“I’ve always loved curation,” Joe Rubin tells me, last week, at Union Square’s Think Coffee.

The word “curation” might seem odd, given the types of films Rubin programs as the head of acquisitions at Connecticut-based home entertainment company Vinegar Syndrome. Vinegar Syndrome, and its subscription streaming service ExploitationTV, both specialize in the restoration and distribution of pornographic feature films from the ‘60s through the '80s. But you only need to spend a few minutes talking to Rubin to realize that the 28 year-old film buff is earnest when he says that he wants to get more people to appreciate the artistry of behind vintage adult entertainment.

“Everyone assumes that [these films are] not made by artists and that their creators didn’t care,” Rubin tells me. “But there were great filmmakers making hardcore films. And, for the most part, they never got credit. Or if they were recognized, it was on the level of 'Oh, you got a great orgy scene in this one. Good job!’”

Rubin’s passion found form when he spent six years managing Chicago’s Odd Obsession video store. He has, in that sense, always been interested in helping “people [to decide] what they should get, or dissuading people from seeing things they shouldn’t.”

With that goal in mind, it’s important to note that Rubin has played an integral role as both organizer and/or programmer for many recent American repertory movie theaters’ pornographic retrospectives. Rubin himself notes that these retrospectives don’t necessarily bring much money back to Vinegar Syndrome. “But that’s not why I’m interested in them,” he adds. Indeed, Chris Wells and Gavin Smith, the heads of programming at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema, confirm that sometimes Rubin hasn’t even asked for rental fees for retrospectives that Rubin’s helped to put together, like the Quad’s now-ongoing Erotic City program, a series of 21 films that focus on New York-set X-rated films and/or New York-based porn.

Rubin made a point of programming titles at Erotic City that weren’t in his catalogue, like the hardcore titles that softcore/arthouse king Radley Metzger directed under the pseudonym of “Henry Paris.” For Rubin, screening Metzger’s Henry Paris films, distribution rights for which are owned by fellow porn preservation/distribution company Distribpix, was a no-brainer. “To not have titles from the Distribpix catalog would be like doing a survey of significant Hollywood studios without MGM.”

Rubin’s analogy is striking, especially since a big part of his job is convincing people to see old porn as just another cinematic genre. That’s a tough sell with retrospectives like Erotic City series, but it’s one that Smith has met before. Smith previously organized a survey of Metzger’s films entitled This is Softcore at the Film Society at Lincoln Center in 2014. Smith wasn’t always certain that Metzger’s films would play well at Lincoln Center, especially titles like Metzger’s The Image, a 1975 drama about two women’s budding sadomasochistic relationship.

“It’s a tough film,” Smith says, recalling the four or five walk-outs that occurred during one screening (he says that the walk-outs were “mostly women”). “That was the moment where I was thinking I was going to get into trouble.” Smith laughs nervously. “But nobody said anything.”

On the contrary, Smith remembers that, once the Metzger series was in its planning stages, senior staff and board members at the Film Society, “who like to think of themselves as bold, daring people,” were eager to show “sex films.” “I don’t think they necessarily knew what that really meant, I don’t think they’d be really bothered by the Metzger films, but I also can’t see them programming a series like [Erotic City].”

If anything, Rubin’s greater involvement in the planning of Erotic City is what sets the series apart. Smith describes Rubin as “quite scholarly,” while Wells adds that many of the filmmakers who are appearing at the festival, like directors Roberta Findlay, and Jerry Douglas, are only involved in the series because they trust Rubin. “Joe’s knowledge is truly exhaustive,” Wells says.

Still from "Both Ways," Courtesy Vinegar Syndrome

Still from “Both Ways,” Courtesy Vinegar Syndrome

Still, retrospectives like Erotic City and his Metzger series were preceded by surveys like the relatively modest Rubin-programmed San Francisco-centric series, or fellow New York film programmer Casey Scott’s essential In the Flesh programs at New York City’s Anthology Film Archives. Scott says that the success of these series was, along with thematically linked programming, a combination of good timing, and greater salesmanship. Scott recalls struggling with pitching these films to a general audience of uninitiated, but adventurous viewers. To meet this challenge, Scott pored over years of Anthology Film Archives’ program booklets, studying how surveys were sold versus how successful–based on his subjective experience as an avid Anthology attendee–they were.

Scott knew that his programming notes, which attracted capacity crowds for 12 of the first 15 In the Flesh shows, had been successful when he saw a cluster of elderly moviegoers in attendance at a screening of X-rated 1978 sex-comedy Take-Off. Scott speculates that they showed up based on his programming notes, in which he compared the film to earlier Hollywood productions that director/co-wrier Armand Weston either spoofed or evoked. These moviegoers were not, in other words, regular Anthology Film Archives attendees but rather the type of people Scott associated with MoMA’s senior-citizen-friendly programming.

“Anything old and on film they show up to,” Scott says.

Scott, who will be moderating post-screening Q&A sessions during the Erotic City program, finds that the key to selling films to a relatively general audience is a matter of making the screenings feel like events. He recalls the period in the late '90s after the 1997 release of Boogie Nights where filmgoers were intrigued by pornographic films. The difference between then and now is that organizers like Rubin and Morowitz–with the help of programmers like Scott, Wells, and Smith–are keeping alive the trend that Scott helped to revive in 2013 with the help of post-screening Q&As. “No time or effort was put into it,” Scott says of the post-Boogie Nights '90s. “No one was interviewing the directors before they passed away.”

Restoration and distribution is one thing but Scott thinks that the key to keeping laypeople interested is getting filmmakers to contextualize the making of their films through post-screening appearances and discussions. “If you’re winning over fans of these new films, they’re gonna want to know what the backstory of these films is.”

Rubin, while not-exactly pessimistic, is a little more wary of the idea that contemporary viewers have more sophisticated taste, or are even more open-minded. According to Rubin, “There’s always going to be a certain amount of people who refuse to acknowledge that a film that depicts sex is a piece of art, is a creative work. It will always have a utilitarian value to them, or just be dismissed outright as a waste of energy. But I also think it’s unfair to say that people today understand things better than they did when these films first came out.”

He continues: “The people that tend to be the most knowledgable, and most enthusiastic, and that I have the most in common with in terms of interest in these films? They tend to be in the 45-65 age range. if you come from the era of 'I want to the movies to see a sex film,’ you know it wasn’t just going to the movies to see a sex film. It was just going to the movies. It was the same theaters that were showing art films and independent films. If you look at playbills for what played in theaters around college campuses? You’d see tons of sex films showing on campuses, sometimes at midnight. You’d see lots of attempts at making these screenings events for big fund-raisers, or the cool movie screenings.”

Why, then, does Rubin devote so much time to the restoration and sale of pornography? The answer lies in his background as a self-taught lover of disreputable cinema. Hardcore sex films have been a particular source of fascination for Rubin ever since he was eight or nine years old. At this point, Rubin, a pint-sized (but tall for his age) Chicagoan, had already convinced his parents to buy all sorts of gory films for him, like The Driller Killer, The Body Shop, and Flesh for Frankenstein. Rubin’s parents would accompany him to video stores like Darkstar (now defunct), and Coconuts (still somehow operating as a chain around the country), and purchase movies like Friday the 13th and Phantasm to placate him.

Still from "A Woman

Still from “A Woman’s Torment,” Courtesy Vinegar Syndrome

But, while Rubin’s mother made him promise that he would not watch these films until he was older, no amount of honors system-enforced admonitions could keep Rubin away. He was ravenous, and compiled a holy grail lists based on recommendations from PBS shows like Wild Chicago and Image Union. Joe is such a capable salesman that he once convinced his dad, a classical music buff, to buy him a copy of the infamously grisly 1978m snuff film compilation Faces of Death by saying that “a film collection without Faces of Death would be like a classical music collection without Mozart.”

Rubin soon became interested in sex films after he started scouring his local library’s microfilm collection, looking for newspaper ads for John Carpenter’s Halloween. One hardcore title stood out thanks to its poster art: an amply-endowed young woman blushes as she disappears into the glowing crown of an active volcano. The film was Eruption, and Rubin had to see it. So Joe dragged Mrs. Rubin to Darkstar, and insisted that she buy the tape for him. His sales tactic? “'It’s basically Double Indemnity.’”

Eruption

Eruption

Rubin’s mother initially resisted her son’s skillful pleading, and insisted that they ask the store clerk for his opinion. “'What do you think? Is this appropriate?’” Joe remembers his mother asking.

“'I don’t know,’” the clerk said. “But it’s based on Double Indemnity.’” Rubin left Darkstar with Eruption in hand.

Ironically, Joe wasn’t interested in the film’s sex scenes when he saw them. Instead, he fast-forwarded through them, admitting that the found them to be “boring.” Believe it or not, Rubin was most intrigued by the fact that a pornographic film had such an engaging narrative, and was so well shot, and choreographed. Eruption was different from what then pre-pubescent Rubin understood porn to be, based solely on the thirty-second clips he saw on the internet (remember: Rubin was born in 1989). Hardcore films like Eruption and Hard Soap, Hard Soap, the latter of which Rubin describes as a 1977 X-rated Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman-esque comedy, were not porn as Rubin knew the genre. “They looked like films.”

Rubin continued his love of watching, and subsequently recommending films to people at Odd Obsession from 2005 until about 2012, about a year after he and friend/business partner Ryan Emerson launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to restore and release the “lost” sex films of legendary exploitation filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis. Rubin and Emerson’s fund-raiser was so successful that they immediately realized that they had to revisit their pre-existing plan to open both a New York-based film lab and a complimentary film distribution company. If anything, the latter business would have to be given greater importance. Enter Vinegar Syndrome, born in 2013, the same year that Scott began his In the Flesh program at the Anthology Film Archives.

Still from "Bijou," Courtesy Vinegar Syndrome

Still from “Bijou,” Courtesy Vinegar Syndrome

Fast-forward to 2017, when Smith and Wells share Rubin’s mix of concern and hope for the success of Erotic City. Smith doesn’t want viewers to think that the films that the Quad are showing are somehow being divorced from their context as exploitation cinema. Wells sayss that all genre cinema is, on some level, exploitative. Smith disagrees.

“Exploitation films are not inherently bad because they’re exploitation films,” Smith says. “But it also depends on what’s being exploited. Is it an exploitation film because the filmmakers are exploiting the audience’s desire for a certain kind of experience, a certain kind of material? I guess so. That’s a little bit of a double-edged word to use when it comes to the sex industry. I think it’s important to not let the idea of the exploitation get lost in a kind of high-minded look at these films. We shouldn’t lose sight of what they are.”

Scott basically agrees, saying that sex films, as a genre, “will never be mainstream acceptable.” But Scott, like Wells, also wants to sell these films honestly, in a way that acknowledges both the film’s earthier charms, and artistic merits.

“It’s a constant struggle,” Scott says. “But we keep trying. That’s all you can do, just try to get these films shown, written up in respectable publications…that’s all you can do, just make sure that these filmmakers get treated with the respect that they deserve.”

That’s a mission that Rubin is behind 100%, no matter how comparatively pragmatic his outlook may be. You might think that Rubin’s just being diplomatic when he says “I hope people of all age ranges, all genders, and all interests can find something in this series that will intrigue them enough to check it out.” But when Rubin’s saying a lot with a little when says that

“I’m selling movies to people who are like me.” The Quad’s audience may not be Rubin’s normal customer base, but they just might be the kind of people who, like him, also want to see the craft in movies that are so often dismissed as, in Scott’s words, “wank fodder.”

“In a small way, getting these films out there is a noble effort,” Scott says.