There are the normal, run-of-the-mill video stores, and then there's VisArt. Tucked away in a shopping strip on 7th Street near downtown, VisArt is familiar to readers of CL's annual Best of Charlotte issues, given its habit of winning the critics' prize for Best Video/DVD Rental Store year in and year out. And the main reason for its multiple victories is its wide array of titles, including many unfamiliar to even the most astute filmgoers. Sure, both Blockbuster and VisArt carry Casablanca and Brokeback Mountain. But guess which one stocks the 1983 cult flick Geek Maggot Bingo, or the 1969 exploitation feature Ride a Wild Stud, or the 1977 Italian sleazefest Caligula Reincarnated As Hitler?
"Our offbeat titles do really well," states Twiggy Cerniglia, a manager at the Charlotte VisArt (stores can also be found in Durham and Chapel Hill). "In fact, they're one of the main reasons people come here. Online services like Netflix and Blockbuster might be convenient and cheap, but they don't offer many of our selections."
That's for sure. VisArt offers an impressive array of mainstream movies, but it's the store's niche flicks that stand out. And you never know where you might find something off the beaten path. Check out the shelves labelled Indie Documentary and, stuck between all the uplifting and enlightening works that seek to make us better people, you'll find a 1964 oddity called Go Go Go, World! The box cover promises many wondrous sights on the tape, including "a restaurant that serves up delicious dog meat ... a chastity belt store ... baby sellers ... and a couple of queer bodybuilders." Not exactly The Sorrow and the Pity, eh?
Look among the anime offerings, and you'll run across one of the tapes in the infamous Spike & Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation, this one featuring (among other shorts) Schindler's Fist, Rez-Erection and Proper Urinal Technique. The Adult Novelty section, chockful of softcore exploits, reveals Cooking With the Porn Stars, in which XXX actresses concoct their favorite dishes wearing nothing but an apron. At VisArt, almost every section might yield something unusual, though I hasten to add that parents can rest easy: The Family and Children's New Releases sections are kink-free.
Because the employees take pleasure in offering all manner of subsections, entire rows are devoted to the works of single filmmakers. But because this is VisArt, don't think they limit themselves to popular figures like Alfred Hitchcock and The Marx Brothers. John Waters rates his own heading, not just for his later, tamer films but also for his controversial, taboo-shattering flicks like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. Russ Meyer's "big boob" extravaganzas fill out a couple of rows, while iconoclasts like Andy Warhol, Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway merit their own corners. Even the inimitable Ed Wood, he of Plan 9 From Outer Space infamy, has been generously afforded his own spot in the store. But among these individuals, it's the bad boy from Baltimore who rates highest among patrons.
"Everybody loves John Waters," expresses Cerniglia. "People really like all our subsections devoted to these filmmakers. But it's safe to say that Waters and David Lynch rent much better than Ed Wood!"
Alternative lifestyles are showcased in a short row called Bizarro Lifestyles (tapes include Weird Mardi Gras and Pierced and Painted), while the Short Films section is packed with avant garde and cutting edge works, from the moderately benign (don't miss the classic short Bambi Meets Godzilla, featured on Experimental Avant Garde Series, Volume 19) to the seriously deranged (one cassette includes three films by frequent Charlotte visitor Joe Christ). Meanwhile, the Exploitation section finds its life blood in nudity, mainly of the female variety. The ever-popular Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS series can be found here, along with This Nude World, a look at nudist colonies, and Bell, Bare and Beautiful, which proudly lists its leading lady's measurements right there on the box cover (48-24-36, for those taking notes).
Finally, there's the Cult section, which is the ne plus ultra of rental categories for those looking for the weird side of cinema in Charlotte. Again, the gamut ranges from the mildly offbeat -- Arnold Schwarzenegger (then billed as Arnold Strong) in 1970's Hercules In New York -- to the truly demented -- 1979's They Eat Scum, featuring cannibalism, bestiality, transvestite rapists and the heroine getting drowned in the gushy innards of a giant squashed cockroach.
Yet perhaps because people who rent titles like They Eat Scum know what they're getting into, Cerniglia confesses that nobody really complains about VisArt stocking such pictures. "When people do complain, it's usually about the French films, which can be different. I had many people return Anatomy of Hell [the controversial 2004 drama from Catherine Breillat, the director of Fat Girl and ask for a refund.
"Actually," she states with a laugh, "the biggest complaint is that we don't carry porno."
Urban Explorer's Handbook