Movie rental hot spots -- John Waters takes us to Video Babylon in Baltimore

The only reason I ever rent videos is to make copies of my all-time favorite films for the enjoyment of my houseguests. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know all about the FBI warning at the beginning of every tape, but what can I say? I’m a video rebel.

Video Babylon is the best place in Baltimore to begin building your at-home library. Located in the center of a blue-collar neighborhood and two doors up from a gay men’s bar, the store tries to please both types of customers no matter how different their tastes may be. Inside, there is very little eye contact among video renters, but a general live-and-let-live attitude seems to flourish. Nobody here is looking for middle-of-the-road. Musicals. Cult. Porno. Violence. That’s it. That’s all they carry. At Video Babylon, it is possible to see a steelworker and his wife waiting in line to rent Faces of Death alongside a bunch of older gentlemen plunking down their deposits for Homo Alone. My kind of shop.

It’s all about extreme taste — both ends of it. The ground floor of the store displays what its brochure calls the ”Family Entertainment Films,” even though no one under 21 is allowed inside. ”Family Entertainment” at Video Babylon means non-pornographic. ”Classic” denotes Valley of the Dolls or the Jayne Mansfield-Little Richard starrer The Girl Can’t Help It. Show-tune enthusiasts thrill to the extensive selection of ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s musicals as off-work muggers (hey, even criminals need to relax) drool nearby in the horror section over the latest Chainsaw Massacre release. And the screen goddesses (Liz! Bette! Joan!) so heavily featured never seemed so human as in their biggest turkeys (The Driver’s Seat, Wicked Stepmother, Berserk). This is one video shop where there is no such thing as a bad film.

As a movie director, I find it flattering to see all my own work displayed on a special shelf with my name next to Pasolini’s and Warhol’s, but embarrassing, too — suppose somebody recognizes me and thinks I’m on a low-rent promo tour? Or worse yet, suppose no one has rented them? The best place to hide is the nonexploitive ”lesbian” section that usually surprises with its curious selections. Here’s a personal favorite: Therese, a reverent, arty, very French, subtitled film about an obsessive and insane nun. ”Yeah, honey,” the male clerk admits to me, ”I liked it too, but not one person has ever rented it besides you.” Oh, well, so much for art.

Downstairs is the porno. I hate those big video stores that act morally superior by announcing they don’t carry X-rated movies. ”Family” this and ”family” that. If I had a family I’d be furious that moral busybodies are taking the perfectly good word ”family” and using it as a code for censorship the same way ”states’ rights” was used to disguise racism in the mid-’60s.

At Video Babylon, porno (excuse me, adult video) costs $3.25 to rent, 50 cents more than regular tapes (guilt tax?). It’s located in what appears to have been a subbasement. The ceiling is so low that if you are over six feet tall you literally have no choice but to hang your head in shame as you visually cruise the neatly categorized inventory (gay, bi, straight, chubby- chaser), subdivided by racial preferences-white (Edward Penishands), black (Black Throat), Hispanic (Border Buns). So what if porno is the worst date you could have on a Friday night? So what if it has all the appeal of watching a gallbladder operation? It’s safe, isn’t it? Maybe people need this stuff to decide what their sexual fantasies really are. I never knew that lots of single, straight women rent gay male porno until the clerk told me, did you?

Video Babylon is what home entertainment is all about. Where else can you expand your film literacy, explore your sexual fantasies, and, if you’re lucky, get asked out on a date by a real-life psychopath? To hell with the chain stores, I say; Norman Rockwell was right. Keep your business with the mom-and-pop shops, where it belongs.
— John Waters, the writer and director of 1988’s Hairspray and 1990’s Cry-Baby, is writing the screenplay for his next movie, Glamourpuss.