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Archive for January, 2014

The Death of Foreign Films in America

Monday, January 27th, 2014

Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), still the highest-grossing foreign-language film of all time.

Once upon a time, every movie had to open in a conventional 35mm theater run to make money. This made for a kind of financial egalitarianism; a $100,000 horror movie would have to open in a theater the same way that a $5,000,000 movie would have to; there were no DVDs, streaming videos, video on demand services, or even cable. While no one would want to go back to the analog age, as this blog itself demonstrates, the fact remains that from the dawn of cinema until the late 1980s, foreign films had a solid chance in the US market, and were roughly divided into two groups: commercial cinema and art cinema. But no matter what the label was, every film still had to open in a theater to make money — there simply was no other market.

Commercial foreign films, such as Italian westerns or horror movies, or Japanese science-fiction spectacles, were hastily dubbed into English and dumped into theaters on a mass basis, and made their money back. More serious fare, such as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita – which I wrote about in a 2010 article in the web journal Senses of Cinema – were presented with subtitles, and no one seemed to mind. Eventually, La Dolce Vita, too, was dubbed for wider distribution, although this version never really caught on, and audiences of the period were discerning enough to notice that replacing the actors’ voices in the film essentially destroyed Fellini’s work.

But La Dolce Vita — which is one of my favorite films of all time, and perhaps the best examination of modern pop throwaway celebrity culture ever created – made the bulk of its money in a subtitled version, and thus audiences were educated from a very early age to realize that there were many different kinds of films available. There were American films, of varying degrees of budget and artistic ambition – and often some of the lowest budget films were the most artistically ambitious — and then there were foreign films, and the junk was dubbed, while the better films were presented aurally and visually intact, with subtitles. But now it seems that dubbed or subtitled, no one is going to foreign film anymore, except for Bollywood films, which have a huge audience throughout the world, as well as here in the States.

As Richard Corliss, who knows his way around cinema history, writes in an article in Time Magazine, “you probably know about Blue Is the Warmest Color, the French movie with the lesbian lovers romping through a five-year affair. But chances are you haven’t seen it. For all its ballyhoo and bravas, Blue has earned only about $2.1 million at the U.S. box office. Given the high price of art-house tickets, that means only a couple hundred thousand people have paid to see it in its three-month American run — fewer than the number that bought tickets to Ride Along this past Tuesday.

These are hard times, maybe the end of times, for a kind of film that accounts for only about one in every 200 tickets sold in the U.S. But before we get to the depressing news about the current state of foreign-language films in the States, consider a time when this tiny niche was a tremendous niche — representing about 5%, not 0.5%, of the domestic market — and when foreign films were thought essential to any true cinephile’s education and appetite.

We speak of the 1960s. Giants like Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and François Truffaut strode the earth; and their favorite actors — Marcello Mastroianni, Max von Sydow, Toshiro Mifune and Jeanne Moreau — became icons on this side of the pond. Mastroianni and the rest provided the best directors with faces and personalities that charmed the foreign-film audience across America. And soon other movies with these stars appeared in U.S. theaters. In the early ’60s, as many as 30 Italian films reached U.S. shores.

That’s because of the startling success of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which, in terms of tickets sold, is still the highest-grossing foreign-language film of all time. It earned $19.5 million in U.S. theaters in 1961, when the average ticket price was just 69 cents. In today’s dollars, that would be $236 million — more than the domestic gross of 2013 hits like Oz the Great and Powerful and Thor: The Dark World. In 1966, Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman, a race-car love story starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée, grossed the modern equivalent of $107 million. Three years later Costa-Gavras’s political thriller Z took in what would be $92 million today. As the moguls would say, real money.

Two quick reasons for the appeal of foreign-language films in the ’60s: They had a higher IQ than the average Hollywood movie — making works like Fellini’s and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad the subjects of earnest debates at penthouse cocktail parties and on college campuses — and they were sexier, exposing flesh along with their vaunted angst and anomie. A third reason: they gave any American with cinematic wanderlust a view of other countries and cultures. Here were people and ideas so different, perhaps forbidding, yet often enchanting.

At the end of the decade, Hollywood grew up fast, with copious infusions of sex (Midnight Cowboy), blood (The Wild Bunch) and double-dome philosophizing (2001: A Space Odyssey). That’s an oversimplified way of saying that American movies had recaptured the conversation [. . .] Another factor: Americans lost interest in other cultures; we were not only No. 1, we were the only 1 we cared about. With foreign films’ monopoly on intellectual maturity and adult themes broken, they receded to specialty status: canapés for connoisseurs.”

I’m afraid that Corliss is right; the multiplexes, as I have observed many times before, play simply the biggest hits in a very tight playlist, and no one seems to have for more thoughtful cinema anymore. The big news these days is the upcoming Superman/Batman team up, and ComicCon rules the box office. Not much chance for anything enlightening there. In the 1960s, and until the late 1980s, theaters gave audiences a choice, simply because they had to — theaters were the only venue available. Now that the studios can dump smaller films on VOD or streaming, you can forget about a theatrical release. Which means that most people will never hear of it, which means most people will never see it, which means that if you want thoughtful film viewing, it’s either the VOD foreign cable channel, or a a DVD, or Netflix.

But it’s not the same as seeing it on a big screen, and at the same time, it has much less cultural impact. This is bad for American viewers, bad for the future of cinema, and portends an endless array of nonstop comic book movies with no content – just action, action and more action, like the Fast and Furious franchise. There’s nothing wrong with that, if all you want is to see a bunch of cars crashing and things being blown up. But it would be nice to have a choice, available to all and widely publicized. Once, you had such a choice. Now, you have no choice at all.

Foreign films led the way to a more enlightened cinema – what has happened to that cinema today?

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Lost Speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Found — Listen Here

Monday, January 20th, 2014

A lost speech from 1962 by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been discovered; both on audiotape, and the text.

On Martin Luther King Day, it’s both appropriate and fitting that a newly discovered speech by Dr. King has been released to the public, and presented in a video that allows one to follow along with Dr. King’s speech, as an audio track, while also viewing the text he is reading. As Ashley Hupfl reports in USA Today, “the New York State Museum has unearthed a long-lost audio recording of a 1962 speech from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., state officials announced Monday. An intern found the recording as museum staff worked on digitizing thousands of audio and video recordings in its collection, [and it] has been posted to the museum’s website.

‘This is a remarkable treasure,’ state Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in a statement. ‘More than 50 years later, Dr. King’s voice has come back to life.’ The speech was recorded Sept. 12, 1962, at the Park-Sheraton Hotel in New York City, where Gov. Nelson Rockefeller had convened his state Civil War Centennial Commission. It was delivered at a dinner celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation [. . .]

During the talk, King previewed many of the themes he would return to the following year in his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ and his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. The online exhibit includes a manuscript of the speech and the original event program. The audio is the only known recording of the 1962 address.”

You can hear, and see, the entire text by clicking on the link above; this is a find of inestimable importance.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Keep Calm, Spring is Coming

Monday, January 20th, 2014

A friend shared this with me this morning, and I had to pass it on.

Right now, it’s bitterly cold outside, with more snow and freezing temperatures on the way, and we’re only near the end of January. So there’s more winter ahead. But keep walking, keep active, and think about Spring, because the days are getting longer and brighter with each passing hour, and so here’s my forecast: “better weather in 120 days.”

In the meantime, Keep Calm and Carry On!

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

The Importance of Net Neutrality

Monday, January 20th, 2014

Here’s a great piece about the recent court decision on “net neutrality” by Matthew Ingram in Gigaom.

As he writes, “the principle behind the phrase ‘net neutrality’ is that internet service providers of all kinds should treat data flowing over the open internet equally, without giving preferential treatment to data from one provider or platform. On Tuesday, however, the Federal Communications Commission’s rules governing that kind of behavior were struck down by an appeals court in Washington, D.C. — as reported by Gigaom’s Jeff Roberts — in a case launched by Verizon.

This decision — if it remains unchallenged — raises the possibility that large internet service providers could charge certain companies extra for delivering their content to subscribers, and give preference to the content coming from those who are willing pay them a fee, or have cut some other kind of deal. In effect, the democratized nature of the internet would be replaced by a feudal system in which the ability to reach a consumer would be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

As a Bloomberg article described it: ‘Proponents, including Web companies, say regulations are needed to keep Internet-service providers from interfering with rival video and other services. Those companies don’t pay today for what’s known as last-mile Web content delivery. The FCC has said that without rules, Internet providers could favor wealthier, established players at the expense of startups, squelching innovation.’

Craig Aaron, who runs an open internet advocacy group called Free Press, said in a statement that as a result of the ruling, ‘Internet users will be pitted against the biggest phone and cable companies — and in the absence of any oversight, these companies can now block and discriminate against their customers’ communications at will… the biggest broadband providers will race to turn the open and vibrant Web into something that looks like cable TV. They’ll establish fast lanes for the few giant companies that can afford to pay exorbitant tolls and reserve the slow lanes for everyone else’ [. . .]

Tim Wu, who more or less coined the term ‘network neutrality’ in a paper he wrote in 2003 while he was a professor at Columbia Law School, explained why internet users should care about the principle in a piece he wrote for Salon in 2006, comparing it to a future in which those with certain cars would get preferential treatment on the highway:

‘You might buy a Pontiac instead of a Toyota to get the rush-hour lane, not because the Pontiac is actually a good car. As a result, the nature of competition among car-makers would change. Rather than try to make the best product, they would battle to make deals with highways.’ In an interview with the Washington Post‘s Switch blog, Wu said that the decision leaves the internet ‘in completely uncharted territory. There’s never been a situation where providers can block whatever they want.’”

This is going to create one internet for the wealthy, and one for the poor, if left unchallenged.

You can read the whole piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Fewer Than 400 Theaters Still Run 35mm Film in US

Saturday, January 18th, 2014

As Alexandra Cheney and Andrew Stewart report in Variety, 35mm film is dead, dead, dead.

As Cheney and Stewart note, “The Weinstein Co. recently informed theater owners that its upcoming young adult fantasy Vampire Academy will be released only in a digital format. The move by Weinstein Co. and other distributors to alert theater owners to the change signals the long-awaited fade out for film stock, as the majors shift to digital formats for most releases [. . .] Weinstein Co.’s notice to exhibs comes on the heels of Paramount confirming to Variety that Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is the last movie it will release on 35mm film.

The move solely to digital was expected. Variety first reported in April that Paramount had run out of print stock. That did not stop the studio from striking 35mm prints for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.  As for Martin Scorsese’s Paramount-distributed The Wolf of Wall Street, it was shot digitally, with the exception of a few exterior shots, and will be distributed digitally only. Weinstein Co. said that it will not adhere to a digital-only policy going forward, but instead will strike prints when it is commercially viable. The Los Angeles Times was the first to report that Paramount had stopped releasing movies on film.

It’s worth noting however, that there are fewer than 400 locations still playing 35mm prints — most of which are smaller locations.”

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

The 86th Annual Academy Awards

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

The 86th Annual Academy Awards are upon us.

It continues to amaze me how few people understand that this isn’t some sort of national poll of either critics or audiences; it’s an industry event. And yet the public continues to tune in, year after year, to what is essentially a three hour plus commercial for the American film industry, which is all well and good, but one must remember that it marginalizes so many excellent films from around the world, as well as in the United States, into an “all or nothing sweepstakes” in which there can be only one winner in each category. That said, I blogged a few days ago on my initial thoughts on “who would win what”; now that the nominations are actually out, here are some more thoughts on the subject.

Directing, as I suggested in my last post, will go to Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity, though Steve McQueen for 12 Years A Slave is a strong contender, and in my opinion should get the nod; Best Actor to Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club, but Bruce Dern is a strong favorite for Nebraska, now that Robert Redford is out of the running; Best Actress to Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine, which seems to me pretty much a lock; 12 Years A Slave for Best Picture, again pretty much a lock; Best Supporting Actor to Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club, yet again pretty much a lock; and Best Animated Feature to Frozen, one more time, a lock. So that’s all recap of the earlier post.

So now, some new predictions, and here I’m venturing into much riskier territory. These thoughts should be taken with a huge grain of salt, and will be modified by future events that are, at this moment, too far away on the horizon to see; Best Supporting Actress is a toss up between Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle, Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave and June Squibb, for Nebraska, and Ms. Squibb might surprise everyone by taking this one home. Best Original Screenplay is again a long shot, but Bob Nelson’s nomination for Nebraska assures him of a decent shot. However, the other nominees are also very strong, so it’s really too close to call, and the same thing goes for Best Adapted Screenplay.

However, I’ll go out on a limb again and predict Thomas Vinterberg’s superb film The Hunt for Best Foreign Language Film, though this category continues to rankle. There are simply so many superb “foreign” films out there that to pick simply one film to represent the entire world is really a suspect enterprise, but in any event, that’s my pick in this least egalitarian of all Oscar categories. Best Documentary, the nearly unbearable The Act of Killing. Best Cinemtography, Emmanuel Lubezki for Gravity, simply because the film is such a visual tour-de-force; and Best Visual Effects, Gravity again, for obvious reasons.

That’s all for the moment; all of this, of course, is subject to change without notice.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Film International — One of The Best Film Journals on The Web

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Film International is one of the best film journals on the web.

Click here, or on the image above, to read more.

As the journal’s mission statement notes, in part, “Film International covers film culture as part of the broader culture, history and economy of society. We address topics of contemporary relevance from historically informed perspectives. We wish to bridge the gap between the academy and the outside world, and encourage the participation of scholars from a variety of disciplines, as well as journalists, freelance writers, activists and film-makers.

We refuse the facile dichotomies of ‘high’ and ‘low’, Hollywood and independent, art and commercial cinema. We discuss Hollywood films seriously, and ‘art’ movies critically. We aim at becoming a truly international journal, recognising local specificities, but also the ultimate interconnectedness of an increasingly globalised world.”

FI covers international film, Hollywood film, independent cinema, and everything else in between. It features reviews, interviews, and festival reports on a regular basis, and has an egalitarian spirit which allows all critical voices to be heard, without forcing any of the writers to adhere to a particular philosophical, political, or artistic school of thought.

Commercial cinema, radical cinema, the past, present and future of the medium all meet in the pages of FI, which is absolutely free for online use with just the click of a button. I regularly contribute to FI, but I also savor the contents provided by all of the other writers for the journal, and I constantly find that FI discusses those films that other journals simply pass over, giving a well rounded perspective on the current cinema scene.

Ably edited by Daniel Lindvall, Film International is one of most indispensable film journals on the web today.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Going Out On A Limb

Monday, January 13th, 2014

With the Academy Award nominations not even out yet, here are some very early thoughts.

Since Saving Mr. Banks, Nebraska and Inside Llewyn Davis all struck out at the Golden Globes, that’s a pretty good sign that they won’t do well during Oscar season, either. So, a few Oscar thoughts, admittedly much too early: Twelve Years a Slave for Best Picture; Alfonso Cuaron for Best Director for Gravity, though I don’t agree, but that’s my feeling, though American Hustle and Twelve Years A Slave both have a good shot; Cate Blanchett for Best Actress for her shattering work in Blue Jasmine; Best Actor a tossup between Bruce Dern for Nebraska – he’s campaigning for it pretty hard — Robert Redford for All is Lost, or my choice, Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club, but Dern may win as a sentimental favorite, and also for a lifetime of work that has been largely under appreciated; Jared Leto for Supporting Actor for his work as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, which is richly deserved; Frozen to win for Best Animated Feature Film, which is absolutely no surprise; and that’s as far as I’m going to go.

I mean, limbs only go out so far.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

wheelerwinstondixon.com

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

I’ve moved my website to wheelerwinstondixon.com – follow me there!

Take a look at the image above, and you’ll see how it works.

The new website is much cleaner, has more information, and works more smoothly.

At the top left, there’s an “about” tab, where you can also download my complete cv as a pdf; next to that there are two tabs covering the 32 books that I’ve written, with the covers on display as clickable links that go directly to information on each title; next to that is a tab that goes to some 30 online articles of mine that are available out of the nearly 100 that I have written over the years; then comes a link to the Frame by Frame videos that I’ve made, with a clickable link to a carousel playlist that starts automatically and takes you through more than 70 titles; then a tab for this blog; then a tab for my film work — I have a show coming up in New York this Spring, 2014 — and finally a contact page, where you can e-mail me if you wish to.

This is where you will find me from now on; the old website is dead, so let’s move on into the future.

Martin Scorsese’s Open Letter to His Daughter On The Future of Cinema

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

As Paul Shirey reports on the website JoBlo, “director Martin Scorsese has already created a legacy of films that will long be remembered, revered, studied, and admired for a long time [ . . .] With the ever-changing landscape of film seemingly at a crossroads of change, particularly in the mass affordability and availability of filmmaking tools, the world of cinema is entering a revolutionary period, which Scorsese has taken heed of. As such, the director has penned an open letter to his youngest daughter, Francesca, about his optimism for the art of film, but with the caveat of remembering what’s most important in applying the craft. It’s an inspiring and thoughtful piece, especially for budding filmmakers.

Dearest Francesca,

I’m writing this letter to you about the future. I’m looking at it through the lens of my world. Through the lens of cinema, which has been at the center of that world.

For the last few years, I’ve realized that the idea of cinema that I grew up with, that’s there in the movies I’ve been showing you since you were a child, and that was thriving when I started making pictures, is coming to a close. I’m not referring to the films that have already been made. I’m referring to the ones that are to come.

I don’t mean to be despairing. I’m not writing these words in a spirit of defeat. On the contrary, I think the future is bright.

We always knew that the movies were a business, and that the art of cinema was made possible because it aligned with business conditions. None of us who started in the 60s and 70s had any illusions on that front. We knew that we would have to work hard to protect what we loved. We also knew that we might have to go through some rough periods. And I suppose we realized, on some level, that we might face a time when every inconvenient or unpredictable element in the moviemaking process would be minimized, maybe even eliminated. The most unpredictable element of all? Cinema. And the people who make it.

I don’t want to repeat what has been said and written by so many others before me, about all the changes in the business, and I’m heartened by the exceptions to the overall trend in moviemaking – Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, David Fincher, Alexander Payne, the Coen Brothers, James Gray and Paul Thomas Anderson are all managing to get pictures made, and Paul not only got The Master made in 70mm, he even got it shown that way in a few cities. Anyone who cares about cinema should be thankful.

And I’m also moved by the artists who are continuing to get their pictures made all over the world, in France, in South Korea, in England, in Japan, in Africa. It’s getting harder all the time, but they’re getting the films done. But I don’t think I’m being pessimistic when I say that the art of cinema and the movie business are now at a crossroads.

Audio-visual entertainment and what we know as cinema – moving pictures conceived by individuals – appear to be headed in different directions. In the future, you’ll probably see less and less of what we recognize as cinema on multiplex screens and more and more of it in smaller theaters, online, and, I suppose, in spaces and circumstances that I can’t predict.

So why is the future so bright? Because for the very first time in the history of the art form, movies really can be made for very little money [emphasis added]. This was unheard of when I was growing up, and extremely low budget movies have always been the exception rather than the rule. Now, it’s the reverse. You can get beautiful images with affordable cameras. You can record sound. You can edit and mix and color-correct at home. This has all come to pass.

But with all the attention paid to the machinery of making movies and to the advances in technology that have led to this revolution in moviemaking, there is one important thing to remember: the tools don’t make the movie, you make the movie. It’s freeing to pick up a camera and start shooting and then put it together with Final Cut Pro. Making a movie – the one you need to make – is something else. There are no shortcuts.

If John Cassavetes, my friend and mentor, were alive today, he would certainly be using all the equipment that’s available. But he would be saying the same things he always said – you have to be absolutely dedicated to the work, you have to give everything of yourself, and you have to protect the spark of connection that drove you to make the picture in the first place.

You have to protect it with your life. In the past, because making movies was so expensive, we had to protect against exhaustion and compromise. In the future, you’ll have to steel yourself against something else: the temptation to go with the flow, and allow the movie to drift and float away.

This isn’t just a matter of cinema. There are no shortcuts to anything. I’m not saying that everything has to be difficult. I’m saying that the voice that sparks you is your voice – that’s the inner light, as the Quakers put it.

That’s you. That’s the truth.

All my love, Dad”

Some words to take to heart; no matter the technology, content, and passion, are the keys to the future of cinema.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.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 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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