Questions for Jimmy McDonough

By Jordan Spoors

May 16, 2021

Hi Jimmy! Thank you again for answering my questions. I guess I’ll jump right in.

Ever since I really got into filmmaking, I’ve been obsessed with the exploitation eras of the 60s, 70s and 80s. It seems like now more than ever, not only genre fans but serious artists such as Nicolas Winding Refn and new kid on the block, Panos Cosmatos, are reviving the era through their work and curation. How can you account for such a thing in a modern society so obsessed with PC culture?

There's always going to be somebody who sticks his finger in the socket or kicks over the piano bench, thankfully. Nicolas can't help himself. He's driven to do what he does. His is a feverish vision. I respect that.

As someone who has studied the history of exploitation, it's always confusing trying to pin its historical roots. Where do you suppose such a genre originated from?

People want to see shocking things. It's been that way since the dawn of time, I suppose.  You want to look, even if you feel it's wrong. It's an elemental impulse in us and wouldn't you somebody figured out a way to make a buck off it, haha.

You grew up in the time of 42nd street along with Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford, can you explain the psychology of the city and times? What was happening at the time to cause such a surge of smut?

I never think of things in such lofty terms. There was always smut on the Deuce, it was there long before I was. In the early 80s, when Bill and I were hanging out there, the decay was rapidly accelerating - theaters were just falling apart, crack and AIDS loomed large. Developers were slobbering over the property while distributors were throwing all sorts of crap on the screen to squeeze out any last remaining bucks, so you saw all sorts of crazy shit. You got the feeling it was all going to collapse at any moment. So there seemed to be a whiff of the apocalypse in the air. But I find current-day America much more apocalyptic. Donald Trump? Now there's exploitation. He tops anything that ever oozed out of the Deuce.

What is your most vivid memory from your time spent on the strip? Is there a specific film you watched at a specific cinema that really emblefied the era?

Shit, I don't know, it all oozes together like a smoky hallucination, haha. Curiously, I always remember being at the Roxy. That was a late-era video theater –  which was just large TV monitors in barren rooms with airport-type plastic seats. It was more of a bus station waiting room than a movie theater. The only guy that seemed to work there was the guy changing the VHS tapes that were beamed to the monitors from box office. That place WAS scary. Superfly always seemed to be playing there, and the ragtag audience seemed to know every word of dialogue, which they often repeated back to the screen in a low drone.

Considering the dangers of 42nd street, did you have any unnerving experiences with the locales of that area?

Not really. I got help up at gunpoint once, but that was on 43rd Street when, against better judgement, I deviated from my usual route. I felt invincible on the Deuce and nothing bad ever happened to me there. It helped that I was crazy out-of-control at the time, haha. I'm sure I seemed like too much trouble to fuck with.

At its heart, 42nd seemed like a desperate and sad place where people could live out their most violent fetishistic fantasies. Do you think the films allowed a more healthy outlet for violent fantasies (particularly rape) or do you think they encouraged or escalated sexual violence amongst its audience?

I don't think there was anything healthy about it, haha. I didn't notice anyone walking out of the theaters with their head held high, ready to join the Peace Corps. People were there for thrills, chills and to wallow in filth. It was not 'woke' and in fact many there were not even awake. Look, for me it was a fun place to go. Flaming youth, running wild.

Apart from exploitation, 42nd street catered to hardcore pornography. What’s the most shocking hardcore film you saw on the strip, and is there a film you felt when too far?

I wasn't big on hardcore, I found it tiresome and never wanted to investigate it. I remember seeing a DeRenzy film at the bum sex theater, the Variety Photoplays near 14th street. The old geezers seem pretty excited about that, there was a lot of murmuring and shuffling, the dropping of bottles. Oh, and I saw Sex Wish there one night for two bucks. Zebedy Colt. I have a soft spot for Zebedy.

What exploitation Auteur (aside from Andy Milligan) do you think doesn’t receive enough attention?

George Gunter. I'd like to read a 700 page book on George Gunter.  By Robert Caro. I would say there are very few actual auteurs of interest in exploitation, at least to me.  Too many rules, regulations and limitations. I'm more interested in one-off pictures that seem to have no rhyme or reason, like Maidens of Fetish Street.

What is 42nd street like today?

No idea. I haven't been back in over twenty five years and I refuse to return. It's all gone, I don't need to visit a mall. You can do that anywhere. I've never seen The Deuce, either. Zero interest.

You’ve been described as the ‘literary terminator’ by peers and fans but did you ever gravitate to any other form of creative career? I read in your latest book, ‘The Ghastly One’, you worked as a film editor? Was being a filmmaker in your line of sights before you decided to become an author?

Yes, it was. In fact, a box of my Super 8 films has gone missing, which pains me deeply. I fancied myself an experimental filmmaker for about ten minutes, haha. Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren and...Jimmy. I never lose anything, but I lost that entire box, apparently. Big-time film business was sort of a letdown. It was all unions, huge crews and no action, unless you were steering the ship. So I split for California, and worked for Andy for ten cents a day. It's still the best job I've ever had.

How did you become so interested in Andy Milligan in the first place?

Saw a poster on Landis's wall for Fleshpot on 42nd Street and I was hooked. We moseyed over to The Troupe Theater on 39th where Andy was putting on plays at the time and he personally took our tickets in a most hostile manner. Being in that fleabag theater felt no different from Fleshpot. I knew right then I was on mission.

You are brutally honest with the films of Andy Milligan; do you feel that his films have anything to teach modern filmmaking? I find his style of filmmaking bizarrely inspirational, especially since the filmmaking of today is incredibly clean in style and content.

Sure. I think they're more relevant than ever. Most everything's created by a committee of fifty these days; nothing can offend. Bland product filling a slot on a streaming service. Going on those sites is a bit like heading into a convenience store for something to eat. Everything looks so fun and colorful in their peppy little wrappers, then you gobble it down and want to vomit.

Andy Milligan seemed like a genuinely terrifying person to work for – encouraging sadism in his early plays at the chino and on the set of his films. How did you find working on his later films? Do you have any stories of Andy that made your buttocks clench?

Actually, he was more fun to work with than a barrel of monkeys. By the time I met him the venom had  mostly dissipated. I looked forward to every day I worked with him and actually whistled my way to work. Andy still had so much energy, it was like Mickey Rooney telling everybody, “Let's put on a show, kids!” Would Andy fire a crew member for drinking? Would the actor have even a modicum of talent? Would Andy's boyfriend Wayne threaten mutiny and stomp off? You never knew what was going to happen, so it was exciting. How many jobs can you say that about?

Do you think a person like Andy Milligan (in the true sense of DIY) could thrive in the world of contemporary filmmaking?

No. He couldn't handle the dreary politics of it all. Andy on Twitter? Facebook? Provide the requisite apology after blurting out something hateful and awful? Forget it. Andy is anchored to a time and place that no longer exists.

You’ve worked on biographies for both Russ Meyer and Andy Milligan. Both books detail the filmmakers and their sexual obsessions, what do you think draws these wonderful perverts to the celluloid light?

People who are obsessed with something often get a thrill out of infecting others. What better way to do that than a movie? AND you get paid for it? I truly believe Russ Meyer would've made those movies if nobody watched them. But watch them they did, and in came wheelbarrows full of money. He made a fortune over his ridiculous fetish.  

Amongst your latest projects, you have become editor and chief of byNWR? How has it been working with Nicolas Winding Refn on reviving some genuinely lost exploitation classics?

I love working with Nicolas, even when I want to kill him, which is frequently, haha. Kicks just keep getting harder to find, know what I mean? I find them doing All the people I've documented there: Georgette Dante, Keiley Mynk, Frankie Miller. Who else is going to let me run amok like this?

The site seems like a genuine outlier in the age of digital streaming, can you give us a hint at what’s to come?

Not really, because even even I don't know what's coming next, haha.

What are you working on at the moment, Jimmy?

My book on the Ormonds, the filmmaking family from Music City, USA. Finally I am getting that done - and that will be it for Jimmy on exploitation films. Plus a biography of honky-tonk singer Gary Stewart. And three stories for the website which shall remain a surprise for now.

Time for a bit of tiresome interview cliché: Is there any advice you would give to people trying to break into journalistic or scholarly film writing?

I'm the last guy to ask, as I had no plan for anything in my life.  I just had to do it. Be passionate about something. Do something you HAVE to do. And con others into letting you do it.

As a bonus question: Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you would like to discuss?

I saw a great movie the other night. The Great Sinner, directed by Robert Siodmak. My friend Poncho sent me that one. He's a badass, haha. Ava Gardner as a degenerate gambler, va va voom. I could live in her eyes.

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