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Archive for September, 2011

Anthology Film Archives

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Film is such an ephemeral art form; it must be constantly preserved in order to survive for each succeeding generation. One of the most important and influential archives in the world for the study of experimental and avant-garde film is Anthology Film Archives. As its website notes:

Anthology Film Archives is an international center for the preservation, study, and exhibition of film and video, with a particular focus on independent, experimental, and avant-garde cinema.

Founded in 1969 by Jonas Mekas, Jerome Hill, P. Adams Sitney, Peter Kubelka, and Stan Brakhage [. . .] Anthology has grown [. . .] to encompass film preservation; the formation of a reference library containing the world’s largest collection of books, periodicals, stills, and other paper materials related to avant-garde cinema; and a remarkably innovative and eclectic film exhibition program. Anthology screens more than 900 programs annually, preserves an average of 25 films per year (with 800 works preserved to date), publishes books and DVDs, and hosts numerous scholars and researchers.

Fueled by the conviction that the index of a culture’s health and vibrancy lies largely in its margins, in those works of art that are created outside the commercial mainstream, Anthology strives to advance the cause and protect the heritage of a kind of cinema that is in particular danger of being lost, overlooked, or ignored.”

If you’re in the New York area, a visit to Anthology should not be missed; here is a link to its website, or you can click on the image at the top of this post.

The Story of Temple Drake

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

This most notorious of all Pre-Code films was just screened on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) for the first time this evening, September 14, 2011; the television premiere coming a mere 78 years after the film was made. Starring Miriam Hopkins as Temple Drake, and the always ominous Jack LaRue as the despicable Trigger, the film, when first released, aroused  a storm of indignation with its story of a rich Southern belle succumbing to the lure of cheap thrills.

But before the TCM screening, The Story of Temple Drake was part of the To Save and Project series in 2010 at the Museum of Modern Art, as curated by Joshua Siegel. Indeed, it turns out that the restoration of the film was a joiny project between TCM and The Museum of Modern Art. As Katie Trainor of MoMA notes,

The Story of Temple Drake was made in 1933 by Stephen Roberts and is based on William Faulkner’s controversial 1931 novel Sanctuary. This steamy melodrama triggered church boycotts and stricter enforcement of the Hays production code. After only a few few screenings, the film was quickly shelved by the Production Code Administration, never to be seen again…until now.

In the early thirties, The Production Code Administration was starting to pull out its big censorship guns. Joseph Breen, who was known as “the enforcer,” came up with three categories for motion pictures—Class 1 were films that had to be withdrawn immediately with no chance for re-release; Class 2 were those pictures that were allowed to finish their extant contracts before being withdrawn permanently; and Class 3 were those that would be withdrawn, re-edited to conform to the Code, and presented again to the Production Code Administration. The Story of Temple Drake fell into Class 1. Aside from its few initial screenings, the film couldn’t be seen then or for many years after.

MoMA received the original picture and track camera negatives back in the 1970s, and the film has been in the vaults since then (at proper temperature and humidity, of course!). Fortunately, the nitrate film elements were in excellent condition, which helped significantly in the preservation process. The print of Temple Drake that is screening at MoMA is only a single generation away from the original camera negative, making this a true rediscovery that is not to be missed.”

I was there for the original screening at MoMA, and indeed, it was an amazing experience. The image quality and detail in the restored 35mm print was truly extraordinary. Now, could we have a Criterion DVD release of this rare, and important title?

You can read Katie Trainor’s complete essay here.

A Few Words on Marie Menken

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Marie Menken was a true original.

The gifted filmmaker Marie Menken was someone whom I knew in the 1960s; when I was working at the now-defunct Life magazine as a contributor in the late 60s, writing on experimental cinema, Marie was working there too, watching the teletype machines on the night shift to see if anything important came in — it wasn’t her passion in life, but it was a living.

Her real life was the cinema. She’d been making experimental films since the 1940s. In this, she is one of the pioneers of American experimental cinema, along with Maya Deren, whom I blogged on earlier. As critic Jonas Mekas observed, “The realist sees only the front of a building, the outlines, a street, a tree. Marie Menken sees in them the motion of time and eye. She sees the motions of heart in a tree. … A rain that she sees, a tender rain, becomes the memory of all rains she ever saw; a garden that she sees becomes a memory of all gardens, all color, all perfume, all mid-summer and sun.”

Some of her key films include:

Notebook (1940–62, in which she collected her favorite shots and scenes in a sort of moving scrapbook); Hurry! Hurry! (1957); Arabesque for Kenneth Anger (1958–1961); Visual Variations on Noguchi (1945); Dwightiana (1958–59, a stop motion animation film made to comfort a sick friend); Glimpse of the Garden (1962, one of her most lovely films); and Andy Warhol (1965), in which Menken compressed a day at the factory into 22 minutes, through the use of single-frame photography, so that everything moves by in a blur of ecstatic motion.

Marie Menken dancing with Tennessee Williams at The Factory

By that time, Marie had drifted firmly into the orbit of Andy Warhol’s Factory, and appeared as an actor in a number of his films, most memorably The Life of Juanita Castro (1965) and Chelsea Girls (1966). But it was in her own films as a director that her spirit shone forth most brightly. All of Menken’s films are very short; they’re really cinematic poems, in which Menken becomes one with whatever she’s filming.

As she said of her work: “There is no why for my making films. I just liked the twitters of the machine, and since it was an extension of painting for me, I tried it and loved it. In painting I never liked the staid and static, always looked for what would change the source of light and stance, using glitters, glass beads, luminous paint, so the camera was a natural for me to try – but how expensive!” A superb documentary has been made of her life, Notes on Marie Menken (2006), by Martina Kudláček; recommended viewing.

Here’s a link to her film Arabesque for Kenneth Anger.

Pauline Kael on Movie Violence

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Younger readers may not know of Pauline Kael, one of the most thoughtful and influential film critics of the 1960s and 70s. Here, in her review of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, she says a few things about violence in the media that are even truer today:

“At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure. The directors used to say they were showing us its real face and how ugly it was in order to sensitize us to its horrors. You don’t have to be very keen to see that they are now in fact de-sensitizing us. They are saying that everyone is brutal, and the heroes must be as brutal as the villains or they turn into fools. There seems to be an assumption that if you’re offended by movie brutality, you are somehow playing into the hands of the people who want censorship. But this would deny those of us who don’t believe in censorship the use of the only counterbalance: the freedom of the press to say that there’s anything conceivably damaging in these films—the freedom to analyze their implications. If we don’t use this critical freedom, we are implicitly saying that no brutality is too much for us—that only squares and people who believe in censorship are concerned with brutality.”

I couldn’t agree more.

The Women in High Noon (1952)

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Kathy Jurado, Grace Kelly and Gary Cooper on the set of High Noon

High Noon (1952) is an iconic Western; it enraged John Wayne, who thought it Communist propaganda, but it’s really nothing of the sort. It’s also a deeply ironic comment, in view of the fact that Cooper had testified before the HUAC on October 23, 1947, as a friendly witness, condemning supposed Communist influence in Hollywood.

It’s very, very bleak morality tale, in which small town Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) discovers, to his shock and dismay, that when convict Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) gets out of prison and comes gunning for him, no one — absolutely no one — will come to his aid.

What makes the film all the more depressing is that it starts out with a wedding — Kane marries Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), a Quaker, and plans to leave the town and start a new life working the land, removed from guns and violence. All Kane’s “friends” gather round at the wedding: the town’s mayor, Jonas Henderson (Thomas Mitchell), the judge Percy Mettrick (Otto Kruger, reliably despicable as always), Sam Fuller (Harry Morgan) the town’s retired Marshal, Martin Howe (Lon Chaney), and when word arrives that Frank Miller is on his way, all desert him. Their only advice; get out of town, fast, but Kane realizes that if he did that, he’d simply be running from Frank Miller for the rest of his life.

Complicating matters further are Kane’s former lover, saloon owner Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado), who has also had an affair with Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), the Deputy Marshal, who covets both Kane’s job, and his past relationship with Helen. Amy, meanwhile, tells Kane she will leave him if he engages in gunplay with Frank Miller. As the clock ticks inexorably towards High Noon, and Kane’s options run out, it seems that there is nothing to do but face up to Frank Miller, even though Kane will likely be outdrawn.

What is interesting here to me is that the women are arguably the central figures in the film, rather than the men, although Gary Cooper’s performance won him the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1952. (The film also got, and deserved, the Oscar for Best Film Editing, to Elmo Williams and Harry W. Gerstad, for what amounted to a miraculous “save” job in the cutting room, but that’s another story; it also won Best Song – “High Noon [Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’]” by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, and Best Score for Tiomkin; Fred Zinnemann was nominated, but did not win, for Best Director; the film was also nominated, but didn’t win, for Best Picture [Stanley Kramer] and Best Screenplay [Carl Foreman]).

Katy Jurado brings to her portrayal of Helen Ramírez a dignity that’s missing from most 1950s portrayals of Latina women; she’s a figure of power, integrity, decisiveness, and a shrewd judge of character. As Amy, Grace Kelly seems overwhelmed by the turn of events that thrusts her newly wed husband back into the arena of violence, but in the end, as Brecht always advised, realizes that “only violence helps where violence rules,” and takes an active hand in ending Frank Miller’s reign of terror.

It’s really these two women, and the way they deal with the situation given to them, that informs the internal structure of the film. The townspeople simply cower; Kane tries to get help, but can’t; and for most of the film, Zinnemann keeps cutting back to the town’s lonely train station, where Frank Miller’s sidekicks wait for him to arrive on the noon train. So their roles are somewhat predestined by the narrative structure of the film; for Helen and Amy, the matter requires more thought, and how they react is crucial to the resolution of the film’s narrative.

What John Wayne — and others — probably objected to more than anything else was the film’s conclusion, when Kane throws his badge in the dirt after, against all odds, and with the help of his pacifist wife, Amy, he manages to defeat Frank and his gang. Heroes just don’t do that.

As director Howard Hawks told an interviewer much later, “I made Rio Bravo because I didn’t like High Noon. Neither did Duke [John Wayne]. I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn’t my idea of a good Western.” But in Kane’s case, he can’t forgive the town for folding up on him when he needed them most; these people were supposed to be his friends.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster wrote an interesting essay on this often-neglected side of the film, “The Women in High Noon (1952): A Metanarrative of Difference,” in the book The Films of Fred Zinnemann: Critical Perspectives, edited by Arthur Nolletti (SUNY UP, 1999). Definitely worth seeking out, and reading.

Strange Illusion (1945)

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

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

Here’s a very interesting modern-day adaptation of Hamlet, although William Shakespeare gets absolutely no credit whatsoever for his input into the project. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer for a pittance at PRC Studios in 1945, Strange Illusion was one of the studio’s prestige efforts, starring Jimmy Lydon, Sally Eilers, and most importantly, Warren William, as the nefarious Claude Barrington, an unscrupulous criminal, who masquerades as Brett Curtis, a wealthy man about town, who in reality is in inpatient at the asylum of Professor Muhlbach (Charles Arnt).

As Barry Meyer summarizes the film’s plot, “Paul Cartwright (Jimmy Lydon), a sensitive young man still shaken by his father’s death a couple years previously, has a dream in which he witnesses the violent car crash that took his father’s life, not as an accident, but as murder.  In the dream, he also sees his mother (Sally Eilers) and sister Dorothy (Jayne Hazard) being seduced by a shadowy stranger, who Paul fears may be his father’s murderer.  After returning to school, Paul still cannot shake the awful dream, and when Brett Curtis (Warren William) comes to court his mother, Paul realizes that the occurrences in his dream are beginning to come true.  He enlists his friends and the family doctor to help him uncover the secrets hidden in his nightmares before his mother gets tangled in the web of deceit spun by Curtis.”

Ulmer was always able to make something out of nearly nothing; the results are quite remarkable.

The Dalton Girls

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Lisa Davis as Rose Dalton in The Dalton Girls

The Dalton Girls (1957) is a feminist western directed by Reginald LeBorg, which follows the adventures of Holly, Rose, Columbine and Marigold Dalton as they go on a crime rampage in the old west following the violent deaths of their brothers, members of the infamous Dalton Gang. When they visit Mr. Slidell (Glenn Davis), the mortician who is preparing the bodies of their brothers for burial, Slidell attempts to force himself on Holly, who kills him with a shovel in self-defense.

Just like Thelma and Louise (1991), the women are now on the run, and soon learn that no one will cut them an even break because of their past. They resolve to lead a life of crime, starting out with a stagecoach robbery, moving on to banks, poker games, and other potentially lucrative targets. Director LeBorg keeps things moving at a rapid clip, and the performances by Merry Anders, Lisa Davis, Penny Edwards and Sue George are all surprisingly convincing and sympathetic. Shot location near Kanab, Utah, the film is sparse, brutal and unforgiving.

What strikes one the most about The Dalton Girls is the speed and brutality of the narrative; it’s over in 71 minutes, and instead of being centered on a group of outlaw men, the Dalton women make their plight seem like a calling — ridding themselves of the patriarchy. As Rose Dalton observes of one of their “gentlemen admirers,” “Oh, honey, don’t think about him. They tell me he plays women just like he plays poker. Riffle, shuffle, fast cut, big deal, the sky’s the limit; and then all of a sudden you’re lying there in the discard.”

As Hal Erickson notes, “After all the members of the notorious Dalton outlaw gang have been killed or arrested, their sisters decide to pick up where the boys left off. Led by Holly Dalton (Merry Anders), who since killing a man in self-defense has been outside the law, the girls terrorize Colorado territory with their criminal raids. The other members of the gang are Rose, Columbine and Marigold Dalton, played by Lisa Davis, Penny Edwards, Sue George. In true Hollywood Chauvinist fashion, the Dalton girls are trailed by a bunch of matrimony-minded men; refreshingly, however, the ladies remain true to their heritage to the last.”

The film is also, despite its somewhat compromised origins, absolutely serious. The best essay on the film is Gwendolyn Foster’s “Crossdressing and Disruptions of Identity in The Dalton Girls,” in Film Criticism 20.3  (Spring 1996): 24-33, which was reprinted in her book Captive Bodies: Postcolonial Subjectivity in the Cinema (SUNY UP, 1999). The Dalton Girls is scheduled to be released to DVD a part of the MGM Classics Collection in late September 2011; another interesting film that finally makes it to DVD.

Here’s a clip.

John and James Whitney

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

The Whitney Brothers at work on an early film. Photo: Carl Machover.

John and James Whitney were pioneering artists and experimental filmmakers; here’s a link to an excellent survey of their work, and of abstract imagist filmmaking. The Whitney Brothers were among the very first, and the most inventive, in harnessing the power of computers to create images of dazzling, trancelike beauty, as in James Whitney‘s Lapis (1966). I’m also partial to their earlier works, such as John Whitney’s Celery Stalks at Midnight (1952), an abstract animation set to a popular song of the period.

As this very interesting website notes, “In the early 1960s digital computers became available to artists for the first time (although they cost from $100.000 to several millions, required air conditioning, and therefore located in separate computer rooms, uninhabitable studio’; programs and data had to be prepared with the keypunch, punch cards then fed into the computer; systems were not interactive and could produce only still images). The output medium was usually a pen plotter, microfilm plotter (hybrid bwn vector CRT and a raster image device), line printer or an alphanumeric printout, which was then manually transferred into a visual medium. [The] two main centers of computer art activities [at the time were]: The Murray Hill lab, Bell Laboratories, New Jersey, us (now AT&T) and Technische Universitat Stuttgart, de (Max Bense).”

Click on the image above to see James Whitney’s Lapis (1966) in its entirety.

The Thing from Another World (1951) vs. The Thing (1982)

Monday, September 12th, 2011

James Arness as The Thing in the Hawks/Nyby The Thing from Another World (1951)

Nominally directed by Christian Nyby — although most of the cast members assert that Nyby only directed one scene before deferring to producer/director Howard Hawks; Nyby had been Hawks’ editor for many years, and was superbly gifted at this, but he seems to have been out of his depth as a director — the 1951 film The Thing from Another World is a dense, fast-moving thriller, an an iconic film of its time and place.

In any event, The Thing from Another World features all the hallmarks of a Hawksian universe; men and women banding together as a group, in adverse circumstances, to defeat an external threat that seeks to destroy them — it might as well be Hawks’ Rio Lobo, or El Dorado, or Carpenter’s homage to Hawks, Assault on Precinct 13. But the pervading spirit is one of hope; people will die, there’s a real struggle going on, but in the end, the group will triumph, and the film ends on a note of optimism.

In contrast, John W. Campbell‘s source novella is a much more downbeat affair, from its first lines on: “The place stank. A queer, mingled stench that only the ice-buried cabins of an Antarctic camp know, compounded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber. An overtone of liniment combated the musty smell of sweat-and-snow-drenched furs. The acrid odor of burnt cooking fat, and the animal, not-unpleasant smell of dogs, diluted by time, hung in the air.” (You can read the entire text of the novella here.)

Bill Lancaster, Burt’s son, wrote a screenplay for the Carpenter film that hews much more closely to Campbell’s original text, simply because Hawks realized that The Thing’s ability to assimilate and imitate any life form at will was beyond the reach of 1950s special effects, except perhaps with stop motion animation, and Hawks wasn’t about to get involved with that.

John Carpenter, however, working with the young and ridiculously ambitious Rob Bottin at the start of his career (with a slight assist from the late Stan Winston on the scene with the dog morphing into a spider), created a vision of nihilistic hell, in which the members of the Antarctic base camp, instead of coming together, fall apart completely, becoming more and more paranoid as the The Thing successfully takes over one person after another.

In addition to the superb ensemble acting, Carpenter’s patient direction, and Dean Cundey‘s moody scope cinematography, what makes the film so compelling is the tactile realism of Bottin’s special effects work. There’s only one shot in the final film that’s stop motion (a tentacle of The Thing pulls a dynamite plunger into a hole in the floor — there’s more stop motion in the outtakes, but Carpenter wisely decided not to use it), and there is, of course, no CGI, since this is 1982; all the film’s remarkable, still-unsurpassed special effects are done “on the floor,” prosthetically, and so they have a degree of verisimilitude that CGI can never attain.

Nor are there any women in Carpenter’s, Campbell’s and Lancaster’s bleak world — other than the synthetic female voice in a Chess Wizard machine — and when trouble strikes, the men revert to almost infantile behavior, putting themselves before the group with disastrous consequences, culminating in a narrative conclusion in which The Thing is (it seems) triumphant; it will freeze again in the Arctic cold, only to be resurrected another day.

Then, too, there’s an interesting touch; Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), the head research scientist in Hawks’ version, seeks to shield The Thing from those who would oppose it, even to the point of allowing other members of the expedition to be sacrificed; in Carpenter’s version, the lead scientist, Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) figures out rapidly that if allowed to escape, The Thing will infect the entire world, and destroys all means of getting out of the base camp.

Soon, however, Blair too has been subsumed by The Thing, leading to a final scene in which only two members of the “group” survive; the hot-tempered Childs (Keith David) and group leader R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), after destroying the camp — and thus ensuring their own deaths, as they’ll freeze to death in the cold — the two men share a bottle of scotch and engage in some final, hopeless banter.

Childs: Temperature’s up all over the camp. Won’t last long though.
MacReady: Neither will we.
Childs: How will we make it?
MacReady: Maybe we shouldn’t.
Childs: If you’re worried about me…
MacReady: If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think either one of us is in much shape to do anything about it.
Childs: What do we do now?
MacReady: Why don’t we just wait here for a little while… see what happens…

and thus the film ends. Carpenter’s film is every bit as good as Hawks’, and closer to the spirit of the original text, and both versions are clearly masterpieces; one of the few times in cinema history when the remake (or revision) of the original is as good as its predecessor. Hawks holds out for hope; Carpenter realizes that there is none. That’s why Carpenter’s version failed at the box office in 1982, but perhaps its unyielding fatalism is why it resonates so powerfully today.

Kurt Russell in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)

Maya Deren

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

Click here, on the image above, to see Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

The foremost feminist experimental filmmaker of the 1940s, and one of the key founders of the New American Cinema, Maya Deren led a brief and tempestuous life, during which she completed a handful of mesmeric films under the most difficult circumstances, working in 16mm black and white with the smallest of budgets. Of all her films, I like Meshes of the Afternoon the best, and her last, and most ambitious film, the nearly feature-length Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, which she never got to complete, but which, in its 1985 incarnation, comes very close to her original vision of the film, and is a fascinating document of the culture and customs of Haiti during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

As usual, Deren shot the footage for Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti on her own, using the barest essentials; a spring windup Bolex, that most durable of cameras because it requires no batteries, and 100′ daylight spools of 16mm film. Dderen was a true and uncompromising original, and her work remains as daring and enigmatic today as it when it was first released.

Her key works include:

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
At Land (1944)
Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946)
Meditation on Violence (1948)
The Very Eye of Night (1958)
Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985)
(Original footage shot by Deren 1947-1954; completed by Teiji & Cherel Ito.)

But filmmaking was only part of her work as an artist. Here is a superb essay by Wendy Haslem on Deren and her work. As Haslem notes: “Whilst she is first recognized by this image, what is little known is that Deren was also a dancer, choreographer, poet, writer and photographer. In the cinema she was a director, writer, cinematographer, editor, performer, entrepreneur and pioneer in experimental filmmaking in the United States. Like Jean-Luc Godard and Sergei Eisenstein, Maya Deren was both a film theorist and a filmmaker. Unlike these luminaries, Deren’s writing remains relatively obscure in film theory and her films are rarely screened outside of experimental or feminist film courses.”

You can read Wendy Haslem’s entire essay here.

Maya Deren in the editing room, 1940s

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.

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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.

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