Nostalgia for Tape

Nostalgia for Tape March 26, 2021

As big specialty media stores continue to die quick and painful deaths (RIP: Borders, Tower Records, Sam Goody, Circuit City, Sharper Image, Radio Shack, and many, many more), we’re at the point where individuals of a certain demographic are starting to look back wistfully at these now-deceased institutions. Jumping into this wistful nostalgia is Taylor Morden’s 2020 documentary The Last Blockbuster.

Image: Wikipedia

In The Last Blockbuster, we get a quick overview of the rise, peak, and decline of the Blockbuster chain of stores. Poor management decisions are highlighted (and that’s something I can sympathize with, as someone who worked for Borders shortly after they let their contract with Amazon expire and tried to do their own online bookselling instead, shortly after which they went bust). But the main focus of the documentary is, appropriately, on the single remaining Blockbuster store in Bend, Oregon. Will the store survive after the other 9000 have gone the way of the world? Will it get its contract renewed by Dish (who purchased Blockbuster back in 2011, long after the brand was functionally defunct)? Will the family that runs the Bend location get to keep working a Blockbuster into the 2020s?

Along the way, we get reflections from minor celebrities (especially those who worked in video stores in their youth), testimonials from fans/movieshop goers, and commentary from former Blockbuster corporate heads. I suppose one of the major missing elements from the video is those who are glad chain stores are disappearing. I mean, I don’t know that such people actually exist–even those of us who didn’t like what Blockbuster (or Walmart or whatever) did to the mom-and-pop stores didn’t rejoice when the internet and bad business decisions did the same to Blockbuster. Still, that would have made an interesting twist in the documentary. Likewise the  film didn’t talk at all about the VHS to DVD transition, or the role of video games in the rental business. I have some fond memories of renting a Nintendo from my local grocery store (from which we also rented movies), and I think there’s probably more to mine there.

They did, however, get a bit into Hollywood’s resistance to VHS–even if it’s a bit downplayed. In what is not a joke quote, a Hollywood executive once said in front of Congress: “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” Needless to say, Blockbuster was critical in bringing the industry on board with us being able to own copies of our own movies (note the irony of how quickly we’ve given that up).

Still, this isn’t really a documentary about any those things. It’s about whether there will continue to be a Blockbuster at work somewhere in America, and specifically in Bend, Oregon. Along the way some nostalgic recollections about the culture of the video store, images from inside a Blockbuster that I frankly never thought I’d see again, and reflections on the changing industry make this a worthwhile movie.

I don’t know that I have particular thoughts here as a Christian. I was never terribly attached to Blockbuster (or Hollywood Video, which was closer to where I lived anyway), and nor am I am devotee of VHS over DVD. So while I enjoyed The Last Blockbuster I’m certainly not the type that would have made it into the film on the power of my fandom. There’s probably a parallel to be made with the rise and collapse of mega churches, but frankly the church isn’t a business and can’t (or at least, shouldn’t) really be compared to the corporate world. Still, not everything has to be full of deep theological meaning. We can just enjoy an artifact of cultural history, bask momentarily in the nostalgia, and move on. The Last Blockbuster is certainly a good candidate for such basking.

Ironically, The Last Blockbuster is not currently available for purchase on VHS, though you can buy it on DVD from the last Blockbuster itself in Bend.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO

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