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Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

In this deeply trying time in our nation’s struggle for basic human rights, this is a key film.

Spike Lee is, of course, the most important and influential African-American filmmaker working today, and one of the most important and influential filmmakers working today, period. In 1997, Spike Lee created a brilliant and moving documentary on the horrific September 15, 1963 murder of four African-American girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

As Wikipedia notes, “Lee had first intended to create a dramatic reproduction of the incident, but decided that would not be the best approach. He shifted to a documentary. Once he secured funding, Lee went to Birmingham with a small skeleton film crew. He wanted to have the families be as comfortable as possible. Ellen Kuras was the Director of Photography and Sam Pollard the producer/editor.

Kuras said of her desire to shoot 4 Little Girls, ‘I was really interested because my background is in political documentaries . . .I always felt that one of the reasons that I had got into filmmaking was that I wanted to use my craft to be able to say something about the human condition, however I could, in my own humble way. For me this was an opportunity to make a small contribution.’

The film covered the events in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 related to civil rights demonstrations and the movement to end racial discrimination in local stores and facilities. In 1963 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King arrived in the town to help with their strategy.

People of the community met at the 16th Street Baptist Church while organizing their events. The demonstrations were covered by national media, and the use by police of police dogs and pressured water from hoses on young people shocked the nation. So many demonstrators were arrested that the jail was filled.

A local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan placed bombs at the Baptist Church and set them off on Sunday morning 15 September 1963. Four young girls were killed in the explosion. The deaths provoked national outrage, and that summer the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The film ends with trial and conviction of Robert Edward Chambliss in 1977 as the main person responsible for bombing. The film also delves into black churches being set on fire in Birmingham in 1993, giving the impression that while progress has been made, there are some aspects that still haven’t changed. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.”

No, it’s very clear that “some aspects still haven’t changed” at all, as the brutal massacre of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015 has more than aptly proved.

The subsequent campaign to remove the confederate flag from various public places, license plates, and the ban on such merchandise by Sears, Walmart, Amazon and Ebay – something that should have happened a long time ago – is one outcome of this senseless series of murders, but the cost of creating such change is much too high. Nine people were killed, including the senior pastor and state senator from South Carolina, Clementa C. Pinckney.

As I write this, these events are still unfolding, and it’s too early to tell if any real positive change will occur as a result of this senseless violence. I know that it has profoundly shaken me,  as well as all people of conscience, in the United States and around the world, and I can only be heartened that perhaps something will come out of this terrible tragedy that will move us all to a better place.

In the meantime, let us remember that the struggle for basic human rights for all goes on day after day, year in and year out, and is never really full accomplished. All we can do is continue to move towards the light, and a better tomorrow.

Spike Lee’s brilliant movie is a reminder of that struggle; if you have not seen it, do so now.

Dorothy Arzner Retrospective at UCLA

Saturday, June 20th, 2015

Dorothy Arzner is finally getting a retrospective of her key works.

As the UCLA Film Archive, responsible for restoring some of the most adventurous and challenging films of the Hollywood studio era writes in the program notes for the series, “The Archive is pleased to commemorate the indispensable career of director Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979) as part of a year-long commemoration of our own 50th Anniversary.  This retrospective features six Archive restorations of Arzner’s work, which have helped to spur scholarship into and retrospectives of the director’s remarkable achievements.  The UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television is also proud to claim Arzner as a former professor.

A remarkable and nearly unique figure in American film history, Arzner forged a career characterized by an individual worldview, and a strong, recognizable voice.  She was also, not incidentally, the sole female director in the studio era to sustain a directing career, working in that capacity for nearly two decades and helming 20 features—conspicuously, still a record in Hollywood.

Distinguished as a storyteller with penetrating insight into women’s perspectives and experiences, Arzner herself emphatically made the point that only a woman could offer such authority and authenticity.  At a time when the marginalization of women directors in the American film establishment is still actively debated, we celebrate Dorothy Arzner, and the Archive’s long association with her legacy.”

Film screened include The Wild Party, Anybody’s Woman, Working Girls, Sarah and Son, First Comes Courage (a personal favorite of mine), Craig’s Wife and Christopher Strong (perhaps her best known films), Dance, Girl, Dance, Nana, The Red Kimona, Merrily We Go To Hell and a number of other titles from her long career, in gorgeously restored prints. If you’re going to be in the Los Angeles area, especially since many of these titles are simply not available on DVD – and as with director Ida Lupino, when is Arzner going to get a box set of her complete works (probably never, unfortunately) – you owe it to yourself to see the work of this pioneering and brilliant filmmaker.

Dorothy Arzner- an American original.

Robin Williams’ Final Performance – “Boulevard”

Friday, June 19th, 2015

I have never been a Robin Williams cultist, but Boulevard seems restrained, serious, and deeply felt.

Actually, I’m quite surprised to be posting this, but Robin Williams has always been full of surprises, from his very earliest work up to the final days of his all too brief career. In the end, there seemed to be a great deal of sadness about him, in personal appearances as well as in his films – though I should make it clear that we never met – and I just got the sense that he was having a difficult time in his life.

So I was surprised to see the trailer for this small, economical film that seems much more successful, at least to me, than most of his more famous comedy work. Completed in 2014, it’s only now getting a shot at a theatrical release. As Michael Miller noted in People Magazine, “in Boulevard, the late actor plays a lonely man trapped by his monotonous life and crumbling marriage. After a chance encounter with a young hitchhiker, Williams’ character begins to climb out of his rut and turn his life around.

‘This is one of the kindest characters Williams has ever played, which makes his self-imposed turmoil – the consequence of not wanting to hurt anyone, least of all his wife – all the more tragic,’ film critic Peter Debruge wrote in Variety when the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year. ‘Tapping into that same loneliness felt in One Hour Photo and Good Will Hunting, the actor projects a regret so deep and identifiable, viewers should have no trouble connecting it to whatever is missing in their own lives – whether those regrets are romantic, sexual, professional or spiritual.’”  Boulevard is directed by Dito Montiel from a script by Douglas Soesbe.

Boulevard also stars Bob Odenkirk and Kathy Baker, and is slated for a July 10, 2015 release.

Son of Frankenstein Makeup Tests – In Color (1939)

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

Ever wonder what the Frankenstein monster, as played by Boris Karloff, looked like in color?

In this incredibly rare, one minute piece of 16mm home movie footage shot in Kodachrome color on the set of Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein (1939), you can get a good idea of just how skillful Jack Pierce’s makeup was. In the opening section, the viewer is treated to a wide shot of Boris Karloff lumbering around the set in the heavy makeup, while a stagehand works behind the scenes, seen through the window, to prepare for the next take. Then there’s a closeup, capped by Karloff playfully sticking his tongue out for the camera, clearly taking the whole thing with a huge grain of salt.

In the film’s final moments, Karloff ostensibly sneaks up on Pierce and pretends to strangle him, but obviously, it’s all in fun. Son of Frankenstein is notable as the last time Karloff played the monster, although he continued to make horror movies, of course, for the rest of his career, and it’s also an odd film in that the sets were built and ready before the script was completed. The result is an eye-popping but somewhat disjointed film, yet still an honorable effort, and one of the last great classics from the Golden Age of Universal horror. And now you can see this rare piece of cinema history – a real find.

Thanks to the fan who posted this, with disabled comments, which is great – no comments needed!

TCM Partners With Women in Film

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

As Lisa de Moraes reports in Deadline Hollywood, “Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and Women In Film Los Angeles have joined forces for a multi-year partnership dedicated to raising awareness about the lack of gender equality in the industry, while celebrating the achievements of women who have succeeded in film.

TCM has earmarked the month of October for the next three consecutive years for the programming initiative. The network will present films from female industry icons, and provide context on the historical and current states of the representation of women in the film industry.

The month-long programming initiative hopes to take a deeper look at gender inequality in the film industry, and will tackle pro-social elements (research, resources, tools, etc) to assist women filmmakers in furthering their careers. Women in Film Los Angeles will partner with TCM throughout this programming initiative to offer research and resources.

‘The issue of gender inequality in the film industry is both timely and immensely important to shine a light on,’ said TCM’s general manager Jennifer Dorian. ‘We’re thrilled to partner with such a well-respected organization as Women in Film in order to address and promote the empowerment of women in our industry.’

‘For years, I have dreamed of having a network reach out to our organization with a true interest in our advocacy and the ability to collaborate on programming that will reach audiences everywhere,’ WIF President, Cathy Schulman said in today’s announcement.

In April, WIF and Sundance released results of a study they conducted that concluded men outnumbered women 23-to-1 as directors of the 1,300 top-grossing films since 2002, and found gender stereotyping to be one of the main reasons for the disparity.”

An excellent idea – long overdue.

Dreams of Jules Verne: Karel Zeman’s Invention of Destruction

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

I have a new article in Senses of Cinema #75 on Karel Zeman’s classic film Invention of Destruction.

As I write, in part, “Like so many others in the United States, I was first exposed to Karel Zeman’s exotic adventure film Vynález zkázy (Invention of Destruction, 1958), when it was released in the West in a dubbed and retitled as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne in 1961. Zeman was one of the greatest of all Czech animators and special effects artists, and used a process unique in Vynález zkázycombining 19th century pictorial steel engravings with live action photography. This created a fantastic vision of what can be identified today as a steampunk past, where elaborate mechanical devices, hot air balloons, oddly constructed airplanes, submarines, and other infernal machines were brought to life in a manner at once poetic and yet deeply sinister.

Jules Verne (1928-1905) was in many ways one of the most forward thinking of all imaginative popular writers, and his works were both commercially and critically successful. Films such as De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to The Moon, 1865, famously made into an early film by Georges Méliès in 1902), Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, 1869-1870), Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1872), and L’Île mystérieuse (Mysterious Island, 1874-75) consolidated his reputation as a prolific and prophetic futurist. Verne’s works have been filmed countless times, either as straight adaptations or updated versions, but Zeman’s film stands alone as perhaps the most faithful of all filmic versions of Verne on the screen. It embraces not only his then-fanciful (and now all too real) vision of the future, but also remains faithful to the iconic images of Verne’s own era.”

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

Ruby Dee – Actor and Activist – Dies at 91

Friday, June 12th, 2015

Here’s a superb tribute to the great Ruby Dee by Sarah Halzack of The Washington Post.

As Ms. Halzack wrote, in part, “Ruby Dee, an actress who defied segregation-era stereotypes by landing lead roles in movies and on Broadway while maintaining a second high-profile career as a civil rights advocate, including emceeing the 1963 March on Washington, died June 11 at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y. She was 91. In a career spanning seven decades, Ms. Dee was known for a quietly commanding presence opposite powerful leading men, including Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and James Earl Jones.

As a young woman, she won acclaim as a chauffeur’s steadfast wife in the Broadway and film versions of A Raisin in the Sun, starring Poitier, and then earned an Academy Award nomination for her supporting role as the mother of a drug kingpin played by Washington in American Gangster (2007).

In 1965, Ms. Dee became the first black actress to perform lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn., playing Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and Cordelia in King Lear. Moreover, critics consistently praised Ms. Dee’s ability to make the most demanding roles seem effortless. Off-Broadway in 1970, in Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena, she was commended for her searing portrayal of a South African woman beaten down by society and physically abused by her husband, played by Jones.

Ms. Dee’s marriage to actor and playwright Ossie Davis was widely regarded as one of Hollywood’s most enduring and romantic, lasting 56 years, until his death in 2005. The couple’s careers were deeply intertwined as they co-starred in films such as Do the Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991), both directed by Spike Lee; collaborated on the comedic play Purlie Victorious, which Davis wrote and in which Ms. Dee starred on Broadway in 1961; and even partnered on a memoir, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.

When Ms. Dee and Davis received Kennedy Center Honors in 2004, it was said that they opened ‘many a door previously shut tight to African American artists and planted the seed for the flowering of America’s multicultural humanity.’ In 2008, Ms. Dee described the epitaph to Jet magazine: ‘If I leave any thought behind, it is that. We were in this thing together, so let’s love each other right now. Let’s make sense of things right now. Let’s make it count somehow right now, because we are in this thing together.’”

Ruby Dee – one of the most unforgettable actors in the history of the cinema.

Sir Christopher Lee Dies

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

The great British actor Sir Christopher Lee has died at the age of 93.

As Benjamin Lee wrote in perhaps the best of a host of tributes being offered this morning on Lee’s life and work, in The Guardian, “Sir Christopher Lee has died at the age of 93 after being hospitalised for respiratory problems and heart failure. The veteran actor, best known for a variety of films from Dracula to The Wicker Man through to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, passed away on Sunday morning at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, according to sources. The decision to release the news days after was based on his wife’s desire to inform family members first. The couple had been married for over 50 years.

As well as his career in film, Lee also released a series of heavy metal albums, including Charlemagne: The Omens of Death. He was knighted in 2009 for services to drama and charity and was awarded the Bafta fellowship in 2011. His film career started in 1947 with a role in Gothic romance Corridor of Mirrors but it wasn’t until the late 50s, when Lee worked with Hammer, that he started gaining fame.

His first role with the studio was The Curse of Frankenstein and it was the first of 20 films that he made with Peter Cushing, who also became a close friend. ‘Hammer was an important part of my life, and generally speaking, we all had a lot of fun,’ he said in a 2001 interview.

Lee’s most famous role for Hammer was playing Dracula, a role which became one of his most widely recognized although the actor wasn’t pleased with how the character was treated. ‘They gave me nothing to do!’ he told Total Film in 2005. ‘I pleaded with Hammer to let me use some of the lines that Bram Stoker had written. Occasionally, I sneaked one in. Eventually I told them that I wasn’t going to play Dracula any more. All hell broke loose.’

In the 70s, Lee continued to gain fame in the horror genre with a role in The Wicker Man, a film which he considered to be his best. ‘Wonderful film… had a hell of a time getting it made,’ he said. ‘Its power lies in the fact that you never expect what eventually happens, because everyone is so nice.’ He went on to play a Bond villain in 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun and turned down a role in Halloween, which he later said was one of biggest career regrets. In his career, he also turned down a role in Airplane!, something he also regretted.

His concern over being typecast in horror films led him to Hollywood and roles in Airport ‘77 and Steven Spielberg’s 1941. His career saw a resurgence in 2001 with a role as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and then as Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. He also became a regular collaborator with Tim Burton, who cast him in Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. Burton went on to award him with a Bafta fellowship.

In 2011, he returned to Hammer with a role in the Hilary Swank thriller The Resident although he generally tried to avoid the horror genre in later years. ‘There have been some absolutely ghastly films recently, physically repellent,’ he said. ‘What we did was fantasy, fairy tales – no real person can copy what we did. But they can do what Hannibal Lecter does, if they’re so inclined, people like Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen, and for that reason, I think such films are dangerous.’

After dabbling with music throughout much of his career, including a song on The Wicker Man soundtrack, Lee released his first full-length album Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross in 2010. It was well-received by the heavy metal community and won him the spirit of metal award at the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony. His 2013 single Jingle Hell entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 22, which made him the oldest living artist to ever enter the charts.

Lee still has one film yet to be released, the fantasy film Angels in Notting Hill, where he plays a godly figure who looks after the universe. He was also set to star in 9/11 drama The 11th opposite Uma Thurman but it’s believed that the film hadn’t yet started production. In an interview in 2013, Lee spoke about his love of acting. ‘Making films has never just been a job to me, it is my life,’ he said. ‘I have some interests outside of acting – I sing and I’ve written books, for instance – but acting is what keeps me going, it’s what I do, it gives life purpose.’”

Lee had a few thoughts about the film business and life in general, which are fairly acidic: on the film industry: “There are many vampires in the world today – you only have to think of the film business;” on fame: “In Britain, any degree of success is met with envy and resentment;” on Hammer Horror:”They gave me this great opportunity, made me a well-known face all over the world for which I am profoundly grateful;” on his craft: “I think acting is a mixture of instinct, imagination and inventiveness. All you can learn as an actor is basic technique.” And this final thought on acting: “Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.”

Let’s All Go To The Lobby!

Saturday, June 6th, 2015

This hypnotic intermission promo was ubiquitous in 1950s and 60s American cinemas.

In the 1950s and 60s, you simply couldn’t go the movies without seeing this classic short animation. It usually evoked the desired effect;the house lights would come up, and patrons would stream up aisle seeking candy, coffee, ice cream and soft drinks – not to mention popcorn – before the second feature started. As Wikipedia notes, “Let’s All Go to the Lobby is a 1953 animated musical [short, produced by the Filmack Corporation] played as an advertisement before the beginning of the main film. It featured a family of four talking concession stand products, singing ‘Let’s all go to the lobby to get ourselves a treat’ and walking to the concession stand.

The Chicago-based Filmack Studios, originally known as Filmack Trailer Company, was founded in 1919 by Irving Mack. The founder was a former journalist. The company specialized in the production of newsreels and promotional material for theaters. By the 1950s, the sales of the concession stands represented a significant portion of movie theaters’ revenue. Filmack commissioned a series of Technicolor trailers aimed at informing audiences about a theater’s newly installed concession stand. Let’s All Go to the Lobby was one of these films.

Four anthropomorphic, animated food items (from left to right: chewing gum, popcorn, candy, and a soda) are depicted walking leftwards. In the foreground before these characters are silhouettes of audience members, creating an illusion of depth. Later, a group of four consumers are depicted enjoying their purchased food items. In 2000, Let’s All Go to the Lobby was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.’” So  . . .

Let’s all go to the lobby;
Let’s all go to the lobby;
Let’s all go to the lobby
To get ourselves a treat!

Delicious things to eat;
The popcorn can’t be beat.
The sparkling drinks are just dandy;
The chocolate bars and nut candy.
So let’s all go to the lobby
To get ourselves a treat.
Let’s all go to the lobby
To get ourselves a treat!

Click here, or on the image above, to see this classic theater advertisement.

Víctimas del pecado

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Ninón Sevilla was one of the greatest stars of the Mexican cinema.

As Wikipedia notes, “Emelia Pérez Castellanos (born in Havana, Cuba 10 November 1921; died in Mexico City 1 January 2015), better known as Ninón Sevilla, was a Cuban born Mexican film actress and dancer who was active during the golden age of Mexican cinema. She was considered one of the greatest exponents of the Rumberas film in the 1940s and 1950s.

Sevilla was born and raised in Centro Habana, a popular section of Havana. As a youth, she thought about becoming a missionary nun, but after she started dancing with success in nightclubs and cabarets, she opted for a career in show business. She adopted her stage name in tribute to the legendary French courtesan Ninon de Lenclos and began to work in the chorus of the Cuban comedians Mimí Cal and Leopoldo Fernández, respectively known as ‘Nananina’ and ‘Tres Patines.’

Sevilla came to Mexico as part of a show starring the Argentinean singer Libertad Lamarque. Her number in the show was so successful that she was soon booked in other spectacles in Mexico City. While performing in the Teatro Lírico, producer Pedro Arturo Calderón saw Sevilla on stage and offered her a film contract. Her debut in cinema was in 1946 in Carita de Cielo with María Elena Marqués and Antonio Badú. From that moment, Sevilla became the exclusive star of Producciones Calderón, and although she had offers from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Columbia Pictures, she turned them down, not being interested in working in Hollywood.

Although from the beginning Sevilla was marked by the eccentricity of her hairdos and gowns, it was director Alberto Gout who established her as one of the ultimate erotic figures of Mexican cinema, leading her in legendary films as Aventurera (1949), and Sensualidad (1950). Besides being directed by Gout also in Mujeres sacrificadas (1952) and Aventura en Río (1953), she also worked with Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández. who directed her in one of the best films of her career, the classic Víctimas del Pecado (1951).” When work in films dried up, Sevilla went straight into television, becoming a regular in telenovelas, and thus continued to work in the industry in one form or another from 1946 up until 2014 – the year before her death.

In the deliriously over-the-top Víctimas del pecado, she plays nightclub dancer Violeta, who impulsively rescues an abandoned infant who has literally been thrown in the trash by its mother, and raises the boy as her own, despite the machinations of two rival club owners, resorting to prostitution at one point simply to keep food on the table for herself and her informally adopted son. However, the boy’s father, the brutal Don Rodolfo (Tito Junco) does everything he can to destroy Violeta’s fragile existence, leading to a suitably violent conclusion.

Too long neglected by American audiences, the films of Emilio Fernández offer an authentic view into the demimonde of mid-20th century Mexico City. Those who remember him solely as an actor at the end of his career in films such as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch are missing the work of an impassioned artist, whose bleak mise en scene makes even a film like Luis Buñuel’s brilliant Los Olvidados – both films were photographed by the gifted Gabriel Figueroa, another major figure in the Mexican cinema – seem restrained by comparison.

Most of Sevilla and Fernández’s work has never reached English-speaking audiences, but a recent DVD transfer of excellent quality now makes this film available to a much wider audience. It’s just another example of an unjustly neglected film of real depth and power that has been overlooked by conventional cinema history, and definitely deserves re-evaluation. Once seen, never forgotten, Víctimas del pecado is a violent, sensual, almost surreal film that nevertheless remains firmly anchored in the world of the slums of Mexico City, where hope is in short supply, and violence – and the fates – are the ultimate arbiters of human affairs.

View the uncut Spanish language version, without English subtitles, by clicking here, or on the image above.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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