Jesse Hawthorne Ficks's Midnight Movie Empire

Dennis Harvey December 3, 2007

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the founder, curator and host of Midnites for Maniacs, a frequent one-night event on the historic Castro Theatre‘s calendar these days. "Emphasizing dismissed, overlooked and forgotten films," MfM might be said to focus on the populist yet esoteric-genre and exploitation flicks that for the most part long since disappeared into the netherworld of discarded VHS rental tapes.

These cultural artifacts have included such rarities as "Joysticks" (a let’s-save-Pop’s-video-game-store opus from 1983) and 1987’s flabbergasting "Troll 2," a quasi-horror fantasy made in the U.S. by Italians, but deliciously senseless in any language. Among the nearly 30 marathon triple bills Ficks has presented at the Castro to date were such tasty theme nights as "Supernatural Swirly Stuff," "Are You Goin’ to Prom?," "So Straight It’s Gay," plus tributes to the cinema of aerobics and roller-disco. There have been evenings devoted to the screen oeuvres of Crispin Glover, Dolly Parton, and "underage Jodie Foster."

Getting his own such retrospective this Friday (though not in person) is none other than the apex of hairy 1970s masculinity. Billed as " Three Moustache Rides with Burt Reynolds," the night features his starring turn (opposite Dolly) in the 1982 film of Broadway musical "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," and a midnight showing of his 1977 redneck megahit "Smokey and the Bandit."

It opens with a movie that perhaps hasn’t been seen in SF since its disastrous 1975 theatrical release: Peter Bogdanovich’s "At Long Last Love," another musical that had Burt, Cybill Shepherd and others kicking up their heels to Cole Porter tunes in a tribute to 1930s Hollywood glamour. A critical whipping post and commercial dud, "Love" was (somewhat unfairly) branded as so awful that it became a virtual "lost" film, never released in any home format. Its extremely rare screening at the Castro comes courtesy of Ficks. In a roundabout way, we felt the need to ask him: Why?

SF360: You teach Film History at the Academy of Art. How does your curriculum balance the required likes of ‘Potemkin’ against, say, your confessed all-time favorite ‘Ski School’ (a 1990 sexploitation comedy complete with lambada jokes)?

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks: I was always frustrated in my film classes when the teacher would teach the same old films, pointing out the same old things. I remember one time when I was in school, I compared Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ to Steve Miner’s ‘Friday the 13th Part 2’ and my professor reacted as if I had personally offended him. That kind of snobbery doesn’t fly in my classes. Film history for me encompasses ALL films, not just those that theory books have been deemed to be ‘important’.

SF360: You’ve been programming midnights since you were 16, starting then in SLC. What kind of stuff were you showing then, and for who?

Ficks: Salt Lake City is a tuff place to grow up in if you are yearning for more. Midnite films in Salt Lake were (and still are) extremely important for this reason. Being exposed to movies that mainstream programming shies away from helps you in ways you don’t even realize. When I was programming films with my manager, we had teenagers to 40-somethings coming out in droves! David Lynch had just become a household name with ‘Twin Peaks,’ so ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘Wild At Heart’ were huge hits. As were staples like ‘Pink Floyd’s The Wall’ and ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’

SF360: How did Midnite for Maniacs start?

Ficks: I moved to SF in 1998 and scored the greatest job of my life at the Four Star Theatre. The manager Frank Lee and Uncle Lam became mentors, giving me opportunities as a projectionist, programmer, and host. This was toward the end of the heyday of Hong Kong cinema, so I started programming midnite shows of everything from old fantasy films like ‘Encounters of a Spooky Kind’ and ‘Zu: Warriors on Magic Mountain’ to new Johnnie To films like ‘Love on a Diet’ and ‘The Mission.’ Not only did people actually come out, I realized there was a late-night movie community in San Francisco! Then one day I programmed ‘The Garbage Pail Kids Movie,’ and it sold out so hard we ended up having to turn people away who had driven all the way from Oakland! From then on, I was able to mix and match just about anything.

SF360: You’ll only show 35mm prints — and a lot of these movies aren’t exactly in high demand by rep cinemas and such. How do you go about tracking down prints?

Ficks: This is becoming more and more difficult, because many of the films that deserve to be screened are so obscure that finding a 35mm print is almost impossible. Oftentimes, if you can track down which distributor actually owns the rights to a film, the archive will pull out the cans of the film — and it will be unrunnable. The studios don’t seem to care about their old 35mm prints. And when it comes to the type of programming I’m interested in, they often ask why I even want to run the title, as was the case with Andy Kaufman’s ‘Heartbeeps’ and George Lucas’s ‘Howard the Duck.’ A very special story is behind the print of ‘Troll 2’ I screened as a part of a ‘Vertically Challenged Monsters’ triple bill. After confirming its availability with a distributor, I contacted the film’s lead actor Michael Stephenson in hopes of him attending the screening. I will never forget his absolute amazement when I told him that a 35mm print existed. [Note: ‘Troll 2’ was a direct-to-video release.] Not only was that the print’s theatrical world premiere, it has gone on to screen in thirteen cities since.

SF360: A lot of films you’ve shown have been ones that made an impression on you when you were growing up. Were you attracted to exploitation-type cinema early on?

Ficks: I watched a lot of films as a kid. I give my Mom most of the credit. She would take me to the video store every Friday and rent four movies of my choice. And since I was scouring every magazine about movies I could find (‘Fangoria,’ ‘Starlog’, even ‘MAD’ and ‘Cracked’), I acquired quite an obsessive appreciation for movies ranging from ‘The Evil Dead’ to ‘Return To Oz,’ ‘First Blood’ and ‘Transylvania 6-5000.’ And since I was so young, I wasn’t affected by what I ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ like. Which I know happens all the time as we get older. How many times have you said to a friend, ‘I kinda wanna see that movie’ and they respond by contemptuously rolling their eyes at you?

SF360: Why Burt Reynolds? His peak stardom would have been a little before your time.

Ficks: Burt Reynolds is just as amazing and important to film history as Cary Grant or Jean-Paul Belmondo. Yes, my students have to study The Moustache Man. He not only is one of the smoothest and most charming actors to cross the movie screen, he represents a time period when men could be sexy, funny and furry—and that includes on his back!

SF360: ‘At Long Last Love’ is a very rare film-partly because it was so despised at the time. You recently spoke to Peter Bogdanovich — what did he have to say about it?

Ficks: This film is a true rarity. It has never been released since its theatrical run in 1975. Not on VHS, DVD, Beta, nothing. And this is the original print from that release! It represents the type of film that Midnites for Maniacs showcases: Dismissed, underrated, and overlooked. People hated this film when it came out. It’s a musical shot in the tradition of Ernst Lubitsch, where all the musical numbers were filmed live. And in this film’s case, all the actors were singing in their own untrained voices. And if you’ve noticed, this concept has inspired many films from Woody Allen’s ‘Everyone Say I Love You’ to Lars Von Trier’s ‘Dancer in the Dark.’ Now ironically, the writer-director Peter Bogdanovich also has some difficulty embracing the film. After talking with him recently over the phone, he still seems to feel that the film missed its mark. I tried to explain to him that the film may not have achieved exactly what he wanted, but that it did achieve something quite refreshing and unique, something that people have obviously been inspired by. His response: ‘Let’s talk about my good movies!’ This happens all the time, when the creator doesn’t realize how wonderful their creation actually is.

SF360: What are some favorite guests you’ve had at Midnite for Maniacs shows to date?

Ficks: Just last month I hosted the 25th anniversary screening of Greydon Clark’s ‘Joysticks’ in Los Angeles at the New Beverly Theatre. The sweetest programmer down there, Phil Blankenship, helped me put together the reunion of actors Jonathan Gries (King Vidiot), Jim Greenleaf (McDorfus) and director Clark. They were all so happy to be there. It was the best.

Then there was the utter surprise of experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky and director Richard Lerner attending the screening of their 1976 T&A spectacular ‘Revenge of the Cheerleaders.’ They didn’t tell me they were there until after the movie ended! The director Richard Lerner was surprised at how well the film played to contemporary audiences. He also told me that at least three minutes of full-frontal-bush had been cut out of the print I screened. Brilliant. Plus to top that, Dorsky (who wrote the screenplay) authored a book about Robert Bresson and Roberto Rossellini entitled ‘Devotional Cinema’ that I use in my Film History classes.

SF360: What guests and films are on your wish list?

Ficks: I would love Peter Bogdanovich to come out and host a retrospective of his contemporary classics. And I am trying to get Allan Moyle to release a director’s cut of ‘Times Square’ (a 1980 proto-riot-grrl-power teen flick).

Someone recently told me that at a recent Pat Benatar show she introduced her ‘Invincible’ from ‘The Legend of Billie Jean’ (a 1985 teen epic) by saying, ‘This is the theme to one of the worst films ever made.’ How heartbreaking is that? I’d like to get her here for a screening and teach her a thing or two!

The next Midnites for Maniacs programs at the Castro are Dec. 7’s ‘Three Moustache Rides with Burt Reynolds’ and a Feb. 8 ‘Bringin’ on the Heartbreak’ triple bill featuring ‘Lucas,’ ‘Say Anything’ and ‘My Bloody Valentine.’