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Archive for July, 2012

The Anger Management Assembly Line

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Charlie Sheen’s new sitcom Anger Management seems poised for a 90-episode pickup deal with FX.

You may or may not recall that Charlie Sheen has landed on his feet with a new series, Anger Management, which was launched on FX with a 10 episode commitment, and then, providing that the ratings were good enough, the series would get the green light for 90 additional episodes — an unheard of deal — to be shot over the course of two years, in order to reach the magic number of 100 episodes for syndication as rapidly as possible. That’s shooting an average of an episode a week with no breaks for two years, though of course there will be downtime, so it’s actually being shot faster than that.

Well, apparently, he’s pulled it off. As The Associated Press reported, “with the expected pickup, FX plans to bring aboard Sheen’s dad, Martin Sheen, as a recurring cast member. He will play the father of Charlie Goodson, the anger-management therapist played by Charlie Sheen [. . .] Adding Sheen’s father to the series ‘will give an extra dimension and make it a multi-generational family show,’ FX boss John Landgraf said in making the announcement.

The production schedule would call for filming a total of 100 episodes in just two years. This kind of cost-saving routine means no time for rehearsals, said executive producer Bruce Helford.’The actors get the lines, we see the scene, the writers make changes, the actors go to makeup, cameras are blocked, we come back together and shoot the scene,’ he explained. At first, the cast members ‘felt like basically they were on the ledge. But by the third episode, everyone found the characters to the point that the writers were following their lead,’ Helford said.”

As Sheen himself notes in the sneak peek below, “we’re [shooting] 49 pages [of script] every two days.” This is the fastest sitcom production schedule in history. But then again, with the speed everything else is moving at, it makes a lot of sense.

Here’s a peek behind the scenes.

Fascism for the 21st Century: Daniel Lindvall on The Dark Knight Rises

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Daniel Lindvall, the editor in chief of the distinguished journal Film International, has just written a brilliant essay on the new Batman film, which deftly summarizes the elitist concerns of the film, and Nolan’s work on the series as a whole.

As Lindvall writes, in part, “without the help of a time machine, watching the The Dark Knight Rises on a big screen will probably remain the closest I’ll ever get to what experiencing a Wagnerian propaganda spectacle in 1930’s Berlin must have felt like. It is not just the celebration of the übermensch in shiny black body armour, the fetishization of his equally shiny black military vehicles and war equipment, nor even the literal horde of police in dark uniforms – a police force now collectively redeemed, cleansed of all corruption – that fight by the hero’s side in the final battle of Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga. And it isn’t just the utter contempt that all of Nolan’s Batman films have for anyone looking like they may not be able to afford a home on Gotham City’s equivalent of Manhattan’s Upper West Side – police, loyal servants and orphans excepted.

Here ‘the 99 per cent’ figure only as easy-to-manipulate potential recruits to a violent mob led by psychopaths. And it isn’t, in itself, the demonization of Asia as the home of coldly inhuman intelligence and cruelty. Or that evil is so often connected to physical deformity. Hero worship, gun fetishism, glorification of the armed forces of the state, racism – none of this is new to the genre. But in this ultimate instalment, Nolan’s Batman trilogy combines it all into a story that reaches the deepest recesses of the bourgeois soul and unquestioningly celebrates the authoritarian darkness it finds there.

Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) is not just your ordinary superhero or vigilante. Even if the films make much of his tragically (self-)imposed social isolation this does not make him an outsider or an outcast. His place is above, not outside of, society. He is no bullied loner accidentally gaining super powers, like Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and he’s no rebellious cop, like Dirty Harry Callahan.

Bruce Wayne’s powers rest ultimately on material wealth, and not just any wealth, but control over an inherited corporate empire whose main source of profit comes from the arms trade. Batman’s moral code may forbid him the use of deadly violence, but it doesn’t forbid him making a luxury living out of peddling weapons to Pentagon, including, for instance, a machine capable of vaporizing the enemy’s water supplies, intended for use in desert wars. One wonders which desert wars?

The rather worn-out question explicitly posed throughout the trilogy – whether or not it is right to take the law into your own hands – is therefore really the question about the relation between capital and the state, the arms industry and the public armed forces. Batman is a contemporary saga about the shadowy world of post-9/11 ‘security’ arrangements operating under the jurisdiction of anti-democratic ‘anti-terror’ laws and supra-legal authority in a world where the borders between the state and private corporations are increasingly permeable, whilst power escapes ever further away from the influence and scrutiny of ordinary citizens.

Of course, the Batman films never seriously questioned this form of authority in any way other than purely rhetorically. Anyone in the Gotham City universe that criticizes Batman is always portrayed as silly, ineffective, corrupt or crooked. However, if there was ever any doubt at all, The Dark Knight Rises does away with it spectacularly as the city, in an unusually distasteful scene even for this film, erects a statue of its hero pictured as a sternly watchful warrior saint.”

You can read the entire review here; brilliant rhetorical writing.

Beach Party Movies

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Here’s my latest Frame by Frame video episode, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on the AIP Beach Party films from the 1960s, just perfect for the current heat wave we’re having. Enjoy.

As William Asher, the director of most of the films in the series, told me during an interview in late 2004, “I got a call from my agent. He said, ‘AIP called, and they want to know if you want to do a beach picture.’ Well, that was a natural, because I was a surfer from way back. When I lived at the beach, I used to surf all the time, so I had a real connection to the whole thing. So I said, ‘sure,’ and I went over to AIP, knocked the script into shape, and shot it.

The first picture we did, Beach Party, was shot in 12 days, for about $350,000, in Panavision and Pathécolor, so it had a decent budget. And when we were shooting it, I knew it was gonna be huge. It was a teenage dream; the perfect world.

But working at AIP had problems. With Jim Nicholson, I got along great. Arkoff hated me; he didn’t like me. Nicholson was the creative one, and Arkoff was the businessman. Arkoff hated the idea of the beach pictures; he just didn’t think they would go. He came down, and watched the first day’s dailies, and just said, ‘this will never work.’ So Nicholson would baby me along, and tell me not to pay any attention to Arkoff, and that’s the way we worked.

We shot those films very quickly. Since the whole schedule was 12 days, we had no rehearsal time at all. Frankie Avalon was great to work with. I just got along great with them; Frankie, Annette, Harvey Lembeck, the whole cast. I don’t know why that was. I just had a quality that they liked.

We had a big hit with Beach Party, and then I shot Muscle Beach Party, Beach Blanket Bingo, and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. I loved making these films; it was the way that I wished that I’d lived my childhood. They’re really fantasy dreams of what it’s like to be young. Nobody ever got in trouble, no matter what they did. Nobody got pregnant, and there was no drinking, or cigarette smoking, or drugs. It was just a beautiful dream of what it was like to live in California at the time.

The scripts of were sheer nonsense, but they were fun, and positive. It was the life I wished I’d had growing up. When kids see the films now, they can get some idea of what the 60s were like. The whole thing was a dream, of course. But it was a nice dream.”

Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome Recreated at The New Museum

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

Stan VanDerBeek was a revolutionary experimental filmmaker, video artist, and visual theoretician who began working in the 1950s and continued innovating right up until his untimely death in 1984.

He was famous early on for this collage films, in which he would manipulate, through animation, paper cutouts to create satirical comments on society, as in his films Breathdeath (1964), which VanDerBeek dedicated to Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and described as being a “surrealistic fantasy based on the 15th century woodcuts of the dance of the dead. A film experiment that deals with the photoreality and the surrealism of life. It is a collage-animation that cuts up photos and newsreel film and reassembles them, producing an image that is a mixture of unexplainable fact (Why is Harpo Marx playing a harp in the middle of a battlefield?) with the inexplicable act (Why is there a battlefield?). It is a black comedy, a fantasy that mocks at death … a parabolic parable,” and Achoo Mr. Keroochev (1959), described by its maker as a “sneezing, displeasing, crooked-looked of visual pratfalls by a patented politician in animation and live [action],” to mention just two of the many, many films he made during his lifetime.

But arguably his greatest achievement was the creation of his Movie-Drome, a geodesic dome whose interior served as a projection surface for a dazzling display of multiple images, in 16mm film or slide format, projected on the ceiling of the dome.

VanDerBeek wrote a manifesto describing his work with the Movie-Drome, which operated only briefly between 1963 and 1965, stating in part that: “it is imperative that we [the world’s artists] invent a new world language, that we invent a non-verbal international picture-language. I propose the following:

* The establishment of audio-visual research centers, preferably on an international scale. These centers to explore the existing audio-visual hardware. The development of new image-making devices (the storage and transfer of image materials, motion pictures, television, computers, videotape, etc.)

* The immediate research and development of image-events and performances in the Movie-Drome. I shall call these prototype presentations: Movie Murals, Ethos-Cinema, Newsreel of Dreams, Feedback, Image Libraries.

* When I talk of the Movie-Dromes as image libraries, it is understood that such life theaters would use some of the coming techniques…and thus be real communication and storage centers, that is, by satellite, each dome could receive its image from a world wide library source, store them and program a feedback presentation to the local community that lived near the center, this newsreel feedback, could authentically review the total world image reality in an hour-long show.

* Intra-communitronics, or dialogues with other centers would be likely, and instand reference material via transmission television and telephone would be called for and received at 186,000 m.p.s., from anywhere in the world. Thus I call this presentation,a newsreel of ideas, of dreams, a movie-mural. An image library, a culture de-compression chamber, a culture inter-com.”

Happily, The Movie-Drome has been recreated at The New Museum in New York as part of their “Ghosts in the Machine” show for a brief period of time — now through September 30, 2012 — and those lucky enough to live close by can experience it for themselves, a wondrous and humbling display of visual wizardry that has long been excluded from the conventional cinematic canon.

As the Museum writes in their program notes for the show, “the installation at the New Museum will include artists, writers, and visionaries whose works have explored the fears and aspirations generated by the technology of their time. From Jacob Mohr’s influencing machines to Emery Blagdon’s healing constructions, the exhibition brings together improvised technologies charged with magical powers. Historical works by Hans Haacke, Robert Breer, Otto Piene, and Gianni Colombo, amongst others, will be displayed alongside reconstructions of lost works and realizations of dystopian mechanical devices invented by figures like Franz Kafka. “Ghosts in the Machine” also takes its cue from a number of exhibitions designed by artists that incorporated modern technology to reimagine the role of art in contemporary societies, including Richard Hamilton’s “Man, Machine and Motion” (1955). Exploring the integration of art and science, “Ghosts in the Machine” also tries to identify an art historical lineage of works preoccupied with the way we imagine and experience the future, delineating an archeology of visionary dreams that have never become a reality.

Many of the artists in the show take a scientific approach to investigating the realm of the invisible, dismantling the mechanics of vision in order to conceive new possibilities for seeing. Central to the exhibition is a re-examination of Op Art and perceptual abstraction, with a particular focus on the work of painters Bridget Riley, Victor Vasarely, Richard Anuskiewicz, and Julian Stanczak, amongst others. Op Art was unique in the way it internalized technology and captured both the ecstatic and threatening qualities it posed to the human body. Furthermore, the exhibition will include a number of kinetic and “programmed” artworks as well as expanded cinema pieces, which amplify the radical effects of technology on vision.

A section of the exhibition will present a selection of experimental films and videos realized with early computer technology. One highlight of the installation will be a reconstruction of Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome (1963–65), an immersive cinematic environment where the viewer is bathed in a constant stream of moving images, anticipating the fusion of information and the body, typical of the digital era.”

The image at the top of this post is from the original Movie-Drome; the image directly above is from the recreation at the New Museum, now open to the public. If you live in the vicinity of New York City, and have any interest in the arts or cinema history at all, you owe it to yourself to see this once in a lifetime recreation of an authentic cultural phenomenon of the 1960s, which still resonates today with artists, critics, and even the most casual of observers as a refreshingly original and daring conception, from a time when cinema ruled the arts. It’s a uniquely life-affirming experience, as is all of VanDerBeek’s work.

The New Museum is located at 235 Bowery Street, New York, NY 10002; telephone (212) 219-1222. Check it out if you possibly can.

Jim Danforth, Special Effects Master

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

A Jim Danforth matte painting from George Romero’s Day of the Dead.

Jim and Karen Danforth are two of the last great artists of the pre-digital era of cinema in the area of special effects work, especially matte paintings and stop-motion animation, both of which have been essentially rendered obsolete by CGI imagery. Matte paintings essentially fill in background or foreground areas when set would prove too costly to build, or too time consuming; stop motion animation of models, pioneered by the great Willis O’Brien in The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933) are now also a thing of the past.

While CGI work is often extremely convincing, as times goes by, there also seems to be a certain ephemerality about it; you know it’s not there, it has no physical solidity, and somehow it seems less “real” as a result. The great pioneers of motion picture special effects — people like Albert Whitlock, Bill Brace, David Stipes, Gene Warren, Harry Walton, Jim Danforth, Mark Sullivan, Peter Ellenshaw, Ray Caple, and Ray Harryhausen — all of whom are discussed in this interview, are some of the people who created the original magic of the movies, and their story is both fascinating and instructive for contemporary filmmakers, film historians, and students of the cinema.

In this remarkably detailed interview by a blogger known only as NZ Pete, Danforth talks about his many, many films assignments over the years, his early influences as a special effects artist, changing trends in the film production business, and looks back on the numerous assignments that he’s tackled, some of which worked out to his satisfaction, and others which he’s not enamored of.

The numerous stills in this interview are exceptional, and as NZ Pete notes, many of them appear here for the first time. Danforth is also refreshingly honest about his work, and his legacy, and more than happy to tip his hat to the many pioneers who came before him. He’s also extremely articulate about the incredible amount of work that goes into matte paintings and stop motion work; it’s about as time consuming a job as one can possibly imagine. So I’m happy to pass this along, as someone who also admired Danforth’s work over the years, in a variety of genres; it’s a fascinatingly rich discussion, and serves as a a real education on this aspect of cinema history.

Read the entire interview by clicking here, or on the image at the top of this page.

Frame by Frame: Hollywood Movie Moguls

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see a brief video on the Hollywood moguls.

I have a new Frame by Frame video out today, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on Hollywood’s movie moguls of the 1930s through the 1960s, and how their era came to an end; it’s part of the work of my book, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, forthcoming from Rutgers University Press for Fall, 2012.

Death of the Moguls is a detailed assessment of the last days of the “rulers of film,” which examines the careers of such moguls as  Harry Cohn at Columbia, Louis B. Mayer at MGM, Jack L. Warner at Warner Brothers, Adolph Zukor at Paramount, and Herbert J. Yates at Republic in the dying days of their once-mighty empires. The sheer force of personality and business acumen displayed by these moguls made the studios successful; their deaths or departures hastened the studios’ collapse. Almost none had a plan for leadership succession; they simply couldn’t imagine a world in which they didn’t reign supreme.

Covering 20th Century-Fox, Selznick International Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, Paramount Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures, Republic Pictures, Monogram Pictures and Columbia Pictures, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood briefly introduces the studios and their respective bosses in the late 1940s, just before the collapse, then chronicles the last productions from the studios and their eventual demise in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

I discuss here, and in the book in much more detail, of course, such game-changing factors as the de Havilland decision, which made actors free agents; the Consent Decree, which forced the studios to get rid of their theaters; how the moguls dealt with their collapsing empires in the television era; and the end of the conventional studio assembly line, where producers had rosters of directors, writers, and actors under their command.

Barry Keith Grant read several drafts of the book during its production, and wrote that “in this accessible and engaging history of the moguls who made the studios successful [. . .] Dixon does a terrific job of getting inside the heads of the bosses who built their studios into major entertainment factories.”

The book should be out in September, so you can read it for yourself then.

Son of Dracula (1943)

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

Louise Allbritton in Robert Siodmak’s Son of Dracula (1943); click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for the film.

I’ve been meaning to blog on this film for quite some time, but something always came up; in any event, Son of Dracula, one of the last of the truly serious Universal horror films of the 1940s, is a remarkable film in many respects, not least of which is the fact that it’s the first horror film to combine distinct elements of film noir with the Dracula legend, transported here to America’s south for the first time, and directed by the gifted noir stylist Robert Siodmak (at a salary of just $150 per week), from a screenplay by his brother Curt, both refugees from Hitler’s Germany who wound up in Hollywood, and brought their Expressionist style of cinema with them.

Son of Dracula’s plot begins in a fairly straightforward manner; Count Alucard (try spelling it backwards; persuasively portrayed by Lon Chaney, Jr.) shows up at the Dark Oaks plantation in New Orleans, invited by Katherine “Kay” Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), a wealthy young heiress with a disturbingly deep interest in the supernatural. In short order, Alucard dispatches her father, Colonel Caldwell (George Irving), and marries Kay, who seemingly dismisses her long time fiancé Frank Stanley (Robert Paige) without a backward glance. Kay soon becomes one of the undead, and it seems as if Kay and Alucard are destined for a life of brutal immortality, scouring the countryside on a nightly basis for victims.

But — and here is the twist that makes the film unusual, and also constitutes a spoiler, so be warned — Kay has only one plan in her mind; after becoming a vampire, she infects Frank, hoping to turn him into a vampire, as well, so that Frank and Kay can live forever, as soon as Kay destroys Alucard by driving a stake through his heart. In short, Kay is a stylish 40s femme fatale, whose true motives can only be divined more than two-thirds of the way through the film, and who dares to double cross even the Prince of Darkness himself to obtain eternal life for herself and her beloved.

Siodmak thought the script was junk, but he’s wrong; it’s a smooth, solid piece of genre craftsmanship, and the film served as his “trial by fire” at Universal, as he soon moved up to more prestigious assignments, such as The Spiral Staircase (1945), The Killers (1946), based on Ernest Hemingway’s short story, and The Dark Mirror (1946), all certifiable noir classics. In addition, George Robinson’s atmospheric cinematography brings out every last nuance of the dark, decaying mise en scene of the film, and John P. Fulton’s masterful special effects — the first time Dracula transforms into a bat on screen, or a trail of vapor in another memorable instance — adds much to the film’s overall impact, to say nothing of Hans J. Salter’s suitably sinister music score, one of many for Universal’s classic horror cycle.

But in the end, it’s Louise Allbritton’s performance — alluring, sensual, willful — that serves as the centerpiece of the film, and balances nicely off Chaney’s masculine interpretation of Alucard. Son of Dracula is a one of a kind movie, made just as the Universal cycle was coming to an end — it would collapse entirely in 1944 and 1945, with House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, respectively, but here, for one last time, with a top flight director who would go on to much greater things, and a serviceable cast that responds intuitively to his authoritative direction, the Dracula legend is taken seriously one last time, and the results are well worth watching.

Incidentally, I’ll post in a few minutes on Film Forum’s tribute to Universal and Robert Siodmak, an event those of you who live in or around Manhattan absolutely should not miss.

Mirage (1965)

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

Gregory Peck, Diane Baker and director Edward Dmytryk on location in Central Park, New York — Summer, 1964 — for the noir suspense thriller Mirage (1965).

I have an essay on the noir suspense thriller Mirage in the latest Noir of the Week; it’s an interesting film despite some defects in structure, and since it’s on DVD, one can easily see the film and make up your own mind. It’s certainly worth viewing.

Here’s the start of my piece: “Mirage is an odd film; a “sort of” noir shot in the mid 1960s, by one of the men who helped invented the noir genre back in the 40s, Edward Dmytryk. From the start, Dmytryk was an interesting stylist, taking rather mundane projects like the routine horror film The Devil Commands (1941), or the even less promising Captive Wild Woman (1943), and imbuing them with a sense of personal commitment and genuine menace. Then, with the exploitation thriller Hitler’s Children (1943), which made a fortune for RKO, and supposedly depicted the activities of the Hitler Youth movement, Dmytryk finally had a chance to move up, and with Murder, My Sweet (1944), one of the best of Philip Marlowe films, which gave Dick Powell a whole new career as a hard boiled detective after spending the 1930s as a juvenile crooner in Busby Berkeley films, Dmytryk did just that.

Crossfire
(1947) consolidated his reputation as a noir realist, specializing in stories torn from the headlines, but Dmytryk’s political beliefs soon came under scrutiny from the House Un-American Activities Committee, and along with many others, he soon found himself on trial for contempt of Congress as one of the Hollywood Ten – the story is well known. Found guilty, Dmytryk was sent to prison, but soon cracked, was released, gave “friendly” testimony to the HUAC, named names, and was rewarded with one of the most brutal films of his career, The Sniper (1952), about a psychopathic killer, with Eduard Franz in the leading role, and Adolphe Menjou, one of the architects of the Blacklist, as the co-star, perhaps to keep an eye on the erring director.”

You can read the rest of the essay here; my thanks to Steve Eifert, the Noir of the Week site administrator, for the chance to write on this deeply idiosyncratic film.

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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