“It’s not necessarily Blockbuster specifically that I’ll miss so much as video stores and video store culture in general. The fact that there were still a few
Blockbusters standing gave me some hope that this piece of our culture was not
yet dead and buried and may one day be capable of resurgence.”
By R. David
The world – or perhaps more accurately, the world of pop culture nostalgia – was dealt a double-whammy blow last week when Blockbuster Video announced on November 6th they would (finally) be shuttering the remaining operating locations of the once-dominant mega-rental chain.
If that wasn’t enough to make people in their late 20s/early 30s die a little inside, two days later The Onion, the iconic satire rag, said it would (also finally) cease production of its physical newspaper in the paper’s remaining markets.
Admittedly, both announcements have been a long time coming; and depending where you live, you may have been without either property for several years now (maybe even close to a decade in the case of Blockbuster). But hearing such definitive news – the finality of these announcements – means having to finally acknowledge and accept what many of us have long known but tried to optimistically ignore: The entertainment world as we once knew it is indeed dead.
It happens to every generation, of course. Out with the old modes of entertainment, in with the new. I guess we shouldn’t be afraid of – or try to discourage – progress. But is further removing our physical means of shopping for and enjoying entertainment necessarily “progress”? Is an all-computerized, all-online-based model really where we want to end up as a society.
Sure, the dissolve of these once-omnipresent entities will actually have very minimal impact on our lives, as other (and some would argue better and easier) ways of enjoying the product provided by these outlets still exist. And complaining about how we rent movies and read our humorous news stories is practically the definition of a First World Problem. It really doesn’t matter.
Except for those of us it does matter to, of course.
Count me as one. Why, you ask? Call it nostalgia, call it resistance to change, or call it being anal and snobbish about how I choose to consume my entertainment; but there are several reasons seeing these staples of my generation fold as physical entities – and in the grander scheme of things, what it says about the future of how we will be limited in our options and selection of entertainment choices – that I feel is cause for alarm.
As much as I dislike watching these staples of my youth fade away because it feels like, well, my youth is fading away – an era is ending – I can accept it as the natural course of things. Things change, eras end, and I am getting older (as we all are). Fair enough, I’ll embrace my mortality. But beyond making me feel old or as if I’m losing a chunk of my youth, watching these two iconic giants surrender – admitting defeat to an increasingly internet-driven culture – and give in to the increasingly accepted notion that online everything is OK is a disheartening glimpse into the future. Online everything licks my balls. (He said in a blog post he shared with people via Twitter.)
I get it. This all smacks of the old man shaking his fist at random passersby and complaining that things aren’t the way they used to be in the good old days. Well, to quote Billy Joel, “The good old days weren’t always good.” Like everyone else, I bitched and moaned about Blockbuster – or any video store – being out of the title I was looking for, having to run across town or to multiple stores to find specific flicks, late fees, long lines, membership cards, etc. And of course I use online services for their general ease and convince; whether it’s to buy products, stream content, or download an article in seconds. It used to be that if my local Walgreens was out of the week’s edition of The Onion, I’d have to schlep across town to find another, or I simply missed it altogether that week, because the locations that stocked the paper were so few and far between (depending on which part of town you lived and how mobile you were). I love having the online option (and all the options online services provide).
But I don’t want online to be the only option. I don’t want the selection of what I am able to stream to be determined by which movie studios Netflix or Amazon or Hulu were able to strike a deal with, or have to wait two months after a movie’s DVD release for it to become rentable from Netflix or Red Box. I don’t want streaming glitches, loading errors, cropped aspect ratios, e-mail-based customer service. I don’t want lack of internet access or “Smart” devices to determine whether or not I can watch a movie tonight. I don’t want to watch the first movie in a series of films only to find none of the sequels are available. I don’t want to start a film and then come back to complete it or revisit it only to find it is no longer streaming.
Whatever my complaints about Blockbuster back in the day, there was rarely a title I couldn’t find there and I can’t recall an incident where they carried the first entry in film series but were missing random sequels. And if these issues did come up, another Blockbuster, or any number of smaller video stores in the area, likely would come to the rescue. My biggest complaint about Netflix is their poor and inconsistent streaming selection. Sure, you can opt to also pay for their physical DVD plan (they’d love you too!), but as of right now, my queue lists no less than “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2”, “White Lightening”, “Gator”, and “Sorority House Massacre” and its sequel – in other words, 5 of the 10 movies in my entire queue – as “Very Long Wait” or “Availability Date Is Unknown”; both of which are code for “We don’t have them and don’t hold your fucking breath.” (I’ve had those first 3 titles in my queue for over a year and they still are listed as “Very Long Wait” – I’ll say.) Now, granted, none of those films are exactly “Avatar” in terms of customer demand or notoriety in the public consciousness. But, Netflix has every other movie with “Chainsaw Massacre” somehow in its title; you’d think the series’ first sequel would rate at least as high as any of the others in terms of stocking priority. “White Lightening” and its sequel, “Gator,” are “classic” Burt Reynolds vehicles. They are repeatedly referenced in the FX series “Archer”, supposedly one of Netflix’s most-streamed TV titles. I can’t be the only one who caught the references while watching the series on Netflix, became curious about the real thing, and then tried to dial them up on the very service essentially promoting them, only to still be “waiting” on their availably over a year later. According to Amazon, the movies retail for about six bucks (in other words, less than I pay for one month of my Netflix DVD subscription), so come on, Netflix; get a copy already, you cheap bastards. The same goes for the “Sorority House Massacre” movies, by the way. And those I can guarantee you Blockbuster would have had back in the day. Shit like that is 90% of what I used Blockbuster for when I was about 14 years-old.
The whole notion of a queue and waiting for DVDs to be mailed, while undeniably convenient, is also irksome. If I get it in my head I want to see a specific movie because I have just heard about it or was recently reminded of it, I want to be able to go get it right now. I don’t want to go online, put it in my queue and get it in a few days. This entire process promotes the phenomenon of Netflix envelopes sitting on the coffee table for two months at a time. I wanted the movie when I put it my queue. I had the interest in it and the time to watch it then. Three days later when it finally shows up, maybe not so much. Granted, my disorganized life or fickle interests are not Netflix’s problem, but neither of us would have a problem if I could have just driven down the street when I decided I was in the mood for said film, got it, watched it, and been done with it.
And actually, what is simpler than that? The whole notion that Netflix and its contemporaries are making our lives easier and saving our precious time is something of a misnomer. Yeah, I don’t have to drive anywhere, but how much time am I going to waste browsing through what’s available to stream after I discover they don’t have the movie I actually wanted to watch, only to throw my hands up and ultimately not watch anything at all (again, see: Netflix’s shitty and limited streaming selection)?
That is the practical side of my argument. The personal side comes down to the fact that it just ain’t right, I tells ya, to deprive people of the experience of going to a video store, browsing the isles and narrowing down your selection from the five boxes you have in your hand. I will never forget being barely 13 years-old and riding my bike from my house on the 4400 block of N. Woodburn St. in Shorewood, WI, across the bridge, over the Milwaukee river to the Blockbuster and Pick ‘N Save video stores (“Pick ‘N View”) on E. Capitol Dr.; and spending hours studying the artwork and plot summaries on the VHS boxes I had already looked at a thousand times before, shooting the shit with the video store clerks (probably annoying the hell out of them), silently judging other customers for their selections, killing time waiting for someone to Please, for the love of God, just return one copy of “Harley Davidson and the Marlborough Man” before I have to get home!, digging through the bin of old promo posters they were always trying to get rid of by selling for a few bucks, and waiting with bated breath for “Lethal Weapon 3” to finally be placed on the Previously Viewed sale rack so I could add it to my ever-expanding home video collection for a bargain price (back when a used VHS tape for 15 or 20 bucks could be considered a bargain). Blockbuster and the surrounding neighborhood video stores have at least 80% of the money I made as kid from chores and my earliest jobs. The video store experience and dynamic were as responsible for my love of film today as movies themselves.
The irony here – I know – is that the behemoth that was Blockbuster Video quickly forced a lot of smaller video stores out of business, depriving many people of the alternative selection and location that those mom and pop neighborhood outlets often provided (not to mention those jobs). Blockbuster was essentially the Netflix of their day. But, with all due respect to the under-severed Foreign, Indie and other niche film fan communities at the time, Blockbuster largely had the goods to compensate for and justify being the only game in town.
And there was a time – a short, but glorious and wonderful time – where a ton of different size, shape and style video stores were all able to coexist. I would delight in bouncing from one to the other, each providing their own flavor and ambience so distinct that when I think back to those specific stores I can still smell the air in each one of them. If Blockbuster was out of a certain title or didn’t stock it, no matter, I had five other options. Sure, some of them were quite the bike ride for a kid barely in his teens – and much further than he should have been riding as far as safety (and his mom) was concerned – but that was part of the fun. The thrill of the hunt. The variety of people, locations, selection, and products throughout all these distinct rental store locales. Blockbuster was polished, shiny, and attractive. Some of these other places were in the basements of malls that had no business promoting themselves as a mall; and in addition to renting videos, they sold used books and vinyl records, bootleg concert tapes, and of course more than a few places had that, ahem, “special” section I was trying to always steal a peek into.
And it was amazing. If you never experienced this, it’s hard to properly convey the allure of it all.
Of course convenience will always trump nostalgia, so it’s hardly a surprise something came along that streamlined and simplified the home video experience. I guess I should just be glad that I lived in a town where so many different video store options were able to survive as long as they did; several of them well into the back half of the aughts. Certainly now one of the last stores standing after last week’s news, the Shorewood Blockbuster on N. Oakland Ave. is still operational. But the general reaction to Blockbuster’s closing this month is mostly of the “who cares?” or “I thought they went out of business years ago” variety. I’m sure I’m in the minority of folks who think this is big news.
It’s not so much that it’s news as what this news means. As you can probably tell, it’s not necessarily Blockbuster specifically that I’ll miss so much as video stores and the video store culture in general. The fact that there were still a few Blockbusters standing gave me some hope that this piece of our culture was not yet dead and buried and may one day be capable of resurgence. And it indeed may be. Everything is cyclical, and what was cool then and not cool now is often cool again tomorrow. A generation from now, perhaps video stores will be all the rage once more. I’m hardly the only person who bemoans the Netflix experience, but with the internet being so omnipresent in our society, even in our individual everyday lives, it’s unlikely that people will go against the on-demand grain any time soon. Hopefully there will come a time when the novelty of getting our entertainment exclusively in this fashion wears off, and a move back to physical mediums of entertainment will once again share equal shelf space, as it were, with streaming services and online retailers.
After all, if I can grow up with 5 different video stores in my town, all finding room to coexist with Blockbuster, surely the video rental business pie is big enough for Netflix and the traditional video store to each get a slice.
In the case of The Onion, things are not quite as dire. People seem to be just fine with making the move to reading newspapers on computers, tablets and other mobile devices. If nothing else, going paperless saves trees and lowers publishing costs. Ever the traditionalist, however, I still subscribe to a daily paper (though, admittedly, even I have come to a point where I can no longer justify the several hundred dollars per year it costs me and will regretfully be dumping it when my subscription expires) and I still look forward every week to seeing the latest edition of The Onion waiting for me at my local Walgreens or Subway. Why? It’s simple, really. In this case nostalgia doesn’t play nearly the role for me as in the demise of Blockbuster. While The Onion was a constant of my teenage years and has remained a weekly staple ever since, frankly, I have enough clutter in my home, car and office without tripping over 3 month-old issues of The Onion that seem to enjoy multiplying like Gremlins around my person. I’d be fine to see the paper go all-digital if it weren’t for the fact that everything is going digital. Just as video rentals, retail and host of other industries are becoming online-only commodities, so too is print. Again, ostensibly not a terrible thing from a logical perspective; but rather more for the fact that I follow so damn many news and entertainment sites which all report on the same stories and say essentially the same thing, none of them really stand out from the pack. A newspaper that still prints a physical paper gains (or maintains) a certain weight, stature, validity, and distinction (yay for superlatives!).
Now, you’re probably thinking, “The Onion? But that’s just a free, fake, humorous paper.” Perhaps. But as important to me as The Onion itself is the inclusion of The A.V. Club that comes bundled with each week’s installment. The A.V. Club offers smart analysis on a wide spectrum of arts and entertainment and is loaded with movie and music reviews, interesting nostalgia and trivia pieces, as well as previews of and commentary on local entertainment events (and it hosts a print source for Dan Savage’s “Savage Love” column, which justifies the section’s existence all by itself). The A.V. Club features some of the best writers in the business whose pieces are always gloriously detailed (yet somehow also amazingly succinct) and fervently relevant. When you are forced to wait for the issue to arrive and have time to anticipate what the writers will tackle each week, and look forward to picking it up and reading it front to back, the trade ensures a certain loyal excitement.
The A.V. Club only dolling out its reviews on their website or to Twitter followers just makes them another dust mite in the blogosphere vacuum (that’s not a knock against the talented writers and staff of the A.V. Club; they deserve to not simply have their voices lost in the shuffle of so many similarly snarky pop culture sites). Getting everything at once in a nice weekly package the reader can pore over rather than having to keep up with or search for piecemeal updates throughout the day and week is far more appealing. The same thing goes for The Onion proper. As pure entertainment, the paper is a fabulous tool to take with you into the john or keep handy for slow patches at work. Now granted, most people will opt to peruse the internet during these moments as much as any physical time-killing accessory, but there are times and places where it’s just not convenient or allowed to whip out your iPad or Kindle. And if you do jump on your mobile device, chances are there are far too many app options, Facebook notifications, or sites you’re following on Twitter to readily focus on any single one of them. I am willing to wager nobody reads any online site as intently and inclusively as they would read a newspaper, magazine or any site’s physical counterpart. Making The Onion and The A.V. Club nothing more than part of all that background noise cheapens its existence and dulls its impact, practically guaranteeing their audience won’t discover half the content they produce.
We’ve actually reached the point where having a physical, print edition of your paper is what sets you apart. You’d think The Onion would see that very fact as a positive and move to capitalize on it. Any organization as savvy, cynical and sarcastic as The Onion/The A.V. Club has to see the great irony in all this (they’ve ran more stories and headlines chastising the internet age than any reader could count); and you’d also think they would be the one organization that would hold out – even if simply for nostalgia’s sake or to appeal to the hipster in its core demographic – and refuse to succumb to the demise of print media. I’d also argue that it’s loyal fan base wouldn’t be opposed to plunking down a quarter or 50 cents each week if that’s what it took to keep for the powers that be to justify the physical paper’s continued existence. Maybe not, but if money’s an issue, it’s worth a try, right?.
Well, apparently not. I get it. Business is business and if The Onion has indeed reached a point where it simply doesn’t make economic sense to continue its print edition in the lone market of Milwaukee (I guess Milwaukeeans should take some pride in the fact that they outlasted every other market that The Onion used to print in), I can accept that. But, again, it is simply another ugly reminder that everything is making the move away from the physical and to the digital.
Look, guys; it’s not just Blockbuster and The Onion. I could bemoan how Best Buy’s CD and DVD aisles and inventory shrink dramatically with each passing year as the push to shop online becomes more and more ubiquitous (their music and film selections are truly pathetically limited at this point – I don’t know who these people are who are content to house their entire music an movie collections on a hard drive, but I hope I never meet any of the sick fuckers). And when Best Buy announces it will become an exclusively online entity or that it’s shuttering its stores altogether, I’ll likely write another longwinded, pissy diatribe about how our society is going to hell in hand basket (because old man phrases!), and blame Amazon or some other online retailer of the day, while fully acknowledging the irony that I also patronize the competition.
I see the value and convenience in online retailers, video rental services, and print publications. But I also value the experience in their – unfortunately increasingly scarce – physical counterparts. There has to be room out there for both. I simply can’t accept that we are on the brink of a generation that will not know what a video store or newspaper (or perhaps any physical media at all) is.
Me (right) and @MichalskiNick hard at work at North Shore Video (R.I.P.) In Milwaukee, WI circa 1997. Livin’ the dream…
(Blockbuster Image: Courtesy USA Today, Onion and AV Club Image: Courtesy theonion.com)