Back to the Grind
Local press has virtually ignored a recent book that has its roots steeped in San Francisco history. Across the country, daily newspapers and magazines have devoted space to Grindhouse, written by Eddie Muller and Daniel Faris, who both live in the Bay Area. But nothing's appeared here. Maybe that's because the book is about pornography.
Specifically, the history of adult films in America. Published by St. Martin's/Griffin, Grindhouse is beautifully designed, incorporating dozens of old posters and photographs from Faris' personal collection; some of them date back to the carnival tent shows and 1930s "hygiene movies," and Muller's crisp prose moves you through the various genres like a high-speed cab ride through the heart of North Beach in its heyday. The book closes with the end of the 1970s, when VCRs stole much of the market, and the industry moved south to L.A.
San Francisco plays a prominent role in the chronology of adult cinema. At one time, the city offered 25 theaters that showed hard-core films, and local directors like the Mitchell brothers, Alex deRenzy, and Bob Chinn cranked out hundreds of movies, supplying the rest of the United States with its first glimpses of late-'60s smut. Many stars of the golden era of adult film still make their home here, from directors deRenzy and John Leslie to actors Jamie Gillis, Nina Hartley, and Annette Haven.
When asked why this city seemed like such a ground zero for the fledgling X-rated film industry, author Muller shrugs: "To tell you the truth, I think it's because a girl would do anything for a free joint."
Life in the Big City
Pedestrians strolling past the corner of Geary and Hyde were treated to a slice of routine law and order recently, as the pleasant sounds of "POLICE! GET DOWN ON THE GROUND!" echoed off the sides of the apartment buildings.
Another robbery attempt of the neighborhood grocery, by the same thief. But this night undercover cops happened to be in the vicinity, and quickly pounced on the culprit and cuffed him. As uniformed cops arrived for backup, one of the boys in blue strolled into the little store and smiled, "Ah ... life in the big city!"
A Tale of Two Comedians
The walls of John Magnuson's apartment in the Lower Haight are completely bare except for two items -- a poster of comedian Lenny Bruce from a show at the Fillmore, and a photograph of comedian Bill Hicks. Since the early 1960s, Magnuson has worked in San Francisco as a film producer, churning out product for ad agencies and political campaigns, doing animation for Sesame Street and The Electric Company, working with Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Lily Tomlin, and Richard Pryor, among others. But that was just for money. What matters to Magnuson is framed and up on the wall in the corner behind his TV set.
Magnuson's documentary of Lenny Bruce -- a raw performance in a North Beach nightclub -- remains a classic piece of cinema, as does his animated short film Thank You Masked Man, for which Bruce provided all the voices. Magnuson probably knows more about Bruce than almost anyone else alive, and people still ask him about their days working together.
In 1993, Magnuson walked into Cobb's Comedy Club down in the Cannery to see Bill Hicks. And as he watched this comedian tear into the hypocrisies of American culture, Magnuson started to get a weird feeling -- a feeling he hadn't experienced in years. After the show, he walked up and introduced himself, as he had first done with Lenny Bruce. The two hit it off, and the next day, they ended up driving around Fisherman's Wharf, Hicks dressed as a Ninja warrior, with Magnuson behind an 8mm camera, helping Hicks shoot footage for a goofy film project called Ninja Bachelor Party.
The two became good friends and continued corresponding, Hicks calling Magnuson from hotel rooms on the road, and Magnuson recording their phone conversations. One day the two were at Magnuson's apartment, and the director popped in a video of the Bruce film. Hicks studied the grainy black-and-white image on the screen and exclaimed, "I'm like that!"
"He is the only performer in 30 years who has truly reminded me of Lenny Bruce ... savage, in-your-face, straight-to-the-gut satire," Magnuson has said of Hicks. Last week, he put it another way: "Both of these guys had the same need. It was not a need to perform so much. They had to communicate something."
Hicks hadn't played Carnegie Hall, as Bruce had done, but he had gathered his share of accolades and controversy, from an HBO special shot in England to two albums and a much-publicized censor off Late Night With David Letterman. He had already achieved cult status, and his star was rising.
Magnuson and Hicks planned to shoot a movie of Hicks, performing here in the city at the Punch Line, and call it Rant in E-Minor, also the title of an album in progress (portions of which were recorded live at Cobb's). Just as with the Bruce film a generation earlier, the comedian and the producer went over the material bit by bit, discussing live music and other details.
Hicks passed away in February 1994 of pancreatic cancer, before film production could begin. But the audio version of Rant in E-Minor appears this week in stores as part of a four-CD retrospective from Rykodisc, with the label: "Warning: These Albums Contain EVERYTHING Your Parents Hate, EVERYTHING The Church Preaches Against, EVERYTHING The Government Fears. Enjoy! Bill Hicks."
Magnuson has remained a Hicks proponent since the comedian's death, speaking to the press and giving emotional support to Hicks' family and fiancee.
"When somebody hits me that hard -- same thing with Bruce," he says, as the faces of both men look back at him from his wall. "Guys like this don't come around very often. They're very rare."
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