Wednesday, June 9, 2010

When did it stop being about the music? – How Alan Zweig’s film Vinyl clarified what a collector truly is.

In 2000, a Canadian documentary filmmaker named Alan Zweig produced a film on digging culture, appropriately titled ‘Vinyl’. Though this film played to sold out audiences in film festivals across the country (most notably TIFF), it never received a DVD release. Existing only in parts on torrent sites, with the odd clip posted on Youtube, I found it an extremely difficult item to find.

About 6 months back I met a musician through Craigslist who was selling his record collection. In his collection I found plenty of UK Zeppelin and Floyd pressings, and I expressed my gratitude to him for providing me with records I didn’t have. His response, which is characteristic of non-collectors, was ‘But, wait, you already have this album? Why do you need the UK pressing?’. I began to explain my interest in record labels, and how countries could potentially press records differently, sometimes include a bonus track or an outtake. But let’s face it, 9 times out of ten, I just want a second copy with another country listed.

The musician and I got talking about vinyl culture, and how he had a friend who had 3 copies of Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All. I refrained from telling him that I just got my 17th pressing variation of Kill ‘Em All earlier that week. ( ‘Oh, Have you seen ‘Vinyl’?’ he asked. As it turned out, he taped it from TV back in 2001, coincidentally one of the 3 times that it ever aired on Television. Yadda Yadda Yadda, he pulled out the second VCR, and my dub from a crappy TV source began. It had taken me 6 years to find this film and of course I found it when buying records in the basement of a stranger.

Zweig’s film is tough to digest. After about a half dozen viewings, I have come to believe his thesis is ‘it’s not about the music’. As he repeatedly tells his interviewees this, they promptly respond ‘It’s not?’ The subjects in the film are portrayed as lonely bodies, existing as voids. Zweig infers that this void needs to be filled, and the ‘filling’ of choice is not important. Clearly this is a commentary on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and from his choice of subjects, many fit the part.

I should mention that I know several of the people in the film. I remember speaking to Ron about this film. Ron’s reputation precedes him. Having collected his whole life, Ron’s knowledge of pressings, primarily of Brit pop and rock from the 60’s and 70’s is unreal. Lets just say, I have never been to a record show where, a) Ron wasn’t there, and b) there wasn’t several people asking him questions on LP’s. I also like Ron because we are both record collecting high school English teachers (Now that makes for an exciting combination)

Ron argued with Zweig during the whole session, and this is not the first person I heard that had confrontations during the filming. Zweig entered with a thesis, and those who know a thing or two about documentary filmmaking might note that this is frowned upon if you want to gather unbiased footage. Though several of these people are sick (imagine a man with records stacked so deep you can barely move in his own washroom), there are a lot of healthy collectors out there, who understand that life truly is about balance. Even though I am fairly certain I don’t like this film, it’s the only one on the topic, so it will have to do.

As much as I despised Alan Zweig’s approach to filmmaking, I still struggle to deal with ‘It’s not about the music’. I am a Metallica completist. A completist needs not only one of every album from a band; they need one of every variation. To a seasoned collector, this could go as far as one for every country, or in my case, every variation/pressing from every country ever (650 Metallica items and counting). This clearly can’t be about the music. I can’t hear the difference between half of these pressings, and Metallica rarely releases albums with bonus tracks to persuade the collector. Whereas my new Zappa collection is attempting to just get one of every major album (still a tough feat!)

When I first bought an album that I already had- I became a collector. A subject in Zweig’s film called himself ‘someone who accumulates a lot of records’, and that can not be me. I buy with precision. I look for minute details that most ‘accumulator’s’ couldn’t care less about. I suppose collectors are interested in the history of a pressing and how a labels history guided the history of a band. After all, this is what led me to spend 100 dollars on a LP I already had simply because it was a first pressing void of a barcode.

With this in mind, a collector could hate music, just as a hockey card collector could have no relationship with the game. As much as I will never understand this, I now know what Alan Zweig was after; a group of people who liked owning music more than they liked listening to music. And as he was trying to find this paradox in people who truly loved music, his film comes across frustrating and baffling. I have met collectors who simply own and don’t listen, but lets just say they’re no one I would hangout with.


  1. I know multiple people in Zweig's vinyl documentary. I also know multiple people in his docu on single women, Lovable. I feel very comfortable saying that Zweig portrayed no one that I know faithfully. As you say, the man has an agenda and he'll cajole and edit his subjects till they fit that agenda. His filmmaking style is bilious, to say the least.

  2. I was lucky enough to see this in the theater. Although they had to stop in the middle to load the second tape. It was being shown on like 2 beta tapes. I brought my wife along and she said that it made her nervous about the kind of person I could become...

  3. Mr. P: My wife also was 'unsettled' as we sat down and watched it. It is a scary look at what people can become; though I am sure this is characteristic of many addictions :)

    Did you see it at TIFF?

  4. I am in Portland, OR and am unaware of what TIFF is...

  5. SORRY! Toronto International Film Festival. I knew it got a very limited theatrical release, and that was one of the few dates I knew of. Did it have a regular run, or was it part of a festival?

  6. I don't remember the details, but I think it just showed the one time. It played in a venue that is not a typical cinema/theater. I had exchanged emails with Alan Zweig over the years and he always said that the dvd release was just around the corner. He even spoke about it on his blog, but we all know how life interferes sometimes.

  7. I saw this on TVO about 2 years ago. Fascinating. My fave scene is the guy who says pick a record any record and I'll give you the titles in order. then fucks it up. Hilarious. I thought as a film it answered alot of questions about why people collect stuff in general. Filling that void and not having a life. He just happened to pick record collecting, something he knows about.