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Atom Egoyan’s Chloe

Friday, September 26th, 2014

Atom Egoyan’s Chloe is a remake of a film by Anne Fontaine; in many ways, it’s much better than the original.

As Egoyan notes of the overall theme of the film, “First and foremost, Chloe deals with the nature of intimacy. But I think the film is ultimately about what we look for in a relationship – to see someone else as we would like ourselves to be seen, and the idea of protecting someone else’s right to be alone, or to protect solitude. As Rilke wrote, it is one’s role as a partner to protect the other’s solitude, and yet there’s this balance between doing that and losing someone. That to me is what the film is about – how to be allowed to imagine ourselves and integrate that into a relationship.

In any love relationship, you have to protect yourself, but it you’re not aware of the explicit agenda of the other person, the skew can become really dangerous, even explosive. This is the terrain the film deals with – how to be allowed to imagine ourselves and integrate that in a relationship. And in some ways, the film is about the necessity and danger of creative interpretation of the self. Ultimately, we all need to believe in certain stories or narratives about ourselves. We all need to feel we have some control over how that narrative evolves. However, we have no control over the variables we can’t anticipate – all of the other emotional factors that come into play.

There’s always a variable when dealing with human beings. We are incredibly complex sensitive souls, and no matter how you think a relationship is defined by parameters, those can always evolve, so we need to be invested in other people. We need to fall in love and we need to go to those places, but we also need to equip ourselves in understanding how fragile other people are. If we don’t, there’s bound to be consequences.”

You can read more about this interesting, often unsettling film by clicking here.

Joseph Lawson, Genre Director – An Interview

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

I have an interview out this morning with Joseph Lawson, director of the forthcoming film Ardennes Fury.

As I note in my introduction to the interview, “Joseph Lawson is an American filmmaker who is an unabashed special effects fan, action movie enthusiast, and utterly pragmatic about how films get made today in a rapaciously competitive environment. He’s a commercial filmmaker, working in Hollywood, making films as entertainment. Along the way, he’s getting more and more of his own vision into his work, even as he struggles against tight deadlines and tighter budgets.

We first made contact when I wrote an article for Film International that was sharply critical of The Asylum, the company Lawson works for. Lawson responded in the comments section without the slightest bit of rancor, and suggested that we correspond about the production of his latest film, just wrapped a few days ago, Ardennes Fury. It’s his fifth film as a director.

Yes, Ardennes Fury is indebted to David Ayers’ big budget film Fury coming out later this Fall from Columbia Pictures; yes, you could call this another “tie-in” film from The Asylum, but at the same time, Lawson is absolutely sincere about what he’s doing, and all that the films really share is a similar title; they’re really two absolutely different projects.

Like American International Pictures in the 1950s and 60s, The Asylum makes commercial films for a price, and as Lawson makes clear, they don’t use interns or students – they just can’t stand the pace at the studio. Like it or not, The Asylum has a vision all its own. So what’s it like to make films in the Hollywood trenches today? Here’s a chance to find out, first hand.”

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

The Most Prolific Director in American Film History

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

This unassuming man made more films during the classical Hollywood era than any other director.

As I wrote about Sam Newfield a number of years ago in Senses of Cinema, “Sam Newfield is, in all probability, the most prolific director in American sound-film history, but very little archival material survives on his career. The director of more than 250 feature films, as well as numerous shorts and television series episodes, in a career that spanned four decades, from 1923 to 1958, Newfield leaves behind him only his work on the set; next to nothing is known of his personal life. However, using conversations with Sigmund Neufeld, Jr., and Stanley Neufeld, the sons of Sam Newfield (born Neufeld)’s brother Sigmund Neufeld (all quotes from them in this essay are from these interviews), as well as materials from the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, I was able to piece together a rough sketch of the man behind such a torrential output of work.

Comedies, musicals, westerns, horror films, jungle pictures, crime dramas, espionage thrillers – Sam Newfield did them all, often on budgets of less than $20,000 per feature, and shooting schedules of as little as three days. But, as Martin Scorsese notes, watching Newfield’s work is hard, because he often seems absolutely detached from the images that appear on the screen, as if he is an observer rather than a participant. Then, too, the conditions of extreme economy that Newfield labored under created a pressure-cooker environment in which the ultimate goal of all his films was simply to get them done on time and under budget. Nevertheless, as arguably the most prolific auteur in American motion-picture history, Newfield deserves mention and brief examination as one of the key ’second-rung’ directors of 1940s Hollywood, Newfield’s most productive era.”

Since then, Neil Roughley has compiled a staggeringly complete filmography; check it out here.

Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Howard Hawks directs Land of the Pharaohs on location in Egypt, 1955.

Land of the Pharaohs was Howard Hawks’ most ambitiously spectacular film, even if he did bring it in with a tight 55 day shooting schedule at a cost of only $3.15 million, still about a million over budget. Yet this truly lavish film, which might seem on the surface to have much in common with such other 1950s spectacles as The Robe, Ben Hur, and other equally oversize films – right down to the aspect ratio in which the film was shot, CinemaScope – was a resounding failure at the box office – the only Hawks film ever to lose money, despite a script that was principally authored by Hawks’ old pal, William Faulkner.

When asked by Cahiers du Cinema why he made the film in the first place, Hawks replied simply “CinemaScope” – he wanted a chance to work in the widescreen format on a suitably ambitious project. But in its tale of the ancient Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins), who is obsessed with building a pyramid tomb that is “robber proof” from the outset of the narrative, just one theme hangs over the film; death, and the uncertainty of what awaits one in the next world, if there is one.

To achieve this, Khufu enlists a captive slave, Vashtar (James Robertson Justice) to build a tomb whose design is so ingenious that no one can possibly break in. Vashtar, in return for the freedom of his people once the task is accomplished, creates such a design, which closes in on itself when a series of clay jars filled with sand are broken, moving huge stone blocks to seal the pyramid for eternity. Khufu approves the design, and the work gets underway, but as the years pass, Khufu becomes are even more obsessed, more brutal, and more ruthless in his quest for gold, so that the pyramid becomes not only a monument to his life, but also to the boundless greed that has informed it.

Hawkins struts about with the proper degree of arrogance and pomp as Khufu, and Joan Collins is remarkably good as the nefarious Princess Nellifer, who plots to kill Khufu’s first wife and her son so that she can ascend to the throne. But her plans come to naught as, with Khufu’s death, she is buried alive – much to her surprise – along with Khufu’s willing servants in a gigantic pyramid that is indeed “robber proof,” from which there is no possible means of escape.

Why was the film a failure? Hawks put it down to a lack of a “star” cast, and the fact that “I don’t know how a Pharaoh talks. And Faulkner didn’t know. None of us knew. We thought it’d be an interesting story, the building of a pyramid, but then we had to have a plot, and we didn’t really feel close to any of it,” but there’s more to it than that. Of all of Hawks’ films, this is easily the most despairing, and in the end, there’s no character that inspires even a vestige of sympathy, and the film’s penultimate shot; the pyramid, sealed, sitting silently atop the sand, where tens of thousands of slaves had once toiled night and day to build it, is both chilling and distancing.

I admire the film tremendously, just as I admire most of Hawks’ work, especially when one considers his effortlessly multi-genre career, encompassing everything from His Girl Friday to Red River to the unsigned The Thing From Another World to The Big Sleep and numerous stops in-between. But Land of The Pharaohs offers such a bleak vision of human existence that audiences of the time simply couldn’t relate to it, and yet it retains much of its power today, and stands as a unique accomplishment in Hawks’ long career.

But Hawks knew, however, that as a commercial filmmaker he had failed. As a result, he wandered through Europe for the next four years, uncertain as to his next film, or the direction his career was taking, until he teamed with John Wayne on a traditional western – a genre he knew well – for Rio Bravo in 1959. But Rio Bravo, despite its enormous critical reputation, is really a film that takes very few risks. In Land of the Pharaohs, nothing is certain, especially life after death, which is more than a little ironic since the entire film is concerned with preparing, in essence, for a funeral.

In one telling exchange, Khufu tells Vashtar that if he builds the pyramid for him, he will have to kill him to ensure that the secret of the tomb’s construction dies with him; but that as a reward, Vashtar may also build an equally ornate pyramid for himself, stocked with food, jewels and gold so that Vashtar can enjoy the afterlife in equally luxurious fashion as Khufu is sure that he will. Vashtar replies that he has no belief in life after death, and instead bargains – successfully – for the lives of his people now, and in the end, it’s only the slaves who survive after years of privation, while the wealthy perish in an air tight tomb.

Such a film can’t hope to catch fire with the public imagination, but it’s a nihilist masterpiece nonetheless.

Ardennes Fury

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

Joseph Lawson’s new film, Ardennes Fury, is nearing completion.

Some time ago, I wrote an article in the journal Film International on the Hollywood production house The Asylum, famous for its “tie in” or “mockbuster” movies, as well as frankly commercial fare such as Sharknado. In response, I got a stack of comments from various viewers, but also two from Asylum insiders – one, an anonymous freelancer who worked on numerous Asylum films, describing in the detail the day-to-day process of making a film for the company; and the other from Joseph Lawson, supervisor of special visual effects for The Asylum, with over fifty projects to his credit, with a comment on his forthcoming film, Ardennes Fury. It seems only fair to note that this is yet another “tie in” film from The Asylum, clearly inspired by the new Brad Pitt World War II action film Fury, directed by David Ayer, coming out this October, but still, it seems clear that Lawson is deeply involved in the project.

As Lawson wrote in the comments section, “so, the question was posited, what will happen when The Asylum makes a ‘good’ film, something character driven with a heart and soul? May I humbly offer that folks give Ardennes Fury a look-see when it’s released in October or November. It’s a World War 2 drama and while certainly not perfect there’s a lot of heart and sheer effort that went into making it the best it could be in its short road from creation to release. I’ll be genuinely curious to see what the viewer reaction is and what it portends for future such storytelling from The Asylum. By the way, in the interest of transparency, yes, I directed it; and yes, I’m the VFX supervisor at The Asylum, so I’m probably a tad bit biased.”

Which is perfectly OK; why not publicize your own work? In the meantime, clicking on the image above, or here, will take you to the Facebook page for the film – as much as I dislike Facebook, as readers of this blog know – and I’ve put in a request to interview Lawson once the film is delivered, so we’ll see what happens. A clip from the film should be forthcoming in a few days. Anyway, if you read my original article, you’ll see that while I admire The Asylum’s industry, their product leaves a lot to be desired, but I hope this film is a step forward.

In style, if not plot, the film reminds me of Burt Topper’s Tank Commandos (1959) – another film made with no money, but a lot of heart – so I hope that same sense of urgency plays out here. Topper’s film was a clean, economical and tightly focused war film, and I’m even more impressed that Lawson plans to release Ardennes Fury not only in color, but also in widescreen black and white – clearly the best choice for the project. It would be nice to see The Asylum do something which made money, satisfied genre requirements, and still had some sense of artistic integrity. Even though Ardennes Fury follows in the shadow of a much larger film, this is obviously a personal project for Lawson, and I hope it works.

You can “like” the Ardennes Fury page by clicking here, or on the image above.

John Flaus on Film and Television Acting

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

Mia Wasikowska and John Flaus in John Curran’s film Tracks (2014)

Although his name may be unfamiliar to American audiences, John Flaus has been a major force in Australian cinema since the 1960s, as well as key figure in the rise of Film Studies in Australia in academe. As Wikipedia summarizes his career, Flaus “attended Sydney University as an undergraduate from 1953 to 1971, eventually attaining a B.A. degree. Flaus has been active in the film society movement since 1953, and published his first film reviews in 1954. In the 1960s, he was a member of the Sydney University Film Group and the WEA Film Study Group with such notable people as Frank Moorhouse, Michael Thornhill, John Baxter and Ken Quinnell. He has lectured on film at various tertiary institutions, was Head of Education at the AFTRS, and designed the original Cinema Studies course at La Trobe University in 1970, the first of its kind in Australia. He became a professional actor in 1977 and has over 100 credits in theatre, film and television.”

While his influence in cinema as an actor is undeniable, what makes Flaus’s career all the more remarkable is the degree of thought and intelligence that goes into his work – whether the project at hand be a television movie or a feature film, he gives his all to every project he’s in. More importantly, he was able to articulate – brilliantly – the entire process of film and television acting. In a detailed article in Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture 5.2 (1990), edited by Adrian Martin, entitled “Thanks For Your Heart, Bart,” Flaus described both what it is like to work on various film projects, and why film acting is so very different than acting on stage.

As he put it, “Everybody is an actor, each of us wears a mask – except for saints and simpletons. Our motives may be several: affectation, emulation, defense, attack, manipulation, self-indulgence. We select our own role, choose when and where to perform (thereby selecting our audience), write or improvise our own scenario, decide how much is too much and when to stop. Each of us is the sole recipient of full satisfaction and (hopefully) understanding of our own performance. If we misunderstand we come to believe in the Role and mistake it for the Self; we are in ‘bad faith’ as we delude ourselves. The situation chooses us and we become misguided critics of our own acting.

The vocational actor must put himself at the disposal of other intelligences, other values, other strategies; and must simulate emotions germane to an imaginary situation which is the product of someone else’s imagining. The psychology of the vocational actor’s practice is radically different from that of everyday ’social acting’; his technique requires more skills, his psychology requires stronger discipline.

The historical origins of vocational acting cannot be dated accurately; it may be two and a half millennia since drama detached from ritual. Four centuries have passed since European drama became ‘theater’, its production commercial, acting professional and commentary influential. In this phase the text of the play was ‘company property’. Commentators drew upon ancient precepts and contemporary prejudices, and their comments were published.

Drama theory had little to say about acting theory, which did not become a topic in the public domain until the Romantic backlash to industrialism and absolutism, when the term ‘art’ acquired its current predication and yielded its old territory to ‘craft’. Before that, theory of acting had been virtually a guild secret. I think it reasonable to assume that most of such theory was pragmatic and normative. The advice I am going to offer later in this article will fit that description, too.

Nowadays theory of acting makes it into print for the general reader (‘at all good bookstores’), yet radical differences between live drama and photographed drama are not widely understood or practiced. Often film actors are undeservedly blamed – and praised – for creative decisions made by other artists: directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, designers, editors.

Much of the art and some of the craft of the stage actor provide the basis for the film actor’s practice. Most actors come to film work after some stage experience, and with some stage preconceptions and traditions. There are still things to learn – and maybe some to unlearn, depending on how ‘filmic’ the particular film or TV drama is.

Because the vocation of stage acting is so long established, rich in expertise and lore, and its virtues more widely understood than those of film acting, I will delineate my concern with my topic – film acting – by frequent reference to what it is not – stage acting.” Essential reading; my sincere thanks to Adrian Danks for bringing Flaus’s critical work to my attention.

This is brilliant writing; you can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

A World of Constant Peril: Seriality, Narrative, and Closure

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International on the impact of serials on contemporary cinema.

As I write, in part, “What are we watching now at the movies, or on television or Netflix for that matter? Serials – though now they’re called franchises, or mini-series, or ‘cable dramas,’ but they have the same structure, and the same limitations, the same narrative predictability. What will happen, for example, in the next episode of Game of Thrones? Who will be slaughtered, who will survive, who will make yet another grab for power? What scheme will the fictional Walter White (Bryan Cranston) come up with in the next episode of the recently concluded Breaking Bad? You’ll just have to tune in next week and find out, because all we’re leaving you with this week is an open ended ‘conclusion’ – whatever happens next, we’re not telling. But then again, when the trap is finally sprung, are the results all that surprising? Yet you keep coming back, week after week. You can’t stop watching . . .

And yet, unlike any other structural format in commercial cinema, even the theatrical cartoon, the original iteration of the motion picture serial has vanished from contemporary view. Nevertheless, when one compares both the overall narrative structure of these chapter plays, as well as the elaborate fight scenes, exoticist sets, and – despite what some may say – the absolutely one-dimensional nature of the characters, one can easily see where the films in the current Marvel or DC ‘universe’ came from – starting, of course, with the original Star Wars film in 1977, which was transparently formatted as a serial, replete with opening crawl title receding endlessly into infinity, and even an “episode number,” as if the entire film was just one section of a sprawling epic – which indeed it ultimately was.

Comic-Con, which now dominates the commercial film industry, with, for the most part the empty escapism of such films as James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – the runaway hit of the current summer – doesn’t want to admit it, but the truth of the matter is that these are films for children, as the serials were, and were relegated, in the 1940s and 50s, to Saturday morning entertainment. No one who made them had any illusions about them, and though they contained both the template for most contemporary Hollywood action and superhero films, they were designed to exist at the margins of the theatrical world, as something for adolescents to view before moving on to more demanding fare. Today, that more ‘demanding’ cinema has all but vanished, as comic book cinema moves to the mainstream, and erases nearly everything else.”

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

Netflix and National Cinemas

Monday, August 25th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

How to Cast Bill Murray in Your Movie

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

Waaaaaay back in 1976, when I was living in Los Angeles, I helped Bill Murray cut his demo reel for SNL.

I walked in the door, looking for a job, and Bill was just a young and up-and-coming comic in those days, looking for his big shot. We met in an editing room, where I was auditioning for a job as an editor, which I eventually got, and my first assignment was to help Bill cut the demo reel for a short film entitled “The World’s Largest Car Wash,” directed by the late Harold Ramis, in which Bill played two characters; a fast talking sharpie on an “on” ramp overlooking the LA freeway, pretending that all the cars were coming to his car wash; and a sort of precursor to his character in Groundhog Day, his idiot brother, who actually ran the business. It was about four minutes long, we cut it in a matter of hours, it came out quite well, and of course, he got the job.

We were all working at TVTV, short for Top Value Television, where Bill was joined by Harold Ramis, Michael Shamberg and a host of other talented people who were creating off the wall television that was way ahead of the norms of the era. Bill, of course, went on to SNL, and thence to a whole string of movies, which gradually became deeper as he went along in his career, with films like Broken Flowers, Lost in Translation, and his latest film, St. Vincent. His powers as an actor have only grown over the years, and he’s doing some of the best work of his entire career right now.

As is well known, Bill marches to a very different drummer, and has no agent or contact in LA, just a 1 800 telephone number where hopefuls can leave messages to try and get him for their films, which eventually leads to actual contact if Bill thinks the project is right. For St. Vincent, it was a long and arduous process to get him to come on board, for as the director Theodore Melfi told Entertainment Weekly writer Anthony Breznican “you know what the truth is? You don’t find Bill Murray. Bill ­Murray finds you.”

As Melfi told Breznican, Murray “finds everything he’s supposed to be involved in by not chasing anything. If it’s supposed to happen, the person will hound him until it happens, or he’ll run into them at a bar or restaurant. He has a zen-like protocol in regard to what he does and doesn’t do.” Oh, and the last time I saw Bill was in 1980, so don’t ask me how to get in touch with him. I don’t know!

You can read Melfi’s whole amazing saga by clicking here, or on the image above.

At DuArt Lab in New York, Thousands of “Orphan” Films

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

More proof, as if any were needed, of the fragility of film as an artistic medium.

As John Anderson writes in The New York Times, “the Midtown Manhattan building that houses DuArt, the premiere hatchery of American independent cinema for about 70 years, is 12 stories high. The elevator only goes to the 11th floor. To reach DuArt’s rooms of wonder, you need to take the stairs.

On the top floor, in one musty, institutional-green room after another, hundreds of film cans are stacked, floor to ceiling, each negative bearing the name of a long-gone production company, an obscure director or a title that may as well read ‘Dead End.’ This repository of broken dreams is also an orphanage, for movies awaiting adoption. Who made all these films? DuArt wonders the same thing.

With the rise of digital filmmaking and the subsequent demise of celluloid, DuArt in 2010 closed its photochemical division, which developed negatives and struck prints. At that point, DuArt had about 60,000 cans of film in its warren of vaults.

‘I have trouble throwing away film,’ the company’s chairman, Irwin Young, said. His father founded the company in 1922. ‘We never threw anything away. It’s because we were film people.’

Films by Woody Allen, James Ivory, Ang Lee, Gordon Parks, Tom DiCillo, Spike Lee, Susan Seidelman and more have been spoken for, but others remain unclaimed and the trail has gone cold on many of them, said Steve Blakely, a former DuArt vice president who has continued to track down filmmakers since 2010.”

Click here, or on the image above, to view the entire story; essential reading.

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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