Category Archives: Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema

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

Alfred Eaker has the week off. This column originally ran May 14, 2009.

Approaching ‘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 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. 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 The Strong Man 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 would have a falling out, or that Langdon’s stardom would be over almost as soon as it began, but that he ever achieved stardom in the first place. Langdon began edging his character into darker territory in the Capra-directed Long Pants, and it was this that lead to their inevitable break.

Three’s a Crowd is quintessential Langdon unplugged, and it’s existence is almost a miracle.

Cubist, minimalist, enigmatic, avant-garde,personal, painterly, static, dream-like, lethargically paced, performance art: all these terms apply to Three’s a Crowd.

Still from Three's a Crowd (1927)The set pieces immediately convey the film’s genteel, surreal aura.  A milkman, making his early delivery at dawn, is the only sign of life in an otherwise empty city street. Inside Harry’s apartment, an alarm clock vibrates. The camera seems eerily frozen on the clock, almost Continue reading REPRINT: HARRY LANGDON’S “THREE’S A CROWD” (1927): SILENT CINEMA’S MALIGNED DARK HORSE

DENNIS POTTER’S SON OF MAN (1969)

Dennis Potter is a writer whose name is often spoken with awe; his early death (from pancreatic cancer) was a significant loss to television. Potter’s critically acclaimed “Wednesday Play” ran from 1964-1970 on the BBC, with his “Alice”1)Included as an extra feature on BBC’s Alice in Wonderland DVD. (on the life of ), “Pennies from Heaven,” and “Singing Detective” all seen as cult masterpieces.

Yet, his most provocative hour was “Son of Man,” directed by Gareth Davies. When people today speak of controversial dramatizations of the life of Christ, very few remember this one, which may be the most radical dramatized portrayal of the Nazarene prophet to date: more so even than ‘s Gospel According to St. Matthew, ‘s Last Temptation of Christ, or ‘s The Passion of the Christ (which is only controversial in being pornographic). Unlike Scorsese’s film, Potter’s hidden gem2)Unreleased on home video, although it can be found online—here is the “love your enemy” excerpt.  ups the revolutionary ante, not because it veers from the Gospel text (it’s actually fairly orthodox in its narrative bullet points), but in how it is presented. Potter eschews any show of divinity. He doesn’t deny it, it’s merely not his concern. He focuses on Christ as a human and a prophet. As played by Colin Blakely, this desert Christ is visceral, beefy, dirty (eschewing that “cleanliness is next to godliness” verbiage), struggles with his faith, and is God-obsessed. That’s contrary to Christ’s usual stoic portrayals, and may partially be the reason for this film’s neglect. It’s easier to put a man who is emotionally detached on a pedestal. Once we see his ragged emotions, he, uncomfortably, becomes too much like us. The Christ of Potter/Blakely napalms that comfort zone with a portrayal that unnerved 1969 audiences. Airing it in the Easter season was salt added to the wound.

Still from Son of Man (1969)Another disconcerting mirror “Son of Man” holds up is its very clear contrasting of ethics and morality. The Ten Commandments are ten versions of “NO,” brought to you in the shape of patriarchal morality, which doesn’t have to be equated with love; hence, Christ improves on them with the ethics (morality + love) of the Beatitudes. Author once mused that he had seen Christians, with tears in their eyes, bemoaning the loss of the Ten Commandments displayed in schools. When Vonnegut suggested posting the Beatitudes in their place, the reaction was: “Blessed are the poor? The meek shall inherit the earth? Blessed are the peacemakers? Oh, we can’t post that. People might take it wrong.” The Beatitudes are the centerpiece of Potter’s story, with Christ delivering them at the most inopportune moment; shortly after we see the corpse of a bloodied woman, brutally butchered by Roman Soldiers. “Love the man who would thrust his sword in your belly and torture you,” Christ ferociously shouts. It’s no wonder both his onscreen crowd Continue reading DENNIS POTTER’S SON OF MAN (1969)

References   [ + ]

1. Included as an extra feature on BBC’s Alice in Wonderland DVD.
2. Unreleased on home video, although it can be found online—here is the “love your enemy” excerpt.

AT ETERNITY’S GATE (2018)

Vincent Van Gogh may be the art world’s quintessential paradox. That he was a great, idiosyncratic painter is indisputable. Yet, he was also an incurable romantic, zealously religious (he once sought to become a minister), highly argumentative (according to most of his contemporaries), extremely prolific, he cut off his ear, and he committed suicide at the age of 37. Today, he’s a Hobby Lobby superstar.

The subject of numerous cinematic treatments, Van Gogh has been posthumously canonized by the bourgeois who never would have accepted him in his life. They bypass his personal flaws in favor of “Starry Night” and “Sunflower” coffee mugs. He’s more myth now than human. Neither his contemporary Paul Gauguin nor his successor Pablo Picasso have been afforded such whitewashing. Indeed, their character flaws are often still held against them, despite the fact that they are both superior artists to Van Gogh (taking nothing from the Dutchman).

Another cinematic Van Gogh biography comes with about as much anticipation as another retelling of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.” Yet, Julian Schnabel has produced an aesthetically provocative Van Gogh biopic At Eternity’s Gate (2018). It’s about damned time.

One of the most frustrating things to witness in a gallery or museum is patrons zipping by paintings as if they’re Speedy Gonzales in a mall, spending a few seconds glancing at work that artists labored over for days, weeks, months or years. Schnabel, a painter himself, is having none of that, and paces his movie glacially. Although reactions to the film are predictable as hell, it’s almost refreshing to read audiences and critics harping about the film being so long and so pretentious. That would inspire a yawn, if it weren’t for the fact that Van Gogh is finally pissing people off once again. It’s about damned time.

Still from At Eternity's Gate (2018)Apart from the pacing, patrons complain about the impressionistic aesthetic of the film, and the fact that star today is almost twice the age of Van Gogh at the time of his death. Even a quick look at the artist’s self-portraits reveals the casting is astute: Van Gogh looked three times his age, ugly, ravaged, and cantankerous. As for the aesthetics: this isn’t a really a biopic at all, and indeed we do not need another. Instead, Schnabel has produced a gorgeous requiem.

Dafoe’s intensity is akin to pigment ground into celluloid with raw knuckles. On paper, reading Van Gogh waxing poetic about finding a “new light” would be unbearably pretentious, yet when we watch him painting the landscape before him, we see him practice what he preaches (and this artist was always a preacher). The result is a Van Gogh creation that reinterprets nature (Gauguin, who insisted that artists are to disregard and improve upon nature, would be proud).

Much of the dialogue is taken from Van Gogh’s letters. At times, the sentimentality of his language borders on the saccharine, but it takes a special artist to master sentimentally. did it (early on, before it throttled him). Van Gogh mastered it as well, but only because he backed it up with talent. Yes, he actually talked that way, and we have to remember that painting, once primarily commissioned by the Church, was seen in the 19th century as potentially obsolete with the advent of photography. However, painters of the period, like Van Gogh and Gauguin (played with humorous arrogance by ) set about to prove that death sentence premature. They—the artists- –would be the new priests, subverting common sense, and fought like hell to create a new language, since the Church’s clergy had become hopelessly complacent and status quo. Dafoe captures Van Gogh’s childlike innocence. He was desperate for unconditional love and, by God, that’s the preacher in him, making us recall the scripture passage that says one must be like a child in order to attain the Kingdom: AKA, Eternity’s Gate. We’re reminded that Dafoe previously played an equally provocative Christ. It’s no accident that these are his two best roles. Like a child, Van Gogh finds joy in repetition, and because he couldn’t find it in love, he finds it in paint.

Van Gogh tells his priest (the typically wonderful ): “Perhaps God made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.” In this, he speaks the language of Mahler, who also realized he wouldn’t live to see his work accepted. Van Gogh’s heights are reached only through painting. Everything else is devastation. He takes Gauguin’s advice to escape the hierarchical community and head South. Gauguin joins him, but even that is disastrous. Gauguin was and remains a more innovative artist than Van Gogh, and while he rightly assesses his peer as being as much sculptor as painter, he doesn’t quite have the intuition to realize that their relationship is one of unrequited love. The chemistry between Dafoe and Isaac is bewitching.

At Eternity’s Gate focuses on the last years of Van Gogh’s brief life. Even then it’s fragmented, and by keeping it focused on “being Van Gogh,” (Schabel’s description) it becomes the most satisfying cinematic interpretation of the painter to date.

Initially, Schabel’s decision regarding the depiction of Van Gogh’s death is a curious one. He opts for a flimsy minority theory, although cause of death was almost certainly suicide. Yet, artistically and psychologically, it makes sense in the context of Schnabel’s Van Gogh. There’s an early scene in which the artist becomes almost violent in reaction to a teacher mocking his work. Van Gogh’s death, as presented here, throws out the notion of a “romantic suicide of a martyr for art,” and renders it even more visceral than the actual event. That’s apt; a bit like a requiem.

DRACULA IN PAKISTAN (1967)

Dracula in Pakistan (AKA The Living Corpse, 1967, directed by Khwaja Sarfraz ) is about… Dracula, in Pakistan. Well, primarily. It’s a slightly weird retelling; not quite weird enough, and not quite good enough, but it’s a worthwhile curio.

It begins with Doc Tabini (Rehan; the actors are all credited under one name only) as a kind of Dr. Jekyll, deep in experimentation, trying to unlock the secret of death. Unfortunately, the poor fellow dies during his own experiment, wakes up as a vampire, and bites his buxom babe assistant. She becomes the bride of… Dracula (although he’s only called Dracula in the title).

Then, Dracula in Pakistan veers into a practical remake of ‘s Dracula mixed with Horror of Dracula (Sarfraz virtually lifts ‘s red-blooded entrances). It occasional veers from the source materials: Dracula gets into a fist fight; and, rather than turning into a bat, he takes off in a sport car. Oh, and there’s several (too many) bizarrely placed extended dance sequences and a crappy Pakistani jazz score, along with a beach scene of Pakistani teens (?), before it ventures back into the narrative and the finale—an effectively filmed ripoff of Fisher’s Horror.

Still from Dracula in Pakistan (1967)The Van Helsing character is bland, but Rehan is a spirited bloodsucker—which is odd, because according to the cast interviews on the DVD extras, he had never seen a horror film before shooting. Indeed, it’s the extras from the Mondo Macabro  release that really elevate the film. They almost convinced me Pakistan was better than the film I just saw. According to Pete Tombs and Omar Khan, the film was originally rated X in Pakistan, due to the cleavage and neck-biting, which was tame even then. There’s also a documentary on South Asia horror films, and the restoration, although hardly perfect, is impressive. Mondo treats it like it’s a long lost treasure; and who are we to argue with such a hip distributor?

“THE WEIRDEST MOVIE EVER MADE: THE PATTERSON-GIMLIN BIGFOOT FILM” BY PHIL HALL

Aptly, s latest journalistic endeavor, “The Weirdest Movie Ever Made: The Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot Film,” is this author’s weirdest book to date. I doubt that anyone needs to run to their favorite search engine to inquire about what may be the most famous home movie apart from the Zapruder film. Hall never directly states his “belief,” or lack thereof, in the authenticity of the 1967 film’s claim to have captured footage of an actual Bigfoot; his agnosticism spreads over the book’s 100 plus pages. Smartly, authenticity is not Hall’s point of entry, because belief, in anything, is an abstraction, despite claims made to the contrary by every pedigree of zealotry. Rather, Hall’s approach is a quirky look at a quirky corner of Western mythology. The Patterson-Gimlin film may indeed be the weirdest movie ever made; even weirder in that its weirdness lies in the zealotry of its primary filmmaker and the ballooning mythology of this (roughly) one-minute home movie.

In short: the Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film is a religious film in every way, and Hall captures that pulse. His observations in Chapter 2 are shrewdest, beginning with a brief explanation of “cryptozoology” that segues into examples from the Bible. Job is one of several books that mentions creatures like a Leviathan, a Behemoth, and a Ziz. In the longer version of the Book of Daniel (included in Catholic and Orthodox canons, relegated to the Apocrypha in Protestant bibles), the hero of the tale slays a Babylonian dragon by overfeeding it. Of course, St. George also slew a dragon. Hall, who should perhaps consider a theological vocation (we need more pragmatic theologians with a sense of humor), astutely reminds us that St. George is, naturally, more known for his dragon-slaying than for his piety. That makes for far more interesting reading than a saint praying at the altar.

There’s a St. George spirit in Roger Patterson. Already ill1)Patterson died in 1972, only five years after releasing his footage. with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Patterson became obsessed; not with an unseen deity above, but with an unseen mythological creature below, on Earth and in hiding. And why not? Who wants to wait for heaven after death when we can find Eden here? And what better way to find  Eden than through the discovery of one of its hidden creatures? Whether Patterson set out to find and film the creature, or create it for a disbelieving world, is irrelevant. It’s his religious zeal, magnified by failing health, that produced a one-of-kind home movie. This is really the Genesis of Hall’s book. He punctuates his narrative with “Bigfoot Interludes,” such as “Why did the Sasquatch cross the road?” complete with whimsical illustrations by Jose Daniel Oviedo Galeano. These interludes, with accompanying text (that includes occasional typos, which I suspect are intentional and add to the weirdness), are akin to the children’s Bibles found in Sunday School rooms across the country; a necessary, lighthearted break from all the surrounding adult devotion. We get both child and adult with Patterson, who really is the most interesting and complex character in the book. Bigfoot herself is what she is in the footage; merely a phantasmagoric flicker, not unlike a briefly seen in Plan 9 From Outer Space. It’s Patterson, especially once you read his biography, that looms largest here. In that, he is a bit like that uncanonized saint of weird movies, With both, appreciation for what they created is far more accessible when you are familiar with their biographical bullet points.

Hall’s book zig-zags; you may find yourself convinced the film’s an elaborate hoax, only to find yourself wondering if there’s actually something to it in the next chapter. However, even Bob Gimlin, who Patterson relegated to the role of sidekick, has wondered aloud recently if Patterson pulled a epic prank which used him as more an audience member than a participant. In the end, there’s considerably more evidence pointing to a fake than something authentic. ( would be proud.) There’s even speculation and rumor (supplied by John Landis, although reliability and Landis are oil and water) that John Chambers, who did the makeup work on Planet of the Apes, created a Bigfoot suit for Patterson (Chambers denied it).

Prank, however, isn’t the right word. A religion needs both a figurehead and a product, be it a church, a book, or a film; and Patterson ambitiously anointed himself as Pope and prophet in providing that product, whether it’s “real” or myth. Debating the matter is ultimately pointless, so Hall take us past all that to the film itself, how it stands as “the weirdest movie ever made,” and its considerable influence on pop culture. Movies (The Legend of Boggy Creek and sequels) were made, and Leonard Nimoy, Peter Graves, the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman all addressed the Bigfoot legend in their respective television shows. How cool is that?

In the book’s standout Chapter 6: Cinematic Appreciation, Hall addresses the Patterson-Gimlin film’s effectiveness as a film,  discussing its “fourth wall” moment; when Bigfoot turns and the watched becomes the watcher. This one-minute film provides a jump scare worthy of or The Exorcist. Indeed, I remember, as a child, seeing the Patterson-Gimlin footage for the first time, and the subtlety of that moment made the hairs on the nape of my neck stand on end in the same way as when I saw the alien wife of Unearthly Stranger removing a roast from the oven without gloves on. There is a similar alien-in-our-midst quality to Patterson’s Bigfoot; made all the more effective and haunting in its brevity, silence, and “what if?” possibility. It is that simple turn of the creature which sealed the film’s legendary status.

Hall provides a summary: “Sure, you can make your own Patterson-Gimlin film with an iPhone and your mom’s faux-fur coat, but there’s still no beating the original for sheer weirdness. We still want to believe. And if that means heading to YouTube to watch a grainy, 50-year-old clip by a couple of Bigfoot believers and allowing our imaginations to run wild? So much the better.”

References   [ + ]

1. Patterson died in 1972, only five years after releasing his footage.

THE GOLEM (1920) AND FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

Paul Wegener’s The Golem (1920) is not as broadly known today as its German Expressionist peers, Nosferatu (1922) and Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), despite having been a considerable influence on ‘s Frankenstein (1931). The reasons are apparent. Wegener’s later propaganda films for the Nazis certainly hurt the reputation of both director and film. And the Golem itself, with his oversized fright wig, looks more comically surreal than horrific; it was undeniably surpassed by Frankenstein.

Still, The Golem deserves to be better known. It was Wegener’s third “Golem” film1)The previous two films, The Golem (1915) and The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917),  are lost, although fragments of the 1915 version survive. based on the story by Gustav Meyrink, itself based on Jewish folklore. Wegener stars, co-wrote (with Henrik Galeen), and co-directed (here with Carl Boese) each of them. The cinematography by and set design by Hans Poelzig2)Yes, that’s where Ulmer later got the name for his Satanist antagonist in 1934’s The Black Cat and his assistant  considerably enhance its stunning visuals.

Still from The Golem (1920)The Golem opens in a 16th century Jewish ghetto in Prague with Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinruck) foretelling disaster for the Jewish community. Shortly after that bit of soothsaying, the Kaiser (Otto Gebuhr) orders the Jews banned. Loew creates a stone figure, the Golem, to protect his people, investing life into it through the demon Astaroth. The scene is impressively shot, with the rabbi encircling the Golem with fire (influenced by the “Magic Fire” of Richard Wagner’s “Die Walkure”), climaxing with a smoky demonic face issuing forth a scroll. Taking the now-animated Golem to the court of the Kaiser, Loew impresses when his creation saves the assembly from a falling roof in a epically staged scene that must have made quite an impression to 1920 audiences. It certainly impresses (or, rather frightens) the Kaiser enough to get the deportation order reversed. Astaroth possesses the Golem shortly afterwards, however, and like  the monster in Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein,” the Golem runs amok, destroying all in its path. It even turns on his creator, setting fire to Loew’s home and carting off his daughter, Miriam (played by Wegener’s wife, Lyda Salmanova). The scenes of the monster rampaging through the city, with its angular sets and idiosyncratic cinematography, is a testament to the work of both Poelzig and Freund. Anyone who has seen Frankenstein will immediately recognize much of its source. As accomplished as Wegener is as a writer and director, he is even better as an actor, giving an expressive, animated performance and eliciting empathy with his eyes.

The film ends with a group of blonde Aryan girls saving the day, which may be one of the reasons the film wasn’t destroyed by the Continue reading THE GOLEM (1920) AND FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

References   [ + ]

1. The previous two films, The Golem (1915) and The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917),  are lost, although fragments of the 1915 version survive.
2. Yes, that’s where Ulmer later got the name for his Satanist antagonist in 1934’s The Black Cat

DER VERLORENE (THE LOST ONE, 1951)

Peter Lorre is often cited as an example of a superior European actor  who made his way to Hollywood, only to be wasted when Tinseltown didn’t know what to do with him. He had gained worldwide attention for his unnerving performance as the child-murderer in ‘s German production, M (1931). Purportedly, even though Lorre was Jewish, Adolf Hitler loved the film and the actor, inviting Lorre to return to Germany. Lorre allegedly declined by responding that Germany already had one mass murderer too many. It may be an apocryphal story, but Lorre’s image was later used in Third Reich propaganda to depict the depravity of Jews, and his name was discovered to be on Hitler’s hit list.

In Hollywood, Lorre was mostly used as a character actor who could steal a scene from anyone. He only had a handful of starring roles that suited him; a superb Raskolnikov in ‘s Crime and Punishment (1935) and as Robert Florey’s Face Behind the Mask (1941). To most Americans , he is known for appearing in 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor, arguably the first , and for his frequent teaming with co-star Sydney Greenstreet (most memorably in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon).

By the end of the 1940s, Lorre had come to despise the cartoonish roles offered him, along with the erroneous tag as a horror star (his only actual horror film was 1946’s The Beast with Five Fingers). He had long wanted to direct, having learned much from working with Lang, von Sternberg, , , and Bertolt Brecht. Lorre’s continued friendship with Brecht—a rabid anti-Fascist—led to both being interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, as well as a brief stint on the studio blacklist and to his eventually being sacked by Warner Brothers. In 1951, a bankrupt Lorre set his sights on Europe, where he went to direct Der Verlorene (The Lost One) for producer Arnold Pressburger. Lorre also co-scripted a screenplay based loosely on his own novel about the suicide of Dr. Karl Rothe, who headed a research institute within the Third Reich.

Still from Verlorene (The Lost One) (1951)

Germany, still ravaged by Hitler, hardly wanted to be reminded of the Fascist period. The resulting film was a commercial disaster, despite being acclaimed, by the few critics who saw it, as a masterpiece of German cinema. With America deep in its own brand of Fascism (dubbed McCarthyism), Der Verlorene didn’t play in the U.S. Lorre never directed another film and returned to America in defeat, to continue in the caricatured roles Hollywood craved from him. Yet, Continue reading DER VERLORENE (THE LOST ONE, 1951)