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Archive for April, 2013

The Disquieting Aura of Fabián Bielinsky

Monday, April 29th, 2013

I have a new article today on the late director Fabián Bielinsky in Film International.

As I note, “the roots of [Bielinsky's film] The Aura go way back in Bielinsky’s childhood, to a screening of John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), which so mesmerized the young cineaste that he refused to leave his seat until the management gave him a poster of the film as a souvenir. Over the years, Deliverance occupied almost the entire space in the young director’s mind, and it’s worth noting that even as he suggested after the success of Nine Queens that he might next like to try his hand at ‘a psychological thriller,’ the first draft of the script for The Aura was written in 1983, the year he directed the short film La Espera, and graduated from the national film school. The film was in every way darker and more fatalistic than Nine Queens; as he declared from the outset of the film’s production, The Aura was designed to please no one but its maker.

As Bielinsky told Jorge Letelier in the film journal Mabuse, ‘the [film’s] theme is crime, but its structure allows for more discussions because […] I decided to accept a series of brutal and dangerous breaks in the structure, because in a genre film audiences expect a certain type of structure and rhythm according to the rules of the genre in question. I opted to go on breaking those rules, so that things wouldn’t happen when they were supposed to happen.’ And this, indeed, is precisely what sets The Aura apart from more traditional crime ‘thrillers’ – it is, at its heart, a study in psychological penetration, gesturing back to the director’s early studies in psychology, and his examination of the ethos of machismo in Latin American society.

And it’s clear that as an omnivorous moviegoer, Bielinsky knew, much better than most of the people who interviewed him, that Nine Queens had been a work of precise calculation, every bit the same sleight-of-hand trick that the film itself celebrated. Make The Aura first? Not likely. Make a crowd pleaser first, designed to appeal to the widest possible audience, and then, if you were lucky and worked hard, you just might get a shot at a script that had been kicking around in your file drawers since your 24th birthday – a work so dark, so uncompromising, so willfully designed not to please, that it might as well have been Godard’s Le Petit Soldat or Les Carabiniers (both 1963), films which represented an outright assault on their respective audiences. And when an unsuspecting critic suggested that someone like David Mamet might be an influence on Bielinsky’s work, the director was quick to disabuse them of that mistaken notion.

When David Edwards ventured that Mamet might perhaps have been ‘a particular influence,’ Bielinsky good naturedly, but firmly, put Edwards in his place, saying that, ‘well, you know I was writing ideas like this before I even knew David Mamet existed! Of course, it’s flattering to be compared to him because he’s such a great scriptwriter and playwright. But, you know, Mamet didn’t invent this. There’s a whole history of con man movies before he came on the scene. I mean, I think about films like The Sting, Paper Moon, The Flim Flam Man, House of Games, the films of Fellini and other Italian films I saw when I was a teenager.’

So the roots of both Nine Queens and The Aura run deeply into not only Bielinsky’s past, but the past of cinema as a whole, and now, with the immense success of his first film, and the American remake racking up acceptable grosses, producers who were formerly unwilling to take a chance on Bielinsky’s pet project now agreed to participate. True, he had to cobble together financing from a variety of sources, and especially in the wake of Argentina’s financial collapse, everything – not just filmmaking – was a daily struggle, but at length, all was in place, and Bielinsky was allowed to embark upon the dark journey of The Aura which, though he did not know it at the time, would be his last testament as a filmmaker.

If Nine Queens presents the picture of a world becoming undone, a picture, in the words of Michael Chanan ‘of a corrupt society, where everyone is conning everyone else, a metaphor for a dangerous political situation on the verge of coming to a head, with a closing scene – as a bank puts up its shutters and depositors clamor for their money – that is nothing short of prophetic,’ then The Aura shows the aftermath of that society’s collapse, which is now no longer a joking matter, but rather a deadly serious fight for survival.

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

Film Convert – People Still Want The Film “Look”

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

Despite the “breakneck shift” to digital cinema, it seems people still want the film “look.”

So here’s a fascinating video tutorial — which loads immediately when you click the image above — on some new software that takes the rather hard looking digital images put out by conventional HD cameras and softens then up into something approximating what film looks like, with artificial grain, color balance, and other artifacts of the filmic image. It’s all an illusion, of course; this is still HD. But it’s interesting to me that the more people use digital, the more they seem to long for the “look” of film, and the warmth, depth, and tactile feel that film brings to the image being captured.

As tech writer Joe Marine notes on the No Film School website, “we’ve said a lot about the digital versus film debate, and a lot of people have a lot of different opinions. Film still had a technological advantage over digital until really the last few years or so, and now we have digital sensors which can match or exceed film stocks with dynamic range. Either way, with digital sensors being ‘too clean’ for some people who have loved the look of film, there is a program called FilmConvert that takes the color information of specific cameras and actually uses that to determine how a specific film stock could best be represented using that sensor.”

So, click here, or the image above, and see for yourself how it works.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on “I Was Impaled”

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay on I Was Impaled and similarly warped “reality” TV shows in Film International.

As she writes, “television shows such as I Was Impaled (2012-) and 1000 Ways to Die (2008-) appropriate tropes from horror film and re-narrate them into digestible bite-size “safe” forms. I’d argue they have similar voyeuristic pleasures as the horror film, but they are almost entirely shorn of narrative and any sense of morality. In 1000 Ways to Die, ‘hilarious’ stories of death, loosely based on actual stories, are stripped of any humanism, and edited together as a series of graphic and repetitive mini-narratives of sadistic slaughter. It’s all for sick kicks; set to quirky music, sutured together by a wisecracking voice-over narrator. Here, the destruction of the body is almost a postmodern destruction of humanity, with a snuff-like lack of ethos; presented much in the same manner as the ‘funny’ clips from America’s Funniest Home Videos, which themselves often rely on the humor in watching, for example, children hurting themselves.

For anyone unfamiliar with I Was Impaled, I’ll offer here some brief plot summaries. I Was Impaled features people who accidentally end up with foreign objects impaled in their body. While examining how these mysterious items were often initially ignored and later ‘discovered,’ the program carefully reenacts the gruesome impalements and also features faux forensic material popular to any reality programming. Here, in CSI style, we are treated to gruesome reenactments of actors playing medics and surgeons who use the most groundbreaking techniques to extract objects from bodies as a flat voice over narrative explains what we are watching in excessively bloody detail. Using cutting-edge animation, firsthand testimony and sophisticated recreations, often including CGI, each 60-minute episode highlights the stories of three or four ‘impalements,’ from the time the injury occurs to the moment the person ‘realizes’ they are actually impaled by something, through the euphoric moment when the object is removed, and usually it includes an actor saying ‘I should not be alive,’ or some variant on that idea, in this way gesturing to the trope of the so-called ‘deservedness’ of death as it is featured on 1000 Ways to Die.

The stories include a woman who was impaled on a five-inch iron spike railing; a man whose esophagus was ripped open by a French fry; a gardener whom fell face first onto his pruning shears; a young man who was accidentally shot with a five-foot long fishing spear; a man who was impaled by a six-foot fence post; a woman who fell directly onto a hooked planter while gardening; a man who had a foreign object mysteriously lodged into his brain; a woman who was impaled through her neck by a Christmas tree; a boy who accidentally swallowed a barbed hook while fishing; a man who nearly died after being pumped full of enough air to blow up a thousand party balloons; a surfer who ended up with his fiberglass surfboard embedded in his skull; a motocross rider who crashed and ended up with a stick in his face; a 64-year-old woman who discovered a bug in her ear and a pencil in her brain; a carpenter who got a splinter in his eye; and an ex-Marine who was left with a pole penetrating his mouth after a car accident (TV Tango).

As you can tell from these plot descriptions, the definition of ‘impalement’ is stretched beyond credulity. The show promises the kinds of impalements one would expect from a horror film, but impalement from within by a French fry, or being pumped up with excess air seems hardly comparable with classic horror movie impalements. A classic horror film, usually a moral tale, often involves the impalement of a vampire by wooden stake, or a villain being impaled on an iron spike, specifically a black wrought iron spiked gate of the type found either in Victorian England, or the Transylvanian countryside. While I Was Impaled may borrow from the classic horror film (one that almost always features a clear morality tale), it leaves behind the moral binarisms of good vs. evil in the traditional horror film. Instead, the program foregrounds a series of impalements and dismemberments without the narrative conscience of a moral center.”

This is where television is today; essential reading. Click here to read the entire essay.

S.F. Trips Festival, An Opening – Ben Van Meter

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

People often ask me what experimental cinema was like in the 1960s; here is the answer.

Ben Van Meter’s S.F. Trips Festival — An Opening is one of my favorite films of all time, for a number of reasons, but the main reason I like the film so much is its’ economy of images; made for less than $100 to final print, van Meter shot the film over two nights — January 21-22, 1966 — on two and a half rolls of Ektachrome color reversal film, running each reel through the camera multiple times to create a labyrinth of images, effectively conveying the ecstasy and beauty of the scene in a very short space of time — roughly nine minutes. I’ve seen this film literally hundreds of times, and it never fails to impress me as an absolutely accurate document of a time and place now lost beyond authentic recall.

No money, just sheer inspiration and artistry, and a real commitment to embracing chance in the process of creating the film. Now, it’s here for everyone to enjoy; this used to be the model for experimental cinema until the Hollywood dominant model took over sometime in the early 1980s — the film school model — but even the most casual viewing of this film reveals the incomparable richness of Van Meter’s work. And all the editing was done in the camera; this is straight out of the Bolex, simply spliced together. Back then, nobody had the money for more raw stock than was absolutely necessary, but they made a virtue of penury, and they tried to jam as many images as possible into their films; the result is dazzling.

Absolutely stunning; click here, or on the image above, and see for yourself.

The End of Film is Really Here

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

I’ve been banging the drum on this for a long time, but now, it seems the end is really here.

As Carolyn Giardina and Adrian Pennington report in today’s Hollywood Reporter, “by the end of this year, distributors may no longer deliver film prints to theaters in North America. Cans full of reels of celluloid will be a thing of the analog past. When it comes to movies, and how they are distributed, the digital revolution will be complete. The signs are all there — and there have been plenty of warnings.

At Showest, the predecessor to CinemaCon, in 2011, National Association of Theatre Owners president John Fithian predicted that the domestic distribution of movies on celluloid could cease before the end of 2013. Fithian reported that Fox had already notified exhibitors of its intent to end film distribution in the U.S. within two years. He predicted, ‘No one should rely on the distribution of film prints much longer.’

By the end of 2012, 90,000, or 75 percent, of the world’s cinema screens had gone digital, according to Michael Karagosian, president of MKPE Consulting. He reports that 85 percent of the screens in North America had already made the digital switch, as have 67 percent in Europe. Studios welcomed the change, since it will ultimately be less expensive for them to distribute films digitally rather than have to ship cans of film around the country. Exhibitors, initially wary because of concerns about the expense of converting their auditoriums, ultimately came aboard once the studios agreed to virtual print fees that have helped subsidize the costs of the transition.

As a result, when a studio now releases a title wide in North America — sending it out to 2,000-2,500 theaters — they typically make just a small number of prints, maybe 300, according to Claude Gagnon, president of Technicolor Creative Services. But for those who still rely on film, from production companies to distributors to theater owners, the future is now uncertain. In fact, studios and filmmakers might not be in control of their own destiny.”

By the end of 2013, it seems, film will be gone; like it or not, it’s a digital world.

Heinz Ketchup 1968 TV Spot Storyboard

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Here’s a fascinating, at least to me, document, which is somewhat off the beaten path for this blog.

This is a storyboard for a 1968 TV spot for Heinz ketchup, which was presented at a company sales meeting as an alternative to the advertising the company had done up to that point. Created by DDB, the iconic advertising agency of the 1960s — and still a major force in the advertising world today — the ad emphasized the quality, texture, and taste of the product, as compared to other, cheaper brands. You can read the entire story behind the reasoning that led up to this spot here; sadly, the video of the commercial isn’t on the web, but I think this almost frame-by-frame analysis of the advertisement is much more enlightening than the finished version. This is how stuff is sold, folks; careful consideration, a lot of contemplation, and a desire to make all of us more effective consumers.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – First Trailer

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Liam Hensworth, director Francis Lawrence, and Jennifer Lawrence on the set of Catching Fire (2013).

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second installment in the Hunger Games trilogy, opens this coming November, and for once, I am more interested in the sequel than in the original. The reason: Donald Sutherland is more front and center, and he was the best thing about the first film; as you will see in the trailer, he’s joined by the always excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the effortless manner in which these two superb actors play off each other is a delight to behold. Jennifer Lawrence is back, and just on the evidence presented here, seems much more assured in her role as Katniss Everdeen; Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson also return, so the cast is exceptionally strong. But the real difference here is that Francis Lawrence, an expert action director with a real edge of brutality in his visuals, is at the helm, and I think that the results will be much more interesting than the rather bland and uninvolving original, indifferently directed by Gary Ross. In any event, here’s the first trailer; judge for yourself.

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

Mr. B.I.G.

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Orson Welles and director Bert I. Gordon on the set of Gordon’s film Necromancy (1972).

He never made any big budget films, and never really made any truly successful films, but Bert I. Gordon’s threadbare special effects extravaganzas, if that’s the right word for them, have a place in the affections of many film goers from the 1950s and 1960s. With such titles as The Cyclops, The Amazing Colossal Man, Beginning of the End (all 1957), Earth vs. the Spider, War of the Colossal Beast, and Attack of the Puppet People (all 1958), along with many other films to his credit, Gordon seemed obsessed with films that employed bargain basement trick photography (which Gordon himself was responsible for) to create images of enormous animals, insects, and/or humans wreaking havoc on society, shot in matter-of-fact black and white, and presented with ruthless economy in every department.

For sheer absurdity, they’re hard to top; perhaps my favorite moment in any of his films comes in Earth vs. The Spider, in which a group of teenagers accidentally discover a truly enormous and seemingly lifeless arachnid in a local cavern. The spider is subsequently transported to the local high school gymnasium (of course) for further study. Naturally, the students decide that this would be an excellent time for a rock and roll dance party, which awakens the spider, allowing it to embark on yet another murderous rampage. It’s all junk, but it’s pop art junk, and a real part of the American cinema experience in the 1950s, and for 75 minutes or so, worth the time to view as an authentic talisman of a vanished era. Still alive as of this writing, Gordon is in retirement, but his films are shown all the time on television, and many are available on DVD.

To see a brief video interview from 2010 with Bert I. Gordon, click here or on the image above.

Death of The Moguls Interview — Part Two

Friday, April 12th, 2013

Today I continued my interview with Mark Lynch on my book Death of The Moguls.

As WICN’s website notes, “during the Golden Age of Hollywood, there were the ‘Big Five’  studios that included  MGM, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Brothers. But in addition to these giants of film making, there were also a number of smaller studios. Some of these lesser studios produced fine major films like Gone With the Wind and Spellbound, while others concentrated on serials and “B” films. Each of them has a fascinating history. On this Inquiry we welcome back Wheeler Winston Dixon and we continue our conversation about his book Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood. Tonight we concentrate on the stories of these smaller studios like United Artists, David O. Selznick (shown here with Jennifer Jones) and Republic Pictures, the films they produced, the stars, and the unusual lives of the men who headed these studios. If you love film, do not miss this interview!”

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

“Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema”

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

Martin Scorsese recently delivered the 2013 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities entitled “Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema” at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

As reported in Dawn.com, Scorsese urged his listeners to preserve our shared cinematic heritage before it disappears, a sentiment which I am in absolute agreement with. As Scorsese noted, “I believe we need to stress visual literacy in schools. Young people need to understand that not all images are out there to be consumed like, you know, fast food and then forgotten. We need to educate them to understand the difference between moving images that engage their humanity and their intelligence, and moving images that are just selling them something.”

As Dawn.com’s anonymous correspondent added, “to fully comprehend the language of moving images, it is essential to ‘preserve everything’ from blockbusters to home movies by way of films that may not look like works of art on first showing, [Scorsese] said. To prove his point, Scorsese screened a clip from Vertigo – hailed today as a work of genius, but at the time of its release in 1958 regarded as just another in a string of crowd-pleasing Alfred Hitchcock psycho thrillers.

‘[Vertigo] came very very close to being lost to us,’ he said, adding that over time, viewers can identify and appreciate elements in a film that might not be evident upon its initial release. ‘Just as we learned to take pride in our poets and writers, and in jazz and blues, we need to take pride in our cinema, a great American art form. It’s a big responsibility, and we need to say to ourselves that the time has come to look beyond weekend box office numbers and start caring for films as if they were the oldest book in the Library of Congress,’ [Scorsese] said.”

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

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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