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New Book Series: “Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture”

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon announce their new book series.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon are proud to announce the publication of the first two volumes in their new book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture from Rutgers University Press – Disney Culture by John Wills, and Zombie Cinema by Ian Olney.

Disney Culture explores the Walt Disney Company, which has grown into a diversified global media giant. But is it still possible to identify a coherent Disney ethos? Examining everything from theme parks to merchandising to animation to live-action films, Disney Culture proposes that they all follow a core corporate philosophy dating back to the 1920s.

Zombie Cinema notes that the living dead have been lurking in popular culture since the 1930s, but they are now ubiquitous. Presenting a historical overview of zombies in film and on television, Zombie Cinema also explores this globalized phenomenon, examining why the dead have captured the imagination of twenty-first-century audiences worldwide.

Early reviews are excellent: Blair Davis, author of Movie Comics: Page to Screen/Screen to Page writes that in Disney Culture, “Wills makes a strong contribution to both the fields of media studies as well as Disney scholarship with this concise, well written and thoroughly engaging overview of how the cultural, artistic, and economic factors surrounding the Disney corporation intersect.”

Janet Wasko, author of Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy adds that “Disney Culture is a notable addition to the growing critical work on Disney and its cultural significance. Wills skillfully dissects the Disney ethos and even challenges the multimedia giant to ‘mean something beyond merchandise’ in the twenty-first century.”

Of Zombie Cinema, Stephen Prince, author of Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality writes,”Zombie Cinema is a brisk, informative read that gives us a zesty tour through an amazingly prolific and popular contemporary film cycle. He’s clearly done his homework in excavating–or disinterring, as the case may be–zombie movies from disparate cultural and historical contexts.”

Rick Worland, author of The Horror Film: An Introduction notes that “what the vampire was to the 1980s and 90s, the zombie has become for early twenty-first century audiences, the monster of choice, spreading through a multitude of media texts. [In Zombie Cinema] Ian Olney organizes the history of the zombie in popular culture from Haitian voodoo practice to the present, providing clear analysis of its evolution and development. Theoretically informed, the writing is engaging and accessible throughout.”

New African Cinema by Valérie K. Orlando, and Digital Music Videos by Steven Shaviro are forthcoming soon.

Click here for more information on the new series.

New Article: “Service Providers” : Genre Cinema in the 21st Century

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

I’ve just published a new article in QRFV on 21st century genre filmmaking.

As I write in the article, Harrison Ford in 2013 noted that “‘I think the success of Comic-Con is based on the partnership between the fans and the service providers, the entities—I won’t necessarily call them filmmakers —that supply the film product that supports their particular interest, whether it’s vampires or science-fiction fantasies of Transformers or whatever is going on . . .’

When Harrison Ford made these comments to Adam Sternbergh, a reporter for The New York Times, no particular controversy ensued. Ford was simply stating a fact: Directors today, most of whom work within rigid genre formats, are indeed little more than ’service providers,’ who create long, loud, open-ended and ultimately unsatisfying “epic” films for an ever more indiscriminate audience.

Yet, it’s really not the fault of the viewers who flock to see the endless interactions of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Star Trek and other franchise films; they simply don’t know any better. There is nothing else on offer at the multiplex, and with everything online — behind a pay wall, usually with a subscription attached —any impulse to be adventurous in one’s viewing habits died long ago. It’s like McDonald’s: It is what it is, nothing more or less, and it’s reliably available, and always the same.

As Derek Thompson wrote in 2014, ‘The reason why Hollywood makes so many boring superhero movies [is because] studios were better at making great movies when they were worse at figuring out what we wanted to see,’ adding that ‘Hollywood has become sensational at predicting what its audiences want to see. And, ironically, for that very reason, it’s become better at making relentlessly average movies …

In 1950, movies were the third-largest retail business in America, after grocery stores and cars …Watching films approached the ubiquity of a bodily function: Every week, 90 million Americans—60 percent of the country—went to the cinema, creating an audience share that’s bigger than today’s Super Bowl.

The six major studios (MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, Twentieth Century-Fox, and RKO) could basically do whatever they wanted and be sure to make money. Owning their own theater chains (which accounted for half their total revenue), they controlled the means and distribution of a product that was as essential to mid-century life as grilled chicken. Surprise, surprise: Virtually all their films made money.’” Not so today.


Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet (1952)

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet, based on a novel by director Samuel Fuller, is brilliant filmmaking.

So let’s get this out of the way right off the bat; I admire Samuel Fuller’s work immensely, especially Underworld U.S.A. (1961), but in the final analysis, I think that Phil Karlson is a better filmmaker. Fuller was enormously talented, and a superb self-promoter, but while Fuller was making a name for himself, Karlson was simply hammering out one excellent film after another, without bothering too much to toot his own horn.

One result of this is that Scandal Sheet (1952), which is one of the toughest noirs ever made, never really got the attention it deserved, nor did it get Karlson a place in the pantheon of first-rate hardboiled filmmakers, an honor he clearly deserves. I never got the chance to speak with Karlson, who passed away before I could get in touch with him, but I did correspond with his late wife, Dixie, who confirmed that Karlson felt that he’d never really gotten the respect that he deserved – in part because Fuller, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, The Dark Page, went out of his way to slam Karlson’s work.

Somehow I think this says more about Fuller than Karlson, for Scandal Sheet is a remarkable film – one that really stands up today. As critic Michael Atkinson astutely observed, “Phil Karlson and Samuel Fuller’s Scandal Sheet (1952) exemplifies a certain strand of noir not the sweaty wrong-man-tripped-up-by-fate noirs (think Detour [1945], Somewhere in the Night [1946], Where Danger Lives [1950]), but the life-in-the-jungle noirs, dark elegies wherein citizens had to tough up to survive in modern urban sewers rife with impulse killing, squalor, crazed greed and moral desolation. Here, the systems themselves industry, community, the law, the mob, the press were rotten from the inside.

Karlson and Fuller were reigning warriors in this vein: director Karlson was a no-nonsense journeyman who with Scandal Sheet, Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953) and The Phenix City Story (1955) perfected a confrontational, violent, subtlety-immune noir style in which the world, not merely the individuals stuck in it, seemed to be on the edge of social upheaval.

Fuller was, of course, Fuller, the most notorious idiosyncratic-pulpster of the postwar age, an unstoppable creative force whose particular view of the world was a vulgar, cynical mashup between first-hand realism (no American filmmaker knew the actualities of tabloid journalism, ground warfare and the criminal sector as well) and outrageous pop-cinema hyperbole.

Scandal Sheet, in any case, was not Fuller’s film. It was based on his hot-property novel The Dark Page, published in 1944 after Fuller had already defected from being a reporter to being a screenwriter, and while the young Fuller was fighting in Europe with the Big Red One. Still, it boils over with his storytelling energy and his signature reflex, the urge to discover, expressionistically, the painful, hard-boiled reality as he knew it within the movie universe of Golden Age Hollywood.

The set-up itself is nearly autobiographical: Fuller used to work on the New York Graphic, a screaming-mimi, truth-manipulating exploitative tabloid on Park Row that makes the contemporary New York Post look like The London Review of Books. (Fuller has described its editorial principle to be one of ‘creative exaggeration.’) It’s easy to see how Fuller’s own distinctive tale-telling style, visual and narrative, was formed by the daily creation of howling headlines, sensational fabrication and punchy, don’t-lose-the-reader prose.

In the film, Broderick Crawford’s Mark Chapman is the New York Express’s bulldog editor, pulling the daily out of its economic doldrums with lurid front pages and invented news; John Derek’s Steve McCleary is his amoral star reporter, the two of them heading a newsroom that has only Donna Reed’s Julie Allison to recommend it in the way of moral compunction and compassion. The thorny patter and amoral brio proceeds apace until Chapman is confronted at a publicity event by a middle-aged woman (Rosemary DeCamp), who immediately pegs him as ‘George,’ and summons an entire unwanted past that places Chapman’s present success in mysterious jeopardy.

Soon it’s made clear: she’s the unstable wife he abandoned years before, and now she will not be ignored – an ultimatum that leads, somewhat predictably, to a scuffle and her accidental death. From there, Chapman is all about covering his tracks, which as we all know simply creates more tracks, more corpses and more bad fortune.

Scandal Sheet is a fast-gabbing, meat-eating show [and is] expertly fashioned; Fuller was careful to make the tabloid mercenariness turn in on itself: McCleary is hot on the story, and despite his neck being in the noose Chapman must bait him on, because if he relents one iota from the Rupert Murdochian ethos that made him and the Express a hit, suspicion will fall on him like a safe from a window . . . [the film] scans today like a prescient indictment of media sensationalism, Murdoch’s and otherwise. ‘Thinking people,’ it is suggested, like Allison’s humane feature stories, ‘even if there aren’t many of them reading the Express anymore.’

Perhaps things haven’t changed in the American mediascape, we may speculate, but perhaps things have grown many times worse. The very idea of courting a ‘thinking’ newspaper reader today is ludicrous, as monopoly regulations have all but vanished, and only six corporations . . . own the vast majority of media outlets in the U.S., as compared to over 50 in 1983, and many hundreds in the 1950s. Fuller and Karlson had their ears to the ground in the mid-century, and however relevant it was in 1952, their movie feels like a prophecy come true.”

Atkinson is right on target. Seeing the film on a big screen in class today with a deeply enthusiastic group of students confirmed my high opinion of the film; Karlson’s camerawork, aided by DP Burnett Guffey, glides smoothly through the entirely amoral universe of Mark Chapman’s world.

The film absolutely brims with appropriately lurid details: a fast closeup of a would-be suicide’s wrists; a gallows-humored functionary who informs us that business at the local morgue is “dead, just dead,” a harrowing trip through the depths of the Bowery’s worst saloons; the endless tick of the clocks on the walls of the drab, grey newsrooms; an editing style that breathlessly propels the narrative to its doom-laden conclusion; and a gallery of first rate performances not only from Crawford, but also such old pros as Henry O’Neill, Harry Morgan, Rosemary De Camp, Cliff Work, and Pierre Watkin – to name just a few.

When it was made, Scandal Sheet was thrown away on double bills as just another piece of product from Harry Cohn’s prolific film factory, Columbia Pictures, even if it did have Academy Award winner Crawford (for All The King’s Men, 1949) in the leading role – but today, we can see it is much more than that. It’s a sharp, economical film, without an ounce of fat on it; indeed, Jerome Thomas’s editing is so sharp that one would be hard pressed to even remove a frame from the finished work.

It’s available on DVD as part of a box set of Samuel Fuller’s films (!!) – but no such set exists for Karlson, of course. That’s a shame, and it also isn’t right – towards the end of his life, Karlson made some junk, like the appalling Matt Helm films, but when the fever was upon him, he hit the mark every time.

Click here to read a great interview with Phil Karlson – then see the film.

The 1956 Film Version of George Orwell’s 1984

Saturday, January 28th, 2017

Lately, 1984 has been a very popular novel – but the best movie version was made in 1956.

When George Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair) finished his novel 1984 in 1948, after thinking about it since 1944, he was trying to warn his audience that unchecked totalitarianism could easily destroy democracy. Since then, there have been several film and television versions; the 1954 BBC version starring Peter Cushing; the 1956 version starring Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling; and the 1984 version – yes, that’s right – starring the late John Hurt as the hapless Winston Smith, and Richard Burton as his nemesis O’Brien, in what would prove to be his final screen role.

All the various versions have their adherents, but for me, the 1956 version comes closest to the mark. The 1954 version survives only on a battered Kinescope, and as much as I am fond of Peter Cushing as an actor (as readers of this blog no doubt know), he makes a very indifferent Winston Smith, one of the “proles” singled out for punishment and “rehabilitation” by the minions of Big Brother. He would have been much more effective in the O’Brien role, just as he’s superlatively evil as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars (1977).

The 1984 version has strong performances by both Burton and Hurt, but is ruined – really ruined - by a terrible pop score by The Eurythmics. There was one 2003 US DVD release with the original symphonic score by Dominic Muldowney, but most versions have the Eurythmics track, which so offended Michael Radford, the director of the film, that he publicly disowned the film. So . . .

That leaves the 1956 version, which although it has its flaws, is easily the most effective version of the novel, at least for me. Yes, one of the central problems is the casting of Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling in the leading roles of Winston Smith and Julia. Both were put in the film to increase the chances at the box-office in the United States – which didn’t work, despite a sensationalistic advertising campaign – and while O’Brien is much better than Sterling, they’re not ideally cast for the film.

But as General O’Connor (O’Brien in the book; the name change was to avoid confusion with the Edmond O’Brien’s credit), Sir Michael Redgave is absolutely immaculate – savage, smooth, duplicitous and unforgiving. The film’s narrative, which the title credits admit was “freely adapted” from Orwell’s novel, nevertheless touches all the important bases – cultural repression, institutionalized misinformation, social inequity, and a ruling class that cares nothing about the “proles” below.

Unfortunately, the film has existed in limbo for quite some time, and never got a real DVD release, except in England, and of course, being shot in 1956, it’s in black and white, modestly budgeted at a mere £80,073, or roughly $200,000 US dollars at the time. It’s yet another one of the many films that could use a proper DVD release.

The sets are minimal and coolly stylized, the effects are resolutely pre-digital, and there is even an alternate “happy ending” – thankfully, I have never seen it – tacked on to some prints. But in most surviving versions, the film ends with Smith, brutally tortured and now brainwashed into blindly accepting authority, leading a mob of citizens in a chant of “long live Big Brother” – the anonymous, and perhaps non-existent dictator of the future totalitarian state.

The director of the film was Michael Anderson, who directed Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) the same year – a much more crowd pleasing film – and would later go on to direct the almost equally Dystopian Logan’s Run (1976). The 1956 version of 1984, then, is certainly worth a look, if you can find it – and see how a group of talented people almost got it right.

You can see the entire film online by clicking here, or on the image above.

Jean Renoir: A Biography by Pascal Mérigeau

Friday, January 20th, 2017

Now we have the definitive book on Jean Renoir, in a superb English translation.

As the Running Press, which has published Jean Renoir: A Biography in the United States notes of this excellent volume – clocking in at nearly 1,000 pages, but absolutely page-turning in its intensity and incredibly detailed research – “originally published in France in 2012, Pascal Mérigeau’s definitive biography of legendary film director Jean Renoir is a landmark work—the winner of a Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary achievement. Now available in the English language for the first time, Jean Renoir: A Biography, is the definitive study of one of the most fascinating and creative artistic figures of the twentieth century.

The French filmmaker made more than forty films from the silent era to the late ’60s and today he is revered by filmmakers and seen by many as one of the greatest of all time. Renoir made acclaimed movies in France, America, India, and Italy and became a writer during the last part of his life. Drawing from unpublished or little known sources, this biography is a completely fresh approach to the maker of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, redefining the very function of the movie director and simultaneously recounting the history of a century.”

Renoir was indeed one of the greatest of all filmmakers, noted for his humanism and his ability to move smoothly from one genre to another without a pause, as well as having a career not only in France, but in the United States in the 1940s at the now defunct studio RKO Radio Pictures, then journeying to India to make the first color film there, The River (1951), before returning to France in the 1950s to make a final group of masterpieces, and eventually settling in California before his death.

Mérigeau’s magisterial biography clearly surpasses all existing writing on Renoir, and it’s amazing that we had to wait four years for this remarkably deft translation by Bruce Benderson – and that the book is only available in paperback. Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) is routinely included in nearly every “ten best films of all time” list, but his other work, especially his work in America, clearly deserves more attention, which Mérigeau ably supplies.

While the publicity materials tout that fact that the book is supposedly the first to examine Renoir’s unfinished Hollywood film The Amazing Mrs. Holiday (1943) - which isn’t true; this has been common knowledge for quite some time – and also makes much of Renoir’s leftist work in France in the mid 1930s, for me the most intriguing sections came on such films as his American noir The Woman on the Beach (1947), which has long been known to have a troubled production history – yet Mérigeau has additional material on this film as well.

I had known that the finished film was sneak previewed to a teenage audience expecting an RKO musical or screwball comedy, and that the resultant debacle led to a savage recut of the film, but Mérigeau has unearthed the fact that the film was actually shot twice to appease both audiences and the censors – the original version, now lost; and the final version, with a different actor in a key role.

So, 2016 ended with a landmark volume on Robert Bresson, another giant of the cinema; now, in the opening days of 2017, we are given a superb – and smoothly translated – life of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, exploring not only his films, but also his life, and the way in which he viewed the human condition with both the greatest sympathy, as well as a sharply clinical eye.

This book is a must for anyone interested in the cinema – a major accomplishment.

Glenn Kenny: “Is Watching a Movie on a Phone Really So Bad?”

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

Glenn Kenny of The New York Times has an interesting take on cellphone film viewing.

As he writes, “‘People who watch movies on phones (especially if they think they can leave valid critical comments on imdb) should be shot,” the critic Anne Billson declared on Twitter in mid-December. I quote her not to scold her, or to hold her to her word, but to underscore that passions in the format-platform controversies run high.

I’ve already cited, in my first installment of this column, David Lynch’s condemnation — more than a decade old — of The Very Idea of Watching a Movie on a Phone. Over the century-plus of cinema, new ways of watching movies have made film folk antsy. In a sense, it’s the one thing that the money guys and the creatives have fretted over in more or less equal measure. Steven Spielberg was initially wary of having his works put on home video, grumbling about movie theaters being sacred spaces and such.

Martin Scorsese had more optimism, writing in 1989: ‘[H]aving instant access to movies, being able to pick something up and show it at the drop of a hat, is great.’ Much of the work of his nonprofit restoration and preservation concern the Film Foundation is made available on home video, with high-definition formats preferred.

Still, smartphone movie-watching is for many a kind of line in the sand, albeit one that streaming services are obliged to ignore. The whole point of a streaming service is that it makes content available to watch on a panoply of devices, from a big-screen display to a tablet or Nook or Kindle or Galaxy or iPhone. I recently got my first iPhone, largely to put a bunch of streaming services on it (also because I was getting sick of everybody asking me ‘Why do you still have a BlackBerry?’), and dove in.

I thought it would be interesting to watch some 100-year-old Charlie Chaplin pictures on the device. After all, when Chaplin was making his shorts for Keystone and Essanay in the early 20th century, they were not necessarily projected in the cathedrals Mr. Spielberg once spoke of but in intimate, barely appointed nickelodeon theaters and in shortened versions made for penny-in-the-slot single-viewer Mutoscope machines . . .

The Criterion Channel, a part of the new streaming service FilmStruck, offers Chaplin shorts in batches, each a feature-length compilation from a particular period, and nicely restored. They look great on an iPhone — their black-and-white and sometimes sepia tones are nice and crisp, and the action is more than coherent. At 14 or so minutes a short, they’re well-suited to the contracted attention span that holding an iPhone in one’s hand tends to encourage.”

It’s an interesting hypothesis, but I have to disagree, simply quoting the director Roy Ward Baker, who summed up the issue for me, and I think for many others, when he told me in an interview at his London home late one afternoon, shortly before his death, that “one can inspect a film on DVD, but you can’t experience it.” Baker, of course, directed the best movie about the Titanic disaster, A Night to Remember (1958), and had just come from a theatrical screening of the film, as part of a retrospective of his work.

“It just hit me with such impact” he told me. “I’ve seen it many times on television, and thought to myself, ‘that’s a good movie,’ but it didn’t really hit me with same impact as when I first made it until I saw it again in its proper aspect ratio, on a large screen, with an appreciative audience [another thing - and not a small matter either - that's missing with the cellphone experience].” Of course, our conversation took place long before the advent of the cellphone and video streaming, but the basic concept is still the same – small screen vs. the real thing.

Want a quick viewing of a film? By all means, use a cellphone or whatever else is handy. Want to really see the film? There’s only one way; in a proper theatrical setting, with an audience, in the proper aspect ratio, on a big screen – the format that the movies were designed for. Thomas Edison, as Kenny points out elsewhere in his article, was against theatrical motion picture projection, but since the inception of the cinema, films have been made to be screened in large, theatrical format.

On a cellphone, you’re just getting a fraction of the actual experience.

New Book: A Brief History of Comic Book Movies

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

New Book: A Brief History of Comic Book Movies

Wheeler Winston Dixon and Richard Graham have published a new book, A Brief History of Comic Book Movies (Palgrave Macmillan). These films trace their origins back to the early 1940s, when the first Batman and Superman serials were made. The serials, and later television shows in the 1950s and 60s, were for the most part designed for children.

But today, with the continuing rise of Comic-Con, they seem to be more a part of the mainstream than ever, appealing to adults as well as younger fans. This book examines comic book movies from the past and present, exploring how these films shaped American culture from the post-World War II era to the present day, and how they adapted to the changing tastes and mores of succeeding generations.

Organized in rough chronological order, the book’s five chapters cover Origins, The DC Universe, The Marvel Universe, Animé Films, and Indies and Outliers, examining not only Hollywood films, but European, Asian, and French animated films as well. Literally hundreds of films, directors, and comic book characters are examined in the book, making this a one-stop source for information on this emerging genre.

Cynthia J. Miller calls the volume “engaging and very accessible…its value to readers will continue even as many more films enter into production and distribution,” while David Sterritt adds that “this history of an under-studied field is original, enlightening, and exemplary. I recommend it highly.”

The book is available right now as an e-book or pdf, and will be published in hardcover on February 5, 2017. It’s a solid, comprehensive overview of this new and emerging genre, so check it out if you can. Whether you like it or not, comic book movies rule the world right now, and yet they emerged from the margins of mainstream cinema – read all about it here.

My thanks to Richard Graham for his unstinting help and expertise in this project.

Hands Down – The Most Important Film Book of 2016

Friday, December 30th, 2016

Along with Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph, this is one of the essential film books of 2016.

Robert Bresson is one of the most mysterious, and yet the most accessible of filmmakers – much like his compatriots Yasujirō Ozu and Carl Th. Dreyer (forming writer / director Paul Schrader’s holy trinity of cinema). His classic, epigrammatic text Notes on the Cinematograph, first published in English in 1975 in an edition entitled Notes on Cinematography translated by Jonathan Griffin, has been out of print since its initial publication. I came across the first hardcover edition in a remainder pile at Brentano’s in New York in the early 1980s, going for $2 a copy. I bought five copies on the spot, and it remains on my shelf as one of the key books by any filmmaker on their work, stripped down to the essentials.

Now, New York Review Books has republished Notes on the Cinematograph in a new translation, back in print in a real edition – a very cheaply bound one circulated for a time a few years back – but just as importantly, they’ve gathered together interviews with the director on all of his films from 1943 to 1983, the year of his last film, L’Argent, along with a few supplementary texts written by those who worked with him, and with a selection of exceedingly rare production stills, in an essential text entitled simply Bresson on Bresson – Interviews, 1943–1983.

The result is mesmerizing; Bresson is absolutely modest, serious, and above all patient – my first takeaway from the volume was how extremely tolerant he was of the various interviewers who interrogated him over the years, asking the same questions again and again – how he used actors (or “models,” he called them), how he used as little music as possible, how his camera lingered on an empty space long after the actors had departed. Yet Bresson managed to turn even the most banal questions to his advantage, never passing up an opportunity to offer some fresh thoughts on his work.

Bresson on Bresson – Interviews, 1943–1983, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis, edited by Mylène Bresson, with a preface by Pascal Mérigeau, offers an series of penetrating insights into the director’s work, and serves as a useful model for filmmakers today, in an era where spectacle and special effects have replaced, for the most part, thoughtful cinema.

As the NYRB notes,”Robert Bresson, the director of such cinematic master-pieces as Pickpocket, A Man Escaped, Mouchette, and L’Argent, was one of the most influential directors in the history of French film, as well as one of the most stubbornly individual: He insisted on the use of nonprofessional actors; he shunned the ‘advances’ of Cinerama and CinemaScope (and the work of most of his predecessors and peers); and he minced no words about the damaging influence of capitalism and the studio system on the still-developing—in his view—art of film.

Bresson on Bresson collects the most significant interviews that Bresson gave (carefully editing them before they were released) over the course of his forty-year career to reveal both the internal consistency and the consistently exploratory character of his body of work. Successive chapters are dedicated to each of his fourteen films, as well as to the question of literary adaptation, the nature of the sound track, and to Bresson’s one book, the great aphoristic treatise Notes on the Cinematograph.

Throughout, his close and careful consideration of his own films and of the art of film is punctuated by such telling mantras  as ‘Sound…invented silence in cinema,’ ‘It’s the film that…gives life to the characters—not the characters that give life to the film,’ and (echoing the Bible) ‘Every idle word shall be counted.’

Bresson’s integrity and originality earned him the admiration of younger directors from Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette to Olivier Assayas. And though Bresson’s movies are marked everywhere by an air of intense deliberation, these interviews show that they were no less inspired by a near-religious belief in the value of intuition, not only that of the creator but that of the audience, which he claims to deeply respect: ‘It’s always ready to feel before it understands. And that’s how it should be.’”

Anyone even remotely interested in film should buy this volume immediately, along with the republished text of Notes on the Cinematograph, as a useful tonic to the current ultra-commercial cinematic landscape. As Alan Pavelin wrote in Senses of Cinema long ago, “Robert Bresson’s 13 features over 40 years constitute arguably the most original and brilliant body of work over a long career from a film director in the history of cinema. He is the most idiosyncratic and uncompromising of all major filmmakers.” Or as Martin Scorsese put it, “we are still coming to terms with Robert Bresson, and the peculiar power and beauty of his films.”

This is the essential film book of the year. Pick up a copy now – right now.

Vittorio de Sica’s “Two Women” Finally Gets A Real DVD Release

Monday, December 19th, 2016

Vittorio de Sica’s masterpiece Two Women finally gets a worthy DVD release.

As Svet Atanasov writes on the site Blu-ray.com, “winner of Best Actress Award at the Cannes Films Festival, Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (1960) arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of British distributors Cult Films.

In Rome, Cesira (Sophia Loren) decides to close her shop and relocate to the countryside together with her daughter Rosetta (Eleonora Brown). It is a difficult move for her, but she is convinced that two will be safer there until the war ends. They pack their most precious belongings and then head to the train station.

When the train breaks down long before it reaches Cesira’s home village, the two women vow to finish their journey on foot. They are nearly killed after a German bomber fires at them while they cross an open field not too far away from their final destination.

For a while everything goes according to Cesira’s plan. She and Rosetta settle down and even though occasionally foreign soldiers pass through the area they feel safe. They also befriend the handsome teacher Michele (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who sees the world a lot differently than the rest of villagers. The two women also find themselves attracted to him, but for different reasons.

Eventually, the Allies liberate the southern parts of the country and begin pushing the Germans further north. It is then that Cesira and Rosetta decide to return to Rome and reopen the family store. But on the way back the women are forced to hide from their liberators, who turn out to be just as vile as the enemies they have been trying to evade.

Vittorio De Sica’s La Ciociara a.k.a. Two Women was the film that transformed Loren into an international star. Prior to it Loren had appeared in other films that were received well outside of Italy, but Two Women was the first foreign film to earn Oscar Award for Best Actress and its success had a profound impact on her career.

The raging war is easily felt throughout the entire film, but the focus of attention is very much on the manner in which Cesira and Rosetta do their best to continue living as if their lives were never shattered. Cesira in particular fully understands that her role as a loving mother should not be comprised, which is why she often emerges as a strong and unusually optimistic person. Rosetta unconditionally trusts her but also realizes that there are times when it is necessary that she follows her instincts.

The special bond that exists between the two women is abruptly broken in such brutal fashion that after that it seems impossible that Cesira could do anything as a mother to mend it. And yet, somehow the film finds a way to show that life, as unfair and ugly as it can be at times, is still worth living.

De Sica manages the incredible emotional ups and downs in the only way that actually makes sense – without any safe guards or filters. While this can make the film quite difficult to watch at times, it is certainly the reason why it also remains so profoundly moving.

The film was adapted by De Sica and the great writer Cesare Zavattini from the brilliant novel by Alberto Moravia which chronicles a true event. Moravia’s incredible body of work also inspired such iconic films as The Conformist, Le Mépris, and Time of Indifference.”

This is all true, but most importantly, for some unfathomable reason, Two Women fell into the Public Domain shortly after its release, and has been available only in terrible “pan and scan” prints that cropped the original 1.85:1 ratio into flat screen size, thus wrecking the gorgeous compositions De Sica creates throughout the film.

There’s also a feature length documentary on the life and work of de Sica on the disc, as well as an appreciation of Loren’s career, but the main event here is that finally – finally – we get a good transfer of this superb film in its original aspect ratio. I’ve been waiting for this for years, available both in DVD and Blu-ray, and best of all, it’s region free.

It’s very rare that PD films get rescued; this is a real part of cinema history restored.

Upcoming Conference: “Frankenstein and Popular Culture”

Sunday, December 18th, 2016

Mary Shelley’s creation is always with us – more so today, perhaps, than ever before.

I’ve been invited to deliver a paper at the upcoming conference “Frankenstein and Popular Culture,” celebrating the 200th anniversary of the creation and publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on October 27-29, 2017. I chose as my topic “The Ghost of Frankenstein: What To Do With The Monster in The Digital Age?” – which is a pressing issue not only for scholars, but also for those within the industry as well. As I write in my paper, in part:

“Aside from J. Searle Dawley’s 1910 version of Frankenstein for the Edison Company, and moving through James Whale’s 1931 interpretation which pretty much put the ’stamp’ on the monster, the years have not been kind to Frankenstein’s creation. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939) have some value, especially since Boris Karloff returned to the role that made him famous, but this ‘golden period’ was short lived.

Universal soon relegated the monster to series of inferior sequels, and by 1943 was ‘teaming’ the monster with their creation The Wolf Man to generate flagging audience interest, only to dispose of the monster altogether in 1944’s House of Frankenstein and 1945’s House of Dracula, to say nothing – literally nothing – of 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

With this rather witless burlesque, Universal had seemingly run out of ideas. Yes, in the late 1950s Hammer Films effectively re-imagined the monster with Terence Fisher’s 1957 production of The Curse of Frankenstein, precisely because they were barred by Universal from using any visual, narrative or thematic elements of their version of the monster’s exploits, yet after an initial run of success, the final entries in the Hammer series also fell victim to diminishing returns.

Subsequent interpretations, from numerous other filmmakers, have been even more threadbare. My paper takes its title from the 1942 film The Ghost of Frankenstein, one of the last credible films in the original Universal series, and asks the question, ‘What are we to do with, or make of, the Frankenstein monster in the 21st century?’

Tracing the monster in film from its beginnings to the present, we see a disturbing but not altogether unexpected trend. Newer iterations of the classic tale feature more special effects, but less real content. Universal is right now planning to reboot their classic monsters with yet another version of The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, with new versions of Frankenstein and Dracula to follow. But will any of these versions have lasting impact, or value? [. . .]

Copying the Marvel and DC Universe method of churning out franchise films on a regular basis, Universal is plowing ahead with a similarly designed program of entries in the coming years, with Johnny Depp tentatively attached as the lead in a reboot of The Invisible Man; Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson potentially linked to a reboot of The Wolf Man; a remake of the 2004 film Van Helsing; Scarlett Johansson tagged for a remake of The Creature from The Black Lagoon; and Javier Bardem, perhaps, as the monster in a remake of The Bride of Frankenstein, with Angelia Jolie considered for the role of the Bride, as part of a project to create the Universal Monster universe.

Noted Universal chairperson Donna Langley of this strategy, ‘we have to mine our resources. We don’t have any capes [in our film library]. But what we do have is an incredible legacy and history with the monster characters. We’ve tried over the years to make monster movies — unsuccessfully, actually. So, we took a good, hard look at it, and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre, put it more in the action-adventure genre and make it present day, bringing these incredibly rich and complex characters into present day and reimagine them and reintroduce them to a contemporary audience.’

But I would argue that it’s not going to work; that it hasn’t worked thus far; and that it won’t work in the future. The Frankenstein legend, and with it The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and Dracula are not material for a ‘Bourne’ or ‘Mission: Impossible’ series – all this will do is degrade the material further. What is needed is a creative force like the Hammer team, which takes the material seriously, and treats each project with the utmost care and attention, placing the emphasis on character, setting, and thematic development, rather than relying on special effects and fleeting star power to put these forthcoming projects across in the marketplace.

Hammer understood Gothic horror; it’s an English tradition. Universal, in the 1930s, had a sort of second hand comprehension of the genre through the lens of German Expressionism and British stage versions of the source materials, as brought to life by British (James Whale) or German émigrés such as Curt Siodmak and Karl Freund. The new Universal films are strictly an attempt to artificially jump start creations that need a firm re-grounding in their source material. In these films and others, we will get only a simulacric vision of these mythic characters, especially Victor Frankenstein and his creation; in short, all we will get is the ghost of Frankenstein.”

So, that’s where this stands at the moment – a few days before Christmas, 2016.

About the Author

Headshot of 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.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, 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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