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.
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 whose vision and personality I relate to. When I was a 19 year old art college student I absorbed everything I could, of course. But, later, I realized if I live to be 200, which I won’t, I simply do not have time to absorb everything that I would like to absorb. So, I started whittling that down to repeated exposures of things and people I identify with and relate to, which is why I have not watched television for over twenty years and am mostly out of the loop regarding current trends. Anyway, I call it my narrow identification line. It begins with El Greco, moves onto Paul Gauguin, The Blue Riders, Ludwig van Beethoven, Gustav Mahler, Claude Debussy, The Second Viennese School, Luigi Nono, Morton Feldman, John Coltrane, Charles Chaplin, Harry Langdon, Luis Bunuel, Tod Browning, Carl Theodore Dreyer, Maya Deren, Andrei Tarkovsky, Budd Boetticher , early John Waters, Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Andre Breton, Tristan Tzara, Flannery O’ Connor, Samuel Beckett, Jacques Ellul, Thomas Merton, Franz Kafka, Atonin Artaud, Philip Lamantia and Yukon Cornelius. There are a few others that weave in and out. There are also those artists I know personally and identify with, such as Keith Banner, Bill Ross, Raymond Thunder-Sky, John M. Bennett, Michael Basinski, Cheryl Townsend, Wendy Collin Sorin, Fr. Justin Belitz.
A.E. (I): Yukon Cornelius?
A.E.: From “Rudolph.” Even among misfits I feel the misfit. I am not an “Outsider” artist because I went to art school, but I, thankfully, dropped out of art school so I never feel quite at home in what I label the “Academic Art Galleries.” I may not feel completely at home in some outsider galleries, as I sometimes am reminded that I had training but I feel more at home with the so-called lunatics running the asylum. It is a much more refreshing atmosphere than the commercial galleries which feel a bit like strolling through an L.S. Ayres department.
A.E. (I): We will get back to the painting, but first regarding the film work. You said the BlueMahler character is an odd hybrid.
A.E.: Yes. He stems from much that I was exposed to in my childhood. My erudite grandfather exposed me to opera and art music. By contrast, my father was a simple-minded, good-hearted cowboy in spirit. He bought us an 8 mm projector and he would order westerns movies. On Saturday nights we had “Saturday Night Round-up” and would watch Johnny Mack Brown B-westerns. I also had an early developed love for Chaplin and watched those on 8mm as well. BlueMahler is a post-modern mix of those B westerns, operas and Chaplin.
A.E. (I): BlueMahler is also a character that some might call spiritual.
A.E.: My mother was a dyed-in-the wool, backwoods ho-de-ho Pentecostal and I had to grow up in that as well. That was THE source of my early angst, but through the Pentecostal experience I developed a taste for unintentional surrealism and BlueMahler also sprang from that.
A.E. (I): Your spirituality could hardly be said to stem from that.
A.E.: Some facets of my art and spirituality are an eternal reaction to that, but I hardly feel inclined to espouse on my Pentecostal upbringing yet again. Later, I met a couple of Catholic priests and converted to Catholicism. I am still Catholic and probably always will be, but I do not identify with the patriarchal institution, rather it is the matriarchal spiritual movement that I fell in love with, hence the repeated themes of Mariology in my work. I call it my “Blue-collar Catholic surrealism.” Often, BlueMahler projects an adherence to that matriarchal spiritual movement.
A.E (I): Speaking of your work, your nephew J.Ross Eaker is your right hand.
A.E.: He visualizes my concepts and he adds to those concepts in a very collaborative way.
A.E. (I): So you have a good working relationship?
A.E.: A great one. We argue all the time.
A.E.(I): About what?
A.E.: First and foremost, my approach. I could care less about the aesthetics of filmmaking. It does not interest me whatsoever. I do not even touch the camera. I do not physically edit, etc. I do help set up the shots conceptually, visually, and write up a post-production script for editing. Because we are a small team, Ross would like me to be more hands on in other areas and I have done that to a degree. I am also not a business man and, frankly, it takes a business approach to secure funding and distribution. I am very lacking there and I despise it. Regardless, I predict Ross will be one of the big directors and he wants to be. I have no desire for that. I simply want to make the films I want to make, which are not that many, and then be done with it so I can go back to painting full time.
A.E. (I): You almost make it sound like you hate filmmaking.
A.E.: Not at all. Painting is a solitary form of expression for me, where film is a collaborative one and there is a part of me that needs and greatly desires collaboration. Film is a beautiful, young medium and possibly the most powerful medium in all the arts. Bunuel called it a “potentially great weapon.” I approach filmmaking similar to the way I approach painting, but there are necessary differences, of course. Admittedly, my first love is painting, but there are things I can do in film that I simply cannot do in painting and, I feel, I am more innovative as a filmmaker than I am as a painter, although my approach to both is unorthodox or, in the words of Bill Ross, “unconventional.” For instance, I use no mediums at all when I paint, I paint straight from the tube. I make a huge mess and anyone that knows me will account for that. I use pre-stretched canvases which some academic painters would throw a fit over. I respond to that with “I am a painter, not a carpenter.”
A.E. (I): How is your approach to film unconventional?
A.E.: I realize there has to be a certain amount of discipline and Ross brings in more of that than I do, although I do bring in some disciplines. I simply see film as an exploratory medium. I relate to the surrealists in my film work and I refuse to accept rules as to what is and what is not a “film.” Oddly, there was more experimentation in film at the dawn of cinema, before the rules were established. For being an almost infant medium, film quickly became institutionalized in approach. Erich von Stroheim, Tod Browning, and James Whale were among those earlier visionaries destroyed by the institution. I appreciate an aesthetic danger and aesthetics are far more provocative than anything in the way of narrative or topic. I have had people approach me, upon hearing that the films we do are controversial, and they ask if we do porn. Please. Pornography is hardly controversial, actually its downright dull. I hate that controversial label anyway, but there are no challenges in pornography. Oh, sure people film all kinds of things but the shock value wears off because it is so thin to begin with. When some filmmakers get involved with that sort of thing they try to outdo everyone else so they explore some kind of taboo territory that quickly becomes passé after the initial shock wears off. I ran into a local adult filmmaking team. They did not try to do anything shocking, but they developed their identifiable niche. There niche was pantyhose. I saw a couple of their films, which were a new lesson in banality. It was almost comparable to some religions.
A.E. (I): How so?
A.E.: Well, I will use Christianity as an example because it is so fun to use. A plethora of new protestant sects have been popping up over the last 150 years. When a new sect premiers they often focus on some minuscule quirk, usually taking it from an even more minuscule scripture passage. For instance, I know of one sect that does not allow musical instruments in the church because there is a passage somewhere that describes singing in the first century church, but no musical instruments. So, this sect homes in on this passage and utilizes it to establish their individualistic identity. This is supposedly what sets them apart from other denominations. Another for instance is Pentecostalism which homes in on one day out of all scripture, bases its entire belief system off that one day and misinterprets it to begin with.
A.E. (I): So, what you are saying is these shock value and pornographic filmmakers do the same thing? They zero in on a banal detail, which for them is an area of shock or fetish and try to establish some kind of identify with it?
A.E.: Exactly. It is all banal, simple-minded titillation. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was a blatantly shocking example of all that. It was a titillating movie and, thus , was pornographic in every conceivable way. Yet, churches were taking kids by the busload to see it and Wal-Mart stocked their shelves with it. I recall people sitting through the whole of the “Passion of the Christ” but I have seen people walk out on Fantasia, 2001: A Space Odyssey and David Lynch‘s Mulholland Drive. Proof again that aesthetics are always the real provocation. Too, I find it mystifying and amusing that people get worked up over sexuality being depicted in film, yet allow their children to sit through a gore fest. I often want to ask, “Would you rather your kid grow up to have a healthy sex life or be a serial killer?” Of course it is a given that someone is going to pull this interview out sometime and conclude that I was indicating that Mel’s film leads to possible aberrant behavior down the road . I am not saying that at all.
It boils down to that fundamentalist spirit raising its ugly head yet again. All of fundamentalism is pretty silly and perhaps this is why scripture itself warns that it is not open to private interpretation. Still, a fundamentalist spirit eventually overtakes everything in time, it is not exclusive to religion. One might say everything succumbs to a spirit of religiosity. Music, art, film criticism all have been prey to a fundamentalist spirit. Gustav Mahler left Vienna to go to New York. The New York board of ten little ladies took him to task for his unorthodox approach and banished him. Now, Mahler discussion forums ban members, in Mahler’s name, for going off topic. Dimitri Mitropulos was ousted from the “progressive” big apple because of his sexual orientation. Rafael Kubelik was driven out of Chicago for programming modern music and the windy city built a theater in the name of the critic who blacklisted Kubelik. In the 1980s several prominent, established film critics vehemently went after Michael Cimino, spewing histrionic venom over his Heaven’s Gate which, seen today is nowhere near the disaster they claimed. Yet he unintentionally provoked them and, for what? Taking an unorthodox approach to the craft of filmmaking? Some of the reactions were as if Cimino had been a mass murderer. They were genuinely offended because they did not like Cimino’s approach and there was little effort on critics’ part to search through the film. Ironically, the over-reaction of some of those critics opened a Pandora’s Box and helped put the seal of fate on the auteur in Hollywood. The art of film criticism should be just as exploratory as the medium it critiques.
A.E (I): Which leads me to ask about your film criticism. You have returned to that recently.
A.E.: Yes. I wrote film criticism years ago in a local underground magazine. About a year or so ago I picked that back up. I write for 366 Weird Movies and Raging Bull Movie Reviews.
A.E. (I): So, are there actual films you would place in that identification line of yours?
A.E.: Of course. I mentioned some of the filmmaking artists I identify with earlier. Naturally, I do have my favorite films and then there are films I relate to in a very different way.
A.E. (I): How so?
A.E.: For instance, High Noon is probably one of my favorite films. It is a timelessly powerful film which, unfortunately, is still very contemporary. It is also entertaining. There are greater westerns, but High Noon remains my favorite for many reasons, which I will write about someday, even if it has been written about to death. I am obsessively in love with Fantasia as well. A.I is a recent film I have a passion for.
A.E (I): I believe you once wrote that Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc is the greatest film ever?
A.E.: Yes, and I hold to that, but it is hardly my favorite film. It is not something I can watch often.
A.E. (I): You have acted in your films and in performance art, yet you did not mention any actors as being influential, or, pardon me, artists you identify with.
A.E.: No, but of course there are actors I hold highly. In W: The Movie I was guilty of ham acting in the W part, but I feel that was necessary for the character. It really was not a portrait of George W. Bush per say, but a kind of slapstick surrealism, a caricature based off the idolatrous plane that Bush was held up to by patriotic Midwestern rednecks. Of course, patriotism is yet another cult and for awhile, after 911, Bush had a cult among a large group of people which is why I fashioned him after the Pentecostal preachers I grew up with. That cult itself promoted a type of 21st century McCarthyism that came from the ground up, hence the burning records of the Dixie Chicks, which no one apologized for, by the way. In reality, Bush was rather stoic, but underneath that I felt he was not unlike those televangelists. We never actually called him Bush in the film. I also played BlueMahler and I did that for many reasons, which I think are pretty clear when one sees the film. One of the less obvious reasons goes back to a popular characteristic found in many B-Westerns; the protagonist playing dual parts. William S. Hart, Johnny Mack Brown and Tim McCoy were among those that played dual roles like that. I have been studying acting quite intensely lately, absorbed Harry Langdon and I returned to Montgomery Clift. Laura Dern is among the most amazing actors working today. God willing, I want her for the role of Mina in our script, “Brother Cobweb.” I could count on one had the established actors I would want to work with. Dern is at the top of my list.
A.E. (I): Ah, and here you are again in dual roles. Alfred Eaker the critic interviewing Alfred Eaker the filmmaker.
A.E.: True, except that I am a painter who dabbles in film, not vice versa.
A.E. (I): Ok. Not to get too sidetracked on “Brother Cobweb”, but you have finally finished that script?
A.E.: For the most part. Ross and I are working on the 8th revision, which is normal. Otherwise, yes it is finished. It is a surreal depiction of a Pentecostal church and it is a project I have been working on for about 20 years. It is my most personal and narrative film, despite its surrealistic edge.
A.E. (I): You definitely see yourself as a surrealist filmmaker then?
A.E.: Again, I identify with much there. The roughness appeals to me, both in the work and, potentially, in the event. I recall reading that Bunuel took a pistol to the premiere of Antheil’s “Airplane Sonata” and had to send it crashing over the head of some rowdy protesters. I still remember the first film I worked on in which not a single person walked out at the premiere showing. I thought I had done something wrong, I was so used to it. That is, until my co-director assured me the only reason was it’s being a short that was followed by four other shorts. I was a tad relieved then and, a little later,when an angry letter confirmed some hostility. I like the event quality in gallery showing and in premiering a film. You never know what to expect. However, technological advances have certainly dissipated the opportunities for the unexpected, since everything is readily available and immediately uploaded. Eullel’s “Technological Society”, the dumbing down of society, is unfolding right before us.
A.E. (I): Ok, back to your films. How are they provocative?
A.E.: I do not know that they are totally. I simply refuse to consider it or be concerned about it. I express what I feel I need to and if someone finds that provocative, then so be it. I admit, I do not try to cater to audience taste or markets. Before that gets jumped on, I might add that several years ago someone suggested I paint in a specific way and that would lead to sales . I refused and I have found if I am honest to my own aesthetic and stay true to the personal expression then eventually your “audience” realizes that. Of course, some would say I have not had the most profitable career but that’s strictly gauging by monetary standards. As a painter, I can say, I am a damn good painter. An early reviewer wrote that I was a master of my medium. Indeed, I am and I would be a fool if I did not realize that. In film, I am working towards that level and hope to achieve it. Of course, this does not mean I am complacent in my work, quite the contrary. I have yet to produce a flawless work. But then, I have yet to see a flawless work of art in any medium from anyone.
A.E. (I): Now you are working on a feature documentary about artist Raymond Thunder-Sky?
A.E.: Yes, it is the first film under my new company, Eaker Productions.
A.E. (I): Your previous company was Pink and Blue Films. You lost that in the divorce? Is that something you wish to discuss?
A.E. (I): Very well. What about Raymond Thunder-Sky appeals to you?
A.E.: My God, what doesn’t? I met Raymond in 1999 through Keith Banner and Bill Ross. We had an art showing together in Cincinnati. Raymond had some kind of developmental disability and Bill had been his case worker. Raymond dressed up like a clown construction worker and repeatedly depicted images of a wrecking ball tearing down the world in front of him. In place of what was being destroyed, Raymond imagined, through his third dimensional text, what would go in its place. Usually that was a clown suit factory, a circus, or a highway named after his father. Raymond’s work is deceptively simplistic. He was working out his own vision of Shangri-La, not unlike the way Gauguin envisioned his own Eden, but Gauguin never found that Eden, even if he repeatedly tried to depict it in the form of Tahiti. Of course, Gauguin moved there and discovered the reality did not match the ideal. Raymond was smarter still. He knew he could not depict what that Eden really was, so all he could touch, in his work and performance, was the act of destruction before him, which seemingly promised to make way for the new. That is something I so identify with, his stubborn, restless, yearning, reaching spirit. Raymond had a sort of blue collar approach to art that I admire and identify with, which is why I abhor and respond to that much bandied about label of “pretentiousness” from non-artists. That label is a lame excuse to justify one’s dumbing-down. No, I have quite an earnest passion and there is no pretense at all in that. I bond with Raymond’s tool box and the blue collar world that permeates his life and work. I want to say to critics “take your dissonance and weirdness like a man.”
Years ago I discovered the late music of Luigi Nono and his struggle was similar to Raymond’s. Of course, on the surface this is a case of apples and oranges, but underneath it’s a natural linking of things things that seem totally disparate. Nono read an inscription on a monastery wall in Toledo which read “Traveler, there may be no destination, but you must travel the road anyway.” The brief exposure to that inscription changed Nono’s music and life for the next ten years, until he died. Nono became obsessed and obsession in art is usually a good thing. Raymond had that obsession. So, again I find identification, which is possibly why I am oh so fitfully working towards an MTS (“Masters of Theological Studies”) at seminary. I don’t even know if there is a destination from this endeavor, but for now it is informing my art. That is certainly not how my professors want me to approach studies there. They want something academic from me, but it is not flowing, so …
Then there is the performance part of Raymond. Raymond was Native American, passionately loved the circus, construction sites, and White Castles. These seemingly disparate qualities in Raymond made him the misfit to many but the combination of all these made perfect sense to him, just like operas, western movies, silent film clowns, Tod Browning and the Virgin Mary all make sense coming together for me. Naturally, I filter all that through my own sensibilities. In performance I become BlueMahler who is normally an esoteric, western clown.
A few years after Raymond passed away, Keith, Bill, and myself did a couple of gallery shows with artists inspired by Raymond. James Mannan , who I have worked with before, accompanied me to one of those showings and we filmed part of it. I started desperately wanting to do something more with it and it sat with me for a couple of years, brewing. Finally, I got the footage, looked at it, grabbed Ross and James and we filmed more of what Keith and Bill were doing with Raymond’s legacy. At first it was going to be a short, but the more we kept filming, the more I knew this had to be an ambitious feature. It is going to take a feature to do justice to the scope of Raymond’s work and life. However, there is a downside to my unorthodox approach and I have to be reflectively honest there. Ross wanted to know exactly what we were going to do before we started filming. He wanted it all mapped out and I wanted to see how things unfolded and would wing it from there. As the film grew, so did the budget. Ross advised to find immediate outside financing which is not exactly a talent. I normally pay for everything myself. Well, it did not take long and I had overshot the budget so now we are attempting, rather late in the game, to secure that. Ross has not done the “I told you so” yet but I would not blame him if he did. I doubt he will. Keith Banner likens us to Batman and Robin. There probably is a degree of truth there which makes me wince and amuses me at the same time.
A.E. (I): I am sure it will come together.
A.E.: Absolutely. I believe in this film and in this subject. I do say a Tiny Tim inspired “God Bless” Keith and Bill for keeping Raymond’s legacy alive. If the papacy ever decides to canonize two gay artists then Keith and Bill should be put forth in the papal hat.
A.E (I): That is the Catholic spiritual movement, as opposed to the institution yet again?
A.E.: Even in my spirituality I still find myself playing the part of the perennial misfit. Yes, I am Catholic, but I usually go to early morning mass. I know no one there and I want to keep it that way. The communal spirit in me goes so far as to wish the persons around me “peace” but after its over I am on my own. That is not as off-putting as it sounds. It genuinely is a humanist experience. A religion that does not edify a humanist experience is completely invalid. I suppose that is another reason I am drawn to Catholicism, it does not engage in the phony, back-slapping camaraderie I have found in protestant communities. Even more progressive protestant communities have their own form of an overt welcoming committee which I find not to my taste at all.
A.E. (I): What else are you working on, in both film and painting?
A.E.: I am helping a friend with a big project in August but I have to be mum on that. I am working “Stations” in both painting and film . I am on the fifth of fourteen “Stations” canvases. T hey are all 5 feet by 5 feet. These are not the Stations of the Cross but an existential, abstract stations. Some might refer to them as an agnostic Stations or an iconoclastic Stations, although I would not wholly agree on the iconoclasm interpretation, which to me seems a bit like Dada hypocrisy of promoting anti-art art. Simultaneously, I am collaborating with Wendy Collin Sorin on 3 Stations short films. We have filmed the first and the third. Both of these also brought in other artists. Of course, I am collaborating with Ross on all three and in the first we worked with John M. Bennett, James Mannan, Robin Panet, Amy Pettinella, Tristan Ross and Randy Cox. In the third, we worked with Bennett and Mannan again. The second one is still being developed and Wendy is bringing in another collaborator. The first one is a silent film running about fifteen minutes. The third runs about 5 minutes. We hope to finish these sometime next year.
A.E. (I): Is there anything you wish to impart as far as content of the “Stations” films?
A.E. (I): Alright. What else in the way of painting and art showings?
A.E.: I used to show with the Big Car Gallery in Indy but with school and other things I have had no time to get back into the swing of that. I will be showing at the Raymond Thunder-Sky Folk Art Festival in September and a show at Thunder-Sky Inc next year. I am talking to a gallery in New Mexico as well, but that is for down the road. Of course, I am still doing work with Artistic Spirit Gallery in South Carolina as well.
A.E. (I): What about performance art?
A.E.: That is something I seem to have permanently closed as the film work has replaced that, thankfully.
A.E. (I): Why do you say thankfully?
A.E.: Because I am too old to be acting like a fool live in front of people now.
A.E (I): Have you secured funding for the other projects?
A.E.: Some. We are researching and making attempts in several areas, but if someone has 8 million to invest in what will absolutely be a great film that one reader has predicted will be the next Slumdog Millionaire (I wouldn’t know as I have not seen that film), or even a couple thousand please feel free to contact me right way. And, if anyone knows Laura Dern or has her contact info, please pass that on as my role for her will win her numerous awards.
A.E (I): I think we have covered a lot. Is there a closing statement you wish to make?
A.E.: No. I hate good-byes.
A.E (I): How about peace then?
A.E.: Sure. Peace be with you.
A.E. (I): And also with you.