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Floyd Crosby, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

Director Fred Zinnemann (seated); DP Floyd Crosby standing (with glasses); and star Gary Cooper on the set of High Noon.

My new book, Black and White Cinema: A Short History, is coming out in a few weeks – I already have the advance proof copy – and Amazon has listed their official release date as September 17th; it goes to press on September 4th. I’m really happy with the finished project, but as with my entry on Nick Musuraca earlier in this blog, there were sections of my original text that had to be cut for reasons of space.

So here’s some additional material on the great cinematographer Floyd Crosby, and the long, often odd trajectory of his distinguished career.

As I wrote in the original draft of the book, “Floyd Crosby was another master of black and white cinematography, who early on in his career served as an assistant of sorts on W. S. Van Dyke’s and Robert Flaherty’s White Shadows in the South Seas (1928). But as Crosby told historian Mark Langer, ‘when Flaherty went down there [Tahiti], it was supposed to be a co-direction, but he didn’t direct any of it. Van Dyke directed it all. But I went down there and got a job, just as an assistant cameraman.

I was there, I think, three months, and then Flaherty left, and I came back when he did…Flaherty had no idea of how to direct a story film. All his work had been with documentaries, where he’d tell the natives to go fishing or do something he didn’t already know, and then he’d photograph it. He’d never done any story direction and this was a story picture and he was completely lost in it. Van Dyke did the whole thing.’

Van Dyke was known as a tough, no-nonsense director, commonly referred to as ‘One Take Woody’ for his speed and proficiency on the set, and as with many of the key directors of the 1930s, his career stretched back to the silent days, with The Land of Long Shadows (1917), and in the early sound era, by the astonishing accomplishment of Trader Horn (1931), shot on location in Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in synchronized sound, using an enormous crew, and the talents of Clyde De Vinna as cinematographer.

[De Vinna, who was the principal cameraman on White Shadows on the South Seas, took advantage of the opportunity to shoot literally miles of 'second unit' footage of native dancers, ceremonies, and everyday life for later use as stock footage in other productions, and indeed, the Trader Horn materials shot by De Vinna informed the spectatorial vision of Africa for more than thirty years, endlessly recycled in numerous 'jungle' films, and in the 1950s, such television series as Ramar of the Jungle (1952-1954)].

For his next project, Crosby worked on F. W. Murnau’s and Robert Flaherty’s Tabu (1931), but again, the collaboration was uneasy at best. As Crosby put it, when they arrived on location in Bora Bora, Flaherty rapidly demonstrated that he had no idea how to create a fiction film. As Crosby told Mark Langer, ‘the trouble was this. The idea that it was to be a co-production, and to be co-directed.

But when they got down [to the location], there was the same old story, that Flaherty couldn’t direct and Murnau was an expert, so Murnau was directing. In fact, he said to me one day, “My, I wish Flaherty could direct.” He said, “I’m sick. I don’t feel like working for a few days, but we can’t stop, and I wish Flaherty could take over.” But he knew he couldn’t. And Flaherty was upset because Murnau took over the picture.

Murnau was a great director, you know, and he was a very interesting workman, but personally had all kinds of problems. He was an arrogant person — and he and Flaherty hated each other. At least Flaherty hated him. Flaherty used to three times a day tell me how much he hated Murnau… At the end of the picture, Murnau had some titles made and asked me to shoot them.

One of the titles was “And at the camera — Crosby.” I said, “This is not the correct credit. The credit is Photographed by . . .” He said, “You won’t shoot it then?” And I said, “No. I won’t shoot it.” So we were hardly speaking after that. Then, of course, when Paramount made the titles, they gave me the correct credits.’

Floyd Crosby on the set of Tabu, behind the camera.

Despite all of this friction, the finished film is an evocative, deeply romantic and ineffably tragic work, which not only won Crosby the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, but also was selected by the National Board of Review as one of the Top Ten Films of 1931, and, in 1994, chosen by the National Film Preservation Board for the National Film Registry as being ‘culturally, historically [and] aesthetically significant.’

In Crosby’s laconic reckoning of Tabu’s success, he told Langer that ‘…it came out well enough to get the Academy Award. It was a little uneven, I must admit. And you know, this was before the days of exposure meters, and one day Flaherty was developing some film and we were talking outside and we forgot about it. The film was ten minutes in a three and a half minute developer. So we had to shoot that over again, you know.’

And for Flaherty, Crosby maintained a certain measure of respect, as opposed to his feelings on working with Murnau. As he told Langer, ‘I learned things. They weren’t things that I was particularly able to use, but the good thing about [Flaherty] was that he would make a good documentary without trying to louse it up by bringing in a lot of other things to make excitement, that had no business in the picture.

You know, so many people go out to make a documentary, who want to make something that’s going to sell, so they try to bring in some Hollywood elements of excitement, and it ceases to be a really true documentary. Well, he didn’t do that in his films. He was honest about them.’

Crosby went on to shoot a series of documentaries in the 1930s, such as Mato Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness (1931), often cited as one of the first sync sound documentaries, shot in Mato Grosso, Brazil; Pare Lorentz’s The Plow That Broke The Plains (1936); Joris Iven’s The Power and the Land (1940), as well as working on Orson Welles’ aborted semi-documentary It’s All True (1942), with cinematographers Joe Noreigo, Joseph Biroc, William Howard Greene, Harry J. Wild, and George Fanto; the film was shelved, and the materials vaulted for fifty years, before the production emerged in a reconstructed version in 1993; Crosby photographed the ‘My Friend Benito’ sequence of the film, which was actually directed by Welles’s associate Norman Foster.

Crosby on location for Mato Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness

In his later work, one of Crosby’s most impressive achievements was his parched, unadorned work on director Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), which, ironically, led back to Crosby’s work with Flaherty, as Zinnemann had a strong affinity for Flaherty’s work, along with a personal connection to the director. As Zinnemann told Brian Neve,

‘Flaherty wrote me a letter of introduction in 1931, and as a result I got a job at Goldwyn. He influenced me in every possible way, not only technically, but also in what I learnt from him by being his assistant, his whole spirit of being his own man, of being independent of the general spirit of Hollywood, to the point where he didn’t worry about working there.

That’s probably why he made only five or six pictures in his life. But he influenced me in his whole way of approaching the documentary, which he really initiated with films like Nanook of the North. I learned from Flaherty to be rather uncompromising an to defend what I wanted to say, and not let someone else mix it up. He had the true feeling of a documentary director — he took life as it was. This influenced me enormously because I found myself almost subconsciously following his style in films like High Noon …’

And so, when Zinnemann shot High Noon, he argued that, ‘if you want to make a picture like High Noon, and you want to make it feel like the world felt in the days of the Civil War in America, that kind of gritty, dusty feeling, you had to get a cameraman who knew how to handle that, like Floyd Crosby,’ with the result that the film had a cinematographic style very different from other films of the period.

As Zinnemann noted in another interview on High Noon with historian Alan Marcus, ‘I wanted to organize High Noon in the way a documentary would have been made at that time when the action happened. Except that in the 1880s there was no such thing as motion pictures. So that in using the style, the cameraman Floyd Crosby and I studied very carefully contemporary still photography, particularly the photographs of Mr. Lincoln’s [still] cameraman [Matthew Brady] who photographed parts of the Civil War in America.

That meant that we used a grainy kind of print, deliberately grainy and flat, with a very white sky, instead of a dark sky with pretty clouds on it. So, it reasonably looks a bit like photography of that period and gives it a feeling of being authentic, which was not the usual method at all at the time when this film was made.’

A superb setup by Crosby from High Noon ; Will Kane alone, deserted by the townspeople.

The completed film won four Academy Awards — Best Actor (Gary Cooper), Best Film Editing (Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad — this is a whole story in itself, as Elmo Williams’ near ‘real time’ — actually slightly stretched out, rather than strictly accurate — editing of the final cut of the film considerably tightened up the flow of the narrative), and Best Music and Best Original Song for Dimitri Tiomkin.

For his part, Floyd Crosby won a Golden Globe for his work on High Noon, and though the film was generally well-received critically, it infuriated the more politically conservative members of the Hollywood community. With its script, by Carl Foreman, depicting the craven, cowardly members of a small Western town refusing to help the town’s marshal, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), when his arch nemesis Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley), whom Kane has sent to prison, comes back explicitly to kill Kane, High Noon painted a deeply unflattering picture of American society, and was widely seen as a political allegory, commenting on the Hollywood Blacklist of the era.

As a result of this, the film’s scenarist Carl Foreman was blacklisted himself, and Floyd Crosby, as a sort of ‘collateral damage’ to the entire affair, found himself “grey listed” — not officially on the blacklist, but definitely out of favor.Out of this, however, came the final, blazingly brilliant act of Crosby’s career, a long alliance with legendary director Roger Corman, starting with the six day Western Five Guns West in 1955.

Rather than looking down on Corman’s output, Crosby became Corman’s most prolific cinematographer, lensing everything from the stark, black and white imagery of Reform School Girl and Teenage Doll — with one ‘A’ assignment in between, John Sturges’ and Henry King’s production of The Old Man and the Sea, based on Hemingway’s novel, photographed by Crosby and James Wong Howe — before slickly moving into color work for Corman on House of Usher (1960) and Pit and the Pendulum (1961), along with many other films for the director.

For his part, Crosby observed that – much to his surprise -  he didn’t have to tell Corman as much about how to direct as with some of the other helmers he’d worked with in his career; and as Corman told historian Lawrence French of working with Crosby, and of Crosby’s unjust treatment at the hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the early 1950s, working with Crosby was both practical and delightful:

‘Floyd was certainly not a communist, but during the fifties, some studios did not like him. However, that meant nothing to me. I used him simply because he was a good cameraman. I remember Floyd talking about that, and saying it was somewhat ironic that his patriotism should come under questioning, after he had served in the Army Air Corps command during World War II as a Captain, working with [the pioneering documentary filmmaker] Pare Lorentz on combat documentaries and winning citations for bravery. Floyd was really a great gentleman and a brilliant cameraman.

Crosby lights Barbara Steele on the set of Corman’s The Pit and The Pendulum

I went on to use him for my first film as a director, Five Guns West, and he was probably the best cameraman I ever worked with. He was quick, efficient and gave me the kind of quality that you would normally associate with much bigger studio films. We got along very well, and although he was somewhat older than I was, we became very good friends and I had great respect for him and for his work.

It’s not that difficult to get a good cameraman if the cameraman has hours to set up each shot. It’s not difficult to get a cameraman who works quickly. He just sets up a few lights, and says he’s ready to shoot. But to get somebody to work quickly and does fine work is very unusual. [Crosby could do that].’”

Floyd Crosby, another master of the black and white cinema.

Spectacle and Reality in the Cinema

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

Warner Baxter in the classic film 42nd Street (1933); Depression era reality vs. manufactured escapism.

These thoughts came to mind today, in an age awash in endless, often empty spectacle: from the inception of the medium, exoticism has remained the movies’ stock in trade, the one key element that pervaded every thought Hollywood had to offer. The silent era had been redolent with sin, sensuality and illicit romance, in such films as George Fitzmaurice’s Lilac Time (1928), one of the last of the major studio silents, or Wesley Ruggles’ look at decadent college life in The Plastic Age (1925), to say nothing of the dangerous encroachments of the “new Morality” in Sam Wood’s “flaming youth” exposé Prodigal Daughters (1923) with Gloria Swanson, promising viewers “new lips to kiss, freedom from conventions, life with a kick in it [and] a new world for women” as just four of the “Seven Deadly Whims” the film depicted, but with the addition of synchronized sound, things only got steamier, in every sense of the word.

Depression-era audiences wanted escapism, above all — whether in the brutal realism of gangster films, or the luxuriant excess of such musicals as Mervyn LeRoy and Busby Berkeley’s justly iconic Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), in which the familiar “let’s put on a show” plot line collides with then-contemporary reality even in the film’s opening moments, when an onscreen rehearsal of “We’re in the Money” is halted by bailiffs removing the sets for nonpayment of production costs. The conclusion of the film, the production number “Remember My Forgotten Man,” is an ode to World War I soldiers ground under by the Depression, living from day to day without hope. Similarly, in Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street (1933), bankrupt director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) dangerously exhausted and on the brink of physical collapse, is forced by economic necessity to direct a Broadway musical, even with all the odds stacked against him, simply to survive.

The Depression era artist Reginald Marsh knew this milieu all too well; in his numerous charcoal sketches and drawings, such as Breadline (1932), he tracked the world of a society in collapse, as the cruelty and exploitation of Capitalism became all too obvious; those who had, and those who only stood and waited for a few crumbs of sustenance. And yet these images are just a few that we will be given to see in our lifetime; as Paolo Cherchi Usai notes, “relatively few moving images can be seen in the course of a lifetime, a tiny fraction of those actually made. Given an average lifespan of seventy-five years, the time spent viewing them rarely exceeds one hundred thousand hours, little more than a decade.” And yet it seems we always want more.

As early as 1954, long before he became an international celebrity, Marshall McLuhan railed against the intentionally mesmerizing effect of pop culture imagery on television in films, noting that it was designed to create “a mindless, helpless, entranced audience” which would then do whatever its creators required. In short, consume, exist, and die. This is why the experimental cinema of the 1960s was such a tonic in the onslaught of calculated commercialism, in a world of “morally corrupt, aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, [and] temperamentally boring” film production, as the 1962 manifesto of The New American Cinema Group, which spawned the still-extant Film-Makers’ Cooperative, so aptly put it.

The late Manoel de Oliveira, the Portuguese filmmaker who died on April 2, 2015 at the age of 106, and who worked almost until the end of his long life, was perhaps the last film director who had an authentic memory of what the world was like before electricity, when the night was lit with oil lamps and torches. His painterly work, as exhibited in such ravishing films as The Strange Case of Angelica (2010) evokes a world in which spectatorship was very much a personal pursuit, and not one mass produced for audience consumption. Indeed, the entire narrative of Angelica centers on a young man who is a solitary photographer, and whose images bring the title character “back to life” after a fashion. Much of the film is spent watching the photographer at work, as he documents the lives of the field hands in a nearby vineyard, and the moment of reproduction is central to the film; the second when the image is captured. This is the moment that will be memorialized, remembered, fetishized, examined, deconstructed and discussed.

Thus, we are ultimately in thrall to what we witness, which is ultimately what the filmmaker desires, whether she/he will admit it or not. Every film implies an audience, and every image implies a viewer, even if the maker specifies otherwise, or perhaps especially then. Light from the screen transfixes; the inescapable two-dimensionality of cinema is something that the medium continually strives to overcome, but unless the screen of the theater physically and actually projects towards the viewer, this will forever remain only an illusion. And yet we remain transfixed, drawn to the screen of light, hoping to see something there that we won’t see in real life, something that will take us, for a moment, out of our real lives, and transport us — to where?

The cinema of the moment is just that; the cinema of a single instant. There is much more.

Dorothy Arzner – Starmaker

Sunday, July 12th, 2015

Here’s an interesting article on pioneering feminist director Dorothy Arzner.

As Ella Morton notes in the web journal Atlas Obscura of this talented but often forgotten filmmaker, “type the name ‘Dorothy Arzner‘ into Netflix’s search bar and you’ll get zero results. It’s an odd outcome, considering Arzner, a prolific golden age film director, has 16 feature films—among the most of any woman in Hollywood, ever. She gave Katharine Hepburn one of her first starring roles. She navigated the transition from silent films to talkies with panache, inventing the boom microphone in the process. And yet, she is largely unknown today.

Born in San Francisco in 1897, Arzner attended the University of Southern California with the intention of becoming a doctor. World War I interrupted her studies, but when it was over, she decided not to go back to medical school. ‘I wanted to heal the sick and raise the dead instantly. I didn’t want to go through all the trouble of medicine,’ said Arzner, according to [Judith Mayne's indispensable] book Directed by Dorothy Arzner. ‘So that took me into the motion picture industry.’

Arzner’s film career began in 1919 with a trip to the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation—the film studio that would later become Paramount Pictures—at the invitation of director William DeMille. Exploring the various departments, Arzner gauged which aspects of filmmaking held the most appeal for her. ‘I remember making the observation, if one was going to be in the movie business, one should be a director because he was the one who told everyone else what to do,’ she said, according to [Donna R. Casella's] essay What Women Want: The Complex World of Dorothy Arzner and Her Cinematic Women.

It would take years, however, before Arzner got the chance to prove her directing chops. She began working at the studio as a script typist, tapping at a typewriter all day. Though the work was humdrum, the opportunity to read major Hollywood scripts helped hone her instincts for what made a good film. The short-lived stint as a script transcriber—she was a less-than-stellar typist, and lasted only three months—was followed by a solid run in the Paramount editing bay.

In 1922, while editing the dramatic film Blood and Sand, about a peasant who becomes a champion bullfighter, Arzner saved money by intercutting stock footage of bullfights into the narrative. It was a shrewd move that both endeared her to the purse-string holders and helped establish her as a filmmaker with a keen eye.

By 1927, Paramount was ready for Arzner to take the reins on a studio feature. They assigned her Fashions For Women, a silent film about a cigarette girl named Lulu who impersonates Celeste de Givray, the best-dressed model in Paris. The novelty-ridden hi-jinks—actress Esther Ralston played both roles—didn’t set the world on fire, but the film gave Arzner the opportunity to put what she’d learned into practice. And there was much more to come.”

There absolutely is “more to come” – click here, or on the image above, to read the entire essay.

Francesca Catalano – A Brilliant New Director of Cinematography

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

Francesa Catalano is a new talent to watch – literally!

Yesterday, at the suggestion of Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, I viewed Luca Boni and Marco Ristori’s low budget horror film, Reich of the Dead (2015), shot in Italy on a minimal budget with English speaking actors – including Andrew Harwood Mills, Dan van Husen, Aaron Stielstra, Ally McClelland -  which would be just another program picture were it not for Francesca Catalano’s absolutely superb CinemaScope cinematography, using a RED Scarlet digital camera to achieve some really astonishingly subtle effects.

From what I can gather, this is her first film as a full-fledged DP, although she has worked in second unit and assistant capacities on a number of films. But on the evidence of her work here, she is clearly a major talent, and someone who is ready to step up to fulltime DP work on a major project. Someone smart will grab her soon – she’s got a style all her own, which uses a good deal of available light, and deeply saturated color, and makes this very minor film well worth watching – sort of like one of Val Lewton’s Gothic thrillers from the 1940s.

In particular, her style of cinematography embraces the principles of tenebrism, which as Wikipedia notes,  “is a style of painting using very pronounced chiaroscuro, where there are violent contrasts of light and dark, and where darkness becomes a dominating feature of the image. The technique was developed to add drama to an image through a spotlight effect, and was popular during the Baroque period of painting.”

I wrote her to ask for her thoughts, and she responded, in part: “Thanks so much for your note. I really love [the painter] Caravaggio, and I think everyone who wants to be a DP should know or have seen once in their life some of his great work. You’re right, the movie is done with a very low budget and just a few lights, which is the reason that I tried to use natural light as much as possible, to bring out the colors of the location itself, and enhance the costumes.”

Catalano’s work is really one of a kind – as I told her, it is reminiscent of Caravaggio, but also recalls the work of the great Italian DP Mario Bava in its atmospheric and restrained sense of mood and atmosphere – in short, the vision of a true original, who has obviously studied painting seriously, and instinctively understands how to use light and shadow to create a really remarkable series of images on a very limited budget.

American DPs often approach their work as if it’s just another assignment, and expect most of the color grading to be done in post-production, but here, working with minimal resources, Catalano shows how much can be done on the set, using the qualities of the scene itself, and taking real risks with her compositions, to achieve something really extraordinary.

All in all, Catalano has the sensibility of a true artist.

A Deadly Adoption – “What’s the Point?”

Sunday, June 21st, 2015

A Deadly Adoption – You Take These Things Seriously?

So now we have A Deadly Adoption – “The Birth of Plan Gone Wrong,” as the tag line would have it, and since Kristen Wiig and Will Farrell are both apparently big Lifetime movie fans, why not? When you’re in the mood to turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, a Lifetime movie is just ticket; formulaic plots, luxurious sets, bad acting, clichéd dialogue, and a thin sheen that can only come from shooting a TV movie under skull cracking pressure on a minimal budget in a matter of weeks.

But as Brian Lowry rhetorically asked in Variety, “what on Earth was the point of that? Perhaps if Will Ferrell had successfully premiered A Deadly Adoption as a completely stealth project, it would have been surprising to see him and Kristen Wiig turn up in what feels like a straight-forward Lifetime movie. As is, the producers have essentially engaged in a college-type exercise, seeing if they can replicate the predictable touches that characterize this kind of movie, for an audience that doesn’t have much sense of humor, usually, about its ’stories.’ The result? A film with something for virtually no one.”

Director Rachel Goldenberg, working from a script by Andrew Steele – which, according to Lifetime’s official press release “is a high-stakes dramatic thriller about a successful couple (Ferrell and Wiig) who house and care for a pregnant woman (Jessica Lowndes, of 90210) during the final months of her pregnancy with the hopes of adopting her unborn child” has crafted a reasonable competent thriller, in which the opening scenes of domestic bliss will soon give way a much darker reality.

Of course, it’s always that way in a Lifetime movie. Ferrell is a hyper-successful financial guru who spits out bestsellers at a torrential pace, in order to support his wife in an enormous lakeside house, which judging from all appearances must have cost between ten and twelve million dollars – a typically overblown private residence for a Lifetime movie. But there’s tension in their marriage, and we soon find out why.

In the opening minutes of the film, Wiig falls off a rotting pier on their property while three months pregnant, losing the child as a result, and narrowly escaping death herself. And, of course, she’s unable to have any more children, but at least she has an adorable moppet of her own, Sully (Alyvia Alyn Lind), but somehow, their lives seem incomplete. Will mopes around the house, and even five years later, it seems that only the patter of new little feet will cheer him up.

Cue Jessica Lowndes, who turns up at their door six months pregnant with a social worker in tow, all sweetness and light, cooing over their lavishly appointed mansion, and declaring that there’s nothing she’d like more than to turn over her newborn to the couple, to give the child a shot at a “better life.” Within minutes, Wiig and Farrell are smitten with the young woman, and promptly move her into one of their many spare bedrooms for the final three months of her pregnancy, but of course, nothing is what it seems.

With typically sun-dappled cinematography, copious use of slow motion in the “noooooooo” sequences, a cozy small town atmosphere that reminds one of Cabot Cove on Murder, She Wrote, along with a sympathetic but somewhat clueless gay friend who tries to help the couple when things go wrong – which they naturally have to in a Lifetime movie – but pays dearly for his good intentions, A Deadly Adoption is two movies fighting against each other, with neither one fully winning out. Indeed, Farrell’s scenes almost seem to be from a different project altogether.

Wiig plays her role of the resolute wife and mother with conviction, and displays considerable skill as a straight dramatic actor; Ferrell, on the other hand, seems to sleepwalk through his role, and is off-screen for much the film’s running time. The other main character is Lowndes’ real boyfriend, the scummy sociopath Dwayne Tinsdale (Jake Weary), who also delivers a solid performance in an utterly one-dimensional role. You want violence, kidnapping, attempted murder, robbery – whatever – you got it.

All of this plays out with “ever increasing menace” in a predictable two-hour time frame, and none of it believable in the slightest. At time parodic, especially when Ferrell dominates his scenes, and at times pure camp melodrama, A Deadly Adoption in really neither funny enough, or compelling enough, to really command the viewer’s attention. But naturally, as a celebration of 25 years of Lifetime Movies, all 360 of them and counting, A Deadly Adoption is getting excellent ratings, and was actually screened back to back three times on the night of its premiere, June 20th, to encourage repeat binge viewing.

As A&E Networks senior VP of original movies Tanya Lopez and VP of original movies Arturo Interian told Dan Snierson in Entertainment Weekly, when asked simply “how did this happen?” Lopez replied that “I don’t know if we’ll ever know whether it was a bet from a group of friends or he really wanted to do it . . .We weren’t clear if it was going to be authentic, if it really was going to be this murder story. . . It’s not a comedy. And it’s well-done.”

Interian chimed in that “it’s not the Scary Movie parody of a Lifetime movie. He wanted to legitimately do a Lifetime sexual thriller . . . The initial plan was to put on the air with zero fanfare. Just sneak it on. You were going to see promos that were kind of oblique, it’s A Deadly Adoption. A thriller promo. You’re not sure who’s in it. It was interesting that the story leaked and that’s what threw us. We thought we had it under wraps.”

Well, it’s under wraps no more, and while it will certainly raise Wiig’s profile, and might even get her a shot in a more ambitious project, something like Monster perhaps – she actually has the skill set for it – it’s back to deadpan comedy for Will Farrell, who doesn’t seem to know how to play it straight. Even when you’re supposed to feel sympathy for his somewhat tortured if deeply privileged character, you don’t. He always seems just on the edge of cracking a smile, as if the whole project is beneath him in some sense.

Which of course, it is, but as the actor Christopher Lee observed shortly before his death, looking back on his long 250 plus film career, “every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.” It’s sound advice, and Wiig can pull it off, while Lowndes gives it everything she’s got from sweet to psycho, no matter how many costume changes and hairstyle revamps she goes through, but Farrell seems to know that he’s slumming.

And, of course, he’s right. But the way to get the most out of a script like this is to play it absolutely seriously, right down the line, and savor each exquisitely overripe moment, which is the essence of the Lifetime zeitgeist. I can’t say much more without giving some pivotal plot points away, although you’ll almost certainly see them coming from ten miles off – indeed, I was actually able to recite the dialogue for most of the film before it was even spoken, no kidding – but just like anything which verges on camp, you’re best off if you just jump in, and accept it on its own terms.

No matter how over-the-top Lifetime movies are – and indeed, they traffic in nothing less than deliriously wretched excess in nearly every department, from scripts to sets to wall-to-wall music scores, there’s a grain of truth in them which keeps them centered in some sort of alternative reality. As Lopez noted, “We did a movie called The Pregnancy Pact that scored a high rating. The idea was pregnancy was on the rise and they came to it in a voyeuristic way. But the issue was top of mind for women and for young girls, yet it wasn’t something that was being talked about . . .

We talk about that a lot: ‘Now we’re giving you the platform. What are you using it for?’ So that we’re not just saying, ‘Wow, a lot of girls got pregnant there.’ It was much more: ‘What is our call to action? Our call to action is awareness.’ And it’s not in an overt after-school special way. And that calls to how much smarter the movies have to be, so that people don’t feel they are being preached to, or that it is a clear social issue. Which is how I think movies in the past were developed.”

In short, in their own mad mind, at least, Lifetime movies have some sort of tenuous connection to a society which is also spinning utterly out on control, in which everyday the web churns up more bizarre scandal and sensation that even the trashiest pop novelist could ever conjure up in his or her wildest dreams. A Deadly Adoption thus seems to want it both ways – parody and straight-ahead melodrama – but only Wiig, Lowndes, and Weary have the conviction to pull it off. For Ferrell, the whole thing is a joke from start to finish, no matter how much he may like to relax with a Lifetime movie in his off hours.

It’s not a failure, it’s not a success, it’s just there, going through the motions, which makes the final product unsatisfying, and also rather unmemorable, but then again, there will be another Lifetime movie next week with totally unknown actors, eager for their break, and they’ll give it everything they’ve got, because as tabloid as it is, they’ll completely embrace the material. That movie might help someone’s career. It might have some real intensity. And that’s what it takes to make a real Lifetime movie.

Still, it’s an interesting experiment, demonstrating how just how formulaic the genre is.

Robin Williams’ Final Performance – “Boulevard”

Friday, June 19th, 2015

I have never been a Robin Williams cultist, but Boulevard seems restrained, serious, and deeply felt.

Actually, I’m quite surprised to be posting this, but Robin Williams has always been full of surprises, from his very earliest work up to the final days of his all too brief career. In the end, there seemed to be a great deal of sadness about him, in personal appearances as well as in his films – though I should make it clear that we never met – and I just got the sense that he was having a difficult time in his life.

So I was surprised to see the trailer for this small, economical film that seems much more successful, at least to me, than most of his more famous comedy work. Completed in 2014, it’s only now getting a shot at a theatrical release. As Michael Miller noted in People Magazine, “in Boulevard, the late actor plays a lonely man trapped by his monotonous life and crumbling marriage. After a chance encounter with a young hitchhiker, Williams’ character begins to climb out of his rut and turn his life around.

‘This is one of the kindest characters Williams has ever played, which makes his self-imposed turmoil – the consequence of not wanting to hurt anyone, least of all his wife – all the more tragic,’ film critic Peter Debruge wrote in Variety when the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year. ‘Tapping into that same loneliness felt in One Hour Photo and Good Will Hunting, the actor projects a regret so deep and identifiable, viewers should have no trouble connecting it to whatever is missing in their own lives – whether those regrets are romantic, sexual, professional or spiritual.’”  Boulevard is directed by Dito Montiel from a script by Douglas Soesbe.

Boulevard also stars Bob Odenkirk and Kathy Baker, and is slated for a July 10, 2015 release.

TCM Partners With Women in Film

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

As Lisa de Moraes reports in Deadline Hollywood, “Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and Women In Film Los Angeles have joined forces for a multi-year partnership dedicated to raising awareness about the lack of gender equality in the industry, while celebrating the achievements of women who have succeeded in film.

TCM has earmarked the month of October for the next three consecutive years for the programming initiative. The network will present films from female industry icons, and provide context on the historical and current states of the representation of women in the film industry.

The month-long programming initiative hopes to take a deeper look at gender inequality in the film industry, and will tackle pro-social elements (research, resources, tools, etc) to assist women filmmakers in furthering their careers. Women in Film Los Angeles will partner with TCM throughout this programming initiative to offer research and resources.

‘The issue of gender inequality in the film industry is both timely and immensely important to shine a light on,’ said TCM’s general manager Jennifer Dorian. ‘We’re thrilled to partner with such a well-respected organization as Women in Film in order to address and promote the empowerment of women in our industry.’

‘For years, I have dreamed of having a network reach out to our organization with a true interest in our advocacy and the ability to collaborate on programming that will reach audiences everywhere,’ WIF President, Cathy Schulman said in today’s announcement.

In April, WIF and Sundance released results of a study they conducted that concluded men outnumbered women 23-to-1 as directors of the 1,300 top-grossing films since 2002, and found gender stereotyping to be one of the main reasons for the disparity.”

An excellent idea – long overdue.

Jurassic World – Diminishing Returns – But Not at The Box Office

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

Variety’s Scott Foundas has the best review I’ve seen yet of the new blockbuster Jurassic World; read it here.

As Foundas writes, in a deeply knowledgeable and sharply observed critique of the film, “‘No one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore,’ notes one character early on in Jurassic World, and it’s easy to imagine the same words having passed through the lips of more than one Universal Studios executive in the years since Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Jurassic Park shattered box-office records, along with the glass ceiling for computer-generated visual effects. Two decades and two lackluster sequels later, producer and studio have spared few expenses in crafting a bigger, faster, noisier dinosaur opus, designed to reclaim their place at the top of the blockbuster food chain. What they’ve engineered is an undeniably vigorous assault of jaw-chomping jolts and Spielbergian family bonding that nevertheless captures only a fraction of the original film’s overflowing awe and wonderment.

If the first Jurassic Park served as a game-changing harbinger of the CGI-era tentpole movie (as well as the movie-as-theme-park-attraction-as-movie), Jurassic World can be seen as a self-aware commentary on the difficulties of sustaining a popular franchise in an age when spectacular “event” movies are the rule more than the exception. The galloping gallimimus herd and screen-filling T-rex head of ’93 now seem almost as quaint as the stop-motion ape of the 1933 King Kong after the VFX breakthroughs of Lord of the Rings, Avatar and the two Planet of the Apes movies (whose writer-producers, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, share Jurassic World screenplay credit with director Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly). And when Jurassic World begins, a similar dilemma faces the operators of the eponymous theme park, which, after rocky start, is running incident-free on that doomed Costa Rican isle of Isla Nublar, where it has become a full-fledged, Disney-like resort, complete with luxury Hilton hotel (one of the many brands seemingly unfazed by placing its products in a movie about a literal tourist trap).

Business is booming at Jurassic World, yes, but in the tourism business as in Hollywood, stasis is a kind of death. The public — and, moreover, generous corporate sponsors — want ever more bang (and teeth) for their buck, observes the no-nonsense Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), a loyal corporate flack who oversees park operations for Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), the Indian billionaire who inherited Isla Nublar from the late John Hammond (Richard Attenborough). So it’s time for a little razzle-dazzle cooked up by ex-Hammond geneticist Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong, the sole Jurassic Park cast member to reprise his role here): a new, hybrid dinosaur breed known as Indominus rex (or, more precisely, Verizon Wireless Indominus rex), made from T-rex DNA and whatever else tumbled into the gene splicer. Will these people never learn? Not as long as the thrill-seeking public keeps queuing up for more.”

Meanwhile, the film has grossed roughly $511.8 million globally at the box office – just for openers.

An Interview with Denis Côté – Joy of Man’s Desiring

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

I have a new interview with Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté in Senses of Cinema #75.

As I wrote, in part, “Denis Côté is a young Canadian filmmaker who has burst onto the international film scene with a group of challenging and innovative movies in the past few years. Born 16 November, 1973 in New Brunswick, Canada, Côté began his career with a group of short films, and made his first feature in 2005, Drifting States (Les états Nordiques), which won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival.

Since then, Côté has worked a number of commercial and/or personal projects, most notably Curling (2010), a father/daughter family drama that was exceptionally well received by audiences and critics alike; Bestiare (2012), a ‘docufiction’ – that’s my own term – film centering on the animals who populate a tourist destination zoo in Canada; Vic+Flo Saw A Bear (Vic+Flo ont vu un ours, 2013), a harrowing tale of two women trying to make it on the outside after a stint in prison, and how the world conspires against them to make redemption – at least in life – almost impossible. Vic+Flo Saw A Bear was probably Côté’s most successful film to date, and was screened at more than 90 festivals around the world.

Most recently, Côté completed the superb Joy of Man’s Desiring (aka Que ta joie demeure, 2014), which documents, after a fashion, daily life on the factory floor, as workers methodically partner with their machines to create the staples of daily existence. In all these projects, Côté offers his own unique take on concepts of narrative in his fiction films, and reportage in his documentaries, to create a series of films that are at once open-ended, mysterious, and subtly disturbing.

As of this writing, Joy of Man’s Desiring is only available on Vimeo, distributed by EyeSteelFilm. After seeing the film two or three times, I was so impressed with Côté’s audacious mixture of real events and lightly staged fictional sequences to create an entirely alternate reality that I contacted him, and asked if he would discuss the film with me; he agreed, and this interview was conducted on 4 April, 2015.

I’d like to talk with you about your most recent film, the fictionalized documentary Joy of Man’s Desiring, which for me is one of the most stunning explorations of daily factory life I’ve ever seen. So, my first question is if you’ve ever seen Godard’s British Sounds (aka See You at Mao, 1970), the only other film to my knowledge that tries to tackle the workplace in this fashion, although, in my opinion, it overloads the soundtrack with Marxist slogans and the usual Godardian intercut titles – yet the sequence on the car assembly line is really powerful. Have you seen it, and was it an influence?

I was a film critic for a decade while making short films. I have seen an enormous number of art films. When you are young, you get easily confused and overwhelmed by so many influences and desires to pay homage or copy your favorite filmmakers. But being the age I am today, having more experience and a stronger personality, I can definitely see I am not corrupted by direct influences anymore. It’s a bit of a cliché to think that filmmakers are strongly conscious about references of any sort. So, to answer your question, I am not familiar with British Sounds, but I will do my homework.

Joy of Man’s Desiring deals with blue-collar work, and with the machines that seem to dominate, and define the workplace. Indeed, the film begins with a series of trance inducing zooms in on machines that seem to rule the entire work environment. Were you introducing them as the controlling personalities?

Not being familiar with those environments, I decided to start the film with the most spectacular and fascinating point of entry: the machines and their primitive sounds. I felt the need to look at things like a four year-old would. For the first three minutes I let myself, and the viewer be amazed by the power, strength and perfection of those machines. I wanted to put the audience in a hypnotic mode right away.

As you said in another interview, you were struck by “the terrifying idea that we all have to work and eventually find serenity, rest, a sense of accomplishment.” While it’s true enough that we all – or most of us – have to work, do you think that everyone finds “serenity, rest, [and] a sense of accomplishment”? For most people in factory jobs, it seems like a continual struggle just to keep up with the machine.

I do think we can find a personal sense of realization and/or accomplishment in any type of work. It’s really easy to think that machines are evil and kill human feelings, free will and ambition. I had those preconceptions myself before entering those environments, but you would be surprised to know how many people told me they consciously look for a repetitive job all day long. They told me those are the best jobs, because you don’t have to think all day long. Nighttime is for family matters and problems! Who am I to judge such thinking? I knew my film would not be frontally political, activist or judgmental and had to be more of a hypnotic journey.”

You can read the rest of this fascinating discussion by clicking here, or on the image above.

Dreams of Jules Verne: Karel Zeman’s Invention of Destruction

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

I have a new article in Senses of Cinema #75 on Karel Zeman’s classic film Invention of Destruction.

As I write, in part, “Like so many others in the United States, I was first exposed to Karel Zeman’s exotic adventure film Vynález zkázy (Invention of Destruction, 1958), when it was released in the West in a dubbed and retitled as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne in 1961. Zeman was one of the greatest of all Czech animators and special effects artists, and used a process unique in Vynález zkázycombining 19th century pictorial steel engravings with live action photography. This created a fantastic vision of what can be identified today as a steampunk past, where elaborate mechanical devices, hot air balloons, oddly constructed airplanes, submarines, and other infernal machines were brought to life in a manner at once poetic and yet deeply sinister.

Jules Verne (1928-1905) was in many ways one of the most forward thinking of all imaginative popular writers, and his works were both commercially and critically successful. Films such as De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to The Moon, 1865, famously made into an early film by Georges Méliès in 1902), Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, 1869-1870), Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1872), and L’Île mystérieuse (Mysterious Island, 1874-75) consolidated his reputation as a prolific and prophetic futurist. Verne’s works have been filmed countless times, either as straight adaptations or updated versions, but Zeman’s film stands alone as perhaps the most faithful of all filmic versions of Verne on the screen. It embraces not only his then-fanciful (and now all too real) vision of the future, but also remains faithful to the iconic images of Verne’s own era.”

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

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of 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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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