Honor thy neighbor: 'Playgirl After Dark' plays in the Superstars Next Door program at YBCA. (Photo courtesy Jack Stevenson)

Jack Stevenson on 'The Superstars Next Door'

Matt Sussman October 6, 2008

If John Waters is "the Pope of Trash" (according to the gospel of William S Burroughs) then freelance curator and film fanatic Jack Stevenson is a shoe-in for Cardinal. The last time Stevenson rolled into town in 2006, he arrived with a stack of film canisters that were a veritable Pandora’s box filled with drug scare propaganda, witchcraft, and Scandinavian skin flicks. This time he comes bearing amateur blue movies, a gritty portrait of a bisexual hustler, and grainy reels documenting live, nude girls — all shot in San Francisco—for the series "The Superstars Next Door" at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I checked in with Stevenson via email before he boarded his transatlantic flight. Here’s what he had to say about his hatred of television, why film preservationists have it wrong—and the most depraved flick ever made in Denmark.

SF360: What is your earliest memory involving film? Or, was there an early viewing experience that you think set you on your current path?

Jack Stevenson: My earliest, cherished image was not from a movie but is of a circus poster I spied as a very young boy being hauled past freak show alley by my parents. It was a lurid painting of a young, sexy jungle woman who looked about 14 who had just impaled a muscular jungle man on a large hook. The hook was all the way through his back, dripping in blood. I don’t know what that image has to do with movies but I was haunted by it for years.

SF360: You’ve lived in Copenhagen since 1993. What prompted your move from the States?

Stevenson: I moved because I got married to a Danish girl. We later moved to a town about 40 minutes north of the City to be near Denmark’s only drive-in theater, but I think the housing project flat we moved into is haunted as the people living there before the previous tenants committed suicide and set the place on fire in the process. We were never told.

SF360: What is the audience like there—and in Europe for that matter— for the kind of underground cinema and B-movies that you screen?

Stevenson: The audience is generally good in Europe for specialty cinema, but of course with some programs of vintage American material, it lacks the nostalgic attachment. For example, I have some old drive-in educational films— pretty gory stuff— and that generally leaves audiences dumbfounded. Also audience interest varies from city to city. Denmark itself is a provincial backwater. My favorite cities are Hamburg, Amsterdam, and Brussels. They have a real cinema underground. The best cinema in the world is the Werkstattkino (Work shop cinema) in Munich— it has only 50 seats. In Copenhagen we have a group called Station 16.

SF360: Has it become harder to find prints? I can imagine that it would be difficult locating some of the films you show, given that even the major Hollywood studios have had such an abysmal track record of preserving their own holdings.

Stevenson: I’ve never really been involved with issues of print preservation or accessibility on that higher level that concerns temperature controlled vaults and billion dollar restoration projects. I think films should be shown and not preserved. I say, run the fuckers until the sprocket holes fall off and let future generations fend for themselves. I think I got off the subject here, but that’s my belligerent opinion.

SF360: I want to focus more on ‘The Superstars Next Door’. Each segment seems to hold up a filthy mirror to the ‘flowers and body paint’ stereotypical image of free love that perhaps many have about SF in the ‘60s. Where and how did you come across those home movies?

Stevenson: I found all those movies from ‘Superstars’ in a junk shop in the Mission District. They are part of San Francisco’s forgotten film heritage from the late ‘60s, nameless and disposable artifacts of real life.

SF360: ‘The Meatrack’ is pretty amazing. Does it technically pre-date ‘Midnight Cowboy’? It’s also just such a great document of underground queer culture—especially the drag queens in it. It depicts this universe that was running parallel to the far out-ness of the Cockettes and the more traditional glamour of the Imperial Court System.

Stevenson: ‘The Meatrack’ is an essential artifact of local SF film and queer culture. It was made in ‘68 but not released commercially until 1970, known to some as ‘the poor man’s ‘Midnight Cowboy,’’ which it did predate. Mike Thomas [formerly of San Francisco; he would later go onto restore several theaters on Market Street and found Strand Releasing] made it in his film student days, but he was billed as Richard Stockton in the credits.

SF360: So much more is now available on DVD or video, thanks to Something Weird and other companies who have taken on saving films that Criterion would never consider. And yet, as a curator I recently interviewed pointed out, ‘There is nothing like sitting in an audience with everyone watching the same thing.’ You’re old enough to have started to see these movies in theaters— evoked by your great title 'Land of A Thousand Balconies'—and I wonder if you feel that something has been lost as true rep houses become scarcer and more titles are made available for home viewing.

Stevenson: Seeing stuff in a dark movie theater with strangers is always better than staying home and watching your big screen TV, which I hate. We recently screened ‘The Sinful Dwarf’ at my theater in Copenhagen to mark the release of the uncut Danish version with hardcore sequences intact. It’s a 1974 film, the most depraved flick ever made in Denmark. It’s just this twisted, perverse, hardcore film that stars a sadistic dwarf who enslaves naked women in his attic and injects them with heroin. We thought it would just be a bunch of perverts who would show up, but of the 25 attendees about 15 where nice looking, young girls we had never seen at shows before. They loved it. It was also great to see it on the big screen. So it became a completely different experience.

So, this is what I’m talking about. I never watch video or DVD, so my film knowledge has gaps that the Grand Canyon would fit into. I’m not after information, but a certain atmosphere. My dream is to break into The Strand on Market and creepy crawl it. I like being in old theaters even if there is no movie playing. It’s all about darkness, strangers and decrepit old theaters that reek of some kind of twisty karma.