Jack Stevenson: A Dirty Old Man in Action

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Fortified with homemade iced Vietnamese coffee, Jack Stevenson describes his work as a film archaeologist in San Francisco, the former sex capital of the U.S.: “When I was in this basement junk shop, there were pools of muck, the air was real musty and damp. There was junk all over and there were hardly any lights on. I’m sure there were rats running around. And here I was picking through these porno trailers for an hour. And I thought, ‘What would happen if there was an earthquake? What if a beam fell down and killed me in this heap of porno films? What a way to go!’ and I thought, ‘I’d be proud to die like that.’”

Jack came to San Francisco from Boston, where he’d published three issues of Pandemonium (the third issue containing interviews with George and Mike Kuchar, Kenneth Anger, Jean Hill, Johnny Eck and John Waters). Jack regularly presented thematic cross-sections of his eclectic movie collection at clubs and theaters around San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, before leaving shortly after this interview for Europe.

MARGARET: You say you like a particular style of film, and the content ends up being pornographic more often than not. It can also be exploitation or a lot of other things?

JACK: Right.

MARGARET: I was curious about what you do to select a film that you’re interested in showing.

JACK: I like just about any film, but it has to be a movie. Video is not film; some people don’t realize that. The worst is to watch a small video image on a TV or a video monitor. When I’m traveling with these film shows sometimes there’s another show playing that week, and I’ll come in early and watch it five or six times over. Also if it’s a sunny, bright day out I like to go into a movie theater to get out of the sun. I lived in New Orleans for two years in the early ’80s. It’s a terrible film town and it’s also a big tourist town. There was a porn theater downtown, and I’d end up going to that a lot of times just to get away from the sun and away from the tourists. I mean no one would believe that! Nobody you’d tell would ever believe that, “Oh, yeah, sure, sure.” Heh-heh-heh-heh. But it’s true.

MARGARET: What makes you want to get a hold of a piece of film? You have a lot of films and they all have a particular style.

JACK: Well, it has to be something that people can watch. I can sit through anything, but if you’re showing it to an audience, it can’t be too slow and boring.

MARGARET: So you get things that the audience will enjoy?

JACK: Yeah, the films can’t be too talky with a lot of dramatic plot. I tried to show Tools for Living in Budapest and nobody knew why the fuck I was showing it. They all left the theater. They didn’t understand English, for starters. I realized if you show a long, talky film full of dumbfuck bad drama in Europe, all of a sudden it’s a long, talky, dumbfuck incomprehensible film. It was a Saturday night and they wanted to be out drinking beers or something. I prefer showing weird educational films, exploitation, hideous war propaganda, the short stuff that’s not out on video that’s coming out of the blue at people. There’s a whole pile of film sitting out there that hasn’t been discovered yet by the new generation of filmgoers.

ALEX: Of what era?

JACK: Oh, I’d say any era from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s. There’s a whole heap of films from the past and that’s where the gold is. A lot of stuff I’ve gotten from junk shops in the Mission. I found Animal Lovers in a junk shop basement, a film that contains a lot of Danish footage—on-the-street interviews in Copenhagen and then, of course, the whole second reel with Bodil Joensen, the Danish animal porn star. Alex De Renzy brought it over in 1970, played it in 1971, and I understand it was run out of town. They just shut it down.

MARGARET: I can see why. She has sex with a dog and a pig.

JACK: A dog, a horse, and a pig. She was famous; she was something of a cult legend. The print was sitting in a lab—maybe one print that the lab had. It went out of business 20 years later. A junk shop bought a pile of films and was selling them for next to nothing. They let me go down to the basement. I saw a beer box full of films and I picked it up. Of course everything fell right through the bottom onto the floor. They’d been sitting there for years. I took the film back to Denmark and showed it at a major film festival and at a number of small theaters. They loved it. The true cycle of exploitation: he brought it over here and I brought it back. But someone always has to make money. That’s the key. Otherwise it’s not exploitation; it’s futility.

Some of the porno films I’ve showed at the Chameleon were made in San Francisco. This is where hard-core porn started in the mid- to late-’60s. In 1969 it started with Alex De Renzy and the Mitchell Bros. That’s back when there were 50 storefront theaters here. Immigrants from Iran wouldn’t open a delicatessen; they’d open a porno theater. It was a real small, entrepreneurial business opportunity. So they needed new films every week. (I’m trying to put the best slant on it to make it sound respectable.) In 1970 anybody who could shoot a camera and get a girl to undress or get people to have sex on film would make a porno film. And these were some of the worst films ever made.

There’s also a stigma attached to porn theaters. Everybody thinks they’re full of people jerking off and stuff. I’ve been in a lot of porn theaters and have never jerked off myself or seen anybody else do it. The greatest porn theater in San Francisco is the Mini Adult Theatre on Jones and Turk, right up the hill from the Hibernia Police Station. It’s the only one that shows film, actually. They show it on beat-up, old 16mm projectors. The screen is a white, wooden wall that’s all smashed up. And the sound is terrible. It’s like listening to it underwater. You get the aura of porn without understanding any of the dialogue, but you do get the certain crappy easy-listening music that they always use for porn. You go there for atmosphere.

ALEX: Do members of the audience make eye contact with each other?

JACK: Not really, because there aren’t too many healthy, vital human beings in the place. Some are blind. I was in there once and a blind man came in and was feeling his way down the aisles. People were dodging out of his way! He was like 90 years old.

ALEX: Maybe he didn’t know it was that kind of a place.

JACK: And he didn’t know after he’d been there for an hour; he went out and he was happy. Maybe it didn’t matter. And it was cheap, only three dollars. Last time I went, I brought some friends from Detroit. They should see the worst things about the city. When we left someone shouted, “Good-bye, officers!” But I was proud to be mistaken for a cop.

ALEX: If you could give a tour of porn places city to city—

JACK: There’s the Apple Theatre in Seattle, on the corner of Pike and Boren, The Apex in Baltimore’s Fell’s Point neighborhood. These all show film, not video. In every city there’s a theater that shows film, so they have to show stuff from the early ’80s to the ’70s. Porn was the first thing to go on video and the first thing they installed in theaters. The audience never complains about quality so they can put in shitty video projection. Nobody cares because they go there to meet people and make friends. You go to the bathroom and there’s 20 people just hanging around. . . So I’m a fanatic about film on the screen with a movie. To me that makes all the difference. You see older stuff, too, which is usually better. In Holland, the last porn-on-film theater is in Rotterdam. I’m trying to create a world tour of sleazy porn theaters. I could take them by the hand.

ALEX: If someone wanted to pay you—

JACK: I could do it! I’d be willing to go along. They all have a great atmosphere, too, which is dying out. The one in Antwerp is run by a Turkish family. They almost live right at the theater. You can always smell, like, liver and onions being fried up.

ALEX: Why did theaters in the late ’60s and early ’70s need a new movie every week?

JACK: Because their regular clientele would see the trailer and come back the following week. The demand for new product was immense. Like anything else it was driven by economics. You had biker gangs shooting porn films; you had groups of friends doing nudie films. Late 1969 to 1971 was an incredible period of filmmaking in San Francisco’s history but pretty much an ignored one because so much of the stuff was hideous garbage. Much of the early XXX films were just terrible things. Just extremely dreary, just depressing.

ALEX: Do you like the dreariness?

JACK: No. I can admire when something’s complete garbage, and I can sit through it. But I would never attempt to show it to an audience. I look through those films for something I can cut out and put into a compilation show.

ALEX: The one shot on Sixth Street, My Father’s Call Girl, is pretty funny.

JACK: It is an exception. It’s almost like a Warhol film because, like the ones with Joe D’Allesandro, nothing worked but everybody was putting all this energy into it. There were all these weird non-sequiturs. Bizarre dialogue. But in My Father’s Call Girl they were doing it for real. They were really trying to make a sex movie, and it wasn’t working. The Warhol crowd would do a campy take on it with all these transvestites playing women and stuff like that. This was the real thing in a way, but just as futile and ridiculous—with the mike right down on the bedsprings—just bizarre! So if I can play that film like an avant-garde masterpiece—it isn’t that far away from it. I’d love to play it next to Trash. I’d love to find out what happened to those three characters in the Sixth Street movie and bring them to a show to get that live connection with it.

ALEX: Do you think there should be more movies made, with all these ones forgotten?