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The Letterboxd Show 2.21: Lars Nilsen
[clip of The Switchblade Sisters plays]
MOM SMACKLEY Everybody up. I’m only going to say this once. Somebody popped the bubble of stimulants from the medical station. I’m going to get it back, if I have to wring out every one of you like a dish rag. All rec periods are cancelled till it turns up. Okay, everybody, hands out front.
PATCH That’s Mom Smackley, Mag. Better watch out for her. She gets funny ideas. Especially about the new girls.
MAGGIE Shove it.
[The Letterboxd Show theme music Vampiros Dancoteque by Moniker fades in, plays alone, fades down]
GEMMA Hello and welcome to The Letterboxd Show, a podcast about the movies people love watching from Letterboxd: the social network for people who love watching movies. Each episode your hosts Slim and Gemma—that’s—me are joined by a Letterboxd friend for a chat about their four favorite films according to their Letterboxd profile. As you listen along, we have links in the episode notes, so there is no excuse not to add these films to your watchlists—and you are going to want to add today’s films, because today our guest is exploitation expert, the one and only Lars Nilsen of Austin, Texas.
SLIM Currently Lars is the lead programmer for the very storied Austin Film Society. But before that, he programmed for The Alamo Drafthouse way back before it was the mega-fancy chain of theaters it is today. From 2001 to 2013, Lars programmed the late-night Weird Wednesday series of film oddities, and he just released a book all about it. Warped & Faded: Weird Wednesday and the Birth of the American Genre Film Archive is currently on sale for Mondo. Lars is naturally a Letterboxd member. And he’s here to talk about his book and his four favorites: Touch of Evil, The Switchblade Sisters, Buster Keaton’s The General and Phantom of the Paradise. How does it feel, Lars, to maybe be the only person with both The Switchblade Sisters and The General in their Letterboxd faves? What’s that feeling like?
LARS It feels slightly warm and damp. [Gemma & Slim laugh] But it’s exciting to be here. Thank you guys for welcoming me. I’m so happy to be here. And I just want to drop this in—I don’t know when I’ll ever have a chance to talk to the Letterboxd people again.
GEMMA Uh oh.
LARS I was an early adopter of Letterboxd. I’ve been logging movies on Letterboxd since 2014. I was using it in 2013. So I go way back with Letterboxd and I look out there now and all the hip kids in Austin—and this is true, this is not just me saying this—but all the hip kids in Austin are on Letterboxd, which I love as a film programmer, because I can go back—you know, we’ll screen and film and then I just like look on recent reviews. And chances are we’re the only people that have shown that film anytime recently. And I just go through it and it’s like ‘Austin, Austin, Austin, Austin’ and I’m adding all these people, because I want to read feedback of our audience. And I’m able to get all of that. And then all the kids downstairs who work at the bar, you know, the film students, filmmakers, and all of that. They’re all on Letterboxd and they’re continually—like, they’ll come into work and they’ll say, “Wow, you gave that three and a half stars. What did you think? I saw you logged that on Letterboxd.” It really is such a part of the fabric of movie going now, I think for this particular sort of generation of film enthusiasts, people who were just way over the top film enthusiasts. And then we had Sean Baker was here—the filmmaker Sean Baker—was here Tuesday night. And then what do I immediately talk to him about? Do I talk to him about his wonderful scope frame that he uses in Red Rocket? Do I talk about any of that? No, we start talking about Letterboxd immediately. [Slim & Gemma laugh] So, it’s so cool. And I know he’s gonna be a guest on your show. So Letterboxd is a force and I really—just I would not—believe me, I go on these other podcasts, I’m not pulling their chain like this. Like I’m really excited to be on the Letterboxd podcast.
GEMMA Wow. And that was the show, ladies and gentlemen. We’ll leave it right there.
SLIM Thanks everyone for joining us. [Gemma & Lars laugh] It’s funny, you mentioned using Letterboxd, and I’m the same way with my friends. We always bust each other’s chops about ratings we give movies. And in reading the book, this week, Warped & Faded, it was so fun to go back and hear from collectors of film prints, tracking down prints that maybe people didn’t even know existed and then screening them for people that maybe never even heard the movie. How has that changed for you since the early 2000s?
LARS You know, when I started as a film programmer in 2001, we didn’t have the internet. What I have always marveled at is imagining what it was like before the internet at all, to be a film programmer, because my work as a film programmer is like, you know, I email the studio or email a distributor and say, “Do you have this?” And then I’ll go through and I’ll say, ‘Oh, I gotta find some photos that we can use for our calendar.’ And then maybe I want to find some pull quotes. So I go on Rotten Tomatoes, see what did Manohla Dargis say about it, etc. And all of those things I’m able to pull together from the internet and imagine what it was like to try to run a repertory theater—which many people did—you know, before the internet, and having to get on the phone, line up your prints, track your prints using the telephone, later on using fax machine, sending materials by mail, you know? Sending ad mats by mail, lining up newspaper ads every week, like just the amazing amount of work that you would have to do that we can now do so easily, that we just take for granted. But even then, even between 2001 and now, things have changed a whole lot. It really has gotten a lot easier, to the point where you know, we show a lot of 35mm films here at Austin Film Society. But if we’re showing something that’s digital, there’s a service called Eclair that our projections could just go on and just download DCP in the highest possible screen double resolution, a 4K DCP, you know, and download that in a couple of hours, and then we’re showing it the next day. So it really is such an enormously different world.
GEMMA And come a really long way since—as written in the introduction of Warped & Faded—Tim and Karrie League overfilled a track that could take something like 11,000 tonnes and he waited and it was like 20,000 tonnes full of film reels that he had to drive at 30 miles per hour for eleven hours back to Austin.
LARS That was repeated so many times. Tim did that first big batch. But then after that, my colleagues Zack Carlson and I, and Daniel Osborne and others—although I hope we don’t have to go to jail, because of the statute of limitations on this—but we overloaded so many trucks. We’ve warped—we’ve talked about Warped & Faded—we warped so many axles have rented trucks over the years. Because that way was not even a consideration. We didn’t even think about it. We just thought how many prints can we fit in here and prints are enormously heavy and dense. So, you know, we would fill up—the only consideration was mass and space. Like we were not considering weight at all. And I found myself on the Grapevine one time in California, driving up the Grapevine, which has an enormously steep grade and realizing that I was going backwards. [Gemma & Slim laugh] Because I overloaded the truck so much. And it was—yeah, many times we found ourselves driving really slowly, ruining really valuable vehicles. But that’s why you always buy the insurance.
GEMMA Speaking of ruining really valuable vehicles, when a car bomb explodes on the American side of the US, Mexico border in Orson Welles’ 1958 film Touch of Evil. I mean, can we just have a moment for that segue?
SLIM Segue of the year. Gemma does it again.
GEMMA Thank you, yes!
SLIM She never misses with these segues. It’s ridiculous.
GEMMA Mexican drug enforcement agent Miguel Vargas played in some sort of historically retroactive Latin blackface by Charlton Heston, begins his investigation along with American police captain Hank Quinlan, when Vargas begins to suspect that Quinlan and his shady partner Menzies are planting evidence to frame an innocent man, his investigations into the possible corruption quickly put himself and his new bride Susie—the brilliant Janet Leigh—once again staying in and out of the way motel in jeopardy. There’s the synopsis of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. This is the first of your four favorites. So tell us why. Why is it in there?
LARS Well, it’s a remarkable film. I’m sure you guys have seen it. It’s Orson Welles’ really unique vision brought to bear on what was really meant to be a tawdry piece of exploitation film. Even though it’s a studio title, it was Universal International, which was barely a studio at the time. They were really making movies that were medium budget type movies, and they had the opportunity to work with Charlton Heston—and Charlton Heston was a pretty big star at the time, it’s kind of a big get for Universal International, who were at the time making movie starring like Jeff Chandler and other people that you probably haven’t even heard of. But it was a get to get Charlton Heston and they cast Orson Welles the actor in the Hank Quinlan role in the film, and then they found themselves without a director because a director dropped out or I’m not sure exactly what happened with the director. And then Charlton Heston went to the producers and said, “Well, you know, you got Orson Welles, he’s going to be here on the set every day and he’s a good director.” And of course, he had been exiled from Hollywood—literally exiled from Hollywood. It was a controversial notion to bring back Orson Welles to have him direct the film. But Welles agreed to do it. I don’t believe he took any money for doing it. He just got paid his actors wage for doing the film. And then the only reason he agreed to do it was they gave him the power to rewrite the film. So Welles rewrote the film. He obviously directed the film. He’s brilliant. He’s brilliant as an actor, he’s brilliant as a director. And then while some of us might look at Charlton Heston, and say, ‘Oh, this is sort of brownface.’ It’s too bad that say, Ricardo Montalbán, who would have been fantastic in the role—
SLIM Oh my god.
GEMMA Oh my god.
LARS The movie doesn’t get made without Charlton Heston. Charlton Heston was the reason the movie was able to get made. It’s the reason that Welles is able to be in the movie. So we have to take our compromises where we get them. But yeah, Welles—there’s so many sequences in the film that only Welles could have done. You mentioned the whole beginning sequence with putting the car bomb—
GEMMA Oh my god. Let’s talk about that opening three minutes, shall we?
LARS Yeah, no, it’s a beautiful sequence. And when the studio released the film, by the way, they made that the opening credit sequence, which I don’t mind very much, but a lot of people are very uptight about. They actually made that whole sequence the opening credit sequence, so the credits are happening over that, which Welles was upset about, I get it, but it also was like the most awesome opening credit sequence of all time if that is the credit sequence.
GEMMA Sometimes, just sometimes, the studio is right. Right? On behalf of the audience...
LARS Yeah, I don’t know. Welles didn’t think they were right. And I’m forced to sort of say, yeah, okay, whatever Welles wanted. But I like it as a credit sequence. But yeah, it’s like an unbelievable shot. And they they filmed it several times. And they kept getting to the end of the sequence—by the way, this is a bit of trivia—and there’s one—a guy has one line like, “Are you bringing anything into the country?” Or whatever he says. And he blew it. [Gemma laughs] It was an incredible shot and all this stuff, and the guy blows in line. Eventually they loop the line. Because he blew it—he didn’t just blow the line, which is easily fixable—he blew the line and he was like, “Oh, god darn-nit, I blew the line!” You know? Which is the worst thing you can do. [Gemma laughs]
SLIM This a 4.1 on Letterboxd. This is a highly rated movie. I had not seen this before—
LARS Oh you hadn’t?
SLIM I had not seen it before this week. So I was excited to watch more Orson Welles and last week we did The Third Man and so that was like—I can say I love Citizen Kane. But like most people, maybe that’s one of the only Orson Welles movies I’ve seen to be honest. You know, I’m a movie lover but I just realized, man I haven’t seen like any Orson Welles movies besides Citizen Kane.
SLIM Right. Taking over.
GEMMA He is unrecognizable in this for a while, right? I had to—he’s wearing a fat suit, suure.
LARS He’s wearing a fat suit and he’s wearing a rubber nose. He often wore a rubber nose. He almost always wore rubber nose actually. And then he’s all grimed up and he looks terrible. But he had not been in Hollywood for a number of years when he came back to make this movie. And he had a party, it was like a coming back party. And he was all dressed up for shooting his scenes. You know, it’s the end of the day. He’s like oh crap, I’m not gonna have time to change clothes before I go to this party. So he leaves, he goes to the party and he walks in like that, just looking like shit. He walks in like that and he said the first thing that happened is somebody walks up to him and goes “Orson, you look wonderful!”
GEMMA Oh god. [Slim & Gemma laugh]
LARS Hollywood phony, you know?
GEMMA He looks like he hasn’t bathed in a month. He is sweaty.
SLIM The smell alone.
GEMMA His scenes with Mar—is it Marlene Dietrich?
LARS Yeah, she worked for free, too. And that was a whole thing where that character wasn’t even in the script. And Welles was just like, “Well, we can get Marlene, my friend, my old friend Marlene.” They were close friends. Get old friend Marlene Dietrich to work on this and brought her in and wrote the whole part for her. And it’s the heart and soul of the movie. She provides the epilogue of the film at the very end, which is just so wonderfully sort of existential. Yeah, she’s the heart and soul of the film and that character wasn’t even supposed to be in it.
GEMMA Wow, that’s so fascinating to learn. Because if it had—I was watching it thinking in films like this, you usually only get the Janet Leigh character. You don’t get two women. You usually just get the one and she’s in so much danger, and there are, you know, moments where you think she’s about to get gang raped, and it’s just sort of all around traumatic. And it’s a relief as a viewer to also have this other character who’s just completely in command of her own domain. Happy to hang out and watch her Pianola play itself.
LARS There’s a wonderful part—and this isn’t too much of a spoiler here—but there’s a wonderful part where there’s almost like a moment where the dialogue is kind of a snappy, witty, romantic interplay, where he says, “I wish I was getting fat on your chili.” And she says, “Careful, it might be too hot for you.” Which is like, you know, it’s kind of the dialogue for the sort of sexy tennis match of back and forth. But he’s so just rundown and and sexually, completely non—you know—in the mix here. He just goes—[clip of Touch of Evil plays, Hank Quinlan grunts] [Gemma & Lars laugh] He doesn’t even return sir.
GEMMA Yeah, he’s got no follow up.
SLIM Visually this movie is amazing. I thought this was stunning to look at the whole time and there’s a review from wood that we have in our list from Jack. “Touch of Evil might be the Citizen Kane of Orson Welles’ filmography.” Gorgeous to look at.
LARS Yeah, that’s deep. I got to read the comments on that one because I really, I get it, but I’m sure that many people did not get exactly that. [Slim laughs]
GEMMA It’s sort of—is it spoilery to talk about the whole scene in the oil field? Because that is—the choreography of that.
LARS You’re talking about the scene where there’s the microphone, wearing the mic?
GEMMA Oh yeah.
SLIM Oh god.
[clip of Touch of Evil plays]
LARS It’s Shakespearean, you know, there’s a Shakespearean—Joseph Calleia who plays the deputy or Hank’s assistant or whatever the hell he is. You know, there’s like the he really loves the man which is stated, but really, Welles at this point, he had been in Europe making Shakespearean movies. And he was, you know, a brilliant Shakespearean, and he would make more Shakespeare movies. But really, that relationship between them is so deep and so Shakespearean. And also, the tragic flaw is a classic tragic flaw. Hank Quinlan really does—he actually really does have this ability to kind of know who’s guilty and who isn’t guilty. It’s actually true. He does. We can see it happen in the course of the film. But yeah, we also see his tragic flaw. It’s such a wonderful conception of the character. It’s so much deeper than the sort of pulp origins of it. I have to say another reason I love this movie so much is the pulp origins of it. I love pulp art. And I love when pulp art kind of becomes deeper than we give it credit for. Sometimes when we look at this pulp art, we say oh, no, there’s actually a lot that’s being said here in this pulp art, almost as a kind of automatic writing. Now, of course, Welles was a great artist. This is not the case where it’s like an accidental masterpiece. It’s a totally intentional masterpiece, but it does emerge from some of the same grounds as some other sort of less intentional noir masterpieces that do tell us a lot about ourselves.
GEMMA It’s pretty awesome. I’m very good timing for Noirvember, thank you, to have this in your top four. It is, interestingly, the second highest rated film of 1958, behind Vertigo, and it is the eighth highest rated film-noir film on Letterboxd.
LARS And here’s a really interesting thing about that film, which is so highly rated, and which is so highly esteemed, and which we all love so much, is Universal International got that film. And they said, Well, this is a piece of garbage. And they released it as the second half have a double feature, the bottom of the basement half of the double feature, with a Hedy Lamarr movie called The Female Animal, which I’ve watched too, and it’s just really, really a truly dreadful movie—which I also kind of enjoy. [Gemma laughs] Universal International looks at Touch of Evil and says, ‘Well, this is barely worth releasing.’
SLIM Before we drift into your next film, The Switchblade Sisters, I have to call out a poster I see in the background of your video. Is that Artie from the greatest television show ever made, Larry Sanders? [Gemma laughs]
LARS Yes, yes. It was Rip Torn from the Texas Film Hall of Fame, from our induction ceremony when we had Rip Torn here. We had a giant blow up of him that we used as part of the ceremony and it was just kind of around in storage so I figured I would put it up in my office so that I would always be inspired by Artie.
SLIM God bless. We should all have a salty dog after the recording of this episode in memoriam. So our next film The Switchblade Sisters. Let’s get into some exploitation. 1975. 3.5 average on Letterboxd. You’re one of 23 fans that have this in their top faves on Letterboxd. Quick synopsis of this movie: a tough gang of teenage girls are looking for love and fighting for turf on the mean streets of the city. Bad girls to the core, these impossibly outrageous High School hoodlums go where they want. Is this a Gemma synopsis or is this the official one?
GEMMA No, no, that’s the official one. Here’s my one—
SLIM This is the official one? Okay. [Gemma laughs] And create mayhem wherever they go.
GEMMA Alright, here’s my one: Lace and Patch are the lead girls on the Dagger Debs, but when they tried to get a stranger, Maggie, to clear off from their favorite diner table, and Maggie turns out to be a total badass, she joins the gang and jealousies abound over friendships, dudes and roller skates. [Gemma & Slim laugh] I don’t know if it’s any better.
SLIM I think they’re both good.
GEMMA But at least the main characters. Anyway, this is from legendary exploitation director Jack Hill, and it’s his fourth highest rated film on Letterboxd—sandwiched between Coffy and Foxy Brown. And this, like every week, there is a watch of the week and I thought it was going to be Phantom of the Paradise, but no, Lars, it’s this one. Thank you. I thought I’d seen it. Because I’ve seen, you know, I’ve been going to—we’ll talk about Ant Timpson in a wee while. I’ve been going to his festivals for years and years, but this is actually one that has slipped through the cracks for me and I’m just so grateful to you for the Switchblade Sisters this week.
LARS What did you like about it?
GEMMA Ah, I loved all the women. I loved every single last woman, especially Muff. She is amazing. Oh my god. Like I thought—I actually thought the film couldn’t get any better. And then Marlene Clark turns up with her armored vehicle. And I’m like, okay, here we go. This is great. I loved the whole prison scene. I’m glad we got to, you know, WIP scene that was brilliant. Maggie’s double denims, totally hot. Slim specifically called out the farting. A lot of farting in the film.
SLIM Lots of farting in this.
GEMMA Lots of farting. Lines of dialogue like, “Oh, he’s my special project coordinator in charge of special project coordination.” [Gemma laughs] Stuff like that. And what’d I write? The music, the pacing, the dialogue, the camera movements, this is a seriously well made exploitation film. The only thing wrong with it, is the girls fighting over guys. But the choreography of that final fight and the shadows on the wall. Oh my goddess! This was—this is a banger. Thank you, Lars. Why is it on your top four?
LARS Well, for all those reasons you just said, I mean, it’s so good. It’s a real movie. You know, it’s a real movie. And if you just kind of saw the poster, and you know, you read the title, you’d probably be like, well, I’ve been here before. I’ve been let down before by this movie that looks so great on a poster. And then it doesn’t let you down. It has everything that you would want. The characters are so great. You just—even the flawed characters, the characters that you don’t like—of the women, not the men, I don’t want to hang out with these men. But of the women, they’re just all so cool.
GEMMA And you know, you usually get to see—everything from the Godfather through to The Warriors, it’s dudes being dudes, as I often like to say on this show. But also, it’s sort of male power struggles all the way along. And the women who support them, and it was just so satisfying to watch female power struggles. And especially towards the end when there’s that whole—back at the gang headquarters—when there’s that whole thing that plays out about who the leader is and who the leader is now and who the new leader is. And you have to have the showdown. And—ah—yeah.
LARS It’s like a war. It’s also a Shakespearean movie, which is an interesting sort of—the power struggles are Shakespearean in nature, like Shakespearean histories. The relationship between Patch and Lace is like Iago and Othello, very much so. And the exact same thing is happening in that. I’ve seen people say this is a remake of Othello, which is not exactly true, it just sort of feels like a little dynamic from Othello. But yeah, all of those things are there. And it’s funny because it’s also—when I put it in my top four, it’s emblematic of a type of movie that I like, which is like, takes place in a high school or in some other sort of small context. And it’s like a war. It’s like World War II-sized beefs, you know, that are being settled within this high school.
SLIM Great word.
LARS Also, there’s a great part in this where it’s like—okay, this just won’t spoil too much, I hope for people to watch the movie anyway—but there’s a huge shootout at the roller rink. And it’s like, this would be on the national news! [Gemma laughs] That there were a shootout like this at a roller rink. And yet nobody’s—it’s not a big deal to anybody. And then even later, the cops come around the drive-in and they’re like, “Oh, you guys were involved in that fist fight over at the roller rink?” It was like, oh yeah, that fist fight where we are shooting guns at each other? Yeah, it’s huge, enormous stuff going on yet it’s in this context of the high school. There’s also parodies of the US political system going on with these people that are setting up these—taking government money and basically skimming it and stealing it. Just so much stuff going on in this film. And it’s all in balance, it all works. The dialogue is fantastic. The performances of the three main female leads, but then like you said, there’s Muff and there’s all the other female leads as well, the sort of secondary female leads. Janice Karman and Kitty Bruce are all wonderful as well. So it’s just a hell of a movie. It’s a real movie. It’s an evening’s entertainment. You watch it and you don’t go, ‘Well, let’s watch another movie.’ You think, ‘Wow, I have had a feast of entertainment!’ [Slim laughs]
GEMMA Yeah, let’s just watch this one again. What did you think. Slim?
SLIM I liked it. I could have sworn that I thought I’ve seen Joanne Nail in another movie before.
LARS The Visitor maybe? That’s the big one.
SLIM I looked at her filmography on Letterboxd and it’s pretty scant. So maybe I thought—
LARS It’s great movies though.
SLIM Yeah, she knows how to pick them. I thought maybe I saw her in a CHiPs episode or something when I was growing up and watching CHiPs on TV. I loved it. I made a comment, one of my notes was ‘Lots of farting in this.’ So as soon as like the the fight happened at the start the movie and they take over like that, you know, the main guard I was like, oh my god, I’m in for a real treat with this movie.
[clip of Switchblade Sisters plays]
SLIM And I think it’s probably worth settling in on, you know, we talked about exploitation movies and genre films. But how do you describe movies like this for people that maybe don’t go into the grime of the ’70s and find the kind of hidden gems? How do you tell people about these kind of movies in a way that maybe like entices them? Maybe they’re used to watching the Netflix flim flam?
LARS Well, this is probably a good pivot for me to talk about my book for a minute because in the course of Warped & Faded, the book, a giant center section is just my write-ups that I did for publicizing the films that we showed. So those are not reviews. I’ve seen them sometimes people refer to me as reviews. They’re not reviews.
SLIM It’s like a pitch.
LARS They’re pitches. Yeah, it’s sales—it’s basically ad copy.
GEMMA I actually love what you write about [The] Switchblade Sisters. You write—you compare it to “the nasty Elizabethian dramas that were so popular with working class audiences of 400 years ago, who crammed into disreputable theaters to watch blood-drenched intrigues of kings and thieves.” Which is as good a write up as I have to say Timcop on Letterboxd who says: “Like any good high school melodrama, with all of the jealousy and gossip and cliques and classroom pranks and murdering people with M16s that goes with it.”
LARS Oh my god, I can’t believe you just referenced Timcop. He is going to be—he’s an Austinite by the way—he’s going to be over the moon that you just read his review. [Slim laughs]
GEMMA Yo, Timcop! [Gemma laughs]
LARS All this stuff is there. And one really interesting aspect for people who are film nerds and film nuts. And this is a thing that I might say to people is that the Warner Brothers classic gangster movies, like James Cagney movies, Humphrey Bogart movies, Edward G. Robinson movies, were enormously influential on Jack Hill. And his dad worked for Warner Brothers. So it was not a—
GEMMA Not a stretch.
LARS This is him pulling this out of nowhere. He really was influenced by these gangster movie so much. And so when you hear the way that Lace talks, when you see the final showdown and it’s done in shadow, like some of the Pre-Code gangster movies, it’s like all of that is stylistically part of the makeup of Jack Hill. And the way he makes his movies. He really honestly does try to tell a story in a classic Hollywood vocabulary. And if you’ve if you’re a big fan of those Jimmy Cagney movies, then this movie is for you.
SLIM I’ve been telling my friends about this book all week. My friends Dale and Chuck Forsman do a podcast called Bat & Spider which they go into the muck and the grime of movies, and just paging through this book, in the middle portion of this going through all the movies that have been screened for Weird Wednesday. All of these movies sounds so enticing. It’s ridiculous. It’s like a menu—it’s like when you go to all-you-can-eat buffet of movies that you want to track down and watch. So I can’t recommend it enough. And you mentioned the sales pitches. Like the middle part of this book is like I said, how do you get someone to watch a movie like Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker, which I watched for the first time this year, and that’s an incredible movie. And I think I watched it only because it was on Shudder, you know, the otherwise I would have never probably seen this moviel. Unless someone like, you know, loaned me a DVD copy, but movies like that—there’s just so much value in having people discover things that maybe they would pass over normally, you know? They see a poster for these movies, they’re like, ‘Oh, that looks corny as hell.’ Or low rent or low budget, but there’s so much good in those movies! [Gemma laughs] So I feel like this book, you know, I hope people check it out. Because the work that you’ve done for the screening weekly at the Alamo, was years ago, it’s so important! You know, there’s so many movies like this and the story that you told about Suzanne—
LARS Susan Tyrrell.
SLIM Susan Tyrrell coming to the screening—maybe one of the greatest anecdotes that ever heard my entire life. [Slim laughs]
LARS And Zack Carlson writes up the whole Weird Wednesday Hall of Fame bio of her too. And the thing was, I was honored some years later to be approached by her family to actually put together her memorial service, which was at the Drafthouse, and we did a screening of the movie Fat City. I was glad to have some closure, because the woman did not like me one bit. So the fact that I was honored enough to be asked to produce her memorial service was a good sense of closure for me, because I loved her even though she hated me.
GEMMA You do write in the book that you were, like, terrified of her. Everyone was terrified of her. I feel like I want to read the story out but it’s so long and it’s so involved.
SLIM People gotta buy it. People gotta buy the book and get that anecdote. It’s too good for free.
LARS You trying to hit me in the wallet on this thing? People gotta buy the book! You’re killing me over here. [Slim & Gemma laugh]
GEMMA Page 77. Anyway, Kier-La Janisse is awesome. Her documentary that she put out this year Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is incredible on folk horror, and she worked with you on the oral history part of the book at the front, which is just so brilliant and how it sets the scene of what was most definitely a scene and it’s got all the players in it. It’s got Tim and Karrie League. It’s got Ant Timpson. It’s got you, of course, and I just wanted to kind of get a sense of what it was like working with her because she’s sort of been there from the start as well. Right?
LARS Yeah. Kier-La has been there since—she was at draft house starting in 2003, I think. So when I was just programming Weird Wednesday, before I became a full time programmer, Tim brought her in. Tim League brought her in, hired her as a programmer. So yeah, she’s very much my programming mentor, even though I was programming before I met her because I learned how to be a real programmer and program more than just Weird Wednesday. But yeah, she did more than just edit this book. I mean, she fought tooth and nail for—I mean, the cover has like a glossy finish on it. How did that happen? It’s because Kier-La stormed in with her fist flying and said, you know, “Don’t tell me we don’t have the budget to have a glossy cover!” It’s like, “I quit! You guys suck!” Kier-La is so uncompromising about her projects that it’s—I mean, she’s a truly amazing human being. I admire her so much. And I’m also just really scared of Kier-La Janisse. [Gemma laughs] Just the life force that she represents, but working with her on a project, if you ever have the opportunity to be on the same side, the same team as Kier-La, take it. If you ever have the opportunity to be on the other team from Kier-La, just go do something else for four years.
GEMMA Just join the Jezabels okay? Just join the Jezabels. [Gemma laughs]
LARS Just get the hell out of there!
GEMMA Speaking of people I used to be scared of, before I realized he was just a big old teddy bear who likes weird movies, my friend Ant Timpson gets a special thanks in your book. Apparently, you have him to thank for the job. He writes, “I just want to lay it out straightaway upfront that there will be no Weird Wednesday if I hadn’t told Tim League to hire Lars in the first place.”
LARS Yeah, Ant likes to really sort of do a lot of self mythologizing. So I mean, I think that that’s sort of like a part of what he does. [Gemma laughs]
GEMMA It certainly is.
LARS I think everything’s true. I think when somebody says an anecdote and shares something like that, it’s true, in some way it’s true.
GEMMA Watch Come to Daddy, add it to your watchlist if you haven’t seen it. It’s Ant’s feature directorial debut starring Elijah Wood. I texted Ant this morning, I told him we were having you on the show. And I said, “If you have one question for Lars, what would it be?” Are you ready for it?
LARS Sure. Why not? [Gemma laughs]
GEMMA ‘Ask him about Toys Are Not for Children and if it was remade, who should star in it?’
LARS Okay, so Toys Are Not for Children is—this is an Ant Timpson classic. You would absolutely not be surprised that Ant Timpson loves this movie so much. It’s a film—and I am going to spoil this movie a little bit—but it’s a film about a young woman who has had a lot of difficulty with her father, and her sex impulse is all mixed up with her need to be parented.
GEMMA I should have known Ant was going to drop me, right?
LARS Yeah. And she collects toys. And then at the same time, she becomes a call girl. And eventually it happens that there’s—everything just sort of builds up until there’s an incestuous moment in the film that the audience begins to sort of see coming down the highway, trucking in at 60 miles an hour, and they’re just like watching it get closer and closer and closer, they watch the headlights get closer and closer and closer, until it collides, and it really happens in the movie. And that is a film that when you watch it with an audience, the tension begins to sort of ratchet up as the audience begins to feel the narrative inevitability of it, because certainly, it’s something that can’t happen, right? This isn’t going to happen in this movie. There’s no way this is going to happen in this movie. And then it gets closer and closer. And it becomes like, how can this not happen at this point? It seems like this is going to happen and then it happens. So yes, that experience is—it’s a movie that I’ve shown a number of times, that I seriously sort of cherish the car crash like experience of the audience just sitting there not thinking it’s going to happen, not crediting their eyes, not believing that it’s going to happen, and then watching it happen. So what was the question?
SLIM Who would you cast in a remake? [Gemma laughs]
LARS Who would I cast? Yes. God, I’d go with Anthony Hopkins as the dad.
GEMMA Oh... But not Olivia Colman as the daughter. We’ve been there already.
LARS Ant knows this very well. And he’s this is an attempt by Ant Timpson to sabotage this podcast and I’m really not happy with it.
GEMMA You’re not here for it. [Slim laughs]
LARS Yeah, no, you could not make this movie again today. And he knows that. Please tell him that I don’t appreciate this at all.
SLIM Much of the oral history at the front of the book I loved with the, you know, the actual discovery of the prints and screening those movies kind of almost like, not knowing what to expect when you screen the movie, throwing some trailers on from other reels ahead of the movie. I loved hearing that in the book. And there was a few segments in the discussion at the onset about how, you know, obviously things have changed, where you’re chasing down these reels, you know, or maybe someone has them in storage, and nobody else has them. And that experience of finding a movie that maybe no one has ever seen in the last 50 years. Obviously, accessibility for these films has changed since then. But has that impacted the way you program movies at all? That kind of like accessibility and a lot of these films, or do you still kind of seek out the ones that, you know, might blow some minds because no one has seen it?
LARS Yeah, I don’t—you know, my philosophy is a film programmer, and I’ve been a film program for 20 years now and I programmed for Austin Film Society. And it’s a very different kind of world from when I first started, and I was just doing Weird Wednesday before I became like a program at-large at Drafthouse. It’s a different, sort of—I have a different philosophy because I don’t—I’m just trying to give people a great movie experience. And I kind of like rarity is sort of incidental to it, honestly. If we could throw something rare out there, I think that’s wonderful. But like, ultimately, I want people to have an amazing experience with these films. But back in those days, it was a very different experience, because everything was rare, you know, everything along these lines was rare and difficult to find. And I think that one thing that it seems to have become sort of conventional wisdom that, oh, a lot of these films aren’t rare anymore. But a whole bunch of other films are getting discovered all the time and now they’re rare.
LARS I do sort of almost feel like that there’s a God that exists outside of linear time. And that God is sort of reaching down into like saying, ‘Oh, yeah, I just cooked this one up for you. I’m gonna drop this here in 1986. Haha! Enjoy that suckers!’ [Slim & Gemma laugh] And then we’re all kind of it, you know? Because it sometimes really does seem like the past is just this inexhaustible resource, and it’s just more stuff keeps getting found. And certainly we found our share of cool stuff, but more stuff keeps turning up. So like when a movie like [The] Switchblade Sisters or something is not obscure anymore, or whatever, then there’s at least one other amazing film that is so obscure that, you know, we can—if we really insist on valuing obscurity, we can continue to do so.
SLIM Right. It’s like New York Ninja with Vinegar Syndrome, that release that they had this week, you know?
LARS Yeah, that’s very obscure. Yes.
GEMMA But also, to be fair, there are millions of members on litter box these days, but still only 23 of them, including you, have [The] Switchblade Sisters in their top four. [Slim laughs] So, you know, [The] Switchblade Sisters still has a long way to come into the light. And speaking of—I love how part of the work you do is not just bringing the film’s into the light but the filmmakers. And in the book you do write about, we talked about Susan Tyrrell but also Jamaa Fanaka. Talk a bit about him. I’d never heard of him until I opened the book and started reading about how you found him and invited him to the cinema and you spend a lot of the end of the book on some of the people who worked on or acted in these movies like John Saxon, who some may know from Enter the Dragon. I just love—I love and appreciate that you’re shining the light on the people and in behind the films as much as the films themselves.
LARS Yeah, I’ve always just been—I’ve never understood it and I don’t like it when people sort of act like oh, these are just schlock masters. This is all they could do. People got their shot, they got their opportunity to make films with these exploitation films, and they put a lot of themselves into them. And you know, Stephanie Rothman, who’s also in the Weird Wednesday Hallf of Fame, we talked about quite a bit. You know, one thing that she was telling me, and she was just imploring and saying, you realize that these aren’t the films I set out to make? That when I wanted to become a filmmaker, you know, it wasn’t—I didn’t want to make The Student Nurses, I didn’t want to make the The Velvet Vampire. These aren’t the films that I would have made had I had the same life choices that some of these men, frankly, had. But these are the films that I could make. And she was very—I felt like Stephanie was a little defensive when I first talked to her about the film’s. Like what kind of what kind of weirdo are you that you like these films? But then we had her out, we did a screening. And we showed these films and the audience, the questions that they asked, the way that they responded, the stuff that they laughed at, you know, all of that kind of made her realize that yeah, there are actually a lot of people that kind of get my contribution to this, like the part of myself that I actually did smuggle into this film, that’s the stuff that they’re really responding to. And the part of this film that I just was forced to put in because I didn’t really—because I couldn’t have made the movie if I hadn’t had a shower scene, you know, at the 38-minute mark. That’s the stuff that they’re just kind of like yond through. So that happened, I saw that happen on numerous occasions. And Jamaa Fanaka, you brought up Jamaa Fanaka. It’s like yeah, that’s—he was so enthused. Somebody had mentioned in an Amazon review, I think it was, or maybe his IMDb that they had watched the film at Weird Wednesday, one of his films Emma Mae. And he was just hunting around for anybody talking about his film. ‘Who has seen it? I want to know what people thought about this film that I made that just kind of disappeared down the drain of obscurity.’ And then he found that people were talking about it. And then he came here. And not only did he come here, he made so many friends because he showed that movie, he showed Penitentiary. And people were so responsive to those films, that he was just walking around going “Friend for life, friend for life. Chris? Friend for life.” [Gemma & Slim laugh] That was his thing. He said it for so many people. And then he did filmmaking seminars here in Austin. He did a couple of those, where he actually rented a hall and put on film classes here in Austin. And then we lost him, you know, a few years after that and it’s so sad, but it was wonderful to have that chance for him to kind of meet people and make all these new friends for life with what remained of his life at the time.
SLIM God bless.
GEMMA Ah. See, that’s the stuff
LARS That’s life. That’s the stuff that we value in life. And that’s the stuff that I’ve drawn out of this series. So, yes, some of these films are kind of frivolous, but this is real life. This is our real engagement with other people. And it’s been there for me. And it’s in this $35 book! [Gemma & Slim laugh]
GEMMA Thank you, you just averted the—I was like, I did not think I was gonna cry during a podcast about exploitation films. But here we are. Got quite teary just then.
SLIM Yeah, we’ll have a link in the episode notes, obviously to the book. Highly recommended. Please do check it out. If you’ve been enjoying The Letterboxd Show. I think you’re really going to love the book. 100 years ago, your next movie in your faves.
LARS I’ll never forget when it came out. [Gemma & Slim laugh] What an experience it was.
SLIM Where were you in 1926 for Buster Keaton’s The General? Everyone’s probably seen clips of this movie at some point in their lives. In a retrospective or clip show, somewhere. During America’s Civil War, Union spies steal engineer Johnnie Gray’s beloved locomotive, ‘The General’—with Johnnie’s lady love aboard an attached boxcar—and he single-handedly must do all in his power to both get The General back and to rescue Annabelle. Do you remember the first time he saw this movie?
LARS Yeah, I do. Remember the first time I saw this movie because I saw it at the Alamo Drafthouse and there was a live score accompanying this. It was by Guy Forsyth and he put together—it was like all acoustic, it was banjos and kind of period appropriate musical instruments. And the film, as you no doubt noted, has this incredible sort of propulsive energy, very much like a locomotive, you know, this incredible propulsive energy just builds and builds and builds and the music that went with it and putting the music with it. He played Elizabeth Cotten’s song ‘Freight Train’—it was a kind of motif that ran throughout the course of his live score. The way it just would build and build and build. And I don’t know, it was one of the great movie going experiences I ever had, was watching this for the first time. And it lives on. I wish I had a recording of that Guy Forsyth live score that he did, but I don’t. But every time I watch the movie, I am really reminded of that singular experience.
GEMMA Wes writes on Letterboxd: “I don’t wanna hear jack shit about Tom Cruise’s stunts in those Mission: Impossible movies when Buster Keaton managed to do what he did in a film this romantic and grand that was released almost 100 years ago.” And Slim was found dead in a ditch.
SLIM I feel like you’re trying to grief me with that Tom Cruise slander. [Gemma laughs] But I mean, this is the first time I watched this movie this week. I first tried to watch it on Amazon, but they had a colorized version that I did not want to watch so I think I watched it on Paramount—maybe Paramount+ or somesuch.
GEMMA I sat through that piece of shit colorized version.
SLIM Oh god! Gemma, no!
GEMMA Oh my god.
GEMMA I feel dirty.
SLIM Probably a version on YouTube you could’ve watched, too.
GEMMA Yeah, totally.
SLIM The stunts in this movie are insane. You know, whatever someone says about Buster Keaton’s The General. It’s real. Those four by fours that he was throwing in front of that train. Oh my god. How did not the entire staff of his movie die while filming this movie? Blows my mind.
LARS Yeah, well, he was doing his own—I mean, it wasn’t like there were a lot of stunt men. You know, it was like he was just doing the stunts. You know, and I mean, the amazing control that he had. And even though he’s not credited as director, there’s another director. I don’t remember who is actually credited as the director who’s mainly doing the sort of—at the time if you’re the action director, you were credited as the director. Buster Keaton was doing the action direction in this.
GEMMA Clyde Bruckman was doing the camera direction.
LARS The immortal Clyde Bruckman. Yeah, so Clyde Bruckman is directing the scenes, you know, in the living room or whatever, or on the siding where people are talking about going to war or whatever. But then Keaton’s directing the action scenes. Keaton’s directing the stuff in the movie that we really remember now. And his conception of the film is so bold, like to actually—I mean, it’s a real freight train. It’s a real locomotive. And yet he’s doing all these incredibly subtle little moments with it in his stunts. They blow up a freakin/ huge bridge! That’s not a miniature. That’s a real train.
SLIM It’s insane.
LARS Yeah, like, all of these things. It’s just—it’s Keaton’s vision. And it’s beautiful. He’s beautiful. Like, he’s a beautiful creature. His face is so emotive—
GEMMA Beautiful, tiny man!
LARS Yeah, like Tom Cruise, a tiny man. [Slim & Gemma laugh] I mean, obviously, all this action stuff for the train is just unbelievable. But there’s a scene in this that every time I see it is just—it thrills me so much, because there are moments when the star wins you in the film where you—you’ve been won over already. But it’s a moment where you realize that you’ve been won over, where you realize that you’re all-in for this guy. And in this movie, it happens when—so Annabelle has been kidnapped. And she’s been—the bad guys have taken her and they’ve stuffed her in this like cabin or something. And then Keaton comes up and he spies her through the window. And he realizes that, hey, what a crazy coincidence, you know, Annabelle’s here. I could sneak in here and grab her! And he realizes that and it wasn’t like he had gotten there by anything other than a coincidence. But he sneaks his way and he grabs her and she’s like, “You came all this way to find me!”
GEMMA Because by the way, if you haven’t seen it, she asked him to enlist for the war, the Civil War. He tried to enlist and they’re going, ‘But you’re a railroad engineer. You’re essentially and essential worker. We can’t spare you for the war.’ Which happened to my grandfather, who was a policeman. They were like, ‘No, you cannot go away and serve in World War II. You’re a policeman. We need you.’ So he quit the police and went and did it anyway. But yeah, so that happened. So poor Buster Keaton was kind of left behind. Her dad and her brother are very disapproving. They’ve somehow gotten the misconception that he didn’t even try to enlist. And so it seems like lovers over love is over. Love is gone for Buster. And so this is the first moment, right, since that.
LARS And so he sneaks in to rescue her. And Annabelle sees him and she says, “You came all this way just to rescue me! What a heroic thing that you’ve done!” And of course, it’s just been a coincidence. But she goes to hug Buster Keaton and he begins to have a moment where he’s like, “No, no, actually, here’s how it happened.” And then he’s just like, ’You know what, I’m gonna accept it.’
GEMMA ‘I’m gonna take that.’
LARS ’I’m gonna take it.’ And the audience—watching it with an audience—the audience is like, “Yeah! Accept it! Accept this! We love you so much Buster! Accept this misconception is true!’ And that’s just such a beautiful moment in the film where we tell him, it’s okay. It’s a white lie. It’s fine. You know? I love those moments in films.
SLIM Gemma, Jack points out in this movie and in a Touch of Evil that the older the movie, the less inspired Letterboxd lists they appear on. Why do you think that is?
GEMMA It’s a really good question. I’m just gonna say once again, recency bias. Yeah, something about like—what? It’s on a couple of lists that are called train cinema. [Slim laughs]
SLIM The least effort list.
GEMMA Yeah, anxiety-inducing comedy of errors. But then if we go back and look at Switchblade Sisters, one of my favorite lists that it’s on is called Femme Dirtbag/Burnout/Hessian Personal Canon (In Progress!!!) <3 <3 [Slim laughs] People put a lot of effort into their lists. And then it comes to, yeah, you’re right, comes to the older movies, and they don’t quite get the same—
SLIM What do you think Lars?
LARS I mean, I see it all the time. Yeah, there’s definitely a recency bias. I mean, most of the younger people that I know are AFS interns or work at the AFS cinema, frankly. So they’re already pretty into films, but even then, just the interest level in, say, black and white movies, you know, is less than the interest level that you might, you know, have even in like ’70s New Hollywood, you know, which is in color. So it’s not even—it’s a recency bias, but it doesn’t just mean that like they’re only interested in Denis Villeneuve. It’s like, they’re only interested in—if I say, Hey—I remember talking to one guy who’s like a really good cinematographer and he’s like a film student and he had graduated and all this and I was like—I was explaining, I don’t remember which film I was explaining. But I said “It has Robert Mitchum in it!” And I was like, ”Do you know Robert Mitchum is?” And he goes, “I think so?”
LARS Which is the sort of, you know, Generation Z—
SLIM Yeah, right. They need to get the Criterion Channel and then they’ll know Robert Mitchum.
GEMMA I would just say tune in this time next week when Slim gives us the link to his brand new list: tiny men doing big stunts.
LARS Yes. [Slim laughs]
SLIM We’re talking about uninspired lists. I mean, our final movie on your list. Phantom of the Paradise is on Movies That Get Batshit Insane/A Shocking Genre Shift, EROTIC FUTURISM, Everything Even Potentially/vaguely Gothic. 1974 Brian De Palma. I didn’t even know this movie existed. I’ll be brave right now. Didn’t even know this movie existed.
GEMMA You didn’t mention a list that it’s on which is simply called 70s Musical Extravaganza. But there is a list provided for us at the very beginning of the pandemic for comfort watching purposes by Rian Johnson.
SLIM Oh my.
GEMMA Who put together a list of his favorite ’70s movie musicals because he’s just a little bit of—he loves it. He loved that when things got weird.
SLIM This one go weird, that’s for sure. A rock opera hybrid of Phantom of the Opera and Faust, in which fledgling singer-songwriter Winslow Leach finds himself double-crossed by the nefarious music producer Swan, who steals both his music and the girl Leach wants to sing it, Phoenix, for the grand opening of his rock palace, The Paradise. You might know Phoenix is Jessica Harper from Suspiria. At least that’s my first thought when I saw her in this movie. This movie blew my mind. Like I was sitting and watching with my wife and various times I kind of turned to her like, how have we not heard of this movie? And I think one of the views pointed out that I think Rocky Horror [Picture Show] came out a year later. I don’t know if that just suck the oxygen out of the mainstream, you know, kind of mind share this movie. But what was your first experience with the Phantom of the Paradise Lars?
LARS I don’t remember exactly when I first watched it. Oh no, I do remember when I first watched Phantom of the Paradise. I totally do! I hadn’t thought about this in a long time. Back in the early days of MTV, they actually showed Phantom of the Paradise—occasionally they were show full movies on MTV. This was back during like the real golden age of MTV, this probably ’83 or something. But yeah, like Marc Goodman, who was one of the MTV VJs, was in Phantom of the Paradise as an extra in one of those—in the big scene where Beef performs I think.
GEMMA Oh my god. I love Beef.
LARS And he was like “I’m in this movie, and we’re gonna show it.” And they just showed Phantom of the Paradise. And you know, I don’t know if I got it, got it, when I was, you know, a kid. But that was definitely the first time I saw Phantom of the Paradise and I didn’t see it for years and years. And then Guillermo del Toro—maybe the next time I saw it was when Guillermo del Toro presented it at a Drafthouse event.
GEMMA Paul Williams, I just want to talk about him for about—have we got another hour up our sleeve?
SLIM Get into it.
GEMMA Paul Williams as the Devil, as Swan, in this movie. Oh my god. Can we just—I just need to remind listeners that Paul Williams wrote the Rainbow Connection for Kermit. Paul Williams wrote the lyrics for the iconic Love Boat theme song. Paul Williams won the Oscar for Evergreen. Paul Williams worked with motherfucking Daft Punk. Paul Williams turns up in this film, the worst hair imaginable. [Gemma laughs]
SLIM Worst or best?
LARS What’s he supposed to do? What is Paul Williams supposed to do? Give him a break! [Gemma & Slim laugh]
SLIM I won’t stand for this Paul Williams bashing!
GEMMA No, I’m not bashing. I love him. I just think the hair is perfect. It’s perfect for this character. He’s just such a weird little—I mean, speaking of tiny men and movies—he’s a weird little creep. And the height as sort of part of it right? Because the Phantom, Winslow Leach, is tall and imposing and then gets his teeth pulled out in prison and his face mashed in a record pressing plant and then arrives at the Paradise Theater to haunt her and bring down Swan. And there’s this tiny man who’s—I mean, the Phil Spector thing is obvious, right?
LARS Yeah, I mean, I think that was sort of the figure—it’s a Phil Spector, sort of Howard Hughes kind of amalgam there that that character is. I should make a Letterboxd list because this this is one of those films for me, where a filmmaker takes everything that they know about films, and throws it all in there. It’s just like, let’s put everything in. There’s so many film references—film references I’m still kind of figuring out. I’ll still watch a film and go okay, that’s what that was. But everything is just like, the danger must have been there for Brian De Palma where he was thinking, ‘I might just not be able to make another movie after this one. So this is going in there. This is, this is, this.’ And a lot of my favorite movies are those kinds of movies where it’s almost like this is a summation of everything that I figured out about moviemaking and everything that I love about moviemaking. It’s all in there. This is one that I showed a couple of weeks ago here at Austin Film Society. And it’s funny because I had recently sort of re-watched it a maybe a few months ago. And I thought, you know what, I’m just gonna put this in the calendar. And if people don’t show up, you know, it’s my birthday month. I’m just gonna do it. Deal with it. Okay? I might lose a couple hundred bucks programming this. And the crazy thing was I started noticing like, oh, the presale started creeping up, creeping up, creeping up. And then the shows are selling out. And then I’m adding more shows. So the audience was there for this movie. And it was multiple huge sold out crowds came in watch this film. And I sat and watched it in one of those sold crowds with the audience and moments—I mean, they were with this movie, they were on it. All the funny stuff, they were on. And then Jessica Harper, the first time she does her weird little shoulder hunched dance, you know?
SLIM Oh my god. Yes.
LARS It’s such a great moment. We’re so on her side. The crowd is just like—and it was mostly people I think had never seen the movie before—was just applauding and, you know, pulling their hair out. Like I can’t believe this happening. And then De Palma at the very end when he does kind of like the curtain calls for all the different performers. He again shows her a little weird shoulder hunched dance, and the crowd goes berserk. It was like a sporting event. You know, where that happens and that comes up again, the crowd just went insane. So this is a movie that really, really works with an audience today. And that was not a crowd of like gray hairs like myself, it was a crowd of young people. And this movie, I mean, Brian De Palma was ahead of his time when he made this movie because it works better now than it probably ever worked. There’s a couple of sort of like gay slurs in it. Not said by good guys, I should say. But a couple of gay slurs in it that are sort of like unfortunate, but for the most part, this movie really could have been made this year by the hippest filmmaker out there.
GEMMA But it also feels like Beef is one of those perfect movie characters for, you know, for the freak crowd.
LARS Yeah, Geritt Graham.
LARS Yeah, people love it.
[clip of Phantom of the Paradise plays]
SWAN Something bothering your Beef?
BEEF Swan, this was scored for a chick! I’m not doing it in drag.
SWAN You can sing it better than any bitch.
BEEF You don’t know how right you are Goliath. Okay, boys. From the bridge, hit it!
[clip of Phantom of the Paradise ends]
GEMMA And I think that this film reminds me that of all of the films in your top four I feel like almost all of them have banging opening credits. Absolute bangers of opening credits.
SLIM Jessica Harper’s dance moves are absolutely hypnotizing in this movie. I was beside myself when she did that shoulder move off stage at the end of her singing.
LARS Oh yeah.
SLIM I need people to go see this movie. I need you to buy or rent this movie. Search Jessica Harper Phantom of the Paradise on YouTube and then rent this movie. You will not be disappointed.
LARS We talked about that whole thing like where somebody gets you on their side for good. Don’t you think that when she sings that song and then she dances off—don’t you think that that is one of those ultimate like I’m on the character side.
SLIM Forever. Forever you’re on them.
LARS Yeah, yeah.
SLIM God. I need to start exiting rooms that way. [Gemma laughs] If have like a zinger at a party one night, I’m going to do that little sachet out of the room and I’m going to win everybody over.
LARS It’s another sort of—there could be like a Jessica Harper list because it’s funny, we’ve talked about a number of these people having these incredible careers. You brought up Marlene Clark, actually Gemma, Marlene Clark also has one of these—she’s in some of my favorite movies. Ganja & Hess, Son of Blob, [The] Switchblade Sisters. But yeah, Jessica Harper, if you look at the film that she’s in Pennies From Heaven, it doesn’t get talked about very much. Stardust Memories, she’s in this, she’s obviously in Suspiria. She’s in Inserts. Like all the Jessica Harper movies are fascinating. It’s like, what a weird career. Have you seen Pennies From Heaven?
LARS It’s so strange. It could very easily be on my top four. It is so strange. It’s such a remarkable performance by Steve Martin. Such a remarkable performance by Jessica Harper. Just so weird, so completely strange, nother weird musical that Jessica Harper is in.
GEMMA Straight to the watchlist. I love her so much. And I think that she—her line delivery of one specific line was my favorite line delivery of all four of your films. And partly because I’ve been there but it’s the way she delivers it. When Swan’s going, “I’ll give you everything you want” after she’s she’s sung the song. And she says, ”I want that crowd again.”
[clip of Phantom of the Paradise plays]
PHEONIX I’ll do anything you want. I owe you everything. Just give me that crowd again.
LARS Yeah, yeah.
GEMMA And you go, ‘Yes!’ And he’s like, “Yeah, well, all I want is your voice.” The delivery of that line “I want that crowd again,” and you just know, that’s it, she’s been hypnotized by showbusiness again.
LARS De Palma has not asked us to accept something that we can’t accept. Because we wouldn’t accept that she wants Swan. She doesn’t want Swan. She wants what Swan can give her, which is that crowd. I love the fact that De Palma, he has to make it real in that way. He could not operate on a phony premise.
SLIM Gemma, how did you feel watching Paul Williams make out with Jessica Harper semi-nude?
GEMMA I mean, I want that crowd again too, so, no comment. [Slim laughs]
LARS To be fair, that scene’s only 45 minutes long.
SLIM It’s so long! Oh my god! Insufferable.
GEMMA And he’s up on the roof—and I mean we really haven’t talked about the Phantom at all and the fact that there’s an interesting actor. That’s an interesting role.
LARS William Finley, yeah, he was really De Palma’s guy for a while from De Palma’s early films on. In fact, De Palma’s very first film, which is a really interesting movie called Murder à la Mod, Will Finley is in that and he plays a really interesting role. But he was like De Palma’s homie. You know, he was like his little homie, sort of, who appeared in all those films. He’s always great. And even when you see him in later De Palma films, it’s so cool to see William Finley popping up.
GEMMA This far into the pandemic, are Austin audiences returning? Because Austin really—I mean, I’ve been to South by Southwest a bunch of times for the music side, for the film side. I’ve have made a documentary at South by Southwest with Flight of the Conchords, that was a wild ride. It is such a cool movie town and such a great audience that you especially have built up with the Austin Film Society, that whole gang. Are the audience’s coming back? How does it feel?
LARS Young people have been coming back. Older people have still been a bit sort of slower to come back. So I’ve really been sort of programming young a lot recently. But we start a Fellini series tonight. So that’s kind of getting back to sort of—these are films that I want young people, old people, everybody to come to. And sort of hoping that the older audiences are feeling safe enough to kind of come back. I mean, Covid, after we went through the whole sort of thing with Delta, it really went up. And now it’s kind of weighed down again. So that’s my hope, is that we can get our older folks again, because one thing I really like is having—when I came here, our audience was largely older folks. And then we sort of brought in a whole lot more young folks. But then it was like old folks and young folks together. And then middle aged folks like myself. But old folks and young folks together. And that to me is really just where you’re really harmonizing is when you’ve got old folks and young folks sitting together, talking together after the films, meeting each other talking, interfacing. That’s the real beauty spot for me is old folks and young folks partying together.
SLIM One final harmonization. What is the best genre film of 2021 so far for you? That you would recommend people check out?
LARS Oh, you know, I haven’t seen all of them. In fact, I haven’t seen that many of them. Just because of what I’ve been programming. I’d say maybe my favorite genre film of the year has been Raging Fire, because it really is such a classic sort of Hong Kong feel to it. And it has really wonderful fights. And the plot is so contrived and so classically dumb, like a lot of sort of ’90s Hong Kong films. But it works. You know, it works with a contemporary audience. It’s not a callback film so much. It’s a film that can work for anybody who just might want to duck out and go and see a movie. But at the same time, all the callbacks are there. The bizarrely constructed sites where the fights happen that just seemed like they were just built in order for people to have fights where they climb up a ladder halfway, and then they jumped down off some scaffolding and they do a flip around that. It’s like the places that you would never see constructed in real life. All these elements wouldn’t be there, but somehow they are. And of course there’s a giant fight there. So I really like Raging Fire a lot. It’s probably my favorite genre film of the year so far.
GEMMA On behalf of Slim, on behalf of everyone listening who’s ever, ever found an exploitation or genre or B-grade one out of the box movie through one of your screenings or a screening in their town of a print that’s come from the Austin Weird Wednesday scene of incredible restoration nuts, thank you.
LARS You’re so welcome. I’ve had nothing but fun the whole time. And I hope that everybody—I hope everybody has a strong belief in the magical power of fun, of just having fun in your life and doing this stuff and trying to not screw people over. And you will find at the end of a few decades that you’ve done a lot of good stuff just by having fun and not screwing people over. So I hope everybody can live by that code.
[The Letterboxd Show theme music Vampiros Dancoteque by Moniker fades in, plays alone, fades down]
SLIM Thanks so much for listening to The Letterboxd Show and thanks to our guest, Lars Nilsen. Check out our episodes notes for a link to buy Warped & Faded: Weird Wednesday and the Birth of the American Genre Film Archive. You can follow Lars on Letterboxd of course using the link in our episodes and Austin Film Society is on there too. And follow Slim—that’s me—Gemma and our HQ page on Letterboxd using the links in our episode notes.
GEMMA Thanks to our crew, composing dynamos Moniker for the theme music Vampiros Dancoteque. Thanks to Jack for the facts, our booker Linda Moulton for looking after our guests and Sophie Shin for the episode transcript and to all of you for listening. If you have a minute, do drop us a review over on Apple Podcasts. We love feedback. Just a quick call out to Natalia who we forgot to mention last week, who left a review a few months back asking us to bring Sean Fennessey on the pod. We did it in the episode before this one.
SLIM The system works, Natalia.
GEMMA The system works, Natalia. It’s all good. The Letterboxd Show show is a TAPEDECK production. That’s the show. That was Lars Nilsen. He was some kind of a man...
[clip of Phantom of the Paradise plays]
SWAN Keep working on it. Drop an octave. Change your line there. Give it a beat. Make it completely yours.
BEEF Far out. Doesn’t that kind of change the whole thing?
PHILBIN You heard what he said, make it yours. Long as it sounds good, nobody’s gonna care what it’s about.
BEEF Is that so?
PHILBIN Nobody cares what anything’s about.
BEEF Is that right?
PHILBIN Who the hell listens to the lyrics anyway?
[TAPEDECK bumper plays] This is a TAPEDECK podcast.