Most DVD-addicted cinephiles in America know that with a region-free player and a willingness to navigate confusing technical specs, they can shop overseas for rare Godard and Yasujiro Ozu titles, along with the odd indie gem that domestic studios can't be bothered to release. But the film buff's resources extend beyond the tidy, VeriSign-approved halls of the Internet's shopping mall to back-alley merchants with strange names and questionable legal status. These businesses, outgrowths of the kind of tape-trading scenes familiar to Grateful Dead fans, are run by enthusiasts out to finance their own hobbies, not to make a killing. (Traditional bootleggers charge a premium, but most offerings here are half the price of ordinary releases.) They sell everything from forgotten silents to auteurist curiosities to spaghetti westerns—usually on discs mastered from an old VHS release or TV broadcast, but occasionally from a collector's personal film print.
Isn't that illegal? Dealers proudly cite a chunk of copyright law called the Berne Act, which they interpret this way: As long as a movie hasn't had a commercial release in America, it's fair game. Given that a few of these enthusiasts have done business for years at the same Web addresses, perhaps Hollywood's "cease and desist"-happy lawyers believe there's something to the argument. Certainly, some of these titles are in no danger of a legit release, whether for reasons of sensitivity (On The Edge Video's Racial Toons, which collects offensive shorts that Bugs Bunny, Popeye, and Mighty Mouse would prefer to forget) or because their curiosity value is outweighed by inept production (Deafula, a vampire yarn acted entirely in sign language).
As is to be expected with a marketplace flourishing on the Internet, le cinéma du geek is well-represented. The never-released 1994 Fantastic Four adaptation, alternate (and much better) edits of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and fan-made Batman movies are here, alongside the wide range of "grindhouse" fare (Italian giallos, blaxploitation, Eurosleaze in general) usually championed by youngsters who wish they'd experienced Times Square's down-and-out years firsthand. On the artsier end of the spectrum, Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo and The Holy Mountain are easily found online, as is Superstar, the notorious Karen Carpenter biopic shot by Todd Haynes with a Barbie-doll cast.
I spent a month trolling this gray market, and—though I never located the legendary Jerry Lewis-meets-the-Holocaust title The Day the Clown Cried—weirdness abounded. A lot of what I unearthed is more entertaining on paper, like Jackie Gleason dropping acid and Groucho Marx playing a crime lord in Skidoo, the black sheep of Otto Preminger's filmography. I got discs with sound or picture flaws so distracting that even an appealing movie—like Carol Reed directing Alec Guinness in Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana—couldn't compete. And I came across unexpected pleasures like Quicksand, a tight noir starring Mickey Rooney. Not the sort of thing you'd venture down back alleys for, but a pleasant surprise once you're there.
Here are five noteworthy discoveries:
My Best Friend's Birthday (From SuperHappyFun)
From Kubrick to Solondz, the gray market offers early efforts by filmmakers who wish they'd drowned them at birth. Although the catalog listing doesn't mention it, Quentin Tarantino's My Best Friend's Birthday (advertised on the front page as "Tarantino's First Film") isn't just juvenilia, it's unfinished as well. Legend has it that some scenes were destroyed by the lab while others may never have been shot. The 36 existing minutes (mastered from a fairly degraded videotape) have the ill-lit, black-and-white look of Clerks but with setups and camera movement Kevin Smith would never have attempted. The motley cast reads a script oozing primordial Tarantinese: references to The Partridge Family, Sambo's, and Andy Griffith; an obsession with rockabilly; and plot elements that would resurface in his True Romance screenplay. Only serious fans will be entertained, as is usually the case with cinematic orphans.
Cocksucker Blues (From Gravedigger Video)
After using Robert Frank's work for the cover of Exile on Main Street, the Rolling Stones hired the photographer to document their post-Altamont 1972 American tour. If image rehabilitation was the goal, Blues is a disaster—so full of incriminating evidence that the band refused to authorize its release. For three decades it could be seen only on bootlegs and at rare screenings hosted by Frank himself. The myth surrounding the film promises drugs, explicit sex, and Keiththrowing a television out a hotel window. Less touted is how boring the whole thing is. Even that TV bombing looks tame: Richards, to his credit as a human being and his shame as a rock god, waits for permission from the ground before shoving the thing overboard.
Lost & Found Video Night #6(From 5 Minutes to Live)
Many underground video merchants offer some variant of the mix-tape, assembling the strangest detritus (the sort of thing now popping up on YouTube) they've found in their years of collecting. The most professional I saw was the Lost & Found series, which has generally good transfer quality and editing that doesn't test short attention spans. In 70 minutes, L&F #6 culls public-access for atrocious balladeers, finds the shoddiest special effects and sets in monster-movie history, and watches small-town newscasters suffer as the public harangues them on live TV. It also gathers celebrity disgraces from the obscure to the legendary: a drug-addled interview with James Brown, an Orson Welles so drunk that he can't hawk cheap wine without flubbing his lines, and Siskel and Ebert spewing bile at each other while trying to shoot promos for their show (eventually they stop insulting each other and start making fun of Protestants).
Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival) (From SuperHappyFun)
An astute 1951 noir that skewers the sensationalist press and the rubes who read it, Ace features Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a reporter whose casual ethics have bounced him down the food chain to an Albuquerque rag. When he hears about a man trapped in a collapsed cave, Tatum smells a story that could, with some manipulation, be his ticket back to a big-city paper. Getting help from a corrupt sheriff and the victim's wife, he hypes the event into a Baby Jessica-style spectacle. The director and co-writer Billy Wilder uses the blunt object known as Kirk Douglas to hammer home a media critique that has been restaged often but rarely topped. How it has escaped official DVD release, lagging behind Wilder's lesser films, is a mystery. Of the innumerable Hollywood movies currently available only on the gray market, Ace is an MIA with an unusually high profile.
The Boxer's Omen (aka Mo) (From Gravedigger Video)
This is the kind of movie that spawns midnight cults. A supernatural horror/martial-arts flick from Hong Kong's legendary Shaw Studio, it initially looks like generic action stuff starring Hsiung, a kickboxer out to avenge his brother's disfigurement. Things go off-course when Hsiung is ambushed by thugs, only to see them dispatched by a mysterious figure wielding what appears to be a lawn sprinkler filled with magic water. Hsiung's rescuer turns out to be the spirit of a dead Thai monk who says that Hsiung must become a monk himself and fight a black magician for his life.
The first hint of Omen's extraordinary weirdness is a fight scene in which one man makes another's skin turn into a blue-green crust, then bubble up and explode. Once he's good and dead, a bat crawls out of his mouth and flies into the hands of the victor, who matter-of-factly tucks the creature into his robe. Such events aren't unheard of in Asian cinema, but I've never seen so many, of such strangeness, crammed into one picture: men vomit eels, a flying sorceress decomposes into tiny tuft-haired dinosaurs, and an army of animated crocodile skulls munch their way across the floor. Who cares if the action is sometimes incomprehensible?
Sadly, The Boxer's Omen illustrates the major pitfall of shopping on the gray market. I was sufficiently wowed by the film to sit through a copy that suffered the usual flaws of an nth-generation video dupe and then some. Two days later, still excited by my find, I came across rumors (since verified) that an American company plans to release the film, presumably with video quality that doesn't resemble a broadcast from Mars. Such is life for the DVD thrill-seeker. Sometimes you find the Holy Grail. Sometimes you're just the first on the block enjoying what any Netflixer can discover next year.