“The thing that bothers me is
someone keeps moving my chair”
Accounts From the Video Store Front Lines (no. 4)
by Pablo D’Stair
In the world of video rental, of course not all clerks are the same clerk or even cut from the same cloth and, because of this, the customers could be the least of the true clerk’s immediate concerns. It’s one thing to have to navigate the hazards of flat customer recommendation, either with blank slates or particularized game—walk-in nobodies or the crystalized regular—but quite a different debacle altogether to be run afoul by someone in the trenches, someone who stands beside you, day-to-day.
Nature has a way of dealing with things—lines are drawn, specialties understood, concessions made to keep a homeostasis, a sort of tacit rule-of-law forms itself for the mutual psychic good of all. If for example Clerk A has started with Customer A, that is Clerk A’s shot unless some circumstances arises or assistance is requested, in which case well understood dances and verbal patter take place, clerk-to-clerk (always the most important control being whether further input is asked for by Clerk or by Customer). No matter what, though, Directive One is that there is always a primary and subordinate in the joint-recommendation and each clerk should damn well know who is who in a given exchange.
This is all to aid Cinema and customer interface with it. But problematic situations arose when the faux-clerk forgot what was going on, big picture, and would stick their foul little nose in where it potently did not belong, assistance requested or no.
If I, for example, were knee deep in recommending the film Joshua (starring Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga, not one of the many other films sharing this title) and had already defused the problem of the packaging making the film look like some rehashed The Omen, deftly leaping the hurdle by noting the film is particularly mesmerizing in that it, in fact, contains no supernatural element at all but instead is a harrowingly intense psychological brinksmanship between hope and calculating deceit, between empathy and abject apathy, or if I had finally gotten a customer to understand that Rescue Dawn was neither sequel, prequel or, in fact, anything to do with a cult-classic Patrick Swayze movie but instead was Werner Herzog’s finest bit of barebones filmmaking in a decade (with not only a phenomenal central performance from Christian Bale but a film-stealing one from Jeremy Davies) and upon seeing another clerk approaching this customer nonchalantly held up either of these films and said to them “What do you think of this?”…well, I’d just have to hope my comrade either knew enough to intelligently double down on my opinion or had learned the age-old trick of simply shutting the fuck up by way of “I never saw that, but I’ve heard good things about it.”
Unfortunately, more often than not the result of this innocent question from customer would be faux-clerk asking “Have you seen Crank 2?”
Now, no true-clerk should ever even have to rhetorically discuss such a…movie…but faux-clerks had a deplorable tendency to bring it up whenever they could. Not always as alarmingly as in the above outlined situation, of course, but really there was no time or place on God’s earth to recommend the thing, so it entering any conversation was equally as appalling.
It could be that a customer comes up to the counter where I and faux-clerk are doing nothing but seethingly sharing the same air and this customer asks “Can either of you recommend a good action movie?” Ah—even here, Crank 2 is not an acceptable thing to say. But, before I can take a breath to suggest something halfway decent—say Enemy at the Gates or Ronin, some film that satisfies the superficial needs of one not looking for substance-over-style yet does deliver enough of the former to actually do some service to the viewer by way of giving them entertainment not unviewable twaddle, a faux-clerk will not merely already have made the dread pronouncement but will be walking the customer to the slot on the wall.
Another horrific ripple to this recommendation from a faux-clerk is that no true-clerk could just write it off, let the faux-clerk have it, forget the situation is even happening. Because always somewhere during the boisterous recommendation from faux-clerk—boomed loud and karate chop through the store to all corners—the word “intelligent” would come into things.
“What is so amazing about Crank 2” the faux-clerk would say, verbatim each time, “is that it seems like it’s just a bunch of mindless action, crazy stuff, but it’s actually so clever, a really intelligent way of handling kind of an off-the-wall situation, totally not what you would think.”
Why alarm bells never went up for customers on hearing such a statement while looking down at Jason Statham glower from a box-face, knowing full well the statement was made either by (a) a clerk with shirt untucked and through a mouthful of semi chewed Sour Patch Watermelons or (b) a forty-plus-year-old man in nothing remotely resembling “fit shape” who nonetheless is striking an affectation as to suggest he sometimes literally thinks of himself AS Jason Statham is beyond me. It is unavoidably true, though, that the word “intelligent” being invoked did weird things to customers who always wanted to be that—and if Jason Statham rubbing himself against people to maintain enough static electrical shock to keep his fake heart beating was said to be intelligent, well the burden was on the defense to prove otherwise.
And a true-clerk can bear many sad things—knuckleheads can leave with knuckleheaded shit all day long, perfectly decent folks can leave with garbage they know to be garbage, fair is fair—but cannot bear letting someone be bamboozled so flagrantly by a person they know had counted the days restlessly until the DVD release of Dragonball: Evolution and Gamer.
My true-clerk’s gut would move to suggest something like The Edge, explaining that in addition to actually reasonable and immediately guttural situations to survive, the script relishes as much in the genuine tension built between characters, allowing roles of ‘Compatriot’ and ‘Cut-throat’ to naturally fluxuate while at the same time never keeping it far from a viewer’s mind that no matter how a character fares in the absolute survival game of man-against-unforgiving-elements and cold-calculating-Kodiak-bears, there is always a knife waiting to go into a back, Horror never but half-an-arm’s length from Help. This is largely due to the script being done by David Mamet at his stripped down, percussive best, with the camera given over to a talent who knows how let the majesty of the wilds the humans have to struggle within induce proper awe and hellishness at the same time. That is, The Edge not only merely holds up for its ninety minute run time, but invites a sense of personal aftermath when the screen goes black–even, it should be noted, a desire to view again.
Sadly—as I may have noted in previous accounts—customers will by-and-large be unmoved by such rhetoric and, with sober air, will ask who stars in a given film, nothing else counting as a clincher. And though in the case of The Edge both Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin can be named (and are exceptional, Baldwin at times more hypnotic than Hopkins, if such a thing can be imagined) this could bring to the customer’s mind action films like Bad Company (Hopkins) or The Getaway (Baldwin), these two stars most in their element outside of actioners, no way around that fact.
Even the briefest hesitation of course would give faux-clerk the opening to point out that The Edge is “like a hundred years old” (1997) leaving the true-clerk out in the cold while faux-clerk follows up with “But Crank 2 is slick, modern action, a non-stop white knuckle kind of thing. All killer, no filler. And Jason Statham knows how to bring it—he’s an action star, stark, a real deal.”
In seeing the customer wearied and already slowly drifting toward the registers, here it would fall to a true-clerk to say something along the lines of “Well Jesus, if you want something a bit more modern get 16 Blocks or something—it has Bruce Willis, at least.” (NOTE: This is called ‘Spinning the Willis Wheel’—which though it can theoretically land just as easily on anything from Mercury Rising to Hostage to The Jackal to Surrogates, never fails)
“Bruce Willis, you say?” says the customer, reversing their inertia at hearing the title of a film starring the ‘man himself’ and a figure who in no rhetorical context can help but upstage Statham and his split-lipped mugging. “And it’s good?”
“Sure. Its good,” the true-clerk must hem-haw (no need to push their luck with trying to pull a Lucky Number Slevin save out of the bag, on top) knowing the lesser of two evils prevails, faux-clerk no recourse but to seem less astute for not mentioning Willis to begin with, and true-clerk, as penance for bruising faux-clerk’s feelings, left to endure the remainder of a shift spent self-sacrificially discussing ‘How great G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is probably going to be’ just to keep the equilibrium.
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.