The edge of experimental

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The Buzz

September 29, 2006|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN REPORTER

Stylized, vertiginous images express incestuous longing and overall mental collapse in the startling and only occasionally laughable 1928 The Fall of the House of Usher, which kicks off the free program, "A Chronological Sampling of American Experimental Cinema," at Towson University's Van Bokkelen Hall Auditorium, Monday, 7:30 p.m. This silent, ultra-cinematic fantasia takes off from Edgar Allan Poe's short story about the neurasthenic twins Roderick and Madeline Usher (Hildegarde Watson and Herbert Stern), and the boyhood friend (Melville Webber) who inadvertently helps Roderick entomb Madeline alive.

The filmmakers were quite a team: throughout the 1920s, James Sibley Watson Jr. (who directed, co-wrote and served as cinematographer) published the avant-garde cultural and literary magazine The Dial, whose contributors included T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats and e.e.cummings; cummings even had a hand in the scenario. Melville Webber (who co-wrote, costarred, and designed the sets) was a professor of art history at the University of Rochester. They use angular sets and sophisticated tricks to create a dizzying 12-minute psychological trip that pulls audiences into a creepy, claustrophobic mental landscape. Without intertitles and with actors encased in expressionist makeup, they craft an American cousin to Germany's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

Every now and then an amateurish stroke breaks the spell, such as the leather-gloved hands that serve a mysterious, frightening entree at the Usher dinner table. But the Ed Wood moments are fleeting -- and they're also part of the fun. If you want to see a film that zips along on the steam of its own creative abandon, forsake the current The Science of Sleep for this nightmare that will keep you wide awake.

For more information, call the Center for the Arts Box Office at 410-704-2787 or go to


Fans of Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea's Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) will want to check out the moviemaker's little-seen final film, Guantanamera (1995), at Creative Alliance at the Patterson (3134 Eastern Avenue) Wednesday, 7 p.m. It intertwines the agony of transporting a famous singer's corpse from Guantanamera to Havana with the romantic dilemma of the singer's niece, torn between her tyrannical bureaucrat husband and a charming trucker who was her student when she taught college. Roger Ebert said, "Guantanamera celebrates Cuban paradoxes in a cheeky little comedy." Admission is $7 ($5 for members), and dinner from Fiesta Mexicana is available for a separate fee. Proceeds benefit Hispanic Apostolate.

For more information, call 410-276-1651 or go to

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