THE WAY OF THE BOOTLEG

Bootleg movies possess their own peculiar æsthetic. A thorough example of the bootleg æsthetic is Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. I bought my bootleg, or pirated, copy of Ghost Dog off the street on the same day the movie opened in theaters, March 3rd. Jim Jarmusch is often hailed as one of the visionaries of contemporary American cinema, so in buying a bootleg of his movie I questioned whether Ghost Dog might only be effective when viewed in the big-screen theater.
A week after the movie’s initial release, Artisan Entertainment, the company which distributed Ghost Dog, took out a full-page ad in the Village Voice, announcing “that due to a laboratory error the prints that were in release from March 3rd until March 13th in the New York City Metropolitan area were not in the form that Jim Jarmusch intended.” The ad goes on to state that “specifically there are several key scenes” where one of the characters, Raymond, speaks only French, and that “the director intended that the French be subtitled, but due to lab error it was not.” The non-subtitled print was quickly pulled from theaters. To cover for the oversight, Artisan offers free passes to the “correct version” for those moviegoers who bring along a copy of the ad and can answer a few questions about the movie. Artisan concludes the ad, “We look forward to you seeing the film as the filmmakers intended it to be seen.”
My bootleg copy of Ghost Dog is not subtitled. It is the only version of the movie I have seen. My first reaction to the news was that I now held among my video collection a rarity in cinematic memorabilia. Such a mix-up is common criteria for the collectability of secondhand material. The value of items recalled by their distributor – as in books or records – is inflated by their sudden unavailability. The nature of a bootleg even further validates its scarcity. A bootlegger might have a hundred copies of Big Momma’s House, but only ends up selling half of them. Rather than junk the leftover tapes, the bootlegger uses them to dub a more current release. One month’s Scary Movie is another month’s Coyote Ugly. The movie’s circulation becomes limited. My Ghost Dog bootleg is not going to be hotly sought after on Ebay, but the error adds an interesting dimension to the idea of bootleg ownership, boosting the viability of a normally short-lived thing.
In the movie, Ghost Dog is a reclusive contract killer who follows a sacred path of vengeance against his mafia employers, who have betrayed him. His code of ethics is inspired by the Hagakure, an old mystical Japanese text. Ghost Dog communicates less with words than with subtle gestures and spiritual intuition, evoking the holy servile silence of the ancient samurai. As post-postmodernized by Jarmusch, this samurai kills with self-crafted handguns and eats ice cream in the park. He buys his ice cream from a vendor, Raymond, who speaks only French. Raymond talks to Ghost Dog in long monologues, where Ghost Dog rarely says anything back. Ghost Dog cannot understand Raymond and neither can the audience, thus drawing the audience in closer to Ghost Dog’s experience. The lack of translation in this “wrong” version does not prove to cause much confusion. The audience understands that Ghost Dog’s true mode of communication is not by words, but basically by metaphysical cognition: “the way of the samurai.”
I assumed that the lack of translation was a formal device. In fact, Jarmusch had already used it at least once before, with Roberto Benigni’s character in “Down By Law.” Here Benigni’s character is an Italian convict who speaks only minimal English. He shares a prison cell with two Americans who don’t know Italian and the movie revolves around the chemistry of these three characters. There are several scenes where Benigni speaks his native language and his words are deliberately not subtitled. In effect, the audience is drawn closer to the three convicts’ relationship and how it is explored throughout the movie. The “wrong” version of Ghost Dog works the same way.
Ghost Dog assumes a cartoonish look, evoking the comic book urban vigilante and 70’s chopsocky blaxploitation. The pirated copy is coarse and faded, somewhat archival. I felt as if I was watching an old videotape that had been viewed over and over again throughout the past 25 years of VCR culture. This further animates the look of the movie. It’s like an episode of Saturday afternoon Kung Fu Theater or some cheeseball midnight movie. Jarmusch draws attention to the pieces of pop culture with which he forms Ghost Dog. The bootleg extends this self-consciousness by suggesting the visual environment where all these pieces are placed.
The bootleg movie lives at the lowest level of the entertainment food-chain. Armed with a small digital video camera, an entrepreneurial individual can visit the movie theater and videotape any of the current releases. The bootlegger can then dub that videotape a hundred times, slap together some artwork and packaging, and sell the tapes for five bucks on the corner. But has anyone been buying these tapes? Is anyone watching? And if they are, have they paused to consider the æsthetic value of this new form of watching movies?
Most people are already familiar with bootlegged music. Accessibility to CD burners and downloaded MP3s has created a hype that focuses solely on the economic and legal implications of this new technology. But unlike bootlegged music, the bootleg movie offers a new context in which to evaluate and enjoy a movie. As Michæl Hirschorn, co-founder of the entertainment industry news website Inside.com, has said, “Technological change and the way in which digital media might or might not transform the music business is much more byzantine and multifaceted and nuanced than the ‘N’ Sync record.”
Over the last 25 years, the context in which we experience movies has changed dramatically. There are the director’s cuts, the DVD releases with added commentary and outtakes and behind-the-scenes “making-of” featurettes, the edited and re-formatted versions for television, the re-released and remastered editions in unrated and uncut form, sometimes with “never-before-seen” or “found” footage. Also there is the Internet, which has already had a great impact on how we see and experience movies. Each of these, for better or worse, is shaping a new context in which to watch a movie. The bootleg easily joins this catalog, and sustains a hermeneutical breadth all its own.
When choosing a bootleg, I begin with the question of whether the movie is worth $9.50 at the box office. Will I also be able to make the time to visit the megaplex? And is the movie one whose impact won’t be lost by watching it on tape? The bootleg is a cruder and rawer experience, but it only costs five bucks and can be viewed at my leisure. All the while it remains current with the movie’s initial theatrical release. Buying a five dollar bootleg is not much unlike renting a movie, except that you don’t have to wait 6 to 12 months to see it and you own the copy. With the skyrocketing costs of going to the movies and the struggle to find the time to go, purchasing a bootlegged movie becomes a credible alternative. The streetwise transaction itself adds a small element of secrecy, with an underground black market feel, like ticket scalping. There’s something slightly select about the experience, like a private screening, exclusive but affordable.
A bootleg might be a dub of a promotional copy of the movie, one that is circulated solely among industry types but somehow finds it’s way into the hands of a bootlegger. These bootlegs tend to be more accurate in their representation. Typically, however, there are a number of risks involved when purchasing a bootleg. On the surface it may seem fine. It comes wrapped in cellophane, with cover art on the box, a brief synopsis on the backside, a few stills from the movie and marketing taglines. Sometimes there appears the statement, “This Film Has Been Modified From Its Original Version. It Has Been Formatted To Fit Your TV,” and the cassette itself might be labeled with an official FBI copyright warning, as if it were a federal crime to pirate a copy of an already pirated copy. Normally such details refer to legitimate video rentals, though when applied to a bootleg their meaning takes on an ironic relevance. Regardless of these attempts by the bootlegger to insure a sense of veritability in his product, there is no way to tell the actual quality of the copy. The possibility exists, for instance, of surprise cameo appearances by silhouetted figures entering or exiting the theater to go to the bathroom or get popcorn – yet it is these things that form the bootleg æsthetic.
The image can be sometimes distorted by the position of the bootlegger’s camera and where he is seated in the theater. In the case of my copy of The Talented Mr. Ripley, the bootlegger chose a seat too close to the screen. Because of the skewed angle, all the characters’ chins balloon to almost double their normal size. The Hollywood good-looks of Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow are freakishly perverted, at the mercy of the bootlegger’s lap, turning a flaccid drama into an amusing satire. The audience’s overheard laughter adds to this unintended deformity.
The camera angle also affects the framing of the movie’s picture. Often the images are boxed and cut off on each side, though not always at the movie’s expense. The submarine thriller U-571 benefits from this cropped framing, which serves to heighten the movie’s claustrophobic tension. Watching it, I felt as if I, too, was trapped with Matthew McConaughey and Harvey Keitel in a fugitive German U-boat.
A bootleg is mass-produced. It’s a copy of a copy of a videotaped copy of the movie. The visual quality is grainy and the audio fuzzy. But with Michæl Mann’s The Insider, this corruption helps to support the overall effect of the movie. The Insider is based on actual events and real people. As suggested by the movie’s title, the drama portrayed is a behind-the-scenes, “insider’s” look at the world of news media and Big Tobacco. Michæl Mann has created a highly stylized docudrama. The stylization is lost on bootleg. The images are not as sharp and glossy. This only enhances the movie, feeling more like a documentary. I became an insider on The Insider, peering in on newsroom conferences and secret corporate meetings.
Today’s media technology is more driven to pervert the intended experience of movies rather than preserve it. Artisan Entertainment asserts that they wish their movie to be seen “as the filmmakers intended it to be seen,” and attempt to maintain this intention by “fixing the lab error” and offering free passes. However, the movie industry is more concerned with its revenue system of blockbuster releases, domestic and international licensing, and premium and standard cable than it is with artistic intention. Each of these commercial branches creates a different framework in which to watch a movie. Within the context of such a ubiquitous manipulation of what is seen, my bootleg library is just as acceptable as the video box set of “The Godfather Trilogy” or the “Jaws” 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition.
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Posted on May 28, 2001 in Features by
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