Jan 13, 2009

Bill Landis 1959 - 2008


This weekend (after a week full of obituary notices) I was shocked to hear that author Bill Landis had passed away on December 23 from a heart attack, at only 49 years of age.

Landis was a projectionist in the last glory days of New York's 42nd St. grindhouse era. Before this area was plowed over in favour of gentrification, these ancient theaters like the Rialto would unspool such sensational titles as Let Me Die a Woman, Bloodthirsty Butchers, and Farewell Uncle Tom, to name only a few. From 1980 to 1983, he published the influential fanzine Sleazoid Express, which not only documented the antics onscreen, but all of the rough trade and other deviant behaviour which went on amongst the seats. In later years, he and his wife Michelle Clifford had revised the namesake for a short run of zines which are still available on their website. And then they collaborated on a book, also entitled Sleazoid Express (seen above), with separate chapters devoted to such genres as roughies, mondo films, blaxploitation, et al, revolving around one of the crumbling moviehouses that specialized in such choice fare.

Despite that this fabled movie strip had now been overrun by druggies, prostitutes and petty thieves looking for new blood to hustle, there was still an allure for people to tread into such dangerous territory to sate their appetite for anything but antiseptic mainstream cinematic fare. Unfortunately, I haven't seen the zines, but the book offers the next best thing to having been to "The Deuce". The prose offers the viewer a visceral experience with unapologetic descriptions of such cinema sleaze, the decaying theaters that showed them, and the desperate people who filled the seats or made the films. (In fact, the style of Mr. and Mrs. Sleazoid, as they refer to themselves in the text, is not dissimilar to Jimmy McDonough's equally visceral writing that cinematically captures the lives and works of Russ Meyer and Andy Milligan- the latter gets a chapter in the Sleazoid book.)

In addition, Bill Landis also penned the superb biography, Anger, on Kenneth Anger, which similarly offers a visceral experience of the man's work, while deconstructing a lot of the myths that the filmmaker has created about himself.

Landis' sporadic legacy is absolutely essential film writing, not only because he has documented material seldom covered in mainstream press (or least, covered without a sardonic irony), but his "gonzo" approach is unique to the field, eschewing, say, Andre Bazin for Lester Bangs or Hunter S. Thompson, where the circumstances surrounding the screening is integral to the celluloid being reviewed. Rather than offering homogeneous consumer guides, his style instead offers the reader a chance to live these worlds vicariously-- a cinematic approach to reviewing a visual medium. The grindhouse experience has of course been absorbed by the mainstream, much as "The Deuce" has been replaced by Disney... distilled for mass consumption, and becoming a pale imitation of its inspiration. Instead of Bad Girls Go To Hell, it's now Snakes on a Plane. And despite many postmodern writers' attempts to lionize the genuine films after having viewed them on such a displaced medium as home video, they too pale in comparison to the pen of Bill Landis, simply because the man has lived it all. His work is an important document of a piece of renegade cinema history that is a vital part of our popular culture.

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