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Archive for November, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira’s Last Film: “Visit, or Memories and Confessions”

Monday, November 30th, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira left a surprise after his recent death at age 106; a film shot in 1982, but never released.

Readers of this blog will know that of all filmmakers working in the 20th century, I value Manoel de Oliveira above everyone else; this is a purely personal choice, and anyone would be foolish to discount the value of such auteurs as Renoir, Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer – the list goes on and on – but Oliveira speaks to me the most clearly, and I find his best films inexhaustible treasures that can be visited and revisited over and over again, yielding new insights with each viewing.

Oliveira was also a trickster of sorts; many of his films have surprise endings, which you can’t see coming in the distance, and now, in death, his estate has released Oliveira’s last film, shot in 1982, but which Oliveira insisted could not be screened until after his death – on April 2, 2015 – and until the first screening of Visit, or Memories and Confessions, the film sat in a vault for more than thirty years.

Finally – though frankly I wish that Oliveira had lived another twenty years, and made twenty more films, rather than see this posthumous effort – Visit, or Memories and Confessions was shown at the Cannes Film Festival this past May. As critic Ben Kenigsberg wrote of the occasion, “Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira made a film in the early 1980s that he requested not be shown to the public before his death.

That turned out to be more than three decades after the film was shot: Oliveira died in April at 106, following the most prolific period of his career; his recent films include The Strange Case of Angelica and Gebo and the Shadow. Titled Visit, or Memories and Confessions, this unearthed film, slightly more than an hour long, screened at Cannes Classics last night—on celluloid, no less.

Funded in 1981 (the festival catalog gives the completion date as 1982), Visit is—it should come as a surprise to no one—an intensely personal movie, essentially a family album in motion. ‘It’s a film by me, about me,’ Oliveira says in voiceover as the movie begins. ‘Right or wrong, it’s done.’ Cued by an alternating man-and-woman narration, the movie is largely set on the grounds of a house that Oliveira tell us he has lived in since 1942. Part of the occasion for making the movie, it seems, is that he has had to sell the home to pay some debts.

At the risk of reading too much into Oliveira’s intentions, you can see why he might have wanted the movie released as a sort of ghost story. Much of Visit concerns the haunting emptiness of this once-bustling home: We hear constant footsteps and watch doors open, Jean Cocteau–style, as we move from room to room, but a good portion of the film goes by before we actually see a human being. The first is Oliveira himself, who appears at the typewriter where he writes his treatments and turns to the camera to address us.

His musings are as idiosyncratic as they are private. He waxes philosophical, shows us photographs and film footage of his family, and recalls visits to the house by such figures as the great film theorist André Bazin. His wife turns up briefly (‘You can’t separate the artist from the man,’ she says), but this is primarily Oliveira’s reflection on his own life.

Late in the film, in a powerful anecdote, he speaks of his 1963 arrest by the secret police under Portugal’s then-repressive government. ‘I’ve always sacrificed everything so I could make my films,’ he says. Visit closes with a flourish suggesting that this director who lived more than a century remained eternally young.”

I’d love to see this on DVD, but I doubt that will ever happen; one last gift from the great Manoel.

Godfathers of Comic Book Films

Friday, November 27th, 2015

Before the Marvel and DC Universe, these were the pioneers who created the comic book film.

In this one astonishing shot, taken at a nostalgia convention in 1973, some of the greatest action directors of all time stand with cast members, a cinematographer, and stunt men who helped to create such classic serials as Spy Smasher, Captain America, Superman, Batman and many others – in their original versions as Saturday morning serials in the 1940s and 50s – working for most part for Republic Pictures, the studio that created the modern action film.

From left to right, director William Witney, who helmed numerous serials with his friend and colleague John English, in addition to directing a stack of classic Westerns – and incidentally, he’s Quentin Tarantino‘s favorite director; Billy Benedict, a reliable sidekick in numerous action films of the era; Spencer Gordon Bennet, dean of serial directors, with hundreds of films to his credit; and Bud Thackery, sporting a goatee, an ace action cinematographer who later finished up his career at Universal in the 1960s.

Continuing on, stuntman George DeNormand stands in the back; Frank Coghlan Jr., who played the role of Billy Batson, Captain Marvel‘s alter-ego in the serial of that name; Kirk Alyn, the original Superman in two serials, both directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; legendary stuntman “Crazy Duke” Green, whose specialty was running up walls and then launching himself into space during a fight scene; the equally capable stuntman and actor Tom Steele; and stuntman Davey Sharp, whose credits as a stunt double number into the thousands.

Just watching these amazing professionals at work, knocking out three and four hour serials in 30 days on budgets in the $200,000 range, or lower, is an amazing sight – a look into the past of motion pictures, before CGI and motion capture replaced feats of genuine athleticism and skill. None of these people thought twice about working twelve hour days, or longer, six days a week, for decades at a clip, to deliver the thrills that entranced audiences in the middle part of the 20th century.

Let’s not forget them now – they created the comic book film.

Lost Walt Disney / Ub Iwerks Cartoon Found

Thursday, November 26th, 2015

A print of the silent cartoon Sleigh Bells – long thought lost – has been found at the BFI Archive in London.

As The British Film Institute notes on their website, “The BFI National Archive and Walt Disney Animation Studios are pleased to announce the rediscovery of a rare, long-lost, Walt Disney animated film, Sleigh Bells (1928) featuring the first ever Disney character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a long-eared precursor to Mickey Mouse.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was invented by Walt Disney in 1927 and was loved for his mischievous and rebellious personality. A number of other films do survive but Sleigh Bells has been, until now, a lost film, unseen since its original release. The animation in the film was accomplished by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, both of whom went on to create the character of Mickey Mouse, following a contractual disagreement with Universal Pictures, for whom they had created the Oswald films.

The print of Sleigh Bells (1928) was preserved in the collections of the BFI National Archive. The exciting rediscovery was made by a researcher browsing the online catalogue of the BFI National Archive’s holdings. Walt Disney Animation Studios have taken this unique surviving film print and created both a new preservation print and digital copies. The film has a running time of approximately six minutes.”

It’s not surprising to me that the film turned up in the BFI Archives; they’ve been way ahead of the United States since the 1940s in cataloguing and preserving classic films from all over the world, when the Hollywood studios themselves did little to preserve the treasures of the past. But now you can see this bit of history for yourself, thanks to an archive that really cares about the history of the cinema. Hats off the to the BFI!

Click here, or on the image above, to see a clip from Sleigh Bells.

100 Women Directors Hollywood Should Hire Right Now

Thursday, November 26th, 2015

Hollywood’s lack of gender and racial diversity is just simply wrong.

As Kyle Buchanan points out in this excellent article in Vulture, “Studio executives often protest that there simply aren’t enough talented female filmmakers to choose from. They are wrong. Enough. Enough with the studios like 20th Century Fox, Sony, Paramount, and the Weinstein Company, none of which put out even a single film this year that was directed by a woman.

Enough with the executives who would rather hand a lucrative blockbuster to a man who’s never made a movie before (like Seth Grahame-Smith, the novice director recently picked by Warner Bros. to direct a big-budget adaptation of The Flash) than a woman who has. And enough with the producers who claim that there’s still just a shallow pool of female directors to draw from, because we’ve got 100 reasons why that’s not the case.

We’ve compiled a list of the best and brightest female directors in the industry, very few of whom are afforded the same major opportunities as their male counterparts. Some are promising up-and-comers, while others are award-winning veterans.

Their talents run the gamut from comedy to drama, and from action to arthouse. Contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, it wasn’t hard to assemble such an enormous list of smart, eminently hireable female directors. The only difficult part was culling it down to just 100.”

The names include Debbie Allen, Ana Lily Amirpour, Allison Anders, Gillian Armstrong, Jamie Babbit, Elizabeth Banks, Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Gurinder Chadha, Lisa Cholodenko, Sophia Coppola, Tamra Davis, and that’s just the beginning of a very long list indeed, complete with clips from their films. Why aren’t these people working – right now?

Click here to go to the link; this is essential reading.

Andy Warhol on Relationships and Expectations

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

Andy Warhol – as usual – had some perceptive things to say about what we want, and what we get in life.

“At the times in my life when I was feeling the most gregarious and looking for bosom friendships, I couldn’t find any takers so that exactly when I was alone was when I felt the most like not being alone. The moment I decided I’d rather be alone and not have anyone telling me their problems, everybody I’d never even seen before in my life started running after me to tell me things I’d just decided I didn’t think it was a good idea to hear about. As soon as I became a loner in my own mind, that’s when I got what you might call a ‘following.’ As soon as you stop wanting something you get it. I’ve found that to be absolutely axiomatic.”

Word of wisdom from someone whom most people still dismiss.

Essential Reading: A New Deal for The Humanities

Friday, November 20th, 2015

The humanities are essential for a well-rounded education.

As Rutgers University Press notes in their publicity materials for this timely volume, “many in higher education fear that the humanities are facing a crisis. But even if the rhetoric about ‘crisis’ is overblown, humanities departments do face increasing pressure from administrators, politicians, parents, and students.

In A New Deal for the Humanities, Gordon Hutner and Feisal G. Mohamed bring together twelve prominent scholars who address the history, the present state, and the future direction of the humanities. These scholars keep the focus on public higher education, for it is in our state schools that the liberal arts are taught to the greatest numbers and where their neglect would be most damaging for the nation.

The contributors offer spirited and thought-provoking debates on a diverse range of topics. For instance, they deplore the push by administrations to narrow learning into quantifiable outcomes as well as the demands of state governments for more practical, usable training.

Indeed, for those who suggest that a college education should be ‘practical’—that it should lean toward the sciences and engineering, where the high-paying jobs are—this book points out that while a few nations produce as many technicians as the United States does, America is still renowned worldwide for its innovation and creativity, skills taught most effectively in the humanities.

Most importantly, the essays in this collection examine ways to make the humanities even more effective, such as offering a broader array of options than the traditional major/minor scheme, options that combine a student’s professional and intellectual interests, like the new medical humanities programs.

A democracy can only be as energetic as the minds of its citizens, and the questions fundamental to the humanities are also fundamental to a thoughtful life. A New Deal for the Humanities takes an intrepid step in making the humanities—and our citizens—even stronger in the future.”

This is an essential volume; without the humanities, we really lose our own humanity.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

Relentlessly grim and doggedly procedural, the last film in this franchise is easily the best of the lot.

Unlike the other films in The Hunger Games series, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 – despite its clumsy title – is the most efficient and involving film of the series, for the simple reason that it’s the most direct and linear; there are no “hunger games” in the film, but rather Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence) death march with a group of fellow freedom fighters to the Capitol of Panem to kill the despotic President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and that’s about it.

Shot in oddly claustrophobic CinemaScope with a mostly handheld camera, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 is dominated by the grim visage of Lawrence’s character, who is usually seen in tight close-up, and is hardly off the screen for a moment. The other characters in the series make brief cameos, but they’re really peripheral to the main thrust of the film; will Katniss make it to the Capitol and kill Snow, or not? Of course she will.

This is, of course, predestined, just as Julianne Moore’s turn as President Alma Coin – who from the first plans to take over as dictator of Panem once Snow has been dispatched – along with Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, and other players in the game seem to be merely distractions, trotted on and off merely to satisfy followers of the franchise as a whole.

The saddest part of the film is the ghostly presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died during production with one week left to go. Director Francis Lawrence wisely decided not to recreate Hoffman digitally to finish out the film, giving Hoffman’s closing speech to Harrelson in the form of a letter, which Harrelson reads to Katniss, in a penultimate scene so obvious that it’s painful.

But comparisons to The Battle of Algiers and Kanał – I know, I know, but it’s true – are not far off the mark in this aggressively Dystopian film, in which one dictatorship inevitably gives way to another, and everyone is being played for a sucker by some higher power on the political food chain.

Most of all, the film belongs to Jennifer Lawrence – no longer “the girl on fire,” but rather a battle weary Joan of Arc leading her followers on to victory – who steps up and dominates the entire proceedings with an air of solemn gravity, making this the most brutal, and in a curious sense, realistic film of the series.

As Todd VanDerWerff notes in his review of the film in the web journal Vox, “the point of all of this is simple: War is a machine that grinds ever onward, and it steamrolls its participants. It’s repackaged as entertainment for an unsuspecting populace, lest they get too bored by it, but those who took part in it have to live with the scars forever.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the face of Katniss Everdeen, who spends almost the entire first half of the movie in a state of shell-shocked horror, wandering from one encounter to the next, after a former trusted compatriot tried to kill her. It’s like she’s been hollowed out and propped up, transformed into a symbol more than a person.”

There are many things wrong with the film, of course, but overall, the impact of the work is undeniable; The Hunger Games franchise speaks to those in their teens and 20s because it accurately depicts a world in which nothing is fair, the rich have everything and the poor have nothing, and even revolution seems doomed from the start. The stark message of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 is that nothing can be counted on, and the daily struggle to survive is all that awaits.

Worth a look, by any measure – a thoughtful, and well executed mainstream film.

UNL Film Studies Alumna Staci Hogsett at UCLA Film Archive

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

A UNL Film Studies graduate has gotten a really prestigious position at one of the country’s top film archives.

As Erin Chambers writes on the UNL English and Film Studies Department website, “this past summer, UNL alumna Staci Hogsett became a Collections Services Assistant at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, one of the most renowned visual arts archives in the nation.

In her very first film studies class at UNL, she listened as Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon spoke of the possibility of finding missing scenes from Fritz Lang’s pioneering science-fiction epic, Metropolis, and the prospect of recovering pieces of film history is what eventually led her to pursue a career in film archiving.

Staci graduated from UNL with a BA in English and Film Studies in May 2011, and went on to volunteer with the Nebraska State Historical Society. There, she worked with ephemeral or sponsored films and home movies, and spent much of her time caring for the collection by clearning, repairing, and creating more detailed records for items.

She soon began applying for graduate schools, and in 2013 moved to Los Angeles to pursue a master’s degree in Moving Image Archive Studies at UCLA. ‘During my time there I had the opportunity to intern at places such as Western Costume Company, where I worked with their costume archive, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science Film Archive, where I helped to inventory home movies that were on deposit from the Japanese American National Museum,’ she writes.

Her work with the UCLA Film & Television Archive began with a work-study position in the publicity department, which she held for two years while working towards her MA. She eventually secured an internship at the Archive, where she helped inventory new acquisitions. She received her MA in June 2015, and thanks to her hard work at the Archive, she joined the Collections department as a staff member one month later.”

Congratulations, Staci – an incredible accomplishment!

UNL – “No One Saw Coming” 15 Second Spot

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

Here’s a great commercial spot for UNL – really sharp editing and sound design.

The University of Nebraska, Lincoln, where I teach, puts out a good deal of material on the various offerings of the university – which are remarkably diverse – but for me, this 15 second spot – ultra modern, brilliantly directed and edited, with an exceptionally sharp soundtrack – really stands out. It’s the work of Amanda Christi and Andrew Swenson, and asks a simple question: “will your story be like all the others? Or will you write something that no one saw coming?

The University of Nebraska–Lincoln is a top 50 public university, a member of the Big Ten, and is located in a bustling Midwestern city that’s on the rise. Top-tier education, 150 areas of study, an award-winning undergraduate research program, over 500 student organizations, and rich athletic traditions all make UNL an exciting place to be. If you make it to Lincoln, you can go anywhere.”

Kudos to the creative team behind this ad, which perfectly captures the spirit of UNL.

Lost Landscapes of Los Angeles

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

Rick Prelinger’s new film is a fascinating look into the history of Los Angeles.

As Carolina A. Miranda wrote in The Los Angeles Times on November 15, 2015, “A camera pans the streets of downtown Los Angeles from the window of a moving car, cruising past Mickie’s Café, John’s Dog House, an Orange Julius, the Angel’s Flight Café and the Burbank Burlesque, boasting a chorus line of ‘ California Beauties.’

If these places don’t sound familiar it’s because they’re long gone — shuttered, reborn as restaurants or discount clothing shops or torn down to make way for Bunker Hill’s towering Financial District.

But in a beguiling new film by Rick Prelinger, the Bay Area filmmaker known for working with bits of found film, they have come back to life. Lost Landscapes of Los Angeles splices together home movies and studio outtakes, primarily stock driving footage that serves as background in scenes where characters ride in cars or buses.

The film, whose footage dates from the 1920s to the 1960s, is more about mood than in telling a literal story — a nonlinear, highly poetic gathering of moving images that examine our city as it no longer exists.

It also doesn’t contain a soundtrack — which means the audience is free to chat or name a location they might be familiar with as the film screens. Says Prelinger: ‘I really like the idea of people talking and making the soundtrack and coming to an understanding together.’

The film is one in a series of movies that Prelinger has made in this way — including 10 on San Francisco and five on Detroit. He also made the 2013 film No More Road Trips, which tells the story of a road trip — from one side of the country to the other — by employing an array of amateur footage.”

A really interesting project – check it out if you can.

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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