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The Invisible Cinema of Marcel Hanoun

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

I have an new essay in Film International on the deeply underappreciated filmmaker Marcel Hanoun.

As I note at the beginning of my article, “When Marcel Hanoun died on September 22, 2012 at the age of 82, it caused barely a ripple in the media, and even in the world of experimental cinema. And yet Hanoun was a major filmmaker, whose near total critical eclipse after an initial burst of critical interest is an indictment of cinema history as a function of canon. It’s true that Hanoun’s films are difficult, but no more so than Jean-Luc Godard’s, who was a fan of Hanoun’s work; it’s true that Hanoun turned his back on commercial cinema to work as a perennial outsider, but again, cinema has many rebellious figures in its history who continue to hold a claim on our memory.

But Hanoun is in death, as he was in life, an almost phantom figure, ‘discovered’ in the early 60s, and then summarily dismissed. There is a French Wikipedia page on Hanoun, cited in the works below, but not one in English. Most of his films, with the exception of his first, Une Simple Histoire (1958), are not readily available. His list of film credits on official websites like IMDb is woefully inaccurate. What critical writing there is on him in English is mostly from the 1960s and 70s, and after that, it just stops. Indeed, for most of his films, there’s scant information to be had in any language. To me, this is inexplicable. Hanoun’s importance is clear. Nevertheless, it’s a sobering fact; most people have never heard of Marcel Hanoun.”

You can read the rest of this article here; again, my thanks to Daniel Lindvall, editor of Film International.

Light From the Screen: Cinema, Painting and Spectatorship

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Here’s my recent essay on the relationship(s) between cinema and painting for Film International.

As I noted, “Noël Coward once observed that ‘television is for appearing on – not for looking at,’ but as the twenty-first century takes firm hold of our collective consciousness, it seems that everyone has become, in one form or another, a spectator of the events of everyday existence, whether at home or in the cinema. Reality shows and YouTube videos offer the prospect of instant stardom for the ‘lucky’ few whose videos ‘go viral,’ but for every video posted, there are literally millions of viewers who would rather watch than participate in the production of images.

It has become so much easier – and potentially safer – to stay home and let the images come to us, rather than to go out to a public place and view them with a crowd of strangers. Indeed, this is the era of what the theorist Gabriele Pedullà has described as “the spectator’s extreme volatility” (original emphasis). Images are anywhere, and everywhere, and there seems to be no escaping them, even if we wanted to, and weren’t constantly returning to our various digital screens for another visual ‘fix.’ And we aren’t only watching movies and videos; we’re viewing paintings, sculptures, drawings, live video camera feeds; we like to watch, just as Chauncey Gardiner did in Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979). Life was ‘real’ for Chauncey only if it was on television; for us, too, the image has become more real than life itself.

With lightweight portable tablets, smartphones, and other electronic devices proliferating rapidly in our culture, when one looks at images of family gatherings in 2013, one is struck by the fact that everyone is watching something on their own portable image device, and ignoring each other; we’re all watching each other all the time, but on some sort of electronic device, rather than face to face, and we have little time, thus, for any real communication or intimacy. We have been gradually transformed from a culture of human communication into a mediated society in which simulacrum images of the real have replaced human interaction. We’ve been both spectators and participants in the process of image production since the dawn of imagistic representation, but now it seems that more and more, we are content to simply watch anything that’s on, removing ourselves from existence.”

You can read the rest of the article here; my thanks again to Daniel Lindvall, the editor of Film International.

Esther Eng, Pioneering Feminist Director

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

Wai Kim-Fong, Esther Eng and Beal Wong on the set of Eng’s film Heartache

Esther Eng, a pioneering feminist director, is the subject of a new documentary. As Elizabeth Kerr notes in a review of the documentary, Golden Gate Silver Light, which premiered at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, in The Hollywood Reporter, “Wei’s feature doc is clearly a labor of love — she also edited, produced, wrote, shot and narrated — and the workload often shows. The voice-over (difficult under dramatic circumstances) is academic and frequently stilted, the subtitles are riddled with inconsistencies and spelling errors, and Wei is given to hyperbole (there are many “masters” and “legends” referred to in the film). The HDV photography is functional and efficient and nothing more, and the film is heavy on stock footage and archival photos (though that is likely beyond Wei’s control). Despite the technical and cinematic shortcomings, festivals should provide Golden Gate Silver Light a healthy life on the strength of its subject, and the film could find a place on specialty cable and even in academic circles.

Wei begins her search for details on Eng’s life in the city of her birth, San Francisco, and follows her footsteps to Hollywood, then Hong Kong and finally back to the United States where she died in New York in 1970. Along the way Wei tracks down the bystander who found Eng’s personal journals and photos in a dumpster (which he donated to the Hong Kong Film Archive) and as many surviving family and co-workers — many former Cantonese opera stars fleeing the war in the 1930s — as she could to paint a rough sketch of the unconventional woman. The conversations with Eng’s now-elderly peers complement the material supplied by periodicals and Hollywood biographers and film critics (including The Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy). The fact that Wei found two with a semblance of knowledge of Eng speaks to just how unjustly she’s been disregarded.

One of Golden Gate’s strengths is its seamless ability to weave history, Sino-U.S. relations and social standards together to allow for inference and context. When the Chinese Exclusion Act kept Eng from pursuing her chosen career, she left for Hong Kong, where the same individualist streak made her a local celebrity, which stemmed as much from the success of the five films she made there to the exotic lesbianism no one seemed to care about. When she returned to the United States, she was a successful filmmaker — who cast Bruce Lee as an infant girl in one of her last films, Golden Gate Girl (1941).”

This is a fascinating look at a neglected artist; click here for another essay on Eng’s work from China Daily, by Frank Bren.

90 Things You Didn’t Know About Warner Bros.

Friday, February 1st, 2013

From the latest issue of American Film, this interesting feature.

“To commemorate the 90th anniversary of Warner Bros. Pictures, we’ve compiled a list of 90 historical tidbits culled from a variety of sources, including the new documentary The Brothers Warner by Cass Warner Sperling, granddaughter of Harry M. Warner. Here are the first ten tidbits:

  • At the end of the 19th century, the Warner family came to America from Krasnosielc, a town near Warsaw that Russia had annexed from Poland.
  • The family name was originally Wonskolaser.
  • The brothers Warner were named Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack. There were eight other children in the family.
  • In 1903, the three eldest Warner brothers became ‘Nickelodeon junkies,’ spending all their spare time and money on the five-cent moving picture machines.
  • To raise capital for his sons’ entry into the film business, a passion that required no university degree, Benjamin Warner sold his gold watch and ‘Bob,’ the horse that pulled his meat delivery wagon.
  • Sam procured a second-hand Edison kinetoscope projector, ‘the machine that spells certainty of success in the motion picture business,’ to launch the partnership.
  • Sister Rose Warner played the organ at her brothers’ first theater, the Cascade in New Castle, Pennsylvania.
  • Jack L. Warner was a ‘chaser,’ the theater employee charged with getting audiences to leave their seats after one screening – in his case, by singing badly. He once demonstrated his technique, bellowing ‘O sole mio!’
  • Albert, physically the largest of the brothers, specialized in distribution and acted as a go-between for Harry and Jack, who frequently disagreed.
  • Sam Warner was keenly interested in technological innovation and saved the studio in the 1920s by championing talking pictures.”
  • You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

    Frame by Frame Video: Documentary Films

    Friday, November 9th, 2012

    I have a new Frame by Frame video episode out today, directed by Curt Bright, on documentary films.

    Click here, or on the image above, to see the video.

    Curt and I have done a lot of Frame by Frame videos, but we’ve never really delved into the world of non-fiction filmmaking, until now. In this video, I very briefly highlight some of the key documentary filmmakers in the history of the medium, along with some of their most important works, so this should be a handy guide for further viewing for those who aren’t familiar with this area of cinema. You’ll notice that I jump around in time a lot in the video, highlighting documentarians of both the past and present, roughly arranged according to the themes they were attracted to.

    For the record, in the image above, David (left) and Albert (far right) Maysles, two of the most prominent filmmakers of the 1960s in this area, are working on a film about Truman Capote (center), who had just published his groundbreaking “non fiction novel,” In Cold Blood. This video is just an introduction to the documentary presence in cinema, and lists only the major players — with some left out for reasons of space — but the still runs a full 7 minutes. Enjoy, and thanks to Curt Bright for doing such a superb job of editing the piece.

    Documentary films hold up a mirror to life that we simply can’t ignore.

    A Short History of Film, Second Edition

    Saturday, October 6th, 2012

    A Short History of Film

    Second Edition

    Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    Rutgers University Press

    A history of world cinema that makes its past as vibrant as its present—now revised and updated through 2012.

    Praise for the previous edition:

    “This is the film history book we’ve been waiting for.” —David Sterritt, Chairman, National Society of Film Critics

    “Highly recommended for all collections.” —Library Journal (starred review)

    The second edition of A Short History of film provides a concise and accurate overview of the history of world cinema, detailing the major movements, directors, studios, and genres from 1896 through 2012. Accompanied by more than 250 rare color and black and white stills—including photographs of some of the industry’s most recent films—the new edition is unmatched in its panoramic view of the medium as it is practiced in the United States and around the world as well as its sense of cinema’s sweep in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

    Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster present new and amended coverage of film in general as well as the birth and death dates and final works of notable directors. Their expanded focus on key films brings the book firmly into the digital era and chronicles the death of film as a production medium.

    The book takes readers through the invention of the kinetoscope, the introduction of sound and color between the two world wars, and ultimately the computer generated imagery of the present day. It details significant periods in world cinema, including the early major industries in Europe, the dominance of the Hollywood studio system in the 1930s and 1940s, and the French New Wave of the 1960s.

    Attention is given to small independent efforts in developing nations and the more personal independent film movement that briefly flourished in the United States, the significant filmmakers of all nations, and the effects of censorship and regulation on production everywhere. In addition, the authors incorporate the stories of women and other minority filmmakers who have often been overlooked in other texts.

    Engaging and accessible, this is the best one-stop source for the history of world film available for students, teachers, and general audiences alike.

    WHEELER WINSTON DIXON is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His many books include Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, 21st-Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster), A History of Horror, and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (all Rutgers University Press).

    GWENDOLYN AUDREY FOSTER is a professor of film studies in the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and with Wheeler Winston Dixon, Editor in Chief of Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Her many books include 21st-Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Wheeler Winston Dixon) and Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture.

    Second edition available in paper, hardcover and Kindle March, 2013 from Rutgers University Press.

    Maidstone, and The Films of Norman Mailer

    Friday, September 7th, 2012

    Click here, or on the image above, to see Rip Torn and Norman Mailer battle it out in Mailer’s film Maidstonefor real.

    Criterion continues to surprise and delight with their ongoing Eclipse series, which brings back to public view forgotten and often brilliant films from the classical era of cinema.

    The latest Eclipse box set, Number 35, is entitled “Maidstone and Other Films by Norman Mailer,” and features the title film, Maidstone, about Mailer’s fictional quest for the Presidency as the pompous Norman T. Kingsley, as well as his first improvised feature, Wild 90, which is of much less interest, and Beyond The Law, centering on one violent, boozy night in a fictional police precinct in Manhattan. All of these films were largely improvised; Wild 90 is completely made up on the spot, dialogue and all, and is fixed in one location, a dingy warehouse; Maidstone is set in a lush country estate, where Mailer gathered his friends and associates for five days of improv filming; and Beyond The Law follows the same format. The results, especially with Maidstone and Beyond the Law, are extraordinary.

    As the Criterion notes for the set observe, “Norman Mailer is remembered for many things— his novels, his essays, his articles, his activism, his ego. One largely forgotten chapter of his life, however, is his late-sixties kamikaze-style plunge into making experimental films. These rough-hewn, self-financed, largely improvised metafictions are works of madness and bravado, all starring Mailer himself and with technical assistance from cinema verité trailblazers D. A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock. The most fully realized of his directorial efforts is the blustering, brawling Maidstone, a shocking sign of the political times, in which Mailer plays a filmmaker and presidential candidate who may be the target of an assassination attempt. Along with Mailer’s other films of the period—Wild 90 and Beyond the Law—it shows an uncompromising artist in thrall to both himself and a new medium.”

    The actor Rip Torn was one of the principals in Maidstone, and in the film’s most notorious scene, convinced that the movie needed some more action, attacked Mailer with a hammer and bit off part of his ear in a very real, completely unstaged fight sequence. The film as a whole is a compelling exercise in self-psychoanalysis, but for me, Beyond The Law, shot in gritty black and white, with a cast that includes Rip Torn, George Plimpton, Mailer and a rogue’s gallery of hanger ons, is the gem of this group.

    There will never be filmmaking like this again. Completely self-financed and shot in 16mm, these are films that Mailer made, at a great financial loss, simply because he felt had to express himself as a non-commercial, experimental filmmaker. Later in his career, Mailer directed a straight dramatic feature, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, based on one of his novels, but it’s a dull, commercial film, indifferently executed by a professional crew. Here, in these early, exhilarating, gloriously undisciplined and freewheeling films, he captures not only his own vision of the world he lived in, but also the essence of New York in the 1960s.

    These are films not to be missed; it’s good to see them finally on DVD.

    Hollywood Blacklisting

    Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

    Left to right: Danny Kaye, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and others protest at the HUAC Hearings.

    I have a new video out today in the Frame by Frame series, directed and edited by Curt Bright, which I wrote and appear in, on the Hollywood Blacklist of the 1950s. About the Blacklist, the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of its most celebrated personages, had this to say in 1970, when the Blacklist had begun to wane: “The blacklist was a time of evil, and no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil. Caught in a situation that had passed beyond the control of mere individuals, each person reacted as his nature, his needs, his convictions, and his particular circumstances compelled him to. There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides. When you who are in your 40s or younger look back with curiosity on that dark time, as I think occasionally you should, it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims. Some suffered less than others, some grew and some diminished, but in the final tally we were all victims because almost without exception each of us felt compelled to say things he did not want to say, to do things that he did not want to do, to deliver and receive wounds he truly did not want to exchange. That is why none of us – right, left, or center – emerged from that long nightmare without sin.”

    You can see the entire 10 minute video by clicking here, or on the image above.

    Embracing The Apocalypse: A World Without People

    Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

    Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay in the latest issue of Film International, “Embracing the Apocalypse: A World Without People,” examining visions of the future as imagined by various Dystopian films and television programs.

    As she writes, “Human-centered popular folktales of Apocalypse and Doomsday narratives of every imaginable scenario are undeniably as powerful and plentiful as they have been from the beginnings of human narrative tradition. Indeed, apocalyptic events permeate a plethora of grand narratives from myriad cultures and textual sources that prominently, almost ecstatically, feature and carefully describe the gory details of our violent end times. They are set in the future, and almost all revolve around human-centered stories complete with often similarly violent narratives, inevitable tropes of conflict, judgment, drama, and resolution, the stops we require of any genre or tradition in human narrative form.

    At the center of apocalyptic vision we find, perhaps predictably, a human-dominant form of speciesism, revealing a widespread, almost universally held belief in the dominance of human beings as a species. Human beings are placed at the center of events and narratives, even narratives that don’t involve human beings. This is something that often goes unnoticed, but it is especially notable in apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and depeopled futuristic visions.

    The plethora of doomsday scenarios and apocalyptic narratives are far too numerous to list, from religious scripture and Revelations, to secular visions of end times, to the myriad, often bizarre and insane sounding predictions of the end by various individuals and groups. All are narratives of human-centered destruction; some invoke the end of the earth, and some portray the end of people and human civilization; but all embrace, and seem to enjoy visions of the end. We cannot agree on much, but people agree that the end is near, the end is coming, and the end is usually defined as the end of people and human civilization.”

    You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above; fascinating work in an area that is largely unexplored.

    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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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