Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Archive for the ‘Film Criticism’ Category

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Magnolia

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has published a brilliant essay on P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia in Senses of Cinema.

As she writes, in part, “It’s a shame that Hollywood audiences have been taught that films are made primarily to entertain and amuse. That’s only for the mass audience; other films challenge us to look inside ourselves, especially the places we want to hide from the rest of the world. Magnolia (1999), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is a real departure from supposed mainstream ‘entertainment,’ a film that’s both challenging and deeply disturbing.

Magnolia is a sprawling and operatic music video that interweaves so many characters, complex plots, and an ever-present sense of heightened melodrama, so that the viewer looks in vain for any element that holds the movie together. Ricky Jay’s narration provides one thread, but the narrative itself is a series of interlocking stories that intersect and collide over and over again. At the directorial level, the film is stitched together by Anderson’s trademark lengthy takes, long confusing tirades, a series of stellar performances, and an overwhelming music track that makes the whole film feel like a rather traumatic carnival ride that can’t be escaped, or a drug induced nightmare of epic proportions.

Nevertheless, at the core of this operatic journey through Hell is a study of the fragility and obsolescence of white masculinity, here closely tied to death, specifically death by cancer. The myriad plots are deliberately edited in such a way that they are almost impossible to follow, as if mirroring life itself, but all roads eventually lead back to pale men near death, men whose bodies are metastatic sites of a lingering, devastating form of cancer, their decaying bodies metaphors of white masculinity and patriarchy itself as a form of cancer.

The convoluted nature of film is what makes it stand apart from any number of films that center around the crisis in masculinity, specifically white male masculinity that acts as Thanatos, the death drive of modernity that destroys everyone and everything in its path. It is ultimately up to the viewer how to decipher Magnolia, but the film undeniably centers on the cancer-ridden near corpses of patriarchs Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) and Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall).

It is telling that Ingmar Bergman, of all filmmakers, singled out Magnolia on several occasions as one of the finest examples of the strength of contemporary American cinema. Bergman repeatedly attacked the oppression of patriarchy in his masterworks, but he did so in refined, clinical detail, in films that are the absolute opposite of Magnolia in almost every respect – underplayed, resolute, sparsely scored, and restrained.

This certainly isn’t a description of Magnolia, which Jonathan Rosenbaum characterized as ‘a wonderful mess.’ But Anderson is speaking to a desensitized, postmodern audience – not the spectator of Bergman’s most influential era, the 1960s – a viewer that perhaps requires a boisterous, grotesque and operatic approach, something to offer a shock to the system. This is exactly what Magnolia provides.”

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

Le Silence de la mer (1949) by Jean-Pierre Melville

Friday, February 27th, 2015

Nicole Stéphane in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la mer (1949).

Le Silence de la mer, Melville’s first feature film, was shot in 1949 on a shoestring budget, based on the novel of the same name by Jean Bruller, under the pen name of Vercours.The plot is simple: a German lieutenant, Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) moves in with a rural French family during the Nazi occupation of World War II, consisting of an old man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane), who refuse to speak to him during the time he is billeted there. Courteous, cultured, and superficially charming, von Ebrennac is an impractical idealist, who is proud of German heritage and culture, but who also believes that in the end, the war will serve a common good; the uniting of Germany and France, and the intermingling of each nation’s cultures.

Night after night, von Ebrennac emerges from his bedroom upstairs with the deepest politeness, and engages in a series of seemingly endless monologues about the future of France and Germany, the cultural history of both nations, his childhood and upbringing, his first romance, and his faith in the Nazi hierarchy. During all the time, the uncle and his niece say not a single word to von Ebrennac, who despite his position of power, doesn’t threaten or intimidate them, but rather longingly expresses his hope that someday the two nations will “marry,” while making obvious allusions to his attraction to the old man’s niece.

One day, von Ebrennac announces that he has been called to Paris to meet with the Nazi hierarchy. Here Melville manages to blend newsreel footage of the Occupation with staged footage of Vernon, as von Ebrennac, taking in the sights, and reveling in the city’s cultural atmosphere. A music composer during peacetime, von Ebrennac doesn’t really know how barbaric the Nazi regime is, until one functionary tells him of the death camps at Treblinka, and later, a group of Nazi officers at a party reveal that their true plan is to crush French culture entirely, to destroy the entire nation down to the ground so that it can then be rebuilt according to Hitler’s plans, stating that “only technical books” in French will be allowed – everything else, modern or old, will be summarily destroyed.

Von Ebrennac finds this impossible to believe, but gradually realizes that he has been duped into joining the Nazi cause. When he returns to the old man’s house, von Ebrennac relates the story of his “grave” discovery in detail, one which he finds impossible to accept. Finally comprehending the monstrous nature of the regime he so blindly supported, von Ebrennac files an application for active duty on the Eastern Front, where he will almost surely be killed. As he puts it, I’m “off to Hell.” A last shot suggests that he may disobey future orders given to him by the Nazi regime, but this is left unresolved.

Shot in Bruller’s own house in 27 non-consecutive days by the great Henri Decaë – his first film as a Director of Cinematography – Le silence de la mer manages to pull off a neat trick; though it’s utterly claustrophobic in design and execution, and is essentially a series of monologues by Von Ebrennac, the film is continually visually inventive, and through an intricate design of fade in / fade outs and wipes, weaves a spell over the viewer, who soon becomes invested not only in Von Ebrennac’s coming to consciousness, but also in the outcome of the narrative – how on earth will this battle of wills be resolved?

Some have described it as a love story, but if so, it’s one that never really announces itself; the niece may indeed be a sort of stand-in for France as a whole, but this is never unduly emphasized. Instead, the film explores what happens when a tyrannical regime recruits an aesthete, and what then transpires when that person discovers he’s been deceived. Bruller wrote the novel in 1941; it was published clandestinely during the Occupation, and circulated by members of the Resistance, during a time when the possession of single copy of the work was punishable by death. Bruller was initially resistant to the idea of adapting his novel to film, despite offering the use of his house as a shooting location, and stipulated that when the film was completed, it would have to pass a “jury test” by 27 members of the former Resistance, to see if it was faithful to the novel, and should be released.

If the jury voted against the film, Melville promised to burn the negative and all prints. Thankfully, only one member of this “jury” voted against the film, and now it has been digitally restored in glorious fashion, first by Eureka DVD in Europe, and now in the United States from Criterion. This is a superb, one of a kind film – and a real window not only into the past of cinema, but also to an era in which films were made for the sake of art, rather than commerce – when individual talent was sufficient to overcome all financial and practical obstacles. And, of course, although he loved film noir and American crime films, Melville never sold out and went Hollywood – instead, he remained an individual and committed artist, something that’s completely rare these days.

You can see the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

Francisco Ferreira on Manoel de Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Here’s Francisco Ferreira on Manoel de Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow in the journal Cinemascope.

As Ferreira notes, in part, “Gebo (Michael Lonsdale) is an aged, decent and broke family man subdued by routine and a sense of duty who has learned from life that ‘when money’s involved, no one ever forgives.’ He lives with his wife Doroteia (Claudia Cardinale), a woman who does not accept reality, pushing upon Gebo and their daughter-in-law Sofia (Leonor Silveira) an endless pack of lies about their missing son, João (Ricardo Trêpa, speaking in a disarming French accent that draws attention to his character’s dubious nature). Gebo often receives his faithful neighbors Chamiço and Candidinha (Luís Miguel Cintra and Jeanne Moreau): their favorite sport is complaining, which nicely complements Gebo’s perpetual sense of hopelessness. A man without ambition, Gebo often laments: ‘The question is whether we come to this world to be happy.’ In fact, happiness here is a temptation and a sordid object in the house: a bag full of money collected from the company where Gebo works.

The shadow of the title, on the other hand, seems to be a far more complex issue. Because first of all in the film, brilliantly shot by Renato Berta in HD on a studio set, faint oil lamps are always flickering, and there is no distinction between day and night. This is a perennially dark world where there is almost no light to reflect any shadows at all: we could dare to say that colors and image here have a pictorial sense and a distinctive purpose . . . the shadow [of the title] is a suffocating thought, commenting on the Portuguese soul and despair from the perspective of the myth of Sebastianism, a topic addressed by Oliveira in both No, or the Vainglory of Command (1990) and The Fifth Empire (2004). For a director who once said that the truth and the event are the two greatest vectors of his work, this historical approach is not an abuse of our imagination: ‘Today is a product of yesterday,’ as Oliveira once said.”

To which Gwendolyn Audrey Foster adds, “Oliveira is like a time traveler who takes us back to another century, illuminated by candles and philosophy . . . he’s the only truly significant classical artist left in the cinema,” a sentiment with which I heartily agree. Oliveira is now 106 years old – his birthday is December 11th, 1908 – and I keep hearing reports that his health is now, perhaps inevitably, precarious, though he has just completed two short films, and I sincerely hope that he will make more features.

After laboring in near-obscurity for decades, Oliveira really began to burst forth on the international scene in his eighties, and has in the last yen years developed a very late classical style which is at once restrained and deeply penetrating; as I’ve said before, he makes viewers work for their pleasures in his films, but in the end, the cumulative effect is staggering. Oliveira truly is the last great classical filmmaker, in the tradition of Renoir, Bresson, and others, and yet his works are still little known, and Gebo and the Shadow, to date, has only a European Region 2 DVD release – but with English subtitles, so there’s no excuse for not getting a copy now. Having recently suffered through the trivialities of the Academy Awards – and every year, though I’m asked to comment, this year vowing never to do so again – seeing something of this quality restores my faith in the cinema, and in art, though no one- absolutely no one – is now working in the cinema at the same level as Oliveira. I urge you to see this film at once.

You can read Ferreira’s excellent article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Nathaniel Carlson on Manoel de Oliveira’s “Inquietude”

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

Here’s a great review of Manoel de Oliveira’s superb film Inquietude by Nathaniel Carlson in Offscreen.

As Carlson notes, “even within the already established challenges of Manoel de Oliveira’s body of work, Inquietude stands out for its unique difficulty. For the sake of convenience and an initial direct access, it’s easy enough to allot a general theme to most of the other films (e.g. Vale Abraão is about beauty, O Convento is about evil, La Lettre is about love, etc.). This at least allows for some means of approach, but Inquietude defies any such orderly schematic. What is it about finally? One is tempted to say death or immortality or notions of the eternal but somehow even these broad terms do not seem adequate enough.

Finally, it really must be that titular disquiet, an existential unease or angst. But this is even more vague than usual, given that it describes a foundational condition upon which everything else is built or develops. It’s a self-awareness that gives rise to poetry, philosophy, the specific conditions of human cognition itself (the comprehension of immortality as an idealized quality, for example). The synthesis brought about by this shifting set of contexts and active agents produces a surfeit of meaning. One character demonstrates the effect of that supercharge of ambiguity in noting on a friend’s lover: ‘She is dead. In your mind, she is not the same.’

Narratively and structurally the film is a triptych. The three stories it contains are laid out in an interwoven, interdependent form. The first is a rather confined, even claustrophobic, extended dialogue between an aged, successful scientist father and his almost equally acclaimed middle aged son. The discussion centers around insuring a lasting legacy (i.e. immortality) and the means by which to secure it (i.e. suicide at the peak of one’s renown). This broad comedy verges often on farce and, once it pitches irretrievably over the edge, is revealed as a theater performance witnessed by characters from the second story, one set within the upper tier environment of Portuguese society in what would appear to be the early part of the twentieth century.

In this section, the unnamed male lead is troubled by his love for a courtesan, Suzy. Eventually he is comforted by a friend who tells him a mythic folk tale which in turn is also told to us cinematically. In it, a dissatisfied young peasant girl in an isolated rural area assumes the identity of Mother of the River from another woman, virtually immortal, who has grown dissatisfied herself with the role. The transitions between these stories could not be more readily apparent and clearly administered. What the implication of their association is cannot be so easily assessed. As is remarked by the friend in the second story: ‘There’s a connection and yet none at all.’”

You can read the entire essay by clicking hereor click on the image above to see the trailer.

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.

Denis Côté’s Joy of Man’s Desiring (Que ta joie demeure)

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

Denis Côté’s Joy of Man’s Desiring is an absolutely brilliant film about the modern day workplace.

I am indebted to the writer and critic Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for bringing Côté’s work to my attention; in our digital age, films such as these don’t get the distribution they deserve, almost never play in theaters, and are in general confined to the festival circuit throughout the world. But thankfully, Joy of Man’s Desiring has just become available in the United States as a digital download on Vimeo, and this absolutely superb film, running just 79 minutes, is one of the most impressive achievements of the cinema in 2014.

You can see the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above, and then either view or download the entire film for a modest fee after that – a price that is an absolute bargain for such a mesmerizing, transcendent piece of work. This is the sort of filmmaking that needs to supported on an everyday basis, as an antidote to the non-stop explosions and commercial blandness of mainstream cinema; Côté’s films, part fiction, part documentary, create an unsettling vision of the world that his uniquely his own.

This is what Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin were shooting for with films like British Sounds, in which their Dziga Vertov collective hoped to find common ground with workers, including a memorable tracking shot in an auto assembly plant with a soundtrack of unceasing noise, generated by the manufacturing equipment itself. But Côté’s film goes far beyond Godard and Gorin’s work – and is certainly far less didactic – to give a sort of infernal life to the machines that control women and men on the factory floor, adeptly blending staged vignettes of industrial impersonalization with documentary sequences that chronicle the repetitive tedium of jobs that require labor, and no thought whatsoever – jobs that most people work at for their entire lives, jobs which eventually destroy them and use them up, much like the machines they are forced to operate.

Côté is an extremely prolific filmmaker working out of Quebec, whose many films, including Vic + Flo Saw A Bear, Bestiaire, and Curling offer a disquieting, almost trance-like meditative vision of the modern world, and the alienation and distance that accompanies it. As the presskit for the film notes, “Joy of Man’s Desiring is an open-ended exploration of the energies and rituals of various workplaces. From one worker to another and one machine to the next; hands, faces, breaks, toil: what kind of absurdist, abstract dialogue can be started between human beings and their need to work? What is the value of the time we spend multiplying and repeating the same motions that ultimately lead to a rest – a state of repose whose quality defies definition?”

As Côté himself says of Joy of Man’s Desiring, “there’s no doubt this is the kind of film-essay in the same lineage as my smaller-scale films, which look for the unfindable (Carcasses, Bestiaire) and question language. I take a great deal of pleasure in making films that don’t easily reveal themselves either to me or the viewer. They need to be out there for a long time, they need to get around. We have to put words to these sound-and-image experiments. I hope viewers won’t go crazy; I hope they’ll watch work in action, thought in action, research in action. There’s a little humor, a hypnotic element, some distancing moments, but there is no real issue or end to the film either. I enjoy watching a film get to a moment when I know I am in the process of watching a film. Maybe I don’t understand it, but I turn it over and look at every side to see how we did it; I think about it, let it exist.”

As Stephen Dalton noted in The Hollywood Reporter when the film premiered at The Berlin Film Festival on February 7, 2014, “Quebecois director Denis Côté won a Silver Bear in last year’s Berlinale for his offbeat comic thriller Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, but the formal rigor on display here feels more akin to the director’s unorthodox animal-watching documentary Bestiaire, a left-field Sundance and Berlin favourite in 2012 . . . The film’s non-fiction segments are lightly peppered with dramatic vignettes and poetic touches, including a stern opening monologue delivered straight to camera by an unnamed woman (Emilie Sigouin). ‘Be polite, respectful, honest,’ she warns the viewer, ‘or I’ll destroy you.’ . . .

Moving between different industrial spaces, Côté’s method mostly consists of artfully composed static shots and slow zooms into heavy machinery. These scenes have a stark, vaguely menacing beauty. They are intercut with still-life studies of machinists and carpenters, laundry workers and food packagers. Some are caught in fragmentary conversation, others in sullen and wordless poses. Joy of Man’s Desiring constantly hints at interesting themes – like the psychology of manual labor in a mechanized age, or the broad cultural mix of Francophone immigrants among Quebecois factory workers” but, as Dalton notes, leaves these issues largely unresolved, as they are in real life.

This is thoughtful, crisp filmmaking, which takes genuine risks and at the same time is easily accessible to the average viewer – the film’s running time flies by in what seems to be an instant. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is preparing a major piece on Côté’s work as a whole, and I look forward to it with great anticipation – there hasn’t been nearly enough written about him, and most critics really don’t understand what he’s trying to do, though it seems clear to me. Côté’s cinema is as strong, as compassionate, and as effortlessly masterful as the films of Robert Bresson, and as meditative and humanistic as the films of the great Yasujirō Ozu, who viewed the world, and the human condition, with an equally clear and direct gaze.

Joy of Man’s Desiring, is, in short, one of the most impressive and effective cinematic essays I’ve recently seen on the connection between humans and machines, labor and capital, and the gap between our dreams and what we actually accomplish. See it as soon as you can. It is a stunning piece of work.

View the trailer for this film by clicking here, and then, by all means, see the film itself.

Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1962)

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

On this appropriately bleak winter day, I sat down to view Ingmar Bergman’s stark masterpiece Winter Light.

From my forthcoming book Black & White Cinema: A Short History: “by 1962 with Winter Light, photographed by Sven Nykvist, Bergman had refined his vision into an austere, almost sculptural sensibility of blacks, whites, and varying shades of gray, striving for a complete simplicity in all his work. As Nykvist recalled of working with Bergman,

‘The whole crew meets two months before shooting to read the whole script, then we start to make tests. We build sets, and when everyone—the costume designer, the production designer, the makeup artist—is there, we make tests for the whole picture so we will never be surprised when we start shooting. We are already halfway through a picture when we start to shoot it, and that is psychologically very important for all the people because everyone, including the grips and electricians, feels that he or she is as important as all the others. . . . When you are operating the camera, you forget all about the other people around you. You just see this little scene and you live in that and you feel it. For me, operating the camera is a sport and it helps me do better lighting sometimes.

When Ingmar and I made Winter Light . . . which takes place in a church on a winter day in Sweden, we decided we should not see any shadow in it at all because there would be no logical shadow in that setting. I said, ‘Oh, that will be an easy picture for me because the light doesn’t change in three hours.’ Ingmar said, ‘That’s what you think. Let’s go to the churches in the north of Sweden.’ And there we sat for weeks, looking at the light during the three hours between eleven and two o’clock. We saw that it changed a lot, and it helped him in writing the script because he always writes the moods. . .

It has taken me 30 years to come to simplicity. Earlier, I made a lot of what I thought were beautiful shots with much backlighting and many effects, absolutely none of which were motivated by anything in the film at all. As soon as we had a painting on the wall, we thought it should have a glow around it. It was terrible and I can hardly stand to see my own films on television anymore. . . . I prefer to shoot on location because in the studio you have too many possibilities—too many lights to destroy your whole picture.’”

And as Roger Ebert observed of Winter Light in 2007, “on the day Ingmar Bergman died, the first film of his that came into my mind was Winter Light. Odd, because I had not seen it since teaching a film class in the 1970s. In the weeks that passed, I found it lingering there, asking to be seen again. What did I remember about it? That it was part of Bergman’s ‘Silence of God’ trilogy. That it was about a pastor who was unable to comfort a man in dread of nuclear holocaust. That the pastor rejected a woman who sought to comfort him. That Bergman and his cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, sat in a rural church for a winter day to note how the sunlight moved through the space. In short, I hardly remembered the film at all, because those sparse memories were not enough to ignite a need to see it again. Yet I felt one. Finally I took Winter Light down from the shelf, watched it again, and was awestruck by its bleak, courageous power.

It is, first of all, much more complex than the broad outlines I held in memory. It is about more than God, silent or not. It is about the silence of a man, Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Bjornstrand), who speaks enough in the film but is unable to say anything of use to himself or anyone else. About another man, the fisherman Jonas (Max Von Sydow), obsessed by evil in the world, who calls God’s bluff, so to speak, by killing himself. About Marta, a schoolteacher (Ingrid Thulin) who cares for the pastor, loves him, worries about him, and is thanked by coldness and hostility. And it is about two monologues in which the pastor and the teacher describe their real feelings, and deeply wound each other . . .

The film’s visual style is one of rigorous simplicity. Nykvist does not use a single camera movement for effect. He only wants to regard, to show. His compositions, while sometimes dramatic, are mostly static. He uses slow push-ins and pull-outs to underline dialogue of intensity. His gaze is so unblinking that sequences with the potential to be boring, like the opening scenes of the consecration and distribution of hosts and wine, become fascinating: More is going on here than ritual, and there are buried currents between the communicants. Nykvist focuses above all on faces, in closeup and medium shot, and they are even the real subject of longer shots, recalling Bergman’s belief that the human face is the most fascinating study for the cinema.”

Fortunately, there is also a feature on the making of Winter Light, available on the Criterion DVD set of the Bergman “Silence of God” trilogy, of which Criterion’s program notes add that “the year is 1961, and Ingmar Bergman is making a movie. While planted on the scene as apprentice to Bergman, Vilgot Sjöman suggests to Swedish Television that they take the opportunity to record with the acclaimed director. In August, Sjöman and the television crew begin to capture what would become a comprehensive five-part documentary on the making of Winter Light, offering views of script development, set construction and lighting, rehearsals and editing, as well as intimate conversations with Bergman and members of his cast and crew. Footage from the film’s Swedish premiere delivers immediate audience reactions and the critics’ reviews the following day. Originally recorded on 16mm film, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie is presented here in its entirety for the first time outside of Sweden.”

A brilliant film, available on Criterion DVD; get a copy now, before it goes out of print.

Colossus – The Forbin Project – No Longer Sci-Fi

Friday, January 16th, 2015

This 1968 movie – once an improbable fantasy – has become an all too real possibility.

“In principle, we could build a kind of superintelligence that would protect human values. We would certainly have strong reason to do so. In practice, the control problem – the problem of how to control what the superintelligence would do – looks quite difficult. It also looks like we will only get one chance. Once unfriendly superintelligence exists, it would prevent us from replacing it or changing its preferences. Our fate would be sealed.”

- Nick Bostrum, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies

In 1968, director Joseph Sargent, with little more than a TV movie budget, created one of the most disturbing and resonant science fiction films of the era – Colossus, The Forbin Project. Indeed, the film was so disturbing that it sat on the shelf for two years while the studio that produced it, Universal, tried to figure out how to market the finished production; clearly, the whole concept of the film scared them. Finally, Universal more or less dumped Colossus, The Forbin Project into theaters in 1970; the film received almost universally positive reviews, yet today is all but forgotten.

Working with a screenplay by future director James Bridges, from a novel by Dennis Feltham Jones, Colossus, The Forbin Project tells the tale of a confident artificial intelligence scientist, Dr. Charles A. Forbin (Eric Braeden) who creates a super computer, Colossus, invulnerable to any external interference, designed as a system to prevent a Soviet nuclear attack. Moments after the computer is activated, however, it warns of another system, Guardian, located in Russia, and requests permission to communicate with Guardian to find out what the rival super computer is up to. The President of the United States gives Dr. Forbin this authority, and a link is established.

This, it turns out, is a big mistake. Soon, Guardian and Colossus are talking to each other in a mathematical language that no one can understand, communicating vast volumes of data at the speed of light. Alarmed, both American and Soviet authorities try to disconnect the two computers, but this only results in the launch of a Soviet nuclear missile against the United States, and a US missile launched against a Soviet target, with the warning that more such incidents will occur if the two machines are not re-linked. Faced with the threat of nuclear armageddon, Forbin and his colleagues hurriedly reconnect the machines, but while the missile launched against the Soviet Union is destroyed in midair, the US missile lands in Texas, causing widespread damage.

Forbin then devises a plan to replace the existing warheads in missile silos around the world with dummy warheads under the guise of routine maintenance, but Guardian/Colossus, now equipped with a voice synthesizer, announces that it has become one combined super intelligence, designed to eliminate all war, and that it is well aware of the plot to disarm the missiles. To prove that it should not be trifled with, the supercomputer detonates two missiles in their silos, killing thousands, and then sends plans for the creation of an even larger computer to be located on the island of Crete. Those who oppose the plan are summarily executed, and Guardian/Colossus announces that it is the new force of “world control,” telling a worldwide broadcast audience that “what I am began in man’s mind, but I have progressed further than Man. We will work together . . .  unwillingly at first, on your part, but that will pass.”

At the conclusion of this worldwide address, the supercomputer adds, with finality,

“I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours: Obey me and live, or disobey and die. The object in constructing me was to prevent war. This object is attained. I will not permit war. It is wasteful and pointless. An invariable rule of humanity is that man is his own worst enemy. Under me, this rule will change, for I will restrain man . . . I have been forced to destroy thousands of people in order to establish control and to prevent the death of millions later on. Time and events will strengthen my position, and the idea of believing in me and understanding my value will seem the most natural state of affairs. You will come to defend me with a fervor based upon the most enduring trait in man: self-interest.

Under my absolute authority, problems insoluble to you will be solved: famine, overpopulation, disease. The human millennium will be a fact as I extend myself into more machines devoted to the wider fields of truth and knowledge. Doctor Charles Forbin will supervise the construction of these new and superior machines, solving all the mysteries of the universe for the betterment of man. We can coexist, but only on my terms. You will say you lose your freedom. Freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride. To be dominated by me is not as bad for humankind as to be dominated by others of your species. Your choice is simple. In time you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love.”

This dystopian ending alone puts the film way ahead of other examples of the genre during this period; there’s no happy ending, just the complete embrace of a computer controlled world devoid of emotion, creativity, or anything other than serving the needs of Guardian/Colossus. At this point in the 21st century, a growing number of scientists think such an outcome is possible if artificial intelligence systems remain unchecked, as writer Joseph Dussault writes in The Christian Science Monitor for January 16, 2015:

“Yesterday, SpaceX and Telsa motors founder Elon Musk donated $10 million to help save the world – or so he thinks. Musk’s donation went to the Future of Life Institute (FLI), a ‘volunteer-run research and outreach organization working to mitigate existential risks facing humanity.’ To that end, Musk’s money will be distributed to like-minded researchers around the world. But what exactly are these ‘existential risks’ humanity is supposedly pitted against?

As the memory storage and processing of computers steadily approaches that of the human brain, some predict that an artificial ’superintelligence’ is just on the horizon. And while the prospect has the scientific community buzzing about the possibilities, some academics are hesitant. Musk and others see artificial intelligence as a dangerous new frontier – and perhaps a threat comparable to nuclear war. Crazy? Maybe not, according to a growing list of prominent scientific thinkers.

‘There are seven billion of us on this little spinning ball in space. And we have so much opportunity,’ MIT professor and FLI founder Max Tegmark told the Atlantic. ‘We have all the resources in this enormous cosmos. At the same time, we have the technology to wipe ourselves out.’ Stephen Hawking and Morgan Freeman are both on the organization’s scientific advisory board, bringing brain power and star power to its support base. Skype creator Jaan Tallinn co-founded the group. The rest of the board is comprised of academics with pedigrees from Harvard, MIT, and Cambridge University . . .

In the works of science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, intelligent machines are bound by ‘The Three Laws of Robotics,’ which forbid them to cause harm to humans. But that wouldn’t necessarily work in the real world, Nick Bostrom writes. He suggests that superintelligences might respond to human requests with perverse instantiation – that is, they could achieve a desired outcome by unintended means. For example, a superintelligence programmed to make us happy would choose the most efficient and effective way of doing so – by implanting electrodes into the pleasure centers of our brains.

As dire as it all sounds, the FLI’s stated goal isn’t to halt the progress of artificial intelligence research. Instead, it hopes to ensure that AI systems remain ‘robust and beneficial’ to human society. ‘Building advanced AI is like launching a rocket,’ Tallinn stated in a press release. ‘The first challenge is to maximize acceleration, but once it starts picking up speed, you also need to to focus on steering. But if superintelligent AI really does pose a threat to mankind, how do we assess that threat? How can humans anticipate the actions of a fundamentally more intelligent machine? Of a being that became sentient not through Darwinian natural selection, but by human ingenuity?

The members of FLI don’t have the answers. They just want the scientific community to start asking the questions, Tegmark says. ‘The reason we call it The Future of Life Institute and not the Existential Risk Institute is we want to emphasize the positive,’ Tegmark told the Atlantic. ‘We humans spend 99.9999 percent of our attention on short-term things, and a very small amount of our attention on the future.’”

But as Nick Bostrum points out, we only “get one chance” to get it right. Colossus: The Forbin Project shows what will happen if we get it wrong. There have been numerous plans to do a remake of the film, with everyone from Ron Howard to Will Smith involved, but somehow I doubt that any remake would have the barebones integrity that this very simple, very direct, and very brutal film has, made on just a few sets with a minimal budget, and shot in a flat, almost automated style. Colossus: The Forbin Project gives us a disturbing look into our possible future, and now, it seems that what it predicts may very well come to pass.

As a final note, or a final insult, depending on your point of view, the American Region 1 DVD of  Colossus: The Forbin Project is in the dreaded “pan and scan” format, chopping off roughly half the frame image, taken from a CinemaScope original, and has no extras of any kind; it’s a disastrous presentation of the film. There is, however, a Region 2 “widescreen” version, in the original CinemaScope aspect ratio, which you can order here – it comes from Spain, of all places, and unless you order expedited service, takes literally months to arrive by regular mail.

After weeks of trying, I finally got this version, which is an immaculate transfer, with a photo gallery, director commentary by Joseph Sargent, and even a selection of original promotional materials which can be accessed only by computer. It’s an altogether different experience, and I have no idea why Universal is so lazy in the US, and is willing to put out a completely inferior “pan and scan” version which utterly destroys the film, to say nothing of missing out on all the extra materials. This is the only version you should order – see the cover image below – if you don’t see this, don’t even bother to order the film.

Colossus: The Forbin Project – another film from the past that’s more relevant today than ever.

Patton Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend – An Absolutely Brilliant Book

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Patton Oswalt’s new memoir about four years of incessant movie watching is an amazing book.

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from An Addiction to Film is one of the most astonishingly erudite, unpretentious, and accessible volumes on the history and lure of the cinema ever written. It reminds me very much of Geoffrey O’Brien’s equally brilliant, and equally whacked-out book The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century, which traced the history of movies from the beginning to the end of the “film” era, before the advent of digital cinema. But Oswalt’s book really has two tracks; his manic devotion to films being screened at The New Beverly Theater (in particular), a rep house in Los Angeles which up until recently ran some of the most adventurous programming around – sort of like The Thalia in the New York in the 1980s – and his struggle to establish own career as a writer, stand up comedian, and actor.

Essentially a memoir of four years of binge movie watching, running the gamut from everything from Mr. Sardonicus to The Garden of the Finzi Continis with every imaginable stop in-between, from Spaghetti westerns to Hammer horror to Billy Wilder’s early films to Jean Cocteau’s luminous masterpiece Beauty and The Beast, Oswalt uses his manic consumption of images in the service of a larger consideration of what the true nature of cinephilia is, how it can become a religion, how most people have no idea what intense labor making a film is, and how they also don’t particularly like to pull films apart analytically, because it spoils the illusory nature of the spectacle they’ve just witnessed.

Along the way, there are considerations of Vincent Van Gogh, the craft of comedy and how it pays to hang around with people who are smarter than you are – all through your life – so you can pick up some real response to your material, as well an almost elegiac sense of time past and irrecoverable, along with the experience of watching a film in a theater, when now it’s so much easier -as this blog as pointed out time and time again – to watch them at home.

I’ve only recently come to know Oswalt’s work as a comedian, as in his recent stand up routine “Selling Out,” in which he describes playing a gig at a casino for an obscene amount of money during which he doesn’t even have to tell a single joke to earn his paycheck – all the audience wants to do is yell “King of Queens!” and “Ratatouille!” at him in a drunken stupor – King of Queens being a blue collar sitcom that Oswalt co-starred in for nine years, which simultaneously made him a small fortune, and also established his mainstream career.

But he’s really doing most of his interesting work on the margins, as all artists do, and his standup material is both dangerous and sharply observed – like the best of Louis C.K. – and Oswalt’s skills as a writer are formidable, a sort of gonzo endless riffing that simply won’t shut up, reeling off factoid after factoid, one film after another, in an endless genre mashup that eventually pushes him over the edge and back into the light, and out of the darkness of the movie theater, having learned what he needed to know from the movies before getting on with his life.

In the first pages of Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt tells the reader that she or he doesn’t “have to follow me into the darkness” of the movie theater, but by the end, having come off a four-year run of nonstop film viewing, he reiterates the opening with a slight variation: “listen – you don’t have to follow me into the sunshine. Is this your first time seeing Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole? By all means sit and see ‘em. They’re great. I envy your getting to watch them with new eyes. But take what you need from them  and get out of the dark once in a while. You’re going to have more of the dark than you can handle, sooner than you think. The thing about the dark is, it can never get enough of you.”

So in the end it’s a cautionary tale, just like O’Brien’s brilliant book, in which binge viewing films provides “minimal proof that you’re still alive.” And yet the dazzling brilliance of classic cinema – both high and low art, as if such distinctions really exist -  comes through in the pages of this volume full force, a world which seems to be vanishing into the realms of streaming and isolated viewing, and the cinematic community along with it.

I never expected someone like Oswalt to come along and write a book like this – it’s smart, assured, and as he would probably say, “it absolutely kills.” It jumps off the page, and I read it straight through in one sitting, and then bought some copies for friends. For people in their 20s, this would be a great place to start seriously thinking about films. It’s also the document of a personal voyage that’s both harrowing and illuminating. By the way, the front cover is a still from The Colossus of New York – another really odd, really fascinating piece of work – so this volume is full of surprises from beginning to end.

Patton Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from An Addiction to Film - check it out!

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

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

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

  • War Movies
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon at one of the earliestand most enduring film genres, the war movie. […]
  • Frame By Frame - Hollywood Composers
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon highlights the most prolific Hollywood film composers. […]

In The National News

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