PRINT March 2003


1984: World of Video

Vintage videotapes.

WORLD OF VIDEO OPENED UP on the southeast corner of Twenty-first Street and Second Avenue in New York on November 10, 1984, according to my diary. It was one of the first stores in the city to rent movies, and I think I was its first customer: I lived eleven stories up in the same building in a one-bedroom apartment, house-sitting for a friend who had recently gone to Los Angeles to make videos for a new show called MTV. She had left behind a VCR and a giant TV that had been hooked up to cable and HBO—four things that were still pretty rare at the time. In that Orwellian year, she was my Big Brother.

Half the tapes at World of Video were formatted for Betamax, a longer form than VHS with much clearer sound and sharper images. Sony owned the rights to Betamax and wouldn’t share them, so the alternative, cheaper, inferior VHS version was born. Early VHS recordings had notoriously bad sound. I still have a copy of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate on two cassettes, and you can’t understand a word. It should have had subtitles.

Renting a film for the day was a happy new experience. The obvious advantages were privacy, convenience, the view-at-any-time factor, the pause button, and the rewind mechanism (to play it again); videotapes were also the perfect solution for the author of Why I Go to the Movies Alone, the title of a little book of verse I wrote in 1980. I think I rented nine hundred films in my first month of membership. (World of Video was a “club”—it charged an initiation fee and published a homemade newsletter.) I couldn’t believe my luck in living in the same building—there were late fees right from the start of video rental, but all I had to do to drop off a movie and maybe pick out another was take the elevator. A visit to the liquor store across the street was harder work. I would literally spend hours poring over the titles—the foreign and cult classics, the directors’ cuts, the adult section, comedy, action, drama. It was all at World of Video.

Back then there was only one copy of each title. If The Swimmer—starring Burt Lancaster, based on a short story by John Cheever—was just out and that was the tape you wanted, you would have to make a “reservation” to get it. I remember renting Blade Runner, keeping it for seven days, and almost getting kicked out of the club. (“Hogging” was the term for late returns.) Come to think of it, I should have kept that tape forever; it was the version that originally came out in theaters, the one with the Harrison Ford voice-over, and you can’t get that version anymore (except maybe on eBay); the only one they sell now is Ridley Scott’s director’s cut. No hard-boiled Philip Marlowe/Jim Thompson film noir voice-over; lots of dead space on the sound track instead. The director’s cut sucks.

Pornography was the perfect subject matter for the VHS experience. World of Video had plenty, and all kinds—hetero, gay and lesbian, s/m, and a new variation, amateur porn. This I really liked. I was never into professional porn, with its fake moans, its circular tits that never sagged, its stupid story lines that took up half the show. Amateur tapes were real—real smiles, real laughter, shot in real time, with people who lived next door. Good take-your-time sex instead of a thirty-minute closeup of a slam-and-ram. Amateur porn was natural. Natural is good. Natural used to be good for twice a night.

Rental porn essentially killed adult theaters. Physically, everything changed. Instead of heading up to Times Square, buying a ticket, and picking out a seat comfortably far from the rest of the wankers, you could grab a hard-core video and look forward to your very own couch in your very own living room and that fast-forward button, the key accessory to porno-viewing pleasure. You could even invite your friends over. Home entertainment was starting to happen. Forget ABC’s Saturday Night Movie. World of Video was the way to go.

Richard Prince has exhibited his paintings and photographs for over two decades.