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Archive for September, 2017

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Jane Campion’s “2 Friends” (1986)

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay on Campion’s breakthrough film in Senses of Cinema.

As Foster writes in Senses of Cinema 84 (September, 2017), “fearless, ruthlessly economical and deeply felt, 2 Friends (1986), Jane Campion’s first feature – actually made for Australian television, and clocking in at a spare 79 minutes – is a modest yet accomplished film, and a stunning debut. Working from a screenplay by Helen Garner, Campion traces in reverse the lives of two young Australian schoolgirls, Kelly (Kris Bidenko) and Louise (Emma Coles) from the collapse of their friendship back to its promising beginning, when all things seemed possible, and the world was bright and new.

Of course, this told-in-reverse format has been used in a number of other films, most notably Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), but Campion’s tale is told from a female perspective and uses this unusual narrative strategy to tap into the experience of female friendships, and, in particular, the difficulties young bright women have navigating a world than is not designed for their success. As Elbert Ventura notes in a perceptive essay on the film in Popmatters,

‘when the movie begins, Louise and Kelly don’t even seem to belong in the same story. Louise is a prim, sullen teenager in a resolutely middle-class household. Dressed in her schoolgirl uniform, she hardly looks the sort who runs with Kelly, all punk and dissolute. Kelly, we learn, has left home—Louise hasn’t seen her in ages—and has been living with “friends” in poverty in a desolate beach town. The movie’s opening chapter ends with an eloquent scene. As Louise reads a letter from the long-departed Kelly, Kelly’s voiceover comes on the soundtrack. Halfway through, Louise drops the missive, but Kelly’s voice remains, reciting the letter. It’s a poignant expression of a friendship past exhaustion.’

But how did their friendship unravel? Campion takes us from this bleak beginning back roughly a year, in five sections, to show how uncaring parents, and in particular families split apart by divorce and remarriage, have brought this rupture about. At the same time, the film is resolutely and revolutionarily feminist, in the purest sense of the word; it’s told entirely from a female perspective, and the men and boys who drift through the film are either weak, predatory, or as the girls describe them in one scene, ‘hopeless.’

As we move back in time, it becomes clear that the punked-out Kelly was once a gifted student with university potential, having passed along with Louise the extremely difficult entrance exam for the exclusive City Girl’s School, a surefire stepping stone to higher education. But Kelly’s stepdad Malcolm (Peter Hehir) a shiftless, jealous lay about, refuses to let her attend, thus not only breaking the bond between the two girls, but also wrecking Kelly’s future with a single stroke.

Kelly’s mother Chris (Debra May) seems weak and ineffectual, and Louise’s mother Janet (Kris McQuade), though seeming to care for Kelly in a maternal fashion, cannot effectively intervene. And so Louise goes off to City Girl, and Kelly winds up on the dole, living in a squat, doing drugs and wandering the streets. For a female spectator, it is acutely painful to witness, but it is also deeply satisfying to see uncomfortable truths about all young women’s lack of place in society so plainly stated; in this way 2 Friends is much like Campion’s finest film, Sweetie (1989).”

You can read the rest of the essay here; this is a deeply felt film that deserves much more attention.

DP Sean Price Williams on Cinematography and Film History

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

Sean Price Williams is one of the most inventive and original cinematographers working today.

As Jon Hogan writes, at the start of an interview with Williams in the web journal Hyperallergic, “cinematographer Sean Price Williams has been revered by critics and indie film fans for the better part of the last decade. While drawing particular influence from master filmmakers like Robert Altman and Roman Polanski, his visual thinking stays fresh by constantly seeking fellow image makers — whether cinematographers, photographers, or others — who make the vulgar and common beautiful.

Williams’s singular eye has kept him in-demand; you’ll see his name in the credits of four movies in 2017 alone. Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime is a tale of technology simulating humanity and Good Time — the latest from Queens natives Josh and Ben Safdie — is a sprint through the New York City underworld. Golden Exits (which has yet to receive a theatrical release following its Sundance premiere) marks Williams’s reunion with Brooklyn-based director Alex Ross Perry, who has worked with the cinematographer on his four prior features.

However, Thirst Street, directed by Nathan Silver, is the truest visual smorgasbord of the batch. To tell the story of flight attendant Gina (Lindsay Burdge) as she fixates on a one-night stand in Paris, Williams draws inspiration from 1970s European art films and cinéma du look to weave tapestries of color that both beckon and repel viewers in following Gina’s descent. Ahead of Thirst Street’s screening at New York City’s Quad Cinema starting September 20, Williams discussed his unique gift for imbuing stories of misanthropes and criminals with raw emotion and neon glamor.

Jon Hogan: Your first film experiences in New York City grew from your time working at now-closed East Village fixture Kim’s Video and Music. There, you met future collaborators like directors Alex Ross Perry and Robert Greene and actress Kate Lyn Sheil as coworkers. Why was Kim’s such fertile ground for cinematic creativity?

Sean Price Williams: Because it’s a library, and that’s what libraries should be. We could immediately be learning and catching up on the history of cinema with what was available to us, which was a lot compared to now. You have to illegally download, otherwise you don’t have a choice, because the streaming options aren’t very good as far as the history of cinema. I’m shocked by how little FilmStruck actually has. People are like ‘there’s so much.’ No. There’s so little.

JH: In terms of streaming libraries, what elements of the canon are missing or not readily available?

SPW: The first 100 years of cinema are barely represented at all in a legal way online. I encourage everyone to download … I think we have to encourage that if there’s going to be any kind of education for cinema at all. Otherwise it’s just directed to us by Netflix and Amazon, whatever their licensing agreement is. That’s not a way to be guided.

JH: You worked with the late documentarian Albert Maysles. What lessons did you learn from him? How does your vision change when filming documentaries like Maysles’s Iris or Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine?

SPW: When I first came to New York, I was shooting stuff for this website that had no means at all. We were shooting mostly documentary stuff (parades, events, concerts, things like that), but I’m not an avid documentary watcher. The documentary and the feature stuff were always criss-crossing, and I didn’t really think of it as two totally different things. I was always trying to make documentaries seem more cinematic with some sort of language that might seem more interesting on a big screen.

When I worked with Al, I knew his movies. I loved his movies. They had an elegance that was cinematic and totally unique to them. When I would go through his dailies as his archivist I would see things in the dailies that were confirmation about the unique kind of eye he had. It’s not something you can really pick up and learn. You can learn some things, but you can’t imitate him. He was impulsive and instinctual.”

You can read the rest of this instructive and inspirational interview by clicking here, or on the image above.

New Film History Book: Hitler in Los Angeles

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

Here, courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter, is a preview of an extremely important and timely book.

As author Steven J. Ross writes, “in March 1934, Leon Lewis, a 44-year-old lawyer and former executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, invited 40 of Hollywood’s most powerful studio heads, producers and directors — men like Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg and Jack Warner — to a secret meeting at Hillcrest, the elite Jewish country club in Cheviot Hills.

For nearly a year, Lewis had used a network of spies (including the son of a Bavarian general) to keep tabs on Nazis and American-born fascists in Los Angeles. Some in the group knew a bit about what Lewis had been up to, but few knew the full extent of his work. As the group settled into the Club Room after dinner, Lewis rose to share what he had learned: Anti-Semites had invaded their studios.

Foremen sympathetic to the Nazi and fascist cause had fired so many below-the-line Jewish employees that many studios had ‘reached a condition of almost 100 percent [Aryan] purity.’ Scarier still, Lewis told them his spies had uncovered death threats against the moguls. He pleaded with them for money to continue his operations so they could keep track of not only how the Nazis were trying to influence the studios but also their plans for sabotage and murder in Southern California. Would the moguls help?

Thalberg promised $3,500 from MGM. Paramount production head Emanuel Cohen matched it. RKO’s David Selznick contributed and said he would canvass the town’s talent agents for additional contributions. By the end of the evening, the group had pledged $24,000 ($439,000 in 2017 dollars) for the spy operation.

Over the next decade, until the end of World War II, Lewis used the money raised from Hollywood to recruit World War I veterans — and their wives and daughters — to spy on Nazi and fascist groups in Los Angeles. Often rising to leadership positions, this daring group of men and women foiled a series of Nazi plots — from hanging 24 Hollywood actors and power figures, including Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Charlie Chaplin, Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn, to blowing up defense installations on the day Nazis planned to launch their American putsch.

Even though Nazi plans for murder and sabotage failed, as with today, we need to take this homegrown extremism seriously. Lewis certainly did. While local and federal officials were busy monitoring the activities of communists, his operatives uncovered enough evidence of hatred and plotting to be concerned about the fate of Los Angeles Jews and American democracy. Were it not for Lewis and his spies, these plots might have succeeded.”

Read more by clicking here or above; a dark period of Hollywood history that must be told.

“Star Trek: Discovery” Premieres Tonight on CBS

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

From left to right: Doug Jones as Lieutenant Saru, Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham, Michelle Yeoh as Captain Philippa Georgiou in Star Trek: Discovery (Jan Thijs/CBS).

I was interviewed a few days ago by George M. Thomas of the Akron Beacon Journal about the return of this iconic franchise, and here’s a brief portion of the article: “The last Star Trek series, Enterprise, warped off into television syndication more than 12 years ago after a lackluster first run of four seasons on UPN, now known as The CW.

It finally revealed a franchise that had run out of original ideas and energy, showing its age after more than 30-something years in 2005. Absence or nostalgia makes the heart grow fonder, apparently. Now 51 years into Trekdom’s existence, the franchise, which is set 10 years before the original Star Trek, returns to the medium where it first gained a smallish, but rabid following — television.

When Star Trek: Discovery premieres tonight at 8:30 on CBS,  it will represent the first Trek series to hit the airwaves since Enterprise’s departure. It will star Sonequa Martin-Green and Michelle Yeoh in the leads. Television, however, has evolved into its own final frontier.

Fans shouldn’t get too comfy with the prospect of 15 new episodes of a series available to them over the air. After Discovery’s one-hour premiere on broadcast TV, the show will promptly beam onto CBS’ streaming platform, CBS All Access, where it will cost fans $5.99 per month to subscribe with limited commercials and $9.99 without.

‘Debuting the show on CBS broadcast television will give the series a wider audience initially,’ said Wheeler Winston Dixon, the Ryan professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska, ‘but CBS is smart to move the series to All Access, where it will reach a much more rabid, fan-based audience, and episodes can be streamed and viewed at will — which is the most popular platform for millennials.'”

You can read the entire article here – the move from broadcast TV to streaming is the future.

Short Film: The Algerian War! (2014) by Jean-Marie Straub

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

Here’s a brief, but resolutely uncompromising film from one of my favorite directors.

As noted in Grasshopperfilm.com, where this short, two minute film is embedded, “as a young man, Straub fled to West Germany after refusing to fight for France in the Algerian War. Later in his life, he returned to this bitter historical experience with this terse noir about ‘the instinct to heal’ and to murder. Selected by Pedro Costa as one of his ten favorite films from the last ten years, it stands among Straub’s most acclaimed short works.” It’s also absolutely typical of Straub, paring down the issues at hand – both moral and thematic – to their barest essence. “I have come to kill you” says one actor, delivering the line in a stark, matter of fact tone. “Can’t we talk a little before?” responds his intended victim, and thereby hangs a tale that Straub delivers with quiet, remorseless intensity. It’s just two minutes long – you can spare the time, surely.

You can see it by clicking here, or on the image above.

Robert Heide: 25 Plays

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

The brilliant American playwright Robert Heide has finally put together a collection of his work.

I have known Bob for a long time, and have seen many of his plays produced, such as The Bed (1965), in which two young men listlessly share an enormous double bed, seemingly unable to get up, or do anything at all; and At War With The Mongols (1970), but Bob has been so busy with his other work – lectures, books on Disney and pop culture, and other projects – that somehow, his true vocation as a playwright almost got lost in the shuffle. I have a more detailed review of 25 Plays forthcoming in Quarterly Review of Film and Video – in addition to his theatrical work, Heide also wrote several screenplays for Warhol, who shot a split-screen film version of The Bed in 1966, now being restored by The Museum of Modern Art – but for the moment, let’s just savor the fact that at last, all of Heide’s work is now available in one massive tome, and what an accomplishment it is!

As the jacket copy for 25 Plays notes, “Robert Heide is a seminal playwright in the Off-Off-Broadway coffee-house theater movement. His plays have been produced in New York’s Greenwich Village at the famed Caffe Cino and in the East Village by Ellen Stewart at La Mama E.T.C., by Crystal Field and George Bartenieff at Theater for the New City, by Irene Fornés and Julie Bovasso’s New York Theater Strategy at Westbeth, at Lynne Meadow’s Manhattan Theatre Club, and many other venues. His early studies began in the theater department at Northwestern University. In New York, he studied for two years with Stella Adler, who then sent him to apprentice with John Houseman at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut; he also worked with Uta Hagen and with director Harold Clurman. His mentor and close friend, Edward Albee, invited him to become a member of the Albee/Barr/Wilder Playwrights Unit. In the 1960s, he acted in Andy Warhol’s films Camp and Batman/Dracula. As a member of the Playwrights/Directors Unit at the Actors Studio, he attended sessions conducted by Estelle Parsons, Ellyn Burstyn, and Horton Foote.” And that’s just for starters.

Having grown up on 1960s theater, and people like Edward Albee (The Zoo Story, The Death of Bessie Smith, The Sandbox) and Robert Patrick (The Haunted Host), I was still struck by how absolutely original Heide’s work is, and how much of a personal vision he conveys in each one of his plays. For Bob, the world is a place of terror and fascination, throwaway culture and momentary diversions, pop stars and celebrity disaster, all of it documented with a dispassionate detachment that surely brought him to Warhol’s attention. Heide’s work is constantly surprising and challenging, and the characters in his plays – young suburban couples, the lonely and the lost, the famous and the infamous – are real, flawed, three-dimensional human beings. The major surprise to me is that it’s taken this long for a complete collection of his plays to come out – they really change the way one thinks about Off Off Broadway in the 1960s.

So, here’s Bob on the cover, and more on this later – it’s first rate work.

New Video: Risk

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

Here’s a new video I made a few days ago – Risk.

I’ve shown this brief video to some friends and colleagues, and it’s been described as a moving Warhol disaster painting, or an homage to Edweard Muybridge’s multi-frame experimental still photography, or possibly a reference to the photographic work of Jacques Henri Lartigue – and it’s probably all of these things. All of us are constantly balanced on the knife-edge of risk, but these daredevils, seen here in manipulated archival footage from the 1930s, were more desperate than that – this was simply a way to make living, while risking one’s life and limb. It’s a reminder of a time when the economy collapsed, and everyone was simply trying to hang on – to a plane, to a building, to anything at all.

So see what you think – in a world full of risk.

Flash! Patty Jenkins Finally Inks Deal to Direct Wonder Woman 2

Monday, September 11th, 2017

Patty Jenkins has finally signed a deal to direct Wonder Woman 2 – after a long, long fight.

As Borys Kit wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, “Patty Jenkins is returning for Wonder Woman 2. After an unusually lengthy and tough negotiation, the director has closed a deal with Warner Bros. to helm, co-write and produce the sequel to the movie sensation of the summer.

The deal is precedent-setting, making Jenkins the highest-paid female filmmaker in history, though getting to this point was ‘challenging,’ according to one source. [Negotiations have been going on in earnest since August 19th, when it was rumored that a deal was imminent; now it’s September 11th; this should have been settled long ago.]

Jenkins came on to Wonder Woman as a replacement for director Michelle McLaren, who left the project over creative differences. But she became an indispensable figure and, along with star Gal Gadot, the face of the movie in the months before its June opening.

But Jenkins only had a deal for one movie.

When the film became an immediate hit, lassoing over $103 million in its opening weekend, Jenkins and her camp found themselves in a very enviable position. Negotiations began for her return after that first weekend but dragged on even as the movie showed remarkable staying power, becoming a true (and rare for summer 2017) phenomenon. The pic grossed over $402 million domestically and has topped the $800 million mark worldwide.

Sources say Jenkins will receive directing and writing fees in the high seven figures (think somewhere in the $7 million to $9 million range) on Wonder Woman 2 but, more significantly, will have a considerable backend. (At her peak, filmmaker Nancy Meyers earned in the $5 million range, according to sources.)

The deal is a superheroic leap for Jenkins, who was paid $1 million for directing the initial Wonder Woman but was looking to get something more on the level of Zack Snyder’s pay after he helmed Man of Steel, according to sources. Just as Wonder Woman broke barriers for superhero movies, Jenkins’ deal breaks a glass ceiling for women directors.”

It’s ridiculous; this deal should have been signed long ago, and it’s just more evidence of the fact that women don’t get an even shake in Hollywood, or elsewhere in the business world, for that matter. Why on earth should Patty Jenkins have had to fight so hard for what was clearly her due? They would have given this to J.J. Abrams or Zack Snyder (but thank God they didn’t) a loooooong time ago.

Gadot already is attached to the follow-up, which Warner Bros. will release on Dec. 13, 2019.

Wheeler Winston Dixon – New Videos

Monday, September 11th, 2017

With 390 films in my Vimeo account, it seemed time to select a few I’m particularly fond of.

So here’s a portfolio of some of my favorite recent videos; none of my pre-2004 work is curated here. My films and videos have been screened at The Maryland Institute College of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Anthology Film Archives, The Microscope Gallery, The British Film Institute, The Jewish Museum, The Millennium Film Workshop, The San Francisco Cinématheque, The New Arts Lab, The Collective for Living Cinema, The Kitchen Center for Experimental Art, The Filmmakers Cinématheque, Film Forum, The Amos Eno Gallery, Sla 307 Art Space, The Gallery of Modern Art, The Oberhausen Film Festival and at numerous universities and film societies throughout the world. In 2003, Dixon was honored with a retrospective of his films at The Museum of Modern Art, and his films were acquired for the permanent collection of the Museum, in both print and original format. This is a collection of my most recent work.

Take some time, and check out a few if the mood strikes you.

The Night of Counting the Years (1969)

Friday, September 8th, 2017

One of the greatest Egyptian films of all time is not available on DVD – but you can see it here.

As an anonymous critic at the website Public Domain Movies notes, “Egyptian critics consistently list The Night of Counting the Years (also known as The Mummy) as one of the most important Egyptian films, and perhaps the most important one, but it remains largely unknown, both within Egypt and elsewhere, despite winning a number of awards at European film festivals. Directed by Shadi Abdel Salam in 1969, it was his first feature film, after a long career directing experimental short films, and was selected as the Egyptian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 43rd Academy Awards.

Set in 1881, on the eve of British colonial rule, it is based on a true story: an Upper Egyptian clan had been robbing a cache of mummies near the village of Qurna, and selling the artifacts on the black market. After a conflict within the clan, one of its members went to the police, helping the Antiquities Service find the cache of stolen goods. While this is the nominal plot of the film, it is much more interested in establishing a sense of the past, and embracing cultural history, than in the advancement of a narrative structure.

The film casts this story in terms of the search for an authentic, lost Egyptian national identity (represented by the neglected and misunderstood artifacts of ancient Egyptian civilization), but the conflict between city and countryside suggests questions that are not resolved in the film, making it an ambiguous, unsettling reflection on the price of identity. Unusual camera angles, striking colors and slow editing give the film a dreamlike quality, reinforced by Mario Nascimbene‘s trance like music. For those who know Arabic, the dialogue is entirely in classical Arabic, which adds to the film’s sense of timelessness.”

As Wikipedia notes of the director’s career, “Shadi Abdel Salam was an Egyptian film director, screenwriter and costume and set designer. Born in Alexandria on 15 March 1930, Shadi graduated from Victoria College, Alexandria, 1948, and then moved to England to study theater arts from 1949 to 1950. He then joined faculty of fine arts in Cairo where he graduated as an architect in 1955. He worked as assistant to the artistic architect, Ramsis W. Wassef, 1957, and designed the decorations and costumes of some of the most famous historical Egyptian films, [and] taught at the Cinema Higher Institute of Egypt in the Departments of Decorations, Costumes and Film Direction from 1963–1969. He died on 8 October 1986.” This film remains his only feature length work.

I’ve seen the film projected in 35mm format on a number of occasions, and it’s one of my very favorite films – absolutely dreamlike in its construction, slow and meditational, but with an enormous presence in every single frame. Now, although the film is still unavailable in a full-quality HD DVD, there is at least a YouTube video version of the film with English and Spanish subtitles, which you can view by clicking here, or on the image above. The best way to watch the film would be to stream it to your television, and get carried away by the intensity of the imagery.

The Night of Counting The Years is a brilliant film, which absolutely should be on DVD.

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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