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“Well, if there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.”

Luke Skywalker, Star Wars

Los Angeles is the movies, and the movies is LA. If you drive north of the city on the 101 for an hour, you get to suburbs filled with peripheral industry people. Somebody did a rewrite on Lethal Weapon II and put a downpayment on a house. Another person did the same with royalties from an insurance commercial. That’s every third house in Sherman Oaks or Woodland Hills.

Drive up the 101 another half hour and you start hitting farms and beach communities. This is where industry people go when they don’t want to be found. Hang a right and drive another half hour inland and you’ll get to the citrus groves and chaparral hills. That’s where I grew up. My house is 45 miles as the crow flies from the Hollywood sign. 45 miles and a different cultural universe.

It used to be almost impossible to watch cool movies. If you were lucky, your had access to an independent video rental store with some personality. We had a Blockbuster. Our selection of “Foreign” movies consisted of about one shelf of DVDs.

Anime, black and white classics, silent film, these were hard to find. Forget gay and lesbian movies. You could put in the work to see them. You could make a trip to a bigger city with a better selection. Universities sometimes had media libraries. You would watch movies on a 15″ screen with headphones in an uncomfortable study carrel warmed by CRT tubes. Local libraries having big, good movie collections is a recent phenomenon. If you could afford it, you could order from a mail order catalog, or from Amazon. Amazon’s deep catalog of old books and movies used to be a killer feature.

If you were lucky, really lucky, you knew someone with a killer home video collection. That used to be what it meant to be “into film”. It meant shelves and shelves of tapes in their basement or living room. Those people shaped so much of my taste. Indie dramas, foreign films and music documentaries from L——. Queer cinema classics and Merchant and Ivory films from M——. Studio action films from G——.

This assumes that the movie got a home video release. There were plenty of movies that never got a VHS release.

The arrival of Netflix DVD-by-mail changed everything overnight. It had a broad collection, accessible to anywhere the Postal Service reached. It improved some other parts of the video rental experience that sucked. No late fees, keep it as long as you want, drop it back in the mail when you’re ready to send it back. “I have to return some videotapes” is a punchline in American Psycho. We really did have to figure out when to return tapes all the time.

Netflix swept away Blockbuster. It delivered the killing blow to the independent rental stores*. It devalued physical media. Netflix originals ducked legacy union contracts by streaming instead of releasing in theaters or on home video. Now it is killing its DVD by mail service, as it has wanted to since the early 2010s.

I sometimes think about those people with big collections in the 90’s and early 2000’s. They paid a lot of money, and even the big collections only had a fraction of what is available on the big services now. In the last 10 years I have paid a lot for streaming. I have nothing in my house to show for that spending. We used to have more power to shape the culture that got left to the future through the objects we left behind. Movies can disappear, or be censored so easily now. The entire paradigm where I hand you money, you give me something I want, and we both go our separate ways seems to be ebbing away. In this new world, anything that provides you ongoing value, that brings you joy must be paid for, again and again, until you cannot afford to keep it.

*Except my beloved Movie Madness in Portland, Oregon, which has not died but did retire—it’s now operated by a non-profit.

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