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Uncensored Confessions of a Film Collector
Jack Stevenson
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Posted by: David, on 05/02/2008, in category "Film & TV"
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Abstract: A first-hand account of one man's film reel obsession. BY JACK STEVENSON


By Jack Stevenson


 “Where did you get these films?”

That’s the one question I have constantly been asked over the course of the last fifteen years as I presented film programs throughout Europe and America.

It’s a question with no short, easy answer; a question that stirs a mix of emotions that run the range from shame, guilt and greed to ecstasy, lust and rapture… threatening to unleash a flood of memories and dirty little secrets upon the unsuspecting person in front of me who was just trying to make conversation. So I give some kind of polite answer. It’s a question that of course leads straight to the heart of what it means to be a film collector, which I am and which is far more (or less) than someone who just collects films.

It is a question that I am now able to bring some perspective and insight to bear upon thanks to the luxury of a bit of leisurely introspection which the writing process affords. And this is not always polite or dignified stuff.

First I should define what I collect.

I collect 16mm and 35mm film prints, the actual celluloid material that runs through a movie projector — the kind of contraption that you probably once saw your teacher fiddling with in grade school. Material that can be scratched, torn and melted and can fall off onto the floor into heaps of tangled coils that can take hours or days to unravel. Material that comes on cores, spools and reels and is shipped in cans and boxes that can be ungodly heavy to lug around. (Old projectionists often develop back problems the same way that truck drivers have their internal organs rattled loose) Material that is so heavy that people often don’t even bother to throw it out, leaving it to moulder away in stacks in abandoned buildings, to be found years or decades later by people who think it is worth something. This is one of its dubious attributes which ironically has led to the preservation of a lot of film.

I’m not talking about video, DVD or laser disc which is what the man-in-the-street refers to when he refers to a “film”, as in “I own that film.”

Not until recently, with the advent of video in the 1980s, could that man-in-the-street “own” a film. Only a company or a film collector could own or possess a film, and the fact that today any schmuck can walk into a gas station and buy “a film” is something that real film collectors look upon with scorn. It also, for different reasons, is a cause of unhappiness for some film makers. “I hate the fact that people can now ‘own’ my films” said the director, John Waters, some years ago, referring to the fact that they used to only be able to own the fleeting experience of seeing his films. In any case, the video boom begot hordes of video collector nerds that ended up kicking grandma and her old sofa out of the house so they would have more room to store their 7,311 videos.

Stupid collectors.

Insufferably purist film collectors (like myself) are quick to point out that the schmucks don’t own the actual films, only the codes to the films encrypted on a disc or tape, while a film print is the genuine article. It’s the actual image that the audience also sees, running at twenty-four frames-per-second through a projector, and the actual sound which you can also see as a wavy line called an optical soundtrack that runs down the side of the film. Moreover, the film collector is going right to the source, not choosing something that somebody else has already chosen for him — which is what videos are, consumer items marketed to the buying public.

Film is a physical, tangible thing. One can with one’s own hand repair or damage or paint or edit or scratch or manipulate the material in various inventive and catastrophic ways. Images can be obtained by cutting out single frames of the film and having them blown up, which almost all projectionists do at some point to no great credit to their profession. (Projectionists are a breed apart and deserve their own literary tribute.) These frame-out-takes can be photographically enlarged into works of art that hang on walls and become objects of fetishistic idolatry — far superior to the fuzzy video frame-freezes one so often sees published in books today.

In short, with the proliferation of home viewing technologies, film has become a consumer item, like Chinese take-out food, gasoline and rubbers — while the film print has never, at least in the recent past, been a consumer item. The average person does not know what store you go into to buy those because that store does not exist. And all the equipment one needs to work with prints, like splicers, split-reels, rewinds and editing tape, is added effort and expense that the man-in-the-street is hardly willing to suffer. And some of these specialty items are becoming increasingly harder and harder to find. If you were looking for a roll of 16mm sound-censoring tape, forget it. I can tell you there was only one roll of it left in the entire world and I found it a couple of years ago in a dusty corner of a photo shop in San Francisco — and I stole it! Sixteen millimetre film is an obsolete and disrespected medium, and these dusty nooks and crannies, these “film corners” hidden in the back of a handful of old photo shops, have the feel of museums about them.

No, celluloid is not a consumer commodity. One doesn’t get bored on a Friday night and go out and pick up a pizza and a film print. Normal people don’t do that, and the man-in-the-street would no doubt stare on in surprise in the face of a film collector’s heated exhortations that the video he had tossed into the paper bag with the six-pack was not “the real thing”.

What? Come again?

Film collectors possess many of the same qualities/symptoms that are commonly ascribed to other collectors who specialize in stamps, coins, baseballs or antique firearms, for example. They can be as fussy, obsessive, hard to live with and as out of touch with reality. They all have a jealous desire to possess a rare, genuine object in as near perfect condition as possible; an object for which they have a personal passion. They expect these objects, or collections of objects, to gain in value over the years. And, if they can ever bear to part with them, they can eventually be sold to another rabid collector for great amounts of money to pay for that little cottage you and the wife have always wanted (in the process forcing her to apologise for all the years of bitching at having spent all that money on crap and cluttering up the house).

But film collectors are also different from other collectors due to the very nature of what they collect.

The world of film, particularly short films, is a largely unexplored universe. For example, gun collectors know that a 1890 model Winchester exists and what the book value of one in mint condition is, and baseball collectors know there are baseballs signed by the 1969 Mets and what price such an artefact can be expected to fetch at an auction. But, to use a theoretical example, nobody - not even other film collectors — know that there existed a 1953 soap detergent commercial that stars a young Jayne Mansfield. It’s a novelty and a rarity, an obscure artefact of star culture that a Mansfield completist would sell his kingdom for. These kind of artefacts function as a sort of spiritual medium to the actor, giving the collector the feeling that he has contact or access to the star (presumably only if they are still alive). I knew a collector who had a number of the five minute TV shows that Les Paul and Mary Ford made back in the mid fifties, and he went down to the music club in New York where an elderly Les Paul plays every week and got him to sign the film cans. This kind of thing is not only done out of love but can increase the value of the item. (There used to be a movie memorabilia shop in San Francisco that served as a kind of sanctuary for a small circle of rabid autograph hounds who would plague any celebrity, star or porn actor who happened to be in town. If you happen to go into the shop while they were there you couldn’t get a word in edgeways.)

The world of film is still a largely uncharted sea of product. There are still fantastic discoveries to be made. Every rust-caked film can potentially contains something strange, something of value. This encourages the obscurist tendencies of collectors. They revel in arcania and wallow in secrecy and exclusivity.

But what is this theoretical three minute Jayne Mansfield soap commercial really worth? What is film really worth?

The material itself is virtually worthless and, in the case of old nitrate film, even dangerous. Nobody in their right mind would bother to steal a print, no pawnbroker would give you a dime for a steamer trunk full of them, and even the most wildly obsessed collectors mercilessly argue the local junk shop proprietor down to a few bucks for those dusty couple of mystery spools sitting on his shelf. I’ve even known schools and educational institutions to give away their entire film libraries for free to collectors — and even pay for shipping — just so they wouldn’t have to throw them in a dumpster.

To quote the classic phrase that rules in the world of film collecting: “It’s worth what somebody will pay for it.” The world of film collecting tends to be dominated not by a systematic or controlled system of “book value” prices but rather by the mood swings and fits of enthusiasm that take place in the brains of collectors.

In the last few years the on-line auction house, eBay, has destabilized pricing even further, raising the amounts paid for single films to absurd levels and making it possible for film fanatics from Japan and Belgium to square off against each other — as recently happened — and drive up the bidding on an unexceptional 3-minute Scopitone film, Love Me, Please Love Me by Michel Polnareff, to 600 bucks — only shortly after two prints of the same film had been sold for several dollars each. To know that some collectors are scoring jackpots like this gives everybody the hope of making a killing, gives everybody the hope that they too will come in contact with that mythical eccentric Japanese millionaire.

Another difference between film and other collectable items is that film is functional and interactive. You can show a film to a crowd of people and share your passion with them. And if you’re smart, you make that a paying crowd of people, though that necessitates that you also be daring or indifferent since it may entail copyright violation (more on that later). Film collectors like to show their films, if only to themselves. I once heard about a collector in Seattle who built a tiny five-seat state-of-the-art 70mm theatre in his garage. Anyone who happened to come over would be dragged into the garage to watch his mint Technicolour 70mm print of Star Wars while the concert-sized speakers shook the whole neighbourhood.

But audiences are optional. In fact for a medium that conjures up visions of crowds and noise and laughter, film collecting is a lonely road.

Film collectors are usually intolerably picky when buying or commenting on films. Although I do know a collector who enjoys “red” or “off” prints (the same way album collectors enjoy the rough, unclean sound), this is extremely rare. Most live in fear that the sky will turn from deep blue to a juicy purplish colour and that the yellows and greens will seep out of the print before their very eyes. Or that tiny vertical scratch lines will appear over a favourite scene despite the care they take with cleaning and projecting the film.

Courage is required since film is such a fragile and transitory medium. Colours fade, the stock crumples and rips in the projector and frames burn up right on the screen as the horrified collector looks on in terror. Projectionists go to the toilet and coils of film fall off the take-up spool and onto the dirty floor. Collectors are paranoid but they have good reason to be since everything is the enemy: the elapse of time which saps the colour dyes, humidity that shrinks the stock, and water that ruins the emulsion as surely as it ruined the Wicked Witch of the West. Even the collector himself is the enemy, threading up film incorrectly in a weak moment or losing a print in the post due to shitty handwriting. Suffice it to say, collectors are perfectionists in a medium where perfection is never possible, where the things you value most in the world are sure to be destroyed.

We are perfectionists, and maybe other things as well. I once ordered a print of Viva Las Vegas from a seller. He sent me Blue Hawaii by mistake. Of course I looked at it — it was in incredibly beautiful condition, the best print I ever saw. Not the tiniest scratch anywhere and the colours were deep and saturated, almost glowing. A wonder to behold. I sent it back and got Viva Las Vegas in return which I looked at and found to be in only lesser “very good” condition and I felt crushed and cheated. I wrote letters to the fellow for months afterwards, at first politely asking for and then demanding a better print, a print of the quality of Blue Hawaii. I finally sent him a pleasantly worded card informing him that I was travelling and that by happy coincidence I would soon be passing through his small southern town and would stop in and pay him a friendly visit. He took it as a death threat and demanded I cease and desist, which I did after quickly coming to my senses.

The running time of a film is also a factor. Due to the frames and sequences cut out of prints by projectionists, censors and editors for various reasons, no two prints are exactly alike, and collectors will argue that a competitor’s print is lacking 5.6 seconds in such and such a scene.

But back to the original question: where does one get these films?

Before eBay opened a Pandora’s box of greed, lust and delusion, the main forum for the exchange of prints was The Big Spool, a newsprint tabloid whose pages were crammed with tiny hand scrawled ads, shaky drawings of projectors and corny fifties style ad art. The paper was (and is) a free zone for nostalgics of all stripes, a lone prairie where autograph hunters, hero worshippers and print pirates ran amok, a last stand for fans of old Westerns. In addition to its function as a forum for the exchange of prints, it was a haven for crackpot inventors peddling bogus homemade cures guaranteed to miraculously save the damaged films of the world as well as their own bank accounts. Here obsessed collectors searched for treasure or entered into a desperate hunt for that favourite film they planned to take with them to their grave.

In addition to The Big Spool and eBay, collectors buy and sell prints through a secretive web of personal contacts. And beyond that there is just endless luck and pure relentless opportunism as prints are found, scrounged, borrowed and never returned… pilfered from attics, projection booths, theatre basements and even abandoned buildings. Films are found in dumpsters and stacked out in back alleys along with busted sofas to be rummaged through by the soon-to-be-disappointed homeless. The rabid collector often finds himself in these kinds of environments. No staircase is too rotten that he won’t try to climb it if he thinks there might be a room stacked with prints at the top. The rotten stairway to heaven.

Some years ago, for example, I was visiting a friend of mine in Detroit and was surprised to find his film collection swollen by new acquisitions which chiefly consisted of old refrigerator sales films and advertisements for hi-fi’s, ovens, dishwashers and various other consumer products from the fifties and sixties. What the hell? It turned out that he and a couple of dedicated ‘junker’ pals had just raided the old downtown warehouse of the industrial film company, Jam Handy, which by that point was an abandoned and partially flooded building inhabited by hobos and crack addicts — but which still contained thousands of film prints.

Soon after that construction, workers had boarded up the place and emptied its contents — films, garbage, old needles, splintered furniture — into a giant dumpster, and it was all hauled off to some garbage pit.

San Francisco, as I discovered when I lived there in the early nineties, had its own army of junkers and scavengers.

There was a place in San Francisco that regularly had films for sale, a squalid little store-front down at the foot of Mason St near the intersection of Market, in the heart of the city’s rough Tenderloin ghetto. They sold discount pornography along with various and miscellaneous objects they apparently found on the street: a radio, a bottle of shampoo, etc. Sixteen millimetre film spools dumped into a large bin by the window — coils of loose footage spilling out — was also part of the mix, all of it pretty much exclusively gritty amateur hardcore pornography. They also sold old battered 16mm Bell & Howell projectors that were in such filthy condition that I hardly dared to bring the couple I had foolishly purchased into my house.

These films and projectors were the bitter harvest from the old store front porno theatres that populated the Tenderloin back in the seventies… flotsam from another day and age that was still washing up on the shelves of the local gyp joints and flea markets. I say “sell” but I have to say I never saw another customer in the place, just sometimes a couple of transvestite hookers who came in to shoot the shit.

There was another place over in The Mission, a thrift shop crammed floor to ceiling with junk and furniture, that was owned by a Mexican family. The joint was run by an obese old lady with a gammy leg and there were always lots of children running around.

At one point word was going around in the filmmaker and junker community that they were selling film prints.

By the time I got there the stack of prints they had had been sold. There was more in the basement but the old lady had no intention of going down there on her bum leg and told me to come back tomorrow when her son would be working. I came back the next day and he couldn’t be bothered to go down there either, but he gave me a flashlight (as none of the lights worked) and let me go down by myself.

The place was a garbage strewn pit, partially flooded and reeking like a swamp. At some point a film lab had gone out of business and tossed its goods (pornographic, again) into a dumpster, and without missing a beat the old lady’s virile sons had fished it all out and brought it back to the shop. Now here I was, literally at the bottom of the scavenger food chain, rooting around in the darkness… lifting up water-soaked cardboard boxes whose bottoms immediately fell out to send spools of film rolling into the muck. I fleetingly imagined the indignity that would result should a sudden earthquake send one of these heavy beams crashing down on me, pinning me into all this dirt and all these dirty movies.

I staggered back up with as much film as I could carry, not to mention all the little rolls of film I had hidden in every pocket and undergarment — an act of petty thievery as embarrassing as it was unnecessary since after an apathetic glance he let me have the whole load for twenty bucks.

(Among the films from that heist were several XXX gay porno trailers, including Get That Sailor which I later incorporated into a compilation show I presented at the 1995 Rotterdam Film Festival. It turned out to be the surprise hit of the festival with shouts of “get that sailor!” ringing like a battle cry into the air as gangs of inebriated festival goers swayed and lunged down the main promenade.)

One could also buy films from “East Bay Denny” who lived across the Bay in a suburb of Oakland and operated out of his garage. The place was stuffed with prints, everything from cartoons to fifties female pro-wrestling shorts to a dusty old film from the forties that turned out to be about coal miners in Wales getting lung operations. He would shepherd you through the garage and you felt like a kid in a candy shop — film noir over here, biker and blaxploitation features over there and emergency medical films in the corner next to the stack of sex education cautionaries. Denny had a kind of conspiratorial air about him and once asked me if I wanted to buy a 35mm print of Crocodile Dundee for $800 in hushed tones that hinted at the probable stolen nature of the goods. It was the last film I wanted.

Denny was a few cuts above the shysters who ran the Tenderloin store fronts, but one was still on a need-to-know basis with him. The world of film collecting is full of Dennys, shady middlemen running garage operations that were, if not criminal in nature, then at least illegitimate. The search for prints brought one in contact with these types, while the very nature of what was being collected ensured that most dealings transpired in a kind of ethical grey zone. The ground rules were clear enough: while it wasn’t illegal to own the film material per se (as some people think), to screen the films in a public context could entail copyright infringement, and the means by which a film print became available might suggest that an illegal act was somewhere involved. But there were different shades of grey. Disney was famed for crushing anyone who violated its copyrights, while for its part eBay was pressured to ban the sale of 35mm prints after someone posted a print of Titanic for sale. On the other hand if you showed The Estrogen Cycle of a Rat to a group of friends, you could expect to do so without interference. But even the most respected film collectors, such as the late author and professor, William K Everson, for example, who never soiled his hands on the mean streets of the Tenderloin, have been visited by the FBI about illegally possessing prints.

On the other hand the world owes a debt of gratitude to film collectors who have obtained, kept and preserved prints of films that the studios cared nothing about and which would have perished if the “private sector” had not played a role. For example, it’s a sad fact that after the copyright expires on a film sent abroad, the prints are destroyed in a mechanical guillotine-like device. Thanks to human nature, the masked and muscled operators of these modern day Iron Maidens can be bribed into parting with the prints, and all it takes is the flash of a sweaty C-note by one of the nervous collectors hanging around the loading docks.

But questions of strict legality aside, a pall of dubiousness hangs over most of these people, and my first contact in the world of film collecting, a Vietnam vet named Reggie, was covered with it in spades.

He lived in a small, spartanly furnished two room flat in the working-class Boston neighbourhood of Jamaica Plains. The place had the feel and smell of a 1940s rooming house despite the perfectly scrubbed linoleum floors. The living room/bedroom where he conducted business was furnished with just a cot and a couple of chairs and not much else, not even a TV. Reggie had the nervous energy of a reformed alcoholic or someone who was taking speed to help him get through two full-time jobs. The place was beyond tidy, in fact there was no trace at all of a past or of other interests, no photos, no books… no clues as to what motivated him. He never personally seemed the slightest bit interested in films, and if he had chosen this as a pathway to riches, he had chosen badly.

He never hinted at where he got the films and film equipment that he periodically came in possession of… he would just call me up on the phone out of the blue and tell me to come over because he suddenly had more films.

On one such occasion he told me to bring my film collector pal with me, obviously so that we could bid the prices up against each other. Of course I came alone. He had a pile of films lying in the middle of his floor which included a 16mm print of Earth vs The Flying Saucers. I offered him fifty bucks for the lot which he dismissed out of hand, and then he accepted my next offer of eighty bucks. I later sold Earth vs The Flying Saucers for 200 bucks alone. (Every collector has cherished stories like this that can warm up a cold night.)

He also had three projectors in his room which upon every visit he ritualistically unpacked and demonstrated and then packed up again. The projectors he wanted too much money for but the films you could get for next to nothing. One of the projectors was a gigantic old Ampro, an ancient and beautiful contraption. According to Reggie the elderly man who had owned it had collapsed while lugging the monster up a staircase, and in the ensuing tumble had been killed.

Reggie with-no-last-name was some kind of psychic and material bridge to that world of elderly men who possessed most of the film prints that existed in the known world, some of them crusty old thieves and con artists, and others kindly movie buffs playing favourite Buster Keaton comedies every night on old projectors in empty houses where children had grown up and left and wives had long ago died. All of them now broke, sick or demented, forced to divest themselves of their cherished films and equipment for a song. Sometimes the old men died first and the wives sold or gave it all away to free up space in the attic…

The film collector’s world was a world of these hidden spaces, the cellars and the lofts out in the barn and the dusty attics permeated with the smell of rusty film cans and the vague vinegar scent that old 16mm films give off… the smell that now dominated the pantry of my rent-controlled Cambridge brownstone where I had cleared out the dishes and cans and boxes to store film prints in obsessively systematised order. My own archive of obscure treasures.

While Reggie was my first contact into this spirit world of film collecting, I would occasionally reconnect with it at various points through the years, one glancing encounter occurring after I left America and moved to Denmark in 1993.

Some months after my arrival I went out one day to answer ads placed by parties interested in selling 16mm projectors. I answered seven adds and, with my wife whom I dragged through all this because she could speak better Danish, met almost exactly that number of terminal eccentrics, delusionals and borderline lunatics… bitter old men in wheelchairs living in decaying flats smelling of cat piss, genius experts and wizards of repair that could give a girl the creeps, ultra-specialists whose catacombs were crammed with a million projector parts … and at least one unhinged old couple whose couches were covered in flea-ridden leopard skin and whose windows were painted black. The man had once been “in the industry” (or something), had once had a nice place and things of value and a career and a future, and now all he had was a few projectors, and, as he hinted but never showed me, a cellar full of films. And he and the old lady talked and talked and talked and wanted you and the wife to come over sometime for coffee…

 [This article originally appeared in Land of 1000 Balconies]



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