Videoland: Movie Culture at the American Video Store, by Daniel Herbert

Linnie Blake praises an exploration of the role rental outlets played in shaping the way a generation experienced film

May 22, 2014

My local shopping centre, like hundreds up and down the country, is home to a concertedly closed-for-business Blockbuster video store. Driven to the wall by the coming of the digital download and the live streaming of film and television programmes offered by on-demand services such as Netflix, Blockbuster’s passing is a telling illustration of the ongoing evolution of technologies of cinematic distribution and consumption. And as an absent presence on the high street, Blockbuster’s darkened premises remind us of the one-time cultural centrality of the video store and its impact on the ways in which a generation experienced film.

This is the subject of Daniel Herbert’s cultural history of the American video store, in which he explores, in the first instance, the ways in which the new practice of “going shopping for movies” shifted film consumption away from the cinema and into the realm of retail culture. Here film became a material object that was sold by enthusiastic experts to a new kind of spoiled-for-choice consumer, with ancillary products such as the video guide emerging to bolster both consumer knowledge of the products available and, in turn, greater consumption of those products.

Herbert’s study is a meticulously researched delineation of the historical, technological and cultural factors that shaped the development of the video rental business. The book traces the impact of corporatisation on the regionally distinctive cinematic tastes of US consumers, historically served by a range of local outlets, and indicates the ways in which the corporate store’s spatialised taxonomisation of films impacted on consumer choice. One of its core concerns is the way in which devoted video store workers interacted with customers, disseminating often highly specialist knowledge, shaping their tastes and influencing their sense of cinematic value. It was a practice, Herbert argues, that was consolidated by the emergence of the “metadata” industry in the form of Videohound’s Golden Movie Retriever and similar publications, which are analysed in some detail here.

I enjoyed this book a great deal and was impressed by the contribution it makes to the study of the oft-neglected video format, and thus it may seem a little churlish to quibble. Yet quibble I must. I would have liked to see considerably more of the information, argument and theoretical framing undertaken in the lengthy Notes section of the book integrated into the analysis proper. For it is here that the depth and sophistication of the author’s engagement with his subject really becomes apparent. Without such integration, I think, the broad range of contiguous fields discussed appear to lack a certain coherence and depth. Moreover, readers may be left uncertain as to the nature and significance of the contribution that is being made here to discussions of cultural space and taste and the role of the corporation in shaping both, and the consequent emergence of new kinds of media-driven consumer subjectivities. For Videoland does make a substantive contribution to all these areas of interest. It offers an outstanding analysis of film as material object embedded within a specific cultural moment, and it is, I believe, a must-read for students of media history. It provides numerous insights, furthermore, to anyone who is interested in the ways in which we are led to consume the cultural products of contemporary global capitalism.

Videoland: Movie Culture at the American Video Store

By Daniel Herbert
University of California Press, 336pp, £48.95 and £19.95
ISBN 97805209612, 09636 and 0958029 (e-book)
Published 9 May 2014

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