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Sofia Coppola Wins Best Director at Cannes for “The Beguiled”

Sunday, May 28th, 2017

Sofia Coppola wins Best Director at Cannes – click here to see an interview.

As Anthony D’Alessandro writes in Deadline, “Oscar-winner Sofia Coppola made Cannes Film Festival history tonight becoming the second woman in the event’s 70-year history to win best director for her Focus Features release The BeguiledPreviously, Soviet director Yuliva Solntseva won for her 1961 war drama Chronicle of Flaming Years about the Russian’s resistance to the 1941 Nazi occupation.

‘I was thrilled to get this movie made and it’s such an exciting start to be honored in Cannes. I’m thankful to my great team and cast and to Focus and Universal for their support of women-driven films,’ said Coppola in a statement. Coppola wasn’t the only woman being lauded at Cannes this year. Quite often, the festival has been criticized for not recognizing female filmmakers enough.

Coppola’s The Beguiled lead actress Nicole Kidman won a special 70th Anniversary award, while filmmaker Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here tied for best screenplay with Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Earlier this week while hosting the Cannes Film Festival 70th Anniversary celebration, Isabelle Huppert snarked, ’70 Years, 76 Palme d’ors, but only one has gone to a woman — no comment.’ She was of course referring to The Piano director Jane Campion, who still remains the only woman to win the Palme d’Or 24 years ago.

This year’s jury was obviously trying to revolutionize things after the George Miller-led jury from last year’s fest only bestowed wins to Andrea Arnold for her American Honey screenplay and the Camera d’Or (first feature film) award to French filmmaker Houda Benyaminia for her movie Divines. Last year when Miller was asked about the impact of female directors and stars at the 69th festival, he answered, “Without going into specifics, I don’t remember going to a film and assessing if a woman was in it or not . . . We were looking at other issues.”

Coppola’s The Beguiled premiered on Wednesday at the Grand Theatre Lumiere, receiving a five-minute standing ovation. The film is based on both Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel and the Don Siegel 1971 feature adaptation of that book about an injured Union soldier during the Civil War who takes refuge at a Virginia girls’ school located on the Confederate side.

Coppola convinced Universal to pull the film out of their archives as she wanted ‘to do the version of the same story from a woman’s point of view.’ The Beguiled marks Coppola’s third movie with Kirsten Dunst following The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette, the latter winning the Cinema Prize of the French National Education System here at Cannes 11 years ago.”

Predictably, the backlash is already starting – people commenting that Don Siegel’s film is “perfect” and no one should touch it, but of course, that’s simply sexism. It astounds me that after all this time, people are so uncomfortable with the idea of a woman in the director’s chair, especially since the first person to make a narrative film in 1896 was Alice Guy Blaché. Along with Agnès Varda’s win for Best Documentary, this is a Cannes to remember.

Congratulations, Sofia! Well deserved, and great news!

Luchino Visconti’s Adaptation of Camus’ “The Stranger”

Friday, May 26th, 2017

Luchino Visconti’s stunning adaptation of Camus’ The Stranger gets a rare screening.

As Jim Hoberman writes in The New York Times, ” the Marcello Mastroianni retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center includes a work that is itself rare: Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Albert Camus’s novel “The Stranger.”

The movie, in which an ordinary Pied-Noir (Algerian-born Frenchman) irrationally murders an Arab in broad daylight on a Mediterranean beach, was made in 1967 with Mastroianni in the lead. It has long been without an American distributor and, owing to complicated rights issues, was never released here on DVD. It’s showing on Saturday and Tuesday in an excellent 35-millimeter print from the Istituto Luce Cinecittà.

Shot in Technicolor entirely in Algeria, with Jean-Luc Godard’s favored actress, Anna Karina, as the protagonist’s lover, Visconti’s The Stranger makes the senseless sensuous — even sybaritic — in its blazing light and palpable heat [ . . . ]

Visconti originally planned to set it in independent Algeria, a transposition vetoed by Camus’s widow, Francine Camus. The time frame was pushed back to the late 1930s, intensifying the emphasis on French colonial rule. The novel necessarily focuses on its antihero’s internal world; the movie effortlessly calls attention to the situation of the Pied-Noir, living amid a sea of subjugated natives [ . . . ]

The first half of The Stranger depicts a shabby idyll. Visconti’s anticlerical, anti-bourgeois politics become overt only in the trial sequence, broadly staged in a real, seemingly stifling Algiers courtroom. The movie reaches its existential apotheosis in the confrontation between Mastroianni’s character and a priest in a dark prison cell.”

While bootleg pan and scan copies of the film proliferate on the web, all apparently ripped from the same VHS release, now resolutely out of print, dubbed into English, German, and in the original Italian and French without English subtitles, we can still use them to get some idea of the power of this work.

Whoever is holding this film hostage should think twice about the decision to do so, and turn it over to Kino Lorber, Criterion Eclipse or another solid distributor; more irritating is the fact that, in the film’s absence, a host of self – appointed Visconti “experts” have taken to the message boards of the web to denounce the film, which, without a decent proper aspect ratio release, has no chance of reaching a contemporary audience.

Yet another film that’s fallen between the cracks, and if you’re lucky enough to be in New York tomorrow, the 28th, and find yourself at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center, you should certainly go to see it; it runs again on the 30th of May. But for the rest of us, there are just these tantalizing fragments of the film – grainy, atrociously dubbed, uploaded in countless inferior copies – when what we need is the real thing in a quality DVD / Blu-ray release.

Such is always the way with film; now you see it, now you can’t. 

A Great Idea: Women Only Screening of “Wonder Woman”

Friday, May 26th, 2017

The Alamo Drafthouse Theater in Austin, TX is hosting a “women only” screening of Wonder Woman.

As Lorena O’Neil writes in The Hollywood Reporter, “It’s time to pour one out for the countless male tears that are being shed in Austin, Texas over a grave injustice they feel is being committed against the fragile male species. A movie theater in Austin is daring to host — gasp — a women-only screening of Wonder Woman.

This potential threat to world order is tremendous and truly terrifying for some men in Texas (or at least, trolls on Facebook) who are absolutely aghast that the Alamo Drafthouse theater is trying to celebrate the biggest female icon in the comic book world. Where will we be able to watch the movie? the men sob. At the same exact theater, which is also of course showing regular screenings as well. But will we ever get our own, male comic book superhero? the men despair. Yeah, try almost every other superhero ever.

In reality, the reactions are much more predictable.

The Drafthouse event invitation reads: ‘Apologies, gentlemen, but we’re embracing our girl power and saying “No Guys Allowed” for one special night at the Alamo Ritz. And when we say “People Who Identify As Women Only,” we mean it. Everyone working at this screening — venue staff, projectionist, and culinary team — will be female.’

‘I hope someone sues this is discrimination based on sex,’ remarked one man on Twitter. ‘Great, let us know when you have guys-only screenings of Thor, Spider-Man, Star Wars, etc. Let’s see you walk the walk now that you set this precedence,” said a Facebook commentator, who meant to say precedent.

The Drafthouse is replying to many of the complaints. When one man asked if they had ever held a men-only screening, the Drafthouse said, ‘We’ve never done showings where you had to be a man to get in, but we *did* show the the Entourage movie a few years ago.’ They also encouraged someone else to host a private men-only event if they so desired.

There were also some men who voiced their support of the event. ‘This is a great idea and I will see it another time!’ said one commenter. ‘Wow, that was easier than deciding to feel persecuted!’

The theater company has already sold out of both women-only screenings and told Mashable it is planning to bring the idea to other locations. ‘That providing an experience where women truly reign supreme has incurred the wrath of trolls only serves to deepen our belief that we’re doing something right,’ creative manager Morgan Hendrix told the publication. ‘As a result, we will be expanding this program across the country and inviting women everywhere to join us as we celebrate this iconic superheroine in our theaters.’

As Gizmodo‘s Beth Elderkin points out, ‘Since 1920, there have been about 130 superhero and comic book films with solo protagonists in the United States, both on the big and small screens.’ She adds, ‘Do you know how many of those 130 films had female leads? Eight.'”

Sounds like a great idea to me!!

New from The BFI: Minute Bodies on DVD and Blu-ray

Thursday, May 25th, 2017

The pioneering photo micrography of F. Percy Smith is now on DVD from the BFI.

As the notes for the DVD explain, “Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith, directed by Stuart Staples of Tindersticks, was first screened at the 60th BFI London Film Festival in October 2016. It is a meditative and immersive film tribute to the astonishing work and achievements of the early twentieth century naturalist, inventor, and pioneering filmmaker F. Percy Smith. You can see the trailer here.

Minute Bodies is an interpretative edit that combines Smith’s original footage with a new contemporary score by Tindersticks, with Thomas Belhom and Christine Ott, to create a hypnotic, alien yet familiar dreamscape that connects us to the sense of wonder Smith must have felt as he peered through his own lenses to see these micro-worlds for the first time.

The forming of the edit and its musical score evolved over a three year period. The music was created from a loose collective of invited musicians. With Tindersticks at its heart it also greatly benefits from the involvement of Thomas Belhom (percussion) and Christine Ott (Ondes Martenot and piano). There are also cameos from David Coulter (musical saw and nose flute) and Julian Siegel (saxophone). It was recorded and mixed at the band’s studio in France.”

The DVD / Blu-ray from the BFI boasts the BFI’s usual superb standard of both image and sound, and in addition to the main feature, there are a host of short films from the early 1900s to the mid 1930s, examining the wonders of nature in time lapse and slow motion format, which are every bit as compelling as the main attraction.

The BFI’s motto has been “Film Forever” for some time, and they’ve gone a long way this, and their other releases, towards being the most adventurous DVD label in Europe. The seamless editing of the hallucinatory images of F. Percy Smith, coupled with Tindersticks’ gently ambient soundtrack, combines to create a vision of the world which is simultaneously sinister and wondrous – a world most people never even imagine.

Considering the relatively primitive technology of the period, Smith’s images are clear and crisp, and the intense care and detail that went into each of his miniature films is readily apparent. Films are only really films when they’re being viewed, and while once Smith’s shorts were classroom staples in science classes and the like in Britain in the early part of the 20th century, without preservation they would be lost to us now.

That’s what makes this DVD so stunning, so essential, and so magical. 

Indiewire’s Cannes 2017 Roundup

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

There’s lots of great films at Cannes. Most will never get real distribution.

Cannes is still going on until May 28th, but the coverage provided by Indiewire above gives one an idea of the embarrassment of riches on display at the fest, even if it has been marred – ever so slightly – be tech snafus and some less than stellar entries and sidebars.

But consider: the festival offered a superb restoration of Belle de Jour, as well as a new documentary on Stanley Kubrick’s long and illustrious career; animated films from Iran; talks by Wim Wenders and Spike Lee at the American Pavilion; the premiere of Todd Haynes’ new film Wonderstruck; a wealth of technical information for aspiring and practicing filmmakers; the first two episodes of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks reboot; a seminar on how VOD and theaters will continue to co-exist; as well as new films by Arnaud Desplechin, Vanessa Redgrave in her directorial debut, Takashi Miike’s 100th feature film, Bruno Dumont’s “heavy metal” Joan of Arc film Jeanette, Sofia Coppola’s take on The Beguiled and so much more.

There’s so much going on here – so much more than what’s going at your local multiplex. If you’re lucky enough to live in a town that supports an art theater, please go and see the more adventurous films there. They won’t be coming to the main commercial houses, who are too busy prepping for Top Gun 2 (seriously). For all the expense and crowds and security and other inconveniences of Cannes, it remains a magnet for talent and controversy in the cinema, all the more important in an era that doesn’t value art as an essential aspect of human existence, which it absolutely is.

Follow all of Indiewire‘s coverage of Cannes by clicking here, or on the image above.

Cannes 2017 – 12 Feature Films By Women Directors

Friday, May 19th, 2017

As Ella Wilks-Harper reports in The Independent, Cannes 2017 has 12 feature films by women in the line up.

Which isn’t exactly earth-shattering, but it’s a start. However, the festival has also taken some much deserved flack – in my opinion – for the official poster for the 2017 season, not reproduced here, which as Wilks notes uses “a heavily photoshopped image of Italian actress Claudia Cardinale.” Still, as Wilks-Harper writes, “The line-up for the highly anticipated Cannes Film Festival 2017 has been announced, unveiling a notable rise in female directors making the list. A total of twelve will have films screened at the prestigious festival, up from 2016’s nine and a significant change from 2012’s festival, where no films by female directors were shown.

In a press conference, festival president Pierre Lescure – alongside General Thierry Frémaux – announced the Official Selection, including the eighteen films that will be in competition this year, including Naomi Kawase’s Radiance and Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. Kristen Stewart’s directorial short film, Come Swim, will also premiere at Cannes. Last year the actress starred in Olivier Assayas’ film Personal Shopper, which was booed by the audience at Cannes, despite positive reviews. Also at the festival, two episodes of the eagerly anticipated reboot of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks will be shown.”

The full schedule is as follows:

Competition

Ismael’s Ghosts – Arnaud Desplechin (opening film)

Loveless – Andrey Zvyagintsev

Good Time – Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie

You Were Never Really Here – Lynne Ramsay

A Gentle Creature – Sergei Loznitsa

Jupiter’s Moon – Kornél Mundruczó

L’Amant Double – François Ozon

The Killing of a Sacred Deer – Yorgos Lanthimos

Radiance – Naomi Kawase

The Day After – Hong Sang-soo

Le Redoutable – Michel Hazanavicius

Wonderstruck – Todd Haynes

Rodin – Jacques Doillon

Happy End – Michael Haneke

The Beguiled – Sofia Coppola

120 Battements Par Minute – Robin Campillo

Okja – Bong Joon-ho

In the Fade – Fatih Akin

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) – Noah Baumbach

Un Certain Regard

Barbara – Mathieu Amalric

The Desert Bride – Cecilia Atan and Valeria Pivato

Closeness – Kantemir Balagov

Beauty and the Dogs – Kaouther Ben Hania

L’Atelier – Laurent Cantet

Lucky – Sergio Castellitto

April’s Daughter – Michel Franco

Western – Valeska Grisebach

Directions – Stephan Komandarev

Out – Gyorgy Kristof

Before We Vanish – Kiyoshi Kurosawa

The Nature of Time – Karim Moussaoui

Dregs – Mohammad Rasoulof

Jeune Femme – Léonor Serraille

Wind River – Taylor Sheridan

After the War – Annarita Zambrano

Out of Competition:

Blade of the Immortal – Takashi Miike

How to Talk to Girls at Parties – John Cameron Mitchell

Visages, Villages – Agnès Varda & JR

Midnight Screenings

The Villainess – Jung Byung-Gil

The Merciless – Byun Sung-Hyun

Special Screenings

An Inconvenient Sequel – Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk

12 Jours – Raymond Depardon

They – Anahita Ghazvinizadeh

Clair’s Camera – Hong Sang-soo

Promised Land – Eugene Jarecki

Napalm – Claude Lanzmann

Demons in Paradise – Jude Ratman

Sea Sorrow – Vanessa Redgrave

Special Screenings – Events

Twin Peaks – David Lynch (first two episodes)

24 Frames – Abbas Kiarostami

Come Swim – Kristen Stewart

Top of the Lake: China Girl – Jane Campion, Ariel Kleiman

Carne y arena – Alejandro González Iñárritu

It’s nice to see so many familiar names on the list, such as Agnès Varda, but at the same time, a number of people are making the point that perhaps participating in Cannes isn’t the greatest way to launch a difficult, indie film. If everything goes well, then fine – it certainly can’t hurt. But if the audience doesn’t like a film – and Cannes viewers are typically quite open for their disdain for a film, if it fails to catch their fancy – you’re pretty much doomed from the start, and chances of getting a theatrical distribution deal drop dramatically. The festival, which got underway a few days ago, has already been marred by technical glitches and various controversies about “what constitutes a film” – does it need a theatrical opening to compete?

As Elsa Keslassy wrote in Variety on May 10th, “the Cannes Film Festival said Wednesday that it would keep Netflix movies Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories in competition despite opposition from French exhibitors but that, in future, all competition titles ‘will have to commit…to being distributed in French movie theaters.’ The festival’s board had convened a meeting Tuesday to discuss the possibility of yanking both films from competition, as recommended by France’s exhibitors’ association, which is represented on the board. Although the idea was rejected, the festival issued a statement Wednesday expressing regret over Netflix’s decision not to release the films widely in French cinemas.

‘Cannes is aware of the anxiety aroused by the absence of the release in theaters of those films in France. The Festival de Cannes asked Netflix in vain to accept that these two films could reach the audience of French movie theaters and not only its subscribers,’ the statement said, adding: ‘The festival regrets that no agreement has been reached.’ The festival said it had decided to ‘adapt its rules’ for the future. Starting next year, ‘any film that wishes to compete in competition at Cannes will have to commit itself to being distributed in French movie theaters.'”

There will be much more on this, but sadly, most of the films in the festival will never see general release – a drastic change from the days when every film in the festival was guaranteed a theatrical opening, if only because of the prevailing technology of the era. And the glitz and glamour amp up every year, so that in a sense, the movies themselves become almost incidental. Still, it’s a celebration of the cinema – with many diverging opinions – and it’s nice to see a festival which honors the art of the cinema, while at the same time being one of the most competitive cinematic marketplaces on the face of the planet.

You can see a complete rundown the festival, which runs from May 17 to 28, by clicking here.

Lucy Fischer’s New Book “Cinema By Design”

Friday, May 5th, 2017

Lucy Fischer has an excellent new book out on the influence of Art Nouveau in film.

As the website for the book from Columbia University Press notes, “Art Nouveau thrived from the late 1890s through the First World War. The international design movement reveled in curvilinear forms and both playful and macabre visions and had a deep impact on cinematic art direction, costuming, gender representation, genre, and theme. Though historians have long dismissed Art Nouveau as a decadent cultural mode, its tremendous afterlife in cinema proves otherwise. In Cinema by Design, Lucy Fischer traces Art Nouveau’s long history in films from various decades and global locales, appreciating the movement’s enduring avant-garde aesthetics and dynamic ideology.

Fischer begins with the portrayal of women and nature in the magical ‘trick films’ of the Spanish director Segundo de Chomón; the elite dress and décor design choices in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Affairs of Anatol (1921); and the mise-en-scène of fantasy in Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Reading Salome (1923), Fischer shows how the cinema offered an engaging frame for adapting the risqué works of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Moving to the modern era, Fischer focuses on a series of dramatic films, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), that make creative use of the architecture of Antoni Gaudí; and several European works of horror—The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Deep Red (1975), and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013)—in which Art Nouveau architecture and narrative supply unique resonances in scenes of terror.

In later chapters, she examines films like Klimt (2006) that portray the style in relation to the art world and ends by discussing the Art Nouveau revival in 1960s cinema. Fischer’s analysis brings into focus the partnership between Art Nouveau’s fascination with the illogical and the unconventional and filmmakers’ desire to upend viewers’ perception of the world. Her work explains why an art movement embedded in modernist sensibilities can flourish in contemporary film through its visions of nature, gender, sexuality, and the exotic.”

This is a brilliant and wide-ranging book, written in a direct and accessible style, which moves smoothly from one film to another, and one era to another, effortlessly navigating both space and time in cinema history, in a text which is at once adventurous, incisive, and thoroughly grounded in cinema and art history. Fischer is a brilliant scholar whose work is always deeply informed and carefully considered, and with this book, she tackles a theme in cinema art direction which is far more wide-spread than one might expect. Complete with a plethora of illustrations, this is a must have text for any lover of film.

Again, proof of the old saying that the only new history is that which you don’t know – essential reading.

Books Are Still An Essential Part of Any Library

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

A library without books isn’t a serious library – too much material hasn’t been digitized.

In an interview in The Christian Science Monitor today, I told writer Weston Williams that “‘as the author of some 30 books on cinema history, I can readily attest that most of the deep research materials in this area, and in other related humanities areas, have never made the jump to digital format . . . The more superficial and recent articles are readily available, but once you get into the history of the medium, in the early part of the 20th century, you’re working with microfilm, or even more likely, actual print materials.’

Ignoring these older physical media, Dixon argues, is ‘erasing the past,’ until every scrap of information is online. And even then, there are other potential problems. The removal of 60 percent of the physical collection at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for instance, caused an uproar after it was reported that many of the books removed had been destroyed. A campus spokesman said that nothing had been lost from the scholarly record, since duplicates were retained in other libraries or available online. Given the short timeframe and seeming lack of consultation of the faculty, however, many critics expressed doubts that this was actually the case.

‘Only by trundling through the archives in detail – a process that would probably take a staff of people a number of years – could one be sure that nothing not digitized was being eliminated,’ says Dixon. ‘Also, in a number of cases, when materials are scanned, a very bad job is done of it, and the scan quality is so poor as to make the document almost unreadable.’ So, in most cases the primary research sources one needs for serious humanities research simply aren’t online – as I found writing my recent book Black & White Cinema: A Short History – and only print materials, properly preserved, gave me the information I needed.

If everything – everything – every scrap of information – is digitized, then perhaps one can make the case for a “bookless library.” But that will never happen, and so books, microfilm, periodicals, and other print materials from the dawn of the printing press to the end of the 20th century should be preserved at all costs, and readily accessible – not in high density storage. Otherwise, one has no idea what one is missing, which is indeed erasing the past.

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

The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age

Monday, April 17th, 2017

I have a new article out today: “The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age.”

As I note in the article, “this essay takes its title from Erle C. Kenton‘s 1942 film The Ghost of Frankenstein, one of the last credible films in the original Universal series, and asks the question, ‘What are we to do with, or make of, the Frankenstein monster in the 21st century?’ Tracing the monster in film from its beginnings to the present, we see a disturbing but not altogether unexpected trend. Newer iterations of the classic tale feature more special effects, but less real content.

Universal is rebooting their stable of classic monsters with yet another version of The Mummy in Alex Kurtzman’s 2017 film of the same name starring Tom Cruise, with revamped versions of Frankenstein and Dracula to follow if the film is successful. Significantly, the 2017 Mummy is more of an action film than anything else; it seems that mood and menace will no longer hold an audience. But will any of these versions have lasting impact, or value?”

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

A Letter from John Carpenter on “The Thing” – January 2, 1983

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

In 1983, shortly after the release of his film The Thing, I got a letter from John Carpenter about the film.

John Carpenter‘s 1982 version of The Thing is now considered a masterpiece, something I’ve always thought, but when it first came out in the Summer of 1982, roughly at the same time as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, audiences opted for the cute little Reese’s pieces eating alien over Carpenter’s relentlessly nihilistic vision of a visitor from outer space, and the film was almost universally reviled by critics – proving, once again, that when a work is ahead of its time, it can almost be assured of an uncomprehending, hostile reception.

Carpenter had argued with Universal, who produced both films, that pitting them against each other would have disastrous results, suggesting that the release be delayed to Halloween, which of course is the title of Carpenter’s iconic 1978 indie film, which was shot for roughly $300,000, and went on to gross more than $70 million worldwide. But Universal insisted on putting the two films out within weeks of each other, and Spielberg’s film took off, while Carpenter’s film languished.

As Carpenter told one interviewer about the film’s initial reception, “I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit. I don’t think the studio knew what kind of movie they were getting. I think they wanted Alien, a crowd-pleaser. And it was way too ferocious for them. They were upset by the ending—too dark. But that’s what I wanted: Who goes there? Who are we? Which one of you is real? The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane.”

In the Fall of 1982, I was teaching film at Rutgers University, and as part of my fall class schedule, I wanted to run The Thing in 16mm CinemaScope format, but figured it was out of my budget range. Nevertheless, I called up Universal’s non-theatrical booking agency in Manhattan, chatted with a young woman there who was as enthused about the film as I was, and eventually negotiated a rental price of $100 – a fraction of the going rate – for the class screening.

At the same time, I mentioned to her how disappointed I was in the poor critical reception the film was receiving, and asked if I could have John Carpenter’s address so that I could write a letter to him in support of the film. In those much more egalitarian times, this was no problem, and she gave me Carpenter’s production company address, and I dispatched a letter to him giving my thoughts about the film, and various related topics, on December 15, 1982.

On January 2, 1983, I received a lengthy response from Carpenter, which I’ll quote most of here – with the note that for many years, I considered this letter lost, until it surfaced only a few days ago at the home of a friend in New Jersey, where apparently I had left it one evening. (Parenthetically, I’m a terrible archivist; I once had a signed letter from Orson Welles, no less, and lost that, too!)

But in any event, here is what Carpenter had to say to about the film, and horror films in general: “My favorite Gothic directors are Roman Polanski, Mario Bava (simply for style alone), George Romero, Terence Fisher and James Whale. Each of these directors brought a personality and a style to the horror film. I’ve always thought that Freddie Francis was a better Director of Photography. William Castle was more a producer / entrepreneur.

You asked me about the issue of cinematic violence, which is really, I feel, the issue of stylistic realism. Sam Peckinpah popularized the ‘too real effect’ in The Wild Bunch [1969]. Human beings don’t really die with little blood bag explosions popping out all over the place, but the effect soon became a kind of realism used widely in movies and even television; you shoot someone, you pop a couple of blood bags here and there.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Halloween didn’t use this stylistic realism. The brutal, sadistic killings were suggested, sparing us any enjoyment of the sadism. We’re voyeurs, true, but there’s a point to which we want to be thrashed around in that dark corner of our minds.

The Thing was a monster movie, meaning simply that the protagonist was ‘an other,’ non-human alien. I felt that in order to convince the audience that The Thing was real, stylistic realism was in order. [Special effects artist] Rob Bottin came in to me with a concept of the actual visual manifestations that seemed to coincide with the amorphous, non-evil-acting ‘otherness’ reality that had to be a part of The Thing.

Systematic inclusion of graphic violence or sex or whatever may enhance a film, or may destroy it, or simply relegate it to pornography or exploitation. [That being said], there should be no restrictions, other than the intentions of the director.

Your idea of the ‘the icon’ is a sound one. Movies carry our mythology now [emphasis added]. Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster is as much as legend now as Prometheus. Perhaps The Thing could be seen as an examination of exactly what constitutes ‘humanness.’ The creature itself is just simply non-human, but like a cancer, it grows and takes us over, distorts, ravages. It isn’t gory, at least not to me.”

Carpenter closed with the thoughts that he was especially fond of the films of director Luis Buñuel, and the films The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, Invisible Invaders, The Big Sleep (the 1946 version, please) and Los Olvidados. I’ve always been grateful that Carpenter took the time and effort to type such a long letter in response to a total stranger at the time, and that he so carefully and perceptively articulated precisely what he was up to with The Thing, which was based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There?, and first brought to the screen by Howard Hawks as The Thing from Another World (1951).

Carpenter, of course, is a big fan of Howard Hawks, with excellent reason, and his first real feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) has distinct debts to Hawks which Carpenter readily acknowledges. Hawks’ version of The Thing is a brilliant film, but it has an upbeat, optimistic ending – as all Hawks films do – as a ragtag group of dedicated survivors pull together to defeat the threat of a hostile invasion from outer space. Carpenter’s film offers no such assurances, and as such is more in tune with the noirish temper of the present day era, in which “every person for themselves first” seems to be the governing principle.

So, if you haven’t seen The Thing, do so now, but only in the proper CinemaScope ratio; in addition to Bottin’s astounding and thankfully pre-digital special effects, the actors Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart and Keith David – superb performers all – have seldom had better roles. Then, too, Bill Lancaster‘s astonishingly bleak screenplay and dialogue for the film make a distinct contribution to the proceedings. The production of the film was by all accounts grueling, but the end result is more than worth it. And so it’s nice to see this letter again after some thirty years (!!) and have a chance to share it with the readers of this blog.

A special thanks goes out to David Dutcher, who found this letter, and sent it on – thanks, Dutch!

About the Author

Headshot of 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.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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