“I remembered throwing punches around
And preachin’ from my chair”
Accounts from the Video Store Frontlines (no. 2)
by Pablo D’Stair
Any video clerk worthy of the title learned the ins-and-outs of navigating the often precarious harrows of customer recommendations, fairly quickly. Those who embraced the position and did not merely decide to tow the line by halfheartedly pointing to the pre-selected Recommendations on the New Release wall or to relate stories of how perhaps-only-make-believe relatives/acquaintances had “really liked” whatever movie a customer might hold up to ask for encouragement in renting had to face the hard reality of what it meant to actually be endowed with a sense of personal aesthetic, let alone a faith that such a thing could mean something to anyone else, was something that might be in even the most meager way transmittable.
Such clerks knew that insisting a customer leave with Bottle Rocket meant either a new best friend had just been made or that eye contact would be forever avoided with some specific human being, by mutual tacit consent; giving someone Sid and Nancy, Naked, Fitzcaraldo or Cache meant either the store would literally no longer be receiving a certain individual’s business or else from that time forward this customer would insist on calling ahead to ask the recommending-clerk to pick something and have it waiting, didn’t matter what.
There was a lot at stake for the clerk who was in it for the long haul, who would be confined to the store and to contact with the same few dozen persons on a daily or at least bi-weekly basis. And never was the pressure more than when a well vetted, multiple-success customer (one who had shown discernment, good breeding, and openness to Art) happened to come in when the film JCVD was in stock, waiting right there on the shelf, the customer giving big wide smile and head nod from down the length of an aisle, eyes hungry while mouth said “There you are, give me something good, for tonight.”
I understood, of course, any initial skepticism to the film. When I had first encountered JCVD I was prepared to enjoy it, but had it in mind—in part due to packaging and preview—that it would be a kind of self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek romp, a bit of Meta-cinema lite, maybe a tepid and watchable cross between The Last Action Hero and Being John Malkovich (such a crossbreed I honestly would still be very interested in seeing, let me add). That is to say, I was not prepared for it as it actually is, not prepared for a new addition to my without-a-moment’s-hesitation recommendation pile, had not expected a new entry to my list of “films that are so much my favorite there is no point in calling them favorites”—had not anticipated that the motion picture would reveal itself to be, simply put, sublime.
And there is no way to get this across to someone, no way at all before they have seen it, no way to make them understand that they are wrong about everything they are, being fair, kind of right to be thinking by way of hesitation—much in the same way that recommending someone the termite/driver ant documentary Besieged Fortress on the strength that it would “change their views of their own humanity” could not be understood as anything but a cipher or a tipsy rambling before that film is taken in.
And while I would like to have had confidence that a customer who had loved You Can Count On Me, We Don’t Live Here Anymore and Man on the Train would, without fail, devour the beauty of JCVD and track me down at home, sneak into my house at night and cuddle up beside me for having made them acquainted with the film, what I knew more was that, through some vicious trick of mother nature, those customers were actually the sort of people who would most venomously discard the film into the ashcan on principle unviewed or be hardwired to praise it only as the anomaly it might, surface level, appear to be on a biased watch. Yes, sadly there is just something in the borderline prickishness it takes to be an astute lover of Cinema that would kick in at a Darwinian level. It was, after all, a ‘Van Damme movie’ and without asserting that they are “sort-of-kidding, of course” even the hepest of film buff or the hippest or hipster cinephile could not be expected to breathe “Art” and “that guy” in the same sentence.
But Art is what it is, unquestionably, unabashedly—art of the highest echelon of cinema, jolting, beautiful and vibrantly alive with brazen and cathartic honesty. And it being so, I and clerks like me were put in the firing line, no choice but to hold it up in the light it deserved as often as possible, to laud it and do our best to keep it from being something with no higher hope than in twenty-years time popping up on a list here or there as an ‘overlooked gem.’
Usually, I’d begin talking the film up in a general way (leaving out key details like who the star was) as I casually strolled a customer in the direction of where it would be found, then as I neared the spot itself, reached for the box, I’d explain that they were to brace themselves for a bit of a jolt at what I was about to hand them, making it flat that I was assuring them I was not dicking them about by earnestly describing it as “pretty much a blend between Dog Day Afternoon and oh take your pick between A Bout De Souffle, Tirez sur le Pianiste or Bande a part.” The customer would, I could tell, be coiling tight with giddy anticipation, visions of…well, anything but Jean Claude Van Damme in a breathtaking and understated performance delineating the line between Realization and Idealization, between Self-loathing and Self-actualization dancing in their mind.
This would fall out in one of two ways: either they would notice the cover of the film before I had finished the introduction, laugh big like I’d been winding them up the whole time and quickly say “But really which movie?” or they would just take the box, silently look at it (Van Damme staring at them disaffectedly), turn it over (unfortunately greeted with Van Damme flexing his arm as though to say “look how strong and awesome I am” while the image is actually pulled from a portion of the film where he is saying anything, anything, anything but that) turn it back over and look at me while saying they didn’t like “that kind of movie.”
“You’ve never seen this kind of movie,” I’d say (in either of these circumstances) and I would, like a doctor recommending leeches or something, say how I understood the hesitation, but unlike a doctor recommending leeches I would be able to honestly assert to them it would be something they would thank me for, profusely.
If the discussion went any further, it would only be for the customer to more politely turn down the suggestion, saying they “like smart action flicks, I guess,” but were “in the mood for something else” or some close cousin of that statement.
Sometimes I’d just address the elephant in the room before the trunk had appeared by beginning my recommendation on the merits of Van Damme’s performance, straight out (expressions like “captivating,” “mesmerizing,” “utterly perfect” often coming up when I did) and explaining that after watching this film the one thing I could say with sincerity was that Van Damme should have been working with Bresson or at least with Lumet (I always tried to invoke Dog Day Afternoon, as much as possible, JCVD so very much an out-and-out homage to that masterpiece) and that it is lamentable that this is the first time in his film history, as I was familiar with it, that Jean Claude was allowed to do anything substantive—often only saying “substantive” so I could more properly up-sell it to “artistic” or even “imperative.”
“It’s a bank heist film?” I’d sometimes be asked (and fairly enough) to which I’d have to say “No no, well, there’s kind of heist in it, of sorts, but that’s not what it’s…about…at all.”
And meanwhile the customer would slowly be putting it back and picking up Juno or Julie and Julia or something while I got a bit disappointed that they probably considered Dog Day Afternoon a “bank heist movie” and, following this logic, probably didn’t even know who Bresson was and that, sadly, they’d never know who Jean Claude Van Damme is, which is something, really, they ought to.
Pablo D’Stair is a novelist, essayist, and interviewer. Co-founder of the art house press KUBOA, he is also a regular contributor to the Montage: Cultural Paradigm (Sri Lanka). His book Four Self-Interviews About Cinema: the short films of director Norman Reedus will be re-releasing October, 2012 through Serenity House Publishing, International.