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Víctimas del pecado

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Ninón Sevilla was one of the greatest stars of the Mexican cinema.

As Wikipedia notes, “Emelia Pérez Castellanos (born in Havana, Cuba 10 November 1921; died in Mexico City 1 January 2015), better known as Ninón Sevilla, was a Cuban born Mexican film actress and dancer who was active during the golden age of Mexican cinema. She was considered one of the greatest exponents of the Rumberas film in the 1940s and 1950s.

Sevilla was born and raised in Centro Habana, a popular section of Havana. As a youth, she thought about becoming a missionary nun, but after she started dancing with success in nightclubs and cabarets, she opted for a career in show business. She adopted her stage name in tribute to the legendary French courtesan Ninon de Lenclos and began to work in the chorus of the Cuban comedians Mimí Cal and Leopoldo Fernández, respectively known as ‘Nananina’ and ‘Tres Patines.’

Sevilla came to Mexico as part of a show starring the Argentinean singer Libertad Lamarque. Her number in the show was so successful that she was soon booked in other spectacles in Mexico City. While performing in the Teatro Lírico, producer Pedro Arturo Calderón saw Sevilla on stage and offered her a film contract. Her debut in cinema was in 1946 in Carita de Cielo with María Elena Marqués and Antonio Badú. From that moment, Sevilla became the exclusive star of Producciones Calderón, and although she had offers from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Columbia Pictures, she turned them down, not being interested in working in Hollywood.

Although from the beginning Sevilla was marked by the eccentricity of her hairdos and gowns, it was director Alberto Gout who established her as one of the ultimate erotic figures of Mexican cinema, leading her in legendary films as Aventurera (1949), and Sensualidad (1950). Besides being directed by Gout also in Mujeres sacrificadas (1952) and Aventura en Río (1953), she also worked with Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández. who directed her in one of the best films of her career, the classic Víctimas del Pecado (1951).” When work in films dried up, Sevilla went straight into television, becoming a regular in telenovelas, and thus continued to work in the industry in one form or another from 1946 up until 2014 – the year before her death.

In the deliriously over-the-top Víctimas del pecado, she plays nightclub dancer Violeta, who impulsively rescues an abandoned infant who has literally been thrown in the trash by its mother, and raises the boy as her own, despite the machinations of two rival club owners, resorting to prostitution at one point simply to keep food on the table for herself and her informally adopted son. However, the boy’s father, the brutal Don Rodolfo (Tito Junco) does everything he can to destroy Violeta’s fragile existence, leading to a suitably violent conclusion.

Too long neglected by American audiences, the films of Emilio Fernández offer an authentic view into the demimonde of mid-20th century Mexico City. Those who remember him solely as an actor at the end of his career in films such as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch are missing the work of an impassioned artist, whose bleak mise en scene makes even a film like Luis Buñuel’s brilliant Los Olvidados – both films were photographed by the gifted Gabriel Figueroa, another major figure in the Mexican cinema – seem restrained by comparison.

Most of Sevilla and Fernández’s work has never reached English-speaking audiences, but a recent DVD transfer of excellent quality now makes this film available to a much wider audience. It’s just another example of an unjustly neglected film of real depth and power that has been overlooked by conventional cinema history, and definitely deserves re-evaluation. Once seen, never forgotten, Víctimas del pecado is a violent, sensual, almost surreal film that nevertheless remains firmly anchored in the world of the slums of Mexico City, where hope is in short supply, and violence – and the fates – are the ultimate arbiters of human affairs.

View the uncut Spanish language version, without English subtitles, by clicking here, or on the image above.

New Book: Cinema and Counter-History by Marcia Landy

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

Marcia Landy has a brilliant new book on memory, history, and future of cinema.

As the book’s website notes, “Despite claims about the end of history and the death of cinema, visual media continue to contribute to our understanding of history and history-making. In this book, Marcia Landy argues that rethinking history and memory must take into account shifting conceptions of visual and aural technologies.

With the assistance of thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Cinema and Counter-History examines writings and films that challenge prevailing notions of history in order to explore the philosophic, aesthetic, and political stakes of activating the past. Marshaling evidence across European, African, and Asian cinema, Landy engages in a counter-historical project that calls into question the certainty of visual representations and unmoors notions of a history firmly anchored in truth.”

As scholar Dana Polan says of Cinema and Counter-History, “once again, Marcia Landy impressively, masterfully, combines her well-known talents for broad critical reflection for trenchant close reading of individual films to produce ground-breaking theorization of cinema’s powers to both make and remake historical meaning and to counter dominant cultural representations. A far-reaching study with major insights at every turn.”

To which I can only add that when I received this volume, I devoured it, and found it to be an amazing synthesis of cultural history and theoretically ambitious connections, which pulls in films from both the past and present, foreign and domestic, to create a rich tapestry of cinematic history. A dazzling piece of work, which lingers long in the mind after you put it down – astonishing in scope, breadth, and erudition. Clearly, Landy has been working on this volume for a long time, and the result is more than worth the wait.

Highly recommended – an elegant, ambitious, and audacious book.

Cannes – The Final Wrap Up

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

The winners and losers, from Neil Curry of CNN. Above, director Yared Zeleke and the cast of his film Lamb.

As Curry wrote, “comeback stars, the darlings of the festival, standing ovations and incessant booing: the Festival de Cannes has delivered entertainment on and off screen for an astounding 67 years. French filmmaker Jacques Audiard took home the Palme d’Or for Dheepan, a crime drama about a Sri Lankan Tamil warrior who flees to France. Silver — the Grand Prix award — went to Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul. And the award considered the third prize of the film festival, the Prix Du Jury, was won by Yorgos Lanthimos for The Lobster.

These were the top award winners, though they don’t tell the whole story of the festival. What are this year’s success stories and who is left longing for a better ending? Here’s a run through of the frontrunners and the fiascoes: The winners: – Carol – Todd Haynes’ movie about two American women in love during the 1950s was a huge hit with critics and set the benchmark for the festival early in the program. Regardless of its success at Cannes, critics here have been talking breathlessly about a raft of Academy Awards come Oscar time next year . . .

Two of the best-received movies during the Cannes fortnight weren’t even in the competition. Mad Max showed Marvel’s Avengers that you don’t need CGI (computer-generated imagery) and green screen to create a thrilling, jaw-dropping action film. And Pixar’s Pete Docter — whose Oscar-winning animated epic “Up” opened the 2009 Cannes festival — returned to even greater acclaim with Inside Out, a charming and hilarious depiction of a testing chapter in a young girl’s life seen through the emotions inside her mind.

Ethiopia’s first ever entry into the Cannes competition came courtesy of director Yared Zeleke. Lamb was an engaging tale of a young boy seeking enterprising ways to save his fleecy friend. But it lost out to Rams by Icelandic director Grimur Hakonarson, who took the top prize in the Uncertain Regard section with a tale of two elderly brothers whose 40-year dispute is reluctantly put on hold by a threat to their sheep farms.

The losers: Gus Van Sant has long been a Cannes favorite, winning the Palme d’Or in 2003 with his film Elephant. But Cannes can make and break reputations and his latest film, Sea of Trees, was roundly panned by critics here — booed at the press screening and barracked in the reviews that followed [maybe it's because of all those car commercials].  The film features Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe pontificating about life in a forest where people go to die. One particularly barbed commentator suggested the film was the worst ever to feature in the main competition . . .

[And then there was the "Flatgate" affair.] The media camped at Cannes had a field day with this scandal. The story was broken by Screen Daily, which reported that a number of women had been turned away from the movie Carol for wearing flat shoes instead of high heels. Documentary director Asif Kapadia (whose film Amy about the late singer Amy Winehouse was a big hit at the festival) revealed his wife had also been challenged about her footwear, but was eventually admitted . . .

A growing number of festivals, museums and visitor attractions are banning the selfie-stick, and Cannes entered the debate from the outset when Fremaux announced a campaign to discourage selfies on the red carpet, describing the practice as ‘grotesque.’ But his words fell on deaf ears as the stars ignored the advice and couldn’t resist the temptation to document their moment on the famous Cannes catwalk. On one night alone, there were more than 100 offenders.

While many critics lavished praise on Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard for their performances in Macbeth, the titular Scottish titan mumbled the Bard’s lines so much that English speakers complained they were forced to read the French subtitles to understand what he was saying. And Shakespeare took a hit in the opening credits, relegated to fourth place behind the film’s three screenwriters.”

Well, that was interesting – until next Spring, then!

The Racket (1951) in Noir of the Week

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Here’s a piece I wrote a while ago on the 1951 film The Racket for Noir of the Week.

“Who said I was an honest citizen? And what would it get me if I was?”

– Lizabeth Scott to Robert Mitchum in The Racket

Left to right above: Robert Ryan, John Cromwell, Lizabeth Scott and Robert Mitchum

As I wrote, “the traumatized figure of Robert Ryan as old-school rough and tough gangster Nick Scanlon towers over the wreckage of John Cromwell’s The Racket (1951), although the film has so many “punch up” scenes inserted after the completion of principal photography by director Nicholas Ray that it almost qualifies as a co-direction job. In addition, the actor/director Mel Ferrer, the film’s editor Sherman Todd, the film’s producer Edmund Grainger, and even director Tay Garnett (of The Postman Always Rings Twice) also took a hand in the proceedings, all under the overzealous and one might say hyper-controlling supervision of Howard Hughes, who at this point owned RKO Radio, the studio where this film was made, having acquired controlling interest in the company in 1948.

Hughes could never leave a project alone after it was finished shooting, in some cases scrapping whole elements of a film’s plot after principal photography. William Cameron Menzies’ delirious noir The Whip Hand comes immediately to mind; the film originally was about a plot devised by Adolf Hitler (Bobby Watson) to fatally poison America’s water supply, but after the film wrapped, Hughes decided that the villains should be Communists, who were suddenly much more trendy, and large segments of the film were reshot, at considerable added expense.

In the case of The Racket, the film was based on a silent film from 1928, also produced by Howard Hughes, and directed by a youthful Lewis Milestone, which was based in turn on a Broadway play by Bartlett Cormack, and starred Thomas Meighan, Louis Wolheim and Marie Prevost. Interestingly, the Broadway play version starred Edward G. Robinson, and, as an actor, a young John Cromwell, the director of the 1951 version, and the stage production subsequently toured throughout the country, winding up in Los Angeles, where Robinson was discovered by Warner Bros. and thrust into a series of gangster films that made him a star.

For many years, the 1928 version of The Racket was considered a “lost film,” but a print was finally located by Dr. Hart Wegner of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Film Department, and restored by Jeffrey Masino, with a new music track by Robert Israel. In 2004, the film was screened on Turner Classic Movies for the first time, but has yet to make it on to DVD; the 1928 version is certainly more coherent than the 1951 version, but the later version also has its merits – in a bizarre sort of way.

Chief among the pluses for the 1951 version are Robert Ryan, at his psychotic, raging best as outmoded gangster Nick Scanlon; Robert Mitchum somnolently strolling through his role as Captain Thomas McQuigg, an honest police captain in a city that has gone completely corrupt; the always dependable Lizabeth Scott as Irene Hayes, a nightclub singer who is predictably mixed up in the rackets; William Talman, surprisingly cast against type – he usually played murderers, thugs, and psychotic killers – as eager-beaver Officer Bob Johnson; Ray Collins as the exquisitely corrupt District Attorney Mortimer X. Welch; and last but far from least, William Conrad as Detective Sergeant Turk, another corrupt cop, who says almost nothing throughout the entire film but always seems to be hanging around the edges of the frame, chewing gum, and effectively stealing scenes from anyone who tries to upstage him.

Nor is this all; a gallery of pug-uglies, stoolies and other assorted noir characters round out the dramatis personae, from Walter Sande as a reliable sidekick cop to Mitchum’s Captain McQuigg, Les Tremayne as Harry Craig, head of the Crime Commission, the smooth heavy Don Porter as R.G. Connolly, front man for the never-seen “Old Man” who runs the entire corrupt enterprise, and noir regulars Harry Lauter, Don Dillaway, Howland Chamberlain, Tito Vuolo, Herb Vigran, Richard Reeves, Iris Adrian, Don Beddoe and others too numerous to mention. RKO had a heavy pool of talent to draw from in 1950s Hollywood, and even if these actors weren’t stars, they were solid professionals who could be counted on to show up on time, know their lines, and get through their scenes efficiently and with absolute conviction, even if the film’s script sometimes crumbled beneath them.”

That’s just an excerpt; read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Just as I finish up my book on black and white, Amsterdam University Press comes out with this fabulous book on early color filmmaking.

Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema by Giovanni Fossati, Tom Gunning, Joshua Yumibe and Jonathan Roson is a stunning look at early hand colored and dyed cinema, from the turn of the 19th to 20 the centuries, which collects in one volume an enormous number of gorgeous, hand colored images. As the press material for book notes, “we normally think of early film as being black and white, but the first color cinematography appeared as early as the first decade of the twentieth century. In this visually stunning book, the editors present a treasure trove of early color film images from the archives of EYE Film Institute Netherlands, bringing to life their rich hues and forgotten splendor.

Carefully selecting and reproducing frames from movies made before World War I, Fossati, Gunning, Rosen, and Yumibe share the images here in a full range of tones and colors. Accompanying essays discuss the history of early film and the technical processes that filmmakers employed to capture these fascinating images, while other contributions explore preservation techniques and describe the visual delights that early film has offered audiences, then and now. Featuring more than 300 color illustrations for readers to examine and enjoy, Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema will engage scholars and other readers of all ages and backgrounds.”

Early reviews have been rhapsodic, with Martin Scorsese declaring that “‘I could gaze at the images in this book for hours. They are as fascinating as illuminated manuscripts or magic lantern slides,” and artist Tony Oursler commenting “in the endless rewrite of art history the moving image seems indefinably futuristic. Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema makes the case for the importance of these mind-blowing masterpieces. These stunningly chromatic film stills link technology and the human touch while revealing one of film’s best kept secrets. Traditional painting and sculpture relies on reflected light while projected light opens a wildly new path of experimentation. Here we see, for the very first time, images made at the speed of light.”

You can see more images from book by clicking here, or on the image above.

Forthcoming Book – Black & White Cinema: A Short History

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

Coming this Fall, 2015 from Rutgers University Press – the first history of black and white cinema.

From the glossy monochrome of the classic Hollywood romance, to the gritty greyscale of the gangster picture, to film noir’s moody interplay of light and shadow, black-and-white cinematography has been used to create a remarkably wide array of tones.

Yet today, with black-and-white film stock nearly impossible to find, these cinematographic techniques are virtually extinct, and filmgoers’ appreciation of them is similarly waning. Black and White Cinema is the first study to consider the use of black-and-white as an art form in its own right, providing a comprehensive and global overview of the era when it flourished, from the 1900s to the 1960s.

Acclaimed film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon introduces us to the masters of this art, discussing the signature styles and technical innovations of award-winning cinematographers like James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, and Sven Nykvist. Giving us a unique glimpse behind the scenes, Dixon also reveals the creative teams—from lighting technicians to matte painters—whose work profoundly shaped the look of black-and-white cinema.

More than just a study of film history, this book is a rallying cry, meant to inspire a love for the artistry of black-and-white film, so that we might work to preserve this important part of our cinematic heritage. Lavishly illustrated with more than 40 on-the-set stills, Black & White Cinema provides a vivid and illuminating look at a creatively vital era.

“Dixon covers the entire history of black-and-white movies in one volume, and talks about the films and cinematographers who created these films, and often got little credit for their work. Fascinating and compelling, this is essential reading for anyone who loves movies.” —Robert Downey Sr., director, Putney Swope.

“Dixon has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and a subtle and well-honed aesthetic sense. He rescues important films from oblivion, and finds fresh angles of approach to films that are already familiar.” —Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University.

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s colorful study of black-and-white cinema reaffirms yet again his unfailing expertise as a critic, historian, and dazzlingly fine writer. Indispensable for students, scholars, and movie buffs alike.” —David Sterritt, author of The Cinema of Clint Eastwood: Chronicles of America.

“In his latest book, Black and White Cinema, Wheeler Winston Dixon rediscovers the art of cinematography in those glorious black-and-white movies from Hollywood’s classic age.” —Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive.

My thanks to all who helped with this extremely complex and ambitious project.

Forthcoming Book – Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s

Friday, May 15th, 2015

I have a new book from Palgrave Pivot this July – pre-order it here now!

As the promotional materials for the book note, “Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s presents six detailed chapters on various topics that relate to genre cinema, concentrating on films and filmmakers whose films offered wide ranging commentary on popular culture. Covering both little and well-known films and filmmakers (Vanishing Point, Marcel Hanoun, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Max Ophüls), Dixon’s writings draw on a multitude of critical, historical, and archival sources to capture the reader’s attention from start to finish.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, and Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA. He is the author of Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, and Cinema at the Margins and editor, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture.”

“Dixon is a first-rate film scholar, critic, and historian, and the qualities he has cultivated and refined over the years are evident in everything from the clarity, lucidity, and liveliness of his prose to the accuracy of his research, the force of his arguments, and the perspicuity of his judgments.” – David Sterritt, Chair, National Society of Film Critics

A short and concise look at some of the films that shaped a decade.

Mike Fleming Jr. Interviews Woody Allen in Deadline

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

Mike Fleming Jr. of Deadline just published a fabulous interview with Woody Allen.

Even with his newest film, Irrational Man, at Cannes, Allen despairs of the current state of the movie business, and I must say I agree with him entirely. He has a deal for a series with Amazon, but doesn’t know what to do with it; he seems genuinely unhappy with all his work, and is only now turning to digital with a sort of “meh – why not?” attitude – “digital is really not cheaper and it’s not faster” – and he gets no pleasure from seeing his films – “I hate them all. None are different, and all are…unsatisfying, when you’re finished” – and never goes back to see them again.

But most of all, like all of us who love the cinema, he sees where Hollywood is heading, and he doesn’t like it one bit. Asked what he thought of the way the industry was heading, Allen responded flatly “well, I think it’s terrible. To me, movies are valuable as an art form and as a wonderful means of popular entertainment. But I think movies have gone terribly wrong. It was much healthier when the studios made a hundred films a year instead of a couple, and the big blockbusters for the most part are big time wasters. I don’t see them. I can see what they are: eardrum-busting time wasters.

I think Hollywood has gone in a disastrous path. It’s terrible. The years of cinema that were great were the ’30s, ’40s, not so much the ’50s…but then the foreign films took over and it was a great age of cinema as American directors were influenced by them and that fueled the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. Then it started to turn.

Now it’s just a factory product. They can make a billion dollars on a film and spend hundreds of millions making it. They spend more money on the advertising budget of some of those films than all the profits of everything Bergman, Fellini and Bunuel made on all their films put together in their lifetimes. If you took everything that Bergman made in profit, everything Bunuel made and everything that Fellini made in their lifetimes and added it all together, you wouldn’t equal one weekend with the The Avengers and its $185 million to $200 million.

Hollywood is just commerce, and it’s a shame. There are all these wonderfully gifted actors out there that, as you said before, will be in a film of mine for virtually nothing, union minimum, for what you called validation. Really, it’s because they want to work on something that doesn’t insult their intelligence; they don’t want to have to get in to a suit and practice stunts for two months and then do stunts and then… they want to be in something that doesn’t demean their artistic impulses.”

Much more here in Deadline - read the entire interview – it’s essential.

Interview: Agnès Varda by Violet Lucca

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Here’s a fabulous interview with Agnès Varda by Violet Lucca published in Film Comment on May 11, 2015.

As Varda notes, in part, “each film has its history, its beauty or not beauty, and its meaning.  The meaning can change over the years for people who watch the film, because there is a lot of evolution in the sense of history, the sense of understanding.  But when you speak about 35 millimeter or DCP or video, it’s unimportant. The film is what it is, but what is different are the people who made the film.  I change.  I wouldn’t do the same film today about Cuba or about the planters or about women.

Each film has a date glued to it.  And what we try is to overcome the date and make a meaning that can be more than ’62 or ’61 or whatever.  But still, even Cleo from 5 to 7, which deals with a temporal history about being afraid of an illness, being afraid of dying, still has in the film itself a purpose— we include for example the radio broadcasts telling the news of the time. Or in Kung-fu Master!, you have the awareness of AIDS in ’87. I think that we try to escape the limits of history and the time, but still I like to have a point that gives a date to the film, and not make believe that it’s nowhere, no time.”

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

Freddie Francis, BSC, on The Innocents (1961)

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

Freddie Francis, the Oscar winning cinematographer, did some of his best work on The Innocents.

Freddie Francis was one of the greatest cinematographers in the history of the cinema, in addition to directing a number of underrated Gothic thrillers in the 1960s and 70s, but he is best remembered for his fantastic work in monochrome, or black and white, films.

One of his favorite films was Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), adapted from Henry James’ classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw. I knew Freddie from 1984 up until his death in 2007, and watched him at work on the sets of many of his films, including his last as a DP, The Straight Story (1999), which was directed by David Lynch and shot in Iowa in a mere 23 days.

I wrote a book on Freddie’s work, aptly titled The Films of Freddie Francis in 1991, conducted a lecture /screening of his work at the British Film Institute with him shortly thereafter, and frankly, I miss him a lot – he was a good friend, and a good colleague. When I shot my feature film What Can I Do? in 1993, it was Freddie who put me in touch for much of the technical staff who worked on the film, and though we never had a chance to work together formally, we remained close friends throughout the years.

In any event, Freddie and I had a friendly argument over the years that above all other formats, he loved black and white CinemaScope the best. Freddie always denied it, saying that such things as aspect ratios were just part of the business arrangement of setting up the production of a film, and as this excerpt from his autobiography demonstrates, there was certainly some truth to that – The Innocents started out as a project in Academy ratio, but was bumped up to CinemaScope at the insistence of the 20th Century Fox front office.

Nevertheless, as the triptych of stills above illustrate, once he was told that he had to shoot The Innocents in ’scope, Francis and director Jack Clayton embraced the format with such stylish assurance that it seems that the film had always been meant to be shot that way.

In Francis’ later films, it always seems to me that in his ’scope work, especially with his tendency to highlight the outer edges of the frame on the left and right, and leave the middle as a more atmospheric buffer, Francis was pursuing a conscious strategy that prevented his work from ever effectively being subjected to “pan and scan” treatment, which shows only a portion of the film. One of the most effective Gothic thrillers of all time, The Innocents is well worth seeking out and viewing – it’s a remarkable film in every respect.

You have to see The Innocents in its original format, as this interview clearly demonstrates.

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 wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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