From 1995 until January 2009, a music and movie megastore called Mondo Kim's took up the bulk of a five-story building at 6 St. Marks Place in the East Village. The top floor was rented out as apartments, the fourth floor was used by Yongman Kim — the owner of the building and of Mondo Kim's — as office space. The third floor held what was widely considered to be the best, most diverse video rental collection in New York City.
And then there was a basement — a dank, moldy, low-ceilinged space. At some point, around the summer of 2007, according to former employees, Kim had the idea to turn this basement into a dungeon.
“Kim was like, 'It'll be like jail,' ” remembers filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, who worked at Mondo Kim's for three years. “ 'There'll be couches and beds in this room. And TVs. And someone will walk around with a cart, like in prison, and distribute movies that you have ordered. You'll rent it by the hour. You bring food in, you watch a movie.' ”
Kim's staff was not exactly enthusiastic. “I think someone was just like, 'That sounds really dangerous,' ” Perry recalls. “And Kim's response was, 'Imagine the press we'll get for this!' It was like, 'Yeah, bad press.'
“That was his outside-the-box thinking,” Perry continues. “Not, like, how can we make this collection accessible to more people, but how can we make money [by] locking people in a room and having them sit on a cot and watch their movie in a basement? That was really where his head would be at when it came to business decisions like that. It was just, like, 'What fucked-up, crazy stuff can we do that'll be totally nuts and people will go crazy for it?'
“That culminates,” Perry adds, “in what happened with the collection.”
The closing of a video store is not news. With web streaming, the vanishing DVD sales market and Netflix, it's an inevitability. Usually, the fate of the physical videos after the store's closing isn't news, either. Maybe there's a dollar sale. Maybe employees smuggle home the dead stock. The customers adapt. They find another video store. They use BitTorrent and YouPorn.
This is how it happens. If you've ever had a video-store membership, this has probably happened to you.
This is not how it happened with Mondo Kim's.
Not surprising, since Kim's was never your typical neighborhood video store. A former employee gleefully remembers the time Quentin Tarantino came in, looking to rent Mark Rappaport's experimental documentary From the Journals of Jean Seberg. The Pulp Fiction director couldn't remember his membership number, and the clerk was adamant: no membership number, no rentals. The Oscar winner left sans VHS.
Kim's employees had earned the right to check credentials. Obsessive cinephiles with unique areas of expertise, ranging from made-for-TV horror flicks and Turkish remakes of Hollywood blockbusters to vintage sexploitation, Kim's clerks helped curate the insanely wide-ranging collection, and served as mentors, gatekeepers and pushers to the store's clientele. The store became a meeting place for New York's hard-core cinema obsessives. I became a member in 2003, when I was a cinema studies graduate student at NYU. Kim's had films — on VHS tape or out-of-print DVD — that I couldn't get at school.
Filmmaker Perry remembers first visiting as an NYU undergrad. “They had these region-2 DVDs of '80s Godard movies, and I was like, 'Well, this is amazing. Now I can see this.' And then people behind the counter would be like, 'Yeah, get that, but there's also stuff here that you don't know about that we should make sure you're aware of.'
“It just made it totally accessible to people to have gatekeepers explaining things and alerting any customer, 'Oh, if you like that, you should get this, too.' ”
When Mondo Kim's closed shop, the DVD and CD retail business moved to a single-story storefront on First Avenue, a few blocks away. The new store didn't have space for the rental collection's estimated 55,000 DVDs and VHS tapes — by design. While the retail business was profitable, the rental business barely took in enough income to pay the salaries of the four employees needed to keep it open.
In fall 2008, Kim warned his patrons that the end of his rental business was coming, via an appeal to the community. Posted in the store, his message quickly made its way around the web: “Kim's Video is offering a collection of approximately 55,000 films to institutions, schools, business owners or individuals who can accommodate Kim's full line of film collection.”
The catch? “The condition to accept this collection requires 3,000 square feet of space, commitment to give access to Kim's members (charging minimum membership fee) and maintaining the collection. The exclusive film collection should still be available to the public, especially film students and film lovers. We hope to find a sponsor who can make this collection available to those who have loved Kim's over the past two decades.”
Near the end of 2008, signs were posted inside the store, announcing that Dec. 31 would be its last rental day. Kim had struck a deal — but not with a local institution, school, business or individual. Instead, Kim opted to send his rental collection 4,448 miles away, to Salemi, Italy.
A hilltop town in western Sicily with a recorded population of about 11,000, Salemi was the Sicilian landing place of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the warrior whose Campaign of 1860 ultimately led to the island's absorption into a unified Italy.
But Garibaldi moved on, as did the eyes of the world. Then, in 1968 a massive earthquake, equivalent to a magnitude 7.0, left much of Salemi's historic center in ruins and an estimated 100,000 Sicilians homeless. On Salemi's hilltop, rubble was left for decades. Most of the surviving townsfolk moved into new buildings at the bottom of the hill.
Then, in 2008, Salemi elected as its mayor Vittorio Sgarbi. An art critic, television personality and sometime anarchist, Sgarbi had briefly served in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's cabinet but was best known as a media personality.
“He was very much a self-publicist,” says John Agnew, a geography professor at UCLA and an expert on modern Italy. “I remember him mainly from seeing him on TV, getting into shouting matches with his political opponents. He's the kind of guy who would be at home on Fox News.”
Once in office in Salemi, Sgarbi invited photographer Oliviero Toscani, who had famously featured AIDS patients and death row inmates in his United Colors of Benetton ads, to serve as Salemi's “Alderman of Creativity.”
Acting on a tip from a former colleague, graphic designer Franca Pauli, Toscani fervently pursued Kim's collection, positioning it as a key element in Sgarbi's plan to revitalize Salemi as a capital of cultural tourism. (As for Pauli, she quickly grasped Salemi's chief advantage: “Space in New York is very expensive. But Salemi, it's an entire town that's empty!”)
Team Salemi created a full-color proposal stating its intentions, which Kim posted for his customers to see. The proposal promised that “by the end of January 2009,” a new website at kimsvideo.org would “ensure continuity of service to [Kim's] members.”
“We hope to maintain a close relationship with the Kim's Community,” the proposal continued, “both by updating them regularly about the project, and by inviting them as honored guests in Salemi. For paid-up Kim's members, access to the collection will always be free of charge. Furthermore, Salemi will provide accommodations to both Kim's members and students who want to have access to the collection, at minimum charge (according to availability and booking in advance).”
The plans also included “a Never-ending Festival — a 24-hour projection of up to 10 films at once for the foreseeable future … and, eventually, the conversion of all Kim's VHS films to DVDs to ensure their preservation.”
The plans were chronicled in The New York Times in February 2009. “Salemi is the future,” Toscani told the paper. “New York is the past. That's why Kim's is coming here.”
But was that really the reason? Kim would tell the Times that he'd received 30 proposals from around New York to take the collection off his hands. Who exactly made these proposals has never been made public. Two former Kim's employees say NYU and downtown art school Cooper Union were interested, but both universities refused to take the collection as a whole — they didn't need all 15 rental copies of Shrek, for instance. This was a stipulation on which Kim refused to negotiate.
“As far as I know, Mr. Kim did not get an offer for the entire collection other than Salemi,” Michael Ferrari, who worked at Kim's for 14 years, and served as head video buyer from 2002-10, told me via email. “I do know he really wanted an institution like NYU to have them.”
But, “NYU, Columbia and other institutions only wanted part of the collection, and Mr. Kim wanted to keep it together as a whole. He was pretty adamant to keep everything in one place.”
Kim's other prohibitive demand was that the collection remain accessible without interruption. When film and TV producer Rachel Fernandes heard that Kim had made the deal with Salemi, she says, “I thought, 'Oh my God, this collection can't leave the city. Someone has to step up.' ”
She and a former store employee, Jeff Cashvan, submitted a proposal to keep the collection in New York and run it as a co-op. Cashvan and Fernandes proposed moving the collection into local, temporary storage while they raised money from grants and film luminaries.
But Kim wanted to see their video store. “And we said, 'Well, we don't have a storefront yet.' It was a fundraising proposal,” Fernandes recalls. “He was like, 'I would rather it stay with my former employee, and with the city, but my stipulation is that it has to be immediately transported to a place where it can be on view. Where it is accessible.' ”
They'd hoped they could appeal to Kim's sense of community. That angle didn't fly. “He was like, 'Just so you know, the Sicilians are very impressive,' ” Fernandes remembers. “Their proposal was like a color glossy magazine made to appeal to his ego. They said it was going to be the Mr. Kim Museum.”
She adds, “To his credit, that's what it looked like. I remember looking at the proposal — that's what the Sicilians had outlined. While it seemed crazy to us that he would ship this collection overseas, at least they had a space.”
In April 2009, the Los Angeles Times wrote a profile on Mayor Sgarbi, reporting that the collection had arrived; a 10-second video on YouTube documented crowds enthusiastically greeting the shipping container.
And then … nothing. As far as I could tell, that was the last trace of Kim's Video in Salemi published in English on the Internet.
To outsiders, Vittorio Sgarbi's most visible accomplishment as mayor of Salemi was the creation of a new tourist attraction: the Museum of the Mafia. When novelist Edmund White visited town, in 2010, he described it as the “one place that was functioning perfectly.”
When I arrived in Sicily in early June, an ad for the museum occupied a full wall at the Palermo airport's baggage claim. It read “Weekend in Salemi” above a graphic representation of the island of Sicily dripping with thick, red blood.
Salemi is about 60 miles southwest of Palermo and 43 miles west of Corleone; connect the three points on a map and you get a right triangle. It's a gorgeous region, compressing the highlights of Southern California's varied landscape — urban centers, coastline, farmland, mountains — into a comparatively small space.
My boyfriend and I had been traveling through Italy for a week by the time we got to Salemi. We had visited countless hilltop villages built around a relic or a church, with a couple of cobblestoned streets boasting a half-dozen panini bars and little shops offering the same products (trinkets, artisanal pastas, pecorino). By all appearances, these villages existed to rake in tourism dollars. We started calling them Fortresses of Commerce.
So the first thing that was immediately conspicuous about Salemi was that it didn't seem to be designed to sell anything. It didn't seem to want visitors at all.
A couple dozen men congregated where we parked near the base of the hill leading up to Salemi's historic center, filling every seat in front of the café and spilling out into the street. As we made our way from the car through the square, several seemed to eye us with suspicion.
To compare the streets leading to Salemi's hilltop to a ghost town wouldn't be quite right; in some pockets, it felt as if even the ghosts had moved on. Shutters were down on most of the stores. Nearly new–looking apartment complexes, pristine but silent, alternated with burned-out shells of multifamily homes, or construction sites that appeared abandoned. This unfinished architecture overlooked a million-dollar view of the valley below, which put the top of Mulholland Drive to shame.
On that Saturday morning in early June, everything at the top of the hill seemed to be closed. The library was locked; the city museum, which apparently houses the Museum of the Mafia, had posted hours indicating it should be open, but it was not. The door to the police station was wide open, but there was no one to be found inside.
Back down the hill, the Office of Tourism was a one-room outfit, manned by a local teenager who didn't speak English. Asked about Kim's Video, he looked confused, then produced a map of the town, on which he pointed out the Museum of Bread. He slid open a glass display case, and pulled out an ornate Roman cross, made from what looked like ciabatta.
A sign on the side of the town bus stop advertised a URL and email address for the City of Salemi. Back at our hotel, I found that the website didn't exist. An email to the address bounced back.
Later that day, I met with David Moss, a British-born real estate agent who'd been living in northern Italy. He was drawn to Salemi by Mayor Sgarbi's promise to sell earthquake-damaged homes (or, really, the lots under them) to any and all comers for one euro apiece — on the condition that buyers also enter into a contract with the city to build a new home on the land.
The gambit didn't go as planned. “In true Italian fashion,” Moss told me, “they talked about it before it was a reality.”
Moss did sell a few intact houses, but no house ever sold for one euro.
Moss remembered the arrival of Kim's videos three years before. They had come in a huge shipping container on a flatbed truck, which had no hope of making it around Salemi's steep, hairpin turns. So the boxes had to be loaded first onto smaller vehicles — which still could only make it most of the way. Finally, they had to be carried by hand, box by box, up winding, De Chirico–like streets to the city museum.
I told Moss what had happened at the Office of Tourism. He nodded, unsurprised: “They haven't gotten their act together in terms of what international tourism is all about.”
The tourism office had tried to direct us to the bread museum, Moss said, because until Sgarbi came to town, that was the only thing in Salemi that drew visitors.
Sgarbi had interns and assistants cataloging, digitizing and translating the videos, so each title could be archived and shown locally with Italian subtitles.
A number of films were screened inside a castle on the hilltop before launching Centro Kim, a community center that two years before had opened with a gala party attended by the whole town.
It's at the bottom of the hill, Moss said, in the “new town center,” which is where Salemi's population has been concentrated since the earthquake. That part of town is not even represented on the maps handed out at the tourist center.
None of the locals who gathered around us to chat had heard about anything happening at the Centro or with the videos in some time.
“The last time I saw the collection, it was in a room off to the side in the Civic Museum,” Moss said. “That was two years ago.”
Paulo, a 30-something guy with hair slicked back and dark shades at dusk — like the Bono of Salemi — pulled up a chair next to me, Heineken in hand.
I asked Moss if Sgarbi's “foundation,” as he'd called it, still existed in any tangible way. Moss posed the question to Paulo.
He shrugged. “Invisibile,” he said. He punctuated the air with a finger and made a “pop” sound with his mouth.
Moss translated: “Like a bubble of soap.”
“The problem with Salemi is the mafia,” boomed the thickly accented voice on the other end of the line. On the day after I'd met with David Moss, the town's former Alderman of Creativity, Oliviero Toscani, called my hotel in Salemi, eager to air grievances. “When I say 'mafia,' ” he cautioned, “don't think of those American movies. Mafia is just a big bureaucracy.”
Toscani himself left Salemi in late 2009 after finally, fatally falling out with Mayor Sgarbi and writing off Sicily as a “beautiful, damned land.”
Toscani's feelings about Sicily, though poetically stated, are not exactly fringe. The island is earning a reputation as “the Greece of Italy,” in no small part because of towns like Salemi, which drain funds from the national government without having much to show for it.
Two and a half years after Toscani left, in February 2012, Sgarbi himself stepped down, under accusations that he had allowed his administration to become infiltrated by the Mafia.
“If you're a politician in western Sicily, you really have to have some kind of connections, unless you're a crusader, someone who insists on having clean hands,” UCLA's Agnew tells me. While Sgarbi initially presented himself as anti-Mafia, he adds, “that wasn't the way it was at all.”
In fact, Sgarbi had been propped up by Giuseppe “Pino” Giammarinaro, Agnew says, “a quite famous fixer from about 30 to 40 years ago. He was the guy who linked together national politics, mafia, local politics and the health system — clinics, hospitals and so on. These are a big source of money coming from Rome, which you can cream off, which is really what the mafia are interested in.”
Days after Mayor Sgarbi's resignation, Toscani sent an impassioned letter to the Sicilian president. It was printed in Italian newspapers with the headline, “Save the treasure of Salemi.”
Toscani described his instrumental role in bringing the collection to Salemi, and warned, “Now this treasure of over 55,000 titles is rotting, surrounded by mice, and the project is at risk of being ruined forever …”
The City of Salemi promptly issued a press release disputing Toscani's claims. “The archive of film is intact and maintained under the best conditions,” the vice mayor insisted. “[Toscani] has nothing to do with this archive.”
Over the phone that day in June, Toscani kept intoning, “I wish I had those videos,” with an obsessive intensity reminiscent of a supervillain, but he wouldn't admit any responsibility for the “bureaucracy” that had stopped the Kim's project in its tracks.
“Nothing is going on with those videos. All the videos are rotting in a Salemi room in mice shit,” he lamented.
I asked him about the vice mayor's statement disputing such claims. “She's a mafioso!” Toscani said. “She's a good liar!”
I later tracked down the woman who had first alerted Toscani to the collection, Franca Pauli. Over Skype, she fired back at his claims. “If it was rotting, it was because of him!” she said.
Pauli had served as the mediator between the town of Salemi and Kim. Her husband, Dario, had gone to Manhattan to pack the boxes himself, and the couple even fronted the $15,000 to pay for the slow-boat shipping in early 2009.
Pauli says that while the videos were traveling across the Atlantic, Toscani had insisted she meet with his assistant, who'd tried to convince her to divert the collection to Toscani's office in Pisa, so they could start a business streaming the videos on Amazon — copyright regulations be damned, apparently. She had protested: They had made a promise to the people of Salemi, and to Kim. “Don't worry about all that,” the assistant had said. “You just have to convince Mr. Kim that Salemi is a bad place.”
After her refusal to take part in this scheme, Pauli says, “Toscani was much colder with me.”
Later that year, Pauli signed on to help organize a festival of Iranian films — only for the city to cancel the budget she had been promised. “I had worked on this festival for two months, and I found myself with no money and, like, 10 Iranian people asking me for money. It was really a nightmare. So at that point, I had to say 'enough.' ”
As of January 2010, when Pauli last visited Salemi, “Still no one had done anything to the collection.”
Pauli found Salemi impossible — but she still felt guilty walking away. Then she talked to Kim. “He said, 'Franca, just stop. I'm a businessman, I'm not just a cinema lover. And I know that some projects just don't work. So this project didn't work. Move on.'
“At that point,” Pauli admits, “I was really thinking it would have been better to leave it in a cellar somewhere in New York.”
David Moss had told us that Saturday was a bank holiday, and that everything should be open on Monday. Cut to Monday morning, and Salemi hardly seemed more open for business. There was hardly anyone on the streets. The tourism office was flat-out closed. The city museum was locked. I peered through a hole in the wooden gate at its entrance — it looked like a construction zone in the courtyard inside.
At the police station, a man in a crisp blue constable uniform bedecked with medals, like a character in a Wes Anderson movie, introduced himself as Diego Muraca, the chief of police.
I told Muraca I was looking for the Kim's video collection, and that I'd heard it was in the city museum, but that the museum was now closed. He told me to come back the next day.
Since I was on a flight leaving Palermo the next morning, I asked if he knew anyone I could talk to about the collection, or was there any way to be let in. He made a phone call, speaking in Italian, and then said he was trying to get someone to take us into the museum. In the meantime, he would take us on a tour.
His tour encompassed the few buildings between the police station and the museum — the library, a church. All the while, he kept up a running commentary on Salemi's historic importance. His English was imperfect, but he used it artfully; I repeatedly asked questions about the video collection, Sgarbi and the new administration, and each one he redirected. “Sicily is the origin of culture,” he kept saying. When I asked if he remembered the videos' arrival, he said that he did, and then began a tangent: “The Americans are a young people.”
Eventually he took us to an office above the library, where he had what seemed like a heated conversation with two men. It ended with Muraca telling us there would be no way to get into the museum today, and to come back tomorrow.
I told him I couldn't. Once I was back in the States, was there anyone I could email, who could tell me about the status of the video collection? He said something to one of the men, who then scrawled in my notebook a generic email address for the city library.
Apparently satisfied that he had done his duty, Chief Muraca walked us out. I made one last attempt to get some kind of information: I explained that I'd been told there was a community center in town, named after the Mr. Kim who had donated the videos. Could he point me in the right direction?
He shook his head no. “At the moment, we don't have.”
We got in the car to leave. The skies were gray, and it was starting to drizzle.
Confused, defeated, deflated, we started pulling out of the parking lot opposite the castle. Then I spotted Moss.
I told him that I'd given up — the museum was closed, and the chief of police had just said Centro Kim's didn't exist. “Huh, that's weird,” Moss said. “Why would he do that? It certainly does exist.”
He gave us the directions again and told us not to worry. “It's the only thing for miles around that looks anything like a community center.”
We drove down the hill, and a few minutes later, there it was: a big, new-looking building made of beige cinder blocks, anchoring a giant parking lot, empty but for a single car. A sign on the side of the building: “Kim's Video. Upground, 2nd Floor.” Then, another sign: “Salemi ICIC: International City of Independent Cinema. Grazie, Mr. Kim.”
Every door was locked. I rang a doorbell, but no one answered.
Minutes later, a door opened, and a 20-something Italian dude walked out. He seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see him. We quickly established that he spoke slightly more English than I speak Italian.
He let me into the space he had just walked out of. There was a long corridor, to the left of which sat a small room with racks of video decks, such as you'd see in an old-school VHS dubbing house, and a couple of PCs. At the end of the corridor was a huge, open space, full of boxes, and shelves crammed with DVDs.
This was it — this was Mr. Kim's rental collection. Was it all of it? I don't know what 55,000 videos looks like, but this was a lot of videos. I walked through the room almost in a daze, taking it all in — Peyton Place on VHS; DVD spines printed in Korean; the first season of ALF; porn.
I didn't know how long the tapes and discs had been here, but they didn't seem to be rotting in mice shit. The boxes suggested wear and tear, and there's always a chance that VHS tapes stacked atop one another could demagnetize one another. But on the whole, the level of care exceeded anything I had been led to believe existed.
The guy indicated he had been hired to make digital backups of every title in the collection. I asked if he was in charge, and he made a hand motion to indicate “sort of.” He mentioned Antonina Grillo, the project “coordinator” who'd been quoted on the press release dismissing Toscani's allegations.
I asked if she was around, and he shook his head. Then he explained that they were having a blackout, so he couldn't let me in to see the center's movie theater. That seemed to be the reason he'd walked out of the building to begin with — he couldn't use the digitization station without having power.
We'd reached the limit of what we could communicate. And so we got in our car and left, and the next day flew out of Palermo to come home.
Yongman Kim, of course, was not the only video-store owner to discover over the past decade that the rental business had become untenable, but his circumstances were unique. A turning point came the summer of 2005, when Mondo Kim's was busted in a sting for selling bootleg mix CDs and DVDs. Employees were arrested, and computers and cash registers were confiscated.
At the time, Kim was distracted by the production of One-Third, his self-financed debut as a director of feature films. A largely silent drama about a teenage hooker and a Buddhist monk, mostly shot in and around the Mondo Kim's building, One-Third was the first film in what Kim planned as a trilogy. When he couldn't find a distributor, Kim funded a pay-to-play week at Manhattan's Cinema Village, and then a DVD release.
The reviews were decidedly mixed. Writing in Slant Magazine, current Village Voice film critic Nick Schager concluded that the movie “comes across as the type of overreaching indie apt to be mocked by the rude, condescending clerks at his landmark stores.”
Given his financial position, it's hard to blame Kim for giving away a collection he stood little to gain from by renting. The collection's struggle to find a local home raises the question of its worth outside of its original context.
“I don't know about monetary value, [but] I think the Kim's collection has a huge cultural value,” says Jake Yuzna, who recently curated “VHS,” a show at Manhattan's Museum of Arts and Design dedicated to the disappearing analog medium, which featured a working video-rental store as part of the exhibit.
But the collectors' value of used VHS tapes and DVDs is next to nil. Even Yuzna admits that the museum had no intention of keeping its rental stock at the end of the exhibit.
In Salemi, David Moss had argued that a library of physical film objects is actually more valuable there than it would be elsewhere: “What's a video worth in New York? It's dead. Whereas here, it's at least a piece of media.”
There are no video stores in Salemi, no movie theaters; the city library doesn't have DVDs to lend.
Yet Moss and friends had told me that when Kim's movies were shown in the castle on a handful of summer nights, the events had attracted crowds who flowed in and out, treating the projections like art installations. Some of the movies weren't in Italian, and in a country where almost all foreign releases, especially Hollywood films, arrive dubbed, it wasn't so much an entertainment as an oddity.
Does anyone in Salemi still talk about the video collection? Pietro, a 40-something with square, rimless glasses and a gold chain swinging from his neck, shook his head. “Really, everyone's forgotten.”
In New York, the Kim's faithful have not forgotten. “People talk about Kim's all the time — it's like an urban legend,” filmmaker Fernandes says.
As for Perry, the more he talks about the formative role Kim's played in his own life, the more people randomly approach him, asking what happened to the collection. “I'm not dropping names, but I was talking to Parker Posey last night. She was, like, 'Do you know what happened to Kim's? Because I knew her from coming all the time. People are always asking.”
He adds, “It would be like if the Barnes Foundation, instead of moving to some controversial new location, they were, like, 'Oh, we're gonna open up a museum in some other city,' and then it just was, like, 'What the fuck ever happened to that artwork?' ”
When I was in Salemi in June, the collection's future still seemed unresolved. The state had just sent a temporary administration to run the city. According to one resident, one of the commissioners' first decisions was to cancel the mafia museum ad at the airport, which cost 45,000 euros annually.
With austerity in the air and Sgarbi's projects tainted by association, it seemed like a long shot that the commissioners would consider a videotheque to be of high priority. As Moss put it, “No use having Kim's Video if the streets aren't working.”
Shortly after returning to the United States, I emailed Kim and told him about my trip. He didn't respond. I went to New York to try to find him at his store, to no avail; an employee took my card and promised to pass it along, but I never heard from Mr. Kim.
Last week, I sent one final email. This time, Kim responded almost immediately — by forwarding an email he had received that day from Franca Pauli, explaining that Salemi was having another opening ceremony at the Centro on Sept. 18. Pauli and Kim, neither of whom had set foot in Salemi for more than two years, were invited.
Before last week, Kim told me, he hadn't even heard from Salemi in more than a year. His last visit there was for the gala opening. He remembers giving an hourlong speech about his “vision” for a “neo-Renaissance” in Salemi. “Everybody gave me a warm welcome,” Kim bragged to me. “They loved my speech.”
That day in 2010, Sgarbi had cemented Kim's devotion by introducing him to Italian filmmaker Gualtiero Jacopetti, whose 1962 cult classic Mondo Cane was the namesake of Mondo Kim's, and also to “Sgarbi's personal friend,” a media mogul from Rome, who had pledged 2 million euros to launch in Salemi a monthlong arts festival built around Kim's collection. Kim says he was kept in the loop about that project, but “then he seemed to have some financial problems. So this has been discontinued for the past year and a half.”
Then, suddenly, progress. Perhaps.
Just before she fled Salemi, Pauli told me, she'd applied for 700,000 euros in public funds to support initiatives in Salemi. The application was eventually accepted, but the money had been mysteriously frozen for two years.
Now, Pauli says, the money has somehow been freed up.
While most of Sgarbi's other projects were scrapped, Kim's Video was approved — or, at least, enough funds were targeted to bring the movie theater at the Kim's Center up to code, to bring in digitization equipment, and to shelve and catalog the collection.
UCLA's Agnew believes Toscani's February media blitz may have driven some type of protective action — if only temporarily. “I suspect someone in Palermo decided that it would be politically really problematic if this got out, that they'd taken these films from this poor guy in New York and then essentially just left them lying around to decay, you know? In that sense, there's likely to be some attention paid to these things, but only so long as it's in the news. The minute something slips off even the third or fourth page of the newspaper, I think, it wouldn't be a priority anymore.”
Throughout our conversation, Kim is weirdly cheerful about the state of affairs in Salemi. “I'm so curious to see how much has been done,” he says. “If they have my whole collection digitized, oh boy! That would be awesome.”
Given the troubled history of the venture — and his still-unmet “condition” that its owners provide “access to Kim's members” — his obstinate sunniness seems almost delusional.
Maybe ignorance is bliss — Kim says he never heard about Toscani's allegations that the collection was rotting and wasn't aware Sgarbi had left Salemi until that day. But when he didn't hear anything in more than a year, wasn't he worried?
“No, I don't worry,” he says casually. “I've never given up hope. It certainly was slow — slower than I expected. But I'm so happy to hear suddenly they had something done.”
Maybe Kim continues to have hope in Salemi because it's been such a good place for his ego; from Garibaldi to Sgarbi, the place has functioned as a blank slate for men who were legends in their own minds to act out their fantasies.
But even Pauli, who is nothing if not a realist about Salemi, feels a ray of hope. She remembers initially sensing skepticism bordering on hostility from Salemi's locals regarding the “celebrities” of the Sgarbi administration and their splashy projects: “Because they didn't have streetlights and waste disposal, yet money was being spent on these festivals.”
At one point, Sgarbi brought in a French urban-design specialist, who demanded they outfit the streetlights with eco-friendly bulbs. The city removed the bad bulbs but took two weeks to replace them. “During that time,” Pauli says, “two people were stabbed in dark alleys.”
Things are different now that Sgarbi and friends are out of the picture.
“I don't think it's over,” Pauli says. “I think there is a chance for another Kim's Video adventure.”
When I told VHS curator Yuzna about my experience in Italy, he sighed. “It's kind of a little bit of what I expected, I have to admit,” he says. “In a way, it adds to the legend of Kim's. Because there were so many stories about it — who knows where the truth ends and the fiction begins. That's part of the reason why it's such an iconic part of New York history.”
The videos' strange Italian odyssey may add to Mondo Kim's legend — and maybe, adding to that legend is what Mr. Kim had in mind all along.
Still, it's hard not to mourn for what could have been had the collection remained in New York. As Perry puts it, if the New York institutions that refused to meet Kim's demands knew the alternative, “They would have just been, like, 'Fine, we'll take it' and then put the five copies of Old School in a box in the basement.”