I see Andy Milligan everywhere: a birthday tribute/confessional/tour

 

It’s true: I see Andy Milligan everywhere. Today is his birthday, or would be—born Feb. 12, 1929, he’d be 87 were he still alive, rather than a casualty of the AIDS epidemic. To honor his memory, I thought I’d knock out a quick blog post—messy, unsystematic, written between work-related emails, but roaming over the places where he’s entered my life (and I’ve followed his). Some cool images, too–

Seeing Milligan everywhere, case in point: Philadelphia

Browsing the out-of-print books at the wonderful Molly’s Books & Records in the Italian Market, I come across this relentlessly bleak precursor to Taxi Driver:

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The promised movie never appeared (not sure how it could at the time: the book just wallows in solipsistic urban alienation for 150 pages, then stops), but the one in the background did, and then disappeared—it’s Andy Milligan’s lost Depraved. Could there be a better tribute to the misanthropic filmmaker than using his work as the backdrop to a title that would easily fit into his filmography? And could it better resonate with the Milligan aesthetic than by effectively disappearing? (Jeffrey Frank has gone onto other books, but this one left barely a ripple in cultural memory).

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Then again at the New York Public Library: digging through the enormous periodicals collection at the International Gay Information Center, I skim a late homophile newsletter.

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There inside, more Milligan—suggesting that he still held a place in queer underground film even after his sordid 1965 bathhouse classic Vapors (still an underappreciated piece of queer film history):

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It’s too bad, as well, that his unfinished queer mess Compass Rose (1967) never got a real chance, since what survives of it in the extremely raw workprint that unexpectedly surfaced on YouTube a few years ago is of real interest.

At the Anthology Film Archives, doing research on a completely unrelated note, and blam, Milliganmania, a now-lost double-feature!

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And even at the NYPL Performing Arts Library—leafing through an archival collection of old issues of Sleazoid Express, Bill Landis’ would-have-been Milligan screenings of the early 80s.

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Like a lot of people (speaking relatively here), I first got into Milligan through Jimmy McDonough’s The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan, one of the finest film biographies ever written, to my mind, a genuinely searching and insightful study of a deeply marginal, but enormously captivating figure whose bitter hatred for the world saturated his zero-budget films. “Scratch the dirty surface of Milligan’s pictures and a very personal kind of poison seeps out of every frame,” McDonough wrote, comparing him to Fassbinder “in terms of aesthetic, technique, and temperament”—a link that might sound forced or facile, but rings absolutely true to my eyes. Screaming and squalor, imploding families, repressed desires gone rancid, and cruel Brechtian distance: this could be Seeds of Sin, it could be Satan’s Brew.

By good fortune, I read McDonough’s book right as I moved to Los Feliz in Los Angeles in 2002, still in the final days of video-store heaven. Between Mondo Video (still on Vermont, but about to be displaced to Melrose for hindering the hyper-gentrification of the neighborhood) and Jerry’s Video Re-Run on Hillhurst, everything from big-box Wizard VHS to Something Weird tapes to outright bootlegs were available, and I immersed myself in Milligan. This was right before the dam really broke with the Something Weird/Image DVDs, too–I remember reading Casey Scott’s reviews at the time (on The Ghastly Ones: “If you’ve never seen an Andy Milligan film, this would be a good place to start. It’s filled with all the typical Milligan ingredients: bitchy relatives, stereotypical heterosexual romances, shaky hand-held 16mm camerawork, muffled soundtrack punctuated by needle-drop library music cues, able actors trying their best with terrible dialogue, with dripping blood, ugly sex and nudity, and garish set design, all rolled into a feature-length monstrosity”), little thinking a decade-plus later we’d wind up sharing space on the porn/exploitation group at the Film & History Conference  I still regret lazily not making the shirt I had planned when the Mountain Goats played the Spaceland that year, The Rats are Coming! The Mountain Goats are Here! John Darnielle, if you’re reading, it’s yours for the taking…

Since the story of Andy Milligan is one of ghosts and absences, here are some: while some of his films are more available now, from great distributors like Exploitation.tv and Code Red, this old infrastructure is gone. It’s not the only thing missing: RIP to two of the finest.

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(pics by me except the live-Jerry’s, courtesy a lovely tribute at Mr. Peel’s Sardine Liqueur)

Fastforward to life in Philly, circa 2009: Andrew’s Video Vault, a monthly double feature series run by Andrew Repasky McElhinney, keeps the torch burning (seriously, check this line-up!), and manages to offer a deeply inexplicable sense of sheer otherness at the heart of the oily MBA-and-slickness West Philly Penn campus. Sequestered in a large and decaying building, free and open to the public but attended largely (and sparsely) by solitary men who in Milligan’s own era might have been labeled “bums,” these wild feats of programming would pair, say, Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons with Richard Mahler’s hardcore porn bummer American Babylon (a thematically unified duo, BTW, brilliantly so). I often found McElhinney a little priggish, probably because he would tut-tut you if you shifted your uncomfortable chair for a better view, but he’s also a gifted filmmaker (Magdalen is a striking bit of DIY 90s Philly film, and his 2000 A Chronicle of Corpses might be the most loving Milligan homage ever shot), and gets props for these:

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(2009)

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(2012; tragically missed this while traveling)

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(2013, and one of the great triple-features of our time. There was also a Body Beneath screening somewhere in here, paired, nicely, with Fulci’s Door to Silence)

Philadelphia’s particularly rich film scene afforded even more great Milligan opportunities—a rare screening of the full cut of Blood at the International House, run by Exhumed Film, was a particular treat (written up by my friend Jason Coffman here, alongside the other oddities at the 2014 Forgotten Film Festival…see also Coffman’s other Milligan article here, actually!).

But moving closer to New York City last year meant more access to the places of Milligan’s life. I’m a believer in the affective powers of spatiality—here is where JFK was shot, here is where River Phoenix collapsed, and even though I didn’t care much for either, I still felt a jolt at each—and when I lived in Los Feliz whenever I got off the subway at Hollywood and Vine I’d take a minute to look at Pantages Theatre, think of the dying Milligan attending a kiddie play there with McDonough, and just let it wash over me. So it was inevitable that I’d make the sojourn to Staten Island, dragging my beloved and accompanying partner to both ends of the island just to walk in the footsteps of the man and see how it felt.

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First, Tottenville, on the south end of the island, where Milligan ran a hotel and shot Legacy of Blood. You’d be hard-pressed to identify this quaint, village-like neighborhood as part of New York City, which it technically is. The place has seen better days; I can only imagine what this local theater was like in its prime. IMG_20150823_161008_378.jpg

Walking around the hotel in my usual slovenly way in the middle of a big fancy wedding was not a great way to blend in, and the two people working at the hotel I chatted with had no memory of Milligan. This is literally the end of the tracks for the subway, and it must have taken him quite a while to get home after nights of stalking Times Square for rough trade and other pleasures. We even got a feel for the place when an older woman called us over to her porch and explained that she was locked out of her house without shoes on—did we have a pliers to help open her door? Like most random people walking on a street, we did not, but fortunately the local police station was a block up the street, so we sent help. Neither the woman nor the cops recalled Milligan either, alas.

 

Then to the other end of the island, for 7 Phelps Place, where The Ghastly Ones was shot—great vintage article about it here, courtesy Keith Crocker at Cinefear:

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Though it was being rehabbed when we swung by in the summer of 2015, this house did have the feel of an Andy Milligan film, all Gothic and overgrown and semi-concealed. There aren’t really exteriors in The Ghastly One to compare it to that I could see, but maybe this captures the sense of horror just slightly:

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…and that was it for a while, until I realized this week was his birthday. I was too lazy to re-walk some of his Lower East Side haunts—the only thing that really takes me there, now that my favorite vegan restaurant Pukk is gone, is the Anthology Film Archives, and nothing crucial was playing—but St. Mark’s bathhouse, Caffe Chino, and La MaMa from his underground theater years are all well-documented.

Less remembered is the Troupe theater at 335 W. 39th Street—opened on 27 October 1977, “with Milligan’s The Bitch in the downstairs theater and Ibsen’s Ghosts above,” as McDonough notes. The abject squalor of the Troupe—where Milligan kept his film prints in garbage bags and hooked up with future abortion-clinic bomber Dennis Malvasi—is described in vivid detail in The Ghastly One. Today, it looks like any dilapidated Manhattan building, sure to be flipped into upscale condos in the near future.

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Walk down the street and around the corner, though, and there’s a residual sliver of Milliganworld.

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And finally, since I’m running out of steam here, there’s St. Peter’s, where Milligan shot Guru, the Mad Monk (1970).

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To my chagrin, this is a mere block away, on W. 20th St., from the apartment of a friend for whom I used to dogsit now and then–had only I known! Walking through Chelsea these days, you’re more likely to run into Ethan Hawke (who must live on the block—I lived in L.A. for most of my twenties and saw basically zero celebrities anywhere, but am about 3-for-3 on Ethan Hawke crossings here) than catch a whiff of anything Milligan, but there’s something beautiful about the fact that a rainbow flag now flies over a place where Milligan sublimated his own queerness into a raging, violent anti-movie. Guru is claustrophobic even by Milligan standards, never leaving the church (in the vein of Doris Wishman’s micro-cinema that existed wholly within her own apartment). Good thing, because step outside and it’s an altogether pleasant row of now-unthinkably-expensive brownstones.

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So there it is, the story of my 15 years with Andy Milligan, in words and pictures. Along with Fassbinder, Wishman, Chantal Akerman, Godard, and a select few others, he’s one of the filmmakers I keep returning to, whose utterly dismal worldview resonates with my own in ways that make his films almost hypnotically captivating (at least, until the sad final run in 1980s Los Angeles—while this is a great piece about Surgikill, I think the only even possibly interesting way to approach this utterly depleted film is through the lens of AIDS, impending death, and a sublimated hauntedness echoing through it . . . and that’s still a stretch; it’s truly abysmal). I don’t think he’d want a happy birthday—he wasn’t a happy, or a good, person. But as a loving tribute to his hateful life and work, here it is.

Oh, and here’s the only picture I’ve ever seen of Andy Milligan with a cat. So he couldn’t be all evil.

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