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Interview: Agnès Varda by Violet Lucca

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Here’s a fabulous interview with Agnès Varda by Violet Lucca published in Film Comment on May 11, 2015.

As Varda notes, in part, “each film has its history, its beauty or not beauty, and its meaning.  The meaning can change over the years for people who watch the film, because there is a lot of evolution in the sense of history, the sense of understanding.  But when you speak about 35 millimeter or DCP or video, it’s unimportant. The film is what it is, but what is different are the people who made the film.  I change.  I wouldn’t do the same film today about Cuba or about the planters or about women.

Each film has a date glued to it.  And what we try is to overcome the date and make a meaning that can be more than ’62 or ’61 or whatever.  But still, even Cleo from 5 to 7, which deals with a temporal history about being afraid of an illness, being afraid of dying, still has in the film itself a purpose— we include for example the radio broadcasts telling the news of the time. Or in Kung-fu Master!, you have the awareness of AIDS in ’87. I think that we try to escape the limits of history and the time, but still I like to have a point that gives a date to the film, and not make believe that it’s nowhere, no time.”

You can read the rest of this excellent piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

Agnès Varda To Receive Honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

Agnès Varda, here seen shooting The Gleaners and I, will be awarded an Honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes.

As Kinsey Lowe reports in the always-reliable online journal Deadline, “Agnès Varda will be honored for the body of her work at the closing ceremony of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. She’s the first woman selected for this distinction. Only three other directors — Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood and Bernardo Bertolucci — have been recognized in this way for the global impact of their body of work.

From her first film, La Pointe Courte in 1954, Varda’s style reflected elements of what would become the French New Wave although because she preceded that movement her work is more Left Bank in style. Her next feature, Cleo From 5 To 7, was a documentary style look at a singer awaiting results of a biopsy, which foreshadowed Varda’s fascination with human mortality. Her films also tended to focus on women and her subsequent film Vagabond [1985] examined the investigation of the death of a female drifter.

She married film director Jacques Demy in 1962 and after his death in 1990, she made Jacquot de Nantes, about his life and death. In 2000, she used a digital camera to make The Gleaners and I [see still above]. Her 2008 autobiographical work Les plages d’Agnès picked up France’s the César for best documentary. A well-rounded and multifaceted artist, she started out as a photographer. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art held an exhibition entitled Agnes Varda in Californialand in 2013. The show was a sort of reflection of the time Varda spent in Los Angeles in the ’60s and included sculpture, photographs and short films.”

This is an honor that is more than overdue – congratulations to the foremother of the New Wave.

Filmmaking Tips from Richard Lester

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

Landon Palmer has some handy bits of advice from director Richard Lester in Film School Rejects.

As Palmer writes, “Any summary of Richard Lester’s career inevitably begins with his helming of A Hard Day’s Night. This is no dubious honor – what was meant to be simply a ‘jukebox musical’ when United Artists got the ball rolling on the project ultimately changed what the rock ‘n’ roll movie could be, and produced a hugely entertaining manic farce of modern celebrity in the process.

But Lester’s career in the 1960s alone is far more diverse than even his two enduringly fun Beatles films would suggest. The American-born Lester unwittingly became a major figure in transforming British cinema during the heyday of ‘Swinging London’ by pursuing radically unconventional means of filmic expression.

Where British exports were previously divided between Sean Connery for the mainstream and kitchen sink realism for the arthouse, Lester’s films catered equally to commercial and discerning audiences by combining experimental styles with lightning-paced, biting humor, like in his Palme d’Or winning The Knack…and How to Get It or his incisive anti-war film How I Won the War.

Lester made waves across the pond as well, between deeply felt dramas like the San Francisco-set Petulia (still one of New Hollywood’s underrated gems) and, in later decades, popcorn films like two Superman sequels and the internationally successful Three Musketeers. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from one of about a dozen people who was at one point referred to as the ‘fifth Beatle.’”

Click here, or on the image above, to read the entire article, with video clips.

Roberty Downey Sr.’s Pound (1970)

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

Robert Downey Sr. (center) with cast members on the set of his film Pound.

As readers of this blog know, I’m a friend and fan of the work of Robert Downey Sr., whose best known film after all these years is Putney Swope. I first met Bob back in 1969, right after the success of Putney, when he was editing Pound in a cutting room in the West 50s in Manhattan. We hit it off, and remain friends to this day, but although I’ve written about a lot of his other work, I’ve never really tacked Pound, which is simultaneously one of his most disturbing and ambitious films, and was – at least in my mind – a highly unlikely follow-up to Putney Swope. But at this point in his career, Bob could write his own ticket, and the result is one of the darkest, most unsettling visions of humanity in crisis that ever hit the screen – yet to this day, Pound is almost impossible to see.

As Rich Drees noted in a 2006 article on Pound, the plot of the film is simple: “set in a New York City dog pound, 18 dogs, played by human actors, wait to be adopted. Part existential comedy, part allegory, the dogs include a punch drunk Boxer (Stan Gottlieb), a hyperactive Mexican Hairless (a scene stealing Lawrence Wolf) and a sleek Greyhound (Antonio Fargas). Meanwhile, the city is being terrorized by a serial killer dubbed The Honky Killer (James Green). Pound also features the debut of performance of Downey’s son Robert Jr. as a puppy temporarily held at the pound.”

But that’s just the set-up. Hovering over all the characters is the continual threat of death from “the needle” – they’re not so much waiting to be adopted, as waiting to be executed. A terrier advises that they should revolt against their captors and escape, while an airedale argues that their deaths are not imminent, and a pardon is forthcoming. Throughout the film, there a number of mournful musical numbers which verge on nihilistic vaudeville, interspersed with a series of philosophical diatribes on the nature of existence, the transience of life, and the ways in which we’re all in a prison of one sort or another, whether we wish to admit it or not.

The end of the film is terrifying, as all of their ranting against the caprices of fate comes to naught. Without warning, a guard peremptorily pulls a switch that sends poisonous gas into the holding chamber, and one by one, the animals die an agonizing death, with each “dog” given a last, wistful closeup as they expire. Downey then cuts to a final sequence on a train to nowhere, as the “dogs” sit in their seats, bound for who knows where – heaven? hell? limbo? – and a candy barker walks through the aisle with a megaphone singing the 1930s song “Just One More Chance,” the lyrics of which, in part, lament that “we spend our lives in groping for happiness / I found it once and tossed it aside / I paid for it with hours of loneliness / I’ve nothing to hide.” And on this unresolved note, the film ends.

Not surprisingly, Pound was summarily rejected by the sponsoring studio, MGM, who for some reason, Downey told me, thought that the film would be an animated cartoon. When they saw the finished result, MGM dumped it on the bottom half of a double bill with Federico Fellini’s Satryicon, to Downey’s delight. Yet not surprisingly, given the film’s incredibly bleak outlook on life, Pound has never had a VHS or DVD release, although it was available as a streaming download on Netflix for a time, but has now been withdrawn.

Indeed, as Drees notes, it’s a miracle that the film exists at all, since “the only print of the film that Downey could locate was found in his ‘cameraman’s ex-wife’s closet . . . a 35mm print that was dead.’ Although the print itself was deemed unprojectable, it was able to be digitally scanned and restored. ‘So they put the color back in,’ says Downey. ‘They cleaned up the sound a bit too. Technology is great, it’s just the movies aren’t getting any better. It’s only because of digital technology that some of this stuff can be saved, because most of the colors just go. Most of my stuff in color other than Greasers Palace (1972), I hate the color. I love black and white.’”

Based on a play Downey wrote very early in his career, The Comeuppance, which was produced Off-Off Broadway in 1961, Pound betrays its theatrical origins, and has strong links to Sartre’s play No Exit, as well as to Downey’s even earlier efforts, such as his first play about two nuclear missiles in a silo, waiting go off, talking to each other about the destruction they will inevitably inflict on humankind. Pound can certainly be seen as an extension of that, and it’s no wonder that it was so roundly rejected by the general public, and got an NC-17 rating – it’s a real warning that the only one you can really trust in life is yourself.

There are bootlegs of the film, of course, drifting around on the web, and today, the film’s major curiosity draw seems to be the brief appearance of Bob Downey Jr. in a small role as a puppy – but the film is much more than that. It’s certainly not a masterpiece, and Downey himself has expressed definite reservations about Pound, but all in all, it’s one hell of a scary vision of life, and a real outlier in film history – the work of someone chasing not success, but his own vision, consequences be damned. As Downey said of his work as a filmmaker, “after being thrown out of the house, four schools and the United States Army, I discovered that I was on the right track.”

“I just think he’s one of our great American directors” — Paul Thomas Anderson

Laurel and Hardy: 40 Memorable Moments

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

Courtesy of The Telegraph, here are forty memorable scenes from the films of Laurel and Hardy.

As the newspaper notes, “Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy have inspired generations of comedians including Matt Lucas (“I always thought of them as friends”), John Cleese (“they’re wonderfully, wonderfully funny”), Steve Martin (“they are hard to top”), Steve Coogan (“they were geniuses of comedy”) and Stephen Fry (“a constant joy”). Laurel and Hardy will return to the big screen this summer to mark the 125th anniversary of Stan Laurel’s birth and cinemas across the UK will be showing a double bill of their classic 1933 feature length film Sons of the Desert and the short movie County Hospital. Martin Chilton celebrates this wonderful comic duo with a pick of 40 of their finest moments.”

Click here, or on the image above, to browse through this excellent gallery of photos.

The Black Film Center/Archive – Richard E. Norman Collection

Monday, April 20th, 2015

More essential films saved from destruction.

As The Indiana University – Bloomington Newsroom reports, “The Black Film Center/Archive will produce a new finding aid for the collection of Richard E. Norman, a pioneer in development of films for African-American audiences. Project staff, working in partnership with IU Libraries Digital Collections Services, will enhance this online resource with over 20,000 digitized items from the archive.

‘The Norman Collection constitutes a unique resource for the study of the formation of American cinema in general and the history of race films in particular,’ said Michael T. Martin, director of the Black Film Center/Archive and a professor of American studies and of communication and culture in The Media School. ‘Arguably, of no less importance to both histories as the Lincoln Motion Picture Co. and Micheaux Picture Corp. are, this grant ensures the preservation and access of our Norman holdings for current and future generations of researchers, film historians and the public, as it will be to the teaching mission of Indiana University.’

In the early 1900s, Norman, a southern-born white filmmaker, was among a small group of so-called race filmmakers who set out to produce black-oriented pictures to counteract the racist caricatures that had dominated cinema from its inception.

Norman began his filmmaking career in the Midwest before relocating his Norman Film Studios to Jacksonville, Fla., where from 1919 to 1928 he produced silent feature films featuring leading black actors and actresses. He cast his actors in positive roles such as a banker, businessman and cowboy, and not in demeaning roles often given to African Americans by Hollywood. In his 1926 feature, The Flying Ace, he notably depicted an African-American pilot in the U.S. Armed Forces — an impossible career in reality for a black man until 1940.

Apart from short fragments, all but one of Norman’s films are now lost, making the collection at IU even more important. His lone surviving film, “The Flying Ace,” was restored by the Library of Congress in 2010 and screened at IU in 2013 as part of the ‘Regeneration in Digital Contexts: Early Black Film’ conference.

Norman’s archive at IU — an extensive collection of his personal and professional correspondence, detailed theatrical distribution records, original shooting scripts and other records — is among the most important resources for the study of early African-American film and movie-going culture from 1912 to 1954. Norman ceased film production with the advent of the sound era, but he remained active in the motion picture industry as a distributor and owner of theaters.

‘Since the 2013 publication of Barbara Tepa Lupack’s scholarly biography on Norman, we’ve seen a surge of research interest in Norman’s collection from scholars internationally,’ said Brian Graney, archivist of the Black Film Center/Archive and principal investigator on the Norman project. ‘This support from NEH will greatly increase the discoverability of Norman’s records and make them readily available as digital resources for remote research and new forms of scholarship on African-American movie-going.’

The collection was donated by Norman’s son, Capt. Richard E. Norman Jr., to the Black Film Center/Archive under its founding director Phyllis Klotman, emeritus professor of African American and African diaspora studies, who died late last month.”

Fascinating history – read more by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Films of Jim Krell at Anthology – At Last!

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

A sold out audience for the films of Jim Krell at Anthology Film Archives – 4/17/2015.

At last, in their first projection since a screening at the Rutgers University in 1982, six of Jim Krell’s films were shown to a large, receptive, and deeply enthusiastic audience at Manhattan’s Anthology Film Archive on April 17, 2015. Krell’s films are such utterly original works that the chance to see them should simply not be overlooked, not least because they were created in 16mm, and were screened in that format, something that is increasingly rare in the 21st century.

I curated the screening, in addition to presenting an introductory lecture offering an overview of Krell’s work, as someone who witnessed the creation of many of the films included in the program. Sadly, the prints of some of Krell’s earliest films, such as Paper Palsy and Shoreline of China, seem to have been lost in the thirty or so years since their last projection.

The originals for these early films, however, are happily all in Anthology’s collection of Krell’s materials; perhaps, someday, they will be printed up again. Nevertheless, what we saw was astounding, and demonstrates conclusively that a major retrospective of Krell’s work is long, long overdue.

One of the most original and iconoclastic figures of the New American Cinema, Jim Krell created work that is simultaneously so important, and yet so unknown, that this screening constitutes a major event, closing a significant gap in experimental film history. Starting in the early 1970s, Krell created a series of mysterious and rigorous films that defy written description, visionary works that conjure up an entirely different vision of the physical universe.

During that time, I had the opportunity to watch him at work on several occasions. What always impressed me (or perhaps ‘astonished’ is a better word) concerning Krell’s shooting methods was the intrinsic speed and seemingly random technique he brought to his work, creating films with offhand precision that both challenged and engaged the viewer.

Now living in Italy, Krell has long since moved on to other pursuits, but during the white hot period in which he turned out one amazing film after another in a veritable torrent of work, Krell created a singular vision that is all the more impressive because each of his films is entirely different from any other of his works; he never does the same thing twice. So the chance to see, and save, his work, is something that isn’t to be taken lightly.

Thanks to all at Anthology, including Jed Rapfogel, Andrew Lampert, Sarah Halpern, and the superb projectionists who really brought Jim’s films to life on this memorable night; I really do hope this will be the first of many more screenings of his work. You can read more about Krell’s work in my book The Exploding Eye: A Re-Visionary History of 1960s American Experimental Cinema.

Jim Krell is a genuine American original, in every sense of the word.

Lunch with Robert Downey Sr.

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

Nothing like having lunch with an old friend.

In town for a lecture at Columbia University on April 16th, 2015, I was happy to have lunch with Bob Downey Sr. and his wife, Rosemary Rogers, at their apartment, with no real objective other than to have a good time and catch up. I’ve written extensively on Bob’s work in my book Film Talk, and have known him since the late 1960s, and always found him to be a totally stand up guy, a valued friend, and one of the most gifted and outrageous filmmakers of all time.

Recently, many of his key films were collected in a superb Criterion edition entitled Up All Night With Robert Downey Sr., including his landmark comedy Putney Swope. As Criterion notes, “Robert Downey Sr. emerged as one of the most irreverent filmmakers of the new American underground of the early sixties, taking no prisoners in his rough-and-tumble treatises on politics, race, and consumer culture.

In his most famous, the midnight-movie mainstay Putney Swope, an advertising agency is turned on its head when a militant African American man takes charge. Like Swope, Downey held nothing sacred. This selection of five of his most raucous and outlandish films, dating from 1964 to 1975, offers a unique mix of the hilariously abrasive and the intensely experimental.”

Check it out- Bob is the real deal!

So That Happened – Jon Cryer’s New Memoir

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All in all, very much worth reading.

Manoel de Oliveira – Greatest Living Filmmaker – Dies at 106

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira shooting his film The Magic Mirror in 2005.

Since we’re all mortal, it had to happen, and now it has; Manoel de Oliveira, to my mind the greatest living filmmaker – without question – has finally died at age 106. His second to last feature film, Gebo and the Shadow, was an austere masterpiece, and he adapted readily to digital cinema, but remained a master of the quiet, patiently constructed image, creating films that always ended with an unexpected twist, but on a metaphorical level rather than being a mere plot shift.

Not that Oliveira was without humor – far from it – as evidenced in this great clip in which he does a Chaplin imitation for filmmaker Agnes Varda. And of course, the Tweets are piling in – as well they should. Since he picked up the pace of production in his late 80s, Oliveira has emerged as the most innovative, deeply moral, and absolutely humanist filmmaker of the late 20th and early 21st century. There’s really no one else like him – before, or now, after his death.

As Ali Jaafar perceptively writes in Deadline, “Manoel De Oliveira, the Portugese filmmaker who for so many years appeared to defy the laws of gravity and physics, has died at the age of 106. He was, by some measure, the world’s oldest active filmmaker, working up until last year when his latest — and last — film, The Old Man Of Belem premiered at the Venice Film Festival.

Born in 1908, De Oliveira’s productivity — he directed 29 films in all — is all the more remarkable given he had only made two films by the time he was 55. The latter half of his long, and critically acclaimed, career would see him earn a dozen career achievement prizes from major film festivals, including two career Venice Golden Lions (in 1985 and 2004) and a special jury prize for 1991’s The Divine Comedy. In 1999, he took home the Cannes jury prize for The Letter.

Unapologetically art house and cerebral in taste, De Oliveira confounded his peers with both his longevity as well as the consistency of his output in his latter years.  He got better with age, making a film a year once he turned 80 until his death. He might not even be finished just yet: He is reputed to have insisted that one of his films, Memories And Confessions, not be shown publicly while he was alive.

De Oliveira was born into privilege. His industrialist father, amongst other things, produced Portugal’s first electric light bulb. Finding himself out of favor under the iron rule of Portugul’s Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar from 1932-1968, De Oliveira found it similarly difficult under the socialist government in the early 1970’s as his upper class roots counted against him. Nevertheless, he persisted with his dream to become a filmmaker, even while he managed his family’s factory well into middle age.

In time De Oliveira moved from the neorealist verité style that categorized his early work — his debut feature was Aniki-Bobo in 1942 about the slums of his hometown Porto — eventually gave way to a more formal, literary approach often dealing with themes of unrequited and unfulfilled love. He often adapted literary works, including four books by Agustina Bessa-Luis.

He worked with many fine actors, including Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich, Michel Piccoli, Jeanne Moreau, Claudia Cardinale and also Marcello Mastroianni in the iconic Italian actor’s final role in Voyage To The Beginning Of The World.” His other standout films include Acto de Primavera, The Strange Case of Angelica, The Convent, A Talking Picture, and numerous other works – Oliveira was one of a kind, and his films – as well as his life – serve as an inspiration to all who love and cherish the cinema.

As Cahiers du Cinema said of Oliveira’s work, “He is sovereign, free, unique, perched high on a tightrope no one else can reach, defying the laws of gravity and above all the rules of cinematic decorum and commerce.” I try to avoid obits in this blog, but this is just too major a passing to omit – our greatest living filmmaker is now gone.

All day long, I have had the feeling something was terribly wrong – now I know why.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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