Updated. Scroll down below Lulu.
Our soon-to-be-out-of-business local video store. The lack of customers is due to the time of night, a few minutes before closing on a weeknight. Normally, as regular readers know, the place is full of people, which is part of the point of this post.
God forgive me, but I love living in the 21st Century!
I mean this is in the narrowest and most self-centered way, as in “Gee whiz, what would I do without a cell phone?” and “No, my netbook isn’t actually Gorilla Glued to my hand,” and not as if there’s no such place as Darfur and we’re living in a Paradise on Earth and all the poor people here don’t know lucky they are to have high-definition TV.
I mean very simply there are a lot of things---and I mean literally things, as in devices, gadgets, high tech toys for lucky grown-ups---that make my life a lot more fun than it would be without them and that didn’t exist for the greater part of my life I spent in the 20th Century.
And one of those things is Netflix streaming video.
One Mannion Family Movie Night not too long ago, the feature was Superman and afterwards young Ken and I felt like enjoying more adventures of the Man of Steel. Thanks to Netflix, we did. We streamed the Fleischer cartoons from the 1940s.
When I’m in a certain mood, needing to enjoy both virtual travel and vicarious gluttony, I stream selected episodes of Man v. Food.
Adam is my hero.
This week’s movie for Family Movie Night is Roxanne.
Guess how we’re going to watch it.
One thing I feel a little guilty about.
Apparently I’m contributing the demise of video stores.
People are losing their jobs because of me.
Almost as sad, other people are losing some clean, well-lighted places to go for company and other attendant pleasures, spiritual and physical, of living in the analog world.
Here in Mannionville, we have the most basic cable. We don’t subscribe to any of the premium channels. We’ve never watched on demand, never Tivo-ed. There’s no satellite dish attached to our house. We haven’t needed them. We’ve had Netflix. I don’t understand why our Netflix habit hasn’t contributed to the demise of cable companies, HBO, DirectTV, or TiVo. We’ve only been bad for business for video stores.
What’s more, I don’t understand why video stores weren’t wiped out by any of those alternative delivery systems before the rise of Netflix or why video stores, which post-date cable, came into existence to begin with.
Maybe they were too busy ganging up together to close all the movie theaters.
I seem to recall that going out to the movies was about to become a thing of the past at least three times since the advent of cable. I’m old but not old enough to remember when television all on its three network lonesome was going to do the job. I do remember when cable and VCRs were the future of motion picture entertainment. After all, who was going to spend three dollars to go sit in the dark with strangers when you could wait a few months and watch the same movie for free, or essentially free, in the comfort of your own home with a bowl of gourmet popcorn you’d microwaved yourself in your lap? That was just about the time of the rise of the multiplexes.
At any rate, I’m sorry our local video store’s closing, sorrier still if it’s really at all my fault, me and my reckless Netflix streaming.
It’s a nice store. Clean, neatly kept, with a staff that’s friendly, helpful, and fairly knowledgeable---there’s never been anyone working there that I know of you could compare Antonini or Bergman films with. But one twenty year old clerk could tell you anything and everything you’d want to know about the comedies of the 1980s and there used to be an assistant manager who made it her job to let customers know how bad every new horror film was and exactly what made each one bad---she’d watch them all before putting them out to rent, out of a combination of a sense of duty and compulsion.
And almost all the rest of the clerks you’d ever deal with kept up with what movies were coming out in the theaters and on DVD, who starred in what, which director made this or that, who and what had been nominated for the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards, and what was being posted at Rotten Tomatoes, so customers who with no idea what movie they’re looking for except that they saw an ad for it on TV the other night and it seemed to be about sailing and one of the stars was that young actor all the kids like these days could walk out of there happily with a copy of Charlie St Cloud in hand.
And, whenever I’ve been in, most of the other customers have been cheerful, friendly, polite, and sociable.
The store is---was---what all stores should be. Not just a building in which to spend money on things but a place where we can enjoy the company of other people while we are spending money on those things. We’ve all been in stores that aren’t places. They’re just boxes full of things. A place has an identity and a spirit. People live in places. They come alive in places. In the boxes the other carbon-based life forms wandering about with us are either obstacles to our getting to the things or essentially extensions of the cash registers into which we put the money to pay for the things. But the people we meet in places where we happen to need to go to buy things help make those things part of living and enjoying a life and not the point of living a life.
We need more places.
Blockbuster, the corporation, has been in trouble for a long time. Netflix didn’t cause that trouble, it’s just been one of the reasons Blockbuster hasn’t been able to get itself out of trouble. They had a CEO during the early years of the last decade who was an empire builder. Blockbuster over-expanded and then the economy soured. The empty aisles in so many of their stores weren’t due to regular customers switching to Netflix as much as there just not being enough regular customers with money to spend on renting DVDs anymore and Blockbuster suddenly couldn’t pay the rent, literally and figuratively.
So I’m not surprised our local video store’s closing. But I am sad. I won’t miss out on watching movies, but that’s not the point. I’ll miss having it as a place to go for company.
Back in September, when Blockbuster filed for Chapter 11, I read an article that dismissed going in to a store to rent DVDs as “old-fashioned.” And back in August, when a Blockbuster store in Washington DC put up its Going Out of Business sign I read this little bit of reportorial narcissism in article about the closing in the DCist:
To be honest, though, this kind of feels like writing about about the eight-track or laserdiscs or Pogs. At this point, is there really anyone who would have frequented a Blockbuster store who isn't already subscribed to Netflix -- or even Blockbuster's own DVD-by-mail service?
Now, you can buy groceries online, and that makes shopping at a supermarket or the corner bodega old-fashioned too. So is actually going to a movie theater to watch a movie on a big screen, for that matter, and in fact it’s been the old-fashioned way to watch a movie for over sixty years. Shopping for anything in a store is old-fashioned, as people have been doing it for millennia.
As for who isn’t already subscribed to Netflix or Blockbuster’s own online service, well, not everybody’s like the reporter and his friends. Lots of people don’t go online to get their movies and don’t want to or can’t.
People without a computer or broadband. People without a credit card. People who don’t have significant amounts of free time to spend staring at a computer screen, scrolling through the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, following all the links from You May Also Like.
People who want to have a movie or a TV show to pop into the DVD player as soon as they get home or right after supper.
People who are looking for some company. People who need to see a friendly face. People who still think that one of the nice things about living in the world is the presence of other people.
People who don’t see others as a colorful backdrop to their lives but the very stuff of living.
“Guess who I ran into the other day!” isn’t just something to say so the family doesn’t have to eat in silence. It’s a testimony of connection to the world, to a life outside.
Somebody saw me. Somebody heard my voice. Somebody felt my existence.
And I felt theirs.
For twenty or thirty seconds, for half an hour, for the whole afternoon, we felt alive together.
They want to be able to ask a clerk, “Is this good?” They want to be able to say, “There was a movie came out a few years ago, I think it starred Nicolas Cage. He played a weather man?” and they want to be able to say, if the clerk has been polite and cheerful and helpful, “The Weather Man! Duh!” They want to be able to turn to someone browsing the aisle along with them and say, “Have you seen this one?” They want someone to turn to them and say, “You think my kids will like this?”
Bookstore, video store, hardware store, grocery store, doesn’t matter, they want to be surprised somewhere along the way and have to respond to the surprise by saying something along the lines of, “Well, fancy meeting you here!”
The other night, I’m in the video store, and in the drama aisle I meet a guy looking for one of his all-time favorite movies. He’s in his 50s, pushing 60, maybe, with a long gray ponytail under his battered bill cap, a graying brown mustache, a black t-shirt, the sleeves tight on his biceps, jeans, motorcycle boots. His arms are heavily and intricately tattooed. Tattoos peak up from under the collar of his t-shirt. His voice is deep and raspy, the voice of someone who’s smoked a lot, who’s had to yell a lot over the sound of machinery. He’s elated when he finds his movie.
“Great movie,” I say.
“Have you seen Lulu lately? She looks terrific. You know, older, but in shape, slim.”
“She still singing?”
“Oh yeah. I saw her on TV not that long ago.”
I can stream To Sir With Love for myself right now.
Where am I going to go to find someone to talk about Lulu with?
In this New Yorker article from October 2010, James Surowiecki predicts the coming demise of Netflix.
Late update with no late fees:
Film prof, author, and blogger Chuck Tryon has written a thoughtful follow-up to my post.
Chuck’s book is called Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence.
Netflix beware? Redbox plans to get into online streaming.