By the time I was 20, I had seen only two documentaries in theaters. The first was a special screening of Koyaanisqatsi with a live performance of the music by Phillip Glass, and the other was Michael Moore’s first out-of-left-(literally)-field hit, Roger & Me, in 1989. In other words, they were special events.
Any other documentaries I saw, I had seen in school or on PBS. And then there were the ones I picked up at the video store. That tendency for me—rarely catching them in theaters and increasingly renting them at the video store—extended through the ’90s. I rented some incredible documentaries, like Brother’s Keeper, Hoop Dreams, Crumb and the Maysles classic Grey Gardens. I was once talking to Al Maysles who surprised me when he complained about how poorly the film did in theaters. I guess most of us must have caught that on video.
I was thinking about this recently because my book, I Lost It At The Video Store, an oral history about the video store era’s impact on a generation of filmmakers including Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and David O. Russell, came out last month and I’ve had video stores on my mind. Weirdly, during the reporting of the book, I didn’t really talk too much with the filmmakers about documentaries, which is even more odd, because I interviewed one documentary director, Morgan Spurlock, for the book. But he and I hardly talked about non-fiction. My bad!
Now that the initial push to get the book out is over, I can get back to writing posts for Doc Soup, and with video stores still fresh on my mind, I’ll share some thoughts that connect the two.
People in the industry have told me that documentaries didn’t find a financial haven at the video store during the 1980s and 1990s. Of course, some did really well, like Thin Blue Line (selling 40,000 units), Roger & Me (85,000 units), and Hoop Dreams (a then-record breaking 140,000 units). But documentary films weren’t making anyone rich from rentals at the video store.
But I’d say what is less tangible, and far more significant, is the cultural bulwark that video stores provided to documentaries. Just the notion of documentary as a category of film, as much as Westerns or comedies or action flicks, was impressed on everyone who walked the aisles of the video store. Maybe it was in the back, near foreign, but there was almost always a documentary section.
It’s where titles like the ones mentioned above beckoned to us. As did the posters—do you remember the one for Werner Herzog’s My Best Fiend?
The other significant relationship between video stores and documentary filmmakers was the rich laboratory they provided. I spoke with Spurlock for close to an hour about his love of the video store when he was a kid watching horror films or as a student at NYU Film School. He may be known as a nonfiction guy, but he got his cinematic sensibilities from other sections at the video store.
The same, I’ll venture to say, could be said about documentarian Robert Greene (Actress, Fake It So Real) who used to be a clerk at Kim’s Video, as well as a long list of our favorite doc directors working today.
So, I want, in this little way, to make up for not including enough doc talk in the book. I hope this post goes a little way toward getting the balance right.