To some delicate souls it might seem a trifle peculiar and even off-putting that the man who directed the 1980 Maniac, an exploitation picture that many considered beyond the pale in its creepy misogyny and all-around anti-social intensity, should now be invited to curate, as they say, a series at the Lower East Side temple of art cinema, Anthology Film Archives. But anyone with even a passing familiarity with the eclectic, subversive aesthetic of the Archive and its founder Jonas Mekas—the visionary who championed Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures back when it was considered by many to be not only not art, but thoroughly pernicious and irredeemable trash by any "decent" standard—would not be in the least surprised. Director and DVD entrepreneur William Lustig, founder of the groundbreaking DVD label Blue Underground, has made it his mission in life in recent years to enlighten movie lovers of all stripe just how exhilarating the grindhouse sensibility can be. And with the real grindhouses of Times Square an ever more distant memory, the Archive is one of the few remaining real movie theaters wherein such an experience can be...simulated?
I put the question mark there because I don't know that "simulated" is the right word. I'll tell you why. I remember on Election Day 1980, bracing for the inevitable by spending a day at the movies in Manhattan with my then-girlfriend (a Republican and enthusiastic Reaganite, as it happened). We started up uptown at the Lincoln Plaza to see Godard's Sauve qui peut (la vie). The girlfriend then expressed a desire to see a real porno movie in a real porno theater, and down we went to Eighth Ave in the 40s, to the straight theater right next to the legendary David, to sit through three-quarters of a migraine-inducing feature replete with unattractive nudes and blotchy colors. And then down to Anthology for Dreyer's Vampyr, the old print with the burned-in Swedish subtitles. This was back when the theater's seats were separated by protruding wooden boards that prevented you from seeing the face of the person sitting next to you. Apparently this made the joint kind of ideal for a particular brand of cruise. Not that I knew at the time. What I did feel was that the place had more in common with the porno theater than with the uptown joint. Not because of any pervasive sleaziness. It was more a sense of sharing something secret, communing in a fashion that ostensibly normal people didn't follow. There was a shared furtive ritual aspect.
So. The venue checks out, let's say. As for the programming, well, I can't say it looks as inspired as it did last year, but this is purely a subjective call stemming from the fact that it contains more films that I've already seen. I have to say that last summer Lustig pulled out at least one super-obscure picture that made me question my own Psychotronic cred, 1973's Sitting Target, a literally demented prison-escape/revenge picture featuring Oliver Reed at his most peevish (and that's really peevish), Ian McShane at his most devious, and Jill St. John at her most Jill St. Johnniest. Literally the kind of slap, shoot, slug, and sleazefest that you watch and think, "Where has this film been all my life?" Also remarkable was the inclusion of 1972's The Outside Man, an L.A.-based hitman caper starring Ann-Margret, Roy Scheider, Angie Dickinson, and...wait for it...Jean-Louis Trintignant. And yes, my friends, it was precisely all that and a bag of frites.
If the program this time around doesn't hit with quite the same force of revelation as Lustig's last one (which came to Anthology around this time last summer, and was lauded here), it still contains some absolutely unmissable stuff. If you've never caught Larry Cohen's inspired piece of pulp not-quite-fiction, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, go. You've probably heard Martin Scorsese call a film entitled Dark of the Sun, a brutal Congo-set actioner directed by legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff, one of his guilty pleasures; that'll be here too, under one of its alternate titles, The Mercenaries. If you've only heard of The Sicilian Clan, The Burglars, and Peur sur la ville via their Morricone scores, or their musical themes as interpreted by John Zorn, now you can actually see the films. This is excellent news.
The mini-festival is touting the Jan-Michael Vincent-starring 1980 Defiance as being from the director of Rolling Thunder, one of last summer's highlights, and so it is (John Flynn is the fellow's name, and he likes to keep things brisk and brutal) but I have to say that I found the film a much more revelatory portrait of one of its co-producers, a Jerry Bruckheimer. Even working independently with a low budget, and before finding future partner Don Simpson, Bruckheimer was able to lay this story of this-used-to-be-a-good-neighborhood NYC vigilanteism with what would become trademark touches. Touches that persist to this day in his work, on the likes of CSI and such. E.g., a ridiculously glowering villain (Rudy Ramos) who likes to vibe out his badassittude by crossing his arms, raising his head, and silently sulking. You're watching it and thinking, "Wow, I've never seen someone take being rejected for a Kid Creole and the Coconuts tribute band quite so hard!" That this villain's cohort looks like he's just failed an audition for a Grand Funk Railroad cover band only adds to the hilarity. There's the earnestly-portrayed but not-quite convincing macho camaraderie of the social club, whose members are led by that great neighborhood "type," Danny Aiello. Then there are the shots of the massed villains walking the streets in slo-mo, and the counter shots of the newly massed "good people" of the community carrying their sticks and bats, also approaching in slo-mo, and then there are the bad power ballads. One after the other, all by this yo yo named Gerard McMahon who's...holy crap, still getting work! He did a song for From Justin To Kelly! Anyway, once teamed with Simpson, Bruckheimer would be able to afford a much higher class of name bad power ballads, but really, when you come right down to it, the difference between McMahon's "Let The Light Shine In The Morning" and Aerosmith's "Don't Wanna Miss A Thing" is only a matter of music industry degrees. And the affinities don't end there. So if you're a student of meretricious blockbuster movie and TV-making and want a primer on how it got that way, you definitely want to see this. And the other Jan-Michael Vincent picture on the same bill, White Line Fever, directed by Jonathan Kaplan, is actually, you know, good. And I haven't even gotten to The Town That Dreaded Sundown, which often looks like it was conceived at a vintage car show and features its director Charles Pierce attempting to do his own Paul Marco routine (Ed Wood fanatics will understand the reference; the rest of you just be glad you don't; no, really, I mean it). It also boasts one of the greatest self-reflexive endings ever. I said earlier that the lineup didn't hit with the force of revelation, but who was I kidding with my pose of critical detachment; I'm considering moving into Anthology for the run of the series.
"William Lustig Presents" runs at the Anthology Film Archives from August 12 to the 20th. Full schedule here.