A Book Review by Tony Williams.
Written by two former dealers in this area, A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies (University of Mississippi Press, 2016) offers readers a cinematic magical mystery tour into the now diminishing world of film collectors, a band of (mostly) brothers, heroically engaged in their celluloid version of Custer’s Last Stand against the overwhelming forces of new technologies that threaten to make their existence as archaic and obsolete as a Frederic Remington painting. Yet far from being a funeral dirge, the authors describe their book as “a sort of mad Irish wake for an underground subculture of often paranoid, secretive, eccentric, obsessive, and definitely mad film collectors and dealers, who made movies their own private religion” (vii).
This melodramatic purple prose displays the book’s introductory hook causing several reviewers to emphasize the eccentricities of many of these collectors to the detriment of understanding both the joy of collecting (and there are eccentrics in many fields) and the valuable service they have performed in preserving works. Many of them would have been destroyed in the still dominant over-fetishistic instant obsolescence trait of Western culture that regards everything from the past, no matter its value, as entirely and unquestionably disposable. For every gay, divorced, and dubious collector example, there are others such as Kevin Brownlow, Joe Dante, Jon Davison, William K. Everson, and Leonard Maltin who have performed a valuable service in collecting and saving relics from the past that the film industry casually junks. They are not confined to males as the thirteenth (is there a reason for this ominous number being used for the interview with the seemingly only member of the “gentle sex” involved in this activity ?) chapter on Hillary Charles (121-135) reveals. Nor are they all W.A.S.P. as the chapter featuring Hispanic collector Rik Lueras reveals (95-102). Television is not neglected as the interview with Californian Ronnie James reveals. He extols the virtues of the 1952-1956 Four Star Playhouse anthology series that not only contained quality imagery but allowed writers such as Blake Edwards and directors such as Robert Aldrich an opportunity to work on the Dick Powell Dante’s Inferno segments (145). For Ronnie, film essentially died in 2005 when DVDs and Blu’s Rays completely overtook VHS leading to the accelerating fall out for film copies (146). As the one film collector the authors describe as having a “unique philosophical grasp of the dealt of film collecting” (146), Ronnie sees the demise in terms of the Creative Destruction thesis espoused by Joseph Schumpeter in his 1942 work Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy whereby technological advances become obsolete with the appearance of new devices that will themselves become obsolete in the future (147-148).
One striking quote is “Many collectors I met like Herb didn’t have good marriages” (29) but there are exceptions to every rule such as Leonard Maltin (29-30) and one often hears the same stereotyped comment monotonously repeated in areas as diverse as all forms of sport, George Formby Societies, motor-racing, Science Fantasy groups (I fondly remember the gorgeous Charlotte from 70s-80s Manchester Science Fantasy Meetings so girls also just wanna have fun in the most unexpected associations), Manchester monthly meetings celebrating the films of Frank Randall and others from the old Mancunion Film Studios on Dickenson Road taken over later by the BBC, politics (I once visited a Northern anarchist whose wife did not share his radical enthusiasm decades ago) and all sorts of activities. However, the bizarre angle of any book always makes good publicity and review copy but it is important to see things in perspective especially in terms of respecting those dedicated individuals devoted to the preservation of not just 16mm and 35mm celluloid but also past acoustic forms of reproduction such as magnetic sound tracks.
It is so easy to label collectors as eccentrics rather than individuals who have sought to ensure that important examples of past cultural productions were not lost. For example, were it not for the first generation of pre-VHS Dr. Who fans who diligently recorded the dialogue of many lost episodes on their tape recorders we would not have the surviving audio-tracks that have been used in reconstructions of many episodes, via stills and animation. As David Bordwell has recognized in his review on his very valuable blog “Observations on Film Art” (accessed 9/14/2016 5:27pm), this group of people is central to film preservation especially when studios are still junking prints and the world of post-WW2 private film collecting “represents an important part of film culture” that has unjustifiably been neglected. Thus it is a shame when the supposed personal flaws of many of these people receive more emphasis in this book than they really should. While some observations appear to have some foundation, others are merely speculative (see 159). Meanwhile, the authors recognize the therapy aspect of movies and collecting:
It’s also apparent that for him, as for many collectors Jeff and I spoke with, the movies were a balm and an escape from a painful family life as children, a place where they could feel safe, if only for a few hours. It’s no wonder they continue to return there as adults. (71)
Overall, this is an excitingly written book that takes the reader into a particular cinematic magnificent obsession of film collecting and admires many of its leading players, no matter how much of their sanity can be questioned. But the same is true of those of us who collect books, DVDs, and videotapes turning a blind ear to mothers-in-law who ask “When are you going to get rid of your books?” safely on the phone and away from the payback of over-eager itchy throttling fingers!
However, many have suffered in the past from following their “noble cause” such as celebrity collectors Roddy McDowall in the USA (12-23) and Bob Monkhouse in the UK (112), who have been victimized by greedy and litigious film companies and eventually lost their collections. In England many unknown collectors also destroyed their rare assets in fear of facing the same type of legal retaliation as Monkhouse. Although eventually cleared of all charges, Monkhouse found that much of his seized collection was destroyed. I have it on good authority that the film company I cannot name that was behind the prosecution dropped its suit when they discovered that further legal investigation would threaten their supposedly permanent copyright so they ceased their “Mickey Mouse shit” as R. Lee Ermey says in Full Metal Jacket (1987). Some people like Evan H. Foreman won their cases while others such as Jeff Joseph (183-197) unfairly went to jail. But the legal grounds for prosecution by film companies were often dubious and it is welcome to see the name of Francis M. Nevins in this book mentioned in association with his 1977 Cleveland Law Review article concerning film copyright (4,202, n.8) in association with the Foreman case that anticipated McDowall’s later problems.
The book’s other chapters offer a comprehensive view of this collector underworld faced by changing technologies that will threaten the viewer experience of authentic cinema. The authors note “the perhaps sad but inevitable fact that most movies will never be experienced on the big screen again in front of an audience” (30) and that despite the advances of large screen HD TVs playing movies on Blu-Ray and 4k, home theaters are limited by walls and that “the scale of our cinema experience is one of the things that has changed, and generally gotten much smaller, in recent years” (204, n.26). Several fascinating chapters cover William K. Everson’s Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society, Amateur Film Clubs, Rock Hudson’s Hidden Film Vault, the expensive art of film collecting kept alive by figures such as Dante and Davison, interviews with individual film collectors, Mike Hyatt’s personal Moby Dick-type odyssey in restoring the original film version of The Day of the Triffids (Steve Sekely, 1962), the late Mike Vraney of Something Weird, the encroachment of digital cinema, and the abandoned cinematic treasure trove.
The one flaw of this book is not having an index. Although this would be foreign to the authors (but did these collectors not have past and present indexes to their collections?), one would have hoped The University of Mississippi Press would have insisted. Despite the tedium involved, it does help in checking references and cross-referencing items, especially in the case of actually finding a lost treasure elsewhere. However, this is a stimulating book and should encourage others, perhaps works celebrating those heroic DVD sellers who often supply films to corporate bodies but see no money in distributing as well as those who provide subtitles to many films deemed unworthy of distribution today. It is always important to oppose market forces in whatever form they appear since they usually oppose preservation of a cultural past that puts present examples into the shame and scorn they deserve.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also a Contributing Editor to Film International and the author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (2016)