CRUISIN' FOR A VIDEO BRUISIN'

I don't know which is worse, the confusion on highways caused by people who don't know where they're going, or the confusion in video stores caused by people who don't know what they're looking for.

Really, the video chains should stop handing out membership cards and start testing customers for browsing competence. Shoppers should be licensed, like scuba divers, before being allowed to drift into the clogged traffic lanes that parallel the inventory.

It's getting dangerous out there. People wander aimlessly in all directions, banging into each other. Browsers at the lower shelves pop up from squat positions and pin others against the record racks. Children swarm below like badgers, ricocheting off adults and occasionally ramming the sharp corner of "Mary Poppins" or "The Smurfs and the Magic Flute" into some soprano's thigh.

Have you been to a video store on a Friday night? At the VHS section, it looks more like a feeding frenzy than the pursuit of happiness. You can squeeze in, but it would be wise to grease up first. I know people who've switched to Beta just because the traffic is lighter over there.

Video shoppers are ruthless people, the sort who would refuse to share their bomb shelters. They are hoarders and pack rats. They know they can only check out a maximum of four tapes at a time, but while they make up their minds which four, they have about eight candidates tucked under each arm. (Including that rare copy of "I Spit on Your Grave" that you've been searching for.)

When they finally make their choices, they just dump the leftovers on the nearest shelf. It's up to you to explain to your 9-year-old that "Debbie Does Dallas" is not a kids' movie even if he did find it next to "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."

There are worse things than discovering that the store is out of the movie you want. What if there is one copy left and you reach for it just as someone else spots it? You could pull back a stump.

The other day, I got caught in a rugby scrum between two families fighting over Jerry Lewis' "Hardly Working." People who would fight over a Jerry Lewis movie shouldn't even be allowed in video stores during rush hours.

Make it a test question: "Would you rather watch a Jerry Lewis movie or have somebody pull your eyebrows out?" If they say Jerry Lewis, that's it. They get a red stripe across their video license; they can only shop on Tuesday mornings between 10 and 11.

Most of the chain stores appear to have been laid out by the Marquis de Sade, or Mr. Magoo.

At Music Plus, movies are filed by genre--comedies here, fantasies there. But many of the store managers and their pubescent employees wouldn't know a fantasy film if it turned into a snake and bit them. So they guess. At my Music Plus outlet in Woodland Hills, "Serpico" is filed in the action section, alongside "Scarface."

They're both dramas!

The Videotheque stores in Westwood, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood serve a knowledgeable clientele, including many people in the film business. But the stores' system of filing by studios suggests viewing habits that would be weird even by Hollywood standards.

"Edie, how about a Universal movie tonight?"

"Nah, Lew, I'm in the mood for a Paramount."

The Wherehouse chain is on the right track. It files alphabetically and has catalogues for hip videophiles who don't need to read 300 jacket covers before making a decision. But even when you know the title you want, you have to read through 12 shelves of S with your head turned sideways before realizing that all the "Salvadors" are out.

I predict that Video Neck will be America's next Tennis Elbow. I also predict that a chiropractor from Bend, Ore., will get rich producing videotaped instructions on how to cure the ailment. You'll be able to rent the tape for 99 cents a day at your local video store, Tuesdays through Thursdays.

But be careful. You could get killed trying to find it.

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