In Search of Newark’s Great Lost Grindhouse Auteur: The Vaughn Christion Story, from Silent Death (1983) to Key of Brown (2013) . . . and Beyond!

 

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Cinema does not get more Newark than this, from the opening credits to Vaughn Christion’s 2013 film Key of Brown. Here’s a local filmmaker whose career dates back several decades, including the lost horror flick Silent Death (1983), the martial-arts drama The Wrong Disciple (1991), the heist movie Heaven (1997), and the lurid, pulpy thriller Key of Brown—a body of work that makes him not only the king of Newarksploitation, but by my reckoning, the longest-active Newark filmmaker, period.

And yet, when I went in search of information about Christion or his Newark-based production company, Reina, I found very little: few reviews of his films, not much in the way of biographical information, and no interviews. This seemed . . . well, just wrong. Especially in an era of online cult-movie communities that have brought renewed attention and shed deeply-researched light on previously obscure and elusive films and directors, supporting an entire distributional infrastructure where Vinegar Syndrome and Code Red and Distribpix and Bleeding Skull, among others, can recover and restore lost and esoteric works, and where the valorization and even fetishization of the cheap, the tacky, the grimy, and the lost (or the paracinematic, as Jeffrey Sconce theorized it in a great scholarly article) means there are cults around everyone from Doris Wishman and Andy Milligan to Fred Olen Ray and Don Dohler, AND—I swear, this sentence ends soon—where the highlighting of regional cinemas in such books as Stephen Thrower’s brilliant, gargantuan Nightmare USA seems poised to hail a Newark filmmaker, the question remains: where in the hell is the appreciation of Vaughn Christion’s work?

Well, it’s here, at least. I appreciate it. I’ve been watching, researching, and digging Christion’s work for a while now—that which I can find, at least—and I wanted to do right by him in a post. Without much info to work with, though, I felt like I needed input from the man himself; fortunately, after some digging around, we made contact, and met up at Rutgers University-Newark for a pretty lengthy interview.

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Vaughn Christion is a charming, insightful guy who was generous enough to share his memories and thoughts for the below account, and I’m grateful. Before digging in, a quick montage from his work over the course of three decades:

From this, you can probably tell whether or not you’re interested in what follows. Continue reading

X-Rated Newark: A Place Called Today (1972)

I guess it made sense in 1972: let’s make a movie about America’s racial problems, we’ll juice it up with some softcore sex, and ride that enticing X rating all the way to the bank!

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Like so many seemingly brilliant ideas, it didn’t quite work out as planned, even if it did play alongside Cassavetes and The Godfather. But A Place Called Today holds a special significance in Newark film history, as the only feature film that I know of to be shot here in the early 1970s. It’s a clunky dud of a flick, but its location shooting vividly captures a city in transition, and it’s almost certainly the only mainstream-aimed X-rated film shot in Newark, at the exact moment that the very idea of a mainstream X film was evaporating rapidly (there would be Emmanuelle two years later, but that’s about it, unless you count, say, Inserts). While Newark is never named in the film—it’s always set in simply “the city”—it’s a surprisingly specific (if woefully distorted) retelling of Newark’s own recent political history, an aspect that’s gone completely unrecognized until now. Continue reading

Kick Fast, Kick Newark: Moving Target (1999)

Last year, I was impressed by the unexpected historical resonance of Bobby Guions’ 2005 low-budget action-thriller Dinner with an Assassin, with its great opening scene on the roof of the Divine Hotel Riviera. So I thought I’d check out his 1999 debut, Moving Target.

Alas, a seller on Amazon to whom all b-movies titled Moving Target must seem the same sent me this:

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let’s just not talk about Billy Dee Williams being in this, it’ll make us all feel sad

Much love to Michael Dudikoff—as a kid, I loved American Ninja 1, 2, and 4 (the Dudikoffless 3 being redeemed only by the presence of the great Steve James), and I’ll still rep for Albert Pyun’s postapocalyptic Radioactive Dreams, but there’s no denying, by the 90s, Dudikoff was the poor(er) man’s Michael Biehn, cranking out dreary, formulaic dreck, and this Canadian gangster jam appears no exception (I got to keep it, with a refund, but not sure I’ll ever watch it, unless someone lobbies hard on its behalf). Also, this was the wrong movie.

Point being, it took me a while to get my hands on this:

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But wow, talk about being worth the wait: white VHS! I didn’t even know this was a thing (based on a quick google search, I’m not alone—600 people have watched this mystified dude ponder the immortal question “My Destroy All Monsters Tape is white. WHAT THE FUCK”). Is this the video-nerd equivalent of colored vinyl? Continue reading

Pat Rocco screening, International House, Philadelphia, Friday 1/31 !!!

I am excited beyond words to introduce a screening of Pat Rocco shorts this week at the International House in Philadelphia, as part of the astonishingly great Free to Love: Cinema of the Sexual Revolution series. It’s at 7pm Friday, and I hope people will attend—Rocco’s films are extremely rare and hard to see, so this is a unique opportunity.

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I first came across Rocco’s work as a grad student at UCLA. Though I was in the history department, I spent as much time as I could watching obscure, otherwise-unavailable films in the Film & Television Archive. Though Rocco is glossed over in several histories of gay film and erotica, I felt his work deserved more attention—he was a pivotal figure in bringing a proud, gay eros into the public sphere, beginning with the early screening of his short films at the Park Theatre in downtown Los Angeles in the summer of 1968. He’s best known for his beefcake-inspired films of naked men engaged in all sorts of frolicsome pleasures, but he also made striking documentaries that captured the early gay liberation era like few others.

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one dapper documentarian!

When I discovered that Rocco’s papers were at the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, at USC, I became even more certain I had a meaningful project on my hands. It took some years of sporadic viewing at UCLA, working my way through dozens upon dozens of short films, as well as Rocco’s few feature-length narrative works, but eventually I published an article on him (“Mondo Rocco: Mapping Gay Los Angeles Sexual Geography in the Late-1960s Films of Pat Rocco”) in the Radical History Review. It might be my favorite thing I’ve ever written; the cover image of the journal is certainly my favorite:

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I won’t rehash the whole thing, but my basic argument is that Rocco mapped a very concrete gay Los Angeles geography in his films, which he shot, guerilla-style without a permit, around the greater metro area. He’s important as a pioneering gay filmmaker, but also as a Los Angeles filmmaker, period (even though he’s also largely disregarded in cinematic histories of L.A.). His location shooting on Hollywood Boulevard, Griffith Park, Echo Park, Disneyland, and even the Hollywood Freeway—where he improbably managed to film a naked man dancing, as you’ll see if you can make it to the I-House—is, for my money, the single most vivid body of L.A. location work from this era, period (sorry Antonioni, Roger Corman, and New Hollywood brats!).

It’s a shame that Rocco’s work is nearly un-seeable outside the UCLA Film & Television Archive.  Stylistically, a lot of it is pretty rudimentary, but there’s a joyousness to much of it, and its historical significance is undeniable. The only home-viewing release that I’m aware of was a VHS tape of his 1970 omnibus Mondo Rocco that came out and rapidly disappeared in the 1990s (it’s currently unavailable on Amazon). I’ve taken some crappy screencaps from that, as a taste of Rocco’s work—the I-House screening will look much better!

So, a preview/celebration of some of Pat Rocco’s work:

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with Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church

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note the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) sign!

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These next images are particularly amazing: Rocco capturing police harassment of a gay bar on film as it occurs! I wrote more about this for the Free to Love catalog, which I’ll post more about soon–but to the best of my knowledge, there is nothing quite like this in the history of film.

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Hope to see people at the I-House Friday!

(edited to add, I made a similar plea at the awesome Pop-Up Museum of Queer History tumblr, and also located some rare cat-and-naked-men images from Rocco’s work at my beloved OMGcatrevolution… pulling out all the stops on this one, clearly)

Reflections on a VHS Tape: Season of Fear (1989)

If I may take a brief respite from queer history and Newark on film to navel-gaze for a moment:

Season of Fear first entered my life in the spring of 1990, and it’s not hard to see how the film might captivate a middle-schooler with brand new access to R-rated rentals; even notwithstanding the rather heavy-handed center of visual gravity, this is a pretty alluring video box. Who wouldn’t be curious about a “twisting, turning summer of passion,” even without the murder?

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Continue reading

Indiana Double Feature: Book Reading in Bloomington and the Forgotten Regional Films of Ivan Rogers

Indiana and cinema: not two words deeply conjoined in the American cultural consciousness, unless you count Breaking Away and Hoosiers. I can’t hate on the former, though I would join Ron Briley in seeing Hoosiers as a Reaganite white wet dream in which the all-white “Milan miracle” team of 1954 become the “equivalent of the great white hopes” in an historically inaccurate narrative of vanquishing the urban black danger the same year as Brown v. Board. As big hit movies of 1986 go, I guess it’s less pernicious than Top Gun, but still, there’s gotta be more than this to Indiana film history—even if Wikipedia offers one depressingly bland assessment.

I’m in Bloomington right now, to dig around at the Kinsey Institute for a few days and give a book reading tonight at the wonderful Boxcar Books, a radical bookstore fighting the good fight. I’m really excited to be doing it, though I probably should have sent them a less dorky photo:

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I’m a sucker for regional films–still working my way through Brian Albright’s delightful Regional Horror Films, 1958-1990: A State-By-State Guide with Interviews because I keep stopping to track down obscurities–so I thought it would be fun to investigate locally shot films, but IMDB’s list for Bloomington as a location is pretty dire. White guys on bikes is the peak, it seems.

On the other hand, I’ll be in Indianapolis for the weekend, and here, I struck, if not cinematic gold, then at least modestly interesting regional cinema. By sheer dumb luck, digging through the surreal, cavernous backroom to a more adult-oriented Northeast Philly emporium, stacked floor-to-ceiling with old dusty VHS tapes, my helpful partner handed this over to me with a “looks like something you might be interested in”:

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Well, only kinda; it had the look of formulaic straight-to-video 80s action fodder (spoiler: because it is). But I bought it anyway, since it set me back something like 75 cents. And upon looking it up later, discovered it was shot in Indianapolis. A-ha!

Ballbuster is inert as all hell, but does have some wonderfully evocative location shooting—captured here, as always, by digital camera against a TV set, so it’s not quite this blurry in person:

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We can date the filming of the flick: that brief, sad moment when video shops hung posters for Cocktail in the window.

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Continue reading

The Pornography of Exhaustion and Tape Decay: Fred Halsted’s Fast Friends (1986)

Spend any significant amount of time on cult-movie internet discussion boards and you will come across plentiful grievances against the IMDB. The complaints are well founded, though I will confess I’ve generally found them to be fairly minor—the release date of a 1971 grindhouse film off by a year, the running time of a Jess Franco film wrong by twelve minutes, etc.

When it comes to Fred Halsted, though, I’ve never seen a more egregiously inaccurate IMDB page for such a significant filmmaker. He gets credited as director of seven features—barely half of the titles listed at the more comprehensive IAFD (Internet Adult Film Database). By IMDB’s narrative, Halsted’s career ended in 1982.

I’ll be blunt: if Fast Friends (copyright 1986 but listed everywhere as released in 1987) is representative evidence, it probably should have stopped there. This is a sad, dispiriting effort all around, and it’s merely to contribute some commentary on the late-Halsted oeuvre that I even bother here; it seems nobody else has seen fit to do so. BJ Land, a great repository of info and commentary on gay porn history, makes the briefest of comments; Jeffrey Escoffier’s Bigger Than Life: The History of Gay Porn Cinema from Beefcake to Hardcore contains no mention; in his Bright Lights Film Journal essay on Halsted, Gary Morris simply asserts that “his artistic achievement can be said to have ended in 1975”;  and even William E. Jones, undisputed Dean of Halsted Studies, says in Halsted Plays Himself only this of Halsted in the 80s: “most of his feature films and videos from that period have little to recommend them beyond the obvious attractions.”

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The attractions are not always so obvious in Fast Friends, which opens with a blurry shot of the Los Angeles skyline, then some traffic shots that recall the beginning of Halsted’s 1975 Sextool, probably his last interesting effort. Invocations of the past largely stop there, however, as the film immediately moves into a bland apartment and remains almost wholly interior for the rest of its duration—a shift away from the public sex culture of L.A. Plays Itself, and a move that was paralleled by both the straight and gay porn of the 1980s (not to mention the broader privatization of life under neoliberalism that emerged from the expanding carceral state, but I digress).

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Halsted gives us four friends sitting around a couch sharing sexy stories; indicative of the film’s emaciated erotic imagination and threadbare budget is the fact that we get only three scenes; guess someone had to save his tale for a sequel that thankfully never happened. The young men are utterly anonymous, not even bothering to devise full porn pseudonyms, such that one is credited simply as “Dean,” another as “Gregory.”

In the first scenario that emanates out of their conversation, a diminutive young man lathers and then services two bodybuilders; in the second, a young man submits to a spanking by his father after being caught masturbating; finally, we move ever so briefly back outdoors to a gym, where another discussant meets a straight guy, quickly draws him back inside, and turns him out. All of this is shot and performed in the most perfunctory of manners, without much in the way of flourish or enthusiasm (except perhaps the straight guy, who sweats rather impressively). Then it’s over.

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Only a few noteworthy elements bear mention. Halsted himself plays the intruding father in the second scene, and it’s somewhat depressing to watch. No longer the iconic sexual outlaw of the 1970s, he looks more like an ordinary middle-aged man. Which is fine, of course—it’s commendable to age without desperation. Except that readers of Jones’s book know that he was desperate, self-conscious about his skin and weight gain, and it’s impossible not to invoke that extra-textual knowledge while watching this. Even his usual dirty-talk grunts—“what kinda shit is this,” he asks of his son’s porn mags; “buncha faggots”—sound tired, and though he briefly paws at himself through his pants, Halsted remains clothed throughout the scene, which drags on interminably, punctuated only by the grotesque, inadvertent humor of Halsted’s frequent references to the son’s hardness, a claim visually belied by the cutaways to the poor performer Al Jones struggling valiantly to stay engaged and engorged for over twenty grueling minutes.

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The overall absence of penetrative sex is the only other aspect of note. Penetration is obviously not the all-hallowed telos of sex, but it most assuredly has been the pornographic imperative since the dawn of cinema, and Fast Friends shies away from it. Halsted had consistently emphasized his relative lack of interest in conventional sex since the early 70s, so we might—if we’re extraordinarily generous—read Fast Friends as a defiantly counter-penetrative inscription of bodily pleasures; we might also read it through the lens of contemporaneous AIDS concerns—Cindy Patton has written brilliantly about the safer-sex “pornographic vernacular” fashioned by gay stars like Al Parker at this exact moment; was Halsted engaged in a related project?

I’m not sure, though it’s impossible not to read all 1980s porn (not to mention all 1980s politics, period) through the AIDS crisis. In any case, the Halsted of Fast Friends is no longer the Halsted of L.A. Plays Itself, as performer or filmmaker, and the film is a slog, effective only at arousing feelings of despondence and pathos over the ravages of time and history.

The most interesting aspect of my own viewing experience was the beat-to-hell VHS tape I scored cheap on eBay. Decrepit and deteriorating into oblivion, it played with drained color and a flickering, horizontally rolling image that gave it the not-inappropriate feel of Bill Morrison’s Decasia. While this aesthetic layer was obviously unintended by Halsted, it actually made the film far more engaging than it otherwise would have been, though it also accounts for the abominable image quality of the screencaps (the tape would momentarily bleed into full color upon unpausing, hence the “play” sign).

I’ll close with my own visual remix of the film, as experienced on my own couch:

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