A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies
By Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph (2016, University of Mississippi Press)
A Thousand Cuts is a painful book to read. It’s painful to me because I remember the vanished world of 16mm film collectors who used to populate the cinema landscape. Once upon a time, in another life, I ran a film society. Through my thankless efforts to show movies and publish a journal devoted to film, I became acquainted with the collectors where I lived. They were a different breed, dedicated to the silver shadow on the screen. I worry they may all be gone.
As the authors say:
“Is film collecting truly dying? As of the writing of this book, the major Hollywood studios have almost completely phased out striking 35mm prints of new feature films for commercial distribution, and the major theater chains are likewise completing their conversion of cinemas to digital projection. So, in short order, there will be almost no new supply of 35mm prints to feed the collectors market—and very few places to show them even if there were, outside of cinematheques and museums.”
In some ways, A Thousand Cuts is a sequel to another book about film collectors, Land of a Thousand Balconies by Jack Stevenson, which was published in 2003. Cuts came out when DVD’s were supplanting film collecting. There were still plenty of video stores you could rent movies from every day. Now, video stores have gone the way of the Drive-In. I count myself fortunate to have seen two forms of entertainment medium rise and fall. Of course, everything can be found on the Internet these days and you can always order the special edition Blu-ray if you’re really dedicated. Gone are the days when I had to see Animal House a third time to hear the conversation between Dean Wormer and Carmine because the laughter of the audience drowned it out.
The authors were involved with film preservation over the years, so they were able to meet many of the people in this book the interviews. Because that is what this book really is: a beloved rogue’s gallery of the renegades who made it possible to show Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter in your living room (so long as you didn’t tell the wrong people). These were the true fanatics; those who had to have real films they could find to show every other week. These people survive today in the form of Philadelphia’s Secret Cinema.
The book talks a lot about the fragility of movie film. The best prints are those made with the dye transfer method, I. B. Technicolor. In film collector circles I used to hear the words “I. B. Tech” mentioned with holy reverence. One friend of mine bemoaned most of his collection would someday fade to red because it wasn’t blessed with the I. B. Tech transfer method. At least modern film isn’t explosive, although is prone to vinegar syndrome, i. e. breaking down from the release of acetic acid in the film (if not stored properly).
“…It’s not only lack of access to new prints that’s suffocating film collecting: the existing prints all carry the seeds of their own destruction inside them. The basic composition and processing of film slowly, inexorably eat away at the stock itself, producing a gripping odor and physical decay known as “vinegar syndrome,” or film rot. As my writing partner Jeff (a former film dealer himself) explains it, “acetate plastic decomposes on its own over time; that produces the odor (acetic acid) that smells like vinegar. Things like unwashed chemicals, scratch-removal chemicals, and mostly heat and humidity all exacerbate a natural process.” Properly stored, current film stocks should last for well over a century—but for older prints, the best guess is usually a smell test to see if there’s a whiff of vinegar syndrome, which can hop from print to print like an airborne virus. (Some collectors put their vinegared prints in the freezer to try to slow the process, a habit that probably sits well with the non-film-collector partner.)….”
But it’s the portraits of the people who worked so hard to out-maneuver the big studios and sell prints of films that make this book shine. It’s hard to remember the day before VHS tape. In the Dark Days, you had to own a physical copy of the film if you wanted to watch it. This also meant owning a 16mm film projector to show the film. There sprung forth on the horizon a clandestine industry of those who had access to movie labs. They could make you a “dupe” of just about anything.
This led to a crackdown. In the 1970’s, the FBI went after people who trafficked in bootleg film. It’s not well known, but a certain adult film was duped so many times it’s doubtful if anyone ever saw the original. Several famous movie actors came home from their daily calls to greet a man with a badge. Roddy McDowell had his film collection seized. Rock Hudson built a secret film vault behind a fireplace in his mansion. Some people ended up doing time.
But there is also the moment of discovery in this book. There were dedicated collectors who found their own personal Holy Grail:
‘’’…For Philadelphia-area collector Wes Shank, it was realizing in a blinding flash that he’d laid his hands on four minutes of missing footage from the original 1933 production of King Kong, including censored images of Kong the ape toying erotically with Fay Wray’s dress and stomping/munching on a handful of doomed natives. As Shank remembers the moment of the discovery, “I started unwinding the film and letting it go onto the floor. ‘That’s interesting … wait a minute. I don’t remember any such scene in the film.’ Then it hit me: ‘invaluable’ … ‘Kong.’ Could it be? I went down and put it on a pair of rewinds. Oh my god. This is the lost footage.” “’
I can’t give this book a high enough recommendation. I read it through it in several sittings. Time became still as I flipped through each page. And all I could hear in the background was the whirring of a projector.