As he’s mentioning the “word-of-mouth way” his book is circulating, he’s reminded that that’s the same way bootleg videos find viewers.

“Exactly,” he says with that devilish smile. “That was one of my hopes for the book, that it would be readable and accessible. I did not want something that was just textual analysis.”

He concedes nostalgia for videotape drives some of the affection, but, as he writes in Inherent Vice, video’s unique aesthetic is undeniable. As soon as the grainy, streaked and/or skipping picture fills the screen, viewers immediately know what format they’re watching. There is no similar DVD aesthetic yet. Animated and live-action movies and TV shows even simulate grainy video to evoke that format or the years of its heyday.

Lucas Hilderbrand, associate professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine, is really into videotape
Corey Nickols
Lucas Hilderbrand, associate professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine, is really into videotape
Director Todd Haynes made Superstar to honor an artist he truly admired and pitied
David Shankbone
Director Todd Haynes made Superstar to honor an artist he truly admired and pitied

His book also includes chapters on fair use and copyright, but Hilderbrand—who mostly sides with consumers over content providers—does not expect Inherent Vice to change any laws. However, his chapter on the Vanderbilt Television News Archive—which, beginning in 1968, began taping and archiving nightly news programs for historical analysis and was the subject of a copyright-infringement lawsuit brought by CBS—was picked up while the book was still in galley form and reprinted in a legal brief that’s part of Google’s defense of a suit by publishers to prevent the search-engine company from scanning and posting book pages online. Hilderbrand, who assumes Vanderbilt officials informed Google’s lawyers about his research, says, “I was happy to share it for that.”

*     *     *

Despite what you may have seen on TV in The O.C., Laguna Beach, The Real Housewives of Orange County or even Arrested Development, Orange County is one of the most diverse areas of the country and home to numerous diasporic populations. In that Southern California way, many of greater LA’s “real” ethnic neighborhoods blend in and out of the generic suburban sprawl. The strip malls may look alike, but the superficial similarity belies incredibly varied goods, including bootleg videos of foreign content imported from overseas or taped from satellite broadcasts on the West Coast.

—From Inherent Vice

*     *     *

Hilderbrand reported from Korean video stores in Irvine; a Japanese shop in Costa Mesa; the Vietnamese Asian Garden Mall in Westminster; and other outlets in Anaheim, Garden Grove, Pomona, West Covina and San Gabriel for his Inherent Vice chapter titled “Diasporic Asian Video Markets in Orange County.” He was originally going to reprint something he’d previously written about New York’s Koreatown, but he decided he wanted his book to “speak to Orange County and Southern California.”

He started with immigrant video shops in Thai Town, then fanned out to the rest of Southern California. He writes about bootleg tapes, which appear to be commercial-grade but are mostly Korean television shows recorded off satellite feeds, still being the predominant format at Dachan Video in Irvine’s Orange Tree shopping plaza. The book also includes a photo shot by the author in December 2007 of a hidden cache of bootleg Korean VHS tapes behind a sliding shelf at Irvine Video.

Asked how an LA-by-way-of-New York-Minnesota-and-South Dakota boy knew where to find these places, Hilderbrand replies that he enlisted the help of a friend who studies Asian cinema. “I sensed that finding the video stores would be like finding the better restaurants. Everything’s in a strip mall, so basically, you need a local to introduce you to the right places.”

He did not speak any of the languages and could not read any of the signs. The only tapes he understood were the ones that included English subtitles.

“People pretty much ignored me, and I didn’t really talk to people,” he says. “Basically, I felt like a tourist. It was an uncomfortable position to be in, but I felt I had to do it to talk about what’s happening in the U.S.”

Identifying the shops in his book produced an internal argument. “I didn’t want to get anyone busted. On the other hand, if I was vague, it would not have been seen as useful,” he says. “I want to respect the business and the services they provide to the community, but these stores are so pervasive and serve so many diasporic communities in different cities that I felt I should talk about them.”

He acknowledged receiving wary stares from shopkeepers, but Hilderbrand was already used to getting them from bootleg-video distributors he unsuccessfully tried to chat up at cult film festivals as part of his research.

He says he snapped his photos “subtly, and I assumed they’d never know about it.”

*     *     *

As Inherent Vice hits the market, Hilderbrand finds an industry that is in flux. Box-office numbers continue to climb, but home-video and TV ratings are off due to competition from the Internet and wireless technologies. The economy is not helping matters, nor are the limitless channels and options splintering everyone’s attention.

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