I've been thinking about video.
I highly recommend you watch this month’s One Word, but you can also read it below.
There are over seven thousand recognized languages in the world, but if you ask me, the unifying communication of humans in the 21st century has to be video.
Like any other language, it affects how I think and how I interact with the world. The origin of the word is Latin, and it means “to see.” So what I capture on video and what I watch on my TV or smartphone affects the reality I experience.
Unlike Swahili or Arabic, video is young. There are buildings in Toronto older than video. If I place the dawn of this new language at the Muybridge horse in 1877, then humans have been under its growing influence for less than 150 years. That’s just a few generations, a few short snaps of the shutter of our history.
But so far, nothing I’ve said gets to the real heart of video. Its essential nature is much more profound.
Just before COVID, my aunt sold her house in Brampton. A house I had lived in a few times throughout my childhood. In the basement, cleaning out the cellar, I found a box of videotapes.
I took them home, fearing they’d be thrown out, and they sat in storage for years. Until now.
Watching VHS tapes isn’t easy. I can’t bring up an app. My Xbox doesn’t have a DVD drive, let alone VHS. But I recalled borrowing a VCR from my father-in-law, so I hunted it down from under the basement sink, set up the mess of wires on a spare desk in my office, and hit play.
I was greeted by myself, age 3.
This is the first video of me, just before my brother was born, in the spring of 1990, more than 30 years ago. Watching it now feels like discovering a window into my past. And I’m left with questions that do not have easy answers, such as:
What are his fears and desires? Is the world he sees different than mine?
Watching him made me realize I’m incredibly fortunate to access my past in this way. When my mom was in her 30s, she couldn’t see what her childhood was like just hanging around the house. She couldn’t hear her voice or watch her child-self run around for hours. Her youth is a box with no latch, no key.
So this is the power of video. I can open a door to the living past.
I met someone else on the tapes: a man that’s been dead now for over 15 years. My dad. He makes an appearance when I least expect it. Sometimes he’s sitting with us in the den. Or he shows up from a business trip and plays football with his sons. Other times, he’s in the background, doing dad stuff.
He’s around my age here, yet he seems younger and more spirited than me. As a father myself, I wonder what advice he would have offered. Where would he want to take my daughter on weekends? He seems so close that I could ask him. Video feels alive, but it’s a trick of light. Thin, delicate frames of celluloid moving too fast for my eye to notice.
But does it matter that video is a trick? Aren’t all languages at their core a collection of abstract parts? Some scratches of ink and warm sounds that urge me to act.
At least I can hold the tape and say, “This is where my history is kept.” With modern video, it’s not so easy.
Although consuming video is more convenient and better than ever before, the footage I capture on my iPhone or the movie I watch on Netflix is housed in a series of data centres, walled off from the public. So I have access to the output, but not the source. I can’t hold or smell this ethereal matter. Instead, I summon it through translucent screens.
Despite this concerning flaw, I’m obsessed with video.
Here I am, a 36-year-old father running around on my only day off, capturing snippets of people staring at their screens. I love video, and I have always wanted to make them. If I complete this video, I’ll have accomplished something I’ve wanted to do since I was a child.
But why am I making it?
We say video will rot our brains, but I’m not so sure. I’m part of the most educated generation in the history of Earth and possibly the beginning of time. And we were raised on video. Some of us received its supplemented light more than the sun itself.
It’s a pastime without equal. I can watch an endless stream of video everywhere I go.
I could watch while my children nap. While hanging out with my friends. While posting on a wall. I could even strap video to my head and let it wash over me like a beautiful multi-dimensional dream.
Video is one of the only technologies I can think of that’s faded just as much as it has advanced. There is more video than ever, but where are all the movie theatres? Some of my favourite places to watch a movie have disappeared.
The Eglinton Theatre in Toronto, for example, is now an event space. When I walk up to the ticket booth, I notice that it’s used for storage. And the little theatre I used to go to in Orangeville is now a church.
As marriage vows and gospel fills old theatres, churches across the city are transforming, too. Some of the biggest houses of worship I walk passed on my way to get a coffee are now expensive lofts. It feels like people aren’t gathering anymore. We’re watching our videos on state-of-the-art home entertainment systems, and no one is invited.
Video used to mean community.
“It really is night and day, honestly.”
This is Phil. He owns Philly D’s Olde Time Emporium, a movie rental store in Owen Sound.
“It's a… it's a shadow of what it was is maybe the best way to put it. Fridays and Saturday nights you would have six, seven people working at a time. You would have lineups at the counter with three tills going.
“When I started, it was a meeting place. So the amount of people that would be in your store is crazy. And people would be in there for like an hour and a half two hours. Not just looking for movies but also running into other people that they know, friends and that. It was a social gathering as much as anything.”"
When I was researching this One Word, I discovered a 2019 article about an abandoned Blockbuster in Owen Sound. I also discovered that the owner of the last surviving video rental store in town used to work there.
So I got in my car and drove, drove, drove passed the windswept plains and white-boned wind turbines. An impromptu, and much-needed road trip, and what awaited me at the end of the journey… it was surreal.
As a child, Blockbuster embodied a feeling that I’ve never managed to replace. We’d go there on Fridays, like thousands of families in the 90s, and search for a video that drew us together on the couch. Then, on Sunday or Monday, I’d hop in the Ford Windstar with mom to return the tape.
This benign chore, one that I was glad to be rid of when Netflix arrived, is one of the things I miss the most.
“Now you wouldn’t think twice about putting something on and just having it play in the background. Or you're doing three other things while you're watching a movie and you're not really even… you're more consuming it rather than enjoying it.”
Looking back on the interview with Phil, I was impressed by his kindness. A stranger with a camera asks him for an interview, and he opens his store early and chats for over an hour.
I asked Phil: Do you miss the old days working at Blockbuster?
“Oh yeah most definitely, there's a lot of really fun times I miss, certainly. I do this mostly by myself now. I miss having the other people around all the time too and all the different jobs that you would have. And the socialization.”
I thought the derelict Blockbuster would be the highlight of the trip, but it turned out to be Phil. He had witnessed how video changed his community, and he was kind enough to share those stories with me.
“Even 15, 20 years ago, bars were packed in this town. We had four or five bars, so every Friday and Saturday night there'd be lineups to get into bars, and you just don't see that, like the streets are basically empty at nine o'clock on a Friday night and Saturday night now.
“Everyone is just within their homes either playing video games or streaming. There's no social gathering. I don't know if it's the chicken or the egg. Because we don't have things like Blockbuster, or that people don't go out. Or whether they've just got into the convenience of ‘You go to work. You go home. You do your entertainment.’
“You do a zoom chat rather than actually getting together with people. There's so much remote stuff. Apparently we're connected more than ever through different social media. But are we really connected?”
If all employees at Blockbuster matched his class, then perhaps it was people like him that made the old days of video so nostalgic.
“I have conversations with pretty much everyone that's in the store,” said Phil. “They're always looking for recommendations. You get to know your actual customers and what things they probably would like and what things they wouldn't like, so you can give them a lot more information than they're ever going to get just swiping.
“You know the one thing I can say is I never see anyone upset or angry in my store. Everyone has sort of a smile when they walk in. Whether they had it before they walked in or not I don't know, but there is just that feeling that people get when they walk into the store. People that will spend hours in here looking at movies just because it puts them in a happy spot.”
Video has grown up, and I along with it. I feel proud of how far it’s come, but I’m not sure I fully understand where it’s taking me. And I must accept that it’s possible what was special to me about this fascinating and strange language will soon be gone forever.
I can stare into screens and smartphones and augmented glasses every waking second. Video transports me across landscapes, through time, and into other worlds. I cannot deny the potent energies associated with that thrill.
I can even visit my past and meet the little boy I left behind, decades ago.
The one who talked endlessly and loved with wide open arms. I forgot about him. I forgot about his life. As I watch the tapes, I remember, little by little.
The feel of the carpet in the upstairs den. The subtle comfort of the TV’s soft blue light. The peppery scent of dad’s bay rum aftershave.
But especially, how I looked forward to Blockbuster movie nights. Because I got to sit down with my family, share an experience, and even more strangely, when the credits rolled, I would hit stop, then rewind, and as the VCR spun, to our everyday world we would return.
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