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Archive for December, 2013

1941 Orson Welles Script Finally to Be Produced

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Here’s amazing news from Cinephilia and Beyond on an unproduced Orson Welles screenplay.

As the website notes of this unproduced gem — and it really is a great script — “buried deep among the hundreds of old scripts in RKO Pictures’ archives was a 1941 melodramatic gem about an amnesia-stricken man who wakes up in the middle of a revolution in Mexico. Never produced, the screenplay for The Way to Santiago is credited to Orson Welles. A quick look at the text leaves no doubt it was the work of the Citizen Kane filmmaker when he was at the peak of his arrogant brilliance. The script begins: ‘My face fills the frame.’

Abandoned by RKO after Welles’ epic fall from grace, The Way to Santiago has finally gotten the green light nearly six decades later and is being produced by a rejuvenated RKO. ‘This script caught everything about Welles,’ said RKO Chairman and CEO Ted Hartley, citing the screenplay’s action, suspense and jungle romance. ‘It reflected his greatness in storytelling.’ The Welles script was known to film historians for years, but it wasn’t easy to find.

Santiago tells the story of a man who wakes up in Mexico with no idea of who he is or how he got there. The twist is that he has an uncanny resemblance to a notorious figure. The story follows the man’s search for his own identity while evil forces try to kill him. Welles intended to direct and star in the film, as he had done in Kane, so the name of the main character is simply ‘Me’ in the script.

In a letter on file in RKO’s archives, Welles writes from New York to studio production head George Schaeffer on Feb. 2, 1941 that he’s eager to get started, assuring Schaeffer ‘we are going to successfully avoid a lot of the things that cost us time and money in the making of Kane. The only way to achieve the results we all urgently want is for those in responsibility to understand, finally, that even if they don’t like my way of doing things, they must do it my way just the same… (and most important) without making an effort to prove in the process that my way is wrong,’ Welles wrote.”

You can read the rest by clicking here; with the right director, this could be riveting.

Happy 105th Birthday Manoel de Oliveira!

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Manoel de Oliveira, the oldest active director in film history, will be 105 years young on December 11, 2013.

As I wrote in Film Quarterly 66.2 (Winter 2012), “Manoel de Oliveira remarked on the occasion of his 103rd birthday two years ago that ‘whether we like it or not, it [death] will come one day, but generally people are not in a hurry, and I personally have never been in a hurry in my life; this is perhaps why I reached this age.’

At 105, the Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is the oldest living filmmaker still actively working within the industry, and also the filmmaker with the longest career in the cinema, having directed films since 1927, beginning with a tantalizing project on the First World War that was never completed. His first real project was completed in 1931.

If you consider that 1927 project Oliveira’s baptism in the cinema, then he’s been a director for 87 years – longer than most of us manage simply to stay alive. During all this time, he’s developed a style that is so uniquely his own as to be instantly identifiable, something like the rigorousness of Straub and Huillet with a more emotional and less didactic edge, but nevertheless still challenging for most viewers.

But the good news is that the world has finally caught up with Manoel de Oliveira after nearly a century’s worth of work; at last, he’s being acknowledged as an absolute master of the cinema. And he has a project in the works for 2014 – long live Manoel!”

You can read the entire article on JStor by clicking here.

Top Ten Films for 2013

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

Although such lists are inherently ridiculous, here are my ten best films of 2013, in no particular order.

Le Weekend (Roger Michell)

Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)

In A World (Lake Bell)

What Maisie Knew (Scott McGehee, David Siegel)

The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)

12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen)

The Purge (James DeMonaco)

A Teacher (Hannah Fidell)

Adore (aka Two Mothers; Anne Fontaine)

Bastards (Claire Denis)

Significantly, none of these films with the exception of The Purge got any real national distribution, and many people will no doubt think this an aberrant choice, and perhaps it is, but for me, The Purge was economical, sharply observed, made some good points about the direction our society is headed in, and then got out of the room in under 85 minutes, which alone makes it an outlier in the bloated consumer economy of today’s mainstream cinema; Le Weekend tries to pass itself off as a comedy in the DVD packaging and posters, but it’s one of the most devastating and personal examinations of loss and failure I’ve ever seen; Blackfish is a properly despairing and unforgiving documentary, further testament to the fact that we’re destroying the planet and killing its wildlife in the process, all in the name of amusement; Lake Bell pulled off a triple-threat effortlessly with In A World, in which she wrote, directed and acted in a comedy/drama about a young woman trying to break into the voiceover business; and What Maisie Knew placed Henry James in modern Manhattan with style and immaculate conciseness.

The Hunt is a ringing indictment of mob mentality in a small town, with an unforgettable and absolutely “right” ending; Twelve Years A Slave was the most unflinching look at slavery that the screen has yet given us; A Teacher got unjustly trashed by nearly every other critic out there, but I thought it was a smart and affecting first feature, and will look for more from Hannah Fidell in the future; Adore (aka Two Mothers, aka Perfect Mothers, aka Adoration — make up your mind already!) offered a brilliant Doris Lessing novella adapted for the screen, a modern day family horror story in which two women take each other’s sons for lovers with predictably disastrous results, directed with a sure hand by the gifted Anne Fontaine; and Bastards shows us why Claire Denis continues to be one of the directors who matter, with a gritty 21st century Neo-Noir that is both compelling and stylish.

There were other worthy films out there, but not much mainstream work; as always, new cinema comes from the margins.

Jean Renoir on Val Lewton

Saturday, December 7th, 2013

Renoir worked briefly with Val Lewton on Woman on The Beach (1947).

As he observed in a 1954 interview, “I’ll say a few words about Val Lewton, because he was an extremely interesting person; unfortunately he died, it’s already been a few years. He was one of the first, maybe the first, who had the idea to make films that weren’t expensive, with ‘B’ picture budgets, but with certain ambitions, with quality screenplays, telling more refined stories than usual. Don’t go thinking that I despise ‘B’ pictures; in general I like them better than big, pretentious psychological films they’re much more fun. When I happen to go to the movies in America, I go see ‘B’ pictures. First of all, they are an expression of the great technical quality of Hollywood. Because, to make a good western in a week, the way they do at Monogram, starting Monday and finishing Saturday, believe me, that requires extraordinary technical ability; and detective stories are done with the same speed. I also think that ‘B’ pictures are often better than important films because they are made so fast that the filmmaker obviously has total freedom; they don’t have time to watch over him.”

You can read more about Renoir’s thoughts on this by following this link.

The Final Fade Out – 75% or More of Silent Films Lost Forever

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

I have a new article in Cinespect on the loss of silent films; read the entire essay by clicking here.

As I write, “completed in September 2013, but just generally released today, David Pierce’s report The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929, sponsored by The Council on Library and Information Resources and The Library of Congress Washington, D.C., tells a grim tale, though most film historians and archivists have known that the news wouldn’t be good for a long time. But the shock here is how bad it really is. As the report’s introduction by James Billington notes,

‘Pierce’s findings tell us that only 14% of the feature films produced in the United States during the period 1912–1929 survive in the format in which they were originally produced and distributed, i.e., as complete works on 35mm film. Another 11% survive in full-length foreign versions or on film formats of lesser image quality such as 16mm and other smaller gauge formats.

The Library of Congress can now authoritatively report that the loss of American silent-era feature films constitutes an alarming and irretrievable loss to our nation’s cultural record. Even if we could preserve all the silent-era films known to exist today in the U.S. and in foreign film archives—something not yet accomplished—it is certain that we and future generations have already lost 75% of the creative record from the era that brought American movies to the pinnacle of world cinematic achievement in the twentieth century’ (vii-viii).

This is the result of a number of factors: the death of the silent film as a commercial art form, and the resultant neglect of the film negatives by the Hollywood studios; nitrate film decomposition, which plagues all films made prior to 1950; but mostly, it’s a ringing indictment of the fact that we simply don’t value our cinematic heritage as much as we should, and now, it’s gone forever. We can’t get it back, no matter what we do. Unless some long forgotten print or dupe negative turns up in a vault somewhere, these films have been consigned by neglect and indifference to perpetual oblivion, and even if such materials do turn up, they will probably be in very poor shape.”

The article also includes link to a pdf to the complete report; essential reading for anyone interested in cinema.

Dallas Buyers Club

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

 

I have a review of Dallas Buyers Club in the latest issue of Cinespect.

Here’s the opening: “Matthew McConaughey is an excellent actor, and Lord knows he’s working enough these days, and he brings real fire and presence to every role he attacks. But with the exception of Steven Soderbergh’s criminally underrated Magic Mike, McConaughey’s films often don’t live up to their initial promise. Such is the case with McConaughey’s latest film, Dallas Buyers Club, based on a true story, and indifferently directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. The source material is absolutely solid; homophobic good ol’ boy Ron Woodroof lives a non-stop lifestyle of booze, coke, cigarettes, and rodeo riding, until he discovers that he’s HIV positive after a trip to the hospital.

Initially indignant, and given 30 days to live by his doctors, Woodruff sets out on a one man crusade to prove them wrong, smuggling unapproved drugs into the States as a “Buyers Club,” and befriending numerous members of the gay community in the process, in particular the flamboyant Rayon (Jared Leto in a standout performance), as he battles against the ravages of the disease and confounds the medical establishment. Eventually, the sympathetic Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) comes around to Woodruff’s way of thinking, and sacrifices her career when she realizes that conventional treatments against HIV/AIDS are far from effective; indeed, they may well be lethal.”

You can read the rest of the review by clicking here, or on the image above; a solid but not perfect film.

New Book: Cinema at The Margins

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

I have a new book out today, Cinema at The Margins, from Anthem Press, London.

More and more, just a few canonical classics, such as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) or Victor Fleming’s Gone With The Wind (1939), are representing the entire output of an era to a new generation that knows little of the past, and is encouraged by popular media to live only in the eternal present. What will happen to the rest of the films that enchanted, informed and transported audiences in the 1930s, 1940s, and even as recently as the 1960s?

For the most part, these films will be forgotten, and their makers with them. In this book, I argue that even obvious historical markers such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) represent shockingly unknown territory for the majority of today’s younger viewers; and yet once exposed to these films, they are enthralled by them. In the 1980s and 1990s, the more adventurous video stores served a vital function as annals of classic cinema. Today, those stores are gone and the days of this kind of browsing are over.

This collection of essays aims to highlight some of the lesser-known films of the past – the titles that are being pushed aside and forgotten in today’s oversaturation of the present. The work is divided into four sections, rehabilitating the films and filmmakers who have created some of the most memorable phantom visions of the past century, but who, for whatever reason, have not successfully made the jump into the contemporary consciousness.

“Few have explored the cinematic margins as thoroughly as Wheeler Winston Dixon, and few match his talent for finding and celebrating the secret glories of overlooked, undervalued films. Gliding from Peter Bogdanovich to Myra Breckinridge by way of Robert Bresson, this is an exciting and ever-surprising collection.” —David Sterritt, Columbia University and Chair, National Society of Film Critics

“The marginalization of important films is a constant threat in the age of the New Hollywood blockbuster, with commercial cinema reduced to a cheap thrill and the audience conceived as adolescents. Dixon’s thoughtful remarks on neglected films testify not only to his own fine sensibility, but to the urgency of the concerns he sets before us.” —Christopher Sharrett, Seton Hall University

You can read more here, or click on the image above; available now from Amazon in all formats.

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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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/