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Hyperallergic: Gordon Parks’ Long-Forgotten Color Photographs

Monday, January 16th, 2017

Gordon Parks was a master photographer – and some of his best work has been hidden – until now.

As Chris Cobb writes moving in the journal Hyperallergic, “when Life magazine sent Gordon Parks to document the daily lives of three black families living in Alabama, it was 1956, during the Montgomery bus boycott. He knew he could have gotten beaten or killed — but he went there anyway.

He was in Alabama shortly after Rosa Parks became world famous for not giving up her seat to a white man and around the same time the Klu Klux Klan had mobilized to defend segregation. In other words, Parks’s assignment was to become a fly on the wall during one of the most turbulent times in American history. While there, he witnessed, among other things, the emergence of a young leader named Martin Luther King Jr., then known as the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association.

But Parks was not there to photograph King; he was always in the foreground. On the contrary, Life wanted Parks to reveal what had always been in the background — ordinary black families — and show the magazine’s readers how they really lived. The project was to be a counterpoint to misinformation spread by segregationists who claimed that a racially separated, caste-based society was good for everyone.

So Parks followed various people around, going to the store, to the mall, to playgrounds, and to school; he hung out at their ramshackle homes, most of which looked like they were straight out of the 19th century, which they probably were, and took pictures everywhere he went.

In the end, Life published just 26 of those photographs — all shot on color slide film — and then the rest were put away in a small box and forgotten. Since that time, nobody has seen them — not until they were rediscovered in 2012 by archivists at the Gordon Parks Foundation. The gorgeous, large prints now on view at Salon 94 are a selection of those images, and like a candle in a dark room they illuminate that long-forgotten history.

Significantly, most images of the Civil Rights era are in black and white, shot mostly by photojournalists. Parks, however, was no ordinary photographer — he was an artist who happened to also be a photographer and as these pictures show, he frequently deviated from his journalistic impulses to capture what can only be considered great art.

The central photograph in the show is unmistakably brilliant and, I’d say, somewhat of a modern masterpiece. ‘Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-shopping, Mobile, Alabama, 1956′ surpasses the documentary tradition Parks excelled at, transforming everything in his viewfinder into charged symbolic space.

To get this image Parks placed himself on the other side of a big glass display case that was full of white-skinned mannequins and framed a woman and her grandchild in such a way that it seems as if the little girl were being guided through a forest of white, soulless zombies. You get the sense the woman and girl must tread lightly and be careful — lest they awaken these dangerous figures.

The sweetness of the gesture and the vibrant image shot in radiant color evoke both warmth and danger at the same time. More striking yet is the almost invisible reflection of the photographer in the window. It is not a didactic image; it is composed more like a Botticelli painting or a mannerist allegory.

About this photograph, Parks Foundation official Peter W. Kunhardt Jr. said, ‘So this is Ondria Tanner and her granddaughter looking into a white clothing store and sort of the life she doesn’t have … and you know Gordon really didn’t stage these pictures. He would follow them around and just observe what they were doing.’”

I was lucky enough to meet and talk with Gordon Parks in 1969, when he was moving from still photography into motion picture direction with The Learning Tree (1969), a truly pioneering film about civil rights which Parks wrote and directed. To my mind, at least, it is a forgotten American masterpiece, even though the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

But it still needs to be seen more often, as does his still photography work, which made his initial reputation as an artist of the first rank. I was working as a writer at Life at the time, for a new magazine that never came about – Life Movie – and Gordon Parks walked into my office one day, and we sat down and talked for awhile. He was kind, generous, and really excited about making the shift to motion pictures – and he pulled it off magisterially.

That there is so much of his work still to discover is a real gift in 2017.

New Book: A Brief History of Comic Book Movies

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

New Book: A Brief History of Comic Book Movies

Wheeler Winston Dixon and Richard Graham have published a new book, A Brief History of Comic Book Movies (Palgrave Macmillan). 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.

Organized in rough chronological order, the book’s five chapters cover Origins, The DC Universe, The Marvel Universe, Animé Films, and Indies and Outliers, examining not only Hollywood films, but European, Asian, and French animated films as well. Literally hundreds of films, directors, and comic book characters are examined in the book, making this a one-stop source for information on this emerging genre.

Cynthia J. Miller calls the volume “engaging and very accessible…its value to readers will continue even as many more films enter into production and distribution,” while David Sterritt adds that “this history of an under-studied field is original, enlightening, and exemplary. I recommend it highly.”

The book is available right now as an e-book or pdf, and will be published in hardcover on February 5, 2017. It’s a solid, comprehensive overview of this new and emerging genre, so check it out if you can. Whether you like it or not, comic book movies rule the world right now, and yet they emerged from the margins of mainstream cinema – read all about it here.

My thanks to Richard Graham for his unstinting help and expertise in this project.

Hands Down – The Most Important Film Book of 2016

Friday, December 30th, 2016

Along with Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph, this is one of the essential film books of 2016.

Robert Bresson is one of the most mysterious, and yet the most accessible of filmmakers – much like his compatriots Yasujirō Ozu and Carl Th. Dreyer (forming writer / director Paul Schrader’s holy trinity of cinema). His classic, epigrammatic text Notes on the Cinematograph, first published in English in 1975 in an edition entitled Notes on Cinematography translated by Jonathan Griffin, has been out of print since its initial publication. I came across the first hardcover edition in a remainder pile at Brentano’s in New York in the early 1980s, going for $2 a copy. I bought five copies on the spot, and it remains on my shelf as one of the key books by any filmmaker on their work, stripped down to the essentials.

Now, New York Review Books has republished Notes on the Cinematograph in a new translation, back in print in a real edition – a very cheaply bound one circulated for a time a few years back – but just as importantly, they’ve gathered together interviews with the director on all of his films from 1943 to 1983, the year of his last film, L’Argent, along with a few supplementary texts written by those who worked with him, and with a selection of exceedingly rare production stills, in an essential text entitled simply Bresson on Bresson – Interviews, 1943–1983.

The result is mesmerizing; Bresson is absolutely modest, serious, and above all patient – my first takeaway from the volume was how extremely tolerant he was of the various interviewers who interrogated him over the years, asking the same questions again and again – how he used actors (or “models,” he called them), how he used as little music as possible, how his camera lingered on an empty space long after the actors had departed. Yet Bresson managed to turn even the most banal questions to his advantage, never passing up an opportunity to offer some fresh thoughts on his work.

Bresson on Bresson – Interviews, 1943–1983, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis, edited by Mylène Bresson, with a preface by Pascal Mérigeau, offers an series of penetrating insights into the director’s work, and serves as a useful model for filmmakers today, in an era where spectacle and special effects have replaced, for the most part, thoughtful cinema.

As the NYRB notes,”Robert Bresson, the director of such cinematic master-pieces as Pickpocket, A Man Escaped, Mouchette, and L’Argent, was one of the most influential directors in the history of French film, as well as one of the most stubbornly individual: He insisted on the use of nonprofessional actors; he shunned the ‘advances’ of Cinerama and CinemaScope (and the work of most of his predecessors and peers); and he minced no words about the damaging influence of capitalism and the studio system on the still-developing—in his view—art of film.

Bresson on Bresson collects the most significant interviews that Bresson gave (carefully editing them before they were released) over the course of his forty-year career to reveal both the internal consistency and the consistently exploratory character of his body of work. Successive chapters are dedicated to each of his fourteen films, as well as to the question of literary adaptation, the nature of the sound track, and to Bresson’s one book, the great aphoristic treatise Notes on the Cinematograph.

Throughout, his close and careful consideration of his own films and of the art of film is punctuated by such telling mantras  as ‘Sound…invented silence in cinema,’ ‘It’s the film that…gives life to the characters—not the characters that give life to the film,’ and (echoing the Bible) ‘Every idle word shall be counted.’

Bresson’s integrity and originality earned him the admiration of younger directors from Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette to Olivier Assayas. And though Bresson’s movies are marked everywhere by an air of intense deliberation, these interviews show that they were no less inspired by a near-religious belief in the value of intuition, not only that of the creator but that of the audience, which he claims to deeply respect: ‘It’s always ready to feel before it understands. And that’s how it should be.’”

Anyone even remotely interested in film should buy this volume immediately, along with the republished text of Notes on the Cinematograph, as a useful tonic to the current ultra-commercial cinematic landscape. As Alan Pavelin wrote in Senses of Cinema long ago, “Robert Bresson’s 13 features over 40 years constitute arguably the most original and brilliant body of work over a long career from a film director in the history of cinema. He is the most idiosyncratic and uncompromising of all major filmmakers.” Or as Martin Scorsese put it, “we are still coming to terms with Robert Bresson, and the peculiar power and beauty of his films.”

This is the essential film book of the year. Pick up a copy now – right now.

Carrie Fisher – Actor, Writer, Script Doctor – 1956-2016

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

Carrie Fisher has died December 27th, 2016 at the age of just 60.

As readers of this blog may know, I don’t usually do obituaries here, but the death of Carrie Fisher puts the capper on a truly awful year for the arts, with one death piling up after another to the point where it simply can’t be ignored. Fisher, for example, was much more than just an actor in the Star Wars films. In addition to Fisher’s credits as an actor and author, she was also one of Hollywood’s most sought after script doctors, working on existing screenplays and punching them up to make them just that little bit better – a tough profession, and she was very good at it.

As Wikipedia notes, she worked on the scripts for “Hook (1991), Lethal Weapon 3 and Sister Act (1992), Made in America, Last Action Hero and So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993), My Girl 2, Milk Money, The River Wild and Love Affair (1994), Outbreak (1995), The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), The Wedding Singer (1998), The Out-of-Towners and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), Coyote Ugly and Scream 3 (2000), Kate & Leopold (2001), Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005).” And yet none of these films give her any on-screen credit, and by 2004 she had moved on from script doctoring.

Carrie Fisher thus joins the long, long list of irreplaceable talents who have left us – many, like Fisher, far too soon – in 2016, including (and this is just a partial list) David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Harper Lee, George Kennedy, George Martin, Patty Duke, Lonnie Mack, Prince, Guy Hamilton, John Berry, Alan Young, Billy Paul, Burt Kwouk, Scotty Moore, Kenny Baker, Raoul Coutard, Leonard Cohen, Robert Vaughn, Leon Russell, Florence Henderson, George Michael, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Abe Vigoda, Doris Roberts, Jacques Rivette, Abbas Kiarostami, Lita Baron, Andrzej Wajda, Michael Cimino, Bill Nunn, Gene Wilder, Anton Yelchin – a terrible loss to us all.

So, this day, we take a moment to think about, and thank, all the artists who have contributed so much to the cinema and related arts – many of them crossover artists, such as Prince and David Bowie, and the great directors, like Rivette, Kiarostami and Hamilton – who are now no longer with us. But it is now for us, the living, to continue their work as best we can, and to remember and honor their work, which they gave their lives and talents to, and which will live on through the cinema and its allied disciplines, to continue to inspire, enlighten, and entertain us.

You can see the 2016 “TCM Remembers” video – an excellent tribute – by clicking here.

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.

Memories of Raoul Coutard by Lee Kline

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dixon and Foster – Sla307 Art Space Video Screening

Sunday, November 27th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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.

Dixon & Foster Video Shows in NYC November 11 & 12

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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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