Your Own Hall of Fame: Alex Ross Perry on “Videoheaven” and “Pavements”

By Adam Nayman

Two movies, both alike in indignity, in the ’90s, where we lay our scene. Because neither Videoheaven nor Pavements—both putatively non-fictional pop-culture essay films written and directed by Alex Ross Perry—have officially been released, programmed at a festival, or even announced via trailers or posters, it’s tricky to write about their intricacies, either as standalone works or in conversation with one another. Even if you don’t believe in the scourge of spoilers, it’s different to deconstruct a movie following its Sundance premiere than via a Vimeo link, on top of which a movie like Videoheaven, which unfolds as a three-hour voiceover meditation on the cinematic depiction (and metaphysics) of American video-store culture since the early ’80s, is so dependent on fair-use laws for its excerpt-heavy contents that talking about specific sequences feels like asking for trouble. As for Pavements, which is more conventionally accessible than Videoheaven yet exponentially harder to describe as a “documentary”—owing to the fact that a good portion of its scenes are not, expressly speaking, “real”—its production has been so freeform that Perry wasn’t totally sure of what was in the version that he had just recently sent my way.

Those who have been paying attention online about the current status of Cinema Scope can probably understand why Perry—very much a Friend of the Magazine—would have been persuaded to jump the gun. Provisionally speaking (which would seem to be the fairest way to go about things at this point), I can say that both Videoheaven and Pavements are absorbing, funny and, in their respective ways, rigorous works of pop-cultural scholarship whose respective forms are appropriate to their subject matter. The cool, academic style of the former, with its obvious influence from Thom Andersen’s epochal Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), showcases Perry in big-picture film-critical mode, coolly elucidating the inception, expansion, corporatization, and dissolution of the VHS (and DVD) rental era. The latter, which seems indebted to Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007), is a kaleidoscopic meditation on the Stephen Malkmus–led ’90s indie rock outfit Pavement, or what an opening title card refers to as “the best and most important band of all time”—a gauntlet that’s also a wink at a self-selecting audience who are just as likely to laugh at themselves for nodding along at this assessment as they are to chide non-believers.

What’s at stake in these movies is, on one level, nothing more than an influential and yet increasingly obsolete cohort’s melancholic nostalgia—a look back in, if not anger, than regret at a landscape whose pleasures were less ephemeral and whose literal and figurative heroes and villains (including, for Perry’s purposes, Ethan Hawke’s Malkmus-like slacker-heartthrob in Reality Bites [1992] and Blockbuster-patronizing student filmmaker in Hamlet [2000]) were more easily pegged and hierarchized along a mainstream-versus-indie dialectic. Because Perry is a very smart guy—a writer who thinks like a scholar without ever lapsing into jargon—both Videoheaven and Pavements rise above the level of a whine (or a feedback loop), and yet are wide open to accusations of insularity; and, in the case of Pavements’ most hilarious metafictional gambit—which shadows the production of an American Idiot–style jukebox musical cobbled together out of the band’s catalogue—a misanthropic shish-kebabing of millennial Poptimism and profitous postmodernism on the same skewer. 

Misanthropy—or the perception of same—is probably the common denominator between Perry and his subjects. If it’s rather too easy to juxtapose his ex-video-store-clerk biography with the fast-talking (and Tarantino-ish) specimens highlighted in Videoheaven’s deep-cut montage, it’s not a stretch to compare him, positively, to Malkmus, whose sardonic lyrics belie a certain tenderness—the same quality that bled through in the best parts of Listen Up Philip (2014) or Her Smell (2018), where Elisabeth Moss so sentimentally (and unforgettably) serenaded her child with Bryan Adams’ “Heaven.” 

There’ll be plenty of time for Videoheaven and Pavements to be scrutinized as cultural histories (rewritten) by a very specific kind of winner, and for critics on considerably different generational wavelengths to assess (and likely reject) some of the implications: to listen to Pavement’s music the way that Pavement once listened to the Smashing Pumpkins and concede, similarly, that they could really give a fuck. For now, the following interview will hopefully serve as ground zero for the discourse around these handmade (and even homemade) movies. And if it ends up being my last piece for a magazine I started writing for 20 years ago—when I was working at a video store and carrying around a Discman containing Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain—it’s as good a note to end on as any. 

Cinema Scope: Would you consider these films, separately or together, as a gesture of departure from the stuff you’ve done before? They certainly have things in common as essay movies or analyses of popular culture. Where did the impulse to work outside of narrative fiction come from?  

Alex Ross Perry: I suppose I’d have to consider them as such, but only by default or maybe circumstance. I don’t think that Videoheaven and Pavements would make for an illogical double feature, nor would it seem like there was no clear throughline between the two. I think Pavements is more of a scripted and manufactured movie than it will ever seem like to any given viewer, but that’s mostly a product of my increasing lack of interest in traditional filmmaking, linear storytelling, or anything like that. 

Working on these two movies intensely and simultaneously throughout 2023 has made them of a piece to me, for sure, and they will always be, but that didn’t have to be the plan. Videoheaven began in late 2014, nearly six years before I got a call to see if I’d be interested in developing some outside-the-box ideas for a Pavement movie—not a Pavement documentary, but a Pavement movie. Inasmuch as I have basically culturally esoteric and irrelevant interests, like video tapes, horror movies, heavy metal, stuff like that, exploring something so deeply personal to me about video stores felt obvious. It all started when I read Daniel Herbert’s book Videoland, and began a dialogue with him about ideas to explore a documentary about the subject.

Fundamentally, the other crucial thing here is that I have now tried and failed—twice!—to make a TV show about video stores. One was a deeply personal, autobiographical show set at the end of the ’90s that I sold to Amazon, and never went anywhere. The other was an adaptation of the novel Universal Harvester that Jason Schwartzman and I developed, and also went nowhere. So, throughout these two failures, this essay film was always there for me, and the more it became clear that I’d never get corporate money to tell a video-store saga, the more important it was to finish this film on my own—perhaps the most personal movie that I will ever make!

The impulse for Pavements—or a germ present when I was first contacted to see if I’d be interested— was that somebody on the call said that “Stephen Malkmus feels like an Alex Ross Perry character,” which is ridiculous, but also I understood what he meant. He’s less overtly confrontational or challenging as a “character” in this movie and in real life than fictional characters I’ve created, like Philip in Listen Up Philip or Becky in Her Smell. But throughout the archive and even into the present, his behaviour occasionally verges on my absolute favourite question of human psychology and behaviour that is in some of those other movies: why is this person acting this way, why is everyone around them OK with it, and why are they so successful despite not conforming to traditional standards of human behaviour? Because they’re fascinating to watch, is always my answer. Malkmus, for over 30 years, has been and remains a fascinating character to watch, study, and consider. That’s probably Documentary Subject-Relations 101, but I’m new to this.

Scope: Can you talk about the writing process for Videoheaven? Or maybe start with the research process? Is it fair to surmise that it’s a bit of a homemade movie—one among many such projects started by filmmakers during COVID? How many people were involved in making it?

Perry: COVID helped, but again the movie was about six years old by then. But it went up a full gear during 2020 and 2021, only because the film’s editor, Clyde Folley, finally had more time to chip away at it, because with movie theatres closed in New York, people like us had nothing to do. He’s an editor and programmer at Criterion—anybody who has watched special features on a disc or on Criterion Channel has seen his editing. 

Ultimately, now it is something like seven or eight people involved in making the film. The two producers at the non-profit; Clyde; an assistant editor; our source wizard, who was tasked with helping compile nearly 200 clips in the best possible quality; Dan Herbert as an emeritus advisor, and then ultimately our narrator. However, for the writing component, most important to me was our other editor, Michael Koresky, who edited my un-academic writing into something clean, logical, and perhaps even correct. It’s a small team, with Clyde having done 90% of the total work. We will share a title card at the end. He’s a co-author of it in remarkable ways, something else I am enjoying learning about non-fiction film editors.

The research was heavy at the beginning, but Dan’s book provided that road map, which ultimately became the film’s structure. It starts off very factual, statistic-heavy in the early years of video stores, and as it moves on, the second half of the movie is my thematic analysis on what happened after the heyday of video stores, or what all these clips meant, or mean in retrospect. You can’t find fault with the facts at the beginning—because Dan is a real academic—but somebody other than me could arrive at totally different conclusions about the decline of video stores and how that played out onscreen. I guess that’s the same as academia: two papers on the same movie, both reasonably well-argued, neither what the filmmaker intended. 

Scope: There’s a line that keeps popping up in Videoheaven: “The movies talk about themselves.” I like this a lot, and it’s interesting that a filmmaker like Brian De Palma was ahead of the curve in assessing the symbolic or semiotic potency of the video-store space, whereas later on it served mostly as a backdrop for romantic comedies. It was a way to hint that the characters had inner lives, and taste, but rarely to the point where they genuinely talk about movies. It’s like a weird uncanny-valley thing: I remember always wondering what the characters on Friends would say about La Dolce Vita (1961), the poster for which is hanging in Monica’s apartment, or if the version of Die Hard (1988) they rented had actual profanity in it… 

Perry: Well, this is something that only people like us would ever think about. If they rent Die Hard on Friends, but then Bruce Willis appears in a later season as Ross’ girlfriend’s father, in this world, is there simply a guy who looks like Willis and has his mannerisms, and so on? And has he ever seen Die Hard? This question is of course made text in Last Action Hero (1993), with the Stallone Terminator 2 (1991) gag. To say nothing of the now well-known and HD-enhanced fact that on Seinfeld, Jerry owns Child’s Play 2 (1991) and Arachnophobia (1990) on VHS, along with Pretty Woman (1990), which stars Jason Alexander…I’m reading too much into all this, but so would a De Palma character. 

But the arc you’re describing is, I think, evident in the chronological story we tell. In the ’80s, in Body Double or Video Violence (1987), the space of the store is intrinsic to the story being told. By the ’90s, the video store was so common that it could stand in for any neighbourhood errand, and as time went on, depictions reveled in cinephilia a lot more. So even though a lot of the later movies I cite are quite poor, they are almost entirely about characters who seem to love movies and really, truly want to work in a video store in the 2000s. The narrative basically shifts from the ’90s to the 2000s from being largely about customers to largely about clerks. 

Scope: There are excerpts in Videoheaven that I found emotionally powerful in your very specific context: the idea of a video store as a social hub, or a cinephile refuge, the irony being that for a lot of ’80s cinephiles, VHS was a suspicious, disfiguring format. I feel like your movie is aware of that skepticism, but also sort of tries to transcend it in the spirit of community.

Perry: That’s probably one of several thesis statements I arrive at in the movie. The chapter about social relationships in video stores as depicted onscreen does really show that for about ten years, basically the entire ’90s, the video store was an inherently social space. Pre-internet, pre–message boards, like the record store or whatever, you had to go to learn and discuss, with employees, customers, friends… 

Obviously working at Kim’s on St. Marks in New York was hugely social for me, but these relationships are one thing from video stores that definitely aren’t gone. Lots of stuff is, but the culture we’re talking about was in movie-theatre lobbies, and now is in movie-theatre lobbies again, and online. It’s valuable wherever it is. Maybe something like Letterboxd is the internet’s video-store counter. I’m not on it, so I don’t know. 

But this gets into the connection between these projects again, which is of course somebody who’s getting older saying “things were better during my formative years,” but also, hopefully, asking “Why do we think that, why do we process and obsess over nostalgia so much, and what does that mean about shared cultural memory, specifically as it pertains to basically the first 20 years of my, Alex’s, life: 1984-2004?” 

Scope: I was wondering if Quentin Tarantino’s legend would hang over the movie a bit more, but then he never really literalized that part of his life in any of his movies—he was like a video-store clerk as auteur, rather than an auteur interested in video stores But there is a kind of Quentin-ness to the clerk characters inventoried in Videoheaven, so there’s a chicken-and-egg thing about, what came first: QT or the persona?

Perry: I hope we present this question. In our section on clerks—the concept, not the movie, but of course also the movie—we see plenty of QT-esque examples, but really not many pre-1992, when he would have first yammered his way into our hearts. If you look at our ’80s sources, which are presented chronologically, there aren’t really any encyclopedic cinephiles behind the counter. At the dawn of the store, in the ’80s, it was just another middle-class retail job—one with cooler perks, but not too different from a record store or bookstore. Plus, in most of the ’80s clips the scenes are usually about the customers, not the clerks. 

I’ll have to think about who the first, honest-to-God QT-esque clerk was onscreen. Randall in Clerks is 1994, and obviously autobiographical; Kicking and Screaming (1995) has one, but that’s later as well. This may be unanswerable!

Scope: How important was Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself to Videoheaven? Were there other films that ended up being similarly influential? Also, why—like Andersen—do you swap out your own voice for a narrator, when the observations are so obviously personal?

Perry: If I’m being honest, Los Angeles Plays Itself is my favourite documentary of all time…As Mark Peranson suggested to me after he saw Videoheaven, perhaps the greatest movie of all time. I’m constantly telling people that this project began in 2014 with Dan’s book…well, what else happened in early 2014? Los Angeles Plays Itself was remastered and finally re-released properly, and I could see it over and over again. So I likely trace that re-release back to my desire to, for better or worse, do what I’ve always done: love and obsess over a movie, and then see if I can make something like my version of it. I guess I like Room 237 (2002)a lot as well, because that’s very much on the pop end of the spectrum, while Los Angeles Plays Itself is on the academic end. Hopefully, Videoheaven splits the difference.  

As for the narrator, I just wouldn’t want to listen to my voice for three hours, nor would anybody, I don’t think. It was never a consideration. I’m no Scorsese. 

Scope: Moving onto Pavements, I guess the question is, what the hell is this movie? Or, maybe, how close is what the movie ended up being to whatever it was conceived as? There are elements that seem to have been calculated rather than found, but you blur those lines very purposefully. How involved was the band from the start? Who was the point of contact, what was the plan of action, and, basically, what happened?

Perry: Well, what do you think it is? Or, what isn’t it!? It’s a dinner with five entrees and no side dishes. I can answer what I think it is, but that’s like answering what is Pavement to you. Every fan will have a different answer, so we wanted the movie to reflect that disparity. It’s a scripted documentary that is also a musical. Or a non-fiction narrative movie. Or a feature film largely written and filmed in public. And then there’s honesty woven throughout, side by side with appalling bullshit. 

But basically, I was asked to come up with an idea for a Pavement movie. My idea was, let’s make every kind of music movie, since, aside from your Stones or Dylan—or other Scorsese-minted guys—you’re not getting more than one movie. So maybe that’s the ultimate joke: lean heavily into the absurdity that nowadays, every band gets a movie. Maybe a traditional documentary. Lots of bands get a biopic. Some bands get a museum. Even fewer get a theatrical show. So, wouldn’t meaning inherently be created if I posited that Pavement, a band that has to date never sold 500,000 copies of any single album, were so monumentally important that they had a full house of cultural appreciation? Which they do, to their fans. So let the movie come from that reality. 

And then, through the process of creating public-facing filming stunts such as the Pavement museum and the musical, my abstraction that was designed for the movie’s internal logic became something that existed, largely unquestioned, out in the world. It became real, and the documentary that was meant to be made about these perhaps-bogus events became a true depiction of these very real events. Even the biopic section, if it was announced that that exact cast was starring in a Pavement biopic for Netflix or whoever, people would be deeply disappointed and annoyed, but not incredulous. 

So, it was about convincing the band—but really just Malkmus—that this was a good idea. He thought it was. Everyone else cares more about the band in terms of being in the band than about micromanaging their “legacy,” such as it is. So they talked to me a lot, hours of interviews. I got a lot of ephemera for the museum from Matador, and from the guys in the band who still have anything to share.

Everything went as planned, except for what I’m saying about making a bogus Pavement museum and having thousands of attendees accept at face value that Pavement deserves a museum, so thus my fake museum becomes real, with no adjustment. Anything that changed over the last three-and-a-half years changed in ways that validated some of the logical and narrative conceits of the project in real time, and in public. Like Malkmus being referenced in Barbie—if I said in 2020 that I would want to suggest a billion dollars’ worth of people would hear the name “Stephen Malkmus” in a feminist fantasia, it would have been among the most improbable fictions in my initial outline. And yet….

Scope: I think the Pavement joke in Barbie was interestingly double-edged in a way that connects with the whole gist of Pavement. It’s very funny and/or triggering for people who know the band, which is a significant minority in the audience of a billion-dollar movie, and the flip side to that is that it can also just pass unnoticed for the majority. 

Perry: It’s the sort of thing we love about classic Simpsons: references to things you do not get, and maybe you come to understand them because you want to get the joke, or you revisit it years later and think, “How strange that there are such baffling references to this thing I thought I discovered as an adult in this show I enjoyed as a child.” There are Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) references on The Critic, and I’d surmise that 0.1 percent of viewers of that show would even know that was a real movie. 

But also, Greta Gerwig references Malkmus in a montage that, in terms of movies, also hits on The Godfather (1972). So that’s pretty totemic, and of course the Malkmus reference is also a Lou Reed reference, but still, neither of those guys are “the godfather of music.” So it’s pretty clever to me, on a few levels. It does feel like a line that could have been in Kicking and Screaming, which in some ways is maybe kind of the movie equivalent of Pavement. 

Scope: What is it about Pavement that you—as opposed to the hypothetical viewer of this film—cares about so much? I ask because, a bit like Nirvana, their legend seems to be very much about caring: acting like they didn’t care, not caring about being understood, not caring about success, or sales, or so on. But there’s no such thing as craft, music, or art without caring, and no band makes music for decades together and reunites without caring. 

Perry: Similar to Videoheaven, Pavement to me represents the signifiers, the narrative, and the history of my premium decade: the ’90s. They formed in late 1989 and broke up in November 1999. They frame those ten years perfectly, and if you think about the ’90s, which I do a lot, you’re thinking about alternative culture, indie ethos, sell-out whatever, integrity, all the stuff Ethan Hawke is on about in Reality Bites. And no band better represents that saga than Pavement. Not Green Day: they became huge with album number three, on a major label. Not Weezer: they began in 1994, on a major. Pavement were indie from the start to the end, and yet add 20 more years, and they’re iconic beyond all their peers. 

This is a central question about Malkmus: how much does he care? Famously, in the ’90s, it seemed like not at all. But we show now with the 2022 rehearsal sections that he has become a perfectionist about rehearsing these songs and performing them for audiences who are seeing them for the tenth time, or weren’t born when the band broke up in 1999. It’s a bizarre tension that fans can’t reconcile, and even all this time later, the only unique insight I have into this is based on private communication he has had on the editing process. Which has been exactly what I expected on the one hand, and totally surprising on the other.

Scope: The Pavement-jukebox-musical material is hilarious, and I’m interested in the reality of it—the rearranging of all these laconic non-radio songs into sing-alongs, or adding choreography. Beyond the question of whether any of this is “real,” I’m wondering if the lens on this stuff is meant to be ironic or sincere.

Perry: I don’t know if you watched the version of the movie where I myself appear as the musical’s director and posit this very question. But that’s the central tension between the musical, the biopic, and even this entire movie. Pavement were and are iconically ironic. Seemingly. But to their most devout fans, there is nothing ironic about admiring the poetry of Malkmus’ lyrics or the unique musicality of the band. When any story is told, in hagiographic doc form or as a shitty biopic, it becomes pathetically sincere. So the hope is that this movie clowns on all of that in the most Pavement way possible, which is to say it’s both and it’s neither because it’s something else. 

Musical theatre is sincere. The people who perform it do not do so ironically. Pavement placed in that context is, at first glance, sort of laughable to me, but as we say in the movie, Malkmus’ lyrics and music are simply closer to the intricacy of something like Sondheim than Green Day’s music is, and Green Day had a hit musical. Ditto Alanis Morissette, to bring it back to Canada. So my idea with the musical was that this could work, it should work, and it probably will—if it doesn’t, that’s the unscripted part that plays out while the cameras are rolling, at which point that becomes the narrative. 

But also, this gets at the heart of how we did the musical. Staging a single sequence in a narrative film meant to be a musical, like I think now exists in the MCU with a Captain America musical, it can be done well, but it’s just kind of a gag. Actually writing a show, arranging over 30 songs into new compositions and medleys, and sitting in the room with a dozen actors giving it their all for weeks—that imbues the musical with a lived-in reality that could only exist if we “made a musical and documented it” rather than “made a musical sequence to be in a movie.” This is what I like about how I made this whole movie: the amount of material on the margins or simply not in the frame exceeds what is in the movie by maybe five to one. There are entire songs, sequences, and dance numbers that we don’t even see a glimpse of in the edit. But the process of creating the whole show is more valuable to the reality of what is onscreen than any one number. 

Ditto the biopic. I wrote a lot of scenes we didn’t even shoot, and we shot scenes we ended up not using. It’s staging scripted performances as though it is all documentary: let’s shoot the whole musical, and we will figure out what we need in the edit. 

Scope: I definitely thought about Her Smell, which is also about an iconoclastic rock-star figure, and one whose paths might have crossed with Malkmus—or someone like him—in the early ’90s. In terms of a character that, as you say, refuses to conform, what’s the difference between trying to dramatize that character and trying to capture them? Do you feel that you’re somehow continuing to invent the idea of Stephen Malkmus? Does that make you a collaborator? A fan? An enabler?

Perry: In fact, it is canon that Becky did cross paths with Malkmus, because one of my phony items in the museum is a flyer for a Pavement show with Something She on the bill! But this is like the above, and why I have grown frustrated with two-dimensional storytelling. I take as much pleasure, if not more, in creating the backstory for the bands in Her Smell—when their albums came out, when they toured together, who joined the band last—as I do from the dialogue and blocking. Definitely more. So with this movie, I get to inherit 30 years of that, and, to me, that is what I want to be the 80% of story that exists outside the frame of the movie. 

“Inventing Stephen Malkmus” is a fascinating phrase, and even a good title for a silly published biography that probably should be in the movie. But to me, he has remained both transparent and inscrutable about who he is and wants to be as a musician. He’s clearly honest, sometimes even in a negative way, or at least he was a lot when he was in Pavement. But he’s also a total mystery, as you say earlier about how much he actually cares. So with a non-fiction portrait, using that term loosely, it’s been amazing to have the responsibility of showing a multifaceted character without the need to explain or rationalize him, because to the audience, they know that this is a real person with friends and family and also fans. 

The biopic section is sort of about this, the way we want to poorly psychoanalyze a real person in clichéd terms. But then we have Malkmus himself clowning through the museum interviews, playing along with some of my myths and fictions in ways I didn’t even know he was doing until I saw the footage later. 

Ideally, this movie raises more questions about the true nature of Malkmus and Pavement than it answers. And hopefully people know the answers are perhaps not to be trusted. I’d still like to see a three-hour Edvard Munch (1974)–style dramatization of the life of Malkmus, but even I had to stop somewhere. Nayman Adam