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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

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

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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.”

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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.

“YouTube and Blu-ray didn’t exist when I started the book, and at first, they seemed like they might make what I was doing irrelevant,” he says. “I decided the project had to be historical because I couldn’t predict what would happen, and anything that was current would be out of date by the time the book was in print. What was striking was that, instead, all the new developments recycled the same issue from the ’70s and ’80s—the anxieties about piracy, about the industry, about finding new business models, about allowing audiences new modes of access.”

Speaking of audiences, Hilderbrand writes in Inherent Vice of doing an informal e-mail poll among friends and colleagues and being shocked at how many people had seen, loved and owned bootleg copies of Superstar. Later asked about this, he conceded that his e-mail list is fairly specialized and most other people have never heard of the film, let alone have the patience to watch it online. But he was “pleasantly surprised” at what happened when he showed Superstar to undergrads a few years ago.

“Some of them sang along. They knew all the words,” he says. “I wasn’t sure if they would even know who the Carpenters were.”

mcoker@ocweekly.com

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