Along with Yoga, Damon Zex’s other passion is chess. He had begun playing the game at the age of five and renounced it after winning a state championship years later. After emerging from a creative hiatus, Zex returned with his 27 minute film Checkmate.
Checkmate represents a return on many faceted levels. Zex labored long on Checkmate and that labor paid off brilliantly. Checkmate is Damon Zex’s diaphanous train wreck that one simply cannot look or turn away from. It is horrifying, perversely amusing, unbearably intense, highly contrarian, and Damon Zex at his most quintessentially bizarre. Even knowing Zex’s previous work will not prepare the viewer for for this, despite it’s being that seemingly inevitable bookend to what came before.
When making Checkmate Zex knew fully well that he risked propelling even his most ardent admirers into that incessant squirming, uncomfortable plateau. But then, Damon Zex is hardly one to rest on laurels, nor is he one to cave into conservative, expectant formulas to appease a fan base. The Checkmate that emerged after Zex’s self-imposed silence is the equivalent of an artist clearing out his own mothballs.
Everyone involved with Checkmate knew Zex was onto something special and different, even though a videographer friend, frustrated with the film’s static qualities, wanted to change it and chastised the artist for breaking the “101 basic cinematic principles.” Indeed, Damon Zex is breaking even his own orthodoxy in Checkmate, but with an overwhelming sense of clarity. The long, sustained enveloping pauses are sharply cut with richly complex compositions which could almost be described as inducing cubist headaches.
The bulk of Checkmate is juxtaposed to Mahler’s 9th Symphony, and Zex is one of those artists determined to take Mahler back from the music fundamentalist who have claimed the composer as solely their own. Alban Berg proclaimed the first movement of the Mahler 9th as the greatest in all of music. Arnold Schoenberg gave an impassioned defense of the phantasmagorical, surreal, sensual Mahler 7th against that reprehensible, conservative music critic Olin Downes. In more recent years, filmmaker Ken Russell produced a delightfully unorthodox film, while avant-gardists such as Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna have proven to be Mahler’s aesthetic offspring. Damon Zex joins this unique clique and returns us to the meaning of a true Mahlerian edge.
One of the first images from Checkmate depicts Damon watching his earlier, anti-Utopian, Orwellian Television is Watching You. Encased in a blackened area that almost looks liquefied, Damon Zex juxtaposed against a televised Damon Zex feels like a perverse, masculine, saturnine, ghostly William S. Hart facing himself in dual roles. The frozen expanse of thickened blackness is delicately, enigmatically penetrated by the timbre-like pthalo blue light emanating from the television set. Zex’s Chessmaster is the fragmented romantic narcissist, a hermit awkwardly seated before his own image. Even in this pregnant pause, there seems a level of fierceness that simulates energy, slowly rising to the surface. This nightmare abyss surrounds five symbolic chess boards…
Damon Zex on Checkmate:
The first chess board represented masturbation or solipsism. The second chess board was the foundation of the ego casting its gaze upon the lowly human race. Within the realm of the third board, I saw the summation of the dialectic created from man and woman. The fourth chess board symbolized time itself, echoing the ticking of seconds across the chamber surrounding it. Finally, the fifth board evolved from a two-dimensional, white/black matrix into the chaos of color which rearranged itself into a sentient, techno-organic life form supremely powerful, bending my will to its psycho-magnetic commands.
Over the years, I had created chess sketches expressing the megalomania of the mastermind who creates the unspoken strategies of the little people hopelessly bound to the board through metaphysical nonsense, routine, and social conformity.
I was exactly playing with a slowly building tension, moving to the music, very slowly, and dealing with a repressed emotional scenario. Yes, in a manner it is very much in keeping with a true yogic removal from emotional self indulgence. Like Mahler, who monitored his own heart rate throughout the end of his life and knew the tight rope he was walking.
Checkmate touches on the concept of elegance, a style statement, but also overstimulation and sexual repression. It counterbalances the notion of solipsism with desire for the image.
In Checkmate there are geometric relationships between characters, duality, singularity, inhuman and human aspects, and of course the notion of the game, it’s relationship to a male/female dynamic, and a parody of bondage, the sugar of this very medium. However, I will allow the thinking viewer to assemble all of that later. Usually we are programmed to exactly know what to expect in any TV show, movie, or performance. We know there will be emotional tension between good and evil, or we may be forced to watch the hero in a terrible situation, hanging onto the edge of our seats. In Checkmate I am presenting a relationship without real resolution in life, without a linear time line but paradigmatic nonetheless.
Damon Zex seems closest in spirit to the early surrealists, who were attracted to the thematic mix of scandal and eroticism, preferred narrative (albeit unorthodox narrative) to the avant-garde, were the ideological offspring of Tzara’s Dadaists, and were always primed for chaos (ie; Anthiel taking loaded pistol to the 1923 performance of Sonata Sauvage,which did indeed turn into chaos).
Naturally, Zex could never belong to any specific movement, even the surrealists (especially since the movement imploded and became caricature). But, Zex certainly identifies with the surrealist attraction to unpredictable danger and has also had his surrealistic defining moment. Rene Clair had his Entr’ Acte, Damon Zex has Checkmate.
Yes, this film was quite thoroughly thought out, especially in it’s composition, which has the shining translucency of a dark icicle. However, it is the final act that is an incitement to randomness, Zex thumbing his nose at the very notion of a rational universe, that is tragically alien to Eros’ love. This is what gives Checkmate it’s most potent and significantly surreal power.
Checkmate combines Zex’s obsessions for Dr. Strangelove, Chaplin, German Expressionism, 1984, sexual repression, domination, absurdism, control, hypnosis, megalomania, S & M, dadaism, television, media, color, monotony, static, conceptual art, performance art, extreme make-up, stylized theatrics, Mahler, Totalitarianism, French Cinema, Silent Film, Self Indulgence, restraint, emotional coolness, melodrama, The Apocalypse, perversity, creative trajectory, eros, mockery, spatiality, ying and yang, male/female, repression, dreams, the nightmare and so much more. Yet, he exerts supreme control over his art, astonishingly so. In investing so much of himself, Zex’s obsession, his desires, his disdain, all too keen awareness of his cult, Checkmate could have easily descended into aesthetic chaos, but he remains master of the balance and it is classic Damon Zex. Checkmate will indelibly linger on in viewers minds long after it’s over.
Damon Zex’s artist statement, and his recollections on creating Checkmate are highly recommended and encouraged reading. These can be found at http://www.checkmatethefilm.com/.
While there might still be quality, dramatic television, there is little doubt the medium has lost it’s imaginative powers and any penchant for innovative, experimental, provocative, quirky aesthetics. Ernie Kovacs and Andy Kauffman are long dead. In addition to Kauffman, the 80’s did see Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Bakshi’s “New Adventures of Mighty Mouse”, but they have been relegated to distant memories. Then, in the 1990’s came Damon Zex; the underground cult icon from Columbus, Ohio’s short-lived public access television.
One writer speculated that Charlie Chaplin was nearly the sole silent super star to have survived sound because he alone understood it was a different art form. There is a reason that Chaplin, Keaton, Harry Langdon, Charlie Bowers, Theda Bara, etc. were inspirational fodder to later surrealist luminaries such as Samuel Beckett and Andre Breton. Those provocateurs understood and connected with elements from the silent art form which had it’s origins in vaudeville and can be seen in today’s performance artists such as Diamanda Galas and Damon Zex.
Much in early film, by today’s standard, was experimental because the rules had not yet been set as to what constituted ‘film’ and what did not. Luis Buñuel once said, “Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms.”
In lieu of today’s obsession for squeaky clean, hypernarrative Hollywood realism, reactions to expressionism, experiment, rough improvisation range from red flag dismissals such as “artsy” and “pretentious” to downright hostility. Audiences can numbly sit through porn fests such as Hostel or Passion of the Christ, but will react quite differently when aesthetically provoked.
Author Scott MacDonald nails it in his introduction to avant-garde film studies:
Mainstream cinema is so fundamental a part of our public and private experiences, that even when filmmakers produce and exhibit alternative cinematic forms, that dominant cinema is implied by the alternatives. If one considers what has come to be called avant-garde film from the point of view of the audience, one confronts an obvious fact. No one–or certainly, almost no one–sees avant garde films without first having seen mass-market commercial films. In fact, by the time most people see their first avant-garde film, they have already seen hundreds of films in commercial theaters, and their sense of what a movie IS has been almost indelibly imprinted in their conscious and unconscious minds by their training as children and by the continual reconfirmation of this training during adolescence and adulthood. The earliest most people come in contact with an avant-garde film of any type is probably mid to late teens (for many people the experience comes later, if at all). The result is that whatever particular manipulations of imagery, sound, and time define these first avant-garde film experiences as alternatives to the commercial cinema are recognizable only because of the conventionalized context viewers have already developed. Generally, the first response generated by an avant-garde film is, ‘This isn’t a movie,’ or the more combative, ‘ You call this a movie?’ Even the rare, responsive viewer almost inevitably finds the film–whatever its actual length in minutes–‘too long .’ By the time we see our first avant-garde film we think we know what movies are, we recognize what ‘ everyone’ agrees they should be; and we see the new cinematic failures-to-conform as presumptuous refusals to use the cinematic space (theater, VCR, viewing room) ‘correctly.’ If we look carefully at this response, however, we recognize that the obvious anger and frustration are a function of the fact that those films confront us with the necessity of redefining an experience we were sure we understood. We may feel we KNOW that these avant-garde films are not movies, but what are they? We see them in a theater; they’re projected by movie projectors,just as conventional movies are… we can see that they ARE movies, even if we KNOW they’re not. The experience provides us with the opportunity to come to a clearer, more complete understanding of what the cinematic experience actually can be, and what–for all the pleasure and inspiration it may give us–the conventional movie experience is NOT.
Elitism in artistic taste has become a dirty word and frequently one hears the
excruciatingly lame defense for not being able to handle it, “Well, it’s just my taste and doesn’t really matter.” “Taste”, which should be acquired, is a reflection of one’s willingness to confront, and evolve past, tradition.
Damon Zex wears his badge of Artistic Elitism as a warning to the bourgeoisie. He is an intellectual bad boy that no one can claim him as their own. He’s too literary to be truly claimed by the goth/punk crowds and too extroverted to belong to the avant-garde. Yet, his inimitable, individualistic surrealism has earned him a defiantly unique cult following who recall his public access show with genuine, if cautionary affection.
Predictably, Zex, and public access in general, posed a considerable threat. Damon Zex first appeared on Columbus’ Public Access Television in 1992 with “Zextalk,” although he had been developing the character since his first live appearances: “Cerebral Cortex Sellout” in 1984, his first video; “GLitznik” in 1987, and a series of music videos which played on Much Music in Toronto. Zex quickly became the forefront figure in public access television, a kind of metaphoric, wild man John the Baptist prophet emerging from the desert to predict the coming of a new gospel that attempted to re-define and distort those fabricated notions of television. Like all new prophets, Damon Zex adhered to a gospel in the most ancient of traditions. John the Baptist evoked Elijah, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky pointed to new languages in music, grounded in origins of Bach and Gesualdo, and Damon Zex was a kindred spirit to innovators such as Georges Melies, Kenneth Anger and Ernie Kovacs.
Zex adheres to a yogic perspective in his art and life so when the attacks came early on, he never responded to personal criticism, but only stepped forward (repeatedly) to defend the genre’s right to use television surrealistically. Zex found himself in the unenviable position of defending aesthetics. It was a losing battle. Damon Zex was attacked for three consecutive days on CNN’s Headline Feed. Since Zex, with an MFA in Multi-Media Performance Art, knew how to defend himself, the Columbus City Council Democrats went after a weaker public access figure, but created a cable advisory commission to deal solely with Damon Zex. Zex had faced the City Council before, so he showed up anyway, defending Public Access as a whole while, to his surprise, his many supporters showed up to defend him. He found himself face to face with a council of old ladies, who employed a type of ideological leftist fascism and right wing fascist resources to launch their attack. The Council felt its mission was to protect “The Status Quo.” Zex, who had sought to transform the art form and dispense with preconceived notions of the medium, found that he and public access in general had upset the sacred banal balance. It became something akin to the infamous “Degenerate Art Show” of Nazi Germany. One can imagine Zex standing before them, a bit like Mahler facing the New York Philharmonic’s Committee of Women. Zex called them New Age Nazis. The ladies wouldn’t touch Zex, but instead proclaimed another public access show “obscene.” The end result was that anyone under 60 was unceremoniously removed.
Public access in Columbus was finally yanked in 2004, but by then it had become a diluted caricature of its former self (the same thing happened to Indianapolis Public Access somewhat earlier). Before all this, Damon Zex had gained a more expansive notoriety which had taken an intentionally surreal course. He had appeared on shows like Howard Stern, Geraldo, and Jerry Springer, moving through the crass commercial media phalanx as an experimental action, which took absurdist theater to a new plateau through post modern conceptual performance art. Since the demise of Columbus Public Access Television, Damon Zex has appeared sporadically on UK ShockVideo, the BBC in England (which airs his “Breakfast with Damon Zex” on Britain’s Channel 4), and continues producing his work, some of which is available on his websites: damonzex.com, zexart.com, checkmatethefilm.com, along with a dvd “best of” here: https://www.createspace.com/280629
It’s unfortunate Public Access television has lost Damon Zex, because poring over his body of work reveals an idiosyncratic personality whose work has refined, and deepened without losing the ability to provoke. Indeed, if anything, his work has become increasingly provocative in its pronounced complexities, minimalism and a stubborn refusal to spoon feed his viewers. Zex’s multi-media work is produced by the aptly named Zexart and Dissonance Cafe.
Zex’s early work was clearly influenced by the onslaught of MTV. He acknowledges this and adds that early MTV inspired to him to create his multi-media works, while later MTV inspired him to quit watching television altogether. This sentiment comes together in Zex’s “‘MTV is Dead!” and was as necessary as Pierre Boulez’s infamous statement of “Schoenberg est mort” (in MTV’s case however, the statement was literally true).
In his approach to his art, Damon Zex has taken Picasso at his word that “great artists steal” and that every work, regardless of subject, is a self portrait. Zex’s absorption of Chaplin, Joseph Beuys, Andre Breton, Peter Sellars, and Ernie Kovacs only touch the surface. A critic once listed at least fifty influences on Picasso’s work. In a rare instance, the brash artist wrote the critic, not to chide him for listing his influences, quite the contrary, but to take him to task him for failing to list Paul Gauguin. Similarly, Zex has no vanity or false artistic pretenses. He will go to extraordinary lengths to discuss his love of other artists. His a refreshing and humble honesty.
Ohio State University students from the 90’s will almost always bring up the inevitable subject of their public access cult hero; Damon Zex and reminisce about their favorite ZexTalk episode.
‘Waking Nightmare” is an earlier, vampire horror parody that begins as a homage to Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 from Outer Space” and Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” It ends with Zex eating a bloody tampon right out of his vampire girlfriend.
“Breakfast with Damon Zex” finds Zex going through a morning ritual that few are likely to repeat; a bowl of Rice Krispies mixed with a bottle of red wine and consumed until the puking point (and then consumed again).
In “Geek Temple” Zex is a televangelist who explains “God gave Adam and Eve really nice bodies because God liked to watch them f___k. God likes to watch you f__k too. When you love God, God’s s__t tastes good. God’s s__t does not stink. And if you love God, your s__t won’t stink either.” Media Hypnosis, combined with the god of money, abounds and thrives in a conceptually barren dark age.
“Hate-O-Rama” begins with Zex’s “F__K for drugs,” juxtaposed against Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bare Mountain,” then introduces Officer P.P. Piggly, who comes across a a mix between Chaplin’s Keystone Kop, Lenny’s Officer Krupke, and Sgt. Jim from The Blob. Zex then crams in as many “F’ bombs as he can squeeze into 6 minutes and snorts aspirin.
“Drinking and Driving with Damon Zex”, and the early psychedelic, self-titled “Damon Zex” were campus favorites and it’s easy to see why. In his youth, Zex astutely had his aesthetic finger on that proverbially surreal dorm room milieu, but one can indeed imagine the reaction of a random viewer, in the comfort of a quaint suburban home, stumbling upon the likes of Zextalk while channel surfing in Columbus during the 90’s.
As easy as it is to see why Zex was “THE” hip voice crying in the wilderness for Columbus in the 90’s, and as compelling as the films are, it’s almost, despite the tragic circumstances, tempting to say that the abortion of Public Access also freed Damon Zex because since then his films have become much more assured.
Maya Deren once bragged that she made films “for what Hollywood spends on lipstick”. Damon Zex is not given to fanciful illusions and cites the failure of both television and Hollywood where “budget and need for quick return silence any and all levels of experimentation.” Yet, he also remains optimistic and feels that the public at large is inching towards that moment of ecdysis, leaving behind its banal skin.
“Romance in the Park”, at first glance, looks like it’s going to unfold as a silent film styled sequel to the earlier “Waking Nightmare.” The post-film grain effect recalls film in its infancy, circa 1905 through about 1915. Zex pours himself wine on a park bench and then spies girlfriend Tamara Mitchell ,sitting on bench across the way, crossed legs, reading a magazine. Tamara begins to seduce him as she caresses her collar bone. Zex smiles and tongues his wine goblet. After some shared, distant interplay, the two join on Zex’s bench, share wine, sensually caress each other and the two minute film ends with Zex burying himself between her legs. The film ends at exactly the right moment. On paper, it may not sound like there’s much to it, but it’s a sublime piece, replete with Zex’s frequent theme of repressed sexuality, but without the youthful punchline. “Romance in the Park” is filtered through the dream-like quality Bunuel spoke of perfectly captures that inexplicable essence of the erotic subconscious.
“Kundalini Killer” and “Assana Assassin” feature Zex in front of his accomplished pen and ink works, which have an organic, yet frenzied quality, similar to the spirit of Edward Munch, Hieronymus Bosch, and William Blake. These two shorts are symbolically the forefront bookend of five films which reveal Damon Zex at the peak of his powers, a remarkable and highly personal period.
“Killer” and “Assassin” are surreal slithers, glimpses from a nether realm related to Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty.” Zex is in the process of a dark-hued, diaphanous molting. The influences of Chaplin and Peter Sellars have crystallized here and become quite distinct. Sellar’s Dr. Strangelove with the darker Chaplin of Monsieur Verdoux and fascist Hinkle have been duly processed through Damon Zex’s innermost, expressionist psyche.
These two films are yoga voodoo rituals and Zex is on the verge of a brutal act. Both films stem from Zex’s decade long study of yoga. Contrary to the watered down New Age Version Yoga, the practice was considered necessary for the warrior caste, ready to go into battle and take human life. The Kings and Rajas of India all studied yoga to perfect themselves, to cut through distracting illusions and connect with a supreme sense of self. There are, of course, numerous branches of yoga and Kundalini Yoga is a form of the Tantric teachings, which came into existence sometime after 500 A.D. and is based in yoga being an active meditation that utilizes the world, rather than rejecting it.
In “Kundalini Killer” Zex holds an actual pose where one extends arms and moves perpetually while mentally focusing on a verbal mantra with each inhale and exhale. Zex warns that “if one is not completely centered, one can have side effects of madness from the most extreme Kundalini movements.” In “Killer”, Zex chose the notion of being an assassin, or psychic killer, for yoga, used like western black magic. In the face of all the new age touchy feely peace and tranquility yoga, Zex felt this aspect of yoga to be highly surreal. He expertly gauges just how far to proceed and tempers it with the seasoned knowledge of measured restraint; the result is something far more unsettling than anything he has thus far produced. He is, by turns, whimsical, direct, aloof, revealing, nonchalant, and salts it with a perfectly measured touch of stylized melodrama.
“Assassin” strips this down a further layer. “Yoga is for war” and Zex has wiped off his white face base and what remains is his direct flesh, highlighted only by his penetrating, mascaraed eyes. In contrast to the laying bare of his exposed flesh here, Zex removes a communicative layer and does not speak. Instead, he gives us voice over narration. This was a bold, daring and intelligent, decisive move. This Damon Zex is not about to cave in to overtly indulged, histrionic emoting, the flesh says quite enough. He interacts with and mirrors his own imagery. A cool toned, dada spirituality permeates throughout. The sharp cuts, elongated pauses, extreme penetrative close-ups and dreamy, disturbed horizons are all expertly judged. This is an artistic plateau that can only be reached through a rewarding and struggled process. Re-visiting an earlier work, such as “Zex for President” would be the equivalent of a sojourn back to an early college level creative period.
“Eyeball” and “Mask” are 40 second fluid tapestries that seemingly emanate from a previous unseen action, the equivalent of something akin to a slicing open of palm. They are extreme close-ups of Zex’s eye and face. They work very well within their brevity and appear as horrific miniatures in the Damon Zex oeuvre; surreal and hypnotic transcendental etudes, visual dissonance, almost Webernesque.
When jazz musician John Zorn released his album “The Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone” (which featured Diamanda Galas among it’s cast of characters), Morricone pronounced it a profound and flattering tribute. Morricone tributes were a dime a dozen but what made Zorn’s album so unique was that, in explosively reinterpreting elements of Morricone’s music, Zorn created a startlingly refreshing new work. Damon Zex is a kindred spirit here. By, fragmenting, expanding on, and employing guerrilla aesthetics towards those seminal influences he absorbs, his work goes far beyond something as banal as mere imitation.
After “Television is Watching You,” Damon Zex fell into a creative void. Upon emerging from this, he returned with a 27 minute film, his long laboured manifesto that goes to a realm even beyond “Assana Assassin” and “Kundalini Killer.” This symbolic bookend leads us to CHECKMATE (next week).
“When I don’t think about film, I think about sex. Every 10 seconds. I have the sense that my head is very close to my genitals.” So speaks Latvian animator Signe Baumane in the documentary Signe and…. It’s part of an indispensable and unique collection of Baumane’s animated shorts called Ten Animated Films by Signe Baumane.
True to her word, there is sex aplenty in most of the films in this collection, including her Teat Beat of Sex, and Baumane goes a long way to prove obsession in art is indeed a good thing.
In Natasha, a lonely housewife finds a vacuum cleaner is just as effective as any man. In Five F___king Fables the head of a decapitated princess gives a man oral while a dog performs cunnilingus on her, penises do indeed come in every shape, size, color and form, and Georgia O’Keefe’s erotic flowers are taken to a whole new level. These are just a few of the repeated erotic images and themes that make up Baumane’s world.
This was our short film for the 2008 48 HR film festival.I supplied the narrative (co-scripted by myself, J. Ross Eaker, and Terry Dellinger). It is based of the tragic, true story of my assistant manager (having taken place in the early 90s).
James Mannan and Robin Panet co-directed. I co-acted with Jason Hignite.
This was made for the 2009 48 Hr film contest. It was written by myself, using the poerty of John M. Bennett. I co-directed with Robin Panet and co-acted with frequent collaborator James Mannan.
After the premiere, one of the judges took me aside and said: “I dig your film and really wanted you guys to win, but you just broke too many rules.”
We did indeed.
While I always look forward to films from Alfred Eaker, I’ll freely admit that usually they’re over my head. Alfred works on a level that’s a bit beyond me…and I don’t consider myself stupid, but Eaker’s clearly a level above me! Well, that being said, his latest short, I Was Married To A Mermaid, is one of the best he’s done, so far.The story here is tentatively about a man who’s religious daughter doesn’t believe that he was once married to a mermaid. But, that’s just the kernel of story, what’s really going on here is a tale of belief and faith, if you really believe that you were married to a mermaid, who’s to say you weren’t? And, if someone tried to convince you that your beliefs are wrong, who’s to say what their motivations really are?It’s a short that will make you think about religion and what it can be used for. And, it’s a short that I truly enjoyed, and I usually don’t enjoy movies that make me think this much! I’m giving I Was Married to a Mermaid 4 out of 4 cigars, it’s an interesting movie, but the conversation that follows is amazing! Head overhere and check it out for yourself!
There is one problem that I have with an Alfred Eaker film. It can be summed up most easily as “WTF?”
If as a moviegoer you crave narrative cohesion and a paint-by-numbers storyline, then you should be cautioned to stay as far away as possible from Eaker, an innovative filmmaker whose indie spirit manifests itself in short and feature-length films that are experimental in construction, thought provoking in themes, and more than a few moments where you’re left scratching your head mumbling to yourself “I have no idea what he means by any of this” but loving it anyway. If you’ve ever read anything by Eaker or seen any of his other films, then you already know that he’s a guy who can weave a thread of spirituality into even the darkest of themes, a gift that can be both jarring and sublime. Those words, jarring and sublime, both came to mind as I sat down to watch Eaker’s latest short film, I Was Married to a Mermaid, a just over 11-minute short film that was created as part of a class at Indy’s Herron School of Art. The film is part of a larger work-in-progress called Brother Cobweb, which is beginning its life as a novel. The film is a fictional piece inspired by Eaker’s experiences growing up in a Pentecostal church. After you’ve seen the film, you’ll likely find yourself going “Well, duh!” But, I digress. I would love to tell you what I Was Married to a Mermaid is all about. I would love to explain its themes, both philosophical and theological. I would love to weave my mind through its relational dynamics and its unresolved issues, but to do so would take far longer than the film’s 11-minute running time because even watching the film you’ll find yourself absolutely captivated by the film’s images, sounds, and words as they unfold before your eyes. What I will say is, and I can say it with absolute conviction, is that there is a reason that Brother Cobweb (Eaker) is Brother Cobweb. Eaker hasn’t chosen his wording likely, and the memories and thoughts that unfold are shards of reality and fantasy and truth and fiction. Eaker, using his marvelous creation known as BlueMahler as the foundation for Brother Cobweb, has crafted a character both charismatic and rather frightening in his constant presence. He is intricately woven into the lives of Mom (Vanessa Blake) and Pop (James Mannan), whose relationship is never fully explained yet is lived out with Mom’s constant listening to old fire and brimstone sermons on cassette tape while Pop mumbles about working on an unfinished manuscript lost in seeming disillusionment and a shattered faith. I Was Married to a Mermaid is truly jarring in the ways in which Eaker and co-director J.Ross Eaker weave into the story a variety of dramatic images and ideas that have clearly impacted everything else that unfolds. Yet, there’s a richness of humanity as it becomes more and more apparent that we are watching what feels like an occasionally painful and occasionally very resolute spiritual disintegration. To say that Eaker excels as BlueMahler (as Brother Cobweb) feels redundant, because BlueMahler is a performance art character created by Eaker in the early 80’s and his comfort in the persona is obvious and satisfying. Eaker excels in both his character’s quieter moments and in those moments when he truly comes to life. Vanessa Blake also shines as Mom, a woman who is seemingly clinging to her faith despite, I’d suppose, the places her faith has taken her. James Mannan, as Pop, gives what is no doubt one of my favorites of Mannan’s many performances. Mannan’s Pop is simultaneously broken yet crystal clear, resigned yet resolute, and heartbreaking yet surprisingly enlightened. Mannan serves up a layered performance that is both experimental and incredibly well defined. The only real area that hinders the impact of I Was Married to a Mermaid is found in some of its early transition scenes, scenes that require a technological ability that isn’t quite present in this low-budget yet otherwise tremendously satisfying film. While these scenes do distract just a tad, one can also easily argue that their roughness fits with the stark themes carried out throughout the rest of the film. Remember that problem I talked about with Alfred Eaker? It’s also the very thing that keeps drawing me to his films time and time again. © Written by Richard Propes The Independent Critic
Easy Street (1917) is Charlie Chaplin‘s most urbane comedy. Some critics claims it’s his most perfectly composed film, with shrewdly chosen ingredients of minimal pathos, well developed characterizations, the Tramp’s quintessential antagonist and his most frequent leading lady, balanced slapstick, drug addiction, attempted rape, domestic violence, mockery of status quo, with social and political satire thrown in as the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake. Easy Street is evolved Chaplin: a series of astute contrasts in this, his ninth and final Mutual short.
The Tramp is desperate and, upon hearing hymnals coming from Hope Mission, he seeks temporary solace. Unfortunately for Charlie, the collection plate passes him by, but the revivalists do try to save his soul. Of course he would rather have a good meal, a place to sleep, and clothes on his back. Edna Purviance, as the church organist, provides inspiration in the way of pure, divine beauty. As usual with Chaplin, his film is actually dated socialist propaganda edifying the poor and destitute, who we now know have no real reason to live.
In order to win Edna, the Tramp takes on a dangerous job as a Keystone Kopper whose beat is the violent slum haven known as Easy Street. The lord of this slum is Goliath (Eric Campbell, who was never more menacing or three-dimensional than he is here, in what turned out to be his final role before dying in an automobile accident). Goliath has an inherent problem with authority figures, even one so obviously ill-suited to the job as Charlie. When the Tramp comes a walkin’ down Easy Street, he has entered the Philistine’s domain, and here it is the giant who sees himself as the good guy with the kopper as an intruder in his skid row utopia. A brief glimpse into Goliath’s domestic situation reveals a plethora of kids and a weakened wife, on the verge of starvation; it is not that simple, however. Goliath’s Wifey proves to be an aggressor, fully capable of domestic abuse upon her husband (who is more than willing to reciprocate). Wifey’s aggression even hones in on Charlie after he gives her food (because women can be aggressive, and because her inherent hatred of authority figures goes across the board). Continue reading
Keaton doubles as a trained monkey in an act. The simplistic simian face paint is brilliant; Keaton’s face perfectly structured for it. The scene of Buster-chimp going ape amidst the assembled patrons might serve as a reflection of Keaton’s own relationship with his audience. The audience is mystified, and eventually accepting, rather than idolatrous. Keaton does not seek the crowd’s adulation, nor does he have the audacity to portray them proclaiming their love for him, the way Charles Chaplin did in both The Circus (1928) and (more sickeningly) in Limelight (1952). Of course, both of these iconic silent clowns had their virtues and faults, and comparisons are inevitably moot. Earlier, Keaton does not hesitate to engage in self-parody when he sides with the audience over the performer: “This fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show.” That self-parody also might serve as a dig at Keaton’s limelight-craving competitors.
Keaton also pays brief, unsentimental homage to Harry Houdini here, who had given him the nickname of “Buster”.
Although half the length of Sherlock Jr. (1924),Playhouse lacks the compactness and polished narrative of that later film. Still, it remains a tour de force, aided greatly by Elgin Lessley’s camerawork combined with Keaton’s boundless innovation.
Keaton also served as an uncredited co-director and writer in the feature Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). This was Keaton’s last independent production. He looks considerably aged, with a touch of pathos, yet still elegant, romantic, and athletic. The film is understandably most remembered for the startling, stirring imagery of its third act. It begins with a reunion of a father (Steamboat Bill—Ernest Torrence) and son (Steamboat Bill Jr.—Keaton).
Sr. is a seafaring captain of towering machismo, and not sure what to make of his citified dandy of a son. He takes Jr. to a barber and attempts to get him a new hat (Jr rejects a series of hats, including his famous pork pie). Torrence’s portrayal of Sr. is an astute parody of blue-collar mores and traditions. In avoiding a maudlin relationship between father and son, Keaton’s handling seems remarkably fresh and less dated. So too it is with Jr’s romance with the daughter (Marion Byron) of his father’s rival (Tom McGuire). While avoiding heart-on-sleeve propensities, Byron’s character is underdeveloped, serving primarily as decor. Thus, Jr’s intense attraction to her fails to register.
The fifteen-minute cyclone finale is an apex of silent cinema entertainment. The stunt work, cinematography (by Bert Haines and Dev Jennings) and set design are simply jaw dropping, regardless (or perhaps even because of) its age. Remarkably, much of the death-defying action is continuous and unbridled. Even more remarkably, Steamboat Bill Jr., like The General (1926), was a box office flop. Shortly afterwards, Keaton made a move to MGM and was coerced into relinquishing creative control of his films to a fascistic studio. His voice, already marred by drink, was unsuited to sound. Clearly an instinctual artist, Keaton was predictably unable to meet MGM’S mass commercial sensibilities, which accelerated his already rapid decline. Alcoholism, depression and institutionalization followed. Yet, courageously, Keaton rebounded, and it is his genius which has endured, while the studio stormtroopers faded into well-deserved oblivion