Category Archives: Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema

ANDREI RUBLEV (1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (originally titled The Passion According to Andrei ) is a 1966 film about a painter whom we never see painting. Furthermore, it’s about a 15th century artist who we know very little about, not even the exact years of his birth and death. Only one existing painting, “The Trinity,” can be authenticated as being entirely painted by Rublev. Yes, Rublev is one of those uncouth religious painters: an iconographer. This is anathema here today—and, when it was made, most especially in his Russian homeland. Despite all that, Rublev is a painter of legendary status. As enigmatic as he is, a film about such a figure would seem to be a recipe for disaster. Someone forgot to advise Tarkovsky, because he not only produced the most substantive film to date about a historical painter, but also one of the most astonishing and vexing accomplishments in cinema.

Rublev, scripted by Andrey Konchalovskiy and Tarkovsky, had a “sky’s the limit” budget (the biggest Soviet budget since ). Its production swallowed up two years. Distribution proved to be an ideological purgatory, however, a politically complex and arduous endeavor. Along the way, it dawned on atheistic Soviet authorities that, as a film about a deeply religious painter directed by the starkly spiritual Tarkovsky, Rublev was an embarrassing reminder of Russia’s faith-contaminated past.

At a private screening, Moscow critics were incensed and demanded cuts. Tarkovsky conceded and trimmed the film from its original three-and-a-half hours to 186 minutes. Not satisfied, authorities demanded additional cuts, which Tarkovsky then refused. The film was cut without him, resulting in various running times, including  an 81 minute travesty. Still, not satisfied, producers sat on Rublev until 1969, when the Cannes Film Festival requested a screening. The USSR submitted the 186 minute cut and Rublev won the International Critics award, despite being pulled from the competition. Soviet authorities were enraged; Leonid Brezhnev stormed out of the showing. Unmoved by its critical accolades, bureaucrats kept Rublev shelved until 1971, when it became a critical and box office success in its homeland.

Andrei Rublev is more of an iconographic than a biographical essay, focusing on a spiritual and artistic struggle, which might be seen as an icon of  sorts for Tarkovsky himself. One is unlikely to encounter a more idiosyncratic and desultory odyssey in cinema. There is a quality about it that could be likened to the inflamed mysticism of Antonin Artaud. Tarkovsky’s mastery is in ample evidence from the enigmatic, tenebrous prologue; attempting to mount a hot-air balloon, a medieval daredevil provokes peasants who woozily chase after him, only to see his endeavor utterly fail when it crashes to the earth below. Cinematographer Vadim Yusov had his work cut out for him. He unquestionably triumphs when his cherubic camera pursues Heaven’s would-be gate crasher in a serpentine take.

The remainder of the film is grounded; and oh, is it grounded. Tarkovsky himself referred to it as a “film of the earth.” Unflinchingly brutal and oppressive, disheartening, experimental, bleak, saturated with nudity and bloodshed, it’s paradoxically intimate and epic; feverish and spiritually crepuscular; chaotic, and austere in its expansive silences; sublime in its depiction of sensual elements (mists, panoramic landscapes, rivers, the fire of candles, torches, and Rublev’s smoldering robe) and factitious symbols (bells, a white church, ladders, crucifixes). The film is equally haunting in its chimerical potpourri of beasts (the decaying corpse of a swan, snakes, birds, cats, geese, a herd of reindeer, and a striking black mare) and visually distressing sights (the pleating of a dead woman’s hair, unfathomable carnage, and extreme closeups of weathered Slavic faces).

Still from Andrei Rublev (1966)When the ethereal Andrei Rublev () remains true to the purity of his art by rejecting a commissioned “Last Judgment,” he virtually dismantles his career and embarks upon a haphazard journey, accompanied by two monks. Along the way, we see the sufferings of peasants (in a memorable scene, a jester is manhandled) and exotic, undiluted paganism (the queerly ritualistic Saint John’s Eve) met with startling, heart-breaking violence.

Rublev’s journey is authentic, deprived of a destination, and largely plays out under an umbrella of the artist’s vow of silence, rendering Tarkovsky’s opus not so much a film as a poem scrawled through the ashes of a dilapidated fresco.

ROBERT BRESSON’S DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (1951)

cited Robert Bresson as one of two  filmmakers who influenced him (the other being ). Bresson has also been referred to as the most religious of filmmakers, and in some quarters, as the patron saint of cinema.

Although some have claimed Breton considered himself a Christian atheist, his statements, which echo tenets of process theology, contradicts that thesis. Likewise, Breton’s diminutive oeuvre is too mosaic for such a condensed assessment. His prevalent theme is an aesthetic Catholicism, which was shaped by religious upbringing, Jansenism, and a year spent as prisoner of war (an experience indirectly explored in 1956’s A Man Escaped).

Diary of a Country Priest, which was Breton’s first film in five years, is a masterful adaption of the novel by Catholic author Georges Bernanos. An unnamed young priest  (Claude Laydu, in his first role) arrives at the parish of Ambricourt. Pursuing a life of austere poverty and solemnity, he lives off stale bread, soaked in wine and sugar, along with potato soup. It is all he can hold down before vomiting blood, because, unknown to him, his stomach ailment is a cancer that is slowly killing him. The parishioners, unaccustomed to such piety in a priest coupled with his complete lack of social grace, quickly make him into an object of ridicule, spreading gossip about him being an alcoholic and mocking him as “the little priest.” Unwilling to defend himself against the falsehoods, the priest mantles a halo of interior martyrdom. Such is the seriousness of his calling. Adding to the poignancy is the heart-rending revelation that the priest’s parents were alcoholics. A sole parishioner attends mass, and the underlying spiritual upheaval is only inflamed by the priest carrying out his oppressively routine vocation. The turmoil of doubt spreads like the cancer rotting his intestine.

The priest begins a journal recording his struggle with his faith. His oncoming death transcends the physical, although there is that as well. The authenticity of the portrait is such that you can almost empathize with his parishioners. It’s no joy ride, and prefigures Mother Teresa’s journals, which a recall a similar, daunting experience. His priestly occupation is only an occasional effective retreat, and there is a haunting suspicion of the filmmaker engaging self-portraiture here. The result is arduous.

There  are parallels with ‘s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); both are akin to an expressionistic fugue. Both Dreyer’s Joan and Bresson’s cleric embody the notion of a holy calling as a second martyrdom. They willfully—like Christ—embark on a self-immolation, reminding us that this was the quintessential goal of early Christians. When historians note these films are the two most authentically Catholic works in cinema, they’re onto something.

CARL THEODORE DREYER’S DAY OF WRATH (1943)

‘s Day of Wrath (1943) is an undeniable masterpiece that should be required viewing. It’s bleak as hell; a kind of synthesis of Rembrandt and Nathanel Hawthorne filtered through a lens of wrenching pessimism. After viewing, you’re likely to break out in a sweat and be reduced to incoherent mumbling. If you’re brave enough to attempt a second viewing, wait twenty-five years. It’s that intense: the most somber opus in this unrelentingly somber filmmaker’s oeuvre.

As in virtually all of Dreyer’s work, Day of Wrath (the title is taken from the hymn “Das Irae,” used in requiem masses) highlights the director’s excruciating obsession with realism, and his paradoxical stylization. Set in the 17th century, Wrath‘s subject is the Danish church’s persecution of accused witches. Critics at the time noted  Dreyer’s unflinching comparison of the powerful Protestant Church with the Third Reich (Denmark had recently acquiesced to the Nazis). In The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Dreyer had previously held the English Catholic Church to accountability (although one must concede that he wasn’t entirely sympathetic with the saint either). Here, his lack of favoritism is equally unsparing. His grim eye for religious and political institutional thought soaks every pigment of every frame, but falls short of full-scale condemnation. His shrug at commercial filmmaking and its audience is proportionately tenacious. In daring to produce films of authentic spirituality, he appeals to no brand of atheism—be it religious or cinematic atheism.

Still from Day of Wrath (1943)In approaching Day of Wrath, holster all naive notions of hope. There is none to be had, except for a sensuous sliver in the form of Lisbeth Movin as Anne, the second wife of Rev. Absalon (Thorkild Roose). For the sin of youthful earthiness, the poor woman is inherently doomed.

The superlative early sequences focus on the old woman Marthe (Anna Svierkier), an accused, tortured witch who believes she can blackmail Absalon into interceding to save her from the stake. Anne, who sympathizes with Marthe, is the daughter of a witch, one whom Absalon hypocritically protected to secure the arranged marriage. Complicating the loveless union is Anne’s  love for Absalon’s son Martin (Preben Lerdoff Rye) who is closer to her age. Intensifying the already oppressive milieu is Absalon’s mother, the sadistic and jealous Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam), who hated Anne’s mother and now equally despises her daughter-in-law.

With Anne clearly more a trophy than a beloved, Absalon fails to heed Marthe’s threat, and relinquishes the old woman to the stake. The scene is excruciating to watch and, as he had Maria Falconetti in Joan of Arc, so Dreyer again puts an actor through extreme physical discomfort to solicit the right degree of suffering. Perversely choreographed to an ominous hymn, it climaxes with the dying Marthe placing a curse on Absalon and Anne.

What follows may or may not be the aftermath of that curse. Wisely, Dreyer leaves that decision to the viewer. Ordinary people lose their humanity in subscribing to the fears and platitudes of religiosity and the status quo. Even Anne becomes unsympathetic when she sets the wheels of Absalon’s comeuppance in motion. Rather than being freed after the Lutheran pastor’s death, Anne is betrayed by the weak Martin and denounced as a witch by Merete. Like Melisande, Anne becomes purified by accepting her fate.

Strikingly photographed by Karl Andersson, the black and white chiaroscuro further intensifies an almost unbearable experience. For contemporary viewers, the unrelentingly static pacing of Day of Wrath may prove a challenge. Yet, it is unquestionably the most powerful film to date on its subject.

ORSON WELLES’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1966)

For fifty years, Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1966) was locked in various disputes over ownership, and was only sporadically seen in wretched prints. It was talked and written about so much that inevitably seeing it (as I did in Chicago in the 90s) amounted to an ordeal. With both poor visual and audio, it was unquestionably a disappointment. Thankfully, Janus Films came to a long overdue rescue in 2015.

The restoration (available on the Criterion Collection) is miraculous, revealing one of Welles’ most astonishing, loving creations. While F for Fake was Welles’ final finished film, Chimes at Midnight is his final completed narrative feature—one that he never could have topped. The character of Falstaff inspired Welles to heights previously unreached (as it did Giuseppe Verdi). Chimes is his most personal and finest foray into Shakespearean terrain. While you’re watching it, you feel he’s peerless. Despite an epic struggle to finish the production, Welles’ direction is assured, but it’s as an actor that he soars in a tour de force performance. Welles himself cited as his best work, fulfilling a lifelong ambition to play Falstaff on film. One is inclined to agree. Welles had first played the part in a high school play that was ambitiously intended to be three hours long. Predictably, the school demanded cuts, forcing him to compromise (it wouldn’t be the last time). He played the part again in the late 1930s and in 1960, although both productions were short-lived financial failures.

Welles’ The Chimes at Midnight screenplay draws a linear chronological portrait of John Falstaff from the plays “Henry IV,” “Henry V,” “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” and “Richard III,” with Ralph Richardson’s narration taken from Raphael Holinshed’s “Chronicles.”

Like almost all of Welles’ later films, it was made under ragged conditions. The director was able to obtain meager financing by telling a bold faced lie (see F For Fake) to producer Emiliano Piedra, promising to direct and act in a version of “Treasure Island” in exchange. Welles had no intention of keeping that promise,  which Piedra eventually discovered, complicating the production (it took two years to complete). Despite budgetary struggles, Welles produced a final masterpiece. Only Welles could do so much with so little, crafting a chiaroscuro landscape with an epic ferociously bleak battle scene that can rank with the likes of Kurosawa.

Still from Chimes at Midnight (1965)With his girth and advanced age now a plus, Welles is physically perfect for the role, but the character of a lush, rogue anecdotist on the verge of become a train wreck parody is also close to the actor’s heart.  He doesn’t play Falstaff too broadly (comedy was never Welles’ medium), and there is a touch of smallness in the distended knight living beyond his means. Art imitating life, as far as Welles was concerned. Almost equally fine is ‘s performance as the draconian Henry and (most disturbingly) as the prostitute Doll Tearsheet.

As fine as Laurence Olivier was as Hamlet, Henry, and Richard, there was always a feeling of Shakespeare being too easy for him. The (considerably budgeted) productions went smoothly. One never comes away from Olivier’s Shakespeare with a sense of the artist and the production having grappled with the literary source.  Quintessentially professional, Olivier, like the Berlin Philharmonic conductor , is well-rehearsed in the art of reinterpretation. What makes Chimes at Midnight unique among the great cinematic Shakespeares is that which some critics initially complained of in it. Welles, like Leonard Bernstein, transforms interpretation into a sweaty brawl. In doing so, the director’s idiosyncrasies, or rather personality, is so imposed that it transforms  the work into a bona fide personal manifesto: lusty, often approaching a bacchanal.  It speaks volumes that Olivier, unlike Welles, was an Academy favorite. Yet Welles is as fearless and assured with the text as the more acclaimed examples of Olivier and Kenneth Branagh.

Put Chimes at Midnight at the top of your Shakespeare to do list. You won’t even have to wait a half century to see it as it should be seen.

REPRINT: KLAUS KINSKI’S PAGANINI (1989)

Alfred Eaker has the week off, but here is a reprint of a classic column originally publishedDecember 12, 2103.

Films about composers are rare, and probably for good reason. Few can forget Hollywood’s sickeningly sanitized version of Chopin’s life, A Song To Remember (1945) with Cornel Wilde’s Hallmark-style portrayal of the composer literally (and hammily) dying at the keyboard (of tuberculosis) after a grueling tour for “the song to remember.” It was Liberace’s favorite movie for good reason. At the opposite end of the spectrum were the 1970 composer biopics by . Russell being Russell, these were, naturally, highly irreverent and decidedly idiosyncratic takes on Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers), Mahler (Mahler), and Liszt (Lisztomania). Then came Milos Forman’s Academy Award winning film about Mozart, Amadeus (1984), which, though largely fictional, does capture the spirit, personality, and drive of the composer. If Forman’s triumph seemed to signal a new, respectable artistic trend in musical dramas, then along came Klaus Kinski with Paganini (1989) to prove that notion wrong. Script in hand, Kinski attempted to solicit to direct the life story of the demonic 19th century virtuoso violinist, Niccolo Paganini. Kinski had long felt a strong identification with the famed musician and repeatedly implored Herzog to direct. Upon reading Kinski’s treatment, Herzog deemed it an “unfilmable mess.” Not one to be dissuaded, Kinski, for the first and last time, took over the director’s reigns himself. The result is absolutely the weirdest musical biopic ever made, and that is no exaggeration. It has aptly been referred to as Kinski Paganini since it as much a self-portrait as it is the composer’s portrait. Picasso once said “every work of art, regardless of subject matter, is a self-portrait.” Kinski Paganini is the second of two highly personal self-portraits Kinski left behind before dying at the age of 56 in 1991. The first is an actual autobiography, titled “All I Need Is Love.” Both works sparked an outrage amongst the status quo. Kinski’s written manifesto has since come to be regarded as one of the great maniacal bios.

To call Paganini a biopic is a bit of a stretch. As Herzog predicted, the film is a mess, and a repellent one at that; but it is such an individualistic mess that it demands attention. Kinski’s movie is an unquestionably disturbing example of what happens when the lunatics take over the asylum.

The film is available on DVD via Mya Communications in both the 84 minute theatrical cut, mandated by aghast producers, and Kinksi’s own, fourteen minute longer “versione originale.” With Kinski’s cut, there is no reason to watch the theatrical version, which was an impossible attempt to downsize the director’s monstrously egotistical vanity project.

Kinski’s version opens with two priests, racing towards the dying musician. They bicker back and forth over whether they should offer last rites to that vile seducer of young girls. To make his point of hypocrisy about as subtle as a pair of brass knuckles, Kinski intercuts the carriage ride with shots of priests’ hands distributing the Continue reading REPRINT: KLAUS KINSKI’S PAGANINI (1989)

ORSON WELLES’ F FOR FAKE (1973)

In hindsight, F For Fake (1973) might be seen as inevitable. In an interview with Jean Clay from almost a decade before the film’s release, Welles warned: “If you try to probe, I’ll lie to you.” Admitting that most what he says is fabricated, Welles astutely advised: “Destroy all biographies. Only art can explain the life of a man.”

Yet, there is something of a gimmick even in that statement. It was through the medium of radio that Welles delivered his first hurrah of trickery, at the ripe old age of 23 on October 30, 1938. The reaction to Welles’ sharply directed radio dramatization of  H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” is impossible to fathom now; in the era before internet, cable, and television, Welles broadcast of a faked Martian invasion of New Jersey caused a nationwide panic. Believing it was the end of the world as we know it, the masses rioted and looted. In the resulting exodus, traffic was jammed in neighboring cities. Hundreds—if not thousands—died. Those of weak hearts dropped dead. The rivers beneath bridges were flowing with the bodies of suicides. Orson Welles immediately became a household name.

Only, those reports were predominantly fake as well. The station did not have a sizable audience. Few were actually listening to the broadcast, let alone fooled by it. There were a scant number of purported deaths, with the highest estimates ranging from five to twenty. However, that was enough for Welles and company to shrewdly feed the press until it escalated into a glorious myth. Thank God we’ve evolved past that now… well, until a certain political faker last year spewed, without a shred of evidence, “I saw thousands of Muslims [replacing Martians] cheering in New Jersey on 911” and his sycophants went “ooh” and “ahh” to the cheap parlor trick.

Unlike politicians, Welles called himself out in F For Fake, as he did thirty-five years prior when he manufactured a public apology for the unintentional catastrophe caused by manufactured Martians. To the world at large, Welles’ apology only confirmed the epic scale of that 1938 disaster.

Although Welles was nearly fired from RKO over the radio broadcast, such trickery deserved a reward. Welles eventually got it when the studio gave him carte blanche for the production of Citizen Kane (1941). If you haven’t heard of it, it’s this little movie about a newspaper magnate and charlatan that caused an epic backlash, but a few critics seemed to like it somewhat.

Still from F for Fake (1973)Like that infamous Martian debacle, a baroque cult grew around  F For Fake and for years, but with poor distribution, it was more discussed than seen. Fortunately, the 2005 Criterion Collection release remedied that. Welles himself guides us through an innovative and entertaining Continue reading ORSON WELLES’ F FOR FAKE (1973)

RON ORMOND’S CHRISTIAN SCARE FILM: IF FOOTMEN TIRE YOU, WHAT WILL HORSES DO? (1971)

‘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 s, and of course it could only have been produced by Baptists ( 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.

Still from If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?Footman springs from the Cold War climate of fear, and is a hodgepodge of dressed up as a Christian scare film. It opens with the stoic Pirkle sermonizing to his extremely well-fed Baptist zombie flock (several keep nodding off in the pew), who go out of their way to live Continue reading RON ORMOND’S CHRISTIAN SCARE FILM: IF FOOTMEN TIRE YOU, WHAT WILL HORSES DO? (1971)

RON ORMOND’S CHRISTIAN SCARE DOUBLE FEATURE: THE GRIM REAPER (1976) AND THE BELIEVER’S HEAVEN (1977)

Like before him, 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 .

Still from The Grim Reaper (1976)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)

STOCKING COAL: THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL (1978)

With the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (directed by ), it appears that Saint Nicholas has appeased a considerable sector of movie 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.

Still from the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)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 AdventureHoward 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.

STOCKING COAL: KIRK CAMERON’S SAVING CHRISTMAS (2014) & THE BURNING HELL (1974)

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)