Hollywood Express is closing at the end of July. Movies will be distributed by Cloud. Have you ever tried talking to the Cloud?
By Harvey Blume
“Something is being subtracted from Cambridge,” I said to Joe McClure, manager of Hollywood Express. “Some little piece of what we like to think of as Cambridge will be gone.”
“Exactly!” he replied. “I hope you put that in your story.”
I was visiting the Hollywood Express near Porter Square in Cambridge to talk with Joe about the imminent shut-down of the once proud four store enterprise, scheduled for the end of July. In my chats with Joe over the years we mostly agreed about films and directors: about how, for instance, Martin Scorsese should have hung it up lo these many films ago, though Joe did not share my view that Hugo (2011), marked a temporary return to form; about Hollywood’s habit of misrepresenting its most dire and genuinely depressing products as vaguely upbeat or comedic, Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), for example, and more recently, the Coen Brothers fine but deeply disillusioning Inside Llewyn Davis (2013.)
But about the end of Hollywood Express we were in complete accord: Cambridge was about to lose an element of what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call its brand.
Conversations with Joe, and others who worked at Hollywood Express, were one of the things that drew me. The people working the cash register were hardly only clerks. Hollywood Express wasn’t Walmart or Shaws — or, for that matter, Blockbuster. Hollywood Express employees gave a damn about film and enjoyed repartee. I remember one guy, at the Central Sq. store — the first to fold — who, with minimal provocation, launched into a perfect rendition of that scene in Aliens, where a crew member memorably whines: “Hey! We’re getting our asses kicked.” Another worker there told me about a weird movie she enjoyed — Six String Samurai (1998)— which I never would have seen without her hint and am glad I did.
For years I’ve made a point of going to Hollywood Express on two-for-one Tuesday, having been informed by the weekly emails about what new films were on offer. The last of such emails was the depressing one: the store was going out of business.
. . .
Joe has perspective. He says he’s sad but not bitter. He’d done a lot of things before he landed at Hollywood Express, where he’s worked for nineteen years, including production work in theater and opera. He’s going to give it a little time before he starts thinking about what he’ll do next, but then he’ll be thinking about it really hard.
And Joe has intellectual perspective. He cites a quote by director Peter Greenaway to the effect that everything started tilting toward nothingness when the remote was invented. Though in its way, the remote satisfied a childhood longing of mine, I know what he means: no need to budge, no need to use the body to change the ever-loving channel.
The subtraction of the body, the flesh, the personal interaction, is ongoing. Cambridge was once noted for its cinemas — the Orson Welles, the Central Sq., the Harvard Sq.. They were wiped out by video and video stores. (OK, the Orson Wells was wiped by fire.) And now the video/DVD stores are gone. When Hollywood Express expires there will be none to find in Cambridge, no place to go and rent a DVD, certainly no place that invites you to converse about one.
There’s nobody there anymore. DVDs will be distributed by Cloud. Have you ever tried talking to an aspect of the Cloud?
Joe and I wound up talking about Edison as an originator of cinema. We noted that to start with Edison had no sense of mass audience. He made films — actually, to start with, exquisitely ghostly paper tapes — and you put in your coin and `saw them privately, in your booth.
The argument can be made that we’re coming full circle. Cinemas are mostly gone along with the video/DVDs stores where, in the case of Hollywood Express, at least, you could share impressions about the medium and its products.
Now you get it from the Cloud. No conversation or communal experience necessary — or possible — at all.
I’ll miss Joe and his fellow workers. Not to be sentimental or nostalgic but a bit of Cambridge will be, as of the end of July, digitalized into absolute nothingness for me.
"Hollywood Express" from Adam Van Voorhis on Vimeo.
There was a film (above) made about Hollywood Express a few years back, a fine mini-documentary based on conversations with and between patrons and employees: these highlight the kinds of interactions that distinguished the store. But there is a hitch, namely the notion expressed by Joe McClure at the end of the film, that, therefore, Hollywood Express would always have a place. That, we know, has been proven wrong. The digital tide has washed it away.
Harvey Blume is an author — Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo — who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.
Pat Sherman says
RIP Hollywood Express. Any clue what’s going to take it’s place? My bet is on a cell phone purveyor, a real estate agency, or a CVS.
Gerald Peary says
Thanks, Harvey, for a heartfelt piece about the great Hollywood Express.By the way, Joe is right and you are wrong: Hugo sucks!
Harvey Blume says
Gerry, we disagree. I was charmed and moved by Hugo because by portraying Méliès Scorsese got to make a movie about, well, movies and his genuine love of them. There was something about his returning to his roots in this film. Reminds of what Kael said about Fiddler on the Roof, namely that with it the Jews of Hollywood finally make a film about themselves. I know you don’t buy it, but I’m saying Hugo was to Scorsese what Fiddler was to those aforementioned Jews. Of course, having made that movie, Scorsese gets back to making redundant films about history as one damn gang bang war after another.
Gerald Peary says
Harvey, reread Kael’s self-hating Jew article on Fiddler in which she praised the studios for having a non-Jew, Norman Jewison, direct the movie. As for Melies, Scorsese portrayed him as a grumpy old man who is revealed to have a heart of gold. Yuck, yuck, yuck.
Harvey Blume says
hmm . . . i may have to reread the kael. thanks. But about Melies, what was foremost to my mind is that he was honored, which seemed to wake Scorsese out of his slumber — for the duration of one film.
Harvey Blume says
Re-read the Kael review of Fiddler — “A Bagel with a Bite Out of It” — and wound up with much the same view I had of it initially: great piece, insightful, timely &, yes, philo-Semitic, probably the most openly so Kael ever allowed herself to be.
I know you’ll remember “A Bagel with a Bite Out of It” starts with that dreadfully condescending quote by Dorothy Parker, Parker denouncing Hollywood thus: “Once I was coming down a street in Beverly Hills and I saw a Cadillac about a block long, and out of the side window was a wonderfully slinky mink, and an arm, and at the end of the arm a hand in a white suede glove wrinkled around the wrist, and in the hand was a bagel with a bite out of it.”
This vision of Hollywood so offends Parker she can’t “even refer to the place by name.” (Back to Park Ave & environs for Parker.)
Kael’s piece ends by upbraiding Parker: “Didn’t it tell her that movies, like musical comedies, were made by gypsies who didn’t know to tack as masters, because they were still on the road being chase? Couldn’t Miss Parker, split down the middle herself — a Jewish father and a Gentile mother — see that that bagel was a piece of the raft, a comic holy wafer”?
In between, Kael praises the energy of the movie and writes her memorable lines about how with it the Jews of Hollywood have finally made a movie about themselves, their origins, their roots. She notes that snottiness is a worse affliction for art than vulgarity. Well said.
I know you object to Kael praising Jewison as director on grounds that as a non-Jew he was less likely to turn the movie into schlock. Not knowing Jewison as well you do I see nothing wrong with that cautionary note, schlock, esp. back then, being a propensity of many a Jewish writer, director, playwright, artist.
Now of course we have the sublime Coen brothers who take us beyond all that.
Or do you think not?