Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Most Dangerous Hobby in the World

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Most Dangerous Hobby in the World

Article excerpt

FILM COLLECTING IN THE DIGITAL AGE

DURING HIS COLLEGE DAYS, John McElwee fell in with an avid movie collector known as Moon Mullins. By then an elderly man, Moon had for most of his life been accumulating 16 mm film prints. A lover of classic movies and an aspiring film collector himself, John heard about Moon from the small subculture of cinema buffs living in the town where he went to college and latched onto him as a mentor. At a time when most old films were still protected by copyright and studios were urging the FBI to prosecute individuals owning copyrighted films, movie collecting was a largely underground and somewhat dangerous activity Indifferent to the risk and keen for a pristine print of The Wolf Man, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, or Red River, John enthusiastically entered Moon's obscure world of celluloid intrigue. Within weeks of their first meeting, John was cutting classes to take excursions to condemned movie houses and backwoods barns, dank basements and rusted warehouses. John was on a fevered quest to recover the lost Edens of the Saturday matinee - the silvery cowboys on the prairie, sci-fi creatures untroubled by time, the dreamtortured monsters of horror.

One such journey took place in winter. Moon told John that he had heard of a man deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina who owned an immense cache of old Hollywood movies and memorabilia. It was a snowy Thursday and the roads were treacherously slick and curvy. After almost sliding off the highway into a rocky ravine, John pulled over and refused to go farther. Moon, however, told the young man that he would guide him through the snow. John pushed ahead through the blinding whiteness, listening to Moon's admonishments on steering and speed. Finally, the two men reached their destination - a shabby mobile home decaying in front of a huge, freshly painted barn. They knocked on the door of the trailer. An old man wearing white pajamas and a black bathrobe appeared. His greasy hair was combed back like Bela Lugosi's in Dracula. Through rheumy eyes, he stared at them as if they were from another world. When Moon asked if he had any movies, the man led them through the snow to the barn. It was brimming with silver canisters of film.

John doesn't remember the old man's name. What Moon purchased has also slipped his mind. What he does recall is that he soon found an original print of a Raoul Walsh Western from 1948, Silver River, starring an aging Errol Flynn. Before buying, John asked to watch a clip or two. The old man wordlessly walked out of the barn and into the falling snow; John followed. He saw at the edge of the woods a small building a little bigger than an outhouse, a makeshift projectionist booth. Inside was a polished 35 mm projector. While the old man threaded the film, John looked for where the movie would appear. The projector was aimed at the forest. The old man had hewed a swath through which the light could travel. At the end of this treeless corridor was a large white screen. It hovered in the falling snow like a phantom. Then, a beam of light streamed out of the booth, flowing through the flakes. There at the edge of the snowy woods in the hour of twilight, miles from another living soul: Errol Flynn in striking black-and-white. A Saturday movie house bloomed in the wild. Nineteen-year-old John became a child again, too confused by wonder to think of the disjointed miracle of the scene, of the sixty dollars he would soon pay for the film, of the fact that the snow was already turning to slush.

I MET JOHN MCELWEE several years ago, through a mutual friend. Knowing I was a film addict, my friend told me that I must meet this man who owned eleven hundred of them, housed two spacious theaters in his own basement, and lived among enough movie memorabilia to start a museum. I envisioned a classic cinematic eccentric, a Willy Wonka or a Doctor D oo little. Instead, meeting me at the door of his modest brick ranch house was an ordinary looking fellow in his late forties, wearing old jeans and a T-shirt. …

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