Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Archive for March, 2012

Michael Caine on Film Acting

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

“I’ll always be there because I’m a skilled professional actor. Whether or not I’ve any talent is beside the point.”

In this 1989 video tutorial, actor Michael Caine talks in a very direct, simple, practical way about the craft of acting specifically for films — it’s all about the eyes, the camera, and ignoring everything else. Caine, of course, is a superb actor who somehow has never really gotten his due in the history books — he runs the gamut from pop films to absolutely personal works, and manages to excel in every role he tackles. In sharp contract to lots of theoretical approaches to working in film, Caine demonstrates here a whole arsenal of methods, techniques, and strategies that make him such an effective screen presence.

As he told Sean O’Neal in 2011, “I’m forever testing myself. As a person and as an actor, I have no sense of competition. I am a great admirer of other actors, but I never compete with other actors. I always compete with what I did last, and I’m my own most vicious critic. So I’m always trying to do it better. Let me put it this way: If you’re sitting in a movie and you’re watching me, and you say, ‘Isn’t that Michael Caine a wonderful actor?’ then I’ve failed. If I’m a really wonderful actor, you’ll forget [I’m acting] because you’re going ‘What’s going to happen to [my character] now?’ That’s a movie actor, and that’s what I try to be.”

“I’m looking for me to disappear, and the acting to disappear, and all you see is a real person.”

The Birds is Coming

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer from The Birds.

“We seem to have a compulsion these days to bury time capsules in order to give those people living in the next century or so some idea of what we are like. I have prepared one of my own. I have placed some rather large samples of dynamite, gunpowder, and nitroglycerin. My time capsule is set to go off in the year 3000. It will show them what we are really like.”  ― Alfred Hitchcock

For a more satisfying vision of a future in which things don’t work out as planned, with nature in revolt and the horror left unresolved at fadeout, one could do worse than to rent Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic The Birds, in which the director’s mastery to both form and content is evident in every frame. Famously devoid of any musical score at all, other than an electronic pastiche of bird cries on the soundtrack to punctuate the action, The Birds is a master class in camera placement, editing, and the slow accumulation of suspense — scene by scene.

Tippi Hedren is self-assured and resolute in the leading role as Melanie Daniels, while Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy and Suzanne Pleshette lend credible support, and the film itself is handsomely designed, with a sense of solidity and precision in its construction that holds up under repeated viewings. Based on Daphne du Maurier’s short story, with superb special effects by the great Ub Iwerks, The Birds stands as Hitchcock’s last really successful film, after the full-fledged triumph of Psycho.

Those who would like to know more about the film should read Hitchcock /Truffaut, perhaps the best interview book ever done on any director, in which François Truffaut spent weeks with Hitchcock going over his entire career in minute detail — first released in the late 1960s, it has never been out of print, and Truffaut was able to create a revised, expanded second edition just before his tragic death in 1984 — there’s really no better introduction to Hitchcock’s work.

The Hunger Games: The Triumph of Fascism

Monday, March 26th, 2012

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.

Well, this is the last time I’m going to write about The Hunger Games. It’s really a Lionsgate picture after all, not that far from the Saw films in emotional coldness. Of course, that’s the whole premise of the film, but the calculated superficiality of the piece, coupled with Gary Ross’s scattershot direction  — never using one shot when 57 will do in the action sequences to depict confusion, action, excitement, and slacking off to standard master shot / close-up coverage in the Capitol scenes, replete with Nazi Art Deco surroundings —  never really critiques the fascism that The Hunger Games is supposed to explore. Instead, it celebrates it.

The plot is simple; in the provinces, the workers live in poverty and do all the hard work, sending the fruits of their labors to the citizens — the rulers — of the Capitol. There, the very rich live existences of decadent luxury, and have absolutely no interest in anything other than material goods and the pursuit of pleasure.

Some 74 years earlier, the provinces had revolted against their rulers, and a civil war ensued. Eventually, the ruling forces crushed the rebellion, but now, each year, they pick one young man, and one young woman by lottery from the provinces, and force them all to fight to the death, in a spectacle that is televised worldwide. The film plays up the contrast between the poor and the rich, but in the end comes down in favor of fascism; the only way to play the game is to kill everyone else, and thus reap a life of luxury.

None of the characters in the film, other than the lead, Katniss Everdeen, a “mountain girl” who hunts wild game to feed her mother and younger daughter, and is established from the outset as an independent person, is given any depth at all. The rest of the characters are not so much people as situations; the boyfriend, the sociopathic killer opponent, the mentor, the long-suffering mother, and on and on.

There are two saving graces; while Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen is merely adequate — like Keanu Reeves, she’s just there — her very presence as a resourceful young woman who can take of herself in the clinches, and save her nascent love interest in the process, is refreshing, and since the entire film is centered around her, it’s nice to a see a popular movie that disproves that erroneous theory that women as heroines aren’t potent boxoffice — as anyone knows, the film is racking up record grosses. So that’s something to salvage here.

The other plus factor is the magisterial presence of Donald Sutherland as President Snow, the ruling despot of this Dystopian world. Though he’s only in The Hunger Games for ten minutes at most, and is given some of the most clichéd dialogue imaginable, he strolls off with the film, and in his brief sequences with some of the supporting characters, is incredibly generous with his presence, and makes them look good, as well. Sutherland makes his character believable — he underplays so skillfully that it doesn’t even seen like he’s acting; he’s the real deal.

Stanley Tucci, an equally gifted actor, sadly can do no more than chew up the scenery with his one-dimensional role as TV emcee of the games Caesar Flickerman, a sort of Bert Parks from Hell, whose every gesture is over the top and resolutely insincere. Since Tucci is always “on” in the film, there’s no emotional balance available to him, so he does what he can with the role, investing it with manic energy and a ferociously toothy smile. It would have added depth and resonance to The Hunger Games if we could have had some scenes of him backstage, but all we get is his televised presence, and so here again, the film misses the chance to mine its territory more deeply.

As a grace note, it should be added that although she has only one scene in the film in which she really gets a chance to show off her ability, Isabelle Fuhrman as Clove acts rings around Lawrence — and it’s appropriate that in her one turn of any consequence, she attempts to kill Lawrence, and brings an intensity to her role that is entirely believable. This comes as a shock after wading through so much leaden acting and predictable dialogue — I would have liked to see her in the leading role.

There are other good actors lost in the wreckage of the film, as well: Woody Harrelson ambles through his role as a former winner of the games, who emerges from an alcoholic stupor to coach Katniss to victory, and Lenny Kravitz is also capable as a trainer and advisor to Katniss; yet both are given little to do in the final cut. In the hands of someone like Fritz Lang, the director of the classic film Metropolis, this might have been an uplifting spectacle, which came down against fascism, rather than sending the message that capitulation is the only option. But Gary Ross, a middling talent, is no Fritz Lang – he’s really not even a passable stylist — and so the film moves unevenly from scene to scene, bloated and excessive, much like the denizens of the ruling city itself.

Cynically calculated as a PG-13 film, with its requisite sequences of slaughter so swiftly staged that they appear almost ephemeral, The Hunger Games misses every and any chance to be anything more than what is really is; an efficient killing machine, in which our enjoyment of the murder of a group of young teenagers is the primary reason that the film exists.

So, just as with the Saw films, what’s for sale here is the spectacle of wholesale murder; nothing more, nothing less. The ending also ensures that the games — and thus the sequels — will continue, and that the fascist regime will continue to reinforce its hold on the lives of its citizens, whether rich or poor. The last shot of the film, in which President Snow ascends a flight of stairs to his palatial offices, demonstrates pointedly that the games have worked — they have pleased the populace, and will continue to contain all opposition.

Since Lionsgate has locked up, to the best of my knowledge, all the principals for two more films in the series, and since this one is doing so well, I predict that the series, as flat as it is, will ultimately rack up more than a billion dollars at the box office on a worldwide basis, and that’s all that matters, right? Maybe on the next two films they’ll hang on to the foreign rights. Audiences who think this film works as social commentary or even just as science fiction should go see Battle Royale, and sink their teeth into something real. This is about as deep as the frosting on a Winchell’s donut, and just as nourishing, too.

4:44 Last Day On Earth

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

Director Abel Ferrara on the set of 4:44 Last Day On Earth; click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for the film.

“In a large apartment high above the city lives our couple. They’re in love. She’s a painter, he’s a successful actor. Just a normal afternoon – except that this isn’t a normal afternoon, for them or anyone else. Because tomorrow, at 4:44 am, give or take a few seconds, the world will come to an end far more rapidly than even the worst doomsayer could have imagined. The final meltdown will come not without warnings, but with no means of escape. There will be no survivors. As always, there are those who, as their last cigarette is being lit and the blindfold tightened, will still hope against hope for some kind of reprieve. For a miracle. Not our two lovers. They – like the majority of the Earth’s population – have accepted their fate: the world is going to end.”

Abel Ferrara has been making films for three decades now, almost always working at the margins of the industry, and always courting controversy with his subject matter. Now, in 4:44 Last Day On Earth, Ferrara tackles the end of the world, much like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, but on a shoestring budget, which is typical for Ferrara, who typically structures his film around one or two major characters, shoots in actual locations quickly, and spews out films that are often uneven, but always visually arresting and deeply ambitious, even if sometimes the individual scenes don’t work.

No matter; the subject matter here is New York City, particularly the Lower East Side, and centers on a woman and a man, played by Shanyn Leigh and Willem Dafoe, who say their goodbyes to the people in their lives on Skype, while traffic flows on in Manhattan, seemingly oblivious to the threat of impending doom. The cause for the world’s demise is ecological, and when the end comes, it’s depicted as a sort of worldwide, lethal vision of Northern Lights, which engulf the planet in an ethereal glow of doom.

Throughout much of the film, Leigh’s character, a painter, seems to be working on a very large abstract canvas on the floor, which in the film’s final moments is revealed to be a large serpent swallowing itself, with no beginning and no end. Anita Pallenberg, as her mother, checks in by Skype to assure her daughter that she has spent her life honorably, doing solid work, and that when the end comes, she shouldn’t be afraid. Some people in the film seek solace in drugs or alcohol; some in prayer; some in partying denial. And some, of course, despite the general consensus that this really is the end of the world, refuse to believe that it’s true.

But a news anchor, seen briefly on a flatscreen television that dominates the loft the pair share, sums it up best when he says that he sees no reason to stay on the air and keep telling the world that time is up; he wants to go home to be with his family when 4:44AM rolls around. In the end, as apocalypse hits full force, the screen fades to white, and Leigh’s character says softly, “now we’re angels.” Imperfect, made in a guerrilla fashion, and shot mostly in a first take is the only take basis, the film is nevertheless deeply felt, and certainly worth the 82 minutes of running time it occupies.

4:44 Last Day On Earth isn’t by any means a masterpiece, but it’s a strangely evocative and transcendent film from a genuine American outlaw, and as such, operates entirely by its own set of rules. And taken on these terms, it is more often than not, successful, and lingers in the mind long after other films have vanished; Ferrara may have no money, but he has imagination and ambition, and he keeps making movies. Just like Leigh’s character in the film, this is an honorable thing to do. Next up is a project with Dafoe on the life of the late filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini; who knows what Ferrara will come up with?

When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

Adam Abraham’s book on the rise and fall of UPA, the pioneering “limited animation” studio that dominated more adventurous cartoon production in the 1950s and 60s, is both a cautionary tale, and a celebration of the people who founded UPA, mostly as a response to the rigid cookie-cutter approach espoused by the Disney studios. UPA’s founders, Zachary Schwartz, David Hilberman, and Stephen Bosustow set up shop as an alternative way of making cartoons, and soon had a hit with the nearsighted Mr. Magoo, and Gerald Mc Boing Boing, creating cartoons that pleased both the public and the critics.

As Fred Patten notes in his review of the book in Animation World Network, “Abraham’s history of United Productions of America covers much more than that studio alone.  In his picture of how UPA grew out of the Disney strike of 1941, he describes the Disney studio of 1938-1941 in considerable detail and the 1941 strike in great detail [. . .] Most of the animators (or animation artists of varying technical ranks) who joined the strikers were among Disney’s younger artists, who had a modern art education.  The wrap-up of the strike required Disney to rehire the strikers, but they were made to feel unwelcome or soon re-fired.  By the end of 1941 there were hundreds of young animators looking for new jobs.  Abraham argues persuasively that this was both why the Disney studio lost its willingness to experiment with new art styles after the early 1940s, and why there were so many animators interested in modern art at other studios during the 1940s.”

Abraham is an excellent writer, and he also created the book’s inviting design, which is lavishly illustrated with behind-the-scenes photographs, drawings, and animation cels, and he doesn’t stint on limning the darker side of the UPA story; how many of the animators who worked there came to untimely ends, how Disney’s continued hostility to the studio (particularly when it began picking up Academy Awards for Best Animated Short Subject) also took a toll, and how the changing marketplace forced UPA to cut the running time of their cartoons to the bone, and eventually move exclusively to television.

I’ve never really been a Mr. Magoo fan — it seems like a one joke premise that quickly wears thin — but Abraham’s book is really more about the studio itself, and its artistic and historic impact, than its most famous character. Behind UPA’s creation was the search for personal and creative freedom, and as Disney himself noted of the rise of UPA, “once a man’s tasted freedom, he will never be content to be a slave.” Working for Disney was doing what the boss wanted, and nothing else; at UPA, a whole new style was forged, which would prove, in the long run, to be a harbinger of the future of animation.

Click here, or on the image above, to see a sample of UPA’s work.

Zachary Schwartz, David Hilberman, and Stephen Bosustow, the founders of UPA, at work in the studio.

The Black Hole of the Camera by J.J. Murphy

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

You would think that everything possible that could be written about the films of Andy Warhol has been written, but you’d be wrong.

J.J. Murphy’s new book, The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol, is a significant contribution to the literature on the artist’s film work, offering, at least to my mind, the most detailed and accurate readings of his classic films of the 1960s, up to and including such later works as Blue Movie. As the book’s press release notes, “Andy Warhol, one of the twentieth century’s major visual artists, was a prolific filmmaker who made hundreds of films, many of them—Sleep, Empire, Blow Job, The Chelsea Girls, and Blue Movie—seminal but misunderstood contributions to the history of American cinema. In the first comprehensive study of Warhol’s films, J.J. Murphy provides a detailed survey and analysis. He discusses Warhol’s early films, sound portraits, involvement with multimedia (including The Velvet Underground), and sexploitation films, as well as the more commercial works he produced for Paul Morrissey in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Murphy’s close readings of the films illuminate Warhol’s brilliant collaborations with writers, performers, other artists, and filmmakers. The book further demonstrates how Warhol’s use of the camera transformed the events being filmed and how his own unique brand of psychodrama created dramatic tension within the works.”

Critical approval is already coming in: “Those of us who care about independent cinema have always struggled with Andy Warhol’s massive oeuvre. At long last J.J. Murphy, who has spent a lifetime making contributions to independent cinema, has undertaken the Herculean task of helping us understand Warhol’s development as a filmmaker. Murphy’s precision, stamina, and passion are evident in this examination of an immense body of work—as is his ability to report what he has discovered in a readable and informative manner. The Black Hole of the Camera helps us to re-conceptualize Warhol’s films not simply as mythic pranks, but as the diverse creations of a prolific and inventive film artist.”—Scott MacDonald, author of A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers

“In his careful firsthand study of Andy Warhol’s films, J. J. Murphy contributes to the ongoing revision of the enduring but misplaced perceptions of Warhol as a passive, remote, and one-dimensional artist. Murphy’s discussions of authorship, the relation of content to form, the role of “dramatic conflict,” and the complexity of Warhol’s camera work show these perceptions to be stubborn myths. The Black Hole of the Camera offers a clear sense of the nuances of Warhol’s fascinating, prolific, and influential activities in filmmaking.”—Reva Wolf, author of Andy Warhol, Poetry, and Gossip in the 1960s.

As someone who was tangentially involved in the Factory scene in the late 1960s, the book brings back the energy and passion of the era with deft and telling detail, and is in every respect a remarkable job of historical recovery and careful analysis, with numerous frame blow-ups throughout, many of which are in color. Murphy’s book brings back to life an era which is almost beyond authentic recall, and demonstrates why Warhol’s films still matter today, and were, and remain, so influential. Essential reading.

Blaise Pascal (1972)

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Yesterday I saw again Roberto Rossellini’s remarkable 1972 film Blaise Pascal, starring Pierre Arditi in the title role, and once again, I was stunned by the sheer beauty and depth of the film.

Rossellini was a master throughout his entire career, and his early films are some of the touchstones of 20th century cinema, but in these last, sumptuous historical spectacles, Rossellini seems to be aiming for something deeper, more mystical, more enduring and ultimately life-affirming. Pascal, born into a wealthy and influential family, nevertheless spent most of his life writing, thinking and experimenting, both in spiritual and scientific matters, and literally worked himself to death with his ceaseless quest for new frontiers on both a personal and professional level. Much the same might be said of Rossellini, who never deserted his vocation as a filmmaker, and whose work might roughly be cast into three periods; the initial Neorealist phase, then the middle section, with such masterpieces as Voyage in Italy, and then the final group of films for RAI, which are his most formal and theatrical works, and yet at the same time, reached the widest audience of his career because of their broadcast on television.

For years, these films were unavailable on DVD in any but the most degraded versions; then a few years ago, Criterion’s Eclipse series began issuing these, and other unjustly forgotten films, in minimalist editions which devote themselves entirely to the films in question, with simple liner notes, and no extras, but offering superb transfers of the films themselves, and faithful English subtitles. To celebrate the release of three of the late Rossellini films, Criterion commissioned Tag Gallagher to write an essay on “Rossellini’s History Films—Renaissance and Enlightenment” — you can read it by clicking here.

I remember when I first saw Blaise Pascal at the now-defunct Gallery of Modern Art in New York, where the film ran for only a few days; I immediately phoned up everyone I knew and urged them to see it immediately. For a time after that, 16mm prints were available, but then the film seemed to drift into oblivion. Now it’s back, and you can see it for yourself; a transcendent masterpiece that rewrites the grammar of the cinema with a series of exquisite, lengthy tracking shots, meticulous attention to detail, and gorgeous color cinematography. As Tag Gallagher notes, “Blaise Pascal was financed by French and Italian television, at a cost of $160,000, and was shot in Italy in just seventeen days, with most of the actors speaking French. It was shown on Italian television in two episodes in May 1972. Sixteen million watched it.”

These films are essential viewing; track them down and see them now.

Above: Roberto Rossellini on the set on Blaise Pascal, Rome, 1971, with his first wife, Marcella De Marchis, far right, and Isabella Rossellini, who worked on the film as a production assistant, Rossellini’s daughter by his second wife, Ingrid Bergman.

Click here to read an excellent piece by Manohla Dargis on Rossellini’s work.

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Earth vs. The Flying Saucers.

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956) was arguably Ray Harryhausen‘s breakthrough as a stop motion special effects artist; he had worked on Mighty Joe Young (1949) and other films as an assistant under Willis O’ Brien, the creator of King Kong (1933), but with this film, he stepped out in front with a dazzling display of special effects wizardry which was, at the time of the film’s production, state of the art. What’s even more amazing is that the entire film, except for Harryhausen’s special effects, which took months to complete, was shot in just six days – a stunning feat, made possible only by director Fred F. Sears‘ expertise and grace under pressure. Indeed, while much of the film was shot on the Columbia back lot, Sears dispatched a second unit to Washington DC to shoot process plates for the special effects, and also footage of the film’s stars, Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor, dodging laser blast rays on the steps of the capitol building.

Another thing that’s remarkable is how much of the film was shot on location, and how quickly, without all the security that would make such an enterprise impossible today. Although Earth vs. The Flying Saucers is manifestly a union film, Sears and producer Sam Katzman pushed both the crew and the actors to the limits of their endurance to get the film in the can, while Sears worked feverishly with Harryhausen’s production designs to make sure that the live action material dovetailed perfectly with Harryhausen’s miniature work. Such a pace would be impossible today, when everything takes forever to shoot — Sears moved fast, and his co-workers moved with him, to make a convincing film on a minuscule budget.

In this age of CGI, anything is possible, but in the 1950s, the only way you could get something convincing on the screen was through the use of stop-motion animation, painstakingly moving the saucers frame, by frame, by frame, by frame, shooting one frame after another, with 24 changes of position per second, to achieve what then passed for realism. This isn’t a film which revels in plot, or in any degree of subtlety, complete with a stentorian narrator providing a “voice of doom” commentary throughout the film; the invaders simply show up and start blasting everyone in sight with a disintegrator ray, with but one objective; to take over the earth and colonize it for the members of their dying race. It’s one of the 1950s’ best, and most compact, science fiction films, moving along swiftly to its suitably violent conclusion. There’s a colorized DVD available, actually supervised by Harryhausen himself, but don’t fall for it; get the black and white original. The film looks and plays like a brutal newsreel of an alien invasion, and once seen, is never forgotten.

If you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for?

Roy William Neill

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Roy William Neill’s passport photograph, circa 1920.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Roy William Neill’s film Black Angel (1946), one of most interesting and atmospheric noirs of the late 1940s, and the last film he made before his untimely death at the age of 59.

From Wikipedia, All Rovi and other sources: “With his father as the captain, Roy William Neill was born on September 4, 1887, on board a ship off the coast of Ireland. His birth name was Roland de Gostrie. Neill joined the film industry in 1915 as an assistant to Thomas Ince, subsequently directing 40 silent films. He made one talkie for MGM before moving to Columbia Pictures, where he worked until the mid ’30s. While at Columbia, Neill directed the atmospheric period chiller The Black Room (1935), arguably the best movie that Boris Karloff made away from Universal in the ’30s.

In 1935, Neill moved to England, where better opportunities existed for American directors, and spent the next three years there, working for Gainsborough Pictures and later for Warner Bros.-First National. Among the features that he made while there was the 1935 drama Dr. Syn, starring George Arliss and Margaret Lockwood, about a local vicar who has a connection with a long-missing pirate, and who tries to save his village from the oppression of the king’s soldiers.

In 1936, Neill got what could have been the best picture-making opportunity of his career. In May of that year, screenwriter and future director Frank Launder suggested that Gainsborough Studios buy the rights to Ethel Lina White‘s new mystery novel The Wheel Spins, which they did and assigned Launder and his longtime associate Sidney Gilliat to adapt into a screenplay called Lost Lady. The script was completed in August of that year and Neill was chosen as director of Lost Lady, and a film unit was sent to Yugoslavia to shoot some summer exteriors under an assistant director named Fred Gunn. Unfortunately, Gunn broke his ankle in an accident, and in the course of investigating, the police found his script and demanded to review the manner in which it treated their country.

The opening pages — which found parallels between goose-stepping soldiers and geese waddling — offended the authorities, and the entire unit was expelled from the country. By that time, both Neill and the studio had lost much of their original enthusiasm for the project, and it was shelved while Neill went to to other thrillers. A year later, as he was finishing up Young and Innocent for the same studio, Alfred Hitchcock was looking for another film and asked the studio if they had any screenplay on hand that would be suitable for him. What they pulled out was Lost Lady which, after a few minor rewrites, became The Lady Vanishes.

Altogether, Neill helmed 107 films, a remarkable accomplishment by any measure; he was known for directing films with meticulously lit scenes and carefully layered shadows, a style that would become the hallmark of film noir in the late 1940s. After working in Hollywood for Universal in the early 1940s, mostly notably on films in the long-running Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, Neill returned to London, and a house he had just built for his retirement, only to die on the doorstep of a heart attack on December 14, 1946. Neill was a conscientious craftsman as a director, but his signature style of high key lighting, and his smooth, luxurious tracking shots set him apart from the more quotidian directors of the era.”

As Bruce Eder comments, “according to Rathbone in his memoirs and other survivors of the series over the years, Neill — who was known affectionately to Rathbone as ‘Dear Mousie’ — was the final arbiter in all things Holmes-ian on the set of the Universal series. In addition to being a master directorial interpreter of the character, Neill also got a joint writing credit (with Bertram Millhauser) for the screenplay of The Scarlet Claw, which is arguably the best entry in the entire Universal series. Neill also directed and produced Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man — considered by many to be the last wholly serious entry in Universal’s classic series of horror films. An instantly recognizable stylist, Neill’s work is characterized by meticulously lit scenes and carefully layered shadows, with restrained but mobile camera movements.”

Neill was one of the slickest visual stylists of the classical studio era, and his work has long been under-appreciated.

Inner and Outer Space

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

Click here to see Edie Sedgwick in one of Andy Warhol’s most brilliant films, Inner and Outer Space (1965).

This is the only one Warhol’s films to incorporate the use of videotape, creating a hallucinatory monologue/duologue between Edie in front of Warhol’s Auricon 16mm film camera, and Edie onscreen, in a previously shot video. I first saw the film when it came out in a rare screening at The Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, and many years later, at The Whitney Museum in a restored print in 1998, which confirmed my initial impression of the film — it’s absolutely original in conception, design and execution.

Callie Angell, the late Warhol historian, wrote an excellent essay on the film in Millennium Film Journal 38 (Spring, 2002), in which she notes that “Outer and Inner Space is a 16mm film of Edie Sedgwick sitting in front of a television monitor on which is playing a prerecorded videotape of herself.  On the videotape, Edie is positioned on the left side of the frame, facing right; she is talking to an unseen person off-screen to our right. In the film, the ‘real’ or ‘live’ Edie Sedgwick is seated on the right side of the film frame, with her video image behind her, and she is talking to an unseen person off-screen to our left.

The effect of this setup is that it sometimes creates the rather strange illusion that we are watching Edie in conversation with her own video image. The film is two reels long, each reel is 1,200 feet or 33 minutes long, and the videotapes playing within the film are each 30 minutes long. The two film reels are projected side by side, with reel one on the left and reel two on the right, and with sound on both reels. So what you see are four heads, alternating video/film, video/film,  and sometimes all four heads are talking at once.

Warhol was able to make this film in August 1965 when he was loaned some rather expensive video equipment by the Norelco Company. The summer of 1965 was the time when portable, affordable video equipment designed for the home market first became available to the general public; a number of different companies, including Sony and Matsushida, were developing their own home video recording systems and beginning to market them at prices ranging from $500 to $1000 each.

The Norelco video equipment was a rather high-end system costing about $10,000, and it was loaned to Warhol as a kind of promotional gimmick.  That is, Warhol was quite well-known as an underground filmmaker at the time, as well as an artist, and the idea was that Warhol would experiment with the new video medium, see what he could do with it, and then report on his experiences in a published interview and more or less give his endorsement to the new medium and specifically to Norelco’s product.

The Norelco equipment was delivered to Warhol’s studio, the Factory, on July 30, 1965; in fact, the arrival of the video camera and the ensuing conversations about it between Warhol and his colleagues are some of the events documented in the early chapters of Warhol’s tape-recorded novel, A. During the month that Warhol had this video access, he shot approximately 11 half-hour tapes (at least, that’s how many Norelco videotapes have been found in the Warhol Video Collection).

One of the interesting things about Outer and Inner Space is that it contains, in effect, the only retrievable footage from these 1965 videotapes. The Norelco system utilized an unusual video format, called ‘slant scan video,’ which differed from the helical scan format developed by Sony and other video companies, and which very quickly became obsolete. There are now no working slant scan tape players anywhere in the world, the other videotapes which Warhol shot in 1965 cannot be played back, and the only accessible footage from these early videos exists in this film, which Warhol, in effect, preserved by reshooting them in 16mm.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here; it’s a remarkable essay on a brilliant film.

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