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Archive for June, 2012

Hitchcock’s 1925 Directorial Debut Restored

Saturday, June 30th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to view the BFI’s trailer for the restored version of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden (1925).

Here’s an interesting item; Alfred Hitchcock’s first feature film, The Pleasure Garden (1925), has just been restored by the British Film Institute. As Moving Image Archive News notes, “Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial debut, The Pleasure Garden, a silent melodrama made in 1925 when he was 25, follows the differing fortunes in love of two dancers at a London nightspot. Played by Universal star Virginia Valli and rarely again filmed Carmelita Geraghty, their fortunes take melodramatic, differing turns: One becomes a major star, while the other stumbles into a marriage with a dangerous womaniser, played by Miles Mander.

The British Film Institute’s restoration of the film, with a new score by Daniel Patrick Cohen, was unveiled at London’s Wilton’s Music Hall this week, and won the praise of the Guardian‘s Henry K. Miller: ‘It’s not just that 20-odd minutes have been added to the extant hour-long version; it’s that what we had didn’t entirely make sense without them. The most widely available version before now was pared down to the narrative bone, often at the expense of what became known as the Hitchcock touch.’

Miller describes what had been cut by the studio, Hitchcockian touches such as ‘comic business of various kinds, and a signature cut from a pot of tea being poured to a glass of champagne being filled.’ In the restoration, he writes, ‘above all, the film has got its rhythm back.’ A honeymoon sequence shot around Lake Como, for example, now ‘plays as Hitchcock inferably intended: longish, slowish, and sad, standing out from the rest. It is also in this section that the restored image comes into its own: almost unrecognisably cleaner, more detailed, pleasingly tinted and toned, and jerk-free.’”

The British Film Institute’s restoration of The Pleasure Garden is indeed astounding; the image is clear, sharp, bright, and absolutely crisp. This is a major accomplishment by the BFI, and makes a key film in Hitchcock’s career available for the first time in a really first-rate edition.

You can read the entire article here; three cheers for the BFI!

Your Kindle Is Reading You

Saturday, June 30th, 2012

Your Kindle knows more about your reading habits than you think.

Here’s an interesting item that was suggested by my student Jeff Bragg; I’m probably going to include this in the final draft of my book Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, which is at the publisher’s now, but which will certainly be edited right up to the publication date.

As media critic Alexandra Alter notes in The Wall Street Journal, “in the past, publishers and authors had no way of knowing what happens when a reader sits down with a book. Does the reader quit after three pages, or finish it in a single sitting? Do most readers skip over the introduction, or read it closely, underlining passages and scrawling notes in the margins? Now, e-books are providing a glimpse into the story behind the sales figures, revealing not only how many people buy particular books, but how intensely they read them.

For centuries, reading has largely been a solitary and private act, an intimate exchange between the reader and the words on the page. But the rise of digital books has prompted a profound shift in the way we read, transforming the activity into something measurable and quasi-public.

The major new players in e-book publishing—Amazon, Apple and Google—can easily track how far readers are getting in books, how long they spend reading them and which search terms they use to find books. Book apps for tablets like the iPad, Kindle Fire and Nook record how many times readers open the app and how much time they spend reading. Retailers and some publishers are beginning to sift through the data, gaining unprecedented insight into how people engage with books.”

As Jeff Bragg pointed out to me, “as someone who uses a Kindle every day, I had never thought much about the data they were collecting and how they might put it to use. It looks like publishers will be making similar ‘focus group’ type moves in the future in order to maximize profits. We can only hope that authors don’t end up letting general audiences influence their work too much. One particular example that struck me was an author who reconsidered writing out one character simply because 30% of the audience ‘liked’ him.”

Interesting and typically intrusive technology. You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Magic Mike

Saturday, June 30th, 2012

Here’s a shocker; Magic Mike is a really, really good film.

Can you think of a more uneven contemporary director than Steven Soderbergh? He bounces back and forth between the utterly commercial and the resolutely personal, and has complete control over all his work, which has only increased over the years.

After his dazzling debut with Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1987, he went on to the interesting misfire Kafka (1991), and then to the superb but utterly forgotten Depression era drama King of the Hill (1993), which remains one of his finest films, but didn’t even make it to DVD in the United States.The late monologist Spalding Gray appeared in a memorable support role in that film, and in 1996 Soderbergh tackled Gray’s Anatomy, Spalding Gray’s most famous theatrical piece, which is more or less a filmed record (thankfully) of Gray in performance.

Then came the crime comedy Out of Sight (1998), then the down and dirty crime drama The Limey (1999), using archival footage from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967) to flesh out the narrative’s back-story, then the rather conventional biopic Erin Brockovich (2000), and the overheated and underbaked drug thriller Traffic (2000), for which he surprisingly won an Academy Award as Best Director, and a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (2002), the experimental 40s period piece The Good German (2006), as well as the absolutely commercial and utterly uninteresting Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13 (2001, 2004, 2007).

I’m leaving some films out, but starting with Traffic, he also functioned as his own Director of Photography, most notably on the two-part Che, under the pseudonym of Peter Andrews; oddly, he later wished that he hadn’t made the film at all, an interesting public admission to say the least. And since 2006, he’s been editing most of films under the additional pseudonym of May Ann Bernard. In short, he’s all over the place, from the most conventional films to the utterly experimental, as in his 1996 film Schizopolis. When you go to see a Soderbergh film, you literally have no idea what you’re going to get going in.

So it comes as something of a shock that Magic Mike (2012) is so very, very good. This is even truer when one factors in the deliberately misleading trailers, selling the film as nothing more than a male strip show, with beefcake as the primary draw. There’s that, of course, in this tale of Michael “Magic Mike” Lane (the stunningly athletic Channing Tatum), who falls in love with Brooke (Cody Horn), the sister of Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a young man whom he befriends on a construction site and pulls into “the life” as a male stripper in a sleazy club managed by the Machiavellian Dallas (Matthew McConaughey, who seems to be making a film every five minutes these days, all of them exceptional — Killer Joe, Bernie, Mud, many others).

The choreography is fantastic; when Tatum is dancing, it seems almost like a special effect rather than straight photography; he’s a dazzling performer, clearly using his own history as a male stripper to create an utterly authentic atmosphere, and as Adam, Pettyfer is equally convincing, moving from confused kid (his nickname in the film is “The Kid”) to drug-soaked lifer with skill and ease. Another interesting aspect of Magic Mike is that while most of the action centers on Dallas’ strip club, the audience members fade into the background, and the real interest is not only the backstage story, and the lives of the male dancers, but also Brooke’s reaction to the scene – and Cody Horn is simply fantastic in the role.

What’s also odd is that though Channing Tatum, who also co-produced Magic Mike from a script by his writing partner Reid Carolin, is undeniably the main focus of the film (the script being, at least in some part, autobiographical), Brooke is a major part of the film as well, and Soderbergh, editing as Mary Ann Bernard and lensing as Peter Andrews, hangs on her face for long sections of the film, as many of the key sequences play off-screen – we’re witness to her reaction, nothing more. The film’s soundtrack is also an exceptional mix of dance hits old and new, all of which really fit the images, rather than simply accompanying them, or worse, propping them up.

By the end of the film, Brooke’s brother Adam is lost to “the life” while Mike escapes, and starts a relationship with Cody, which is the one redemptive note in the film. While it’s a somewhat downbeat piece, in which nobody really seems to be having fun, and money rules everything, it also has a solidly moralistic center, and basically does everything it can to demonstrate to the viewer that the whole strip club business is shady, dangerous, and a dead end; the only thing one can do is escape from it, unless you’re like Dallas, a ringleader on the way to Hell. Superbly shot, deftly edited, and remarkably well acted — McConaughey seems to absolutely inhabit his role as Dallas, alternately threatening and mesmeric, dominating every scene he’s in with effortless skill – Magic Mike is so much more than you probably expect, so I urge you to go see it as soon as you can.

Another interesting fact to consider is that Nicolas Winding Refn was originally attached as director, and while he probably would have made a bold, colorful film with the material, I can’t help but think that Soderbergh gave the project greater depth. I try to see everything that opens on the grounds that you really can’t trust anyone’s judgment except your own in evaluating any work of art, no matter what the medium, and so I see a lot of junk. Magic Mike just might be the best film of 2012 so far, which is what I thought about Bernie until I saw this. And Matthew McConaughey’s in both of them.

Twisted Light Delivers Data at Blinding Speed

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

This just in from the scientific web journal The Bunsen Burner:

“A team of U.S. researchers say they have discovered a process by which to transmit upwards of 2.56 terabits of data per second using twisted beams of light.

Twisting light to send data at dramatically increased speeds may be used to build high-speed satellite communication links or be adapted for use in the fiber optic cables that are used by some Internet service providers. It may one day be commonplace to download data packages the equivalent of 70 DVDs in one second, say scientists, citing research that shows a new high-speed data transfer breaking records.

The technology has potential applications for high-speed satellite communication links, short free-space terrestrial links or could be adapted for use in the fiber optic cables used by some Internet service providers. Researchers noted that the test conducted resulted in data transfer speeds 85,000 times faster than broadband internet speeds, some of the fastest ever recorded.

The test was conducted by harnessing the power of light, which scientists manipulated in order to better facilitate the transfer of data. The present study saw a single beam of light carry 2.5 terabits per second carried over a distance of 1 meter, but the method could be adapted for long distance, say scientists.”

Every day, we move one step further towards a totally streaming world.

Neil Roughley’s Sam Newfield Filmography

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Sam Newfield made a helluva lot of feature films!

Film historian Neil Roughley has been doing research into the incredibly prolific career of film director Sam Newfield, who is, as Roughley says on his impeccably researched website, “the most prolific feature film director of the American sound era.”

As he adds in his prefatory remarks, “because of his amazing output, no Newfield filmography will ever be complete. The following is an attempt to accurately catalog all of his known features and shorts. Originally online in 1998 and last updated in 2001, I have finally revised the filmography with more accurate information and notes, plus the addition of images. The entire filmography has been revamped from the ground up, and is still a work in progress to some degree.

Although somewhat unorthodox, order is now based on the Production Code Administration (PCA) certificate number instead of the earliest release date. This method generally adheres to the release order anyway, and provides a more accurate and indisputable chronology as the films became available for general distribution. A film could be certified and held back, of course, which was not uncommon; or, rarer, a film could be completed but not submitted for certification until later. Some films were previewed before certification, too. This method, however flawed, provides a balance between production order and release, although exceptions do exist.”

This is an amazingly detailed work of scholarship; check it out by clicking here, or on the image of Sam Newfield above.

The Astonished Heart

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for some clips from The Astonished Heart.

Many years ago, I ran off a 16mm print of Terence Fisher’s film of The Astonished Heart, written by and starring Noël Coward, for some friends in my office, and we were all struck by seriousness and intensity of the film, which has, to this day, a rather indifferent reputation. I just saw it again, and although it belongs to a different century, and a different society altogether — so much has changed — the essential veracity of the piece remains intact. I was surprised to discover that the Film Society of Lincoln Center apparently agreed, for they screened the film this past May 11th, 2012 in 35mm format; I’m sorry I missed it.

Here are their program notes, in part: “another adaptation (like Brief Encounter) from the Tonight at 8:30 cycle [of Coward's plays], The Astonished Heart also marked the last time Coward played a leading role on film. Originally, Michael Redgrave was cast as psychiatrist Christian Faber and actually began filming in June, 1949. Coward saw the rushes and wasn’t happy. He decided he should play the part himself and was relieved when he discussed it with Redgrave, who agreed [. . .] Faber is married to Celia Johnson (Brief Encounter) but becomes infatuated with her friend (Margaret Leighton) [The film] is an opportunity to see Coward and his “family”—longtime companion Graham Payn and muse Joyce Carey—playing together one last time. Towards the end of his life, Coward would refer to “poor old Astonished Heart. I should love to see it again, just to see if it really is as bad as they said it was.” And of course, it wasn’t—it just happened to come at a time when, in England, Coward could do nothing right as far as the critics were concerned. On the Continent, it became a cult film . . .” And eventually the film was rediscovered in England, as well, and re-evaluated as being something more than a misfire.

Coward’s leading role in the film, it turns out, was necessitated by the need to pay some back taxes Coward suddenly discovered that he owed; his salary for the leading role of The Astonished Heart would just pay off the amount due. Reports to the contrary, Coward had no artistic quarrel with Redgrave; he just needed the money, right away.  When Redgrave was dismissed, he was paid his salary in full, thus pushing the film over-budget in both time and money. Thus, when shooting recommenced, it was done at a very rapid clip indeed, to keep the film from spiraling financially out of control altogether.

Coward also composed the music for the film, in addition to doing the screenplay, while Terence Fisher, later a star for Hammer Films, supposedly co-directed the film with Anthony (aka Antony) Darnborough, though those who knew Darnborough, who produced the film, said later that this co-direction credit was more “honorary” than anything else. I heartily agree; one can see Fisher’s guiding hand in every frame.

What ultimately distinguishes The Astonished Heart is that it’s a resolutely personal enterprise; even if Coward took over the lead for purely mercenary reasons, his portrayal of the anguished psychiatrist is both unsettling and altogether believable. The music is his, the screenplay is his, the source material is his, and he’s the lead — introduced, incidentally, only about 15 minutes into the brief 85 minute film, which is more than 95% told in flashback. Viewing it again, I can’t seen anyone else playing the role, not even the immensely talented Michael Redgrave; this was Coward’s part alone, one that he created, and understood, and the results are quite extraordinary.

The Astonished Heart is out on Region 2 DVD in an acceptable transfer; you should see it for yourself; it’s quite an impressive piece of work.

Herbert L. Strock’s Gog (1954)

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the original trailer for Gog.

Shot in fifteen days for a bit less than $250,000 in widescreen, color, and 3-D, Gog centers on a series of brutal murders at a scientific outpost somewhere in the American desert — but who, or what, is behind the killings? Reeking of Cold War paranoia, and directed and edited with the cold detachment that Herbert L. Strock displayed in all his work, Gog is really, for all its pseudo-scientific trappings, more or less a killing machine, in which characters are introduced and then summarily executed, presumably because their research will lead to the conquest of space.

Strock was the original director and visual designer of Jack Webb’s famously downbeat detective series Dragnet, though Webb pushed Strock out of the way after Strock had directed the first episode, and took over the helm himself. But Strock left an indelible imprint on the series; as a director and editor, it was Strock who devised the tight close-ups and robotic cutting and dialogue delivery, as well as creating the trademark flat visual style that made Dragnet emblematic of 1950s television drama.

Both Dragnet and Gog are resolutely dystopian visions of 1950s America. Every scene in Gog is shot through with a sense of menace and fatalism; time and again, the characters comment of some new scientific advance that in the “wrong hands, it would be a terrible weapon of mass destruction,” and indeed, this turns out to be the case.

While the equipment used in the film is now woefully outdated, Gog nevertheless accurately predicts a future in which computers will run everything, and nobody really knows who’s running the computers. In Gog, technology has outstripped humanity, and at the film’s conclusion, it seems that only the creation and implementation of still more instrumentalities will allow mankind to stay one step ahead of the machines, which seem destined to take over whether we like it or not. They’re just smarter than we are, they can think faster, they’re not troubled by emotions — it’s all much too close to reality.

As a film, Gog has been missing in action for more than half a century, so to speak, surviving only in cheap bootlegs; MGM has now finally released the film in a serviceable color transfer  — not in the correct aspect ratio, but close enough, and without the benefit of 3-D, but that doesn’t really bother me, either. In any event, the MGM DVD is a revelation; the first time I’d seen the film in color, with a sharp, clear picture and excellent sound.

The MGM transfer is not a Criterion edition, of course, nor does Gog deserve one; it’s a Cold War artifact more than anything else. But for all its faults, which are considerable — the cast walks through the film with cardboard conviction, and only Lubitsch alumnus Herbert Marshall brings any real human dimension to his role — Gog remains valuable in its depiction of a society ruled by technology, which in turn is answerable only to itself. Or so it seems –

There are numerous bootlegs of Gog circulating, but they really don’t do the film justice. Just watch the first ten minutes — a coldly calculated, utterly impersonal double “murder by machine” in a deep freeze chamber, and you’ll be both hooked and somewhat shocked; this isn’t the 50s we’re supposed to remember, the Dick Clark version of post-war America. There’s naked fear on display here, and distrust of what the future might bring. Strock’s film is an authentic talisman of the way things really were in the Red Scare era, not the way we wish to remember them, and for that, Gog’s value is real, and tangible.

There’s no doubt about it; Gog is one creepy movie.

Google Glasses Video — They’re Real

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for a promotional video on Google glasses.

I came across this promotional video for Google glasses, the new softwear device that produces overlays of information over the real world, providing constant access to the web, and at the same time flooding the user with promotional materials and advertisements.

More than 20,000,000 people have viewed this video thus far, which means two things; one, it will be widely adopted; two, that the introduction of Google glasses is not that far off. This folksy, low-key point-of-view video shows someone literally waking up with the glasses on, eating breakfast, walking over to the Strand Bookstore in New York, meeting with a friend, snapping digital photos of his surroundings, listening to music through the glasses’ audio system, and generally existing in an utterly plugged in world.

He seems to be entire comfortable with all of this, and guess what? If you have prescription glasses, you can get Google glasses made to order to fit your needs. I’m deeply ambivalent about Google glasses, but there seems to be little doubt that they’ll soon become “must have” items for the technically minded; a host of concerns, chief among them privacy issues, seem of most importance to me.

But soon you’ll be able to see for yourself what the world looks like, laid out in a grid — a grid where Google knows your location all the time, 24/7, and can sell you anything it wants to, all in the name of convenience, of course.

Frame by Frame Video: Commercials in Movie Theaters

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

I have a new video today, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on advertisements in movie theaters. You can see it by clicking here, or on the image above.

I’m not at all sure that the image above is appropriate in this regard; these people seem to be enjoying what’s on the screen, which isn’t often the case with commercials. As the profit margin for theatrical presentation of films continues to drop, however, and even concession stands profits don’t really make that much difference, commercials at the movies have become a necessity if movie theaters are going to continue to survive.

This video offers a brief explanation of the problem; thanks again to Curt Bright for an excellent job on the direction and editorial supervision of this piece.

On The Value of “Worthless” Endeavor

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

A scene from Peter Emanuel Goldman’s Echoes of Silence; click here, or on the image above, to see an excerpt from the film.

I have a new essay, “On The Value of ‘Worthless’ Endeavor,” in the latest issue of College Hill Review.

Here are the opening paragraphs: “In the 1960s, working in New York, I was part of a group of filmmakers who created films out of almost nothing at all; outdated raw stock, ancient cameras that barely functioned, often borrowed for a few days from someone else, a few lights, the barest outline of a script, and “financing” that consisted of donated labor both in front of and behind the camera. Nobody had any money; we lived in cheap apartments that cost as little as $100 a month, worked a variety of odd jobs to keep the wolf from the door, and plowed nearly everything we made back into films; films that had no market, no commercial value, and were so resolutely personal that it seemed that no one, outside of a small circle of friends, could ever possibly find them of value, worth or interest.

Sync-sound filmmaking equipment, only recently invented at that point, was beyond our financial range; so, like the early silent filmmakers, we were forced back to the primacy of the image, and we created films of deeply romantic intent using a few costumes, borrowed props, and the barest of sets. Another defining characteristic of these films was their calculated sloppiness, since we were dealing with second-, third- and fourth-rate equipment and film that was often of deeply uncertain origin; even then, it was all we could afford. So we would use every possible frame of what we shot, down to the last bit of leader streaked material at the end of the roll, in a desperate attempt to capture every last bit of our vision on film.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here.

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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