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Éric Rohmer: A Biography by Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe

Friday, April 1st, 2016

I’ve been reading an advance copy of Éric Rohmer: A Biography, and it’s an absolutely brilliant book.

As the Columbia University Press website notes, “the director of twenty-five films, including My Night at Maud’s (1969), which was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and the editor in chief of Cahiers du cinéma from 1957 to 1963, Éric Rohmer set the terms by which people watched, made, and thought about cinema for decades. Such brilliance does not develop in a vacuum, and Rohmer cultivated a fascinating network of friends, colleagues, and industry contacts that kept his outlook sharp and propelled his work forward. Despite his privacy, he cared deeply about politics, religion, culture, and fostering a public appreciation of the medium he loved.

This exhaustive biography uses personal archives and interviews to enrich our knowledge of Rohmer’s public achievements and lesser known interests and relations. The filmmaker kept in close communication with his contemporaries and competitors: François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette. He held a paradoxical fascination with royalist politics, the fate of the environment, Catholicism, classical music, and the French nightclub scene, and his films were regularly featured at New York and Los Angeles film festivals. Despite an austere approach to life, Rohmer had a voracious appetite for art, culture, and intellectual debate captured vividly in this definitive volume.”

To that, I can only add that this is the book on Rohmer’s life and work, superbly translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal. Both of the volume’s authors are eminently qualified for the project: Antoine de Baecque is a professor of the history of cinema at the University of Nanterre, and has published biographies of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, in addition to serving for a number of years as editor in chief of Cahiers du cinema, while Noël Herpe is a senior lecturer at the Université de Paris VIII, and has published works on René Clair and Sacha Guitry, as well as a book of interviews with Éric Rohmer about his text Le Celluloïd et le Marbre.

With many behind the scenes photographs, selections from correspondence, detailed financial accountings of production circumstances, and offering a sympathetic yet clear-eyed portrayal of Rohmer as alternatively imperious and yet by turns extraordinarily generous to neophyte filmmakers, Éric Rohmer: A Biography is a feast of a book. I have been returning repeatedly to the volume in the past few days, marveling at the detail and precision of the text, which in many ways mirrors the precise yet romantic tone of Rohmer’s films themselves. Now, if only all of Rohmer’s works would come out in a complete DVD box set, we’d have a much fuller sense of this extraordinary artist’s legacy.

Éric Rohmer: A Biography will be released in June 2016 – you should order an advance copy now.

Radha Vatsal in The Atlantic – Forgotten Female Action Stars

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

Serial star Ruth Roland in an advertisement for Hands Up! (1918)

Writing in The Atlantic, Radha Vatsal has a fascinating piece on early women heroines. As Vatsal notes, “in the current movie landscape, female action heroes tend to be so few and far between that their mere existence seems like an accomplishment (think: Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Rey in Star Wars, or the four stars of the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot).

But more than a century ago, before women had even won the right to vote in many countries, actresses headed up some of the U.S’s most popular and successful action movies—even if they performed stunts in skirts that ended only a few inches above their ankles.

During the early years of cinema in the 1900s and 1910s, men starred in action films such as westerns, but women dominated the so-called ’serial’ or ‘chapter’ film genre. These were movies in which the same character appeared over several installments released on a regular basis, with plots that were either ongoing or episodic.

The story lines typically featured female leads getting into danger, getting out of danger, brandishing guns, giving chase in cars, and battling villains. The film scholar Ben Singer estimates that between 1912 and 1920, about 60 action serials with female protagonists were released, totaling around 800 episodes.

What’s most striking about the category, Singer says, is its ‘extraordinary emphasis on female heroism.’ Protagonists exhibited traditionally ‘masculine’ qualities like ‘physical strength and endurance, self-reliance, courage, social authority, and the freedom to explore novel experiences outside the domestic sphere.’ Then, by the early 1920s, those films and their stars, the so-called ’serial queens,’ disappeared.

What happened? The answer may have to do with the early film industry’s short-lived tolerance of greater female involvement at all levels of the filmmaking process—a phenomenon that helps explain why today, even after women have shattered so many cultural barriers, action movies still continue to be dominated by male stars.

To understand what happened in the 1910s, it’s necessary to put the emergence of the serial film into context. During this period, two film formats jostled for dominance: what we’d now call ’shorts’ and ‘features.’ But short films weren’t labeled as ’short’ at the time—they were simply the industry standard, and were usually described by their length (in number of reels).

Features, meanwhile, were the newcomers, with higher production values, more ambitious plots, and greater production costs. Serials were something of a bridge between the two formats. Each episode in a serial was the length of a 15- or 20-minute short film, but over several weeks, a serial could tell a more complicated story.

Serials focused on women action heroes from the start, possibly thanks to the format’s tie-ins with magazines and newspapers, which aimed to draw female readers because they were attractive to advertisers. In 1912, Thomas Edison’s film company teamed up with Ladies’ World magazine to put one of the earliest instances of a serial film, What Happened to Mary, into print.

This example of cross-promotion would continue as other ‘chapter films’ were serialized in newspapers. The Chicago Tribune printed the story of The Adventures of Kathleen (1913) while the film episodes played in theaters. (Incidentally, Kathlyn was the first film serial to have a narrative thread that continued from week to week instead of relying on the same leading character to provide cohesiveness.)

Why do the 2010s lag behind the 1910s in terms of a robust body of films with female action leads? The focus on heroines seems also to correlate with the film industry’s fascination with the ‘New Woman.’ ‘She wore less restrictive clothes,’ the film curator Eileen Bowser notes, ’she was active, she went everywhere she wanted, and she was capable of resolving mysteries.’

The proliferation of women in all areas of the film industry during the 1910s—not just as actors, but as screenwriters, theater managers, gossip columnists, film producers, and directors—reflected the increasing number of women in the American workplace, and also the efforts of the vocal and energetic women’s suffrage movement.”

Fascinating stuff – and not well enough known – read the entire article here.

Christophe Folschette on Visual Listening

Sunday, March 27th, 2016

Christophe Folschette of Talkwalker has some interesting thoughts on the way we process images.

As Folschette told Richard Sunley in the journal Social Media News, “visual listening is like social listening but for visual content. Up until now, social listening has mainly focused on text content like the text of tweets or the text of a blog post. Visual listening goes one step further and allows you to track logos within images and photos posted on social networks and online. From here, you can apply all sorts of advanced analytics to understand how a post spreads across the web, which images are trending at the moment, the top influencers posting photos of your products and much much more.

Over recent years the use of visual content – that’s photos and images – has exploded on all social networks and across online media channels. Reports suggest that almost two-thirds of all content posted on social channels includes an image. When you think that on Twitter alone, people are sending around half a billion tweets every day, that’s an enormous amount of visuals that audiences are consuming. Studies have also shown that the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text which gives some indication as to why this type of content appeals to us so much.”

Folschette is concentrating on marketing here, but the same theory applies to the way we process images in art, or the visuals we see on the many screens we view everyday, as well as in daily  existence. Just one frame of film or video contains a multitude of information that has to be decoded if one if going to arrive at any reasonable approximation of the what that image really conveys.

This is why analytical viewing is such an essential part of film and video studies – more so today than ever – because the images we are confronted with are often so resolutely commercial, and we need to understand how they are trying to manipulate us. In short, we can’t be passive in the face of the images that inundate us – we have to strive to understand them. Otherwise, we’re simply letting these images enter our consciousness without thought – as Jean-Luc Godard famously observed, “it’s not a just image – it’s just an image.” An image we should seek – always – to understand.

Something to think about as you see more and more images – all carefully constructed – everyday.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on Suspiria (1976)

Saturday, March 26th, 2016

Here’s an interesting new book on Dario Argento’s classic horror film, Suspiria.

Part of the relatively new series of short monographs on individual horror films, Devil’s Advocates, published by Auteur Press in the UK and distributed in the US by Columbia University Press, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas‘ take on Suspiria is at once original and deeply subversive, for as the notes for the volume argue, “as one of the most globally recognizable instances of 20th century Eurohorror, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1976) is poetic, chaotic, and intriguing. The cult reputation of Argento’s baroque nightmare is reflected in the critical praise it continues to receive almost 40 years after its original release, and it appears regularly on lists of the greatest horror films ever.

For fans and critics alike, Suspiria is as mesmerizing as it is impenetrable: the impact of Argento’s notorious disinterest in matters of plot and characterization combines with Suspiria’s aggressive stylistic hyperactivity to render it a movie that needs to be experienced through the body as much as through emotion or the intellect. For its many fans, Suspiria is synonymous with European horror more broadly, and Argento himself is by far the most famous of all the Italian horror directors.

If there was any doubt of his status as one of the great horror auteurs, Argento’s international reputation was solidified well beyond the realms of cult fandom in the 1990s with retrospectives at both the American Museum of the Moving Image and the British Film Institute. This book considers the complex ways that Argento weaves together light, sound and cinema history to construct one of the most breathtaking horror movies of all time, a film as fascinating as it is ultimately unfathomable.”

This is a really sharp book, and an excellent series, which seems to take its inspiration from the long-beloved BFI series on individual film classics, but concentrating on one genre – the horror film – alone. Volumes in the series thus far include studies of the classic British horror film Dead of Night (1945 – and a particular favorite of mine), Nosferatu, The Curse of Frankenstein, John Carpenter’s version of The Thing and many others – there are so many potential candidates for examination that this series seems to be just beginning.

I’d love to see a volume on Terence Fisher’s Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula), or Roger Corman’s version of The Pit and The Pendulum, right off the top of my head, and the writers are all clearly enthusiastic about their work, so I’m sure we’ll see books on these key films shortly. Brief, compact, and authoritative, these are the volumes to beat on these classic genre films, and augur well for the continuation of the series, which seems to have really filled a niche. In any event, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ book on Suspiria is a good place to start – and then you can go on from there.

This is an intriguing group of short volumes – well worth exploring.

“Consuming the Apocalypse, Marketing Bunker Materiality” by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Thursday, March 17th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has published a new article in Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

Foster’s article, “Consuming the Apocalypse, Marketing Bunker Materiality” has just appeared in the latest issue of Quarterly Review of Film and Video (March 17, 2016), in which she argues that “there are two parallel social movements that may, at first glance, seem unrelated, but are in fact closely intertwined; the rapid increase in economic inequity in contemporary society (as evidenced in the enormously wide gap between the wealthy and the poor) on the one hand, and the current apocalyptic cultural mindset (associated with paranoia, prepping, the rise of the gated community, the return of the underground bunker, and a massive uptick in gun sales) as celebrated in myriad apocalyptically-themed films and television programs, programs I define as apocotainment.

The upwardly mobile class and preppers have more in common than one might think, and in some ways the two groups have even merged; what brings these two identities together is a decided lack of empathy for others and a sense of free-floating paranoia, centering on a crisis in masculinity, whiteness, and a fascination with Doomsday scenarios.”

Needless to say, this is a very timely essay, and expands on Foster’s work in her 2014 book Hoarders, Doomsday Preppers and the Culture of Apocalypse, which explores the current American, and indeed worldwide fascination with an ever expanding universe of Doomsday scenarios. The current vogue for “end of the world” or “end of civilization” narratives has taken hold of practically every area of the public consciousness, and Foster’s article examines the ways in which this cultural trend has moved to the center of contemporary public discourse.

Here’s a link to the article; fascinating reading in every respect.

Jaume R. Lloret’s Side by Side Remakes of 25 Films

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Here’s a fresh look at the ways in which remakes dominate the current cinema.

As Joe Berkowitz writes on the website FastCoCreate, “when director Gus Van Sant announced that he would be following up his breakthrough commercial hit, Good Will Hunting, with a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, many were confused. That confusion did not go away when the film was eventually released either. Audiences and critics couldn’t tell whether the whole exercise was a dadaist art statement or what was even happening. Was Van Sant’s message that no cows are sacred or that all cows are sacred? Nobody could quite tell. If the director’s aim was to urge other filmmakers away from remake culture, however, it was a resounding failure.

Nearly 20 years later, remakes, reboots, and reinterpretations make up what feels like at least half of each year’s major cinematic offerings. (The other half are adaptations.) The degree to which studios, filmmakers, and audiences have embraced remake culture, though, means more opportunities to approach these properties from different angles. Every now and then, a film will treat its source material with nearly the same perhaps ironic reverence as Gus Van Sant did Psycho, but most others indulge in more of a flickering faithfulness. A new video puts together side by side comparisons of scenes from 25 movies and their remakes to show how different (or not) the same movie can be the second time.

Barcelona-based filmmaker and editor Jaume R. Lloret had his work cut out for him in some movies more than others. Finding footage from Psycho that matches up is like shooting a barrel in a barrel factory. (Steven Soderbergh once overlaid both versions of the film on top of each other to play simultaneously.) Lloret also includes the curious case of when Michael Haneke remade his own Austrian film (Funny Games) in English with different actors but no other changes whatsoever. The other films, however, comprise just about the entire spectrum of remakes and reveal a lot about how these are made and received.”

Fascinating stuff - read the entire article, and see the video by clicking here, or on the image above.

New Article: From Hippie to Yuppie: The Big Chill . . .

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

 

I have a new article in Quarterly Review of Film and Video on the collapse of the 1960s counterculture.

It’s odd that both this article, and the one that precedes it, should be published at the same time; they were written years apart, but clearly circulate around the same ideas; the loss of artistic idealism as collateral damage in the digital era, and the end of a true community, only to be subsumed by a virtual one. The article is behind a paywall, so you will have to download it through a library or other facility, but the preview, shown above, is available for all to see.

As I note in the article, which discusses not only the culture of the era, but also the films that were produced during this period, “for casual observers, the hippie movement meant money to be made. This, of course, was Hollywood territory, and in a mad dash to cash in, the studios began cranking out one ‘hippie’ film after another, ‘inspired’ by the underground film scene that flourished in Manhattan and San Francisco during the era. While such artists as Bruce Conner, Ben Van Meter, Stan Brakhage, Scott Bartlett and others offered a more authentic vision of an alternate lifestyle, the studios churned out such much more commercial offerings.

Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (1969), loosely based on Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 folk song ‘Alice’s Restaurant Massacree’ was one such effort. I have a personal connection to this project, as I watched the legendary editor Dede Allen – who famously edited Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) – put the film together from hundreds of hours of raw material at an editing room at Preview Theater in New York, during a snowstorm that trapped us all in the building.

There was also Christian Marquand’s disastrous Candy (1968), ostensibly inspired by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s novel, and more blatantly such films as Conrad Rooks’ Chappaqua (1966), about the director’s personal battle with hard drugs; and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), which came late to the party, and galvanized rednecks everywhere when, in its final scene, a good old boy blasts actor/director Hopper off his bike with a shotgun – the scene was met by audience cheers in many areas of the Southern United States. For the establishment, the hippies represented a genuine threat; after all, they were openly rejecting the materialism most Americans based their lives on.

There was also Bob Rafelson’s Head (1968), starring the ‘pre-Fab Four,’ The Monkees; Arthur Dreifuss’s The Love-Ins and Riot on Sunset Strip (both 1967), which actually painted a more realistic and less rose-colored vision of the Haight-Ashbury and Los Angeles hippie life; Roger Corman’s idyllic ode to LSD, The Trip (1967); and the Beatles’ self-indulgent and self-consciously psychedelic Yellow Submarine (1968). Yet none them really contained more than a surface impression of the hippie movement.”

So, I hope you can get to read the article itself; it’s about a time and place that repays detailed consideration.

Ecstatic Cinema: Romantic Experimental Filmmaking in the 1960s

Saturday, February 20th, 2016

I have a new article in Moving Image Archive News on 1960s Romantic experimental cinema.

As I write in the beginning of the essay, “in the era we live in, ecstasy is in short supply. Escape from reality is one thing, and it’s in high demand right now, packaged and sold in a seemingly endless series of comic book and blockbuster franchise films that bludgeon audiences into submission, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Rather, I’m examining a group of films made in the early to mid 1960s that openly celebrated life, and our connection to it, through a strategy of sensory overload that sought to make the viewer almost a participant in the film’s content, to convey, without restraint, the sheer joy of existence in world of seemingly endless possibility. Perhaps it’s impossible to make such films today; perhaps we have lost our connection to the real world to such a degree that only CGI effects and amped-up soundtracks reach mass audiences. But, as I’ll argue, there seems to be a small but growing counter-movement that values these visions of another time and place, and seeks to preserve them — perhaps as signposts to the future of cinema, reclaimed from the past.

But the central problem here is preserving these works — most often shot on 16mm reversal film, and then printed on Ektachrome with an optical track for final release, an option no longer available since Kodak discontinued reversal print stock, and thus necessitating the creation of an internegative from which positive prints can then be struck, consequently introducing an extra “generation” into the image, as well as creating a much harder look than the soft, elegiac patina offered by such film stocks as Ektachrome 7241 (for outdoor filming) and Ektachrome 7242 (balanced for tungsten light indoors). Then, too, there is the very real question of what will happen to “personal” films in a corporate era; even such artists as D.A. Pennebaker, who had significant commercial success with his 16mm documentaries such as Don’t Look Back (1967) and Monterey Pop (1968) has recently been searching for a home for his original camera materials, in an age in which only blockbusters seem to be getting any sort of real theatrical release, and independent visions increasingly fall by the wayside.

In such films as John Hofsess’ half-hour split screen production Palace of Pleasure (1966/1967), shot in extravagantly beautiful color; Gerard Malanga’s elegiac and deeply Romantic In Search of the Miraculous (1966), a film in which two complete strands of 16mm imagery are superimposed upon one another for the entire length of the film; Ben Van Meter’s enthrallingly anarchic Acid Mantra, or Re-Birth of A Nation (1968), in which waves of superimposed imagery created in the camera compete relentlessly for the viewer’s attention; Paul SharitsRazor Blades (1966), another half-hour split screen dazzler that is seldom screened due to projection difficulties; and Andrew Meyer’s gentle, evocative An Early Clue To The New Direction (1966), I would argue that a certain period of experimental filmmaking came to a crashing end – note the dates of each of these films, all centering around the pivotal year of 1966 – before the introduction of structural cinema with Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) ushered in a new era of personal filmmaking.”

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

Stella Dallas: The Female Hero in the Maternal Melodrama

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster offers a fresh take on the “maternal melodrama” in a new essay in Senses of Cinema.

As Foster writes in her discussion of the film, “Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937) is the most well known and celebrated of the genre known as the ‘maternal melodrama.’ Stella Dallas (Barbara Stanwyck) is but one of many unsung female heroes who sacrifice, yet always prevail, in maternal melodramas such as Min and Bill (1930); The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931); Madame X (1937); and Forbidden (1932) to name but a few of this rich, largely forgotten and dismissed treasure-trove.

Maternal melodramas are a subgenre of films referred to as ‘women’s pictures’ – films that catered to a vast and powerful female audience; once considered crucial to box office success. They traffic in sentimentality, laughter and tears. These are uncontrollable emotions that are routinely debased as overly feminine, as are ‘chick flicks,’ another female-centered genre that is reviled and callously disregarded, disrespecting female viewers, women’s struggles, and female heroes.

In 1937, audiences were not only familiar with the popular novel of the same name written by poet and novelist Olive Higgins Prouty in 1923; they also knew the 1924 stage play and the silent film version of 1925, adapted for the screen by Frances Marion and directed by Henry King. Stella Dallas was so popular with women that it was even adapted into a radio serial that ran from 1937 to 1955, one of the first and most successful soap operas . . .

In dismissing genre films made for women, critics not only erase the female spectator; they erase women and female heroes, real and fictional. Maternal melodramas, by contrast, recognize and reward the victories of women at the bottom of society. Women like Stella Dallas tend to be poor and destitute, prostitutes, unwed and pregnant, and non-conformist in terms of romance. In short, they subvert society with their disruptive acts of maternal heroism. It is very important to note, however, that Stella Dallas figures always win, at least in the world of the maternal melodrama.”

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

William Wellman’s Night Nurse (1931)

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck in William Wellman’s brutal Pre-Code drama Night Nurse.

I have a new essay out on this remarkable film in Senses of Cinema, which notes in part that “there are precious few ‘ethics’ on display in William Wellman’s brief and brutal film Night Nurse, a bluntly titled and efficiently directed Pre-Code film from Warner Bros., a studio that specialized in hard boiled melodramas with a social message in the early 1930s. Wellman and star Barbara Stanwyck would make five films together, and in this, their first outing, it’s clear that Stanwyck’s innate toughness as a performer, coupled with her unrelenting work ethic, found favor with Wellman, who was a very tough customer himself.

Known for carrying a loaded gun on the set, and occasionally threatening actors with it if he felt they were sloughing off on the job (as he did with Ronald Colman in his 1939 film The Light That Failed, when Colman deliberately fluffed his lines during a key scene due to a disagreement with Wellman over casting), Wellman knew exactly what he wanted when he walked on the set each morning, and usually got the results in one or two takes.

This was just fine with Stanwyck, who was known as a ‘one take wonder,’ capable of memorizing pages of dialogue at the last minute, and then delivering the results in one flawless take after another, and delighted Wellman. He was almost as much of a speed demon on the set as MGM’s W.S. Van Dyke, another rough and ready director who famously shot the hit film The Thin Man in a mere 12 days.

For above everything else, Warner’s in the early 1930s was a factory, pumping out films at the rate of one a week to keep pace with the insatiable demand of Depression era audiences for something – anything – to take their minds off the crushing burden of the nationwide financial collapse.

Films such as Wellman’s Public Enemy (1931), Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1930), Roy Del Ruth’s Blonde Crazy (1931), and Alfred E. Green’s Smart Money (1931) set the tone and pace for a series of films that moved with breakneck speed in their narrative thrust, and dealt matter of factly with Prohibition (and the complete failure of that ‘great experiment’), murder, rape, drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution and a host of other social ills, pulling no punches in the process.”

You can read the rest of the essay by clicking here, or on the image above; this is a real gem.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

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

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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