GET OUT

Though we all watch a lot of movies in here, we don’t often get to see stuff together – such is the nature of #videoshoplife that we usually watch movies at home and reconvene in the video shop to talk ’em over, disagree wildly and lovingly mock each other’s opinions. But, every now and again, we manage a shop outing to the cinema and see something together after scoffing burgers at Five Guys (the video shop cliche is real).

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One movie I really wanted us to see as a sort-of video shop posse this year was Jordan Peele’s GET OUT. Partially, my motivation came after Liz Chege of Come the Revolution recommended it to me (she has great taste in film). It was also partially motivated by the age old decider of genre: most video shop clerks have cross-over taste when it comes to horror.

Of course, when I say we went as a video shop posse, I should clarify that it’s a hap-hazard crew, made up of some people who do or have worked in the video shop plus others who are loosely associated with the shop and minus our dear Co-Director Whiskey who, since having a child some four years ago, has not yet managed to join us for a late night cine-jaunt.

So off we went and together we watched Jordan Peele’s thrilling and wonderfully uncomfortable for white folk social satire, GET OUT. I sat, literally in nail-biting, edge-of-my-seat position for the entire film, enthusiastic and ready to gush after the credits rolled – it had been the perfect choice for a movie night out! But, much to my chagrin, my post-movie excitement was met with varying degrees of ‘meh’ from my video shop pals. It seems that my male movie buddies were a little underwhelmed, some finding the horror a little predictable or not to their liking and others thinking it was good but not great.

Let me just say this: I love those guys but they’re all absolutely wrong. GET OUT is one of this year’s finest movie treats and now that it’s in the shop on DVD to rent we can finally prove my colleagues and pseudo-colleagues wrong! So, if you wanna read an intelligent article on why the film is great, head to Overland.org.au where Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson have already done all the hard work with their article, ‘We’re on your side: white violence and the horror of representation’ . And, if you want to see it on the big screen, then you have another chance this weekend at Cinema Rediscovered thanks to the good folk at Come the Rev who are showing it as a comparison piece with Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

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Otherwise, come and get it at the shop and take it home where you go, undisturbed, to the sunken place on your sofa.

Get Out/Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner trailer courtesy of Cinema Rediscovered.

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From One Side of Counter t’Other

Last week we had a work experience placement at 20th Century Flicks. We take very few student placements and have reached our capacity for 2017. At the end of the week, we asked Daisy to tell us a little something about her experience in the shop and this is what she had to say:

I began my week at 20th Century Flicks with a fairly good idea of what to expect. I have been visiting the shop regularly for a while now, during which time I have gotten to know the ‘licensed video rental personnel’ quite well. I found this very helpful, as it allowed me to skip past the awkward “Oh hi, you must be Stacey,” “No, it’s Daisy, like the flower,” stage and get on to the real talk, on to subjects such as how safe it is to open superglue with your teeth [Ed’s note: obviously it isn’t!], if customers looking for ’70s (MISOGYNISTIC) erotica were renting them ironically, and what on EARTH that awful smell was.

Knowing everyone also meant that I was trusted to talk to customers, something which, even over this short period of time, I believe has improved my people skills. With these newfound skills, I managed to strike up a conversation with a man on my bus ride home on Tuesday about his uni course and how much I hate living in the countryside – much to his badly concealed irritation. Talking to customers also allowed me to meet some really interesting people, some of whom I recognised as the week progressed, notably, a boy who came in three times to eat his own bodyweight in free skittles. The varying film preferences and general interesting-ness of the customers meant that, on the whole, I found them very enjoyable to talk to. I also (just about) managed to refrain from recommending Sharknado 3 to anyone, something that I have involuntarily done several times on previous visits from the other side of the counter.

One thing I hadn’t quite understood before the week, despite my fairly frequent visits for tea and the odd bit of lamination, is how stressful managing a small business can be. I hadn’t really stopped to think, perhaps naively, that the shop’s financial status is entirely dependent on the number of daily Kino bookings and film rentals. Because of this, it isn’t a ‘go in, get paid, piss off’ type of job, rather, one that requires a great deal of emotional investment. A mixture of this, the eccentric atmosphere of the shop, and Dave having only just returned from Glastonbury made for a surprisingly intense few days, something I had definitely not anticipated.

At the end of my week, I had learned several new things, the main one probably being how to use the shop’s film cataloging system. I also now know how to dismantle a jammed-up laminator, and, most importantly, what on EARTH that awful smell was. On a more serious and personal note, what this week has proven to me is that jobs I find interesting do exist and it has reassured me that, perhaps, in the future, I will find some form of work that I am passionate about. I certainly know that I’ll be very lucky if I ever end up working anywhere as amazing as Flicks.

Written by Daisy Steinhardt for (and edited by) 20th Century Flicks. Please note that we have already accepted the maximum number of work experience placements we can accommodate for 2017. We will post other scheduled work experience responses here in due course.

Is it conceptual?

I am used to people being baffled by the existence of a video shop in 2017 (2016, 2015, etc, back to Y2K), but last week I was faced with a question about the ontology of the thing…

“It’s conceptual?” she asked…

Flicks is not (intentionally, at least) an installation / work of art. It is, I reply, a 20th century video shop: we rent movies to people for money. But, if I reflect on the question (as I have been forced to do ever since I was asked) I can’t really insist that my reply rings true.

If we understand the “video shop” as a company or business (which is Ltd) then it’s a concept, which means that we want to understand it as a physical thing. It is not, however, the sum of its many tangible parts; the films on DVD or VHS are objects within it, but not actually “it” at all.  Nor is it 19 Christmas Steps – that’s just where it is; it was somewhere else before and something else was in its place and will no doubt be here/there in future. It is also not any one, two, three or more specific people; the change in ownership some four or five years ago and the advent of cats continues to challenge the notion that even people are a persistent imperative.

It is, then, the renting of movies – but isn’t that just a theoretical thing, anyway? I mean, we make up and change the rules on rental all the time (prices, duration, subscription model, loyalty programmes, etc), and haven’t we absolutely messed with the original model by introducing a private hire space and a selection of local records for sale?

Surely, then, the “video shop” is only conceptual.

But it can’t  just be the idea of renting movies, either, because iTunes and other online platforms, from which you can rent movies, aren’t a video shop – are they?

Is it, then, the idea of renting movies from people in a physical place?

But that can’t be  it, either, because you can do that at the library and what we do is different… isn’t it?

Well, i suppose, then, we could say that what’s unique to the “video shop”, which seems now to be as marked by its scarcity as anything else, is that it is born of an historical moment and that the link or persistence of its historical imperative is paramount to its present ontology. The 20th Century part of its and our title means everything.

Further, we might surmise that the video shop is also an attitude as much as a concept:  the rules, service and space we continually decide to provide are a matter of attitude originating from three company Directors – myself and the two Daves.

It is definitely not, then, a number of other things people have tried to convince me that it is (especially over the past two or so years as it becomes oddly fetishized like the redundant format of VHS): not an archive, not a repository, not a library, not a community service. It can only exist (conceptually, even) because of the collectively understood and accepted existence of a specific concept in the past and, as such a time should ever occur that we should stop renting movies to people for money (the one immovable concept of its historical persistence), then it should cease to be a “video shop”.

So, while that still doesn’t qualify it as an art project or installation, it is true that the video shop is conceptual. Which makes my job far more difficult than just renting movies to people for money (which is hard enough). I must also tell people about 20th Century Flicks (a “video shop”) in order to garner their acknowledgement and endorsement of the ontology of the concept: only through collective cognizance can I hope to prove, and continue, its existence.

#videoshoplife

What a Work Experience

Last week we had a work experience placement at 20th Century Flicks. It’s not something we usually do and it was quite the learning experience, for all involved. We are such a small scale business that, aside from the three of us who run things, we only even have one casual employee. So, at the end of the week, we asked Ethan to tell us a little something about his experience in the shop and this is what he had to say:

Overall, I think that working at 20th Century Flicks has been an interesting experience. One thing I have taken from it is learning how you can run your own independent business, and that it means you have to do and are in charge of pretty much everything. I have also taken into account how extremely difficult it can be to do all of these things.

The work I did was not that varied, but it didn’t at all get boring- especially if you are someone like me who enjoys sorting through countless DVDs, finding it fun looking at them all, occasionally jotting down films of interest. I did a similar job when sorting through the collection- laminating covers and filing them in their relevant genres, sometimes having fun debates on which movies go where.

I also think that everybody working there is really nice to work with and we had some cool conversations about movies and music- especially now that they have a small record section in the shop corner. It felt like I didn’t have a boring minute, as everybody there made sure I was always busy doing things, even if the shop was quiet.

I thought it was really nice that I was actually trusted to work behind the shop counter and get films for customers- it was cool that I felt like I was a part of everything. It was also really good that I felt like I was actually making a difference in the shop while working, instead of feeling like a stupid work experience student- being there and not really caring about it. I felt like I was properly working there (although there were a few restrictions, like serving customers) and was doing my part.

I do understand why it was supposed to be quite a boring job (as they told me it might be), but it was actually fine and I think I did learn a few things about working in a work environment (however professional it might be) and that it can sometimes be quite dull, wherever I go.

Being here has boosted my confidence massively for working in any job and it has really helped me for the future.

Written by Ethan Llewellyn for 20th Century Flicks. Please note that we have already accepted the maximum number of work experience placements we can accommodate for 2017. We will post other scheduled work experience responses here in due course.

John Carpenter, live

 

On Sunday night we had the great pleasure of seeing and hearing John Carpenter, live, at Colston Hall. His filmmaking and musical talents have long been admired by those of us here in the video shop – and not just now, but by former staff members in the years before our times, too.

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For me, it was also a first visit to Colston Hall. Despite its proximity to our shop I had never stepped inside. As a dedicated and stereotypical film nerd I tend to spend the big bucks I earn here at the video shop (ahem) on cinema tickets, fancy cheese and close to my body weight in red wine, but little else. So an outing to a venue with a large audience capacity was an unusual shock to the system.

It got me thinking. There must have been more than a thousand people sat around me watching, cheering and enjoying the audio visual show. But the man performing is also a filmmaker whose films would never attract anywhere near this number of people if screened even in the very same town.

Case in point: last month, as part of Scalarama 2016, we showed In the Mouth of Madness, at Bristol’s Cube Cinema, to an audience of around 60 people. The tickets to see the film were a fiver; attending Carpenter live was a little over thirty quid.

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So, my question is this: is it only the live appearance factor that makes people turn up in droves to celebrate a renowned musician/filmmaker or is there something about venues and perceived forms of entertainment also at play?

For example, does ‘Colston Hall’ suggest entertainment that you can’t miss owing to its reputation as a venue that attracts world class acts? And does ‘Cube Microplex’, as an artists’ collective, with highly reduced ticket prices, suggest something you could watch at home or in another venue, thus removing the prestige and scarcity factors? I wonder, too, even though the performance at Colston Hall was visual as well as audio – there were several clips packaged together of footage from John Carpenter’s films, albeit sometimes in incorrect aspect ratios – is the visual (on photochemical film or in a digital format) considered an insignificant element in weighing up the attractiveness of paying to attend an event?

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I ask because, even though I thought the concert was great and while I did have a splendid time, I still rate my best John Carpenter experience as when I saw Escape From LA (far from my favourite of his films) on a 35mm film print in the small but wonderful auditorium at Paris’ Grand Action cinema. And, as great as it was to see clips of his films set to live music, complete with his totally adorable dance moves, I would have loved to have seen those films shown in full, in the correct aspect ratio, with appropriate masking, on a big cinema screen, so much more.

I know I am often in the minority (I still think running a rental store is a good idea and I know it’s 2016), so some of these questions may indeed be rhetorical, but I’m keen to hear from other people on the issue. I would love to know about your perceptions of value entertainment, appropriate film and concert admission costs and the role of film as a form of entertainment both on its own as well as as a combined element in another style of live show. Please do comment below or send an email to my attention (Tara) at: info[at]20thcenturyflicks[dot]co[dot]uk

A bunch of John Carpenter films are available to rent at 20th Century Flicks and our Kino is available for hire if you want to get a group together and see something here. 

South West Silents Speak Up! Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)

“There will be no further reason for a future production of Ben-Hur for the screen… Ben-Hur is a picture for all times!” Variety, 1925

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It’s hard to think of the name Ben-Hur without thinking of the two accompanying names Charlton! and Heston! Even as Paramount Pictures and MGM are about to hurl another incarnation of Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880) at us (now the fifth adaptation of the book to be made into a feature film) it is still very hard not to think about that tall, blond haired, big jawed, gun loving American superstar.

But that gives you some idea of the importance Ben-Hur has had on the history of cinema and how much the 1950s’ version is burnt into our cultural consciousness. After all, every Bank Holiday we get the opportunity to see it on our television screens (that or The Great Escape (1963), The Sound of Music (1965),  or Zulu (1964) – it was always Zulu in my house to be honest.)

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But forget about those Bank Holiday TV schedules because when it comes to the history of film, Ben-Hur has always been there; Ben-Hur systematically appeared at every changing moment of cinema’s history, all the way back to the birth of cinema (the unofficial 1907 version,   At the height of the silent era there was the faithfully titled Ben-Hur a Tale of Christ (1925), and at the peak of the Hollywood Studio system there was William Wyler’s version (1959) – through the ages the words BEN HUR were always there.

This is why the new adaptation has been a long time coming; you would have thought that a new 21st Century Ben-Hur would have been announced straight after the success of Gladiator (1999). On the band wagon films like Troy (2004), Alexander (2004), King Arthur: Director’s Cut (2004) and even Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005) went into rapid production, shortly after the release of Gladiator, and yet, Ben-Hur didn’t.

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Maybe the 2003 animated version of Ben-Hur (Heston’s final acting role; he voiced Judah) which was already in production stalled all possibility of making another live action version for quite some time. Whatever the story Ben-Hur is back on the big screen this August (2016) and from the look of the trailer it most certainly has the hint of a 21st Century adaptation; it’s loud, screaming-in-your-face and seems to have even more animation than the actual animated film from 2003.

And yet, when watching the trailer for Timur Bekmambetov’s all-screaming and all-chariot-racing Ben-Hur, you can almost hear that old saying in your head, “Well, they don’t make ’em like they used to!” But, to be honest, it’s more than likely people would have said the same thing about William Wyler’s 1959 version had they seen Fred Niblo’s earlier silent version from 1925.

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There are slight differences in both versions when it comes to the storytelling; the 1925 version gives far more screen time to the connections between Judah and Jesus than in the later Wyler version, which is understandable as Niblo very much stuck to Wallace’s book, unlike the later adaptations. But, alas, this particular element slows down the 1925 version at certain points, particularly in the scenes just after the sea battle – it has to be said that the sea battle and the infamous chariot race are extraordinary! Truly extraordinary in fact!

This is what I really want to flag when it comes to talking Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Many have asked us over the years what makes the silent film era different from any other in the history of cinema? While obviously the classic quote from Gloria Swanson, “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces!” from Sunset Boulevard (1950), springs to mind, but one other major factor makes the silent era different from any other era in cinema: they built everything for real!

Cabiria (1914), Intolerance (1916), Robin Hood (1922) and Napoleon (1927) are titles that secure the legend that when it came to money, they threw it in front of the camera. If anything, Ben Hur is another classic example of this. Nothing is left out.

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When watching the 1925 silent version of the sea battle it seems far more extensive than the later Wyler version, after all, the silent version has real boats to crash and burn! These real size Galleys and Roman Trireme were completely seaworthy and very capable of reacting to a full-on sea battle that would include plenty of local Italian extras armed to the teeth and all in suited up in armour. In the end, the filming that took place included smashing one of the galleys into the Roman Trireme and setting the Trireme alight (which is all in the book). But the action got out of hand on the shoot and the production lost control of the fire and lost the entire Trireme before they could finish shooting. All the extras had to throw themselves into the sea to escape being burned. The 1959 film can’t touch that – understandably, they ended up using model boats!

But what about Ben-Hur’s famous chariot race? Surely the 1959 film wins hands down. Well, possibly. It’s incredibly exciting but have you seen the 1925 version? What can I say? The 1925 production had already built one Circus Maximus in Rome, a set which was later abandoned due to spiraling production costs. The production then expanded on original plans and a bigger version of the Circus Maximus was built set just outside Hollywood. They prepared for one of the biggest shooting days in Hollywood’s history.

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A call out was made for (if studio publicity is correct) 7,000 extras for a single day’s filming. Almost all of Hollywood left the city on Saturday 7th October 1925 to see what all the fuss was about. They arrived at the Circus Maximus set (which had apparently cost the studio $500,000) and were given a full day’s entertainment of chariot racing. The likes of John and Lionel Barrymore, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, John Gilbert, Colleen Moore, Marion Davies, Sam Goldwyn, and Lillian Gish were all noted being as in the crowds, as well as celebrated directors such as Henry King, Reginald Barker, Clarence Brown and George Fitzmaurice. They, like the rest of the crowds who had arrived to be part of the auction, were stunned by the sheer size of the set. Someone else stunned was  assistant director, William Wyler, who, 34 years later, would end up directing the 1959 version. In 1963 Wyler explain to film historian Kevin Brownlow,

“I was given a toga and a set of signals…. The signals were a sort of semaphore, and I got my section of the crowd to stand up and cheer to sit down again, or whatever was called for. There must have been thirty other assistant doing the same job.”  

At the end of the day, 42 camera operators had filmed roughly 53,000 feet of film. Filming continued on the Maximus set for another month, filming close-ups as well as stunt work. In the end, Editor Lloyd Nosler had to compete with 200,000 feet of film for the chariot sequence alone. But what a job Nosler did when it came to the completed sequence. In the end he did such a good job that it influenced framing and editing of the later adaptations for not only Wyler’s version but also for the animated 2003 version. Let’s see if it influenced this newest adaptation!

At a cost of $3.96 million the 1925 version of Ben-Hur claims to be the most expensive silent film ever made. If it is the most expensive film of the silent era, it most certainly shows it.

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So if you want to see the REAL Ben-Hur! Look no further than Fred Niblo’s 1925 Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ. You won’t be disappointed!

Recommended Reading:

The Parade’s Gone By: Kevin Brownlow

Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer: Scott Eyman

Written by James Harrison of South West Silents for 20th Century Flicks

Anomalisa: Act 3

It’s all for show. We’re all just puppets in life’s performance of humanity.

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In Act 1 I identified with Lisa and in Act 2 I felt some sort of empathy for Michael in as far as he is the voice for the lonely but not alone Charlie Kaufman. Here, in Act 3,  I think I am finally ready to be the bland puppetry portrayed by Tom Noonan’s soft crooning voice and a bunch of models with removable jaws.

We don’t all look or sound the same but there’s something ‘the same’ about us. We go through the motions of living life but so much of it is performance; the mindless chit-chat of a bored taxi driver, the false smiles of the concierge, the even falser declarations of love from hotel management, the heightened anger of a spurned lover who probably didn’t really love you to begin with and doesn’t really feel that angry in retrospect and, outside of the film world, the endless pretense of happiness and success that we shovel into each other’s eyes via social media. The automaton farce of it all.

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Being moved – profoundly, deeply – doesn’t happen very often. Sure we get annoyed when people don’t listen to us (because we’re narcissistic beings who think what we have to say is important) or when the actions of others are thoughtless (because that means we don’t exist to them), but it’s only occasionally that we really feel wounded – and this is what Kaufman is most interested in.

It’s when others can’t even be bothered to respond or fight with us because they’re blending our narcissistic annoyance with our ontological crisis: they know full well that we exist, and they just don’t care. This is Michael Stone’s problem – sure he’s narcissistic and sure he’s thoughtless but his worst crime against humanity is that he can’t even be bothered to engage with (O)thers.

For Michael Stone, everyone is bland; they exist but their existence is unimportant to him. They are the nameless, faceless (in so far as they all have the same face) voiceless (ditto) Other. They can be ignored, dismissed and annihilated. Their existence means nothing and has no bearing on his existence. They might as well be puppets for all he cares.

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Perhaps the greatest moment, then, in the entire film is where Michael dreams (or hallucinates or imagines, it’s not prescriptively clear) that he too is a puppet; his jaw is removable and he is constructed: robotic, inhuman, unfeeling. It is great because it is true, aesthetically for sure, but also in terms of narrative.

In making a case for Anomalisa as comforting for some I failed to mention in Act 2 just how fleeting and cruel that comfort can be. While it reminds some of us that we are not alone it also points out that the deafening, debilitating emptiness we so viscerally and regularly experience is probably the only true glimpse of reality that we actually have, certainly if Kaufman’s films are anything to go by, then others feel that acutely too.

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Anomalisa is available to rent from your favourite neighbourhood video shop. Post-viewing conversation with tea/whiskey is also available.

Anomalisa: Act 2

A few days after I’d seen Anomalisa a friend of mine asked if it would make an okay date movie. I said no. She went to see it anyway.

The next morning she sent me a text that said, “You were right.”

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Anomalisa may, even on my own advice, be a terrible date movie. Still, and I say this as someone who went to see it with their partner, it might also be a wonderful way in for discussing intimacy taboos.

For many, Anomalisa  is desperately depressing; the idea is that we are all alone and have no hope of finding anyone who who will understand us, or even anyone who is “different”, individual.

Michael Stone, after spending the night with our titular Anoma-Lisa,  finds her every bit as irritating as everyone else he’s ever met. Pause, sigh. He just can’t accept that everyone, no matter how ‘special’ or ‘individual’ they seem at first encounter, is human. We all eventually reveal habits or behaviours that irritate. Humans aren’t perfect.

The first taboo, then, in watching this film with a loved one, is accepting that the person you’re with annoys you. The second is in accepting that you annoy them. Ouch.

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But there’s  also something deeply comforting about the extremity of the alienation Michael feels, and in the unflinchingly  bleak outlook of the film itself. It’s not so much that his attitude is one that provides comfort, nor is it his inability to get to grips  with the fact that, in the end, all humans are disappointing. They’re human, after all. Pause, sigh. Instead, it’s that we see the fragility of someone who feels utterly, utterly alone – and that’s what can be comforting.

For the optimist who feels delight every day, for the person who is overjoyed by what the world offers and who finds happiness rather than alienation in others, sure, Anomalisa is bleak. But, for those of us who suffer anxiety and depression, or sometimes find it difficult to relate to others, who feel that even our loved ones don’t understand us some of the time – maybe much of the time – it can be comforting precisely because it means we aren’t alone. That anyone else can feel so acutely what the high functioning anxiety sufferers and manic depressed among us feel, means that someone else out there understands. Pause, breathe.

And, as horrible as Michael is, at least in part owing to his own cycle of depression – he is the unwitting maker of his own misery – he’s also human. Well, actually he’s a stop motion animation. So I guess writer/director Charlie Kaufman is human. Either way, thanks to Anomalisa, sitting in the  dark next to someone you love, feeling unashamedly in tune with the miserable protagonist onscreen, you might just have opened up a line of conversation, a way to start talking about how difficult it is to admit that sometimes, even though everyone is an individual, you too might feel utterly, utterly alone. The good news is that you’re not.

Anomalisa is now available to rent on DVD from your favourite neighbourhood video shop – i.e. us.

Mommy, where do videos go when they die?

Ever since our appearance on The One Show last year, people with boxes, attics, lofts, basements and garages full of unwanted videos have been calling. Understandably, most people don’t want a bunch of old VHS to continue taking up space and collecting dust in their homes.

The recycling plant for VHS, previously in Bristol, has closed down. Charity shops are packed to the rafters with the darned unsaleable things. So I understand why, after hearing about our store, with its wall of VHS, people would think we might be just the ticket for finally dispensing with one’s home collection of unloved movies.

Unfortunately, we don’t always want them either.

Most of the time it’s because we already have them. Our collection is a little over 19,000 strong (mostly DVD, a couple hundred Blu-ray and a couple thousand VHS). If something is super rare – say you have some video nasties – then yeah, we’d take those. But, tends to be that if you do have such beasts you either a) don’t want to offload ’em or b) do but know that they’re worth summat, so you take to eBay. Much as we’d like to have those puppies, we’re a video shop and it’s 2016 so, you know, we can’t really afford to pay £200 a pop for summat that may never even see the light of rental day.

What happens, then, to the hundreds and thousands of VHS in your homes?

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Unless you’re super recycle conscious, it’s unlikely you can be bothered to take them apart and separately recycle the individual components. So, I dare say, many of them turn to landfill.

And that’s what’s likely to happen with all those DVDs you’re amassing, too.

Despite the decline of home entertainment sales – and the close to obliteration of the rental industry – DVDs, and indeed Blu-rays, are still being made. But even if they’re picked up for a pound or two in the sale bins, it’s unlikely you’ll keep them forever.

Maybe you will re-watch Die Hard, and All About Eve. But will you really return to The Knowing? That’s a stretch, and I say this as a bona fide Nic Cage devotee.

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This is not my way of making a case for the internet. Rather, it’s my way of pointing out how sad the fate of so many physical copies of movies truly is. It’s also why a rental store is the kind of thing you ought to support.

We’re actually more environmentally friendly and cost effective than physically buying the stuff yourself. And we don’t throw stuff away just because it’s a bit crap – we have plenty of terrible movies and we intend to keep ’em for as long as you want to come rent ’em. What we have become is a sort of library. We keep stuff as best we can (including donations of stuff we don’t have, just that we can’t take duplicates) which means our selection is bigger and better than the majority of what’s available through online streaming platforms. We don’t have everything and we are aware of that, but we have a lot.

However, and this is the point I really want to make, what we don’t do is add to the problem of rampant consumerism and landfill culture. We’re not into making you buy stuff at an accelerated rate so that you can fill your homes with crap and we don’t throw out a tonne of films to landfill – even when our collection of ex-rentals is blocking access to the counter. Kinda like it is right now.

So stumble on in, make your way through the trenches of display cases and find something to watch without contributing to the great plastic waste. We’ll do our best to remain a repository for things you might like to see but not own. Because we’re just about the closest thing that there is to home entertainment heaven.

 

South West Silents Speak Up: Mark Fuller on Piccadilly (1929)

I’m a particular fan of British Silent Film; for many decades ill-served by critics, historians and archives, to the extent that few bothered watching them, even while decrying them in print, relying on hand-me-down opinions propagated by twenties and thirties intellectuals with political axes to grind. Although this attitude lingers on in places, the fight-back began around fifteen years ago when a small group of women historians and archivists who knew better, founded the British Silent Film Festival, and a radical reappraisal begun. Long-time unseen films were finally being discovered by new generations who saw how dazzling, inventive and progressive British film could be before the sound era.

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Even now, however, British Silent Film is fairly ill-served on home entertainment formats; aside from Hitchcock’s rightly lauded silents, few are available with decent prints and thoughtful scores….but an exception is the BFI release of Piccadilly, a late silent made in 1929 by an international team, combining British and American actors, with German direction, design and photography, in a British production.

The resulting Piccadilly (1929) is a stunning film, a prototype film noir, with two femme fatales; Shosho (Anna May Wong), the young, beautiful Chinese girl washing dishes at the nightclub where Mabel (Gilda Gray) is the ageing star turn. The club’s boss, Valentine (Jameson Thomas), also Mabel’s lover, discovers Shosho, sets her dancing in the club, where she is an immediate sensation, and falls for her.

The story is not the most original, but has fine observation and some killer lines. But the film is a must-see for its visuals; German expressionist flavourings run throughout, featuring the designs of Alfred Junge (best known for his work with Powell and Pressburger in the ’40s), creating a look that would dominate Hollywood films in the forties and fifties – in 1929.

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The acting is stunning; Jameson Thomas is a seedier Ronald Colman, trapped between the two women who want him; Gilda Gray goes from awful prima donna to a sympathetic, tragic figure with great conviction, and Anna May Wong is breath-taking, utterly convincing both in the nightclub and in Limehouse, growing from timid girl to full-fledged sexual predator! You simply cannot take your eyes off her: even in the plain clothes she wears at the beginning, she has a cool, almost 1960s quality. The German director, E.A.Dupont, somehow manages to combine all these disparate acting styles, moments of high drama and touches of comed, with deft little bits of business informing us about the people behind their public masks, and about the layered nature of London society. The sequences in the old East End offers a particularly fascinating look at the sexual and racial politics of the time. If you were lucky enough to attend South West Silents’ screening of Dupont’s Varieté (1925) at The Cube late last year you will know already what a fine filmmaker, and handler of actors, he was.

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The restored print is stunning, rarely showing its age, more often showing the beautiful cinematography by Werner Brandes, ex-UFA – the sequence where Shosho debuts in the club being one of the most beautiful I have ever seen on film, although the tinting and toning of the restoration seems a bit bold to my eyes, so you may want to turn the colour settings down on your TV.

The extras on the DVD include text biographies of Wong and Dupont, a howlingly bad sound prologue for the film, but most importantly a briefing by Neil Brand about his thinking for his new score, but which also, incidentally, acts as an illuminating commentary and analysis on the film itself . The film’s background is a jazz club of sorts, and the score is a jazz-based one, but he has (thankfully) resisted the temptation of a Charleston-fest, and gone for a style that actually fits the style of the film, the emotions at work; restrained, cool, languid, but with an underlying tension. It works brilliantly.

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If you are wary of Silents, or think they begin and end with Nosferatu (1922) and Metropolis (1927), or perhaps think Film Noir started around WWII, then this is an approachable, beautiful and thrilling entry point to a whole area worthy of discovery. Enjoy…

Recommended Reading:

Destination London: German-Speaking Emigres and British Cinema, 1925-1950 by Tim Bergfelder and Christian Cargnelli

Reframing British Cinema, 1918-1928: Between Restraint and Passion by Christine Gledhill

Written by Mark Fuller of South West Silents for 20th Century Flicks.