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Archive for November, 2016

Memories of Raoul Coutard by Lee Kline

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

Here are some memories of Raoul Coutard, one of the greatest cinematographers of all time.

Raoul Coutard, who photographed some of the most brilliant films of the New Wave, died recently at the age of 92. I don’t like to do obits in this blog, preferring to celebrate the work of the living, yet Coutard’s contribution is simply too significant to ignore. Happily, the colorist Lee Kline has recently published some thoughts about working with Coutard on digital restorations of some of his greatest films on the Criterion website, and here is part of what Kline had to say.

The first time I met Raoul Coutard was in June of 2002. I was in Paris to remaster a few films for Criterion, and one of them was [Jean-Luc] Godard’s Contempt. We had gotten in touch with Coutard and asked him to come in and help us with the color, which he did. He showed up and got right to work. I was awestruck that one of the world’s greatest cinematographers was working with us on what I considered to be one of his masterpieces.

It was not the easiest session for me because I spoke virtually no French and had to rely on people interpreting for me. Coutard worked with the colorist on the color grading: desaturating here, adding a little more contrast there, and bringing Contempt into the digital age with grace and ease.

He was fast, assured, and to the point. Because of the language barrier (or so I thought—more on that later!) we didn’t converse very much, but I got to hear translations of many great stories from the set. I could pretty much understand what he had done from the changes happening on the screen.

A few years later, we asked Coutard to come back in for a few more films. One was Band of Outsiders, and the other one was Costa-Gavras’s Z. We met at Eclair Laboratory, which was in a terrible neighborhood outside of Paris. He didn’t want to go there, and we didn’t want to go there. But Costa-Gavras wanted to go there. We met, and for some reason that I can’t remember, Costa-Gavras couldn’t make it and we had to work on Z without him.

I was with my colleague, who spoke French, and I was telling her that I thought there was something wrong with the color blue that was on the screen, trying to make my case so she could translate to Coutard. He then slowly turned to me and said, ‘What don’t you like about it?’ I was in shock that he never told me he could speak English! Everything then changed, and although his English was limited, I could finally speak directly to him.”

Coutard, famously practical and with a misanthropic streak a mile wide, could be difficult to work with. As recounted in his obituary in The New York Times by William Grimes, Coutard’s “collaboration with Godard ended when France was engulfed by the political events of 1968. ‘Jean-Luc is a fascist of the left, and I am a fascist of the right,’  Coutard told The Guardian. But the two reunited in the early 1980s to make Passion and First Name: Carmen.

He also had a falling-out with [director François] Truffaut, with whom he had collaborated on Shoot the Piano Player and The Soft Skin. The Bride Wore Black (1967) was their last film together. ‘I had the ridiculous idea to quit smoking at the same time we were filming the movie,’ Mr. Coutard told The Houston Chronicle. ‘I was very unbearable and very unpleasant, so we parted ways after that.'”

But here, readying is work for release in DVD and Blu-ray format, Coutard seems to have struck up a real accord with Kline, and it’s a pleasure to have this glimpse of the gifted artist in his last years, just as cantankerous as ever, yet assiduously making sure that his films made the jump to digital with all their pictorial values intact.

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

Cal Newport’s Book “Deep Work”

Tuesday, November 29th, 2016

Cal Newport’s Deep Work is a book with an important, yet really simple message.

One of the unfortunate by-products of the digital era – and there any many plusses, so don’t get me wrong on this – is that there’s so much noise, so much chatter, so much social media static that sitting down and getting any real, substantial work done is a real challenge. Quentin Tarantino, for example, found it impossible to work on a script on a computer that was wired into the web; so now, he works on a machine that isn’t hooked up to anything, so he can simply concentrate on the task at hand, without the temptation to surf the web every so often, even to check a fact. He can do that later.

The important thing is to keep working, keep writing, and finish whatever it is you’re working on in one continuous blast, and then go back and clean it up later. The late Roger Ebert was an adherent to this philosophy; keep going to the end, and then edit. I do the same thing with my books and articles – I write everything by hand, to avoid the distraction of the web entirely, and then have it typed up, and edit that draft. You’d be surprised at the number of people who do the same thing. It’s one thing to write a book directly on a computer, but it’s much more intimate to simply have yourself, the page, and a pen to work with, and results are often much better.

Newport’s central thesis is essentially “get rid of all distractions, get the work done, find a space where you’ll be left alone, and drill down until it’s finished.” That’s a paraphrase, of course, but it’s the essence of the book. Newport, a computer scientist, is in love with code and Power Point presentations and Excel spread sheets, which many of us are not – myself included – but surprisingly, even though he works in a world of 1s and 0s, his guiding principles work in any area of creative endeavor.

As Newport puts it, “deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep—spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.”

After finishing the book, I wrote Newport discussing this, and he replied “I appreciate the kind words and agree strongly with the premise that Deep Work cuts across many different fields and pursuits,” which is absolutely true. In an era in which superficial click bait and fake news articles proliferate with alarming regularity, it’s nice to come across a book that says, essentially, “you can do better. You can do serious work that will have a real impact. You can do work that has real depth, and it’s the most valuable work to do. All you have to do it create a space for yourself, and your thoughts, and then just keep at it until you’ve got something real down on paper, or on film, or video, or whatever your discipline might be.”

Simply put, Newport provides a solid blueprint for thoughtful, considered creative work – whatever your area of expertise –  and that’s a much needed concept in this age of instant information and immediate gratification. This is, in short, a very useful book, whose central theme can be distilled into this guiding maxim:

Avoid superficial work. Tune the digital world out, and do Deep Work. In the end, it has much more value.

Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media

Monday, November 28th, 2016

When the lights go out, strange things can happen.

Allison Meier has an excellent article in Hyperalleric (fast becoming one of my favorite online journals) on a remarkable new book, Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media by Noam M. Elcott was released earlier this year by the University of Chicago Press.

As Meier writes, “Elcott’s Artificial Darkness navigates this human-made gloam through a series of sites and individuals, such as Étienne-Jules Marey at his 19th-century Physiological Station in France. There Marey photographed movement against a black screen, with participants dressed partly in black, to emphasize certain motions while masking other parts of the body.

Elcott also emphasizes how darkness in the theater, whether for cinema or drama, is a relatively recent norm. At the turn of the century, a dark theater might have been referred to as ‘Wagnerian,’ referencing German composer Richard Wagner’s Festival Theater, which had a successful 1876 debut. Before that, a theater was ‘a space to see and be seen, two aims that were often in conflict.’

Elcott notes that ‘artificial darkness was, above all, a technology of visibility and invisibility.’  Of course, this new immersion of the audience into a tantalizing night quickly sparked fears about scandalous behavior, with reactionary actions such as the British National Council of Public Morals’s issuing the 1917 report ‘The Moral Danger of Darkness.’ Nevertheless, the dark emphasis on the stage endured, and Elcott highlights later artists like Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus performers that involved the obscurity of dark space in avant-garde theater.

‘Modern artificial darkness negated the negative qualities ascribed to its timeless counterpart: divorced from nature and metaphor, highly controlled and circumscribed, it was a technology that fused humans and images,’ Elcott writes. ‘More precisely, controlled artificial darkness negated space, disciplined bodies, and suspended corporeality in favor of the production and reception of images.’

Artificial Darkness is definitely an academic book, although its thorough text is beautifully illustrated with the ghosts conjured with magic lanterns in Étienne-Gaspard Robert’s 19th-century phantasmagoria, ‘Black Art’ shows from the 1890s when skeletons hovered in inky space, held aloft by hidden performers, and Georges Méliès’s early 20th-century films that conjured fantastic illusions through dark screens, such as making heads of actors disappear [see above].

From the photography darkroom to the disorientation of time in theatrical spaces, the 19th and 20th centuries radically changed our perception of darkness, from a state of night and shadows, to an artificial setting for spectral spectacles.” This is a fascinating study, and despite Meier’s warning that it’s primarily an academic tome, the general reader will still find it visually enthralling – a study of a long vanished time, when “artificial darkness” was a relatively new phenomenon.

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

Dixon and Foster – Sla307 Art Space Video Screening

Sunday, November 27th, 2016

On November 12, 2016, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and I had a screening of our videos in New York City.

Here’s a brief, time lapse video shot by Laura Zavecka of our video show at the Sla307 Art Space on West 30th Street in Manhattan on November 12, 2016. We had a great crowd – notice how a lot of people coming tumbling in the door just as the lights go down – and the projection and the crowd response were excellent. It’s one of the first time these videos, all of which are on Vimeo online, have been projected for an audience. We had another screening of our work on the previous evening, November 11th, at the Amos Eno Gallery in Brooklyn.

As mentioned in UNL Today, “Wheeler Winston Dixon, professor of film studies, and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, professor of English and film studies, had two screenings of their new video work. The screenings took place on Nov 11 in The Amos Eno Gallery in Brooklyn, New York and Nov. 12 at The Sla307 Art Space, in New York City. Videos by Dixon include Life of Luxury, An American Dream and Beat Box. Foster’s videos include Echo and Narcissus, Mirror, Tenderness, and more.” It was a great evening, and we look forward to more screenings in the future.

Click here, or on the image above to see the video.

Skip Black Friday – Buy Nothing, Make A Film!

Thursday, November 24th, 2016

Burned out on Black Friday? Then buy nothing, and make a film instead!

The Echo Park Film Center in Los Angeles, California has an excellent suggestion for those sick of consumer culture, and Black Friday in particular. As their website notes, “Does the consumerism of Black Friday bum you out? Celebrate Buy Nothing Day instead! Swing by the Echo Park Film Center for this free, direct animation drop-in workshop and create your own handmade, one-of-a-kind piece of cinematic art.

Our staff will show you the basics of frame-by-frame animated filmmaking by cutting, pasting, and drawing directly onto 16mm film stock. This is a casual open house-style workshop, so feel free to come and go at your leisure, bring some Thanksgiving leftovers to share, and escape the shopping crowds. All ages and skill levels welcome! Facilitator: Gina Napolitan.”

This is the sort of free-spirited artistic enterprise we need more of today – community filmmaking, and coming together as a group to create art work for all ages, and all skill sets. The Echo Park Film Center “is a non-profit media arts organization committed to providing equal and affordable community access to film/video resources via five channels:

• a neighborhood microcinema space
• free and nominal cost education programs
• a comprehensive film equipment and service retail department
• an eco-friendly mobile cinema & film school
• local and international artist residencies

We feel it is imperative that more members of marginalized communities become active participants in the creation and dissemination of experimental and documentary film in order to truly share the many powerful voices and visions that make up the fabric of contemporary life. With a special focus on ‘at risk’ youth, EPFC programs and services use cinema as catalyst to inspire, educate, and empower communities.”

This is the work we should all be doing today; now, more than ever.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s “Men and Machines” Series on Vimeo

Thursday, November 24th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new series of videos on the theme of “Men and Machines.”

“The meaning of things lies not in the things themselves, but in our attitude towards them. The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“It is interesting to view Nature through the lens of construction ‘sight’ – after all – is Nature itself not the Mother of all construction sites? I wonder if we have always viewed the world as a potential building site? The binary between these coexistent worlds is not so easily defined. Are domesticated plants and meadows, for example, all that ‘natural’ — or are they not liminal hybrids; both ‘natural’ and ‘artificial?’ Are machines ‘natural’ or hybrid and liminal?

Modern experience of the environment is mediated through a mechanical duo-consciousness. I admire the often breathtaking beauty of ‘Nature’ as an ongoing organic ‘construction site’; but I am also in awe of human industry and construction – particularly our aural and visual resonances – waste and decay in tracings, relics, and ruins.

The ‘Men and Machines’ series invites meditation into the complex relationship between man, machine, and ‘Nature’ – the politics, philosophy and aesthetics of the sights and sounds of industry as they are mechanically mediated and manufactured by the camera eye and ear.” – Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Videos in the “Men and Machines” series include:

Echo and Narcissus – vimeo.com/187504524

Construction Site – vimeo.com/188719797

Johnny’s Machines – vimeo.com/188380596

Machine – vimeo.com/190509450

Inside – vimeo.com/189477394

Col Bleu – vimeo.com/185865697

Mirror – vimeo.com/184270334

Not – vimeo.com/172252797

Waste – vimeo.com/165976297

Product – vimeo.com/179584124

Selfie – vimeo.com/178762302

Foster’s meditational videos are both moving and insightful – essential viewing.

The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

As Allison Meier writes in the website Hyperallergic, Hollywood’s background art has long been ignored.

As Meier notes, “when backdrop painters were successful at their jobs, the filmgoing audience didn’t notice their work at all. From the 1930s, up to the emergence of CGI and higher quality photography, painted backings were an essential part of the cinema industry.

However, the artists were barely credited, no matter how important their transformation of reality was to a film — whether a colossal painting that transported the viewer to an exotic locale or a fantastic mural for an entirely fictional realm. The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop by Karen L. Maness and Richard M. Isackes, out now from Regan Arts, is a visual compendium of over 300 images highlighting this unheralded history.

‘These special effect backings, the largest paintings ever created, were breathtaking in their artistic and technical virtuosity,’ the authors write. They note that although the ‘majority of backings used today are digitally printed photographic enlargements,’ the painted backdrop still remains a part of film, albeit in a reduced role:

But, paradoxically, the painted image often looks more realistic than the photographic image. Scenic artists can manipulate backings by adjusting light, color, and texture, helping to support the movie camera’s constructed image. Some information and details can be selectively accentuated, while others can be deemphasized. A photograph, on the other hand, is static and has a tendency to contradict the artifice of the rest of the setting.

They also point out how recent films, like 2004’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and 2014’s Interstellar, also incorporated painted backings to instill an otherworldly atmosphere. Most of the book is concentrated on artists who made significant contributions to the “golden age” of Hollywood.

Before the 1930s, films were often staged like theater, backgrounds not intended to be viewed as anything other than flat space. Then emerged films like 1936’s The Petrified Forest. Shot entirely at the Warner Bros studio in Burbank, California, all its scenes were set in the Arizona desert, with realistic backdrops integral to moving the action, even if the actors didn’t go anywhere.

You probably haven’t heard the backdrop artists’ names — although Salvador Dalí makes a brief appearance with his dream sequence backing for the 1945 Alfred Hitchcock film Spellbound.

You’ve almost certainly seen their work, even if your brain perceived it as a real three-dimensional space, such as George Gibson’s scenic art for the Wizard of Oz or North by Northwest, and Ben Carré’s artwork for classics like The Phantom of the Opera. No matter the place, the painted backdrop was crucial to the audience’s immersion in the cinematic world.”

A fascinating look at an under-appreciated art form; well worth checking out.

Mozart in The Jungle

Monday, November 21st, 2016

Since I have abandoned traditional television, this is a delightful web series worth your attention.

Amazon Studios just keeps getting better and better. They have a pilot right now online for The Last Tycoon, loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final, unfinished novel, which is quite compelling – which was recently green lit for a series – and other remarkably well-produced series, of such as their two seasons, with a third in the offing of Mozart in The Jungle, which deals with the world of classical music in the 21st century era. It’s a time in history when if one wants to dedicate one’s self to the arts, it’s akin to taking a lifetime vow of poverty in pursuit of beauty.

As the press release for the book on which the series is based notes, in part, “In the tradition of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Gelsey Kirkland’s Dancing on My Grave, Mozart in the Jungle delves into the lives of the musicians and conductors who inhabit the insular world of classical music.

In a book that inspired the Amazon original series starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Malcolm McDowell, oboist Blair Tindall recounts her decades-long professional career as a classical musician, from the recitals and Broadway orchestra performances to the secret life of musicians who survive hand to mouth in the backbiting New York classical music scene . . .

Tindall and her fellow journeymen musicians live in decrepit apartments, and perform in hazardous conditions. These are working-class musicians who schlep across the city between low-paying gigs, without health-care benefits or retirement plans―a stark contrast to the rarefied experiences of overpaid classical musician superstars.”

The series itself is a lot less hard-edged, and centers around Gael García Bernal as Rodrigo De Souza, a tempestuous Maestro who’s been brought in to help an ailing New York symphony orchestra regain its former greatness. Malcolm McDowell as Thomas Pembridge, the outgoing conductor, and Bernadette Peters as Gloria Windsor, the fundraiser who tries to keep the orchestra above water are both excellent in their roles, and Lola Kirke as Hailey Rutledge, the ostensible stand in for author Blair Tindall, shines in her role as a young, ambition oboist whose dream is to get a permanent gig with with the orchestra.

Billed as a comedy, and blessedly free of a laugh track, Mozart in the Jungle sometimes strays into darker territory, but it’s a real and distinct pleasure to hear so much classical music played so beautifully in a contemporary, one-camera sitcom, which is obviously made with loving care and a real attention to detail. You can stream the series on Amazon – two whole seasons, with half-hour episodes – and in an era dominated by serial killers and ultra-violence on both the web and in theaters, it’s a relief to view something more thoughtful, more passionate, and much more optimistic about life.

Mozart in The Jungle – definitely worth checking out.

Dixon & Foster Video Shows in NYC November 11 & 12

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

From The UNL Newsroom: Two New Video Shows in New York City.

As mentioned in UNL Today, “Wheeler Winston Dixon, professor of film studies, and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, professor of English and film studies, had two screenings of their new video work. The screenings took place on Nov 11 in The Amos Eno Gallery in Brooklyn, New York and Nov. 12 at The Sla307 Art Space, in New York City. Videos by Dixon include Life of Luxury, An American Dream and Beat Box. Foster’s videos include Echo and Narcissus, Mirror, Tenderness, and more.”

We’re grateful to the galleries for inviting us to screen our work, and for the excellent turnout at both shows, especially the Saturday screening in Manhattan. Altogether, we screened some 40 new films in two one-hour programs, with excellent projection and sound, and a deeply appreciative audience. Indeed, since these videos are publicly curated on Vimeo, this was the first time that they’ve been screened in full theatrical format, which was an experience in itself.

Again, thanks to everyone involved for making these programs possible.

Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s “Pull My Daisy”

Monday, November 7th, 2016

Every so often, it’s good to go back and look at a classic.

As Wikipedia notes in their discussion of the film, “Pull My Daisy (1959) is a short film that typifies the Beat Generation. Directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, Daisy was adapted by Jack Kerouac from the third act of his play, Beat Generation; Kerouac also provided improvised narration.

The film starred poets Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso, artists Larry Rivers (Milo) and Alice Neel (the Bishop’s mother), musician David Amram, actors Richard Bellamy (the Bishop) and Delphine Seyrig (Milo’s wife), dancer Sally Gross (the Bishop’s sister), and Pablo Frank, Robert Frank’s then-young son.

Based on an incident in the life of Beat icon Neal Cassady and his wife, the painter Carolyn, the film tells the story of a railway brakeman whose wife invites a respected Bishop over for dinner. However, the brakeman’s bohemian friends crash the party, with comic results.

Originally intended to be called The Beat Generation the title Pull My Daisy was taken from the poem of the same name written by Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Cassady in the late 1940s. Part of the original poem was used as a lyric in David Amram‘s jazz composition that opens the film . . .

Pull My Daisy was accordingly praised for years as an improvisational masterpiece, until Leslie revealed in a November 28, 1968 article in The Village Voice that the film was actually carefully planned, rehearsed, and directed by him and Frank, who shot the film on a professionally lit studio set.

Leslie and Frank discuss the film at length in Jack Sargeant‘s book Naked Lens: Beat Cinema. An illustrated transcript of the film’s narration was also published in 1961 by Grove Press. Pull My Daisy was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1996, as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.'”

Shot in 35mm on a shoestring budget in a New York City which has long since passed into legend, Pull My Daisy is an authentic talisman of a bygone era, in which art was valued over gloss and artificial perfection. The film was shot silent, because there was no money for sync-sound, but despite the rough look of the film, it’s a work of raw, authentic beauty. Definitely worth 25 minutes of your time; this is the way it was in a more egalitarian and compassionate era.

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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