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Archive for the ‘DVDs’ Category

The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Monday, October 20th, 2014

The British Film Institute has just released Val Guest’s The Day Earth Caught Fire on DVD; click here to see the trailer.

The BFI, which has always been way ahead of American archival efforts, has just announced the release in DVD and Blu-ray format of Val Guest’s classic science fiction film The Day The Earth Caught Fire. This was an “A” level science fiction film, in which atomic testing knocks the earth off its axis, and sends it hurtling towards the sun. The film’s ending is unresolved; while scientists scramble to set off yet another atomic blast to correct the tilt, there’s no assurance that it will succeed. Shot in near documentary style, with real newspaper writers and editors in the cast, including one Fleet Street editor in a major speaking role in the film, the Day The Earth Caught Fire is not only effective filmmaking; it’s also a trenchant commentary on how science can lead us astray when we start things, but can’t really know the what the consequences will be.

I was lucky enough to interview Guest at length in 2003, an interview which is collected in my book Film Talk: Directors at Work (Rutgers UP, 2007), and shortly after our interview, to attend a 35mm CinemaScope screening of the film at The Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, with Guest in attendance. For that screening, the theater used a print which has been out of circulation since the film’s initial release, with a color opening, and ending, with the rest of the film framed as a flashback. Guest was shocked that the print had been found; in his opening remarks, he lamented the fact that this original version had been his intent all along, but that we were about to see yet another straight black and white print. When the opening section came up in red-hued color, the entire theater could hear Guest’s shout of delight – and I’m sure the BFI version will use this cut of the film.

Here’s a detailed look at the making of this excellent film; the BFI has once again performed a real public service with the release of this film.

History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Paolo Cherchi Usai’s clearly polemical book nevertheless raises many serious questions.

First published by The British Film Institute in 2001, when the digital revolution was just beginning, with a preface by Martin Scorsese, and subsequently republished in 2008 by Palgrave Macmillan, Usai’s text asks a number of deeply important questions about the headlong rush to digital, for as he writes, “it is estimated that about one and a half billion hours of moving images were produced in 1999, twice as many as a decade before. If that rate of growth continues, one hundred billion hours of moving images will be made in the year 2025. In 1895 there was just above forty minutes of moving images to be seen, and most of them are now preserved.

Today, for every film made, thousands of them disappear forever without leaving a trace. Meanwhile, public and private institutions are struggling to save the film heritage with largely insufficient resources and ever increasing pressures from the commercial world. Are they wasting their time? Is the much feared and much touted “Death of Cinema” already occurring before our eyes? Is digital technology the solution to the problem, or just another illusion promoted by the industry?” – this, of course, is the crux of the problem.

In my recent article on the increasing global reach of Netflix, “Netflix and National Cinemas,” published in Film International, I noted that “under the headline ‘Netflix Will Rip the Heart Out of Pre-Sale Film Financing,’ Schuyler Moore wrote in Forbes that: ‘Netflix is working mightily to expand its reach worldwide, so far including Latin America, Canada, and the U.K., with Europe next up at bat. When Netflix is done, people in every part of the world will be its customers, and those customers will be able to toggle what language they want to watch a film in.

This trend corresponds to the shrinking of the piracy window (the time between the theatrical window and the home video window), so by the time Netflix has a worldwide reach, it will also probably be available day and date with the theatrical release. This trend will have a huge effect on how independent films are financed.  Right now, independent filmmakers raise funds by selling their films through ‘pre-sales’ on a country-by-country basis to local distributors, but a worldwide VOD reach will rip the heart out of these sales, because it will destroy the value of DVD and pay TV rights to the local distributors.

The net result will be that independent films will be financed by pre-sales to Netflix, not the local distributors.  Instead of going to the Cannes Film Festival, filmmakers could be going to Las Vegas for a digital convention in order to pre-sell VOD rights to Netflix.  Indeed, Netflix will likely expand from creating original series to creating its own large budget films, with the initial premiere on-line.  Netflix may be a vibrant, important source of new financing that disrupts the studio system and bypasses standard distribution channels.’

The title of the article here tells all; it’s such an apt metaphor that it’s frightening. Netflix will indeed ‘rip the heart’ out of pre-sale film financing, but what Moore fails to consider here is the impact that this will have on national cinemas on a worldwide basis. Of course, Forbes is a bottom-line publication, a self-proclaimed ‘capitalist tool,’ and really isn’t interested in artistic concerns, or empowering anyone other than the already dominant global media forces. This is the voice of mainstream Hollywood cinema talking here, and it admits to the existence of nothing beyond that.

What happens to filmmaking in Sweden, France, Germany, Spain, Nigeria, Morocco and elsewhere is no concern of Moore’s, who seems to think that cinema is more a spectator sport than anything else. He embraces the Hollywood model of filmmaking – ruled entirely by commerce, and nothing else – and that’s that. It’s probably true, as Moore says, that ‘worldwide VOD reach will rip the heart out of these sales, because it will destroy the value of DVD and pay TV rights to the local distributors’ but the problem with this of course is that it’s more concentration in the hands of a few – everyone wants the “master switch” as Adolph Zukor put it, and Tim Wu so effectively explored in his book of the same title.”

And as Daniel Lindvall, editor of Film International wrote me on this issue, “Netflix was introduced on the Swedish market in 2012 and apparently has 1 million users in Sweden already (out of a population of 9.5 million). The most noticeable result so far is that the last of the non-chain ‘art house’ video rental shops here in Stockholm have closed down. But at the same time many thousands of the films that were available in these shops are not yet available on Netflix in Sweden, since they still have to buy rights for every country separately, which is too expensive for a small market when it comes to films that few people are likely to see.

Thus you can see some Bergman films on Netflix in the US but not in Sweden. I guess this will change given Netflix’s interest in changing it to further dominate the global market. As always, we are left with a choice between plague and cholera within the market system. And, again, the Internet proves to be a tool for concentrating media, not the dreamt-of opposite.”

It’s obvious that I agree more with Lindvall than with Moore, but beyond that, it’s also disconcerting to note that in the end, Moore is probably correct in his prognostications for the future of cinema on a worldwide basis. People would much rather watch from the comfort and safety of their living rooms than trek out to the theater for anything other than the most immersive spectacle; the clearest evidence of this is the complete collapse of video rental stores, even in such major cities as New York, a metropolis of eight million people, which seemingly can’t sustain more than few revival houses, and only one or two video rental locations, even though they offer the kinds of films you’re not likely to find on Netflix.

But beyond this, the problem, as many have noted, is that while Netflix pushes into streaming only territory, literally hundreds of thousands of films on a worldwide basis are simply not being distributed at all. The dream of having acesss to everything in the digital era is being steadily undermined by a bottom-line mentality that focuses on profits and nothing else.

This is the “blockbuster only” model of filmmaking, which has effectively defined the marketplace for the future – indies shifted off to the side on VOD, and for the mainstream, mass merchandising, saturation booking, and literally endless franchising. And for the classics – maybe Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz – mainstream Hollywood films all – but for Antonioni, Fellini, Ozu, Dreyer, Godard, Lupino, Arzner, Blaché, Akerman, and too many others – it’s marginal distribution, or none at all.

As John Talbird, a former student of mine who now teaches in New York, wrote me in response to my article, “at first, I liked Netflix, but now I’m beginning to realize it’s just another evil empire. Who cared about the demise of Blockbuster? But all three of the quirky independent video stores in my neighborhood have shut down in the ten years I’ve lived in Brooklyn. And Netflix isn’t even as good as it used to be. A lot of the Criterion titles which used to be available for streaming are no longer available. Also, their DVD titles aren’t as extensive as they at first appear. I’ve got six titles in my cue with ‘Very Long Wait’ next to them. More and more, the only alternative to Netflix is the public library or buying the DVD.”

To which I responded, “but the kicker is that soon DVDs and BluRays will be obsolete, as everything goes streaming. Netflix and the rest of the conglomerates don’t want you to own anything; they just want you to rent from them, eternally. And the visual quality is much, much poorer. My students are running into this problem too. Netflix doesn’t even have Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game – [universally acknowledged as one of the indisputable classics of the cinema] on streaming.”

So the issue here has multiple dimensions. As I discussed at length in my book Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, the very idea that there is such a thing as digital archiving is a myth. Nothing could be more unstable, or more uncertain. The major studios routinely make 35mm fine grain negatives as backups for all their productions, and store them in their film vaults, because they know – as I document in the book – that digital archiving simply isn’t reliable – there are too may ways that files can become corrupt. As Michael Cieply wrote in The New York Times in 2007, “time was, a movie studio could pack up a picture and all of its assorted bloopers, alternate takes and other odds and ends as soon as the production staff was done with them, and ship them off to the salt mine. Literally.

Having figured out that really big money comes from reselling old films — on broadcast television, then cable, videocassettes, DVDs, and so on — companies like Warner Brothers and Paramount Pictures for decades have been tucking their 35-millimeter film masters and associated source material into archives, some of which are housed in a Kansas salt mine, or in limestone mines in Kansas and Pennsylvania. It was a file-and-forget system that didn’t cost much, and made up for the self-destructive sins of an industry that discarded its earliest works or allowed films on old flammable stock to degrade. (Indeed, only half of the feature films shot before 1950 survive.)

But then came digital. And suddenly the film industry is wrestling again with the possibility that its most precious assets, the pictures, aren’t as durable as they used to be. The problem became public, but just barely, last month, when the science and technology council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the results of a yearlong study of digital archiving in the movie business. Titled The Digital Dilemma, the council’s report [offered this] startling bottom line: To store a digital master record of a movie costs about $12,514 a year, versus the $1,059 it costs to keep a conventional film master.

Much worse, to keep the enormous swarm of data produced when a picture is ‘born digital’ — that is, produced using all-electronic processes, rather than relying wholly or partially on film — pushes the cost of preservation to $208,569 a year, vastly higher than the $486 it costs to toss the equivalent camera negatives, audio recordings, on-set photographs and annotated scripts of an all-film production into the cold-storage vault.”

That was in 2007. Now, in 2014, everything is digital. But the problem remains the same. There are more movies being made than ever, but they’re not being shot on film — they’re digital. How are you going to archive them? What do you do when a digital platform is phased out, as DVDs now seem to be heading for their final spin? And what about the relentless mercantilism and Hollywoodization of filmic culture?

What do we do when physical materials disappear, and independent visions with them, to be replaced by a wilderness of solely commercial content? Wikipedia defines the term “Digital Dark Age” as “a possible future situation where it will be difficult or impossible to read historical electronic documents and multimedia, because they have been in an obsolete and obscure file format.”

But I would argue that this is only a very, very small part of the problem. A more pressing concern, it would seem to me, for books, films and music, is that the works of the past created in analog fashion won’t survive in the future because they’re not deemed to be commercial enough. If there’s only a niche market, then why bother? The digital databases of the past can be retrieved, but what happens when a nitrate negative decomposes – as 50% of all films before 1950 already have. That’s 50% – a shocking number.

This is an issue that will continue to expand in the years to come, and something to seriously think about.

Netflix and National Cinemas

Monday, August 25th, 2014

I have a new article in Film International, on the effects of Netflix on national cinemas.

As I write, in part, “People would much rather watch from the comfort and safety of their living rooms than trek out to the theater for anything other than the most immersive spectacle; the clearest evidence of this is the complete collapse of video rental stores, even in such major cities as New York, a metropolis of eight million people, which seemingly can’t sustain more than few revival houses, and only one or two video rental locations, even though they offer the kinds of films you’re not likely to find on Netflix.

Why go out when you can have the images delivered with a touch of a button? Why bother to seek out anything new when there’s seemingly so much product – all of it pretty much the same, even the supposed ‘indies’ – available on demand? You don’t need to do any exploring. We’ll do it for you, and not only that – we’ll put the films in nice little slots like ‘foreign’ or ‘indie,’ thus ensuring a miniscule audience. Along these lines, the Amazon ’suggestion’ feature on their website continues to amaze me, because of its utter lack of discrimination.

If you order one DVD of a French film, suddenly they recommend nothing but French films for you; order one Barbara Stanwyck film, and they think you’re only interested in films in which she stars; order a gothic thriller, and you’re inundated with offers for like material. Erase all of these possible options, and the suggestion engine comes up blank – it can’t figure you out. How come you like so many different kinds of films? Where’s the thread here that they can track? Why won’t you stick to a predictable pattern? And why do you want a DVD anyway, when there are these great films to stream, so easily, at the touch of a button?”

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

The Cinema of Agnès Varda: Resistance and Eclecticism

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Delphine Bénézet’s new book on Agnès Varda is a superb piece of work.

Agnès Varda never seems to get enough credit. The fore-mother of the French New Wave, long before Godard, Truffaut and the rest of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd picked up a camera, Varda was making feature films from 1954, employing Alain Resnais as her editor, and pretty much setting out the basic precepts of simplicity, communality, and originality that her colleagues would later follow. But while Godard and Truffaut became art house darlings in the 60s – and certainly their work deserves the attention it got – Varda was somehow overlooked, although such films as Cleo from 5 to 7, Les Creatures, and Le Bonheur remain absolutely daring in their approach to the film medium, as well as dynamics of relationships between men and women, and particularly in affairs of the heart.

As the volume’s website notes, “Agnès Varda, a pioneer of the French New Wave, has been making radical films for over half a century. Many of these are considered by scholars, filmmakers, and audiences alike, as audacious, seminal, and unforgettable. This volume considers her production as a whole, revisiting overlooked films like Mur, Murs/Documenteur (1980–81), and connecting her cinema to recent installation work. This study demonstrates how Varda has resisted norms of representation and diktats of production. It also shows how she has elaborated a personal repertoire of images, characters, and settings, which all provide insight on their cultural and political contexts. The book thus offers new readings of this director’s multifaceted rêveries, arguing that her work should be seen as an aesthetically influential and ethically-driven production where cinema is both a political and collaborative practice, and a synesthetic art form.”

In five succinct chapters, detailing Varda’s place within cinema history, her “ethics of filming,” and the aesthetic and technical concerns that inform her films, Bénézet, who teaches comparative literature in the School of Languages, Linguistics, and Film at Queen Mary, University of London, offers a compelling case for Varda as a major filmmaker of not only 20th century, but also 21st century cinema, and one of the most successful at embracing digital cinema in her newer films, such as the transcendent documentary feature The Gleaners and I, shot entirely on a small home digital camera. Bénézet makes it clear that Varda has never stopped evolving as both a filmmaker and an artist in general, embracing new technology and the changing culture of France to create work of stunning resonance and beauty with absolutely minimal resources.

Varda has survived many of her contemporaries, and she keeps on working to this day; in the end, Varda is finally managing to get some measure of the respect and care she so clearly deserves simply by the act of sheer survival – she has outlived her detractors, mostly male, who really couldn’t see the value in her work. Dismissed or marginalized when first released, her films, now lovingly restored by Varda herself in DVD editions available throughout the world, have finally taken their place in the cinematic canon along with those of her male counterparts. There have been other excellent books on Varda, but this particular text, neatly illustrated with frame blow-ups, and graced with a detailed filmography, is one of the best, and also has the virtue of being the most complete.

In short, this is an excellent book from Wallflower Press / Columbia UP; pick up a copy now.

William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977) and How Star Wars Changed Movies

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

William Friedkin’s superb film Sorcerer (1977) has finally been released on Blu-ray.

As Jason Guerrasio notes in the April 21, 2014 issue of Vanity Fair, “In 1977, there was no director hotter in Hollywood than William Friedkin. His last two films, The French Connection and The Exorcist, were instant classics and now he was about to release what he considered his masterwork, Sorcerer. What he didn’t foresee, however, was that a modestly budgeted science-fiction epic called Star Wars would destroy his beloved film and change the Hollywood landscape forever.

A reimagining of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer stars Roy Scheider as one of four outcasts who take on a lucrative but dangerous job of transporting unstable dynamite through a South American jungle in dingy trucks. Though the film boasts solid acting and a thrilling sequence where the trucks must cross an ancient bridge—not to mention an incredible score from Tangerine Dream—production on the film was marred in delays and on-set conflict.

Things didn’t get any better when Paramount released the film a month after Star Wars, quickly becoming a casualty of the craze over George Lucas’s intergalactic opera. Outside of the occasional repertory screening over the decades, Sorcerer was forgotten. Then in 2012, Friedkin sued both Paramount and Universal (which had international rights) to find who owned the film. Through that, Warner Bros. bought it and on Tuesday will release a remastered Blu-ray of the film; a select theatrical release is planned as well.”

[As Friedkin told Guerrasio] “I’d say 80 percent of American films today are all offshoots of Star Wars. If Star Wars had failed you would not have the kind of films that are popular today. Hollywood has given over completely to the comic-book and video-game heroes, and rightly so because they are successful, the audience wants them. But that hunger, that desire, was tapped by Star Wars. None of us could see the tsunami of Star Wars. It happened rather quickly. You know, virtually every studio passed on Star Wars. I had a company with Coppola and [Peter] Bogdanovich then called the Directors Company, it was financed by Paramount and we had the right to green-light any films we wanted, outside of our own, at a certain budget.

Francis brought us the script of Star Wars and Peter and I looked at it and said, ‘What the hell is this? Who’s going to direct this?’ And he said, ‘George.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ I couldn’t believe George could pull it off, and I was wrong. I think fate plays the most significant part in all of our lives and that’s what happened. For a long period there I enjoyed nothing but success: critical and commercial. All I was interested in then and now is how close I could come to my vision of the film I wanted to make. In those days, we had no idea what kind of money films made, until Star Wars. It wasn’t in the papers every day. The quality of the film is all I cared about. Of course, you’re disappointed, but I never guided my life by any of that.”

It’s a remarkable and all but forgotten film; check out the Blu-ray now.

Dorothy Arzner Gets A Retrospective

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Dorothy Arzner, left, on the set of her last film, First Comes Courage (1943), with star Merle Oberon.

As John Hopewell reports from Madrid for Variety, “Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979), the first woman member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and still one of – if not the – most prolific of woman helmers in Hollywood –will be honored with a career retrospective at September’s 62nd San Sebastian Festival in Spain. Though not the world’s first woman director – that honor [goes] to France’s Alice Guy – Arzner was the first to carve out a career in Los Angeles during the golden age of Hollywood’s studios, first as an editor, where she is credited with working on 52 movies, including 1922’s Rudolph Valentino-starrer Blood and Sand, on which she also directed second unit shots of its bullfights. Her [directorial] debut, for Paramount, was 1927’s Fashion For Women.

The first woman in Hollywood to direct a sound film, 1928’s Manhattan Cocktail, Arzner is said to have invented the boom mike when, on Clara Bow’s first talkie, box office hit The Wild Party, she had technicians hang a mike onto a fishing rod to give it more mobility. From Party, she shot a string of movies, comedies or melodramas – Anybody’s Woman (1930), Honor Among Lovers (1931), The Bride Wore Red (1937) – which often championed strong femme characters, helped consolidate the early careers of Katharine Hepburn – with whom she quarreled -  and Lucille Ball, and sometimes suggested – think 1933’s Christopher Strong – lesbian sub-texts.

The retrospective will be accompanied by the publication of a book that, it is hoped, will clarify why Arzner’s directorial career abruptly ended with 1943’s First Comes Courage. During the 1960s and 1970s, she taught directing and screenwriting at UCLA, her students including Francis Ford Coppola. In 1975, she was honored with a DGA Tribute, which, in an anecdote collected by IMDB, included a telegram from Katharine Hepburn: ‘Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?’ The text admits multiple readings. The 62nd San Sebastian Festival runs Sept. 17-26.”

The Hepburn telegram really stings; was this dig really necessary? Arzner deserves a box set of her work, and I’d love to read the book that accompanies the festival. Much of Arzner’s work simply isn’t on DVD, though more and more is coming out every day, but I have to wonder – how long is it going to take for Hollywood historians to put Arzner in the rightful place in the directorial pantheon, and how long is it going to take before she does get that box set of DVDs, complete with a history of her work? Not that it was ever easy; as she said of working within the Hollywood system, “when I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.

Ida Lupino – who started directing in 1949 with Not Wanted – also deserves the same treatment; a comprehensive set of her films, properly mastered, so future generations can see the importance of their work.  Hopewell doesn’t mention it above, but in addition to the work he lists, Arzner also directed a stack of television commercials for Pepsi Cola, at the suggestion of Pepsi board member Joan Crawford, who worked with Arzner in the 1930s, and also directed training films for the WACs during World War II.

Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn forced Arzner out of the director’s chair on First Comes Courage, a feminist tale of a Norwegian resistance fighter, Nikki, played by Merle Oberon. When Arzner became ill during filming, rather than waiting for her to recover, Cohn pressed Columbia contract director Charles Vidor into service to finish the film as quickly as possible; when she recovered, Arzner discovered that Columbia no longer required her services. Nevertheless, the film is still a standout, and one can readily see where Arzner left off and Vidor began; the film is entirely hers, and a fitting last project for her career. If only, however, she could have done more.

Dorothy Arzner – another figure who deserves more attention than she gets.

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s L’Immortelle Finally Released on DVD and Blu-ray

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Click here to read my review of the DVD of L’Immortelle released yesterday, a full 51 years after the fact.

As I note, “L’Immortelle was shot in 1962, and released in France on March 27, 1963, but despite the enormous success of Marienbad, L’Immortelle was deemed too difficult for American audiences, and resolutely uncommercial – which it is – and with a rough negative cost of $100,000, the producer and distributor of the film deemed a United States release more trouble than it was worth. And so it was not until six years later that L’Immortelle made the rounds of screening rooms in Manhattan; after that, I think it might have played at a few art houses for a week or so, but then it vanished from sight completely.

L’Immortelle itself has a curious genesis; it was made with blocked funds in Turkey that couldn’t be taken out of the country, and so shooting in Istanbul was a given, though Robbe-Grillet had ties to the city and knew it well. The producers even went so far as to say that they didn’t even really care if the film made money, just so long as they could get something out of Turkey. Thus, Robbe-Grillet and his wife, Catherine, who appears in the film as the enigmatic Catherine Sarayan, scouted locations and had the entire project ready to go, when a revolution interrupted their plans, and shooting had to be put off for two years before a new regime was installed, and some semblance of order restored. Then the film was shot quickly and efficiently, in richly saturated black and white.

The film’s narrative is so slight as to be nonexistent; the official press synopsis describes the film as ‘an erotic, dream-like fantasy in which a despondent man meets a beautiful, secretive woman who may, or may not, be involved in using kidnapped women as prostitutes.’ This is as good a synopsis as any might be, because the real psychic and visual terrain of the film is memory, repetition, the impossibility of knowing another, the unreliability of the senses, and a circularity of narrative that keeps bringing the viewer back to one location after another with the stubborn insistence of a spectral tour guide who seemingly insists that we visit a room, a mosque, a nightclub, an antique store, an apartment and numerous other locations just one more time, until they are indelibly imprinted on our memory.

The leading characters, Françoise Brion and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, known only as L and N respectively, are not so much characters as situations; people frozen in time and memory who walk through the film with an air of complete detachment from any sort of reality, as if they are the principals in their own fantasy of Istanbul, and the few supporting characters who surround them behave in exactly the same fashion. Scenes are routinely repeated two, three times or more, sometimes exactly the same, down to the slightest detail, and other times with minor variations, seemingly in slow motion, as if actors are sleepwalking through the world they inhabit. Often, characters appear within a scene without explanation, as if they had always been there, and perhaps always will be there; timeless, unchanging, fixed and motionless.

There is a timelessness about the film, and for good reason; as Robbe-Grillet has acknowledged on numerous occasions, Françoise Brion’s character is already dead when the film begins, although she assumes a phantom corporeality for the purposes of the film, and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, for all intents and purposes, is in love with someone who no longer exists, if she ever existed – in fact, we can’t be sure if any of the narrative ever occurred, or if everything we’re seeing is a fever dream, something conjured up out of loneliness, isolation, or the sheer existential longing of one man’s need to be loved.”

This is essential cinema; get the DVD or Blu-ray now, and prepare to be astonished.

Don’t Gamble With Strangers

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

William Beaudine was a very uneven director, but sometimes, he really delivered the goods.

As Dave Kehr, writing in The New York Times, notes of this film, and Beaudine’s career at Monogram, the 1940s studio where Beaudine did the bulk of his work, “Beaudine was the workhorse of Monogram, signing his name to an astonishing 71 features from 1942 to 1953 [emphasis added]. Although . . . Beaudine had been a prominent silent director [starting out with D.W. Griffith, and later directing Mary Pickford in a series of films, including the highly successful Sparrows (1926)], he seemed to have lost interest in his art by [the 1940s], and most of his films have a generic, disengaged quality . . . Not so this 1946 astonishment, the thoroughly sordid tale of a card shark (the square-jawed serial hero Kane Richmond, cast spectacularly against type) who unhesitatingly betrays pretty much everyone he comes across — including his brother, his female partner and his fiancée — as he takes over a small-town casino somewhere in the Midwest.

Perhaps Beaudine was shaken from his indifference by the strikingly sordid script by the mysterious Caryl Coleman (whose only other credited screenplay [was the equally unrelenting Monogram entry] Wife Wanted) and Harvey Gates (another silent-film veteran who had seen better days); perhaps it is a case of the material’s being perfectly matched to the available means. No major studio of the time would have tolerated the cynicism that courses through this film; nor would a major studio have been capable of capturing the film’s agonizingly expressive shabbiness. In Don’t Gamble With Strangers, Monogram isn’t just a studio — it’s a way of life.”

Along with the equally brutal Black Market Babies, a 1945 Beaudine/Monogram film in which Kane Richmond again appears as a sleazy con man running an “adoption service” with the help of an aging, alcoholic doctor played by Ralph Morgan, Don’t Gamble With Strangers paints a truer picture of post-war American society in the mid 1940s than anything the major studios would touch, as Kehr suggests above. Much of what Beaudine produced is pure junk, and often he simply didn’t care what he was directing, just so long as he got paid – a major force in silent films, Beaudine fell into disfavor after a sojourn in Britain in the late 1930s, and when he returned to Hollywood, found himself unemployable, and deep in debt. But he had to work, so he took anything he could get, and soon was the most prolific director in Hollywood, along with the equally adept Sam Newfield.

Working his way back in at the bottom rung of the studio system, for Monogram or anyone else who would hire him for his flat fee of $500 for six days work – the standard length of time it took him to direct a feature film, working at top speed -  Beaudine racked up more than 350 feature films, in addition to television work on such series as the Green Hornet and Lassie – his last major job as a director – before his death at age 78 in 1970. The famous story is often told of a Monogram executive rushing on to the set of one of Beaudine’s films, demanding to know when it would be finished. “You mean there’s someone out there waiting for this?” Beaudine replied, pretty much indicating what he thought of much of the work he was forced to direct by economic necessity. Or, as he told another interviewer, “these films are going to be made regardless of who directs them. There’s a market for them and the studios are going to continue to make them. I’ve been doing this long enough I think I can make them as good or better than anyone else.” And at his best, he absolutely could.

Monogram films in general have frequently been derided for their poor quality sound tracks, indifferent cinematography and lighting, as if the entire film was shot through a gauze filter on outdated film stock, and recorded with the cheapest equipment available. In the pre-digital era, one could always tell a Monogram film by its flat lighting, cheap sets, and distorted soundtrack. But a new series of DVDs from Warner Archive is setting the record straight; earlier viewers were simply being subjected to cheap 16mm prints of the film, while the 35mm masters were as good in terms of pictorial quality as anything turned out by Universal or Republic. These new transfers are literally dazzling, and give a whole new life to Monogram’s output as a whole. It’s a revelation; these are lost films, come back to life at last.

These two 75 minute films are “pre-code / film noir / neorealism” – the real picture of life in postwar America.

Guest Blog: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Věra Chytilová

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Let us celebrate the life and work of Czech New Wave director Věra Chytilová.

Věra Chytilová, a central figure in the radically experimental Czech New Wave who passed away on March 12, 2014 at the age of 85, is best known for her stunning film Daisies (1966). Chytilová called the film “a philosophical documentary in the form of a farce,” which is a good way to phrase it. Daisies is best described as a Brechtian comedy about two young women who loll around naked as they talk directly to the audience about philosophical questions.

A prototypical New Wave feminist film, complete with direct political statements (“everything is spoiled for us in this world”), jarring editing (the narrative sequences of the two women are intercut with stock images of buildings falling apart), and existential ponderings (the women state that “if you are not registered, [there is] no proof that you exist”), Daisies remains a classic of the era, which shocked and surprised audiences around the world when it was first released.

The suppressed violence of Bourgeois culture is suggested through a bizarre orgy sequence, and the wildly experimental visuals are underscored by gunshots on the soundtrack, as the camera pans over the ruins of a city. It is nearly impossible to describe the frantic pace, dazzling beauty, and the revolutionary qualities of Daisies; Chytilová’s avant-garde use of brilliant colors, her rapid fire editing, and her approach to film itself was in many ways more revolutionary than that of Jean-Luc Godard and the other, better known directors of the French New Wave.

Not surprisingly, Daisies was almost immediately banned by the Czech authorities, but not before Chytilová’s film won the Grand Prix at the Bergamo Film Festival in Italy in 1967. Indeed, Daisies was perceived as being so subversive film and controversial that Chytilová was not allowed to make films for several years after the film’s release. But with the recent release of a magnificently restored version of the film from Criterion in DVD and Blu-Ray format, Daisies is now being rightly being hailed as “an aesthetically and politically adventurous film that’s widely considered one of the great works of feminist cinema.”

After a number of years, Chytilová was able to return to film making, which she continued throughout her life, a life that we should mark with celebration. So break out the bubbly and enjoy a screening of Daisies, a film that continues to dazzle audiences and inspire young filmmakers: here are just a few of the sites that are celebrating both the film, and Chytilová’s lifetime of work — see these links to Dazed, The AV Club, ABC News for more on this deeply important and influential artist, as well as this list of online sources on Chytilová’s work from Kinoeye.

If you have not seen Daisies, you are in for a real Dadaist treat; this is bold, adventurous filmmaking that breaks all the rules, an authentic feminist vision which has gathered additional power and resonance with the passing of time, and is now considered one of the key works of the Czech New Wave, and of experimental cinema as a worldwide artistic movement. Chytilová was, simply, a master filmmaker.

Věra Chytilová, an authentic original, and a deeply visionary filmmaker.

About the Author: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is a Professor of Film Studies in the Department of English, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and co-editor of the book series New Perspectives on World Cinema from Anthem Press, London. Her many books include 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011) and the second, revised edition of A Short History of Film (2013), as well as Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture (2005), Identity and Memory: The Films of Chantal Akerman (2003), and Women Filmmakers of the African and Asian Diaspora: Decolonizing the Gaze, Locating Subjectivity (1997). Her book Women Filmmakers: A Bio-Critical Dictionary, which covers the work of hundreds of women filmmakers, is considered a classic in the field of feminist film studies.

Missing in Action: The Lost Version of Vanishing Point

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

I have a new article out today on the “lost” version of Vanishing Point, one the key films of the early 70s.

As I write, “Much has been deservedly written on Richard C. Sarafian’s existential road movie Vanishing Point (1971), a shambling, glorious wreck of a film that nevertheless manages to achieve a certain sort of ragged splendor in its countercultural tale of loner driver Kowalski (Barry Newman), who takes on a nearly impossible drive from Denver to San Francisco to deliver a Dodge Challenger in less than 24 hours.

Based on two true life stories; one of a San Diego police officer who was kicked off the force in disgrace, and a separate story of a man who died after a high speed chase when he crashed into a police roadblock, Vanishing Point is pure twentieth century high octane nihilism – but with a twist. The archetypal loner, Kowalski (no first name is ever given) has a checkered past; at various times a race car driver, a policeman kicked off the force for stopping his partner from raping a woman during a routine traffic stop, and a Vietnam veteran, Kowalski has clearly given up on life, and seeks only speed and escape.

On his way out of Denver late Friday night, Kowalski stops by a biker bar to score some speed from his pal Jake (Lee Weaver), and bets him he’ll make it to San Francisco by Saturday at 3PM – way ahead of schedule. Jake is skeptical, but Kowalski is on a mission – indeed, when he first pulls into the garage on Friday night to pick up the Challenger, we have no idea when he’s last slept at all, if ever. Like a shark, Kowalski has to keep moving or die, constantly in motion, and constantly evading those who would seek to knock him out of the game.

For, not surprisingly, Kowalski’s epic speed trip soon attracts the attention of the police in the various states he crisscrosses on his way to the West Coast, and as he crosses one state line after another, the cops play tag team with him, each group hoping to stop him for good. From Colorado to Utah to Nevada and finally to California, Kowalski has got the cops on the run – but they’re gaining on him, and with each new state line, the obstacles get tougher and tougher to deal with.

But something’s missing, and it’s only available on the initial US release of the DVD, which presents two versions of the film with almost no fanfare; the 98 minute standard US version, and the 105 minute cut featuring a key, lost sequence with none other than Charlotte Rampling – absolutely assured as usual – as a mysterious hitchhiker in the dead of night, suitcase in hand.”

It’s true; the cut seven minutes changes the entire film. Click here, or on the image above, to read more.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

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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