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Archive for the ‘Career Retrospectives’ Category

Recent Video: Time’s Up!

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

Recently, I have been making a number of recombinant videos; click here to see Time’s Up!

I’ve been making films and videos since 1966, and my work has been screened at The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Anthology Film Archives, The Microscope Gallery, The British Film Institute, The Jewish Museum, The Millennium Film Workshop, The San Francisco Cinématheque, The New Arts Lab, The Collective for Living Cinema, The Kitchen Center for Experimental Art, The Filmmakers Cinématheque, Film Forum, The Amos Eno Gallery, Sla 307 Art Space, The Gallery of Modern Art, The Oberhausen Film Festival and at numerous universities and film societies throughout the world.

In 2003, I was honored with a retrospective of my films at The Museum of Modern Art, and my films from 1966 to 1994 were acquired for the permanent collection of the Museum, in both print and original format. However, as film became ever more expensive in the 1980s and 1990s, I turned more towards writing and critical work, but suddenly, I was drawn again to making films. Now, with the advent of digital HD video, and the ease of video distribution on Vimeo, I’m working again, creating new films, with screenings in New York this past November, 2016, and more to come in the future.

As someone who is fascinated with pop culture, many of my films use footage and soundtracks that are in the public domain, or released under a creative commons license, and are made entirely from recycled, repurposed and refashioned images and sounds. Time’s Up! is a good example of the style of video production. The other interesting point for me is that I’m reaching more viewers through Vimeo than in all my museum screenings put together; as I observed to a friend of mine who is also a video and film artist, Vimeo is now the new “cinematheque” for experimental work.

When my film Serial Metaphysics was screened at The Whitney Museum of American Art, Bruce Rubin, then Associate Curator film and video programming for the museum, wrote in part that “Dixon is a masterful film editor. His sensitivity to the movement within the frame and of the camera itself allows for a fluidity in his editing that is exuberant and refreshing. He is skillful not only in manipulating the flow of images but the flow of ideas as well.” So take a look at this brief film – which runs about two minutes in all -

and then if the mood strikes you, click here to go to my Vimeo site.

Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet (1952)

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet, based on a novel by director Samuel Fuller, is brilliant filmmaking.

So let’s get this out of the way right off the bat; I admire Samuel Fuller’s work immensely, especially Underworld U.S.A. (1961), but in the final analysis, I think that Phil Karlson is a better filmmaker. Fuller was enormously talented, and a superb self-promoter, but while Fuller was making a name for himself, Karlson was simply hammering out one excellent film after another, without bothering too much to toot his own horn.

One result of this is that Scandal Sheet (1952), which is one of the toughest noirs ever made, never really got the attention it deserved, nor did it get Karlson a place in the pantheon of first-rate hardboiled filmmakers, an honor he clearly deserves. I never got the chance to speak with Karlson, who passed away before I could get in touch with him, but I did correspond with his late wife, Dixie, who confirmed that Karlson felt that he’d never really gotten the respect that he deserved – in part because Fuller, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, The Dark Page, went out of his way to slam Karlson’s work.

Somehow I think this says more about Fuller than Karlson, for Scandal Sheet is a remarkable film – one that really stands up today. As critic Michael Atkinson astutely observed, “Phil Karlson and Samuel Fuller’s Scandal Sheet (1952) exemplifies a certain strand of noir not the sweaty wrong-man-tripped-up-by-fate noirs (think Detour [1945], Somewhere in the Night [1946], Where Danger Lives [1950]), but the life-in-the-jungle noirs, dark elegies wherein citizens had to tough up to survive in modern urban sewers rife with impulse killing, squalor, crazed greed and moral desolation. Here, the systems themselves industry, community, the law, the mob, the press were rotten from the inside.

Karlson and Fuller were reigning warriors in this vein: director Karlson was a no-nonsense journeyman who with Scandal Sheet, Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953) and The Phenix City Story (1955) perfected a confrontational, violent, subtlety-immune noir style in which the world, not merely the individuals stuck in it, seemed to be on the edge of social upheaval.

Fuller was, of course, Fuller, the most notorious idiosyncratic-pulpster of the postwar age, an unstoppable creative force whose particular view of the world was a vulgar, cynical mashup between first-hand realism (no American filmmaker knew the actualities of tabloid journalism, ground warfare and the criminal sector as well) and outrageous pop-cinema hyperbole.

Scandal Sheet, in any case, was not Fuller’s film. It was based on his hot-property novel The Dark Page, published in 1944 after Fuller had already defected from being a reporter to being a screenwriter, and while the young Fuller was fighting in Europe with the Big Red One. Still, it boils over with his storytelling energy and his signature reflex, the urge to discover, expressionistically, the painful, hard-boiled reality as he knew it within the movie universe of Golden Age Hollywood.

The set-up itself is nearly autobiographical: Fuller used to work on the New York Graphic, a screaming-mimi, truth-manipulating exploitative tabloid on Park Row that makes the contemporary New York Post look like The London Review of Books. (Fuller has described its editorial principle to be one of ‘creative exaggeration.’) It’s easy to see how Fuller’s own distinctive tale-telling style, visual and narrative, was formed by the daily creation of howling headlines, sensational fabrication and punchy, don’t-lose-the-reader prose.

In the film, Broderick Crawford’s Mark Chapman is the New York Express’s bulldog editor, pulling the daily out of its economic doldrums with lurid front pages and invented news; John Derek’s Steve McCleary is his amoral star reporter, the two of them heading a newsroom that has only Donna Reed’s Julie Allison to recommend it in the way of moral compunction and compassion. The thorny patter and amoral brio proceeds apace until Chapman is confronted at a publicity event by a middle-aged woman (Rosemary DeCamp), who immediately pegs him as ‘George,’ and summons an entire unwanted past that places Chapman’s present success in mysterious jeopardy.

Soon it’s made clear: she’s the unstable wife he abandoned years before, and now she will not be ignored – an ultimatum that leads, somewhat predictably, to a scuffle and her accidental death. From there, Chapman is all about covering his tracks, which as we all know simply creates more tracks, more corpses and more bad fortune.

Scandal Sheet is a fast-gabbing, meat-eating show [and is] expertly fashioned; Fuller was careful to make the tabloid mercenariness turn in on itself: McCleary is hot on the story, and despite his neck being in the noose Chapman must bait him on, because if he relents one iota from the Rupert Murdochian ethos that made him and the Express a hit, suspicion will fall on him like a safe from a window . . . [the film] scans today like a prescient indictment of media sensationalism, Murdoch’s and otherwise. ‘Thinking people,’ it is suggested, like Allison’s humane feature stories, ‘even if there aren’t many of them reading the Express anymore.’

Perhaps things haven’t changed in the American mediascape, we may speculate, but perhaps things have grown many times worse. The very idea of courting a ‘thinking’ newspaper reader today is ludicrous, as monopoly regulations have all but vanished, and only six corporations . . . own the vast majority of media outlets in the U.S., as compared to over 50 in 1983, and many hundreds in the 1950s. Fuller and Karlson had their ears to the ground in the mid-century, and however relevant it was in 1952, their movie feels like a prophecy come true.”

Atkinson is right on target. Seeing the film on a big screen in class today with a deeply enthusiastic group of students confirmed my high opinion of the film; Karlson’s camerawork, aided by DP Burnett Guffey, glides smoothly through the entirely amoral universe of Mark Chapman’s world.

The film absolutely brims with appropriately lurid details: a fast closeup of a would-be suicide’s wrists; a gallows-humored functionary who informs us that business at the local morgue is “dead, just dead,” a harrowing trip through the depths of the Bowery’s worst saloons; the endless tick of the clocks on the walls of the drab, grey newsrooms; an editing style that breathlessly propels the narrative to its doom-laden conclusion; and a gallery of first rate performances not only from Crawford, but also such old pros as Henry O’Neill, Harry Morgan, Rosemary De Camp, Cliff Work, and Pierre Watkin – to name just a few.

When it was made, Scandal Sheet was thrown away on double bills as just another piece of product from Harry Cohn’s prolific film factory, Columbia Pictures, even if it did have Academy Award winner Crawford (for All The King’s Men, 1949) in the leading role – but today, we can see it is much more than that. It’s a sharp, economical film, without an ounce of fat on it; indeed, Jerome Thomas’s editing is so sharp that one would be hard pressed to even remove a frame from the finished work.

It’s available on DVD as part of a box set of Samuel Fuller’s films (!!) – but no such set exists for Karlson, of course. That’s a shame, and it also isn’t right – towards the end of his life, Karlson made some junk, like the appalling Matt Helm films, but when the fever was upon him, he hit the mark every time.

Click here to read a great interview with Phil Karlson – then see the film.

Drew Taylor in Vulture: The Disney Vault is Real!

Saturday, February 4th, 2017

Long shrouded in mystery, the “The Disney Vault” is very, very real.

As Drew Taylor writes in Vulture, “in an anonymous block of Glendale, California, sits a nondescript beige building free of signage or distinction. The only thing that would even alert you to the fact that this is the Disney equivalent of Fort Knox is the abundance of insane security procedures stationed around the building.

Even for employees of the company, the building remains elusive and hard to gain entry to. (Full disclosure: I worked for the company for almost two years and never once got to go.) Unlike the main studio archives down the street, which are housed in an inviting glass building with ample signage — it’s this location that appears on-camera whenever the company makes documentaries about the Disney Vault — this place feels like a mirage . . .

Just in terms of size, the vault is insane — there are 12 vaults, each organized by project. This includes everything from the original sketches for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to larger-scale items like all of the puppets from The Nightmare Before Christmas and Frankenweenie.

Each room is climate controlled and meticulously catalogued, with state-of-the-art security and fire-suppression systems in place. By the library’s own estimates, there are something like 65 million pieces of art in the collection, which makes it the largest collection of animation artwork in the entire world.

The vaults look like what you’d think something like this might — the rows of stuff are located in cabinets which can be moved with a big spinning handle (like a vault), so you can easily get to them. As for the artwork, it’s filed in a way that it should be, with cells or production artwork stacked horizontally, while other, less sensitive items are filed vertically, in accordion-style folders.

Oversize items like large background paintings are housed in separate flat files. The sensation of walking into one of the vaults is like stumbling into the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark . . .

I was there as part of a small group of journalists who had been brought to the building ostensibly to celebrate Pinocchio leaving the Disney Vault with a digital rerelease. While there, I got to chat with Fox Carney, the manager at the Animation Research Library, and he told me that the archives contained ‘over a million’ pieces of artwork for Pinocchio alone.” And that’s just for starters . . .

Fascinating stuff, and you can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Pioneering Video Artist Lillian Schwartz

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

Lillian Schwartz is a pioneering video artist, who is only now getting the attention she deserves.

As Wikipedia notes, “Lillian Schwartz (born 1927) is a 20th-century American artist considered a pioneer of computer-mediated art and one of the first artists notable for basing almost her entire oeuvre on computational media. Many of her ground-breaking projects were done in the 1960s and 1970s, well before the desktop computer revolution made computer hardware and software widely available to artists . . .

As a young girl during the Great Depression, Schwartz experimented with slate, mud, sticks, and chalk as free materials for making art. She studied to become a nurse under a World War II education program and later on found her training in anatomy, biology, and the use of plaster valuable in making art. Stationed in Japan during the postwar occupation in an area between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she contracted polio, which paralyzed her for a time. As part of her rehabilitation, she studied calligraphy with the artist Tshiro . . .

By 1966, Schwartz had begun working with light boxes and mechanical devices like pumps, and she became a member of the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) group that brought together artists and engineers as collaborators. In 1968 her kinetic sculpture Proxima Centauri was included in the important early show of machine art at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, entitled ‘The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age’ . . .

Schwartz was brought into Bell Labs in 1968 by Leon Harmon. While there, she worked with engineers John Vollaro and others, including extensive collaboration with Ken Knowlton, a software engineer and computer artist who had also had work in the 1968 Museum of Modern Art show. She began making paintings and films with a combination of hand painting, digital collaging, computer and other image processing, and optical post-processing . . .

Schwartz used the works of Leonardo da Vinci extensively in experiments with computers. One notable work she created is Mona/Leo, for which she compared the image of a Leonardo da Vinci self-portrait with the Mona Lisa, matching the two faces feature by feature to show their underlying structural similarity. Specifically, she replaced the right side of the Mona Lisa with the flipped left side of a red chalk self-portrait of Leonardo.

Superimposed lines drawn on the image showing the close alignments of the bottom of the eye, eyebrow, nose and chin prompted her to argue that the Mona Lisa is in part a cryptic self-portrait of the artist. In further experiments along these lines, she removed the gray tones in Leonardo da Vinci’s self-portrait and superimposed the Mona Lisa eye over it.

Schwartz has been called a pioneer in ‘establishing computers as a valid and fruitful artistic medium’ by physicist and Nobel laureate Arno Penzias and a trailblazer and virtuoso by the philosopher-artist Timothy Binkley.Her films have been included in the Venice Biennale and the Cannes Film Festival, among many others, and have received numerous awards. Among these is an Academy Award (with Ed Emshwiller) in 1980 for special effects on the film The Lathe of Heaven. In the 1980s, a computer-generated TV spot that she created for the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art in New York won an Emmy Award.

Schwartz’s artworks have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Moderna Museet (Stockholm), Centre Beauborg (Paris), Stedlijk Museum of Art (Amsterdam), the Grand Palais Museum (Paris), and at numerous galleries and festivals worldwide.

Schwartz has been a visiting member of the Computer Science Department at the University of Maryland; an adjunct professor at the Kean College, Fine Arts Department; an adjunct professor at Rutgers University’s Visual Arts Department; an adjunct professor at the Psychology Department of the School of Arts and Sciences, New York University; and a Member of the Graduate Faculty of The School of Visual Arts, NYC. She has also been an Artist in Residence at Channel 13, WNET, New York. She has been a fellow of the World Academy of Science and Art since 1988.”

This is just a brief overview of Schwartz’s work as an artist; still very active with a gallery show at the prestigious Capri Gallery in Germany running through the end of March, 2017 (click here for full details), she is also the subject of an excellent short documentary on her life and work, which can be found by clicking here, made just before her 87th birthday. Direct, unpretentious, and absolutely determined, Schwartz has too long labored in the shadows of the art world, when her prodigious accomplishments clearly place her in the absolute vanguard of computer and video art.

I thank Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for introducing me to Schwartz’s work; see more by clicking here.

Miles Malleson’s 1933 Play “Yours Unfaithfully” Debuts – in 2017

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

Max von Essen, Mikaela Izquierdo, and Elisabeth Gray in the world premiere of Yours Unfaithfully (1933).

As The Stage Review notes in their commentary on Malleson’s play, “William Miles Malleson (1888-1969) is remembered, if at all, as a character actor on stage and screen ‘who had a line in nitwits in which he was unrivaled,’ such as the Sultan in The Thief of Bagdad (1940; which he also wrote), the hangman in Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (with Sir Alec Guinness, 1949) and Rev. Chasuble in Anthony Asquith’s The Importance of Being Earnest (with Edith Evans, 1952).

But as the author of numerous plays charged with the passion of reform, he never enjoyed the kind of popular success he had as an actor. The Stage and Television Today published a warm testimonial at his death in 1969: ‘Malleson was an actor of distinction, an artist of imagination and depth, whose best characterizations, especially in Shakespeare, were among the treasures of our theatre for many years . . .

He excelled in comedy that came from guileless but not silly men. His nit-wits had souls as well as stupidities. What might have been merely grotesque was never so, it was lit by human feeling. His work in the theatre spanned nearly sixty years, from the time he made his debut at Liverpool Playhouse under Basil Dean in 1911, in Justice. He worked with Granville Barker and J.B. Fagan, with Playfair, Gielgud and Olivier, at the Old Vic in London and Bristol; in the West End and in the provinces.

His acting, within its range, was unrivaled for effect, interest and significance, and he contributed valuable work as a translator of Moliere, as a writer, notably with The Fanatics and Six Men of Dorset—with H. Brooks—and as an influence for all that was intended to be of value to the theatre, irrespective of profit or fame.’”

It’s all true; I must admit I was completely unaware of this aspect of Malleson’s long career, as he did indeed specialize in befuddled character parts in everything from the 1945 British classic Dead of Night, to later roles in Hammer Gothics such as Terence Fisher’s The Horror of Dracula (1958), in which Malleson plays an absent-minded funeral director who manages to misplace a corpse during one of the film’s brief comic interludes.

The play has never been produced until now, and judging from the review in The New York Times, the results are remarkable: as their critic Alexis Soloski writes, “Yours Unfaithfully is both a daring play and a highly conventional one. Under the polished direction of Jonathan Bank, and in the hands of a fine team of designers, its arguments remain provocative, while its structure feels familiar, its tone decorous. Maybe that only makes it more unusual. It’s a bit like a sex farce with real sorrow instead of slammed doors, and something like a drawing room comedy with moral conundrums peeking out beneath the cushions. It is often very funny; it is also very nearly a tragedy . . .

what is extraordinary about Mr. Malleson is his ability to create characters who are capable of feeling several things at once, or who don’t really know what they’re feeling at all. Both Stephen and Anne seem genuinely surprised that their hearts and minds aren’t as orderly as they had believed. (Ms. Gray is especially adroit at rendering these intricate emotional shadings.)” The production was selected by The Times as a “NYT Critics’ Pick” – which The Times doesn’t give out easily.

Yours Unfaithfully is now running at The Samuel Beckett Theatre on 42nd Street in Manhattan; if you’re in the city, it should be on your must-see list, as a long overdue discovery of a playwright whose work is now being compared with Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw – which is heady company indeed.

You can see a clip from the dress rehearsal of the play by clicking here, or on the image above.

Ricardo Darín: “I’m Fine Filming in Spanish, Thank You”

Saturday, January 21st, 2017

Ricardo Darín, the brilliant Argentinian actor, has no plans to obey Hollywood’s demands.

As Elaine Guerini writes in Screen Daily, “Should every actor’s dream be to conquer Hollywood? Ricardo Darín, the Argentinian national treasure, has often asked himself this question following the umpteenth insinuation that success in a non-English language market is somehow not as valid.

‘I am fine filming in Spanish, thank you,’ reflects the 59-year-old actor who was in Uruguay last weekend to receive this year’s Platino Honor Award in recognition of his outstanding contributions to Ibero-American cinema. ‘Bombita Darín’, as he is known, is more than fine. For almost two decades, he has been the face of Argentinian cinema and among the most recognized on the Spanish-language film scene.

The actor is best known for roles in Juan José Campanella’s Oscar-winner The Secret In Their Eyes and Damián Szifrón’s most-seen Argentinina film ever Wild Tales (2014). But Darín’s career in cinema, theatre and TV stretches back to the 1960s.

He soared at home and abroad in Fabián Bielinsky’s Nine Queens (2000) and The Aura (2005), as well as Juan José Campanella’s Son Of The Bride (2001). He is particularly good in films which delve into the dark corners of human nature and Argentinian culture, preferably through taciturn characters whose expressions speak volumes.

‘I’m just lucky to find well-written scripts, which work with an economy of words,’ he says modestly. ‘A lot of explanation in the text is usually an attempt to compensate for the fragility of story or the lack of a good director on set.’

‘We shouldn’t feel inferior,’ says Darín about the separation between US studio and foreign independent films. ‘Facing the subjugation of US blockbusters, with disproportionate budgets, we must respond with talent, creativity, imagination, effort, enthusiasm and daring. That is the way to address the lack of money. We have talent so we just need to have confidence in ourselves,’ he adds.

The actor is known for having turned down several Hollywood offers, including a role opposite Denzel Washington in Tony Scott’s Man On Fire (2004). Darín didn’t see the point in starring in another US film which stereotyped Latin Americans as corrupt [the Mexican drug dealer has been another stock character in mainstream scripts].

‘It is not a matter of being anti-Hollywood per se. The screenplay needs to touch me somehow and I am not moved by surnames.’ Despite his misgivings, there are two US directors who could make him change his mind, ‘for their filmography and way of thinking. The only ones I would really want to work with are Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. If one of their films were suitable for me, it would be like touching the sky with my hand.’”

Darin is a stunningly good actor; I first encountered him in The Aura, one of this finest performances. His attitude here is a perfect example of how to deal with the temptations and blandishments of Hollywood’s film factory; just say no. Eventually, the right role will come around for you, and as a result, he’s never appeared in junk – today, that’s a major accomplishment.

Ricardo Darín – one of the most effective and individual actors working today.

Jean Renoir: A Biography by Pascal Mérigeau

Friday, January 20th, 2017

Now we have the definitive book on Jean Renoir, in a superb English translation.

As the Running Press, which has published Jean Renoir: A Biography in the United States notes of this excellent volume – clocking in at nearly 1,000 pages, but absolutely page-turning in its intensity and incredibly detailed research – “originally published in France in 2012, Pascal Mérigeau’s definitive biography of legendary film director Jean Renoir is a landmark work—the winner of a Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary achievement. Now available in the English language for the first time, Jean Renoir: A Biography, is the definitive study of one of the most fascinating and creative artistic figures of the twentieth century.

The French filmmaker made more than forty films from the silent era to the late ’60s and today he is revered by filmmakers and seen by many as one of the greatest of all time. Renoir made acclaimed movies in France, America, India, and Italy and became a writer during the last part of his life. Drawing from unpublished or little known sources, this biography is a completely fresh approach to the maker of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, redefining the very function of the movie director and simultaneously recounting the history of a century.”

Renoir was indeed one of the greatest of all filmmakers, noted for his humanism and his ability to move smoothly from one genre to another without a pause, as well as having a career not only in France, but in the United States in the 1940s at the now defunct studio RKO Radio Pictures, then journeying to India to make the first color film there, The River (1951), before returning to France in the 1950s to make a final group of masterpieces, and eventually settling in California before his death.

Mérigeau’s magisterial biography clearly surpasses all existing writing on Renoir, and it’s amazing that we had to wait four years for this remarkably deft translation by Bruce Benderson – and that the book is only available in paperback. Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) is routinely included in nearly every “ten best films of all time” list, but his other work, especially his work in America, clearly deserves more attention, which Mérigeau ably supplies.

While the publicity materials tout that fact that the book is supposedly the first to examine Renoir’s unfinished Hollywood film The Amazing Mrs. Holiday (1943) - which isn’t true; this has been common knowledge for quite some time – and also makes much of Renoir’s leftist work in France in the mid 1930s, for me the most intriguing sections came on such films as his American noir The Woman on the Beach (1947), which has long been known to have a troubled production history – yet Mérigeau has additional material on this film as well.

I had known that the finished film was sneak previewed to a teenage audience expecting an RKO musical or screwball comedy, and that the resultant debacle led to a savage recut of the film, but Mérigeau has unearthed the fact that the film was actually shot twice to appease both audiences and the censors – the original version, now lost; and the final version, with a different actor in a key role.

So, 2016 ended with a landmark volume on Robert Bresson, another giant of the cinema; now, in the opening days of 2017, we are given a superb – and smoothly translated – life of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, exploring not only his films, but also his life, and the way in which he viewed the human condition with both the greatest sympathy, as well as a sharply clinical eye.

This book is a must for anyone interested in the cinema – a major accomplishment.

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.

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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