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The Cinema of Agnès Varda: Resistance and Eclecticism

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book: The New American Crime Film by Matthew Sorrento

Monday, May 5th, 2014

Here’s a real “sleeper” of a book; Matthew Sorrento’s The New American Crime Film.

I missed this book when it came out in 2012, but boy — am I glad I found it now. When I first glanced at this volume, I thought that it was a collection of essays edited by Sorrento written by a number of different writers, simply because the range of films covered was so wide. But no – Sorrento is the sole author of this work, and it’s one of the most comprehensive and intelligent books on the subject I’ve ever come across. I met Sorrento, who teaches Film Studies at Rutgers Camden for the first time at the screening of my films at The Microscope Gallery a few days ago, although I have always admired his writing for Film Internationalsee some of his work for that journal by clicking here - and he was kind enough to give me a copy. It was a revelation; this is an entirely new way of looking at these films, and at the history and evolution of crime films in general, especially as they morph and adapt the demands of new audiences.

In truth, I was knocked out – this is a superb course text, and outlines each film in detail. Sorrento has a sharp and accessible style, and a solid grounding in the genre, and it shows in every sentence of every essay; it simply jumps off the page as lively, informed, and important critical writing. As the publicity material for the volume notes, “the most pervasive genre in contemporary cinema, the American crime film has recently enjoyed a new surge of popularity and proliferation. Though these innovative films now tackle topical issues, they continue to reference the classic narratives and archetypes established in the great crime pictures of past decades. The titles explored in this critical survey span many themes that have fused with other genres to create fascinating filmic hybrids. Focusing on character and plot construction, the author highlights the gangster and film noir traditions that still run strongly through recent American cinema.”

But this gives only the merest suggestion of what this text accomplishes, as it deals with such directors as David Lynch, Gus Van Sant, David Mamet, Werner Herzog, Sam Raimi, David Cronenberg and the Coen Brothers and Stuart Gordon, who also provides a foreword to the volume, and whose despairing and overlooked classic Edmond, with a standout performance by William Macy, is examined here in detail. Other films covered include Spike Lee’s Inside Man, Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Paranoid Park, David Fincher’s Se7en, the brutal films of Andrew Jarecki, the nightmarish visions of David Lynch, the late films of Clint Eastwood, and how they developed and deepened the characters he created in his early work with Don Siegel, Woody Allen (an interesting and rewarding choice for this volume), David Mamet,  the much underrated films Public Enemies and American Gangster, nothing less than a mini career survey of the Coen Brothers from their first film Blood Simple to No Country for Old Men, the hallucinatory work of David Cronenberg in such films as Eastern Promises, Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan – ambitious enough for you?

What distinguishes this volume above all is the effortless erudition on display here; the skill with which Sorrento brings you into the the inner world of the film, and refuses to settle for summary analysis; the verse and style with which he attacks his work, and brings these films to life for the reader. Though obviously an aficionado of the genre – and of genre films in general – Sorrento remains rigorously critical in his writing, pointing up elements of some films that are problematic, while at the same time remaining deeply sympathetic to the aims of these individualistic filmmakers. Personally, while reading the volume, I could easily see a class centered around the text, that would embrace a wide variety of films – recent work, not just the classics – and offbeat titles, such as Gordon’s film, that certainly deserve more attention.

Sorrento is now working on a new book on “extreme cinema” in a variety of genres; we had a detailed and fascinating discussion about the project, and I hope it comes to fruition. There’s no question that in the early part of the 21st century, films have become more graphic, more daring, and more explicit than every before, putting the hearts and minds of the audience on trial – a responsibility that must not be taken lightly. Other have done volumes on “extreme” horror films, for example, but Sorrento’s new book will argue that this tendency towards “testing” the audience has now spread across nearly every genre in the cinema, including comedy. In the meantime, Sorrento’s The New American Crime Film stands as a singular and original text in a wilderness of re-treads, and in all sincerity, got me thinking about these films in an entirely new light – there’s a course there, for sure.

Matthew Sorrento – a sharp and engaging writer and critic; keep an eye out for his new work.

The Most Important Film Book of 2014: Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures

Monday, April 28th, 2014

I have a new review on this remarkable book in today’s issue of Film International.

As I note in my review, “literally hundreds of film books cross my desk every year; I review books on every imaginable genre, director, movement or filmic era on an almost daily basis for a variety of publications, but every so often, a book appears that instantly commands my attention as a work of inescapable importance. Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology is such a volume. Running to a staggering 680 pages, and yet priced in hardcover for a mere $85 on Amazon, this collection of film writings from the dawn of cinema to the present day, edited by Scott MacKenzie, is one of the most inspirational and informative volumes I’ve ever come across, because it highlights the constant need for renewal which typifies the cinema, potentially that most compromised of art forms. It is, indeed, one of the most important volumes on the history, theory and practice of the cinema ever compiled.

The struggle between capital and creation is an ongoing one, even with the advent of digital cinema, and yet it is more than ever vitally important that artists reclaim the cinema, making films that challenge and enlighten the viewer, and break away from established orthodoxies of cinema production. Most of the texts here were written by filmmakers, actual practitioners of the cinematic arts, and they are direct calls to action, even if they (blessedly) contradict each other, and often insist that only “they” are correct in their approach to the cinema. This is the sort of conflicting chaos that creates the most interesting and lasting films in cinema history; films born not out of the studio system, but out of warring, marginalized factions, working with outdated equipment, insufficient funds, no distribution, and nothing more than a vision, and a desperate desire to get the vision recorded by any means available.”

You can read the rest of my review on this absolutely essential volume by clicking here, or on the image above.

The DGA Visual History Archive – Director Interviews Online Here

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

The DGA Visual History Program offers an excellent collection of free video interviews with directors.

As the Directors Guild of America website notes, “founded in 2000, the DGA’s Visual History Program has conducted more than 160 interviews with directors and director’s team members discussing their careers and creative processes in film, television and other media.” These include such luminaries as Agnes Varda, Constantine Costa-Gavras, Claude Lelouch, Robert Altman and many, many others. You can see the interviews by clicking on the image above, and then searching the data base, or clicking on the images of some of the directors featured this month. My friend Dennis Coleman brought this to my attention; many thanks, Dennis! This is is an incredible resource.

Click here, or on the image above, to access these remarkable video interviews.

“A Lioness on the Prowl”: Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

I have an article out today on Jonathan Glazer’s new film Under The Skin in Film International.

As I write, in part, “Under The Skin is being sold on the basis of a simple premise, which is true on the face of it, but also offers just the merest suggestion of what the film is in its totality. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien inhabiting a woman’s body, who trolls through the Scottish countryside and cities searching for young men, enticing them with the promise of a sexual encounter, and then killing them for food.

In this, she is monitored by another alien, who takes on the form of a sinister motorcyclist (played by real life champion cyclist Jeremy McWilliams), who is there to make sure that Johansson’s character stays on track with her mission. That’s pretty much the plot, or as much of it as I want to give away, but there’s a great deal more going on here than this bare outline would suggest.

Firstly, there’s no real sex in the film, just the promise of sex. Although Johansson lures several men into her white van during the first third of the film, and then takes them back to her flat, ostensibly for sex, nothing really happens; the men strip off and approach Johansson, who backs away from them, as the men sink into some sort of primordial ooze that swallows them up, and then reduces them to fleshy pulp for otherworldly consumption. Indeed, there is more frontal male nudity here than female, and it’s clear that one of the many things that the film is interested in is the fetishization of sex; Johansson’s simulacric image has been created as nothing more than a stock male fantasy.

We get only one glimpse of the actual harvesting process, in which two men, both victims, are now in a sort of limbo, and desperately attempt to touch each other to make some sort of contact, and perhaps escape the trap they’ve fallen into. But no such luck; in an instant, one of the men is reduced to nothing more than a human husk, and the pulp of his body is sucked through a chute into a door of some kind, food for Johansson’s cohorts in a distant galaxy.

Although there are a number of scenes in the film in which Johansson is nude, they’re sequences in which, as an alien, she examines her new body, and wonders at its construction, and why it’s so alluring to her victims. In the opening third of the film, she is utterly without humanity, clubbing one man to death on a beach and leaving an infant baby to be swept out into the tide without even the slightest shred of remorse. But then again, she’s not human – she doesn’t understand the meaning of the word.”

This is a remarkable film, but you’ll have to seek it out; see it as soon as you can.

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s L’Immortelle Finally Released on DVD and Blu-ray

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Click here to read my review of the DVD of L’Immortelle released yesterday, a full 51 years after the fact.

As I note, “L’Immortelle was shot in 1962, and released in France on March 27, 1963, but despite the enormous success of Marienbad, L’Immortelle was deemed too difficult for American audiences, and resolutely uncommercial – which it is – and with a rough negative cost of $100,000, the producer and distributor of the film deemed a United States release more trouble than it was worth. And so it was not until six years later that L’Immortelle made the rounds of screening rooms in Manhattan; after that, I think it might have played at a few art houses for a week or so, but then it vanished from sight completely.

L’Immortelle itself has a curious genesis; it was made with blocked funds in Turkey that couldn’t be taken out of the country, and so shooting in Istanbul was a given, though Robbe-Grillet had ties to the city and knew it well. The producers even went so far as to say that they didn’t even really care if the film made money, just so long as they could get something out of Turkey. Thus, Robbe-Grillet and his wife, Catherine, who appears in the film as the enigmatic Catherine Sarayan, scouted locations and had the entire project ready to go, when a revolution interrupted their plans, and shooting had to be put off for two years before a new regime was installed, and some semblance of order restored. Then the film was shot quickly and efficiently, in richly saturated black and white.

The film’s narrative is so slight as to be nonexistent; the official press synopsis describes the film as ‘an erotic, dream-like fantasy in which a despondent man meets a beautiful, secretive woman who may, or may not, be involved in using kidnapped women as prostitutes.’ This is as good a synopsis as any might be, because the real psychic and visual terrain of the film is memory, repetition, the impossibility of knowing another, the unreliability of the senses, and a circularity of narrative that keeps bringing the viewer back to one location after another with the stubborn insistence of a spectral tour guide who seemingly insists that we visit a room, a mosque, a nightclub, an antique store, an apartment and numerous other locations just one more time, until they are indelibly imprinted on our memory.

The leading characters, Françoise Brion and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, known only as L and N respectively, are not so much characters as situations; people frozen in time and memory who walk through the film with an air of complete detachment from any sort of reality, as if they are the principals in their own fantasy of Istanbul, and the few supporting characters who surround them behave in exactly the same fashion. Scenes are routinely repeated two, three times or more, sometimes exactly the same, down to the slightest detail, and other times with minor variations, seemingly in slow motion, as if actors are sleepwalking through the world they inhabit. Often, characters appear within a scene without explanation, as if they had always been there, and perhaps always will be there; timeless, unchanging, fixed and motionless.

There is a timelessness about the film, and for good reason; as Robbe-Grillet has acknowledged on numerous occasions, Françoise Brion’s character is already dead when the film begins, although she assumes a phantom corporeality for the purposes of the film, and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, for all intents and purposes, is in love with someone who no longer exists, if she ever existed – in fact, we can’t be sure if any of the narrative ever occurred, or if everything we’re seeing is a fever dream, something conjured up out of loneliness, isolation, or the sheer existential longing of one man’s need to be loved.”

This is essential cinema; get the DVD or Blu-ray now, and prepare to be astonished.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on The Phantom of Liberty

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

Above: Luis Buñuel directs Jean-Claude Brially and Monica Vitti on the set of The Phantom of Liberty.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay out in the latest issue of Senses of Cinema on this superb film, in which she notes that “Luis Buñuel, to my mind the greatest and most ingenious of the Surrealists, was as fervent and consistent in his rejection of the moral hypocrisy of the most guarded tenets upheld by religion and bourgeois conventionality as he was emphatic in his embrace of the elegance of chance, the power of the imagination, and his love of the power of all things subversive.

It seems ironic and imbecilic that Buñuel is sometimes misperceived as a libertine as well as someone who simply subversive used humour to reject morality, as in reality Buñuel strenuously worked to replace notions of conventional morality with his own deeply held understanding of personal morality built upon a deep understanding and love of the illusory nature of chance, the asymmetrical wisdom of Nature, the naturalness of all things perverse, and a passionate hatred for the human propensity to turn perfectly natural objects into things that are labeled wrong and perverted.

Decades after its release, Buñuel’s brilliantly anti-narrative film Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, 1974) not only seems to anticipate many of our current obsessions and human foibles, but stands out as much more than a Surrealistic satire or comedy; it is in many ways a politically charged manifesto that not only overthrows narrative as we know it but also seems almost frighteningly prescient in it’s treatment of the routine celebrity of terrorists and mass murderers and, more importantly, in the way it anticipates the humankind’s own destruction of the world through our own imbecilic and suicidal pollution of the earth.

In many respects, The Phantom of Liberty plays as if it was made for 21st century audiences. Buñuel delighted in repeatedly saying that he made the film in collaboration with Karl Marx (the title refers to the first line of the Communist Manifesto); but the title is also a personal nod to a line spoken in Buñuel’s La Voie lactée (The Milky Way, 1969): ‘Free will is nothing more than a simple whim! In any circumstance, I feel that my thoughts and my will are not in my power! And my liberty is only a phantom!’ Buñuel firmly believed that chance governs our lives, and as much as they could, Buñuel and his screenwriting companion Jean-Claude Carrière tried to invite chance at every opportunity into the writing of The Phantom of Liberty.”

You can read the rest of this brilliant essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster: Surviving the Monster Mom: Child’s Pose

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay in Film International on the Romanian film Child’s Pose.

As she writes, “If a toxic abusive mother raised you, be forewarned. Child’s Pose is a harrowing and deeply traumatic film that will leave you shaken far beyond any previous cinematic exploration of familial horror and dysfunction. Another superb example of the Romanian New Wave Cinema, Child’s Pose (Pozitia copilului), directed by Călin Peter Netzer, and co-written by Netzer and novelist Răzvan Rădulescu, emerged from lengthy discussions Netzer and Rădulescu had about their own domineering mothers. The result is one of the most emotionally demanding films one can imagine.

The plot of Child’s Pose is deceptively simple: a wealthy Romanian mother, Cornelia Keneres (Luminita Gheorghiu) will stop at nothing to keep her son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) from going to jail after he hits and kills a young boy while speeding on the freeway in a race with another driver. That a wealthy son is responsible for the death of an underprivileged child is important in that it is used to force us into an engagement with a spectacularly dysfunctional mother-son relationship and, at a secondary level, to explore the evil of the class system of Romania, a society rife with blatant corruption and moral decay.

As Dana Stevens notes in Slate, “the original title, Pozitia copiluilui, refers to the literal physical position of a child – an image which might have several meanings in the movie’s context, none of them involving a relaxing forehead-to-floor asana,” and much more to do with the cringing, child-like, defeated persona of Barbu, who seems to have no life or will of his own. I have never witnessed another film that so effectively captures the inescapable trauma of being the spawn of such a dangerously toxic pathological mother. There is no doubt in my mind that both Netzer and Rădulescu understand first hand the pathology of the monstrous parent; the level of realism in the film obviously has much to do with personal experience.”

You can read the rest of Foster’s essay on this amazing film by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Narcissistic Sociopathology of Gender: Craig’s Wife and The Hitch-Hiker, Part 2

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

Here’s Part II of Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s essay on The Hitch-Hiker and Craig’s Wife in Film International.

As Foster writes, “while Dorothy Arzner’s Craig’s Wife (1936) revolves around a pathological female who is undone by her desperate attempts to conform to the norms of patriarchy during the depression era, Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953) presents us with a male serial killer, another malignant narcissist in Emmett Myers (William Talman) who is similarly desperate to prove his identity and gender through sadistic and sociopathic homicidal behavior. Talman, as Myers, spends most of the movie terrorizing two World War II veterans, Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) and Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien). He is a serial killer with a chip on his shoulder; he likes to verbally abuse men, keeping them alive just to taunt them. He is not a veteran, and doesn’t have the baggage of a family, or the debts that the men have to support the suburban lifestyle, as he constantly reminds them, but that’s because he lives entirely outside society, preying on it, rather than participating in it.

The key to understanding The Hitch-Hiker is simply asking ourselves why Myers doesn’t just kill the men off at the earliest opportunity. At first he uses them as drivers and he uses them to get food, but as we learn from radio broadcasts, the law has no idea where he is for most of the movie so Myers doesn’t really need these men to survive. Of course it adds to the suspense that he can simply kill them at any time but oddly, he doesn’t kill them. Perhaps he wants them around to admire him and obey him and fulfill his needs as a narcissist? Myers could simply take the car and move on to the next victim, but he actually appears to enjoy trying to come between these two war veterans who themselves are close companions and prefer one another’s company over the company of their wives. Myers may be a serial killer, but he clearly enjoys the company of men. They bring him pleasure.”

Your can read the entire piece by clicking here now, or on the image above – - must reading!

Missing in Action: The Lost Version of Vanishing Point

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

I have a new article out today on the “lost” version of Vanishing Point, one the key films of the early 70s.

As I write, “Much has been deservedly written on Richard C. Sarafian’s existential road movie Vanishing Point (1971), a shambling, glorious wreck of a film that nevertheless manages to achieve a certain sort of ragged splendor in its countercultural tale of loner driver Kowalski (Barry Newman), who takes on a nearly impossible drive from Denver to San Francisco to deliver a Dodge Challenger in less than 24 hours.

Based on two true life stories; one of a San Diego police officer who was kicked off the force in disgrace, and a separate story of a man who died after a high speed chase when he crashed into a police roadblock, Vanishing Point is pure twentieth century high octane nihilism – but with a twist. The archetypal loner, Kowalski (no first name is ever given) has a checkered past; at various times a race car driver, a policeman kicked off the force for stopping his partner from raping a woman during a routine traffic stop, and a Vietnam veteran, Kowalski has clearly given up on life, and seeks only speed and escape.

On his way out of Denver late Friday night, Kowalski stops by a biker bar to score some speed from his pal Jake (Lee Weaver), and bets him he’ll make it to San Francisco by Saturday at 3PM – way ahead of schedule. Jake is skeptical, but Kowalski is on a mission – indeed, when he first pulls into the garage on Friday night to pick up the Challenger, we have no idea when he’s last slept at all, if ever. Like a shark, Kowalski has to keep moving or die, constantly in motion, and constantly evading those who would seek to knock him out of the game.

For, not surprisingly, Kowalski’s epic speed trip soon attracts the attention of the police in the various states he crisscrosses on his way to the West Coast, and as he crosses one state line after another, the cops play tag team with him, each group hoping to stop him for good. From Colorado to Utah to Nevada and finally to California, Kowalski has got the cops on the run – but they’re gaining on him, and with each new state line, the obstacles get tougher and tougher to deal with.

But something’s missing, and it’s only available on the initial US release of the DVD, which presents two versions of the film with almost no fanfare; the 98 minute standard US version, and the 105 minute cut featuring a key, lost sequence with none other than Charlotte Rampling – absolutely assured as usual – as a mysterious hitchhiker in the dead of night, suitcase in hand.”

It’s true; the cut seven minutes changes the entire film. Click here, or on the image above, to read more.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

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 numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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