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Man vs. machine

Loss of Video To Go removes critical human touch

Lansing movie rental institution Video To Go announced its eventual closing on social media last week. The Frandor-based shop has already started selling off its inventory and will remain open indefinitely until it is sold.

In an attempt to prove how important Video To Go is, I did an experiment. I Googled weirdo movies, figuring that I wouldn’t find many of them on the Internet, thus proving the importance of a physical movie collection. I failed. I found everything from “Titicut Follies” (free, YouTube) to “The Seventh Continent” (free, YouTube) to “Cannibal Holocaust” ($2.99, Amazon) to — yuck — “Salò” (free, Vimeo).

Video To Go’s collection of 35,000 movies is massive — but small compared to the Internet. This is a great time for movie buffs, because you can get anything 24/7 online. But the collection is not the full story. After my Internet test, I talked to Video To Go owner Tom Leach. I mentioned how much I love the 1973 horror film “The Wicker Man” and how I had discovered it for the first time at his store. I could practically hear the crackle of electricity in Leach’s brain when I told him that.

“That’s with Christopher Lee, right?” he asked, his voice lifting. Then he started rattling off similar movies I might like. “Have you seen ‘The Creeping Unknown?’ A spaceship goes into space with a full crew and comes back with one person.”

“Yes,” I thought. “This is why I love video stores.”

When Video To Go closes, Lansing will lose a world-class collection of movies. But the bigger loss will be Leach and his crew: people with skulls full of movies, people who have spent their lives watching, evaluating and categorizing movies.

Leach got his start as a film curator at age 12, showing 8mm Castle Films shorts to his neighborhood buddies. He did this in the dorms at Michigan State University as a student and professionally for the university after. (“Harold and Maude” was especially popular, he said.)

Video To Go began in Haslett in 1982 at the height of the VHS/Betamax wars. During this time, home video took off alongside the rise of Hollywood blockbuster films. This was a time when families could sit together on a Friday night with a pepperoni pizza and experience the terror of “Jaws” in their living room. Over the next 33 years, Leach categorized thousands of movies, curating niche shelves like cult, film noir, and superhero films. Video To Go stocked titles on virtually every format: VHS, LaserDisc, SelectaVision, DVD and Blu-ray. But it was format that eventually killed the store.

When asked why Video To Go is closing, Leach told me that “the format doesn’t support the volume.” With the wide availability and convenience of streaming, there aren’t enough people renting DVDs to pay the rent. You can rent five movies for $6 at Video To Go, but for $8 per month you get unlimited access to over 10,000 movies on Netflix.

Movies help us explore our reality — history, language, politics, geography, etc. — through visual storytelling. Cinema is constantly evolving and exploring new territory. But companies like Netflix and Amazon seek to shape your viewing with algorithms and are only interested in letting you explore territory that turns a profit. Netflix serves you movies based on what you’ve watched in the past, a reductive and dim way to recommend movies.

To really explore the daunting and massive world of movies, you need a human touch. A good video store owner, like Leach, is a docent who stands ready to offer you real choices and experiences. This is a valuable job in society, and it saddens me that it’s going away.

(Neal McNamara is a former staff writer for City Pulse.)


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