How I Letterboxd: Justin LaLiberty

Programmer and Vinegar Syndrome archivist Justin LaLiberty talks to Jack Moulton about erotic cinema, getting anal about film restoration and aspect ratios, and his love for Last Action Hero.

The smallest screen I can handle is my fifteen-inch laptop and even that is hard for me. I just want to watch everything in the proper aspect ratio and on the best quality I can manage to get.” —⁠Justin LaLiberty

Having logged more than 10,000 films since joining in March 2012, it is safe to say that Justin LaLiberty is a meticulous Letterboxd member. He is a film programmer and archivist working at acclaimed film restoration and distribution company Vinegar Syndrome, is also somewhat of a legendary list maker, with more than 150 regularly-updated inventories under topics ranging from “pre-Giuliani dirty old New York” to “male frontal nudity” to films of the LA Rebellion and this essential list of more than 1,700 movies directed by Black American filmmakers.

Then there are the many, many lists of erotic, horny, and kink films that LaLiberty has artfully curated into highly specific sub-topics. And, newsflash, he will soon be helping to bring more films to more lists, with the creation of an “adult film taskforce” to bring overlooked and forgotten hardcore art films to Letterboxd.

Dario Argento’s 1971 film The Cat o’ Nine Tails features on Justin’s detective/reporter-investigation horror list.
Dario Argento’s 1971 film The Cat o’ Nine Tails features on Justin’s detective/reporter-investigation horror list.

You often conduct deep dives into specific topics (such as “grocery store cinema”) for your lists. What inspires your ideas—and especially your motivation to give them the most complete overview possible?
Justin LaLiberty: I’m an archivist professionally and I just appreciate completion and esoterica. For something specific, it usually just comes from watching something and wanting more of that specific thing, and then I get hyper focused on it. I’ve always enjoyed research and have seen a lot—I think so, anyway—so it’s fun to compile all of that into something shareable. One list that I had a fun time putting together and feels under the radar is detective/reporter investigation horror, which marries my love for investigative journalism, private detectives and the horror genre. There’s some great films on there! And some terrible ones because, well, it’s meant to be complete.

Your comprehensive list of films by Black American filmmakers is a useful guide for our own official list (we thank you!). Please take us deeper into how you conduct your research.
As I previously mentioned, I truly love research. That list took months to publish and is still ongoing. The list of resources is long but it includes various books—LA Rebellion and Trying to Get Over both highly recommended—and a lot of scouring film festival programs like Blackstar. With a list like that, I don’t end up using Letterboxd much as it’s hard to vet as a resource—as anything user-created tends to be—but the platform is a great tool when trying to sort things by year and/or genre, which I do often for other lists.

You’re currently working as a film archivist at Vinegar Syndrome, where you preserve obscure exploitation films. What do you feel you admire more about film after having worked in preservation?
How delicate it all is and how much work has been done behind the scenes for us to have access to the films that we love—and also the ones we don’t. It’s pretty common knowledge, at least amongst cinephiles, how much work goes into making a movie but preserving film is often kept to the sidelines. Yet, the films we all grew up with and are continuing to discover on a daily basis, wouldn’t be available to us now if it wasn’t for archives and those working in them. So, if I had to pick one thing that I admire about film, it would be how perseverant it is both as physical media and as an art form.

If you could drone-deliver one Vinegar Syndrome disc to every Letterboxd member’s home, which film would it be and why?
The double-feature disc of Emma Mae and Welcome Home Brother Charles, which are two films by LA Rebellion filmmaker Jamaa Fanaka. Both are great examples of what was happening in Black cinema outside of the studio system at their time of release and they’re also just genuine crowd pleasers on top of that.

We are about to start a collaboration with you and a few other erotic film experts to separate out the cinematic erotica and hardcore art titles that get caught up in our ‘adult films’ filter, so that they can appear on Letterboxd. Can you give readers some insight into the exceptions you feel should be on the platform?
Oh, man! Heated topic here. This is a really hard thing to contextualize because a lot of people see ‘adult films’ and just immediately think of what’s on Pornhub—which can be worthwhile in its own right—and just have no idea that there’s this legacy of hardcore films that were made with significant budgets and by filmmakers and talent that had as much skill as those working in Hollywood at the time. It’s a slippery slope and one that requires a deft hand and not an algorithm to assess. Right now, [Letterboxd’s import from TMDb is] set up to filter out anything marked ‘adult’. But what qualifies as that? Gasper Noé’s Love features unsimulated sex, no less graphic than films currently blocked, yet it’s available to be logged—and even appeared on Netflix uncut!—and plenty of sexploitation films from the ’70s arguably cross the line.

I absolutely want certain hardcore films to be added to Letterboxd, as it would help to legitimize them and also allow current fans to more publicly share their appreciation. Always happy to help spearhead this!

Jane Arden’s 1972 film The Other Side of the Underneath is on Justin’s list of erotic films directed by women.
Jane Arden’s 1972 film The Other Side of the Underneath is on Justin’s list of erotic films directed by women.

Can you talk more about what you love about erotic cinema—particularly the films that we do have, that you’ve listified?
It’s hard to not read this question as “why are you a perv?” but I guess I self-branded that one! Ultimately, what’s not to love? We’re all drawn to things that can be taboo, so I have a list about kink cinema, and I want to do what I can to highlight things that are prurient while also acknowledging that outsiders—like sex workers and those with certain kinks—have art for and about them, even if not all of it portrays their professions or identities favorably. The important thing is that these topics remain a part of the conversation and that people don’t feel alone.

The voyeurism list was born out of an abundance of research I was doing for a long article and I figured it was a fun topic—cinephiles like to watch, don’t they?—and the erotic thriller list was just because I wanted a comprehensive one. I kept finding lists that were almost there but were always missing dozens of titles so I figured I would just do it myself.

But the most recent list here is the one I feel most strongly about currently, which is a list of erotic films directed by women, which sort of speaks for itself. I’d love to see hardcore films added to the platform especially for this reason, so we can highlight women who worked in the adult industry and made films and, subsequently, portrayed sexuality much differently than their male contemporaries. So, I guess I like erotic cinema because it’s fun and we all have a lot to learn about ourselves and each other.

Not all film restorations are a winner, you’ll find some work meets backlash for potentially stripping the magic (for example, the new Wong Kar-Wai set). How do you feel about these issues?
I’m probably more anal than most about film restorations. Before being an archivist, I worked for thirteen years as a projectionist, so I’ve seen the perils of bad restoration work through various means. But I also think there’s a tendency for fans to want to own things too, which is perhaps exemplified by the Wong Kar-Wai restorations. It’s one thing to see bad restoration work and another to see work that you just don’t agree with. I’ve never personally had an issue with a filmmaker going back to their own work and altering it as they see fit, provided that they do not pull the originals from circulation—yes, that includes George Lucas. Personally, I’m excited to see the new Wong Kar-Wai restorations and I’ll always have access to the original Blu-rays if I’d rather watch those. I think the bigger issues now are resolutions and aspect ratios. People seeing 4K restoration on a Blu-ray and thinking that means it is actually in 4K—when it’s not—can be frustrating. And the trend of restoring films and especially TV to conform with 16:9 TV sets is also a big issue, but luckily less common.

Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 film I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba).
Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 film I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba).

What was your most revelatory theatrical experience of seeing a restored film on the big screen?
I’ll be honest, I don’t typically try to see digital restorations theatrically, unless I know for sure there isn’t a film print in circulation. But there have been some great photochemical restorations that floored me, particularly almost anything that Milestone Films does, like On the Bowery or I Am Cuba, the latter being one of my favorite theatrical experiences ever. It’s really special to see something that you’ve loved watching on video on a big screen, but it’s another thing to have it be restored and on the medium it was intended to be. It can be overwhelming when done properly. Which, in this case, involves the projectionist as much as the team responsible for the restoration.

After not being able to see films in theaters for so long now, what are your bare minimum requirements for home viewing? Can you watch a film on a phone?!
Absolutely not! The smallest screen I can handle is my fifteen-inch laptop and even that is hard for me. Outside of that, I’m usually not hard to please. I just want to watch everything in the proper aspect ratio and on the best quality I can manage to get. I’m a big physical media collector and love the UHD format, but I also regularly stream from places like Tubi, the most underrated streaming service out there, and even still have a VCR hooked up. I just want to watch movies however I can.

Jack Slater is pumped and ready to rent a VHS in John McTiernan’s Last Action Hero (1993).
Jack Slater is pumped and ready to rent a VHS in John McTiernan’s Last Action Hero (1993).

What keeps you coming back to your most-logged film—Last Action Hero?
Probably the same thing that keeps anyone from going back to their most-logged film: comfort. I watched it a lot last year too, a year where we all needed just that. But beyond just being comforting, it’s a movie about our love for the medium. It was cathartic, in a way, to enter a movie theater via Last Action Hero whenever I wanted in a year where I couldn’t do that in real life. It’s also just great! I saw it for the first time theatrically when it came out; I was seven at the time and loved Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It’s weird when looking at it now, but they very much targeted it to children, and there was a pretty big line of toys and a Burger King promotion with the best cup ever, so naturally I had to see it opening weekend and, luckily, my parents were aboard with my movie obsession at an early age so we went. And it was everything I wanted it to be.

What advice do you have for aspiring film programmers? What does it take to make it?
There are so many variables, it’s hard to say. But the best programmers, the ones that I still pay attention to and will always try and support, are willing to take risks and challenge their audience. Anyone can enter a theater and program Jurassic Park and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and call it a day, but the ones who are paying attention to their communities, building on that trust, and constantly trying something new, those are the people that I want programming for me. Luckily, the NYC area has a number of great theaters with truly talented curators behind the scenes and there’s almost always something that’s challenging the audiences of the city.

What’s your most memorable experience as a projectionist? We loved your recent Demme story!
Jonathan was such a great guy. There’s no shortage of stories with him and he enjoyed coming into the booth when he was in the theater, which was great because he was such a positive force. I really loved being a projectionist, which is why I did it for almost half of my life. But my best experience, film-wise, was running Lawrence of Arabia on 70mm for a week. Being able to look out and just see that take up a wall of a room was hard to top. Life was good!

Sofia Kappel is Bella Cherry in Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure, which A24 acquired the rights to at Sundance 2021.
Sofia Kappel is Bella Cherry in Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure, which A24 acquired the rights to at Sundance 2021.

You joined much of our community in watching Sundance films online this year. Which films are you championing to become a big deal when they’re out for the rest of the world?
My number one of the fest was easily Pleasure, which should be no surprise as it’s a drama about the porn industry and is directed by a woman. It’s a really beautifully done drama that never judges its subject while being extremely frank. I can’t wait to see star, and newcomer, Sofia Kappel be a huge force in the industry. The other one that really caught me by surprise was We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, which is the best account of coming-of-age while tethered to the internet that I can think of, great work all around.

And what was your favorite discovery out of SXSW 2021?
For SXSW, I discovered a lot of great documentary work. My favorite of the fest was Alone Together, which is a doc about pop singer Charli XCX recording a new album during the Covid-19 lockdown last spring. It’s a very resonant film about the internet connecting marginalized communities during a time of crisis. It’s the first piece of Covid-related art that’s touched me. The other major highlight is Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror which is an epic 193-minute doc about folk horror. It straddles the line between being a work of accomplished scholarship and a flat-out entertaining movie—can’t wait for the public at large to be able to hunker down for three hours with the inimitable Kier-La Janisse as their teacher.

What are your top tips for getting likes and follows on Letterboxd? Is that what it’s about for you?!
Definitely not what it’s about. I’m not really sure how people have found me as I don’t really have a platform—I’m no David Ehrlich—and I don’t do any promotion outside of my personal Twitter account, which has even fewer followers than my Letterboxd. I do log frequently and spend a lot of time creating lists, so maybe it’s just consistency that keeps people engaged. Sorry, no real tips to give! Just do what makes you happy and fulfilled and, probably most important, be honest.

Who are three members you recommend we follow?
That’s hard! There’s so many great people on Letterboxd that consistently impress me. I’m going to cheat here and name a couple extra people, but I want to highlight two accounts that I discovered pretty recently and I think are contributing some of the best writing on the site lately: $AM and Edith. And then three of my most trusted sources for movie opinions: Jake Isgar, laird and Evan. And, last but not least, my wife, CocoMaria, has an account and she watches most of the same movies as I do and often disagrees with me, and she probably should because she has good taste.

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