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Hamilton Babylon: A History of the McMaster Film Board

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016

Stephen Broomer’s new book is a fascinating study of a lost era of truly innovative student filmmaking.

Broomer, an experimental filmmaker and scholar working in Canada, has produced a landmark volume, published by the University of Toronto Pressyou can read sections of it on Google Books, just enough to make you want to buy the entire volume – which focuses on a deeply influential student filmmaking collective in the 1960s, whose most notable founders were about as far apart aesthetically as one might imagine – future commercial filmmaker Ivan Reitman, and experimentalist and critic John Hofsess, whose split-screen color film Palace of Pleasure, which Broomer helped to restore as part of the work of this volume, is a stunning half-hour of free form, poetic cinema, which I was lucky enough to see several times at the now-defunct Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, then located in the basement of the now-demolished Wurlitzer Building on 41st Street in Manhattan, as projected by the filmmaker Bob Cowan.

The film stunned me with its beauty, romanticism, and sensual visuals, and it came at the very end of what one might call the Romantic period in 1960s experimental cinema; the next year, Michael Snow created his landmark structuralist film Wavelength, and a whole group of films made in the vein of Hofsess’s work suddenly fell by the wayside, as critics rushed to embrace this much more formalist cinema. Broomer makes no secret in this text of how he feels about this; his work as a preservationist of Hofsess’s film speaks for itself, and he clearly embraces the purely experimental art of cinema – in its freeform, and less austere incarnation – over the more commercial aspects 0f the medium.

An experimental filmmaker himself, whose works may be found on Vimeo, Broomer’s work in this volume, and as an artist in his own right, is a healthy antidote – and hopefully, an “early clue to a new direction” (to paraphrase the title of a work by the American 1960s experimental filmmaker Andrew Meyer, another deeply Romantic artist of the era) in the university study of film, which has increasingly, in our STEM era, embraced the industrial model of filmmaking over purely artistic endeavors. Obviously, Broomer’s films will never make any money, and perhaps not even get that wide distribution, but he’s not pitching to the stands – he’s making work on his own terms for those who choose to appreciate it, and I wish that others would follow his example.

As the notes for the book read, in part: “founded in 1966 at McMaster University by avant-garde filmmaker John Hofsess and future frat-comedy innovator Ivan Reitman, the McMaster Film Board was a milestone in the development of Canada’s commercial and experimental film communities. McMaster’s student film society quickly became the site of art filmmaking and an incubator for some of the country’s most famous commercial talent.

In Hamilton Babylon, Stephen Broomer traces the history of the MFB from its birth as an organization for producing and exhibiting avant-garde films, through its transformation into a commercial-industrial enterprise, and into its final decline as a show business management style suppressed many of its voices. The first book to highlight the work of Hofsess, an innovative filmmaker whose critical role in the MFB has been almost entirely eclipsed by Reitman’s legend, Hamilton Babylon is a fascinating study of the tension between art and business in the growth of the Canadian film industry.”

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

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Film Series – Picturing The West at Film Streams in Omaha

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

Film Streams in Omaha, Nebraska has a great new series this Feburary/ March 2016 on The Western Film.

As the theater’s website notes, “for many, the term ‘the West’ is likely to conjure memories of screen cowboys, like John Wayne, or anti-heroes, like Clint Eastwood. Movies played a huge role in creating the popular image of an entire chapter of history, not to mention many misguided or harmful stereotypes about Native Americans.

Part of Westward O, a celebration of all things west in Omaha, corresponding with Joslyn Art Museum’s ‘Go West! Art of the American Frontier’ from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West exhibition, this series will offer an opportunity to revel in beloved, classic films and also to think about how these works of art impact or perception of America, past and present.

Curated in collaboration with Toby Jurovics, Joslyn’s Chief Curator & Richard and Mary Holland Curator of American Western Art, the series includes beloved standard-bearers that helped establish the wholesome image of the open range, psychological westerns that challenged ideas of right and wrong, and more recent takes on the genre that reflect changes in filmmaking and the cultural zeitgeist.” Here’s a chance to check out these classics on the big screen; don’t miss it!

Click here, or on the image above, to see the full schedule for the series.

Network Distributing – The British Film Collection on DVD

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

Network Distributing in the UK have launched an incredible new series of classic films on DVD.

Network Distributing Ltd. has just initiated an excellent series of restored British films, effectively reclaiming not only the canonical classics of British cinema, but also the films of such now forgotten but brilliant filmmakers as Brian Desmond Hurst, Basil Dearden, the lost films of the Ealing Studios, and so much more. As their website notes, “I never want to see anything conventional on this network. A single line of dialogue from Sidney Lumet’s 1976 movie Network provided both the name and the company philosophy for the Network brand.

Since 1997, Network has been anything but conventional. Experimental, passionate, diverse, challenging, ever-willing to champion the underdogs of film and television; titles unjustly neglected and gathering dust in the vaults of TV companies; visionary directors from the fringes of mainstream cinema and beyond. TV and film titles which might otherwise have been lost to posterity have been rescued, preserved and restored where possible.

A forgotten cache of Public Information Films – destined for destruction – was saved, digitized and turned into a hit video release. Castaways like Robinson Crusoe provided the launching pad for an ongoing series of archival releases which continues to this day.

With its encyclopedic knowledge of TV and film archives and library content, Network – in partnership with ITV, BBC, Rank, ITC, Thames, FremantleMedia, Studiocanal and many others – has brought back to the marketplace a wealth of material that would otherwise have been left unseen. Restoration work on iconic brands such as The PrisonerThe SweeneyRobin Of Sherwood and Ripping Yarns, has introduced these and other series to new audiences in a quality never previously seen, supplemented by a wealth of brand-new material.

The restoration program continued in 2014 with the first ever restoration of the iconic 70s crime series The Professionals as well as hundreds of titles from the Studiocanal library for which Network launched an imprint called simply The British Film in 2013.

Network’s theatrical releasing arm adds an eclectic range of world cinema, introducing UK audiences to the works of new directors such as Pablo Larraín (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and Oscar-nominated NO), Xavier Dolan and Cristián Jiménez. In 2012 Network commissioned Nitin Sawhney to compose a brand new score for Hitchcock’s 1927 silent film The Lodger which premiered at the Barbican to a sell-out audience and widespread acclaim.

Network continues to champion the ongoing documentary work of luminaries such as John Pilger, whose new film Utopia was released in 2013 and which also saw Network come on board as a major investor for the first time. 2014 saw further acquisitions, strengthening further its Latin American slate including Berlinale winner Gloria and Cannes awarded Heli.

Other special projects have included the soundtrack releases of some of the best-known ITC shows from the 60s, with limited edition vinyl releases planned for 2015. Network is a brand run by specialists with inside knowledge of the TV and film industries, and a passion for quality. Preserving the old whilst promoting the new, Network offers something for everyone: from world cinema students to those nostalgic for the TV memories of their childhood.

After more than fifteen years and 2000 releases on DVD, Blu-ray, VOD and in cinemas, there is still nothing conventional on this Network.” There are some real gems here – and some dross – but if you can’t see it, you won’t know which is which, and a review, no matter how well-informed or well-intentioned, can never substitute for a screening of the film itself.

Check out the nifty trailer for The British Film Collection by clicking here, or on the image above.

Recommended Book: Women, Art and the New Deal

Sunday, January 17th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to Piero Heliczer Read His Poems

Saturday, January 16th, 2016

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

The Films of Piero Heliczer – A Retrospective

Saturday, January 16th, 2016

On Tuesday, January 19th, EYE on Art presents an evening devoted to filmmaker and poet Piero Heliczer.

As a friend of Piero Heliczer during the 1960s in New York, I was happy to consult on this exhibition, which takes place on Tuesday at the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, Holland, where Piero spent much of his later life before his tragic early death in France. As the notes for the program by Ruth Sweeney relate, “Piero Heliczer was born in Italy in 1937. Throughout his life he gained notoriety as a poet and publisher. However, he also dedicated a lot of his time and energy to cinema and experimental filmmaking.  Wheeler Winston Dixon has described Heliczer’s film works to be ‘an important and too often forgotten part of 1960s experimental cinema.’

From a young age he was involved in the film industry; at the age of four he acted in Augusto Genina’s fascist propaganda film Bengasi which won first prize at Venice International Film Festival in 1942. It is curious that this was his first experience into the world of film; Heliczer’s mother was Jewish, from Prussia and his father, who, as member of the Resistance, was captured and killed by the Gestapo, was Italian-Polish. For the last two years of the war Heliczer and his remaining family went into hiding. Then, in 1947 he moved to the United States, where he lived for almost a decade.

In 1956 Heliczer returned to Europe. He initially resided in Paris where he began producing his own poetry and started his own small press – The Dead Language – hand-printing books and small publications, anthologies and magazines. It was during this period that Heliczer got involved with the Beat Generation; the likes of Angus Maclise, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso, to name but a few. In the early sixties he moved to England for a few years. He lived primarily in London, where he acquainted himself with the Avant-garde film scene, and then for some time in Brighton, where he made his first film with Jeff Keen, The Autumn Feast (1961).

A few years later Heliczer relocated to New York where he became involved with the Film-makers’ Cooperative and the circles surrounding Andy Warhol’s factory. He acted in Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), and Andy Warhol’s Couch (1964). It was during this period that Heliczer made the majority of his own experimental films thus associating himself with 1960s American Experimental Cinema. Looking back on those years Heliczer spent in New York, Gerard Malanga, a friend of Piero’s and also a filmmaker and poet, describes Heliczer’s filming style as ‘free-wheeling’ and ’spontaneous.’

He says: ‘There was a definite collaborative energy present when Piero would set up a shoot and begin filming, though he was very quiet in his approach. One never knew what was happening until it was nearly over. That is, he did shoot at different angles within the one space, which was usually a rooftop above the flat where he was living at the time. In a way he just let us do our thing. There were no scripts but lots of random shooting. We just kind of stood around or moved around like we were in some kind of dance. I never recall Piero shouting out directions or outlining to us what he planned on doing.’

Heliczer was a wanderer and a traveller. He never stuck around in any one place for a long period of time and by the end of the ‘60s it seems he was tired of New York. In the ‘70s he returned once more to Europe. The German government awarded him a sum of money as an act of reparation for the murder of his father and he invested this money into a house in Normandy, where he lived until his death. In 1993 Heliczer was tragically killed in a road-accident at the age of 56. Unfortunately, despite his strong associations with notable figures, Heliczer’s films have remained relatively unknown.”

It’s only fitting that Piero should have this retrospective; click here, or on the image above, to find out more.

David Bowie 1947-2016

Monday, January 11th, 2016

One the world’s most influential pop /music / film/ performance artists has died at the age of 69.

As Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times, “David Bowie, the infinitely changeable, fiercely forward-looking songwriter who taught generations of musicians about the power of drama, images and personas, died on Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday. Mr. Bowie’s death was confirmed by his publicist, Steve Martin, on Monday morning.

He died after an 18-month battle with cancer, according to a statement on Mr. Bowie’s social-media accounts. ‘David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family,’ a post on his Facebook page read. His last album, Blackstar [produced by Bowie's long time associate Tony Visconti] a collaboration with a jazz quintet that was typically enigmatic and exploratory, was released on Friday — on his birthday . . . He had also collaborated on an Off Broadway musical, Lazarus, that was a surreal sequel to his definitive 1976 film role, The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider: an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut. His music was always a mutable blend: rock, cabaret, jazz and what he called ‘plastic soul,’ but it was suffused with genuine soul. He also captured the drama and longing of everyday life, enough to give him No. 1 pop hits like Let’s Dance . . .

Mr. Bowie earned admiration and emulation across the musical spectrum — from rockers, balladeers, punks, hip-hop acts, creators of pop spectacles and even classical composers like Philip Glass, who based two symphonies on Mr. Bowie’s albums Low and Heroes. Mr. Bowie’s constantly morphing persona was a touchstone for performers like Madonna and Lady Gaga; his determination to stay contemporary introduced his fans to Philadelphia funk, Japanese fashion, German electronica and drum-and-bass dance music.”

David Bowie crossed nearly every boundary in popular culture and art, appearing in films, creating a multitude of characters such as Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke, and then abandoning them when they were no longer of interest. Bowie was also much underrated as a singer, and in this era of auto-tuning, it’s interesting to listen to this isolated vocal track for the song Under Pressure, in which Bowie belts out the lyrics to the song with both skill and passion.

Bowie also has a surprisingly long and effective film career, appearing in a wide variety of films, from Labyrinth, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Prestige (in which he played the equally visionary Nikola Tesla) the biopic Basquiat, as well as The Hunger, The Last Temptation of Christ, and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. In all these films, the persona he projected was very much like his stage presence; distant, but absolutely in the moment, whatever that moment might be.

Two years ago, the BBC produced an excellent documentary on one of Bowie’s most creative periods, Five Years, and as columnist Paul Morley observed in The Telegraph, Bowie “was the human equivalent of a Google search, a portal through which you could step into an amazing, very different wider world – if he mentioned in an interview, or referenced in his work, someone like Andy Warhol, Jean Cocteau, Antonin Artaud or Marcel Duchamp, I would immediately want to find out what he was talking about.

He flooded plain everyday reality with extraordinary, unexpected information, processing the details through a buoyant, mobile mind, and made intellectual discovery seem incredibly glamorous. He helped create in my own mind a need to discover ways of making sense of both the universe and the self by seeking out the different, the difficult and the daring.”

David Bowie – one of the art world’s major figures – now no longer with us.

Video: The Films of Val Lewton

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

Val Lewton was one of the most influential producers during the Golden Era of Hollywood in the 1940s.

I have blogged before – actually, four years ago – on the films of Val Lewton, but now Curt Bright has made a video on Lewton for our Frame by Frame series, in which I discuss Lewton’s work as a filmmaker creating an entirely new style of supernatural cinema – and his legacy goes well beyond that. Lewton was David O. Selznick’s right hand man on Gone With The Wind, one of the most ambitious and lavish films ever made, and shortly after that film wrapped, he accepted an offer from RKO Radio Pictures to create a series of low-budget horror films designed to break the Universal mold of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and so on.

Lewton stepped into the job, making superb films on minimal budgets – roughly $100,000 a film, using pre-sold titles assigned by the publicity department, on very short shooting schedules, and created some of the most effective and atmospheric films of the era, such as I Walked With A Zombie and The Cat People. Of all the producers working in Hollywood during the 1940s, Lewton was clearly the most intellectual, the most artistically ambitious, and perhaps the only producer of the era – though others might argue with this – who could rightly be called a creative artist, someone who contributed to his films on more than a bottom-line level.

Working with such talented people as well known director Jacques Tourneur, ace cinematographers Nicholas Musuraca and Roy Hunt, and giving people like Robert Wise and Mark Robson their first directorial assignments, Lewton created a series of memorable Gothic films in a very short space of time, and then – suddenly – it was over. A brief period at MGM, and finally Universal, led only to his early death from a heart attack in his late 40s – a tragic loss to the cinema. Clearly, he could have done so much more, but time was limited.

Here, let’s celebrate the films of Val Lewton – timeless classics, that still enthrall and thrill today.

William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come

Monday, December 21st, 2015

An absolutely essential book on one of the most influential cinema artists of all time.

James Curtis’s William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come is easily one of the best film books of 2015. It manages to pull off an amazing feat; it’s prodigiously researched, but it never succumbs to a recitation of mere facts; it includes an enormous amount of personal detail, but never gets lost in a forest of statistics.

It is above all a supreme synthesis of history and theory, treating all of Menzies’ work, whether as a director or a production designer (or often, as both simultaneously) with great care and respect, illustrated with a stunning array of color and black and white plates, including many rare behind the scenes shots that really put the reader into the center of the narrative.

Most of all, it is the careful, conscientious, but never pedantic style of the book that impresses. Curtis clearly knows Menzies’ work inside out, and yet he wears this knowledge easily, creating an accessible, reasoned, brilliantly written book, one of the most carefully detailed and critically measured volumes written on any historical figure, no matter what their profession.

Time and again, I was struck by the carefully reasoned tone of Curtis’s work, his sharp yet graceful prose style, and the remarkable way in which he managed to gather such an incredible amount of material in one volume, and make the whole thing flow so smoothly – it’s easily his finest book. The design of The Shape of Films to Come is another plus factor; the volume is overflowing with images, and the layout of the text and illustrations – something Menzies would appreciate – is impeccable.

Curtis’s book is thus a supreme achievement on every level, and for those who don’t know Menzies or his work, it opens up a world of wonder and amazement – often amazement at how much Menzies managed to accomplish on many of his assignments with very little in the way of a budget.

From Menzies’ production design on Gone With The Wind, to his science-fiction children’s nightmare Invaders from Mars, to the pioneering futuristic epic Things To Come, to his work on such projects as The Whip Hand, Address Unknown, The Maze, Around The World in 80 Days and numerous other films, Curtis meticulously details Menzies’ long career, a life filled with hard work and a good deal of tragedy, but one which ultimately left us with some of the most memorable images in cinema history.

In short, this is a must read for anyone with even the remotest interest in the cinema, and a singular accomplishment in every respect. The Shape of Films to Come gets my highest possible recommendation – this is literally a flawless book. And considering the massive amount of detail that went into it, that in itself is a stellar accomplishment. Once you pick this book up, I guarantee you won’t put it down.

This is a major work of scholarship, history and theory, and a genuine delight to read.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

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

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by 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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