Sunday, December 06, 2015

THUNDERCRACK! (1975)—The Evening Class Interview With Joshua Grannell (aka Peaches Christ)

On Tuesday, December 8, 2015, Synapse Films releases the 40-year anniversary DVD / Blu-Ray edition of the restored Directors Cut of Curt McDowell's Thundercrack! (1975), the now legendary art horror porno film that scandalized mainstream culture (and even raised a few countercultural eyebrows) upon its initial release. In tandem with the DVD / Blu-Ray release, Synapse and Peaches Christ Productions are mounting a celebratory restoration premiere screening of Thundercrack! on Friday, December 11, 2015 at San Francisco's Castro Theater, hosted by Peaches Christ in an on-stage conversation with Curt McDowell's sister Melinda McDowell-Milks, composer Mark Ellinger, and actor Ken Scudder.

When I first heard about this event, I immediately contacted Joshua Grannell and we got together for iced coffees at San Francisco landmark Café Trieste in North Beach to discuss his involvement in this celebratory 40-year anniversary of Curt McDowell's underground classic.  This transcript is supplemented with Curt McDowell's drawings, recently-digitized and generously provided courtesy of the McDowell Estate and 2nd floor projects, San Francisco (and recently showcased at Visual AIDS).

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Curt McDowell.
Michael Guillén: So every two years or so I start whimpering to talk to you to try to catch up with all you've done inbetween. Especially now that I live in Boise, even though I come back to San Francisco frequently, I'm struck more than ever by how much is changing in San Francisco, which only makes me more pleased how well you're doing in continuing this tradition. Do you have a sense of how your audiences are changing? Are they significantly different than the audiences you had at the Bridge? Are you pulling in a lot of the young tech kids who have recently moved to the City?

Joshua Grannell: Yes. We sell more tickets when I show a '90s film because there are more young people here now than there have been in so many years. Young people with money! Young people who want to go out on the weekends! The good news is—while the city is changing, and it's awful, I'm very afraid of it and I have a lot of anxiety around it—unlike what I feel I experience from friends living in Manhattan where Wall Street and Rudy Giuliani steamrolled over the East Village and a lot of the counterculture underground scene and where a lot of those bankers and brokers really didn't have much interest in getting to know that culture, I do find that with a lot of the new people moving to San Francisco—yeah, they're some assholes for sure—but, there are also a lot of creative, interesting, fun, engaged nerds who aren't afraid of a drag show. They'll come out and support what we do. And it's been both men and women. It's interesting to see that a movie like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is a harder sell for me because it's in black-and-white. It's an older film. There's no nostalgia for it from people ages 20-40. The nostalgia for Baby Jane is from 40+. It's a constant balancing act for me now trying to figure out how to program and do shows that I enjoy and like and that will also put butts in seats. I can't do all-'90s movies all the time—that wouldn't be interesting or inspiring for me—but, balancing that with stuff that might feed my personal interests a little bit more has become a creative challenge. Yes, the new demographic in San Francisco is evident. As producers and artists, we all feel it.

Guillén: You raise a fascinating cultural point: the connection between parody and nostalgia. How essential is nostalgia to effective parody?

Grannell: Very! They're entwined. I tend to call it a cult. There needs to be a strong cult following for a movie. The audience has to have a certain amount of nostalgia, even as they experience it for the first time. Even if you didn't grow up with Pink Flamingos, people really remember the first time they were exposed to it. That could be a kid who saw it no less than five years ago or someone who's older and saw it in a movie theater. They have a connection to that experience that's a part of their personal history. Then the cult builds and you try to determine, "How big is this cult? Is it a big enough cult that I can do a show at the Castro Theater where I need hundreds and hundreds of people to break even financially?" That's the down side of doing a show at the Castro. Some of the niche films with smaller cults—like, let's say, David Cronenberg's Rabid (1977)—strong cults but smaller in numbers, often are the films that I'm most inspired by, like George Kuchar's Thundercrack! (1975). It's a real guessing game. My partner once said to me, "You're in the gambling business." With all these new shows, I'm basically guessing. There isn't a survey I can do. I have to sense it and feel it out.

Guillén: Gambling, perhaps, but with a stacked deck. You've established your brand. If Peaches Christ is going to put a stamp on a film, that film gains credence and attracts a draw. Case in point: Thundercrack! I saw YBCA's programs of Curt McDowell's short films last Fall, befriended Curt's sister Melinda Milks, and became aware that she was working on the restoration of Thundercrack!, but only found out the other day that you're hosting the 40th anniversary screening. How did that come about? That is a gamble. It's a '70s cult vibe. Why have you decided to take that on?

Grannell: I'll speak very honestly, which might not be the best form of promotion; but—if I'm honest about it—it might encourage people to support the event. We know we're going to lose money. We know that going into it, unfortunately. I'm renting the Castro Theatre and we've been given some money by different groups. One who's a Thundercrack! fan and supporter of the arts. The distributor who's doing the re-release has helped us financially. We're pulling money together from different sources so no one's loss is so great. It's so expensive to show Thundercrack! at the Castro but Melinda, myself, and my colleague Bobby—who really believes in this—decided to do it at the Castro because it's the 40th anniversary. It's timed so well with the restoration, Melinda's Curt's sister, and we're really moved by this. She came to us. She approached us and told us about the Synapse release and that they wanted to do a celebration. Jeffrey Schwarz and Jennifer Kroot had recommended that she get in touch with me. She did. We sat and talked and I was moved by her passion for keeping her brother's legacy relevant and out there and seen by new people. So we're doing it.

If I were to not have a personal and passionate stake in it, from a purely business point of view I would say that it probably doesn't make much sense to do it this way; but, because we believe so much in what this is, we want to put on a show and have a grand evening for this film. If the Castro is not full, that's okay. That's going to be okay for us. We want to celebrate Curt and George and do the movie this way. I hope that being a little bit more honest about the fact that sometimes you do things for the art, sometimes you do things because it's a passion project, then maybe people will feel inspired to come out and buy a ticket because we can't do this very often. But Thundercrack! is special.

Guillén: You're pulling in a new audience of young people who, you've assured me, will like this kind of thing and that makes a 40-year anniversary screening of Thundercrack! all the more special because it's harkening back to a creative era, the likes of which we may not see again for a long, long time, if ever. When did you arrive in San Francisco?

Grannell: 1996.

Guillén: I arrived in 1975 as all of this was taking place and—though these experiences are now some of my most treasured memories—they're rarely talked about anymore. I'm personally thankful and grateful that you're taking the gamble to reintroduce the underground spirit of that era and the signature of its guerrilla-style filmmaking. A lot of young people have no specific idea of what that cultural moment meant.

Grannell: It's really important to our organization because Peaches Christ Productions is made up of a team of people who are so much more than just me. It's so important to us. Many of us have worked for years and years—my graphic designer Chris Hatfield, my business partner Bobby, our stage manager Sam—I've worked with some of them for over two decades. We built this thing that we do by being that: making movies for five dollars, putting on a drag show with cardboard and a shitty old wig and a dream…..

Guillén: And a little bit of glitter!

Grannell: …and a little bit of glitter! Trannyshack and Midnight Mass in the early days was very grunge. It was part of an evolution of underground filmmaking and performance that included The Cockettes, and the Kuchars, and Curt McDowell, to the Angels of Light and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Clubstitute, The Sick and Twisted Players, there's such a rich history of this being a San Franciscan way of life that for us right now—especially with everything that's going on in the City—to do a 40th anniversary Thundercrack! screening, we feel it's important and our obligation, our responsibility, that we have with our audience to direct new eyes on this history. We're doing this and are already in talks about putting on a giant 25-year anniversary of the Vegas in Space show next year. We're going to continue to remind people and educate new people who move here and don't know about this legacy. We take it for granted that everybody knows about The Cockettes or the Kuchar Brothers or Doris Fish and the Vegas In Space movie and they don't. They don't know about me, necessarily, until they move here. I just happen to still be doing shows and have a platform and an audience where I can maybe help educate people. [Laughs.]

Guillén: Not only are you tickling the memories of those of us who were here when these artists were working, but you're re-inspiring a new generation of artists and reminding them of how much can be done with so little. When I came out of the YBCA McDowell screenings, I was struck by the imagination of those films, their ingenuity, their abandon and lack of concern.

Grannell: Right! Really unfiltered nerve. [Laughs]

Guillén: And how fun these short films were; how ridiculously funny.

Grannell: We're showing one of Curt's films as part of this program we're doing. Bobby and I wanted to show all of them and then we looked at the running time of this restored Thundercrack!....

Guillén: 160 minutes!

Grannell: And we're doing a 30-minute pre-show with Peaches doing a Q&A, and so we are squeezing in one of Curt's shorts, Siamese Twin Pinheads (1972). Bobby has actually collected Curt's shorts on bootlegs and such and we were talking about how outrageous they were and Melinda told us that a lot of times that was just because they had extra film at the end of a reel and they didn't want it to go to waste so they'd look around and see what kind of things they had for a costume or random inspiration and I thought, "What a great reminder to anybody!" That's what pushed them to make some of these films that we're watching 40+ years later.