-- William from Andy Milligan's Cocteau
The twisted, exploited, defiled characters in Andy Milligan's 29 movies speak from his soul. On that, everyone seems to agree. His biographer, Jimmy McDonough -- a fan, employee, and friend until Milligan's death in 1991 -- makes no apologies for the confirmed sadist who dabbled in racism, wallowed in misogyny, and mollified himself with film short ends, the garbage left over from more typical shoots.
"Milligan barreled through life like a bull," says McDonough, looking a touch uncomfortable inside the screening room of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. "He made his pictures for himself, which would have been fine if he was Scorsese, but he was Andy Milligan. His movies belonged to 42nd Street."
In Milligan's prime -- and we can use the word loosely -- 42nd Street meant sleaze, sex, and degeneracy. This was the currency in the grind houses where Milligan's work was most welcome, and if the sex and violence Milligan portrayed in his exploitation films is hardly graphic by today's standards, his language still holds salt.
"Just raging yammerings from inside his head," says McDonough, whose trembling hands seem out of step with his slick, Hollywood flesh-peddler persona -- dark suit, dark shades, overly coiffed silver hair, well-padded middle, shiny tie.
"I've never spoken in front of a crowd before," he admits at the beginning of his pitch. "It seems fitting that the world's worst director would have the world's worst commentator."
But McDonough is overly modest. The author, who has contributed to the Village Voice, Variety, Mojo, Spin, Sleazoid Express, Film Comment, and Jugs, and whose biography of Neil Young is 10 years in the making, has turned his obsession with Milligan's life into art that far exceeds the Z-rate director's own. Of course, McDonough and the fervent fans in the audience, who shout out obscure Milligan titles as if they are vying for extra-credit points during a college exam, would probably disagree.
"Milligan believed real people could only be found in alleyways," says 28-year-old Presley Landuyt, who sits in the third row with his slightly bewildered date. "He saw beauty in scum. ... No, no, no -- he saw scum in scum, but that was compelling."
In Milligan's biography, The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan, McDonough paints lurid portraits of the people Milligan chose as companions and stars: Jonathan Torrey, an off-Broadway regular at Caffe Cino (where Milligan once staged violent productions of Tennessee Williams and Jean Genet plays) who wore a Hitler Youth outfit to spite the Jewish family that raised him; Dennis John Malvasi, a Vietnam vet and pyrotechnics expert who made a hobby of blowing up abortion clinics; Frank Thompson, a gallery owner and pedophile who, according to McDonough, admitted to keeping adolescent jism samples in his fridge "to add to his omelettes" because "twelve-year-old orgasms always improve the flavor"; and Gary Stone, a regular sex-scene player in Milligan's movies whose preferred partner was a Great Dane he frequented in the midst of uptown parties. And, despite Milligan's dying wishes, McDonough also goes to great pains to uncover the root of his friend's yawning abyss by returning to St. Paul, where Milligan's stepbrother admits to being a pedophile, other relatives admit to being molested by either Andy Milligan or his father, and his stepsister, a therapist who works with incest survivors, suggests that Marie G. Milligan, Andy's mother, was herself the wellspring of all this sexual misconduct. In the end, though, McDonough can only guess, because this was a topic about which the usually verbose Andy Milligan wasn't talking.
"Biography is a cheat, something of a fiction," writes McDonough. "An approximation -- air pudding, really." Air pudding that encourages lofty or, rather, very seedy expectations for Milligan's museum debut.
"Remember 90 percent of the credits are just Andy under an assumed name," says McDonough. "He was a one-man show. He did everything, for better or worse -- the writing, the directing, the editing, the costume design, everything."
Vapors, the first of two rarely screened Milligan flicks shown at the museum, is a surprisingly artful, 30-minute bathhouse encounter between a married man and a young homosexual with perfect teeth and prominent cheekbones. While there is no sex between the pair, the dark, dirty walls seep with it, and Milligan's cockeyed angles further enhance the pheromone-rich intimacy, which culminates in the married man's wrenching admissions about his hideous wife and her bunion-covered toes and his dead son with his soft, perfect skin. Of course, the glory for Milligan is in achieving full frontal nudity, which originally shut this movie down, when the young gay man looks for comfort in another stranger's genitalia.
The second movie, The Torture Garden, is more standard Milligan fare: a period piece set on Staten Island involving a one-armed hedonistic sociopath, a ghoulish maternal figure with one eye and hatred in her heart, a lascivious hunchback whose mother hired two men to degrade and cripple him as a boy, a conniving princess pregnant with her own brother's child, and, of course, a few pitchforks in the neck, knives in the face, and nails through the hand. Unlike the work of Milligan's exploitation peers, the plots of his movies do not tie together horrible acts of violence; the violence is, rather, a reaction to horrible acts. Sadly (or, perhaps, luckily), beer cans on a Renaissance-era beach, indecipherable lighting, poor editing, and dialogue delivered in thick, laughable Long Island accents do much to dilute Milligan's intention.
"What was that supposed to be?" asks Landuyt's date as they walk through the darkened gallery.
"Grand Guignol," states Landuyt certainly. "That was a combination of silent-style filmmaking, Grand Guignol, and 1960s avant-garde. And no money."
"I don't know," says Landuyt's date. "It might just be bad."
"It's human nature," writes McDonough. "You want to see what you're not supposed to. This is the sick impulse that exploitation films cater to -- and rarely satisfy."
"I have a certain love of the macabre," says Matthew Giasi, flicking his cape to one side, revealing black skeleton hands painted on his white gloves. "Grand Guignol, Sylvia Plath, taxidermy, glass eyes, bugs frozen in amber, Edward Gein, Edgar Allen Poe, Jack the Ripper. I can think of nothing cozier than a nursery rhyme by Edward Gorey."
Giasi picks up his cane and does a little soft-shoe shuffle, intoning the Gorey limerick: "There was a young curate whose brain/ Was deranged from the use of cocaine/ He lured a small child/ To a copse dark and wild/ Where he beat it to death with a cane."
That done, Giasi raises his top hat and bids me adieu before inviting a pale young woman in a cranberry satin ball gown to a waltz.
The second annual Edward Gorey Edwardian Ball is in full swing. Folks awash in dark hues of crushed velvet and watermarked satin spin across the dance floor between Gorey-style sets: black-and-white drawings of overstuffed sofas saying "sigh," crooked-legged tables saying "swoon," and teapots with revenge on the brain. A gaunt young man pushes his face into a hole that completes the life-size portrait of two unfortunate Gorey characters; he watches the dancers with wide, roaming eyes to disarming effect as large red lanterns cast a sanguine glow. An elegantly dressed femme with peacock feathers in her hair and charcoal circles drawn darkly under her eyes suddenly swoons, but her dashing dance partner, a highly suspicious-looking gent with a monocle and high-collared coat, catches her and bites her neck.
"I was hoping to find some Edwardian house music," says 26-year-old Jason Kocol, a suited man with long straight hair and a small stuffed monkey called Hubert Jones III strapped to his chest. "This was the first place we looked. What are the chances?" Kocol slinks onto the dance floor for the theme song from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, joined by his marionettelike companion, a blond man with red plaid pajamas and blue-tipped dreadlocks going by the nom de plume Steven Schultz.
Horns from Rosin Coven, the Edward Gorey house band, announce the commencement of The Curious Sofa: A pornographic work by Ogdred Weary (otherwise known as Edward Gorey), a story in which all sorts of unmentionable acts go unmentioned. But of course, in the modern-day staging, the unseen final act is revealed. A woman in a large-plumed hat screams as she is pulled from the audience and placed on the writhing sofa comprised of human hands. Her screams fill the Cat Club, bouncing off the gold gilt mirrors and drowning out Rosin Coven's trombone player.
"Isn't it ghastly?" says a chesty woman in long pearls and tight corset. "Isn't it ghastly and delicious?"