Plate o’ Shrimp

Inside Criterion / Production Notes — Jan 17, 2007

This week, Border Radio was released on DVD. The film is the post-UCLA film school project of first-time directors Allison Anders, Kurt Voss, and Dean Lent. Yesterday, we got a note from a fan who wrote a really thoughtful, personal piece about the film and its place in his cinematic adolescence. He talks about growing up at his dad’s video store, which specialized in hard-to-find, not-so-mainstream films. Reading this made me very nostalgic for my own time growing up and working in the local mom-and-pop stores (four of them!) and for what a great, eye-opening cinematic experience it was for me. Ultimately, it led me to Criterion.

Jon’s experience growing up watching movies on 16mm in his attic is a world away from my discovery of films. The choices were few and far between for a teenager raised in Colorado in the 1980s. Firstly, my mom and I didn’t have cable or even a VCR, so we had to rent a machine from the local Albertson’s that came with its own convenient handle. No big deal not having cable; the only thing I felt I was missing was Night Flight on USA . . . So I’d have movie binges that mostly revolved around renting cult films. Repo Man, Liquid Sky, Quadrophenia, The Hunger, and any Monty Python were all on heavy rotation on the somewhat sketchy videocassette recorders I rented. But it shaped me into one of those kids who knew every line from Repo Man, which I’m sure still irritates people to this day—after all, the more you drive, the less intelligent you are.

So, I became a film nerd in training. Then I landed a few jobs at record stores and began down the path of music geekdom, which served me well until I went to college in Boulder. Where could I work nights and weekends to make money for bills and pitchers of 3.2 Miller Genuine Draft at the local new-wave bar? Luckily, CU Boulder’s film faculty (which consisted of Stan Brakhage, Bruce Kawin, Marian Keane, Jerry Aronson, and others) and their incredible yearly International Film Series guaranteed a vibrant film fetish in the community, and there were plenty of video stores in those days, and I worked at most of them. But the Holy Grail was a store called The Video Station. Everyone wanted to work there. The staff was cool, friendly, and most of all, knew their shit. You could go in and ask for the most obscure title, or even describe something (“It has that blonde woman in it that was in that sixties spy movie, but it was in black and white and had little dialogue—do you know what it is?”), and they would find the right employee who would know it immediately. Remember, there was no internet in the early nineties, and we would refer to the bible of movies, the Videolog, a paperbound notebook that was updated monthly, for all our info. Wow! I want to work there! I can watch everything for free, all the Alex Cox, Cocteau, Twilight Zone episodes, Bruce Conner, Paul Morrissey, Hitchcock, Buñuel . . . anything!!

So I toiled away at lesser stores that never did any business, and would watch anything interesting I could find, in between renting out copies of The Hunt for Red October. The Video Station was in a superdingy strip mall and was packed to the ceiling with video boxes divided by director, country, genre . . . Did any other store do that? No! They boasted they were “the best video store in Colorado, with over thirty thousand titles.” (I believe now they are up to fifty thousand.) Anyway, I went in for my first job interview maybe a little too cocky for my own good. The catch was, when you applied for a job you had to take a written test. Mostly it consisted of naming five of something: Fred Astaire films, neorealist films, silent-era starlets, noir titles, Bergman films, etc. Things that now seem like cake but at the time stumped me. I didn’t get the job. I gathered my pride and tried again in a few months, when they moved to their new two-story location, and was successful.

What a scene . . . This was when there was a debate about VHS or Beta. Which was better? The Video Station had around three thousand titles on Beta and about twenty customers who rented them. We held on until the death of the format and sold them off to the loyalists. Sound familiar? (In my opinion Beta was better, but the machines were too expensive and didn’t come with a handle.)

My bosses, Scott Woodland and Ivory Curtis, started the store in 1982 to satisfy their cinema obsession and ran it until 2003, with as much love and dedication as a parent would give to a child. They treated us with as much respect too. They were the first in Colorado to rent laserdiscs, in 1988, and would even have weekly viewings of Criterion laserdiscs in the store’s screening room/reference library. It was here that I first discovered Criterion.

We had classic Tuesdays, when any American film made before 1960 would rent for ninety-nine cents; cult night, when we would watch films like Shack Out on 101, Detour, Carnival of Souls, and The Honeymoon Killers; and most importantly, customers were allowed to reserve titles. No one else did this. We got to create weekly employee picks, which built a following of customers who would come to a specific person for recommendations and lead to lively discussions. The lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, Jello Biafra, is from Boulder, and his mom, a librarian at CU, would come in. Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks’s Laura Palmer) signed my VHS copy of the film when she was home between movies. Film students would clamor to rent films they had missed in class. (By the way, this included Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who worked at CU’s film equipment rental desk and would hog all the good 16mm cameras for themselves, but I digress.)

Perhaps the most ridiculous part of the job was when you had to work upstairs (complete with a pneumatic tube to send tapes up and down) to man the adult films alone. The counter was covered in notebooks in which we placed the video boxes for the adult titles. People (mostly men and occasionally drunk sorority girls) would come in and flip through the pages, picking out their choices, writing down the numbers assigned for each title (number 69 was always rented). This eliminated the need for them to say, “Hey, is Thanks for the Mammaries in?” I was thankful for the embarrassment this saved all parties.

Not to be corny, but the hours I first spent poring over Criterion’s North by Northwest laserdisc changed the direction of my life. I could do this . . . I need to do this! Through the lucky alignment of the stars I befriended Sean Anderson, who was pretty fresh off the boat from England. He delivered pizzas at Pizza Shuttle (known for their two-toke-cripplerweed 3-for-1 special) with Morgan Holly, who was also a student but whose mom, Aleen, and stepdad, Bob Stein, just happened to be two owners of Criterion at that time. Sean did summer internships out in Santa Monica, California, for the company and regaled me with stories of free Friday lunch and even the day they all had to hand assemble the scratch-and-sniff “Odorama” cards, which came free in the Polyester laserdisc. Again, I could do this. I need to do this!

Sean moved to L.A. after graduation. I stuck around at Video Station and its soul mate in musical geekdom, Wax Trax, for a year or so and eventually moved to San Francisco. After a year, the call came from Sean: “We’re moving the offices to New York. Bob is starting this Voyager CD-ROM thing, and Criterion needs people. Do you want an internship?” Well, it’s about time, um . . . YES! I put everything in storage, fully intending on returning. That was 1994, and here I am, thirteen years later.

The feeling of the Criterion family is so similar to that of the Video Station family. I knew I was in for the long haul. The opportunities, the films, the challenges never cease here. As previous posts reveal, this is a mom-and-pop outfit, too. Though I never really liked that term . . . This just seems like the way it should be. Being able to present films and filmmakers that can have an impact on people is, to me, an incredibly worthwhile pursuit. So think of this when you rent, or even download, movies from a faceless entity. Supporting each other is just as important as convenience.

I’ll sign off with some wisdom from the great character actor Tracey Walter as burnout Miller in Repo Man:

“A lot of people don’t realize what’s really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidents and things. They don’t realize that there’s this, like, lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. Give you an example, show you what I mean: suppose you’re thinkin’ about a plate o’ shrimp. Suddenly someone’ll say, like, ‘plate’ or ‘shrimp’ or ‘plate o’ shrimp’ out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin’ for one, either. It’s all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.”

Also: Check out The Last Record Store, a great film about Bill’s Records in Dallas, Texas.