Category Archives: Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema


This is Ken Russell‘s most personal film and he admirably does Gustav Mahler proud by refusing to treat the composer with phony reverence. Mahler is no plaster saint here. Instead, he is a neurotic, obsessive Jewish composer, a hen-pecked husband and an artist whose drive stems from the flesh.

Unknown to him at the time, actor Robert Powell’s role as the composer was his audition to play one Jesus of Nazareth for Franco Zeffirelli three years later. Powell’s Mahler is not the Mahler of a Mahler cult. Mahler’s writing is clearly an immense struggle, as is his relationship with his wife, family, colleagues and admirers.

Russell pays Mahler homage in not succumbing to the type of pedestrian biopic cultists tend to favor. That type of bio treatment can be seen in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin (1992), the kind of well-intentioned but hopelessly unimaginative film one expects from a “fan.” Julie Taymor‘s Across the Universe (2007) takes the opposite approach in her stubborn insistence that the Beatles are not sacred and, thus, aptly produced a film as experimental as were the Beatles themselves (she did Stravinsky and Shakespeare the same honors with Oedipus Rex in 1993 and Titus in 1999).
Still from Mahler (1974)
Ever the renegade spirit, Russell, like Taymor, digs into his highly personal interpretation of the artist’s core. Mahler (1974) opens to the first movement of the existential Third Symphony (conducted by Bernard Haitink) juxtaposed against the composer’s hut on a lake bursting into Promethean flames. Mahler’s mummified wife, Alma (the resplendent Georgina Hale) emerges from a cocoon on the beach and crawls on jagged rocks, struggling to free herself of her bindings. Atop a rock is a bust of her husband, which Continue reading KEN RUSSELL’S MAHLER (1974)


NOTE: Female Trouble has been added to the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made. Please read the official Certified Weird entry.

If Female Trouble (1975) is John Waters‘ greatest narrative film, then Desperate Living (1977) is his inimitable descent into a surreal, kitsch abyss that few could imagine. Desperate Living is Waters’ personal, alternative universe to the parallel world of Busby Berkeley.  Seen today, Berkeley’s films are a surreal wet dream, a perverse man’s big budget fairy tales.  Waters filmed his perverse anti-fairy tale on a meager budget three years after Female Troubles, although he had substantially more money here than on his previous films. Budget or no, Desperate Living is just as grandiose and epic as anything Berkeley ever produced.

Star Divine was not available due to other commitments so Waters tapped Mink Stole, who more than makes up for the loss (additionally, Waters regular David Lochary died of an overdose shortly before filming).   The film opens with a bang in the form of a brilliant, in-your-face, unhinged preamble from Stole as Peggy, the most delightful sociopath to ever grace the annuls of independent cinema.  Peggy discovers her filthy sodomite whelps playing doctor’s office and goes berserk.  To make matter worse, Peggy’s bore of a husband, Bosley (George Stover) catches Grizelda, their 400 pound maid (Jean Hill), nipping at the jack so he decides to fire her.  Enough is enough, so Grizelda conks Bosley over the head and then suffocates him by sitting on his face.

Still from Desperate Living (1977)Grizelda tells Peggy,  “I am now your sister in crime, bitch!” Peggy, avoiding the same fate as Bosley, goes along with her former maid. The coupling of Peggy and Grizelda is comically deranged, literally climaxing with Grizelda forcing Peggy to give her oral sex as she screams out, ‘Eat it! Eat it!”

The two are on the run, and Peggy is disturbed by the surrounding beauty of nature: “You know I hate nature!  Look at those disgusting trees, stealing my oxygen.  Oh, I can’t stand this scenery Continue reading DESPERATE LIVING (1977)


In 1992 some damn silly, so-called Christian organization threw a bullying hissy fit at McDonalds for its Happy Meal deal tie-in with Tim Burton‘s Batman Returns. McDonalds, true to form, prematurely withdrew its merchandising. Rumor has it that McDonalds issued a stern warning to Warner Brothers not to tap Burton for the next Batman film. For whatever reason, Warner Brothers caved into the golden arch and, consequently, put its franchise into a decade long grave with the unwise hiring of director Joel Schumacher.

Only the fundamentalist mindset can associate Big Macs with a certain brand of morality. Looking at Batman Returns (1992), one wonders what the Christian organization was bitching about. The Bible is all throughout the film and, actually the good book itself has far more sex and violence than Batman, Tim Burton, Warner Brothers and McDonalds combined.

Regardless, Batman Returns remains the greatest cinematic comic book movie to date and one of Tim Burton’s most uniquely accomplished films. Admittedly, I am not a fan of comic book movies, even if I did read comics some when I was kid, but then most kids I knew did. I was in the minority in preferring DC to Marvel, and I guess I am sort of looking forward to the new Green Lantern movie, mainly because the Green Lantern/Green Arrow comic was a favorite when I was a wee lad in the 1960s and 1970s. That was a comic that was delightfully of its time, a bit like Star Trek in espousing an ultra-liberal message with all the subtlety of a pair of brass knuckles. Even though Green Lantern himself was a bit too righteous and bland, I liked that he was obsessed with the color green and was rendered impotent by the color yellow. There was something surreal in that, and I find the insistence of realism in comics to be a huge oxymoron. Perhaps that’s why the dark surrealism of Batman Returns did not bother me like it did mainstream audiences, comic book geeks, and militant pseudo-Christian organizations.

Still from Batman Returns (1992)Even though I will acknowledge that Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight (2008) was well crafted, it would not have worked without Ledger’s performance holding it together. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, however, pales compared to ‘s much more intense, internalized, subtle and complex Wayne. Finally, Nolan’s film feels like it has one subplot too many. Comparatively, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is a Continue reading BATMAN RETURNS (1992): A SUPERHERO BURLESQUE


In 1980 , two years after Ed Wood‘s alcohol related death at 54, film critic Michael Medved and his brother published “The Golden Turkey Awards” and gave Wood the award of being “The Worst Director of All Time” and naming his film Plan 9 From Outer Space “The Worst Film of All Time.”  The forever constipated Mr. Medved must had the biggest bowel movement of his life when he discovered that he and his brother unintentionally put the wheels in motion for the cult celebrity status of Wood who, to Medved, was little more than an object of derision.

Quite simply, Ed Wood was an outsider artist, whose medium was film.  He managed to create two highly personalized “masterpieces” of naive surrealism; Glen or Glenda (1953) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) with “star” Bela Lugosi, who was clearly at the end of his tether.

In between these two films Wood made Bride of the Monster (1955) , also starring Lugosi (the only one of the three Wood films in which Lugosi actually ‘starred’), but that film was more of a concession to the genre and lacked the pronounced Woodian weirdness found in either Glen or Glenda or Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Fourteen years after Wood’s cult status rocketed out of the pages of Medved’s book, Tim Burton produced his valentine to Eddie.  Clearly, Ed Wood was as personal a film for Burton as Glen and Plan 9 had been for Wood.  Burton faced immense difficulty in mounting the project and was given what, for him, was a small budget.  Artistically, the endeavor paid off and even did so financially, in time, although it took Touchstone years to realize the film’s cult potential for the DVD market.
Still from Ed Wood (1994)
In 1994 Tim Burton was the perfect artist to bring Ed’s story to the screen.  Burton, recognizing a fellow auteur and genuine oddball, treated Wood, not with derision, but with the respect he deserved.  Before Ed Wood, Burton, although trained at Disney, was still an outsider with Hollywood backing, which makes him (in that regard) a kindred spirit to Stanley Kubrick.  Burton’s first big budget feature effort Continue reading ED WOOD (1994), TIM BURTON’S GLORIOUS SWANSONG.


Writer Dalton Trumbo was one of the infamous Hollywood 10, that list of 10 Hollywood screenwriters whose political leanings got them blacklisted, jailed and kicked out of a guild they helped create. Hollywood did to them what the Germans did the “degenerate artists” twenty years before. Trumbo was probably the best of these writers and wrote a mind boggling number of excellent scripts, from his bathtub, as he smoked through 6 packs of cigarettes with his parrot on his shoulder, cheering him on. Only such an eccentric original could have fashioned Terror in a Texas Town (1958). Team Trumbo with B-movie maestro Joseph “Wagon Wheel” H. Lewis and a cast of idiosyncratic character actors and you get a peach of movie such as this.

Trumbo wasn’t the only victim of the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) associated with this film. Actors Ned Young and Sterling Hayden were also called before the committee. Young was also a screenwriter. Jailhouse Rock (1957), The Defiant Ones(1958), Inherit the Wind (1960), and The Train (1964) are among his credits, most of which he wrote under pseudonyms. Young refused to cooperate with the HUAC and was blacklisted as well. Hayden caved into the committee and gave them what they wanted, which cost him much in the long run. All this has given Terror in a Texas Town a cult status as a quirky reaction to the HUAC. The reputation is well-deserved.

The film opens to George Fried’s bizarre score as Swede George Hansen (Sterling Hayden) walks down a dirt road in the middle of Prairie City, Texas. George is mad as hell, he means business and he’s carrying a big whaling harpoon over his shoulder to prove it. George is followed by bloodthirsty, local farmers who are mad as hell, too.
Still from Terror in a Texas Town (1958)
They meet up with the object of their anger; southpaw gunslinger Johnny Crale (Ned Young, uncannily resembling Bogart and dressed from head to toe in black). Johnny is ready to face and kill George. Johnny taunts George, “You’re a little too far away. Come a little bit closer. You wouldn’t want to disappoint your friends. They all came here to see blood. Come a little bit closer so they can see. I want to give you a fighting chance. Five steps. One step, Hansen.” George hangs his head in shame. It seems this is something he cannot go through with.

Titles roll through a typical Lewis shot of wagon wheel spokes. The farming townspeople are being bullied and driven out by local oil baron Ed McNeil (Sebastian Cabot, projecting slimy finesse in excellent form). McNeil likes the finer things in life and that includes women, food, champagne and land ownership; but the local farmers are uncooperative when it comes to their land, which McNeil wants to mine. McNeil utilizes the talents of gunslinger Johnny to get his dirty deeds done. Pa Hansen is one of those farmers, and he is murdered by Johnny. Pa’s employee, Jose (Victor Millan, also in excellent form) witnesses the murder, but his wife wants him to remain silent. At this point, Terror in a Texas Town may seem like a formulaic movie, but underneath the surface this is a bleak film, dripping in cynical parody. That becomes apparent when Pa’s son, George, arrives in Prairie City after being at sea for 19 years. George is returning to help his Pa, until he learns the awful truth that his Daddy has been shot and killed. With no help from the townspeople, George intends to find out who killed his Pa and why.

Both the Sheriff and McNeil attempt to coerce George into leaving, but his stubborn refusal brings Johnny in to handle the situation. George befriends Jose and his family, who also are being threatened to leave. After Crane and McNeil’s thugs beat Hansen and put him on a train out of town, Hansen walks all the way back, bloodied and more persistent than ever. Jose is inspired by Hansen and makes his stand. Millan gives a powerhouse performance as Jose when he overcomes his fear and faces Crane, knowing full well that Crane will kill him. The ruthless Crane does just that, but he is shaken by Jose’s courage. Young is equally superb in this scene and, little doubt, reacted to Millan’s Jose by tapping into his own courage when he faced the Hollywood inquisitors. Young makes Crane one of the most interesting, classic western villains, who can stand alongside Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance and Jack Palance’s Jack Wilson. Crane’s girlfriend, Molly (Carol Kelly) tells him that she stays with him because she can look up to see someone lower than herself. Molly is very attuned to irony. She sees Johnny as an anachronism, forced for years to use his left hand after his right hand was rendered useless in a gunfight. “You’re no good anymore,” she says, hinting at something far more than a paralyzed gun hand. Johnny knows it too; he’s a savage killer riddled with angst.

Aptly, George rallies support in a local church, grabs his Pa’s whaling harpoon and heads to one of the strangest shoot-outs in screen history. It’s an odd finale to an equally odd film and film career (it was Lewis’ final film). Terror in a Texas Town arrived at the tail end of a politically troubled decade made for this American genre. It makes for a helluva showdown.

This article was posted in a slightly different form at Raging Bull Movie Reviews.


Sheila Franklin’s 2004 documentary, The King of Pluto (2004) focuses on the art of Michigan politico Mike Wrathell. From the outset, it is immediately apparent that Wrathell is a genuine oddball.  I say the film is about Wrathell’s art because it is not really about his life at all.  He and Franklin do not delve into the why of his art, what drives him, or where he came from and that’s just fine because this approach renders the film as quirky, vague, and enigmatic as Wrathell’s art.

Poster for The King of PlutoWrathell considers himself a Warhol-inspired dadaist who is obsessed with the planet Pluto.  He recollects that when he met president George W. Bush, he asked Bush to support a mission to Pluto.  Bush replied  “I’m going to send you to Pluto!”  Wrathell (in 2004) predicts the mission to Pluto will be a reality by 2006.

Wrathell’s art can be seen on film can be purchased there as well.  Wrathell’s silk-screen art, not surprisingly, often deals with Pluto, but he also covers celebrities, such as Maurren O’ Sullivan, John Travolta’s “Pluto Night Fever,” Ted Koppell as an Orwellian Micky Mouse, and Gilligan (as a Plutonian).  Wrathell also covers events and topics such as 911, images of Saturn, Venus, Neptunians, Blue Dracula, and why he prefers Martha Stewart to Barbara Walters.

Wrathell is a Republican and has run for various offices, unsuccessfully.  He tells us about buying a CIA baseball cap while he was in New York City near ground zero.  He buys it so potential terrorists will think he is CIA.  Or, they will think he is not CIA since an agent would not wear a cap reading “CIA”; or, a CIA man might buy a cap reading CIA to make us think he is not with the CIA, when in actuality he is.  Who knows?  But, on reflection Wrathell admits the cap was worth five bucks.

Still from King of Pluto (2004)He takes us to Burger King where he describes the perfect Whopper as having two tomatoes, or three, if you order extra tomato, which is what he orders.  Wrathell sits down with his Whopper and explains that it should have three tomatoes.  When he unwraps his sandwich, he discovers it to be a Chicken Whopper.  He returns the sandwich and hums, masking his displeasure, as they make him a new Whopper.  They do it right this time and the world is good again.

Back to the art.  Wrathell shows us watercolors on postcards and on lined notebook paper.  He has started a movement, he says.  It is the Ultra-Renaissance art movement, of which he is the sole member.

In the end, I am not sure who Mike Wrathell really is, but then I don’t know much about Pluto either, other than that the idea of it seems pretty cool, and that is good enough.  In the end, I would say Wrathell flies the freak flag high.  He is the kind of artist to sit down and have a couple of beers with, let him talk as you drink, and the more you drink, the better and better his talk sounds.  That is a recommendation.


To many contemporary viewers the idea of a silent western is as bizarre as a silent musical or silent Shakespeare.  To counteract that, one could easily point to the popcorn pleasures of many a Tom Mix western, such as The Great K & A Train Robbery (1926) or Just Tony (1922).  However, dipping back a mere ten years before Great K & A we find William S. Hart’s Hell’s Hinges (1916) to prove just how bizarre the silent western could get.

Hart was the direct opposite of Mix, yet both actors had an authentic western past.  Where Mix’s film were flashy, over the top, stunt-oriented, dime-store pulp western family fare, Hart offered up a gritty, dusty realism.  Yet, Hart’s “realism” was also mixed (often uncomfortably) with a heavy-laden, dated pathos that could compete with Charlie Chaplin at his soggiest (Limelight).

“Hell’s Hinges” is, perhaps, the quintessential example of  one of these uncomfortably strange William S. Hart hybrids mixing sentimentality with violence.  Both qualities are presented with all the subtlety of a pair of brass knuckles wrapped in a tear-drenched handkerchief.

Hart , who co-directed with Charles Swickard, plays Blaze Tracey, the meanest hombre in the town of Hell’s Hinges, a rowdy town similar to Chaplin’s “Easy Street.”  The titles amusingly describe Hell’s Hinges as a “gun-fighting, man-killing, devil’s den of iniquity.”   Hart’s Blaze lords over Hell’s Hinges, much like Eric Campbell lorded over Easy Street.   Blaze has vowed that neither law nor religion shall ever come to Hell’s Hinges.  Enter, on cue, Reverend Robert (Jack Standing) and his pure as the driven snow sister, Faith (Clara Williams), who have been assigned to pastor over the local church.  Hart’s partner in crime, the beautifully named Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth), informs Blaze that the new preacher has arrived.  Blaze departs the saloon to “welcome” the new intruder.”
Still from Hell's Hinges (1916)
Greeting the town, Rev. Robert beams a big smile (that smile must have been excruciatingly difficult, and painful, to maintain), but the good reverend clearly becomes  nervous as he discovers what he and Faith are up against.

Blaze is ready, willing and able to deliver an old west comeuppance to the whippersnapper preacher—that is, until he spots Faith in her Sunday bonnet.  Suddenly, upon seeing this lovely maiden, Continue reading HELL’S HINGES (1916)


Several years ago I came across a review of John Waters Pink Flamingos (1972) in which the reviewer made the tiresome claim that it wasn’t even a “real” movie (while reviewing it in a ‘movie’ review column).  Such is the power of John Waters to provoke.

Waters admirers seem to be divided into two camps; pre-and post Hairspray (1988 ), although it really was Polyester (1981) that ushered in the new “Waters with a budget.”  Waters certainly lost two inimitable “stars” in Divine and Edith Massey.  While he has never lost his edge, and A Dirty Shame (2005) is a good example of that, Waters post-Polyester films are not mired as steeply in that idiosyncratic Waters’ universe.

John Waters is as innovative a director as Luis Buñuel.  John Waters is as important a director as Orson Welles. John Waters is as true blooded Americana as John Ford.  John Waters defines the word auteur like few others, creating a highly personal look at the world.  It was that personal vision which brought his following to him, and not the other way around.  When John Waters started making films, he did not develop a distribution strategy nor did he factor in who his target audience might be. He simply made visionary art.  Of course, many argue the value of his vision, but it’s the lack of pretense in Waters that is unsettling.  Throughout his body of work, he has been consistently stubborn in his refusal to cater to populist notions regarding pedestrian definitions of art and entertainment.  That said, one finds Waters to be a remarkably narrative director and the 1975 Female Trouble may be his most assured narrative masterpiece.

Still from Female Trouble (1975)Female Trouble chronicles the rise and fall of an American legend, straight from the studio of Jerry Springer (long before Springer existed). Transvestite plays quintessential white trash Baltimore rebel Dawn Davenport.  Dawn hates school, her parents, and Christmas, so she can’t be all bad, right?  She’s bad ass enough to run away from home and the parents who simply cannot recognize Continue reading FEMALE TROUBLE (1974)


ALFRED EAKER (INTERVIEWER): Alfred, what inspired you to interview yourself? Some might say a self-interview smacks of self indulgence, narcissism.

ALFRED EAKER:  Perhaps.  I am sure to many it is and God knows those tiresome labels are attached to artists all the time, as if it is totally unacceptable.  Yet, to use a stereotypical but dead-on example: a business person cutting throats and screwing their way to a top level is commendable and rarely pointed out as being narcissistic.  Still, all artists are, to a degree, narcissistic and you have to be to continue doing the art.  I do not believe in fair weather artists.  Like Bill Ross recently said when I interviewed him, “The world is not set up for artists and one has to be stubborn to continue doing it.”  So perhaps it is not so self-indulgent.  Actually, a badly misquoted but good-intentioned interview in a local paper from a couple of months back inspired this, proving that most interviewers, God love ’em, are hacks and since I know I am not  a hack and can trust myself… Also, real simply, Glen Gould.  Gould, one of the genuine freaks in music, interviewed himself, quite well I might add.

A.E. (I):  Gould was the Canadian pianist who….

A.E. … Did a total whack job on Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1955, yes.  That was the first of his many transgressions, for which he will be long loved.  The same goes for Stokowski’s Bach transcriptions. Someone once described his transcriptions as high cholesterol Bach and I do have high cholesterol.

A.E. (I): You have quite the love of music?

A.E.: From Mahler onto Cab Calloway, Julie London, David Bowie, Velvet Underground and the Statler Brothers.

A.E (I): I do not wish to get sidetracked in a lengthy music discourse. You tend to talk longer and more enthusiastically about music than you do either painting or film.

A.E.: That’s because I am not a musician at all, so yes I suppose I do.

A.E (I): Let’s talk about film. You are an indie filmmaker and you came to it rather late.

Alfred Eaker in "Jesus and Her Gospel of Yes"
Alfred Eaker in "Jesus and Her Gospel of Yes"

A.E.: I would rather talk painting first, but alright.  Yes, I started my first film, Jesus and her Gospel of Yes in 2002 . I have been painting since the 1980’s.

A.E. (I): The films sprang from performance art.

A.E.: From my BlueMahler character in several performance pieces that began in the 80’s.  Blue is an odd hybrid of identifications I have made in my life.

A.E. (I): You mean influences, not identifications.

A.E.: No, I mean identifications.  Over the years I have realized there are other voices, artists Continue reading ALFRED EAKER: INTERVIEW WITH MYSELF


Long Pants is the film in which that annoying breed known as “slapstick lovers” start their bitching crusade against the “weird” Harry Langdon. Long Pants is also the film that the collaboration between Langdon and Frank Capra came to a crashing halt, due to aesthetic differences which involved the development of Langdon’s character. Langdon and writer Arthur Ripley wanted to take the character into darker territory. Capra vehemently objected and was fired by Langdon, with Langdon anonymously finishing up directorial duties.

Slapstick, as an art form, dates badly and frequently induces more groans than laughs today. Chaplin‘s more ambitious efforts, with (balanced) pathos and dramatic story, telling are of far more interest than his earlier straight-up slapstick efforts for Sennett. Keaton‘s inventiveness and occasional forays into surrealism hold up as his best work and can, up to a point, prove fuel for those arguing for his superiority. Seen today, Langdon was right in his endeavor to make his on-screen characterization darker, more idiosyncratic, more unique, even if naive critics whine that Langdon simply “ceased to be funny” and just “got weird.” It is Langdon’s weirdness that set him apart from the beginning and, while I would probably not, overall, place him in the ranks of a Chaplin or Keaton, I would argue that Langdon etched an influential persona that secures his position as one of the great silent clowns and defies the “forgotten” label often attached to him.

Contemporary audiences, unable to relate to 1927 mores and customs, will certainly find the initial premise of Long Pants unintentionally bizarre in itself. Harry’s father (Alan Roscoe) feels it is time for his boy to grow up and buys him his first pair of long pants, initiating Harry into manhood. Harry’s mother (Gladys Brockwell) is very weepy eyed over the prospect, feeling her little Harry is far too young for long pants and wearing them will only bring trouble. She is correct, as Harry is, psychologically, still a boy. Once Harry loses his short pants (and stockings—an amusingly ‘creepy’ image) and then dons his long pants, he spies a beautiful, exotic woman in a broken down car outside. Mother’s predicted “big trouble” begins its course.

Actually, this is a bad boy habit already formed in Harry, even before his initiation into long Continue reading LONG PANTS (1927)