Category Archives: Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema

GUEST REVIEW: THE SWIMMER (1968)

The Swimmer has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Comments on this post have been closed. Please read the official Certified Weird entry for The Swimmer and post any future comments about the film there.

When Burt Lancaster began his career as an actor, it appeared this was going to be a career in the mold of Errol Flynn or Randolph Scott. In films like The Flame and the ArrowJim Thorpe-All American, The Crimson Pirate, Vera Cruz, Ten Tall Men, From Here to Eternity, The Kentuckian, Trapeze, Gunfight at the OK Corral, and Run Silent, Run Deep, Lancaster seemed to personify and embody the American ideal hero.

However, behind those swell guy teeth and that brandished chest was a shrewd actor, who, as he seasoned, made increasingly interesting choices.  In the second half of his career, Lancaster often played off that earlier, heroic persona with admirable risk taking.  If  Elmer Gantry and Seven Days in May might be aptly described as loudly presenting the dirty underbelly of Americana, then The Swimmer intimately one-ups them.

In 1968 director Frank Perry with writer/wife Eleanor Perry adapted John Cheever’s acclaimed allegorical New Yorker short story, The Swimmer, and brilliantly cast the iconic Burt Lancaster as the pathetic hero.  The Perrys had previously teamed for the equally disturbing David and Lisa (1962) and made quite a splash on the art film circuit.  Surprisingly, that film even garnered a couple of Academy Award nominations, which enabled the team to make The Swimmer.

Still from The Swimmer (1968)The Swimmer begins on an absurdly bright, sunny day.  Ned (Lancaster), the epitome of a tanned, virile, soulless suburbia, decides he is going to enthusiastically embark on a strange, epic, connect-the-dot journey by “swimming” home through the neighborhood swimming pools. He takes along a nubile girl (Janet Langard), but at each pool he encounters facets of his failed life and the crack in his facade slowly begins to expand until the inevitable, tragic conclusion.  The physical reality of The Swimmer (a day in Ned’s life) is mere allegory and the allegorical symbolism of Ned’s entire life which is, in fact, the physical realm into which we are drawn.

Lancaster, the sex symbol, is perfection as he superficially pats his neighbors on the back, encounters a discarded mistress, is confronted by his numerous lies, his betrayals, his failure as a husband, father, friend and neighbor.  By the time he reaches his own home, his paradigm has altered from cartoon sunshine and forced, surface smiles to despairing rain.  When he reaches his porch, he is vulnerable to all the elements which mercilessly come down upon him in all forms, including nature itself.  Ned has ultimately realized his hollow state.

Impressively, The Swimmer has a dreamlike, short story, episodic pacing, not at all what is expected in the medium of film, and this adds to its uniqueness.  The Swimmer, fragile indeed in its quite odd structure, is a case where casting really counted.  It would not have worked without its star.  Unfortunately, The Swimmer is out of print and even when it was briefly available, Columbia disrespectfully released it an a cheapo presentation.  (NOTE 2/12/10: Astute reader MCD tipped us off to the fact that The Swimmer is available for download from Amazon for $9.99). Still, it’s a rarity in being a film that actually lives up to and surpasses its reputation.

The Perrys went onto make Last Summer and Diary of a Mad Housewife before divorcing.  Separately, the two never equaled the artistic level they achieved together.  Lancaster continued to carefully cultivate his screen persona in films like 1900, Moses the Lawgiver, Atlantic City, Local Hero, Rocket Gibraltar and Field of Dreams.

CAPSULE: AUTOMATONS (2006)

DIRECTED BY: James Felix McKenny

FEATURING: Christine Spencer, Angus Scrimm

PLOT: The lone survivor of a devastated nation lives alone in an underground bunker.

Still from Automatons (2006)

Her only companions are the voice recordings of a long-dead scientist and the robots she sends out to do battle with the enemy on the planet’s poisoned surface.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Much of the underground hype regarding this 2006 indie from James Felix McKenny and Glass Eye Pix likens Automatons to a cross between Eraserhead and Ed Wood, with Guy Maddin‘s name bandied about for good measure. There is nothing remotely arthouse or surreal about Atomatons, however, and the only identifying aesthetic McKenney might share with Maddin is an obsessive love of a genre. Maddin’s love of baroque silent film expressiveness hardly compares to McKenney’s hard-on for 1950’s sci-fi kitsch. That’s the problem with hype; it usually tends to be a disservice and is here.

COMMENTS: Automatons is not weird or surreal. That is not to say it does not have merit or is a film without interest.  Is it a thought-provoking, intelligent film, worth comparing to some of the better, more compact Outer Limits episodes?  No. The post-apocalyptic scenario of a lone survivor is a really, really old one that has been around since Robot Monster and repeated in Omega Man, Mad Max and countless James Cameron movies.

The robots themselves look like they just stepped out of an old George Reeves Superman TV episode, but without the awkwardly quirky personality of those 50s tin types.  Angus Scrimm (Phantasm) is the professor who instructs heroine Christine Spencer through a series of pre-recorded videos. The biggest problem here lies in Spencer’s flat acting, which fails to project the necessary charisma needed in this type of project.

Where Automatons takes an admirable independent risk is in its lethargic pacing, which, despite the plot and acting, creates a hypnotic milieu.  Long, static takes, along with the much repeated Scrimm transmissions, are, at first, odd, then oddly compelling. This is the one surprising, indeed endearing quality about AUTOMATONS.  It refuses to cater to commercial pacing. Some have mistaken that for an arthouse quality or made predictable, banal comparisons, such as to Eraserhead. Automatons does not possess that organic, wistful Lynch quality. It is grounded in the love of its genre.  The later battle scenes and the gruesome deaths have a certain grainy style derived from its 8 mm source, but this is an often utilized stylistic ploy in genre indies and is not what gives Atuomatons its original flavor.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Automatons is what happens when Eraserhead and Tetsuo the Iron Man bong themselves into oblivion and collaborate on a minimalist avant-garde sci-fi cheapie shot in a toolshed… Robot radness acheived!”–Nathan Lee, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

DREYER’S CINEMATIC PASSION (OF JOAN OF ARC)

Every time a prestigious film institute puts together an official, stamped with authority list of “The Greatest Films of All Time” their number one pick is going to be Citizen Kane.  No surprises there.  Such lists might as well be packaged and sold as a 1.2.3 paint- by- number set.  Ironically, it was the granddaddy of all film institutes that treated Kane’s creator as a heretic, refused to give him due recognition, banished him to Europe and  excommunicated him for life.

Taking absolutely nothing from that film, nor Orson Welles, Citizen Kane is not the greatest film ever made.  That honor probably goes to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 Passion of Joan of Arc.

Rarely do classic films live up to the hype.  Throughout the 1970s numerous books whispered about this lost film.  It was very common to read its being compared to a fugue.  Several veteran critics lamented its loss, something akin to losing a sacred relic.  Only the loss of Von Stroheim’s uncut Greed inspired as much passion.

Then, in the early 1980’s a near mint condition print was found in the closet of an Italian mental institute.  When it was finally made available, many, myself included, bristled with excitement, wondering if this film was everything it was said to be.

Regardless of how much you’ve read about The Passion of Joan of Arc, nothing prepares you for it.  By the time the credits roll, the viewer feels emptied, literally drained. It is that devastating, as an emotional, spiritual, ecstatic, and aesthetic experience.

Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is an essential, time-defying, inimitable cinematic experience of (German) Expressionism and (French) avant-garde.  The producers had wanted something else altogether, but Dreyer’s film was taken directly from Joan’s trial transcripts.  This is not Joan the warrior, but a young, frightened uneducated girl, absorbed in an ecstatic religious experience and a terrifying, inevitable martyrdom.

Still from The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)The performance of this Joan of Arc, as portrayed by Maria Falconetti, is the single greatest acting that has ever been imprinted, seared, burned, into celluloid.  But, this could hardly be called acting in any traditional sense.  Rumor has it that, in certain scenes, Dreyer made Falconetti kneel on hot coals to obtain the right expression of suffering, and Falconetti certainly was in abject misery for the hair cutting sequence (Dreyer’s reputation as a tyrannical dictator, ironically a bit like Joan’s judges, was well earned, but he made the Continue reading DREYER’S CINEMATIC PASSION (OF JOAN OF ARC)

VIDEO POETRY BY JOHN M BENNETT

John M Bennett’s musical, aquatic, high octane avant poetry is not for the faint of heart, disciples of the orthodox religion called “linear thinking”, or for the post-Matrix, attention span challenged audience. But, Bennett and his work have a passionately loyal following which influences a small, tight group.

Bennett’s humor comes from the slimy trail of a nobly defiant mindset.  I recall an email I got from Bennett a few years ago, informing me that beatnik surrealist poet Philip Lamantia had died.  When I inquired the nature of that great poet’s death, Bennett confessed he didn’t know, but added, “I hope it was a suicide. That’s the only way a surrealist should die.”

Some of Bennett’s video poetry can be found on his site, by clicking on the link below.

http://www.johnmbennett.net/Video_Poetry_JMBennett.html

Bennett’s LUNA BISONTE PRODS has released a collection on DVD called Ahhh Dog which contains Fifteen Short Pieces, Studio 1-9, Be Blankand John M Bennett in Paris. It can be ordered for $30 US postpaid directly from Bennett himself at:

John M. Bennett
137 Leland Ave.
Columbus, OH 43214 USA

Checks made out to Bennett (or cash).

A gem of a book comes with the dvd, photography by C. Mehrl Bennett.

Fifteen Short Pieces is a WIS project collaboration. Poetry and performance by Bennett. Video: Nicholas Carras.

The first short piece is Door Chain. The video depicts a crow eating, juxtaposed to Bennett’s voice, reading ” double greasy your please hump staining pork ice whistle foaming in your pants name the crack bob…”

Cheek Wreck and Learned Duck are delightfully mischievous. Cheek Wreck depicts a row of plastic water bottles with bright red caps as Bennett growls,”cheek the sawdust from yr tumba falling down the steps leak the slaw…”

A man in a white shirt walks around in a circular motion, grainy from above, “duck and hover plot to ashen us a natter fucked and muttered not a hash spattered on the wall neck…”

Studio 1-9 and Be Blank bring in a third collaborator in Allen Revich who adds voice, flute, harmonica and shuffling.

Revich plays flute in Studio 9 and has a priceless, befuddled look on his face as Bennett reads. In Studio 8, Revich reads while Bennett looks bored, yawns, and falls asleep.

Be Blank is archetypal Bennett at his hammiest. Bennett grunts and spews Be Blank, Be Blank, Be Blank, be blank , BE blanK, Beeeee Blaaaaaaaank, twisting his mouth, googly eyed, postulating, melodramatic, as Revich stoically looks down and shuffles in place. If you can get through Be Blank without a cigarette, you are stronger than I am.

Be Blank and Studio 1 – 9 on Bennett’s website. Not on the DVD, but also on the  website, are four bizarre (even by Bennett standards) short videos; The Blur, Transmission, the Refusal , and The Intrusion, along with Bennett’s visual poetry, text poetry, and sound poetry.

Take your Bennett dissonance like an adult, and stock up on the smokes.

CUBAN STORY (1959) AND CUBAN REBEL GIRLS (1959)

In the late 1950s movie star Errol Flynn owned a movie theater in Havana. Not the beautifully chiseled Flynn from The Adventures of Robin Hood, but a fat 50 year old has-been, yellowed with cirrhosis, eaten up with syphilis and dodging numerous creditors, including the IRS, with his latest teen age girlfriend: fourteen year old Beverly Aadland. Flynn, probably feeling his self-fulfilled hour (which predictably came shortly after) wanted to sow his macho oats one last time in the thick of the Cuban revolution (clearly, he wasn’t up to it).

Flynn, with Producer Victor Pahlen, made this pseudo-documentary about Flynn’s meeting Castro, although this meeting is only seen in photographs.

The film proclaims Flynn a sympathizer with Castro’s Batista Regime (paradoxically, he was also posthumously charged with being a fascist sympathizer during WWII). Most likely, this was a feeble effort, on the part of Pahlen and Flynn, to cash in on being in the right place at the right time.

Cuban Story [AKA The Truth About Fidel Castro Revolution] was only screened once, in Moscow, and disappeared until Pahlen’s daughter released it the early 2000s. This utterly bizarre film begins with Flynn drunkenly narrating (more like a strained slur), from a cheap office, something about “freedom fighters.” Flynn, with long cigarette hanging from his mouth, picks up a globe to show viewers “‘where Cuba is” and then throws the globe off camera. It can be heard bouncing off the wall. The remaining film narration (credited to Flynn, although it clearly is not) is frequently incoherent, pro-Castro, and pro-terrorist.

According to Pahlen’s film, Flynn made his way through the heart of the revolution to meet Castro, but the only footage of the extremely soused, dissipated Flynn is of his escorting women into one of George Raft’s casinos, to gamble with them and Beverly. The rest of the film is a collage of seemingly unrelated, and often shocking, but historically valuable footage. Silent images of slain “comrades” and the savage killing of young men in the streets as Batista police casually observe are unsettling.

Cuban Story is redeeming in its historical value and its unintentional strangeness, both in Continue reading CUBAN STORY (1959) AND CUBAN REBEL GIRLS (1959)

A FEW ODD YULETIDE FAVS

1. Rankin & Bass’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) : There’s a reason this has become a perennial cult and popular classic.  Hands down it is the best of the Rankin & Bass holiday shorts. Most of the team’s holiday specials, such as Year without a Santa Clause (below), have memorable moments, but don’t really add up to a great whole.  Rudolph does.  It’s a great (probably unintentional) weird mix.

A bigoted, misogynist, unlikeable, bitchy Santa, an equally unlikeable reindeer coach (with a baseball cap, no less), Rudolph’s jerk of a father, an abominable snow monster, a winged lion, straight out of apocalyptic literature, who oversees an island of dysfunctional toys, including a polka-dotted elephant, a Charlie-in-the-box, and a cowboy who rides an ostrich.  On top of that is Burl Ives as a talking snowman, a too-cute girlfriend reindeer for our hero (with a bow atop her head), an elf who wants to be a dentist and a prospector by the name of Yukon Cornelius, who steals the  entire show.  Yukon “Even among misfits I’m a misfit”  Cornelius has rightly become a cult figure all by himself.  Oh, and then there’s Rudolph himself, who is understandably a bit bland in comparison but is the necessary catalyst for such a brew.

No amount of eggnog is going to help this fav seem traditionally orthodox.  Max Fleischer did a more straightforward version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948), although Max’s style is still all over it.

2. Pee Wee’s Christmas at the Playhouse (1988) : Pee Wee Hermann’s  holiday gathering at the playhouse with guest stars Dinah Shore, Charo (!!!), Little Richard, Grace Jones, K.D. Lang, Za Za Gabor, Magic Johnson, Cher, Frankie Avalon, Santa himself and the normal Playhouse gang.

Its almost as divine a time capsule as Paul Lynde’s Halloween Special.  The only disappointment is not getting to see Pee Wee looking up the girls’ dresses with his mirrored shoes.  Fans of the Playhouse will walk away beaming.

santa-claus-conquers-the-martians3.  Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964): You know we had to include this one. Before Pia Zadora had her ten seconds of fame (10 seconds too long), she “starred” in a film  so abysmal, so bad, so weird that only the bravest can get through it.  Try to watch the MS3TK version, it almost makes it bearable.

4. The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974): Rankin and Bass again, but this one doesn’t altogether work (as mentioned above).  We could care less about Santa, the elves, or the reindeer, BUT, the sight of Mr. Heat Miser, son of Mother Nature, doing a jig in the pit of hell Continue reading A FEW ODD YULETIDE FAVS

KARAJAN, OR, BEAUTY AS I SEE IT (2008)

Robert Dornhelm’s film Beauty As I See It is a compelling, ambitious documentary on the life and career of the late conductor Herbert Von Karajan, who, more than any other musician of the twentieth century, made an obsessive, downright bizarre fetish of surface beauty in musical interpretation.

A billion words have probably been written about Karajan, from the adulation of Richard Osborne, who surprisingly wrote the fairly well balanced biography, “Karajan, a Life in Music,” to Norman Lebrecht, author of the intentionally provocative “The Maestro Myth” who sometimes likens Karajan to Lucifer himself.  2009 is the centenary of Karajan’s  birth and, predictably, the Berlin celebration has garnered intense praise and intense criticism.

Karajan (who died in 1989) left far more audio recordings and filmed performances than any other conductor in history. His last series of films, for Sony, were produced, edited, and directed by himself, sparing no expense. Karajan is often lit from below, like a descending deity. This was the conductor’s final valentine to himself.

Karajan’s Nazi Party membership; his marriage to his second, Jewish wife (which predictably hurt his career in the Third Reich); his influential promotion of the compact disc format; his alleged homosexuality; and his divisive, bitter struggle with his beloved, yet misogynistic Berlin Philharmonic over his attempt to appoint a female clarinetist are either glossed over or are not covered at all in the film.

Still, despite these glaring omissions, Beauty As I see It probably comes closer to capturing the conductor’s paradoxical, obsessive nature than any other of the numerous films. Karajan was an autocrat who, upon being told he had been appointed director for the BPO, said, ” I shall be a dictator”.  Karajan was mercenary in his business dealings and died a near billionaire. Stories about his superstar celebrity abound. A taxi driver picks up Karajan after a concert and asks, “where to?” Karajan replies, “it doesn’t Continue reading KARAJAN, OR, BEAUTY AS I SEE IT (2008)

NIGHTMARE THEATER WITH SAMMY TERRY

On Friday nights in Indiana during the 1960’s and 70’s, you invited your best friend over to spend the night (Denny), pleaded with Mom to fix a tray of pizza rolls and, out of courtesy, asked to stay up late for a night of Nightmare Theater with Sammy Terry. Of course, Mom always allowed it, as you knew she would, fixed those pizza rolls, brought in the blankets and left the two of you to your night of magic because she sure as heck was not going to watch those “scary movies’.

The creaking of the coffin filled the house as you watched, transfixed, as Sammy Terry and his spider, George, emerged to host a night of classic horror.  Usually, it was one of the Universal movies starring Karloff, Lugosi, or Chaney, Jr.

Bride of  Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Black Room, Werewolf of London, The Invisible Man, The Wolfman, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, and Creature from the Black Lagoon were frequently shown favorites.  Quite a few of the Val Lewton RKOs were shown regularly, as well as the occasional Jack Arnold film, such as Monster on the Campus, Tarantula, or The Incredible Shrinking Man. My own personal favortie was Ulmer’s The Black Cat with Karloff and Lugosi battling out to strains of the Beethoven 7th. If the films shown on Nightmare Theater were  not always approached by the filmmakers as high art (i.e. The Wolfman) , then there was certainly consummate craftsmanship that one always felt Sammy approved of.

In between the features, Sammy Terry would discuss the movies, make jokes with George and other regulars (Ghost Girl, Ghoulsbie) , have an occasional guest, talk about the Pacers, or show off the crayola drawings of Sammy and George that local children would send to WTTV 4.  Sammy had an inimitable laugh that would send shivers down the 8 year old spine.

If you made it to the end of the night (and frequently did not, hence the blankets)  Sammy would retreat to his coffin and bestow his wish of “Many Pleasant Nightmares.”  You knew, with excitement and dread, that he would return the following Friday.

There were lots of local urban myths about Sammy Terry and we were all too happy to spread those myths to fellow classmates since Sammy was a favorite subject.  Of course, this was long before the days of cable TV, VCRs, and even color TV (at least until the mid 70’s at our house) so the local WTTV 4 Station ruled the roost out of the four available TV Continue reading NIGHTMARE THEATER WITH SAMMY TERRY

OCTOBER 31ST FRINGE VIEWING LIST

Here’s an alternative seasonal viewing list for the weird, that goes beyond the usual vampire/zombie/demon/slasher fare (although some favorite characters make appearances).

1. Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle 3 (2002) . Only the third of Barney’s epic Cremaster Cycle, made over an eight year period, has made it’s way to any type of video release, which is criminally unfortunate. The Guggenheim Museum, who financed it, exhibits the Cycle and describes it as a  “a self-enclosed aesthetic system consisting of five feature-length films that explore the processes of creation.”  Trailers are available on the Cremaster website; www.cremaster.net. The third movie is available via Amazon and other outlets, albeit at expensive prices [Ed. Note: the version of Cremaster 3 that’s commercially available is not actually the full movie, but a 30 minute excerpt that’s still highly collectible as the only Cremaster footage released].  The Cremaster Cycle is complex, challenging, provocative and not for the attention span-challenged.

Still from Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002)2. Guy Maddin‘s Dracula-Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002). Guy’s Dracula ballet, choreographed to Mahler.  Just when you though nothing more could be done with this old, old story.  Of course, we are talking Mr. Maddin here.

3. Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968). Bergman’s ode to German Expressionism has been labeled his sole horror film. Hour is a further continuation of frequent Bergman themes—the defeated artist, loss of God, nihilism—and stars Bergman regular Max Von Sydow.  Some find this dull and slow, others find it mesmerizing and nightmarish.

4. Roman Polanski‘s The Tenant (1976) returned this consummate craftsman back to the territory of Repulsion and remains one of his best films.  Polanski is now facing extradition charges for having sexual relations with a willing, underage girl thirty years Continue reading OCTOBER 31ST FRINGE VIEWING LIST

GLEN OR GLENDA: NAIVE SURREALISM’S ARK OF THE COVENANT

“Female has the fluff and finery, as specified by those who design and sell. Little Miss Female, you should feel quite proud of the situation! You of course realize it’s predominantly men who design your clothes, your jewelry, your makeup, your hair styling, your perfume!” – Ed Wood narration from Glen or Glenda.

Ed Wood is certainly the auteur saint of naive surrealism. Everything he touched had his indelible stamp of personality all over it. More accurately, everything he touched oozed with Woodianisms.

However, his zany enthusiasm was short-lived. Night of the Ghouls is a depressing example of a very fatigued Ed Wood. Even before that, both Jail Bait and Bride of the Monster seem sub-standard Wood, even if they do bear his mark and are manna for his enthusiasts.

Still from Glen or Glenda (1953)If  Ed was sadly showing early hints of what was to inevitably come in those two films, then he was at his inspired, bouncing off the wall zenith in both Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space.

It was stick-forever-up-his-ass film critic Michael Medved who unintentionally rose Ed and his magnum opus, Plan 9 from Outer Space from the shallow grave of obscurity into cult nirvana when he awarded Ed and his film as the worst film and director of all time.

Despite Medved’s smarmy condescension, he should be forever thanked for posthumously catapulting Ed into the spotlight.  Medved’s sole purpose for living was to play John the Baptist announcing Ed’s coming. All the crimes and misdemeanors of criticism that came after are (reluctantly) excused in light of this important moment in history (alas, Leonard Maltin has had no such redeeming moment for his crimes).

Still, Medved was slightly off. It’s Glen or Glenda, Ed’s directorial debut,that deserves the accolades, a mountain of raining ticker tape to propel this little tranny misfit into well deserved fame and fortune. There is much appreciated surreal irony in Medved’s accidental canonization of Saint Ed. It seems equally apt that ‘s very good, intentional homage, Ed Wood, lost every invested dime. If Burton’s film had been a box office hit, the cult of Ed Wood would have gone the way of all orthodox religions. Thank Ed, this was not to be.

For hardcore surrealists, it’s those unintentionally surreal gold nuggets that are the most valued, and Ed’s almost indescribable Glen or Glenda is the ark of the covenant for naive surrealism.  There are  several other choice gems: Ed’s own Plan 9 From Outer Space, Phil Tucker’s Robot Monster, the movies Live a Little, Love a Little ( with the groan-inducing Edge of Reality surreal dream sequence) and Easy Come, Easy Go (frogman Elvis doing yoga-is-as-yoga-does with Elsa Lanchester), Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and a legion of not-so-deserving camp classics, including Manos: Hands of Fate, which is indeed awful, but incredibly dull and does not deserve to be placed in the same category.

There is little point in attempting to describe Ed’s autobiographical opus, ‘s hammy, inexplicable presence, or the pretentious narrative pleas for acceptance.

Glen or Glenda is the  perfect, surreal toast to the Halloween season.