Category Archives: Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema

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

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

CATHERINE CROUCH: BREAKING THE GENDER BARRIER THROUGH FILM

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

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  This was the first time in the festival’s history that a film had been accepted and then withdrawn.

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

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

DAMON ZEX’S CHECKMATE

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

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

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

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


The first 2:50 of Checkmate

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

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

Continue reading DAMON ZEX’S CHECKMATE

DAMON ZEX: INTELLECTUAL PROVOCATEUR‏

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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