From 1982 to 1986, Bill Landis sat in a booth and showed people sleazy movies at Times Square theaters with Greek names. Now, of course, he lives in Jersey and has no sense of humor. Thanks to the gentrification of his old neighborhood, those once-sleazy theatres are now restaurants with Greek names, and down the block, families sit in once-sticky seats, enthralled by animal action of a different sort: The Lion King. For Landis, himself a devoted filthy theatergoer since 1975, it’s a nightmare come true. I read his lament for the glory days of sleaze, Sleazoid Express (Simon & Schuster), we chatted and somehow I managed to offend him. Ross Martin
Things ain’t what they used to be in Times Square, eh?
It’s completely Disneyfied. The topography changed; it’s a mall.
What’s the difference between a “grind house” and a “shoebox” theater?
Grind houses were opulent, old-style movie palaces with chandeliers, opera seats and huge screens. They seated several hundred people and played all kinds of films, across genres. A shoebox theater catered to the adult audience, seated eighty to 200, usually on one floor, and was shaped like a rectangular shoebox.
My introduction to these theaters was that Madonna video where the kid sneaks in and sees her gyrating.
That was the Liberty, one of the nicer grind houses, which showed the better sleaze and, later, the cannibal movies. They had a little TV outside showing trailers to lure people in off the street.
For the record, just how seedy were these old theaters?
Depended on the time of day and the movie. It was a very egalitarian form of entertainment that attracted all sorts kids cutting school, people on dates, inner-city people escaping the cold or heat. The biggest hits cost five dollars. Certain theaters, like The Ankle, which was across from Port Authority, catered to a more criminal element.
|SCHLOCK OF AGES
Bill Landis’s top five
sleazy movies of all time:
The Olga movies (1966-67): Olga’s House of Shame; White Slaves of Chinatown; Olga’s Girls
The Flesh movies (1967-68): Curse of Her Flesh; Kiss of Her Flesh; Touch of Her Flesh
Pets (1974): “A good California girl movie.”
The Perverse Countess (1973)
Ilsa: She Wolf of the S.S. (1975): “For shock value.”
You make it sound like going to these theaters wasn’t so subversive after all.
A lot of these movies were just not accepted critically. Euro-sleaze movies were the most extreme, but they had too much style and narrative to be pigeonholed as conventional pornography.
You savored the artistic merit of ’70s porn, but audiences today don’t have those standards and expectations. What sleaze should people see that they haven’t?
Mona, the first porn shown publicly. It was directed by Howard Ziehm, who later made Flesh Gordon. Mona gets pimped by her sleazy boyfriend. Psychedelically executed, with a lot of good lifted music from the Rolling Stones and the Bee Gees. It’s a tragicomedy of sexual misadventure, in a nutshell.
Sounds like my friend Seth’s cup of tea.
A lot of sexual content got sublimated into imaginative kinky variants, projections of what people wanted to fantasize about. Female prisons, for example. Or violence would take the place of the sex. This had a carnival effect: it was great for dates, because the girls wanted comfort during the scary ride.
Speaking of scary rides, what exactly is a “roughie”?
A movie that pivots on sadomasochism, kinks, violation. A lot of them had revenge themes. In the ’60s, they were suggestive; in the ’80s, they were more explicit. Last House on the Left was a severe roughie about an attack on two girls by jail-jumping freaks.
And what are “mondo” films?
Mondo Magic was the most shocking mondo movie ever. Mondos were a collection of shock documentaries that might be real and might be fake. Clips of native customs, ridiculous westerner customs, etc. They were a predecessor to reality TV.
From the projection booth, could you see some Pee Wee Hermanesque action down below?
If they were masturbating, I didn’t want to know about it.
But in all those years, you must’ve met some Pee Wees.
I kept a professional distance from people like that.
Who cleaned up?
In the booth, was it hard to keep your head in the game?
I locked the door.
Of course you did.
I was writing the early issues of my magazine, Sleazoid Express, a bulletin about what was playing in Times Square. Hundreds of people would read it. No one else was reviewing these films.
Ever have to stop a movie for some reason?
Sometimes you’d have chaos if the film snapped. A blinding light would come on in the theater and panic people.
Being a projectionist is a rather thankless job.
You try to maintain anonymity, not to have too much contact.
Were you ever embarrassed by your job?
Why would I be?
Right. You refer to films you projected as the first truly interactive films.
People wanted to get the most bang for their buck. If the movie disappointed them, they’d throw things at the screen.
Was there an unwritten code among “grinders,” certain holes you shouldn’t go poking around in?
They became unsafe because of the crack epidemic. Crackheads were insane in their criminality, while the junkies would just pass out.
Ever have sex in the booth?
That’s not an appropriate question to ask me.
You’re absolutely right. I’m really sorry. Okay, so how’d you get the job?
Answered an ad in The Village Voice.
In your book, you say the advent of home video meant “no more hard seats, sticky floors and menacing audience members.” But didn’t people miss the camaraderie?
Yeah, people miss the spooky experience of going to the big screen, the opulence, the call and response from the audience. If there were still grind houses, people would go.
There are no more?
None. It’s a whole part of culture that’s unfortunately been made extinct.
When the theaters closed, where did you find work?
I started writing about them more and more. I did a bio of Kenneth Anger, and articles about the old Times Square. I still publish Sleazoid Express and Metasex, which is about pornography and vice and is run by my wife, Michelle.
You and your wife must have quite a personal collection.
It threatens to collapse the closet. Close to a thousand movies.
Aren’t they illegal or something?
These are all pictures with adults in them.
You know, Bill, I expected you to sound a lot sleazier than you do.
We’re just trying to document a part of history. Otherwise these movies would be lost.
Project for us, if you will, the future of theatrically released porn.
I don’t see it happening. But in the ’70s, those movies could be revived because people appreciated that they had a story. They were real movies.
Speaking of real movies, what was the last mainstream movie you saw and liked?
Shadow of the Vampire. My daughter loves vampire movies.
How about Debbie Does Dallas on Broadway?
The original was shit.
I hear you. n°
To buy Sleazoid Express, click here.
Visit Bill Landis’s official website here.
©2003 Ross Martin and Nerve.com
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
||Ross Martin’s recent work appears in magazines such as Agni, Bomb, Boulevard, Denver Quarterly, Fence, Kenyon Review, Poetry Daily, Prairie Schooner, Verse, Witness and others. He has taught at Rhode Island School of Design, The New School University and Washington University in St. Louis, where he received his MFA. His first book, ‘The Cop Who Rides Alone,’ is published by Zoo Press (www.zoopress.org).