Mageddo: Adventures in Lo-Fi.

mageddo: Adventures in Lo-Fi. – video recording review

Edward E. Crouse

Sampling bootleg videos bought on New York’s streets

Here’s the opening of one of my more elusive viewing experiences of last year:

Blue screen. White text that reads: “TO SET SPECIFIC REC TIME PLEASE PUSH REC KEY.” The words are repeated in French, and then the image clears to: “LECTURE.” Cut to: a silent subjective camcorder pov of a woman lounging in bed, leading into a lyrical home-movie-ish montage of the same pretty blonde on a carousel, sitting in the park, etc. Cut to: a hospital room. A heart read-out monitoring an old codger’s vital signs, while a male nurse looks on, wagging a thin tube in front of the grimacing patient. Sound starts to register, wavering between mule and inaudible, with occasional hissing. The images palpitate between bleached brightness and murk. The film’s last opening credits read as follows:

A post-structuralist video meditation on mediatized glamour?

Actually, it’s a bootleg videotape of a film labeled The Contender, purchased for $5.00 on the corner of Canal Street and Broadway, New York City. Your memory of Rod Lurie’s film probably doesn’t match the preceding description, but by the time I recognized Ben Stiller’s simian brow, I realized that the movie I was watching was actually Meet the Parents. Both box and tape are nonetheless marked The Contender, with a reasonably good copy of the movie’s poster art, although Joan Allen’s shuttered eyes are a tad vertically stretched. There’s even a bogus FBI warning sticker on the cassette window. On the reverse side of the box, the blurb rhetorically demands, “At what point does the public have the right to know the absolute details of one person’s life?”

At what point did I have the right to know where this tape came from? Or why it wasn’t what it claimed to be? Or why I found it far more remarkable than either The Contender or Meet the Parents? As a “journalist,” I couldn’t resist stepping up to the plate. Now that DVD is the new bully on the block, the latest digital gladiator set to slay everything in its path, videocassettes are fast becoming an embarrassing relic, about to go the way of the 8-track: it’s just a matter of time before this eminently copyable and ever-unstable format disappears forever. Let others grow dewy-eyed over the Death of Cinema. I want to solemnly dance The Death of Videotape, as I hold hands with video’s bastard child, the bootleg.

For the purposes of this article, the term “bootleg” refers to videocassettes of major theatrical studio releases obtainable on the street. This leaves aside various “collector” versions of movies — for instance, the original Hong Kong version of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master 2 before Miramax/Dimension dubbed and retitled it — that you can purchase over the Internet or from stores like New York’s Karate Video Center, as well as the pirate Video Compact Discs, or VCDs, ubiquitous in Asian cities and American Chinatowns, which are the digital cousins of the bootleg videotape.

The World According to Che, a real live bootlegger

Getting the facts about where bootleg tapes come from is tough, for obvious reasons. They’re created in secrecy, reproduced and then sold from portable stands or bedsheets on the sidewalks of New York and in 99-cent stores. My first question went out to a Chinese woman who had just sold me Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. She either pretended not to hear me or really didn’t, responding with a headshake. An African-American guy was also tight-lipped, dismissing me and my questions (“Hey man, how do you get these so fast? Didn’t these just hit the theaters?”) by walking away and spitting orange peel into a plastic bag. Five more attempts — after buying tapes of Charlie’s Angels, The Mexican, a correctly labeled Meet the Parents, The Legend of Bagger Vance, and Pay It Forward — yielded identical results.

“Che” was the only bootleg street-hawker who would talk. For the right price and under condition of anonymity, he sang me the details of his trade.

“They got two types of films. The first type is called the bootleg. Regular camcorder. They shoot through a bag. The best ones [are] where they bribe the theater and shoot when no one is there. $500-$600. At $2 per tape, you make that back pretty fast.”

What if the bribe doesn’t take?

“Then they go into a preview screening, sit close to the middle, the camera’s in a case with a hole in it. That hides the lens sticking out. They do the cover art on a computer.”

In other words, the negligible costs get passed on as savings to the consumers, who nab these tapes on the street for the democratic sum of $5. The more Che gabbed, the more his rationalizations recalled those of film producers, video distributors, or drug dealers. Holding up tapes of Little Nicky and The Mexican, he intoned, “One of those big ones is all you need to make your costs back. And this business never fails because people are in need of them.”

Despite the occasional police raid, the bootleg business thrives because the people who manufacture the tapes are as secretive and mobile as the street vendors. “The top people are basically the Arabs, who own a chain of stores. They put the bootlegs into the stores — especially 99-cent ones — and sell them to the vendors. It seems like you can’t get into the top rung of this business unless you’re a Muslim.”

State of the Art

Unlike DVDs, bootleg videos understandably do not enjoy the support of electronics conglomerates, tape manufacturers, computer hardware companies, or major movie studios. And yet the similarities between the two are striking.

Here’s how they stack up:

* Meta-features: DVDs often boast a self-congratulatory making-of “documentary”; bootlegs often cut off mid-film into an entirely different movie, duplicating the effect of someone switching channels or activating a special DVD feature.

* Multiple angles: some DVDs — particularly pornographic discs — allow the viewer to see certain scenes from a number of different camera positions; video bootleggers often switch angles to get a better seat in the movie theater, resulting in an aspect ratio shift and a different (albeit partial) view of the same movie.

* Audio commentary: DVDS usually have the director or key cast members talking about the film. Bootlegs feature everyday people making comments ranging from “I missed that, what’d he say?” to “Damn!”

* Technical difficulties: DVD malfunctions include color movies that play only in black-and-white, dual-layer widescreen/pan-&-scan discs that play only the pan-&-scan versions, and out-of-sync sound and image. Depending on the type of DVD player you have, you may be unable to shut off closed captioning and/or subtitles. Though it goes without saying that most bootlegs suffer from analogous problems, such “mistakes” are part of the distorted yet refreshing beauty inherent in the video format. These flaws transcend quality and bend pristine studio product into an adventure in image texture.

Almost nobody owns a print of their favorite Hollywood movie. But pre-recorded, studio-issued sell-through videotapes feed the home viewer’s illusory sense that they own and are watching a film. In reality what they’ve paid as much as $40 for is a small, cheap conversion of celluloid frames into video fields. Bootleg videos make no claims to be the film itself. They are commercial Video Art first, and a record of a film second. Each bootleg represents a limited-edition record of a movie from the subjective POV of an anonymous auteur, the man with the camcorder. The “worst” bootleg — a blank tape — is the ultimate minimalist video. And then there’s the Holy Grail: the bootleg in which the surreptitious camcordist is recording at the moment that he’s busted by a multiplex security guard and kicked out of the theater — an inept studio movie that abruptly shifts gears to become a first-person surveillance documentary. Be assured that it’s out there somewhere, and you can own it.

A film by ni Leder

In strictly critical terms, my Pay It Forward bootleg, also purchased on Canal Street, is an almost transcendental demonstration of videotape’s aesthetic properties. Collaborating with director “ni Leder,” an anonymous videographer crops and reframes her images (and name). In close-ups, actors’ faces now fill the TV screen. Picture noise pocks and scars each actor’s face (though only Kevin Spacey’s character is supposed to be disfigured). Most alarming is anon.’s use of sound: the camcorder microphone traduces each patch of silence (and there are hundreds) into a discrete sound field, each with its own unique character, evoking paper crinkling, an army of slightly muffled drummers, or frying bacon — until the music swells or somebody speaks.

Pay It Forward’s rephotographed Vegas skies now appear excitingly ominous and impressionistic. Throughout the tape, something flickers and wafts in front of the camcorder lens, like a hand or an insect. About three quarters of the way through, two black dunes appear and obscure the bottom half of the film, one squarish, the other rounder — someone has taken a seat directly in front of the camcorder and the home viewer (me). I laugh along with them at a cliched morning-after scene between Spacey and Helen Hunt.

Che lives!

When I asked Che about the death of videotape, he disagreed.

“It’s a necessity for people in the street. They will never die.”

“You’ve got to understand the minority point of view,” he continued, sounding more and more like character actor Luis Guzman. “I’m a firm believer in the notion that one class of people shouldn’t have the privilege to watch films that another class can’t because they’re overpriced.”

I agreed, noting that Manhattan movie tickets had now spiked to the $10 mark.

“See, that’s what I’m talking about. I see myself as providing a service for my neighborhood and my community, and for the kids.”

At this point, I mentioned that a similar argument had been proffered on an episode of Seinfeld — the one where Jerry becomes a camcorder auteur, surreptitiously lensing a “good bootleg” of a fictional action flick called Death Blow. Che didn’t laugh.

Mageddo for Videotape

I once house-sat for a friend. Being a nosy person, I found a stack of pirate VCDs he’d bought in Hong Kong — everything from Rope to The Fifth Element to Basic Instinct. I plucked Armageddon from the pile and put it on. I found myself transported into a boisterous Hong Kong movie theater full of shadowy people smoking. When the film began and the title came up, Michael Bay’s widescreen opus was suddenly and shakily cropped to: mageddo.

In the end, Che may be right about the forestalled death of video. In spite of the brave new digital world and its “clever menus,” lack of “image-crawling,” and sound fidelity that “does your surrounds right,” these black-economy, commercially invisible mutants will always be with us in some form. Though they can be infuriating and sometimes captivating, if you watch a bootleg, you’ll find yourself back in the movie theater, without Mystery Science Theater smugness. Then you’ll know the true meaning of mageddo.

Edward E. Crouse freelances for The Village Voice and The San Francisco Bay Guardian and sells DVDs at the Barnes & Noble website. He wishes to thank Chuck Stephens and Patrick Macias for their aid and insight.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group