Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Archive for the ‘Film Theory’ Category

Forgotten African American Women of Early Hollywood

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Article – “Synthetic Cinema” in QRFV

Friday, July 7th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advice to Young Filmmakers from Denis Côté

Friday, July 7th, 2017

As Leo Barraclough reports in Variety, director Denis Côté does not suffer fools gladly.

As Barraclough writes, “Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté has won multiple awards at top festivals, including Berlin with Vic + Flo Saw a Bear and Locarno for Curling. This week he has been mentoring a group of student filmmakers at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, where he advised them on how to get ahead in the independent film world. Variety was given exclusive access to the discussion.

Although he is genial, Côté doesn’t seem like a man to take hostages. He told the 10 students – gathered together by European Film Promotion as part of its Future Frames program — that they were ‘shy,’ and given the context of the discussion – how to get your films selected by film festivals — it wasn’t a compliment.

‘You need to be social. If you are this kind of weird poet director who has no friends and is always alone you might be a genius but… you need to talk to people,’ he said. ‘Cinema is a social world. It is not like playing a guitar alone in your room or painting. Cinema is the most social art.’

Young filmmakers needed to be proactive when trying to get on the festival circuit, and not leave it to others to put their films in front of festival programmers. ‘Never trust sales agents, distributors or films schools when they say they are taking care of your film. Send [the submissions] yourself.’

He cautioned against being overly pushy. ‘There is a thin line. You need to be respectful and not annoying. The moment you become annoying everybody knows.’

Côté’s go-getting attitude is also applied to generating projects. ‘I’m my own job provider. If I don’t write a new script, no one will write it for me. I’m my own locomotive bringing people with me. I’m open to collaboration but it’s never happened to me.’

He explained that he has developed the reputation for being ‘this alien weird guy making these weird films,’ which may put off writers from sending him their scripts to direct. His ‘weird’ – a.k.a. experimental — films include Bestiaire, a documentary in which a variety of zoo animals stare into the camera, and Carcasses, about a man who collects wrecked cars, and four teenagers with Down Syndrome, carrying guns, who invade his junkyard.

He advises young people to be brave and not to wait too long to go into production on their first feature. ‘Young filmmakers are just afraid to shoot sometimes,’ he said. ‘If they feel that they don’t have the right budget for their story they don’t start.’

Many of his films have been shot with very little money and just a few people. His latest feature documentary A Skin So Soft, which follows six body builders, was shot over 27 days on a budget of Euros 40,000 ($45,700). Although unconfirmed, the intention is for the film to have its world premiere at Locarno.

Côté’s love affair with cinema started in his early teenage years when his diet was purely horror movies, mainly European artistic genre filmmakers like Dario Argento, who filled his head with images of ‘witches, zombies, skulls, blood and cannibals.’

When he went to college at 18 his film teacher opened his eyes to the delights of arthouse movies by the likes of Fassbinder, Godard and Cassavetes. ‘It changed my life,’ Côté says. ‘I never watched horror cinema after that, but its DNA was still inside me, so when you watch some of my films there is a feeling of menace. There is always something that I borrowed from horror cinema because it has stuck in my head and my personality somewhere.’

After college he became a film critic on community radio, and later worked as the critic for a local publication. He then decided to make his first feature film. ‘I said, “I’m going to show the world what I can do with zero money, a video camera and four people,” he recalled. ‘I was pretentious like that.’

He decided to ‘make a movie at the end of the world’ and so chose a village at the end of a road heading out of Quebec. Drifting States (2005) featured a man driving for 16 hours – shortened to two minutes and 45 seconds in the film – until the road stopped (‘for me that was super poetic,’ he said), and then starting his life afresh.

The film won the video section award at Locarno and the prize money allowed him to quit his job and follow the film as it appeared in around 50 festivals over one and a half years. When the film won $10,000 at a festival in Korea, he used the money to make his next film, Our Private Lives (2007).

Bigger-budget films followed, like All That She Wants (2008) and Curling (2010), but Côté has repeatedly returned to low-budget filmmaking. He remains an independent film guy at heart and admits he has an aversion to folks from the mainstream movie industry. [As for Hollywood filmmaking, he notes] ‘I can’t be around these people. I hate these people so much.'”

Words of wisdom from someone who knows what he’s talking about.

Forthcoming Book: The Films of Terence Fisher

Friday, June 30th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Klaus Kreimeier’s Origins of Cinema Website

Thursday, June 29th, 2017

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

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

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

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

Nell Shipman and Back To God’s Country

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017


Here’s an excellent article from Offscreen on the pioneer filmmaker and film actor Nell Shipman.

As the author of the piece, David George Menard, writes, “to discuss the role of women in Canada’s film culture, and even in Hollywood’s film culture, over a period of about a hundred years, is to discuss absence, gaps, discontinuities, and distortion. The images of women in feature films are distorted by a male dominated industry, and at times, inflated through men’s visual obsessions. The trend in any film culture over the last century has been to display the images of women as adjuncts to images of men.

The visual ideas of women have been represented as symbols of ‘otherness’, reflecting the male dominated world of filmmaking, a world of male narcissism and power. Although women have made great contributions to the world of film throughout its history, such efforts have been obscured and belittled —the visions and voices of the women of cinema have been suppressed.

This historical fact is unfortunate because there were great women film pioneers such as Alice Guy who made the first edited fiction film, La Fee Aux Choux (1896); Esther Shub who created the art of compilation film, as seen in The Fall Of The Romanov Dynasty (1927); Lotte Reiniger who made a feature length film a decade before Disney, as seen in The Adventures Of Prince Ahmed (1926); and finally there was Nell Shipman from Canada, also a scriptwriter and a star actress who performed as the principal protagonist in one of Canada’s earliest major feature length film, Back To God’s Country, released on October 27th, 1919.

In the early days of cinema, many young women embarked on acting careers to become Hollywood starlets. Some of the actresses who succeeded at this grand and noble endeavor sometime showed remarkable versatility behind the cameras, and many of them became writers, directors, and producers. Nell Shipman was one of these talented women. She was born Helen Barham in 1892, Victoria, British Columbia.

At the young age of thirteen, she left home to attend acting school. In 1907, she performed in the Jesse Lasky play The Pianophiends. In 1909, she was the leading lady in the Charles Taylor play The Girl From Alaska. In 1910, she got the leading role in The Barrier, a play produced by the famous Canadian producer and theatrical entrepreneur Ernest Shipman, whom she married in 1911.

Thereafter, Nell and Ernest moved to Pasadena, California, in an attempt to wedge their way into the film business. In 1912, Nell Shipman won a script writing contest sponsored by the Tally Theater in Los Angeles, and her winning script, Outwitted Billy, was produced by Selig Polyscope in 1913. In 1914, she scripted the first film produced in Australia, Shepherd Of The Southern Cross.

In 1915, she accepted the leading role in a film, produced by the Vitagraph studios, playing a character from a script adapted from James Oliver Curwood’s novel God’s Country And The Woman. The picture, her first film for a major film company, was an outstanding success, and resulted in movie contracts with Vitagraph, Fox, and Lasky for 1916-17, a period in which she completed thirteen films. All of Nell Shipman’s film experience to this point set the stage for one of Canada’s earliest feature length film, Back To God’s Country.”

There’s much more to read; click here, or on the image above, to read the entire essay.

Offscreen – An Essential Canadian Film Journal

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

Here’s an absolutely essential, completely free film journal that deserves much more attention.

I came across this journal this morning, and was shocked that I hadn’t heard of it before – mea culpa! Offscreen, an online film journal based in Canada, offers a refreshing alternative to the Hollywood based fan mania which is currently inundating the web, and showcases the major contributions that Canadian cinema – often neglected in the United States – offers to cinema culture and practice.

As the journal’s editor, Donato Totaro notes, “Offscreen has been online since 1997, along with its French language sister journal Hors Champ. Based in Montréal, Offscreen is a wide-ranging film journal that covers film festivals, retrospectives, film forums, and both popular and more academic events. Part of our mandate is to cover the Montreal film scene, but within an international context. The scope of its content, and the type of material featured and promoted in Offscreen can be summarized as follows:

  1. personal and independent film above big budget, formulaic film
  2. the under-represented (young, up and coming filmmakers)
  3. films with creative design and broad social commitment
  4. local and Canadian films/filmmakers
  5. Asian and alternative cinemas (horror, exploitation, esoteric,
    experimental, documentary, etc.)

Offscreen features extensive interviews, in-depth festival coverage, and lengthy, well-researched essays. The latter is in line with the guiding editorial policy at Offscreen, which is to allow for the flexibility to feature rigorous, well-researched texts alongside material that does not fit into traditional scholarly formats (director interviews, film festival reports, DVD reviews, etc.).

In short, our goal is to produce intelligent, thoughtful, and combative film criticism, analysis, discussion, and theory. We are driven to this end because we feel strongly that, within today’s image saturated info-entertainment landscape, cinema needs to be rigorously discussed in order to continue being an important voice of cultural and artistic expression well into the 21st century.”

It’s an excellent journal, and I found several articles of immediate interest. Click here, or on the image above to go straight to the journal’s website, and see for yourself the wealth of material available, covering everything from experimental cinema to indie features, decisively in favor of independent visions over corporate franchise films. It’s really breath of fresh air, and I recommend it highly.

Check out Offscreen by clicking here, or on the image above – happy reading!

Manohla Dargis & A.O. Scott – Best 25 of the 21st Century

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott of The New York Times pick the best films of the 21st century.

As they immediately add, “so far.” The introduction to the article notes that “we are now approximately one-sixth of the way through the 21st century, and thousands of movies have already been released. Which means that it’s high time for the sorting – and the fighting – to start.

As the chief film critics of The Times, we decided to rank, with some help from cinema savants on Facebook, the top 25 movies that are destined to be the classics of the future. While we’re sure almost everyone will agree with our choices, we’re equally sure that those of you who don’t will let us know.” And we’re off to the races.

My favorites on the list are The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Boyhood, Summer Hours [I was genuinely surprised and delighted to see this film on the list, but even so, I would have gone with Clouds of Sils Maria, but hey . . . Assayas is a master, so fine with me], The Hurt Locker [shot by multiple crews in Super 16mm so it looks as real as any battlefield coverage], In Jackson Heights, The Gleaners and I, Moonlight, Wendy and Lucy, and the exquisite Silent Light.

Missing for me immediately are The Aura and Melancholia, two stunning films that have gone into my ever-expanding Top Ten list, which now has at least 250 films in it, but that’s the fun of these listings, and it’s a solid stab at what will be remembered, and revered in the future. I’ll never, ever vote for a Pixar film, that’s for sure, but these are all solid and thoughtful choices, the kind of journalism we could use more of in daily newspapers.

Read the entire lavishly illustrated article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Happy Birthday Howard Hawks!!

Tuesday, May 30th, 2017

Director Howard Hawks and star Angie Dickinson on the set of Rio Bravo (1959).

Howard Hawks, one of the most famous and revered multi-genre directors of all time, was born on this date in 1896. As Oliver Lyttelton noted in Indiewire back in 2012, “Howard Hawks was one of the first, and one of the best. Across a 55-year career that spanned silents and talkies, black-and-white and color, Hawks tackled virtually every genre under the sun, often turning out films that still stand as among the best in that style. Romantic comedy? Two of the finest ever. War? To Have And Have Not and Sergeant York [to name just two films] the latter of which won him his only Best Director Academy Award nomination (though he did win an Honorary Award in 1975, two years before his death).

Science-fiction? The much ripped-off The Thing From Another World [officially credited to Christian Nyby, Hawks’ editor for many years, but actually directed by Hawks]. Gangster movies? Scarface, which practically invented a whole genre. From film noir and melodrama to Westerns and musicals, Hawks took them all in his stride. [Hawks] famously said that the secret to a good movie was ‘three great scenes and no bad ones,’ and he hit that target many times.”

Here’s an interesting site that celebrates his work, in great detail, as we consider the career of an artist who was comfortable with westerns, comedies, straight drama, film noir, even historical spectacle films. Check it out here, and consider the career of a director who could do it all, and make it look easy in the process. There aren’t many directors who ever matched Hawks’ versatility and drive, and he worked with all the greats, from actors like Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant to writers like William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett. Here’s to a person you should know more about: Howard Hawks.

Howard Hawks – one of the absolute giants of Hollywood history.

Lucy Fischer’s New Book “Cinema By Design”

Friday, May 5th, 2017

Lucy Fischer has an excellent new book out on the influence of Art Nouveau in film.

As the website for the book from Columbia University Press notes, “Art Nouveau thrived from the late 1890s through the First World War. The international design movement reveled in curvilinear forms and both playful and macabre visions and had a deep impact on cinematic art direction, costuming, gender representation, genre, and theme. Though historians have long dismissed Art Nouveau as a decadent cultural mode, its tremendous afterlife in cinema proves otherwise. In Cinema by Design, Lucy Fischer traces Art Nouveau’s long history in films from various decades and global locales, appreciating the movement’s enduring avant-garde aesthetics and dynamic ideology.

Fischer begins with the portrayal of women and nature in the magical ‘trick films’ of the Spanish director Segundo de Chomón; the elite dress and décor design choices in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Affairs of Anatol (1921); and the mise-en-scène of fantasy in Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Reading Salome (1923), Fischer shows how the cinema offered an engaging frame for adapting the risqué works of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Moving to the modern era, Fischer focuses on a series of dramatic films, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), that make creative use of the architecture of Antoni Gaudí; and several European works of horror—The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Deep Red (1975), and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013)—in which Art Nouveau architecture and narrative supply unique resonances in scenes of terror.

In later chapters, she examines films like Klimt (2006) that portray the style in relation to the art world and ends by discussing the Art Nouveau revival in 1960s cinema. Fischer’s analysis brings into focus the partnership between Art Nouveau’s fascination with the illogical and the unconventional and filmmakers’ desire to upend viewers’ perception of the world. Her work explains why an art movement embedded in modernist sensibilities can flourish in contemporary film through its visions of nature, gender, sexuality, and the exotic.”

This is a brilliant and wide-ranging book, written in a direct and accessible style, which moves smoothly from one film to another, and one era to another, effortlessly navigating both space and time in cinema history, in a text which is at once adventurous, incisive, and thoroughly grounded in cinema and art history. Fischer is a brilliant scholar whose work is always deeply informed and carefully considered, and with this book, she tackles a theme in cinema art direction which is far more wide-spread than one might expect. Complete with a plethora of illustrations, this is a must have text for any lover of film.

Again, proof of the old saying that the only new history is that which you don’t know – essential reading.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

RSS Recent Frame by Frame Videos