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

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Yayoi Kusama

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay on Yayoi Kusama and Jud Yalkut’s film Self Obliteration in Film International.

As Foster notes, “as an internationally acclaimed Japanese/American artist, Yayoi Kusama rejects any Orientalist assumptions about her work or her self. Yet her playful performances and challenging happenings of the 1960s at times featured images of her wearing the traditional Japanese kimono. Kusama seemingly catered to the audiences of the West in evoking the spectacle of the demure and passive Asian female as much as she challenged those very notions in her performances and films. Kusama subverted the image of the woman in the kimono by juxtaposing it against her ‘happenings,’ which featured images of nude (often white) American bodies, often cavorting in sexual displays associated with the period, especially as seen in the New York art and experimental film subculture.

In filming and practicing the self and her own female Japanese body as art, the experimental visual artist and filmmaker Yayoi Kusama overturns Western white feminist and Eurocentrist notions of identity, especially those of the late 1950s and the following decade. Her work defies the borders of identity as much as it defies the reception of women artists, particularly Japanese women artists and filmmakers. Furthermore, by refusing to limit herself to film and video, she challenges the definition of the visual artist to include forms that range from poetry, music, novels, performance art and happenings, to digital artistry and conceptual films.

Similarly, her artistry and performance of her self-as-artist effectively displace any easy or overdetermined notions of the objectified Japanese female Other as a subject that is often seemingly ‘mastered’ or received as exotic, inscrutable, small, cute, foreign, nurturing, quiet or representing the passive sexually available female. While not limited to refashioning the Japanese female body as a self-mastered entity, her art and film work move the viewer into an active postionality that fosters a contemplation of art and bodies that are not easily defined.”

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

Christopher Sharrett on Beyond the Hills, or The Woman’s Prison

Friday, August 16th, 2013

Christopher Sharrett has a brilliant piece on the film Beyond The Hills in the latest issue of Film International.

As Sharrett notes, in part, “it amazes me that so few reviewers noted emphatically that Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (2012), like his earlier 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007), is a film about women, about the oppression of women, in an era that constantly rolls back the rights of women even in so-called enlightened nations. This is especially disturbing when we look at the reception of Beyond the Hills. Reviewers focused on the plight of two orphans more so than on sexual politics, and the culture of oppression and repression imposed on women [. . .]

Given how much disinformation has been disseminated in the US about the Soviet Union and its satellite states ever since the Bolshevik Revolution, it may be sensible to make a few observations about history before proceeding with comments about Mungiu’s cinema, especially if we are to see his art as relevant to us all, and not simply narratives to be read as documents of awful things that could not happen here. Neither the Soviet Union nor a satellite like Romania can be seen as ‘communist’ if one has a rudimentary knowledge (my level to be sure) of political economy [. . .]

The dreary backdrop of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days compares well indeed not just with the horror film, but with distinguished contemporary melodramas about American women of the working poor, like Frozen River (2009). The setting of Beyond the Hills would also look good in a cautionary fright film about a cult, except Mungiu reminds us how useless the notion of “cult” can be. The Orthodox monastery of this film has all the usual ingredients of a cult (the unquestioned authority of the male, women in a very vulnerable situation, adherence to arcane, bizarre dogma), but the film provokes the question: is this setting a strange aberration or simply the norm in miniature?”

You can read the entire piece by clicking here, or on the image above. Brilliant, timely, disturbing work.

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!

Book: Hopper by Tom Folsom

Friday, June 14th, 2013

Tom Folsom’s new book on the life and work of Dennis Hopper is a knockout.

Madman, shaman, mystic, brilliant actor and filmmaker and a complete pain in the neck, Dennis Hopper started out in the early 50s with a chip on his shoulder and enormous talent, falling in with James Dean and appearing in Rebel Without A Cause, though clashes with the director, Nicholas Ray, caused his part in the film to be severely cut down. What followed was an epic journey through the last days of the Hollywood studio system, the making of the counter-culture classic Easy Rider, and his lost masterpiece, The Last Movie, which as Folsom makes clear went through so many different edits that a “definitive” version of the work is almost impossible to identify. After that, a spiral into drugs and madness, and then one of the biggest comebacks in film history in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a whole second career as a director of his own films, an artist, and a world class collector of other people’s work.

Using archival sources and interviews, writing in a free form style reminiscent of both Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, Folsom paints a compelling, multifaceted picture of this deeply conflicted and influential filmmaker, pursued by countless demons of his own making, and yet still able to create work of lasting beauty and quality despite it all. I met Hopper just once, at a screening of The Last Movie at Preview Theater in New York in 1971, just before the film came out; I was editing one of my own films there, and stumbled into him in the hallway, looking for change for the Coke machine. He invited me to the screening, which was specially set up for critic Judith Crist — who clearly didn’t like or understand the film — and was polite and forthcoming about the difficulties of the film even for an unsympathetic viewer, which Crist clearly was. Universal hated the movie, too, and dumped it in one theater, where it closed in a few weeks; never mind that it had won the Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

For myself, I was knocked out by the film, and had another connection to it — my friend and colleague Brad Darrach at Life Magazine, where I worked as a writer and critic in 1969-70, had gone down to South America for the shoot, and witnessed all the madness, excess and brilliance of the production first hand, so I had a pretty good idea what to expect. Sadly, and somewhat amazingly, the film isn’t available legally on DVD, though bootlegs and downloads abound, perhaps appropriately for such an outlaw film. But it would seem that it’s time for Universal to put out The Last Movie in an official version, so that everyone can see for themselves what Hopper was capable of when left alone with a decent budget and complete creative freedom, including final cut — one of the most adventurous, challenging, and utterly original movies ever made.

Until then, The Last Movie is yet another “lost” film that needs a DVD release; in the meantime, read Tom Folsom’s book.

What Maisie Knew

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

What Maisie Knew is a sharp, smart, effective little film, well worth your time.

As the film’s press kit notes, “directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, written by Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne, starring Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård, Steve Coogan and Joanna Vanderham, introducing Onata Aprile as Maisie, the film is a contemporary reimagining of Henry James’ novel, What Maisie Knew tells the story of a little girl’s struggle for grace in the midst of her parents’ bitter custody battle. Told through the eyes of the title’s heroine, Maisie navigates this ever-widening turmoil with a six-year-old’s innocence, charm and generosity of spirit.

An aging rock star (Moore) and a contemporary art dealer (Coogan)—Susanna and Beale are too self-involved even to notice their neglect and inadequacy as parents; their fight for Maisie is just another battle in an epic war of personalities. As they raise the stakes by taking on inappropriate new partners, the ex-nanny Margo and the much younger bartender Lincoln (Vanderham and Skarsgård), the shuffling of Maisie from household to household becomes more and more callous, the consequences more and more troubling.

Always watchful, however, Maisie begins to understand that the path through this morass of adult childishness and selfish blindness will have to be of her own making.” What could easily have been treacly and sentimental here is rendered in bold, aggressive strokes, and while all the performances are standouts, Onata Aprile is the real center of the film, and she holds both the screen, and the audience’s attention, effortlessly.

You can see the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

Post Tenebras Lux (Light After Darkness)

Sunday, May 12th, 2013

I just got back from a research trip in New York City, where I saw a brilliant film.

I saw Post Tenebras Lux at Film Forum, and was absolutely mesmerized by the film. As Film Forum’s official notes for the film explain, “Post Tenebras Lux (‘light after darkness’) is a new autobiographical feature from acclaimed director Carlos Reygadas, winner of the Best Director prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Ostensibly the story of an upscale, urban family whose move to the Mexican countryside results in domestic crises and class friction, it’s a stunningly photographed, impressionistic psychological portrait of a family and their place within the sublime, unforgiving natural world.

Reygadas conjures a host of unforgettable, ominous images: a haunting sequence at dusk as Reygadas’s real-life daughter wanders a muddy field as farm animals loudly circle and thunder and lightning threaten; a glowing-red demon gliding through the rooms of a home; a husband and wife visiting a swingers’ bathhouse with rooms named after famous philosophers. By turns entrancing and mystifying, Post Tenebras Lux palpably explores the primal conflicts of the human condition.”

When the film was screened at Cannes, there was a near riot, and many of the audience members walked out in protest, but for the life of me, I can’t figure why. The film’s narrative is at once straightforward and filled with magical realism, as in the scene, pictured above, in which a glowing red demon silently enters a middle class house, toolbox in hand, intent on wreaking havoc in his wake. Indeed, I’ve seldom seen a film that was more accessible, and at the same time more mysterious, lingering in the memory long after the final images have faded from the screen.

Click here to read an interview with the director, Carlos Reygadas.

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.

Spencer Gordon Bennet

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

Spencer Gordon Bennet was one of the masters of the American action film.

As film historian Hans J. Wollstein notes, “born on January 5, 1893 in Brooklyn, NY, according to legend, veteran action director Spencer Gordon Bennet entered films by answering an ad for a stuntman to perform a daring jump from the New Jersey Palisades into the Hudson River. The year was 1912 and the employer, the legendary Edison Film Mfg. Company. Bennet was hooked on filmmaking from that moment on and went on to become one of the three or four most important names in the field of motion picture action serials.

Of Anglo-French descent, Spencer Gordon Bennet had sold programs and played bit roles in a Brooklyn theater before earning $62.50 for that fateful jump into the Hudson. He remained with Edison for a while, performing stunts and playing bit parts, before switching to Pathé, where he served as assistant to legendary serial directors Bertram Millhauser and George B. Seitz, actually replacing Seitz as the company’s leading cliffhanger director in the late ’20s when he helmed all the influential Allene Ray and Walter Miller chapterplays.

Concentrating on B-Westerns and feature action films in the early years of sound, Bennet returned to the serial field in 1932 when picked by RKO to direct that studio’s 12-chapter The Last Frontier. It was a homecoming or sorts and he remained in the field until helming the final American action serial, Blazing the Overland Trail, in 1956. Best remembered today, perhaps, for his work for cheapskate producer Sam Katzman, including the 1948 Superman and its 1950 sequel, Atom Man vs. Superman, Bennet also did yeoman work for industry leader Republic, where he co-directed some of the most beloved serials of all time, including The Masked Marvel (1943), The Tiger Woman (1944), Zorro Rides Again (1945), and The Purple Monster Strikes (1945).

Signing an exclusive contract with Katzman in 1947, Bennet went on to direct, or co-direct, all of Columbia Pictures later serials, save one, including Batman and Robin (1949) and Captain Video (1951). His ability to work fast and furiously, a prerequisite for steady employment in the B-Western and serial fields, never alienated him from cast and crew, however. ‘He was probably my favorite director of all and was one terrific man,’ said veteran B-Western and serial villain Pierce Lyden. Bennet, who directed his final feature film in 1965, the nicely old-fashioned The Bounty Killer, was the uncle of legendary special-effects wizard Linwood Dunn. He died on October 8, 1987, at the age of 94.”

Spencer Gordon Bennet; another director whose films need to be on DVD.

Lewis D. Collins’ Wild Stallion (1952)

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

Click here, or on the image above, for scenes from Lewis D. Collins’ White Stallion (1952).

As Frank Miller writes of this exceptionally odd film on the TCM Website, “many movies have been built around the pursuit of a childhood love. Heathcliff pursued his [lifelong love] Cathy in nine film and 13 television versions of Wuthering Heights, and Charles Foster Kane built a business empire while dreaming of his [childhood sled] Rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941). In the 1952 Western Wild Stallion, Dan Light (Ben Johnson) searches the Black Hills for Top Kick, the horse he lost the same day an Indian raid killed his parents.

Wild Stallion was an early production from Walter Mirisch, who started his career at Monogram Pictures making low-budget Westerns and action films, most notably the Bomba series that Johnny Sheffield moved into after he ended his run as Boy in the Tarzan films. Mirisch shot the film quickly, during the month of December 1951, with the land around the Corrigan and Iverson Ranches in California standing in for the Black Hills of Wyoming. Even a windstorm that destroyed some of the sets didn’t keep him from getting the film into theatres by April 1952.

Like many films from Poverty Row studios like Monogram, Wild Stallion provided a showcase for young actors on the way up though leading man fame may have seemed far away for Ben Johnson at the time he starred in the film. A former cowboy and rodeo champion, he had come to Hollywood as a wrangler when Howard Hughes hired him to transport horses to the locations for The Outlaw (1943).

After years of stunt riding for stars like John Wayne and Randolph Scott, he was spotted by John Ford, who promoted him to ever bigger roles in his Cavalry Trilogy and the title role in Wagon Master (1950). Then the two quarreled while making the third Cavalry film, Rio Grande (1950), after Johnson’s agent tried to squeeze Ford for more money on an upcoming film. As a result, the director simply stopped working with him, and Johnson’s career stalled. He even left Hollywood for a year to work the rodeo circuit. He wouldn’t get his career back on track until Ford convinced him to accept the role of Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show (1971), which won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Leading lady Martha Hyer went to school with Charlton Heston, Patricia Neal and Cloris Leachman, and, like them, went to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. After being spotted at the Pasadena Playhouse, she started landing film roles, earning her first billing as Tim Holt’s leading lady in Thunder Mountain (1947). It wasn’t until she signed with Universal, where she was promoted as their answer to Grace Kelly, that the icy blonde started moving up the career ladder.

Her biggest success came with a loan to MGM in 1958 to co-star as the frigid English professor thawed by Frank Sinatra in Some Came Running. The role won her an Oscar nomination, but she had a hard time finding a suitable follow-up in a Hollywood changing rapidly with the decline of the studio system. Instead she found a more satisfying role off-screen as the wife of independent producer Hal Wallis.

Rounding out the cast of Wild Stallion [are several] reliable character actors caught between the decline of the studio contract system and the rise of television. Edgar Buchanan, co-starring as the horse tracker who trains Johnson, had been a staple of Columbia releases in the ’40s, most notably as Cary Grant and Irene Dunne’s closest friend in Penny Serenade (1941). He did well as a free-lancer in the ’50s, but is best remembered as Uncle Joe on Petticoat Junction.

Second-generation actor Hayden Rorke came to Hollywood after years on the stage and was a familiar face on movie screens in the ’50s, with small roles in everything from An American in Paris (1951) to Pillow Talk (1959). He entered television history as Captain Bellows, the suspicious commanding officer on I Dream of Jeannie.

In 1952, the cast of Wild Stallion was still far from the fame they would achieve in later years. As a result, ads for the film sold not the human characters, but rather the horse. Top Kick was billed as the ‘Untamed King of the Wild Outlaw Herds!’ and ‘Outlaw stallion defying man’s ruthless guns…battling snarling killer wolves!’ Hype aside, however, the taglines capture one of the film’s evergreen selling points, its focus on one of the animals that helped win the West. In most low-budget Westerns, the love story is of relatively minor importance. In Wild Stallion, it takes center stage, even if it represents a departure from the boy meets girl formula to create a boy meets horse epic.”

Indeed, this is what’s oddest about the film; Ben Johnson’s character seems utterly uninterested in anything except his beloved white stallion, to the point that any romantic interest between Johnson and Martha Hyer is reduced to the absolute margins of the film. The other thing, of course, is that when watching Wild Stallion, the viewer is conscious of the fact that these are real cowboys in the film, doing most of their own stunts; it’s as if Hollywood in the 1950s was desperately recreating the American saga of  ”manifest destiny,” using ranch hands as out of date in their time as the cowboy drifters in John Huston’s The Misfits a decade later, in an attempt to hold on to the past.

A really bizarre little film, more “boy meets horse” than “boy meets girl”; worth seeing.

The Crazy Family (1984)

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family (1984) is one of the best Japanese films you’ve never seen.

As Steven Puchalski wrote – in part – of the film in 1994, ten years after the film’s release, “not many people caught this pitch-black comedy when it was released in the United States — no surprise since its New York City engagement consisted of a one-week run at an upscale arthouse theatre, and a sparse, thoroughly confused audience of blue-haired Upper West Siders. Though still unavailable on video, I’d like to give it my vote as one of the most genuinely demented movies to ever emerge from Japan. Directed by Sogo Ishii [who subsequently changed his name to Gakuryu Ishii] this was his first feature film to be picked up by an American distributor [New Yorker Films, who subsequently went out of business, leaving the film in limbo].

Mixing sledgehammer social satire with rapid-fire cinematic dementia, this is an unforgettable excursion into the darkest recesses of his culture’s middle-class values, as well as a precursor to such ’90s cult hits as Tetsuo: The Iron Man. [Utterly] unrelenting, The Crazy Family focuses on the outwardly-sane Kobayashi family. They’re an Asian bourgeois [family unit], complete with a successful dad, a loving wife, and two well-adjusted children. To top it off, they’ve just moved into their suburban dream home. Sounds perfect? Not for long. Because soon their unwanted grandfather moves in, white ants are discovered feasting on the woodwork, tempers begin to percolate, and the family’s oft-mentioned “sickness” takes over, which sends our happy Nuclear Unit spinning headfirst into a series of comic obsessions.

Father begins digging up the floorboards and spreading toxic bug poison; the straight-laced mother does an impromptu striptease for her ever-more-paranoid hubbie; and the daughter practices for her unlikely pop star career. Meanwhile, the son crams for his Tokyo University entrance exams by turning his room into a high-tech nightmare, complete with electrodes, glowing pyramids, and a handy knife which he stabs himself with in order to stay awake.

The household hostilities escalate and soon the place becomes a full-scale battlefield — the family armed with mothballed World War II weapons, a chainsaw, even a baseball bat with the family dog strapped to it. [Grandfather] goes so far off the deep end that he takes his pre-pubescent granddaughter hostage. In between the various fires and explosions, Ishii makes scathingly hilarious points about life in modern-day Japan, where socially-programmed perfection and technological advances have taken their toll on a new generation. Imagine a movie that begins like [an episode of the 1950s Cold War television series] Father Knows Best, turns into a mass-hysteria mix of The Shining meets The Simpsons, edited like a Road Runner cartoon [. . .] and you have The Crazy Family.”

I was lucky enough to see this film in a theater when it first came out, and it absolutely amazed me; so much so that I went right back in and saw it again immediately, being sure that I’d probably never be able to see it again. As it turns out, I was — sadly — absolutely right. The clip above gives you some idea of the quirky power of the film; someone should sort out the rights to this lost jewel, and release it as soon as possible. It’s brilliant, brutal filmmaking, and deserves the widest possible audience. In addition, it has none of its’ power in the last twenty-five years; if anything it seems more modern than much of contemporary cinema.

Click here, or on the image above to see a clip from the film; this is a lost masterpiece.

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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