Tuesday, 15 January 2019

A Thousand Cuts

In The Heat Of The Nitrate
A Thousand Cuts - The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved The Movies
by Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph
University Press Of Mississipi
ISBN: 978-1496807731

You know, this book’s subtitle is far more optimistic than you may expect if you’ve already delved under the beautiful dustcover and started reading this collection of interviews with a certain kind of dying breed. A Thousand Cuts - The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved The Movies is about a bunch of people, some of them very famous, who deal, trade and collect prints of movies... and the quirkiness of the obsessive personality of collectors is, as you would expect, very much in evidence here. However, these are not rose tinted tales of maniacal outcasts restoring the glory of movies past... although, to be fair there is a bit of that in this. More often, however, it’s a sobering account of people measuring what we, as a society, have lost... where prints decay in that phenomenom called vinegar syndrome... and the chilling realisation that this is just the tip of the iceberg and modern movies are in way much more danger for future generations than the gazillions of movies we’ve already lost to the march of time over the years.

While spelling out certain truths in his introduction to the various chapters, each of which highlights one collector (or occasionally more who are tied together by a certain theme), Bartok does highlight that films as an art form are not quite so much at their last knockings in terms of the way they are sometimes welcomed by the younger generation as part of a whole package of different media feeding off each other. He illustrates this with the Harry Potter movies and mentions that many children are eventually led to the movies because they want to find out how to get through the rest of the levels of the video games of these characters... so they look at the movie versions for inspiration and then also, quite possibly, the books. And this is one way that films are not quite a redundant art form as yet. However, what this book is mainly about is film as celluloid or nitrate prints that are literally ticking time bombs and Bartock and Joseph, with the help of testimonies and recollections from fellow collectors, highlight this alarming trend and the current attitude of  a ‘disposable Hollywood’.

To be fair they do highlight that certain good things are happening to try and save ‘film as we know it’. For example, nobody is really making film stock anymore and he mentions that directors like Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan have banded together and managed to persuade Hollywood to advance order so much film that the few companies providing it can keep themselves in business for another five years or so. As you find when you’re reading through the anecdotes in this tome, this is not just a nice thing to do but, pretty much, an essential thing to do if directors want to be able to keep and store proper versions of the films they make.

Asides from the heavy stuff, though, the book is a charming gem of first and second hand anecdotes about the people who buy reels of certain films for their collections. The author highlights a number of times in the book... and I’m not 100% sure of why he does this.. that the majority of the people in the world of film collectors (and I mean literally buying prints in cans) are predominantly male, gay and, for the most part, are not able to hold down a steady relationship or family due to the expense and storage space needed for their collections. That being said, there are other collectors in here that don’t fit that description... even a woman collector who is into buying and preserving terrible B-Movies (and thanks to her, I shall now be on the look out for a Blu Ray of APE, a movie I wasn’t that bothered about before reading this). And also some collectors who have turned their personal collections into goldmines for others (at a price), many of them rescuing these films from final oblivion against unbelievable odds, such as the man who specialises in sexploitation and who some of my readers might know as the man who resells DVDs and Blu Rays of his prints as the Something Weird Video label.

And there’s some truly interesting stories both from collectors most people have never heard of to some more famous names on the scene, such as film critic Leonard Maltin, director Joe Dante and, of course, the very high profile story of actor Roddy McDowell, who was caught in an FBI sting in the 1970s, when the FBI were pretty much waging war on private collectors under the crusade of copyright violation (in a campaign as destructive as the Video Nasty era of films in the UK in the 1980s was). In an ‘almost but not quite’ metaphor for the McArthy witch-hunts, McDowell was forced to confess his interests and dealings in film prints and name names so that the FBI could see who to bust next (one of the collectors in this book, who is also one of the co-authors, went to jail for his dealings at one point). Part of McDowell’s ‘confession’ document is reprinted here and it makes for interesting reading when you find McDowell would defend his passion through trying to become a better actor from watching others etc. It’s a heartbreaking document but it’s full of unusual information such as McDowell justifying his ownership of a print of Escape From The Planet Of The Apes due to the fact that it was heavily edited on television screenings.

There are many kinds of stories packed into A Thousand Cuts. Such as the tale of a gay, Nazi collector who was proud of his print of Thoroughly Modern Millie but who also had a small can found next to it labelled ‘Jew outtakes’... because he’d cut out the Jewish wedding scene where Julie Andrews sings that fantastic song so he wouldn’t have to look at that when watching. And thanks to Maltin, I now know the projectionist’s term for an adequate distance between the projector and the screen is referred to as ‘a good throw’. And there are also many stories that highlight how in danger film now is. There are not many of these collectors left (and very few young ones) but, here’s the thing... because nobody in Hollywood is making or looking after any prints (and even less so with the somehow more volatile digital movies), often they will seek out these private collectors to borrow the print for new screenings or to get the best print for a Blu Ray restoration. However, the well is drying up and, with a lot of films made over the last 20 years or so, there is no well to plunder at all when the next release of a specific film is required. And, what’s worse (and I saw this coming from the moment I first heard about film restoration), as Joe Dante points out, most of the films are not being converted to digital and saved in that way. The content is very much cherry picked to just... what will make money or is a big movie or future classic... but there are gazillions more films that the high profile restorers are just not interested in.

There’s a wonderful the tale of one collector in this book which says a lot about the state and worrying future demise of the art of film, actually. It’s a man who loved the classic movie The Day Of The Triffids so much that he spent over thirty years of his life, in all his spare time, going over his print with a needle to take out the hundreds of thousands of white specks on what I am assuming is the only print existing worth talking about. And that’s the only reason, from what I can make out, as to why we have such a nice looking, blemish free print of The Day Of The Triffids on home video now. Without this guy’s battles for copyright and to restore it over the decades, it would probably be a lost film by now. Or at least, a film in a much less watchable condition. And, frankly, I find that prospect to be a grim and frightening one and, it has to be said, a lot of the collectors in this book seem pretty depressed when asked about the future of film. I mean, sure, some of them can agree that the latest Blu Ray restorations, if done correctly, can sometimes look better than the original film print ever did (something I learned myself from a documentary on the first Blu Ray restoration of the Bond films from a few years ago) but, yeah, having access to everything a film lover may want in the future will be.... well, I suspect there will be quite some outrage in 20 or so years time when people start to realise just what we are losing right now... especially in relation to modern films.

So, yeah, that’s my little review of A Thousand Cuts - The Bizarre Underground World
of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved The Movies.
It’s a fabulous tome and one of those books about film that I’m very happy to have on the shelf. This is absolutely recommended to anyone who is in love with the idea of owning little pieces of celluloid history and also for those of us who buy films regularly on DVD and Blu Ray. There’s a lot to learn from this vastly entertaining and well written book. A definite read for all cinephiles, buffs or just casual fans of cinema... a real goldmine of information and trivia awaits.

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