Tuesday, December 10, 2013

"In the Flesh" - my first curated series

It happened. An opportunity presented itself and I grabbed it. Anthology Film Archives, home of some of the edgiest film programming in New York City, gave this untested programmer the chance to put together a festival of adult films. Working together with Steven Morowitz at Distribpix, home of the four films screened from 35mm prints, and Joe Rubin of Vinegar Syndrome, we all put on a show from Thursday through Sunday, giving away prizes for answers to trivia questions, including trailer reels before every film, and conducting Q&A's with special guests involved with the productions. It was simultaneously thrilling, nerve-wracking, and fascinating.

The first film, on Thursday night, was 1972's High Rise, the only adult film from the late Danny Steinmann. Steinmann passed away in late 2012, but the most enduring aspect of the film is its original score by prolific composer Jack Urbont. Remembering I had spoken with him about the film a few years ago with positive results, I invited him to join us as our special guest. He hadn't actually listened to the score in some time, so watching the whole film (which sometimes works as a series of music videos for his varied and intricately produced score) proved to be quite the experience for him. Jack sat down with me for a Q&A and detailed his incredible career, from Broadway to commercial jingles (Bumblebee Tuna) to soap opera themes ("General Hospital"), which helped drive home the fact that the film's soundtrack benefited from a professional composer with a strong musical background and an ear for catchy hooks. The stellar 16-minute version of the theme song, playing over a lengthy "aw-gee" sequence, even made him ask himself how he actually wrote and recorded it all. Most moving was his revelation that the violin solo during an artistic lesbian scene was performed by his father.

Second in the series was Through the Looking Glass (1976), a psychological horror masterpiece from Jonas Middleton, who only made three adult films. This, his last, is his best. Middleton has given few interviews over the years and to my knowledge had never appeared in public with his film, so approaching him was a rather difficult idea to get my head around. I managed to find an e-mail address for him and Steve Morowitz worked out all the arrangements for him to attend the screening, his first time greeting the film's audience in-person and answering the many questions posed about his work. This screening proved to be the one with the largest audience, most likely due to the film's crossover appeal to horror fans. Middleton hadn't seen the film in quite some time, and he told me after the screening that it had deeply disturbed him. My Q&A with him delved deeper into his motivations in making the film, revealing personal philosophies regarding religion and female sexuality, the films and directors that inspired him, and memories of the film's stars, including the luminous Catherine Burgess, brooding Jamie Gillis, and promising child actress Laura Nicholson. Middleton's preference is for the soft version of the film, and I can say without even seeing it that I'd probably agree. The feature works because of its disturbing narrative and visual flourishes, the performances of the cast and the swirling score, and the sex has always been a distraction for me.

The late Armand Weston's Take Off (1978) is, frankly, a film I was concerned about regarding audience reaction. Its length is sometimes seen as a frustrating thing; 103 minutes is epic for an adult film. To my delighted surprise, it had the best laugh responses of all the comedies in the series. The audience also included a number of familiar old-time movie fans from the repertory scene in NYC that stayed through the whole film, laughed along with the jokes and gags, and stayed for the Q&A with the film's still photographer, Larry Revene. Larry was someone I approached from the get-go to be a part of the series, and I think we both had a tremendous time on both nights he appeared. His Q&A revealed some famous names and faces in the film, a cameo by renowned sexploitation distributor Sam Lake, set stories of Armand Weston and Daria Price, memories of Wade Nichols and Leslie Bovee, and was enlivened by the surprise cameos of cast and crew members rising from their seats to say hi! We were also blessed with the presence of illustrious adult film legend Carter Stevens in the audience.

Closing night featured a screening of Wanda Whips Wall Street (1981), Larry's wonderful comedy about corporate espionage, female-style. The film's star, Veronica Hart, surprised us all by flying in from the west coast to join Larry for a Q&A that turned into a merry remembrance of Chuck Vincent before morphing into a dramatic monologue by actor Scott Baker, reading from Larry's marvelous memoirs. In addition to our special guests, we had a number of adult film writers and performers in the audience as well, cheering on Larry and reuniting under one roof after, in some cases, a long time apart. Reactions to the event were overwhelmingly positive, a good time had by all, and I couldn't be happier! Seeing so many familiar faces immediately got me thinking how we could involve them in future series, what films they were in, if prints were available, etc. It felt to many like a class reunion, and illustrated very well the family atmosphere that developed around both cast and crew within the golden age industry.

Other than a hiccup with the Take Off print (repeating two scenes after a reel change), all the prints were surprisingly good considering the track record of adult film prints being projected into oblivion over the years. Fading, debris, skips, and grease marks were to be expected, and did not detract from the experience of seeing the films on 35mm.

Something I decided to do to make the screenings a little more special for the guests and the people involved with production was send professional invitations to all surviving cast and crew in the tri-state area that I could find, which could be turned in at the box office for free admission for two. Having access to the Distribpix archive helped, and I had accumulated contact info for others over the years. Steve Morowitz helped me design them and I got them all printed out and mailed in slick envelopes. Some came back in the mail, and I received a few RSVP's from people who were either excited to attend or couldn't attend because any publicity surrounding their appearances would result in termination from their jobs. It's still that kind of a world we live in, folks, where appearing in or working on an X-rated film decades ago will be held against you. Because the invites were intended to make it easier for cast and crew to attend discreetly, I won't reveal who did attend, and the series has a permanent policy about surprise guest audience members: what happens at "In the Flesh" stays at "In the Flesh". I will say that it was great to see so many people who hadn't seen each other in 30 or more years reconnecting after the screenings. Many of them hadn't ever seen their finished work on-screen, let alone an appreciative audience reaction. That was a very touching experience, to see these talented people before the screening and then hear how much they enjoyed themselves after, especially because of my concern about their possible outrage. The series is all about reviving these films and appreciating the people who made them, and including as many people involved with the productions as possible made it even more of a celebration. For those who were invited and didn't attend, perhaps positive word of mouth about the series may convince them to reconsider in the future?

So many people to thank for the series being such a success! The guests (Jack Urbont, Jonas Middleton, Larry Revene, Veronica Hart), the audience (so many people attended all four nights), the venue (Anthology Film Archives), the sponsors (Steve Morowitz at Distribpix, Joe Rubin at Vinegar Syndrome). My friends for turning out in support, the staff of Anthology for accommodating us, the New York Post, Wall Street Journal, and other news/media outlets that helped promote the screenings, the cast and crew members who joined the celebration of their work and the golden age in general. Our next installment will be four "porn noir's" in March. Here's hoping it's just as much fun as this was!

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