I have a new Frame by Frame video, brilliantly edited by Curt Bright, which briefly examines some of the key film composers who worked in Hollywood and abroad from the 1930s through to the present; above, John Barry, famous for his many scores for the James Bond series, as well as the score for The Knack… and How to Get It, The Ipcress File, and many other classics. I can only touch here on some of the many, many figures who worked in film music, such as Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone, Max Steiner and John Williams, but there are many others who could easily be included, if time and space permitted. See if your favorite makes the cut!
Archive for the ‘Film Theory’ Category
As he notes, “Bigelow’s films have always contained enough frisson, enough of a patina of film school sophistication that her overall enterprise has gone unquestioned, to a point that some reviewers of an ostensibly progressive bent seem absolutely blind to what is on the screen. Her first film, The Loveless (1982), about a listless group of outlaw bikers, is clearly the kind of exercise that flows from film education. It is the work of an impoverished sensibility, one grounded in film alone, with the rest of the humanities left on the shelf. We hardly need Bigelow’s DVD commentary track to know that the film adds nothing to the sources to which she must pay homage, such as The Wild One and Scorpio Rising. Her’s seems to be a temperament born of the video age, yet another movie brat, unable to discriminate, to figure the significance of her own enterprise, in order to give a piece of art a sense of value; indeed, one wonders if she has any real criteria for establishing value. She is a temperament of Tarantino’s ilk, but without his false humor, crudity, and nihilism.”
As she writes, “on leaving office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a very famous and oft-quoted speech condemning the rise of the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower specified that Americans ‘must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.’ Though he no doubt was referring to the escalation of government funding for armaments, the military, and weapons of mass destruction, he would be appalled by the manner in which individual Americans have begun selfishly destroying the environment as they individually prepare for war.
A brief history of Atom Age hysteria films of the Cold War makes evident the through-line to prepping as a form of overcompensation around the fear of emasculation of the nation, from films such as Alfred E. Green’s Invasion, U.S.A. (1952) to more recent television programs such as Doomsday Preppers. Invasion U.S.A. is a prime example of a fascinating, almost forgotten genre of post-war red scare films that traded on American fear and hysteria in the Cold War era. It typifies the post-war captivity narratives in which Americans are subject to wholesale Communist takeovers in what amounts to a repetitive psychologically driven compulsive mass hysteria.
While trading upon the crisis of masculinity, the film poster for Invasion U.S.A. promised the exploitational kicks Americans love to devour in their filmed nightmares: ‘See vast U.S. cities vanish before your very eyes.’ Indeed, in a morally objectionable use of stock footage, audiences of the film were barraged with actual documentary war images from World War II; actual air raids, on camera deaths of American soldiers and images of endless destruction and mayhem were disturbingly exploited as stand-ins to portray a massive Communist military invasion of the United States. Invasion U.S.A. is an outright plea for massive spending and expansion of the American military. Repeatedly, the United States is dishonestly depicted as militarily emasculated, ill equipped, and poorly prepared.
Like Red Nightmare (George Waggner, 1962), Invasion U.S.A. is revealed to be a hypnotic dream, or a nightmare that is incurred by the brandy-swirling Dan O’Herlihy, who hypnotizes a bar full of patrons into believing that America has been taken over by an unnamed Communist nation. Red Nightmare and Invasion, U.S.A. were designed to both exploit hysteria and add even more irrational fear to an already frightened nation experiencing a crisis of masculinity.
‘It will scare the pants off you,’ wrote Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper for the poster of Invasion, U.S.A. Jack Webb, an ultra rightwing bully, and star of the radio and television series Dragnet, really scares the pants off the audience as the narrator of Red Nightmare. This ‘educational’ film features Jack Webb presenting a vision of an alternative America, a dream scenario proudly sponsored by the United States Department of Defense, in which average American Jerry Donavan (Jack Kelly), who is not much interested in civil defense, much less Army Reserve Conferences, gets his just comeuppance in the form of a nightmare sent by macho Jack Webb.
‘Let’s give him a real red nightmare,’ threatens Webb, and indeed Jerry’s character awakens to a frightening captivity narrative – once again, the United States has been taken over by Communist forces. Jerry’s daughter Linda (Patricia Woodell), formerly sweet, feminine, and docile, announces she is going off to work on a collective. The nuclear family falls apart completely; Jerry’s wife and friends turn against him when Jerry is arrested for treason and he has no one to turn to.”
This is a book that has been long in the making, and the effort and work show on every page. Olney does a superb job tracking modern European horror films from Italy, Spain and France, in a style that is at once academically rigorous and at the same time absolutely accessible; in short, this is a theoretical text that doesn’t drown itself in artificial systematizing or outdated jargon. Instead, this is a lively, informed, authoritative text on a group of films that have become increasingly influential in horror filmmaking in the United States, exploring the work of such artists as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava and many, many others.
As the jacket copy notes, “beginning in the 1950s, ‘Euro Horror’ movies materialized in astonishing numbers from Italy, Spain, and France and popped up in the US at rural drive-ins and urban grindhouse theaters such as those that once dotted New York’s Times Square. Gorier, sexier, and stranger than most American horror films of the time, they were embraced by hardcore fans and denounced by critics as the worst kind of cinematic trash. In this volume, Olney explores some of the most popular genres of Euro Horror cinema—including giallo films, named for the yellow covers of Italian pulp fiction, the S&M horror film, and cannibal and zombie films—and develops a theory that explains their renewed appeal to audiences today.”
“From lesbian vampires to cannibal zombies, this remarkable book charts the rise and fall of the European horror film, and most significantly its rediscovery by Western fans and critics in the 21st century. In a style both sophisticated and lucid, Olney examines key films and filmmakers within their national and international contexts. Guaranteed to send scholars and fans running back to their DVD outlets, either to discover or revisit some of the oddest and most provocative horror films of all time.” —Harry M. Benshoff, author of Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film.
“Ian Olney’s new book takes us on a journey into the dark world of European horror cinema. He offers up fascinating analyses of individual Eurohorror films while also, more provocatively, arguing for the value of Eurohorror generally to a contemporary politics of identity. Not everyone will agree with what Olney has to say, but his approach is always thoughtful and accessible and it demands our attention. This is an important contribution to the literature on horror cinema.” —Peter Hutchings, author of The Historical Dictionary of Horror Cinema
“Olney takes on a cinema that, much like the monsters it features, keeps coming back no matter how often you kill it. His welcome study traces the emergence, disappearance, and return of Euro-Horror within US culture since the fifties, its revilers and devotees, its subversive potential, and its echoes in the work of filmmakers like Haneke, von Trier, or Almódovar. In the process, Olney explodes the last of our treasured binaries: art vs. schlock, “real” vs. fan scholar, hack vs. auteur, progressive vs. regressive movie.” —Linda Schulte-Sasse, Macalester College
This last quote really sums up the book’s impressive achievement: Olney really does “the last of our treasured binaries: art vs. schlock, “real” vs. fan scholar, hack vs. auteur, progressive vs. regressive movie,” documenting the varying ways in which these films are apprehended by audiences around the globe, and the ways in which they transcend the boundaries of genre and artificial binaries to reach out to the widest possible audience.
Since the shootings in Colorado, Newtown, CT, and elsewhere, the gun debate is now front and center in American national politics. In 1968, long before the problem became epidemic, director Peter Bogdanovich made one of the most insightful films about this problem with Targets, a film that among other things traces movie violence to gun violence, and presents a picture of cultural emptiness and societal freefall which is more timely today than it was even upon its initial release.
As I write today in the journal Film International, “Peter Bogdanovich got his start as a critic and historian, conducting interviews with some of cinema’s most illustrious directors in their twilight years, which were published first in a variety of books and magazines, and finally collected in his volume Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors in 1998. But Bogdanovich wanted to do more. He moved to Los Angeles and fell in with the Roger Corman circle at the height of its creative brilliance, and soon found himself working on such landmark exploitation vehicles as The Wild Angels (1966), in which he did double duty as an Assistant Director and an extra.
The next logical step was directing a movie himself, and Corman, then able to green light films with modest budgets that would actually wind up in a theater, as opposed to going straight to tape, VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray or VOD, famously offered Bogdanovich a deal. Boris Karloff owed Corman two days work on a multipicture deal, and he offered the fledgling director two days of Karloff, twenty minutes of footage from the recently completed film The Terror (1963, ostensibly a Corman film, but one which nearly everyone in Corman’s circle had a hand in directing, including Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill and Jack Nicholson), with a minimal budget and shooting schedule. Corman told Bogdanovich that if the finished film was any good, he’d distribute it through Paramount; if not, he’d dump it in drive ins through American International Pictures.
Absorbing this, Bogdanovich went home, and working with his then-wife, Polly Platt, and an uncredited Samuel Fuller, who contributed considerably to the final script, drafted a screenplay about the last days of a aging horror star, Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff), who wants to quit the business because he’s sick of starring in one rotten horror film after another; in addition, he feels that his brand of Gothicism is out of date, and that he should quit the business gracefully while he’s still in demand.
At the same time, in a parallel story, young All-American Vietnam veteran Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly, in a terrifyingly realistic performance) is having trouble readjusting to society after his hitch in the service, and goes on a murderous rampage as a sniper, picking off unsuspecting people from the top of a huge oil refinery tank, and later, from behind the screen of a drive in theater. He does all of this quite casually, as if the entire rampage was simply a sporting event, which, of course, it is for him. He has no empathy for his victims; he has no feeling for anyone. All of his victims are simply targets, as the title states with succinct finality.”
As the website for the book notes, “Spike Lee has directed, written, produced, and acted in dozens of films that present an expansive, nuanced, proudly opinionated, and richly multifaceted portrait of American society. As the only African-American filmmaker ever to establish a world-class career, Lee has paid acute attention to the experiences of racial and ethnic minorities. But white men and women also play important roles in his movies, and his interest in class, race, and urban life hasn’t prevented his films from ranging over broad swaths of the American scene in stories as diverse as the audiences who view them. His defining trait is a willingness to raise hard questions about contemporary America without pretending to have easy answers; his pictures are designed to challenge and provoke us, not ease our minds or pacify our emotions. The opening words of his 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing present his core message in two emphatic syllables: ‘Wake up!’” Spike Lee’s America is a vibrant and provocative engagement not only with the work of a great filmmaker, but also with American society and politics.”
The book’s author, David Sterritt, is Chair of the National Society of Film Critics and Professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art. Here are some early reviews: “Writing perceptively about class, race and recent US history (as well as the movies) Sterritt steers refreshingly far from the academic waffle that can plague this kind of book, and builds a reasoned portrait of one of America’s punchiest commentators.” — Total Film
“My admiration for Spike Lee has always been substantial, but thanks to this book I now admire him even more. Although David Sterritt does not blink at the many dilemmas the films present, he has greatly enriched our appreciation as well as our understanding of Spike Lee’s cinema.” — Krin Gabbard, Stony Brook University
“Since his filmmaking debut in the mid-eighties, Spike Lee has become one of the most influential African American directors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Through clear and cogent prose, David Sterritt also illustrates what makes Lee one of the finest American filmmakers working today.” — Paula Massood, Brooklyn College
As the description on the video’s site notes, there is more to reviewing movies than simply giving a film a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” The major distinction here is between daily critics, who write for newspapers on a deadline basis, and more thoughtful critics, who really “unpack” films to get at what really makes them tick. The problem here is that many people confuse opinion with analysis; they’re two very different things. Saying that you like or don’t like a film, a song, a play, a painting, a sculpture — whatever — really tells the reader nothing other than what your personal feeling about the work in question is.
More serious criticism takes a film apart, and considers not only the director, but also the screenwriter, the cinematographer, the editor, the actors, the set designer, as well as examining the culture that produced the film in the first place, and how a film positions itself for a specific audience. And that’s just the beginning of things one might consider. There are many truly influential critics I don’t mention here, simply for reasons of space, but the important thing to remember is that daily film criticism is mostly opinion, rapidly rendered for a mass audience; more detailed work in film criticism takes time, effort, and a great deal of knowledge, and is aimed at those who view film both an art form, as well as a manifestation of popular culture.
Sarah Street’s groundbreaking study, Colour Films in Britain: The Negotiation of Innovation 1900-1955, on the development of color in the British cinema, is that rare film history text which is at once absolutely authoritative, and pitched at a very high level in terms of discourse, but still readily accessible to the general reader. In addition, the volume is richly — and I mean intensely – illustrated with numerous, exquisitely printed frame blowups from the many films it examines, all in full color, and Street’s analysis of the development of color, not only in the commercial British cinema, but also in the the experimental work of artists such as Len Lye, is meticulous and detailed.
As the British Film Institute’s website for the book notes, “how did the coming of colour change the British film industry? Unlike sound, the arrival of colour did not revolutionise the industry overnight. For British film-makers and enthusiasts, colour was a controversial topic. While it was greeted by some as an exciting development – with scope for developing a uniquely British aesthetic – others were deeply concerned. How would audiences accustomed to seeing black-and-white films – which were commonly regarded as being superior to their garish colour counterparts – react? Yet despite this initial trepidation, colour captivated many British inventors and film-makers. Using different colour processes, these innovators produced films that demonstrated remarkable experimentation and quality.
Sarah Street’s illuminating study is the first to trace the history of colour in British cinema, and analyses the use of colour in a range of films, both fiction and non-fiction, including The Open Road, The Glorious Adventure, This is Colour, Blithe Spirit, This Happy Breed, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffmann and Moulin Rouge. Beautifully illustrated with full colour film stills, this important study provides fascinating insights into the complex process whereby the challenges and opportunities of new technologies are negotiated within creative practice. The book also includes a Technical Appendix by Simon Brown, which provides further details of the range of colour processes used by British film-makers.”
One of the most interesting aspects of British color cinematography that Street takes pains to point out is the ways in which British cinematographers changed the “look” of the three-strip Technicolor process from the hard, bright, bold colors used in many American films during the same era, such as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and other Hollywood projects. As she demonstrates, color was used in a variety of ways in the British cinema, with much more variation than in the States; effectively muted in the superb film This Happy Breed to convey the drabness of workaday British life during World War II, or strikingly bold in the films of The Archers — Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), of which my favorite is probably A Matter of Life and Death (known as Stairway to Heaven in the United States).
There are a number of books presently available dealing with the use of color in film, and the problem with many of them is that in describing the works they examine, they often fall back on black and white illustrations to demonstrate their case, astonishing as that may seem. Color printing is expensive, but in this case, using an excellent and sensitive paper stock, Street has managed to create a book at a very reasonable price that is bursting with color images from the many films she discusses, so much so that the book becomes almost a coffee table book, gorgeous simply for the images it contains, as well as an excellent study of the various color processes used in the UK from 1900 to 1955.
As I argue in my essay, “the films of Lucio Fulci, the Italian horror filmmaker, are usually lumped in with those of other ‘gore’ specialists, but it seems to me that this is just one component of Fulci’s work. Running through all his films is a strangely dreamlike, hyper-violent abandonment of narrative, which seeks to disrupt normative social values, perhaps as a result of Fulci’s youthful excursions into Marxist political thought.
In such films as The House by the Cemetery, The Beyond, City of the Living Dead and other works, Fulci continually works against audience expectations, both in terms of characterization and plot. In The Beyond, for example, a young blind woman’s faithful guide dog turns on her without warning, tearing her throat out; in City of the Living Dead, a young couple are making out in the front seat of a car when the girl’s father discovers them, and drags the young man to a drill press, which he uses to push a huge bolt through his skull.
Zombies roam hospitals, highways lead into the ocean with no end or beginning in sight, protagonists discover themselves trapped inside an oil painting, and there’s no logic to any of this. Fulci usually makes some desultory stab at a framing story, but once a central premise is set forth, the rest of the film is given over to random, unconnected, and seemingly unmotivated sequences that follow with no discernible order or reason. I would argue that the chaotic non-narrative structure of Fulci’s films puts him closer to the work of Luis Buñuel or Jean Cocteau; he creates a walking dream state from which the sleeper never awakes.”
As I note in this brief video, there are really three types of film journals: fanzines, which are designed for the general public; trade journals, which keep abreast of developments within the industry; and more scholarly journals, which seriously examine film as an art form. This brief list of cinema journals isn’t by any means exhaustive; for example, Film International has recently emerged as one of the most important scholarly film journals available on the web, and also publishes a print edition; and Hollywood Wiretap has recently changed its name to Studio System News, offering inside industry information on a daily basis, also free; all you have to do is sign up for a subscription.
There’s also Cinema Journal, one of the most important of all scholarly film journals, published by The Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and numerous other journals that could also have been mentioned in this video.There are many, many other journals to choose from. What I really wanted to do here was not to be a completist — otherwise the video would be thirty minutes long – but rather to give the viewer some idea of the general outlines of what’s available in film journalism beyond the “daily reviews” and blogs that proliferate on the web and in print, which offer more detailed analysis that daily reviewers can possibly offer.
In any event, check out the video for yourself, and also the journals it mentions, as well as other publications in the field, available either online, or at your local library; they’ll give you a much better picture of film as a business, and an art form.
Click on the image above to see the video.
About the Author
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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/