Jack Stevenson's vault of vice

Michael Fox September 28, 2006

The century-plus history of movies is strewn with all sorts of celluloid oddities that defy mainstream tastes, recognized social mores and, more often than you might expect, human logic. Ed Wood, David Lynch and John Travolta (“Battlefield Earth”) are too familiar to warrant inclusion in this discussion — we’re talking way out there. Fortunately, there’s a dedicated coterie of collectors and historians who seek out the most bizarre artifacts of filmdom, and deign to wow us from time to time with the fruits of their excavations. Archivist and writer Jack Stevenson, whose numerous books include “Camp America,” a collection of essays about and interviews with John Waters and George and Mike Kuchar, and “Dogme Uncut: Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, and the Gang That Took on Hollywood,” is one such connoisseur of the craven. An American expatriate who’s lived in Copenhagen since 1993, Stevenson makes his near-annual pilgrimage to San Francisco this week for a flurry of shows teeming with goodies from his personal vault. Whether you’re looking to get in the mood for Halloween, or simply in need of an antidote to Hollywood blandness, Captain Jack will get you high tonight.

What I mean is that Stevenson kicks off his visit with a double bill of “Sex, Drugs and Witchcraft” Saturday night, Sept. 30, at Oddball Film & Video in the Mission. The opening program, “Films with Roots in Hell: The Effects of Drugs on American Cinema,” is a synapse-popping compendium — on 16mm — of scenes, shorts, trailers and outtakes spanning some six decades, from “The Mystery of the Leaping Fish” (1916), with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. playing Det. Coke Ennyday (!) in a silent-era script by Tod Browning (“Freaks”), to “LSD: Case Study,” produced by Lockheed in 1968 as a helpful warning to its employees. Stevenson will make a few introductory remarks and take questions at the end of the show, drawing on the wealth of knowledge he packed into his book, “Addicted: The Myth and Menace of Drugs in Film.”

Sticking with the theme of altered states of consciousness, Stevenson’s late-night show consists of “Witchcraft Through the Ages,” the macabre 1922 masterwork of Danish director Benjamen Christensen. Ostensibly a documentary on devil worship, replete with recreations of such shocking incidents as nude witches doing tango with devils, this spellbinding silent film must have made quite an impression on God-fearing Danes back in the day. The version that Stevenson is showing was reedited by beat Anthony Balch in 1967 to include — as if Christensen’s vision wasn’t sufficiently scary — a narration by William Burroughs and the experimental jazz stylings of Jean-Luc Ponty and Daniel Humair.

Stevenson shifts locations, and vices, for his Oct. 5 and 7 shows at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. “Swinging Scandinavia: How Nordic Sex Cinema Conquered the World” is a two-night, full-body immersion into the heady early days of the sexual screen revolution. It began in Europe, of course, and had a controversial reception in the repressed U.S. of A. Stevenson devotes the first evening, “Totally Uncensored,” to a lecture-and-clips presentation that tracks the progression from benign Swedish naturalist (or nudist) films to hard-core odes to hedonism. It’s well known that American audiences made hits out of foreign films such as “I Am Curious (Yellow)” not because of the plots, performances, or sexual politics, but because they featured the nudity and carnality missing from Hollywood movies. Stevenson expounds on the deeper social context of the late ’60s, with a special nod to the bluenoses who lamented the end of Mom, apple pie, and civilization.

Even in Europe, there were those who viewed sexual freedom as a threat to the underpinnings of society. Danish director Knud Leif Thomsen made “Venom” in 1966 as an indictment of pornography; it had the opposite effect, alas, contributing to the elimination of censorship. An insolent hedonist begins an affair with a young woman, and persuades her to let him film their trysts. He later shows the footage to her mother, and provokes her father with a pornographic book. Needless to say, the family structure hasn’t a chance against this insidious force. Paging Michael Haneke: Remake rights may be available.

While Thomsen’s film was trimmed by the censors before it reached American movie houses, Annelise Meiniche’s “Without a Stitch” was released uncut just a couple of years later. It’s an audacious tale of a female hitchhiker who hits the road in search of sexual experiences; no further synopsis is necessary. Heaven knows how many minds were permanently damaged by exposure to this radically immoral work, which may yet retain the power to corrupt any innocents wandering into YBCA. This Oct. 7 double bill is a heckuva way for Stevenson to wrap his shameless weeklong affront to San Francisco sensibilities. Let’s hope he comes back soon.