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Manohla Dargis & A.O. Scott – Best 25 of the 21st Century

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott of The New York Times pick the best films of the 21st century.

As they immediately add, “so far.” The introduction to the article notes that “we are now approximately one-sixth of the way through the 21st century, and thousands of movies have already been released. Which means that it’s high time for the sorting – and the fighting – to start.

As the chief film critics of The Times, we decided to rank, with some help from cinema savants on Facebook, the top 25 movies that are destined to be the classics of the future. While we’re sure almost everyone will agree with our choices, we’re equally sure that those of you who don’t will let us know.” And we’re off to the races.

My favorites on the list are The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Boyhood, Summer Hours [I was genuinely surprised and delighted to see this film on the list, but even so, I would have gone with Clouds of Sils Maria, but hey . . . Assayas is a master, so fine with me], The Hurt Locker [shot by multiple crews in Super 16mm so it looks as real as any battlefield coverage], In Jackson Heights, The Gleaners and I, Moonlight, Wendy and Lucy, and the exquisite Silent Light.

Missing for me immediately are The Aura and Melancholia, two stunning films that have gone into my ever-expanding Top Ten list, which now has at least 250 films in it, but that’s the fun of these listings, and it’s a solid stab at what will be remembered, and revered in the future. I’ll never, ever vote for a Pixar film, that’s for sure, but these are all solid and thoughtful choices, the kind of journalism we could use more of in daily newspapers.

Read the entire lavishly illustrated article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Books Are Still An Essential Part of Any Library

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

A library without books isn’t a serious library – too much material hasn’t been digitized.

In an interview in The Christian Science Monitor today, I told writer Weston Williams that “‘as the author of some 30 books on cinema history, I can readily attest that most of the deep research materials in this area, and in other related humanities areas, have never made the jump to digital format . . . The more superficial and recent articles are readily available, but once you get into the history of the medium, in the early part of the 20th century, you’re working with microfilm, or even more likely, actual print materials.’

Ignoring these older physical media, Dixon argues, is ‘erasing the past,’ until every scrap of information is online. And even then, there are other potential problems. The removal of 60 percent of the physical collection at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for instance, caused an uproar after it was reported that many of the books removed had been destroyed. A campus spokesman said that nothing had been lost from the scholarly record, since duplicates were retained in other libraries or available online. Given the short timeframe and seeming lack of consultation of the faculty, however, many critics expressed doubts that this was actually the case.

‘Only by trundling through the archives in detail – a process that would probably take a staff of people a number of years – could one be sure that nothing not digitized was being eliminated,’ says Dixon. ‘Also, in a number of cases, when materials are scanned, a very bad job is done of it, and the scan quality is so poor as to make the document almost unreadable.’ So, in most cases the primary research sources one needs for serious humanities research simply aren’t online – as I found writing my recent book Black & White Cinema: A Short History – and only print materials, properly preserved, gave me the information I needed.

If everything – everything – every scrap of information – is digitized, then perhaps one can make the case for a “bookless library.” But that will never happen, and so books, microfilm, periodicals, and other print materials from the dawn of the printing press to the end of the 20th century should be preserved at all costs, and readily accessible – not in high density storage. Otherwise, one has no idea what one is missing, which is indeed erasing the past.

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Dorothy Arzner Retrospective in Melbourne – Interview

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

Recently, I was interviewed on the Dorothy Arzner Retrospective at the Melbourne Cinematheque.

Click here, or on the image above to hear the podcast, and as the site notes, “the Melbourne Cinémathèque hosts a season dedicated to the zesty, irreverent films of Dorothy Arzner, a pioneer female filmmaker whose career spanned the silent era into the 1940s.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is a film critic who has written an essay accompanying the season for the Senses of Cinema online journal on her 1932 film, Merrily We Go to Hell. He places Arzner in the pantheon of early women whose role as pioneers is still under appreciated.”

The interview was conducted by Jason Di Rosso, for his show The Final Cut, and he did a superb job with the editing – cutting in sound bites from several of Arzner’s films to really drive the point home – and the entire event was a distinct pleasure – with a sound link via telephone to Melbourne that was as clear as a bell.

I’m thrilled that Arzner is finally getting some measure of the international respect she so clearly deserves; my thanks to Jason, to Senses of Cinema, and of course, hats off to the Melbourne Cinematheque for making the retrospective an event not to be missed. Now, how about a box set of her work on DVD?

Here’s a chance to see a classic film on the big screen, the way it was meant to be shown.

Moonlight Wins Oscar as Best Picture

Monday, February 27th, 2017

In a surprising but welcome upset, Moonlight wins Best Picture at the Oscars.

La La Land had been the favorite going in, and picked up six Academy Awards during the ceremony, but then, Warren Beatty, looking clearly confused, got the wrong card, and co-presenter Faye Dunaway incorrectly announced that La La Land had won the award for Best Picture at the 89th Annual Academy Awards.

But it hadn’t. The real winner was Barry Jenkins‘ groundbreaking indie film Moonlight, a fact that only emerged after several minutes of speeches from the La La Land team, but culminated with La La‘s producer Jordan Horowitz graciously stepping forward to clear up the confusion, stating flatly “Moonlight, you guys won best picture. This is not a joke.”

As reported in The Washington Post, Horowitz continued, “‘Moonlight has won best picture.’ Confused gasps and stunned silence from the crowd quickly turned into a standing ovation. He held up the card that proved it: ‘Moonlight … Best Picture.'”

Host Jimmy Kimmel tried to smooth things over with a joke, but Horowitz graciously declared “I’m going to be really proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight.” And thus a small “picture that could” took on the Hollywood establishment and won, proof that even in a hyper-commercial industry, a film with a message still has a chance in mainstream cinema.

Now, let’s see Moonlight rolled out nationally in a big re-release, with this emotionally charged moment to reach the widest audience possible, after providing Academy Awards viewers with a moment that will surely go down in the Oscar history books. If anything, this will be the one Oscar moment everyone talks about– which can only bring the picture more well-deserved attention.

Moonlight is the Best Picture of 2016 – it’s official.

New Book: A Brief History of Comic Book Movies

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

New Book: A Brief History of Comic Book Movies

Wheeler Winston Dixon and Richard Graham have published a new book, A Brief History of Comic Book Movies (Palgrave Macmillan). These films trace their origins back to the early 1940s, when the first Batman and Superman serials were made. The serials, and later television shows in the 1950s and 60s, were for the most part designed for children.

But today, with the continuing rise of Comic-Con, they seem to be more a part of the mainstream than ever, appealing to adults as well as younger fans. This book examines comic book movies from the past and present, exploring how these films shaped American culture from the post-World War II era to the present day, and how they adapted to the changing tastes and mores of succeeding generations.

Organized in rough chronological order, the book’s five chapters cover Origins, The DC Universe, The Marvel Universe, Animé Films, and Indies and Outliers, examining not only Hollywood films, but European, Asian, and French animated films as well. Literally hundreds of films, directors, and comic book characters are examined in the book, making this a one-stop source for information on this emerging genre.

Cynthia J. Miller calls the volume “engaging and very accessible…its value to readers will continue even as many more films enter into production and distribution,” while David Sterritt adds that “this history of an under-studied field is original, enlightening, and exemplary. I recommend it highly.”

The book is available right now as an e-book or pdf, and will be published in hardcover on February 5, 2017. It’s a solid, comprehensive overview of this new and emerging genre, so check it out if you can. Whether you like it or not, comic book movies rule the world right now, and yet they emerged from the margins of mainstream cinema – read all about it here.

My thanks to Richard Graham for his unstinting help and expertise in this project.

Sterling K. Brown and Issa Rae to Host Spirit Awards

Monday, December 5th, 2016

The 2017 Spirit Awards are much more interesting than the annual Oscar race.

As Matt Warren reports on the Film Independent website, “if it wasn’t already obvious from its beachfront locale (bring your swimsuit!) or avant garde approach to red carpet fashion (that psychedelic cowboy-hat-and-poncho combo is just fine by us), you should know by now that the Film Independent Spirit Awards are not your typical awards show.

The purpose of the Spirit Awards isn’t to anoint individual filmmakers or performers and elevate them into some sort of untouchable, aristocratic fraternity of Hollywood bigwigs—it’s to celebrate independent moviemaking as a whole.

It’s beyond cliché at this point to observe that film is a collaborative exercise, one that brings an entire micro-community of likeminded artists together to create something new and unique. So really, “community” is the key watchword here—and what better way for likeminded communities to celebrate each other’s work than to break bread together. Or, in this case, breakfast burritos.

The actual 2017 Spirit Awards ceremony won’t drop until February 25, but on Saturday, January 9 this year’s honorees will once again gather for Film Independent’s annual Nominee Brunch in West Hollywood in order to toast the past 12 months in independent film (and perhaps sip one too many mimosas) and watch as Brunch co-hosts Sterling K. Brown and Issa Rae take the stage to award a trio of filmmaker grants: the Piaget Producers Award, the Truer Than Fiction Award and the Kiehl’s Someone to Watch Award.

And if that wasn’t enough, the Sprit Awards have announced that the great David Oyelowo as the honorary chair of the 2017 awards, as announced by Film Independent President Josh Welsh. Need a quick refresher about who the 2017 Film Independent Spirit Award nominees actually are? Check out our Nominee page here, or watch last week’s press conference announcement, featuring Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) and Edgar Ramirez (Carlos).

As for this year’s Brunch co-hosts, Welsh said, ‘Sterling K. Brown and Issa Rae are two of the most captivating and talented actors working today…we’re so happy to have them host our Spirit Awards brunch.’

Sterling K. Brown rose to fame in 2016 with his jaw-dropping portrayal of Christopher Darden in the FX phenomenon The People vs. O.J. Simpson. He currently stars on the hit NBC drama This is Us. Rae—who joined us at the LA Film Festival “Diversity Speaks” panel in June (click here for a full recap)—is the creator and star of HBO’s critically acclaimed dramedy Insecure, which recently wrapped its first season. The show is an adaptation of Rae’s popular web series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which you can find here.

Two actors of enormous depth who have both been involved in projects exploring, with nuance and sophistication, the complexities of African American life in the 2oth and 21st centuries, Rae and Brown are in good company with Oyelowo, widely acclaimed for his performances in films including Middle of Nowhere (for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Male Spirit Award in 2013) and Selma (nominated for Best Male Lead, 2015). Past Spirit Award Honorary Chairs have included Jessica Chastain, Kerry Washington, Benicio del Toro and Jodie Foster, among others.”

Not to be missed. Click here, or on the image above for a video.

Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s “Pull My Daisy”

Monday, November 7th, 2016

Every so often, it’s good to go back and look at a classic.

As Wikipedia notes in their discussion of the film, “Pull My Daisy (1959) is a short film that typifies the Beat Generation. Directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, Daisy was adapted by Jack Kerouac from the third act of his play, Beat Generation; Kerouac also provided improvised narration.

The film starred poets Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso, artists Larry Rivers (Milo) and Alice Neel (the Bishop’s mother), musician David Amram, actors Richard Bellamy (the Bishop) and Delphine Seyrig (Milo’s wife), dancer Sally Gross (the Bishop’s sister), and Pablo Frank, Robert Frank’s then-young son.

Based on an incident in the life of Beat icon Neal Cassady and his wife, the painter Carolyn, the film tells the story of a railway brakeman whose wife invites a respected Bishop over for dinner. However, the brakeman’s bohemian friends crash the party, with comic results.

Originally intended to be called The Beat Generation the title Pull My Daisy was taken from the poem of the same name written by Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Cassady in the late 1940s. Part of the original poem was used as a lyric in David Amram‘s jazz composition that opens the film . . .

Pull My Daisy was accordingly praised for years as an improvisational masterpiece, until Leslie revealed in a November 28, 1968 article in The Village Voice that the film was actually carefully planned, rehearsed, and directed by him and Frank, who shot the film on a professionally lit studio set.

Leslie and Frank discuss the film at length in Jack Sargeant‘s book Naked Lens: Beat Cinema. An illustrated transcript of the film’s narration was also published in 1961 by Grove Press. Pull My Daisy was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1996, as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.'”

Shot in 35mm on a shoestring budget in a New York City which has long since passed into legend, Pull My Daisy is an authentic talisman of a bygone era, in which art was valued over gloss and artificial perfection. The film was shot silent, because there was no money for sync-sound, but despite the rough look of the film, it’s a work of raw, authentic beauty. Definitely worth 25 minutes of your time; this is the way it was in a more egalitarian and compassionate era.

Dorothy Arzner at the Lumière Festival

Monday, October 10th, 2016

Dorothy Arzner’s work as a director is being appreciated anew at the Lumière Festival.

As Damon Wise perceptively writes in Variety, “Dorothy Arzner died with no Oscars to her name, honorary or otherwise, and to date, her only reward, to mark a prolific career that spanned from 1922 to 1943, is a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.

And yet Arzner, who receives a tribute at France’s Lumière Festival,  remains one of the most interesting, if not one of the more significant, directors of the so-called Golden Age. Rising swiftly up through the ranks in the silent era, Arzner broke the glass ceiling at the age of 30, becoming one of the first ever women allowed to call the shots within the male-dominated studio system.

In retrospect, it was perhaps not so strange that Arzner, born in 1897, was attracted to the movies – while she was growing up, her father Louis ran a famous Hollywood restaurant that served all the heavy hitters of the silent era: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Mack Sennett and directing legend D.W. Griffith.

Arzner originally aimed to pursue medicine, having studied the subject at USC, but dropped out shortly after WW1. By chance, a flu epidemic had swept the country, and every industry needed workers, no matter how inexperienced, and the movie business was no exception.

Hired by Cecil B DeMille’s brother William, Arzner began at Famous Players-Lasky in the script room, and after six months progressed to the editing department, cutting, by her own estimation, some 52 movies, including the 1922 Rudolph Valentino classic Blood and Sand. Fatefully, Arzner also shot some (uncredited) bull-fighting scenes for that movie, and it was her desire to direct that brought matters to a head in 1927. Arzner had been moonlighting as a scriptwriter and was about to quit, to take up a directing job at Columbia.

But instead of walking out, Arzner wanted to say goodbye to someone – anyone – at the studio that had played fair by her. By chance, this turned out to producer Walter Wanger, who organized a summit meeting to keep her. Wanger offered her a directing job, but Arzner played hardball.

‘Not unless I can be on a set in two weeks with an A-picture,’ she insisted. ‘I’d rather do a picture for a small company and have my own way than a B-picture for Paramount.’ She got her wish: the result was Fashions For Women, with Esther Ralston, then a major star.

Arzner’s deal with Paramount was good by anyone’s standards. ‘I was under contract to Paramount for three years at a time,’ she told film historians Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary in a rare interview in 1974, ‘[and] paid by the week. I ended with a two-year contract, including choice of story. I never had to worry about control over phases of the production. The departments were geared to give a director what he wanted, if he knew exactly what he wanted.’

After five films, and a reshuffle of top brass, Arzner left Paramount to go freelance, which is when Arzner began to make her name as a director of women. Although she didn’t get to realize one of several dream projects – an anti-war movie called Stepdaughters of War with Marlene Dietrich, Arzner worked with many big names of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, including Clara Bow, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Lucille Ball.

The Wild Party, Arzner’s 1929 film with Bow, her first talking picture, is often cited as a key work in the director’s filmography, being the story of a college girl whose party lifestyle gets her into trouble. Made before the restrictive Hays Code was introduced in 1930,  The Wild Party features many of the themes that would recur in Arzner’s films, in which women choose independence and refuse to be dominated by men, or even each other.

Though Arzner remained private about her personal life, her sexuality was an open secret in Hollywood and has since made her films a treasure trove for latter-day critics and theorists. Legendary critic Pauline Kael described Arzner’s 1933 film Christopher Strong, starring Katherine Hepburn as a female aviator, as ‘one of the rare movies told from a woman’s sexual point of view.’

Sadly, Arzner’s most famous film is also one of her last; a film so ahead of its time that it didn’t find its fanbase until the ’70s. Starring Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball, Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) is an unlikely-female-buddy burlesque movie that conceals a withering attack on the male gaze under its showgirl wardrobe of sequins and feathers.

This was to be Arzner’s penultimate film – after contracting pneumonia that laid her low for a year, the director – who died in 1979, aged 82 – made the decision in 1943 to quit for good, and stuck to it. The story might have ended there, but somehow Arzner’s legacy endured, just as she herself had survived in her heyday. As Katharine Hepburn put it to Arzner in a telegram, when she was honoured by the DGA in 1975, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?'”

This last comment is a rather ironic comment coming from one of Hollywood’s greatest women of the screen during the era; and incidentally, Arzner didn’t quit the business in 1943 – in the middle of directing her last feature, First Comes Courage (1943), concerning a young woman, Nikki (Merle Oberon) who works undercover against the Nazis for the Swedish resistance, Arzner fell ill with pneumonia, and was replaced with another director, rather than allowing her to finish the film herself.

After that, it was Pepsi-Cola commercials for her long-time friend Joan Crawford, as well as a long career as a lecturer, teacher, and speaker. I’ve been saying this for years; why isn’t there a box set of her work? But there isn’t, and it isn’t likely to happen now, but nevertheless Arzner’s work remains, as a signpost to younger directors willing to take on the system and fight for what they believe – something that’s even harder to do today than it was then.

Dorothy Arzner – one of the great pioneers of the American sound film.

Maureen Honey’s New Book – Aphrodite’s Daughters

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

Cultural historian and theorist Maureen Honey has an essential new book out from Rutgers University Press.

As the website for the book notes, “the Harlem Renaissance was a watershed moment for racial uplift, poetic innovation, sexual liberation, and female empowerment. Aphrodite’s Daughters introduces us to three amazing women who were at the forefront of all these developments, poetic iconoclasts who pioneered new and candidly erotic forms of female self-expression.

Maureen Honey paints a vivid portrait of three African American women—Angelina Weld Grimké, Gwendolyn B. Bennett, and Mae V. Cowdery—who came from very different backgrounds but converged in late 1920s Harlem to leave a major mark on the literary landscape.

Honey examines the varied ways these poets articulated female sexual desire, ranging from Grimké’s invocation of a Sapphic goddess figure to Cowdery’s frank depiction of bisexual erotics to Bennett’s risky exploration of the borders between sexual pleasure and pain. Yet Honey also considers how they were united in their commitment to the female body as a primary source of meaning, strength, and transcendence.

The product of extensive archival research, Aphrodite’s Daughters draws from Grimké, Bennett, and Cowdery’s published and unpublished poetry, along with rare periodicals and biographical materials, to immerse us in the lives of these remarkable women and the world in which they lived. It thus not only shows us how their artistic contributions and cultural interventions were vital to their own era, but also demonstrates how the poetic heart of their work keeps on beating.”

Aphrodite’s Daughters has already attracted a great deal of favor able critical attention, with Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, author of Dorothy West’s Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color describing Aphrodite’s Daughters as “an excellent book on a trio of under-read and often misunderstood poets. Maureen Honey’s portrait of this unique cadre of modernists reveals the fascinating conflicts of politics and poetics that exemplify the Harlem Renaissance’s artistic production.”

Cheryl A. Wall, author of Women of the Harlem Renaissance adds that “Maureen Honey’s archival research and critical acumen transform our understanding of Gwendolyn Bennett, Mae Cowdery, and Angelina Grimké, poets who explored their interior and erotic lives with deft lyricism and uncommon courage.”

This is a stunning, groundbreaking piece of work – well worth your time and attention.

The Academy Finally Starts To Get The Message

Sunday, July 10th, 2016

While it’s far from solving the problem, it seems that AMPAS is finally getting the memo on diversity – at last.

As April Reign, creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite notes, writing in The Guardian, “on 29 June, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences released its list of film-makers, artists and executives invited to join its ranks, and eventually play a part in who walks away with an Oscar. The Academy invited 683 potential members, its largest and most diverse class ever. While this was an important move toward the inclusion of more marginalized communities within the Academy, it is merely one step on a longer journey.

While reviewing the list of invitees, I was struck by the names of individuals that I believe should have been Academy members long ago. Melvin van Peebles, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Euzhan Palcy and others have amassed such a significant body of work through the years that the 2016 list of invitees was clearly, in part, righting a wrong.

These and other omissions speak to one of the concerns I voiced when discussing #OscarsSoWhite, the hashtag I created: the way in which individuals are nominated to the Academy must be reviewed and revamped so that deserving potential members are not overlooked due to overly stringent rules.

I applaud the effort of the Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy’s president, to diversify its ranks. With 283 invitees from 59 countries, the Academy demonstrates its recognition of amazing talent outside of our borders that should be welcomed. Misan Sangay, Trinh T Minh-ha, and Souleymane Cissé are all examples of international film-makers who have been invited to join the Academy.

It is important to note that not just the acting categories have been diversified. Importantly, casting directors, producers, and directors, those who have significant influence over who works on a film, both in front of and behind the camera, have also seen their ranks become more inclusive.

Overall, the numbers look impressive: this is the largest and most diverse invitation class ever. Of the invitees, 46% are women and 41% are people of color. But when one does a deeper analysis, the results leave something to be desired. More than 300 of the invited members are women. But even if they all accept, the percentage of women in the Academy increases by just 2%, from 25% to 27%.

This is significantly less than the overall representation of women in this country. Similarly, 280 people of color were invited to join the Academy, but their acceptance will only increase the ranks by 3%, to 11% from 8%. This is in stark contrast to recent US census numbers indicating that people of color are 37% of the United States population, and growing.”

In short, this is a good start. But let’s see how many of these people are employed to direct a major blockbuster, or helm an entire series, or, in short, get work as an actor, director or writer on a regular basis – enough to really have full-time employment. Hollywood seems to be making duller films than ever, while the interesting new material, as always, comes from the margins – these people could help to start that process.

Will they be given a chance to do so?

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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