1977 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART TWO: RABID

If anyone from the future opens a 1977 time capsule stuffed with DVDs, the first impression they may reap is that everyone was having lotza sex this year. Sylvia Kristal (the most famous actress to essay the role) opens the year with Emmanuel 3. Laura Gemser (our Black Emanuel from ’75) takes over with Emanuel in America. Apparently native boys can’t get it up enough for her, so Laura branches out in Emanuel Around the World. She then plies her trade in the nunspolitation genre in Sister Emanuel, and finally takes on the cannibal movement with Emanuel and the Last Cannibals.  After that, Laura gets some much needed R &R, and won’t return until 1980’s Emanuel: Queen Bitch.The 70s were definitely not political correct, as Chai Lee proves with Yellow Emanuel. It’s more of the same with a different skin hue. Lee shrugs off the racist title and slut shaming, declaring that her vagina is merely a muscle that needs exercising. Actually, it’s a tame affair.

Joey Heatherton took over the role of Xaviera Hollander for The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington. She’s a bitter fit than Lynn Redgrave was in 1975’s The Happy Hooker, and director William  A. Levey was more at home with the trashy tales of the madame’s purportedly true exploits than Nicholas Sgarro had been two years earlier. Still, it’s dated soft-core titillation.

Adult film star Uschi Digard shows up for the “Catholic High School Girls in Trouble” sexploitation segment of John Landis’ anthology,  Kentucky Fried Movie. Despite his one time commercial standing and the cults around a few of his films (1978’s Animal House, 1980’s The Blues Brothers, 1981’s An American Werewolf In London), Landis never made a good film and proved what a lousy filmmaker he was going to be in this, his second film. At the very least, we have to give the hack his due because he got through this without crippling or killing anyone.

Tan, buxom blonde Cheri Caffaro was a minor 70s exploitation sex symbol. She began her path to “fame” after winning a Brigitte Bardot lookalike contest and is best known for her Ginger McAllister trilogy: Ginger, The Abductors, and Girls Are For Loving, made between 1971 and 1973 and written and directed by her then husband Don Schain. Ginger was a softcore female James Bond for the drive-in circuit.  All of these were trashy and fun (we hope to cover the entire trilogy at a later date). Caffaro had branched out(sort of) playing different characters in Schain’s A Place Called Today (social commentary exploitation, AKA dull sleaze) and Savage Sisters (1974, directed by Eddie Romero), which is a somewhat tame but fun women-in-prison exploitation. Caffaro’s last film role (before divorcing Schain and becoming a beekeeper!) is Too Hot to Handle, which reunited her with husband/Ginger director. Her character name has changed here to Samantha Fox, but it’s essentially a darker variation of Ginger McAllister with a bit of Ilsa thrown in. Caffaro has fun playing a lethal lady, and it’s contagious. It’s kinky and inventive, but hampered by trying to do more than the budget allowed.

Death Game (directed by Peter Traynor) is purportedly based on a true story and opens like an old dark house thriller with two women (Sondra Locke—best known as Clint Eastwood’s ex, and Coleen Camp—best known for her 70s cleavage) seeking refuge from the rain. Unfortunately, Seymour Cassel lets them in, and before you can say menage-a-trois, he discovers himself tormented by lesbian psychos from the pit.  Despite all the destruction and mayhem, Seymour doesn’t solicit our sympathies. Low budget, rude, crude, and with some of the most amateurish editing ever committed to celluloid, this was almost universally panned at the time, but it is exploitation at its deranged purest, with waaaaaaay over-the-top performances. Overdosing on ham, you’ll think its a holiday of sorts.

Fight for Your Life (the only film directed by Robert Endelson) is ultra-violent blaxploitation, and one of the best in that sub-genre. With all the racial slurs being bandied about, this Straw Weisman script would be an almost impossible to produce today. It’s a variation of Last House on the Left and, to a lesser degree, 1955’s The Desperate Hours, with a gang of thugs breaking into the house of black minister and his family. A lot of torment follows, until the tables are turned. It’s been described as vile and repulsive and that’s absolutely spot on.  It’s actually superior to Wes Craven’s  groundbreaking film, but inexplicably less well known. If you prefer white racism swept under the rug, avoid this like the plague.

We come down several notches for The Uncanny (directed by Denis Héroux). Produced by Amicus veteran Milton Subotsky, it’s another stab at the anthology genre, and a tepid one at that. Peter Cushing is the author/host who tries to convince his skeptical publisher (Ray Milland) that cats are evil spirits intent on taking over the world, which segues into a trio of tales. The first (and-sort-of- best) vignette stars Joan Greenwood as a wealthy socialite who has revised her will, leaving everything to her cats. The maid (Susan Penhaligon) tries to steal the will and the felines get pissed, making for a gory comeuppance. The two remaining tales are forgettable, with Donald Pleasance giving one of his worst performances as faded actor Valentine Death, whom everyone calls V.D. Get it? Fortunately, the cat literally gets his tongue. Cushing and Milland are quite good and the direction is competent, but its failure is in the scripting by Michel Parry.

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THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB (at The House Of Shadows, Gresham Oregon)

“Brother Cobweb: A White Trash Opera,” 8 ft x 4ft house paint on wood panel ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB  (house paint on 8 ft x 4 ft wood panel) “Jonestown Massacre” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

Rehearsing Brother Cobweb with Rev. Harry (Garman Gibson)

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB  (house paint on 8 ft x 4 ft wood panel) “Gotterdammerung (detail)” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB  (house paint on 8 ft x 4 ft wood panel) “Gotterdammerung” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker as Brother Cobweb in the “The Church Of Brother Cobweb” @ the House of Shadows©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB “Brother Cobweb’s Communion” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB “Brother Cobweb’s Communion” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB The Whore Of Babylon (Holly Day) ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB “Brother Cobweb’s Communion detail” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB (house paint on 8 ft x 16 ft wood panel) “Brother Cobweb’s Last Supper” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB “Brother Cobweb : Get Behind Me, Satan!” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB “Brother Cobweb preparing the sacrifice.” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB “Brother Cobweb & Rev. Harry preparing the sacrifice” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB Brother Cobweb’s A GOOD FIGHT ©2017 Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker as Brother Cobweb in the “TheChurch Of Brother Cobweb” @ the House of Shadows©2017 Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker as Brother Cobweb in the “The Church Of Brother Cobweb” @ the House of Shadows©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB . Old Nick (Kevin Klansnic). ©2017 Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker as Brother Cobweb in the “The Church Of Brother Cobweb” @ the House of Shadows©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB Harlot for Christ ©2017 Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker as Brother Cobweb in the “The Church Of Brother Cobweb” @ the House of Shadows©2017 Alfred Eaker

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1977 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: SHOCK WAVES & SATAN’S CHEERLEADERS

Star Wars, Annie Halland Elvis becoming a corpse were the entertainment events of 1977; but exploitation/horror cinema hardly noticed, driving ahead full-throttle with Third Reich obsessions in this banner year for Nazisploitation. Naturally, queen Dyanne Thorne was still cracking the whip. Unfortunately, Ilsa the Wicked Warden was directed by Jess Franco, and he is no Don Edmonds. Franco’s direction is, as usual, languid. Still, Thorne, now a redhead, has undeniable charisma. Originally, this was not an official Ilsa title—the wicked warden was originally Wanda—but was christened with her name somewhere along the way.

Thorne was extraordinarily promiscuous in 1977, appearing in a second Ilsa: Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia (directed by Jean Lafleur). More flesh and blood along with multifarious locales makes this a far better entry than Franco’s effort, while still not at the level of Edmonds’. This was the last of the Ilsa films, which undeniably make up the most notorious of exploitation franchises.

Blatant Ilsa ripoff Elsa: Frauline Devil (directed by Patrice Rhomm) features German hookers being sent to the camps to service the poor overworked Nazis. It has a lot of wretched accents and amateur costume design, with Nazi uniforms looking like they just came off the racks. Worst of all, though, it’s a big tease in both the sex and whip-cracking departments. Needless to say, Thorne does it better.

The same can’t be said for Last Orgy of the Third Reich (directed by Cesare Canevari), which features cannibalism and death by German Shepherds and rats, but this one’s different. It has a brunette warden (Maristella Greco).

A pubic-hair eating rapist dwarf actually outdoes the lesbian concentration camp warden in SS Hell Camp (AKA The Beast in Heat, directed by Luigi Batzella). Macha Magali is the Aryan camp dominatrix filling in for Dyane Thorne. It tries to outdo the competition, and succeeds (with multiple brutal rapes, pulling out fingernails, castrations, rats, etc), but even with all that going on, it still manages to be a dull affair. It’s still banned in the U.K.

Italy continued its love affair with Nazis (at least on screen). Nazi Love Camp 27 (directed by Mario Caiano) has a decent budget, wretched dubbing, notorious hardcore sex, and a good, central performance by the tragically short-lived Sirpa Lane (from The Beast) as a Jewess out for revenge.

The Red Nights of the Gestapo is another Italian entry in the genre. Directed by Fabio De Agostini, it is clearly influenced by Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty (1976) and features a Third Reich orgy and farting torture. Brass was more adept at this kind of thing, for what that’s worth.

SS Girls (directed by Bruno Mattei) also influenced by Brass’ Nazi opus, has its tongue firmly-in-cheek and feels like its been lifted out of the pages of a comic book. As strange as it may sound, it’s one of the most entertaining Nazisploitation films of the decade. It’s chock-full of Mattei’s trademark montages, close ups, stock footage, and a jazzy score. It also has bestiality, orgies, and endless parades of flesh.

Mattei’s second Nazisploitation feature (of the year) is Women’s Camp 119, which is more of the same, with the additional bonus of poisoned bullets for nude prisoners. The result is two hours of writhing in pain and bleeding out of every orifice. This one is also like a comic book, but more of a Chick tract. It makes you feel dirty for having seen it. It even has a lot of Chick targets, like a Catholic priest who gets popsiclized and a two-for-one with gay Jews. Of course, the Nazis-for-Christ attempt to cure the gays in this tailor-made-for-Mike-Pence flick.

Shock Waves (directed by Ken Wiederhorn) takes a different route with Nazi zombies, literally bred to survive underwater. Brooke Adams is among a small group of passengers taking a tour on a cruiser with cantankerous captain John Carradine. It’s a watery variation on Old Dark House thrillers, with the group crashing into a wrecked ghost vessel. The captain is killed and the survivors are forced to take refuge on an island (filling in for the Old Dark House) where they discover what they believe to be an abandoned hotel. Its sole occupant is former Nazi commandant  Peter Cushing (with a convincing accent). Unknowingly, the group has awakened the commandant’s genetically altered “Toten Korps”—AKA death corps—AKA Nazi zombies. They’re a creepy, disease-ridden albino lot, adorned in aviator goggles and SS uniforms, emerging from the water in slow-mo to kill anyone within their path. Since this was marketed as exploitation, Adams is required to strip down to a yellow bikini and take a swim—until she bumps into something dead.

Cushing’s role is a relatively small one, which leaves the acting to Adams. She’s up to it, but unfortunately, she’s the only one, with her fellow passengers clearly being amateurs. Apart from awakening Third Reich undead and fleeing them, there’s really not much of a plot. The violence is subdued and it’s definitely not paced for the post- Romero zombie audience. Despite its flaws, this is an impressive meager budgeted indie with good acting from Cushing, Carradine, and Adams, along with effective underwater photography (by Reuben Trane) as the death corps wait on the ocean floor to entrap unsuspecting victims. The zombie makeup is equally compelling, and Wiederhorn (who also scripted) adroitly mounts tension. None of his fellow-up films have matched this. It’s easily the best movie ever made about Nazi zombies.

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DARK SHADOWS (2012)

Tim Burton will go down as an artist who peaked early. Dark Shadows (2012) continued the autopilot fatigue that has plagued this director for the past twenty years. Burton’s quasi-religious fan base has a tendency to erroneously dress him up as a “dark” auteur. Rather, his has muted into a one-note style with increasingly few exceptions. The bulk of his post Ed Wood (1994) films are “Disneyfied” and actually jettison the darker, complex nuances in favor of what he imagines to be audience accessibility. Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) are lucid examples of this syndrome. Gene Wilder’s Wonka projected far more interior disturbance than Johnny Depp’s silicone interpretation. In Burton’s Alice Lewis Carroll’s twitchy surrealism gave way to a Disney-paced narrative with yet another cartoon pseudo performance by Depp at its center.

Many critics harp on Burton’s narrative shortcomings. Like Mario Bava (an epic Burton influence), Burton has admitted he wouldn’t know a good script if it bit him. However, Bava, never quite making it to the level of  an in-demand filmmaker, retained enough independence to keep his oeuvre fresh. Burton’s aesthetic decline is a sharply dramatic one and the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in scripting. The films of Luis Bunuel refute the lie that three-dimensional characterizations are absolutely wedded to orthodox narratives. Burton’s early films evoked a strikingly fresh milieu with characters who, on the surface, seemed to be flying the freak flag high. Yet, Burton’s initial cannon of freaks really weren’t so different than the rest of us. If Pee Wee Herman, Adam, Barbara, Lydia and Beetlejuice, Bruce Wayne & Selina Kyle, Edward Scissorhands, Kim, and Peg, along with Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi were, perhaps, not immediate family, then they were most certainly extended family or close friends with whom we felt affinity, kinship, and admiration.

Then, something happened. Shortly after the backlash of Batman Returns (1992), Burton lost his mojo, and Depp followed suit in an even more pronounced obvious way. At one point, Depp promised to be the new Brando, offering a fresh alternative to the plasticity of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. Whoever would have guessed that Cruise would eventually prove to be a smarter, riskier, more clever actor? Nothing in Depp’s later career has the nuanced depth of Brando’s Don, Paul, or Jack Mickler. Cruise’s Bill Harford, Frank Mackey, John Anderton, and Colonel Claus resonate far more intelligence and commitment to craft than anything Depp has committed to celluloid in the last decade. Instead, in his non-Burton films, Johnny Depp has become a parody of Errol Flynn’s late career parody. Doused in increasingly thick make-up and mascara, Depp’s offerings have amounted to flaccid drag (perhaps Ed Wood’s hooks dug too deeply into Depp). If Depp’s lethargic, dumbed-down Flynn-esque caricaturization increasingly amount to a dull train wreck then, in Dark Shadows, we witness the actor’s de-evolving slide into Bela Lugosi drag, which sounds more interesting than it actually is.

Depp’s phlegmatic Barnabas Collins all but evaporates inside a movie that sees Burton imitating Burton, disguised as a Gothic soaper that only worked as a product of its time and place. It would seem obvious, to anyone with an iota of artistic or pop culture instinct, or even to anyone who remembers the original “Dark Shadows,” that the series simply cannot not be duplicated. The short-lived, early 90s remake only served to reiterate how delightfully dated the original series had become.

Burton’s big screen treatment, some fifty years after the fact, is even further removed. Burton attempts to stylize Dark Shadows with his sophisticated, big budget stamp, never once realizing that the rudimentary quality of the original is its sole staying power. But even in his lampoon take, Burton plays it safe, and the film never rises above a ho-hum investment.

A vapid lead character, made strictly of cardboard with a cut-and-paste performance, is the sleepwalking ringmaster in a cookie-cutter ensemble. Even Eva Green, who proved herself a remarkably complex actress in Casino Royale (2006), fails to register. She is given no direction in a flatly written character. Chloe Grace Moretz, another promising talent (who did very good work in last year’s Hugo), is simply placed in front of a lens and told to snarl. Helena Bonham Carter screeches as Dr. Julia Hoffman; she seems like a character lifted out of a second-tier Hanna-Barbara cartoon. Only Michelle Pfeiffer, who can be a stoic actress, briefly manages to generate any living flesh from the printed script.

On the surface, Burton and Depp should have been as interesting a collaboration as Tod Browning and Lon Chaney, but the former team was composed of genuine malcontents coming from an actual freak circuit. Burton and Depp were birthed by Disney and “21 Jump Street.” It shows. Dark Shadows is yet another failure in the Burton/Depp cannon. Burton and Depp’s Dark Shadows comes across like a lecture from two stuffy, aging academics, who might have been genuinely weird at one time, failing to convince us how hilarious the original series now seems. In the last 20 years, the most interesting film Burton has himself directed was 2005’s The Corpse Bride and it would be difficult indeed to convince a millennial that, at one time, both Burton and Depp generated authentic excitement among alternative film lovers.

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1976 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART TWO: THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA

The beauty of the 1970s is its obsession with multifarious genres and trends, but the hardly means all the movies are good. A case in point is Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive, which jumps on the killer animal bandwagon started by Bruce the shark, who shows up here as a laughably fake big green scaly lizard. Naturally, Hooper taps into his own hayseed folk focus, which include Texas Chainsaw‘s tied-up Marilyn Burns, a very creepy Neville Brand, an almost unrecognizably made up Carolyn Jones, and a very kinky fellar named Buck, played by Robert Englund. Another 70s tendency, which would be unthinkable in the next decade, is the terrorization of tykes. Here, a poor little crippled girl gets to witness her doggy become gator bait. She’s further terrorized by dysfunctional parents, including a pappy lookin’ for a nonexistent eyeball (!)  It’s a weird indie (but, by no means not List-worthy). Hooper is still in full exploitation mode before Spielberg ruined him with a professional filmmaking lesson for Poltergeist (1982)—not a bad movie per se, but with a few exceptions, it threw Hooper permanently off course.

No award will given for guessing what film Mako: The Jaws of Death (directed by William Grefe) is shamelessly ripping off. It stars Richard Jaeckel using sharks to exact revenge. Better is William Girdler’s Jaws-with-claws, Grizzly, which stars Christopher George and the busy Jaeckel (again). It’s an unadulterated rip-off, made all the better for its trashiness.

Jeff Liberman’s Squirm is a hoot. Think Jaws as a buncha earth worms. It’s roguish humor is winning. It was a video store favorite for years, usually found next to the sticky floor section.

Surprisingly Rattlers (directed by John McCauley) are a duller, less threatening lot than fish bait.

Frustratingly, The Rat Savior (directed by Krsto Panic) remains an elusive gem. It won several awards at genre festivals, was available briefly on beta-max, was shown rarely on television and in arthouse cinemas (where I caught it a quarter of a century ago), and is only available on YouTube, devoid of subtitles or dubbing. It has recently been released on a PAL DVD in its original Yugoslavian language, which will hopefully pave the path for an accessible statewide release. Based on the novel by Alexander Greene, it’s a rodent-infested variation on body snatchers crossed with John Campbell’s shape-shifting “Thing.” The nasty cheese-eaters kill and impersonate human victims. The resident scientist (Ivica Vidovic) develops his own pesticide. However, once the rats impersonate a human, there’s no way to differentiate them, and mistakes are bound to happen. The Rat Savior is allegorical, political paranoia; a one-of-a-kind film, awaiting rescue from obscurity.

The House With Laughing Windows (directed by Pupi Avati) is a rare giallo that’s more unsettling than stylish. Already covered at 366 movies (as a capsule), it’s a bizarre mystery centering around an enigmatic fresco of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian and warrants exploration for fans of the genre seeking something off-kilter.

How can an exploitation film starring Klaus Kinski and Josephine Chaplin, revolving around history’s most famous serial killer, go wrong? Simple: Jack the Ripper is directed by Jess Franco, who lazily adds gore to mask the lack of atmosphere, style, and enthusiasm. The performances can’t rescue it from Franco’s drab hands.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown is Charles B. Pierce’s obvious jump on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre bandwagon. Fortunately, it has its own attributes. Pierce, having previously done the pseudo-documentary horror The Legend of Boggy Creek (1973) (about the mythical Bigfoot) has a feel for the material, and injects a sense of hayseed humor in this tale purportedly about a real life, never caught Phantom Killer from 1946.

Snuff (directed—sort-of—by Michael Findlay) is really a hodgepodge that combines footage from a previous Argentine film, Slaughter(1970) together with a What’s Up Tiger Lilly spirit (but without Woody Allen’s wit). Of course, it’s not a snuff film at all, but it is beautifully idiotic—enough to be distributed on DVD by Blue Underground.

Now we come to the post- Ilsa(AKA Naziploitationportion of our show with SS Experiment Camp (directed by Italian exploitation guru Sergio Garrone). It has everything you would expect: lesbian Nazis in lab coats, horny storm troopers, electrocutions, golden showers, and frozen camp prisoners.

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DAMON ZEX’S CHECKMATE

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/.

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BUNUEL’S “UN CHIEN ANDALOU” (1929)

“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.”–Luis Bunuel

Although Un Chien Andalou (1929) is believed to be one of the first intentionally Surrealist films, its iconoclastic milieu is predominantly subservient to the sovereign elements of systematic realism.

 

True to surrealist tenets, the film’s naturalistic texture is the quintessential ingredient in its theatrical absurdity. In this sense, Surrealist film is antithetical to Expressionist film. For instance, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) utilized distorted set designs to convey dream worlds. In direct contrast, Luis Bunuel conveys the phantasmagoric reveries here through expressive, primarily organic compositions.

In “Sculpting in Time,” Andrei Tarkovsky  locates the pulse of Buñuel’s texture:

The driving force of his films is always anti-conformism. His protest—furious, uncompromising and harsh—is expressed above all in the sensuous texture of the film, and is emotionally infectious. The protest is not calculated. Bunuel’s work is deeply rooted in the classical culture of Spain, born on one hand of a deep love for country, and on the other of his seething hatred for lifeless structures, for the brutal, milking dry of brains. The field of vision, narrowed by hatred and disdain, takes in only that which is alive with human sympathy, the divine spark, ordinary human suffering, which has steeped into the hot, stony Spanish earth.

Andalou‘s cinematography is classic, elegant and traditional. Again, Buñuel utilizes minimalistic compositions (i.e. point of view) to frame complex psychological acts of voyeurism. Buñuel often stated that he was completely uninterested in the aesthetics of filmmaking. While that flamboyant claim might be suspect, this deliberate choice astutely serves his Surrealist agenda.


Extreme close-ups (like the still shocking opening sequence) are utilized only when absolutely necessary. Much of the camerawork is rudimentary and unobtrusive. This allows the viewer to engage with the dialectic thrust between the film’s protagonists and its symbology.

The editing further validates Buñuel’s claim of disinterest in aesthetics. Freudian affiliations, naturally, abound. Dissolves are employed merely to inspire emotional tension. The ants in the stigmatic palm are weaved into a woman’s armpit, followed by the image of a sea urchin. The result is shrewdly discomforting and challenging film poetry. Through editing, Buñuel propels the viewer into an idiosyncratic subconscious mirage.

As a silent film, Un Chien Andalou thinks differently than sound film. ( Charlie Chaplin, when asked near the end of his life, why he felt he was one of the extreme few silent filmmakers who survived the transition to sound, answered: “I suppose because I realized silent film was a different art form.”) This is clear in the use of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” as a soundtrack and a subtext (the music was conceptually there from the beginning, although the sound was only added later). Shot in two weeks on a meager budget financed by his mother, Buñuel could hardly afford a score. However, his choice of music and its context in relation to the film was influential in the “non-writing” of the piece.

Buñuel was an erudite cultural omnivore who raided different art forms to enhance his own art. He was well aware of “Tristan”’s impact and influence. “Tristan und Isolde” boldly introduced dissonance to opera, and the world reacted. Isolde’s “Liebestod,” taking place after the death of Tristan, synthesizes the preceding dissonance through her own transcendental, sensual death.

Buñuel filters this potentially incandescent vignette through a natural, highly lit filter. This serves as a compelling visual counterpart to the narrative context supplied by the usage of Wagner.

Buñuel’s aural editing, again, reveals a psychological rather than an aesthetic choice. Isolde’s immolation gives way to bawdy brothel music. Bunuel’s editing style parallels the traditional rhythmic continuity editing prevalent in the period. Low angles, overhead shots, et. al., employed conservatively, symbolize the relationship between the highly stylized performances and the participatory camera work. Melot’s murder of his friend Tristan is also mirrored by the shooting of Andalou‘s protagonist, rendering Buñuels claim the film was merely a catalog of random absurdities as highly suspect.

Buñuel’s predilection for not so subtle swipes at clerical hypocrisy is already present in this, his first film. He would continue taking such shots throughout his body of work, of course. Some have confused this with anti-religiosity. With a Jesuit education, Buñuel was well-equipped to shock and delighted in doing so, as did Alfred Hitchcock in a slightly more conventional way. (Hitchcock also received a Jesuit education).

Buñuel’s shocking religious imagery here involves a dead jackass and two priests. With dangling cigarette, Buñuel sharpens his razor for the bourgeoisie. Sergei Eisentstein saw Un Chien Andalou as the disintegration of bourgeois consciousness, and Buñuel hoped bourgeois audiences would prove that point by rioting in reaction to the film. They didn’t riot, and naturally, this inspired Buñuel to surpass this clerical mockery in L’ Age d’Or (1930). The government of Spain reacted with banishment.

Salvador Dali, the co-writer who was in some quarters credited as co-director, claimed, after the fact, to have been a more prominent force in the production. While Dali did repeat the infamous eye slicing in the dream sequence he composed for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), Un Chien Andalou is more characteristic of Buñuel’s oeuvre.

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1976 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE OMEN & CARRIE

1976 is such an astoundingly productive year in exploitation and horror that we’re forced to divide it into two parts. Religious-themed horror takes front and center in this first part, beginning with Alfred Sole’s Communion [better known today as Alice Sweet Alice], one of the most substantial cult films ever produced. Beginning with a young Brooke Shields torched in a pew, dysfunctional Catholicism is taken to grounds previously unseen. Mantling the most pronounced trends of the 1970s, Sole plays elastic with multiple genres (slasher, psychological, religious, independent movies, horror) with such idiosyncratic force that the movie’s cult status was inevitable. It should have made Sole a genre specialist, but his career as a director never took off, and he only made a few more films. Surprisingly, critics have been slow in coming around to Communion. It’s essential viewing and we hope to cover it in greater detail here at a later date.

Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To remains one of the most relentlessly original films of the 70s, already covered at 366 Weird Movies and a solid List contender.

Richard Donner made a bona fide pop star out of a pre-pubescent antichrist with The Omen. It was a marketing bonanza, spawning endless sequels and a pointless 2006 remake. Sensationalistic, red-blooded, and commercially slick, in a National Enquirer kind of way, it’s predictably most successful in coming up with ways to slaughter characters—the most infamous of which is a decapitation by glass. In that, The Omen is a product of its time. The creativity in many of the later Hammer Dracula films was often solely reserved for ways to dispatch (and resurrect) its titular vampire. The Abominable Dr. Phibes took tongue-in-cheek delight utilizing the plagues of Egypt to annihilate everyone in sight. It was also the decade of Old Nick and deadly tykes. Throw in apocalyptic biblical paranoia, and The Omen is practically a smorgasbord of 70s trends.

The Omen is helped tremendously by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which is reminiscent of Carl Orff and still remembered (and imitated). Three character performances stand out: Billie Whitelaw, who literally lights up as a nanny from the pit, David Warner as a photographer obsessively trying to avoid his predestined end, and Patrick Troughton as a priest who “knows too much” (and gets his own Dracula-like finish). Unfortunately, the film is considerably hindered by its two leads. Gregory Peck, nice fella that he was off screen, is his usual wooden self and poorly cast as Damien’s adoptive ambassador father. The role was first offered to Charlton Heston, whose old school conservative machismo and hammy charisma would undoubtedly have been a better fit. Alas, even though he rightly predicted it would be a major success, Heston objected to a film in which evil triumphed over good, and chose instead to star in the awful Midway, which was also a box office hit that year. Almost equally uninspiring is Lee Remick as Peck’s wife. Like Peck, she’s too wishy-washy, coming to life most when she’s about to die. Together, Peck and Remick throw the film off-balance. In contrast, director Donner rightly doesn’t take this nonsense seriously. Harvey Stephens is effectively stoic as Satan Jr., which renders him even an even creepier beast, but surprisingly, his is more of a supporting character.

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DAMON ZEX: INTELLECTUAL PROVOCATEUR‏

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.”

Damon Zex’s “Asana Assassin” (discussed below)

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.

Damon Zex’s “Kundalini Killer”

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).

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LICENCE TO KILL (1989): DEBUNKING THE DALTON BOND MYTHS

James Bond aficionados all tend to have their favorite 007. While I prefer the first four films, three of which were directed with style by Terence Young, I do like most of the series. The Roger Moore Bonds get picked on a bit because of their cartoonish qualities. Moore, in realizing the silliness of the scripts, chose to play 007 at an absurd level, and that was not an unwise choice. Even an overblown dud like Moonraker (1979) has its guilty pleasure moments, although by the time of View to A Kill (1985), the franchise had clearly gone stale and desperately needed a reboot. Still, Moore’s good-hearted, light approach was so popular that it proved a hurdle to new Bond Timothy Dalton. When Dalton’s severest, most fundamentalist Bond fanboy critics take their pot shots at the actor, they normally propagate the following myths:

Dalton Myth 1: The Bond producers really wanted Pierce Brosnan, who could not get out of his Remington Steel contract; they settled on Dalton at the last moment.

Fact: The Bond Producers had long wanted Dalton, as far back as 1969. Dalton was approached for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but the actor felt he was too young for the part and turned it down. In 1984, Roger Moore considered leaving the series and Dalton was approached for a second time. However, Dalton’s schedule was full and Moore renegotiated his contract. In 1987 Moore permanently retired from the part and it was Dalton again whom the producers asked first. Dalton was committed to do Brenda Starr (1989) but expressed interest after his deal was done. The Producers then went to Brosnan, who was unable to get out of his Remington Steele contract. Luckily for the producers, Brenda Starr was then put on hold and so Dalton was asked again and finally signed, some eighteen years after producer Albert R. Broccoli first sought him as 007. Broccoli understood the box office appeal of the frothy Moore as Bond, but the producer wanted to get back to the gritty Bond of Ian Fleming and the first films. When Dalton, always a literary actor, insisted that he would play 007 like the Bond of Fleming’s novels, Broccoli believed Dalton was the man for the part.

Dalton Myth 2: The Living Daylights(1987) and License to Kill (1989) were box office failures due to Dalton.

Fact: Living Daylights did very good box office and received the best reviews for a Bond film in twenty-two years. To Broccoli, Dalton was hugely responsible for this reboot of the Bond franchise. When Licence to Kill was released two years later, it was released the same summer as Batman (1989) and did poorly at the American box office. However, the film did quite well in Europe and received good reviews. Broccoli knew that American audiences would be slow in adjusting to a rougher Bond after becoming accustomed to Moore’s superficial secret agent, but he knew the franchise’s long term life was dependent on returning to Fleming’s basics. After a period of years, License developed a cult following among American fans.

Dalton Myth 3: Dalton was fired after Licence proved a disaster. Dalton so damaged the Bond franchise that six years passed before another Bond film would be produced.

Fact: This is the most grossly uninformed myth. Broccoli and Twentieth Century Fox became entangled in legal rights regarding the Bond films shortly after the release of Licence to Kill. Dalton’s contract was for three films, and GoldenEye(1995) was originally written for Dalton as Bond. However, because of the length of time in litigation, Dalton was able to get out of his contract, enabling him to work on other films. Broccoli wanted Dalton back and would have gotten Dalton for GoldenEye a few years earlier. However, mitigating circumstances prevailed and, despite misgivings, Broccoli and his daughter, Barbara, who had just stepped in to replace her terminally ill father, hired actor Pierce Brosnan. Both Barbara and her father preferred Dalton to Brosnan, but they were also both aware of Brosnan’s appeal to American audiences. After Die Another Day (2002), Barbara felt the series was veering back to the cartoonish quality of the Moore years. Salary issues and undisclosed differences arose between Brosnan, Broccoli and the remaining producers. Years before, Barbara’s father had met strenuous resistance from star Roger Moore when the effort was made to craft the films and the character as more “realistic” in For Your Eyes Only (1981), a move American audiences resisted. For Your Eyes Only is now regarded by some as one of the better Moore Bonds, although that is debatable. Whatever the reasons, Broccoli wanted to replace Brosnan with a Bond who had qualities similar to Dalton’s Bond. She found that, and more, in Daniel Craig. It took awhile but the Bond franchise returned to the original Ian Fleming style. That was a James Bond first fleshed out by Timothy Dalton. Dalton was simply ahead of his time and too soon after the long run of the Moore years. It took the middle-of-the-road Brosnan series before American audiences could be weaned off the cartoon expectations they had fallen into. Once Brosnan fulfilled his role, western audiences accepted Daniel Craig, and Craig’s Bond is more closely related to Dalton’s portrayal than it is to Sean Connery. This reboot of 007 is not that different from Christopher Nolan’s revamping of Batman away from the camp parody the series had fallen into and back to the original, edgier conception.

Licence To Kill is the most personal Bond film since 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (an excellent film, flawed only by an inexperienced lead in star George Lazenby. Secret Service would have benefited greatly from Dalton’s tenacious, exotic 007. Despite Dalton’s misgivings about his age at the time, he was already an experienced actor in 1969. Dalton conveys determination and a romantic streak. Licence is also the most violent of all the Bond films.  It opens with an unfaithful girl getting lashed across her back while her lover’s heart is cut out by her boyfriend’s henchmen. The villain’s ends are particularly imaginative and gruesome. Several deaths are accomplished with the aid of the animal kingdom: one villain is killed in a drawer full of maggots, another is dropped into a tank with an electric eel, and the traitor is fed to a shark while Bond looks on, unflinching. Licence explores the horror realm when a villain’s head explodes in decompression chamber. A couple of victims are impaled, one at the end of a harpoon and a second on a fork lift.  A henchman gets ground up in a straw cutter, while his boss (a very good, intense Robert Davi) is doused in gasoline and set on fire. For these reasons, Licence was the first Bond film to receive a PG-13 rating (overseas it was released in an even gorier R-rated version.) Bond’s one-liners, delivered with cold precision after several deaths, are unsettling.

The more vulnerable Bond actually bleeds in this film; and Dalton’s portrayal, while not to the liking of those who prefer a two dimensional spy, was unique in a way that Brosnan couldn’t be. Brosnan’s Bond, while seething with sexual edge, seems an all too eclectic mix of the proceeding Bonds. Dalton’s almost Shakespearean 007, in hindsight, proves the more exceptional; his portrayal will eventually lead to the earthy Bond of Daniel Craig.

Where Licence to Kill falters is in the direction of John Glen, whose pedestrian style hampers the film (although it is clearly the best of Glen’s films for the series and he does excellent work in the action sets). Still, with a more stylish director, this film might have been a film on par with the Terence Young Bonds. There are some considerable missteps: the set-up allows Bond to resign his position and go his route alone without the aid of Q and his gadgets. After this potential direction is suggested, Glen cheats by bringing Q back in, even though the expanded role of Q is an unexpected pleasure. The finale is nearly a fatal blunder. Bond’s CIA friend Felix Lighter has been permanently maimed when fed to shark, while his wife has been raped and killed on their honeymoon. This is the impetus for Bond’s quest for revenge, emotionally echoing the harrowing memory of the murder of Bond’s own wife on their honeymoon. Yet, at the end Felix is in bed with babe nurses, gives 007 a sprightly wink, and says “Can’t wait til the next mission, James!” It rings a false, final note to all that has proceeded it. Bond’s Akira Kurosawa-like goal to infiltrate, dismantle, and destroy the drug empire of Franz Sanchez is achieved through shrewd manipulation of Sanchez’ demand for loyalty.

Carey Lowell plays the main Bond girl here. Licence, like Living Daylights before it, resists the standard sexist stereotyping. In the first Dalton Bond, this was done by keeping Bond monogamous (a first for the series). Here, it is the girl who saves Bond, far more often than the other way around.

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