BOOTLEG FILES 500: A special tenth anniversary essay.
When I began writing The Bootleg Files column in 2003, I had no idea how long I would be able to keep it going. For starters, I have a notoriously short attention span and it is too easy for me to get distracted – my career is littered with plenty of projects that were either unfinished or never begun. Also, I was uncertain whether the concept of the column – a consideration of elusive films and television productions that could only be viewed in unauthorized copies – would lend itself to a long-term endeavor. And, of course, why would anyone want to read about old movies and TV shows that could be found in bootleg versions – especially on a website like Film Threat, which prides itself as being the primary advocate of cutting-edge contemporary indie cinema?
Well, here I am, one decade later, sitting down to write the 500th column in this weekly series. And one question keeps spinning in my mind: why am I still doing this after all of these years?
I can state, with no degree of apology, that researching and writing this weekly column has provided me with the most enriching film history education imaginable. Every week, I am blessed to be able to learn something new and to discover astonishing insights into the development of popular culture.
And I am not just talking about history, but about the continuous evolution of the film and video media. For example, I discovered to my amazement that contemporary digital-savvy teenagers are happily creating unauthorized film versions of classic (and copyright protected) literary works, ranging from “A Streetcar Named Desire” to “The Catcher in the Rye,” and then posting them online. Perhaps the Steven Spielberg of tomorrow is lurking in this remarkable under-the-radar teen universe.
Working on this weekly column has also helped me to appreciate films that I only knew about from citations in text books. Just in the past few months, I’ve been able to experience a range of titles from the Andy Warhol-Paul Morrissey underground classic “Chelsea Girls” to the infamous May Britt remake of “The Blue Angel” to Johnny Depp’s critically eviscerated directing debut “The Brave” to the anti-war 1968 non-Disney cartoon “Mickey Mouse in Vietnam” to Dorothy Dandridge’s 1960 big-screen swan song “Malaga.” Of course, being a film historian is equivalent to being a glutton – you are always hungry for more and more. And, hey, I have a long list of titles that I have yet to enjoy!
In some ways, The Bootleg Files has been a jolly memory lane kick for me. Thanks to this column, I can revisit long-unavailable films and television productions that I fondly remembered from years ago. Happily, most of these works were as wonderful as I recalled them, particularly Howard Stern’s raucous television comedy program that was broadcast on New York’s WWOR-TV in the early 1990s and the delightfully cheesy 1970s series “Battle of the Network Stars.” And, sometimes, the nostalgia is shared by those who were on camera: – the late Roger Ebert, who was once a guest on Stern’s TV show, retweeted my Bootleg Files write-up of the series, while Adrienne Barbeau retweeted my “Battle of the Network Stars” column while recalling her participation in that offering.
Tracking down some of the subjects for the column has often been labor-intensive – I spent several years in search of “All This and World War II,” “Where’s Charley?” and “Malaga” before finding them. But a lot of the fun in creating The Bootleg Files comes in finding subjects without even half-trying. Over the years, many readers have provided ideas, and some have actually shared collector-to-collector copies of hard-to-find films. By keeping an eye on Facebook, I learned about “Black Devil Doll from Hell” from gossip columnist Michael Musto and the unauthorized YouTube posting of “Chelsea Girls” from film collector Don Alex.
Perhaps the oddest inspiration for a column came last January. It was around 4:30 in the morning and I was awake and listening to syndicated radio talk show host George Noory, who devotes a great deal of his program to UFO talk. That particular morning, Noory mentioned a 1950 film of a UFO sighting over Montana. I never knew such a film existed, so I started doing research on the subject. As a result, I wound up with two UFO-related columns: one on “The 1950 Montana UFO Film” and one on the 1975 made-for-television “The UFO Incident” (which came to my attention while I was researching the Montana subject). The early bird may catch the worm, but this early bird caught a pair of bootlegged beauties.
Ultimately, the most rewarding aspect of writing this column has been the feedback I’ve received over the years. Even 10 years into the project, I am still humbled to hear from people who tell me how much they love the column and look forward to it every Friday. Some readers have taken the time to offer updated information on the topics I write about, and several have also graciously provided corrections to errors in my research – for which I am extremely grateful. After all, I never pretended to be an infallible film historian. Indeed, a couple of online smart-alecks have also posted messages complaining about my shortcomings as a writer and a person – hey, that’s cool, because too much praise can do acute damage to your ego.
Thus, I am grateful beyond words to the Film Threat readership for 10 years of their support and encouragement. At Film Threat, I am eternally grateful for the site’s founder, Chris Gore, for allowing me to set off on this odyssey in 2003, and for my publisher/editor Mark Bell for allowing the journey to continue.
Of course, this raises another challenge: will I be able to produce another 500 columns? Well, here’s hoping for a 1,000th column somewhere in 2023! And if the next 10 years are anything like the past 10 years, then I will be the happiest writer on the Internet!