The term “underground film” was originally coined in 1957 by Manny Farber, but he used it to describe the work of under-appreciated B-movie directors like Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh. The term didn’t become synonymous with avant-garde and experimental filmmaking until Stan Vanderbeek used it in 1961 to describe the work of his contemporaries, e.g. Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, et. al., in what was commonly known as the New American Cinema movement.
While the definition of what exactly constitutes an “underground film” has evolved over the years, it hasn’t — as far as I know — been used to incorporate exploitation cinema, even though much in the current underground scene is similar to the exploitation style of exploring taboos and other shocking subject matter. For example, the rise of NYC’s downtown Cinema of Transgression scene occurred at about the same time the old Times Square grindhouses were closing up and being razed to the ground.
The only time Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford really refer to “underground film” in Sleazoid Express — their exhaustive survey of the exploitation film scene in Times Square — is to knock it and particularly to slam Jonas Mekas, who oddly pops up a few times as a villain in the book. This is a shame, but I guess Mekas shooed Landis away when the author tried to leave some flyers at the Anthology Film Archives once and he’s held a grudge ever since. Mekas is then oddly described as an Ilsa-esque warden keeping an iron grip on the downtown film scene who cruelly furthers his “agenda and fame” while exploiting filmmakers like Jack Smith.
Other than that, though, Sleazoid Express is an exhilaratingly fun read. I particularly like how the book is structured. Each chapter begins with a description of a particular Times Square theater; which all had corny names like the Cameo, the Anco, the Rialto and the Harris; then describes the genre of film it specialized in. Sure there’s some overlap as each chapter develops, but laying the book out this way gives the real sense that you’re spending the day theater hopping with the authors and you get a real good sense of the geography of this vanished urban landscape.
The book is as devoted to the denizens of “the Deuce” — the nickname of this specific Times Square strip of theaters — as it is to the movies. Chapters are stuffed to the brim with how different films played with particular audiences, making it seem like you’re actually sitting in a grungy seat with one hand on your back pocket to make sure your wallet is safe. Landis and Clifford also recall specific insults and jokes audiences would fling at the screen, along with their hot dogs and crack pipes, in response to ludicrous dialogue and plot twists. There’s also usually a page per chapter describing the bathrooms of each theater, grotesque places that it doesn’t seem any sane person would ever want to visit.
As I said, each chapter is also broken up by genre, which have more colorful names than just “Action” or “Comedy.” There’s the Roughie (S&M flicks), Gendertwist (transsexual-themed films), Race Relations, Blood Horror, Mondo (extreme travelogues), Eurosleaze, Celebrity Crime and Female Rough Trade (primarily women-in-prison films). Plots of specific films are laid out with extreme glee and excitement and with the most shocking elements particularly highlighted per movie. Landis and Clifford write in a style that makes you want to rush right out and view every film they lavish their praise on, which is pretty much every film that stays true to that authentic grindhouse spirit. Actually, even the dogs they write about sound like they’re worth checking out.