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The Bedford Incident (1965)

Friday, March 27th, 2015

The Bedford Incident is yet another brilliant yet forgotten film; watch the trailer by clicking here.

We have only so much time on this earth, and so what we do with it is important. We can spend our time making junk, or watching junk, or we can give our time to some more serious films – past and present – that come our way. One such film is James B. Harris’s The Bedford Incident, a 1965 US/UK production from the novel by Mark Rascovich that toplines Richard Widmark as the unbalanced and resolutely hawkish captain of the destroyer the USS Bedford, which, on a routine reconnaissance mission, detects the presence of a Soviet submarine off the coast of Greenland, and unrelentingly gives chase. As a contributor to Wikipedia astutely notes,

“The American destroyer USS Bedford (DLG-113) detects a Soviet submarine in the GIUK gap near the Greenland coast. (Specifically, they are in Greenland territorial waters at the entrance to the J.C. Jacobsen Fjord, which is due northwest from Iceland.) Although the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. are not at war, Captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) harries his prey mercilessly, while civilian photojournalist Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier) and NATO naval advisor, Commodore (and ex-World War II U-boat captain) Wolfgang Schrepke (Eric Portman), look on with mounting alarm.

Because the submarine is not powered by a nuclear reactor, its submerged run distance is limited, critical when it also needs breathing air and to recharge its batteries. This gives Finlander an advantage, but also means the Soviets will be more desperate. Also aboard the ship are Ensign Ralston (James MacArthur), an inexperienced young officer constantly being criticized by his captain for small errors, and Lieutenant Commander Chester Potter, USNR (Martin Balsam), the ship’s new doctor, who is a reservist recently recalled to active duty.

Munceford is aboard in order to photograph life on a navy destroyer, but his real interest is Captain Finlander, who was recently passed over for promotion to rear admiral. Munceford is curious whether a comment made by Finlander regarding the American intervention in Cuba is the reason for his non-promotion, perhaps betraying veiled aggression. He is treated with mounting hostility by the captain because he is seen as a civilian putting his nose where it does not belong and because he disagrees with Finlander’s decision to continue with an unnecessary and dangerous confrontation. Finlander is hostile to anyone who is not involved in the hunt – including the doctor, who will not stand up to the captain and advise that the pressure on the crew be reduced.

The crew becomes increasingly fatigued by the unrelenting pursuit during which the captain demands full attention to the instruments. When the submarine is found and ignores Captain Finlander’s demand to surface and identify itself, Finlander escalates the situation by smashing into the submarine’s snorkel, calling it ‘floating debris.’ Finlander then orders Bedford to arm weapons and withdraw a distance, where he will wait for the submarine’s crew to run out of air and be forced to surface. He reassures Munceford and Schrepke that he is in command of the situation and that he will not fire first, but: ‘If he fires one, I’ll fire one.’

Ensign Ralston mistakes Finlander’s remark as an order to ‘fire one’ and launches an anti-submarine rocket, which destroys the submarine. Their sonar then detects a salvo of four nuclear-armed torpedoes coming at the destroyer. Finlander initially gives basic orders to evade, then goes outside. Munceford follows him, frantically pleading, but Finlander does nothing more to save his ship, perhaps because he recognizes that there is no way to escape and believes that it’s justice that his ship be lost, since his own actions brought about the unnecessary destruction of the submarine and crew. The film ends with still shots of various crewmen “melting” as if the celluloid film were burning as Bedford and her crew are vaporized. The last image is an iconic, towering mushroom cloud from the torpedo detonations.”

Described by a number of observers as “near science fiction,” this Cold war parable is made all the more effective by the obvious commitment of everyone in the film, especially star Richard Widmark, who co-produced the film with Harris. An expert in playing unsympathetic roles, going all the way back to his debut in Henry Hathaway’s crime drama Kiss of Death, Widmark took on the project both because he believed that the threat of a nuclear accident was very real, and also because it provided him the chance to work with Sidney Poitier as Munceford, the journalist who sees that everything is spinning out of control, but is powerless, as a civilian, to stop it.

But perhaps the most interesting character in the film is Eric Portman’s ex-Nazi U boat captain, Wolfgang Schrepke, who seems much more sane that Captain Finlander, perhaps because he has seen too much violence and death in World War II. His world-weary yet clear-eyed view of Finlander’s mounting mania is the clearest indicator of where The Bedford Incident is ultimately heading – like similar films of the 1960s that dealt with the threat of nuclear destruction, such as Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, one gets the feeling from the outset of the film that the entire affair will end very badly indeed, and that there will be no happy ending tacked on as a sop to the audience. That Schrepke’s role is now that of a bystander, a NATO advisor, does not diminish his importance within the narrative for a second.

Dr. Strangelove, of course, played the whole concept of mutually assured nuclear destruction for grim laughs, but The Bedford Incident, with its claustrophobic mise en scene – taking place entirely on board the destroyer, with no escape for either the audience or the crew members – is perhaps the grimmest project of the lot, because even after the final frames of the film have melted away, one knows instinctively that the destruction of a battleship and a submarine won’t be the end of the conflict; that indeed, this one small incident will in all likelihood trigger an all out nuclear war, which we will never witness (thankfully), because we have, in a sense, perished along with the crew of the the Bedford.

Shot in cold, efficient monochrome by the supremely gifted Gilbert Taylor, The Bedford Incident is the kind of thoughtful, high-stakes film project that has been pushed aside in the comic book era by the latest DC or Marvel project, films that play with the same concepts explored in this film, but never with anything real at stake, and the assurance of upbeat “narrative closure” always taken as a given. So The Bedford Incident has several strikes against it, which prevent it from being seen more often; it’s thoughtful, it’s unforgiving, it’s intelligent, and it’s frightening as hell – and, of course, it’s in black and white. Which it should be.

But you should see it anyway – check out the trailer by clicking on the image above, and get the DVD.

David Cronenberg’s Hollywood Nightmare – Maps To The Stars

Friday, March 6th, 2015

David Cronenberg’s Maps to The Stars may be the truest film ever made about the real world of Hollywood.

Working from a twenty-year old script by Bruce Wagner, which hasn’t aged one bit, Cronenberg’s corrosive film about the Hollywood mythos easily outstrips such films as Sunset Boulevard, The Big Knife, Day of the Locust, and other critical examinations of the American movie capital. For Maps to The Stars isn’t a satire at all, or a dark comedy – a melodrama, perhaps, but firmly rooted in fact. As Bruce Wagner noted in several interviews, “Hollywood [Wagner's home town] is so much a part of me. The thought of writing a straight satire about Hollywood – I would reach for my revolver, as they say . . .

I don’t see this as satirical. I see it simply as a melodrama that’s closer to August Strindberg or Joe Orton than it is to anything like The Player (1992) or Mulholland Drive (2001). David [Cronenberg] and I thought we were making our Sunset Blvd. (1950), in a way. The original script [of Sunset Boulevard] began with a scene of cadavers in a morgue talking about how they had died, how they had come to our demise. Our script is filled with ghosts as well . . .

I don’t see anything in Maps to the Stars that’s an exaggeration in order to expose a truth. It’s more realism than anything else. It’s is a fever dream, it’s a melodrama, I don’t see it as a satire. The default is to call anything that makes one uncomfortable and in which someone may laugh something satirical or quote ‘dark’. I’ve been hit with that label all my life. I don’t believe in only darkness; I’m not interested. I’m interested in the poles: Darkness and light. Extreme poverty and extreme wealth. Extreme fame, anonymity. The sacred and the profane. Without the profane, I’m not interested. Without the sacred, I’m not interested.”

The cast members are uniformly excellent; Julianne Moore (above) won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 for her work in the film, and Cronenberg was nominated for the Palme d’Or; John Cusack is suitably repellent as a new age “self fulfillment” guru whose entire life is a sham; and Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, and Evan Bird – Bird is especially effectively as an absolutely hateful child star, already over the hill at 13 – are all utterly compelling in their roles. The entire film is so immaculately shot, edited, and scored (by the gifted Howard Shore) that I watched it straight through twice back to back, and it seemed to move even faster the second time than the first.

The reviews have been all over the place, from outright pans to critical raves, but those who dismiss the film, or who try to pigeonhole it as “satire” have never really lived in Hollywood, and don’t know how it works. This is a town that is ruled by franchises, in which selfishness and greed are necessary commodities if one wants to get ahead, a place where every conceivable human character flaw is exploited for gain or momentary advantage.

With echoes of Jean Cocteau and Paul Eluard in its script – which fit in here beautifully – Maps to the Stars is that rare thing; a film about the industry that tells the truth about a system that destroys people and then spits them out. Perhaps that’s why it’s been so ignored by Academy – what am I saying? of course it is! - and why the film is more or less being dumped in VOD slots rather than in mainstream theaters. But don’t let that stop you.

See this brilliant film at once – not for the faint of heart, but an absolutely mesmerizing experience.

Why Isn’t The Restored Version of Too Late for Tears on DVD?

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

There’s no more hardboiled screen duo than Dan Duryea and Lizabeth Scott in Too Late for Tears (1949).

Too Late for Tears, directed by Byron Haskin, is a cult noir film that currently only survives in truly terrible Public Domain DVDs that can only be watched for archival purposes – if you watch one of these versions, you’ve sort of seen the film, but you haven’t really experienced it. Splices, scratches, rips, tears – they’re all part of the Public Domain print, and it provides only an approximation of the watching the 35mm original. You see, the copyright for the film expired long ago, so anyone can put out a DVD – using any materials at hand, and what’s available – until now – has been really substandard.

However, as Rick Paulas wrote on August 6, 2014, in Pacific Standard Magazine, one man is making it a lifetime mission to track down and preserve these genre gems before they’re lost forever. As Paulas notes, “Eddie Muller is the president and founder of the Film Noir Foundation, a non-profit working to locate and repair films from the classic era. His work has led to 12 years of film festivals in San Francisco’s Castro Theater, the rescue of six films, and a badass nickname from legendary noir novelist James Ellroy: ‘The Czar of Noir.’ But when it came to restoring Too Late for Tears, The Czar was nearly crying tears of his own. ‘It was by far the toughest,’ he says.

While Internet streaming may make it seem as if we can watch anything whenever we want, that’s just not the case. Every migration to a new medium relegates a portion of films to the dustbin of history. There’s a triage that occurs when 16mm leads to VHS, to DVD, to Blu-ray. Conversion takes time and money, two resources that movie studios aren’t going to waste on titles that don’t generate sales. ‘It’s a funnel,’ Muller says. ‘It may seem like there are more titles than ever before, but I guarantee you this is an illusion.’

Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation estimates that half of all American films made before 1950, along with over 90 percent made before 1929, are gone for good. While there are high-profile ‘Holy Grail’ lost films that collectors have been obsessing over for years—Erich von Stroheim’s nine-hour director’s cut of Greed, which only 12 people ever saw; Lon Chaney’s detective/horror movie London After Midnight, the last print reportedly burned in the tragic MGM vault fire of 1967—there are crates more on nobody’s radar. The hardest to locate, by far, are ‘orphans’: independently produced films seemingly not owned by any studio [. . .]

The first move for Muller during any restoration is to ask the community for any and all elements they have. This means 35mm prints, 16mm, good digital transfers. Anything but circulation prints—prints that have been sent out to theaters—which have wear-and-tear that makes a restoration nearly impossible. The prize is an original negative or duplication that’s been created for the sake of protection, but those are nearly impossible to come by.

Eddie’s calls for Too Late for Tears elements netted him a few nibbles. One was a 35mm print from a private collector, the quality of which was uncertain. Another was a 35mm print that somehow ended up in the Jones Film Archive at Southern Methodist University. (‘You can fall down a rabbit hole when you start investigating this stuff.’) UCLA also had a print after a French collector dumped loads of canisters on them. (‘Luckily, their print didn’t have subtitles.’)

But the question at hand was whether or not Muller wanted to pour his limited funds into a restoration using this unproven trio or hunting the rumors of a Baltimore projectionist’s pristine nitrate print [. . .] Under the watchful eye of UCLA restoration manager Scott MacQueen, the best parts of the three prints were spliced into one. Finally, on January 25, 2014, Muller premiered the restoration of Too Late for Tears at the 12th-annual Film Noir Fest in San Francisco to rapturous applause.”

But for those of us not in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, I have a simple question; when is the restored version of Too Late for Tears, one of the toughest and most unrelenting of all noirs, going to be available on DVD? Another noir film that Muller was instrumental in saving, Robert Parrish’s acerbic Cry Danger (1951), starring Dick Powell, was restored in 2011, screened theatrically, and then made the jump to DVD, and it goes without saying that I bought one of the first copies of the restoration available.

But now Too Late for Tears has been restored, yet as far as I can find out, no DVD or Blu-ray release is imminent. So, as Johann Sebastian Bach might ask – and indeed ask, although obviously in another context – “oh, when will that day come?” Too Late for Tears is one of Haskin’s finest films, one of Dan Duryea’s most desperately corrupt performances, and surely one of Lizabeth Scott’s most brutal turns as a femme fatale, one who really knows what the term means – she’s lethal, in every sense of the word. So it’s great that Too Late for Tears has been rescued and restored – cue the applause for Eddie Muller, seriously – but when will we get the DVD?

Until we get the DVD or Blu-ray, or both, we won’t really have the film back in circulation.

The 87th Annual Oscars – A Night of Surprises

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

The 87th Annual Oscars were a night of surprises.

And The Winners Are:

  • Best Picture – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – a real surprise to me; I thought Boyhood was the one here, but it was neck and neck.
  • Best Actress – Julianne Moore, Still Alice - an excellent film, and a much deserved win, though Marion Cotillard was superb in Two Days, One Night
  • Best Actor – Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything - this was a real upset – everyone thought Michael Keaton had this one in the bag.
  • Directing  – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - if you think the film was good, then Iñárritu wins.
  • Best Supporting Actress – Patricia Arquette, Boyhood – her win was no surprise; but the film was completely shut out in every other category.
  • Best Supporting Actor – J.K. Simmons, Whiplash – absolutely deserved for his performance here, and a lifetime of work.
  • Animated Feature Film - Big Hero 6 – honestly can’t speak to this; not a category I follow.
  • Documentary Feature – Citizenfour - another surprise, and hardly a safe choice, with an impassioned acceptance speech from the stage.
  • Foreign Language Film – Ida (Poland) – I’d go for Two Days, One Night – not enamored of this film at all, but it’s a small, sincere film.
  • Adapted Screenplay – Graham Moore, The Imitation Game – good choice here; Moore’s acceptance speech was raw and honest.
  • Original Screenplay – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – OK.
  • Original Score – Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel – don’t like the film, don’t like Wes Anderson, but he’s a cult favorite, so it wins.
  • Original Song – “Glory” from Selma - the most moving moment of the evening, with an electrifying performance of the song, which got the evening’s first standing ovation & tears in the audience.
  • Film Editing – Whiplash - picked this, and agree with it; in this small scale film, the editing had to be razor sharp, and it was.
  • Production Design – The Grand Budapest Hotel - if you insist.
  • Sound Editing – American Sniper – deserved; whatever you think of the film, the sound editing was utterly complex, and multi-layered.
  • Sound Mixing – Whiplash - again, a great and deserving win for a film about a world of music – harder to mix that one might think.
  • Visual Effects – Interstellar - dull film, average SPFX; I would have preferred Captain America, Winter Soldier here.
  • Cinematography – Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – superb cinematography, and a worthy win.
  • Costume Design – Milena Canonero, The Grand Budapest Hotel - again, if you insist.
  • Makeup and Hairstyling – Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier, The Grand Budapest Hotel - it picks up all these minor awards, but nothing major.
  • Animated Short Film – Feast – haven’t seen it.
  • Live Action Short Film – The Phone Call – haven’t seen it.
  • Documentary Short Subject – Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 - a really good documentary; searing, honest, timely.

Those are my major thoughts; Neil Patrick Harris kept things moving, but the “predictions in a box” bit was lame and over-stretched; he seemed bored with the whole thing, and more or less just pushed things along; the songs keep slowing things down, especially the one after the memorial reel, which should just have been a fade to black; Selma will get a lot of much deserved traction as a result of the Glory performance, which was the standout moment of the evening for raw sincerity and passion; but it’s still not right that the director, Ava DuVernay, wasn’t nominated, but Glory did the most with what it had at hand. I predict that down the line it will get more attention than it has now; it certainly deserves it.

It was nice to see Jean-Claude Carrière win in the Governor’s Awards highlights reel for his many screenplays, especially for his work with the great Luis Buñuel; the tech awards deserve more than 30 seconds, and you could cut some of the endless musical numbers to give them just a bit more space; seen in 100 countries and 24 time zones by roughly half a billion viewers, the telecast of the 87th Oscars once again affirms, more than anything else, the continuing commercial dominance of the American cinema; but at the same time it’s interesting to see that the big budget “tent pole” movies were almost completely ignored in favor of smaller, more personal visions from the margins, where all the best ideas come from anyway.

The studios are stuck in this pattern of releasing big budget spectacles at enormous expense to drag viewers into the theaters, but while the Marvel and DC movies make money, it’s clear that the industry doesn’t really respect them – they want content, and thoughtful filmmaking. All in all, I was surprised by the end of the ceremonies – it’s always an ordeal, but people were allowed to speak their minds on any number of controversial topics from the stage. Some people went on & on forever, and got played off at the start of the ceremonies, but when someone had a real message to deliver, I noticed that the orchestra held back on a number of occasions.

The impassioned speech after the Glory production number was a real stunner, and Patricia Arquette’s call for equal pay and equal rights for women was met with resounding approval from the audience, and a raised fist shout out from Meryl Streep and others in support. However, as much as Julie Andrews is a cinematic icon, I thought the placement of the Sound of Music salute was bizarre to say the least, though Lady Gaga demonstrated that she’s learned a thing or two from Tony Bennett lately, singing the songs rather than belting them. All in all, a mixed bag that kept one thinking. No one film swept the awards, which was great – instead they seemed to be spread out over a number of interesting films, all of which will now get a lift at the box office and on VOD.

All in all, the Academy could have done much worse; glad it’s over until next year. See you then!

The 2015 Oscar Run-Up

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

So, the 87th Annual Academy Awards are tonight.

Bob Fischbach of the Omaha World Herald asked me for my thoughts, and here in part is what he wrote: “Wheeler Winston Dixon [of] the University of Nebraska-Lincoln said academy voters are interested in celebrating new ideas that could rejuvenate the film industry, which he sees as under attack from streaming video and instant-access online services like Vimeo.

‘Small-budget movies have more original ideas than Marvel,’ said Dixon, who has written books about independent film and industry trends. Birdman was a technical marvel with its long takes and fluid camera motion. Boyhood took a risk in filming a family story over 12 years. The actors mature before your eyes. “’When you see a movie being made in which Superman meets Batman, that’s the sign of a genre collapsing into its baroque period,’ Dixon said.

Captain America and Spider-Man are [creatively] bankrupt.’ He compared it to the horror genre, which began with Frankenstein and Dracula but eventually doubled and tripled up on monsters to the point of ridiculousness.

Dixon said the Oscar shift has been going on for a while. When The Hurt Locker won best picture in 2009, it beat the digitally driven action fantasy Avatar, even though Avatar made 55 times more money — $2.7 billion globally . . . [Dixon noted that] big-budget tentpole movies ‘are committee movies that have to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Whiplash and Still Alice can afford to take risk[s] because they’re not going to break anybody’s bank.’

When they do catch fire, he said, the arty, independent films Oscar loves are increasingly being seen online and at home. ‘That’s the future. We’re going to see a real transformation of the Academy and what constitutes a movie, as film becomes more and more a solitary viewing experience.’”

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

UCLA Festival of Preservation – March 5-30, 2015 in Los Angeles

Monday, February 16th, 2015

Click here, on on the image above, for a complete program guide to the festival as a pdf.

If you’re going to be in Los Angeles between March 5th and the 30th, this is the place to be. As Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive notes of the coming festival, “the year 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of UCLA Film & Television Archive and so we are doubly proud to put on our biennial UCLA Festival of Preservation to kick off a series of anniversary-related events that will run throughout the year.

As director of UCLA Film & Television Archive, I’m happy to introduce the 17th iteration of our Festival, which again reflects the broad and deep efforts of the Archive to preserve and restore our national moving image heritage.  And while the rest of the world has seemingly made the transition to a 100 percent digital environment, the Archive is still committed to preserving films on film, while we still can, even if our theater will increasingly be projecting digital material.

Our Festival opens with the restoration of Men in War (1957), directed by Anthony Mann, who made a name for himself at Universal directing adult westerns.  This big budget war film, starring Robert Ryan and Aldo Ray, details the troubles experienced by a platoon of American soldiers, who are trapped behind enemy lines during the Korean War.  Unlike Hollywood’s more heroic representations of World War II, Mann’s film presages the disconnect between officers and enlisted men that would become systemic during the Vietnam War.

We close with another classic war film, John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home (1940), starring John Wayne and Thomas Mitchell as merchant seamen transporting ammunition to England for the European war effort against the Nazis.  Between these bookends, this year’s UCLA Festival of Preservation offers something for everyone, whether one is interested in film or television, comedy, drama or documentary.

In the comedy department, we are proud to be able to present the latest results in our ongoing effort to preserve the legacy of Laurel & Hardy, including the shorts The Midnight Patrol (1933) and The Music Box (1932).  We are also screening a new restoration of the comedy hit of last year’s Cinefest in Syracuse, Bachelor’s Affairs (1932), a pre-Code gem, starring Adolphe Menjou as a die-hard bachelor who is felled by a ditzy blonde bombshell.

As is standard operating practice, given our close working relationship with the Film Noir Foundation, we have again restored a number of rare and interesting film noirs, including Too Late for Tears (1949), starring Lizabeth Scott in a career-defining role as a housewife whose life careens out of control.  Director John Reinhardt’s low, low budget noir, The Guilty (1948), is based on a Cornell Woolrich story, while Woman on the Run (1950), another under-rated noir, stars Ann Sheridan as the wife of a man who has witnessed a murder.  Finally, director Samuel Fuller’s Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1977) is not exactly a noir, but a crime drama produced for German television, and it constitutes the Archive’s first complete digital restoration.

An area of increasing interest for the Archive is exploitation films, which have been for the most part ignored by film historians, even though such films were hugely popular at the time of their release.  Our head of preservation, Scott MacQueen, has taken the lead in restoring the Archive’s exploitation holdings, so we are proud to present a number of truly weird and wild films from the early 1930s: White Zombie (1932) features Bela Lugosi in the aftermath of Dracula (1931) in a horror film that has become a cult classic; Ouanga (1935) reprises White Zombie’s Haitian setting for a tale of voodoo and miscegenation, starring the tragic African American actress, Fredi Washington, who could have had a huge career if she had not refused to “pass” for white.  Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Premature Burial,’ The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935) stars the great Erich von Stroheim after his fall from grace in Hollywood.  Finally, Leslie Stevens’ directorial debut, Private Property (1960), is another rare find, the film straddling both the exploitation and art house markets.

In the past two years, the Archive has stepped up its efforts under television archivist Dan Einstein to preserve classic television.  We begin with The Execution of Private Slovik (1974), one of the most celebrated made-for-television movies of the 1970s, and an episode of Chevy Mystery Theatre (NBC, 7/31/60), both programs penned by the writing team of Richard Levinson and William Link.  Another program includes a classic episode from Playhouse 90, a popular omnibus show from the late 1950s, which visualizes a nuclear holocaust for American viewers.

The Archive’s efforts to restore the work of independent filmmakers are represented by two long-neglected masterpieces, director Stanton Kaye’s brilliant road movie, Brandy in the Wilderness (1969), and J.L. Anderson’s Spring Night, Summer Night (1967), an amazingly realistic film from rural Appalachia.  We also continue our efforts to preserve and protect the legacy of the ‘L.A. Rebellion,’ with a program of shorts by African American women, including a new restoration of filmmaker Julie Dash’s Illusions (1982), which finally corrects deficits on the soundtrack that had been present since the film’s premiere.

Last, but not least, our newsreel preservation team of Blaine Bartell and Jeffrey Bickel present two programs from our Hearst Metrotone News Collection, including one night dedicated to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and another celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a milestone in the Civil Rights Movement. As is always the case, the Archive’s internationally recognized preservationists will appear in person at many Festival screenings to introduce the films and discuss their work with audiences.

All of our restoration work and public programs—including this Festival—are funded by donations from individuals, foundations, corporations and government agencies.  We are most thankful for the generosity of these organizations and individuals.”

This promises to be an utterly thrilling collection of films; try to see it you possibly can.

Filmmaking Tips from Mike Leigh

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Landon Palmer offers six filmmaking tips from master British realist Mike Leigh in Film School Rejects.

As Palmer writes, “Mike Leigh is one of few filmmakers who could say something like, ‘given the choice of Hollywood and poking steel pins in my eyes, I’d prefer steel pins’ without suggesting even a hint of hyperbole. Leigh is deeply principled in terms of the dramatics, process, and politics of filmmaking, and we’re all the better off for it. The filmmaker made a name for himself with acutely humanist works of British social realism that bore some inheritance to the ‘kitchen sink’ tradition, but imbue drama with a type of wit, spontaneity, and empathy that is simply inimitable. Leigh’s patient, improvisatory, and collaborative process appears seriously counterintuitive from the perspective of commercial filmmaking, and as a result produces human dramas that are deeply felt and strikingly insightful.

And in his early seventies – after making a dozen feature films and even more TV programs – Leigh is still finding new, seemingly unlikely means of representing life through the moving image. His most recent film, Mr. Turner, was his first to be shot digitally. It’s a surprising move for a period piece, but Leigh and longtime cinematographer Dick Pope use the relatively new technology of capturing 21st century images in order to depict how painter J.M.W. Turner found new ways of capturing 18th century images. So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the guy who has realized the best performances by your favorite British character actors.”

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

Kino Lorber’s “Pioneers of African-American Cinema”

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

The films of Spencer Williams, Oscar Micheaux, and other pioneering African-American filmmakers get a much deserved Blu-ray upgrade.

As Tambay A. Obenson reports in Shadow and Act: On Cinema of the African Diaspora in Indiewire, Kino Lorber is starting a Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation of one of the most ambitious projects involving the history of African-American cinema ever attempted, involving an enormous amount of research, restoration, and a wide range of films.

As Obenson writes, “considering conversations we’ve long had on this blog about efforts to collect the lot of ’black films’ from yesteryear (especially those considered ‘lost’ to history, unseen or rarely screened publicly) and making them widely-accessible in one complete set, digitally restored (HD) and remastered, this is one message, one campaign that S&A certainly approves of.

Coincidentally, starting this Friday, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, kicks off its own groundbreaking series, ‘Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968 – 1986,’ programmed by Michelle Materre and Jake Perlin, and co-presented by Creatively Speaking. The below collection from Kino Lorber will cover the years 1914 to 1944.

I recall attending an Oscar Micheaux celebration some years ago, and in speaking to the curators, learned the challenges they faced in hunting down prints of as many of his films as they could get their hands on. It was interesting to learn of how scattered ownership of each was. Not rights specifically, but rather where each physically resided. For example, a print for one of his films (I can’t recall which title it was right now) was tracked down all the way in France, and, as I remember, it was the only one in existence. So this is all quite ambitious!”

As Kino Lorber’s comments on the project note, “renowned for its deluxe editions of masterpieces of world cinema, Kino Lorber will now pay tribute to the Pioneers of African-American Cinema with an ambitious four-disc collection. If the campaign achieves its primary goal, the series will include eight feature films and a variety of short films and fragments, a color booklet of photos and essays, and will be offered on Bluray and DVD.

All films will be newly mastered in high definition from film elements preserved by the country’s leading film archives, including The Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Silent films will be accompanied by a variety of original music scores. Some soundtracks will have a more contemporary sound, encouraging the viewer to watch these films with a fresh perspective. For the sake of historical accuracy, each silent film will also include a traditional score intended to replicate the 1920s moviegoing experience.

Curated by film historians Charles Musser and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, and presented by executive producer DJ Spooky, Pioneers of African-American Cinema will showcase not only the works of MIcheaux and Williams, but lesser-known filmmakers such as James and Eloyce Gist, as well as rarely-seen footage shot by writer Zora Neale Hurston.  It will also include selections of ‘race films’ made by white directors, such as Richard E. Norman and Frank Peregini . . .”

“Pioneers of African-American Cinema”  will be released February, 2016.

The Continuing Battle to Save Classic Films

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

Richard Verrier has an excellent piece in the Los Angeles Times on the battle to save the films of the past.

As Verrier writes, “Inside a 260,000-square-foot warehouse just over the Grapevine off Interstate 5, an archivist from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences clambered up a ladder to inspect a stack of dusty 35-millimeter film cans . . . The man on the ladder pulled several silver-colored canisters off the shelf and plunked them on a pallet that would later be shrink-wrapped and loaded onto a truck for delivery to the academy’s film archive. By the end of the day, some 5,000 cans of film would find a new home at the academy.

That left just 40,000 cans to go in the mission to rescue Hollywood’s ‘orphan films’ — movies abandoned by producers or the companies that financed them. Patiently watching over the operation was Greg Lea, a cheerful native of west London and fervent film historian. He and his colleagues at Deluxe Entertainment Services Group have spent the last two years trying to return the forgotten films, some dating back half a century, to their rightful owners. Most are art house or independent films that never made it to the big leagues.

‘This is 20th century American history, so you don’t want it to be lost,’ Lea said. ‘It may be someone’s dream that didn’t get abandoned, but they couldn’t afford to move the project any further. When you’ve got someone’s dreams, you don’t want to end up throwing them in the trash can.’ The end of film is a dramatic story in Hollywood. Paramount made headlines last year when it told exhibitors it would release virtually all future movies digitally. Most theaters around the country have invested millions to ditch their film projectors and install digital systems.

Slackening demand for film prints prompted Deluxe and Technicolor to close their film labs, laying off hundreds of workers. Fujifilm Corp. has exited the movie film business, leaving Eastman Kodak as the sole remaining major supplier of film stock. Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012, though several studios have banded together to keep the company’s film business alive.

Although digital technology enables studios to distribute movies much more cheaply than film, not everyone is happy about film’s pending demise. Prominent directors, including Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, have opposed the relentless march to digital formats, contending the medium is inferior to 35-millimeter film. But there is a more fundamental question: When Hollywood goes all digital, what happens to the film legacy left behind?

It’s not an idle question. The original negatives of some 90% of the films made between 1901 and 1929 no longer exist. The same nearly happened in the 1970s when studios decided to divest themselves of nitrate film, which was used before 1950 and was highly flammable.  For the last two years, Deluxe has worked closely with the major studios and others to ensure that tens of thousands of film negatives were rightfully claimed.

But many more are orphans — produced by companies that either forgot about them, went out of business or no long wanted to pay to keep them in storage facilities . . . ‘Some companies make a decision that they don’t really want it anymore,’ Lea said. ‘It’s somebody else’s problem. You can understand it. But for those of us who want to preserve the film history, it’s the wrong decision.’”

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

Variety’s “Broken Hollywood” Series – Harvey Weinstein on the Collapse of The DVD

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

Variety is running a new series called “Broken Hollywood” – Or, How The Industry Must Change To Survive

In a guest opinion piece in Variety on January 28, 2015, Harvey Weinstein, producer extraordinaire, posted these thoughts on the collapse of the DVD market, and what Hollywood has to do to make up for loss of this revenue stream: “Every day we face new technology challenges. We have to look at our models — the theatrical model, the VOD [video on demand] model. We have to think about what we do with the lack of a DVD business. That was once an insurance policy for the industry. How do we deal with the newer technologies that are emerging and with the piracy that’s a part of the new digital age?  Little by little by little, VOD is making up for the DVD business. It’s more challenging, but I think eventually the technology will catch up and equate to what we lost.

Obviously, all of these things weigh in on how much money you’re bidding on projects. You don’t know exactly what everything will be worth, so you have to go with your pure gut. If a movie grossed $5 million in theaters, it used to mean that it would do $5 million on DVD. Now, with EST {Electronic sell-through; a method of media distribution whereby consumers pay a one-time fee to download a media file for storage on a hard drive] and VOD and everything else, who knows what you’re going to carve out? The theatrical business is now the biggest profit center. If you don’t win in theaters, you’re in trouble.

The movie dictates its own release strategy. You have to know what you have and be careful how much you spend on P&A [prints and advertising]. The Internet has become an incredibly effective marketing tool, but it’s also the source of greatest competition. There’s limitless content out there, so it’s easy to stay home and watch all these things. You have make a case for why your movie is compelling. What Radius-TWC [Radius-TWC; a the boutique label dedicated to simultaneous multi-platform VOD and theatrical distribution, started by The Weinstein Company] is doing with VOD is finding new ways to reach an audience. Nobody has time anymore. They’re pulled in so many directions. If they want to see a movie at 11 at night while the kids are asleep, this is the way to do it. It’s become an important source of income.

We’re entering a golden age for television. You can tell a better story there. You have more time. I can’t tell Marco Polo in under 50 hours. I wouldn’t know how to do anything other than offer up an abridged bad version of that. Let’s hope all technology companies follow Netflix’s model and marry content and technology with the same passion.” So, the new things out there are not only VOD, which has been around for a while, but also the actual, and legal downloading of files you store on your hard drive, or electronic sell-through. Already, many sites, such as Vimeo are doing this with HD video; iTunes and Amazon have been doing this in their own way for quite some time. But now it’s taking over the market. It’s the future, as I’ve said before; like it or not, physical media is becoming a niche product – if that.

This is an excellent series of “think pieces” – check out more from Variety’s “Broken Hollywood” series here.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website, wheelerwinstondixon.com

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