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Trailblazing Women Directors on TCM in October

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

Here’s an amazing series of films that you simply can’t miss.

As Cynthia Littleton reports in Variety, “Turner Classic Movies has teamed with Women in Film, Los Angeles, for a programming initiative designed to highlight the work of women behind the camera in the movie business.

In the month of October, actress-director Illeana Douglas will host a twice-weekly Trailblazing Women series featuring movies directed by women. Douglas’ wraparound segments will feature interviews with filmmakers and discussion of statistics compiled by Women in Film about gender disparity in the film business, notably the 5-to-1 ratio of men working in film production compared to women.

TCM and WIF LA are building out a dedicated section of the TCM website focusing on the history of women in the film biz, WIF LA’s studies on gender issues and links to various resources for aspiring female filmmakers.

Trailblazing Women grew out of TCM’s effort to curate a month’s worth of movies directed by women. The idea was sparked when Charlie Tabesh, TCM’s senior VP of programming, saw that TCM had obtained rights to 2008’s The Hurt Locker, the movie that made Kathryn Bigelow the first woman to win an Oscar for directing.

‘We were pondering what preceded Bigelow and The Hurt Locker,’ TCM general manager Jennifer Dorian told Variety. ‘Our job at TCM is to think about the long view and the entire spectrum of film history. (Tabesh) put together a look at women pioneers going back to 1906.’

As the package came together, Dorian realized that there was an opportunity to add a ‘pro-social’ layer to the effort, which prompted her to reach out to Women in Film LA. ‘We recognized that this is a timely and topical issue, and that we could not only create awareness of women’s historical contributions but shine a light on today’s issues and bring resources and information to today’s generation of filmmakers,’ Dorian said.

Trailblazing Women will be a multi-year project for TCM, with a similar monthly showcase planned for 2016 and probably 2017, Dorian said. The inaugural effort is focused on the work of female directors, but future showcases will delve into other disciplines such as writing and producing.

The series launches Oct. 1 and will air Tuesdays and Thursdays in primetime, encompassing more than 50 films. The series begins with film historian Cari Beauchamp discussing the work of pioneers including Alice Guy-Blaché, Dorothy Arzner, Agnès Varda and Lina Wertmuller. Other directors who will co-host nights alongside Douglas are Allison Anders, Julie Dash, Connie Field, Amy Heckerling, as well as producer and WIF LA president Cathy Schulman.”

This is an something really special – get the schedule by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Rebranding of TCM

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

TCM is really just reaching out for a wider audience – which is great news!

As Will McKinley notes in a really interesting post in his website Cinematically Insane on the indispensable Turner Classic Movies channel, the last network to broadcast classic films uncut, commercial free, and in their proper aspect ratios – this does not mean adding commercials – it’s simply reaching out for a wider audience. As McKinley writes, in part: “to understand what’s happening at TCM we need to go back to last fall, when a company-wide cost-cutting initiative hit Turner Broadcasting.

TCM lost approximately 15 staffers to layoffs and buyouts – far fewer than other Turner networks, but still a tragedy (a staff of approximately 45 remains). Following the restructuring, TCM emerged as a separate and autonomous entity within Turner and gained a new general manager, Jennifer Dorian [the new TCM general manager] with a mission to ‘grow’ the brand.

A 15-year Turner veteran, Dorian had previously led the rebranding of TNT in 2000 and TBS in 2004, as well as the re-launch of Court TV as truTV in 2007, so some change in the channel’s identity was to be expected. That the change did not involve the addition of commercials – as happened at the previously ad-free Turner network Boomerang – was (and continues to be) welcome news.

‘NO COMMERCIALS. EVER. EVER. EVER. EVER,’ Ben Mankiewicz assured fans today, luring at least one or two off the digital ledge. And TCM Senior VP of Programming Charles Tabesh was even more definitive: ‘when AMC went commercial many years ago, the cable affiliates freaked out, because they were getting a lot of complaints from subscribers and they wanted to make sure that TCM never added commercials,’ he said. We’ve never had plans to add commercials. I think it’s actually written into some of our affiliate agreements.’”

“No commercials ever” – great news, and you can read the entire article by clicking here.

Jean Renoir

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Jean Renoir – the most humanist of all filmmakers, something desperately needed now.

The distinguished and prescient film critic Michael Atkinson recently had this to say, in part, about the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir, who is, to my mind, one of the greatest film directors – along with Ozu, Bresson, and a few others – to ever work in the moving picture medium. As Atkinson notes, “in the shadow of the recent decennial Sight & Sound best-movie-ever poll, in which Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) supplanted the long-standing numero uno Citizen Kane (1941), let us just say without quibbling that Jean Renoir’s Le Regle de Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939) is the only genuine competition for the primary slot, and indeed it has claimed #2 or #3 status on the poll for half a century.

No slight to Vertigo is intended, and such is the consequence of rendering cultural opinion by way of crunched numbers and democratic aggregation. But Renoir’s pitch-perfect masterpiece (which has held as the fourth-greatest-ever) is more vital than ever for an art form slowly evolving into computer-generated carnival rides and empty-hearted noise, and that is because it is quintessentially Renoirian, that is, a bottomless harvest of humanity, which is seen in all of its thorny idiocy and yet viewed with the fiercest ardor ever put on celluloid.

If we were a sane species, it’d be Renoir that young filmmakers would take as a model, not Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese. Saying that Renoir is one of maybe seven unassailable masters in the history of cinema is not unlike saying the ocean is large and blue; demonstrating a shrugging nonchalance about his best films should and will peg you to those that know about these things as a flat-out pretender.

Simply, Renoir consistently took on the most complex territory available: the matrix of human camaraderie, the crystalline beauty of social respect and unexpected mutual empathies, the painful distance between the poles of a friendship under pressure, the folly and deathlessness of crazed romance. For Renoir, the tensile strength of love in all of its realizations was an inexhaustible subject, and no one explored it as wisely and whole-heartedly as he did.”

I once taught an entire semester of Renoir from the silents to his last TV movie, and through his films, he consistently amazed the class with his ability to work in any genre, and to always bring out the best in the performers, and to be, above all, forgiving – forgiving of human frailties and vanities, brave enough to make films that directly criticized French lassitude on the eve of World War II, smart enough to come to the United States for the duration of the conflict, but then to return to his homeland, and au courant enough to effortlessly make the switch from silents, to sound, to color, to three camera television shooting, and make it all look easy – eternally modern, eternally humanist.

Yes, if we were a sane species – Renoir would be constantly revived and screened.

Black-and-White is Dead. Long Live Black-and-White!

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Peter Monaghan has very kindly interviewed me on my new book, Black & White Cinema: A Short History.

Writing in Moving Image Archive News, Monaghan notes that “set to appear in November 2015 from Rutgers University Press, Black and White Cinema: A Short History describes a range of styles of black-and-white film art, and how they arose to create the distinctive looks of Hollywood romances, gangster dramas, films noirs, and other styles.

But Dixon, a film historian and theoretician at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where he coordinates the film studies program, is also a seasoned filmmaker, and that provides him with a keen eye for how black-and-white film was made. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including A Short History of Film (2nd edition 2013; with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access (2013); and Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012).

In this interview, he explains why black-and-white cinematography will not return, not just because black-and-white film stock is near impossible to acquire, but moreover because the skills and techniques needed to film with it are almost irreversibly moribund.

Why do you quote this, from Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love, as an epigraph to your book? The angel said, “I like black-and-white films more than color because they’re more artificial. You have to work harder to overcome your disbelief. It’s sort of like prayer.”

To me black and white is more sensuous. It’s such a transformative act to make a black-and-white film. You are entering an entirely different world, right from the start. It’s so much more of a leap into another universe. Color films and particularly color 3-D films attempt to mimic some sort of spectacular reality, whereas black-and-white films are really a meditation on the image.

It’s a medium that dominated film production up until 1966, as the normative medium in which films were created. Cameramen had the ability to look through the camera and see the world in black-and-white even though what they were seeing on the set was color. As a viewer, you have to accept its completely artificial world, so it requires a bit more of you. I think that’s what the Carroll quotation is about.

And in the 1940s you’d go to a film already willing to be transported, wouldn’t you?

Absolutely, but I don’t think audiences in the 1940s even thought about it, or the ’50s. Or even the ’60s. They just went to the movies, and expected black and white — it was the way movies looked. A black and white world.”

You can read the entire interview by clicking here, or on the image above. Thanks, Peter!

Peter Collinson’s The Penthouse (1967)

Friday, August 28th, 2015

Martine Beswick, Tony Beckley and Norman Rodway- a deadly trio in Peter Collinson’s The Penthouse.

I have always had a weakness for Peter Collinson’s film The Penthouse, based on C. Scott Forbes’ play The Meter Man, in which three miscreants, Tom (Tony Beckley), Dick (Norman Rodway) and Harry (Martine Beswick) invade the borrowed luxury flat of two lovers involved in an illicit tryst – Barbara (Suzy Kendall) and Bruce (Terence Morgan). It’s a bleak little film, superbly photographed by the gifted Arthur Lavis, offering an uncomfortable taste of what was to come in the 70s and beyond, as social proprieties crumbled, and people became more and more self-absorbed, selfish, and narcissistic.

There are strong echoes of Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Heathcote Williams in the film’s script, which some viewers might consider a precursor of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which Haneke filmed twice in 1997 and 2007. Here are two people comfortably ensconced in what is supposedly a safe, domestic haven – even if it is an adulterous one – and by the simple act of answering the door, their lives are transformed forever – for the worse – by complete strangers.

However, Haneke’s film involved a great deal of physical cruelty and violence; Collinson’s film makes the entire ordeal psychological, and the film is much the better for it. In short, it’s more restrained, more cerebral, and an altogether superior film.

But all of this has a twist ending, worthy of the film itself – there has never been a legal DVD release of the film, though terrible bootlegs can easily be found on the web, along with the film’s trailer, but none of these materials give one any real sense of the film, or of Collinson and Lavis’s superb CinemaScope framing, color design, and the riveting performances of Beswick, Beckley, and Rodway.

At the time the film came out, Roger Ebert was a big fan, and sought the then-28-year-old Collinson out for an interview, during which he noted that “the headline on the press release describes Peter Collinson as ‘the man who came from nowhere and is on his way to somewhere.’ ‘Just precisely where, they don’t say,’ Collinson grinned. ‘I’m not one of these directors with his life-span all mapped out, and a deep ponderous philosophy to put into my films. All I want to do is make movies as well as they can be made. Period. No philosophy.’

Collinson, at 28, has made two movies: The Penthouse and Up the Junction. Neither has been commercially released yet, but Penthouse got a warm reception at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals. Although almost nobody outside the movie business has even heard of him, Collinson is probably the hottest young director in England right now. Stories of his working methods in The Penthouse are related by other directors with a touch of awe. He made it in 24 days for less than $100,000, and supplied his studio with a finished print two days after shooting ended.

‘That makes you popular at the front office,’ Collinson said, ‘but it doesn’t mean a thing if the movie’s no good. I don’t cut corners to save anybody money. But I don’t fool around. A lot of directors will shoot a scene from every conceivable angle, tying up actors, wasting time, spending a fortune on salaries and overhead. Then they get into the editing room and try to figure out which angle looks best. Not me. I figure the shot out in my head and shoot it just once or twice. I edit in the camera, you might say, so when the shooting’s over I have a movie . . .”

His story is unusual. The son of itinerant provincial actors, he was an orphan at 8 and a ’street urchin,’ by his own admission, at 10. Through a series of improbable chances, including acting experience at an orphanage for the children of theater people, he gradually worked himself into the theater and then into television as a BBC director.

He got into movies rather casually, buying all option on Nell Dunn’s best-selling Up the Junction for $1,000 and then proposing himself as its director. He was given the low-budget Penthouse to do first, as a warm-up, and produced a shocking thriller with a bizarre surprise ending.

The story concerns a real estate agent and his mistress, held captive in a penthouse by two very peculiar men named Tom and Dick. Their cohort, Harry, lingers offstage until the final incredible scenes. It is a suspense movie, ‘a thriller’ Collinson says. The audiences at Cannes and Berlin found a psychological message in it, but Collinson doesn’t care.

‘I make movies to entertain,’ he said. ‘This may sound funny, but I don’t have any desire to communicate my own opinions to anybody. I think the director should be the medium by which the audience gets the story, and that’s all. A good director is a good storyteller.’

Collinson’s next film will be The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine. The budget is $2,800,000, and Collinson noted wryly: ‘My salary will be bigger than the total cost of ‘Penthouse.’ But my methods won’t change. I want my movies to be fun to watch because they challenge their audiences to keep up. Audiences aren’t as stupid as many people believe. Orson Welles knew that, and it damned him in Hollywood for years.’

He smiled. ‘That could happen to me, too,’ he said. ‘But I think times have changed, and there’s an audience for a thoughtful movie now. Still, if I bomb as a director I’ve still got some other things to do. I barnstormed the country as a teenager, playing in second-rate variety shows. I can still do a mean turn as the back legs of a calico horse.’” Paramount Pictures released the film,  and then it vanished. I’ve never seen it offered on television, even on TCM, which has a reference page for the film.

Of course, The Italian Job was a huge hit, and was subsequently remade by directed F. Gary Gray in 2003 into an even bigger hit, but after that, Collinson struggled to find his footing within the industry, and despite his protestations that he simply wanted to be an an entertainer, he clearly was interested in doing more social commentary, but soon found himself adrift in a series of mediocre films, during which his temper frayed, and his health failed.

Collinson died of cancer at the age of 44, leaving a career of largely unfulfilled promise. The Penthouse is his simplest, bleakest, most adventurous film. Don’t let anyone tell you anything more about the plot, which has one surprise after another nestled inside each turn of the narrative, but hopefully, someone will bring the film out in its proper aspect ratio, and you can see for yourself where the 1960s were headed – into a commercial wilderness of endless consumption and self-value, in which surfaces are more important than the depths they conceal.

The Penthouse (1967) – another forgotten film that deserves a proper DVD release.

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.

Marvel vs. DC – The Social Media Battle

Monday, August 17th, 2015

Talkwalker describes the social media battle between DC and Marvel as “a friendly rivalry” – but really, it’s a battle to the death.

As Julie Hong writes, “A friendly rivalry between Marvel and DC Comics has spawned since the 1930s, originating from comic books and then flourishing onto the big screens and video games. With more than 20 movie adaptations planned in the next 4 years, superhero movies are bound to break box office numbers, and social media records. While we must reckon that comparing Marvel and DC worlds is like comparing Coca-Cola and Pepsi – it’s a matter of taste – we can however determine who is catching the attention on the social web this summer in regards to figures and stats.

Using Talkwalker’s social media analytics platform, let’s see who wins each round in terms of social media trends, share of voice, hashtag analysis, sentiment, and engagement on Facebook and Twitter.” Hong then takes the various Marvel and DC films through a variety of social barometers, with Marvel sometimes winning, and DC sometimes coming out on top, but in the end – surprise – Marvel wins, mostly because they have a much deeper bench of characters than DC, and they’re clearly more adept at playing the social media game, and have been, long before Twitter, Facebook and the like were invented, and the only fan feedback was the “letters to the editor” column.

Hong concludes, “Our 8-round battle concludes to Marvel winning over DC on social media in terms of general conversations about comic books, volume of brand and hashtag mentions online, buzz originating from its cinematic universe, and Twitter activity. Winning the battle, but not necessarily the war. Superheroes fans, the floor is yours. Let us know who wins your heart @Talkwalker! This analysis was conducted using Talkwalker, a social listening and social media analytics platform that monitors and analyses online conversations on social networks, news websites, blogs, forums and more, in over 187 languages.”

So check it out – even if comic book films aren’t your main interest, this is fascinating material.

Sidney Hayers’ Burn, Witch, Burn (1962) Restored to Blu-ray

Sunday, August 16th, 2015

Sidney Hayers’ 1962 Burn, Witch, Burn, finally gets the Blu-ray treatment - click here for the trailer.

As an anonymous reviewer on the website Movie Review Query Engine notes, “Night of the Eagle was the second film version of Fritz Leiber Jr.’s novel Conjure Wife (the first was Reginald Le Borg’s Weird Woman (1944), perhaps the best of Universal’s low-budget Inner Sanctum series of the 1940s). The film’s title was possibly meant to invoke memories of Jacques Tourneur’s earlier Night of the Demon (released in the US as Curse of the Demon, 1958); both films involve a rational scientist (in the case of Night of the Eagle, Peter Wyngarde) forced to accept the existence of the supernatural. All evidence points to the conclusion that the scientist’s American wife Janet Blair is the reincarnation of a witch, and a practitioner of voodoo. The actual villain is supposed to be a mystery, though the identity was made clear in the Leiber original and in both other film versions of Conjure Wife (there was a 1980 parody version titled Witches Brew). The supernatural aspect of Night of the Eagle is convincingly handled, including a knockout sequence with a wild eagle rampaging through the scientist’s tranquil study. With a screenplay by Twilight Zone stalwarts Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, the British-made Night of the Eagle was released in the US as Burn, Witch, Burn.”

Margaret Johnston in Burn, Witch, Burn – click here to see this scene from the film.

Adds David Pirie, an expert in British Gothic cinema in Time Out London, “made on a comparatively low budget, [the film deals with] is about a hardheaded psychology lecturer in a provincial university who gradually discovers that his wife Tansy and some of his closest colleagues are practicing witchcraft (in furtherance of campus politics). From the opening sequences in which Tansy (Blair) scrambles frantically round her house searching for a witch-doll left by one of the faculty wives, the whole thing takes off into a kind of joyous amalgam of Rosemary’s Baby and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? . . . Sidney Hayers shoots the whole thing with an almost Wellesian flourish, and the script (by Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson) is structured with incredible tightness as the sane, rational outlook of the hero (Wyngarde) is gradually dislocated by the world of madness and dreams.”

Peter Wyngarde in the classroom, lecturing to a group of skeptical students.

These frame blowups from the new Kino-Lorber Blu-ray release of the film come from the excellent website DVD Beaver, which regularly reviews new DVD releases, grading them both on image and sound quality, as well as content and historical value. I’ve loved this film for many years, as an excellent example of black and white British Gothic filmmaking at its finest, and though she isn’t mentioned in any of the press materials, I think it’s only fair to give the deeply underrated Margaret Johnston a nod for her excellent, malevolent work in the film.

As Gary Tooze noted on the DVD Beaver website, “Burn, Witch, Burn is wonderful. I immediately got impressions of Tourneur’s Night of the Demon. I loved the story, the suspenseful build-up and Reginald H. Wyer’s (Island of Terror, Night of the Big Heat) cinematography. The Kino Lorber Blu-ray has immense value – a superb 60’s horror production looking very impressive, a Richard Matheson commentary and an interview. This is close to a masterpiece of its genre and we give it our highest recommendation!”

As do I – check it out now, if you’d like to see a real masterpiece of the macabre.

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit (2015)

Friday, August 14th, 2015

The Visit may be M. Night Shyamalan’s last chance at mainstream success.

As Chris McKinney argues in the web journal Movie Pilot, “while the majority of movie-goers might identify M. Night Shyamalan as washed up, I don’t. I don’t quite understand what happened to the days when he created films like the Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, but those days seem to have faded from Shyamalan. Every couple of years or so we get another announcement of the next Shyamalan film, and many articles have the same theme, ‘is this going to be when Shyamalan returns?’

I don’t have the answer yet, but because he’s shown an ability to do good work, I’ll always know it’s possible. While many people like to cast blame on directors for bad films, that’s not always the case. Sometimes studios like to put their fingers and toes in on projects, taking away creative freedom from the creator because they’ve somehow convinced themselves they’re the authority on good and bad ideas. While I’d like to use this as an excuse for Shyamalan, I can’t apply it to all his projects; there’s just too many. But what you shouldn’t do if you’re a studio is take and alter a filmmaker’s vision.

At first glance, from the clips I’ve seen, The Visit does have that original M. Night Shyamalan look and feel to it. It feels like a less complex project than we’ve come to see over the last 10 years and that might be a great remedy for him to get back on track.

The film has an estimated $5 million budget, and was somehow secretly filmed in Philadelphia. Shyamalan turned the money he made from the Will Smith produced After Earth, in which Smith clearly used the film as a launchpad for his son, to help fund The Visit. He said The Visit was ‘an attempt to regain artistic control’  after his recent movies had been denied in their final cut and some of those films taken from his hands in post-production.”

While Shyamalan is certainly not a major artist, and seems to have a very limited vision indeed, I think that McKinney is right when he cites big budget Hollywood interference as one of the many possible causes for the relative collapse of Shyamalan’s career of late. But with The Visit, he’s shooting a film on a tight budget, with a tight schedule, and working with Jason Blum, the showman / genius behind Blumhouse Productions, who clearly knows how to market a film, and also how to bring out the best in any existing project.

As just one example, The Visit was originally titled Sundowning, a title that clearly has no punch. Just as with Joel Edgerton’s The Gift (see below), which was originally titled Weirdo, the new title for Shyamalan’s film is much sharper, more direct, and the trailer is a minor wonder of mounting dread in a two minute, thirty second format. But the television spot for the film (click here, or on the image above) is even creepier, and I think the film may well be the path back to mainstream acceptance for Shyamalan.

As always, working with no money is really liberating when you’re making a film; you have almost no interference, and you can do exactly as you please. Most of the film is shot on one location – a large, seemingly comfortable house in the country – with a small cast of relative unknowns. Shyamalan edited the film himself in a mere two weeks, claiming he had to make only “minor adjustments” to get it to work, and in his Twitter account, he seems deeply grateful that Universal is giving him perhaps his last big shot at widespread theatrical distribution for a September 2015 release.

Once again, Blumhouse – horrormeisters extraordinaire, but also the producers of The Normal Heart and Whiplash, intervenes again with a solid sense of both artistic and commercial matters. While the final film may not work, and I may regret writing these words later – or even recant them – for the moment I’m sticking with McKinney, and giving Shyamalan the benefit of the doubt – I hope The Visit works for him. The film is already screening in Australia, and more fine tuning may be in order. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The Visit opens September 11, 2015.

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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