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Twenty British Films – A Guided Tour by Brian McFarlane

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

British film specialist Brian McFarlane has an excellent new book on British cinema, old and new.

Here’s a remarkable new book from the seemingly indefatigable Brian McFarlane, Honorary Associate Professor, School of English, Communication and Performance Studies, Monash University, Melbourne, and Visiting Professor, Film Studies, University of Hull.

In choosing twenty films, many of them classics of their kind – think of Brief Encounter, The Third Man, Genevieve – as well as some less well-known titles, Brian McFarlane communicates his enthusiasm for the sheer range of British cinema as well as a keenly critical interest in what has made these films stay in the mind often after many decades and many viewings.

The book ends in the present day with titles such as Last Orders and In the Loop and it is intended to provoke discussion as much as recollection. Though it is rigorous in conducting its “guided tour” of these films, it does so in ways that make it accessible to anyone with a passion for cinema.

“Brian McFarlane is one of the best friends British cinema has ever had. An Autobiography of British Cinema, an assembly of his enthusiastic interviews with British filmmakers, is valuable, informative and enjoyable. An Encylopedia of British Film is indispensible and without equal.

Now, in Twenty British Films: A Guided Tour, a highly personal but carefully argued choice of ‘twenty films to cherish,’ McFarlane takes us into the heart of a lifelong obsession that became an academic pursuit without losing any of its passion.” — Philip French

You don’t have to be a specialist to enjoy this tour.

David Bowie 1947-2016

Monday, January 11th, 2016

One the world’s most influential pop /music / film/ performance artists has died at the age of 69.

As Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times, “David Bowie, the infinitely changeable, fiercely forward-looking songwriter who taught generations of musicians about the power of drama, images and personas, died on Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday. Mr. Bowie’s death was confirmed by his publicist, Steve Martin, on Monday morning.

He died after an 18-month battle with cancer, according to a statement on Mr. Bowie’s social-media accounts. ‘David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family,’ a post on his Facebook page read. His last album, Blackstar [produced by Bowie's long time associate Tony Visconti] a collaboration with a jazz quintet that was typically enigmatic and exploratory, was released on Friday — on his birthday . . . He had also collaborated on an Off Broadway musical, Lazarus, that was a surreal sequel to his definitive 1976 film role, The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider: an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut. His music was always a mutable blend: rock, cabaret, jazz and what he called ‘plastic soul,’ but it was suffused with genuine soul. He also captured the drama and longing of everyday life, enough to give him No. 1 pop hits like Let’s Dance . . .

Mr. Bowie earned admiration and emulation across the musical spectrum — from rockers, balladeers, punks, hip-hop acts, creators of pop spectacles and even classical composers like Philip Glass, who based two symphonies on Mr. Bowie’s albums Low and Heroes. Mr. Bowie’s constantly morphing persona was a touchstone for performers like Madonna and Lady Gaga; his determination to stay contemporary introduced his fans to Philadelphia funk, Japanese fashion, German electronica and drum-and-bass dance music.”

David Bowie crossed nearly every boundary in popular culture and art, appearing in films, creating a multitude of characters such as Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke, and then abandoning them when they were no longer of interest. Bowie was also much underrated as a singer, and in this era of auto-tuning, it’s interesting to listen to this isolated vocal track for the song Under Pressure, in which Bowie belts out the lyrics to the song with both skill and passion.

Bowie also has a surprisingly long and effective film career, appearing in a wide variety of films, from Labyrinth, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Prestige (in which he played the equally visionary Nikola Tesla) the biopic Basquiat, as well as The Hunger, The Last Temptation of Christ, and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. In all these films, the persona he projected was very much like his stage presence; distant, but absolutely in the moment, whatever that moment might be.

Two years ago, the BBC produced an excellent documentary on one of Bowie’s most creative periods, Five Years, and as columnist Paul Morley observed in The Telegraph, Bowie “was the human equivalent of a Google search, a portal through which you could step into an amazing, very different wider world – if he mentioned in an interview, or referenced in his work, someone like Andy Warhol, Jean Cocteau, Antonin Artaud or Marcel Duchamp, I would immediately want to find out what he was talking about.

He flooded plain everyday reality with extraordinary, unexpected information, processing the details through a buoyant, mobile mind, and made intellectual discovery seem incredibly glamorous. He helped create in my own mind a need to discover ways of making sense of both the universe and the self by seeking out the different, the difficult and the daring.”

David Bowie – one of the art world’s major figures – now no longer with us.

Frame by Frame Video: Film Noir

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

Here’s a brief Frame by Frame video, directed by Curt Bright, in which I discuss Film Noir.

The scene above is from Jacques Tourneur’s noir classic Out of the Past (1947), and in this video I briefly discuss some of the more dominant characteristics of noir, in a video which was produced roughly at the same time my book Film Noir and The Cinema of Paranoia came out. Oddly enough, I never blogged directly on this video, and it’s too good to pass up, so here it is.

When Choice: The Library Journal reviewed Film Noir and The Cinema of Paranoia, they noted that “Dixon seeks to broaden the scope and definition of film noir by focusing on its most dominant motif–paranoia. Concentrating on that impulse, and also on fear and violence, the author demonstrates that these all-encompassing aspects of film noir are found not only in gangster/detective films of the 1940s but also in such genres as science fiction and horror.

Beginning with the pre-Code era, Dixon guides the reader through a comprehensive overview of the evolution of film noir to its present form, along the way presenting an enlightening examination of American and British society and politics and revealing the role film noir has played during certain periods.

[Dixon] demonstrates how film noir serves to contradict the false “feel good” images mediated to the public through movies and television programming. [Dixon]’s observations illustrate how paranoia, as constructed through the lens of film noir, proves more relevant than ever in lieu of the veil of fear that envelops every aspect of post-9/11 life.”

And that’s still true today – noir tells us how things really are.

Public Domain Collections: Free to Share & Reuse

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

The New York Public Library has just released an amazing collection of Public Domain materials.

As Shana Kimball, Manager of Public Programs and Outreach at the New York Public Library announced on January 5, 2016, “Today we are proud to announce that out-of-copyright materials in NYPL Digital Collections are now available as high-resolution downloads. No permission required, no hoops to jump through: just go forth and reuse!

The release of more than 180,000 digitized items represents both a simplification and an enhancement of digital access to a trove of unique and rare materials: a removal of administration fees and processes from public domain content, and also improvements to interfaces — popular and technical — to the digital assets themselves.

Online users of the NYPL Digital Collections website will find more prominent download links and filters highlighting restriction-free content; while more technically inclined users will also benefit from updates to the Digital Collections API enabling bulk use and analysis, as well as data exports and utilities posted to NYPL’s GitHub account.

These changes are intended to facilitate sharing, research and reuse by scholars, artists, educators, technologists, publishers, and Internet users of all kinds. All subsequently digitized public domain collections will be made available in the same way, joining a growing repository of open materials.”

So, as Shana Kimball says, “go forth and reuse” – an incredible resource.

Video: Things to Come (1936) – H.G. Wells’ Vision of the Future

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

H.G. Wells’ Things To Come is one of the most prophetic visions of the future ever created for the screen.

H.G. Wells wrote many novels about the possible future of mankind, all of which have been filmed in various adaptations, but he wrote only one futuristic vision with a film adaptation directly in mind; his 1933 magnum opus The Shape of Things To Come, which Wells then adapted into the screenplay for the film Things to Come in 1936.

The production designer and director of the film, William Cameron Menzies, is lately having a run on this blog, with posts on his film Invaders from Mars and James Curtis’ book William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, but it’s only right that this film, perhaps the only time that Menzies really had a decent budget at his disposal as a director, gets its own entry here.

The collaboration between Wells and Menzies – as well as the actors, including Raymond Massey, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and Sir Ralph Richardson – was stormy at best, with the major stumbling block being that Wells, who had almost no visual or dramatic sensibility for the cinema, kept insisting that his long, declamatory speeches remain intact on the screen, despite Menzies’ and the cast’s insistence that judicious cuts to the material would make the end product more effective.

But Wells wouldn’t hear of it, and so there are, in truth, about thirty minutes of the film that could easily be cut – something that all the contemporary reviewers of the film readily pointed out – and Wells, disappointed with the film’s initial reception, amazingly blamed Menzies for this – but it simply isn’t so.

Despite this problem, however, Things to Come remains an astonishing film, accurately predicting the onset on World War II, for one thing, as well as such technological advances as television, space travel, enclosed cities, social breakdown bordering on feudalism in some areas, and clearly posited science as the savior of mankind.

It’s essential, of course, to see Things to Come on a big screen; it’s one of those films that calls insistently for large scale projection – and for many years, when the film fell into the Public Domain, inferior 16mm and video copies circulated from a variety of sources, none of which approached the scope and grandeur of the original film. However, in recent years, the film has come back under copyright.

Legend Films has thus brought out a superb DVD and Blu-ray of the film, completely restored, which can be seen either in its original black and white version (my choice), or in a remarkably good colorized version, supervised by the late special effects master Ray Harryhausen. So, thanks to Curt Bright, here’s a short video essay on the film as part of the Frame by Frame series, and now, you can see the film for yourself.

Don’t miss a chance to see this classic if you can; click here for a video essay on the film.

Why Women Are Underrepresented in Hollywood

Thursday, December 31st, 2015

Director Lois Weber, a true cinema pioneer, directing in Hollywood in 1916.

Critic Manohla Dargis zeroes in on why women are so poorly represented in Hollywood today, even more so than in the past. Notes Dargis, “The movie industry is failing women. And until the industry starts making serious changes, nothing is going to change . . . American commercial cinema has long been dominated by men, but I don’t think there has ever been another time when women have been as underrepresented on screen as they are now.

The biggest problem isn’t genuinely independent cinema, where lower budgets mean more opportunities for women in front of and behind the camera. The problem is the six major studios that dominate the box office, the entertainment chatter and the popular imagination. Their refusal to hire more female directors is immoral, maybe illegal, and has helped create and sustain a representational ghetto for women.”

What will it take to break the logjam?

Raoul Walsh and Maritta Wolff’s The Man I Love (1947)

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015

Raoul Walsh’s hard boiled Post World War II noir is an underappreciated classic.

Seated above are Ida Lupino and Andrea King, rehearsing on a kitchen set during the filming of Raoul Walsh’s The Man I Love. The movie is based on a novel by Maritta Wolff, who, according to Wikipedia “was born on December 25, 1918 in born in Grass Lake, Jackson County, Michigan. She grew up on her grandparents’ farm and attended a one-room country school. She was a senior at the University of Michigan when she wrote a novel-length story for an English composition class that won the 1940 Avery Hopwood Award, a university prize for excellent writing, worth $1,000. Whistle Stop is a seamy tale of the Veeches, a shiftless family living in a whistle-stop town near Detroit.

The novel, depicting incest, violence, and containing much more vulgar language than was usual at the time, was published the next year by Random House. That Wolff, a mere 22-year-old, was the author of so hard-boiled a novel gave her an instant notoriety, and Whistle Stop became an immediate best-seller, going into five editions and a special armed forces edition. Yet the book was not without literary merit, Sinclair Lewis calling it ‘the most important novel of the year.’ Whistle Stop was adapted into a 1946 film starring Ava Gardner and George Raft.

Wolff’s second novel, Night Shift, attracted more critical praise, especially for its dialog [and was made into the film The Man I Love]. Over the next 20 years she wrote four more best-selling novels. Always a private person who shunned publicity, Wolff, in 1972, refused her publisher’s request to go on a promotional tour for a recently finished novel, Sudden Rain, and as a result the novel was never published during her lifetime. At that point she evidently ceased writing fiction.

While at the University of Michigan she had met and married a prolific young writer, Hubert Skidmore, who published six novels before he was 30. Skidmore died in a house fire in 1946. In 1947 Wolff married a costume jeweller, Leonard Stegman, by whom she had a son, Hugh Stegman. After Wolff’s death, the manuscript for Sudden Rain, which had been kept safely in her refrigerator for the last thirty years of her life, was published (along with re-issues of Whistle Stop and Night Shift) to much acclaim.”

With a script by W. R. “Little Caesar” Burnett and Catherine Turney, The Man I Love deals with love, loss, and the search for some sort of permanence in a world that’s constantly throwing the worst at you – a world in which one expects nothing, and gets it. As Wikipedia summarizes the film’s basic narrative, “homesick for her family in Los Angeles, lounge singer Petey Brown (Ida Lupino) decides to leave New York City to spend some time visiting her two sisters and brother on the West Coast. Shortly she lands a job at the nightclub of small-time-hood Nicky Toresca (Robert Alda) where her sister Sally (Andrea King) is employed.

While evading the sleazy Toresca’s heavy-handed passes, Petey falls in love with down-and-out ex-jazz pianist San Thomas (Bruce Bennett), who has never recovered from an old divorce. Variously solving the problems of her sisters, brother and their next-door neighbor, the no-nonsense Petey must wait as San decides whether to start a new life with her or sign back on with a merchant steamer.”

The film deals with surviving on a limited income, the transience of friendship, the need to live in the moment in a world of uncertain tomorrows, and even such topical issues as PTSD – Sally’s husband Roy Otis (John Ridgely) has returned from World War II an emotional wreck, and is confined to a Veterans Hospital for most of the film – as well as Nicky Teresa’s unceasing sexual harassment of Petey.

But what is most remarkable about the film is Lupino’s performance – her singing voice is dubbed, but in the dramatic scenes, and in the intensity of her love for the seemingly doomed San Thomas, the depth of emotional investment in the role is absolutely heartbreaking. There will be no happy ending for Petey and San, “the man she loves” – after a few days of companionship, San, his career in ruins, ships out out with the merchant marine, while Petey decides not to stay with her sister, but instead go back of the road as a torch singer – perhaps in Chicago, or New York, or wherever the road takes her.

Raoul Walsh was a tough director, unsentimental in his approach to life and his work as a filmmaker, and Lupino, who learned her craft as a director by watching Walsh, steals every scene she’s in simply through the intensity of her screen presence – Walsh often just hangs on her face, as she listens to San play the piano, or lends a sympathetic era to her sister’s problems, and thus effortlessly dominates the proceedings.

As Jeremy Arnold wrote of the film, “The Man I Love is not a film which thrives on plot. Atmosphere is everything here. The late-night jam sessions, underworld characters and steamy songs all make for a memorably moody experience . . . critics were mixed to negative (‘a brittle sex romance’ is how Variety described it), but The Man I Love touched something in filmgoers and became a big hit. [Lupino biographer William Donati noted that], ‘Lupino fans, especially women, lined up to see it. When hard-edged Petey Brown, tough but emotionally vulnerable, finds herself alone when her man sails to sea, a responsive chord was struck in many a woman’s heart.’”

The Man I Love doesn’t take place in neat little houses with white picket fences; it’s a world of cheap apartments, jobs from which one can be fired at a moment’s notice, and constant scrimping and saving just to get by. No one has time to feel sorry for themselves – they’re too busy simply trying to survive. Available on DVD only in archival format, The Man I Love tells more about the late 1940s American than many better known films, and thus deserves a much wider audience – it isn’t escapism, and it isn’t really a romance – it’s more a document of a time and place, and the people who lived through an era.

The Man I Love runs quite often on TCM; when you get a chance to see it, do so.

William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders from Mars (1953)

Monday, December 28th, 2015

Click here, or on the image above, to see Menzies’ entire film Invaders From Mars.

Invaders From Mars is a classic of 1950s Red Scare science fiction, depicting a world that is paranoid beyond belief, photographed in garish color, as directed and designed by the renowned William Cameron Menzies, the production designer of many excellent films, including Gone With The Wind (1939) — the first film on which a “production designer” credit was formally listed in the credits. The film is being screened in January at the UCLA Film Archive in its original 35mm format, and has long since been recognized as one of the classic “childhood nightmare” films of the era, and one of Menzies’ finest achievements. Menzies’ biographer, James Curtis, will introduce the screening.

As Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant notes of the film:

Invaders from Mars was made relatively early in the 50s Sci Fi cycle, when the field was still dominated by “A” quality efforts. A script by John Tucker Battle, optioned by one set of producers, eventually landed with Edward L. Alperson, who made the uncharacteristically brilliant decision to put the entire project into the hands of legendary production designer and sometime film director William Cameron Menzies. Menzies was the genius who practically invented the concept of production design, on big silent movies like The Thief of Baghdad. His unique graphic sense graced the films of Sam Wood (Our Town, For Whom the Bell Tolls, King’s Row). Menzies made Hollywood history with David O. Selznick by single-handedly engineering Gone With the Wind’s visual dimension. Without him, the divergent contributions of a half-dozen directors might have created a shambles.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here.

As Glenn Erickson continues, “the furious action that concludes Invaders from Mars becomes even more dreamlike with the repetitions of shots and scenes [. . .] Dialogue lines are also repeated, especially young David’s, “Colonel Fielding!, Colonel Fielding!,” which is heard so often it becomes an unending echo. These repetition patterns make the ending more dreamlike in two ways. First, a high level of anxiety is maintained while the actual story progression slows to a crawl. A classic anxiety dream situation is ‘running in place but not getting anywhere,’ exactly the feeling imparted to Invaders. Second, the repetition forces a fixation on the images that keep coming back, a fixation that has the obsessive quality of dream logic. In our dreams, shocking moments seem to hang forever in the consciousness, or illogically ‘come back again, but for the first time,’ over and over.”

Click here, or on the image above, to read the entire screenplay for the original film.

Video: The Films of Val Lewton

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

Val Lewton was one of the most influential producers during the Golden Era of Hollywood in the 1940s.

I have blogged before – actually, four years ago – on the films of Val Lewton, but now Curt Bright has made a video on Lewton for our Frame by Frame series, in which I discuss Lewton’s work as a filmmaker creating an entirely new style of supernatural cinema – and his legacy goes well beyond that. Lewton was David O. Selznick’s right hand man on Gone With The Wind, one of the most ambitious and lavish films ever made, and shortly after that film wrapped, he accepted an offer from RKO Radio Pictures to create a series of low-budget horror films designed to break the Universal mold of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and so on.

Lewton stepped into the job, making superb films on minimal budgets – roughly $100,000 a film, using pre-sold titles assigned by the publicity department, on very short shooting schedules, and created some of the most effective and atmospheric films of the era, such as I Walked With A Zombie and The Cat People. Of all the producers working in Hollywood during the 1940s, Lewton was clearly the most intellectual, the most artistically ambitious, and perhaps the only producer of the era – though others might argue with this – who could rightly be called a creative artist, someone who contributed to his films on more than a bottom-line level.

Working with such talented people as well known director Jacques Tourneur, ace cinematographers Nicholas Musuraca and Roy Hunt, and giving people like Robert Wise and Mark Robson their first directorial assignments, Lewton created a series of memorable Gothic films in a very short space of time, and then – suddenly – it was over. A brief period at MGM, and finally Universal, led only to his early death from a heart attack in his late 40s – a tragic loss to the cinema. Clearly, he could have done so much more, but time was limited.

Here, let’s celebrate the films of Val Lewton – timeless classics, that still enthrall and thrill today.

William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come

Monday, December 21st, 2015

An absolutely essential book on one of the most influential cinema artists of all time.

James Curtis’s William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come is easily one of the best film books of 2015. It manages to pull off an amazing feat; it’s prodigiously researched, but it never succumbs to a recitation of mere facts; it includes an enormous amount of personal detail, but never gets lost in a forest of statistics.

It is above all a supreme synthesis of history and theory, treating all of Menzies’ work, whether as a director or a production designer (or often, as both simultaneously) with great care and respect, illustrated with a stunning array of color and black and white plates, including many rare behind the scenes shots that really put the reader into the center of the narrative.

Most of all, it is the careful, conscientious, but never pedantic style of the book that impresses. Curtis clearly knows Menzies’ work inside out, and yet he wears this knowledge easily, creating an accessible, reasoned, brilliantly written book, one of the most carefully detailed and critically measured volumes written on any historical figure, no matter what their profession.

Time and again, I was struck by the carefully reasoned tone of Curtis’s work, his sharp yet graceful prose style, and the remarkable way in which he managed to gather such an incredible amount of material in one volume, and make the whole thing flow so smoothly – it’s easily his finest book. The design of The Shape of Films to Come is another plus factor; the volume is overflowing with images, and the layout of the text and illustrations – something Menzies would appreciate – is impeccable.

Curtis’s book is thus a supreme achievement on every level, and for those who don’t know Menzies or his work, it opens up a world of wonder and amazement – often amazement at how much Menzies managed to accomplish on many of his assignments with very little in the way of a budget.

From Menzies’ production design on Gone With The Wind, to his science-fiction children’s nightmare Invaders from Mars, to the pioneering futuristic epic Things To Come, to his work on such projects as The Whip Hand, Address Unknown, The Maze, Around The World in 80 Days and numerous other films, Curtis meticulously details Menzies’ long career, a life filled with hard work and a good deal of tragedy, but one which ultimately left us with some of the most memorable images in cinema history.

In short, this is a must read for anyone with even the remotest interest in the cinema, and a singular accomplishment in every respect. The Shape of Films to Come gets my highest possible recommendation – this is literally a flawless book. And considering the massive amount of detail that went into it, that in itself is a stellar accomplishment. Once you pick this book up, I guarantee you won’t put it down.

This is a major work of scholarship, history and theory, and a genuine delight to read.

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

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of film, media and other topics in the past month - http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/

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