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Archive for the ‘Digital Culture’ Category

Streaming Directly from the Cloud to Your Brain

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

I have a new interview in Moving Image Archive News on my recent book, Streaming.

As I note in the interview, “I’ve watched film change and morph for more than half a century. As I grew up, everything was being shown in theaters in 35mm, and at colleges, universities and libraries in 16mm, and there was, of course, no such thing as home video, VHS or DVD. Films screened on television were really ’streaming’ – they were broadcast at a certain date and time, and you had to be present at that time to see them.

I remember vividly setting my alarm clock for 1 a.m. or later to see films on WCBS TV’s The Late Show, and then The Late, Late Show, and even The Late, Late, Late Show, which is how I saw most of the classics growing up. I would also haunt revival theaters in New York City, such as the Thalia and the New Yorker, to see the classics projected in their proper format.

Video, of course, has been around since the early 1950s, but I don’t think anyone, even professional archivists, ever thought it would completely replace film, but it has. 16mm is completely defunct as a production medium, except in the case of Super 16mm which is used sometimes in features (such as The Hurt Locker) to save costs, but then blown up to 35mm, or now, skipping that step entirely and moving straight to a DCP.

Film is finished. It’s simply a fact. 35mm and 16mm projection are now a completely rarity, and screenings on actual film are becoming ‘events,’ rather than the norm. This is simply a platform shift, and it comes with various problems, mainly archiving the digital image, which is much more unstable than film.

But with the image quality of RED cameras for production, and digital projection taking over, it’s an inescapable fact that shooting on film is now the moving image equivalent of stone lithography. So now, my own viewing habits have moved to DVD and Blu-Ray, and I have a ridiculously large collection of DVDs in my home library, some 10,000 or more.

I have to have them in this format, because I can’t count on the quality of streaming videos from Netflix, Amazon, or other online sources. Blu-Ray, in particular, yields a truly remarkable image. So that’s how I watch films now, and in any event, the revival houses, even in major cities, are all now pretty much a thing of the past.”

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

The $50 Movie Ticket?

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

World War Z is offering a $50 Mega Ticket in some theatres, to see if it works. I hope not.

As Hillary Busis noted in PopWatch on June 14th, under the tags “boatloads of money, head scratcher, to care or not to care” among other designations, “Paramount and Regal Entertainment have partnered for what they’re calling the ‘ultimate fan event’ — a World War Z package offered at just five theaters nationwide, including screens in Orange County, Houston, San Diego, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. Its price tag? A hefty $50.

To be fair, those who purchase these ‘mega tickets’ will get more than just a pass to see Brad Pitt fight zombies. The bundle includes a ticket to see World War Z in RealD 3-D two days before its official release, a pair of custom RealD 3D glasses, a small popcorn, a limited-edition movie poster, and an HD digital copy of the film once it’s released for home viewing.

Knowing this, let’s break down the mega ticket’s cost.  An adult evening ticket for a movie comparable to World War ZMan of Steel — in RealD 3D at the five theaters listed as mega ticket partners costs $16.30 on average before tax, according to prices listed online. A small popcorn at a theater was $4.75 on average in 2009, and that number has certainly gone up in the past four years; let’s estimate it conservatively at $5. An HD digital download of a newly-released film — Oz the Great and Powerful, for example — costs $19.99 on iTunes and $14.99 on Amazon, so let’s average them to get $17.49

Add those together, and you get $38.79 (plus tax) — meaning that Paramount and Regal are charging around a $11.21 premium for a poster, the custom glasses, and the privilege of seeing the movie in advance.
Is that fair? Considering that $50 can buy you eight $6 beers at a reasonably-priced bar, or six months (plus one week) of unlimited streaming titles on Netflix, or 50 McDoubles at McDonald’s, it doesn’t really seem to be.”

I agree; I can’t imagine paying this, and I’ll add one other fact to Ms. Busis’s summary; today I went to see The Purge at the 12:20PM show in a theater that seated more than 500 people, and I was the only one – the absolute only person – in the theater, and that cost me $6.75 for a 2-D matinee. If you can’t fill theaters at $6.75 a pop in summer with The Purge, a film that’s already demonstrated that it’s a solid hit, how on earth are you going to get away with charging $50 for a souped up ticket for World War Z?

Not going to happen, no matter what Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lucas say.

Roger Corman’s You Tube Channel

Saturday, June 8th, 2013

Legendary producer/director Roger Corman is launching a pay YouTube channel on June 13th; click here, or on the image above, to listen to Corman introduce the new venture.

Always a few steps ahead of the game when it comes to distribution and exploitation of his product, Roger Corman has cut a deal with YouTube to stream his library of more than 400 films on his own YouTube channel, films that he either produced or directed, with the initial emphasis on the more “mainstream” fare, but who knows what will happen as the channel evolves?

Let’s not forget that when no one else would strike a deal with Ingmar Bergman for the American rights to his masterpiece Cries and Whispers, Corman stepped in with a telephone offer to distribute the film in the US based solely on two conditions; one, that it be a “representative Bergman film,” and two, that it was shot in color. This was no problem for Bergman, who readily agreed, and the film went on to become Bergman’s biggest American hit, which Corman booked in not only legitimate theaters, so to speak, but also in drive-ins.

Roger Corman has inspired dozens of filmmakers, actors, writers, and marches very much to his own drum; he was finally recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a special Academy Award© for his lifetime contribution to the cinema. Corman has directed and produced, or served as the co-producer or distributor, for a lot of excellent films, and he’s constantly, even in his 80s, reinventing himself to keep up with the times.

Streaming is the way to go these days, and Roger is one of the first to jump on the bandwagon with a pay channel in this area; judging by the enthusiastic comments from his many fans, the channel should be a solid hit, and hopefully he’ll run some of the more interesting arthouse films he championed in the 1970s and 80s along with the solidly commercial work; this could be a very interesting undertaking.

Click here for a more detailed article on Corman’s Drive In Theater.

Gutai Art Exhibition at The Guggenheim Museum

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

I recently saw a stunning show of Gutai Art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

As Ming Tiampo, Associate Professor, Art History, Carleton University, Ottawa, and Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator, Asian Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York wrote of the exhibition, “Gutai: Splendid Playground presents the creative spectrum of Japan’s most influential avant-garde collective of the postwar era. Founded by the visionary artist Yoshihara Jirō in 1954, the Gutai group was legendary in its own time. Its young members explored new art forms combining performance, painting, and interactive environments, and realized an ‘international common ground’ of experimental art through the worldwide reach of their exhibition and publication activities. Against the backdrop of wartime totalitarianism, Gutai forged an ethics of creative freedom, breaking through myriad boundaries to create some of the most exuberant works and events in the history of Japanese and international avant-garde art. Yoshihara’s Please Draw Freely (1956/2013), a collective drawing on a freestanding signboard reconceived for the Guggenheim’s rotunda and created by visitors, invites adults and children to collaborate, think, and imagine for themselves.

The Gutai Art Association (active 1954–72) originated in the cosmopolitan town of Ashiya, near Osaka, in western Japan. Spanning two generations, the group totaled 59 Japanese artists over its 18-year history. The name Gutai literally means ‘concreteness’ and captures the direct engagement with materials its members were experimenting with around the time of its founding in 1954. From its earliest festival-like events, Gutai artists sought to break down the barriers between art, the ordinary public, and everyday life, and continuously took on new artistic challenges using the body in direct action with materials, time and space, and nature and technology. Charting Gutai’s creation of visual, conceptual, and theoretical terrains, this exhibition is organized throughout the museum in chronological and thematic sections: Play, Network, Concept, the Concrete, Performance Painting, and Environment Art.

The outdoor exhibitions of 1955 and 1956 literally set the stage for the group’s artistic strategies. Held in a pine grove park in Ashiya, these events brought art outside and released it from its confines, like Motonaga Sadamasa’s magisterial Work (Water). The Guggenheim commissioned the artist to recreate this work for the rotunda, where he hangs common, polyethylene tubes of varying widths filled with brightly-colored water between the rotunda levels, making giant brushstrokes out of catenaries in the open air that catch the sunlight (Work [Water], 1956/2011).

Moving from what Yoshihara decried as ‘fraudulent . . . appearances’ to lived reality, Gutai artists invented ways to go beyond contemporary styles of abstract painting into concrete pictures, blurring representational significance by incorporating raw matter, as well as time and space, as the stuff of art. Tanaka Atsuko’s Work (Bell) (1955/1993), reimagines painting as an acoustic composition of living sound through a sequential ringing of electric alarm bells wired along the entire expanse of Rotunda Level 2. Her interests in schematic and technical representation, wiring systems, lights, and the human form reached a pinnacle in her best-known work, Electric Dress (1956). The artist wore this spectacular costume made of flashing incandescent light bulbs painted in bright yellow, green, red, and blue for her performance during Gutai Art on the Stage (1957), whose documentary film is projected on Rotunda Level 5.

Like Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism, Gutai rejected psychic automatism for acts of corporeal materiality in the real world. Yoshihara’s involvement with the revitalization of Japanese traditional arts, specifically Japanese calligraphy, also informed his idea of art making as an unmediated experiential encounter between artist, gesture, and material. Shiraga Kazuo’s Untitled (1957), made by the artist painting on the floor with his bare feet, or Murakami Saburō’s Passage (1956), a performance painting made by the artist flinging himself through taut paper screens, both demonstrate Gutai’s call to release the ’scream of matter itself.’ In the context of live events, Gutai artists extended their objectives to theater, music, and film. The Gutai Card Box (1962) transformed the act of viewing paintings into an interaction, with the viewer purchasing a work from the artist hidden inside a vending machine.

As the global pioneers of environmental art, Gutai’s participatory environments take the form of organic or geometric abstract sculptures incorporating kinetic, light, and sound art, turning exhibition spaces into chaotic dens of screeching, pulsing, machine-like organisms. Yoshida Minoru’s erotic machine-sculpture Bisexual Flower (1969) mines the psychedelic effects of this approach. Gutai environments drew from contemporary architecture, technology, and urban design to promote a futuristic, space-age aesthetic. This can be seen in Nasaka Senkichirō’s giant armature composed of aluminum plumbing pipes punctured with holes, broadcasting a music composition as it zigzags its way up the exhibition space. This site of creativity is what Shiraga called ‘a splendid playground’ and what Yoshihara sought as a ‘free site that can contribute to the progress of humanity.’”

I was lucky enough to see the show — which ran from February 15–May 8, 2013 — on its last day of exhibition; I was unaware at the time that the show would soon be dismantled, but I was stunned by the originality, lack of commercialism, and genuine sense of wonder that the show displayed, which was also documented in numerous short films and videos projected throughout the museum. The Gutai movement was clearly very much ahead of the curve in terms of art in the United States, and in the happenings and performance pieces of the late 1950s and early 1960s done in the US, you can more than a little of Gutai’s influence.

However, due to the fact the international boundaries were more defined during the pre-web era than they are now, very little of Gutai’s output made it to the United States, except for those artists who visited Japan during the period when the group was active, and obviously took home notes. The other aspect of the Gutai movement that’s fascinating is that they knew when they had accomplished ewhat they wanted to do, and having worked continuously on creating boundary-breaking art since 1954, called a halt to the group’s activities in 1972, rather than just continuing on as a commercial entity. This is art at it’s purest, most genuine, and most affecting.

Click here, or on the image above, for a video on this exceptional show.

Film Convert – People Still Want The Film “Look”

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

Despite the “breakneck shift” to digital cinema, it seems people still want the film “look.”

So here’s a fascinating video tutorial — which loads immediately when you click the image above — on some new software that takes the rather hard looking digital images put out by conventional HD cameras and softens then up into something approximating what film looks like, with artificial grain, color balance, and other artifacts of the filmic image. It’s all an illusion, of course; this is still HD. But it’s interesting to me that the more people use digital, the more they seem to long for the “look” of film, and the warmth, depth, and tactile feel that film brings to the image being captured.

As tech writer Joe Marine notes on the No Film School website, “we’ve said a lot about the digital versus film debate, and a lot of people have a lot of different opinions. Film still had a technological advantage over digital until really the last few years or so, and now we have digital sensors which can match or exceed film stocks with dynamic range. Either way, with digital sensors being ‘too clean’ for some people who have loved the look of film, there is a program called FilmConvert that takes the color information of specific cameras and actually uses that to determine how a specific film stock could best be represented using that sensor.”

So, click here, or the image above, and see for yourself how it works.

The End of Film is Really Here

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

I’ve been banging the drum on this for a long time, but now, it seems the end is really here.

As Carolyn Giardina and Adrian Pennington report in today’s Hollywood Reporter, “by the end of this year, distributors may no longer deliver film prints to theaters in North America. Cans full of reels of celluloid will be a thing of the analog past. When it comes to movies, and how they are distributed, the digital revolution will be complete. The signs are all there — and there have been plenty of warnings.

At Showest, the predecessor to CinemaCon, in 2011, National Association of Theatre Owners president John Fithian predicted that the domestic distribution of movies on celluloid could cease before the end of 2013. Fithian reported that Fox had already notified exhibitors of its intent to end film distribution in the U.S. within two years. He predicted, ‘No one should rely on the distribution of film prints much longer.’

By the end of 2012, 90,000, or 75 percent, of the world’s cinema screens had gone digital, according to Michael Karagosian, president of MKPE Consulting. He reports that 85 percent of the screens in North America had already made the digital switch, as have 67 percent in Europe. Studios welcomed the change, since it will ultimately be less expensive for them to distribute films digitally rather than have to ship cans of film around the country. Exhibitors, initially wary because of concerns about the expense of converting their auditoriums, ultimately came aboard once the studios agreed to virtual print fees that have helped subsidize the costs of the transition.

As a result, when a studio now releases a title wide in North America — sending it out to 2,000-2,500 theaters — they typically make just a small number of prints, maybe 300, according to Claude Gagnon, president of Technicolor Creative Services. But for those who still rely on film, from production companies to distributors to theater owners, the future is now uncertain. In fact, studios and filmmakers might not be in control of their own destiny.”

By the end of 2013, it seems, film will be gone; like it or not, it’s a digital world.

Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access — New Video Trailer

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Click here to see the trailer for my new book, Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access.

Film stocks are vanishing, but the image remains, albeit in a new, sleeker format. Today, viewers can instantly stream movies on demand on televisions, computers, and smartphones. Long gone are the days when films could only be seen in theaters: Videos are now accessible at the click of a virtual button, and there are no reels, tapes, or discs to store. Any product that is worth keeping may be collected in the virtual cloud and accessed at will through services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant.

The movies have changed, and we are changing with them. The ways we communicate, receive information, travel, and socialize have all been revolutionized. In Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access, Winston Wheeler Dixon reveals the positive and negative consequences of the transition to digital formatting and distribution, exploring the ways in which digital cinema has altered contemporary filmmaking and our culture. Many industry professionals and audience members feel that the new format fundamentally alters the art while others laud the liberation of the moving image from the “imperfect” medium of film, asserting that it is both inevitable and desirable. Dixon argues that the change is neither good nor bad; it’s simply a fact.

Hollywood has embraced digital production and distribution because it is easier, faster, and cheaper, but the displacement of older technology will not come without controversy. This groundbreaking book illuminates the challenges of preserving digital media and explores what stands to be lost, from the rich hues present in film stocks to the classic movies that are not profitable enough to offer as streaming video. Dixon also investigates the financial challenges of the new distribution model, the incorporation of new content such as webisodes, and the issue of ownership in an age when companies have the power to pull purchased items from consumer devices at their own discretion.

Streaming touches upon every aspect of the shift to digital production and distribution. It not only explains how the new technology is affecting movies, music, books, and games, but also how instant access is permanently changing the habits of viewers and influencing our culture.

Wheeler Winston Dixon, James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies and professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, is coeditor-in-chief of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video and the author of numerous books, including A History of Horror, Visions of the Apocalypse: Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema, and Film Talk: Directors at Work.

“Dixon has written a lively, opinionated, and detailed up-to-the-minute dispatch on the current state of the moving-image media as they experience a period of rapid transition marked by instability and uncertainty regarding the future of viewing and exhibition practices. It is a timely and urgent contribution to current scholarship in the constantly evolving discipline of media studies.”—David Sterritt, author of Screening the Beats: Media Culture and the Beat Sensibility

“Dixon’s book offers a cogent overview of the history of digital film production and its impact on traditional filmmaking. His work is more than just a historical map of the development of digitalized filmmaking, but also a socio-cultural and psychological study of how digitally formed film will (and does) impact viewers. Streaming will make a significant contribution to the field, as no scholar has yet looked at digital cinema and its impact on the socio-cultural experience of viewing film.”—Valerie Orlando, author of Screening Morocco: Contemporary Film in a Changing Society

Film/Television/Popular Culture
May, 2013
184 pages ∙ 6 x 9
ISBN 978-0-8131-4217-3 ∙ Cloth $69.00x
ISBN 978-0-8131-4219-7 ∙ Paper $24.95
ISBN 978-0-8131-4224-1 ∙ PDF
ISBN 978-0-8131-4218-0 ∙ EPUB

Forthcoming from The University Press of Kentucky

The Eternal Present

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

“No one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.” — the master computer Alpha 60 in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965).

There’s an interesting piece in Forbes this morning by Anthony Wing Kosner on the Harlem Shake meme, a massively duplicated performance piece which is spreading virally over the web, and which, by now, has probably peaked. Kosner offers a succinct summary of the meme, noting that “ the Harlem Shake meme has a simple form: with the first 30-seconds of the song Harlem Shake by the DJ and producer Baauer in the background, a single person does something in the presence of others (who act as if nothing is happening), and then all of a sudden everyone is doing something together. The sound snippet is divided equally between the electronic tropes of the ‘build up,’ and the ‘bass drop,’ and the juncture between the two is punctuated by a deep, pitch-shifted voice commanding, ‘do the Harlem Shake.’ Unlike the video response parodies for Gangnam Style, Call Me Maybe or Somebody That I Used To Know, making a Harlem Shake requires very little preparation. This is not only because of the short duration, but also because the ‘’something’ that ‘happens’ doesn’t matter. It could be anything.”

Kosner intriguingly links this phenomenon to Douglas Rushkoff’s soon-to-be-released book Present Shock, adding that “before you accuse me of taking this class of 30-second trifles too seriously, consider them in relation to Present Shock, the soon-to-be released book by Douglas Rushkoff [see Kosner's review here.] The book, subtitled When Everything Happens Now, is a follow-up to Alvin Toffler’s 70s touchstone, Future Shock. Where Toffler argued that the pace of change was radically accelerating, Rushkoff finds that time itself has now metastasized to the point that all we can see is the present moment.

This ‘presentism’ effects every corner of our lives from finance to politics to entertainment. And the meme, whether it be an image plastered with ironic type, an animated gif or, as in Harlem Shake, a short video, is the perfect cultural expression of Present Shock. We don’t have time for the five-act play—give me the 30-second video! [. . .] Rushkoff explains, ‘Essentially, this is a presentist society’s equivalent of mass spectacle [ . . .] We don’t have overarching stories that we’re a part of, no national narrative really—just lots of opinions.”

To [an] audience of publishers he made the point that as much as we want to give our audience what they want, the impatience of the readership and the desire for everything to be à la carte, changes the way we now write non-fiction books. Instead of the grand five-act play structure of previous tomes, we have a series of chapters that essentially say the same thing about different topics.

Like a fractal, you can ‘get the picture,’ at any point. And Baauer’s song is just that way. Undoubtably Harlem Shake has sold a bunch of downloads since the meme took off, but most people have only heard the first 30 seconds, and the rest of the tune adds no significant development. Once you get it, that’s all there is.

Rushkoff continues, ‘So something like this stands in for the centralized broadcast spectacle. It’s interactive, in that people actually ‘make’ one of these things. And being in one, or knowing people who are in one, or even just knowing this phenomenon exists ‘when it’s happening’ is a form of connection. In some ways, the brevity of the fad makes it all the more tempting to participate in. It’s going to be over so soon that you want to get in on it before it’s not cool anymore.’”

But this “eternal presentism,” which I agree certainly exists, is certainly not a new concept, and both Rushkoff and Kosner instantly put me in mind of Jean-Luc Godard’s brilliant vision of the future Alphaville, made way back in 1965. In the 21st century (actually then-contemporary Paris), a master computer, Alpha 60, rules society with an iron hand, and issues dictates which must be followed upon pain of death. Everything is informed by consumerism; genuine emotion is outlawed. A man is executed in a swimming pool spectacle for  the “crime” of weeping when his wife dies; vending machines instruct consumers to insert a coin for some unspecified product, only to receive a token marked simply “thanks” — nothing for something, the hallmark of 21st century imagistic commerce.

In short, everything that both Rushkoff and Posher notes is absolutely true — as Alpha 60 says to private Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), who is sent from the “outerlands” to destroy the massive computer, ”No one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.” Lemmy responds, “I refuse to become what you call normal.” Alphaville ends on an optimistic note, with Alpha 60’s destruction, but the present offers us no such panacea; the computers have won. Everything is available online, but no one really wants anything of substance; they just want the latest fads and trends, tailored to their own tastes.

When this happens, we forget what the past has taught us, and thus the future becomes dependent solely upon the fad and whim of the moment, instantly disposable and utterly without consequence. It’s interesting that as Godard has cut down on his output as a filmmaker in recent years, his most recent films have developed a strong link to the past — to the culture of another era, in books, music, art, films — which Godard obviously mourns and celebrates simultaneously. But Godard knows that the past is gone, and irrecoverable, and the future is unknowable; we are all forced to live, whether we like it or not, in the eternal present.

No one remembers the past any more. And that’s precisely the tragedy of the present.

Philip Glass’s New Opera: The Perfect American

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

Click here, or on the image above, to see a clip from Philip Glass’s new opera, The Perfect American.

As Seth Colter Walls reports in the Browbeat section of Slate, “for the next 83 days, Medici.tv will be presenting a TV-quality broadcast of the recent Italian premiere of a new opera by Philip Glass. Titled The Perfect American—and adapted from Peter Stephen Jungk’s novel of the same name—it’s a tale of Walt Disney’s last days, in which the media titan slips in and out of what we might call empirical reality.

In it, Walt Disney, while supervising the team that is building one of the Animatronic American Personages that have become part of his parks’ public lore, gets into a debate with his Robot Lincoln—about the scope of Honest Abe’s liberalism, and whether it properly extends to Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington and the bearded hippie set.

The schism between the robot and Disney’s technicians stems from the surprising fact that the animatronic Lincoln seems to have a mind of his own. And so the developer team brings Lincoln to Disney, who tries to convince the robotic president that they both belong to the same class of Iconic American. (‘We’re folk heroes, Mr. President. But we have enemies …’)

Not getting quite the response he wants, Disney tries another tack, by asking (among other things): ‘Martin Luther King, Eldridge Cleaver, is that what you wanted? Doesn’t that go too far even for you, Mr. President? The black people’s march in Washington; would you really agree with that?’”

As the liner notes for the world premiere of the opera at the Teatro Real de Madrid add, “The Perfect American is a fictionalized biography of Walt Disney’s final months. We discover Walt’s delusions of immortality via cryogenic preservation, his tirades alongside his Abraham Lincoln talking robot, his utopian visions and his backyard labyrinth of toy trains.

Yet, if at first Walt seems to have a magic wand granting him all his wishes, we soon discover that he is as tortured as the man who crosses his story, Wilhelm Dantine, a cartoonist who worked for him, illustrating sequences for [the film] Sleeping Beauty. Dantine is fascinated by the childlike omnipotence of a man who identifies with Mickey Mouse, and desperately seeks Disney’s recognition at the risk of his own ruin.

Walt’s wife Lillian, his confidante and perhaps mistress Hazel, his brother Roy, his children Diane and Sharon, his close and ill-treated collaborators, and famous figures such as Andy Warhol, all contribute to the opera’s animation, its feel for the life of the Disney world.”

Typically brilliant stuff from Philip Glass, who has a long tradition of composing some of the late 20th and early 21st century’s most engaging and innovative music. Don’t miss the opportunity to see this remarkable, original, and compelling piece of work.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the entire opera The Perfect American.

Henry Koster’s The Robe (1953)

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

Roman Tribune Marcellus (Richard Burton, right), kneels before an offscreen Caligula (Jay Robinson, extreme left) in The Robe.

Henry Koster’s The Robe, the first film released in CinemaScope on September 16, 1953 — the first film made in CinemaScope was How to Marry a Millionaire, which was released November 4, 1953 — has always gotten a bad rap, supposedly for Koster’s flat and uninspired direction, and the primitive use of the ’scope frame in the film. And I admit, I myself was one of the crowd of detractors. But the new Blu-Ray restoration of The Robe brings out qualities that even the 35mm original didn’t fully reveal during the film’s initial theatrical presentation in 1953.

If such a thing is possible, The Robe ultimately emerges as a quiet, thoughtful epic, with a great deal of intelligence behind it, much more successful to my mind than Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, William Wyler’s Ben Hur, or even Nicholas Ray’s maverick project King of Kings, all of which have a much higher conventional critical profile.

It isn’t in the same league as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s masterful The Gospel According to St. Matthew, but then again, that’s arguably the best version of the Christ tale ever brought to the screen. But The Robe has a certain quiet holding power to it, mostly anchored in the understated performances of the entire cast throughout the film, though it doesn’t neglect the visual aspect of the piece, and only occasionally wanders off track into maudlin sentiment.

As the anonymous reviewer for Blu-Ray.com noted, “The Robe dazzles on Blu-ray with its masterful 1080p transfer framed at 2.55:1. This is another high-quality classic catalogue release from Fox, and rarely does the transfer fail to impress. Colors are astounding and are the highlight of the image. The shade of dark red that marks the color of the Roman soldier’s uniforms in particular stands out, but the many colors of the flowing and wonderfully adorned garments worn by both Roman royalty and the populace of Jerusalem sparkle. The color stands out particularly well against the earthen tones of the sandy floors and the numerous gray façades of various buildings.

Fine detail, too, is generally exceptional. The disc reveals textures and fine lines in clothing, armor, weaponry, and the adornments of the luxurious Roman palaces. Some scenes are noticeably soft, lacking in clarity, sharpness, and detail, but such scenes are the exception to the rule. There are also a few instances of dramatic shifts in color one frame to another, but again, such is the exception to the rule. Generally, The Robe looks marvelous on Blu-ray.”

And in a lengthy review in the website DVD Beaver, Leonard Norwitz concurs, stating flatly that “next to the DVD or any video or theatrical presentation in memory, this Blu-ray is a revelation, which is not to say that it is always perfect, but where there are difficulties, I feel comfortable in attributing them to the source.  The image most often has the feel of a painting in motion, which I imagine was the intended effect.  There is an almost pastel quality to the color.

The lighting is deliberately evenhanded most of the time, not natural at all, but in stark contrast to the dramatic material in Palestine that concerns the robe itself: the crucifixion and Marcellus’ crisis most especially. In those scenes, blacks are intense and the color deep and sinister.  Some of the darkly lit interior scenes get oversaturated the point of blurring detail – the result is not subtle, and certainly not intentional.  Artifacts, enhancements or noise reduction do not appear to be visited upon this Blu-ray.”

Diana (Jean Simmons) and Caligula (Jay Robinson) in The Robe

I also think that The Robe has been unjustly maligned over the years as an overblown religious spectacle, and while it certainly indulges in visual excess, the performances are all very finely tuned, particularly a very young Richard Burton in the role that made him a star, as well as Jean Simmons as Diana, Richard Boone as Pontius Pilate, Ernest Thesiger as Emperor Tiberius, Victor Mature as Demetrius, and Michael Rennie as Peter. In contrast, Jay Robinson’s suitably over-the-top Caligula is a fully realized monster, and arguably the performance of his career.

CinemaScope, of course, was 20th Century Fox’s answer to the threat of television, and although the ’scope version is the most widely seen, the film was simultaneously shot in regular academy (flat) ratio to accommodate theaters that couldn’t afford to convert to the CinemaScope screen format. Alfred Newman’s suitably lush score is also a plus. While the film is certainly sentimentalized, it’s really an actor’s film, and a deeply felt one at that, in which the cast never seems overpowered by the pageantry the surrounds them. All in all, The Robe is worth another look, and now it looks better than ever.

This is digital cinema at its best; restoring the classics.

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 numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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