Today, New York's Times Square is a family-friendly neon tourist trap of Broadway shows and overpriced chain restaurants. But to film aficionados, 42nd Street in the 70s and 80s—best known for its mess of junkies, prostitutes, strip joints, and general squalor—was a hotbed for exploitation cinema. In dark theaters full of deviants in stained raincoats, deliciously depraved movies rife with gratuitous sex, nudity, violence, and other lurid thrills reigned supreme.
If you've ever seen the vibrant, brutal films of Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives, Bronson), you'll recognize in his work a taste of inspiration from those genre films of yesteryear. Though Refn was only eight when his family moved from Copenhagen to New York, the grindhouse posters that lined Times Square theater exteriors left an indelible impression early on—and led to the director buying an entire collection of those posters. And like any diehard enthusiast, he wants to share his sick movie love with the world.
In The Act of Seeing, a gorgeously designed coffee table book, Refn has curated hundreds of his finest posters, with illuminating context written by FrightFest programmer and esteemed horror devotee Alan Jones. Sexploitation, nunsploitation, Naziploitation, "mondo" docs, and other cult subgenres are represented in this shamelessly entertaining eight-pound hardcover, most of the titles obscure by even the dorkiest film nerd's standards. "How do you think I felt when I bought the whole goddamn collection?" Refn asked, with a laugh. "I'm very ignorant."
I recently caught up with Refn in Austin during the book's US launch at Fantastic Fest, an event that supplements its anarchic screenings with boxing, nerd-rap competitions, machine guns, and a 32-member satanic drum band. "It's ironic, me being in Austin," Refn said, "because I used money that I made on shooting Lincoln commercials with Matthew McConaughey driving around Austin and out in the desert to pay for the book." A hundred grand and 4,000 copies later, The Act of Seeing is available this month from FAB Press and Amazon in the United States.
VICE: You purchased these film posters from a single private collector. Had you been amassing posters before you got your hands on these?
Nicolas Winding Refn: No, I have more what they call "collector mania." I've collected numerous things in my life, but then I usually tire after a couple of years and don't know what to do with it. I've gone from vinyl to VHS, Japanese toys, and filmmakers that I find interesting. [Cult horror auteur] Andrew Milligan became my first. There was never any point of collecting DVDs or Blu-rays because they were so accessible. [The internet] came, and most films were just uploaded. So there was never joy, where VHS was much more of a hunter's ground. But because I wanted to collect everything Andrew Milligan, I was buying most of the archive from Jimmy McDonough, who had written the bio on Andrew Milligan, as well as Russ Meyer, Neil Young, and all these other people.
"[My wife] Liv was like, 'What the fuck is this? Now you're buying this? What are you going to do with it?'"
The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan is a rather gnarly book. It's as sleazy as the posters you've acquired.
It's a terrific book about this relationship between him and Andy. So I bought everything from Jimmy, and Jimmy had also frequented Time Square in the 70s and 80s with Bill Landis. They wrote Sleazoid Express, which was the first fanzine about exploitation film, and I remember buying everything from Jimmy, even original Sleazoid Expresses, whatever he had in his living room. He said, "I have a poster collection in the basement, do you want that as well?" I said, "Sure, ship it over," and that was not the smartest move because maybe eight weeks later, a thousand posters arrived. [My wife] Liv was like, "What the fuck is this? Now you're buying this? What are you going to do with it?"
I was unpacking and looking through it, and Ryan [Gosling] was in town visiting us and photographing all of these great images. I was like, "You know, maybe I should make a book." I haven't seen any of these obscure films, and I'm not a walking encyclopedia of film. I've watched a lot of movies, but I don't know every [line of] dialogue and every frame. These posters were like a time capsule into an era that is certainly gone because all the people from that era are dead, so you can't even talk about it with anyone anymore. The posters were so outrageous, and that's when I decided to do a poster book. But to do it, I wanted to make the most expensive poster book ever produced, consisting of posters from films no one has ever heard of. It's like the Warhol soup-can trick. You take something that was throwaway trash 50 years ago, but you re-present it, and it suddenly becomes high culture.
Distribution labels like Shout! Factory and Vinegar Syndrome are finding a hungry market today for their loving restorations of schlock films. Why do you think yesterday's trash has come back in vogue?
[It started] in the 90s, when exploitation became a more open inspiration channel for my generation of filmmakers—and the ones a bit older than me—combined with the whole Asian genre wave, the talky Sundance independent movie starting to diminish, and television coming in. Genre started to become a new way of artistic expression that was accepted by the mainstream, where before it was always an underground thing. I remember in '87 or '88, someone bringing me from London a VHS of The Killer by John Woo, and it was probably like what my parents went through watching Breathless. If I showed it to anyone artistic, it was like, "That's trash," and I'm like, "No, it's not." It became something more retro, like in clothes or pop cinema. That was when a lot of these companies started to flourish and interest [returned] to collect again, trying to seek the past like we do with music or design.
"It was one of the best screenings I've been to in the last couple of years. We saw a 61-minute 70s porn movie shot in a grocery store. Everyone was just howling."
In support of the book, you screened three films here at Fantastic Fest to an appropriately irreverent crowd with adventurous, fanatical tastes. What was it about that trio of features that felt so representative?
They were the only ones we could get. [Laughs] Over the years of coming here and seeing [Alamo Drafthouse CEO and Fantastic Fest co-founder Tim League], I kept on saying, "I'm gonna make this book," and everyone was like, "That sounds great," and I was like, "No, I'm telling you, I'm really going to make this book." [Laughs] It took four or five years to actually make.
When we finally had everything, I told Tim: "OK, let's launch it as an old-fashioned road show, where we show some of the movies from the book." We were looking through the archive he has here, and there were a few, but a lot weren't playable. When we saw The X-Rated Supermarket, everyone was dying to see it because no one knew what it was. Alan couldn't find any information online that the film had actually played, except an ad in an Austin newspaper. So yesterday, no one knew what we were going to be seeing and it was one of the best screenings I've been to in the last couple of years. We saw a 61-minute 70s porn movie shot in a grocery store. Everyone was just howling, and afterward we had the best Q&A.
That brought you back to the days of going to the movies and not knowing what you were going to see because the internet didn't exist, and you're like, "Whoa." Then there was My Body Hungers, which is Joe Sarno's film, who was actually a good filmmaker before he went into just pure pornography. And the classic of all extreme cinema is Farewell Uncle Tom, which I have a personal thing with because of Riz Ortolani's title song "Oh My Love" [which was used in Drive].
What was the process of putting the posters in the book together?
First, we scanned 500 posters. I looked through them and choose about 250. Then I felt we needed more, so I went looking online and was able to find a few. I went back again to find the order of what would work together, kind of like making a movie and film editing. Each image represented an emotion, and how could I make a subconscious or subliminal narrative to it?
[Refn flips through the pages.] I wanted to start the book with this one of the stripper, Girl Behind the Curtain, and I wanted to stop with a movie called Stop. That gave you a woman undressing in a private moment to be photographed, and that sets off The Act of Seeing. You're seeing something. Then I wanted to put Conquest of Space right next to it because the juxtaposition of saying what you see here is going to be different over here, you have no idea how this book is going to turn out. You have no idea what's going to happen on the next page because I'm already going against what I present, the same way I do my films.
Then we have a run of colorful sexploitation films, a few classics like Queen of Blood or She Monster, which are famous posters in our world, between us. But my mother had never seen them, so it reaches out to a larger audience that, aesthetically, is very strong. You start to get into weirder ones like Obscene House and Sock It to Me Baby, and you start to see some women obsessions, all in good taste and playful.
Have many of these posters inspired you to track down the films themselves? Or is it simply enough to collect the graphic representation since they're often terrifically designed?
The thing is, most of these posters promise things they would never live up to. For me, there was also a personal full circle that I was way too young to experience Times Square and most of these films. Making this book is about what it must have been like going from cinema to cinema in Times Square, just seeing all of these films advertised and the promises of bad things I wasn't supposed to go see. The only way for me to relive that, not having ever done it, is to put it together in a book like this.
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The Act of Seeing by Nicolas Winding Refn is available in bookstores and online from FAB Press.