Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Archive for the ‘Career Retrospectives’ Category

Guest Blog: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Věra Chytilová

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Let us celebrate the life and work of Czech New Wave director Věra Chytilová.

Věra Chytilová, a central figure in the radically experimental Czech New Wave who passed away on March 12, 2014 at the age of 85, is best known for her stunning film Daisies (1966). Chytilová called the film “a philosophical documentary in the form of a farce,” which is a good way to phrase it. Daisies is best described as a Brechtian comedy about two young women who loll around naked as they talk directly to the audience about philosophical questions.

A prototypical New Wave feminist film, complete with direct political statements (“everything is spoiled for us in this world”), jarring editing (the narrative sequences of the two women are intercut with stock images of buildings falling apart), and existential ponderings (the women state that “if you are not registered, [there is] no proof that you exist”), Daisies remains a classic of the era, which shocked and surprised audiences around the world when it was first released.

The suppressed violence of Bourgeois culture is suggested through a bizarre orgy sequence, and the wildly experimental visuals are underscored by gunshots on the soundtrack, as the camera pans over the ruins of a city. It is nearly impossible to describe the frantic pace, dazzling beauty, and the revolutionary qualities of Daisies; Chytilová’s avant-garde use of brilliant colors, her rapid fire editing, and her approach to film itself was in many ways more revolutionary than that of Jean-Luc Godard and the other, better known directors of the French New Wave.

Not surprisingly, Daisies was almost immediately banned by the Czech authorities, but not before Chytilová’s film won the Grand Prix at the Bergamo Film Festival in Italy in 1967. Indeed, Daisies was perceived as being so subversive film and controversial that Chytilová was not allowed to make films for several years after the film’s release. But with the recent release of a magnificently restored version of the film from Criterion in DVD and Blu-Ray format, Daisies is now being rightly being hailed as “an aesthetically and politically adventurous film that’s widely considered one of the great works of feminist cinema.”

After a number of years, Chytilová was able to return to film making, which she continued throughout her life, a life that we should mark with celebration. So break out the bubbly and enjoy a screening of Daisies, a film that continues to dazzle audiences and inspire young filmmakers: here are just a few of the sites that are celebrating both the film, and Chytilová’s lifetime of work — see these links to Dazed, The AV Club, ABC News for more on this deeply important and influential artist, as well as this list of online sources on Chytilová’s work from Kinoeye.

If you have not seen Daisies, you are in for a real Dadaist treat; this is bold, adventurous filmmaking that breaks all the rules, an authentic feminist vision which has gathered additional power and resonance with the passing of time, and is now considered one of the key works of the Czech New Wave, and of experimental cinema as a worldwide artistic movement. Chytilová was, simply, a master filmmaker.

Věra Chytilová, an authentic original, and a deeply visionary filmmaker.

About the Author: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is a Professor of Film Studies in the Department of English, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and co-editor of the book series New Perspectives on World Cinema from Anthem Press, London. Her many books include 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011) and the second, revised edition of A Short History of Film (2013), as well as Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture (2005), Identity and Memory: The Films of Chantal Akerman (2003), and Women Filmmakers of the African and Asian Diaspora: Decolonizing the Gaze, Locating Subjectivity (1997). Her book Women Filmmakers: A Bio-Critical Dictionary, which covers the work of hundreds of women filmmakers, is considered a classic in the field of feminist film studies.

The Films of Jim Krell

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

Jim Krell filming, Summer 1974, 3AM; Jeff Travers on sound. Photo: John Vasilik.

One of the most original and iconoclastic personalities of the New American Cinema, Jim Krell created work that is simultaneously so important, and yet so unknown, that the news that his complete works are being now being archived by Anthology Film Archives constitutes a major event, closing a significant gap in experimental film history. When screenings of his work will now appear is anyone’s guess, but the news that Krell’s original 16mm printing materials will now be safely archived is cause for a genuine sigh of relief.

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.

For one of his films, for example, Krell descended into a storm drain with a spring wound Bolex and a box of railroad flares; while shooting in the darkened tunnel, he threw lighted flares in front of him, illuminating the viaduct with rings of flaming red. For a projected film on the Patty Hearst kidnapping that was never completed, Krell shot two hours of sync-sound film in a single weekend, creating a film that, even in its unfinished state, worked both as a fictive narrative and a deconstruction of the events that led up to the affair.

In Paper Palsy (1972), one of his earliest films, archival footage of an amateur night performance at the Apollo Theater in New York is superimposed over blown up Super 8mm footage of scraped, baked, and chemically treated unexposed film stock, causing huge multi-colored blotches to interrupt the visual terrain of the Apollo Theater material at irregular intervals. The soundtrack is a recording of dolphins mating in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, played in reverse.

For his film Finally A Lamb, completed in 1976, Krell documented a performance piece by the German artist Hermann Nitsch of the Orgies/Mysteries Theater, which took place at Douglass College in the early 1970s, in which a dead sheep’s carcass was disemboweled in front of a stunned audience. For The Shoreline of China (1973), Krell shot two rolls of footage of a young woman walking up and down a beach on the coast of New Jersey at dawn, creating fades and dissolves in the camera during shooting. He then printed the color positive and negative images on top of each other in A and B roll format, with the images flipped so they cross over in the center of the frame, creating a disquieting vision of an alien landscape.

For yet another film, All Area (1978), Krell shot the shadow of a curtain on the floor of his New York loft for 30 minutes with ancient black and white Portapack ½” video equipment, then remastered the material on negative film stock with a professional film chain to achieve astonishing results in contrast, frame sizing, and the arbitrary duration of this reductive image. Soundtracks were composed out of found materials, or created electronically by Krell working with a homemade synthesizer. Running into many hours of finished work, Krell’s films would take several evenings or more to project, and have never received a fraction of the attention and critical commentary they deserve.

Other key titles from Krell’s extensive filmography include Coda/M. C. (1975), Wolverine Kills T. V. (1975), 30 Days: Speed Or Gravity (1976); Action Past Compassion (1976), Four Rolls (Rarely Pre-Dated) (Tribute to Marcel Duchamp) (1976), Fur (But Less Fun) (1976), Shame, Shame: Dallas Diary, 1964 (1977), Thank You/Your Receipt (1977), All Area (1978), (Kozo Okamoto’s Quote) (1979), and Second Thoughts (1980). But there’s a lot more on top of this, and I’m glad to see that his work will finally get the care and recognition it deserves.

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; if nothing else, Jim Krell is a genuine original, in every sense of the word.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

The Narcissistic Sociopathology of Gender: Craig’s Wife and The Hitch-Hiker, Part One

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Here’s an important new article by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on two key feminist films in Film International.

The image above shows director Dorothy Arzner on the set of her 1936 film Craig’s Wife, with Director of Cinematography Lucien Ballard at her side. As Foster writes, “it’s instructive to study the work of Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino in context with one another. Though at first glance, one might easily conclude that the only thing they have in common is that they were the only women who managed to direct films during the days of the classical Hollywood studio system, a deeper look into their work exposes a stronger connection between the two; an ability to decimate and undermine the values of home and hearth as they are offered in the union of marriage under the umbrella of capitalism and an expose of the hypocrisy of American gender roles as deeply sociopathic and destructive.

Dorothy Arzner’s bleak “women’s picture” Craig’s Wife (1936) a Depression era adaptation of a stage play – and I’d argue, a feminist horror film – made as a major studio project for Columbia Pictures, revolves around the sociopathy of a destructive female narcissist, while Ida Lupino’s darkly expressionist film The Hitch-Hiker (1953), is based on the true story of male serial killer independently financed, and combines elements of several genres: horror, noir, suspense, the home invasion film and the crime thriller. These films are from different decades and genres, and may seem, at first glance, to have little in common. What I find most interesting and full of critical potential is that both are dominated by sociopaths; characters who suffer from malignant narcissism who act as mirrors held up to America; and both have queer potential.

Though I must stress that they were unique as individuals and had very different directorial styles, Arzner and Lupino remain historically linked by the fact that they were the only two women in the sound era to direct films in Hollywood and the first two women to belong to the Director’s Guild. Women, who had once flourished as film directors in the silent era, had by the sound era been pushed out of the field.Yet, both these filmmakers despised the special attention the media paid to their gender and they were equally vocal about their deep distaste for such attention, even when their uniqueness as female directors was routinely used as a selling point in the studio trades and publicity materials.”

There’s much more here to read; click on this link, or the image above, to read this important essay.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Bert Beyens and Marcel Hanoun

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Bert Beyens and Marcel Hanoun in France, Summer, 2011.

A while ago, I posted on an article I’d written in Film International on the cinema of Marcel Hanoun, one of the greatest and most neglected European filmmakers of the 1960s, 70s and beyond, whose international reputation was trashed almost immediately by a series of rather unperceptive reviews of his work immediately following his American debut.

But his work is being restored now by the archivist Pip Chodorov, who contacted me after the article was published, and I was also happy to receive a very kind e-mail a few days ago from his friend Bert Beyens, head of the RITS Film School in Belgium, noting that “I met Marcel in 1976, when I was a film student in Brussels, and a retrospective of his work was held in the film museum. I was taken immediately by the 3 short and 8 long films I could watch. I got in touch with him, and we became life-long friends. For me, Hanoun in a unique filmmaker and artist.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I love this photo of Marcel and Bert in the summer of 2011; summer was one of Hanoun’s favorite seasons, and also the title of one of his best films. I hope to be able to visit Bert in Belgium sometime in 2015, and talk about Hanoun’s work with him, and perhaps his students; it seems that at last, Hanoun may be about to get the attention he so richly deserves.

Click here to read my article on the life and work of Marcel Hanoun.
For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

wheelerwinstondixon.com

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

I’ve moved my website to wheelerwinstondixon.com – follow me there!

Take a look at the image above, and you’ll see how it works.

The new website is much cleaner, has more information, and works more smoothly.

At the top left, there’s an “about” tab, where you can also download my complete cv as a pdf; next to that there are two tabs covering the 32 books that I’ve written, with the covers on display as clickable links that go directly to information on each title; next to that is a tab that goes to some 30 online articles of mine that are available out of the nearly 100 that I have written over the years; then comes a link to the Frame by Frame videos that I’ve made, with a clickable link to a carousel playlist that starts automatically and takes you through more than 70 titles; then a tab for this blog; then a tab for my film work — I have a show coming up in New York this Spring, 2014 — and finally a contact page, where you can e-mail me if you wish to.

This is where you will find me from now on; the old website is dead, so let’s move on into the future.

Some Thoughts on Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, and The Ephemeral Nature of Pop Celebrity

Saturday, December 28th, 2013

Miley Cyrus, in yellow blouse, cheers on Britney Spears at the opening night performance of her Piece of Me show at the Planet Hollywood Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, December 28, 2013.

Like everyone else who follows popular culture, I’ve been aware of Madonna, Britney Spears, and more recently Miley Cyrus, as power pop performers who deliberately court “controversy.” During the summer of 1999, when I was guest lecturing at The University of Amsterdam, Britney Spears was exploding out of every record store in the city, as well as on The Box, a 24/7 music cable television station that played Britney’s hits in heavy rotation. My Dutch students bought her CDs, played them incessantly, and her early hits became instant teen anthems.

Britney Spears was just 18 at the time, but already the ruling pop star of the era, eclipsing Madonna’s long reign as the queen of pop, something Madonna was smart enough to acknowledge and embrace, thus assuring her own continued longevity as a performer. Now, Britney Spears is 32 years old, and what seemed easy at 18 is considerably more difficult. Spears went into a well-publicized meltdown a few years back, which seemed to me an utterly genuine cry for help; shaving her head bald on impulse, acting out in public, seemingly unable to handle the undoubted pressures of stardom anymore.

Now, Britney’s back, for a two-year residency at the Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, in a glitzy, lavish show entitled Piece of Me, something out of Cirque de Soleil. The show opened to middling reviews this past Friday, December 28, 2013. Spears is committed to doing roughly 90 shows through 2015, with more in the offing if things go well. This is, make no mistake about it, a major production, whether you care for this sort of thing or not. A lot is at stake, not least of which is Britney’s continued currency as a pop icon.

It’s also very hard work; E! aired a two hour documentary on the pre-production of the show just before it opened, which actually had some substance for a change, illustrating just how many people, how much money, how much rehearsal, how much time, energy, and blood, sweat and years went into creating the entire spectacle.

Performers suffered injuries, dance routines were drilled into Britney’s surrounding ensemble in non-stop rehearsals, enormous sets built, elaborate videos shot, and in what seems to me to be a rather questionable choice simply from a safety angle, Britney spends part of the show suspended in the air on wires as an angel, and later swoops out of a giant revolving tree, also with the aid of wires, as her troupe of dancers do everything they possibly can to showcase her to best advantage.

For, truth to be told, Britney’s dance work isn’t as crisp now as it was in 1999; how could it be? She’s older now, and more careful. Watching a video of the entire concert in segments, it’s clear that Britney is leaving heavily on her support staff at this point. She needs the spectacle to prop her up, as she rockets through a medley of past hits as well some new material, with an air of detached and somewhat bewildered resignation. This is her job, she needs the money, and if this is what it takes to keep on top, she’ll dutifully hit her marks and deliver.

Yet another graduate of the Disney stable, Spears is above all a professional performer, and has been a star since she was a child. Her meltdown was all but inevitable as she morphed from teen idol into adulthood, but now she seems to be grounded in the one true ethic that always gets professionals though anything: work, work, and more work. And I personally have no doubt that she’ll get through this two year gig, hopefully bank some cash, and then perhaps consider retiring.

But in the audience on her first night, in one of the front rows, was the new pop tart of the moment, Miley Cyrus, whose recent “provocative” videos “Wrecking Ball” and “Adore You” have grabbed literally hundreds of millions of views on YouTube. She’s clearly the next big threat on the horizon. Ostensibly, Miley just came to Britney’s show, and that was all.

But in what might be construed as an incredibly smart and yet seemingly generous gesture, Miley stood in the front row throughout Britney’s entire opening night performance, not hanging back, but rather singing along to the hits word for word, exhorting the audience to higher peaks of frenzy with shrieks of delight, jumping up and down in time to the music, pumping her fist in the air, at one with the music. It was her show, too.

It was clear to me what was happening; like the famous Madonna/Britney kiss at the VMA awards at Radio City Music Hall on August 28, 2003, in which Madonna both acknowledged and passed the torch to Spears as the next ruling princess of pop, this was the moment when the past met the future. With Miley simultaneously paying court to Britney while also amplifying her own celebrity, the 21 year old pop star was there to pay homage, but also to announce to the world that she, Miley Cyrus, was the new pop diva.

After the show, Britney tweeted “@MileyCyrus Love you so much! Thank you for coming to #PieceOfMe! I adore you :) ,” and she’s right to be grateful; Miley Cyrus really pushed Britney through her all-important first night, and got plenty of publicity for her herself in the process. Help a friend out, and help yourself out at the same time; it’s very convenient. It was abundantly clear that a lot was riding on Britney’s “comeback,” and Miley’s fame and energy was certainly an asset.

But as I watched, I wondered; what will Miley feel like when she’s 32, and the white-hot blast furnace of pop fame has cooled a bit? Yet another Disney alumnus herself, Miley Cyrus may well find herself doing a residency gig in some other Vegas hotel, as the newest pop diva of the era cheers her on, while also signaling her obsolescence. One day, perhaps, Madonna, Britney and Miley will team up together for a triple threat show, say in 2023 or so, in response to the attention being paid to the next big pop female star, whomever she may be.

Audrey Totter

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

“If you haven’t got enough brains to agree with me, then keep your mouth shut. From here on in, I’m answering all the questions — got it?”

Audrey Totter, one of the great noir stars of the screen in the 1940s, has died; as Matt Schudel noted in The Washington Post, “Totter, an actress who specialized in playing temptresses, dangerous dames and women harboring dark schemes in a series of movies from Hollywood’s film noir period of the 1940s and ’50s, died Dec. 12 at a hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif. She was 95. She had congestive heart failure after a stroke, her daughter, Mea Lane, said.

Miss Totter first set the screen afire with a small but sizzling part in the 1946 noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice [. . .] Over the next several years, Miss Totter was in demand as one of Hollywood’s sexiest and most alluring actresses, often playing cynical and malevolent women who, in the words of film historian Eddie Muller, ‘had a heart as big and warm as an ice cube.’ [. . .]

‘For years nobody bothered with me — didn’ t know who I was, didn’t care,’ she told the Toronto Star in 2000. ‘Now I’m recognized on the street, I’m asked for my autograph, I get loads of fan mail. Who knew these movies would be so popular 50 years later? Maybe it’s because the world isn’t like that anymore. The fantasy of it. They painted with light in those days, it’s a look that just isn’t done anymore.”

She acted in radio dramas before going to Hollywood and signing on as a contract player with MGM. After film noir began to fade in the 1950s, she acted in westerns and television, including a recurring role as a nurse on Medical Center in the 1970s. Miss Totter’s final acting role came in 1987, when she appeared on an episode of Angela Lansbury’s Murder, She Wrote. She continued to receive offers but seldom found anything that appealed to her.

‘What could I play?’ she asked in 2000. ‘A nice grandmother? Boring! Critics always said I acted best with a gun in my hand.’”

Colin Wilson

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

Colin Wilson drinking tea in his London flat, 1957.

I was saddened to hear of the recent death of Colin Wilson, a brilliant if erratic writer who wrote at least one excellent book, The Outsider, and a raft of other volumes, numbering nearly 100 in all, with the best among them being The Mind Parasites, the first edition of Poetry and Mysticism (the revised version ruined the book), The Space Vampires, and numerous other works. Much of what he wrote was junk, and he often seemed to keep writing until he could figure out what he really wanted to say, filling up the pages in a seemingly unending stream while striving to get at some almost indefinable conclusion.

But ultimately, if he was an outsider, Wilson was essentially an optimist, which is refreshing in itself. As he told one interviewer, “in The Outsider my starting point was all those 19th century writers and artists who came to a sad end, and who ended by saying (in the words of a friend of mine) ‘the answer to life is no.’ My reaction was like that of an accountant who is reacting to the statement ‘We had better declare bankruptcy.’  [My response was] ‘No, no, no.  You’ve plenty of better alternatives.’”

One of his books, The Space Vampires, was made into a truly terrible film by Tobe Hooper, and his outrageous ego – “I suspect that I am probably the greatest writer of the 20th century,” he told the British newspaper The Guardian in 2006. “In 500 years’ time, they’ll say, ‘Wilson was a genius,’ because I’m a turning point in intellectual history” - assured his critical marginalization. But despite his faults, his best work does offer an early clue to a new direction, and for that, I will miss Colin Wilson and his work.

Happy 105th Birthday Manoel de Oliveira!

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Manoel de Oliveira, the oldest active director in film history, will be 105 years young on December 11, 2013.

As I wrote in Film Quarterly 66.2 (Winter 2012), “Manoel de Oliveira remarked on the occasion of his 103rd birthday two years ago that ‘whether we like it or not, it [death] will come one day, but generally people are not in a hurry, and I personally have never been in a hurry in my life; this is perhaps why I reached this age.’

At 105, the Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is the oldest living filmmaker still actively working within the industry, and also the filmmaker with the longest career in the cinema, having directed films since 1927, beginning with a tantalizing project on the First World War that was never completed. His first real project was completed in 1931.

If you consider that 1927 project Oliveira’s baptism in the cinema, then he’s been a director for 87 years – longer than most of us manage simply to stay alive. During all this time, he’s developed a style that is so uniquely his own as to be instantly identifiable, something like the rigorousness of Straub and Huillet with a more emotional and less didactic edge, but nevertheless still challenging for most viewers.

But the good news is that the world has finally caught up with Manoel de Oliveira after nearly a century’s worth of work; at last, he’s being acknowledged as an absolute master of the cinema. And he has a project in the works for 2014 – long live Manoel!”

You can read the entire article on JStor by clicking here.

New Book: Cinema at The Margins

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

I have a new book out today, Cinema at The Margins, from Anthem Press, London.

More and more, just a few canonical classics, such as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) or Victor Fleming’s Gone With The Wind (1939), are representing the entire output of an era to a new generation that knows little of the past, and is encouraged by popular media to live only in the eternal present. What will happen to the rest of the films that enchanted, informed and transported audiences in the 1930s, 1940s, and even as recently as the 1960s?

For the most part, these films will be forgotten, and their makers with them. In this book, I argue that even obvious historical markers such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) represent shockingly unknown territory for the majority of today’s younger viewers; and yet once exposed to these films, they are enthralled by them. In the 1980s and 1990s, the more adventurous video stores served a vital function as annals of classic cinema. Today, those stores are gone and the days of this kind of browsing are over.

This collection of essays aims to highlight some of the lesser-known films of the past – the titles that are being pushed aside and forgotten in today’s oversaturation of the present. The work is divided into four sections, rehabilitating the films and filmmakers who have created some of the most memorable phantom visions of the past century, but who, for whatever reason, have not successfully made the jump into the contemporary consciousness.

“Few have explored the cinematic margins as thoroughly as Wheeler Winston Dixon, and few match his talent for finding and celebrating the secret glories of overlooked, undervalued films. Gliding from Peter Bogdanovich to Myra Breckinridge by way of Robert Bresson, this is an exciting and ever-surprising collection.” —David Sterritt, Columbia University and Chair, National Society of Film Critics

“The marginalization of important films is a constant threat in the age of the New Hollywood blockbuster, with commercial cinema reduced to a cheap thrill and the audience conceived as adolescents. Dixon’s thoughtful remarks on neglected films testify not only to his own fine sensibility, but to the urgency of the concerns he sets before us.” —Christopher Sharrett, Seton Hall University

You can read more here, or click on the image above; available now from Amazon in all formats.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

  • War Movies
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon at one of the earliestand most enduring film genres, the war movie. […]
  • Frame By Frame - Hollywood Composers
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon highlights the most prolific Hollywood film composers. […]

In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/