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Peter Collinson’s The Penthouse (1967)

Friday, August 28th, 2015

Martine Beswick, Tony Beckley and Norman Rodway- a deadly trio in Peter Collinson’s The Penthouse.

I have always had a weakness for Peter Collinson’s film The Penthouse, based on C. Scott Forbes’ play The Meter Man, in which three miscreants, Tom (Tony Beckley), Dick (Norman Rodway) and Harry (Martine Beswick) invade the borrowed luxury flat of two lovers involved in an illicit tryst – Barbara (Suzy Kendall) and Bruce (Terence Morgan). It’s a bleak little film, superbly photographed by the gifted Arthur Lavis, offering an uncomfortable taste of what was to come in the 70s and beyond, as social proprieties crumbled, and people became more and more self-absorbed, selfish, and narcissistic.

There are strong strong echoes of Harold Pinter and Heathcote Williams in the film’s script, which plays like a much more intelligent version of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which Haneke filmed twice in 1997 and 2007, but Collinson and Forbe’s vision is absolutely original – indeed, it is the original; here are two people comfortably ensconced in what is supposedly a safe, domestic haven – even if it is an adulterous one – and by the simple act of answering the door, their lives are transformed forever – for the worse – by complete strangers.

Haneke’s film involved a great deal of physical cruelty and violence; Collinson’s film makes the entire ordeal psychological, and the film is much the better for it. In short, it’s more restrained, more cerebral, and an altogether superior film.

But all of this has a twist ending, worthy of the film itself – there has never been a legal DVD release of the film, though terrible bootlegs can easily be found on the web, along with the film’s trailer, but none of these materials give one any real sense of the film, or of Collinson and Lavis’s superb CinemaScope framing, color design, and the riveting performances of Beswick, Beckley, and Rodway.

At the time the film came out, Roger Ebert was a big fan, and sought the then-28-year-old Collinson out for an interview, during which he noted that “the headline on the press release describes Peter Collinson as ‘the man who came from nowhere and is on his way to somewhere.’ ‘Just precisely where, they don’t say,’ Collinson grinned. ‘I’m not one of these directors with his life-span all mapped out, and a deep ponderous philosophy to put into my films. All I want to do is make movies as well as they can be made. Period. No philosophy.’

Collinson, at 28, has made two movies: The Penthouse and Up the Junction. Neither has been commercially released yet, but Penthouse got a warm reception at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals. Although almost nobody outside the movie business has even heard of him, Collinson is probably the hottest young director in England right now. Stories of his working methods in The Penthouse are related by other directors with a touch of awe. He made it in 24 days for less than $100,000, and supplied his studio with a finished print two days after shooting ended.

‘That makes you popular at the front office,’ Collinson said, ‘but it doesn’t mean a thing if the movie’s no good. I don’t cut corners to save anybody money. But I don’t fool around. A lot of directors will shoot a scene from every conceivable angle, tying up actors, wasting time, spending a fortune on salaries and overhead. Then they get into the editing room and try to figure out which angle looks best. Not me. I figure the shot out in my head and shoot it just once or twice. I edit in the camera, you might say, so when the shooting’s over I have a movie . . .”

His story is unusual. The son of itinerant provincial actors, he was an orphan at 8 and a ’street urchin,’ by his own admission, at 10. Through a series of improbable chances, including acting experience at an orphanage for the children of theater people, he gradually worked himself into the theater and then into television as a BBC director.

He got into movies rather casually, buying all option on Nell Dunn’s best-selling Up the Junction for $1,000 and then proposing himself as its director. He was given the low-budget Penthouse to do first, as a warm-up, and produced a shocking thriller with a bizarre surprise ending.

The story concerns a real estate agent and his mistress, held captive in a penthouse by two very peculiar men named Tom and Dick. Their cohort, Harry, lingers offstage until the final incredible scenes. It is a suspense movie, ‘a thriller’ Collinson says. The audiences at Cannes and Berlin found a psychological message in it, but Collinson doesn’t care.

‘I make movies to entertain,’ he said. ‘This may sound funny, but I don’t have any desire to communicate my own opinions to anybody. I think the director should be the medium by which the audience gets the story, and that’s all. A good director is a good storyteller.’

Collinson’s next film will be The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine. The budget is $2,800,000, and Collinson noted wryly: ‘My salary will be bigger than the total cost of ‘Penthouse.’ But my methods won’t change. I want my movies to be fun to watch because they challenge their audiences to keep up. Audiences aren’t as stupid as many people believe. Orson Welles knew that, and it damned him in Hollywood for years.’

He smiled. ‘That could happen to me, too,’ he said. ‘But I think times have changed, and there’s an audience for a thoughtful movie now. Still, if I bomb as a director I’ve still got some other things to do. I barnstormed the country as a teenager, playing in second-rate variety shows. I can still do a mean turn as the back legs of a calico horse.’” Paramount Pictures released the film,  and then it vanished. I’ve never seen it offered on television, even on TCM, which has a reference page for the film.

Of course, The Italian Job was a huge hit, and was subsequently remade by directed F. Gary Gray in 2003 into an even bigger hit, but after that, Collinson struggled to find his footing within the industry, and despite his protestations that he simply wanted to be an an entertainer, he clearly was interested in doing more social commentary, but soon found himself adrift in a series of mediocre films, during which his temper frayed, and his health failed.

Collinson died of cancer at the age of 44, leaving a career of largely unfulfilled promise. The Penthouse is his simplest, bleakest, most adventurous film. Don’t let anyone tell you anything more about the plot, which has one surprise after another nestled inside each turn of the narrative, but hopefully, someone will bring the film out in its proper aspect ratio, and you can see for yourself where the 1960s were headed – into a commercial wilderness of endless consumption and self-value, in which surfaces are more important than the depths they conceal.

The Penthouse (1967) – another forgotten film that deserves a proper DVD release.

James Wong Howe, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

James Wong Howe knew how little the public understood cinematography – and wasn’t afraid to say so.

In December 1945, as reported in the American Cinematographer, “Stephen Longstreet, a nationally-known novelist, editor, critic and currently a motion picture scenarist, made passing comment that ‘brilliant cameramen are the curse of the business’ in an article appearing in the August issue of the Screen Writers Guild monthly publication The Screen Writer. He generated a quick retort from James Wong Howe, ASC.

Replying with an article published in the October issue of The Screen Writer under the title ‘The Cameraman Talks Back,’ Howe described the important contributions of the director of photography to the overall results of a motion picture production. It’s one of the best explanations of the many responsibilities and achievements of the cinematographer, and makes decidedly interesting reading. As Howe wrote:

‘I agree with the criticism of placing camera gymnastics and an epic of sets over, or in place of, story values. I take issue with the statement that this is the fault of brilliant cameramen, and that “dumb cameramen” are a necessity for good pictures, along with less money, a good script, old standing sets and some lights and shadows. Who makes the lights and shadows which creates emotional tones on the screen? They don’t come on the old sets. The cameraman makes them.

The trouble with many critics and ex-critics is that for all their skillful talk, they don’t understand the techniques of motion pictures. They still criticize movies from the viewpoint of the stage. This results in any number of false appraisals, but the one with which I am concerned here is that this approach leaves out the cameraman entirely. For the stage, there is the audience eye.

For movies, with their wider scope and moving ability, there is the camera eye. If these two were one and the same kind of production, the cameraman’s part would merely be to set his camera up in front of the action as a static recorder, press a button and go fishing. Let the lights and shadows fall as they will, or better still, paint them on some old sets. The director, the actors, the writers, the producers, the bank — and the audience and critic — would object to this, but there you have the recipe for making movies with a dumb or inanimate cameraman.

This critical ignorance affects the cameraman in still another way. When the photography of a picture is good, the critic usually praises the director for his understanding and handling of the camera. It is true that a good film director knows and makes use of this knowledge, but the good cameraman is not merely a mechanic to carry out his orders.

His contribution may be technically expert and artistically creative. His understanding of the dramatic values of the story will carry over into his creation of mood. His manipulation of lights for such effects requires both technical and skillful imagination. His handling of the camera on certain action produced by the writer and interpreted by the director may well contain some added dramatic value of its own, which enhances and further interprets.

A scene from Hud (1963), photographed by James Wong Howe – masterful work in black and white.

Camera gymnastics and strange angles are not what I would call the stock of a “brilliant cameraman.” A man of limitations, director or cameraman, may use these mechanics to cover his thinness of understanding. Some of the most well-known writers possess technical skill and slickness and very little else. A limited writer can do far more harm, or lack of good, than a limited cameraman, because of the power of word and thought. I believe that the best cameraman is one who recognizes the source, the story, as the basis of his work.

Under the best conditions, the writer, the director and the cameraman would work closely together throughout the production. In spite of the present setup, a measure of cooperation is achieved, especially between the director and cameraman. Writers have often consulted me on how to get over certain scenes with lighting and the use of lenses.

Sometimes, as now, I am tempted to detail some of the work of a cameraman in an effort toward further cooperation. By its varied parts, he faces a job of integration on his own. Throughout the picture, there is that shared responsibility of keeping to the schedule; this, with all its other implications, means the executive ability to keep the set moving. He has a general responsibility to fuse the work of all the technical departments under his direction in order to achieve the equality of the story.

He is concerned with the makeup and the costume coloring. He works with the art director to see that the sets are properly painted to bring out their best values photographically. (I refer here to black-and-white, as well as color film.) For the same reason, he confers with the set director as to the colors of furniture, drapes, rugs.

The cameraman alone is responsible for the lighting, which is a part of photography but often referred to separately.

John Frankenheimer, James Wong Howe, and star Rock Hudson on the set of Seconds (1966).

Naturally, the cameraman studies the script. His main responsibility is to photograph the actors, action and background, by means of the moving camera, composition, and lighting — expressing the story in terms of the camera. I believe in a minimum of camera movement and angles that do not violate sense but contribute intrinsically to the dramatic effect desired.

“Unseen” photography does not at all mean pedestrian photography; in its own terms it should express emotion, and that emotion, according to the story, may be light, somber, sinister, dramatic, tragic, quiet. Within this frame there may be “terrific shots,” but there should be none outside it for mere effect. Photography must be integrated with the story.

The cameraman confers with the director on: (a) the composition of shots for action, since some scenes require definite composition for their best dramatic effect, while others require the utmost fluidity, or freedom from any strict definition or stylization; (b) atmosphere; (c) the dramatic mood of the story, which they plan together from beginning to end; (d) the action of the piece.

Because of the mechanics of the camera and the optical illusions created by the lenses, the cameraman may suggest changes of action which will better attain the effect desired by the director. Many times, a director is confronted with specific problems of accomplishing action. The cameraman may propose use of the camera unknown to the director which will achieve the same realism . . .

These things may amount to no more than ingenuity and a technical trick, but they carry over into the dramatic quality of a scene. There are many studio workers behind the scenes whose contributions toward the excellence of a motion picture never receive the credit, because outsiders have no way of discovering where one leaves off and another begins.’”

Read more in my new book Black & White Cinema: A Short History, out September 17th 2015 from Rutgers University Press.

Floyd Crosby, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

Director Fred Zinnemann (seated); DP Floyd Crosby standing (with glasses); and star Gary Cooper on the set of High Noon.

My new book, Black and White Cinema: A Short History, is coming out in a few weeks – I already have the advance proof copy – and Amazon has listed their official release date as September 17th; it goes to press on September 4th. I’m really happy with the finished project, but as with my entry on Nick Musuraca earlier in this blog, there were sections of my original text that had to be cut for reasons of space.

So here’s some additional material on the great cinematographer Floyd Crosby, and the long, often odd trajectory of his distinguished career.

As I wrote in the original draft of the book, “Floyd Crosby was another master of black and white cinematography, who early on in his career served as an assistant of sorts on W. S. Van Dyke’s and Robert Flaherty’s White Shadows in the South Seas (1928). But as Crosby told historian Mark Langer, ‘when Flaherty went down there [Tahiti], it was supposed to be a co-direction, but he didn’t direct any of it. Van Dyke directed it all. But I went down there and got a job, just as an assistant cameraman.

I was there, I think, three months, and then Flaherty left, and I came back when he did…Flaherty had no idea of how to direct a story film. All his work had been with documentaries, where he’d tell the natives to go fishing or do something he didn’t already know, and then he’d photograph it. He’d never done any story direction and this was a story picture and he was completely lost in it. Van Dyke did the whole thing.’

Van Dyke was known as a tough, no-nonsense director, commonly referred to as ‘One Take Woody’ for his speed and proficiency on the set, and as with many of the key directors of the 1930s, his career stretched back to the silent days, with The Land of Long Shadows (1917), and in the early sound era, by the astonishing accomplishment of Trader Horn (1931), shot on location in Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in synchronized sound, using an enormous crew, and the talents of Clyde De Vinna as cinematographer.

[De Vinna, who was the principal cameraman on White Shadows on the South Seas, took advantage of the opportunity to shoot literally miles of 'second unit' footage of native dancers, ceremonies, and everyday life for later use as stock footage in other productions, and indeed, the Trader Horn materials shot by De Vinna informed the spectatorial vision of Africa for more than thirty years, endlessly recycled in numerous 'jungle' films, and in the 1950s, such television series as Ramar of the Jungle (1952-1954)].

For his next project, Crosby worked on F. W. Murnau’s and Robert Flaherty’s Tabu (1931), but again, the collaboration was uneasy at best. As Crosby put it, when they arrived on location in Bora Bora, Flaherty rapidly demonstrated that he had no idea how to create a fiction film. As Crosby told Mark Langer, ‘the trouble was this. The idea that it was to be a co-production, and to be co-directed.

But when they got down [to the location], there was the same old story, that Flaherty couldn’t direct and Murnau was an expert, so Murnau was directing. In fact, he said to me one day, “My, I wish Flaherty could direct.” He said, “I’m sick. I don’t feel like working for a few days, but we can’t stop, and I wish Flaherty could take over.” But he knew he couldn’t. And Flaherty was upset because Murnau took over the picture.

Murnau was a great director, you know, and he was a very interesting workman, but personally had all kinds of problems. He was an arrogant person — and he and Flaherty hated each other. At least Flaherty hated him. Flaherty used to three times a day tell me how much he hated Murnau… At the end of the picture, Murnau had some titles made and asked me to shoot them.

One of the titles was “And at the camera — Crosby.” I said, “This is not the correct credit. The credit is Photographed by . . .” He said, “You won’t shoot it then?” And I said, “No. I won’t shoot it.” So we were hardly speaking after that. Then, of course, when Paramount made the titles, they gave me the correct credits.’

Floyd Crosby on the set of Tabu, behind the camera.

Despite all of this friction, the finished film is an evocative, deeply romantic and ineffably tragic work, which not only won Crosby the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, but also was selected by the National Board of Review as one of the Top Ten Films of 1931, and, in 1994, chosen by the National Film Preservation Board for the National Film Registry as being ‘culturally, historically [and] aesthetically significant.’

In Crosby’s laconic reckoning of Tabu’s success, he told Langer that ‘…it came out well enough to get the Academy Award. It was a little uneven, I must admit. And you know, this was before the days of exposure meters, and one day Flaherty was developing some film and we were talking outside and we forgot about it. The film was ten minutes in a three and a half minute developer. So we had to shoot that over again, you know.’

And for Flaherty, Crosby maintained a certain measure of respect, as opposed to his feelings on working with Murnau. As he told Langer, ‘I learned things. They weren’t things that I was particularly able to use, but the good thing about [Flaherty] was that he would make a good documentary without trying to louse it up by bringing in a lot of other things to make excitement, that had no business in the picture.

You know, so many people go out to make a documentary, who want to make something that’s going to sell, so they try to bring in some Hollywood elements of excitement, and it ceases to be a really true documentary. Well, he didn’t do that in his films. He was honest about them.’

Crosby went on to shoot a series of documentaries in the 1930s, such as Mato Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness (1931), often cited as one of the first sync sound documentaries, shot in Mato Grosso, Brazil; Pare Lorentz’s The Plow That Broke The Plains (1936); Joris Iven’s The Power and the Land (1940), as well as working on Orson Welles’ aborted semi-documentary It’s All True (1942), with cinematographers Joe Noreigo, Joseph Biroc, William Howard Greene, Harry J. Wild, and George Fanto; the film was shelved, and the materials vaulted for fifty years, before the production emerged in a reconstructed version in 1993; Crosby photographed the ‘My Friend Benito’ sequence of the film, which was actually directed by Welles’s associate Norman Foster.

Crosby on location for Mato Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness

In his later work, one of Crosby’s most impressive achievements was his parched, unadorned work on director Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), which, ironically, led back to Crosby’s work with Flaherty, as Zinnemann had a strong affinity for Flaherty’s work, along with a personal connection to the director. As Zinnemann told Brian Neve,

‘Flaherty wrote me a letter of introduction in 1931, and as a result I got a job at Goldwyn. He influenced me in every possible way, not only technically, but also in what I learnt from him by being his assistant, his whole spirit of being his own man, of being independent of the general spirit of Hollywood, to the point where he didn’t worry about working there.

That’s probably why he made only five or six pictures in his life. But he influenced me in his whole way of approaching the documentary, which he really initiated with films like Nanook of the North. I learned from Flaherty to be rather uncompromising an to defend what I wanted to say, and not let someone else mix it up. He had the true feeling of a documentary director — he took life as it was. This influenced me enormously because I found myself almost subconsciously following his style in films like High Noon …’

And so, when Zinnemann shot High Noon, he argued that, ‘if you want to make a picture like High Noon, and you want to make it feel like the world felt in the days of the Civil War in America, that kind of gritty, dusty feeling, you had to get a cameraman who knew how to handle that, like Floyd Crosby,’ with the result that the film had a cinematographic style very different from other films of the period.

As Zinnemann noted in another interview on High Noon with historian Alan Marcus, ‘I wanted to organize High Noon in the way a documentary would have been made at that time when the action happened. Except that in the 1880s there was no such thing as motion pictures. So that in using the style, the cameraman Floyd Crosby and I studied very carefully contemporary still photography, particularly the photographs of Mr. Lincoln’s [still] cameraman [Matthew Brady] who photographed parts of the Civil War in America.

That meant that we used a grainy kind of print, deliberately grainy and flat, with a very white sky, instead of a dark sky with pretty clouds on it. So, it reasonably looks a bit like photography of that period and gives it a feeling of being authentic, which was not the usual method at all at the time when this film was made.’

A superb setup by Crosby from High Noon ; Will Kane alone, deserted by the townspeople.

The completed film won four Academy Awards — Best Actor (Gary Cooper), Best Film Editing (Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad — this is a whole story in itself, as Elmo Williams’ near ‘real time’ — actually slightly stretched out, rather than strictly accurate — editing of the final cut of the film considerably tightened up the flow of the narrative), and Best Music and Best Original Song for Dimitri Tiomkin.

For his part, Floyd Crosby won a Golden Globe for his work on High Noon, and though the film was generally well-received critically, it infuriated the more politically conservative members of the Hollywood community. With its script, by Carl Foreman, depicting the craven, cowardly members of a small Western town refusing to help the town’s marshal, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), when his arch nemesis Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley), whom Kane has sent to prison, comes back explicitly to kill Kane, High Noon painted a deeply unflattering picture of American society, and was widely seen as a political allegory, commenting on the Hollywood Blacklist of the era.

As a result of this, the film’s scenarist Carl Foreman was blacklisted himself, and Floyd Crosby, as a sort of ‘collateral damage’ to the entire affair, found himself “grey listed” — not officially on the blacklist, but definitely out of favor.Out of this, however, came the final, blazingly brilliant act of Crosby’s career, a long alliance with legendary director Roger Corman, starting with the six day Western Five Guns West in 1955.

Rather than looking down on Corman’s output, Crosby became Corman’s most prolific cinematographer, lensing everything from the stark, black and white imagery of Reform School Girl and Teenage Doll — with one ‘A’ assignment in between, John Sturges’ and Henry King’s production of The Old Man and the Sea, based on Hemingway’s novel, photographed by Crosby and James Wong Howe — before slickly moving into color work for Corman on House of Usher (1960) and Pit and the Pendulum (1961), along with many other films for the director.

For his part, Crosby observed that – much to his surprise -  he didn’t have to tell Corman as much about how to direct as with some of the other helmers he’d worked with in his career; and as Corman told historian Lawrence French of working with Crosby, and of Crosby’s unjust treatment at the hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the early 1950s, working with Crosby was both practical and delightful:

‘Floyd was certainly not a communist, but during the fifties, some studios did not like him. However, that meant nothing to me. I used him simply because he was a good cameraman. I remember Floyd talking about that, and saying it was somewhat ironic that his patriotism should come under questioning, after he had served in the Army Air Corps command during World War II as a Captain, working with [the pioneering documentary filmmaker] Pare Lorentz on combat documentaries and winning citations for bravery. Floyd was really a great gentleman and a brilliant cameraman.

Crosby lights Barbara Steele on the set of Corman’s The Pit and The Pendulum

I went on to use him for my first film as a director, Five Guns West, and he was probably the best cameraman I ever worked with. He was quick, efficient and gave me the kind of quality that you would normally associate with much bigger studio films. We got along very well, and although he was somewhat older than I was, we became very good friends and I had great respect for him and for his work.

It’s not that difficult to get a good cameraman if the cameraman has hours to set up each shot. It’s not difficult to get a cameraman who works quickly. He just sets up a few lights, and says he’s ready to shoot. But to get somebody to work quickly and does fine work is very unusual. [Crosby could do that].’”

Floyd Crosby, another master of the black and white cinema.

Spectacle and Reality in the Cinema

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

Warner Baxter in the classic film 42nd Street (1933); Depression era reality vs. manufactured escapism.

These thoughts came to mind today, in an age awash in endless, often empty spectacle: from the inception of the medium, exoticism has remained the movies’ stock in trade, the one key element that pervaded every thought Hollywood had to offer. The silent era had been redolent with sin, sensuality and illicit romance, in such films as George Fitzmaurice’s Lilac Time (1928), one of the last of the major studio silents, or Wesley Ruggles’ look at decadent college life in The Plastic Age (1925), to say nothing of the dangerous encroachments of the “new Morality” in Sam Wood’s “flaming youth” exposé Prodigal Daughters (1923) with Gloria Swanson, promising viewers “new lips to kiss, freedom from conventions, life with a kick in it [and] a new world for women” as just four of the “Seven Deadly Whims” the film depicted, but with the addition of synchronized sound, things only got steamier, in every sense of the word.

Depression-era audiences wanted escapism, above all — whether in the brutal realism of gangster films, or the luxuriant excess of such musicals as Mervyn LeRoy and Busby Berkeley’s justly iconic Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), in which the familiar “let’s put on a show” plot line collides with then-contemporary reality even in the film’s opening moments, when an onscreen rehearsal of “We’re in the Money” is halted by bailiffs removing the sets for nonpayment of production costs. The conclusion of the film, the production number “Remember My Forgotten Man,” is an ode to World War I soldiers ground under by the Depression, living from day to day without hope. Similarly, in Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street (1933), bankrupt director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) dangerously exhausted and on the brink of physical collapse, is forced by economic necessity to direct a Broadway musical, even with all the odds stacked against him, simply to survive.

The Depression era artist Reginald Marsh knew this milieu all too well; in his numerous charcoal sketches and drawings, such as Breadline (1932), he tracked the world of a society in collapse, as the cruelty and exploitation of Capitalism became all too obvious; those who had, and those who only stood and waited for a few crumbs of sustenance. And yet these images are just a few that we will be given to see in our lifetime; as Paolo Cherchi Usai notes, “relatively few moving images can be seen in the course of a lifetime, a tiny fraction of those actually made. Given an average lifespan of seventy-five years, the time spent viewing them rarely exceeds one hundred thousand hours, little more than a decade.” And yet it seems we always want more.

As early as 1954, long before he became an international celebrity, Marshall McLuhan railed against the intentionally mesmerizing effect of pop culture imagery on television in films, noting that it was designed to create “a mindless, helpless, entranced audience” which would then do whatever its creators required. In short, consume, exist, and die. This is why the experimental cinema of the 1960s was such a tonic in the onslaught of calculated commercialism, in a world of “morally corrupt, aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, [and] temperamentally boring” film production, as the 1962 manifesto of The New American Cinema Group, which spawned the still-extant Film-Makers’ Cooperative, so aptly put it.

The late Manoel de Oliveira, the Portuguese filmmaker who died on April 2, 2015 at the age of 106, and who worked almost until the end of his long life, was perhaps the last film director who had an authentic memory of what the world was like before electricity, when the night was lit with oil lamps and torches. His painterly work, as exhibited in such ravishing films as The Strange Case of Angelica (2010) evokes a world in which spectatorship was very much a personal pursuit, and not one mass produced for audience consumption. Indeed, the entire narrative of Angelica centers on a young man who is a solitary photographer, and whose images bring the title character “back to life” after a fashion. Much of the film is spent watching the photographer at work, as he documents the lives of the field hands in a nearby vineyard, and the moment of reproduction is central to the film; the second when the image is captured. This is the moment that will be memorialized, remembered, fetishized, examined, deconstructed and discussed.

Thus, we are ultimately in thrall to what we witness, which is ultimately what the filmmaker desires, whether she/he will admit it or not. Every film implies an audience, and every image implies a viewer, even if the maker specifies otherwise, or perhaps especially then. Light from the screen transfixes; the inescapable two-dimensionality of cinema is something that the medium continually strives to overcome, but unless the screen of the theater physically and actually projects towards the viewer, this will forever remain only an illusion. And yet we remain transfixed, drawn to the screen of light, hoping to see something there that we won’t see in real life, something that will take us, for a moment, out of our real lives, and transport us — to where?

The cinema of the moment is just that; the cinema of a single instant. There is much more.

Infinitely Polar Bear

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

Zoe Saldana, Mark Ruffalo and Director Maya Forbes on the set of Forbes’ Infinitely Polar Bear.

Here’s a beautiful little film that needs much more attention; it opened and closed in a matter of weeks, but it’s one of the best American films of the year; tender, daring, accomplished, with some terrific acting by the leads, as well as the supporting cast. In a detailed interview with San Francisco’s public television station KQED, the interviewer asked “what if you could go back in time to one of those moments that presaged your parents’ temporary separation or ugly divorce?

As an adult, what exactly do you remember about the fights they had, the struggles they went through to take care of their own lives and put food on the family table? Would you be more sympathetic to their flaws and failings if you could overhear those heated conversations and arguments? Could you forgive them, at last, after all these years?

Maya Forbes stages and recreates those moments in her debut feature film Infinitely Polar Bear [child speak for "infinitely bipolar"]. Like Kramer vs. Kramer and Shoot the Moon — films that depict marriages in turmoil — Forbes’s movie is generously empathetic to all the players involved, if not especially so to the character of her manic depressive father, as played by Mark Ruffalo.

For Forbes, the impulse to make the film was rooted, lovingly, during a moment of her childhood when her father was, briefly, the primary caregiver: ‘When I was little, I just so wanted to fix everything and solve everything and make everything okay.’ For 90 minutes, in her own cinematic way, she has.”

As Forbes herself noted, “My mother wanted to be a theater producer, and she was for a while. But then, when my father had his breakdown, she had to figure out how to make a living. A theater producer wasn’t going to pay the bills — it was like being an independent filmmaker. I saw that decision as a double sacrifice. She was doing this because she really wanted us to have an education, and she was giving up her dream of being in the world of arts, which is where she wanted to be.

She was very successful, but I saw the sadness in that, which was compelling to me. When I got older, because I knew I wanted to be an artist, I also had this conflict about motherhood and career and ambition. Career and ambition are often not even the same in some ways. I had a really good career as a Hollywood writer. But I wasn’t fulfilling my ultimate ambition, which was to make a movie that was very personal . . .

I didn’t want to do something that was either cartoonish or overly dangerous. My father certainly had a temper. He also had the ability to apologize. He had a lot to apologize for and he apologized a lot. Somehow, that was something he could do, which isn’t to say he could get away with all sorts of terrible things.

What was so fascinating to me was this period of stability for him. The only stable time of his life, really. My mother knew that he was a very loving father and I think she also knew that he needed responsibility, he needed some kind of anchor and he was better when he was with the family. He was better when she wasn’t around because then he was the responsible adult. When there’s another responsible adult there, you can be the crazy one . . .

My father died in 1998 so I was saying goodbye to this experience of being with him. What I also realized was, of course, that all he wanted was to take care of us. At the same time, all he was ever trying to say to us was, ‘You go out into the world and conquer.’ He was a feminist too and he had that conflict in him. That’s the whole sacrifice he has, which really hurt. I feel that every time thinking about him.”

You can read the entire interview here; this is a superb film, that should not be missed.

Marvel vs. DC – The Social Media Battle

Monday, August 17th, 2015

Talkwalker describes the social media battle between DC and Marvel as “a friendly rivalry” – but really, it’s a battle to the death.

As Julie Hong writes, “A friendly rivalry between Marvel and DC Comics has spawned since the 1930s, originating from comic books and then flourishing onto the big screens and video games. With more than 20 movie adaptations planned in the next 4 years, superhero movies are bound to break box office numbers, and social media records. While we must reckon that comparing Marvel and DC worlds is like comparing Coca-Cola and Pepsi – it’s a matter of taste – we can however determine who is catching the attention on the social web this summer in regards to figures and stats.

Using Talkwalker’s social media analytics platform, let’s see who wins each round in terms of social media trends, share of voice, hashtag analysis, sentiment, and engagement on Facebook and Twitter.” Hong then takes the various Marvel and DC films through a variety of social barometers, with Marvel sometimes winning, and DC sometimes coming out on top, but in the end – surprise – Marvel wins, mostly because they have a much deeper bench of characters than DC, and they’re clearly more adept at playing the social media game, and have been, long before Twitter, Facebook and the like were invented, and the only fan feedback was the “letters to the editor” column.

Hong concludes, “Our 8-round battle concludes to Marvel winning over DC on social media in terms of general conversations about comic books, volume of brand and hashtag mentions online, buzz originating from its cinematic universe, and Twitter activity. Winning the battle, but not necessarily the war. Superheroes fans, the floor is yours. Let us know who wins your heart @Talkwalker! This analysis was conducted using Talkwalker, a social listening and social media analytics platform that monitors and analyses online conversations on social networks, news websites, blogs, forums and more, in over 187 languages.”

So check it out – even if comic book films aren’t your main interest, this is fascinating material.

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit (2015)

Friday, August 14th, 2015

The Visit may be M. Night Shyamalan’s last chance at mainstream success.

As Chris McKinney argues in the web journal Movie Pilot, “while the majority of movie-goers might identify M. Night Shyamalan as washed up, I don’t. I don’t quite understand what happened to the days when he created films like the Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, but those days seem to have faded from Shyamalan. Every couple of years or so we get another announcement of the next Shyamalan film, and many articles have the same theme, ‘is this going to be when Shyamalan returns?’

I don’t have the answer yet, but because he’s shown an ability to do good work, I’ll always know it’s possible. While many people like to cast blame on directors for bad films, that’s not always the case. Sometimes studios like to put their fingers and toes in on projects, taking away creative freedom from the creator because they’ve somehow convinced themselves they’re the authority on good and bad ideas. While I’d like to use this as an excuse for Shyamalan, I can’t apply it to all his projects; there’s just too many. But what you shouldn’t do if you’re a studio is take and alter a filmmaker’s vision.

At first glance, from the clips I’ve seen, The Visit does have that original M. Night Shyamalan look and feel to it. It feels like a less complex project than we’ve come to see over the last 10 years and that might be a great remedy for him to get back on track.

The film has an estimated $5 million budget, and was somehow secretly filmed in Philadelphia. Shyamalan turned the money he made from the Will Smith produced After Earth, in which Smith clearly used the film as a launchpad for his son, to help fund The Visit. He said The Visit was ‘an attempt to regain artistic control’  after his recent movies had been denied in their final cut and some of those films taken from his hands in post-production.”

While Shyamalan is certainly not a major artist, and seems to have a very limited vision indeed, I think that McKinney is right when he cites big budget Hollywood interference as one of the many possible causes for the relative collapse of Shyamalan’s career of late. But with The Visit, he’s shooting a film on a tight budget, with a tight schedule, and working with Jason Blum, the showman / genius behind Blumhouse Productions, who clearly knows how to market a film, and also how to bring out the best in any existing project.

As just one example, The Visit was originally titled Sundowning, a title that clearly has no punch. Just as with Joel Edgerton’s The Gift (see below), which was originally titled Weirdo, the new title for Shyamalan’s film is much sharper, more direct, and the trailer is a minor wonder of mounting dread in a two minute, thirty second format. But the television spot for the film (click here, or on the image above) is even creepier, and I think the film may well be the path back to mainstream acceptance for Shyamalan.

As always, working with no money is really liberating when you’re making a film; you have almost no interference, and you can do exactly as you please. Most of the film is shot on one location – a large, seemingly comfortable house in the country – with a small cast of relative unknowns. Shyamalan edited the film himself in a mere two weeks, claiming he had to make only “minor adjustments” to get it to work, and in his Twitter account, he seems deeply grateful that Universal is giving him perhaps his last big shot at widespread theatrical distribution for a September 2015 release.

Once again, Blumhouse – horrormeisters extraordinaire, but also the producers of The Normal Heart and Whiplash, intervenes again with a solid sense of both artistic and commercial matters. While the final film may not work, and I may regret writing these words later – or even recant them – for the moment I’m sticking with McKinney, and giving Shyamalan the benefit of the doubt – I hope The Visit works for him. The film is already screening in Australia, and more fine tuning may be in order. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The Visit opens September 11, 2015.

Joel Edgerton’s The Gift (2015)

Saturday, August 8th, 2015

Joel Edgerton’s new thriller The Gift is full of unexpected surprises. Click here for the trailer.

Shot in 25 days on a tight budget in and around Hollywood Hills, Edgerton’s film (which he also stars in) is a minor miracle of intelligent suspense filmmaking – especially since you think it’s headed in one direction for the first half of the film, perhaps more, and then segues into something altogether darker and more trenchant, but still without succumbing to the usual tropes of over-the-top violence that traditionally dominate the genre.

No one gets killed, there’s no gunplay, just a sense of ever mounting dread, and an appropriately brutal critique of corporate culture, from a film that had little to work with in the way of physical resources, and made the most of it, setting most of the action in one location, a classic strategy for shooting a low budget film on a short schedule.

As Wikipedia notes, “The project was first announced in August 2012, when it was reported that Joel Edgerton had written a psychological thriller script titled Weirdo, with which Edgerton would also be making his directing debut. His inspirations for the screenplay include Alfred Hitchcock, Fatal Attraction, and Michael Haneke’s 2005 Austrian film Caché.

On September 9, 2013, talking with Screen International, Edgerton stated that he would be starring in the film in a supporting role, and that he would also produce, along with Rebecca Yeldham, through Blue-Tongue Films. Rebecca Hall signed on to star in the film on November 3, 2014. It was also confirmed that Jason Blum would also produce the film through his Blumhouse Productions banner. On January 13, 2015, Jason Bateman was set to star in the film, as Hall’s character’s husband.

Principal photography on the film began on January 19, 2015, and ended on February 20, 2015. A majority of filming took place at a home in the Hollywood Hills neighborhood, The film was shot on an Arri Alexa [digital] with Canon C35 lenses, and was filmed in 25 days, according to its cinematographer, Eduard Grau. Grau was recommended by [Joel Edgerton's brother] Nash Edgerton, who served as The Gift’s Stunt Coordinator.

In an interview with Collider.com, Joel Edgerton revealed that he did not start filming his acting role until two weeks into shooting (devoting that time, instead, solely to directing). As soon as he did, his older brother Nash assisted on set behind the camera. Joel Edgerton completed shooting his role [in the film] in seven days.

On January 20, 2015, STX Entertainment bought the United States distribution rights to the film. STX retitled the film The Gift. The film is Edgerton’s fourth feature screenplay to be filmed, after The Square (2008), Felony (2013) and The Rover (2014).”

Truth be told, The Gift is a much better title. But as Stephen Holden observed in The New York Times, “even if The Gift, the Australian director Joel Edgerton’s creepy stalker thriller, didn’t make a dramatic U-turn at around the halfway point, it would still rank as a superior specimen. This movie doesn’t foam at the mouth like Fatal Attraction.

No bunnies are boiled. But fish are poisoned, a family dog goes missing and the soundtrack is tricked out with the sudden jolts dear to the genre . . . Underneath it all, The Gift is a merciless critique of an amoral corporate culture in which the ends justify the means, and lying and cheating are O.K., as long as they’re not found out. Bullying and cruelty are good for business.”

The Gift has much to say about the world we live in now – a genre film with a real social message.

Max Von Sydow Joins Game of Thrones

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

As it says above, Max Von Sydow is joining the cast of Game of Thrones.

As Laura Prudom writes in Variety, ”The Three-Eyed Raven is getting a makeover in season six of Game of Thrones Variety has confirmed that Max von Sydow will take over the role, which was originated by Struan Rodger in the season four finale of the HBO drama.

The enigmatic character is responsible for teaching Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) about his supernatural gifts, including his ability to transfer himself into the body of other creatures through the process of ‘warging.’ Although Bran and his allies were absent throughout season five, they are confirmed to be making a return in the new season, which has commenced filming in Europe.

While von Sydow is not expected to have much screen time in season six, he will reportedly play a major role in the events of the new season. The same has been said of fellow new cast member Ian McShane, who is playing an undisclosed role.

Last week, HBO chief Michael Lombardo told reporters that the current plan is for Game of Thrones to end after eight seasons, despite earlier quotes that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were aiming to wrap up the epic series after seven years. The series earned 24 Emmy nominations for season five, with noms for stars Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke and drama series, among others. Von Sydow is no stranger to iconic properties, and will next be seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens this December.”

True enough, but for some of us, Von Sydow will always be linked his work with Ingmar Bergman, which first brought him to international stardom in such films as The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring and other Bergman classics- and the rest of his work, while keeping him busy – very busy – seems an afterthought. Still, it can’t help but bring up the level of quality on the show, and his work is always inspirational to watch, no matter what he does.

At age 86, Max Von Sydow keeps right on working, and glad of it we are.

A Bad Day For Traditional Media

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Traditional media stocks are taking a beating today, as consumers move away from television for the web.

As Cecile Daurat reports on the Bloomberg News website, “Walt Disney Co.’s darkened outlook dragged down media stocks from Time Warner Inc. to 21st Century Fox Inc. and CBS Corp.

Disney, which through Tuesday had been the top-performing stock in the Dow Jones Industrial Average this year with a record of stellar sales and profit, surprised investors by posting lower-than-estimated quarterly revenue and cutting its forecast for cable-television profit.

Disney’s shares slumped as much as 10 percent — the most since August 2011 — after the results, while Fox and CBS Corp., which both report earnings after the close, dropped more than 5 percent. Time Warner and Scripps Networks Interactive Inc., the owner of Food Network and HGTV, also fell even though they beat second-quarter earnings predictions. Overall, the Bloomberg U.S. Media Index had its biggest intraday decline in almost four years.

‘Investors are definitely reading across the Disney earnings and extrapolating it to the broader media sector,’ said Paul Sweeney, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.

Disney is facing two challenges of it own: fewer subscribers at cable networks such as ESPN, its biggest business, and foreign exchange losses from the strong dollar that are hurting both cable TV and international theme parks.

But the concerns over ESPN’s growth and comments on affiliate revenue from pay-TV providers, which Disney now expects to fall short of previous forecasts, may be a gauge for other media companies.

Both Time Warner and Fox are doubling down on exclusive live sports programming to demand higher fees for their channels from pay-TV distributors. And those higher fees have helped them fuel earnings growth in recent quarters. Investors will get an update on Fox and CBS, which has also pushed into sports programming, when the companies post results.

Time Warner’s decision to keep its full-year profit forecast after second-quarter earnings per share beat analysts’ predictions by a wide margin also weighed on the stock Wednesday. Maintaining the guidance suggested estimates for the second half may be too high, Sweeney said. Shares of the New York-based owner of HBO were down 7 percent to $81.49 at 12:55 p.m. in New York.

Discovery, which dropped 9.5 percent to $29.74, posted results that fell short of sales and earnings estimates Wednesday. The cable-TV company still increased its outlook for annual earnings-per-share growth, excluding foreign exchanges.

Cable-TV stocks like Scripps and Viacom Inc. suffered after Disney cut its forecast for cable profit. For fiscal 2013 to 2016, the entertainment giant had promised profit growth in the high-single-digit range. Now, with just five quarters to go, the company expects a mid-single-digit gain for the division over that time frame.”

This is sort of a late wake-up call to something that has been building for a long time; look at the frame grabbed chart at the top (click here, on the image above, to see a Bloomberg video on this whole topic, with some really sharp analysis). Netflix is going through the roof with subscribers, while traditional media – i.e. television and cable – is essentially flatlining.

This has been coming for a long time, and it’s sort of a seismic shock to the system for all involved, but Netflix is really taking over the whole viewing sphere, allowing people to see whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want, and also to cut free of the “bundling” that cable systems force on customers, paying for what really want and nothing else.

This is just the first shot in a new system of distribution that has been building for quite a while; I’m really surprised it has taken traditional media this long to notice that frankly, they’re in long term trouble. There’s no way this trend is turning around, and what happens next is -as far as I can see- that Netflix gets bigger and bigger, and traditional media becomes less and less relevant to millennials.

We’ll have to see what happens next.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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