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Archive for the ‘Film Criticism’ Category

An Essential 5 DVD Set: Pioneers of African-American Cinema

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

A restoration of these films has been a long time coming – get this set when it comes out in July.

This incredible collection – coming out shortly on DVD and Blu-ray, is a must for any serious library of American cinema, featuring some of the most historically vital works of America’s legendary first African-American filmmakers, and is the only comprehensive collection of its kind. There have been DVD releases of many of the individual films included here, but in cheap editions, without digital restoration, and now, finally, we can see them as they were meant to be seen.

Funded in part by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, the packaged set includes no fewer than a dozen feature-length films and nearly twice as many shorts and rare fragments. Subject matter includes race issues that went unaddressed by Hollywood for decades. The directors include Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams, and many others whose films deserve a much wider audience.

Films in the collection include: Birthright (1938), The Blood of Jesus (1941), Body and Soul (1925), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), By Right of Birth (fragment, 1921), Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort, South Carolina (excerpt, 1940), The Darktown Revue (1931), Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA (1946), Eleven P.M. (1930), The Exile (1931), The Flying Ace (1926), God’s Stepchildren (1938), Heaven-Bound Traveler (1933), Hellbound Train (1930), Hot Biskits (1931), Mercy the Mummy Mumbled (1918), Regeneration (fragment, 1923), The Scar of Shame (1929), S.S. Jones Home Movies (1924-26), The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the KKK (1920), Ten Minutes to Live (1932), Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1926), Two Knights of Vaudeville (1918), Veiled Aristocrats (1932), Verdict Not Guilty (1934), We Work Again (1937) and Within Our Gates (1920).

The set features musical scores (for the silent films) by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), Max Roach, Samuel D. Waymon, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Donald Sosin, Makia Matsumura, Alloy Orchestra, Rob Gal, Andrew Simpson.

Bonus Features: Optional English Subtitles, 80-page booklet with essays and detailed film notes; Interviews with series curators Charles Musser and Jacqueline Stewart; Documentary on the restoration of the films; Documentary on the restoration efforts of the Library of Congress; Archival interview with actors Ethel and Lucia Moses (1978); Tyler Texas Black Film Collection promo film (with Ossie Davis, 1985) and more!

Although these films have been available for many decades – I’ve run them in my classes for a long time – the film prints were often battered and scratched, 16mm dupes that lacked the depth and quality of the original negatives. Here, these films have been lovingly restored in a collection that is an essential part of the history of the American cinema. This is the part of film history you’ve probably missed – and shouldn’t.

This is an amazing act of historical reclamation – a must have for everyone.

Lois Weber’s “Shoes” (1916) Saved by Eye Museum, Amsterdam

Friday, April 29th, 2016

The EYE Museum in Amsterdam has restored Shoes (1916), a nearly lost film by director Lois Weber.

As the EYE Museum’s YouTube site notes, “the film Shoes (1916, USA, Universal Bluebird Photoplays), directed by Lois Weber, starred Mary MacLaren, Harry Griffith, Jessie Arnold, and William Mong. The film is a social drama about the dime store clerk Eva Meyer (MacLaren), who desperately needs a new pair of shoes. However, because her father is unemployed, Eva’s weekly earnings go into the household budget, bringing a new pair of shoes completely out of her reach.”

As historian Shelley Stamp writes of Lois Weber on the Women Film Pioneers Project website, “Lois Weber was the leading female director-screenwriter in early Hollywood. She began her career alongside her husband, Phillips Smalley, after the two had worked together in the theatre. They began working in motion pictures around 1907, often billed under the collective title ‘The Smalleys.’

In their early years at studios like Gaumont and Reliance, they acted alongside one another on-screen and codirected scripts written by Weber. Indeed, their status as a married, middle-class couple was often used to enhance their reputation for highbrow, quality pictures.

In 1912, they were placed in charge of the Rex brand at the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, where they produced one or two one-reel films each week with a stock company of actors, quickly turning the brand into one of the studio’s most sophisticated.

The couple increasingly turned their attention to multireel films, completing a four-reel production of The Merchant of Venice in 1914, the first American feature directed by a woman. Later that year they moved from Universal to Hobart Bosworth Productions where they were given more freedom to make feature-length films, among them Hypocrites (1915).

By the time the couple arrived back at Universal in 1916, Weber had emerged as the dominant member of the husband and wife partnership and, indeed, as one of the top directors on the lot. She was the sole author of scripts the couple adapted for the screen, and marketing materials and reviews singled out her work on the productions. Reporters visiting the couple on set found Smalley repeatedly turning to his wife for important decisions.

During these years Weber made a series of high profile and often deeply controversial films on social issues of the day, including capital punishment in The People vs. John Doe (1916), drug abuse in Hop, the Devil’s Brew (1916), poverty and wage equity in Shoes (1916), and contraception in Where Are My Children? (1916) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917) [. . .]

Weber achieved the height of her renown during these years: her name was routinely mentioned alongside that of D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille as one of the top talents in Hollywood. In 1916, she was the first and only woman elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association, a solitary honor she would retain for decades.

While at Universal it is also likely that she helped to foster the careers of other actresses employed at the studio, many of whom she had directed, including Cleo Madison, Lule Warrenton, and Dorothy Davenport Reid, who would become directors or producers in their own right.”

Read Stamp’s complete essay on Lois Weber by clicking here – an essential figure in cinema history.

Complete Online Index – “A Short History of Film”

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

A scholar in Germany has created a complete online index to A Short History of Film, 2nd edition.

A scholar in Germany has compiled a complete list of all the films mentioned in A Short History of Film, 2nd edition (Rutgers University Press, 2013), written by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and myself, with images of either the poster, or the DVD for each film, complete with links to reviews, purchase points, and other information on the film – as well as lots of opinions, of course – which seems like rather an amazing undertaking.

All told, the list covers more than 2,000 films, and runs to 21 webpages in the list, and can serve as a very useful way to access the films discussed in the volume. So if you’re reading A Short History of Film, 2nd edition, or using it for a class, and would like detail on access to some of the many films mentioned – the images here show just a few of the many titles covered in the volume – just consult this list, click on the title, and see what’s available.

A very useful guide – many thanks to the person who did so much work on this.

Unfinished Films at The Met Breuer

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

The Met Breuer, of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, is hosting a fascinating new film series.

The Met Breuer, located at 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street in Manhattan, on the former site of the Whitney Museum of American Art (which has moved downtown to 99 Gansevoort Street) is serving up a remarkable series focusing on incomplete, or unfinished films by a wide variety of artists, with talks led by some of the leading figures in the field on the significance of the works in question.

As the site for the series notes, “what can be learned from unfinished films, from works that arrive to us as fragments? Considered collectively—from the infamous excesses of Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly to the grand ambitions of Hollis Frampton’s Magellan—perhaps they constitute a secret canon, one made up of the most raw and, in turn, revealing sides of an artist’s practice.

Such works might be held in any number of intermediary states: left intentionally unfinished, abandoned out of frustration, cut short by death, curtailed by political circumstance.To watch these films is to unveil the particularities of their origins, to see the vicissitudes of their process and production laid bare. Presented in connection with the exhibition Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, this series features films selected by Thomas Beard, a founder and co-director of Light Industry.”

This is an altogether unique series, which gives one a chance to view the creative process from the inside, before a work is completed – and should not be missed in you’re going to be in the city. Admission is free with a regular museum admission; seats are first come, first served, so get there early.

Lost “Masterwork” Found: Thomas White’s Who’s Crazy? (1966)

Friday, April 15th, 2016

A lost “beat” classic has been found and restored, featuring an epic soundtrack by Ornette Coleman.

As Peter Monaghan writes in Moving Image Archive News, “thanks to an overdue search of the filmmaker’s garage, a rarity from the experimental film ferment of the 1960s was just screened for the first time in almost 50 years, at Anthology Film Archives in New York. With that, Who’s Crazy?, in a restoration by Anthology’s John Klacsmann and distribution by Grand Motel Films, has reemerged as an emblem of its age.

In 1965, Thomas White, then a 33-year-old American living a bohemian life in Montparnasse, made the 73-minute feature in Heist-sur-Mer, Belgium, with a set of collaborators-of-the-moment. Those included members of New York’s Living Theater, playing a bus load of residents of an asylum for the insane, and a soundtrack by the jazz icon Ornette Coleman, who even recorded a cut for the film with singer Marianne Faithfull, then in her late teens and already embarked on a life course whose mayhem the inmates might have recognized.

The rediscovery of the film has made a splash, not only because, as Richard Brody put it in The New Yorker, in article entitled “A Lost Masterwork is Found,” the film “bursts the bonds of movie logic to unleash the primal ecstasy of the cinema,” but also because of its place in the history of truly independent filmmaking of that time.

It has, for instance, links to Shirley Clarke’s recently revived 1962 portrayal The Connection, which was made from a play mounted by Living Theater co-founders Judith Malina and Julian Beck . . . Who’s Crazy had been missing for decades, listed as lost by the Library of Congress.” And when the Library of Congress says that a film is lost, that’s usually the case. But here, we got lucky. Hopefully, as Brody notes in his essay, linked above, a DVD will soon be forthcoming.

Readers of this blog know that I hold a special place in my heart for such deeply personal works, made in an era before money was ruling factor in nearly all forms of social interaction, and what Brody referred to as “the primal ecstasy of the cinema” dominated filmmaking, which was then cheap, and within the range of nearly everyone- just pick up a camera and shoot.

At the same time, the standard rules of “three act narrative,” or any form of narrative for that matter, clearly went out the window, and what was valued above all was spontaneity, authenticity, and capturing the moment, rather than CGI ridden spectacles in which every movement is defined by green screen technology. Not everything has to be planned out in advance; in fact, sometimes nothing needs to be planned at all. Sometimes, if you get an enormously talented group of people together and give them free reign, the results can be remarkable.

Writing in The New York Times, Jim Hoberman agrees, noting that “an anarchic rave with a wacky new-wave flavor, “Who’s Crazy?” opens on a bus that breaks down in the middle of nowhere. The passengers are psychiatric patients who, eluding their keepers, take refuge in a deserted building, haphazardly creating a new society complete with rituals that include a trial and a wedding.

Mr. White, reached by phone this month at his home in Connecticut, said 10 hours of film were shot over 10 or 12 days. The scenario was based on the actors’ improvisation. ‘Nobody told them what to do,’ he said.

Left to their own devices, the performers engage in breathing exercises, dress up in funny hats, play instruments, mill around, stage group hugs, make a mess, cook food, play with candles, stare into one another’s eyes, break into primal screams and declaim poetry in beatnik rants that might have been recorded at an open mike at Cafe Wha? The polyrhythmic cascade of honks and squawks produced by Mr. Coleman, abetted by his sidemen — the bassist David Izenzon and the drummer Charles Moffett — imbue these activities with tremendous energy.”

Watch the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

Video Essay: What is Neorealism?

Saturday, April 2nd, 2016

Here is a brilliant video essay by the filmmaker / critic :: kogonada on two versions of one film.

When director Vittorio De Sica, above, was hired by David O. Selznick (the “O”, he admitted, stood for nothing, being entirely his own invention to make his name sound more prestigious – or so he imagined) to direct a film starring Selznick’s wife, Jennifer Jones, and the American actor Montgomery Clift, a clash of visions was almost inevitable, given Selznick’s well known penchant for interfering with a director’s work (as was the case with Alfred Hitchcock, who got around the problem by shooting precisely what he needed for a film, and no more, starting with his first film for Selznick, Rebecca [1940]), which reached manic levels as Selznick’s career as a producer deteriorated.

As :: kogonada writes in his introduction to this brilliant examination of the film Terminal Station aka Indiscretion of American Wife, “what rival visions would emerge if you pitted the director of The Bicycle Thieves against the producer of Gone with the Wind on the same movie material? History can tell us . . . every cut is a form of judgment, whether it takes place on the set or in the editing room. A cut reveals what matters and what doesn’t. It delineates the essential from the non-essential. To examine the cuts of a filmmaker is to uncover an approach to cinema.

The happenstance of Vittorio De Sica’s Terminal Station and David O. Selznick’s Indiscretion of an American Wife offers a rare opportunity to compare two cuts of the same film from a leading figure of neorealism and a leading figure of Hollywood. If neorealism exists, it is in contrast to the dominant approach to moviemaking, shaped and exemplified by Hollywood. In comparing Terminal Station to Indiscretion of an American Wife, we must ask, ‘what difference does a cut make?’”

For those not familiar with the saga of the making – and unmaking – of this film, Wikipedia offers this brief, sad summary: “Terminal Station (Italian: Stazione Termini) is a 1953 film by Italian director Vittorio De Sica. It tells the story of the love affair between an Italian man and an American woman. The film was entered into the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. The film is based on the story Stazione Termini by Cesare Zavattini. Truman Capote was credited with writing the entire screenplay, but later claimed to have written only two scenes.

The film was an international co-production between De Sica’s own company and the Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, who commissioned it as a vehicle for his wife, Jennifer Jones. The production of the film was troubled from the very beginning. Carson McCullers was originally chosen to write the screenplay, but Selznick fired her and replaced her with a series of writers, including Paul Gallico, Alberto Moravia and Capote. Disagreements ensued between De Sica and Selznick, and during production, Selznick would write 40- and 50-page letters to his director every day, although De Sica spoke no English. After agreeing to everything, De Sica has said, he simply did things his way.

Montgomery Clift sided with De Sica in his disputes with Selznick, claiming that Selznick wanted the movie to look like a slick little love story, while De Sica wanted to depict a ruined romance . . . The original release of the film ran 89 minutes, but it was later re-edited by Selznick down to 64 minutes and re-released as Indiscretion of an American Wife (and as Indiscretion in the UK). Clift declared that he hated the picture and denounced it as ‘a big fat failure.’ Critics of the day agreed, giving it universally bad reviews. The two versions have been released together on DVD by The Criterion Collection.”

Taking advantage of the existence of these two highly different and in a sense competing versions of the film, :: kogonada has created a side-by-side comparison of the two edits of the film, showing how Selznick simplified and “dumbed down” the American cut, while De Sica left more to the audience’s imagination, rather than spelling everything out as Selznick insisted. De Sica’s original version, though not his best work, is clearly a much more resonant film; Selznick’s edit, chopped down to a minimal 64 minutes, accomplishes nothing less than the destruction of De Sica’s film – but now we can see the original version, and the recut – and what a difference there is between them!

This is a fascinating experiment – and demonstrates why Hollywood films are so often deeply unsatisfying.

Éric Rohmer: A Biography by Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe

Friday, April 1st, 2016

I’ve been reading an advance copy of Éric Rohmer: A Biography, and it’s an absolutely brilliant book.

As the Columbia University Press website notes, “the director of twenty-five films, including My Night at Maud’s (1969), which was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and the editor in chief of Cahiers du cinéma from 1957 to 1963, Éric Rohmer set the terms by which people watched, made, and thought about cinema for decades. Such brilliance does not develop in a vacuum, and Rohmer cultivated a fascinating network of friends, colleagues, and industry contacts that kept his outlook sharp and propelled his work forward. Despite his privacy, he cared deeply about politics, religion, culture, and fostering a public appreciation of the medium he loved.

This exhaustive biography uses personal archives and interviews to enrich our knowledge of Rohmer’s public achievements and lesser known interests and relations. The filmmaker kept in close communication with his contemporaries and competitors: François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette. He held a paradoxical fascination with royalist politics, the fate of the environment, Catholicism, classical music, and the French nightclub scene, and his films were regularly featured at New York and Los Angeles film festivals. Despite an austere approach to life, Rohmer had a voracious appetite for art, culture, and intellectual debate captured vividly in this definitive volume.”

To that, I can only add that this is the book on Rohmer’s life and work, superbly translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal. Both of the volume’s authors are eminently qualified for the project: Antoine de Baecque is a professor of the history of cinema at the University of Nanterre, and has published biographies of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, in addition to serving for a number of years as editor in chief of Cahiers du cinema, while Noël Herpe is a senior lecturer at the Université de Paris VIII, and has published works on René Clair and Sacha Guitry, as well as a book of interviews with Éric Rohmer about his text Le Celluloïd et le Marbre.

With many behind the scenes photographs, selections from correspondence, detailed financial accountings of production circumstances, and offering a sympathetic yet clear-eyed portrayal of Rohmer as alternatively imperious and yet by turns extraordinarily generous to neophyte filmmakers, Éric Rohmer: A Biography is a feast of a book. I have been returning repeatedly to the volume in the past few days, marveling at the detail and precision of the text, which in many ways mirrors the precise yet romantic tone of Rohmer’s films themselves. Now, if only all of Rohmer’s works would come out in a complete DVD box set, we’d have a much fuller sense of this extraordinary artist’s legacy.

Éric Rohmer: A Biography will be released in June 2016 – you should order an advance copy now.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on Suspiria (1976)

Saturday, March 26th, 2016

Here’s an interesting new book on Dario Argento’s classic horror film, Suspiria.

Part of the relatively new series of short monographs on individual horror films, Devil’s Advocates, published by Auteur Press in the UK and distributed in the US by Columbia University Press, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas‘ take on Suspiria is at once original and deeply subversive, for as the notes for the volume argue, “as one of the most globally recognizable instances of 20th century Eurohorror, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1976) is poetic, chaotic, and intriguing. The cult reputation of Argento’s baroque nightmare is reflected in the critical praise it continues to receive almost 40 years after its original release, and it appears regularly on lists of the greatest horror films ever.

For fans and critics alike, Suspiria is as mesmerizing as it is impenetrable: the impact of Argento’s notorious disinterest in matters of plot and characterization combines with Suspiria’s aggressive stylistic hyperactivity to render it a movie that needs to be experienced through the body as much as through emotion or the intellect. For its many fans, Suspiria is synonymous with European horror more broadly, and Argento himself is by far the most famous of all the Italian horror directors.

If there was any doubt of his status as one of the great horror auteurs, Argento’s international reputation was solidified well beyond the realms of cult fandom in the 1990s with retrospectives at both the American Museum of the Moving Image and the British Film Institute. This book considers the complex ways that Argento weaves together light, sound and cinema history to construct one of the most breathtaking horror movies of all time, a film as fascinating as it is ultimately unfathomable.”

This is a really sharp book, and an excellent series, which seems to take its inspiration from the long-beloved BFI series on individual film classics, but concentrating on one genre – the horror film – alone. Volumes in the series thus far include studies of the classic British horror film Dead of Night (1945 – and a particular favorite of mine), Nosferatu, The Curse of Frankenstein, John Carpenter’s version of The Thing and many others – there are so many potential candidates for examination that this series seems to be just beginning.

I’d love to see a volume on Terence Fisher’s Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula), or Roger Corman’s version of The Pit and The Pendulum, right off the top of my head, and the writers are all clearly enthusiastic about their work, so I’m sure we’ll see books on these key films shortly. Brief, compact, and authoritative, these are the volumes to beat on these classic genre films, and augur well for the continuation of the series, which seems to have really filled a niche. In any event, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ book on Suspiria is a good place to start – and then you can go on from there.

This is an intriguing group of short volumes – well worth exploring.

Batman v Superman: Diminishing Returns

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

After two years of post-production, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice finally his theaters today.

As I wrote back in June 26, 2015 of Zack Snyder’s latest film,”in the mid 1940s, Universal was coming off a two decade wave of horror movies, such as Frankenstein and Dracula (both 1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Wolf Man (1941), but at length, audiences were bored with just one monster, and demanded something to amp up the franchise. Thus, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943) was born, the first of the Universal monster ‘team ups,’ but in short order, the entire franchise collapsed as Universal combined nearly all their famed horror icons in two ‘monster rally’ entries, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in cheap, hastily staged films that did little more than revive the monsters only to destroy them.

With these final two films in the initial series, it seemed that the franchise was exhausted, and the next Universal horror entry wasn’t a horror entry at all; it was the parody Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). It wasn’t until Hammer films re-energized these classic characters in such films as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) that the franchise once again took on new life.

It seems to me that we’re now at a similar point with the DC Universe; the Superman series seems a bit played out, as the character seems a bit too straight arrow to relate to 21st century audiences; and Christopher Nolan has run the Batman series into the ground, as did Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher before him, so that both characters seem, for the moment, played out for the contemporary viewer.

What to do? Why, just put them both in one film, as a a sort of WWF smackdown, recalling the first Universal team up, Frankenstein Meets (or more accurately, ‘battles’) The Wolf Man. And so now we have Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Zack ‘300′ Snyder on a $200 million dollar budget, which wrapped filming in December 2014, and is now going through an apparently intensive post-production process, and won’t be released – at latest word – until March 25, 2016. What the final cost will be, who knows? Will it ‘blow up’ like Jurassic World, and make a fortune? DC certainly hopes so.

It seems worth noting to me that Marvel has been much more successful at these ‘ensemble’ films lately, but then they have a much larger cast of characters to work with. And when one character gets tired, they just sideline her or him for a while, and go for an Avengers team-up, and everyone seems happy as the dollars roll in, and then Marvel eventually gets around to rebooting whatever needs to be jump started next, as the cycle continues with Sisyphian relentlessness.

But DC, I think, doesn’t have the same depth in its playing field, and so this team-up has, at least for me, the inescapable whiff of ‘last chance at the genre corral,’ when you take your two most influential characters and put them into a face-off. After this, what can you do; repeat the same thing all over again, perhaps throwing in The Green Lantern for some added traction?

It seems sad to me that this is one of the most hotly anticipated tickets of next year – because the whole thing seems so formulaic and predestined, but there it is. On yes, and Wonder Woman, in the person of Gal Godot, will also swing by to get in on the action, so this in many ways might be closer to the ‘monster rally’ films than the first Universal team-up film.”

All of the above was written long before the film was released; it actually finished principal photography in 2014, and has spent close to two years in post-production, which is never a good sign. Now everyone can see the film for themselves – it is, after all, rated PG-13, with an R rated “director’s cut,” one half hour longer, forthcoming on DVD in the coming months.

That said, it looks like most of what I predicted way back nearly a year ago has come true, and it seems that the film is more of a miss than a hit with fans and critics alike, though the ticket presales have been spectacular. But with audiences able to text “instant reviews” during the film as to whether or not they approve, who knows what will happen? Batman v Superman wound up costing north of $250 million, and will need to clear at least $800,000 to a billion dollars at the box office just to break even. That’s a lot of money.

Yet as Michael Roffman noted in a perceptive review of the film published on the website Consequence of Sound, Batman v Superman represents – perhaps – both the beginning of the end for comic book movies, which may have finally reached an audience saturation point, as well as a failure of the imagination. Notes Roffman, “the adrenaline and the excitement of a superhero film has taken back seat to morbid curiosity and blind acceptance.

To paraphrase the late Hunter S. Thompson, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice offers us an ideal vantage point to look at the near past, where with the right kind of eyes we can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. Some might say that was 2012’s The Avengers; others might argue it was 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Whatever the case, we’re coasting into a no-wake zone right now, and it’s getting harder to keep the signal on and tiring to glue our eyes toward the sky.”

Or as A.O. Scott put it more bluntly in a review in The New York Times, “the point of Batman v Superman isn’t fun, and it isn’t thinking, either. It’s obedience. The theology is invoked not to elicit meditations on mercy, justice or sacrifice, but to buttress a spectacle of power. And in that way the film serves as a metaphor for its own aspirations. The corporations that produce movies like this one, and the ambitious hacks who sign up to make them, have no evident motive beyond their own aggrandizement. Entertainment is less the goal than the byproduct, and as the commercial reach of superpower franchises grows, their creative exhaustion becomes ever more apparent.”

Which seems about right to me – it’s time to move on to something new.

BFI Restores Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965)

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

Peter Watkins’ The War Game is a terrifying look at how our future could go horribly wrong.

On March 28th, 2016, the BFI will bring Peter Watkins’ controversial BBC productions Culloden (1964),  a brilliant reconstruction of the famous battle of 1746, and the Academy Award-winning The War Game (1965), which was banned from TV screens for twenty years, to Blu-ray for the first time. Both films have been newly remastered to High Definition and will be presented together in a Dual Format Edition (also contains a DVD). An array of special features includes a new interview by film editor Michael Bradsell, who worked with Peter Watkins at the BBC, audio commentaries for both films and short films about each one.

Hailed as a breakthrough when it was first broadcast in 1964, Culloden – which brilliantly reconstructs the famous battle of 1746 – stunned viewers by approaching its historical subject matter in the style of contemporary TV news coverage. Watkins’ The War Game, about a limited nuclear attack on Kent, blended fact and fiction to create a disturbing vision of the personal and public consequences of such an attack. Banned from TV screens for twenty years, it was through its cinema release in 1966 – and its Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1967 – that it gained a loyal and vociferous following.

As Wikipedia effectively summarizes the narrative of The War Game, “filmed in black-and-white with a running time of just under 50 minutes, The War Game depicts the prelude to and the immediate weeks of the aftermath to a Soviet nuclear attack against Britain. A Chinese invasion of South Vietnam starts the war; tensions escalate when the United States authorizes tactical nuclear warfare against the Chinese. Although Soviet and East German forces threaten to invade West Berlin if the US does not withdraw that decision, the US does not acquiesce to communist demands and the invasion takes place; two US Army divisions attempt to fight their way into Berlin to counter this, but the Russian and East German forces overwhelm them in conventional battle.

In order to turn the tide, the US president authorizes the NATO commanders to use their tactical nuclear weapons, and they soon do so. An escalating nuclear war results, during which larger Russian strategic IRBMs are launched at Britain. The film remarks that many Soviet missiles were, at the time, believed to be liquid-fueled and stored above ground, making them vulnerable to attack, and hypothesizes that in any nuclear crisis, the USSR would be obliged to fire all of them as early as possible in order to avoid their destruction by counter-attack, hence the rapid progression from tactical to strategic nuclear exchange.

In the chaos just before the attack, towns and cities are evacuated and residents forced to move to the country. The Medway town of Rochester is struck by an off-target missile aimed at RAF Manston, a target which, along with the Maidstone barracks, is mentioned in scenes showing the immediate effects of the attack. The missile’s explosion causes instant flash blindness of those nearby, followed by a firestorm caused by the blast wave. Later, society collapses due to overwhelming radiation sickness and the depletion of food and medical supplies.

There is widespread psychological damage and consequently a rising occurrence of suicide. The country’s infrastructure is destroyed; the British Army burns corpses, while police shoot looters during food riots. The provisional government becomes increasingly disliked due to its rationing of resources and use of lethal force, and anti-authority uprisings begin.

Civil disturbance and obstruction of government officers become capital offenses; two men are shown being executed by firing squad for such acts. Several bewildered orphan children are briefly featured, questioning whether they have any future and desire to be ‘nothing.’ The film ends bleakly on the first Christmas Day after the nuclear war, held in a ruined church with a vicar who futilely attempts to provide hope to his traumatized congregation. The closing credits include an instrumental version of Silent Night.”

Indeed, as Roger Ebert noted in his review of The War Game, “Watkins achieves remarkable authenticity. Using a hand-held camera and grainy newsreel film, he shows firemen dying of gas poisoning as the flames explode. The heat generated in the center of a firestorm, we are told, reaches 800 degrees. It creates an updraft so powerful that trees, automobiles and human bodies are sucked into it by 150 M.P.H. winds. All oxygen is drained from the atmosphere. As the voice continues, we see firemen plucked from the ground and literally blown into the flames.”

While Culloden is an excellent “you are there” recounting of the famous battle of that name, it’s Watkins’ The War Game which is the indispensable item on this disc. Commissioned and produced by the BBC, The War Game was nevertheless turned down flat for screening on British television at the last minute, right before the scheduled screening date of October 7, 1965. The BBC, in making the decision, said that “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” Watkins, predictably, was furious.

With a television screening thus blocked, the film was then released in the United States on a theatrical double bill with, of all things, Luis Buñuel’s allegorical featurette Simon of the Desert (1965), which has a running time of 42 minutes – so that the two films, presented together, constituted the length of an average single feature film. The “one two” punch of the films stunned audiences at time, and as mentioned above, The War Game was so realistic that it actually won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1967 (emphasis added) – all the more astonishing because it is entirely a fiction film, although the possibility of such a war happening was, at the time, very real indeed.

Using non actors and actual locations, The War Game is perhaps the most realistic film ever made about the potential effects of nuclear war, and as Roger Ebert commented at the end of his four star review of the film, “they should string up bedsheets between the trees and show The War Game in every public park. It should be shown on television, perhaps right after one of those half-witted war series in which none of the stars ever gets killed. And, somehow, it should be shown to the leaders of the world’s nuclear powers, the men who have their fingers on the doomsday button. If the button is ever pushed, the world’s nuclear arsenal contains the equivalent of 20,000,000 tons of TNT apiece for you, and for me, and for every blessed person on this earth.”

The War Game - another classic film brilliantly restored by the British Film Institute.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

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

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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