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Archive for the ‘Film Criticism’ Category

The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Monday, October 20th, 2014

The British Film Institute has just released Val Guest’s The Day Earth Caught Fire on DVD; click here to see the trailer.

The BFI, which has always been way ahead of American archival efforts, has just announced the release in DVD and Blu-ray format of Val Guest’s classic science fiction film The Day The Earth Caught Fire. This was an “A” level science fiction film, in which atomic testing knocks the earth off its axis, and sends it hurtling towards the sun. The film’s ending is unresolved; while scientists scramble to set off yet another atomic blast to correct the tilt, there’s no assurance that it will succeed. Shot in near documentary style, with real newspaper writers and editors in the cast, including one Fleet Street editor in a major speaking role in the film, the Day The Earth Caught Fire is not only effective filmmaking; it’s also a trenchant commentary on how science can lead us astray when we start things, but can’t really know the what the consequences will be.

I was lucky enough to interview Guest at length in 2003, an interview which is collected in my book Film Talk: Directors at Work (Rutgers UP, 2007), and shortly after our interview, to attend a 35mm CinemaScope screening of the film at The Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, with Guest in attendance. For that screening, the theater used a print which has been out of circulation since the film’s initial release, with a color opening, and ending, with the rest of the film framed as a flashback. Guest was shocked that the print had been found; in his opening remarks, he lamented the fact that this original version had been his intent all along, but that we were about to see yet another straight black and white print. When the opening section came up in red-hued color, the entire theater could hear Guest’s shout of delight – and I’m sure the BFI version will use this cut of the film.

Here’s a detailed look at the making of this excellent film; the BFI has once again performed a real public service with the release of this film.

Why Pan and Scan Wrecks Films – Watch This Video And See

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

Pan and scan wrecks movies when you see them on TV – click here, or on the image above, to see why.

When American Movie Classics, as it was then known, first went on the air, it had a half-day schedule, and split its satellite time with another network, and had a somewhat limited playlist. Nevertheless, all the films it ran were uncut, commercial-free, and presented in their original aspect ratio, whether Academy, widescreen, or CinemaScope (and their related formats). In time, American Movie Classics became a 24 hour network, running commercial free, uncut classic films, and I watched it all the time.

Then, as everyone who loves movies know, American Movie Classics “rebranded” itself as AMC, started running commercials, and hacking their films to ribbons (they’re all still complete, mind you, just intercut with hundred of commercials to completely ruin the film’s impact). I never watch AMC anymore, and in fact, regret it when I see a film I love advertised as forthcoming on the channel; I know I won’t watch it, I know it will be shredded with hundreds of ads, and I know it won’t be a movie at all, but rather an excuse to sell commercial time.

The Independent Film Channel, for many years, also ran films uncut and commercial free, but then they recently began running ads — while still advertising the films they present as “uncut” — but once again, you’re not seeing the movie you want, but rather the movie you wanted to see intercut with ads urging to you to buy this or that product, and so now, I don’t watch IFC anymore.

This could be because IFC wants consumers to move to their IFC in Theaters service, which I use quite frequently anyway; first run films presented on cable for a per-film fee the same day they open in theaters in “selected cities.” These commercials are uncut and commercial free, and presented in their original aspect ratios, and you pay for each one, but that seems fair; it’s cheaper than going to a theater to see them, especially when the nearest theater running the film is 1,000 miles away or so.

But now, there is only one basic cable service left that really runs feature films uncut and commercial free, in the original aspect ratio their makers intended; Turner Classic Movies, or TCM.

Robert Osborne and Alec Baldwin on the set of TCM’s The Essentials

TCM runs classic feature films and shorts 24/7, with absolutely no commercials (except for DVDs of the films they screen, promos for upcoming films, and self-promotional blurbs, inbetween the films, but never during), and, as hosted by Robert Osborne, who is insanely knowledgeable about films, is arguably the finest “repertory house” the cinema has ever known, with an enormous collection of MGM and UA films, and a lease on numerous Columbia titles as well, to say nothing of their excellent catalogue of foreign films.

And one other, very important thing: TCM nearly always runs the films they screen in their original aspect ratio. If it was shot in CinemaScope, you see it in CinemaScope, with the signature black bars at the top and bottom of the screen; if in widescreen, then with slightly smaller bars; and if in Academy, in full frame. This is something you can’t say of HBO, Showtime or the other so-called “premium” channels, who as a rule screen “pan and scan” versions of CinemaScope and widescreen films, so that up to one half of the original image is lost, all in the name of “filling the entire screen” with an image, even if it’s only half of the original image the director photographed.

Demo: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in “pan and scan” format

“Pan and scan” is, as Martin Scorsese has said (see this link here), tantamount to “redirecting the movie” — the sides of the frame are cut off, backgrounds eliminated, characters chopped out of the frame, all in the service of presenting a “full screen” image. But as Scorsese and others have pointed out over the years, with “pan and scan,” while you get a “full frame” with no black bars at the top and bottom, you’re not seeing the whole film. You get less, not more. HBO and the other “premium” channels do offer what they term “wide” versions of the some of their films in their on-demand section, but for their regular offerings, pan and scan is the rule.

When you watch a film in pan & scan format, you’re not seeing the whole movie!

The Bounty Killer (1965)

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

The Bounty Killer is a little known, but quite effective western, with a lot of history attached.

One of the last films directed by the great action specialist Spencer Gordon Bennet, The Bounty Killer can also be seen as a capsule history of the western, and of the men and women who appeared in them, neatly rolled up into one film, just about the time the western faded from mass popularity. Dan Duryea stars as tenderfoot Willie Duggan, just off the train from Vermont, who rapidly discovers that without a gun, he can’t protect himself in the old West. In his first scrape with a local bully, Duggan is bailed out by Johnny Liam (Rod Cameron), a hired gun who shoots down a man in cold blood who has been threatening Duggan for supposedly moving in on someone else’s love interest. But Duggan rapidly becomes just as vicious as Liam himself, and soon, with the aid of a sawed off shotgun of his own design, builds up a lucrative business as a bounty hunter who shoots first, and doesn’t even bother to ask questions.

What makes the film of interest is not only the all-star cast of  western veterans, including Buster Crabbe, Richard Arlen, Fuzzy Knight, Johnny Mack Brown, Bob Steele, Frank Lackteen, Eddie Quillan, I. Stanford Jolley and others, but also the fact that it includes a cameo by the very first western cowboy hero, Broncho Billy Anderson, as “the man in the cantina,” and thus pays tribute to the history of the genre, as well as celebrating the work-a-day actors who worked so steadily in the genre from the 1930s onwards, as dependable leads, second leads, or sidekicks. In addition, the film is astonishingly brutal for the period; the corpses pile up with alarming regularity, and the film’s message – that polite society depends upon people like Duggan becomes to do its dirty work, even as it ostracizes him – is as true today, if not truer, than when the film was first released.

Duryea, who made his name in film noir in the 1940s, arguably gives one of his best performances in the film – convincingly wet behind the ears as the film opens, becoming harder and more brutal as the film unreels, until by the end he’s little more than a drunken killing machine, living by the law of the gun and nothing else. But, of course, there’s a problem with all of this; you can’t see the film in its proper format. Shot in Techniscope – a widescreen process – and Technicolor, there is a legal US VHS tape of the film from long ago, cut down to pan and scan, and just recently a British PAL DVD of the film was released, but, as I found out to my dismay, it simply uses the same pan and scan master as the US VHS release from more thna twenty years ago, chopping off the sides of the frame to reduce the film to standard Academy ratio.

Needless to say, this pretty much wrecks the film, and though there are several YouTube videos of the film available, all are so poor I simply can’t recommend them, nor will I link to them. You can find them if you look around. The British DVD release is your best bet, if you own an all region DVD player — and again, if you don’t by now, why not? – but as I mentioned, by chopping off nearly one-half of the frame (slightly less than a third on the left and right), you’re really not seeing the film. That’s a pity, since The Bounty Killer is a sharp, taut, well acted and deeply allegorical film, which deserves greater attention – just as it paid attention to the history of the the western itself.

As critic Hal Erickson wrote of the film, “Dan Duryea plays a Western bounty hunter, expert in his job, but ill at ease with his conscience. He is shunned by the ‘good’ townsfolk until they need him to track down and kill a criminal; the gratitude doesn’t last long, and it’s back to outcast status for Duryea. At one juncture, the embittered bounty hunter delivers a condemnation against the ‘hypocrites’ who hire him — but nonetheless takes one more job. Ultimately, Duryea meets his end at the hands of a younger man (Peter Duryea, Dan’s son), who becomes a bounty hunter himself, starting the cycle all over again. Produced very economically by B-Western specialist Alex Gordon, The Bounty Killer is distinguished by Dan Duryea’s superb performance and by the presence in the supporting cast of several cowboy film veterans — including Hollywood’s very first Westerner, Billy Anderson.”

It would be nice to see a DVD release of The Bounty Hunter in its proper aspect ratio.

Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point To Be Re-Released in the UK – But Not The Original Version

Friday, October 17th, 2014

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point has always been a problematic film.

After the success of his English-language, British made film Blow-Up (1966), Italian master director Michelangelo Antonioni could pretty much write his own ticket. Blow-Up was for MGM, and so MGM agreed with Antonioni when he decided to do a film about the American counter-culture of the period, but the result was, from many points of view, a disaster. I was working for Life Magazine at the time, and remember vividly Life’s coverage of the final scene in the film, pictured above, in which Antonioni deliberately blew up a huge glass and stone house especially constructed for the film, as a metaphor for the supposed collapse of hypercapitalism, scored to music by Pink Floyd. The sequence, which runs about ten minutes in length at the end of the film, remains an absolutely stunning achievement, as the house explodes again and again from various angles, and then Antonioni moves in for super slow motion close-ups for television sets, refrigerators, and closets full of clothes disintegrating in an unforgettable montage.

But, in all fairness, it must be said that the script, cobbled together by the extremely unlikely group of Antonioni, Fred Gardner, Sam Shepard, Tonino Guerra and Clare Peploe is resolutely clueless in its depiction of the language and values of the era, and while the film remains a visually stunning experience, the narrative and dialogue seem distressingly out of touch, particularly when one considers how well Antonioni did with conveying the ambiance of the mid 1960s London pop scene in Blow-Up. Stars Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin both had almost no acting experience, and it shows, but Frechette is dead, Halprin has moved on to new concerns, and, of course, Antonioni himself is now no longer with us, or able to protect the artistic integrity of the films he once directed.

So it makes it all the more distressing to read the news that there is now a planned re-release in the United Kingdom of Zabriskie Point in the works, but from this article in Variety, it would seem that the distributors of the film plan to release MGM’s recut of the film, rather than Antonioni’s original version. The tip off comes from the brief reference to the film’s soundtrack listing Roy Orbison as being among the numerous pop music artists whose work is featured in the film. I have nothing against Roy Orbison, but his work on the film was done at the behest of MGM, who saw the original cut of the film, hated it, and searched desperately for some way to make the film more commercial, and in doing so, tacked on a song by Orbison, “So Young,” at the end of the film, rather than reprising Pink Floyd’s “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” over the end of the film.

I saw the original version, and whatever other faults the film may have – and they are numerous – the ending seriously undermines the film as a whole, and most importantly, is not what Antonioni intended. While the MGM recut was a hot topic back when the film was first released, generating numerous news stories, most of the coverage of the re-edit has seemingly vanished, except for sites such as this one, at The Criterion Forum, in which one commenter decries the distribution of the recut, noting that “there is a perfectly acceptable film print circulating with the proper music at the end. I’ve seen it about five times in as many years in Vancouver – twice at the VIFC, once at a Cinematheque Antonioni retrospective, and once at the same venue as part of the VIFF [Vancouver International Film Festival] . . .  [MGM] should have educate[d] themselves in this matter and discover[ed] that there are alternate cuts, one vastly preferred by cinephiles and Antonioni fans.”

Are there more important things going on in the world today? Absolutely! But for those of us who care about the cinema, and about the original intent of those who created films that still – more than 40 years after the film’s first release – have the power to amaze and delight viewers, it’s a matter of some concern that this isn’t even being mentioned – especially when the re-issue of the film in UK theatrical sites is designed to tie in with a forthcoming, and supposedly final Pink Floyd album – Antonioni’s cut includes more Pink Floyd than the recut! So why not do the the right thing, get the right print, and put it out there the way the director intended?

You can watch the final destruction sequence in Zabriskie Point by clicking here, or on the image above.

History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Paolo Cherchi Usai’s clearly polemical book nevertheless raises many serious questions.

First published by The British Film Institute in 2001, when the digital revolution was just beginning, with a preface by Martin Scorsese, and subsequently republished in 2008 by Palgrave Macmillan, Usai’s text asks a number of deeply important questions about the headlong rush to digital, for as he writes, “it is estimated that about one and a half billion hours of moving images were produced in 1999, twice as many as a decade before. If that rate of growth continues, one hundred billion hours of moving images will be made in the year 2025. In 1895 there was just above forty minutes of moving images to be seen, and most of them are now preserved.

Today, for every film made, thousands of them disappear forever without leaving a trace. Meanwhile, public and private institutions are struggling to save the film heritage with largely insufficient resources and ever increasing pressures from the commercial world. Are they wasting their time? Is the much feared and much touted “Death of Cinema” already occurring before our eyes? Is digital technology the solution to the problem, or just another illusion promoted by the industry?” – this, of course, is the crux of the problem.

In my recent article on the increasing global reach of Netflix, “Netflix and National Cinemas,” published in Film International, I noted that “under the headline ‘Netflix Will Rip the Heart Out of Pre-Sale Film Financing,’ Schuyler Moore wrote in Forbes that: ‘Netflix is working mightily to expand its reach worldwide, so far including Latin America, Canada, and the U.K., with Europe next up at bat. When Netflix is done, people in every part of the world will be its customers, and those customers will be able to toggle what language they want to watch a film in.

This trend corresponds to the shrinking of the piracy window (the time between the theatrical window and the home video window), so by the time Netflix has a worldwide reach, it will also probably be available day and date with the theatrical release. This trend will have a huge effect on how independent films are financed.  Right now, independent filmmakers raise funds by selling their films through ‘pre-sales’ on a country-by-country basis to local distributors, but a worldwide VOD reach will rip the heart out of these sales, because it will destroy the value of DVD and pay TV rights to the local distributors.

The net result will be that independent films will be financed by pre-sales to Netflix, not the local distributors.  Instead of going to the Cannes Film Festival, filmmakers could be going to Las Vegas for a digital convention in order to pre-sell VOD rights to Netflix.  Indeed, Netflix will likely expand from creating original series to creating its own large budget films, with the initial premiere on-line.  Netflix may be a vibrant, important source of new financing that disrupts the studio system and bypasses standard distribution channels.’

The title of the article here tells all; it’s such an apt metaphor that it’s frightening. Netflix will indeed ‘rip the heart’ out of pre-sale film financing, but what Moore fails to consider here is the impact that this will have on national cinemas on a worldwide basis. Of course, Forbes is a bottom-line publication, a self-proclaimed ‘capitalist tool,’ and really isn’t interested in artistic concerns, or empowering anyone other than the already dominant global media forces. This is the voice of mainstream Hollywood cinema talking here, and it admits to the existence of nothing beyond that.

What happens to filmmaking in Sweden, France, Germany, Spain, Nigeria, Morocco and elsewhere is no concern of Moore’s, who seems to think that cinema is more a spectator sport than anything else. He embraces the Hollywood model of filmmaking – ruled entirely by commerce, and nothing else – and that’s that. It’s probably true, as Moore says, that ‘worldwide VOD reach will rip the heart out of these sales, because it will destroy the value of DVD and pay TV rights to the local distributors’ but the problem with this of course is that it’s more concentration in the hands of a few – everyone wants the “master switch” as Adolph Zukor put it, and Tim Wu so effectively explored in his book of the same title.”

And as Daniel Lindvall, editor of Film International wrote me on this issue, “Netflix was introduced on the Swedish market in 2012 and apparently has 1 million users in Sweden already (out of a population of 9.5 million). The most noticeable result so far is that the last of the non-chain ‘art house’ video rental shops here in Stockholm have closed down. But at the same time many thousands of the films that were available in these shops are not yet available on Netflix in Sweden, since they still have to buy rights for every country separately, which is too expensive for a small market when it comes to films that few people are likely to see.

Thus you can see some Bergman films on Netflix in the US but not in Sweden. I guess this will change given Netflix’s interest in changing it to further dominate the global market. As always, we are left with a choice between plague and cholera within the market system. And, again, the Internet proves to be a tool for concentrating media, not the dreamt-of opposite.”

It’s obvious that I agree more with Lindvall than with Moore, but beyond that, it’s also disconcerting to note that in the end, Moore is probably correct in his prognostications for the future of cinema on a worldwide basis. People would much rather watch from the comfort and safety of their living rooms than trek out to the theater for anything other than the most immersive spectacle; the clearest evidence of this is the complete collapse of video rental stores, even in such major cities as New York, a metropolis of eight million people, which seemingly can’t sustain more than few revival houses, and only one or two video rental locations, even though they offer the kinds of films you’re not likely to find on Netflix.

But beyond this, the problem, as many have noted, is that while Netflix pushes into streaming only territory, literally hundreds of thousands of films on a worldwide basis are simply not being distributed at all. The dream of having acesss to everything in the digital era is being steadily undermined by a bottom-line mentality that focuses on profits and nothing else.

This is the “blockbuster only” model of filmmaking, which has effectively defined the marketplace for the future – indies shifted off to the side on VOD, and for the mainstream, mass merchandising, saturation booking, and literally endless franchising. And for the classics – maybe Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz – mainstream Hollywood films all – but for Antonioni, Fellini, Ozu, Dreyer, Godard, Lupino, Arzner, Blaché, Akerman, and too many others – it’s marginal distribution, or none at all.

As John Talbird, a former student of mine who now teaches in New York, wrote me in response to my article, “at first, I liked Netflix, but now I’m beginning to realize it’s just another evil empire. Who cared about the demise of Blockbuster? But all three of the quirky independent video stores in my neighborhood have shut down in the ten years I’ve lived in Brooklyn. And Netflix isn’t even as good as it used to be. A lot of the Criterion titles which used to be available for streaming are no longer available. Also, their DVD titles aren’t as extensive as they at first appear. I’ve got six titles in my cue with ‘Very Long Wait’ next to them. More and more, the only alternative to Netflix is the public library or buying the DVD.”

To which I responded, “but the kicker is that soon DVDs and BluRays will be obsolete, as everything goes streaming. Netflix and the rest of the conglomerates don’t want you to own anything; they just want you to rent from them, eternally. And the visual quality is much, much poorer. My students are running into this problem too. Netflix doesn’t even have Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game – [universally acknowledged as one of the indisputable classics of the cinema] on streaming.”

So the issue here has multiple dimensions. As I discussed at length in my book Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, the very idea that there is such a thing as digital archiving is a myth. Nothing could be more unstable, or more uncertain. The major studios routinely make 35mm fine grain negatives as backups for all their productions, and store them in their film vaults, because they know – as I document in the book – that digital archiving simply isn’t reliable – there are too may ways that files can become corrupt. As Michael Cieply wrote in The New York Times in 2007, “time was, a movie studio could pack up a picture and all of its assorted bloopers, alternate takes and other odds and ends as soon as the production staff was done with them, and ship them off to the salt mine. Literally.

Having figured out that really big money comes from reselling old films — on broadcast television, then cable, videocassettes, DVDs, and so on — companies like Warner Brothers and Paramount Pictures for decades have been tucking their 35-millimeter film masters and associated source material into archives, some of which are housed in a Kansas salt mine, or in limestone mines in Kansas and Pennsylvania. It was a file-and-forget system that didn’t cost much, and made up for the self-destructive sins of an industry that discarded its earliest works or allowed films on old flammable stock to degrade. (Indeed, only half of the feature films shot before 1950 survive.)

But then came digital. And suddenly the film industry is wrestling again with the possibility that its most precious assets, the pictures, aren’t as durable as they used to be. The problem became public, but just barely, last month, when the science and technology council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the results of a yearlong study of digital archiving in the movie business. Titled The Digital Dilemma, the council’s report [offered this] startling bottom line: To store a digital master record of a movie costs about $12,514 a year, versus the $1,059 it costs to keep a conventional film master.

Much worse, to keep the enormous swarm of data produced when a picture is ‘born digital’ — that is, produced using all-electronic processes, rather than relying wholly or partially on film — pushes the cost of preservation to $208,569 a year, vastly higher than the $486 it costs to toss the equivalent camera negatives, audio recordings, on-set photographs and annotated scripts of an all-film production into the cold-storage vault.”

That was in 2007. Now, in 2014, everything is digital. But the problem remains the same. There are more movies being made than ever, but they’re not being shot on film — they’re digital. How are you going to archive them? What do you do when a digital platform is phased out, as DVDs now seem to be heading for their final spin? And what about the relentless mercantilism and Hollywoodization of filmic culture?

What do we do when physical materials disappear, and independent visions with them, to be replaced by a wilderness of solely commercial content? Wikipedia defines the term “Digital Dark Age” as “a possible future situation where it will be difficult or impossible to read historical electronic documents and multimedia, because they have been in an obsolete and obscure file format.”

But I would argue that this is only a very, very small part of the problem. A more pressing concern, it would seem to me, for books, films and music, is that the works of the past created in analog fashion won’t survive in the future because they’re not deemed to be commercial enough. If there’s only a niche market, then why bother? The digital databases of the past can be retrieved, but what happens when a nitrate negative decomposes – as 50% of all films before 1950 already have. That’s 50% – a shocking number.

This is an issue that will continue to expand in the years to come, and something to seriously think about.

Atom Egoyan’s Chloe

Friday, September 26th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Millie (1931) – A Lost Feminist Classic

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

Millie is an astonishing film that has fallen between the cracks of film history; now, you can see it here.

John Francis Dillon was a prolific director of silent features, who nevertheless easily made the transition to sound. Only his premature death as the result of a heart ailment at the age of 49 in 1934 stopped him from going on to establish a major career in Hollywood history; Millie is one of his finest works. The film stars Helen Twelvetrees, then a major cinema star, as the title character, Millie Blake, who, as a very young woman, has the bad luck to marry one Jack Maitland (James Hall), a thoroughly unlikable but wealthy businessman, who sets Millie up in a palatial estate, but offers her no real love, and rapidly starts cheating on her. The couple has a child, Connie (Anita Louise), but when Millie discovers Jack’s numerous infidelities, she walks away from the marriage without asking for a cent of alimony, leaving Connie with Jack’s mother (Charlotte Walker), on the rather reasonable theory that in the midst of the Depression, Connie will be better off with people who can provide for her, while Millie tries to make her way in the world on her own.

Refusing all offers of assistance, Millie lands a job at the newsstand in a major hotel, and soon falls in love with Tommy Rock (Robert Ames), a newspaper reporter, whom she loves but refuses to marry because of her past experience with Jack Maitland, even as she is continually pursued by a variety of men, most especially the seemingly dignified but utterly unscrupulous man about town Jimmy Damier (John Halliday), for whom Millie has become an obsession. Millie is eventually promoted to a better position at the hotel due to her hard work, but her relationship with Tommy is ruined when she discovers that he, too, has been cheating on her.

Completely disillusioned, Millie begins to live a wild, reckless life, which with the passage of years takes a toll on her looks, as well as her dignity, even as her daughter, Connie, blossoms in the Maitland home, becoming a beautiful young woman – something that Jimmy Damier notices, too. With Connie’s attractions fading for Damier, he decides to seduce Connie, then just sixteen years old, at his lodge in the country, despite his assurances to Millie that he will leave Connie alone. Discovering Damier’s duplicity, Millie trails Damier and Connie to Damier’s country house, and just as Damier is about to rape Connie, breaks in and shoots Damier to death.

In a more conventional maternal melodrama, such as Stella Dallas or Madame X, one might expect that Millie would then be sentenced to death for her crime, sacrificing herself for her daughter’s future, but no – Millie’s newspaper friends, including erstwhile boyfriend Tommy Rock, come to her aid. Although Millie tries to keep her daughter’s name out of the case, Connie willingly takes the stand, and tells the judge and jury exactly what happened, resulting in Millie’s acquittal on all charges. In the film’s final scenes, Millie is reunited with her daughter and her first husband’s mother at their country estate, as Tommy notes that “she’s going home” to a much better life.

There are many things about the film that are remarkable; Connie’s lesbian friends, who offer aid to Millie throughout the film – Helen Riley (Lilyan Tashman) and Angie Wickerstaff (Joan Blondell) – are completely forthright about their relationship, and no one else seems to give it more than a passing thought, either. People party all night, drink too much, and yet seem resignedly fatalistic about the future – there’s no guarantees that things will get any better. The brutal reality of the Depression is evident in nearly every frame of the film, and, of course, liquor flows freely although the film takes place during Prohibition. Men are depicted as being unreliable and thoroughly dishonest, and so self-reliance for women is viewed as the only possible course of action. Yet in the end of the film, when Millie really needs a friend, her newspaper pals (including a young Frank McHugh, a veteran cinema “sidekick” who remained active in films as late as 1967) rally to her aid to clear her during the trial.

Millie fell into the Public Domain, and is thus available – complete and uncut – not only on YouTube, but also in a surprisingly good (don’t believe the reviews) transfer on DVD from Alpha Video, which can be purchased for as little as 99 cents on Amazon, and which I heartily recommend here. Millie is yet another example of a film which has been lost, essentially forgotten, and ignored by such DVD labels as Criterion because of its Public Domain status, and thus relegated to the margins of cinema history. There are a number of rather uninformed “reviews” of the film on the web, but you should ignore them – see the film for yourself, which is the only reliable way to judge any work of art. At a scant 85 minutes, Millie is a taut, compelling, deeply feminist film which deserves a much more prominent place in the canon of Pre-Code cinema, with a stand out performance by Helen Twelvetrees in the title role.

Thanks to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for telling me about this film – it’s a key piece of cinema history.

John Flaus on Film and Television Acting

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

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

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