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Archive for the ‘Criticism’ Category

Simon Denny – All You Need Is Data

Saturday, May 30th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Víctimas del pecado

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Book: Cinema and Counter-History by Marcia Landy

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cannes – The Final Wrap Up

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Racket (1951) in Noir of the Week

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Here’s a piece I wrote a while ago on the 1951 film The Racket for Noir of the Week.

“Who said I was an honest citizen? And what would it get me if I was?”

– Lizabeth Scott to Robert Mitchum in The Racket

Left to right above: Robert Ryan, John Cromwell, Lizabeth Scott and Robert Mitchum

As I wrote, “the traumatized figure of Robert Ryan as old-school rough and tough gangster Nick Scanlon towers over the wreckage of John Cromwell’s The Racket (1951), although the film has so many “punch up” scenes inserted after the completion of principal photography by director Nicholas Ray that it almost qualifies as a co-direction job. In addition, the actor/director Mel Ferrer, the film’s editor Sherman Todd, the film’s producer Edmund Grainger, and even director Tay Garnett (of The Postman Always Rings Twice) also took a hand in the proceedings, all under the overzealous and one might say hyper-controlling supervision of Howard Hughes, who at this point owned RKO Radio, the studio where this film was made, having acquired controlling interest in the company in 1948.

Hughes could never leave a project alone after it was finished shooting, in some cases scrapping whole elements of a film’s plot after principal photography. William Cameron Menzies’ delirious noir The Whip Hand comes immediately to mind; the film originally was about a plot devised by Adolf Hitler (Bobby Watson) to fatally poison America’s water supply, but after the film wrapped, Hughes decided that the villains should be Communists, who were suddenly much more trendy, and large segments of the film were reshot, at considerable added expense.

In the case of The Racket, the film was based on a silent film from 1928, also produced by Howard Hughes, and directed by a youthful Lewis Milestone, which was based in turn on a Broadway play by Bartlett Cormack, and starred Thomas Meighan, Louis Wolheim and Marie Prevost. Interestingly, the Broadway play version starred Edward G. Robinson, and, as an actor, a young John Cromwell, the director of the 1951 version, and the stage production subsequently toured throughout the country, winding up in Los Angeles, where Robinson was discovered by Warner Bros. and thrust into a series of gangster films that made him a star.

For many years, the 1928 version of The Racket was considered a “lost film,” but a print was finally located by Dr. Hart Wegner of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Film Department, and restored by Jeffrey Masino, with a new music track by Robert Israel. In 2004, the film was screened on Turner Classic Movies for the first time, but has yet to make it on to DVD; the 1928 version is certainly more coherent than the 1951 version, but the later version also has its merits – in a bizarre sort of way.

Chief among the pluses for the 1951 version are Robert Ryan, at his psychotic, raging best as outmoded gangster Nick Scanlon; Robert Mitchum somnolently strolling through his role as Captain Thomas McQuigg, an honest police captain in a city that has gone completely corrupt; the always dependable Lizabeth Scott as Irene Hayes, a nightclub singer who is predictably mixed up in the rackets; William Talman, surprisingly cast against type – he usually played murderers, thugs, and psychotic killers – as eager-beaver Officer Bob Johnson; Ray Collins as the exquisitely corrupt District Attorney Mortimer X. Welch; and last but far from least, William Conrad as Detective Sergeant Turk, another corrupt cop, who says almost nothing throughout the entire film but always seems to be hanging around the edges of the frame, chewing gum, and effectively stealing scenes from anyone who tries to upstage him.

Nor is this all; a gallery of pug-uglies, stoolies and other assorted noir characters round out the dramatis personae, from Walter Sande as a reliable sidekick cop to Mitchum’s Captain McQuigg, Les Tremayne as Harry Craig, head of the Crime Commission, the smooth heavy Don Porter as R.G. Connolly, front man for the never-seen “Old Man” who runs the entire corrupt enterprise, and noir regulars Harry Lauter, Don Dillaway, Howland Chamberlain, Tito Vuolo, Herb Vigran, Richard Reeves, Iris Adrian, Don Beddoe and others too numerous to mention. RKO had a heavy pool of talent to draw from in 1950s Hollywood, and even if these actors weren’t stars, they were solid professionals who could be counted on to show up on time, know their lines, and get through their scenes efficiently and with absolute conviction, even if the film’s script sometimes crumbled beneath them.”

That’s just an excerpt; read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Just as I finish up my book on black and white, Amsterdam University Press comes out with this fabulous book on early color filmmaking.

Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema by Giovanni Fossati, Tom Gunning, Joshua Yumibe and Jonathan Roson is a stunning look at early hand colored and dyed cinema, from the turn of the 19th to 20 the centuries, which collects in one volume an enormous number of gorgeous, hand colored images. As the press material for book notes, “we normally think of early film as being black and white, but the first color cinematography appeared as early as the first decade of the twentieth century. In this visually stunning book, the editors present a treasure trove of early color film images from the archives of EYE Film Institute Netherlands, bringing to life their rich hues and forgotten splendor.

Carefully selecting and reproducing frames from movies made before World War I, Fossati, Gunning, Rosen, and Yumibe share the images here in a full range of tones and colors. Accompanying essays discuss the history of early film and the technical processes that filmmakers employed to capture these fascinating images, while other contributions explore preservation techniques and describe the visual delights that early film has offered audiences, then and now. Featuring more than 300 color illustrations for readers to examine and enjoy, Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema will engage scholars and other readers of all ages and backgrounds.”

Early reviews have been rhapsodic, with Martin Scorsese declaring that “‘I could gaze at the images in this book for hours. They are as fascinating as illuminated manuscripts or magic lantern slides,” and artist Tony Oursler commenting “in the endless rewrite of art history the moving image seems indefinably futuristic. Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema makes the case for the importance of these mind-blowing masterpieces. These stunningly chromatic film stills link technology and the human touch while revealing one of film’s best kept secrets. Traditional painting and sculpture relies on reflected light while projected light opens a wildly new path of experimentation. Here we see, for the very first time, images made at the speed of light.”

You can see more images from book by clicking here, or on the image above.

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.

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 or

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