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Archive for the ‘Humanities’ Category

Humanities on The Edge – New 2015 / 2016 Series

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

Here’s a free lecture series at UNL that explores some really challenging topics.

As the site for the series notes, “Humanities on the Edge is a speaker series co-founded by Dr. Marco Abel and Dr. Roland Végsö, who now co-ordinate the series together with Dr. Jeannette Jones (Department of History and Institute for Ethnic Studies), Dr. Damien Pfister (Department of Communication Studies), and Jonathan Walz (Curator of American Art at the Sheldon). Founded in 2010, the series is now in its sixth year, and its mission remains the same: to promote cross-disciplinary conversation and theoretical research in the Humanities.”

For 2015- 2016, the central theme is Posthuman Futures, and as the co-founders state in their guiding manifesto, “the metaphor of our [series] title evokes the ambiguity of liminal spaces and transitional periods. It locates its subject, the “humanities,” in a precarious position between its revered past and its vague future possibilities. It suggests that we have reached a historical turning point, and the hour has arrived when we must assume full responsibility for the direction of our futures.

Our title, thus, speaks of a precarious balance that might be disturbed by the slightest movement of the air, by the smallest trembling of the ground, and even by the barely perceptible tremors of the human body. It names a moment of risk, when the urgency of action tightens our muscles and confounds our minds with the unbearable burden of a decision.

So what is this edge that the humanities appear to be teetering on? Few things would be more self-evident today than to assume that it is the edge of an abyss that threatens to swallow up everything that we have held so dear for so long. For quite some time now, we have been conditioned to take for granted the rhetoric of crisis that has invaded every publicly available discourse.

This is the edge that we live on today: the perpetual state of mobilization that has become the very medium of our existence. In fact, this perpetual crisis is more than mere rhetoric: it is the very means of the active reorganization of both human and non-human life through the reconfiguration of the institutions that give shape to our worlds.

But if there is more to our lives than the melancholy resignation to this apocalyptic diagnosis, there is still hope that this edge is also the edge of a new beginning. For what else could be the inverse of this perpetual crisis if not the ‘perpetual revolution’ of a field that must assume the responsibility of constantly reinventing itself.

Since the term ‘the humanities’ names a particular form of knowledge that the human being uses to understand itself, the very indeterminacy and openness of the object (the human being) must be clearly reflected in the discourses that try to describe it. This is then the edge that our title refers to: it is the link that simultaneously separates and joins together the dystopia of perpetual crisis and the utopia of perpetual invention.

Our objective with the speaker series is to bring to UNL the kind of cutting edge research in the humanities that promises to define the future of critical thought for some time to come. We plan to invite speakers from across the Humanities disciplines whose works have repeatedly forced us to rethink some of the most basic terms that we use to understand ourselves.”

Click here, or above, to see some of the top theorists in contemporary cultural studies – don’t miss it!

Trailblazing Women Directors on TCM in October

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

Here’s an amazing series of films that you simply can’t miss.

As Cynthia Littleton reports in Variety, “Turner Classic Movies has teamed with Women in Film, Los Angeles, for a programming initiative designed to highlight the work of women behind the camera in the movie business.

In the month of October, actress-director Illeana Douglas will host a twice-weekly Trailblazing Women series featuring movies directed by women. Douglas’ wraparound segments will feature interviews with filmmakers and discussion of statistics compiled by Women in Film about gender disparity in the film business, notably the 5-to-1 ratio of men working in film production compared to women.

TCM and WIF LA are building out a dedicated section of the TCM website focusing on the history of women in the film biz, WIF LA’s studies on gender issues and links to various resources for aspiring female filmmakers.

Trailblazing Women grew out of TCM’s effort to curate a month’s worth of movies directed by women. The idea was sparked when Charlie Tabesh, TCM’s senior VP of programming, saw that TCM had obtained rights to 2008’s The Hurt Locker, the movie that made Kathryn Bigelow the first woman to win an Oscar for directing.

‘We were pondering what preceded Bigelow and The Hurt Locker,’ TCM general manager Jennifer Dorian told Variety. ‘Our job at TCM is to think about the long view and the entire spectrum of film history. (Tabesh) put together a look at women pioneers going back to 1906.’

As the package came together, Dorian realized that there was an opportunity to add a ‘pro-social’ layer to the effort, which prompted her to reach out to Women in Film LA. ‘We recognized that this is a timely and topical issue, and that we could not only create awareness of women’s historical contributions but shine a light on today’s issues and bring resources and information to today’s generation of filmmakers,’ Dorian said.

Trailblazing Women will be a multi-year project for TCM, with a similar monthly showcase planned for 2016 and probably 2017, Dorian said. The inaugural effort is focused on the work of female directors, but future showcases will delve into other disciplines such as writing and producing.

The series launches Oct. 1 and will air Tuesdays and Thursdays in primetime, encompassing more than 50 films. The series begins with film historian Cari Beauchamp discussing the work of pioneers including Alice Guy-Blaché, Dorothy Arzner, Agnès Varda and Lina Wertmuller. Other directors who will co-host nights alongside Douglas are Allison Anders, Julie Dash, Connie Field, Amy Heckerling, as well as producer and WIF LA president Cathy Schulman.”

This is an something really special – get the schedule by clicking here, or on the image above.

Why Grow Up? by Susan Neiman

Saturday, September 5th, 2015

Susan Neiman’s new book is a brilliant inquiry into the current infantilization of culture.

I have been meaning to write about this book for a long time, which I originally overlooked because of the overly “pop” cover – one would think that this was a book about the perils of junk culture written in a simple, crowd-pleasing manner, but no – this is a text which seriously wrestles with the questions of why we value what we value, and what value this has for us as human beings. It’s a remarkable accomplishment in every respect.

It’s a dense text, but bears its scholarship lightly, and reminds me of nothing so much of Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols in its compactness and economy, even if Neiman’s views are markedly different on a number of topics that both texts examine.

Reviewing Why Grow Up?: Subversive Thoughts for an Infantie Age in The New York Times on June 15, 2015, A.O. Scott noted that “the ‘infantile age’ she has in mind goes back to the 18th century, and its most important figures are Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. ‘Coming of age is an Enlightenment problem,’ she writes, ‘and nothing shows so clearly that we are the Enlightenment’s heirs’ than that we understand it as a topic for argument and analysis, as opposed to something that happens to everyone in more or less the same way.

Before Kant and Rousseau, Neiman suggests, Western philosophy had little to say about the life cycle of individuals. As traditional religious and political modes of authority weakened, ‘the right form of human development became a philosophical problem, incorporating both psychological and political questions and giving them a normative thrust.’

How are we supposed to become free, happy and decent people? Rousseau’s Emile supplies Neiman with some plausible answers, and also with some cautionary lessons. A wonderfully problematic book — among other things a work of Utopian political thought, a manual for child-rearing, a foundational text of Romanticism and a sentimental novel — it serves here as a repository of ideas about the moral progress from infancy to adulthood. And also, more important, as a precursor and foil for Kant’s more systematic inquiries into human development . . .

In infancy, we have no choice but to accept the world as it is. In adolescence, we rebel against the discrepancy between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought.’ Adulthood, for Kant and for Neiman, ‘requires facing squarely the fact that you will never get the world you want, while refusing to talk yourself out of wanting it.’ It is a state of neither easy cynicism nor naïve idealism, but of engaged reasonableness.”

Neiman, who also is the director of the Einstein Forum in Berlin, has been working with many of these ideas before in her earlier texts, but this volume seems almost a distillation of all of her previous work into one spare, epigrammatic volume – easy to digest, but never suffering fools gladly – provided, of course, that one is also willing to engage fully with the many other philosophers she cites throughout the book.

In an era in which pop culture has become inescapably junk culture, Neiman finds much to value on the web and elsewhere, provided that one is willing to look for it, and then read and/or view it. The problem, of course, is the plethora of material available in the digital world, and the fact that so much of what is superficial and useless rises to the top in terms of popularity, while more thoughtful work is marginalized, with no real way to find it – unlike the analog era, in which one could still browse through the book stacks on any given topic, and harvest a range of critical voices.

This is an essential volume for anyone interested modern culture, and its numerous “discontents.”

The Rebranding of TCM

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

TCM is really just reaching out for a wider audience – which is great news!

As Will McKinley notes in a really interesting post in his website Cinematically Insane on the indispensable Turner Classic Movies channel, the last network to broadcast classic films uncut, commercial free, and in their proper aspect ratios – this does not mean adding commercials – it’s simply reaching out for a wider audience. As McKinley writes, in part: “to understand what’s happening at TCM we need to go back to last fall, when a company-wide cost-cutting initiative hit Turner Broadcasting.

TCM lost approximately 15 staffers to layoffs and buyouts – far fewer than other Turner networks, but still a tragedy (a staff of approximately 45 remains). Following the restructuring, TCM emerged as a separate and autonomous entity within Turner and gained a new general manager, Jennifer Dorian [the new TCM general manager] with a mission to ‘grow’ the brand.

A 15-year Turner veteran, Dorian had previously led the rebranding of TNT in 2000 and TBS in 2004, as well as the re-launch of Court TV as truTV in 2007, so some change in the channel’s identity was to be expected. That the change did not involve the addition of commercials – as happened at the previously ad-free Turner network Boomerang – was (and continues to be) welcome news.

‘NO COMMERCIALS. EVER. EVER. EVER. EVER,’ Ben Mankiewicz assured fans today, luring at least one or two off the digital ledge. And TCM Senior VP of Programming Charles Tabesh was even more definitive: ‘when AMC went commercial many years ago, the cable affiliates freaked out, because they were getting a lot of complaints from subscribers and they wanted to make sure that TCM never added commercials,’ he said. We’ve never had plans to add commercials. I think it’s actually written into some of our affiliate agreements.’”

“No commercials ever” – great news, and you can read the entire article by clicking here.

Jean Renoir

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Jean Renoir – the most humanist of all filmmakers, something desperately needed now.

The distinguished and prescient film critic Michael Atkinson recently had this to say, in part, about the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir, who is, to my mind, one of the greatest film directors – along with Ozu, Bresson, and a few others – to ever work in the moving picture medium. As Atkinson notes, “in the shadow of the recent decennial Sight & Sound best-movie-ever poll, in which Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) supplanted the long-standing numero uno Citizen Kane (1941), let us just say without quibbling that Jean Renoir’s Le Regle de Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939) is the only genuine competition for the primary slot, and indeed it has claimed #2 or #3 status on the poll for half a century.

No slight to Vertigo is intended, and such is the consequence of rendering cultural opinion by way of crunched numbers and democratic aggregation. But Renoir’s pitch-perfect masterpiece (which has held as the fourth-greatest-ever) is more vital than ever for an art form slowly evolving into computer-generated carnival rides and empty-hearted noise, and that is because it is quintessentially Renoirian, that is, a bottomless harvest of humanity, which is seen in all of its thorny idiocy and yet viewed with the fiercest ardor ever put on celluloid.

If we were a sane species, it’d be Renoir that young filmmakers would take as a model, not Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese. Saying that Renoir is one of maybe seven unassailable masters in the history of cinema is not unlike saying the ocean is large and blue; demonstrating a shrugging nonchalance about his best films should and will peg you to those that know about these things as a flat-out pretender.

Simply, Renoir consistently took on the most complex territory available: the matrix of human camaraderie, the crystalline beauty of social respect and unexpected mutual empathies, the painful distance between the poles of a friendship under pressure, the folly and deathlessness of crazed romance. For Renoir, the tensile strength of love in all of its realizations was an inexhaustible subject, and no one explored it as wisely and whole-heartedly as he did.”

I once taught an entire semester of Renoir from the silents to his last TV movie, and through his films, he consistently amazed the class with his ability to work in any genre, and to always bring out the best in the performers, and to be, above all, forgiving – forgiving of human frailties and vanities, brave enough to make films that directly criticized French lassitude on the eve of World War II, smart enough to come to the United States for the duration of the conflict, but then to return to his homeland, and au courant enough to effortlessly make the switch from silents, to sound, to color, to three camera television shooting, and make it all look easy – eternally modern, eternally humanist.

Yes, if we were a sane species – Renoir would be constantly revived and screened.

Black-and-White is Dead. Long Live Black-and-White!

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Peter Monaghan has very kindly interviewed me on my new book, Black & White Cinema: A Short History.

Writing in Moving Image Archive News, Monaghan notes that “set to appear in November 2015 from Rutgers University Press, Black and White Cinema: A Short History describes a range of styles of black-and-white film art, and how they arose to create the distinctive looks of Hollywood romances, gangster dramas, films noirs, and other styles.

But Dixon, a film historian and theoretician at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where he coordinates the film studies program, is also a seasoned filmmaker, and that provides him with a keen eye for how black-and-white film was made. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including A Short History of Film (2nd edition 2013; with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access (2013); and Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012).

In this interview, he explains why black-and-white cinematography will not return, not just because black-and-white film stock is near impossible to acquire, but moreover because the skills and techniques needed to film with it are almost irreversibly moribund.

Why do you quote this, from Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love, as an epigraph to your book? The angel said, “I like black-and-white films more than color because they’re more artificial. You have to work harder to overcome your disbelief. It’s sort of like prayer.”

To me black and white is more sensuous. It’s such a transformative act to make a black-and-white film. You are entering an entirely different world, right from the start. It’s so much more of a leap into another universe. Color films and particularly color 3-D films attempt to mimic some sort of spectacular reality, whereas black-and-white films are really a meditation on the image.

It’s a medium that dominated film production up until 1966, as the normative medium in which films were created. Cameramen had the ability to look through the camera and see the world in black-and-white even though what they were seeing on the set was color. As a viewer, you have to accept its completely artificial world, so it requires a bit more of you. I think that’s what the Carroll quotation is about.

And in the 1940s you’d go to a film already willing to be transported, wouldn’t you?

Absolutely, but I don’t think audiences in the 1940s even thought about it, or the ’50s. Or even the ’60s. They just went to the movies, and expected black and white — it was the way movies looked. A black and white world.”

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

Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth (2015)

Saturday, August 29th, 2015

Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth is a superb new film – click here to see an interview with the director.

Shot in just two weeks on 16mm film from his own script – Perry calls shooting on film as opposed to digital imaging “the uncompromiseable element in making a movie” – in a house in upstate New York, Queen of Earth charts the emotional breakdown of Catherine (a riveting, mesmeric Elisabeth Moss, doing what she considers the finest work of her career), as she spends a harrowing week in the country at the house of her “friend” Ginny (Katherine Waterston). It’s a brilliant tour de force in the tradition of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Persona (1966), but it cuts even deeper than that – it’s a dazzling film from beginning to end. [Note: Avoid the trailer for the film; it's really a disaster, and doesn't accurately reflect what's going on in the film at all.]

As Scott Tobias of NPR observes, “without a second’s hesitation, Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth dives right into its heroine’s lowest moment, in medias res. The camera stays close to Catherine’s face, as smears of mascara frame eyes alight with pain, anger and exhaustion; this has been going on a while and we’re just seeing the end of it.

Her boyfriend is breaking up with her, which is awful enough, but the timing makes it worse: She’s still reeling from the death of her father, an artist who mentored her, and now the two central figures in her life are gone. This double whammy leads to a psychological breakdown that Perry chronicles with unsettling acuity, but the breakup and the death are merely the catalysts. The cause cuts much deeper.

Set over a week in a secluded vacation home in the Hudson River Valley, Queen of Earth is a typically dyspeptic film by Perry, whose four features as writer-director all pluck at raw nerves. Perry’s last effort, Listen Up Philip, significantly darkened the high-toned literary comedies of directors like Noah Baumbach and Woody Allen, offering two authors whose combined egomania sweeps through their lives like a brush fire.

Though the characters in Queen of Earth speak their minds as freely and caustically as those in Perry’s other films, it deals with a different form of self-destruction, more internal than external. It’s not about Catherine having too much grief and loss to bear, but about the way they expose her inability to process it all. Hardship runs through her psyche like alcohol filtered through a diseased liver.

Evoking a long list of cinematic antecedents — Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Woody Allen’s Interiors chiefly, but the suffocating dramas of John Cassavetes and Rainer Werner Fassbinder are on the table, too — Queen of Earth settles on the thorny relationship between Catherine, played by Elisabeth Moss, and her best friend, Virginia, played by Katherine Waterston.

‘Best friend’ should probably be in scare quotes, because they have reached a point where their closeness mostly applies to each of them knowing how to hurt the other the most. Virginia has invited Catherine out to her family retreat to help her find some peace and tranquility, but the hostility kicks in before they even get down the two-mile drive to the place.

For one, the house is haunted by memories of the previous summer, when Catherine and her boyfriend, James (Kentucker Audley), were locked in happy/sad co-dependency. Catherine was happier then, but the signs of long-term trouble were there, and returning to the scene a year later brings it all flooding back to her.

Now she and Virginia have switched places: Catherine doesn’t have a man in her life, but Virginia is flirting with Rich (Patrick Fugit), the boy next door, whose habit of casually breezing into the house seemed tolerable last year, but this time has Catherine raging over his flippancy and arrogance. It would be wrong, however, to hold Rich responsible for driving a wedge between the two old friends. They do that well enough on their own.”

For her part, Elizabeth Moss told Clark Collis in Entertainment Weekly that despite the film’s unrelenting nihilism, “it was super fun [to play Catherine]. It was very very cool. You don’t often get to do that — I hate to say ‘as a female’ because I don’t feel you get to do that as a male either. To me, playing happy characters is very boring. I don’t want to play the high points! It would be annoying. To see people succeeding all the time? Who wants that?

[Generally,] I don’t like watching myself [on screen]. What was interesting about this was, because I had a little bit of a producer capacity, I was able to watch this from a different place. I was able to appreciate it as a film. Which weirdly made me a lot less critical, because I could see things that made sense for the movie.

So, I actually really enjoyed watching this way more than I’ve ever enjoyed watching anything else. I’ve told Alex this in private, but I think it’s the thing I’m most proud of, as far as films go. I’m very excited and proud of this movie. So, weirdly, I didn’t have a huge problem watching it.”

Nor do I – see this film now on demand or in a theater, if you’re lucky enough to have that choice.

Peter Collinson’s The Penthouse (1967)

Friday, August 28th, 2015

Martine Beswick, Tony Beckley and Norman Rodway- a deadly trio in Peter Collinson’s The Penthouse.

I have always had a weakness for Peter Collinson’s film The Penthouse, based on C. Scott Forbes’ play The Meter Man, in which three miscreants, Tom (Tony Beckley), Dick (Norman Rodway) and Harry (Martine Beswick) invade the borrowed luxury flat of two lovers involved in an illicit tryst – Barbara (Suzy Kendall) and Bruce (Terence Morgan). It’s a bleak little film, superbly photographed by the gifted Arthur Lavis, offering an uncomfortable taste of what was to come in the 70s and beyond, as social proprieties crumbled, and people became more and more self-absorbed, selfish, and narcissistic.

There are strong echoes of Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Heathcote Williams in the film’s script, which some viewers might consider a precursor of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which Haneke filmed twice in 1997 and 2007. Here are two people comfortably ensconced in what is supposedly a safe, domestic haven – even if it is an adulterous one – and by the simple act of answering the door, their lives are transformed forever – for the worse – by complete strangers.

However, Haneke’s film involved a great deal of physical cruelty and violence; Collinson’s film makes the entire ordeal psychological, and the film is much the better for it. In short, it’s more restrained, more cerebral, and an altogether superior film.

But all of this has a twist ending, worthy of the film itself – there has never been a legal DVD release of the film, though terrible bootlegs can easily be found on the web, along with the film’s trailer, but none of these materials give one any real sense of the film, or of Collinson and Lavis’s superb CinemaScope framing, color design, and the riveting performances of Beswick, Beckley, and Rodway.

At the time the film came out, Roger Ebert was a big fan, and sought the then-28-year-old Collinson out for an interview, during which he noted that “the headline on the press release describes Peter Collinson as ‘the man who came from nowhere and is on his way to somewhere.’ ‘Just precisely where, they don’t say,’ Collinson grinned. ‘I’m not one of these directors with his life-span all mapped out, and a deep ponderous philosophy to put into my films. All I want to do is make movies as well as they can be made. Period. No philosophy.’

Collinson, at 28, has made two movies: The Penthouse and Up the Junction. Neither has been commercially released yet, but Penthouse got a warm reception at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals. Although almost nobody outside the movie business has even heard of him, Collinson is probably the hottest young director in England right now. Stories of his working methods in The Penthouse are related by other directors with a touch of awe. He made it in 24 days for less than $100,000, and supplied his studio with a finished print two days after shooting ended.

‘That makes you popular at the front office,’ Collinson said, ‘but it doesn’t mean a thing if the movie’s no good. I don’t cut corners to save anybody money. But I don’t fool around. A lot of directors will shoot a scene from every conceivable angle, tying up actors, wasting time, spending a fortune on salaries and overhead. Then they get into the editing room and try to figure out which angle looks best. Not me. I figure the shot out in my head and shoot it just once or twice. I edit in the camera, you might say, so when the shooting’s over I have a movie . . .”

His story is unusual. The son of itinerant provincial actors, he was an orphan at 8 and a ’street urchin,’ by his own admission, at 10. Through a series of improbable chances, including acting experience at an orphanage for the children of theater people, he gradually worked himself into the theater and then into television as a BBC director.

He got into movies rather casually, buying all option on Nell Dunn’s best-selling Up the Junction for $1,000 and then proposing himself as its director. He was given the low-budget Penthouse to do first, as a warm-up, and produced a shocking thriller with a bizarre surprise ending.

The story concerns a real estate agent and his mistress, held captive in a penthouse by two very peculiar men named Tom and Dick. Their cohort, Harry, lingers offstage until the final incredible scenes. It is a suspense movie, ‘a thriller’ Collinson says. The audiences at Cannes and Berlin found a psychological message in it, but Collinson doesn’t care.

‘I make movies to entertain,’ he said. ‘This may sound funny, but I don’t have any desire to communicate my own opinions to anybody. I think the director should be the medium by which the audience gets the story, and that’s all. A good director is a good storyteller.’

Collinson’s next film will be The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine. The budget is $2,800,000, and Collinson noted wryly: ‘My salary will be bigger than the total cost of ‘Penthouse.’ But my methods won’t change. I want my movies to be fun to watch because they challenge their audiences to keep up. Audiences aren’t as stupid as many people believe. Orson Welles knew that, and it damned him in Hollywood for years.’

He smiled. ‘That could happen to me, too,’ he said. ‘But I think times have changed, and there’s an audience for a thoughtful movie now. Still, if I bomb as a director I’ve still got some other things to do. I barnstormed the country as a teenager, playing in second-rate variety shows. I can still do a mean turn as the back legs of a calico horse.’” Paramount Pictures released the film,  and then it vanished. I’ve never seen it offered on television, even on TCM, which has a reference page for the film.

Of course, The Italian Job was a huge hit, and was subsequently remade by directed F. Gary Gray in 2003 into an even bigger hit, but after that, Collinson struggled to find his footing within the industry, and despite his protestations that he simply wanted to be an an entertainer, he clearly was interested in doing more social commentary, but soon found himself adrift in a series of mediocre films, during which his temper frayed, and his health failed.

Collinson died of cancer at the age of 44, leaving a career of largely unfulfilled promise. The Penthouse is his simplest, bleakest, most adventurous film. Don’t let anyone tell you anything more about the plot, which has one surprise after another nestled inside each turn of the narrative, but hopefully, someone will bring the film out in its proper aspect ratio, and you can see for yourself where the 1960s were headed – into a commercial wilderness of endless consumption and self-value, in which surfaces are more important than the depths they conceal.

The Penthouse (1967) – another forgotten film that deserves a proper DVD release.

James Wong Howe, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

James Wong Howe knew how little the public understood cinematography – and wasn’t afraid to say so.

In December 1945, as reported in the American Cinematographer, “Stephen Longstreet, a nationally-known novelist, editor, critic and currently a motion picture scenarist, made passing comment that ‘brilliant cameramen are the curse of the business’ in an article appearing in the August issue of the Screen Writers Guild monthly publication The Screen Writer. He generated a quick retort from James Wong Howe, ASC.

Replying with an article published in the October issue of The Screen Writer under the title ‘The Cameraman Talks Back,’ Howe described the important contributions of the director of photography to the overall results of a motion picture production. It’s one of the best explanations of the many responsibilities and achievements of the cinematographer, and makes decidedly interesting reading. As Howe wrote:

‘I agree with the criticism of placing camera gymnastics and an epic of sets over, or in place of, story values. I take issue with the statement that this is the fault of brilliant cameramen, and that “dumb cameramen” are a necessity for good pictures, along with less money, a good script, old standing sets and some lights and shadows. Who makes the lights and shadows which creates emotional tones on the screen? They don’t come on the old sets. The cameraman makes them.

The trouble with many critics and ex-critics is that for all their skillful talk, they don’t understand the techniques of motion pictures. They still criticize movies from the viewpoint of the stage. This results in any number of false appraisals, but the one with which I am concerned here is that this approach leaves out the cameraman entirely. For the stage, there is the audience eye.

For movies, with their wider scope and moving ability, there is the camera eye. If these two were one and the same kind of production, the cameraman’s part would merely be to set his camera up in front of the action as a static recorder, press a button and go fishing. Let the lights and shadows fall as they will, or better still, paint them on some old sets. The director, the actors, the writers, the producers, the bank — and the audience and critic — would object to this, but there you have the recipe for making movies with a dumb or inanimate cameraman.

This critical ignorance affects the cameraman in still another way. When the photography of a picture is good, the critic usually praises the director for his understanding and handling of the camera. It is true that a good film director knows and makes use of this knowledge, but the good cameraman is not merely a mechanic to carry out his orders.

His contribution may be technically expert and artistically creative. His understanding of the dramatic values of the story will carry over into his creation of mood. His manipulation of lights for such effects requires both technical and skillful imagination. His handling of the camera on certain action produced by the writer and interpreted by the director may well contain some added dramatic value of its own, which enhances and further interprets.

A scene from Hud (1963), photographed by James Wong Howe – masterful work in black and white.

Camera gymnastics and strange angles are not what I would call the stock of a “brilliant cameraman.” A man of limitations, director or cameraman, may use these mechanics to cover his thinness of understanding. Some of the most well-known writers possess technical skill and slickness and very little else. A limited writer can do far more harm, or lack of good, than a limited cameraman, because of the power of word and thought. I believe that the best cameraman is one who recognizes the source, the story, as the basis of his work.

Under the best conditions, the writer, the director and the cameraman would work closely together throughout the production. In spite of the present setup, a measure of cooperation is achieved, especially between the director and cameraman. Writers have often consulted me on how to get over certain scenes with lighting and the use of lenses.

Sometimes, as now, I am tempted to detail some of the work of a cameraman in an effort toward further cooperation. By its varied parts, he faces a job of integration on his own. Throughout the picture, there is that shared responsibility of keeping to the schedule; this, with all its other implications, means the executive ability to keep the set moving. He has a general responsibility to fuse the work of all the technical departments under his direction in order to achieve the equality of the story.

He is concerned with the makeup and the costume coloring. He works with the art director to see that the sets are properly painted to bring out their best values photographically. (I refer here to black-and-white, as well as color film.) For the same reason, he confers with the set director as to the colors of furniture, drapes, rugs.

The cameraman alone is responsible for the lighting, which is a part of photography but often referred to separately.

John Frankenheimer, James Wong Howe, and star Rock Hudson on the set of Seconds (1966).

Naturally, the cameraman studies the script. His main responsibility is to photograph the actors, action and background, by means of the moving camera, composition, and lighting — expressing the story in terms of the camera. I believe in a minimum of camera movement and angles that do not violate sense but contribute intrinsically to the dramatic effect desired.

“Unseen” photography does not at all mean pedestrian photography; in its own terms it should express emotion, and that emotion, according to the story, may be light, somber, sinister, dramatic, tragic, quiet. Within this frame there may be “terrific shots,” but there should be none outside it for mere effect. Photography must be integrated with the story.

The cameraman confers with the director on: (a) the composition of shots for action, since some scenes require definite composition for their best dramatic effect, while others require the utmost fluidity, or freedom from any strict definition or stylization; (b) atmosphere; (c) the dramatic mood of the story, which they plan together from beginning to end; (d) the action of the piece.

Because of the mechanics of the camera and the optical illusions created by the lenses, the cameraman may suggest changes of action which will better attain the effect desired by the director. Many times, a director is confronted with specific problems of accomplishing action. The cameraman may propose use of the camera unknown to the director which will achieve the same realism . . .

These things may amount to no more than ingenuity and a technical trick, but they carry over into the dramatic quality of a scene. There are many studio workers behind the scenes whose contributions toward the excellence of a motion picture never receive the credit, because outsiders have no way of discovering where one leaves off and another begins.’”

Read more in my new book Black & White Cinema: A Short History, out September 17th 2015 from Rutgers University Press.

Floyd Crosby, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

Director Fred Zinnemann (seated); DP Floyd Crosby standing (with glasses); and star Gary Cooper on the set of High Noon.

My new book, Black and White Cinema: A Short History, is coming out in a few weeks – I already have the advance proof copy – and Amazon has listed their official release date as September 17th; it goes to press on September 4th. I’m really happy with the finished project, but as with my entry on Nick Musuraca earlier in this blog, there were sections of my original text that had to be cut for reasons of space.

So here’s some additional material on the great cinematographer Floyd Crosby, and the long, often odd trajectory of his distinguished career.

As I wrote in the original draft of the book, “Floyd Crosby was another master of black and white cinematography, who early on in his career served as an assistant of sorts on W. S. Van Dyke’s and Robert Flaherty’s White Shadows in the South Seas (1928). But as Crosby told historian Mark Langer, ‘when Flaherty went down there [Tahiti], it was supposed to be a co-direction, but he didn’t direct any of it. Van Dyke directed it all. But I went down there and got a job, just as an assistant cameraman.

I was there, I think, three months, and then Flaherty left, and I came back when he did…Flaherty had no idea of how to direct a story film. All his work had been with documentaries, where he’d tell the natives to go fishing or do something he didn’t already know, and then he’d photograph it. He’d never done any story direction and this was a story picture and he was completely lost in it. Van Dyke did the whole thing.’

Van Dyke was known as a tough, no-nonsense director, commonly referred to as ‘One Take Woody’ for his speed and proficiency on the set, and as with many of the key directors of the 1930s, his career stretched back to the silent days, with The Land of Long Shadows (1917), and in the early sound era, by the astonishing accomplishment of Trader Horn (1931), shot on location in Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in synchronized sound, using an enormous crew, and the talents of Clyde De Vinna as cinematographer.

[De Vinna, who was the principal cameraman on White Shadows on the South Seas, took advantage of the opportunity to shoot literally miles of 'second unit' footage of native dancers, ceremonies, and everyday life for later use as stock footage in other productions, and indeed, the Trader Horn materials shot by De Vinna informed the spectatorial vision of Africa for more than thirty years, endlessly recycled in numerous 'jungle' films, and in the 1950s, such television series as Ramar of the Jungle (1952-1954)].

For his next project, Crosby worked on F. W. Murnau’s and Robert Flaherty’s Tabu (1931), but again, the collaboration was uneasy at best. As Crosby put it, when they arrived on location in Bora Bora, Flaherty rapidly demonstrated that he had no idea how to create a fiction film. As Crosby told Mark Langer, ‘the trouble was this. The idea that it was to be a co-production, and to be co-directed.

But when they got down [to the location], there was the same old story, that Flaherty couldn’t direct and Murnau was an expert, so Murnau was directing. In fact, he said to me one day, “My, I wish Flaherty could direct.” He said, “I’m sick. I don’t feel like working for a few days, but we can’t stop, and I wish Flaherty could take over.” But he knew he couldn’t. And Flaherty was upset because Murnau took over the picture.

Murnau was a great director, you know, and he was a very interesting workman, but personally had all kinds of problems. He was an arrogant person — and he and Flaherty hated each other. At least Flaherty hated him. Flaherty used to three times a day tell me how much he hated Murnau… At the end of the picture, Murnau had some titles made and asked me to shoot them.

One of the titles was “And at the camera — Crosby.” I said, “This is not the correct credit. The credit is Photographed by . . .” He said, “You won’t shoot it then?” And I said, “No. I won’t shoot it.” So we were hardly speaking after that. Then, of course, when Paramount made the titles, they gave me the correct credits.’

Floyd Crosby on the set of Tabu, behind the camera.

Despite all of this friction, the finished film is an evocative, deeply romantic and ineffably tragic work, which not only won Crosby the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, but also was selected by the National Board of Review as one of the Top Ten Films of 1931, and, in 1994, chosen by the National Film Preservation Board for the National Film Registry as being ‘culturally, historically [and] aesthetically significant.’

In Crosby’s laconic reckoning of Tabu’s success, he told Langer that ‘…it came out well enough to get the Academy Award. It was a little uneven, I must admit. And you know, this was before the days of exposure meters, and one day Flaherty was developing some film and we were talking outside and we forgot about it. The film was ten minutes in a three and a half minute developer. So we had to shoot that over again, you know.’

And for Flaherty, Crosby maintained a certain measure of respect, as opposed to his feelings on working with Murnau. As he told Langer, ‘I learned things. They weren’t things that I was particularly able to use, but the good thing about [Flaherty] was that he would make a good documentary without trying to louse it up by bringing in a lot of other things to make excitement, that had no business in the picture.

You know, so many people go out to make a documentary, who want to make something that’s going to sell, so they try to bring in some Hollywood elements of excitement, and it ceases to be a really true documentary. Well, he didn’t do that in his films. He was honest about them.’

Crosby went on to shoot a series of documentaries in the 1930s, such as Mato Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness (1931), often cited as one of the first sync sound documentaries, shot in Mato Grosso, Brazil; Pare Lorentz’s The Plow That Broke The Plains (1936); Joris Iven’s The Power and the Land (1940), as well as working on Orson Welles’ aborted semi-documentary It’s All True (1942), with cinematographers Joe Noreigo, Joseph Biroc, William Howard Greene, Harry J. Wild, and George Fanto; the film was shelved, and the materials vaulted for fifty years, before the production emerged in a reconstructed version in 1993; Crosby photographed the ‘My Friend Benito’ sequence of the film, which was actually directed by Welles’s associate Norman Foster.

Crosby on location for Mato Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness

In his later work, one of Crosby’s most impressive achievements was his parched, unadorned work on director Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), which, ironically, led back to Crosby’s work with Flaherty, as Zinnemann had a strong affinity for Flaherty’s work, along with a personal connection to the director. As Zinnemann told Brian Neve,

‘Flaherty wrote me a letter of introduction in 1931, and as a result I got a job at Goldwyn. He influenced me in every possible way, not only technically, but also in what I learnt from him by being his assistant, his whole spirit of being his own man, of being independent of the general spirit of Hollywood, to the point where he didn’t worry about working there.

That’s probably why he made only five or six pictures in his life. But he influenced me in his whole way of approaching the documentary, which he really initiated with films like Nanook of the North. I learned from Flaherty to be rather uncompromising an to defend what I wanted to say, and not let someone else mix it up. He had the true feeling of a documentary director — he took life as it was. This influenced me enormously because I found myself almost subconsciously following his style in films like High Noon …’

And so, when Zinnemann shot High Noon, he argued that, ‘if you want to make a picture like High Noon, and you want to make it feel like the world felt in the days of the Civil War in America, that kind of gritty, dusty feeling, you had to get a cameraman who knew how to handle that, like Floyd Crosby,’ with the result that the film had a cinematographic style very different from other films of the period.

As Zinnemann noted in another interview on High Noon with historian Alan Marcus, ‘I wanted to organize High Noon in the way a documentary would have been made at that time when the action happened. Except that in the 1880s there was no such thing as motion pictures. So that in using the style, the cameraman Floyd Crosby and I studied very carefully contemporary still photography, particularly the photographs of Mr. Lincoln’s [still] cameraman [Matthew Brady] who photographed parts of the Civil War in America.

That meant that we used a grainy kind of print, deliberately grainy and flat, with a very white sky, instead of a dark sky with pretty clouds on it. So, it reasonably looks a bit like photography of that period and gives it a feeling of being authentic, which was not the usual method at all at the time when this film was made.’

A superb setup by Crosby from High Noon ; Will Kane alone, deserted by the townspeople.

The completed film won four Academy Awards — Best Actor (Gary Cooper), Best Film Editing (Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad — this is a whole story in itself, as Elmo Williams’ near ‘real time’ — actually slightly stretched out, rather than strictly accurate — editing of the final cut of the film considerably tightened up the flow of the narrative), and Best Music and Best Original Song for Dimitri Tiomkin.

For his part, Floyd Crosby won a Golden Globe for his work on High Noon, and though the film was generally well-received critically, it infuriated the more politically conservative members of the Hollywood community. With its script, by Carl Foreman, depicting the craven, cowardly members of a small Western town refusing to help the town’s marshal, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), when his arch nemesis Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley), whom Kane has sent to prison, comes back explicitly to kill Kane, High Noon painted a deeply unflattering picture of American society, and was widely seen as a political allegory, commenting on the Hollywood Blacklist of the era.

As a result of this, the film’s scenarist Carl Foreman was blacklisted himself, and Floyd Crosby, as a sort of ‘collateral damage’ to the entire affair, found himself “grey listed” — not officially on the blacklist, but definitely out of favor.Out of this, however, came the final, blazingly brilliant act of Crosby’s career, a long alliance with legendary director Roger Corman, starting with the six day Western Five Guns West in 1955.

Rather than looking down on Corman’s output, Crosby became Corman’s most prolific cinematographer, lensing everything from the stark, black and white imagery of Reform School Girl and Teenage Doll — with one ‘A’ assignment in between, John Sturges’ and Henry King’s production of The Old Man and the Sea, based on Hemingway’s novel, photographed by Crosby and James Wong Howe — before slickly moving into color work for Corman on House of Usher (1960) and Pit and the Pendulum (1961), along with many other films for the director.

For his part, Crosby observed that – much to his surprise -  he didn’t have to tell Corman as much about how to direct as with some of the other helmers he’d worked with in his career; and as Corman told historian Lawrence French of working with Crosby, and of Crosby’s unjust treatment at the hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the early 1950s, working with Crosby was both practical and delightful:

‘Floyd was certainly not a communist, but during the fifties, some studios did not like him. However, that meant nothing to me. I used him simply because he was a good cameraman. I remember Floyd talking about that, and saying it was somewhat ironic that his patriotism should come under questioning, after he had served in the Army Air Corps command during World War II as a Captain, working with [the pioneering documentary filmmaker] Pare Lorentz on combat documentaries and winning citations for bravery. Floyd was really a great gentleman and a brilliant cameraman.

Crosby lights Barbara Steele on the set of Corman’s The Pit and The Pendulum

I went on to use him for my first film as a director, Five Guns West, and he was probably the best cameraman I ever worked with. He was quick, efficient and gave me the kind of quality that you would normally associate with much bigger studio films. We got along very well, and although he was somewhat older than I was, we became very good friends and I had great respect for him and for his work.

It’s not that difficult to get a good cameraman if the cameraman has hours to set up each shot. It’s not difficult to get a cameraman who works quickly. He just sets up a few lights, and says he’s ready to shoot. But to get somebody to work quickly and does fine work is very unusual. [Crosby could do that].’”

Floyd Crosby, another master of the black and white cinema.

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 or

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