A Video Store’s Fight for Its Life, and for Freedom

'Heart of the Beholder'

‘Heart of the Beholder’

By now it’s a common observation that video stores are going the way of the dinosaur, as online video services (like this one) are making it easier than ever to watch any film, any time. Staples of the home video experience are fast receding into memory: driving to the local Blockbuster, haggling with the clerk over late fees, fumbling with VHS tapes (and even DVDs).

But there was a 20-plus year period when video stores were a staple of American civilization. So much so that they would occasionally become a lightning rod for community protest, should a particular film or films offend a local activist group. Such was the sad, sordid tale of Ken Tipton’s experience as the owner of the first video rental chain in St. Louis, a saga that so damaged Tipton’s life and public reputation that he took it upon himself to produce The Heart of the Beholder, a fictional account of the events that befell him, his family and his business.

Reel Talk’s Betty Jo Tucker sets up the scenario in her review:

After Mike and Diane Howard (Matt Letscher and Sarah Brown) open the first videocassette rental store in St. Louis, Missouri, their company grows into a multi-million dollar chain of video stores. Working hard and enjoying their success, the happy couple have no inkling of serious problems to come. When a religious organization called the Citizens for Decency asks the Howards to stop renting a movie titled Hail Mary, they agree in order to avoid confrontation with the group. However, it’s a very different story when the CFD comes back requesting the removal of an entire list of other “objectionable” films including Splash, Blazing Saddles, and Mr. Mom.

I know what you’re thinking: What in the world could be objectionable about Splash? “It’s about bestiality,” complains a CFD supporter. “Tom Hanks has sex with a fish,” she declares angrily.

But it only gets worse for the Howards and their franchise, as they make the well-principled but ill-fated decision to carry Martin Scorsese’s hot potato The Last Temptation of Christ even as other video stores keep it off their shelves. This leads to the Citizens for Decency bringing an expensive obscenity lawsuit against the Howards, in which the Howards valiantly fight for their First Amendment rights.

Felix Vasquez, in his review for Film Threat, points out the highlights of the film, as well as its lasting significance:

Matt Letscher gives the stand out performance of the film as this man who simply just wants to get ahead in life through an honest business and pays the price when he refuses to back down to pressure on his business. The Christian mafia-like wave of violence and harassment that brushes over him and his family manages to change him into a man who simply wouldn’t let himself be bullied any longer. Letscher is powerful here, and Tipton pulls utterly excellent performances from everyone involved.

Why is “Heart of the Beholder” so worthy of its hype and controversy? Because it’s volatile; it’s a volatile film with depictions of occurrences that can happen to either of us. It can happen to you, it can happen to me simply for writing this review, and it continues to happen to folks who just want to live their lives, by folks who think they can decide for us. This is much more than an independent film, it’s an important statement.

Watching Heart of the Beholder on this site, you can’t help but wonder if such an orchestrated attempt to assault a video business on issues of obscenity, or other could happen today on the web. While it’s impossible to physically picket a website the way the Citizens for Decency does in the movie to the Howards’ brick-and-mortar stores, the ways to boycott or defame a business are as easier as ever thanks to social networks and the viral spread of information. Which makes Ken Tipton’s example of fortitude and courage in taking a stand for cultural freedom as relevant today as ever.

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