Today I am really thrilled to present this Q&A I conducted via email with noted adult film historian Michael J. Bowen. Readers here, who might recall some of my posts on the films of Joe Sarno, will know how much I admire Michael and value his work, so this was a real pleasure to do. Michael talks about his background, his work with Sarno and Doris Wishman, as well as his other projects and interests. Enough of my rambling...let's here from the man himself:
Michael with actor Tod Moore ("Judson Todd") and Peggy Steffans-Sarno at the recent Anthology Film Archives tribute to Joe Sarno.
Michael, Thank you very much for taking the time to do this. I greatly admire your work and I am thrilled to have you as part of this series. To start with, can you tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your work as a film historian?
I started out as kind of a film buff, I guess, as a kid growing up in the Boston area. I worked for a period of time as the assistant manager at a repertory theater and was just always interested in cinema from an aesthetic point of view, going to repertory and art theaters all the time. Like many people, I first came across sexploitation movies on videotape in the 1990s and was fascinated to realize that there had been this whole, dynamic, commercial cinema that had basically fallen entirely below the radar of traditional film connoisseurship. I also realized that a certain cadre of filmmakers working within this genre were exceptional “outsider” talents, and so I began to look more closely into the films and into their production context. In the early 2000’s, I also decided to apply to the PhD program in Cinema Studies at NYU as a means of formalizing my studies and have used it as a base of operation for my expanding research on independent commercial cinema in New York in the 1960s and ‘70s. I am not, per se, a generic exploitation movie fan – especially horror movies – but I engage with certain films that I feel bear the hallmarks of original, aesthetically interesting filmmaking.
Who were some of the initial filmmakers that got you interested in cinema and what were some of your early favorite films?
I started out as a kid as a fan of bad science fiction movies, mostly seen on “Creature Feature” type re-runs on TV. I used to keep a card file with the credits for every film I saw, laboriously (and probably inaccurately!) copied off the screen as they flashed by (this was well before the days of home video, natch). I think I first encountered genuine masterpieces of world cinema – classic and silent Hollywood and foreign art films – on public television. I was always (and continue to be) a pretty canonical fan of the great post-war European cinema: Fellini and Bergman were early favorites; I’ve become quite addicted to Antonioni, Bresson and Dreyer as I get older. I’m also kind of a sucker for the edgier “indie” classics of my formative years, the 1970s: Scorsese, Nicolas Roeg, David Lynch. That said, I am not exactly a classic auteurist because I’m the first to admit that many of the great filmmakers made some pretty lousy movies during their careers. I guess I was always attracted to films that privileged formal over narrative elements.
I know you the most from your extraordinary work documenting and writing on Joe Sarno but can you tell us about some of your earlier work as a film historian and writer, specifically your work on Doris Wishman?
Historical research is essentially tedious and empirical. The first few times you phone up an old film personality and conduct an interview, it’s kinda fun, but ultimately the real work is 80% document-based. I’m sure I’ve ruined my eyesight reading through thirty years’ worth of Variety and scanning old film ads on microfilm, but that’s were you collect most of your data. In rare instances some of my interview contacts have preserved records that they’ve been kind enough to share with me – always very exciting – but that’s an exception. I’ve often said, documenting the careers of low-budget outsider filmmakers (as opposed to “big names”) is like the difference between eating crabs and eating lobsters – no tail meat! But over time I’ve been able to pull together lots and lots of scraps of information that are gradually beginning to add up to some sort of a “big picture.” In truth, I’m probably more of an archivist than a writer by nature; I enjoy building my dossiers and databases and think of books and articles as just a means for delivering the info. That said, I hope the interpretive aspects of my writing speak in some meaningful way to the films I engage with: that’s where writing really trumps evidence.
As for Doris, I met her at Harvard University (I was attending Brown at the time) in the mid-1990s, where she’d been invited for a modest retrospective of her work. I guess we just hit it off and I realized that somebody, somewhere, ought to make an effort to document her life and career. She certainly could have selected a more product-oriented biographer – I’ve been fiddling around with this project for over a decade now – but I think Doris saw my sincerity and was happy to work with me. I loved her dearly.
How were you first introduced to the cinema of Joe Sarno and how did you first come into contact with him?
I first saw Joe’s films, like many people, on Something Weird videotapes. I was working with Doris at the time, however, and really had no intention of expanding into research on other directors. I initially contacted Joe, in fact, because he had worked with several actors who had also worked with Doris – including, of course, the divine Ms. Cleo Nova, a.k.a. Joe’s wife and production partner, my dear friend Peggy Steffans. The day we met was memorable because it was September 10, 2001, the day before the World Trade Center was attacked. At any rate, I just thought Joe was the most extraordinarily kind and sincere guy - and I fell in love with Peggy right off the bat - so we just sort of became friends. Then I realized that Joe’s career needed to be documented as badly (if not more so) than Doris’s (because it was so much bigger) and began expanding my research and interviews to include information about Joe’s work. So I guess you could say that my installation as Joe’s biographer was kind of an outgrowth of the fact that I liked the guy so much and was always enthused about the prospect of foraging in new fields. Since so many of his films were missing or dispersed or difficult to find at the time I met him, it probably took a couple of years for me to actually get to see the majority of his work.
To my eyes Sarno is one of the key filmmakers of the sixties and seventies. For folks who are just being introduced to his works what film would you recommend as an ideal introduction, and do you have a personal favorite you would like to share with us?
Overall, I’ve always felt that Joe Sarno fans are very self-selected: there’s a certain rhythm to his work that not everybody is able to groove with. My favorites of Joe’s films tend to reflect my own interest in cinematic minimalism, films where Joe simply lets a situation build and is not primarily focused on the mechanics of technique. I usually weed out the Sarnoites from the tourists by suggesting that they watch Vibrations (1968): if that doesn’t strike you as one of the best fucking movies ever made, then you probably aren’t going to get too carried away by the rest of his work. For me, Vibrations is Sarno in crack form... one light, agonizingly tight framing, oodles of repressed desire. Perfect.
Misty poster courtesy of Michael's terrific Sarno Facebook group, Red Roses of Passion.
Among his earlier efforts (and don’t forget that several of his mid-Sixties films are still officially “lost”), I really like The Sex Cycle: it’s so naïve yet so engaging it literally makes me high: it’s like a dream I want to remember forever. And in terms of his later soft-core work, Abigail Lesley and Misty (if you can find a bootleg) are so melancholy and sincere that I feel they ought to be counted among the top 100 films of the 1970s.
Your liner-notes that have graced Sarno’s DVDs are extremely insightful and informative. Do you have plans in the future on perhaps releasing a full-scale biography?
Sometime in the next few years (but please don’t hold me that that!), there will be a major Joe Sarno biography. Joe had an extraordinary career and it has to be accurately documented. I also spent many, many hours interviewing him on audiotape a few years ago, so there are lots of observations he made that I want to get out there.
I know you have had the great fortune to meet and interview many of Sarno’s key collaborators and actors. Is there someone in particular that has proven elusive that you would like to sit down with?
Yes. Her name is Patricia McNair and she starred in many of Joe’s seminal sexploitation classics of the mid-1960s under the name Lorraine or Laurene Claire. She was an extraordinary presence in Joe’s films and someone I have never been able to track down.
Before he passed away you helped Sarno on the extras of his extraordinary Abigail Lesley is Back in Town. I think the film is a masterpiece and the DVD that came out earlier this year became an instant favorite. Along with the incredible commentary and interviews you got to go back to Sarno’s hometown of Amityville with him. Can you talk about this mini-doc a bit as I find it incredibly moving?
Since Joe shot most of Abigail Lesley in and around Amityville, we wanted to go back and find some of the locations he used. We had, in fact, not planned to interview him in the car on the way out there, but I am so grateful that my extraordinary cameraman, Scooter McCrae, thought to start rolling while we talked. Then, of course, we were lucky enough to have had access to the house where Joe grew up since his childhood friend Henry Marcley now lived there – a wonderful guy! So I wish I could say that I had the prescience to plan everything that happened that day, but it just kind of fell together – as it turns out, less than a year before Joe passed away. I’m very glad we got it on tape.
The late Jamie Gillis also was on hand for the film’s extras. What were your impressions of him and did you get the sense that he was happy to have some of his work recognized as important?
Jamie was an extremely sincere, intense, thoughtful guy the few times I met him and he seemed to think the world of Joe as a director. I believe he was very happy to receive recognition for his work as an actor – not just a porn star – during his last few years.
By the late seventies, Sarno was working fairly actively in the adult film industry. How did Sarno feel about his time in that industry and did he have any favorite performers from the era he worked with?
Joe was a director’s director: if he wasn’t making a movie, he didn’t know what to do with himself. So I know he put his heart and soul into making explicit, X-rated films as well. That having been said, he also frequently observed that he felt there were inherent limitations to what one could do with a film with hardcore content, so it wasn’t his favorite way to work. But given the vagaries of the adult film market, he was very grateful to have the chance to stay in production and was proud of every film he made.
In terms of his favorite actors, Joe got along with 99% of his actors famously, so I doubt he privileged one over the other. He was very fond of Tina Russell, Georgie Spelvin (a great lady!), Jennifer Welles, Annie Sprinkle. He and Peggy were very close to Rob Everett (Eric Edwards) and Harry Reems. Joe managed to get the best out of everyone he worked with: the actors trusted him because he was intensely sincere about his work.
One thing I greatly admire about you is your dedication to filmmakers who are so often ignored and sometimes greatly maligned. Have you had a lot of opposition from certain film elitists who don’t see the value in directors you admire and find important?
The “opposition” one encounters to the kind of work I do usually takes the form of silence. And it comes more from academics than from contemporary film critics, most of whom, I have found, have a very soft spot in their hearts for the labors of filmmakers like Joe and Doris. The problem that academic intellectuals have is that most films of this nature do not naturally lend themselves to textualization: in other words, most interesting “outsider” filmmaking lacks a certain self-consciousness, an explicit aesthetic agenda, that most intellectuals look for and try to translate textually into articles, etc. So the silence of the films tends to inspire silence in the scholars – and believe me, if anybody abhors silence, it’s academics! So I guess I see myself as a little bit of a fish out of water in this respect, but it has always been a reflex of mine to respond to naiveté and spontaneity in art. Most intellectuals want art-makers to be intellectuals too. I don’t.
Do you have any future career plans you would like to share with us?
Outside of attempting to complete all of the above (gasp! moan!), I would very much like to bring more attention to great, French “outsider” filmmakers like Jean Rollin and Jose Benazeraf – tremendous talents whose work has not always been valued by their own countrymen. It would be nice to help arrange decent retrospectives of their films in the U.S. And I have a few side projects lingering as well: a book on actor/director Neil Flanagan composed in the vein of Rudolph Grey’s Ed Wood biography, Nightmare of Ecstasy; and a substantial essay on the dubbing industry in New York during the 1960s and ‘70s, a fascinating and important element of the cultural history of foreign film reception in America. I have also been assisting porn auteur Carter Stevens pull together a memoir about his own extraordinary career for quite a while: he’s a wonderful guy and I’m sorry I have not been able to focus on it more exclusively. My biggest problem, obviously, is that I never run out of subjects that interest me! One day it will all get done.
Cult Epics first (of what I hope will be many) Radley Metzger DVDs, a special edition of Score, has recently come out and Michael's fine work can be found on that disc's supplements. I also wanted to mention that Michael has been working tirelessly in the last few years uploading thousands of additions and corrections to the IMDB's listings for the adult films of the sixties and seventies. He has also uploaded hundreds of accurate release dates (you can usually tell his as he includes the city in which the premiere occurred) for these films that he has verified through his exhaustive research.
Thanks again to Michael for agreeing to do this and I hope it will lead some folks here to seek out some of the films mentioned above. Also, please take a moment and join the Red Roses of Passion Facebook page as Michael and I would greatly appreciate it.