The following three articles are based on some of my experiences managing the Videostar film rental store in Brighton. It was fun to record a smattering of the regular, strange occurences unique to the (now defunct) business.
EXIT THE DRAGON
I don’t know about you, but for me there’s only one thing worse than the smell of skunk-weed and that’s actually smoking it. I’ve had an aversion to the bionic biftah-dust ever since a post break-up binge at a loft party was stupidly curtailed by a mammoth draw on a friend’s bucket bong. Stomach-lurchingly soon, my host’s ‘Bamboo Lounge’ party metamorphosed into an overcrowded fire-trap requiring a white-knuckle climb down the kitchen-bound ladder only to stop at a bowl of wine gums. Shimmering with E104-enhanced benevolence, to my skunk-buggered mind they seemed like a gelatine antidote to the gaping chasm of nausea I was plummeting into. I loaded up my pockets and auto-popped them regularly during the longest 15 minute walk home of my life. In fact, I must’ve consumed them a little too mechanistically because halfway to sanctuary the volcano-weed had me convinced that I’d turned into a robot. This is nowhere near as fun as you might imagine. Struggling to cross a busy junction like a rust-riddled C-3PO might be mime-heaven for some, but to me it was a nightmare loop of anxiety and sudden physical impairment that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Seasoned skunksters out there can scoff at my pygmy-like prowess, but I wonder if such a hell-zone was anywhere near like the one occupied by member 11697, Emir, in his twilight days of freedom. Emir wasn’t what you’d call a ‘steady renter’: he came in every couple of weeks using his brother’s account. But because he took out the same film on each occasion he was quickly elevated to the elite pantheon of genuine Movieland eccentrics. Sharing the limelight with the likes of Reginald Noon – a man of droning fastidiousness who annually reserves his Christmas viewing selection two months early – Emir would glide in on his personalised cloud of suspicion and quietly ask for Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. On his penultimate visit to request the self-same title he somewhat understandably ignored my weak “Just for a change” quip and blankly stated in thick European that he liked to study the moves. This was a veritable back-slapper of a retort in contrast to his behaviour during a paranoia-fuelled final visit.
Although my Movieland colleagues and I like to pride ourselves on not conforming to the stereotypical media image of spotty, comic book-reading staff; here was a scene to induce knowing smiles from any passing screenwriter. Two comic book artist friends and I were huddled around the counter enthusing over… a comic book. (I know, I know. The best I can offer is that none of us had spots.) Cut to:
INT VIDEO SHOP DAY. As we geek it up around the counter, Emir sidles into the shop and walks the well-trodden path towards Asian Cinema. Choosing the clunky, violent 1973 actioner Enter the Dragon, he warily approaches the counter. I greet him, to which he replies, “This one.” “That’s not like you,” is the best I can offer. He says nothing and frowns at the counter. My friends retreat a little to give him some space and continue talking about the comic. Emir turns and looks at them, distractedly. I locate the film and ask Emir for his number. Looking glazed and rather uncomfortable, he mumbles something beginning with ‘K’ and I say, “Pardon?” Suddenly, my friends laugh at something in the comic book. This seems to disturb Emir and his features grow more animated. “What’s that?” he says. “Sorry?” I reply. “You want to fuck me up the ass?” Pause. My friends and I look at each other in disbelief. Emir continues: “Is that what you want: to fuck me up the ass?” I tell him that he’d better leave and point towards the door. Emir stares at us before finally bowing his head, muttering a muffled apology and walking outside.
Just one of your everyday Movieland ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore’ moments. But in the light of further developments I guess it could’ve been a whole lot worse. A few weeks after ‘Assgate’ I spoke to Emir’s brother and with a fatalistic air he apologised on his sibling’s behalf. He explained that Emir’s behaviour had grown increasingly schizophrenic after prolonged spells indoors smoking skunk and indulging in aggressive films and video games. Things had gotten so out of hand that the police were called around during a session where he suddenly felt compelled to beat one of his own friends up.
A month or so later a frisson of appalled excitement crackled between customers as they recounted the story of a man going berserk with a large knife at the weekend. This happened on a Saturday morning just a few yards away from Movieland Corner. It was only when I saw a related article in the local paper that I made the connection. Here was a blurred photo of a knife-wielding Emir clad in vest and shorts charging through four police officers. According to the article, he told his brother he was going to kill someone before grabbing the implement and chasing after members of the public. When the police arrived he leapt onto the bonnet of their car and used the knife to smash through its window. Surrounded by police he slashed one across the chest who was lucky to emerge unscathed only because of his stab vest.
I’m no advocate of knee-jerk cannabis upgrades: like booze, drugs obviously affect individuals in varying ways. But it’s hard reconciling the memory of Emir’s earlier, low-key visits for Bruce Lee study with the newspaper image of a rampaging wild-man. It’s similarly bewildering to consider how I ended up lying on my bed after robot-walking home with my heart feeling ready to burst Alien-like from my chest just because of some skunk-propelled inhalation. It all seems a long, wobbly distance away from your traditional toot in front of the telly with a six-pack, some munchies and Withnail for company.
In February, Emir was sentenced to an indefinite period in a secure mental hospital.
Wednesdays in Movieland are weird. That’s ‘weird in a bland kind of way’ – or bleird if you like. If Wednesday was a pattern it’d be beige question marks. If it was a gesture it’d be a shrug from a man in a beige suit with an onion for a head. If it was a TV show it’d be the local weather presented by fog. And if it was a film it could only be something as flabby and incomprehensible as Kim Ki-duk’s The Bow. Or if you’re one of the many who deserted us to join Bl*ckb*ster, anything in your shiny new comedy section with Robin Williams’ smiling-yet-nearly-always-crying face on the cover. Sitting like a quiet but lethal guff in its own mindless, mid-week morass, Wednesday resents the fact that it can’t even be bothered to envy Thursday.
You get the idea. But what makes the whole drawn-out bleirdness of this appalling day worse is that nobody actually wants to take films out on a Wednesday. Thankfully, we do have some customers (usually half-hourly, and that’s pushing it), but they’re not renting a movie out of enthusiasm for a particular title. They’re renting it out because it’s bloody Wednesday and they’re so bored they better take something out I suppose and what would you recommend no I don’t want a thriller I want something that my flat-mate would like as well no I’ve seen that it’s horrible choosing for others isn’t it then why ask me to pick your films for you I chortle through gritted teeth.
Wednesday is a lugubrious customer who insists on calling me ‘monsieur’ as he ignores all my recommendations, puffing his way through the shelves before deciding it isn’t worth the bother and then leaving. Wednesday is a pretty girl you remember from ages ago who only enters the shop to exclaim, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you still work here!” before blousing off; no doubt to a happening scrum of film-downloading hipsters snorting charlie off their pirate DVDs. Wednesday is a crummy old shelf, seconds later, falling away from the wall and depositing a few dozen titles on your head.
But it’s not all bad. Being such a Costner-career-trajectory of a day, Wednesday offers an opportunity to Get Things Done. There’s the hoovering with the old Dyson that doesn’t work properly (our beloved ‘Henry’ was whipped by a foreign gang who recently fleeced the entire county of its number one suction-buckets). There’s a chance to make any number of emergency repairs to the shelves, the damp-sodden ceiling tiles or the snapped piece of string that we use to open the till. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Bl*ckb*ster anymore…
So to all those (and there are surprisingly many) who regularly announce that they’d love my job, I hereby offer you some highlights of my most recent Wednesday. Once read, I guarantee that you’ll never succumb to such a wrong-minded desire ever again. And just to spice things up a bit, I’ve slotted in a mystery fake fact. Detect it if you can.
Arrive. Book films in, clean them, make a cuppa and browse through the paper. Read an article proclaiming ‘Cameron Backs Small Businesses’ and wonder how many will actually be left by the time the Tories get in. A lady enters and asks if she can pay by credit card. I point out that although Movieland is pure Eighties in appearance, our policy towards plastic remains as inflexible as Jabba’s neck. She takes her business elsewhere and the day, true to Wednesday Rules, augurs ever ill. Go to newsagent’s and spend a tenner topping up my mobile. Hoover with useless Dyson. Charity-mugger guilt-trips me about not buying a £2 raffle-ticket. Feel guilty for a moment then send some texts.
Gaze outside and work out ratio of passers-by checking their hair in the window: 42%. Mind wanders. Start thinking if I rearrange the Three Colours Trilogy a dimensional rift might open. Embark upon my favourite Wednesday job: calling the overdue renters – a sure-fire money-spinner. Successful younger brother who used to work here pulls up in open-top sports car and regales me with triumphant tales. He leaves as my ego curls up in the corner and croaks.
In the alleyway next-door something has burrowed into the outside toilet. By the dirty claw marks around the bowl I deduce it’s a thirsty cat. Can’t dwell on the buttock-constricting alternative: a large rat? Back inside, the animal theme continues as a friend comes in with his Jack Russell that promptly pisses on the carpet. I congratulate him on producing the perfect metaphor. After a customer-free hour, three punters turn up all at once inducing instant claustrophobia. Things look promising when one of them pays off a £15 fine. Hopes are dashed by another empty hour. To stave off brain-pummelling boredom, I rearrange the Three Colours Trilogy and a dimensional rift opens. Excitement is rapidly quelled as I’m transported to a beige world called Wednesday that’s entirely populated by Onionheads who can’t decide what film to rent. Disgusted, I flit back to Movieland and watch a film: Truffaut’s charming 400 Blows (only Wednesdays permit such luxury). And I’m thinking, “This isn’t all that bad: I’m actually getting paid for this,” when it occurs to me that if the day continues as such then I most certainly will not. An American walks in balancing a long stick on his chin.
So there you have it, folks: the choicest cuts from my latest bleird Wednesday. Did you guess the rogue factoid I embedded? The £15 fine, you say? Correct! It was too obvious really. No one pays their fines on a Wednesday. This is regrettable because of all the slack shifts there ever were, this particular beigefest was the quietest yet. So let’s be thankful we don’t have to endure an entire week of Wednesdays otherwise it surely would be the final end of your friendly neighbourhood video shop. Now that really would be weird.
CARRY ON CARPING
At the end of a long and busy shift there’s a question guaranteed to turn any seasoned Videomonger’s heart to ice: “Got any recommendations?” Not that I’d ever visibly shirk from my duty as manager of one of the South’s leading independent video stores (actually, change ‘leading’ for ‘only’). One is always eager to spread the word and bolster business. It’s just that quite often it’s like pitching ideas to unimaginative media-vultures: you’re second-guessing a creature that generally doesn’t know its arts from its elbow. For every enthusiastic film student raving about the joys of discovering Hitchcock, there’s a shed-load of sour-faced numpties carping that it’s my fault their attention spans are smaller than Ben Affleck’s fan club.
Surely the most heart-torpedoing, toe-shrivelling demand has to be the dreaded “What’s funny?” The fact that it’s usually delivered in a deadpan monotone by a terminally unimpressed husk in low-slung jeans always ensures less than 100% service. My chortle-o-meter can scarcely gauge which way their neutered comedy-pendulum swings. Jeff Daniels pulling off a career-best in The Squid and the Whale? “Nah, too depressing.” The sweet-natured coarseness of Steve Carrell’s 40 Year Old Virgin? “Can’t stand him.” “Well, he always speaks well of you,” I like to reply before they flick me the ‘V’ and shuffle off to Bl*ckb*ster.
It sounds ridiculous, but with some punters you get the impression that there isn’t a single element of the movie-watching process they actually enjoy. They hem and haw and make such a drama out of their crippling option-paralysis before eventually shelling out their hard-earned £2 for something they’re bound to detest. I swear that some have spent longer picking the title than actually viewing it.
If cars could run on indecision then Movieland would rival Exxon-Mobil. Years ago, when some people still trusted New Labour, I proudly unveiled my infallible plan to assuage this perennial state of title-torpor: the ‘Movieland Recommended’ sticker. This star-embossed medal would only be assigned when a film really blasted the all-too-rarely-hit sweet spots of our film-trodden staff. Yet its vibrant luminosity – designed to lighten the weary traipse down the cavernous spiral of choice – remains largely ignored, as if people are suspicious that so many quality titles exist. Perhaps they think it’s a lazy trick on my part to wriggle away from the dreaded face-to-face submission. Well, they’d be half-right. And could I deflect their inquisition by simply waving my Ringmaster’s arm and beaming at the glowing badges denoting celluloid eminence? Could I buggery. I reckoned without the baffling and soul-calcifying counter-strike, “Yeah, but what would you recommend, yourself?” I can only assume I’m asked this so I can be held personally responsible if the blasted flick happens to bring them out in a splutter of spasms.
This brings to mind an incident involving a foreign gentleman who ran a nearby mini-market. His indignant eyes bulged towards me as he angrily waved the film about before crashing into the counter. “You recommended me this movie last night,” he spat, “And I hated it!” For a nasty moment it looked like a ‘Who can ram the film down the other’s throat first’ contest was about to erupt, but fortunately I was still fizzy from being Force-fed Lucas-aid during my previous night’s Yodathon. Channelling the wrinkled old sprout of Dagobah, I sagely quipped that the next time I visit his market he should recommend me what to eat for dinner, and if I woke up suffering from a severe dose of the bilateral quot the next morning we would be even. His face quickly ballooned into an enlightened sphere of relief and he triumphantly high-fived me before skipping out with lambs bouncing around his ankles.
Just the other day, a seemingly charming old couple castigated me for recommending one of the most original, absurd and gripping films of recent memory, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. “We could only watch the first half hour,” they groaned. “I mean, those Inuits are just so ugly, don’t you think?”
But my favourite example of the sheer perversity engendered by the recommended rental is this: A strange, lolloping man called Jeremy once gangled his way in minutes before I was shutting up shop. He asked me how much Oscar-nabbing warblefest La Vie En Rose was to rent for the night. As it was a new release, the title cost more than he was prepared to pay, so I suggested he choose one from our enormous ‘£2 for 5 nights’ vault. After studied deliberation, he settled upon the black and white propagandist curio I Am Cuba which goes down much better with the paying public nowadays than it did on its initial release in 1964. I told him as much and he parted with his change before dwindling back to his lair with it.
The next night a young woman strode into the shop absolutely furious that I’d recommended her and her boyfriend the popular Spanish film The Night of the Sunflowers. “I can’t believe that you’d recommend a film with a rape in it!” she hissed before relinquishing her membership and storming out. I’d like to have it on record here that I didn’t deliberately suggest this film in the knowledge that its scene of a thwarted rape tends to upset a tiny percentage of recommendation-seeking customers (well, just the two so far). Still seething from this very public dressing-down, I was in no mood to tolerate a phone call from the bizarre Jeremy. “Hello, Movieland,” I picked up, instantly recognising the high-pitched whine that followed. “Were you the man that was working last night?” he mewed, in his addled, sing-song way. “Ye-es,” I replied. “Well I’ve got four complaints to make. One: The film I took out isn’t even a proper film. Two: It’s divided into four parts. Three- “Oh, fuck off!” I interjected, before slamming down the hand-set.
Not the ideal way to hang onto customers in a diminishing trade, I’ll admit. But for me at least, this was one of the most satisfying recommendations of them all.