Re: The Politics of the Bootleg

From: jaime cleeland (email suppressed)
Date: Tue Jun 10 2008 - 17:31:11 PDT

I live in a city in China where original copies of DVD's are not available & the local cinema does not play foreign films.  My only source for films is bootleg dvd's which cost me 10rmb
for twenty films.  The quality of the films on the dvd's is watchable although all have chinese web addresses constantly popping up on screen.
Copyright laws do not seem to have much weight in China.

--- On Tue, 10/6/08, Jonathan Walley <email suppressed> wrote:

From: Jonathan Walley <email suppressed>
Subject: Re: The Politics of the Bootleg
To: email suppressed
Date: Tuesday, 10 June, 2008, 10:55 PM

This is shaping up to be a very interesting and important discussion.
I've already posted one ridiculously verbose email on this subject, and
don't want to try the patience of my fellow Frameworkers, but there are
a couple points worth making in response to Lisa:

> No one watching "Zorn's Lemma" on youtube or Ubu is going to
> this for a cinematic experience. It is a reference. As are pictorial
> documentations of other visual art works in newspapers, magazines,
> blogs, flickr, etc.

As a film professor, I have ample evidence to the contrary. My students
increasingly see no difference between watching films on the internet
and seeing them projected (competently and from legit sources) on the
big screen. Either they don't know or don't care about the differences.

A few years ago, I discovered that several students of mine in a
documentary film class were skipping screenings and watching the films
on Google video, Youtube, etc. They may not have mistaken the internet
viewing for the real thing, but they didn't care either way.

All of us on Frameworks are very knowledgeable about the differences
between seeing a film as it was meant to be seen and seeing an
impoverished copy of it on the internet, but increasingly those values
are becoming irrelevant to the culture at large. Of course, part of my
job as a professor is to show my students why they should see the real
thing - to teach them the differences and explain why those differences
are important. But I'm realistic about how many students I will
ultimately reach with my message.

Moreover, as I tried to show in my last post on Ubu (see below if you
can stand it), their own statements are self-contradictory where this
issue is concerned. Ubu admits to the poor quality of their videos, and
pays lip service to the value of seeing the actual films in good
projection, praising the institutions that show experimental cinema.
But at the same time, Ubu laments the impossibility for most of us (due
to financial limitations or geography) to ever see the films as they
were meant to be seen. So, by Ubu's own logic, for most of us the Ubu
viewing experience will necessarily be the only one. And if Ubu is
really interested in simply providing an educational reference, a bit
of enticement to see the actual films, then why not limit their
postings to snippets, samples, stills, etc.?

> Copyright exists to protect corporations not artists. It seems like
> an obvious point, but one that has been lost in this discussion.

You might find fault with copyright law, or the very concept of
copyright, but this statement isn't right. Corporations may be the most
vocal and litigious where copyright is concerned, but that doesn't mean
that copyright is only relevant to corporations. Nor does it mean that
the benefit of copyright is only monetary. Tony's email about
individual ownership from the other day speaks to this very point. I'd
only add that one benefit of copyright for an individual artist is that
it gives them the option to deny sites like Ubuweb the right to, in
effect, misrepresent their work by making it available in such terrible
quality. I'd also say, and many others here have made this point
before, that copyright protects institutions like Canyon and the
Filmmakers' Coop, who do important work in making these films available
- and not in the interest of making tons of money.

Summer on Frameworks - always fun!

Best wishes,


Jonathan Walley
Assistant Professor, Cinema Department
Denison University
Granville, Ohio 43023

David (et. al.),

I'm afraid I can't share your enthusiasm for Ubuweb, at least in so far

as avant-garde film is concerned. Though as a scholar of
avant-garde/experimental cinema I have occasionally found myself lost
amidst Ubu's large assortment of films, ultimately I have to object to
Ubu's methods and rhetoric.

You wrote, "Perhaps different artistic disciplines have failed
understand each others ways of working." I think this is absolutely the
case, though I'd say it's a one-sided misunderstanding - Ubu's of
practices of the avant-garde film world. Setting aside the copyright
question (perhaps not so easy to set aside, but for the sake of
argument...), reading a poem online is no different from reading it in
an "official" published version. Indeed, reading a sixth-generation
photocopy of the poem, so long as I can make out the words, will still
give me the same experience as reading the work in a book. But
obviously this isn't the case with film, as the halting, pebbly,
index-card-sized reproductions of the films on Ubu attest. And these
are primarily taken from low-quality bootleg sources to begin with. To
quote David Lynch: you haven't seen the film if you've seen it "on
fucking telephone."

In short, "comprehensiveness" isn't the only issue here.

I know that Ubu attempts to address the poor quality of its
reproductions. From the website: "We realize that the films we are
presenting are of poor quality. It's not a bad thing; in fact, the best
thing that can happen is that seeing a crummy shockwave file will make
you want to make a trip to New York to the Anthology Film Archives or
the Lux Cinema in London (or other places around the world showing
similar fare). Next best case scenario will be that you will be enticed
to purchase a high quality DVD from the noble folks trying to get these
works out into the world. Believe me, they're not doing it for the
money." And in a recent interview, Goldsmith reiterates this position:
"There is nothing that will replace sitting in a dark theater on a huge
35mm screen with a group of warm like-minded bodies enjoying a
beautiful film. But unfortunately most of us don't live anywhere near
the place--the three places in the world where those things happen to
be shown regularly. So this is not meant to be the real thing because
it's not the real thing--it's a snapshot--it's a poor substitution.
we like the idea that the film quality is bad because it's going to
make you want to go out and see the thing for real" (from

[By the way, though there are plenty of other people affiliated with
Ubu's, the consistent similarities between its language and statements
that Goldsmith has made in interviews suggests that he really is "Ubu
Imperator," if you will.]

But this doesn't solve anything, and indeed Ubu's position is
self-contradictory and sometimes downright arrogant. Ignoring the fact
that Goldsmith doesn't seem to be aware of the difference between 35mm
and 16mm, the latter of which is almost exclusively the original medium
of the films on his website, he's talking out of both sides of his
mouth. On the one hand, we should support the wonderful institutions
that bring us avant-garde film; on the other, they make the films
"absurdly priced or insanely hard to procure" by charging "hefty
fees" (also from the Ubu site). Most of us can't afford to see
avant-garde films, either because of the expense of rentals and
equipment or because we can't toddle off to NYC or London every week;
but then, seeing these "snapshots" will apparently inspire us to
the money we don't have to get to these cities as often as possible to
see the real thing. More contradiction: artists' work on Ubu is "cared

for and displayed in a sympathetic context," and if they don't want it

posted on Ubu, "fair enough: it belongs to them, after all;" but
artists who, for whatever reason, prefer not to allow their work to
appear on Ubu are placed in the hall of shame. These artists, according
to Ubu, would "be wise to take a page from Cory Doctorow's essay
it Away and to take his advice that 'Being well-enough known to be
pirated is a crowning achievement. I'd rather stake my future on a
literature that people care about enough to steal than devote my life
to a form that has no home in the dominant medium of the century.'"
all-knowing Ubu concludes, "Wise up, folks. It's later than you

Aside from the contradictory nature of these statements (we love these
artists until they ask to have their material removed from our site,
then we pout), Ubu's policy makes no allowance for the possibility that
individual artists may have all sorts of legitimate reasons for denying
Ubu permission to reproduce their work. One very good reason, for
instance, would be the aforementioned terrible quality of the films on
Ubu. Another might be that the artist prefers another venue (such as
the ones Tony has mentioned in his posts - indeed, Tony's own website,, includes images, texts, and full-length
compositions, and the Vasulka site Tony describes is awesome). Ubu's
call to these artists to "wise up" and get with it strikes me as the
height of arrogance, and makes Ubu's praises of independent filmmakers
ring hollow (just as their praises of institutions like FMC ring hollow
in light of Ubu's suggestion that you have to be Rockefeller to afford
renting from them). Goldsmith apparently doesn't consider that his
position on free access is the only one; his statements smack of
hubris, of trying to "out avant-garde" avant-garde artists, a sort of

avant-garde pope who excommunicates those who aren't down with the
right dogma.

As Tony pointed out, there is a lot of mean-spiritedness on Ubu, which
is disheartening. But it is compounded by the ignorance Goldsmith
displays of the culture in which the films he presents were (and are)
made, circulated, and seen. This is my biggest problem with Ubu: its
model may work for poetry, but film - specifically avant-garde film -
represents a very different institution and artistic culture. Preaching
to avant-garde filmmakers who resist Ubu's model as a result of these
differences, especially when you don't appear to understand their
position in the first place, is, well, bad.



Jonathan Walley
Assistant Professor, Cinema Department
Denison University
Granville, Ohio 43023

For info on FrameWorks, contact Pip Chodorov at <email suppressed>. __________________________________________________________ Sent from Yahoo! Mail. A Smarter Email

For info on FrameWorks, contact Pip Chodorov at <email suppressed>.