There’s a joke from the Craig Kilborn years of The Daily Show that has, in essence, stuck with me after some 23 years. Google doesn’t remember it — not everything was transcribed for posterity on the Web back then — but the premise was about Citizen Kane topping the AFI’s 1998 list of the Top 100 Movies of All Time. Then Kilborn dropped the punch line, and I’m paraphrasing from memory: “Blockbuster Video does not carry any copies of ‘Citizen Kane,’ but it does have 73 copies of ‘Speed 2.’”
In The Last Blockbuster, a breezy new documentary about the final Blockbuster store still operating, Lloyd Kaufman, irascible impresario of schlock-cinema producers Troma, makes a similar quip, this time muddled with sour grapes: “Welcome to Blockbuster! We’ve got 500 copies of ‘Suicide Squad’ and absolutely no copies of the Troma movies, not even ‘Toxic Avenger.’”
Blockbuster has seemingly always been the butt of jokes and the target of industry acrimony. Sometimes it was warranted, sometimes it wasn’t. Sure, it wasn’t the place for cinephiles — for Pasolini movies, your best bet was the humble local library — and it did monopolize a once-diverse market, driving countless mom-and-pop video stores out of business. Elitist wags and appreciators of schadenfreude have certainly had the last laugh, delighting in the chain’s mid-2000s implosion, when its 9,000 stores eventually dwindled to a handful. Early adopters of Netflix, then a mail-in DVD service, were among those pointing and laughing as Reed Hastings’ young turks, with their big ideas, swallowed up the old guard — Darwinian capitalism at its best!
Nowadays, the irony is almost too rich. For all of its abundance of choice and convenience, Netflix doesn’t stream Citizen Kane, or most classics for that matter. But I bet the last Blockbuster, in Bend, Oregon, has it.
Director Taylor Morden’s documentary is as much about Blockbuster’s legacy as it is the day-to-day operations of this final holdout in the Pacific Northwest, whose dedicated manager, Sandi Harding, has become a minor media celebrity. Morden, whose docu-niche is ’90s nostalgia (his previous features include docs about The Refreshments and that decade’s ska music revival), interviews actors, directors and comics who came of age when “Make it a Blockbuster Night” became a cultural mantra: Kevin Smith, Jamie Kennedy, Ione Sky, Brian Posehn and Doug Benson are among the talking heads waxing poetic about Blockbuster’s glory days — the smells, the blue-and-yellow color palette, the thrill of holding a movie in your hand, even the onomatopoeia of a VHS case snapping shut.
Their observations mostly consist of surface pleasures. The Last Blockbuster skips along with a certain fanboy enthusiasm, stylistically conjuring those disposable I Love the ’90s specials on VH1, of which comedians like Benson were a staple. The documentary’s increasing examples of self-reflexivity — of Morden inserting his questions into the final cut, and of manager Harding and her family referencing the camera’s presence — can be grating. The director appears so chummy with his subjects that it’s no surprise that at the first sign of a dramatic moment in the store, he dutifully backs away until Harding is ready to break the news.
But The Last Blockbuster fundamentally succeeds in burnishing the title company’s tarnished image. It puts a lie to the myth that Netflix simply had better ideas than Blockbuster; in fact, Blockbuster was doing the same things as the upstart mail-order business, and had pivoted toward expansion. It seemingly fell apart when its owners borrowed against the company’s debt at just the wrong time: the 2008 financial collapse.
The movie’s most effective defense of Blockbuster, and of the video store more broadly, is its bygone status as a movie salon — a hub for person-to-person interaction, where friendships could be struck, discoveries could be made, commentary could be shared across the Comedy aisle. Morden couldn’t have known just how much, in the plague year, we’d miss the simple of acting of chatting up a stranger in a communal space.
This is perhaps the ultimate raison d’être for this last bastion of the movie as physical product: It brings us together — even if socially distanced and masked (you can even buy a Blockbuster face mask, emblazoned with the company logo over a sea of popcorn, at bendblockbuster.com). One of the film’s interviewees likens the last Blockbuster to an endangered species in need of protection. For all the company’s faults, I hope, like the mighty record store, that it reproduces once again.
THE LAST BLOCKBUSTER. Director: Taylor Morden; Distributor: 1091 Pictures; Not rated; Now available to stream, from $3.99, on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vudu and Google Play