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Forthcoming Book – Black & White Cinema: A Short History

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

Coming this Fall, 2015 from Rutgers University Press – the first history of black and white cinema.

From the glossy monochrome of the classic Hollywood romance, to the gritty greyscale of the gangster picture, to film noir’s moody interplay of light and shadow, black-and-white cinematography has been used to create a remarkably wide array of tones.

Yet today, with black-and-white film stock nearly impossible to find, these cinematographic techniques are virtually extinct, and filmgoers’ appreciation of them is similarly waning. Black and White Cinema is the first study to consider the use of black-and-white as an art form in its own right, providing a comprehensive and global overview of the era when it flourished, from the 1900s to the 1960s.

Acclaimed film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon introduces us to the masters of this art, discussing the signature styles and technical innovations of award-winning cinematographers like James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, and Sven Nykvist. Giving us a unique glimpse behind the scenes, Dixon also reveals the creative teams—from lighting technicians to matte painters—whose work profoundly shaped the look of black-and-white cinema.

More than just a study of film history, this book is a rallying cry, meant to inspire a love for the artistry of black-and-white film, so that we might work to preserve this important part of our cinematic heritage. Lavishly illustrated with more than 40 on-the-set stills, Black & White Cinema provides a vivid and illuminating look at a creatively vital era.

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

“Dixon has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and a subtle and well-honed aesthetic sense. He rescues important films from oblivion, and finds fresh angles of approach to films that are already familiar.” —Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University.

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s colorful study of black-and-white cinema reaffirms yet again his unfailing expertise as a critic, historian, and dazzlingly fine writer. Indispensable for students, scholars, and movie buffs alike.” —David Sterritt, author of The Cinema of Clint Eastwood: Chronicles of America.

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

My thanks to all who helped with this extremely complex and ambitious project.

Forthcoming Book – Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s

Friday, May 15th, 2015

I have a new book from Palgrave Pivot this July – pre-order it here now!

As the promotional materials for the book note, “Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s presents six detailed chapters on various topics that relate to genre cinema, concentrating on films and filmmakers whose films offered wide ranging commentary on popular culture. Covering both little and well-known films and filmmakers (Vanishing Point, Marcel Hanoun, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Max Ophüls), Dixon’s writings draw on a multitude of critical, historical, and archival sources to capture the reader’s attention from start to finish.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, and Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA. He is the author of Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, and Cinema at the Margins and editor, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture.”

“Dixon is a first-rate film scholar, critic, and historian, and the qualities he has cultivated and refined over the years are evident in everything from the clarity, lucidity, and liveliness of his prose to the accuracy of his research, the force of his arguments, and the perspicuity of his judgments.” – David Sterritt, Chair, National Society of Film Critics

A short and concise look at some of the films that shaped a decade.

Miss Mend, or The Adventures of Three Reporters on TCM

Friday, May 8th, 2015

Once again, TCM scores with another amazing classic film – this Sunday night May 10th, 2015.

Almost unknown in the West, even today, though luckily actually available on DVD, Miss Mend, or The Adventures of Three Reporters is a really wild Russian film that mixes equal parts action serial, Dr. Mabuse crime film, and political satire in a film that breaks tradition with all other Soviet film of the silent era.

Made in 1926, the film chronicles the attempts of “three reporters and an office girl trying to stop a bacteriological strike by some powerful western business leaders against the USSR,” and while the whole film is typically outrageous Soviet propaganda, it’s filled with an energy and kinetic power akin to the work of Sergei Eisenstein crossed with a dash of Fritz Lang, and succeeds almost through sheer outrageousness alone.

As film critic Bret Wood notes of the film, “when one thinks of the Soviet cinema of the 1920s, the images that come to mind are those of state-sponsored propaganda, rendered in a dynamic visual style, orchestrated with the rhythm of hammer blows, engineered to deliver the maximum emotional and intellectual impact. But not every Russian film at the time was cut from the cloth of Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Pudovkin. There was a whole other movement that embraced the conventions of American and European film as a means of imparting its sociopolitical messages.

Films such as The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom (1924) and even the sci-fi romance Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924) proved that some Red Russians served up their agitprop with joie de vivre. The most prominent purveyor of this breed of film was the Mezhrabpom-Rus studio. In her book Movies for the Masses: Popular Cinema and Soviet Society in the 1920s, Denise J. Youngblood writes that ‘the studio was a flourishing concern, its commercial style already well established. Despite its dependence on leftist, German capital, it turned out unabashedly bourgeois films — films with the dash and glamour which had characterized the pre-revolutionary cinema.’

One of Mezhrabpom’s most ambitious films was Boris Barnet and Fyodor Otsep’s Miss Mend (1926), which tapped into the adventure serial genre that had proven popular in the U.S. (The Perils of Pauline [1914]), Germany (Fritz Lang’s The Spiders [1919-20]), and France (Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires [1915]). Broken into three feature-length installments and clocking a total of more than four hours, Miss Mend is a hyperkinetic comedy thriller that achieves the near-impossible challenge of maintaining audience interest over the course of a plot that expansive without being exhausting.

The labyrinthine plot follows the exploits of a muck-raking reporter, Barnet (Barnet), a photographer named Vogel (Vladimir Fogel), Hopkins the clerk (Igor Ilyinsky), and a typist named Vivian Mend (Natalya Glan), who stumble upon a conspiracy to murder American industrialist Gordon Stern and lay the blame on the Bolsheviks. Through a falsified will, Stern’s empire will go to the vampish second wife Elizabeth (Natalya Rozenel), who hands it over to a ‘gigantic criminal conspiracy’ known as the Organization, led by an assassin named Chiche (Sergei Komarov).

In part two, the nefarious Chiche reveals a plot to sell plague-inducing biological weapons to a cabal of wealthy industrialists. To demonstrate the effectiveness of the germs, he sends an ampule to be discharged in Soviet Russia (where it will eliminate thousands of labor activists). A motorboat chase ensues and the ampule is intercepted by Vogel, but is accidentally smashed, and the passengers and crew on the S.S. Preussen begin dropping like flies.

In the concluding section, the plague is contained and pursuit of Chiche reaches a fever pitch. Hopkins falls under Chiche’s hypnotic spell (a reference perhaps to Fritz Lang’s arch-villain Dr. Mabuse, who was a master of mind control) but it is unclear just how deeply entranced he may be. As the Organization begins to unravel, its mastermind makes a last-ditch effort to release the plague-bearing bacterium upon the world, but he hasn’t accounted for the presence of the Soviet Police, who have the chance to be the heroes of the climactic third act.

According to Youngblood, ‘Miss Mend was one of the most-seen [Soviet] films of the twenties, with a recorded audience of more than 1.7 million in the first six months. It played at least two months at the deluxe Ars theatre in Moscow.’ But Youngblood reveals that the critics were not as enthusiastic as the ticket-buyers. ‘Miss Mend was one of the most criticized movies of the twenties . . . The reviews ranged from the dismissive (“naive and stupid” and “varnished barbarism”) to the denunciatory (accusations that the film’s cheerful antics promoted “hooliganism”).’ Not exactly an intellectual exercise, the film was nonetheless laced with bits of social commentary, often aimed at various forms of Western decadence (including corrupt cops and red hot jazz).”

And you’re going to miss this? No, you’re not – DVR it. Miss Mend is an astounding piece of filmmaking.

Roberty Downey Sr.’s Pound (1970)

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

Robert Downey Sr. (center) with cast members on the set of his film Pound.

As readers of this blog know, I’m a friend and fan of the work of Robert Downey Sr., whose best known film after all these years is Putney Swope. I first met Bob back in 1969, right after the success of Putney, when he was editing Pound in a cutting room in the West 50s in Manhattan. We hit it off, and remain friends to this day, but although I’ve written about a lot of his other work, I’ve never really tacked Pound, which is simultaneously one of his most disturbing and ambitious films, and was – at least in my mind – a highly unlikely follow-up to Putney Swope. But at this point in his career, Bob could write his own ticket, and the result is one of the darkest, most unsettling visions of humanity in crisis that ever hit the screen – yet to this day, Pound is almost impossible to see.

As Rich Drees noted in a 2006 article on Pound, the plot of the film is simple: “set in a New York City dog pound, 18 dogs, played by human actors, wait to be adopted. Part existential comedy, part allegory, the dogs include a punch drunk Boxer (Stan Gottlieb), a hyperactive Mexican Hairless (a scene stealing Lawrence Wolf) and a sleek Greyhound (Antonio Fargas). Meanwhile, the city is being terrorized by a serial killer dubbed The Honky Killer (James Green). Pound also features the debut of performance of Downey’s son Robert Jr. as a puppy temporarily held at the pound.”

But that’s just the set-up. Hovering over all the characters is the continual threat of death from “the needle” – they’re not so much waiting to be adopted, as waiting to be executed. A terrier advises that they should revolt against their captors and escape, while an airedale argues that their deaths are not imminent, and a pardon is forthcoming. Throughout the film, there a number of mournful musical numbers which verge on nihilistic vaudeville, interspersed with a series of philosophical diatribes on the nature of existence, the transience of life, and the ways in which we’re all in a prison of one sort or another, whether we wish to admit it or not.

The end of the film is terrifying, as all of their ranting against the caprices of fate comes to naught. Without warning, a guard peremptorily pulls a switch that sends poisonous gas into the holding chamber, and one by one, the animals die an agonizing death, with each “dog” given a last, wistful closeup as they expire. Downey then cuts to a final sequence on a train to nowhere, as the “dogs” sit in their seats, bound for who knows where – heaven? hell? limbo? – and a candy barker walks through the aisle with a megaphone singing the 1930s song “Just One More Chance,” the lyrics of which, in part, lament that “we spend our lives in groping for happiness / I found it once and tossed it aside / I paid for it with hours of loneliness / I’ve nothing to hide.” And on this unresolved note, the film ends.

Not surprisingly, Pound was summarily rejected by the sponsoring studio, MGM, who for some reason, Downey told me, thought that the film would be an animated cartoon. When they saw the finished result, MGM dumped it on the bottom half of a double bill with Federico Fellini’s Satryicon, to Downey’s delight. Yet not surprisingly, given the film’s incredibly bleak outlook on life, Pound has never had a VHS or DVD release, although it was available as a streaming download on Netflix for a time, but has now been withdrawn.

Indeed, as Drees notes, it’s a miracle that the film exists at all, since “the only print of the film that Downey could locate was found in his ‘cameraman’s ex-wife’s closet . . . a 35mm print that was dead.’ Although the print itself was deemed unprojectable, it was able to be digitally scanned and restored. ‘So they put the color back in,’ says Downey. ‘They cleaned up the sound a bit too. Technology is great, it’s just the movies aren’t getting any better. It’s only because of digital technology that some of this stuff can be saved, because most of the colors just go. Most of my stuff in color other than Greasers Palace (1972), I hate the color. I love black and white.’”

Based on a play Downey wrote very early in his career, The Comeuppance, which was produced Off-Off Broadway in 1961, Pound betrays its theatrical origins, and has strong links to Sartre’s play No Exit, as well as to Downey’s even earlier efforts, such as his first play about two nuclear missiles in a silo, waiting go off, talking to each other about the destruction they will inevitably inflict on humankind. Pound can certainly be seen as an extension of that, and it’s no wonder that it was so roundly rejected by the general public, and got an NC-17 rating – it’s a real warning that the only one you can really trust in life is yourself.

There are bootlegs of the film, of course, drifting around on the web, and today, the film’s major curiosity draw seems to be the brief appearance of Bob Downey Jr. in a small role as a puppy – but the film is much more than that. It’s certainly not a masterpiece, and Downey himself has expressed definite reservations about Pound, but all in all, it’s one hell of a scary vision of life, and a real outlier in film history – the work of someone chasing not success, but his own vision, consequences be damned. As Downey said of his work as a filmmaker, “after being thrown out of the house, four schools and the United States Army, I discovered that I was on the right track.”

“I just think he’s one of our great American directors” — Paul Thomas Anderson

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria is Olivier Assayas’ finest film in quite some time – a really dazzling achievement.

And as Peter Debruge noted in part in his review for Variety, the film had an unusual genesis. According to Debruge, “after collaborating with Assayas on 2008’s perfect, albeit ultra-safe Summer Hours, actress Juliette Binoche challenged the director to write a part that delved into genuine female experience. Though deceptively casual on its surface, Clouds of Sils Maria marks his daring rejoinder, a multi-layered, female-driven meta-fiction that pushes all involved — including next-generation starlets Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz — to new heights.

Binoche plays Maria Enders, a 40-ish movie star approached about appearing in a fresh staging of the play Maloja Snake, a film adaptation of which launched her career two decades earlier. This time, she’s being asked to interpret the older role — a burnt-out, middle-aged businesswoman manipulated by her young female assistant. Maria has always identified with the other character, the one she played at age 20, whereas the role of the has-been is haunted by her previous co-star, who died in a car accident a year after they shot the movie . . .

As the film opens, Maria is traveling with her assistant Val (Stewart) to accept an award on behalf of her close friend and mentor, playwright Wilhelm Melchior (a provocateur loosely inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant echoes below the surface here). En route, while dealing with the particulars of her in-progress divorce, Marie receives word that Melchior has died, dredging up an unpleasant figure from her past, an old co-star named Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler) whose desperation provides a horrifying glimpse into where her own career could be headed.

For this and her myriad other insecurities, Marie has Val, the hyper-reliable young woman who serves as her minder, mother, therapist and rehearsal partner. It is Val who talks her nervous boss into doing the Maloja Snake revival, dragging Marie to a studio-produced superhero movie just to see Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz), the edgy young actress tapped to play the other part. Running lines from the play, Marie and Val may as well be describing their own sexually charged codependency, so perversely does the dialogue fit the pair’s own increasingly unhealthy dynamic.

At times, Val excuses herself to visit a photographer boyfriend (although a weird mountain-driving montage suggests she may simply need to get away when the connection becomes too intense), until finally, she seems to disappear altogether, just one of the many mysteries woven into this rich and tantalizingly open-ended psychological study . . .

Ultimately, Stewart is the one who actually embodies what Binoche’s character most fears, countering the older actress’ more studied technique with the same spontaneous, agitated energy that makes her the most compellingly watchable American actress of her generation . . .

Sils Maria reaches for the stratosphere — which incidentally, is where most of the film takes place, high in the Swiss Alps, above the clouds. From this celestial vantage, Maria and Val are free to observe the real Maloja Snake, a seething meteorological formation that sends clouds winding serpent-like through a valley lined by mountains on either side.

In addition to documenting this spectacle afresh, Assayas unearths an old 1924 silent movie by German director Arnold Fanck, the sort of relic that makes one grateful someone thought to capture this mesmerizing phenomenon on film. Binoche leaves audiences with the same exhilarating feeling here — of having witnessed something precious and rare — answering the challenge of Assayas’ script by revealing a character incredibly closer to her soul.”

With links not only Fassbinder and American pop culture films, as seen in the film-within-a-film ostensibly starring Chloë Grace Moretz, as well to Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Sils Maria instantly jumps into my Top Ten List — in which there are, admittedly, 250 films at least – and is a work of mysterious, mesmerizing brilliance, which should be seen by everyone.

This excellent film will play May 1 – 7, 2015 at The Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater – don’t miss it.

Columbia University Seminar Presentation – 4/16/15

Monday, April 20th, 2015

I was honored to be invited to deliver a seminar lecture at Columbia University on April 16, 2015.

My talk was entitled “The Current Fate of Experimental Works on 16mm from the 1960s and 1970s in a Digital Age,” with David Sterritt, Chair of the National Society of Film Critics and a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University serving as the respondent.

The problem we discussed is a serious one – most of the experimental films of the 1960s and 1970s were created on 16mm reversal film, which is now an obsolete format, and many of the artists involved in the era have died, leaving their films as essentially “orphan works.” Even such well known artists as D.A. Pennebaker are searching for archives to take their 16mm original printing materials, and for most independent filmmakers of the 1960s, the films sit on the shelf, unseen and undistributed, where once they commanded a wide audience around the world at colleges, museums, and galleries.

As I noted during my lecture, in part, “with the rise of what is supposedly ’social media,’ a sense of community is gone. I think a better term for it is ‘anti-social’ media, because it locks us all away from each other in our own little cubicle. True, I can communicate with anyone in the world with a few keystrokes, but it’s impersonal, fragmentary, lacking in any real person to person substance.

Skype or Facetime are poor substitutes for actually sitting in a room and talking to a group of people. Vimeo [a premium video sharing site] is supposed to be a haven for artists, as well, but there’s little real interaction – by design – and many of the artists’ sites are ‘ghost sites,’ of videos posted years ago, and viewed only a few times.

Bookstores have vanished, not only in New York City, but around the world. And now, when one goes into a coffee house, instead of discussions, one finds a group of solitary people staring at their iPads or laptops, alone together in a virtual world where the only interaction takes place on the screen. Most people aren’t even aware of it, but our private space is essentially gone . . .

The experimental film work I have discussed in this paper, made for the most part in 16mm format, is also now beyond general use, as 16mm projection and production – to say nothing of 35mm – becomes a thing of the past.

Most of these works will become mere memories, existing only in terrible copies uploaded on the web if they exist at all. These films will never make the jump to DVD or streaming video, and unless one wants to go Anthology Film Archives, they’re almost impossible to see. Indeed, it’s as if they never even existed to an entire new generation of potential artists.”

A difficult problem, for which there is no easy solution; well worth talking about.

Victor Halperin’s Supernatural (1933)

Saturday, April 11th, 2015

Victor Halperin’s Supernatural is a forgotten horror classic – now on DVD.

After the amazing boxoffice and critical success of his film White Zombie (1932), independently produced for a mere $50,000, and starring Bela Lugosi hot off his success with Dracula, Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount Pictures, decided that with some real resources at his command, director Victor Halperin could create an even greater boxoffice success, and offered him a chance to make a major studio production. The result was Supernatural, surely one of the most unusual and poetic films ever made in Hollywood during the Pre-Code era.

Roma Courtenay (Carole Lombard) is a rich young heiress whose brother John (Lyman Williams) has recently died in an unspecified accident. Inconsolable, she turns to phony psychic Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart), who promises to contact her brother during a séance. Meanwhile, convicted murderess Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne) has been found guilty in the strangling death of three men, something that Bavian had knowledge of, and betrayed her to the police. After Rogen’s death in the electric chair, her body is claimed by psychologist/scientist Dr. Carl Houston (H.B. Warner), whos attempt to stop Rogen’s malevolent spirit from passing on to someone else.

Roma, however, stumbles into Houston’s laboratory just as the doctor is attempting to exorcise Rogen’s spirit, which immediately takes possession of Roma’s body, forcing Roma to carry out Rogen’s plan of revenge against Bavian. In yet another subplot, Bavian’s landlady Madame Gourjan (Beryl Mercer) discovers Bavian’s plot to steal Roma’s money through a series of supposed “messages from the beyond” from her deceased brother.

In response, Bavian promptly murders her, and then throws her body on the elevated railway tracks to cover up evidence of the killing. I’ll stop with the plot summary at this point, if only because I don’t want to give any more away – suffice it to say that events continue in a downward spiral until a rather reasonably happy ending brings the film to a satisfatory conclusion.

At just 65 minutes, the film is more a mood piece than anything else, and Halperin used most of his technical crew from White Zombie to create the film, albeit on a much more generous budget. Randolph Scott, in an early role, plays Grant Wilson, Roma’s predictable love interest, but has little to do in the film, and it’s clear that Halperin is more interested in creating a sensuously sinister atmosphere than anything else, as in another Paramount entry from the same period, Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls.

With richly detailed camerawork by the gifted Arthur Martinelli, Supernatural proceeds as a fever dream devoid of logic but suffused with an odd sensibility of eternal waiting that was Halperin’s trademark; sadly, the film was not as successful as White Zombie, and has more or less fallen out of the public consciousness.

Writing in The New York Times upon the film’s initial release in 1933, critic Mordaunt Hall noted that “notwithstanding the incredibility of many of its main incidents, Supernatural, the present picture at the Paramount, succeeds in awakening no little interest in its spooky doings. It not only depicts the various tricks of a charlatan spiritualist but also undertakes through camera wizardry to show the spirit of a dead murderess entering the body of a wholesome girl and causing her to behave like a savage.

The story, which owes its origin to one written by Garnett Weston, is worked out shrewdly and the scenes are for the most part pictured in a fashion suited to the eerie happenings. At the outset one is reminded that Confucius issued a warning to treat all supernatural beings with respect, but to keep aloof from them. Mohammed and the New Testament also are quoted and to put the spectator in a receptive mood there are wind and rain and dirgelike music.

Allan Dinehart plays the crooked spiritualist, Paul Bavian, who is to be congratulated on the thoroughness of his methods to extort money from a wealthy girl named Roma Courtney. Bavian had been on intimate terms with Ruth Rogen, who, after killing three of her lovers, expiates her crimes in the electric chair. It is the theory of a Dr. Houston that the spirits of dead evildoers continue to commit crimes through other flesh and blood mediums. He has more than a mere suspicion that Ruth Rogen’s spirit will be running amuck and that susceptible women had better keep out of its way.

It is not disclosing any great secret to say that Bavian has an easy way of getting rid of those who thwart him. A little poison in a ring, a handshake and they die. This sinister faker writes to Roma telling her that he has heard from the spirit of her brother, who recently died, and that he (Bavian) was requested to summon her. This missive subsequently leads to Roma and others visiting Bavian’s apartment, where the crook pretends to go into a trance and in an artful manner impresses the girl.”

The film received similarly respectful notices from most other critics, but ultimately, Supernatural was too subtle to entice the public to see it in droves; and Lombard was apparently unhappy with her role as a possessed killer, feeling much more at home in comedy – and she was right; the film remains an interesting one-off in her screen career, which ended with her tragic death in 1942 while on a War Bond tour. Nevertheless, Supernatural remains a peculiar, but deeply felt project, and one of the most innovative and neglected films of Hollywood in the early 1930s.

An odd film in every respect, Supernatural deserves your attention; it’s a film that resonates in one’s memory.

Gabriel Figueroa at El Museo del Barrio March 4 – June 27, 2015

Saturday, March 28th, 2015

Gabriel Figueroa, a brilliant cinematographer, has a retrospective at El Museo del Barrio in New York City.

I’m just finishing up a long and complex project on the worldwide history of black and white cinematography, and throughout writing the book, I’ve continually been struck by how undervalued cinematographers are by most critics and directors, and yet how much they contribute to the finished product – often without more than a few lines of acclaim. One of the very greatest DPs (directors of cinematography) in the history of the cinema is undoubtedly Gabriel Figueroa (1907- 1997), whose work is now the subject of a traveling exhibition, which was presented at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and now makes a welcome stop at Manhattan’s El Museo del Barrio. As I write in my forthcoming book, Black & White Cinema: A Short History, on Figueroa’s work,

“Born in Mexico City in 1907, Figueroa was orphaned at the age of 7, and became involved in the Mexi­can industry in his teens. After working as an assistant on various films, he photographed Grigori Aleksandrov and Sergei M. Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva Mexico! (1932) with Eduard Tisse, and then studied cinematogra­phy for a year in 1935 with Gregg Toland in Hollywood. Returning to Mexico, Figueroa photographed his first solo effort, Allá en el Ran­cho Grande (Out on the Big Ranch, dir. Fernando de Fuentes, 1936), after which he worked with several generations of legendary directors from around the world.

In his long career, Figueroa served as the director of cinematography for such eminent directors as Emilio Fernández, most notably on his gor­geous romantic drama María Candelaria (1944); John Ford on The Fugi­tive (1947); Luis Buñuel on his breakthrough study of life in Mexico City’s notorious slums, Los Olvidados (1950), as well as Buñuel’s Nazarin (1959) and the forty-five-minute featurette The Exterminating Angel (1962); in addition to working with John Huston on The Night of the Iguana (1963) and twenty years later, on Huston’s Under the Volcano (1983).  . . .

As he told Elena Feder in 1996, ‘It was with Fernández that I really began to develop my own style. He allowed me to compose a scene anyway I wanted. He would describe the set-up initially, explain what he wanted to convey, and then say something like, “There, now set up the lights and put the camera wherever you wish.”  So I would place the camera, choose the angle, and illuminate a scene, always looking for the desired effect. From the very beginning, when we shot the opening scene of María Candelaria, where she holds the piglet in her arms, Fernández told me to place the camera wherever I wanted. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the rushes; they went beyond his wildest imagi­nation. Since that point I had complete freedom to continue developing my own style.’”

On the Museo del Barrio’s website, the museum notes that “from the early 1930s through the early 1980s, the Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa helped forge an evocative and enduring image of Mexico. Among the most important cinematographers of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, Figueroa worked with leading directors from Mexico, the United States and Europe, traversing a wide range of genres while maintaining his distinctive and vivid visual style.

In the 1930s, Figueroa was part of a vibrant community of artists in many media, including Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, Edward Weston and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, who sought to convey the country’s transformation following the trauma of the Mexican Revolution. Later, he adapted his approach to the very different sensibilities of directors Luis Buñuel and John Huston, among others. Figueroa spoke of creating una imágen mexicana, a Mexican image. His films are an essential part of the network of appropriations, exchanges and reinterpretations that formed Mexican visual identity and visual culture in the mid-twentieth century and beyond.

The exhibition features film clips, paintings by Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, Manuel Rodriguez Lozano and José Chavez Morado, photographs, prints, posters and documents, many of which are drawn from Figueroa’s archive, the Televisa Foundation collection, the collections of the Museo de la Estampa and the Museo Nacional in Mexico. In addition, the exhibition includes work by other artists and filmmakers from the period such as Luis Buñuel, Sergei Eisenstein, Edward Weston, and Tina Modotti that draw from the vast inventory of distinctly Mexican imagery associated with Figueroa’s cinematography or were heavily influenced by his vision.”

So, all in all, an opportunity not to be missed; here’s the chance to see the work of a master.

The Bedford Incident (1965)

Friday, March 27th, 2015

The Bedford Incident is yet another brilliant yet forgotten film; watch the trailer by clicking here.

We have only so much time on this earth, and so what we do with it is important. We can spend our time making junk, or watching junk, or we can give our time to some more serious films – past and present – that come our way. One such film is James B. Harris’s The Bedford Incident, a 1965 US/UK production from the novel by Mark Rascovich that toplines Richard Widmark as the unbalanced and resolutely hawkish captain of the destroyer the USS Bedford, which, on a routine reconnaissance mission, detects the presence of a Soviet submarine off the coast of Greenland, and unrelentingly gives chase. As a contributor to Wikipedia astutely notes,

“The American destroyer USS Bedford (DLG-113) detects a Soviet submarine in the GIUK gap near the Greenland coast. (Specifically, they are in Greenland territorial waters at the entrance to the J.C. Jacobsen Fjord, which is due northwest from Iceland.) Although the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. are not at war, Captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) harries his prey mercilessly, while civilian photojournalist Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier) and NATO naval advisor, Commodore (and ex-World War II U-boat captain) Wolfgang Schrepke (Eric Portman), look on with mounting alarm.

Because the submarine is not powered by a nuclear reactor, its submerged run distance is limited, critical when it also needs breathing air and to recharge its batteries. This gives Finlander an advantage, but also means the Soviets will be more desperate. Also aboard the ship are Ensign Ralston (James MacArthur), an inexperienced young officer constantly being criticized by his captain for small errors, and Lieutenant Commander Chester Potter, USNR (Martin Balsam), the ship’s new doctor, who is a reservist recently recalled to active duty.

Munceford is aboard in order to photograph life on a navy destroyer, but his real interest is Captain Finlander, who was recently passed over for promotion to rear admiral. Munceford is curious whether a comment made by Finlander regarding the American intervention in Cuba is the reason for his non-promotion, perhaps betraying veiled aggression. He is treated with mounting hostility by the captain because he is seen as a civilian putting his nose where it does not belong and because he disagrees with Finlander’s decision to continue with an unnecessary and dangerous confrontation. Finlander is hostile to anyone who is not involved in the hunt – including the doctor, who will not stand up to the captain and advise that the pressure on the crew be reduced.

The crew becomes increasingly fatigued by the unrelenting pursuit during which the captain demands full attention to the instruments. When the submarine is found and ignores Captain Finlander’s demand to surface and identify itself, Finlander escalates the situation by smashing into the submarine’s snorkel, calling it ‘floating debris.’ Finlander then orders Bedford to arm weapons and withdraw a distance, where he will wait for the submarine’s crew to run out of air and be forced to surface. He reassures Munceford and Schrepke that he is in command of the situation and that he will not fire first, but: ‘If he fires one, I’ll fire one.’

Ensign Ralston mistakes Finlander’s remark as an order to ‘fire one’ and launches an anti-submarine rocket, which destroys the submarine. Their sonar then detects a salvo of four nuclear-armed torpedoes coming at the destroyer. Finlander initially gives basic orders to evade, then goes outside. Munceford follows him, frantically pleading, but Finlander does nothing more to save his ship, perhaps because he recognizes that there is no way to escape and believes that it’s justice that his ship be lost, since his own actions brought about the unnecessary destruction of the submarine and crew. The film ends with still shots of various crewmen “melting” as if the celluloid film were burning as Bedford and her crew are vaporized. The last image is an iconic, towering mushroom cloud from the torpedo detonations.”

Described by a number of observers as “near science fiction,” this Cold war parable is made all the more effective by the obvious commitment of everyone in the film, especially star Richard Widmark, who co-produced the film with Harris. An expert in playing unsympathetic roles, going all the way back to his debut in Henry Hathaway’s crime drama Kiss of Death, Widmark took on the project both because he believed that the threat of a nuclear accident was very real, and also because it provided him the chance to work with Sidney Poitier as Munceford, the journalist who sees that everything is spinning out of control, but is powerless, as a civilian, to stop it.

But perhaps the most interesting character in the film is Eric Portman’s ex-Nazi U boat captain, Wolfgang Schrepke, who seems much more sane that Captain Finlander, perhaps because he has seen too much violence and death in World War II. His world-weary yet clear-eyed view of Finlander’s mounting mania is the clearest indicator of where The Bedford Incident is ultimately heading – like similar films of the 1960s that dealt with the threat of nuclear destruction, such as Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, one gets the feeling from the outset of the film that the entire affair will end very badly indeed, and that there will be no happy ending tacked on as a sop to the audience. That Schrepke’s role is now that of a bystander, a NATO advisor, does not diminish his importance within the narrative for a second.

Dr. Strangelove, of course, played the whole concept of mutually assured nuclear destruction for grim laughs, but The Bedford Incident, with its claustrophobic mise en scene – taking place entirely on board the destroyer, with no escape for either the audience or the crew members – is perhaps the grimmest project of the lot, because even after the final frames of the film have melted away, one knows instinctively that the destruction of a battleship and a submarine won’t be the end of the conflict; that indeed, this one small incident will in all likelihood trigger an all out nuclear war, which we will never witness (thankfully), because we have, in a sense, perished along with the crew of the the Bedford.

Shot in cold, efficient monochrome by the supremely gifted Gilbert Taylor, The Bedford Incident is the kind of thoughtful, high-stakes film project that has been pushed aside in the comic book era by the latest DC or Marvel project, films that play with the same concepts explored in this film, but never with anything real at stake, and the assurance of upbeat “narrative closure” always taken as a given. So The Bedford Incident has several strikes against it, which prevent it from being seen more often; it’s thoughtful, it’s unforgiving, it’s intelligent, and it’s frightening as hell – and, of course, it’s in black and white. Which it should be.

But you should see it anyway – check out the trailer by clicking on the image above, and get the DVD.

The White Reindeer (1952)

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

Here’s a real curiosity – a forgotten fairy tale / horror film from Finland.

As Wikipedia notes, “The White Reindeer (Finnish: Valkoinen peura) is a 1952 Finnish horror drama film written, photographed and directed by Erik Blomberg. It was entered in competition at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival and earned the Jean Cocteau-led jury special award for Best Fairy Tale Film. After its limited release five years later in the United States, it was one of five films to win the 1957 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film.

The film, based on pre-Christian Finnish mythology and Sami shamanism, is set in Finnish Lapland and centers on a young woman, Pirita (Blomberg’s wife Mirijami Kuosmanen). In the snowy landscape, Pirita and reindeer herder Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä) meet and soon marry. Aslak must spend time away for work, leaving his new bride alone and lonely.

In an effort to alleviate her loneliness and ignite marital passion, Pirita visits the local shaman, who indeed helps her out; but in the process turns her into a shapeshifting, vampiric white reindeer. The village men are drawn to her and pursue her, with tragic results.”

As with so many interesting films from the past, even films such as this which received significant honors, and a fairly high profile festival release, The White Reindeer is not available on DVD in the United States, but can be found on a French DVD (Region 2) under the title Le Renne Blanc – and is well worth seeking out.

With a very brief running time, the simplest resources, this is a compelling and deeply original film that deserves more attention – another example of how much there is available in world cinema, and how much more there is to discover. Why this isn’t available in the United States is a mystery to me – there’s even a Criterion “fantasy” site where the film is listed as a supposed release – but sadly, this is just a dream.

So do yourself a favor – buy the DVD, which has English subtitles, while you still can.

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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