Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The New Audience: Moviegoing in a Connected World

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

The Academy is also running this interesting evening on May 12, 2015, on the future of cinema in the digital era.

As the program notes explain, “The Academy looks at the past, present and especially the future of moviegoing in this discussion moderated by Krista Smith, Vanity Fair’s executive West Coast editor.  Oscar-nominated producer and Academy member Michael Shamberg conceived and helped shape the program in consultation with the Academy.

Just as the television boom of the 1950s inspired filmmakers to expand the size and shape of the movie screen, today’s filmmakers and studios want to take advantage of the wide variety of platforms on which contemporary audiences view films.

Everything from portable devices to streaming videos competes with the traditional movie theater as the preferred ways to watch films for much of the current generation. The evening will include notable media-savvy contributors who will first offer their unique perspectives on the topic and then participate in a panel discussion moderated by Smith.

Professor Henry Jenkins, the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education at the University of Southern California, will discuss key historic shifts in motion picture viewing and fandom, describing how our social experiences in and around cinema have shifted over time, and what they look like in today’s networked era.

The president of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures and web pioneer Ze Frank will compare the way today’s digitally oriented audiences relate to content with the more traditional relationship between moviegoers and the theatrical experience.

Team Oscar winner Tayo Amos will speak about what it means to grow up as a digital native filmmaker and media consumer in the world of social media, and explain how social media and the Internet are changing storytelling for her generation.

The final speaker will be Oscar-winning filmmaker John Lasseter, the chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and principal creative advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering. The evening will also include archival footage, courtesy of the Academy Film Archive, showcasing early audiences interacting with movies and a look at past predictions of moviegoing in the 21st century.

Again, admission is just $5, and this promises to be an informative and deeply interesting evening.

This Is Widescreen – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is running an excellent new series on widescreen cinema.

From May 1st through June 19th, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a running a widescreen “retrospective” of the some of the most innovative CinemaScope and related processes films from the 1950s and 1960s – with the 1960 arguably being when the format reached its zenith. As their program notes for the series comment, “cinema has endured for decades through changes in technology and competing visual platforms, and now you can discover how studios and filmmakers – long before tablets, smartphones and the Internet – responded when audiences began trading regular visits to the movies for the ease and affordability of the first small screen: television.

In response, many impressive widescreen cinematic formats were rolled out around the world and capitalized on the breathtaking width of the projected image, not to mention the heightened fidelity of stereophonic sound, to achieve effects far beyond the reach of TV sets.

This Is Widescreen offers a colorful assortment of films (including classic musicals, crime films, sci-fi chillers, ghost stories and more) that demonstrate how filmmakers found new means of engaging the flexibility of the cinema and the key larger-than-life film formats in the ’50s and ’60s – from the launch of Cinerama in 1952 and the subsequent widescreen boom that included CinemaScope, VistaVision, Todd-AO and others – plus highlights from the first wave of ‘Scope filmmaking from around the globe.”

Admission to each screening, projected immaculately in 35mm format, is a mere $5 (!!), and the opportunity to see these remarkable films on the big screen in their original aspect ratio shouldn’t be missed. All screenings will feature pre-show presentations including shorts, trailers, cartoons and/or behind -the-scenes footage. Feature films screened during the series are:

Cinerama Holiday – May 1 at 7:30 pm
Lola Montès - May 7 at 7:30 pm
Carmen Jones and Bigger Than Life – May 8 at 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm
The Hidden Fortress – May 14 at 7:30 pm
To Catch a Thief
and Artists and Models – May 15 at 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm
Shoot the Piano Player and Lola – May 21 at 7:30 pm and 9:20 pm
Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt – May 22 at 7:30 pm  and 9:05 pm
Last Year at Marienbad and The Innocents – May 28 at 7:30 pm and 9:20 pm
Oklahoma! - May 29 at 7:30 pm
A Woman Is a Woman and Cruel Story of Youth – June 4 at 7:30 pm and 9:10 pm
The Vikings – June 5 at 7:30
Kwaidan - June 11 at 7:30
Grand Prix – June 12 at 7:30
The Big Gundown and Dragon Inn – June 18 at 7:30 pm and 9:35 pm

For more information on each program, click on the links above – not to be missed!

Patrick Morganelli’s New Opera – Hercules vs. Vampires

Friday, April 24th, 2015

The LA Opera Company – Patrick Morganelli’s new opera Hercules vs. Vampires, from the film by Mario Bava.

There are some times I wish I had a private jet I could simply go to the airport and use at will, and this is one of those times. Patrick Morganelli’s superb new opera,  Hercules vs. Vampires, is playing at the LA Opera House tomorrow and Sunday, and that’s it. By clicking on the image above, you can go to the LA Opera’s site for the production, which features a snippet of video, and a section of the work, which sounds, as Morganelli intended, very much like something influenced by Ravel and Debussy – brilliantly performed.

Bava’s film, featuring the haunting image of a young Christopher Lee (on the screen above) is a masterwork of Italian 60s atmospheric fantasy. Morganelli’s score lifts both the narrative and the images to an entirely new level, and the reviews thus far have been raves. My good friend Dennis Coleman, who lives in Los Angeles, saw the production, and gave it very high marks – and I believe him. This is an inspired “mash-up” of cinema and classical music, performed by some of the brightest talents in the world of opera working today.

As the LA Opera’s web site notes, “buckle your seat belts for our most offbeat presentation ever! Hercules vs. Vampires combines opera and midcentury pop culture, synchronizing live music with cult fantasy film Hercules in the Haunted World, a 1961 sword-and-sandal epic starring bodybuilder Reg Park. When the actors projected on the silver screen open their mouths to speak, the audience will hear their lines sung by our cast of singers from the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, accompanied by a 26-piece orchestra.

Directed by the great Italian filmmaker Mario Bava, the film itself is fantastic in every sense of the term, swaddled in glorious early-1960s Technicolor. Action-packed and wildly operatic in scope, the film follows Hercules on a heroic journey to rescue his beloved from a fiendish mastermind of terror (played onscreen by horror legend Christopher Lee). Fresh and full of fun, an atmospheric new operatic score by L.A.-based composer Patrick Morganelli provides the perfect accompaniment to Bava’s gorgeously gaudy world.”

As composer Morganelli told Michelle Lanz in The Frame, “one of the amazing things about Mario Bava was that because he was originally a cinematographer, he had an amazing sense of how to light a scene, how to frame it…when he stepped up to become a director he was really able to bring this visual sense to it. Specifically what we see in this particular film is he shot it in anamorphic widescreen, which of course looks spectacular for a low-budget film like that. The color composition of it, and in particular roughly a third of the film takes place in Hades. The scenes in Hades are beyond belief.

I stuck as close as I could to the story of the film. I didn’t want to start doing things that were going to not really make sense with the picture. The difficulty there is that in taking film dialogue and creating an operatic libretto out of it, you have not only artistic issues of how do you condense everything into fewer words, but artistically they have to be words that are singable when you put all that together and then try and match that up with the actual mouth movements of the screen — it was technically quite difficult.” But the results, it seems, are spectacular.

I truly wish I could see this in person; it seems like a remarkable and daring achievement.

The Eternal Camera

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

This new, light-powered camera – now in development – could theoretically take pictures for all eternity.

As BBC News reports, “A camera powered by the light it uses to take pictures has been invented by American scientists. The camera generates power by converting some of the light falling on its sensor into electricity that is then used to take a snap. Theoretically the self-powered device could take a picture every second, forever.

The camera’s creators are now refining the device and are looking into ways to commercialize the technology.  ‘We are in the middle of a digital imaging revolution,’ said Professor Shree Nayar, director of the computer vision laboratory at Columbia University in New York who invented the device. ‘A camera that can function as an untethered device forever – without any external power supply – would be incredibly useful.’

Professor Nayar said the route to creating the device opened up when he realized that solar panels and digital cameras use almost the same component, known as a photodiode, to handle light. Working with engineers, Nayar managed to create a photodiode that combined the light-sensing abilities of a camera with the power-converting properties seen in solar panels.

The next step was to use lots of the combined photodiodes to form a grid that both senses the intensity of light falling on it and converts some of that illumination into power that captures an image. The prototype sensor grid is just 30 by 40 pixels in size and currently takes grainy black and white images. To demonstrate its abilities, Nayar and colleagues used their self-powered camera to shoot a short film.

Nayar told the BBC that the next step in development was to make a self-powered, solid-state image sensor with many more pixels that could then be used to produce a standalone camera that could be used anywhere. The self-powering sensor could also be used to lower the power consumption needs of smartphones and other gadgets, he said, or, when not being used to take pictures, could also function as an in-built power generator.”

I’m sure such a device could indeed be “incredibly useful,” but frankly, I’m not sure I like the idea of a camera that takes images forever, as part of a Panopticonic universe. And am I the only one who sees the blurry, early image above as a sort of replica of Edvard Munch’s The Scream?

Perpetual, self-powered surveillance. Read the whole story by clicking here, or on the image above.

Laurel and Hardy: 40 Memorable Moments

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

Courtesy of The Telegraph, here are forty memorable scenes from the films of Laurel and Hardy.

As the newspaper notes, “Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy have inspired generations of comedians including Matt Lucas (“I always thought of them as friends”), John Cleese (“they’re wonderfully, wonderfully funny”), Steve Martin (“they are hard to top”), Steve Coogan (“they were geniuses of comedy”) and Stephen Fry (“a constant joy”). Laurel and Hardy will return to the big screen this summer to mark the 125th anniversary of Stan Laurel’s birth and cinemas across the UK will be showing a double bill of their classic 1933 feature length film Sons of the Desert and the short movie County Hospital. Martin Chilton celebrates this wonderful comic duo with a pick of 40 of their finest moments.”

Click here, or on the image above, to browse through this excellent gallery of photos.

The Black Film Center/Archive – Richard E. Norman Collection

Monday, April 20th, 2015

More essential films saved from destruction.

As The Indiana University – Bloomington Newsroom reports, “The Black Film Center/Archive will produce a new finding aid for the collection of Richard E. Norman, a pioneer in development of films for African-American audiences. Project staff, working in partnership with IU Libraries Digital Collections Services, will enhance this online resource with over 20,000 digitized items from the archive.

‘The Norman Collection constitutes a unique resource for the study of the formation of American cinema in general and the history of race films in particular,’ said Michael T. Martin, director of the Black Film Center/Archive and a professor of American studies and of communication and culture in The Media School. ‘Arguably, of no less importance to both histories as the Lincoln Motion Picture Co. and Micheaux Picture Corp. are, this grant ensures the preservation and access of our Norman holdings for current and future generations of researchers, film historians and the public, as it will be to the teaching mission of Indiana University.’

In the early 1900s, Norman, a southern-born white filmmaker, was among a small group of so-called race filmmakers who set out to produce black-oriented pictures to counteract the racist caricatures that had dominated cinema from its inception.

Norman began his filmmaking career in the Midwest before relocating his Norman Film Studios to Jacksonville, Fla., where from 1919 to 1928 he produced silent feature films featuring leading black actors and actresses. He cast his actors in positive roles such as a banker, businessman and cowboy, and not in demeaning roles often given to African Americans by Hollywood. In his 1926 feature, The Flying Ace, he notably depicted an African-American pilot in the U.S. Armed Forces — an impossible career in reality for a black man until 1940.

Apart from short fragments, all but one of Norman’s films are now lost, making the collection at IU even more important. His lone surviving film, “The Flying Ace,” was restored by the Library of Congress in 2010 and screened at IU in 2013 as part of the ‘Regeneration in Digital Contexts: Early Black Film’ conference.

Norman’s archive at IU — an extensive collection of his personal and professional correspondence, detailed theatrical distribution records, original shooting scripts and other records — is among the most important resources for the study of early African-American film and movie-going culture from 1912 to 1954. Norman ceased film production with the advent of the sound era, but he remained active in the motion picture industry as a distributor and owner of theaters.

‘Since the 2013 publication of Barbara Tepa Lupack’s scholarly biography on Norman, we’ve seen a surge of research interest in Norman’s collection from scholars internationally,’ said Brian Graney, archivist of the Black Film Center/Archive and principal investigator on the Norman project. ‘This support from NEH will greatly increase the discoverability of Norman’s records and make them readily available as digital resources for remote research and new forms of scholarship on African-American movie-going.’

The collection was donated by Norman’s son, Capt. Richard E. Norman Jr., to the Black Film Center/Archive under its founding director Phyllis Klotman, emeritus professor of African American and African diaspora studies, who died late last month.”

Fascinating history – read more by clicking here, or on the image above.

Columbia University Seminar Presentation – 4/16/15

Monday, April 20th, 2015

I was honored to be invited to deliver a seminar lecture at Columbia University on April 16, 2015.

My talk was entitled “The Current Fate of Experimental Works on 16mm from the 1960s and 1970s in a Digital Age,” with David Sterritt, Chair of the National Society of Film Critics and a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University serving as the respondent.

The problem we discussed is a serious one – most of the experimental films of the 1960s and 1970s were created on 16mm reversal film, which is now an obsolete format, and many of the artists involved in the era have died, leaving their films as essentially “orphan works.” Even such well known artists as D.A. Pennebaker are searching for archives to take their 16mm original printing materials, and for most independent filmmakers of the 1960s, the films sit on the shelf, unseen and undistributed, where once they commanded a wide audience around the world at colleges, museums, and galleries.

As I noted during my lecture, in part, “with the rise of what is supposedly ’social media,’ a sense of community is gone. I think a better term for it is ‘anti-social’ media, because it locks us all away from each other in our own little cubicle. True, I can communicate with anyone in the world with a few keystrokes, but it’s impersonal, fragmentary, lacking in any real person to person substance.

Skype or Facetime are poor substitutes for actually sitting in a room and talking to a group of people. Vimeo [a premium video sharing site] is supposed to be a haven for artists, as well, but there’s little real interaction – by design – and many of the artists’ sites are ‘ghost sites,’ of videos posted years ago, and viewed only a few times.

Bookstores have vanished, not only in New York City, but around the world. And now, when one goes into a coffee house, instead of discussions, one finds a group of solitary people staring at their iPads or laptops, alone together in a virtual world where the only interaction takes place on the screen. Most people aren’t even aware of it, but our private space is essentially gone . . .

The experimental film work I have discussed in this paper, made for the most part in 16mm format, is also now beyond general use, as 16mm projection and production – to say nothing of 35mm – becomes a thing of the past.

Most of these works will become mere memories, existing only in terrible copies uploaded on the web if they exist at all. These films will never make the jump to DVD or streaming video, and unless one wants to go Anthology Film Archives, they’re almost impossible to see. Indeed, it’s as if they never even existed to an entire new generation of potential artists.”

A difficult problem, for which there is no easy solution; well worth talking about.

Lunch with Robert Downey Sr.

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

Nothing like having lunch with an old friend.

In town for a lecture at Columbia University on April 16th, 2015, I was happy to have lunch with Bob Downey Sr. and his wife, Rosemary Rogers, at their apartment, with no real objective other than to have a good time and catch up. I’ve written extensively on Bob’s work in my book Film Talk, and have known him since the late 1960s, and always found him to be a totally stand up guy, a valued friend, and one of the most gifted and outrageous filmmakers of all time.

Recently, many of his key films were collected in a superb Criterion edition entitled Up All Night With Robert Downey Sr., including his landmark comedy Putney Swope. As Criterion notes, “Robert Downey Sr. emerged as one of the most irreverent filmmakers of the new American underground of the early sixties, taking no prisoners in his rough-and-tumble treatises on politics, race, and consumer culture.

In his most famous, the midnight-movie mainstay Putney Swope, an advertising agency is turned on its head when a militant African American man takes charge. Like Swope, Downey held nothing sacred. This selection of five of his most raucous and outlandish films, dating from 1964 to 1975, offers a unique mix of the hilariously abrasive and the intensely experimental.”

Check it out- Bob is the real deal!

Web Changes Everything for Indie Films and TV Series

Monday, April 13th, 2015

This is a key moment – Netflix and other web providers are producing both “TV” series and theatrical films.

As Dina Gachman reports in Studio System News, “Netflix is buying feature films, Woody Allen is making an Amazon show, and A-list Oscar winners have no problem taking a role in a TV show or miniseries, even at the height of their career. In other words, it’s an exciting time for television. The landscape is changing so rapidly it’ll give you whiplash.

That’s all great news for actors, writers, and producers – and maybe not-so-great news for theater chains, whose owners were recently up in arms about Netflix buying Cary Fukunaga’s feature film Beasts of No Nation for a reported $12 million. Features and television are experiencing an indie revolution – just look at the Best Picture Oscar nominees this year. The vast majority of the nominees were made outside of the studio system, with Warner Bros. American Sniper being the oft-cited exception.

In television, the traditional process of getting a pilot made is still the norm, but there are more channels, more online platforms, and more opportunities for writers and producers to get their project made than ever before. Going the independent route and shooting the pilot yourself is one option, and the stigma of making a pilot DIY-style is quickly becoming a thing of the past [and] while it hasn’t become the norm, indie pilots are definitely becoming an increasingly common route for creators who want to get their passion project off the ground, by any means necessary.

Former House EP Katie Jacobs and veteran indie producer Nick Wechsler (Drugstore Cowboy, Reservation Road, Magic Mike) have recently teamed to produce an independent pilot called Dr. Del, with John Hawkes starring and John Sayles writing. They’ll shoot the pilot on their own, with total creative freedom, and then take it to cable and broadcast network.”

As she puts it, “there really is no excuse not to make your pilot anymore.”

Victor Halperin’s Supernatural (1933)

Saturday, April 11th, 2015

Victor Halperin’s Supernatural is a forgotten horror classic – now on DVD.

After the amazing boxoffice and critical success of his film White Zombie (1932), independently produced for a mere $50,000, and starring Bela Lugosi hot off his success with Dracula, Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount Pictures, decided that with some real resources at his command, director Victor Halperin could create an even greater boxoffice success, and offered him a chance to make a major studio production. The result was Supernatural, surely one of the most unusual and poetic films ever made in Hollywood during the Pre-Code era.

Roma Courtenay (Carole Lombard) is a rich young heiress whose brother John (Lyman Williams) has recently died in an unspecified accident. Inconsolable, she turns to phony psychic Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart), who promises to contact her brother during a séance. Meanwhile, convicted murderess Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne) has been found guilty in the strangling death of three men, something that Bavian had knowledge of, and betrayed her to the police. After Rogen’s death in the electric chair, her body is claimed by psychologist/scientist Dr. Carl Houston (H.B. Warner), whos attempt to stop Rogen’s malevolent spirit from passing on to someone else.

Roma, however, stumbles into Houston’s laboratory just as the doctor is attempting to exorcise Rogen’s spirit, which immediately takes possession of Roma’s body, forcing Roma to carry out Rogen’s plan of revenge against Bavian. In yet another subplot, Bavian’s landlady Madame Gourjan (Beryl Mercer) discovers Bavian’s plot to steal Roma’s money through a series of supposed “messages from the beyond” from her deceased brother.

In response, Bavian promptly murders her, and then throws her body on the elevated railway tracks to cover up evidence of the killing. I’ll stop with the plot summary at this point, if only because I don’t want to give any more away – suffice it to say that events continue in a downward spiral until a rather reasonably happy ending brings the film to a satisfatory conclusion.

At just 65 minutes, the film is more a mood piece than anything else, and Halperin used most of his technical crew from White Zombie to create the film, albeit on a much more generous budget. Randolph Scott, in an early role, plays Grant Wilson, Roma’s predictable love interest, but has little to do in the film, and it’s clear that Halperin is more interested in creating a sensuously sinister atmosphere than anything else, as in another Paramount entry from the same period, Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls.

With richly detailed camerawork by the gifted Arthur Martinelli, Supernatural proceeds as a fever dream devoid of logic but suffused with an odd sensibility of eternal waiting that was Halperin’s trademark; sadly, the film was not as successful as White Zombie, and has more or less fallen out of the public consciousness.

Writing in The New York Times upon the film’s initial release in 1933, critic Mordaunt Hall noted that “notwithstanding the incredibility of many of its main incidents, Supernatural, the present picture at the Paramount, succeeds in awakening no little interest in its spooky doings. It not only depicts the various tricks of a charlatan spiritualist but also undertakes through camera wizardry to show the spirit of a dead murderess entering the body of a wholesome girl and causing her to behave like a savage.

The story, which owes its origin to one written by Garnett Weston, is worked out shrewdly and the scenes are for the most part pictured in a fashion suited to the eerie happenings. At the outset one is reminded that Confucius issued a warning to treat all supernatural beings with respect, but to keep aloof from them. Mohammed and the New Testament also are quoted and to put the spectator in a receptive mood there are wind and rain and dirgelike music.

Allan Dinehart plays the crooked spiritualist, Paul Bavian, who is to be congratulated on the thoroughness of his methods to extort money from a wealthy girl named Roma Courtney. Bavian had been on intimate terms with Ruth Rogen, who, after killing three of her lovers, expiates her crimes in the electric chair. It is the theory of a Dr. Houston that the spirits of dead evildoers continue to commit crimes through other flesh and blood mediums. He has more than a mere suspicion that Ruth Rogen’s spirit will be running amuck and that susceptible women had better keep out of its way.

It is not disclosing any great secret to say that Bavian has an easy way of getting rid of those who thwart him. A little poison in a ring, a handshake and they die. This sinister faker writes to Roma telling her that he has heard from the spirit of her brother, who recently died, and that he (Bavian) was requested to summon her. This missive subsequently leads to Roma and others visiting Bavian’s apartment, where the crook pretends to go into a trance and in an artful manner impresses the girl.”

The film received similarly respectful notices from most other critics, but ultimately, Supernatural was too subtle to entice the public to see it in droves; and Lombard was apparently unhappy with her role as a possessed killer, feeling much more at home in comedy – and she was right; the film remains an interesting one-off in her screen career, which ended with her tragic death in 1942 while on a War Bond tour. Nevertheless, Supernatural remains a peculiar, but deeply felt project, and one of the most innovative and neglected films of Hollywood in the early 1930s.

An odd film in every respect, Supernatural deserves your attention; it’s a film that resonates in one’s memory.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him wdixon1@unl.edu or his website, wheelerwinstondixon.com

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

  • War Movies
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon at one of the earliestand most enduring film genres, the war movie. […]
  • Frame By Frame - Hollywood Composers
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon highlights the most prolific Hollywood film composers. […]

In The National News

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