Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Archive for August, 2011

21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and I have a new book out, entitled 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation from Rutgers University Press.

“The paradigm shift from analog to digital media has completely changed the way Hollywood produces and distributes its business. 21st-Century Hollywood presents a perfect snapshot of the new digital present.” — Jan-Christopher Horak, Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive.

“A significant and impressive work on the cutting edge of current critical discussion on the digitization of film . . . the sheer scope of Dixon and Foster’s knowledge is dazzling.” — Steven Shaviro, author of Post-Cinematic Affect.

They are shot on high-definition digital cameras—with computer-generated effects added in postproduction—and transmitted to theaters, web sites, and video-on-demand networks worldwide. They are viewed on laptop, iPod, and cell phone screens. They are movies in the 21st century—the product of digital technologies that have revolutionized media production, content distribution, and the experience of movie-going itself.

21st – Century Hollywood introduces readers to these global transformations and describes the decisive roles that Hollywood is playing in determining the digital future for world cinema. It offers clear, concise explanations of a major paradigm shift that continues to reshape our relationship to the moving image. Filled with numerous detailed examples, the book will both educate and entertain film students and movie fans alike.

A brief portion of the text originally appeared in Senses of Cinema 43, as “Vanishing Point: The Last Days of Film,” which has been significantly reworked for the book; you can read it here.

Gerry O’Hara

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

Here’s my interview with director Gerry O’Hara from Screening the Past 30; as I note in the preface to the piece, “Gerry O’Hara is a true original, and if he never really got the chance to definitively climb out of the ranks of assistant directors into the realm of full-fledged feature directors, he nevertheless managed to carve out a solid career in the cinema working with such luminaries as Sir Laurence Olivier, Ronald Neame, Michael Powell, Sir Carol Reed, Anatole Litvak, Ken Annakin, Terence Fisher, Sidney Box, Otto Preminger and many more in his early years, before striking out on his own with several low budget sixties British films, the most memorable of which is The Pleasure Girls (1963, UK), recently re-released as part of the BFI’s “Flipside” series of lesser-known films that nevertheless deserve attention. Despite its unfortunate title, The Pleasure Girls is in reality a deeply moving feminist document of ’60s London, shot in a real apartment building, as four young women come to London to make their way in the world.”

And that’s just the beginning of his fascinating story; read it here.

Ida Lupino – Director

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

As I wrote in my profile of director Ida Lupino in issue 50 of the web journal Senses of Cinema,

“One of the most important auteurs in 1950s cinema is one of the most marginal: Ida Lupino. Even today, only two of her feature films, The Hitch-Hiker (1953) and The Trouble With Angels (1966), are available on DVD, and, although her feature films Not Wanted (1949), Never Fear (1949) and The Bigamist (1953) were once available on VHS, they are now long out of print. [Lupino’s Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), I am happy to say, has just been released on a Warner Archive DVD.]

But if anyone deserves a box set of DVDs covering their entire lifespan of work, Lupino does. Because of the sexism which formerly riddled the film industry – and which, to a large degree, still prevails – Ida Lupino’s directorial career is an unusual case. At the time, she was working she literally had no close competition. Although she often made light of her directorial accomplishments, Lupino was obviously driven by a very real need to direct.”

It’s still true today; in the 1950s, the only woman directing in Hollywood was Ida Lupino – in the sound era, “the mother of us all.”

The Testament of Orpheus

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

A few thoughts on Jean Cocteau‘s last feature film, the 1960 Testament of Orpheus (full title: Le testament d’Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi!), which the poet/painter/director/playwright/novelist/muralist and all stops inbetween.

Cocteau was never wealthy, unlike his contemporary Pablo Picasso, though both shared the same level of artistic mastery (Picasso, a lifelong contemporary of Cocteau’s, has a cameo appearance in Testament), and so he turned to François Truffaut, as well as longtime patron Francine Weisweiller, to help him finance this, his final work.

The cast includes such luminaries as Charles Aznavour, Yul Brynner, Claudine Auger, María Casares and Jean Marais (who both appeared so memorably in Cocteau’s 1950 Orpheus), Serge Lifar, Jean-Pierre Léaud and numerous others, but Cocteau dominates the film, as he looks back on his long and multifaceted career.

Written, directed and starring the poet, some have called Testament an indulgent work, and perhaps it is; Cocteau is unabashedly celebrating himself and his accomplishments, and simultaneously gathering about himself for one last time those whom he loved and cherished as fellow artists, for a final bow.

Some have even gone so far as to suggest that Testament is a film that should never have been made; I, for one, can’t imagine the world without it. Indeed, the luster of the film only increases with the passing of years. As Cocteau himself observed of the act of creation, “art produces ugly things which frequently become more beautiful with time. Fashion, on the other hand, produces beautiful things which always become ugly with time.”

Cocteau was sometimes fashionable, sometimes ahead of his time, but never afraid to trust his own instincts as an artist. As he often advised young artists, “listen carefully to first criticisms made of your work.  Note just what it is about your work that critics don’t like – then cultivate it.  That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.” Cocteau did just that.

Nobody Lives Forever

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

George Coulouris and John Garfield on the set of Nobody Lives Forever

John Garfield was one of the most talented, and the most tragic, of the major American stars of the late 1930s through the 1940s; in a string of brutal, cynical noirs, made mistly for Warner Bros., Garfield epitomized the hardcore ethic of the renegade outsider, or the common man run over by the interests of the ruling class.

In such films as Dust Be My Destiny (1939), Castle on the Hudson (1940), the deeply underrated Saturday’s Children (1940), the cinematic adaptation of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf (1941), Howard Hawks’ Air Force (1943), Destination Tokyo (1943), the allegorical drama Between Two Worlds (1944), Tay Garnett’s prototypical noir The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) for MGM, Nobody Lives Forever (1946), Humoresque (1946), Body and Soul (1947) and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), for 20th Century Fox, Garfield was the forerunner of such actors as James Dean, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift; an actor who made each performance “real” through the intensity of his engagement with every role he played.

This brief overview of his career takes its name from his film Nobody Lives Forever, in which Garfield plays conman Nick Blake, who tries to seduce rich widow Gladys Halvorsen (Geraldine Fitzgerald) in hopes of swindling her out of a fortune, but finds himself falling in love with her instead.

The downbeat fatalism of the film could well serve as a metaphor for Garfield’s career; tagged as a Communist sympathizer by the HUAC, Garfield refused to “name names,”and as a result was summarily blacklisted from the industry. His last film was John Berry’s ironically titled He Ran All the Way (1951); Garfield, who had a long history of heart trouble, died on May 21, 1952, at the age of 39.

Looking back, it’s astonishing that he had as much impact as he did, and made as many films as he did, racking up a total of 33 films between 1938 and 1951, most of them in the starring role. That’s just thirteen years to make your mark; but then again, nobody lives forever.

People of No Importance

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

Film history is a strange affair; certain directors are lionized, others are forgotten. Some directors travel well internationally, while others don’t. Henri Verneuil (1920–2002) had a long and distinguished career in French cinema, but because the New Wave critics didn’t embrace his work, and perhaps because he was something of a traditionalist in an era given to radical innovations, his films don’t get the international attention or respect they deserve.

With a career that stretches from the late 1940s to a TV mini-series in 1993, and collaborations with such distinguished actors as Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Gabin, Alain Delon, Lino Ventura, Omar Sharif and Claudia Cardinale, Verneuil created an interesting mix of commercial and “art house” films, sometimes creating light entertainments, but often dealing with serious issues of class, labor, and capital. He won a César for his lifetime of work in 1996, a few years before his death. But is he as well known as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Henri-Georges Clouzot or numerous other of his compatriots. No. Does he deserve to be. Simply, yes.

People of No Importance (Des gens sans importance, 1956) features iconic French star Jean Gabin as Jean Viard, an aging truck driver who routinely drives 60 hour shifts, and has a miserable home life. He meets and falls in love with truck stop waitress Clotilde Brachet (Françoise Arnoul), and the two begin a long distance relationship between his trucking assignments, but their affair, of course, is destined to end in tragedy.

What makes the film so compelling is Verneuil’s relentless, brutal direction of both the camera and the actors, creating a work of such compelling bleakness that it almost defies description. Shot for the most part on location, the film is deeply sympathetic to the plight of the working class, even as it suggests that they will never be able to escape their milieu. Gabin, typically world-weary, dominates the film, but Arnoul is equally compelling as the hardboiled Clotilde, who knows that the deck is stacked against her, but keep trying nevertheless.

People of No Importance is every bit as compelling as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur, 1953), but never got the critical or commercial attention it deserved outside of France, where it was a substantial boxoffice hit, due in part to Gabin’s participation. But it never broke through in America, unlike many other films of the era, when “art houses” functioned across the country, bringing international films to a wider audience.

Since the film isn’t available on DVD in America, only in a French version with no English subtitles, this situation isn’t likely to change in the near future. But as with so many excellent films that aren’t generally known to the public, People of No Importance remains ready for discovery, for those who really care about the history of cinema. One bright spot: the film was recently run on TCM, so perhaps a DVD release is in the cards down the line.

Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief (1960)

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

A few blogs ago, I wrote a piece about Jean Vigo, whose life’s work has just come out on DVD. I wish I could say the same for experimental filmmaker Ron Rice, whose 16mm $1,000 feature film The Flower Thief (shot in 1959; released in 1960) is one of the signature works of the New American Cinema, and a film that I haven’t seen for much too long. It’s 75 minutes of pure, raw, sensual beauty.

There’s a newly restored print of the film at Anthology Film Archives, but a movie this poetic, free-spirited, inspirational, improvisational and “brilliant on a budget” needs a DVD release, so it can be seen by a wider audience.

Ron Rice was one of the original wild men of the New York underground film scene; working with the brilliantly gifted Taylor Mead, Rice improvised the entirety of The Flower Thief on location in San Francisco, shooting the film on 50 ft. cartridges of outdated, surplus World War II aerial gunnery film donated by none other than Sam Katzman, the most notoriously cost-conscious producer in Hollywood, at the absolute last minute.

Rice was known for his brash, insistent personality; he once wrote a letter to producer Joseph E. Levine demanding that he finance a film for him. Levine demurred, but Katzman came through; one of the most unlikely and fortuitous alliances in all of motion picture history.

The finished film is raw, anarchic, and utterly assured, all at once. Rice uses very inch of film available to him, and Mead’s Chaplinesque everyman is the perfect artistic collaborator for such an enterprise; the film gets its title from a hastily staged sequence in which Mead “steals” a flower from a street vendor, and then, imagining that the police are after him, makes good his “escape” in a child’s Radio Flyer truck down a San Francisco street in blissful slow motion.

As Rice said of The Flower Thief, in the program notes for the film’s premiere, “in the old Hollywood days movie studios would keep a man on the set who, when all other sources of ideas failed (writers, directors) was called upon to ‘cook up’ something for filming. He was called The Wild Man. The Flower Thief has been put together in memory of all dead wild men who died unnoticed in the field of stunt.”

I had the good fortune to meet and work briefly with Mead in the 1960s at Warhol’s Factory when it was located at 33 Union Square West, and really, all you had to do was turn the camera on, and Mead would do the rest, improvising hilarious and touching sequences with whatever props came easily to hand.

The Flower Thief actually had a commercial theatrical release in New York City at the Charles Theater, and became a substantial hit, easily earning back its negative cost — the $1,000 was for developing the film, creating a sound track from old records and bits of poetry, shooting an optical sound track for the release print, and then striking a print — that’s all.

Writing in The New York Times when the film was first released, critic Eugene Archer recognized The Flower Thief for the masterpiece it was and is, stating that “Rice, by deliberately flouting established movie making traditions, reveals himself primarily as a professional rebel rather than the leader of a new movement. But in the highly specialized area of experimental films, he has produced a major work.”

Editing was done on a primitive Moviscope viewer, and the entire film was shot silent. None of this detracted from the film at all; it’s a magical, transcendent, gorgeous testament to the freedom of the human spirit, and to Mead and Rice’s shared conviction that you can do brilliant work with absolutely minimal resources — all it takes is genius.

Rice went on to make several other films — including Chumlum (1964), The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man (1963), and Senseless (1962), but died in 1964 in Mexico at the age of 29 – the same age as Jean Vigo. It’s a tragedy; a real loss.

It’s also sad that you can’t easily see The Flower Thief, but at least prints still exist; when in Manhattan, check out Anthology Film Archives and see if it’s playing. It’s a one of a kind film; a trip back in time to a more innocent and forgiving era, when individuality was prized, money didn’t matter as much, and the world wasn’t caught up in the false frenzy of a neverending 24 hour news cycle. In short, it’s a window into a world that once existed, and to which we can never return.

You Talkin’ to Me? — Most Famous Improvised Moments

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

The folks at Geeks of Doom (“Fear Them!”) have compiled a bunch of clips covering 25 improvised, or as they put it, “unscripted” sequences in iconic films that might surprise you.

It’s no shocker that Bill Murray improvised sections of Caddyshack, but what about Robert De Niro’s “you talkin’ to me?” speech from Taxi Driver, or Jack Nicholson’s “Heeeeeer’s Johnny!” from The Shining, or Heath Ledger’s reactions to a series of explosions in The Dark Knight?

See it here.

Alice Guy

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Alice Guy Blaché is the true pioneer of the cinema; born in 1873, she directed more than 300 films before she was forced to retire in 1920.  D.W. Griffith didn’t get behind a camera until 1908’s The Adventures of Dollie; by that time, Alice Guy had directed more than 150 films, and invented most, if not all, of the narrative and editorial techniques Griffith would later take credit for. Her first film was 1896’s La Fée aux Choux, a one minute short; the film was so popular, she wore out the negative making copies, and was obliged to shoot a remake in 1900 to meet public demand. Other films, soon one-reel, then two-reel and longer, quickly followed.

She presented a vision of the world very different from that of her male counterparts — at that time confined to Georges Méliès and Auguste & Louis Lumière — one in which women and children played a major role, along with men, even in such huge historical spectacles as La vie du Christ (1906), a thirty four minute film — nearly four reels — completed at the dawn of cinema.

Here are links to just a few of her many films: these are, for the most part, put up by a fan who loves Alice Guy’s work; they have a logo on the top of Alice Guy looking through a stereoscope, and then smiling for the camera — that’s Alice!

They’re all cheerful, lighthearted, and fun; some are hand colored, frame by frame; and one of them is early sync-sound, using the Chronophone method of recording sound on wax cylinders, with a hand cranked camera.

Here they are:

The Irresistible Piano (1907; with a Ray Charles sound track added later, but it’s got the right spirit; Alice Guy was very much a fan of “pop” music of her era);

Baignade dans un torrent (1897; a very early actuality film);

Danses Gitanes (1905; Gypsy Dance), another actuality, with an extra hand-colored short, Malaguena, tacked on the end;

Au Bal de Flore (1900, hand colored), coupled with Les Fredaines de Pierrette (1900, handcolored), again with a music track added later;

and an early sync sound film, Five O’ Clock Tea, featuring the music hall performer Dranem, made in 1905.

Finally, here’s my own brief tribute to Alice Guy, from my series Frame By Frame, which shows Alice Guy on the set of one of her sync-sound films. See the difference? Women not objectified, children present in the shot, a whole different way of looking at the world.

Alice Guy – the true pioneer of the cinema.

The Colossus of New York

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

This odd but haunting 1958 film is much in the news these days, having just received – after all these years – a legitimate DVD release through Olive Films. Directed by Eugène Lourié [1903 – 1991], who was, among other things, an art director for Jean Renoir on Grand Illusion in 1937 and The Rules of the Game in 1939, as well as other directors, and the author of an intriguing memoir, My Work in Films, The Colossus of New York is a barebones science fiction film that nevertheless possesses a curious resonance long after its 70 minute running time is over.

The film has no money to speak of, but Lourié, an expert at using lighting, production design, and minimalistic props to maximum effect, really doesn’t need anything more than he has; the stripped-down look of the film perfectly matches the seriousness of its concerns. Produced by William Alland [1916 – 1997] who started out his career working with Orson Welles (he’s the reporter searching for the secret of “Rosebud” in Welles’ Citizen Kane [1941]), The Colossus of New York is a modest, thoughtful film, miles away from typical 50s “creature on the loose” sci-fi.

The film’s plot is relatively simple; a young, brilliant scientist (Jeremy Spensser, played by veteran character actor Ross Martin [1920 – 1981]) is the victim of an accident, and his father (William Spensser, imperiously portrayed by Otto Kruger [1885- 1974] in one of his least sympathetic roles), also a scientist, sees to it that his son’s brain lives on, imprisoned within the body of a gigantic, metallic robot. Needless to say, nothing good comes of any of this, and in the end, the man/machine goes on a rampage at the United Nations, killing numerous diplomats and officials before his young son, Billy (Charles Herbert [1948 –        ]) intervenes, and hits the self-destruct switch which his now-androidal father can’t reach.

Graced with an ominous solo piano score, the only one I can think of in any film off hand, by Van Cleave (1910–1970), Colossus is a deeply felt meditation on mortality, sibling rivalry, father / son relationships, and the limits of science; how long, exactly, are we going to keep the dead — for that is what Jeremy really is – artificially alive? Now that you can get a decent copy, it’s worth 70 minutes of your time to check it out; it’s one of the more curious artifacts of late 1950s American science-fiction, and a film that will leave – as witness its many adherents – a lasting, if unsettling, impression.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at for more details.

RSS Recent Frame by Frame Videos