If Fantastic Fest tried to downplay the controversy currently swirling around parent theater Alamo Drafthouse on its opening night, that became impossible over the weekend. Saturday, questions about the Alamo’s removal of film site Ain’t It Cool News as a Fantastic Fest media sponsor days before the festival were explosively answered, when the news broke that AICN’s Harry Knowles had allegedly assaulted a woman on Drafthouse property nearly 20 years ago. In the wake of the story, women in the Austin film scene came forward on social media to corroborate the accuser’s account, confirming that Knowles was a known harasser, and had been for many years. The fallout is still ongoing.
That night, an aggressive in-theater stunt involving an actor in Force Majeure director Ruben Östlund’s new film The Square—who was flown in for a surprise re-creation of a scene from the film where he threatens guests at a dinner party—and a match at the annual verbal debate/boxing hybrid Fantastic Debates enhanced the already volatile mood. At the Debates, held at midnight in a steamy gym in South Austin soaked with sweat and free beer, film programmer Suki-Rose Simakis—a former employee of Cinefamily, another theater currently embroiled in an assault controversy—stepped into the ring to give a passionate speech laying out concrete actions Fantastic Fest patrons could take to combat sexism, and affirming the power of women as members of the film community. She then boxed her opponent, who played the pro-wrestling heel by beginning his rebuttal with “well, actually,” and wearing a robe that read “NICE GUY.” By the next morning, chatter on the festival’s unofficial Facebook page was accusing the Alamo of pressuring Simakis to participate, even after she said she took on the fight voluntarily, and simply wanted to make an important statement in a punchy (no pun intended) and memorable way.
The stage was set for what turned out to be the biggest landmine of the weekend: A secret screening co-hosted by the American Genre Film Archive and Something Weird Video. The film’s title was not announced in advance, but that probably wouldn’t have mattered, because no one outside of a few dozen people had ever seen it before yesterday. The film, Take It Out In Trade, was a previously lost softcore porn movie directed by Ed Wood in 1970, and was being shown in a 2k restoration of the only surviving print, which made its debut at a strip club in Glendale, California more than 40 years before. In his introduction, AGFA’s Joe Ziemba gave background on the film, putting it in context of both the sexploitation subgenre and Ed Wood’s life, by then marked by extreme alcoholism.
Take It Out In Trade plays like a cross between Russ Meyer and John Waters, full of digressions—at three separate points throughout the film, the main character takes himself on a “vacation” that consist of peeping at naked women through potted plants in front of posters for various far-flung locales—and extensive full-frontal nudity and simulated sex. Wood himself appears in drag as a woman named “Angyla,” and the film takes a nonchalant attitude towards sexuality of all orientations. It was bawdy, bizarre, boring at points, undeniably objectifying, and very much of its time. It’s definitely not for everyone. Hearing that it was violent porn was a surprise to me, though.
Let’s back up for a moment: In the Q&A after the screening, a man in the audience asked a question about the controversy surrounding Devin Faraci and Harry Knowles, what the presenters were personally doing about it, and why they thought it would be okay to screen pornography at Fantastic Fest amid everything that was going on. Ziemba told the asker he’d like to discuss the question in person with him afterwards, then deferred to Something Weird owner Lisa Petrucci. She admitted to not being fully aware of the details of the Knowles story, but stated that she is a feminist and does not consider Something Weird’s erotic cinema releases (of which there are many) incompatible with her feminist beliefs. Then it was time to clear out for the next screening.
Almost immediately, Todd Brown—a former Fantastic Fest programmer who made headlines by quitting the festival soon after the news of former Birth.Movies.Death editor Devin Faraci’s re-hiring as a copy writer for the Alamo broke–put up a Facebook post about the screening. (Brown did not attend the festival this year.) He wrote:
Then someone took a screenshot of the post and posted that on Twitter, and it was off to the controversy races. My experience was different from the way Brown and other second-hand accounts on Twitter described the film and resultant Q&A; Petrucci, whose company has been invaluable in preserving vast swaths of B-movie history that otherwise would have been lost forever, did answer the question, even as Ziemba demurred. And Fantastic Fest is full of films with content much more graphic and disturbing than what was portrayed in Take It Out In Trade, whose only explicitly violent scene is one where a detective roughs up a female informant for information. That’s nothing compared to the content of the Alamo-produced The ABCs Of Death or of A Serbian Film, which Brown brought to the festival in 2010 (a fact he is, to his credit, willing to discuss openly on social media). These films were presented with their titles revealed beforehand, but without trigger warnings about the extremely disturbing sexual violence they contain. It’s entirely possible some viewers walked into A Serbian Film blind; I walked into The ABCs Of Death, whose “L Is For Libido” segment contains graphic sexual torture, blind in 2012. Discussing why this, and not those, was subject to such intense scrutiny is an important part of this conversation as well.
This incident opens up all sorts of big topics; the relationship between pornography and feminism in particular has been debated in academic circles for decades. Personally, I was not offended; I’ve seen quite a few sexploitation films from the era, and this one was typical in its (silly, sexist) content. But my experience was far from universal; other female attendees described their discomfort with watching Take It Out In Trade in the Fantastic Fest Facebook group, and they deserve to be heard as well. So, clearly, Fantastic Fest needs to revisit its approach to secret screenings. And perhaps AGFA should have shelved Take It Out In Trade for a later date and pulled something else from its vast archives, given the current climate. Either way, “business as usual” backfired this weekend.
Oh, and I also saw a bunch of other movies that didn’t start controversies. One, Brawl On Cell Block 99 (B), depicted Vince Vaughn kicking multiple peoples’ heads to jelly in canvas prison shoes while spouting the flowery, Nic Pizzolatto-esque tough-guy dialogue of director S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk). Another, Let The Corpses Tan (B), was a intensely psychedelic tribute to Italo-Westerns from the directors of Amer and The Strange Color Of Your Body’s Tears that had a woman I’m pretty sure was supposed to represent God who lactated champagne. It’s been a weird year, to say the least. I’ll tell you more about those, and the rest of this year’s Fantastic Fest lineup, soon.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article suggested adding a content warning to descriptions of secret screenings at Fantastic Fest. Upon reviewing the description of yesterday’s AGFA secret screening on the Fantastic Fest website, we discovered the following disclaimer:
“Content Warning: This movie contains full frontal nudity and simulated depictions of consensual sex.”
We apologize for the oversight.