Alfred Eaker is the director of Jesus and Her Gospel of Yes!, voted Best Experimental Film in the 2004 New York International Film and Video Festival (which can be downloaded from DownloadHorror.com here), and the feature W the Movie.
He writes the column "Alfred Eaker's Fringe Cinema" for this site, covering the world of underground film, as well as regularly contributing essays on other subjects.
Filmed by Karl Whinnery of www.hotkarlproductions.com , this is an excerpt of our own Alfred Eaker‘s performance of his Brother Cobweb character at The House of Shadows in Gresham, Oregon. “Brother Cobweb” is the title of Eaker’s forthcoming novel.
Ron Ormond‘s 1971 If Footman Tire You, What Will Horses Do? is likely to inspire the hackneyed question, “What Would Jesus Do?” The answer is that, if the old boy was actually forced to see it, is he would most assuredly become a militant atheist.
This first collaboration between recently saved exploitation hack Ron Ormond and Rev. Estus W. Pirkle is the accidental masterpiece of Christian scare films, and of course it could only have been produced by Baptists (Ed Wood, Jr. knew of what he spoke when he cried, “These Baptists are stupid, stupid, stupid!”) It’s the only CINO denomination that can give Pentecostals a run for the money (and boy, do they run for the money). Like Ormond and Pirkle’s 1974 followup, The Burning Hell, Footman was one of the few times the two denominations put aside theological differences. I doubt a single soul within either camp is overly familiar with the word theology: one of mother dear’s visiting evangelists referred to the field as “soundin’ like some kinda bug ya might catch.” Being subjected to a viewing of Footman went hand-in-hand with all the apocalyptic sermons we were force-fed, because deep into the Cold War, Commies made the top ten list of demonic demographics (along with gays, Catholics—especially of the Mexican variety, because they were trying to invade, Jews, civil rights activists, gun control advocates, women’s libbers, Democrats, rock and roll musicians, and TV shows such as “Bewitched” and “Superman“) that inspired frenzied tongue-speaking outbreaks.
Even before Ronald Reagan (whom the fundies were initially suspicious of since the name RONALD WILSON REAGAN added up to 666, and he met with old Charlie Pope!), the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire. Over half the sermons focused on exactly what was gonna happen to Bible-believin’ Christians once the Russkies invaded and gotta hold of ’em. Modeling myself after the prodigal and leaving mother dear’s church in the early eighties, I’m not sure what they focused on after the Soviet Union’s fall, but Jack Chick sure was forced to go back and change a helluva lot of his tracts (Harry Potter became a noteworthy focus, but it just doesn’t register quite like the Red Army).
Being born again didn’t include any miraculous upgrade in regards to Ormond’s (cough) filmmaking skills. He’s just as inept as he was directing monster T&A films, trading in cleavage for the Republican Jesus. That is to our benefit, because a pre-glory walk Ron Ormond would probably be a mere footnote in the book of Z-budget exploitation filmmakers (with the exception of his opus Mesa of Lost Women). However, under the auspices of Jesus, Ormond evolved into the undisputed Protestant prophet of Christsploitation.
Like Ed Wood, Jr. before him, Ron Ormond had a brief, inspired period of lunacy, best seen in his two Christian scare masterstrokes: If Footman Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971) and The Burning Hell (1974). After these, he lost his demented mojo. While 1976’s The Grim Reaper has much to recommend it (within a certain mindset), an element of fatigue has set in. The first and most obvious sign is the absence of Rev. Estus Pirkle (he and Ormond had a falling out over money—imagine that!), and as unfathomable as it may be, that stoic nutcase is immediately missed. The second major flaw is Ormond’s futile attempt at a linear narrative, proving he didn’t quite grasp the fact that the appeal of his previous two films was as crowning examples of evangelical naive surrealism.
One thing that The Grim Reaper does accomplish is fleshing out, on celluloid at least, the Baptist maxim “you’re goin’ to hay-ull.” One can always tell a Baptist because that’s their favorite catchphrase, and they haven’t grown tired of it yet.
Tim (played again by Ormond’s son Tim, now minus facial fair and sporting a Baptist haircut) and his mama, Ruby (Viola Walden) are saved. Unfortunately, his dad, Vern (Cecil Scaife) and brother, Frankie (Eddie King) are unsaved trash.
Worse, Eddie races cars! Now, the film doesn’t go into the semantics of “what if a race car driver is saved?” My Pentecostal aunt found herself in that same undesired predicament with one of her brood, but since Pentecostals don’t believe in “once saved, always saved,” I guess her boy wasn’t saved, even if he claimed to be. While the appeal of watching cars driving around a circle is a tad perplexing and the idea of racing is foolhardy, one might be hard pressed to locate the sin in it.
Still, Eddie isn’t saved. Tim attempts a literal last second death conversion by pleading with Eddie to recite the sinner’s prayer before succumbing to injuries from a wreck. Stupidly, Eddie doesn’t accept Jesus as his lord and personal savior. Now, Eddie’s gonna fry, but good. Such half-baked theology lacks a bit of spiritual common sense. The Ormond hypothesis follows Baptist reasoning (?!) pretty closely. According to them, if a serial killer gets saved before he dies, he goes to heaven (an example is Jeffrey Dahmer, who some actually claimed was saved in this manner). However, if his victims didn’t get the chance to say the sinner’s prayer and died immediately (as we assume some did), then they have go to Hell. Shit outta luck, dude—it’s a “the rules are the rules” kinda thing, as the Baptist preacher tells Eddie’s mum and dad. Sorry, folks, I can’t say he’s in heaven at the funeral because he’s burning in Hell now (as if dying in a fiery death wasn’t punishment enough). Yes, these are adults who Continue reading RON ORMOND’S CHRISTIAN SCARE DOUBLE FEATURE: THE GRIM REAPER (1976) AND THE BELIEVER’S HEAVEN (1977)→
With the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (directed by Rian Johnson), it appears that Saint Nicholas has appeased a considerable sector ofmovie goers in 2017, except for the formula-craving fanatics who were preferring something akin to the pedestrian Rogue One. Johnson’s The Last Jedi, in declining to subscribe to expectations of franchise assembly line lovers, has refreshingly provoked butthurt nostalgists, and revealed what a lot of people already knew: the wrongheadedness of fandom, seen at its silliest and most cult-like in petitions to remove the film from “the canon” and Twitter threats cast at the director.
Of course, the jolly old elf has delivered us a few genuine clunkers over the last seventeen hundred years, among the most notorious being the 1978 “Star Wars Holiday Special” (directed by Steve Binder, best known for the 1968 ‘Elvis Comeback Special”). It’s a made-for-television abomination that George Lucas and company have desperately tried to keep buried, but like bed bugs at night—the damn thing just wouldn’t go away. It’s a good thing too; ’tis the perfect present for infantile palettes. Since its release, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” keeps cropping up in bootleg copies. The late Carrie Fisher even attempted to deny its existence and dismissed it as an urban legend, which only fanned the flames of demand. Despite her protestations, there she is, along with many of the original cast.
Not even the endurance tests of The Ewok Adventure, Howard the Duck, Willow (1988), or The Phantom Menace (1999) can prepare one for the cringe-inducing ineptitude of the “Holiday Special.” After the 1977 film took the world by surprise, Lucas, knowing that the Empire wouldn’t be striking back for another two years and fearful that audiences had short term memories, unwisely agreed to CBS’ request for a holiday variety show, utilizing original cast members and footage spliced in from A New Hope (although it wasn’t called that at the time). As hard as it may be for some to fathom, this is Star Wars on the level of the most unwatchable Z-movie productions. Wretched in unparalleled proportions, its too embarrassing to be worthy of a genuine laugh.
Fleeing an imperial starship, Han Solo and Chewbacca jump into hyperspace so they can arrive in time for a Wookie holiday called “Life Day,” because Malla (Mrs. Chewie) is pining for her hubby back on the home planet (represented by a shitty drawing of a house straight out of “Swiss Family Robinson” meets “The Jetsons”). Being a stay-at-home mom, Malla wears an apron as she watches a TV program with Harvey Korman in drag as a kind of intergalactic Julia Childs octopus teaching us how to cook a cake: “Beat, stir, whip, beat, stir, whip.” It might have been amusing at a quarter of its length.
What is “Life Day?” Although the entire special is about this Wookie holiday, who the hell knows what it’s about? Apparently, it’s close enough to Christmas and/or Thanksgiving to warrant this special. Malla, anxious for Chewie to get his ass home for the holidays, calls a Luke Skywalker adorned in eyeliner. Of course, Malla just oinks. Fortunately, Luke speaks oink and assures her that her Wookie man meat will be home soon.
Han, Luke, and Leia are minor characters, with the special focused on Chewbacca’s family. Itchy (Chewie’s dad) is an argument for euthanasia. Lumpy, the Wookie rugrat, watches circus holograms while stoned out of his gourd on opium, then runs around the hut playing with a toy storm trooper spaceship. Itchy plays with it too. Gramps doesn’t seem to like Lumpy; but Luke never shows up to translate, so it’s anybody’s guess.
Art Carney stops by as Trader Saundan. He comes from Planet C. We can only assume there’s a planet A & B. Art brings presents; so, perhaps he’s a bit like Santa. He gives Malla a hologram of Jefferson Starship (this is in-between the band’s cool Jefferson Airplane phase and their fingernails-down-a-chalkboard Starship phase, although the band is already devolving here). Itchy receives a hologram sex doll of Diahann Carroll as the Swan Woman (she has a silver thingamajig on her head, but at least she sings better than Starship). Disconcertingly, with one had on his crutch and the other on a remote control, Itchy clearly gets aroused (he oinks a lot). With all the maudlin “Leave it to Beaver”-style Wookie mugging, it’s an uncomfortable mix.
Bea Arthur, as Ackema, the bitchy cantina owner, is essentially a dancing Maude in space. The rest is a mix of cheap animation (which marks the first appearance of Boba Fett), a couple of storm troopers, some footage of Darth Vader, and a WTF finale of red robed Wookies in the sky, as Fisher sings execrable lyrics to John Williams’ Star Wars theme while Han coos over her. This is easily the weirdest entry from the Star Wars universe, but this is a case of weird being something best avoided. Think of it as Star Wars doused in sentimental maple syrup mixed with buttermilk. Lucas’ name is nowhere to be found in the credits, and he has consistently maintained that he had nothing to do with the special. He doth protest too much, methinks.
A few months back, a co-worker sent me a meme of Homer Simpson mimicking Donald Trump mimicking a handicapped reporter under the heading: “Look Marge… I’m a Christian.” If one associates Christianity with brain dead right-wing WASPs, then the only better symbol than a Homer parody would be walking caricature Kirk Cameron. In addition to his roll-on-the-floor Left Behind rapture series, Cameron, in 2014, prefiguring Trump and his Trumptards, took it upon himself to “Save Christmas” and ‘Murica from all those War-on-Christmas “Happy Holiday” and “Season’s Greetings” coffee cups (with no snowflakes, dammit).
Like all of Cameron’s movies, Saving Christmas was universally panned, which prompted the Christian entrepreneur (smelling a potential box office loss for his booming franchise) to panic. He called on “the real people” (as opposed to the sub-human critics) to give him a thumbs up: “Help me storm the gates of Rotten Tomatoes,” he wrote, “all of you who love Saving Christmas – go rate it at Rotten Tomatoes right now and send the message to all the critics that WE decide what movies we want our families to see.” Kirk’s endeavor promptly backfired. Even the “real people” ripped it to pieces, which of course Cameron blamed on liberal atheists, no doubt paid off by George Soros. Now, before we dismiss this as yet another easy target: lest we forget ‘Murica elected Cameron’s triple-chinned, mentally-challenged, pedophile-conspiracy kook, silver-spoon fed billionaire, and CINO (“Christian-in-Name-Only”) prophet to the highest office of the land in 2016. Saving Christmas is is a lump of stocking coal that ‘Murica has reaped.
The irony of Saving Christmas is that it’s the most dumbed-down, offensive, holiday killing, morally bankrupt Christmas movie ever produced, especially if one subscribes to the precepts taught by one Jesus of Nazareth. It actually embraces and endorses avarice and gluttony, and takes to task wimps who dare suggest that giving money to charity or the less fortunate is more Christ-like than spending money on oneself (apparently, the filmmakers never read the Lazarus and the Rich Man parable). Cameron’s movie, directed by co-star and fellow disgusting human being Darren Doane, does a Linus in reverse, proclaiming how good and Christian materialism actually is because, ya know, Jesus doesn’t really want peace on earth to men of good will, he wants us to to gorge on the day we celebrate his birthday. (Cameron’s head-scratching thesis insists that holiday materialism is good because God, taking over Christmas, became material). Having the chutzpah to proclaim that his masterpiece puts Christ back in Christmas, Continue reading STOCKING COAL: KIRK CAMERON’S SAVING CHRISTMAS (2014) & THE BURNING HELL (1974)→
Throughout the 1970s, the rock band KISS served as a kind of symbol for my own paradoxical, f’ed-up world. On Sundays, we frequently heard diatribes against the band spewed from the pulpit. “Knights in Satan’s Service,” the preacher warned, again and again and again. Believe me: Gene “The Demon” Simmons, with his long wiggling tongue and blood-drinking candids (from various albums) inspired countless, tongue-speaking “the Holy Ghost has taken over the service” and paranoid “Jesus is coming again soon” frenzied Sunday night services that usually dragged on past midnight, which left us dragging through Monday morning classes.
At school, it was the exact opposite. My parents, for reasons I still cannot fathom, moved us from Indianapolis to a small, gun-toting Klan county populated by trailer parks, farms (which smelled of cow fertilizer for six months out of the year), and mini-suburbs. To many of the kids from this hayseed community, Peter, Paul, Gene, and Ace were akin to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and if you were foolish enough to criticize the sacred prophets of rock and roll, be prepared for an ass whuppin’. You weren’t even safe breathing negatives about KISS in front of the white trash girls, because they had become zealous converts, one and all, with Peter’s “Beth, I hear you calling,” and would promptly order their boyfriends to beat the holy shit out of you from here to Sunday. As stupid as I was in my teens, I was still smart enough to keep my mouth shut on the subject of KISS. Actually, I was never sure what all the fuss was about either way. Their songs were harmless trifles and their stage act wasn’t much different than the average Vincent Price movie. My younger brother, on the other hand, got caught up in the KISS phenomenon and actually risked buying two of their LPs. Unfortunately for him, he was eventually caught in possession of “Hotter than Hell” and “KISS Alive.” Needless to say, those records were offered up to an angry Jehovah in the sacred church parking lot bonfire shortly before Sunday night service (I can still hear those echoes of the Burgermeister Meisterburger laughing “the children of Somberville will never play with toys again” as he lit the torch).
Imagine my surprise then when, a few years later, I caught Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978) at a friend’s house (the church folk never found out). My confusion over the KISS brouhaha magnified, only (perhaps) surpassed by Gene becoming a kind of constipated Pat Boone-type late in life.
Not only is The Conqueror (1956) one of the most embarrassing moments in Wayne’s career (right up there with the1952 pro-Joseph McCarthy film Big Jim McLain, the Duke in a Roman toga at the foot of Jesus’ cross in1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, and the 1968 pro-Vietnam war film Green Berets) but this notorious Howard Hughes production literally (and ironically) killed the reigning star of Americana, along with its director Dick Powell, co-stars Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, Lee Van Cleef, John Hoyt, Ted De Corsia, and Pedro Armendariz. Shot in Utah’s Escalante Desert, which had been previously used for atomic bomb testing, over half of the cast and production team (approximately ninety people) paid the price for unleashing this bomb with cancer: fifty, fatally. Over half the residents of the nearby St. George also were exposed to high levels of radiation and died of cancer, as did an undocumented number of the film’s Native American extras. Production photographs later surfaced of Wayne operating a Geiger counter on location. Apparently, it eventually dawned on cast and crew to be a tad concerned about being exposed to nuclear fallout. Critics referred to the film as “An RKO Radioactive Picture,” and one of the scientists overseeing the atomic testing was later quoted (in a “People” interview) as saying, “Please, God, don’t let us have killed John Wayne.”
Hughes certainly blamed himself. Already having fallen down the rabbit hole of mental illness, he was reportedly wracked with guilt, buying out all existing prints of the movie (to the tune of over ten million). He refused to let it be seen for years, and watched it repeatedly, nude, in a darkened room as he made frantic calls to politicians, trying desperately to exert his influence and stop the practice of atomic testing.
Wayne, already a cancer risk from heavy smoking, had a lung removed in 1964, but was one of the later Conqueror casualties, coming down with stomach cancer in 1978.
Wayne initially (and incomprehensibly) defended what was clearly a casting disaster by claiming that the story of Genghis Kahn was merely transplanted western. Of course, as good an actor as Wayne was (and he was a damned fine actor, ungenerously underrated by far too many critics), that is the problem with his performance here: playing Genghis Kahn as a cowboy renders the character laughable. Casting aside, the barbarian dialogue (delivered in Wayne’s home-on-the-range drawl) is made more execrable with Wayne lusting after Hayward’s (redheaded) Bortai: “This Tartar woman is for me. My blood says take her,” he announces anemically, followed by “you’re beautiful in your wrath” after she tries to stab her would-be rapist. The sight of the western icon adorned in a furry wife beater, Asiatic eye makeup, and sporting a Fu Manchu mustache is only surpassed by hearing lines like “I regret that I’m without sufficient spittle to salute you,” “you didn’t suckle me to be slain by Tartars,” “she is much woman,” and “you will love me of your own will before the sun rises.”
Hayward, equally miscast, seems to imagine herself as Salome, in a cleavage-bearing veiled dance that conjures up chintzy Vegas acts as opposed to the Orient or Bible. Wayne, rarely comfortable as a sex symbol (the only two leading ladies he seemed natural with in that department were Maureen O’Hara and Gail Russell) disastrously fails to convince as an Asian Errol Flynn. Later in life, Wayne admitted his humiliation and wrote making an ass of himself in a role not suited for him off as a professional lesson.
Powell was as ill-fitting in his directing assignment as the actors were in their roles, and the result is a dull epic (not even campy enough to be entertaining) and a box office failure, credited for being the final nail in the coffin of its studio as well as its cast and crew.
Contrary to popular belief, the actor did not have cancer when making The Shootist in 1976, although he was in poor health. [↩]
As a pop music star, Elvis Presley had an unparalleled career (although it is questionable whether his music is much listened to today outside of Memphis). His film career, although financially successful, was a different story altogether—remarkable only in the thirty-plus (mostly wretched) films produced in a scant dozen years. Among the worst, which is saying a lot, are two near the end of his film run. Itching to get back into live performance, Presley was merely fulfilling his MGM contract at this point and, barely mastering any enthusiasm, took whatever script was handed him.
Live a Little, Love a Little (1968, directed by frequent Presley collaborator Norman Taurog and scripted by Dan Greenburg from his novel “Kiss My Firm but Pliant Lips”) is a like the Rankin and Bass cartoon “Year Without a Santa Claus” (1974) in that it contains a single scene ofnaive surrealism at its most jaw-dropping, “WTF were they thinking?” level, which almost makes the whole enterprise worthwhile.
The Pelvis is a photojournalist here named Greg, working at a “Playboy”-like outfit. Of course, that means he’s going to be taking lots of pinup pics. The blatant sexism would seem woefully dated, except we’ve elected a lot of Neanderthal politicos lately (from both sides), and that unfortunately renders the film more contemporary than it was a few years ago. Greg’s practically stalked by a wacky, bikini-clad gal who might be named Bernice… or Alice… or Suzy…don’t ask. I’m still not sure, but whoever she is, she’s played by Michele Carey, one of those anonymous eye-candy actresses you may recall seeing a lot. (Carey is primarily known for this and the 1967 John Wayne/Howard Hawks oater El Dorado). Bernice also has a Great Dane named Albert who will become for this film what Mr. Heat Miser was for “Year Without A Santa Claus.” Rounding off a weird cast is prolific character actor Sterling Holloway (whom we recently saw as Professor Twiddle/Professor Quinn in “The Adventures of Superman”) as a milkman (don’t ask—I still don’t know why), Rudy Valle as a Hugh Heffner type (?), and Dick Sargent (best known as Darren #2 from “Bewitched”), who might be Bernice’s husband (just don’t ask).
Bernice and Albert run a close second to Glenn Close in the obsession department (although we’re never sure why Bernice is bonkers about Greg), which opens the door for a scene that…. forget “Magical Mystery Tour,” or even Presley’s “Little Egypt” and “Big Boss Man” numbers from his 1968 comeback special for a moment and embrace one of the most awkward moments of surrealism ever committed to celluloid. With Albert crashed in the baby playpen next to him, Greg, in baby blue silk PJs, has a dream about his furry companion, who is now a guy in a wrinkled dog suit with a disturbingly long, wagging tongue. Albert, standing on two legs, pushes Greg through a red door (Hell?), leading to the musical number “The Edge Of Reality,” in which the Pelvis, after falling through something, lands somewhere (a psychedelic wonderland?) and barely shakes while dancing with shirt-skirted gals (each one an avatar for Bernice and her split personalities)—and Albert, of course. The 60s color palette is choreographed to lyrics that couldn’t be more apt: “On the edge of reality she sits there tormenting me, the girl with the nameless face, where she overpowers me with fears that I can’t explain. She drove me to the point of madness, the brink of misery.”
After this all-too-brief and senseless vignette, Greg bonds with Albert and the two become “dune buggy riding pals!,” and it’s as dull as it sounds. Greg even falls for his fatal attraction, who might indeed be named Bernice. It’s all downhill after “The Edge of Reality,” possibly because reality is like that. The only other possible point of interest in the film (for those into that sort of thing) would be Presley’s spirited kung fu fight in the first quarter. What’s the motive for the fight? I have no idea, but Elvis gets to kick some ninja-clothed baddies—including bodyguard Red West, who eventually got the last laugh when he outed Elvis as a druggie in his 1977 tell-all book “Elvis: What Happened?” After experiencing “The Edge of Reality,” one might wish Elvis had done more drugs.
The surrealism of Easy Come, Easy Go (1967, directed by John Rich) isn’t as blatant, but how about this? Elvis plays a frogman (?!?) who sings a duet called “Yoga Is as Yoga Does” with Bride of Frankenstein Elsa Lanchester (!?!) He sings the gospel standard (the music he was best at) “Sing, You Children Sing” with hippies and beatniks. Those two numbers aside (along with scenes of scuba diving, if that’s your idea of entertainment), the remainder of Easy Come, Easy Go draws a blank.
A social media meme depicts an image of the Fab Four with the perfect response to Beatles naysayers: “Sorry we set the bar so high.” So it is also with Orson Welles and those who deny his mastery of the medium—it’s merely a case of being too too envious to recognize an inimitable artist. As a narrative filmmaker (albeit an experimental one) Welles gets equally little love from the avant-garde, much in the same way the modern painter Francis Bacon was seen as a sellout because he continued figurative painting in a non-representational age. Welles hardly helped his own status with stunts like whoring himself out as an actor; his fingernails-down-chalkboard interviews with Peter Bogdanovich; wine commercials; and his cheesy Nostradamus documentaries (although he should be given a gold star for his frequent guest appearances on the ultra cool Dean Martin roasts). Because Welles’ antagonistic relationship with Hollywood is almost legendary, the status quo’s acknowledgment of his body of work has been primarily posthumous. It was with 1947’s The Lady From Shanghai that he almost intentionally immolated himself, bidding adios to Tinsel Town.
The Lady from Shanghai was birthed from desperation. Welles’ Mercury Theater production of “Around the World in Eighty Days” was threatened with a shutdown when $55,000 worth of costumes were impounded due to outstanding debts. Seeing a copy of Sherwood King’s novel “If I Die Before I Wake,” Welles had a eureka moment. He called Columbia head Harry Cohn, suggested he purchase the rights to the book, and offered to adapt, direct, and act in it for the money needed to pay off the costumes. Smelling a three-for-one deal, Cohn wired Welles the cash. He later came to regret it, vowing never again to hire someone in such a triple capacity again because it prevented him from firing such an upstart.
The production was as chaotic as the film itself, as documented in numerous anecdotes by associate producer William Castle. The hot Mexico shoot caused actors to be ill, including Hayworth, which delayed shooting for a month. Welles himself was incapacitated for a period when an insect bit him in the eye. Crocodiles, barracudas, and poisonous barnacles posed additional threats. Unwisely, Welles rented his pal Errol Flynn‘s yacht “The Zaca.” In addition to overcharging, Flynn’s contractual agreement stipulated he be present for all scenes involving the boat, and he demanded to shoot the aerial footage of the Zaca himself—and he was, per his norm, prone to disappear for days on end, thus Continue reading ORSON WELLES’ LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947)→
Films about painters are usually recipes for disaster, primarily because the filmmakers are fans and slap a halo around the object of their adulation. Painters-as-film-subjects have generally fared better than composers-as-film-subjects (while we’re on the subject—we’re still waiting for Martin Scorsese‘s long-promised Leonard Bernstein biopic). We can point to successes like Carol Reed’s treatment of Michelangelo, that cast Charlton Heston as the gay dwarf who painted the Sistine chapel (The Agony and the Ecstasy). That outdoes Chopin melodramatically dying at the keyboard of “consumption” in 1945’s A Song To Remember, which whitewashed the composer’s mental and career decline, along with his protracted, agonizing death (possibly from syphilis).
Whether painter or composer, artists tend to have tunnel vision, making them unpleasant bedfellows. Of course, not all artists are guilty—only the good ones. The hacks are innocent, which is why they’re usually forgotten.
No need though to worry about John Maybury’s 1998 opus, Love is the Devil: Study For A Portrait ofFrancis Bacon, though. It delivers. It’s not merely in the top tier of artist biopics, it’s a remarkable film in itself.
First, an aside about the painter. Francis Bacon emerged as a defiantly figurative painter at a time when abstract expressionism was the fad. He was deemed something of a traitor by the self-professed avant-garde establishment. (If you’re unfamiliar with abstract expressionism, just go to a local McDonalds or J.C. Penny stores and you’ll see plenty of latter-day examples hanging up—but rest assured you’ll never see Bacon’s hideous angst-ridden souls there). Bacon stuck to his guns, becoming one of the most relevant painters of the late century; thankfully, he is unworthy of canonization.
The most striking visual aspect of Maybury’s film was a forced decision. Hypocritically, the Bacon estate was aghast at the script’s unflattering portrait (based in part on Daniel Farson’s biography) of the artist-as-monster, and refused the director the right to use the artwork. Never mind that Bacon himself would have wanted it no other way. What did the estate want? A Hallmark card? The result is a once-in-a-lifetime improvised inspiration. Bacon’s work is never depicted. We only see him in working, which calls to mind Paul Gauguin’s advice to not concern oneself with the finished canvas, but rather concentrate on the act of painting. Cinematographer John Mathieson brilliantly makes up for the production restrictions by shooting the film as if it’s a Bacon canvas, composing it with the Continue reading LOVE IS THE DEVIL: STUDY FOR A PORTRAIT OF FRANCIS BACON (1998)→
Celebrating the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!