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New Article – Kelly Reichardt: Working Against The Grain

Thursday, June 9th, 2016

I have a new article on the films of Kelly Reichardt in Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

As I write in the article on her film River of Grass, ”like so many of Reichardt’s protagonists, Cozy and Lee want to leave the lives they’re drifting through behind, but they have no clear idea – indeed no idea at all, what to do about it. They have no money, no real aim, in life, but they’re not so much hopeless as they are bereft of imagination. There’s a world out there beyond Florida, but somehow, home is home, and that’s where they seem to be stuck, in a state of permanent stasis.

And, of course, the film has many stylistic and thematic debts, which Reichardt is all too willing to acknowledge. As she told Iain Blair, in River of Grass ‘I can clearly see Godard’s influence, and noir and early Terrence Malick. It’s all laid quite bare.’ The film was recently restored as part of a Kickstarter campaign by Oscilloscope Laboratories, and released as an extra on Oscilloscope’s DVD of Reichardt’s ultra-realistic, almost existential Western Meek’s Cutoff (2010). It’s a solid first effort, and certainly offers an early clue to the direction her career was heading in.

Reichardt followed this up with two shorter films, Ode (1999), clocking in at 48 minutes, which is a sort of riff on the plot of the 1960s pop song hit Ode to Billy Joe, and then two very short films: Then A Year (2001), dealing with the consequences of a ‘crime of passion,’ and Travis (2004), centering on the human cost of Iraq war. But at the same time, Reichardt’s enthusiasm for making films had dwindled; these newer films were shorter, less ambitious, and she was clearly backpedaling in her career – indeed, she wondered if she had any real future as a filmmaker in any realistic sense, even working at the margins of the industry.

River of Grass has made something of a splash on the festival circuit, being nominated for Best First Feature, Best First Screenplay, and Best Debut Performance (Lisa Bowman), as well as the rather enigmatically named Someone to Watch Award at the 1996 Independent Spirit Awards, as well as being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994, and for Best Feature Film at the Torino International Festival of Young Cinema – but none of those nominations translated into a win, and gradually, the ‘heat’ surrounding Reichardt began to wear off.

As she admitted to Iain Blair, ‘making [River of Grass] was a real eye-opener, and even going to Sundance and all of it – that was my first realization that it was different for women in this business. There were just two of us women filmmakers at Sundance in ’94, and there was no sense of camaraderie or welcoming – no fault of Sundance. And I took it really personally and it took me a long time to get over it. That was a part of my retreating afterwards.

The other part was, I just couldn’t get financing, and it was so frustrating. I tried so hard to be a more avant-garde, less narrative filmmaker, but it just didn’t come naturally to me. I went to L.A. for a while, and Jodie Foster was going to produce a film I was doing, but it never got made. I simply didn’t have the social skills needed to operate in the business. So I went back to Super 8, which is what I’d done in college.

It seemed like nothing happened during my time in L.A., but I’d worked – in the art department – on Poison, and I became friends with (director) Todd Haynes. And he introduced me to (novelist) Jonathan Raymond, and one of his stories became the basis for Old Joy (2006) – but I had no idea when we did it that it’d even become a feature.’”

In short, it’s a tough world out there, but Kelly Reichardt keeps working, which is the only way to get anything to happen, no matter what your chosen field. Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall, but you can gain access through Love Library Reference, if you’re interested, and in the meantime, check out some of Reichardt’s superb films – she’s one of the most truly original directors working in America today.

That’s Kelly Reichardt – working against the grain.

And Speaking of Killer Computers . . .

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

Herman Hoffman’s 1957 film The Invisible Boy is a forgotten look at a possible AI future.

As Wikipedia notes, “The Invisible Boy is a 1957 American science fiction film from Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, produced by Nicholas Nayfack, directed by Herman Hoffman, and starring Richard Eyer and Philip Abbott. It is the second film appearance of Robby the Robot, the science fiction character in Forbidden Planet (1956), also released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The Invisible Boy is a mixture of lighthearted playfulness and menacing evil. As it begins, ten-year-old Timmie Merinoe (Eyer) seems only to want a playmate. After he is mysteriously invested with superior intelligence, he reassembles a robot that his father and other scientists had been ready to discard as unrepairable junk. No one pays much attention to the robot, named Robby, after Timmie gets it operating again, until Timmie’s mother becomes angry when her son is taken aloft by a huge powered kite that Robby has built at Timmie’s urging.

When Timmie expresses a wish to be able to play without being observed by his parents, Robby, with the aid of a supercomputer, makes him invisible. At first Timmie uses his invisibility to play simple pranks on his parents and others, but the mood soon changes, when it becomes clear that the supercomputer is evil and intends to take over the world using a military satellite.”

It sounds rather bizarre, and it is; cheaply produced on a budget of less than $400,000, the film grossed almost a million dollars at the box-office, a respectable return for a film of the late 1950s. Unlike Forbidden Planet, which was lavishly produced, this is clearly a “cash in” project, designed primarily to exploit the pop culture popularity of Robby the Robot. But surprisingly, Robby takes a back seat in film’s narrative to the omniscient and dictatorial computer pictured above, which hopes to gain world domination using the robot as its tool.

It’s not a successful film by any means, and only sporadically comes alive, particularly in the scenes between the robot and the computer, which clandestinely programs the robot to obey its commands. Still, the moody, atmospheric black and white cinematography, no doubt dictated by budgetary concerns, nevertheless works to make the film a sort of sci-fi noir, once the requisite “humor” of the first half of the film is thankfully abandoned.

As Bruce Eder wrote of the film, “it’s very difficult to say whether The Invisible Boy is a good movie or not — mostly because it’s such a strange picture, weirdly (and, at times, self-consciously) campy, and yet amazingly knowing, sophisticated, and even compelling in some of its scientific conceits, especially for a 1957 movie.

What can one say, in any reasonably coherent review, about a movie that is a space fiction and time-travel story, but also a kids’ adventure story; a yarn about a mischief-making boy, and a meditation on the dangers of science (and, especially, artificial intellegence) outstripping man’s ability to control or understand it . . .

On the one hand, [The Invisible Boy] is about a super-computer planning to take over the world — on the other, it’s about a 10-year-old who keeps getting spanked for misbehaving and wants to make himself invisible so he can have more unsupervised fun; sort of Booth Tarkington meets Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke (with a little bit of Robert A. Heinlein thrown in).

In all, it’s not a great, or even a very good movie — the black-and-white production often looks cheap, and this was very obviously filmed in a hurry, as it looks like a lot of first takes were used. But in its own low-budget way, it is a fascinating pop-culture artifact of its time. And it is a lot of fun, just as a notion for a science fiction/adventure film, with a very dark side to the serious component of the plot.”

In short, The Invisible Boy is a deeply odd film that’s certainly worth a look; you can get it on DVD as an extra with the deluxe “box” version of Forbidden Planet (it has yet to be released as a stand-alone project); and you can view the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above. But you should definitely give it a look as, as Eder puts it, “a fascinating pop-culture artifact of its time.” It’s certainly that – and much more.

Another cinematic oddity that holds a claim on the memory of those who have seen it – it’s your turn now.

William Beaudine’s Voodoo Man (1944)

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

From the sublime to the ridiculous, here’s William Beaudine’s Voodoo Man on Blu-ray.

In the 1940s, horror films were really more like fantasies, in which no one was ever really at risk. At Universal, the studio put Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and the Wolfman through their predictable paces; at RKO, Val Lewton was busy producing a series of low budget horror films such as The Cat People (1942) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943) which are now justly considered classics; Paramount tried and succeeded with Lewis Allen’s memorable ghost story The Uninvited (1944), top-lining Ray Milland; and 20th Century Fox also tried their hand at horror, with John Brahm’s marvelously atmospheric The Undying Monster (1942).

Columbia produced a series of films with Boris Karloff, most centering on the theme of “science gone mad,” the most effective of which was probably Edward Dmytryk’s The Devil Commands (1941). Producers Releasing Corporation also cranked out low-budget horror films such as The Devil Bat (1940) and Dead Men Walk (1943), but the circumstances of their production was so threadbare that the results were fatally compromised, while Republic Pictures, better known for their Saturday morning serials, still managed to create several memorable stand-alone films, such as Lesley Selander’s The Vampire’s Ghost (1945, and still unavailable on DVD), with an excellent script by the great Leigh Brackett.

Somewhere between the major studios and the bottom of Poverty Row was Monogram, an odd studio that built its “reputation” on westerns, horror films, and lowbrow comedies, usually shot in a week or less, and often directed by William Beaudine, one of the most prolific helmers in Hollywood history, along with the even more prolific Sam Newfield (aka Sherman Scott and Peter Stewart, to disguise his torrential output), who usually worked for PRC, which was run by his brother, Sigmund Neufeld.

Monogram’s films were made quickly and efficiently – as actor John Carradine once observed, “it was just like Universal, except they moved twice as fast on the set” – and more often than not had to be endured rather than enjoyed on any level, with a few notable exceptions, such as Beaudine’s The Face of Marble (1946), which was essentially remade in 2015 as The Lazarus Effect.

Voodoo Man is another Monogram film that manages to intermittently hit the mark, and has now been digitally remastered in a superb restoration by Olive Films, an interesting independent label whose catalogue swings all the way from Hollywood classics, to foreign films, to obscure contemporary releases, and in this case, program horror films.

As the British critic Graeme Clark describes the film’s preposterous yet oddly compelling narrative, “a lone woman driver is out in the countryside one night when she finds herself slightly lost, but as luck would have it she sees a gas station up ahead and stops to ask for directions.

A middle-aged Englishman appears and offers to help, giving his advice to carry on up to the fork in the road; she thanks him and carries on, little knowing she has been duped for the station owner, Nicholas (George Zucco) has sent her to her potential doom. He gets on the phone to two henchmen up ahead, and they uncover a hidden route, then place a detour sign on the official road, leading the motorist the wrong way, whereupon her car breaks down and the henchmen pounce, dragging her from it and towards a trapdoor in the bushes . . .

It’s debatable which cast member was the titular fiend for there were at least four options, but for the purposes of this we had to assume Bela Lugosi was that character . . . that said, the star wattage for vintage horror fans was not to be sneezed at, for producer Sam Katzman had hired three icons of the genre.

Lugosi here was ending his contract with the notoriously cheap ‘Poverty Row’ outfit Monogram Pictures, having made nine films with them of which this was the last, a selection that many buffs like to collect as if they were a matching set, though some are easier to come by than others.

Typically, the star would take the part of a mad scientist or practioner of supernatural arts as he did here, though he had a catatonic wife to add pathos since he wishes to revive her by transferring the life force of the kidnapped women into the body of [his wife] (Ellen Hall), a practice which appears to succeed for a few seconds before leaving the doctor distraught that he has lost her to the whims of fate once more . . .

Yes, those ritual sequences were quite something seeing as how it united the trio of horror stars – Lugosi, Zucco, and John Carradine – and had them act out a curious scene, the first two decorated in some striking Aleister Crowley-style decorated robes [while intoning] some nonsense about ‘Ramboona’ and Zucco makes a couple of lengths of rope tie themselves together (Beaudine pulled the ropes apart and ran the clip backwards), as the two ladies in question stare off into space.

In a spot of apparent autobiography on the part of screenwriter Robert Charles, the hero in this case is Ralph Dawson (stage actor Tod Andrews under the pseudonym he used for cheapo efforts), who is a screenwriter ordered to script a film about the disappearances by his boss at Banner pictures, S.K., who sadly was not played by the actual boss at Banner pictures, Sam Katzman, but it was an in-joke they could cheerfully make when working with such a low stakes production – just listen for the final line for the ultimate in cheek in that respect.

Ralph loses Stella (Louise Currie, the last member of the Citizen Kane cast to pass away) on that darned road, who in a coincidence is the cousin of Betty (Wanda McKay), the woman he’s supposed to be marrying that week – Stella was driving over to attend the wedding. With the cops not much help, Ralph and Betty take it upon themselves to sleuth, bringing together the cast for a denouement to a movie that paradoxically moves briskly under the prolific William Beaudine’s functional direction, yet feels oddly leisurely.”

It’s certainly no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination – or lack of it – but at the same time, the “leisurely” pace of the film makes the entire effort somehow more claustrophobic and intimate, and Lugosi, Carradine, and the ever-menacing George Zucco throw themselves into their roles with abandon, well aware that the end result will be just another horror film from one of Hollywood’s most cost-conscious film factories.

Voodoo Man offers the viewer a look into the world of 1940s bread-and-butter horror films, which audiences, tired from the cares of World War II, flocked to in droves. Then, too, at 70 minutes in length, no one is going to get bored, and Beaudine does keep the project moving along “briskly” – even as it seems to inhabit a twilight zone of phantom reality.

Voodoo Man – newly restored – is thus an an authentic talisman of a lost era.

How International Film Boards Help Women Directors

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

Director Ava DuVernay on the set of her film Selma.

As Rebecca Keegan writes in The Los Angeles Times, “in March 2015, an Australian researcher published a statistic that drew both laughs and gasps in the business community there: Fewer large Australian companies were run by women than by men named Peter. The damning statistic prompted some introspection in the Australian film industry in particular, where women represent 17% of directors, a number that hasn’t budged since 1970.

‘We’ve got this wonderful networking psyche here called “mateship,”‘ said Fiona Cameron, chief executive of Screen Australia, the nation’s government-funded film board. ‘It typically involves men helping like-minded men. There’s been an informal quota in the Australian film business forever. That made our filmmakers stop in their tracks and say, “What are we going to do?”‘

In December, Screen Australia committed $5 million to changing the number, setting a goal that its money would go to films with creative teams at least 50% female. Australia is one of several countries that have launched such programs in recent years — Canada, Ireland and Sweden have also started aggressive, state-financed initiatives aimed at increasing the number of female directors, writers and producers on their films.

The programs stand in stark contrast to the American film industry, where a controversy is roiling over the same issue, but where there is no comparable government agency that finances movies. Here in Hollywood, change is mostly taking a different path, with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission launching an investigation into gender bias in the hiring of female directors last fall.

In the U.S., women are even less likely to be in the director’s chair than they are abroad — women direct just 4% of the 100 top-grossing Hollywood movies, according to a USC study, making filmmakers like Elizabeth Banks (who directed Pitch Perfect 2,) Sam Taylor-Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) and Ava DuVernay (Selma) the very definition of outliers.

At the urging of the American Civil Liberties Union, the EEOC began interviewing female directors in October, and is now meeting with executives, agents and others to determine whether a pattern of bias exists. Internationally, the film industry is in the midst of a kind of feminist awakening, with the inciting incident being slightly different in each country.

In Ireland, a protest in the theater world last fall kicked off the discussion, when a planned centenary celebration of the 1916 Easter Uprising at the country’s national theater included just one female playwright, and nine men.

‘We went, “Hang on a minute, we’re just as bad,”‘ said Annie Doona, chair of the Irish Film Board, where 20% of the movies financed between 2010 and 2015 had female directors. ‘We need to know what’s happening here.’ In December, the agency set a target of achieving 50/50 funding within three years, as part of a larger program that also includes mentorship, training and film school initiatives. ‘We’ve said to production companies, “We’re looking to you to find that female talent,”‘ Doona said.

In Canada, the National Film Board announced a similar program in March — going forward, the agency will devote 50% of its $65-million annual budget to projects directed by women. ‘We’re funded equally by Canadians who are men and Canadians who are women,’ said board President Claude Joli-Coeur. ‘The talent of women directors is there. We just decided to make it so.’

Many countries are looking to Sweden as an example. When Anna Serner, an outspoken chief executive from the advertising world, became head of the Swedish Film Institute in 2011, 26% of the movies the agency financed were directed by women. Due in large part to Serner’s aggressive advocacy, by 2014, 50% of the films the institute financed were directed by women. Female directors now win about 60% of the prizes at Sweden’s version of the Oscars, and the majority of Swedish directors invited to international film festivals are women.

Sweden’s programs, which are partly funded by a 10% tax on movie tickets, would seem unthinkably interventionist in the market-driven American film industry, and have even been controversial in a country that considers gender equality a cornerstone of its identity. ‘Some male directors have been very upset,’ Serner said. ‘They still get 50% of our financing, but they feel we’re manipulating the arts. People say they want equality, as long as it doesn’t affect them.’”

This is long overdue; you can read the entire story by clicking here, or on the image above.

How Francois Truffaut And Jean-Luc Godard Changed Cannes

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

Cannes, 1968: Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle, Roman Polanski

The Cannes Film Festival today- it’s going on right now – has turned into such total glitz and glamour that it’s become a shadow of what it used to be. It was always a marketplace, but it was also a place of ideas, where revolutionary ideas in the cinema were discussed, and sometimes put into practice.

In the industry journal Deadline, which is not really known for historical coverage, preferring to focus on the here and now of the movie business, there is nevertheless today a short but remarkable essay on Cannes 1968, when the festival was shut down by a group of directors who refused to buckle under to governmental interference in the arts.

As Ali Jaafar writes, “before there was Occupy Wall Street or Nuit Debout, there was Paris, 1968. In a revolutionary year—think the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination—May was a particularly revolutionary month. Student protests in the City of Lights against capitalism, consumerism and traditional values, some say emboldened by their victory in re-instating the much-cherished head of the iconic Cinematheque Francaise, Henri Langlois, after he had been briefly dismissed by the De Gaulle government, took over the city on May 3, Red Friday.

Within days, the trade unions had joined in, millions of people around the country were demonstrating and France was brought to the verge of standstill. In Cannes, meanwhile, life was—initially at least—proceeding as normal. The 21st edition of the world’s most prestigious film festival kicked off on May 10 with a restored version of Gone with the Wind. As the protests spread across the country, however, so too did the enfants terribles of French cinema, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, who hit the Croisette with one goal: to shut down the festival.

On May 13, the French Critics Association issued a statement calling on those present to demonstrate in solidarity of the students, protest against the heavy-handed tactics of the police, and demand the festival be suspended. Festival founder and longtime president Robert Favre le Bret refused. As a concession, he offered to cancel parties and cocktails. That wasn’t enough, however, for the impassioned leaders of the French New Wave, one of whom—Claude Lelouch—actually reported for revolutionary duty in Cannes on-board his private yacht.

Fervor was spreading as the three musketeers of Godard, Truffaut and Lelouch set about disrupting the festival, enlisting members of the jury—including Roman Polanski—and filmmakers, some of whom like Carlos Saura even had their own films in the festival, to the cause. During one heated debate, Godard lost his cool, screaming at someone against cancelling the festival: ‘We’re talking about solidarity with the students and the workers and you’re speaking about travelling shots and close-ups’ . . .

When the festival tried to go through with the screening of Carlos Saura’s Peppermint Frappė against the wishes of the filmmakers, Saura and leading lady Geraldine Chaplin, along with Truffaut and Godard, tried to grab hold of the curtain in front of the screen to prevent it from opening; hanging on like leaves on a tree. There were fist fights. Godard lost his glasses while Truffaut took a tumble.

Eventually, Le Bret relented, reluctantly, and cancelled the festival on May 19, five days before its intended close. Cannes would never be the same again. The following year, a new section was introduced, Directors’ Fortnight, that would become a showcase for radical, daring and revolutionary voices . . . ‘We started Directors’ Fortnight because we wanted to have a festival inside the festival. Cannes did not agree to change some of the regulations,’ says Pierre-Henri Deleau, who ran it for three decades.

‘The first year, we didn’t even know we had to ask for permission from the French customs to allow 35mm prints into the country, so the first two films we had scheduled were delayed. We didn’t even have a catalogue. Just a poster with the names of the films. But, to our surprise, it was a big success. So we kept on doing it.’

Over the years, the selection of Directors’ Fortnight, or the Quinzaine, would continue to seek to push the envelope, whether in terms of showing creatively bold films or simply films from countries never selected for a major festival before. ‘We showed the first films from Cuba post-revolution, for example, or Asia and Latin America. Back then, the competition was quite conservative,’ says Deleau.

‘It was always France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the US and the UK. The selection was like diplomacy. You have to remember in those days there were only three unions: the producers, distributors and exhibitors. There was no voice for the creators and directors. We wanted Directors’ Fortnight to represent the fight against censorship.’

As for the long-term legacy of 1968, there is no doubt that the events in Paris, the country as a whole, and Cannes that year, changed the festival, even if not ultimately exactly the way the great agitators initially envisaged. Ironically, the political fight may have contributed to the eventual breakdown in the friendship between Truffaut and Godard. Godard’s strident declarations and behavior marked him out as a genuine political radical, in contrast to Truffaut, whose main concern was, and remained, cinema.

‘Truffaut was never political,’ says Deleau. ‘He always refused to be associated with one specific party. Ultimately, 1968 was not a revolution. It was not even the beginning of a revolution. It was a happening. The festival did change over the years, in some ways for the better, especially under Gilles Jacob when it became the festival that was choosing the films in selection, and not the producer countries.

But what happened in 1968 could never happen again today. Now, it’s all a question of business and promotion. There are too many films. How can a critic see 70 or 80 films? The real power isn’t in the hands of the director or the producer anymore. The people selling the films are in charge.’”

Yes, today Cannes is a commercial market above all else. But then again, things that go around come around, so to speak, and every so often, the cinema – like all the other arts – reinvents itself. Perhaps something like this, at another festival, with other directors who refuse to accept the status quo of the comic book movie DC / Marvel Universe present may eventually assert itself.

In the meantime, this article, and the events of May 1968, serve to remind us that film has always been torn between two polar opposites; it’s a business, and it’s an art form. Right now, the business end is winning. But as history has shown us time and again, all overblown regimes eventually collapse under their own weight, and commercial cinema has always been – as Jean Cocteau once put it – “a little overripe.” What will happen next is anyone’s guess, but as long as the struggle between art and commerce continues, and the underlying tensions remains, change is always possible.

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

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet Retro at MoMA

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet finally get a complete retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art.

As the program notes for the retrospective announce, “MoMA presents the first complete North American retrospective of the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, who together formed one of the most intense, challenging, and controversial collaborations in the history of cinema. Straub (French, b. 1933) and Huillet (French, 1936–2006) were inseparable partners from 1954 until Huillet’s death, working intimately on every aspect of film production, from script writing to direction to editing.

Straub-Huillet created highly personal film interpretations of profoundly ambitious art: stories by Böll, Kafka, Duras, and Pavese; poems by Dante, Mallarmé, and Hölderlin; a long-forgotten Corneille play, an essay by Montaigne, a film by D. W. Griffith, a painting by Cézanne, an unfinished opera by Schöenberg; and the biography of Johann Sebastian Bach as told through the (fictionalized) letters of his wife Anna Magdalena.

They sought to make what Straub called ‘an abstract-pictorial dream’ while remaining rigorously sensitive to the letter and spirit of the text, and to the relationship between sound and image. At the same time, all of Straub-Huillet’s films are political, whether obliquely, in reflecting on the lessons of history and advancing a Marxist analysis of capitalism and class struggle; or overtly, in considering ancient and contemporary forms of imperialism, militarism, and resistance, from Ancient Rome to colonial Egypt to wartime Germany. They aspire to nothing short of a revolution in political consciousness, especially among workers and peasants, the colonized and the exploited.

At 83, Straub continues to make films that never waver from his commitment to the subversion of all forms of cinematic convention, whether through the use of direct sound, disjunctive editing, amateur actors, and a foregrounding of the natural landscape; fragmentary and elliptical narratives spoken in various languages; Brechtian estrangement; on-location shooting of ancient texts in contemporary, anachronistic settings (for example, on the ground where the Circus Maximus once stood); and a privileging of musical and poetic rhythms and structures over the decorative, the spectacular, the psychological, and the satirical. Dialogue is shorn of emotion, and images are deliberately unflashy. ‘The work we have to do,’ Straub insists, ‘is to make films which radically eliminate art, so that there is no equivocation.’

Introductions by noted Straub-Huillet collaborators take place during the retrospective’s opening weekend. Unless they are listed as 35mm, films are presented in new digital preservations overseen by Straub, Olivier Boischot, and Barbara Ulrich. The series is organized by Joshua Siegel, Curator, Department of Film.” This once in a lifetime chance to see the work of these master filmmakers, most of which is unavailable on DVD, is simply not to be missed in one is in the New York area.

My own favorites of their work include The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), starring harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt as Bach (whom I once had the pleasure of meeting and talking with about the making of the film, after he presented an organ concert in Amsterdam); the 16mm color feature History Lessons (1972), and the 35mm short The Bridegroom, The Comedienne and The Pimp (1968), featuring a young Rainer Werner Fassbinder as the pimp, but these are just a few of their many brilliant films. A chance to see these gorgeous, transcendent films should not be passed up if at all possible.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the entire schedule for the series.

Special Issue of Cinephile – Visions of the 60s

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

This came out in 2015, but somehow it slipped past my radar.

I have an essay in this issue of the excellent journal Cinephile on experimental cinema in the 1960s, Cinephile 11.1, “Visions of the Sixties.” As the journal’s website notes, “marking the tenth anniversary of the University of British Columbia’s Film Journal, this issue features articles by Wheeler Winston Dixon, David E. James, Victoria Kennedy, Andrew Marzoni, and Emma Pett, with an introduction by Timothy Scott Brown. For more information, please click here.”

It was a pleasure working with the editors of the journal, Molly Lewis and Angela Walsh, on the essay. I love the cover, which really captures the spirit of the era. As Timothy Scott Brown notes in an introductory essay for the issue, “if one theme or question emerges from the essays in this issue, it is about the status of popular culture as a field for the creation, elaboration, and consumption of the 1960s cultural revolution.

Wheeler Winston Dixon’s essay, ‘The End of the Real: 1960s Experimental Cinema, and The Loss of Cinema Culture,’ calls to mind the now (in some cases, literally) lost world of 1960s independent filmmaking, a world in which the notion of making art outside of normal channels of production and distribution was understood by its protagonists as its own form of radical praxis.

It is difficult to call to mind now, in an era of almost unlimited access to the cultural means of production—no further away than one’s laptop—the radical imperative at work in the artistic initiatives Dixon examines. Against the backdrop of our current and seemingly endless horizon of digital possibility, the technical inaccessibility of this earlier wave of underground art reads as particularly ironic.

If you get a chance to pick up a copy, do so – it’s an excellent issue all around.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s New Video – Waste (2016)

Friday, May 13th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s new video is a mesmerizing look at the earth in peril.

Composed of just a few images, with a brief running time of about 5 minutes, Foster’s video conjures up visions of the ecological system in collapse, or as she puts it in her own words, the film is “a meditation on the relatively small amount of time that human beings have lived on the earth, perhaps from the point of view of a machine.

Inspirations include: Rachel Carson, John Muir, Aldous Huxley, Raymond Scott, Chantal Akerman, Michelangelo Antonioni (Red Desert and La Notte); Denis Côté (Joy of Man’s Desiring and Bestiaire); Straub-Huillet, eco-criticism, speculative science, etc. Read more here in my article “Embracing the Apocalypse: A World Without People” – see this free article download. This film is a coda to my book Hoarders, Doomsday Preppers, and the Culture of Apocalypse.”

Still Not On DVD – “They Won’t Believe Me” (1947)

Friday, May 13th, 2016

Irving Pichel’s They Won’t Believe Me is a noir masterpiece that still doesn’t have a US DVD release.

As Steve Eifert wrote in part in his blog Noir of the Week way back in 2012, “Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. TCM for all the good it does for classic films – airs a butchered version of the RKO noir They Won’t Believe Me! Instead of the 95 minutes watching a man behave badly we’re stuck with a neutered lead not really doing anything all that wrong. The cut 80-minute one turns a top-shelf film noir into a watered-down flim flam. Cutting 15 minutes from a film can do that . . . the 80-minute cut should be shown before the full version to film students as a lesson on how a bad edit can ruin a film.

[The film] fits nicely with “A” pictures like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice but retains that RKO look and feel (slightly cheap and gritty with familiar actors peppering the edges). That would include Out of the Past released 1/2 a year after They Won’t Believe Me! Robert Young plays Larry Ballentine — a young playboy who marries rich. He finds himself bored with is wife and begins an inappropriate relationship with one of his wife’s friends (Jane Greer). When we first are introduced to Larry and Janice it’s in a courtroom with Larry on trial for murder.

It quickly moves to a flashback showing the two on a Saturday afternoon meetup at a New York City bar. They drink crazy frozen drinks that you’d never think about ordering when you’re alone. They’re flirty and touchy – as they discuss their plans to build a boat together. Larry – after downing a few drinks – stumbles home to be confronted by his wife, her aunt, and some friends who think he’s a heel.

Things happen and the next week he tells her he’s leaving her for Janice. Greta (Rita Johnson) convinces him otherwise and Janice is out of the picture. Larry continues to work for his wife’s company. He’s only there because his wife owns a sizable share of it. He is lazy –as expected –and not liked by his partner Trenton (familiar face Tom Powers.)

Underling Verna Carlson (Susan Hayward) catches Larry’s eye one day. Before he can finish a voice over talking about how he’s been ‘too close to the flame and is now power shy when it comes to beautiful women’ he’s asking her what kind of perfume she likes.

I would guess you could credit camera man Harry J. Wild for most of the film’s look – he certainly shot his share of noir including Pitfall, Nocturne, Station West, The Threat, His Kind of Woman and many, many more. Director/actor Irving Pichel didn’t do anything remarkable in the film-noir world outside of this one (which is great), but turned out the enjoyable Quicksand in 1950.

The cast of They Won’t Believe Me! Is strong. Robert Young is remembered by those of a certain age as Marcus Welby, M.D. Here he’s quite good as the playboy with a wandering eye. Jane Greer is only months away before Out of the Past is released. She’s at the height of her beauty. Finally Susan Hayward is given some of the best lines. She’s quite something when she’s trying to reel in Larry by cutting down his rich wife and flashing a smile that is so suggestive it should be illegal – only Gilda’s hair flip is more powerful.”

That was four years ago, and as I wrote in the comments section when Steve’s article appeared, “this is one of the greatest noirs of all time, and you’re absolutely right — the 80 minute cut is a disaster. Luckily for me, I was able to see it uncut at the Thalia Theater in NYC many years ago in 35mm, and it made an indelible impression.

Irving Pichel’s direction is immaculate, and Robert Young is very interestingly cast against type as the ne’er do well husband. It’s sad that this isn’t available on DVD; and you’re right about the Italian DVD – it’s still cut. This truly is, from first frame to last, an absolutely superb film — not just an excellent noir, but a brilliant, tough piece of filmmaking, easily in the same class as Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past.

I can only hope that the WB Archive follows through with putting this out, even with potentially damaged footage. It’s a missing gem in American film history. If anyone out there has a decent copy of the uncut version, I sure would like to hear from them.”

This was when the WB Archive was considering releasing the film, but that came to nought – and so we have only a VHS, and two foreign versions, one of which is out of sync, and another with Castilian subtitles that you can’t turn off during viewing. Neither DVD does the film any sort of justice, to say nothing of the 80 minute cut down job; this deserves a Criterion version all the way, but why on earth isn’t it getting one? I just watched the butchered Spanish version this evening, poorly transferred and with unwanted subtitles, and it still knocked me out.

Another classic “lost in the cosmos” as Jean-Luc Godard would put it – see it uncut if you possibly can.

An Essential 5 DVD Set: Pioneers of African-American Cinema

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

A restoration of these films has been a long time coming – get this set when it comes out in July.

This incredible collection – coming out shortly on DVD and Blu-ray, is a must for any serious library of American cinema, featuring some of the most historically vital works of America’s legendary first African-American filmmakers, and is the only comprehensive collection of its kind. There have been DVD releases of many of the individual films included here, but in cheap editions, without digital restoration, and now, finally, we can see them as they were meant to be seen.

Funded in part by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, the packaged set includes no fewer than a dozen feature-length films and nearly twice as many shorts and rare fragments. Subject matter includes race issues that went unaddressed by Hollywood for decades. The directors include Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams, and many others whose films deserve a much wider audience.

Films in the collection include: Birthright (1938), The Blood of Jesus (1941), Body and Soul (1925), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), By Right of Birth (fragment, 1921), Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort, South Carolina (excerpt, 1940), The Darktown Revue (1931), Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA (1946), Eleven P.M. (1930), The Exile (1931), The Flying Ace (1926), God’s Stepchildren (1938), Heaven-Bound Traveler (1933), Hellbound Train (1930), Hot Biskits (1931), Mercy the Mummy Mumbled (1918), Regeneration (fragment, 1923), The Scar of Shame (1929), S.S. Jones Home Movies (1924-26), The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the KKK (1920), Ten Minutes to Live (1932), Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1926), Two Knights of Vaudeville (1918), Veiled Aristocrats (1932), Verdict Not Guilty (1934), We Work Again (1937) and Within Our Gates (1920).

The set features musical scores (for the silent films) by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), Max Roach, Samuel D. Waymon, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Donald Sosin, Makia Matsumura, Alloy Orchestra, Rob Gal, Andrew Simpson.

Bonus Features: Optional English Subtitles, 80-page booklet with essays and detailed film notes; Interviews with series curators Charles Musser and Jacqueline Stewart; Documentary on the restoration of the films; Documentary on the restoration efforts of the Library of Congress; Archival interview with actors Ethel and Lucia Moses (1978); Tyler Texas Black Film Collection promo film (with Ossie Davis, 1985) and more!

Although these films have been available for many decades – I’ve run them in my classes for a long time – the film prints were often battered and scratched, 16mm dupes that lacked the depth and quality of the original negatives. Here, these films have been lovingly restored in a collection that is an essential part of the history of the American cinema. This is the part of film history you’ve probably missed – and shouldn’t.

This is an amazing act of historical reclamation – a must have for everyone.

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.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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