All posts by Alfred Eaker

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.

HARRY LANGDON’S “THREE’S A CROWD” (1927): SILENT CINEMA’S MALIGNED DARK HORSE

Approaching Harry Langdon’s Three’s a Crowd is a loaded task. This film, possibly more than other from silent cinema, comes with an almost legendary amount of vehemently negative appendage. One time collaborator Frank Capra played the self-serving spin doctor in film history’s assessment of Langdon and this film. He characterized Langdon’s directorial debut as unchecked egotism run amok, resulting in a career destroying, poorly managed misfire and disaster.

That assessment is a grotesque and clueless mockery of film criticism.

The startlingly inept critical consensus, in it’s failure to recognize this dark horse, existentialist, Tao masterpiece, reveals far more about reviewers than it does this film. The complete failure of that consensus to rise to Langdon’s artistic challenges, to appreciate his risk taking towards a highly individualistic texture of this most compelling purist art of silent cinema, only serves to validate the inherent and prevailing laziness in the art of film criticism.

Capra’s statements are frequently suspect. As superb a craftsman as Frank Capra was, he also made amazingly asinine, disparaging remarks regarding European film’s penchant for treating the medium as an art form as opposed to populist entertainment. So, likewise, Capra’s inability to fully grasp Langdon’s desired aesthetic goals and intentions is both understandable and predictable. Samuel Beckett and James Agee are considerably far more trustworthy and reliable in regards to the artistry of Harry Langdon.

Capra credited himself for developing Langdon’s character through several shorts, along with the features Strongman and Long Pants. Actually, Langdon had thrived as a vaudeville act for twenty years and had appeared in over a dozen shorts before he and Capra began their brief, ill-fated collaboration.

Aesthetically, Langdon was Capra’s antithesis and the surprise is not that the two artists Continue reading HARRY LANGDON’S “THREE’S A CROWD” (1927): SILENT CINEMA’S MALIGNED DARK HORSE

ALFRED EAKER’S 10 WEIRD MOVIES LIST: NAIVE SURREALISM‏

Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema will not appear this week.  In it’s place is Alfred’s list of his top 10 weird films in the genre he calls “naive surrealism.”

For 366 Weird Movies, the following is a list of “all the way under the radar” Weird Movies.

These are the films that would fall under the category of being either “Naturally Weird” or “Naive Surrealism.”  For instance, no film of David Lynch’s makes the list, mainly because Lynch is too self consciously aware and too clever to be called natural or naive.  Nothing against Lynch’s films, which are some of the most delightfully weird films ever made (well the earlier ones, at least).  The same could be said for the undeniably great Luis Buñuel, Ken Russell, David Cronenberg, Jan Svankmajer, and Guy Maddin, to name a few.  In the same vein, overtly “Experimental Films” (ie: Maya Deren, Jean Cocteau, Kenneth Anger, Daina Krummins) are excluded, regardless of the temptation.

* Also excluded is Donnie Darko which is good, but annoyingly overrated and oh so “trendy weird on the sleeve.”  The same goes for Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” which is not good at all and was 1980’s “trendy weird” (besides, that band really lost it’s genuine, honest to goodness weirdness with the departure of Syd Barrett).

  1. Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda. Cinema’s most celebrated outsider artist; Ed Wood.  Wood defines the meaning of “natural auteur.”  One always recognizes an Ed Wood film, even when accidentally stumbling upon it.  Wood stamped his honest, eccentric personality onto everything he touched and this is what separates him from the rest of the Z grade amateurs of his time.  Indeed, Wood is far preferable to both his peers and the mere “assignment” directors.  Anything from Wood’s oeuvre could fit, but it is Glen or Glenda, rather than Plan 9 from Outer Space, that is Wood’s most zany, personal unintentional masterpiece.
  2. Tod Browning‘s The Unknown & Freaks.  Browning, could hardly be called naive, but his attraction to the outcast and misfit was sincere as he had spent many years making his living in the carnival circuit.  Browning knew and spoke the freak language, which is what made his bonding collaboration with Lon Chaney possibly the most unique Director/Actor collaboration in film history.  Both The Unknown and Freaks were among Browning’s most personal films (a third would be 1927’s The Show with John Gilbert), but The Unknown (his greatest achievement) slightly trumps Freaks with a genuinely startling plot development that is absurd, dramatic and without drawing attention to itself.  The accomplished acting of Chaney certainly helped Browning pull this off (and, no question, Chaney’s acting ranks with Chaplin and Coogan as the greatest of the silent era).  Lesser artists would have done this with bells and horns, but with Chaney and Browning, it goes way under the skin.  Browning certainly knew Freaks was going to generate reactions, but was undoubtedly taken back and unprepared for the level of intense negativity unleashed, which destroyed his career.  Tragedy aside, the ensuing drama perfectly capped his legend.
  3. Charlie Bower’s Egged On. Not enough is known of Charlie Bowers to determine whether or not his surrealistic, independent shorts were intentionally surreal or knowingly experimental.  It is known Bowers was (and remains) the perennial outsider, unfortunately inept in areas of self-promotion, marketing and perseverance.  His best films were the ones that mixed live action with animation and included his character, even if that character lacked the charismatic personality of Keaton, Chaplin, etc.  His later, strictly animated films that did not include the live action mix and character lack the overall unique whimsical quality of the earlier shorts (although some of that eccentric whimsy is present). A Wild Roomer, He Done His Best, Now You Tell One, and It’s a Bird are some of the most idiosyncratic shorts of any era (and evoke a spirit similar to the much later Dr. Seuss).   Andre Breton understandably adored him.  Egged On has to be seen to be believed and involves a basket of eggs which hatch, giving birth to a litter of miniature Model T Fords!  It is almost heartbreaking that only 15 of his films survive, but one has to be forever grateful that those 15 were finally discovered and restored.
  4. Jack Hill’s Spider BabySpider Baby has earned it’s cult status.  Nothing else Hill did (which is very little) has quite this flavor.  It’s not a surrealist film, as some have claimed, but it is an enjoyably demented one of a kind.  Lon Chaney, Jr. actually gives a good performance (reportedly he laid off the liquor as he liked the script) and the rest of the cast match him.  This low budget film seems very much like a happy accident.  It sat collecting dust for four years, was horribly distributed under numerous titles, but eventually found it’s cult audience, which is a lucky thing.
  5. John Parker’s Dementia: Daughter of Horror.  Speaking of mini budget obscurities: nothing is really known of director Parker, if he did any other films, if this a pseudonym, etc.  For several years this was believed to be a non-existent film, then a copy turned up.  Good thing, this gem of a film (which has no dialogue) is a bridge between z grade horror and arthouse; outsider art meets surrealism head on.  It first made the circuits as Dementia and later under the different title Daughter of Horror.  Both versions exist now (Daughter has narration by Ed McMahon). Continue reading ALFRED EAKER’S 10 WEIRD MOVIES LIST: NAIVE SURREALISM‏

A JOURNEY INTO THE MIND OF P

thomas_pynchon_a_journry_into_the_mind_of_pThomas Pynchon: A Journey into the Mind of P, directed and produced by the brothers Fosco and Donatello Dubini, is not so much a documentary as it is a homage to that legendary recluse of post modern literature, who wrote books such as “V” and “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

The film is broken down into four appropriate sections: “Paranoia,” “Disappearance,” “Alien Territories,” and “Psychomania,” and it’s wildly mixed reviews are a bit perplexing.  One would think that a film on such a non-conventional literary figure as Pynchon would at least attempt to be fairly non-conventional in approach.  The Dubini Brothers do not disappoint there.  But then, we’ve seen this type of reaction all too often.

A number of Beatles “fans” expressed outrage towards Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe.  What made the Beatles so unique and timeless was they refused to buy into their “religious base.”  Once they were elevated to near divine status, the artists’ response could easily have been to roll with what they (intentional or not) hit upon, follow the formula and keep that money machine rolling (aka: Elvis Presley).  Instead, fans never quite knew what to expect of the fab four.  The “White Album” was as certainly startling, perplexing and unexpected as “Revolver” had been.  Of course, that didn’t keep the pseudo fans from mantling unrealistic expectations on the solo Beatles’ Continue reading A JOURNEY INTO THE MIND OF P

CATHERINE CROUCH: BREAKING THE GENDER BARRIER THROUGH FILM

“Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema” is a column published on Thursdays covering truly independent cinema: the stuff that’s so far under the public radar it may as well be underground.  The folks making these films may be starving artists today, but they may be recognized as geniuses tomorrow.  We hope to look like geniuses ourselves by being the first to cover them.

gendercatorDuring the 2007 San Francisco Frameline Film Festival, filmmaker Catherine Crouch’s short The Gendercator was accepted, then removed from the festival due to a protest, consisting of 130 signatures which claimed that the film was transphobic.  6 of the 130 protesters had actually seen the film.  This was the first time in the festival’s history that a film had been accepted and then withdrawn.

Judgment is best reserved until after seeing the film,and after doing so, it is blatantly apparent that this was a case of paranoid and shamefully militant censorship, no different than McCarthy era blackballing.  The liberal arts community rightfully protested (albeit meekly) when the Bush administration had the replica of “Guernica” covered at the U.N., yet the San Francisco Frameline Film Festival has shown it is fully capable of resorting to the same level of despicable tactics.  Worse, it’s claims to do so, in light of “sensitivity”, is made even more ironic since an overwhelming and elegiac “sensitivity” flows through every single one of Crouch’s films, Gendercator included.

The Gendercator is a charming Rip Van Winkle inspired fantasy short about a lesbian who falls asleep under a tree in the 1970’s’, only to re-awake in the year 2048.  In this future, stern binary laws are militantly enforced and the heroine is scheduled for a date with the Continue reading CATHERINE CROUCH: BREAKING THE GENDER BARRIER THROUGH FILM

DAMON ZEX’S CHECKMATE

This review is a follow-up to last week’s “Fringe Cinema” column on Damon Zex.  Read last week’s column here.

Along with Yoga, Damon Zex’s other passion is chess.  He had begun playing the game at the age of five and renounced it after winning a state championship years later.  After emerging from a creative hiatus, Zex returned with his 27 minute film Checkmate.

Checkmate represents a return on many faceted levels.  Zex labored long on Checkmate and that labor paid off brilliantly.  Checkmate is Damon Zex’s diaphanous train wreck that one simply cannot look or turn away from.  It is horrifying, perversely amusing, unbearably intense, highly contrarian, and Damon Zex at his most quintessentially bizarre.  Even knowing Zex’s previous work will not prepare the viewer for for this, despite it’s being that seemingly inevitable bookend to what came before.

When making Checkmate Zex knew fully well that he risked propelling even his most ardent admirers into that incessant squirming, uncomfortable plateau.  But then, Damon Zex is hardly one to rest on laurels, nor is he one to cave into conservative, expectant formulas to appease a fan base.  The Checkmate that emerged after Zex’s self-imposed silence is the equivalent of an artist clearing out his own mothballs.


The first 2:50 of Checkmate

Everyone involved with Checkmate knew Zex was onto something special and different, even though a videographer friend, frustrated with the film’s static qualities, wanted to change it and chastised the artist for breaking the “101 basic cinematic principles.”  Indeed, Damon Zex is breaking even his own orthodoxy in Checkmate, but with an overwhelming sense of clarity.  The long, sustained enveloping pauses are sharply cut with richly complex compositions which could almost be described as inducing cubist headaches.

The bulk of Checkmate is juxtaposed to Mahler’s 9th Symphony, and Zex is one of those artists determined to take Mahler back from the music fundamentalist who have claimed the composer as solely their own.  Alban Berg proclaimed the first movement of the Mahler 9th as the greatest in all of music.  Arnold Schoenberg gave an impassioned

Continue reading DAMON ZEX’S CHECKMATE

DAMON ZEX: INTELLECTUAL PROVOCATEUR‏

“Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema” is a column published on Thursdays covering truly independent cinema: the stuff that’s so far under the public radar it may as well be underground.  The folks making these films may be starving artists today, but they may be recognized as geniuses tomorrow.  We hope to look like geniuses ourselves by being the first to cover them.

While there might still be quality, dramatic television, there is little doubt the medium has lost it’s imaginative powers and any penchant for innovative, experimental, provocative, quirky aesthetics. Ernie Kovacs and Andy Kauffman are long dead. In addition to Kauffman, the 80’s did see Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Bakshi’s “New Adventures of Mighty Mouse”, but they have been relegated to distant memories. Then, in the 1990’s came Damon Zex; the underground cult icon from Columbus, Ohio’s short-lived public access television.

One writer speculated that Charlie Chaplin was nearly the sole silent super star to have survived sound because he alone understood it was a different art form. There is a reason that Chaplin, Keaton, Harry Langdon, Charlie Bowers, Theda Bara, etc. were inspirational fodder to later surrealist luminaries such as Samuel Beckett and Andre Breton. Those provocateurs understood and connected with elements from the silent art form which had it’s origins in vaudeville and can be seen in today’s performance artists such as Diamanda Galas and Damon Zex.

Much in early film, by today’s standard, was experimental because the rules had not yet been set as to what constituted ‘film’ and what did not. Luis Buñuel once said, “Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms.”

Damon Zex’s “Asana Assassin” (discussed below)

In lieu of today’s obsession for squeaky clean, hypernarrative Hollywood realism, reactions to expressionism, experiment, rough improvisation range from red flag dismissals such as “artsy” and “pretentious” to downright hostility. Audiences can numbly sit through porn fests such as Hostel or Passion of the Christ, but will react quite differently when aesthetically provoked.

Author Scott MacDonald nails it in his introduction to avant-garde film studies:

Mainstream cinema is so fundamental a part of our public and private experiences, that even when filmmakers produce and exhibit alternative cinematic forms, that dominant cinema is implied by the alternatives. If one considers what has come to be called avant-garde film from the point of view of the audience, one confronts an obvious fact. No one–or certainly, almost no one–sees avant garde films without first having seen mass-market commercial films. In fact, by the time most people see their first avant-garde film, they have already seen hundreds of films in commercial theaters, and their sense of what a movie IS has been almost indelibly imprinted in their conscious and unconscious minds by their training as children and by the continual reconfirmation of this training during adolescence and adulthood. The earliest most people come in contact with an avant-garde film of any type is probably mid to late teens (for many people the experience comes later, if at all). The result is that whatever particular manipulations of imagery, sound, and time define these first avant-garde film experiences as alternatives to the commercial cinema are recognizable only because of the conventionalized context viewers have already developed. Generally, the first response generated by an avant-garde film is, ‘This isn’t a movie,’ or the more combative, ‘ You call this a movie?’  Even the rare, responsive viewer almost inevitably finds the film–whatever its actual length in minutes–‘too long .’  By the time we see our first avant-garde film we think we know what movies are, we recognize what ‘ everyone’ agrees they should be; and we see the new cinematic failures-to-conform as presumptuous refusals to use the cinematic space (theater, VCR, viewing room) ‘correctly.’ If we look carefully at this response, however, we recognize that the obvious anger and frustration are a function of the fact that those films confront us with the necessity of redefining an experience we were sure we understood. We may feel we KNOW that these avant-garde films are not movies, but what are they? We see them in a theater; they’re projected by movie projectors,just as conventional movies are… we can see that they ARE movies, even if we KNOW they’re not. The experience provides us with the opportunity to come to a clearer, more complete understanding of what the cinematic experience actually can be, and what–for all the pleasure and inspiration it may give us–the conventional movie experience is NOT.

Elitism in artistic taste has become a dirty word and frequently one hears the
Continue reading DAMON ZEX: INTELLECTUAL PROVOCATEUR‏

FRINGE CINEMA: “GOD IS AN UNDERACHIEVER”: EVOKING GUERNICA

“Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema” is an irregularly published column covering truly independent cinema: the stuff that’s so far under the public radar it may as well be underground.  The folks making these films may be starving artists today, but they may be recognized as geniuses tomorrow.  We hope to look like geniuses ourselves by being the first to cover them.

DJ Monkey is an L.A. band, headed by Joey Alkes and Mick McMains, on the Squid Music label.  The band’s first album from 2004 was “Another Evolution” which produced the web hit music video/short film “U-Boat” and garnered a plethora of excellent reviews.

With DJ Monkey’s second album, “3rd World War,” Joey Alkes turned to Dennis Schraub to create a music video/short film for the band’s song “God is an Underachiever.”  Schraub and Alkes created two edits of the short film and choosing between them would be as unwelcome a task as choosing between Coltrane’s two edits of “Ascension”.  The comparison is apt.  “God is an Underachiever” is as difficult, moving and inspiring in it’s right as the much written about late Coltrane.
Schraub and Alkes refer to the film as being inspired by “Guernica”.  The second edit of the film was the one officially released, as the first was deemed too disturbing.  It is this second edit that is available on the Squid Music website and youtube.

God Is an Underachiever (second edit).  WARNING: Contains strong images of man’s inhumanity to man.

“Warning: This video was specifically made to create controversy! Not controversy for controversy sake, nor for promotional shock value, but as a plea for all of us to take responsibility, as representatives of our maker, for the mess we’ve all made of this planet! GOD IS AN UNDERACHIEVER is meant to spark dialogue and not point a finger!! Pay close attention to the line in the 1st chorus that says, “but I am still a believer.”–Squid Music

With the short film, “God is an Underachiever” appropriately becomes a 21st century multi-media collage work, as the film is as vital and as potent as the song itself.

Excerpts from the lyrics and a warning accompanying the video are poignant clues to the nature of the film.

“God is an underachiever, I guess he has to be.  God is an underachiever, but I’m still a believer.” 

“Seems like we no longer can hear very well… the mutation of the spirit.  Joan of Arc was burned at the stake… and some people thought Darwin a fool… God took him to a better place where the water had a better taste… when I die, it should be a special day….”

In his third symphony, “Kaddish” (written as an angry response to the murder of friend Continue reading FRINGE CINEMA: “GOD IS AN UNDERACHIEVER”: EVOKING GUERNICA

GUEST REVIEW: COMING SOON (2008)

coming_soon
It takes an exceptional film to garner almost unanimous praise.  Now imagine a mockumentary that promotes bestiality receiving 100 percent critical accolades across the board!  Impossible? One would think so in lieu of the overwhelming amount of creatively conservative film criticism flooding the Internet.  Now factor in the amateur hack critics who equate the medium of film with video games and comic books, review them side by side, and judge a film’s intrinsic value solely by entertainment level alone and insist film is absolutely nothing more.  Well then such a mockumentary would have about as much chance as the well worn, so-called snowball in hell.  But, startlingly, Devilhead Film’s production of Sir Tijn Po’s Coming Soon has done just that.

What is amusing and vehemently predictable is the raging net debate over whether or not the film is documentary or mockumentary.  The answer to that is woefully obvious, especially by the film’s end.

Some have likened Sir Tijn Po to David Lynch.  That’s even more predictable and couldn’t be more off base, but then the same thing is frequently said of Guy Maddin as well and both filmmakers are far more interesting than the David Lynch of today.

A lot of phrases like “thought-provoking”, “redefining the boundaries of tolerance”, and “philosophically layered” have been bandied about in the promotion of this film.  E.F.A (Equality For All) is a supposed organization which promotes the acceptance of human/animal love (zoophilia rights) and has given it’s stamp of approval for the film.  The E.F.A website claims that throughout the ages mankind has trod upon the animal Continue reading GUEST REVIEW: COMING SOON (2008)

FRINGE CINEMA: JAKOB BILINSKI, BECOMING A MASTER OF HIS MEDIUM

“Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema” is an irregularly published column covering truly independent cinema: the stuff that’s so far under the public radar it may as well be underground.  The folks making these films may be starving artists today, but they may be recognized as geniuses tomorrow.  We hope to look like geniuses ourselves by being the first to cover them.

Producer/Director/Writer Jakob Bilinski and his Cinephreak Pictures have released three of Bilinski’s films to date, including the recently completed Shade of Grey (2009) (being taken to film festivals now).

Bilinski is a director’s director who has an obvious love for and mastery of the medium.  On the surface, Mime (2005), Foxxy Madonna vs. the Black Death (2007) and the previously mentioned Shade would seem to have little in common, but watching the three works consecutively is a rewarding experience in the best of independent cinema, in ways mainstream Hollywood Cinema simply can’t be and, frankly, is too clueless to be.

Bilinski tackles different genres in each of the three films, but all are replete with the director’s personal touches, shared, underlining, flowing themes, and the beauty of an artistic and fiercely independent struggle that can only be achieved without a tinsel town, silver platter budget handed via a blank check.

A lot of independent filmmakers fall too easily into the trap of flexing worn on the sleeve, extrovert aesthetics, which scream “resume for a Hollywood deal,” in favor of originality.  Adhering to the tried and true formula trumps personality as much in indie fare as it does in the mainstream, but not so with Bilinski.  While his enthusiasm for the craft is apparent from the outset, he never allows a desire for display of that craft to blur individuality.

mimeMime is the first film Bilinski released and it’s a broad comedy which stems from the Theater of the Absurd.  It starts like an arch typical indie slasher film.  Couples are making out in a park at night and the grainy camera work here is a quirky homage to every cheesy B grade horror opening we’ve been subjected to.  The protagonist Mime Binky (Joe Grace) stalks his victim (Bryan McKinley) and mercilessly commits a horrendous

Continue reading FRINGE CINEMA: JAKOB BILINSKI, BECOMING A MASTER OF HIS MEDIUM

TOD BROWNING’S ‘DRACULA’ (1931): CHALLENGING THE REVISIONISTS

Guest review by Alfred Eaker

Tod Browning’s Dracula is often compared to Murnau’s unauthorized Nosferatu. It is an unfair comparison:the two are very different films, which merely happen to share the same literary inspiration.  (Neither are mere adaptations.  The only film to fairly compare to Murnau’s would be Herzog’s remake with Kinski and, indeed, it compares very favorably).  The vampire of Murnau and Schreck is an accursed, repulsive animal, the carrier of a dreaded plague and the beast fights fiercely to sustain its life, like a rodent in its death throes.  The Dracula of Browning and Lugosi is an outsider, a mesmerizing and intensely austere intruder, who comes to nourish on the aristocratic London Society, who he, paradoxically, yearns to to join (fittingly, for a genuine outsider, it is to no avail of course; he makes rather pronounced overtures and goes to extraordinary lengths to fulfill his ambition there).

Dwight Frye’s pre-bitten Renfield is nearly as strange an outcast as he is after his transformation, albeit in a far dracula1different light. Renfield is a bizarre, urban effeminate in an old meat, potatoes and superstition land. The villagers are outcasts too, but among them, Renfield is the doomed jester, misguidedly blinded by his foolhardy feeling of superiority over them and stubbornly oblivious to the peasants’ warnings.

The introduction to the inhabitants of Castle Dracula is among the most discussed in the annuls of Universal Horror and, to many viewers, it is also most perplexing. This is quintessential Browning. The static silence is punctuated with genuine dread, surreal humor, and the unnerving whimpers of a opossum. Karl Freund’s camera pans over a decidedly unreal set. The vampire brides slowly emerge as a bee scampers out of its little coffin. An opossum seems to be ducking for cover in its dilapidated coffin and its cries are the only living sounds we hear as we are introduced to Lugosi’s Count staring directly at the camera.

Renfield’s journey to Castle Dracula perfectly captures the sensory view of a crepuscular world. Indeed, no other Universal horror film would convey it as vividly and attempts to do so in later films proved pale imitations.

Renfield’s arrival to the castle, and state of confusion, is juxtaposed against the awkward but pertinacious emergence of Dracula. Lugosi’s emergence seems to partake of a genuine struggle and this echoes the delivery of his greeting which follows. This emergence sharply contrasts with the startling and confused appearance of armadillos scurrying in the ruins below, which also heightens Renfield’s confused state.

Critics have unfavorably compared this scene to Melford’s much more fluid shot of Villar’s Count appearance atop the stairwell in Dracula (The Spanish Version). Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S ‘DRACULA’ (1931): CHALLENGING THE REVISIONISTS