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Praising Arizona

Underground Cinema 12

Artists have made profound use of real and imaginary subterranean worlds that promised places of mystery and a search for truth and power. This quest was mirrored in the excavations carried out by geologists, palaeontologists, anthropologists and archaeologists who sought, through their tunnelling, mining and drilling to unravel the ‘Mystery of lost time’. The excavations uncovered a truth about the world’s development; its strata and fossils exposed to the light a time before man, as archaeological digs exposed a hitherto unknown history of man.

The literal excavation of the underground produced a parallel set of ontological investigations. As Rosalind Williams observes, ‘both Marx and Freud depend so much on subterranean imagery that it is now virtually impossible to read a text about the underworld without filtering it through a Marxist or Freudian interpretation – without reading the buried world as the subconscious, or the working class.’
Peter Stanfield, 2011.12

‘I would never see a good movie for the first time on television.’
Jean-Luc Godard to Gene Youngblood,
March 15th 1968, Los Angeles Free Press.

Over three decades the Art Theatre Guild fostered artistic and technological innovation in American cinema-exhibition, cosmopolitan taste in the midst of cultural scarcity, and smut. Mostly smut, it must be said.

Sher was a distributor, theatre proprietor, film and Broadway producer, tireless opponent of censorship and frequent client of civil-liberties lawyer Alan Dershowitz. Despite exerting an invisible influence over the development of modern cinema, like his Kiva Theatre, Sher’s name is barely recalled in Scottsdale. When it is, it’s with a wry smile and a certain amount of fondness.

That his contribution to world cinema culture has barely been acknowledged is in large part due to the fact that he spent much of his career showing soft-core pornographic movies, with unequalled commercial success. As Executive Producer of the 3D skin flick ‘The Stewardesses‘, Sher oversaw the most profitable 3D film of all time. Made on a budget of $100,000, it eventually grossed over $27 million in 1970 money. This makes it one of the most profitable films ever, only recently superseded by James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’.

Sher is overlooked in histories of film not only due to the eventual decline of his business into this lowest common denominator logic, but also because his contribution to cinema was mainly as a businessman – albeit a huckster of genius, as well as taste and refinement – rather than as a director, writer or performer. Nonetheless, his business instincts were pivotal to shaping popular tastes and finding audiences for new film makers and genres.

In the early 60s, Sher brought foreign art films and bizarre fare like ‘Mondo Cane’ to post-beatnik hipsters in the South and Midwest, during a period of endless cowboy and Jerry Lewis movies. (“If You Never See Another Film, You Must See Mondo Cane!” Sher’s newspaper ads at the time declared. Famously, ‘Mondo Cane’ – which went on to spawn a franchise of exploitation travelogues – featured an old Italian woman breast feeding a baby pig).


Sher’s nephew Mike Getz also has an important part to play in this untold story of America’s emerging bohemian film-going tastes.13 Getz ran an eight-week festival of films at midnight – ‘Underground Cinema 12‘ – which toured his uncle’s theatres from the late 60s through the early 70s. Getz brought the work of underground film makers such as Jonas Meekas and Andy Warhol to wider audiences, as well as showing porn, rock concert films, Busby Berkeley musicals, W. C. Fields comedies, and oddities from the 30s and 40s like ‘Reefer Madness’ and Todd Browning’s circus horror classic ‘Freaks’.

‘Underground Cinema 12’ shares much of the credit for starting the midnight movie trend of the 70s, and for giving rise to the idea of cult cinema. Through revivals of screenings that Getz originated, such as Steve Wooley’s Scala cinema programming in London in the 80s, ‘Underground Cinema 12’ started a trend that would influence Channel 4’s early output of films and the direction of British movie-making for twenty years. A film like ‘Trainspotting’ that combines techniques from avant-garde film-making, rock music videos (especially for Iggy Pop), gritty social realism and pure exploitation (of Edinburgh’s drugs culture in the 90s) is a logical inheritor of ‘Underground Cinema 12’s’ eclectic approach.

Another spiritual descendent of Getz’s touring bill is Spectacle Theatre in New York: a thirty seat “goth bodega” housed in a disused shop on an average, if rapidly gentrifying, Brooklyn street. Spectacle Theatre has been improvised from a digital projector bolted to the ceiling with sheets of fibre board, a broken popcorn machine, faded velvet blackout curtains, and a rolling calendar of “overlooked works, offbeat gems,” contemporary art, radical polemics, and live performance. Spectacle is programmed by dedicated volunteers, many of whom met through social media and the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011. 

Spectacle Theatre’s British cousin is the ‘Scala Beyond‘ season of films in London’s endlessly proliferating improvised digital cinema scene, based around projection on the walls of small venues. The most recent Scala festival in September 2012 included a rare showing of Czech animator Karel Zeman’s near-perfect 1962 version of Baron Munchausen – not seen in public in Britain since a Channel Four television broadcast to coincide with Terry Gilliam’s film released in 1989 – exhibited for an appreciative public in room over a pub round the corner from the British Museum. There was a double bill in the Scala Beyond season of films starring the iconoclastic American actress Parker Posey at the Rio in Dalston. The Roxy near London Bridge screened a night of Giallo-influenced Italian slasher films.

Underground Cinema 12’s influence can also be felt in the catholic co-option of influences from grindhouse exploitation to Trauffalt in Tarrantino’s oeuvre, and those of his imitators and collaborators. John Waters, director of ‘Hairspray’ and ‘Pink Flamingos’, has credited the touring ‘Underground Cinema 12’ programme as the only way he could find distribution for his early films outside of his native Baltimore and his home-from-home, the gay enclave of Provincetown, MA.

The travelling ‘Underground Cinema 12’ programme originated from Sher’s Los Angeles Cinema Theatre at 1122 North Western Avenue, and became a central feature of the L.A. counterculture. From 1967, for many years the line of freaks attending the midnight shows extended several blocks down adjoining Santa Monica Boulevard.

Front page of issue #178 (Dec. 15-22, 1967) of the Los Angeles Free Press

Front page of issue #178 (Dec. 15-22, 1967) of the Los Angeles Free Press

An unintended consequence of the symbiotic relationship between midnight movies and the underground was to inspire journalists in that culture to create the L.A. Free Press, the formative underground newspaper. On 7th March 1964, the Hollywood Vice Squad had busted Getz in possession of a print of Kenneth Anger’s ‘Scorpio Rising’ and charged him with lewd exhibition. The subsequent trial (Getz’s conviction was overturned on appeal) was covered in the first issue of the Free Press, with articles by Seymour Stern and Jonas Meekas relating his own prosecution for showing Jack Smith’s ‘Flaming Creatures‘, and asserting the importance of opposing censorship and police oppression.14 By 1968, the paper carried a film review column that shared a name with ‘Underground Cinema 12’, written by Gene Youngblood, which did much to shape the counterculture’s relationship with cinema. (Among Youngblood’s most celebrated columns was one that embraced Kubrick’s trippy science fiction opus, a review with the title ‘2001: A Masterpiece.’)

The ‘Scorpio Rising’ bust was neither the first nor the only time that Sher’s business stood up to the censors. Through his Art Theatre Guild chain of cinemas, Sher had fought and won a landmark legal case in the 50s that went to the Supreme Court and established the limits of obscenity and artistic freedom in the USA, then as now considered by the global industry to be the most important single market for motion pictures.

On 13th November 1959, Nico Jacobellis, an Italian immigrant managing Sher’s Heights Art Theatre in Cleveland Heights exhibited Louis Malle’s ‘Les Amants’.15 Tame by today’s standards, it’s typical of the kind of titillating imported fare on which Sher established his chain. Brigitte Bardot’s table-top tango in Roger Vadim’s ‘And God Created Woman’ was another defining image of this period, when the self-censorship of Hollywood and the Conservative values of middle America dictated what could and couldn’t be shown in cinemas.

‘Les Amants’ contained scenes equally as shocking to moral guardians as Bardot’s sultry badinage: Jeanne Moreau has an orgasm on screen, and leaves her husband and child to run off with her lover. Jacobellis knew what he was doing (managing another of Sher’s Cleveland theatres, the Continental, he baited censors once again with the 1967 Swedish film ‘I Am Curious Yellow’). In 1959, ‘Les Amants’ was too much for the forces of public decency. Jacobellis was prosecuted for obscenity, and Sher and his lawyers fought the US Government censor all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1964, the court overturned his conviction with a landmark ruling that obscenity could not be based on a community standard, but required a nationwide standard that could be applied universally. In the course of the case, Justice Potter Stewart made the now-famous remark as he struggled to find a judicial definition of hard-core pornography.

“I know it when I see it,” he wrote, “and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

These boundaries are being tested once again with the distribution, legally and otherwise, of movies on the internet. The BBFC’s initial decision to ban ‘The Human Centipede’ sequel from general release in the UK only added to its notoriety and to people’s curiosity to see simulated acts of coprophagia and violent rape, that are only a few mouse clicks away. Meanwhile, the cinematic release of ‘Piranha 3DD’ in 2012 suggests that contemporary film-makers are no more imaginative than they were in 1970, when ‘The Stewardesses’ was released, in pushing the possibilities of 3D technology beyond the depiction of stereoscopic hooters.

Sher’s story is important because it’s about a businessman with relaxed but cultured tastes, relenting to the logic of the market. By all accounts he was always far happier to show the films of Louis Malle, Roger Vadim and Buñuel than of John Holmes. He fought many such cases to establish the principle that self-appointed community leaders couldn’t decide the limits of artistic expression, or for that matter the limits of crude lowest common-denominator sleaze.

But, especially with the growing pressure of home video in the eighties, the audience simply wasn’t there for classy European films featuring nudity and outré content. This meant that Sher had to show increasingly more hardcore material at his theatres. The line between pushing boundaries and pandering to the masses is always a difficult one to delineate, and even a supremely shrewd entrepreneur found it impossible to remain at the end of the spectrum where Russ Meyer and Bettie Paige would have felt more comfortable.

Even when Spielberg was growing up, the Kiva had a reputation for showing bawdier fare to an adult audience in the evening. In the 50s and 60s, while the theatre showed old kiddie pictures on Saturday mornings, by night sharp-suited hipsters and their girlfriends in elegant imported dresses stood at the ticket window, eager to check out foreign films featuring European starlets in various states of undress.

By the 60s, Scottsdale’s cognoscenti attended the Kiva to see the latest underground and hippie films from the East and West coasts. Traders along Main Street recall the Kiva Theatre with a smile. That there was a cinema showing adult films for almost three decades until 1993, on a row of stores selling Native art, cowboy boots and snacks, adds a frisson to an otherwise unprepossessing row of tourist shops.

The legacy of the Kiva and Sher’s Art Theatre Guild is as eclectic and far-reaching as the movies that were shown in the tiny auditorium: landmark civil liberties cases; common origins of underground cinema and midnight movies; the free press; as well as novelties which have nonetheless influenced cinema technology, like the staggering commercial success of ‘The Stewardesses’.16

It’s a lesson in the perils of a monoculture: Scottsdale has no shortage of jewellery stores selling turquoise necklaces and dream catchers; as the American South West’s economy waxes and wanes through a few more tourism seasons, and online shopping changes consumption habits inexorably, it’s unclear that they can all be sustained. Sher’s story also offers a lesson in the merits of a pluralist approach to culture. The potential overheads of digital film-making and distribution may be fractional compared with the industry’s analogue days, but nearby Hollywood also seems unable to learn the merits of pluralism and perils of monoculture. Like sense-a-rama, or the scratch-and-sniff cards accompanying John Waters’ ‘Polyester’, 3-D films have remained stuck in the mode of novelty. The nemesis of a ‘Napster moment’ for mainstream movie studios – that 3-D was meant to avoid – looms once again in their future.

At a Fortune magazine seminar in Colorado in July 2011, Dreamworks Animation chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg berated his industry for its short-sightedness and the overall quality of that year’s movies:

‘They suck. It’s unbelievable how bad movies have been […] I think Hollywood has managed to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory here […] There were, unfortunately, a number of people who thought that they could capitalize on what was a great, genuine excitement by movie goers for a new premium experience, and thought they could just deliver a kind of low-end crappy version of it, and people wouldn’t care, or wouldn’t know the difference.’17

There have to be reasons to visit a movie theatre, besides the opportunity to see Thor beating up CGI sentinel robots in 3D; reasons that are as much to do with the experience of being part of an audience as with the spectacle on screen.

Cinema exhibition serves a social and – dare I say it – spiritual function. It gets you out of the house, out of the privacy of your thoughts and cloistered living space. You become part of a drama within a drama: leaving your house or workplace, travelling through the natural and built environment, to a darkened hall to witness a story in the company of others. Cinema is an event. There is no pause button, smart phone or laptop to distract you. You make an appointment with a film projected on to a big screen. The cinema buildings that once bore names like the Orpheum, the Luxor, the Kiva betray the roots of theatre in hollowed out religious rituals.

In an exchange in 2010, David Lynch told the Guardian in response to this question ‘would you ever release a film just on your website’?

‘That’s where everything is heading very soon. It will just be downloads. But it doesn’t matter how people get hold of a film; as long as they can see it in the right way it will still be beautiful. If people can see a film on a big screen, with the lights low and good sound, then they still have the chance to enter another world. Some films do better on a small screen than others, but if you saw 2001 on a phone it would be just the most pathetic joke.’18

The convention of hushed silence and a darkened hall comes to us by way of Sir Henry Irving’s innovations in Victorian London theatre, influenced by his experience of Wagner’s opera house in Bayreuth, the hidden orchestra pit and raked seating designed so that his Ring cycle could take over your mind: the secular equivalent of a religious experience.

A renaissance in film exhibition requires a re-consecration of the magic places of the cult of cinema. Few places resonate with movie magic like the former Kiva theatre building in Scottsdale, Arizona. Ideally, I’d hope that alongside once-again thriving shops, the Kiva is restored to its former use as a cinema; if not for the entire time then for some of the time. (You could project films down the aisle in the middle of the mini-mall.) To extend my ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ metaphor, in this situation I identify with Josephus, the Jewish historian of Rome’s wars in Palestine. When offered any treasure from the Temple that his friend, the Emperor’s son, was about to sack and destroy, Josephus asked for the books. (Another “wtf” moment for the future Emperor Titus Flavius Caesar, to go along with discovering the Holy of Holies sans Ark, later that day.)

Stories imbue this apparently mundane wooden structure with its deep meaning. Conversely, without the building still standing and in use, the full importance of the stories is lost forever. Without the sacred space, there is no meditation. Without pure acts of contemplation, the Temple will be lost. As a ritual meeting place for the cross currents of American cinema, anything and everything was admissible within the walls of Sher’s Kiva Theatre. Like all folk processes for the transmission of important ideas and stories, the specifics of how that transmission occurred are beginning to pass out of the scope of living memory.

Sher died in 1998 and received a short but complimentary obituary in the ‘New York Times’.19

He deserves another epitaph: ‘Louis K Sher, proprietor, Art Theatre Guild of America. Not gone, but forgotten.’

Next… It’s astounding, time is fleeting


  1. Peter Stanfield, 2011 ‘Going Underground With Manny Farber and Jonas Mekas: New York’s Subterranean Film Culture in the 1950s and 1960s’ in Richard Maltby et al, 2011, ‘Explorations in New Cinema History‘, Blackwell, Oxford, p.217. Quoting Rosalind Williams, 1990, ‘Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Society, Technology and the Imagination‘, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, p 48. []
  2. Mike Getz interviewed by Alison Kozberg, 12th June 2010, ‘Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles 1945–1980‘, FilmForum, Los Angeles, CA. []
  3. David E James, 2005, ‘The most typical avant-garde: history and geography of minor cinemas in Los Angeles‘ University of California Press, Berkeley, p.223. []
  4. Peter Krouse, 23rd April 2009, ‘Cleveland Heights theatre recalls 1959 Nico Jacobellis controversy over ‘The Lovers’‘, []
  5. Co-Producer and cinematographer Chris Condon continues to be an innovator in the field of 3-D that has recently experienced a resurgence, but which may have (ahem) peaked. []
  6. Fortune Editors, 19th July 2011 ‘Brainstorm Tech video: Katzenberg on the future of movie watching‘ Colorado. []
  7. Gareth Grundy , 19th December 2010 ‘David Lynch: I’m not a musician but I love making music. It’s a blast.‘ Guardian. []
  8. 21st December 1998 ‘Louis K Sher, 84; Exhibited Foreign Films‘ New York Times. []