News Column

The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn., John Beifuss column

June 27, 2013

YellowBrix

June 27--In a city that once seemed as dense with video rental stores as it still is with houses of worship and places to drink, Black Lodge Video is -- to borrow the name of the 1996 Bruce Willis remake of Akira Kurosawa's "Yojimbo," both of which movies you can find on the store's shelves -- the "Last Man Standing."

The corporate giants -- Blockbuster, Hollywood Video -- have disappeared. But Black Lodge perseveres, like the B-movies that crowd its shelves and find new fans even as many of the more expensive and prestigious pictures of the past fall by the wayside.

Black Lodge's survival and its influence on the local film scene will be celebrated Friday night when Memphis-based director Craig Brewer hosts a public DVD release party for his latest film, "Indie Origins," at the video store at 831 S. Cooper.

"We never in a million years thought we'd be the last man standing," said Matt Martin, co-owner and co-founder of Black Lodge with his friend and fellow film guru, Bryan Hogue. "We started as the smallest fish in the pond and wound up the only fish in the pond."

Said Brewer: "I think that what makes this store so important is how crucial it was to the growth of the local independent filmmaking scene. It's a resource of film knowledge. Every movie project I'm about to start writing, Matt puts me on a movie diet. He finds like 10 movies I may want to watch and explore and study that might help me in whatever type of story I'm working on."

"We are here to introduce you to movies you didn't know existed," Martin affirmed. He called Black Lodge "an experiment in film preservation ... closer to a cinema library than a video store." As such, it's a hangout as well as a business, with the crash-pad atmosphere that comes from having a big TV placed in front of sinkhole couches.

Named for a sinister location in David Lynch's cult TV series, "Twin Peaks," Black Lodge opened on Halloween in 2000, in a Midtown home at Cooper and Evelyn that once housed the Sounds Unreel recording studio.

"We started out as the 'underground' video store, with that mentality" Martin said. "Now we are the mainstream store and the underground store at the same time. We even have a children's section."

In other words, you can find Pixar along with "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" (1965), plus shelves devoted to classics, foreign films, individual directors, martial arts, horror, science-fiction, erotica and on and on. There are 22,000-plus titles in all, on VHS and disc, making Black Lodge's inventory the largest and most diverse in the South and one of the largest in the U.S., with an increasingly national -- even international -- word-of-mouth reputation, attracting such notable visitors as cult actor Crispin Glover, comic David Cross, former child star Corey Feldman, "Twin Peaks" regular Grace Zabriskie and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys. (A true prize among the store's memorabilia is a poster for "The Ninth Gate" that arrived unexpectedly in the mail, signed to Black Lodge by the film's director, Roman Polanski, who had heard about the store.)

The most esoteric titles at Black Lodge aren't the bizarre cult films like "Satan's Sadists" or "Black Gestapo." The rarest probably are found in the "Local Films" section, where the videocassettes and DVDs have been donated primarily by Memphis filmmakers themselves.

Black Lodge's support of these filmmakers -- and vice versa -- makes the store an appropriate site for Friday night's DVD release party for Brewer's new film. "Indie Origins" is a generous 107-minute documentary that looks back at the independent film scene that emerged in Memphis in the late 1990s, about the same time as the opening of Black Lodge and the 1998 founding of the Indie Memphis Film Festival (originally known as the Memphis Independent Film Festival, then the Delta Film Showcase).

With live music, free pizza and more, the party begins at 9 p.m., and admission is free.

A labor of love and cinematic shoutout to his fellow travelers in the pre-Internet, almost pre-DVD and very nearly pre-digital filmmaking trenches, Brewer's "Indie Origins" debuted last year at the Indie Memphis Film Festival. The DVD includes a bonus "walking tour" through Black Lodge, hosted by Martin (who, coincidentally, turns 39 on Friday). "Indie Origins" will be available exclusively at Black Lodge, Brewer said; Friday night, it will be offered as a free rental to those who sign up during the party for membership at the video store.

A memoir, history and anthology, "Indie Origins" celebrates that nascent, fresh, experimental and unselfconscious Memphis movie scene that existed at the end of one century and the birth of another, before Memphis' Ira Sachs won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2005 or Three 6 Mafia won an Oscar in 2006.

The documentary features clips from such key works as Mike McCarthy's "SUPERSTARLET A.D." (2000); "The Big Muddy" (1998) with Kaleo Quenzer; and Brewer's "The Poor & Hungry" (2000). It also incorporates mostly Brewer-shot footage from such camera-friendly ancillary events as the female pudding-wrestling bouts that occurred at Midtown's P&H Cafe on "Wanda Wilson Appreciation Day."

Perhaps most crucially, the documentary includes seven short films from the era in their entirety, along with interviews with the filmmakers, who put their work into context. The films include Brewer's "Clean Up in Booth B," a stripper story with an O. Henry twist; Brett Cantrell's mosaic-like portrait of a rodeo clown, "Eso-Phagus"; Geoffrey Brent Shrewsbury's urban legend-inspired punk video noir "You Better Behave," scored to an Oblivians song; Prichard Smith's funny happenstance-footage experiment, "Two Hundred Dollars on E-Bay"; "Blown," an action-packed crime saga by the Fine Grind Films collective; J. Lazarus Hawk's domestic horror story, "Morning Ritual"; and "Broke on Saturday," which showcases the D.I.Y. genius of surreal self-taught comedy-video auteur John Pickle.

Some of these films had special screenings at Black Lodge, founded by Hogue, 38, and Martin because "we loved the movies and couldn't think of anything else we wanted to do but watch movies and talk about movies," Martin said.

No wonder Black Lodge is open 365 days a year, from noon to midnight. "The store has never missed a day," says Martin, a night owl who lives at the Black Lodge house, which he and Hogue rent.

Love and dedication aren't necessarily profitable emotions, however. "It's just not a business where you make a lot of money, and it never was," Martin said. "There was a time when we barely survived at all and struggled to keep the lights on."

"It's still a struggle," Hogue said. However, the extinction of Blockbuster and other big-money competitors has somewhat broadened the store's clientele. Said Hogue: "We still have a loyal core base, but we get more people from Germantown, Cordova "

Brewer said Black Lodge enabled many Memphians to see his pre-professional films for the first time.

"Normally, you would show something at a bar or maybe get one screening at Malco, filled with cast and crew and friends and family, and that would be it. You never got a sense that Memphis was seeing your work on a larger scale until Black Lodge opened up its local section. You would start to actually hear from people."

Brewer said he donated 20 VHS copies of "The Poor & Hungry" to the store, but they all were stolen long ago. The drought will end in November, when the movie makes its debut on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download in a special edition from Brewer's BR2 Productions label.

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(c)2013 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

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