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Jason Walsh: Video Droid and the age of movie rentals

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“I wish my life was a nonstop Hollywood movie show, a fantasy world of celluloid villains and heroes – because celluloid heroes never feel any pain; and celluloid heroes never really die” – the Kinks, “Celluloid Heroes”

‘One dead; 41 to go.”

That was the tagline written on the VHS case of “Battle Royale,” the first movie I ever rented from Video Droid. It was a bootlegged copy of the banned Japanese film from 2000, about several dozen middle school students forced by their government to fight to the spectacularly gruesome death. “Could you kill your best friend?” the film’s marketers coyly teased. Well, I could for a copy of this film, I thought to myself. (Sorry, Chris.)

It was the mid-2000s and Netflix, with its mail-order and online-browsing system still in its infancy, was chipping away at the business model of the home video rental store which, since exploding with the VHS market in the early ‘80s, held that in-person browsing through library-like aisles of film titles was as vital to the home-video-watching experience as “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” itself.

Well, let’s face it, Netflix killed that theory. And Amazon, Hulu and others are stamping on its grave. The 15 years since I discovered Video Droid have witnessed the closure of all but two video stores in Sonoma County, with perhaps the most heart-rending of shutterings occurring at the last-remaining Video Droid outlet, on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa, which due to low revenues since the October fires, announced plans this month to close on Aug. 26.

The era of “staff picks,” rewind fees, and watching bashful men quietly slip behind the “adults only” curtain are becoming but a distant memory.

Brothers Mark and Mitchell Lowe opened the first Video Droid in 1984 in Mill Valley, at a time when the home-video market was about to go gangbusters. To avoid directly competing with slicker chain video stores and their enhanced access to new titles, the Lowes went after the hip, educated cinephile market of Marin, Sonoma and San Francisco counties – offering what the monochrome chains didn’t: rarities, deep catalogues of indie and international titles; overlooked classics; and a staff of helpful film geeks. The business model worked splendidly. Soon the Lowes expanded and at one point operated 14 Video Droids throughout the North Bay.

Unlike the sterile Blockbusters and Hollywood Video franchises that seemed to take glee in watering down the average American’s cinematic palate, places like Video Droid and the sublime Le Video on 9th Avenue in San Francisco – which itself closed down in 2015 — were more like learning experiences. They wouldn’t have a “foreign” shelf; they’d carve out sections for “Ozu,” “Truffaut,” “Tarkovsky,” “Bunuel,” “Kar-wai” and every other major director who, if you didn’t already know them simply by their last name, you needed to stack them in your 5-for-$5 pile immediately.

If you were browsing shelves labeled: “French New Wave,” “British Social Realism,” “Korean Horror,” “German Expressionism,” “Dogme 95,” “creepy staff picks” or “Hitch” – you were in Video Droid. If you were staring at 30 pan-and-scan copies of a Mark Wahlberg thriller on the “new releases” shelf, you were at Blockbuster.

I have a master’s degree in film – but I learned more from Video Droid’s Criterion Collection library than I ever did from any of my professors’ wholly subjective choices for my study.

I would browse for so long in Video Droid, I’d often close down the store and by the time I’d get back to my apartment, it was too late to watch any of the films. I discovered surprising things: I’ll watch anything with sharks; I like Chaplin better than Keaton; “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats” isn’t as good as it sounds; and I’ve seen so many Hong Kong gangsters riddle each other with bullets it HAS to have affected me psychologically.

Along with disturbing amounts of gratuitous violence and an impressive array of Katharine Hepburn titles, Video Droid also provided career advancement. In the early 2000s my first newspaper gig was as the film writer at the Marin IJ. (Yes, local dailies used to have their own film reporters.) To the chagrin of management, I focused solely on the local art house schedules, writing stories on the Red Vic’s Howard Hawks festival or the Rafael Film Center’s latest documentary about Andy Goldsworthy. Video Droid’s multiple outlets throughout the North Bay were my “research centers.”

Renting a director’s entire back-catalogue helped me score hard-to-get face time with such filmmakers as Spike Lee, Christopher Nolan, David Cronenberg, Bernardo Bertolucci, and dozens of others auteurs and well-known actors. I still have a Christmas card from John Woo sent to me following our “Windtalkers” interview from 2002. (I’m sure he signed such cards for dozens of journalists.)

The IJ’s tolerance for someone who blew off a Johnny Depp interview in favor of Vincent Gallo grew thin and I eventually left for the greener pastures of alt weeklies and community newspapers. But my Video Droid membership cards – at multiple outlets – remained. Shamefully, I didn’t.

As life got busier and “on demand” became a necessary entitlement, my visits to the spaghetti westerns aisle grew infrequent. And by the time we had our first kid – well, that familiar “click” of the DVD fitting into the circular hub of the plastic case was little more than audio from a simpler time.

But although my membership cards have all long expired and the movies streaming in my house these days are more likely to involve Ant-Man than Antonioni, I still can’t pass a shelf of DVDs – usually at the library, or a neighbor’s garage sale – without scanning the titles, always hoping to find a lost gem, and probably some semblance of my younger self. Less gray, more hopeful; able to watch “The Saragossa Manuscript” in a single sitting. Or even want to.

RIP Video Droid. You weren’t just a chain of video stores. You made us who we are.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.