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Archive for September, 2012

New Frame by Frame Video: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

I have a new Frame by Frame video out today, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on the 1945 films Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne by Robert Bresson.

I have blogged about this film before; as I wrote then, “one of Robert Bresson’s most incandescent works, this early film also marks the teaming of two of France’s most personal and idiosyncratic artists: Robert Bresson and Jean Cocteau. Cocteau (whose 1949 film Orpheus [Orphée] mesmerized post-World War II audiences), in addition to his numerous other accomplishments, wrote the dialogue for Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, loosely based on Denis Diderot’s short story Jacques le Fataliste et Son Maître. Elina Labourdette plays Agnès, a young woman who has been forced into a life of prostitution in wartime Vichy, France, in order to support herself and her ailing mother (Lucienne Bogaert).

At the same time, Hélène (the serpentine Maria Casarés) is breaking up with her longtime lover, Jean (Paul Bernard), and, feeling jilted by him, concocts an elaborate plot for revenge. Contacting Agnès and her mother, Hélène offers to take over their debts, move them out of the brothel they call home, and set them up in a sleek, modern apartment, with no strings attached. We discover too late Hélène’s true motives; she is doing all of this so that Jean will ‘accidentally’ meet Agnès, fall in love with her, marry her, and then become the subject of public ridicule because of Agnès’s past. All of this goes off with clockwork precision, but Jean, when confronted with the monstrousness of Hélène’s treachery, shakes off his bourgeois prudishness, embraces Agnès despite her fall from grace, and the film ends on a note of hope and Bressonian redemption. This film never fails to stun me with its sheer, vibrant beauty and psychological insight; I return to it again and again, and it never disappoints.”

I wrote an essay on the film in Senses of Cinema 46; you can read it here.

Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s – Part 4

Monday, September 10th, 2012

Peter Cook as The Prince of Darkness in Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled (1967).

Part Four of my essay on “Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s” appeared today in Film International, along with links back to parts 1, 2, and 3.

I start the essay with these thoughts: ”As the 1960s drew to a close, so did the string of dark comedies; the real world was bleak enough, and audiences began to prize artificial optimism over satiric criticism. John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 was seen at the time as aberrational; but by the end of the decade, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X had also been assassinated, and the public’s taste for “sick humor” started to wane. Simply surviving seemed a tough enough goal. Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled (1967), an updating of the Faust legend with Peter Cook as Satan and Dudley Moore as the hapless Stanley Moon, a short order cook, offered a graphic demonstration of the hopelessness of ambition. Stanley wants to be loved by Margaret (Eleanor Bron), a waitress at the Wimpy hamburger restaurant he works in, and Satan promises to help him in his quest with a series of seven wishes, but every time Stanley thinks up what he imagines to be a foolproof plan for romantic bliss, Satan can’t resist adding a little wrinkle to frustrate Stanley’s dreams.

For one wish, Stanley asks to be a pop star, and his wish is granted; shrieking a wanton ballad of unbridled lust, ‘Love Me,’ on television, he seems to have attained Margaret’s love, until Satan, appearing in the role of a rival pop singer, begins intoning a dirge-like song of rejection (‘You turn me off – go away – you disgust me – I’m not available’) that proves to be the next new trend in rock music, rendering Stanley’s pleading ballads obsolete. Stanley’s numerous other attempts to seduce Margaret, as an intellectual bachelor, and finally as a nun, also fail to work. In the end of the film, Stanley manages to escape from Satan’s clutches through a loophole in his contract, and is back at his old post, frying burgers, but this time, content with his lot. The film’s message is clear; one must be content with what one has, and not hope for more. Ambition, in a sense, is potentially disastrous.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Jennifer Steinkamp’s Madame Curie Video Installation

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see a brief video excerpt from Madame Curie.

Jennifer Steinkamp, whose video installations are reminiscent of the work of Pipilotti Rist, has created a first class video installation piece with this homage to Marie Curie, who in her spare time was an avid gardener. As Steinkamp notes of this endlessly looping video, which has been screened at numerous venues, and just finished up a three month run at The Sheldon Museum of Art here at UNL (it closed September 9th, 2012), the work “is inspired by [my] recent research into atomic energy, atomic explosions, and the effects of these forces on nature. Marie Curie was the recipient of two Nobel Prizes for creating the theory of radioactivity, and discovering radium and polonium. She was also an avid gardener and lover of flowers. An enveloping panoramic work, the new piece activates a field of moving flowers and flowering trees [. . .] Flowers rendered realistically for this new work include marsh marigolds, may flower, chestnut blooms, and hop plants, among many others drawn from a list of over 40 plants mentioned in Marie Curie’s biography written by her daughter, Eve Curie.”

Click here to see a slide show of the original installation of the piece at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

Maidstone, and The Films of Norman Mailer

Friday, September 7th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see Rip Torn and Norman Mailer battle it out in Mailer’s film Maidstonefor real.

Criterion continues to surprise and delight with their ongoing Eclipse series, which brings back to public view forgotten and often brilliant films from the classical era of cinema.

The latest Eclipse box set, Number 35, is entitled “Maidstone and Other Films by Norman Mailer,” and features the title film, Maidstone, about Mailer’s fictional quest for the Presidency as the pompous Norman T. Kingsley, as well as his first improvised feature, Wild 90, which is of much less interest, and Beyond The Law, centering on one violent, boozy night in a fictional police precinct in Manhattan. All of these films were largely improvised; Wild 90 is completely made up on the spot, dialogue and all, and is fixed in one location, a dingy warehouse; Maidstone is set in a lush country estate, where Mailer gathered his friends and associates for five days of improv filming; and Beyond The Law follows the same format. The results, especially with Maidstone and Beyond the Law, are extraordinary.

As the Criterion notes for the set observe, “Norman Mailer is remembered for many things— his novels, his essays, his articles, his activism, his ego. One largely forgotten chapter of his life, however, is his late-sixties kamikaze-style plunge into making experimental films. These rough-hewn, self-financed, largely improvised metafictions are works of madness and bravado, all starring Mailer himself and with technical assistance from cinema verité trailblazers D. A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock. The most fully realized of his directorial efforts is the blustering, brawling Maidstone, a shocking sign of the political times, in which Mailer plays a filmmaker and presidential candidate who may be the target of an assassination attempt. Along with Mailer’s other films of the period—Wild 90 and Beyond the Law—it shows an uncompromising artist in thrall to both himself and a new medium.”

The actor Rip Torn was one of the principals in Maidstone, and in the film’s most notorious scene, convinced that the movie needed some more action, attacked Mailer with a hammer and bit off part of his ear in a very real, completely unstaged fight sequence. The film as a whole is a compelling exercise in self-psychoanalysis, but for me, Beyond The Law, shot in gritty black and white, with a cast that includes Rip Torn, George Plimpton, Mailer and a rogue’s gallery of hanger ons, is the gem of this group.

There will never be filmmaking like this again. Completely self-financed and shot in 16mm, these are films that Mailer made, at a great financial loss, simply because he felt had to express himself as a non-commercial, experimental filmmaker. Later in his career, Mailer directed a straight dramatic feature, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, based on one of his novels, but it’s a dull, commercial film, indifferently executed by a professional crew. Here, in these early, exhilarating, gloriously undisciplined and freewheeling films, he captures not only his own vision of the world he lived in, but also the essence of New York in the 1960s.

These are films not to be missed; it’s good to see them finally on DVD.

Frame By Frame: Subtitles vs. Dubbing

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

Subtitles rule.

I have a new episode out today in the Frame by Frame series, brilliantly edited by Curt Bright, in which I discuss the various disadvantages of dubbing, most tellingly that it separates the actor from his/her voice, and results in only half a performance, or less, on the screen. I watch subtitled versions of films whenever possible; sadly, most viewers seem to prefer dubbed versions, feeling that it’s too much work to watch an image and read the dialogue at the same time, but you get the real essence of a foreign language film when you view it with accurate subtitles — and I stress accurate subtitles — which you really don’t get when you see other actors providing their voices. Imagine Humphrey Bogart, or Marilyn Monroe, or John Wayne, or any other iconic American actor dubbed by someone else into another language; you’d miss all the nuances, the particular speech patterns, the pauses (as in John Wayne), the breathiness (in Monroe) or the world weary angst of Bogart’s raspy voice.

The image above is from Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (Swedish: Låt den rätte komma in, 2008), a film that would have been utterly ruined it it fell into the hands of a dubbing company; as it was, there was a terrible US remake of the film by Matt Reeves, titled simply The Right One (2010), which no one saw, and failed completely at the box office. The original film, in contrast, was a significant box office hit, and played around the world with subtitles, quite profitably. It’s a remarkable modern vampire film, and the actors are superb; much of the impact of the film would have been lost if the voices had been replaced with dubbing.

So the next time you have a choice on a foreign film, choose the subtitled version. It’s the only way to go.

Capitalism Eats Itself: Gluttony and Coprophagia from Hoarders to La Grande Bouffe

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

You really are what you eat.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new article in the journal Film International, entitled “Capitalism Eats Itself: Gluttony and Coprophagia from Hoarders to La Grande Bouffe,” which examines a number of television programs and films that deal with excess consumption and wastage, seemingly a more and more popular topic in contemporary throwaway culture. Here’s the opening paragraphs:

“Consumption. Excess. Gluttony. Hoarding. Waste. Massive debt. The pathologies of capitalism are our greatest export. Endless examples of unproductive expenditure only add to our credibility as gluttons with little or no use-value. Americans consume recklessly in order to convince ourselves that we are not alienated, and that late-stage capitalism will provide for us, and fulfill our emotional needs. TV and media reflect and take part in insatiable hoarding, gluttonous consumption, and excessive production and dissemination of images that reify the very same pathologies and deadly sins they purport to expose – in a cyclical loop that I call ‘capitalism eating itself.’

The US has a long history of excessive gluttony and hoarding, starting with people, as one prime example. Human beings, slaves were hoarded and gluttonously exchanged for their value in capital and manufacture of products. Our historical pathology of gluttony is easily demonstrated by our origins; we are a stolen nation; a huge gobbled up land mass birthed from colonial theft, gluttony, and hoarding. America’s bloody legacy of greed, theft, and violence is one we obsessively and compulsively deny. By replacing our primal beginnings with a narrative of so-called patriotic struggle for freedom, we deny, (like hoarders deny their compulsions), our long complex history of thievery of capital, bodies, countries, vast amounts of land, commodities and wealth.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

So You Want To Write A Novel?

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

Here’s an absolutely hilarious instant cartoon about an “aspiring” novelist.

I usually don’t post on these things, but this one really nails it; the complete absence of any thought or preparation on the part of the would-be novelist in this short cartoon is truly staggering. It’s also somewhat shocking that this kind of “I can do anything I set my mind to” approach to writing a book or a novel is so prevalent; sadly, the cartoon’s depiction of this sort of unjustified blind optimism isn’t all that far off the mark. Kudos to the creator of this sharp and pointed video, which has much more truth to it than one might immediately think.

Click here, or on the image above, to see this short, clever video.

Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s — Part 3

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

I have a new article out today; part three of my essay on “Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s,” in the journal Film International.

Here’s the opening paragraphs: “Death has often been used to comic effect in films, but an all out assault on what Jessica Mitford termed “the American way of death” is another thing entirely. Loosely based on Evelyn Waugh’s acerbic novel of the same name on life, death, and the attendant collapse of civilization in Hollywood, Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965) was a stand alone film even in a decade devoted to dark humor; indeed, it was boldly advertised as ‘the motion picture with something to offend everyone,’ and largely lived up to its billing. Though hampered by Haskell Wexler’s uncharacteristically stolid camerawork (Richardson hired Wexler because of his signature handheld ‘newsreel’ style, but was appalled when Wexler categorically refused to utilize it on the film – more on this later) and an uneven screenplay by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood, the film still succeeds on a number of counts. America was becoming death obsessed in the mid 1960s, with the costs of funerals and memorials rising dramatically.

The Loved One centers on the Whispering Glades cemetery – a stand in for Hollywood’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park – where the corrupt Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters) presides over a kingdom of death. His key aide is Mr. Joyboy (a suitably effete Rod Steiger), who is the chief embalmer, assisted by Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjanette Comer), who helps to ‘make up’ the corpses that pass through Whispering Glades for their final public appearance. Into this complicated scenario comes Dennis Barlow (a very young Robert Morse), as a clueless Briton trying to ingratiate himself with the ‘British Colony’ in Hollywood, with the help of his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud). Dennis falls madly in love with Aimee, but Joyboy is also attracted to her, and a love match ensues.

Meanwhile, the ‘Blessed Reverend’ is becoming worried that Whispering Glades is no longer a money spawning operation. The graveyard is filling up, and he’s running out of room; at first, Glenworthy tries to increase profits by holding back-to-back weddings and funerals in the same chapel, each performed in a matter of minutes, with canned music cues (both presided over by the unctuous actor Ed Reimers in an unbilled cameo; in real life, Reimers shilled for both Crest Toothpaste and Allstate Insurance). But it’s not enough; something has to give. Suddenly, Reverend Glenworthy is seized with an inspiration. Instead of a cemetery, Whispering Glades can be turned into a retirement complex, assuring continual turnover and a constant stream of revenue. There’s only one problem; what to do with all those pesky bodies buried at Whispering Glades? ‘There’s got to be a way to get those stiffs off my property!’ Glenworthy barks to one of his subordinates, and indeed, there is.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image at the top of this post.

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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