Meet the Archivists Working to Preserve Classic Sex Films

Known as the “Godfather of Gore,” director Herschell Gordon Lewis was a pioneering exploitation filmmaker who was most proud of his horror films, but also directed several softcore skin flicks known as “nudie cuties.” Since then, Lewis has denied that he was anything more than a hired gun when he directed the hardcore porn film Black Love in 1971 (under the pseudonym R.L. Smith). It’s a title he wishes he could forget, but exploitation-focused distribution company and film archive Vinegar Syndrome is passionate about sharing Lewis’ work with the world — and educating us on why it’s worthy of discussion as art and social commentary.

“If we don’t do it, chances are no one else will,” Vinegar Syndrome co-founder Joe Rubin told Flavorwire by email. “There’s a lot of amazing preservation work going on today, but these films are always last in line because no one cares about them, and even if they do, they don’t have the resources to do the work that’s needed to save them.”

Adult film stars like James Deen and Sasha Grey have gained mainstream recognition for their natural (though not average) bodies, making the jump from hardcore to Hollywood in films like Paul Schrader’s The Canyons and Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. But Vinegar Syndrome isn’t as concerned with that aspect of porn and porn culture’s evolution as it is with preserving the work of smut’s greatest auteurs — including Russ Meyer and Wakefield Poole — as well as the hidden gems within adult and exploitation cinema.

The company’s name refers to the chemical reaction that takes place when film deteriorates. While rescuing these films from ruin and obscurity, Vinegar Syndrome also hopes to stave off a kind of cultural amnesia. Flavorwire spoke to Rubin about nostalgia, Vinegar Syndrome’s most coveted titles, and their upcoming streaming video service.

Flavorwire: Your team has a background in film restoration and collection. How did you wind up in the porn biz, so to speak?

Joe Rubin: I don’t feel that we’re in the “porn business” at all. We are film archivists who happen to focus on preserving sex films. But regarding why we’ve made that our focus, it’s mostly because they represent a huge part of the American film industry of the ‘60s through ‘80s — and virtually no one else has done anything to ensure that they get saved from rotting away in vaults and basements.

How do you foreground your efforts as film preservationists when you promote what your company is all about? Is it hard to make that more prominent than the fact that you’re preserving pornography?

I hate the term pornography and almost never use it. Not because I hate the term, but because it’s so often used incorrectly or in a very restrictive way. When you call something porn, you immediately put it in a cultural box. You limit its perceptions and thus its perceived intent. We’ve tried to promote ourselves as a company that preserves the films that no one else will. With the exception of DistribPix, which has done amazing releases of some of the most important X-rated films of the era, no other major or even smaller company is putting the effort into saving these films. That’s really always been the pitch — see stuff here that no one else cares about, but can be really interesting and unlike anything else.

wakefield

I understand why you object to the negative associations people make when they hear the word “porn,” but it is a useful term in the sense that it puts these films in a historical and generic context. By preserving these adult films, you’re also indirectly preserving a type of culture. Can you give me a little background on the economic conditions and stylistic trends that these filmmakers were working within when they made their movies?

I guess it’s a useful term from the standpoint that it gives people a vague idea of content, similar to how blaxploitation films evoke a certain idea in most people’s minds. But just like the extreme variations in style and genre covered by blaxploitation films and filmmakers, X-rated films were just as diverse, ranging from poverty-row 16mm productions that rarely offered anything other than a series of loosely connected sex scenes, to bigger budget 35mm features which were comparable technically and creatively to the best exploitation movies of the same era.

Regarding the preservation of a culture, I rarely give it much thought other than when a film makes a point to be culturally relevant to the time in which it was made. I think the cheaper films tend to evoke a stronger sense of the era, maybe accidentally because less effort was put into them and thus they inadvertently captured a practical slice of life. But overall, cultural hallmarks present in the films tend not to capture my attention. Regarding the economic factor, the budgets ranged from a couple thousand dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars. With inflation, the average middle-of-the-road X-rated feature cost more than most contemporary porn, with the most expensive ones running over the million-dollar mark. Stylistically, there were few trends that were shared between filmmakers, which is one of the reasons I love this stuff. You really can apply auteur theory to so many of the most prolific and noteworthy directors.

Tell me a little about the general process you go through when you choose titles to highlight and preserve. What is the magic combination you’re looking for?

It’s always a tough decision that’s usually levied by a combination of factors, all subjective. I try to work on the films that I find the most interesting, or filmmakers whose work I really enjoy. But you can’t run an archive based on taste, so we also factor in condition of the elements, rarity of the film, and, for better or worse, marketability. Some of my favorite movies have been financial disasters, while ones that I find dull and underwhelming have been hugely successful.

I know that you don’t use resources like grain and noise-reduction tools in order to preserve how the films would have looked when they originally screened in theaters. What does that aspect of preservation mean to you?

As archivists, we’re not here to alter an artist’s work. We want to bring it back to as close as it would have looked when it came out. For me, there’s no such thing as an acceptable level of digital manipulation of the image. You can’t take technology that didn’t exist when a film was made and use it to alter the way a film looks now. It never makes it look “better.” Of course, without digital restoration software, we’d be unable to remove so much of the image damage that we try to reverse. But to alter the very nature of the image is unconscionable.

When someone talks about a “film archive,” it sounds like this mysterious entity. What does Vinegar Syndrome’s physical archive look like?

Shelves and shelves of film. Dozens of pallets of unsorted film. We have literally thousands of movies. We get more in all the time. It’s a constant process of acquiring, inventorying, and prioritizing.

Tell me a little about your average customer. Who are they, how do they buy your films, and what do they buy most?

Good question! I don’t know, honestly. We have all sorts. I’m 25, and I think I’m younger than our average customer. Part of what makes us unique, getting back to the porn question, is that we don’t market our films as porn or sell through porn distributors — so we reach a type of audience that might not know we existed otherwise. I think our customers are mostly men and mostly in their 30s and 40s. I say this because we release a lot of films that came out on VHS in the ‘80s, and our customers were young then and likely first saw these films when they were in high school or maybe college. Now they’re into them in a different context, but they still want to see the types of films that they enjoyed decades ago.

Do you find it exciting to release these older, less homogenized types of pornography, as a sort of contrast to today’s porn? In other words: Is part of the joy of releasing these films the fact that they have more personality and are perhaps a little more sleazy — even if they have more cultural value than that?

I like sleaze, but that’s more of an aesthetic thing than a cultural one. I like films that feel rough, gritty, and create a strong sense of environment. But I also like films which are very well produced and professional in every respect. X-rated films run the gamut. A film like Champagne for Breakfast plays like a low-budget studio movie with hardcore sex. A film [like] Deep Tango plays like a weird, artsy underground film. And a film like Fantastic Orgy is pretty self-explanatory. The X-rated filmmakers working in the ‘70s and ‘80s were as unique in their aesthetics as their mainstream’ counterparts. It was an era of cinematic freedom for everyone, and the types of movies being made were the most varied and unique bunch in cinema history. Modern porn is all about formula and staying safe. I don’t feel that it’s more mainstream than it was 30-plus years ago, it’s just the butt of more online jokes. If anything, it’s far more insular today than ever before, with fewer actors doing crossover work between X-rated and mainstream movies, and fewer directors having real cinematic ambitions.

Anthony Spinelli

Can you elaborate on what you mean by “insular”? Many contemporary adult film stars direct movies, too. And the porn parody craze links adult entertainment to pop culture in a new way. Sex-positive advocate Cindy Gallop talks about porn in ways that suggest new and more inclusive strategies to making and digesting adult films.

Tell me a little about the politics and attitudes these golden-age adult filmmakers had towards sex and its representation in these films. What were they preoccupied by, and how did they approach their roles as adult filmmakers?

I use the word insular to describe modern porn because it seems very satisfied living on the peripheries of mainstream entertainment and almost allowing itself to become the victim of its own clichés. There are no more crossover movies, which is to say X-rated films that receive extensive attention throughout the mainstream media. Films like Deep Throat, Behind The Green Door, Misty Beethoven, and so many others were given the same cultural and critical attention as mainstream films of the era. You’re not gonna see the latest superhero parody from Vivid being reviewed in the New York Times. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, X-rated filmmakers fashioned themselves filmmakers who happened to shoot hardcore sex. People like Anthony Spinelli, Gerard Damiano, Chuck Vincent, Bob Chinn, and many others made their films with the same artistic integrity as their mainstream contemporaries. I’m not gonna dismiss all of the modern directors and say that none of them care, as many of them clearly do, but they’re beholden to formulas for virtually every aspect of their productions. It’s nice that many actors are now directing, but that doesn’t mean that what they’re making is all that exciting. Then again, I’m cynical when it comes to this stuff so take what I’m saying with a grain of salt.

In so far as sex, though, filmmakers in the ‘70s and ‘80s took a very diversified set of approaches to how they would integrate explicit material into their works. Some filmmakers did it begrudgingly, while others, the better ones, took the opportunity to comment on some aspect of the sex they were shooting, making the hardcore scenes indispensable from the rest of the film. They were often pretty radical, though, incorporating aspects of sex that remain taboo in modern porn, such as homosexuality in “straight” films, rape, pedophiles, non-fetishized portrayals of incest, etc. The sex wasn’t always there to turn you on. In fact, it’s pretty 50/50, with most filmmakers using some of the explicit content in their works to be decidedly anti-erotic.

What motivated that urge to provoke? Why push those types of boundaries? Simply artistic temperament or statement?

It very much depended on the filmmaker. I’ll use Alex de Renzy as a perfect example of the type of director who seems to have delighted in making films that shocked or at least made audiences feel uncomfortable. He was a documentarian by background who fell into X-rated films almost accidentally. His sensibilities as a director of narrative films always seemed to be based around an angle or a hook, perhaps a nod to his non-fiction beginnings. His films covered a lot of really nasty topics, such as rape, kidnapping, and other aberrant types of sex in a way that can almost be interpreted as mockingly dismissive, but De Renzy was a smart guy who was very obviously pulling his viewers strings to get them to think about the subjects he was exploring. He was also a filmmaker who loved shooting sex, and as such, his eye for sexually-themed camerawork and direction is remarkably astute, rendering so many of his sex scenes grossly erotic; they strive to turn on and disgust or shock at the same time. If nothing else, De Renzy was a product of the cinematic sexual revolution he was partially responsible for creating, even though he was regarded by many of his actors as rather square in attitude. But he was also a true underground filmmaker who took his work very seriously. I don’t know if this really answers your question, but I think that these filmmakers did what they did because they considered themselves filmmakers, artists, whatever. They took pride in their work and wanted to make things that were meaningful.

What role does nostalgia play in your customers’ purchases? Do you program your titles with the nostalgia factor in mind? That is, are there certain films or filmmakers you know will be a big draw because they appeal to your customers’ established interests or taste?

I’m not a big fan of nostalgia, and I try not to let nostalgic whims dictate releases at all. When we started releasing these films, we had no idea what sold — and to some extent, we still don’t. I tend to assume that our audience will gravitate toward weirder and more interesting stuff, but they seem to enjoy more run-of-the-mill titles equally as much, so I have no idea.

The [1971 cult film] The Telephone Book was one of your first decisive successes — a title that helped bring your company to promise. What do you have coming up that could be the next Telephone Book?

The Telephone Book is so unique. It’s a film I’ve loved for years, ever since it was recommended to me nearly a decade ago. It epitomizes why this stuff is so important, because of the radical creativity that went into making them. I was hoping the totally non-X-rated film Runaway Nightmare would be a midnight hit. It’s way better and genuinely funnier than the ironic nonsense everyone seems to love to make fun of. But I don’t really try to groom films to be cult hits. And I hate ironic viewings.

Who are the filmmakers you’ve established a rapport with? I’ve heard that [gay porn pioneer] Wakefield Poole is very involved in the preservation and release of his films. Does this make it easier or harder to get to the finish line with a title?

Wakefield is great and very easy to work with. Really, everyone we’ve worked with who directed stuff we’ve put out is easy. Bob Chinn, for example, is one of the nicest filmmakers I’ve ever spoken with. He’s grateful to see his work restored. Sadly, so many filmmakers whose titles we’ve released are dead. And that’s sad, because so few of them were given a chance to be loved for their contributions when they were making movies. So, it’s always nice to get the nod of approval from the creators of these films.

You’ve acquired a couple of titles from Troma, an indie company that’s essentially built a brand around their scrappy, low-budget works. Your philosophies seem parallel, but they are an established brand. How did you find working with them?

Lloyd [Kaufman] and Michael [Herz] are awesome. Very easy to work with and always full of great stories to share. What I really appreciate about Troma is their fuck-everything attitude and that they treat every film in their library as a valuable work of art. More studios should take that stance.

vinegarsyndrome

Your streaming site is an exciting development. And I see it’s changed from Skinaflix — focused on sexploitation and X-rated films — to VinegarSyndrome.tv — offering works in all genres. I know the fundraising campaign is still in the works, but can you update us where things are at with the project?

It’s going well. We’re already putting everything in motion to get it launched by mid-May. The shift from all-X to all-inclusive was simply a way to ensure that we could stream everything we have in one place. There will be settings where you can choose to look at all X, all non X, or everything. All the other structural components that were going to be offered through Skinaflix will remain.

How will your new label Etiquette Pictures differ from Vinegar Syndrome?

Etiquette is essentially our attempt to do a label to focus on films that don’t fit the VS mold of exploration/sleaze, but are still weird, unique, and come from the same radical and underground spirit — a common thread linking all the titles in the VS catalog. We have a lot of great stuff coming, including a couple of notorious and controversial films, one of which had been called “pornographic.” It’s gonna give us a chance to expand, which is something I’m always into because it suits another one of my agendas, that is, placing X-rated films next to “art house” films and saying “they’re all valid.”

deephunger

I’ve heard that many of the films you’ve distributed have found their way to you, and that you haven’t necessarily sought them out. But what are your Holy Grail titles?

So many. More than I could list. It’s more so missing films by directors I love — like more early Spinelli films. I’m always on the lookout for X-rated murder mysteries. A big one is My Deep Hunger. There are so many lost films that sound fantastic, I can’t even begin to start. Oh, the all-male X-rated Exorcist ripoff: Sex Demon. That one sounds excellent.