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Archive for the ‘Film Preservation’ Category

Tod Browning’s The Devil Doll (1936)

Monday, October 13th, 2014

“Once you’re in my shop, I’ll wager you’ll do anything I ask.”

With Halloween coming up soon, here’s a few thoughts on Tod Browning’s hypnotic 1936 thriller, The Devil Doll, all but forgotten today in the wake of his highly successful film Dracula (1931), which despite its undoubted influence, is much less interesting as a film than this later work from the director.

Working from a screenplay co-authored by the unlikely trio of Garrett Fort, Guy Endore (author of the classic horror novel The Werewolf of Paris) and none other than legendary director Erich von Stroheim – this last credit is a real surprise, given von Stroheim’s other work in his films as a director in his own right, to say nothing of von Stroheim’s work as an actor in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion just one year later in 1937 – based on the 1933 novel Burn, Witch, Burn! by Abraham Merritt (which subsequently served as the template for at least two other films in the 1940s and 1960s), Browning creates an eerie dream world of suspense, fantasy and mystery, aided in no small part by Franz Waxman’s gorgeous score, Lionel Barrymore’s bravura performance in the leading role, and the film’s then state-of-the art special effects.

As Michael Toole writes on the TCM website of the film, the film’s plot concerns “Paul Lavond, a falsely incarcerated businessman, and Marcel, a maniacal inventor, [who] escape from prison on Devil’s Island, and take refuge at the latter’s former laboratory where they are welcomed by Marcel’s wife, Malita (Rafaela Ottiano). The ailing scientist reveals to Lavond his secret formula for reducing living creatures to a fraction of their original size. Following Marcel’s death, Lavond returns to France to extract revenge on the three bankers who framed him and left his daughter [Maureen O' Sullivan] destitute. With the assistance of Malita, Lavond opens a toy shop where he poses as a kindly old woman and begins a campaign of terror [using a group of miniaturized humans as his weapons of destruction].

Few critics, if any, have ever commented on Tod Browning’s visual style, which could best be described as static and resembling a photographed stage play. This is certainly true of his most famous film, Dracula (1931) but The Devil Doll is another matter entirely. It’s a very smooth, visually accomplished piece of cinema that has earned it a cult following in recent years. The special effects are impressive for the era, particularly the scenes featuring oversized sets and ‘miniature’ people. Also part of the film’s cult appeal is Browning’s twisted sense of humor, which is most evident in the scenes with Malita who becomes addicted to miniaturizing humans. It’s actually surprising that the Hays Office didn’t have major censorship issues with The Devil Doll but they did dictate a moralistic ending in which the Barrymore character atones for his crimes.” Now available on DVD, it’s definitely a film worth checking out, and in my opinion, clearly Browning’s best work as a director.

Click here, or on the image above, to see a sequence from the film.

Media Services at UNL – An Incredible Resource!

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Media Services at UNL are an often overlooked and invaluable resource for students and faculty.

As reporter Jack Forey wrote in the Daily Nebraskan on October 8, 2014, “Student fees cover plenty of things students themselves may not know about. Few students realize that one of those services allows them to rent a select variety of movies and video games, for free. ‘I had no idea we could get movies and video games from the library,’ said Matt Mejstrik, former University of Nebraska-Lincoln student. ‘The first thing I checked out was Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus trilogy and also his original version of Beauty and the Beast.

Paying student fees gives UNL students access to the wide range of materials provided by Media Services, located on the 2nd floor of the Love Library’s south building. Students can check out DVDs, video games, camcorders, laptops and board games. Items can be checked out anywhere from three to seven days. ‘Students should realize that there is an incredible collection of materials on film and video that are readily accessible to them through Media Services,’ said Wheeler Winston Dixon, professor of Film Studies at UNL. ‘A huge DVD collection, a remarkable library of books and online media sources can all be readily accessed through Media Studies. Students should take advantage as an essential resource and part of their education.’

The Criterion Collection is included in Media Service’s DVD and Blu-Ray collection. Director of Media Studies Richard Graham said Criterion DVDs can go out of print quickly, making them a rarity. ‘Criterion is renowned for their meticulous attention to digital transfer, interviews and the supplementary materials that they produce, as well as the films or directors they spotlight,’ Graham said. ‘So they certainly are a treasure.’

Graham guides the mission of Media Services and helps to grow the collection of available media. ‘I consolidate student and faculty requests for non-print materials or media materials and see what fits the current curriculum and research needs of the university,’ he said. ‘“Browsing the area and recommending purchases also lets us know that people are using the services and materials we provide.’

The wide selection of Criterion films, as well as a select offering of local Nebraska films, presents a unique opportunity for Film Studies majors, as well as students generally interested in cinema. ‘Under Richard Graham, director of Media Studies, the DVD library has grown exponentially and now includes classic films by nearly every major director, most of which aren’t available on Netflix or Amazon Prime,’ Dixon said. ‘Films by such directors as Cocteau, Fassbinder, Dyerer, Bergman, Rossellini, Fellini and others are now available directly to students. The collection keeps growing every day.’

Outside of the English department, Media Services serves as a study space for students of all colleges and majors. Study rooms can be reserved for hours at a time as students utilize the many resources available to them. Dixon comments, ‘Media Services provides an invaluable link to not only the arts, but also to all literature on everything from astrophysics to contemporary painting—literally all subjects, creating a database for students to use, which is an incredible resource.’

‘The arts are an essential part of everyone’s life,’ Dixon said when asked about the role media plays in the average person’s everyday life. ‘The books, films, music and art of the 20th century are deeply influential in 21st century society, and one can’t really understand the present without knowing the precedence – and importance – of the classics. Some of the material is pop art, some of it is high art, but a thorough understanding of the classics – in film, art, literature and other allied fields – is an essential part of a well-rounded college education.’”

Media Services at Love Library – an amazing opportunity for UNL students and faculty.

A World of Constant Peril: Seriality, Narrative, and Closure

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International on the impact of serials on contemporary cinema.

As I write, in part, “What are we watching now at the movies, or on television or Netflix for that matter? Serials – though now they’re called franchises, or mini-series, or ‘cable dramas,’ but they have the same structure, and the same limitations, the same narrative predictability. What will happen, for example, in the next episode of Game of Thrones? Who will be slaughtered, who will survive, who will make yet another grab for power? What scheme will the fictional Walter White (Bryan Cranston) come up with in the next episode of the recently concluded Breaking Bad? You’ll just have to tune in next week and find out, because all we’re leaving you with this week is an open ended ‘conclusion’ – whatever happens next, we’re not telling. But then again, when the trap is finally sprung, are the results all that surprising? Yet you keep coming back, week after week. You can’t stop watching . . .

And yet, unlike any other structural format in commercial cinema, even the theatrical cartoon, the original iteration of the motion picture serial has vanished from contemporary view. Nevertheless, when one compares both the overall narrative structure of these chapter plays, as well as the elaborate fight scenes, exoticist sets, and – despite what some may say – the absolutely one-dimensional nature of the characters, one can easily see where the films in the current Marvel or DC ‘universe’ came from – starting, of course, with the original Star Wars film in 1977, which was transparently formatted as a serial, replete with opening crawl title receding endlessly into infinity, and even an “episode number,” as if the entire film was just one section of a sprawling epic – which indeed it ultimately was.

Comic-Con, which now dominates the commercial film industry, with, for the most part the empty escapism of such films as James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – the runaway hit of the current summer – doesn’t want to admit it, but the truth of the matter is that these are films for children, as the serials were, and were relegated, in the 1940s and 50s, to Saturday morning entertainment. No one who made them had any illusions about them, and though they contained both the template for most contemporary Hollywood action and superhero films, they were designed to exist at the margins of the theatrical world, as something for adolescents to view before moving on to more demanding fare. Today, that more ‘demanding’ cinema has all but vanished, as comic book cinema moves to the mainstream, and erases nearly everything else.”

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

Netflix and National Cinemas

Monday, August 25th, 2014

I have a new article in Film International, on the effects of Netflix on national cinemas.

As I write, in part, “People would much rather watch from the comfort and safety of their living rooms than trek out to the theater for anything other than the most immersive spectacle; the clearest evidence of this is the complete collapse of video rental stores, even in such major cities as New York, a metropolis of eight million people, which seemingly can’t sustain more than few revival houses, and only one or two video rental locations, even though they offer the kinds of films you’re not likely to find on Netflix.

Why go out when you can have the images delivered with a touch of a button? Why bother to seek out anything new when there’s seemingly so much product – all of it pretty much the same, even the supposed ‘indies’ – available on demand? You don’t need to do any exploring. We’ll do it for you, and not only that – we’ll put the films in nice little slots like ‘foreign’ or ‘indie,’ thus ensuring a miniscule audience. Along these lines, the Amazon ’suggestion’ feature on their website continues to amaze me, because of its utter lack of discrimination.

If you order one DVD of a French film, suddenly they recommend nothing but French films for you; order one Barbara Stanwyck film, and they think you’re only interested in films in which she stars; order a gothic thriller, and you’re inundated with offers for like material. Erase all of these possible options, and the suggestion engine comes up blank – it can’t figure you out. How come you like so many different kinds of films? Where’s the thread here that they can track? Why won’t you stick to a predictable pattern? And why do you want a DVD anyway, when there are these great films to stream, so easily, at the touch of a button?”

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

At DuArt Lab in New York, Thousands of “Orphan” Films

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

More proof, as if any were needed, of the fragility of film as an artistic medium.

As John Anderson writes in The New York Times, “the Midtown Manhattan building that houses DuArt, the premiere hatchery of American independent cinema for about 70 years, is 12 stories high. The elevator only goes to the 11th floor. To reach DuArt’s rooms of wonder, you need to take the stairs.

On the top floor, in one musty, institutional-green room after another, hundreds of film cans are stacked, floor to ceiling, each negative bearing the name of a long-gone production company, an obscure director or a title that may as well read ‘Dead End.’ This repository of broken dreams is also an orphanage, for movies awaiting adoption. Who made all these films? DuArt wonders the same thing.

With the rise of digital filmmaking and the subsequent demise of celluloid, DuArt in 2010 closed its photochemical division, which developed negatives and struck prints. At that point, DuArt had about 60,000 cans of film in its warren of vaults.

‘I have trouble throwing away film,’ the company’s chairman, Irwin Young, said. His father founded the company in 1922. ‘We never threw anything away. It’s because we were film people.’

Films by Woody Allen, James Ivory, Ang Lee, Gordon Parks, Tom DiCillo, Spike Lee, Susan Seidelman and more have been spoken for, but others remain unclaimed and the trail has gone cold on many of them, said Steve Blakely, a former DuArt vice president who has continued to track down filmmakers since 2010.”

Click here, or on the image above, to view the entire story; essential reading.

Frame by Frame Videos on Film History, Theory, and Criticism

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Here’s a carousel of more than sixty videos in my Frame by Frame series; click here, or above, to play!

Frame by Frame is a series of short videos I made with Curt Bright on film theory, history, and criticism — each is about 3 minutes long or so. Episodes of Frame by Frame cover The Hollywood Blacklist, Ridley Scott, Commercials in Movie Theaters, Inception, 3-D, Film Critics, War Movies, Film Composers, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Subtitles vs. Dubbing, The Aura, John Ford, Remakes, Special Effects, John Huston, Ridley Scott, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, Alice Guy Blaché, Oscar Micheaux, Horror Movies, Deep Focus, Pan and Scan, Jean-Luc Godard, Camera Movement, Metropolis, Psycho, Movie Trailers, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Minorities in American Film, The King’s Speech, Alfred Hitchcock, The Great Gatsby in 3-D, Digital Cinema, Special Effects, John Huston, Manoel de Oliveira, Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese, Westerns, Nicholas Ray, Busby Berkeley, Claire Denis, Woody Allen, Film Archives, George Cukor, Roger Corman, Billy Wilder, trailers, the Hollywood Ratings System, and many other topics.

Check it out! Useful for your classes; feel free to download as you see fit; use as you wish.

Juan Orol, Phantom of the Mexican Cinema

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International on the prolific Mexican filmmaker Juan Orol.

As I write, in part, “Juan Orol’s “first directorial credit was on the 1927 silent film El sendero gris (1927, co-directed with Jesús Cárdenas), but his first big hit was the 1935 maternal tearjerker Madre querida (Beloved Mother), which he produced, directed, and introduced on screen, with a seemingly heartfelt paean to all the mothers in the audience, in addition to providing the story for the film. This was followed by the equally sudsy Honrarás a tus padres (Honor Thy Mother and Father, 1937), which Orol produced, directed, and starred in – this last function serving as the beginning of a long string of performances in his films, despite his somewhat unprepossessing appeal as a matinee idol.

After exhausting the public’s appetite for melodrama and musicals, Orol turned to gangster films, and soon became the foremost exponent of the ‘Cine Negro Mexicano,’ also known as the ‘Cine de Gangsters.’ It was here that Orol truly found his métier. Orol idolized the Warner Bros. gangster films of the early 1930s, and imagined himself as a worthy competitor of the likes of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. Soon, he invented a recurring character that he would play for most of the rest of his life – Johnny Carmenta, a supposedly suave denizen of the underworld who would eventually become Orol’s almost real-life alter ego.

This gave rise to the best-known film of Orol’s long career, the genre bending Gángsters contra charros (Gangsters Against Cowboys, 1948), in which Orol, as gangster Johnny Carmenta, battles cowboy Pancho Domínguez (José Pulido) in a Mexico City turf war, further complicated by the presence of cabaret dancer Rosa (Rosa Carmina, who was also Orol’s third wife at the time), who deftly plays one man off against the other. As with the majority of Orol’s films, most of the 79 minute running time of Gángsters contra charros is comprised of long dialogue scenes, in which Orol and Pulido threaten each other with a singular lack of conviction, interspersed with equally interminable series of dance numbers, making the film in effect a gangster/cowboy/musical. Despite its shoddy production values, audiences flocked to the film, and Orol seemed utterly unstoppable.

Demonstrating the truth of Jack Warner’s oft repeated mantra, ’successful films aren’t made; they’re remade,’ Orol created an updated version of Madre querida (Beloved Mother) in 1951, and then continued on for the next two decades with such offerings as El sindicato del crimen (The Crime Syndicate, 1954), Zonga, el ángel diabólico (Zonga, the Diabolical Angel, 1958), Antesala de la silla eléctrica (Prelude to the Electric Chair, 1968, which was actually shot in Miami, Florida) and Historia de un gangster (Story of a Gangster, 1969) [. . .]

Dubbed the creator of ‘accidental surrealism,’ the world that Orol’s films depict is at once alluring and evanescent, existing in a twilight zone of cheap sets, shabby nightclub acts, and the seemingly eternal presence of Orol’s gangster alter ego. Like [Roger] Corman in his best films, his early black and white work from the 1950s, Orol presented his viewers with a world of pervasive corruption, yet infused with his own sense of indomitable optimism.

Pop culture reflects the needs and desires of the time in which it is created; at Orol’s retrospective, only a few patrons showed up, while during his heyday, his films packed movie houses throughout the country, earning record grosses, but were never really allowed to find an audience outside Mexico. In short, he knew precisely what his audiences wanted to see.

Hotwiring existing genres into a mind-bending meld all his own, Orol created a cinema that is absolutely unique, and utterly without precedent. [Directors] Emilio Fernández and Luis Buñuel, who both knew him, would agree; whatever his faults, Juan Orol was doing precisely what he wanted to, answering to no one but himself, and yet at the same time creating films that the public clamored to see, cloaking his own vision in the venerable disguise of a genre filmmaker – which he was, and yet he wasn’t.  This, perhaps, is his most significant accomplishment, one any cineaste would envy.”

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

First Fruits of Inspiration: The Films of Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

Filming in 1969; photo by Bruce Nadelson.

I recently had a screening of my early films at The Microscope Gallery in New York; Matthew Sorrento offers this review, which reads in part “as a teenager, Dixon was moved by the films screened at his local New Jersey library, noting how the works followed either the Hollywood or the independent models and how the later was an open field for artists (though the former would certainly interest him in his later criticism).

He found a welcoming community of artists at Rutgers University and then in New York, where enthusiasm and usefulness, as Dixon puts it, were all one needed to enter. Years later he would reflect on the scene in his essential 1997 text, The Exploding Eye, which sets right a lot of the debates lost in worship and revisionist history – but in the late 1960s Dixon was part of the thriving experimental scene.

Incorporating found footage, home movies, spur-of-the-moment camerawork, and poetry readings, Dixon’s catalog sums the best the times had to offer. To the post-digital generation, his work captures an era of democratic art, the materials for little investment and content composed anywhere, for nearly anyone.

On May 4th, 2014, New Yorkers had the rare – and perhaps final – chance to view Dixon’s films (now archived at the Museum of Modern Art) at the Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn. With Dixon in attendance, the artist-critic provided lively commentary on his collection of works that emit constant energy and passion.”

You can read the rest of the view by clicking here, or on the image above.

80,000 British Pathé Newsreel Clips Free Online

Monday, May 19th, 2014

British Pathé Newsreel has put up more than 80,000 newsreel clips on YouTube  – all free.

As the site notes, “Pathé News was a producer of newsreels, cinemagazines, and documentaries from 1910 until 1976 in the United Kingdom. Its founder, Charles Pathé, was a pioneer of moving pictures in the silent era. The Pathé News archive is known today as British Pathé. Its collection of news film and movies is fully digitized and available online. Follow us through the 20th Century and dive into the good and the bad times of the past. Feel free to explore more than 80,000 videos of filmed history and maybe you’ll find stuff no one else has ever seen. From next week on you’ll get a new playlists each Monday and Thursday, a special collection of videos we’ve picked out for you. On top of that you’ll get a weekly highlight video every Friday! Look forward to Top Ten lists, special occasions and recent events put into context. Have fun with 3,500 hours of filmed history!”

This is a truly amazing resource; click here, or on the image above, to access the entire library – free!

The Cinema of Agnès Varda: Resistance and Eclecticism

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Delphine Bénézet’s new book on Agnès Varda is a superb piece of work.

Agnès Varda never seems to get enough credit. The fore-mother of the French New Wave, long before Godard, Truffaut and the rest of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd picked up a camera, Varda was making feature films from 1954, employing Alain Resnais as her editor, and pretty much setting out the basic precepts of simplicity, communality, and originality that her colleagues would later follow. But while Godard and Truffaut became art house darlings in the 60s – and certainly their work deserves the attention it got – Varda was somehow overlooked, although such films as Cleo from 5 to 7, Les Creatures, and Le Bonheur remain absolutely daring in their approach to the film medium, as well as dynamics of relationships between men and women, and particularly in affairs of the heart.

As the volume’s website notes, “Agnès Varda, a pioneer of the French New Wave, has been making radical films for over half a century. Many of these are considered by scholars, filmmakers, and audiences alike, as audacious, seminal, and unforgettable. This volume considers her production as a whole, revisiting overlooked films like Mur, Murs/Documenteur (1980–81), and connecting her cinema to recent installation work. This study demonstrates how Varda has resisted norms of representation and diktats of production. It also shows how she has elaborated a personal repertoire of images, characters, and settings, which all provide insight on their cultural and political contexts. The book thus offers new readings of this director’s multifaceted rêveries, arguing that her work should be seen as an aesthetically influential and ethically-driven production where cinema is both a political and collaborative practice, and a synesthetic art form.”

In five succinct chapters, detailing Varda’s place within cinema history, her “ethics of filming,” and the aesthetic and technical concerns that inform her films, Bénézet, who teaches comparative literature in the School of Languages, Linguistics, and Film at Queen Mary, University of London, offers a compelling case for Varda as a major filmmaker of not only 20th century, but also 21st century cinema, and one of the most successful at embracing digital cinema in her newer films, such as the transcendent documentary feature The Gleaners and I, shot entirely on a small home digital camera. Bénézet makes it clear that Varda has never stopped evolving as both a filmmaker and an artist in general, embracing new technology and the changing culture of France to create work of stunning resonance and beauty with absolutely minimal resources.

Varda has survived many of her contemporaries, and she keeps on working to this day; in the end, Varda is finally managing to get some measure of the respect and care she so clearly deserves simply by the act of sheer survival – she has outlived her detractors, mostly male, who really couldn’t see the value in her work. Dismissed or marginalized when first released, her films, now lovingly restored by Varda herself in DVD editions available throughout the world, have finally taken their place in the cinematic canon along with those of her male counterparts. There have been other excellent books on Varda, but this particular text, neatly illustrated with frame blow-ups, and graced with a detailed filmography, is one of the best, and also has the virtue of being the most complete.

In short, this is an excellent book from Wallflower Press / Columbia UP; pick up a copy now.

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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In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/