by Wendy A. Horwitz
Do you check out Roger Ebert’s movie reviews? Scan Rotten Tomatoes’ ratings of both current and past movies? Well fuhgedaboudit. Instead, ask William “Bill” Mercer, film connoisseur extraordinaire. Most days, you’ll find him behind the counter at the Video Library, 7141 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy.
It’s one of those cold, rainy Saturdays. A woman asks for a movie that’ll appeal to her 14-year-old son, 11-year-old daughter and herself. Bill, a 50-ish Germantown resident with a salt-and-pepper beard, lists a dozen films, from 1940s’ classic capers to contemporary, child-friendly dramas. The family happily accepts “Big” with Tom Hanks. A man hurries in, looking for “that documentary about the Spanish Civil War.” In the back of the store, a lively party gathers to watch a movie in The Little Theatre, outfitted with 25 comfy seats and free popcorn. The man looking for the documentary isn’t in a rush anymore; he’s in an animated discussion with Bill.
Bill has worked at the Video Library since the mid-1990s, when he left a career in printing and marketing to care for his ailing mother. The original store (now the home of Mi Puebla Restaurant, 7157 Germantown Ave.) had four registers and about 25,000 movies; currently, there is one register and about 17,000 DVDs and VHS tapes.
At first, the flexible hours appealed to Bill, but he soon enjoyed interacting with the community. “People are surprised you’ll actually help them,” he says. “If we don’t have a movie, I’ll call downtown, and I try to read about films even if I don’t see them all.”
I ask him why “one of the last remaining video rental stores in the galaxy,” as the store’s website says, endures. “People want to hold the physical DVD, really browse,” Bill says. “Have personal contact. And they have idiosyncratic requests. Besides, technology has its limits. One time, this woman calls to say she’s streaming a video, and it froze; do we have the movie? She races in,” he laughs. “It was right at a suspenseful point.” And during “small catastrophes, hurricanes, snow storms, everyone wants to hunker down with a film.”
When Bill rents you a DVD, you forget that the pizza’s getting soggy at home. He starts talking about Quentin Tarantino’s films: “’Django Unchained’ is a parody of a spaghetti Western. The dialogue’s funny, but it doesn’t work as well as ‘Pulp Fiction.’ And ‘Reservoir Dogs’? Shock value only. Sure, entertainment’s fine; it’s fun seeing ‘X-Men’ movies with my nephews. But people today seem to just want the noise.” He gestures an explosion. “Superheroes instead of characters. Even ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ — a smart, well-written film with complex characters and moral problems — some viewers wanted more about Maya’s (Jessica Chastain) personal life!”
Although Bill’s own taste runs less to the “commercially driven movie,” if you’re in the mood for spectacle, he enjoys finding you the perfect diversion. And in the process, you’ll learn something.
He vividly describes scenes from Tarsem Singh’s “The Fall.” “It’s visually beautiful, filmed in out-of-the-way places around the world. There’s a parallel to the ‘Arabian Nights’ but with a sinister twist.” Akira Kurosawa’s films have “subtle stories, excellent direction. With foreign films, we really pay attention, take nothing for granted. Even the humor’s different; we get perspective on our own society.”
We talk about controversies regarding race. “Viewers complained that ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ romanticized a harsh life, poverty, but they didn’t get it! It’s the child’s point of view, how she survives, copes. Pre-conceived notions inform opinions,” he says. “Look, ‘Tropic Thunder’ offended some. It’s not a particularly good film, but ‘racist’? Yeah, Robert Downey, Jr. is in brown-face.” He laughs kindly. “But it’s a parody of method acting, of how actors do anything to get a part, of making a war movie.”
Bill is passionate about film, but his real love is literature. As a fiction-writer and avid reader, he worries that the new “Anna Karenina,” based on one of his favorite novels, “doesn’t translate to film. How do you capture the relationships among the brothers? Film has its own grammar.” For Bill, movies that come close to literature’s power include “On the Waterfront.”
Bill’s involvement with movies extends beyond the Video Library. He has critiqued screenplays and assisted in productions for Michael “Mike D.” Dennis, founder of Reelblack, the local production and promotion company dedicated to African-American film.
Media and the arts run in the family. When Bill, who has no wife or children, was growing up in West Philadelphia in the 1960s, his father, William “Rosko” Mercer, was an innovative radio announcer in Pennsylvania, New York and California. (Bill graduated West Catholic High School and completed some coursework at LaSalle University.)
Bill recently found letters describing the challenges his father faced as a black man breaking into radio at that time. “There’s always a gap between the persona and who people really are,” Bill notes. “He seemed so relaxed. I hadn’t known how hard it was.”
For more information: juiceandvideo.com or 215-247-3020.