This last Wednesday, June 9th, I went by Kim’s Video on St. Mark’s Place after work, as I usually do, to return a rental (in this case the execrable 1977 Evel Knieval hagiography Viva Knieval!–look for the review in an upcoming Reverse Shot) and to pick through CDs. There was a makeshift paper sign on the door, ‘Closed- Come Back Later,’ which I didn’t think much of; I figured that a disgruntled ex-employee had hacked the computer again, went on my way, and that was that.
Well, this morning I discovered that it had been no garden variety closing. It was a police raid; the store was in trouble for selling bootlegs, and employees had been scooted off to jail in the fracas. I stopped in later and learned from a friend on the inside that the complaining party was none other than Columbia Records, incensed by some illegal CD-Rs or another, which had prompted the legal action. The result? Three clerks and two managers arrested, and Kim’s extensive stock of illicit, pirated treasures pulled from the shelf, at least for the time being.
I was a little surprised by my reaction to this news. Full disclosure: I’m one of those disgruntled ex-employees, having served a full year as assistant manager at the now-deceased Ave. A Kim’s. In my tenure I had a firsthand seat to experience the complete corruption of Kim’s upper management, who bear comparison only to certain Soviet Bloc dictatorships for sheer ineptitude and venality. I’d received the ludicrously scanty under-the-table pay envelopes, helped to circulate the urban legends about the dapper, imperious Mr. Kim’s alleged ties to the Korean mob, and I’d spat “good riddance” when Ave. A closed its doors for the last time. Sure, I still made the rounds to Kim’s, but only as a necessary evil.
But now, as the boom has suddenly, inevitably lowered on Mr. Kim’s law-flaunting empire, I’m not so sure. I find myself thinking back to when I first visited New York City five years previous, coming from Southwestern Ohio, a barren wasteland of Blockbusters and Hollywoods, and to when I first walked through the doors on St. Marks to find odd, obscure titles–for so long only figments of my imagination–suddenly very palpable, rentable realities. It’s easy to take the place for granted now, but at that one moment, Kim’s was a paradise fulfilled.
And, though I know the circumstances are entirely different, I find myself thinking about being a teenager in Cincinnati, Ohio circa 1994, and hearing about the Pink Pyramid gay bookstore downtown being charged with pandering obscenity by Hamilton County’s crusading anti-porn Sheriff Simon Leis–for selling copies of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo or 120 Days of Sodom! And I think about the mom-and-pop video stores back home, the ones with racks of weird, moldy horror flicks, that only managed to keep pace with the relentless Blockbuster/ Hollywood oligarchy by maintaining well-stocked “Adult” sections. I think to the ailing repertory houses in Washington D.C. that switched their fare to hardcore during the day so that they could play A Matter of Life and Death at night (to quote Eminem [which I probably shouldn’t do]: “Will Smith don’t gotta curse to sell records but I do/ so fuck him and fuck you too”). And I think, finally, to the stories about Mr. Kim, possible mobster and definite asshole, who once rented copies of WR: Mysteries of the Organism out of cardboard boxes in his laundromat in the late 80’s. And I can’t find any kind of triumphant comeuppance in this whole mess anymore.
Bootlegging and artist’s rights are thorny issues, and I don’t pretend to have the brains or the facts to deal with either of them just now. What I do know, and what concerns me, is that you’ll never once hear a goddamn thing about the police raiding Blockbuster or Hollywood Video. With good reason, yes; both franchises tow the line very nicely, trimming their ‘NC-17’ titles to a perfectly palatable ‘R,’ paying a respectable minimum wage, and never, gracious me, never! sullying their shelves with a release that’s anything less than 100% studio-approved legit. And from sea to shining sea their clerks will–without any of the storied Kim’s surliness–offer up the same flavorless selection of New Releases, a few stolid, dependable Classics, and, should you be in a metropolitan area of 100,000 or more, a whole shelf worth of Foreign.
Short of a renewal of trustbusting, these chains will never get in trouble for one very good reason: they don’t give a shit what’s on their shelves and they’ve got gobs of money to back up their indifference. Kim’s Video, regardless of its failings, does care. And slavedriving sunuvabitch though Mr. Kim may be, let’s not lose sight of the fact that he’s gone to all ends of the earth to offer the best possible selection to his clientele, legality be damned. There’s something in this which demands, if not our love, than at least our respect; to be a proper friend to the movies in this day and age requires a healthy distaste for the law. So! I say, without hesitation, long live the disrepute of the cinema! Viva Mr. Kim! And, finally, to paraphrase the title of an album by the UK hardcore punk band Conflict: “Only stupid bastards support Columbia”