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Archive for the ‘Humanities’ Category

John Carpenter Interview in Vulture

Friday, September 26th, 2014

John Carpenter (left) on the set of The Thing in 1981.

Vulture has a great interview with director John Carpenter conducted by Simon Abrams, who notes that “horror filmmaker John Carpenter’s body of work is atypical in that his films often seem to have been made by an uncompromisingly intuitive commercial artist. Never content just to take a check, Carpenter abandoned the Halloween franchise after co-writing and producing the series’ first two unsuccessful sequels and took on bold projects, such as Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness that suggested he knew how to make movies without giving in to creative pressure to make palatable pablum. Vulture talked to Carpenter about how he resolved key conflicts on projects that defined his career, particularly The Thing, his Halloween sequels, and others.”

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

Atom Egoyan’s Chloe

Friday, September 26th, 2014

Atom Egoyan’s Chloe is a remake of a film by Anne Fontaine; in many ways, it’s much better than the original.

As Egoyan notes of the overall theme of the film, “First and foremost, Chloe deals with the nature of intimacy. But I think the film is ultimately about what we look for in a relationship – to see someone else as we would like ourselves to be seen, and the idea of protecting someone else’s right to be alone, or to protect solitude. As Rilke wrote, it is one’s role as a partner to protect the other’s solitude, and yet there’s this balance between doing that and losing someone. That to me is what the film is about – how to be allowed to imagine ourselves and integrate that into a relationship.

In any love relationship, you have to protect yourself, but it you’re not aware of the explicit agenda of the other person, the skew can become really dangerous, even explosive. This is the terrain the film deals with – how to be allowed to imagine ourselves and integrate that in a relationship. And in some ways, the film is about the necessity and danger of creative interpretation of the self. Ultimately, we all need to believe in certain stories or narratives about ourselves. We all need to feel we have some control over how that narrative evolves. However, we have no control over the variables we can’t anticipate – all of the other emotional factors that come into play.

There’s always a variable when dealing with human beings. We are incredibly complex sensitive souls, and no matter how you think a relationship is defined by parameters, those can always evolve, so we need to be invested in other people. We need to fall in love and we need to go to those places, but we also need to equip ourselves in understanding how fragile other people are. If we don’t, there’s bound to be consequences.”

You can read more about this interesting, often unsettling film by clicking here.

Joseph Lawson, Genre Director – An Interview

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

I have an interview out this morning with Joseph Lawson, director of the forthcoming film Ardennes Fury.

As I note in my introduction to the interview, “Joseph Lawson is an American filmmaker who is an unabashed special effects fan, action movie enthusiast, and utterly pragmatic about how films get made today in a rapaciously competitive environment. He’s a commercial filmmaker, working in Hollywood, making films as entertainment. Along the way, he’s getting more and more of his own vision into his work, even as he struggles against tight deadlines and tighter budgets.

We first made contact when I wrote an article for Film International that was sharply critical of The Asylum, the company Lawson works for. Lawson responded in the comments section without the slightest bit of rancor, and suggested that we correspond about the production of his latest film, just wrapped a few days ago, Ardennes Fury. It’s his fifth film as a director.

Yes, Ardennes Fury is indebted to David Ayers’ big budget film Fury coming out later this Fall from Columbia Pictures; yes, you could call this another “tie-in” film from The Asylum, but at the same time, Lawson is absolutely sincere about what he’s doing, and all that the films really share is a similar title; they’re really two absolutely different projects.

Like American International Pictures in the 1950s and 60s, The Asylum makes commercial films for a price, and as Lawson makes clear, they don’t use interns or students – they just can’t stand the pace at the studio. Like it or not, The Asylum has a vision all its own. So what’s it like to make films in the Hollywood trenches today? Here’s a chance to find out, first hand.”

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

The Most Prolific Director in American Film History

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

This unassuming man made more films during the classical Hollywood era than any other director.

As I wrote about Sam Newfield a number of years ago in Senses of Cinema, “Sam Newfield is, in all probability, the most prolific director in American sound-film history, but very little archival material survives on his career. The director of more than 250 feature films, as well as numerous shorts and television series episodes, in a career that spanned four decades, from 1923 to 1958, Newfield leaves behind him only his work on the set; next to nothing is known of his personal life. However, using conversations with Sigmund Neufeld, Jr., and Stanley Neufeld, the sons of Sam Newfield (born Neufeld)’s brother Sigmund Neufeld (all quotes from them in this essay are from these interviews), as well as materials from the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, I was able to piece together a rough sketch of the man behind such a torrential output of work.

Comedies, musicals, westerns, horror films, jungle pictures, crime dramas, espionage thrillers – Sam Newfield did them all, often on budgets of less than $20,000 per feature, and shooting schedules of as little as three days. But, as Martin Scorsese notes, watching Newfield’s work is hard, because he often seems absolutely detached from the images that appear on the screen, as if he is an observer rather than a participant. Then, too, the conditions of extreme economy that Newfield labored under created a pressure-cooker environment in which the ultimate goal of all his films was simply to get them done on time and under budget. Nevertheless, as arguably the most prolific auteur in American motion-picture history, Newfield deserves mention and brief examination as one of the key ’second-rung’ directors of 1940s Hollywood, Newfield’s most productive era.”

Since then, Neil Roughley has compiled a staggeringly complete filmography; check it out here.

Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Howard Hawks directs Land of the Pharaohs on location in Egypt, 1955.

Land of the Pharaohs was Howard Hawks’ most ambitiously spectacular film, even if he did bring it in with a tight 55 day shooting schedule at a cost of only $3.15 million, still about a million over budget. Yet this truly lavish film, which might seem on the surface to have much in common with such other 1950s spectacles as The Robe, Ben Hur, and other equally oversize films – right down to the aspect ratio in which the film was shot, CinemaScope – was a resounding failure at the box office – the only Hawks film ever to lose money, despite a script that was principally authored by Hawks’ old pal, William Faulkner.

When asked by Cahiers du Cinema why he made the film in the first place, Hawks replied simply “CinemaScope” – he wanted a chance to work in the widescreen format on a suitably ambitious project. But in its tale of the ancient Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins), who is obsessed with building a pyramid tomb that is “robber proof” from the outset of the narrative, just one theme hangs over the film; death, and the uncertainty of what awaits one in the next world, if there is one.

To achieve this, Khufu enlists a captive slave, Vashtar (James Robertson Justice) to build a tomb whose design is so ingenious that no one can possibly break in. Vashtar, in return for the freedom of his people once the task is accomplished, creates such a design, which closes in on itself when a series of clay jars filled with sand are broken, moving huge stone blocks to seal the pyramid for eternity. Khufu approves the design, and the work gets underway, but as the years pass, Khufu becomes are even more obsessed, more brutal, and more ruthless in his quest for gold, so that the pyramid becomes not only a monument to his life, but also to the boundless greed that has informed it.

Hawkins struts about with the proper degree of arrogance and pomp as Khufu, and Joan Collins is remarkably good as the nefarious Princess Nellifer, who plots to kill Khufu’s first wife and her son so that she can ascend to the throne. But her plans come to naught as, with Khufu’s death, she is buried alive – much to her surprise – along with Khufu’s willing servants in a gigantic pyramid that is indeed “robber proof,” from which there is no possible means of escape.

Why was the film a failure? Hawks put it down to a lack of a “star” cast, and the fact that “I don’t know how a Pharaoh talks. And Faulkner didn’t know. None of us knew. We thought it’d be an interesting story, the building of a pyramid, but then we had to have a plot, and we didn’t really feel close to any of it,” but there’s more to it than that. Of all of Hawks’ films, this is easily the most despairing, and in the end, there’s no character that inspires even a vestige of sympathy, and the film’s penultimate shot; the pyramid, sealed, sitting silently atop the sand, where tens of thousands of slaves had once toiled night and day to build it, is both chilling and distancing.

I admire the film tremendously, just as I admire most of Hawks’ work, especially when one considers his effortlessly multi-genre career, encompassing everything from His Girl Friday to Red River to the unsigned The Thing From Another World to The Big Sleep and numerous stops in-between. But Land of The Pharaohs offers such a bleak vision of human existence that audiences of the time simply couldn’t relate to it, and yet it retains much of its power today, and stands as a unique accomplishment in Hawks’ long career.

But Hawks knew, however, that as a commercial filmmaker he had failed. As a result, he wandered through Europe for the next four years, uncertain as to his next film, or the direction his career was taking, until he teamed with John Wayne on a traditional western – a genre he knew well – for Rio Bravo in 1959. But Rio Bravo, despite its enormous critical reputation, is really a film that takes very few risks. In Land of the Pharaohs, nothing is certain, especially life after death, which is more than a little ironic since the entire film is concerned with preparing, in essence, for a funeral.

In one telling exchange, Khufu tells Vashtar that if he builds the pyramid for him, he will have to kill him to ensure that the secret of the tomb’s construction dies with him; but that as a reward, Vashtar may also build an equally ornate pyramid for himself, stocked with food, jewels and gold so that Vashtar can enjoy the afterlife in equally luxurious fashion as Khufu is sure that he will. Vashtar replies that he has no belief in life after death, and instead bargains – successfully – for the lives of his people now, and in the end, it’s only the slaves who survive after years of privation, while the wealthy perish in an air tight tomb.

Such a film can’t hope to catch fire with the public imagination, but it’s a nihilist masterpiece nonetheless.

Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

I’ve just published an article on Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia in Senses of Cinema.

The essay is a part of a preview of three pieces on Peckinpah for Senses of Cinema Issue 72, and as I note in my piece on this film,Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) is easily Peckinpah’s bleakest, most brutal film, and that in itself is saying something. It’s also a film that seems almost willfully self-destructive, inasmuch as it is completely uncompromising in its vision of an utterly amoral and violent world. Peckinpah was just coming off the failure of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), which despite the ’stunt’ casting of Bob Dylan, a number of impressive performances and some bravura sequences showcasing the director’s trademark bloodshed, had performed poorly at the box office.

In this atmosphere of professional uncertainty, pursuing a project like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was hardly designed to restart one’s career. Yet, as many of his closest associates were convinced, it was only with this film, and the later Cross of Iron (1977), that Peckinpah had what amounted to final cut; a degree of control over the final film, for better or worse, that had eluded him throughout much of his career. Even The Wild Bunch (1969), Peckinpah’s most famous film, suffered extensive cuts and re-edits before it went into general release. People always seemed to be trying to rein Peckinpah in, and he didn’t appreciate it one bit.

Peckinpah was never chasing a ‘hit film.’ He wanted to put his personal vision on screen, no matter the consequences. And so, despite the slapdash execution of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and the unremitting savagery of the production’s script, which had been in development since 1972, when ‘Bloody’ Sam was still a hot commodity, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was the film – or one of the films – that Peckinpah truly wanted to make, and despite the almost universally hostile reception it received, he never wavered from defending the finished product. ‘I did Alfredo Garcia,’ he said later, ‘and I did exactly what I wanted to, good or bad, like it or not. That was my film.’”

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

Millie (1931) – A Lost Feminist Classic

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

Millie is an astonishing film that has fallen between the cracks of film history; now, you can see it here.

John Francis Dillon was a prolific director of silent features, who nevertheless easily made the transition to sound. Only his premature death as the result of a heart ailment at the age of 49 in 1934 stopped him from going on to establish a major career in Hollywood history; Millie is one of his finest works. The film stars Helen Twelvetrees, then a major cinema star, as the title character, Millie Blake, who, as a very young woman, has the bad luck to marry one Jack Maitland (James Hall), a thoroughly unlikable but wealthy businessman, who sets Millie up in a palatial estate, but offers her no real love, and rapidly starts cheating on her. The couple has a child, Connie (Anita Louise), but when Millie discovers Jack’s numerous infidelities, she walks away from the marriage without asking for a cent of alimony, leaving Connie with Jack’s mother (Charlotte Walker), on the rather reasonable theory that in the midst of the Depression, Connie will be better off with people who can provide for her, while Millie tries to make her way in the world on her own.

Refusing all offers of assistance, Millie lands a job at the newsstand in a major hotel, and soon falls in love with Tommy Rock (Robert Ames), a newspaper reporter, whom she loves but refuses to marry because of her past experience with Jack Maitland, even as she is continually pursued by a variety of men, most especially the seemingly dignified but utterly unscrupulous man about town Jimmy Damier (John Halliday), for whom Millie has become an obsession. Millie is eventually promoted to a better position at the hotel due to her hard work, but her relationship with Tommy is ruined when she discovers that he, too, has been cheating on her.

Completely disillusioned, Millie begins to live a wild, reckless life, which with the passage of years takes a toll on her looks, as well as her dignity, even as her daughter, Connie, blossoms in the Maitland home, becoming a beautiful young woman – something that Jimmy Damier notices, too. With Connie’s attractions fading for Damier, he decides to seduce Connie, then just sixteen years old, at his lodge in the country, despite his assurances to Millie that he will leave Connie alone. Discovering Damier’s duplicity, Millie trails Damier and Connie to Damier’s country house, and just as Damier is about to rape Connie, breaks in and shoots Damier to death.

In a more conventional maternal melodrama, such as Stella Dallas or Madame X, one might expect that Millie would then be sentenced to death for her crime, sacrificing herself for her daughter’s future, but no – Millie’s newspaper friends, including erstwhile boyfriend Tommy Rock, come to her aid. Although Millie tries to keep her daughter’s name out of the case, Connie willingly takes the stand, and tells the judge and jury exactly what happened, resulting in Millie’s acquittal on all charges. In the film’s final scenes, Millie is reunited with her daughter and her first husband’s mother at their country estate, as Tommy notes that “she’s going home” to a much better life.

There are many things about the film that are remarkable; Connie’s lesbian friends, who offer aid to Millie throughout the film – Helen Riley (Lilyan Tashman) and Angie Wickerstaff (Joan Blondell) – are completely forthright about their relationship, and no one else seems to give it more than a passing thought, either. People party all night, drink too much, and yet seem resignedly fatalistic about the future – there’s no guarantees that things will get any better. The brutal reality of the Depression is evident in nearly every frame of the film, and, of course, liquor flows freely although the film takes place during Prohibition. Men are depicted as being unreliable and thoroughly dishonest, and so self-reliance for women is viewed as the only possible course of action. Yet in the end of the film, when Millie really needs a friend, her newspaper pals (including a young Frank McHugh, a veteran cinema “sidekick” who remained active in films as late as 1967) rally to her aid to clear her during the trial.

Millie fell into the Public Domain, and is thus available – complete and uncut – not only on YouTube, but also in a surprisingly good (don’t believe the reviews) transfer on DVD from Alpha Video, which can be purchased for as little as 99 cents on Amazon, and which I heartily recommend here. Millie is yet another example of a film which has been lost, essentially forgotten, and ignored by such DVD labels as Criterion because of its Public Domain status, and thus relegated to the margins of cinema history. There are a number of rather uninformed “reviews” of the film on the web, but you should ignore them – see the film for yourself, which is the only reliable way to judge any work of art. At a scant 85 minutes, Millie is a taut, compelling, deeply feminist film which deserves a much more prominent place in the canon of Pre-Code cinema, with a stand out performance by Helen Twelvetrees in the title role.

Thanks to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for telling me about this film – it’s a key piece of cinema history.

John Flaus on Film and Television Acting

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

Mia Wasikowska and John Flaus in John Curran’s film Tracks (2014)

Although his name may be unfamiliar to American audiences, John Flaus has been a major force in Australian cinema since the 1960s, as well as key figure in the rise of Film Studies in Australia in academe. As Wikipedia summarizes his career, Flaus “attended Sydney University as an undergraduate from 1953 to 1971, eventually attaining a B.A. degree. Flaus has been active in the film society movement since 1953, and published his first film reviews in 1954. In the 1960s, he was a member of the Sydney University Film Group and the WEA Film Study Group with such notable people as Frank Moorhouse, Michael Thornhill, John Baxter and Ken Quinnell. He has lectured on film at various tertiary institutions, was Head of Education at the AFTRS, and designed the original Cinema Studies course at La Trobe University in 1970, the first of its kind in Australia. He became a professional actor in 1977 and has over 100 credits in theatre, film and television.”

While his influence in cinema as an actor is undeniable, what makes Flaus’s career all the more remarkable is the degree of thought and intelligence that goes into his work – whether the project at hand be a television movie or a feature film, he gives his all to every project he’s in. More importantly, he was able to articulate – brilliantly – the entire process of film and television acting. In a detailed article in Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture 5.2 (1990), edited by Adrian Martin, entitled “Thanks For Your Heart, Bart,” Flaus described both what it is like to work on various film projects, and why film acting is so very different than acting on stage.

As he put it, “Everybody is an actor, each of us wears a mask – except for saints and simpletons. Our motives may be several: affectation, emulation, defense, attack, manipulation, self-indulgence. We select our own role, choose when and where to perform (thereby selecting our audience), write or improvise our own scenario, decide how much is too much and when to stop. Each of us is the sole recipient of full satisfaction and (hopefully) understanding of our own performance. If we misunderstand we come to believe in the Role and mistake it for the Self; we are in ‘bad faith’ as we delude ourselves. The situation chooses us and we become misguided critics of our own acting.

The vocational actor must put himself at the disposal of other intelligences, other values, other strategies; and must simulate emotions germane to an imaginary situation which is the product of someone else’s imagining. The psychology of the vocational actor’s practice is radically different from that of everyday ’social acting’; his technique requires more skills, his psychology requires stronger discipline.

The historical origins of vocational acting cannot be dated accurately; it may be two and a half millennia since drama detached from ritual. Four centuries have passed since European drama became ‘theater’, its production commercial, acting professional and commentary influential. In this phase the text of the play was ‘company property’. Commentators drew upon ancient precepts and contemporary prejudices, and their comments were published.

Drama theory had little to say about acting theory, which did not become a topic in the public domain until the Romantic backlash to industrialism and absolutism, when the term ‘art’ acquired its current predication and yielded its old territory to ‘craft’. Before that, theory of acting had been virtually a guild secret. I think it reasonable to assume that most of such theory was pragmatic and normative. The advice I am going to offer later in this article will fit that description, too.

Nowadays theory of acting makes it into print for the general reader (‘at all good bookstores’), yet radical differences between live drama and photographed drama are not widely understood or practiced. Often film actors are undeservedly blamed – and praised – for creative decisions made by other artists: directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, designers, editors.

Much of the art and some of the craft of the stage actor provide the basis for the film actor’s practice. Most actors come to film work after some stage experience, and with some stage preconceptions and traditions. There are still things to learn – and maybe some to unlearn, depending on how ‘filmic’ the particular film or TV drama is.

Because the vocation of stage acting is so long established, rich in expertise and lore, and its virtues more widely understood than those of film acting, I will delineate my concern with my topic – film acting – by frequent reference to what it is not – stage acting.” Essential reading; my sincere thanks to Adrian Danks for bringing Flaus’s critical work to my attention.

This is brilliant writing; you can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Aldous Huxley

Saturday, September 6th, 2014

For some reason, I am thinking of Aldous Huxley today.

He probably wrote too much, as he well knew, but in his best writings, which are scattered throughout his life, he penetrated the false fabric of society which is thrown up for all of us to admire, and was, of course, along with George Orwell, one of the first to fully understand and articulate the very real dangers of living in a detached, technologically driven society.

Everyone knows Brave New World as an instant catch-phrase used to suggest a Dystopian future, but if they read the novel thoughtfully, along with some of his other works, such as the essays from his lecture series The Human Situation, collected after his death and published posthumously as a slim but deeply insightful volume, as well as Brave New World Revisited, and skip his final novel Island, they will find someone who knew a great deal about the lure of technological progress as a genuine danger to one’s own humanity, and humanity in general.

In one of his last pieces of writing, “Shakespeare and Religion,” he summarized a lifetime of work along these lines by stating that “the world is an illusion, but it is an illusion, which we must take seriously, because it is real as far as it goes, and in those aspects of the reality, which we are capable of apprehending. Our business is to wake up. We have to find ways in which to detect the whole of reality in the one illusory parts which our self-centered consciousness permit us to see. We must not live thoughtlessly, taking our illusion for the complete reality, but at the same time we must not live too thoughtfully in the sense of trying to escape from the dream state.

We must continually be on the watch for ways in which we may enlarge our consciousness, we must not attempt to live outside the world, which is given us, but we must somehow learn how to transform it and transfigure it. Too much ‘wisdom’ is as bad as too little wisdom, and there must be no magic tricks. We must learn to come to reality without the enchanter’s wand and his book of the words. One must find a way of being in this world while not being of it. A way of living in time without being completely swallowed up in time.”

In time, or impassive technology – which knows everything about us, but can teach us nothing at all.

A World of Constant Peril: Seriality, Narrative, and Closure

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International on the impact of serials on contemporary cinema.

As I write, in part, “What are we watching now at the movies, or on television or Netflix for that matter? Serials – though now they’re called franchises, or mini-series, or ‘cable dramas,’ but they have the same structure, and the same limitations, the same narrative predictability. What will happen, for example, in the next episode of Game of Thrones? Who will be slaughtered, who will survive, who will make yet another grab for power? What scheme will the fictional Walter White (Bryan Cranston) come up with in the next episode of the recently concluded Breaking Bad? You’ll just have to tune in next week and find out, because all we’re leaving you with this week is an open ended ‘conclusion’ – whatever happens next, we’re not telling. But then again, when the trap is finally sprung, are the results all that surprising? Yet you keep coming back, week after week. You can’t stop watching . . .

And yet, unlike any other structural format in commercial cinema, even the theatrical cartoon, the original iteration of the motion picture serial has vanished from contemporary view. Nevertheless, when one compares both the overall narrative structure of these chapter plays, as well as the elaborate fight scenes, exoticist sets, and – despite what some may say – the absolutely one-dimensional nature of the characters, one can easily see where the films in the current Marvel or DC ‘universe’ came from – starting, of course, with the original Star Wars film in 1977, which was transparently formatted as a serial, replete with opening crawl title receding endlessly into infinity, and even an “episode number,” as if the entire film was just one section of a sprawling epic – which indeed it ultimately was.

Comic-Con, which now dominates the commercial film industry, with, for the most part the empty escapism of such films as James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – the runaway hit of the current summer – doesn’t want to admit it, but the truth of the matter is that these are films for children, as the serials were, and were relegated, in the 1940s and 50s, to Saturday morning entertainment. No one who made them had any illusions about them, and though they contained both the template for most contemporary Hollywood action and superhero films, they were designed to exist at the margins of the theatrical world, as something for adolescents to view before moving on to more demanding fare. Today, that more ‘demanding’ cinema has all but vanished, as comic book cinema moves to the mainstream, and erases nearly everything else.”

You can read the entire article 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 numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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