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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.

Manoel de Oliveira’s Last Film: “Visit, or Memories and Confessions”

Monday, November 30th, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira left a surprise after his recent death at age 106; a film shot in 1982, but never released.

Readers of this blog will know that of all filmmakers working in the 20th century, I value Manoel de Oliveira above everyone else; this is a purely personal choice, and anyone would be foolish to discount the value of such auteurs as Renoir, Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer – the list goes on and on – but Oliveira speaks to me the most clearly, and I find his best films inexhaustible treasures that can be visited and revisited over and over again, yielding new insights with each viewing.

Oliveira was also a trickster of sorts; many of his films have surprise endings, which you can’t see coming in the distance, and now, in death, his estate has released Oliveira’s last film, shot in 1982, but which Oliveira insisted could not be screened until after his death – on April 2, 2015 – and until the first screening of Visit, or Memories and Confessions, the film sat in a vault for more than thirty years.

Finally – though frankly I wish that Oliveira had lived another twenty years, and made twenty more films, rather than see this posthumous effort – Visit, or Memories and Confessions was shown at the Cannes Film Festival this past May. As critic Ben Kenigsberg wrote of the occasion, “Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira made a film in the early 1980s that he requested not be shown to the public before his death.

That turned out to be more than three decades after the film was shot: Oliveira died in April at 106, following the most prolific period of his career; his recent films include The Strange Case of Angelica and Gebo and the Shadow. Titled Visit, or Memories and Confessions, this unearthed film, slightly more than an hour long, screened at Cannes Classics last night—on celluloid, no less.

Funded in 1981 (the festival catalog gives the completion date as 1982), Visit is—it should come as a surprise to no one—an intensely personal movie, essentially a family album in motion. ‘It’s a film by me, about me,’ Oliveira says in voiceover as the movie begins. ‘Right or wrong, it’s done.’ Cued by an alternating man-and-woman narration, the movie is largely set on the grounds of a house that Oliveira tell us he has lived in since 1942. Part of the occasion for making the movie, it seems, is that he has had to sell the home to pay some debts.

At the risk of reading too much into Oliveira’s intentions, you can see why he might have wanted the movie released as a sort of ghost story. Much of Visit concerns the haunting emptiness of this once-bustling home: We hear constant footsteps and watch doors open, Jean Cocteau–style, as we move from room to room, but a good portion of the film goes by before we actually see a human being. The first is Oliveira himself, who appears at the typewriter where he writes his treatments and turns to the camera to address us.

His musings are as idiosyncratic as they are private. He waxes philosophical, shows us photographs and film footage of his family, and recalls visits to the house by such figures as the great film theorist André Bazin. His wife turns up briefly (‘You can’t separate the artist from the man,’ she says), but this is primarily Oliveira’s reflection on his own life.

Late in the film, in a powerful anecdote, he speaks of his 1963 arrest by the secret police under Portugal’s then-repressive government. ‘I’ve always sacrificed everything so I could make my films,’ he says. Visit closes with a flourish suggesting that this director who lived more than a century remained eternally young.”

I’d love to see this on DVD, but I doubt that will ever happen; one last gift from the great Manoel.

Godfathers of Comic Book Films

Friday, November 27th, 2015

Before the Marvel and DC Universe, these were the pioneers who created the comic book film.

In this one astonishing shot, taken at a nostalgia convention in 1973, some of the greatest action directors of all time stand with cast members, a cinematographer, and stunt men who helped to create such classic serials as Spy Smasher, Captain America, Superman, Batman and many others – in their original versions as Saturday morning serials in the 1940s and 50s – working for most part for Republic Pictures, the studio that created the modern action film.

From left to right, director William Witney, who helmed numerous serials with his friend and colleague John English, in addition to directing a stack of classic Westerns – and incidentally, he’s Quentin Tarantino’s favorite director; Billy Benedict, a reliable sidekick in numerous action films of the era; Spencer Gordon Bennet, dean of serial directors, with hundreds of films to his credit; and Bud Thackery, sporting a goatee, an ace action cinematographer who later finished up his career at Universal in the 1960s.

Continuing on, stuntman George DeNormand stands in the back; Frank Coghlan Jr., who played the role of Billy Batson, Captain Marvel’s alter-ego in the serial of that name; Kirk Alyn, the original Superman in two serials, both directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; legendary stuntman “Crazy Duke” Green, whose specialty was running up walls and then launching himself into space during a fight scene; the equally capable stuntman and actor Tom Steele; and stuntman Davey Sharp, whose credits as a stunt double number into the thousands.

Just watching these amazing professionals at work, knocking out three and four hour serials in 30 days on budgets in the $200,000 range, or lower, is an amazing sight – a look into the past of motion pictures, before CGI and motion capture replaced feats of genuine athleticism and skill. None of these people thought twice about working twelve hour days, or longer, six days a week, for decades at a clip, to deliver the thrills that entranced audiences in the middle part of the 20th century.

Let’s not forget them now – they created the comic book film.

100 Women Directors Hollywood Should Hire Right Now

Thursday, November 26th, 2015

Hollywood’s lack of gender and racial diversity is just simply wrong.

As Kyle Buchanan points out in this excellent article in Vulture, “Studio executives often protest that there simply aren’t enough talented female filmmakers to choose from. They are wrong. Enough. Enough with the studios like 20th Century Fox, Sony, Paramount, and the Weinstein Company, none of which put out even a single film this year that was directed by a woman.

Enough with the executives who would rather hand a lucrative blockbuster to a man who’s never made a movie before (like Seth Grahame-Smith, the novice director recently picked by Warner Bros. to direct a big-budget adaptation of The Flash) than a woman who has. And enough with the producers who claim that there’s still just a shallow pool of female directors to draw from, because we’ve got 100 reasons why that’s not the case.

We’ve compiled a list of the best and brightest female directors in the industry, very few of whom are afforded the same major opportunities as their male counterparts. Some are promising up-and-comers, while others are award-winning veterans.

Their talents run the gamut from comedy to drama, and from action to arthouse. Contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, it wasn’t hard to assemble such an enormous list of smart, eminently hireable female directors. The only difficult part was culling it down to just 100.”

The names include Debbie Allen, Ana Lily Amirpour, Allison Anders, Gillian Armstrong, Jamie Babbit, Elizabeth Banks, Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Gurinder Chadha, Lisa Cholodenko, Sophia Coppola, Tamra Davis, and that’s just the beginning of a very long list indeed, complete with clips from their films. Why aren’t these people working – right now?

Click here to go to the link; this is essential reading.

Spike Lee Finally Gets An Oscar

Sunday, November 15th, 2015

Spike Lee, one of America’s greatest filmmakers, is finally getting some Academy recognition.

As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences noted, “Spike Lee, a champion of independent film and an inspiration to young filmmakers, made an auspicious debut with his NYU thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, which won a Student Academy Award in 1983.  He proceeded to blaze a distinctive trail with such features as She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze and Do the Right Thing, which earned him a 1989 Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay.

His work as a director ranges from the Oscar-nominated documentary feature 4 Little Girls to such mainstream successes as Malcolm X and Inside Man.  Lee’s other feature credits include Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Crooklyn, He Got Game, 25th Hour, Miracle at St. Anna and Red Hook Summer.  He currently serves as the artistic director of the graduate film program at NYU.”

In truth, Spike Lee should have won an Oscar for Direction a loooooooong time ago, probably for Malcolm X, one of his most powerful and influential films, on the life of the great civil rights leader. But Lee has always worked as an outsider, and even on Malcolm X, with Denzel Washington cast in the leading role, he had to seek funding from outside investors, such as Oprah Winfrey, to bring the film in on time and on budget.

As he tweeted shortly after he received his Academy Award, “you have to bust your ass, roll up your sleeves, and attack, attack, attack every single day” to make a film, and it’s a never ending battle to get meaningful films made.

As Access Hollywood wrote of the event, “Spike Lee told an audience of entertainment luminaries that it’s easier for a black person to become President of the United States than head of a Hollywood studio or network. Lee made the remarks Saturday as he accepted an Oscar statuette at the film academy’s seventh annual Governors Awards dinner in Hollywood. ‘We need to have some serious discussions about diversity and get some flavor up in this,’ Lee said. ‘This industry is so behind sports it’s ridiculous.’

The filmmaker praised Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs for ‘trying to do something that needs to be done.’ Earlier in the evening, Isaacs called on the industry powers in attendance to take action toward ‘recognizing and embracing a broad cross-section of talent.’ She also announced the academy’s new five-year plan to improve diversity in its staff and governance.”

And yet Spike Lee continues to struggle – his latest film, Chi-raq, due out December 4th, was finally funded by Amazon after every conventional Hollywood studio turned the project down flat. In an industry dominated by followers, Spike Lee is a leader, and a genuine original, who continues to tackle projects that deal with contemporary issues of race, politics, disenfranchisement, and social inequality in a town that loves fantasy more than anything else. Spike Lee will never make a conventional film, and it’s high time that that Academy honored him for his amazing body of work.

Spike Lee – one of the most important American filmmakers working today.

Trumbo (2015)

Saturday, November 7th, 2015

Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, John Goodman, Diane Lane and Louis C.K star in the new film Trumbo.

In 1947, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) was Hollywood’s top screenwriter until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs. Trumbo (directed by Jay Roach) recounts how Dalton used words and wit to win two Academy Awards and expose the absurdity and injustice under the blacklist, which entangled everyone from gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) to John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger. The film also stars Diane Lane, John Goodman, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, and Michael Stuhlbarg.

The Hollywood Blacklist, of course, was one of the darkest periods in American history, both within the industry and throughout the nation as a whole. As Trumbo himself famously said of this era, “There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides; and almost every individual involved, no matter where he stood, combined some or all of these antithetical qualities in his own person, in his own acts.”

Naturally, the film has generated a fair amount of controversy, and reviews that are all over the place, but at least one authentic voice of the era, the actor Kirk Douglas, who brought Trumbo back from oblivion by giving him the screenplay assignment for his film Spartacus, feels that the film accurately captures the paranoid tone of Hollywood under siege. As The New York Post reports, “Bryan Cranston personally delivered a copy of his new film Trumbo — in which he stars as the titular blacklisted screenwriter — to show Kirk Douglas, 98, at the icon’s home.

Years ago, Douglas hired Dalton Trumbo to pen his 1960 hit Spartacus after Trumbo was banned from Hollywood for a decade and wrote a 1956 Oscar-winner, The Brave One, under a pseudonym. ‘Cranston brought the film to Kirk’s house,’ said a source. ‘They started at 3 p.m., took a break for dinner, then watched the rest. Kirk loved it.’” Trumbo opened in “select cities” on Friday, November 6th; it will get a nationwide rollout over the Thanksgiving holiday.

You can see a featurette on the making of Trumbo by clicking here, or on the image above.

Why Aren’t More Women Directing Action Films?

Friday, October 30th, 2015

Lexi Alexander knows why women aren’t getting the opportunities they should in Hollywood.

As ReBecca Theodore wrote in Vulture on October 28, 2015, “Lexi Alexander doesn’t suffer fools lightly. The Oscar-nominated director, and outspoken advocate for women filmmakers, made waves in Hollywood last year when she wrote an essay on the deeply ingrained bias women directors face in the industry. Since then, Alexander has kept the pressure on studios to allow more opportunities for female directors.

Born to a German mother and Palestinian father, Alexander is a former World Kickboxing Champion who got her start in the business as a stuntwoman, and soon segued into directing. Her 2002 short Johnny Flynton landed an Academy Award–nomination, and her 2005 feature Green Street Hooligans won the SXSW Jury and Audience Awards. That led to a gig directing Punisher: War Zone, making her the first woman to direct a comic-book feature. Most recently, Alexander directed tonight’s episode of Arrow, which had previously brought on two women directors (Wendey Stanzler and Bethany Rooney). We spoke to Alexander about working on the CW’s comic-book series, embracing her biracial identity, and why more women aren’t directing multimillion-dollar superhero franchises.

How did you land this project?  How much did you know about the show going in?
I was contacted by the showrunners, specifically Andrew Kreisberg, who was a fan of Punisher: War Zone. I knew about the show and had watched the pilot when it came out. When I got the call for the meeting, I binged on three seasons of Arrow over an entire weekend.

Can you share some details about the shoot — how long it took to prepare, to find shooting locales?
All in all, I was there for three and a half weeks. Location scouting is a lot of fun, especially in a town where ten shows are being shot at the same time, because you’re constantly running into other crews scouting the same places. Then we all give each other side eye, because nobody wants to use a location that another show is using as well. It’s quite amusing, really.

Did you have a specific look or feel you wanted for this episode?
It was very clear to me that TV is a writers’ medium and that a show in its fourth season comes with an established look and style. The first meeting I had with Kreisberg and [executive producer] Marc Guggenheim, they were very clear they were interested in me as a director because they believed I could bring something different and new to the show. So my directions were basically ’same but different.’ Now this might sound like I’m being sarcastic, but I’m not. I completely understood what they wanted. There’s definitely a way, even within an existing style and tone, to add something new or unique without making it look like it’s from a completely different show. I’m not sure if I completely achieved that, but I’m pretty sure the audience will see my fingerprint here and there.

You were the only woman director to helm a comic-book feature with Punisher: War Zone in 2008. Not much has changed since then. What do you think accounts for this?
The only reason I was offered Punisher was because I had made an indie film that was rated R for violence and was filled with fight scenes. I think in industries riddled with bias, you tend to hire women only if their previous work is very masculine, which is hilarious given that this is not how male directors are chosen. I am pretty sure when Kenneth Branagh came up for Thor, nobody at Marvel thought: ‘Yes, that Kenneth Branagh is masculine enough to do action, just look at Henry V and The Magic Flute.’ Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge Branagh fan, I’m just trying to demonstrate how ridiculous it is that women have to be ‘one of the boys’ to get in on the superhero business, whereas male directors don’t have to have any proof on their résumé that they can deliver hardcore action.”

It’s all too true – read the entire interview by clicking here.

Black & White Cinema: A Short History on Amazon Now!

Sunday, October 11th, 2015

My new book is out now on Kindle, and in paperback and hardcover on Amazon!

From the glossy monochrome of the classic Hollywood romance, to the gritty greyscale of the gangster picture, to film noir’s moody interplay of light and shadow, black-and-white cinematography has been used to create a remarkably wide array of tones. Yet today, with black-and-white film stock nearly impossible to find, these cinematographic techniques are virtually extinct, and filmgoers’ appreciation of them is similarly waning.

Black and White Cinema is the first study to consider the use of black-and-white as an art form in its own right, providing a comprehensive and global overview of the era when it flourished, from the 1900s to the 1960s. Acclaimed film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon introduces us to the masters of this art, discussing the signature styles and technical innovations of award-winning cinematographers like James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, and Sven Nykvist. Giving us a unique glimpse behind the scenes, Dixon also reveals the creative teams—from lighting technicians to matte painters—whose work profoundly shaped the look of black-and-white cinema.

More than just a study of film history, this book is a rallying cry, meant to inspire a love for the artistry of black-and-white film, so that we might work to preserve this important part of our cinematic heritage. Lavishly illustrated with more than forty on-the-set stills, Black and White Cinema provides a vivid and illuminating look at a creatively vital era, as featured on Turner Classic Movies in the series “Artists in Black and White.”

Critical Commentary:

“Dixon, no stranger to film history, gives us a complete overview of the black and white movie era, from the 1900s through the 1960s. He introduces us to the masters and talks about the styles and innovations of cinematographers long gone. Dixon also tells us how the crews working behind these cinematographers helped shape a bygone era of cinema . . . this book will help to inspire others to think about the artistry so that that this classic era of cinema is never forgotten. With more than 40 photos, the book provides a look at a vital era of film.” – Daniel Solzman, Flicksided

“Like artists painting with light and shadows, [cinematographers] perfected the lighting techniques and other innovations that often turned commerce into black-and-white art . . . Covering a hitherto neglected subject, this should be essential reading to all those with an interest in cinema history.” —Roy Liebman, Library Journal

“There’s an interesting new book by Wheeler Winston Dixon called Black & White Cinema: A Short History, and it tells the history of black and white movies, its origins and impact, and it’s really well worth reading. It’s filled with all kinds of insights about black and white cinematography, and the many artists who mastered the tricky interplay in capturing light and shadow.” – Robert Osborne, Turner Classic Movies

“Dixon covers the entire history of black and white movies in one volume, and talks about the films and cinematographers who created these films, and often got little credit for their work. Fascinating and compelling, this is essential reading for anyone who loves movies.” – Robert Downey Sr. director, Putney Swope

“Dixon has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and a subtle and well-honed aesthetic sense. He rescues important films from oblivion, and finds fresh angles of approach to films that are already familiar.” -Steven Shaviro, author of Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s colorful study of black-and-white cinema reaffirms yet again his unfailing expertise as a critic, historian, and dazzlingly fine writer. Indispensable for students, scholars, and movie buffs alike.” – David Sterritt, Chair, National Society of Film Critics

“In his latest book, Black and White Cinema, Wheeler Winston Dixon rediscovers the art of cinematography in those glorious black-and-white movies from Hollywood’s classic age.” –Jan-Christopher Horak, Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive.

My thanks to all who helped bring this book to life, and to the great cinematographers who inspired it.

Black & White Cinema – A Short History on TCM

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

I was honored to have Robert Osborne discuss my book Black & White Cinema on TCM last night.

For a special evening of black and white films on October 7, 2015 entitled “Artists in Black and White,” showcasing the work of such brilliant cinematographers as James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Haskell Wexler and Karl Freund, Robert Osborne and Turner Classic Movies ran a series of five films that best exemplify the brilliance of monochrome cinema during the classical Hollywood studio era, including Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (photographed by Toland) and Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (shot by Wexler).

Introducing the films, Osborne remarked that “there’s an interesting new book by Wheeler Winston Dixon called Black & White Cinema: A Short History, and it tells the history of black and white movies, its origins and impact, and it’s really well worth reading. It’s filled with all kinds of insights about black and white cinematography, and the many artists who mastered the tricky interplay in capturing light and shadow.”

Needless to say, I thank Robert Osborne and TCM for their interest in my work, and TCM, as always, is a national treasure – the last place on television where one can see the classics, complete and uncut, in their original aspect ratios – with no commercials. Many thanks, and long may TCM continue into the future! You can see Robert’s introduction for Citizen Kane by clicking here, or on the image above.

Black and White Cinema is available in Kindle, paperback and hardcover formats – check it out now!

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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