Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Archive for the ‘Humanities’ Category

Envoi

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Time for a break; on to something new.

I love this image — it’s so hopeful and positive. And I have loved, on most occasions, “heralding the new” in film and related media, but the time has come for me to take a break from this blog; I’m going to hit the “pause” button here and try to shift into the non-digital world for a while.

When I was working on my book Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, the material I was considering almost daily on the blog fit right in; it was “of the moment,” and completely in sync with what I was doing.

Now, I’m working on a several new projects, which may take years to complete, and I need to step back from the instant world to spend more time thinking about the larger ramifications of culture both past and present. One needs time for reflection, and when you’re constantly keeping up with pop culture, you don’t have the time to do that.

As Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that a single book is not. A book is not an isolated entity: it is a narration, an axis of innumerable narrations. One literature differs from another, either before or after it, not so much because of the text as for the manner in which it is read.”

There are more than 600 posts on this blog stretching back over the past four years — and that’s a lot of material to consider, and more than enough for several books. So perhaps you’ll hit the “back” button and browse over some of the past entries, while I work on something new.

Until then, envoi, and I’m sure that we will have a chance to talk soon, in one form or another.

Leon Wieseltier on Turner Classic Movies

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Leon Wieseltier recently published an appreciation of TCM in The New York Times; I couldn’t agree more.

As Wieseltier wrote, in part, “when disappointment has brought you low, or sadness has colonized you, or fear has conquered your imagination, you experience a contraction of your horizon. Your sense of possibility is damaged and even abolished. Pain is a monopolist. The most urgent thing, therefore, is to restore a more various understanding of what life holds, of its true abundance, so that the bleakness in which you find yourself is not all you know.

The way to break the grip of sorrow and dread is to introduce another claimant on consciousness, to crowd it out with other stimulations from the world. Sadness can never be retired completely, because there is always a basis in reality for it. But you can impede its progress by diversifying your mind.

Nothing performs this charitable expansion of awareness more immediately for me than TCM. Movies are quick corrections for the fact that we exist in only one place at only one time. (Of course there are circumstances in which being only in one place only at one time is a definition of bliss.) I switch on TCM and find swift transit beyond the confines of my position. Alongside my reality there appears another reality — the world out there and not in here. One objective of melancholy is to block the evidence of a more variegated existence, but a film quickly removes the blockage. It sneaks past the feelings that act as walls [. . .]

When I watch the older movies on TCM, I am struck by the beauty of gray, which makes up the bulk of black and white. How can the absence of color be so gorgeous? Black and white is so tonally unified, so tone-poetic. Shadows seem more natural, like structural elements of the composition. The dated look of the films is itself an image of time, like the varnish on old paintings that becomes inextricable from their visual resonance. There is also a special pleasure in having had someone else choose the film.

Netflix, with its plenitude of options, asks for a decision, for an accounting of tastes; but TCM unburdens you of choice and asks for only curiosity and an appetite for surprise. The freedom to choose is like the freedom to speak: There is never too much of it, but there is sometimes too much of its consequences. Education proceeds by means of other people’s choices. Otherwise it is just customization, or electronically facilitated narcissism. Let Mr. Osborne decide!”

You can read his entire essay in The New York Times by clicking here, or on the image above.

Le Silence de la mer (1949) by Jean-Pierre Melville

Friday, February 27th, 2015

Nicole Stéphane in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la mer (1949).

Le Silence de la mer, Melville’s first feature film, was shot in 1949 on a shoestring budget, based on the novel of the same name by Jean Bruller, under the pen name of Vercours.The plot is simple: a German lieutenant, Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) moves in with a rural French family during the Nazi occupation of World War II, consisting of an old man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane), who refuse to speak to him during the time he is billeted there. Courteous, cultured, and superficially charming, von Ebrennac is an impractical idealist, who is proud of German heritage and culture, but who also believes that in the end, the war will serve a common good; the uniting of Germany and France, and the intermingling of each nation’s cultures.

Night after night, von Ebrennac emerges from his bedroom upstairs with the deepest politeness, and engages in a series of seemingly endless monologues about the future of France and Germany, the cultural history of both nations, his childhood and upbringing, his first romance, and his faith in the Nazi hierarchy. During all the time, the uncle and his niece say not a single word to von Ebrennac, who despite his position of power, doesn’t threaten or intimidate them, but rather longingly expresses his hope that someday the two nations will “marry,” while making obvious allusions to his attraction to the old man’s niece.

One day, von Ebrennac announces that he has been called to Paris to meet with the Nazi hierarchy. Here Melville manages to blend newsreel footage of the Occupation with staged footage of Vernon, as von Ebrennac, taking in the sights, and reveling in the city’s cultural atmosphere. A music composer during peacetime, von Ebrennac doesn’t really know how barbaric the Nazi regime is, until one functionary tells him of the death camps at Treblinka, and later, a group of Nazi officers at a party reveal that their true plan is to crush French culture entirely, to destroy the entire nation down to the ground so that it can then be rebuilt according to Hitler’s plans, stating that “only technical books” in French will be allowed – everything else, modern or old, will be summarily destroyed.

Von Ebrennac finds this impossible to believe, but gradually realizes that he has been duped into joining the Nazi cause. When he returns to the old man’s house, von Ebrennac relates the story of his “grave” discovery in detail, one which he finds impossible to accept. Finally comprehending the monstrous nature of the regime he so blindly supported, von Ebrennac files an application for active duty on the Eastern Front, where he will almost surely be killed. As he puts it, I’m “off to Hell.” A last shot suggests that he may disobey future orders given to him by the Nazi regime, but this is left unresolved.

Shot in Bruller’s own house in 27 non-consecutive days by the great Henri Decaë – his first film as a Director of Cinematography – Le silence de la mer manages to pull off a neat trick; though it’s utterly claustrophobic in design and execution, and is essentially a series of monologues by Von Ebrennac, the film is continually visually inventive, and through an intricate design of fade in / fade outs and wipes, weaves a spell over the viewer, who soon becomes invested not only in Von Ebrennac’s coming to consciousness, but also in the outcome of the narrative – how on earth will this battle of wills be resolved?

Some have described it as a love story, but if so, it’s one that never really announces itself; the niece may indeed be a sort of stand-in for France as a whole, but this is never unduly emphasized. Instead, the film explores what happens when a tyrannical regime recruits an aesthete, and what then transpires when that person discovers he’s been deceived. Bruller wrote the novel in 1941; it was published clandestinely during the Occupation, and circulated by members of the Resistance, during a time when the possession of single copy of the work was punishable by death. Bruller was initially resistant to the idea of adapting his novel to film, despite offering the use of his house as a shooting location, and stipulated that when the film was completed, it would have to pass a “jury test” by 27 members of the former Resistance, to see if it was faithful to the novel, and should be released.

If the jury voted against the film, Melville promised to burn the negative and all prints. Thankfully, only one member of this “jury” voted against the film, and now it has been digitally restored in glorious fashion, first by Eureka DVD in Europe, and now in the United States from Criterion. This is a superb, one of a kind film – and a real window not only into the past of cinema, but also to an era in which films were made for the sake of art, rather than commerce – when individual talent was sufficient to overcome all financial and practical obstacles. And, of course, although he loved film noir and American crime films, Melville never sold out and went Hollywood – instead, he remained an individual and committed artist, something that’s completely rare these days.

You can see the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

Francisco Ferreira on Manoel de Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Here’s Francisco Ferreira on Manoel de Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow in the journal Cinemascope.

As Ferreira notes, in part, “Gebo (Michael Lonsdale) is an aged, decent and broke family man subdued by routine and a sense of duty who has learned from life that ‘when money’s involved, no one ever forgives.’ He lives with his wife Doroteia (Claudia Cardinale), a woman who does not accept reality, pushing upon Gebo and their daughter-in-law Sofia (Leonor Silveira) an endless pack of lies about their missing son, João (Ricardo Trêpa, speaking in a disarming French accent that draws attention to his character’s dubious nature). Gebo often receives his faithful neighbors Chamiço and Candidinha (Luís Miguel Cintra and Jeanne Moreau): their favorite sport is complaining, which nicely complements Gebo’s perpetual sense of hopelessness. A man without ambition, Gebo often laments: ‘The question is whether we come to this world to be happy.’ In fact, happiness here is a temptation and a sordid object in the house: a bag full of money collected from the company where Gebo works.

The shadow of the title, on the other hand, seems to be a far more complex issue. Because first of all in the film, brilliantly shot by Renato Berta in HD on a studio set, faint oil lamps are always flickering, and there is no distinction between day and night. This is a perennially dark world where there is almost no light to reflect any shadows at all: we could dare to say that colors and image here have a pictorial sense and a distinctive purpose . . . the shadow [of the title] is a suffocating thought, commenting on the Portuguese soul and despair from the perspective of the myth of Sebastianism, a topic addressed by Oliveira in both No, or the Vainglory of Command (1990) and The Fifth Empire (2004). For a director who once said that the truth and the event are the two greatest vectors of his work, this historical approach is not an abuse of our imagination: ‘Today is a product of yesterday,’ as Oliveira once said.”

To which Gwendolyn Audrey Foster adds, “Oliveira is like a time traveler who takes us back to another century, illuminated by candles and philosophy . . . he’s the only truly significant classical artist left in the cinema,” a sentiment with which I heartily agree. Oliveira is now 106 years old – his birthday is December 11th, 1908 – and I keep hearing reports that his health is now, perhaps inevitably, precarious, though he has just completed two short films, and I sincerely hope that he will make more features.

After laboring in near-obscurity for decades, Oliveira really began to burst forth on the international scene in his eighties, and has in the last yen years developed a very late classical style which is at once restrained and deeply penetrating; as I’ve said before, he makes viewers work for their pleasures in his films, but in the end, the cumulative effect is staggering. Oliveira truly is the last great classical filmmaker, in the tradition of Renoir, Bresson, and others, and yet his works are still little known, and Gebo and the Shadow, to date, has only a European Region 2 DVD release – but with English subtitles, so there’s no excuse for not getting a copy now. Having recently suffered through the trivialities of the Academy Awards – and every year, though I’m asked to comment, this year vowing never to do so again – seeing something of this quality restores my faith in the cinema, and in art, though no one- absolutely no one – is now working in the cinema at the same level as Oliveira. I urge you to see this film at once.

You can read Ferreira’s excellent article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Les Parents Terribles (1948)

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

Jean Cocteau’s 1948 film – his best work as a director – isn’t available on DVD in the US.

It’s something of a mystery to me, since the film is so accomplished, and since the earlier adaptation of Les Enfants Terribles, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, is so readily available in a superb transfer on DVD here, but Les Parents Terribles remains missing in action. It was released on VHS in the early 1990s with English subtitles, and there are still a few copies of that version kicking around on Amazon – and the quality is passable – but a fully restored DVD and Blu-ray of this exquisite film, based on Cocteau’s play of the same title, is long overdue – most critics agree it’s his finest moment as a filmmaker.

As an anonymous contributor to Wikipedia notes, the famed critic “André Bazin wrote a detailed review of the film in which he took up the idea of ‘pure cinema’ and tried to analyze how Cocteau had succeeded in creating it out of the most uncinematic material imaginable. Bazin highlights three features which assist this transition. Firstly the confidence and harmony of the actors, who have previously played their roles together many times on stage and are able to inhabit their characters as if by second nature, allow them to maintain an intensity of performance despite the fragmentation of the film-making process.

Secondly, Cocteau shows unusual freedom in his choice of camera positions and movements, seldom resorting to the conventional means of filming dialogue with reverse angle shots, and introducing close-ups and long shots with a sureness of touch that never disrupts the movement of the scene; the spectator is always placed in the position of a witness to the action (as in the theater), rather than a participant, and even that of a voyeur, given the intimacy of the camera’s gaze.

Thirdly, Bazin notes the psychological subtlety with which Cocteau chooses his camera positions to match the responses of his ‘ideal spectator.’ He cites an example of the shot in which Michel tells Yvonne about the girl he loves, his face placed above hers and both facing the audience, just as they had done in the theater; but in the film Cocteau uses a close-up which shows only the eyes of Yvonne below and the speaking mouth of Michel above, concentrating the image for the greatest emotional impact. In all of these aspects, the theatricality of the play is preserved but intensified through the medium of film.”

Get the VHS if you can; this is a film that should not be missed.

Loretta Jackson-Hayes on STEM and The Liberal Arts

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

Loretta Jackson-Hayes has an op-ed interesting piece in The Washington Post.

As she writes, in part: “our culture has drawn an artificial line between art and science, one that did not exist for innovators like Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs. Leonardo’s curiosity and passion for painting, writing, engineering and biology helped him triumph in both art and science; his study of anatomy and dissections of corpses enabled his incredible drawings of the human figure [. . .]

I became a chemistry professor by working side-by-side at the bench with a number of mentors, and the scholar/mentor relationships I’ve enjoyed were a critical aspect of my science education. And it is the centerpiece of a college experience within the liberal arts environment. For me, it was the key that unlocked true learning, and for my students, it has made them better scientists and better equipped to communicate their work to the public [. . .]

A scientist trained in the liberal arts has another huge advantage: writing ability. The study of writing and analyses of texts equip science students to communicate their findings as professionals in the field. My students accompany me to conferences, where they do the talking. They write portions of articles for publications and are true co-authors by virtue of their contributions to both the experiments and the writing.

Scientists are often unable to communicate effectively because, as Cornell University president David J. Skorton points out, ‘many of us never received the education in the humanities or social sciences that would allow us to explain to nonscientists what we do and why it is important.’

To innovate is to introduce change. While STEM workers can certainly drive innovation through science alone, imagine how much more innovative students and employees could be if the pool of knowledge from which they draw is wider and deeper. That occurs as the result of a liberal arts education.”

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

Home at Seven (1952)

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

Here’s another “lost” classic brought back to life by Network DVD in Great Britain.

I regularly write about contemporary “foreign” films that get lost in the shuffle, but here’s a gem from 1952 in Great Britain, Home at Seven, the only film ever directed by the gifted Sir Ralph Richardson (though he wasn’t a “Sir” yet when he directed it). He also stars in the film with Margaret Leighton and Jack Hawkins, from a play by the great R.C. Sherriff, which chronicles what happens when mild mannered mid-level banking clerk David Preston (Richardson) arrives home at his house one evening at 7, as he usually does, only to be greeted by his wife Janet (Leighton) in hysterics – he’s “home at 7″, all right, but 24 hours later than he should have been – in short, he’s missed a whole day. At first he thinks this is impossible, but when his wife shows him the evening paper, and his manager at the bank confirms that he hasn’t been at the office all day, David realizes that somehow, he’s completely forgotten what happened for one entire day of his life. And – much worse – he has absolutely no idea what’s happened.

Richardson’s acting and direction are impeccable, as is Anatole de Grunwald’s script from Sherriff’s play, along with Jack Hildyard’s suitably muted monochrome cinematography, but the centerpiece of the film is Richardson, who absolutely inhabits the character he plays, who only gradually realizes that in addition to misplacing an entire workday, he’s also somehow mixed up in a murder and robbery, but has absolutely no idea what’s happened. In an attempt to keep himself out of danger, and secure a much-needed promotion, David begins to make up lies to cover his absence, but this only gets him in deeper with the police and his employer, despite the help of sympathetic Doctor Sparling (Jack Hawkins), who does his best to help Preston recover his senses – until in the final scenes of the film, with a stroke of very good fortune, order is finally restored – but I won’t tell you how.

Nor should I. Indeed, one of the signature successes of Home at Seven is that it leaves one absolutely in the dark as to what’s going to happen next, as if we, as the audience, are afflicted with the same sort of amnesia as David is, blundering blindly in the dark with complete loss of memory. Richardson’s restrained performance, coupled with the solid, assured direction he gives to the film, creates a deeply unsettling vision of Post World War II England, in an era in which some sort of normalcy has supposedly returned, but the strains of the war are still all too evident, and neighbors offer scant comfort in times of crisis – indeed, they’re all too willing to “shop” you to the police on the slightest shred of supposed “evidence.”

Home at Seven is just one of the many hundreds of modest British films that have been preserved by the British company Network, who have a mission to rescue films at the margins that otherwise might be consigned to undeserved neglect. As their company philosophy states, in part, “since 1997, Network has been anything but conventional. Experimental, passionate, diverse, challenging, ever-willing to champion the underdogs of film and television; titles unjustly neglected and gathering dust in the vaults of TV companies; visionary directors from the fringes of mainstream cinema and beyond. TV and film titles which might otherwise have been lost to posterity have been rescued, preserved and restored where possible. A forgotten cache of Public Information Films – destined for destruction – was saved, digitised and turned into a hit video release. Castaways like Robinson Crusoe provided the launching pad for an ongoing series of archival releases which continues to this day. With its encyclopaedic knowledge of TV and film archives and library content, Network – in partnership with ITV, BBC, Rank, ITC, Thames, FremantleMedia, Studiocanal and many others – has brought back to the marketplace a wealth of material that would otherwise have been left unseen.”

In an era in which the DVD market is collapsing in America, Network is acting very much like an archival revival house – focusing on the films that have been somehow overlooked in canonical film history. I just saw Home at Seven last night, and I can attest that the quality of the transfer, both in image and sound, is exceptional. These films will never run on TV in the United States, but you will need an all-region DVD play to see them here – they’re all Region 2 releases, in PAL format, so an all region player is a must. But at this point, of course, you can get such a player for less than $100, and you should have one anyway – these artificial boundaries of “regions” for DVDs and Blu-rays are an absolute nuisance. Too many excellent films, old and new, get released only in France, of England, or Canada, and never make it across the border to the States. So get an all region player, check out some titles from Network, and expand your cinematic horizons. It’s really worth the effort.

This is just one of the films in Network’s series The British Film – click here to see the entire catalogue.

UCLA Festival of Preservation – March 5-30, 2015 in Los Angeles

Monday, February 16th, 2015

Click here, on on the image above, for a complete program guide to the festival as a pdf.

If you’re going to be in Los Angeles between March 5th and the 30th, this is the place to be. As Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive notes of the coming festival, “the year 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of UCLA Film & Television Archive and so we are doubly proud to put on our biennial UCLA Festival of Preservation to kick off a series of anniversary-related events that will run throughout the year.

As director of UCLA Film & Television Archive, I’m happy to introduce the 17th iteration of our Festival, which again reflects the broad and deep efforts of the Archive to preserve and restore our national moving image heritage.  And while the rest of the world has seemingly made the transition to a 100 percent digital environment, the Archive is still committed to preserving films on film, while we still can, even if our theater will increasingly be projecting digital material.

Our Festival opens with the restoration of Men in War (1957), directed by Anthony Mann, who made a name for himself at Universal directing adult westerns.  This big budget war film, starring Robert Ryan and Aldo Ray, details the troubles experienced by a platoon of American soldiers, who are trapped behind enemy lines during the Korean War.  Unlike Hollywood’s more heroic representations of World War II, Mann’s film presages the disconnect between officers and enlisted men that would become systemic during the Vietnam War.

We close with another classic war film, John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home (1940), starring John Wayne and Thomas Mitchell as merchant seamen transporting ammunition to England for the European war effort against the Nazis.  Between these bookends, this year’s UCLA Festival of Preservation offers something for everyone, whether one is interested in film or television, comedy, drama or documentary.

In the comedy department, we are proud to be able to present the latest results in our ongoing effort to preserve the legacy of Laurel & Hardy, including the shorts The Midnight Patrol (1933) and The Music Box (1932).  We are also screening a new restoration of the comedy hit of last year’s Cinefest in Syracuse, Bachelor’s Affairs (1932), a pre-Code gem, starring Adolphe Menjou as a die-hard bachelor who is felled by a ditzy blonde bombshell.

As is standard operating practice, given our close working relationship with the Film Noir Foundation, we have again restored a number of rare and interesting film noirs, including Too Late for Tears (1949), starring Lizabeth Scott in a career-defining role as a housewife whose life careens out of control.  Director John Reinhardt’s low, low budget noir, The Guilty (1948), is based on a Cornell Woolrich story, while Woman on the Run (1950), another under-rated noir, stars Ann Sheridan as the wife of a man who has witnessed a murder.  Finally, director Samuel Fuller’s Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1977) is not exactly a noir, but a crime drama produced for German television, and it constitutes the Archive’s first complete digital restoration.

An area of increasing interest for the Archive is exploitation films, which have been for the most part ignored by film historians, even though such films were hugely popular at the time of their release.  Our head of preservation, Scott MacQueen, has taken the lead in restoring the Archive’s exploitation holdings, so we are proud to present a number of truly weird and wild films from the early 1930s: White Zombie (1932) features Bela Lugosi in the aftermath of Dracula (1931) in a horror film that has become a cult classic; Ouanga (1935) reprises White Zombie’s Haitian setting for a tale of voodoo and miscegenation, starring the tragic African American actress, Fredi Washington, who could have had a huge career if she had not refused to “pass” for white.  Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Premature Burial,’ The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935) stars the great Erich von Stroheim after his fall from grace in Hollywood.  Finally, Leslie Stevens’ directorial debut, Private Property (1960), is another rare find, the film straddling both the exploitation and art house markets.

In the past two years, the Archive has stepped up its efforts under television archivist Dan Einstein to preserve classic television.  We begin with The Execution of Private Slovik (1974), one of the most celebrated made-for-television movies of the 1970s, and an episode of Chevy Mystery Theatre (NBC, 7/31/60), both programs penned by the writing team of Richard Levinson and William Link.  Another program includes a classic episode from Playhouse 90, a popular omnibus show from the late 1950s, which visualizes a nuclear holocaust for American viewers.

The Archive’s efforts to restore the work of independent filmmakers are represented by two long-neglected masterpieces, director Stanton Kaye’s brilliant road movie, Brandy in the Wilderness (1969), and J.L. Anderson’s Spring Night, Summer Night (1967), an amazingly realistic film from rural Appalachia.  We also continue our efforts to preserve and protect the legacy of the ‘L.A. Rebellion,’ with a program of shorts by African American women, including a new restoration of filmmaker Julie Dash’s Illusions (1982), which finally corrects deficits on the soundtrack that had been present since the film’s premiere.

Last, but not least, our newsreel preservation team of Blaine Bartell and Jeffrey Bickel present two programs from our Hearst Metrotone News Collection, including one night dedicated to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and another celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a milestone in the Civil Rights Movement. As is always the case, the Archive’s internationally recognized preservationists will appear in person at many Festival screenings to introduce the films and discuss their work with audiences.

All of our restoration work and public programs—including this Festival—are funded by donations from individuals, foundations, corporations and government agencies.  We are most thankful for the generosity of these organizations and individuals.”

This promises to be an utterly thrilling collection of films; try to see it you possibly can.

Accidental Surrealism in 1940s Advertising

Friday, February 13th, 2015

Salvador Dalí, eat your heart out!

No real comment here, other than the fact that this 1940s ad for nail polish is a real mind-blower; accidental surrealism at its most bizarre. As Dalí famously noted, “surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.” Actually, this reminds me a great deal of Dalí’s nightmare dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), but that was designed to be surreal and disturbing.

This is a just a commercial image designed to sell a product – I wonder how successful it was? In any event, it’s given us something much more valuable some seventy years later; a vision of the past, with an unsettling link to the present. This image was created to be consumed and then abandoned, but has been archived on the web. How many more images, films, texts, drawings, paintings, advertisements will offer us the same disquieting glimpse into our consumerist past?

Sometimes the most interesting work is produced through sheer accident.

New Essay – Humanities in the Digital Era

Friday, February 13th, 2015

I have a new essay on “humanities in the digital era” in the web journal Film International – here’s a link.

As I argue, “We live in the age of the visible invisible; everything is supposedly available to us online, but in fact, only a small fraction of the knowledge and culture of even the most recent past is available on the web. The digitization of our culture is now an accomplished fact; physical media is disappearing, books are being harvested from library shelves and thrown into the anonymity of high density storage, digital facsimiles of these documents are often illegible or hidden behind pay walls. It’s a world of never-ending passwords, permissions, and a whole new group of “gatekeepers,” which the digital revolution was supposed to do away with, in which everyone got a place at the table. In fact, it has created a far more intrusive and much less intuitive group of cultural taste makers in place of the 20th century regime of editors, writers, critics and the like; technology specialists, who, really don’t understand the humanities at all, and are, in fact alarmed by the amorphousness of humanist work – after all, you know, it’s just so unquantifiable.

As Wieseltier notes, in part, in the January 7th issue of the NYT Sunday Book Review, ‘aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different. We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof. Presumptions of obsolescence, which are often nothing more than the marketing techniques of corporate behemoths, need to be scrupulously examined. By now we are familiar enough with the magnitude of the changes in all the spheres of our existence to move beyond the futuristic rhapsodies that characterize much of the literature on the subject. We can no longer roll over and celebrate and shop. Every phone in every pocket contains a “picture of ourselves,” and we must ascertain what that picture is and whether we should wish to resist it. Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.’

Needless to say, Wieseltier’s essay has touched a real nerve among both humanists and the digerati - you can read some responses here - some agreeing with him, and some not, but for me, it seems that more often than not, he hits the mark straight on. As one reader, Carl Witonksy, wrote in response, ‘Leon Wieseltier’s essay should be required reading and discussion by all college students, regardless of major. Technology is penetrating every aspect of their lives, and they should come to grips with its pluses and minuses,’ while Cynthia M. Pile, co-chair of the Columbia University Seminar in the Renaissance, added that ‘for the humanities, the library is the laboratory, and books and documents are the petri dishes containing the ideas and records of events under study. We use the Internet, to be sure, and are grateful for it. But its rapid and careless ascent has meant that we cannot rely on it for confirmation of reality or of fact.’

Pile goes on to note that ‘we require direct observation of material (stone, wood, ink, paper and parchment) documents, manuscripts and printed books, which we then subject to critical, historical analysis. We also require that these materials be spread out in front of us to analyze and compare with one another, like the scientific specimens they are. In great research libraries (which used to be the hearts of great universities), these were formerly available on site, so that an idea could be confirmed or contradicted on the spot. Instead, today librarians are taught that a delay of several days while a book is fetched from a warehouse dozens, or even hundreds, of miles away — to the detriment of the book — is irrelevant to our work. This is false. Our work is impeded by these assumptions, based on technological dreams, not on reality.’

I’ve seen the impact of this in many fields of the arts, which are now faced with a crisis unlike anything since the Middle Ages – the cultural work of the past is being relegated to archives, museums, and warehouses, and despite claims to the contrary, is not available in any meaningful way to the general public or students. Great swaths of material have been left unscanned and unindexed, and with the demise of paper copies becomes essentially unobtainable. Browsing through library stacks is not only a pleasurable experience; it is also an essential part of the discovery process and intellectual investigation. You come in, presumably, looking for one book, but now you find another. And another. And another. They’re all together in one section on the shelves. You’re not calling for a specific text, which would give you only one side of any given question – you have immediate access to them all, and can pick and choose from a wide variety of different perspectives. Now, it seems that only the eternal present is with us.

I wrote an essay that touched on some of these issues a few years ago for The College Hill Review about working in New York in the 1960s as part of the community of experimental filmmakers, aptly entitled ‘On The Value of “Worthless” Endeavor,‘ in which I noted – again, in part – that ‘the only art today is making money, it seems; in fact, today, there are plaques all over New York identifying where this artist, or that artist, used to have a studio; today, all the locations are now office buildings or bank . . . it seems that no one has time or money for artistic work, when, in fact, such work would redeem us as a society, as it did in the 1930s when Franklin Roosevelt put artists to work, and then sold that work, to get that segment of the economy moving again. Now, the social conservativism that pervades the nation today belatedly recognizes the power of “outlaw” art, and no longer wishes to support it, as it might well prove — in the long run — dangerous.

Money can create, but it can also destroy. Out of economic privation, and the desperate need to create, the artists [of the 1960s] created works of lasting resonance and beauty with almost no resources at their disposal, other than the good will and assistance of their colleagues; a band of artistic outlaws. These artists broke the mold of stylistic representation . . . and offered something new, brutal, and unvarnished, which confronted audiences with a new kind of beauty, the beauty of the outsider, gesturing towards that which holds real worth in any society that prizes artistic endeavor. It’s only the work that comes from the margins that has any real, lasting value; institutional art, created for a price, or on commission, documents only the powerful and influential, but doesn’t point in a new direction. It’s the work that operates off the grid, without hype or self-promotion, under the most extreme conditions, that has the greatest lasting value, precisely because it was made under such difficult circumstances.’

In his brilliant film Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard depicted a futuristic dystopia - in 1965! – in which an entire civilization is run by a giant computer, Alpha 60, which directs and supervises the activities of all its inhabitants; a computer that is absolutely incapable of understanding nuance, emotion, or the chance operations of something like, for instance, Surrealism or poetry. As the supervisor of the computer and all its operations, one Professor Von Braun (played by Howard Vernon; the symbolism is obvious) is pitted against the humanist Secret Agent Lemmy Caution (the always excellent Eddie Constantine), who has been sent from the ‘Outerlands’ to destroy the computer and restore humanity to Alphaville. As Von Braun warns Lemmy, ‘men of your type will soon become extinct. You’ll become something worse than dead. You’ll become a legend.’ And as if to confirm this, Alpha 60 instructs his subjects that ‘no one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.’

But, of course, it isn’t, and while the end of Alphaville strikes a positive note – technology reined in by Lemmy’s timely intervention, I can’t be so sure that this time, in real life, that there will be a happy ending. When a society no longer has bookstores, or record stores, or theaters because – supposedly – everything is online and streaming – when corporations make decisions, guided by the bottom line alone, as to what materials are disseminated and which remain in oblivion – and when mass culture alone – the popularity index – determines what works are allowed to find any audience, we’re in trouble. If you don’t know something is there, then you can’t search for it. Works buried in an avalanche of digital materials – and please remember that I am someone who contributes to this, and publishes now almost exclusively in the digital world – lose their currency and importance, just as libraries continue to discard books that later wind up on Amazon for one cent, in hardcover editions, where those of us who care about such work snap it up – until it’s gone forever.

What will the future hold for those of us in the humanities? It’s a really serious question – perhaps the most important question facing us as scholars right now. Alpha 60 rightly recognized Lemmy Caution as a threat, and had him brought in for questioning, telling Lemmy that ‘I shall calculate so that failure is impossible,’ to which Lemmy replied ‘I shall fight so that failure is possible.’ The work of technology is valuable and useful, and without it, we would be stuck entirely in the world of physical media, which would mark an unwelcome return to the past. But in the headlong rush to digital technology, we shouldn’t sacrifice the sloppiness, the uncertainty, the messiness that comes from the humanities in all their uncertain glory, representing widely divergent points of view, with the aid of ready access to the works of the past, which, after all, inform and help to create the present, as well as what is to come. As Lemmy Caution tells Alpha 60, ‘the past represents its future. It advances in a straight line, yet it ends by coming full circle.’”

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

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website, wheelerwinstondixon.com

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

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

In The National News

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