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Archive for September, 2011

Jerome Hiler’s “Words of Mercury” at the 49th NYFF

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

A frame from Jerome Hiler’s Words of Mercury (2011)

Jerome Hiler is running his new film, the 25 minute, color, silent Words of Mercury (2011), at the 49th New York Film Festival on October 8th and 9th, 2011; here’s what he has to say about his newest work:

“At the very end of Love’s Labour Lost, as the cast is frolicking around, a messenger comes in to announce a death which brings a sudden shift to the very end of the play.  One of the most comical characters, now newly sober, ends the play with a quick dismissal of the audience: ‘The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.  You that way – we this way.’

Words of Mercury is, if nothing else, economical. It was shot on reversal film and is being screened as original. Its layers of superimpositions were all shot in the camera. Half of the many fades in the film were made by submerging the original film in a black liquid. The film is silent. The shooting ratio is low and there are areas which are unedited since taken from the camera.

I generally shoot first and ask questions later, but I’m struck at the influences that I see in Words of Mercury because they reach back to the very first times that I saw great 16mm films in the early Sixties: Marie Menken, Gregory Markopolous, Stan Brakhage and my lifetime companion Nathaniel Dorsky.”

If you’re in New York, don’t miss it.

Alphaville (1965)

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

“No one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.” – the super computer Alpha 60, in Godard’s Alphaville

Jean Luc-Godard’s Alphaville (1965) is one of the most effective visions of a Dystopian future every created for the screen. Working with American-born French cult actor Eddie Constantine, Godard crafted a science-fiction narrative of the future, working in then-contemporary Paris, shooting mostly at night with available light, as he tells the story of Alpha 60, a gigantic computer than controls the zombified citizens of Alphaville, a futuristic metropolis in a distant constellation in interstellar space. Constantine plays Lemmy Caution, a tough-as nails secret agent, whom he had also portrayed in a series of crime thrillers to diminishing returns before he teamed up with Godard.

Caution has been sent to Alphaville to destroy Alpha 60, free the citizens from its control, and rescue the beautiful Natacha von Braun (Anna Karina), the daughter of Professor von Braun, aka Leonard Nosferatu (Howard Vernon), the creator of Alpha 60. Lemmy accomplishes all of this in his usual tough guy fashion, while simultaneously matching wits with Alpha 60 in a philosophical battle of the wills.

Alpha 60: “What is your secret? Tell me, Mr. Caution.”

Caution: “Something which never changes, day or night. The past represents its future. It advances in a straight line, yet it ends by coming full circle.”

Everything about Alphaville is corrupt; women are exhibited as objects for purchase, vending machines dispense cards saying “Thank You” in return for a franc (or “nothing for something”), and anyone in Alphaville who displays the slightest bit of emotion is immediately sentenced to death. Shooting in crisp black and white with his signature cameraman, Raoul Coutard, on a budget of roughly $100,000, Godard transforms images of Paris at night into a hellish depiction of the future, when no one cares about anything anymore, and hope, love and faith have been forgotten.

Here’s the trailer, which is typically Godardian. If you haven’t seen the film, click on the image below now; this is proof that a sharp, cold, and superbly calculated vision of the future can be accomplished with a few actors, existing cityscapes, and an imagination which was, at the time, boundless.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the entire film, in French with English subtitles.

James Dean / Paul Newman Screen Test

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

James Dean and Paul Newman try out for East of Eden (1955)

Elia Kazan directs this rather amazing screen test with Paul Newman and James Dean, both young, relaxed, and obviously at ease in front of the camera, despite Elia Kazan’s offscreen hectoring. Dean, toying with a switchblade knife through much of this test, which is in two sections, got the part, his first major screen role; Newman didn’t make the cut, for one reason or another.

My favorite exchange: Dean to Newman: “Kiss me.” Newman: “Can’t here.”

Click on the image above, or here, to see the test.

Richard Poirier on the Value of Difficulty

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Richard Poirier in the 1970s

Richard Poirier, who was a strong influence on my early work as a critic — and continues to be so to this day — always argued for the difficulty of reading, or apprehending any work of real quality. As Alexander Star put it, in an appreciation of Poirier’s life in The New York Times,

“Mr. Poirier’s most important contribution came in his criticism, which tried to convey why the act of reading is — and should be — so difficult. The most powerful works of literature, he insisted, offer “a fairly direct access to pleasure” but become “on longer acquaintance, rather strange and imponderable.” Even as readers try to pin down what a writer means, the best authors try to elude them, using all the resources of sound, rhythm and syntax to defeat any straightforward account of what they are doing.

This approach to literature is as resonant today as ever. Mr. Poirier’s criticism poses a challenge to literary professionals who bemoan that Americans are spending less time with the established classics as well as to Internet enthusiasts who boast that the Web will provide immediate access not only to the best that has been thought and said but to everything else. He reminds us that we should never be complacent about the glories of the canon, which is made up of texts as frustrating and unfinished as ourselves. And he suggests that linking and hyperlinking are no substitute for a sustained encounter with the great writers of the past, who were themselves both tormented and thrilled by ‘what words were doing to them and what they might do in return.’”

Poirier, as Star reminds us, famously compared The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to the work of Alexander Pope, and he also was instrumental in creating the first film studies classes at Rutgers University in the mid 1960s, where I cut my teeth as a lecturer and writer. He also made sure that people like Susan Sontag came in to do guest lectures, and insisted on quality in every aspect of his work, and in the work of others. In short, he was a Renaissance man, but at the same time, he deplored dilletantism; whatever one did, one had to master. For as Jean Cocteau put it, “A work of art should also be ‘an object difficult to pick up’. The less it’s understood, the slower it opens its petals, the later it will fade.”

John O’ Hara on Criticism

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

John O’Hara at work in his study in Connecticut, 1960s

John O’ Hara was a short story writer and novelist; I think he’s generally much better as a creator of short stories than novels. His first novel, Appointment in Samarra (1934) is one of his finest sustained pieces; but I really love his short stories, which I’ve read countless times, and which O’Hara collected in a number of volumes after they were first published in The New Yorker. And, of course, many of his novels were made into films, most notably Daniel Mann’s version of O’Hara’s novel BUtterfield 8 (1960).

But I’m criticizing!

And here’s what O’Hara had to say on that:

“The only reply to the critics is, curiously, the same reply to the hostile and to the friendly. It is work. Do anything – a play, a short story, another novel – but be doing something. I am not so sure that amor vincit omnia, but work keeps us going. It is a reply and an answer.”

– John O’Hara in a letter to John Hersey, January 21, 1965.

Orson Welles on Commercial Filmmaking

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Welles shooting Citizen Kane (1941)

We can thank Orson Welles for this pithy, and all too true comment on commercial cinema:

“The best thing commercially, which is the worst artistically, by and large, is the most successful.”

 

Senses of Cinema

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

While there is a lot of writing on film available on the web today, much of it is fan-based, or of highly variable quality. And the really intelligent, thoughtful work on the web is often locked behind a pay wall, on a “download by article” basis. That’s why it’s so important that Senses of Cinema, one of the first, and certainly one of the most prestigious, online journals continues to flourish. Senses of Cinema brings together some of the most accessible and informed writing on film that’s available today, in a format that is accessible to all. As the journal says in its mission statement,

Senses of Cinema is an online journal devoted to the serious and eclectic discussion of cinema. We believe cinema is an art that can take many forms, from the industrially-produced blockbuster to the hand-crafted experimental work; we also aim to encourage awareness of the histories of such diverse forms. As an Australian-based journal, we have a special commitment to the regular, wide-ranging analysis and critique of Australian cinema, past and present.

Senses of Cinema is primarily concerned with ideas about particular films or bodies of work, but also with the regimes (ideological, economic and so forth) under which films are produced and viewed, and with the more abstract theoretical and philosophical issues raised by film study. As well, we believe that a cinephilic understanding of the moving image provides the necessary basis for a radical critique of other media and of the global “image culture”.

We are open to a range of critical approaches (auteurist, formalist, psychoanalytic, humanist…) and encourage contributors to experiment with different forms of writing (personal memoir, academic essay, journalistic report, poetic evocation…). We commission and accept articles from academics and journalists, internationally-known authorities and previously unpublished cinephiles alike; our only criteria are that they should shed new light on their subjects, and be informed by a broad knowledge and love of cinema. Likewise, our readership is a genuinely diverse group, bringing together people from a wide range of backgrounds, professions and interests but bound by a single common element: an informed, passionate and serious attitude toward cinema as an art.

We recognise that an art as ephemeral and ethereal as cinema continues to fascinate, provoke, inspire, turn on, and evolve. Above all, we seek to facilitate approaches to cinema that present new possibilities for exploring, experiencing and imagining the world we live in.”

The journal also has an excellent series of essays on the “great directors” which is continually expanding; if you’re doing research for a project, or just want to read some truly informed and intelligent film theory and criticism, Senses of Cinema is one of the few web-based film theory journals that can consistently be relied upon for accuracy, quality, and depth.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011)

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Ryan Gosling at the wheel in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011)

Here’s a typically elegant and perceptive essay by J. Hoberman from The Village Voice on Drive (2011), the new action film by director Nicolas Winding Refn. As Hoberman usefully points out,

“As stripped-down and propulsive as its robotic title, Drive is the most “American” movie yet by Danish genre director Nicolas Winding Refn. The film, for which Refn was named best director last May in Cannes, is a sleek, tense piece of work that, as a vehicle for Ryan Gosling, has a kind of daredevil control [. . .] Refn is primarily a stylist, and this tale of a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a hired wheelman (or is it vice versa?) and gets played for a patsy is a lovingly assembled, streamlined pastiche of ’80s movies and TV. The most obvious reference is Walter Hill’s schematic action flick The Driver: This 1978 paean to professional cool in the person of Ryan O’Neal more or less provides Drive’s title, premise, uninflected antihero, and minimalist existentialism, as well as its two-dimensional attitude.”

I’ve always thought that The Driver was one of Hill’s best films, and this is an inspired riff on the original, by a thoughtful and intelligent genre artist. Interestingly, the project was originally pitched to Gosling, and it was Gosling who chose Refn as the director for Drive; a first for Gosling’s career, and a very smart decision. Those who think that Cannes only honors more traditional “art” films should think again; this is a festival that continually surprises informed observers, in the most pleasingly possible fashion. Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks and Christina Hendricks are also in the film, so all in all, this is a very strong ensemble cast for any project. And you know what’s really refreshing? As Mike Fleming reports in Deadline Hollywood, the film was made for roughly $30 million, and in today’s economy, that’s bare bones filmmaking.

Read Hoberman’s entire essay here.

The Essential Writings of David Sterritt

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

David Sterritt’s writings constantly continue to enlighten and surprise me, by thinking of films in new and original ways that challenge the preconceptions we have about the movies.

As his Wikipedia entry notes, “Sterritt is most notable for his work on Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Luc Godard, and his many years as the Film Critic for The Christian Science Monitor, where, from 1968 until his retirement in 2005, he championed avant garde cinema, theater and music. He has a Ph.D in Cinema Studies from New York University, and is the Chairman of the National Society of Film Critics.  Sterritt is known for his intelligent discussions of controversial films and his lively, accessible style. He is particularly well-known for his careful considerations of films with a spiritual connection, such as Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).

His writings on film and film culture appear regularly in various publications, including The New York Times, MovieMaker Magazine, The Huffington Post, Senses of Cinema, Cineaste, Film Comment, Film Quarterly and elsewhere. Sterritt has also written influentially on the film and culture of the 1950s, the Beat Generation, French New Wave cinema, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Altman, Spike Lee and Terry Gilliam, and the TV series The Honeymooners.”

Here, he writes about Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! (2009); and, in a different essay, the concept of evil in its numerous forms as observed in the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Both are pdfs that you can download and peruse at your leisure; there’s also Sterritt’s main site, which contains a compendium of all his works, and is heartily recommended, which you can access here.

And here’s the real goldmine; an amazing series of essays by Sterritt on an incredible variety of topics, available by clicking this link. This is one of the most invaluable one-stop resources for film criticism on the ever-more-commercial web today, and an example of Sterritt’s generosity in making his work freely available to the public. This group of essays also gives one some small indication of how wide-ranging and innovative Sterritt’s work in film is.

Essential reading.

Born to Kill (1947)

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Albert Arnett: “It’s quite all right, Mrs. Brent. I am a man of integrity, but I’m always willing to listen to an interesting offer.”
Helen Brent: “Well, I’m prepared to pay handsomely.”
Albert Arnett: “Good. Obstructing the wheels of justice is a costly affair.”
Helen Brent: “Five thousand dollars should do it.”
Albert Arnett: “Fifteen thousand dollars should do it.”

Robert Wise’s Born to Kill (1947), starring Lawrence Tierney, Elisha Cook Jr. and Claire Trevor is one of the most perverse of all 1940s noirs; Tierney stars as Sam Wild, a sociopath who thinks nothing of killing anyone who causes him even the slightest annoyance. Fleeing town after another senseless killing, he picks up Helen Brent (Trevor) on a train to San Francisco, and despite their differences in social class (an important point in the film), the two form an unholy alliance to claw their way to fame and fortune, using and discarding people at whim. Sam quickly realizes that Helen is “slumming,” and immediately calls her on it:

Sam Wild: “Oh, I see. You cross the tracks on May Day with a basket of goodies for the poor slum kid, but back you scoot – and fast – to your own neck o’ the woods. Don’t you?”
Helen Brent: “I wouldn’t say that.”
Sam Wild: “No, you wouldn’t ’say’ it… but that’s the way it is.”

On their trail is Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak), who, upon confronting Helen about Sam’s homicidal activities, dryly observes that “I remind you that Nevada courts have rather puritanical views. Why, some of our more impassioned juries even insist that a man who commits murder pay with his life.” And yet Arnett is just as crooked as Sam and Helen; his silence can be obtained, for a price.

Tierney’s sidekick, Mart (Cook Jr.), has a rather peculiar arrangement with Sam, functioning not only as an enabler in Sam’s schemes, but also as an oddly “spousal” figure, lending cash, arranging cover-ups and alibis, and scaring off witnesses to Sam’s numerous transgressions. As directed by Wise with ferocious intensity (it’s really hard to square this film with The Sound of Music [1965], much later in Wise’s career), Born to Kill is one of the most brutal and unyielding films ever made, of which the title says all; Sam Wild is “born to kill.” Or, as Sam bluntly puts it, “I’ve got a dame on my mind – and she’s dead. That’s plenty for me.”

Here’s an excellent essay on Born to Kill by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster.

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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