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Norman McLaren’s Pas de deux (1968) – A Forgotten Classic

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Norman McLaren’s classic short film Pas de deux deserves a wider audience.

Growing up, this film was everywhere, and now it seems to have vanished from our collective memory. It’s a superb short film by the gifted animator Norman McLaren, created near the end of his long career at the National Film Board of Canada. As the NFB notes, in this hypnotic film McLaren uses “cinema effects that are all that you would expect from this master of improvisation in music and illustration. By exposing the same frames as many as ten times, the artist creates a multiple image of the ballerina and her partner (Margaret Mercier and Vincent Warren).” Pas de deux received 17 awards, including the 1969 BAFTA Award for Best Animated Film and an Academy Award nomination.

This is just another of the many, many brilliant short and feature films that have been plowed under by the relentless onslaught of mainstream multiplex fare; and while there are numerous bootleg copies of this film circulating on the web, even one with a supposedly “enhanced” music track, which one commenter rightly noted was “an insult to McLaren,” this is the original version, as uploaded by the NFB to Vimeo, and thus available to all to watch, and marvel at. Pas de deux was made near the end of the photochemical era of moving image production, and McLaren and his associates push the limits of conventional optical printing to their absolute edge in this film, which remains as entrancing as it was when first created.

There really isn’t much more to say; I’ll let the film speak for itself.

Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

In this deeply trying time in our nation’s struggle for basic human rights, this is a key film.

Spike Lee is, of course, the most important and influential African-American filmmaker working today, and one of the most important and influential filmmakers working today, period. In 1997, Spike Lee created a brilliant and moving documentary on the horrific September 15, 1963 murder of four African-American girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

As Wikipedia notes, “Lee had first intended to create a dramatic reproduction of the incident, but decided that would not be the best approach. He shifted to a documentary. Once he secured funding, Lee went to Birmingham with a small skeleton film crew. He wanted to have the families be as comfortable as possible. Ellen Kuras was the Director of Photography and Sam Pollard the producer/editor.

Kuras said of her desire to shoot 4 Little Girls, ‘I was really interested because my background is in political documentaries . . .I always felt that one of the reasons that I had got into filmmaking was that I wanted to use my craft to be able to say something about the human condition, however I could, in my own humble way. For me this was an opportunity to make a small contribution.’

The film covered the events in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 related to civil rights demonstrations and the movement to end racial discrimination in local stores and facilities. In 1963 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King arrived in the town to help with their strategy.

People of the community met at the 16th Street Baptist Church while organizing their events. The demonstrations were covered by national media, and the use by police of police dogs and pressured water from hoses on young people shocked the nation. So many demonstrators were arrested that the jail was filled.

A local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan placed bombs at the Baptist Church and set them off on Sunday morning 15 September 1963. Four young girls were killed in the explosion. The deaths provoked national outrage, and that summer the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The film ends with trial and conviction of Robert Edward Chambliss in 1977 as the main person responsible for bombing. The film also delves into black churches being set on fire in Birmingham in 1993, giving the impression that while progress has been made, there are some aspects that still haven’t changed. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.”

No, it’s very clear that “some aspects still haven’t changed” at all, as the brutal massacre of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015 has more than aptly proved.

The subsequent campaign to remove the confederate flag from various public places, license plates, and the ban on such merchandise by Sears, Walmart, Amazon and Ebay – something that should have happened a long time ago – is one outcome of this senseless series of murders, but the cost of creating such change is much too high. Nine people were killed, including the senior pastor and state senator from South Carolina, Clementa C. Pinckney.

As I write this, these events are still unfolding, and it’s too early to tell if any real positive change will occur as a result of this senseless violence. I know that it has profoundly shaken me,  as well as all people of conscience, in the United States and around the world, and I can only be heartened that perhaps something will come out of this terrible tragedy that will move us all to a better place.

In the meantime, let us remember that the struggle for basic human rights for all goes on day after day, year in and year out, and is never really full accomplished. All we can do is continue to move towards the light, and a better tomorrow.

Spike Lee’s brilliant movie is a reminder of that struggle; if you have not seen it, do so now.

Dorothy Arzner Retrospective at UCLA

Saturday, June 20th, 2015

Dorothy Arzner is finally getting a retrospective of her key works.

As the UCLA Film Archive, responsible for restoring some of the most adventurous and challenging films of the Hollywood studio era writes in the program notes for the series, “The Archive is pleased to commemorate the indispensable career of director Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979) as part of a year-long commemoration of our own 50th Anniversary.  This retrospective features six Archive restorations of Arzner’s work, which have helped to spur scholarship into and retrospectives of the director’s remarkable achievements.  The UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television is also proud to claim Arzner as a former professor.

A remarkable and nearly unique figure in American film history, Arzner forged a career characterized by an individual worldview, and a strong, recognizable voice.  She was also, not incidentally, the sole female director in the studio era to sustain a directing career, working in that capacity for nearly two decades and helming 20 features—conspicuously, still a record in Hollywood.

Distinguished as a storyteller with penetrating insight into women’s perspectives and experiences, Arzner herself emphatically made the point that only a woman could offer such authority and authenticity.  At a time when the marginalization of women directors in the American film establishment is still actively debated, we celebrate Dorothy Arzner, and the Archive’s long association with her legacy.”

Film screened include The Wild Party, Anybody’s Woman, Working Girls, Sarah and Son, First Comes Courage (a personal favorite of mine), Craig’s Wife and Christopher Strong (perhaps her best known films), Dance, Girl, Dance, Nana, The Red Kimona, Merrily We Go To Hell and a number of other titles from her long career, in gorgeously restored prints. If you’re going to be in the Los Angeles area, especially since many of these titles are simply not available on DVD – and as with director Ida Lupino, when is Arzner going to get a box set of her complete works (probably never, unfortunately) – you owe it to yourself to see the work of this pioneering and brilliant filmmaker.

Dorothy Arzner- an American original.

Robin Williams’ Final Performance – “Boulevard”

Friday, June 19th, 2015

I have never been a Robin Williams cultist, but Boulevard seems restrained, serious, and deeply felt.

Actually, I’m quite surprised to be posting this, but Robin Williams has always been full of surprises, from his very earliest work up to the final days of his all too brief career. In the end, there seemed to be a great deal of sadness about him, in personal appearances as well as in his films – though I should make it clear that we never met – and I just got the sense that he was having a difficult time in his life.

So I was surprised to see the trailer for this small, economical film that seems much more successful, at least to me, than most of his more famous comedy work. Completed in 2014, it’s only now getting a shot at a theatrical release. As Michael Miller noted in People Magazine, “in Boulevard, the late actor plays a lonely man trapped by his monotonous life and crumbling marriage. After a chance encounter with a young hitchhiker, Williams’ character begins to climb out of his rut and turn his life around.

‘This is one of the kindest characters Williams has ever played, which makes his self-imposed turmoil – the consequence of not wanting to hurt anyone, least of all his wife – all the more tragic,’ film critic Peter Debruge wrote in Variety when the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year. ‘Tapping into that same loneliness felt in One Hour Photo and Good Will Hunting, the actor projects a regret so deep and identifiable, viewers should have no trouble connecting it to whatever is missing in their own lives – whether those regrets are romantic, sexual, professional or spiritual.’”  Boulevard is directed by Dito Montiel from a script by Douglas Soesbe.

Boulevard also stars Bob Odenkirk and Kathy Baker, and is slated for a July 10, 2015 release.

Son of Frankenstein Makeup Tests – In Color (1939)

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

Ever wonder what the Frankenstein monster, as played by Boris Karloff, looked like in color?

In this incredibly rare, one minute piece of 16mm home movie footage shot in Kodachrome color on the set of Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein (1939), you can get a good idea of just how skillful Jack Pierce’s makeup was. In the opening section, the viewer is treated to a wide shot of Boris Karloff lumbering around the set in the heavy makeup, while a stagehand works behind the scenes, seen through the window, to prepare for the next take. Then there’s a closeup, capped by Karloff playfully sticking his tongue out for the camera, clearly taking the whole thing with a huge grain of salt.

In the film’s final moments, Karloff ostensibly sneaks up on Pierce and pretends to strangle him, but obviously, it’s all in fun. Son of Frankenstein is notable as the last time Karloff played the monster, although he continued to make horror movies, of course, for the rest of his career, and it’s also an odd film in that the sets were built and ready before the script was completed. The result is an eye-popping but somewhat disjointed film, yet still an honorable effort, and one of the last great classics from the Golden Age of Universal horror. And now you can see this rare piece of cinema history – a real find.

Thanks to the fan who posted this, with disabled comments, which is great – no comments needed!

TCM Partners With Women in Film

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

As Lisa de Moraes reports in Deadline Hollywood, “Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and Women In Film Los Angeles have joined forces for a multi-year partnership dedicated to raising awareness about the lack of gender equality in the industry, while celebrating the achievements of women who have succeeded in film.

TCM has earmarked the month of October for the next three consecutive years for the programming initiative. The network will present films from female industry icons, and provide context on the historical and current states of the representation of women in the film industry.

The month-long programming initiative hopes to take a deeper look at gender inequality in the film industry, and will tackle pro-social elements (research, resources, tools, etc) to assist women filmmakers in furthering their careers. Women in Film Los Angeles will partner with TCM throughout this programming initiative to offer research and resources.

‘The issue of gender inequality in the film industry is both timely and immensely important to shine a light on,’ said TCM’s general manager Jennifer Dorian. ‘We’re thrilled to partner with such a well-respected organization as Women in Film in order to address and promote the empowerment of women in our industry.’

‘For years, I have dreamed of having a network reach out to our organization with a true interest in our advocacy and the ability to collaborate on programming that will reach audiences everywhere,’ WIF President, Cathy Schulman said in today’s announcement.

In April, WIF and Sundance released results of a study they conducted that concluded men outnumbered women 23-to-1 as directors of the 1,300 top-grossing films since 2002, and found gender stereotyping to be one of the main reasons for the disparity.”

An excellent idea – long overdue.

An Interview with Denis Côté – Joy of Man’s Desiring

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

I have a new interview with Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté in Senses of Cinema #75.

As I wrote, in part, “Denis Côté is a young Canadian filmmaker who has burst onto the international film scene with a group of challenging and innovative movies in the past few years. Born 16 November, 1973 in New Brunswick, Canada, Côté began his career with a group of short films, and made his first feature in 2005, Drifting States (Les états Nordiques), which won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival.

Since then, Côté has worked a number of commercial and/or personal projects, most notably Curling (2010), a father/daughter family drama that was exceptionally well received by audiences and critics alike; Bestiare (2012), a ‘docufiction’ – that’s my own term – film centering on the animals who populate a tourist destination zoo in Canada; Vic+Flo Saw A Bear (Vic+Flo ont vu un ours, 2013), a harrowing tale of two women trying to make it on the outside after a stint in prison, and how the world conspires against them to make redemption – at least in life – almost impossible. Vic+Flo Saw A Bear was probably Côté’s most successful film to date, and was screened at more than 90 festivals around the world.

Most recently, Côté completed the superb Joy of Man’s Desiring (aka Que ta joie demeure, 2014), which documents, after a fashion, daily life on the factory floor, as workers methodically partner with their machines to create the staples of daily existence. In all these projects, Côté offers his own unique take on concepts of narrative in his fiction films, and reportage in his documentaries, to create a series of films that are at once open-ended, mysterious, and subtly disturbing.

As of this writing, Joy of Man’s Desiring is only available on Vimeo, distributed by EyeSteelFilm. After seeing the film two or three times, I was so impressed with Côté’s audacious mixture of real events and lightly staged fictional sequences to create an entirely alternate reality that I contacted him, and asked if he would discuss the film with me; he agreed, and this interview was conducted on 4 April, 2015.

I’d like to talk with you about your most recent film, the fictionalized documentary Joy of Man’s Desiring, which for me is one of the most stunning explorations of daily factory life I’ve ever seen. So, my first question is if you’ve ever seen Godard’s British Sounds (aka See You at Mao, 1970), the only other film to my knowledge that tries to tackle the workplace in this fashion, although, in my opinion, it overloads the soundtrack with Marxist slogans and the usual Godardian intercut titles – yet the sequence on the car assembly line is really powerful. Have you seen it, and was it an influence?

I was a film critic for a decade while making short films. I have seen an enormous number of art films. When you are young, you get easily confused and overwhelmed by so many influences and desires to pay homage or copy your favorite filmmakers. But being the age I am today, having more experience and a stronger personality, I can definitely see I am not corrupted by direct influences anymore. It’s a bit of a cliché to think that filmmakers are strongly conscious about references of any sort. So, to answer your question, I am not familiar with British Sounds, but I will do my homework.

Joy of Man’s Desiring deals with blue-collar work, and with the machines that seem to dominate, and define the workplace. Indeed, the film begins with a series of trance inducing zooms in on machines that seem to rule the entire work environment. Were you introducing them as the controlling personalities?

Not being familiar with those environments, I decided to start the film with the most spectacular and fascinating point of entry: the machines and their primitive sounds. I felt the need to look at things like a four year-old would. For the first three minutes I let myself, and the viewer be amazed by the power, strength and perfection of those machines. I wanted to put the audience in a hypnotic mode right away.

As you said in another interview, you were struck by “the terrifying idea that we all have to work and eventually find serenity, rest, a sense of accomplishment.” While it’s true enough that we all – or most of us – have to work, do you think that everyone finds “serenity, rest, [and] a sense of accomplishment”? For most people in factory jobs, it seems like a continual struggle just to keep up with the machine.

I do think we can find a personal sense of realization and/or accomplishment in any type of work. It’s really easy to think that machines are evil and kill human feelings, free will and ambition. I had those preconceptions myself before entering those environments, but you would be surprised to know how many people told me they consciously look for a repetitive job all day long. They told me those are the best jobs, because you don’t have to think all day long. Nighttime is for family matters and problems! Who am I to judge such thinking? I knew my film would not be frontally political, activist or judgmental and had to be more of a hypnotic journey.”

You can read the rest of this fascinating discussion by clicking here, or on the image above.

Dreams of Jules Verne: Karel Zeman’s Invention of Destruction

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

I have a new article in Senses of Cinema #75 on Karel Zeman’s classic film Invention of Destruction.

As I write, in part, “Like so many others in the United States, I was first exposed to Karel Zeman’s exotic adventure film Vynález zkázy (Invention of Destruction, 1958), when it was released in the West in a dubbed and retitled as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne in 1961. Zeman was one of the greatest of all Czech animators and special effects artists, and used a process unique in Vynález zkázycombining 19th century pictorial steel engravings with live action photography. This created a fantastic vision of what can be identified today as a steampunk past, where elaborate mechanical devices, hot air balloons, oddly constructed airplanes, submarines, and other infernal machines were brought to life in a manner at once poetic and yet deeply sinister.

Jules Verne (1928-1905) was in many ways one of the most forward thinking of all imaginative popular writers, and his works were both commercially and critically successful. Films such as De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to The Moon, 1865, famously made into an early film by Georges Méliès in 1902), Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, 1869-1870), Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1872), and L’Île mystérieuse (Mysterious Island, 1874-75) consolidated his reputation as a prolific and prophetic futurist. Verne’s works have been filmed countless times, either as straight adaptations or updated versions, but Zeman’s film stands alone as perhaps the most faithful of all filmic versions of Verne on the screen. It embraces not only his then-fanciful (and now all too real) vision of the future, but also remains faithful to the iconic images of Verne’s own era.”

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

Ruby Dee – Actor and Activist – Dies at 91

Friday, June 12th, 2015

Here’s a superb tribute to the great Ruby Dee by Sarah Halzack of The Washington Post.

As Ms. Halzack wrote, in part, “Ruby Dee, an actress who defied segregation-era stereotypes by landing lead roles in movies and on Broadway while maintaining a second high-profile career as a civil rights advocate, including emceeing the 1963 March on Washington, died June 11 at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y. She was 91. In a career spanning seven decades, Ms. Dee was known for a quietly commanding presence opposite powerful leading men, including Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and James Earl Jones.

As a young woman, she won acclaim as a chauffeur’s steadfast wife in the Broadway and film versions of A Raisin in the Sun, starring Poitier, and then earned an Academy Award nomination for her supporting role as the mother of a drug kingpin played by Washington in American Gangster (2007).

In 1965, Ms. Dee became the first black actress to perform lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn., playing Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and Cordelia in King Lear. Moreover, critics consistently praised Ms. Dee’s ability to make the most demanding roles seem effortless. Off-Broadway in 1970, in Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena, she was commended for her searing portrayal of a South African woman beaten down by society and physically abused by her husband, played by Jones.

Ms. Dee’s marriage to actor and playwright Ossie Davis was widely regarded as one of Hollywood’s most enduring and romantic, lasting 56 years, until his death in 2005. The couple’s careers were deeply intertwined as they co-starred in films such as Do the Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991), both directed by Spike Lee; collaborated on the comedic play Purlie Victorious, which Davis wrote and in which Ms. Dee starred on Broadway in 1961; and even partnered on a memoir, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.

When Ms. Dee and Davis received Kennedy Center Honors in 2004, it was said that they opened ‘many a door previously shut tight to African American artists and planted the seed for the flowering of America’s multicultural humanity.’ In 2008, Ms. Dee described the epitaph to Jet magazine: ‘If I leave any thought behind, it is that. We were in this thing together, so let’s love each other right now. Let’s make sense of things right now. Let’s make it count somehow right now, because we are in this thing together.’”

Ruby Dee – one of the most unforgettable actors in the history of the cinema.

Sir Christopher Lee Dies

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

The great British actor Sir Christopher Lee has died at the age of 93.

As Benjamin Lee wrote in perhaps the best of a host of tributes being offered this morning on Lee’s life and work, in The Guardian, “Sir Christopher Lee has died at the age of 93 after being hospitalised for respiratory problems and heart failure. The veteran actor, best known for a variety of films from Dracula to The Wicker Man through to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, passed away on Sunday morning at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, according to sources. The decision to release the news days after was based on his wife’s desire to inform family members first. The couple had been married for over 50 years.

As well as his career in film, Lee also released a series of heavy metal albums, including Charlemagne: The Omens of Death. He was knighted in 2009 for services to drama and charity and was awarded the Bafta fellowship in 2011. His film career started in 1947 with a role in Gothic romance Corridor of Mirrors but it wasn’t until the late 50s, when Lee worked with Hammer, that he started gaining fame.

His first role with the studio was The Curse of Frankenstein and it was the first of 20 films that he made with Peter Cushing, who also became a close friend. ‘Hammer was an important part of my life, and generally speaking, we all had a lot of fun,’ he said in a 2001 interview.

Lee’s most famous role for Hammer was playing Dracula, a role which became one of his most widely recognized although the actor wasn’t pleased with how the character was treated. ‘They gave me nothing to do!’ he told Total Film in 2005. ‘I pleaded with Hammer to let me use some of the lines that Bram Stoker had written. Occasionally, I sneaked one in. Eventually I told them that I wasn’t going to play Dracula any more. All hell broke loose.’

In the 70s, Lee continued to gain fame in the horror genre with a role in The Wicker Man, a film which he considered to be his best. ‘Wonderful film… had a hell of a time getting it made,’ he said. ‘Its power lies in the fact that you never expect what eventually happens, because everyone is so nice.’ He went on to play a Bond villain in 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun and turned down a role in Halloween, which he later said was one of biggest career regrets. In his career, he also turned down a role in Airplane!, something he also regretted.

His concern over being typecast in horror films led him to Hollywood and roles in Airport ‘77 and Steven Spielberg’s 1941. His career saw a resurgence in 2001 with a role as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and then as Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. He also became a regular collaborator with Tim Burton, who cast him in Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. Burton went on to award him with a Bafta fellowship.

In 2011, he returned to Hammer with a role in the Hilary Swank thriller The Resident although he generally tried to avoid the horror genre in later years. ‘There have been some absolutely ghastly films recently, physically repellent,’ he said. ‘What we did was fantasy, fairy tales – no real person can copy what we did. But they can do what Hannibal Lecter does, if they’re so inclined, people like Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen, and for that reason, I think such films are dangerous.’

After dabbling with music throughout much of his career, including a song on The Wicker Man soundtrack, Lee released his first full-length album Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross in 2010. It was well-received by the heavy metal community and won him the spirit of metal award at the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony. His 2013 single Jingle Hell entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 22, which made him the oldest living artist to ever enter the charts.

Lee still has one film yet to be released, the fantasy film Angels in Notting Hill, where he plays a godly figure who looks after the universe. He was also set to star in 9/11 drama The 11th opposite Uma Thurman but it’s believed that the film hadn’t yet started production. In an interview in 2013, Lee spoke about his love of acting. ‘Making films has never just been a job to me, it is my life,’ he said. ‘I have some interests outside of acting – I sing and I’ve written books, for instance – but acting is what keeps me going, it’s what I do, it gives life purpose.’”

Lee had a few thoughts about the film business and life in general, which are fairly acidic: on the film industry: “There are many vampires in the world today – you only have to think of the film business;” on fame: “In Britain, any degree of success is met with envy and resentment;” on Hammer Horror:”They gave me this great opportunity, made me a well-known face all over the world for which I am profoundly grateful;” on his craft: “I think acting is a mixture of instinct, imagination and inventiveness. All you can learn as an actor is basic technique.” And this final thought on acting: “Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.”

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

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

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