Midnight Movies
 0060150521, 0060909900

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Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint their copyrighted materials: pp. 2, 9, 10, 183f 254, 269, 271: © 20th Century-Fox Film Corp, All rights reserved./ pp, 7 r 27, 22i, 249: Paramount Pictures Corp./ p, 29: Jacques Prayer./ pp. 33, 35: lack Smith,/ p. 41: Jonas Mekas./ pp. 45, 57, 66, 67, 71: Anthology Film Archives./ pp. 47, 56: Film Department, American Federation of the Arts./ pp, 49, 54: Film Culture*/ pp. I l l , 117r 123: Image Ten, Inc./ pp. 128, 129: ◎ 1978 Dawn Associates, photos by Katherine Kolbert./ pp, 131, 133, 134: © 1977 Braddock Associates,/ p. 137: © Charm City Productions, photo by Steve Yeager./ p. 142: © Dreamland Productions./ pp. 146, 149, 151, 158, 159, 162, 164, 166, 168, 169, 172, 26L 305, 308, 317: © 1973, 1975, 1980, and 1981 New Line Cinema Corp. All rights reserved./ pp. 175, 189, 253: Photos by Lisa Costello./ p. 180 :Photo by Fredda Tone./ pp. 196f 197, 296: M-G-M/United Artists Film Corp./ p. 206: Photo by Lou Gonzalez./ pp. 216, 217, 218, 233, 238, 241 r 243, 245, 281: Libra Films Corp./ p. 264: Andy Warhol Productions./ p. 284: © 1979 Photo B. Every reasonable effort has been made to trace the ownership of all copyrighted materials included in this volume* Any errors which may have occurred are inad­ vertent and will be corrected in subsequent editions provided notification is sent to the publisher.

m id n ig h t m o v ie s . Copyright © 1983 by James Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information address Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc,r 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NT. 10022. Published simultaneously in Canada by Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, Toronto.


Designer: Ronald E Shey Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data Hoberman, J. Midnight movies. Includes index. L Moving-picture plays—History and criticism. 2, Moving-pictures— United States. I, Rosenbaum, lonathan. II. Title. PN1995.H58 1983 791,43'0973 82-47526 ISBN 0-06-015052-1 83 84 85 86 87 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 ISBN 0-06-090990-0 (pbk〇____________ 83 84 85 86 87 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


vii ix




CULTS, FETISH ES, AND FREAKS: Sex and Salvation at the Movies






EL TOPO: Through th e Wasteland of the Counterculture






















321 329

AUTHORS, NOTE A collaboration involves mutual discussion, criticism, rewriting, and research, and both of us worked, in various capacities, on all the chapters of M idnight M ovies. However, apart from the second and fifth chapters, which were literally co-authored, we tended to con­ centrate on different sections of the book. The chapters on the Un­ derground, El Topo, and John Waters were primarily written by J. Hoberman; those on The R ocky H orror P icture S how and Eraserh e a d by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Our separate contributions to Chap­ ters 9 and 10 (as well as various footnotes throughout) are signed. J.H./J.R.

V ll

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS The authors wish to acknowledge the special assistance of Tom Al­ len, Bruce A. Austin, Henry Baker, Ben Barenholtz, David Bartholo­ mew, Robert Beers, Alain Berger, Noel Carroll, Karen Durbin, Raymond Durgnat, David Ehrenstein, Mary Evans, Sandy Flittermarx, Mike Getz, Peter Gidal, Steve Hirsch, Shelley Hoberman, Mark Ja­ cobson, Iris Keitel, Sam Kitt, Allen Klein, David Lynch, Adrienne Mancia, Lee Mantleman, Bob Martin, Jonas Mekas, Craig Nelson, Walker Pearce, Sal Piro( Bill Reed, Sara Risher, Paul Schmidt, Charles Silver, P. Adams Sitney, Elliott Stein, Amy Taubin, Amos Vogel, and John Waters.


Tis now the very witching time of night, When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood, And do such bitter business as the day Would quake to look on. —Shakespeare, Hamlet, act 3, scene 2

Fly not,— —'tis just the hour, When pleasure, like the midnight flower That scorns the eye of vulgar light, Begins to bloom for sons of night, And maids who love the moon. —Sir Thomas More, ''Fly Not Yet(


RO CKY HORROR It started out as an affectionate homage to late-night movies, and ended up being an affectionately embraced late-night movie/' director Jim Sharman would say of that thing called Ho/ror. A decade ago, when The R ocky H orror S how —later to be filmed as The R ocky H orror Picture Show —was little more than a perverse gleam in the eye of one ''Ritz" O b rien , it could be said that the phenomenon virtually began with something that had already b e ­ come a cliche and a commonplace: the late-night picture show. Ever since theater exhibitors got the idea of putting on special programs at midnight— mainly diverse kinds of marginal exploitation fare, ideal for Halloween spook-a-thons or rowdy New Year’s Eve bacchanals, but also suitable for certain minority tastes on ordinary weekend and weekday nights— a distinctive strain of subterranean moviegoing had developed, after hours and under wraps. Occasionally, some presentation (a magic show, a sex education lecture, or a discussion of the evils of marijuana) would accom­ pany the feature. But most often it was just the low-budget film pro­ gram, booked on a ''flat/1 nonpercentage basis, that attracted the denizens of the night. Embroidering on the basic pattern, drive-ins across the United States would offer delirious all-night programs de­ voted to horror, sex, rock, motorcycles, or some other form of youthful outrage. By 1972, in large American cities, oddball horror films like G eorge Romero's N ight o f th e L ivin g D ea d and Tod


Browning^ F reaks were running weekend midnights at the same theater for months on end. However, midnight movies were far from being an exclusively American phenomenon, even if American genre films of a particu­ lar nature (and impoverished budget) provided the bulk of the pro* gramming. In Paris, during the 1960s, one could turn up at the Luxembourg triplex in the Latin Quarter any midnight of the week and catch a flick, usually a subtitled Hollywood favorite, at any of the three adjacent theaters. No less popular for their late shows were the celebrated Cinematheque Frangaise and the Styx (a stu­ dent haunt sandwiched between the Sorbonne and Notre Dame, devoted exclusively to grisly horror films and decked out with skele­ tons and other ghostly apparitions). Across the Channel, in London ;such late-night outposts as the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road and the Paris Pullman in Chel­ sea offered double bills that stretched far into the early hours. The fact that the pubs, buses, and tubes were all closed by then added to the cultish atmosphere, nurtured by the deep-rooted English tra­ dition of the private club— a legal category to which some of the late-night London venues belonged. Contributing to the mystique were the accoutrements of swinging London, then going through its blissed-out Beatles period. (The latter included a taste for camp— — see the Sgt. P ep p er's L on ely H earts C lu b B an d album cover, a selfstyled cult object if there ever was one— and a craze for hallucino­ genic drugs, either or both of which could easily induce a wildeyed aficionado to stay up all night.) B films and ''b a d " science-fiction movies— two favorite genres of Richard (''Ritz'') O'Brien, actor and future creator of The R ocky H orror S how —were especially popular with these youthful crowds. This was a heritage O'Brien explicitly acknowledged in his show’s sardonically wistful opening number, ''Science Fiction/Double Feature/( which he sang himself. Essentially the song is a litany of the culturally disreputable pleasures to be found at ''the latenight, double-feature picture show11: Michael Rennie as the alien in The D ay th e Earth S to od Still, Flash Gordon in his 'silver under­ wear/' Claude Rains in The In visible Man, Fay Wray and King Kong( Anne Francis in F o rbid d en Planet, Leo G. Carroll in Taran­ tula, Janette Scott in The D ay o f th e TriHids, Dana Andrews in The C u rse o f th e D em on, and G eorge Pal's W hen W orlds C ollide. The fact that O'Brien assigned himself the part of Riff Raff— outer-space alien from the planet Transylvania disguished as a hunchbacked,

menial manservant in the gothic household of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, an earthly (and earthy) transsexual scientist— underscores the sci­ ence-fiction aspect of the creator's own covert Mephistophelian role in the proceedings. An English performer who grew up in New Zealand, O'Brien had already appeared in London productions of H air (along with R ocky H orror star Tim Curry) and Jesu s Christ Superstar (as Herod, under the direction of future collaborator Jim Sharman). He'd also recorded a few singles with his wife Kimi Wong, whom he met in the English touring company of Hair. In 1972, the same year that his son Linus was born, the thirtyish O b rien set to work writing a rock musical called They C am e from D enton H igh. It was the first show h e ^ ever written, and the fact that he'd just lost his job with Jesu s Christ Superstar left him with plenty of time on his hands. 0 (Brien spent six months writing his musical, conceiving of it as 'something any ten-year-old could enjoy'f which would also attract freaks like himself into the theater. He changed his title to The R ock H orroar Show , then The R ocky H orror Show . 0 (Brien attracted the interest ot Michael White, a veteran pro­ ducer whose previous shows had ranged from Sleuth to O h! C alcut­ ta!, and enlisted the collaboration of former co-workers like Tim Curry and Jim Sharman— each of whom shared O'Brien's passion for fifties rock. (Curry^ audition for the central part of Frank-NFurter was reportedly a rousing version of Little Richard's near-psy­ chotic ''Tutti Frutti/') Sharman had already directed H air an d Jesu s Christ Su perstar back in his native Australia, along with a six-hour extravaganza combining disco dancing with Jean Genet's sexually ambiguous The M aids, and a 16-millimeter color feature, S hirley Thom pson versus th e A liens (1969), an underground movie which he later described as ''the first film to explore science fiction in terms of rock and roll.” Rock and sci-fi were two pop-culture modes which prospered during the fifties, becam e self-conscious art forms in the late sixties {Sgt. P ep p er's L on ely H earts C lu b B an d and 2001: A S p a c e O dyssey were surely the most pres 廿gious and imitated mass-cultural artworks of that decade) and finally commonplace sorts of mainstream expression by the mid-seventies. Indeed, even as R ocky H orror was germinating, the more morally dubious aspects of each {G im m e S h elter and A C lockw ork O range) had come to the fore. For that matter— as prophesied by the epicene rock star played by Mick Jagger in the 1970 P e r fo r m a n c e — British youth culture had

spawned the studied decadent ''glam'’ or "glitter" rock of David Bowie, Gary Glitter, Alvin Stardust, T. Rex and Roxy Music. With his dyed hair, elaborate makeup, and futuristic personae, Bowie, in particular, proffered the same mixture 〇{ androgynous sexuality and campy sci-fi razzmatazz that would be The R ocky H orror S h ow s most provocative element.* The plot of O'Brien^ show was as labyrinthine as the overall theme was simple. Inspired by the wedding of two friends in their hometown of Denton, Ohio, Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, a hope­ lessly square pair of childhood sweethearts, decide to tie the knot themselves. But that stormy night on their way to the home of Bradfs old college tutor, Dr. Everett V. Scott, their car breaks down and they're forced to take shelter in the mansion of Dr. Frank-NFurter— a transvestite presiding over the annual convention of aliens from the planet of Transylvania. Frank insists that Brad and Janet stay over and witness a thrilling scientific experiment, namely the creation of a perfect male specimen called Rocky Horror. With the help of his sinister servant Riff Raff, the latter's sister Magenta, and a groupie called Columbia, the doctor has taken half the brain of a motorcycle rocker and former lover, Eddie (who briefly returns to life for the duration of a song, until Frank fells him with an ax), to fashion his beloved sex object. That night, Frank seduces Janet and Brad in turn while Riff Raff vindictively torments Rocky in his resting place. Stirred by her sex­ ual initiation, Janet winds up in bed with Rocky, and Frank is furious to learn about this heterosexual hanky-panky. Just as he's about to penalize Rif{ Raff for allowing it to happen, Dr. Scott arrives at the mansion in his wheelchair, looking for his nephew Eddie. After a meal at which everyone inadvertently feasts on Eddie's flesh, Frank turns all his visitors to stone, clothes them in corsets and suspender belts, and then reanimates everyone for a climactic musical num­ ber. At the end of the number, Riff Raff and Magenta, promoted to * In his ambitious analysis of British youth culture, Subculture: The M eaning o f Style, sociologist Dick Hebdige credits Bowie with 'opening up questions of sexual identity which had previously been repressed, ignored or merely hinted at in rock and youth culture/' observing that 'every Bowie concert performed in drab pro­ vincial cinemas and Victorian town halls attracted a host of startling Bowie lookalikes, self-consciously cool under gangster hats which concealed (at least until the doors were opened) hair rinsed a luminous vermilion, orange, or scarlet streaked with gold and silver/' American analogues to the British glam rockers included Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Wayne County, and the New York Dolls.


leadership of the Transylvanians because of Frank's extreme deca­ dence, discard their earthly disguises. They destroy Frank, Colum­ bia, and Rocky with laser guns before beaming the whole mansion back to Transylvania— leaving behind a bemused Brad, Janet, and Dr. Scott in a rubble-filled crater. The R ocky H orror S how opened in June 1973, at the sixty-seat Theatre Upstairs of the Royal Court an experimental outpost on Chelsea's Sloane Square where O 'Brien had already played a strange visitor from outer space in Sam Shepherd^ The U nseen H and. The show was such an immediate hit that it was quickly relo­ cated in more auspicious surroundings— first at the Classic Cinema, a nearby converted movie house on King's Road, then further down the road in the five-hundred-seat King's Road Theatre. Built in the seventeenth century as a private route by which King Charles II could nip over to Nell Gwyn's house, Chelsea's main drag has al­ ways had something faintly illicit about it, and it seems somehow appropriate that all three of R ocky H orrors cradles were located along its deceptively straight-arrow path, not far from the same Chelsea Drugstore immortalized by The Rolling Stones' ''You Can't Always Get What You Want/' (Much later, The R ocky H orror S how shifted over to the Comedy in the West End, the legitimate London theater district, where it is still running.) Applauding the deliberate roughness of the actors* perform­ ances during the showJs early months, the late Jan Dawson reported in Film C om m ent that R ocky H orror 'works brilliantly as live the­ ater, with the audience assailed by showers of glitter and by leering, plastic-masked monsters patrolling the aisles/' (As a further indica­ tion of the show(s power to assault, Curry— a flamboyant performer who later claimed that he based the character of Frank-N-Furter on his mother—■made his first grand entrance on a dais runway that jutted out directly into the center of the auditorium.) v,As it transfers further and further from its fringe origins, the only worry is that some producer may be tempted to polish and inflate it for the cine­ ma/1 Dawson concluded. By early 1974, the American producer Lou Adler rose to the bait, reaching an agreement with Michael White less than two days after taking in a performance. The contract enabled Adler to bring the stage show to the United States— — and he premiered it at his own Los Angeles showplace, a rock club called the Roxy, later that spring. Adler, co-producer of the Monterey Pop Festival, owner of O de Records, and producer of such counterculture touchstones as 一



M onterey P op, B rew ster M cC loud, and Cheech and Chong, recog­ nized a hot property when he saw one. O n ce the show was success­ fully ensconced at the Roxy, he invited Gordon Stulberg, then the head of 20th Century-Fox, to a performance, and convinced him that a movie version should be made, budgeted at a million dollars. By this time, R ocky H orror qualified as a genuine London phe­ nomenon— as fragrant with Pre-Raphaelite Chelsea depravity as Mick Jagger (to whom Tim Curry owed more than a bit in the par­ ticulars of his sensually insolent female lips and swaggering walk), yet as cozily good-humored ds a nonexclusive after-hours club. (Printed instructions on how to dance The Time Warp— the climac­ tic Transylvanian production number — complete with helpful foot diagrams, were passed out to spectators at the end of each perform­ ance.) The successful L.A. transplant, which included Curry, seemed to prove that R ocky H orror could travel. The question that remained was, could a live rock-'nr-roll drag takeoff of late movies be translated b a c k into the medium of cinema? And would the spectacle of an American heterosexual couple sexually subverted by English and/or Transylvanian transsexuals sell tickets in the American hinterlands? The answer wasn't immediately forthcoming. After ten months on Sunset Strip in Adler*s club, the show closed in order to enable Curry to return to London to shoot the film version with O ’Brien and Sharman, who had been collaborating on the screenplay. Also arriving from California was a beeiy actor and rock singer named Meat Loaf, who had joined the cast there to play the dissimilar yet related parts of Eddie and his uncle, Dr, Scott. (Insofar as Eddie is eventually eaten at a banquet by most of the other characters, Meat Loaf's name seemed especially apt.) For the movie, Meat Loaf kept the role of Eddie while the Dr. Scott part went to Jonathan Adams, who had played the Narrator in the original London cast. Other carryovers from the first stage company included set de­ signer Brian Thomson and costume designer Sue Blane, Patricia Quinn as Magenta, and Little Nell— a street performer who had lit­ erally auditioned for her part on a sidewalk— as Columbia. Makeup artist Pierre la Roche, a former employee of Mick and Bianca Jag­ ger, was assigned to work his wonders on Dr. Furter and the Tran­ sylvanians. Peter Suschitzky, director of photography on such prestigious, if marginal, English films as It H a p p en ed H ere, P rivilege, C harlie B u bbles, and L eo th e Last, was the cinematographer. The


M m \f TR VXSYIA \ \ ! W

The Time Warp.

shooting took eight weeks, most of it at Bray Studios (the mythically resonant ''site of the decline and fall of Hammer horrors/' as En­ glish film critic Tony Rayns was later to point out), the remainder at a nineteenth-century chateau that had sheltered General Charles de Gaulle during World War II. For the memorable opening image— which placed bisexuality squarely on the line— Patricia Quinn's lips were shot in extreme close-up, obscenely mouthing the words to ''Science Fiction/Double Feature'' (with exaggeratedly precise articulation) as they were sung off-screen by O'Brien. From its first shot, the film forecast the



whole phenomenon of off-screen participation, identification, and collaboration through lip-synching on the part of future cultists. * As soon as Curry, O'Brien, and certain others becam e avail­ able, Adler set to work bringing the stage show to Broadway. Tak­ ing over the Belasco Theater, he had all the orchestra seate re* moved, replacing them with 120 cafe tables, and added a nonway dais that extended from stage center, similar to the one used back at the King(s Road. To enhance the cabaret effect, Adler drTdnged {or drinks to be served throughout the performances (and for an hour or so beforehand). The show opened in early 1975, and was an unmitigated critical and popular disaster. Adler kept it going for forty-five performances, but the response was so negative that, as he later admitted, the show could have closed almost immediately. For starters, the reviews couidn't have been worse. '.There’s something of the decadence of 1920s Germany in the painfuiiy loud drag show in what has been converted into a caJbaret-style theater/' snapped Variety, while the Tim e critic, titling his pan 'B:! of a Drag/* also complained about the amplification. Rex Reed, m one of the milder portions of his review, which virtually duplicated his putdown of the L.A. production, declared, 'T h e rock score s beneath contempt, the acting is a disgrace, and the entire evening gave me a headache for which suicide seemed the only possible relief. Wiping the whole rotten experience out of my mind forever seems, on second thought, a safer solution/' In the V illage Voice, the more historically conscious Michael Feingold wrote that the show ripped off works that ''more imaginative American artists ere* ated five and six years ago, most notably Charles Ludlam^ B lu e­ b e a r d and Ronald Tavel's G orilla Q u een /' Probably the most measured account of R ocky H orrors failure came from Clive Barnes in the N e w York Times, who had seen and praised the original London production: The show stopped on the way in Los Angeles and this was almost certainly a mistake. It is smarter now, but nothing like so crazy or, if one were in a mildly tolerant mood, so endearing. It now looks flashy, expensive and overstaged. The cast is better, the lights are brighter, the noise is more loudly amplified. But jokes—sick jokes, silly jokes, or even dirty jokes—are rarely 1m* According to R ocky H orror chronicler Bill Henkin, the original R ocky H orror trailer featured those same lascivious lips, similarly mouthing the words "20th Cen­ tury-Fox," until an outraged Dennis Stanfill, president and chairman of the board, had them removed posthaste.


proved by shouting them down a m egaphone. M ore is often less. . . . They should have found a filthy old cinem a in the East Village, forgotten about the drinks and the cab aret tables, and just thrown it on there, as a neat exam ple of ashcan art and movie nostalgia.

To this analysis one should add Adler's own postmortem on the show: New York ''thought it was too L.A/* And indeed, perhaps it was. After this debacle, the completed film received a preview in Santa Barbara in July. When the overall response proved negative, most of the distribution people at Fox were ready to throw in the towel. Obviously, the continuing commercial viability of R ocky H or­ ror was looking dubious; clearly, something essential had been ir­ revocably lost in the show^ many moves from the sixty-seat Theatre Upstairs in Chelsea. But Tim Deegan, the twenty-six-year-old publicist assigned to the film, thought differently. He noticed that the few people who liked the movie were dctudlly brimming over with excitement and gratitude afterward, as if it had been a revelation for them. This response led Deegan to suspect that the movie might not be a lost cause, and that an investment of so m e effort in its promotion might pay off in the long run. And indeed, even in the short run, when the R-rated R ocky H orror P icture S how officially opened at the United Artists Westwood on September 26, and immediately started to draw capacity crowds. The only problem, as Deegan soon discov­ ered, was that it was bombing virtually everywhere else across the nation. What was the explanation? Deegan and Adler both began to frequent the UA Westwood regularly, in an attempt to account for this discrepancy, and together they discovered an astonishing fact: a lot of L.A. crazies were going to see the film again and again, night after night. W ere the somewhat self-consciously cultish as­ pects of the original production starting to pay dividends, in some bizarrely unpredictable way? By now, a few of the regular attenders had even memorized the song lyrics and were singing along with the screen characters— an odd form of participation that suggested old TV gimmicks like ''Winky Dink and You^ or ''Sing Along with Mitch." Stranger still, the phenomenon was happening elsewhere on a more limited basis, although most theater owners werenH put­ ting much stock in it. uYou could go blind listening to the first ex-


hibitors/1 Adler later told Bill Henkin, author of The R ocky H orror Picture S how B ook. ''They^ say, 'Nothing^ happening. The theater seats 800 and we’re only getting fifty people/ What they didn’t tell us was that in a lot of those cities it was the sam e fifty people who came back every week/1 On the basis of this development, Deegan conferred with Bill Quigley, an even younger publicist who worked for the New Yorkbased Walter Reade theater chain, distributors of N ight o f th e Liv­ ing D ead in New York. Quigley, who had already handled some midnight bookings, suggested o p en in g the movie at midnight, thereby dispensing with most of the heavy promotional budget gen­ erally accorded a New York release.* Quigley and Deegan decided on a strategy whereby the film would be kept in one theater for a month to six weeks, allowing it enough time to find its audience. Thus, R ocky H orror opened at the Waverly Theater in G reen­ wich Village just after April Fool's Day 1976, and as Quigley later revealed to interviewer Evelyn Bennett, the film's entire promo bud­ get cost a mere $400— or somewhere between one five-thousandth and one fifty-thousandth the amount customarily spent on a New York opening. Yet, over the next year, The R ocky H orror P icture Show was to gross more than $3 million— opening at midnight in such far-flung places as Austin, New Brunswick, O cean Beach, Phil­ adelphia, Toronto, Tulsa, Boston, Honolulu, Kalamazoo, Nyack, and Tallahassee. Although R ocky H orror departed the Waverly in early 1978, having set the house record of ninety-five weeks, by the sum­ mer of 1978 it was playing weekend midnights at three other Man­ hattan theaters as well as several in the surrounding suburbs (by the following summer, these numbered close to twenty). By the end of the decade, Fox had two hundred prints of the film in constant cir­ culation as a midnight attraction, reportedly earning $100,000 per week, or over $5 million per year. Unexpected as it may have been, R ocky H orror fever was a * Ever since Alexandra Jodorowsky^ El Topo had established a precedent by opening at the Elgin in laie 1970, midnight premieres of offbeat movies were (with varying degrees of success) a regular aspect of New York distribution. In 1971, Viva La M uerte, Macun&ima, and Equinox were premiered at midnight; in 1972, S carecrow in a G arden o f C ucum bers; in 1973, B roken G oddess, Dragula, The W hite W hore an d th e Bit Player, Elevator G irls in B on dage, and Pink Flam ingos; in 1974, The Holy Mountain, Flesh G ordon, A rn old s W recking Com pany, and H ex; in 1975, Snapshots and The N oah. Five of these— Equinox, S carecrow in a G arden o f C ucum bers, The H oly M ountain, Snapshots, and The N oah—had pre­ miered at the Waverly.


long time coming. Fueled by rock 'n' roll, camp, and memories of the late sixties counterculture (which had inherited a lot, in turn, from Parisian surrealism), R ocky H orror drew on the underground movies and ’’^idiculous,, theater of a decade before, and followed in the wake of such celluloid rites of passage as El T opo and Pink Flam ingos. Beyond all this, however, The R ocky H orror P icture S how tapped into something intrinsic to the history of cinema for at least half a century— the mysterious phenomenon of film cultism it­ self.


CULTS, FETISHES, AND FREAKS: Sex and Salvation at the Movies Every feast, even when it has purely lay origins, has certain character­ istics of the religious ceremony, for in every case its effect is to bring men together, to put the masses into movement and thus excite a state of evanescence, and sometimes even delirium, which is not withoui a certain kinship with the religious state. A man is carried outside himself and diverted from his ordinary occupations and preoccupations. Thus the same manifestations are to be observed in each case: cries, songs, music, violent movements, dances, the search for stimulants which raise the vital level, etc. It has frequently been remarked that popular feasts lead to excesses, and cause men to lose sight of the distinction separating the licit from the illicit., , .

—fimile Durkheim The Elem entary Form s o f th e R eligious L ife

If the origins of art are to be found in religion, the movies are surely the universal secular faith of the twentieth century. ''What is reli­ gion?'' asks Parker Tyler in The H ollyw ood H allucination. ''Is it not strictly speaking the spiritual illumination of the dark?'' Purely as phenomena, the cinema provided d simulation of religious epipha­ ny on dn unprecedented, assembly-line scale; although written be-


fore World War I, the French sociologist £mile Durkheim's descrip­ tion of ''the positive cult" is a virtual prediction of the sort of behavior observable any weekend night at the two hundred American theaters offering The R ocky H orror P ictu re Show . Every film, no matter how tawdry, ruptures the flow of ordinary ''profane1( time to offer a whiff of immortality, a heightened pres­ ence, that can b e experienced by the passive spectator without ac­ tual physical contact. In terms of Catholic ritual— whose midnight mass bears an unmistakable resemblance to the midnight movie— transubstantiation involves a spiritual passage from the physicality of the wafer and the wine to the physicality of Jesus Christ's flesh and blood. In terms of film illusion, transcendence involves a spiritual passage from the physicality of a seat in a darkened theater to the physicality of an imaginary time-space continuum, whether devised by Walt Disney or Michael Snow, Roberto Rossellini or Russ Meyer. Philosophers of religion tell us that repetition confers a higher, MmythicM reality upon events. Thdt is, archetypes are archetypes precisely because they repeat themselves. So, of course, do mov­ ies— ■ and adherents return to reexperience their favorites again and again. Critic Andrew Sarris confesses to having seen 77j twenty-four nonlinear minutes and projecting it at silent speed through a piece of blue glass io the accompaniment of excerpts from the album H oliday in Brazil. Cornell called his film ^bse ds though it were a documentary about the leading lady of the original footage. Thirty-two years later, the American under­ ground filmmaker Ken Jacobs similarly transformed a 'ready-made" movie by re­ filming the projected image of a 1905 Biograph chase film, Tom, Tom the P ip ers Son, in variedly fractured slow, reverse, and stop motions. (The new Tom, Tom was approximately twelve times as long as the original.) Jacobs had worked for Cornell briefly in the late fifties and borrowed Cornell's print of R ose H obart to show his friend Jack Smith. Thus R ose H obart can be seen as a catalytic precursor to two of the most influentially radical films— Tom, Tom and Flam ing C reatures — produced in New York City during the sixties.


Mother Gin-Sling (Ona Munson) and Poppy (Gene Tierney) in The S h an g h ai G esture.

In response to the query ''What dream does Maria Ouspenskaya belong to, and what is this dream?,/ Ado Kyrou hypothesized, ''She is part of Charteris, dream; in it she represents the mother of all the petite Chinese women serving at the dinner table whom the worthy


functionary raped/* while Gerard Legrand more modestly pro­ posed, ''A coolie's dream. In the midst of numerous broken win­ dows, Maria Ouspenskaya leads the Chinese maids towards an immense wicker cage.” Other highlights of this lengthy investigation include JeanLouis Bedouin's choice of perversion for the character Poppy {G ene Tierney)— "clasping an octopus betw een stocking and thigh"— and Jean Schuster's catalog of Mother Gin Sling's dinner menu— ^alligator eggs in rum, earlobes of children from the Euro­ pean Concession in Shanghai; the juice of elephants' livers, solidi­ fied by the gusts of wind collected in the sails of all the junks of the Blue River, sauteed potatoes, swallows' blood wine/' Above all else, the surrealists insisted that the relationship b e ­ tween film and spectator was primarily libidinal. That Paul £luard discovered P eter Ibb etson (a 1935 Hollywood film that Breton con­ sidered comparable only to Luis Buners L 'A ge d'O r in its depiction of I'am our b u ) by impulsively trailing an attractive woman into a movie theater was seen as ultimate proof. Following Freud, the surrealists used the bedrock of sex as a means to demystify religion, although_ from the very beginning— the erotic lure of the movies was scarcely unnoticed. As Kenneth Anger pithily puts it in H ollyw ood B abylon: ''Never have so few— for the Hollywood stars of the First Magnitude were never more than a select few, a charmed circle— furnished masturbation fodder for so many. No other Religion can make that statement." * But the surrealists took cinematic sex appeal a step further. In a 1980 article on surrealist film theory, Paul Hammond para­ phrases Gerard Legrand"s notion of the spectator's absolute subjec­ tivity. If 'nobody sees the same filmZ, it is partly because of the absolute solitude the spectator feels in the darkened cinema. But it is mostly because the film addresses * In a provocative 1973 essay, ''The Carole Lombard in Macy's Window/' Charles Eckert argues that movies eroticized American consumption habits. ''What should we ascribe to ihe potent acculturation provided by Hollywood for several decades? Were we, as consumers, such skilled and habituated perceivers of libidinal cues, such receptive audiences for associations! complexes, such romanticizers of homes, stores, and highways before Hollywood gave us D inner dt Eight, The Big Store and The S p eed Thai Kills? I would suggesi that we were not, that Hollywood, drawing upon the resources of literature, art, and music, did as much or more than any other force in capitalist culture to smooth the operation of the produciionconsumption cycle by fetishizing products and putting the libido in libidinally in­ vested advertising/'


itself directly and immediately to the unconscious. Since sexual­ ity is the very stuff of unconscious thought, it follows that even the most chaste film acts on us in an erotic way. Legrand had been struck by the way that even the most sympathetic friends could argue vehemently about a film. The intensity of feeling, the desire to b e right in an argument where reason must play second fiddle, he likens to the public revelation of one's most secret sexual preferences. It is fetishism, he concludes, that ce­ ments us to film. From a surrealist point of view, the rival positions of Smith, Mourlet, Kael, and Sarris are determined by their erotic subtext. Even at the time, much was made in film magazines over the fact that Kael's shrillest attacks against Sarris and other auteurist critics bristled with sexual innuendo—•she wondered why all auteurists were male and implied that many were closet queens. As recently as 1980, in a personal statement about Kael in the V illage V oice, Sarris— — who once proclaimed the bedrock of his devotion to ''bad movies’’ in three words ("girls! girls! girls!")— discussed the impor­ tance of this aspect of the debate. Correspondingly, the double en­ tendres with which Kael has compulsively titled all her collections of movie reviews (I Lost It at the M ovies, Kiss Kiss B an g Bang, G oin g Steady, D eep er into M ovies, R eelin g, W hen th e Lights G o Down)* have often been commented on— most ferociously by Renata Adler in a review of the last book, which scored Kael's sadomasochistic taste for violence and erotic cruelty. The inescapable conclusion is that the championing of Hawks and Hitchcock by Sarris and others in the sixties, like the champion­ ing of Bertolucci, Blier, and De Palma by Kael and others in the seventies, are— in great measure— erotic preferences rationalized into esthetic manifestos, if not religious dogma.1 In the popular film * This tendency has even led one prominent critic, Robert Brustein, to unwittingly hallucinate an imaginary Kael title, A ll the Way With M ovies. (See his C ritical M oments: R ejection s on Theatre an d S ociety, 1973-1979, Random House, 1980.) tSarris‘s critical judgments are underscored by an only partially ironic sense of literal revelation. In his introduction to C onfessions o f a Cultist, he approvingly cites Andre Bazin's comparison of film festivals to religious revivals, while defen­ sively asserting that he himself has ''never really recovered from the Parisian her­ esy (in New York eyes) concerning the sacred importance of the cinema." Sarris s most important book. The A m erican Cinem a, explicitly establishes a directorial ■'pantheon." This encyclopedic text is actually nothing less than the bible of the auteurist iaith, and is filled with glosses on rival sects— e.g., ''What little [Frank] Tashlin cult there was has now shifted entirely to Jerry Lewis1>, and ''How a David Miller cult got started is one of the unsolved mysteries of underground criticism.’,


criticism that already seems domindnt in the eighties, erotic cults of personality which provide the pretexts for esthetic arguments are still the main order of the day. That contemporary critics have been freer to go with the un­ conscious flow is symptomatic of the broad cultural changes of the 1960s. For one thing, there was a radical loosening of the moral straitjacket that had long gripped American society and Hollywood movies. For another, the institution of television had effectively ren­ dered moviegoing a minority taste. Throughout the sixties, American film cults blossomed and spread in lavish profusion. Challenging the divide-and-rule demo­ graphics of mainstream movies, spectators of assorted esthetic, sexu­ al, and political persuasions forged new collectivities founded upon new reasons for seeing films, in some cases inventing rituals that were totally their own. The times were obviously changing during the winter of 1961-62 when a decrepit movie house on New York(s Lower East Side— a sort of primitive Cinematheque where surrealist shorts and British documentaries rubbed shoulders with Hollywood “classics"— began to host midnight screenings of films that, with sudden frequency, were actually being produced by the audience itself.


THE UNDERGROUND The only solution for the artist of tomorrow is to go underground.

—Marcel Duchamp (1961)

Underground movies— the very term wais redolent of danger, se­ crecy, subversion, resistance, liberation; not to mention perversity, alienation, even madness. In 1959, V illage V oice film critic dnd Film C ulture editor Jonas Mekas paraphrased Rimbaud in his call for a new generation of American filmmakers: ''There is no other way of breaking the frozen cinematic ground than through a co m p lete de­ rangement of the official cinematic senses.M In fact, something was stirring under the ice. In 1958, a young Method actor named John Cassavetes was shooting his self-financed $15,CX)0 feature S hadow s— a roughhewn, semi-improvised slice of life that followed a cast of black and boho characters through the urban netherworld of Times Square and environs. Meanwhile, painter Alfred Leslie and photographer Robert Frank were holed up in a Lower Manhattan loft filming the third act of an unproduced play by Jack Kerouac. Titled Pull M y Daisy, the result was a. breezily eccentric depiction of assorted beat poets (Allen Ginsberg, G reg ­ ory Corso, Peter Orlovsky) hanging out, cutting up, and goofing on a would-be religious proselytizer. The films were premiered togeth­ er by Cinema 16, Amos V ogels pioneering foreign and experimen­ tal film society, in November 1959. ''It was a big event/' Vogel re­


members. ''There was a lot of electricity in the air/' Although S hadow s was unknown, Pull My D aisy had already received a fair amount of prescreening publicity as a beatnik mani* festo. The screening was in New York City at the Fashion Industries Auditorium, a sixteen-hundred-seat hall on West Twenty-Fourth Street (and because both movies were in thirty-five millimeter, Vo­ gel and his associates had to lug over their portable thirty-five milli­ meter projector in twenty carrying cases). The response, Vogel recalls, mixed real enthusiasm with ''outright booing and hissing(,; it was generally ''very favorable,/ but ''there were people who cursed us.M Mekas praised both films highly and, the following year, the Lithuanian-born critic— who had arrived in the United States a d ec­ ade before as a World War II ''displaced personM— began shooting his own ultra-low-budget feature (also in thirty-five millimeter), G uns o f th e Trees, a militantly disjointed expression of beatnik discontent complete with stridently poetic interludes by Allen Ginsberg. Even before G uns o f the T rees was completed (premiering at Cinema 16 in late 1961), various sixteen-millimeter ''underground movies’’一 a catchall term coined by the experimental animator and social satirist Stan Vanderbeek*— were starting to surface dt ob­ scure venues around the slum neighborhood soon to be known as the East Village. Vanderbeek's own American Underground Cine­ ma was a peripatetic exhibition center that floated from storefront to store{ront, occasionally taking refuge in Julian Beck and Judith Malinas controversial Living Theater (where Cinema 16 had already programmed experimental films.) Then, in late 1961, a pair of young buffs— W alter Langsford and Ed Stein — acquired the

*Although critic Manny Farber had published ''Underground Films: A Bit of Male Truth" in the November 1957 issue of Com m entary, his 'underground films'' were the culturally disreputable action flicks of then obscure directors like Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh. In 1961, Vanderbeek gave the term its better-known meaning when he wrote a manifesto, "The Cinema Delimina: Films from the Un­ derground," for the summer issue of Film Q uarterly. The filmmakere he discussed included Robert Frank, Shirley Clarke, Norman McLaren, lonas Mekas, Robert Breer, Ed Emshwiller, Bruce Conner, and Stan Brakhage, many of whom (as well as filmmakers like Gregory Markopoulos and Harry Smith) were members of a.n older film avant-garde with roots that extended back to the 1940s. Throughout the 1960s, "underground movies,< were synonymous with dJI avant-garde or ''experimentar, films. In this chapter, however, we have narrowed the focus of the term to concentrate on a group of filmmakers who emerged in New York City during the early sixties and whose work was distinguished from both commercial movies an d the earlier avant-garde by a combination of willful primitivism, taboo-breaking sex­ uality, and obsessive ambivalence toward American popular culture {mainly Holly­ wood).


The Charles Theater, 1962.

Charles, a moldering seven-hundred-seat movie house on Avenue B, a few blocks north of Tompkins Square Park. Like the handful of other Manhattan revival theaters (the Tha­ lia, the New Yorker, the Bleecker Street Cinema) that catered to the rising interest in offbeat movies, the Charles offered an eclectic pro­ gram. Astaire-Rogers musicals alternated with Italian neorealist dra­ mas; Edgar G. Ulmer (director of cheap B movies like The N ak ed Dawn and M urder Is M y Beat) was celebrated along with the Marx Brothers; and Orson Welles's Touch o f Evil was touted as a master­ piece superior to Citizen K ane. In addition to staking out a position at the radical edge of the auteurist spectrum, the Charles defined its personality in other


ways. The lobby exhibited the work of local artists; on Sundays there were jazz concerts; and, once d week (in a bid to attract the neighborhood's senior citizens), the theater ran a special Ukrainianlanguage double bill. A rare, ldte-night public screening of Stanley Kubrick's first independent feature, F ea r an d D esire, was accompa­ nied by a panel discussion including local critics like Dwight Mac­ donald and Herman G. Weinberg, while a daytime program devoted exclusively to silent movies included old-time title cards addressed to the theater patrons. Looking to further expand the perimeters of their grassroots, slum-located culture center, Langsford and Stein recruited Mekas to organize some additional screenings. Significantly, these were to be on weekends at midnight, lending them a heady aura of cultish exoticism.* Film historian P. Adams Sitney, then a sixteen-year-old New Haven high-school student, compares the Charles midnight audience to that which used to gather in ua kind of ersatz religion, eleven o’clock on Sunday momings,, for Cinema 16 except that at the Charles, the atmosphere was 'purified by the absense of West Side psychoanalysts and professors from Columbia.” Today Vogel terms the 'seediness" of the Charles ''very positive/' There was a ''properly bedraggled beat audience spitting in the face of the bourgeoisie/1+ Mekas was then in the early stages of his passionate commit­ ment to American experimental cinema, and — educating himself a step ahead of his readership— he scheduled a series of one-person shows for avant-garde filmmakers, following up these programs with * In November 1953, Cinema 16 had organized four midnight screenings of Leo Joannon's Vous N 'avez Rien a D eclarer?—a 1936 French sex farce starring Raimu—that had been denied the New York censor s seal of approval (The semiclandestine showings were held at a now demolished midtown art theater.) From 1949 through 1963, Cinema 16 had regular screenings at 11:00 a.m, on Sunday mornings at various art houses throughout Manhattan. Pointing out that for most of this period, New York s religious leaders were able to enforce unofficial Mblue laws'" keeping the citys shops and theaters closed on Sunday until 1:00 p.m.; Vo­ gel sees the Cinema 16 presentations as a ritual parallel to midnight movies. tThe nearby candy stores, Polish social clubs, bars (like Stanley's, an influential hangout), and fast-food outlets gave the whole location some of the funky ethnic ambience also found in the popular London freak (and movie-freak) emporium of the same decade, the Electric Cinema, Walking eastward from the classier groves of NYU, The New School, and the Filth Avenue Cinema (where they served free espresso at little tables in the lobby, and serviced the uptown shrinks and academ­ ics with the latest Bergman) in the West Village, I used to devour half a pizza one slice at a time, each one at a different Italian counter along Fourteenth Street, en route to, say, an unsubtitled print of Michelangelo Antonioni's L e A m iche, or a late-night screening of Robert Bresson s A Man E scaped. (J. R.)


articles in the V illage V oice. Mekas had an eye for interesting new talent as well. At his suggestion, the Charles began holding monthly open screenings, where admission was ninety-five cents or one film. (Sitney remembers routinely smuggling three people in on a single camera roll— one flashed the box, another the can, and the third the ■film itself.) According to Langsford, these open houses were initially a stopgap measure precipitated by the exhaustion of available Ukrai­ nian talkies. Their astonishing popularity— the first had a crowd of hungry filmmakers lined up around the block— took everyone by surprise. Among the hundreds of neophyte directors who had their first public showings at the Charles were future Warhol associate Paul Morrissey, then Columbia student Brian De Palma, cinematog­ rapher Nestor Almendros, distributor Fred Baker, and celluloid sati­ rist Robert Downey. 'T h e Charles screenings were wide-open/1 recalled Jack Smith, whose own F lam in g C rea tu res was soon to becom e the most notorious underground movie of them all. ''Peo­ ple brought their own films and saw them on the huge Charles screen— a truly surrealistic experience . . . and they looked damn good." Mainstream critics who visited the Charles were as apt to re­ view the audience as the movies: "Madison Avenue types mix among the beards, black leotards, and sloppy sweaters/' wrote the correspondent for one Sunday supplement. ''Half the audience jug­ gles paper cups of coffee. Some pull sandwiches or chicken legs from pockets or bags/1 The screenings were social events — ''a lot like a party/* as Andy Warhol remembered them— and a N ew York Times reporter was as struck by the intensity of the discussions that erupted during intermissions as he was nonplussed by the exhibit of ''Easter Island monoliths*' up in the mezzanine. Out of discretion or ignorance, no newspaper thought to men­ tion the pungent aroma of marijuana that frequently wafted through the theater, but more than anything else, outside observers were impressed by the Charles's uninhibited patrons. A udience adds sound effects , the N ew York P ost headlined a piece on the phenom­ enon, anticipating its coverage of the R ocky H orror cult by fifteen years. ''Booing, hissing, and applause were all permitted equally/' one habitue fondly recalled— a state of affairs that could prove quite traumatic. ''After showing my rushes here I felt like committing sui­ cide/' the Tim es reporter overheard an unhappy NYU student com­ plain. Six months of open screenings culminated, in July 1962, with a


single grand Filmmakers Festival, co-sponsored by the trade weekly S how Business. Michael Putnam's The H ard Swing, a twenty-fourminute cinema verite portrait of a San Francisco stripper, won first prize, while twenty-seven-year-old Ron Rice, represented by two films— The F low er T hief and S en seless—was named ''most promis­ ing filmmaker/1 A high-school dropout with a fierce Zapata mus­ tache, an aggressive personal style, and a phenomenal appetite for drugs, Rice would have little chance to redeem his promise. Within two and a half years, he was dead of pneumonia in Acapulco. In 1962, however, Rice was a man whose moment had come. The F low er T hiel had its New York premiere on April 25 at Cinema 16 (on a double bill called ''The Beats and the Outs,Malong with The M irage, an experimental feature by the Swedish play­ wright Peter Weiss), and even more than Pull M y D aisy or G uns o f the Trees— movies which, compared to The F low er Thief, seemed positively staid— Rice:s opus was the beatnik film p a r ex cellen c e. The film featured coffeehouse poet {and former stockbroker) Taylor Mead as a kind of Zen village idiot, clutching a teddy bear as he wandered through the fleshpots of San Francisco's North Beach. It was shot on outdated film stock with a handheld camera, haphaz­ ardly constructed and filled with puzzling nonsequiturs— but it was as fresh, lyrical, and immediate as it was self-indulgent. The some­ what shorter S en seless was a plotless, rhythmically edited ''On the R oad in M exico" which climaxed with the rolling of the worlds largest joint. Typically brash, Rice credited Mekas (whom he did not know at the time he made the film) as the author of its nonexistent script. The success of the Filmmakers Festival inspired another first: starting in mid-July, The F low er T hief began playing a continuous engagement at the Charles along with another Taylor Mead vehi­ cle, Vernon Zimmerman's To L.A. with Lust. Unexpectedly, Rice's feature got something close to a rave from the N ew York Times critic Eugene Archer and, despite the Charles's lack of air-condi­ tioning, The F low er T hief played to full houses for three weeks. Mead, whom The N ew Y orker subsequently described as 'a cross between a zombie and a kewoie [who] speaks as if his mind and mouth were full of marshmallow/' becam e the first underground movie star. Soon, Rice was at work on his most ambitious film, The Q u een o f S h eb a M eets th e A tom Man, a projected three-hour epic starring Mead in a mad-scientist variation on his F low er T hief persona.


Taylor Mead in Ron Rice's The Q ueen o f S h eb a M eets th e Atom Man.

(Cheerfully vacant, Mead spends much of the film dragging around a barrelful of ''narcotics/; At one point, he tentatively sniffs some cleansing powder, and at another, plugs an electric cord into his nose in a discombobulated attempt to get high.) Playing opposite the diminutive ''Atom Man,; was an enormous, seemingly drunken, and frequently naked, black woman named Winifred Bryant. Al­ though set mainly in Mead's decrepit pad, the film’s locations ranged from the Hoboken ferry to the World of the Future exhibit in the lobby of the Union Carbide building, where Mead crept about furtively licking the plastic model of a chain reaction. ''A pro­ test which is violent, childish, and sincere— a protest against an in-


dustrial world based on the cycle of production and consumption/' novelist Alberto Moravia pronounced after he saw The Q u een o f S h eb a in Rome. That September, the Charles management announced another Filmmakers Festival, as well as ambitious plans to open a second, all-underground venue at the Windsor, a Lower East Side theater said to be the oldest movie house in New York. Only the festival came off, and that was to be the Charles's last hurrah. The theater went dark a month later and, when it reopened in January 1963 as the New Charles it was under the more conventional management of future porn mogul Radley Metzger. Apparently, Langsford and Stein ran out of money (or perhaps just interest), although Jack Smith put the situation in its most dramatic light: The ''Golden Age,( of the Charles ''ended when the ecstasy got out of hand and it became difficult to collect admissions because of the confusion of filmmakers and audience.MBefore long, however, Mekas was run­ ning another series, U nderground Midnights, at the nearby Bleecker Street Cinema. Moreover, he had found a group of young filmmakers whose work he was to particularly promote and, in February 1963, he organized a program of their films under the decep­ tively benign title ''Newest Absurd and Zen Poetry/1 Mekas*s most important proteges were Ron Rice, Jack Smith, and Ken Jacobs. None was older than thirty. Jacobs, a Brooklynborn ex-painter, had been working on a mammoth feature starring Smith since 1957. Titled S tar S p a n g le d to D eath, this nevercompleted opus was designed as a vast symphony of social disgust, filmed in industrial back alleys, sordid slum dives, and New Jersey junkyards. Interpolated among the extended scenes of Smith's bi­ zarre clowning were all manner of ''found footage"( (soft-core porn films, home movies, political advertisements). Mekas discovered Ja­ cobs at a Charles open screening where the filmmaker had pseudonymously presented Little S tabs at H appiness, a series of camera rolls that were unedited except for the addition of titles and a soundtrack composed mainly of ancient 78 recordings- ''Strictly light summer fare/' Jacobs called it. ''Very easy and fun to do. . . . A few of those inexpressable moods of the moment are captured and displayed on film as they never before have been/' In addition to Jacobs’s elaborately casual camera works, LM e Stabs featured several remarkable improvisations by Smith. In the first episode, Smith sat in an empty bathtub, his head wrapped in tinfoil and his nose painted blue, energetically smoking a cigarette


while chomping on the crotch of a naked rubber baby doll. At the film's conclusion, he reappeared in a harlequin suit as the ''Spirit of Listlessness/; sprawled out on a Lower East Side rooftop, playing with a balloon and giggling in mock helplessness when it floated away. Even more than Rice, Jacobs invented a new film idiom de­ voted to spontaneous antics and manic despair, in which socially marginal underdogs dramatized themselves as the true antiheroes of America's scrap-heap civilization.* * A year or two later, in her essay ''Notes on Camp/' Susan Sontag would maintain that ''the two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony/; The collaborations between Jacobs and Smith were, among other things, a synthesis of these two forces.


Jacobs followed Little S tabs with B lon d e C obra, a portrait of Smith constructed out of opaque, unexposed film and footage from two abandoned movies by a mutual friend, Bob Fleischner. Jacobs and Smith assembled a soundtrack that juxtaposed snatches of a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie, a German tango, a children's record, and taped radio news with Smith's hysterical singsong 'confessions(,: ''Why shave when I can1! even think of a reason for liv­ ing?" ''Sex is a pain in the ass. Sex is a pain in the ass!^ ''A moth­ er^ wisdom has dragged me down to this— a crummy loft, a life of futility, hunger, despair, boop-boop-a-doop!” The action in Sionc/e C ob ra was confined largely to a cluttered room where Smith dressed up in drag or baby clothes, pulverized a radio with a ham­ mer, feasted on clumps of fallen plaster, and burned holes in his friend's necktie. The performance established Smith as an under­ ground star on a par with Taylor Mead; in fact, Rice had already written him into The Q u een o f S h eb a M eets the Atom Man. But Jack Smith was more than just a performer. Throughout the summer of 1962, around the same time that Rice was beginning The Q u een o f S h eb a and Jacobs was editing B lon d e C obra, Smith was shooting the film that provided the underground with its first cause celebre. * Years later, Smith would describe Flam ing C reatu res as a com­ edy set in a haunted Hollywood studio but, in the taboo-ridden cul­ tural climate of the early sixties, it was a good deal more than that. The film’s initial viewers, Gregory Markopoulos recalled, 'w ere projected into a state of cosmic or filmic shock. Those images, scenes and sequences which they had envisioned and had wished would appear in the commercial film which they attended were un­ expectedly offered before their eyes. . . . The audience burst forth and roared, while the walls of censorship began to crack/( Visually, Flam ing C reatu res was a cross between Josef von Sternberg at his most studiedly artistic and a delirious home movie of a transvestite masquerade. As P. Adams Sitney would later ob­ serve, Flam ing C reatu res manifested what Smith found ''implicated in Maria Montez and von Sternberg's films, and without the interfer­ ence of a plot. What he brings to the fore is what has been latent in

* Smith made his first film一 three minutes of various costumed characters dancing around a wreckage-strewn trash heap (one of 没占 ;-Spdng/ec? to “sets")—in 1959. Accompanied by a peppy rhumba, it was called S cotch Tape, after the dirty piece of stickum that had wedged itself inside the camera and got printed in one comer of the image throughout the film.


Jack Smith's Flam ing C reatures.

those films— visual texture, androgynous sexual presence, exotic lo­ cations/' Using grossly outdated black-and-white film stock, which gave the images a striking ethereality, Smith presented a discontin­ uous series of tableaux accompanied by a sound montage of Maria Montez dialogue, ''hacienda’’ music, and rock 'n' roll. H is 、、creatures/7 as he called them, included mock-Arabian odalisques, sultry Spanish dancers, and vampirelike Marilyn Monroe clones, among many others not so easily classified. (Francis Francine, a retired C o­ ney Island transvestite, was intended as the film's star but disap­ peared midway through the production.)


Flam ing C reatu res begins staidly with assorted creatures flut­ tering back and forth in front of the poster which serves as the film's opening credits. A tableau of a man in a white dress languidly flirt­ ing with a woman in a black nightgown is followed by overhead shots of various creatures applying lipstick. After a brief tangle of naked and half-naked bodies, a somewhat longer sequence of crea­ tures collapsing in slow motion, and a static composition carefully framed to include the sole of someone* s dirty foot facing the cam­ era, a transvestite starts chasing the woman, seizes her, and throws her down. At this point, as Sitney describes it, the '"camera begins to vibrate, blur, and participate/' The ''creatures immediately con­ verge on their victim, strip her, smell her armpits, poke her genitals, and crawl all over her. This rape sets in motion a general orgy which the camera, now wildly shaking, glimpses without making specific/( The orgy, in turn, precipitates an earthquake. "'The whole set goes into spasms; the lantern sways frantically; plaster falls from the ceiling on the writhing creatures, who seem to have intensified their frenzy in the knowledge that this might be their final baccha­ nal/7 (According to one member of the cast, Flam ing C reatu res was shot ''in broiling sunlight^ on the roof of the Windsor Theater. The performers were ''high as kites, Jack pouring ceiling plaster all over them . . . and careening dangerously above on some swinging, homemade contraption .’’) But this convulsive sexual apocalypse does not end the movie. For a time, the camera considers the empty space. Then a man dressed to resemble Marilyn Monroe emerges from a coffin, clutch­ ing a bouquet of lilies. Prowling among the dead creatures, the blond vampire selects one to ravish (lifting its dress and idly playing with its penis). This rebirth of sexual interest brings the rest of the creatures back to lite and the film ends, like a Busby Berkeley musi­ cal, with a series of ensemble and solo dance numbers. Flam ing C reatu res ran for about forty-five minutes and is sup­ posed to have been made for $300 (a budget which lifts films like S hadow s and Pull M y D aisy into the realm of Cecil B. De Mille spectacles). Smith has written that the movie was made specifically to be screened at the Charles. But, by the time he finished it, the Charles was no longer an underground showcase. Thus, the film was premiered at midnight, April 29, 1963, at the Bleecker Street* * In his history of avant-garde cinema, Film Is, Stephen Dwoskin recalls that Mthe first screening 〇{ Flam ing C reatures took place in a storage loft just olf Washington Square Village. Various members of the press managed to get in and it was ru­


and there its vicissitudes— and those of the underground— began. For starters, all Underground Midnights at the Bleecker were can­ celed. According to Mekas, the theater managers, Marshall Lewis and Rudy Franchi, complained that the ''low quality of the under­ ground" was ruining the Bleecker"s reputation. Responding in the V illage V oice, Mekas issued a manifesto on the ''Baudelairean Cin­ ema/* citing Flam ing C reatu res, The Q u een o f S h eb a M eets th e Atom Man, B lon d e C obra, and Little S tabs at H appin ess as the four films making up ''the real revolution in cinema today/* These mov­ ies, he declared, . . . are illuminating and opening up sensibilities and experi­ ences never before recorded in the American arts; a content which Baudelaire, the Marquis de Sade, and Rimbaud gave to world literature a century ago and which [William] Burroughs gave to American literature three years ago. It is a world ol flowers of evil, of illuminations, of tom and tortured flesh; a po­ etry which is at once beautiful and terrible, good and evii, deli­ cate and dirty. A thing that may scare an average viewer is that this cinema is treading on the very edge of perversity. These artists are without inhibitions, sexual or any other kind.. . . There is now a cinema for the few, too terrible and too ''decadeni