"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Blockbuster Video is closing for good. You probably heard. After years of stumbling in a culture that increasingly expressed a preference for streaming and on-demand content, then being bought out by Dish a few years ago after declaring bankruptcy, the chain of video rental stores is shuttering its remaining 300 stores and all of its distribution centers. The news was only moments old when people, quite a few of them critics, began offering paeans to the store and reflecting on what many, many outlets called the “end of an era”. The Dissolve published two pieces in two days about the demise of video stores in general and why brick-and-mortar rental shops are still valuable parts of film culture whose demise should be met with sadness and regret. Pieces like that are an important part of the conversation, but in those and others like them, people have also been quick to stress that Blockbuster had just as many cons as pros: it was a corporate, plastic environment that stressed new releases and mainstream titles while downplaying older, foreign, or more obscure releases. In other words, it aimed for the biggest possible chunk of the market, and it made quite a bit of money doing so.
Yet Blockbuster had been dying for years. Between 2008 and the company’s Chapter 11 filing in 2010, they closed about 1,000 locations, and they kept rolling back locations in an effort to shore up earnings. They died by a thousand cuts: Netflix, founded in 1997, went public in 2002, and Blockbuster tried to play catch-up with its own DVD-by-mail program. Redbox was founded in 2002 and now has more than 42,000 kiosks nationwide, and Blockbuster experimented with those, too, until they were folded into Redbox’s army. Netflix expanded its streaming selection, while Blockbuster tried to catch up (Blockbuster on Demand remains operational, at least for now). Blockbuster was also fighting to grow and survive in a field built on quick, drastic changes. The VHS boom was already slowing by the early 1990s, which meant the store had to start pivoting to DVDs, a market which started its own slowdown a decade later. Between the big swings and the increasing quantity and quality of streaming content, it was going to be an uphill fight at best for Blockbuster to stay in the game. That they managed to hang in for close to 30 years is impressive.
So why the tone of mourning? Why the nostalgia for a crusty chain store that’s been relegated to fodder for cheap nostalgia hits on BuzzFeed? Why act as if something is changing?
Because we mourn ideas as much as things, and because we like pretending to have options more than actually exercising them. I haven’t been to Blockbuster in years. I would be very surprised if you’ve been to one recently, either, unless it was to pillage the clearance rack of a store going out of business. That’s why it’s closing: nobody went. It’s one thing to look back fondly on earlier methods of rental and consumption, but it’s a little disingenuous to act as if some part of us has died. Nothing’s ending, or at any rate, it’s not ending now. It ended a while ago. Blockbuster was huge for a while because videocassette rental was, for years, the only way to see movies at home. But they long since stopped being the only game in town, or even the biggest game in town. We have all moved on to new methods of search and discovery and consumption, whether it’s Netflix (discs or streaming), Amazon Prime, Vudu, cable on-demand offerings, or even borrowing discs from the local library. Blockbuster wasn’t a part of our lives at all. The news of its shuttering struck a chord with so many not because it meant the company was dead, but because it was such a surprise to find out that it was still alive.
Blockbuster’s death isn’t the end of movie rentals, nor is it the end of film-loving communities. It’s the end of a chain store we all used to visit. Popular in its day, a recognizable brand name to millions of Americans, and, yes, a cultural touchstone for Millenials. But it hasn’t been a part of our lives for years, so it’s going away. I won’t miss it, and I doubt you will, either. It’s not being taken from us. We gave it up.
What people seem to be lamenting most is some imagined loss of the community aspect that made it possible to, say, browse for movies with fellow cinephiles or get a good recommendation from a friendly employee in a blue shirt. But just as the demise of Blockbuster doesn’t mean the end of all movie rentals and purchases, the loss of a chain doesn’t make it impossible to find those film-loving communities or explore new filmmakers. Indie video stores are still great places to have these experiences, but you know what? So’s Twitter. And Facebook. And Tumblr. And email, which is a thing people still do. It has never been easier to jump in and find fellow movie lovers, and to use those friendships to find new films, trade opinions, and even swap discs with people. I’m lucky enough to be socially connected to a number of smart critics and film buffs, and even though I have yet to meet them in real life, I’ve discovered some great movies through them. That’s what matters: the search. To the degree that a place like Blockbuster could enable that for a while, it was helpful. But there are other tools now, and so many ways to discover new stories or rewatch great ones. I can’t bring myself to shed a tear for a place that long since stopped being a part of that process.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
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