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Manohla Dargis on “The Race to Save the Films We Love”

Sunday, August 28th, 2016

Manohla Dargis has an excellent piece on the race to save classic films in today’s New York Times;

above, a scene from Lewis Milestone’s Seven Sinners (1925), before and after restoration.

This, of course, is a subject I have been hammering home for years, writing in The Moving Image Archive News, on this blog, and elsewhere, that as the saying goes “nitrate won’t wait.” All films before 1950 were shot on cellulose nitrate film, which is highly, even eagerly flammable (as the image below of a nitrate projection booth from the 1920s in Great Britain aptly demonstrates), and if not properly stored, nitrate film rapidly begins to decompose into a sticky, gelatinous goo in a process which is impossible – or nearly impossible – to reverse. Today, nearly all motion pictures are shown digitally, and film itself has disappeared.

I have had the great privilege of screening a nitrate print of Terence Fisher’s sharply observed matrimonial comedy Marry Me! (1949) at the British Film Institute in London, and I remember vividly how the Steenbeck flatbed viewing machine was situated in a separate room on the roof the the archive’s building in a small, somewhat claustrophobic room, with fire extinguishers and buckets of sand regularly placed around the room at strategic intervals.

Only one reel at a time was brought up to me for screening; that way, if one reel caught fire, at least the rest of the film might be saved, the archivist told me. I was not to stop the film in the Steenbeck once it started running, for fear that the projector bulb might ignite a frame of the film, which would then instantaneously spread to the rest of the reel. And as each reel was finished, I was told to press a bell. An attendant would appear, take the finished reel of film with him, and appear with the next reel, in 1000 ft. (10 minute) chunks, until I had seen the entire film.

Visually, the experience was dazzling; I remember reading that Jean Cocteau complained that safety film prints (which replaced nitrate prints entirely in theaters around the world) of his film Beauty and The Beast (1946) in no way matched the luminous, silvery sheen of the original nitrate prints, but recognized the dangers and inherently instability of the nitrate medium, and so acquiesced to safety film screenings of one of his most sensual and visually lavish works, with remarkable cinematography by Henri Alekan.

A British nitrate film projection booth in the 1920s; the same precautions would have to apply today.

Ms. Dargis also relates some truly appalling horror stories from the long period in cinema history when the studios simply didn’t value the films they made, including this shocker from the history of Universal Pictures,

“In 2011, the historian David Pierce gave a talk on silent films at an annual event in Los Angeles called the Reel Thing. At one point, he showed a 1925 photo of a few dozen Universal Pictures stars next to a stack of crates holding that season’s negatives. He asked if anyone recognized these stars and was met with mostly bafflement. We soon found out why.

Twenty years after this photo was taken, Universal sent a letter to its East Coast lab ordering the destruction of all but 17 of its silent-film negatives. The studio had already lost numerous older titles in fires, and now it was junking the rest of its silent features — hundreds — having decided that most were not worth keeping. It’s no wonder that those stars were unfamiliar: Their own studio destroyed their legacy.”

That said, most of the article deals with the restoration of several classic films, even going to the extent of replacing lost dialogue by hiring actors to mime the voices of the performers in one film where the soundtrack has been destroyed, and points out that while 99.9% of all “movies” today are actually projected digitally – something I’ve discussed in this blog time and time again – a few film booths, and even one nitrate booth at The Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, still survive. Films aren’t really films unless they’re shown on film; it’s that simple.

And it’s also worth nothing, as Dargis does, that “even as major studios have stopped distributing film prints, they make film copies of the elements of their new releases, including those shot on digital. Studios like 20th Century Fox may maintain digital archives of their current releases, but the ‘analog solution,’ in the words of Schawn Belston, its executive vice president, media and library services, ‘is still the most trusted and has well-established archival longevity.’”

With so many films already lost and beyond recall, all we can do is desperately try to save those that still exist. And the film medium, whether on nitrate or safety film, remains one of the most evanescent artistic mediums in human history. If I take a book, throw it on the floor, deface it, mark it up, even tear up pages, just as long as the book can be reconstituted so that it’s legible, new copies can be created be re-setting the type, and reprinting the book. Not so with film; there’s just one negative, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

Absolutely essential reading for anyone who loves films; check it out by clicking here.

Nine Great Filmmaking Tips from Roger Corman

Monday, August 15th, 2016

Roger Corman, still active as a filmmaker at 90, is being honored at the Locarno Film Festival.

As Sophia Harvey writes in No Film School, “while many directors consider low-budget filmmaking to be just a step in an ever more glamorous career, Roger Corman has made his home in the indie world.

And now he is one of the most lauded director/producers in Hollywood, still active at age 90, with over 400 works on his filmography. Many of these are beloved cult gems, especially the “drive-in” teen movies, both comedic and horrific, of his early career, and the heated political films that mark his later period.

In describing his youth, Corman recalls a time when he ‘was directing one picture during the day, during my lunch hour casting the next picture, and in the evening I was editing the previous one. That night I thought, “I have to sleep fast.”‘ He slowed down a bit after that, he laughs, but only a little.

In celebration of his lengthy and notable career, Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival invited Corman to be their Filmmaker’s Academy Guest of Honor at this year’s festivities. Last week, he spoke about his experiences, from landing his first job as a messenger at 20th Century Fox and discovering Francis Ford Coppola, to his admiration for James Cameron. Below, we’ve put together some of the most important takeaways from his Locarno talk.”

Here’s one great tip for starters: “1. Build A Crew That Makes You Proud. As a producer, Corman knows that the key to an efficient and well-run set is a cohesive crew. ’The first picture I directed, when I finished shooting, I made an A list, a B list and a C list of everybody on the crew. The A list were the ones who were very, very good. Those were the ones I wanted to hire back.

The C list were the ones who were not good and I would never hire them back. And the B list, which was more complex, were the ones who were just OK, I’ll hire ‘em back if I can’t get any better’ he explained. ‘I made another list after each picture. And over a short period of time… I had a crew where everybody was friendly, they were all outstanding, and we all worked together. It was also sometimes known as the Corman Crew.’

The Corman Crew was often hired as one unit, which is unusual in the indie world. He described the ‘great camaraderie’ that was created by this dynamic and the ‘enormous sense of pride’ felt, by him and the rest of the crew for garnering such a reputation in the independent field.”

And don’t forget, when Ingmar Bergman astonishingly couldn’t get a US distributor for his film Cries and Whispers (1972), and Corman was by then running his own production/distribution company, New World, Corman instantly came up with completion money, and a solid US distribution deal for the film (it even played drive-ins), which was subsequently nominated for five Academy Awards (winning one Oscar for Sven Nykvist’s luminous cinematography].

And he’s still out there on the cutting edge, doing retrospectives and championing the work of young filmmakers, such as Ana Lily Amirpour, doing an hour long on-stage discussion / screening of her film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and in general keeping up with the latest movements in cinema, even if he has slowed down just a tiny bit.

Words of wisdom from one of most prolific and successful filmmakers in history.

Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory

Saturday, August 13th, 2016

Here’s a fascinating, troubling book about the problems inherent in archiving digital work.

Ever since I switched to working in digital HD for making my experimental movies, the problem of long term storage of the films has become more and more important to me everyday. When I was working in 16mm, it was – and still is – a simple matter to archive the original materials in a “cold vault,” where they will last hundreds of years, provided that the temperature and humidity conditions are optimal.

No such “file it and forget it” method applies to digital archiving, as this fascinating book by Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito aptly demonstrates.

As the description for Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory asks, “how will our increasingly digital civilization persist beyond our lifetimes? Audio and videotapes demagnetize; CDs delaminate; Internet art links to websites that no longer exist; Amiga software doesn’t run on iMacs.

In Re-collection, Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito argue that the vulnerability of new media art illustrates a larger crisis for social memory. They describe a variable media approach to rescuing new media, distributed across producers and consumers who can choose appropriate strategies for each endangered work.

New media art poses novel preservation and conservation dilemmas. Given the ephemerality of their mediums, software art, installation art, and interactive games may be heading to obsolescence and oblivion.

Rinehart and Ippolito, both museum professionals, examine the preservation of new media art from both practical and theoretical perspectives, offering concrete examples that range from Nam June Paik to Danger Mouse.

They investigate three threats to twenty-first-century creativity: technology, because much new media art depends on rapidly changing software or hardware; institutions, which may rely on preservation methods developed for older mediums; and law, which complicates access with intellectual property constraints such as copyright and licensing.

Technology, institutions, and law, however, can be enlisted as allies rather than enemies of ephemeral artifacts and their preservation. The variable media approach that Rinehart and Ippolito propose asks to what extent works to be preserved might be medium-independent, translatable into new mediums when their original formats are obsolete.”

This is a question – perhaps the question – in archival studies today. What will ultimately be done, other than backing up three or four times for all media, and then trying constantly to keep abreast of changing platforms?

The “rule of three” pretty much sums up the current approach – back it up on your computer, an external hard drive, and somewhere in long term storage with something like Amazon Glacier, and then hope for the best. But that’s still a pretty thin comfort zone. This is an excellent study on this important question, and deserves the widest possible audience.

I’d like to thank video artist Bill Domonkos for recommending this; it’s on his mind, too.

New Book – “Hollywood in Crisis or: The Collapse of The Real”

Saturday, August 13th, 2016

Wheeler Winston Dixon has published a new book, Hollywood in Crisis or: The Collapse of the Real.

Hollywood in Crisis or: The Collapse of the Real examines late stage capitalism in films, detailing the Hollywood production process, and explores the benefits and downsides of social media in relationship to the cinema, outlining the collapse and transformation of the Hollywood movie machine in the twenty-first century, and the concomitant social collapse being felt in nearly every aspect of society.

Examining key works in contemporary cinema, analyzing Hollywood films and the current wave of independent cinema developed outside of the Hollywood system as well, Dixon illustrates how movies and television programs across these spaces have adopted, reflected, and generated a society in crisis, and with it, a crisis for the cinematic industry itself.

The book is available online now, by clicking here or on the image above; it will appear in print shortly.

New Article: “It’s All About Relationships” – An Interview with Peter Medak

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

I have a new article out today – a career interview with director Peter Medak in QRFV.

As I write in my introduction to the interview, “by his own admission, Peter Medak has had a very unusual career as a director. Forced to leave his homeland at the age of 18 during the Hungarian Revolution, leaving his parents behind in the process, Medak fled to London, then a welcoming haven for emigrants, and began a film career from the absolute bottom rung of the business, eventually working his way up to his first film as a director, Negatives, in 1968.

Along the way, he had a lot of good luck, and made many connections within the film business that were of great value to him later – and still are today – but after the critical and commercial success of arguably his most famous film, The Ruling Class (1972), for which Peter O’Toole was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, Medak made the great mistake of doing a favor for his friend, the actor Peter Sellers, by agreeing to undertake the direction of Ghost in The Noonday Sun (1973), a film which soon ran aground due to Sellers’ capricious demands and the interference of his friend, the British comic Spike Milligan.

Completed but immediately shelved by the studio, the blame for Ghost in The Noonday Sun’s failure fell, unfairly, on Medak, who suddenly found himself going from “hot” to “not” status almost overnight, beginning a long period of working on films that he didn’t really believe in to pay the rent, until he managed to break the losing streak with the ghost story The Changeling, starring George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere, and more spectacularly with The Krays (1990) and Let Him Have It (1991), two films in which Medak finally had a free hand.

But even when he worked in television, Medak’s visual style and his skill with actors always shines through, and as we both agreed during this interview, there’s nothing wrong with working on an episode of a series like Breaking Bad – “Peekaboo,” in 2009 – and Medak continues to be active to the present day, and is now working on a documentary of sorts on the film that almost ended his career, with The Ghost of Peter Sellers, a work in progress which reunites the surviving cast members of that memorable debacle for a fascinating “what went wrong?” trip down memory lane.”

What followed was a fascinating and frank interview with a gifted filmmaker; I hope you get a chance to read the article, which is unfortunately behind a paywall. But you should be able to gain access easily enough through many of the online databases that UNL subscribes to, and I hope you’ll take a moment to read the really amazing adventures of this uncompromising artist – who suffered through a difficult time, and came out the other end with two stunningly successful films.

I’m glad I got a chance to talk to Peter – it’s great stuff.

Nitrate Film Makes A Comeback

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

A scene from the film Cinema Paradiso, which celebrated the beauty of cellulose nitrate 35mm film.

As Turner Classic Movies has just announced, the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood is being retro-fitted with 35mm nitrate projection, an absolute rarity in today’s world, thus giving contemporary audiences a direct view of the shimmering beauty that only nitrate film can provide for viewers.

As the press release notesThe Film Foundation, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), and Turner Classic Movies (TCM), in conjunction with the American Cinematheque and the Academy Film Archive, today announced a partnership to ensure that the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood has the capability to screen 35mm nitrate film prints.  This powerhouse collaboration to retrofit the projection booth will make the Egyptian Theatre one of the few public venues in the country with the ability to project these rare and fragile prints.

‘When I was told that one of the most beautiful movie theaters in the country could be retrofitted for nitrate projection, I was overjoyed, moved, and excited by the potential,’ said Martin Scorsese, founder and chair of The Film Foundation. ‘I hope that this is the beginning of a trend. The art of cinema developed with nitrate from its beginnings to the early ‘50s, and the silver content gave us a luminosity and a richness that was never quite matched by the safer stocks that followed or their digital reproductions.

I’d like to thank all the partners that came together with The Film Foundation—the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Turner Classic Movies, the Academy Film Archive and the American Cinematheque itself—to make this happen. Needless to say, I’m eager for the completion of the necessary work so that I can see those glorious images projected in that one-of-a-kind theater.’

‘As actual film disappears from most of the world’s eyes, we should be screening our existing nitrate prints as much as we safely can,’ said Alexander Payne, director and board member of The Film Foundation. ‘Nothing in theaters or on television today matches the thrill of seeing films on nitrate, and we should take full advantage of our being, sadly, among the last humans able to screen them.”

‘The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has long been a supporter of preserving the integrity and history of the art of filmmaking for generations to come,’ said HFPA President Lorenzo Soria. ‘We are proud to partner with organizations whose values are in line with those of the HFPA, and together we will bring to the historic Egyptian Theatre film the way it was intended to be experienced.’

Cellulose nitrate was the standard film stock in commercial use from the earliest days of cinema until it was discontinued in 1951. Widely agreed to possess a uniquely beautiful image quality, the stock is highly flammable and was replaced by cellulose acetate ’safety film.’ Nitrate prints, some nearly a century old, still survive in carefully controlled vault environments, but are rarely seen because only a handful of theaters are equipped to screen them.

‘Film preservation and the ability to share and celebrate all aspects of film history are central to the mission of TCM,’ said Genevieve McGillicuddy, vice president of partnerships and brand activation, TCM. ‘We’re thrilled to be part of this partnership in order to bring film fans a truly unique opportunity to experience nitrate films.’

American Cinematheque chairman Rick Nicita says, ‘This exciting project will truly make it possible for the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre to show every film format possible. A state-of-the-art digital projector will sit side-by-side with our 35mm/70mm machines – representing the rich history of cinema, as well as the future of the art form.’

As someone who has experienced first-hand the intensity and beauty of 35mm nitrate projection – during a visit to the British Film Institute in the late 1990s – I absolutely applaud this decision. Projecting nitrate is certainly not without risk – it’s highly flammable, and needs to be treated with the greatest care during projection and preservation – but for more more than half a century it was the dominant medium for film production, and for quality of image, it simply is in a class by itself.

Sometimes a return to the past is a good thing – this is excellent news!

Michelangelo Antonioni’s “I Vinti” (“The Vanquished”) – 1952

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

Michelangelo Antonioni’s I Vinti (The Vanquished) is a forgotten masterpiece of the postwar Italian cinema.

In his early years as a filmmaker, emerging out of the shadow of Mussolini’s Cinecitta, working for the Italian Fascists during World War II – unwillingly, but nevertheless involved – Michelangelo Antonioni created a number of controversial and deeply ambitious projects, beginning with his first feature film, Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore, 1950), and then moving on to the even more accomplished I Vinti (The Vanquished, 1952) – both of which initially received a hostile reception from critics and the general public. While Story of A Love Affair has been available on DVD for quite some time, I Vinti is only recently receiving the DVD release it so richly deserves, from Raro Video. But looking at I Vinti from nearly any angle, it’s amazing that Antonioni even got this project off the ground.

Opening with a ferocious collage of newsreel footage with a relentless voiceover track decrying postwar youth’s lust for instant fame at any price, the film goes on to tell three stories, in three languages; in France, a group of rich, bored teens decide to kill one of their group for the money he claims to have, only to find after the murder that the cash is counterfeit; in Italy, a well-off young man caught up in the cigarette smuggling racket kills a Customs Agent trying to escape after a raid, and dies in his parents’ home as the police close in; and in England, a young ne’er do well “poet” kills a middle aged prostitute in order to sell the story to a tabloid newspaper, and achieve instant “fame” of a sort as a thrill killer.

Grim, to say the least. Even more amazingly, all of the incidents in the film were taken from actual crimes committed around that time, each in their respective country; the French story of bored teen killers was a national scandal; the Italian story – which was censored for the film, and actually involved a young political radical blowing up a munitions factory as a form of protest – was also a matter of record; and the British story concerned the case of teenager Herbert Leonard Mills, who in 1951 murdered a woman simply for the notoriety that it would bring him, and then tried to sell the story to a newspaper.

The Italian story was shot first, and seems the most like later Antonioni, especially L’Avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La Notte (The Night, 1961) and L’Eclisse (Eclipse, 1962). Franco Interlenghi, then a popular matinee idol of the period in Italian cinema, plays Claudio, whose political “idealism” ends in tragedy, when the factory he blows up results in numerous casualties among the workers. This storyline was much too strong for the Italian censors, and Antonioni was forced to reshoot almost two-thirds of the episode to shift Claudio’s criminal activities to smuggling. Astoundingly, the original version of this section of the film survives, and is included on the disc as an extra, and makes for essential viewing, to say the least.

The British story was shot next, and eerily prefigures Antonioni’s later film Blowup (1966), in which a bored and narcissistic fashion photographer (played by David Hemmings) accidentally witnesses and photographs a murder in a park, and then can’t make up his mind whether or not to tell the police about the crime. In I Vinti, Peter Reynolds stars as Aubrey, the dissolute layabout and would-be poet who commits a murder simply for the notoriety it will bring him. Reynolds’ performance is brilliantly self-absorbed and loathsome; indeed, I Vinti effectively typecast him for life in a series of roles as as a decadent, dishonest aristocrat, before his tragically early death at the age of 49.

The French episode also ran into trouble from the censors, as well it might, dealing with the notorious “Affaire J3,” in which a young man was killed by his companions during a picnic outside of Paris. As with the other sections of the film, the truth was too close to the film’s scenario for comfort, so after combined protests from the British, Italian and French authorities and numerous recuts, the film was finally premiered at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival, but only out of competition. Then, since the film was a commercial failure, it was was consigned to the vaults, and given the deeply troubling nature of the film, for a long time it seemed that I Vinti would never see the light of day again.

But in 2013, The Museum of Modern Art brought the film out of oblivion, so to speak, and screened it in their To Save and Project series. But for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to attend that screening, the Raro DVD is a real find. As Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker in 2011, “with the opening monologue of his second feature, the three-part film I Vinti (The Vanquished), Michelangelo Antonioni polemically affirms the theme that would dominate his entire career: the erosion of reason and morality throughout society, due to the onslaught of mass media and the dominion of the bourgeoisie who both produce it and fall under its sway.”

The Raro DVD contains the complete film, immaculately restored, as well as a host of extras, including the original version of the Italian Episode; an interview with the film’s producer, the late Turi Vasile (in his 80s, his memory was entirely intact, and he effortlessly quotes Marx, Hegel and Kierkegaard from memory in his account of the film’s genesis – name one Hollywood producer who can do that!); an interview with Franco Interlenghi, now deceased, who played Claudio in the Italian episode; as well as a short film by Antonioni, Tentato Suicidio, one episode of the 1953 multi-director feature L’Amore in Citta’/Love in the City, as well as a superbly detailed essay on the film by Stefania Parigi. All in all, it’s a stunning viewing experience.

So there you are – a masterpiece. Can you afford to pass it up? No.

The Academy Finally Starts To Get The Message

Sunday, July 10th, 2016

While it’s far from solving the problem, it seems that AMPAS is finally getting the memo on diversity – at last.

As April Reign, creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite notes, writing in The Guardian, “on 29 June, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences released its list of film-makers, artists and executives invited to join its ranks, and eventually play a part in who walks away with an Oscar. The Academy invited 683 potential members, its largest and most diverse class ever. While this was an important move toward the inclusion of more marginalized communities within the Academy, it is merely one step on a longer journey.

While reviewing the list of invitees, I was struck by the names of individuals that I believe should have been Academy members long ago. Melvin van Peebles, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Euzhan Palcy and others have amassed such a significant body of work through the years that the 2016 list of invitees was clearly, in part, righting a wrong.

These and other omissions speak to one of the concerns I voiced when discussing #OscarsSoWhite, the hashtag I created: the way in which individuals are nominated to the Academy must be reviewed and revamped so that deserving potential members are not overlooked due to overly stringent rules.

I applaud the effort of the Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy’s president, to diversify its ranks. With 283 invitees from 59 countries, the Academy demonstrates its recognition of amazing talent outside of our borders that should be welcomed. Misan Sangay, Trinh T Minh-ha, and Souleymane Cissé are all examples of international film-makers who have been invited to join the Academy.

It is important to note that not just the acting categories have been diversified. Importantly, casting directors, producers, and directors, those who have significant influence over who works on a film, both in front of and behind the camera, have also seen their ranks become more inclusive.

Overall, the numbers look impressive: this is the largest and most diverse invitation class ever. Of the invitees, 46% are women and 41% are people of color. But when one does a deeper analysis, the results leave something to be desired. More than 300 of the invited members are women. But even if they all accept, the percentage of women in the Academy increases by just 2%, from 25% to 27%.

This is significantly less than the overall representation of women in this country. Similarly, 280 people of color were invited to join the Academy, but their acceptance will only increase the ranks by 3%, to 11% from 8%. This is in stark contrast to recent US census numbers indicating that people of color are 37% of the United States population, and growing.”

In short, this is a good start. But let’s see how many of these people are employed to direct a major blockbuster, or helm an entire series, or, in short, get work as an actor, director or writer on a regular basis – enough to really have full-time employment. Hollywood seems to be making duller films than ever, while the interesting new material, as always, comes from the margins – these people could help to start that process.

Will they be given a chance to do so?

New Article: “Rockin’ the Boat’s a Drag. You Gotta Sink the Boat!”: Robert Downey Sr.’s Anarchist Cinema

Sunday, July 10th, 2016

I have a new article on the life and films of Robert Downey Sr. in the July, 2016 issue of Senses of Cinema.

As I write, in part, “long, long, long ago and very far away, in Manhattan in the 1960s, I knew Robert Downey Sr. as a friend and colleague, and we are still in touch today. At the time, we were all part of what was then euphemistically called the ‘Underground Cinema’, a loose conglomeration of filmmakers and artists who centered around The Filmmakers’ Cooperative and the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, which moved from location to location, continually offering screenings of decidedly outré films, for something like $2 a show. We were part of a group of 100 filmmakers – tops.

All of us were cinematic anarchists, spearheaded by the aggressively confrontational filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas, whose long running column ‘Movie Journal’ in The Village Voice encouraged everyone to make as many films as possible, in as many ways as possible, with as few materials as possible, and to not listen to anyone’s criticism – just their own artistic inner voice.

Robert Sr. was one of those people who really took up the banner of experimental film and ran with it, remaining as controversial as possible, and eager to offend as many people as possible, but with a disarming, almost ingratiatingly cheerful air.” I’m very happy to have done this piece, as I respect Bob’s work enormously; he’s the foremost American social satirist of the 1960s and 70s, and remains as active today as ever.

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

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Masaki Kobayashi’s “Kwaidan” (1964)

Monday, July 4th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay out on the classic Japanese supernatural film Kwaidan.

As Foster writes, in part, in the latest issue of Senses of Cinema, “along with Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jō, 1957), Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964) – aka Kaidan, or ‘ghost stories’ – is one of the peaks of the Japanese cinema during its golden era, and one of the most superbly atmospheric supernatural films ever produced in any country. It’s also a terrific example of how a portmanteau film can work successfully, harking back to Ealing Studios’ multi-director Dead of Night (1945), and gesturing towards the multi-story films of Amicus in the 1960s.

Kobayashi’s filmography as a director isn’t extensive, with only 21 feature films to his credit throughout his entire career, yet each of his projects has an individual stamp that makes them deeply personal. His earlier films are both gritty and introspective, and seem nothing at all like Kwaidan: one of Kobayashi’s most compelling early films is the brutal baseball noir drama I Will Buy You (Anata kaimasu, 1956), in which a young player rises to the top of Japanese professional baseball, revealed to be little more than a racket.

Kobayashi’s other major works include the epic trilogy The Human Condition (1959 – 1961), which clocks in at an astonishing 9 hours and 47 minutes in its entirety, and Harakiri (Seppuku, 1962), a suitably violent and nihilistic samurai film. Most of Kobayashi’s work is in black and white, but in Kwaidan he evokes a world of heavily stylized colour, and creates one of the most sensual and strangely evocative supernatural films ever made. It remains one-of-a-kind not only for Kobayashi, but also for what has been loosely called ‘the horror film’: Kwaidan doesn’t deal in shock imagery, but rather in an ever-mounting sense of psychological dread.

Based on Lafcadio Hearn’s anthology of Japanese tales of the supernatural, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904), the film is structured in four parts. ‘The Black Hair’ follows a warrior who leaves his first wife for a second marriage to gain greater status, only to find the promise of a ‘better life’ is an empty one indeed. ‘The Woman of the Snow’ is a tale of supernatural vengeance in which a woodcutter falls in love with a Yuki-onna, or ’snow woman’ – a spirit who wanders the woods – with unexpected results.

‘Hoichi the Earless’ deals with a blind musician who discovers that he has been unwittingly singing for a family of ghosts, resulting in dire consequences. The last section (which the spectator is invited to complete in their own mind) is ‘In a Cup of Tea,’ the philosophically deepest and most challenging of the tales, in which a writer is continually disturbed by the unexpected sight of a face in – as the title suggests – his cup of tea.

Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, and honored with an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film the same year, Kwaidan is one of the most sumptuously mounted horror films ever made, shot in moody, otherworldly colour that would be evoked again in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), in true TohoScope ratio 2.35:1 by the gifted cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima, with stunning art direction by Shigemasa Toda.”

You read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above – enjoy!

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.

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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