Sunday, September 17, 2006

How Pirating Movies Helped Me See Better

Yes, it's true, movie piracy helped my eyesight.

Not video piracy, as in cheap DVDs from Malaysia -- real, honest-to-goodness actual film piracy. Sorta.

Back in the stone age, meaning the early 1970s, in the pre-DVD, pre-VHS, pre-HBO days of over-the-air television and crappy cable tv service (some things never change), if you wanted to see an old movie, you either had to a) wait for it to play on The Million Dollar Movie (WOR-TV in NYC) or b) see it at the Thalia Revival House (for more on the Thalia, check out any Woody Allen film from the 1970s). If it wasn't on tv, and it wasn't at the Thalia, you were SOL.

Unless you were a Pirate.

Arrrggh, me ladies.

In 1972 or so, I bought a 16mm projector and started to collect 16mm film dupes. This was not an inexpensive hobby, by the way, but I was young, foolish, and well-heeled with cash. (At the time I was writing for Marvel Comics, scripting four or five titles a month, and making pretty good money. Not as good as I thought, since I neglected to pay estimated tax, which left me in the hole every year for a few thousand dollars, but like I said -- young, foolish, etc.)

Some of the films I bought included Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, To Have and Have Not, King Kong, and a slew of grade-B programmers from the mid-Forties. The average cost of these dupes, none of which was in pristine condition, was between $300 and $400 dollars.

That's $300 and $400 1972 dollars.

By my back-of-the-envelope calculation, that's probably the equivilant of $1000 to $1500 in 2006 greenbacks.

Per film.

Like I said, young, foolish and well-heeled.

(A few years later all of those titles were available on VHS for about $80 a pop. That's late-70s, early-80s, probably about $200 in today's money. And today, of course, they're all available on DVD for less than $20. Today's $20 would probably be worth about fifty cents in 1972. But I digress.)

Anyway... how piracy saved my eyesight...

I've always liked to sit up close in movie theaters. Love seeing that big screen filling my peripheral vision. Back in the early 70s, though, I really liked to sit close. I'm talking fifth or sixth row. Neck-straining close.

I never wondered why.

Until I started hosting movie parties in my apartment to show off my collection of pirated films.

It became a regular Friday night gig. I wasn't the only 16mm dupe collector, but I had the biggest apartment with the biggest expanse of free wall space, so I became the de facto host of our illegal film club. Every Friday night for about a year, people would troop over, grab a seat or a piece of floor, munch down on some Jiffy-pop, and watch the latest pirated epic. Lots of fun was had by all. It became a kind of ritual.

So did the complaints about how poorly I focused the damn projector.

Every week, the same damn thing: I'd start up the movie ("Hey gang, this week it's Spartacus!") and no sooner did the picture hit the wall than someone would pipe up to tell me the image was out of focus. I'd adjust it till everyone was happy, then take my seat two inches from the wall, and wonder why all these idiots had such lousy eyesight.

Didn't hit me for almost a month that, uh, maybe they weren't the ones with bad eyes.

Turns out I needed glasses and probably always had.

I can remember my shock when, at the age of 20, I finally got a look at the world the way it actually was. (We're talking about the natural world, here; seeing the world the way it actually is, in a philosophical sense, is still something I'm working on today.)

Wowza. So that's what a street sign looks like!

See, I grew up in New York City, so I had no need to take driver's ed, which means I never had to take a vision test, and my parents were so boxed up in their own drama they weren't that alert to their kids' health, so... it just never came up.

I never knew the world wasn't supposed to be blurry past twenty feet.

Till I became a film pirate.

Which is why film piracy helped save my eyesight.

Just thought you'd like to know.


Anonymous said...

Great story, Gerry.

I cannot believe you spent that much on flicks! That you could hardly see!

Buckminster Fuller said his tendency to think in whole systems came from youthful, untreated myopia -- he couldn't get caught up in details because he never saw any.

Not the way I'd characterize your early writing style...

Paul Chadwick

Connor said...

Hi Mr. Conway,

Interesting post,....It made me think about pirating and how different people may see it!
I just want to also add that I'm a big fan of your work,..particularily on Spectacular
Spider-Man. You brought a real sense of realism to Peter Parker.
Wishing you all the best,your fan,