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Film Critic Harlan Jacobson: Minneapolis Footage Prompts Another Memorable Moment of Outrage

Harlan Jacobson
David Tallacksen

In all his years reporting on cinema, our fim critic Harlan Jacobson has never seen 8.5 minutes of footage that has sparked a global call to action, as we’ve witnessed this past week with the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. He recalls a memorable moment of outrage for us now.

HJ: When I was a young reporter at Variety in the 1970’s, it was the heyday of the mass market porn film, which Variety termed sexploitation films, with titles like Debbie Does Dallas, Behind the Green Door and the mega-hit of all time Deep Throat. Variety had a policy of reviewing all films in those days, which meant the three or four guys in the film section would go out into the cesspool that was the 70’s Times Square to review the never-ending torrent of porn. One guy loved Jennifer Welles, who’d made her bones as star of Inside Jennifer Welles, an expose of sorts, and then quit after she directed and starred in Little Orphan Sammy in 1977, to marry a rich guy presumably in a rain coat she’d found in the audience.

There was mob influence in the business, all right, which I surmised firsthand when I was assigned to cover one of the companies and dropped into their Hell’s Kitchen office to meet the brothers who ran it. They were already in trouble with the law, but you couldn’t really tell that anything was amiss except that the movie posters on the wall weren’t like the ones United Artists hung just a few blocks away for Rocky, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Marty. The brothers who ran things couldn’t have been nicer to me, a reporter from a show business trade paper, though they looked like undertakers in three-inch-wide lapel suits, and I looked pretty shlumpy, which I mistakenly thought in those days was the badge of an honest trade.

I reported back to my managing editor about what I‘d found and the choice it presented: we either covered this sexploitation stuff right, which meant as investigative journalists, or we stopped reviewing the films, which was essentially doing publicity for a business we should be investigating. Like a lot of things at Variety back then, there was no hard and fast decision, but reviewing porn films became at the discretion of the reviewer, and so things tapered off to not very much, and zero in my case. I didn’t have the time.

That is until the rumors floated around town that there was a snuff film made in Argentina in which they actually murder a porn actress. She is snuffed out, hence the name. It was booked into the National Theater on 43rd and Broadway under the title Snuff. Of course, it created a furor. Protest groups formed outside the theater. TV and the tabloids covered the arrival of a real murder in a sexploitation film. What next! I got to work. The film was distributed by Monarch Films, a company I’d never heard of, headed by a guy I’d never heard of, Allan Shackleton. I went to see him in his office. Mid-forties, taught chemistry or engineering—one of those sciencey trades—at Columbia, but his career hadn’t gone so well there, he said, he had a family, a mortgage, etc. and so he was now in the movie business. He had no posters on the wall I can remember. He wouldn’t say much, of course, except go see the film. So, I did — 44 years ago almost to the day.

It was a grade Z softcore Manson Family knockoff biker film that had been sitting on a shelf in Buenos Aires for some number of years. It was so bad and boring no one would release it. Shackleton saw a way to make a buck. It meandered through bad biker cult stuff and then abruptly, the film shifted to video tape and a scene that is tacked on in which an actress is eviscerated in a cheap motel. Allan hired a young married couple, Michael and Roberta Findlay, who’d been working in porn to learn the various crafts, to film and edit the end. When I found the Findlays, they spilled their guts, as it were. They’d gone to a butcher and bought some animal entrails, which one of them kept handing up from under the bed the actress –the uncredited Ginger Snaps—was lying on in camera range. I wrote that the Snuff part of Snuff was a fast buck marketing gambit, nothing more, end of story.

Well, almost. I went past the theatre one night on my way to the subway, and Shackleton was sitting in his station wagon watching the protest line that wanted to believe a woman was killed on camera—a slice of capitalism they had to interdict. I got in Allan’s car and we talked boxoffice for a bit. I did work for Variety. It was a little surreal. Until someone recognized Shackleton from his mug shot in the NY Post, and then the protestors swarmed and rocked the car. I thought they’d flip it. Allan started the car, everyone backed off, and he pulled away. I hopped out 300 feet away in front of the subway .

A couple years later, Michael Findlay was on his way to Hollywood, his career finally having bumped up to legit editor, when the helicopter he was waiting for atop the Pan Am Building toppled over and decapitated him. It made all the local news. I never gave the concept of a snuff film another thought.

Until a week ago. When I saw a police officer in Minneapolis calmly put his knee on the neck of George Floyd, a shackled black man lying face down on the pavement and almost nonchalantly chokes the life out of him, as if it was one more thing he had to do before he could grab lunch. It is inconceivable to me some 44 years later, that a real Snuff film has finally surfaced. And this is the form it has taken. It is the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen. And we see it at home no less, on TV, not in a Times Square theatre charging a premium. The rest of the world is finally up in arms about real murder, pandemic murder, race murder, historic murder. And the film is understood for what film at its core can be and is: a call to action seen all over the world. Stay safe.

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.