I was born in 1975. It turned out to be perfect timing to witness the golden age of video, making me old enough to remember — just about — the appearance in the early-80s of those first few dark and dingy video shops. Many of them had taken over the retail units left behind by declining post-war businesses (such as the sweety shops where some avuncular, apron-wearing shopkeeper with a combover would noisily tip the confectionary onto metal scales from giant glass jars). And I was young enough — again, just — to be the perfect candidate for an after-school evening job in one of the Blockbuster-type chain stores that had eagerly snapped up clean and airy units in newly-built out-of-town retail parks (some of which, in the era of online shopping, are now entering their own period of decay and decline).
I still live half a mile from the site of the very first video shop (stubbornly British, I will refuse throughout this piece to write “video store”) I ever visited. It’s a snack bar now, serving sausage rolls and soup to the locals who work for the local building sites, bookmakers and hair salons. Back then, in the early-80s, it was a dark, cavernous place, the walls outside painted blood red with black lettering which simply announced, with little imagination or style: VIDEO RENTALS. Inside, the shelving had been knocked together by whatever scrap bits of wood the proprietor had managed to get his hands on. The guy who ran the place was a local lad who had been given some sort of youth enterprise funding from the Jobcentre (or the labour exchange, as people still called it in those days) to get started. It was cleverly placed — neither in the heart of the suburbs nor the town centre, it was located on the boundary between two council estates, thus maximising its catchment area.
The Marxist geographer, David Harvey, claims that suburban development in post-war Europe and America was a strategy to maintain economic growth: build lots of housing so that consumers have living space which they can then fill with commodities. Replace declining and unprofitable local cinemas with little stores from which consumers can rent tapes to watch at home. But even if this is how I understand the socio-economic context, I still feel nostalgic for that original little cabin of strange pleasures. The privatisation of the experience of consumption had to take place within a regulatory vacuum, not only making the moral panic over Video Nasties all but inevitable, but also introducing an element of improvised business practice in the absence of established standards. In this period of relative scarcity, before the industry was properly up and running, the practice of keeping a reservations book (“I’ve got The Beastmaster booked for next weekend”) was quickly established.
A section of our local shop was curtained off after opening, supposedly to keep the kids away from horror and porn, but nobody really took it seriously and, after a few visits, us kids had glimpsed just about everything. But with only a rudimentary understanding of genre, these small, vivid flashes of blood-stained, eye-gouged faces amid women posing in lingerie had to be mashed together by our imaginations into some stable notion of what it meant to sit down and be entertained as an adult. In terms of subtext, what were we really learning? In retrospect, from a personal perspective, the ramshackle pleasures of the early video shop taught me that there were two types of capitalist product and two corresponding types of capitalist producer. I quickly learned to appreciate that there was a difference between Star Wars (1977) and Laserblast (1978), just as I knew there was a difference between Woolworths and VIDEO RENTAL. Corporate capital, I realised (although I didn’t know it by name, of course), represented the respectable, safe pair of hands. Meanwhile, behind that curtain in the video shop lay the true essence of the enterprise: not only disreputable and dangerous images, but products generated by a disreputable section of the capitalist class. It was as if, with one’s interest in sex (and death) on hold due to the onset of what Freud called the latency period, the fascination of these taboo images generated a different lesson. A lesson in the structure of capitalist production that I – and I believe others of my generation too – implicitly absorbed, even if the terms (wages, profits, distribution etc.) were unknown to us.
In his book The Capitalist Unconscious, Samo Tomšič contrasts the enjoyment of the miser with the attitude of the capitalist. Whilst the miser invests her enjoyment in collecting and holding the objects (precious commodities or money) that she accumulates, she can only become a true capitalist by renouncing this enjoyment and installing accumulation as the central principle, making constant improvements in the methods of production to squeeze as much profit as possible from the process. This is the key to understanding the shift (inevitable, of course) from the tiny independent video shop of the 1980s to the corporate giants of the 1990s. The early pioneers, with their family loans and enterprise finance from government schemes, were like the miser: responsible for making profits, but also enjoying the work, collecting the tapes, designing the store layout, developing relationships with distributors, and perhaps even enjoying the thrill of playing legal cat-and-mouse with the censors and the police in the pre-certificate, Video Nasty days. If you track the development of video store culture from the 80s to the 90s, you can witness the splitting of the profit-making function from the enjoyment and videophilia to be found in the work itself. The slackers of films such as Clerks (1994) and Muriel’s Wedding (1994) were clearly identified as workers, not owners. This separation of profit-making from enjoyment was essential to the installation of a general drive towards efficiency and, along with other technological and social developments, the eventual death of the video shop (although a few hardy survivors, such as Snips Movies in Bebington, still manage to live on to this day).
Nostalgia for the cult and horror film culture of the early 80s is now a constant feature of contemporary cinephilia. For some of us, the memory of the early video shop years haunts us, even if we were barely out of nursery school at the time. In those years, we learnt more about the unconscious economic structure of the world than we even realised at the time. That process fascinates me because, if the early 80s was the moment when the post-war consensus ended and neoliberal society started, then we must interrogate our nostalgia for that time, using history, economics, psychology and other social sciences, to excavate what was really going on during those strange years of turmoil and change. To come face-to-face with who we were then and who we are now.