September 9, 2012

We Want More Stories About Puppies and Flowers


Back in late 2005 I was working at a newspaper and started looking into what I thought might be an interesting story. The previous summer, Mondo Kim’s—generally considered the premier video and music store in New York for people in search of more obscure titles—was raided by police after reports surfaced that they were dealing in bootlegs. Well, of course Kim’s was dealing in bootlegs. Everyone knew it and Kim’s made very little secret about it. That’s why people could find more obscure titles there.

            The thing is the raid was instigated by record companies, so the cops focused on the store’s first floor, where they snatched a bunch of bootleg mix tapes off the shelves and arrested five employees. They never went upstairs to the movies, which is where the real action was taking place.

            Nevertheless after the raid the store’s owner, just to be on the safe side, ordered that all the pirated music and movies be cleared out.

            (Whenever I re-enter that ol’ journalistic mindset, I start using terms like “instigated” and “reports surfaced.” I feel like such a dork. If I’m not careful, “allegedly” will be popping up here soon.)

            Well, months after the raid I became curious: who had been supplying Kim’s with all those forgotten noir films, rare pre-code comedies, and long-lost made-for-TV movies? All those rarities and unreleased films that wouldn’t exist today if not for some obsessive shut-in with a DVD burner. And what had happened to those bootleggers since John Law came down hard (if a little misdirected)?

            So I made some calls, talked to some people, and began to get a clearer picture of the shadowy underground community of rare film bootleggers. It wasn’t as flashy as those Chinese and Balinese gangs who had copies of The Avengers for sale on Times Square sidewalks two days before the film opened, but to me they were much more intriguing. They weren’t in the least interested in the latest teen vampire fiasco—they were after Russian experimental films from the early part of the century, Edward G. Robinson weirdies from the thirties, lost Cagney comedies, and anything with Joan Blondell. It turned out they were much more interesting to film archivists and historians too, who likened the rare film pirates to modern monks, keeping these films alive and in circulation when they would otherwise likely be forgotten forever. These were films the studios weren’t interested in anymore. The market demand was just too small to justify spending the money and energy to put out an official release, so thousands of films were being left to rot in vaults. The pirates were keeping an important part of the culture from fading away.

            Well, in the middle of tracking these bootleggers down (no easy task) and trying to get them to talk (an even harder task) the paper fired me. So there I was with half a story and nothing to do with it. But then again I had nothing else to do at that point, so I kept working on it.

            While still trying to snag a few solid interviews, I also started shopping the story around to various publications and websites. It seemed like a gimme, right? A peek inside a circle of crazy ne’er-do-wells up to no good, but with the best intentions? And with all the doo-dah about twelve year-olds being busted and fined for downloading pop songs, well, who wouldn’t want such a story?

            Everybody, it seems. That is to say, no one would touch it. Not the serious highbrow cultural commentary magazines, and not the obscure video websites. And they all gave the same reason—they were worried about what might happen to them if they ran a story that seemed to advocate (or at least not outright condemn) illegal activity.

            Yes, well. Not being a man of much principle, I shrugged and added the pile of notes and interviews to the growing pile of other projects that never quite panned out for one reason or another.

            Time passed, and I did other things. A friend of mine kept needling me to go back to the bootlegger story, but I kept brushing him off. (He was a bootlegger of the first order himself and so had a vested interest.) It was over and done with, I told him. Putting any more energy into it would be a waste, so long as everyone was going to be such a damn candyass about it.

            Well, about a month ago I was talking to another friend, who mentioned that he’d just sold a story to some magazine for 2,000 dollars.

            “I see,” I said. “That’s swell . . . And so what was the name of this magazine?”

            The next day, with dollar signs dancing merrily about my head, I began digging through the files to see what old turd I could dust off and hand over to this place in exchange for a whopping check. Nothing seemed terribly obvious.

            Then I remembered that half-finished bootlegger story. It seemed more relevant now than it did six years ago, what with the YouTube and the streaming and the torrenting and whatever the hell else the kids were up to. I mean, everyone knows about that already, and who really gives a fuck about the high-end Chinese operations? If the feds really want to bust them they know where to go—all those operations are housed over on Sixth Avenue, in a string of warehouse spaces stretching between 26th and 33rd Streets.

            Umm, “allegedly.”

            But these paranoids, obsessives and geeks I was talking about were interesting. They actually raised some serious questions about the nature of our current copyright laws.

            So just to bring things up to date, I tracked down a few more people who were still in the business, interviewed an academic or two, a professional film archivist, a former bootlegger who works for Lincoln Center, and rewrote the whole damn massive thing.

            Then, though I had received no reply to my initial query letter a week before, I sent it off to this Mr. Moneybags editor at this fancy magazine.

            Ten minutes later I received a phone call from the guy who’d been pushing me to do the story all these years.

            “I just heard the news,” he said. “Some kid in his twenties is being fined over 600,000 dollars for illegal downloads. He tried to appeal, but the courts just turned him down.”

            There were two ways to hear that news at that moment. On the one hand it made the story I’d just turned in timely, and so worth considering. On the more logical and likely hand, however, the news just illustrated one more time that it just ain’t wise to screw with The Man. Somehow I could guess which way the editor would lean.

            I was quiet for a moment. Then I said, “Oh.”

            Well, maybe I’ll give it a shot six years down the line. I’ll snag that fucking Pulitzer for this sonofabitch one of these days.


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