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Sinister Sinema

Scalarama: A Celebration of Subterranean Cinema at Its Sleazy, Slimy and Sinister Best, ed. Norman Foreman, B.A. (TransVisceral Books 2015)

The Scala Cinema. Long gone, much lamented. By Garry Guggan, TransVisceral C.E.O., among many others. He was a regular attendee at this London locus of the teratic and tenebrose. So he’s asked another regular attendee – Norman Foreman, B.A. – to compile a book of interviews and reminiscences for the benefit both of those who share fond memories of the Scala and of those who never had the chance to become acquainted with its unique mixture of the sleazy, the slimy and the sinister. As a taster for the book – due out next year – here are some extracts from an interview Norman has conducted with Phil Barbarelli, an actor from New York who was a dedicated member of the Scala Tribe…


Norman Foreman: The Scala has legendary status among keyly committed core components of the counter-cultural community. Can you explain what contributed to its feral appeal?

Phil Barbarelli: A trip to the Scala felt like a trip back to a 1950s 42nd Street “grind house” or ’60s Soho sleaze sinema or a below-the-Mason-Dixon-line drive-in or a back-room stag-film fest. It had a sticky floor, stale popcorn retro vibe that was catnip to outré film aficionados. It was a place where you could see an all-day festival of British nudie cuties and naturist films. Or a rare bargain-basement biker or slasher film. Where else would I have had the chance to meet the legendary Pamela Green or question the director of Tom Jones Meets Lady Godiva? Going to the Scala was a guilty pleasure. The only time I felt uncomfortable there was when they showed without warning a mercifully short bestiality film among some soft-core films. They should have warned us. I sensed that most of the audience felt that we had been compromised and our trust abused.

Norman Foreman: What was the Scala audience like?

Phil Barbarelli: The audience was mainly what were then (early ’90s) known as “slackers”. Hey, who else could afford to spend an entire workday in an itch house watching Grade-Z slasher films? Or spend an all-too-rare sunny Saturday in a smelly, dark room watching British naturist films? There were also out-of-work actors (is there another kind?), musicians and the occasional dirty-mac wearer. The latter were bound to be disappointed by the relatively tame material. And, I saw a few City Gents complete with bowler hats and rolled umbrellas.

The audience was almost entirely male with a few bored/bewildered chicks dragged along on dates. The behaviour was the same as you’d see in any cinema. But on special occasions, e.g. Q&A sessions or book-signings, people would be a bit chatty. But most folk were anxious to maintain a “hipper than thou” aloof demeanour. Did I dream it or did some of them watch the films with their sunglasses on? Most dressed in black or T-shirts decorated with the names of bands you never heard of.

Norman Foreman: You are of Italian heritage and had a Catholic upbringing. How far do you think this has fed into your purulent passion for the teratic and tenebrose?

Phil Barbarelli: Speak English! But, yes, Roman Catholicism does tend to warp a young man’s mind. It’s full of guts and gore and it taught us that sex was dirty while at the same time making us obsess about it. It was a nun who asked us at the age of seven if we ever had impure thoughts or had committed impure acts with members of our family or animals. Well, I certainly hadn’t thought about it until she gave me the idea. And, I’m happy to report that incest and bestiality remain outside my ken.

But, I was also influenced/damaged by seeing old-fashioned Coney Island freak shows. And, by growing up in the very lurid atmosphere of 1950s Brooklyn. Read Henry Miller and look at the photos of Weegee to get an idea. It was technicolor, violent, vibrant, funny, sexy, beautiful, ugly – all at once.

But, I find that kitsch and trash are often more entertaining and instructive than middle-brow crap. Case in point: Henry – Portrait of A Serial Killer is a more frightening, powerful and truthful film than The Silence of The Lambs. Guess which I saw at The Scala? So, I enjoy and continue to nurture my interest in all things off-beat. And, the Catholic rule to not look/read/listen to something spurs me to look/read/listen to anything I like. So there.

Norman Foreman: You mentioned seeing a genuine autopsy film on a big screen in NYC. Please say more.

Phil Barbarelli: A hipster cinema in Tribeca showed a film called Autopsy. It was a B&W film of an actual autopsy shot by one of the first “under-ground” filmmakers, whose name escapes me. He had a friend who worked in a NYC morgue and that friend arranged the filming with the stipulation that the corpse remain anonymous. In fact, the dead person may have been a “John Doe”. It was interesting to see how few of the hipsters lasted through the film. Several ran for the toilets, retching as they ran. Imagine if it had been in colour. The same thing happened at The Scala when it showed a double bill of Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Henry. This was the un-edited version of Henry and not cleaned for general viewing.

Massacre was a giggle. Henry was truly terrifying. The “not so tough” trendies headed for the exit.

Norman Foreman: You’ve talked about the “Catholic gaze”. What about the “male gaze”? Didn’t you see something interesting at a strip-show?

Phil Barbarelli: I saw many interesting things at strip-shows. (Ba-da-boom.) I think you mean the demonstration of the male desire to see what he should not. I was at a strip-show on 42nd street in the era of the film Taxi Driver. NYC was at its sleaziest. The strippers would end their act by putting a dirty rug/mat on the front of the stage floor and lie down on it and spread their legs showing everything they had. You could see their tonsils. They would often masturbate or pretend to. Some would allow men to come up and taste their charms for an additional fee. This was a popular pastime for Japanese tourists.

But, directly upstage of them was a door leading to the dancers’ dressing room. Sometimes as a girl was downstage displaying her charms this door upstage would open. When it did, every man in the audience would take his eyes off the woman’s vagina to sneak a look at what he was not supposed to see in the back room.

Norman Foreman: How often in New York did you see films with gimmicks, like The Tingler?

Phil Barbarelli: My childhood (’50s and early ’60s) was the heyday of the gimmick films made by William Castle and others. I was too young to see House of Wax starring Vincent Price, which was the first major 3-D movie. But, my brother gave me his 3-D glasses and told me how things seemed to jump off the screen. There were also 3-D comic books that came with a set of glasses. Trying to read these comics without the glasses was an early psychedelic experience.

All the kids in my Brooklyn neighborhood would go to the “pitchers” on Saturdays to see triple bills with the main movie almost always a horror film.

We got the Hammer films and many low-budget British horror films – X – The Unknown, Horror of The Black Museum – “filmed in hypnovision”. This movie seriously terrorised a generation of children. It’s the only horror film I saw that I think should not have been shown to anyone under 18.

When the skeletons flew over our heads in The House on Haunted Hill we threw things at them. We wore special glasses to see the ghost in 13 Ghosts and we loved The Tingler.

In the late ’80s, an art house in Tribeca showed The Tingler with the original buzzers attached to the seats. They gave a very mild shock, akin to the joke hand-shake buzzers.

By coincidence, in 2013 I was in a terrible play in the West End that was supposed to be a comic homage to Castle and the gimmick horror films. We squirted the audience with “blood” in the dark and threw “insects” on them. My character was loosely based on Castle. I made an oblique reference to The Tingler. This line got a very few knowing laughs. It was obvious that this genre of gimmick film was not well known enough for a comic homage to work.

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Front cover of In the Seventies by Barry MilesIn the Seventies: Adventures in the Counterculture, Barry Miles (Serpent’s Tail 2011)

This book needs an ad break. Barry Miles didn’t have adventures: he made ventures. And pretty dull ones. Which is disappointing, when you consider that Serpent’s Tail have previously published counter-cultural colossi like Stewart Home (Thighway to Mel: Six Years, Eleven Months and Eighteen Days as a Terrified, Traumatized and Tearful Toy-Boy Tonguing the Tepid and Toxic Tvotzke of Top Social Conservative Melanie Phillips), radical researchers like Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (Doubled Slaughter: Barbarism, Brutalism and Bestial Bloodlust in the Music(k) of Simon and Garfunkel, 1965-2010) and visceral visionaries like David M. Mitchell (A Sustainable Future: Fourth Annual Report to the Welsh Parliament on Renewable Energy Resources). But Miles isn’t a key/core component of any of those communities, i.e., he’s not a counter-cultural colossus, a radical researcher or a visceral visionary. Serpent’s Tail have been a bit dishonest too. The Clash are prominent on the front cover and are named first as “Legends of the Decade” on the back cover. But they don’t get a lot of space inside and Barry Miles doesn’t make them look very good:

I saw them a lot, at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, the Roxy in Covent Garden, in recording studios and rehearsal rooms. They never seemed to have any money. I was struck by the fact that after they played three sell-out nights at the Rainbow Theatre, I saw Bernie Rhodes pull away in a car with personalized number plates reading CLA5H, while Mick Jones was waiting for a bus outside. … Joe [Strummer] certainly went along with the posing and pouting – none of the other punk bands came anywhere near the Clash in terms of [where’s an Ex-term-in-ator! when you need one?] adopting classic rock ’n’ roll poses as soon as a photographer removed their lens cap, and the music rags were happy to print the pictures of the Clash looking moody in front of burnt-out buildings, in front of bare brick walls, the Clash in camouflage fatigues in Northern Ireland, the Clash posing in the same way that all of the pop groups of the sixties posed, in fact. Never a smile; they were masters of the moody profile, particularly Paul Simonon, who became a real pin-up in punk circles.

It paid off eventually, of course, and they went on to become one of the most successful bands of the era, a seventies equivalent of the Rolling Stones, until Joe took Bernie’s advice and sacked Mick Jones. With the only musically talented member of the band gone, the Clash degenerated into a parody of its old self and folded. (ch. 15, “1976: Punk”, pp. 229-30)

That The Clash ever degenerated is news to me. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible. Miles does say good things about The Damned and The Ramones – “I particularly liked the Damned because they injected humour into punk, something sadly lacking with bands like the Clash” (pg. 232) – but they get less space than The Clash, unfortunately. So do Paul McCartney and Patti Smith, also “Legends” on the back cover. Little space for Patti Smith is fine by me. None at all would have been even better. As for Ian Dury: he’s on the back cover but doesn’t seem to appear at all in the book. He’s not in the index and I didn’t come across him as I read. I could easily have missed him, because I skipped a lot, but it looks as though Serpent’s Tail promised something and didn’t deliver. In Ian Dury’s case, I’m not complaining.

However, I’m definitely dubious about this bit, where Miles describes a robbery he suffered while living in New York:

Inevitably, given where we lived, it was not long before we were robbed. One day we came back from the A&P supermarket at 8:30 in the evening, walked up the stairs to apartment 4C and, just as I was fiddling with the key, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I looked round to see the stubby barrel of a handgun held by a large black man. His partner was holding Ann [Buchanan, Miles’ girlfriend] against the wall at knifepoint. (ch. 4, “1970: Chelsea Days, pg. 61)

That was disturbing to read. I mean, is the so-called race of a so-called criminal ever relevant? And why does Miles have to say that he was “very scared” that “they might rape Ann”? That’s pandering to a vicious stereotype about blacks. Okay, it’s an accurate stereotype, but what does accuracy matter? Just because blacks commit a heck of a lot of violent crime doesn’t mean people should say that they do. If we stopped saying it long enough, perhaps they’d stop doing it for a bit. Or stop enjoying it so much. It seems unlikely, but it’s worth a try, surely. They’re driven to it by racism and injustice anyway. What else could it be?

But the black robber doesn’t get a lot of space either. No, Miles writes most about working as a kind of secretary-cum-archivist for Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. This is where the dullness really kicks in. Or nods off. I don’t like the writing of Ginsberg or Burroughs and their eccentric behaviour and lives – sorry, lifestyles – don’t do anything for me either. But if you’d like to hear about Allen’s long phone-calls to New York from the countryside and about how Bill’s flat in London got cold in the evenings because that’s when the storage-heaters stopped working, go ahead and make your own day.


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

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