Sunday, August 3, 2008

Film Between Covers
Sleazoid Express
(by Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford; 2002)

Here in America we have something that, with the straightest of faces, we call our Film Heritage.

What people usually mean when they invoke this solemn, unconscionably sentimental honorific is not just any movie made here in these United States, but a specific kind of movie: Something more or less old, and at one time accorded a form of honor (industry awards and acceptance, vast commercial success, etc) deemed permissible by the caretakers of our culture. That these keepers of the cultural flame generally know and understand nothing about motion pictures is something little remarked upon in public. It certainly doesn't seem to bother anyone . . . anyone other than those who actually care about the medium, that is . . . that the movies, as well as the moviegoers, said to represent our so-called 'Heritage' entail but a small fraction of the cinematic experience in this country.

In Sleazoid Express (2002), two tireless cinephiles, Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford, expose and explore something closer to our actual film heritage. What falls under the microscope in this volume is a specific time and place in the annals of American moviegoing: the halcyon days of Grindhouse Cinema on The Deuce, Manhattan's Times Square, where a series of crumbling, rat-infested movie dumps . . . originally designed in their day to recreate the scale and opulence of such venues as the Opéra-Comique . . . offered diversion night after night, day after day to an audience consisting mainly of wineheads, junkies, madmen, TV hookers, johns, hustlers, pickpockets, derelicts and a few unsuspecting tourists every now and again.

Strung like Arapaho beads among the Playland Arcade, the Live Nude shows, the Adult Bookstores, Peep-Shows and Triple-X houses of 42nd st., a group of once-'legitimate' cinemas such as the Lyric, the Harris, the Avon and the New Amsterdam (where no less than Florenz Ziegfeld staged his "Follies" so many lifetimes ago), played host to an amalgam of New York City low life who gathered therein to behold . . . basically, anything you could run through a projector. They didn't care. These were not studious, discerning cinephiles who marched into repertory and revival houses like the British forces at Balaclava to exult in the splendor of the Moving Image. The people who went to Grindhouses had come in out of the endless twilight that was their lives usually for more prosaic reasons: To sleep, perhaps; to give a quick $10 blowjob; to get a quick $10 blowjob; to lift a few wallets, maybe; to escape the voices inside their heads. Any reason at all. And if you caught a movie while doing it, then that was just fine. In fact, anything to divert their attention was fine. If only for just a moment . . . or for a night.

So that's what proprietors of Grindhouses gave them: Refuge from their daily nightmare in the form of Splatter films, Blaxploitation, Spaghetti Westerns, Kung Fu melodramas, Italian Zombie pictures, Old School Nudies, Soft-core Porn, Hard-core Porn; anything cheap and fast, preferably with vast quantities of blood or tits or both. For anyone from another time . . . which might as well be another planet . . . who walked into one of these joints harboring any delusions about moviegoing, it represented a quick, razor-sharp schooling in the way many Americans consume the art of Cinema.

Longtime Times Square habitué (and unrepentant biographer of Kenneth Anger) Bill Landis writes about the time and the places and the movies therein with just the proper degree of affection and respect. This book may be a remembrance of things past, but it's not a treacly one; nor is it sanitized. He and his co-author Michelle Clifford hold back nothing. You get it all in Sleazoid Express; in vivid, almost Technicolor detail. Theirs is an effort to set down some sense of what 42nd st. Grindhouses were like in the days of their immense, gaudy decay; what it entailed to actually sit inside one of them and see a movie you would very likely never be able to see anywhere else. Now that the era has long since passed, and Times Square in its present incarnation seeks to offer up a family-friendly (read: tourist-friendly) environment while visually approximating the neon sensory-overload of downtown Tokyo, this book could not be a more crucial document in the canon of film writing.

I mean, perhaps it's only me, but there's just something fundamentally American about troubled individuals in a vast urban setting gathering together in a falling-apart movie theatre originally designed to look like La Scala and watching Cannibal Holocaust on a screen the size of a midwestern liquor store.


Matt Barry said...

Excellent post. This is a topic long overdue for serious study. I'm glad to see that a book has been published, and will check that out as well.

The grindhouse circuit provided many filmmakers with their first exposure. It's worth pointing out that even Scorsese's first works were shown on double bills in grindhouse theatres before becoming "acceptable" by the mainstream.

It's tempting to wonder whether or not the "grindhouse aesthetic" lives on today. I think it does (to an extent), but because we have so many more options available to us, it's impossible to imagine the kind of hodge podge of programming that existed in those theatres in a single night's programming.

One thing that is missing is the kind of rough, raw energy of those films. Everything today is either too slick or polished, or just plain dull in a way that even the worst grindhouse films could never be, even if they tried.

Part of the problem, too, is that many viewers have become just too passive in the viewing experience. I'm not quick to defend the rude behavior of many patrons at the cineplex, but neither do I get distracted every time someone coughs, laughs or has to get up to use the restroom. The viewing experience, in other words, has become just as homogenized, bland and colorless as the films themselves.

Tom Sutpen said...

Hola, Matt..

It does live on, after a fashion; compressed and distilled into recent fare the likes of Kill Bill, Hostel and Grindhouse . . . though I would argue that Tarantino's half of that project is a lament about its anachronistic unsuitability in our present cultural firmament . . . but I don't know that there ever was a Grindhouse aesthetic as such; certainly not as a consciously forged proposition. Like Film noir, the people present at the creation of its various works would never have guessed at its existence and might well have rejected it outright. My problem with today's application of that low-budget/high-spirit filmmaking approach, however, is that when present-day filmmakers glance back at it retrospectively and let it inform their work it tends to become awfully formalized and rigid, to the point where it no longer resembles what inspired it in the first place. (this is the same problem I have with so-called neo-Noir); the energy you spoke of doesn't disappear, it becomes almost an afterthought.

The Grindhouse aesthetic, if we can call it that, is really more of an attitude than anything; a basic distrust of pretense (along with an implicit embrace of marginalized audiences) that can cut across every genre. But that wasn't new, by any means. If you look at the explosion of moviegoing in France after the war, the most hardcore moviegoers of that time would pile into cine clubs and dumps like the screening room at the Musee Permanent du Cinema on the avenue de Messine while Henri Langlois unleashed every conceivable mode of film artistry upon them. Three films a night. The Langlois programming was somewhat more formal, and the patrons (not elites by any contemporary standard) a little more conscious of what they were watching, but in every substantial sense it was no different from what was going on in Times Square back in the day. It's just that one has a certain cultural cachet (solely because of the relative commercial success some of its patrons enjoyed in later life when they became filmmakers), and the other does not.

The Grindhouses, in this sense, were this country's true repertory cinemas; they were film societies of no fixed membership, cast down into the American night and stripped of all illusion.

With respect to today's audiences, I've also noted an unusual form of engagement lassitude. Were I to guess, I'd say the characterless setting in which most films are screened these days (multiplexes being only the most glaring offenders) play a large part in this process, But I couldn't tell you how it can be overcome. Caretakers of America's film industry undoubtedly believe that audiences get the movies they deserve; I think it's the other way around.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I use to go to 42nd Street theaters regularly from about 1974 to 1976, after which I left NYC. I didn't see any rats. I did see some films that weren't playing anywhere else, plus some first run films cheaper than at the "better" theaters, and they were all double features. Blame David Cronenberg - I knew I had to see They Came from Within after reading about this promising young Canadian filmmaker. After that, I went to 42nd Street regularly just to see what was playing. Never had a problem there either.

Vanwall said...

I was lucky enough to have a minor grindhouse period where I grew up, and even tho I do mean minor, it had that make-a-buck, jammed together, genre-to-the-devil aspect of desperation to it - old crumbling movie palaces that were effectively shut out of the then traditional movie business, giving anything that ran thru a projector a chance to put any kind of butts in the seats. It was too damn short, and just plain too damned, but I'm glad I had that chance to see what else was around the cat-box and under the rug.

Matt Barry said...

It would make an interesting "companion" study to this book to look at the drive-in theatres that populated the more rural areas of the country around the same time, showing a similarly mixed bag of gore/exploitation programming, as well as other, smaller theatres that were converted into the "anything goes" screening format of the grindhouses that populated Times Square.

swac said...

Love this book, I've had it for a few years now and my copy is well-thumbed.

Sadly, I experienced the grindhouse era vicariously through the ads in our local paper, which would often use liquid paper on the ad mats to omit anything even remotely lascivious. The _______ of Susan or Adventures of a ________ Housewife and so on. Briefly we had a full-on porn house (now it's a boxing gym) and I was intrigued by titles like Love Camp 7 and Aquasex, and later found out from a friend's older brother who frequented the theatre that the prints were often truncated by Ontario censors, who would even use permanent marker on the prints themselves to block out offensive imagery (these are the same prudes who removed the pencil stabbing scene from the first Evil Dead in Eastern Canada).

Sadly, by the time I got to New York on my own, the era was over. I tried to get access to a few stray prints that sat in a film repository in New Brunswick, but they wouldn't let them go since they no longer knew who had the rights (not even on the sly). Spoilsports.

Fignatz said...

A friend of mine tells the story of a visit to a New York grindhouse during the seventies, and being approached by a woman offering him a $10 blowjob. My friend replied that he could jerk himself off for free. The woman replied "You try that kinda stuff in here and you'll get thrown out."