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To Save and Project: The 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation – October 24 to November 22, 2014

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

To Save and Project: The 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation is not to be missed.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, film preservation – the active conservation of our shared cinematic heritage – is one of the prime concerns of this website. The Museum of Modern Art’s latest edition of To Save and Project: the 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation is thus absolutely central to film history and criticism; if you can’t see the films, how can you possibly judge them, or appreciate them? It’s somewhat amazing to me that along with films such as Her Sister’s Secret - a title I just blogged on, and a film which clearly begs for preservation due to its Public Domain status – more recent films such as Caravaggio and Excalibur, to name just two possible titles, also need to be carefully preserved for the future. Projected in MoMA’s state of the art auditorium, these films are an indispensable part of of cultural heritage, and need to be as widely seen as possible. Curated by Joshua Siegel, Curator of Film at MoMA, and adjunct curator Dave Kehr (who used to write an excellent column for the New York Times, now much missed), this is an event of the first rank, and anyone in the New York area should run, not walk, to see this superb series of screenings.

As the notes for the series point out, “each fall, MoMA’s annual festival of newly preserved films, To Save and Project, brings together masterworks and rediscoveries from film archives, studios, and foundations from around the world. Many of the films in the festival will be receiving their first American screening since their original release; others will be shown in meticulously restored editions that more closely approximate the original experience of the film; a few will even be publicly screened for the first time ever in New York—including work by Orson Welles (sequences filmed but never used for the 1938 Mercury Theatre production Too Much Johnson). Also presented are films by Charles Chaplin, Maya Deren, Allan Dwan, Derek Jarman, Sergio Leone, Kenji Mizoguchi, Raul Ruiz, and Edgar G. Ulmer. Guest presenters include Kathryn Bigelow, John Boorman, George Chakiris, and Ken Jacobs.

The opening-night film is the North American premiere of a new MoMA restoration: Allan Dwan’s 1929 masterpiece The Iron Mask, a rousingly entertaining swashbuckler starring Douglas Fairbanks that is often considered, as Dwan himself called it, ‘the last of the big silents.’ MoMA’s version, however, contains the entire original Vitaphone soundtrack—with music, sound effects, and three spoken sequences—which will be heard here for the first time since the film’s original roadshow presentation. These titles will join dozens of others from archives both public and private to create a four-week overview of the tremendously exciting work that is being done around the world to reclaim endangered films and rediscover forgotten treasures.

The series runs from October 24 to November 22, 2014 – don’t miss it!

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.

William Brown’s En attendant Godard (2010) – Zero Budget Feature Filmmaking

Monday, September 29th, 2014

No money? No problem! William Brown’s brilliant feature film was shot digitally on almost nothing at all.

Even in the era of lightweight digital cinema, I constantly hear the complaint that “I’d just make a movie if I had the money,” or “you can’t make a movie without any money” or words to that effect, but in fact, you really can. All it requires is a decent quality digital camera, some friends as actors, and an intelligent scenario shot on location, and – providing you know what you’re doing, can come up with an original concept, and that everyone involved knows that there’s going be no money for anything – very 1960s underground filmmaking – then you’ll be OK. Think of Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief, one of my favorite films, or Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, both shot in the early 1960s on non-existent budgets on 16mm film. Now, with digital video, you don’t even need that. You do, however, need a vision, and once you have that, you have it all.

When En attendant Godard was screened at the CPH PIX film festival in Copenhagen in 2010, the program notes commented that “one has to pay close attention if one hopes to capture the many references to the new wave icon Jean-Luc Godard in William Brown’s humorous tribute to the French film director, who already in 1967 declared that film was dead – and who has since continued undauntedly to revolutionize its formal language from the margins. And even if some knowledge about the French director would not be a disadvantage, it is far from obligatory.

Like a tour de force through the French director’s collected works, Brown has created a story, which is as hard-boiled as it is unrestrained, about the loners Alex and Annie, who set out to find Godard, and suddenly have a double homicide and a ménage à trois on their conscience. En attendant Godard is a funny tribute to one of the biggest geniuses of film history, and it also shows how one can make use film as film criticism – without in any way needing to be hyper-intellectual. ‘All you need is a girl and a gun’, Godard famously said about making films. With his impressive zero budget debut William Brown both pays tribute to and corrects his master – and subtly underlines what we perhaps already knew from the beginning, that all we really need is a girl and Godard.”

Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum agreed, citing En attendant Godard as one of the Top Five Films of 2009 in Sight and Sound magazine – alongside films by Abbas Kiarostami and Alain Resnais. Pretty impressive for a film made for practically nothing at all — just raw talent, determination, and the desire to make a feature film that isn’t a genre film, or another horror film, but rather something that’s both intellectually stimulating and adventurous – something that moves outside the boundaries of the known into a realm of endless possibilities.

Best of all, you can see the film right here, right now, by clicking here, or on the image above.

Two UNL Film Studies Students Have Work Screened at Cannes

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Aliza Brugger and Collin Baker, both UNL Film Studies students, recently had their films screened at Cannes.

As this story by Leslie Reed of the UNL News Service notes, “Brugger’s first work as a director, a seven-minute film called ‘The Pursuit of Happiness,’ was among those screened at the international film festival. It was one of two films directed by UNL film studies students at the annual film festival. Collin Baker’s eight-minute film, ‘Over Forgotten Roads,’ also screened. Brugger and Baker are the first two UNL students to have a film screened at Cannes. Several thousands of short films are submitted each year for consideration by the festival; Brugger’s was one of 31 selected for screening through the American Pavilion, the center of activity for the American film community at Cannes. UNL’s Wheeler Winston Dixon, professor of film studies and English, described the Cannes selection of Brugger’s film as a ‘distinct honor.’”

On her way back to the States, Aliza filed this report – “coming from Lincoln, Nebraska and having never been in Europe, let alone Southern France, entering the city of Cannes was quite a shock. It is a beautiful city. Much like Southern California, it’s engulfed by palm trees, aqua blue water and gorgeous weather. Also much like Southern California, Cannes is engulfed by the film business.

Plastered all over the shops and walls of Cannes were advertisements for the festival and the films showing. Needless to say, as a Film Studies student, I was elated. Not only was I going to get to watch a plethora of films, but my first short film as a director was also going to be screening at the festival. I was certain it was going to be an amazing two weeks.

There were so many things I learned, and so many people I met. I met many filmmakers who were genuinely passionate about the art of film, like myself. I was able to make real and probably much longer lasting connections with my own peers. Throughout the program our mentors repeatedly told us that these are the connections that matter, and by the end of the festival I realized it to be true.

I was able to meet several young filmmakers who are also pursuing their dreams, which has given me a real sense of community. I also met many of the other interns’ mentors who were familiar with jobs and internships where I would fit in quite well, so now I have whole set of new connections. The doors are now wide open!

Some really beautiful films that I watched during the festival included Timbuktu, Lost River, Goodbye to Language, Charlie’s Country, and Finding Eleanor Rigby. The screening of my own film, The Pursuit of Happiness, really went quite well. Almost 50 people saw it, and I received a really great response from the audience, who thought it was an interesting and innovative way to tell a story, which obviously made me quite proud.

I can’t express enough how glad I am that I attended this festival. I learned so much about the business, and about how it works. More than anything, it has given me a lot to think about regarding where I want to be in the world of film, and I look forward to making new contacts, and creating new projects.”

Congratulations Aliza and Collin, and much success in the future!

UNL Film Studies Students at The Cannes Film Festival

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

The Cannes Film Festival has just wrapped up; here’s Marcello Mastroianni in the festival poster.

And the winners are: Palme d’Or – Winter Sleep, dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan; Grand Prize - Le Meraviglie (The Wonders), dir: Alice Rohrwacher; Best Director – Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher; Jury Prize – Tie - Mommy, dir: Xavier Dolan and Goodbye To Language, dir: Jean-Luc Godard; Best Screenplay – Andrey Zvyagintsev, Oleg Negin, Leviathan; Best Actress – Julianne Moore, Maps To The Stars; Best Actor – Timothy Spall, Mr Turner; Camera d’Or - Party Girl, dirs: Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger, Samuel Theis; Short Film - Leidi, dir: Simón Mesa Soto.

I agree with the awards, for what it’s worth – this seems to have been a lively and exciting festival, though how these films will do in the rapidly shrinking commercial marketplace is another question altogether – but we can hope. It’s nice to see Godard win something at last; nice also to see Bennett Miller, Julianne Moore and Timothy Spall emerge as victors; this year’s festival seemed to look both to the past – with Godard – and to the future, with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep and Xavier Dolan’s Mommy.

The Film Studies Program at UNL had a connection to the festival, as four of our students in the Film Studies Program – Aliza Brugger, Collin Baker, Thomas Peterson and Alannah Kennedy. – were working as interns in the American Pavilion at the festival, and two students, Aliza Brugger and Collin Baker, actually had short films screened at the festival.

We’re also going to be represented at Cannes next year, as the American Pavilion was very happy with the work of our students, and they’ve already contacted us again for the next edition of the festival. Needless to say, for our students in Film Studies, this was a real opportunity, and one which we hope will continue. Thanks to Kelly Payne, our chief adviser in Film Studies, for setting this up – much appreciated. It’s one more step towards international visibility.

So now we’ll see what next year brings; congratulations to all the winners and participants!

Goodbye to Language, or, Godard in 3-D

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

Jean-Luc Godard’s new 70 minute experimental feature has just premiered at Cannes.

Jean-Luc Godard’s latest feature, Goodbye to Language, shot in 3-D (see the image above, with Godard seated at the right of the frame) has just been screened at Cannes. Writing in The New York Times, Manohla Dargis filed a rave review, which reads in part “on Wednesday afternoon, the 83-year-old rock star Jean-Luc Godard shook up the Cannes Film Festival with his latest, a 70-minute 3-D extravaganza, Goodbye to Language. Finally, the competition lineup had something it has desperately needed all week: a thrilling cinematic experience that nearly levitated the packed 2,300-seat Lumière theater here, turning just another screening into a real happening. You could feel the electric charge — the collective effervescence — that can come when individuals transform into a group. ‘Godard forever!’ a voice boomed out to laughter and applause, as the congregated viewers waited for their brains to light up with the screen.

Goodbye to Language is, like much of the director’s work, deeply, excitingly challenging. The thickly layered movie offers up generous, easy pleasures with jolts of visual beauty, bursts of humor, swells of song and many shots of a dog, Roxy, but it will provide other satisfactions with repeat viewings. Divided into alternating sections (nature and metaphor), the movie is a churn of sights and sounds that opens with nods to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a discussion of Hitler and the words ‘usine à gaz’ (French for ‘gas plant,’ as well as an idiom for something overly complicated). A man flips through a book on the artist Nicolas de Staël; someone else blurts out, ‘I am here to tell you no’; Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner smolder in The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

That’s just the beginning of this enthusiastic review; you can read the entire piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

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.

The Death of Foreign Films in America

Monday, January 27th, 2014

Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), still the highest-grossing foreign-language film of all time.

Once upon a time, every movie had to open in a conventional 35mm theater run to make money. This made for a kind of financial egalitarianism; a $100,000 horror movie would have to open in a theater the same way that a $5,000,000 movie would have to; there were no DVDs, streaming videos, video on demand services, or even cable. While no one would want to go back to the analog age, as this blog itself demonstrates, the fact remains that from the dawn of cinema until the late 1980s, foreign films had a solid chance in the US market, and were roughly divided into two groups: commercial cinema and art cinema. But no matter what the label was, every film still had to open in a theater to make money — there simply was no other market.

Commercial foreign films, such as Italian westerns or horror movies, or Japanese science-fiction spectacles, were hastily dubbed into English and dumped into theaters on a mass basis, and made their money back. More serious fare, such as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita – which I wrote about in a 2010 article in the web journal Senses of Cinema – were presented with subtitles, and no one seemed to mind. Eventually, La Dolce Vita, too, was dubbed for wider distribution, although this version never really caught on, and audiences of the period were discerning enough to notice that replacing the actors’ voices in the film essentially destroyed Fellini’s work.

But La Dolce Vita — which is one of my favorite films of all time, and perhaps the best examination of modern pop throwaway celebrity culture ever created – made the bulk of its money in a subtitled version, and thus audiences were educated from a very early age to realize that there were many different kinds of films available. There were American films, of varying degrees of budget and artistic ambition – and often some of the lowest budget films were the most artistically ambitious — and then there were foreign films, and the junk was dubbed, while the better films were presented aurally and visually intact, with subtitles. But now it seems that dubbed or subtitled, no one is going to foreign film anymore, except for Bollywood films, which have a huge audience throughout the world, as well as here in the States.

As Richard Corliss, who knows his way around cinema history, writes in an article in Time Magazine, “you probably know about Blue Is the Warmest Color, the French movie with the lesbian lovers romping through a five-year affair. But chances are you haven’t seen it. For all its ballyhoo and bravas, Blue has earned only about $2.1 million at the U.S. box office. Given the high price of art-house tickets, that means only a couple hundred thousand people have paid to see it in its three-month American run — fewer than the number that bought tickets to Ride Along this past Tuesday.

These are hard times, maybe the end of times, for a kind of film that accounts for only about one in every 200 tickets sold in the U.S. But before we get to the depressing news about the current state of foreign-language films in the States, consider a time when this tiny niche was a tremendous niche — representing about 5%, not 0.5%, of the domestic market — and when foreign films were thought essential to any true cinephile’s education and appetite.

We speak of the 1960s. Giants like Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and François Truffaut strode the earth; and their favorite actors — Marcello Mastroianni, Max von Sydow, Toshiro Mifune and Jeanne Moreau — became icons on this side of the pond. Mastroianni and the rest provided the best directors with faces and personalities that charmed the foreign-film audience across America. And soon other movies with these stars appeared in U.S. theaters. In the early ’60s, as many as 30 Italian films reached U.S. shores.

That’s because of the startling success of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which, in terms of tickets sold, is still the highest-grossing foreign-language film of all time. It earned $19.5 million in U.S. theaters in 1961, when the average ticket price was just 69 cents. In today’s dollars, that would be $236 million — more than the domestic gross of 2013 hits like Oz the Great and Powerful and Thor: The Dark World. In 1966, Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman, a race-car love story starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée, grossed the modern equivalent of $107 million. Three years later Costa-Gavras’s political thriller Z took in what would be $92 million today. As the moguls would say, real money.

Two quick reasons for the appeal of foreign-language films in the ’60s: They had a higher IQ than the average Hollywood movie — making works like Fellini’s and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad the subjects of earnest debates at penthouse cocktail parties and on college campuses — and they were sexier, exposing flesh along with their vaunted angst and anomie. A third reason: they gave any American with cinematic wanderlust a view of other countries and cultures. Here were people and ideas so different, perhaps forbidding, yet often enchanting.

At the end of the decade, Hollywood grew up fast, with copious infusions of sex (Midnight Cowboy), blood (The Wild Bunch) and double-dome philosophizing (2001: A Space Odyssey). That’s an oversimplified way of saying that American movies had recaptured the conversation [. . .] Another factor: Americans lost interest in other cultures; we were not only No. 1, we were the only 1 we cared about. With foreign films’ monopoly on intellectual maturity and adult themes broken, they receded to specialty status: canapés for connoisseurs.”

I’m afraid that Corliss is right; the multiplexes, as I have observed many times before, play simply the biggest hits in a very tight playlist, and no one seems to have for more thoughtful cinema anymore. The big news these days is the upcoming Superman/Batman team up, and ComicCon rules the box office. Not much chance for anything enlightening there. In the 1960s, and until the late 1980s, theaters gave audiences a choice, simply because they had to — theaters were the only venue available. Now that the studios can dump smaller films on VOD or streaming, you can forget about a theatrical release. Which means that most people will never hear of it, which means most people will never see it, which means that if you want thoughtful film viewing, it’s either the VOD foreign cable channel, or a a DVD, or Netflix.

But it’s not the same as seeing it on a big screen, and at the same time, it has much less cultural impact. This is bad for American viewers, bad for the future of cinema, and portends an endless array of nonstop comic book movies with no content – just action, action and more action, like the Fast and Furious franchise. There’s nothing wrong with that, if all you want is to see a bunch of cars crashing and things being blown up. But it would be nice to have a choice, available to all and widely publicized. Once, you had such a choice. Now, you have no choice at all.

Foreign films led the way to a more enlightened cinema – what has happened to that cinema today?

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

Film International — One of The Best Film Journals on The Web

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Film International is one of the best film journals on the web.

Click here, or on the image above, to read more.

As the journal’s mission statement notes, in part, “Film International covers film culture as part of the broader culture, history and economy of society. We address topics of contemporary relevance from historically informed perspectives. We wish to bridge the gap between the academy and the outside world, and encourage the participation of scholars from a variety of disciplines, as well as journalists, freelance writers, activists and film-makers.

We refuse the facile dichotomies of ‘high’ and ‘low’, Hollywood and independent, art and commercial cinema. We discuss Hollywood films seriously, and ‘art’ movies critically. We aim at becoming a truly international journal, recognising local specificities, but also the ultimate interconnectedness of an increasingly globalised world.”

FI covers international film, Hollywood film, independent cinema, and everything else in between. It features reviews, interviews, and festival reports on a regular basis, and has an egalitarian spirit which allows all critical voices to be heard, without forcing any of the writers to adhere to a particular philosophical, political, or artistic school of thought.

Commercial cinema, radical cinema, the past, present and future of the medium all meet in the pages of FI, which is absolutely free for online use with just the click of a button. I regularly contribute to FI, but I also savor the contents provided by all of the other writers for the journal, and I constantly find that FI discusses those films that other journals simply pass over, giving a well rounded perspective on the current cinema scene.

Ably edited by Daniel Lindvall, Film International is one of most indispensable film journals on the web today.

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 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.

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

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In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/