March 27, 2016

Birth of a Bootlegger


The arrival of commercially available VCRs and the explosion of the home video market in the early Eighties was a godsend to young movie geeks. Prior to that, if you grew up in a town with no cable and no rep houses (as I did), your only hope when it came to seeing a film you really, really needed to see was to luck into a late-night TV broadcast or go find the novelization and use your imagination. Overnight it seemed, there were little mom and pop video stores cropping up on every corner. Even if the selection wasn’t the greatest, it was a right spot better than it had been just a year or two earlier. In a town like Green Bay you might not be able to find some must-see Kurosawa obscurity, but there were plenty of grindhouse numbers, slasher films, Westerns and American classics to choose from, so it was still a decent trade off.

            It was only a given, then, that in 1982 I would take a job at a little hole in the wall joint in a strip mall near the meat packing plant. I think I’ve written about the place before, but only in general terms. From a young film geek’s perspective it maybe wasn’t an ideal outlet. Small as it was, there simply wasn’t room to accommodate much by way of art house films, foreign basics or cult weirdies. Located as we were adjacent to a trailer park, seventy percent of our business involved renting porn (though admittedly the early Eighties was a golden era for porn). Another twenty-five percent was splatter and slasher films (we had eight Christmas-themed slasher films on the shelves). The remaining five percent was divided between teen sex comedies, Hollywood blockbusters, and even the occasional drama. So while my twelve-hour shifts there didn’t exactly broaden my cinematic horizons, I still had fun.

            One day the manager, a lovable acid casualty who was smarter than he seemed, showed up and handed me an unmarked videotape. The night before, as so many others had, he’d taped the final episode of MASH off the TV. Three-quarters of the damn country had tuned in for the broadcast, but it turned out a friend of his had missed it.

            “Could you make a quick dupe of this for me?” he asked. He’d never asked me to do anything like that before, but I told him sure, no problem, and he left. We already had a VCR and TV monitor set up behind the counter to play inoffensive movies in the shop during business hours, so it was just a matter of grabbing another VCR from the back office and hooking them up in series. Back then, being a young smarty pants, I was actually capable of doing such things without too much fuss. Once that was set, I popped his tape in the upper deck, a blank tape in the lower deck, hit “play” on one and “record” on the other and that was that. Now, back then it was necessary to do these things in real time. You simply had to let the movie play out, monitoring it now and again to make sure everything was on track. I’d never done anything like that before, but turns out it was simple as pie. The next day I gave him the copy for his friend, and figured that was that.

            But in the days that followed, a few more requests came in for copies of that same damn show. My boss and I got together and, not even thinking about copyright issues, tried to figure out how we could make a little profit on the side by giving the customers what they wanted. Sure, we’d make people copies of that MASH finale, but we’d charge them twenty bucks a pop. At the time, if you recall, commercially released videotapes were selling for as much as a hundred smackeroos, the idea being they’d just be sold to video stores who’d then try to recoup that cost through enough ninety-nine cent rentals. So twenty bucks for a burned copy was comparatively cheap.

            As the orders piled up, I went back to that original tape and, using the “pause” button, crudely edited out all the commercials on another dupe that would be my master tape. It was already second generation of something taped off network TV so the grain and shadows were starting to creep in and the color was starting to fade, but back then the quality wasn’t much of an issue.

            In the days that followed I spent most of my working hours there making copies of that damned episode, only occasionally renting out other things to people. The episode was two hours long, and since I had to work in real time this meant I could pump out on average (taking into account the rewinding and tape switching) five copies a day. It also meant the only thing we ever played on that monitor behind the counter was the fucking MASH finale.

            As more customers saw what I was doing (and I’d tell them straight if they asked), more requests started coming in. Not for that stupid MASH episode, but for other things on the shelves. If somebody wanted a copy of Animal House and had twenty bucks to drop, I’d make them a copy of Animal House. They wanted a Woody Allen movie or Friday the 13th Part II, I’d copy those. Again, the term “piracy” or “bootleg” never came to mind, and I had no idea what we were doing could get us busted by the FBI. We’d bought the original tapes fair and square, and these machines were designed to do this, so what was the big deal, right? It was just a neat little word-of-mouth side business, something we didn’t exactly advertise, but one that was bringing in a lot more money than the straight rentals.

            Even after everyone who wanted a copy of the MASH finale got it, I was still spending my entire shift churning out grainy, shaky, generational copies of The Hitcher and Smokey and the Bandit.

            Weird thing is, in all my time there making illegal dupes for other people, I never paused long enough to make any for myself. Guess there really wasn’t anything in the store I was aching to have in my meager home collection at that point. But before I left the store for good in 1987 to head up to grad school in Minneapolis, my boss asked me if there was anything I wanted. I finally paused and thought about it. The next day as a going away present, he handed me my very own bootleg copy of Eraserhead (though now in retrospect I wish I’d asked for a copy of New Wave Hookers, a film that would soon become incredibly rare in its uncut state).

            Over the ensuing two decades, apart from little things taped off the TV (Godzilla marathons, “Twilight Zone” marathons, the occasionally interesting PBS offering), my own collection mostly grew through the accumulation of legitimate (if shoplifted) commercial releases. Over time more and more titles were becoming readily available, and prices were dropping fast. Still though, the more I read up on film history and the more I hung out at the revival houses in Philly and New York, the more I became aware of all the things that weren’t available in your standard high end video stores.

            Then I started uncovering a network of little stores and warehouses around New York, places that were selling bootlegs, but bootlegs craftily designed to look like commercial releases. God bless the Asians. I started getting my hands on uncut European versions of US films that had been hacked all to hell for their domestic release, weird Japanese horror films (before everyone here caught on), and some honest and unclassifiable rarities.

            Even then I was only scratching the surface until I began meeting people quite by accident who took their obscure and forgotten films very seriously. That’s when I was introduced to the strange and shadowed world of the rare film bootleggers, who traded hand-to-hand, never advertised, and were deeply conscious of the threat posed by the FBI. That’s where things got weird and interesting, and where the post-graduate work in my personal cinematic education began. Who knew the first honest-to-god music video was made in Paris in 1916, or that there was so much silent-era animal porn out there? But that’s a bit much to get into here. Think I’ll write a novel about it instead.


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