Category Archives: Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema

REFLECTING ON A DECADE OF 366 WEIRD MOVIES

I had somehow stumbled on a film forum in 2009, and I don’t even recall the name of it. Reading through it, I saw a post about and the poster was asking … something, I don’t remember, but it was something I knew the answer to and offered it. A discussion snowballed and, as I was jabbering about Greed, bitching because it had never been released on DVD (it still hasn’t), another user piped in. I don’t even remember the user name he was using; only that he had from Night of the Hunter as his avatar. Over the next couple of days, Mr. Mitchum and I bandied back and forth about a number of topics, including , , , etc. In the course of the convo, I believe I mentioned that I used to write essays on films for an art gallery magazine called “The Fringe,” had taken countless classes on film aesthetics, and dabbled in surreal indie films. Mr. Mitchum asked to see samples of my writing and I believe we exchanged emails, and… his name wasn’t Mr. Mitchum after all. It was Greg Smalley. He told me that he was starting an e-zine called 366 Weird Movies and he needed another writer, as he was the only one, and asked me to join him. I agreed, thinking it’d be fun, but on one condition: I didn’t want to get pegged into writing only about weird movies because my experience has been that, no matter what topic is chosen, once it’s named people start mantling a fundamentalist attitude to it. In other words, I wanted to remain stubbornly iconoclastic. Agreement made, I started with a reevaluation on Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), and my Fringe Cinema subcategory was born.

Alfred EakerMy writing echoes my paintings. I go through many phases and I do not like to look back at old work, only being interested in what I’m working on currently. Greg plugged away at his List Entries, secured other writers, and it was years before I even submitted an official List entry myself. I was merely doing my own thing, week after week, and suddenly, years had gone by. Coming up for air, I often found that many movies I wanted to write about, Greg (or others) had already covered, goddammit. (Most of the reviews I had indeed read, but forgotten).

Still, it’s been a helluva decade with Greg, and I not only loved writing, but reading my peers in this family of misfits. I picked up a reputation, however, of being the site’s provocateur. I will say that I rarely set out to push people’s buttons. I just don’t give a hoot or a holler if I do, and I believe it’s an artist’s ethical responsibility to have the balls to write without inhibition and to always take an attitude of saying to hell with the status quo (and everything has the potential to develop its own status quo, even weird movie aficionados). Over the years, I’ve earned a few haters who, in their either/or mindset, wanted to label me as a liberal. I’ve never considered myself liberal Continue reading REFLECTING ON A DECADE OF 366 WEIRD MOVIES

ED WOOD’S TAKE IT OUT IN TRADE (1970) BLU-RAY

As we approach the New Year, it would be wise to remember the timeless words, of the great prophet: “Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.”

Isn’t it refreshing to see long-overdue appreciation of Edward D. Wood, Jr? Whoever would have guessed that his Holy Grail directorial swan song, Take it out in Trade (1970), would be  discovered, restored, and given such a gorgeous Blu-ray treatment by American Film Genre Archives (AFGA), in collaboration with Something Weird Video? May blessings eternally be bestowed upon both of them.

As this is from Wood’s later period, his budget seems to be down to about the $1.50 range. Also, like Wood’s later output, it’s a sexploitation flick, with astoundingly gratuitous nudity. Still, there’s a degree of renewed Woodian energy, which had been primarily missing since the auteur bogged down in fatigue in the late fifties. There is no mistaking that Wood here is in an advanced decline from serious alcoholism.

Trade actually has a story, such as it, and is different from his late work, too, in being an intentional comedy. Shirley (Donna Stanley) is missing, forcing her parents to hire a Private Dick named Mac McGregor (Michael Donovan O’Donnell). They must not have much of a detective budget because McGregor is totally inept. As he says, in typical Woodian narration: “Sex is where I come in. Dead or alive, sex is always in need of my services. A service to which I sincerely apply myself wholeheartedly—sometimes even in the daylight hours.” Indeed, he hardly does any detective work, being repeatedly distracted by sex.

Still from Take It out in Trade (1970)Wood himself shows up in drag, wearing… drum roll, please… a lime green angora sweater, topped by huge blue fake pearls. He looks bad—splotchy and bloated—but there’s a twinkle alive through all that self-destruction. Looking for Shirley, McGregor takes one international holiday after another, flying into wherever (cue stock plane footage), looking  for naked people (stock nudie films and new nudie footage), flying back, checking his office, getting bored, and flying to a new destination to see more naked people. Countries are represented by the barest minimum establishing shots, such as one of a continental dandy sipping wine. McGregor’s reactions are cartoonish, the jokes are groan-inducing, and the pacing is napalmed due to Wood’s padding to reach feature length. He apparently hoped against hope that it would all work, because he bragged in the trailer (included in the Blu-ray extras), “This one won’t be ignored by the box office.”  Of course, it was.

The twist is that when McGregor finally tires of bug-eyed reactions to naked people and goes to look for Shirley, it turns out that Shirley is a hooker. Cue Wood’s bizarro assessment of the sex trade. Shirley’s not in the gutter, she’s having fun, and indeed, what better way to make a living than being paid to have sex, which she enjoys?

Wood’s views of square sex are like Aunt Ida’s from Female Trouble, minus the cynicism, and with its cheapo international adventures, Take It out in Trade has an undeniable charm. With its acceptance of “deviants,” it could almost bee seen as a sequel of sorts to Glen or GlendaIt’s a shockingly progressive and nicely optimistic world view: accepting every brand of “deviants,” from trans couples to heroin addicts.

When Wood himself gets in drag, he’s enjoying the hell out of himself again, and its contagious when he does.

AFGA/Something Weird restored every minute they had access to, and although one wishes that about a half hour of footage would have remained lost, its a bona fide find and release.

The extras also include Wood’s Love Feast, which reverses the voyeurism with a Peeping Tom reaping what he sewed in a dog collar. Although both films show signs of age, the restoration job is clearly a labor of love, and who could argue with Something Weird?

NUTCRACKER FANTASY (1979)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky despised his own “Nutcracker Fantasy.” Forced into being a populist composer when careers in music were extremely rare in Russia, Tchaikovsky hated much of his own music, which masked a much darker personality: a self-loathing gay (it’s likely that he committed suicide) and a manic depressive. Yet behind that veneer of populism is an unorthodoxy. Leonard Bernstein found a soulmate in Tchaikovsky, conducting his music as if it was Mahler. When conductor Thomas Beecham arrived for orchestra rehearsal, he asked what was on the schedule. When someone answered “Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique,” Beecham quipped, “Let’s do what we can to cheer it up.”

When it comes to films with a Tchaikovskian theme, two come to mind in unmasking the dark-hued musician that classical fundamentalists prefer whited out. One is the infamous Black Swan (2010). The other is 1979’s criminally forgotten Japanese animated Nutcracker Fantasy (directed by Takeo Nakamura), which bypasses sugar plum fairies in favor of something spawned from a combination of , , and L. Frank Baum, along with slivers of Tchaikovsky and E.T.A. Hoffmann.  The result is authentic bizarreness amplified by considerable beauty (and vice versa).

Young Clara (Melissa Gilbert) is visiting her Aunt Gerda (Lurene Tuuttle) and Uncle Drosselmeyer (), a clock maker and doll maker. Clara falls in love with uncle’s Nutcracker doll and requests it as a gift. Reluctantly, with his wife’s prompting, Drosselmeyer gives Clara the doll. We soon discover the reason for his reticence.

Still from Nutcracker Fantasy (1979)An army of rats prize the doll and steal it from Clara. Chasing the thieving rodents, Clara comes to blows with two-headed rat queen Morphia (Jo Anne Worley). Although the nutcracker comes to life to protect Clara, she still loses the battle and wakes up with a fever. She dreams again, entering the kingdom of the dolls by passing through Drosselmeyer’s grandfather clock; it is hardly a peasant trip, as the dolls are at war with Morphia.

The nutcracker is now Franz (), the captain of the guard, and he’s trying to restore the princess (who looks like Clara) back to her old self. The King’s wise men try to break Morphia’s curse, but they suck. So, Clara tracks down the Queen of Time (Eva Gabor) for assistance in breaking the evil spell.  No problem, just destroy the “nut of darkness,” AKA Morphia’s heart. How the hell do you destroy a nut of darkness? With a pearl sword, of course, which Queenie happens to have handy.

A war breaks out, the enemy mice are slaughtered and, it turns out, they were children kidnapped by the creepy Ragman. A tad angry, the captain kills Morphia, but she curses him before croaking, turning him back into a nutcracker. Morphia’s rat son sets out for revenge, but Clara sacrifices herself, saving her nutcracker and thus breaking the evil spell.

That is as good as a synopsis as I can give, because if it sounds like a hodgepodge, it absolutely is. Characters like the Ragman are built up and dropped, and there are loopholes and inconsistencies aplenty. But who the hell watches something like this for coherency anyway? Yes, there are dull stretches, but you will not give hoot or a holler one, because the three-dimensional characterization of Clara, animation, music (which bizarrely includes animated ballerinas morphing into live action ballerinas and then disappearing), and superb voice acting across the board are dazzlingly impressive. Gilbert, Worley, and Gabor give what may be their most impressive performances, and Christopher Lee gets to sing (he actually voices several characters), sounding damned fine.

By, the way, I suppose I should add that it’s weird as hell, and far preferable to all the saccharine Nutcracker productions we’ve all been sadistically subjected to. Why would anyone ever want to watch another Nutcracker in the place of this one? I’d like to think Pyotr finally had his revenge.

HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (1966) AND A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (1965)

Chuck Jones’ 1966 adaptation of ‘ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a rarity: a film that both surpasses the source material and is itself flawless—which is why the 2000 live-action remake was a pre-certified disaster.

Chuck Jones made his name with “Looney Tunes” and although he had a lot of competition (Tex Avery foremost), Jones, with his modernist sensibilities, was the best of the lot. Wisely, Jones filters Dr. Seuss’ seditious surrealism through his own pop aesthetics, bringing to the tale superior narrative pacing (it moves like quicksilver), wry wit, expertly judged tension, a gift for expressiveness, and the narration of , voice acting of June Foray, and raspy singing of Thurl Ravenscroft.

The story is a variation of Charles Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” but  that’s just a springboard for Seuss, Jones, and company.  With his melodious British lisp and résumé in Gothic fairy tales, Karloff is a masterful storyteller, perhaps the best in animation since Bing Crosby narrated “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1949). Voicing the Grinch, Karloff snarls delightfully, and as the narrator he is an impeccable bedtime story host. Balancing those two makes for his last great role, one that ranks with the Monster, ImhotepHjalmar Poelzig, and Cabman Gray.

Still from How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)Casting Karloff was an intuitive coup. Jones, like and , was astutely aware of the connection between Christmas and Halloween. Both come from the Church; one uses the “seen” symbolism of horror as a counter to “unseen” divinity of the second. And of course, both involve children. June Foray is a delight in her small role as Cindy Lou, who could be no more than two. Her sense of wonder is authentic—never saccharine—staring right through the Grinch’s nastiness with big anime eyes (that predate anime). She actually has us rooting for her, as opposed to child stars who we might have been tempted to wish death on (e.g., the tyke in Son of Frankenstein). Ravenscroft makes an art out of insulting the title character in song—which must have been a first—and his work steered the short into a rightly deserved Grammy win for best soundtrack.

Although secular, its anti-consumerism message is as subtle as the Grinch himself—and is still needed today, before we have yet another Black Friday trampling death at Walmart.

Charles Schulz fully embraces the religious tradition in tackling the same anti-consumerism message in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” from the preceding year. There’s little doubt that Schulz’ “Peanuts” series eventually became tiresome and repetitive (remember, “It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown”?) but, with the perfection of this and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” perhaps the great comic strip artist deserved to be allowed to coast. Again, it’s no surprise that these parallel holidays brought out the best in Schulz. The bald-headed, existential Charlie Brown waxes angstfully over the hypocrisy of false Christmas Capitalism, until blanket-toting Linus takes on the role of a Lukian sage to set Charlie, Lucy, Schroeder, and Snoopy right. Curiously, Linus later mixes up that “unseen” of Christmas with the “seen” of Halloween by waiting for a Great Pumpkin that never arrives, but that’s part of the the sublime, idiosyncratic beauty of Schulz’ best characterizations. The Peanuts gang are children, yes, but they have adult-like complexities and inconstancies, too.

Still from A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)Smartly, director Bill Melendez chose actual children to voice the Peanuts gang and deliver that Gospel of Luke message. What  could have been rendered agonizingly pretentious or overbearing proselytization is instead filled-to-the-brim with simplistic, joyous charm. There’s nothing at all contrived or bullying about the message which seeks (it doesn’t demand) a Christmas that isn’t shorn of a Christ child.

The musical ribbon that ties it all together is supplied by that tragically short-lived jazz miniaturist Vince Guaraldi who, like Haydn before him, finds a wealth of exhilarating fun in sanctity.

RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (1964)

This fifty-four year old made-for-television holiday film has recently generated controversy on Twitter, proving that self-professed liberals can be just as obtuse as conservatives. The controversy was over the “bullying” in the Arthur Rankin/Jules Bass stop-animation. Its message is blatantly anti-bullying. Yes, Santa is a jerk at first and guilty of being bigoted and short-sighted, but hey, the narrator clearly states “Even Santa realized he was wrong,” and he makes amends. Gee, I thought the gospels and Charles Dickens all rather made the point that Christmas was also about admitting mistakes, learning from them, forgiveness, etc. However, happy-happy, joy-joy pseudo New-Agers seem to prefer everything whitewashed. Forget those dullards and the inherent silliness of Twitter users because this is possibly, along with Batman Returnsthe most delightfully weird holiday film of all time; and given that it’s from Rankin and Bass, that’s saying a bit. It’s doubtful that Rankin and Bass truly grasped their own weirdness, which makes it all the better.

None other than “Big Daddy” (of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Burl Ives, is our gospel narrating (pre-“Frosty”) snowman. He lets us know there’s a castle on the left here in the North Pole. Santa’s kind of like King Herod; a bit bitchy,worrying himself skinny about something, but even he’s not sure what.

Meanwhile, Rudolph is born in a cave, kind of like a reindeer Jesus, and there’s Mary and Joseph in the guise of Mr. and Mrs. Donner (I guess she doesn’t get a name). Rudolph is so smart he begins talking right after his birth, but he’s also “gifted” in having a shiny red nose, which agitates Donner to no end. How could he have fathered a misfit? Santa pays a visit to the new family and, upon seeing that blinking beak, lectures the newborn Rudolph about fitting in. 

Back at the castle, Hermey1)Ed: Originally article incorrectly read “Herbie” the elf. See comments on this post. is an elf who hates making toys and singing. But that’s what elves are supposed to do. Not Hermey; he wants to be a dentist. He’ll never fit in. “Why I am such a misfit?” is the the anthem of both Rudolph and Hermey.

At the reindeer training, the yearlings, including Rudolph, his new friend Fireball, and potential GF Clarice are all introduced to jerk redneck reindeer in a baseball cap, Comet. Naturally, things screw up when Rudolph’s shiny noise is discovered. No more reindeer games for him.

Like a savior cast out, Rudolph goes it alone… until he bumps into runaway Herbie. Cue song change from “Why am I such a misfit?” to “We’re a couple of misfits.” Together, they go out into the wilderness with the threat of Satan (in the guise of a bumble abominable) not far behind.

TStill from "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" (1964)hings get wackier still when our heroes meet prospector Yukon Cornelius. His anthem is “even among misfits, I’m a misfit.” He’s a boisterous mess, unable to decide between silver or gold, pea soup or peanut butter, and his presence makes no sense, rendering him the coolest character in the whole film. Yukon is perfectly voiced by familiar character actor Larry D. Mann, who was part of the Canadian Air Force team that liberated the holocaust death camps (his testimony is on YouTube).

With the predator Bumble closing in, our trio of misfits make a pit stop at the island of misfit toys, lorded over by a flying lion (!) named King Moonracer. A Charlie in the Box, a train with square wheels, a spotted elephant, a water gun that squirts jelly, an ostrich-riding cowboy, a boat that can’t stay afloat, and a doll named Sue, whose deformity is a tad ambiguous, are among the inhabitants. 

Herbie gives the Bumble a root canal, Yukon  sort of dies and resurrects, Santa gets fat again, Rudolph is the savior he was born to be, everyone learns the lesson of bullying, and the misfit toys get rescued. The end. 

This is a long way from the simplistic song made popular by singing cowpoke Gene Autry, and one would be tempted to ask WTF were Rankin and Bass thinking if it weren’t such a hoot. If we included made for TV Christmas movies here, I’d have likely obsessively pushed for its inclusion on The List. Rudolph was an enormous success. Unlike twitterers, 1964 audiences didn’t give a hoot or a holler about its weirdness, taking it all in stride, and the path was paved for many more Rankin and Bass oddities/blessings to come. At least one of those will be covered this month, but next week: a
Dr. Seuss/Chuck Jones/Boris Karloff combo. 

References   [ + ]

1. Ed: Originally article incorrectly read “Herbie” the elf. See comments on this post.

REPRINT: HARRY LANGDON’S “THREE’S A CROWD” (1927): SILENT CINEMA’S MALIGNED DARK HORSE

Alfred Eaker has the week off. This column originally ran May 14, 2009.

Approaching ‘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 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. 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 The Strong Man 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 would have a falling out, or that Langdon’s stardom would be over almost as soon as it began, but that he ever achieved stardom in the first place. Langdon began edging his character into darker territory in the Capra-directed Long Pants, and it was this that lead to their inevitable break.

Three’s a Crowd is quintessential Langdon unplugged, and it’s existence is almost a miracle.

Cubist, minimalist, enigmatic, avant-garde,personal, painterly, static, dream-like, lethargically paced, performance art: all these terms apply to Three’s a Crowd.

Still from Three's a Crowd (1927)The set pieces immediately convey the film’s genteel, surreal aura.  A milkman, making his early delivery at dawn, is the only sign of life in an otherwise empty city street. Inside Harry’s apartment, an alarm clock vibrates. The camera seems eerily frozen on the clock, almost Continue reading REPRINT: HARRY LANGDON’S “THREE’S A CROWD” (1927): SILENT CINEMA’S MALIGNED DARK HORSE

DENNIS POTTER’S SON OF MAN (1969)

Dennis Potter is a writer whose name is often spoken with awe; his early death (from pancreatic cancer) was a significant loss to television. Potter’s critically acclaimed “Wednesday Play” ran from 1964-1970 on the BBC, with his “Alice”1)Included as an extra feature on BBC’s Alice in Wonderland DVD. (on the life of ), “Pennies from Heaven,” and “Singing Detective” all seen as cult masterpieces.

Yet, his most provocative hour was “Son of Man,” directed by Gareth Davies. When people today speak of controversial dramatizations of the life of Christ, very few remember this one, which may be the most radical dramatized portrayal of the Nazarene prophet to date: more so even than ‘s Gospel According to St. Matthew, ‘s Last Temptation of Christ, or ‘s The Passion of the Christ (which is only controversial in being pornographic). Unlike Scorsese’s film, Potter’s hidden gem2)Unreleased on home video, although it can be found online—here is the “love your enemy” excerpt.  ups the revolutionary ante, not because it veers from the Gospel text (it’s actually fairly orthodox in its narrative bullet points), but in how it is presented. Potter eschews any show of divinity. He doesn’t deny it, it’s merely not his concern. He focuses on Christ as a human and a prophet. As played by Colin Blakely, this desert Christ is visceral, beefy, dirty (eschewing that “cleanliness is next to godliness” verbiage), struggles with his faith, and is God-obsessed. That’s contrary to Christ’s usual stoic portrayals, and may partially be the reason for this film’s neglect. It’s easier to put a man who is emotionally detached on a pedestal. Once we see his ragged emotions, he, uncomfortably, becomes too much like us. The Christ of Potter/Blakely napalms that comfort zone with a portrayal that unnerved 1969 audiences. Airing it in the Easter season was salt added to the wound.

Still from Son of Man (1969)Another disconcerting mirror “Son of Man” holds up is its very clear contrasting of ethics and morality. The Ten Commandments are ten versions of “NO,” brought to you in the shape of patriarchal morality, which doesn’t have to be equated with love; hence, Christ improves on them with the ethics (morality + love) of the Beatitudes. Author once mused that he had seen Christians, with tears in their eyes, bemoaning the loss of the Ten Commandments displayed in schools. When Vonnegut suggested posting the Beatitudes in their place, the reaction was: “Blessed are the poor? The meek shall inherit the earth? Blessed are the peacemakers? Oh, we can’t post that. People might take it wrong.” The Beatitudes are the centerpiece of Potter’s story, with Christ delivering them at the most inopportune moment; shortly after we see the corpse of a bloodied woman, brutally butchered by Roman Soldiers. “Love the man who would thrust his sword in your belly and torture you,” Christ ferociously shouts. It’s no wonder both his onscreen crowd Continue reading DENNIS POTTER’S SON OF MAN (1969)

References   [ + ]

1. Included as an extra feature on BBC’s Alice in Wonderland DVD.
2. Unreleased on home video, although it can be found online—here is the “love your enemy” excerpt.