Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Three Decades Under the Influence

by Rob DiCristino
I owe my life to movies.

Not in that hyperbolic “I see myself in the cinema” way that graduate students talk about. I mean literally. If you were anywhere near Philadelphia in the 1980s, you might remember a chain of mom-and-pop rental shops called E-Z Video. My grandfather, no cinephile by any stretch of the imagination, was a contractor-turned-entrepreneur who just wanted to follow the VHS boom to its logical conclusion. There were five stores at one point, but the only one that matters for this story is the one he turned over to a couple of dingbat kids in need of gainful employment. One of them was my dad. He didn’t care much for movies, either. Still doesn’t. He mostly just managed the inventory and left the staff recommendations to his cousin. Though I never got to see him running the place, I always like to imagine him busy with vinyl records or fantasy baseball (he was playing it long before it was cool, back when you had to mail your lineup to your friends every week). I don’t know what he had planned for his future. Probably music. He liked music. He’ll tell you that he would have grabbed his guitar and headed to California one day, but I know him better than that. Anyway. I’m thankful for whatever force of nature compelled him to stay, because it meant that he was behind the counter when my mom came in looking for a job.
The former E-Z Video as it exists today.
I remember getting everything in plain black clamshell cases. There’s still a copy of Terminator 2: Judgment Day somewhere with my name on it. There are lots of copies of lots of things. We couldn’t help but be a family of collectors, and I couldn’t help but make movies a part of my identity. Divorce sucks. A kid gets lonely. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is hilarious, though, and we watched it a lot. It never felt weird to me. There were always choices, always more shelves to explore. In hindsight, it probably had a lot to do with keeping me busy, but you don’t know that when you’re a kid. All you know is that when someone says, “What’s it called? I’ll tape it for you,” you answer them. Stacks and stacks and shelves and shelves of tapes in identical boxes with identical labels. It’s strange how fast that kind of uniformity becomes comforting, how fast you start to take pride in your painstakingly-alphabetized collection. When E-Z Video took the inevitable turn toward pornography (it became Planet X Video - I remember some very confusing business cards), I started pursuing for-real store-bought tapes. For a while there, my most prized possession was the Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition box set. It was the first thing that went in my duffel bag when I packed it to go over dad’s. It didn’t matter if I was going to watch it or not. It had to be there.
“C/o Google Images. Original lost in time.”
Now that I think about it, my entire childhood was an embarrassment of movie riches. My mom’s father recorded everything that came on HBO and kept the tapes carefully organized on big shelves in the laundry room. Since every tape had two or three movies on it, he gave each one a number and wrote that number next to each title in The Book. It was a little red address book that he converted into an alphabetical log of the hundreds of tapes on those massive shelves. I remember sitting on the floor in their living room and paging through it while we all argued about what to watch. It would then fall to me to note the number, run into the laundry room with a step ladder, and get the corresponding tape. When I was older, that book was the first thing I grabbed before making camp with a stack of movies in my grandfather’s study (Back to the Future Part II was always first; I loved that it deconstructed the first film). A few hours later, I’d emerge to replace the stack with a new one. It was his fault for keeping the place stocked with root beer and Reese’s cups, dammit. He knew what he was doing. After he died and my grandmother moved, the tapes were scattered in different places. I probably have some of them. My mom definitely does. My grandmother still has the book, though. That wasn’t going anywhere. I’ve spent years chasing that warm sense of tactile, laser-guided OCD, but there just isn’t a good modern equivalent. There are a few iPhone apps, I guess. They’re ok. Still doesn’t feel the same.
He was all about golf and The Godfather.
I have a son of my own, now. He’s two. I tell myself that all these Blu-rays are for him, but the truth is that I have no idea what he’ll be into or how he’ll be into it. I’m sure we’ll be live-streaming movies through Google Enemas by the time he’s old enough to care. But that isn’t important. It’s not the what -- it’s the why. It’s about what makes him feel good and what makes him feel included. It’s about him finding himself in whatever it is that he loves. I don’t know what his childhood is going to be like or exactly where or when I’ll ruin it for him, but I do know where I’ll be when he sees Jaws for the first time. I know what stories my mom will tell him when he talks about how much he liked it. They’ll be the same ones she told me, like the one about how my grandfather took her and the other kids out on his boat just after they saw it. How he let them get right up to the edge of the water before he slammed on the horn and watched them all jump. Everyone in my family tells that story differently. Some say it was the next night, not the same night. Some say it was actually Jaws 2, the one with the teenagers. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that he’ll never feel alone. What matters is that he’ll have Jaws stories and Blu-ray collections and his own little share of responsibility for keeping this thing going however he sees fit. I owe my life to movies. Maybe he will, too.
No bullshit: He’s laughing at Fargo. I already broke him.


  1. This is a beautiful post.

    Also I hope the streaming selection for Google Enemas will be more robust than the likes of Hulu and Netflix. Here's to the future.

  2. Looking forward to the follow-up "I owe my life to pornography..."

    In all seriousness though, it's good to read some background on you. Well written.

  3. Glad we got to get to know you a little more Rob.

    Great job showing Fargo to a two year old. No seriously, great job.