For a short period in 2001, just after I started college, I found myself working in one of those quintessentially ‘90s settings in the twilight of their years, the corporate video store. It is not an experience that I remember all that fondly, dealing with irate customers and shady coworkers, while being forced to watch Shrek over and over again (what little affection I had for that movie quickly evaporated). The late, dead hours of working alone in an empty store, empty except for the high school acquaintance’s sweaty father renting his weekly pile of porn. Yep, those were some interesting days. Recently, I’ve read a couple of books that really brought me back to those times, in all the ways better and worse.
I Lost It At the Video Store: A Filmmakers’ Oral History of a Vanished Era was a brief but pithy look into the lost world of video stores and the influence working in them and having access to so many VHS copies of movies had on the upcoming generation of filmmakers back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The breezy chapters consist of interviews from such turn of the 21st century cinematic luminaries as Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky, Morgan Spurlock, and others as they discuss how working or renting from video stores shaped their approaches to the medium. After a fascinating essay by editor Tom Roston that sets up this specific time and place, he crafts these interviews into a “conversational” format, piecing together the contributor’s statements by topic, including how the home video market began changing how people interacted with the medium.
As a historical depiction of this period of time, when films became more accessible to the public to be studied in depth, frame by frame, but before online and streaming technologies detached the medium from any physical constraints, there are some interesting thoughts discussed here and there. There was definitely some nostalgic qualities to reading the experiences as a former video store clerk myself. However, perhaps because I found it such a miserable experience (as is much of retail), the rose-colored glasses and romanticized memories touted in these interviews left me a little cold. Or perhaps because I’m not really much of a fan of any of the aforementioned luminaries, it at times become a little bit of a tedious, overwhelmingly masculine exercise in self-congratulation.
The other book that came along dealing with this period was one my favorite reads this year so far. John Darnielle, of my favorite band, The Mountain Goats, again writes a deeply intriguing, mysterious work that, like his songs, draws the reader/listener into the dark, rich underbellies of contemporary life in all it’s beauty and horror.
Like his marvelous first novel, Wolf in White Van, Universal Harvester is a complex, genre defying work that explores the inexpressible feelings of everyday life. The synopsis of Universal Harvester is deceptively simple, if tantalizing; around the year 2000, early 20 something Jeremy works in a small town Iowa video store beginning to flounder as DVDs take over, when he finds videos being returned that have been edited with some extremely disturbing scenes inserted. Against his better judgement, Jeremy’s friends and coworkers are drawn into this mystery, one as deep as the Iowa cornfields, involving matters of faith and grief. Elements such as families torn apart, uncertainty in what one is doing with life in the rural Midwest, and religious preoccupations combine in compelling interpersonal tangles.
Darnielle writes with a cadence that becomes downright chilling, filling these everyday scenes with a deep menace, but also with much beauty. In spite of nothing overtly horrific occurring, his passages kept me awake at night with dread and delight. It amazes me how such scenes of mundanity, making dinner, looking for a new job, can be infused with such a deep, existential dread. Following Jeremy and a host of other characters in a nonlinear narrative that rations out information in a tantalizing trickle, the structure of the novel becomes a mystery of it’s own to untangle as we slowly become aware of the enigmatic first person narrator who pops into the proceedings now and then. By the end, some things comes together, though not without leaving some questions unanswered, not unlike life.
I feel that I’ll be returning again to Universal Harvester in the future, untangling its conundrums in future readings and returning to Darnielle’s smoldering prose.