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Archive for the ‘Film Criticism’ Category

Dallas Buyers Club

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

 

I have a review of Dallas Buyers Club in the latest issue of Cinespect.

Here’s the opening: “Matthew McConaughey is an excellent actor, and Lord knows he’s working enough these days, and he brings real fire and presence to every role he attacks. But with the exception of Steven Soderbergh’s criminally underrated Magic Mike, McConaughey’s films often don’t live up to their initial promise. Such is the case with McConaughey’s latest film, Dallas Buyers Club, based on a true story, and indifferently directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. The source material is absolutely solid; homophobic good ol’ boy Ron Woodroof lives a non-stop lifestyle of booze, coke, cigarettes, and rodeo riding, until he discovers that he’s HIV positive after a trip to the hospital.

Initially indignant, and given 30 days to live by his doctors, Woodruff sets out on a one man crusade to prove them wrong, smuggling unapproved drugs into the States as a “Buyers Club,” and befriending numerous members of the gay community in the process, in particular the flamboyant Rayon (Jared Leto in a standout performance), as he battles against the ravages of the disease and confounds the medical establishment. Eventually, the sympathetic Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) comes around to Woodruff’s way of thinking, and sacrifices her career when she realizes that conventional treatments against HIV/AIDS are far from effective; indeed, they may well be lethal.”

You can read the rest of the review by clicking here, or on the image above; a solid but not perfect film.

New Book: Cinema at The Margins

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

I have a new book out today, Cinema at The Margins, from Anthem Press, London.

More and more, just a few canonical classics, such as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) or Victor Fleming’s Gone With The Wind (1939), are representing the entire output of an era to a new generation that knows little of the past, and is encouraged by popular media to live only in the eternal present. What will happen to the rest of the films that enchanted, informed and transported audiences in the 1930s, 1940s, and even as recently as the 1960s?

For the most part, these films will be forgotten, and their makers with them. In this book, I argue that even obvious historical markers such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) represent shockingly unknown territory for the majority of today’s younger viewers; and yet once exposed to these films, they are enthralled by them. In the 1980s and 1990s, the more adventurous video stores served a vital function as annals of classic cinema. Today, those stores are gone and the days of this kind of browsing are over.

This collection of essays aims to highlight some of the lesser-known films of the past – the titles that are being pushed aside and forgotten in today’s oversaturation of the present. The work is divided into four sections, rehabilitating the films and filmmakers who have created some of the most memorable phantom visions of the past century, but who, for whatever reason, have not successfully made the jump into the contemporary consciousness.

“Few have explored the cinematic margins as thoroughly as Wheeler Winston Dixon, and few match his talent for finding and celebrating the secret glories of overlooked, undervalued films. Gliding from Peter Bogdanovich to Myra Breckinridge by way of Robert Bresson, this is an exciting and ever-surprising collection.” —David Sterritt, Columbia University and Chair, National Society of Film Critics

“The marginalization of important films is a constant threat in the age of the New Hollywood blockbuster, with commercial cinema reduced to a cheap thrill and the audience conceived as adolescents. Dixon’s thoughtful remarks on neglected films testify not only to his own fine sensibility, but to the urgency of the concerns he sets before us.” —Christopher Sharrett, Seton Hall University

You can read more here, or click on the image above; available now from Amazon in all formats.

The Invisible Cinema of Marcel Hanoun

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

I have an new essay in Film International on the deeply underappreciated filmmaker Marcel Hanoun.

As I note at the beginning of my article, “When Marcel Hanoun died on September 22, 2012 at the age of 82, it caused barely a ripple in the media, and even in the world of experimental cinema. And yet Hanoun was a major filmmaker, whose near total critical eclipse after an initial burst of critical interest is an indictment of cinema history as a function of canon. It’s true that Hanoun’s films are difficult, but no more so than Jean-Luc Godard’s, who was a fan of Hanoun’s work; it’s true that Hanoun turned his back on commercial cinema to work as a perennial outsider, but again, cinema has many rebellious figures in its history who continue to hold a claim on our memory.

But Hanoun is in death, as he was in life, an almost phantom figure, ‘discovered’ in the early 60s, and then summarily dismissed. There is a French Wikipedia page on Hanoun, cited in the works below, but not one in English. Most of his films, with the exception of his first, Une Simple Histoire (1958), are not readily available. His list of film credits on official websites like IMDb is woefully inaccurate. What critical writing there is on him in English is mostly from the 1960s and 70s, and after that, it just stops. Indeed, for most of his films, there’s scant information to be had in any language. To me, this is inexplicable. Hanoun’s importance is clear. Nevertheless, it’s a sobering fact; most people have never heard of Marcel Hanoun.”

You can read the rest of this article here; again, my thanks to Daniel Lindvall, editor of Film International.

Light From the Screen: Cinema, Painting and Spectatorship

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Here’s my recent essay on the relationship(s) between cinema and painting for Film International.

As I noted, “Noël Coward once observed that ‘television is for appearing on – not for looking at,’ but as the twenty-first century takes firm hold of our collective consciousness, it seems that everyone has become, in one form or another, a spectator of the events of everyday existence, whether at home or in the cinema. Reality shows and YouTube videos offer the prospect of instant stardom for the ‘lucky’ few whose videos ‘go viral,’ but for every video posted, there are literally millions of viewers who would rather watch than participate in the production of images.

It has become so much easier – and potentially safer – to stay home and let the images come to us, rather than to go out to a public place and view them with a crowd of strangers. Indeed, this is the era of what the theorist Gabriele Pedullà has described as “the spectator’s extreme volatility” (original emphasis). Images are anywhere, and everywhere, and there seems to be no escaping them, even if we wanted to, and weren’t constantly returning to our various digital screens for another visual ‘fix.’ And we aren’t only watching movies and videos; we’re viewing paintings, sculptures, drawings, live video camera feeds; we like to watch, just as Chauncey Gardiner did in Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979). Life was ‘real’ for Chauncey only if it was on television; for us, too, the image has become more real than life itself.

With lightweight portable tablets, smartphones, and other electronic devices proliferating rapidly in our culture, when one looks at images of family gatherings in 2013, one is struck by the fact that everyone is watching something on their own portable image device, and ignoring each other; we’re all watching each other all the time, but on some sort of electronic device, rather than face to face, and we have little time, thus, for any real communication or intimacy. We have been gradually transformed from a culture of human communication into a mediated society in which simulacrum images of the real have replaced human interaction. We’ve been both spectators and participants in the process of image production since the dawn of imagistic representation, but now it seems that more and more, we are content to simply watch anything that’s on, removing ourselves from existence.”

You can read the rest of the article here; my thanks again to Daniel Lindvall, the editor of Film International.

The Noir Vision of Max Ophüls, Romantic Fatalist

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Here’s a new piece I wrote on the American noir films of the great Max Ophüls in Film International.

As I note at the start of my essay, “Max Ophüls, born Maximillian Oppenheimer on 6 May 1902, Saarbrücken, Germany, was a director known primarily for his romance films, often with sweeping tracking shots, and often taking place in the past. Ophüls’ luxurious camera style is evident in such superb romance films as Letter from An Unknown Woman (1948), with Louis Jourdan as Stefan Brand, a ne’er do well pianist who seduces and then abandons a young woman, Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine), and pays for his crime in a dueling match; La Ronde (1950), a sex comedy based on Arthur Schnitzler’s eponymous play, in which lovers float from one affair to the next with delightful abandon; Madame de… (1953), another romance film in which a spoiled Countess (Danielle Darrieux) engages in an extra-marital dalliance, highlighted by Ophüls’ trademark “waltzing camera” technique, and his penchant for long takes; and his final film, the Technicolor and CinemaScope extravaganza Lola Montès (1955), based on the life of a notorious courtesan who eventually winds up as the main attraction in a circus sideshow.

Ophüls started directing films in 1931, scoring an early success with his romantic drama Liebelei (1933), completing a total of eighteen films in Germany and France between 1931 and 1940. While these films, especially Liebelei, gesture towards his later, more mature work, Ophüls was still establishing himself. The director made only two true noir films in his long and distinguished career, back to back: Caught (1948) and The Reckless Moment (1949), both from his brief period in the United States. To this most European and continental director, for whom romance was a sacred trust, with the camera revealing the innermost workings of the hearts of his characters, these two noirs were a distinct departure from his earlier work, and stand out as near aberrations in the director’s long and illustrious career. But they were created out of necessity, not design, for Ophüls never really wanted to come to Hollywood in the first place.”

You can read the rest of the essay here; my thanks to Daniel Lindvall, editor of Film International.

Catching Fire Flames Out

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Here’s my review of Catching Fire in the November 22, 2013 issue of Cinespect, edited by Charles Meyer.

I open with the text above, and continue by noting that in the film, “stalwart Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is once again pressed into service in a new round of Hunger Games, while tyrannical President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) rigs the games to kill all the previous winners by pitting them against one another in a special 75th anniversary edition of the contest.

This time around, Snow is assisted by the newly installed Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as his ‘games master,’ while Katniss is aided by her old cohorts Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) as she readies herself for the competition, which is once again emceed by the unctuous Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and his fey sidekick Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones).

But things don’t go as smoothly for President Snow as they did in the initial entry of the trilogy; in fact, there’s already an insurrection brewing at the start of the film, and inevitably, the unrest snowballs until it threatens to engulf Snow’s dreams of empire. The film is certainly elaborate enough. The production design is appropriately Riefenstahlian, the sets are grandiose and overblown, the special effects are state of the art, and the combat sequences are suitably violent for a PG-13 project, but the film never, shall we say, catches fire.”

You can read the rest of the review here; but I can’t recommend that you see the film.

To Save and Project: The 11th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation – October 9–November 12, 2013

Saturday, October 19th, 2013

Here’s an opportunity you can’t afford to miss.

Once again, The Museum of Modern Art is running a stunning series of films, saved and restored from archives around the world, in film format, as part of their ongoing annual series To Save and Project, MoMA’s international festival of film preservation, which celebrates its 11th year with gloriously preserved masterworks and rediscoveries of world cinema. Virtually all of the films in the festival are having their New York premieres, and some are shown in versions never before seen in the United States.

As the program notes indicate, “this year’s edition features a Carte Blanche selection by filmmaker Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants, Election). Other guests include Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, who introduces Hotel Monterey (1972) and News from Home (1977), her beautiful New York films of the 1970s; and Filipino sensation Lav Diaz, who presents the full-length version of his 2001 crime drama Batang West Side. An evening with the great American writer E. L. Doctorow, a special presentation of Le Conversazioni literary festival, includes a screening and a conversation moderated by its artistic director, Antonio Monda.

A sidebar dedicated to the Royal Film Archive of Belgium, includes classics of Belgian cinema as well as a fascinating rediscovery: the first American anti-fascist film, Hitler’s Reign of Terror (1934). To Save and Project also features Jacques Barratier’s gorgeous French-Tunisian drama Goha (1958); Rowland V. Lee’s demented pre-Code puppet romance I Am Suzanne! (1934); and one of the most anticipated films in the festival, the world premiere of Karl Brown’s Stark Love (1927), with a new musical arrangement performed live by the NYU Cinemusica Viva Players, conducted by Gillian B. Anderson. The festival also includes gems of film noir; the premiere of rarely screened Andy Warhol film shorts, followed by a panel discussion with Warhol collaborators and scholars; a Modern Mondays premiere of Bruce Conner’s Crossroads (1976); and a theatrical run of Mikko Niskanen’s Eight Deadly Shots (1972), together with Peter Von Bagh’s The Story of Mikko Niskanen (2010).

What distinguishes To Save and Project among the world’s film preservation festivals is that nearly all the titles are presented on celluloid, respecting their original format of 35mm or 16mm. This festival, then, is a celebration of the vital work of archives around the world, including MoMA’s Department of Film, as well as Hollywood and international studios, distributors, and independent filmmakers, to save our cinema heritage.”

Organized by Joshua Siegel, Associate Curator, Department of Film, this is an event not to be missed. Click here, or on the image above, to get a complete schedule of all the screenings for this remarkable event.

The Unbearable Lightness of Gravity; The Depth and Resonance of Adore

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

I have a review of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, and on a much happier note, Anne Fontaine’s Adore, in the latest issue of Film International. Spoilers abound, so proceed with caution.

I’ll lead off with my thoughts on Adore, which is much the better film, and let you take it from there; the section on Gravity is at the top of the piece: “Based on a novella by Doris Lessing, scripted by Christopher Hampton, with immaculate cinematography by Christophe Beaucarne, and a music score by Christopher Gordon that evokes Georges Delerue’s lush work for Godard’s Le Mépris (1963), Adore [aka Two Mothers in the film's first festival release] is an ambitious and daring film, which despite some minor flaws is a deeply evocative piece of work.

Naomi Watts, who also co-produced the film, stars as Lil, a widow in her mid 40s who has been best friends with Roz (Robin Wright) since childhood. Roz has a husband, Harold (Ben Mendelsohn, excellent as usual) and a son, Tom (James Frecheville). Lil lives close by with her son Ian (Xavier Samuel). Tom and Ian, both in their early 20s, are also best friends, and spend most of their time surfing and living a deceptively idyllic lifestyle. But matters become more complex when Ian and Roz tumble into bed, and then Tom and Lil follow suit. Harold, meantime, has found a teaching job in Sydney, and when Roz refuses to follow him there, he divorces her and remarries.

Both women decide to continue their relationships indefinitely, while keeping them a closely guarded secret – indeed, the rumor around town is that Lil and Roz are so close that they’re lesbian lovers, a rumor they do nothing to discourage. Both know that what they’re doing is potentially dangerous, but the pull of their emotions is too strong [. . .] Audiences, especially women, who rarely get a chance to see themselves portrayed as more than props or sidekicks on the screen, love it. The most perceptive review of the film thus far has come from Damon Wise in The Guardian, who called the film ‘an incredibly provocative piece of work, featuring a brave and vulnerable performance by Naomi Watts (who seems perhaps a little too young) and a career-high acting master class from Robin Wright (who is cast perfectly).’ I couldn’t agree more.”

So check them both out, and see for yourself.

Greta Garbo’s Five Best Films, On Her Birthday

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

Here’s a short but sweet appreciation of Greta Garbo, on her birthday, by Dina Gachman.

As she writes, “when Greta Garbo moved to the United States to become a contract player at MGM, the studio dubbed her “the Swedish Sphinx.” She was one of the few silent film stars to successfully transition to talkies. You saw The Artist, right? That wasn’t all make-believe.

Greta Lovisa Gustafsson was born on September 18, 1905, into abject poverty; she lost her father at a young age then quit school at fourteen to help support her family. Rising to fame as a silent film star in Europe, she went on to become one of the highest paid Hollywood actresses of her time, along the way garnering a reputation for being demanding and wary of the press; perhaps inevitably, given her ‘Swedish Sphinx’ moniker.

Known for playing ‘fallen women,’ she broke out of that mold in comedies like Ninotchka. After multiple critical and box office hits, and three Best Actress Oscar nominations, Garbo abruptly retired in 1941, remaining private and reclusive until her death in 1990. In honor of her birthday, we’ve chosen our five favorite Garbo films essential to every film buff’s arsenal.”

And what follows is a great list of Garbo classics – check it out by clicking here, or on the image above.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Claire Denis’ Beau Travail

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new article out on Claire Denis’ classic film Beau Travail.

As she writes in her essay, “Reconsidering The Landscape of the Homoerotic Body in Claire Denis’s Beau Travail” in the September 10, 2013 issue of Film International, “I begin, as my title suggests, with a quote from Agnès Godard, the cinematographer of Beau Travail (1999): ‘The most inexhaustible landscapes for me remain faces and bodies.’

The inexhaustible possibilities for cinematically inhabiting the homoeroticized male body are remarkable in Beau Travail, a tale told largely in aestheticized shots of male bodies. As Claire Denis states, the abstract nature of the film relies on performativity; ‘the abstraction was in the meeting of the landscape and the rules, and all those bodies doing the same thing.’

Jim Hoberman argued that ‘in its hypnotic ritual, Beau Travail suggests a John Ford cavalry western interpreted by Marguerite Duras’, and the comparison seems extremely apt. It is a film that relies on memory editing techniques, memories of bodies sutured together by the voice-over of the central protagonist, Galoup. Denis also relies on performances rendered through the subjective re-membered gaze of a narrator whose mental landscape is rife with homoeroticized images of faces and bodies.”

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

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

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

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In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/