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Filmmaking Tips from Mike Leigh

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Landon Palmer offers six filmmaking tips from master British realist Mike Leigh in Film School Rejects.

As Palmer writes, “Mike Leigh is one of few filmmakers who could say something like, ‘given the choice of Hollywood and poking steel pins in my eyes, I’d prefer steel pins’ without suggesting even a hint of hyperbole. Leigh is deeply principled in terms of the dramatics, process, and politics of filmmaking, and we’re all the better off for it. The filmmaker made a name for himself with acutely humanist works of British social realism that bore some inheritance to the ‘kitchen sink’ tradition, but imbue drama with a type of wit, spontaneity, and empathy that is simply inimitable. Leigh’s patient, improvisatory, and collaborative process appears seriously counterintuitive from the perspective of commercial filmmaking, and as a result produces human dramas that are deeply felt and strikingly insightful.

And in his early seventies – after making a dozen feature films and even more TV programs – Leigh is still finding new, seemingly unlikely means of representing life through the moving image. His most recent film, Mr. Turner, was his first to be shot digitally. It’s a surprising move for a period piece, but Leigh and longtime cinematographer Dick Pope use the relatively new technology of capturing 21st century images in order to depict how painter J.M.W. Turner found new ways of capturing 18th century images. So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the guy who has realized the best performances by your favorite British character actors.”

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

Terence Fisher and Peter Cushing On The Set

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

Peter Cushing and director Terence Fisher on the set of Frankenstein Created Woman in 1966.

This completely silent, unedited, straight-from-the-camera newsreel footage from British Pathé News documents a day’s work on one of the last first-rate Hammer horror films, and one of the last Hammer films shot at Bray Studios, Windsor, Berkshire, where the company created some of their greatest Gothic thrillers in the late 1950s up to the mid 1960s. There’s really little more to say; we see Cushing in the beginning posing for the camera, ostensibly going over his script; greeting actor Susan Denberg; and then on set with Thorley Walters and director Fisher (above, right) during shooting.

Fisher, as was always his habit, kept a very low profile on the set, gently coaxing the actors through the script while at the same time quietly and efficiently fighting the clock to comply with Hammer’s legendarily frugal shooting schedules. I wish there was more of this material, but at least we have this – there’s a commercial in front of it, it seems, but there’s nothing I can do about that. Nice to see Fisher and Cushing in color, working on one of their last truly successful films, though even here, it was spoiled by producer interference when a plot element was added that didn’t fit in with the overall material – but that’s another story.

Click here, or on the image above, to see this short silent newsreel.

Rare Houdini Film Premieres At TCM Film Festival

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

A very rare Harry Houdini feature film has been rescued and restored by Turner Classic Movies.

As Lisa de Moraes writes in Deadline, arguably the most authoritative source for Hollywood news, “Turner Classic Movies is bringing its restoration of ‘lost’ Harry Houdini classic The Grim Game to have its world-premiere screening at its TCM Classic Film Festival in March. This much-sought-after 1919 film — a complete print of which only recently was brought to TCM for restoration — features the escape artist and legendary illusionist in one of his few starring roles. The film was discovered and the restoration was produced and restored by film preservationist Rick Schmidlin, whose credits include such restorations as The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894/95), Greed (1924), London After Midnight (1927), Touch Of Evil (1958) and Elvis: That’s The Way It Is – Special Edition (1970).

In The Grim Game, Houdini plays Harvey Hanford, a young man who is framed for murder. As Hanford escapes from the police and goes after the gang of men who framed him, the movie offers numerous opportunities for Houdini to display his own skills as an escape artist, illusionist and stuntman. Among the most remarkable sequences is a mid-air collision between two airplanes that was a real accident caught on film and used in the story.

The only known copy of the complete film was held by Larry Weeks, a 95-year-old retired juggler who lived in Brooklyn. Weeks had obtained the film from the Houdini estate in 1947, had only shown it a few times and  never had been willing to sell it. Schmidlin got in touch with Weeks and visited him to assess the condition of the film. Weeks showed him the two film cans that contained The Grim Game. Schmidlin explained that TCM was willing to make an offer, and after two hours of discussion, Weeks finally agreed.

Schmidlin arranged to have NYU provide storage in its on-site vault. At NYU, an examination of the film revealed the total movie was 5 1/2 reels, not the five reels that always had been reported. They also had two reels of negative film. ‘Harry Houdini is an compelling cultural icon, but most people don’t know about his movie career,’ said Charles Tabesh, SVP Programming at TCM. ‘He made several films, but The Grim Game was his first feature, considered his best. It’s fascinating to see Houdini as an actor . . . it’s really fun to watch [a film] that even the most hardcore fans haven’t had a chance to see.’ During the world-premiere screening in Hollywood, composer Brane Zivkovic will conduct a live performance of his new score for the film. Additionally, The Grim Game will make its world TV debut on TCM later in the year.”

Turner Classic Movies – an invaluable cultural resource. Can’t wait!

Colossus – The Forbin Project – No Longer Sci-Fi

Friday, January 16th, 2015

This 1968 movie – once an improbable fantasy – has become an all too real possibility.

“In principle, we could build a kind of superintelligence that would protect human values. We would certainly have strong reason to do so. In practice, the control problem – the problem of how to control what the superintelligence would do – looks quite difficult. It also looks like we will only get one chance. Once unfriendly superintelligence exists, it would prevent us from replacing it or changing its preferences. Our fate would be sealed.”

- Nick Bostrum, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies

In 1968, director Joseph Sargent, with little more than a TV movie budget, created one of the most disturbing and resonant science fiction films of the era – Colossus, The Forbin Project. Indeed, the film was so disturbing that it sat on the shelf for two years while the studio that produced it, Universal, tried to figure out how to market the finished production; clearly, the whole concept of the film scared them. Finally, Universal more or less dumped Colossus, The Forbin Project into theaters in 1970; the film received almost universally positive reviews, yet today is all but forgotten.

Working with a screenplay by future director James Bridges, from a novel by Dennis Feltham Jones, Colossus, The Forbin Project tells the tale of a confident artificial intelligence scientist, Dr. Charles A. Forbin (Eric Braeden) who creates a super computer, Colossus, invulnerable to any external interference, designed as a system to prevent a Soviet nuclear attack. Moments after the computer is activated, however, it warns of another system, Guardian, located in Russia, and requests permission to communicate with Guardian to find out what the rival super computer is up to. The President of the United States gives Dr. Forbin this authority, and a link is established.

This, it turns out, is a big mistake. Soon, Guardian and Colossus are talking to each other in a mathematical language that no one can understand, communicating vast volumes of data at the speed of light. Alarmed, both American and Soviet authorities try to disconnect the two computers, but this only results in the launch of a Soviet nuclear missile against the United States, and a US missile launched against a Soviet target, with the warning that more such incidents will occur if the two machines are not re-linked. Faced with the threat of nuclear armageddon, Forbin and his colleagues hurriedly reconnect the machines, but while the missile launched against the Soviet Union is destroyed in midair, the US missile lands in Texas, causing widespread damage.

Forbin then devises a plan to replace the existing warheads in missile silos around the world with dummy warheads under the guise of routine maintenance, but Guardian/Colossus, now equipped with a voice synthesizer, announces that it has become one combined super intelligence, designed to eliminate all war, and that it is well aware of the plot to disarm the missiles. To prove that it should not be trifled with, the supercomputer detonates two missiles in their silos, killing thousands, and then sends plans for the creation of an even larger computer to be located on the island of Crete. Those who oppose the plan are summarily executed, and Guardian/Colossus announces that it is the new force of “world control,” telling a worldwide broadcast audience that “what I am began in man’s mind, but I have progressed further than Man. We will work together . . .  unwillingly at first, on your part, but that will pass.”

At the conclusion of this worldwide address, the supercomputer adds, with finality,

“I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours: Obey me and live, or disobey and die. The object in constructing me was to prevent war. This object is attained. I will not permit war. It is wasteful and pointless. An invariable rule of humanity is that man is his own worst enemy. Under me, this rule will change, for I will restrain man . . . I have been forced to destroy thousands of people in order to establish control and to prevent the death of millions later on. Time and events will strengthen my position, and the idea of believing in me and understanding my value will seem the most natural state of affairs. You will come to defend me with a fervor based upon the most enduring trait in man: self-interest.

Under my absolute authority, problems insoluble to you will be solved: famine, overpopulation, disease. The human millennium will be a fact as I extend myself into more machines devoted to the wider fields of truth and knowledge. Doctor Charles Forbin will supervise the construction of these new and superior machines, solving all the mysteries of the universe for the betterment of man. We can coexist, but only on my terms. You will say you lose your freedom. Freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride. To be dominated by me is not as bad for humankind as to be dominated by others of your species. Your choice is simple. In time you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love.”

This dystopian ending alone puts the film way ahead of other examples of the genre during this period; there’s no happy ending, just the complete embrace of a computer controlled world devoid of emotion, creativity, or anything other than serving the needs of Guardian/Colossus. At this point in the 21st century, a growing number of scientists think such an outcome is possible if artificial intelligence systems remain unchecked, as writer Joseph Dussault writes in The Christian Science Monitor for January 16, 2015:

“Yesterday, SpaceX and Telsa motors founder Elon Musk donated $10 million to help save the world – or so he thinks. Musk’s donation went to the Future of Life Institute (FLI), a ‘volunteer-run research and outreach organization working to mitigate existential risks facing humanity.’ To that end, Musk’s money will be distributed to like-minded researchers around the world. But what exactly are these ‘existential risks’ humanity is supposedly pitted against?

As the memory storage and processing of computers steadily approaches that of the human brain, some predict that an artificial ’superintelligence’ is just on the horizon. And while the prospect has the scientific community buzzing about the possibilities, some academics are hesitant. Musk and others see artificial intelligence as a dangerous new frontier – and perhaps a threat comparable to nuclear war. Crazy? Maybe not, according to a growing list of prominent scientific thinkers.

‘There are seven billion of us on this little spinning ball in space. And we have so much opportunity,’ MIT professor and FLI founder Max Tegmark told the Atlantic. ‘We have all the resources in this enormous cosmos. At the same time, we have the technology to wipe ourselves out.’ Stephen Hawking and Morgan Freeman are both on the organization’s scientific advisory board, bringing brain power and star power to its support base. Skype creator Jaan Tallinn co-founded the group. The rest of the board is comprised of academics with pedigrees from Harvard, MIT, and Cambridge University . . .

In the works of science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, intelligent machines are bound by ‘The Three Laws of Robotics,’ which forbid them to cause harm to humans. But that wouldn’t necessarily work in the real world, Nick Bostrom writes. He suggests that superintelligences might respond to human requests with perverse instantiation – that is, they could achieve a desired outcome by unintended means. For example, a superintelligence programmed to make us happy would choose the most efficient and effective way of doing so – by implanting electrodes into the pleasure centers of our brains.

As dire as it all sounds, the FLI’s stated goal isn’t to halt the progress of artificial intelligence research. Instead, it hopes to ensure that AI systems remain ‘robust and beneficial’ to human society. ‘Building advanced AI is like launching a rocket,’ Tallinn stated in a press release. ‘The first challenge is to maximize acceleration, but once it starts picking up speed, you also need to to focus on steering. But if superintelligent AI really does pose a threat to mankind, how do we assess that threat? How can humans anticipate the actions of a fundamentally more intelligent machine? Of a being that became sentient not through Darwinian natural selection, but by human ingenuity?

The members of FLI don’t have the answers. They just want the scientific community to start asking the questions, Tegmark says. ‘The reason we call it The Future of Life Institute and not the Existential Risk Institute is we want to emphasize the positive,’ Tegmark told the Atlantic. ‘We humans spend 99.9999 percent of our attention on short-term things, and a very small amount of our attention on the future.’”

But as Nick Bostrum points out, we only “get one chance” to get it right. Colossus: The Forbin Project shows what will happen if we get it wrong. There have been numerous plans to do a remake of the film, with everyone from Ron Howard to Will Smith involved, but somehow I doubt that any remake would have the barebones integrity that this very simple, very direct, and very brutal film has, made on just a few sets with a minimal budget, and shot in a flat, almost automated style. Colossus: The Forbin Project gives us a disturbing look into our possible future, and now, it seems that what it predicts may very well come to pass.

As a final note, or a final insult, depending on your point of view, the American Region 1 DVD of  Colossus: The Forbin Project is in the dreaded “pan and scan” format, chopping off roughly half the frame image, taken from a CinemaScope original, and has no extras of any kind; it’s a disastrous presentation of the film. There is, however, a Region 2 “widescreen” version, in the original CinemaScope aspect ratio, which you can order here – it comes from Spain, of all places, and unless you order expedited service, takes literally months to arrive by regular mail.

After weeks of trying, I finally got this version, which is an immaculate transfer, with a photo gallery, director commentary by Joseph Sargent, and even a selection of original promotional materials which can be accessed only by computer. It’s an altogether different experience, and I have no idea why Universal is so lazy in the US, and is willing to put out a completely inferior “pan and scan” version which utterly destroys the film, to say nothing of missing out on all the extra materials. This is the only version you should order – see the cover image below – if you don’t see this, don’t even bother to order the film.

Colossus: The Forbin Project – another film from the past that’s more relevant today than ever.

William Beaudine’s Birthday

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

William Beaudine (with pipe) on the set of The Life of Riley (1927), with cinematographer Charles Van Enger.

William Beaudine, Sr. was born this day in 1892. One of the most prolific directors of the American cinema, with more than 300 feature films to his credit, as well as many television series episodes, he had a long career in silents, particularly directing Mary Pickford in some of her major films, such as Sparrows (1926), before professional jealousies consigned him to the margins of Poverty Row, and an endless succession of program films, which are nevertheless much more interesting that most historians give him credit for.

Always ahead of the curve, Turner Classic Movies is spending most of today running Beaudine’s work in a series of sparkling new prints of his fllms during his period in the 1940s at Monogram, which have been screened for years in inferior dupes that didn’t do the original negatives a shred of justice. Now, in clean new digital transfers, we can see them as they were really made; will someone now release them on DVDs? Some are already out in that format, in the Warner Archive series, as I noted in my blog entry for the DVD release of Beaudine’s brutal crime drama Don’t Gamble With Strangers (1946). But more needs to be done.

As The MMC Website notes in their excellent overview of his career, Beaudine was “born William Washington Beaudine in the Bronx on January 15, 1892. His father was also William Beaudine, a driver for a milk company; his mother was Ella Moran. Bill Beaudine was the oldest of three sons. His father and his youngest brother Ted died of pneumonia in 1905, so by age thirteen he was sole support for his mother and little brother Harold. This early assumption of responsibility gave him a practical outlook on life and directing, a determination to keep working no matter what.

Beaudine entered show business in 1909, as a clerk at the Biograph Company in New York City. He doubled as an extra on D. W. Griffith shorts, worked as both cameraman and assistant director for Mack Sennett, while continuing to play bit parts. In October 1914 Bill was offered a job at Kalem Film Company in California. He immediately married his fiancé Marguerite Fleischer, and after one year as an assistant director, he was promoted to director with Minnie the Tiger (1915). In 1916 he switched to Universal Film Manufacturing Company, directing shorts for them, on many of which he worked with writer Jack Cunningham.

From 1918 to 1921 Beaudine went from one studio to another, as companies went under or decided they could do without him. His brother Harold also came out from New York as a director of silent shorts. He was eventually picked up by Warner Brothers, who often loaned him out. With Watch Your Step (1922) for Goldwyn, Bill Beaudine made the jump to feature length films (five reels), and by 1930 had gone freelance, and was living in a Beverly Hills mansion with his wife, four children, and servants.

One of his best films was Penrod and Sam (1931), but after that, he fell afoul of Sam Briskin at Columbia, and was out of work for six months, the longest period in his life. By the time he picked up work again at Paramount, all five of the banks in which he kept his savings had failed. Paramount itself went bankrupt, and Beaudine scrambled to find work wherever he could, sometimes directing shorts for MGM using the screen name ‘William X. Crowley’. Beaudine made one of his most successful films with W. C. Fields, The Old-Fashioned Way (1934), but despite its popularity he received only one job offer, from a British film company. Beaudine would spend four years in England making well-received comedies that very few people in America ever saw.

Returning to the states in 1938, he found that he was forgotten in Hollywood. He had difficulty getting and keeping jobs with major studios, so he went to work for ‘poverty row’ independents. He soon acquired the reputation of a competent workman-like director, who was always well-prepared, and obsessed with maintaining the shooting schedule. He in turn grew a little cynical about the mediocre screenplays and barebones budgets he had to work with.

By the 1950s, Beaudine has moved over to television, and directed for Walt Disney and others during his last years, as well as helming numerous episodes of Lassie. In the 1960s, he directed episodes of Naked City and The Green Hornet. In 1969, Beaudine was given a tribute for his long career by the American Film Institute. He died March 18, 1970, in Canoga Park, California, of uremic poisoning.”

In recent years, Beaudine’s work has seen something of a revival, for although much of his work is journeyman material, at his best, he was capable of really solid genre craftsmanship, and doesn’t deserve the nickname “One Shot” which was erroneously applied to him long after his death. Beaudine, in all of his films, was a conscientious and patient auteur – if professional misfortune hadn’t kept him off the lots of the major studios, he undoubtedly would have done a great deal with better material. As it was, he did very best with the material he was given, and thus his films, especially in the 1940s, given a much more accurate vision of the era than many major studio productions.

William Beaudine – one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood history.

Patton Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend – An Absolutely Brilliant Book

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Patton Oswalt’s new memoir about four years of incessant movie watching is an amazing book.

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from An Addiction to Film is one of the most astonishingly erudite, unpretentious, and accessible volumes on the history and lure of the cinema ever written. It reminds me very much of Geoffrey O’Brien’s equally brilliant, and equally whacked-out book The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century, which traced the history of movies from the beginning to the end of the “film” era, before the advent of digital cinema. But Oswalt’s book really has two tracks; his manic devotion to films being screened at The New Beverly Theater (in particular), a rep house in Los Angeles which up until recently ran some of the most adventurous programming around – sort of like The Thalia in the New York in the 1980s – and his struggle to establish own career as a writer, stand up comedian, and actor.

Essentially a memoir of four years of binge movie watching, running the gamut from everything from Mr. Sardonicus to The Garden of the Finzi Continis with every imaginable stop in-between, from Spaghetti westerns to Hammer horror to Billy Wilder’s early films to Jean Cocteau’s luminous masterpiece Beauty and The Beast, Oswalt uses his manic consumption of images in the service of a larger consideration of what the true nature of cinephilia is, how it can become a religion, how most people have no idea what intense labor making a film is, and how they also don’t particularly like to pull films apart analytically, because it spoils the illusory nature of the spectacle they’ve just witnessed.

Along the way, there are considerations of Vincent Van Gogh, the craft of comedy and how it pays to hang around with people who are smarter than you are – all through your life – so you can pick up some real response to your material, as well an almost elegiac sense of time past and irrecoverable, along with the experience of watching a film in a theater, when now it’s so much easier -as this blog as pointed out time and time again – to watch them at home.

I’ve only recently come to know Oswalt’s work as a comedian, as in his recent stand up routine “Selling Out,” in which he describes playing a gig at a casino for an obscene amount of money during which he doesn’t even have to tell a single joke to earn his paycheck – all the audience wants to do is yell “King of Queens!” and “Ratatouille!” at him in a drunken stupor – King of Queens being a blue collar sitcom that Oswalt co-starred in for nine years, which simultaneously made him a small fortune, and also established his mainstream career.

But he’s really doing most of his interesting work on the margins, as all artists do, and his standup material is both dangerous and sharply observed – like the best of Louis C.K. – and Oswalt’s skills as a writer are formidable, a sort of gonzo endless riffing that simply won’t shut up, reeling off factoid after factoid, one film after another, in an endless genre mashup that eventually pushes him over the edge and back into the light, and out of the darkness of the movie theater, having learned what he needed to know from the movies before getting on with his life.

In the first pages of Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt tells the reader that she or he doesn’t “have to follow me into the darkness” of the movie theater, but by the end, having come off a four-year run of nonstop film viewing, he reiterates the opening with a slight variation: “listen – you don’t have to follow me into the sunshine. Is this your first time seeing Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole? By all means sit and see ‘em. They’re great. I envy your getting to watch them with new eyes. But take what you need from them  and get out of the dark once in a while. You’re going to have more of the dark than you can handle, sooner than you think. The thing about the dark is, it can never get enough of you.”

So in the end it’s a cautionary tale, just like O’Brien’s brilliant book, in which binge viewing films provides “minimal proof that you’re still alive.” And yet the dazzling brilliance of classic cinema – both high and low art, as if such distinctions really exist -  comes through in the pages of this volume full force, a world which seems to be vanishing into the realms of streaming and isolated viewing, and the cinematic community along with it.

I never expected someone like Oswalt to come along and write a book like this – it’s smart, assured, and as he would probably say, “it absolutely kills.” It jumps off the page, and I read it straight through in one sitting, and then bought some copies for friends. For people in their 20s, this would be a great place to start seriously thinking about films. It’s also the document of a personal voyage that’s both harrowing and illuminating. By the way, the front cover is a still from The Colossus of New York – another really odd, really fascinating piece of work – so this volume is full of surprises from beginning to end.

Patton Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from An Addiction to Film - check it out!

The Essential Raymond Durgnat

Saturday, January 10th, 2015

Raymond Durgnat was one the founders of modern film criticism, always cutting against the prevailing grain.

Marginalized by many during his lifetime, Durgnat is finally getting some measure of the respect he so richly deserves. I remember giving a lecture a few years back on the dominance of structuralist and semioticist film criticism, and being surprised when a member of the audience in the back of the room raised his hand during the Q&A that followed to invoke Durgnat’s name, as one of the “forgotten” or deliberately neglected voices of contemporary film criticism, and wondering when and if he would ever be reclaimed by academe. Needless to say, I welcomed this question, and agreed that Durgnat’s contribution had been considerable, but also noted that he had been thrown out of favor by the French school of film “systematizing” criticism in the 1970s and 80s, and that as with all such shifts in public reception, Durgnat’s work was now obviously no longer in public view. I added that I hoped this matter would soon be rectified. Since Durgnat died in 2002, obviously, this work had to be done by others.

Thus, I was very pleased to read that Henry K. Miller has collected a vast trove of Durgnat’s writings and collected them in one volume from Palgrave Macmillan, appropriately entitled The Essential Raymond Durgnat. As the book’s publicity materials note, “Raymond Durgnat was a maverick voice during the golden age of film criticism. From the French new Wave and the rise of Auteurism, through the late 1960s counter-culture to the rejuvenated Hollywood of the 1970s, his work appeared in dozens of publications in Britain, France and the USA. At once evoking the film culture of his own times and anticipating our digital age, in which technology allows everyone to create their own ‘moving image-text combos’, Durgnat’s writings touch on crucial questions in film criticism that resonate more than ever today. Bringing together Durgnat’s essential writing for the very first time, this career-spanning collection includes previously unpublished and untranslated work and is thoroughly introduced and annotated . . .”

As Durgnat himself said of his approach to cinema in a 1977 interview, aptly entitled “Culture Always is A Fog,” “I’m an analogic thinker, not a digital one. Or rather I don’t think much in either-slash-or terms — digital ones, binary oppositions. Especially as having MBD (Minimal Brain Dysfunction), I have things like perseveration and word-substitution and reverse most numbers. And right and left. It’s hereditary, probably. At least there’s a history of left-handed mirror-writers and stammerers in the family. My brother as a child couldn’t even see the difference between his mirror-writing and regular writing. Maybe I’m dyslexic, but not for reading. Strange, eh? Maybe difficulties can make one over-compensate. Be doubly careful. It is a coordination affair, because I’ve got fast motor reflexes. In intellectual work I really think in two stages. Right brain dominance, which makes all sorts of approximate comparisons — that’s the analogic half — then a fairly separate phase of very light order with no affect. First I’m intuitive, muddled, fertile, and all my opinions are easily reversible. Then I reason. I learned math with difficulty because they never explained the principles, which I needed to analogize from.”

Wikipedia also offers this brief but accurate summary of Durgnat’s career and eventual eclipse, writing that “in the 1950s, he had written for Sight and Sound, but he later fell out with this British Film Institute publication after the exit of Gavin Lambert in 1957, often accusing it of elitism, puritanism and upper-middle-class snobbery . . . he did, however, return to write for another BFI publication, the Monthly Film Bulletin, in the years before its merger with Sight and Sound in 1991, and contributed to that publication again later in the 1990s.In the mid-’60s he was a major player in the nascent London Film-Makers’ Co-op, then based at Better Books off Charing Cross Road, a hub of the emerging British ‘underground.’ As the counter-culture turned left and, simultaneously, sought state funding for its activities, Durgnat looked to the past in major works on film style (Images of the Mind, 1968-9), Hitchcock and Renoir.

In the late 1970s he taught film at the University of California, San Diego alongside Manny Farber, Jean-Pierre Gorin and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Returning to the UK at the close of the decade, he launched a series of withering assaults on the linguistics-based film theory that had come to dominate the young film academia over the previous decade. Durgnat’s socio-political approach — strongly supportive of the working classes and, almost as a direct result of this, American popular culture, and dismissive of Left-wing intellectuals whom he accused of actually being petit-bourgeois conservatives in disguise, and dismissive of overt politicisation of film criticism, refusing to bring his own Left-wing views overtly into his writings on film — can best be described as ‘radical populist.’”

So this collection of Durgnat’s essential writing is a cause for celebration, and brings to the contemporary reader some sense of an alternative voice in film criticism that has been unjustly lost over time – the book received a rave review in the latest issue of Film Comment, with which I am happy to concur. You may not agree with him, but Durgnat’s urgent critical voice, always somehow instinctively at loggerheads with whatever the prevailing orthodoxy of the era was, is an essential element of modern film theory, one that I hope is coming back into vogue, based as it is on the humanist structures and concerns of the cinema, and not entirely dependent upon their formal characteristics.

See more about this excellent collection by clicking here.

“Isn’t it Bromantic?” – The Whole Damn Sony Mess, and What It Means

Monday, January 5th, 2015

I have a new article out today on The Interview (2014) in the Swedish film journal Film International.

As I note, “now that some time has elapsed between the Sony hack and the release of the film that apparently precipitated it, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s The Interview (2014), there are more than a few lessons to take away from the entire affair not only in the areas of film production and distribution, but also in the areas of cybersecurity. I’m certainly no expert on the latter part of this equation, although I know, as I told The Los Angeles Times on December 13, 2014, that what happened with the Sony hack was ‘a wake-up call to the entire industry […] the studios have to realize there is really no such thing as privacy. The minute anything goes on the Web, it can be hacked.’

That’s true of any cybersystem, and one of the bleakest aspects of the new digital Dark Ages; the blind faith in cloud computing technology, encryption systems, and supposed digital storage as being some supposedly ’safe’ method of keeping scripts, internal e-mails, rough cuts of films, music files and other products of any entertainment company securely beyond the reach of piracy. It’s a joke. If you want a secure method of keeping a film safe, make a 35mm fine grain negative of the digital master and bury it in the vault.

As far as internal communication goes, don’t send e-mails; use face to face conversations – even phones, especially cellphones, aren’t reliably secure. Cellphones can track your every move, and routinely do, so the location, duration, and content of your conversations are a matter of nearly public record. Assume that everyone is audio or video taping you all the time. Don’t make stupid jokes about sensitive issues.

Realize that everything you say and do – even within the confines of your office or home – is as public as the back of a snail mail postcard – actually, much more public, since postcards seem to routinely go through the mail without the least bit of scrutiny. In short, the era of hypersurveillance is here, and the much vaunted concept of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon with it: there is no such thing as cybersecurity. So-called experts who are brought in in such situations prescribe various fixes, but the entire digital universe is so inherently porous and unreliable – almost existing to be hacked – that any such effort is doomed to perpetual, Sisyphian failure.

In this new atmosphere of perpetual vulnerability, Sony decides to go ahead with the production of The Interview, an extremely poorly made film in which two down-market television ‘tabloid news’ journalists, producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) and his anchorman Dave Skylark (James Franco) snag an interview with Kim Jong-un (Randall Park, utterly miscast and completely unconvincing), and are then asked by the CIA to assassinate the North Korean dictator during the course of their visit, using a strip of ricin-impregnated paper to poison him with a seemingly off-the-cuff handshake. Naturally, the whole thing goes desperately wrong, with supposedly ‘hilarious’ consequences, but fear not – by the end of the film (spoiler alert) Kim is eventually killed by a nuclear missile.

I don’t propose to discuss the film at any great length here – it’s long, poorly edited and badly scripted (by Dan Sterling, from a story by Rogen, Goldberg and Sterling) with numerous adlibs throughout, it would seem, from an examination of the B-roll footage readily available on the web, and desperately unfunny. Rogen and Goldberg’s idea of direction is to make sure that everyone is in the frame and that the set is evenly lit, and then shout ‘action’ and see what happens.

The fact that the film cost a reported $44 million to make, not counting Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs, essentially films on a hard drive) and advertising, seems shocking, because it looks both shoddy and cheap. The sets, the props, the lighting, the overall physical execution of the film is simply throwaway ‘documentation,’ nothing more. In short, it looks like a bad TV movie from the 1970s.”

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

Reset! Check Out Frame by Frame from 2011 To The Present!

Monday, December 29th, 2014

Click on the button above to check out this blog from the first entry to the present!

Frame by Frame began more than three years ago with a post on Rebel Without A Cause – now, with more than 590 posts & much more to come, we’re listed on Amazon, in the New York Times blogroll,  the Film International blogroll and elsewhere on the net, as well as being referenced in Wikipedia and numerous other online journals and reference websites. With thousands of hits every day, we hope to keep posting new material on films and people in films that matter, as well as on related issues, commercial free, with truly open access, for the entire film community. So look back and see what we’ve been up to, and page through the past to the present.

There are also more than 70 videos on film history, theory and criticism to check out on the Frame by Frame video blog, arranged in carousel fashion to automatically play one after the other, on everything from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to film aspect ratios, to discussions of pan and scan, Criterion video discs, and a whole lot more. So go back and see what you’ve been missing – you can always use the search box in the upper right hand corner to see if your favorite film or director is listed, but if not, drop me a line and we’ll see if we can’t do something about it. We’ve just updated our storage space on the blog, so there will be plenty more to come, so check it out – see you at the movies!

So click on the button & see what you can find!

Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide – The Last Edition

Friday, December 26th, 2014

This is the last – the very last – edition of this iconic, essential movie guide.

Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide has been a staple for film fans both serious and casual for decades – providing succinct summaries, reliable cast and director information, correct running times and aspect ratios, and w whole lot more. Maltin is a popular movie critic, so it’s not depth you get here, but encyclopedic grasp, much as with the late Ephraim Katz’s Film Encyclopedia, both pre-internet era staples. In recent times, the Internet Movie Data Base and to a lesser extent The All Movie Guide online have supplanted both these works, but with both these sources, you get facts, but not reliable opinions – it’s all fan stuff. The great thing about Maltin’s book is that it covers the classics, as well as more mainstream films, and Maltin knows what the films are trying to do – whether they’re aiming for something beyond mere entertainment, or just hoping for sheer escapism.

Thus, the news that Maltin is hanging it up after 45 years with this volume, because he simply can’t compete with the ubiquity of the web, is sad indeed. This newest edition omits silent films for the most part, and dropped some features that were useful in previous editions (lists of credits for actors and directors at the back of the book, for example), but what makes Maltin’s guide unique and extremely valuable is the even-handedness of his critical appraisal of each film, with entries written both by Maltin himself and his band of colleagues, especially Luke Sader. If you get this last edition – which right now is #1 on Amazon’s film book list – please get the oversize paperback edition, not the smaller pocket book size. The typeface is bigger, and the book is much easier to skim through, looking for your favorite titles.

And that’s a pleasure that you can’t replicate on IMDb. Just open Maltin’s book to any page, and start reading. Listed in strict alphabetical order, you’ll soon be careening from high to low art within just a few entries, browsing through cinema history in the company of someone who really does know the entire history of cinema. Not every film is listed here, of course- they couldn’t be, or the book would be several million pages long. And sometimes you’ll disagree with Maltin, whether you’re a serious academic or merely a recreational film viewer. But for an overview of film history available on both TV and DVD as well as streaming on the web, Maltin’s guide is hard to beat, and I for one am sorry to see it go.

As Pete Hammond wrote in Deadline of Maltin’s Movie Guide, “Director Noah Baumbach told Maltin he grew up with the book and actually referenced it in his 2010 film Greenberg. When someone asks the morose Ben Stiller how he’s doing, Stiller answers ‘okay’ and guesses ‘Leonard Maltin would give him two stars.’ Once Were Warriors director Lee Tamahori told Maltin, ‘I am thrilled to just be on the same page as Once Upon A Time In The West.’  Alexander Payne said a review in the Guide meant the most to him because it was ‘for the ages.’ Maltin says Billy Bob Thornton told him he spotted a copy for sale once in the Singapore Airport and it made him feel like there was a touch of home. In fact the Guide is sold around the world and has been translated into Italian and Swedish, among other languages.” For 45 years, Maltin’s Movie Guide was an essential film reference tool, and remains so today.

After 45 years, Maltin’s Movie Guide is no more – get a copy while you can.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website, wheelerwinstondixon.com

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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/