casablanca2.photobychrisshalom-mTHE HOME OF THE MOVIE EXPERIENCE

I haven’t been in Bogie’s Casablanca Video since 2007, the year I moved out of the city. Shuffling in on a cold December day, I’m struck not so much by nostalgia but by a time-capsule effect – the place looks exactly the same.

After a moment, I realize how happy that made me.

There is something quite striking about the vacant stores that the 2011 Blockbuster shutdown left behind, the bright blue-and-yellow corporate logo cheerfully straddling their empty windows, hollowed urban monuments to the death of an industry. Or at least, to its re-imagining. Though we often tend to think of VOD, Netflix and the like as having totally wiped out video rentals, the Motion Picture Association’s most recent report, released in July 2013, concludes that it is “too soon to predict the end of physical home entertainment,” citing the industry’s 8,000+ jobs as of 2011.

One of those jobs belongs to Ryan Rollinson, the manager of Bogie’s Casablanca Video on 4th, who is also the only employee in the store and about three hours in to a twelve-hour day. He laughs when I guiltily admit that I haven’t been in the store for six years.

“Most people haven’t,” he says jovially.

I have warm childhood memories from this store: I’d stare up at those shelves, trying to figure out which violent action flick I had the best chance of convincing my mom to rent. The question of changing media for film and TV often seems to call on this sort of memory: when home video emerged, people argued that the picturesque family outings to the cinema would die off. The video store similarly evokes a nostalgic image of family togetherness. Nothing says “wholesome” like watching an entire family try to agree on how to spend the next two hours.

Rollinson has watched the rental industry change. “It’s definitely become a different market,” he says, reaching down to pause Kick-Ass 2, which is on the TV behind me.

“There’s still a collector mentality and there’s still a niche market for it… kind of like how Recordland keeps going.”

He is right to draw the comparison. Casablanca still looks the same to me, but its context has changed. It doesn’t quite feel quaint, but it’s on its way; it is a business whose sole merchandise has been more or less abandoned by the march of technological advancement. It is easy to imagine a new generation of kids peering warily at the shelves, a 3D, real-life recreation of the familiar Netflix menu.

“Like they walked into the Temple of Doom,” Rollinson says, describing a pair of young kids brought into the store by their parents. “People come in, they look around, they have that look on their face.”

The Indiana Jones comparison is one of many film references that sneak into our conversation. Casablanca is a place for lovers of film, after all.

“Everyone here is really into movies,” Rollinson says, pointing to the success of their “Staff Picks” labelling.

Algorithmically impressive as the Netflix recommendations may be – they believe that about 75 per cent of their viewer’s choices are dictated by a complex suggestion system overseen by 800 engineers. It is hard not to feel that there’s something a little bit more special about a suggestion from a human being. The staff picks aren’t just about common actors, or similar tones – “movies that are ‘similar to’…you know: ‘Watch The Grifters, it’s got the same kinda twisty ending to it,” Rollinson offers by way of example.

It’s a little different than automated suggestions based on your previous viewing data.

“It’s already become kind of nostalgic, which is strange,” Rollinson says as he glances around the store, which is empty and has been since I arrived.

On the other end of the movie chain, local independent filmmaker J.S. Johnson is also nostalgic for movie stores, but that’s all. Asked about seeing his own movies on a shelf for rent, Johnson says, “That’s nostalgia… I don’t see that as success any more, for a new film. It doesn’t mean much to be in a rental place now, except that it’s really cool, obviously.”

So artists, too, are looking more towards the newest – and, for independent filmmakers, the cheapest – ways of getting their work out to the public. In a time where production of film is incredibly cheap, distribution becomes the major hurdle and striking a deal with the huge production chains can seem daunting compared to the efficiency of releasing a film online.

At the same time, Johnson laments the growing scarcity of video stores.

“There’s something about actually going in and getting the movie, browsing, looking at classics, that’s unmatched by anything else,” he says. “In a way it’s more important than what you end up renting.”

Rollinson agrees. “They just wander, 45 minutes, an hour… part of watching movies comes with picking them out.”

Near a liquor store and several restaurants, Casablanca is a part of people’s routines, even outings and dates – eat, grab a bottle of wine, browse the movies, argue about what to get. Renting can be an experience in itself.

Is there really something to lose if we stop renting DVDs? Many media have their own similarly anti-digital purists, from staunch LP owners who refuse to listen to compressed music to those who maintain that they would never read a book on a Kindle. Is it becoming old-fashioned, though, to reject any art that you can’t hold in your hand?

Either way, books and records can tell us something else about digital revolutions: the physical abides. In 50 years, maybe we’ll all be so plugged in that there won’t be an ounce of charm in the thought of a real store filled with movies in real packaging, with a real person behind the counter eager to recommend some weird and unique flicks. Until then, the video rental stores in Calgary are still open, even if there are a lot less of them: they’re still full of movies waiting to be picked up.

Words and photo by Chris Shalom

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