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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Wonder Woman Loses Director Michelle MacLaren

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

This is really bad news for a number of reasons.

As Scott Mendelson writes in Forbes, “The Hollywood Reporter is, uh, reporting that director Michelle MacLaren has left Wonder Woman. The usual ‘creative differences’ are being offered as the reason, and I’m sure there will be more details in the coming days. Her coming aboard the project was something of a big deal last December, as it would have been the first time that a female director had been handed the reins to a major comic book/superhero blockbuster title. And no, I’m not forgetting Lexi Alexander, who helmed the $30m R-rated Punisher: War Zone for Lionsgate back in 2008, but I think she’d be the first to tell you it’s not entirely the same thing. Nonetheless, as of moments ago, MacLaren has dropped out of the project, leaving its future, or at least its June 23rd, 2017 release date, in potential jeopardy [. . .]

As you recall, Marvel brought on Patti Jenkins (Monster) to helm Thor: The Dark World, but she and Marvel quickly parted ways and she was replaced by television director (Mad MenHomicide: Life of the StreetGame of Thrones) Alan Taylor, who it should be noted did just fine with the fantasy sequel. Couple that with Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the first Twilight to blockbuster success only to part ways with the franchise and have the other four installments be directed by men, and Sam-Taylor Johnson, who directed Fifty Shades of Grey to $565m+ worldwide success only to leave the project, presumably over clashes with original author E.L. James, and we have what I would argue is a statistically improbable pattern of female directors either not making it to the finish line with high profile projects or not making it to the sequel when the finished film becomes a blockbuster.

The so-called glass ceiling for female directors helming major studio pictures is thick enough that an exception to the rule qualifies as news whenever it occurs. Without speculating about what said creative differences there might have been, one can hope that this doesn’t further the myth that female filmmakers can’t handle big-scale studio tent poles. For the sake of the project and for everything else involved in this now knotty situation, I can certainly hope that Warner Bros. doesn’t back down from its original intentions and find a female director as a replacement. Yes, it may be tokenism, and yes it may be about ‘the principle.’ But considering how hard it is for female filmmakers to get their foot in the door in comparison to their male peers, the worst thing that can happen for the perception of the project is for a male director to take over for MacLaren.

In the meantime, Michelle MacLaren is now available in case Marvel wants her for Captain Marvel. Otherwise, there are plenty of other talented female filmmakers who could use the gig and the profile boost. Beyond that, whatever ‘deep thoughts’ I might have about this will have to wait at least until we get a little more information. But come what may, this is frankly terrible news.”

This is a very disturbing pattern, and something that should be addressed - now.

So That Happened – Jon Cryer’s New Memoir

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

Jon Cryer’s memoir of his long and checkered career makes for surprisingly thoughtful, entertaining reading.

Show biz memoirs are usually “and then I did this” or “and then I met” or else redolent of both scandal and self-promotion, but despite the high octane material Jon Cryer has the ability to exploit, with the whole Two and A Half Men saga just a part of his many decades as an actor, Cryer’s So That Happened deals most effectively not with shock, but rather introspection – into his personal life, but more importantly, into the craft of comedy itself.

After his initial hits in films, Cryer wandered in the wilderness with a string of failed television pilots until he was considered within the industry to be almost “the kiss of death” for any new project, until, by a long and torturous route, he finally landed the gig on Two and a Half Men.

But his major discovery was that, for some reason, his mere presence on a set seems out of place for audiences, who are almost waiting for some misfortune to befall him, and when he registers confusion, disbelief, or irritation, the result is amusement, as if his very being is perpetually alien.

He also discusses the mechanics of building a joke; how the auditioning process in Hollywood has become completely corrupted by the fact that one has sign an agreement merely to audition for a part, with no assurance of getting it; how the entertainment industry is so mercurial that success can vanish literally overnight; and how his oldest friends sadly fell away when fame finally came to him.

Sad, ruminative, literate and deeply analytical, this book is a real surprise, and offers some genuine insight into why the entertainment world is so stratified today, into the superstar brackets and nothing else, as the middle class of movies, music, books and other media are shuffled off into VOD oblivion.

For Cryer, it’s a craft, but it’s also job, and you have to hit your marks and perform, no matter what. So That Happened is about the triumph of professionalism. As Cryer notes, “you can’t do television shows caring whether or not the network picks you up. You can only do them enjoying the work, because if you’re always on pins and needles about whether you’ll be picked up, you’ll lose your mind. I learned that the hard way.”

All in all, very much worth reading.

Transformers Universe?

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Essay – Humanities in the Digital Era

Friday, February 13th, 2015

I have a new essay on “humanities in the digital era” in the web journal Film International – here’s a link.

As I argue, “We live in the age of the visible invisible; everything is supposedly available to us online, but in fact, only a small fraction of the knowledge and culture of even the most recent past is available on the web. The digitization of our culture is now an accomplished fact; physical media is disappearing, books are being harvested from library shelves and thrown into the anonymity of high density storage, digital facsimiles of these documents are often illegible or hidden behind pay walls. It’s a world of never-ending passwords, permissions, and a whole new group of “gatekeepers,” which the digital revolution was supposed to do away with, in which everyone got a place at the table. In fact, it has created a far more intrusive and much less intuitive group of cultural taste makers in place of the 20th century regime of editors, writers, critics and the like; technology specialists, who, really don’t understand the humanities at all, and are, in fact alarmed by the amorphousness of humanist work – after all, you know, it’s just so unquantifiable.

As Wieseltier notes, in part, in the January 7th issue of the NYT Sunday Book Review, ‘aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different. We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof. Presumptions of obsolescence, which are often nothing more than the marketing techniques of corporate behemoths, need to be scrupulously examined. By now we are familiar enough with the magnitude of the changes in all the spheres of our existence to move beyond the futuristic rhapsodies that characterize much of the literature on the subject. We can no longer roll over and celebrate and shop. Every phone in every pocket contains a “picture of ourselves,” and we must ascertain what that picture is and whether we should wish to resist it. Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.’

Needless to say, Wieseltier’s essay has touched a real nerve among both humanists and the digerati - you can read some responses here - some agreeing with him, and some not, but for me, it seems that more often than not, he hits the mark straight on. As one reader, Carl Witonksy, wrote in response, ‘Leon Wieseltier’s essay should be required reading and discussion by all college students, regardless of major. Technology is penetrating every aspect of their lives, and they should come to grips with its pluses and minuses,’ while Cynthia M. Pile, co-chair of the Columbia University Seminar in the Renaissance, added that ‘for the humanities, the library is the laboratory, and books and documents are the petri dishes containing the ideas and records of events under study. We use the Internet, to be sure, and are grateful for it. But its rapid and careless ascent has meant that we cannot rely on it for confirmation of reality or of fact.’

Pile goes on to note that ‘we require direct observation of material (stone, wood, ink, paper and parchment) documents, manuscripts and printed books, which we then subject to critical, historical analysis. We also require that these materials be spread out in front of us to analyze and compare with one another, like the scientific specimens they are. In great research libraries (which used to be the hearts of great universities), these were formerly available on site, so that an idea could be confirmed or contradicted on the spot. Instead, today librarians are taught that a delay of several days while a book is fetched from a warehouse dozens, or even hundreds, of miles away — to the detriment of the book — is irrelevant to our work. This is false. Our work is impeded by these assumptions, based on technological dreams, not on reality.’

I’ve seen the impact of this in many fields of the arts, which are now faced with a crisis unlike anything since the Middle Ages – the cultural work of the past is being relegated to archives, museums, and warehouses, and despite claims to the contrary, is not available in any meaningful way to the general public or students. Great swaths of material have been left unscanned and unindexed, and with the demise of paper copies becomes essentially unobtainable. Browsing through library stacks is not only a pleasurable experience; it is also an essential part of the discovery process and intellectual investigation. You come in, presumably, looking for one book, but now you find another. And another. And another. They’re all together in one section on the shelves. You’re not calling for a specific text, which would give you only one side of any given question – you have immediate access to them all, and can pick and choose from a wide variety of different perspectives. Now, it seems that only the eternal present is with us.

I wrote an essay that touched on some of these issues a few years ago for The College Hill Review about working in New York in the 1960s as part of the community of experimental filmmakers, aptly entitled ‘On The Value of “Worthless” Endeavor,‘ in which I noted – again, in part – that ‘the only art today is making money, it seems; in fact, today, there are plaques all over New York identifying where this artist, or that artist, used to have a studio; today, all the locations are now office buildings or bank . . . it seems that no one has time or money for artistic work, when, in fact, such work would redeem us as a society, as it did in the 1930s when Franklin Roosevelt put artists to work, and then sold that work, to get that segment of the economy moving again. Now, the social conservativism that pervades the nation today belatedly recognizes the power of “outlaw” art, and no longer wishes to support it, as it might well prove — in the long run — dangerous.

Money can create, but it can also destroy. Out of economic privation, and the desperate need to create, the artists [of the 1960s] created works of lasting resonance and beauty with almost no resources at their disposal, other than the good will and assistance of their colleagues; a band of artistic outlaws. These artists broke the mold of stylistic representation . . . and offered something new, brutal, and unvarnished, which confronted audiences with a new kind of beauty, the beauty of the outsider, gesturing towards that which holds real worth in any society that prizes artistic endeavor. It’s only the work that comes from the margins that has any real, lasting value; institutional art, created for a price, or on commission, documents only the powerful and influential, but doesn’t point in a new direction. It’s the work that operates off the grid, without hype or self-promotion, under the most extreme conditions, that has the greatest lasting value, precisely because it was made under such difficult circumstances.’

In his brilliant film Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard depicted a futuristic dystopia - in 1965! – in which an entire civilization is run by a giant computer, Alpha 60, which directs and supervises the activities of all its inhabitants; a computer that is absolutely incapable of understanding nuance, emotion, or the chance operations of something like, for instance, Surrealism or poetry. As the supervisor of the computer and all its operations, one Professor Von Braun (played by Howard Vernon; the symbolism is obvious) is pitted against the humanist Secret Agent Lemmy Caution (the always excellent Eddie Constantine), who has been sent from the ‘Outerlands’ to destroy the computer and restore humanity to Alphaville. As Von Braun warns Lemmy, ‘men of your type will soon become extinct. You’ll become something worse than dead. You’ll become a legend.’ And as if to confirm this, Alpha 60 instructs his subjects that ‘no one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.’

But, of course, it isn’t, and while the end of Alphaville strikes a positive note – technology reined in by Lemmy’s timely intervention, I can’t be so sure that this time, in real life, that there will be a happy ending. When a society no longer has bookstores, or record stores, or theaters because – supposedly – everything is online and streaming – when corporations make decisions, guided by the bottom line alone, as to what materials are disseminated and which remain in oblivion – and when mass culture alone – the popularity index – determines what works are allowed to find any audience, we’re in trouble. If you don’t know something is there, then you can’t search for it. Works buried in an avalanche of digital materials – and please remember that I am someone who contributes to this, and publishes now almost exclusively in the digital world – lose their currency and importance, just as libraries continue to discard books that later wind up on Amazon for one cent, in hardcover editions, where those of us who care about such work snap it up – until it’s gone forever.

What will the future hold for those of us in the humanities? It’s a really serious question – perhaps the most important question facing us as scholars right now. Alpha 60 rightly recognized Lemmy Caution as a threat, and had him brought in for questioning, telling Lemmy that ‘I shall calculate so that failure is impossible,’ to which Lemmy replied ‘I shall fight so that failure is possible.’ The work of technology is valuable and useful, and without it, we would be stuck entirely in the world of physical media, which would mark an unwelcome return to the past. But in the headlong rush to digital technology, we shouldn’t sacrifice the sloppiness, the uncertainty, the messiness that comes from the humanities in all their uncertain glory, representing widely divergent points of view, with the aid of ready access to the works of the past, which, after all, inform and help to create the present, as well as what is to come. As Lemmy Caution tells Alpha 60, ‘the past represents its future. It advances in a straight line, yet it ends by coming full circle.’”

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

Nathaniel Carlson on Manoel de Oliveira’s “Inquietude”

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

Here’s a great review of Manoel de Oliveira’s superb film Inquietude by Nathaniel Carlson in Offscreen.

As Carlson notes, “even within the already established challenges of Manoel de Oliveira’s body of work, Inquietude stands out for its unique difficulty. For the sake of convenience and an initial direct access, it’s easy enough to allot a general theme to most of the other films (e.g. Vale Abraão is about beauty, O Convento is about evil, La Lettre is about love, etc.). This at least allows for some means of approach, but Inquietude defies any such orderly schematic. What is it about finally? One is tempted to say death or immortality or notions of the eternal but somehow even these broad terms do not seem adequate enough.

Finally, it really must be that titular disquiet, an existential unease or angst. But this is even more vague than usual, given that it describes a foundational condition upon which everything else is built or develops. It’s a self-awareness that gives rise to poetry, philosophy, the specific conditions of human cognition itself (the comprehension of immortality as an idealized quality, for example). The synthesis brought about by this shifting set of contexts and active agents produces a surfeit of meaning. One character demonstrates the effect of that supercharge of ambiguity in noting on a friend’s lover: ‘She is dead. In your mind, she is not the same.’

Narratively and structurally the film is a triptych. The three stories it contains are laid out in an interwoven, interdependent form. The first is a rather confined, even claustrophobic, extended dialogue between an aged, successful scientist father and his almost equally acclaimed middle aged son. The discussion centers around insuring a lasting legacy (i.e. immortality) and the means by which to secure it (i.e. suicide at the peak of one’s renown). This broad comedy verges often on farce and, once it pitches irretrievably over the edge, is revealed as a theater performance witnessed by characters from the second story, one set within the upper tier environment of Portuguese society in what would appear to be the early part of the twentieth century.

In this section, the unnamed male lead is troubled by his love for a courtesan, Suzy. Eventually he is comforted by a friend who tells him a mythic folk tale which in turn is also told to us cinematically. In it, a dissatisfied young peasant girl in an isolated rural area assumes the identity of Mother of the River from another woman, virtually immortal, who has grown dissatisfied herself with the role. The transitions between these stories could not be more readily apparent and clearly administered. What the implication of their association is cannot be so easily assessed. As is remarked by the friend in the second story: ‘There’s a connection and yet none at all.’”

You can read the entire essay by clicking hereor click on the image above to see the trailer.

Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

Stewart O’Nan’s novel covering the last years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life is the real deal.

This was recommended to me by the writer Timothy Schaffert, who, knowing of my own work on Fitzgerald many years ago, thought I would find it interesting. And he’s absolutely right. Most Hollywood fictionalized bios ring rather false, given the fact that the era of classic Hollywood is now so long ago and far away, and the tendency to sentimentalize, or over sensationalize Fitzgerald’s last truly harrowing years, from 1937 to 1940, when he batted around Hollywood in a number of jobs, starting at MGM but eventually sliding down the ladder to near oblivion before his premature death from a heart attack in 1940, seems almost irresistible to most writers.

But here, O’Nan brings the story of Fitzgerald’s last days to life, when he struggled to stay sober in the face of crippling alcoholism – not always with success -and managed to alienate almost everyone around him when he fell off the wagon. Agents deserted him, his powers were declining, and he never really understood the way the Hollywood game was played. O’Nan captures all of it, in a book of such page turning intensity that I sat down and read it straight through in a matter of hours. As the end of the narrative nears, the velocity picks up with truly cataclysmic intensity, and one feels that one gets a new, and appropriately sympathetic vision of Fitzgerald, an artist who waged war against his own self-destructive impulses and lost the battle.

There may be one too many star cameos here and there, and Humphrey Bogart looms larger in the book than he did in Fitzgerald’s real life, but others, such as Hunt Stromberg, Robert Benchley, Alan Campbell, Dorothy Parker, and of course, Sheilah Graham, the great love of his later life, a gossip columnist who seemed to understand Fitzgerald better than anyone else during his tenure in Tinseltown, and in whose apartment he died on December 21, 1940, are real and tangible presences. Not for the faint of heart, this is a novel about irrecoverable loss and isolation – the promise of youth and the collapse of overnight fame – and most importantly, about the Hollywood studio system, which never understood artists – then or now. O’Nan’s book is a stunning achievement, in which Fitzgerald appears as a fully rounded person, with all of his flaws and charm intact.

All in all, an amazing accomplishment.

UNL’s Richard Graham to Judge Eisner Awards

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

UNL’s Richard Graham has been tapped to serve as a judge on the prestigious Eisner Awards.

As the University of Nebraska, Lincoln’s UNL Today news blog notes, “Richard Graham, associate professor and media librarian for the University Libraries, has been named one of six judges for the 2015 Eisner Awards. The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, known as Eisner Awards, is perceived as the ‘Oscars’ of the comics industry. Named for acclaimed comics creator Will Eisner, the awards honor creative achievement in American comic books.

Graham, who is also managing editor of SANE Journal (Sequential Art Narratives in Education), an academic electronic journal dedicated to using comic books in the classroom, will review materials in 25 categories and travel to San Diego in April to meet with the other judges to finalize the nominations.

The results in all categories will be announced during a gala awards ceremony at Comic-Con International: San Diego on July 10. In 2012 Graham was nominated for an Eisner Award for editing Government Issue: Comics for the People, a collection of comics produced for the United States federal and state government agencies.”

Congratulations, Richard, on this signal honor!

Patton Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend – An Absolutely Brilliant Book

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Patton Oswalt’s new memoir about four years of incessant movie watching is an amazing book.

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from An Addiction to Film is one of the most astonishingly erudite, unpretentious, and accessible volumes on the history and lure of the cinema ever written. It reminds me very much of Geoffrey O’Brien’s equally brilliant, and equally whacked-out book The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century, which traced the history of movies from the beginning to the end of the “film” era, before the advent of digital cinema. But Oswalt’s book really has two tracks; his manic devotion to films being screened at The New Beverly Theater (in particular), a rep house in Los Angeles which up until recently ran some of the most adventurous programming around – sort of like The Thalia in the New York in the 1980s – and his struggle to establish own career as a writer, stand up comedian, and actor.

Essentially a memoir of four years of binge movie watching, running the gamut from everything from Mr. Sardonicus to The Garden of the Finzi Continis with every imaginable stop in-between, from Spaghetti westerns to Hammer horror to Billy Wilder’s early films to Jean Cocteau’s luminous masterpiece Beauty and The Beast, Oswalt uses his manic consumption of images in the service of a larger consideration of what the true nature of cinephilia is, how it can become a religion, how most people have no idea what intense labor making a film is, and how they also don’t particularly like to pull films apart analytically, because it spoils the illusory nature of the spectacle they’ve just witnessed.

Along the way, there are considerations of Vincent Van Gogh, the craft of comedy and how it pays to hang around with people who are smarter than you are – all through your life – so you can pick up some real response to your material, as well an almost elegiac sense of time past and irrecoverable, along with the experience of watching a film in a theater, when now it’s so much easier -as this blog as pointed out time and time again – to watch them at home.

I’ve only recently come to know Oswalt’s work as a comedian, as in his recent stand up routine “Selling Out,” in which he describes playing a gig at a casino for an obscene amount of money during which he doesn’t even have to tell a single joke to earn his paycheck – all the audience wants to do is yell “King of Queens!” and “Ratatouille!” at him in a drunken stupor – King of Queens being a blue collar sitcom that Oswalt co-starred in for nine years, which simultaneously made him a small fortune, and also established his mainstream career.

But he’s really doing most of his interesting work on the margins, as all artists do, and his standup material is both dangerous and sharply observed – like the best of Louis C.K. – and Oswalt’s skills as a writer are formidable, a sort of gonzo endless riffing that simply won’t shut up, reeling off factoid after factoid, one film after another, in an endless genre mashup that eventually pushes him over the edge and back into the light, and out of the darkness of the movie theater, having learned what he needed to know from the movies before getting on with his life.

In the first pages of Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt tells the reader that she or he doesn’t “have to follow me into the darkness” of the movie theater, but by the end, having come off a four-year run of nonstop film viewing, he reiterates the opening with a slight variation: “listen – you don’t have to follow me into the sunshine. Is this your first time seeing Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole? By all means sit and see ‘em. They’re great. I envy your getting to watch them with new eyes. But take what you need from them  and get out of the dark once in a while. You’re going to have more of the dark than you can handle, sooner than you think. The thing about the dark is, it can never get enough of you.”

So in the end it’s a cautionary tale, just like O’Brien’s brilliant book, in which binge viewing films provides “minimal proof that you’re still alive.” And yet the dazzling brilliance of classic cinema – both high and low art, as if such distinctions really exist -  comes through in the pages of this volume full force, a world which seems to be vanishing into the realms of streaming and isolated viewing, and the cinematic community along with it.

I never expected someone like Oswalt to come along and write a book like this – it’s smart, assured, and as he would probably say, “it absolutely kills.” It jumps off the page, and I read it straight through in one sitting, and then bought some copies for friends. For people in their 20s, this would be a great place to start seriously thinking about films. It’s also the document of a personal voyage that’s both harrowing and illuminating. By the way, the front cover is a still from The Colossus of New York – another really odd, really fascinating piece of work – so this volume is full of surprises from beginning to end.

Patton Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from An Addiction to Film - check it out!

The Essential Raymond Durgnat

Saturday, January 10th, 2015

Raymond Durgnat was one the founders of modern film criticism, always cutting against the prevailing grain.

Marginalized by many during his lifetime, Durgnat is finally getting some measure of the respect he so richly deserves. I remember giving a lecture a few years back on the dominance of structuralist and semioticist film criticism, and being surprised when a member of the audience in the back of the room raised his hand during the Q&A that followed to invoke Durgnat’s name, as one of the “forgotten” or deliberately neglected voices of contemporary film criticism, and wondering when and if he would ever be reclaimed by academe. Needless to say, I welcomed this question, and agreed that Durgnat’s contribution had been considerable, but also noted that he had been thrown out of favor by the French school of film “systematizing” criticism in the 1970s and 80s, and that as with all such shifts in public reception, Durgnat’s work was now obviously no longer in public view. I added that I hoped this matter would soon be rectified. Since Durgnat died in 2002, obviously, this work had to be done by others.

Thus, I was very pleased to read that Henry K. Miller has collected a vast trove of Durgnat’s writings and collected them in one volume from Palgrave Macmillan, appropriately entitled The Essential Raymond Durgnat. As the book’s publicity materials note, “Raymond Durgnat was a maverick voice during the golden age of film criticism. From the French new Wave and the rise of Auteurism, through the late 1960s counter-culture to the rejuvenated Hollywood of the 1970s, his work appeared in dozens of publications in Britain, France and the USA. At once evoking the film culture of his own times and anticipating our digital age, in which technology allows everyone to create their own ‘moving image-text combos’, Durgnat’s writings touch on crucial questions in film criticism that resonate more than ever today. Bringing together Durgnat’s essential writing for the very first time, this career-spanning collection includes previously unpublished and untranslated work and is thoroughly introduced and annotated . . .”

As Durgnat himself said of his approach to cinema in a 1977 interview, aptly entitled “Culture Always is A Fog,” “I’m an analogic thinker, not a digital one. Or rather I don’t think much in either-slash-or terms — digital ones, binary oppositions. Especially as having MBD (Minimal Brain Dysfunction), I have things like perseveration and word-substitution and reverse most numbers. And right and left. It’s hereditary, probably. At least there’s a history of left-handed mirror-writers and stammerers in the family. My brother as a child couldn’t even see the difference between his mirror-writing and regular writing. Maybe I’m dyslexic, but not for reading. Strange, eh? Maybe difficulties can make one over-compensate. Be doubly careful. It is a coordination affair, because I’ve got fast motor reflexes. In intellectual work I really think in two stages. Right brain dominance, which makes all sorts of approximate comparisons — that’s the analogic half — then a fairly separate phase of very light order with no affect. First I’m intuitive, muddled, fertile, and all my opinions are easily reversible. Then I reason. I learned math with difficulty because they never explained the principles, which I needed to analogize from.”

Wikipedia also offers this brief but accurate summary of Durgnat’s career and eventual eclipse, writing that “in the 1950s, he had written for Sight and Sound, but he later fell out with this British Film Institute publication after the exit of Gavin Lambert in 1957, often accusing it of elitism, puritanism and upper-middle-class snobbery . . . he did, however, return to write for another BFI publication, the Monthly Film Bulletin, in the years before its merger with Sight and Sound in 1991, and contributed to that publication again later in the 1990s.In the mid-’60s he was a major player in the nascent London Film-Makers’ Co-op, then based at Better Books off Charing Cross Road, a hub of the emerging British ‘underground.’ As the counter-culture turned left and, simultaneously, sought state funding for its activities, Durgnat looked to the past in major works on film style (Images of the Mind, 1968-9), Hitchcock and Renoir.

In the late 1970s he taught film at the University of California, San Diego alongside Manny Farber, Jean-Pierre Gorin and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Returning to the UK at the close of the decade, he launched a series of withering assaults on the linguistics-based film theory that had come to dominate the young film academia over the previous decade. Durgnat’s socio-political approach — strongly supportive of the working classes and, almost as a direct result of this, American popular culture, and dismissive of Left-wing intellectuals whom he accused of actually being petit-bourgeois conservatives in disguise, and dismissive of overt politicisation of film criticism, refusing to bring his own Left-wing views overtly into his writings on film — can best be described as ‘radical populist.’”

So this collection of Durgnat’s essential writing is a cause for celebration, and brings to the contemporary reader some sense of an alternative voice in film criticism that has been unjustly lost over time – the book received a rave review in the latest issue of Film Comment, with which I am happy to concur. You may not agree with him, but Durgnat’s urgent critical voice, always somehow instinctively at loggerheads with whatever the prevailing orthodoxy of the era was, is an essential element of modern film theory, one that I hope is coming back into vogue, based as it is on the humanist structures and concerns of the cinema, and not entirely dependent upon their formal characteristics.

See more about this excellent collection by clicking here.

About the Author

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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