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Victor Halperin’s Supernatural (1933)

Saturday, April 11th, 2015

Victor Halperin’s Supernatural is a forgotten horror classic – now on DVD.

After the amazing boxoffice and critical success of his film White Zombie (1932), independently produced for a mere $50,000, and starring Bela Lugosi hot off his success with Dracula, Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount Pictures, decided that with some real resources at his command, director Victor Halperin could create an even greater boxoffice success, and offered him a chance to make a major studio production. The result was Supernatural, surely one of the most unusual and poetic films ever made in Hollywood during the Pre-Code era.

Roma Courtenay (Carole Lombard) is a rich young heiress whose brother John (Lyman Williams) has recently died in an unspecified accident. Inconsolable, she turns to phony psychic Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart), who promises to contact her brother during a séance. Meanwhile, convicted murderess Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne) has been found guilty in the strangling death of three men, something that Bavian had knowledge of, and betrayed her to the police. After Rogen’s death in the electric chair, her body is claimed by psychologist/scientist Dr. Carl Houston (H.B. Warner), whos attempt to stop Rogen’s malevolent spirit from passing on to someone else.

Roma, however, stumbles into Houston’s laboratory just as the doctor is attempting to exorcise Rogen’s spirit, which immediately takes possession of Roma’s body, forcing Roma to carry out Rogen’s plan of revenge against Bavian. In yet another subplot, Bavian’s landlady Madame Gourjan (Beryl Mercer) discovers Bavian’s plot to steal Roma’s money through a series of supposed “messages from the beyond” from her deceased brother.

In response, Bavian promptly murders her, and then throws her body on the elevated railway tracks to cover up evidence of the killing. I’ll stop with the plot summary at this point, if only because I don’t want to give any more away – suffice it to say that events continue in a downward spiral until a rather reasonably happy ending brings the film to a satisfatory conclusion.

At just 65 minutes, the film is more a mood piece than anything else, and Halperin used most of his technical crew from White Zombie to create the film, albeit on a much more generous budget. Randolph Scott, in an early role, plays Grant Wilson, Roma’s predictable love interest, but has little to do in the film, and it’s clear that Halperin is more interested in creating a sensuously sinister atmosphere than anything else, as in another Paramount entry from the same period, Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls.

With richly detailed camerawork by the gifted Arthur Martinelli, Supernatural proceeds as a fever dream devoid of logic but suffused with an odd sensibility of eternal waiting that was Halperin’s trademark; sadly, the film was not as successful as White Zombie, and has more or less fallen out of the public consciousness.

Writing in The New York Times upon the film’s initial release in 1933, critic Mordaunt Hall noted that “notwithstanding the incredibility of many of its main incidents, Supernatural, the present picture at the Paramount, succeeds in awakening no little interest in its spooky doings. It not only depicts the various tricks of a charlatan spiritualist but also undertakes through camera wizardry to show the spirit of a dead murderess entering the body of a wholesome girl and causing her to behave like a savage.

The story, which owes its origin to one written by Garnett Weston, is worked out shrewdly and the scenes are for the most part pictured in a fashion suited to the eerie happenings. At the outset one is reminded that Confucius issued a warning to treat all supernatural beings with respect, but to keep aloof from them. Mohammed and the New Testament also are quoted and to put the spectator in a receptive mood there are wind and rain and dirgelike music.

Allan Dinehart plays the crooked spiritualist, Paul Bavian, who is to be congratulated on the thoroughness of his methods to extort money from a wealthy girl named Roma Courtney. Bavian had been on intimate terms with Ruth Rogen, who, after killing three of her lovers, expiates her crimes in the electric chair. It is the theory of a Dr. Houston that the spirits of dead evildoers continue to commit crimes through other flesh and blood mediums. He has more than a mere suspicion that Ruth Rogen’s spirit will be running amuck and that susceptible women had better keep out of its way.

It is not disclosing any great secret to say that Bavian has an easy way of getting rid of those who thwart him. A little poison in a ring, a handshake and they die. This sinister faker writes to Roma telling her that he has heard from the spirit of her brother, who recently died, and that he (Bavian) was requested to summon her. This missive subsequently leads to Roma and others visiting Bavian’s apartment, where the crook pretends to go into a trance and in an artful manner impresses the girl.”

The film received similarly respectful notices from most other critics, but ultimately, Supernatural was too subtle to entice the public to see it in droves; and Lombard was apparently unhappy with her role as a possessed killer, feeling much more at home in comedy – and she was right; the film remains an interesting one-off in her screen career, which ended with her tragic death in 1942 while on a War Bond tour. Nevertheless, Supernatural remains a peculiar, but deeply felt project, and one of the most innovative and neglected films of Hollywood in the early 1930s.

An odd film in every respect, Supernatural deserves your attention; it’s a film that resonates in one’s memory.

Noir City: The 17th Annual Festival of Film Noir

Saturday, April 11th, 2015

Already well underway, this annual noir festival is a real “destination” event.

As the festival’s official press release notes, “For the 17th year, the American Cinematheque brings film noir back to the big screen in Los Angeles! Co-presented with the Film Noir Foundation, our 17th annual Noir City festival offers three weeks of jaded gumshoes, femmes fatale and menacing heavies in gloriously gritty black-and-white.

These evenings shine a spotlight on some usual suspects as well as rarely screened gems, including the Foundation’s new 35mm restorations of THE GUILTY and WOMAN ON THE RUN, as well as new prints of THE UNDERWORLD STORY, NO ABRAS NUNCA ESA PUERTA and SI MUERO ANTES DE DESPERTAR (two classic Argentine noirs making their Los Angeles premieres!). Whether you’re a noir novice or a longtime aficionado of the postwar demimonde of crime and (occasionally) punishment, Noir City is well worth a visit.

This year’s astounding lineup salutes some true giants of the genre. Noir’s quintessential star, Humphrey Bogart, lights up the screen in DARK PASSAGE as a man on the run from a bum murder rap, and the actor’s spirit looms large in THIS LAST LONELY PLACE, the new neo-noir produced by the Bogart Estate; an interview with Stephen Bogart (son of Bogart and Bacall) and a cocktail reception featuring Bogart’s Gin complete the sensational evening (April 4). Barbara Stanwyck makes an equally formidable screen presence in WITNESS TO MURDER and JEOPARDY.

The works of crime novelist Cornell Woolrich were popular grist for some of the best of film noir, including THE CHASE and THE LEOPARD MAN. The latter was directed by the great Jacques Tourneur, whose CIRCLE OF DANGER and BERLIN EXPRESS are also Noir City highlights. Adding to the festivities are rare British and Argentine films, a proto-noir marathon and a closing-weekend Film Noir Party featuring dancing to Dean Mora’s Swingtet, martinis, casino games and other amusements fit for dangerous dames, gumshoes and gangsters!”

All films are shown in rare, restored 35mm prints – a must see if you’re in Los Angeles.

The Internet is Not The Answer – Andrew Keen

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

Watch an interview with Andrew Keen on C-Span by clicking here, or on the image above.

As Andrew Naughton perceptively notes in his review of Keen’s book in The Guardian, “Andrew Keen – like many who were involved in the net in the early days – started out as an internet evangelist. In the 1990s he founded a startup in the Bay Area and drank the Kool-Aid that fueled the first internet bubble. But he saw the light before many of us, and rapidly established himself as one of the net’s early contrarians.

His first book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, was a lacerating critique of the obsession with user-generated content which characterized the early days of web 2.0, and whenever conference organizers wanted to ensure a bloody good row, Andrew Keen was the man they invited to give the keynote address.

If his new book is anything to go by, Keen has lost none of his edge, but he’s expanded the scope and depth of his critique. He wants to persuade us to transcend our childlike fascination with the baubles of cyberspace so that we can take a long hard look at the weird, dysfunctional, inegalitarian, comprehensively surveiled world that we have been building with digital tools.

In that sense, The Internet Is Not the Answer joins a number of recent books by critics such as Jaron Lanier, Doc Searls, Astra Taylor, Ethan Zuckerman and Nicholas Carr, who are also trying to wake us from the nightmare into which we have been sleepwalking.

Like these other critics, Keen challenges the dominant narrative about the internet – that it’s a technology that liberates, informs and empowers people. The problem with this narrative, he points out, is not that it’s wrong – the network does indeed have the potential to do all of these marvelous things, and much more besides. The problem is that it’s not the whole story, and perhaps it will turn out to be the least important part of it.

The more important truth about the internet, Keen thinks, is that it has evolved into a global machine for creating a world characterized by vast and growing inequality. ‘The error that evangelists make,’ he writes, ‘is to assume that the internet’s open, decentralized technology naturally translates into a less hierarchical or unequal society.

But rather than more openness and the destruction of hierarchies, an unregulated network society is breaking the old center, compounding economic and cultural inequality, and creating a digital generation of masters of the universe. This new power may be rooted in a borderless network, but it still translates into massive wealth and power for a tiny handful of companies and individuals . . .’

Far from being the ‘answer’ to society’s problems, Keen argues, the internet is at the root of many of them. As a result, it poses an existential question for democracies everywhere: can elected governments control the waves of creative destruction now sweeping through our societies as the digital revolution gathers momentum?”

As Keen told Brian Lamb in an interview on C-SPAN on January 15, 2015, part of which included an excerpt from a TED Talk Keen delivered in Brussels, “we are being sold something also, which is a scam. Something which is undermining who we are as a species. One of the previous speakers talked about the importance of community-what I call the ‘cult of the social’- this idea that community is everything . . .

You come to these events and all you ever hear about is community, community, community. Community is supposed to be so wonderful. Community brings us together. These books-too many of them-all about the ‘we.’ All about how important it is for us to work together. All premised on this absurd idea that technology will finally enable community.

For those of you who read Marx’s German question, it’s really taken a lock stock and barrel from Marx – the idea that technology allows us to realize our species being, that we have this network, 2 billion people on it now, all this data, DNA. We are all becoming information, and we can share that information and become community. But of course, it’s nonsense. And worse than nonsense, it’s dangerous nonsense . . .

It’s dangerous because it’s not true. It’s dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, as [John Stuart] Mill realized in his great work On Liberty, it’s the interior that’s so important. And the role of government . . . is to protect that interior.  I’m a believer in the Mill-ian idea of protecting the individual to think for themselves and that the social tends to lend itself to conformity. So that’s the first thing.

The second thing is that the social – which I’m not against. I don’t think being social is a bad thing. I don’t think we should lock ourselves in our room. I’m not in favor of going back to the cave and separating myself from my fellow man. But the other problem is that social media in the digital age isn’t social. It’s an extension of the self. It’s an extension of the culture of narcissism that increasingly pervades the internet.

So when you go on Facebook, you’re not really networking. You’re not really being social – or some people of course are. But more and more people are using it- or on Instagram or any of these other networks or on Twitter. You’re using it to broadcast yourself, to show off yourself. And actually, ironically enough, it’s more and more alienating.

As I show in The Internet Is Not the Answer, a lot of research shows that the more people use Facebook, the lonelier they are, the more separate they are. So the social is actually fragmenting. It’s alienating, it’s atomizing.”

This is absolutely essential reading, as everyone piles on the digital bandwagon.

230 Cars Destroyed for Furious 7

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

Give the public what they want, and they’ll come out for it.

According to Steve Knopper in The Wall Street Journal, roughly 230 cars were destroyed during the making of the latest, wildly successful film in the Fast and Furious franchise, Furious 7. Interesting, at least to me, that the series got its name from a Roger Corman film in 1955 – see Corman’s explanation of how Universal got him to agree to the use of that title for their series by clicking here – but no matter how you slice it, this is one franchise that goes through a heck of lot of cars to achieve the mind-blowing effects you see on the screen.

As Knopper writes, “not long after stuntpeople for Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez and the rest of the Furious 7 crew filmed their usual death-defying car chases on a twisty mountain road west of Colorado Springs, Colo., Richard Jansen received a call. Somebody from the movie had seen his ‘we buy junk cars’ highway sign, and wondered if the owner of Bonnie’s Car Crushers could haul away 20 or 30 vehicles smashed beyond repair, including several black Mercedes-Benzes, a Ford Crown Victoria and a Mitsubishi Montero. ‘Sure,’ Mr. Jansen said.

Then Mr. Jansen and his crew, based in nearby Penrose, spent several days loading the cars onto a semitrailer truck to haul them away. Filmmakers insisted he shred or crush them all, to prevent anyone from fixing one up and getting hurt in a damaged movie car. So today, a large, black, scrap-metal Benz cube once driven in a Furious 7 car chase exists somewhere in the world. ‘It was kind of unusual, to see some relatively late-model Mercedes-Benzes, all crunched up and good for nothing,’ Mr. Jansen says.

How cars are built and prepped for action movies has been well documented: The process involves mechanics, roll cages, drag tires and fuel cells. But after the movie ends, what happens to the cars that parachute out of planes, plunge off cliffs and get run over by tanks? ‘It’s pretty easy,’ says Dennis McCarthy, picture car coordinator for the Fast and the Furious franchise, whose latest installment, Furious 7, premiere[d] in theaters this week. The film crew has to follow a specific protocol, documenting every step for both accounting and liability reasons, he says. ‘We have to account for every single car destroyed in each film.’

Fast and Furious filmmakers wreck hundreds of cars every movie—more than 230 alone for Furious 7. For 2013’s Fast & Furious 6, when a tank bursts out of a military transport and flattens numerous cars on a highway in Tenerife Island, Spain, Mr. McCarthy’s people made deals with local junkyards and used-car lots. ‘We’d wreck 25 cars a day, they’d come out at night, scoop ‘em up and bring us 25 more,’ he says. ‘It was a round-the-clock process, with multiple tow trucks and car carriers’ . . .

After filming the Furious 7 mountain-highway chase on Colorado’s Monarch Pass, the car crew stowed its crashed cars in the parking lot of the small nearby Monarch Ski Resort. Mr. Jansen had two days to remove them so the resort could prepare for its opening season. ‘We probably destroyed 40-plus vehicles just shooting that sequence,’ Mr. McCarthy says.”

Such is modern action filmmaking; read the whole article by clicking here.

Take Film History 213E for Fall 2015 — Sign Up Now!

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

SIGN UP FOR ENGLISH 213E – INTRODUCTION TO FILM HISTORY

See classic films on the big screen each week!  Including The Great Primitives, Visions of Light, The General, Metropolis, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Blood of a Poet, Horsefeathers, The Public Enemy, To Be Or Not To Be, Psycho, Citizen Kane, Wild Strawberries, Singin’ in the Rain, The 400 Blows, Pickpocket, Village of the Damned, The Phantom of Liberty, Run Lola Run.

MEETS TUESDAYS 1:30 – 4:40 in Ross Theatre RVB 123

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Artist Run Film Labs – A New Phenomenon

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

In the digital era, as the number of film labs decline, real artists are taking the lead.

As Genevieve Yue writes in the March 30, 2015 online issue of Film Comment, “there are roughly 65 film labs left in the world, of which around 20 are in North America. These ranks, along with the number of film stocks being manufactured, dwindled as digital technologies have saturated the realm of production and studios have moved away from film. When it comes to labs that process 16mm film—a mainstay of experimental film—and small-gauge stocks, only a few commercial options exist, mostly in the United States: Cinelab, in Boston; ColorLab in Maryland; Deluxe in New York City; Dwayne’s Photo in Kansas; and Fotokem in Burbank. One of the most recent casualties of this technological shift has been Pac Lab, which closed in New York, screening its unclaimed films at Anthology Film Archives.

The decline in commercial film production, however, has been countered by a rebirth in the phenomenon of artist-run film laboratories. What in the early Nineties was limited to a handful of cooperatively owned, independent labs, mostly in France, has grown into an international network of over 30, many of them formed within the last several years. The decline of film processing created a surplus of cheap, unwanted equipment that, in the right hands, could be repurposed for the smaller-scale operation of an artist-run lab. Saved from the scrap heap, many discarded contact printers and processing tanks have begun a second life as artists’ tools.

For many, this historical juncture between film and digital media has been cause for lament. But among those in the growing artist-run film lab community, the view is considerably more sanguine. Many are younger filmmakers drawn to the creative possibilities of hand-processing in workshops at places like Mono No Aware, in Brooklyn, or Big Mama’s Cinematheque in Philadelphia. For these artists, film offers a range of textures and expressive possibilities not available in digital formats. Others are drawn to the ‘home-brew’ DIY spirit that celebrates the autonomy of artist-run labs. Josh Lewis, who in 2012 founded the Negativland lab in Ridgewood, Queens, describes it as ‘a more involved way of being a filmmaker. You can’t rely on an industry that serves Hollywood. You need to be a technician and a filmmaker.’

For filmmakers like Lewis, the current moment offers the opportunity to sever cinema from its industrial tether. In many ways, this is the culmination of the avant-garde dream to become fully independent. Experimental film, at least at the level of materials, has been invariably tied to the commercial conditions of the film industry at large, though its output may have more in common, aesthetically and culturally, with the types of objects that circulate in the art world. Now, in response to a collapsing apparatus for the production of film, avant-garde filmmakers are developing the means and momentum to adapt and design their own methods of making films.”

This is a fascinating development – you can read the entire article by clicking here.

Betrayal on Better Call Saul

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Never a fan of Breaking Bad – I know, I know – I’m much more impressed with Better Call Saul.

Simply because there’s not that much on television on Monday nights – and I certainly wasn’t going to waste my time watching the Justin Bieber Roast – I turned on the “Pimiento” episode of Better Call Saul, and was blown away. As everyone knows, the entire series is a prequel of sorts to Breaking Bad, and I originally thought the whole show – in which Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy is in nearly every scene – would be played more for fast-talking laughs than anything else – after all, Odenkirk can motormouth with the best of them.

But with the re-introduction, so to speak, of Jonathan Banks as Mike – first seen in a parking lot toll booth as the series kicked off, and later edging into a much deeper character – the series got darker and more challenging, and last night’s episode, in which it was revealed that Jimmy’s brother, Chuck (Michael McKean) has been working against him all along, even as Jimmy struggled to take care of him, was simply devastating.

I must admit that I was rather annoyed with the initial eccentricity of Chuck’s character – covering himself against electromagnetic fields with aluminum foil, stealing newspapers off a neighbor’s lawn, the house lit with Coleman lanterns – but McKean really pulled it out last night with a scene that brought entire series thus far into focus.

As series producer Tom Schnauz, who also directed the episode, told Aaron Couch in The Hollywood Reporter, Bob Odenkirk has “been phenomenal all year. He came in after reading the scene and knowing the importance of what it means to the series. He and Michael McKean did their homework. They studied the hell out of it. Figured out what the intricacies of it were and just knocked it out of the park.

Fortunately as a director I had to do very little guidance as far as directing the emotion of the scene. They came in, sat down. We read through it and once they started adding the emotion to the scene, they knew exactly what it needed. I didn’t have to do very much other than say put the camera here and point it at them.

The whole scene was a favorite of mine — Jimmy going after Chuck and trying to get him to break. When Chuck finally talks, the stuff he’s saying about ‘the law is sacred’ and ‘you’re a chimp with a machine gun’ and ‘you could do real damage,’ we as viewers, having seen Breaking Bad, know Chuck might be right about this. Even though what he’s done is really, really horrible, we know who Saul Goodman is. People in the future die and get hurt because of his actions.

If not for Breaking Bad, I think this scene would have another feeling to it. I think half the audience is going to listen to Chuck and say ‘what a jerk.’ I think some people will listen to him and think ‘he’s not too far off. Maybe he’s giving the correct advice.’ We don’t know — would Jimmy turn into Saul Goodman if not for Chuck’s horrible actions? Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy? Or was Slippin’ Jimmy always going to be become Saul Goodman? We’ll never know.”

Which makes Better Call Saul fascinating television.

Update on Too Late for Tears on DVD

Monday, March 30th, 2015

A few posts ago, I wrote on the recent 35mm restoration of Too Late for Tears, and wondered when it would be on DVD.

A few minutes ago, I received this e-mail from Alan K. Rode, director of the Film Noir Foundation: “Re: your blog post for TOO LATE FOR TEARS coming out on DVD. Please rest assured that TLFT will be coming out on DVD in the near future. A time-consuming aspect of bringing this and other restored titles out on DVD involves the clearing of various rights even with titles that are in the public domain. In the case of TLFT, a deal with the estate of the late Roy Huggins that owns the rights to the Huggins screenplay adapted from his novel had to be initiated and negotiated. These matters are wrapping up and we will be moving forward on this project.

It is also germane to note that the situation with each film is different. The FNF brought THE PROWLER out on DVD and produced the special features after cutting deals with the film’s rights holders and the DVD distributor. Paramount Pictures owns the rights to CRY DANGER and licensed the title to Olive. We allowed them to use our restoration for the transfer.

Paramount also owns TRY AND GET ME! which we have also restored, but-to my knowledge-has not relicensed the title to Olive to bring our restoration to DVD. Owing to a variety of circumstances including rights, the process of restoring these films and bringing them out on DVD, is simply not a speedy process. I hope this provides some illumination on the subject. We certainly understand that our charter to restore America’s Noir Heritage extends beyond the eight cities that currently host NOIR CITY film festivals. We are fully committed to making our restoration of TLFT available to everybody, as soon as possible”

Good news- and many thanks to Alan for being in touch!

Transformers Universe?

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

Paramount wants to make the Transformers films into a “Marvel Universe” style franchise.

Somebody out there must be watching these filmsthey make a fortune, even though my students routinely dismiss them as special-effects driven trash, without even the slightest narrative thread to hold anything together. But in Hollywood, especially in 2015, the bottom line rules, so here comes the “Transformers Universe.” As Germain Lussier reports in Slashfilm,

“Marvel is doing it, DC is doing it, Lucasfilm is doing it, the Ghostbusters are doing it and now it looks like Transformers will be doing it too. Deadline [arguably the top Hollywood inside business journal] reports that Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar-winning writer of a A Beautiful Mind (and the writer of Batman and Robin, among other films) is in negotiations with Paramount to lead a brain trust of writers with the aim of upping the output of Transformers movies for the studio. Goldsman will join executive producers Michael Bay, Steven Spielberg and Lorenzo di Bonaventura in the hiring of a collection of writers to create ‘a potential multi-part Transformers sequel, and come up with potential spinoff films.’

Deadline broke this news and say things are expected to come together quickly. Bay, who has directed the last four uber-successful Transformers films, is currently expected to come back for Transformers 5. (Which is tentatively set to come out in 2016, but 2017 seems more likely.) He’s about to start production on 13 Hours and the hope is, once he’s done with that, a plan and script will be in place for him to work on. They also report that while Goldsman might be the leader of this group, he isn’t likely to write the movies himself.

With Transformers being such a monster hit for Paramount, this really isn’t a big surprise. It’s how Hollywood is going. Plus, the last few movies have had a very cut and paste feel about them with very little cohesion or logic. If a group of people get hired to keep everything straight, that’s a good sign. In addition, the last film definitely left the franchise in a place where there was a pretty blank slate. All we do know is Mark Wahlberg will likely be back.”

Along with Michael Bay, and of course, the Transformers.

Gabriel Figueroa at El Museo del Barrio March 4 – June 27, 2015

Saturday, March 28th, 2015

Gabriel Figueroa, a brilliant cinematographer, has a retrospective at El Museo del Barrio in New York City.

I’m just finishing up a long and complex project on the worldwide history of black and white cinematography, and throughout writing the book, I’ve continually been struck by how undervalued cinematographers are by most critics and directors, and yet how much they contribute to the finished product – often without more than a few lines of acclaim. One of the very greatest DPs (directors of cinematography) in the history of the cinema is undoubtedly Gabriel Figueroa (1907- 1997), whose work is now the subject of a traveling exhibition, which was presented at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and now makes a welcome stop at Manhattan’s El Museo del Barrio. As I write in my forthcoming book, Black & White Cinema: A Short History, on Figueroa’s work,

“Born in Mexico City in 1907, Figueroa was orphaned at the age of 7, and became involved in the Mexi­can industry in his teens. After working as an assistant on various films, he photographed Grigori Aleksandrov and Sergei M. Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva Mexico! (1932) with Eduard Tisse, and then studied cinematogra­phy for a year in 1935 with Gregg Toland in Hollywood. Returning to Mexico, Figueroa photographed his first solo effort, Allá en el Ran­cho Grande (Out on the Big Ranch, dir. Fernando de Fuentes, 1936), after which he worked with several generations of legendary directors from around the world.

In his long career, Figueroa served as the director of cinematography for such eminent directors as Emilio Fernández, most notably on his gor­geous romantic drama María Candelaria (1944); John Ford on The Fugi­tive (1947); Luis Buñuel on his breakthrough study of life in Mexico City’s notorious slums, Los Olvidados (1950), as well as Buñuel’s Nazarin (1959) and the forty-five-minute featurette The Exterminating Angel (1962); in addition to working with John Huston on The Night of the Iguana (1963) and twenty years later, on Huston’s Under the Volcano (1983).  . . .

As he told Elena Feder in 1996, ‘It was with Fernández that I really began to develop my own style. He allowed me to compose a scene anyway I wanted. He would describe the set-up initially, explain what he wanted to convey, and then say something like, “There, now set up the lights and put the camera wherever you wish.”  So I would place the camera, choose the angle, and illuminate a scene, always looking for the desired effect. From the very beginning, when we shot the opening scene of María Candelaria, where she holds the piglet in her arms, Fernández told me to place the camera wherever I wanted. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the rushes; they went beyond his wildest imagi­nation. Since that point I had complete freedom to continue developing my own style.’”

On the Museo del Barrio’s website, the museum notes that “from the early 1930s through the early 1980s, the Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa helped forge an evocative and enduring image of Mexico. Among the most important cinematographers of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, Figueroa worked with leading directors from Mexico, the United States and Europe, traversing a wide range of genres while maintaining his distinctive and vivid visual style.

In the 1930s, Figueroa was part of a vibrant community of artists in many media, including Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, Edward Weston and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, who sought to convey the country’s transformation following the trauma of the Mexican Revolution. Later, he adapted his approach to the very different sensibilities of directors Luis Buñuel and John Huston, among others. Figueroa spoke of creating una imágen mexicana, a Mexican image. His films are an essential part of the network of appropriations, exchanges and reinterpretations that formed Mexican visual identity and visual culture in the mid-twentieth century and beyond.

The exhibition features film clips, paintings by Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, Manuel Rodriguez Lozano and José Chavez Morado, photographs, prints, posters and documents, many of which are drawn from Figueroa’s archive, the Televisa Foundation collection, the collections of the Museo de la Estampa and the Museo Nacional in Mexico. In addition, the exhibition includes work by other artists and filmmakers from the period such as Luis Buñuel, Sergei Eisenstein, Edward Weston, and Tina Modotti that draw from the vast inventory of distinctly Mexican imagery associated with Figueroa’s cinematography or were heavily influenced by his vision.”

So, all in all, an opportunity not to be missed; here’s the chance to see the work of a master.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him wdixon1@unl.edu or his website, wheelerwinstondixon.com

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