Thursday, 23 February 2017

A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies - A book review and some memoir

Author Dennis Bartok does an intro at the
2016 TCM Classic Film Festival
In the introduction to the book A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies by Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph* it describes the book as "a sort of mad Irish wake for an underground sub-culture of often paranoid, secretive, eccentric, obsessive and definitely mad film collectors and dealers, who made movies their own private religion." The book, it says, is about "the often strange, and strangely compelling, lives of film collectors and dealers, many of whom are dealing with their own issues of ageing and morality as they approach or reach retirement." Well, that writes its own review.

Twenty chapters follow containing interviews and memories of the cinephiles, and the rogues, believed to be no more than 4,500 at its most prolific period, who collected, sold, traded, stole and otherwise acquired movies, mostly out of love and affection. Some famous names get dealt with or mentioned - Leonard Maltin, Roddy McDowall, Rock Hudson, Bill Everson, Billy Wilder, Joe Dante and more. It's a great read and I'm grateful to Simon Taaffe of Badger Books, Sydney's greatest but most secret source of fine second hand books on every subject, for passing a copy to me.

Roddy McDowall
Serious collector and the subject of some 
severe action
by the LA wallopers
Which brings me to tell you the story of one Jim Ness, a Melburnian whose passions for the movies, similar to many of those mentioned in the book, knew no bounds. I think, indeed in the light of what I'm going to say, I hope, he's long gone from this planet.

Some time in 1969 word was suddenly spread that at an appointed time in the next week there would be a screening of Flash Gordon, a by then legendary 13 part serial, made in 1936, starring Buster Crabbe in the title role and running about four hours all up. Sightings of this movie were unknown for decades and by the appointed time a small group maybe thirty or forty people had assembled in the then drab and run down foyer of the Astor Cinema.  Time dragged on well past the scheduled starting time and nobody had been admitted to the auditorium. Then there were some loud voices in the foyer and it turned out that, like Houston, we had a problem. The print was a nitrate copy and the man in charge of it, (I wouldn't know if he 'owned' it) would not allow it to be screened unless he personally attended the projection in the bio box. The projectionist objected to this insult to his professionalism and a standoff occurred. The argument continued for half an hour or so. Both parties were adamant. Meanwhile some of the punters in the foyer continued to be excited. Not having ever seen the film I had nothing to go on but others were thrilled at the prospect. "I don't know how I'm going to cope seeing Dr Zarkov again!" was one memorable bit of overhead conversation. In addition, the faithful looked forward to the re-appearance of Flash, Zarkov and the other characters of yore - Ming the Merciless, Princess Aura, King Kala and the rest.

The upshot of the discussion was that the screening venue was shifted. The remaining crowd, down to about a couple of dozen but still including myself, Michael Campi, Alan Finney and the legendary Colin Bennett, jumped into the available cars and headed for a Toorak mansion. There we were ushered into a screening room theatre/with red velvet seats for a couple of dozen, a curtained screen and a fully appointed 35mm dual projector bio-box. Eventually the screening got under way and at the end a lot of those attending stood around talking. It was way past midnight.

The man pulling all the strings for the crowd turned out to be a small guy in his mid-forties named Jim Ness. Engaging him in conversation revealed him as somewhat coy about just what else he had. However by the end of the evening somehow or other he agreed to put on another show. This would be his own unique collation of mostly musical numbers from films, focussing on items presented on stage. Jim had some theory about this. When we re-assembled a few weeks later we were presented with an evening of sequences from movies which took place on stages and theatres. Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and on and on, culminating with the "Born in a Trunk" sequence from Cukor's A Star is Born. How that number could actually be fitted into any known stage in the world was of secondary performance. Throughout the presentation Jim's voice boomed out via a microphone in the bio-box making announcements and advancing his theory that the cinema's greatest moments occurred when it recorded musical (and other) items on representations of the stage and the theatre. It takes all kinds.

I was most impressed when Jim included the famous comedy routine with Phil Silvers from the film Top Banana wherein Silvers and an accomplice try and climb a ladder while a strange little man wanders in, grabs hold of Silvers hand and won't let go no matter how much shaking, prising loose and uncoupling is attempted. It is, I kid you not, one of the greatest pieces of slapstick you will ever see and if you don't believe me you can find it on YouTube here. Don't hesitate to tell me if you agree. When I asked him about Top Banana  Jim went defensive.  "Who says I have a copy of Top Banana?". "Well you just showed a sequence from it." "Aaah." End of discussion, and it took me years before I saw Top Banana again.

That was the end of my personal contact with Jim Ness but stories about him and his unique methods of collecting abounded. One of the best concerned Jim's readiness to be of the assistance to the organisers of film weekends, small festivals and other nostalgic events. Jim would be on hand offering to take the film back to the exchange the next day, always the worst part of the organiser's life. Often that would mean that the opportunity was then taken to add to his collection of musical numbers and other elements. For hardcore collectors a certain ruthlessness had to be employed to get the desired product into one's hands.

It seems, as the book says, the collector days whereby people brazenly swiped everything from new  70mm prints to the odd 16mm reel, are all but over. The advent of the DVD and then Blu-ray brought out the collector's instinct in millions more people and the trade was legitimised and monetised by the studios. Win win. The days of derring do roguery, outright theft and misfeasance are just about over though not before one famous collector managed to inadvertently be the cause of putting O J Simpson into the slammer for what will probably be the rest of his life.

Much of it is recorded in Bartok and Joseph's beaut book. A great read and a necessary recording of a minor but very droll bit of the history of the movies.

*University Press of Mississipppi Link here

1 comment:

  1. Jim Ness was a projectionist and legend. He was involved in film and projector collecting for decades. I worked with him at Hoyts and a few other cinemas as he was always doing shifts wherever they came up. He was the only projectionist I knew that worked in the silent era and the multiplex era. A lovely bloke too. He would have died in the 1990s, but was also older than mentioned here as he did look young for his age. In the 1980s he was well into his seventies. I also know of the private theatrette mentioned in the Toorak mansion; it's still there and the owner (a former Twentieth Century Fox newsreel cameraman) lives a Sunset Blvd type existence.


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