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An Essential 5 DVD Set: Pioneers of African-American Cinema

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

A restoration of these films has been a long time coming – get this set when it comes out in July.

This incredible collection – coming out shortly on DVD and Blu-ray, is a must for any serious library of American cinema, featuring some of the most historically vital works of America’s legendary first African-American filmmakers, and is the only comprehensive collection of its kind. There have been DVD releases of many of the individual films included here, but in cheap editions, without digital restoration, and now, finally, we can see them as they were meant to be seen.

Funded in part by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, the packaged set includes no fewer than a dozen feature-length films and nearly twice as many shorts and rare fragments. Subject matter includes race issues that went unaddressed by Hollywood for decades. The directors include Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams, and many others whose films deserve a much wider audience.

Films in the collection include: Birthright (1938), The Blood of Jesus (1941), Body and Soul (1925), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), By Right of Birth (fragment, 1921), Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort, South Carolina (excerpt, 1940), The Darktown Revue (1931), Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA (1946), Eleven P.M. (1930), The Exile (1931), The Flying Ace (1926), God’s Stepchildren (1938), Heaven-Bound Traveler (1933), Hellbound Train (1930), Hot Biskits (1931), Mercy the Mummy Mumbled (1918), Regeneration (fragment, 1923), The Scar of Shame (1929), S.S. Jones Home Movies (1924-26), The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the KKK (1920), Ten Minutes to Live (1932), Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1926), Two Knights of Vaudeville (1918), Veiled Aristocrats (1932), Verdict Not Guilty (1934), We Work Again (1937) and Within Our Gates (1920).

The set features musical scores (for the silent films) by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), Max Roach, Samuel D. Waymon, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Donald Sosin, Makia Matsumura, Alloy Orchestra, Rob Gal, Andrew Simpson.

Bonus Features: Optional English Subtitles, 80-page booklet with essays and detailed film notes; Interviews with series curators Charles Musser and Jacqueline Stewart; Documentary on the restoration of the films; Documentary on the restoration efforts of the Library of Congress; Archival interview with actors Ethel and Lucia Moses (1978); Tyler Texas Black Film Collection promo film (with Ossie Davis, 1985) and more!

Although these films have been available for many decades – I’ve run them in my classes for a long time – the film prints were often battered and scratched, 16mm dupes that lacked the depth and quality of the original negatives. Here, these films have been lovingly restored in a collection that is an essential part of the history of the American cinema. This is the part of film history you’ve probably missed – and shouldn’t.

This is an amazing act of historical reclamation – a must have for everyone.

Lois Weber’s “Shoes” (1916) Saved by Eye Museum, Amsterdam

Friday, April 29th, 2016

The EYE Museum in Amsterdam has restored Shoes (1916), a nearly lost film by director Lois Weber.

As the EYE Museum’s YouTube site notes, “the film Shoes (1916, USA, Universal Bluebird Photoplays), directed by Lois Weber, starred Mary MacLaren, Harry Griffith, Jessie Arnold, and William Mong. The film is a social drama about the dime store clerk Eva Meyer (MacLaren), who desperately needs a new pair of shoes. However, because her father is unemployed, Eva’s weekly earnings go into the household budget, bringing a new pair of shoes completely out of her reach.”

As historian Shelley Stamp writes of Lois Weber on the Women Film Pioneers Project website, “Lois Weber was the leading female director-screenwriter in early Hollywood. She began her career alongside her husband, Phillips Smalley, after the two had worked together in the theatre. They began working in motion pictures around 1907, often billed under the collective title ‘The Smalleys.’

In their early years at studios like Gaumont and Reliance, they acted alongside one another on-screen and codirected scripts written by Weber. Indeed, their status as a married, middle-class couple was often used to enhance their reputation for highbrow, quality pictures.

In 1912, they were placed in charge of the Rex brand at the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, where they produced one or two one-reel films each week with a stock company of actors, quickly turning the brand into one of the studio’s most sophisticated.

The couple increasingly turned their attention to multireel films, completing a four-reel production of The Merchant of Venice in 1914, the first American feature directed by a woman. Later that year they moved from Universal to Hobart Bosworth Productions where they were given more freedom to make feature-length films, among them Hypocrites (1915).

By the time the couple arrived back at Universal in 1916, Weber had emerged as the dominant member of the husband and wife partnership and, indeed, as one of the top directors on the lot. She was the sole author of scripts the couple adapted for the screen, and marketing materials and reviews singled out her work on the productions. Reporters visiting the couple on set found Smalley repeatedly turning to his wife for important decisions.

During these years Weber made a series of high profile and often deeply controversial films on social issues of the day, including capital punishment in The People vs. John Doe (1916), drug abuse in Hop, the Devil’s Brew (1916), poverty and wage equity in Shoes (1916), and contraception in Where Are My Children? (1916) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917) [. . .]

Weber achieved the height of her renown during these years: her name was routinely mentioned alongside that of D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille as one of the top talents in Hollywood. In 1916, she was the first and only woman elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association, a solitary honor she would retain for decades.

While at Universal it is also likely that she helped to foster the careers of other actresses employed at the studio, many of whom she had directed, including Cleo Madison, Lule Warrenton, and Dorothy Davenport Reid, who would become directors or producers in their own right.”

Read Stamp’s complete essay on Lois Weber by clicking here – an essential figure in cinema history.

Complete Online Index – “A Short History of Film”

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

A scholar in Germany has created a complete online index to A Short History of Film, 2nd edition.

A scholar in Germany has compiled a complete list of all the films mentioned in A Short History of Film, 2nd edition (Rutgers University Press, 2013), written by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and myself, with images of either the poster, or the DVD for each film, complete with links to reviews, purchase points, and other information on the film – as well as lots of opinions, of course – which seems like rather an amazing undertaking.

All told, the list covers more than 2,000 films, and runs to 21 webpages in the list, and can serve as a very useful way to access the films discussed in the volume. So if you’re reading A Short History of Film, 2nd edition, or using it for a class, and would like detail on access to some of the many films mentioned – the images here show just a few of the many titles covered in the volume – just consult this list, click on the title, and see what’s available.

A very useful guide – many thanks to the person who did so much work on this.

Unfinished Films at The Met Breuer

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

The Met Breuer, of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, is hosting a fascinating new film series.

The Met Breuer, located at 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street in Manhattan, on the former site of the Whitney Museum of American Art (which has moved downtown to 99 Gansevoort Street) is serving up a remarkable series focusing on incomplete, or unfinished films by a wide variety of artists, with talks led by some of the leading figures in the field on the significance of the works in question.

As the site for the series notes, “what can be learned from unfinished films, from works that arrive to us as fragments? Considered collectively—from the infamous excesses of Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly to the grand ambitions of Hollis Frampton’s Magellan—perhaps they constitute a secret canon, one made up of the most raw and, in turn, revealing sides of an artist’s practice.

Such works might be held in any number of intermediary states: left intentionally unfinished, abandoned out of frustration, cut short by death, curtailed by political circumstance.To watch these films is to unveil the particularities of their origins, to see the vicissitudes of their process and production laid bare. Presented in connection with the exhibition Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, this series features films selected by Thomas Beard, a founder and co-director of Light Industry.”

This is an altogether unique series, which gives one a chance to view the creative process from the inside, before a work is completed – and should not be missed in you’re going to be in the city. Admission is free with a regular museum admission; seats are first come, first served, so get there early.

Jeffrey Fleishman on Marketing Hollywood Films Abroad

Saturday, April 16th, 2016

Foreign playdates account for 70% of the Hollywood box-office take, but you have to know how to do it.

As Jeffrey Fleishman reports in The Los Angeles Times, “like many in the film distribution business, Mimi Steinbauer has a story — ‘funniest example ever’ — of the ingenious sleight of hand in marketing American movies to foreign lands. In her case it was Machete, a picture by Robert Rodriguez about a Mexican drug lord, an ex-federal agent and a racist Texas senator. With comedy, satire and caricature, the film was a violent and outlandish comment on America’s immigration debate.

Buyers in Thailand, however, weren’t interested in political overtones. ‘The Thais called it Machete: Splatter Blood and there was blood all over the poster,’ said Steinbauer, president and chief executive of Radiant Films International in Los Angeles. ‘I said, “You can’t call it that.” But they said it would work and it did. It wasn’t a lie per se. It wasn’t a slasher film, but they knew their audience.’

Distributing and marketing American films to other countries is a game of deciphering aesthetics and culture. What appeals to one nation may turn off another. Europe prefers sex to shootouts, while Asia and the Middle East are rapt by action and violence. Italians recoil at science fiction, Argentines drift toward the intellectual, Russians adore Minions but are cool to interracial love stories, and one distributor described American dramas as ‘the big dirty word in our business.’

Race, politics, religion all factor into how films are packaged. Steinbauer and other U.S.-based film distributors are intimate with local markets and how an American distribution campaign may have to be recast — at times dramatically so — to resonate abroad.

Understanding international preferences is crucial as Hollywood and independent filmmakers reach for larger global shares. World-wide ticket sales reached a record-breaking $38.3 billion last year. More than 70% of the film industry’s box office is generated overseas, a figure that is increasingly driving strategy and financing decisions.

Tapping into the fascinations of audiences from Beijing to Brussels is a high-stakes alchemy of language, allure, censorship, the style of a trailer, the background color of a poster and the bankability of a star such as Nicolas Cage, who despite a declining career is still a good bet in Asia. Such calculations require people with on-the-ground knowledge of specific regions — the kind of innate sensitivity you can’t learn in Hollywood.”

A fascinating article, about a topic which merits more discussion; read it by clicking here, or on the image above.

Robert Reed’s Hugo Nominated Novella “Truth” Is Now A Movie

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

Robert Reed’s Hugo Nominated Novella “Truth” Is Now A New Movie – And It’s Hot!

As the film’s official website notes, “on a cold February night, a young man is found unconscious at the wheel of a crashed vehicle in Montana not far from the Canadian border and a lump of weapons-grade Uranium is recovered from the trunk. He is immediately thrown into a high-security prison and tortured relentlessly for months. But apart from a few vicious-sounding curses in an unknown language, he utters nothing.

Then one day out of the blue, he gives his interrogators a list of numbers and letters, which turn out to be astronomical coordinates of upcoming Supernova explosions. The very next day the first of those celestial events occurs exactly as predicted, sending shock-waves through the security establishment. It’s obvious; the man in custody is no ordinary terrorist. He is a time-traveller from the future.

Fifteen years later, Ramiro still sits in the same secret prison two kilometers under the ground, but much has changed in the world above. Based on the information he has provided over the years, the US has waged a relentless war on terror in an attempt to neutralize the remaining ninety-eight ‘temporal jihadists’ Ramiro claims arrived with him. Several countries in the Middle-East have been invaded, Pakistan has been wiped off the map and India is next on the list. But the terrorists, led by their enigmatic leader Abraham, remain at large.

Such are the state of affairs the day CIA agent Carmen Reese arrives at the prison. Her immediate task is to investigate the mysterious death of her predecessor – a talented interrogator, who had successfully secured Ramiro’s cooperation for years. Was it suicide as the evidence suggests? Or was it murder? Carmen knows that the answers to these questions are linked to bigger, more important questions: Is Ramiro who he claims to be? And what is his real agenda?

As the world slips further into chaos and destruction and the threat of nuclear holocaust looms large, Carmen engages in an intense psychological battle with Ramiro, who seems to have a window into her inner world and is ready to exploit her emotional vulnerabilities to achieve his goal.”

The film, directed by Gaurav Seth, is already burning up the European film festival circuit, winning the Critics Choice Award (Prêmio da Crítica) at the Fantasporto Festival earlier this year, and opens in Canada on April 15th – in a just a few days. It seems like a promising bet for release in selected cities in the United States, with a national rollout a distinct possibility.

As one critic writes, “Seth keeps the film tight, tense, and claustrophobic, while his adaptation of Reed’s novella gets very big picture, while maintaining the intimate vibe. He effectively hides some twists in plain sight, ultimately building to a dramatic but logically consistent conclusion. Altogether, it is an excellent example of indie science fiction,” while Mario Trono of the CBC adds that the film is best described as “Zero Dark Thirty meets The X Files.” It’s a great example of a modestly made film that absolutely clicks on every level – and you can see the trailer by clicking here, or on the image above.

Good to see some small scale, intelligent sci-fi for a change!

The Chinese Cinema Explosion – 22 New Screens Every Day

Monday, April 11th, 2016

The theatrical film experience in China is absolutely exploding.

As the CBS News program 60 Minutes reports, “The movie business is booming across China. Shopping malls have popped up everywhere, and with them, theaters. Twenty-two new movie screens open every day, that’s right, every day. In the last five years, box office receipts have grown a staggering 350 per cent . . .

In February, the Chinese box office brought in over a billion dollars for the first time ever, beating the U.S. and Canada. China, with its 1.3 billion people, is expected to become the biggest movie market in the world as early as next year. Hollywood has taken notice, partnering with Chinese studios and making blockbusters as much for Chinese audiences as American ones. But the U.S. film industry is also facing competition from Chinese moguls and movie stars with big ambitions . . .

Chinese studios produce over 600 features a year, action movies, sci-fi, thrillers . . . [Said one seasoned observer of the Chinese film industry] ‘they are smart. They understand storytelling. They are super well-versed in what works in their own country. They are super well-versed in what works globally. I couldn’t be more excited. So I would say– you know, Hollywood, watch out.’”

This is a fascinating story – read the entire piece here, with videos.

Video Essay: What is Neorealism?

Saturday, April 2nd, 2016

Here is a brilliant video essay by the filmmaker / critic :: kogonada on two versions of one film.

When director Vittorio De Sica, above, was hired by David O. Selznick (the “O”, he admitted, stood for nothing, being entirely his own invention to make his name sound more prestigious – or so he imagined) to direct a film starring Selznick’s wife, Jennifer Jones, and the American actor Montgomery Clift, a clash of visions was almost inevitable, given Selznick’s well known penchant for interfering with a director’s work (as was the case with Alfred Hitchcock, who got around the problem by shooting precisely what he needed for a film, and no more, starting with his first film for Selznick, Rebecca [1940]), which reached manic levels as Selznick’s career as a producer deteriorated.

As :: kogonada writes in his introduction to this brilliant examination of the film Terminal Station aka Indiscretion of American Wife, “what rival visions would emerge if you pitted the director of The Bicycle Thieves against the producer of Gone with the Wind on the same movie material? History can tell us . . . every cut is a form of judgment, whether it takes place on the set or in the editing room. A cut reveals what matters and what doesn’t. It delineates the essential from the non-essential. To examine the cuts of a filmmaker is to uncover an approach to cinema.

The happenstance of Vittorio De Sica’s Terminal Station and David O. Selznick’s Indiscretion of an American Wife offers a rare opportunity to compare two cuts of the same film from a leading figure of neorealism and a leading figure of Hollywood. If neorealism exists, it is in contrast to the dominant approach to moviemaking, shaped and exemplified by Hollywood. In comparing Terminal Station to Indiscretion of an American Wife, we must ask, ‘what difference does a cut make?’”

For those not familiar with the saga of the making – and unmaking – of this film, Wikipedia offers this brief, sad summary: “Terminal Station (Italian: Stazione Termini) is a 1953 film by Italian director Vittorio De Sica. It tells the story of the love affair between an Italian man and an American woman. The film was entered into the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. The film is based on the story Stazione Termini by Cesare Zavattini. Truman Capote was credited with writing the entire screenplay, but later claimed to have written only two scenes.

The film was an international co-production between De Sica’s own company and the Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, who commissioned it as a vehicle for his wife, Jennifer Jones. The production of the film was troubled from the very beginning. Carson McCullers was originally chosen to write the screenplay, but Selznick fired her and replaced her with a series of writers, including Paul Gallico, Alberto Moravia and Capote. Disagreements ensued between De Sica and Selznick, and during production, Selznick would write 40- and 50-page letters to his director every day, although De Sica spoke no English. After agreeing to everything, De Sica has said, he simply did things his way.

Montgomery Clift sided with De Sica in his disputes with Selznick, claiming that Selznick wanted the movie to look like a slick little love story, while De Sica wanted to depict a ruined romance . . . The original release of the film ran 89 minutes, but it was later re-edited by Selznick down to 64 minutes and re-released as Indiscretion of an American Wife (and as Indiscretion in the UK). Clift declared that he hated the picture and denounced it as ‘a big fat failure.’ Critics of the day agreed, giving it universally bad reviews. The two versions have been released together on DVD by The Criterion Collection.”

Taking advantage of the existence of these two highly different and in a sense competing versions of the film, :: kogonada has created a side-by-side comparison of the two edits of the film, showing how Selznick simplified and “dumbed down” the American cut, while De Sica left more to the audience’s imagination, rather than spelling everything out as Selznick insisted. De Sica’s original version, though not his best work, is clearly a much more resonant film; Selznick’s edit, chopped down to a minimal 64 minutes, accomplishes nothing less than the destruction of De Sica’s film – but now we can see the original version, and the recut – and what a difference there is between them!

This is a fascinating experiment – and demonstrates why Hollywood films are so often deeply unsatisfying.

Éric Rohmer: A Biography by Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe

Friday, April 1st, 2016

I’ve been reading an advance copy of Éric Rohmer: A Biography, and it’s an absolutely brilliant book.

As the Columbia University Press website notes, “the director of twenty-five films, including My Night at Maud’s (1969), which was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and the editor in chief of Cahiers du cinéma from 1957 to 1963, Éric Rohmer set the terms by which people watched, made, and thought about cinema for decades. Such brilliance does not develop in a vacuum, and Rohmer cultivated a fascinating network of friends, colleagues, and industry contacts that kept his outlook sharp and propelled his work forward. Despite his privacy, he cared deeply about politics, religion, culture, and fostering a public appreciation of the medium he loved.

This exhaustive biography uses personal archives and interviews to enrich our knowledge of Rohmer’s public achievements and lesser known interests and relations. The filmmaker kept in close communication with his contemporaries and competitors: François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette. He held a paradoxical fascination with royalist politics, the fate of the environment, Catholicism, classical music, and the French nightclub scene, and his films were regularly featured at New York and Los Angeles film festivals. Despite an austere approach to life, Rohmer had a voracious appetite for art, culture, and intellectual debate captured vividly in this definitive volume.”

To that, I can only add that this is the book on Rohmer’s life and work, superbly translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal. Both of the volume’s authors are eminently qualified for the project: Antoine de Baecque is a professor of the history of cinema at the University of Nanterre, and has published biographies of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, in addition to serving for a number of years as editor in chief of Cahiers du cinema, while Noël Herpe is a senior lecturer at the Université de Paris VIII, and has published works on René Clair and Sacha Guitry, as well as a book of interviews with Éric Rohmer about his text Le Celluloïd et le Marbre.

With many behind the scenes photographs, selections from correspondence, detailed financial accountings of production circumstances, and offering a sympathetic yet clear-eyed portrayal of Rohmer as alternatively imperious and yet by turns extraordinarily generous to neophyte filmmakers, Éric Rohmer: A Biography is a feast of a book. I have been returning repeatedly to the volume in the past few days, marveling at the detail and precision of the text, which in many ways mirrors the precise yet romantic tone of Rohmer’s films themselves. Now, if only all of Rohmer’s works would come out in a complete DVD box set, we’d have a much fuller sense of this extraordinary artist’s legacy.

Éric Rohmer: A Biography will be released in June 2016 – you should order an advance copy now.

Tina Hassannia – No DVDs of Many Films by Women Directors

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

Tina Hassannia has a superb article on the lack of DVDs of films directed by women in Movie Mezzanine.

As she notes, “one consistent request on Twitter from female film critics and cinephiles in particular is more female-directed films. Last month, film critic Sophie Mayer analyzed Criterion’s entire collection and found that only 21 of their titles were directed or co-directed by women (including films released under Criterion’s Eclipse banner). That’s 2.6% of the whole collection, which in Mayer’s estimation is a ‘pretty meagre number.’

As telling as that number might be about a potential gender bias, the statistic only scratches the surface of what is a much broader and more complicated picture when it comes to releasing female-directed films on home video. It’s worth pointing out other characteristics of Criterion’s collection in relation to that figure.

While Mayer notes a higher number of films are directed by women in mainstream film—a still-measly 7%—Criterion’s titles represent a diverse number of cinemas that do not fall necessarily in the mainstream category; it would likely be impossible to determine the percentage of women directors in every national cinema around the world since the birth of movies. That number is likely to be much lower than 7%.

The 2.6% number also doesn’t account for the decades when there were few working women directors around the world. While women directed movies in the early Hollywood era, the profession became mostly male territory by the 1930s, and for several subsequent decades, there were almost no female directors working at all in the studio system (with some notable exceptions, like Ida Lupino). Even by the 1960s, some of the world cinemas we cherish today were only starting to find their roots and hadn’t yet standardized the practice, or even implicitly decided to allow, encourage, or prohibit women to helm a picture.

There were also more notable films made by women in the 1930s-1960s in other types of cinema—like avant-garde, independent, and documentary films—than in Hollywood. This hasn’t changed that much in the last half-century, as the gender bias in Hollywood continues to be a systemic problem. Even so, think of your favorite female-directed films: no matter which genre or country they hail from, the largest percentage were likely made in the 1970s or later.

Despite the continuing gender bias, more women have been making movies of note in the last 30 to 40 years than in the decades preceding. This is an important factor to consider, as more than half of Criterion’s collection are films that were made in the 1930s-’70s. Much of their library derives from a period when there were generally fewer working female filmmakers.

Instead of relying on statistics to examine Criterion’s collection, then, it may be more helpful to think of women-directed titles that deserve a deluxe treatment. No matter what the numbers, statistics, or decades show, given their power, Criterion would go a long way in challenging the canon by releasing more titles made by women. But the reality is that releasing films from a smaller demographic is much more difficult than one might imagine.

Last week, I queried Twitter for female-directed titles that should get the Criterion treatment. Great responses poured in, among them the films of Dorothy Arzner and Maya Deren, Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, Barbara Loden’s Wanda, and Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning. Some of these films, however, are already available from other distributors, some with restorations and supplements that are on par with or close to the quality associated with Criterion.”

All I can do is second this heartily, but also note that in addition to the directors mentioned, I would love to see a complete box set of the films of Alice Guy – some of her films are out on a Gaumont two disc set – Lois Weber (pictured at the top of this post), Ida May Park, and especially Ida Lupino, who is mentioned in this article, but whose pioneering work deserves a complete box set of all her work in the 1950s, when she was the only female director working in Hollywood. In any event, this is a real issue, one that won’t go away, and one that needs to be rectified, not only by Criterion, but by all the archival DVD labels – and no EST downloads, either. DVDs – restored, remastered, pristine, living – are the only way to go here.

This is a sharp, impassioned article – you can read the entire essay by clicking here.

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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