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The Cinema of Agnès Varda: Resistance and Eclecticism

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Delphine Bénézet’s new book on Agnès Varda is a superb piece of work.

Agnès Varda never seems to get enough credit. The fore-mother of the French New Wave, long before Godard, Truffaut and the rest of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd picked up a camera, Varda was making feature films from 1954, employing Alain Resnais as her editor, and pretty much setting out the basic precepts of simplicity, communality, and originality that her colleagues would later follow. But while Godard and Truffaut became art house darlings in the 60s – and certainly their work deserves the attention it got – Varda was somehow overlooked, although such films as Cleo from 5 to 7, Les Creatures, and Le Bonheur remain absolutely daring in their approach to the film medium, as well as dynamics of relationships between men and women, and particularly in affairs of the heart.

As the volume’s website notes, “Agnès Varda, a pioneer of the French New Wave, has been making radical films for over half a century. Many of these are considered by scholars, filmmakers, and audiences alike, as audacious, seminal, and unforgettable. This volume considers her production as a whole, revisiting overlooked films like Mur, Murs/Documenteur (1980–81), and connecting her cinema to recent installation work. This study demonstrates how Varda has resisted norms of representation and diktats of production. It also shows how she has elaborated a personal repertoire of images, characters, and settings, which all provide insight on their cultural and political contexts. The book thus offers new readings of this director’s multifaceted rêveries, arguing that her work should be seen as an aesthetically influential and ethically-driven production where cinema is both a political and collaborative practice, and a synesthetic art form.”

In five succinct chapters, detailing Varda’s place within cinema history, her “ethics of filming,” and the aesthetic and technical concerns that inform her films, Bénézet, who teaches comparative literature in the School of Languages, Linguistics, and Film at Queen Mary, University of London, offers a compelling case for Varda as a major filmmaker of not only 20th century, but also 21st century cinema, and one of the most successful at embracing digital cinema in her newer films, such as the transcendent documentary feature The Gleaners and I, shot entirely on a small home digital camera. Bénézet makes it clear that Varda has never stopped evolving as both a filmmaker and an artist in general, embracing new technology and the changing culture of France to create work of stunning resonance and beauty with absolutely minimal resources.

Varda has survived many of her contemporaries, and she keeps on working to this day; in the end, Varda is finally managing to get some measure of the respect and care she so clearly deserves simply by the act of sheer survival – she has outlived her detractors, mostly male, who really couldn’t see the value in her work. Dismissed or marginalized when first released, her films, now lovingly restored by Varda herself in DVD editions available throughout the world, have finally taken their place in the cinematic canon along with those of her male counterparts. There have been other excellent books on Varda, but this particular text, neatly illustrated with frame blow-ups, and graced with a detailed filmography, is one of the best, and also has the virtue of being the most complete.

In short, this is an excellent book from Wallflower Press / Columbia UP; pick up a copy now.

Book: The New American Crime Film by Matthew Sorrento

Monday, May 5th, 2014

Here’s a real “sleeper” of a book; Matthew Sorrento’s The New American Crime Film.

I missed this book when it came out in 2012, but boy — am I glad I found it now. When I first glanced at this volume, I thought that it was a collection of essays edited by Sorrento written by a number of different writers, simply because the range of films covered was so wide. But no – Sorrento is the sole author of this work, and it’s one of the most comprehensive and intelligent books on the subject I’ve ever come across. I met Sorrento, who teaches Film Studies at Rutgers Camden for the first time at the screening of my films at The Microscope Gallery a few days ago, although I have always admired his writing for Film Internationalsee some of his work for that journal by clicking here - and he was kind enough to give me a copy. It was a revelation; this is an entirely new way of looking at these films, and at the history and evolution of crime films in general, especially as they morph and adapt the demands of new audiences.

In truth, I was knocked out – this is a superb course text, and outlines each film in detail. Sorrento has a sharp and accessible style, and a solid grounding in the genre, and it shows in every sentence of every essay; it simply jumps off the page as lively, informed, and important critical writing. As the publicity material for the volume notes, “the most pervasive genre in contemporary cinema, the American crime film has recently enjoyed a new surge of popularity and proliferation. Though these innovative films now tackle topical issues, they continue to reference the classic narratives and archetypes established in the great crime pictures of past decades. The titles explored in this critical survey span many themes that have fused with other genres to create fascinating filmic hybrids. Focusing on character and plot construction, the author highlights the gangster and film noir traditions that still run strongly through recent American cinema.”

But this gives only the merest suggestion of what this text accomplishes, as it deals with such directors as David Lynch, Gus Van Sant, David Mamet, Werner Herzog, Sam Raimi, David Cronenberg and the Coen Brothers and Stuart Gordon, who also provides a foreword to the volume, and whose despairing and overlooked classic Edmond, with a standout performance by William Macy, is examined here in detail. Other films covered include Spike Lee’s Inside Man, Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Paranoid Park, David Fincher’s Se7en, the brutal films of Andrew Jarecki, the nightmarish visions of David Lynch, the late films of Clint Eastwood, and how they developed and deepened the characters he created in his early work with Don Siegel, Woody Allen (an interesting and rewarding choice for this volume), David Mamet,  the much underrated films Public Enemies and American Gangster, nothing less than a mini career survey of the Coen Brothers from their first film Blood Simple to No Country for Old Men, the hallucinatory work of David Cronenberg in such films as Eastern Promises, Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan – ambitious enough for you?

What distinguishes this volume above all is the effortless erudition on display here; the skill with which Sorrento brings you into the the inner world of the film, and refuses to settle for summary analysis; the verse and style with which he attacks his work, and brings these films to life for the reader. Though obviously an aficionado of the genre – and of genre films in general – Sorrento remains rigorously critical in his writing, pointing up elements of some films that are problematic, while at the same time remaining deeply sympathetic to the aims of these individualistic filmmakers. Personally, while reading the volume, I could easily see a class centered around the text, that would embrace a wide variety of films – recent work, not just the classics – and offbeat titles, such as Gordon’s film, that certainly deserve more attention.

Sorrento is now working on a new book on “extreme cinema” in a variety of genres; we had a detailed and fascinating discussion about the project, and I hope it comes to fruition. There’s no question that in the early part of the 21st century, films have become more graphic, more daring, and more explicit than every before, putting the hearts and minds of the audience on trial – a responsibility that must not be taken lightly. Other have done volumes on “extreme” horror films, for example, but Sorrento’s new book will argue that this tendency towards “testing” the audience has now spread across nearly every genre in the cinema, including comedy. In the meantime, Sorrento’s The New American Crime Film stands as a singular and original text in a wilderness of re-treads, and in all sincerity, got me thinking about these films in an entirely new light – there’s a course there, for sure.

Matthew Sorrento – a sharp and engaging writer and critic; keep an eye out for his new work.

Screening at The Microscope Gallery May 4 2014

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

I’m having a screening of my early films at the Microscope Gallery on Sunday, May 4th, 2014.

As the Microscope Gallery website notes, “Microscope Gallery is extremely pleased to welcome Wheeler Winston Dixon for the first screening of his film works in over a decade. The author, professor and filmmaker last had his works screened in 2003 at a retrospective at MoMA, where the originals now reside. For the evening, Dixon presents a program of six early works made from 1969 to 1976 incorporating  original footage shot in the world around him, including peace marches and Fluxus performances, commercials, and appropriated footage.

“Though he’s best known today as a scholar (his book The Exploding Eye provides a who’s who of 1960s experimentalists), Dixon’s short films are themselves visual catalogs of underground techniques: snarky Bruce Conner-ish montage, psychoactive Conrad/Sharits flicker effects, and Mekasian home-movie diaries. The distinctive Dixon kick comes from witty edits to far-out music. …” Ed Halter, The Village Voice

Film International added, “on Sunday 4 May 2014 at 7PM, filmmaker, film studies professor and regular Film International contributor Wheeler Winston Dixon will be screening some of his earliest films at Brooklyn’s Microscope Gallery. The screening, which will include films made between 1969 and 1976, is the first chance to see Dixon’s films since New York’s Museum of Modern Art hosted a retrospective of his work in 2003. At that time, MoMA also acquired all of Dixon’s films for their permanent collection.

Dixon was a member of New York’s underground film scene from the late 1960s, while also working as a writer for Life magazine and Andy Warhol’s Interview. ‘I first realized that I wanted to make movies when I was about four years old,’ Dixon told Senses of Cinema in 2003. Already as a teenager, ‘around 1965,’ he started distributing his films through the legendary Filmmakers’ Cooperative.”

You can read more here and here; I will be attending, and hope to see you there.

The Most Important Film Book of 2014: Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures

Monday, April 28th, 2014

I have a new review on this remarkable book in today’s issue of Film International.

As I note in my review, “literally hundreds of film books cross my desk every year; I review books on every imaginable genre, director, movement or filmic era on an almost daily basis for a variety of publications, but every so often, a book appears that instantly commands my attention as a work of inescapable importance. Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology is such a volume. Running to a staggering 680 pages, and yet priced in hardcover for a mere $85 on Amazon, this collection of film writings from the dawn of cinema to the present day, edited by Scott MacKenzie, is one of the most inspirational and informative volumes I’ve ever come across, because it highlights the constant need for renewal which typifies the cinema, potentially that most compromised of art forms. It is, indeed, one of the most important volumes on the history, theory and practice of the cinema ever compiled.

The struggle between capital and creation is an ongoing one, even with the advent of digital cinema, and yet it is more than ever vitally important that artists reclaim the cinema, making films that challenge and enlighten the viewer, and break away from established orthodoxies of cinema production. Most of the texts here were written by filmmakers, actual practitioners of the cinematic arts, and they are direct calls to action, even if they (blessedly) contradict each other, and often insist that only “they” are correct in their approach to the cinema. This is the sort of conflicting chaos that creates the most interesting and lasting films in cinema history; films born not out of the studio system, but out of warring, marginalized factions, working with outdated equipment, insufficient funds, no distribution, and nothing more than a vision, and a desperate desire to get the vision recorded by any means available.”

You can read the rest of my review on this absolutely essential volume by clicking here, or on the image above.

The DGA Visual History Archive – Director Interviews Online Here

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

The DGA Visual History Program offers an excellent collection of free video interviews with directors.

As the Directors Guild of America website notes, “founded in 2000, the DGA’s Visual History Program has conducted more than 160 interviews with directors and director’s team members discussing their careers and creative processes in film, television and other media.” These include such luminaries as Agnes Varda, Constantine Costa-Gavras, Claude Lelouch, Robert Altman and many, many others. You can see the interviews by clicking on the image above, and then searching the data base, or clicking on the images of some of the directors featured this month. My friend Dennis Coleman brought this to my attention; many thanks, Dennis! This is is an incredible resource.

Click here, or on the image above, to access these remarkable video interviews.

William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977) and How Star Wars Changed Movies

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

William Friedkin’s superb film Sorcerer (1977) has finally been released on Blu-ray.

As Jason Guerrasio notes in the April 21, 2014 issue of Vanity Fair, “In 1977, there was no director hotter in Hollywood than William Friedkin. His last two films, The French Connection and The Exorcist, were instant classics and now he was about to release what he considered his masterwork, Sorcerer. What he didn’t foresee, however, was that a modestly budgeted science-fiction epic called Star Wars would destroy his beloved film and change the Hollywood landscape forever.

A reimagining of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer stars Roy Scheider as one of four outcasts who take on a lucrative but dangerous job of transporting unstable dynamite through a South American jungle in dingy trucks. Though the film boasts solid acting and a thrilling sequence where the trucks must cross an ancient bridge—not to mention an incredible score from Tangerine Dream—production on the film was marred in delays and on-set conflict.

Things didn’t get any better when Paramount released the film a month after Star Wars, quickly becoming a casualty of the craze over George Lucas’s intergalactic opera. Outside of the occasional repertory screening over the decades, Sorcerer was forgotten. Then in 2012, Friedkin sued both Paramount and Universal (which had international rights) to find who owned the film. Through that, Warner Bros. bought it and on Tuesday will release a remastered Blu-ray of the film; a select theatrical release is planned as well.”

[As Friedkin told Guerrasio] “I’d say 80 percent of American films today are all offshoots of Star Wars. If Star Wars had failed you would not have the kind of films that are popular today. Hollywood has given over completely to the comic-book and video-game heroes, and rightly so because they are successful, the audience wants them. But that hunger, that desire, was tapped by Star Wars. None of us could see the tsunami of Star Wars. It happened rather quickly. You know, virtually every studio passed on Star Wars. I had a company with Coppola and [Peter] Bogdanovich then called the Directors Company, it was financed by Paramount and we had the right to green-light any films we wanted, outside of our own, at a certain budget.

Francis brought us the script of Star Wars and Peter and I looked at it and said, ‘What the hell is this? Who’s going to direct this?’ And he said, ‘George.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ I couldn’t believe George could pull it off, and I was wrong. I think fate plays the most significant part in all of our lives and that’s what happened. For a long period there I enjoyed nothing but success: critical and commercial. All I was interested in then and now is how close I could come to my vision of the film I wanted to make. In those days, we had no idea what kind of money films made, until Star Wars. It wasn’t in the papers every day. The quality of the film is all I cared about. Of course, you’re disappointed, but I never guided my life by any of that.”

It’s a remarkable and all but forgotten film; check out the Blu-ray now.

Advice for Living and Writing from Epictetus – The Enchiridion

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Here is a saying that has guided me for many years: “If you wish to be a writer, write.” Click here for more.

John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Scott Eyman’s new book on John Wayne is the definitive study of the legendary actor and Western icon.

There have been lots of books on John Wayne – some celebratory, others taking him to task for his conservative views – but Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend is easily the best of the lot, because it transcends such obvious categorizing to bring to the reader a fully realized picture of both the man and the actor. Generous, impulsive, much smarter than people gave him credit for, a solid producer and script analyst, indebted to directors John Ford and Howard Hawks for the entire length of his career, and at the same time an architect of the Hollywood Blacklist, along with his longtime pal actor Ward Bond, Wayne deserved a book that would treat him honestly and fairly, highlighting his incredible work ethic and stamina, his loyalty to his friends, and the long, hard road Wayne climbed to stardom.

What’s so remarkable about Eyman’s book is that it isn’t only compulsively readable – a page turner in every sense of the word – but that Eyman manages to be “fair and balanced” in the truest sense of that often-abused phrase, combining a skillful narrative sense with truly prodigious research. It’s all here – the marriages, the divorces, the directors, Wayne’s passion to make a film on The Alamo (1960), which took him decades to get off  the ground, right down to the early “Z” westerns for Lone Star Pictures that Wayne worked his way through after his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930) failed to catch on the with the public.

John Ford, until then Wayne’s champion, cut him dead, leading to Wayne’s upward struggle through several ultra-cheap serials for Mascot Pictures, a group of three-day (!!) westerns for producer Leon Schlesinger at Warner Brothers (made with copious amounts of stock footage), and even some singing cowboy westerns (as “Singin’ Sandy”) before Ford relented, and rescued Wayne from Poverty Row with Stagecoach (1939), the film that made Wayne an “overnight” star. And that was really just the beginning of his career, after a decade of hard work – Wayne never stopped climbing, and it’s clear from Eyman’s book that Wayne had to keep fighting to the end to keep his name before the public.

There’s also a lot of anecdotage in the book – including an amazing tale of Wayne drinking in a Hollywood bar, when an unsteady Humphrey Bogart shows up owing $600 to the management, which Wayne immediately covers, and then notices that Bogart has an apple corer stuck “up to the hilt” in his back, courtesy of Bogart’s then-wife Mayo Methot. Wayne tries to pull it out, but it’s in so deeply that he finally has to plant his foot in the middle of Bogart’s back, and pull the corer out with both hands, and then drive Bogart to the hospital – and thankfully, there’s also some detail, finally, about the role that Marlene Dietrich played in Wayne’s career, both as a lover and a person who put Wayne in touch with the right people to advance his career.

There are lots of facts and figures, as well, which some reviewers have complained about, as making the book a bit too complete, but I don’t think so; here’s a book that has all the budgets, release dates, box office figures, memos, and interoffice correspondence to really get to the heart of Wayne’s life and work. The most striking that about John Wayne: The Life and Legend is that even as he relates the least appealing aspects of Wayne’s life, you never get the feeling that Eyman is sitting in judgement. There’s the good, the bad, and the inexplicable, and Eyman covers it all, with skill and style.

This is Wayne, as he was, in complete and straightforward detail, along with the people he knew, loved, and worked with. While Eyman clearly respects Wayne’s work, he never goes overboard into hagiography, and with what appears to have been complete access to Wayne’s personal archives, creates a fully rounded portrait of John Wayne – or Marion Morrison, if you prefer – perhaps the most iconic star Hollywood has ever produced.

Scott Eyman has written a number of film biographies, including one on John Ford, but this is his finest work.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or, Nothing You Believe is True

Saturday, April 5th, 2014

I have a new review out on this rather remarkable project in Film International; read it here!

As I write, in part, “I’m teaching a class right now in comic book movies, partly to trace the history of the genre from the 1940s on – when they began as Saturday morning serials – and partly to discover, if I could, why these films have moved to the mainstream of cinematic discourse. There’s no question about it anymore; Comic-Con rules the multiplex, and for the most part, I’ve avoided these films like the plague.

I remember sitting through Christopher Nolan’s interminable and interminably boring Inception (2010) impatiently looking at my watch throughout the film; there was nothing in it even remotely original, and plenty that had been “borrowed” from Cocteau, Resnais, and others, and at the center, it really wasn’t about anything.But at least the emptiness of that film was less offensive than the straight out class warfare of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), which Daniel Lindvall effectively eviscerated in the pages of Film International. And yet from the Iron Man films to Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011), emptiness, coupled with over-the-top violence, is all that’s on display.

Here, we have something different. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes on the CIA, hypersurveillance systems, killer drones, and the Snowden affair, and comes down on the side of the average citizen for a change, rather than the ruling elite. The special effects are absolutely non-stop, the violence is ramped up to hyperkinetic levels, with cutting to match, and the performances are all cardboard, but at the center of the film, giving one of his most effective performances in years, is none other than Robert Redford, who’s never done a comic book film before, superbly playing the villain of the piece.”

Read the rest of the review here now; it’s best in 3-D, on a big screen – who says I don’t like some mainstream movies?

Dorothy Arzner Gets A Retrospective

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Dorothy Arzner, left, on the set of her last film, First Comes Courage (1943), with star Merle Oberon.

As John Hopewell reports from Madrid for Variety, “Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979), the first woman member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and still one of – if not the – most prolific of woman helmers in Hollywood –will be honored with a career retrospective at September’s 62nd San Sebastian Festival in Spain. Though not the world’s first woman director – that honor [goes] to France’s Alice Guy – Arzner was the first to carve out a career in Los Angeles during the golden age of Hollywood’s studios, first as an editor, where she is credited with working on 52 movies, including 1922’s Rudolph Valentino-starrer Blood and Sand, on which she also directed second unit shots of its bullfights. Her [directorial] debut, for Paramount, was 1927’s Fashion For Women.

The first woman in Hollywood to direct a sound film, 1928’s Manhattan Cocktail, Arzner is said to have invented the boom mike when, on Clara Bow’s first talkie, box office hit The Wild Party, she had technicians hang a mike onto a fishing rod to give it more mobility. From Party, she shot a string of movies, comedies or melodramas – Anybody’s Woman (1930), Honor Among Lovers (1931), The Bride Wore Red (1937) – which often championed strong femme characters, helped consolidate the early careers of Katharine Hepburn – with whom she quarreled -  and Lucille Ball, and sometimes suggested – think 1933’s Christopher Strong – lesbian sub-texts.

The retrospective will be accompanied by the publication of a book that, it is hoped, will clarify why Arzner’s directorial career abruptly ended with 1943’s First Comes Courage. During the 1960s and 1970s, she taught directing and screenwriting at UCLA, her students including Francis Ford Coppola. In 1975, she was honored with a DGA Tribute, which, in an anecdote collected by IMDB, included a telegram from Katharine Hepburn: ‘Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?’ The text admits multiple readings. The 62nd San Sebastian Festival runs Sept. 17-26.”

The Hepburn telegram really stings; was this dig really necessary? Arzner deserves a box set of her work, and I’d love to read the book that accompanies the festival. Much of Arzner’s work simply isn’t on DVD, though more and more is coming out every day, but I have to wonder – how long is it going to take for Hollywood historians to put Arzner in the rightful place in the directorial pantheon, and how long is it going to take before she does get that box set of DVDs, complete with a history of her work? Not that it was ever easy; as she said of working within the Hollywood system, “when I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.

Ida Lupino – who started directing in 1949 with Not Wanted – also deserves the same treatment; a comprehensive set of her films, properly mastered, so future generations can see the importance of their work.  Hopewell doesn’t mention it above, but in addition to the work he lists, Arzner also directed a stack of television commercials for Pepsi Cola, at the suggestion of Pepsi board member Joan Crawford, who worked with Arzner in the 1930s, and also directed training films for the WACs during World War II.

Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn forced Arzner out of the director’s chair on First Comes Courage, a feminist tale of a Norwegian resistance fighter, Nikki, played by Merle Oberon. When Arzner became ill during filming, rather than waiting for her to recover, Cohn pressed Columbia contract director Charles Vidor into service to finish the film as quickly as possible; when she recovered, Arzner discovered that Columbia no longer required her services. Nevertheless, the film is still a standout, and one can readily see where Arzner left off and Vidor began; the film is entirely hers, and a fitting last project for her career. If only, however, she could have done more.

Dorothy Arzner – another figure who deserves more attention than she gets.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

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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/