September 17, 2010

The Guy In The Picture?

Was a fellow by the name of Tod Browning (not the guy in THIS picture... the guy in YESTERDAY'S picture!!), who inhabits my personal pantheon of heroic recluse/hermits who have done something more amazing than merely achieving fame or fortune; create a cult classic / niche art / and removed themselves from either the world or "the star-maker machinery", or both. Salinger, of course, is the godhead. But my private pinchbeck idols also contain B. Traven and Steve Ditko.

Browning's story is a bit different than most of the others because, mostly, his separation from "society" wasn't completely his choice to begin with. He directed a movie in 1932 called FREAKS which was notable for its use of real "freaks" as the cast. Siamese twins, "pinheads" (sorry), a limbless black guy crawling under a circus wagon with a knife in his mouth going off to kill someone. You know, the usual images people in 1932 wanted to see. The movie was declared outrageous and was banned for decades. Browning worked sparingly from then on, but with the advent of the Punk era FREAKS gained a new stature and became a cult classic. Doesn't matter - it is still a bit disturbing.

Speaking of disturbing movies, at about the same time as FREAKS was gaining a following so was David Lynch's debut project by the name of ERASERHEAD - though that one was a bit more problematic. To this day there are people walking around being "disturbed" by the flick, but in another light such a reaction is completely unwarranted. Though Lynch reflects that it was an idea and a feeling that came out of some dark days when he lived in Philadelphia, people who gave it a second look also noted the twinkle in Lynch's eye. Not out of pride but out of having tweaked us all. ERASERHEAD, the consensus has finally become, is an absurdist comedy of the highest order. I recall attending a screening in Champaign/Urbana (U of Illinois) when it was "the thing to see" in the late 70s that was attended by raucous laughter and enthusiastic though ironic applause (hey, they were film and art students, irony was what they DID). Dark? Ok. Comedy? Yes. But look at it again. And don't be so serious this time! It's great, and actually ridiculous.

Which reminds me of the third leg of my "black and white must-sees" that I've touted for over 30 years now: NOSFERATU, which is a silent era horror movie that remains the very first - and still unsurpassed - vampire flick ever made. Folks, seriously? Outside of 1931's DRACULA with Bela Lugosi (oh by the way, directed by TOD BROWNING!) which was a CAMPY CLASSIC, there have been no vampire movies that could hold a shaking candle to it.

Admittedly there are stretches of the film that are too indulgent of the silent era's particular traits and foibles - moments of over-done histrionics and lagging pace. But every second the Vampire is on screen the movie actually crackles with energy and imagination. I mean - come on - LOOK AT that picture up there. It remains the apex of vampironics, which is a word I made up just now. Also? This movie plays in our house every Halloween.

That these three flicks gained or regained popularity in the late 70s and have been considered cult classics since is no accident. The exposure of one is a natural lead in to the exposure of the others. They do form a kind of trilogy and were all championed by the old punk rocker culture of that time. And so they remain.

Anyway that's the reference to Tod Browning yesterday. Have a nice weekend.

6 comments:

B.E. Earl said...

I've still never seen Eraserhead. Mostly because I've seen a bunch of other stuff that David Lynch has done and I've hated it all. So I would be going into it with a chip on my shoulder.

Tod Browning was a genius. I've seen Freaks and Dracula a bunch of times, and while Dracula was never very scary (like you said...campy) Freaks had some really chilling moments.

I try to re-watch Nosferatu every few years. It really is a perfect vampire film. And your are right...nothing has really come close since. Which is a shame since so many vampire films are made each year.

There is a book by F. Paul Wilson called Midnight Mass that seemed like it would have been perfect fodder for a new scary vampire flick. But the rights were given to some schlock production company and they made a straight to video/DVD cheapo version of it. It wasn't the lovey-dovey vampires of Anne Rice and Twilight. They were vicious killers. Like 30 Days of Night...a good movie which should have been better.

Stephen King's Salem's Lot is my favorite horror book of all time and the original mini-series, which owed a lot to F.W. Murnau, was pretty good. King is now writing a vampire horror comic-book which looks interesting. Same idea as Midnight Mass. No sparkly love-lorn vamps...just bloodthirsty killers.

I could go on and on and on and on about this...

Brian said...

One of us!

sybil law said...

GAH I never would've gotten that! Still - I loved FREAKS when I saw it, back in freaking high school! You just completely jogged my little memory, RW. :)

sligo said...

Freaks -- poignant, disturbing, mesmerizing; anyone who cares about the impact of films on society and culture should see it.

Nosferatu -- ahead of its time, a genuine terror film, great cinematography; a must see.

Eraserhead -- disturbing for some, farce for others, just kind of trippy, and best experienced thusly: view first; read interviews of Lynch talking about the whys and whats; watch again. not necessarily a must-see, but still cool. also, Lynch is one of the few filmmakers, ever, to not worry about whether viewers understand or can follow his films; Mullholland Drive is my personal fave.

and, if i may add, since we're going on about films that make some people think and wince, never pass up any opportunity to view Titicut Follies.

SK Waller said...

When I saw Eraserhead, I was on shrooms.

Some things are indelibly imprinted on my brain.

RW said...

Steph - yeah silly-ciben would been a thing for eraserhead. I hear you.