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Classic TV Series “The Defenders” Comes to DVD At Last

Thursday, July 28th, 2016

The Defenders, one of the most important drama series of the 1960s, finally gets a DVD release.

Completely forgotten today by most, this stunning series racked up 132 episodes over a four year on CBS, and starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as a father and son legal team that specialized in handling “difficult” cases. Unlike most courtroom dramas of the era, such as the wildly popular CBS legal procedural Perry Mason, starring Raymond Burr in the title role,

The Defenders was never really about the law unto itself – it was more concerned with social justice, and used the courtroom setting as way of opening up a discussion on a wide variety of issues of the day. From September 16, 1961 – May 13, 1965, each week The Defenders tackled subjects no other series of the era would touch. During its run, The Defenders won 13 Emmy Awards (including three in a row for Outstanding Drama Series) and received an additional seven nominations.

As historian Mark Alvey wrote, in part, in The Encyclopedia of Television, “The Defenders was American television’s seminal legal drama, and perhaps the most socially conscious series the medium has ever seen. The series boasted a direct lineage to the age of live television drama, but also possessed a concern for topical issues and a penchant for social comment.

With its contemporary premise and its serious tone, The Defenders established the model for a spate of social-issue programs that followed in the early sixties, marking a trend toward dramatic shows centered on non-violent, professional ‘heroes’ (doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians).

The series had its origins in a 1957 Studio One production entitled The Defender, written by Reginald Rose, one of the most prominent writers from the age of live anthology dramas. Having collaborated with Rose on the original two-part Defender teleplay and other productions, veteran anthology producer Herbert Brodkin teamed again with the writer to oversee the series.

The Defenders’ creators went against the overwhelming tide of Hollywood-based programs, following the tradition of the live anthologies–and the more recent police drama Naked City–by mounting their show in New York. Although The Defenders was primarily a studio-bound operation, with minimal location shooting, its success proved to be a key contributor to a small renaissance in New York-based production in the early 1960s.

The series concerned the cases of a father-and-son team of defense attorneys, Lawrence Preston (E.G. Marshall), the sharp veteran litigator, and his green and idealistic son Kenneth (Robert Reed). As Rose pointed out a 1964 article, ‘the law is the subject of our programs: not crime, not mystery, not the courtroom for its own sake. We were never interested in producing a “who-done-it” that simply happened to be resolved each week in a flashy courtroom battle of wits.’

Certainly The Defenders exploited the inherent drama of the courtroom, but it did so by mining the complexity of the law, its moral and ethical implications, and its human dimensions. Rose and his writers found much compelling drama in probing the psychology of juries, the motives of clients, the biases of opposing counsel, the flaws of the system itself, and the fallibility of their own lawyer-heroes.

The series frequently took a topical perspective on the American justice system, honing in on timely or controversial legal questions: capital punishment, ‘no-knock’ search laws, custody rights of adoptive parents, the insanity defense, the ‘poisoned fruit doctrine’ (admissibility of illegally obtained evidence), as well as immigration quotas and Cold War visa restrictions. The Defenders avoided simple stances on such cases, instead illuminating ambiguities and opposing perspectives, and stressing the uncertain and fleeting nature of justice before the law.

As a serious courtroom drama, The Defenders series meshed well with network aims for prestige in the early sixties in the wake of the quiz show scandals and charges of creeping mediocrity in TV fare. The dramatic arena of the courtroom and the legal system allowed for suspense without violence, and the avoidance of formula plots characteristic of traditional crime and adventure drama.

With consistently strong ratings and a spate of awards unmatched by any other series of its day, The Defenders proved that controversy and topicality were not necessarily uncommercial. The series was in the works well before FCC Chairman Newton Minow’s 1961 ‘vast wasteland’ speech, but there is little doubt that the new Minow-inspired regulatory atmosphere augured well for the rise of such programming.

The show’s success supported the development of a number of social-issue and political dramas in the following years, notably Slattery’s People and East Side, West Side, and gave further impetus to a shift in network programming from action-adventure to character drama. But most significant of all, it grappled with larger ethical and political questions, pulling social problems and political debate to center stage, presenting a consistent, ongoing and sometimes critical examination of contemporary issues and social morality.

In one episode (written by Rose) a judge takes the elder Preston to task for invoking the social roots of his clients’ acts as part of his defense: ‘The courtroom is not the place to explore the questions of society.’ Lawrence Preston responds: ‘It is for me.’ So was the television courtroom, for Reginald Rose and the writers of The Defenders.”

Finally, the first season of this indispensable television series is being released on DVD; among the guest stars in the 32 episodes included in the eight disc set are Jack Klugman, William Shatner, Ossie Davis, Richard Thomas, Frank Gorshin, Eva Gabor, Robert Duvall, Robert Loggia, Martin Sheen, Julie Newmar, and many more.

There’s also a slew of extras, including The Studio One Presentation Of The Defender (1957) Starring Ralph Bellamy, Steve McQueen And William Shatner; the pilot episode for the series, as well as interviews with associate producer Bob Markell, writer Larry Cohen, and a 1973 interview with E.G. Marshall on the series.

Well worth watching – and still compelling viewing today, immaculately restored.

Nitrate Film Makes A Comeback

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

A scene from the film Cinema Paradiso, which celebrated the beauty of cellulose nitrate 35mm film.

As Turner Classic Movies has just announced, the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood is being retro-fitted with 35mm nitrate projection, an absolute rarity in today’s world, thus giving contemporary audiences a direct view of the shimmering beauty that only nitrate film can provide for viewers.

As the press release notesThe Film Foundation, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), and Turner Classic Movies (TCM), in conjunction with the American Cinematheque and the Academy Film Archive, today announced a partnership to ensure that the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood has the capability to screen 35mm nitrate film prints.  This powerhouse collaboration to retrofit the projection booth will make the Egyptian Theatre one of the few public venues in the country with the ability to project these rare and fragile prints.

‘When I was told that one of the most beautiful movie theaters in the country could be retrofitted for nitrate projection, I was overjoyed, moved, and excited by the potential,’ said Martin Scorsese, founder and chair of The Film Foundation. ‘I hope that this is the beginning of a trend. The art of cinema developed with nitrate from its beginnings to the early ‘50s, and the silver content gave us a luminosity and a richness that was never quite matched by the safer stocks that followed or their digital reproductions.

I’d like to thank all the partners that came together with The Film Foundation—the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Turner Classic Movies, the Academy Film Archive and the American Cinematheque itself—to make this happen. Needless to say, I’m eager for the completion of the necessary work so that I can see those glorious images projected in that one-of-a-kind theater.’

‘As actual film disappears from most of the world’s eyes, we should be screening our existing nitrate prints as much as we safely can,’ said Alexander Payne, director and board member of The Film Foundation. ‘Nothing in theaters or on television today matches the thrill of seeing films on nitrate, and we should take full advantage of our being, sadly, among the last humans able to screen them.”

‘The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has long been a supporter of preserving the integrity and history of the art of filmmaking for generations to come,’ said HFPA President Lorenzo Soria. ‘We are proud to partner with organizations whose values are in line with those of the HFPA, and together we will bring to the historic Egyptian Theatre film the way it was intended to be experienced.’

Cellulose nitrate was the standard film stock in commercial use from the earliest days of cinema until it was discontinued in 1951. Widely agreed to possess a uniquely beautiful image quality, the stock is highly flammable and was replaced by cellulose acetate ’safety film.’ Nitrate prints, some nearly a century old, still survive in carefully controlled vault environments, but are rarely seen because only a handful of theaters are equipped to screen them.

‘Film preservation and the ability to share and celebrate all aspects of film history are central to the mission of TCM,’ said Genevieve McGillicuddy, vice president of partnerships and brand activation, TCM. ‘We’re thrilled to be part of this partnership in order to bring film fans a truly unique opportunity to experience nitrate films.’

American Cinematheque chairman Rick Nicita says, ‘This exciting project will truly make it possible for the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre to show every film format possible. A state-of-the-art digital projector will sit side-by-side with our 35mm/70mm machines – representing the rich history of cinema, as well as the future of the art form.’

As someone who has experienced first-hand the intensity and beauty of 35mm nitrate projection – during a visit to the British Film Institute in the late 1990s – I absolutely applaud this decision. Projecting nitrate is certainly not without risk – it’s highly flammable, and needs to be treated with the greatest care during projection and preservation – but for more more than half a century it was the dominant medium for film production, and for quality of image, it simply is in a class by itself.

Sometimes a return to the past is a good thing – this is excellent news!

Wonder Woman Trailer Drops at Comic-Con

Saturday, July 23rd, 2016

The new Wonder Woman trailer just premiered at Comic-Con.

As Eliana Dockterman writes in Time Magazine, “The first Wonder Woman trailer premiered exclusively at San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday. The movie looks like it will deliver on female empowerment. In the trailer, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) finds a passed out Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) on the beach. ‘You’re a man?’ the warrior who has never seen the opposite sex before asks.

We see shots of Wonder Woman carrying a sword in a ballgown, fighting on horseback, blocking bullets in the World War I trenches with her shield and wielding her golden lasso of truth. Hammering home the message that Diana Prince is an independent woman, when Steve Trevor tells her, ‘I can’t let you do this,’ she replies: ‘What I do is not up to you.’

‘I wanted to portray this character in a way that everyone could relate too. Not only girls, not only boys, but men and women too,’ said Gal Gadot. ‘The world needs love and forgiveness in such a huge way. It’s not about who’s right anymore,’ director Patty Jenkins said during the panel. ‘We need heroes who are strong enough to be loving and forgiving . . . That’s what Wonder Woman in particular stands for.’”

With Patty Jenkins directing, there’s some hope for this, and the trailer looks like a typically loud and action packed comic book movie film, but on the poster for the film, Will Brooker perceptively noted in another article in Time by Raisa Bruner on the film that “I have not yet found a single male superhero poster that cuts his head off and focuses solely on body” – a sharp comment indeed.

Since the world is currently ruled by comic book films, it’s good that Jenkins and Gadot got a chance to compete in the big-budget arena, but just from the trailer, it seems like the film amps up the love relationship between Diana Prince and Steve Trevor over all the other plot elements, and somehow, I just don’t think it will be as solidly grounded as Lauren Montgomery’s 2009 animated Wonder Woman feature film – but then, that had a minuscule budget, and went straight to DVD.

Here, there’s more than $150 million at stake, just in getting the film to the screen, to say nothing of promotional and DCP “print” costs, as well as other exhibition expenses. But it has to be better than Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, though that’s setting the bar very low indeed. And Gal Gadot was the best thing about that film, so I hope this turns out as well as it possibly can, for all concerned.

For, as Raisa Bruner notes, “‘Power. Grace. Wisdom. Wonder,’ reads the stripped-down poster, which features a striking silhouette of Gadot against a fiery sky. Her iconic costume has gotten an update — they added knee guards and dropped the traditionally spangled tiny blue bottoms in favor of a simpler skirt, doubling down on the Amazonian origins of the character — but it’s the glinting sword in her hand that makes the strongest point. The takeaway? You don’t want to mess with this woman.”

It’s way overdue – should have happened decades ago – but at least now it’s here.

The Memory of the World

Sunday, July 17th, 2016

As this report from The United Nations makes clear, libraries are in jeopardy.

As the report notes, “every year, precious fragments, if not whole chunks of the world documentary heritage, disappear through ‘natural’ causes: acidified paper that crumbles to dust, leather, parchment, film and magnetic tape attacked by light, heat, humidity or dust.

As well as natural causes, accidents regularly afflict libraries and archives. Floods, fires, hurricanes, storms, earthquakes . . .the list goes on of disasters which are difficult to guard against except by taking preventive measures. Every year, treasures are destroyed by fire and other extreme weather conditions such as cyclones, monsoons.

It would take a very long time to compile a list of all the libraries and archives destroyed or seriously damaged by acts of war, bombardment and fire, whether deliberate or accidental. No list has yet been drawn up of the holdings or collections already lost or endangered.

The Library of Alexandria is probably the most famous historical example, but how many other known and unknown treasures have vanished in Constantinople, Warsaw, Florence, or more recently in Bucharest, Saint Petersburg and Sarajevo? Sadly the list cannot be closed. There are so many more, not to mention holdings dispersed following the accidental or deliberate displacement of archives and libraries.

The present document, prepared within the framework of the ‘Memory of the World’ Program, under contract with ICA and IFLA, by J. van Albada and H. van der Hoeven, is an attempt to list major disasters that have destroyed or caused irreparable damage during [the 20th] century to libraries and archives, whether written or audiovisual.

The most endangered carriers are not necessarily the oldest. In the audio domain substantial numbers of acetate discs and tapes are lost each year. The world of film was the first to become aware of the decay of the polymers used to record sounds and images.

War, in particular the two world wars, caused considerable losses, numerous libraries and archives have been destroyed or badly damaged in the course of fighting, notably in France, Germany, Italy and Poland. War has also been the source of untold destruction to libraries and archives in the former Yugoslavia since 1991.

Shelling by gunners of the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina started a fire that burned down the building and destroyed most of the collections. Many books in the library had been salvaged from collections in libraries that were damaged during World War II.

This document is not meant to be a sort of funerary monument, but is intended to alert public opinion and sensitize the professional community and local and national authorities to the disappearance of archival and library treasures of inestimable value and to draw attention to the urgent need to safeguard endangered documentary heritage all over the world.

Librarians and archivists work hard to anticipate and prevent disasters affecting their holdings. Yet, even as [we enter the 21st century], it appears that documentary heritage housed in the world’s libraries and archives always remain at risk. Let us move into the 21st century with renewed commitment to protecting the ‘Memory of the World’ through disaster planning, through vigilance and through the pursuit of world peace.”

Sobering reading; this report was completed in 1996, but is even more relevant now.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s “I Vinti” (“The Vanquished”) – 1952

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

Michelangelo Antonioni’s I Vinti (The Vanquished) is a forgotten masterpiece of the postwar Italian cinema.

In his early years as a filmmaker, emerging out of the shadow of Mussolini’s Cinecitta, working for the Italian Fascists during World War II – unwillingly, but nevertheless involved – Michelangelo Antonioni created a number of controversial and deeply ambitious projects, beginning with his first feature film, Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore, 1950), and then moving on to the even more accomplished I Vinti (The Vanquished, 1952) – both of which initially received a hostile reception from critics and the general public. While Story of A Love Affair has been available on DVD for quite some time, I Vinti is only recently receiving the DVD release it so richly deserves, from Raro Video. But looking at I Vinti from nearly any angle, it’s amazing that Antonioni even got this project off the ground.

Opening with a ferocious collage of newsreel footage with a relentless voiceover track decrying postwar youth’s lust for instant fame at any price, the film goes on to tell three stories, in three languages; in France, a group of rich, bored teens decide to kill one of their group for the money he claims to have, only to find after the murder that the cash is counterfeit; in Italy, a well-off young man caught up in the cigarette smuggling racket kills a Customs Agent trying to escape after a raid, and dies in his parents’ home as the police close in; and in England, a young ne’er do well “poet” kills a middle aged prostitute in order to sell the story to a tabloid newspaper, and achieve instant “fame” of a sort as a thrill killer.

Grim, to say the least. Even more amazingly, all of the incidents in the film were taken from actual crimes committed around that time, each in their respective country; the French story of bored teen killers was a national scandal; the Italian story – which was censored for the film, and actually involved a young political radical blowing up a munitions factory as a form of protest – was also a matter of record; and the British story concerned the case of teenager Herbert Leonard Mills, who in 1951 murdered a woman simply for the notoriety that it would bring him, and then tried to sell the story to a newspaper.

The Italian story was shot first, and seems the most like later Antonioni, especially L’Avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La Notte (The Night, 1961) and L’Eclisse (Eclipse, 1962). Franco Interlenghi, then a popular matinee idol of the period in Italian cinema, plays Claudio, whose political “idealism” ends in tragedy, when the factory he blows up results in numerous casualties among the workers. This storyline was much too strong for the Italian censors, and Antonioni was forced to reshoot almost two-thirds of the episode to shift Claudio’s criminal activities to smuggling. Astoundingly, the original version of this section of the film survives, and is included on the disc as an extra, and makes for essential viewing, to say the least.

The British story was shot next, and eerily prefigures Antonioni’s later film Blowup (1966), in which a bored and narcissistic fashion photographer (played by David Hemmings) accidentally witnesses and photographs a murder in a park, and then can’t make up his mind whether or not to tell the police about the crime. In I Vinti, Peter Reynolds stars as Aubrey, the dissolute layabout and would-be poet who commits a murder simply for the notoriety it will bring him. Reynolds’ performance is brilliantly self-absorbed and loathsome; indeed, I Vinti effectively typecast him for life in a series of roles as as a decadent, dishonest aristocrat, before his tragically early death at the age of 49.

The French episode also ran into trouble from the censors, as well it might, dealing with the notorious “Affaire J3,” in which a young man was killed by his companions during a picnic outside of Paris. As with the other sections of the film, the truth was too close to the film’s scenario for comfort, so after combined protests from the British, Italian and French authorities and numerous recuts, the film was finally premiered at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival, but only out of competition. Then, since the film was a commercial failure, it was was consigned to the vaults, and given the deeply troubling nature of the film, for a long time it seemed that I Vinti would never see the light of day again.

But in 2013, The Museum of Modern Art brought the film out of oblivion, so to speak, and screened it in their To Save and Project series. But for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to attend that screening, the Raro DVD is a real find. As Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker in 2011, “with the opening monologue of his second feature, the three-part film I Vinti (The Vanquished), Michelangelo Antonioni polemically affirms the theme that would dominate his entire career: the erosion of reason and morality throughout society, due to the onslaught of mass media and the dominion of the bourgeoisie who both produce it and fall under its sway.”

The Raro DVD contains the complete film, immaculately restored, as well as a host of extras, including the original version of the Italian Episode; an interview with the film’s producer, the late Turi Vasile (in his 80s, his memory was entirely intact, and he effortlessly quotes Marx, Hegel and Kierkegaard from memory in his account of the film’s genesis – name one Hollywood producer who can do that!); an interview with Franco Interlenghi, now deceased, who played Claudio in the Italian episode; as well as a short film by Antonioni, Tentato Suicidio, one episode of the 1953 multi-director feature L’Amore in Citta’/Love in the City, as well as a superbly detailed essay on the film by Stefania Parigi. All in all, it’s a stunning viewing experience.

So there you are – a masterpiece. Can you afford to pass it up? No.

The Mysterious Videos of Bill Domonkos

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

A still from Domonkos’ Beyond The Blue Horizonclick here, or on the image above, to view this short video.

The video work of Bill Domonkos is at once mysterious and sublime, mixing 1940s and 50s pop culture with 21st century surrealism. As Michael Hardy notes in The Boston Globe, “Spooky. Hypnotic. Lush. Witty. Sublime. The extraordinary films of San Francisco-based artist Bill Domonkos call up a descriptive vocabulary that never seems to capture the fluidity, the aesthetic metamorphoses, of the director’s vision.” That’s a fitting enough description for starters, but what Domonkos does with found footage and editorial techniques is truly remarkable, creating an entirely new world in which the unreal is real, and the most extraordinary images and juxtapositions seem entirely natural.

Of his work, Domonkos himself notes, “I view my work as a collision and recombination of ideas. My process unfolds gradually and spontaneously—using found materials such as archive film footage, photographs, and the internet. I experiment by combining, altering, editing and reassembling using digital technology, special effects and animation to create a new kind of experience. I am interested in the poetics of time and space—to renew and transform materials, experiences and ideas. The extraordinary thing about cinema is its ability to suggest the ineffable—it is this elusive, dreamlike quality that informs my work.”

A regular figure on the gallery circuit, one can thankfully see a great of Domonkos’ work on Vimeo, by clicking here, although a certain amount of discretion is advised, as some of his work can be quite dark indeed. In general, I favor his lighter, more accessible work, gently playful in some instances, slightly sinister in others. Most of the videos are in the two to three minute range, and his works covers a wide ranges of themes and approaches.

My favorites are such videos as Sisyphus, in which a nondescript executive in a 1950s elevator is suddenly illuminated with a celestial light from above, as a mysterious rock descends through the elevator shaft to cover his face, intercut with an elderly workman clambering up and down the interior of the building, inspecting the elevator’s exterior with a flashlight. There’s no real reason for any of the images here, which is entirely the point; these things just happen in Domonkos’ world, and that’s all there is to it.

Another favorite is Dinah Soar, in which a young woman is first seen putting on makeup with the aid of a rather unusual machine, and then drives a sports car with a distinctly odd gearshift around a race track, only to be pursued by a group of racing car drivers, even as her face, at first possessed of the flawless beauty of a fashion model, gradually changes into a smoking death’s head, while mechanical wind up toys parade across the screen with childish abandon. Again, the precise meaning of these images, as well as the syntactical structure that unites them, is absolutely left up to the viewer; Domonkos creates a world in which anything is possible.

But I think that of all of Domonkos’ work, I’m drawn to those films in which the past and the present gently collide, such as Beyond The Blue Horizon. In this brief video, a 1940s Soundie (a short, pre-MTV music video) by The Three Suns is transformed into a jam session between a human space helmeted organist / vocalist, singing the title song, while two Martian (or alien) sidemen accompany him on guitar and accordion, all of which is being recorded by an unobtrusive sound man in the rear of the shot.

Domonkos’ skill is such that the entire scene seems oddly realistic, even down to the three-second “cigarette burn” cue in the upper right hand corner of the frame as the video comes to an end. All in all, it’s a very unusual world indeed, a recombinant vision that in which the past and present meld together to create a world that is at once accessible, but which operates entirely according to its own lights – a peek into a modern day Twilight Zone of found footage and digital mastery.

Bill Domonkos’ videos are unique, bizarre and deeply surreal – check them on out Vimeo.

The Academy Finally Starts To Get The Message

Sunday, July 10th, 2016

While it’s far from solving the problem, it seems that AMPAS is finally getting the memo on diversity – at last.

As April Reign, creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite notes, writing in The Guardian, “on 29 June, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences released its list of film-makers, artists and executives invited to join its ranks, and eventually play a part in who walks away with an Oscar. The Academy invited 683 potential members, its largest and most diverse class ever. While this was an important move toward the inclusion of more marginalized communities within the Academy, it is merely one step on a longer journey.

While reviewing the list of invitees, I was struck by the names of individuals that I believe should have been Academy members long ago. Melvin van Peebles, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Euzhan Palcy and others have amassed such a significant body of work through the years that the 2016 list of invitees was clearly, in part, righting a wrong.

These and other omissions speak to one of the concerns I voiced when discussing #OscarsSoWhite, the hashtag I created: the way in which individuals are nominated to the Academy must be reviewed and revamped so that deserving potential members are not overlooked due to overly stringent rules.

I applaud the effort of the Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy’s president, to diversify its ranks. With 283 invitees from 59 countries, the Academy demonstrates its recognition of amazing talent outside of our borders that should be welcomed. Misan Sangay, Trinh T Minh-ha, and Souleymane Cissé are all examples of international film-makers who have been invited to join the Academy.

It is important to note that not just the acting categories have been diversified. Importantly, casting directors, producers, and directors, those who have significant influence over who works on a film, both in front of and behind the camera, have also seen their ranks become more inclusive.

Overall, the numbers look impressive: this is the largest and most diverse invitation class ever. Of the invitees, 46% are women and 41% are people of color. But when one does a deeper analysis, the results leave something to be desired. More than 300 of the invited members are women. But even if they all accept, the percentage of women in the Academy increases by just 2%, from 25% to 27%.

This is significantly less than the overall representation of women in this country. Similarly, 280 people of color were invited to join the Academy, but their acceptance will only increase the ranks by 3%, to 11% from 8%. This is in stark contrast to recent US census numbers indicating that people of color are 37% of the United States population, and growing.”

In short, this is a good start. But let’s see how many of these people are employed to direct a major blockbuster, or helm an entire series, or, in short, get work as an actor, director or writer on a regular basis – enough to really have full-time employment. Hollywood seems to be making duller films than ever, while the interesting new material, as always, comes from the margins – these people could help to start that process.

Will they be given a chance to do so?

New Article: “Rockin’ the Boat’s a Drag. You Gotta Sink the Boat!”: Robert Downey Sr.’s Anarchist Cinema

Sunday, July 10th, 2016

I have a new article on the life and films of Robert Downey Sr. in the July, 2016 issue of Senses of Cinema.

As I write, in part, “long, long, long ago and very far away, in Manhattan in the 1960s, I knew Robert Downey Sr. as a friend and colleague, and we are still in touch today. At the time, we were all part of what was then euphemistically called the ‘Underground Cinema’, a loose conglomeration of filmmakers and artists who centered around The Filmmakers’ Cooperative and the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, which moved from location to location, continually offering screenings of decidedly outré films, for something like $2 a show. We were part of a group of 100 filmmakers – tops.

All of us were cinematic anarchists, spearheaded by the aggressively confrontational filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas, whose long running column ‘Movie Journal’ in The Village Voice encouraged everyone to make as many films as possible, in as many ways as possible, with as few materials as possible, and to not listen to anyone’s criticism – just their own artistic inner voice.

Robert Sr. was one of those people who really took up the banner of experimental film and ran with it, remaining as controversial as possible, and eager to offend as many people as possible, but with a disarming, almost ingratiatingly cheerful air.” I’m very happy to have done this piece, as I respect Bob’s work enormously; he’s the foremost American social satirist of the 1960s and 70s, and remains as active today as ever.

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

Denis Côté’s Boris sans Béatrice (2016)

Saturday, July 9th, 2016

Denis Côté’s new film Boris sans Béatrice (2016) is a stripped-down, sharp tale of moral redemption.

As Brendan Kelly writes in the Montreal Gazette, “Denis Côté’s films may not make bazillions at the box office, but the Montreal auteur’s original, highly stylized offerings travel the world as much as the work of almost any other Canadian director this side of David Cronenberg. [You can watch an interview with the director by clicking here, or on the image above.]

Côté’s ninth feature, Boris sans Béatrice, had its world première in official competition at the Berlin International Film Festival [in February 2016], and then opened the recent Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois. James Hyndman stars as a successful Quebec businessman who enters a moral crisis after his wife (Simone-Élise Girard), a federal cabinet minister, falls into a coma-like state. It opens in cinemas Friday, including a version with English subtitles. [I asked the filmmaker a few questions] . . .

Q: There has been a debate here for a while about whether we should be making popular films or more artsy films. What do you think of this whole discussion?

A: Look, I’m 42 years old. I’ve made nine features. At a certain moment, I’m allowed to get up in the morning and just be Denis Côté, no? I’m not capable of making a commercial film. It’s not that I don’t want to do it — I’m not able to do it. If you ask me to film a bank robbery, I’m sorry, but I’m allergic to conventional filmmaking. I can’t make a film for M. or Madame Tout le Monde. I’m a cinephile, I was a film critic, and I’ve seen loads of films. I’m a bit obsessed with being different and having my own signature. So by definition, you lose a certain audience because of that.

And I’ve been encouraged to keep my signature. People in the business said, ‘Wow, you made Carcasses [a strange, low-budget 2009 film about a man who has a bunch of burnt-out cars on his land] and you went to Cannes.’ They said, ‘Wow, you filmed animals in Bestiaire [a 2012 film shot at Parc Safari] and you went to 100 festivals around the world and it was sold in seven or eight countries. So at a certain moment you start to believe in Denis Côté. You don’t think of la madame in Verdun.

And the business continues to support me. I didn’t need to fight for four years to make Boris sans Béatrice. I had one meeting at [Canadian provincial film funding agency] SODEC, and it was supported right away by [federal film agency] Telefilm. The agencies are sensitive to two things: box office and international exposure. With me, everyone knows I’m the guy who represents Canada internationally. They like that and they need that. And they don’t expect me to blow up at the box office. So if you ask me if Boris sans Béatrice is an art-house film, I’d answer, ‘Yes it is, and I’m proud of it.’”

The film marks something of a departure, at least for me, from Côté’s other films, in that it’s much more human, and humane, and also about human fallibility, than some of his darker films, like Vic and Flo Saw A Bear, a minimalist masterpiece with a heavenly happy ending, but only after the characters in the film go through all sorts of earthly Hell.

In Boris sans Béatrice, the protagonist’s Hell is of his own making; neglecting his wife for his hyper-successful business, tumbling from one meaningless affair into the next, and most of all behaving with an overpowering sense of arrogant entitlement for most of the film, Boris is clearly headed straight for the wall, in one sense or another.

This all changes when he receives a mysterious summons in his mailbox from a mysterious, otherworldly judge, billed appropriately as “l’Inconnu” in the film’s credits, played superbly by Denis Lavant, who calls Boris to account for his hubris, neglect, and his failure to take care of his wife, his mother, or even his daughter, other than bailing her out of jail after she’s arrested during a protest action.

In a sense, Lavant’s character resembles a more severe version of the character Heurtebise (as played by François Périer) in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), who aids but also chastises the poet Orpheus (Jean Marais) when he similarly neglects his wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa).

Immaculately photographed, superbly acted, and entirely the work of someone who – for once – wants to please himself and no one else, Boris sans Béatrice gives us a indelible portrait of an utterly selfish, self-involved man who finally, through the agency of some supernatural guidance, is restored to the ones he truly loves, after realizing that the rest of his life, without love, is meaningless.

In this, the film is perhaps Côté’s most accessible work, despite his protestations to the contrary. Unlike the fashionably death-obsessed and self-conciously brutal allegories offered up by, for example, Michael Haneke, Boris sans Béatrice – which starts out with an unrelenting coldness – shifts gradually into a film that exudes a palpable sense of realistic hope, becoming a study of a life examined, found wanting, and reclaimed – a spectacle all too rare these days.

My thanks to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for introducing me to this beautiful, thoughtful film.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Masaki Kobayashi’s “Kwaidan” (1964)

Monday, July 4th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay out on the classic Japanese supernatural film Kwaidan.

As Foster writes, in part, in the latest issue of Senses of Cinema, “along with Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jō, 1957), Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964) – aka Kaidan, or ‘ghost stories’ – is one of the peaks of the Japanese cinema during its golden era, and one of the most superbly atmospheric supernatural films ever produced in any country. It’s also a terrific example of how a portmanteau film can work successfully, harking back to Ealing Studios’ multi-director Dead of Night (1945), and gesturing towards the multi-story films of Amicus in the 1960s.

Kobayashi’s filmography as a director isn’t extensive, with only 21 feature films to his credit throughout his entire career, yet each of his projects has an individual stamp that makes them deeply personal. His earlier films are both gritty and introspective, and seem nothing at all like Kwaidan: one of Kobayashi’s most compelling early films is the brutal baseball noir drama I Will Buy You (Anata kaimasu, 1956), in which a young player rises to the top of Japanese professional baseball, revealed to be little more than a racket.

Kobayashi’s other major works include the epic trilogy The Human Condition (1959 – 1961), which clocks in at an astonishing 9 hours and 47 minutes in its entirety, and Harakiri (Seppuku, 1962), a suitably violent and nihilistic samurai film. Most of Kobayashi’s work is in black and white, but in Kwaidan he evokes a world of heavily stylized colour, and creates one of the most sensual and strangely evocative supernatural films ever made. It remains one-of-a-kind not only for Kobayashi, but also for what has been loosely called ‘the horror film’: Kwaidan doesn’t deal in shock imagery, but rather in an ever-mounting sense of psychological dread.

Based on Lafcadio Hearn’s anthology of Japanese tales of the supernatural, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904), the film is structured in four parts. ‘The Black Hair’ follows a warrior who leaves his first wife for a second marriage to gain greater status, only to find the promise of a ‘better life’ is an empty one indeed. ‘The Woman of the Snow’ is a tale of supernatural vengeance in which a woodcutter falls in love with a Yuki-onna, or ’snow woman’ – a spirit who wanders the woods – with unexpected results.

‘Hoichi the Earless’ deals with a blind musician who discovers that he has been unwittingly singing for a family of ghosts, resulting in dire consequences. The last section (which the spectator is invited to complete in their own mind) is ‘In a Cup of Tea,’ the philosophically deepest and most challenging of the tales, in which a writer is continually disturbed by the unexpected sight of a face in – as the title suggests – his cup of tea.

Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, and honored with an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film the same year, Kwaidan is one of the most sumptuously mounted horror films ever made, shot in moody, otherworldly colour that would be evoked again in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), in true TohoScope ratio 2.35:1 by the gifted cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima, with stunning art direction by Shigemasa Toda.”

You read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above – enjoy!

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.

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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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