In Praise of Mr. Kim

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"


Blogger eshman said...

Viva! Mr. Kim, indeed. Also an ex-employee, I've got my personal grudges as well as uncomfortable memories of employee mistreatment and eye-popping illegality, but there's just no way that a crackdown on Kim's is a good thing. filmenthusiast states it perfectly so I won't belabor his point, but I will say this - his personal vanity and resoundingly opaque store finances aside, Mr. Kim has been a force of good for cinephiles and for living film culture in New York for over 25 years. This was always going to happen, and though it's a miracle it took this long, it's shocking to me that it happened this way. Kim often railed against his competition for peddling back-of-the-truck compact discs - a true pornographer, Kim is a tangled moralist, with firmly established limits to his illegality - so I'm agnry that he got taken down (if that's what this all amounts to) by sloppy CD sales. When he was putting pirated copies of Matthew Barney's life-wasting CREMASTER films on the shelves, I was more than ready to go down with the ship: take the exclusivity out of it, let the geeks put it to the test, and we'll see what you've got - that's the value of bootlegging. Unless you're your own corporation like Barney and the money-making is upfront (and is your real art) artists can benefit from bootlegged exposure to small but passionate eyes and ears. If they like what they see, the geeks will plunk down money for a legit look later, they'll be the motor for word-of-mouth.

Here's hoping that Kim and Kim's live to see another cease and desist letter, and that kids continue to have that video library in which to knock around and develop that delicate thing known as personal taste.

3:23 AM  
Blogger robbiefreeling8 said...

The crackdown makes me feel a roiling mixture of emotions, none of which are couched in nostalgia...because apart from treating myself to the odd Kiyoshi Kurosawa import over the years, and though I am the truly proud owner--thanks to ex-employee Filmenthusiast--of a wastoid, crackled tape-to-DVD-R of the spectacular, life-altering 1976 Paul Lynde Halloween Special, perhaps I hadn't taken full advantage of Kim's seized back catalog of goodies.

Unlike Filmenthusiast and Eshman, I was never a disgruntled employee, simply one of many disgruntled customers, pissed off by the greased-hair-and-orange-belted posse of New School floaters who would look at me with sheer disgust as I asked them how the hell to locate something (anything) in the store. I guess I was missing the point (though perhaps I should refrain from talking in the wistful past tense, it's not like the place is GONE); I should have been searching, not asking for guidance, and rather than enter with a compass, maybe I should just let my eyes fall on some battered, stained old flick I never would have thought to have rented.

Yet I can't help but laugh at all the increased mouth-frothing over the past couple of years regarding the sheer amorality of bootlegging. The Napster debacle, movie theater bag searches, guards with night vision goggles in advance screenings of movies, and now the Kim's crackdown--all of it seems so desperate, the last attempts to hold on to some vestige of outmoded principles. Give this click-and-done culture five more years, and everything will be more highly accessible. All of this is simply staving off the inevitable; sullen Kim's clerks carted out in handcuffs is simply the ultimate in ludicrous "pirate"-era barbarism. Things have changed, bootlegging is barely bootlegging anymore, it's routine. Of course, being connected doesn't preclude the fate of the cinephile; but the police's outsized, almost giddily nostalgic approach to this raid shows how hesitant the law is to monitor and accept and understand our changing world.

7:58 AM  

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