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New Article: T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

I have a new article out in Senses of Cinema on the restored film of Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

As I write, “I’ve always had a curious affection for George Hoellering’s 1951 film adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s verse play Murder in the Cathedral. Eliot composed it as a stage play in 1935, with the first performance taking place on June 15th that year in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral, in every way an appropriate location for the production. As is well known, Eliot’s play deals with the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket by four knights in 1170 at the Canterbury Cathedral. This crime was committed at the behest of King Henry II, who was seeking both to establish his own authority on a higher scale and to break ties with the Papacy in Rome. Eliot’s play uses a great deal of material written by one Edward Grim, who saw the actual assassination of Becket in person, and was even wounded during the attack.

The first production at Canterbury Cathedral featured actor Robert Speaight as Becket, which then was transferred to London’s Mercury Theatre in Notting Hill Gate for a modest run, with Speaight reprising his leading role. As many have noted, the main theme of Eliot’s play is the power of resistance to authority that one believes to be either corrupt or fraudulent. Since Eliot wrote the work in the shadow of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, there can be little doubt that he had the usurping forces of fascism in mind as he composed Murder in the Cathedral. It’s a superb accomplishment as a text, and requires a minimum of dramatic translation for the stage: it is essentially performed as a series of tableaux, and so eloquent is Eliot’s text that it needs little more in the way of staging or blocking.

Subsequent stage productions included Robert Donat’s turn as Becket in an Old Vic production directed by Robert Helpmann in 1953; a 1971 New York stage version with Dark Shadows alumnus Jonathan Frid in the title role; a Royal Shakespeare Company version in 1972 starring Hammer Films regular Richard Pasco as Becket; and most recently in 2014 at St. Bartholomew-the-Great Church in London, testifying to the continual appeal of Eliot’s work. Murder in the Cathedral also served as source material for one of the very first experimental television broadcasts: the 1936 BBC presentation of the play directed by George More O’Ferrall, which according to Kenneth Baily (who witnessed the transmission on television) included ‘the earliest recollection I have of a really inspired use of the close-up in television drama.’

But there the matter of a visual translation of Eliot’s work rested, until George Hoellering stepped in. He was an Austro-Hungarian filmmaker and entrepreneur who had fled the continent in 1936 to escape the Nazi onslaught, with only a handful of films to his credit. Hoellering brought Murder in the Cathedral to the screen in what was clearly a ‘passion project,’ with Eliot’s full help and participation. Hoellering’s previous films included the 1936 movie Life on the Hortobagy (a slightly fictionalized feature documentary centering on the everyday life of Hungarian peasants) and the 1944 British-made shorts Tyre Economy (of which the title says all) and Message from Canterbury (essentially an ode to Canterbury Cathedral, centering on a sermon delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. William Temple).

What resulted was the product of a collaboration between one of the 20th century’s most gifted and exacting poets and a filmmaker intent on creating a feature film based on Eliot’s work, which had moved him deeply since his youth. The most conspicuous – even conscious – aspect of Hollering’s film of Eliot’s play is its theatricality, coupled with an austere visual sensibility that prefigures the dark landscapes of such later films as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1943), or harkens back to Carl Th. Dreyer’s equally severe Day of Wrath (1943). For many years, Murder in the Cathedral has been out of circulation – even as a 1952 book by Eliot and Hoellering on the making of the film, replete with numerous stills, remained tantalisingly in print – but now, in a newly restored DVD and Blu-ray combination release from the BFI - we have a chance once again to see Murder in the Cathedral for ourselves.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above - essential viewing.

Quentin Tarantino’s Favorite Director: William Witney

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

Action director William Witney: “Witney is ahead of them all” – Quentin Tarantino

As R. Emmet Sweeney writes of director William Witney on The Museum of The Moving Image website, Witney changed the way movie punches were thrown. It has become a cliché to say that fight scenes are like dances, but for Witney this was just common sense. He saw Busby Berkeley working on a stage spectacle, and adapted that regimented method to action sequences, essentially inventing the job of stunt choreographer.

A lifetime of movie production had left him rather unknown, except to some cult genre obsessives, one of whom happened to be Quentin Tarantino. He has been promoting Witney’s work for years by screening his personal 16mm and 35mm prints at film festivals and mentioning his name whenever interviewers ask for influences.

After Tarantino finished shooting Django Unchained, he shipped its prop dentist wagon to the Lone Pine Film History Museum in California. Witney spent the majority of his career in the hills outside Lone Pine, shooting Westerns in a week or two with Roy Rogers, creating a cohesive body of work out of bodies tumbling to the ground.

William Witney was born in Lawton, Oklahoma in 1915. His father died when he was four years old, and he was raised by his mother Grace and two older sisters. William’s son Jay Dee Witney told me that William was ‘kind of heavy as a boy,’ so his mother shipped him to live with his Uncle Lou, who was an Army captain at Fort Sam Houston.

Witney was ready to follow his Uncle into the Armed Forces after high school, and started cramming for the entrance exam to the Naval Academy at Annapolis. The exam was administered in Los Angeles, so Witney moved in briefly with his sister Frances and her husband Colbert Clark.

A director for the Poverty Row studio Mascot, Clark asked Witney if he wanted to ‘work for a couple of days making chase scenes with the cowboys.’ Witney agreed, and gradually moved up the ranks, from office boy to gofer to editor, where he worked alongside future B-auteur Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy).

In 1935 Hubert Yates consolidated six Poverty Row studios, including Mascot, into Republic Pictures. Witney would make nearly 80 features and serials for Republic over the next 23 years. After some personnel shakeups the nineteen-year-old Witney was moved from the editing suite to the set as a script clerk. It was B. Reeves Eason (known as ‘Breezy’) that got him thinking about action film aesthetics.

Eason was a flamboyant dresser, always in white silk shirts and pants, with a daredevil streak. In his autobiography Witney recalls a story in which Breezy performed a dangerous horse fall to convince a skittish stuntman of its safety, and ended up breaking an arm. Witney admired his bravado and fearlessness, writing that ‘I found myself using the same techniques that he had to make an action sequence come to reality.’” Witney is, in short, a master filmmaker.

See the video by clicking on the image above, and read the entire article here.

New Frame by Frame Video: François Truffaut

Friday, September 9th, 2016

I have a new video on the late French filmmaker François Truffaut, one of the great romantics of the cinema.

It’s been a while since I dropped a new video in the Frame by Frame series, directed by Curt Bright, so here’s a new one on François Truffaut, the great French filmmaker who, along with Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and just a few others personified the energy and vitality of the Nouvelle Vague – the New Wave of French cinema that took hold in the early 1960s.

Truffaut most famous film is undoubtedly the semi-autobiographical The 400 Blows (1959), but more than a little ironically, he’s most known to American audiences for his work as an actor – a task he performed in several of his own films – in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), during which he wrote the scripts for his next three films during production breaks.

Starting as a critic, as I recount in my book The Early Film Criticism of François Truffaut, Truffaut was something of a firebrand – which he later regretted to a degree when he became a director himself – but soon found his true calling behind the camera, creating a series of luminous masterpieces that helped to define the French cinema during this vital and prolific era.

His early death in 1984 robbed us of one of the great talents of the cinema, but fortunately, Truffaut was extremely prolific, and left behind a body of work that is at once deeply felt and also somewhat caustic in its view of live, love, and the travails of the human condition. Truffaut’s work is absolutely essential to any understanding of the cinema, and so if you haven’t seen one of his films, please stream one tonight – and be dazzled.

You can see the video by clicking here, or on the link above – enjoy!

Director Jerzy Skolimowski Wins Golden Lion at Venice Festival

Thursday, September 1st, 2016

Jerzy Skolimowski is long overdue for this recognition, as a filmmaker of the first rank.

As Damon Wise writes, in part, in the August 31, 2016 issue of Variety, “it has been said of Jerzy Skolimowski that making films turned him into a nomad. Forced by principle to leave his native Poland after the repressive government shelved his surreal, semi-autobiographical and politically incendiary 1967 film Hands Up!, the director moved first to the U.K. and then to the U.S. before finally returning to Poland in the early 2000s.

The journey home also resulted in Skolimowski’s first film in 17 years. After suffering a personal and financial failure with 1991’s 30 Door Key, the director took time out to explore his talents as a painter. The success of his comeback film, 2008’s Four Nights With Anna, encouraged him to return to cinema, and 2010’s Essential Killing claimed acting and directing prizes at that year’s Venice Film Festival.

Now 78, Skolimowksi comes to the 2016 festival to collect the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, a celebration of a career that has spanned almost six decades and numerous cities, and perhaps marking a spiritual homecoming of sorts for the wandering artist. ‘I feel blessed and honored to be placed among Orson Welles, Fellini, Antonioni, Buñuel, Kubrick, and magnificent others,’ he says of the award. He adds with typical self-deprecating modesty, ‘but I still have to prove to myself that I really deserve it . . .’

Unusually for an auteur director, Skolimowski’s films defy categorization even by the many periods of his life defined by émigré status, and he’s not precious about the work. ‘To tell you the truth,’ he says, ‘I don’t look back at my films at all. I know well what is good in some of them. I know what’s bad in others. And I know I cannot change any part of them — what is done is done . . .’

Thankfully, Skolimowski is a director who has not been thwarted by either his occasional crisis of confidence or his mistreatment at the hands of the authorities . . . Indeed, his filmography is even beginning to gather pace again. Asked about this newfound vigor so late in life, he replies, quite casually, ‘by the standards established by Manuel de Oliveira I’m still a young filmmaker.’”

Read the whole article by clicking here – Skolimowski is a master filmmaker.

Werner Herzog Explores The Internet in “Lo and Behold”

Saturday, August 20th, 2016

Werner Herzog – who doesn’t own a cellphone – is tackling the history and mystery of the Internet.

As Hayley Tsukayama writes in The Washington Post, “filmmaker Warner Herzog didn’t make his first phone call until he was 17, and still doesn’t ever use a cellphone. That may make him seem like an odd guide to take a hyper-connected society through an examination of how the Internet has affected society.

But, in truth, it makes him an almost ideal observer — one of the few who can step back with some impartiality — to look at the effect this technology has had on the world. Released Friday, Herzog’s new film, Lo and Behold, looks at development of the Internet — something Herzog calls as ‘momentous as the introduction of electricity into our civilization.’

He spoke with The Washington Post last month ahead of the film’s debut; Magnolia Pictures provided me with a copy of the film ahead of its release. Here are a few snippets from our discussion of the film, which strings together vignettes examining the good and bad of the Internet. On his own tech use:

Werner Herzog: I have to say, right away, that I hardly ever use the Internet.

Hayley Tsukayama: Really?

WH: I do have a laptop and I do emails. Sometimes I do Skyping with family. But I don’t use a cellphone.

HT: Not at all?

WH: No.

HT: Why don’t you use a cellphone?

WH: For cultural reasons. I’m not nostalgic, but I like to maintain contact, like, with you, directly sitting across a table.  I’m not delegating my examination of the world to, let’s say, applications. I like not being available all of the time.

And, at the same time, I like knowing that no hacker or no hostile government could track me down. Now I’m sitting in this hotel in this room for how long. And they would know with whom I’m speaking and how many minutes. Nobody knows where I’m sitting, with the exception of you.

HT: That’s somewhat dark. One thing I liked about the film was that it shifted often between looking at the dark side and the benefits of the Internet. It doesn’t draw its own conclusion — why did you do it that way?

WH: It would be a silly approach to say the Internet is bad or the Internet is good. It would be too shallow. It is too complex. And besides, it’s a very American obsession to see movies that way — it makes sense in westerns, which have to do with a definition of basic justice, of good and bad.

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

Nine Great Filmmaking Tips from Roger Corman

Monday, August 15th, 2016

Roger Corman, still active as a filmmaker at 90, is being honored at the Locarno Film Festival.

As Sophia Harvey writes in No Film School, “while many directors consider low-budget filmmaking to be just a step in an ever more glamorous career, Roger Corman has made his home in the indie world.

And now he is one of the most lauded director/producers in Hollywood, still active at age 90, with over 400 works on his filmography. Many of these are beloved cult gems, especially the “drive-in” teen movies, both comedic and horrific, of his early career, and the heated political films that mark his later period.

In describing his youth, Corman recalls a time when he ‘was directing one picture during the day, during my lunch hour casting the next picture, and in the evening I was editing the previous one. That night I thought, “I have to sleep fast.”‘ He slowed down a bit after that, he laughs, but only a little.

In celebration of his lengthy and notable career, Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival invited Corman to be their Filmmaker’s Academy Guest of Honor at this year’s festivities. Last week, he spoke about his experiences, from landing his first job as a messenger at 20th Century Fox and discovering Francis Ford Coppola, to his admiration for James Cameron. Below, we’ve put together some of the most important takeaways from his Locarno talk.”

Here’s one great tip for starters: “1. Build A Crew That Makes You Proud. As a producer, Corman knows that the key to an efficient and well-run set is a cohesive crew. ’The first picture I directed, when I finished shooting, I made an A list, a B list and a C list of everybody on the crew. The A list were the ones who were very, very good. Those were the ones I wanted to hire back.

The C list were the ones who were not good and I would never hire them back. And the B list, which was more complex, were the ones who were just OK, I’ll hire ‘em back if I can’t get any better’ he explained. ‘I made another list after each picture. And over a short period of time… I had a crew where everybody was friendly, they were all outstanding, and we all worked together. It was also sometimes known as the Corman Crew.’

The Corman Crew was often hired as one unit, which is unusual in the indie world. He described the ‘great camaraderie’ that was created by this dynamic and the ‘enormous sense of pride’ felt, by him and the rest of the crew for garnering such a reputation in the independent field.”

And don’t forget, when Ingmar Bergman astonishingly couldn’t get a US distributor for his film Cries and Whispers (1972), and Corman was by then running his own production/distribution company, New World, Corman instantly came up with completion money, and a solid US distribution deal for the film (it even played drive-ins), which was subsequently nominated for five Academy Awards (winning one Oscar for Sven Nykvist’s luminous cinematography].

And he’s still out there on the cutting edge, doing retrospectives and championing the work of young filmmakers, such as Ana Lily Amirpour, doing an hour long on-stage discussion / screening of her film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and in general keeping up with the latest movements in cinema, even if he has slowed down just a tiny bit.

Words of wisdom from one of most prolific and successful filmmakers in history.

New Book – “Hollywood in Crisis or: The Collapse of The Real”

Saturday, August 13th, 2016

Wheeler Winston Dixon has published a new book, Hollywood in Crisis or: The Collapse of the Real.

Hollywood in Crisis or: The Collapse of the Real examines late stage capitalism in films, detailing the Hollywood production process, and explores the benefits and downsides of social media in relationship to the cinema, outlining the collapse and transformation of the Hollywood movie machine in the twenty-first century, and the concomitant social collapse being felt in nearly every aspect of society.

Examining key works in contemporary cinema, analyzing Hollywood films and the current wave of independent cinema developed outside of the Hollywood system as well, Dixon illustrates how movies and television programs across these spaces have adopted, reflected, and generated a society in crisis, and with it, a crisis for the cinematic industry itself.

The book is available online now, by clicking here or on the image above, as well as in hardcover format.

New Article: “It’s All About Relationships” – An Interview with Peter Medak

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

I have a new article out today – a career interview with director Peter Medak in QRFV.

As I write in my introduction to the interview, “by his own admission, Peter Medak has had a very unusual career as a director. Forced to leave his homeland at the age of 18 during the Hungarian Revolution, leaving his parents behind in the process, Medak fled to London, then a welcoming haven for emigrants, and began a film career from the absolute bottom rung of the business, eventually working his way up to his first film as a director, Negatives, in 1968.

Along the way, he had a lot of good luck, and made many connections within the film business that were of great value to him later – and still are today – but after the critical and commercial success of arguably his most famous film, The Ruling Class (1972), for which Peter O’Toole was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, Medak made the great mistake of doing a favor for his friend, the actor Peter Sellers, by agreeing to undertake the direction of Ghost in The Noonday Sun (1973), a film which soon ran aground due to Sellers’ capricious demands and the interference of his friend, the British comic Spike Milligan.

Completed but immediately shelved by the studio, the blame for Ghost in The Noonday Sun’s failure fell, unfairly, on Medak, who suddenly found himself going from “hot” to “not” status almost overnight, beginning a long period of working on films that he didn’t really believe in to pay the rent, until he managed to break the losing streak with the ghost story The Changeling, starring George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere, and more spectacularly with The Krays (1990) and Let Him Have It (1991), two films in which Medak finally had a free hand.

But even when he worked in television, Medak’s visual style and his skill with actors always shines through, and as we both agreed during this interview, there’s nothing wrong with working on an episode of a series like Breaking Bad – “Peekaboo,” in 2009 – and Medak continues to be active to the present day, and is now working on a documentary of sorts on the film that almost ended his career, with The Ghost of Peter Sellers, a work in progress which reunites the surviving cast members of that memorable debacle for a fascinating “what went wrong?” trip down memory lane.”

What followed was a fascinating and frank interview with a gifted filmmaker; I hope you get a chance to read the article, which is unfortunately behind a paywall. But you should be able to gain access easily enough through many of the online databases that UNL subscribes to, and I hope you’ll take a moment to read the really amazing adventures of this uncompromising artist – who suffered through a difficult time, and came out the other end with two stunningly successful films.

I’m glad I got a chance to talk to Peter – it’s great stuff.

Matthew Rosza on Fan Culture and Suicide Club

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

Here’s a brilliant piece by Matthew Rosza from Salon on Comic-Con and fan based movie culture.

As Rosza writes, in part, “it’s easy to roll your eyes at the Suicide Squad petition. In case you’ve been lucky enough to miss the news, fans of the new movie Suicide Squad have created an online movement to shut down aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes for posting predominantly negative reviews of their beloved film. Cue the inevitable jokes about how nerds need to get a life.

Is it really that simple, though? Over the past few years, it’s become increasingly clear that fans of pop culture properties — whether movies, TV shows, books, video games, or anything else — don’t merely view them as forms of entertainment, or themselves as consumers of said media . . .

The underlying logic is fundamentally irrational: Because they’ve financially supported these industries their whole lives and received an embarrassing social stigma for doing so, these industries owe them. While being a fan gives you a legitimate emotional connection, the underlying relationship is still that of consumer with product.

Any loyalty that a fan feels is a personal choice about how to invest time and money; any choice made by a producer, from corporations to individuals, is done to promote their own self-interest. Because that involves appealing to as broad an audience as possible, this means ignoring some fans who insist on exclusivist attitudes.

What can be done about this? More than anything else, we need to change the conversation that we’re having about pop culture in general. For better or worse, the fact that an entire generation holds pop culture on such a pedestal means that the cultural has become political.

As a result, when a disproportionately large number of movies, TV shows, video games, and books feature white, straight and male characters at the expense of other groups, this is an inherently political act (deliberately or otherwise) and needs to be confronted . . . [and] conversely, it is terribly disheartening when the producers of entertainment refuse to recognize the cultural power they wield and utilize it in an inclusive way . . .

While it’s important  . . . to stand up to problematic trends and tropes in cultural products, we still need to remember that they are ultimately just that — products. There is a great deal to be said about a society that loves its popular culture so fervently that they will turn them into platforms on which greater social justice causes are fought.

For right now, though, it behooves all of us to take a step back and recognize that there is an air of entitlement which makes all of this possible, and none of us look good so long as it remains unaddressed.”

Maureen Honey’s New Book – Aphrodite’s Daughters

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

Cultural historian and theorist Maureen Honey has an essential new book out from Rutgers University Press.

As the website for the book notes, “the Harlem Renaissance was a watershed moment for racial uplift, poetic innovation, sexual liberation, and female empowerment. Aphrodite’s Daughters introduces us to three amazing women who were at the forefront of all these developments, poetic iconoclasts who pioneered new and candidly erotic forms of female self-expression.

Maureen Honey paints a vivid portrait of three African American women—Angelina Weld Grimké, Gwendolyn B. Bennett, and Mae V. Cowdery—who came from very different backgrounds but converged in late 1920s Harlem to leave a major mark on the literary landscape.

Honey examines the varied ways these poets articulated female sexual desire, ranging from Grimké’s invocation of a Sapphic goddess figure to Cowdery’s frank depiction of bisexual erotics to Bennett’s risky exploration of the borders between sexual pleasure and pain. Yet Honey also considers how they were united in their commitment to the female body as a primary source of meaning, strength, and transcendence.

The product of extensive archival research, Aphrodite’s Daughters draws from Grimké, Bennett, and Cowdery’s published and unpublished poetry, along with rare periodicals and biographical materials, to immerse us in the lives of these remarkable women and the world in which they lived. It thus not only shows us how their artistic contributions and cultural interventions were vital to their own era, but also demonstrates how the poetic heart of their work keeps on beating.”

Aphrodite’s Daughters has already attracted a great deal of favor able critical attention, with Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, author of Dorothy West’s Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color describing Aphrodite’s Daughters as ”an excellent book on a trio of under-read and often misunderstood poets. Maureen Honey’s portrait of this unique cadre of modernists reveals the fascinating conflicts of politics and poetics that exemplify the Harlem Renaissance’s artistic production.”

Cheryl A. Wall, author of Women of the Harlem Renaissance adds that ”Maureen Honey’s archival research and critical acumen transform our understanding of Gwendolyn Bennett, Mae Cowdery, and Angelina Grimké, poets who explored their interior and erotic lives with deft lyricism and uncommon courage.”

This is a stunning, groundbreaking piece of work – well worth your time and attention.

About the Author

Headshot of 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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