Sunday, May 19, 2024

Late Fees Are Forgiven in ‘The Last Blockbuster’

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It’s hard not to watch The Last Blockbuster with some form of warm “good ol’ days’ nostalgia. As documentaries go, it’s pretty straightforward. It’s more a jog down memory lane than a critical look at Blockbuster or video stores themselves. In many ways, it is a historical revisionist history of Blockbuster itself.

Taylor Morden’s documentary isn’t interested in investigative journalism. The Last Blockbuster is merely a look at recent history through a rose-colored lens. Narrated by Lauren Lapkus, Morden talks to a series of comedians, a few actors, and filmmakers, as well as the owner of Blockbuster itself, about their memories of video stores, and yes, Blockbuster.

In that respect, that’s not much to dislike about The Last Blockbuster. But there’s also not that much to love, either. The documentary is party a brief history of the company, its rise to dominance in the culture, and a quick history lesson about the VHS’s early days.

This last part I found interesting. I find this aspect of how the mass arts became even more available to the masses. For example, the way studios initially looked at VHS as a net profit loss instead of a net profit gain. In their minds, if someone bought their movie on VHS and then watched it with five of their friends, they weren’t just losing one person, but six, which is why VHS tapes were initially around a hundred dollars.

But as much as I might enjoy talking about it, I doubt the average person who knows of Blockbuster by name or has a faint memory of video stores cares that much. The problem with Morden’s The Last Blockbuster is he doesn’t seem to know what he wants the documentary to be.

Morden talks to several people, and many of them give testimonials about how awesome video stories were and how young people don’t know what they are missing. But Morden and his talking heads constantly confuse the difference between a video store and a Blockbuster video store.

It becomes apparent that the culture has shifted to the point where the name “Blockbuster” means more than a company’s name. What was once the embodiment of all that was wrong with corporate-run video stores is now the catch-all term for a bygone era of a cultural touchstone. Some of this bubbles to the surface when Morden interviews Lloyd Kaufman,

Kaufman is the founder and head of Troma Entertainment. “Troma is the herpes of the movie industry. We’re not going away.” Troma is a studio that has made movies such as The Toxic Avengers series, Surf Nazis Must Die, and the succinctly titled The Killer Bra. Morden talks to Kaufman for one hundred and twelve seconds before cutting back to the rest of the talking heads. 

He does this partially because Kaufman seems to be a contentious interview subject. But mainly because Kaufman refuses to say a kind thing about the Blockbuster corporation. When the interviewer asks him about Blockbuster, Kaufman unleashes a string of obscenities.

But The Last Blockbuster is also a history lesson about the company of Blockbuster and David Cook. Besides having the money to open a video store, Cook’s genius was the notion of keeping a database. The ability to have the list of videos in an easily accessible list while also having a reliable record of who rented it and who has it made the idea of video stores less daunting. It’s an idea comparable to the wheel in its simplicity and its implications on the whole of physical media.

But there’s a difference between a video store and a Blockbuster.

The Last Blockbuster dances sound the simple fact that as fantastic as video stores were, Blockbuster video stores were, not to sound like the old man from Neverending Story, safe. But that’s because video stores differed from chain to chain. Kaufman points out that franchise-owned Blockbusters were much better than the corporate-owned ones, but Morden never makes that distinction.

Video stores often get equated with being like public libraries, and in a lot of ways, they were. Except, like the library, it depends on where you live. As a teenager, I used to ride my bike to Video Junction every Saturday and wait until they opened to spend hours perusing their titles. 

While the selection seemed limitless to my young teenage self, the reality was quite the opposite. If I wanted to rent, say, The Kentucky Fried Movie or Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, I went to Video Junction in the Wal-Mart parking lot. If I wanted an older film, something that wasn’t in the pitifully anorexic classic section at Blockbuster, I went to Hollywood Video. Blockbuster is where you went to get TerminatorStarship Troopers, or possibly if you were lucky, a Jackie Chan movie. 

I mention this because much of what Kevin Smith, Doug Benson, Paul Scheer, and others discuss are these smaller chain video stores. But Morden groups them under the banner of Blockbuster. It’s this weird cultural shift that, to me, is the most fascinating but the least explored in the documentary. 

Enter Sandi Harding, the manager of the last Blockbuster in the USA located in Bend, Oregon.

Morden follows Harding around as she fights to keep the last Blockbuster store open despite the changing times. But even this is a misnomer because Harding’s Blockbuster is merely the last Blockbuster chain store. It is not the last video store. Indeed, video stores have all but gone the way of the Dodo, but they are still very much around. They’re just not run by a corporate conglomerate who would use the business profits to pay off the enormous debt it had accrued before buying the chain.

In other words, The Last Blockbuster is about the last Blockbuster but not that last video store. However, you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference; by the end, Morden seems to have confused the two entirely. But even the way Sandi runs her Blockbuster is not an actual Blockbuster.

Back in the day, Blockbusters were the cold, heartless corporate vessels, the peak of late 90s capitalism. But Sandi’s Blockbuster resembles a Mom & Pop video store rather than a Blockbuster. Sandi has spent 15 years maintaining and running the store while also employing generations of kids from Bend, Oregon. 

Before the store opens, Sandi goes shopping for store supplies and new releases. She’ll even buy certain movies customers have specially requested. Yes, the last Blockbuster manager goes to other large-scale chains to purchase movies to take back and rent to her customers.

Oh, the sweet taste of irony.

The last Blockbuster store is nothing like an actual Blockbuster store. The logo and color design are the only remaining resemblances. And that is what The Last Blockbuster is really about, brand loyalty. As much as Samm Levine and Ione Skye bear witness to the joy of perusing through a video store’s collection, Morden merely wishes you to remember the joy that was the video store mega-chain.

Still, I can’t deny the strange sense of homesickness I felt watching Morden’s documentary. Memories of my days at Movie Gallery, the most incredible job I ever had, despite the worst pay and zero medical. But I got three free rentals at any time, and that all but made up for everything else. The joy of rushing to Video Junction to see what was among the new releases, or discovering that on the same day, Akira Kurosawa and the fact there are five Death Wish movies, and Charles Bronson stars in all of them, as it should be. 

However, my stroll down memory lane aside, at times, it feels as if Morden is overly indulgent towards his subjects. Interviews that feel more like padding as comedians riff come off feeling forced. I much preferred when Morden would talk to Sandi and her family.

In these instances, The Last Blockbuster ceases to be a messy ode to a bygone era and instead becomes an intimate look at the small-town community. Sandi and her family seem determined to keep the Blockbuster going no matter what. At the edge of all the nostalgia is the question Morden asks that Sandi seems reluctant to answer.

What does Sandi do once Blockbuster closes? What will she do then? She says she’ll finally go on vacation.

After 15 years, I’d say she’s more than earned it. 

Image courtesy of 1091 Pictures

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