Landis: The Story of a Man on 42nd Street
Or: Confronting biases through art
Every year I try to think of reading goals. Usually, they boil down to simply reading more of something. More in number, more by diverse authors, more distinct genres. This year I’ve decided to get serious about tackling my imposter syndrome by reading at least one book a month about a subject I have always had an interest in but been too shy to approach for fear that I “don’t know enough about it” to merit reading it, as if foreknowledge was some kind of requirement. A little bit like the idea of being discouraged when starting a new hobby and not immediately being good at it. When I was younger, I read everything voraciously. It didn’t matter if I knew anything about it or if I was even technically old enough to understand it; if it was words on a page, I would be there to puzzle through it. Naturally, I developed favorites, but if you don’t break from what you know you can never grow, and there’s plenty to be learned from grappling with the unfamiliar.
In the spirit of that, I have started my journey into the great literary unknown with Preston Fassel’s newest work, Landis, a biography of one of exploitation film’s most legendary and tragic critics, Bill Landis. One of the greatest plot twists of my life is my budding career into horror analysis and criticism, but I am on the babiest of first steps when it comes to knowing anything about what is generally considered “exploitation” film. As such, I had no idea whatever about who Bill Landis was before this book. I’d never even really heard the name before. My niche interest area in horror tiptoes right to the edge of exploitation cinema, but I have only just started breaking down the door. As a result, Landis was a kind of ultimate intimidation: a seminal look at a man I’ve never heard of who made an impact on an area of genre film that seemed, if not over my head, at least over the line of my sensibilities. But nearly all monsters-of-impossible-size are created in our minds, and behind them is just a person looking to be understood. So it is with Landis.
The picture of Bill Landis painted in Fassel’s biography is kaleidoscopic and complicated. Turn this way to see punk-style film criticism. Flip around to see passionately knowledgeable film fan. Turn that way to see adult film star. Look deep enough into the center and find the tragic, hungry soul underneath it all. At any given point in time, you can’t have one piece without all the others. Perhaps to Bill Landis’s own credit, however, each facet of himself was nestled under a different pseudonym. But they were all, at their heart, just Bill trying to find connection through what he loved the most, even if the connection he sought was just one with himself. In a way, Fassel’s biography opens up a whole new avenue of possibility there. While certainly the intended audience is more likely people familiar with Bill and his work, the larger scope and approachable style of the book lends itself to people like me — who’ve never heard of him before or who are maybe less familiar with his impact on genre criticism — discovering the man behind the layers of myth he built around himself.
Reading Landis was an act of near-constant confrontation with my own ideas and biases about both exploitation and adult film. If there were an area of film about which I would claim total ignorance, adult film would be it. While I have grown out of most of my preconceived notions from younger years, the expectations that result from consuming it (usually, in my experience, on the part of boys/men) has had enough of an impact on my life to make me set it aside. I am by no means necessarily anti-porn. I am only of the belief that we should remember even it is only make believe. Landis’s exploration into that area of Bill’s life was a moment of confronting myself in part because it was shown to be both something he passionately pursued for himself and something that would ultimately have a hand in his destruction. Not an unexpected combination, perhaps, for an industry interested primarily in the payoff rather than development, but tragic nonetheless. More than that, though, Bill Landis found merit in it in a way I hadn’t ever considered.
While I have a bit more experience now with exploitation films, I am still only just beginning to familiarize myself with the genre and its amorphous qualifications. I have, on the whole, stumbled into my exploration at the right time in my life. Had I been any younger I would probably not have been as open-minded or willing to suspend my disbelief on the screen in favor of trying to understand the story. We all have our limits, after all. But as I go along my journey as a film fan and analyst — such as I am — I find myself more able, the further I go, to see past what would have scared me away and into the depths of what’s really going on. Sometimes “what’s really going on” is nothing. Sometimes the curtains really are just blue. But sometimes the only way to get your point out into the world is to paint it an attractively grimy color and shove it in people’s faces. The right people will understand, and everyone else will come along in time.
What Bill taught me through Landis (and what, in fairness, I am constantly learning from Preston) is that exploitation cinema might be one of the genre’s more grotesque looking creatures, but that’s only because it isn’t shy about itself. To watch exploitation films is to be confronted by them. It seems to me that’s part of why what makes something “exploitation” is so ambiguous. If it feels like exploitation film, it probably is. But being confronted with a truth is never a bad thing. Just because it may be uncomfortable to see doesn’t make it necessarily wrong to show. Exploitation cinema is an unapologetic art form, but it is an art form, and not one we should dismiss or ignore for its appearance. Bill made sure the world of genre criticism knew that, and through Landis he continues to espouse its value today.
The thing about being a horror fan — or even just a film fan with no genre allegiance — in a minority group of any kind is that sometimes the only places you can find yourself onscreen are in the deep, dark corners no one else wants to look, and if you want to make people understand them you have to probe not just why those areas and characters exist, but what makes them important. What value they bring to the piece of art you’re consuming. That value will be different for every new audience member, but what matters is that you acknowledge it. Even before or alongside reckoning with his own amorphously queer, ambiguously-heritaged identity, Bill Landis seems to have understood that, and understood the value in finding the audience who would go into the crevices with you and come out the other side hugging the monster.
To read Landis is to encounter a man decades ahead of his time in terms of analysis. Bill Landis seems to have been approaching social justice and identity issues in film way before it became the slightly more common practice it is now. Perhaps more than that, he seems to have been unafraid to approach criticism and analysis from a personal lens. When everyone else was looking at the practical elements that went into making film (and didn’t require a lot of in-depth confrontation with self), he was presenting his opinions and exploring the value of the things and people no one wanted to look at head-on.
As messy, and tragic, and unapologetically contradictory as Bill Landis’s life was, he was paving the way for the kind of analysis I can’t even help but do long before any of us thought it was possible. He was making it not only possible, but legitimate. And for that, if anything, I suppose I should thank him, wherever he is. Passion makes progress. Passion paves paths. Now if you’ll excuse me, I guess I have to go board the Sleazoid Express and see what else he’s got to say…