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Forgotten African American Women of Early Hollywood

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

Here’s a really important new exhibition at the California African American Museum; above, Iris Hall as Eve Mason in The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), directed by Oscar Micheaux.

As the notes for exhibition outline, “curated by Tyree Boyd-Pates, History Curator and Program Manager, CAAM, and the Tyree Boyd-Pates, Center Stage [is] an exhibition that considers pioneering African American filmmakers and production companies in the early 20th century that provided African American women the opportunity to participate in front of, and behind, the camera. They challenged disparaging portrayals of black women in Hollywood, and instead conveyed their wit, intelligence, and talent for largely black audiences to admire and emulate. The exhibition runs from June 28 to October 15, 2017.

Produced for American audiences between 1910 and 1950, these motion pictures were commonly called race films. CAAM will screen several rarely seen examples, including Oscar Micheaux‘s Within Our Gates (1920) and The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), extant clips from Lincoln Picture Company’s The Symbol of the Unconquered (1921, dir. Harry Grant), The Scar of Shame (1929), The Scar of Shame (1941, dir. Spencer Williams), and others. Each film features women protagonists and captures the spirit of entrepreneurship and African American upliftment characteristic of race films from this era.”

As Nadra Nittle adds in an article on the series on the KCET website, “Hollywood has long had a problem with representation and diversity, especially concerning anyone female and nonwhite. In the first half of the 20th century, black women were largely relegated to playing mammy and Jezebel roles. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation even depicted African Americans as rapists and imbeciles, leading to a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

The black woman’s unfortunate standing in Hollywood history is why the California African American Museum’s “Center Stage: African American Women in Silent Race Films,” which runs until October 15, is so significant. It reveals how as early as 100 years ago, independent black filmmakers presented complex portrayals of women of color that major studios never fathomed. These silent gems depict black women exploring their religious faith, fighting for the rights of African Americans and in loving relationships. They underscore how even today Hollywood has much ground to cover in its depiction of black women.”

I have been running these films in my classes for years, way back in the 1970s in the 16mm era, when they were first made available in prints from the original 35mm negatives. But with the passing of time, it seems that people forget, and new generations need to be reminded, of the immense value of these works – films, directors, and actors who made an enormous and indelible contribution to the history of the cinema. Not only are these films an essential part of cinema history; they offer an effective antidote to the evils of D.W. Griffith’s ultra-racist Birth of A Nation, which is still being widely screened while these far superior films are neglected. It’s time to change that – forever.

This is an amazing chance to see these key works; don’t miss it if you’re in Los Angeles.

How Are Indie Films Doing These Days? Not So Well . . .

Monday, July 17th, 2017


If you don’t care about the latest Apes movie, how are more thoughtful films doing?

As Tom Brueggemann of Indiewire notes in this perceptive overview of the current field, not all that well. Sofia Coppola’s new rendition of The Beguiled is racking up respectable but not incredible numbers, while as of July 16th the much-heralded film A Ghost Story has grossed just $288,751 in limited release. On the other hand, Eleanor Coppola’s subdued Paris Can Wait has made $5,304,000 in 177 theaters in 10 weeks. But it’s a tough world out there for independent art house films, and most viewers are simply flocking to the franchise films – they’re a sure bet.

The upcoming Blade Runner 2049, which dropped a trailer today, is sure to make money, and War for the Planet of the Apes (is this trip realllllly necessary?) has garnered $102.5 million in the first days of release. Meanwhile, the films that Brueggemann writes about are dying on the vine – they get no publicity and push at all, and so they wind up on streaming – no more DVDs. Try to find these films in a theater near you; unless you’re very lucky, you won’t be able to. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; every one of the films that Brueggemann mentions deserves a real shot at theatrical distribution, with a solid ad budget, rather than vanishing into the mists of the digital domain.

Read Brueggemann’s entire article here; a stark look at the art film today.

Vittorio De Sica’s “Il Boom” Finally Gets a US Release

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

Shot in 1963, Vittorio De Sica’s brutal comedy has just been released in the US on June 16, 2017.

As Gino Moliterno wrote in Senses of Cinema in July, 2014, “undoubtedly motivated by its poor performance at the box office, and the generally hostile critical reaction it received at the time it was released, Vittorio De Sica’s Il boom (1963) long remained one of the most undervalued of all the films to emerge from the director’s long and fruitful collaboration with screenwriter, Cesare Zavattini.

In more recent times, however, the film has found its champions. For example, Italian film historian Enrico Giacovelli has re-evaluated it as not only one of the duo’s finest films but also as something of a minor masterpiece of the commedia all’italiana (comedy Italian style), that particularly mordant form of film comedy that arose in Italy in the late 1950s as a reflection of – and a reflection upon – the profound moral dilemmas and social contradictions brought about by the so-called Italian ‘economic miracle’ . . .

Significantly, Giovanni Alberti, the film’s protagonist, impeccably played by Alberto Sordi, who by this time had definitively established himself across dozens of films as the very figure of the Italian common man, is of working-class origins. Giovanni has climbed the social ladder by marrying Silvia (Gianna Maria Canale), the beautiful daughter of a retired general, whom the film makes clear he genuinely loves.

His willingness, at all costs, to maintain his wife in the affluent style to which she has become accustomed is, however, unmatched by his modest salary as a small-time business executive. From the very beginning of the film we see him pushed, promissory note after promissory note, ever further into debt . . . All the while, in a desperate bid to climb out of his financial hole, Giovanni has naively been attempting to join what remained the biggest game in town during the Italian boom: building speculation.

And it is precisely while attempting to find a financial partner for a rather dubious plan to make a great deal of profit from a building project involving land speculation that Giovanni comes to be placed squarely on the horns of an atrocious dilemma that dramatically highlights the pound of human flesh demanded by the boom in exchange for its consumer delights: millions of lira, yes, but it will cost nothing less than his eye.”

At a compact 85 minutes, the film is nothing less than a complete success for all concerned, but one can see why the film had such an initially hostile reception in Italy, and why it’s taken so long to come to the States, and then only because Rialto Pictures, a small theatrical distribution company in New York City believed in the film enough to strike a gorgeous print, and open it at Film Forum.

As Bilge Ebiri noted in The Village Voice on June 14, 2017, “how did this one get overlooked?” adding “this is not [Federico Fellini’s] La Dolce Vita [1960], which two years earlier fascinated viewers with its portrait of hedonistic abandon — and slowly revealed the emptiness beneath. Maybe that’s why Il Boom didn’t hit it big: It makes no attempt to seduce us; we see the spiritual corruption from the first frame.” And that’s absolutely true.

Yet the film manages to take a deadly serious subject and play it for the most mordant comic effect – you fully believe the characters, their motivations, and the premise of the film, and yet Il Boom is shot through with an undeniable aura of cynicism, sadness, and revulsion for the consumerist society we’ve now embraced, even as the music score explodes with 60s pop, from Chubby Checker to Italian pop master Piero Piccioni. Though it was made in the early 1960s, it’s even more relevant today, as the world’s populace embraces IPOs, start-ups, and the pursuit of status markers at any cost – but not art.

Click here to see the restored trailer from Rialto Films.

Storm de Hirsch’s “Goodbye in the Mirror” (1964)

Sunday, July 9th, 2017

Storm de Hirsch’s Goodbye in the Mirror is an early masterpiece of feminist cinema.

Storm de Hirsch is finally getting something of a reappraisal of her long career; right now, archivist Stephen Broomer is trying to track down some of her more obscure books of poetry, but her major work was in film, and Goodbye in The Mirror, shot in 16mm with post-synced sound in Rome in 1964 is one of her most affecting films. I knew de Hirsch, and she was kind, generous, and very much her own person; like Shirley Clarke, who is better remembered, she was very much a founding member of the New York avantgarde.

Goodbye in the Mirror was shot for less than $20,000, and later blown up to 35mm – I ran the 35mm version in my class on experimental cinema sometime ago, to excellent audience reaction – and was, in de Hirsch’s words, “a dramatic feature shot on location in Rome. Centered around the adventures and illusions of three girls living abroad, the film explores their restlessness and personal involvements in assuming the role of woman as hunter”, prompting critic / filmmaker Jonas Mekas to proclaim that “I, myself, belonging to the Spies for Beauty, Inc., and the humble monk of the Order of Fools, was allowed to peek at this film, and I couldn’t believe what beauty struck my eyes, what sensuousness.”

As filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos noted of the film, “from the beginning to the end of the film, the spectator’s pleasure and understanding are enhanced on the same social filmic scale of that grand experimentalist Rossellini. Though the images in most films are easily forgotten, such is not the case with those of Goodbye in the Mirror. Best retained and rooted are the images and episodes of the turning streetcar; the central characters Maria and Marco; the sweeper; the scurrying nuns; the steps of the water supply tank ([a] homage, perhaps, to Maya Deren‘s Meshes of the Afternoon); the visual melodies as conceived in the walk episodes which alternate between one character and another; Marco’s performance; the grapes being washed and the paper bag crumpled by the same two lovers. One is reminded that there is a sense of existence as in the famous Sous les toits de Paris by René Clair.”

In a conversation with de Hirsch, Shirley Clarke called Goodbye in the Mirror the first “real woman’s film” and added that “so far in film, we have yet to have treated on the most basic level, very personal reactions of women. Because so far, we’ve had mostly men directors who, whether they’ve been very sensitive or not, have not really been able to deal with women this way. Just like when they write about women, they’re writing from a certain separateness. Goodbye in the Mirror is dealing with women. And women’s reactions to a series of events.”

The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in Spring 1964. It was screened at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland that summer, and at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 1966, and yet it’s mostly forgotten today. A DVD of this film would be a very welcome addition to the filmic canon; and bear in mind that this is just one of de Hirsch’s many works, all of which can be rented from the Filmmakers’ Cooperative in New York in 16mm format.

Storm de Hirsch – yet another important artist who deserves more attention.

New Article – “Synthetic Cinema” in QRFV

Friday, July 7th, 2017

I have a new article out today on the rise of “synthetic” cinema in QRFV.

Above, Mark Ruffalo in what he all too accurately terms the “man cancelling suit” for his role as The Hulk in yet another Marvel comic book movie; this is just the sort of thing I’m talking about in this article – films that are so far removed from the real that there’s no human agency left in them.

As I write, in part, in the article, “there’s a force at work that has pushed mainstream cinema almost entirely into the fantasy franchise zone; the DC, Marvel, and now Universal Dark Universe films, comic book movies that rely almost entirely on special effects for that added ‘wow’ factor, often shot or reprocessed into 3-D, almost entirely lacking in plot, characterization, depth, or innovation – films that have no connection to the real world at all. I’ve [recently] published a book, A Brief History of Comic Book Movies, co-written with comic book historian Richard Graham on the history of the comic book movie, and for me, it was by far the most difficult project I’ve ever worked on, because as Gertrude Stein famously put it in another context, in comic book movies, ‘there’s no there there.’

There’s nothing remotely real here, or even authentic, and absolutely nothing is at stake. There are meaningless titanic battles, but the outcome is always predestined – the major characters will live until they have outlived fan base demand, and then they’ll ‘die’ – only to be resurrected in a reboot after sufficient time has passed. Most pressingly, nothing really happens in a comic book film despite the constant bombast, the endless ‘shared universe’ team-ups, and the inevitably angst ridden backstories that most superheroes and heroines are provided with today – a trend started in the early 1960s in Marvel comics, whose protagonists had a seemingly human, sympathetic edge, as opposed to the square jawed certainty of DC’s Superman and Batman.

There’s no real progression here, just repetition, for as Marvel head Stan Lee has famously stated, ‘fans don’t want change; they want the illusion of change.’ And that’s what they get – a film that starts off with things in a pattern of stasis, disrupted by an artificial crisis, which amid much hand wringing and supposed character development is brought to some sort of conclusion in the final reel of the film, but with a trapdoor always – always – left open for a possible sequel, because what Hollywood wants more than anything else in 2017 is a film that can turn into a long running, reliable franchise, as witness the long string of the ultra-comic book action films in the Fast and Furious series. This is the central issue that is facing the cinema today.”

You can read the entire article here – behind a paywall. But it’s worth it!

Watch It For Free – Steve Sekely’s Hollow Triumph (1948)

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

“First comes you, second comes you, third comes you, and then comes you.”

That’s perhaps the key line in this vicious little film noir from Hungarian director Steve Sekely, who was forced out of his native land by the Nazis, and landed in Hollywood with enormous skill but few connections, and so labored in the 1940s at the minor studios, such as Eagle-Lion (formerly PRC) which produced Hollow Triumph (aka The Scar) as a semi-prestige film. He’s much underrated, and this is a film that proves it.

In the scene above, smooth and over-confident con man John Muller (Paul Henreid), smoking a cigarette, is getting a pep talk from his law-abiding brother Frederick (the always reliable Eduard Franz) on the need to “go straight” after a stint in prison, but as you might expect, John is having none of it.

A college dropout who was headed for an MD, John Muller abruptly quit in his sixth year of studies, and embarked on a run of criminal behavior; practicing medicine without a license, selling shares in non-existent oil wells, until he inevitably got caught. Intriguingly, there’s never any reason given for this abrupt decision – it’s just another mystery in a world without explanations. Somehow, John was always destined to be a criminal.

Now, fresh out of jail, John can’t wait to pull a really big job – knocking over a casino run by mobster Rocky Stansyck (Thomas Brown Henry, another excellent character actor). His pals try to tell him that it’s a lose – lose proposition; Stansyck is notorious for killing anyone who tries to cross him. But John persuades – or threatens – his associates until they play along, and then, of course, the robbery goes wrong.

But in a rather unusual twist, John finds the perfect place to hide in plain sight – as the respected psychologist Dr. Muller, who just happens to be a dead ringer for him, except for scar on his left cheek – or is it his right cheek? One has to be careful about such things. It’s the small details that count. And therein hangs a compelling tale of murder, double-cross, revenge and duplicity.

Joan Bennett – another excellent actor somewhat down on her luck in the late 1940s – is the nominal “love” interest in the film as Evelyn Hahn, but as the line underneath the photo above attests, she quickly sums up John as a hopeless egotist, bound for self-destruction. However, being a noir icon, Joan somehow can’t resist going along for the ride – much to her regret.

As John tells Evelyn early on in the film, “it’s a bitter little world full of sad surprises, and you don’t let anyone hurt you.” But that’s what everyone in this film is destined for – a world of hurt and disappointment. Superbly photographed by the gifted John Alton on a shoestring budget, Hollow Triumph long ago fell into the Public Domain – so now you see it here, for free.

Hollow Triumph – a sharp, slick little film – well worth the time to check it out.

Forthcoming Book: The Films of Terence Fisher

Friday, June 30th, 2017

I have a new book coming out from Auteur Press / Columbia University Press this Fall, 2017.

Tracing the entire career of the British director Terence Fisher, best known for his Gothic horror films for Hammer Film Productions―such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958)―The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond covers not only his horror films, but also his film noirs, comedies, and early apprenticeship work to create a full picture of Fisher’s life and work.

Based on the work Dixon did in his groundbreaking study The Charm of Evil, this is an entirely revised and rewritten work with new research, new details, and fresh critical insights. Brimming with rare stills, interviews, and detailed analysis of Fisher’s films―both for Hammer as well as his earlier work―this is the ultimate “one-stop” book on Terence Fisher, both in his horror films, and his entire body of work, as well as his legacy to the British cinema.

“This book is a cinephile’s dream, as well as an exemplary work of scholarship. Wheeler Winston Dixon illuminates the movies and the career of Terence Fisher in loving detail, bringing us close to an important director whose work now gets its proper due for the first time.” – Steven Shaviro, author of The Universe of Things

The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond will appeal especially to fans of Fisher, of Hammer horror films, and of British cinema more generally. It made me want to watch and re-watch these movies!” – Daniel Herbert, author of Videoland

“Dixon’s book is the definitive study of Terence Fisher, the director who spearheaded Britain’s 1950s Gothic revival and put Hammer Films on the map of international horror cinema.  An invaluable resource that belongs on the shelf of any serious horror fan or scholar.” – Ian Olney, author of Zombie Cinema

“Dixon recreates Fisher’s world of filmmaking with true skill, bringing each movie to life, and highlighting the many challenges that surrounded the director’s projects. The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond provides a valuable guide not just to Fisher, but also to the twentieth-century British Film Industry in general.” – John Wills, author of Disney Culture

Look for it this Fall; my thanks to all who helped with this project.

Director Oscar Micheaux Finally Gets A Biopic

Friday, June 30th, 2017

Pioneering African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux is finally getting a biopic – about time!

As Cynthia Littleton reports exclusively in Variety, “HBO is developing a biopic of pioneering African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux that has Tyler Perry on board to star. Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are shepherding the project for Sony Pictures TV through their Storyline Entertainment banner. Perry is set to executive produce with Zadan and Meron but does not plan to direct.

Charles Murray, an alum of Sons of Anarchy and [The History Channel’s remake] of Roots, is penning the script. It’s based on the 2007 biography Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker by film historian Patrick McGilligan. ‘We’re thrilled to be partnering with Tyler Perry to bring Oscar Micheaux’s inspiring and trailblazing life story to HBO,’ said Zadan. Added Meron: ‘There are so many parallels between the groundbreaking work that Micheaux pioneered and Perry’s achievements as an artist that it feels like a natural fit.’

A novelist turned director, Micheaux raised the money to produce the film adaptation of his 1917 book The Homesteader [in 1919] after rejecting an option offer from another company when they refused to let him direct. Micheaux is believed to have helmed more than 40 features between 1919 and 1948, working outside the confines of Hollywood in the face of discrimination against an African-American entrepreneur.

Early on, Micheaux tackled the problem of distribution by personally driving prints of his films to black communities around the country, where they played to segregated audiences. His films largely featured all-black casts and were an effort to counter racial stereotypes with humanistic portrayals of black life. His notable works included 1920’s Within Our Gates, a response to D.W. Griffith’s appallingly racist Birth of a Nation (1915); 1931’s The Exile, his first sound picture; 1938’s Swing! and 1940’s The Notorious Elinor Lee.

Many of Micheaux’s films have been lost to history given the lack of preservation and the decomposition of film stock of the era. Micheaux died in 1951 at the age of 67. The Directors Guild of America recognized his contributions to film with a posthumous award for directorial achievement in 1986.”

Many have minimized Oscar Micheaux’s contributions to the cinema, but in an ultra-racist Hollywood during the 1920s up through his death, and indeed continuing on today, Micheaux was forced to make his feature films on almost nothing at all; budgets would range from a few thousand dollars up to $10,000 tops. Making a sound feature film in 1931 was a major victory in itself. He sold his films on a states rights basis, working state-by-state across the country, raising enough money from screenings to make his next project, when no one else would help him at all.

Micheaux’s work is passionate, accomplished, and compromised by the financial exigencies forced upon him, but the alternative was to make no films at all, to offer no representation to African-Americans at a time when the screen was overwhelmingly white – a problem, as I’ve noted in the past, that persists to this day. If some of his films have a few rough edges, it doesn’t bother me. I see Micheaux as a real trailblazer, and even the DGA agrees – with a lifetime achievement award, albeit one awarded after his death.

I don’t know how the HBO biopic will turn out, but McGilligan’s book is fair, honest, sympathetic, and entirely in sync with Micheaux’s tireless work ethic, his willingness to keep going when everyone else told him to stop, and his unyielding opposition to racism in American society, as evidenced by his landmark 1920 film Within Our Gates, a stunning reply to Griffith’s vicious racism.

We’ll have to see, but this is promising material; I hope it turns out well.

Klaus Kreimeier’s Origins of Cinema Website

Thursday, June 29th, 2017

Here’s a very interesting website from German film historian Klaus Kreimeier.

This remarkably comprehensive website covers the history of film from 1900 to 1915, and what’s more, has linked videos for nearly every director mentioned, and gives full credit (at last!) to Alice Guy, who is perpetually marginalized (as readers of this blog now full well) from most cinema histories. The site is in English, and offers thoughtful commentary on a wide-ranging group of filmmakers from around the globe, who helped to create the cinema as we knew it in the 20th century, before CGI took over and turned it into something blenderized and unreal.

Of course, Georges Méliès was already moving the cinema into the zone of the fantastic with such films as À la conquête du pôle, L’alchimiste Parafaragaramus ou la cornue infernale, La sirène, Le diable au convent, Les trésors de Satan, Le voyage à travers l’impossible, Le voyage dans la lune, Le voyage de Gulliver à Lilliput et chez les géants and many other pioneering short films, but this site also has numerous selections from many other key figures in early documentary and narrative cinema, with over 900 short films in all.

Absolutely worth a visit – a real resource for cinema historians.

Classic Thriller Portrait of Alison – See It Here For Free

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

Here’s an excellent little thriller; a tight, compact 77 minutes – see it for free, here.

As Wikipedia succinctly notes,Portrait of Alison is a 1956 British atmospheric crime film directed by Guy Green. It was based on a BBC television series Portrait of Alison which aired the same year. In the United States the film was released as Postmark for Danger.

The film opens with a car plunging over a cliff in Italy. The killed driver is newspaperman Lewis Forrester. The woman with him is supposedly Alison Ford, an actress. But she wasn’t actually in the car and turns up later in England to try and solve what was in truth a murder to shut the newspaper man up, not an accident. She solicits the help of Forrester’s brother, Tim, an artist.

Then, as the story unfolds, a number of mysterious, unsolved questions keep emerging, along with two more murders and a suicide. And before it’s over it has been learned that an international ring of diamond thieves is at the bottom of everything, that no less than four of the major characters are part of it, and that an independent blackmailer is at work as well.”

Filled with superb British character actors such as William Sylvester, who much later got the role of a lifetime in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, as well as Geoffrey Keen, Josephine Griffin, the eternally shady William Lucas as a larcenous used car dealer, and American star Terry Moore brought over for marquee value, Postmark for Danger is a sharp, taut little thriller than will keep you guessing to the very end.

And the best thing about it? You can see it for free by clicking here, or on the image above.

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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