"Bradford Orange and the Kingdom of the Crystal Clear Bootleg!"
With the looming doom that is the proposed Actors' Strike weighing heavily upon our heads, there isn't a whole lot going on in the United States of "Whoop-doo!" Except set visits. Just one after another; they keep coming. Austin, New Orleans, Albuquerque, and Vancouver. Wash, repeat, and "What the fuck am I still doing in Portland, Oregon!?!" It's been a blur of moving lights and sets, and stop-motion puppets. Sad thing is, there isn't a whole lot to "whoop-doo!" here, either. It's the same old-same old. A conveyer belt of Hollywood magic that looks and tastes just like last summer and the summer before it. It's this rabid foreplay of advertising that seems to be at all entertaining these days. We keep buying into the viral hype: hook, line, and stinker. Look at Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. We all waited it out with baited breath. What? Why? So that we could rush to our keyboards the next day and bitch about it. Yeah, seems so. At first, everything looked good on the Indy front. People actually seemed to like the film upon walking out of that theater. But then the shittide quickly turned, and a blood tsunami of angry prose was soon writhing around in our interstellar communication free wiring space. Indy 4 was like a seemingly great plate of sushi that was soon regurgitated upon further digestion. Raw fish with a bit of musk bug.
I think I'm the only one that hasn't puked all over my keyboard in a means to display my disgust. Truth be told, I really enjoyed watching the new Indiana Jones film. Both times I saw it. And when some kid fished out the bootleg from my secret stash, it had a living room full of drunken naysayers staring blankly at the screen like a group of paste-dazed ten year olds. It's an easy movie to be angry at. I guess. Every time one of my Journo-Lite critical acquaintances spells out another one of the film's major flaws (of which I am told there are many), I have to nod my head in agreement. They are right. This sucker is full of holes and poor plot devices, and Indy really isn't even in the film at all. But you know what? When I think back at those scenes that caused the most cramping in the pancreas of the average filmgoer, I smile. For some odd reason, Shit LaBeef swinging through the vines with a bunch of monkeys makes me laugh. It's ridiculous and horrible, but I dig it. And I dig the nuclear blast fridge ride. I guess what I am trying to say is: "I like shitty movies!" And I'm not afraid to express that fact in bold type.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not holding onto the experience, screaming it's praises. I haven't devoted a roomful of wall space to all of the posters and Dr. Pepper cans. I haven't run into K-Mart and come out with an arm full of Mutt Williams dolls. Simply put, I walked into the theater and had a good time. On either side of the fence, it hasn't really effected or changed my life all that much. Neither has the fact that I didn't really enjoy Iron Man. What? Huh? Yeah, that's right. I said it. Robert Downey Jr. was a fun watch, but the trappings of the super hero genre hung off him like that iron suit. Heavy and hardly the rejuvenating Botox shot of cinema that we have all desperately been waiting for, it drug my face down a bit. Sure, it's a fine movie. But it left me bored. It was the beat structure. It certainly felt like every other super hero event of recent years. Everyone gave Rob and Jon Favreau a water cooler blowjob the next morning. But for what? For being quite adequate in my book. It was just so-so. Yet it garnered praise because of the hype. And the hype fed into a series of stellar reviews. But these were the same reviews I've seen since the start of 2000. "Greatest Comic Book Adaptation of All-Time!" was a popular motto. So was, "Redefines the Comic Book genre!" I heard this when X-Men came out, I heard it when Spider-Man came out, heck, I even heard it when Superman Returns hit the market. Iron Man is a good movie. But we're in a desperate spin cycle of cliches and sameness. All the on-liners and print media hipster whores ought to just bust out their Iron Man reviews when The Dark Knight rolls around. They can do a quick title Find-And-Replace in word search, and be ready to go. No one is going to know the difference. Salt and pepper a couple of rock solid "Heath Gives the Greatest Villain Performance of All-Time" in there, and it will look like you are actually trying to find some new way to give praise to your tired old summer movie. Lord knows, the Movie Gods aren't trying very hard to give us anything new.
Iron Man? Boo!
Seriously. Where are our Back to the Futures? Where are our Ghostbusters? Where are our Gremlins? I don't see one new film on the summer landscape. At all. The Love Guru? Its Austin Powers dressed up in even more disgusting, Philadelphia Collins drag. The Happening? M. Night Shyamalan is already digging his own grave to save himself from the onslaught of awful nastiness that is going to come out of people's mouths when they see it. Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express? I'm keeping my fingers crossed so hard, I'm about to break bone. Step Brothers? Okay, so maybe high concept is alive and well, and in fact living in a summer Hollywood home. But that hasn't changed the fact that it's hard as Hell to get people into theaters to see these new "ideas" play out on screen.
This tiny fact ties directly into this yearlong advanced marketing barrage that is polluting our air and Internet waves. That's why, along with this impending Actors' Strike, we are doing so many set visits. Everything being made today needs to seem like an event. Even though its not. It needs to have this hefty weight to it. A big screen aspect and appeal that will get you off the soda and out of the house. That is proving harder and harder to do each and every year. People wonder why they brought Indy back. Well, because its something everyone is going to want to see on opening day. In this "Gotta-Have-It-Habit" culture, people want to get their bitch on first. Not only are movie studios turning to old favorites, they are also in a made rush to make everything in 3D. Something you can't see at home. More importantly, something Ping and his Taiwanese brother can't bootleg and ship to your on-line account the day it's release. Though, they will try. Oh, they will try. And some poor bastard is still going to shell out five bucks for a blurred copy of Journey to the Center of the Earth. "Who cares if it is unwatchable? I've got it first!"
Hollywood has to do something. Their anti-bootlegging tactics simply aren't working, and the instant gratification marketing tactics of the street side bootleg vendor are more prevalent than ever. Serving the dish in a non-duplicable format such as 3D is a fine start, but every single 3D film currently in the works is also going to be released and exhibited in 2D. Because there simply aren't enough theaters to support 3D at this time. Especially in the places where these bootlegs are coming from. Malaysia. Durango. Guam. They don't have 3D proficient theaters. But they do have a pristine print of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And it's a peach. I am seeing the most consistently beautiful bootlegs on the market at this current moment in time. They are better than ever before. And they are getting here a lot quicker, too. I have some theories on why that is. But I'll get to that in a moment.
Bootlegging movies is the moonshine of the twenty-first century. Like the end of prohibition, the only thing that is going to squelch (not end) theatrical bootlegging is when studios offer day-and-date DVD and theatrical releases. As Ebert has pronounced: See the movie, buy it afterwards. Then there wouldn't be such an appetite for the five-dollar Mexican bootleg. Weird thing is, I remember a time when you had to traverse exotic alleyways in Mexico town, the outskirts of Asia, and the darkest street corners of Manhattan to get these filmed-on-site souvenirs. Now, they are instantly available as streaming downloads the morning the movie is released. Which kind of takes the fun out of it. But you can still find the illegal vendor. They now cater to certain parts of varying neighborhoods. Unlike 1999, when you had to look under rocks (not very hard, mind you) to find a pristine copy of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace mere weeks after its theatrical release, now you have Bootleggers that you know by name. That cater to your wants and needs. And they are delivering some mighty fine product, if I do say so myself, right to your doorstep.
Phantom Bootleg? Whoop-doo!
Which leads me to only one conclusion. (Disclaimer: I feel that) the studios definitely have a hand in the manufacturing and distribution of the illegal bootlegs now flooding the market. Seriously, why isn't Stone Phillips investigating this shit? Because they don't want you to see what he'd find out (I'm guessing). It makes sense. If enough money is being made from the theatrical release bootlegging industry, enough so that it is taking food out of grips and electricians mouths, enough so that they have to hire Men in Black to monitor critic screenings with sets of very expensive, high-tech binoculars, and they can't stop the output, you can bet that the major studios have a hand in this back pocket. If this "supposed" bootlegging industry is making as much money as the studios claim, why wouldn't they hire undercover agents to infiltrate and take over this greasy business? And then run it themselves? That makes total sense. And it would account for the crystal clear bootlegs making the rounds this summer.
I'm more than convinced that George Lucas is running his own bootlegging business. I think he has been doing it for a very long time. Back in 1999, I saw a report on the news that copies of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace were being sold on the underground market just mere weeks after its release (it got quite the media push; Lucas advertising at its best?). The tapes sold for five bucks a pop (an underground market price that hasn't changed since). At the time, I wasn't familiar with the shot-in-the-theater bootlegs that were available. These were made mostly for bigger films. I was living in Buttfuck, Oregon (Philomath), and we didn't have anything like a bootleg vendor. Having a movie in my hands that was still going gangbusters at the multiplex was a mysterious and attractive concept to me. These "advanced" copies of Lucas' much-maligned epic were coming out of the New York subway tunnels at an alarming rate. I decided that I needed to have one for myself. So that I could watch that horrible little movie in the comfort of my own home. Hundreds of times. On a repeated loop.
Bister Mungle? Whoop-doo!
Mind you, at the time, DVD was just hitting the market and Lucas had made this odd declaration that Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace wouldn't be seeing the legitimate market for a very long time. Why? Because, back then, nobody knew what a stinker he had on his hands. People believed that this was the second coming, and it would get multiple re-releases in the forthcoming years. Just as the other Star Wars films had gotten before it. Masterful marketing on Lucas' part. Tell the fans that they can't get it. He puts out the bootleg. The bootleg gets bought. When he sees the sales of the bootlegs trailing, he finally puts it out on VHS. Remember, even though DVD was on the mass market at that time, he only put it out on VHS. When sales waned for that, then he eventually put it out on DVD. This all happened in the three years leading up to Star Wars: Episode II - Attack Of The Clones. Most fans were still under Lucas' hypnotic spell. So, he got them to shell out for the bootleg, the direct-to-market VHS tape, and the DVD. F*cking amazing. If it's true. Which I think it is, because it makes perfect sense. Tell me it doesn't.
Two weeks after Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace came out in theaters, I did in fact, wind up with a copy in my hands. And to this day, I still view it as one of the best looking bootlegs I have ever seen. How did I get it? The Internet, of course. It wasn't as easy as the kid's have it today. I had to find a willing New Yorker that would wander down into the subway system and trade money with a carpetbagger in a back alley. Dangerous stuff? Sure. The trade off? If you are a Mike Patton or Mr. Bungle fan, you know how I sold my soul all to well. I had in my position the only known copy of a videotape that featured a seventeen-year-old Mike Patton performing with Bister Mungle at their high school talent show. They were the intermission entertainment. Shot on an old tube camera, the Eureka High School seniors preformed The Monkees theme song, some original ska, and a rousing version of Macho Man. It was a nugget of gold, the earliest known video recording of this very unique band. A piece of Mike Patton history that I had been holding onto for a very long time. How did I come to have it in my position? My boss, who can be seen in the video as a cop during the Village People montage, had it in a box of junk that he was throwing away. His mom had shot it. And, being one of the biggest Patton fans on the planet, I asked if I could have it. "Fuck, take it. Those guys are fools."
So, I stumbled upon this hot chick Bungle fan on the Internet. She happened to live in New York. I swapped her a copy of the Bister Mungle talent show for a bootleg copy of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. I was skeptical the day it came in the mail. I took out the VHS tape, put it in the VCR, and proceeded to watch it. Over and over again. Damn, it was a bit blurry, like a tape that had been down-dubbed once or twice, but for the most part, it looked pretty good. We had secret Star Wars parties in the garage, and I was the hit sensation in a small town that didn't know any better at the time. And as for the Mr. Bungle tape? Well, it got traded, and traded, and traded some more. If you are curious, you can pretty much find it just about anywhere on the Internet.
Digging out the old Phantom Menace VHS and looking at it now, compared to most bootlegs, it definitely had to be an inside job. It looks too good. It's on a tri-pod. It's still watchable, and actually a pretty cool piece of film history, as this version of the film hasn't been seen since it was in theaters. When the film hit "legit" VHS, some twenty minutes had been added to its running time and a lot of the digital effects had been changed. It was again "fixed" when it came to DVD. I didn't purchase another bootleg until Star Wars: Episode II - Attack Of The Clones came out. This time, I got my hands on it within a week of its theatrical release. Again, it was immaculate. Not DVD quality. But bright and poppy, and if I wasn't such a conscientious shopper, it could have stood the test of time as my only library copy. But no, I fell for Lucas's wanton needs, and bought the legal copy when it came out on DVD a few months later. Then came Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith. A single day after its release, a DVD quality screener (with barcode intact) was making the rounds on street corners across the country. If Lucas was behind these releases, which I believe he was, he was truly smart about it. He gave us quality, yet he also gave us an annoying barcode that would burn a formative pattern into any Hi-Def Plasma screen. We'd of course have to buy it again when it hit Best Buy with deleted scenes, bloopers, and other extra features.
While bootlegged movies had been around for quite a while, it was Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace that ushered in a new decade of fear and annoyance about the subject at hand. Before long, it wasn't just the Titanics and The Terminators that were getting the red blanket Mexican premier treatment. Suddenly, even the shiftiest comedies and the worst horror films were getting mass marketed and sold through the Underground Railroad system of illegal videos. As better and better copies started to get into the hands of a hungry public, the studios started to cry louder and louder. You may remember a series of PAs that flooded the malls a short couple years back. Grips, and Lighting Technicians, and Executive Producers appeared on camera, talking about how food was being taken directly out of their kids' mouths because of this rampant bootlegging madness. Then press screenings suddenly became a circus of metal detectors and wands. It was like leaving jail. Maybe a little worse than attempting to get through airport security. Either way, it became annoying. And most critics screamed their irritation loud and clear. "Why are we being targeted? Do you think we're the problem?" Clearly, they weren't, but that didn't stop the major studios from hiring goons that were six-foot-four and thick as a brick shit house to troll the isles with these fancy binoculars. It was like the Gestapo. And in Hollywood, I saw someone get ejected from the theater for using their cell phone on two different occasions. Now, if they head-locked the seattalkers and evacuated them, this might have been a worthwhile endeavor for all involved.
Critics and the press media are not the problem here. And the studios know it. This is just a visible tactic to show the crowds that something, is in fact, being done to curb the illegal bootlegs that are hitting the market. But what was once a detraction has now become a distraction. These methods are still in place, but only to pull the sheepy wool over our eyes and dull us into an unproductive coma. How could the majors possibly be running and in control of the illegal bootleg market if they are still employing these hardcore tactics? Because it's a trick. It has to be.
Airport Security? Boo!
I think George Lucas took his method of film distribution around to the majors and showed them how more money could be made from employing day-and-date bootleg releases. Jus set it up through a third party in far off countries. Tweak the copy so that there are discernable defects in them, insuring that those who would normally buy the DVD when it came out still buy the DVD when it hits the market. Also, with the "bootleg", you get customers buying copies of films they wouldn't normally go see in theaters or buy on the legit market. It's a pretty solid business plan, and if its not being utilized by the major and minor studios, they are stupid for letting some shifty, shadowy enclave of al-Qaeda video terrorists reap all of the rewards.
What led me to this conclusion was the quality and output of this year's summer movie bootlegs. They look better than ever before. And they are arriving the morning of most film's release date. Usually, you'd have to wait until at least Sunday to find these on the underground market. Now, you can find them in your in-box for illegal downloading before heading out the door for tickets. I have been keeping a steady eye on TV links. And without fail, the tentpole pictures are literally being shoved directly into my hands. I took a look at Iron Man. It's a clean copy, caught on a tri-pod. In keeping with the Lucas esthetic, the screen goes black at a few crucial moments. This insures that 1) you buy the bootleg and watch it. 2) you go to the store and buy the actual DVD because you want to see what was being covered up. Again, with the Speed Racer bootleg, it is flawless. And beautiful. And the film actually plays better on TV. But there are some funky-ass Guamanese subtitles that will fuck with your Plasma and irritate your brain. But the kicker was the Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull bootleg. It arrived on Thursday, May 22nd. And it was gorgeous, as far as bootlegs go. A little bit too dark. And the screen goes a bit blurry throughout. Definitely a Lucas produced boot. Shady, yet watchable. Cool to have, but it's not a clean copy for the library. So, of course, those that will be purchasing it will also want to buy the legal version. Right? Sure. But I still wasn't buying my own ideas of a bootleg market being run by the very studios that are trying to keep them out of our hands.
Until a weird thing happen. A high definition version of the film started making the rounds late Friday afternoon. It was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Clear Bootleg. A copy so clean, I wouldn't have to buy it when it came out. It was literally library worthy. How did this happen? Especially after Lucas and Spielberg tried so hard to keep every single on-screen moment and plot point out of the public domain. How could they be so secretive, yet so loose that they lose their entire film to the illegal bootlegging market. Tracing back through the history of the subject, the only smart conclusion that I can come to is that they are the ones setting this up. They are the ones in control of it. At this point in time, this is the only way it can be. It's the only way that makes any sense.
Yes, it truly seems as though the summer movies are getting worse and worse every year, and the bootlegs of said movies just keep getting better and better. It's an odd quagmire that will only lift itself out of the juice once there are no more established properties to bastardize or accost. So sad that we seem to have an endless supply of them. But a snake can only eat its tail for so long. Quality is an ebb and flow that can be discussed in great lengths. But really, it is all in the eye of the beholder. And, in the Immortal words of the Bloodhound Gang, my beholder is about to tweak. Thing is: I have found the answer. If Hollywood keeps making such bad movies, no one is going to want to buy the bootleg. If no one buys the bootleg, the bootleg market dries up. Dies off. Disappears. It's a long-term plan. Sure. And it might have worked...
If it weren't for Timur Bekmambetov. A while back he made this Russian trilogy of Night Watch films that were on the cutting edge of cinematic excitement. This month, he will make his American debut with the Angelina Jolie actioner Wanted, and he will almost singly handedly save summer of 2008 from being one of the worst in recent member. I saw the film last night. It is a buzzing burst of electricity that will burn your eyeballs out and give you fever chills. It's a new take on an age-old story, and while it sags in the middle a bit, it is truly one of the most exciting things going this year. Everything you'd ever want during that sticky solstice slice of time is accounted for. By far the best badass movie of June, and probably July combined. It is one you must see on the big screen. It's one of those event films that the studios are striving so hard for.
What it did was make me want to buy a bootleg. So that I could watch it over and over again. And show it to my friends that refuse to head out to the Cineplex. It really is that good. It just goes to prove that summer movies will never truly die a death of redundancy. Neither will the underground bootleg market.
We all better get used to it.