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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.

New Article: Don Sharp’s Pyschomania Restored by the BFI

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

Director Don Sharp’s Psychomania has just been restored by the British Film Institute.

As I write in Senses of Cinema 81 (December, 2016), “BFI’s Flipside series continues with another excellent release, a completely restored version of Don Sharp’s ‘zombie biker’ film Psychomania (1973), starring George Sanders in his last role, with capable assists from Beryl Reid and Nicky Henson.

Psychomania concerns Tom Latham (Henson), the leader of a teenage motorcycle gang, The Living Dead, who with the aid of his devil-worshipping mother (Reid) and her obedient butler Shadwell (Sanders) makes a deal with the Devil for his gang’s literal immortality.

Soon the gang members are deliberately killing themselves in a variety of grotesque and spectacular fashions, secure in the knowledge that they will soon be immortal. However, as with all such arrangements, things don’t go precisely as planned. Suffice it to say that business transactions with Satan are a decidedly risky business, for as we all know, the Devil is in the details.

Tom is an impetuous fellow, and he’s suspicious (with good reason) about his parentage and his home life in general. ‘Why did my father die in that locked room?’ he asks Shadwell petulantly. ‘Why do you never get any older? And what is the secret of the living dead?’

Soon enough, Tom’s mother – a curiously distant maternal figure if ever there was one – inducts Tom into the cult. With that accomplished, the rest of the film is a series of violent action set pieces, involving the ritualistic suicide of the gang members and their almost immediate resurrection, in which supermarkets are ransacked, innocent pedestrians are mowed down, and general mayhem ensues.

But that’s just for openers. Like so many motion picture motorcycle gangs before them, Tom has bigger plans, and wants to embark upon a campaign of wholesale violence, murdering policemen, judges, teachers, any authority figure that might hamper the gang’s activities. At this juncture, Tom’s mother and Shadwell intervene to put a halt to Tom’s grandiose scheme, in a manner that’s both bizarre and apparently quite effective.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above; a real cult classic.

Kirk Douglas Turns 100

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

Tim Gray has written a fabulous appreciation of the life of actor Kirk Douglas in Variety.

As Gray notes, “Kirk Douglas, who turn[ed] 100 on Dec. 9, claims he’s tired of talking about himself. Despite that, he recently spoke to Variety about his many impressive careers, as an actor (‘I never wanted to be in movies’), a producer (including tales of ‘my peculiar friend Stanley Kubrick’), author (he’s working on his 12th book), and philanthropist (he’s given away more than $120 million).

As an actor, his classic films include Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful, Lust for Life, 20,000 Leagues Under the SeaGunfight at the OK Corral and Seven Days in May. He also starred in several he produced, such as Paths of Glory, Spartacus, and the 1962 western Lonely Are the Brave.

Douglas has said his proudest accomplishment in Hollywood was to help break the blacklist by giving onscreen credit to writer Dalton Trumbo on the 1960 Spartacus.

Douglas had formed Bryna Prods. in 1955, named after his mother. For the company’s second film,Paths of Glory, he hired Kubrick as director. The relationship began with a fight after Kubrick made major script rewrites without telling Douglas, who forced him to film the original version. Despite their frequent clashes, Douglas three years later wanted Kubrick to direct the Bryna-Universal film Spartacus.

‘Difficult? He invented the word. But he was talented. So, we had lots of fights, but I always appreciated his talent,’ Douglas says.”

You can read the rest of this richly illustrated story by clicking here, or on the link above.

Sterling K. Brown and Issa Rae to Host Spirit Awards

Monday, December 5th, 2016

The 2017 Spirit Awards are much more interesting than the annual Oscar race.

As Matt Warren reports on the Film Independent website, “if it wasn’t already obvious from its beachfront locale (bring your swimsuit!) or avant garde approach to red carpet fashion (that psychedelic cowboy-hat-and-poncho combo is just fine by us), you should know by now that the Film Independent Spirit Awards are not your typical awards show.

The purpose of the Spirit Awards isn’t to anoint individual filmmakers or performers and elevate them into some sort of untouchable, aristocratic fraternity of Hollywood bigwigs—it’s to celebrate independent moviemaking as a whole.

It’s beyond cliché at this point to observe that film is a collaborative exercise, one that brings an entire micro-community of likeminded artists together to create something new and unique. So really, “community” is the key watchword here—and what better way for likeminded communities to celebrate each other’s work than to break bread together. Or, in this case, breakfast burritos.

The actual 2017 Spirit Awards ceremony won’t drop until February 25, but on Saturday, January 9 this year’s honorees will once again gather for Film Independent’s annual Nominee Brunch in West Hollywood in order to toast the past 12 months in independent film (and perhaps sip one too many mimosas) and watch as Brunch co-hosts Sterling K. Brown and Issa Rae take the stage to award a trio of filmmaker grants: the Piaget Producers Award, the Truer Than Fiction Award and the Kiehl’s Someone to Watch Award.

And if that wasn’t enough, the Sprit Awards have announced that the great David Oyelowo as the honorary chair of the 2017 awards, as announced by Film Independent President Josh Welsh. Need a quick refresher about who the 2017 Film Independent Spirit Award nominees actually are? Check out our Nominee page here, or watch last week’s press conference announcement, featuring Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) and Edgar Ramirez (Carlos).

As for this year’s Brunch co-hosts, Welsh said, ‘Sterling K. Brown and Issa Rae are two of the most captivating and talented actors working today…we’re so happy to have them host our Spirit Awards brunch.’

Sterling K. Brown rose to fame in 2016 with his jaw-dropping portrayal of Christopher Darden in the FX phenomenon The People vs. O.J. Simpson. He currently stars on the hit NBC drama This is Us. Rae—who joined us at the LA Film Festival “Diversity Speaks” panel in June (click here for a full recap)—is the creator and star of HBO’s critically acclaimed dramedy Insecure, which recently wrapped its first season. The show is an adaptation of Rae’s popular web series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which you can find here.

Two actors of enormous depth who have both been involved in projects exploring, with nuance and sophistication, the complexities of African American life in the 2oth and 21st centuries, Rae and Brown are in good company with Oyelowo, widely acclaimed for his performances in films including Middle of Nowhere (for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Male Spirit Award in 2013) and Selma (nominated for Best Male Lead, 2015). Past Spirit Award Honorary Chairs have included Jessica Chastain, Kerry Washington, Benicio del Toro and Jodie Foster, among others.”

Not to be missed. Click here, or on the image above for a video.

John Bailey, ASC on Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca

Monday, October 10th, 2016

I have often written on Nicholas Musuraca, and here DP John Bailey weighs in on this Hollywood master.

As Bailey writes in his article “Nicholas Musuraca, Cat People and RKO Film Noir,” “cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was, from his start, a ‘team player.’ In 1927, at the twilight of the silent era and several years after beginning his own cinematography career, he joined with director Robert De Lancey to make low-budget Westerns for Joseph Kennedy’s production company, The Film Booking Offices of America. A few years later, after elaborate stock swaps between Kennedy and RCA’s David Sarnoff, this newly minted studio became RKO Pictures.

Musuraca spent nearly the next half-century at RKO, a record for artists even in the studio-contract era. He left RKO after shooting the 1954 comedy Susan Slept Here to begin a more than decade-long career in episodic television, where his signature film-noir cinematography was nowhere to be seen. His final credits were on McHale’s Navy and F Troop, two of the most popular and unimaginative-looking sitcoms of the 1960s. It was a curious journey for a cinematographer who, along with John Alton, had defined the contours of expressionistic lighting and composition in the highly stylized, low-budget noirs of the 1940s.

Like his peers James Wong Howe and Leon Shamroy, Musuraca began shooting in the early 1920s. His first six credits, from The Virgin Queen (1923) to The Passionate Quest (1926), were for director J. Stuart Blackton. Blackton was one of the true pioneers of American cinema. His first credit was in 1897, after a meeting with Thomas Edison inspired him to buy a Kinetoscope. He also became a passionate exponent of animation. It was as Blackton’s chauffeur that the Italian-born Musuraca gained entry into the film business. Musuraca remained loyal to Blackton, who retired from filmmaking in 1931, shortly after his last movie with Musuraca.

During the 1930s, Musuraca was a go-to cameraman for RKO, mostly for low-budget programmers and Westerns that ran a little over an hour. Between 1933 and 1938, Musuraca averaged at least a dozen movies a year, which helps account for his amazing career tally of 221 credits, only two dozen of which are shorts. He graduated to A-list pictures with back-to-back credits on Five Came Back and Golden Boy. In 1942, when writer Val Lewton left David O. Selznick to become producer for the new low-budget horror-film unit at RKO — the supportive Selznick even negotiated Lewton’s contract — Musuraca became part of Lewton’s team.

Given free reign to do what he wanted creatively, provided he remained within the $150,000 budget, Lewton formed a team than included composer Roy Webb, designer Albert S. D’Agostino and editors Mark Robson and Robert Wise (both of whom he soon moved into the director’s chair).

Lewton produced 14 films for RKO in less than a decade. The first six, from Cat People to its not-quite-sequel Curse of the Cat People (the title was imposed by the studio over Lewton’s objections), have become signature films in the noir canon. Musuraca photographed five of them, from Cat People to Bedlam. After that, RKO unceremoniously dumped Lewton, who then wandered to Paramount to MGM to Universal with dozens of projects that were not picked up.

His three films after RKO were not successful, and Lewton died from a second heart attack in March 1951 at age 46, convinced he was a failure. Unhappy about Howard Hughes’ takeover of RKO and about being assigned to mediocre material, Musuraca hung on there for only a few more years.

Were it not for his four years with the Lewton unit and his stunning cinematography on Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (also for RKO), Musuraca might well be regarded as one of the legions of near anonymous cinematographers with long careers but no singular identity. In 1948, the year after Out of the Past, Musuraca received his only Academy Award nomination, for George Stevens’ family drama I Remember Mama, a film that, ironically, bears no trace of the cinematographer’s noir lighting style.

What does Musuraca’s noir style look like? There is no better example than a sequence from the second film he photographed for Lewton, The Seventh Victim, directed by Mark Robson. It is a woman-in-jeopardy sequence very reminiscent of the park transverse scene in Tourneur’s Cat People, made the year before. The similarity offers a good indication of Lewton’s tight oversight of the visual details of the production and of his reliance on Musuraca as a key element in his vision. The pools of light from streetlamps, the looming shadows, and the dark corners ahead of ill-fated actress Jean Brooks’ panicked walk are all signature tropes of Musuraca’s work in this period.

On Sept. 20, The Criterion Collection released a newly remastered 2K DVD and Blu-ray of the Lewton/Tourneur/Musuraca Cat People. Criterion producer Jason Altman asked me to provide a video essay on Musuraca’s cinematography and its centrality to the Lewton RKO films. I have long been an advocate of the primacy of John Alton as the key cinematographer of the American post-World War II film-noir period, and have written about him extensively on this blog, starting with this post. Most recently, I wrote about the controversy surrounding his Oscar for the ballet sequence of An American in Paris. (You can read that here.)

Alton was a dedicated self-promoter as well as the author of a 1949 book on cinematography that is still in print. Musuraca was the antithesis of Alton in terms of personal demeanor. He was non-confrontational, content to remain in the shadows; there is little biographical information about him online, and his interviews were rare. The best discussion of his filmography I have found appears in Wheeler Winston Dixon’s book Black & White Cinema . . . [read more about Musuraca on my blog here]

A favorite movie-roundtable topic is, ‘What was the first film noir and who photographed it?’ Several cinematographers’ names always come up, especially John Seitz and, of course, Alton. My choice is Musuraca. A full year before The Maltese Falcon, a movie photographed by Seitz and long regarded as a proto-noir, it was the quiet and gentle Musuraca who photographed RKO’s Stranger on the Third Floor, a perfervid, hallucinogenic film by Boris Ingster. Its nightmare sequence of John’s McGuire’s imagined trial for murder unleashes every twitch and tic that soon became the signature elements of noir style. Seven years later, the same cinematographer gave us Out of the Past, the movie considered by many cinematographers to be the apex of noir style.”

A superb set-up by Musuraca for Stranger on the Third Floor; I agree with Bailey; read the whole article here.

Bertrand Tavernier on Edward L. Cahn

Monday, October 10th, 2016

Edward L. Cahn – a much maligned American auteur – is finally getting some of the respect he deserves.

As John Hopewell and Martin Dale reported from the Lumière Festival in Lyon, France yesterday in Variety, “Time puts everybody in their place. But often rather slowly. The American director, Edward L. Cahn, was best-known, indeed notorious for his prolific B-movie output in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Yet, this is the same man who, legend has it, oversaw or at least advised on the final cut of All Quiet on the Western Front, and made a clutch of movies in the early 1930s, one of which, Afraid To Talk, screened at the Lumière Festival on Sunday, being greeted as a masterpiece. ‘You might say he worked his way to the bottom,’ writes journalist Imogen Sara Smith.

Dave Kehr, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, included three of Cahn’s films in an Carl Laemmle Jr. retrospective this May. This week, Lyon’s Lumière Festival screens the same titles: Afraid To Talk, Law and Order, and Laughter in Hell, introduced by the celebrated French director-film buff Bertrand Tavernier, president of the Institut Lumière. Here Tavernier adds his voice to others who have rediscovered Cahn’s early work. It is worth quoting Tavenier [extensively; as he noted]:

‘For some time now I have wanted to show the films directed by Edward L. Cahn. He’s a key director that for many of us remains an enigma, because my generation first became familiar with his work in the 1960s, essentially in Belgium where his films were released theatrically. They were never released in France. The smallest minimalist productions. Zombies of Mora Tau. Five Guns to Tombstone, westerns and horror films.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space, which we could say was the forerunner to Alien. When we see the film it is however rudimentary because of the creature. It’s true that it circulates in the corridors of the space ship.  But it’s hyper rudimentary, in comparison with Alien. It’s a kind of a guy wearing a rubber suit. Not great. But I recently saw two or three films that he made at this time that were very interesting, such as Experiment Alcatraz.

Between 1932 and 1934 he made four-to-five films, which are amazing – which are very different from these subsequent Z-movie productions, very demanding with a great deal of visual style: Law and Order, the first film about OK Corral. It’s a revisionist western film before the genre had been fully established which is kind of unique in the history of film genres – a film that contradicts the canon before the canon is established. Laughter in Hell. And my favorite film, full of energy, which is Radio Patrol.

Why did his career reach a hiatus at this moment in time? He left Universal and went to MGM. There’s something strange. He made a very personal and strange project. A film produced by the Anti-Defamation League in 1949. A film called Prejudice, which was only released in churches. Which I believe was a tremendous commercial flop. From that point onwards everything changed in his career. He became a mystery. Now just a little note.

He was also a film editor. He was the editor of The Man who Laughs by Paul Leni. He is believed to have been the person who determined the final edited version of All Quiet on the Western Front, which he edited on the train between Los Angeles and New York. It took four days. And that’s where he finalized the version.

Finally it was the producer Carl Laemmle Jr., who commissioned his first film, Law and Order, co-written by John Huston, based on a remarkable book by W. R. Burnett, which is still in available. And then Afraid to Talk which was a film noir, inspired on a play by Albert Maltz and George Sklar.  Albert Maltz later became famous in Hollywood as one of the Hollywood Ten. He stopped working as a screenwriter under his own name and began working under a pseudonym.

He worked for example on the screenplay of Broken Arrow by Delmer Daves and other films. He returned with the films starring Clint Eastwood, Two Mules for Sister Sara and The Beguiled. So, Afraid to Talk was a stage play that had been heavily cut by the censorship, which had been adapted by Tom Reed – an ancient journalist who specialized in crime, the kind of person that Carl Laemmle Jr. employed as a screenwriter, to spice up the films – to give them reality.

So Tom Reed worked on three occasions with Edward Cahn and they produced quite amazing screenplays. For example Afraid to Talk. You will see that this is a film that is unrelenting. Which is incredibly strong in terms of its social content. Corruption, the problems of the gangs. On the cowardice of the public authorities.

It’s a very surprising film, almost expressionist in terms of its directing style, the search for light. It’s also a film that groups together a huge number of actors in the secondary roles that later became very famous. You will recognize them all. For example, Louis Calhern, but there are others. I hope you will be amazed.” Cahn’s work has indeed undertone a Renaissance of sorts, mainly because of the efforts of Dave Kehr, first writing for The New York Times, and now as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art.

As I’ve often noted in this blog, Cahn’s films all have a sense of awful, deliberate pacing, which smoothly moves from one set-up to another with the precision and calm of someone like Robert Bresson – never in a hurry to move the narrative or camerawork along, but always in precisely the right place with each new shot. I’ve seen this film, which is remarkable, as is much of the rest of Cahn’s work; I hope you get a chance to see it, too.

Edward L. Cahn – another director getting more attention – thanks to Bertrand Tavernier.

Dorothy Arzner at the Lumière Festival

Monday, October 10th, 2016

Dorothy Arzner’s work as a director is being appreciated anew at the Lumière Festival.

As Damon Wise perceptively writes in Variety, “Dorothy Arzner died with no Oscars to her name, honorary or otherwise, and to date, her only reward, to mark a prolific career that spanned from 1922 to 1943, is a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.

And yet Arzner, who receives a tribute at France’s Lumière Festival,  remains one of the most interesting, if not one of the more significant, directors of the so-called Golden Age. Rising swiftly up through the ranks in the silent era, Arzner broke the glass ceiling at the age of 30, becoming one of the first ever women allowed to call the shots within the male-dominated studio system.

In retrospect, it was perhaps not so strange that Arzner, born in 1897, was attracted to the movies – while she was growing up, her father Louis ran a famous Hollywood restaurant that served all the heavy hitters of the silent era: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Mack Sennett and directing legend D.W. Griffith.

Arzner originally aimed to pursue medicine, having studied the subject at USC, but dropped out shortly after WW1. By chance, a flu epidemic had swept the country, and every industry needed workers, no matter how inexperienced, and the movie business was no exception.

Hired by Cecil B DeMille’s brother William, Arzner began at Famous Players-Lasky in the script room, and after six months progressed to the editing department, cutting, by her own estimation, some 52 movies, including the 1922 Rudolph Valentino classic Blood and Sand. Fatefully, Arzner also shot some (uncredited) bull-fighting scenes for that movie, and it was her desire to direct that brought matters to a head in 1927. Arzner had been moonlighting as a scriptwriter and was about to quit, to take up a directing job at Columbia.

But instead of walking out, Arzner wanted to say goodbye to someone – anyone – at the studio that had played fair by her. By chance, this turned out to producer Walter Wanger, who organized a summit meeting to keep her. Wanger offered her a directing job, but Arzner played hardball.

‘Not unless I can be on a set in two weeks with an A-picture,’ she insisted. ‘I’d rather do a picture for a small company and have my own way than a B-picture for Paramount.’ She got her wish: the result was Fashions For Women, with Esther Ralston, then a major star.

Arzner’s deal with Paramount was good by anyone’s standards. ‘I was under contract to Paramount for three years at a time,’ she told film historians Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary in a rare interview in 1974, ‘[and] paid by the week. I ended with a two-year contract, including choice of story. I never had to worry about control over phases of the production. The departments were geared to give a director what he wanted, if he knew exactly what he wanted.’

After five films, and a reshuffle of top brass, Arzner left Paramount to go freelance, which is when Arzner began to make her name as a director of women. Although she didn’t get to realize one of several dream projects – an anti-war movie called Stepdaughters of War with Marlene Dietrich, Arzner worked with many big names of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, including Clara Bow, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Lucille Ball.

The Wild Party, Arzner’s 1929 film with Bow, her first talking picture, is often cited as a key work in the director’s filmography, being the story of a college girl whose party lifestyle gets her into trouble. Made before the restrictive Hays Code was introduced in 1930,  The Wild Party features many of the themes that would recur in Arzner’s films, in which women choose independence and refuse to be dominated by men, or even each other.

Though Arzner remained private about her personal life, her sexuality was an open secret in Hollywood and has since made her films a treasure trove for latter-day critics and theorists. Legendary critic Pauline Kael described Arzner’s 1933 film Christopher Strong, starring Katherine Hepburn as a female aviator, as ‘one of the rare movies told from a woman’s sexual point of view.’

Sadly, Arzner’s most famous film is also one of her last; a film so ahead of its time that it didn’t find its fanbase until the ’70s. Starring Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball, Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) is an unlikely-female-buddy burlesque movie that conceals a withering attack on the male gaze under its showgirl wardrobe of sequins and feathers.

This was to be Arzner’s penultimate film – after contracting pneumonia that laid her low for a year, the director – who died in 1979, aged 82 – made the decision in 1943 to quit for good, and stuck to it. The story might have ended there, but somehow Arzner’s legacy endured, just as she herself had survived in her heyday. As Katharine Hepburn put it to Arzner in a telegram, when she was honoured by the DGA in 1975, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?’”

This last comment is a rather ironic comment coming from one of Hollywood’s greatest women of the screen during the era; and incidentally, Arzner didn’t quit the business in 1943 – in the middle of directing her last feature, First Comes Courage (1943), concerning a young woman, Nikki (Merle Oberon) who works undercover against the Nazis for the Swedish resistance, Arzner fell ill with pneumonia, and was replaced with another director, rather than allowing her to finish the film herself.

After that, it was Pepsi-Cola commercials for her long-time friend Joan Crawford, as well as a long career as a lecturer, teacher, and speaker. I’ve been saying this for years; why isn’t there a box set of her work? But there isn’t, and it isn’t likely to happen now, but nevertheless Arzner’s work remains, as a signpost to younger directors willing to take on the system and fight for what they believe – something that’s even harder to do today than it was then.

Dorothy Arzner – one of the great pioneers of the American sound film.

Agnès Varda – “From Here to There”

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

Agnès Varda walking down the street with Chris Marker, behind his signature “cat symbol.”

Agnès Varda has a relatively new documentary out – it was actually completed in 2011, and shot over several years before that – which in five roughly hour long parts examines the creative process inherent in her own work, and the work of her friends and colleagues, which is at once playful, experimental, deeply personal, and imbued with the joy of life and creating art for the sake of art.

Though, as she points out, now that he is older, everywhere she goes people give her medals and retrospective screenings, Varda is still very much alive as a filmmaker and video artist, and one is struck not only be her relaxed and assured embrace of video technology, but also her multifaceted persona as an artist: a still photographer, environmental creator, sculptor, filmmaker, painter – you name it.

Many of her friends are colleagues with whom she has been working since the 1950s, and now are extremely successful artists in a variety of mediums, but Varda seems not at all affected by her hard-won fame and the new – and richly deserved – level of respect her work is now experiencing. While contemporaries such as Jean-Luc Godard, wildly prolific in the 1960s, but merely a shadow of his former self now – as he himself put it in an interview, “I’m on my last legs” – seem to drift off into the past, Varda keeps looking forward to future, and finding endless possibilities and new directions in her work.

As Fernando F. Croce wrote in Film Comment in 2014, “early in the marvelously fluid, five-part cine-essay Agnès Varda: From Here to There, the eponymous veteran auteur briefly pauses to ponder the difference between cinema and photography. Legendary French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson is Varda’s subject in this mini-digression, yet her comments on stillness and movement as captured through a camera lens clearly apply to her own art, particularly in light of her eccentric and deeply personal recent documentaries.

Like The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008), this miniseries (shot for French television roughly over the course of one year) envisions a form of portraiture that is forever on the move, its brisk, airy images darting and rippling like the frank, fearless filmmaker’s memories and emotions.

That feeling of emotional mobility is something Varda has always shared with her late husband, the great director Jacques Demy, whose benevolent specter is never far. Visiting Brazil—in the first of the various global travels she documents in Here and There—Varda shares some of the home movies Demy shot in the country many years earlier. (‘Jacques was known for his tracking shots, but here his camera stood still,’ she muses over the grainy, flickering footage.)

While in Demy’s hometown of Nantes for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of his feature debut Lola, Varda captures the aged Anouk Aimée abstractedly repeating a coquettish gesture from the young heroine she once portrayed. That tinge of continuity is further enforced in a heartening moment when Demy’s poetic manifesto on why he films is recited by his son Mathieu over a montage of pictures depicting his cinema as well as his family life.

Agnes Varda From Here to There

Indeed, renewal and continuity are recurring themes. Each of the segments is prefaced with glimpses of Varda’s backyard, where wild foliage has sprouted on previously bare trees. It’s a spiritual metaphor that, like the key image of mirrors on a beach, would feel heavy-handed if it weren’t worn in such a fleet and open-hearted manner, its transparency an integral part of the film’s dizzying array of friends and events. Now in her mid-eighties, the director savors playfully childlike artifice.

In The Beaches of Agnès, sand is poured in a Parisian street as clerks in a mock-office lounge in bathing suits, and former child actors from Varda’s neorealist early effort La Pointe Courte (1955) enact one of their scenes as old men. From Here to There doesn’t have as many tableaux, but it retains that same impish, analog spirit as she makes her way across the continents, omnivorously searching for ‘fragments, moments, people.’” The series is now available on DVD, or for the moment on Amazon streaming; you should take the time to see it if you possibly can.

Varda’s work should be an inspiration to us all; this is simply essential viewing.

New Article: T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

I have a new article out in Senses of Cinema on the restored film of Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

As I write, “I’ve always had a curious affection for George Hoellering’s 1951 film adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s verse play Murder in the Cathedral. Eliot composed it as a stage play in 1935, with the first performance taking place on June 15th that year in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral, in every way an appropriate location for the production. As is well known, Eliot’s play deals with the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket by four knights in 1170 at the Canterbury Cathedral. This crime was committed at the behest of King Henry II, who was seeking both to establish his own authority on a higher scale and to break ties with the Papacy in Rome. Eliot’s play uses a great deal of material written by one Edward Grim, who saw the actual assassination of Becket in person, and was even wounded during the attack.

The first production at Canterbury Cathedral featured actor Robert Speaight as Becket, which then was transferred to London’s Mercury Theatre in Notting Hill Gate for a modest run, with Speaight reprising his leading role. As many have noted, the main theme of Eliot’s play is the power of resistance to authority that one believes to be either corrupt or fraudulent. Since Eliot wrote the work in the shadow of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, there can be little doubt that he had the usurping forces of fascism in mind as he composed Murder in the Cathedral. It’s a superb accomplishment as a text, and requires a minimum of dramatic translation for the stage: it is essentially performed as a series of tableaux, and so eloquent is Eliot’s text that it needs little more in the way of staging or blocking.

Subsequent stage productions included Robert Donat’s turn as Becket in an Old Vic production directed by Robert Helpmann in 1953; a 1971 New York stage version with Dark Shadows alumnus Jonathan Frid in the title role; a Royal Shakespeare Company version in 1972 starring Hammer Films regular Richard Pasco as Becket; and most recently in 2014 at St. Bartholomew-the-Great Church in London, testifying to the continual appeal of Eliot’s work. Murder in the Cathedral also served as source material for one of the very first experimental television broadcasts: the 1936 BBC presentation of the play directed by George More O’Ferrall, which according to Kenneth Baily (who witnessed the transmission on television) included ‘the earliest recollection I have of a really inspired use of the close-up in television drama.’

But there the matter of a visual translation of Eliot’s work rested, until George Hoellering stepped in. He was an Austro-Hungarian filmmaker and entrepreneur who had fled the continent in 1936 to escape the Nazi onslaught, with only a handful of films to his credit. Hoellering brought Murder in the Cathedral to the screen in what was clearly a ‘passion project,’ with Eliot’s full help and participation. Hoellering’s previous films included the 1936 movie Life on the Hortobagy (a slightly fictionalized feature documentary centering on the everyday life of Hungarian peasants) and the 1944 British-made shorts Tyre Economy (of which the title says all) and Message from Canterbury (essentially an ode to Canterbury Cathedral, centering on a sermon delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. William Temple).

What resulted was the product of a collaboration between one of the 20th century’s most gifted and exacting poets and a filmmaker intent on creating a feature film based on Eliot’s work, which had moved him deeply since his youth. The most conspicuous – even conscious – aspect of Hollering’s film of Eliot’s play is its theatricality, coupled with an austere visual sensibility that prefigures the dark landscapes of such later films as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1943), or harkens back to Carl Th. Dreyer’s equally severe Day of Wrath (1943). For many years, Murder in the Cathedral has been out of circulation – even as a 1952 book by Eliot and Hoellering on the making of the film, replete with numerous stills, remained tantalisingly in print – but now, in a newly restored DVD and Blu-ray combination release from the BFI - we have a chance once again to see Murder in the Cathedral for ourselves.”

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

Louis Augustine Aimé Le Prince – The First Filmmaker

Wednesday, September 14th, 2016

Here’s a new documentary out on Louis Augustine Aimé Le Prince - the very, very first filmmaker.

As the site for the film on Vimeo notes, during “October 1888 Louis Le Prince produced the world’s first films in Leeds, England. These were shot on cameras patented in both America and the UK. Once he had perfected his projection machine Le Prince arranged to demonstrate his discovery to the American public and thus the world.

On 16th September 1890, just days before he was due to sail to New York Louis Augustine Aimé Le Prince stepped onto the Dijon to Paris train and was never seen again. No body was ever found so legally no one could fight the Le Prince claim that he invented a camera that recorded the very first moving image.

As a result, several years later, Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers were to claim to the glory and the prize of being acknowledged as the first people to pioneer film. Louis Le Prince was never added to history books. But for one lone voice, who worked with him, Le Prince’s name and his pioneering work was forgotten.

The First Film is David Nicholas Wilkinson’s decades long quest to prove to the world that a Frenchman Louis Le Prince made the first films in 1888 and that the birthplace of motion pictures was not America nor France but in fact the city of Leeds in the county of Yorkshire, England.”

Le Prince’s story has long been one of the great mysteries of the cinema, and the subject of a book and a documentary by Christopher Rawlence, The Missing Reel. However, in the ensuing years, a great deal of new material has come to light, and The First Film takes full advantage of these discoveries, to demonstrate convincingly – though many have argued this for years, myself among them – that Le Prince is the true pioneer of the motion picture medium.

This is a fascinating documentary of a tragically forgotten pioneer – absolutely essential viewing.

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.

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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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