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Kirk Douglas Turns 100

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

Tim Gray has written a fabulous appreciation of the life of actor Kirk Douglas in Variety.

As Gray notes, “Kirk Douglas, who turn[ed] 100 on Dec. 9, claims he’s tired of talking about himself. Despite that, he recently spoke to Variety about his many impressive careers, as an actor (‘I never wanted to be in movies’), a producer (including tales of ‘my peculiar friend Stanley Kubrick’), author (he’s working on his 12th book), and philanthropist (he’s given away more than $120 million).

As an actor, his classic films include Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful, Lust for Life, 20,000 Leagues Under the SeaGunfight at the OK Corral and Seven Days in May. He also starred in several he produced, such as Paths of Glory, Spartacus, and the 1962 western Lonely Are the Brave.

Douglas has said his proudest accomplishment in Hollywood was to help break the blacklist by giving onscreen credit to writer Dalton Trumbo on the 1960 Spartacus.

Douglas had formed Bryna Prods. in 1955, named after his mother. For the company’s second film,Paths of Glory, he hired Kubrick as director. The relationship began with a fight after Kubrick made major script rewrites without telling Douglas, who forced him to film the original version. Despite their frequent clashes, Douglas three years later wanted Kubrick to direct the Bryna-Universal film Spartacus.

‘Difficult? He invented the word. But he was talented. So, we had lots of fights, but I always appreciated his talent,’ Douglas says.”

You can read the rest of this richly illustrated story by clicking here, or on the link above.

Who’s The Best Selling CD Artist of 2016? W.A. Mozart!

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

Who sold more CDs in 2016 than anyone else? Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, that’s who!

As Weston Williams writes in December 7, 2016 issue of The Christian Science Monitor, “the artist for the best-selling CDs of 2016 is no pop star, rapper, or rock guitarist. This year, that honor belongs to classical music composer and famed prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The legendary composer is an unusual winner in a music market dominated by popular music of the last 50 years. But Mozart’s music had some help resurfacing: an October 28th release of Mozart 225: The New Complete Edition, a massive collection of 200 CDs containing over 240 hours of his compositions . . .

‘Mozart’s life was brief; he died at age 35,’ Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. ‘As a child prodigy, he was trotted around Europe to play for the nobility of the era, but as he grew older, he found that his fame had lessened, so that by the late 1780s, he was reduced to borrowing money to pay his bills.

It was only after his death that the public again took notice of him, and such figures as Beethoven, Chopin and Tchaikovsky hailed his work, leading to renewal of public interest.’

According to Professor Dixon, Mozart’s appeal outside the classical music world is at least partially due to the 1984 film Amadeus, a dramatization of Mozart’s life. While many of the details of the plot are inaccurate, including the film’s suggestion that Mozart was murdered by a rival composer, the movie reintroduced Mozart’s music to a new generation of filmgoers.

But even without the bump in popularity brought on by Amadeus, Mozart’s music holds up well on its own, having remained in the classical repertoire in the 225 years since his death.”

With more than 240 hours of music on 200 CDs, this is the definitive Mozart set, containing everything he ever wrote, and even some material which may or not be correctly attributed to him – duly noted, of course – as well as a set of prints, two hardcover books on Mozart’s life and work, and much more.

Even though he began composing at the age of 4, it’s still astounding that Mozart managed to create as much as he did in such a short lifespan. This set is a fitting tribute to one of the greatest composers the world has ever known, and is obviously going to be the standard edition of his works for a long time to come.

Click here to see a brief video on the box set; pretty astonishing.

Robert Day’s She (1965)

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

Ursala Andress and John Richardson in the climactic scene of Robert Day’s version of She (1965).

As Susan Doll writes on TCM.com, “She, H. Rider Haggard’s novel of a lost world in the jungles of Africa, was destined for cinema almost from the beginning. Haggard published his novel in 1887, and by 1908, a one-reeler of the story had been directed by Edwin S. Porter for Thomas Edison’s company.

In 1917, a longer interpretation was released by Fox Film starring forgotten actress Valeska Suratt, promoted in publicity materials as the Vampire Woman. Eight years later, an English version surfaced with Betty Blythe as the title character. Prior to Hammer’s production, the most well-known interpretation of She was produced by Merian C. Cooper for RKO in 1935. Cooper changed the setting to the frozen north and cast Helen Gahagan as She in her only film role. The material was ripe for an update when Hammer took on the project in 1963.

[Day's] film opens in Palestine just after World War I. Three adventure-loving war buddies, Leo Vincey, Holly, and Holly’s valet, Job, are enjoying themselves in a bar when a sultry local named Ustane [Rosenda Monteros] approaches them. Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing plays Holly with his typical charisma and charm, while Bernard Cribbins complements him as his right-hand man Job–a fitting name for a character who is defined by his devotion to his employer.

John Richardson costars as leading man Leo Vincey, though he lacks the magnetism of Cushing. Unknown to the men, Ustane secretly serves She, called Ayesha, and the young maiden recognizes Vincey as the reincarnation of her queen’s long-dead lover, Kallikrates. Ayesha had murdered Kallikrates 2,000 years earlier for being unfaithful to her, but she pines for him regardless.

Based on Ustane’s story, the trio is lured by the idea of a quest for a lost civilization and set out on a journey across the desert. They soon discover they are lost, though they are not without the creature comforts of the upper-crust adventurer. Job the valet, who never forgets his place, serves Holly and Leo their whiskey despite the dire circumstances. The trio reunites with Ustane in her desert village, where her father rules a lost tribe who guard the entrance to Kuma, Ayesha’s kingdom.

The three adventurers enter Kuma, which had been the scheming queen’s long-term plan all along. Ustane has fallen in love with Leo, but Leo has become entranced by Ayesha, known variously as She Who Waits and She Who Must Be Obeyed. Ayesha wants Leo to step into her eternal flame so the two can be united for all eternity, but her priest, Billali, played by Hammer legend Christopher Lee, is jealous of the newcomer. A beautiful but selfish despot, Ayesha does not care about her subjects, including Ustane. She foolishly executes several of her subjects, causing an uprising and complicating the situation for the adventurers.

She was the first film from Hammer to be built around a female star. Tall and statuesque, Ursula Andress was a perfect choice to play Ayesha, though in retrospect she claims to have disliked the role. Andress has been criticized by reviewers for her icy demeanor and aloof detachment, but these characteristics proved beneficial for playing the steely-eyed Ayesha. Costumed in a selection of warm-colored, Grecian-styled gowns and gold jewelry, she glows onscreen, partly due to the flattering, high-key lighting of cinematographer Harry Waxman.

Born in Switzerland to German parents, the exotic-looking beauty spoke with an accent, which Hammer’s producers found too distracting. Andress’s entire role was then re-voiced and dubbed over by an actress named Monica Van Der Syl, who mimicked a slight Swiss accent so audiences did not suspect the truth. John Richardson’s lines were also dubbed in post-production by the actor himself, perhaps to give his line readings an added emphasis, since he tended to be overshadowed by Cushing and Lee.”

All of which is true, but one should also consider James Bernard’s stunningly beautiful score, as well as Harry Waxman’s superb cinematography. As is usual, Cushing and Lee deliver entirely convincing and authoritative performances, and though the film is a colonialist relic of the highest order, its vision of the risks and allure of potential immortality are sinuously effective. Though She has been remade several times since, the 1965 version remains the definitive rendition of Haggard’s novel.

If you haven’t seen it, seek it out – compelling, brutal, and fascinating.

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.

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.

Forthcoming, 2017 – A Brief History of Comic Book Movies

Friday, October 21st, 2016

Richard Graham and I have a forthcoming book on comic book films, from Palgrave Macmillan.

A Brief History of Comic Book Movies traces the meteoric rise of the hybrid art form of the comic book film. These films trace their origins back to the early 1940s, when the first Batman and Superman serials were made. The serials, and later television shows in the 1950s and 60s, were for the most part designed for children.

But today, with the continuing rise of Comic-Con, they seem to be more a part of the mainstream than ever, appealing to adults as well as younger fans. This book examines comic book movies from the past and present, exploring how these films shaped American culture from the post-World War II era to the present day, and how they adapted to the changing tastes and mores of succeeding generations.

Broken down into chapters that cover the origins of the comic book film, the films in the DC and Marvel “Universe” series, animé films, as well as indies and outliers, this is a book that covers the entire history of the genre in one compact volume.

Here’s some early critical commentary:

“This history of an under-studied field is original, enlightening, and exemplary. I recommend it highly.” – David Sterritt, Editor-in-Chief, Quarterly Review of Film and Video

“Engaging and very accessible…its value to readers will continue even as many more films enter into production and distribution.” – Cynthia J. Miller, co-editor of 1950s “Rocketman” TV Series and Their Fans: Cadets, Rangers, and Junior Space Men

Out in January 2017 – see you then with more on this project!

Dan Duryea – Heel With A Heart

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

One of Hollywood’s m0st enduring character actors finally has a solid biography.

Here’s an excellent, thoroughly researched biography by Mike Peros of one of Hollywood’s most memorable “heavies,” Dan Duryea, who introduced a new level of menace and cynicism to “noir” films starting in the mid 1940s, and continued on in a string of memorable roles in Ministry of Fear (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Black Angel (1946), Too Late for Tears (1949), and the brutal western Winchester ’73 (1950), usually top-billed as one of the main attractions of the film. As Peros makes clear, however, in real life Duryea was a dedicated family man with a long marriage, two sons, and was even the leader of a Boy Scout Troup in the 1950s, in sharp contrast to his ne’er-do-well on-screen image.

As the 1960s dawned, Duryea worked more in television and second features, but always brought an air of relaxed skill to all his roles.  The death of his wife Helen in 1967 hit Duryea hard, but he kept working – both out of financial necessity and dedication to his craft. Duryea’s final role was as the con man Eddie Jacks on the television series Peyton Place, in 60 episodes from 1967 to 1968, the year of his death. Though Duryea often felt limited by the parts he was offered, he lived to work, and kept delivering polished performances right up to the end of his life. Well illustrated, with a comprehensive filmography and a complete index, the book offers a detailed overview of a true Hollywood professional.

Long overdue, this is a book that aficionados of classical Hollywood will deeply appreciate.

Roger Corman – Film As Art and Business

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

Nick Pinkerton has a revealing interview with Roger Corman in the September 2016 issue of Film Comment.

As he passes his 90th birthday, and moves towards his 91st, Roger Corman remains very much in the game in the world of commercial cinema, but as always, he balances art with commerce, and even as he makes some films that are frankly commercial enterprises, one must remember that his ultra-commercial film production company in the 1970s and 80s, New World, also served as the American distributor for the films of Truffaut, Bergman, and other frankly “art” filmmakers, and that as theatrical distribution collapsed around the world, he was one of the last to make sure that even the most difficult films still found an audience.

As Corman states at the end of Pinkerton’s interview: “The film industry will always exist, but it will no longer be the film industry. It will be digital or possibly virtual reality, or holograms. I think of it as an industry, a business, and an art form. Today, the business end of it has become more powerful than the art form. I think what we need to save it—although it’s making real money and it’s not in real trouble—to reinvigorate it is to remember this is an art form as well as a business. You can’t continually spend $100- or $200-million dollars on a superhero picture. You’ve got to at least let some films come through that are closer to art.”

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

Happy Birthday to F. Scott Fitzgerald!

Sunday, September 25th, 2016

F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood, 1937 – he was born on September 24th in 1896.

There’s really no question in my mind that F. Scott Fitzgerald is my favorite author, perhaps the best American novelist of the first third of the 20th century, and not just for The Great Gatsby, which is nevertheless a brilliant book. I’ve always had a real affection for Tender is The Night, as well as the unfinished The Last Tycoon, and even Fitzgerald’s late short stories, which were frankly pounded out for much-needed cash.

A while ago, I wrote a book on Fitzgerald’s work in Hollywood in his last years - he died in 1940 – which was mentioned in a piece in The New Yorker by Arthur Krystal, who wrote that Fitzgerald arrived in Hollywood in 1937 “to take a job at the M-G-M studio in Culver City. He occupied a small office on the third floor of the writers’ building, where from ten in the morning until six at night he worked on scripts and drank bottles of Coca-Cola, carefully arranging the empties around the room.

Fitzgerald lasted eighteen months at M-G-M, during which time he worked on five scripts, wrote another one more or less from scratch, and generated a pile of notes and memos. And if his work was altered or rejected, he’d follow up with bitter, self-justifying letters.

There was a spate of such letters. Fitzgerald, to put it mildly, did not impress the studio bosses. The rap against him was that he couldn’t make the shift from words on the page to images on the screen. His plotting was elaborate without purpose; his dialogue arch or sentimental; and his tone too serious—at times, even grim. Billy Wilder, who seemed genuinely fond of Fitzgerald, likened him to ‘a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job’—with no idea how to connect the pipes and make the water flow.

On the face of it, he should have taken Hollywood by storm: he wrote commercially successful stories; he knew how to frame a scene; and his dialogue, at least in his best fiction, was smart, sophisticated, evocative. And of all the American novelists writing in the nineteen-twenties and thirties—Dreiser, Lewis, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Steinbeck—Fitzgerald had the strongest attachment to Hollywood.

As a boy, he was a passionate moviegoer; he directed and acted in plays, and his desk was filled, he later recalled, with ‘dozens of notebooks containing the germs of dozens of musical comedies.’ Moreover, three of his early stories had been made into silent films, as had his novels The Beautiful and Damned and The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald began trying to write for the movies as early as 1922, and yet, for all his efforts, he earned exactly one screen credit: a shared billing on Three Comrades. So what was the problem?”

It’s a fascinating question, which I tackled in my book The Cinematic Vision of F. Scott Fitzgerald; basically, Fitzgerald was way ahead of his time, and also an artist who adapted poorly to the studio system, even though he wrote and rewrote some of his late short stories over and over to please the magazine editors who would eventually publish them. But he always thought that the cinema could be something more than what it was, and now resolutely is – mass entertainment – and this individual vision pushed him beyond his limits, to his death.

But Fitzgerald’s last work in Hollywood, the screenplay for the unproduced film Infidelity (which would never have gotten past the Breen office in that era) is one of his finest pieces of work, and remains unproduced to this day. Four-fifths of the screenplay was published in Esquire years ago; in the early 1980s, when MGM was still at its original headquarters at 10202 West Washington Blvd., I found Fitzgerald’s outline for the ending of Infidelity in studio’s files, and a good screenwriter could finish the script up in a matter of weeks.

And perhaps someday it will happen . . .

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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