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Archive for December, 2012

Top Ten Films of 2012

Friday, December 28th, 2012

With the new year almost upon us, for what it’s worth, here are ten films that really impressed me, all released in 2012, in no particular order:

This Is Not A Film by Jafar Panahi

The Queen of Versailles by Lauren Greenfield

Bernie by Richard Linklater

A Late Quartet by Yaron Zilberman

Tabu by Miguel Gomes

How to Survive a Plague by David France

The Invisible War by Kirby Dick

Wild Bill by Dexter Fletcher

Side by Side by Christopher Kenneally

Farewell, My Queen by Benoît Jacquot

There are lots of other excellent films, of course, and all “top ten” lists are inherently ridiculous, since there’s so much out there that never gets even a VOD release, so this is just a very small slice of a much larger pie. There were a lot of excellent documentaries this year, as well as last year, and all of these films certainly had their moments.

I found myself drifting back though, to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia or J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (both 2011), as films that, for me, were really transcendent experiences, and none of these films, with the possible exception of the mesmeric Tabu, really came up to that level. That said, This Is Not A Film signals a new era in do-it-yourself cinema, smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake, proving that you don’t need much in the way of physical materials to make a compelling film; all it requires in genius, and a talent for improvisation under pressure. A Late Quartet is perhaps the most conventional film here, but it still packs a punch, and Side by Side, though also veering towards the quotidian, nevertheless addresses the most central issue facing cinema today; film or digital. Really, it isn’t a contest any more; digital has won. Film is gone.

In Fall 2012, I projected a DCP (Digital Cinema Package) of one film in my film history class, which looked sharp, hard, and glossy; and then after that, a 35mm print of another film, which seemed, in comparison, warm, romantic, and inviting. What can I say; film looks better. But there’s no use bemoaning the death of film, though; it’s an accomplished fact. Christopher Nolan is still carrying the torch for celluloid, but it won’t be long before 35mm vanishes completely – something I predicted as far back as 2000 in a lecture in Stockholm, when one theatre in New York switched, even back then, to all digital projection. The Jazz Singer (1927) opened in one theater, as well; within two years, silent films were gone.

It’s taken digital longer to gain market dominance, but when one looks at the cost savings for the studios in shipping, storage, and print costs, as well as the level of control DCPs give the majors. Digital Cinema Packages must be unlocked by KDMs (Key Delivery Messages) for each screening, so studios always know where and when their films are being screened – the shift was ultimately inevitable. I’ve blogged about this before in detail. The shift was ultimately inevitable. So it’s a digital world, and film – as we knew it – is no longer part of the landscape.

That’s the major story for 2012, and a host of aesthetic and pictorial values vanish with the switch. But sheer economics drive the process, and film is above all a very costly medium, so with distribution and advertising costs rising, to say nothing of above-the-line budgets, mainstream fare will continue to rule the multiplex, while most of the films listed here played “selected theaters,” and never reached the general public.

That’s another problem, and for that, there seems no solution in sight.

Colour Films in Britain: The Negotiation of Innovation 1900-1955

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

Here is an essential volume on the history of color (or colour) in British cinema.

Sarah Street’s groundbreaking study, Colour Films in Britain: The Negotiation of Innovation 1900-1955, on the development of color in the British cinema, is that rare film history text which is at once absolutely authoritative, and pitched at a very high level in terms of discourse, but still readily accessible to the general reader. In addition, the volume is richly — and I mean intensely – illustrated with numerous, exquisitely printed frame blowups from the many films it examines, all in full color, and Street’s analysis of the development of color, not only in the commercial British cinema, but also in the the experimental work of artists such as Len Lye, is meticulous and detailed.

As the British Film Institute’s website for the book notes, “how did the coming of colour change the British film industry? Unlike sound, the arrival of colour did not revolutionise the industry overnight. For British film-makers and enthusiasts, colour was a controversial topic. While it was greeted by some as an exciting development – with scope for developing a uniquely British aesthetic – others were deeply concerned. How would audiences accustomed to seeing black-and-white films – which were commonly regarded as being superior to their garish colour counterparts – react? Yet despite this initial trepidation, colour captivated many British inventors and film-makers. Using different colour processes, these innovators produced films that demonstrated remarkable experimentation and quality.

Sarah Street’s illuminating study is the first to trace the history of colour in British cinema, and analyses the use of colour in a range of films, both fiction and non-fiction, including The Open Road, The Glorious Adventure, This is Colour, Blithe Spirit, This Happy Breed, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffmann and Moulin Rouge. Beautifully illustrated with full colour film stills, this important study provides fascinating insights into the complex process whereby the challenges and opportunities of new technologies are negotiated within creative practice. The book also includes a Technical Appendix by Simon Brown, which provides further details of the range of colour processes used by British film-makers.”

One of the most interesting aspects of British color cinematography that Street takes pains to point out is the ways in which British cinematographers changed the “look” of the three-strip Technicolor process from the hard, bright, bold colors used in many American films during the same era, such as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and other Hollywood projects. As she demonstrates, color was used in a variety of ways in the British cinema, with much more variation than in the States; effectively muted in the superb film This Happy Breed to convey the drabness of workaday British life during World War II, or strikingly bold in the films of The Archers — Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), of which my favorite is probably A Matter of Life and Death (known as Stairway to Heaven in the United States).

There are a number of books presently available dealing with the use of color in film, and the problem with many of them is that in describing the works they examine, they often fall back on black and white illustrations to demonstrate their case, astonishing as that may seem. Color printing is expensive, but in this case, using an excellent and sensitive paper stock, Street has managed to create a book at a very reasonable price that is bursting with color images from the many films she discusses, so much so that the book becomes almost a coffee table book, gorgeous simply for the images it contains, as well as an excellent study of the various color processes used in the UK from 1900 to 1955.

The is a prodigious accomplishment; indeed, it is a masterwork. Essential for anyone with a serious interest in color in the cinema, British or otherwise.

Surrealism and Sudden Death in the Films of Lucio Fulci

Monday, December 24th, 2012

I have a new article out today in Film International; “Surrealism and Sudden Death in the Films of Lucio Fulci.” Click here to see the entire article, or on the image above.

As I argue in my essay, “the films of Lucio Fulci, the Italian horror filmmaker, are usually lumped in with those of other ‘gore’ specialists, but it seems to me that this is just one component of Fulci’s work. Running through all his films is a strangely dreamlike, hyper-violent abandonment of narrative, which seeks to disrupt normative social values, perhaps as a result of Fulci’s youthful excursions into Marxist political thought.

In such films as The House by the Cemetery, The Beyond, City of the Living Dead and other works, Fulci continually works against audience expectations, both in terms of characterization and plot. In The Beyond, for example, a young blind woman’s faithful guide dog turns on her without warning, tearing her throat out; in City of the Living Dead, a young couple are making out in the front seat of a car when the girl’s father discovers them, and drags the young man to a drill press, which he uses to push a huge bolt through his skull.

Zombies roam hospitals, highways lead into the ocean with no end or beginning in sight, protagonists discover themselves trapped inside an oil painting, and there’s no logic to any of this. Fulci usually makes some desultory stab at a framing story, but once a central premise is set forth, the rest of the film is given over to random, unconnected, and seemingly unmotivated sequences that follow with no discernible order or reason. I would argue that the chaotic non-narrative structure of Fulci’s films puts him closer to the work of Luis Buñuel or Jean Cocteau; he creates a walking dream state from which the sleeper never awakes.”

My thanks to Daniel Lindvall for his patience in editing this piece; this essay is dedicated to the memory of an old friend, Rick Lopez, who first introduced me to Fulci’s work.

Frame by Frame: Charlie Chaplin

Friday, December 21st, 2012

I have a new Frame by Frame video up today on Charlie Chaplin; click here, or on the image above, to see my brief appreciation of his work.

As Wikipedia notes, “Sir Charles Spencer “Charlie” Chaplin, KBE (16 April 1889 – 25 December 1977) was an English comic actor, film director and composer best known for his work in the United States during the silent film era. He became the most famous film star in the world before the end of World War I. Chaplin used mime, slapstick and other visual comedy routines, and continued well into the era of the talkies, though his films decreased in frequency from the end of the 1920s. His most famous role was that of The Tramp, which he first played in the Keystone comedy Kid Auto Races at Venice in 1914. From the April 1914 one-reeler Twenty Minutes of Love onwards, he was writing and directing most of his films; by 1916 he was also producing them, and from 1918 he was even composing the music for them. With Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith, he co-founded United Artists in 1919.

Chaplin was one of the most creative and influential personalities of the silent-film era. He was influenced by his predecessor, the French silent-film comedian Max Linder, to whom he dedicated one of his films. His working life in entertainment spanned over 75 years, from the Victorian stage and the music hall in the United Kingdom as a child performer, until close to his death at the age of 88. His high-profile public and private life encompassed both adulation and controversy. Chaplin was identified with left-wing politics during the McCarthy era and he was ultimately forced to resettle in Europe from 1952.

In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Chaplin the 10th-greatest male screen legend of all time. In 2008, Martin Sieff, in a review of the book Chaplin: A Life, wrote, ‘Chaplin was not just big, he was gigantic. In 1915, he burst onto a war-torn world bringing it the gift of comedy, laughter and relief while it was tearing itself apart through World War I. Over the next 25 years, through the Great Depression and the rise of Adolf Hitler, he stayed on the job. … It is doubtful any individual has ever given more entertainment, pleasure and relief to so many human beings when they needed it the most.’ George Bernard Shaw called Chaplin ‘the only genius to come out of the movie industry.’”

As always, my thanks to Curt Bright for shooting and editing this short video, which is really a team effort.

Roger Corman to Remake Eight Poe Movies in 3-D

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

As Alex Ben Block writes in The Hollywood Reporter, Roger Corman, at 86, is still cranking them out.

As he notes, “Roger Corman [. . .] is making new versions of eight low-budget horror films based on stories by 19th century American writer Edgar Allan Poe that he adapted and directed in the 1960s. House of Usher will be followed by The Pit and the Pendulum, Premature Burial, Tales of Terror, The Raven, The Haunted Palace [actually based on H.P. Lovecraft's novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward], The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia.

This time, Corman will produce but not direct the films, with the first to shoot in 2013, followed by two a year after that on budgets of $2 million to $2.5 million (the originals were shot for $250,000 to $350,000, not adjusting for inflation, on 15-day schedules). Like [the original versions, made for American International Pictures], his New Horizons Productions will not pay for rights because the source material is in the public domain.

The new productions will be self-financed by Corman’s New Horizons Productions, which will give the films at least a short domestic theatrical release and offer international rights at the American Film Market. “Now being able to do them in 3D and with a lot of computer graphics, we can do things we never dreamed of doing before,” he says. But that won’t include more violence. “Poe always worked with the unconscious mind, and there’s a lot of fantasy,” he explains. It may include more erotic material, in keeping with Poe’s approach, but Corman says there will probably still be no nudity.

Corman, honored at the first Governors Awards in 2009, says his biggest concern is replacing his legendary leading man Vincent Price, who died in 1993. Corman hopes to find a fiftysomething actor known from TV who, he says, can bring the same level of ’sensitivity and neuroticism that Vincent was able to bring.’ Corman has Mike McClain, who wrote his last movie – The Haunted, a Chinese co-production shot in in that country — working on the Usher script. Already a living legend [. . .] why does Corman continue to work at his age? He replies with one of his typically to-the-point comments: ‘I simply love making motion pictures.’”

Actually, Corman has already produced a low-budget remake of The Masque of the Red Death in 1989, directed by Larry Brand, toplined by Patrick Macnee and Adrian Paul. While nowhere nearly as effective as Corman’s 1964 version, starring Vincent Price and Hazel Court, and immaculately photographed by the great Nicolas Roeg, it was still an interesting piece of work. But as Corman says, he simply can’t stop making movies. At the very least, the films will prove an excellent training ground for perhaps the very last group of Corman’s protégés, who will then go on to bigger and better projects. It’s a return to the past, but I wish he was doing something new.

Then again, as a pre-sold franchise, the new Poe films should do well in the marketplace.

National Film Registry Selects 25 Films for Preservation

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

As Susan King reports in today’s LA Times, “A gripping western, a beloved holiday film, a 115-year-old movie capturing a famous boxing match, a memoir of a Holocaust survivor and a visionary science-fiction thriller in which Keanu Reeves utters the word ‘whoa’ are among the 25 films selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Congress established the National Film Registry in 1989 to highlight the need to preserve U.S. film heritage. Under the conditions of the National Film Preservation Act, the librarian of Congress names 25 films yearly that are ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.’ The films must be at least 10 years old. The films selected for 2012 are:

3:10 to Yuma (1957): Delmer Daves directed this western based on a short story by Elmore Leonard.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959): Otto Preminger directed this courtroom thriller that made headlines for its frankness in language and adult themes.

The Augustas (1930s-1950s): A 16-minute film by traveling salesman Scott Nixon, who was a member of the Amateur Cinema League, chronicling some 38 streets, storefronts and cities named Augusta.

Born Yesterday (1950): Judy Holliday won a best actress Oscar as not-so-dumb-blonde Billie Dawn in this political satire directed by George Cukor.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961): Audrey Hepburn plays one of her quintessential roles — the quirky Manhattan call girl Holly Golighty — in this romantic dramedy based on Truman Capote’s novella.

A Christmas Story (1983): Humorist Jean Shepherd narrates this classic holiday comedy based on his memoirs of growing up in Indiana and hoping to receive a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas.

The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Title Fight (1897): Chronicle of the famed boxing match between James J. Corbett — aka “Gentleman Jim” — and Bob Fitzsimmons that was held on St. Patrick’s Day in Carson City, Nev.

Dirty Harry (1971): Clint Eastwood introduced his iconic role as maverick San Francisco Det. Harry Callahan in Don Siegel’s influential action-thriller.

Hours for Jerome: Parts 1 and 2 (1980-82) : Experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky’s silent tone poem.

The Kidnappers Foil (1930s-1950s): Dallas native Melton Barker traveled through the South and Midwest for three decades filming local kids acting, singing and dancing in two-reel films he called The Kidnappers Foil. A few weeks after shooting, the townspeople would get a copy of the film for screening at the local theater.

Kodachrome Color Motion Picture Tests (1922): The two-color (greenish blue and red) film was the first publicly demonstrated color film to attract the attention of the film industry.

A League of Their Own (1992): Penny Marshall’s box office hit comedy about the All American-Girls Professional Softball League of the 1940s and early 1950s.

The Matrix (1999): Andy and Lana — then known as Larry — Wachowski directed this visually groundbreaking sci-fi thriller starring Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishburne.

The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair (1939): Technicolor industrial film produced for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

One Survivor Remembers (1995): Oscar-winning documentary short about Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein.

Parable (1964): The Protestant Council of New York produced this controversial, acclaimed silent allegorical Christian film for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Samsara: Death and Rebirth of Cambodia (1990): Ellen Bruno’s Stanford University master’s thesis documents the struggle of the Cambodian people to rebuild their shattered society after Pol Pot’s killing fields.

Slacker (1991): Richard Linklater’s indie comedy follows a group of diverse characters over the course of one day in Austin, Texas.

Sons of the Desert (1933): Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy star in one of their funniest vehicles.

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973): Ivan Dixon directed this controversial thriller about an African American who infiltrates the CIA in order to create a black nationalist revolution.

They Call It Pro Football (1967): The first feature from NFL Films utilized Telephoto lens and slow-motion to offer a primer on the game.

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984): Academy Award-winning documentary about San Francisco’s first openly gay elected city official who was slain in 1978.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971): Director Monte Hellman’s existential road picture.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1914): This silent adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark 1852 anti-slavery novel is said to be the first feature-length film that starred an African American actor — Sam Lucas, who had appeared in the 1878 stage version.

The Wishing Ring; An Idyll of Old England (1914): Maurice Tourneur’s charming cross-class romance.”

I’m particularly happy to see Nick Dorsky included, not only because he’s a friend, but also because more attention needs to be paid to experimental films in general. But this is a really interesting cross-section of films; a great series of essential works.

Moving Image Archive Interview on Death of the Moguls

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

Here’s an interview with Peter Monaghan, editor of Moving Image Archive News, in which I discuss my new book, Death of the Moguls, from Rutgers University Press.

As Monaghan writes, “Wheeler Winston Dixon talks about how he went about researching his latest book, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, which Rutgers University Press released in August 2012. Dixon is a prolific film historian based at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Among his many books are 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster), A History of Horror, and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (all Rutgers University Press).

In Death of the Moguls, he explains what happened when leaders of Hollywood studios during the “golden era” of the 1930s to 1950s faced obstacles they had not foreseen, and could barely countenance – dying, for example. Dixon describes the final years of the studio system and assesses the last days of the “rulers of film” – moguls like 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. Dixon asserts that because those figures made the studios through the sheer force of their personalities and business acumen, their deaths or departures hastened the studios’ collapse. Why? Because almost none of them cultivated leaders to succeed them.

Dixon introduces many studios and their bosses of the late 1940s, just before the studios collapsed, and describes their last productions as they headed towards their demise in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He details 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 and slash their payrolls; how the moguls dealt with their collapsing empires in the television era – by shifting to 3D, color, and CinemaScope; and the end of the conventional studio assembly line, where producers had rosters of directors, writers, and actors under their command.

In his ‘lucid and penetrating account,’ as film scholar Steven Shaviro of Wayne State University puts it, Dixon also describes what came next: the switch to television production and some distribution of independent film.”

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

New Perspectives on World Cinema Series — Anthem Press

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and I have a new series of books from Anthem Press, London.

The New Perspectives on World Cinema series publishes engagingly written, highly accessible, and extremely useful books for the educated reader and the student as well as the scholar.

Volumes in this series will fall under one of the following categories: monographs on neglected films and filmmakers; classic as well as contemporary film scripts; collections of the best previously published criticism (including substantial reviews and interviews) on single films or filmmakers; translations into English of the best classic and contemporary film theory; reference works on relatively neglected areas in film studies, such as production design (including sets, costumes, and make-up), music, editing, and cinematography; and reference works on the relationship between film and the other performing arts (including theater, dance, opera, etc.).

Many of our titles will be suitable for use as primary or supplementary course texts at undergraduate and graduate levels. The goal of the series is thus not only to address subject areas in which adequate classroom texts are lacking, but also to open up additional avenues for film research, theoretical speculation, and practical criticism. There are already several books in the series — you can see them by clicking on the image above — and we are now actively looking for new volumes for publication.

Series Editors

Wheeler Winston Dixon – University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster – University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA

Editorial Board

David Sterritt – Columbia University, USA

Valérie K. Orlando – University of Maryland, USA

Thomas Cripps – Morgan State University, USA

Robert Shail – University of Wales Lampeter, UK

Catherine Fowler – University of Otago, New Zealand

Andrew Horton – University of Oklahoma, USA

Frank P. Tomasulo – City College of New York, USA

Proposals: We welcome submissions of proposals for challenging and original works that meet the criteria of this series.

Please contact us at: proposal@wpcpress.com

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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In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/