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Archive for the ‘Humanities’ Category

New Article – Preliminary Notes on the Monochrome Universe

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International; click here, or on the image above, to read the entire essay.

In the essay, I note that “lately I’ve been thinking about black and white movies, and how they’ve almost completely disappeared from the current cinematic landscape. There are occasional projects shot in black and white, but with cinema rapidly becoming an all-digital medium, and black and white film stock almost impossible to purchase, color has taken over completely, either glossy and popped-out, or desaturated for a more dramatic effect, but always using some palette of color. Furthermore, while there have been numerous books on the use of color in the cinema, there has been no book-length study on the black and white film, and yet black and white cinema dominated the industry internationally for nearly seven decades, until the late 1960s.

Certainly, numerous cameramen and directors have weighed in on the use of black and white in their works, most notably John Alton in Painting With Light, but in each case, these works were created when black and white was still a commercially viable medium. Most of the texts I’ve encountered, with the exception of Alton’s book, and to a lesser extent Edward Dmytryk’s Cinema: Concept and Practice, written after the director had long since retired, treat black and white filmmaking as a part of everyday life, the main production medium for most movies, which at the time, it certainly was.

In these necessarily practical books, it’s about f-stops, filters and cookies, but very little about the aesthetics of the medium. Indeed, when Alton published his landmark study, he was famously excoriated by his colleagues as being a pretentious self-promoter; what cameramen did was work, nothing more, and any notions of artistic ambition were inherently suspect. In most of the books cited below, color is dealt with as a special case, which again, it was; but now, in the all color, all digital world of images we currently inhabit, black and white has become the anomaly. Thus, I wanted to set down some preliminary notes on my new project here, before they elude me; the title is Black and White: A Brief History of Monochrome Cinema, the term used by British filmmakers until the medium’s demise in the mid 1960s.

And yet shooting in black and white is inherently a transformative act. As the filmmaker and opera director Jonathan Miller – whose beautiful film of Alice in Wonderland (1966) was elegantly photographed in black and white by the gifted Dick Bush – once observed in a conversation with me, the very act of making a black and white film transmutes the original source material, for life, as we know, takes place in color. Therefore, there is an intrinsic level of stylization and re-interpretation of reality when one makes a black and white film, leading to an entirely different way of cinematography. Indeed, it’s an entirely different world altogether, one that is rapidly slipping away from us as it recedes in the mists of the past.”

The book will take several years of work, but this is, at least, a start.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Je Veux Voir (2008)

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster just introduced me to a stunning film by Joana Hadjithomas and Kahil Joreige.

In a scant 69 minutes, this hypnotic, absolutely transcendent film sketches many of the issues surrounding the war in Lebanon in 2006, as seen through the eyes of Catherine Deneuve, the famed French film star, who traveled to Beirut to appear in the film, and is listed as one of the backers of the project, probably in that she donated her services to the project for free. As the makers of this astonishing film told interviewer Chantal Pointbriand in the web journal Afterall,

“In Je veux voir we worked on the idea that the 2006 war represents a schism. At the time we were outside the country. We saw and lived this war out through images on television, blogs and the internet. These incredibly spectacular images ended up being, in a way, powerless. It was a very strange moment. We really felt this was a time of rupture in our history, not only in the history of our country, but also in our history as artists in the region. It’s like what Hannah Arendt said about the uncertain future, you know that there is no certainty in it.

We decided to deal with this by confronting someone from our history as Lebanese film-makers and artists, with someone outside of it, bringing together the artist and actor Rabih Mroué, with whom we have worked with a lot, and Catherine Deneuve, the French film icon. In this way we are attempting to experiment with new strategies for film-making in the aftermath of the 2006 war.

KJ: Traditionally when television shows victims of war, you can’t really identify with them because the images are designed to distance you. You sympathise but don’t identify. By bringing someone who is familiar in the Western history of cinema and someone from our world together, we wanted to see if through this encounter we could regain our face, our images, our identity, our names. And not play the role of the faraway victim, but create something that could engage the spectator. The idea was to displace the gaze and to question it. Paradoxically, the film is called I Want to See, but explores what you don’t see, or haven’t seen.

JH: The film works by constantly making you question what you’re seeing and what you’re not seeing. The film is about the way images are used in reporting conflict today and what this does to you, the spectator. Our big fear is always that, in the use of images, the use of art, the use of intellect, everything can be co-opted or instrumentalized, in order to make the individual into less of a thinking person, less of a subject, depoliticized, accepting reality in a lesser way.”

The resulting film is an absolute tour-de-force, one of those films that never leaves you once you’ve seen it. When one considers how much time is spent watching absolute junk, even entertaining mainstream junk, the shock and pleasure of a really evocative, thoughtful film comes as an absolutely pleasant surprise, a palate cleanser after so much trash and throwaway pop filmmaking, usually in the service of worn out genre and gender rules. Je Veux Voir instantly jumped into my top ten films of all time — in which there are more than 250 constantly rotating titles — but in all seriousness, this is a thrillingly intellectual film without one frame of wasted footage; at 69 minutes, it’s just perfect.

Easily available on DVD or streaming video; check it out!

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s Dune

Friday, February 14th, 2014

From Nancy Tartaglione of Deadline Hollywood comes this trailer for a film about a film that never got made.

Alejandro Jodorowsky famously made the metaphorical “western” El Topo, but his output has been minimal over the years, perhaps because he tries to mount such elaborate projects. Here’s the trailer for a film about his version of the classic science-fiction novel Dune, which never got made for various reasons. As Tartaglione reports, “Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune debuted in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar in Cannes last year before being acquired by Sony Pictures Classics and playing the fall fest circuit. A trailer has dropped for the documentary about veteran Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s ill-fated attempt to bring Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel, Dune, to the screen.

In the mid-1970s, Jodorowsky (El Topo, Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre) came up with an ambitious take on the tome and spent two years in pre-production. The film was to star Jodorowsky’s own 12-year-old son Brontis alongside Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, David Carradine and Salvador Dali, set to a musical score by Pink Floyd with art design by H.R. Giger and Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud. But the project ultimately went unrealized and the rights lapsed.

David Lynch made his own version of Dune in 1984 with Kyle MacLachlan, Sting and Sean Young. Here’s a look at what might have been.” As you can see from the trailer, a lot of work went into the design of the film, and the casting was certainly ambitious. I’m sorry that this never saw the light of day, as I think it would have been a fascinating project — perhaps better than Lynch’s version, but we’ll never know.

Click here, or on the image above, to read Deadline’s coverage, and see the trailer for the film.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Facebook Wants to Know What You Don’t Post

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Even if you decide not to post something, Facebook wants to know what you were thinking.

As I wrote in my book Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, Facebook has been from the beginning little more than a data mining operation, which simply tries to collect as much information on all of its subscribers as it possibly can, and then use this information for profit. And they keep upping the ante with every passing day. As Casey Johnston reported in Ars Technica on December 16, 2013, in addition to the material you actually post on Facebook, the site also wants to know about the stuff you type in, and then think better of, and decide not to post.

As Johnston writes, “Facebook released a study last week indicating that the company is moving into a new type of data collection in earnest: the things we do not say. For an analysis of self-censorship, two researchers at Facebook collected information on all of the statuses that five million users wrote out but did not post during the summer of 2012. Facebook is not shy about the information it collects on its users. Certain phrasings in its data use policy have indicated before that it may be collecting information about what doesn’t happen, like friend requests that are never accepted.

Capturing the failures of Facebook interactions would, in theory, allow the company to figure out how to mitigate them and turn them into ’successes.’ Adam Kramer, a data scientist at Facebook, and Sauvik Das, a summer Facebook intern, tracked two things for the study: the HTML form element where users enter original status updates or upload content and the comment box that allows them to add to the discussion of things other people have posted. Over the course of those 17 days, 71 percent of the users typed out a status, a comment, or both but did not submit it.

On average, they held back on 4.52 statuses and 3.2 comments. In addition to that information, Das and Kramer took note of the users’ demographic information, ‘behavioral features,’ and information on each user’s ’social graph’ like the average number of friends of friends or the user’s ‘political ideology’ in relation to their friends’ beliefs. They used this information to study three cross sections with self-censorship: how the user’s political stance differs from the audience, the user’s political stance and how homogenous the audience is, and the user’s gender related to the gender diversity of their network.”

This is exactly what Herbert Marcuse was predicting, as early as 1964; see my earlier post.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Spies of Mississippi: Filmmaker Dawn Porter

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Last night, I saw Spies of Mississippi, an amazing documentary on the civil rights struggle in the 1960s.

Spies of Mississippi covers ground that’s been mined before, but Porter has done something new here, uncovering the amazing story of  “the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission’s [MSSC] efforts to preserve segregation during the 1950s and ‘60s — when its network of informants spied on over 87,000 Americans — as it covered up violence and murder in order to preserve the status quo.” Clocking in at just an hour, Porter’s documentary is much more than a succession of talking heads; it’s a gripping, compact, and absolutely riveting mix of raw footage from the period, much of it never before seen, recently declassified documents from the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission showing just how rampant racism was in the state, and interviews with the people who lived through the period, and know better than anyone else the reality of the situation. In an interview you can read by clicking here, or on the image above, Porter opens up about the making of Spies of Mississippi. As she told Craig Phillips,

“before I heard this story I thought I knew a lot about the era. That’s what is so wonderful about history — if we look, there are more things to find. Many people know about the FBI’s efforts to undermine the civil rights leaders, but very few people knew of the network established by Mississippi state government. And that’s what really attracted me to this story; this is not a story of a few rogue racist individuals, it’s state government, using taxpayer dollars to deny rights to a group of people based on race. I think it’s a remarkable story about abuse of power and how secrecy is not always a friend to democracy.

I was surprised by so many things, but clearly one of the most shocking was the information about the black informants.  The idea that African Americans would spy for white supremacists probably should not shock me, but it did. Second, I feel like this fills in a piece of the puzzle regarding the tragic deaths of the young civil rights workers [James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael 'Mickey' Schwerner].  They didn’t have an accidental run in with the racist police or the Klan, they were tracked using information from spies.

I was shocked to learn that the State of Mississippi, not just the FBI, used spies to try and intimidate and stop integration. When I learned that some of them were black I wanted to know what would motivate people. Digging into the story, it makes sense that there were complicated feelings in the African American community about the marchers and civil rights activity. There was a lot of fear.”

This is the kind of work we need much more of on television, and the sort of hard-edged and innovative reporting that only PBS seems to offer. In addition, it’s also superbly confident filmmaking, thrilling in its mastery of the medium, and the work of a master filmmaker.

Just minutes after I saw this documentary, I ordered the DVD. This is brilliant, important work.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Ever since I heard the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, I’ve been trying to come to terms with it.

That’s why I haven’t posted on this superbly talented actor since his tragic death. Like nearly everyone else who loves movies, I was always moved Hoffman’s work, especially in films where he really went out on a ledge, like Capote, for which he deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actor. But his death throws his entire life’s work into sharp perspective; after 50 films in 25 years, there will never be another Philip Seymour Hoffman film. It’s a tragedy of immense proportions for his family, his colleagues, and for those of us who cherished and looked forward to his next piece of work.

The New York Post has just published a selection of some of Hoffman’s best interview quotes, and here he is talking about the vicissitudes of fame: “I do my best not to feed into any aspect of fame when it comes up. If I ever get a sense that if I say this or I do that, it could feed into that dynamic, I stay away from that. I think some people navigate the waters of being very well known very well, actually. But I actually just don’t even want to go there. And I think that has more to do with how I am as a person. I don’t like to be the center of attention; I really don’t think I’m that guy, and when I am, it’s for a reason. And I think part of it is that if you just keep attacking your day like you would no matter what, people start to get used to you.

So I might be walking by a lot of people during the day, they’re like, ‘Oh! That’s Phil Hoffman!’ But if they keep seeing me walk by them all the time, they’re like, ‘Oh, Phil Hoffman.’ It stops becoming important. So that’s why if I go to a different city, all of a sudden I’m reminded again. But in New York, or in Chicago, towns I’ve been in or mingled in enough, they see you and there you are, and hopefully you don’t run into the person from out of town. [Laughs.] Who doesn’t know you like that, and is just completely overwhelmed that they’re seeing you.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the greatest actors of 21st century cinema, gone much, much too soon.

Bert Beyens and Marcel Hanoun

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Bert Beyens and Marcel Hanoun in France, Summer, 2011.

A while ago, I posted on an article I’d written in Film International on the cinema of Marcel Hanoun, one of the greatest and most neglected European filmmakers of the 1960s, 70s and beyond, whose international reputation was trashed almost immediately by a series of rather unperceptive reviews of his work immediately following his American debut.

But his work is being restored now by the archivist Pip Chodorov, who contacted me after the article was published, and I was also happy to receive a very kind e-mail a few days ago from his friend Bert Beyens, head of the RITS Film School in Belgium, noting that “I met Marcel in 1976, when I was a film student in Brussels, and a retrospective of his work was held in the film museum. I was taken immediately by the 3 short and 8 long films I could watch. I got in touch with him, and we became life-long friends. For me, Hanoun in a unique filmmaker and artist.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I love this photo of Marcel and Bert in the summer of 2011; summer was one of Hanoun’s favorite seasons, and also the title of one of his best films. I hope to be able to visit Bert in Belgium sometime in 2015, and talk about Hanoun’s work with him, and perhaps his students; it seems that at last, Hanoun may be about to get the attention he so richly deserves.

Click here to read my article on the life and work of Marcel Hanoun.
For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Review: Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture by Rebecca Prime

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

I have a review of Rebecca Prime’s excellent new book, Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture, in the latest issue of Film International.

As I note, “Let’s just start by saying that this is an excellent book. I get stacks of new titles every day from publishers, and it takes a lot for a book to really jump out of the pile and interest me, particularly on a topic that has been researched as thoroughly as the Hollywood Blacklist. But Rebecca Prime’s Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture (2013) is exceptional, and part of an equally exceptional series of books from Rutgers University Press, “New Directions in International Studies,” ably edited by Patrice Petro.

The Hollywood Blacklist is always an important topic, but there’s been so much written about it that one would think that all possible avenues of inquiry have been pursued. But that’s not the case: Prime’s book is fresh, original, written in a direct and accessible manner, and adds a great deal of new material to the existing literature on the era. This is a book, in short, that demands one’s attention.

What distinguishes Prime’s book above all else is the sense of urgency she brings to her examination of the key figures affected by the blacklist; Joseph Losey, Ben Barzman, Jules Dassin, and other well known Hollywood figures who decided it was better to leave America, then in the grip of madness, rather than battle it out with the openly hostile ‘authority’ of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

This is a familiar tale, but what Prime makes clear in her study is just how difficult it was for these talent writers, directors and producers to survive in England, which wasn’t as welcoming as is generally assumed in hindsight. The FBI and the HUAC still shadowed these exiles, with the help of the British authorities, and so they were never really free of surveillance.”

You can read the rest of the review here; a fascinating and compelling book.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

The Death of Foreign Films in America

Monday, January 27th, 2014

Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), still the highest-grossing foreign-language film of all time.

Once upon a time, every movie had to open in a conventional 35mm theater run to make money. This made for a kind of financial egalitarianism; a $100,000 horror movie would have to open in a theater the same way that a $5,000,000 movie would have to; there were no DVDs, streaming videos, video on demand services, or even cable. While no one would want to go back to the analog age, as this blog itself demonstrates, the fact remains that from the dawn of cinema until the late 1980s, foreign films had a solid chance in the US market, and were roughly divided into two groups: commercial cinema and art cinema. But no matter what the label was, every film still had to open in a theater to make money — there simply was no other market.

Commercial foreign films, such as Italian westerns or horror movies, or Japanese science-fiction spectacles, were hastily dubbed into English and dumped into theaters on a mass basis, and made their money back. More serious fare, such as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita – which I wrote about in a 2010 article in the web journal Senses of Cinema – were presented with subtitles, and no one seemed to mind. Eventually, La Dolce Vita, too, was dubbed for wider distribution, although this version never really caught on, and audiences of the period were discerning enough to notice that replacing the actors’ voices in the film essentially destroyed Fellini’s work.

But La Dolce Vita — which is one of my favorite films of all time, and perhaps the best examination of modern pop throwaway celebrity culture ever created – made the bulk of its money in a subtitled version, and thus audiences were educated from a very early age to realize that there were many different kinds of films available. There were American films, of varying degrees of budget and artistic ambition – and often some of the lowest budget films were the most artistically ambitious — and then there were foreign films, and the junk was dubbed, while the better films were presented aurally and visually intact, with subtitles. But now it seems that dubbed or subtitled, no one is going to foreign film anymore, except for Bollywood films, which have a huge audience throughout the world, as well as here in the States.

As Richard Corliss, who knows his way around cinema history, writes in an article in Time Magazine, “you probably know about Blue Is the Warmest Color, the French movie with the lesbian lovers romping through a five-year affair. But chances are you haven’t seen it. For all its ballyhoo and bravas, Blue has earned only about $2.1 million at the U.S. box office. Given the high price of art-house tickets, that means only a couple hundred thousand people have paid to see it in its three-month American run — fewer than the number that bought tickets to Ride Along this past Tuesday.

These are hard times, maybe the end of times, for a kind of film that accounts for only about one in every 200 tickets sold in the U.S. But before we get to the depressing news about the current state of foreign-language films in the States, consider a time when this tiny niche was a tremendous niche — representing about 5%, not 0.5%, of the domestic market — and when foreign films were thought essential to any true cinephile’s education and appetite.

We speak of the 1960s. Giants like Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and François Truffaut strode the earth; and their favorite actors — Marcello Mastroianni, Max von Sydow, Toshiro Mifune and Jeanne Moreau — became icons on this side of the pond. Mastroianni and the rest provided the best directors with faces and personalities that charmed the foreign-film audience across America. And soon other movies with these stars appeared in U.S. theaters. In the early ’60s, as many as 30 Italian films reached U.S. shores.

That’s because of the startling success of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which, in terms of tickets sold, is still the highest-grossing foreign-language film of all time. It earned $19.5 million in U.S. theaters in 1961, when the average ticket price was just 69 cents. In today’s dollars, that would be $236 million — more than the domestic gross of 2013 hits like Oz the Great and Powerful and Thor: The Dark World. In 1966, Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman, a race-car love story starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée, grossed the modern equivalent of $107 million. Three years later Costa-Gavras’s political thriller Z took in what would be $92 million today. As the moguls would say, real money.

Two quick reasons for the appeal of foreign-language films in the ’60s: They had a higher IQ than the average Hollywood movie — making works like Fellini’s and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad the subjects of earnest debates at penthouse cocktail parties and on college campuses — and they were sexier, exposing flesh along with their vaunted angst and anomie. A third reason: they gave any American with cinematic wanderlust a view of other countries and cultures. Here were people and ideas so different, perhaps forbidding, yet often enchanting.

At the end of the decade, Hollywood grew up fast, with copious infusions of sex (Midnight Cowboy), blood (The Wild Bunch) and double-dome philosophizing (2001: A Space Odyssey). That’s an oversimplified way of saying that American movies had recaptured the conversation [. . .] Another factor: Americans lost interest in other cultures; we were not only No. 1, we were the only 1 we cared about. With foreign films’ monopoly on intellectual maturity and adult themes broken, they receded to specialty status: canapés for connoisseurs.”

I’m afraid that Corliss is right; the multiplexes, as I have observed many times before, play simply the biggest hits in a very tight playlist, and no one seems to have for more thoughtful cinema anymore. The big news these days is the upcoming Superman/Batman team up, and ComicCon rules the box office. Not much chance for anything enlightening there. In the 1960s, and until the late 1980s, theaters gave audiences a choice, simply because they had to — theaters were the only venue available. Now that the studios can dump smaller films on VOD or streaming, you can forget about a theatrical release. Which means that most people will never hear of it, which means most people will never see it, which means that if you want thoughtful film viewing, it’s either the VOD foreign cable channel, or a a DVD, or Netflix.

But it’s not the same as seeing it on a big screen, and at the same time, it has much less cultural impact. This is bad for American viewers, bad for the future of cinema, and portends an endless array of nonstop comic book movies with no content – just action, action and more action, like the Fast and Furious franchise. There’s nothing wrong with that, if all you want is to see a bunch of cars crashing and things being blown up. But it would be nice to have a choice, available to all and widely publicized. Once, you had such a choice. Now, you have no choice at all.

Foreign films led the way to a more enlightened cinema – what has happened to that cinema today?

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Lost Speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Found — Listen Here

Monday, January 20th, 2014

A lost speech from 1962 by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been discovered; both on audiotape, and the text.

On Martin Luther King Day, it’s both appropriate and fitting that a newly discovered speech by Dr. King has been released to the public, and presented in a video that allows one to follow along with Dr. King’s speech, as an audio track, while also viewing the text he is reading. As Ashley Hupfl reports in USA Today, “the New York State Museum has unearthed a long-lost audio recording of a 1962 speech from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., state officials announced Monday. An intern found the recording as museum staff worked on digitizing thousands of audio and video recordings in its collection, [and it] has been posted to the museum’s website.

‘This is a remarkable treasure,’ state Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in a statement. ‘More than 50 years later, Dr. King’s voice has come back to life.’ The speech was recorded Sept. 12, 1962, at the Park-Sheraton Hotel in New York City, where Gov. Nelson Rockefeller had convened his state Civil War Centennial Commission. It was delivered at a dinner celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation [. . .]

During the talk, King previewed many of the themes he would return to the following year in his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ and his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. The online exhibit includes a manuscript of the speech and the original event program. The audio is the only known recording of the 1962 address.”

You can hear, and see, the entire text by clicking on the link above; this is a find of inestimable importance.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

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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