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Archive for the ‘Films That Need a DVD Release’ Category

Black-and-White is Dead. Long Live Black-and-White!

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Peter Monaghan has very kindly interviewed me on my new book, Black & White Cinema: A Short History.

Writing in Moving Image Archive News, Monaghan notes that “set to appear in November 2015 from Rutgers University Press, Black and White Cinema: A Short History describes a range of styles of black-and-white film art, and how they arose to create the distinctive looks of Hollywood romances, gangster dramas, films noirs, and other styles.

But Dixon, a film historian and theoretician at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where he coordinates the film studies program, is also a seasoned filmmaker, and that provides him with a keen eye for how black-and-white film was made. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including A Short History of Film (2nd edition 2013; with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access (2013); and Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012).

In this interview, he explains why black-and-white cinematography will not return, not just because black-and-white film stock is near impossible to acquire, but moreover because the skills and techniques needed to film with it are almost irreversibly moribund.

Why do you quote this, from Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love, as an epigraph to your book? The angel said, “I like black-and-white films more than color because they’re more artificial. You have to work harder to overcome your disbelief. It’s sort of like prayer.”

To me black and white is more sensuous. It’s such a transformative act to make a black-and-white film. You are entering an entirely different world, right from the start. It’s so much more of a leap into another universe. Color films and particularly color 3-D films attempt to mimic some sort of spectacular reality, whereas black-and-white films are really a meditation on the image.

It’s a medium that dominated film production up until 1966, as the normative medium in which films were created. Cameramen had the ability to look through the camera and see the world in black-and-white even though what they were seeing on the set was color. As a viewer, you have to accept its completely artificial world, so it requires a bit more of you. I think that’s what the Carroll quotation is about.

And in the 1940s you’d go to a film already willing to be transported, wouldn’t you?

Absolutely, but I don’t think audiences in the 1940s even thought about it, or the ’50s. Or even the ’60s. They just went to the movies, and expected black and white — it was the way movies looked. A black and white world.”

You can read the entire interview by clicking here, or on the image above. Thanks, Peter!

Peter Collinson’s The Penthouse (1967)

Friday, August 28th, 2015

Martine Beswick, Tony Beckley and Norman Rodway- a deadly trio in Peter Collinson’s The Penthouse.

I have always had a weakness for Peter Collinson’s film The Penthouse, based on C. Scott Forbes’ play The Meter Man, in which three miscreants, Tom (Tony Beckley), Dick (Norman Rodway) and Harry (Martine Beswick) invade the borrowed luxury flat of two lovers involved in an illicit tryst – Barbara (Suzy Kendall) and Bruce (Terence Morgan). It’s a bleak little film, superbly photographed by the gifted Arthur Lavis, offering an uncomfortable taste of what was to come in the 70s and beyond, as social proprieties crumbled, and people became more and more self-absorbed, selfish, and narcissistic.

There are strong echoes of Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Heathcote Williams in the film’s script, which some viewers might consider a precursor of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which Haneke filmed twice in 1997 and 2007. Here are two people comfortably ensconced in what is supposedly a safe, domestic haven – even if it is an adulterous one – and by the simple act of answering the door, their lives are transformed forever – for the worse – by complete strangers.

However, Haneke’s film involved a great deal of physical cruelty and violence; Collinson’s film makes the entire ordeal psychological, and the film is much the better for it. In short, it’s more restrained, more cerebral, and an altogether superior film.

But all of this has a twist ending, worthy of the film itself – there has never been a legal DVD release of the film, though terrible bootlegs can easily be found on the web, along with the film’s trailer, but none of these materials give one any real sense of the film, or of Collinson and Lavis’s superb CinemaScope framing, color design, and the riveting performances of Beswick, Beckley, and Rodway.

At the time the film came out, Roger Ebert was a big fan, and sought the then-28-year-old Collinson out for an interview, during which he noted that “the headline on the press release describes Peter Collinson as ‘the man who came from nowhere and is on his way to somewhere.’ ‘Just precisely where, they don’t say,’ Collinson grinned. ‘I’m not one of these directors with his life-span all mapped out, and a deep ponderous philosophy to put into my films. All I want to do is make movies as well as they can be made. Period. No philosophy.’

Collinson, at 28, has made two movies: The Penthouse and Up the Junction. Neither has been commercially released yet, but Penthouse got a warm reception at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals. Although almost nobody outside the movie business has even heard of him, Collinson is probably the hottest young director in England right now. Stories of his working methods in The Penthouse are related by other directors with a touch of awe. He made it in 24 days for less than $100,000, and supplied his studio with a finished print two days after shooting ended.

‘That makes you popular at the front office,’ Collinson said, ‘but it doesn’t mean a thing if the movie’s no good. I don’t cut corners to save anybody money. But I don’t fool around. A lot of directors will shoot a scene from every conceivable angle, tying up actors, wasting time, spending a fortune on salaries and overhead. Then they get into the editing room and try to figure out which angle looks best. Not me. I figure the shot out in my head and shoot it just once or twice. I edit in the camera, you might say, so when the shooting’s over I have a movie . . .”

His story is unusual. The son of itinerant provincial actors, he was an orphan at 8 and a ’street urchin,’ by his own admission, at 10. Through a series of improbable chances, including acting experience at an orphanage for the children of theater people, he gradually worked himself into the theater and then into television as a BBC director.

He got into movies rather casually, buying all option on Nell Dunn’s best-selling Up the Junction for $1,000 and then proposing himself as its director. He was given the low-budget Penthouse to do first, as a warm-up, and produced a shocking thriller with a bizarre surprise ending.

The story concerns a real estate agent and his mistress, held captive in a penthouse by two very peculiar men named Tom and Dick. Their cohort, Harry, lingers offstage until the final incredible scenes. It is a suspense movie, ‘a thriller’ Collinson says. The audiences at Cannes and Berlin found a psychological message in it, but Collinson doesn’t care.

‘I make movies to entertain,’ he said. ‘This may sound funny, but I don’t have any desire to communicate my own opinions to anybody. I think the director should be the medium by which the audience gets the story, and that’s all. A good director is a good storyteller.’

Collinson’s next film will be The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine. The budget is $2,800,000, and Collinson noted wryly: ‘My salary will be bigger than the total cost of ‘Penthouse.’ But my methods won’t change. I want my movies to be fun to watch because they challenge their audiences to keep up. Audiences aren’t as stupid as many people believe. Orson Welles knew that, and it damned him in Hollywood for years.’

He smiled. ‘That could happen to me, too,’ he said. ‘But I think times have changed, and there’s an audience for a thoughtful movie now. Still, if I bomb as a director I’ve still got some other things to do. I barnstormed the country as a teenager, playing in second-rate variety shows. I can still do a mean turn as the back legs of a calico horse.’” Paramount Pictures released the film,  and then it vanished. I’ve never seen it offered on television, even on TCM, which has a reference page for the film.

Of course, The Italian Job was a huge hit, and was subsequently remade by directed F. Gary Gray in 2003 into an even bigger hit, but after that, Collinson struggled to find his footing within the industry, and despite his protestations that he simply wanted to be an an entertainer, he clearly was interested in doing more social commentary, but soon found himself adrift in a series of mediocre films, during which his temper frayed, and his health failed.

Collinson died of cancer at the age of 44, leaving a career of largely unfulfilled promise. The Penthouse is his simplest, bleakest, most adventurous film. Don’t let anyone tell you anything more about the plot, which has one surprise after another nestled inside each turn of the narrative, but hopefully, someone will bring the film out in its proper aspect ratio, and you can see for yourself where the 1960s were headed – into a commercial wilderness of endless consumption and self-value, in which surfaces are more important than the depths they conceal.

The Penthouse (1967) – another forgotten film that deserves a proper DVD release.

The Mostly Lost Film Festival

Sunday, August 9th, 2015

Here’s a great story on an essential cultural event for cinema buffs – the Mostly Lost Film Festival.

As Noah Bierman wrote in The Los Angeles Times, “beneath glimmering chandeliers at an Art Deco movie house built into the side of a mountain, 150 silent-movie buffs sat wide-eyed as snippets from films lost decades ago lighted up the screen. Their quest: Name the film, or at least spot details that will advance the cause.

The fans shouted clues as a piano player wearing an old-time parlor vest and a thick period mustache improvised jaunty scores. They scoured vintage magazines on their laptops, checked film databases on their tablets, and scrubbed their brains for odd bits of early 20th century cultural history. Every frame had the potential to unlock a secret.

‘East Coast vegetation!’ someone yelled, shortly after a brief segment of a Western began. A locomotive flashed, and someone deduced that a scene had been filmed in France, given the placement of the boiler. When dialogue titles popped up on another clip, a viewer guessed that it was produced by Thomas Edison’s studio because of the distinctive font.

And then there was the lucky glimpse of a calendar with a key nugget — the date April 1 falling on a Saturday. That movie was probably shot in 1922, a fan surmised, based on a quick online search of old calendars.

This was the Mostly Lost Film Festival, which has become a pilgrimage for a subset of movie fans who revere the era long before the advent of computer-enhanced animatronic dinosaurs.

For four years, the event at the State Theatre on the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus has attracted historians with advanced degrees, old men with stacks of even older film tins in their basements and self-taught aficionados who can quickly determine a car’s model year or identify a never-famous actor by the shape of his posterior.

This year, an 11-year-old boy, who has appeared on Turner Classic Movies to introduce Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, missed two days of school to be here. What they all had in common was an obsession with a time when movies were made without color, sound or social media campaigns.

The Packard Campus, about 90 minutes from Washington, D.C., near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, houses the largest and most comprehensive film collection in the world. The 125 films screened over three days in June were mere fragments — five- to 10-minute clips — mostly from movies so obscure that even top film archivists could not decipher the titles, name the actors, or determine the year they were made.

The clue from the 1922 calendar turned out to be a clincher. It matched the film to a publicity photograph — found in an online database called Lantern — from a film called Small Town Hero, which involved a woman who works alongside a chimpanzee at a general store. (Chimpanzees show up often in silent movies, as do men in bowler hats.)

Movies like this are unlikely to be revered alongside Chaplin classics, even after they are identified. Many, after all, were forgotten for a reason. ‘Very few of them will ever make it to an audience,’ said Serge Bromberg, a 54-year-old Parisian who owns Lobster Films, a company that restores, sells and shows old films and who regularly screens movies here. ‘We are the unique animals who will watch these films.’”

This may be true, but this work is absolutely essential if we are to have real understanding of our cinematic past. Click on the link here, or the image above, to read the rest of this fascinating article; the site also includes a number of excellent videos detailing the sorry state of film preservation today, just how few silent films still actually exist, how archives go about restoring a film, and numerous other related topics.

This is an excellent idea – and helps us to put together the history of cinema, as a group effort.

Forthcoming Book – Black and White Cinema: A Short History

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

I have a forthcoming book on Black & White Cinema from Rutgers University Press.

From the glossy monochrome of the classic Hollywood romance, to the gritty greyscale of the gangster picture, to film noir’s moody interplay of light and shadow, black-and-white cinematography has been used to create a remarkably wide array of tones. Yet today, with black-and-white film stock nearly impossible to find, these cinematographic techniques are virtually extinct, and filmgoers’ appreciation of them is similarly waning.

Black and White Cinema is the first study to consider the use of black-and-white as an art form in its own right, providing a comprehensive and global overview of the era when it flourished, from the 1900s to the 1960s. Acclaimed film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon introduces us to the masters of this art, discussing the signature styles and technical innovations of award-winning cinematographers like James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, and Sven Nykvist.

Giving us a unique glimpse behind the scenes, Dixon also reveals the creative teams—from lighting technicians to matte painters—whose work profoundly shaped the look of black-and-white cinema. More than just a study of film history, this book is a rallying cry, meant to inspire a love for the artistry of black-and-white film, so that we might work to preserve this important part of our cinematic heritage. Lavishly illustrated with more than forty on-the-set stills, Black and White Cinema provides a vivid and illuminating look at a creatively vital era.

Here are some early reviews:

“Dixon covers the entire history of black and white movies in one volume, and talks about the films and cinematographers who created these films, and often got little credit for their work. Fascinating and compelling, this is essential reading for anyone who loves movies.”—Robert Downey Sr., director, Putney Swope

“Dixon has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and a subtle and well-honed aesthetic sense. He rescues important films from oblivion, and finds fresh angles of approach to films that are already familiar.” —Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s colorful study of black-and-white cinema reaffirms yet again his unfailing expertise as a critic, historian, and dazzlingly fine writer. Indispensable for students, scholars, and movie buffs alike.”—David Sterritt, author of The Cinema of Clint Eastwood: Chronicles of America

“In his latest book, Black and White Cinema, Wheeler Winston Dixon rediscovers the art of cinematography in those glorious black-and-white movies from Hollywood’s classic age.” –Jan-Christopher Horak, Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive.

More information here; my thanks to all who helped with this rather large project.

Dorothy Arzner – Starmaker

Sunday, July 12th, 2015

Here’s an interesting article on pioneering feminist director Dorothy Arzner.

As Ella Morton notes in the web journal Atlas Obscura of this talented but often forgotten filmmaker, “type the name ‘Dorothy Arzner‘ into Netflix’s search bar and you’ll get zero results. It’s an odd outcome, considering Arzner, a prolific golden age film director, has 16 feature films—among the most of any woman in Hollywood, ever. She gave Katharine Hepburn one of her first starring roles. She navigated the transition from silent films to talkies with panache, inventing the boom microphone in the process. And yet, she is largely unknown today.

Born in San Francisco in 1897, Arzner attended the University of Southern California with the intention of becoming a doctor. World War I interrupted her studies, but when it was over, she decided not to go back to medical school. ‘I wanted to heal the sick and raise the dead instantly. I didn’t want to go through all the trouble of medicine,’ said Arzner, according to [Judith Mayne's indispensable] book Directed by Dorothy Arzner. ‘So that took me into the motion picture industry.’

Arzner’s film career began in 1919 with a trip to the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation—the film studio that would later become Paramount Pictures—at the invitation of director William DeMille. Exploring the various departments, Arzner gauged which aspects of filmmaking held the most appeal for her. ‘I remember making the observation, if one was going to be in the movie business, one should be a director because he was the one who told everyone else what to do,’ she said, according to [Donna R. Casella's] essay What Women Want: The Complex World of Dorothy Arzner and Her Cinematic Women.

It would take years, however, before Arzner got the chance to prove her directing chops. She began working at the studio as a script typist, tapping at a typewriter all day. Though the work was humdrum, the opportunity to read major Hollywood scripts helped hone her instincts for what made a good film. The short-lived stint as a script transcriber—she was a less-than-stellar typist, and lasted only three months—was followed by a solid run in the Paramount editing bay.

In 1922, while editing the dramatic film Blood and Sand, about a peasant who becomes a champion bullfighter, Arzner saved money by intercutting stock footage of bullfights into the narrative. It was a shrewd move that both endeared her to the purse-string holders and helped establish her as a filmmaker with a keen eye.

By 1927, Paramount was ready for Arzner to take the reins on a studio feature. They assigned her Fashions For Women, a silent film about a cigarette girl named Lulu who impersonates Celeste de Givray, the best-dressed model in Paris. The novelty-ridden hi-jinks—actress Esther Ralston played both roles—didn’t set the world on fire, but the film gave Arzner the opportunity to put what she’d learned into practice. And there was much more to come.”

There absolutely is “more to come” – click here, or on the image above, to read the entire essay.

Welcome To This House: A Film About Elizabeth Bishop by Barbara Hammer

Saturday, July 11th, 2015

Barbara Hammer, one of my favorite filmmakers, has a new film out.

Barbara Hammer has been making brilliant and uncompromising independent films since the 1960s, and is still going strong, as evidenced by her recent retrospectives at The Museum of Modern Art, as well as other venues, but now comes the news that Hammer has released a new feature film on the poet Elizabeth Bishop, which I have yet to see, but which I look forward to with great anticipation.

Her work is seemingly everywhere: in the past few years, Hammer was honored with a month long retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City from September 11-October 13, 2010, and in February 2012 she had a month long retrospective at The Tate Modern in London, followed by retrospectives in Paris at Jeu de Paume in June 2012 and the Toronto International Film Festival in October 2013.

As the press materials for the film by Monica Nolan note, “poet Elizabeth Bishop has gained notoriety as much for her tempestuous romance with Lota de Macedo Soares as for her poetry. While that affair inspired a book and a movie (Reaching for the Moon), this new documentary broadens the focus and puts the Lota affair in context. Frameline24 Award recipient Barbara Hammer (whose previous films at Frameline are too numerous to list!) creates a layered portrait of the person behind the poet, from her childhood in Nova Scotia to her death in 1979.

Bishop described herself as ‘timorously kicking around the coastlines of the world,’ and the film is loosely organized around her stays in Nova Scotia, Key West, Brazil, and Cambridge—the homes she made for herself and the lovers she took. Never ‘out’ as a lesbian—the concept would have been foreign to the writer who graduated from Vassar in the thirties—Bishop nonetheless actively pursued women, from her first summer-camp crush to the May-December romance that was her last affair.

Hammer examines Bishop from all angles, interviewing everyone from literary luminaries like Marie-Claire Blais and Edmund White to Lota’s aged former maid. Hammer pulls the viewer into Bishop’s world, blending present day footage of each location with archival photos, and recreating moments in the writer’s life. Throughout the film we hear Bishop’s own words, read by Kathleen Chalfant, revealing yet another facet of a complicated and passionate woman.”

Barbara Hammer (right) with Florrie Burke. Photo: Joyce Culver.

This sounds like a typically brilliant film from Hammer, who has made over 80 moving image works in a career that spans 40 years, and is considered a pioneer of queer cinema. In the meantime, you should check out Barbara Hammer’s latest doings as chronicled on her website by clicking here, or on the image above – with news of her latest doings in the world of cinema, someone who is courageously moving forward in an era in which the arts are often pushed aside by the incessant pursuit of comic book films and other non-demanding escapist entertainment. Want some real nutrition for a change? Then check out Barbara Hammer’s work, and see what you’ve been missing.

Barbara Hammer – one of the most important independent filmmakers working in cinema today.

Dorothy Arzner Retrospective at UCLA

Saturday, June 20th, 2015

Dorothy Arzner is finally getting a retrospective of her key works.

As the UCLA Film Archive, responsible for restoring some of the most adventurous and challenging films of the Hollywood studio era writes in the program notes for the series, “The Archive is pleased to commemorate the indispensable career of director Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979) as part of a year-long commemoration of our own 50th Anniversary.  This retrospective features six Archive restorations of Arzner’s work, which have helped to spur scholarship into and retrospectives of the director’s remarkable achievements.  The UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television is also proud to claim Arzner as a former professor.

A remarkable and nearly unique figure in American film history, Arzner forged a career characterized by an individual worldview, and a strong, recognizable voice.  She was also, not incidentally, the sole female director in the studio era to sustain a directing career, working in that capacity for nearly two decades and helming 20 features—conspicuously, still a record in Hollywood.

Distinguished as a storyteller with penetrating insight into women’s perspectives and experiences, Arzner herself emphatically made the point that only a woman could offer such authority and authenticity.  At a time when the marginalization of women directors in the American film establishment is still actively debated, we celebrate Dorothy Arzner, and the Archive’s long association with her legacy.”

Film screened include The Wild Party, Anybody’s Woman, Working Girls, Sarah and Son, First Comes Courage (a personal favorite of mine), Craig’s Wife and Christopher Strong (perhaps her best known films), Dance, Girl, Dance, Nana, The Red Kimona, Merrily We Go To Hell and a number of other titles from her long career, in gorgeously restored prints. If you’re going to be in the Los Angeles area, especially since many of these titles are simply not available on DVD – and as with director Ida Lupino, when is Arzner going to get a box set of her complete works (probably never, unfortunately) – you owe it to yourself to see the work of this pioneering and brilliant filmmaker.

Dorothy Arzner- an American original.

An Interview with Denis Côté – Joy of Man’s Desiring

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

I have a new interview with Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté in Senses of Cinema #75.

As I wrote, in part, “Denis Côté is a young Canadian filmmaker who has burst onto the international film scene with a group of challenging and innovative movies in the past few years. Born 16 November, 1973 in New Brunswick, Canada, Côté began his career with a group of short films, and made his first feature in 2005, Drifting States (Les états Nordiques), which won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival.

Since then, Côté has worked a number of commercial and/or personal projects, most notably Curling (2010), a father/daughter family drama that was exceptionally well received by audiences and critics alike; Bestiare (2012), a ‘docufiction’ – that’s my own term – film centering on the animals who populate a tourist destination zoo in Canada; Vic+Flo Saw A Bear (Vic+Flo ont vu un ours, 2013), a harrowing tale of two women trying to make it on the outside after a stint in prison, and how the world conspires against them to make redemption – at least in life – almost impossible. Vic+Flo Saw A Bear was probably Côté’s most successful film to date, and was screened at more than 90 festivals around the world.

Most recently, Côté completed the superb Joy of Man’s Desiring (aka Que ta joie demeure, 2014), which documents, after a fashion, daily life on the factory floor, as workers methodically partner with their machines to create the staples of daily existence. In all these projects, Côté offers his own unique take on concepts of narrative in his fiction films, and reportage in his documentaries, to create a series of films that are at once open-ended, mysterious, and subtly disturbing.

As of this writing, Joy of Man’s Desiring is only available on Vimeo, distributed by EyeSteelFilm. After seeing the film two or three times, I was so impressed with Côté’s audacious mixture of real events and lightly staged fictional sequences to create an entirely alternate reality that I contacted him, and asked if he would discuss the film with me; he agreed, and this interview was conducted on 4 April, 2015.

I’d like to talk with you about your most recent film, the fictionalized documentary Joy of Man’s Desiring, which for me is one of the most stunning explorations of daily factory life I’ve ever seen. So, my first question is if you’ve ever seen Godard’s British Sounds (aka See You at Mao, 1970), the only other film to my knowledge that tries to tackle the workplace in this fashion, although, in my opinion, it overloads the soundtrack with Marxist slogans and the usual Godardian intercut titles – yet the sequence on the car assembly line is really powerful. Have you seen it, and was it an influence?

I was a film critic for a decade while making short films. I have seen an enormous number of art films. When you are young, you get easily confused and overwhelmed by so many influences and desires to pay homage or copy your favorite filmmakers. But being the age I am today, having more experience and a stronger personality, I can definitely see I am not corrupted by direct influences anymore. It’s a bit of a cliché to think that filmmakers are strongly conscious about references of any sort. So, to answer your question, I am not familiar with British Sounds, but I will do my homework.

Joy of Man’s Desiring deals with blue-collar work, and with the machines that seem to dominate, and define the workplace. Indeed, the film begins with a series of trance inducing zooms in on machines that seem to rule the entire work environment. Were you introducing them as the controlling personalities?

Not being familiar with those environments, I decided to start the film with the most spectacular and fascinating point of entry: the machines and their primitive sounds. I felt the need to look at things like a four year-old would. For the first three minutes I let myself, and the viewer be amazed by the power, strength and perfection of those machines. I wanted to put the audience in a hypnotic mode right away.

As you said in another interview, you were struck by “the terrifying idea that we all have to work and eventually find serenity, rest, a sense of accomplishment.” While it’s true enough that we all – or most of us – have to work, do you think that everyone finds “serenity, rest, [and] a sense of accomplishment”? For most people in factory jobs, it seems like a continual struggle just to keep up with the machine.

I do think we can find a personal sense of realization and/or accomplishment in any type of work. It’s really easy to think that machines are evil and kill human feelings, free will and ambition. I had those preconceptions myself before entering those environments, but you would be surprised to know how many people told me they consciously look for a repetitive job all day long. They told me those are the best jobs, because you don’t have to think all day long. Nighttime is for family matters and problems! Who am I to judge such thinking? I knew my film would not be frontally political, activist or judgmental and had to be more of a hypnotic journey.”

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

The Lesson – A Stunning New Film From Bulgaria

Sunday, June 7th, 2015

The Lesson is a stark, gripping feature film from Bulgaria, which is thankfully attracting attention here.

Shot on a microscopic budget in 19 days, with a brilliant performance by Margita Gosheva in the leading role of Nadezhda, a grade school English teacher in Bulgaria who is barely getting by on her pitiful wages, The Lesson is a hard-edged morality tale, with a distinctly bleak view of human society, from neophyte directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. Nadezhda puts up with students who steal money from her purse, a ne’er do well husband who doesn’t pay the mortgage so he can put the money into his worthless RV, a father from whom she is understandably estranged, and most of all, a governmental system that is thoroughly corrupt, designed to keep the poor in a state of perpetual penury, forcing Nadezhda to borrow from a brutal loan shark to keep her home when all other avenues of help fail.

Shot in long takes, with absolutely no music on the soundtrack (though, perhaps predictably, there is a light score in the film’s trailer), The Lesson inevitably recalls the stripped-down austerity of the Dardenne brothers, as well as Robert Bresson, but compared to the Dardennes’ recent Two Days, One Night, which I admit I was quite taken with – given the swill that floats around theaters and VOD today – The Lesson is every way more uncompromising, more brutal, less cosmetic, and more convincingly open-ended; in the film’s final moments, we don’t know precisely what will happen to Nadezhda as a result of her last-ditch attempt to pay off the loan sharks, but we get the distinct feeling that it won’t be something good.

As the directors of the film make clear, The Lesson – the title can be taken in many different ways – is an indictment of a world in which only power and money rule, and all other considerations are summarily swept aside. As they note, “We wanted to tell the story harshly, as a part of life. We strived to be real to the extreme, to create a painfully authentic film story. We got deep into the teacher’s inner world, we tackled her inner conflicts, her fight with her own morality.

One of the main tasks for us as directors was to develop rich and deep human personalities. Together with [our cinematographer] Krum Rodriguez we decided that the camera had to be unnoticed and contemplative, to look carefully at the details and the action, without being obvious. The film was shot in a real provincial town. Most of the small parts were played by real people, not actors. Our main actors had to blend in naturally, they had to partner with the non-professionals, and their performances had to be as authentic and real as possible. Our goal was that the audience wouldn’t be able to tell an actor from a non-actor in the finished film.

Margita Gosheva is a real discovery for us in this sense. After she read the script we changed some lines and situations, but the main work was done on set when she was put in the real situations with the real class of 30 children. The sense of authenticity and real life was leading in each element – make-up, costumes, set design, light and sound.

In the beginning we started shooting just different episodes of the film as a teaser while we were trying to find money for the production, but the cast and crew were so inspired by the story that they didn’t want to stop until we had finished the last shot. Everyone worked for deferred payments and we are truly thankful to the cast and crew who were fully devoted to the filmmaking process despite the minimal time we had for the shooting, and the difficult conditions we were working due to our micro budget.

The film didn’t receive production funding by the Bulgarian Film Center –just like our previous film, Jump (which went on to receive numerous awards at festivals and was nominated for the European Film Awards last year). Both films we financed ourselves, looking for private investors willing to risk their money. We’re forced to make films without the support of the only national funding body we have in Bulgaria.

Despite this we strive to keep making our films. The Lesson is the first feature in a planned trilogy. The three stories are inspired by the living reality, but we don’t intend to tell biographical stories, we use this inspiration only as a creative start. The unifying element between the three stories is the theme of the quiet rebellion of the little person against the mercantile, soulless and cynical world we live in.”

As Joe Leydon noted in his review of the film on September 28, 2014 in Variety at the San Sebastian Film Festival, “thanks in large measure to the sympathy Gosheva elicits and the strength she conveys, Nadezhda’s ultimate solution to her daunting problems comes off as equal parts triumph and tragedy. Indeed, a second viewing of the film underscores just how slyly Gosheva and her co-directors lay the groundwork for Nadezhda’s actions to seem, given the particulars of her character and her situation, inevitable. The Lesson earned for Grozeva and Valchanov the New Directors award at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Don’t be surprised if other accolades follow.”

And indeed they did: The Lesson went on to win the Ingmar Bergman Debut Award at the Goteborg Film Festival, and was an official selection at the Toronto International Film Festival, the San Sebastian Film Festival, the Reykjavik International Film Festival, the Warsaw Film Festival, the Tokyo Film Festival, the Palm Springs Film Festival, and the Goteborg Film Festival. Now, finally, the film is receiving limited release in the US via VOD from Film Movement, a very interesting distribution company which seeks out international films that might otherwise pass under the radar, and releases one film per month on VOD, and later DVD, as a subscription model.

Film Movement is thus providing an invaluable service for all those who love the cinema; none of the films they select would probably get a US release otherwise, and by focusing on younger, more innovative filmmakers, Film Movement thus takes the place of the old art house circuit of 35mm theaters that used to dot the international landscape, but which have disappeared thanks to the ongoing predations of Netflix and other mainstream content providers. So, see The Lesson if you possibly can – it’s an uncompromising, and absolutely fearless example of new independent international cinema, something that all thoughtful viewers should absolutely support.

The Lesson – one more example of a film that deserves the widest possible audience.

Víctimas del pecado

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Ninón Sevilla was one of the greatest stars of the Mexican cinema.

As Wikipedia notes, “Emelia Pérez Castellanos (born in Havana, Cuba 10 November 1921; died in Mexico City 1 January 2015), better known as Ninón Sevilla, was a Cuban born Mexican film actress and dancer who was active during the golden age of Mexican cinema. She was considered one of the greatest exponents of the Rumberas film in the 1940s and 1950s.

Sevilla was born and raised in Centro Habana, a popular section of Havana. As a youth, she thought about becoming a missionary nun, but after she started dancing with success in nightclubs and cabarets, she opted for a career in show business. She adopted her stage name in tribute to the legendary French courtesan Ninon de Lenclos and began to work in the chorus of the Cuban comedians Mimí Cal and Leopoldo Fernández, respectively known as ‘Nananina’ and ‘Tres Patines.’

Sevilla came to Mexico as part of a show starring the Argentinean singer Libertad Lamarque. Her number in the show was so successful that she was soon booked in other spectacles in Mexico City. While performing in the Teatro Lírico, producer Pedro Arturo Calderón saw Sevilla on stage and offered her a film contract. Her debut in cinema was in 1946 in Carita de Cielo with María Elena Marqués and Antonio Badú. From that moment, Sevilla became the exclusive star of Producciones Calderón, and although she had offers from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Columbia Pictures, she turned them down, not being interested in working in Hollywood.

Although from the beginning Sevilla was marked by the eccentricity of her hairdos and gowns, it was director Alberto Gout who established her as one of the ultimate erotic figures of Mexican cinema, leading her in legendary films as Aventurera (1949), and Sensualidad (1950). Besides being directed by Gout also in Mujeres sacrificadas (1952) and Aventura en Río (1953), she also worked with Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández. who directed her in one of the best films of her career, the classic Víctimas del Pecado (1951).” When work in films dried up, Sevilla went straight into television, becoming a regular in telenovelas, and thus continued to work in the industry in one form or another from 1946 up until 2014 – the year before her death.

In the deliriously over-the-top Víctimas del pecado, she plays nightclub dancer Violeta, who impulsively rescues an abandoned infant who has literally been thrown in the trash by its mother, and raises the boy as her own, despite the machinations of two rival club owners, resorting to prostitution at one point simply to keep food on the table for herself and her informally adopted son. However, the boy’s father, the brutal Don Rodolfo (Tito Junco) does everything he can to destroy Violeta’s fragile existence, leading to a suitably violent conclusion.

Too long neglected by American audiences, the films of Emilio Fernández offer an authentic view into the demimonde of mid-20th century Mexico City. Those who remember him solely as an actor at the end of his career in films such as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch are missing the work of an impassioned artist, whose bleak mise en scene makes even a film like Luis Buñuel’s brilliant Los Olvidados – both films were photographed by the gifted Gabriel Figueroa, another major figure in the Mexican cinema – seem restrained by comparison.

Most of Sevilla and Fernández’s work has never reached English-speaking audiences, but a recent DVD transfer of excellent quality now makes this film available to a much wider audience. It’s just another example of an unjustly neglected film of real depth and power that has been overlooked by conventional cinema history, and definitely deserves re-evaluation. Once seen, never forgotten, Víctimas del pecado is a violent, sensual, almost surreal film that nevertheless remains firmly anchored in the world of the slums of Mexico City, where hope is in short supply, and violence – and the fates – are the ultimate arbiters of human affairs.

View the uncut Spanish language version, without English subtitles, 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 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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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