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Frame by Frame

Archive for June, 2012

Frame by Frame: Drive-In Theaters

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

I have a new Frame by Frame video out today on movie drive-ins, directed and edited by Curt Bright. Here’s a transcript:

“Hi. I’m Wheeler Winston Dixon, and this is Frame By Frame. In the 1940’s and 50’s and 60’s, drive-in theaters, or as they were called in the trade “Ozoners,” were incredibly popular throughout the United States. There were literally thousands of them, and I remember them with great fondness. They usually ran double or triple bills. They would sometimes run “dusk till dawn” shows of horror movies or genre movies and things like that.

They were a great alternative for families because you didn’t have to leave your car. You would drive in to the theater, and then you would either put a speaker in the window of your car, or else they would broadcast the sound on an AM radio station with a low-power transmitter to your car radio, and you would sit and watch a movie on a huge screen in this theater with 100s of other cars. The projection was usually very good. The cost was usually by the car; $4 to $5 per car.

Drive-in theaters flourished mostly in the Midwest and the South, although there were a lot of them in the East, where I grew up, and they were very popular as a low-cost alternative to going to a conventional theater. There was also something nice about being able to sit in you car and bring food, and you could also avoid hiring a baby sitter. You just put the kids in the back and put them to sleep.

But the rise of VHS and DVD made it much more easy to stay home. Huge flat-screen TVs began to replace the drive-ins, and they almost completely collapsed. It’s one of the saddest things, I think, in motion picture history, because they had such enormous screens. Now they’re all but gone. There’s only a few left in the United States. So that’s something that those of you who are growing up right now will never experience, but if there is still a drive-in near you, which you can visit to see what it’s like, or actually see a film there, I urge you to experience it, because it’s an entirely different way to view movies.”

Click here, or on the image above, to see the complete video.

Who on Earth Would Want To Work for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce?

Monday, June 4th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for a video clip from Mad Men.

No one is denying that Mad Men is an excellent television show — I watch it faithfully, though not without apprehension given its increasingly downbeat plotlines — but who on earth would want to return to those times, or work at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? It’s not really an authentic vision of the ’60s anyway; take it from me — I was alive then, working at Life Magazine as a writer, and immersed in the whole ad/print culture of the era — but rather stresses the down side of everything, as though no one is having any fun at all.

Which they’re really not; Don Draper (Jon Hamm) seems tortured on all sides by regrets, conflicting loyalties, and his enigmatic past, while Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) has recently departed the agency for greener fields (and who can blame her?), and poor Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) has just committed suicide over a forged check, for which Don fired him. Great! Just the sort of television one wants to relax with on a Sunday night, right before the start of the work week. As Don Draper explodes in a meeting with a prospective client, “you’re not happy! You’re not happy with anything!” And with the absolutely unprincipled Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) as a rising star in the agency, well, look out. Things are going to get even uglier, I have no doubt.

Still, I DVR it, watch it while zipping through the commercials, and think it’s far and away the best thing on television right now — there’s just one more episode this “season” as I write this, and then — apparently — only two seasons more after that. But with a definite end date in mind for the series, I can’t help but think that Elisabeth Moss is happy to escape her role as the much-put-upon Peggy for the lead in a Jane Campion miniseries, Top of the Lake. And we’ll be seeing Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant in Steven Spielberg’s biopic Lincoln; that footage is already in the can, as his death in Mad Men was shot last summer, but amazingly, everyone managed to keep quiet about it.

But the question remains; given the utterly hostile and desperate workplace of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce so effectively depicted in each episode of the show, who on earth would want to work there?

Bernie (2011)

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012

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

“He put her in the freezer/pulled down the lid/didn’t even move it/just made sure it was plugged in/he held a lot of parties/with her packed on ice/no one suspected anything/’cause Bernie was so nice/oh, Bernie, Bernie, what have you done?/you killed old Miss Nugent/and never even run/oh, Bernie, Bernie, what have you done?/you killed old Miss Nugent/and never even run/” — James Clark, “Bernie, What Have You Done?”

We now have the first unalloyed masterpiece of 2012, actually shot and premiered in 2011, Richard Linklater’s dark comedy Bernie, which is more or less being thrown away in theaters, shot on a budget of slightly more than $2 million, with a prints and advertising budget of a mere $1 million. Linklater has long been an eccentric and sharply observant filmmaker who marches to his own beat alone; his one attempt at big budget blandness, a terrible remake of The Bad News Bears (2005), failed because his heart wasn’t in it. But back on his home turf, working with the local residents of Carthage, Texas as some of the main performers in the film, he creates a compelling comedy/drama that’s unique in recent memory; it’s based on a real story, and many of the people in the film are the real participants. The result is something altogether remarkable; a folk tale of a town in thrall to someone who is, when you strip away all the trimmings, someone they don’t know at all.

In Bernie, Linklater tells the true life tale of Bernie Tiede (played by Jack Black, in the performance of his career) a smalltown assistant funeral director who is the light of the community, putting on shows, active in church work, and generally well liked by everyone. In time, Bernie sets his sights on a rich, reclusive and generally mean-spirited widow, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine, excellent as always), and gradually works his way into her life, eventually becoming her constant companion and gofer, until her demands upon his time prove too much for Bernie to handle. He summarily shoots her dead in the garage of their palatial home, and hides the body in a freezer, neatly packed underneath a layer of frozen foods.

Using a power of attorney Marjorie had given him, Bernie tells everyone that Marjorie has had a series of strokes, and is recovering in a nursing home out of town, while lavishing gifts on the local townspeople, much to their delight. When Bernie’s cover is finally blown, he freely admits to the murder, but the locals rush to his defense; so much so that the trial has to be moved to a different county so that some sort of justice can be done.

Even with the facts starting them dead in the face, Bernie is so well liked, and Marjorie so despised, that the townspeople are ready to absolve their beloved scoutmaster, theater director, and churchgoer of any and all responsibility, and acquit him. But things don’t work out that way in the end; Bernie winds up convicted of murder, and is currently spending the rest of his life in prison.

What makes the film so effective is not only Black’s guileless — and odd term to use, given the film’s narrative — performance as Bernie, as well as MacLaine’s portrayal of Marjorie, but most pronouncedly Linklater’s use of many of the actual people who were involved in the case, and who remain to this day absolutely convinced that no matter what the facts of the matter are, Bernie is still a “nice man.”

The script for the film was written by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, based on a 1998 Texas Monthly magazine article by Hollandsworth, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” which first brought the bizarre story to the public’s attention. In addition to Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey appears in the film as local District Attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson, but the real stars of the film are the townspeople, who play many of Bernie’s key scenes with the principals with absolute conviction and enthusiasm, so much so that it’s hard to tell who’s acting, and who is simply playing themselves.

One has to go back to something like Rome, Open City (1945) to see such seemingly effortless naturalism; indeed, in one scene in a local diner, as two of the locals harangue Buck for “persecuting” Bernie, you can see that McConaughey is clearly cracking up; the scene is being stolen right out from under his nose by non-professionals, whose ease in front of the camera is absolutely astonishing. They’re not acting at all; they’re telling a story they lived, and they’re thrilled to get a chance to do it on film, for an audience; it’s smalltown theater in every sense of the word.

While everyone seems to be raving about Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, Bernie seems destined to slip in and out of town almost without notice, and it’s clearly the more daring and ambitious film; it’s folk art, the story of a town with a past, and how that past has become folklore, complete with pithy commentary by the locals that serves as the voiceover narration for much of the film, summed up by a song composed and performed by one of the townspeople, James Baker, whose “Bernie, What Have You Done?” (partially quoted at the top of this piece) condenses the entire plot of the film into 1 minute and 57 seconds, as the end credits roll.

I was also happy to see that Linklater, whose Dazed and Confused (1993) remains perhaps the best film ever made about American adolescence, offers a tip of the hat to the late Eagle Pennell, an excellent and deeply underappreciated artist whose films The Whole Shooting Match (1978) and Last Night at the Alamo (1984) defined Texas filmmaking in the 1970s and early 80s. As Linklater puts it in the credits, “you were with us on this one.” When there’s so much work in theaters right now that doesn’t even begin to excite one’s imagination, it’s nothing less than miraculous when a film this good comes along, clearly made with vast quantities of imagination and insight, and very little money.

Everyone involved is to be congratulated, and hopefully honored, at least at the Independent Spirit Awards, and as for youyou should run out and see it right away. It’s a film that takes real risks, and the sort of movie that needs every bit of support it can get from viewers. They don’t come any better than this.

Les Anges du péché

Friday, June 1st, 2012

You can see some scenes from Les Anges du péché by clicking here, or on the image above.

I’ve been teaching a summer film class in world cinema, concentrating for the most part on recent films, such as Battle Royale, Let The Right One In, Essential Killing, Animal Kingdom, The Aura, Croupier, The Gleaners and I and other key works of modern filmmaking. But on the final day of the class, today, searching for a film that somehow summed up the concerns of all these widely disparate filmmakers, I decided to screen Robert Bresson’s first film, Les Anges du péché, which he made in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of Paris. I’ve always loved the film, and back in the 1980s, I actually made a pilgrimage to the British Film Institute simply to see a 35mm print of Les Anges du péché, which moved me deeply then, and still resonates as one of Bresson’s finest works. Of course, it’s different in style and in its use of traditional actors from his later films. Yes, Jean-Jacques Grünenwald’s sublimely romantic music is much more of a part of the film than the music scores of his later, more ascetic films.

And yet, the same themes and preoccupations persist, and one of my students surprised me by comparing it to Bresson’s last film, L’Argent, made in 1983, in which a young man becomes enmeshed in a counterfeit money scheme, and winds up murdering an elderly woman who tries to be his benefactor at the end of the film. Similarly, in Les Anges du péché, a young novice in a convent, Anne-Marie (Renée Faure) takes it upon herself to reclaim the ex-convict Thérèse (Jany Holt), who unbeknownst to Anne-Marie and the rest of the Sisters of Bethany, has murdered her ex-lover.

In a curious way, as the film progresses, Thérèse is instrumental in bringing about the death of Anne-Marie, whose only crime is that she too zealously tried to aid another human being, albeit one whose reclamation is doubtful from the outset. Yet, unlike L’Argent, in the end of Les Anges du péché, Thérèse transcends her destructive hatred of the world and becomes Anne-Marie, accepting her punishment for murder as just, as if a transference of souls has taken place — which is exactly what Bresson, an ardent Catholic, intended.

The film stunned my students with its rigorous, austere beauty and it’s sumptuous black and white cinematography, and after the screening, one of my students commented that paradoxically, despite its age, Les Anges du péché was in many ways one of the most modern films shown during the class, one which dealt with how one copes with evil, with destruction, with the possibility of redemption, with the very fact of one’s existence in a landscape of continual struggle.

It goes without saying, of course, that Paul Schrader long ago had it absolutely right when he linked Bresson with Ozu and Dreyer as perhaps the three most spiritual filmmakers in the history of the cinema, and that Bresson’s dislike of personal publicity was a part of his devotion to his work — let the film speak, and let me speak through it, not apart from it. Les Anges du péché is nothing less than a completely assured masterpiece from first frame to last, as are nearly all of Bresson’s films, but it seems to me that his early work has been somewhat undervalued. Whenever I come back to it, Les Anges du péché seems an inexhaustible source of renewal and inspiration; fresh, invigorating, and instructive.

Here’s a brilliant essay from the web journal Senses of Cinema by Erik Ulman on the film; you can read it by clicking on this link.

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 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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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