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.

THE EXQUISITE CHAMBER WESTERNS OF BUDD BOETTICHER, PART ONE: SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956)

In a brief span of four years, from 1956 to 1960, Director Budd Boetticher, writer Burt Kennedy and actor Randolph Scott collaborated on a series of seven “chamber westerns” which rank as one of the most rewarding achievements in the art of American Cinema.

Seven Men from NowWhile a number of prominent film critics, historians and luminaries have rightly praised the “Ranown” series (named after Boetticher’s production company), attention is often paid to the fact that Boetticher produced the series on a shoestring budget.  Thus, despite praise, the series and Boetticher himself are relegated to a second tier, “B” level, as if the monies poured into these films somehow affect and dictate their intrinsic value.

To the contrary, the Boetticher/Kennedy/Scott westerns are in every way equal to the larger budgeted collaborations of Ford and Wayne, Daves and Ford, Leone and Eastwood.

With these sparse, psychologically complex works, Boetticher did as much for the American western as Val Lewton did for the American Horror film in the 40’s.

The breakthrough Seven Men From Now (1956) was a long way from Ken Maynard’s white hat and bottle of milk atop a horse named Tarzan. It’s also far more aesthetically modernist, more taut, more complexly developed in character than the later, ultra-stylish westerns of Peckinpah and Leone (the exception being Peckinpah’s slightly overrated Ride the High Country, also starring Randolph Scott with Joel McCrea). Very few films in the genre can boast as richly developed characterizations. The Delmer Daves/Glenn Ford films along with the Anthony Mann/James Stewart cannon can arguably be mentioned in the same breath.

Seven Men From Now establishes Boetticher’s Ranown canvas. Randolph Scott was an actor of beautiful limitations and the director utilized Scott’s mere presence to compositional advantage.  The actor’s weathered face parallels the expressionistic, Cezanne-like rocky terrains.  Boetticher takes equal advantage of his hero’s range to etch a morally ambiguous personification.

Scott, out for revenge, seems, at first, to personify the mythological old west code of right and wrong.  He is ancient, laconic, sips coffee, and projects a virtuous nobility with a mere shifting of the eyes.  That is until his foil, Lee Marvin (superb here) astutely recalls how Scott had no qualms about stealing a friend’s wife.  Even Walter Reed, as Gail Russell’s weak, cowardly husband, surprises in an act of redemption. The power in the Boetticher films lies in the riveting conversations and in a shrewd slicing of viewer expectations.  There is a disconcerting, hushed quality throughout the film, even in those conversations, which project a tense, quiescent air of revelation.

Next week: perhaps the bleakest film of the cycle, The Tall T (1957).

MAYA DEREN: AT LAND (1944)

Maya Deren’s At Land (1944) opens with a scene of fearsome waves crashing against a desolate shore.  It could almost be described as Debussian, save for the unsettling dead and total silence that continues, unabated, throughout the film.

Maya Deren's At LandThe exotic Deren appears, emerging from a sleep, like a mermaid spit ashore from the crashing waves.

Deren begins slowly climbing a massive, twisted, dead tree trunk; the figure of Deren/Eros embarking on her great existential journey.

The nymph (her face adorned with child-like innocence) slithers on her stomach across a dining room table, populated with faceless corporates.  They do not take notice of her, preoccupied with idle chatter and many cigarettes.  Her eyes focus on a solitary figure, playing chess at the table’s end.  By the time she reaches that end (there are brief, repeated, struggled, exploratory diversions through a mass of shrubbery) she finds the player has just left and, as she gazes at the board, the rest of the room’s occupants are also leaving.

Telekinetically, she moves the chess pieces, until the pawn (one of eight) falls through a hole in the table.  She attempts to retrieve it and finds herself  back on the shore, then on a country road, walking and talking with a young man (represented by five different men).

She cannot keep up with the man and he leaves her behind as he disappears into a cabin, shutting the foreboding door behind him.

Determined not to be abandoned, she crawls under the log cabin but emerges in a contemporary, nearly abandoned home, laden with furniture, covered in white sheets.

It is not the young man she finds, but an older, bedridden man (figure number six), under a white bed sheet.  They silently stare at each other, identify Continue reading MAYA DEREN: AT LAND (1944)

AVANT OPERA ON FILM, PART 3

In 1987, producer Don Boyd brought his labor of love, Aria, to the screen.  The concept was to have ten directors, each with a distinguished style, visually interpret ten arias.  Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell were among the directors.  Predictably, many less than erudite American critics put their working class hero noses to work, sniffed it out like the gold old boy guardians of true blue Americana, and immediately pounced on it, pretentiously charging high pretension as they are usually apt to do.  Whenever the subjects of opera or classical music are involved in film, rest assured American critics are going to become engaged in loudly espousing anti-pretension pretensions. Actually, Aria is a stylishly, irreverent and satirical, if uneven, treat.

ariaroddamFranc Roddam’s “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” is set in Las Vegas with Bridget Fonda and James Mathers excellently capturing the pathos of the doomed pair.

Ken Russell, an expert eccentric at this sort of thing, memorably tackles Puccini’s “Turandot” with hallucinatory model Linzi Drew, inlaid rubies and diamonds, and an operating table in a typically heady Russellesque mix of bizarre, mystical excess and eros.

Godard, tongue delightfully in cheek, sets Jean Baptiste Lully in a work-out gym as two women contend with narcissistic male body builders.

Charles Sturridge’s interpretation of Verdi’s “La Forza Del Destino” subtly grows brighter upon repeated viewings. Sturridge’s “Destino” aptly paints troubled youth on a joy ride through an apathetic adult world in a lament to the Virgin.

Bruce Beresford’s film of Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt,” starring a young Elizabeth Hurley, captures the music’s superficial sheen.

Nicholas Roeg, Robert Altman, Derek Jarman, Julian Temple, and Bill Bryden interpret Verdi, Rameau, Charpentier, and Leoncavallo to lesser effect, but even the slight failures here are far preferable to the bulk of Hollywood drek.

Ken Russell has had an ongoing obsession with composers: Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers, the justifiably infamous Lisztomania, and Elgar, but his most hallucinatory and, oddly enough, Continue reading AVANT OPERA ON FILM, PART 3

AVANT OPERA ON FILM, PART TWO

Daniel Barenboim and Harry Kupfer followed their acclaimed “Ring” cycle (discussed in last week’s column) with Richard Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, which, if anything, was even more successful.   Alas, the film of this version has been long unavailable.

Scene from Syberberg's Parsifal (1982)
Scene from Syberberg’s Parsifal (1982)

Comparing their geometric, sparse Parsifal to that of Neues Kino director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s controversial 1982 multi-layered collage film would be a pointless task.  Syberberg’s famous film is a case of a director with so much to say, that it literally becomes a truly rare kitchen sink moment in which repeated viewings reap priceless rewards.

Syberberg’s Jungian references abound with fascist symbolism, Nietzsche, Christian mythology, Post World War II Euro culture in a narcotic texture unlike anything before or since.  Entire books could be written about this one of a kind film.

In 1993, long before TitusFrida, or her most recent (and amazing) work, Across the Universe, Julie Taymor was known to modern opera buffs as the director of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. Taymor filtered Stravinsky’s opera through her own undeniably powerful, highly individualistic voice.

Undoubtedly, Stravinsky (who, like Picasso, went through numerous phases, from neo-classicism to post Webern serialism and yet made everything  he touched sound like his own) would have approved of Taymor’s kindred aesthetic spirit.

When Taymor’s production first became available on the video market, word spread quickly, with many proclaiming it to be one of the very best, if not the best, opera yet filmed.

The sets (by George Tsypin), masks, sculptures, puppets, costumes ( Ei Wade), make-up (Reiko Kruk), Japanese dance and narration (the libretto by Jean Cocteau, originally in Latin, allowed for translation to the native language), Ozawa’s incisive conducting, add up to one of the most extraordinarily stylized and emotionally draining operatic Continue reading AVANT OPERA ON FILM, PART TWO

AVANT OPERA ON FILM, PART ONE

In 1976, at Pierre Boulez’s suggestion, Wolfgang Wagner brought in the 31 year old progressive French stage and film director Patrice Chereau to produce a new “Der Ring Des Nibelungen” cycle for the centenary of the Bayreuth Festival, and aptly teamed him with Boulez as conductor. The result scandalized and shook the entire opera world. Conservative musicologists, such as arch conservative NY times critic Harold C. Schonberg, loudly expressed moral outrage and pointed to this production as an “opening of the flood gates” (some hysterically labeled this a Marxist “Ring”). Four years later, television director Brian Large filmed the Chereau/Boulez Ring and televised it over a period of a week. It was a ratings and critical smash.

Der Ring Des Nibelungen Pierre Boulez, Over 30 years later, this production’s power and legend remains undiminished. It was the first complete filmed “Ring” and is now looked upon by most as pioneering and the greatest of it’s kind.

The stand out cast, which includes Donald McIntyre, unforgettable as Wotan and Heinz Zednick as Loge personified,has hardly been bettered. Richard Peduzzi’s stage design and Large’s camera work are exemplary, but this remains Chereau and Boulez’s Ring.

Chereau, who was unfamiliar with Wagner and the work, endows this Ring with a fresh perspective. His is a penetrating, industrial age, Freudian ring, idiosyncratically interpreted in political, social and psychological terms.

The avant-garde advocate Boulez, who had previously conducted a radical, acclaimed “Parsifal”, brings an equally fresh perspective to this much interpreted work. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, accustomed to playing Wagner with opaque rolling thunder,came dangerously close to striking in protest or Boulez’s complex, brisk, diaphanous, minimalist approach.

In the accompanying dvd “Making of the Ring,” Boulez appears commendably unconcerned when he non-chalantly admits that audience taste is of little concern to him.

In 2007 the age-defying Boulez re-teamed with Chereau once more for a filmed version of Janacek’s “House of the Dead”, before permanently retiring from the opera house.

Janacek’s final, harrowing, rhythmically complex, intense opera on the horrors of political Continue reading AVANT OPERA ON FILM, PART ONE

SLAPHAPPY VOLUME 8: SURREAL COMEDY

The “SlapHappy Volume 8 Collection: Surreal Comedy” must be unreservedly recommended for making available  rare, hidden fragments from surreal cinema’s infancy.  It’s not everyday one gets to see J. Stewart Blackton’s 1908 Thieving Hand which pre-dates the later, similar theme of a wayward, disembodied hand  found in films like The Beast with Five Fingers (which Buñuel worked on during his brief Hollywood stint).

The Thieving Hand

The Thieving Hand (1908)

Edwin S. Porter collections aren’t  exactly a dime a dozen either, so 1906’s Melies-inspired Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, based on the famous Windsor McCay comic strip, is possibly the highlight here.  The sight of something akin to Linda Blaire’s bed engaged in a Dickens-like flight across a city skyscape is well worth the price.  Today, Fiend is possibly the most interesting of Porter’s vast but not entirely distinguished output, certainly much more so than some of the historically better known films such as  Life of an American Fireman.

The team of Richard M. Roberts, Larry Stefan and Paul Lisy have certainly done thorough research and a number of delightfully rare oddities are compiled here: Eddie Lyon’s 1923 Hot Foot; Bobby Dunn ajd Ferdinand Zecca’s 1910 Slippery Jim , Edward F. Cline’s 1925 Dangerous Curves Behind, and the 1948 Fresh Lobster with Billie Bletcher.

Still, despite the glimpses of rare treasures here, SlapHappy Volume 8 falls short of being the ideal collection.  These are indeed mere glimpses, clips culled from the films, and since most of these are shorts, presenting these films in their entirety could have been easily accomplished and would have been much more desirable.

The SlapHappy producers, in following the formulaic recipe of their series, short-changed the potential of what could have been their most valuable volume.

Stills from films like Keaton’s The Playhouse are utilized, but there no actual clips. Instead, excerpts from lesser, more obvious, on the surface examples of Keaton’s ventures into surrealism are shown (Buster running into dangling skeletons, etc) simply because these are more obvious; a bit like Salvador Dali being held up as the quintessential persona over considerably more substantial surrealists such as Max Ernst and Paul Klee.

The producers’ goal, as Sam Charles’  narration indicates, is focused on early surreal comedy–as opposed to early surrealism–but even here, it falls short of being the reference volume.  An extraordinary amount of time is given to the weaker Fresh Lobster, when much more time could have been devoted to Zecca’s far more compelling Slippery Jim (Zecca was an editor for Melies, and it shows), the films of Charley Bowers, or numerous, much more substantial examples of early surreal comedy (Chaplin’s surreal heavenly dream sequence from The Kid, Keaton’s The Navigator, The Frozen North, Sherlock Jr, or Beckett’s Film are just a few of the better known examples).

Surreal Comedy is an all too brief entry, abbreviated to make room for the Getting the Girl and Chaplin bonuses, both of which contain footage found elsewhere. Still, Volume 8 is a valuable but unimaginative introduction to the art of early surreal comedy that ultimately falls short of being the priceless collection it could have been.

FROM THE CRYPT OF CREEPORIA

“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.

The 1950s through the 1970s was the era of the horror host/horror personality.  Most of these characters, from Vampira on down to Sammy Terry, mixed horror and humor quite effectively and the period is widely considered to be a golden age of horror personalities.  Since then, Elvira, of course, made a name for herself.  Now, with the post myspace/facebook/youtube age, there has been a re-emergence, indeed a plethora of new horror personalities.  Predictably, most of these are pale, watered down imitations of the originals with no unique personality of their own, with a notable exception: Creeporia.

Creeporia, Episode 1, part 1: other episodes can be viewed at creeporia.com

Creeporia is the creation of producer John Semper Jr, who has an extensive 30 year resume, mostly in animation, which includes work with Jim Henson, George Lucas, and Stan Lee and shows such as the animated “SpiderMan” and “Static Shock.”  Semper’s sincere  affection for the classic Roger Corman school of horror humor is quite apparent in his Creeporia creation and the shows he has crafted for her.

Semper’s experience has taught him plenty and he’s savvy enough to know that the key lies in a well developed character with a unique personality.  He could not have done better in actress Kommerina DeYoung.  Young’s Creeporia thankfully does not resort to being yet another in the Vegas imitators’ school for Elvira, Vampira and those who came before.  Creeporia is  her own ghoul and she is sexy, but never resorts to caricatured farce.  Creeporia lives (sort of) in a crypt with a host of characters, such as a skull named Bonaparte (aka Boney), a corpse named Maurice, a spider named Harlan, a bat named Batty, and more.  There’s a bit of the zany Pee Wee Playhouse atmosphere in the Continue reading FROM THE CRYPT OF CREEPORIA

SIGNE BAUMANE: WOMAN

“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.

“When I don’t think about film, I think about sex.  Every 10 seconds.  I have the sense that my head is very close to my genitals.”  So speaks Latvian animator Signe Baumane in the documentary Signe and…. It’s part of an indispensable and unique collection of Baumane’s animated shorts called Ten Animated Films by Signe Baumane.

teat_beat_of_sex

True to her word, there is sex aplenty in most of the films in this collection, including her recent Teat Beat of Sex, and  Baumane goes a long way to prove obsession in art is indeed a good thing.

In Natasha, a lonely housewife finds a vacuum cleaner is just as effective as any man.  In Five F___king Fables the head of a decapitated princess gives a man oral while a dog performs cunnilingus on her, penises do indeed come in every shape, size, color and form, and Georgia O’Keefe’s erotic flowers are taken to a whole new level.  These are just a few of  the repeated erotic images and themes that make up Baumane’s world.

Baumane is refreshingly open and candid in the documentary Signe and… Her sexuality is naturally frank, while never being worn on sleeve.  Her work never condescends to the level of shock for the sake of shock art, as a few critics have claimed, because feminine sexuality is but one of several recurring obsessive themes.

Baumane’s horror of the dentist chair is visited repeatedly.  The Dentist and Five Infomercials for Dentists amusingly call to mind W.C. Fields’ take on the subject matter.

Baumane is most compelling in allegorical territory.  Tiny Shoes visits a theme often repeated in classic literature such as “Hymn of the Pearl.”  A girl is given specific instructions from her dying father and, after his death, she embarks upon a journey, during which she forgets her promise and ignores all of her father’s instructions.  Naturally, her foolishness will cost her plenty, but this is served up Signe Baumane style, Continue reading SIGNE BAUMANE: WOMAN

ROSCOE ARBUCKLE’S “HE DID AND HE DIDN’T” (1916)

Hidden deep in the recesses of early cinema lies a rarely seen, obscure gem that might be described as something resembling a Max Beckman Moving Picture.

he_did_and_he_didntRoscoe Arbuckle’s 1916 He Did and He Didn’t is a humorous, expressionistic nightmare which not only calls to mind the texture and atmosphere of Max Beckman expressionist paintings, but also, in heroine Mabel Normand, evokes Edvard Munch as well.

Arbuckle had been shifting away from the frantic style of the Mack Sennett factory towards more character driven comedy, and had taken over writing and directing his own films and making features long before Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd followed suit.

He Did and He Didn’t uniquely stands out even among the later Arbuckle films, which is saying quite a bit as Arbuckle was innovative both as a performer and director.  His perfectionism was well known and he might very well have earned the crown for king of multiple takes, although the gracefulness he displayed on both sides of the camera never even remotely hints at such perfectionist standards.

Arbuckle has been widely credited for influencing such artists as Charlie Chaplin,  Buster Keaton, Oliver Hardy and Curly Howard.  His distinct on-screen persona was normally that of a country bumpkin and ladies man.

Naturally, every great screen personality needs an equally distinct nemesis.  Chaplin had Eric Campbell, Langdon had Vernon Dent, Arbuckle had his Al St. John.  The two appeared together in numerous films and, later, Arbuckle directed St. John in Curses (1925) and Bridge Wives (1932).  Lanky, bad teeth, bad hair and bad clothes, St. John was Arbuckle’s perfect country bumpkin foil in The Waiter’s Ball (1916), Coney Island (1917) and the recently restored Love (1919), in which Arbuckle donned drag, as he frequently did (Good Night Nurse, an imaginative nightmare fantasy with Keaton, St. John and Arbuckle Continue reading ROSCOE ARBUCKLE’S “HE DID AND HE DIDN’T” (1916)

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