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

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kirk Douglas Turns 100

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

Tim Gray has written a fabulous appreciation of the life of actor Kirk Douglas in Variety.

As Gray notes, “Kirk Douglas, who turn[ed] 100 on Dec. 9, claims he’s tired of talking about himself. Despite that, he recently spoke to Variety about his many impressive careers, as an actor (‘I never wanted to be in movies’), a producer (including tales of ‘my peculiar friend Stanley Kubrick’), author (he’s working on his 12th book), and philanthropist (he’s given away more than $120 million).

As an actor, his classic films include Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful, Lust for Life, 20,000 Leagues Under the SeaGunfight at the OK Corral and Seven Days in May. He also starred in several he produced, such as Paths of Glory, Spartacus, and the 1962 western Lonely Are the Brave.

Douglas has said his proudest accomplishment in Hollywood was to help break the blacklist by giving onscreen credit to writer Dalton Trumbo on the 1960 Spartacus.

Douglas had formed Bryna Prods. in 1955, named after his mother. For the company’s second film,Paths of Glory, he hired Kubrick as director. The relationship began with a fight after Kubrick made major script rewrites without telling Douglas, who forced him to film the original version. Despite their frequent clashes, Douglas three years later wanted Kubrick to direct the Bryna-Universal film Spartacus.

‘Difficult? He invented the word. But he was talented. So, we had lots of fights, but I always appreciated his talent,’ Douglas says.”

You can read the rest of this richly illustrated story by clicking here, or on the link above.

Who’s The Best Selling CD Artist of 2016? W.A. Mozart!

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

Who sold more CDs in 2016 than anyone else? Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, that’s who!

As Weston Williams writes in December 7, 2016 issue of The Christian Science Monitor, “the artist for the best-selling CDs of 2016 is no pop star, rapper, or rock guitarist. This year, that honor belongs to classical music composer and famed prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The legendary composer is an unusual winner in a music market dominated by popular music of the last 50 years. But Mozart’s music had some help resurfacing: an October 28th release of Mozart 225: The New Complete Edition, a massive collection of 200 CDs containing over 240 hours of his compositions . . .

‘Mozart’s life was brief; he died at age 35,’ Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. ‘As a child prodigy, he was trotted around Europe to play for the nobility of the era, but as he grew older, he found that his fame had lessened, so that by the late 1780s, he was reduced to borrowing money to pay his bills.

It was only after his death that the public again took notice of him, and such figures as Beethoven, Chopin and Tchaikovsky hailed his work, leading to renewal of public interest.’

According to Professor Dixon, Mozart’s appeal outside the classical music world is at least partially due to the 1984 film Amadeus, a dramatization of Mozart’s life. While many of the details of the plot are inaccurate, including the film’s suggestion that Mozart was murdered by a rival composer, the movie reintroduced Mozart’s music to a new generation of filmgoers.

But even without the bump in popularity brought on by Amadeus, Mozart’s music holds up well on its own, having remained in the classical repertoire in the 225 years since his death.”

With more than 240 hours of music on 200 CDs, this is the definitive Mozart set, containing everything he ever wrote, and even some material which may or not be correctly attributed to him – duly noted, of course – as well as a set of prints, two hardcover books on Mozart’s life and work, and much more.

Even though he began composing at the age of 4, it’s still astounding that Mozart managed to create as much as he did in such a short lifespan. This set is a fitting tribute to one of the greatest composers the world has ever known, and is obviously going to be the standard edition of his works for a long time to come.

Click here to see a brief video on the box set; pretty astonishing.

Memories of Raoul Coutard by Lee Kline

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dixon and Foster – Sla307 Art Space Video Screening

Sunday, November 27th, 2016

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

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

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

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

The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

As Allison Meier writes in the website Hyperallergic, Hollywood’s background art has long been ignored.

As Meier notes, “when backdrop painters were successful at their jobs, the filmgoing audience didn’t notice their work at all. From the 1930s, up to the emergence of CGI and higher quality photography, painted backings were an essential part of the cinema industry.

However, the artists were barely credited, no matter how important their transformation of reality was to a film — whether a colossal painting that transported the viewer to an exotic locale or a fantastic mural for an entirely fictional realm. The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop by Karen L. Maness and Richard M. Isackes, out now from Regan Arts, is a visual compendium of over 300 images highlighting this unheralded history.

‘These special effect backings, the largest paintings ever created, were breathtaking in their artistic and technical virtuosity,’ the authors write. They note that although the ’majority of backings used today are digitally printed photographic enlargements,’ the painted backdrop still remains a part of film, albeit in a reduced role:

But, paradoxically, the painted image often looks more realistic than the photographic image. Scenic artists can manipulate backings by adjusting light, color, and texture, helping to support the movie camera’s constructed image. Some information and details can be selectively accentuated, while others can be deemphasized. A photograph, on the other hand, is static and has a tendency to contradict the artifice of the rest of the setting.

They also point out how recent films, like 2004’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and 2014’s Interstellar, also incorporated painted backings to instill an otherworldly atmosphere. Most of the book is concentrated on artists who made significant contributions to the “golden age” of Hollywood.

Before the 1930s, films were often staged like theater, backgrounds not intended to be viewed as anything other than flat space. Then emerged films like 1936’s The Petrified Forest. Shot entirely at the Warner Bros studio in Burbank, California, all its scenes were set in the Arizona desert, with realistic backdrops integral to moving the action, even if the actors didn’t go anywhere.

You probably haven’t heard the backdrop artists’ names — although Salvador Dalí makes a brief appearance with his dream sequence backing for the 1945 Alfred Hitchcock film Spellbound.

You’ve almost certainly seen their work, even if your brain perceived it as a real three-dimensional space, such as George Gibson’s scenic art for the Wizard of Oz or North by Northwest, and Ben Carré’s artwork for classics like The Phantom of the Opera. No matter the place, the painted backdrop was crucial to the audience’s immersion in the cinematic world.”

A fascinating look at an under-appreciated art form; well worth checking out.

Dixon & Foster Video Shows in NYC November 11 & 12

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

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

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

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

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

Pipilotti Rist’s New Video Retrospective

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

The renowned video artist Pipilotti Rist has a new retrospective of her work in Manhattan.

As Roberta Smith reports in The New York Times, “the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist has gone supernova at the New Museum. A 30-year survey, “Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest,” traces her ever-expanding journey into the wilds of video, with a rapturous fusion of lights, sights and music that ebbs and flows through the museum’s main gallery floors.

It is also a journey into different kinds of intimacy — with ourselves, with one another and with nature. Naked bodies, and myriad plants and flowers, often seen under water and in immense close-up, drift and mingle amid kaleidoscopic color.

And because Ms. Rist began making video in the long ago days of analog and has rarely met a technological breakthrough that she couldn’t use, the 30-year arc of her work also traces much of the medium’s progress, as explored by one of its true naturals.

Arranged mostly chronologically from the bottom to the top of the building, the show has been organized by Massimiliano Gioni, the museum’s artistic director, with Margot Norton and Helga Christoffersen. Its 24 works begin with several single-channel videos from the late 1980s, when Ms. Rist more or less backed into art with the first work she ever exhibited . . .

The show culminates in two floors of aqueous, immersive environments, radiant with color, one completed this year. Sometimes comfortable seating — big pillows or actual beds — is provided for viewers to relax on while watching and listening, and perhaps leave with a sense of encountering nature as never before.”

Read the entire article by clicking here, or above; this a stunning show.

Dan Duryea – Heel With A Heart

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

One of Hollywood’s m0st enduring character actors finally has a solid biography.

Here’s an excellent, thoroughly researched biography by Mike Peros of one of Hollywood’s most memorable “heavies,” Dan Duryea, who introduced a new level of menace and cynicism to “noir” films starting in the mid 1940s, and continued on in a string of memorable roles in Ministry of Fear (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Black Angel (1946), Too Late for Tears (1949), and the brutal western Winchester ’73 (1950), usually top-billed as one of the main attractions of the film. As Peros makes clear, however, in real life Duryea was a dedicated family man with a long marriage, two sons, and was even the leader of a Boy Scout Troup in the 1950s, in sharp contrast to his ne’er-do-well on-screen image.

As the 1960s dawned, Duryea worked more in television and second features, but always brought an air of relaxed skill to all his roles.  The death of his wife Helen in 1967 hit Duryea hard, but he kept working – both out of financial necessity and dedication to his craft. Duryea’s final role was as the con man Eddie Jacks on the television series Peyton Place, in 60 episodes from 1967 to 1968, the year of his death. Though Duryea often felt limited by the parts he was offered, he lived to work, and kept delivering polished performances right up to the end of his life. Well illustrated, with a comprehensive filmography and a complete index, the book offers a detailed overview of a true Hollywood professional.

Long overdue, this is a book that aficionados of classical Hollywood will deeply appreciate.

John Bailey, ASC on Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca

Monday, October 10th, 2016

I have often written on Nicholas Musuraca, and here DP John Bailey weighs in on this Hollywood master.

As Bailey writes in his article “Nicholas Musuraca, Cat People and RKO Film Noir,” “cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was, from his start, a ‘team player.’ In 1927, at the twilight of the silent era and several years after beginning his own cinematography career, he joined with director Robert De Lancey to make low-budget Westerns for Joseph Kennedy’s production company, The Film Booking Offices of America. A few years later, after elaborate stock swaps between Kennedy and RCA’s David Sarnoff, this newly minted studio became RKO Pictures.

Musuraca spent nearly the next half-century at RKO, a record for artists even in the studio-contract era. He left RKO after shooting the 1954 comedy Susan Slept Here to begin a more than decade-long career in episodic television, where his signature film-noir cinematography was nowhere to be seen. His final credits were on McHale’s Navy and F Troop, two of the most popular and unimaginative-looking sitcoms of the 1960s. It was a curious journey for a cinematographer who, along with John Alton, had defined the contours of expressionistic lighting and composition in the highly stylized, low-budget noirs of the 1940s.

Like his peers James Wong Howe and Leon Shamroy, Musuraca began shooting in the early 1920s. His first six credits, from The Virgin Queen (1923) to The Passionate Quest (1926), were for director J. Stuart Blackton. Blackton was one of the true pioneers of American cinema. His first credit was in 1897, after a meeting with Thomas Edison inspired him to buy a Kinetoscope. He also became a passionate exponent of animation. It was as Blackton’s chauffeur that the Italian-born Musuraca gained entry into the film business. Musuraca remained loyal to Blackton, who retired from filmmaking in 1931, shortly after his last movie with Musuraca.

During the 1930s, Musuraca was a go-to cameraman for RKO, mostly for low-budget programmers and Westerns that ran a little over an hour. Between 1933 and 1938, Musuraca averaged at least a dozen movies a year, which helps account for his amazing career tally of 221 credits, only two dozen of which are shorts. He graduated to A-list pictures with back-to-back credits on Five Came Back and Golden Boy. In 1942, when writer Val Lewton left David O. Selznick to become producer for the new low-budget horror-film unit at RKO — the supportive Selznick even negotiated Lewton’s contract — Musuraca became part of Lewton’s team.

Given free reign to do what he wanted creatively, provided he remained within the $150,000 budget, Lewton formed a team than included composer Roy Webb, designer Albert S. D’Agostino and editors Mark Robson and Robert Wise (both of whom he soon moved into the director’s chair).

Lewton produced 14 films for RKO in less than a decade. The first six, from Cat People to its not-quite-sequel Curse of the Cat People (the title was imposed by the studio over Lewton’s objections), have become signature films in the noir canon. Musuraca photographed five of them, from Cat People to Bedlam. After that, RKO unceremoniously dumped Lewton, who then wandered to Paramount to MGM to Universal with dozens of projects that were not picked up.

His three films after RKO were not successful, and Lewton died from a second heart attack in March 1951 at age 46, convinced he was a failure. Unhappy about Howard Hughes’ takeover of RKO and about being assigned to mediocre material, Musuraca hung on there for only a few more years.

Were it not for his four years with the Lewton unit and his stunning cinematography on Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (also for RKO), Musuraca might well be regarded as one of the legions of near anonymous cinematographers with long careers but no singular identity. In 1948, the year after Out of the Past, Musuraca received his only Academy Award nomination, for George Stevens’ family drama I Remember Mama, a film that, ironically, bears no trace of the cinematographer’s noir lighting style.

What does Musuraca’s noir style look like? There is no better example than a sequence from the second film he photographed for Lewton, The Seventh Victim, directed by Mark Robson. It is a woman-in-jeopardy sequence very reminiscent of the park transverse scene in Tourneur’s Cat People, made the year before. The similarity offers a good indication of Lewton’s tight oversight of the visual details of the production and of his reliance on Musuraca as a key element in his vision. The pools of light from streetlamps, the looming shadows, and the dark corners ahead of ill-fated actress Jean Brooks’ panicked walk are all signature tropes of Musuraca’s work in this period.

On Sept. 20, The Criterion Collection released a newly remastered 2K DVD and Blu-ray of the Lewton/Tourneur/Musuraca Cat People. Criterion producer Jason Altman asked me to provide a video essay on Musuraca’s cinematography and its centrality to the Lewton RKO films. I have long been an advocate of the primacy of John Alton as the key cinematographer of the American post-World War II film-noir period, and have written about him extensively on this blog, starting with this post. Most recently, I wrote about the controversy surrounding his Oscar for the ballet sequence of An American in Paris. (You can read that here.)

Alton was a dedicated self-promoter as well as the author of a 1949 book on cinematography that is still in print. Musuraca was the antithesis of Alton in terms of personal demeanor. He was non-confrontational, content to remain in the shadows; there is little biographical information about him online, and his interviews were rare. The best discussion of his filmography I have found appears in Wheeler Winston Dixon’s book Black & White Cinema . . . [read more about Musuraca on my blog here]

A favorite movie-roundtable topic is, ‘What was the first film noir and who photographed it?’ Several cinematographers’ names always come up, especially John Seitz and, of course, Alton. My choice is Musuraca. A full year before The Maltese Falcon, a movie photographed by Seitz and long regarded as a proto-noir, it was the quiet and gentle Musuraca who photographed RKO’s Stranger on the Third Floor, a perfervid, hallucinogenic film by Boris Ingster. Its nightmare sequence of John’s McGuire’s imagined trial for murder unleashes every twitch and tic that soon became the signature elements of noir style. Seven years later, the same cinematographer gave us Out of the Past, the movie considered by many cinematographers to be the apex of noir style.”

A superb set-up by Musuraca for Stranger on the Third Floor; I agree with Bailey; read the whole article here.

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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