Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Best of Lezsploitation - Michelle Johnson Interview - Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival

Newtonian motion

One of my favorite things at the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival this year... actually, what the hell, my favorite thing at the Seattle Gay & Lesbian Film Festival this year is Michelle Johnson's compilation of sexploitation clips, The Best of Lezsploitation. Having enjoyed the film, it was a pleasure speaking with Michelle on the phone. According to an interview in the SF Bay Guardian, she grew up in a small Texas town but, to my NJ ears, her voice had a lot of New York attitude. Indeed, she reminded me of fellow New Jerseyian, Sharon Mitchell. I guess, in my inartful way, what I'm getting at here is, Michelle Johnson is a good egg, a good filmmaker and a good interview.

ESF: How did this project get started?

MJ: It started with two friends, who were curating for Homo A Go Go in Olympia, who know I have quite a number of cult movies and had showed them. I started showing some of them, with friends in LA at L Word screening parties, and they said "Wouldn't it be cool if you could put something together that was just a montage of lesbian scenes?" and I was like, "Yeah, that would be cool." So, I just set about thinking how I could do that and how I could pull these very different movies together and, being a DJ, using music was a logical choice, especially music of that genre, so I just started sifting through all these different movies, finding sexy clips, funny clips, sexy and funny clips and just pulled it altogether, then sat with a giant hard-drive full of stuff and just started editing.

ESF: It's very nicely edited. You used some very nice effects to make the transitions.

MJ: First thing I've ever edited in my life.

ESF: Well, the screener had this nice little intro thing with 'Triple X Selects'. Did you do that?

MJ: Yup, did it all.

ESF: Cool. It looked really professional.

MJ: Yeah, I did it on Final Cut and iDVD.

ESF: In compiling the material, what sources did you use? Was it all from your DVD collection?

MJ: Yup, all DVD.

ESF: Since you were going to show this in a bunch of festivals, did have to get permission from Blue Underground or other distributors to use the clips?

MJ: Yeah, well, I couldn't seek permission until I had what I wanted and was also mindful of who I thought I could work with, based on their availability here or overseas, so I purposely chose not to,AeP I wanted to find smaller, independent companies that I knew I could get in touch with and track, because that was a whole process right there. So, once I had what I wanted, I sought out all the companies I wanted to deal with and gauged their interest and approachability and made choices based on that. And actually Bill Lustig, who owns Blue Underground, is a gem. He's a big horror and cult fan and was super helpful and ended up giving me separate work for his company, which was really cool. So, I sort of just approached it that way. And I'm still in licensing with other people. But he was cool enough to tell me, "You know what, Michelle, if you use 3 minutes of any of my movies, you get it for free."

ESF: Great. Who did you have to go through to get the Emmanuelle 2 clip?

MJ: The Emmanuelle clips I'm working with France on, which is a bit of a debacle, because at first they were "Yes, yes," and then they were like, "No, well, you can't use Emmanuelle 2, because we're having problems with the director," so that's still back and forth and in the final bit I end up releasing, I may have to lose the Emmanuelle.
ESF: That's too bad, because it's one of the steamiest clips in the entire piece.
MJ: Definitely, but you know what, it's interesting, people either love it or they don't or they like the campy stuff more. So, it's interesting, lots of different people say different things about it, so at this point,AeP there's just stuff you get super stuck with, you're like, "No, I can't possibly lose that! No way!" ,AeP but going to a lot of screenings and festivals around the country and hearing feedback from lots of different people, I've ended up thinking, "Well, if have to lose that, because it's prohibitively expensive, I may have to."
ESF: That's something I wanted to ask about, the response to the film. What kind of audiences have you've been getting? Has it been a pretty mixed audience or has it been mostly women?
MJ: It's been mostly women, definitely some guys in there. When I screened in NY I had quite a few straight guys that are really into the cult films of that era, who knew quite a bit about them, and I was just in New Mexico, a couple of weeks ago, screening at the Southwest Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, and there were a lot of men in the audience, a lot of gay men and, at first, my film was screening with the Bruce LaBruce short, so I thought "Well, they're there for that," but they weren't! They were there for my film. Their response was incredible, really great, so I was really happy to see guys there.
ESF: Have you gotten as much of a positive response from the sexy stuff as the campy stuff?
MJ: Actually, in a room full of people watching the movie, the campy stuff gets huge laughs and I think that makes it easier to watch a super-sexy reel, if there's lots of humor in it too. So, I wanted that to be a part of it, because it's really funny and it wasn't ever meant to be that funny, but anytime you're watching these movies you're like "Oh my god, that's crazy."
ESF: A lot of it is funny, but about a third of your clips are from Jess Franco and, particularly the stuff he did in the late 60's, early 70's, had a real kind of poetry to it.
MJ: Absolutely.
ESF: I mean, most of his films are awful but at, least during that period, he had a lot in common with the directors who were making art films.
MJ: Absolutely and when I do presentations at festivals, I do a 20 minute talk, and cover the genre and sort-of how it got started and this particular moment in time when it could happen and can't anymore, in many ways. Once hardcore came onto the scene, it really kind of changed a lot of that. So, these guys were really coming from an art background, certainly Jess Franco was, and so many of his films are like, "Oh, my god, it's so bad," but visually, they're always pretty stunning. They have amazing art direction, great production values and really interesting costumes and sets, so I'm a big Jess Franco fan.
ESF: One of my favorite films is Vampyros Lesbos, which in it's own way, is a faithful version of Nosferatu. He makes an extremely effective use of the locations. I mean, Istanbul, what a location, but also the mood and the atmosphere and the pacing is pretty similar to things Antonioni would do.
MJ: Absolutely, it's a stunning film and it was really the first sexploitation film I saw that I was like, "Wow!" and I saw this back in the mid-90's, when there was weird VHS's floating around and it didn't look nearly as good as when it was released on DVD, but that was the movie that first got me really interested in the genre and what it could do.
ESF: Yeah, it's funny, because you have clips that are absurd and campy and often in a fun way. I mean particularly,AeP I think it's a scene from Bacchanales Sexuelles, where these two girls suddenly do this little horsey thing,AeP
MJ: No, that was from Bare Behind Bars.
ESF: Oh, okay, but looking at that, it was like "What the hell?!"
MJ: The whole thing. Like, even when the girls are in the prison 'playground', for lack of a better word, and just start undressing and doing exercises on the ground, you look around and all the girls are, like, dancing around or have a ring around the rosie thing going on, it's just so absurd.
ESF: But it makes you wonder, how serious could these people have been, who made the films? I mean, they must have had some tongue-and-cheek sensibility going on.
MJ: There had to be, right, but I think that was their idea of sexy, these sort of things going on and, I don't know, they were just really going for it and just,AeP craziness. I don't know if you've seen that film, but it is absolutely insane.
ESF: No, I haven't seen it.
MJ: There's a lot more craziness in that. Also, just for my own personal viewing, I don't want to see films that get too violent against women and I was really afraid I was going to get attacked for that, because a lot of these films have that reputation, and even certainly with Jess Franco, like the mid-70's on,AeP but Bare Behind Bars, when they break out of prison, which it seems like they don't ever want to leave, but they bust out and they just run rampant on the streets of Rio, just killing men, for no reason, it's like, "Wait, what happened? Suddenly they're at carnival? What?"
ESF: Yes. There's definitely a distinction between some of these films and somebody like Russ Meyer, who clearly had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.
MJ: Exactly. And I didn't want to use any of the Russ Meyer, because it's so recognizable and so specific and I feel if people know anything about the genre, they've seen images of that and so people would be like "Oh, Russ Meyer."
ESF: But also, he was more intentionally satirical.
MJ: He definitely was, but he was a pioneer. We wouldn't have had a lot of those films if he hadn't made The Immoral Mr. Teas.
ESF: You talked about hardcore and how it killed off the genre, but you have a clip or two from the mid-80's and it was surprising to me that anyone was still making those films then.
MJ: No, the only mid-80's thing I had was a brief clip from Reform School Girls, which is from '86, when they walk into the prison room and everybody's in teddies and 80's lingerie, I was just like, "Wow, that's pretty funny" and I think I used,AeP the only hardcore is a scene from 1978, from Images in a Convent with the nun 69-thing going on.
ESF: So that was a hardcore film?
MJ: It was rated X and definitely shows penetration, but it's not Triple X or anything and it's very much supposed to be an art film.
ESF: The music. What was the source of it?
MJ: The sources of the music were from library collections. Mostly European library collections that these guys would churn out and there would be different companies that would lease them to television shows and movies. It's basically stock-music. It was the stock music of its day and some of those,AeP like KPM was a huge music library and Amphonic was another one and I used a lot from those different libraries.
ESF: What was the track you used over the clip from Score?
MJ: Oh, that's a great one. That's from the KPM music library. It's called 'The Earthmen'.
ESF: Is that on CD?
MJ: You can get it on Sound Gallery.
ESF: Oh yeah, I don't have any of those, but I've heard of that series. The one I'm most familiar with is Easy Tempo.
MJ: Yes, I love the Easy Tempo stuff, too. I had some other stuff from The Beat at Cinecitt/* in an early cut and I just couldn't track the owners down at all and they're out of print and I was actually talking to Italy about it they were just like, "I don't know, man."
ESF: So, I assume that was a whole other process you had to go through to get the okay to use the music.
MJ: Yup. Tracking all that stuff down. And it's all still being finalized, because it's all going to cost some money and I'm just waiting for deals and stuff to happen. There's a cable company that's interested in buying it, so that's sort of what I'm waiting for, too, to put some money up front.
ESF: Okay, but in terms of festival viewing was it any kind of problem?
MJ: No, not at all.
ESF: Tell me a little about your background. You also work as a DJ.
MJ: Yes, I'm a DJ, a musician for many years and was always a cult film collector and very amateur about it and knew a couple of things, but not that much, but getting involved in this film was a really great chance for me to understand the history and educate myself about some of the directors. I mean, I really found Joe Sarno right before I started putting this together and I absolutely love his stuff.
ESF: Was he the one who did,AeP there's one scene where there's a bunch of girls lounging by a swimming pool in a gymnasium, was that his?
MJ: Yeah, that's Girl Meets Girl. That's an amazing film.
ESF: Yeah, that was a really good scene. It had a certain sensitivity to it.
MJ: His films always do and they always have lots of lesbian characters and they're always dealt with very sensitively and they also really fall in love with each other.
ESF: Is he still around?
MJ: He is still around and he's about 90 now.
ESF: Have you spoken with him?
MJ: No, I have not. I have been dealing with Retro-Seduction Cinema, who must have some deal with him, because they are the exclusive people who are re-releasing all his stuff. Not only are they re-releasing it, but they're re-mastering it and they're restoring a lot of these films.
ESF: Yeah, he was a guy who did these films and also did hardcore.
MJ: He did do hardcore under different names, just like Radley Metzger did.
ESF: I recently read the "Other Hollywood" and he's quoted quite a bit in that.
MJ: He's a really interesting fellow. He's getting a bit senile, I think, but his wife, who's been his production partner since the late 60's, is sharp as a tack. He lives in NY and partly in Sweden, though he is American. He's from Long Island.
ESF: You want to do a documentary.
MJ: Yes. I'm trying to track these ladies down. The actresses.
ESF: Would they mostly be in Europe?
MJ: A couple, but some are here. I have a connection through Blue Underground to speak with Jess Franco and Lina Romay, so I'm really kind of winding down on this whole festival thing and can focus on that now, because none of this stuff is really generating money for me, yet, so I still have a day job, you know.
ESF: And is your day job working in film?
MJ: It's working as an assistant for a television producer.
ESF: But you're definitely going to pursue the documentary.
MJ: Absolutely.
ESF: That's fantastic. So, you don't have a film background.
MJ: No. None. Just a lifelong fan and I love lots of different films, not just this genre, so I just felt I was coming to it with a big background of what I like to see in a movie and with a history, because I would see Jess Franco and think "Wow," because his films were surreal and they were beautiful and he gets maligned as a trash film guy.
ESF: So, you've been to festivals overseas as well as the United States?
MJ: I haven't. No. But I've been, I guess, not surprised, but kind of surprised, because I feel like all the people that run these festivals have a shitload of stuff to do, they don't have time to chitchat with me, but they have. It really screened first in Australia last February and people would write me, the programmers would write me back, "We had this many people in the audience and they loved it, they really responded to everything," and so it was really great to see the feedback; and from Austria I got the same responses and there was a brief European thing going on, but now I'm gearing up for the Fall European schedule and, the fact is, I could probably be put up if I went there, but no one's going to pay for your airfare to get there.
ESF: I know they don't really make films like this anymore, but there is a burgeoning market for lesbian porno/erotica . How do you feel about the things that are going on now?
MJ: Well Seduction Cinema, which is the new arm of Retro-Seduction Cinema, tries to remake a lot of these films. They'll do sort-of updates on them and they just don't work for me and I wish they would and that's the other film idea I'm toying with, but I think it would work better to do it as a short, you know much like, I just saw the Bruce LaBruce short and it just blew me away. I thought it was crazy and over the top. Give Piece of Ass A Chance. Have you seen that?
ESF: No, I haven't!
MJ: It's pretty great. And it's completely ripping on the whole Patty Hearst being abducted in the 70's thing, but I think it could be done like that, but as far as a feature length movie, I don't think so. I think we're so aware of camp, it just doesn't fly unless you do something complete with camp.
ESF: On the other hand, maybe you could do something that was more to the atmospheric end of things,AeP
MJ: Absolutely.
ESF: ,AePbut then, you'd run up against the problem of there being so little of an audience for the art film anymore, that having something with long, languorous passages in it might be a tough sell.
MJ: Yeah, it's true.
ESF: I guess what I'm trying to get at is that what hardcore did was to completely separate sex from cinema to the point where, if anyone wants to watch something sexual now, they're going to watch porn and the idea of mixing sexuality or sensuality with anything less that that, people aren't going to be interested.
MJ: No, it's true. It's just a different aesthetic out there. There will always be a market for it and that's the problem I've encountered watching newly made erotica,AeP now they want to call it erotica, but newly made stuff, is they're really trying to make it like a hardcore movie, but without any hardcore things.
ESF: [Laughs]
MJ: It doesn't work.
ESF: It's funny, because, when I was trying to get your screener from the festival, I mean they gave it to me and all that, but they said "We don't want to give this out too freely, because we want to avoid people trying watch it just for prurient reasons,AeP"
MJ: [Laughs]
ESF:,AeP and I said, "If I wanted to watch something for that reason I'd get a DVD from Evil Angel."
MJ: Exactly.
ESF: I'd get a Belladonna flick.
MJ: Get a Belladonna movie, right, and watch My Ass Is Haunted and call it a night.
ESF: Exactly.
MJ: [Laughs] It's very funny to me. It's interesting how it's really gotten lumped into this very racy thing. Porno! It's not really porno, but,AeP okay, whatever.
ESF: No, it's a completely different thing. I mean, it could overlap, but the intention is different.
MJ: Yes. I mean I just heard from Outfest that my film got stolen from the library [laughs].
ESF: That's funny.
MJ: They were appalled and I was like, "Well, that's cool!"
ESF: [Laughs] Well, I guess this stuff still has some kind of attraction.
MJ: This couple came up to me and this character that had been in that Joe Sarno film in the pool, the blonde one that talks the most, she comes up several times in the film. She's the one that beats the girl with the branch. And her character's name is Bibi. If you see Girl Meets Girl, she's fucking amazing. I could have made the whole film with her, honestly, but these two women came up to me after the New Mexican screening and they were like, "Please tell me that character's name is Bibi. We saw this film ten years ago on a bad VHS and we just fell in love with her." And, yup, that's Bibi. It was really nice!

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