If Rodney Bingenheimer is the Rock ‘n Roll Mayor of Sunset Strip, Norm Hill is the Obscure Film Ambassador of Seattle. Emerging from the cinema catacombs of Scarecrow Video where he works as the store’s publicity director, Hill sports a long-sleeved, collared shirt, close-cropped hair, and a comforting smile. He could pass for an accountant. But he’s more like a flesh-and-blood version of the Internet Movie Database.
Think you’re the world’s most informed Werner Herzog worshipper? Think again. Hill is the exclusive facilitator of Director’s Commentaries on Herzog’s DVDs. Is Derek Jarman your fave filmmaker? Hill used to premiere Jarman’s movies stateside, as programmer for the Olympia Film Festival. Consider yourself the most rabid, observant Scorsese admirer around? Hold your horses and consider the following story.
When Hill recently chaperoned Oscar-winning Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker through Scarecrow Video for a DVD-signing session, the cinema curator alerted her to an alarming discovery. “I told her there was a big scratch on the ‘Goodfellas’ Special Edition DVD print,” confirms Hill, whose background in DVD postproduction has fine-tuned his observational skills.
He continues in a flabbergasted, disbelieving tone. “I was like, ‘How can this be? This is ‘Goodfellas!’ Long after I’m dead, people are gonna look back at this, and go ‘Oh, my God.’ It’s like “Citizen Kane.” This movie will be a masterpiece for generations. So, the best version out there has a scratch on it?”
Hill isn’t done yet. “Scorsese would join Werner Herzog, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Derek Jarman, and Sergei Eisenstein in my pantheon of the greats. If I was on a desert island and could only take a certain collection, these are the guys most important to me. So I want my Scorsese films to look better than any other DVD out there.”
Escaping briefly from Scarecrow’s overcrowded archives, Hill diverts his thoughts from the DVD imperfection long enough to inhale some Indian food. We’re doing lunch at a University District restaurant two blocks south of Scarecrow’s bustling Roosevelt Way location. Alongside his Scarecrow promotional duties, Hill runs Subversive Cinema, an obscure-film DVD company he recently unveiled.
Specializing in cult films and under-appreciated exploitation classics, Subversive Cinema doesn’t include “Goodfellas” in its line-up. But it’s unlikely you’ll find any scratches on Subversive’s release of The Candysnatchers, a “Kill Bill”-styled revenge-fest. There’s also Battlefield Baseball, an unlikely combination of “The Natural” and “Dawn of the Dead.” 1973’s mad-scientist opus “The Freakmaker” is available as well, which includes a director’s commentary from elderly English moviemaker Jack Cardiff. “From a financial standpoint,” admits Hill, “it makes no sense at all to get Cardiff to do a commentary. He lives in London, and he’s 90 years old. But I want to hear what Jack Cardiff has to say about this! And I know that in a couple of years, we’re not gonna have Jack Cardiff around anymore.”
Why would Hill devote his life to dredging up these very un-mainstream, unknown cinematic specimens? And why does he tend to his obscure acquisitions like a master gardener caring for prized flowers, dressing them up with the types of commentaries, extras, and quality that eludes even masterworks like “Goodfellas?”
To gain an understanding of Hill’s passion to nurture film on such an obsessive level, let’s string together some historical hints as to what drives this unheralded movie advocate.
It all started with a friendship. In 1994, while a fresh-out-of-college Hill was earning minimum wage as a programmer for Olympic Film Festival, he befriended Scarecrow’s original owners, George and Rebecca Latsios. Bonded by film-geek blood, Hill and the Latsios’ became close friends. But it was Hill’s ability to grant a birthday wish that sealed his fate with Scarecrow. “Rebecca once told me that there was a filmmaker George had always wanted to meet,” he recalls. “For George’s birthday, she wanted to set up a meeting between he and the director, Alejandro Jodorowsky.”
Hill spent a year in pursuit of Jodorowsky, the elusive director of “El Topo” and “Holy Mountain.” Reminiscent of Dorothy being granted an appointment with a doubtful Wizard of Oz in exchange for the Wicked Witch’s broomstick, Hill asked Jodorowsky to attend the Olympic Film Festival and was given a unique proposition. “He said he would come to our festival if I could get his movies. It was a bit of a trap, because he figured I wouldn’t be able to get them.”
According to Hill, a bitter fight between director and distributor culminated in Jodorowsky’s films being pulled from circulation for twenty-five years. Despite such unfavorable circumstances, Hill somehow received clearance to show the movies. And yes, Latsios met the director on his birthday.
The move earned Hill a full-time job with Scarecrow. “Alejandro told George that he needed to hire me. And George did. He hired me without any kind of job description. He said, ‘I wanna meet famous filmmakers, and you seem to know how to do it. So I’ll set you up, and we’ll do it.’”
Hill moved to Seattle, working out of a tiny apartment with the Latsios couple. He became George’s secret weapon for persuading filmmakers to visit Seattle and, naturally, walk Scarecrow’s hallowed halls. And he kept busy at this mission. Todd Haynes was persuaded to attend the Seattle International Film Festival. Later, Hill formed an alliance with Greg Olson, programmer for the Seattle Art Museum. The duo brought John Woo to the museum for a retrospective of his early Hong Kong work. Werner Herzog came next, followed by Wim Wenders and Nicholas Roeg.
Suddenly, Seattle was the kind of town where you could not only buy a latte from the original Starbucks. You could heighten the buzz by walking a few blocks to SAM, and hear Woo explain how he talked Chow Yun Fat into a suicidal sprint down hospital corridors lined with enough explosives to level nearby Mount Rainier. For a shot of adrenalized energy, caffeine has nothing on “Hard-Boiled.”
It’s also hard to beat a visit to Scarecrow for pure cinema bliss. Bernardo Bertolucci has called it “The best video store in the world.” Woo, Ebert, and Tarantino have all wandered its 8,600-foot, museum-like location, which houses over 72,000 titles. The store’s massive growth, from its humble beginnings in 1988 as a cramped matchbox of a shop with merely 619 titles in stock, has come with its share of trauma and tears. “George was running Scarecrow into the ground financially, because he was dying of brain cancer. When I found that out, and we neared bankruptcy, it was a big shock.”
Latsios’ obsession to fill the store with obscure discs and tape culminated in debt problems and the eventual need to sell Scarecrow. In 1998, Microsofters Carl Tostevin and John Dauphiny purchased the store, ensuring its escape from impending financial doom and assuring that its founder’s legacy lives on. George Latsios died of brain cancer in 2003.
Meanwhile, Hill continues waving the obscure-film flag for George Latsios, the Puget Sound film community’s answer to Walt Disney. Hill and his co-workers recently collaborated on the Scarecrow Movie Guide (Sasquatch Books), an 800-page brick of a rare film reference manual already into its third pressing.
Oh, yeah – there’s also Subversive Cinema.
The story continues in part two of BEYOND THE NORM>>>