Thursday, September 16, 2010

In Praise of the Death of Blockbuster

Esquire recently ran this ode to Blockbuster, after the news that it went bankrupt came out. It's a wistful look at yesteryear, as the author (S.T. VanAirsdale, a name that sounds like he's about to sell me some ointment in from the back of his wagon in 1892 St. Louis) fondly looks back to when he would wander the aisles of the blue and yellow store, looking for a good movie with his pals...
You never really knew what you'd find or experience when you stepped inside. Sure, it would never likely be transgressive or especially exotic — good luck in the foreign section — but there was value in the sheer volume of titles, each of which must have entertained someone. From the high-demand new release section to the unorganized row of recent returns at the front desk — where customers plucked hot new titles with the ferocity of lottery addicts — it was where we went to win.
Of course, this is pure poppycock. Blockbuster is akin to Satan to me. I don't know where Mr. Snake oil salesman grew up, or where his Xanadu-Blockbuster was, but I'd be willing to bet he's misremembering those visits.

I knew exactly what I would find every time I walked into a Blockbuster - whether it was with friends, on a date or with the family - and that was homogenized dreck pandering to the masses.

Blockbuster built it's empire based on volume. It boasted all the latest and greatest releases and "guaranteed" a copy for everyone walking through the door. As a marketing campaign, it certainly was effective. But they either didn't realize what it meant to fulfill on that guarantee, or they didn't care. Since Blockbuster wasn't the Navidson house(1), and was a finite space, they devoted a significant chunk of their square footage to new titles. And because of their guarantee, they had to devote a lot of that space to a high number of copies of the new releases. Which left precious little room for movies that hadn't come out within the last 6 months.

And so, while Mr. VanAirsdale waxes somewhat poetically about the "sheer volume of titles" that he remembers, I remember the exact opposite. I remember walking into Blockbuster in disgust, knowing that my first, second and third choices for a movie most likely wouldn't be there.

(And please, before you call me a movie snob...well I'll cater to it, but not because I was hoping to pick up The 400 Blows(2) on my way home from lifeguarding. I'm talking about not being able to rent movies like Goldfinger, The Exorcist, Force 10 from Navarone(3) and many more that you've most likely heard of).

I fully understand no corner store in a strip mall had unlimited space, nor could it create a subterreanean fantasy movie vault to hold all my movie whims for whenever I wanted to watch The Wild Bunch. Titles had to be sacrificed, for space (heaven forbid some child couldn't go rent Legend of Zelda 9: Zelda Should Fire Her Security Team from the video game section - another reason Blockbuster couldn't carry Kingdom of the Spiders(4)), but that stupid guarantee forced their hand more.

And that's why the Mom and Pop stores had their charm. Sure, getting out of the store with the one new copy of the latest release mirrored Jason's plight against the skeletons(5) as he tried to get home, and the selection was indeed easily dwarfed by Blockbuster, but for whatever reason, the mom and pop collections seemed to feel more like your own. It was more eclectic, more varied (because it had to be - they couldn't throw copies out to make more space, so they had to keep that copy of Starcrash(6) - much to the chagrin of everyone involved in the making of Starcrash).

So bon voyage, Blockbuster. I realize that my reason for hating you had little to do with your demise - that it had more to do with your reluctance to match the Netflix business model sooner, but I will not shed a tear for you. Yes, we had a few good memories (I can't hate you totally since you introduced me to Garbage Pail Kids the Movie) but I can never love you (because the reason you introduced me to Garbage Pail Kids the Movie was because you didn't have The World According to Garp.)

(1) This was a forced-in reference to the house in the novel House of Leaves. It's an interesting book that, even if you hate the thought of reading, is interesting to leaf through in a Borders, a store that will surely be following Blockbuster in a year or two.

(2) A forced-in example that does indeed suggest I'm a movie snob. But seriously, it was directed by the French guy from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Just watch that if you don't find subtitled French movies from the 50s your cup of tea.

(3) Maybe Force 10 from Navarone wasn't the greatest example to use here, but dammit, I loved that movie growing up. For Christ sakes it had Robert Shaw, Harrison Ford and a young Carl Weathers in it battling Nazis. I also believe it was the first movie I ever saw that had an open-ended ending, and I so fretted about what happened to them (I won't ruin it for you if you haven't seen it).

(4) I wrote this endnote for 2 reasons: 1. Because Kingdom of the Spiders was the first animal/insect terror/horror movie I ever saw, and I have a soft spot for them (i think Caine's The Swarm is my favorite) and 2. So I could reference and put in a youtube clip of The Swarm)

(5) Ok, way forced - but seriously, did you click on it? If you don't click on any other link - go watch the skeleton fight. That was filmed in 1963!

(6) Yes, I know I said the Jason and the Argonauts clip is the clip you should pick if you're only going to watch one, but seriously, the Starcrash trailer is one of a kind. You'll regret missing it.


Marie said...

great post! I still miss the small video store up the street from my parent's house. The knew our family and our name and we had a running tab. That's where we got all of our movies, didn't hit up blockbuster till high school. will not miss blockbuster one bit

Andrew said...

GPK rules.

mndleftbod said...

It is pretty safe to assume if they had an adult section they'd be staying in business. My buddy worked at mom and pop video store when blockbusters were putting small stores out of business. The adult section kept those stores afloat years after they should have been under. People want their pron...he said you'd be very surprised who was going in that shady room behind the curtain.

Goose said...

yeah, I didn't even dig into the whole NC-17 debacle with Blockbuster (for those unaware - Blockbuster refused to carry NC-17 movies, and not just porn. While I realize it isn't censorship because it's a company that can do whatever it wants, I still don't like it).

The mom and pop places possibly would have stayed around longer, but I think the Internet would have still taken the fatal bite out of their adult section profits.