This article originally appeared in Volume I, Issue III of StoryBoard Memphis Quarterly in July 2022.
A group of strangers sit down in front of a screen. Their proclivities and backgrounds are varied, they have little in common, but they all know one thing: this movie is awful.
Not the kind of bad where one of them yawns and most of them pick up their phones, but the kind of awful where they can’t tear their eyes away. They’re hypnotized by the magical medley of cinematic mistakes. The movie crashes and burns so badly that a phoenix is born right before their eyes. Yelling at the screen is a physical necessity, an irresistible urge. They mock the actors and call out every ridiculous plot point. They look at one another and assure themselves that everyone else gets it, that they’re affected in the same way. When the credits roll and the lights flood over them, they walk up to a complete stranger and revel in what they’ve all just experienced – something that awful just can’t be contained. Every person in this group now has something in common, something they’re driven to share with one another.
At the same time, someone somewhere watched the same movie, alone, in the comfort of their own home. But they’ve been robbed of something. Maybe they enjoyed it, maybe they tweeted about it, maybe they made all the same jokes, but they’re alone in their experience of the movie.
The movie starring in this story isn’t important, there are thousands of movies in the world so bad they’re beloved. But here in Memphis, the gathering place for this experience is Black Lodge.
The brainchild of roommates Matt Martin and Brian Hogue, Black Lodge Video was founded in 2000 from a collection the young cinephiles had been building over years. Started when Blockbuster Video and the myriad mom & pop video stores were still a staple of American life and picking up a favorite Disney VHS to celebrate a good report card or browsing an aisle of new releases for date night was a physical, purposeful experience, Black Lodge might have been mistaken by a casual observer as just another iteration of the video rental store. The local flavor of Blockbuster.
But to call it a video rental store is to completely miss the point of Black Lodge. Renting a video is an element of the experience, but not the sum of all its parts. In the words of Matt Martin, “We bring people together. Art is vital to society, it’s a sacred practice. But bringing people together requires an extra step.” Black Lodge is the kind of place where a guitarist proposes to his band’s singer on stage. It’s the kind of place where regulars get a tattoo of the logo. It’s the kind of place where an attempt to drive out lingerers after closing by playing the worst movies the owners could think of becomes a weekly ritual with a packed house in pajamas watching the best in so-bad-it’s-good cinema.
Black Lodge is a lot of things to a lot of people. To some, it’s part of their very identity. To others, it’s a shelter, a place to indulge in cinema, music, or a game. To many, it’s the place they met their partner or their best friend. So it was a jarring experience to many in 2014 when the Black Lodge they knew closed its doors with plans to move and expand. Black Lodge reopened its doors in the new location in September 2019.
The separation between Old Lodge and New Lodge is unexpectedly poignant. Both seem to have their own spirits, with the old blending the grunge of the 90s and the cynicism of a post 9/11 world while the new embodies the bold, polished hope of a brighter future. “Old Lodge was for me,” Matt says solemnly, nodding to himself with the surety of a man comfortable with self-reflection, and then gesturing around him at the new Black Lodge at 405 N. Cleveland Street, “This one is for the community.”
The original Black Lodge was your high school friend’s comfortable but overly lived in house. It had a little box TV at the front of the main room and a well-used couch. The movie collection was displayed in a rambling maze of cozy rooms, each fitted with shelves overflowing with cases, towering over visitors, blocking the outside world. To enter was to be swallowed by cinema, displaced in time and space. Parties spilled into the yard and parking lot, they packed each room with little themed groups: the band room where you danced, the horror room where you traded vivid descriptions of gory movie scenes, the quiet room where you talked about little nothings with strangers, the game corner where you planned your next campaign. The newspaper ads for the old Lodge were cryptic and mystifying, only an owl and the words “Come find us.”
It was a spiritual home to entire groups of people. But as a physical space, Black Lodge was hindered by the very feelings and mindset that had first created it. “Ghosts pile up. Stories and the past pile up and you just kind of keep moving forward, keep trying and finding new ways to be relevant, new ways to be creative, new ways to interact with our audience.”
The current Black Lodge is soothing and open, a single massive room with high ceilings and multiple projector screens in front of a collection of couches, chairs, and little bistro tables. Framed movie posters, red curtains, and black and white chevron carpets soften the venue. The movies are arranged by theme and director on rolling carts that only tower over the youngest visitors. Enclosing the room are little pockets of dedicated space: a group of tables and gaming chairs with old consoles, a bar, shelves of old board and card games, a stage, a kitchen, a brightly lit corner with merchandise and a checkout desk. It’s a place mired in assorted interests and activities, the sort of place that would be impossible to manage in the wrong hands as creativity clashes with pragmatism.
As Matt explains, “There are those of us in anything we do like this, whether it’s run a business that’s based in art, or produce art, where some of us are balloons flying away in the sky, and some of us are rocks, keeping us tethered to the earth. And that’s the trick. How do you get all these things to work together, especially when you’re talking about radically divergent personal behavior?”
What it comes back to again is human interaction, a need to experience and share art. “We could all go into a movie theater, knowing good and well everybody in there has completely different lives, many of which you would hate if you actually spoke to them. But we sit down in that movie theater, or in front of that band, and we forget that, and we try to embrace that we have at least this in common in this moment, this experience…They’re more than important and more than even vital. They are sacred, they are what the human race requires.”
These interactions come in all flavors, Black Lodge hosts everything from LGBTQ country western shows to wrestling matches to movie nights with food pairings. You could be watching anime while you eat rice balls on Sunday, throwing spoons at The Room on Friday, and dancing to disco in an 80s costume on Saturday. You could settle in to play Dungeons & Dragons all Sunday then get up and launch right into an old kung-fu movie. It’s a veritable haven for the creatively ADHD.
While it felt to most people like the world was at a standstill, Black Lodge was on the move, redefining how they wanted to bring art in whatever form they acquired it to those who needed it. While society was becoming dependent on an increasingly narrow selection of streaming movies and TV, Black Lodge was offering a collection of over 33,000 movies, 75% of which aren’t streaming anywhere. “Streaming changed the game. And when it did, it hurt the game. For all the good it did, it actually did more harm. And it’s a case where we act as a remedy to that, as good libraries always should. Because there’s still always going to be a need for access to older art that’s not accessible through other methodologies.”
Black Lodge started with two owners and a movie collection. Today it’s run by eight, including Matt Martin, each with their own role in the running and future of Black Lodge. For Matt, he says his role now is to hand over the reins. “People who had been a part of Lodge for so long became owners of it,” he says with a nostalgic wisp of pride, “It’s their time.”
A group of people sit down in front of a screen. Some of them are friends, some are strangers, and some know each other by face after so many of these screenings but can’t quite recall more than the first letter of their name. The truth is, the movie doesn’t have to be bad. It doesn’t even have to be the good kind of bad. It doesn’t have to be familiar or unknown, they don’t have to like or hate the actors, and they don’t need to speak the language. Each of them will connect to the movie somehow, for better or worse, and each of them will test their interpretation against the one from the person sitting next to them. When every other argument in the world feels like do or die, most people can be comfortable in an argument about a movie. Most of us can accept that one person’s opinion of a movie doesn’t have to line up with our own, that the concrete things we saw and heard are open to interpretation. That’s an experience and a mindset invaluable to the world at large. That, too, becomes a connection.
In the right setting, people can bond over almost anything.
This article is part of the Behind the Arts Writers Workshop, made possible by an Arts Build Communities grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission and administered by ArtsMemphis.
Ellie Daniel is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis, with degrees in history and creative writing. Poet, historian, absurdist writer, and coffee addict, she spent her youth finding stories in travel, but, these days, finds herself preoccupied by her own hometown.