Category Archives: Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema

THE EXQUISITE CHAMBER WESTERNS OF BUDD BOETTICHER, PART FOUR: COMANCHE STATION (1960)

This is Part Four in a four part series exploring Budd Boetticher’s 1950s Westerns starring Randolph Scott (known as the “Ranown cycle”).  The films previously discussed in the series were Seven Men from Now (1956), The Tall T (1957), and Ride Lonesome (1959).

If The Tall T is bleakest, and Ride Lonesome a fan favorite, then Comanche Station (1960) is the most poetic and artistically accomplished of Boetticher’s Ranown cycle of westerns.

Comanche_StationThis was the valedictory film for Ranown and was intended to be actor Randolph Scott’s as well (two years later he was talked out of retirement to make the sublime, yet slightly overrated Ride the High Country with director Sam Peckinpah and co-star Joel McCrea).

Scott emerges from a cubist landscape, first as a majestic silhouette, then as a haunted, chiseled ghost, continuing his vain, decade-long search for his (most likely dead) wife, abducted by Indians.

The native Americans here are portrayed as little more than savages, and Nancy Gates, the heroine he winds up rescuing, is a delicate object of prized beauty, rather than fully human.  These quibbles aside, once again Boetticher’s stark, stripped down sense of composition is replete with complex characters and ambiguous mores.

Randolph Scott embodies a beautiful purity here, more so even than in the other entries. His endless years of wandering through the vast, arid western desert, searching for his lost wife, echoes Orpheus searching for Eurydice in hell, or in a seemingly pointless purgatory.

Comanche Station is a brooding post-modernist work which stems from allegories found in the most potent, forceful biblical tales and mythology.  Claude Akins is the primary, King Saul-like villain; he has committed mass murder, intends to kill both Scott and Gates, does not hesitate killing his own man, and yet admires Scott and even saves him from a terrible fate.

Skip Homeier and Richard Rust are Akins’ latently homosexual henchmen (in a poignant scene, Akins complains to Scott of Homeier’s “softness”).  The scene in which Homeier carefully lifts Rust’s dead, arrow-ridden body from the creek permeates a tender fragrance like that found in the story of David and Jonathan from the biblical Book of Kings.  Homeier is touchingly simplistic, not truly wanting a life of crime, but clueless as to any other way of life.

Scott’s hero looks like a figure culled from a Cezanne canvas.  He is at first misjudged by Gates, but will eventually be her savior, reuniting her with her family, the stains and scars of her past laid to rest. There is no such redemption for Scott.  Station ends where it begins, and the tree from the finale of Ride Lonesome reappears here, symbolically haunting, in the middle of a river.

Pessimistic repetition is the Kafkaesque curse of Scott’s ghost, who will never find his wife, nor even a destination.  The final scene in Comanche Station, like the Ranown cycle itself, sears itself into memory.  These westerns are hopelessly undervalued by the bulk of mainstream audiences and critics, but for the initiated—as blasphemous as this may sound—this brief collaboration by a group of artists, lead by obsessive, inimitable auteur Budd Boetticher, rivals the best in American cinema (and, yes, that includes the films of John Ford).

THE EXQUISITE CHAMBER WESTERNS OF BUDD BOETTICHER, PART THREE: RIDE LONESOME (1959)

Ride Lonesome (1959) was the first of Boetticher’s “Ranown” cycle to utilize the new CinemaScope process, and it does so impressively. The rich color and expressionist framing of desert canyon rock would only be topped in the series’ final entry, Comanche Station. Most fans of the cycle consider Ride Lonesome the best entry. While that remains debatable, it is certainly, in terms of composition and pacing, the most perfectly structured. It is also the most elegiac and, surprisingly, optimistic.

Still from Ride Lonesome (1959)Amongst a memorable cast, Lee Van Cleef etches out an unforgettable, albeit brief, performance as the murderous brother of  James Best (later known as the bumbling deputy in the TV series Dukes of Hazard) , who is prisoner to Randolph Scott’s bounty hunter. Naturally, things are more complex than they seem. Scott wants Cleef to catch up with them and for a very personal, startling reason: Cleef hanged Scott’s wife years before. Along the journey Scott meets up with the beautiful Karen Steele, and a pair of pseudo-outlaws in Pernell Roberts (Trapper John M.D) and a shockingly young (his first film). Roberts and Coburn want Best for themselves, since turning him in, dead or alive, will gain them amnesty from their crimes. Naturally, there is sexual tension between Steele and Scott, yet the potential for relationship is doomed by Scott’s obsessive thirst for revenge.

Ride Lonesome is, easily, Boetticher’s most optimistic film (as optimistic as Boetticher can be and still be Boetticher). Scott’s eventual handing over of Best to the two repentant outlaws is a pleasant surprise. The villains are hardly two-dimensional. Cleef, having committed a heinous crime, earnestly begs for his brother’s life, only to fall on Scott’s deaf ears.

The four males desire and vie for the widowed Steele (her husband having been murdered by the Apaches). At first she is mere ornamentation, as the women in the Boetticher films sometimes tend to be. Later, Steele’s character somewhat evolves into mother, latent lover, comforter, but short of fully developed person. Full development of female characters and weak scoring are the two biggest flaws in the otherwise outstanding Ranown cycle.

Boetticher still finds time for adroit comic touches amidst the overwhelming ironies and the final, haunting, lyrical image of the burning tree that Scott’s wife died on. Steele leaves her protector there, in the desert, alone. He will never be happy, nor find contentment. Indeed, one is left with the ominous feeling that the ravaged Scott himself will die there, never leaving this spot. This final shot sears in the memory.

To summarize: Ride Lonesome is as optimistic as Boetticher can be and still be Boetticher.

Next week: the final and poetic Comanche Station.

THE EXQUISITE CHAMBER WESTERNS OF BUDD BOETTICHER, PART TWO: THE TALL T (1957)

Shot in a mere twelve days, The Tall T is one of the most remarkable westerns in a decade that unquestionably belonged to the western genre.  Burt Kennedy scripted a pure, taut, and crisp script from an Elmore Leonard short story.Still from The Tall T (1957)The Tall T is an actor’s film. The first surprise lies in Maureen O’Sullivan’s performance as homely, whimpering Doretta Mims; a performance that can almost be seen as a bookend to her far different, equally superb performance as the independent, strong-willed, sensual Jane of Tarzan and his Mate (1934). Here, she is the newly married, timid wife of unsympathetic louse John Hubbard. By film’s end she emerges from self-pity’s well, dress coming off shoulder, hair loosed down and radiating a fire akin to Prometheus unbound as she is pressed up against the pure, granite-hard, phallic form of .


Scott’s character is one of his most interesting and fully developed in the Boetticher cannon. The film opens with Scott visiting  friends at the Way Station.  Upon Scott’s departure, the young , amiable, grandson of the station manager gives the laconic cowboy a penny for some rock hard candy from the town store. Naturally, the good-natured Scott promises to do so.  However, on the way back to the station, Scott, more animated than normal, loses his horse in a bet in a scene evoking archetypal good old boy western humor.  The calm before the proverbial storm.

Taking a stagecoach on the way back to the station, Scott has a bit of camaraderie with old buddy and stagecoach driver Arthur Hunnicutt (a character favorite in dozens of westerns, he typified the grizzled sidekick) who is transporting newlyweds O’ Sullivan  and her louse husband;,John Hubbard (surprisingly, a standard stock coward, nowhere near as developed as Walter Continue reading THE EXQUISITE CHAMBER WESTERNS OF BUDD BOETTICHER, PART TWO: THE TALL T (1957)

REFLECTIONS ON THE 48 HOUR FILM FESTIVAL & THE “9” DIARY.

“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.

48_hour_film_festival_4July 31st -Aug 2nd, the 48 hr Film Festival came to Indianapolis, sponsored by the Big Car Art Gallery.  Jim Walker of Big Car curated the event.  30 Indiana film making teams signed up to participate, including the Liberty or Death Team of James Mannan and Robin Panet.

Jim and Robin approached me about six weeks ago, inviting me to participate in this year’s 48 Hour Film Festival.  Since I assisted in last year’s event with them to do Hallow’s Dance, I was a tad reluctant to do all this again.  However, they shrewdly threw out a couple of temptations when they told me they wanted to do something surreal, which is my forte, along with inviting me to write and direct with Robin.  Jim would be producing.  If I recall correctly, my response was something akin to “Oh, alright, goddammit.”

For those who don’t know the set up of the festival, it goes like this: the teams go in on Friday night at 7:30 pm and draw a genre out of the hat.  Jim drew Horror, which was apt as this is Jim and Robin’s forte. Then, everyone is given the same character name, his profession, a line of dialogue, and a prop.

The character name was Professor Sherman Kane, the prop was a ball and the line of dialogue was “I’m not talking to you”.  Now the teams leave, write their script, shoot it, edit and turn it in by 7:30 pm on Sunday night.  Showing of films: Wednesday and Thursday evening at the IMA.

48_hour_film_festival_1I would imagine the whole idea for said festival came from Roger Corman.  The story is well known among film aficionados.  Corman had finished The Raven 48 hours ahead of schedule, with the actors, including Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson, still on contract for the remainder of the shooting schedule.  That night Corman went home, wrote a script called The Terror, came back the next day and shot it within the 48 period.  The problem with this story is that The Terror is indeed a terror to Continue reading REFLECTIONS ON THE 48 HOUR FILM FESTIVAL & THE “9” DIARY.

THE EXQUISITE CHAMBER WESTERNS OF BUDD BOETTICHER, PART ONE: SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956)

In a brief span of four years, from 1956 to 1960, Director Budd Boetticher, writer Burt Kennedy and actor Randolph Scott collaborated on a series of seven “chamber westerns” which rank as one of the most rewarding achievements in the art of American Cinema.

Seven Men from NowWhile a number of prominent film critics, historians and luminaries have rightly praised the “Ranown” series (named after Boetticher’s production company), attention is often paid to the fact that Boetticher produced the series on a shoestring budget.  Thus, despite praise, the series and Boetticher himself are relegated to a second tier, “B” level, as if the monies poured into these films somehow affect and dictate their intrinsic value.

To the contrary, the Boetticher/Kennedy/Scott westerns are in every way equal to the larger budgeted collaborations of Ford and Wayne, Daves and Ford, Leone and Eastwood.

With these sparse, psychologically complex works, Boetticher did as much for the American western as Val Lewton did for the American Horror film in the 40’s.

The breakthrough Seven Men From Now (1956) was a long way from Ken Maynard’s white hat and bottle of milk atop a horse named Tarzan. It’s also far more aesthetically modernist, more taut, more complexly developed in character than the later, ultra-stylish westerns of Peckinpah and Leone (the exception being Peckinpah’s slightly overrated Ride the High Country, also starring Randolph Scott with Joel McCrea). Very few films in the genre can boast as richly developed characterizations. The Delmer Daves/Glenn Ford films along with the Anthony Mann/James Stewart cannon can arguably be mentioned in the same breath.

Seven Men From Now establishes Boetticher’s Ranown canvas. Randolph Scott was an actor of beautiful limitations and the director utilized Scott’s mere presence to compositional advantage.  The actor’s weathered face parallels the expressionistic, Cezanne-like rocky terrains.  Boetticher takes equal advantage of his hero’s range to etch a morally ambiguous personification.

Scott, out for revenge, seems, at first, to personify the mythological old west code of right and wrong.  He is ancient, laconic, sips coffee, and projects a virtuous nobility with a mere shifting of the eyes.  That is until his foil, Lee Marvin (superb here) astutely recalls how Scott had no qualms about stealing a friend’s wife.  Even Walter Reed, as Gail Russell’s weak, cowardly husband, surprises in an act of redemption. The power in the Boetticher films lies in the riveting conversations and in a shrewd slicing of viewer expectations.  There is a disconcerting, hushed quality throughout the film, even in those conversations, which project a tense, quiescent air of revelation.

Next week: perhaps the bleakest film of the cycle, The Tall T (1957).

MAYA DEREN: AT LAND (1944)

Maya Deren’s At Land (1944) opens with a scene of fearsome waves crashing against a desolate shore.  It could almost be described as Debussian, save for the unsettling dead and total silence that continues, unabated, throughout the film.

Maya Deren's At LandThe exotic Deren appears, emerging from a sleep, like a mermaid spit ashore from the crashing waves.

Deren begins slowly climbing a massive, twisted, dead tree trunk; the figure of Deren/Eros embarking on her great existential journey.

The nymph (her face adorned with child-like innocence) slithers on her stomach across a dining room table, populated with faceless corporates.  They do not take notice of her, preoccupied with idle chatter and many cigarettes.  Her eyes focus on a solitary figure, playing chess at the table’s end.  By the time she reaches that end (there are brief, repeated, struggled, exploratory diversions through a mass of shrubbery) she finds the player has just left and, as she gazes at the board, the rest of the room’s occupants are also leaving.

Telekinetically, she moves the chess pieces, until the pawn (one of eight) falls through a hole in the table.  She attempts to retrieve it and finds herself  back on the shore, then on a country road, walking and talking with a young man (represented by five different men).

She cannot keep up with the man and he leaves her behind as he disappears into a cabin, shutting the foreboding door behind him.

Determined not to be abandoned, she crawls under the log cabin but emerges in a contemporary, nearly abandoned home, laden with furniture, covered in white sheets.

It is not the young man she finds, but an older, bedridden man (figure number six), under a white bed sheet.  They silently stare at each other, identify Continue reading MAYA DEREN: AT LAND (1944)

AVANT OPERA ON FILM, PART 3

In 1987, producer Don Boyd brought his labor of love, Aria, to the screen.  The concept was to have ten directors, each with a distinguished style, visually interpret ten arias.  Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell were among the directors.  Predictably, many less than erudite American critics put their working class hero noses to work, sniffed it out like the gold old boy guardians of true blue Americana, and immediately pounced on it, pretentiously charging high pretension as they are usually apt to do.  Whenever the subjects of opera or classical music are involved in film, rest assured American critics are going to become engaged in loudly espousing anti-pretension pretensions. Actually, Aria is a stylishly, irreverent and satirical, if uneven, treat.

ariaroddamFranc Roddam’s “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” is set in Las Vegas with Bridget Fonda and James Mathers excellently capturing the pathos of the doomed pair.

Ken Russell, an expert eccentric at this sort of thing, memorably tackles Puccini’s “Turandot” with hallucinatory model Linzi Drew, inlaid rubies and diamonds, and an operating table in a typically heady Russellesque mix of bizarre, mystical excess and eros.

Godard, tongue delightfully in cheek, sets Jean Baptiste Lully in a work-out gym as two women contend with narcissistic male body builders.

Charles Sturridge’s interpretation of Verdi’s “La Forza Del Destino” subtly grows brighter upon repeated viewings. Sturridge’s “Destino” aptly paints troubled youth on a joy ride through an apathetic adult world in a lament to the Virgin.

Bruce Beresford’s film of Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt,” starring a young Elizabeth Hurley, captures the music’s superficial sheen.

Nicholas Roeg, Robert Altman, Derek Jarman, Julian Temple, and Bill Bryden interpret Verdi, Rameau, Charpentier, and Leoncavallo to lesser effect, but even the slight failures here are far preferable to the bulk of Hollywood drek.

Ken Russell has had an ongoing obsession with composers: Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers, the justifiably infamous Lisztomania, and Elgar, but his most hallucinatory and, oddly enough, Continue reading AVANT OPERA ON FILM, PART 3

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.