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 ‘Interviews’ Category
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 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.”
A friend sent me this video report from Romereports.com on Cinecittá, Italy’s iconic film studio, which has just opened its door to public tours for the first time. Founded by Benito Mussolini, the studio cranked out pro-fascist feature films during the war years, but also served as a training ground for such major figures as Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittorio De Sica and many others, all of whom would eventually establish the modern Italian cinema. As the report notes, “cinema and only cinema can skip thousands of years and take us from Imperial Rome to Romantic times. It also breaks natural limits and shows the depths of sea on board this submarine, used in the World War II movie U-571. A compass will prove useless if we want to find those wonderful places: they all belong to Cinecittá studios, the dream factory that never closes. Its 75 years of history can now be enjoyed for the first time.
[Said Giuseppe Basso, delegate administrator of Cinecittá], ‘we have a [tour] route that talks about the mystery of cinema, of how a movie is made. Another area talks about the atrezzo, the construction of the scenarios, the background where a movie was shot, and the costumes of famous actors and actresses. We also have a route specially designed for kids that explains the [workings of the studio's] backstage. And one of our guides will also show you [the] permanent scenery. You have to visit this place because it’s historical. It keeps 76 years of glorious history of cinema [alive], national and international. Italy’s most important films were shot and are still shot in Cinecittá. Opening our doors to the public is a great novelty. A tourist that visits Rome can come to Cinecittá and find something new.’”
Spacey, who gave the keynote James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival on August 23rd, as reported in The Guardian — one of my favorite newspapers — told the audience that “clearly the success of the Netflix model – releasing the entire season of House Of Cards at once – has proved one thing: the audience wants control. They want freedom. If they want to binge – as they’ve been doing on House Of Cards – then we should let them binge. [This] demonstrated that we have learned the lesson that the music industry didn’t learn – give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and they’ll more likely pay for it rather than steal it. If you watch a TV show on your iPad is it no longer a TV show? The device and length are irrelevant. For kids growing up now there’s no difference watching Avatar on an iPad or watching YouTube on a TV and watching Game Of Thrones on their computer. It’s all content. It’s all story.”
As I write, “This slight but explosive volume, published in an English translation by Verso in 2012, has been kicking around on my work desk for about a year. I wrote a rather negative review of it for Choice, the library journal, and while I don’t want to recant anything I said there, I nevertheless find the book sticking with me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I don’t agree with most of what Pedullà has to say, as I’ll detail, but he puts up a good fight.
Pedullà, a professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of Rome 3 and visiting professor at Stanford, is first and foremost a polemicist – he’s the guy who throws verbal bombs into the mix, and phrases statements of opinion as if they were fact. But for all of that, there is really very little that’s controversial here. Pedullà’s main thesis is inarguably correct, at least from my perspective; the era of dominance for the theatrical exhibition of motion pictures is finished. Or as he puts it on the opening page of his book,
‘The age of cinema, it is commonly claimed, is now drawing to a close. Day after day signs of a profound change in our relationship with moving images proliferate. The winnowing of box-office receipts, the shrinking size of the audience, the decreasing time lag between a film’s theatrical release and it commercialization on video, television’s growing cultural prestige: these indications, at once social, economic and aesthetic – only make the prophecy all the more credible. If cinema for decades represented the standard and even optimal filmic experience, the touchstone for all other forms of viewing, this formerly undisputed and indisputable centrality is today contested at its very core.’
All true, and yet, as I thought then, and still do now, Pedullà protests too much. The impact of web here is barely even mentioned, and as for ‘television’s growing cultural prestige,’ I have serious doubt about that. For Pedullà, the idea that viewing a film in a theater is the optimal way to see a film is an object of ridicule; summoning up derisively the words of Chris Marker as a member of the ‘old guard,’ Pedullà quotes Marker as noting that ‘on television, you can see the shadow of a film, the trace of a film, the nostalgia, the echo of a film, but never the film,’ and then takes Jean Eustache to task for the similar statement that ‘you can discover a film only at the movie theater.’
To these statements, which to my mind have more than a grain of truth to them, Pedullà’s disdain notwithstanding, I would add the words of the late director Roy Ward Baker, a friend of mine, who directed the only really first-rate film on the Titanic disaster (A Night To Remember, 1958). During an afternoon’s discussion in 1994 at his home in London, Baker told me that he’d been shocked by the impact of viewing a recent theatrical screening of A Night To Remember at a retrospective of his work at Britain’s National Film Theatre.
As Baker told me, ‘I felt like I was seeing it for the first time, you know? Like it was real again. I’d grown so used to seeing it on television, I’d forgotten what it was really like.’ Then, he leaned forward and said two sentences that I have never forgotten since; at least for me, they cut to the center of this entire argument. ‘You see’ Baker said, ‘on television, or on a DVD, you can inspect a film. But you can’t experience it.’ That comment hit me like a bolt of lightning; true, direct, and utterly incisive.”
Speaking with Adam Sternbergh, Ford, just back from an appearance at Comic-Con to promote his new film Ender’s Game, Ford noted that if the Star Wars films, or the Indiana Jones series, were released today in the intensely fan-driven environment created by the convention, and others like it, “everyone would be ahead of it, and everybody would know what it was, and it would be no fun at all. But people still went to movies in those days. People went to movie theaters. It was a community experience, and that was part of the fun. Now people see a movie on their iPad, alone, with interruptions for snacks [. . .] I think the success of Comic-Con is based on the partnership between the fans and the service providers, the entities — I won’t necessarily call them filmmakers — that supply the film product that supports their particular interest, whether it’s vampires or science-fiction fantasies or Transformers or whatever is going on [. . .] I think the smaller-scale movies, which I like very much, would be harder to conceive another iteration of.”
Thanks to producer Ian Mylchreest, I was asked to appear with Rebecca Romney of Bauman’s Rare Books to discuss famous books that have been made into films, including The Great Gatsby, To Kill A Mockingbird, Gone With the Wind and many more. As the show’s website above notes, “Bauman’s Rare Books in the Palazzo Shoppes has assembled an exhibition of novels that became famous films. The store has everything from a signed copy of Gone with the Wind to first editions of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. We look at some of the books and the movies that were made — what kind of books makes a great movie?” It was a fascinating discussion, and you can listen to it by clicking here, or on the image above.
Click here, or on the image above, to read Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s new essay “Life with Betty White: Performing the Authentic Proto-Feminist in Pioneering Early Television” in the latest issue of Film International.
As Foster notes, “Betty White has always been ahead of her time. This has been both a blessing and a curse. Most people, even scholars who specialize in television history, have little to no knowledge of the importance of Betty White in early live television, in the invention of the television sitcom, and as a pioneering television writer, producer, and actor. At 91, Betty White couldn’t be much hotter. As of February 20, 2013, her television “Q” score – her “likability quotient” – was the highest in the industry. Her popularity amongst all different markets, regardless of age, race, and demographics, is truly staggering, giving the Kardashians a run for their money.
White currently appears in two first-run TV programs, the network series Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, which she also co-produces, and Nick at Nite’s Hot in Cleveland, a show worth watching primarily to catch White stealing scene after scene and to watch her inventively breathe life into a character (Elka Ostrovsky) who is a strong, smart, unapologetically sexy elderly woman like none other. White won a Screen Actors Guild Award for her portrayal of Elka (Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor) in 2011. And she is considered to be the most popular and most trusted celebrity among Americans according to a 2011 poll conducted by Reuters.
But being ahead of her time has not always best served the interests of Betty White. Back in the nineteen-fifties, both playing and living the life of an independent and very capable funny and pretty woman in charge of her own sexuality, Betty was arguably too far ahead of her time, and she was eclipsed by the dim-witted, clowning, simple-minded character portrayed by Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy. It’s fascinating to compare the trajectories of Betty White and Lucille Ball in early TV history, and even more interesting to think about how female gender roles on television may have had an entirely different influence on American women had Betty White’s Life with Elizabeth (1952-1955) and Date with the Angels (1957-1958) stayed on the air and enjoyed the success and seemingly endless syndication of I Love Lucy. Lucy was still in reruns when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s and even now enjoys legendary popularity, despite its retrograde and sadly influential characterization of the female comic as sexless, clownish, childish, stupid and ever dependent on men, most significantly her husband ‘Ricky.’
Few note that well before Betty had success with Life with Elizabeth she had actually begun her TV career as early as 1939, when, only three months after graduating high school, Betty appeared on an early experimental Los Angeles TV station, singing songs from The Merry Widow. She did modelling, and during the war she served in the American Women’s Voluntary Services. She was very active in radio, in programs such as Blondie, The Great Gildersleeve, and This is Your FBI. She even had her own radio show, The Betty White Show. Even before White developed Life with Elizabeth, she rose to prominence as a beautiful, confident, intelligent, quick-witted comedic actress and eventual writer/producer known for her writing skills, her business acumen, her comic timing and her ability to ad-lib and write for television.
After an early career in radio and modelling, White was one of the first recognized early TV stars. White starred in the live five and one half hour ad-libbed variety show, Hollywood on Television, which was shown six days a week on station KLAC in Los Angeles from 1952 to 1956. This grueling trial by fire afforded White a platform to hone her skills as a writer and actress noted for both her audacity and her authenticity, the same elements she is celebrated for today. Hollywood on Television taught White to think on her feet, and connect with her viewers, most of whom were women working at home. They identified with White’s independence and resourcefulness. They enjoyed her intellect, her delicious sense of humor, and her ability to create a woman of both intellect and sensuality, especially in the repressive environment of the nineteen-fifties.
Betty had a mind for business, and in 1952, the same year she began solo hosting Hollywood on Television, she co-founded Bandy Productions with producer Don Fedderson and writer George Tibbles. The three of them created the comedy Life with Elizabeth. Betty was not only the star of the show but one of the producers. Life with Elizabeth enjoyed national syndication, and White was one of the only women in TV at that time with full creative control both in front of and behind the camera. In 2010, White won a Screen Actors Guild award for Lifetime Achievement, in recognition not just for her work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Golden Girls, but also for her early pioneering work on Life with Elizabeth and [her other pioneering television series, discussed at length in the Foster's article] Date with the Angels. It’s truly a shame that most people are not as familiar with Life with Elizabeth or Date with the Angels, because in these very unusual programs, Betty White created and performed a very modern version of what I’d call a proto-feminist visionary in the 1950s.”
As the journal’s website notes, “Cinespect is a leading media source on the New York City cinema experience and beyond. Founded in 2010, Cinespect is dedicated to offering readers the most robust and well-rounded content, including reviews of new releases and repertory programming, articles about film-related events in the city, interviews with industry professionals, op-eds, film festival coverage, and in-depth features.”
The current issue features articles on new DVD and Blu-ray releases; what’s happening at Film Forum, one of the last and most respected repertory cinema theaters in the United States, and one of the only theaters left that still has 35mm projection capability, regularly screening new 35mm prints of the classics in their original format; as well as reviews, festival coverage from around the world, interviews with emerging and established filmmakers and critics, and a host of other material.
Contributors include Genevieve Amaral, Joel Neville Anderson, Rachel Chu, Matt Cohen, Brian Doan, Will Dodson, Judith Dry, David Fitzgerald, Christopher Garland, Daniel Guzmán, Daniel Kavanagh, Sheila Kogan, Mónica López-González, John Oursler, Claire E. Peters, Nathan Rogers-Hancock, Jennifer Simmons, Ed Vallance, Stuart Weinstock, Marshall Yarbrough and a wide range of additional writers, each with their own distinctive voice and point of view, allowing for the widest possible range of discourse.
One of the most interesting critics working for Cinespect right now is Will Dodson, whose work on the site can be found by clicking here; right now he seems most interested in Japanese cinema both high and low, no pun intended. Subscriptions are free, and you can sign for the newsletter on the home page, which can be accessed by clicking the image above; check it out – this is some sharp and invigorating writing from a host of new voices, and absolutely worth your time and attention if you care at all about the past, present and future of the cinema.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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/