New documentary profiles Cabarrus County collector

I warn you now, the story you’re going to read has no end. It’s about a movie that has no end and a man trying to preserve a legacy whose end remains in doubt.

“Martin Hill: Camera Man” is a documentary about an archivist of classic cameras, including equipment used to shoot “Gone With the Wind” and “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Its 76-year-old protagonist rests in a Harrisburg rehab center after a stroke on July 3. His cameras rest amid extraordinary clutter on his property in southeastern Cabarrus County, under the custody of sons Marty and Mark.

And director Joanne Hock’s movie rests in limbo, though it creeps closer to completion. She and editor John Disher will premiere their rough-cut profile of Hill on Saturday at the Modern Film Festival in Kannapolis. Like everyone else, she waits for fate or a benefactor to step in and provide the last chapter to a decades-long story.

“I still don’t have my resolution, my magical ‘Ta-daaahhhh!’ moment for the ending,” she said at the NoDa headquarters of GreyHawk Films, where post-production continues. “That’s why this has taken six years, instead of two months.”

Hill’s story began almost half a century ago. He and wife Patsy started in a 900-square-foot house owned by her mother in the early 1960s, shortly after Hill got out of the Army.

He dealt in “anything I could get from Army surplus. A guy brought me a case of C-rations, stuff like turkey tripe in basil sauce. That’s what we ate for a while, except the things we fed to the dog.”

His first big score came when he bought one ton of gun parts at 10 cents a pound, scrounging “every penny we had in the world.” He sat under a tree in the backyard for weeks, sorting 36,000 parts. He cataloged them and wrote to dealers, parlaying a $200 investment into $4,000.

He and cinematographer Harry Joyner of Charlotte, best friends since boyhood, had shot 8mm movies in their youth. In 1971, they graduated to what Hill thinks was the first 35mm feature made in Charlotte: “Body Shop,” produced in 1971 and maybe still available in obscure video outlets as “Dr. Gore.”

Hill’s fascination with still and moving-picture cameras grew. He moved to his current site in 1972, buying half of a Fort Mill, S.C., bowling alley for storage. (The other half ended up in Charlotte, as a game room for a Goony Golf. Hill says someone had to ride on top of his half as it traveled north, lifting traffic signals out of its way.)

An eye for cameras

“You become attached to the meaning of a film, and that carries over to the camera (that made it),” says Hill. “They have historical significance, but I bought them for my enjoyment.” (His favorite: the Twentieth Century Fox camera used for the Oscar-winner “How Green Was My Valley.”)

Disher calls this collection “an Aladdin’s cave of wonders in the middle of nowhere.” He and Hock stalked through it in 2006 to find an artifact for a movie they made about Bank of America’s history. (B of A and its predecessors underwrote some of the classics that Hill’s cameras shot.)

Hock says she and Disher turned to each other simultaneously to ask, “Wouldn’t this make a great documentary?” (They also went home with lights that might have illuminated “Citizen Kane” and now serve as tables in GreyHawk’s lobby.)

They began a fundraising campaign on the Kickstarter website, hoping to raise the $6,000 that would pay for half of the film’s cost (not counting their labor).

They got an unexpected boost from historian Leonard Maltin – of the annual movie guides – who blogged about their documentary in September 2011. “Would you like to see the brushes Leonardo Da Vinci used to paint the Mona Lisa, or the chisel Rodin employed to carve The Thinker?” he asked. “Think of these cameras in the same way, and you’ll understand why they have artistic as well as historic value.” The campaign topped its goal.

Hill comes off in the film as a genial guy who smiles at his obsession, calling the cameras “monuments to my folly,” but really loves movies and moviemaking.

We see him in the 1970s, acting in low-budget pictures produced by Shelby’s Earl Owensby; he empties a tommy gun unconvincingly at convicts in “Buckstone County Prison.” We see buyers, historians and buffs marveling at his equipment.

And we hear him say, half-kiddingly, “It’s a sickness, a disease. On my deathbed, I’ll still be buying junk, fully aware I’ll never sell it all.”

A magical kingdom

Hill’s property casts a strange spell the moment you pull up his gravel drive. An elderly, sky-blue Rolls-Royce sits with its hood open, as blackberry brambles strangle the engine block. A tumult of movie lights, camera cases and electrical cable surrounds the brick bowling alley. One discarded theater chair, its mustard-colored plush still shiny, sits forlornly near an industrial-sized white sink.

Ghosts seem to float through corridors inside. The floors buckle under the weight of camera motors. Floor-to-ceiling shelves bulge with gears, lenses, old Army-green Moviola editing machines. A baby grand piano, long out of tune, serves as a storage table.

“I kind of know where everything is,” says Marty Hill, looking at his dad’s accumulation. “Small parts may be tough to identify, but the big ones I can find.”

Marty inherited the collecting bug in a different way: He writes and performs with the country-rock band Preacher Stone, and he has picked up guitars and amps going back as far as Jimi Hendrix. But he also knows his way around these grand old cameras.

“This is one used to shoot the burning of Atlanta in ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ” he says, indicating a deep blue Technicolor unit. “This VistaVision was used for ‘The Ten Commandments.’ ” He hands over a photograph of director Cecil B. DeMille sitting next to the camera, whose MVV5 identification mark can be seen clearly. (A comment about Hollywood: Some of Hill’s prized possessions have “Scrap” stamped on their sides.)

The treasure of the collection, Marty says, is in a bank vault at the moment. It’s a camera Charles Chaplin used to shoot silent masterpieces in the 1920s, including “The Gold Rush.”

It appears in Hock’s documentary: Mark Mervis, Hill’s friend for decades and a professional cinematographer, cranks it up to shoot fresh footage 90 years after its Hollywood prime. That camera also provides much of the film’s tension: Martin and Patsy Hill put it into a Hollywood memorabilia auction sponsored by Debbie Reynolds, in hopes of earning a handsome sum.

The future is hazy

The question that runs through the movie and the lives of all the Hills remains: What will happen next?

People who know of the collection come to buy. Mark and Marty are identifying pieces that can be sold for scrap metal. The Hills have begun to talk to museums.

Maltin suggests they contact organizations that preserve Hollywood artifacts.

“Some of the studios have finally come around,” he notes. Paramount has archivists who are displaying vintage costumes and props. Warner Bros. operates a museum and the Academy plans to open a museum.

The cameras wait, usable but no longer in demand in this digital age.

“Technicolor is still around, you know,” says Martin Hill. “It’s a simple color-separation process, and Technicolor prints stay beautiful forever. But all the machinery (to process them) has been sent to China. That day has passed.”