Warped and Faded: Weird Wednesday and the Birth of the American Film Archive, written by Lars Nilsen and others and edited by Kier-La Janisse, is so many different books in one. But if you’re a cult movie fan, a lover of outsider cinema, or someone interested in film collecting and film history, it’s essential reading.
At nearly 400 pages (filled with eye-popping images taken from bygone movie posters), it contains an oral history of the Alamo Drafthouse’s groundbreaking “Weird Wednesday” film series — an unbelievable story that starts with the rescue of over 100 forgotten film prints from a storage facility in rural Missouri — which led to the founding of the American Genre Film Archive. The book’s biggest chunk is given over to a movie-by-movie exploration of each title that’s been featured in the series (from 13 Frightened Girls through Zombie Child); there’s also a “hall of fame” spotlighting actors (John Saxon!) and directors (Jess Franco!) who were consistent Weird Wednesday favourites.
To learn more we spoke to the author, veteran film programmer, and genre expert Nilsen, who worked at the Alamo Drafthouse for many years — he programmed the Weird Wednesday series from 2001-2013 — and is currently the lead film programmer at Austin Film Society and the AFS Cinema. What follows is a lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Cheryl Eddy, Gizmodo: For people reading this interview who might not be familiar with the Alamo Drafthouse’s Weird Wednesday series, what were the characteristics you looked for in the movies you programmed?
Lars Nilsen: I wanted to choose some movies that were unfamiliar. So unfamiliar was number one. I wanted to take a look at some recent film history that had just not been part of people’s lives. And then I also wanted to choose movies that were not boring, and choose movies that could be fun for everybody. So I was really trying to take steps to not show movies that were outwardly sexist, or if they were sexist, that they could be laughed at with disdain for the sexist makers of the films … Generally, I wanted to [pick movies that] almost [felt] like they were broadcast from another dimension. It was a recognisable part of the world around us because [they] had been [made], you know, 20 or 30 years ago. But they were also films that, like — “What the hell is this? I’ve never heard of this.” I really enjoy that aspect of it. The fact that the series was called Weird Wednesday had almost no impact on what I was choosing. I wasn’t trying to choose things that were weird — it was just that [Alamo Drafthouse Cinema founder and Fantastic Fest and Mondo co-founder] Tim League, my boss at the time, [originally] called it Something Weird Wednesday, and I just wanted to abbreviate it to call it something shorter. So many of the films were weird, certainly, but that wasn’t the guiding or organising principle.
Gizmodo: And the book goes into this a bit, but how would you describe the film series’ approach to putting the movies into context? Sort of the anti-Mystery Science Theatre approach?
Nilsen: Yeah, I think the predominant way of relating to films for most people was kind of a so-bad-it’s-good way, saying “These movies are craptastic, but I also love them.” And I just did not feel that was a very honest way of relating to films. In a way, it was kind of classist because these films were cheap, and sometimes they were made by people who were a bit more on the margins than people who had an office at Warner Brothers studios. You know, these were movies that were outsider art in a way. But it wasn’t so much that I really cared what squares thought about these movies. It’s just that, like some of the cool kids, I felt like were being disingenuous about their own feelings about these things. They would not have listened to, say, the Ramones or the Cramps or Detroit techno made on cheap drum machines and said, “Oh, this is such garbage, but I love it anyway,” you know?
So that sort of classism really kind of only entered in when they were addressing movies. And I just felt like most people, probably if they were really honest about the way they felt about stuff, would enjoy some of these cheap movies made with, you know, a lot of creativity sometimes, in the same way that they enjoyed punk music or the way they enjoyed Detroit techno or whatever. I mean, there’s all different kinds of ways that you could make that analogy. But more and more people just did seem to kind of buy into that: “this is a guilty pleasure” or “it’s so bad, it’s good.” And I think at this point, that’s no longer the predominant mode of addressing or experiencing these films. And if I had anything to do with that and then I think I deserve a cake.
Gizmodo: Back in the heyday of the series, it was really hard to get ahold of these movies. Nowadays they are a lot more accessible — but on the other hand, you’re missing out on going to a theatre at midnight during the middle of the week, and having this community. Do you think there’s something lost in the experience? How do you feel about the fact that just every movie, even the weirdest ones, are now available on Blu-ray?
Nilsen: I’m a little torn. I mean, obviously, I don’t think it’s my best self that feels resentment that people can just go buy a Blu-ray. But also, like, who are these people that buy all these $US25 (A$34) Blu-rays? Because I can’t! So I don’t know. When it was Weird Wednesday you could come for free or later on, it was like a buck or whatever, so it wasn’t quite so gatekeeper-y. But now God knows a lot of people are illegally downloading films or trading them, which is kind of like what I was doing back in the day. But I was trading enormously, many times, many generations, copies from VHS tapes of some of these movies, which is how I saw them in the first place and knew that I wanted to program them. So I’m a little bit torn, is the short answer. That was not a short answer at all, but I am a little bit torn.
Gizmodo: Following up on that, I wanted to ask what your background is as a film fan. How did you get interested in the movies that became the Weird Wednesday trademark?
Nilsen: Partly, I was partly interested in collecting and trading. But also it was books. Books have always just been my sort of guiding light, reading books about these films, and I think Michael Weldon’s book The Psychotronic Encyclopaedia of Film — that, to me, was one that opened my eyes and made me seek these movies out. So it really was me going through page by page and, you know, finding movies that I wanted to see and making giant lists in notebooks of films that I just wanted to watch and check off. It was really that. And then the experience of going to video stores. There was a really great video store here in Austin called Vulcan Video for many years, it just closed recently. And I would go to Vulcan Video and the staff were these outlaw scholars of film. It was my only film school because that’s sort of just how I learned about film, was going and looking for titles there and then talking to those amazing people who worked at Vulcan.
Gizmodo: But now you have your own book, and it’s kind of almost an encyclopaedia too, cataloging every movie ever shown at Weird Wednesday with so many great pictures and descriptions. What would you say is a quintessential Weird Wednesday movie?
Nilsen: I would say that maybe Stephanie Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire is a film that, for me, sums up a lot, because it is such an inexpensive movie, it has such an original vision, it’s sort of haphazardly made around the edges — there are some performances in it that are not wonderful — but we see her vision about what she wants to say about vampirism, about the dynamic within this couple, particularly within this male-female couple. We see it all so clearly. And it’s still also just like a kick-arse vampire movie, a kick-arse sex vampire movie, you know, that takes place in the desert and is so photogenic. And I think that’s one of the key Weird Wednesday films for me; watching that with an audience, at first, the audience is kind of laughing at one of the performances that’s not so hot. But then by the time it’s over, it kicks into this other gear where it’s sort of European-inflected, full of jump cuts and all this stuff, and the audience is kind of on the edge of their seats, just really enjoying a great, arty vampire movie.
Gizmodo: How did the idea for the book come about? Why did you feel like now is the time to tell the story of a Weird Wednesday and the American Genre Film Archive?
Nilsen: Well, the dude with the budget to make the book actually was the guy who was decisive there because it kept coming up that every time — well, this sounds a little braggy, but what am I going to do — every time I would put out a new batch of write-ups in the Alamo guides, people would say, “Oh, I save all of these because I love reading your write-ups and Zack Carlson’s Terror Tuesday write-ups. Are you guys ever going to put a book out?” Finally, I think Tim League reached a place where he thought, like, we need to sum up this history right now. It’s kind of because American Genre Film Archive is out here and it’s truly changing film exhibition for the better. This is a good time to go through and take a look at the history of how the archive started and the mindset behind it all, and just kind of go through and talk to some of the people who were there.
Gizmodo: Is that why you decided to format it as an oral history?
Nilsen: The idea for that was Kier-La Janisse, and she’s the editor of the book. I think it’s a brilliant idea to go through, and she kind of talked to everybody who was there so that we get a picture of just what it was like. I mean, I think my write-ups are pretty funny, but I think the oral history is like maybe the funniest part of the book — just some of the craziness that happened at the time. Some of the things that we were part of that were just sort of like the flow of life, but looking back seem just insane. It’s insane that we were living our lives that way, frankly.
Gizmodo: D0 you have an all-time favourite Weird Wednesday experience?
Nilsen: I think maybe the first time that we showed the movie Snakes, which is also known as Fangs. I had never seen the movie before. It was one of those rare times, actually, when I programmed sight unseen. I didn’t do a whole lot of programming sight unseen — I wanted to watch the films and make sure that they weren’t boring, frankly. And this movie sort of fires up, and it soon becomes apparent that this is a very weird film — and it soon becomes apparent that it’s a film about a man whose whole life is just Wednesday nights. The hero of the film is named Snaky Bender, and all he does is look forward to Wednesday nights because that’s when he listens to John Philip Sousa records and brings snakes into town. It’s kind of a really, actually technically good film, and it’s quite a funny black comedy. But it’s also it’s a movie that’s full of speeches about like, “don’t nobody mess with my Wednesday night” and so forth. I mean, almost the subject of almost every line of dialog in the film is how great Wednesday night is.
Gizmodo: Wow, that is kind of the ultimate. Is the series still going on?
Nilsen: It still going on, Laird Jimenez runs it. I ran it up through, I think, 2014. I had changed jobs by then, so I was working full-time programming for Richard Linklater’s Austin Film Society, which is what I’m doing right now. I’m in my office. I continued doing it even after I changed jobs because I had been lead programmer at Alamo Drafthouse for years. But after a while, I realised that staying up all night on a weeknight as I was getting into my forties was not going to work for me, so I had to quit doing that. But Laird’s been doing a great job.
Gizmodo: Are you involved in the American Genre Film Archive? What does it do exactly?
Nilsen: I’m on the advisory board of American Genre Film Archive. What they do is they store a lot of films, they preserve a lot of films, and then they scan many films digitally and fix them up, restore them and put them out there so that people can actually show films either on 35mm or on the digital versions, called DCPs, of these films that are there inside the American genre. This is the batch of films that we began acquiring, you know, 20-plus years ago when I was at Drafthouse, and have just built and built and built and built. It is a really unparalleled archive of exploitation films, low-budget films, films that have played the drive-in circuit, and others.
Warped and Faded: Weird Wednesday and the Birth of the American Genre Film Archive is out November 16; you can pre-order a copy here.
Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.
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