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Le Silence de la mer (1949) by Jean-Pierre Melville

Friday, February 27th, 2015

Nicole Stéphane in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la mer (1949).

Le Silence de la mer, Melville’s first feature film, was shot in 1949 on a shoestring budget, based on the novel of the same name by Jean Bruller, under the pen name of Vercours.The plot is simple: a German lieutenant, Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) moves in with a rural French family during the Nazi occupation of World War II, consisting of an old man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane), who refuse to speak to him during the time he is billeted there. Courteous, cultured, and superficially charming, von Ebrennac is an impractical idealist, who is proud of German heritage and culture, but who also believes that in the end, the war will serve a common good; the uniting of Germany and France, and the intermingling of each nation’s cultures.

Night after night, von Ebrennac emerges from his bedroom upstairs with the deepest politeness, and engages in a series of seemingly endless monologues about the future of France and Germany, the cultural history of both nations, his childhood and upbringing, his first romance, and his faith in the Nazi hierarchy. During all the time, the uncle and his niece say not a single word to von Ebrennac, who despite his position of power, doesn’t threaten or intimidate them, but rather longingly expresses his hope that someday the two nations will “marry,” while making obvious allusions to his attraction to the old man’s niece.

One day, von Ebrennac announces that he has been called to Paris to meet with the Nazi hierarchy. Here Melville manages to blend newsreel footage of the Occupation with staged footage of Vernon, as von Ebrennac, taking in the sights, and reveling in the city’s cultural atmosphere. A music composer during peacetime, von Ebrennac doesn’t really know how barbaric the Nazi regime is, until one functionary tells him of the death camps at Treblinka, and later, a group of Nazi officers at a party reveal that their true plan is to crush French culture entirely, to destroy the entire nation down to the ground so that it can then be rebuilt according to Hitler’s plans, stating that “only technical books” in French will be allowed – everything else, modern or old, will be summarily destroyed.

Von Ebrennac finds this impossible to believe, but gradually realizes that he has been duped into joining the Nazi cause. When he returns to the old man’s house, von Ebrennac relates the story of his “grave” discovery in detail, one which he finds impossible to accept. Finally comprehending the monstrous nature of the regime he so blindly supported, von Ebrennac files an application for active duty on the Eastern Front, where he will almost surely be killed. As he puts it, I’m “off to Hell.” A last shot suggests that he may disobey future orders given to him by the Nazi regime, but this is left unresolved.

Shot in Bruller’s own house in 27 non-consecutive days by the great Henri Decaë – his first film as a Director of Cinematography – Le silence de la mer manages to pull off a neat trick; though it’s utterly claustrophobic in design and execution, and is essentially a series of monologues by Von Ebrennac, the film is continually visually inventive, and through an intricate design of fade in / fade outs and wipes, weaves a spell over the viewer, who soon becomes invested not only in Von Ebrennac’s coming to consciousness, but also in the outcome of the narrative – how on earth will this battle of wills be resolved?

Some have described it as a love story, but if so, it’s one that never really announces itself; the niece may indeed be a sort of stand-in for France as a whole, but this is never unduly emphasized. Instead, the film explores what happens when a tyrannical regime recruits an aesthete, and what then transpires when that person discovers he’s been deceived. Bruller wrote the novel in 1941; it was published clandestinely during the Occupation, and circulated by members of the Resistance, during a time when the possession of single copy of the work was punishable by death. Bruller was initially resistant to the idea of adapting his novel to film, despite offering the use of his house as a shooting location, and stipulated that when the film was completed, it would have to pass a “jury test” by 27 members of the former Resistance, to see if it was faithful to the novel, and should be released.

If the jury voted against the film, Melville promised to burn the negative and all prints. Thankfully, only one member of this “jury” voted against the film, and now it has been digitally restored in glorious fashion, first by Eureka DVD in Europe, and now in the United States from Criterion. This is a superb, one of a kind film – and a real window not only into the past of cinema, but also to an era in which films were made for the sake of art, rather than commerce – when individual talent was sufficient to overcome all financial and practical obstacles. And, of course, although he loved film noir and American crime films, Melville never sold out and went Hollywood – instead, he remained an individual and committed artist, something that’s completely rare these days.

You can see the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

Les Parents Terribles (1948)

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

Jean Cocteau’s 1948 film – his best work as a director – isn’t available on DVD in the US.

It’s something of a mystery to me, since the film is so accomplished, and since the earlier adaptation of Les Enfants Terribles, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, is so readily available in a superb transfer on DVD here, but Les Parents Terribles remains missing in action. It was released on VHS in the early 1990s with English subtitles, and there are still a few copies of that version kicking around on Amazon – and the quality is passable – but a fully restored DVD and Blu-ray of this exquisite film, based on Cocteau’s play of the same title, is long overdue – most critics agree it’s his finest moment as a filmmaker.

As an anonymous contributor to Wikipedia notes, the famed critic “André Bazin wrote a detailed review of the film in which he took up the idea of ‘pure cinema’ and tried to analyze how Cocteau had succeeded in creating it out of the most uncinematic material imaginable. Bazin highlights three features which assist this transition. Firstly the confidence and harmony of the actors, who have previously played their roles together many times on stage and are able to inhabit their characters as if by second nature, allow them to maintain an intensity of performance despite the fragmentation of the film-making process.

Secondly, Cocteau shows unusual freedom in his choice of camera positions and movements, seldom resorting to the conventional means of filming dialogue with reverse angle shots, and introducing close-ups and long shots with a sureness of touch that never disrupts the movement of the scene; the spectator is always placed in the position of a witness to the action (as in the theater), rather than a participant, and even that of a voyeur, given the intimacy of the camera’s gaze.

Thirdly, Bazin notes the psychological subtlety with which Cocteau chooses his camera positions to match the responses of his ‘ideal spectator.’ He cites an example of the shot in which Michel tells Yvonne about the girl he loves, his face placed above hers and both facing the audience, just as they had done in the theater; but in the film Cocteau uses a close-up which shows only the eyes of Yvonne below and the speaking mouth of Michel above, concentrating the image for the greatest emotional impact. In all of these aspects, the theatricality of the play is preserved but intensified through the medium of film.”

Get the VHS if you can; this is a film that should not be missed.

The 87th Annual Oscars – A Night of Surprises

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

The 87th Annual Oscars were a night of surprises.

And The Winners Are:

  • Best Picture – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – a real surprise to me; I thought Boyhood was the one here, but it was neck and neck.
  • Best Actress – Julianne Moore, Still Alice - an excellent film, and a much deserved win, though Marion Cotillard was superb in Two Days, One Night
  • Best Actor – Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything - this was a real upset – everyone thought Michael Keaton had this one in the bag.
  • Directing  – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - if you think the film was good, then Iñárritu wins.
  • Best Supporting Actress – Patricia Arquette, Boyhood – her win was no surprise; but the film was completely shut out in every other category.
  • Best Supporting Actor – J.K. Simmons, Whiplash – absolutely deserved for his performance here, and a lifetime of work.
  • Animated Feature Film - Big Hero 6 – honestly can’t speak to this; not a category I follow.
  • Documentary Feature – Citizenfour - another surprise, and hardly a safe choice, with an impassioned acceptance speech from the stage.
  • Foreign Language Film – Ida (Poland) – I’d go for Two Days, One Night – not enamored of this film at all, but it’s a small, sincere film.
  • Adapted Screenplay – Graham Moore, The Imitation Game – good choice here; Moore’s acceptance speech was raw and honest.
  • Original Screenplay – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – OK.
  • Original Score – Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel – don’t like the film, don’t like Wes Anderson, but he’s a cult favorite, so it wins.
  • Original Song – “Glory” from Selma - the most moving moment of the evening, with an electrifying performance of the song, which got the evening’s first standing ovation & tears in the audience.
  • Film Editing – Whiplash - picked this, and agree with it; in this small scale film, the editing had to be razor sharp, and it was.
  • Production Design – The Grand Budapest Hotel - if you insist.
  • Sound Editing – American Sniper – deserved; whatever you think of the film, the sound editing was utterly complex, and multi-layered.
  • Sound Mixing – Whiplash - again, a great and deserving win for a film about a world of music – harder to mix that one might think.
  • Visual Effects – Interstellar - dull film, average SPFX; I would have preferred Captain America, Winter Soldier here.
  • Cinematography – Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – superb cinematography, and a worthy win.
  • Costume Design – Milena Canonero, The Grand Budapest Hotel - again, if you insist.
  • Makeup and Hairstyling – Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier, The Grand Budapest Hotel - it picks up all these minor awards, but nothing major.
  • Animated Short Film – Feast – haven’t seen it.
  • Live Action Short Film – The Phone Call – haven’t seen it.
  • Documentary Short Subject – Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 - a really good documentary; searing, honest, timely.

Those are my major thoughts; Neil Patrick Harris kept things moving, but the “predictions in a box” bit was lame and over-stretched; he seemed bored with the whole thing, and more or less just pushed things along; the songs keep slowing things down, especially the one after the memorial reel, which should just have been a fade to black; Selma will get a lot of much deserved traction as a result of the Glory performance, which was the standout moment of the evening for raw sincerity and passion; but it’s still not right that the director, Ava DuVernay, wasn’t nominated, but Glory did the most with what it had at hand. I predict that down the line it will get more attention than it has now; it certainly deserves it.

It was nice to see Jean-Claude Carrière win in the Governor’s Awards highlights reel for his many screenplays, especially for his work with the great Luis Buñuel; the tech awards deserve more than 30 seconds, and you could cut some of the endless musical numbers to give them just a bit more space; seen in 100 countries and 24 time zones by roughly half a billion viewers, the telecast of the 87th Oscars once again affirms, more than anything else, the continuing commercial dominance of the American cinema; but at the same time it’s interesting to see that the big budget “tent pole” movies were almost completely ignored in favor of smaller, more personal visions from the margins, where all the best ideas come from anyway.

The studios are stuck in this pattern of releasing big budget spectacles at enormous expense to drag viewers into the theaters, but while the Marvel and DC movies make money, it’s clear that the industry doesn’t really respect them – they want content, and thoughtful filmmaking. All in all, I was surprised by the end of the ceremonies – it’s always an ordeal, but people were allowed to speak their minds on any number of controversial topics from the stage. Some people went on & on forever, and got played off at the start of the ceremonies, but when someone had a real message to deliver, I noticed that the orchestra held back on a number of occasions.

The impassioned speech after the Glory production number was a real stunner, and Patricia Arquette’s call for equal pay and equal rights for women was met with resounding approval from the audience, and a raised fist shout out from Meryl Streep and others in support. However, as much as Julie Andrews is a cinematic icon, I thought the placement of the Sound of Music salute was bizarre to say the least, though Lady Gaga demonstrated that she’s learned a thing or two from Tony Bennett lately, singing the songs rather than belting them. All in all, a mixed bag that kept one thinking. No one film swept the awards, which was great – instead they seemed to be spread out over a number of interesting films, all of which will now get a lift at the box office and on VOD.

All in all, the Academy could have done much worse; glad it’s over until next year. See you then!

Home at Seven (1952)

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

Here’s another “lost” classic brought back to life by Network DVD in Great Britain.

I regularly write about contemporary “foreign” films that get lost in the shuffle, but here’s a gem from 1952 in Great Britain, Home at Seven, the only film ever directed by the gifted Sir Ralph Richardson (though he wasn’t a “Sir” yet when he directed it). He also stars in the film with Margaret Leighton and Jack Hawkins, from a play by the great R.C. Sherriff, which chronicles what happens when mild mannered mid-level banking clerk David Preston (Richardson) arrives home at his house one evening at 7, as he usually does, only to be greeted by his wife Janet (Leighton) in hysterics – he’s “home at 7″, all right, but 24 hours later than he should have been – in short, he’s missed a whole day. At first he thinks this is impossible, but when his wife shows him the evening paper, and his manager at the bank confirms that he hasn’t been at the office all day, David realizes that somehow, he’s completely forgotten what happened for one entire day of his life. And – much worse – he has absolutely no idea what’s happened.

Richardson’s acting and direction are impeccable, as is Anatole de Grunwald’s script from Sherriff’s play, along with Jack Hildyard’s suitably muted monochrome cinematography, but the centerpiece of the film is Richardson, who absolutely inhabits the character he plays, who only gradually realizes that in addition to misplacing an entire workday, he’s also somehow mixed up in a murder and robbery, but has absolutely no idea what’s happened. In an attempt to keep himself out of danger, and secure a much-needed promotion, David begins to make up lies to cover his absence, but this only gets him in deeper with the police and his employer, despite the help of sympathetic Doctor Sparling (Jack Hawkins), who does his best to help Preston recover his senses – until in the final scenes of the film, with a stroke of very good fortune, order is finally restored – but I won’t tell you how.

Nor should I. Indeed, one of the signature successes of Home at Seven is that it leaves one absolutely in the dark as to what’s going to happen next, as if we, as the audience, are afflicted with the same sort of amnesia as David is, blundering blindly in the dark with complete loss of memory. Richardson’s restrained performance, coupled with the solid, assured direction he gives to the film, creates a deeply unsettling vision of Post World War II England, in an era in which some sort of normalcy has supposedly returned, but the strains of the war are still all too evident, and neighbors offer scant comfort in times of crisis – indeed, they’re all too willing to “shop” you to the police on the slightest shred of supposed “evidence.”

Home at Seven is just one of the many hundreds of modest British films that have been preserved by the British company Network, who have a mission to rescue films at the margins that otherwise might be consigned to undeserved neglect. As their company philosophy states, in part, “since 1997, Network has been anything but conventional. Experimental, passionate, diverse, challenging, ever-willing to champion the underdogs of film and television; titles unjustly neglected and gathering dust in the vaults of TV companies; visionary directors from the fringes of mainstream cinema and beyond. TV and film titles which might otherwise have been lost to posterity have been rescued, preserved and restored where possible. A forgotten cache of Public Information Films – destined for destruction – was saved, digitised and turned into a hit video release. Castaways like Robinson Crusoe provided the launching pad for an ongoing series of archival releases which continues to this day. With its encyclopaedic knowledge of TV and film archives and library content, Network – in partnership with ITV, BBC, Rank, ITC, Thames, FremantleMedia, Studiocanal and many others – has brought back to the marketplace a wealth of material that would otherwise have been left unseen.”

In an era in which the DVD market is collapsing in America, Network is acting very much like an archival revival house – focusing on the films that have been somehow overlooked in canonical film history. I just saw Home at Seven last night, and I can attest that the quality of the transfer, both in image and sound, is exceptional. These films will never run on TV in the United States, but you will need an all-region DVD play to see them here – they’re all Region 2 releases, in PAL format, so an all region player is a must. But at this point, of course, you can get such a player for less than $100, and you should have one anyway – these artificial boundaries of “regions” for DVDs and Blu-rays are an absolute nuisance. Too many excellent films, old and new, get released only in France, of England, or Canada, and never make it across the border to the States. So get an all region player, check out some titles from Network, and expand your cinematic horizons. It’s really worth the effort.

This is just one of the films in Network’s series The British Film – click here to see the entire catalogue.

UCLA Festival of Preservation – March 5-30, 2015 in Los Angeles

Monday, February 16th, 2015

Click here, on on the image above, for a complete program guide to the festival as a pdf.

If you’re going to be in Los Angeles between March 5th and the 30th, this is the place to be. As Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive notes of the coming festival, “the year 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of UCLA Film & Television Archive and so we are doubly proud to put on our biennial UCLA Festival of Preservation to kick off a series of anniversary-related events that will run throughout the year.

As director of UCLA Film & Television Archive, I’m happy to introduce the 17th iteration of our Festival, which again reflects the broad and deep efforts of the Archive to preserve and restore our national moving image heritage.  And while the rest of the world has seemingly made the transition to a 100 percent digital environment, the Archive is still committed to preserving films on film, while we still can, even if our theater will increasingly be projecting digital material.

Our Festival opens with the restoration of Men in War (1957), directed by Anthony Mann, who made a name for himself at Universal directing adult westerns.  This big budget war film, starring Robert Ryan and Aldo Ray, details the troubles experienced by a platoon of American soldiers, who are trapped behind enemy lines during the Korean War.  Unlike Hollywood’s more heroic representations of World War II, Mann’s film presages the disconnect between officers and enlisted men that would become systemic during the Vietnam War.

We close with another classic war film, John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home (1940), starring John Wayne and Thomas Mitchell as merchant seamen transporting ammunition to England for the European war effort against the Nazis.  Between these bookends, this year’s UCLA Festival of Preservation offers something for everyone, whether one is interested in film or television, comedy, drama or documentary.

In the comedy department, we are proud to be able to present the latest results in our ongoing effort to preserve the legacy of Laurel & Hardy, including the shorts The Midnight Patrol (1933) and The Music Box (1932).  We are also screening a new restoration of the comedy hit of last year’s Cinefest in Syracuse, Bachelor’s Affairs (1932), a pre-Code gem, starring Adolphe Menjou as a die-hard bachelor who is felled by a ditzy blonde bombshell.

As is standard operating practice, given our close working relationship with the Film Noir Foundation, we have again restored a number of rare and interesting film noirs, including Too Late for Tears (1949), starring Lizabeth Scott in a career-defining role as a housewife whose life careens out of control.  Director John Reinhardt’s low, low budget noir, The Guilty (1948), is based on a Cornell Woolrich story, while Woman on the Run (1950), another under-rated noir, stars Ann Sheridan as the wife of a man who has witnessed a murder.  Finally, director Samuel Fuller’s Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1977) is not exactly a noir, but a crime drama produced for German television, and it constitutes the Archive’s first complete digital restoration.

An area of increasing interest for the Archive is exploitation films, which have been for the most part ignored by film historians, even though such films were hugely popular at the time of their release.  Our head of preservation, Scott MacQueen, has taken the lead in restoring the Archive’s exploitation holdings, so we are proud to present a number of truly weird and wild films from the early 1930s: White Zombie (1932) features Bela Lugosi in the aftermath of Dracula (1931) in a horror film that has become a cult classic; Ouanga (1935) reprises White Zombie’s Haitian setting for a tale of voodoo and miscegenation, starring the tragic African American actress, Fredi Washington, who could have had a huge career if she had not refused to “pass” for white.  Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Premature Burial,’ The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935) stars the great Erich von Stroheim after his fall from grace in Hollywood.  Finally, Leslie Stevens’ directorial debut, Private Property (1960), is another rare find, the film straddling both the exploitation and art house markets.

In the past two years, the Archive has stepped up its efforts under television archivist Dan Einstein to preserve classic television.  We begin with The Execution of Private Slovik (1974), one of the most celebrated made-for-television movies of the 1970s, and an episode of Chevy Mystery Theatre (NBC, 7/31/60), both programs penned by the writing team of Richard Levinson and William Link.  Another program includes a classic episode from Playhouse 90, a popular omnibus show from the late 1950s, which visualizes a nuclear holocaust for American viewers.

The Archive’s efforts to restore the work of independent filmmakers are represented by two long-neglected masterpieces, director Stanton Kaye’s brilliant road movie, Brandy in the Wilderness (1969), and J.L. Anderson’s Spring Night, Summer Night (1967), an amazingly realistic film from rural Appalachia.  We also continue our efforts to preserve and protect the legacy of the ‘L.A. Rebellion,’ with a program of shorts by African American women, including a new restoration of filmmaker Julie Dash’s Illusions (1982), which finally corrects deficits on the soundtrack that had been present since the film’s premiere.

Last, but not least, our newsreel preservation team of Blaine Bartell and Jeffrey Bickel present two programs from our Hearst Metrotone News Collection, including one night dedicated to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and another celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a milestone in the Civil Rights Movement. As is always the case, the Archive’s internationally recognized preservationists will appear in person at many Festival screenings to introduce the films and discuss their work with audiences.

All of our restoration work and public programs—including this Festival—are funded by donations from individuals, foundations, corporations and government agencies.  We are most thankful for the generosity of these organizations and individuals.”

This promises to be an utterly thrilling collection of films; try to see it you possibly can.

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.

Kino Lorber’s “Pioneers of African-American Cinema”

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

The films of Spencer Williams, Oscar Micheaux, and other pioneering African-American filmmakers get a much deserved Blu-ray upgrade.

As Tambay A. Obenson reports in Shadow and Act: On Cinema of the African Diaspora in Indiewire, Kino Lorber is starting a Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation of one of the most ambitious projects involving the history of African-American cinema ever attempted, involving an enormous amount of research, restoration, and a wide range of films.

As Obenson writes, “considering conversations we’ve long had on this blog about efforts to collect the lot of ’black films’ from yesteryear (especially those considered ‘lost’ to history, unseen or rarely screened publicly) and making them widely-accessible in one complete set, digitally restored (HD) and remastered, this is one message, one campaign that S&A certainly approves of.

Coincidentally, starting this Friday, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, kicks off its own groundbreaking series, ‘Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968 – 1986,’ programmed by Michelle Materre and Jake Perlin, and co-presented by Creatively Speaking. The below collection from Kino Lorber will cover the years 1914 to 1944.

I recall attending an Oscar Micheaux celebration some years ago, and in speaking to the curators, learned the challenges they faced in hunting down prints of as many of his films as they could get their hands on. It was interesting to learn of how scattered ownership of each was. Not rights specifically, but rather where each physically resided. For example, a print for one of his films (I can’t recall which title it was right now) was tracked down all the way in France, and, as I remember, it was the only one in existence. So this is all quite ambitious!”

As Kino Lorber’s comments on the project note, “renowned for its deluxe editions of masterpieces of world cinema, Kino Lorber will now pay tribute to the Pioneers of African-American Cinema with an ambitious four-disc collection. If the campaign achieves its primary goal, the series will include eight feature films and a variety of short films and fragments, a color booklet of photos and essays, and will be offered on Bluray and DVD.

All films will be newly mastered in high definition from film elements preserved by the country’s leading film archives, including The Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Silent films will be accompanied by a variety of original music scores. Some soundtracks will have a more contemporary sound, encouraging the viewer to watch these films with a fresh perspective. For the sake of historical accuracy, each silent film will also include a traditional score intended to replicate the 1920s moviegoing experience.

Curated by film historians Charles Musser and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, and presented by executive producer DJ Spooky, Pioneers of African-American Cinema will showcase not only the works of MIcheaux and Williams, but lesser-known filmmakers such as James and Eloyce Gist, as well as rarely-seen footage shot by writer Zora Neale Hurston.  It will also include selections of ‘race films’ made by white directors, such as Richard E. Norman and Frank Peregini . . .”

“Pioneers of African-American Cinema”  will be released February, 2016.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on La Notte (1961)

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Michelangelo Antonioni (right) directs Monica Vitti (left) in Antonioni’s classic film La Notte (1961)

In issue 74 of Senses of Cinema, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster discusses Antonioni’s classic film La Notte (1961), writing in part that “in reviewing the critical reception of La notte (1961), it strikes me that many observers seem to almost completely miss the fact that the film is, in part, a feminist critique of capitalist society, which centers around women, consumption, and the failure of our ecosystem, and not just the director’s trademark alienation and ennui.

Conventional plot summaries of the film routinely insist that La notte centres around a male author, Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni), his uncertain career, and his failing relationship with his wife, Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), as well as his flirtations with beautiful socialite Valentina Gherardini (Monica Vitti).

I would argue, rather, that women are both the centre of the film and the mirrors upon which Antonioni reflects his dark perceptions and stark conclusions about the human condition. At a launch party for his latest novel, those who celebrate Giovanni’s newest book spend precious little time actually reading, opting instead to party all night, while simultaneously remaining oblivious to their own mortality.

As in most of his films, Antonioni’s wealthy protagonists in La notte live in a hell of their own making. So thoroughly alienated are they from one another (and from the environment) that they experience the rain from the sky (in the pool sequence) as a sublime rapture from above, giggling like schoolchildren, briefly lifted out of their stupor for a moment’s play with the actual elements.The tragedy of Antonioni’s characters is not simply a matter of bored bourgeois ennui; these people are disconnected from the feminine, from the earth, and from life itself.”

Brilliant writing – you can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Continuing Battle to Save Classic Films

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

Richard Verrier has an excellent piece in the Los Angeles Times on the battle to save the films of the past.

As Verrier writes, “Inside a 260,000-square-foot warehouse just over the Grapevine off Interstate 5, an archivist from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences clambered up a ladder to inspect a stack of dusty 35-millimeter film cans . . . The man on the ladder pulled several silver-colored canisters off the shelf and plunked them on a pallet that would later be shrink-wrapped and loaded onto a truck for delivery to the academy’s film archive. By the end of the day, some 5,000 cans of film would find a new home at the academy.

That left just 40,000 cans to go in the mission to rescue Hollywood’s ‘orphan films’ — movies abandoned by producers or the companies that financed them. Patiently watching over the operation was Greg Lea, a cheerful native of west London and fervent film historian. He and his colleagues at Deluxe Entertainment Services Group have spent the last two years trying to return the forgotten films, some dating back half a century, to their rightful owners. Most are art house or independent films that never made it to the big leagues.

‘This is 20th century American history, so you don’t want it to be lost,’ Lea said. ‘It may be someone’s dream that didn’t get abandoned, but they couldn’t afford to move the project any further. When you’ve got someone’s dreams, you don’t want to end up throwing them in the trash can.’ The end of film is a dramatic story in Hollywood. Paramount made headlines last year when it told exhibitors it would release virtually all future movies digitally. Most theaters around the country have invested millions to ditch their film projectors and install digital systems.

Slackening demand for film prints prompted Deluxe and Technicolor to close their film labs, laying off hundreds of workers. Fujifilm Corp. has exited the movie film business, leaving Eastman Kodak as the sole remaining major supplier of film stock. Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012, though several studios have banded together to keep the company’s film business alive.

Although digital technology enables studios to distribute movies much more cheaply than film, not everyone is happy about film’s pending demise. Prominent directors, including Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, have opposed the relentless march to digital formats, contending the medium is inferior to 35-millimeter film. But there is a more fundamental question: When Hollywood goes all digital, what happens to the film legacy left behind?

It’s not an idle question. The original negatives of some 90% of the films made between 1901 and 1929 no longer exist. The same nearly happened in the 1970s when studios decided to divest themselves of nitrate film, which was used before 1950 and was highly flammable.  For the last two years, Deluxe has worked closely with the major studios and others to ensure that tens of thousands of film negatives were rightfully claimed.

But many more are orphans — produced by companies that either forgot about them, went out of business or no long wanted to pay to keep them in storage facilities . . . ‘Some companies make a decision that they don’t really want it anymore,’ Lea said. ‘It’s somebody else’s problem. You can understand it. But for those of us who want to preserve the film history, it’s the wrong decision.’”

You can read the entire story 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.

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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