Browsing Netflix the other day for something a little different, I found a documentary about The Last Blockbuster video store which is located in Bend, Oregon and run by a lady named Sandi Harding who claims to have employed just about every teenager in town at one point or another.
The film gives a great overview of how Blockbuster came to be and eventually failed as the brick-and-mortar video rental market came and went. I think the one quote that made the movie for me was from Kevin Smith – “We got to see a corporation built up during our lifetime. We also got to see a corporation die.”
This is probably a rite of passage of some kind for every generation, or at least the ones in the last couple centuries. Technologies and trends come and go faster and faster with each generation and, at a certain age, you realize that things that weren’t even around when you were a kid are now obsolete.
My first experience with this was the fax machine. I remember the first commercials for them back around 1980 and thought they looked interesting. I used them quite a bit in one of my first jobs in the late 80s as we would fax daily records between offices in different parts of the country. Obsolescence does not mean that something has disappeared so they’re still around, especially in medical offices from what I understand, but they’re rapidly approaching the status that the old TELEX machine was at when I was at that job in ’89.
Beepers, Compact Discs, the 3 1/2″ floppy disk and VCRs … I’ve seen them all come and go since those simple days in the 70s. I know that my generation didn’t start the fire on progress but it’s really as if someone threw some gas on it.
VCRs and the VHS tape were something special, though. and The Last Blockbuster does a great job of showing how much they meant. It also shows how there’s as much ingenuity involved in making a technology marketable as in developing it. The studios were typically short-sighted when the VHS technology came around and wanted to price their videos based on the number of people who could watch them in a home setting. Not too many people were going to shell out $100 for a copy of Close Encounters. Then Blockbuster worked out a revenue sharing deal that enabled them to buy the tapes for a low price and share the rental proceeds. Eventually the studios caught on but you could say that Blockbuster came up with that initial idea so that the potential of home video could be realized.
I bought my first VCR from the local Service Merchandise back in ’89. (That’s another name that’s faded into history.) I didn’t have a credit card and the local Blockbuster required proof of existence without one so I went to another local video store and met some people who would become good friends for a few years.
The local Montgomery Ward (more nostalgia) also had a video rental section and, between those two places, I was ready to binge. The ability to walk in, select the movie I wanted to see and keep it for a couple days to watch when I wanted was incredible. It even beat cable movies!
I don’t remember too many of the movies I rented back then, with the exception of a couple I’d rather not mention here, but I do remember the experiences. I remember the young woman I met at that one video store after not being able to signup at Blockbuster. I remember asking her out, and striking out, but she did invite me to meet her family (and *ahem* her boyfriend) and I made some good friends that weekend.
To this day, when I see the FBI warning before a movie, I remember one of my friends joking “Be sure you include this when you copy the tape.”
I remember taping episodes of Twin Peaks and The Flash (1990) and taking them over to watch with friends who didn’t have cable. As a die-hard Peaks fan, I spent way too much time creating my own season tapes in 6-hour EP mode and cutting out commercials I probably wouldn’t mind watching for the nostalgia today. If I’d known that, 20 years later, I’d have the whole series on disc … yeah, I probably would have done it anyway.
I remember how the trip to Blockbusters was an essential part of a Friday night get-together. We’d talk about what we wanted to see, often some new release of something we’d seen in the theaters already or missed during its run.
I remember watching a copy of Jodie Foster’s movie, Contact, where the tracking was bad and the video jittered throughout the entire movie. It wasn’t the greatest viewing experience but we were a bunch of friends watching a movie together so it didn’t matter so much.
I remember renting the one copy of The Last Temptation of Christ that the clerk had stashed under the counter so I could see what the fuss was about. I tried watching it on streaming a couple years ago; it hasn’t gotten any better.
My last VHS experience was actually recording radio shows. A friend of mine moved out of state and could no longer listen to some of the local Public Radio shows we both enjoyed. This was before the Internet turned pretty much every radio station into a worldwide broadcast. The shows were two hours long which was too long for a standard tape cassette so I remembered the EP mode on VHS and ran the radio through the VCRs audio input (Thank you Radio Shack …. whoops … they’re mostly gone, too, aren’t they?). The video didn’t matter so I just turned the VCR to a blank station or the local PBS. Every couple months, I’d send out some tapes by Media Mail and my friend would get an audio care package to enjoy.
As with a lot of old technologies, I don’t miss VHS and DVD rentals themselves. I don’t miss having to rewind a tape or having the tape get caught in the VCR. I don’t miss the tracking bars across the image every time I hit pause. I remember how 4-head VCRs were supposed to mostly eliminate those but I never got around to buying one. I don’t miss the danger of having a tape or disc melt in the car or getting that warning glare from the video clerk if the tape was a little warm when I returned it.
I don’t miss the fuzzy quality of VHS, that we never really noticed at the time, although I wonder if some special effects people do. I understand makeup and costuming is a lot more expensive and detailed now that they have to design it for viewers with high-definition displays.
I do miss the simpler times when our expectations of things that didn’t really matter so much was a bit lower. I miss the times when kicking back with friends to a tape of Highlander or Robocop was the normal way to unwind after a week at work. VHS and DVD rentals made movies more accessible but still brought people together in a way that streaming doesn’t. You still had to schedule the time for when they had the tape, or when they could get it, and the novelty still made it something special.