The most surprising thing about the news that Blockbuster may have bankruptcy forced upon it is that it took so long. The longtime rental monolith has been having its once-unparalleled preeminence handed back to it on a platter by Netflix for a long time now; the last time I personally saw the inside of one (the only time in about a decade) was to scour the remainders of a store that was going out of business.
Who will lament the death of Blockbuster (and the slow, seemingly inevitable erosion of brick-and-mortar rental stores in general)? Since being inside most Blockbusters was like being trapped in an airport waiting area, only with brighter lights and stacks of direct-to-video garbage everywhere, I believe few will mourn.
The overwhelming sensation associated with a Blockbuster is of a place where the store’s perimeter — the “New Releases” wall — demarcates the boundaries. Of course, you could stroll down the various lumped-together genre aisles (“Drama,” “Comedy,” “Action,” “Horror” and “Foreign”) where the single copy of “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” or the like may be rented out. But why would you when you can walk over to the wall, where a blockbuster from six or nine months ago sits side by side with the latest direct-to-video Steven Seagal extravaganza, stocked with way more copies than you would expect? The turnover is pretty amazing, and most of what’s on tap is pretty awful. The employees are underpaid and act it. All in all, it can be a depressing place to be.
Culturally pervasive though it may have been, Blockbuster also got little love from pop culture. People rarely seemed to go there in the movies, preferring small, quirky outlets: “Clerks,” of course, or the shoddy likes of the deservedly-little-seen Cillian Murphy-Lucy Liu romance “Watching The Detectives,” or “Be Kind Rewind,” the ultimate in analog fetishization.
You can see a Blockbuster card in Donnie Darko’s wallet; Richard Kelly claims to show that “You were restricted only to the blockbuster films in a small town. If you don’t have access to ‘The Bicycle Thief,’ you’re never going to know that it exists or be enlightened to a piece of art like that.” Ouch. There’s the memorable narrative-stopping scene in “Ghost World,” where a customer at a Blockbuster-like store looking for “8 1/2” is directed to “9 1/2 Weeks.”
Blockbuster’s kindest eulogy can be found in Michael Almereyda’s slacker update of “Hamlet,” with brooding prince Ethan Hawke walking through the “Action” aisle as he recites “To be or not to be.” It’s probably the funniest version ever attempted, defusing, for a moment, Hawke’s moping:
[Photos: Blockbuster store in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada via Wikipedia Commons, the work of “Stu pendousmat,” 2008; “Clerks,” Miramax, 1994]