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Archive for the ‘Film History’ Category

Radha Vatsal in The Atlantic – Forgotten Female Action Stars

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

Serial star Ruth Roland in an advertisement for Hands Up! (1918)

Writing in The Atlantic, Radha Vatsal has a fascinating piece on early women heroines. As Vatsal notes, “in the current movie landscape, female action heroes tend to be so few and far between that their mere existence seems like an accomplishment (think: Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Rey in Star Wars, or the four stars of the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot).

But more than a century ago, before women had even won the right to vote in many countries, actresses headed up some of the U.S’s most popular and successful action movies—even if they performed stunts in skirts that ended only a few inches above their ankles.

During the early years of cinema in the 1900s and 1910s, men starred in action films such as westerns, but women dominated the so-called ’serial’ or ‘chapter’ film genre. These were movies in which the same character appeared over several installments released on a regular basis, with plots that were either ongoing or episodic.

The story lines typically featured female leads getting into danger, getting out of danger, brandishing guns, giving chase in cars, and battling villains. The film scholar Ben Singer estimates that between 1912 and 1920, about 60 action serials with female protagonists were released, totaling around 800 episodes.

What’s most striking about the category, Singer says, is its ‘extraordinary emphasis on female heroism.’ Protagonists exhibited traditionally ‘masculine’ qualities like ‘physical strength and endurance, self-reliance, courage, social authority, and the freedom to explore novel experiences outside the domestic sphere.’ Then, by the early 1920s, those films and their stars, the so-called ’serial queens,’ disappeared.

What happened? The answer may have to do with the early film industry’s short-lived tolerance of greater female involvement at all levels of the filmmaking process—a phenomenon that helps explain why today, even after women have shattered so many cultural barriers, action movies still continue to be dominated by male stars.

To understand what happened in the 1910s, it’s necessary to put the emergence of the serial film into context. During this period, two film formats jostled for dominance: what we’d now call ’shorts’ and ‘features.’ But short films weren’t labeled as ’short’ at the time—they were simply the industry standard, and were usually described by their length (in number of reels).

Features, meanwhile, were the newcomers, with higher production values, more ambitious plots, and greater production costs. Serials were something of a bridge between the two formats. Each episode in a serial was the length of a 15- or 20-minute short film, but over several weeks, a serial could tell a more complicated story.

Serials focused on women action heroes from the start, possibly thanks to the format’s tie-ins with magazines and newspapers, which aimed to draw female readers because they were attractive to advertisers. In 1912, Thomas Edison’s film company teamed up with Ladies’ World magazine to put one of the earliest instances of a serial film, What Happened to Mary, into print.

This example of cross-promotion would continue as other ‘chapter films’ were serialized in newspapers. The Chicago Tribune printed the story of The Adventures of Kathleen (1913) while the film episodes played in theaters. (Incidentally, Kathlyn was the first film serial to have a narrative thread that continued from week to week instead of relying on the same leading character to provide cohesiveness.)

Why do the 2010s lag behind the 1910s in terms of a robust body of films with female action leads? The focus on heroines seems also to correlate with the film industry’s fascination with the ‘New Woman.’ ‘She wore less restrictive clothes,’ the film curator Eileen Bowser notes, ’she was active, she went everywhere she wanted, and she was capable of resolving mysteries.’

The proliferation of women in all areas of the film industry during the 1910s—not just as actors, but as screenwriters, theater managers, gossip columnists, film producers, and directors—reflected the increasing number of women in the American workplace, and also the efforts of the vocal and energetic women’s suffrage movement.”

Fascinating stuff – and not well enough known – read the entire article here.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on Suspiria (1976)

Saturday, March 26th, 2016

Here’s an interesting new book on Dario Argento’s classic horror film, Suspiria.

Part of the relatively new series of short monographs on individual horror films, Devil’s Advocates, published by Auteur Press in the UK and distributed in the US by Columbia University Press, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas‘ take on Suspiria is at once original and deeply subversive, for as the notes for the volume argue, “as one of the most globally recognizable instances of 20th century Eurohorror, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1976) is poetic, chaotic, and intriguing. The cult reputation of Argento’s baroque nightmare is reflected in the critical praise it continues to receive almost 40 years after its original release, and it appears regularly on lists of the greatest horror films ever.

For fans and critics alike, Suspiria is as mesmerizing as it is impenetrable: the impact of Argento’s notorious disinterest in matters of plot and characterization combines with Suspiria’s aggressive stylistic hyperactivity to render it a movie that needs to be experienced through the body as much as through emotion or the intellect. For its many fans, Suspiria is synonymous with European horror more broadly, and Argento himself is by far the most famous of all the Italian horror directors.

If there was any doubt of his status as one of the great horror auteurs, Argento’s international reputation was solidified well beyond the realms of cult fandom in the 1990s with retrospectives at both the American Museum of the Moving Image and the British Film Institute. This book considers the complex ways that Argento weaves together light, sound and cinema history to construct one of the most breathtaking horror movies of all time, a film as fascinating as it is ultimately unfathomable.”

This is a really sharp book, and an excellent series, which seems to take its inspiration from the long-beloved BFI series on individual film classics, but concentrating on one genre – the horror film – alone. Volumes in the series thus far include studies of the classic British horror film Dead of Night (1945 – and a particular favorite of mine), Nosferatu, The Curse of Frankenstein, John Carpenter’s version of The Thing and many others – there are so many potential candidates for examination that this series seems to be just beginning.

I’d love to see a volume on Terence Fisher’s Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula), or Roger Corman’s version of The Pit and The Pendulum, right off the top of my head, and the writers are all clearly enthusiastic about their work, so I’m sure we’ll see books on these key films shortly. Brief, compact, and authoritative, these are the volumes to beat on these classic genre films, and augur well for the continuation of the series, which seems to have really filled a niche. In any event, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ book on Suspiria is a good place to start – and then you can go on from there.

This is an intriguing group of short volumes – well worth exploring.

Batman v Superman: Diminishing Returns

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

After two years of post-production, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice finally his theaters today.

As I wrote back in June 26, 2015 of Zack Snyder’s latest film,”in the mid 1940s, Universal was coming off a two decade wave of horror movies, such as Frankenstein and Dracula (both 1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Wolf Man (1941), but at length, audiences were bored with just one monster, and demanded something to amp up the franchise. Thus, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943) was born, the first of the Universal monster ‘team ups,’ but in short order, the entire franchise collapsed as Universal combined nearly all their famed horror icons in two ‘monster rally’ entries, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in cheap, hastily staged films that did little more than revive the monsters only to destroy them.

With these final two films in the initial series, it seemed that the franchise was exhausted, and the next Universal horror entry wasn’t a horror entry at all; it was the parody Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). It wasn’t until Hammer films re-energized these classic characters in such films as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) that the franchise once again took on new life.

It seems to me that we’re now at a similar point with the DC Universe; the Superman series seems a bit played out, as the character seems a bit too straight arrow to relate to 21st century audiences; and Christopher Nolan has run the Batman series into the ground, as did Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher before him, so that both characters seem, for the moment, played out for the contemporary viewer.

What to do? Why, just put them both in one film, as a a sort of WWF smackdown, recalling the first Universal team up, Frankenstein Meets (or more accurately, ‘battles’) The Wolf Man. And so now we have Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Zack ‘300′ Snyder on a $200 million dollar budget, which wrapped filming in December 2014, and is now going through an apparently intensive post-production process, and won’t be released – at latest word – until March 25, 2016. What the final cost will be, who knows? Will it ‘blow up’ like Jurassic World, and make a fortune? DC certainly hopes so.

It seems worth noting to me that Marvel has been much more successful at these ‘ensemble’ films lately, but then they have a much larger cast of characters to work with. And when one character gets tired, they just sideline her or him for a while, and go for an Avengers team-up, and everyone seems happy as the dollars roll in, and then Marvel eventually gets around to rebooting whatever needs to be jump started next, as the cycle continues with Sisyphian relentlessness.

But DC, I think, doesn’t have the same depth in its playing field, and so this team-up has, at least for me, the inescapable whiff of ‘last chance at the genre corral,’ when you take your two most influential characters and put them into a face-off. After this, what can you do; repeat the same thing all over again, perhaps throwing in The Green Lantern for some added traction?

It seems sad to me that this is one of the most hotly anticipated tickets of next year – because the whole thing seems so formulaic and predestined, but there it is. On yes, and Wonder Woman, in the person of Gal Godot, will also swing by to get in on the action, so this in many ways might be closer to the ‘monster rally’ films than the first Universal team-up film.”

All of the above was written long before the film was released; it actually finished principal photography in 2014, and has spent close to two years in post-production, which is never a good sign. Now everyone can see the film for themselves – it is, after all, rated PG-13, with an R rated “director’s cut,” one half hour longer, forthcoming on DVD in the coming months.

That said, it looks like most of what I predicted way back nearly a year ago has come true, and it seems that the film is more of a miss than a hit with fans and critics alike, though the ticket presales have been spectacular. But with audiences able to text “instant reviews” during the film as to whether or not they approve, who knows what will happen? Batman v Superman wound up costing north of $250 million, and will need to clear at least $800,000 to a billion dollars at the box office just to break even. That’s a lot of money.

Yet as Michael Roffman noted in a perceptive review of the film published on the website Consequence of Sound, Batman v Superman represents – perhaps – both the beginning of the end for comic book movies, which may have finally reached an audience saturation point, as well as a failure of the imagination. Notes Roffman, “the adrenaline and the excitement of a superhero film has taken back seat to morbid curiosity and blind acceptance.

To paraphrase the late Hunter S. Thompson, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice offers us an ideal vantage point to look at the near past, where with the right kind of eyes we can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. Some might say that was 2012’s The Avengers; others might argue it was 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Whatever the case, we’re coasting into a no-wake zone right now, and it’s getting harder to keep the signal on and tiring to glue our eyes toward the sky.”

Or as A.O. Scott put it more bluntly in a review in The New York Times, “the point of Batman v Superman isn’t fun, and it isn’t thinking, either. It’s obedience. The theology is invoked not to elicit meditations on mercy, justice or sacrifice, but to buttress a spectacle of power. And in that way the film serves as a metaphor for its own aspirations. The corporations that produce movies like this one, and the ambitious hacks who sign up to make them, have no evident motive beyond their own aggrandizement. Entertainment is less the goal than the byproduct, and as the commercial reach of superpower franchises grows, their creative exhaustion becomes ever more apparent.”

Which seems about right to me – it’s time to move on to something new.

BFI Restores Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965)

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

Peter Watkins’ The War Game is a terrifying look at how our future could go horribly wrong.

On March 28th, 2016, the BFI will bring Peter Watkins’ controversial BBC productions Culloden (1964),  a brilliant reconstruction of the famous battle of 1746, and the Academy Award-winning The War Game (1965), which was banned from TV screens for twenty years, to Blu-ray for the first time. Both films have been newly remastered to High Definition and will be presented together in a Dual Format Edition (also contains a DVD). An array of special features includes a new interview by film editor Michael Bradsell, who worked with Peter Watkins at the BBC, audio commentaries for both films and short films about each one.

Hailed as a breakthrough when it was first broadcast in 1964, Culloden – which brilliantly reconstructs the famous battle of 1746 – stunned viewers by approaching its historical subject matter in the style of contemporary TV news coverage. Watkins’ The War Game, about a limited nuclear attack on Kent, blended fact and fiction to create a disturbing vision of the personal and public consequences of such an attack. Banned from TV screens for twenty years, it was through its cinema release in 1966 – and its Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1967 – that it gained a loyal and vociferous following.

As Wikipedia effectively summarizes the narrative of The War Game, “filmed in black-and-white with a running time of just under 50 minutes, The War Game depicts the prelude to and the immediate weeks of the aftermath to a Soviet nuclear attack against Britain. A Chinese invasion of South Vietnam starts the war; tensions escalate when the United States authorizes tactical nuclear warfare against the Chinese. Although Soviet and East German forces threaten to invade West Berlin if the US does not withdraw that decision, the US does not acquiesce to communist demands and the invasion takes place; two US Army divisions attempt to fight their way into Berlin to counter this, but the Russian and East German forces overwhelm them in conventional battle.

In order to turn the tide, the US president authorizes the NATO commanders to use their tactical nuclear weapons, and they soon do so. An escalating nuclear war results, during which larger Russian strategic IRBMs are launched at Britain. The film remarks that many Soviet missiles were, at the time, believed to be liquid-fueled and stored above ground, making them vulnerable to attack, and hypothesizes that in any nuclear crisis, the USSR would be obliged to fire all of them as early as possible in order to avoid their destruction by counter-attack, hence the rapid progression from tactical to strategic nuclear exchange.

In the chaos just before the attack, towns and cities are evacuated and residents forced to move to the country. The Medway town of Rochester is struck by an off-target missile aimed at RAF Manston, a target which, along with the Maidstone barracks, is mentioned in scenes showing the immediate effects of the attack. The missile’s explosion causes instant flash blindness of those nearby, followed by a firestorm caused by the blast wave. Later, society collapses due to overwhelming radiation sickness and the depletion of food and medical supplies.

There is widespread psychological damage and consequently a rising occurrence of suicide. The country’s infrastructure is destroyed; the British Army burns corpses, while police shoot looters during food riots. The provisional government becomes increasingly disliked due to its rationing of resources and use of lethal force, and anti-authority uprisings begin.

Civil disturbance and obstruction of government officers become capital offenses; two men are shown being executed by firing squad for such acts. Several bewildered orphan children are briefly featured, questioning whether they have any future and desire to be ‘nothing.’ The film ends bleakly on the first Christmas Day after the nuclear war, held in a ruined church with a vicar who futilely attempts to provide hope to his traumatized congregation. The closing credits include an instrumental version of Silent Night.”

Indeed, as Roger Ebert noted in his review of The War Game, “Watkins achieves remarkable authenticity. Using a hand-held camera and grainy newsreel film, he shows firemen dying of gas poisoning as the flames explode. The heat generated in the center of a firestorm, we are told, reaches 800 degrees. It creates an updraft so powerful that trees, automobiles and human bodies are sucked into it by 150 M.P.H. winds. All oxygen is drained from the atmosphere. As the voice continues, we see firemen plucked from the ground and literally blown into the flames.”

While Culloden is an excellent “you are there” recounting of the famous battle of that name, it’s Watkins’ The War Game which is the indispensable item on this disc. Commissioned and produced by the BBC, The War Game was nevertheless turned down flat for screening on British television at the last minute, right before the scheduled screening date of October 7, 1965. The BBC, in making the decision, said that “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” Watkins, predictably, was furious.

With a television screening thus blocked, the film was then released in the United States on a theatrical double bill with, of all things, Luis Buñuel’s allegorical featurette Simon of the Desert (1965), which has a running time of 42 minutes – so that the two films, presented together, constituted the length of an average single feature film. The “one two” punch of the films stunned audiences at time, and as mentioned above, The War Game was so realistic that it actually won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1967 (emphasis added) – all the more astonishing because it is entirely a fiction film, although the possibility of such a war happening was, at the time, very real indeed.

Using non actors and actual locations, The War Game is perhaps the most realistic film ever made about the potential effects of nuclear war, and as Roger Ebert commented at the end of his four star review of the film, “they should string up bedsheets between the trees and show The War Game in every public park. It should be shown on television, perhaps right after one of those half-witted war series in which none of the stars ever gets killed. And, somehow, it should be shown to the leaders of the world’s nuclear powers, the men who have their fingers on the doomsday button. If the button is ever pushed, the world’s nuclear arsenal contains the equivalent of 20,000,000 tons of TNT apiece for you, and for me, and for every blessed person on this earth.”

The War Game - another classic film brilliantly restored by the British Film Institute.

David W. Packard and Film Preservation in the 21st Century

Sunday, March 6th, 2016

Film preservation is crucial in the 21st century – without it, cinema history would cease to exist.

As Kenneth Turan writes in The Los Angeles Times, “if you care even a little about the art and history of American motion pictures, about being able to see classic films now and forever, you owe a debt of gratitude to David W. Packard.

Packard, the son of Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard, has never seen a Steven Spielberg movie and takes pleasure in reading Homer in the original Greek. But he cares deeply about film history, and his Packard Humanities Institute has become one of the leading philanthropic organizations funding film preservation.

Now a landmark moment in that cause is nearing completion on 65 acres in the hills of Santa Clarita: a $180-million facility that houses vintage movies in the UCLA Film & Television Archive, including The Maltese Falcon, the Flash Gordon serials, Laurel & Hardy’s Way Out West, Cecil B. DeMille’s personal collection and producer Hal Wallis’ own print of Casablanca.

“UCLA was looking for a modest little place to move to, and I got involved and turned it into something monumental,” Packard, 75, said during an extended tour of the facility. “It’s a labor of love and a labor of craziness. I could have just built an adequate facility, but it didn’t cost that much more for it to be something wonderful.”

The campus is designed primarily for storage, research and work related to film preservation, although there may be occasional semi-public events in one of the three screening rooms. The facility is known as the PHI Stoa, for the Packard Humanities Institute and because the exterior resembles a type of classical Greek building known as a stoa, an outdoor colonnade structure supported by an impressive row of marble columns.

The interior is patterned after the 15th century Convent of Saint Marco in Florence, with offices resembling the cells of a monastery. Packard, who rarely grants interviews, acknowledges that the design fits his style. ‘I’m more like a monk; I like to do my work,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to be a person who goes around boasting about doing things. What’s the point of that?’

For moviegoers who want the classic films they love to be seen on the big screen by their children in the best condition possible, the stakes are enormous. It may seem films are forever, but history tells us this is not the case. Nitrate-based negatives, Hollywood’s choice until about 1951, are notoriously unstable and over time often deteriorated to chemical goo, taking their one-of-a-kind images with them.

Before efforts like Packard’s, so many films were routinely lost or destroyed that it’s estimated that approximately half the films made before 1951, not to mention that more than eight of 10 features made between 1912 and 1930, no longer exist, according to film historians. Talk to anyone in the film preservation world and you hear echoes of the words of James H. Billington, the recently retired librarian of Congress, who says: ‘If you want an analogy to David in American history, Andrew Carnegie would be the best.’

Packard’s institute financed a similar facility dedicated to film preservation outside of Washington, D.C., in Culpeper, Va. Built inside a disused Federal Reserve bunker that once held billions of dollars of shrink-wrapped currency, it includes nearly 90 miles of shelving, plus storage for highly flammable nitrate materials. It was donated to the Library of Congress in 2008 [. . .]

‘Frankly, I can think of no one and no institution which has done more for the cause of film preservation, specifically the preservation of classic American films,’ than David Packard, said Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. ‘There are a lot of wealthy people in the film industry, but no one has stepped up to the plate the way David has. The amount of funding he has provided is staggering.’

About 90% of the films at PHI Stoa belong to the UCLA collection. They are stored in 120 nitrate vaults, built at a cost of $48 million. Looking like cells in a 1930s big house movie, these structures are a chilly 38 degrees inside, with contents protected by an elaborate complex of anti-fire technologies, including exhaust ducts and a system called VESDA for ‘Very Early Smoke Detection Apparatus.’

‘They’re the most modern nitrate vaults in existence,’ Packard said. ‘This is not just buying five more years; they’re supposed to last centuries [. . .] It broke up my friendship with Steve Jobs when I told him movies were not meant to be seen on 21/2 -inch screens’ [said Packard],” and of course, they aren’t. And, as the saying goes, “nitrate won’t wait”- this is work that has to be done now.

This is an absolutely essential project; film preservation is the key issue in cinema studies right now.

Jaume R. Lloret’s Side by Side Remakes of 25 Films

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Here’s a fresh look at the ways in which remakes dominate the current cinema.

As Joe Berkowitz writes on the website FastCoCreate, “when director Gus Van Sant announced that he would be following up his breakthrough commercial hit, Good Will Hunting, with a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, many were confused. That confusion did not go away when the film was eventually released either. Audiences and critics couldn’t tell whether the whole exercise was a dadaist art statement or what was even happening. Was Van Sant’s message that no cows are sacred or that all cows are sacred? Nobody could quite tell. If the director’s aim was to urge other filmmakers away from remake culture, however, it was a resounding failure.

Nearly 20 years later, remakes, reboots, and reinterpretations make up what feels like at least half of each year’s major cinematic offerings. (The other half are adaptations.) The degree to which studios, filmmakers, and audiences have embraced remake culture, though, means more opportunities to approach these properties from different angles. Every now and then, a film will treat its source material with nearly the same perhaps ironic reverence as Gus Van Sant did Psycho, but most others indulge in more of a flickering faithfulness. A new video puts together side by side comparisons of scenes from 25 movies and their remakes to show how different (or not) the same movie can be the second time.

Barcelona-based filmmaker and editor Jaume R. Lloret had his work cut out for him in some movies more than others. Finding footage from Psycho that matches up is like shooting a barrel in a barrel factory. (Steven Soderbergh once overlaid both versions of the film on top of each other to play simultaneously.) Lloret also includes the curious case of when Michael Haneke remade his own Austrian film (Funny Games) in English with different actors but no other changes whatsoever. The other films, however, comprise just about the entire spectrum of remakes and reveal a lot about how these are made and received.”

Fascinating stuff - read the entire article, and see the video by clicking here, or on the image above.

CBS News Video: MoMA’s Race to Preserve Classic Films

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

The Museum of Modern Art has one of the world’s largest film archives - click on the video above, and see.

In this CBS news video, Anthony Mason reports that “important work in film history is being done by Museum of Modern Art in New York. A team of film technicians has earned an Oscar of their own. They find and preserve classic films, many of which were made 100 years ago.” And indeed, MoMA’s work is invaluable, in saving the works of the past, in a format which is becoming increasing fragile.

Here, MoMA works on preserving the silent film Rosita, directed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1923, restored under the supervision of Katie Trainor, film collections manager at the Museum. In this case, this is the only surviving print of the film, which was recovered from a Russian archive in the 1970s. Trainor supervises the 4K scanning of the film, and then sees that Rosita is returned to film – not stored digitally, so that it can be projected in its original 35mm format.

Working under the supervision of Rajendra Roy, The Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film and Dave Kehr, Curator, Department of Film, Trainor and her staff are bringing the film back to life as part of the continuing work of the museum, which has a long and celebrated history.

As MoMA’s website notes, “in 1932 Alfred Barr, the Museum’s founding director, stressed the importance of introducing ‘the only great art form peculiar to the twentieth century’ to ‘the American public which should appreciate good films and support them.’ Museum Trustee John Hay Whitney—who, in addition to collecting modern painting, produced films in partnership with Hollywood’s David O. Selznick—was chosen as the first chairman of the Museum’s Film Library, a distinguished position he held from 1935 to 1951.

Whitney knew the collection could be assembled only by those who made the movies. He sent film curator Iris Barry to Hollywood to persuade industry leaders to donate prints, a radical concept that startled stars and producers alike. At a reception and screening in the Hollywood’s famous Pickfair mansion, Barry illustrated film’s brief but important history, demonstrated the fragility of the medium, and argued that it should be safeguarded. Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century–Fox, Samuel Goldwyn, Harold Lloyd, Walt Disney, William S. Hart, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and David O. Selznick, among others, soon responded with donations of prints.

In 1936 Barry traveled through Europe and the Soviet Union to acquire international films and meet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein. So successful was this initial assembling of the collection that in 1937 the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences commended the Museum with an award ‘for its significant work in collecting films . . . and for the first time making available to the public the means of studying the historical and aesthetic development of the motion picture as one of the major arts.’

In 1939, the same year Whitney and Selznick’s Gone With the Wind premiered, The Museum of Modern Art opened its permanent home on Fifty-third Street in Manhattan and launched the first film exhibition program in America. With crucial assistance from Lillian Gish, D. W. Griffith had been persuaded to deposit his films and papers at the Museum, facilitating the first major retrospective of a film artist—an exhibition that set the standard for the presentation and analysis of the masters of this new art form.

Today the collection includes more than 25,000 titles and ranks as one of the world’s finest museum archives of international film art. Works by the inventors of film language—the creators of its form, genres, and technology—form the cornerstones of the collection. Every major artist of the silent era is represented: Griffith, Porter, and Ince; and the Edison, Biograph, and Vitagraph studio filmmakers; Lumière and Méliès from France; Chaplin and Keaton, DeMille and Fairbanks, Dreyer and Stroheim, Eisenstein and Flaherty.

The innovators and masters of the sound era are represented, too: Warner Bros., Fox, and Selznick studios; Walt Disney and Lubitsch; Ford, Walsh, Wyler, and Capra; Sternberg, Lang, Welles, Hitchcock, and Renoir; Rossellini and Ophuls; Kurosawa and Ozu; Truffaut and Bergman. Films by artists Fernand Léger, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, László Moholy-Nagy, and Paul Strand enrich the collection, as do the works of animators and contemporary experimental filmmakers such as Jane Aaron, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Connor, Ken Jacobs, Yvonne Rainer, and Andy Warhol.

In recent years, directors such as Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola, Joel and Ethan Coen, Oliver Stone, Kathryn Bigelow, John Sayles, Stanley Kubrick, and Tim Burton and producers such as Ray Stark, Albert Broccoli, Irwin Winkler, Edward Pressman, and Joel Silver have donated films to the collection. The Turner Entertainment Company has donated original materials of RKO and Warner Bros. films of the 1920s through the 1940s, to the tune of more than 629 features, including Citizen Kane and Casablanca.

American classics like It Happened One Night, Dodsworth, Nothing Sacred, Love Affair, Meet Me in St. Louis, Notorious, My Darling Clementine, On the Waterfront, Bonjour Tristesse, and Taxi Driver have been preserved in the course of collaborations with studios and distributors to safeguard surviving materials and restore damaged films, enabling new and international circulation of major examples of American film.

The collection allows the Museum to sustain an unparalleled study and exhibition program for the public, scholars, and filmmakers. This program in its varied forms has provided an education for modern artists in all mediums, and individual films have been studied by filmmakers at every level, from writers, directors, and producers to costume designers, production assistants, and grips.”

There’s no other museum quite like it in the world; MoMA is leading the race to save film history.

Film Streams in Omaha To Restore Historic Dundee Theater

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

Film Streams – one of the finest film rep houses – announces plans to restore the historic Dundee Theater.

When I first moved here from New York City, one of the first things I sought out was The Dundee Theater, a one-screen theater in Omaha that ran a mix of indie and foreign films in a charmingly retro theater, with excellent sound and projection, which in more than one way reminded me of the old Thalia Theater in Manhattan. Then, because of the shrinking market for theatrical outlets, the Dundee fell on hard times, and closed, and it seemed that it would never be reopened, much less restored to its original splendor.

But Film Streams, which operates an excellent theater in the downtown Old Market area in Omaha, have taken up the torch once again for theatrical presentation, and has just announced plans to revive and reopen The Dundee. As their press release notes, “Film Streams is thrilled to announce a major project to restore the historic Dundee Theater and secure its place in Omaha for many years to come. When the Dundee reopens, it will join our North Downtown home, the Ruth Sokolof Theater, as the second venue operated by Film Streams.

In that sense, this isn’t a move for our organization but rather a new milestone that will enable us to expand our programming in exciting ways while saving something dear to our hearts: the last single-screen cinema in Omaha and lone survivor among the neighborhood movie theaters that once existed across our city.

This incredible opportunity to restore and reopen the Dundee has been made possible by a visionary gift from The Sherwood Foundation, which purchased the 91-year-old theater with the intention of donating it to Film Streams. That gift now paves the way for our organization to serve as the new stewards of an Omaha cultural landmark.

There’s a great deal of work to be done over many months. Saving the Dundee will require a multimillion dollar restoration and renovation. Film Streams’ board and staff feel this is a challenge built for our organization. We love film, and we love our community. The Dundee represents both.”

Bravo, Film Streams – this is an excellent idea, and good luck!

New Article: From Hippie to Yuppie: The Big Chill . . .

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

 

I have a new article in Quarterly Review of Film and Video on the collapse of the 1960s counterculture.

It’s odd that both this article, and the one that precedes it, should be published at the same time; they were written years apart, but clearly circulate around the same ideas; the loss of artistic idealism as collateral damage in the digital era, and the end of a true community, only to be subsumed by a virtual one. The article is behind a paywall, so you will have to download it through a library or other facility, but the preview, shown above, is available for all to see.

As I note in the article, which discusses not only the culture of the era, but also the films that were produced during this period, “for casual observers, the hippie movement meant money to be made. This, of course, was Hollywood territory, and in a mad dash to cash in, the studios began cranking out one ‘hippie’ film after another, ‘inspired’ by the underground film scene that flourished in Manhattan and San Francisco during the era. While such artists as Bruce Conner, Ben Van Meter, Stan Brakhage, Scott Bartlett and others offered a more authentic vision of an alternate lifestyle, the studios churned out such much more commercial offerings.

Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (1969), loosely based on Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 folk song ‘Alice’s Restaurant Massacree’ was one such effort. I have a personal connection to this project, as I watched the legendary editor Dede Allen – who famously edited Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) – put the film together from hundreds of hours of raw material at an editing room at Preview Theater in New York, during a snowstorm that trapped us all in the building.

There was also Christian Marquand’s disastrous Candy (1968), ostensibly inspired by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s novel, and more blatantly such films as Conrad Rooks’ Chappaqua (1966), about the director’s personal battle with hard drugs; and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), which came late to the party, and galvanized rednecks everywhere when, in its final scene, a good old boy blasts actor/director Hopper off his bike with a shotgun – the scene was met by audience cheers in many areas of the Southern United States. For the establishment, the hippies represented a genuine threat; after all, they were openly rejecting the materialism most Americans based their lives on.

There was also Bob Rafelson’s Head (1968), starring the ‘pre-Fab Four,’ The Monkees; Arthur Dreifuss’s The Love-Ins and Riot on Sunset Strip (both 1967), which actually painted a more realistic and less rose-colored vision of the Haight-Ashbury and Los Angeles hippie life; Roger Corman’s idyllic ode to LSD, The Trip (1967); and the Beatles’ self-indulgent and self-consciously psychedelic Yellow Submarine (1968). Yet none them really contained more than a surface impression of the hippie movement.”

So, I hope you can get to read the article itself; it’s about a time and place that repays detailed consideration.

Ecstatic Cinema: Romantic Experimental Filmmaking in the 1960s

Saturday, February 20th, 2016

I have a new article in Moving Image Archive News on 1960s Romantic experimental cinema.

As I write in the beginning of the essay, “in the era we live in, ecstasy is in short supply. Escape from reality is one thing, and it’s in high demand right now, packaged and sold in a seemingly endless series of comic book and blockbuster franchise films that bludgeon audiences into submission, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Rather, I’m examining a group of films made in the early to mid 1960s that openly celebrated life, and our connection to it, through a strategy of sensory overload that sought to make the viewer almost a participant in the film’s content, to convey, without restraint, the sheer joy of existence in world of seemingly endless possibility. Perhaps it’s impossible to make such films today; perhaps we have lost our connection to the real world to such a degree that only CGI effects and amped-up soundtracks reach mass audiences. But, as I’ll argue, there seems to be a small but growing counter-movement that values these visions of another time and place, and seeks to preserve them — perhaps as signposts to the future of cinema, reclaimed from the past.

But the central problem here is preserving these works — most often shot on 16mm reversal film, and then printed on Ektachrome with an optical track for final release, an option no longer available since Kodak discontinued reversal print stock, and thus necessitating the creation of an internegative from which positive prints can then be struck, consequently introducing an extra “generation” into the image, as well as creating a much harder look than the soft, elegiac patina offered by such film stocks as Ektachrome 7241 (for outdoor filming) and Ektachrome 7242 (balanced for tungsten light indoors). Then, too, there is the very real question of what will happen to “personal” films in a corporate era; even such artists as D.A. Pennebaker, who had significant commercial success with his 16mm documentaries such as Don’t Look Back (1967) and Monterey Pop (1968) has recently been searching for a home for his original camera materials, in an age in which only blockbusters seem to be getting any sort of real theatrical release, and independent visions increasingly fall by the wayside.

In such films as John Hofsess’ half-hour split screen production Palace of Pleasure (1966/1967), shot in extravagantly beautiful color; Gerard Malanga’s elegiac and deeply Romantic In Search of the Miraculous (1966), a film in which two complete strands of 16mm imagery are superimposed upon one another for the entire length of the film; Ben Van Meter’s enthrallingly anarchic Acid Mantra, or Re-Birth of A Nation (1968), in which waves of superimposed imagery created in the camera compete relentlessly for the viewer’s attention; Paul SharitsRazor Blades (1966), another half-hour split screen dazzler that is seldom screened due to projection difficulties; and Andrew Meyer’s gentle, evocative An Early Clue To The New Direction (1966), I would argue that a certain period of experimental filmmaking came to a crashing end – note the dates of each of these films, all centering around the pivotal year of 1966 – before the introduction of structural cinema with Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) ushered in a new era of personal filmmaking.”

You can read the rest of the article 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.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by 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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