Vinegar Syndrome: fighting to keep lowbrow cinema in the history books

5 Mins read

Vinegar Syndrome is the leading name in archiving weird, wild, and under-appreciated cinema from yesteryear. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

It’s not uncommon for groups to reclaim words or phrases, bestowing them with new, empowering sets of connotations.

‘Vinegar syndrome’ is one such phrase for film buffs, referring to the unmistakable waft of vinegar given off by decaying cellulose acetate film stock. In other words, vinegar syndrome is the smell of dying film.

Where it used to be uttered by cinephiles with the same revulsion normally reserved for a word like “haemorrhoids”, it now represents a beacon of hope for the most overlooked of endangered films.

Responsible for that symbol of hope are Ryan Emerson and Joe Rubin. A couple of vintage film enthusiasts operating out of Connecticut, launched a company in 2012 dedicated to the restoration, preservation, and redistribution of vintage exploitation and erotica flicks.

What did they name it? Vinegar Syndrome, of course.

With an online shop, bricks-and-mortar outlets, several physical archives, and a restoration lab, the homespun project has grown into a full operation spanning the United States and Canada.

Countless forum threads, YouTube channels, and film websites discuss Vinegar Syndrome’s latest releases, while the team itself has collaborated with institutions as prestigious as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Academy Film Archive (the people who award the Oscars) to prevent under-appreciated films from fading out of circulation.

Vinegar Syndrome Working on film reel
The phrase ‘vinegar syndrome’ was coined by British Film Institute archivist Harold Brown [Oscar Becher, Vinegar Syndrome]

“The name is not what we want; it’s what we want to avoid,” Rubin was quick to highlight as if there was any room for doubt.

Whether discussing absurd horror-comedy-westerns from the 80s, lamenting the nastier sides of cinema archiving politics, or digging into the logistics of restoring film reels, Rubin is a one-man library of cinematic history. It’s beyond obvious that, for him, every second of lost film is a tragedy.

While the company has since expanded beyond erotica to encompass everything from slashers and documentaries to comedies and dramas, its underlying philosophy has stayed the same: Vinegar Syndrome is there for the films nobody else will touch.

“The majority of films that I take the greatest amount of pride in are the films that I kind of know, going into it, are going to be poor sellers,” said Rubin. 

His love of film lacks the discriminatory glare of the highbrow crowd in their artsy picture houses. While Rubin appreciates cinema in every form, he reserves his true love for the less revered realm of genre film.

To the average punter, the phrase ‘genre film’ is as meaningful as ‘cuisine food’ or ‘textile clothing’, which is to say so meaningless as to be practically redundant. But it’s not as vague as it sounds.

Archival cans blue
Vinegar Syndrome’s archival cans are made from a special type of plastic that prevents cellulose acetate from deteriorating. [Credit: Oscar Becher, Vinegar Syndrome]

Genre films are simply unashamed products of their genre, guided unwaveringly by those genre’s conventions, sometimes to the point where it’s hard to take them seriously.

As Rubin explained, genre films are also “synonymous with exploitation films”. Sometimes brash and predictable, other times schlocky and debased, if you can picture it winning an Oscar, odds are it’s not a genre film. 

Not so coincidentally, those schlocky characteristics tend to exclude many titles from archives run by organisations like The Library of Congress or the BFI. That is, assuming they lack some other historical significance, for instance, relevance to LGBTQ+ history or the civil rights movement.

Still, the narrow purview of classier archives means that only Vinegar Syndrome is scooping up such ‘exotic’ flicks as Attack of the Beast Creatures, Satanic Horror Nite, or Bat Pussy. Nearly every other organisation would rather not squander their resources or reputation on them.

Rubin recalled a particularly illustrative instance when a film storage facility was going out of business.

Rather than dispose of decades of raw, potentially invaluable film material, they contacted local archivists to rescue the footage: “fairly prestigious archives came through the facility, looked at what they had, and took things. But one of the things that they left behind was this very, very large collection made by a producer who had made some fairly significant horror films,” he said. 

Luckily, an archivist friend of Rubin’s, who had already visited the closing facility, contacted the Vinegar Syndrome founder, urging him to reclaim the horror flicks.

Later, once the footage was spared from the rubbish tip, Rubin asked the friend why they and their colleagues passed over the films. “We thought about it,” the friend said, “but the powers-that-be made the call that this is not material that we felt fit the parameters or interests of our archives.”

And therein lies the tension that exists within every film archiving institution: reputational and financial interests too often take precedence over basic preservation instincts. As Rubin joked, “There are two types of people who work in archives: the people who touch film, and the people who decide which films should be touched.”

Between fundraising, politics, PR, and the preferences of benefactors, there are plenty of reasons for archives to invest in un-endangered and uncontroversial films over endangered and controversial ones.

“No one’s going to look at the Library of Congress and say ‘Oh, I’m so pleased they preserved some racist jungle movie [from the 1930s] as opposed to some great Hollywood film’,” Rubin said.

Vinegar Syndrome now has a sister website, Mélusine, dedicated to preserving adult entertainment [Oscar Becher, Vinegar Syndrome]

Yet, for all of its upsetting, distasteful, and egregious attributes, a hypothetical racist jungle film from almost 100 years ago serves as an invaluable time capsule of cultural attitudes, societal structures, and filmmaking development.

Sure, remastering and re-releasing, say, Gone With The Wind one more time might garner more acclaim and less backlash, but it does nothing to expand the record of cinematic history.

Rubin doesn’t place himself above the demands of commercial viability. “We don’t get grants, we don’t get donations from the outside world. We subsist on the revenue that we make from selling Blu-rays and 4Ks and shirts. So, you know, as much as we would like to be able to put out some of the more esoteric, weird, or just generally less marketable materials in our archive, we often can’t.“

Still, even if Vinegar Syndrome toes the same line as every other major archive, Rubin is proud of the indiscriminate care his company shows to all film material, regardless of whether it’s going to be remastered and re-released or not.

“We spend an astronomical amount of money buying archival cans. We do our best physically to maintain the materials and ensure that they survive and don’t deteriorate,” he said. “There isn’t a hierarchy of ‘okay, so we’re releasing this film; therefore, it’s more important’.”

Ironically, one of the greatest enemies for someone whose mission is to preserve media is storage hardware itself. Despite the sense of security that saving work onto a hard drive or the cloud provides most of us, for Rubin it’s a little more safe than a notebook left in the rain.

“Hard drive dies. A [film] negative doesn’t die. Yes, it can deteriorate, but you’re not going to wake up one morning and find that the negative doesn’t work anymore, like you will with a hard drive,” he told us.

“Granted, a hard drive is different from the cloud, but the cloud is not this perpetually existing thing that will outlive us all,” he said. “So the whole thing with the cloud and how it’s going to revolutionise anything, well it’s very near-sighted.

“You can buy a hard drive or store something on the cloud or online somewhere, and based off the whims of the company that either owns the service that you’re using or created the mechanism that you’re using it just ceases to exist one day. It’s absurd that anyone would actually consider this as a true form of preservation.”

So, for Rubin, digital storage solutions might be good for day-to-day use, but when it comes to preservation, there will simply never be a replacement for the old-fashioned methods.

Featured image by Oscar Becher from Vinegar Syndrome.

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