As he notes, “Bigelow’s films have always contained enough frisson, enough of a patina of film school sophistication that her overall enterprise has gone unquestioned, to a point that some reviewers of an ostensibly progressive bent seem absolutely blind to what is on the screen. Her first film, The Loveless (1982), about a listless group of outlaw bikers, is clearly the kind of exercise that flows from film education. It is the work of an impoverished sensibility, one grounded in film alone, with the rest of the humanities left on the shelf. We hardly need Bigelow’s DVD commentary track to know that the film adds nothing to the sources to which she must pay homage, such as The Wild One and Scorpio Rising. Her’s seems to be a temperament born of the video age, yet another movie brat, unable to discriminate, to figure the significance of her own enterprise, in order to give a piece of art a sense of value; indeed, one wonders if she has any real criteria for establishing value. She is a temperament of Tarantino’s ilk, but without his false humor, crudity, and nihilism.”
Archive for the ‘Film Criticism’ Category
As I note in the essay, “Yasujiro Ozu is no longer a name unknown in the Western world; for a long time, this ‘most Japanese’ of directors was overshadowed on the international scene by Akira Kurosawa, whose flashier, more action oriented style translated much more easily to 1950s American culture, and paved the way for a series of remakes of his films – even now, almost 15 years after his death, Kurosawa’s estate is overseeing Hollywood remakes of many of his original films.
By contrast, Ozu was almost unknown outside Japan until the 1960s. When his sublime later films, such as Tokyo Story (1953), finally became publicly available in 16mm prints for university and museum screenings, Ozu’s reputation soared to new heights, easily eclipsing Kurosawa’s dwindling critical reputation. Now, at last, we have this superb collection of three of his earlier, formative films, The Gangster Films in a 2-DVD set from the British Film Institute (as their new motto notes, ‘Film Forever,’ a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree), and it’s a must for cineastes, collectors, and all lovers of cinema.”
As Frank Miller writes of this exceptionally odd film on the TCM Website, “many movies have been built around the pursuit of a childhood love. Heathcliff pursued his [lifelong love] Cathy in nine film and 13 television versions of Wuthering Heights, and Charles Foster Kane built a business empire while dreaming of his [childhood sled] Rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941). In the 1952 Western Wild Stallion, Dan Light (Ben Johnson) searches the Black Hills for Top Kick, the horse he lost the same day an Indian raid killed his parents.
Wild Stallion was an early production from Walter Mirisch, who started his career at Monogram Pictures making low-budget Westerns and action films, most notably the Bomba series that Johnny Sheffield moved into after he ended his run as Boy in the Tarzan films. Mirisch shot the film quickly, during the month of December 1951, with the land around the Corrigan and Iverson Ranches in California standing in for the Black Hills of Wyoming. Even a windstorm that destroyed some of the sets didn’t keep him from getting the film into theatres by April 1952.
Like many films from Poverty Row studios like Monogram, Wild Stallion provided a showcase for young actors on the way up though leading man fame may have seemed far away for Ben Johnson at the time he starred in the film. A former cowboy and rodeo champion, he had come to Hollywood as a wrangler when Howard Hughes hired him to transport horses to the locations for The Outlaw (1943).
After years of stunt riding for stars like John Wayne and Randolph Scott, he was spotted by John Ford, who promoted him to ever bigger roles in his Cavalry Trilogy and the title role in Wagon Master (1950). Then the two quarreled while making the third Cavalry film, Rio Grande (1950), after Johnson’s agent tried to squeeze Ford for more money on an upcoming film. As a result, the director simply stopped working with him, and Johnson’s career stalled. He even left Hollywood for a year to work the rodeo circuit. He wouldn’t get his career back on track until Ford convinced him to accept the role of Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show (1971), which won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Leading lady Martha Hyer went to school with Charlton Heston, Patricia Neal and Cloris Leachman, and, like them, went to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. After being spotted at the Pasadena Playhouse, she started landing film roles, earning her first billing as Tim Holt’s leading lady in Thunder Mountain (1947). It wasn’t until she signed with Universal, where she was promoted as their answer to Grace Kelly, that the icy blonde started moving up the career ladder.
Her biggest success came with a loan to MGM in 1958 to co-star as the frigid English professor thawed by Frank Sinatra in Some Came Running. The role won her an Oscar nomination, but she had a hard time finding a suitable follow-up in a Hollywood changing rapidly with the decline of the studio system. Instead she found a more satisfying role off-screen as the wife of independent producer Hal Wallis.
Rounding out the cast of Wild Stallion [are several] reliable character actors caught between the decline of the studio contract system and the rise of television. Edgar Buchanan, co-starring as the horse tracker who trains Johnson, had been a staple of Columbia releases in the ’40s, most notably as Cary Grant and Irene Dunne’s closest friend in Penny Serenade (1941). He did well as a free-lancer in the ’50s, but is best remembered as Uncle Joe on Petticoat Junction.
Second-generation actor Hayden Rorke came to Hollywood after years on the stage and was a familiar face on movie screens in the ’50s, with small roles in everything from An American in Paris (1951) to Pillow Talk (1959). He entered television history as Captain Bellows, the suspicious commanding officer on I Dream of Jeannie.
In 1952, the cast of Wild Stallion was still far from the fame they would achieve in later years. As a result, ads for the film sold not the human characters, but rather the horse. Top Kick was billed as the ‘Untamed King of the Wild Outlaw Herds!’ and ‘Outlaw stallion defying man’s ruthless guns…battling snarling killer wolves!’ Hype aside, however, the taglines capture one of the film’s evergreen selling points, its focus on one of the animals that helped win the West. In most low-budget Westerns, the love story is of relatively minor importance. In Wild Stallion, it takes center stage, even if it represents a departure from the boy meets girl formula to create a boy meets horse epic.”
Indeed, this is what’s oddest about the film; Ben Johnson’s character seems utterly uninterested in anything except his beloved white stallion, to the point that any romantic interest between Johnson and Martha Hyer is reduced to the absolute margins of the film. The other thing, of course, is that when watching Wild Stallion, the viewer is conscious of the fact that these are real cowboys in the film, doing most of their own stunts; it’s as if Hollywood in the 1950s was desperately recreating the American saga of ”manifest destiny,” using ranch hands as out of date in their time as the cowboy drifters in John Huston’s The Misfits a decade later, in an attempt to hold on to the past.
A really bizarre little film, more “boy meets horse” than “boy meets girl”; worth seeing.
Soderbergh claims it’s his last film, but as just about everyone is saying, “don’t hold your breath,” and it would be sad to lose him as a working director, when he’s one of the most original voices out there right now, at least in contemporary Hollywood filmmaking. But as Mary Kaye Schilling wrote in Vulture on January 27, 2013, “Steven Soderbergh has directed 26 films since his 1989 debut, sex, lies, and videotape — the behind-closed-doors portrait of yuppie Louisiana often credited with kick-starting the indie-film revolution of the nineties, released when he was only 26. In the 24 years since, he’s been a remarkably prolific chameleon, managing arguably more than any other director of his generation to successfully bounce between the low- and high-budget, not only directing but often editing and shooting his own films, each, in its way, an audacious experiment.
In one extraordinary three-year streak — 1998 to 2001 — he directed two noirish classics (Out of Sight, The Limey), pulled an Oscar performance out of Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich), earned an Oscar of his own (Traffic, the same year he was also nominated for Brockovich), and launched a lucrative franchise (Ocean’s Eleven, followed by Twelve and Thirteen). Then in 2011, the seemingly abrupt announcement: He wanted to be done making movies by the time he was 50, to focus on painting, among many other things.
[As Soderbergh noted] ‘when I was growing up, there was a sort of division: Respect was accorded to people who made great movies and to people who made movies that made a lot of money. And that division just doesn’t exist anymore: Now it’s just the people who make a lot of money. I think there are many reasons for that. Some of them are cultural. I’ve said before, I think that the audience for the kinds of movies I grew up liking has migrated to television. The format really allows for the narrow and deep approach that I like, and a lot of people … Well, the point is, three and a half million people watching a show on cable is a success. That many people seeing a movie is not a success [. . .]
The worst development in filmmaking—particularly in the last five years—is how badly directors are treated [. . .] It’s not just studios—it’s anyone who is financing a film. I guess I don’t understand the assumption that the director is presumptively wrong about what the audience wants or needs when they are the first audience, in a way. And probably got into making movies because of being in that audience.
But an alarming thing I learned during Contagion is that the people who pay to make the movies and the audiences who see them are actually very much in sync. I remember during previews how upset the audience was by the Jude Law character. The fact that he created a sort of mixed reaction was viewed as a flaw in the filmmaking [. . .] People were really annoyed by that. And I thought, Wow, so ambiguity is not on the table anymore. They were angry.’”
As she writes, “on leaving office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a very famous and oft-quoted speech condemning the rise of the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower specified that Americans ‘must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.’ Though he no doubt was referring to the escalation of government funding for armaments, the military, and weapons of mass destruction, he would be appalled by the manner in which individual Americans have begun selfishly destroying the environment as they individually prepare for war.
A brief history of Atom Age hysteria films of the Cold War makes evident the through-line to prepping as a form of overcompensation around the fear of emasculation of the nation, from films such as Alfred E. Green’s Invasion, U.S.A. (1952) to more recent television programs such as Doomsday Preppers. Invasion U.S.A. is a prime example of a fascinating, almost forgotten genre of post-war red scare films that traded on American fear and hysteria in the Cold War era. It typifies the post-war captivity narratives in which Americans are subject to wholesale Communist takeovers in what amounts to a repetitive psychologically driven compulsive mass hysteria.
While trading upon the crisis of masculinity, the film poster for Invasion U.S.A. promised the exploitational kicks Americans love to devour in their filmed nightmares: ‘See vast U.S. cities vanish before your very eyes.’ Indeed, in a morally objectionable use of stock footage, audiences of the film were barraged with actual documentary war images from World War II; actual air raids, on camera deaths of American soldiers and images of endless destruction and mayhem were disturbingly exploited as stand-ins to portray a massive Communist military invasion of the United States. Invasion U.S.A. is an outright plea for massive spending and expansion of the American military. Repeatedly, the United States is dishonestly depicted as militarily emasculated, ill equipped, and poorly prepared.
Like Red Nightmare (George Waggner, 1962), Invasion U.S.A. is revealed to be a hypnotic dream, or a nightmare that is incurred by the brandy-swirling Dan O’Herlihy, who hypnotizes a bar full of patrons into believing that America has been taken over by an unnamed Communist nation. Red Nightmare and Invasion, U.S.A. were designed to both exploit hysteria and add even more irrational fear to an already frightened nation experiencing a crisis of masculinity.
‘It will scare the pants off you,’ wrote Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper for the poster of Invasion, U.S.A. Jack Webb, an ultra rightwing bully, and star of the radio and television series Dragnet, really scares the pants off the audience as the narrator of Red Nightmare. This ‘educational’ film features Jack Webb presenting a vision of an alternative America, a dream scenario proudly sponsored by the United States Department of Defense, in which average American Jerry Donavan (Jack Kelly), who is not much interested in civil defense, much less Army Reserve Conferences, gets his just comeuppance in the form of a nightmare sent by macho Jack Webb.
‘Let’s give him a real red nightmare,’ threatens Webb, and indeed Jerry’s character awakens to a frightening captivity narrative – once again, the United States has been taken over by Communist forces. Jerry’s daughter Linda (Patricia Woodell), formerly sweet, feminine, and docile, announces she is going off to work on a collective. The nuclear family falls apart completely; Jerry’s wife and friends turn against him when Jerry is arrested for treason and he has no one to turn to.”
This is a book that has been long in the making, and the effort and work show on every page. Olney does a superb job tracking modern European horror films from Italy, Spain and France, in a style that is at once academically rigorous and at the same time absolutely accessible; in short, this is a theoretical text that doesn’t drown itself in artificial systematizing or outdated jargon. Instead, this is a lively, informed, authoritative text on a group of films that have become increasingly influential in horror filmmaking in the United States, exploring the work of such artists as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava and many, many others.
As the jacket copy notes, “beginning in the 1950s, ‘Euro Horror’ movies materialized in astonishing numbers from Italy, Spain, and France and popped up in the US at rural drive-ins and urban grindhouse theaters such as those that once dotted New York’s Times Square. Gorier, sexier, and stranger than most American horror films of the time, they were embraced by hardcore fans and denounced by critics as the worst kind of cinematic trash. In this volume, Olney explores some of the most popular genres of Euro Horror cinema—including giallo films, named for the yellow covers of Italian pulp fiction, the S&M horror film, and cannibal and zombie films—and develops a theory that explains their renewed appeal to audiences today.”
“From lesbian vampires to cannibal zombies, this remarkable book charts the rise and fall of the European horror film, and most significantly its rediscovery by Western fans and critics in the 21st century. In a style both sophisticated and lucid, Olney examines key films and filmmakers within their national and international contexts. Guaranteed to send scholars and fans running back to their DVD outlets, either to discover or revisit some of the oddest and most provocative horror films of all time.” —Harry M. Benshoff, author of Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film.
“Ian Olney’s new book takes us on a journey into the dark world of European horror cinema. He offers up fascinating analyses of individual Eurohorror films while also, more provocatively, arguing for the value of Eurohorror generally to a contemporary politics of identity. Not everyone will agree with what Olney has to say, but his approach is always thoughtful and accessible and it demands our attention. This is an important contribution to the literature on horror cinema.” —Peter Hutchings, author of The Historical Dictionary of Horror Cinema
“Olney takes on a cinema that, much like the monsters it features, keeps coming back no matter how often you kill it. His welcome study traces the emergence, disappearance, and return of Euro-Horror within US culture since the fifties, its revilers and devotees, its subversive potential, and its echoes in the work of filmmakers like Haneke, von Trier, or Almódovar. In the process, Olney explodes the last of our treasured binaries: art vs. schlock, “real” vs. fan scholar, hack vs. auteur, progressive vs. regressive movie.” —Linda Schulte-Sasse, Macalester College
This last quote really sums up the book’s impressive achievement: Olney really does “the last of our treasured binaries: art vs. schlock, “real” vs. fan scholar, hack vs. auteur, progressive vs. regressive movie,” documenting the varying ways in which these films are apprehended by audiences around the globe, and the ways in which they transcend the boundaries of genre and artificial binaries to reach out to the widest possible audience.
Since the shootings in Colorado, Newtown, CT, and elsewhere, the gun debate is now front and center in American national politics. In 1968, long before the problem became epidemic, director Peter Bogdanovich made one of the most insightful films about this problem with Targets, a film that among other things traces movie violence to gun violence, and presents a picture of cultural emptiness and societal freefall which is more timely today than it was even upon its initial release.
As I write today in the journal Film International, “Peter Bogdanovich got his start as a critic and historian, conducting interviews with some of cinema’s most illustrious directors in their twilight years, which were published first in a variety of books and magazines, and finally collected in his volume Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors in 1998. But Bogdanovich wanted to do more. He moved to Los Angeles and fell in with the Roger Corman circle at the height of its creative brilliance, and soon found himself working on such landmark exploitation vehicles as The Wild Angels (1966), in which he did double duty as an Assistant Director and an extra.
The next logical step was directing a movie himself, and Corman, then able to green light films with modest budgets that would actually wind up in a theater, as opposed to going straight to tape, VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray or VOD, famously offered Bogdanovich a deal. Boris Karloff owed Corman two days work on a multipicture deal, and he offered the fledgling director two days of Karloff, twenty minutes of footage from the recently completed film The Terror (1963, ostensibly a Corman film, but one which nearly everyone in Corman’s circle had a hand in directing, including Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill and Jack Nicholson), with a minimal budget and shooting schedule. Corman told Bogdanovich that if the finished film was any good, he’d distribute it through Paramount; if not, he’d dump it in drive ins through American International Pictures.
Absorbing this, Bogdanovich went home, and working with his then-wife, Polly Platt, and an uncredited Samuel Fuller, who contributed considerably to the final script, drafted a screenplay about the last days of a aging horror star, Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff), who wants to quit the business because he’s sick of starring in one rotten horror film after another; in addition, he feels that his brand of Gothicism is out of date, and that he should quit the business gracefully while he’s still in demand.
At the same time, in a parallel story, young All-American Vietnam veteran Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly, in a terrifyingly realistic performance) is having trouble readjusting to society after his hitch in the service, and goes on a murderous rampage as a sniper, picking off unsuspecting people from the top of a huge oil refinery tank, and later, from behind the screen of a drive in theater. He does all of this quite casually, as if the entire rampage was simply a sporting event, which, of course, it is for him. He has no empathy for his victims; he has no feeling for anyone. All of his victims are simply targets, as the title states with succinct finality.”
As the website for the book notes, “Spike Lee has directed, written, produced, and acted in dozens of films that present an expansive, nuanced, proudly opinionated, and richly multifaceted portrait of American society. As the only African-American filmmaker ever to establish a world-class career, Lee has paid acute attention to the experiences of racial and ethnic minorities. But white men and women also play important roles in his movies, and his interest in class, race, and urban life hasn’t prevented his films from ranging over broad swaths of the American scene in stories as diverse as the audiences who view them. His defining trait is a willingness to raise hard questions about contemporary America without pretending to have easy answers; his pictures are designed to challenge and provoke us, not ease our minds or pacify our emotions. The opening words of his 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing present his core message in two emphatic syllables: ‘Wake up!’” Spike Lee’s America is a vibrant and provocative engagement not only with the work of a great filmmaker, but also with American society and politics.”
The book’s author, David Sterritt, is Chair of the National Society of Film Critics and Professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art. Here are some early reviews: “Writing perceptively about class, race and recent US history (as well as the movies) Sterritt steers refreshingly far from the academic waffle that can plague this kind of book, and builds a reasoned portrait of one of America’s punchiest commentators.” — Total Film
“My admiration for Spike Lee has always been substantial, but thanks to this book I now admire him even more. Although David Sterritt does not blink at the many dilemmas the films present, he has greatly enriched our appreciation as well as our understanding of Spike Lee’s cinema.” — Krin Gabbard, Stony Brook University
“Since his filmmaking debut in the mid-eighties, Spike Lee has become one of the most influential African American directors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Through clear and cogent prose, David Sterritt also illustrates what makes Lee one of the finest American filmmakers working today.” — Paula Massood, Brooklyn College
I was watching Jack Arnold’s Tarantula last night on TCM, and was struck once again by Arnold’s economy in his shot structure, the simplicity and style with which he sets up his shots, the smooth and precise editing patterns, and the way in which he takes his material seriously, no matter how outlandish the basic premise. With such films as The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Space Children, and Creature From The Black Lagoon to his credit, it’s easy to forget that Arnold also directed one of the most interesting Westerns of the 1950s, No Name on the Bullet, starring World War II veteran Audie Murphy as hired killer John Gant who arrives in a small town, intent on killing someone for pay — but whom? Everyone in the town seems to have some secret in their past, some enemy who wants them out of the way, but Gant refuses to tip his hand, resulting in a complete meltdown of the fabric as the community, since everyone thinks Gant is after them alone. Arnold is a really underrated American director, and his work deserves a great deal more scrutiny; here, then, is just a tip of the hat to the man who defined 1950s science fiction, but was also capable of a great deal more, if only he hadn’t become so identified with one genre alone.
As the description on the video’s site notes, there is more to reviewing movies than simply giving a film a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” The major distinction here is between daily critics, who write for newspapers on a deadline basis, and more thoughtful critics, who really “unpack” films to get at what really makes them tick. The problem here is that many people confuse opinion with analysis; they’re two very different things. Saying that you like or don’t like a film, a song, a play, a painting, a sculpture — whatever — really tells the reader nothing other than what your personal feeling about the work in question is.
More serious criticism takes a film apart, and considers not only the director, but also the screenwriter, the cinematographer, the editor, the actors, the set designer, as well as examining the culture that produced the film in the first place, and how a film positions itself for a specific audience. And that’s just the beginning of things one might consider. There are many truly influential critics I don’t mention here, simply for reasons of space, but the important thing to remember is that daily film criticism is mostly opinion, rapidly rendered for a mass audience; more detailed work in film criticism takes time, effort, and a great deal of knowledge, and is aimed at those who view film both an art form, as well as a manifestation of popular culture.
About the Author
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 email@example.com.
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National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/