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Archive for September, 2011

Escapement, or Virtual Unreality

Friday, September 30th, 2011

In 1956, Charles Eric Maine (born David McIlwain in 1921) published a superb, often overlooked science fiction novel, Escapement, which posited a bleak virtual future. In Maine’s novel, tech mogul Paul Zakon, head of the “3-D Cinesphere organization,” builds a worldwide network of “Dream Palaces,” in which millions of “dreamers” lie immobile in isolation chambers, hooked up to electrodes and put into a semi-comatose state through a combination of IV drugs and liquid protein.

These “dreamers” spend most of their lives existing only in a fantasy world, from which they emerge only when they’ve run out of money, and are taken out of the system. Then, like the addicts they are, the erstwhile “dreamers” desperately work at whatever menial job they can find until they can scrape together enough cash for another 6 months or so in one of Zakon’s “Dream Palaces,” and then the process repeats all over again.

His unwilling associate in all of this is Dr. Philip Maxwell, whose research has created the “Dream Palaces,” in which millions of men and women are electronically fed dream scenarios more real than life, and experience a simulated existence of power, wealth, and sexual abandon. As Maine prophetically writes, describing the rise of Zakon’s “Dream Palaces” – and remember, this is more than half a century ago –

“At first the thing had been a novelty, an expensive novelty, demonstrated in a handful of specially adapted theatres in the major cities of the States. But the novelty had also been an enormous success. The Cinesphere studios converted their sound stages into psycho-recording sets, and ambitious productions were recorded on miles of brown plastic tape. Lavish, spectacular and sensational productions, loaded with romance and glamour and an aphrodisiac innuendo of sex. [. . .] In the space of four years psycho theatres – later to be called Dream Palaces – were installed in their thousands throughout North America. [. . .] Dreamplays were produced that ran continuously for days, and then weeks, and finally, years.”

As Maxwell becomes increasingly uneasy with the growth of Zakon’s empire, he starts to move against his employer, but finds that Zakon’s hold on both the populace and the law is too tight. People want what the novel terms as “unlife”; otherwise, why would it be so popular?

Eventually, a quarter of the world’s population is sequestered in isolation tanks, and as they increase the length of their “dream” escapes, they gradually default on mortgage payments and other responsibilities, and so the Cinesphere corporation acquires their property and cash savings, exponentially increasing Zakon’s empire with each passing day.

As he tours the facility with Zakon, Maxwell stops to examine the isolation tank of one Paula Mullen, 27, who has signed up for a dream entitled “woman of the world” – length, eight years of uninterrupted synthetic fantasy – in which she imagines herself alive, awake, and the center of worldwide media attention. In reality, of course, she is an immobile, nearly corpse-like husk in an oversize filing cabinet, but Zakon sees nothing wrong with this. As Zakon tells Maxwell,

“There’s nothing anti-social about unlife, Maxwell. In fact, it acts as a scavenger of society, and removes the more anti-social types from active circulation. Take this Miss Mullen [. . .] and try to imagine her as a useful member of society. She chose to escape from society for eight years. That proves she was one of the many millions of maladjusted people living out their lives in dull unending routine. The kind of people who find no creative pleasure in work. Who seek their fun in furtive sex relations and objective entertainment. She’s better off here. She’s happier than she ever knew and she’s no longer a burden to society.”

By the end of Escapement, Maxwell successfully revolts against Zakon, and brutally murders him with a jack handle, while recording Zakon’s experience of death on one of Cinesphere’s “dream machines.” Then, to awaken the millions of dreamers, Maxwell forces his way into the central control room of Cinesphere, and orders the technicians to play the “psycho tape” of Zakon’s murder throughout the entire Cinesphere system, in the hopes of awakening the millions of dreamers from their narcoleptic slumber.

But the tape of Zakon’s death is too realistic; 100 million “dreamers,” ensconced in Cinesphere’s isolation tanks, die along with Zakon, unable to support the horror of being beaten to death, and Maxwell is put on trial. As the prosecution intones, summing up the charges against Maxwell,

“Ninety-eight million, four hundred and thirty-two thousand, eight hundred and twelve people, men and women, old and young, died suddenly one evening nine months ago. They were voluntary dreamers seeking relaxation in the many Dream Palaces of the Zakon organization. This man, Philip Maxwell, coldly and brutally murdered Paul Zakon, and made a psycho-recording of his death agonies which he then played back over the world unlife network. The result you all know. Psycho dreams are realistic. Psycho nightmares are equally realistic. And psycho death is indistinguishable from ordinary death.”

The book ends with Maxwell sitting alone in his prison cell, awaiting the final verdict. While the conclusion of Maine’s novel is undeniably melodramatic, one can’t help comparing the operations of the fictional Cinesphere corporation to the real life virtual worlds offered on the web, to which hundreds of millions of people subscribe, and spend countless hours, and real (as opposed to virtual) money to “exist” in a more attractive, alternative universe.

While digital technological advances have long superseded the mechanics of Cinesphere’s fictitious operations, the fact remains that for many, online virtual life has become an addiction, and more “real” than the physical existence they so desperately hope to escape.

World of Warcraft for example, currently boasts 10 million users and counting, and their advertising motto is “10 million people can’t be wrong.” Farmville has some 33 million users, with more subscribing every day. 800 million people plus are on Facebook, which encourages its users to “be somewhere else” rather than living their own lives, unplugged from a computer. In short, “I’m not here” – more on this later. Can 800 million people be wrong? Indeed they can.

Montgomery Tully made a brilliant film of the novel in 1958; well worth viewing.

Web Journal of Note: East of Borneo

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

East of Borneo is a rather amazing multimedia web journal on the arts, covering not only film, but music, painting, theater — the whole panorama of contemporary artistic endeavor. Apparently named after George Melford’s 1931 film East of Borneo, which famously served as the raw material for Joseph Cornell’s deeply influential found footage film Rose Hobart, East of Borneo is eclectic, sprawling, and alive with ambition. As the journal’s website says,

“Launched in October 2010, East of Borneo is a collaborative online magazine of contemporary art, and its history, as considered from Los Angeles. East of Borneo offers a new way to research and present the various histories of contemporary art. Its hybrid form—which publishes newly commissioned art writing within a larger context of user generated material—uses the power of networked collectivity to create depth and complexity.

Articles incorporate multimedia footnotes that offer readers immediate access to the primary materials—video, images, links and texts—that the writers have used in their research. Readers can upload additional items of their own, creating a growing archive of relevant content that activates and enriches the editorial material, highlighting unexpected connections and encouraging new lines of thought.

As you navigate the site today, you’ll find a range of content that reflects the sprawling, rhizomatic nature of Los Angeles as well as the broader international art world. Visit us often to watch the site grow in both content and interactivity as we roll out further features. Visit us often to upload that telling image, indispensible text, incredible link.”

You can visit this truly groundbreak journal by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Limits of the Image

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Here’s an image by Michelle Lyles from the web, which she titled “God had some fun painting the clouds this morning,” which is stunningly beautiful. But it got me thinking about the limits of the image, and what it can and can’t express. As transcendent and Wordsworthian as this image is, it can’t convey the experience of witnessing this morning sky firsthand. Jean-Luc Godard’s oft-quoted maxim “it isn’t a just image; it’s just an image” is part of what I’m getting at here, but what really is at stake is the essence of the image, and what it really represents.

As film critics, theorists, and historians, we are obsessed with images, and continually deconstruct them as part of our daily work. Yet in the end, the image above is simply a series of pixels and color tones on a screen, possessing only a phantom existence, which it would have even if it were fixed on paper as an analogue photograph.

André Bazin commented that if one looked intently at an object with a  camera, one might be able to document the essence of that which was being photographed. But in reality, all one comes away with is a portion of the experience, an aide de memoire to remind one of the experience, but not contain it. I’m curiously suspicious of the power of the image to sway us emotionally, or to allow us to drift into sentiment; it asks the viewer to be transported to another space or time, and yet the experience of that moment remains beyond authentic recall.

Perhaps this is why I have so few photos of vacations, family members, and the like, and have only been photographed a few times; images always fail, always interpret, always deceive by their very nature. The nature of the cinema is illusion, and the nature of illusion is to make that which is not real seem actual. But it isn’t. It isn’t even “just an image.” It’s a deception — something designed to evoke a certain response, or randomly executed by chance. It’s only a talisman of the real, and possesses no reality of its own.

The Bridegroom, The Comedienne and The Pimp (1968)

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

One of the most beautiful and enigmatic of all films is Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s The Bridegroom, The Comedienne and The Pimp (1968), a 23 minute short film comprised of only eleven shots. As I wrote of this film on IMDb, “three sequences are linked together in this short film by Straub [and Huillet]; the first sequence is a long tracking shot from a car of prostitutes plying their trade on the night-time streets of Germany; the second is a staged play [Ferdinand Bruckner's Krankheit der Jugend], cut down to 10 minutes by Straub [and Huillet], photographed in a single take; the final sequence covers the marriage of James [James Powell] and Lilith, and Lilith’s subsequent execution of her pimp, played by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.”

This brief description does little justice to the mysterious resonance of the film, composed as it is of such disparate elements; the still above is taken from the final sequence of the film, directly after Lilith (Lilith Ungerer) has shot Fassbinder’s pimp, and dispassionately recites some poems of John of the Cross, as the camera tracks past her to come to rest on a shot of a tree in full summer. The best discussion of The Bridegroom, The Comedienne and The Pimp remains Richard Roud’s careful consideration of the film in his 1972 book Straub, illustrated with numerous frame blow-ups; sadly, the book is out of print. The film, too, seems to be unavailable in 35mm, 16mm, or digital video, and thus, for the moment, both are phantom texts.

The Seven-Ups (1973)

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Producer Philip D’Antoni was responsible for two of the most iconic chase films of the 1960s: William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) and Peter YatesBullitt (1968) — but as a producer, not a director.

Thus, D’Antoni decided to try his hand at making a film himself, The Seven-Ups (1973), starring Roy Scheider – the only film D’Antoni made as a director – which is uneven as a film, but contains one of the most kinetic and well-executed chase sequences in motion picture history. Some people like it even more than its predecessors.

As Michael Kabel wrote of the film,

“as much as Bullitt presaged and The French Connection ushered in a new era of violent, realistic police procedural movies, 1973′s The Seven-Ups took that gritty baton and ran with it, bringing a depth of character and dramatic pathos to its narrative that, by and large, those earlier films had little interest in developing. A tough and morally complicated story with a deep melancholy at its heart, the film isn’t just a copy or derivative of its predecessors’ more successful tropes (though it shares many of them), it’s also a more mature and well-rounded work of filmmaking. And for those reasons, many will find it a more rewarding viewing experience.”

You may or may not agree with this assessment, but no matter what else you might think, The Seven-Ups is an effective piece of action filmmaking, especially the 10 minute chase scene that highlights the film.

And here it is.

The Driver (1978)

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Since everyone’s talking about Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), I thought I’d weigh in with a few thoughts on Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), a film that Drive doesn’t seem to acknowledge as a predecessor, but the similarities between the two films are obvious. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — as many observers have pointed out, The Driver owes a great deal to Jean-Pierre Melville’s film Le Samouraï (1967), so is there really anything new under the sun? But in this case, each film is an inspired riff on the other, and they all have distinct qualities that make them valuable in their own right.

Written and directed by Walter Hill near the start of his career, The Driver chronicles the life of its eponymous title character — none of the characters have names, just The Driver (Ryan O’Neal), The Cop (Bruce Dern), The Player (Isabelle Adjani), The Connection (Ronee Blakley), and so on — a wheelman for hire on his own terms, which are very strict indeed. O’Neal, then at the top of his game, brings a deadpan flair to the role, which adds immeasurably to the overall success of the film.

The Driver opens with a superbly executed chase sequence, made all the more remarkable by the fact that none of it is faked, and, of course, the whole film was made well before the era of CGI, so there’s no “computer enhancement” of the images, either. Because of this, The Driver has a gritty, stripped down realism, and almost no dialogue; O’Neal says practically nothing, and lets Bruce Dern’s cop do all the talking.

Set in the scummiest sections of Los Angeles, and shot for the most part at night in a wilderness of neon lights and rain soaked streets, The Driver has an intensity that Refn’s operatic, somewhat florid film can’t match; as heavily stylized and beautiful as sections of Drive are, the film doesn’t approach the authentically bleak nihilism of Hill’s earlier work — even if they aren’t officially related.

Here’s a clip of the opening chase scene; if you like this, you should buy the DVD.

William Inge as “Walter Gage” – Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965)

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Click here, or on the image above, to see the entire film, uncut.

If you’ve written as many articles as I have, in the digital era, it would be nice if they were all up on the web, but they’re not, for a variety of reasons. A long time ago, I wrote a nice piece about Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965) — “William Inge as Walter Gage: Bus Riley’s Back in Town” in Literature Film Quarterly 16.2 (Spring 1988): 101-106 — a small budget Universal picture, shot entirely on their back lot, which nevertheless has a peculiar resonance far from the traditional Universal program film.

The reason for this is principally the film’s scenarist, one “Walter Gage,” who in reality is the famed playwright William Inge, who took his name off the project when Universal demanded cuts and changes in his screenplay, mainly to play up Ann-Margret’s role as Laurel in the film. I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that Ann-Margret had anything to do with this; it was a front office decision, based on commerce alone. You can see from the poster above how luridly the film was marketed, and as usual, this ad campaign has almost nothing to do with the film itself.

Briefly, Bus Riley’s Back in Town centers on its eponymous title character, played with understated charm by a young Michael Parks, who has come home to his sleepy small town after a hitch in the service. Jocelyn Brando plays Bus’s mother, and Kim Darby plays his tomboyish sister Gussie. The family welcomes him with open arms, but despite their familial embrace, it’s clear that the town has changed, and not for the better.

All Bus wants to do is get on with his life and be an auto mechanic, but Laurel, Bus’s old girlfriend, now newly married to a rich man, wants to keep Bus on the side. She also discourages his desire to be a mechanic, thinking it’s somehow “beneath” him. Bus initially goes along with it, but eventually sees the relationship for the dead end it is, and jettisons Laurel for a relationship with Judy (the late Janet Margolin), settling down to be a mechanic, which is what he’s best at.

Directed with quiet assurance by the late Harvey Hart, who never really got a chance to show what he was capable of, and expertly shot by Russell Metty, the film is suffused with the romance of smalltown America, and shot in a dreamlike, almost overtly poetic fashion, although it doesn’t skimp on tragedy: Judy loses her mother in a house fire, and moves in with the Rileys; the older, male owner of the local funeral home offers Bus a job, but it’s obvious that his real motives are less than honorable.

Not available on DVD; why? This is a film to be seen, and remembered.

Between Two Worlds (1944)

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Between Two Worlds (1944), directed by Edward A. Blatt, follows a group of people who find themselves on a mysterious ocean liner, bound for who knows where, in the midst of a perpetual fog. Although they don’t know it yet, they’re all dead; failed pianist Henry Bergner (Paul Henreid) and wife Ann (Eleanor Parker) realize this first, because they have committed suicide together in their small London flat. The others – tough guy reporter Tom Prior (John Garfield), Lingley, a brutal industrialist (George Coulouris), grasping socialite Genevieve Cliveden-Banks (Isobel Elsom) and her docile husband Benjamin Cliveden-Banks (Gilbert Emory), the meek Reverend William Duke (Dennis King), merchant seaman Pete Musick (George Tobias), would-be actress Maxine Russell (Faye Emerson), along with other passengers, have all been killed by a Nazi Blitz bomb in a taxi, and have yet to discover the truth of their current situation. One by one, they realize that they’re now in limbo, attended to by the servile Scrubby (Edmund Gwenn), as they wait for judgment from the Examiner, the now deceased Reverend Frank Thompson (Sydney Greenstreet), who is one of many heavenly judges who rule on each person’s final destination – heaven or hell, in a very literal sense.

Based on the 1924 novel by Sutton Vane, Outward Bound, which was filmed in 1930 under director Robert Milton, starring Leslie Howard, Helen Chandler, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Between Two Worlds is an odd wartime project to say the least, even if in the end, it has a somewhat positive narrative conclusion. Many have remarked on Blatt’s curiously flat staging of the project, and indeed, he only directed two more films after this, before returning to his regular job of dialogue director, but when I caught the last 50 minutes of the film this morning on TCM – I’ve seen it many times before – I was struck by the simplicity and sincerity of Blatt’s work on the project, which seems deeply felt, even impassioned. The movie’s main interest seems to reside in offering moral instruction for the audience, of a very direct kind, rather than escapist entertainment – something that Warner Bros. didn’t usually engage in.  It’s an odd, moody film, one that has unexpected power that gathers over the film’s running time, and exerts a hold on one’s imagination, even as it seems still and unhurried – but then again, the characters are in limbo, and so, for the duration of the film, are we.

Man Ray’s Return to Reason

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Salvador Dali and Man Ray, photographed in Paris by Carl van Vechten, June 16, 1934

One of the earliest cinematographic poets, Man Ray was a still photographer, painter, sculptor, who created a series of dazzling Dada films which still delight and amuse the viewer. Here’s a link to one of my favorites: Le Retour à la Raison (Return to Reason, 1923), 2 minutes in length, silent, which consists of random live images intercut with “Rayographs,” made by sprinkling salt, pepper, thumbtacks, pins and other materials directly on the film in the darkroom, then exposing it to controlled amounts of light.

As Man Ray said of the making of the film, “Acquiring a roll of a hundred feet of film, I went into my darkroom and cut up the material into short lengths, pinning them down on the worktable. On some strips I sprinkled salt and pepper, like a cook preparing a roast, on other strips I threw pins and thumbtacks at random; then I turned on the white light for a second or two, as I had done for my still Rayographs. Then I carefully lifted the film off the table, shaking off the debris, and developed it in my tanks. The next morning, when dry, I examined the work; the salt, pins and tacks were perfectly reproduced.”

“I paint what cannot be photographed, that which comes from the imagination or from dreams, or from an unconscious drive. I photograph the things that I do not wish to paint, the things which already have an existence.” (Undated interview, circa 1970s; published in Man Ray: Photographer, 1981.)

100 Movies, 100 Quotes, 100 Numbers

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Here’s a brilliant video which has been kicking around the web for quite a while; how many films can you identify in this montage?

About the Author

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 numerous books and more than 70 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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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