American Idols: Director Jack Hill, Grindhouse Guru
Incense tugs at my nostrils as I bite into a Danish at the Hollywood apartment of director Jack Hill. Photos of Indian saints and multilimbed Hindu goddesses hang on the walls, and Hill, dressed in chinos and a pale-blue shirt that matches his eyes, is eager to talk about how the late Swami Muktananda, sometimes known as the “Swami to the Stars,” transformed the lives of him and his wife, Elke.
I have to admit, I was originally just interested in interviewing the man responsible for two of the greatest blaxploitation flicks ever, Coffy and Foxy Brown, both starring Pam Grier and her quite often bare, uh, assets. Not only did the films make Grier a star, they influenced a whole generation of directors, including Quentin Tarantino, whose Jackie Brown is an homage to Hill. The Host, Hill’s 30-minute student film, is cited by some as an inspiration for the last third of Apocalypse Now. (Francis Ford Coppola was a classmate of Hill’s at UCLA.) When I found out that the director was going to be speaking at the American Cinematheque’s double bill of his blaxploitation pics on Saturday, I figured this was my excuse to do an interview.
“After we met him in 1980,” Hill is saying of his swami, “it started us both on a spiritual path. We spontaneously became vegetarians and went to India after that. He’s a real guru, a fully realized being.”
I nod and take a sip from my cup — Hill’s wife makes a mean little espresso — wondering how to bring the conversation around to the drive-in auteur’s movies. Instead, Hill tells me about his journey to the swami’s ashram in Ganeshpuri, India. It turns out that the director of such grindhouse classics as Switchblade Sisters, Swinging Cheerleaders, Isle of the Snake People and The Big Doll House found himself washing dishes Razor’s Edge–style for the thousands of pilgrims who had converged on the ashram for “Baba” Muktananda’s b-day festivities.
“Service is part of the experience,” he says. “I volunteered to wash dishes because I’d heard that you gain the most from that spiritually. They had these huge pots, and you had to get inside them and scrub them by hand. It was great! I loved it.”
After returning home to Hollywood’s cornucopia of conspicuous consumption and vanity, the Hills dedicated their lives to a path of meditation and dietary strictness. It seems to work for them: Both look like they’ve got a portrait in the attic à la Dorian Gray. But what doesn’t compute is that this erstwhile acolyte of Roger Corman — the man revered for a career that includes the bizarre, camp horror-comedy Spider Baby as well as Pit Stop, a surprisingly profound examination of the world of figure-8 racing — is now so repulsed by violent imagery that he and Elke avoid watching films or TV shows that are needlessly graphic. Here’s some irony: Back when he made Coffy, he was under marching orders from the producers to make a “black-woman revenge” picture beginning with the female protagonist “killing the shit out of” two guys.
“Violence has its place, but gratuitous violence and gruesome visuals, that’s what I object to,” says Hill. “I don’t want that negative input coming in to my senses. Certainly my movies have been accused of being violent. But if you compare them to what’s out there now, the violence is really in the way you perceive it . . . On the other hand it was my job, the studio required a certain amount of violence. I was doing what I was hired to do.”
Hey, we’re talking movies now. Hill says that although he receives offers all the time to direct teenage slasher pics, he’s more content toiling away on romantic comedies and detective stories with his wife. They have one romantic comedy currently being cast in England, and a classic detective yarn they’re still working on.
Nevertheless, at the Egyptian on Saturday night, Hill looked as happy as a kid with a tub of ice cream as he introduced his “children.”
“For some reason,” he told the audience, “my name is much better known now than when I had pictures at the box office. Six weeks after Coffy came out, nobody knew who I was, even though it was the number 12 grosser of the year. Now I’m invited to film festivals all over Europe. I just saw a French-language version of Coffy in Paris. I still don’t know how they translated motherfucker in French.”
Thirty-two-year-old, double-jointed, blond, blue-eyed Kelly Cole is sipping his second iced soy latte of the day on a sunny Wednesday afternoon outside of Lo-Fi Fashions, his 9-month-old Fairfax Avenue shop, which specializes in selling sexy Levi’s and classic rock tees to the likes of Ben Harper, Gina Gershon and Eddie Furlong.
“I love it here. I really do,” says the attractive actor–DJ–vintage-clothes dealer (who is blind in one eye, thanks to a brutal darting accident in a church basement when he was 2 — don’t tell the guys he plays basketball with or they’ll work him off that side). “I tried hard to come here with an open mind and not be one of those boring cliché New Yorkers constantly comparing New York to L.A.”
The fashionably bedraggled and flat-footed Cole is dressed in a pair of Big E–tag indigo 517’s from the early ’60s, a blue “thin-cotton” Western-style Wrangler shirt and custom-made red leather Shriner boots from the ’40s. Two years ago, Cole, who currently lives in a guesthouse just south of the Hollywood sign, moved out west after the lease on his beloved Canal Street loft was up. “It was the home to many, many parties and brainstorming sessions,” he says, slurping his last bit of caffeine through a straw. “I just knew I wasn’t gonna find another place in New York that felt like home. I felt like it was the end of an era.”
What kind of era?
The kind of era that found the flirtatious transplant spending a fair part of the ’90s having his name appear in the pages of The Village Voice and Paper magazine thanks to his then white-hot Spy Bar (a favorite of John John Kennedy) and later the East Village restaurant Black and White (still there). Cole learned how to hop trains and cross tracks with the vogueing kids from the Houses of Xtravaganza and Labeija (Paris Is Burning), palled around with designer Stephan Sprouse and Sylvia Miles, was a club kid and cohort of Michael Alig (Disco Bloodbath/Party Monster) and once met Jerzy Kosinski at the Limelight two days before the Being There author killed himself. He seems to be part of a rather large exodus of N.Y. hipsters who have relocated here over the past five years — the type who can do more than one thing.
“There’s a ton of them,” says one Hollywood party planner.
Next month, Cole, who cites Los Angeles’ “daytime culture” as a part of its appeal and who spins at a number of celebrity-packed clubs throughout the week, will, along with his creative partner Gary Wagner, open Lo-Fi Liquids — a smoothie, juice and coffee and tea bar in the space right next door to his clothes store. Later this summer, he will appear in the Actors’ Gang version of Sam Shepard’s True West, his second production with the company (last year, he spent eight months in the award-winning Exonerated).
“It feels good to find a theater home in a city dominated by film,” says Cole, who has a wealth of knowledge about theater, literature and pop culture, is a great Taboo player, and honed his love-letter writing skills when his parents forbade him from using the phone during his junior high and high school years. And, if that weren’t enough, he plans on hosting Thursday nights at Hollywood’s Café des Artistes. “I’m interested in throwing a party where creative adults can commune,” he says, running his hands through his dry mane and removing a pair of thick black shades. “I’m working on a theme — Hollywood, 1978. Ziggy Stardust meets Malibu.”
But don’t assume Cole’s conservative Indianapolis mom is satisfied yet. “I came from this simple, blue-collar, born-again Christian family. And they expected that I would do something very prestigious or lofty, like, law or medicine. Even when I had a successful life in the counterculture in New York, my mom would still suggest that I come back and go to community college and study law. I was like, ‘Ma, you don’t get it, we’re a little bit beyond that now.’”
At the top of Mount Palomar, up a winding road of Indian casinos and groves of citrus and pine, about an hour inland from Oceanside, sits the Hale Telescope, for decades the crown jewel in the world of astronomy. Since the early 1990s the telescope has been eclipsed by a series of even bigger, fancier models, but as far as Caltech astronomer Chuck Steidel is concerned, Hale is far from obsolete. Like camera and car aficionados, Steidel reserves his deepest reverence for the classics. “Simplicity and workmanship,” he says. “That’s what Hale is all about. There is nothing else like it.”
This evening, Steidel, dressed in a button-down shirt, jeans and wire-rimmed glasses, has come once again to Hale in pursuit of a long-term goal: finding galaxies at the farthest reaches of the universe.
Success with that kind of project takes smarts. Steidel has plenty. Last September the MacArthur Foundation awarded him one of its coveted, unsolicited “genius” grants, handing him half a million bucks, no strings attached. You could call him Big-Buck Chuck.
The thing is, Steidel never wanted to be a science geek. “I hated physics,” he says of his college years at Princeton. “I was much more into literature and music.” So he played guitar, wrote songs and sang backup in a series of garage bands. The first stars he discovered were of the rock ’n’ roll variety — as a college radio DJ he helped introduce REM to the masses. But with astronomy Steidel seems to have found enough astral intrigue to engage the creative reaches of his mind. He also likes the world of academia because it helps him avoid painful social situations. “I’m no good at small talk,” he says. “I’m mostly scared of people.”
The outside of the dome that houses Hale is painted bright, eye-burning white. Once inside, though, the space is dark and cavelike, and Hale is a looming, muscular machine. Standing next to it I feel a powerlessness akin to scuba diving with sharks deep in the ocean or encountering a tiger on an African plain. Not that there is any danger here, but I can’t help sensing that this is the turf of a mighty beast, and that I am a rather vulnerable visitor.
At Hale’s base, a flying saucer–looking disc holds a curved, 200-inch mirror. Above that there’s a hollowed-out arch that looks like a magnet; this is attached to the prime mirror, encased in what looks like a giant tin can. Inside the can sits a faded black chair. During Hale’s early days, an astronomer would climb in and photograph the night sky. Now all the images are taken by computer and transmitted to the control room where the astronomers work. A few months back, Caltech acquired one of the largest wide-field infrared cameras ever built. It can photograph galaxies up to 12 billion light-years away. Tonight that camera is nestled in the place where the astronomer used to sit.
At dusk we ride an elevated platform up to the top to watch the dome slide open. We see the misting valleys below and a blanket of pink along the horizon give way to a darkening night sky. The first stars appear. We retreat to the control room: It’s time to work.
Steidel isn’t the only one pursuing the secrets of the heavens. But he was among the first to try a new method. Instead of simply gazing at images of varying depths and trying to sort out where everything is, Steidel divided the universe into manageable slices, or epochs, and started charting each galaxy within it.
These days he’s working on what he thinks might be the most important epoch in the history of the universe, one he calls the “Bright Ages.” Steidel shows me two images. Each is a tile-sized square with a beige background covered in tiny black dots and a few, much larger dots that look like cigarette burns. Each tiny dot represents a galaxy in the target epoch. The “cigarette burns” are much closer stars that are getting in the way. As he explains the images, Steidel gets excited. During the Bright Ages, he says, which occurred between 10 and 12 billion light-years ago, more than half of all the stars in the entire universe were created. Since humans are mostly made of carbon and all carbon is made in the center of stars, Steidel says, “Fifty to 60 percent of the makeup of our bodies probably comes from the stars born during this epoch.”
But even in the most fascinating job, the spectacular often gives way to the mundane. This night is a case in point. The work consists of cataloging as many of the estimated 500 to 600 galaxies as possible, data that will be refined in the coming months. What that looks like onscreen is a bunch of letters and numbers and the occasional blurry image. No windows. No stars.
As Steidel settles in for a long night, I have one last question: What is he doing with his cool half-mil? So far, not much. This is a man accustomed to thinking of time in terms of eons — he doesn’t feel the need to rush into anything. He did buy himself a vintage electric guitar for his 40th birthday a few months ago. “This year I began my midlife crisis,” he says, smiling. “You can’t just have your nose to the grindstone all the time.”
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