King of pain
S.F.'s most adventurous programmer celebrates 10 years of Yerba Buena Center with brand-new torments.

By Dennis Harvey

THE BAY AREA film scene leaves few stones unturned. Or so one thought before Joel Shepard joined Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 1997 as its film and video curator. His seven years there have encompassed spotlights on hip-hop, skateboarding, and AIDS activist video; retrospectives of works by "father of African cinema" Ousmane Sembene, Iran's Abolfazl Jalili, African American maverick Charles Burnett, and punk documentarian Lech Kowalski; and special programs on recent Portuguese, Korean, and music documentary works. Most notably, however, is Shepard's particular interest in what he calls "stuff that's not considered 'important' and gets left out of the official histories of film." To that end he's programmed series celebrating late schlock king Al Adamson, '70s crimson-pulp "Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film," early gay-porn auteur Wakefield Poole, U.S. teensploitation, vintage Eurotrash sex-horror, and even a "Liz Unhinged" quartet of Elizabeth Taylor's late-'60s and early-'70s worst. Among goodies we're promised this current season are newly struck prints of Pasolini's erotic films and something called "International Serial Killers."

Shepard, 39, arrived at Yerba Buena Center fresh from three years as associate director at the San Francisco Cinematheque. Before that he'd cofounded a gay-and-lesbian film festival with former S.F. International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival director Jenni Olson in their native Minneapolis. En route he acquired the polyglot tastes that mark Yerba Buena Center's daytime and evening programming.

I caught Shepard on the brink of the center's 10th-anniversary festivities, which include "Ten Perfect Moments" – an Oct. 24-Dec. 19 series reprising such past screening favorites as Trent Harris's Beaver Trilogy, the vid-clip rarities assemblage "Nightclubbing: New York Punk and New Wave, 1975-1980," and the anime classic My Neighbor Totoro and including a visit by educational-industrial detritus collector Jack Stevenson. On Oct. 18 there's also the mysterious "Ten Hours of Torment," a marathon the center promotes on its Web site as "some of the worst films ever made from the bizarre and eccentric personal collection" of guess who. The actual titles to be screened cannot be revealed at press time, but suffice it to say fans of horrible horror and drive-in jigglefests will not be disappointed. Shepard took a few moments to reflect on these and other variably questionable achievements.

Bay Guardian: When did all this start?

Joel Shepard: I've been interested in films since I was a little kid. Once he had to do something and couldn't find a baby-sitter, so my dad just dropped us off at the movies and let the theater baby-sit us for the day. I remember watching a triple feature alone there at age eight or so, really feeling relaxed and at peace. When VCRs came out, my dad was one of the first people in Minneapolis to buy one – those giant, clunky Betamaxes that cost, like, $2,000. The tapes could only record one hour. Minneapolis had a strip of downtown grind houses that showed exploitation and kung-fu movies. Those were the theaters that never checked your I.D. for R-rated films – so I spent a lot of time at those places, and at the Walker Arts Center, too, watching art films. When I was 15 or 16, a moment that changed my life was the Walker Arts Center showing Warhol's The Chelsea Girls, with Ondine in person. I'd seen repertory art films before, but nothing "underground" like that before. I thought, "My life is going to go down a different path now." Later I did some film programming in high school, like the Ramones movie Rock and Roll High School. Which everybody hated – it was suburban Bloomington, near the Mall of America, so they were into REO Speedwagon and Molly Hatchet.

BG: What was the state of the Yerba Buena Center's Film/Video Department when you got here?

JS: It was pretty underdeveloped. It didn't really have a budget, let alone a full-time staff person. When previous executive director John Killacky started here, he saw that Film/Video here was kinda getting shortchanged. He wanted to get it onto a level equal with the other departments, the visual and performance arts. So I got to pretty much build something from scratch. They only had video and 16 mm projection; one of the first things I did was to arrange someone to donate 35 mm projectors to us.

BG: How did your interests programming-wise dovetail with his vision for the center?

JS: I think very well, though I've done some things that made him nervous. He was very concerned about the Sleazoid Express Film Festival. It was a look at '70s exploitation cinema, but we included a couple porn movies, too: The Back Row and Behind the Green Door. The Wakefield Poole gay porn stuff also made him anxious, plus some of the more violent horror stuff – but he always understood it in the end. Like many people, he didn't understand at first these were actually serious attempts to look at genres of cinema that are disreputable but which can reflect very honestly what's going on in people's lives, in ways different from art or mainstream cinema.

BG: Have you gotten any external flak for particular programs you've done?

JS: Nope. I did in Minneapolis, where my first exploitation series ever was very controversial. There were editorials in the newspaper! Whereas in S.F., even if people don't like what you're doing, they generally just ignore you – they don't complain.

BG: What are some other favorite series you've programmed here?

JS: The very first series I did here was "Say You Love Satan!," where we showed [notorious unreleased Manson-recreation drama] Charlie's Family. Since then, that guy [director Jim Van Bebber] has kinda disappeared. There are rumors that he's in prison now for selling LSD. Then "Mondo Sadismo," European cult cinema – we showed mostly Argento and Fulci; that was a popular series. I've done a couple retrospectives for artists who'd never had them before, like the South African filmmaker Ian Kerkoff, and Lech Kowalski last year. I'm proud of the New Korean Cinema series I did last summer; I got to go to the film festival in Pusan and scout for films to bring here. The Iranian filmmaker Abolfazl Jalili, a remarkable director who'd never shown his films here before. We imported them directly from Tehran for the show.

BG: You've had some pretty eccentric characters come through over the years.

JS: One of the most interesting we've had recently was Wakefield Poole, one of the pioneering gay pornography directors. I didn't plan on his coming here, but two days before the screenings, he called out of the blue and said, "I need to be there. I have to come!" It turned out to be just remarkable, hearing him talk about making those films – many shot right here in the city. A lot of the people who showed up for screenings were older guys who remembered that time and were involved in a lot of what was going on. It made it really special. We also had Jim Goad here. That was a very unique night. He did this really radical ranting fanzine in the early '90s called Answer Me!, then wrote a book called The Redneck Manifesto, about racism and class. He's a notorious angry character. He came to show clips of extreme videos from his personal library and narrated them, doing a kind of very confrontational comedy routine that really freaked the audience out. Then two months later he was in prison for assaulting his girlfriend. Among regular filmmakers, we've had Charles Burnett (To Sleep with Anger), who was an artist in residence here three years ago. That was incredible. He interacted with all these different community groups and film students and talked about his work with kids.

BG: What do you have coming up?

JS: One thing I am working on that's happening is a retrospective of works by Shunichi Nagasaki. He's a remarkable Japanese director who's been making films since the '60s, starting with experimental short stuff all the way through dramatic narrative soap opera stuff for television. I'm putting together the first-ever retrospective of his work, which is going to tour to a couple cities around the country. They're these deeply emotional films that all have very strong female protagonists. In a way he's like a Japanese Cassavetes, creating very raw films away from the mainstream.

I'm working on an anarchist film festival with a professor in Portland named Pietro Ferrua who's one of the best-known intellectuals on anarchist thought. For two years now he's been doing an anarchist film series up there, and we're working together to expand it and do an edition down here. There's also this emerging French filmmaker named Philippe Grandrieux, who's about the best guy working in psychological horror right now. He'll be coming here to show his films for the first time in California.

BG: Some dream projects you haven't been able to do?

JS: I've always wanted to do a big library retrospective for New World Pictures, Roger Corman's company in the '70s and '80s. Among the better-known films that they put out were some of the Joe Dante titles (e.g., Piranha) and Hollywood Boulevard. A number of directors got their start doing films for them, like Jonathan Demme. Then there's all kinds of interesting stuff he released that has been forgotten about and was never released on video. But Corman is totally uninterested in participating, and very few prints are around. I've been thwarted at every step trying to do that.

'Ten Hours of Torment' plays Sat/18, noon-10 p.m., Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Screening Room, 701 Mission, S.F. Free ("you pay to get out!"). (415)-978-2710. For more information go to www.yerbabuenaarts.org.


October 15, 2003