Seven Last Words. This day thou shalt be with me in paradise©Alfred Eaker, 2018
Pierre Boulez Mural ©️2018, Alfred Eaker. (Stained Glass Boulez in the Church of Brother Cobweb @The House of Shadows in Gresham, Oregon).
These are 15 -8ft x 4ft paintings on wood panels. Being raised in an extremely conservative Pentecostal environment, I was paradoxically also pursuing artistic endeavors and exposed to the music of Wagner early on. Taking my drawing pad to church, I rebelled by creating a fictional preacher named Brother Cobweb (the novel about the character is being published next year).
Years later, in 1980, PBS announced the airing of the Pierre Boulez/ Patrice Chereau Ring Cycle. Researching Boulez, two quotes resonated: “Whenever there is extreme conservatism, there is an explosion of revolt,” and “ We must by cultural omnivores and raid all the art forms to enhance our own medium.”
Boulez’s Ring was as radical as promised and in the late 80s, I began to see him often in concert; mostly in Chicago and Cleveland. As I did in that church, I took drawing pads and drew Boulez conducting his own music, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Mahler, Bartok, Ravel, Debussy, Varese, and Augusta Read Thomas. I drew quickly, without looking at the paper and over a span of some fifty concerts, produced thousands of rough sketches, some of which I did paintings from.
When I moved to Portland and was hired as a muralist for the House of Shadows, I was given my own Church of Brother Cobweb where I perform the character. This year, I created for the Church this Boulez mural for its “stained glass windows.” Most of the paintings are taken from Boulez conducting in Chicago; others in Cleveland. That they are on wood, for me, echoes the diaphanous spikiness found in some of the music. This is my idiosyncratic scoring to a twilight of the tiny god: Brother Cobweb. Alfred Eaker.
William A. Wellman’s 1931 Safe in Hell is lesser-knownfilm, and one of the best. It is viscerally directed and has a powerhouse performance from lead actress Dorothy Mackaill, who deserves to be better known on the basis of this performance alone.
Within minutes. we are in pre-code terrain with Gail (Mackaill) squeezed into a negligée and garter, smoking a fag, and receiving a call from her madame to go meet her trick, who turns out to be her sleazy ex-employer Piet (Ralf Harolde). Gail is a hooker with standards, and after she refuses to sleep with Piet, she conks him out with some prohibition gin and takes off, accidentally setting the hotel on fire.
Wanted for Piet’s murder, Gail goes on the lam. Her sailor boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook) smuggles her onto a ship and drops her off on a Caribbean island with no extradition laws.
Before Carl takes off on his maritime tour, he marries Gail and promises to send her monthly expenses, but mean island executioner Bruno (Morgan Wallace) intercepts the letter and takes the money.
Having faked his death, Piet shows up at the island and tries to rape Gail, who shoots him dead. Bruno offers to defend her in exchange for some nookie, but she’ll hang before breaking her wedding vows.
OK, it’s a tad melodramatic in the scripting and in some of the performances, but Mackaill’s feistiness and Wellman’s brisk direction override the films flaws, delivering a superior pre-code effort. Although it’s typical of early 1930s output in having little music and static vignettes, it moves quickly and preposterously, akin to late. Mackaill bounces off the walls and often gets physical, not hesitating to give one brute after another a slap to the face. Safe in Hellplays fast and furious with the Curse of Eve mindset. Gail refuses to be a receptacle for thugs; she’s the most ethical person in the film, and takes a hooker martyr’s sweaty halo. Lurid and emotionally charged, it’s not only pre-code, but ahead of its time and still relevant.
At the opposite end of the timeline—one of Hollywood’s last full-throttle orgies before the Production Code began rigorously enforcing moral censorship— Mitchell Liesen’s 1934 Murder at the Vanitieshas something for everyone. There’s Duke Ellington (who belongs on jazz’s Mount Rushmore) and his big band playing “Sweet Marijuana,” (so sweet, it almost inspired me to light up, and I hate pot); a nymph dick (private eye, that is); and interracial can-can dancing with scantily clad gamins and-like choreography. It’s a celebration of the end of prohibition, along with the eroticism of (unpunished) murder, with winks and fast-talking, wisecracking semi-pornographic dialogue.
It’s not as plot-oriented as Safe in Hell, and hell, I’m not even sure the plot is relevant whatsoever. It’s more of a musical comedy than a whodunit: you’ll guess whodunit within seconds, but you won’t give a hoot. It’s all about the wackiness of a lost time period. If you’re attached to anything approaching “realism” or “believability,” stay the hell away. It’s my personal favorite pre-code film, although it’s by no means the best, one that I’ve revisited countless times. It makes me warm all over.
Among the most influential and potent of all director/actor collaborations is that of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. They made seven films together, beginning with 1930’s infamous The Blue Angel. (For this film, each scene was shot twice, once with the actors speaking in German, then in English. If you haven’t seen it, go for the German version. It’s grimier.)
Blonde Venus (1932) is the least discussed and revisited of their work together. Apart from an embarrassing, but expressionistic, musical number, it’s something of a train wreck. Von Sternberg can’t be blamed. Paramount forced the dreadful script on him, and the director rightfully disowned it. There’s little originality in the story, and what enthusiasm von Sternberg finds is, predictably, in the lensing.
Of course, he gives considerable attention to his discovery (and off-screen mistress) Dietrich. She’s a German cabaret singer here (imagine that), and Venus is occasionally a fatigued rehash of elements from Blue Angel. Its worst error is in in deviating from Dietrich’s femme fatale persona, miscasting her here in an empathetic role as a sacrificial wife/mother who becomes a cabaret singer and beds a New York club owner (Cary Grant) to finance treatment for her ill husband (Herbert Marshall). Hubby finds out. Hubby blows his top. She runs. He chases. She falls into ruin, literally becomes a prostitute, and gives up custody of their child. It limps along melodramatically, with the fallen penitential woman reaping what she has sown. Dietrich is better suited to getting away with her sins.
Frank about sexual mores (there’s also a brief skinny-dipping scene) it’s definitely pre-code, but that can’t save this from static dullness. Dietrich is statuesque and has a picture-perfect son in Dickie Moore (he was briefly one of the Little Rascals). Dietrich was a limited actress, but one who shrewdly utilized her limitations (and smokey voice) to perfection. However, cast as a pre-June Cleaver housewife, she is out of her range and falls flat. She’s best when she is exotic. Among the musical numbers, she steals everything but the camera in “Hot Voodoo.” In spite of the blatant racism (black-faced chorus girls), which which will have contemporary viewers squinting, it’s a startling sequence, with Dietrich glamming it up in a gorilla suit and blonde afro wig (hence the title Blonde Venus). There’s also the hackneyed Freudian symbology of the duality in the Venus figure (sinner/saint, mother/whore). As with all of von Sternberg, it’s worth watching for his blatant photographic obsession with Dietrich, and for what he can milk out of the sin/virtue script.
Despite its flaws, Blonde Venus was a box office hit that paved the way for their penultimate collaboration, The Scarlet Empress (1934), which proved to be both their masterpiece, and an epic box office flop. Yes, 1934 American audiences reacted to something original and unexpected the same way audiences do today: they stayed the hell away, unaccustomed to any spice in their diet.
To say that Josef von Sternberg was one of the great visionaries of 1930s cinemas should be blatantly obvious to first year film school students everywhere. With the poor box office of Scarlet Empress and the final collaboration with Dietrich, The Devil Is a Woman (1935), von Sternberg’s independence and his reign as a director to contend with were history. He did go on to make Crime and Punishment (1935 ; one of the few films that knew how to use Peter Lorre) and Shanghi Gesture (1941) but the failure of unfinished projects like I, Claudius (1937) and Jet Pilot (1957) overshadowed his post-Dietrich oeuvre. For an artist with such an ego—he never gave an inch of credit to anyone other than himself, and arrived on set as extravagantly costumed as the actors—such a fall from grace was inevitable.
Allegedly based (loosely) on the diaries of Catherine the Great, The Scarlet Empress is one of the most bizarre big budget studio productions of early cinema. By the director’s own assessment, it was a “relentless excursion into style.” Dietrich is more of a decorative nymph than a human being; but in that, von Sternberg was true to the spirit of the gossip about Catherine’s sexual appetites (legend has it that she died while engaging with a stallion. Actually, she died of a stroke in bed, but why bother with history when myth has so much more color?) How von Sternberg got all this past the Breen office (the recently-enacted production code was already accelerating) may be one of life’s eternal mysteries.
The Scarlet Empress is off and running into its own decadence when young Catherine, then known as Frederica (played by Dietrich’s daughter Maria Seber) is put to bed by Edward van Sloan (!) with heterodox bedtime stories to lull her to comfy sleep that—naturally, this being von Sternberg—are presented in a montage of naked nymphs being tortured.
That’s a segue into a film characterized entirely by exaggeration. The art direction includes doors so massive that it takes a small crowd to open them. Wooden sculptures of saints populate the court, but they’re made and photographed to look like gargoyle pedophiles in the guise of holy men, peering ominously around every corner (cue closeups of gnarled, wooden hands, twisted mouths, and hollow eyes leading to blackened souls). The set design is weirdly cluttered with expressionistic decor: thrones of mammoth birds of prey, chairs in the form of threatening demons, an army of candle-holding gargoyles ascending a staircase, icons galore, a grotesque dinner table that any sane person would run from, crucifixes, and homoerotic martyred saints (impaled, of course).
As the adult Catherine, Dietrich is filmed through veils, adorned in sparkly jewels, rendered as a gossamer orgasm. When she inspects her troops, the Empress assesses them based solely on the size of their packages; even by contemporary standards, it’s outlandishly blatant. Everything revolves around Dietrich (she’s frequently filmed alone, and the rest of the cast are clearly there just to serve her). It’s doubtful that any other actress ever had an entire production— down to every minute detail, set design, camera angle, and lighting—created solely to support and revere her. It’s an exercise in obsession; so apparent that one can see why the inevitable breakup sent von Sternberg spiraling into a form of madness..
One can empathize with that poor dumb stud John Lodge, delivering his lines through clenched teeth from under a mountain of fur. Even Dietrich seems in awe of the all-consuming outlandishness, which includes my candidate for weirdest cinematic wedding, to Sam Jaffe, looking a bit like ène. You won’t mind that it’s dramatically thin—which is not to say it’s lacking in either entertainment, or in peppery commentary that is certainly unfavorable to Russian history.with his frozen smile, wearing a Harpo Marx-like wig. (My only childhood memory of Scarlet Empress on TV was the wedding, which sacred the hell out of me). It’s an entire film of mise-en-sc
Occasionally, it delves into slapstick humor (e.g. what Catherine does to a straw), which makes it even weirder. Among all the court intrigue, the Empress finds power in amorous escapades (she even gets in drag and gives new meaning to roll in the hay). One of the climaxes has her knocked up by a palace guard (we think—he’s one of countless candidates) which, by gosh, by golly, regardless of the baby daddy, produces a potential heir to the throne. Of course, who are we kidding? In an ambiguously happy (?) ending, Dietrich sums it up in a smoky exhale: “There is no Emperor. There’s only an Empress.”
Scarlett Empress is a fantastically poetic pre-code for the books.
A tribute I paid to Sen. John McCain about a year ago, casting him as the Centurion in “the Gospel of Christ, Our Mother “ ( a series which cast Christ in the symbol of Julian of Norwich’s Christ, Our Mother ) although I didn’t always agree with him politically, McCain was the last of the Rockefeller Republicans – a moderate- who believed in reaching out and working with those of different ideologies and who refused to mantle a fundamentalist attitude of towing the party dogmatic line.
In the narrative, a Roman centurion goes to Christ and asks Christ to heal an ill servant. Christ agrees and gets up to leave. The centurion stops Christ and says, “ No, you do not have to leave. Just say the word and my servant will be healed.” Christ marvels at this and says, “ I have never seen this kind of faith in all of Israel. Your servant is healed.” And he was. This is the moment the centurion thanks Christ. Christ as mother is a metaphor, which comes from the 14th century mystic , Julian of Norwich who essentially said Christ was as maternal in his empathy and love as he was paternal . So, in this contemporary setting , I cast Christ as mother, McCain as the centurion. It’s kind of a reflection of McCain’s bipartisanship, sticking to his guns of being a maverick, and his faith in country.2017 Alfred Eaker
Fantômas (1913) is‘s first crime serial, and probably the best (a fourth serial, 1918’s Tin Minh, has survived and is purportedly on par with the three better known series, but has oddly never been restored or released on home video).
Based on the novels of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, Fantômas, which was released as five separate films (Shadow of the Guillotine, Juve vs. Fantômas, The Murderous Corpse, Fantômas vs. Fantômas, and The False Magistrate), sets the pattern for the Feuillade serials that followed. Despite its age (105 years old!) it is insanely entertaining and the most surreal of the director’s massive body of work. It was among the first films to utilize a sustained narrative plot, to be shot in actual locations (as opposed to being studios), and was one of the first mystery films. As played by Rene Navarre, Fantômas himself was arguably cinema’s first completely unsympathetic, purely evil protagonist with no redeeming qualities. It would take a strong lead to inspire us to root for such a character; with his menacing charisma, Navarre pulls it off in spades. He is probably the best of Feuillade’s genre leads, and collaborates superbly with the director; together they stylishly craft a milieu of intrigue and heightened suspense that revels in amorality. Fantômas was an epic influence on‘s Dr. Mabuse (whose films we should cover someday). As this Houdini of thieves and assassins goes through his considerable resume of opponents and victims, plotting grand conspiracies, he does so with such suave aplomb that we find ourselves unapologetically rooting for the “Emperor of Crime.” Although marginally science fiction, Fantômas ventures into fantastic surrealism, presenting the arch-villain as a shape-shifting master of disguises (he has a secret identity too, making him a proto-super villain) who will present his victims with a blank card, only to have their name “appear” when…
Naturally, with a do-gooder on his trail—inspector Juve (Edmund Bréon)—we are guaranteed a cataclysmic battle of wits. We are not disappointed. Fantômas plots grand conspiracies, absurdly fantastic escapes, elaborate train robberies, jewel heists, grave robbing, wanton violence, indiscriminate murders (from one-time accomplices to a judge of the high courts, gruesomely dispatched), disappearances and reappearances (largely unexplained), and a bizarre, utterly weird “switcheroo” with a fellow villain who takes his place at the guillotine. Fantômas vs. Fantômas, the aptly titled fourth film, is set in a grand masked ball with no less than three versions of Fantômas —which means triple the mayhem—made all the more kinetically surreal through its outlandishly stylized tableaux. In an effort to evade an assassin of the night, Juve even gets a queer scene like a 1913 version of Rambo, complete with spiked traps and poisonous snakes. None of it is “believable” for even a second, and you won’t care one damned bit. It’s easy to see why 1913 audiences made this the first genuine worldwide blockbuster smash hit.
Fantômas, always escalating his criminal oeuvre, is never given a motive. He has no Freudian backstory to explain his lack of conscience. He is simply an ambitious sociopath whose life’s goal is to taunt, seduce, craft chaos, sow discord, betrayal, maim, and murder, leaving a trial of broken victims and corpses.
Despite its innovations, being the first of his serials, it is indeed the most aesthetically archaic (the editing is extremely choppy). Yet it’s also strangely contemporary. All of this adds to its otherworldliness. If you must limit yourself to a single Feuillade serial (although I don’t know why anyone would wish to), make it Fantomas.
It goes without saying that Kino outdid itself in this essential release that includes a documentary on Feuillade and two shorts: one with a disappointingly traditional religious theme, and the other venturing into mildterritory (before Browning).
*originally published at 366 Weird Movies