The cruel irony couldn’t be more obvious: Netflix is profiting off the nostalgia for Blockbuster’s video rental stores. The streaming platform, regarded by some as responsible for the death of the movie rental business model, just premiered a comedy series set in the last remaining Blockbuster in the world. Simply titled Blockbuster, the show is inspired on the true story of the establishment in Bend, Oregon, that in 2019 became the company’s last franchise in the world, a story that previously inspired the documentary The Last Blockbuster (2020), which was the fourth most watched content on Netflix during the spring of 2021 in the United States.
Starring Randall Park and Melissa Fumero, Blockbuster explores with humor its own contradictory nature from episode one, with a customer going to the store to complain about Netflix’s algorithm, which was recommending the kind of shows that his ex-girlfriend, with whom he shared his account, used to like, even though she had just left him. The manager and employees immediately get to work searching and recommending the most appropriate movies to overcome a breakup, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Midsommar.
Beyond the occasional winks, however, the stories here are not by any means incisive towards the new forms of consumption, nor do they have much to do with cinema. In that sense, Blockbuster is faithful to the conclusions drawn by the documentary, expressed by one of the company’s vice presidents: that nostalgia for the franchise has to do with the whole experience surrounding the ritual of going there to pick a movie, or the fixation of those who were children at the time with the brand, the stores and the colors, as characteristic as those of McDonald’s or Burger King.
It is in fact the documentary the one that questions, with much more malice, the role played by the company in the cinematographic culture of its time and in the very field which it now symbolizes. Blockbuster, which came to have more than 9,000 stores (5,000 of them in the United States alone) and which, at its peak, opened one every 17 hours, developed monopolistic practices against other video stores that could hardly be considered good for competition, and whose owners were invited to become Blockbuster franchisees or face the consequences of having one across the street.
“Blockbuster was the enemy, it crushed the neighborhood video stores,” says José Fernández Riveiro, author of Rebobinando: El libro de la generación del videoclub (Rewinding: The book of the video store generation), published this year, where he explores everything that surrounded the video store phenomenon in the 1980s and 1990s, the circumstances it generated and its impact on the film industry – like the proliferation of false sequels or imitations (such as the Italian Alien 2: On Earth, from 1980, or Star Crash from 1978). “Additionally, directors like Sam Raimi, with his Evil Dead trilogy, or Peter Jackson with Bad Taste and Braindead, made a career thanks to that culture, because, due to the video stores, the presence of their films in home-viewing format lasted much longer,” explains the writer.
It was a culture that clashed squarely with the policies of a giant like Blockbuster: its decision not to offer titles for viewers over 17 years of age had a huge influence on the studios, which had to be cautious when it came to producing films that might not make it to the most important rental space in the world. In The Last Blockbuster, Lloyd Kaufman, co-founder of Troma Entertainment and director of The Toxic Avenger (1984) – the quintessential video store fodder – claims to have requested a meeting with Blockbuster executives to ask them to carry his films, only to be faced with ridicule: “They were rude, they were scumbags, they had no respect,” he said, referring to their logo as the “greatest American symbol of true monopoly.”
The video store was born in 1975 when a German man named Eckhard Baum, in the city of Kassel, started to lend his Super 8 films to his neighbors. Those who owned a player for their family recordings could now watch Hollywood movies in their own living room. After seeing the interest that the idea aroused, he decided to turn it into a business and began to rent them. The business model reached the United States in 1977, with the first one opening in Los Angeles, and became enormously popular in the 1980s thanks to the practicality of the Betamax format, first, and then the VHS, which would prevail for many years until the arrival of the DVD.
A part of the legacy of sentimental and cinematographic education that the video stores left behind is embodied in the figure of the employee who worked there. Directors like Kevin Smith, with Clerks, or Quentin Tarantino, who on many occasions has talked about how his work in a video store and his conversations with the customers became essential in his development as a filmmaker, have fueled the mythical notion of the loquacious and passionate character who, from behind the counter, acted as a sort of curator of a massive and eclectic selection of films.
“That figure existed, of course,” says Fernández Riveiro. “The video store clerks were peculiar characters and many groups of friends used to form around them and the movies. Lots of heated discussions, too! And they worked better than the algorithms as they got to know your tastes, because they were more personal and they didn’t try to make you watch the same type of movie all the time, like the platforms do.”
In the Blockbuster series, a narrative that almost feels like science fiction focuses on a receding consumer element that is closely linked to the video store: the movies in physical format. Movies whose online availability generates a false feeling of permanence. A clear example that calls this into question are the original productions made specifically for HBO Max that, for tax reasons, the platform’s owner, Warner, decided to remove this summer: among others, The Witches, An American Pickle and the acclaimed animated series Infinity Train.
Another emblematic film of the video store world, the comedy Be Kind Rewind (2008), about two managers of a video store who have to remake all the VHS movies themselves after an accident erases them, brought up something more transcendental about these establishments: that what these tangible physical movies contained was not the most important part, but rather the neighborhood experience of meeting and participating around cinema.
It is a similar idea to the one mentioned by the journalist Matt Goldberg in the article “The Necessary Evil and Unnecessary Nostalgia for Blockbuster Video,” published in Collider.com: “We long for the communal aspect of going out with some friends to the store and conversing about what we wanted to see. […] It would be nice if there were a resurgence of the independent video store because what we’re longing for isn’t Blockbuster or even selection, but a place to gather and share a love of movies surrounded by a wealth of cinema — not ‘content.’”
The Danish shipping giant Maersk held meetings with Denmark’s tax and maritime authorities to advise them on how best to shield the shipping industry from the OECD’s global minimum tax deal, according to a Danish media report.
Published: 8 February 2023 16:21 CET
The revelations, reported by broadcaster DR, come as the company on Wednesday reported record profits of 203 billion kroner, on which it paid just 3 percent in tax.
They are particularly damaging to the company because of the claim last year from Maersk’s then CEO Søren Skou that his company was open to paying more tax, so long as it was through a global agreement via the OECD, precisely the sort of agreement the company was behind the scenes trying to exclude itself from.
“It seems as if Maersk is playing a double game,” Lars Koch from the poverty charity Oxfam, told DR after he was presented with the evidence.
“We can see from the access to documents the number of meetings and close and confidential dialogue”, he added. “Here they agree and inform each other about what Denmark should argue in these international negotiations on a tax agreement and they work actively to safeguard Maersk’s interests by exempting the shipping companies.”
The broadcaster report was based on internal documents obtained from the Ministry of Taxation and the Danish Maritime Authority.
The documents show that in June 2020, representatives of the company held a meeting with the Ministry of Taxation in which they they discussed strategies on excluding shipping from the OECD agreement on minimum tax.
Soon afterwards, the industry lobby group Danish Shipping (Danske Rederier), where Maersk plays a leading role, wrote to the Ministry of Taxation and the Danish Maritime Authority warning that the OECD proposal “creates considerable uncertainty in our hinterland”.
Then in June 2021, a representative from the Danish Maritime Authority thanked Danish Shipping for supplying it with arguments it could use to push for shipping to be excluded, saying, “it was extremely well done. A thousand thanks for your efforts.”
Finally, when shipping was exempted from the OECD agreement in July 2021, a representative from Danish Shipping thanked the Danish Maritime Authority for “the orientation and for being aware of the special challenges of shipping”.
Mette Mellemgaard Jakobsen, Maersk’s head of tax, admitted that her company had tried to influence the process.
“We were specifically concerned about how these rules would be implemented, and we had a concrete concern that it would create an increased distortion of competition,” she told DR.
“For us, it is absolutely crucial that we are not put at a disadvantage compared to other shipping companies around the world. That is why global agreements are the most important thing for us.”
Rasmus Corlin Christensen, a researcher in international tax at Copenhagen Business School, said that Maersk’s double game was quite “striking”.
“On the one hand, you support and work for global solutions, the shipping industry included. But at the same time you can see that, at least when it comes to the global reforms that have been discussed in recent years, they did not want the shipping industry to be covered.”
Contemporary TV fiction does not shy away from polarizing topics. From the capitalist nightmare of Severance (2022) to the mental health issues of Euphoria(2019,) shows increasingly incorporate social debates into their plot lines in response to a growing interest. Gone are the years of the 1990s escapism of Friends and The Office’s controversial canned laughter. Now, for a show to succeed, it must actively participate in the cultural conversation.
This trend is particularly reflected in awards like the Golden Globes, which recently recognized socially engaged productions such as Abbott Elementary or The Bear. Despite this progress, most of these shows haven’t yet broken one of the last taboos in fiction: the lack of body diversity and representation of fat characters.
Anti-fatness is an accepted, widespread discrimination – tiny airplane seats, body-related comments – and fat people remain culturally marginalized. Society “doesn’t like talking to fat people, looking at fat people, believing fat people [and] listening to fat people,” says Lyla Byers, a researcher at Virginia Tech. “We would really prefer for fat people not to exist in public.”
As a result, obese people can suffer serious health consequences. “When I was a child, I suffered medical violence; I was very thin but a pediatrician put me on 18,000 diets,” says Spanish actress Laura Galán Montijano, who starred in the award-winning Piggy (2022). “She was obsessed with my weight, she used to weigh me every week.”
Even some medical terms like “obesity” or “overweight” are problematic, based on a non-inclusive metric: the body mass index (BMI). “BMI was never meant to be used to measure individual health,“ says Byers. “It’s way too simple a measurement for way too complex an issue,” adds Jennifer Graves, author of Framing Fat, a book that challenges the dominant weight discourses. “There are still significant civil rights issues that fat people face in terms of lack of protection against discrimination in the medical system.”
Laziness, stupidity, gluttony or having low sexual capital are some of the concepts associated with fat people, according to Jeanine Gailey, a sociology professor at Texas Christian University. “The cultural messaging is that fat is the worst thing one can be,” Gailey says. These stigmas are internalized by producers, who fail to include diverse perspectives. “When [women] are not desirable according to beauty standards, we’re not featured on screen,” says Montijano.
And, when fiction does introduce fat characters, they are often reduced to old-school stereotypes, from the bullied girl of Debby Ryan’s Insatiable (2018) to the idiotic, slothful Homer Simpson. “Many people in society watch these shows or these movies, internalize these portrayals and believe these things about fat people,” says Ariane Prohaska, a researcher at the University of Alabama. “It leads us to treat fat people differently and to treat ourselves differently, in a way that makes us believe that we have to constantly be improving our bodies.”
Reducing obese people to caricatures especially affects traditionally marginalized minority groups, such as women, people of color and the LGBTQI+ community. “Body size intersects with other dimensions of oppression,” says Prohaska. “So, women of color, particularly Black women, face a lot of stigma.” Big Shirley, a recurring character on the television show Martin, is a classic example of a problematic portrayal of fat Black women on TV, as is America Ferrera’s character on Ugly Betty.
Fat white women have managed to diversify their roles in American fiction thanks to the work of actresses like Melissa McCarthy or Lena Dunham. But “Hollywood Fatness” is not representative of the US a whole. Chrissy Metz, for example, said in 2016 that as part of her This is Us contract, where she played a woman struggling with eating habits, she had to lose weight. Later, however, she retracted her comments. “Gatekeepers, the people who are behind the scenes deciding what stories Americans are going to buy, tend to be white, wealthy and male,” says Virgie Tovar, a writer and expert on body discrimination. “This creates a cycle of the same kinds of stories being told over and over again.”
When it comes to queer men, fiction narrowly focuses on the body cult that characterizes part of the community through masculine, beefy characters such as those in Élite (2018,) Smiley (2022) or in the last season of American Horror Story. “It really is paradoxical that the diversity the LGBTQI+ community demands is not practiced within it,” says Roberto Enríquez, critic and creator of Queer You Are (2021.)
In the show, Enríquez self-fictionalizes his own youth through Gabriel Sánchez and Carlos González, who embody the double discrimination the director has suffered because of his sexual orientation and his body. “I was clear that, if I was going to do the show, I was going to do it my own way,” says Enríquez. “They had to be fat characters because that was the story I was telling, how they face life with those bodies, how they face rejection and desire.” In an interview for ICON, Sánchez spoke of the danger of stereotyping fat people. “If you’re fat, they make you do fat things. ‘I fall down and break the chair because I’m fat; I’m fat and I eat four pastries in 10 minutes.’ The fat guy always has scenes where he is binge-eating.”
If LGBTQI+ stories are still disruptive, triggering far-right censure, those that incorporate artists with non-normative bodies, away from the imposed canon and with plots beyond those of physical obsession, have an even greater subversive impact. “Queer bodies and fat bodies are seen as excessive, so when you have queer fat bodies, they are doubly destabilizing,” says Jason Whitesel, a sociologist at Illinois State University and author of Fat Gay Men, which examines fat stigma within gay male communities. “Most of our shows are put together by people who think the queer community is best represented by thin or muscular people.”
Even though fat suits are still employed by the entertainment industry, fiction has progressed from the rather cringeworthy “Fat Monica” episode of Friends. In The Girls at the Back (2022,) Mariona Terés plays Leo, a millennial woman who plans a trip with her friends after one is diagnosed with cancer. Terés, with a leading, cliché-free role, believes that many things have changed in recent years, albeit slowly. “We are seeing different bodies on screen, but we have to keep changing the clichés,” she says. “The next step is a fat woman playing a sexy character, in a romantic relationship with someone, and normalizing that her body is beautiful, that she can eat whatever she wants and fuck whoever she wants.”
Besides expanding the narrative complexity of fat characters, fiction must increase their range of roles away from one-dimensional supporting characters haunted by their physical appearance.
“What I hope is that diversity is broadened in all senses,” says Carlota Pereda, director of Piggy. Without financial support from production companies, projects with leading fat characters will struggle to be developed. “When you’re looking for funding, some people won’t support you because they consider it a personal project just because you’ve put a non-normative character in the leading role.”
Although fiction lags behind a society that is largely critical of negative representations of fat characters in productions like The Whale, the industry will eventually accept that non-Hollywood bodies exist and deserve to be represented, with complex storylines and free from humiliating fat suits. “I do think we’re going to see more and more diverse people on screen,” says Terés. “It’s a slow road, but we’ll get to the other side.”
The brinksmanship has won plaudits from some who argue that by holding out, the German leader managed to get the United States to reverse its stance and send Abrams tanks — bringing about a bigger win for Ukraine.
But other analysts warn the weeks of delay may have left a deeper mark on Scholz’s international reputation, while also hurting Kyiv’s chances against Russian troops on the battlefield.
“The SPD chancellor has achieved one of his biggest aims: delivering battle tanks only in step with the Americans,” wrote Die Zeit weekly.
Rather, he repeatedly underlined that it was and is “right that we did not let ourselves be pushed into this but that we rely on and also continue on close cooperation”.
It was perhaps not a coincidence that Scholz’s announcement came after public opinion shifted slightl in favour of sending tanks, with 46 percent for and 41 percent against on January 19.
Directly addressing fears of Germans, who have favoured treading lightly around conflict zones since World War II, Scholz pointedly said he would ensure that any support for Ukraine would be provided “without the risks for our country growing in the wrong direction”.
Asked later on ZDF public television whether his hesitation had led to a “loss of trust” among allies, Scholz rejected the criticism.
“Everyone knows we are making a big contribution, also compared to other countries, in terms of support for Ukraine — not only financially and with humanitarian aid but also with weapons.”
But some analysts said his concern for domestic politics may have cost Ukraine on the frontlines.
In the meantime, “several months” had been lost in the defence of Ukraine, while Scholz was “more concerned with domestic politics” and an issue he did not see as a “big vote winner”, Chatham House analyst John Lough told AFP.
Fears that moving too rashly would lead to an escalation in the war were exaggerated, too. Even without tank deliveries, “the Russians have escalated anyway”, for example by targeting critical infrastructure in Ukraine, Lough said.
Amid the ruckus, particularly with neighbouring Poland accusing Scholz of dithering, analysts point to the damage done to Germany’s reputation.
Bild daily piled on the pressure at home, accusing Scholz of cowardice. But a day later, a high-profile defence ministers’ meeting of Ukraine allies last Friday still failed to break the deadlock on tanks.
The delay was “embarrassing for the German government”, said Lough.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) comments on the Russian attack on Ukraine during a press conference at the Chancellery on February 24th, 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler
Sudha David-Wilp, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office, said moving in lock-step with the United States gave Scholz the “political cover he needed” to say “yes” to German tank deliveries.
But his short-term win was not “necessarily good for Germany because it has lost a lot of trust” with key partners, David-Wilp said.
The way the tank drama played out “clearly shows that the US needs to play a leadership role in Europe” and its security, while German leadership remained “elusive”, she said.
Yet, for all the apparent damage to Scholz, there might be a winner.
The unexpected US tank commitment means that officials in Ukraine have “all kinds of different kit now”, David-Wilp added.