By Lynn Venhaus
A sentimental journey for anyone who spent any part of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s renting movies at video stores, “The Last Blockbuster” will put a smile on your face, just like the talking heads who react over a clamshell case by breaking into big grins. It is like a muscle memory, sharing that pop culture experience — and it’s fun and sad at the same time.
This documentary, directed by Taylor Morden and written by Zeke Kamm, is focused on the last remaining Blockbuster Video, located in Bend, Oregon. But then it turns into a blast from the past.
The world has moved on, but this movie reminds us of everything we associated with the home entertainment boom after Video Cassette Recorders, aka VCRs, became a mainstay in American households around 1982. The ritual of selecting movies with your children or date or friends, and then returning them in the dropbox, is chronicled here.
The first Blockbuster Video opened in Dallas in 1985, and video rentals had largely been small mom-and-pop operations until then. Now, there is just one place in the whole world where you can go to recall the past — a functioning Blockbuster in Bend, Oregon. It is all there, in the blue and yellow corporate color scheme. People are coming from around the globe, all giddy, to walk down memory lane.
The genial manager, Sandi Harding, is known as the “Blockbuster Mom.” Her family works there, so do friends, and she is responsible for many a teenager in town’s first job. She provides quality customer service as she carries on the torch. Filmmakers capture “a day in the life” as she goes about her routine. She has received international fame by being the subject of global media coverage, and estimates she has done 500 interviews.
Famous folks talk about their part-time jobs when they were in school – including actors Adam Brody and Paul Scheer – while other comedians and actors share anecdotes, including Brian Posehn, Doug Benson, Ione Skye, Eric Close and Jamie Kennedy.
Director Kevin Smith, who broke through with his 1994 indie movie “Clerks”– about guys who worked in a video store, waxes nostalgic about the video phenomenon. He wonders if video stores may return as a niche market like record stores have.
In its heyday, Blockbuster had 9,000 stores and 60,000 employees, but technology moved on, and today, there is just one, after one nearby in Oregon shuttered, two in Alaska shut down in 2018 and a location in Perth, Australia, closed two years ago.
Bend is about 170 miles east of Portland. The store used to be Pacific Video, and the owners, Ken and Debbie Tisher, are interviewed. Because it is a franchise, and they have customers, they keep the doors open.
After a series of corporate missteps – did you know Blockbuster could have purchased Netflix when it was a mail-order DVD operation? – that are detailed by the business guys, and changes in habits and the evolving marketplace, its days were numbered.
Remember “No late fees”? What were they thinking? They lost a lot of money. Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010 and all the corporate-owned stores shut down in 2014.
Morden, who lives in Bend, began covering the store in 2017, wanting to preserve its history, as did writer Kamm.
Even in 86 minutes, the filmmakers are repetitive, and outside of people’s reminiscences and Harding’s story, there isn’t much substance.
But allow the wave of nostalgia to give you a warm glow, as the filmmakers have captured a bygone era that we now realize we miss.
Of course, Blockbuster isn’t the only corporate outfit that closed its video rental business – Family Video, the last bastion, is headed that way after the pandemic forced closing all its remaining stores (even in St. Louis, where Kevin Smith – yes, that Kevin Smith – donated money to help keep the Gravois Road one in south city afloat).
It’s certainly ironic that the company that is blamed for Blockbuster’s demise, the streaming service Netflix, added the 2020 documentary, which was on the festival circuit, to its roster March 15, and its popularity has exploded.
Recent news accounts report that the store is getting mail orders for T-shirts, stickers and face masks (all made by Bend businesses), and renewed interest.
It’s nice to see a well-intentioned film strike a chord about the community-building of neighborhood stores. And recalling how you’d discover a hidden gem because of the clerk’s recommendation – and us film critics alerting you to must-see movies.
Pop culture won’t forget our shared involvement, and like the store in Oregon, this movie conveys our collective memories, which is priceless.
“The Last Blockbuster” is a 2020 documentary directed by Taylor Morden. It stars Sandi Harding, her family, Kevin Smith, Eric Close, Doug Benson, Ione Skye, Adam Brody, Jamie Kennedy, Briah Posehn, and more. It is not rated and runs 1 hour, 26 minutes long. Lynn’s Grade: B+. It began streaming on Netflix March 15.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.