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Thursday, January 26, 2006


Entry to the Roxie Theatre

Published by Fireside Books in 2002, Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford's Sleazoid Express is exactly what it's cover promises: A mind twisting tour through the grindhouse cinema of Times Square. The book was inspired by the author's identically titled magazine. In turn, the magazine was drawn from the authors' own experiences exploring and working in the dankest, most dangerous section of Times Square, a strip of 42nd Street called The Deuce, that was home to a series of ramshackle movie palaces that specialized in rough porn, Asian trash actioners, and ultraviolent horror films.

The book is less interesting for the once-obscure films it covers, most of which have found a new audience thanks to companies like Something Weird, than for its vivid description of the buildings and audiences along The Deuce. Sleazoid Express reveals a complex, quarrelsome, often criminal subculture of drug addicts, hustlers, pickpockets, and thrill-seekers who alternated between skulking around Times Square looking for victims, habituating (or performing in) live sex acts, and killing time at broken down theaters that showed films with titles like The Black Gestapo and Bloodthirsty Butchers. These grindhouse audiences were often more interesting than the movies they habituated, and sometime starred in. Sleazoid Express' authors reveal a thriving community of sex workers who flitted between hardcore porn, cheap exploitation films, acting in bit parts in vanguardist off-off-Broadway plays, and habituating Deuce theaters, sometimes lurking in the bathrooms seeking quick, filthy liaisons in stalls carpeted with urine-soaked newspapers.

It's a deranged portrait of a lost New York, replaced with tourist-friendly marquees promising theatrical adaptations of Disney films, and it's compelling reading. After all, what theaters nowadays risked having refrigerators hurtled at their screens if they quietly edited a few brazen scenes from a film, or risked audience violence when their chop-socky film inspired angel dust sniffing, karate-uniform clad regulars to try out some of their own improvised kung fu moves on their neighbors?

Beyond the criminality and violence, Sleazoid Express tells a forgotten tale of artistic inspiration, where the most exploitative films inspired the most marginal people to attempt to adapt their experience of cinema to their own lives. It was the perfect match of audience to film -- the book reveals that Deuce audiences were so taken with Karate star Sonny Chiba that they named their dime bags of pot after him, a name that has stuck. Filmmaker John Waters credits his time of stalking The Deuce with his own early, magnificently tasteless filmic experiences. The Wu Tang Clan took their name from martial arts films they enjoyed on Times Square when they were kids.

Critics dismissed the theaters, films, and audiences of The Deuce when it was thriving, but Times Square, the old Times Square, the filthy cesspool that provided Travis Bickle with fantasies of racist violence, had the last laugh. It's influence is woven into contemporary popular arts, far more so than many of Hollywood's best efforts from the era. As an example, Quentin Tarantino's entire career is arguably one long love-letter to the films of The Deuce, although his films never have honestly expressed the sort of demonic obsessiveness and tawdriness of the films that inspired him. His grindhhouse opera, Kill Bill, has many great qualities, but will never play to an audience of strung-out homosexual hustlers, switchblade carrying drag queens, pea-coat clad Popeyes, pot smoking inner-city teenagers, exhausted prostitutes, and petty pickpockets that a Deuce theater could provide. Kill Bill is a perfect grindhouse film, but it's perfect grindhouse audience is long gone.

Buy the book here.


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