Geoffrey O’Brien by Luc Sante

BOMB 65 Fall 1998
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Geoffrey O’Brien. Photo by Bob Day. Courtesy of W.W. Norton.

Geoffrey O’Brien is a poet and a cultural historian, and frequently he is both those things at once. His latest book, The Times Square Story, is a case in point. It’s a deceptively short and swift work, evoking the round-the-clock festival of junk culture and lyrical sleaze that Times Square was, by means of a nonstop breathless rant that contains the story of the making of a movie within a movie. Got that? The density of O’Brien’s work makes word count irrelevant as an index of substance; he is seemingly capable of compressing entire encyclopedias into his parenthetical asides. His first book of prose was the pioneering Hardboiled America (1981; revised edition 1997), which considered the drugstore paperback as a work of art, and set in motion the rediscovery of such writers as Jim Thompson and Kenneth Fearing. Dream Time(1988) is an entirely subjective history of the 1960s—it could be called a history of the emotions of the 1960s—as well as a 200-page prose poem that sets you down in the roiling middle of all those delirious currents of newness and exhilaration and doubt and paranoia. The Phantom Empire (1993) does something similar for the history of the movies. That is, it contains names and dates and a stop-and-go sense of chronology, but there the resemblance to any other history of the cinema ends. Instead it suggests a point in outer space where all the movies ever made are playing simultaneously, and where you are able to watch them attentively all at once, guided by O’Brien as the urbane disembodied narrator who employs his laser to trace dramatically unexpected connections. O’Brien’s prose is supple and fluid even while it now and then swerves way out over the lip of the chasm, his wit is bracingly dry, and sometimes you can feel a cloud of real sadness blow through. I defy you to name any precedent for what he does. He is a school unto himself.

Luc Sante It’s significant that The Times Square Story is set in that nebulous postwar decade, somewhere between 1947 and 1960.

Geoffrey O’Brien The outer limit is somewhere around 1964. My own moviegoing days on 42nd Street were heavily in the ’62 to ’68 era.

LS Did you slip away from home? Were your parents disapproving of your adventures in Times Square?

GO They knew where I was. I found it a very relaxing environment actually. What struck me—strikes me—about Times Square is the idea that you see everything at once. There’s an instant, total experience of everything laid bare. That, to me, was always the most exciting thing about going to the movies there. You never knew what would be playing since most of those theaters weren’t listed in newspapers. The only way to find out was to go. Looking down that street and seeing the row of marquees and words jumping out, all with the same lettering was like a weekly poem.

LS You say that everything was present at once—that’s the way the book is written, brilliantly, in the voice of the collective unconscious, this massive memory of received information. The reader never knows what will float to the surface next.

GO The book came about almost by accident. I was asked to speak at a conference in Vancouver on “Trash in America.” Times Square seemed the inevitable theme, and I started writing what was to be a descriptive essay. But in the process of describing the salient features, a story began to take shape—pretty much out of the materials of those movies. I was surprised at how spontaneous it turned out to be.

LS Times Square has been the madcap entertainment capital of the world since at least 1906. But there is a special potency to the postwar era. It seems like the one that will be engraved in collective memory; there’s an enormous subculture based on Times Square in the 1950s and ’60s—books, videos, CDs, Psychotronic …

GO It’s the old seediness, the old sordidness, which has a completely different meaning now. Part of what changed in Times Square was the advent of hard-core pornographic movies at the end of the 1960s, which put the previous movies in a very different light. It’s as if everything up to that point had been a long, complicated tease and then finally the tease was over. The character of Times Square changed drastically in the ’70s; by the early ’80s it was a pretty scary place. It certainly was a different place to walk around in than it had been in the ’60s. Having grown up in suburban Long Island, I had never seen anything like that. There was really a sense of, Oh, this is the culture I live in. This is what our culture is really thinking about underneath everything else: gigantic forms, enormous shapes, all the hot buttons being pushed, the beautiful unsubtlety of everything. At the same time, there were all kinds of strange subtleties to be discovered. I’m thinking about the movies I watched in the ’60s, Italian horror movies, science fiction movies, all those spy movies that you and I both seem to have been marked by.

LS All the fake documentaries that were actually covers for smut.

GO Glimpses of exotic parts of the world turning up in movies that could have been made anywhere. Suddenly you’re seeing something that was shot in Turkey—or later on, one of the Shaft movies filmed in Ethiopia.

LS Shaft in Africa.

GO It was startling. Suddenly you’re in Addis Ababa.

LS We’re on to the formalist part of this broadcast. The Times Square Story is written as one long sentence—definitely a speed-freak move there.

GO There didn’t seem to be any way to break it because it’s a story that goes on forever, a circular pattern; it starts with somebody alone in Times Square, it ends with the same guy alone in Times Square. All that’s happened in between is he’s seen the same stories going around, the same people leading lives inside the same cliché-ridden plots that they can’t escape from. I wanted to explore a fantasy about what it would have been like to help create the culture I absorbed in Times Square; to have somehow written, directed or acted in these movies; to have in some way assisted in this creation. Even though what they create is a replication of what they’ve seen—the people in this book don’t seem to be able to come up with any ideas that have not already been endlessly recycled. When they try to make a masterpiece, they end up with Suburban Swingers, the standard soft-core sex movie of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Someone asked me if there was ever a movie with that title, and I replied that since there were hundreds of movies made on that theme, it would be difficult for there not to be.

LS When you were 14 years old and hanging around 42nd Street, did you have similar ambitions? Did you want to grow up someday to work on these B- or C-grade movies?

GO I went so far as to write a screenplay for an exploitation movie which never got into production, a truly terrible movie about a nuclear apocalypse, in the vein of Roger Corman’s films, The Day the World Ended kind of thing. A friend of mine and I had ambitions to break into the business. We came up against our limitations.

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Reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton from The Times Square Story. Courtesy of Geoffrey O’Brien.

LS The look of the book is very striking. This is not just an illustrated volume. The pictures are part of the narrative. Were you involved in the design?

GO Not the design, but in the selection of images. The designer Alexander Knowlton put it all together. The images were chosen to match the words and recreate the experience that the people in the book are having—of entering this space where they are bombarded with images and stories. It was all part of that incredible film culture that included a great many European movies often disguised as American movies. Directors like Antonio Margheriti and Mario Bava would be billed as Anthony Dawson and John Foam, for instance. That was one of the secrets of Times Square, that so much European material was on display there, simply because it was cheaper. The theaters on Broadway had American movies, and around the corner you saw the Italian and Spanish and French movies … and of course all the English horror movies. That wonderful mix of sex, horror, espionage—which were the pillars of early ’60s exploitation filmmaking. Times Square was American fantasy laid bare. It had a formal resemblance to the rest of the culture, but it simply went beyond what you would see on television or even comic books—especially since comic books had been cleaned up somewhat by the mid ’50s.

LS That evokes wonderful period euphemisms, such as “art film.” “Art film” used to connote a C (for “condemned”) rating from the Legion of Decency. Now the term implies something really boring that nobody wants to sit through. But there was a mystique about European culture during the postwar era, when the Olympia Press was publishing forbidden books. It wasn’t all just semi-pornography, though, it was also the European reinvention of American culture.

GO On very late-night television for instance, you’ve got all the German crime movies from the early ’60s, the Edgar Wallace adaptations with Klaus Kinski.

LS You have to have some knowledge of that whole body of movies to know what Fassbinder was making fun of. Don’t you think it’s time—since we don’t have the old Times Square anymore—that someone start the appropriate cable channel?

GO I think there should at least be a museum of Times Square in Times Square, complete with a screening room to dip into the many great movies that were shown there.

LS The cable channel has something to be said for it, though. Then you can cater to the sickly, pale-skinned set. You’d have to hire ex-racetrack announcers or VD-scare documentary narrators. This makes me think about how everyone over 35 is in complete thrall to nostalgia these days. I’m certainly not immune to it; I don’t know anybody who is.

GO It’s unavoidable because how could we have known that the particular assortment of what we think of as early ’60s culture—the movie theaters, the bookstores—would completely disappear. That moment we’re talking about was an unusual one. Looking back, that particular kind of sordidness was based on values which were supposedly transformed at the end of that decade. Nothing will ever seem quite that forbidden.

LS Do you, like me, find yourself ironically wishing that there were more overt repression at large in the world because then it would give culture something to fight against that was at least three-dimensional?

GO There was a tension in those movies, a silent battle as to precisely how far one could go. That’s where the battle was actually being fought. And then the battle was basically won, but it didn’t lead to the kind of results people expected.

LS Another thing your book reminds me of is the Frank O’Hara poem that begins, “Mothers of America, let your children go to the movies!” It puts the locus of erotica not just on the screen but in the seats.

GO The theaters themselves were theaters of activity, and that was part of it. The interaction of the audience with the movies was livelier than you’d find elsewhere—the kinds of theaters where the audience would be on the side of the Indians instead of the Cowboys.

LS I have fond memories of the audience cheering for the ants in Empire of the Ants.

GO I remember seeing The Searchers. Every time Henry Brandon as Chief Scar appeared on the screen there was not exactly applause, but a murmur of approval. It came regularly to the Times Square Theater, which only showed Westerns. That’s another amazing fact: up until the end of the ’60s a movie theater still existed in New York that only ran Westerns.

LS Have you written much fiction? Like this one, your previous books dissolve the line between fiction and non-fiction.

GO I have tried to weave a few true facts even into this hallucinatory monologue. I do like the idea of making stories in which the plot is the crisscrossing of all of these movies. That is where the stories are coming from; the people who are making them in the first place are absorbed in movies. Film history seems like a strange underground process of stories giving birth to other stories, with the actual filmmakers functioning as onlookers, watching a movie that is forcing itself on them and that they have no choice but to make. The movies the characters make are dictated by marketing, but also by the limits of their imagination. They’re trying to go the limit, and their limit is the content of Times Square—which was a definition of imagination on a certain level. Those were the stories and images that were available. It’s kind of a stunted imagination. Especially the sex movies in the pre-porn era, which were remarkably limited in terms of the kinds of situations they could imagine. It’s curious, because the early ’60s was supposed to be such a hedonistic and sensual era, but the sex movies being made and shown on Times Square were uniformly grungy and brutal—sex was unimaginable except within the context of violence and this unbelievably squalid atmosphere. This is where the European movies really came into their own. My God, you’d go to see The Lovers by Louis Malle, and the people actually looked like they were having fun. This was such a revelation compared to the really cheap black-and-white movies shown in the 42nd Street grind houses, which were essentially violent little melodramas with some nudity. The total unpleasantness of the world that they depicted was quite frightening. Seeing these movies in the ’60s, just as the love generation was beginning to emerge, was the perfect emblem, the opposite of love—this hell on earth where there is no love. Times Square took on this very sinister aspect of being the capital of soulless, perpetually unsatisfied desire, this endless flagellation.

LS Then there were the movies made for the Southern market, like the hillbilly genre, frequently with Conway Twitty on the soundtrack. Some of them were funny, some were grim, and a lot of them were sort of like Russ Meyer, although not as imaginative. They seem to take place on another planet.

GO Like Shanty Tramp, or the movies of Larry Buchanan, a Texas filmmaker who was famous for total ineptitude. They talk about Ed Wood, but Larry Buchanan was infinitely more inept. Buchanan would do frame by frame remakes; he would take a Roger Corman science fiction movie and basically do it over again with even cheaper special effects. He made The Eye Creatures and Zontar: The Thing from Venus, which I think was an uncredited remake of It Conquered the World; they are unbelievably static. He made Corman’s movies look like important productions by comparison. In the wake of the Ed Wood phenomenon, so many other filmmakers like them have been discovered. There’s a video company, Something Weird, devoted to distributing the deeply unpleasant ‘60s exploitation movies I was attempting to describe. They must be very popular now, because it seems to be 50 percent of the stock at Kim’s Video. But the idea is frequently a lot more entertaining than the reality.

LS That’s why I think collections of trailers are the best. Then you get one-minute versions of these movies.

GO Trailers were the epitome of the Times Square experience anyway, because they always promised more than you could reasonably expect. No matter whether it was sex, mystery, or spectacle. Spectacle was another genre that fascinated me at the time and continues to have enormous resonance. Like the Italian Hercules movies, and the whole Maciste thing, what they call “sword and sandal.” I wrote a cycle of poems based on that imagery. Again, it’s the European connection. As a teenager, I spent a summer in Grenoble studying French, and those were practically the only movies being shown. There was a very rich era in Italian filmmaking in the early 1960s—the Hercules cycle wore out in ’63 or ’64, to be replaced first by James Bond knockoffs and then the spaghetti Western.

LS And let’s not forget, of course, Italian science fiction, a small but select genre.

GO Wonderful. Have you ever seen Wild, Wild Planet? That affected me as much as any movie I saw in the 1960s. We share an obsession with cultural archeology, the notion that we are living collages of all this material that we’ve absorbed and, in a more complex way, that others have absorbed before us. It isn’t simply the movies we’ve seen, but the movies that our parents saw, that our friends saw, that we heard about from other people. They are sometimes more tantalizing than what we’ve actually seen. Part of life becomes seeking these out and trying to recapture what they must have been like at the time.

LS It’s the search for the movie that was seen by the guy who made the the movie that was in turn seen by someone else, etc. It’s an infinite regression. That seems to be, in essence, the cultural history of the 20th century.

GO It’s easy to sentimentalize these things. Most cheap movies are pretty boring. I love B Westerns, but a steady diet of them would send you around the bend. A lot of what’s exciting about these movies is the life they have in the mind afterwards and the recombinations, distortions and reinventions, that take place in memory and imagination. It was precisely because they were so free of any obligation to be real. The utterly fantastic level. I particularly prize the Italian ones, because they didn’t make any bones about the fact that they were existing in the world of dreams. Now even dream material has become so drearily monumental that it’s hard to get the same kind of pleasure out of it.

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Reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton from The Times Square Story. Courtesy of Geoffrey O’Brien.

LS It occurs to me that your aspirations to become part of that world, to make Times Square-bound movies yourself, would never have happened because you couldn’t have satisfied yourself with writing one or five or ten of these movies—any of them would have been limiting. What you really wanted was to make all of these movies simultaneously.

GO (laughter) A compilation tape. In a way that’s what I’m trying to do in The Times Square Story and The Phantom Empire. What if you could do that? What if you could somehow combine all of these elements and achieve a kind of ultimate alchemy? Poetry attracted me because it was the cheapest form of filmmaking. You could evoke epic landscapes and casts of thousands without having to spend a dime.

LS You are every member of the production crew.

GO I do think that’s what movies were about for everybody on the planet for most of the 20th century. They were a source of things to dream about and to play with after the fact. Actually seeing the movies was fun, but just as much fun was had afterwards. For children that was almost the point of the movies, to provide material for play.

LS I’m struck by the fact that the pitches for so many of these movies were directed not to any probable member of the audience but rather to some straight American Joe with wife and kids. There’s always a straw consumer. And the filmmakers, while cynical as all hell, were still not as knowing as the average 12-year old today.

GO They weren’t all that knowing, except for the fact that they realized that certain ingredients are surefire. If those ingredients are in the movie they don’t have to worry about much of anything else. That’s one of the weird things about those early exploitation movies; most are so bad precisely because they’re not terribly concerned with structure or suspense or any of the values that today are routinely respected by even the lowest-level filmmakers. People nowadays have all read books on how to write a good screenplay, three-act structure, central conflict and all this stuff. Whereas Ed Wood and company were just making it up scene by scene. All they knew was that they had to have a certain amount of nudity, a certain amount of violence, a certain amount of shock value, and the rest was left to chance.

LS Which is why they can seem avant-garde today by comparison. The experience of Times Square is an innocent depravity.

GO We’re feeling a nostalgia for ugliness, for sordidness, for a kind of profound deprivation which on one level was that Times Square experience: it’s about loneliness. This is what it is to be this isolated, desperate, hungry person surrounded by these glaring images and trying to reach out to them for companionship and getting the same old terrible movie over and over again. It really is a closed circle.

LS In part it’s been refracted through movies about movies, commercials, whatever. We see ourselves wearing that raincoat and getting our sustenance at Orange Julius and seeing the 37th remake of Fort Apache—you can imagine the way it’s lit, right? There’s the steam coming up from the street and there’s the saxophone somewhere in the background. It has entered a state of objectification.

GO But part of it was this sense of the sheer inadequacy of what was being given. The overpowering come-on and then you pay your money and what do you get? You get some grimy, poorly lit thing.

LS Bait-and-switch is a major part of the history of American entertainment going back to the 18th or early 19th century—the dime museum. “Live Naked Women” turns out to be an embryo in a jar.

GO But then the other side of it is, every now and again you get something you weren’t looking for—something weird, poetic, really affecting that stays with you for years and years and sneaks into your dreams.

LS Which certainly wasn’t intended by its creator.

GO Yes and no. Mario Bava and some of the Italians were deliberate in what they were doing. I think it’s the luck of the draw. If you’re just going to see every movie about slashers, you’ll have to see a lot of them before you get to one with some kind of poetic life. That was it, the lottery, the randomness of the beauty when it did show up. It was all the more striking because you never knew what was going to happen or how it was going to affect you. You could have just as easily seen something that was really going to bring you down. I remember the biker movie cycle, which peaked around ’68. Movies like Born LosersAngels from Hell. One night I went down to Times Square to see some movie where someone was burned alive, which in 1967 was very disturbing. Now it’s so commonplace that we don’t even blink.

LS That reminds me of another apparent last moment of the Times Square idiom, in the late ’70s, the business about snuff movies. It was a real buzz because nobody could figure out whether there were movies circulating in which people were actually killed.

GO Rumor is such a potent thing. As a kid I didn’t see many horror movies because frankly they scared the pants off me. I heard horrific accounts of what went on in some of these movies, and I still have not seen some of them because I know all too well what happens in a particular scene. I think that may be the ultimate power of movies, the power that is relayed through other people’s responses—a kind of folklore.

LS I did see a lot of horror movies as a kid, but I always saw them with four or five kids. We were all scared so we made fun of the movie, collectively defusing the horror. I’m sure that went on among the adults in Times Square movie houses as well.

GO Whistling in the dark.

LS People screaming from the audience before the thing happens, that was always a key deflationary move.

GO Or cheering on the mad doctor. You also get the pure sadist contingent rooting for the slasher. I think Times Square had more than its share of those folks.

LS Those movies from back then, where you may not have seen any actual violence, do seem more sinister than the kind of overkill I’ve seen subsequently.

GO It becomes an exercise in special effects—you’re there to admire the technology that made it possible to simulate this particular act of torture.

LS Now, in a way, Times Square is everywhere.

GO Times Square was a kind of zoo of images which are available everywhere now. There is almost no more need for Times Square in the same way there was no need for porno theaters after video came out. You rent movies now about mad doctors dismembering people or people being held in South American prison camps or whatever your particular fancy is. So Times Square is everywhere in this sort of disembodied form, but without the smoke, without the hot dogs, without the peripheral population of people which made it human and which made it seem like part of the world. Now it seems like some weird hyperspace culture of self-replicating images.

LS That is the shape of the future. All of culture is disembodied. You and your 75 friends on the Internet who are interested in H0-scale railroads have never actually met. In city after city, whatever was the equivalent of Times Square is gone, though you can see its vague outline. I was in Seattle last month and realized my hotel was on what used to be that strip. You could tell because across the street there was still one pawn shop and one gun shop. All the movie theaters were gone.

GO I had a similar experience in San Jose, which has otherwise been dismantled and rebuilt as a theme park called Downtown San Jose. I went wandering and found a strip with some funky little stores that were selling bizarre memorabilia and old knickknacks. That general air of rotting paper is always a clue you’re getting near. The only beautiful building I saw in San Jose was a battered old movie theater, which I was told was the subject of a massive political struggle between the people who wanted to preserve it and the developers who wanted to tear it down. It had become the battleground for the preservation of some kind of ancient, sleazy, downtown culture.

LS Times Square responded to development and to the Giuliani administration sometime in January when that building collapsed, the one with the sign painted on it: Go See a Movie Today. Your book has wonderful pictures of lost things: the magic-trick store near the corner of 42nd and Seventh.

GO And the old arcade with all those wonderful pinball games. There really is a lot under that rubric. It was very close to being an amusement park.

LS I’d go have my picture taken in the photo booth in Hubert’s Museum. The freaks were gone but I think there was still the flea circus.

GO I saw the flea circus at Hubert’s Museum when I was a little boy. That was my big thrill. It made more of an impression than the Empire State Building.

Luc Sante is the author of Low LifeEvidence, and, most recently, The Factory of Facts.

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BOMB 65, Fall 1998

Featuring interviews with Yusef Komunyakaa & Paul Muldoon, Ian McKellen, Sam Taylor-Wood, Thomas Nozkowski, Geoffrey O’Brien, Alexander Nehamas, and Mark Richard.

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