Nostalgia is a funny thing. A dull yearning for times past. Life is speeding up these days, technological progress accelerates and drags us barely-developed apes along for the ride, screaming, howling and appreciating the sudden proliferation of free pornography. The future is uncertain, that's scary and yet, if we look behind us, all we see is the familiar objects we knew disappearing.
As things suddenly vanish into the ether, there's a temptation to eulogise them and feel sad merely because they're gone. But this kind of romanticism is thoughtless and baseless and when one can be bothered to look at the true story of that which has passed, it has the ability to make you look like one of those people, captured forever on film, who lined the streets, dressed in a gold tracksuit and 99p white wig to pay tribute to Jimmy Savile's funeral procession. These people didn't know him, didn't know anything about him, yet they were sad he had died. Not for who he was but merely because he represented yet another touchstone of their younger lives (how grim does that term sound in a Savile context, eh?) never to return.
Three things of significance happened to me yesterday; I got an email from my editor to tell me the latest draft of my first book represents the final draft and it's now ready to find a publisher. I went to a film screening in central London. I got a sudden barrage, and I do mean a barrage, of emails, texts, Twitter and Facebook messages. Not only did these three things have significance to me, they had a spooky significance to each other, as they all related, in their separate ways, to a specific thing from my past which is now forever gone. That thing is the video shop.
Video shops were my life between the ages of eight and thirty four. Through my film-obsessed childhood, they were the only places I wanted to be. My mum used the video shops of Oxford as a creche and actual rentals were used as rewards, pacifiers and oxygen. I wanted to own my own video shop more than anything. When I was 18, I got my first job in one. The Blockbuster on London Road in Headington, once that was on my CV, I was unstoppable. I worked in every branch in Oxford at some point. I went to film school in Edinburgh and graduated to indie video shops, working my way around the regional chains and bold one-offs. At twenty seven, when I returned to Oxford, my dad and I opened our own. We called it Videosyncratic and it was magic. Stocked, curated really, with love and intelligence. A fun place to be. The most defiantly unique staff. It did so well, we opened a big second branch on the Cowley Road, which became a mecca for those who loved film. But three years ago, we shut them down. Commercial property rent in Oxford was too high and the public (not the hardcore of film nuts who supported us all the way) had decided that they no longer wanted to rent films. They wanted to illegally download, or legally download, or have them posted to them, demand them from their TV or buy them, along with their horsemeat, in some massive supermarket.
The book I'm writing is about video shops and I wrote it because not only do I think I've probably spent more time in video shops than anyone else ever and know the truth and quirks of that industry like no other but because they represent something worth talking about. I'm fairly sure that the video rental industry is the only significant one to come and go within our lifetimes. The very concept of renting a video, walking to a shop, walking around that shop and then just borrowing a film overnight and bringing it back already seems archaic. Yet, it's not so long ago it felt new and exciting.
The barrage of communication I received was from every human being I have ever met desperately crawling over each other to be the first to break the news to me that Blockbuster had gone into administration. Blockbuster is dead. I've probably said the word 'Blockbuster' (or 'Blocky') more than any other corporate copyrighted word. Blocky was a big thing in my life. I loved it as a kid, lived it as young man, turned on it and then engaged in a battle to the death with it. Which, I suppose, I lost. Although I did blow the Summertown branch out of the water and like to think that although Videosyncratic technically died first, the last three years have just seen Blocky die a slow painful death, clutching its slashed throat and staggering around. Everyone has been waiting for my response to its demise. I've ignored every email, text and message. This is my response.
I feel bad for the people who have been put out of work. I feel sad that this represents the final demise of video rental. I feel glad that that yellow and blue bastard that had grown to represent everything I hated about the decline of cinema and the stranglehold of multinational corporations on indigenous culture is finally gone.
I'm sure today will be filled with nostalgic eulogies for a fondly regarded high street icon but those people didn't really know Blockbuster and they're just opining times gone by. Here are my over-riding memories from a life spent in and around Blockbuster shops...
Firstly, they were horrible places to be. It was a cheap, corporate environment from the carpets to the ceiling tiles. They stank. They smelled horrible. Those low suspended ceilings, massive windows and lack of ventiliation meant the same fetid air, twenty-something years of farts and B.O, was endlessly heated and cooled for decades.
Secondly, with the exception of the occasional token film geek, nobody who worked in, or really frequented them, knew fuck-all about films. Films, to Blockbuster, merely represented product and profit. Their focus was never, ever on the culture of film.
Thirdly, they were nasty. In the 90's, I watched them target successful independent video shops and destroy any meaningful competition purely to further global branding - I've heard persistent rumours that the UK arm of Blockbuster was never even actually profitable.
Blockbuster represented everything I hate. Passionless corporate greed ransacking the few magical things we have in this world. Am I sad to see them go? I was sad to see my shops go. I was sad to see Mr Stacey's Video Emporium in Cambridge go. I'm sad to see video shops go but I will never be nostalgic about something so empty and destructive. It had a shitty logo too.
The screening I went to last night was put on by Momentum and was almost mind-blowingly appropriate. It was the launch party for their new anthology horror film V/H/S and, to mark the occasion, they created, for one night only, a big retro video shop in a building in Shoreditch. The film was a lot of fun but, more fun than that was the chance to, for one last time, browse the shelves fully stocked with original big-box (rental films always came in bigger display cases and are now the most sought-out by collectors) videos from the 80's. It was a magical night, like being transported back in time in an incredibly tactile way. For one last time, I got to hold the actual items that had meant so much to me as a kid. The big yellow case for the film Troll (Sonny Bono's in it - his head explodes and turns into a forest!) I rediscovered a long-forgotten film called Moving Violations. A sex comedy I'd enjoyed as a kid long before I understood a single reference in it. I went with my friend James Flower , who now works creating DVDs for Soda Pictures but, before his career had flourished, worked as a till jockey in Videosyncratic. We could barely maintain a conversation, as we kept, out of the corner of our eyes, spotting another glorious missing-presumed-dead video cover and shouting out its name.
The videos were on loan from a young guy called Dale Lloyd (dalelloyd.com) who is probably the UK's most enthusiastic VHS obsessive. Dale and I have chatted online before and I've sent him old big box videos and Videosyncratic ephemera, since he is trying to archive and preserve that whole culture. It was great to finally get a big hug from him and have a good chat. But that room was full of like-minded people. All of us film geeks, around the same age, enjoying this shared experience. James introduced me to Evrim Ersoy, who with his pal Alex runs the cult film club Duke Mitchell, a regular film night where they screen ultra-obscure films and footage that leaves even the most ardent film nuts bewildered and enchanted. Evrim, a fun, sparkly-eyed enthusiast, told me how he plans to stage a night to honour a Turkish stuntman who made over 100 films, yet died a pauper's death homeless in a park. I'm a lifelong film-fan and I'm not sure I've ever even seen a Turkish film, let alone one of such a specific sub-genre. James, himself, runs a night called Savage Cinema in which he screens well-curated cult double bills. I spotted a guy called Jake in the room, Jake runs Cigarette Burns, another film night which recently triumphantly screened Psycho and it's remake side-by-side on two screens concurrently. I also met Adam Lowes, a writer for heyuguys.co.uk - one of the UK's best fan-run film review sites, he was also in video heaven.
At the end of the night, they gave us each an extremely limited edition copy of V/H/S/ on VHS. In a big rental box, no less. There were a lot of happy faces.
It had been a night of well-deserved, very genuine nostalgia. In that room of film geeks, stocked with free booze, I don't think a single glass was raised to Blocky.
Am I sad that Blockbuster has gone? Not a bit of it. Blockbuster, like all the other monolithic companies that are now vanishing was never about passion or enthusiasm, it was about ugly, greedy profit and I'm glad to see the back of it. The things that I miss, the things that I'm nostalgic for, those old films, the artwork of the posters, the faces, the music, the feeling of how cinema used to be will outlive Blockbuster forever because people like James, Dale, Adam, Evrim, Jake and, hey, me will keep it alive. We'll preserve it, write about it, re-release it and champion it.
If you miss Blockbuster, you've missed the point.