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Best Picture = Best Director

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Steve McQueen was robbed. Best Picture = Best Director – it’s that simple.

Just one last thought on the Oscars; Twelve Years A Slave won Best Picture, but not Best Director, though Steve McQueen (pictured above) did take home an Oscar for his work on the film in a production capacity. But this is wrong, and not just because the Best Director winner, Gravity, is a very, very slight piece of work, and also the least of all of Alfonso Cuaron’s films, except for the utterly inconsequential Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Since the Oscars marginalize all foreign films except for one in a Best Foreign Film category, which is inherently wrong as well, there is really no such thing as “best” picture, because the field is artificially narrowed. But of all the films that did get Oscar nominations, Twelve Years was clearly the most important and artistically successful film of the group, yet McQueen didn’t get the nod as Best Director, as well. I will never understand the non-logic behind this; if a film is the “Best Picture,” then who is responsible for this? The producers? The actors? Or could it perhaps be the director, who brought the entire vision to the screen?

I remember a long time ago, when I was living in Los Angeles, Jaws — admittedly, we are moving from the deeply important to the utterly trivial here — was nominated for Best Picture, though it didn’t win, yet Steven Spielberg wasn’t nominated for Best Director. Jaws is simply an action picture, and certainly didn’t deserve to win anything, but in that case, Hollywood insiders were incensed, demanding “Best Picture, but no nod for Spielberg as Best Director? Who do they think directed it – the shark?” And they were right — if it wins Best Picture, it gets Best Director.

So again, while there is no comparison between these two films, the basic principle holds true.

Best Picture? Best Director. End of story.

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

Missing in Action: The Lost Version of Vanishing Point

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Narcissistic Sociopathology of Gender: Craig’s Wife and The Hitch-Hiker, Part One

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Here’s an important new article by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on two key feminist films in Film International.

The image above shows director Dorothy Arzner on the set of her 1936 film Craig’s Wife, with Director of Cinematography Lucien Ballard at her side. As Foster writes, “it’s instructive to study the work of Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino in context with one another. Though at first glance, one might easily conclude that the only thing they have in common is that they were the only women who managed to direct films during the days of the classical Hollywood studio system, a deeper look into their work exposes a stronger connection between the two; an ability to decimate and undermine the values of home and hearth as they are offered in the union of marriage under the umbrella of capitalism and an expose of the hypocrisy of American gender roles as deeply sociopathic and destructive.

Dorothy Arzner’s bleak “women’s picture” Craig’s Wife (1936) a Depression era adaptation of a stage play – and I’d argue, a feminist horror film – made as a major studio project for Columbia Pictures, revolves around the sociopathy of a destructive female narcissist, while Ida Lupino’s darkly expressionist film The Hitch-Hiker (1953), is based on the true story of male serial killer independently financed, and combines elements of several genres: horror, noir, suspense, the home invasion film and the crime thriller. These films are from different decades and genres, and may seem, at first glance, to have little in common. What I find most interesting and full of critical potential is that both are dominated by sociopaths; characters who suffer from malignant narcissism who act as mirrors held up to America; and both have queer potential.

Though I must stress that they were unique as individuals and had very different directorial styles, Arzner and Lupino remain historically linked by the fact that they were the only two women in the sound era to direct films in Hollywood and the first two women to belong to the Director’s Guild. Women, who had once flourished as film directors in the silent era, had by the sound era been pushed out of the field.Yet, both these filmmakers despised the special attention the media paid to their gender and they were equally vocal about their deep distaste for such attention, even when their uniqueness as female directors was routinely used as a selling point in the studio trades and publicity materials.”

There’s much more here to read; click on this link, or the image above, to read this important essay.

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

The Big Party — The 86th Annual Academy Awards

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Here’s the star-studded selfie taken by host Ellen DeGeneres at the Oscars that really did crash Twitter.

I worked with Dan Wood of The Christian Science Monitor on this Oscars this year; you can read his article here. For me, the only surprises were The Act of Killing not winning Best Documentary, and The Hunt not winning Best Foreign Film. I was also mildly surprised that Spike Jonze won for Best Original Screenplay for Her, but the rest were all predicted in my previous blog posts. It was business as usual, with the accent on business. A more artificial spectacle could hardly be imagined.

Gravity, one of the emptiest films of all time, swept most of the categories, including Best Director; Twelve Years A Slave won Best Film, because it obviously was the best film nominated, and the Academy could hardly ignore it. The show itself was overlong, as usual, with interminable musical numbers, tributes to cinema’s Hollywood past, but as I’ve noted before, and stressed in my interview with the Monitor, the Oscars are not an index of quality, but rather an industry event that advertises and reaffirms Hollywood as the center of the cinematic firmament, even as it marginalizes all of the rest of the world’s film output.

It isn’t voted on by critics, or even audience members; you have to be a member of the Academy to vote, and this year they turned out in record numbers, thanks to an aggressive e-mail campaign. So it’s really a popularity contest, or, as the actress Janet Gaynor once observed, a “nice pat on the back.” Anyway, it’s over now, and hopefully winter with it, and so we can wait until next year when the whole mad carnival whips up again, with more competition, more self-advertising, and more “bests” culled from a narrow field that is comprised, for the most part, of mainstream commercial films alone.

Click here for a complete list of the winners.

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

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014)

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

Four years ago, Gareth Edwards (that’s him above) made a small and very effective film, Monsters (2010).

That film cost practically nothing, and was shot on location in Mexico on a catch as catch can basis, picking up scenes along the way and then repropping them with low cost but very effective CGI enhancement, something that Edwards is really good at. At the time, Edwards said that with Monsters, he wanted to create a film that was a cross between War of The Worlds and Lost in Translation, and oddly enough, the film was just that; a thoughtful, low key monster film, in which the monsters were kept out of view for most of the movie, only to be revealed rather spectacularly at a gas station in the middle of the desert in the film’s final moments.

Now, he’s back, with something much more conventional; yet another reboot of Godzilla, based on the 1954 Ishiro Honda original. Actually, Godzilla – both the character, and the movie – could really use a reboot, for once, since it’s been the subject of so many subpar remakes and sequels, not to mention – let’s please don’t mention – the miserable Matthew Broderick remake a few years back. But here, Edwards seems to be taking a Christopher Nolan approach to the material, and the cast is first rate; Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn and Juliette Binoche all are involved. So this may work.

Click here to view the trailer , which is full of destruction, but no monster until the very end. Check it out.

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

Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s Dune

Friday, February 14th, 2014

From Nancy Tartaglione of Deadline Hollywood comes this trailer for a film about a film that never got made.

Alejandro Jodorowsky famously made the metaphorical “western” El Topo, but his output has been minimal over the years, perhaps because he tries to mount such elaborate projects. Here’s the trailer for a film about his version of the classic science-fiction novel Dune, which never got made for various reasons. As Tartaglione reports, “Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune debuted in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar in Cannes last year before being acquired by Sony Pictures Classics and playing the fall fest circuit. A trailer has dropped for the documentary about veteran Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s ill-fated attempt to bring Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel, Dune, to the screen.

In the mid-1970s, Jodorowsky (El Topo, Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre) came up with an ambitious take on the tome and spent two years in pre-production. The film was to star Jodorowsky’s own 12-year-old son Brontis alongside Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, David Carradine and Salvador Dali, set to a musical score by Pink Floyd with art design by H.R. Giger and Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud. But the project ultimately went unrealized and the rights lapsed.

David Lynch made his own version of Dune in 1984 with Kyle MacLachlan, Sting and Sean Young. Here’s a look at what might have been.” As you can see from the trailer, a lot of work went into the design of the film, and the casting was certainly ambitious. I’m sorry that this never saw the light of day, as I think it would have been a fascinating project — perhaps better than Lynch’s version, but we’ll never know.

Click here, or on the image above, to read Deadline’s coverage, and see the trailer for the film.

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

The Price of Digital Projection

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

My friend Michael Downey just returned from Belfast, Maine, where he visited the Colonial Theater, and photographed, as he aptly put it, this “sign of the times.”

This really says it all; here’s a theater that’s been running films for a century, but since movies are no longer shot on film, they have to make the digital switch or die. They probably could have moved faster on it, and taken part in the studios’ program to help theaters convert — but I bet that they just loved the look of film over digital projection, and never imagined the day would come when they simply couldn’t get 35mm prints anymore. The studios are actually destroying the 35mm prints of their older films; they don’t want them around as an option, even for archivists or collectors. It’s a DCP (Digital Cinema Package) world, and that’s all there is to it. There simply isn’t an option for 35mm projection anymore. Outside of a few museums and revival houses, and some university facilities, 35mm is gone, gone, gone.

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

Review: Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture by Rebecca Prime

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

I have a review of Rebecca Prime’s excellent new book, Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture, in the latest issue of Film International.

As I note, “Let’s just start by saying that this is an excellent book. I get stacks of new titles every day from publishers, and it takes a lot for a book to really jump out of the pile and interest me, particularly on a topic that has been researched as thoroughly as the Hollywood Blacklist. But Rebecca Prime’s Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture (2013) is exceptional, and part of an equally exceptional series of books from Rutgers University Press, “New Directions in International Studies,” ably edited by Patrice Petro.

The Hollywood Blacklist is always an important topic, but there’s been so much written about it that one would think that all possible avenues of inquiry have been pursued. But that’s not the case: Prime’s book is fresh, original, written in a direct and accessible manner, and adds a great deal of new material to the existing literature on the era. This is a book, in short, that demands one’s attention.

What distinguishes Prime’s book above all else is the sense of urgency she brings to her examination of the key figures affected by the blacklist; Joseph Losey, Ben Barzman, Jules Dassin, and other well known Hollywood figures who decided it was better to leave America, then in the grip of madness, rather than battle it out with the openly hostile ‘authority’ of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

This is a familiar tale, but what Prime makes clear in her study is just how difficult it was for these talent writers, directors and producers to survive in England, which wasn’t as welcoming as is generally assumed in hindsight. The FBI and the HUAC still shadowed these exiles, with the help of the British authorities, and so they were never really free of surveillance.”

You can read the rest of the review here; a fascinating and compelling book.

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

The Death of Foreign Films in America

Monday, January 27th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fewer Than 400 Theaters Still Run 35mm Film in US

Saturday, January 18th, 2014

As Alexandra Cheney and Andrew Stewart report in Variety, 35mm film is dead, dead, dead.

As Cheney and Stewart note, “The Weinstein Co. recently informed theater owners that its upcoming young adult fantasy Vampire Academy will be released only in a digital format. The move by Weinstein Co. and other distributors to alert theater owners to the change signals the long-awaited fade out for film stock, as the majors shift to digital formats for most releases [. . .] Weinstein Co.’s notice to exhibs comes on the heels of Paramount confirming to Variety that Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is the last movie it will release on 35mm film.

The move solely to digital was expected. Variety first reported in April that Paramount had run out of print stock. That did not stop the studio from striking 35mm prints for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.  As for Martin Scorsese’s Paramount-distributed The Wolf of Wall Street, it was shot digitally, with the exception of a few exterior shots, and will be distributed digitally only. Weinstein Co. said that it will not adhere to a digital-only policy going forward, but instead will strike prints when it is commercially viable. The Los Angeles Times was the first to report that Paramount had stopped releasing movies on film.

It’s worth noting however, that there are fewer than 400 locations still playing 35mm prints — most of which are smaller locations.”

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

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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