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Archive for the ‘Criticism’ Category

Le Silence de la mer (1949) by Jean-Pierre Melville

Friday, February 27th, 2015

Nicole Stéphane in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la mer (1949).

Le Silence de la mer, Melville’s first feature film, was shot in 1949 on a shoestring budget, based on the novel of the same name by Jean Bruller, under the pen name of Vercours.The plot is simple: a German lieutenant, Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) moves in with a rural French family during the Nazi occupation of World War II, consisting of an old man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane), who refuse to speak to him during the time he is billeted there. Courteous, cultured, and superficially charming, von Ebrennac is an impractical idealist, who is proud of German heritage and culture, but who also believes that in the end, the war will serve a common good; the uniting of Germany and France, and the intermingling of each nation’s cultures.

Night after night, von Ebrennac emerges from his bedroom upstairs with the deepest politeness, and engages in a series of seemingly endless monologues about the future of France and Germany, the cultural history of both nations, his childhood and upbringing, his first romance, and his faith in the Nazi hierarchy. During all the time, the uncle and his niece say not a single word to von Ebrennac, who despite his position of power, doesn’t threaten or intimidate them, but rather longingly expresses his hope that someday the two nations will “marry,” while making obvious allusions to his attraction to the old man’s niece.

One day, von Ebrennac announces that he has been called to Paris to meet with the Nazi hierarchy. Here Melville manages to blend newsreel footage of the Occupation with staged footage of Vernon, as von Ebrennac, taking in the sights, and reveling in the city’s cultural atmosphere. A music composer during peacetime, von Ebrennac doesn’t really know how barbaric the Nazi regime is, until one functionary tells him of the death camps at Treblinka, and later, a group of Nazi officers at a party reveal that their true plan is to crush French culture entirely, to destroy the entire nation down to the ground so that it can then be rebuilt according to Hitler’s plans, stating that “only technical books” in French will be allowed – everything else, modern or old, will be summarily destroyed.

Von Ebrennac finds this impossible to believe, but gradually realizes that he has been duped into joining the Nazi cause. When he returns to the old man’s house, von Ebrennac relates the story of his “grave” discovery in detail, one which he finds impossible to accept. Finally comprehending the monstrous nature of the regime he so blindly supported, von Ebrennac files an application for active duty on the Eastern Front, where he will almost surely be killed. As he puts it, I’m “off to Hell.” A last shot suggests that he may disobey future orders given to him by the Nazi regime, but this is left unresolved.

Shot in Bruller’s own house in 27 non-consecutive days by the great Henri Decaë – his first film as a Director of Cinematography – Le silence de la mer manages to pull off a neat trick; though it’s utterly claustrophobic in design and execution, and is essentially a series of monologues by Von Ebrennac, the film is continually visually inventive, and through an intricate design of fade in / fade outs and wipes, weaves a spell over the viewer, who soon becomes invested not only in Von Ebrennac’s coming to consciousness, but also in the outcome of the narrative – how on earth will this battle of wills be resolved?

Some have described it as a love story, but if so, it’s one that never really announces itself; the niece may indeed be a sort of stand-in for France as a whole, but this is never unduly emphasized. Instead, the film explores what happens when a tyrannical regime recruits an aesthete, and what then transpires when that person discovers he’s been deceived. Bruller wrote the novel in 1941; it was published clandestinely during the Occupation, and circulated by members of the Resistance, during a time when the possession of single copy of the work was punishable by death. Bruller was initially resistant to the idea of adapting his novel to film, despite offering the use of his house as a shooting location, and stipulated that when the film was completed, it would have to pass a “jury test” by 27 members of the former Resistance, to see if it was faithful to the novel, and should be released.

If the jury voted against the film, Melville promised to burn the negative and all prints. Thankfully, only one member of this “jury” voted against the film, and now it has been digitally restored in glorious fashion, first by Eureka DVD in Europe, and now in the United States from Criterion. This is a superb, one of a kind film – and a real window not only into the past of cinema, but also to an era in which films were made for the sake of art, rather than commerce – when individual talent was sufficient to overcome all financial and practical obstacles. And, of course, although he loved film noir and American crime films, Melville never sold out and went Hollywood – instead, he remained an individual and committed artist, something that’s completely rare these days.

You can see the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

New Essay – Humanities in the Digital Era

Friday, February 13th, 2015

I have a new essay on “humanities in the digital era” in the web journal Film International – here’s a link.

As I argue, “We live in the age of the visible invisible; everything is supposedly available to us online, but in fact, only a small fraction of the knowledge and culture of even the most recent past is available on the web. The digitization of our culture is now an accomplished fact; physical media is disappearing, books are being harvested from library shelves and thrown into the anonymity of high density storage, digital facsimiles of these documents are often illegible or hidden behind pay walls. It’s a world of never-ending passwords, permissions, and a whole new group of “gatekeepers,” which the digital revolution was supposed to do away with, in which everyone got a place at the table. In fact, it has created a far more intrusive and much less intuitive group of cultural taste makers in place of the 20th century regime of editors, writers, critics and the like; technology specialists, who, really don’t understand the humanities at all, and are, in fact alarmed by the amorphousness of humanist work – after all, you know, it’s just so unquantifiable.

As Wieseltier notes, in part, in the January 7th issue of the NYT Sunday Book Review, ‘aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different. We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof. Presumptions of obsolescence, which are often nothing more than the marketing techniques of corporate behemoths, need to be scrupulously examined. By now we are familiar enough with the magnitude of the changes in all the spheres of our existence to move beyond the futuristic rhapsodies that characterize much of the literature on the subject. We can no longer roll over and celebrate and shop. Every phone in every pocket contains a “picture of ourselves,” and we must ascertain what that picture is and whether we should wish to resist it. Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.’

Needless to say, Wieseltier’s essay has touched a real nerve among both humanists and the digerati - you can read some responses here - some agreeing with him, and some not, but for me, it seems that more often than not, he hits the mark straight on. As one reader, Carl Witonksy, wrote in response, ‘Leon Wieseltier’s essay should be required reading and discussion by all college students, regardless of major. Technology is penetrating every aspect of their lives, and they should come to grips with its pluses and minuses,’ while Cynthia M. Pile, co-chair of the Columbia University Seminar in the Renaissance, added that ‘for the humanities, the library is the laboratory, and books and documents are the petri dishes containing the ideas and records of events under study. We use the Internet, to be sure, and are grateful for it. But its rapid and careless ascent has meant that we cannot rely on it for confirmation of reality or of fact.’

Pile goes on to note that ‘we require direct observation of material (stone, wood, ink, paper and parchment) documents, manuscripts and printed books, which we then subject to critical, historical analysis. We also require that these materials be spread out in front of us to analyze and compare with one another, like the scientific specimens they are. In great research libraries (which used to be the hearts of great universities), these were formerly available on site, so that an idea could be confirmed or contradicted on the spot. Instead, today librarians are taught that a delay of several days while a book is fetched from a warehouse dozens, or even hundreds, of miles away — to the detriment of the book — is irrelevant to our work. This is false. Our work is impeded by these assumptions, based on technological dreams, not on reality.’

I’ve seen the impact of this in many fields of the arts, which are now faced with a crisis unlike anything since the Middle Ages – the cultural work of the past is being relegated to archives, museums, and warehouses, and despite claims to the contrary, is not available in any meaningful way to the general public or students. Great swaths of material have been left unscanned and unindexed, and with the demise of paper copies becomes essentially unobtainable. Browsing through library stacks is not only a pleasurable experience; it is also an essential part of the discovery process and intellectual investigation. You come in, presumably, looking for one book, but now you find another. And another. And another. They’re all together in one section on the shelves. You’re not calling for a specific text, which would give you only one side of any given question – you have immediate access to them all, and can pick and choose from a wide variety of different perspectives. Now, it seems that only the eternal present is with us.

I wrote an essay that touched on some of these issues a few years ago for The College Hill Review about working in New York in the 1960s as part of the community of experimental filmmakers, aptly entitled ‘On The Value of “Worthless” Endeavor,‘ in which I noted – again, in part – that ‘the only art today is making money, it seems; in fact, today, there are plaques all over New York identifying where this artist, or that artist, used to have a studio; today, all the locations are now office buildings or bank . . . it seems that no one has time or money for artistic work, when, in fact, such work would redeem us as a society, as it did in the 1930s when Franklin Roosevelt put artists to work, and then sold that work, to get that segment of the economy moving again. Now, the social conservativism that pervades the nation today belatedly recognizes the power of “outlaw” art, and no longer wishes to support it, as it might well prove — in the long run — dangerous.

Money can create, but it can also destroy. Out of economic privation, and the desperate need to create, the artists [of the 1960s] created works of lasting resonance and beauty with almost no resources at their disposal, other than the good will and assistance of their colleagues; a band of artistic outlaws. These artists broke the mold of stylistic representation . . . and offered something new, brutal, and unvarnished, which confronted audiences with a new kind of beauty, the beauty of the outsider, gesturing towards that which holds real worth in any society that prizes artistic endeavor. It’s only the work that comes from the margins that has any real, lasting value; institutional art, created for a price, or on commission, documents only the powerful and influential, but doesn’t point in a new direction. It’s the work that operates off the grid, without hype or self-promotion, under the most extreme conditions, that has the greatest lasting value, precisely because it was made under such difficult circumstances.’

In his brilliant film Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard depicted a futuristic dystopia - in 1965! – in which an entire civilization is run by a giant computer, Alpha 60, which directs and supervises the activities of all its inhabitants; a computer that is absolutely incapable of understanding nuance, emotion, or the chance operations of something like, for instance, Surrealism or poetry. As the supervisor of the computer and all its operations, one Professor Von Braun (played by Howard Vernon; the symbolism is obvious) is pitted against the humanist Secret Agent Lemmy Caution (the always excellent Eddie Constantine), who has been sent from the ‘Outerlands’ to destroy the computer and restore humanity to Alphaville. As Von Braun warns Lemmy, ‘men of your type will soon become extinct. You’ll become something worse than dead. You’ll become a legend.’ And as if to confirm this, Alpha 60 instructs his subjects that ‘no one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.’

But, of course, it isn’t, and while the end of Alphaville strikes a positive note – technology reined in by Lemmy’s timely intervention, I can’t be so sure that this time, in real life, that there will be a happy ending. When a society no longer has bookstores, or record stores, or theaters because – supposedly – everything is online and streaming – when corporations make decisions, guided by the bottom line alone, as to what materials are disseminated and which remain in oblivion – and when mass culture alone – the popularity index – determines what works are allowed to find any audience, we’re in trouble. If you don’t know something is there, then you can’t search for it. Works buried in an avalanche of digital materials – and please remember that I am someone who contributes to this, and publishes now almost exclusively in the digital world – lose their currency and importance, just as libraries continue to discard books that later wind up on Amazon for one cent, in hardcover editions, where those of us who care about such work snap it up – until it’s gone forever.

What will the future hold for those of us in the humanities? It’s a really serious question – perhaps the most important question facing us as scholars right now. Alpha 60 rightly recognized Lemmy Caution as a threat, and had him brought in for questioning, telling Lemmy that ‘I shall calculate so that failure is impossible,’ to which Lemmy replied ‘I shall fight so that failure is possible.’ The work of technology is valuable and useful, and without it, we would be stuck entirely in the world of physical media, which would mark an unwelcome return to the past. But in the headlong rush to digital technology, we shouldn’t sacrifice the sloppiness, the uncertainty, the messiness that comes from the humanities in all their uncertain glory, representing widely divergent points of view, with the aid of ready access to the works of the past, which, after all, inform and help to create the present, as well as what is to come. As Lemmy Caution tells Alpha 60, ‘the past represents its future. It advances in a straight line, yet it ends by coming full circle.’”

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

Nathaniel Carlson on Manoel de Oliveira’s “Inquietude”

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

Here’s a great review of Manoel de Oliveira’s superb film Inquietude by Nathaniel Carlson in Offscreen.

As Carlson notes, “even within the already established challenges of Manoel de Oliveira’s body of work, Inquietude stands out for its unique difficulty. For the sake of convenience and an initial direct access, it’s easy enough to allot a general theme to most of the other films (e.g. Vale Abraão is about beauty, O Convento is about evil, La Lettre is about love, etc.). This at least allows for some means of approach, but Inquietude defies any such orderly schematic. What is it about finally? One is tempted to say death or immortality or notions of the eternal but somehow even these broad terms do not seem adequate enough.

Finally, it really must be that titular disquiet, an existential unease or angst. But this is even more vague than usual, given that it describes a foundational condition upon which everything else is built or develops. It’s a self-awareness that gives rise to poetry, philosophy, the specific conditions of human cognition itself (the comprehension of immortality as an idealized quality, for example). The synthesis brought about by this shifting set of contexts and active agents produces a surfeit of meaning. One character demonstrates the effect of that supercharge of ambiguity in noting on a friend’s lover: ‘She is dead. In your mind, she is not the same.’

Narratively and structurally the film is a triptych. The three stories it contains are laid out in an interwoven, interdependent form. The first is a rather confined, even claustrophobic, extended dialogue between an aged, successful scientist father and his almost equally acclaimed middle aged son. The discussion centers around insuring a lasting legacy (i.e. immortality) and the means by which to secure it (i.e. suicide at the peak of one’s renown). This broad comedy verges often on farce and, once it pitches irretrievably over the edge, is revealed as a theater performance witnessed by characters from the second story, one set within the upper tier environment of Portuguese society in what would appear to be the early part of the twentieth century.

In this section, the unnamed male lead is troubled by his love for a courtesan, Suzy. Eventually he is comforted by a friend who tells him a mythic folk tale which in turn is also told to us cinematically. In it, a dissatisfied young peasant girl in an isolated rural area assumes the identity of Mother of the River from another woman, virtually immortal, who has grown dissatisfied herself with the role. The transitions between these stories could not be more readily apparent and clearly administered. What the implication of their association is cannot be so easily assessed. As is remarked by the friend in the second story: ‘There’s a connection and yet none at all.’”

You can read the entire essay by clicking hereor click on the image above to see the trailer.

Filmmaking Tips from Mike Leigh

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Landon Palmer offers six filmmaking tips from master British realist Mike Leigh in Film School Rejects.

As Palmer writes, “Mike Leigh is one of few filmmakers who could say something like, ‘given the choice of Hollywood and poking steel pins in my eyes, I’d prefer steel pins’ without suggesting even a hint of hyperbole. Leigh is deeply principled in terms of the dramatics, process, and politics of filmmaking, and we’re all the better off for it. The filmmaker made a name for himself with acutely humanist works of British social realism that bore some inheritance to the ‘kitchen sink’ tradition, but imbue drama with a type of wit, spontaneity, and empathy that is simply inimitable. Leigh’s patient, improvisatory, and collaborative process appears seriously counterintuitive from the perspective of commercial filmmaking, and as a result produces human dramas that are deeply felt and strikingly insightful.

And in his early seventies – after making a dozen feature films and even more TV programs – Leigh is still finding new, seemingly unlikely means of representing life through the moving image. His most recent film, Mr. Turner, was his first to be shot digitally. It’s a surprising move for a period piece, but Leigh and longtime cinematographer Dick Pope use the relatively new technology of capturing 21st century images in order to depict how painter J.M.W. Turner found new ways of capturing 18th century images. So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the guy who has realized the best performances by your favorite British character actors.”

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

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on La Notte (1961)

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Michelangelo Antonioni (right) directs Monica Vitti (left) in Antonioni’s classic film La Notte (1961)

In issue 74 of Senses of Cinema, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster discusses Antonioni’s classic film La Notte (1961), writing in part that “in reviewing the critical reception of La notte (1961), it strikes me that many observers seem to almost completely miss the fact that the film is, in part, a feminist critique of capitalist society, which centers around women, consumption, and the failure of our ecosystem, and not just the director’s trademark alienation and ennui.

Conventional plot summaries of the film routinely insist that La notte centres around a male author, Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni), his uncertain career, and his failing relationship with his wife, Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), as well as his flirtations with beautiful socialite Valentina Gherardini (Monica Vitti).

I would argue, rather, that women are both the centre of the film and the mirrors upon which Antonioni reflects his dark perceptions and stark conclusions about the human condition. At a launch party for his latest novel, those who celebrate Giovanni’s newest book spend precious little time actually reading, opting instead to party all night, while simultaneously remaining oblivious to their own mortality.

As in most of his films, Antonioni’s wealthy protagonists in La notte live in a hell of their own making. So thoroughly alienated are they from one another (and from the environment) that they experience the rain from the sky (in the pool sequence) as a sublime rapture from above, giggling like schoolchildren, briefly lifted out of their stupor for a moment’s play with the actual elements.The tragedy of Antonioni’s characters is not simply a matter of bored bourgeois ennui; these people are disconnected from the feminine, from the earth, and from life itself.”

Brilliant writing – you can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

Black Mirror is one of the most original and disturbing visions of Dystopia ever produced for television.

Juts like The Twilight Zone in the 1960s, Charlie Brooker’s British television series Black Mirror, of which there are now six episodes plus one 90 minute multi-part special, White Christmas, starring Jon Hamm of Mad Men, is disturbing and thought provoking television. Designed, like The Twilight Zone, so that every episode has a new premise, a new cast, and a new plot, but consistently offering visions of a totally wired-up future in which there is no freedom or hope, Black Mirror is available on Netflix streaming in the US – or, as I did, you can buy the Region 2 British DVDs of all six episodes. Regarding the structure of the series, Brooker has commented that “each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.” Which, I’m afraid, we are.

The series kicked off in early December 2011 with the truly horrific episode The National Anthem, in which the Prime Minister of Britain is forced by terrorists to disgrace himself on worldwide live television to save the life of a kidnapped member of the Royal Family; followed by 15 Million Merits roughly a week later, in which the future is seen as a world of endless drudgery and nonstop video commercials which are forced upon workers who must ceaselessly toil at meaningless jobs simply to survive. The Entire History of You deals with the endless recording of human existence on cellphones, Twitter and other media, which has reached the point of total immersion, so that everyone knows everything about everyone else – there’s nowhere to hide.

The second season – starting in February of 2013 – picks up on this theme with Be Right Back, in which a young widow finds comfort in an artificially created “web” version of her late husband, which “comes back to life” through the aid of every video, Tweet, e-mail and photo scan, and later a synthetic body, but still brings her no real solace. White Bear, easily the most brutal episode of the entire series, came next, with its tale of a young woman who awakes in strange house, unable to remember her identity. Wandering outside, she discovers that no one will talk to her; rather, they incessantly record her every move with their cellphones. The last regular episode to date, The Waldo Moment, chronicles what happens when a CGI cartoon character is suddenly thrust into a race for a seat in Parliament.

The episodes vary in length, from 44 to 62 minutes, and they’re broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK, which has a history of innovative programming going back to the early 1980s. In this country, you’ll have to watch them online, on buy the DVDs, and there is, of course, an American version of the show in the works, for which I hold out little hope – some things just don’t travel well. London at the moment is a fearfully expensive, fairly Dystopian location itself, and the series makes full use of all the technology that comes with a society under constant surveillance – which is life in the UK today. Black Mirror is a paranoid vision of the near future which comes all too close to probability – if we let tech get out of hand (and I would argue we already have), this is just a sample of the world we can expect to live in.

That said, I don’t think the episodes from season two are as strong as those in season one. With completely uncharted territory to mine, and no real risk of failure – if the series clicked, fine, but if not, it would have been a noble experiment – Brooker and his associates could afford to take nearly any risk to create something really off the charts. Season two is slightly more formulaic, though I enjoyed Be Right Back the best of the lot, having just the right mixture of menace and melancholy in its construction. Still, the entire series is literally light years ahead of anything on American television, with the partial exception of PBS, and I suggest you check it out for yourself- whatever you might think of it, it’s an authentic and original vision of society in collapse, and all of us are the victims. It’s a mixture of satire, prognostication and social criticism that really hits home. But beware – it’s not for the faint of heart. Not at all.

You can get more information on Black Mirror by clicking here, or on the image above.

Denis Côté’s Joy of Man’s Desiring (Que ta joie demeure)

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

Denis Côté’s Joy of Man’s Desiring is an absolutely brilliant film about the modern day workplace.

I am indebted to the writer and critic Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for bringing Côté’s work to my attention; in our digital age, films such as these don’t get the distribution they deserve, almost never play in theaters, and are in general confined to the festival circuit throughout the world. But thankfully, Joy of Man’s Desiring has just become available in the United States as a digital download on Vimeo, and this absolutely superb film, running just 79 minutes, is one of the most impressive achievements of the cinema in 2014.

You can see the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above, and then either view or download the entire film for a modest fee after that – a price that is an absolute bargain for such a mesmerizing, transcendent piece of work. This is the sort of filmmaking that needs to supported on an everyday basis, as an antidote to the non-stop explosions and commercial blandness of mainstream cinema; Côté’s films, part fiction, part documentary, create an unsettling vision of the world that his uniquely his own.

This is what Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin were shooting for with films like British Sounds, in which their Dziga Vertov collective hoped to find common ground with workers, including a memorable tracking shot in an auto assembly plant with a soundtrack of unceasing noise, generated by the manufacturing equipment itself. But Côté’s film goes far beyond Godard and Gorin’s work – and is certainly far less didactic – to give a sort of infernal life to the machines that control women and men on the factory floor, adeptly blending staged vignettes of industrial impersonalization with documentary sequences that chronicle the repetitive tedium of jobs that require labor, and no thought whatsoever – jobs that most people work at for their entire lives, jobs which eventually destroy them and use them up, much like the machines they are forced to operate.

Côté is an extremely prolific filmmaker working out of Quebec, whose many films, including Vic + Flo Saw A Bear, Bestiaire, and Curling offer a disquieting, almost trance-like meditative vision of the modern world, and the alienation and distance that accompanies it. As the presskit for the film notes, “Joy of Man’s Desiring is an open-ended exploration of the energies and rituals of various workplaces. From one worker to another and one machine to the next; hands, faces, breaks, toil: what kind of absurdist, abstract dialogue can be started between human beings and their need to work? What is the value of the time we spend multiplying and repeating the same motions that ultimately lead to a rest – a state of repose whose quality defies definition?”

As Côté himself says of Joy of Man’s Desiring, “there’s no doubt this is the kind of film-essay in the same lineage as my smaller-scale films, which look for the unfindable (Carcasses, Bestiaire) and question language. I take a great deal of pleasure in making films that don’t easily reveal themselves either to me or the viewer. They need to be out there for a long time, they need to get around. We have to put words to these sound-and-image experiments. I hope viewers won’t go crazy; I hope they’ll watch work in action, thought in action, research in action. There’s a little humor, a hypnotic element, some distancing moments, but there is no real issue or end to the film either. I enjoy watching a film get to a moment when I know I am in the process of watching a film. Maybe I don’t understand it, but I turn it over and look at every side to see how we did it; I think about it, let it exist.”

As Stephen Dalton noted in The Hollywood Reporter when the film premiered at The Berlin Film Festival on February 7, 2014, “Quebecois director Denis Côté won a Silver Bear in last year’s Berlinale for his offbeat comic thriller Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, but the formal rigor on display here feels more akin to the director’s unorthodox animal-watching documentary Bestiaire, a left-field Sundance and Berlin favourite in 2012 . . . The film’s non-fiction segments are lightly peppered with dramatic vignettes and poetic touches, including a stern opening monologue delivered straight to camera by an unnamed woman (Emilie Sigouin). ‘Be polite, respectful, honest,’ she warns the viewer, ‘or I’ll destroy you.’ . . .

Moving between different industrial spaces, Côté’s method mostly consists of artfully composed static shots and slow zooms into heavy machinery. These scenes have a stark, vaguely menacing beauty. They are intercut with still-life studies of machinists and carpenters, laundry workers and food packagers. Some are caught in fragmentary conversation, others in sullen and wordless poses. Joy of Man’s Desiring constantly hints at interesting themes – like the psychology of manual labor in a mechanized age, or the broad cultural mix of Francophone immigrants among Quebecois factory workers” but, as Dalton notes, leaves these issues largely unresolved, as they are in real life.

This is thoughtful, crisp filmmaking, which takes genuine risks and at the same time is easily accessible to the average viewer – the film’s running time flies by in what seems to be an instant. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is preparing a major piece on Côté’s work as a whole, and I look forward to it with great anticipation – there hasn’t been nearly enough written about him, and most critics really don’t understand what he’s trying to do, though it seems clear to me. Côté’s cinema is as strong, as compassionate, and as effortlessly masterful as the films of Robert Bresson, and as meditative and humanistic as the films of the great Yasujirō Ozu, who viewed the world, and the human condition, with an equally clear and direct gaze.

Joy of Man’s Desiring, is, in short, one of the most impressive and effective cinematic essays I’ve recently seen on the connection between humans and machines, labor and capital, and the gap between our dreams and what we actually accomplish. See it as soon as you can. It is a stunning piece of work.

View the trailer for this film by clicking here, and then, by all means, see the film itself.

Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

Stewart O’Nan’s novel covering the last years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life is the real deal.

This was recommended to me by the writer Timothy Schaffert, who, knowing of my own work on Fitzgerald many years ago, thought I would find it interesting. And he’s absolutely right. Most Hollywood fictionalized bios ring rather false, given the fact that the era of classic Hollywood is now so long ago and far away, and the tendency to sentimentalize, or over sensationalize Fitzgerald’s last truly harrowing years, from 1937 to 1940, when he batted around Hollywood in a number of jobs, starting at MGM but eventually sliding down the ladder to near oblivion before his premature death from a heart attack in 1940, seems almost irresistible to most writers.

But here, O’Nan brings the story of Fitzgerald’s last days to life, when he struggled to stay sober in the face of crippling alcoholism – not always with success -and managed to alienate almost everyone around him when he fell off the wagon. Agents deserted him, his powers were declining, and he never really understood the way the Hollywood game was played. O’Nan captures all of it, in a book of such page turning intensity that I sat down and read it straight through in a matter of hours. As the end of the narrative nears, the velocity picks up with truly cataclysmic intensity, and one feels that one gets a new, and appropriately sympathetic vision of Fitzgerald, an artist who waged war against his own self-destructive impulses and lost the battle.

There may be one too many star cameos here and there, and Humphrey Bogart looms larger in the book than he did in Fitzgerald’s real life, but others, such as Hunt Stromberg, Robert Benchley, Alan Campbell, Dorothy Parker, and of course, Sheilah Graham, the great love of his later life, a gossip columnist who seemed to understand Fitzgerald better than anyone else during his tenure in Tinseltown, and in whose apartment he died on December 21, 1940, are real and tangible presences. Not for the faint of heart, this is a novel about irrecoverable loss and isolation – the promise of youth and the collapse of overnight fame – and most importantly, about the Hollywood studio system, which never understood artists – then or now. O’Nan’s book is a stunning achievement, in which Fitzgerald appears as a fully rounded person, with all of his flaws and charm intact.

All in all, an amazing accomplishment.

Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1962)

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

On this appropriately bleak winter day, I sat down to view Ingmar Bergman’s stark masterpiece Winter Light.

From my forthcoming book Black & White Cinema: A Short History: “by 1962 with Winter Light, photographed by Sven Nykvist, Bergman had refined his vision into an austere, almost sculptural sensibility of blacks, whites, and varying shades of gray, striving for a complete simplicity in all his work. As Nykvist recalled of working with Bergman,

‘The whole crew meets two months before shooting to read the whole script, then we start to make tests. We build sets, and when everyone—the costume designer, the production designer, the makeup artist—is there, we make tests for the whole picture so we will never be surprised when we start shooting. We are already halfway through a picture when we start to shoot it, and that is psychologically very important for all the people because everyone, including the grips and electricians, feels that he or she is as important as all the others. . . . When you are operating the camera, you forget all about the other people around you. You just see this little scene and you live in that and you feel it. For me, operating the camera is a sport and it helps me do better lighting sometimes.

When Ingmar and I made Winter Light . . . which takes place in a church on a winter day in Sweden, we decided we should not see any shadow in it at all because there would be no logical shadow in that setting. I said, ‘Oh, that will be an easy picture for me because the light doesn’t change in three hours.’ Ingmar said, ‘That’s what you think. Let’s go to the churches in the north of Sweden.’ And there we sat for weeks, looking at the light during the three hours between eleven and two o’clock. We saw that it changed a lot, and it helped him in writing the script because he always writes the moods. . .

It has taken me 30 years to come to simplicity. Earlier, I made a lot of what I thought were beautiful shots with much backlighting and many effects, absolutely none of which were motivated by anything in the film at all. As soon as we had a painting on the wall, we thought it should have a glow around it. It was terrible and I can hardly stand to see my own films on television anymore. . . . I prefer to shoot on location because in the studio you have too many possibilities—too many lights to destroy your whole picture.’”

And as Roger Ebert observed of Winter Light in 2007, “on the day Ingmar Bergman died, the first film of his that came into my mind was Winter Light. Odd, because I had not seen it since teaching a film class in the 1970s. In the weeks that passed, I found it lingering there, asking to be seen again. What did I remember about it? That it was part of Bergman’s ‘Silence of God’ trilogy. That it was about a pastor who was unable to comfort a man in dread of nuclear holocaust. That the pastor rejected a woman who sought to comfort him. That Bergman and his cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, sat in a rural church for a winter day to note how the sunlight moved through the space. In short, I hardly remembered the film at all, because those sparse memories were not enough to ignite a need to see it again. Yet I felt one. Finally I took Winter Light down from the shelf, watched it again, and was awestruck by its bleak, courageous power.

It is, first of all, much more complex than the broad outlines I held in memory. It is about more than God, silent or not. It is about the silence of a man, Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Bjornstrand), who speaks enough in the film but is unable to say anything of use to himself or anyone else. About another man, the fisherman Jonas (Max Von Sydow), obsessed by evil in the world, who calls God’s bluff, so to speak, by killing himself. About Marta, a schoolteacher (Ingrid Thulin) who cares for the pastor, loves him, worries about him, and is thanked by coldness and hostility. And it is about two monologues in which the pastor and the teacher describe their real feelings, and deeply wound each other . . .

The film’s visual style is one of rigorous simplicity. Nykvist does not use a single camera movement for effect. He only wants to regard, to show. His compositions, while sometimes dramatic, are mostly static. He uses slow push-ins and pull-outs to underline dialogue of intensity. His gaze is so unblinking that sequences with the potential to be boring, like the opening scenes of the consecration and distribution of hosts and wine, become fascinating: More is going on here than ritual, and there are buried currents between the communicants. Nykvist focuses above all on faces, in closeup and medium shot, and they are even the real subject of longer shots, recalling Bergman’s belief that the human face is the most fascinating study for the cinema.”

Fortunately, there is also a feature on the making of Winter Light, available on the Criterion DVD set of the Bergman “Silence of God” trilogy, of which Criterion’s program notes add that “the year is 1961, and Ingmar Bergman is making a movie. While planted on the scene as apprentice to Bergman, Vilgot Sjöman suggests to Swedish Television that they take the opportunity to record with the acclaimed director. In August, Sjöman and the television crew begin to capture what would become a comprehensive five-part documentary on the making of Winter Light, offering views of script development, set construction and lighting, rehearsals and editing, as well as intimate conversations with Bergman and members of his cast and crew. Footage from the film’s Swedish premiere delivers immediate audience reactions and the critics’ reviews the following day. Originally recorded on 16mm film, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie is presented here in its entirety for the first time outside of Sweden.”

A brilliant film, available on Criterion DVD; get a copy now, before it goes out of print.

Patton Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend – An Absolutely Brilliant Book

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Patton Oswalt’s new memoir about four years of incessant movie watching is an amazing book.

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from An Addiction to Film is one of the most astonishingly erudite, unpretentious, and accessible volumes on the history and lure of the cinema ever written. It reminds me very much of Geoffrey O’Brien’s equally brilliant, and equally whacked-out book The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century, which traced the history of movies from the beginning to the end of the “film” era, before the advent of digital cinema. But Oswalt’s book really has two tracks; his manic devotion to films being screened at The New Beverly Theater (in particular), a rep house in Los Angeles which up until recently ran some of the most adventurous programming around – sort of like The Thalia in the New York in the 1980s – and his struggle to establish own career as a writer, stand up comedian, and actor.

Essentially a memoir of four years of binge movie watching, running the gamut from everything from Mr. Sardonicus to The Garden of the Finzi Continis with every imaginable stop in-between, from Spaghetti westerns to Hammer horror to Billy Wilder’s early films to Jean Cocteau’s luminous masterpiece Beauty and The Beast, Oswalt uses his manic consumption of images in the service of a larger consideration of what the true nature of cinephilia is, how it can become a religion, how most people have no idea what intense labor making a film is, and how they also don’t particularly like to pull films apart analytically, because it spoils the illusory nature of the spectacle they’ve just witnessed.

Along the way, there are considerations of Vincent Van Gogh, the craft of comedy and how it pays to hang around with people who are smarter than you are – all through your life – so you can pick up some real response to your material, as well an almost elegiac sense of time past and irrecoverable, along with the experience of watching a film in a theater, when now it’s so much easier -as this blog as pointed out time and time again – to watch them at home.

I’ve only recently come to know Oswalt’s work as a comedian, as in his recent stand up routine “Selling Out,” in which he describes playing a gig at a casino for an obscene amount of money during which he doesn’t even have to tell a single joke to earn his paycheck – all the audience wants to do is yell “King of Queens!” and “Ratatouille!” at him in a drunken stupor – King of Queens being a blue collar sitcom that Oswalt co-starred in for nine years, which simultaneously made him a small fortune, and also established his mainstream career.

But he’s really doing most of his interesting work on the margins, as all artists do, and his standup material is both dangerous and sharply observed – like the best of Louis C.K. – and Oswalt’s skills as a writer are formidable, a sort of gonzo endless riffing that simply won’t shut up, reeling off factoid after factoid, one film after another, in an endless genre mashup that eventually pushes him over the edge and back into the light, and out of the darkness of the movie theater, having learned what he needed to know from the movies before getting on with his life.

In the first pages of Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt tells the reader that she or he doesn’t “have to follow me into the darkness” of the movie theater, but by the end, having come off a four-year run of nonstop film viewing, he reiterates the opening with a slight variation: “listen – you don’t have to follow me into the sunshine. Is this your first time seeing Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole? By all means sit and see ‘em. They’re great. I envy your getting to watch them with new eyes. But take what you need from them  and get out of the dark once in a while. You’re going to have more of the dark than you can handle, sooner than you think. The thing about the dark is, it can never get enough of you.”

So in the end it’s a cautionary tale, just like O’Brien’s brilliant book, in which binge viewing films provides “minimal proof that you’re still alive.” And yet the dazzling brilliance of classic cinema – both high and low art, as if such distinctions really exist -  comes through in the pages of this volume full force, a world which seems to be vanishing into the realms of streaming and isolated viewing, and the cinematic community along with it.

I never expected someone like Oswalt to come along and write a book like this – it’s smart, assured, and as he would probably say, “it absolutely kills.” It jumps off the page, and I read it straight through in one sitting, and then bought some copies for friends. For people in their 20s, this would be a great place to start seriously thinking about films. It’s also the document of a personal voyage that’s both harrowing and illuminating. By the way, the front cover is a still from The Colossus of New York – another really odd, really fascinating piece of work – so this volume is full of surprises from beginning to end.

Patton Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from An Addiction to Film - check it out!

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

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