Nitehawk Naughties: Reclaiming 1970s Porn

As I embark on a new erotic film series in 2015, here’s a look back at what I programmed for the 2014 Nitehawk Naughties series…and why.

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I am a woman and I programmed a year-long dirty film series at Nitehawk Cinema.

It seems important to point this out given that some of the recent press covering the series and the current interest in “vintage porn” has had a distinctively male voice. I suppose it’s natural to assume that porn equals “just for men” but there is so much more to screening these older films now than to arouse a man.

I took the helm of our 2014 signature series Nitehawk Naughties program last year originally intending to highlight older sex pics ala Doris Wishman, of whom I’m a huge fan and who is an essential influence for both porn and mainstream cinema. However, my idea truly formalized when a friend posted a link to Vinegar Syndrome’s digital release of The Sexualist and I went down the proverbial rabbit hole discovering their commitment to restoring and historizing a golden era of porn and cult films (see the New York Times feature “Smut, Refreshed for a New Generation”). Learning of their archive made it impossible for me to think of any other direction of the series. This is reason number one: preserving cinema of any genre so that it can reach new audiences is vital to cultural history and should be an integral consideration in film programming.

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The Nitehawk Naughties program I’ve put together presents six films spread out through the year (there’s a pretty fabulous “Naughty Summer” section taking place in June, July, and August – get it, it’s hot?) that include: Radley Metzger’s The Opening of Misty Beethoven in 35mm (1976), Evil Come, Evil Go (1972), The Telephone Book (1971), The Sexualist (1973), Memories Within Miss Aggie (1974), and Wakefield Poole’s Bible! (1974). Made during the same period as the iconic Deep Throat (1972), a movie that broke ground in reaching a more mainstream audience, this era represents a crucial time in porn that focused on the act of filmmaking as much as much as the sex. With actors, innovation, and even social commentary, it’s important to remember that these films were made to be played in a movie theater. This is reason number two: in our immediate digital age of amateur and overabundant porn, I want to this era of 1970s porn back where it was originally intended to be seen…the cinema. This is not for nostalgic purposes but rather to reclaim a cinematic space for an often wayward genre.

Speaking of genre film, Nitehawk is no stranger to programming horror movies. The inevitability of the trauma experienced culturally from the Vietnam War, the disillusionment experienced at the end of the hippie movement, the full-fledged second wave of feminism, and all the social unrest that came forth from the late 1960s is all subtextually there in porn and horror from the early 1970s. And that the intensity of horror is seen as somehow, even if marginally to some, more acceptable than its sister corporeal genre of porn seems to be an enormous oversight. Think of how the violent eruptions in Wes Craven’s directorial debut The Last House on the Left (1972) or Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) were intended to invoke Vietnam traumas back in America. Then consider how pornographic films imbue the search for self, the quest for morality and righteousness, and question the sexual liberation of woman all through the explicit representation of taboo acts. This is reason number three: to put 1970s porn into the same socio-political and corporeal context as the horror genre.

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The six films included in our Nitehawk Naughties series detail a woman’s life journey. Yes, this journey is through sex that is often in relation to or in opposition of a man, but the women in these sex films have ownership to their actions. Whether it’s looking back at an intensely passionate life or whether it’s in an attempt to save souls, the female characters here own their sexuality and isn’t that what is ultimately desirable? This is reason number four: sexuality in film shouldn’t be solely associated with a man’s pleasure. Showing this past moment in porn just might give us perspective on the male gaze, cinema, audience, female pleasure, and humor.

Originally published on Nitehawk Cinema’s blog, Hatched (January 2014) 

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Better Than No 2: The Bride of Frankenstein

Welcome to a new world of Gods and Monsters… 2-Screen Shot 2012-10-09 at 7.41.34 PM James Whale had a knack for making horror literary staples like the creeping creaking house, demented scientist and classic monsters appear even darker on the cinema screen. Although the first Frankenstein film was produced by Edison Studios in 1910, it’s Whale’s 1930 interpretation of Mary Shelley’s novel and Boris Karloff’s iconic portrayal that has become synonymous with our idea of Frankenstein’s monster. With its contrasts of shadows and light and humanization of the monster, Whale’s beautiful version endures as the quintessential moment Frankenstein’s creature was born in our popular culture. Five years after the release of Universal’s hit Frankenstein, Whale did the near impossible by making one of the best movie sequels in film history. The Bride of Frankenstein is a complex weaving of Shelley’s subtext of the moral implications scientific discovery produces along with Whale’s personal narrative of sexual preference by introducing one of film’s first homosexual character, Dr. Pretorious. It takes the small portion of Shelley’s original novel of the monster demanding Dr. Frankenstein produce a female friend for him (which the doctor declines to disastrous consequences) and re-imagines it by having a certifiably mad scientist, Pretorious, blackmail Frankenstein into furthering his living dead creations. Whale boldly kicks things off by visualizing Shelley’s prologue in which she recounts the dark and stormy night she shares her monstrous story with husband Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. This melding of literary history as a launching pad for another re-imagining of the written source is risky move (for starters, she confides that the monster survived) but it works simply because it’s damn well crafted. From this scene, Whale’s celluloid tale of a ‘new world of gods and monsters’ opens up and we’re left with more imagery that solidifies the ever-evolving Frankenstein cultural legacy. Karloff again wholeheartedly embraces his role and makes the monster ever more human and in desperate need for companionship while the bride herself, who is only in the film for mere moments, has become iconic with her electric shocked white-striped hair (played by Elsa Lanchester who is also Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in the film). If sequels have become synonymous with commercial capitalization, cheesy storylines, and subpar acting then consider The Bride of Frankenstein as one of the rare exceptions along with The Godfather: Part 2The Empire Strikes Back and Dawn of the Dead. As Frankenstein’s monster continues to be emblematic of the ultimate outsider and commentary on the dangers of scientific meddling, Whale’s Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein endures not only as classic films but as poignant films and, best of all, still very disturbing. This essay was originally published on Nitehawk Cinema’s blog (October 2014).

Notes on a Final Girl

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Below is a text I wrote for Nitehawk on women in horror film in conjunction with the film program, Final Girl…

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” ― Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

Nitehawk’s Final Girl program celebrates fifty years of women in horror film by highlighting the iconic Final Girl. From Georges Franju’s depiction of beauty obsession in Eyes Without a Face (1960) to Adam Wingard’s role-reversing You’re Next (2011), this series focuses on the depiction of the woman’s role within the fictional realm of horror cinema and its association with the reality of daily life. The series eschews the popular bimbo slasher film stereotype by highlighting iconic female characters who experience a revelatory journey from victim to hero. Her on-screen transformation is hardly ever pretty, brutal by sheer necessity, but it realizes an important power shift: the stereotypical male gaze turns into her gaze and then to ours. Embodying Shirley Jackson’s description of Hill House, the Final Girl’s insane break from an “absolute reality” means that it is up to her, our heroine, to restore order when the familiar world becomes an overwhelming space.

When horror films are in top form they provide an incredible cultural analysis. Historically they’ve dealt with socio-political issues, from racism to capitalism, but gender norms have always been a constant. By addressing the patriarchal culture we live in, horror tells us what the possibilities for change are and, in its own visceral way, adjusts the imbalance. This marriage of women and horror actually traces back to 18th century Gothic novels like The Castle of Otranto and the genre has carried on the tradition all the way up to the self-reflexive postmodern heyday of the 1970s-90s. Because horror has the uncanny ability to simultaneously embrace and explode stereotypes when tackling women’s roles, it reveals a victim-to-survivor figure by depicting the “weaker” sex in a position of power with far superior survival skills and intelligence. This is particularly true when they show the struggle and sublimation of women in/out of domesticity via the haunted or evil house; it’s one constant that pops up in horror films and is the commonality amongst all of the films in our Final Girl series.

The concept of the ‘Final Girl’ put forth by scholar Carol Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film applies directly to Shirley Jackson’s above description of the inherently evil atmosphere that permeates her novel The Haunting of Hill House written more than thirty years earlier. The extreme pressure of coping with an unreal horror that becomes the Final Girl’s reality is a commonality shared amongst many, if not most, cinematic horror heroines and it is an essential part of actually being a true Final Girl. This woman, according to Clover, is the person with whom the audience (regardless of gender) identifies with most because we share in her experience and desire for survival in the very strange land she’s found herself in. And ever since she emerged from the Italian giallo and subsequent American slasher movies of the 1970s and 80s, this Final Girl has become a reliable fixture within horror narratives. That is, of course, until post-post modern horror film tackled our comfortable associations with her head on. Regardless, whether she’s the lone survivor amongst her dead companions or the sacrificial lamb to the monster, the historic representation of women in horror is culturally significant. The two appear to be inextricably bound together.

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I’m pretty excited about this. I’ve been asked to put together a film program in conjunction with Mike Nelson’s exhibition Amnesiac Hide at Toronto’s Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery. It’ll take place on April 2nd and I’ll be there for a chat about film, the apocalypse, and architecture. Description is below…

Keep Moving: Objects and Architecture in the Apocalypse

Inspired by Mike Nelson’s concurrent exhibition at the Power Plant, Keep Moving: Objects and Architecture in the Apocalypse is a film program of works that use objects and architectural environments as tools to give voice and visibility to the unimaginable. Keep Moving is sculptural cinema featuring Richard Lester’s 1969 surrealist post-apocalyptic farce The Bed Sitting Room preceded with artist films by Aïda Ruilova, Aldo Tambellini, and Elizabeth Price. The program provides a reflection of how objects and space define the void-like world that is in relation to the end of all things. Similar to the “semblance of atmospheres” generated in Mike Nelson’s immersive installations, these films are a pivotal way to address the past, access the present and consider a possible future world.

(Full essay coming soon)

The Trumpets of the Apocalypse – Luis Bunuel

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“The trumpets of the apocalypse have been sounding at our gates for years now, but we still stop up our ears. We do, however, have four new horsemen: overpopulation (the leader, the one waiving the flag), science, technology, and the media. All the other evils in the world are merely consequences of these. I’m not afraid to put the press in the front rank, either. The last screenplays I worked on, for a film I’ll never make, deal with a triple threat: science, terrorism, and the free press. The last, which is usually seen as a victory, a blessing, a ‘right,’ is perhaps the most pernicious of all, because it feeds on what the three other horsemen leave behind.’ – Luis Bunuel from My Last Sigh (page 251-252)

Aldo Tambellini – Making the Void Visible

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REVIEW: Aldo Tambellini – We Are The Primitives of a New Era: Paintings and Projections 1961-1989 at James Cohan Gallery

For Void is, like Darkness and Silence, a negation, but a negation that does away with every this and here, in order that the wholly other may become actual. – Rudolph Otto

Aldo Tambillini’s We Are The Primitives of a New Era is nothing short of a sensory revelation. An immersive, disorienting, and transformative installation of projections (a configuration of older works in a new arrangement by Tambellini), it feels like entering The Twilight Zone by way of A Clockwork Orange. Six projections of blackness, spheres, and phrases surround on three walls while one overhead projector swirls phrases from Tambellini’s Manifesto Series onto the floor. A static hum permeates the room while bursts of a space-shuttle launch countdown punctuates the space. Formally succinct, the collection of his accompanying paintings depicting the time/space sphere are ridiculously powerful in their simplicity. There is much to process here, none of which is an easy contemplation: origins and future of the universe, the infinity of time. It’s a simultaneously terrifying and promising proposition. In short, the void here offers the thrilling possibility of accessing what we cannot know.

Profound blackness is the beginning of new visions. – Aldo Tambellini

Featuring works from 1961-1989, We Are The Primitives of a New Era is thoroughly of the moment. At the forefront of new media and video in the 1960s, Tambellini thrives in a contemporary environment where the ever-changing advancements in technology dictate how we live our lives. Positioned at a perpetual tech evolvement along with new modes of thinking that contemplate how this technology and blackness shape our socio-political and spiritual lives, his work imbues a universal relevancy. What we’re left with is wondering: what do we do after the void is made visible? Scientists grapple with a simple dilemma in the hypothesis that Dark Matter (a virtually undetectable matter that neither emits nor absorbs light) constitutes a significant portion of the universe and this dark matter is responsible for the formation of the universe. Thus, in this theory, we are all born from an unseeable darkness. It’s the possibilities that emerge from the presence of such blackness that are so terribly exciting.

Black is the beginning. It is birth, the oneness of all, the expansion of consciousness in all directions. – Aldo Tambellini

Blackness has taken over contemporary philosophy, artistic practice, and filmmaking as a way to understand the world around us. Embodying horror, the post-apocalypse, origins and endings, the void has become a crucial signifier in processing a new way of being. Simply, the void is a possibility. And while black metal and cultural theorists dominate contemporary provocations for darkness, artist Aldo Tambellini has been exploring “Black” for over fifty years with his videos, paintings, and installations. The title of his exhibition at James Cohan Gallery, We Are The Primitives of a New Era, is perpetual. We are, as we were over a half century ago, in the process of becoming.

Aldo Tambellini’s We Are The Primitives of a New Era continues through October 19, 2013 at James Cohan Gallery in New York. Please visit the exhibition page for more installation images and a fantastic video of the piece. A screening of his Black Film Series screens at the Museum of Modern Art on October 18.

Josh Azzarella at Moving Image Art Fair London 2013

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Josh Azzarella is screening his Untitled #160 (Balcome) at the Moving Image Art Fair 2013 London edition this month. Read what I recently wrote about the piece below and, if you’re in London, be sure to not miss it. 

…Appropriately, this exhibition coincides with the presentation of a new video work by Josh Azzarella, Untitled #160 (Balcombe), in which he has reconstructed F.W. Murnau’s seminal silent film Nosferatu (1922) by eliminating all (un)human figures. Architecture looms more prominently than before, doors mysteriously function on their own, the gloomy atmosphere spreads more ominously, blank spaces replace title cards. Here, through this mining of culture and our collective reference to it, Azzarella establishes a precise example of what a rendering of a “world without us” or an empty distance can look like. Our relation to the memory of what was there (Meena and Jonathan Harker, Renfield, the Vampire) is entirely dependent upon a successful reading of the new and very different environment. It’s a reconfiguration of a continuously self-reflexive undying narrative of the vampire, specifically the transformative character of Dracula, repeated and recycled and transformed in its literary and cinematic forms. Untitled #160 (Balcombe) constructs a new language of absence through its ghostly presence. Through that we are able to position ourselves in a very strange, yet familiar, landscape; one that does not include us.

Untitled #160 (Balcombe) – Preview from Josh Azzarella on Vimeo.