Guilt Tripping

Published on October 10th, 2011

Alex writes about the not-so-crushing guilt he feels for having permanently removed movies from video store shelves.

As I’ve said approximately four thousand times since we started this website last December, I used to work at a video store. When I worked at that video store, I was always kind of on the prowl. I wasn’t looking for ladies or anything like that (for that would be an absurd way to pass the time); I was keeping an eye out for good movies that nobody ever rented.

Since more movies get released on home video every week, some movies have to be moved from the new release wall into the section where a store keeps its older movies. Depending on the amount of shelf space in a given video store, you might have to get rid of some older movies in order to make space for the newer ones. Our store didn’t have a whole lot of space, so we always had to be looking for movies that never rented. Nobody’s rented The Good Thief since April? Looks like it’s time to sell it. Since I was a selfish bastard, I would keep an eye out for movies I wanted to get rid of so that I could add them to my own collection. And not in a way that allowed me to save money by purchasing them at a discounted, previously viewed rate. At this time in my life, I cared not for spending $20 on a new DVD. I was looking for out of print DVDs that I simply couldn’t find anywhere else.

If you recognize this still, YOU'RE A FUCKING LIAR.

These movies were never deemed culturally consequential; I don’t think anybody was particularly upset about me robbing the people of Earth from renting The Battle of Shaker Heights. Despite me thinking it’s a really entertaining movie, I know it’s mediocre. But I wanted to be able to watch it whenever I wanted, and it seemed like nobody else wanted to watch it at all. This happened with a number of other movies, including the sporadically hilarious rap mockumentary Fear of a Black Hat and the legitimately good (but suspiciously out of print) Steven Soderbergh movie Out of Sight. Taking these movies off the video store shelves and putting them on my own was not a terrible thing to do, all things considered, as I had probably recommended these movies to people anyway and they still chose to rent something else. These were not popular films when they were released, and they remained that way. I felt I should be rewarded for my continued dedication to protecting the legacy of these mediocre movies.

After about a year of working at this video store, I stopped taking movies off the shelves to add to my collection. Despite almost never being successful in recommending these movies to customers, I still liked having the option to try. Once I had to lend my copy of The Battle of Shaker Heights to a customer who couldn’t rent it, I knew there was something amiss with this process. Taking the movies off the shelves didn’t stop me from talking about them. I stopped selling off the older movies on the shelves, and I actively argued against the process with my bosses or coworkers who tried to get rid of good movies. I let terrible movies be sold (I did not stand in the way of somebody selling The Hottie and the Nottie), but I would stand up for anything I liked. I might be misremembering this, but I’m confident there was a time when the store manager would check with me before selling any older movie she hadn’t heard of (in exchange for me promising to never, ever sell Monster Squad).

No matter how badly I wanted to.

That is not to say I held some sort of video store version of the hammer of Thor, smiting all who failed to bow to my decision-making as it pertained to selling off movies. Contrary to popular opinion with the repeat customers, I didn’t work every day, and sometimes really spectacular movies got sold without my knowledge. One day I came in to work to find that Cool Hand Luke, one of my all-time favourites and a film that is generally considered capital-g ‘Great,’ had been sold off. I realize it never rented, but I put it on in the store constantly and at least customers would consistently stop to watch Luke eat 50 eggs. Either way, I was upset. Despite really liking the co-worker who sold it (probably just so she would never again have to balance a till with George Kennedy’s yelling in the background), I don’t think I spoke to her for a shift or two after finding out about this, and I know I tried to guilt her into feeling shitty about it. I haven’t seen her in years, but I’m sure that if I ever ran into her, I would unquestionably tell her she was wrong to sell Cool Hand Luke. Except I think that now I would admit she was actually right.

There was a time when I would look at my copy of Fear of a Black Hat and feel legitimately guilty that I owned it. But I realize now that nobody ever would have rented it, no matter how hard I tried to get them to. The best thing that could have happened for that specific DVD copy was for me to own it and show it to a few friends. While I never took it on some sort of tour of all of my friends’ living rooms, I have convinced a couple of people to watch it, and they all found it passable. Most importantly, they now know it exists, and that Rusty Cundieff is not just that guy who directed all the episodes of Chappelle’s Show. I’m certain nobody would have ever rented The Battle of Shaker Heights, because the world started to turn on star Shia LaBeouf shortly after I purchased it. Even Cool Hand Luke is in good hands; when I came in to find out it had been sold, I was informed that the elderly woman who picked it up was very excited about her purchase. My co-worker might have made that up to appease me, but this coworker was a shitty liar and I’m typically full of doubt when enraged, so I still believe it. Maybe the elderly woman who loved Paul Newman was a bigger fan of the movie than I was, but most importantly, maybe she showed it to other people like I passed around Fear of a Black Hat. Maybe she has a grandson who she watched it with, not unlike a member of my own family informed me that To Kill A Mockingbird is spectacular. It’s completely possible that this grandmother ignited a love of cinema in a grandchild, or kept that fire burning. Or it’s possible that the DVD is just sitting in the bottom of a box somewhere.

The video store is dying, and it was starting to die when I was on my crusade to save Cool Hand Luke. One day within the next couple of years, people are going to talk about browsing a video store’s shelves like they talk about making mixtapes, despite the fact that browsing on Netflix leads to the exact same type of meandering selection process. In trying to protect physical copies of anything, I was being ridiculous. The physical format is disappearing, and all that is going to matter is the memory of the film itself. It doesn’t matter that I bought these movies, or that an elderly woman picked up the store’s rental copy of Cool Hand Luke. It’s actually probably a good thing that these transactions occurred, because soon movies aren’t going to be in anybody’s literal hands at all. It’s going to be okay though, so long as the memories of these films are in the right metaphorical hands.

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