Let’s face it. Cinephiles are strange. While the casual viewer may take in a feature on Friday and forget it by Wednesday, cinephiles feel deprived if their new favorite release doesn’t include 65,000 hours of featurettes. We spew ones and zeros into the ether of Twitter when reviewers pan our cherished films. The movie alone is enough for most, but we film fans aren’t satisfied until we’ve consumed, digested, and expelled every single facet of the experience. We write about the movies we love. We talk about them constantly. We rewatch. We champion. We deride. We spend hours conspiratorially connecting the dots between plot points and social mores. After years of being part of this insatiable group, I’ve come to one conclusion. We cinephiles don’t just want to know movies; we want to feel like we’re a part of them. In some way, we want to be the films we love.
Although he probably wouldn’t have used the term, Bill Landis was a cinephile. And now film fans have the chance to get to know the legendary writer and actor in a new book by Preston Fassel out December 7, 2021 from Encyclopocalypse Publications.
Landis: The Story of a Real Man on 42nd Street details Landis’ extraordinary journey from indie film journalist to legendary porn star to sometimes-venerated historian. The book begins with the same personal perspective from Fassel as Landis frequently employed in his film writing. For both Fassel and Landis, it’s not just about the film, it’s about the experience that surrounds it. Like so many fans, Fassel first discovered his passion for exploitation movies as a child. Unaware of the larger history of grindhouse filmmaking, the young Fassel was left with questions that will sound familiar to like-minded sleaze freaks. “Where had it come from? What did it mean?” Pursuing these answers lead the young Fassel on a personal odyssey into the salacious history of 42nd Street and eventually into the proverbial arms of Bill Landis. Landis is the result of Fassel’s passion as much as Bill’s, and the devotion and respect for the man in question is evident on every page.
“Sleazoid wasn’t just about exploitation films, it was about the people who watched and made them, and the environment that preserved them.”
Told chronologically, Landis combines historical facts, the author’s perspective, and extensive quotes from Landis’ friends and collaborators to build a three-dimensional picture of a life devoted to cinema. Movie buffs will be particularly drawn to a young Landis’ founding of his infamous zine Sleazoid Express, a monthly publication that was equal parts film journal and anthropological study. In a time when grindhouse fare was considered disposable, Landis championed, critiqued, and immortalized the Deuce’s offerings while simultaneously documenting the dying subculture that surrounded it.
Another fascinating chapter focuses on Bill’s transformation into Bobby Spector, a porn star, who quickly rose to fame in the adult film industry for his ability to ejaculate on cue, along with other physically desirable traits. Many, likely fabricated, stories about the industry at that time tell tales of performers who fell into the trade through bad luck, broken dreams, or just a need for some quick cash. But not Bill Landis. As Fassel describes, Landis pursued porn with his trademark zeal, rising quickly through the ranks to become a ringer, of sorts, known for a “professionalism and onscreen competence that was bordering on legendary.”
This foray into sexploitation may seem surprising to readers, but Fassel reveals Landis’ perspective on pornography early in the book—a perspective which likely informed his decision. After publishing a successful interview in Fangoria, Bill pitched the magazine’s current editor on a column reviewing pornographic films. Fassel explains, “At the time, many gay filmmakers were relegated to making adult films if they wished to artistically express themselves.” Although the pitch was rejected, this detail of Landis’ life deepens the reader’s understanding of both the man and the era of filmmaking at the time.
Throughout Landis, Fassel paints an intricate and intimate picture of Bill’s passion for independent film scholarship with the same care that he devotes to describing the writer’s compulsive love for prank calls. This is a respectful and poignant portrayal of a singular man living in a legendary time for cinema and culture. But be forewarned, this tale trades in as much tragedy as comedy.
What is so striking about Landis is that for all the sensational aspects of Bill’s life, the pervasive tone is bittersweet. Landis struggled with substance abuse throughout his life, and some of the most impactful passages in the book are quotes from the man about that persistent battle.
“But the gnawing feeling that I was wasting my life reemerged. Although I thought the speedballs were preserving my youth, they were actually embalming me, and no matter what the medication, I’d see the hourglass again.”
Landis: The Story of a Real Man on 42nd Street is a celebration of a bygone era told through the journey of an exceptional man. Bill Landis wasn’t like other cinephiles, and yet, as the pages slip through your fingers, you’re bound to find a connection to him. His devotion to film, and the larger story it can tell about our collective history, was ahead of its time. So sit back, dim the lights, and let his story carry you away to the delicate, decaying world of the Deuce.
Landis: The Story of a Real Man on 42nd Street is out December 7, 2021 from Encyclopocalypse Publications.
Looking for more literary love letters to the silver screen? Check out Stephen Graham Jones’s My Heart is a Chainsaw.