Thursday, November 14, 2013

Block Cocked.

So, the mighty Goliath of the brick-and-mortar video stores fell this week, and I'll admit I was a bit sad, but not because consumers no longer wanted to make it a Blockbuster night (or day, for that matter). For me, the closure marked the absolute end of one of the most sublime rituals dating from childhood—the video rental experience.


On the bright side, we can expect another Halloween Express.
This ritual began every Friday in the "mom n' pop" tucked into my town's local strip mall, my gangly little body entering the shop with a pocket full of quarters and exiting with spindly arms straining under stacks of random horror and comedy titles, each one cherrypicked for nudity, gore and Pippi Longstocking. My loot was easy to slip past my parents, who were perpetually baking like pies until the timer went off around 1985, the same year Blockbuster opened. The kind, middle-aged couple that ran the video store became like surrogate parents to me. They eventually knew what types of films I liked, and held back some of the new releases every Friday so that I could get first crack at films like Sleepaway Camp. They also saved me from being kidnapped in the parking lot on one trip. A car full of men was no match for the Vietnam veteran who ran out of his shop, swooped me up, and carried me to safety—and VHS nirvana. Shelves of new tapes swept over the trauma of the event like a tidal wave of possibilities. I recovered with an alacrity that I now consider astonishing, if not alarming.

Unfortunately, with childhood resilience comes adolescent changeability in equal measure. As supermarket chains began adding in-store video rentals, I was all over them with the loyalty of a Benedict Arnold, or an Alexis Carrington. Colby. Cougar. Mellencamp. Anyway, a supermarket became just one more place to rent lovely stacks of lovely films, so when Blockbuster hit, I was no more partisan than a career polititian at election time. A superstore with supershelves of superfilms was right on time to add something new to the excess that defined the 1980s, but it never dawned on me back then that as Blockbuster ate up the real estate, it was swallowing the mom n' pops along with it. I look back now and I'm ashamed at how easy that meal went down.

Fast-forwarding to the present, it's sobering to see pretty much the same thing play out again, except this time, Blockbuster is the bill of fare. Why go out and rent a video when we can tub-o-lard at home on our sofas, settees, couches, beds and box springs, with remotes in our hands and Netflix at the ready. Fine, we'll rent a movie for a buck, but we'd better be able to bring it back when we damn well please. Otherwise, give us our Hulu, our Roku, our Apple TV and our Internet. And haven't we earned it? Well, yes. We logged a lot of miles in those VHS days. And we were too poor to own Laserdisc, but we balked at the dawning of DVD and now Blu-ray beckons our bucks like pixelated predators. I will be had, over and over again. But there was something so delicious about renting a video, and later, a DVD. Just to peruse the aisles and weigh the options, to play Siskel-and-Ebert with whoever was with us. All of that is gone now—for the most part. My husband and I enjoy shopping for films at our new favorite record store, Second Spin, but we look back at the bones of our beloved DVD Planet—which itself transitioned from a brick-and-mortar store to an online presence a few years back—and we know that our days in the aisles are numbered.

I bid adieu to Blockbuster, and give it props for lasting as long as it did, and for putting up a hell of a fight by trying to play the Netflix game. In the end, the company that aligned itself with VHS and DVDs couldn't even shake the associations and rebrand itself in the unrelenting marketplace of streaming media. And now it's gone and we'll get over it. There's just too many other, better choices to turn us on. But I wonder if we are better off.