Last year I reviewed a very good documentary film about the Kuchar brothers, who are sub-underground filmmakers inhabiting a world so far off most filmgoers’ radars that they’re mainly revered for their complete and unbridled creative freedom, which they license with gusto – sometimes unwatchably so. When I was at my deepest into underground music, particularly at the dawn of the 90s, I found a lot of kindred spirits hanging out in this wild world of 16mm and Super-8 film. Our scenes crossed paths on many occasions in San Francisco. Sometimes bands would do their sets before weirdo films, sometimes weirdo films would play before bands, sometimes weirdo films would actually be screened on the band, and so on. I went to quite a few of these events at places like Artists’ Television Access, Klub Kommotion, The Chameleon - and later, Media Arts Center during my two years in Seattle. Due to a longtime friendship with filmmaker Danny Plotnick, I even “starred” in his great 1999 underground film “SWINGERS' SERENADE”, which you can view in its 24-minute entirety right here.
Jack Stevenson was a big man about town in his way during this period, particularly the early half. He was and is an undisputed expert on “cult film”, which is a term that Stevenson dissects and attempts to define at length in his book “LAND OF A THOUSAND BALCONIES”, which came out in 2003 and which I just finished reading this month. The book has probably become something of a cult object itself, but I’m sure you can find it online somehow. Stevenson used to program absurd film nights across town in some of the aforementioned clubs and bars; a typical night might have, say, an Ed Wood film and “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!”, or more likely, something even more lowbrow and unheard-of. Around this time I subscribed to FILM THREAT magazine, which deified the underground filmmakers Jon Moritsugu (cool local filmmaker whom I used to talk to at Reckless Records every week), Gregg Araki, Craig Baldwin, Bruce LaBruce, Nick Zedd and their ilk. Jack Stevenson, though I don’t necessarily remember him writing for the magazine, just seemed to be omnipresent in and around that scene.
This book is a collection of essays chronicling Stevenson’s love of underground/cult film, with many detours into his personal experiences trying to screen his collection all over the world. Most were expressly written for this book, so it all hangs together very well. I found the sections about his attempts to get his prints in front of the people, usually a rock and roll audience, the most funny & revealing. There are forays into Boston, San Francisco, Copenhagen and beyond. There’s a terrific essay about San Francisco’s once-porno theater THE STRAND and other long-gone Market Street icons, as well as deep meditations on Technicolor, Christmas cult movies, “ham”, Maria Montez, San Francisco oddball film house “The Werepad”, John Waters, Russ Meyer and more.
The book is (obviously) something you can dip into and out of pretty easily – I say obviously because I bought it new in 2003 and finished it eight years later, after recovering it from a box during our latest move. I probably appreciate it primarily because I totally revere archivists like Stevenson, people who take neglected corners of sub-culture ephemera, particularly pre-digital corners, and do whatever it takes to put them in front of new audiences, all while ensuring that they’ll have a legacy that outlasts the physical film stock itself. He’s done that through his film collection and screenings, sure, but this book is a great literary addition to the limited canon explaining just how one went about being a lover of underground cult film in those strange years immediately prior to the internet.