As he observed in a 1954 interview, “I’ll say a few words about Val Lewton, because he was an extremely interesting person; unfortunately he died, it’s already been a few years. He was one of the first, maybe the first, who had the idea to make films that weren’t expensive, with ‘B’ picture budgets, but with certain ambitions, with quality screenplays, telling more refined stories than usual. Don’t go thinking that I despise ‘B’ pictures; in general I like them better than big, pretentious psychological films they’re much more fun. When I happen to go to the movies in America, I go see ‘B’ pictures. First of all, they are an expression of the great technical quality of Hollywood. Because, to make a good western in a week, the way they do at Monogram, starting Monday and finishing Saturday, believe me, that requires extraordinary technical ability; and detective stories are done with the same speed. I also think that ‘B’ pictures are often better than important films because they are made so fast that the filmmaker obviously has total freedom; they don’t have time to watch over him.”
Archive for the ‘Inside Stuff’ Category
As I write, “completed in September 2013, but just generally released today, David Pierce’s report The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929, sponsored by The Council on Library and Information Resources and The Library of Congress Washington, D.C., tells a grim tale, though most film historians and archivists have known that the news wouldn’t be good for a long time. But the shock here is how bad it really is. As the report’s introduction by James Billington notes,
‘Pierce’s findings tell us that only 14% of the feature films produced in the United States during the period 1912–1929 survive in the format in which they were originally produced and distributed, i.e., as complete works on 35mm film. Another 11% survive in full-length foreign versions or on film formats of lesser image quality such as 16mm and other smaller gauge formats.
The Library of Congress can now authoritatively report that the loss of American silent-era feature films constitutes an alarming and irretrievable loss to our nation’s cultural record. Even if we could preserve all the silent-era films known to exist today in the U.S. and in foreign film archives—something not yet accomplished—it is certain that we and future generations have already lost 75% of the creative record from the era that brought American movies to the pinnacle of world cinematic achievement in the twentieth century’ (vii-viii).
This is the result of a number of factors: the death of the silent film as a commercial art form, and the resultant neglect of the film negatives by the Hollywood studios; nitrate film decomposition, which plagues all films made prior to 1950; but mostly, it’s a ringing indictment of the fact that we simply don’t value our cinematic heritage as much as we should, and now, it’s gone forever. We can’t get it back, no matter what we do. Unless some long forgotten print or dupe negative turns up in a vault somewhere, these films have been consigned by neglect and indifference to perpetual oblivion, and even if such materials do turn up, they will probably be in very poor shape.”
More and more, just a few canonical classics, such as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) or Victor Fleming’s Gone With The Wind (1939), are representing the entire output of an era to a new generation that knows little of the past, and is encouraged by popular media to live only in the eternal present. What will happen to the rest of the films that enchanted, informed and transported audiences in the 1930s, 1940s, and even as recently as the 1960s?
For the most part, these films will be forgotten, and their makers with them. In this book, I argue that even obvious historical markers such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) represent shockingly unknown territory for the majority of today’s younger viewers; and yet once exposed to these films, they are enthralled by them. In the 1980s and 1990s, the more adventurous video stores served a vital function as annals of classic cinema. Today, those stores are gone and the days of this kind of browsing are over.
This collection of essays aims to highlight some of the lesser-known films of the past – the titles that are being pushed aside and forgotten in today’s oversaturation of the present. The work is divided into four sections, rehabilitating the films and filmmakers who have created some of the most memorable phantom visions of the past century, but who, for whatever reason, have not successfully made the jump into the contemporary consciousness.
“Few have explored the cinematic margins as thoroughly as Wheeler Winston Dixon, and few match his talent for finding and celebrating the secret glories of overlooked, undervalued films. Gliding from Peter Bogdanovich to Myra Breckinridge by way of Robert Bresson, this is an exciting and ever-surprising collection.” —David Sterritt, Columbia University and Chair, National Society of Film Critics
“The marginalization of important films is a constant threat in the age of the New Hollywood blockbuster, with commercial cinema reduced to a cheap thrill and the audience conceived as adolescents. Dixon’s thoughtful remarks on neglected films testify not only to his own fine sensibility, but to the urgency of the concerns he sets before us.” —Christopher Sharrett, Seton Hall University
As I note, “Sometimes it’s good to look back on cinema history and talk about the films that helped to shape the medium—films that are all too often forgotten today. Such is the case with Scott Bartlett’s landmark film OffOn (1967), which, as filmmaker Charles Levine once observed in a conversation with me, ‘changed the language of cinema.’ Something like this could only come out of the crucible of the 1960s, when everything was being called into question, and no area of experimentation was left untouched.
Made for less than $1,000, OffOn is a dazzling cinema poem, and one of the first film/video mixes in American cinema history. For most of the film’s nine-minute running time, the images are entirely abstract, until a long segment with a beating heart soundtrack gives way to a series of intensely complex geometric compositions. The film is loud, aggressive, and boldly colorful; it fuses a barrage of synthetic shapes with images taken from life (an eye, a woman dancing, a couple on a motorcycle) with abandon, and directly assaults the audience.”
As I note at the beginning of my article, “When Marcel Hanoun died on September 22, 2012 at the age of 82, it caused barely a ripple in the media, and even in the world of experimental cinema. And yet Hanoun was a major filmmaker, whose near total critical eclipse after an initial burst of critical interest is an indictment of cinema history as a function of canon. It’s true that Hanoun’s films are difficult, but no more so than Jean-Luc Godard’s, who was a fan of Hanoun’s work; it’s true that Hanoun turned his back on commercial cinema to work as a perennial outsider, but again, cinema has many rebellious figures in its history who continue to hold a claim on our memory.
But Hanoun is in death, as he was in life, an almost phantom figure, ‘discovered’ in the early 60s, and then summarily dismissed. There is a French Wikipedia page on Hanoun, cited in the works below, but not one in English. Most of his films, with the exception of his first, Une Simple Histoire (1958), are not readily available. His list of film credits on official websites like IMDb is woefully inaccurate. What critical writing there is on him in English is mostly from the 1960s and 70s, and after that, it just stops. Indeed, for most of his films, there’s scant information to be had in any language. To me, this is inexplicable. Hanoun’s importance is clear. Nevertheless, it’s a sobering fact; most people have never heard of Marcel Hanoun.”
As I noted, “Noël Coward once observed that ‘television is for appearing on – not for looking at,’ but as the twenty-first century takes firm hold of our collective consciousness, it seems that everyone has become, in one form or another, a spectator of the events of everyday existence, whether at home or in the cinema. Reality shows and YouTube videos offer the prospect of instant stardom for the ‘lucky’ few whose videos ‘go viral,’ but for every video posted, there are literally millions of viewers who would rather watch than participate in the production of images.
It has become so much easier – and potentially safer – to stay home and let the images come to us, rather than to go out to a public place and view them with a crowd of strangers. Indeed, this is the era of what the theorist Gabriele Pedullà has described as “the spectator’s extreme volatility” (original emphasis). Images are anywhere, and everywhere, and there seems to be no escaping them, even if we wanted to, and weren’t constantly returning to our various digital screens for another visual ‘fix.’ And we aren’t only watching movies and videos; we’re viewing paintings, sculptures, drawings, live video camera feeds; we like to watch, just as Chauncey Gardiner did in Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979). Life was ‘real’ for Chauncey only if it was on television; for us, too, the image has become more real than life itself.
With lightweight portable tablets, smartphones, and other electronic devices proliferating rapidly in our culture, when one looks at images of family gatherings in 2013, one is struck by the fact that everyone is watching something on their own portable image device, and ignoring each other; we’re all watching each other all the time, but on some sort of electronic device, rather than face to face, and we have little time, thus, for any real communication or intimacy. We have been gradually transformed from a culture of human communication into a mediated society in which simulacrum images of the real have replaced human interaction. We’ve been both spectators and participants in the process of image production since the dawn of imagistic representation, but now it seems that more and more, we are content to simply watch anything that’s on, removing ourselves from existence.”
As I note at the start of my essay, “Max Ophüls, born Maximillian Oppenheimer on 6 May 1902, Saarbrücken, Germany, was a director known primarily for his romance films, often with sweeping tracking shots, and often taking place in the past. Ophüls’ luxurious camera style is evident in such superb romance films as Letter from An Unknown Woman (1948), with Louis Jourdan as Stefan Brand, a ne’er do well pianist who seduces and then abandons a young woman, Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine), and pays for his crime in a dueling match; La Ronde (1950), a sex comedy based on Arthur Schnitzler’s eponymous play, in which lovers float from one affair to the next with delightful abandon; Madame de… (1953), another romance film in which a spoiled Countess (Danielle Darrieux) engages in an extra-marital dalliance, highlighted by Ophüls’ trademark “waltzing camera” technique, and his penchant for long takes; and his final film, the Technicolor and CinemaScope extravaganza Lola Montès (1955), based on the life of a notorious courtesan who eventually winds up as the main attraction in a circus sideshow.
Ophüls started directing films in 1931, scoring an early success with his romantic drama Liebelei (1933), completing a total of eighteen films in Germany and France between 1931 and 1940. While these films, especially Liebelei, gesture towards his later, more mature work, Ophüls was still establishing himself. The director made only two true noir films in his long and distinguished career, back to back: Caught (1948) and The Reckless Moment (1949), both from his brief period in the United States. To this most European and continental director, for whom romance was a sacred trust, with the camera revealing the innermost workings of the hearts of his characters, these two noirs were a distinct departure from his earlier work, and stand out as near aberrations in the director’s long and illustrious career. But they were created out of necessity, not design, for Ophüls never really wanted to come to Hollywood in the first place.”
I open with the text above, and continue by noting that in the film, “stalwart Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is once again pressed into service in a new round of Hunger Games, while tyrannical President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) rigs the games to kill all the previous winners by pitting them against one another in a special 75th anniversary edition of the contest.
This time around, Snow is assisted by the newly installed Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as his ‘games master,’ while Katniss is aided by her old cohorts Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) as she readies herself for the competition, which is once again emceed by the unctuous Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and his fey sidekick Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones).
But things don’t go as smoothly for President Snow as they did in the initial entry of the trilogy; in fact, there’s already an insurrection brewing at the start of the film, and inevitably, the unrest snowballs until it threatens to engulf Snow’s dreams of empire. The film is certainly elaborate enough. The production design is appropriately Riefenstahlian, the sets are grandiose and overblown, the special effects are state of the art, and the combat sequences are suitably violent for a PG-13 project, but the film never, shall we say, catches fire.”
To Save and Project: The 11th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation – October 9–November 12, 2013Saturday, October 19th, 2013
Once again, The Museum of Modern Art is running a stunning series of films, saved and restored from archives around the world, in film format, as part of their ongoing annual series To Save and Project, MoMA’s international festival of film preservation, which celebrates its 11th year with gloriously preserved masterworks and rediscoveries of world cinema. Virtually all of the films in the festival are having their New York premieres, and some are shown in versions never before seen in the United States.
As the program notes indicate, “this year’s edition features a Carte Blanche selection by filmmaker Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants, Election). Other guests include Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, who introduces Hotel Monterey (1972) and News from Home (1977), her beautiful New York films of the 1970s; and Filipino sensation Lav Diaz, who presents the full-length version of his 2001 crime drama Batang West Side. An evening with the great American writer E. L. Doctorow, a special presentation of Le Conversazioni literary festival, includes a screening and a conversation moderated by its artistic director, Antonio Monda.
A sidebar dedicated to the Royal Film Archive of Belgium, includes classics of Belgian cinema as well as a fascinating rediscovery: the first American anti-fascist film, Hitler’s Reign of Terror (1934). To Save and Project also features Jacques Barratier’s gorgeous French-Tunisian drama Goha (1958); Rowland V. Lee’s demented pre-Code puppet romance I Am Suzanne! (1934); and one of the most anticipated films in the festival, the world premiere of Karl Brown’s Stark Love (1927), with a new musical arrangement performed live by the NYU Cinemusica Viva Players, conducted by Gillian B. Anderson. The festival also includes gems of film noir; the premiere of rarely screened Andy Warhol film shorts, followed by a panel discussion with Warhol collaborators and scholars; a Modern Mondays premiere of Bruce Conner’s Crossroads (1976); and a theatrical run of Mikko Niskanen’s Eight Deadly Shots (1972), together with Peter Von Bagh’s The Story of Mikko Niskanen (2010).
What distinguishes To Save and Project among the world’s film preservation festivals is that nearly all the titles are presented on celluloid, respecting their original format of 35mm or 16mm. This festival, then, is a celebration of the vital work of archives around the world, including MoMA’s Department of Film, as well as Hollywood and international studios, distributors, and independent filmmakers, to save our cinema heritage.”
Organized by Joshua Siegel, Associate Curator, Department of Film, this is an event not to be missed. Click here, or on the image above, to get a complete schedule of all the screenings for this remarkable event.
As Foster notes, “as an internationally acclaimed Japanese/American artist, Yayoi Kusama rejects any Orientalist assumptions about her work or her self. Yet her playful performances and challenging happenings of the 1960s at times featured images of her wearing the traditional Japanese kimono. Kusama seemingly catered to the audiences of the West in evoking the spectacle of the demure and passive Asian female as much as she challenged those very notions in her performances and films. Kusama subverted the image of the woman in the kimono by juxtaposing it against her ‘happenings,’ which featured images of nude (often white) American bodies, often cavorting in sexual displays associated with the period, especially as seen in the New York art and experimental film subculture.
In filming and practicing the self and her own female Japanese body as art, the experimental visual artist and filmmaker Yayoi Kusama overturns Western white feminist and Eurocentrist notions of identity, especially those of the late 1950s and the following decade. Her work defies the borders of identity as much as it defies the reception of women artists, particularly Japanese women artists and filmmakers. Furthermore, by refusing to limit herself to film and video, she challenges the definition of the visual artist to include forms that range from poetry, music, novels, performance art and happenings, to digital artistry and conceptual films.
Similarly, her artistry and performance of her self-as-artist effectively displace any easy or overdetermined notions of the objectified Japanese female Other as a subject that is often seemingly ‘mastered’ or received as exotic, inscrutable, small, cute, foreign, nurturing, quiet or representing the passive sexually available female. While not limited to refashioning the Japanese female body as a self-mastered entity, her art and film work move the viewer into an active postionality that fosters a contemplation of art and bodies that are not easily defined.”
About the Author
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 email@example.com.
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In The National News
National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/