A THOUSAND CUTS:
The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies by Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph
University Press of Mississippi, 2016
It’s been more than a year since Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph’s book on film print collectors was sent to me for review. At the time I very much enjoyed reading about the people I know, and some I hadn’t heard of, who had gone out of their way to preserve films by visiting warehouses that were selling them off, or throwing them away, or paying projectionists just for the experience of having the films for themselves to enjoy on their own, but I just couldn’t bring myself to discuss the finality that was constantly brought up in the book, including a final photographic image of a bunch of 16mm projectors haphazardly tossed in a dumpster. My own interest in the projected image began around five years old with a little toy called a Ghost Gun, a little handheld gun-shaped projector that shined a light through a piece of paper with a ‘ghost’ drawn on it and you’d shoot the gun and it would poke holes in the paper, resulting in holes in the projected ‘ghost.’ I felt it was just incredible to project the image and to move it around the room.
My dad just loved movies. He had a Da-Lite projector screen set up and he’d call us all in and show us the black and white silent 20-minute-long condensed version of Star Wars on Super 8, and while it was a little less impressive at home compared to the presentation at the UA 150 in downtown Seattle, this was such a fun way to watch movies. Soon he acquired one of the first VCRs in my smaller town and a 50” projection TV and the projector was packed away, but I always loved that rattle rattle of the film going through, the winding, the whole thing. I’ve never been able to accept any finality to the motion picture experience, and I had to set the book down for a while to think about it all.
Now, a year later, I’ve built a website honoring the theaters that have held onto their 35mm projection equipment at 35mmforever.com, and Christopher Nolan is unveiling his latest film in the widest released of 70mm in years, with Quentin Tarantino following same just last year. Attending my second screening of the Hateful 8, sitting in the furthest-back seat so I could hear and watch the film run, I peeked back and saw the projectionist hold onto the large strip of film from the platter and just loved knowing you could actually see the image we were watching on the screen, in is hand.
And this sensation is something that was fully known to these collectors. They weren’t just picking up a photocopy; they were picking up the thing itself, the movie, the image. They could hold it up to a light and know they ‘had it’ in their hands. It wasn’t something to stick on a shelf, it was something much closer to the heart, something one could hold. And in this book Bartok and Joseph introduce us to the secretive world of the people who kept older films alive by locating and storing these prints, and amazingly setting up viewing apparatuses in their own living spaces.
It’s hard to imagine in this age where people routinely copy films or have them on light little discs, or even just start playing with the click of a button, that people would risk FBI investigations, public humiliation, and having their homes raided just because they loved movies.
One of the more famous hoarders of heavy cinema was Planet of the Apes star Roddy McDowall, with over 500 film prints snagged in the famous raid on his house. His story made the Los Angeles Times, and the fear of having collections snagged sent film lovers even further underground in the pursuit and sharing of their contraband. The story of these years is the thesis of Bartok’s story, and he writes it as if it were a suspense novel. Again, it’s hard to imagine in these years of such easy access, but once picking up a film can at the back door of a projection book with soaked in the mystery of smoky noir.
The players of Bartok’s tome include TCM’s Robert Osborne, relating the secret film vault of Rock Hudson, Leonard Maltin, and filmmaker Joe Dante, in addition to a kooky coterie of canned-film collectors, some more sane than others. One of the more visible, Ken Kramer, cobbled together his own print of Porgy & Bess, the longest known version, and one that was shared in the late great New York space known as the Ziegfeld.
Collectors today still keep a lid on their lists, afraid of copyright owners coming out to collect their ‘possessions.’ A practice much less heard of today, though legally there is some oomph to it, though once a film has hit the digital arena and the owner recompensed somehow, the magical film print has less value to these owners, and is more something that just plain takes up too much space in a garage.
Yet, as Bartok suggests a final death knell to the practice, today we find groups like the American Genre Film Archive sharing their wares throughout the Alamo Drafthouse film chain, with many of those venues equipped with 35mm projectors. Movie palaces around the country that never succumbed to the lure of digital, as they were not dependent on film revenue to stay alive, continue to project film, and some that is their only format, like the mighty Oakland Paramount, while the great Grand Lake in Oakland never faded, and also presents the 70mm format. Seattle’s Cinerama hosts annual film fests, including 70mm, and Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade hosts many a celluloid retrospective, with multiple venues in the New York and Los Angeles area ready to project, from the East Village’s Anthology Film Archives and the newly minted Metrograph’s Chinatown locations, and the mighty New Beverly Cinema, now owned by Quentin Tarantino, projecting the rarest of the rare, even paying huge shipping fees to import one-copy-only film prints for presentation, with many of these films having no digital representation at all.
A glorious heavily researched tale, A Thousand Cuts introduces readers to the geekiest of the geek, practitioners of a truly rare craft. Purchasing a multi-region Blu-ray player is a definite form of film love, hanging out around a dumpster waiting for a warehouse to shut down for the night is quite another. One thing we can be certain of, is no matter how much the studios may disregard their own history, and their own clientele, true film lovers continue to keep the carbon arc burning, illuminating daring dreams around the world, and for their obsessions, we can be thankful.