prologue: Nostaligia revisted
She first comes to me as if in a dream, though my eyes are wide open when it happens. Everything is like that these days. I live in a waking fever that stretches to the end of time. Days are like weeks, months are like years. Everything amazes me, everything scares me, nothing is ironic. I can hardly comprehend the evil that lurks around the frayed edges—my frail and defeated mother replacing my dearly departed father with booze and a rouge’s gallery of monsters who crack the whip and beat me down. It tears at my heart and my flesh, fills me with desires I cannot name and obsessions I will have to live with later. I think it was always there. Just another part of growing up, I guess. The pain and the guilt, the fear of the grown-ups and the kids who mock me. But in the darkest places, there’s sometimes a light that shines. My light is named Julia. I will love her forever.
The year is 1975.
I am nine years old.
My mother takes me to see the film because she feels guilty about the life we live. She just thinks it’s the latest cool space movie thing, and boy do I ever like that stuff. The flashy poster we saw in the lobby when we went to see Jaws last week says that the hero of the film is a STATE OF THE ART BIONIC BEAUTY—and bionic people are big with the kids these days. The Six Million Dollar Man is the hottest thing on TV right now, all about a guy whose arm and legs have been replaced with transistorized stainless steel robotics that make him a total badass. So this Julia Starchild must be cool, right? My mother never noticed the rating on Julia’s poster, which was R, which means this movie probably isn’t exactly for kids. But there’s nothing we can do about it now. We’re locked in. My mom buys me popcorn and we sit in the one movie theater that exists in Muleshoe Texas, which is a tiny place of loose boards and creaking seats, falling apart around our ears. It smells like dripping water and rat turds in here. Movie theaters are, unfortunately, the only place you can see new or even slightly new movies in 1975. I sometimes wish for a machine that will play any movie I want, any time I want, in the palm of my hand. (Like that’s ever gonna happen.) My childish desires for such things float away every day on bitter, thin winds. The smell of frustrated dreams and empty promises fills my world. I think everyone in this world can feel that. I know they can. They have to understand that there is a life beyond this one that is so much less temporary.
But suddenly none of that matters.
Because when the lights go down.
When the lights go DOWN . . .
I am drop-kicked into another dimension. The impossibly heroic strains of a sweeping, romantic orchestral score splash-paint the star-studded universe, wild tracers and soft light streaking by, erupting at last in a kaleidoscopic montage that seems to channel from the deepest depths of my own fevered imagination. Star Trek and Space: 1999 were cool and all—but this? This is like a real journey into outer space.
And then . . .
And THEN . . .
The face of the most beautiful woman I have ever seen fills the screen, her sultry, knowing features solidifying in a series of dissolves—eyes that glow with predatory grace, lips full and round. She winks and blows a kiss and the screen explodes again—and suddenly I can see her naked body quicksilvering in space, with all the flowing angry elegance of a jungle cat and the tortured balletic abandon of a fallen angel with nothing to lose. She is surrounded by nebula fire. Her breasts are full and rising. Her dance across the rings of the galaxy stirs a tingling glitter in my body to a full roiling boil, like red-hot ice exploding in my heart, her winking, sensuous smile kissing my doomed boyhood again and again. My whole being lights up as her lithe silhouette merges with the stars—like she is a twisting, flowing pirouetting dream. It feels new and even dirty somehow. But the experience is absolutely pure. There is total heroic truth here. I am projected into it, like a giggling, impetuous elf-child strapped to an exploding rocketship, and I feel the earth disappear beneath my feet, the pull of hyperspace a yanking, desperate, loving, urgent peel of wind, rolling outward from my heart and my stomach, the crescendo of the orchestra so beautifully triumphant, so romantically sad, with just a hint of magic to mourn the passing of my old juvenile self and my emergence into a wild new universe of infinite, adult possibilities . . .
The title of the film shimmers onto the screen.
Her face is the face of my future.
It is the beginning of an adventure that will last my whole life.
. . .
What I don’t realize is this:
At the very moment I am blasted into hyperspace, the creator of Julia Starchild is sitting in his shitty 42nd Street loft apartment, dropping a needle into a spoon filled with heroin. His real name is Zachary Grove, but most of the world knows him by at least ten other aliases. He’s just spent the last three years of his life struggling to get a movie made and released and every critic on earth has lined up this week to gang rape him. It would be easy to say fuck those guys, but it really hurts. He wanted to be loved by them. He wanted to have a real career—not a career in pornography. He was 15 when he realized he wanted to make movies, all because of a movie called Forbidden Planet, which blew his mind when he saw it in the balcony of the finest old picture house in Hollywood. He was 19 when he wrote his first script, a dim copy of Forbidden Planet, with bad dialogue and cardboard characters. He was 19 when his mother and father died in a car wreck, leaving him with emptiness he could never name. He was 24 when he got kicked out of Long beach College for protesting with the hippies, but screw those guys anyway because what was he ever gonna be in life as a philosophy major in California? He was 28 when he got work as a tour guide at Universal City and started handing out bogus resumes to anyone whose office door was open. He was 30 when he got a gig as PA on a TV commercial, through a friend of a friend. That was when he started snorting massive amounts of cocaine and heisting cameras and equipment and making contacts. He was 31 when he moved to New York and started shooting nudie loops—then doing hardcore features. He chased the dragon for the first time and it was love at first sight—then came the needle. It was all he could do to keep the monsters at bay, while he paid the rent off a creaky hallway in a hotel room where no one ever asked questions, so long as the cash was in hand. His first released film in 1970 was called Shelly’s Dirty Mouth. That was when he started using a pseudonym to sign his work—Zack Groove. I mean, who in their right mind would stamp their real name on a piece of shit like this? At least the camera was in focus, most of the time.
These memories are painful.
He will explain all this to me later.
I will get it all in graphic detail because it will become my obsession.
I will find out how Zack arrived in NYC in 1969 and hit the Times Square movie scene—that amazing epicenter of tarnished gold, lit up in two rows like a symphonic light show of freaky madness and lasting horror and total sleaze. They call it the Deuce. Everything here is like a sleazy back-alley Promise of Oz, where the lights glitter with every shade of majesty, while assholes with funny hats and platform shoes run their women and pick your pocket and sell their shit on the corner. There are two rows of theater marquees facing each other from across twin avenues, all of them interconnected in the rear by way of an elaborate series of back doors. Like towering scumbag giants, joined ass to ass in a galaxy of neon light and blackest shadows. Up front, the movies travel up and down the rows, filling those glowing, screaming marquees—the most lurid and outrageous films you can imagine, from hardcore porn to slice-’em-up blood horror. Some of them are so fucked-up that you can’t even see them unless you know the right guy, who can slip you a Super-8 film reel in a brown paper sack under the table. In this maelstrom of weirdness, men and women live and die for their obsessions. A handful of them even make movies that only show in these theaters. It’s a planet of filth, dressed up like the gateway to Shangri-La.
He sees all of it and is seduced by easy promises.
He rents his room above the Lyric theater and hooks up with a theater owner who runs a distribution outlet and the guy says if Zack can make a film for five grand, he’ll show it in his movie palaces—classy joints like the Empire and the Gorgon, where it pays to pack a knife when you sit down with your popcorn. Zack shakes hands with the devil and recruits his talent right off the street. He shoots up with the actors and tells them to fuck like rabbits and most of them do. The two Panavision cameras and the pro-gear he stole during his midnight raids on the Universal lot come in damn handy. His film looks way better than most pornography because it’s shot on 35 millimeter and the camera angles are really well composed. He even lights some of the scenes artfully. The rest of the filmmaking process is slow and clunky and painful. He learns it all as he goes. You have to print your film out on reels and then cut it into pieces and tape the pieces together on big machines called Movieolas and Kems. That’s called a “work print.” It will be used as a guide when you actually take your master camera negative and chop it into a final product. You have to use special gear to synch up your soundtrack, which spools out on even more rolls, right alongside your taped-together work-in-progress. You make something that’s five reels long and you gotta put it on a projector and look at it on a screen to see how badly you’ve screwed the pooch. The music is all needle-drop stuff he gets on loan from a library at a radio station, and he never pays for it anyway. He brings the film in for under 3 grand, sends the work print to the lab for negative cutting and spends the rest on heroin. He ties off his arm and shoots up in the theater where he goes to see it. His girlfriend—who is a busty hooker he recruited to dub the moaning of the lead fuckdoll—tells him it’s a great film. A man is jacking off in the seat behind them. The dope hits his brain like greasy lightning and his eyes roll back in his head.
And when he can see again, he’s making more movies. Three in a row this time—each one for 6 grand. He recruits better talent. The technical craft becomes more accomplished. He gets friendlier with the labs and the dubbing studios and the guys who chop up the film for him. He overhears people in some of those labs who say that one day all this will be done with electronic technology, that movies won’t even be shot on film a few decades from now. He cannot imagine how any of that could possibly happen. Not with a process this archaic and mechanical. He’s literally in the business of shooting pictures and taping them together and recording sounds to play back with them. And it’s getting easier and faster as he goes. He yells “ACTION! and “CUT! and watches it all zoom into the cold nasty oblivion of a stained silver screen.
Three years burn away in the blink of a doped-out eye.
Somewhere in that blink, he meets a weird Italian guy who lives on 48th street and has a basement full of stop-motion camera gear and a tricked-out animation stand—this is the guy who does all the opticals and titles for everyone’s piece-of-shit NYC dive movies. But the guy has an effects demo reel that really impresses Zack—even though Zack can hardly see straight when he looks at it because he’s been up for six days straight shooting speedballs with his director of photography. But it sort of seems real impressive.
And it gives Zack an idea.
What about a science-fiction picture?
Something sexy, but something classy, too.
Like Barbarella, but maybe even cooler than that.
We could do something really wild, if we could just get a little more money—and this crazy Italian guy can do the special effects.
Zack is a big fan of Star Trek and all those Flash Gordon serials he saw when he was a kid, and of course he still wants to make his own Forbidden Planet. He could do something at least as impressive as an old Republic serial. Couldn’t he? When he tells his plan to his usual financiers, they ask him if it will be hardcore. Zack knows they will balk if he tells the truth. So he lies. He says the film will be the sexiest thing he’s ever directed. They all shake hands and the deal is done. Sixty grand, from nine different investors. Everything is on the line this time—including his ass. Some of these guys are mafia. One of them is a pimp with gold teeth who wants to be in the movie business. Zack uses the sixty grand as collateral to get a loan from a bank—which is part of an elaborate trick he learned back in LA from a producer buddy he used to sell cocaine to. It’s a pyramid scam which he never had the bread to try for real—but which finally gives him a million dollars when the smoke clears. Which is a fucking fortune in 1973, of course. He only spends a few grand on dope, which is a fortune also. With the rest, he goes in search of his leading lady. He can do real casting calls now. He can bullshit anyone and back it up with cash.
His script, which he types in six days while tripping on mushrooms, is incredibly ambitious.
It’s about a cyborg woman with mystical powers who travels the universe in a rocketship, getting in adventures—and finally, she tries to rescue her long lost half-sister from the evil galactic warlord Drydex and his scummy band of space pirates. For her trouble, she is captured and subjected to the worst tortures imaginable. But our heroine is stronger than all that, and throws off her chains, rising up in a final battle with the galactic asshole. In the end, even when Drydex is at her mercy, she smiles and forgives him and casts him into “the sea of interstellar love,” where he will hopefully learn the secret of being human. She actually says this to the audience on the last page of the script—looks in the camera and speaks directly to us, addressing the moral of the story and the reason we watched this whole bizarre opus. Everyone who reads the script thinks it’s silly bullshit, except for the people he pays well to show up. Only the sex scenes redeem it for the investors, though they do not realize Zack’s plan is to play all that with softcore class and great filmmaking and bypass their usual methods of distribution. When this thing is finished, he will shop it to the majors, by god. It will be a goddamn bona fide hit—at a theater near you. Not these fucking dives on 42nd Street, man. Something respectable. Something classy.
He finds his Julia Starchild in the pages of Playboy magazine.
She is smoldering in her epic, busty California beauty.
Her name is Julia Starr.
What are the odds?
It’s kismet, he thinks.
Within weeks of signing her to the film, he has fallen in love with her (or at least what passes for love in the state he’s in) and she is single and he is not bad-looking (or at least what passes for not-bad-looking in the state he’s in), so she says what the hell? She is sweet and loving and generous. She can hardly act her way out of a wet paper sack, but it doesn’t matter. He loves her beauty and her specialness. He basks in the glow of it. She is like a muse, sparkling like all the stars in the universe. They conceive their first child a week into pre-production. They are done with shooting before she starts to show her pregnancy much. She gives birth halfway through editing, far away in California. Zack is not there with her and she deeply resents him for that. Of course she does. Says they will never be married because of how blinders-on he is. He says he has a million dollars to pay back and the mafia is breathing down his throat, so please give me a fucking break, okay? 300 grand has been spent on the film and the crazy Italian guy’s special effects are not even half finished. The shots he has delivered are beautiful beyond belief, though. The opening credits sequence is masterful—right up there with the Bond films—and the hyperspace effects are dazzling. Making the spaceships fly has been a problem, but our crazy Italian guy solves the problem with miniatures built from the bones of store-bought model kits—a trick he picked up from the big guys who did 2001—and he films them all with his stop motion camera rig against a painted background of stars. But it takes forever—and Zack doesn’t have forever. His girlfriend hates him, the mob wants to kill him and his movie is a year and a half behind schedule.
But it looks terrific.
He managed to shoot every scene he wrote, on sets that were little more than cardboard facsimiles—and that was a fucking miracle unto itself. Problem is, most of these scenes need post optical special effects work. When Julia does her magic, you have to see lightning bolts jumping from her hands. And that costs money. And the Italian guy is way behind on just the model spaceships.
So Zack goes deeper into the hole.
He calls up some shady guys.
He gets a loan on his loans.
And with the money he buys a brick of pure, uncut heroin.
That almost kills him. Not because of the mob or the loan sharks or any of that shit—no, what kills him is having that much dope in the house. He shoots up every day, twice a day and pukes himself to sleep. He works on the movie in every waking moment beyond that. He turns around more than half the dope and makes a million more dollars on the street. It all goes right back into the movie. He pays the crazy Italian guy to hire an assistant and goes out and gets John Barry to do the music. Barry is Zack’s favorite composer, the British guy who did all the James Bond movies, and Barry has agreed to score Julia Starchild for just a hair under 100 grand. Zack talked him into it by snorting an entire ounce of cocaine, drinking half a bottle of scotch to take the edge off, then dropping four Quaaludes and showing Barry a rough cut of the film on his Movieola in the editing room, while narrating how great everything was gonna be when all the effects shots were finally pasted in. The orchestra and the sessions will cost another 75 thou—including the overtime hours at Abby Road in London and all the perks of air travel and accommodations for the musicians. Even after that, it spirals way over budget. In the end, making the music costs almost as much as the movie itself and it’s a wild adventure that he hardly experiences because he’s so stoned. But the score comes out goddamn fucking amazing. It is epic and romantic and glorious and even sad. It will save the picture. He says this over the phone from London to his beloved Julia—the real Julia, who is living at the Playboy mansion with their newborn son. He manages to sound sane when he is on the phone with her. Asks her if they can be together again. She says no, of course, but she will do the looping sessions—and she’ll be in the sequel, too, if there ever is one. She says she’ll always love him. But their son must not be raised by such a man.
He wonders what such a man is.
He wonders what such a woman Julia is.
He cannot even remember what his mother and father looked like now.
Like there was never any other life before this one.
He drinks half a bottle of whiskey, shoots up a speedball, and gets on a plane with John Barry’s master tapes under one arm. He gets off the plane in New York and plows straight through until dawn. Deals and more deals. He doesn’t sleep for weeks at a stretch. He dubs the film and pastes in the effects shots one by one. He sees his beloved Julia when she flies up from Cali to loop her lines in the recording booth. She kisses his cheek and says their son is healthy and happy. She says she’ll buy a ticket to the movie when it comes to LA. Then she is gone. Zack cries in the dark and hears John Barry’s music in his head, and it is the great tragedy of his life. He spirals down and down, but he works harder and harder. At the end of year two, his drug business is still going, and he is able to pay back the original 65 grand to those assholes who’ve already broken three of his fingers. He pays them with interest and tells them the movie went tits up and they all believe him and they say he’ll never make another movie on 42nd street, and that’s fine with him. He’s still 2 million in the hole and has one good hand left, but he’s got lots of dope and the mafia went away, so cool, man.
He shoots up. He smokes up. He drinks up.
He is 33 years old when he finally sees an answer print of Julia Starchild.
It is January of 1975.
The screening room is the Lyric Theater down on the Deuce, where the mob guys said he’d never work again—he rents this place out by the hour, after hours, so he can screen his footage. He sits here with a head full of heroin and the few buddies he still has left, and the seats smell like beer and semen and rat turds.
And his movie—this fucking THING that has cost him every OTHER THING—finally flashes up on the screen.
It’s better than he could have imagined.
It’s the film he always wanted to make.
Juila is like a fever dream for grown-up children from frame one, existing in a temporal loop that cancels out everything else in the known universe. Her journey through space is wild and untamed. She meets up with a galactic smuggler and lays him for starship gas in the first scene—and the scene is erotic and playful and somehow moving. She saves the handsome old smuggler from a lifetime of loneliness and she draws such incredible power from saving him. The whole thing is shot against a backdrop of the milky way, and the glowing effects that describe Julia’s wild, joyous, powerful orgasm blasts across space and time. The smuggler falls in love and says he wants to be with Julia always. But Julia only winks and moves on to the big rescue of her sister from the scumbag space pirates. And when Juila is captured finally and tied to the whipping post by the evil asshole who almost breaks her will to live—it actually makes Zack cry. Her pain is his pain. He feels the bitter salt of her tears, the cruel leather of the lash, the crack of her tortured soul and horror he has created in this story. The music sells the whole thing. It is so morose and tragic and beautifully unflinching—it speaks to all abused people everywhere, and gives them a hero to cheer for when she rises up and defeats these heartless monsters. Zack feels the truth of it. He knows what he has done is somehow God’s work.
He is right, by the way. We are all, the children of abuse and denial, saved by Julia Starchild. I will one day find Zack Groove and explain it to him. I will tell him how helpless I was until I found Julia. That she is the great light in a black and unforgiving universe. I will tell her that watching Julia strike back from the Pit of Torture, time and time again, is like mainlining courage. How moved we all are when she finally casts Drydex away and the music swells, her loving triumph sweet like the gentle selfless smooch of an angel . . .
But anyway . . .
In the finale, Julia smiles brighter than ever.
She speaks to the camera, the music plays her off into hyperspace.
And, Zack Groove cannot believe it was he who created this.
He is stoned out of his mind, so he hardly notices the cheapjack sets that he was able to expertly cover with filtered red-and-blue light, the cheesy miniature space models that look like children’s toys, the hammy overacting by the guy playing Drydex—an actor who is notorious in almost every circle of film as being violent and difficult on set, but whom Zack only remembers as being a real nice guy. In fact, none of these difficulties he may or may not have experienced on set or off set while making this thing even matter at all now. Because his child is finally born—has real child, his only child.
And he is proud as only a new father can be.
The film is so good, he thinks, that he’ll be sure to snag a great deal with a distributor. They’ll be lining up to force money on him. It’s 1975 now, and sci-fi is big. The Bionic Man is popular and Zack’s awesome first lady of outer space just so happens to be bionic. And she’s tough and magical like Wonder Woman, too—which is the top rated TV show going.
What incredible luck.
They’ll be screaming for this one.
And he is absolutely right—one of the executives at Universal does scream. For them to turn the fucking thing off.
They all do.
It’s a crushing defeat that last two months, as Zack brings the film into screening rooms, only to have every single one of these assholes walk before the damn thing is even half over. Zack finally has to choke on a shitty deal from a notorious drive-in outfit called Cinerama Releasing, who are usually the last place you ever want to end up with a film like this. Sure enough, the deal only gives him part of the net gross. He loses more than a million just going in. But at least the film is in theaters. At least it’s getting reviews. Even though he wishes it wasn’t.
“A juvenile schlock-fest held together with the thinnest of plotlines and reeking of crass exploitation sensibilities—like what would happen if someone like Larry Flynt teamed up with the Marquis de Sade and tried making a Saturday morning kids show about space superheroes.”
“Fairly classy production values cannot redeem this meandering miasma of contrived story devices and clichéd characters. Starr is appealing as Julia, but one wonders if her acting was what truly won her the role. Her other talents are far more attractive—both of them. The main baddie is painfully arch and totally unthreatening, with a name that sounds bizarrely like some kind of space age feminine hygiene product.”
“Kids might like this, but unfortunately the film is not for kids. It’s more like a fetishistic voyeuristic weird-dream-in-outer-space story that borders on offensive at times, while at other times it’s just plain laughable. Tragically also, the film is neither sexy enough or sophisticated enough for grown ups, lacking the creative abandon of Modestly Blaise or Barbarella. Worse still, it even takes such a morbid right turn in the last act and becomes so weirdly sadistic that you start to wonder if this is being directed by the same guy.”
“Pic is just plain crazy. Who was it made for? Kids who want to play doctor on another planet? Fans of Star Trek who like their women strung out on the rack and whipped within an inch of their lives? It’s a near-incomprehensible farce that begs the obvious question of how such a film came into existence on the fringes of Hollywood, but also brings up an even more elemental puzzle: Why did they bother?”
Only one critic actually likes the film.
Roger Ebert, who has a thing for big boobs.
He calls the film a “Delightful throwback that sort of engages the senses, while allowing one to turn his mind off.”
Zack sinks the needle into his vein and wonders what his life has been worth. The film has been in release three weeks and, besides all those punishing reviews, nobody even notices. Cinerama dumped it into five markets with a weak promo campaign that consisted of three things: A poster in lobbies, a trailer, and two thirty-second TV commercials after ten o’clock PM, just three days before each weekend opening in Arkansas, Texas, Boston, Washington and Los Angeles. Most local networks won’t run ads for R-rated films in prime time, so they’re up shit creek right there. The Cinerama executive he talks to every other day keeps saying its doing well, but he hasn’t seen a dime yet. He is still millions in debt, and will only be able to crawl out from under it by declaring bankruptcy—then selling more dope. All of which could easily kill him before he’s 40. He only wanted to make movies. He is so proud of Julia. He can’t even remember the name of his actual flesh-and-blood son, who is being raised in the guest house of a mansion in California. All he has is this shitty little apartment in the Bronx. All he has his his needle. All he has is his movie.
He does not realize that he has changed my life.
He cannot—not yet.
But he will.
To read the next chapter, click Julia’s face ABOVE.