The first place I remember renting videos at was the local grocery store – well, my folks were renting them, but I tagged along and could maybe pick a tape. The store had a decent-sized VHS area toward the back, by the part of the rear cooler wall that was shifting over from milk to beer. This was where I first had one of the most vital experiences a video renter could give the young customer, Being Freaked Out By The Boxes Of Horror Movies I Was Far Too Young To See (why hello, Gothic). I’d scurry back to the safety of the cartoon section, but those images lingered.
The grocery store was not very far away but my family found a place even closer, a storefront next to the public library in the little village square mall. Network Video also had shelves of horror (why hello, It’s Alive). It also had a big alcove of new releases and next to it a smaller closet space blocked by hanging beads where they kept the pornos. This store was where we rented Monty Pythons and Naked Guns, where the friendly guy who mostly ran the place conveniently forgot that there were boobs in Mallrats when my parents asked if it was OK for teenagers to watch. When I was looking for Better Off Dead, and they didn’t have it in stock, that same guy lent out his own copy.
It was a great place, until Blockbuster killed it.
The Blockbuster that moved in up the road was like all the franchise’s locations, white backgrounds and brightly-lit sparse shelves with all the charisma of an antacid aisle in a pharmacy. I don’t know if it had any of the chain’s infamous R-rated copies of NC-17 or unrated films, it certainly didn’t have a back room of adult movies. But it was big and convenient and it was soon the only game in town (the grocery store had been moving out of the rental business anyway, selling off its inventory of trash like Young Warriors and Never Too Young To Die to local goons and perverts who still have these tapes in their collection). Network Video, the cool store, went out of business and Blockbuster, the nationwide chain, thrived. Until it too went under a decade or so later, and I took no small pleasure scavenging their remains, buying tapes as stores went under one by one.
Apparently the new documentary called The Last Blockbuster touches on this — well, not the part about me snapping up VHS tapes and dancing on graves, but how Blockbuster was run by scumbags who fucked over good businesses. I haven’t watched it to find out and can’t imagine I ever will. It’s still about Blockbuster, and why would I spend time caring about a place that deserved to die?
I did recently watch Last Night At The Alamo, Eagle Pennell’s 1983 movie about a Texas bar preparing to shut down. The person who is feeling this the most is Cowboy, a dude who’s starting to feel middle-aged and for whom the Alamo is not just a watering hole but a small pond where he can be a big fish, slapping backs and holding court. If it goes, where does that leave him? The other regulars at the bar and even the longtime bartender don’t seem to be too broken up over the Alamo serving last call, they can always go to the bar down the road. But for Cowboy this is a special place, it’s his place, and the quiet brilliance of Pennell’s film is how it makes the viewer who has never been here before want to come back and makes them feel sad along with Cowboy that what was won’t be preserved. It’s important to pay attention when something good goes away, when you lose a special thing.
The reason I watched Last Night At The Alamo was because I saw a tweet that it was available online, the reason I knew it was something I wanted to watch is because I read an interview with Sonny Carl Davis, who plays Cowboy, and co-star Lou Perryman at The AV Club in 2008. It’s one of the best interviews on a site that has had many, many great ones and the names and works in it stuck with me because of how Davis and Perryman talked and the space they were given to talk in.
The AV Club is still around, although it rarely runs anything like that interview with Davis and Perryman anymore. It has seen better days, but it still exists, which is more than you can say for Network Video. But I still think about that video store and what it gave me two decades after it died. And when The AV Club was good, it could plant things in my brain that would pay off 13 years later (along with stuff that lives in my head with no tangible payoff — OF COCK). Any place can exist for a period of time, a place that creates and houses memories — a place that exists not just in physical space but in the minds of the people who use and visit it — is what we might call an institution.
This is at the root of my disgust with The Last Blockbuster. Giving Blockbuster attention, even if it is critical in places, helps to foster the idea of it as an institution. Attention encourages the viewer to think of it as an Alamo, a place that is gone and worth thinking about, when it was a soulless shithole of only resort and when it actively killed off the real institutions. And there’s something especially galling and circular about how the movie is being hosted by Netflix, one of the major factors in Blockbuster’s death. At least when Blockbuster killed independent stores it didn’t memorialize them and prop up their corpses for content. And not that I am overly paranoid about Netflix or anything, but is this a pre-emptive way to position Netflix itself as an institution, by rehabilitating another omnipresent purveyor of limited movies? Because it very much seems in a large corporation’s interest to urge the collective memory into a narrow channel that doesn’t recall other options, other institutions that show a different way. We need to remember the right Alamos.
What are the movie institutions you hold onto? What did they give you?