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Archive for the ‘Film Criticism’ Category

Missing in Action: The Lost Version of Vanishing Point

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

I have a new article out today on the “lost” version of Vanishing Point, one the key films of the early 70s.

As I write, “Much has been deservedly written on Richard C. Sarafian’s existential road movie Vanishing Point (1971), a shambling, glorious wreck of a film that nevertheless manages to achieve a certain sort of ragged splendor in its countercultural tale of loner driver Kowalski (Barry Newman), who takes on a nearly impossible drive from Denver to San Francisco to deliver a Dodge Challenger in less than 24 hours.

Based on two true life stories; one of a San Diego police officer who was kicked off the force in disgrace, and a separate story of a man who died after a high speed chase when he crashed into a police roadblock, Vanishing Point is pure twentieth century high octane nihilism – but with a twist. The archetypal loner, Kowalski (no first name is ever given) has a checkered past; at various times a race car driver, a policeman kicked off the force for stopping his partner from raping a woman during a routine traffic stop, and a Vietnam veteran, Kowalski has clearly given up on life, and seeks only speed and escape.

On his way out of Denver late Friday night, Kowalski stops by a biker bar to score some speed from his pal Jake (Lee Weaver), and bets him he’ll make it to San Francisco by Saturday at 3PM – way ahead of schedule. Jake is skeptical, but Kowalski is on a mission – indeed, when he first pulls into the garage on Friday night to pick up the Challenger, we have no idea when he’s last slept at all, if ever. Like a shark, Kowalski has to keep moving or die, constantly in motion, and constantly evading those who would seek to knock him out of the game.

For, not surprisingly, Kowalski’s epic speed trip soon attracts the attention of the police in the various states he crisscrosses on his way to the West Coast, and as he crosses one state line after another, the cops play tag team with him, each group hoping to stop him for good. From Colorado to Utah to Nevada and finally to California, Kowalski has got the cops on the run – but they’re gaining on him, and with each new state line, the obstacles get tougher and tougher to deal with.

But something’s missing, and it’s only available on the initial US release of the DVD, which presents two versions of the film with almost no fanfare; the 98 minute standard US version, and the 105 minute cut featuring a key, lost sequence with none other than Charlotte Rampling – absolutely assured as usual – as a mysterious hitchhiker in the dead of night, suitcase in hand.”

It’s true; the cut seven minutes changes the entire film. Click here, or on the image above, to read more.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

The Narcissistic Sociopathology of Gender: Craig’s Wife and The Hitch-Hiker, Part One

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Here’s an important new article by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on two key feminist films in Film International.

The image above shows director Dorothy Arzner on the set of her 1936 film Craig’s Wife, with Director of Cinematography Lucien Ballard at her side. As Foster writes, “it’s instructive to study the work of Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino in context with one another. Though at first glance, one might easily conclude that the only thing they have in common is that they were the only women who managed to direct films during the days of the classical Hollywood studio system, a deeper look into their work exposes a stronger connection between the two; an ability to decimate and undermine the values of home and hearth as they are offered in the union of marriage under the umbrella of capitalism and an expose of the hypocrisy of American gender roles as deeply sociopathic and destructive.

Dorothy Arzner’s bleak “women’s picture” Craig’s Wife (1936) a Depression era adaptation of a stage play – and I’d argue, a feminist horror film – made as a major studio project for Columbia Pictures, revolves around the sociopathy of a destructive female narcissist, while Ida Lupino’s darkly expressionist film The Hitch-Hiker (1953), is based on the true story of male serial killer independently financed, and combines elements of several genres: horror, noir, suspense, the home invasion film and the crime thriller. These films are from different decades and genres, and may seem, at first glance, to have little in common. What I find most interesting and full of critical potential is that both are dominated by sociopaths; characters who suffer from malignant narcissism who act as mirrors held up to America; and both have queer potential.

Though I must stress that they were unique as individuals and had very different directorial styles, Arzner and Lupino remain historically linked by the fact that they were the only two women in the sound era to direct films in Hollywood and the first two women to belong to the Director’s Guild. Women, who had once flourished as film directors in the silent era, had by the sound era been pushed out of the field.Yet, both these filmmakers despised the special attention the media paid to their gender and they were equally vocal about their deep distaste for such attention, even when their uniqueness as female directors was routinely used as a selling point in the studio trades and publicity materials.”

There’s much more here to read; click on this link, or the image above, to read this important essay.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

New Article – Preliminary Notes on the Monochrome Universe

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International; click here, or on the image above, to read the entire essay.

In the essay, I note that “lately I’ve been thinking about black and white movies, and how they’ve almost completely disappeared from the current cinematic landscape. There are occasional projects shot in black and white, but with cinema rapidly becoming an all-digital medium, and black and white film stock almost impossible to purchase, color has taken over completely, either glossy and popped-out, or desaturated for a more dramatic effect, but always using some palette of color. Furthermore, while there have been numerous books on the use of color in the cinema, there has been no book-length study on the black and white film, and yet black and white cinema dominated the industry internationally for nearly seven decades, until the late 1960s.

Certainly, numerous cameramen and directors have weighed in on the use of black and white in their works, most notably John Alton in Painting With Light, but in each case, these works were created when black and white was still a commercially viable medium. Most of the texts I’ve encountered, with the exception of Alton’s book, and to a lesser extent Edward Dmytryk’s Cinema: Concept and Practice, written after the director had long since retired, treat black and white filmmaking as a part of everyday life, the main production medium for most movies, which at the time, it certainly was.

In these necessarily practical books, it’s about f-stops, filters and cookies, but very little about the aesthetics of the medium. Indeed, when Alton published his landmark study, he was famously excoriated by his colleagues as being a pretentious self-promoter; what cameramen did was work, nothing more, and any notions of artistic ambition were inherently suspect. In most of the books cited below, color is dealt with as a special case, which again, it was; but now, in the all color, all digital world of images we currently inhabit, black and white has become the anomaly. Thus, I wanted to set down some preliminary notes on my new project here, before they elude me; the title is Black and White: A Brief History of Monochrome Cinema, the term used by British filmmakers until the medium’s demise in the mid 1960s.

And yet shooting in black and white is inherently a transformative act. As the filmmaker and opera director Jonathan Miller – whose beautiful film of Alice in Wonderland (1966) was elegantly photographed in black and white by the gifted Dick Bush – once observed in a conversation with me, the very act of making a black and white film transmutes the original source material, for life, as we know, takes place in color. Therefore, there is an intrinsic level of stylization and re-interpretation of reality when one makes a black and white film, leading to an entirely different way of cinematography. Indeed, it’s an entirely different world altogether, one that is rapidly slipping away from us as it recedes in the mists of the past.”

The book will take several years of work, but this is, at least, a start.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Je Veux Voir (2008)

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster just introduced me to a stunning film by Joana Hadjithomas and Kahil Joreige.

In a scant 69 minutes, this hypnotic, absolutely transcendent film sketches many of the issues surrounding the war in Lebanon in 2006, as seen through the eyes of Catherine Deneuve, the famed French film star, who traveled to Beirut to appear in the film, and is listed as one of the backers of the project, probably in that she donated her services to the project for free. As the makers of this astonishing film told interviewer Chantal Pointbriand in the web journal Afterall,

“In Je veux voir we worked on the idea that the 2006 war represents a schism. At the time we were outside the country. We saw and lived this war out through images on television, blogs and the internet. These incredibly spectacular images ended up being, in a way, powerless. It was a very strange moment. We really felt this was a time of rupture in our history, not only in the history of our country, but also in our history as artists in the region. It’s like what Hannah Arendt said about the uncertain future, you know that there is no certainty in it.

We decided to deal with this by confronting someone from our history as Lebanese film-makers and artists, with someone outside of it, bringing together the artist and actor Rabih Mroué, with whom we have worked with a lot, and Catherine Deneuve, the French film icon. In this way we are attempting to experiment with new strategies for film-making in the aftermath of the 2006 war.

KJ: Traditionally when television shows victims of war, you can’t really identify with them because the images are designed to distance you. You sympathise but don’t identify. By bringing someone who is familiar in the Western history of cinema and someone from our world together, we wanted to see if through this encounter we could regain our face, our images, our identity, our names. And not play the role of the faraway victim, but create something that could engage the spectator. The idea was to displace the gaze and to question it. Paradoxically, the film is called I Want to See, but explores what you don’t see, or haven’t seen.

JH: The film works by constantly making you question what you’re seeing and what you’re not seeing. The film is about the way images are used in reporting conflict today and what this does to you, the spectator. Our big fear is always that, in the use of images, the use of art, the use of intellect, everything can be co-opted or instrumentalized, in order to make the individual into less of a thinking person, less of a subject, depoliticized, accepting reality in a lesser way.”

The resulting film is an absolute tour-de-force, one of those films that never leaves you once you’ve seen it. When one considers how much time is spent watching absolute junk, even entertaining mainstream junk, the shock and pleasure of a really evocative, thoughtful film comes as an absolutely pleasant surprise, a palate cleanser after so much trash and throwaway pop filmmaking, usually in the service of worn out genre and gender rules. Je Veux Voir instantly jumped into my top ten films of all time — in which there are more than 250 constantly rotating titles — but in all seriousness, this is a thrillingly intellectual film without one frame of wasted footage; at 69 minutes, it’s just perfect.

Easily available on DVD or streaming video; check it out!

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Review: Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture by Rebecca Prime

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

I have a review of Rebecca Prime’s excellent new book, Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture, in the latest issue of Film International.

As I note, “Let’s just start by saying that this is an excellent book. I get stacks of new titles every day from publishers, and it takes a lot for a book to really jump out of the pile and interest me, particularly on a topic that has been researched as thoroughly as the Hollywood Blacklist. But Rebecca Prime’s Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture (2013) is exceptional, and part of an equally exceptional series of books from Rutgers University Press, “New Directions in International Studies,” ably edited by Patrice Petro.

The Hollywood Blacklist is always an important topic, but there’s been so much written about it that one would think that all possible avenues of inquiry have been pursued. But that’s not the case: Prime’s book is fresh, original, written in a direct and accessible manner, and adds a great deal of new material to the existing literature on the era. This is a book, in short, that demands one’s attention.

What distinguishes Prime’s book above all else is the sense of urgency she brings to her examination of the key figures affected by the blacklist; Joseph Losey, Ben Barzman, Jules Dassin, and other well known Hollywood figures who decided it was better to leave America, then in the grip of madness, rather than battle it out with the openly hostile ‘authority’ of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

This is a familiar tale, but what Prime makes clear in her study is just how difficult it was for these talent writers, directors and producers to survive in England, which wasn’t as welcoming as is generally assumed in hindsight. The FBI and the HUAC still shadowed these exiles, with the help of the British authorities, and so they were never really free of surveillance.”

You can read the rest of the review here; a fascinating and compelling book.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Film International — One of The Best Film Journals on The Web

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Film International is one of the best film journals on the web.

Click here, or on the image above, to read more.

As the journal’s mission statement notes, in part, “Film International covers film culture as part of the broader culture, history and economy of society. We address topics of contemporary relevance from historically informed perspectives. We wish to bridge the gap between the academy and the outside world, and encourage the participation of scholars from a variety of disciplines, as well as journalists, freelance writers, activists and film-makers.

We refuse the facile dichotomies of ‘high’ and ‘low’, Hollywood and independent, art and commercial cinema. We discuss Hollywood films seriously, and ‘art’ movies critically. We aim at becoming a truly international journal, recognising local specificities, but also the ultimate interconnectedness of an increasingly globalised world.”

FI covers international film, Hollywood film, independent cinema, and everything else in between. It features reviews, interviews, and festival reports on a regular basis, and has an egalitarian spirit which allows all critical voices to be heard, without forcing any of the writers to adhere to a particular philosophical, political, or artistic school of thought.

Commercial cinema, radical cinema, the past, present and future of the medium all meet in the pages of FI, which is absolutely free for online use with just the click of a button. I regularly contribute to FI, but I also savor the contents provided by all of the other writers for the journal, and I constantly find that FI discusses those films that other journals simply pass over, giving a well rounded perspective on the current cinema scene.

Ably edited by Daniel Lindvall, Film International is one of most indispensable film journals on the web today.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

wheelerwinstondixon.com

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

I’ve moved my website to wheelerwinstondixon.com – follow me there!

Take a look at the image above, and you’ll see how it works.

The new website is much cleaner, has more information, and works more smoothly.

At the top left, there’s an “about” tab, where you can also download my complete cv as a pdf; next to that there are two tabs covering the 32 books that I’ve written, with the covers on display as clickable links that go directly to information on each title; next to that is a tab that goes to some 30 online articles of mine that are available out of the nearly 100 that I have written over the years; then comes a link to the Frame by Frame videos that I’ve made, with a clickable link to a carousel playlist that starts automatically and takes you through more than 70 titles; then a tab for this blog; then a tab for my film work — I have a show coming up in New York this Spring, 2014 — and finally a contact page, where you can e-mail me if you wish to.

This is where you will find me from now on; the old website is dead, so let’s move on into the future.

Audrey Totter

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

“If you haven’t got enough brains to agree with me, then keep your mouth shut. From here on in, I’m answering all the questions — got it?”

Audrey Totter, one of the great noir stars of the screen in the 1940s, has died; as Matt Schudel noted in The Washington Post, “Totter, an actress who specialized in playing temptresses, dangerous dames and women harboring dark schemes in a series of movies from Hollywood’s film noir period of the 1940s and ’50s, died Dec. 12 at a hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif. She was 95. She had congestive heart failure after a stroke, her daughter, Mea Lane, said.

Miss Totter first set the screen afire with a small but sizzling part in the 1946 noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice [. . .] Over the next several years, Miss Totter was in demand as one of Hollywood’s sexiest and most alluring actresses, often playing cynical and malevolent women who, in the words of film historian Eddie Muller, ‘had a heart as big and warm as an ice cube.’ [. . .]

‘For years nobody bothered with me — didn’ t know who I was, didn’t care,’ she told the Toronto Star in 2000. ‘Now I’m recognized on the street, I’m asked for my autograph, I get loads of fan mail. Who knew these movies would be so popular 50 years later? Maybe it’s because the world isn’t like that anymore. The fantasy of it. They painted with light in those days, it’s a look that just isn’t done anymore.”

She acted in radio dramas before going to Hollywood and signing on as a contract player with MGM. After film noir began to fade in the 1950s, she acted in westerns and television, including a recurring role as a nurse on Medical Center in the 1970s. Miss Totter’s final acting role came in 1987, when she appeared on an episode of Angela Lansbury’s Murder, She Wrote. She continued to receive offers but seldom found anything that appealed to her.

‘What could I play?’ she asked in 2000. ‘A nice grandmother? Boring! Critics always said I acted best with a gun in my hand.’”

Top Ten Films for 2013

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

Although such lists are inherently ridiculous, here are my ten best films of 2013, in no particular order.

Le Weekend (Roger Michell)

Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)

In A World (Lake Bell)

What Maisie Knew (Scott McGehee, David Siegel)

The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)

12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen)

The Purge (James DeMonaco)

A Teacher (Hannah Fidell)

Adore (aka Two Mothers; Anne Fontaine)

Bastards (Claire Denis)

Significantly, none of these films with the exception of The Purge got any real national distribution, and many people will no doubt think this an aberrant choice, and perhaps it is, but for me, The Purge was economical, sharply observed, made some good points about the direction our society is headed in, and then got out of the room in under 85 minutes, which alone makes it an outlier in the bloated consumer economy of today’s mainstream cinema; Le Weekend tries to pass itself off as a comedy in the DVD packaging and posters, but it’s one of the most devastating and personal examinations of loss and failure I’ve ever seen; Blackfish is a properly despairing and unforgiving documentary, further testament to the fact that we’re destroying the planet and killing its wildlife in the process, all in the name of amusement; Lake Bell pulled off a triple-threat effortlessly with In A World, in which she wrote, directed and acted in a comedy/drama about a young woman trying to break into the voiceover business; and What Maisie Knew placed Henry James in modern Manhattan with style and immaculate conciseness.

The Hunt is a ringing indictment of mob mentality in a small town, with an unforgettable and absolutely “right” ending; Twelve Years A Slave was the most unflinching look at slavery that the screen has yet given us; A Teacher got unjustly trashed by nearly every other critic out there, but I thought it was a smart and affecting first feature, and will look for more from Hannah Fidell in the future; Adore (aka Two Mothers, aka Perfect Mothers, aka Adoration — make up your mind already!) offered a brilliant Doris Lessing novella adapted for the screen, a modern day family horror story in which two women take each other’s sons for lovers with predictably disastrous results, directed with a sure hand by the gifted Anne Fontaine; and Bastards shows us why Claire Denis continues to be one of the directors who matter, with a gritty 21st century Neo-Noir that is both compelling and stylish.

There were other worthy films out there, but not much mainstream work; as always, new cinema comes from the margins.

Jean Renoir on Val Lewton

Saturday, December 7th, 2013

Renoir worked briefly with Val Lewton on Woman on The Beach (1947).

As he observed in a 1954 interview, “I’ll say a few words about Val Lewton, because he was an extremely interesting person; unfortunately he died, it’s already been a few years. He was one of the first, maybe the first, who had the idea to make films that weren’t expensive, with ‘B’ picture budgets, but with certain ambitions, with quality screenplays, telling more refined stories than usual. Don’t go thinking that I despise ‘B’ pictures; in general I like them better than big, pretentious psychological films they’re much more fun. When I happen to go to the movies in America, I go see ‘B’ pictures. First of all, they are an expression of the great technical quality of Hollywood. Because, to make a good western in a week, the way they do at Monogram, starting Monday and finishing Saturday, believe me, that requires extraordinary technical ability; and detective stories are done with the same speed. I also think that ‘B’ pictures are often better than important films because they are made so fast that the filmmaker obviously has total freedom; they don’t have time to watch over him.”

You can read more about Renoir’s thoughts on this by following this link.

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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