aspect ratio for home viewing was called, back before high definition was even a gleam in the eye of home theater people.) The down-and-dirty stories behind “Reservoir Dogs” and “sex, lies and videotape” were ones I didn’t know, even though I was aware at the time how now-defunct semi-studios like Orion Pictures tried to exploit “synergy” between the home and theatrical markets.

Some of the anecdotes from filmmakers who actually worked at video stores before getting their own credits are pretty funny. Nicole Holofcener’s tale of a store colleague with whom she didn’t get along becoming a significant person in her subsequent life as a writer-director is instructively mortifying. More than one filmmaker admits to an ambition of getting his or her own “shelf” in a video store—the post-modern equivalent of getting a retrospective at a repertory house, perhaps. I was taken with some observations more than others; when Joe Swanberg observes that home video was, in a sense, just another film marketing ploy, he seems to be under the impression that he’s the first person who ever came up with that idea, of course. And I do rather wish that Roston had gone a little further back in illuminating the ways that the market for “adult” entertainment set a perhaps-ultimately-unconstructive business template for the home video business.

The oral-history format also allows a ball or two to drop, narratively. In the chapter titled “Follow The Money,” Greg Mottola happily recalls that the home video deal for his debut feature “The Daytrippers” generated enough revenue that he was able “to pay everyone who worked on the movie back.” In a subsequent quote, Tom Di Cillo says “I have never seen a dime” from home video sales of his films “Johnny Suede” and “Living In Oblivion,” and continues “I don’t think that this is unusual.” There’s no follow-up there, and I would have liked one. I don’t know if that’s a question for which Roston couldn’t get an answer, or the natural oral-history flow of “then this thing happened” would have been compromised, or what. But this is a minor quibble.

In total, “I Lost It At the Video Store” is a really fun and edifying read about a subject that people love to talk about. This fact was made manifest at the book’s launch event at Book Court at the end of September. Hosted by Aaron Hillis, who was a stalwart and inventive contributor to Premiere’s Home Guide back when I was its editor, and who now wears many cinephiliac hats while running one of the last surviving video stores in the tri-state area, Video Free Brooklyn, the panel featured Roston, actor/director Tim Blake Nelson, writer/actor Zoe Kazan, and actor Paul Dano (the two are Brooklynites who are also avid VFB customers). Director Doug Liman, another of the book’s interviewees, showed up and was called to the panel by Roston. The freewheeling talk was fascinating and astute (among topics touched on: how home video may or may not have initiated a tyranny of close-ups in contemporary film style) and suggested the topic may well be capable of yielding a sequel to Roston’s book.

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