Let Me Die A Sleazoid: Biographer Preston Fassel on the Life of Bill Landis
Writer Bill Landis was way ahead of his time when he set out to document the culture that lurks around New York’s 42nd Street movie theaters (AKA “The Deuce”) in his Sleazoid Express newsletter. Exploring a seedy underworld where temptations lurk around every corner and where no roads go straight, Landis spread The Deuce’s “grindhouse” culture to the world beyond the city; while delving into its sub-worlds of narcotics, pornography and street scrambling. Now Preston Fassel has lit up another corner of the late ’70s “downtown” with his biography of this brilliant and troubled writer, Landis: The Story of a Real Man from 42nd Street. Recently, FANGORIA spoke with Fassel about his book.
When we hear about New York in the 70s and early 80s, it’s easy to think that there were around 100 people who were all related, collaborated, or had the same drug dealer! Yet, with all the books and documentaries on the downtown metro, it still seems like the grindhouse subculture is being treated as something separate. Why do you think it is?
Much of this is the missing piece of the puzzle when people think about what Deuce was – sex work was almost a way of life there. 42nd Street was all about movies, drugs, and sex work, especially street hustling and pornography. And a lot of that sex work was queer sex work, to boot. And then of course Bill [Landis] he himself was bisexual and worked both as a straight adult movie star and as a gay prostitute. As a society, we are only now starting to have conversations about sex worker rights, LGBTQ rights. And you can’t really talk about The Deuce without talking about that stuff.
On top of that, the Deuce was also very racially and ethnically diverse, not only in terms of who was going to see these movies, but also who was making them. We have this very biased idea of very straight, white, masculine grindhouse cinema made for other straight white men, but years before Kathryn Bigelow or Patty Jenkins or Jordan Peele or Gus van Sant you had Doris Wishman and Roberta Findlay. , Gordon Parks, Andy Milligan and the Amero brothers.
The first movie Bill wrote for Sleazoid was that of Doris Wishman Let me die a woman which is not only a film directed by a woman but it is a trans-rights film. The heroes of the Findlay / Amero flesh trilogy – a film series directed by a woman, a straight man, and two gay men – are all sex workers. Try to get any of that stuff out into America’s mainstream in 1962 and see what happens. That’s why I feel like this kind of 42nd Street revival is in the air now. We’re finally ready as a society to start having these conversations… And Bill Landis intuitively understood that these were stories that “polite” society didn’t want told or remembered.
There is also the feeling that New York was a runaway home for damaged children. It is striking that everyone from Basquiat to David Wojnarowicz to Lydia Lunch and Bill Landis had a history of abuse and bad parenting. Is it possible that downtown had such a taste for extreme and transgressive art and expression because so many of these people were battling their own intergenerational demons?
The Deuce has become this stage for those fleeing from “hetero” society. It was that sort of Casablanca-style neutral zone where it all happened, and so it was very appealing to people fleeing trauma and environments where they weren’t welcome. And much of that trauma was certainly the result of a generation raised by another generation that had fought in the bloodiest conflict in human history and then returned home to a culture that almost literally had no word for PTSD.
It was also a generation that did not have the most progressive views on race or gender. There were a lot of LGBT youth on the run on The Deuce who had come there because they were not welcome in their homes or in their hometowns. The Deuce was not a progressive paradise, but there was this idea that everyone was somehow equally unequal.
And Bill Landis was fighting his own demons. One of the things I liked about the book was that it didn’t have the typical redemptive bow of a bright, lonely misfit child who comes to town, finds his tribe and his calling, and is saved. This happened to some extent, but he ultimately did not escape his demons.
One of the saddest things for me writing about Bill was that at the time of his death there was help available. Maybe not necessarily all the help he needed, but resources that could have prolonged and improved his life. The problem for Bill was this, he grew up at a time when seeking mental help was still very stigmatized, especially for men, so he never really asked for that help. Towards the end of his life, Bill was briefly institutionalized after passing out and nearly freezing to death while high, and had access to psychiatrists and doctors who could have helped him; but, as avant-garde as he was in many ways, he was still trapped by a culture that stigmatized men seeking help. Bill wrote this autobiographical essay called “Body for Rent” that I quote in the book, and at one point he talks about the worldview his father gave him— “I was a six year old man… we teaches men to tolerate pain, to take it like a man. “
Jumping to our generation, neo-grindhouse movies often make me feel like listening to Led Zepplin’s cover of “Big Mama Thornton”. The same words, but not the same feeling. Is it possible to recover the original soul of the thing?
Ah, absolutely. I feel like the problem today is that the grindhouse cinema was genuine and original and the product of people speaking without irony, their worldview and their struggles through the film. Much of contemporary cinema is steeped in irony. Part of it comes from a misunderstanding of what the grindhouse is; somewhere along the way people really confused the grindhouse cinema with the kind of stuff Troma fact, those ironic and exaggerated films. There were certainly some over-the-top grindhouse dishes, but they still had a nihilistic side to it. Look at something like The psychopath, which speaks of a host of children’s programs who is only an agent of Mr. Rogers who works illegally as a vigilante killing violent parents; it’s a crazy concept, of course, but the execution is still pretty dire.
We just need filmmakers who tell their stories without irony, authentically, without flinching and without fear. I really feel like those filmmakers, and that material is there too, but it’s going under the radar right now. But this stuff exists, either we don’t look at it or we don’t recognize it for what it is.
I think part of it is that there’s no longer the hard line between high and low culture that there was once that Bill Landis fought to extinguish. Bill once said, “I believe that art and exploitation are the same thing. There is no distinction between them for me. For me, an Ingmar Bergman film is the same as an exploitation film. ” Part of his mandate was to eliminate the distinction between art cinema and exploitation cinema, and I feel like he won that battle. Thesilenceofthelambs is a movie where a guy cuts off another guy’s face and wears it like a mask and he won the Oscars.
New York has been conquered by yuppies and speculative real estate, and we often hear that “it will never come back! Do you think this underworld that we associate with the Deuce, Alphabet City, the Bowery will be bubbling elsewhere? Is it growing somewhere now in the dark like alien spores?
I think it’s already done – online! The Deuce lives electronically. What made the Deuce was not necessarily the danger; it was certainly there, but the Deuce was about the unronic and authentic expression of self and culture. We no longer have to restrict it to a single verboten zone. The experience has become more democratic. It’s a very hokey thing to say, but in a post-internet, post-digital world, we can all carry The Deuce with us in our hearts.
Preston Fassel’s Landis: The Story of a Real Man from 42nd Street is now available, including a reprint of Landis’ seminal FANGORIA interview with Andy Milligan.