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Éric Rohmer: A Biography by Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe

Friday, April 1st, 2016

I’ve been reading an advance copy of Éric Rohmer: A Biography, and it’s an absolutely brilliant book.

As the Columbia University Press website notes, “the director of twenty-five films, including My Night at Maud’s (1969), which was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and the editor in chief of Cahiers du cinéma from 1957 to 1963, Éric Rohmer set the terms by which people watched, made, and thought about cinema for decades. Such brilliance does not develop in a vacuum, and Rohmer cultivated a fascinating network of friends, colleagues, and industry contacts that kept his outlook sharp and propelled his work forward. Despite his privacy, he cared deeply about politics, religion, culture, and fostering a public appreciation of the medium he loved.

This exhaustive biography uses personal archives and interviews to enrich our knowledge of Rohmer’s public achievements and lesser known interests and relations. The filmmaker kept in close communication with his contemporaries and competitors: François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette. He held a paradoxical fascination with royalist politics, the fate of the environment, Catholicism, classical music, and the French nightclub scene, and his films were regularly featured at New York and Los Angeles film festivals. Despite an austere approach to life, Rohmer had a voracious appetite for art, culture, and intellectual debate captured vividly in this definitive volume.”

To that, I can only add that this is the book on Rohmer’s life and work, superbly translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal. Both of the volume’s authors are eminently qualified for the project: Antoine de Baecque is a professor of the history of cinema at the University of Nanterre, and has published biographies of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, in addition to serving for a number of years as editor in chief of Cahiers du cinema, while Noël Herpe is a senior lecturer at the Université de Paris VIII, and has published works on René Clair and Sacha Guitry, as well as a book of interviews with Éric Rohmer about his text Le Celluloïd et le Marbre.

With many behind the scenes photographs, selections from correspondence, detailed financial accountings of production circumstances, and offering a sympathetic yet clear-eyed portrayal of Rohmer as alternatively imperious and yet by turns extraordinarily generous to neophyte filmmakers, Éric Rohmer: A Biography is a feast of a book. I have been returning repeatedly to the volume in the past few days, marveling at the detail and precision of the text, which in many ways mirrors the precise yet romantic tone of Rohmer’s films themselves. Now, if only all of Rohmer’s works would come out in a complete DVD box set, we’d have a much fuller sense of this extraordinary artist’s legacy.

Éric Rohmer: A Biography will be released in June 2016 – you should order an advance copy now.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on Suspiria (1976)

Saturday, March 26th, 2016

Here’s an interesting new book on Dario Argento’s classic horror film, Suspiria.

Part of the relatively new series of short monographs on individual horror films, Devil’s Advocates, published by Auteur Press in the UK and distributed in the US by Columbia University Press, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas‘ take on Suspiria is at once original and deeply subversive, for as the notes for the volume argue, “as one of the most globally recognizable instances of 20th century Eurohorror, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1976) is poetic, chaotic, and intriguing. The cult reputation of Argento’s baroque nightmare is reflected in the critical praise it continues to receive almost 40 years after its original release, and it appears regularly on lists of the greatest horror films ever.

For fans and critics alike, Suspiria is as mesmerizing as it is impenetrable: the impact of Argento’s notorious disinterest in matters of plot and characterization combines with Suspiria’s aggressive stylistic hyperactivity to render it a movie that needs to be experienced through the body as much as through emotion or the intellect. For its many fans, Suspiria is synonymous with European horror more broadly, and Argento himself is by far the most famous of all the Italian horror directors.

If there was any doubt of his status as one of the great horror auteurs, Argento’s international reputation was solidified well beyond the realms of cult fandom in the 1990s with retrospectives at both the American Museum of the Moving Image and the British Film Institute. This book considers the complex ways that Argento weaves together light, sound and cinema history to construct one of the most breathtaking horror movies of all time, a film as fascinating as it is ultimately unfathomable.”

This is a really sharp book, and an excellent series, which seems to take its inspiration from the long-beloved BFI series on individual film classics, but concentrating on one genre – the horror film – alone. Volumes in the series thus far include studies of the classic British horror film Dead of Night (1945 – and a particular favorite of mine), Nosferatu, The Curse of Frankenstein, John Carpenter’s version of The Thing and many others – there are so many potential candidates for examination that this series seems to be just beginning.

I’d love to see a volume on Terence Fisher’s Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula), or Roger Corman’s version of The Pit and The Pendulum, right off the top of my head, and the writers are all clearly enthusiastic about their work, so I’m sure we’ll see books on these key films shortly. Brief, compact, and authoritative, these are the volumes to beat on these classic genre films, and augur well for the continuation of the series, which seems to have really filled a niche. In any event, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ book on Suspiria is a good place to start – and then you can go on from there.

This is an intriguing group of short volumes – well worth exploring.

Batman v Superman: Diminishing Returns

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

After two years of post-production, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice finally his theaters today.

As I wrote back in June 26, 2015 of Zack Snyder’s latest film,”in the mid 1940s, Universal was coming off a two decade wave of horror movies, such as Frankenstein and Dracula (both 1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Wolf Man (1941), but at length, audiences were bored with just one monster, and demanded something to amp up the franchise. Thus, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943) was born, the first of the Universal monster ‘team ups,’ but in short order, the entire franchise collapsed as Universal combined nearly all their famed horror icons in two ‘monster rally’ entries, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in cheap, hastily staged films that did little more than revive the monsters only to destroy them.

With these final two films in the initial series, it seemed that the franchise was exhausted, and the next Universal horror entry wasn’t a horror entry at all; it was the parody Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). It wasn’t until Hammer films re-energized these classic characters in such films as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) that the franchise once again took on new life.

It seems to me that we’re now at a similar point with the DC Universe; the Superman series seems a bit played out, as the character seems a bit too straight arrow to relate to 21st century audiences; and Christopher Nolan has run the Batman series into the ground, as did Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher before him, so that both characters seem, for the moment, played out for the contemporary viewer.

What to do? Why, just put them both in one film, as a a sort of WWF smackdown, recalling the first Universal team up, Frankenstein Meets (or more accurately, ‘battles’) The Wolf Man. And so now we have Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Zack ‘300′ Snyder on a $200 million dollar budget, which wrapped filming in December 2014, and is now going through an apparently intensive post-production process, and won’t be released – at latest word – until March 25, 2016. What the final cost will be, who knows? Will it ‘blow up’ like Jurassic World, and make a fortune? DC certainly hopes so.

It seems worth noting to me that Marvel has been much more successful at these ‘ensemble’ films lately, but then they have a much larger cast of characters to work with. And when one character gets tired, they just sideline her or him for a while, and go for an Avengers team-up, and everyone seems happy as the dollars roll in, and then Marvel eventually gets around to rebooting whatever needs to be jump started next, as the cycle continues with Sisyphian relentlessness.

But DC, I think, doesn’t have the same depth in its playing field, and so this team-up has, at least for me, the inescapable whiff of ‘last chance at the genre corral,’ when you take your two most influential characters and put them into a face-off. After this, what can you do; repeat the same thing all over again, perhaps throwing in The Green Lantern for some added traction?

It seems sad to me that this is one of the most hotly anticipated tickets of next year – because the whole thing seems so formulaic and predestined, but there it is. On yes, and Wonder Woman, in the person of Gal Godot, will also swing by to get in on the action, so this in many ways might be closer to the ‘monster rally’ films than the first Universal team-up film.”

All of the above was written long before the film was released; it actually finished principal photography in 2014, and has spent close to two years in post-production, which is never a good sign. Now everyone can see the film for themselves – it is, after all, rated PG-13, with an R rated “director’s cut,” one half hour longer, forthcoming on DVD in the coming months.

That said, it looks like most of what I predicted way back nearly a year ago has come true, and it seems that the film is more of a miss than a hit with fans and critics alike, though the ticket presales have been spectacular. But with audiences able to text “instant reviews” during the film as to whether or not they approve, who knows what will happen? Batman v Superman wound up costing north of $250 million, and will need to clear at least $800,000 to a billion dollars at the box office just to break even. That’s a lot of money.

Yet as Michael Roffman noted in a perceptive review of the film published on the website Consequence of Sound, Batman v Superman represents – perhaps – both the beginning of the end for comic book movies, which may have finally reached an audience saturation point, as well as a failure of the imagination. Notes Roffman, “the adrenaline and the excitement of a superhero film has taken back seat to morbid curiosity and blind acceptance.

To paraphrase the late Hunter S. Thompson, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice offers us an ideal vantage point to look at the near past, where with the right kind of eyes we can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. Some might say that was 2012’s The Avengers; others might argue it was 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Whatever the case, we’re coasting into a no-wake zone right now, and it’s getting harder to keep the signal on and tiring to glue our eyes toward the sky.”

Or as A.O. Scott put it more bluntly in a review in The New York Times, “the point of Batman v Superman isn’t fun, and it isn’t thinking, either. It’s obedience. The theology is invoked not to elicit meditations on mercy, justice or sacrifice, but to buttress a spectacle of power. And in that way the film serves as a metaphor for its own aspirations. The corporations that produce movies like this one, and the ambitious hacks who sign up to make them, have no evident motive beyond their own aggrandizement. Entertainment is less the goal than the byproduct, and as the commercial reach of superpower franchises grows, their creative exhaustion becomes ever more apparent.”

Which seems about right to me – it’s time to move on to something new.

“Consuming the Apocalypse, Marketing Bunker Materiality” by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Thursday, March 17th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has published a new article in Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

Foster’s article, “Consuming the Apocalypse, Marketing Bunker Materiality” has just appeared in the latest issue of Quarterly Review of Film and Video (March 17, 2016), in which she argues that “there are two parallel social movements that may, at first glance, seem unrelated, but are in fact closely intertwined; the rapid increase in economic inequity in contemporary society (as evidenced in the enormously wide gap between the wealthy and the poor) on the one hand, and the current apocalyptic cultural mindset (associated with paranoia, prepping, the rise of the gated community, the return of the underground bunker, and a massive uptick in gun sales) as celebrated in myriad apocalyptically-themed films and television programs, programs I define as apocotainment.

The upwardly mobile class and preppers have more in common than one might think, and in some ways the two groups have even merged; what brings these two identities together is a decided lack of empathy for others and a sense of free-floating paranoia, centering on a crisis in masculinity, whiteness, and a fascination with Doomsday scenarios.”

Needless to say, this is a very timely essay, and expands on Foster’s work in her 2014 book Hoarders, Doomsday Preppers and the Culture of Apocalypse, which explores the current American, and indeed worldwide fascination with an ever expanding universe of Doomsday scenarios. The current vogue for “end of the world” or “end of civilization” narratives has taken hold of practically every area of the public consciousness, and Foster’s article examines the ways in which this cultural trend has moved to the center of contemporary public discourse.

Here’s a link to the article; fascinating reading in every respect.

The Trip: Andy Warhol’s Plastic Fantastic Cross-Country Adventure

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016

Here’s a remarkable book by Deborah Davis that somehow didn’t get the attention it deserved.

Published in late 2015, Deborah Davis’ account of Warhol’s cross-country drive with some Factory regulars to an early gallery show of the artist’s work slipped past my radar, but it’s a fascinating and meticulously researched account of Warhol’s coast-to-coast odyssey, and sheds new light on his evolution as an artist, who started out at the extreme margins of “pop” and ultimately became the defining visual stylist of the second half of the 20th century.

As the website for the book notes, “in 1963, up-and-coming artist Andy Warhol took a road trip across America. What began as a madcap, drug-fueled romp became a journey that took Warhol on a kaleidoscopic adventure from New York City, across the vast American heartland, all the way to Hollywood and back.

With locations ranging from a Texas panhandle truck stop to a Beverly Hills mansion, from the beaches of Santa Monica to a Photomat booth in Albuquerque, The Trip captures Warhol’s interactions with Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Marcel Duchamp, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra. Along the way he also met rednecks, beach bums, underground filmmakers, artists, poets, socialites, and newly minted hippies, and they each left an indelible mark on his psyche.

In The Trip, Andy Warhol’s speeding Ford Falcon is our time machine, transporting us from the last vestiges of the sleepy Eisenhower epoch to the true beginning of the explosive, exciting ’60s. Through in-depth, original research, Deborah Davis sheds new light on one of the most enduring figures in the art world and captures a fascinating moment in 1960s America—with Warhol at its center.”

Really well worth reading – a penetrating snapshot of Warhol “on the road.”

New Book: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s Disruptive Feminisms

Monday, February 8th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s newest book has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s new book, Disruptive Feminisms: Raced, Gendered, and Classed Bodies in Film, published in January 2016 from Palgrave Macmillan, is a really groundbreaking book in every respect. As the publisher’s comments on the book note, “Amy Schumer and Betty White use subversive feminist wit to expose sexism and ageism in film and TV. This is but one example of ‘disruptive feminism’ discussed in this groundbreaking book. Disruptive Feminisms: Raced, Gendered, and Classed Bodies offers a revolutionary approach to feminism as a disruptive force.

By examining texts that do not necessarily announce themselves as ‘feminist,’ or ‘Marxist,’ Foster brings a unique critical perspective to a wide variety of films, from the classical Hollywood films of Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino, to the subversive global films of Carlos Reygadas, Claire Denis, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Buñuel, Paul Thomas Anderson, and many others. In highlighting these filmmaker’s abilities to openly challenge everything from class privilege and colonial racism, to sexism, ageism, homophobia and the pathologies of white privilege, Disruptive Feminisms fills a fresh and much-needed critical perspective, that which Foster dubs disruptive feminism’.”

As Foster herself writes of the book, “In my research, I’ve found that ‘disruptive feminism’ often lurks in unlikely and unexpected places – from the dry feminist humor of Amy Schumer, Betty White, Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, and Luis Buñuel, to the more serious and contemplative postcolonial films of Carlos Reygadas and Claire Denis. Filmmakers who are not so obviously read as ‘feminist’ or ‘marxist’ seem to find their way onto my radar. My scope is wide; I include work from classical Hollywood, early television, and global filmmakers. I  highlight the ways that film and media can disrupt, challenge, and potentially overturn ‘norms’ of race, gender, age, sexuality, and class. Indeed, I hope this book disrupts feminism itself, because it can always use some shaking up.”

Here are some recent reviews:

“I think the book is superior in many ways, just simply a jewel. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s peculiar and enchanting magic is to blend keen socio-critical attention with an unyielding poetic sensitivity to the world of hints, provocations, resonances, and allusions. Through the films examined here, and through Foster’s eyes, gender, class, and race fly beyond rhetoric and come alive.” – Murray Pomerance, Ryerson University, author of The Eyes Have It: Cinema and The Reality Effect

“This book passionately advocates a cinema that challenges injustice and oppression across the globe by disrupting ‘normative values’ and ‘received notions’ of race and class as well as gender. Not least of the book’s strengths is its illumination of culturally and aesthetically diverse works ranging from Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux (2012) and Claire Denis’ No Fear, No Die (1990) to Betty White’s television programs of the 1950s.” – Ira Jaffe, Professor Emeritus, University of New Mexico and author of Slow Movies: Countering the Cinema of Action.

“Written with a strong sense of personality, and even stronger and laudable political commitments, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s Disruptive Feminisms extends her ongoing endeavor to provide meaningful critiques of film and film culture.  This thoughtful book demonstrates how a number of films, from around the world and from different genres, disrupt the status quo through a feminist and postcolonial analysis.” – Daniel Herbert, author of Videoland: Movie Culture at the American Video Store

“An excellent volume – Foster establishes at the outset that she writes as a global cultural feminist. By shrewdly focusing on specific films (and TV shows and star personas) that ‘disrupt, challenge, and overturn the norms of race, gender, age, sexuality, and class,’ this volume provides a much-needed alternative to the approaches that dominate the field today, although Foster uses those methodologies judiciously in her treatment of cinema as a political art form. Clear, well written, and without jargon, Disruptive Feminisms could easily be a valuable textbook, not just a volume for film scholars. Brava!” – Frank P. Tomasulo, Visiting Professor of Film Studies, Pace University.

Check it out by clicking here, or on the image above.

Recommended Book: Women, Art and the New Deal

Sunday, January 17th, 2016

Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene have published an excellent, and much needed new book.

As the book’s description notes, “in 1935, the United States Congress began employing large numbers of American artists through the Works Progress Administration—fiction writers, photographers, poster artists, dramatists, painters, sculptors, muralists, wood carvers, composers and choreographers, as well as journalists, historians and researchers. Secretary of Commerce and supervisor of the WPA Harry Hopkins hailed it a ‘renascence of the arts, if we can call it a rebirth when it has no precedent in our history.’

Women were prominently involved, creating a wide variety of art and craft, interweaving their own stories with those of other women whose lives might not otherwise have received attention. This book surveys the thousands of women artists who worked for the U.S. government, the historical and social worlds they described and the collaborative depiction of womanhood they created at a pivotal moment in American history.”

I have a personal connection to this, as my late aunt, Nina Barr Wheeler, aka Nina Blake, was part of the WPA during the 1930s, and as a starving New York City artist was bussed out to the Midwest along with a group of other young women to assist the muralist Hildreth Meiere in creating murals for the Nebraska State Capitol Building, and told me about her experiences in detail – for her, as for many others, the WPA program was a life saver.

This is a fascinating book, richly illustrated with photographs of the paintings, sculptures and other works created by women during this era, as part of a progressive government program that valued the arts as an essential part of the fabric of society, and shines a light on an area of 20th century art that is too often ignored. It’s a first class piece of historical, cultural, and critical work, written in a lively, accessible style designed for both academics and the lay reader – it would make a great course text for a semester long examination of women in the arts in the 1930s and 40s.

Highest possible recommendation – don’t miss this landmark volume!

Listen to Piero Heliczer Read His Poems

Saturday, January 16th, 2016

Listen to Piero Heliczer read his poems; London, 1960, by clicking here, or on the image above.

Twenty British Films – A Guided Tour by Brian McFarlane

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

British film specialist Brian McFarlane has an excellent new book on British cinema, old and new.

Here’s a remarkable new book from the seemingly indefatigable Brian McFarlane, Honorary Associate Professor, School of English, Communication and Performance Studies, Monash University, Melbourne, and Visiting Professor, Film Studies, University of Hull.

In choosing twenty films, many of them classics of their kind – think of Brief Encounter, The Third Man, Genevieve – as well as some less well-known titles, Brian McFarlane communicates his enthusiasm for the sheer range of British cinema as well as a keenly critical interest in what has made these films stay in the mind often after many decades and many viewings.

The book ends in the present day with titles such as Last Orders and In the Loop and it is intended to provoke discussion as much as recollection. Though it is rigorous in conducting its “guided tour” of these films, it does so in ways that make it accessible to anyone with a passion for cinema.

“Brian McFarlane is one of the best friends British cinema has ever had. An Autobiography of British Cinema, an assembly of his enthusiastic interviews with British filmmakers, is valuable, informative and enjoyable. An Encylopedia of British Film is indispensible and without equal.

Now, in Twenty British Films: A Guided Tour, a highly personal but carefully argued choice of ‘twenty films to cherish,’ McFarlane takes us into the heart of a lifelong obsession that became an academic pursuit without losing any of its passion.” — Philip French

You don’t have to be a specialist to enjoy this tour.

Frame by Frame Video: Film Noir

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

Here’s a brief Frame by Frame video, directed by Curt Bright, in which I discuss Film Noir.

The scene above is from Jacques Tourneur’s noir classic Out of the Past (1947), and in this video I briefly discuss some of the more dominant characteristics of noir, in a video which was produced roughly at the same time my book Film Noir and The Cinema of Paranoia came out. Oddly enough, I never blogged directly on this video, and it’s too good to pass up, so here it is.

When Choice: The Library Journal reviewed Film Noir and The Cinema of Paranoia, they noted that “Dixon seeks to broaden the scope and definition of film noir by focusing on its most dominant motif–paranoia. Concentrating on that impulse, and also on fear and violence, the author demonstrates that these all-encompassing aspects of film noir are found not only in gangster/detective films of the 1940s but also in such genres as science fiction and horror.

Beginning with the pre-Code era, Dixon guides the reader through a comprehensive overview of the evolution of film noir to its present form, along the way presenting an enlightening examination of American and British society and politics and revealing the role film noir has played during certain periods.

[Dixon] demonstrates how film noir serves to contradict the false “feel good” images mediated to the public through movies and television programming. [Dixon]’s observations illustrate how paranoia, as constructed through the lens of film noir, proves more relevant than ever in lieu of the veil of fear that envelops every aspect of post-9/11 life.”

And that’s still true today – noir tells us how things really are.

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.

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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