When I'm out of town, mail tends to pile up, and when I get back, it's hard to sort the pile and figure out what to watch or read first.
It was not difficult to figure out what to read first when I got back from Toronto, because one of the packages I had waiting for me contained “The Act Of Seeing,” a new book curated by Nicolas Winding Refn and written by Alan Jones. That's all I knew about it before I sat down with it, but I immediately lost two full hours to just slowing paging through, taking in all the remarkable sleazy detail of each of the posters reproduced inside and getting lost in the crisp, engrossing text that Alan Jones has put together for each of the films.
What posters? What films? When I got Refn on the phone to talk about the book, my first question was where this particular book began and how he ended up with these posters.
“It all started when I purchased a collection from a friend of mine called Jimmy McDonough, who is a writer. He wrote the book on Andy Milligan, wrote another on Russ Meyer, and he used to work with a magazine called Sleazoid Express, which was this Times Square oriented fanzine. I guess over the years since the '70s and the '80s, as he's been working, he's been collecting these posters, and one day, he just said, “Do you want to buy it?' and I figured, 'Okay, what the hell, I'll buy it.' But I didn't know what they were, and about eight weeks later, I got about a thousand posters in boxes. Which is a hell of a lot of paper. My first reaction was, like, 'Fucking hell, what am I going to do with this?' And Liv, my wife, was like, 'Really? You think this is a good idea?' And, look, I'm not a walking film encyclopedia, so I didn't know a lot of this stuff, so spending time with the posters, really going through them, it felt to me like a time machine.”
That's a fantastic description of the end result, which was published by Harvey Fenton's FAB Press, a fantastic genre-oriented publisher who has been producing essential reading about niche movies for several decades now, and every single book I have from them is amazing, worth devouring cover to cover. This may be one of the nicest things FAB has ever published, and it's so simple. Each page features one poster, reproduced in massive, crisp, clean detail. Next to each poster is some text by Jones, and far from being a regurgitation of familiar facts on the same handful of genre films that seem to dominate the conversation, Jones lays out the secret history of the exploitation circuit for the last 50 years.
When I asked him how he chose Alan as the person to write the book, Refn explained, “I've known Alan for many years. We became friends when we started meeting at various press events in England, and I always very much liked him. We started hanging out. He has a very interesting life, and we're very good friends now. Since I'm not from that era, I'm too young to have had that real exploitation experience, I needed someone who had that expertise, and who was willing to do the work to go deep into these titles. I didn't want reviews. I wanted facts about these films. He seemed like an obvious choice since he lived through that whole period.”
He continued by praising Jones, saying, “It's some of Alan's best work. For him, having always been known as a reviewer or for his critiques, this gave him a chance to get his hands around being a writer, and I've always told him that I would be willing to publish his biography. I think he's lived a very interesting life, and in some ways, there's quite a bit of himself in the experience of remembering these films from when he was younger.”
As Fantastic Fest gets underway in Austin, TX tomorrow, one of the events that attendees would do well to take advantage of is a signing of the book. It's a huge tactile experience as a book, an impressive piece of physical production that couldn't be reproduced any other way. The size and the quality of it are overwhelming, and it couldn't have been cheap. It's appropriate that the book would make its debut there, since Refn's time in Austin helped underwrite the entire enterprise in the first place.
Refn said, “That was very important to me. I wanted to make the most expensive film book ever produced. I went to FAB Press, because I met Harvey through Alan, and I like people like Harvey, a sort of one-man army doing it himself, that mom-and-pop thing… it's pure passion… and I asked Harvey, “How much did the most expensive poster book in the world cost? In terms of paper and printing and design… if there's nothing to hold back. How expensive can I possibly make this book?' And he gave me a number up around the $100,000 area, and I said, 'Let's do it.' I gave him my Lincoln money. The money I spent on producing this book, I earned making Lincoln commercials in Austin, Texas with Matthew McConaughey.”
He explained that Fenton was actually startled by Refn's first pitch. “He was a bit taken aback. He doesn't often get phone calls where someone says, 'How expensive can we make it?' Most of the time in his world, it's how inexpensive can we make it? This is the ultimate Warhol trick. We take something that was trash and reintroduce it as the highest form of art.”
One of the reasons these posters feel special is many of them are for films that don't exist now, and in some cases, they were created for a particular engagement at a particular theater. “There are about 20% which are famous films, some of the classic frequently-seen posters, which can be very expensive, but familiar. Then you have another 30% or 40% that are are maybe out in one one place now. But then about 50% of the book are just lost film, so niche or unobtainable that it took real time just to gather information on them.”
There's an illusion these days that because of services like Netflix, people have “everything.” My kids told me recently that they thought Netflix had every movie ever made. It's easy to get that wrong because people don't see evidence of how many movies disappear, but it's vast amounts. Refn said that doing the legwork on each of the posters here was like a remarkable treasure hunt. “There are many of the films where I don't think these films are around or available at all. Tim [League] went through his archives, and we were lucky to find even one or two of the titles. I would love to watch 'The Flesh Pot.' I don't know what it is, but it's a great title.”
If you're at Fantastic Fest, buy the book. Get it signed. Have Refn pick a special poster just for you, something like this:
And if you're not at Fantastic Fest, you can at least pre-order the thing. This may be the film nerd book of the year, so it is only fitting that you order it from the Amazon link below, which throws a little something-something into the Film Nerd 2.0 general warchest.
Special thanks to FonsPR and Nicolas Winding Refn for making the schedule work to talk about this one. It's one of the year's big treats.