A Portland Filmmaker Examines the Significance of Video Stores and the Path Forward for the Few That Remain

Seven years in the making, At the Video Store records the twilights and new beginnings of mom-and-pop video shops across the country.

From John Waters to Thelma Schoonmaker to Gus Van Sant, cinema icons pop up left and right in praise of video stores in Portland filmmaker James Westby's new documentary. But At the Video Store's best argument for the legacy of the brick-and-mortars has little to do with film.

That testament unfolds on a Brooklyn Heights street corner with no video store in sight. Former Captain Video owner Marty Arno wanders the block that once housed his shop, greeted by one grinning passerby after another who remembers him as a neighborhood galvanizer. Displaced by both time and space, Arno still embodies the camaraderie of the rental ritual. All that remains is a feeling.

Westby's documentary, which screens at the Hollywood Theatre, is a breathless, loving, intelligent, kooky ode to that feeling. Seven years in the making, At the Video Store records the twilights and new beginnings of mom-and-pop video shops across the country, the ones that outlasted the Blockbusters and clawed their way into the 2010s. Still, most of the stores portrayed in the documentary didn't survive its completion. Arno himself died in 2017.

"A lot of [the closure footage] was too sad, to be honest," says Westby, who also wrote and directed three other narrative indie features: Film Geek (2005), The Auteur (2008) and Rid of Me (2011).

Even so, At the Video Store balances financial and technological tragedy with sly and sardonic reality checks. Comedic songs written by Westby and performed by Portland musicians like Wonderly, Laura Veirs, Mo Troper and Laura Gibson lampoon the convenience of streaming and intersperse the film's 70-minute collage of interviews.

"It's almost a variety show format," Westby says, noting his love of Stacy Peralta's skateboarding documentaries. "I was also making these little surrealist comedy shorts with my daughters. That seeped in."

The documentary's 60 cumulative talking heads are proof of the years Westby spent cultivating the project. It all began in 2012 with an interview of his former employer, Marc Mohan, who currently reviews films for The Oregonian and owned the now-shuttered Video Verite on North Mississippi Avenue, and wrapped only six months ago with revered character actor Kevin Corrigan. Westby says he edited deliberately to limit his sources' video store clichés, like "shared experience," but some common themes are baked in. In one such highlight, Bill Hader off-handedly notes that Martin Scorsese is a fan of Exorcist II before calling himself out for accidentally impersonating a know-it-all video store clerk.

Though it chronicles shops from Baltimore to San Francisco, At the Video Store pays specific tribute to the two Portland-area operations left standing and examines their contrasting paths forward. Coming under the umbrella of the Hollywood Theatre in late 2017, Movie Madness attained nonprofit status, which is now common among surviving stores like Seattle's Scarecrow Video and Film Is Truth 24 Times a Second in Bellingham, Wash. And though Westby is a weekly Movie Madness visitor, he harbors particular admiration for how Great American Video & Espresso owner Kent McCarty has stayed afloat for nearly 40 years in Milwaukie, slinging coffee and custard out of a former bank drive-thru to extend his hours and clientele.

"Kent had more knowledge than anyone about the entire industry," Westby says. "I could have made an entire movie with just him."

The stores that do remain—in Portland and beyond—know they're up against not just economics but a human irony elucidated by Westby's film: Most anyone who cares about art and culture would theoretically support the communal and curatorial virtues of independent stores, but that doesn't tangibly change many viewing habits. Given that psychological hurdle, Westby hopes to set up promotional tables for both Portland-area stores at his upcoming screening. Maybe he can catch moviegoers headed home to Netflix in their most idealistic mindset.

At the Video Store is due for a few more 2020 festival showings and some modest distribution. Of course, there's one particular end game on Westby's mind: "I'm most excited about seeing it on the shelf at Movie Madness and Great American."

SEE IT: At the Video Store screens at Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd., hollywoodtheatre.org, on Monday, Dec. 16. 7:30 pm. $7-$9.

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