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Cinespect

Monday, August 5th, 2013

Here’s a great web journal on the film scene in New York City, and it’s completely free to all.

As the journal’s website notes, “Cinespect is a leading media source on the New York City cinema experience and beyond. Founded in 2010, Cinespect is dedicated to offering readers the most robust and well-rounded content, including reviews of new releases and repertory programming, articles about film-related events in the city, interviews with industry professionals, op-eds, film festival coverage, and in-depth features.”

The current issue features articles on new DVD and Blu-ray releases; what’s happening at Film Forum, one of the last and most respected repertory cinema theaters in the United States, and one of the only theaters left that still has 35mm projection capability, regularly screening new 35mm prints of the classics in their original format; as well as reviews, festival coverage from around the world, interviews with emerging and established filmmakers and critics, and a host of other material.

Contributors include Genevieve Amaral, Joel Neville Anderson, Rachel Chu, Matt Cohen, Brian Doan, Will Dodson, Judith Dry, David Fitzgerald, Christopher Garland, Daniel Guzmán, Daniel Kavanagh, Sheila Kogan, Mónica López-González, John Oursler, Claire E. Peters, Nathan Rogers-Hancock, Jennifer Simmons, Ed Vallance, Stuart Weinstock, Marshall Yarbrough and a wide range of additional writers, each with their own distinctive voice and point of view, allowing for the widest possible range of discourse.

One of the most interesting critics working for Cinespect right now is Will Dodson, whose work on the site can be found by clicking here; right now he seems most interested in Japanese cinema both high and low, no pun intended. Subscriptions are free, and you can sign for the newsletter on the home page, which can be accessed by clicking the image above; check it out – this is some sharp and invigorating writing from a host of new voices, and absolutely worth your time and attention if you care at all about the past, present and future of the cinema.

Cinespect; check it out, and subscribe now!

New Frame by Frame Video: War Movies

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

I have a new Frame by Frame video, directed and edited by Curt Bright, out today.

As historian and critic Tim Dirks notes on his excellent website, “war and Anti-War Films often acknowledge the horror and heartbreak of war, letting the actual combat fighting or conflict (against nations or humankind) provide the primary plot or background for the action of the film. Typical elements in the action-oriented war plots include POW camp experiences and escapes, submarine warfare, espionage, personal heroism, ‘war is hell’ brutalities, air dogfights, tough trench/infantry experiences, or male-bonding buddy adventures during wartime. Themes explored in war films include combat, survivor and escape stories, tales of gallant sacrifice and struggle, studies of the futility and inhumanity of battle, the effects of war on society, and intelligent and profound explorations of the moral and human issues. Some war films do balance the soul-searching, tragic consequences and inner turmoil of combatants or characters with action-packed, dramatic spectacles, enthusiastically illustrating the excitement and turmoil of warfare. And some ‘war’ films concentrate on the homefront rather than on the conflict at the military war-front. But many of them provide decisive criticism of senseless warfare.”

You can check out the video by clicking here, or on the image above.

Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access on “Inquiry” with Mark Lynch

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

I just did an interview with host Mark Lynch on the radio program Inquiry, from NPR affiliate WICN in Worcester, MA, on my new book, Streaming.

As it says on the website for the podcast of the show, “Tonight on Inquiry we welcome back Wheeler Winston Dixon. He is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies and professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His new book is Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access. Professor Dixon declares that we are now in the “postfilmic era”, a time when movie film will no longer exist and all movies will be shot digitally. DVDs will also cease to exist as all films will be “streamed” and movie houses, those that are still extant, will only show digital copies of movies. But what are the implications of all of this for the art of film, the preservation of old films and how we watch movies? The answers are disheartening and  a little bit frightening. Tune in and find out why.”

And you can tune in by clicking here, or on the image above.

Eclipse Series 38: Kobayashi Against the System

Sunday, July 14th, 2013

Criterion’s Eclipse series of unjustly overlooked masterpieces has just put out a superb set of films by the great Japanese filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi, who is almost unknown in the West.

As critic Michael Koresky notes in a superb essay on the Criterion website, “among all the important directors who emerged in Japan just after World War II, Masaki Kobayashi would distinguish himself as the most aggressively social-minded. He used cinema to speak eloquently against rigid and corrupt systems that denied or abused individual rights, and to indict a status quo that allowed amorality and venality to flourish. His three-part magnum opus, The Human Condition (1959–61)—an existential portrait of one man’s efforts to maintain his integrity in a rotten world, and a condemnation of the machine in which he is ultimately little more than a cog—marked the high point of the period early in his career when he began to grapple with these difficult themes, in a string of arresting, socially committed films set in contemporary Japan, none of the rest of which are widely known today. With these films, produced between 1953 and 1962, Kobayashi tried to make sense of a postwar nation that he believed had lost its bearings, and in the process became a mature morally and politically engaged cinematic artist.

Having studied philosophy and art history at Tokyo’s Waseda University, Kobayashi turned his attention to film after graduating in 1941, and got an assistant director position at Shochiku studios. Only eight months later, however, he was drafted into military service. While stationed in Manchuria and the Ryukyu Islands, the left-leaning, pacifist Kobayashi remained opposed to the actions of the Imperial Army, even declining to ascend past the rank of private when his superiors wanted to promote him. Deeply affected by his experiences in a war he would later call ‘the culmination of human evil,’ he returned to Shochiku driven to express his dissent on-screen. First, though, he assisted on his mentor Keisuke Kinoshita’s middle-class comedies and domestic dramas, exemplars of the studio’s preferred style at the time and which influenced the largely apolitical content of his own first films, My Sons’ Youth (1952) and Sincerity (1953).

Kobayashi’s third film, The Thick-Walled Room, completed in 1953, was a different story. It demonstrated the seriousness of the filmmaker’s intent, and it was among the first films in Japan to deal openly with the nation’s wartime legacy. It concerns a group of B and C (second- and third-tier) war criminals—rank-and-file military men who acted on orders—who have been imprisoned and treated cruelly by members of the American occupying force, though their superiors have gone unpunished.

The film, based on the diaries of real-life prisoners, treats the low-ranking soldiers not as innocents but as dupes of a system that will not assume responsibility for its actions. Rather than take a broad historical approach, Kobayashi turns this raw material into intimate drama, his immediate, exquisitely composed black-and-white images evoking his characters’ psychological anguish; meanwhile, the shadowy prison in which they’re held is effectively filmed as a looming character in itself. Though the American occupation had ended in 1952, the Japanese government feared that The Thick-Walled Room’s incendiary content would offend the U.S. and demanded that Shochiku either cut or withhold it. Kobayashi was unwilling to trim the film, so it was shelved until 1956.

The controversy surrounding The Thick-Walled Room didn’t do much to ingratiate Masaki Kobayashi with Shochiku head Shiro Kido. For decades, Kido had fostered a specific house style in shomin-geki (contemporary stories of everyday life)—lyrical films about love and family directed by such auteurs as Yasujiro Ozu and Keisuke Kinoshita, Kobayashi’s mentor. After The Thick-Walled Room was shelved in 1953, Kobayashi went back to this gentler mode of filmmaking, coming out with several sentimental films, including Three Loves (1954), Somewhere Under the Wide Sky (1954), Beautiful Days (1955), and The Spring (1956), works that in their affirmation of small-town values recalled Kinoshita’s megahit Twenty-four Eyes (1954), which regarded loneliness, war, and death from the perspective of a deeply moral schoolteacher. Kido was impressed by Kobayashi’s output, and the director eventually felt that he had enough support to set out again for the angrier, more political territory that was closest to his heart.

I Will Buy You (1956) was Kobayashi’s first step back in that direction. The subject matter—the machinations behind the scenes of professional baseball in Japan—may not initially seem particularly inflammatory. But this is hardly the kind of sports movie that we’ve become accustomed to in the West, with epic triumphs and last-minute redemptions, or even the kind that Japanese audiences were used to—the long popular supotsu-mono genre generally focused on disciplines like judo and karate. The suspense in this deliberately paced, scathing examination of the greed that drives the sports world is predicated not on how many home runs its star player will hit but on how much of his and his handlers’ souls will be lost in the process.

Baseball had been Japan’s favorite sport for decades by the time the film was released. Kobayashi fully intended to shock viewers with his takedown of the beloved institution. (The outrage his treatment of the subject conveys may seem quaint today, when we’re more cynical about sports’ corporate interests.) Adapted from a Minoru Ono novel, the film is told from the perspective of and narrated by Kishimoto (Keiji Sada), a ruthless scout hot to sign the up-and-coming college player Kurita (Minoru Ooki) to the major-league Toyo Flowers. Kurita, also being courted by the Handen Lilies, proves to be a tough sell, however, as the scout must appeal not only to him, his poor rural family outside Osaka, and his skeptical girlfriend, Fueko (Keiko Kishi), but also to his tough-minded and avaricious mentor, Kyuki (Yunosuke Ito), who acts as much out of slimy self-interest as Kishimoto does.

There’s little sports-film catharsis in I Will Buy You—and relatively little baseball. Most of the interactions are pitched like boardroom negotiations, shot by Kobayashi with clinical detachment and often in ominous shadow. The world Kobayashi depicts may be a hollow one (notwithstanding Kishimoto’s climactic crisis of conscience, when he states, ‘It is our job to be ruthless and unaccountable . . . Because we see people like Kurita not as players but as commodities’), but there’s an exhilaration to the film’s truth-seeking. In bearing witness as he saw his country losing its moral way, Kobayashi also demonstrated how trying times can serve as a crucible for art.”

This is a brilliant analysis of the film, and a brilliant film, as well. Kobayashi is absolutely unforgiving in his portrayal of the potentially corrupting influence on money in big time sports, and as with the other films in this Criterion set, particularly The Inheritance, his view of the world is bleak indeed, yet all too accurate in the final analysis. Far from being punished for their actions, the protagonists of both films occupy a world in which cunning and deception are the norm, and which almost rewards evil – there’s no sincerity of thought or action here, only sheer self-interest. As one might expect, the transfers of the films here are absolutely flawless, with meticulous subtitles, and an absolutely essential part of any cineaste’s collection.

It’s disconcerting to think that Kobayashi thought that he was making these films for posterity, as his testament to the world, and how black and white filmmaking has all but vanished, as well as film itself, and were it not for the efforts of Criterion, these films would never see the light of day. Kobayashi is a superb filmmaker, and his pitless vision of social commerce rings all too true in the current 99%/1% landscape of society on a worldwide basis. All of the films in this set are remarkable, but for me, I Will Buy You, beginning with the unambiguous directness of the film’s title, is a one-of-a-kind indictment of greed and human weakness, and makes American noir sports films like Champion seem weak tea indeed.

This is a box set that any serious film aficionado should get immediately.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Post Tenebras Lux

Monday, July 8th, 2013

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay out on Post Telebras Lux in Film International

As Foster points out, “I’m always attracted to films that cause an uproar, critical polarization, outrage, anger, dismissal, and confusion. Thus I was drawn to the Mexican film Post Tenebras Lux when I read about the decidedly mixed critical reaction it received at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. It was loudly booed, some critics were openly hostile and dismissive towards it, and yet Carlos Reygadas, who directed the film, was awarded the Best Director Award at the same festival. Audiences at Cannes, though, have a history of booing films that are later hailed as masterworks. BAMcinétmatek recently ran a series of films that most agree are masterpieces, but were initially rejected and “booed” at Cannes. Films such as Buñuel’s El (This Strange Passion, 1953), Antonioni’s L’eclisse (Eclipse, 1962), Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964), Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Bresson’s L’argent (1983) and Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) are among the list of films that were initially met with loud jeering, harsh criticism, and general incomprehension.

After a cursory glance at reviews, I fully expected an almost incomprehensible, dull, self-indulgent, inscrutable and difficult, if not impossible film. I figured I could always leave early if it was downright awful, but I had a sneaking suspicion that it might be quite the opposite, and my suspicions were more than confirmed. I am so thrilled that I was fortunate to see such a dazzling and beautiful film projected on the big screen. Where others found an overly “demanding” and “difficult” film, I felt Post Tenebras Lux was anything but “difficult.” I experienced the film as an exhilarating and sublime poetic examination of patriarchy and class wound into a liberating and absorbing dream-like narrative deliciously open to interpretation and openly imaginative.

Post Tenebras Lux is purposefully rendered precisely in the realm described in Buñuel’s words, “somewhere between chance and mystery.” Like Luis Buñuel, Carlos Reygadas values highly both freedom and imagination, and I find it very disturbing that so many critics, those whom should champion films that embrace the dream state between chance and mystery, reject the film as too difficult. Carlos Reygadas actively gives the gift of freedom of interpretation to the audience, but, unfortunately, many critics seem to reject that free space of imagination that Buñuel valued so highly. Ironically, ‘Post Tenebras Lux’ translates from Latin into ‘Light After Darkness.’ Perhaps if critics would return to the film for a second viewing, they may be lucky enough to experience that revealing glow and step out of the darkness into light.”

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

The Purge

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

I have a new essay on James DeMonaco’s film The Purge in Film International this morning.

As I write, in part, “As H. Rap Brown once famously observed, ‘violence is as American as cherry pie,’ and James DeMonaco’s The Purge (2013) offers ample proof of this fact. You want to take it simply as a thriller – fine. But there’s much more on offer here than genre filmmaking. The Purge is seriously thought out, precise in its inverted logic, and taps in neatly to the current trends of endless outbursts of violence, grotesque displays of consumption, and the stratification of society as a whole.

DeMonaco, who previously helmed the indifferent remake of John Carpenter’s superb 1976 thriller Assault on Precinct 13 (2005), here returns to much the same story, but with considerably greater success: a group of people are holed up in an insolated location, giving shelter to a complete stranger, while a band of well armed, murderous hooligans tries to break in and kill everyone.  This is his breakthrough film, and he squeezes every last drop of irony and withering social criticism out of it.”

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

The Disquieting Aura of Fabián Bielinsky

Monday, April 29th, 2013

I have a new article today on the late director Fabián Bielinsky in Film International.

As I note, “the roots of [Bielinsky's film] The Aura go way back in Bielinsky’s childhood, to a screening of John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), which so mesmerized the young cineaste that he refused to leave his seat until the management gave him a poster of the film as a souvenir. Over the years, Deliverance occupied almost the entire space in the young director’s mind, and it’s worth noting that even as he suggested after the success of Nine Queens that he might next like to try his hand at ‘a psychological thriller,’ the first draft of the script for The Aura was written in 1983, the year he directed the short film La Espera, and graduated from the national film school. The film was in every way darker and more fatalistic than Nine Queens; as he declared from the outset of the film’s production, The Aura was designed to please no one but its maker.

As Bielinsky told Jorge Letelier in the film journal Mabuse, ‘the [film’s] theme is crime, but its structure allows for more discussions because […] I decided to accept a series of brutal and dangerous breaks in the structure, because in a genre film audiences expect a certain type of structure and rhythm according to the rules of the genre in question. I opted to go on breaking those rules, so that things wouldn’t happen when they were supposed to happen.’ And this, indeed, is precisely what sets The Aura apart from more traditional crime ‘thrillers’ – it is, at its heart, a study in psychological penetration, gesturing back to the director’s early studies in psychology, and his examination of the ethos of machismo in Latin American society.

And it’s clear that as an omnivorous moviegoer, Bielinsky knew, much better than most of the people who interviewed him, that Nine Queens had been a work of precise calculation, every bit the same sleight-of-hand trick that the film itself celebrated. Make The Aura first? Not likely. Make a crowd pleaser first, designed to appeal to the widest possible audience, and then, if you were lucky and worked hard, you just might get a shot at a script that had been kicking around in your file drawers since your 24th birthday – a work so dark, so uncompromising, so willfully designed not to please, that it might as well have been Godard’s Le Petit Soldat or Les Carabiniers (both 1963), films which represented an outright assault on their respective audiences. And when an unsuspecting critic suggested that someone like David Mamet might be an influence on Bielinsky’s work, the director was quick to disabuse them of that mistaken notion.

When David Edwards ventured that Mamet might perhaps have been ‘a particular influence,’ Bielinsky good naturedly, but firmly, put Edwards in his place, saying that, ‘well, you know I was writing ideas like this before I even knew David Mamet existed! Of course, it’s flattering to be compared to him because he’s such a great scriptwriter and playwright. But, you know, Mamet didn’t invent this. There’s a whole history of con man movies before he came on the scene. I mean, I think about films like The Sting, Paper Moon, The Flim Flam Man, House of Games, the films of Fellini and other Italian films I saw when I was a teenager.’

So the roots of both Nine Queens and The Aura run deeply into not only Bielinsky’s past, but the past of cinema as a whole, and now, with the immense success of his first film, and the American remake racking up acceptable grosses, producers who were formerly unwilling to take a chance on Bielinsky’s pet project now agreed to participate. True, he had to cobble together financing from a variety of sources, and especially in the wake of Argentina’s financial collapse, everything – not just filmmaking – was a daily struggle, but at length, all was in place, and Bielinsky was allowed to embark upon the dark journey of The Aura which, though he did not know it at the time, would be his last testament as a filmmaker.

If Nine Queens presents the picture of a world becoming undone, a picture, in the words of Michael Chanan ‘of a corrupt society, where everyone is conning everyone else, a metaphor for a dangerous political situation on the verge of coming to a head, with a closing scene – as a bank puts up its shutters and depositors clamor for their money – that is nothing short of prophetic,’ then The Aura shows the aftermath of that society’s collapse, which is now no longer a joking matter, but rather a deadly serious fight for survival.

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

Esther Eng, Pioneering Feminist Director

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

Wai Kim-Fong, Esther Eng and Beal Wong on the set of Eng’s film Heartache

Esther Eng, a pioneering feminist director, is the subject of a new documentary. As Elizabeth Kerr notes in a review of the documentary, Golden Gate Silver Light, which premiered at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, in The Hollywood Reporter, “Wei’s feature doc is clearly a labor of love — she also edited, produced, wrote, shot and narrated — and the workload often shows. The voice-over (difficult under dramatic circumstances) is academic and frequently stilted, the subtitles are riddled with inconsistencies and spelling errors, and Wei is given to hyperbole (there are many “masters” and “legends” referred to in the film). The HDV photography is functional and efficient and nothing more, and the film is heavy on stock footage and archival photos (though that is likely beyond Wei’s control). Despite the technical and cinematic shortcomings, festivals should provide Golden Gate Silver Light a healthy life on the strength of its subject, and the film could find a place on specialty cable and even in academic circles.

Wei begins her search for details on Eng’s life in the city of her birth, San Francisco, and follows her footsteps to Hollywood, then Hong Kong and finally back to the United States where she died in New York in 1970. Along the way Wei tracks down the bystander who found Eng’s personal journals and photos in a dumpster (which he donated to the Hong Kong Film Archive) and as many surviving family and co-workers — many former Cantonese opera stars fleeing the war in the 1930s — as she could to paint a rough sketch of the unconventional woman. The conversations with Eng’s now-elderly peers complement the material supplied by periodicals and Hollywood biographers and film critics (including The Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy). The fact that Wei found two with a semblance of knowledge of Eng speaks to just how unjustly she’s been disregarded.

One of Golden Gate’s strengths is its seamless ability to weave history, Sino-U.S. relations and social standards together to allow for inference and context. When the Chinese Exclusion Act kept Eng from pursuing her chosen career, she left for Hong Kong, where the same individualist streak made her a local celebrity, which stemmed as much from the success of the five films she made there to the exotic lesbianism no one seemed to care about. When she returned to the United States, she was a successful filmmaker — who cast Bruce Lee as an infant girl in one of her last films, Golden Gate Girl (1941).”

This is a fascinating look at a neglected artist; click here for another essay on Eng’s work from China Daily, by Frank Bren.

North Korean Red Dawn: Olympus Has Fallen

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

I have a new essay out today on the film Olympus Has Fallen in the journal Film International.

As I write, “part Kim Jong-un’s ‘the West must fall’ fantasy come to life, part right wing wet dream and all around militarist anthem, Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen (2013) is an updated riff on John Frankenheimer’s Manchurian Candidate (1962; though we’ve already had that in 2004, directed by Richard Condon) for a new, more merciless generation.

US President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) is taken hostage by North Korean fanatic Kang (Rick Yune) in the White House bunker, along with Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo) and other members of the White House inner circle, and it’s up to disgraced Secret Service Agent and professional loner Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) to get him out and foil Kang’s plot.

Banning has fallen into official disfavor as the result of an accident in which the president’s wife, Margaret (Ashley Judd, in a brief cameo) plunges to her death in a frozen river on the way to a Presidential fundraiser on a snowy evening; though Banning really isn’t responsible, and saves the President from an equally watery grave, he’s racked by guilt – you know, he’s got to make up for it somehow.

Relegated to a desk job, Banning longs to get back into action, and the unfolding crisis gives him the perfect opportunity to pull a Bruce Willis/Die Hard riff and almost single handedly bring down the invading terrorist force. All around him, cops, civilians, and military personnel are being shot to ribbons, but somehow Banning survives the considerable amount of gunfire to worm his way into the White House basement, and start a counteroffensive.”

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

La decima vittima (The Tenth Victim, 1965)

Sunday, March 17th, 2013

I have a new article out today on Elio Petri’s The Tenth Victim in Senses of Cinema.

As I write, “in the early to mid 1960s, the Italian cinema was going through a sort of renaissance, as it not only produced important films by such renowned cineastes as Federico Fellini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini and many others, but also works by more ‘populist’ filmmakers like Sergio Leone and Mario Bava. Elio Petri was a director who straddled both worlds. An avowed leftist, Petri nevertheless pursued commercial projects when he felt that they could also make a social statement within the content of supposedly escapist entertainment.

Having begun his apprenticeship in the cinema working as an assistant to director Giuseppe De Santis on several projects, most notably the neorealist drama Roma ore 11 (Rome 11 O’Clock, 1952), Petri then directed a number of shorts before helming his first feature, L’assassino (The Lady Killer of Rome, 1961), which starred Marcello Mastroianni in a straight dramatic role as an antique dealer unjustly accused of murder.

L’assassino was a critical and commercial success, and Petri continued on with several other projects, including one segment of the omnibus film Alta infedeltà (High Infidelity, 1964) entitled “Peccato nel pomeriggio”, before getting his first shot at a major international production with the film considered here, La decima vittima (The Tenth Victim, 1965). Petri got the idea for the film from a 1953 short story by science fiction author Robert Sheckley entitled “The Seventh Victim”. When La decima vittima opened and became an international hit, Sheckley wrote a “novelisation” of the film under the title The Tenth Victim, in 1966. It was Petri, however, who wrote the script for the film itself.”

You can read the entire 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 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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In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/