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Archive for the ‘Humanities’ Category

The Triumph of Human Empire by Rosalind Williams

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

Here’s a brilliant book on the intersection of science and romantic culture.

As the publisher’s website for this book notes, “in the early 1600s, in a haunting tale titled New Atlantis, Sir Francis Bacon imagined the discovery of an uncharted island. This island was home to the descendants of the lost realm of Atlantis, who had organized themselves to seek ‘the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.’ Bacon’s make-believe island was not an empire in the usual sense, marked by territorial control; instead, it was the center of a vast general expansion of human knowledge and power.

Rosalind Williams uses Bacon’s island as a jumping-off point to explore the overarching historical event of our time: the rise and triumph of human empire, the apotheosis of the modern ambition to increase knowledge and power in order to achieve world domination. Confronting an intensely humanized world was a singular event of consciousness, which Williams explores through the lives and works of three writers of the late nineteenth century: Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

As the century drew to a close, these writers were unhappy with the direction in which their world seemed to be headed and worried that organized humanity would use knowledge and power for unworthy ends. In response, Williams shows, each engaged in a lifelong quest to make a home in the midst of human empire, to transcend it, and most of all to understand it. They accomplished this first by taking to the water: in life and in art, the transition from land to water offered them release from the condition of human domination.

At the same time, each writer transformed his world by exploring the literary boundary between realism and romance. Williams shows how Verne, Morris, and Stevenson experimented with romance and fantasy and how these traditions allowed them to express their growing awareness of the need for a new relationship between humans and Earth.

The Triumph of Human Empire shows that for these writers and their readers romance was an exceptionally powerful way of grappling with the political, technical, and environmental situations of modernity. As environmental consciousness rises in our time, along with evidence that our seeming control over nature is pathological and unpredictable, Williams’s history is one that speaks very much to the present.”

This is an absolutely remarkable achievement, managing to effortlessly synthesize science and the arts – two supposedly polar pursuits in the modern era – and demonstrates that each cannot function without the other, and that all of us are interconnected by both areas, which are of equal importance in the creation and continuance of our shared cultural heritage.

I’m still digesting this marvelous work, which took the author fully 20 years to complete, with some interruptions, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t gotten more attention – but perhaps that’s because the text’s message of inclusiveness is not one that’s currently popular.

Williams argues convincingly, without being strident about it, that without the Romantic instinct we will never really fully comprehend our human condition, and at the same time, provides a thorough yet concise outline of the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne – who despite his futuristic fantasies was not all that taken with the notion of what was then considered “progress” in the industrial era – and the author William Morris, whose work clearly needs wider attention.

The result is a fascinating and altogether indispensable book, which I urge you to read at once.

The Universal Monsters Reboot Won’t Work

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

It won’t work because there’s the wrong talent in the room – and the wrong approach to the problem.

Lord knows, there are many more important things in the world today to discuss, and for the most part, I try to keep this blog positive, but the news – which has been trickling out for months – that Universal is trying to reboot the classic monsters that gave the studio its initial identity would be welcome – were it not for the fact that they’re going about it in precisely the wrong way. Looking at the Marvel universe films, which are enormously successful, Universal is trying to do the same thing with The Mummy, The Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, The Wolfman – and it simply isn’t working.

Look at the recent reboot of Dracula Untold – a complete commercial and critical failure, which came across as yet another knockoff of the 300 franchise, and not a horror film at all.  The recent revamp of The Wolfman – the same thing, complete with a switch of directors halfway through, and a new, grafted on ending that spoiled the entire premise of the film. As one observed suggested, “just re-issue the originals, save a lot of money, and give us some classy entertainment!” But of course, that’s not going to happen.

What should happen – but won’t – is that Universal finds some Gothic filmmakers who have a real connection to the genre and then turns them loose to create authentic, reimagined-from-the-ground-up reboots of the entire series, and scrap everything they’ve done in the last decade or so, starting with The Mummy, Van Helsing, and the other misguided attempts to bring new life to Mary Shelley’s, Curt Siodmak’s  and Bram Stoker’s creations, among other possible restarts – and go back to the source material. Not the films; the texts that inspired them.

In the late 1950s, Britain’s Hammer studios successfully revitalized the classic gallery of Universal monsters as essentially British, Gothic creations with Terence Fisher’s Curse of Frankenstein (1957), which took the storyline seriously, acted as if none of the Universal films had ever been made, and offered an entirely new vision of the entire Frankenstein mythos.

Universal fought Hammer tooth and nail during production of the film, accidentally doing Hammer a big favor by prohibiting them from using any aspects of the Universal version of the monster – so the look, the storyline, the pacing, the use of violence, everything about the film – had to be completely original, going back to the textual source material from 1818.

As Hammer correctly noted during production, the Frankenstein saga was firmly in the Public Domain, and so if someone could create a fresh version of the classic tale, then there was nothing to stop them legally. Hammer finished up the film, and offered it to Universal, but the studio, still incensed that someone else was “poaching” on what they considered was their domain, passed on distributing the project.

Hammer took it to Warner Bros., where Jack Warner pounced on it. The film opened worldwide, made a fortune, immediately rejuvenated the genre, elevated Peter Cushing (as Frankenstein) and Christopher Lee (as the Monster) to overnight stars, and finally Universal saw the writing on the wall. Universal had run out of ideas – or a vision of what they should be doing – and it took outsiders who could use nothing from the earlier films to make the genre new again.

Striking a deal with Hammer, Universal offered Hammer a shot at the entire gallery of their cinematic malefactors, and Fisher’s Horror of Dracula (1958) followed in rapid succession, and was an even bigger hit. Hammer then cycled through all the Universal monsters for an extremely profitable decade or so, until the genre finally collapsed under the weight of diminishing returns, just as Universal’s original series eventually wound up as a parody of itself with the “monster rally” films of the mid 1940s, and finally Charles Barton’s parody Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein (1948).

None of this is news to any film historian – everyone who knows the history of horror films know this. But it seems that Universal simply doesn’t get the message. The monster franchise is not a Marvel “universe” series – it needs a completely fresh approach, which none of the people currently involved can accomplish – they’re too caught up in the Comic-Con world to recapture the vitality and energy of the original films. What’s happening now is a complete mistake. I wish it were otherwise, but I absolutely guarantee you, this “Monster universe” strategy will not work.

Only an authentic “start from scratch” approach will revitalize this franchise.

John Huston’s Lost Film – In This Our Life (1942)

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

In This Our Life is John Huston’s forgotten film — click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer.

. . . and it doesn’t deserve to be. Though star Bette Davis was critical of the project from the outset, and caused all sorts of problems during production, and even more problems when Huston had to leave to serve during World War II, and the gifted Raoul Walsh took over to finish the film, In This Our Life is a brutally corrosive look at American society in the early 1940s, about the things that power and money can buy, about race relations in the United States during the era, and affords all the stars of the film a chance to do something more than make a conventional melodrama – something Warner Bros. excelled at during the era.

But with its hints of incest, frank references to racial prejudice, the unexpected suicide of a major character, and a fatal hit and run accident added to the mix, In This Our Life showed that behind the placid exterior of the white picket fence houses of the rich there lurked a world of almost complete moral corruption, highlighted only by a few bright spots of decency that pop up with distressing infrequency.

Needless to say, the film didn’t get the critical attention it deserved when first released, and Bette Davis’s public bad-mouthing of the film also did little to help its then-contemporary reputation, but with the passing of more than seven decades, it’s clear that this film has much to say about the time in which it was made – more so than Huston’s other slick entertainments of the period, especially his first film, the crowd pleasing and utter unoffensive detective thriller The Maltese Falcon (1941).

Don’t get me wrong; The Maltese Falcon is a stunning directorial debut, but it’s really more of an escapist puzzle than anything else – an above average mystery with superb performances all around. In This Our Life is something much more – a study of a family and of society in collapse, undone not only by the dissembling of Davis’s scheming central character, but also the weakness of the film’s more thoughtful protagonists, who nevertheless fail to act until it is almost too late.

As TCM notes of the film, “Ellen Glasgow’s novel won the 1942 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. According to a Los Angeles Examiner news item dated February 27, 1941, the studio paid $40,000 for rights to the novel. A February 27, 1941 Hollywood Reporter news item adds that the film was to star Olivia De Havilland and Errol Flynn. Warner Bros. was named to the Honor Roll of Race Relations of 1942 for making this film because of its dignified portrayal of an African-American, although, according to a September 8, 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item, Warner Bros. cut scenes which treated Ernest Anderson’s character [who is framed in the film for a hit and run accident he had absolutely nothing to do with] in a ‘friendly fashion’ in order to avoid offending viewers in the South.

In 1943, when the film was examined by the Office of Censorship in Washington, D.C. prior to general export, it was disapproved because ‘only by the effort of a conscientious white man in whose law office a Negro boy is studying law is the young man saved from a charge of murder…recklessly made by a white woman….[who] claimed that the Negro and not she, was driving the car at the time of the accident and so strong is the race feeling in this Virginia community that the young Negro was practically condemned in advance. It is made abundantly clear that a Negro’s testimony in court is almost certain to be disregarded if in conflict with the testimony of a white person.’ Actor Walter Huston, director John Huston’s father, appears briefly in the film in a cameo role as a bartender.”

With its brutally frank commentary on the sad state of racial inequality in the United States, especially in the South, the film was bound to cause a good deal of trouble. It seems to me that even today, people are more than willing to sweep it under the rug, and favor Huston’s more frankly commercial efforts, such as Key Largo or even The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (both 1948) – again, excellent films, but productions that are much more frankly genre efforts.

But here, as in Sam Wood’s similarly themed indictment of small town American society, King’s Row (1942) – though that film takes place in the 19th century – the foremost concern is social commentary, on both the personal and larger level. Everything about the world that In This Our Life inhabits is wrong from the start, and suggests that there was a corrosive cancer in American society that was about to burst into full view in the postwar era – something that we’re still contending with now, albeit on a much larger scale. Yet In This Our Life is almost never singled out in retrospectives of the director’s career – which is a shame. It’s a strong, honest piece of work.

In This Our Life deserves to be much more widely seen and appreciated – it really is John Huston’s lost film.

Marilyn Monroe Day By Day by Carl Rollyson

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

Want to know what Marilyn Monroe did nearly every single day of her life?

I’m not a Monroe cultist by any means, but Rollyson’s book is one of the most carefully detailed and dispassionate accounts of the actor’s life to appear in print. Rather than trying to psychoanalyze Marilyn, or judging her, or adding editorial opinion, Rollyson simply takes the reader practically day by day starting in 1950 – Monroe’s earlier years are more scantily documented, due to lack of data – and then follows her career right up to the moment of her untimely death.

Reading these flat, “just the facts” entries, one can see the enormous pressure Monroe was under to uphold her star image, fend off unwanted admirers, deal with actors and directors who were often unsympathetic, and bear the enormous weight of being an international sex symbol in an era that was both aggrandizing and unforgiving – in short, she lived most of her life in the spotlight, and it took an enormous toll on her, both personally and professionally.

As the book’s website notes, “In Marilyn Monroe Day by Day: A Timeline of People, Places, and Events, Carl Rollyson provides a documentary approach to the life and legend of this singular personality. With details of her childhood, her young adult years, her ascent to superstardom, and the hour by hour moments leading to her tragic early death, this volume supplements—and, in some cases, corrects—the accounts of previous biographies. In addition to restoring what is left out in other narratives about Marilyn’s life, this book also illuminates the gaps and discrepancies that still exist in our knowledge of her.

Drawing on excerpts from her diaries, journals, letters, and even checks and receipts—as well as reports of others—Rollyson recreates the day-to-day world of a woman who still fascinates us more than fifty years after her death. In addition to the calendar, Rollyson also profiles important figures in Marilyn’s life and includes a brief biography of the actress, providing a context for the timeline. An annotated bibliography of books and websites highlights the most reliable sources about Marilyn.”

What results is a unique document, rich in detail, compassionate, and superbly researched.

The Search for Legendary Los Angeles P.I. Samuel Marlowe

Saturday, November 1st, 2014

Daniel Miller of the Los Angeles Times has an amazing story: the saga of the first African-American Hollywood private eye, Samuel Marlowe.

As Daniel Miller wrote tn the Los Angeles Times today,I spent more than a year reporting the story of Samuel Marlowe, the man who may have been Los Angeles’ first licensed black private detective. Family members and a dogged screenwriter believe he also knew noir writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and corresponded with them regularly. If Marlowe’s connection to the authors could be verified, he’d belong in history books. But like so many characters out of L.A. noir, he remains cloaked in mystery, his exploits partly unverifiable.

To get the story, I interviewed dozens of people — from Marlowe’s great-grandsons to scholars of Chandler and Hammett. I combed archives and canvassed South L.A. properties. Along the way, screenwriter Louise Ransil, who has penned a script about Marlowe, provided her own insight into the PI’s life. Ransil said that after Marlowe died, his son gave her access to the private detective’s files — but they have since gone missing. In a conversation about the reporting of the story, Ransil shared her thoughts on the private eye who called himself the ‘Answer Man,’ and the hunt to find his lost letters.

You can read the rest of this fascinating story by clicking here; to see a video, click on the image above.

New Article – “Turn It Off!” – Sound and Silence in 1960s British Gothic Cinema

Friday, October 31st, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International, on the use of silence in 1960s British horror films.

As I write, “it’s Halloween once again, and as one might suspect, American cable networks are offering a cornucopia of horror films, past and present, though the Universal films of the 1930s and 40s which started the entire horror cycle in America are now missing from most playlists. Val Lewton’s superb RKO gothics got better treatment from Turner Classic Movies, which ran a whole stack of them this year, and the British films produced by Hammer and Amicus in the 1960s were also well represented on the channel, albeit run at two and three in the morning, not exactly peak viewing hours.

The Hammer films, once ‘X’-rated in Britain upon their initial release, now seem like quaint fairy tales, which is what Hammer director Terence Fisher always claimed they were – ‘fairy tales for adults.’ These are films I know well, have seen many times, and have written about on numerous occasions. I no longer watch them all the way through; instead, I dip into them, keying in on certain scenes that I admire, and then switching to another film with much the same purpose in mind.

But as I sampled one Hammer and/or Amicus film in this fashion in the past few days, something hit me more forcefully than it ever has before in this particular subset of films – the use of silence, and a lack of dialogue, is a trait that nearly all of these films share. The most effective of these films operate through the power of the image alone, in concert with the movements of the actors, and the music of Elisabeth Lutyens and James Bernard, the two most accomplished composers who worked on the Hammer and Amicus films.”

You can read the entire essay here – Happy Halloween!

The Tragedy of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

And while I’m in a Welles mood, what about his true lost masterpiece, the uncut The Magnificent Ambersons?

While it will be interesting, no doubt, to see what happens with The Other Side of the Wind, the true lost Welles masterpiece is the complete version of The Magnificent Ambersons, which was taken away from Welles and recut by RKO under the supervision of Robert Wise, up to the point of having 45 minutes or so of footage chopped out, and a “happy ending” substituted at the last minute. To add insult to injury, the film was ultimately released on the bottom half of a double bill with Leslie Goodwins’ distinctly downmarket film Mexican Spitfire Sees a A Ghost - essentially dumped in the marketplace.

By this time, as has been well documented, RKO had undergone a change of management, and the critical praise that the director’s first film Citizen Kane had garnered notwithstanding, the studio was no longer in a mood to give Welles the creative freedom he had enjoyed on Kane. He had simply caused the studio too much trouble, and the new management was only interested in one thing – money. To make matters even worse, RKO ordered the destruction of all the negative trims and outtakes of the complete version, so that a later reconstruction by Welles would be impossible.

To this day, historians and theorists continue to hope that a complete copy of the film will turn up somewhere, in some long forgotten vault, and since Welles was in South America working on his abortive project It’s All True during Ambersons‘ editing, there is the faint – very, very faint – possibility that a complete version of the film was sent to him there, but this is the stuff of legend.

I’m reluctant to say that the complete film is absolutely gone, simply because while Kane dazzles, Ambersons is a much darker, more complex film, about the collapse of memory and social change, in which the world that one lives in is subject to the constant whims of “progress.” But while I can hope, I have to be a realist. It seems that the complete Ambersons is truly lost to us – forever.

If Kane is is a thunderbolt of a film, Ambersons reminds me of the work of Henry James; complex, convoluted, richly layered and deeply introspective. The destruction of the complete version of the film by RKO remains one of the great crimes of cinema history – a crime which it seems it impossible to undo. In the meantime, we have the 88 minute version, which still shows what the film was gesturing at, and what it might have been. In the end, I’ll come down on the side of Ambersons over Kane as Welles’ most deeply felt film, even in the current mutilated version.

We may never see the complete Ambersons, but what remains is still one of the masterworks of the cinema.

Orson Welles’ Last Film to Finally Surface?

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

Orson Welles (far right) filming Oja Kodar in The Other Side of the Wind with cameraman Gary Graver and Frank Marshall, holding camera slate.

As Dave McNary reports in Variety, “Orson Welles’ unfinished final film, The Other Side of the Wind, may be heading for a theatrical release next year. The New York Times has reported that Royal Road Entertainment has reached an agreement to buy the rights to The Other Side of the Wind with the aim of showing the film by May 6 — the 100th anniversary of Welles’ birth. The report said Royal Road is planning to promote the distribution at the American Film Market next week.

Welles shot the film-within-a-film between 1970 and 1976 and then worked on it until his death in 1985, leaving behind a 45-minute work print that he had smuggled out of France. John Huston starred as a temperamental film director battling with Hollywood executives to finish a movie –much like Welles did throughout his career. Susan Strasberg, Lilli Palmer, Dennis Hopper and Peter Bogdanovich played supporting roles.

To obtain the rights, Royal Road has negotiated agreements with Welles’s collaborator, Oja Kodar; his daughter and sole heir, Beatrice Welles; and Iranian-French production company, L’Astrophore. Welles had financed through a combination of TV roles and investors, including Mehdi Bushehri, brother-in-law of the shah of Iran and an investor in L’Astrophore. As a result of clashing with Welles, Bushehri took control of more than 1,000 negative reels, which have been stored in a Paris warehouse.

Since Welles’ death, a multitude of efforts have been made to sort out the legal issues in order to complete. Two years ago, veteran producer Frank Marshall, who was a line producer on The Other Side of the Wind, joined with Royal Road’s Filip Jan Rymsza to approach Beatrice Welles and Oja Kodar. Beatrice Welles, who manages the Welles estate, told The Times that the 2012 visit was key to starting the process of getting the film finished.

Marshall and Bogdanovich will assemble the film. ‘We have notes from Orson Welles,’ Marshall told The Times. ‘We have scenes that weren’t quite finished, and we need to add music. We will get it done. The good news is that it won’t take so long because of all of the technology today.’”

We’ll have to see how this plays out; could be very interesting.

Joseph Losey’s Classic Film “Accident” Released by the BFI on Blu-ray

Monday, October 27th, 2014

Joseph Losey’s masterpiece Accident now has a superb new Blu-ray restoration from the BFI.

As Frank Collins wrote in a brilliant 2013 essay in the web journal Cathode Ray of Accident, “the film opens with a formal shot of the exterior of Stephen’s country house. The camera begins to track in towards the house. What strikes you immediately is the use of sound – an aircraft overhead, screeching owls, dogs barking and the tapping of typewriter keys – to augment the thick, primordial atmosphere, where sound becomes another character in the film and signals, with the deafening sound of the car crash, the emotional wreckage from which the rest of the film spills out.

Losey’s use of sound booms and telescopic rifle mikes adds sonic highlights to a film in which he plays with sensual memory, including the ticking engine of the crashed car, footsteps, farmyard noises, water trickling, children playing, kettles, busy offices, frying omelettes et al in the structuring of Stephen’s memory. A fascinating aspect of Stephen’s recall is how Losey manipulates the flashback to obscure certain moments, his embarrassment at falling into the river or his reluctance to play the mock-rugby game at Codrington Hall, for example. What’s missing is just as important as what is evident.

Sound as a ’sonic flashback’ is vital when the film narratively comes full circle and Losey returns to his formal shot of the house, tracks back and repeats the sound of the car crash just before the end titles. In a sense we are entering the present moment of the crash, then travelling back with Stephen into the past to understand what happened to the victims, how it occurred, having them return to its squalid aftermath and reemerge into the light of day by the time the film ends.”

One of the most trenchant films ever made about power, class, and the halls of academe; a must-see.

To Save and Project: The 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation – October 24 to November 22, 2014

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

To Save and Project: The 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation is not to be missed.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, film preservation – the active conservation of our shared cinematic heritage – is one of the prime concerns of this website. The Museum of Modern Art’s latest edition of To Save and Project: the 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation is thus absolutely central to film history and criticism; if you can’t see the films, how can you possibly judge them, or appreciate them? It’s somewhat amazing to me that along with films such as Her Sister’s Secret - a title I just blogged on, and a film which clearly begs for preservation due to its Public Domain status – more recent films such as Caravaggio and Excalibur, to name just two possible titles, also need to be carefully preserved for the future. Projected in MoMA’s state of the art auditorium, these films are an indispensable part of of cultural heritage, and need to be as widely seen as possible. Curated by Joshua Siegel, Curator of Film at MoMA, and adjunct curator Dave Kehr (who used to write an excellent column for the New York Times, now much missed), this is an event of the first rank, and anyone in the New York area should run, not walk, to see this superb series of screenings.

As the notes for the series point out, “each fall, MoMA’s annual festival of newly preserved films, To Save and Project, brings together masterworks and rediscoveries from film archives, studios, and foundations from around the world. Many of the films in the festival will be receiving their first American screening since their original release; others will be shown in meticulously restored editions that more closely approximate the original experience of the film; a few will even be publicly screened for the first time ever in New York—including work by Orson Welles (sequences filmed but never used for the 1938 Mercury Theatre production Too Much Johnson). Also presented are films by Charles Chaplin, Maya Deren, Allan Dwan, Derek Jarman, Sergio Leone, Kenji Mizoguchi, Raul Ruiz, and Edgar G. Ulmer. Guest presenters include Kathryn Bigelow, John Boorman, George Chakiris, and Ken Jacobs.

The opening-night film is the North American premiere of a new MoMA restoration: Allan Dwan’s 1929 masterpiece The Iron Mask, a rousingly entertaining swashbuckler starring Douglas Fairbanks that is often considered, as Dwan himself called it, ‘the last of the big silents.’ MoMA’s version, however, contains the entire original Vitaphone soundtrack—with music, sound effects, and three spoken sequences—which will be heard here for the first time since the film’s original roadshow presentation. These titles will join dozens of others from archives both public and private to create a four-week overview of the tremendously exciting work that is being done around the world to reclaim endangered films and rediscover forgotten treasures.

The series runs from October 24 to November 22, 2014 – don’t miss it!

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.

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