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Archive for March, 2015

Artist Run Film Labs – A New Phenomenon

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

In the digital era, as the number of film labs decline, real artists are taking the lead.

As Genevieve Yue writes in the March 30, 2015 online issue of Film Comment, “there are roughly 65 film labs left in the world, of which around 20 are in North America. These ranks, along with the number of film stocks being manufactured, dwindled as digital technologies have saturated the realm of production and studios have moved away from film. When it comes to labs that process 16mm film—a mainstay of experimental film—and small-gauge stocks, only a few commercial options exist, mostly in the United States: Cinelab, in Boston; ColorLab in Maryland; Deluxe in New York City; Dwayne’s Photo in Kansas; and Fotokem in Burbank. One of the most recent casualties of this technological shift has been Pac Lab, which closed in New York, screening its unclaimed films at Anthology Film Archives.

The decline in commercial film production, however, has been countered by a rebirth in the phenomenon of artist-run film laboratories. What in the early Nineties was limited to a handful of cooperatively owned, independent labs, mostly in France, has grown into an international network of over 30, many of them formed within the last several years. The decline of film processing created a surplus of cheap, unwanted equipment that, in the right hands, could be repurposed for the smaller-scale operation of an artist-run lab. Saved from the scrap heap, many discarded contact printers and processing tanks have begun a second life as artists’ tools.

For many, this historical juncture between film and digital media has been cause for lament. But among those in the growing artist-run film lab community, the view is considerably more sanguine. Many are younger filmmakers drawn to the creative possibilities of hand-processing in workshops at places like Mono No Aware, in Brooklyn, or Big Mama’s Cinematheque in Philadelphia. For these artists, film offers a range of textures and expressive possibilities not available in digital formats. Others are drawn to the ‘home-brew’ DIY spirit that celebrates the autonomy of artist-run labs. Josh Lewis, who in 2012 founded the Negativland lab in Ridgewood, Queens, describes it as ‘a more involved way of being a filmmaker. You can’t rely on an industry that serves Hollywood. You need to be a technician and a filmmaker.’

For filmmakers like Lewis, the current moment offers the opportunity to sever cinema from its industrial tether. In many ways, this is the culmination of the avant-garde dream to become fully independent. Experimental film, at least at the level of materials, has been invariably tied to the commercial conditions of the film industry at large, though its output may have more in common, aesthetically and culturally, with the types of objects that circulate in the art world. Now, in response to a collapsing apparatus for the production of film, avant-garde filmmakers are developing the means and momentum to adapt and design their own methods of making films.”

This is a fascinating development – you can read the entire article by clicking here.

Betrayal on Better Call Saul

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Never a fan of Breaking Bad – I know, I know – I’m much more impressed with Better Call Saul.

Simply because there’s not that much on television on Monday nights – and I certainly wasn’t going to waste my time watching the Justin Bieber Roast – I turned on the “Pimiento” episode of Better Call Saul, and was blown away. As everyone knows, the entire series is a prequel of sorts to Breaking Bad, and I originally thought the whole show – in which Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy is in nearly every scene – would be played more for fast-talking laughs than anything else – after all, Odenkirk can motormouth with the best of them.

But with the re-introduction, so to speak, of Jonathan Banks as Mike – first seen in a parking lot toll booth as the series kicked off, and later edging into a much deeper character – the series got darker and more challenging, and last night’s episode, in which it was revealed that Jimmy’s brother, Chuck (Michael McKean) has been working against him all along, even as Jimmy struggled to take care of him, was simply devastating.

I must admit that I was rather annoyed with the initial eccentricity of Chuck’s character – covering himself against electromagnetic fields with aluminum foil, stealing newspapers off a neighbor’s lawn, the house lit with Coleman lanterns – but McKean really pulled it out last night with a scene that brought entire series thus far into focus.

As series producer Tom Schnauz, who also directed the episode, told Aaron Couch in The Hollywood Reporter, Bob Odenkirk has “been phenomenal all year. He came in after reading the scene and knowing the importance of what it means to the series. He and Michael McKean did their homework. They studied the hell out of it. Figured out what the intricacies of it were and just knocked it out of the park.

Fortunately as a director I had to do very little guidance as far as directing the emotion of the scene. They came in, sat down. We read through it and once they started adding the emotion to the scene, they knew exactly what it needed. I didn’t have to do very much other than say put the camera here and point it at them.

The whole scene was a favorite of mine — Jimmy going after Chuck and trying to get him to break. When Chuck finally talks, the stuff he’s saying about ‘the law is sacred’ and ‘you’re a chimp with a machine gun’ and ‘you could do real damage,’ we as viewers, having seen Breaking Bad, know Chuck might be right about this. Even though what he’s done is really, really horrible, we know who Saul Goodman is. People in the future die and get hurt because of his actions.

If not for Breaking Bad, I think this scene would have another feeling to it. I think half the audience is going to listen to Chuck and say ‘what a jerk.’ I think some people will listen to him and think ‘he’s not too far off. Maybe he’s giving the correct advice.’ We don’t know — would Jimmy turn into Saul Goodman if not for Chuck’s horrible actions? Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy? Or was Slippin’ Jimmy always going to be become Saul Goodman? We’ll never know.”

Which makes Better Call Saul fascinating television.

Update on Too Late for Tears on DVD

Monday, March 30th, 2015

A few posts ago, I wrote on the recent 35mm restoration of Too Late for Tears, and wondered when it would be on DVD.

A few minutes ago, I received this e-mail from Alan K. Rode, director of the Film Noir Foundation: “Re: your blog post for TOO LATE FOR TEARS coming out on DVD. Please rest assured that TLFT will be coming out on DVD in the near future. A time-consuming aspect of bringing this and other restored titles out on DVD involves the clearing of various rights even with titles that are in the public domain. In the case of TLFT, a deal with the estate of the late Roy Huggins that owns the rights to the Huggins screenplay adapted from his novel had to be initiated and negotiated. These matters are wrapping up and we will be moving forward on this project.

It is also germane to note that the situation with each film is different. The FNF brought THE PROWLER out on DVD and produced the special features after cutting deals with the film’s rights holders and the DVD distributor. Paramount Pictures owns the rights to CRY DANGER and licensed the title to Olive. We allowed them to use our restoration for the transfer.

Paramount also owns TRY AND GET ME! which we have also restored, but-to my knowledge-has not relicensed the title to Olive to bring our restoration to DVD. Owing to a variety of circumstances including rights, the process of restoring these films and bringing them out on DVD, is simply not a speedy process. I hope this provides some illumination on the subject. We certainly understand that our charter to restore America’s Noir Heritage extends beyond the eight cities that currently host NOIR CITY film festivals. We are fully committed to making our restoration of TLFT available to everybody, as soon as possible”

Good news- and many thanks to Alan for being in touch!

Transformers Universe?

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

Paramount wants to make the Transformers films into a “Marvel Universe” style franchise.

Somebody out there must be watching these filmsthey make a fortune, even though my students routinely dismiss them as special-effects driven trash, without even the slightest narrative thread to hold anything together. But in Hollywood, especially in 2015, the bottom line rules, so here comes the “Transformers Universe.” As Germain Lussier reports in Slashfilm,

“Marvel is doing it, DC is doing it, Lucasfilm is doing it, the Ghostbusters are doing it and now it looks like Transformers will be doing it too. Deadline [arguably the top Hollywood inside business journal] reports that Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar-winning writer of a A Beautiful Mind (and the writer of Batman and Robin, among other films) is in negotiations with Paramount to lead a brain trust of writers with the aim of upping the output of Transformers movies for the studio. Goldsman will join executive producers Michael Bay, Steven Spielberg and Lorenzo di Bonaventura in the hiring of a collection of writers to create ‘a potential multi-part Transformers sequel, and come up with potential spinoff films.’

Deadline broke this news and say things are expected to come together quickly. Bay, who has directed the last four uber-successful Transformers films, is currently expected to come back for Transformers 5. (Which is tentatively set to come out in 2016, but 2017 seems more likely.) He’s about to start production on 13 Hours and the hope is, once he’s done with that, a plan and script will be in place for him to work on. They also report that while Goldsman might be the leader of this group, he isn’t likely to write the movies himself.

With Transformers being such a monster hit for Paramount, this really isn’t a big surprise. It’s how Hollywood is going. Plus, the last few movies have had a very cut and paste feel about them with very little cohesion or logic. If a group of people get hired to keep everything straight, that’s a good sign. In addition, the last film definitely left the franchise in a place where there was a pretty blank slate. All we do know is Mark Wahlberg will likely be back.”

Along with Michael Bay, and of course, the Transformers.

Gabriel Figueroa at El Museo del Barrio March 4 – June 27, 2015

Saturday, March 28th, 2015

Gabriel Figueroa, a brilliant cinematographer, has a retrospective at El Museo del Barrio in New York City.

I’m just finishing up a long and complex project on the worldwide history of black and white cinematography, and throughout writing the book, I’ve continually been struck by how undervalued cinematographers are by most critics and directors, and yet how much they contribute to the finished product – often without more than a few lines of acclaim. One of the very greatest DPs (directors of cinematography) in the history of the cinema is undoubtedly Gabriel Figueroa (1907- 1997), whose work is now the subject of a traveling exhibition, which was presented at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and now makes a welcome stop at Manhattan’s El Museo del Barrio. As I write in my forthcoming book, Black & White Cinema: A Short History, on Figueroa’s work,

“Born in Mexico City in 1907, Figueroa was orphaned at the age of 7, and became involved in the Mexi­can industry in his teens. After working as an assistant on various films, he photographed Grigori Aleksandrov and Sergei M. Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva Mexico! (1932) with Eduard Tisse, and then studied cinematogra­phy for a year in 1935 with Gregg Toland in Hollywood. Returning to Mexico, Figueroa photographed his first solo effort, Allá en el Ran­cho Grande (Out on the Big Ranch, dir. Fernando de Fuentes, 1936), after which he worked with several generations of legendary directors from around the world.

In his long career, Figueroa served as the director of cinematography for such eminent directors as Emilio Fernández, most notably on his gor­geous romantic drama María Candelaria (1944); John Ford on The Fugi­tive (1947); Luis Buñuel on his breakthrough study of life in Mexico City’s notorious slums, Los Olvidados (1950), as well as Buñuel’s Nazarin (1959) and the forty-five-minute featurette The Exterminating Angel (1962); in addition to working with John Huston on The Night of the Iguana (1963) and twenty years later, on Huston’s Under the Volcano (1983).  . . .

As he told Elena Feder in 1996, ‘It was with Fernández that I really began to develop my own style. He allowed me to compose a scene anyway I wanted. He would describe the set-up initially, explain what he wanted to convey, and then say something like, “There, now set up the lights and put the camera wherever you wish.”  So I would place the camera, choose the angle, and illuminate a scene, always looking for the desired effect. From the very beginning, when we shot the opening scene of María Candelaria, where she holds the piglet in her arms, Fernández told me to place the camera wherever I wanted. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the rushes; they went beyond his wildest imagi­nation. Since that point I had complete freedom to continue developing my own style.'”

On the Museo del Barrio’s website, the museum notes that “from the early 1930s through the early 1980s, the Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa helped forge an evocative and enduring image of Mexico. Among the most important cinematographers of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, Figueroa worked with leading directors from Mexico, the United States and Europe, traversing a wide range of genres while maintaining his distinctive and vivid visual style.

In the 1930s, Figueroa was part of a vibrant community of artists in many media, including Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, Edward Weston and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, who sought to convey the country’s transformation following the trauma of the Mexican Revolution. Later, he adapted his approach to the very different sensibilities of directors Luis Buñuel and John Huston, among others. Figueroa spoke of creating una imágen mexicana, a Mexican image. His films are an essential part of the network of appropriations, exchanges and reinterpretations that formed Mexican visual identity and visual culture in the mid-twentieth century and beyond.

The exhibition features film clips, paintings by Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, Manuel Rodriguez Lozano and José Chavez Morado, photographs, prints, posters and documents, many of which are drawn from Figueroa’s archive, the Televisa Foundation collection, the collections of the Museo de la Estampa and the Museo Nacional in Mexico. In addition, the exhibition includes work by other artists and filmmakers from the period such as Luis Buñuel, Sergei Eisenstein, Edward Weston, and Tina Modotti that draw from the vast inventory of distinctly Mexican imagery associated with Figueroa’s cinematography or were heavily influenced by his vision.”

So, all in all, an opportunity not to be missed; here’s the chance to see the work of a master.

The Bedford Incident (1965)

Friday, March 27th, 2015

The Bedford Incident is yet another brilliant yet forgotten film; watch the trailer by clicking here.

We have only so much time on this earth, and so what we do with it is important. We can spend our time making junk, or watching junk, or we can give our time to some more serious films – past and present – that come our way. One such film is James B. Harris’s The Bedford Incident, a 1965 US/UK production from the novel by Mark Rascovich that toplines Richard Widmark as the unbalanced and resolutely hawkish captain of the destroyer the USS Bedford, which, on a routine reconnaissance mission, detects the presence of a Soviet submarine off the coast of Greenland, and unrelentingly gives chase. As a contributor to Wikipedia astutely notes,

“The American destroyer USS Bedford (DLG-113) detects a Soviet submarine in the GIUK gap near the Greenland coast. (Specifically, they are in Greenland territorial waters at the entrance to the J.C. Jacobsen Fjord, which is due northwest from Iceland.) Although the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. are not at war, Captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) harries his prey mercilessly, while civilian photojournalist Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier) and NATO naval advisor, Commodore (and ex-World War II U-boat captain) Wolfgang Schrepke (Eric Portman), look on with mounting alarm.

Because the submarine is not powered by a nuclear reactor, its submerged run distance is limited, critical when it also needs breathing air and to recharge its batteries. This gives Finlander an advantage, but also means the Soviets will be more desperate. Also aboard the ship are Ensign Ralston (James MacArthur), an inexperienced young officer constantly being criticized by his captain for small errors, and Lieutenant Commander Chester Potter, USNR (Martin Balsam), the ship’s new doctor, who is a reservist recently recalled to active duty.

Munceford is aboard in order to photograph life on a navy destroyer, but his real interest is Captain Finlander, who was recently passed over for promotion to rear admiral. Munceford is curious whether a comment made by Finlander regarding the American intervention in Cuba is the reason for his non-promotion, perhaps betraying veiled aggression. He is treated with mounting hostility by the captain because he is seen as a civilian putting his nose where it does not belong and because he disagrees with Finlander’s decision to continue with an unnecessary and dangerous confrontation. Finlander is hostile to anyone who is not involved in the hunt – including the doctor, who will not stand up to the captain and advise that the pressure on the crew be reduced.

The crew becomes increasingly fatigued by the unrelenting pursuit during which the captain demands full attention to the instruments. When the submarine is found and ignores Captain Finlander’s demand to surface and identify itself, Finlander escalates the situation by smashing into the submarine’s snorkel, calling it ‘floating debris.’ Finlander then orders Bedford to arm weapons and withdraw a distance, where he will wait for the submarine’s crew to run out of air and be forced to surface. He reassures Munceford and Schrepke that he is in command of the situation and that he will not fire first, but: ‘If he fires one, I’ll fire one.’

Ensign Ralston mistakes Finlander’s remark as an order to ‘fire one’ and launches an anti-submarine rocket, which destroys the submarine. Their sonar then detects a salvo of four nuclear-armed torpedoes coming at the destroyer. Finlander initially gives basic orders to evade, then goes outside. Munceford follows him, frantically pleading, but Finlander does nothing more to save his ship, perhaps because he recognizes that there is no way to escape and believes that it’s justice that his ship be lost, since his own actions brought about the unnecessary destruction of the submarine and crew. The film ends with still shots of various crewmen “melting” as if the celluloid film were burning as Bedford and her crew are vaporized. The last image is an iconic, towering mushroom cloud from the torpedo detonations.”

Described by a number of observers as “near science fiction,” this Cold war parable is made all the more effective by the obvious commitment of everyone in the film, especially star Richard Widmark, who co-produced the film with Harris. An expert in playing unsympathetic roles, going all the way back to his debut in Henry Hathaway’s crime drama Kiss of Death, Widmark took on the project both because he believed that the threat of a nuclear accident was very real, and also because it provided him the chance to work with Sidney Poitier as Munceford, the journalist who sees that everything is spinning out of control, but is powerless, as a civilian, to stop it.

But perhaps the most interesting character in the film is Eric Portman’s ex-Nazi U boat captain, Wolfgang Schrepke, who seems much more sane that Captain Finlander, perhaps because he has seen too much violence and death in World War II. His world-weary yet clear-eyed view of Finlander’s mounting mania is the clearest indicator of where The Bedford Incident is ultimately heading – like similar films of the 1960s that dealt with the threat of nuclear destruction, such as Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, one gets the feeling from the outset of the film that the entire affair will end very badly indeed, and that there will be no happy ending tacked on as a sop to the audience. That Schrepke’s role is now that of a bystander, a NATO advisor, does not diminish his importance within the narrative for a second.

Dr. Strangelove, of course, played the whole concept of mutually assured nuclear destruction for grim laughs, but The Bedford Incident, with its claustrophobic mise en scene – taking place entirely on board the destroyer, with no escape for either the audience or the crew members – is perhaps the grimmest project of the lot, because even after the final frames of the film have melted away, one knows instinctively that the destruction of a battleship and a submarine won’t be the end of the conflict; that indeed, this one small incident will in all likelihood trigger an all out nuclear war, which we will never witness (thankfully), because we have, in a sense, perished along with the crew of the the Bedford.

Shot in cold, efficient monochrome by the supremely gifted Gilbert Taylor, The Bedford Incident is the kind of thoughtful, high-stakes film project that has been pushed aside in the comic book era by the latest DC or Marvel project, films that play with the same concepts explored in this film, but never with anything real at stake, and the assurance of upbeat “narrative closure” always taken as a given. So The Bedford Incident has several strikes against it, which prevent it from being seen more often; it’s thoughtful, it’s unforgiving, it’s intelligent, and it’s frightening as hell – and, of course, it’s in black and white. Which it should be.

But you should see it anyway – check out the trailer by clicking on the image above, and get the DVD.

The White Reindeer (1952)

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

Here’s a real curiosity – a forgotten fairy tale / horror film from Finland.

As Wikipedia notes, “The White Reindeer (Finnish: Valkoinen peura) is a 1952 Finnish horror drama film written, photographed and directed by Erik Blomberg. It was entered in competition at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival and earned the Jean Cocteau-led jury special award for Best Fairy Tale Film. After its limited release five years later in the United States, it was one of five films to win the 1957 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film.

The film, based on pre-Christian Finnish mythology and Sami shamanism, is set in Finnish Lapland and centers on a young woman, Pirita (Blomberg’s wife Mirijami Kuosmanen). In the snowy landscape, Pirita and reindeer herder Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä) meet and soon marry. Aslak must spend time away for work, leaving his new bride alone and lonely.

In an effort to alleviate her loneliness and ignite marital passion, Pirita visits the local shaman, who indeed helps her out; but in the process turns her into a shapeshifting, vampiric white reindeer. The village men are drawn to her and pursue her, with tragic results.”

As with so many interesting films from the past, even films such as this which received significant honors, and a fairly high profile festival release, The White Reindeer is not available on DVD in the United States, but can be found on a French DVD (Region 2) under the title Le Renne Blanc – and is well worth seeking out.

With a very brief running time, the simplest resources, this is a compelling and deeply original film that deserves more attention – another example of how much there is available in world cinema, and how much more there is to discover. Why this isn’t available in the United States is a mystery to me – there’s even a Criterion “fantasy” site where the film is listed as a supposed release – but sadly, this is just a dream.

So do yourself a favor – buy the DVD, which has English subtitles, while you still can.

New Book: Peter Stanfield’s The Cool and The Crazy

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

Peter Stanfield’s new book is a crash course in 1950s pop cinema – not to be missed!

I had the opportunity to see this book in page proofs, whose title is a homage to William Witney’s classic teen film of the same name. It’s a magnificent piece of work, both from a critical and new historical perspective. As Rutgers University Press, the publisher of the book, notes of Stanfield’s volume: “Explosive! Amazing! Terrifying! You won’t believe your eyes! Such movie taglines were common in the 1950s, as Hollywood churned out a variety of low-budget pictures that were sold on the basis of their sensational content and topicality.

While a few of these movies have since become canonized by film fans and critics, a number of the era’s biggest fads have now faded into obscurity. The Cool and the Crazy examines seven of these film cycles, including short-lived trends like boxing movies, war pictures, and social problem films detailing the sordid and violent life of teenagers, as well as uniquely 1950s takes on established genres like the gangster picture.

Peter Stanfield reveals how Hollywood sought to capitalize upon current events, moral panics, and popular fads, making movies that were ‘ripped from the headlines’ on everything from the Korean War to rock and roll. As he offers careful readings of several key films, he also considers the broader historical and commercial contexts in which these films were produced, marketed, and exhibited. In the process, Stanfield uncovers surprising synergies between Hollywood and other arenas of popular culture, like the ways that the fashion trend for blue jeans influenced the 1950s Western.

Delivering sharp critical insights in jazzy, accessible prose, The Cool and the Crazy offers an appreciation of cinema as a ‘pop’ medium, unabashedly derivative, faddish, and ephemeral. By studying these long-burst bubbles of 1950s ‘pop,’ Stanfield reveals something new about what films do and the pleasures they provide.”

As I noted in my critical commentary for The Cool and The Crazy, the volume has “fresh ideas, fresh arguments, and a good feel for the 1950s—Stanfield has it all. This book is one of a kind,” while critic Will Straw adds that “this dazzling archaeology of cycles and genres in postwar cinema goes deep into cultural history, then pulls back to reveal patterns and movements unseen until Stanfield saw them. Highly recommended.”

New, dazzling, and absolutely cutting edge – the inner workings of 1950s American pop cinema.

Stan VanDerBeek Finally Gets A Book!

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Gloria Sutton’s book finally gives us a comprehensive look at the work of this pioneering, visionary artist.

As the notes for book state, “in 1965, the experimental filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek (1927–1984) unveiled his Movie-Drome, made from the repurposed top of a grain silo. VanDerBeek envisioned Movie-Drome as the prototype for a communications system — a global network of Movie-Dromes linked to orbiting satellites that would store and transmit images. With networked two-way communication, Movie-Dromes were meant to ameliorate technology’s alienating impulse.

In The Experience Machine, Gloria Sutton views VanDerBeek — known mostly for his experimental animated films — as a visual artist committed to the radical aesthetic sensibilities he developed during his studies at Black Mountain College. She argues that VanDerBeek’s collaborative multimedia projects of the 1960s and 1970s (sometimes characterized as ‘Expanded Cinema’), with their emphases on transparency of process and audience engagement, anticipate contemporary art’s new media, installation, and participatory practices.

VanDerBeek saw Movie-Drome not as pure cinema but as a communication tool, an ‘experience machine.’ In her close reading of the work, Sutton argues that Movie-Drome can be understood as a programmable interface. She describes the immersive experience of Movie-Drome, which emphasized multi-sensory experience over the visual; display strategies deployed in the work; the Poemfield computer-generated short films; and VanDerBeek’s interest, unique for the time, in telecommunications and computer processing as a future model for art production. Sutton argues that visual art as a direct form of communication is a feedback mechanism, which turns on a set of relations, not a technology.”

Essential reading – VanDerBeek is one of a kind, and an absolutely integral part of cinema history.

David Cronenberg’s Hollywood Nightmare – Maps To The Stars

Friday, March 6th, 2015

David Cronenberg’s Maps to The Stars may be the truest film ever made about the real world of Hollywood.

Working from a twenty-year old script by Bruce Wagner, which hasn’t aged one bit, Cronenberg’s corrosive film about the Hollywood mythos easily outstrips such films as Sunset Boulevard, The Big Knife, Day of the Locust, and other critical examinations of the American movie capital. For Maps to The Stars isn’t a satire at all, or a dark comedy – a melodrama, perhaps, but firmly rooted in fact. As Bruce Wagner noted in several interviews, “Hollywood [Wagner’s home town] is so much a part of me. The thought of writing a straight satire about Hollywood – I would reach for my revolver, as they say . . .

I don’t see this as satirical. I see it simply as a melodrama that’s closer to August Strindberg or Joe Orton than it is to anything like The Player (1992) or Mulholland Drive (2001). David [Cronenberg] and I thought we were making our Sunset Blvd. (1950), in a way. The original script [of Sunset Boulevard] began with a scene of cadavers in a morgue talking about how they had died, how they had come to our demise. Our script is filled with ghosts as well . . .

I don’t see anything in Maps to the Stars that’s an exaggeration in order to expose a truth. It’s more realism than anything else. It’s is a fever dream, it’s a melodrama, I don’t see it as a satire. The default is to call anything that makes one uncomfortable and in which someone may laugh something satirical or quote ‘dark’. I’ve been hit with that label all my life. I don’t believe in only darkness; I’m not interested. I’m interested in the poles: Darkness and light. Extreme poverty and extreme wealth. Extreme fame, anonymity. The sacred and the profane. Without the profane, I’m not interested. Without the sacred, I’m not interested.”

The cast members are uniformly excellent; Julianne Moore (above) won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 for her work in the film, and Cronenberg was nominated for the Palme d’Or; John Cusack is suitably repellent as a new age “self fulfillment” guru whose entire life is a sham; and Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, and Evan Bird – Bird is especially effectively as an absolutely hateful child star, already over the hill at 13 – are all utterly compelling in their roles. The entire film is so immaculately shot, edited, and scored (by the gifted Howard Shore) that I watched it straight through twice back to back, and it seemed to move even faster the second time than the first.

The reviews have been all over the place, from outright pans to critical raves, but those who dismiss the film, or who try to pigeonhole it as “satire” have never really lived in Hollywood, and don’t know how it works. This is a town that is ruled by franchises, in which selfishness and greed are necessary commodities if one wants to get ahead, a place where every conceivable human character flaw is exploited for gain or momentary advantage.

With echoes of Jean Cocteau and Paul Eluard in its script – which fit in here beautifully – Maps to the Stars is that rare thing; a film about the industry that tells the truth about a system that destroys people and then spits them out. Perhaps that’s why it’s been so ignored by Academy – what am I saying? of course it is! – and why the film is more or less being dumped in VOD slots rather than in mainstream theaters. But don’t let that stop you.

See this brilliant film at once – not for the faint of heart, but an absolutely mesmerizing experience.

About the Author

Headshot of 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. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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