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Nicholas Musuraca, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

L to R: Jane Greer, Robert Mitchum, Jacques Tourneur, and Nicholas Musuraca on the set of Out of The Past.

If you read my blog regularly, you know that I have a new book coming out in a month or so, entitled Black & White Cinema: A Short History. Writing the book was a tremendously difficult task, and I also had to cut a lot of interesting “sidebar” material that I would have liked to include to keep it at a more reasonable length. In my section on Nicholas Musuraca, one of the greatest of all Hollywood cinematographers, especially in his black and white work, I had to omit most of a fascinating 1941 interview with the cinematographer for reasons of space, so, in the run up to the book’s publication, I’m going to offer in this blog some sections on various cinematographers that aren’t in the final version of the text. Nick Musuraca seemed like an ideal place to begin.

Musuraca was a major figure in the 1940s in Hollywood, whose visual style is instantly recognizable over a wide range of films, in a career that spanned more than four decades worth of work. Although he was deeply secretive about his personal life, even with his colleagues (a brief item in American Cinematographer from February, 1941, notes that “trade-papers report Nick Musuraca, A.S.C., secretly married early last month. If it’s so — congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Nick!”) at least some of his trade secrets have come down to us through second-hand sources, and at least one interview, conducted by Walter Blanchard. This is the period in which Musuraca did his best work, the work for which he is remembered, but what is truly astonishing is how much work he did, and despite his noir typing, how many different styles of cinematography he embraced.

One of his finest efforts was his cinematography on Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), considered by many to be one of the first noir thrillers ever made, with perpetual tough guy Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey, a former private investigator who now runs a gas station in Bridgeport, California, in a futile attempt to escape his shadowy past. But when smooth crime boss Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, in one of his earliest roles) asks him to find his “girlfriend” Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who has absconded with $40,000 of Whit’s money, things just get more complex from there, and soon Jeff is smitten with Kathie, and smooth talked into betraying Whit, and, of course, as in any true noir, everything ends very badly.

As George Turner noted of the film, “Out of the Past was generously financed and shot in 64 working days (an unusually long schedule at the time), mostly on the sound stages at RKO’s Hollywood studio and the Pathe lot in Culver City, [with] extensive location scenes with several of the principals made in the Lake Tahoe area on the California-Nevada boundary and second unit work from Acapulco, New York and San Francisco…The picture united for the third and final time one of the most remarkable director-cinematographer teams the industry has produced: Jacques Tourneur and Nicholas Musuraca.

Tourneur, husky but mild-mannered, was usually relaxed and seemingly devoid of temperament on the set, always keeping his actors at their ease and relying heavily upon Musuraca’s know-how to produce the combination of mystery and visual beauty essential to these films. He did not agree with the cinematic convention that heavy drama must be lit in a low key, comedy in high key, and romance in soft focus, but that the style should be determined by the logic of the scene.

‘For example, a vast amount of real-life drama occurs in hospitals, and a modern hospital isn’t by any means a somber appearing place,’ he pointed out. ‘Everything is light-colored and glistening; what’s more, everything is pretty well illuminated — trust these medical men to see to it that there’s enough illumination everywhere to prevent eyestrain. So why should we always have things somber and gloomy when…we try to portray sad or tragic action in a hospital?’

‘In the same way, if there’s no logical reason for it, why should comedy always be lit in a high key? Sometimes your action may really demand low-key effects to put it over…all too often we’re all of us [i.e., Musuraca’s A.S.C. colleagues] likely to find ourselves throwing in an extra light here, and another there, simply to correct something which is a bit wrong because of the way one basic lamp is placed or adjusted…If, on the other hand, that one original lamp is in its really correct place and adjustment, the others aren’t needed. Any time I find myself using a more than ordinary number of light sources for a scene, I try to stop and think it out. Nine times out of ten I’ll find I’ve slipped up somewhere, and the extra lights are really unnecessary.’”

Click here, or on the image above,  for a great clip from Out of The Past.

Musuraca had a clearly defined strategy in his classical 1940s work, and the uncanny ability to size up any scene and discern almost immediately precisely what tools he would need to effectively present the desired image on the screen — and Musuraca brought this same instinct for simplicity to his exterior work, as well.  As he told Walter Blanchard in 1941,

‘The same [technique of simplicity] applies to making exterior scenes. One of the commonest sources of unnecessary complication is in overdoing filtering. Just because the research scientists have evolved a range of several score filters of different colors and densities isn’t by any means a reason that we’ve got to use them — or even burden ourselves down with them! On my own part, I’ve always found that the simplest filtering is the best. Give me a good yellow filter, for mild correction effects, and a good red or red-orange one for heavier corrections, and I’ll guarantee to bring you back almost any sort of exterior effects (other than night scenes) that you’ll need in the average production.

And by the way — when in doubt about filtering — don’t. Nine times out of ten you’re better off that way, especially if there are people in the scene. The best example of misdirected enthusiasm for filtering is in making snow-scenes. I remember a while back I was on location doing some such scenes. As we approached our first set-up, my crew came to me and asked what filter they were to use. When I told them none, they couldn’t believe me. Everyone used some sort of filter in the snow! But what have you really got to filter? Your snow will render as an extreme white, no matter what you do. The evergreens, trees, rocks and so on will come out good and dark. You’re going to have extreme contrast no matter what you do. Under these conditions the sky automatically will take its proper place in rendering a pleasing picture. So why filter?

Filter to control that contrast, you say? I don’t agree. Most filters tend to increase contrast; in snow, even a Neutral Density filter will do so, for while it may hold back the snow, it will also hold back the dark areas. My experience has been that the real secret of good snow scenes is correct exposure — correct exposure for whatever part of the scene is most important to your shot. Usually it will be the people, and especially their faces. Expose for them, and the rest of the shot is likely to be all right.

This works out in practice, too. On the occasion I mentioned, my crew couldn’t be persuaded that my decision not to use the filter was or could be correct. They were very polite about it, but I could just feel them thinking, ‘Poor old Nick — he’s a back-number!’ [i.e., “out of date”] So I told them to make one take filtering as they thought they should. The operative [cameraman] saw to it that that take was unmistakably marked ‘print’ in that day’s negative reports! He was the first man in the projection-room next day, too, when we ran the rushes.

All went well until his shot came on. It was off-balance and unbelievably contrasty. The director hit the ceiling, and the operative wished he could sink through the floor! Immediately after, the un-filtered scenes came on — and were perfect. Since then, that gang has been a whole lot less ready to suggest using filters except where they were demonstrably necessary!’”

Black & White Cinema: A Short History will be out shortly; more “trims” coming soon.

Welcome To This House: A Film About Elizabeth Bishop by Barbara Hammer

Saturday, July 11th, 2015

Barbara Hammer, one of my favorite filmmakers, has a new film out.

Barbara Hammer has been making brilliant and uncompromising independent films since the 1960s, and is still going strong, as evidenced by her recent retrospectives at The Museum of Modern Art, as well as other venues, but now comes the news that Hammer has released a new feature film on the poet Elizabeth Bishop, which I have yet to see, but which I look forward to with great anticipation.

Her work is seemingly everywhere: in the past few years, Hammer was honored with a month long retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City from September 11-October 13, 2010, and in February 2012 she had a month long retrospective at The Tate Modern in London, followed by retrospectives in Paris at Jeu de Paume in June 2012 and the Toronto International Film Festival in October 2013.

As the press materials for the film by Monica Nolan note, “poet Elizabeth Bishop has gained notoriety as much for her tempestuous romance with Lota de Macedo Soares as for her poetry. While that affair inspired a book and a movie (Reaching for the Moon), this new documentary broadens the focus and puts the Lota affair in context. Frameline24 Award recipient Barbara Hammer (whose previous films at Frameline are too numerous to list!) creates a layered portrait of the person behind the poet, from her childhood in Nova Scotia to her death in 1979.

Bishop described herself as ‘timorously kicking around the coastlines of the world,’ and the film is loosely organized around her stays in Nova Scotia, Key West, Brazil, and Cambridge—the homes she made for herself and the lovers she took. Never ‘out’ as a lesbian—the concept would have been foreign to the writer who graduated from Vassar in the thirties—Bishop nonetheless actively pursued women, from her first summer-camp crush to the May-December romance that was her last affair.

Hammer examines Bishop from all angles, interviewing everyone from literary luminaries like Marie-Claire Blais and Edmund White to Lota’s aged former maid. Hammer pulls the viewer into Bishop’s world, blending present day footage of each location with archival photos, and recreating moments in the writer’s life. Throughout the film we hear Bishop’s own words, read by Kathleen Chalfant, revealing yet another facet of a complicated and passionate woman.”

Barbara Hammer (right) with Florrie Burke. Photo: Joyce Culver.

This sounds like a typically brilliant film from Hammer, who has made over 80 moving image works in a career that spans 40 years, and is considered a pioneer of queer cinema. In the meantime, you should check out Barbara Hammer’s latest doings as chronicled on her website by clicking here, or on the image above – with news of her latest doings in the world of cinema, someone who is courageously moving forward in an era in which the arts are often pushed aside by the incessant pursuit of comic book films and other non-demanding escapist entertainment. Want some real nutrition for a change? Then check out Barbara Hammer’s work, and see what you’ve been missing.

Barbara Hammer – one of the most important independent filmmakers working in cinema today.

A Deadly Adoption – “What’s the Point?”

Sunday, June 21st, 2015

A Deadly Adoption – You Take These Things Seriously?

So now we have A Deadly Adoption – “The Birth of Plan Gone Wrong,” as the tag line would have it, and since Kristen Wiig and Will Farrell are both apparently big Lifetime movie fans, why not? When you’re in the mood to turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, a Lifetime movie is just ticket; formulaic plots, luxurious sets, bad acting, clichéd dialogue, and a thin sheen that can only come from shooting a TV movie under skull cracking pressure on a minimal budget in a matter of weeks.

But as Brian Lowry rhetorically asked in Variety, “what on Earth was the point of that? Perhaps if Will Ferrell had successfully premiered A Deadly Adoption as a completely stealth project, it would have been surprising to see him and Kristen Wiig turn up in what feels like a straight-forward Lifetime movie. As is, the producers have essentially engaged in a college-type exercise, seeing if they can replicate the predictable touches that characterize this kind of movie, for an audience that doesn’t have much sense of humor, usually, about its ’stories.’ The result? A film with something for virtually no one.”

Director Rachel Goldenberg, working from a script by Andrew Steele – which, according to Lifetime’s official press release “is a high-stakes dramatic thriller about a successful couple (Ferrell and Wiig) who house and care for a pregnant woman (Jessica Lowndes, of 90210) during the final months of her pregnancy with the hopes of adopting her unborn child” has crafted a reasonable competent thriller, in which the opening scenes of domestic bliss will soon give way a much darker reality.

Of course, it’s always that way in a Lifetime movie. Ferrell is a hyper-successful financial guru who spits out bestsellers at a torrential pace, in order to support his wife in an enormous lakeside house, which judging from all appearances must have cost between ten and twelve million dollars – a typically overblown private residence for a Lifetime movie. But there’s tension in their marriage, and we soon find out why.

In the opening minutes of the film, Wiig falls off a rotting pier on their property while three months pregnant, losing the child as a result, and narrowly escaping death herself. And, of course, she’s unable to have any more children, but at least she has an adorable moppet of her own, Sully (Alyvia Alyn Lind), but somehow, their lives seem incomplete. Will mopes around the house, and even five years later, it seems that only the patter of new little feet will cheer him up.

Cue Jessica Lowndes, who turns up at their door six months pregnant with a social worker in tow, all sweetness and light, cooing over their lavishly appointed mansion, and declaring that there’s nothing she’d like more than to turn over her newborn to the couple, to give the child a shot at a “better life.” Within minutes, Wiig and Farrell are smitten with the young woman, and promptly move her into one of their many spare bedrooms for the final three months of her pregnancy, but of course, nothing is what it seems.

With typically sun-dappled cinematography, copious use of slow motion in the “noooooooo” sequences, a cozy small town atmosphere that reminds one of Cabot Cove on Murder, She Wrote, along with a sympathetic but somewhat clueless gay friend who tries to help the couple when things go wrong – which they naturally have to in a Lifetime movie – but pays dearly for his good intentions, A Deadly Adoption is two movies fighting against each other, with neither one fully winning out. Indeed, Farrell’s scenes almost seem to be from a different project altogether.

Wiig plays her role of the resolute wife and mother with conviction, and displays considerable skill as a straight dramatic actor; Ferrell, on the other hand, seems to sleepwalk through his role, and is off-screen for much the film’s running time. The other main character is Lowndes’ real boyfriend, the scummy sociopath Dwayne Tinsdale (Jake Weary), who also delivers a solid performance in an utterly one-dimensional role. You want violence, kidnapping, attempted murder, robbery – whatever – you got it.

All of this plays out with “ever increasing menace” in a predictable two-hour time frame, and none of it believable in the slightest. At time parodic, especially when Ferrell dominates his scenes, and at times pure camp melodrama, A Deadly Adoption in really neither funny enough, or compelling enough, to really command the viewer’s attention. But naturally, as a celebration of 25 years of Lifetime Movies, all 360 of them and counting, A Deadly Adoption is getting excellent ratings, and was actually screened back to back three times on the night of its premiere, June 20th, to encourage repeat binge viewing.

As A&E Networks senior VP of original movies Tanya Lopez and VP of original movies Arturo Interian told Dan Snierson in Entertainment Weekly, when asked simply “how did this happen?” Lopez replied that “I don’t know if we’ll ever know whether it was a bet from a group of friends or he really wanted to do it . . .We weren’t clear if it was going to be authentic, if it really was going to be this murder story. . . It’s not a comedy. And it’s well-done.”

Interian chimed in that “it’s not the Scary Movie parody of a Lifetime movie. He wanted to legitimately do a Lifetime sexual thriller . . . The initial plan was to put on the air with zero fanfare. Just sneak it on. You were going to see promos that were kind of oblique, it’s A Deadly Adoption. A thriller promo. You’re not sure who’s in it. It was interesting that the story leaked and that’s what threw us. We thought we had it under wraps.”

Well, it’s under wraps no more, and while it will certainly raise Wiig’s profile, and might even get her a shot in a more ambitious project, something like Monster perhaps – she actually has the skill set for it – it’s back to deadpan comedy for Will Farrell, who doesn’t seem to know how to play it straight. Even when you’re supposed to feel sympathy for his somewhat tortured if deeply privileged character, you don’t. He always seems just on the edge of cracking a smile, as if the whole project is beneath him in some sense.

Which of course, it is, but as the actor Christopher Lee observed shortly before his death, looking back on his long 250 plus film career, “every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.” It’s sound advice, and Wiig can pull it off, while Lowndes gives it everything she’s got from sweet to psycho, no matter how many costume changes and hairstyle revamps she goes through, but Farrell seems to know that he’s slumming.

And, of course, he’s right. But the way to get the most out of a script like this is to play it absolutely seriously, right down the line, and savor each exquisitely overripe moment, which is the essence of the Lifetime zeitgeist. I can’t say much more without giving some pivotal plot points away, although you’ll almost certainly see them coming from ten miles off – indeed, I was actually able to recite the dialogue for most of the film before it was even spoken, no kidding – but just like anything which verges on camp, you’re best off if you just jump in, and accept it on its own terms.

No matter how over-the-top Lifetime movies are – and indeed, they traffic in nothing less than deliriously wretched excess in nearly every department, from scripts to sets to wall-to-wall music scores, there’s a grain of truth in them which keeps them centered in some sort of alternative reality. As Lopez noted, “We did a movie called The Pregnancy Pact that scored a high rating. The idea was pregnancy was on the rise and they came to it in a voyeuristic way. But the issue was top of mind for women and for young girls, yet it wasn’t something that was being talked about . . .

We talk about that a lot: ‘Now we’re giving you the platform. What are you using it for?’ So that we’re not just saying, ‘Wow, a lot of girls got pregnant there.’ It was much more: ‘What is our call to action? Our call to action is awareness.’ And it’s not in an overt after-school special way. And that calls to how much smarter the movies have to be, so that people don’t feel they are being preached to, or that it is a clear social issue. Which is how I think movies in the past were developed.”

In short, in their own mad mind, at least, Lifetime movies have some sort of tenuous connection to a society which is also spinning utterly out on control, in which everyday the web churns up more bizarre scandal and sensation that even the trashiest pop novelist could ever conjure up in his or her wildest dreams. A Deadly Adoption thus seems to want it both ways – parody and straight-ahead melodrama – but only Wiig, Lowndes, and Weary have the conviction to pull it off. For Ferrell, the whole thing is a joke from start to finish, no matter how much he may like to relax with a Lifetime movie in his off hours.

It’s not a failure, it’s not a success, it’s just there, going through the motions, which makes the final product unsatisfying, and also rather unmemorable, but then again, there will be another Lifetime movie next week with totally unknown actors, eager for their break, and they’ll give it everything they’ve got, because as tabloid as it is, they’ll completely embrace the material. That movie might help someone’s career. It might have some real intensity. And that’s what it takes to make a real Lifetime movie.

Still, it’s an interesting experiment, demonstrating how just how formulaic the genre is.

TCM Partners With Women in Film

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

As Lisa de Moraes reports in Deadline Hollywood, “Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and Women In Film Los Angeles have joined forces for a multi-year partnership dedicated to raising awareness about the lack of gender equality in the industry, while celebrating the achievements of women who have succeeded in film.

TCM has earmarked the month of October for the next three consecutive years for the programming initiative. The network will present films from female industry icons, and provide context on the historical and current states of the representation of women in the film industry.

The month-long programming initiative hopes to take a deeper look at gender inequality in the film industry, and will tackle pro-social elements (research, resources, tools, etc) to assist women filmmakers in furthering their careers. Women in Film Los Angeles will partner with TCM throughout this programming initiative to offer research and resources.

‘The issue of gender inequality in the film industry is both timely and immensely important to shine a light on,’ said TCM’s general manager Jennifer Dorian. ‘We’re thrilled to partner with such a well-respected organization as Women in Film in order to address and promote the empowerment of women in our industry.’

‘For years, I have dreamed of having a network reach out to our organization with a true interest in our advocacy and the ability to collaborate on programming that will reach audiences everywhere,’ WIF President, Cathy Schulman said in today’s announcement.

In April, WIF and Sundance released results of a study they conducted that concluded men outnumbered women 23-to-1 as directors of the 1,300 top-grossing films since 2002, and found gender stereotyping to be one of the main reasons for the disparity.”

An excellent idea – long overdue.

Dreams of Jules Verne: Karel Zeman’s Invention of Destruction

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

I have a new article in Senses of Cinema #75 on Karel Zeman’s classic film Invention of Destruction.

As I write, in part, “Like so many others in the United States, I was first exposed to Karel Zeman’s exotic adventure film Vynález zkázy (Invention of Destruction, 1958), when it was released in the West in a dubbed and retitled as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne in 1961. Zeman was one of the greatest of all Czech animators and special effects artists, and used a process unique in Vynález zkázycombining 19th century pictorial steel engravings with live action photography. This created a fantastic vision of what can be identified today as a steampunk past, where elaborate mechanical devices, hot air balloons, oddly constructed airplanes, submarines, and other infernal machines were brought to life in a manner at once poetic and yet deeply sinister.

Jules Verne (1928-1905) was in many ways one of the most forward thinking of all imaginative popular writers, and his works were both commercially and critically successful. Films such as De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to The Moon, 1865, famously made into an early film by Georges Méliès in 1902), Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, 1869-1870), Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1872), and L’Île mystérieuse (Mysterious Island, 1874-75) consolidated his reputation as a prolific and prophetic futurist. Verne’s works have been filmed countless times, either as straight adaptations or updated versions, but Zeman’s film stands alone as perhaps the most faithful of all filmic versions of Verne on the screen. It embraces not only his then-fanciful (and now all too real) vision of the future, but also remains faithful to the iconic images of Verne’s own era.”

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

Maggie Gyllenhaal “Too Old” To Play A Romantic Lead – Hollywood

Monday, June 1st, 2015

Maggie Gyllenhaal speaks out on an issue of real concern in Hollywood, and actually, in cinema worldwide.

As Margarita Noriega, Jonathan Allen, and Javier Zarracina report in Vox, “Maggie Gyllenhaal rapped Hollywood last week by revealing she was turned down for a role as the love interest of a 55-year-old leading man because she was ‘too old.’ She is 37. Her experience frustrated and surprised many, and we wanted to know just how typical it is of the way Hollywood really works.

A woman’s sex appeal sunsets on Sunset Boulevard in remarkably shorter time than its genetic reality, and Gyllenhaal’s story is part of a trend of female leads disappearing from romantic roles in top box office films after the actors turn 30. The average age of a romantic female lead is about 30.

In a review of the top-grossing romantic films since 1978, among the two primary romantic subgenres (comedies and dramas) the average age of female leads is about 30 [see the complete chart here].

Only a handful of actresses over 30 played romantic leads in these films, and usually as older seductresses of young men. And if they’re women of color, forget it. On the big screen, women go from Lolitas to Yentes so fast it seems like they’re living in dog years.

Just 12 percent of the 100 top-grossing films last year had female protagonists, says Patricia White, chair of film and media studies at Swarthmore College: ‘The disparity corresponds to erroneous market wisdom that only films by, about, and targeted to men (especially young ones) make money. Films are judged by opening weekend grosses with worldwide releases now common.’”

As Gyllenhaal told Sharon Waxman in The Wrap, “there are things that are really disappointing about being an actress in Hollywood that surprise me all the time. I’m 37 and I was told recently I was too old to play the lover of a man who was 55. It was astonishing to me. It made me feel bad, and then it made me feel angry, and then it made me laugh.”

Read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above – essential reading.

Simon Denny – All You Need Is Data

Saturday, May 30th, 2015

Artist Simon Denny nails the darker side of the headlong rush to digital – the loss of humanity.

In his new show at MoMA PS1, which originally appeared in an earlier version Germany in 2012, artist Simon Denny critiques the culture of endless data, acquisition, and money as the ultimate value in an impressive installation entitled “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” based on the concept that “All You Need Is Data,” an obvious and ironic spin on the Beatles’ oft-repeated, if somewhat simplistic mantra, “All You Need Is Love.”

As the museum notes of the exhibition, “Denny’s work often refers to the psychology and abstract language of the new media economy, invoking ‘clouds’ of big data and the constant pressure to ‘update’ our lives. He typically finds the sources for his work within the materials, advertising, and packaging produced by technology and media companies, and often deploys graphic interfaces borrowed from commercial display to highlight connections between the utopian goals of the new media economy and those of historical modernism.”

Ken Johnson reviewed the show for The New York Times, observing that “in a recent column for The New York Times, the economist Paul Krugman argued that the benefits of the digital technology revolution of the past four decades have been greatly overestimated. The new technologies, he suggested, might be ‘more fun than fundamental.’ Worse, euphoric media chatter about how they’re changing the world for the better ‘acts as a distraction from more mundane issues,’ like putting people to work in usefully productive jobs.

In a similar vein, ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma,’ a hyperactive multimedia extravaganza by the Berlin-based artist Simon Denny at MoMA PS 1, takes down such irrational exuberance about technology and does it with sardonic verve. Along the way, it indirectly damns the high-end art market’s own inflationary mania. If Mr. Denny doesn’t get to the bottom of what’s causing the sociopathology infecting both industries, his show is certainly a rousing conversation starter . . .

To contemporary art followers, Mr. Denny’s strategies of satirical appropriation and parodic simulation might not appear particularly novel. Those who keep up with business journalism might find little of it especially newsworthy. Nevertheless, the combination of form and content makes for a persuasive protest against soulless capitalism.

In his catalog essay, Peter Eleey, PS 1’s chief curator and the show’s organizer, notes the obvious parallel of the tech industry’s drive to innovate to the contemporary art world’s hunger for the new and to today’s billionaire-inflated art market, with its proliferating fairs and private museums. It’s not an exact parallel: Old art may rise or fall in market value, but it usually doesn’t become worthless the way obsolete electronic devices do. But you get the idea.

In any case, there’s a deeper level of insight that Mr. Denny doesn’t quite crystallize, which has to do less with new technology than with money and how money disrupts and corrupts non-monetary values. As the title character of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, on discovering buried gold, put it, ‘Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair/Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.’

What happens in a society and culture where money becomes the measure of all things and technological innovation becomes just a way to make more money faster?”

More is less, and more wants more – I’d add another quote from Psalm 39.6 in the King James Bible, “Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.”

I’d say that this more than applies here – what’s the point of this endless acquisition, numbering of word patterns, the endless roll out of time wasting video games, the non-stop proliferation of useless apps and devices that separate us more and more from each other, plunging us into a wilderness of supposed “tech innovation?”

I’m with Simon Denny – I’ve seen the future, and it doesn’t work – for humans.

Víctimas del pecado

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Ninón Sevilla was one of the greatest stars of the Mexican cinema.

As Wikipedia notes, “Emelia Pérez Castellanos (born in Havana, Cuba 10 November 1921; died in Mexico City 1 January 2015), better known as Ninón Sevilla, was a Cuban born Mexican film actress and dancer who was active during the golden age of Mexican cinema. She was considered one of the greatest exponents of the Rumberas film in the 1940s and 1950s.

Sevilla was born and raised in Centro Habana, a popular section of Havana. As a youth, she thought about becoming a missionary nun, but after she started dancing with success in nightclubs and cabarets, she opted for a career in show business. She adopted her stage name in tribute to the legendary French courtesan Ninon de Lenclos and began to work in the chorus of the Cuban comedians Mimí Cal and Leopoldo Fernández, respectively known as ‘Nananina’ and ‘Tres Patines.’

Sevilla came to Mexico as part of a show starring the Argentinean singer Libertad Lamarque. Her number in the show was so successful that she was soon booked in other spectacles in Mexico City. While performing in the Teatro Lírico, producer Pedro Arturo Calderón saw Sevilla on stage and offered her a film contract. Her debut in cinema was in 1946 in Carita de Cielo with María Elena Marqués and Antonio Badú. From that moment, Sevilla became the exclusive star of Producciones Calderón, and although she had offers from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Columbia Pictures, she turned them down, not being interested in working in Hollywood.

Although from the beginning Sevilla was marked by the eccentricity of her hairdos and gowns, it was director Alberto Gout who established her as one of the ultimate erotic figures of Mexican cinema, leading her in legendary films as Aventurera (1949), and Sensualidad (1950). Besides being directed by Gout also in Mujeres sacrificadas (1952) and Aventura en Río (1953), she also worked with Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández. who directed her in one of the best films of her career, the classic Víctimas del Pecado (1951).” When work in films dried up, Sevilla went straight into television, becoming a regular in telenovelas, and thus continued to work in the industry in one form or another from 1946 up until 2014 – the year before her death.

In the deliriously over-the-top Víctimas del pecado, she plays nightclub dancer Violeta, who impulsively rescues an abandoned infant who has literally been thrown in the trash by its mother, and raises the boy as her own, despite the machinations of two rival club owners, resorting to prostitution at one point simply to keep food on the table for herself and her informally adopted son. However, the boy’s father, the brutal Don Rodolfo (Tito Junco) does everything he can to destroy Violeta’s fragile existence, leading to a suitably violent conclusion.

Too long neglected by American audiences, the films of Emilio Fernández offer an authentic view into the demimonde of mid-20th century Mexico City. Those who remember him solely as an actor at the end of his career in films such as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch are missing the work of an impassioned artist, whose bleak mise en scene makes even a film like Luis Buñuel’s brilliant Los Olvidados – both films were photographed by the gifted Gabriel Figueroa, another major figure in the Mexican cinema – seem restrained by comparison.

Most of Sevilla and Fernández’s work has never reached English-speaking audiences, but a recent DVD transfer of excellent quality now makes this film available to a much wider audience. It’s just another example of an unjustly neglected film of real depth and power that has been overlooked by conventional cinema history, and definitely deserves re-evaluation. Once seen, never forgotten, Víctimas del pecado is a violent, sensual, almost surreal film that nevertheless remains firmly anchored in the world of the slums of Mexico City, where hope is in short supply, and violence – and the fates – are the ultimate arbiters of human affairs.

View the uncut Spanish language version, without English subtitles, by clicking here, or on the image above.

New Book: Cinema and Counter-History by Marcia Landy

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

Marcia Landy has a brilliant new book on memory, history, and future of cinema.

As the book’s website notes, “Despite claims about the end of history and the death of cinema, visual media continue to contribute to our understanding of history and history-making. In this book, Marcia Landy argues that rethinking history and memory must take into account shifting conceptions of visual and aural technologies.

With the assistance of thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Cinema and Counter-History examines writings and films that challenge prevailing notions of history in order to explore the philosophic, aesthetic, and political stakes of activating the past. Marshaling evidence across European, African, and Asian cinema, Landy engages in a counter-historical project that calls into question the certainty of visual representations and unmoors notions of a history firmly anchored in truth.”

As scholar Dana Polan says of Cinema and Counter-History, “once again, Marcia Landy impressively, masterfully, combines her well-known talents for broad critical reflection for trenchant close reading of individual films to produce ground-breaking theorization of cinema’s powers to both make and remake historical meaning and to counter dominant cultural representations. A far-reaching study with major insights at every turn.”

To which I can only add that when I received this volume, I devoured it, and found it to be an amazing synthesis of cultural history and theoretically ambitious connections, which pulls in films from both the past and present, foreign and domestic, to create a rich tapestry of cinematic history. A dazzling piece of work, which lingers long in the mind after you put it down – astonishing in scope, breadth, and erudition. Clearly, Landy has been working on this volume for a long time, and the result is more than worth the wait.

Highly recommended – an elegant, ambitious, and audacious book.

Cannes – The Final Wrap Up

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

The winners and losers, from Neil Curry of CNN. Above, director Yared Zeleke and the cast of his film Lamb.

As Curry wrote, “comeback stars, the darlings of the festival, standing ovations and incessant booing: the Festival de Cannes has delivered entertainment on and off screen for an astounding 67 years. French filmmaker Jacques Audiard took home the Palme d’Or for Dheepan, a crime drama about a Sri Lankan Tamil warrior who flees to France. Silver — the Grand Prix award — went to Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul. And the award considered the third prize of the film festival, the Prix Du Jury, was won by Yorgos Lanthimos for The Lobster.

These were the top award winners, though they don’t tell the whole story of the festival. What are this year’s success stories and who is left longing for a better ending? Here’s a run through of the frontrunners and the fiascoes: The winners: – Carol – Todd Haynes’ movie about two American women in love during the 1950s was a huge hit with critics and set the benchmark for the festival early in the program. Regardless of its success at Cannes, critics here have been talking breathlessly about a raft of Academy Awards come Oscar time next year . . .

Two of the best-received movies during the Cannes fortnight weren’t even in the competition. Mad Max showed Marvel’s Avengers that you don’t need CGI (computer-generated imagery) and green screen to create a thrilling, jaw-dropping action film. And Pixar’s Pete Docter — whose Oscar-winning animated epic “Up” opened the 2009 Cannes festival — returned to even greater acclaim with Inside Out, a charming and hilarious depiction of a testing chapter in a young girl’s life seen through the emotions inside her mind.

Ethiopia’s first ever entry into the Cannes competition came courtesy of director Yared Zeleke. Lamb was an engaging tale of a young boy seeking enterprising ways to save his fleecy friend. But it lost out to Rams by Icelandic director Grimur Hakonarson, who took the top prize in the Uncertain Regard section with a tale of two elderly brothers whose 40-year dispute is reluctantly put on hold by a threat to their sheep farms.

The losers: Gus Van Sant has long been a Cannes favorite, winning the Palme d’Or in 2003 with his film Elephant. But Cannes can make and break reputations and his latest film, Sea of Trees, was roundly panned by critics here — booed at the press screening and barracked in the reviews that followed [maybe it's because of all those car commercials].  The film features Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe pontificating about life in a forest where people go to die. One particularly barbed commentator suggested the film was the worst ever to feature in the main competition . . .

[And then there was the "Flatgate" affair.] The media camped at Cannes had a field day with this scandal. The story was broken by Screen Daily, which reported that a number of women had been turned away from the movie Carol for wearing flat shoes instead of high heels. Documentary director Asif Kapadia (whose film Amy about the late singer Amy Winehouse was a big hit at the festival) revealed his wife had also been challenged about her footwear, but was eventually admitted . . .

A growing number of festivals, museums and visitor attractions are banning the selfie-stick, and Cannes entered the debate from the outset when Fremaux announced a campaign to discourage selfies on the red carpet, describing the practice as ‘grotesque.’ But his words fell on deaf ears as the stars ignored the advice and couldn’t resist the temptation to document their moment on the famous Cannes catwalk. On one night alone, there were more than 100 offenders.

While many critics lavished praise on Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard for their performances in Macbeth, the titular Scottish titan mumbled the Bard’s lines so much that English speakers complained they were forced to read the French subtitles to understand what he was saying. And Shakespeare took a hit in the opening credits, relegated to fourth place behind the film’s three screenwriters.”

Well, that was interesting – until next Spring, then!

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

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

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