A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved The Movies (Preview)
by Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2016. 241 pp., illus. Hardcover: $28.00.

Reviewed by Steve Macfarlane

Untethered to its plastic strips of origin, movie fandom finds itself in a new era of wild promise and material uncertainty. The last several years have borne witness to a plethora of new streaming services, online film publications, and gourmet DVD/Blu-Ray distributors, to the point that both neophytes and hardcore scholars can handily school themselves In their canons of choice: auteurist picks from Golden-Age Hollywood, European art-house standbys, long-unavailable titles from the heyday of the avant-garde, glistening remasters of seminal Hong Kong titles from the Eighties and Nineties, the Albert Pyun filmography reconsidered—you name it. At first blush, one might assume film history had been saved and scanned into future memory already, with more titles available to be seen more widely for cheaper than ever before…but the sentiment insists on its own grain of salt, given the broader uphill battle faced commercially by the Fandors, MUBIs, and Criterion Collections of the world, to say nothing of Netflix’s forever-dwindling interest in making available anything older than a decade or two.

Larry Cohen's Q: The Winged Serpent.

And while a glimpse of a vintage 16mm or 35mm print is rightly prized as the Holy Grail in cities with vigorous (or, in New York’s case, downright berserk) repertory- cinema circuits, cheaper copies of the same images are proliferating elsewhere. The question of purism is under constant scrutiny; a few years back, I saw filmmaker Larry Cohen introduce a midnight screening of his classic Q: The Winged Serpent on what turned out to be a persistently pink-tinted 35mm print, and then half-jokingly beseech the audience to follow him back home to watch the film on a nice clean DVD instead. Is the connoisseurship of celluloid film a niche interest, impossible to maintain in a world ever changing? Who are the dreamers of this analog world, and who are its hardline realists?

Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph’s A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved The Movies describes itself as “a book about the death of Film” as opposed to the death of The Movies, but make no mistake: this sweeping, warts-and-all survey of the world of private print collecting is far more elegy than paean. (Bartok’s introduction designates it a kind of “mad Irish wake.”) Each chapter tidily spans a different collector; their page-for-page testimonies make for a book that’s reflexively hard to put down, dense with lurid accounts of print deals gone wrong and corresponding back-alley-Hollywood lore—sometimes, both at once. Across the book’s cast of nearly two-dozen interviewees-as-narrators, there’s enough annotation and kismet for a sprawling Paul Thomas Anderson picture (and more than enough bad blood).

Rock Hudson, film collector.

The collectors interviewed include late Something Weird impresario Mike Vraney, Joe Dante, and Leonard Maltin—who met his future wife Alice at a private cine-club screening— alongside Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, Phil Blankenship, and filmmaker/archivist Kevin Brownlow, who spent half a century leading the continuing effort to restore Abel Gance’s Napoleon to its original three-panel, six-hour glory. Were it not for A Thousand Cuts, I would have no idea that Osborne personally catalogued Rock Hudson’s print collection (a great many of its acquisitions bargained by Hudson himself from his studios of employ), that Paramount permanently sold its entire pre-1948 film library to Music Corporation of America (MCA) for $50 million in 1958 (only for it to be acquired later by Universal), or that the last known screenable 35mm print of Otto Preminger’s long-suppressed 1959 Porgy and Bess, starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge, was sitting in a private collection —Ken Kramer’s Clip Joint—in Burbank.

Kramer—whose first exposure to the world of black-market print trafficking began as a teenager, when he formed an alliance with a family friend who had contacts at local film labs—is one of many interviewees who passed away between meeting with Bartok and Joseph and the publication of A Thousand Cuts. For these men (and all but one of them are men, middle-aged or older) the “why” of getting into collecting requires no asking. The collections are histories unto themselves: lifelong continuations of childhood nostalgias, faraway places where their keepers sought escape from the drudgery of life’s non-Hollywood endings, or logistical nightmares of space and money foisted upon their long-suffering wives and children. (Maltin quips that, “You hear about football widows, and there were film collector widows.”) Not a few of the places visited by Bartok and Joseph reek, sometimes literally, of obsession; worlds of the diehard movie-maniac interior, gilded with Hollywood victory trophies and/or flotsam salvaged from abandonment as the motion-picture business, inevitably, moved on.

Otto Preminger's Porgy and Bess.

Bartok notices the front window of collector Peter Dyck’s Inglewood home, espousing a “Preview Tonight 8:30” sign from LA’s long-shuttered Encore Theatre—one of many minimetaphors perhaps irresistibly seized upon by A Thousand Cuts’ authors as evidence. The book retains its fondness for homage even while probing how, for instance, someone could possibly think holding onto an IB Technicolor print they’ll probably never be able to screen again is more important than selling it to pay for a prosthetic leg. Many of these sons (or, if you like, holdouts) of the postwar era grew up in imperfect working-class homes back when Film was Film—and furthermore, an era when the widespread rebroadcasting of lower-quality copies on daytime television fed a strain of Hollywood completism and armchair scholarship.

It needs saying that A Thousand Cuts accommodates as many viewpoints on this (admittedly niche) schism as it does due entirely to its writers’ access: Bartok wrote it when he was head of Cinelicious Pics—a burgeoning theatrical/Blu-ray distributor of restored discoveries—but has since returned to the American Cinematheque Los Angeles, as general manager. Joseph, who both appears in the book and rode shotgun for every single one of its interviews, spent his professional life as a film dealer, even spending two months in prison after an FBI sting operation in 1975—when he was all of twenty-two years old. The wave of crackdowns that decade had arguably peaked six months earlier, when FBI agents raided the home of Roddy McDowall and seized his entire collection of movies—which comprised a number of rare prints, but more controversially, VHS copies of the same ilk everybody would soon be taping off of television. (In another of the book’s sad intra-Hollywood refractions, McDowall is quoted as explaining to the FBI that he bought his print of Escape From the Planet of the Apes, starring himself, to preserve a particularly testing sliver of his own performance as Cornelius, which had been edited out of the TV-broadcast cut.) McDowall named names (including Rock Hudson’s) and was cleared of the charges after handing over his movies, as were other collectors ensnared in similar dragnets; Joseph even got his movies back from the FBI in the end, which he promptly had to sell to support himself. He also maintains the hunt for print collectors was a sideshow designed to burnish the FBI's public profile after the Patty Hearst fiasco.  And despite these innocuous-sounding codas, the book takes pains to describe the ways in which raids shook the already-precarious print market forever…

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Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 2