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Forgotten African American Women of Early Hollywood

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

Here’s a really important new exhibition at the California African American Museum; above, Iris Hall as Eve Mason in The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), directed by Oscar Micheaux.

As the notes for exhibition outline, “curated by Tyree Boyd-Pates, History Curator and Program Manager, CAAM, and the Tyree Boyd-Pates, Center Stage [is] an exhibition that considers pioneering African American filmmakers and production companies in the early 20th century that provided African American women the opportunity to participate in front of, and behind, the camera. They challenged disparaging portrayals of black women in Hollywood, and instead conveyed their wit, intelligence, and talent for largely black audiences to admire and emulate. The exhibition runs from June 28 to October 15, 2017.

Produced for American audiences between 1910 and 1950, these motion pictures were commonly called race films. CAAM will screen several rarely seen examples, including Oscar Micheaux‘s Within Our Gates (1920) and The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), extant clips from Lincoln Picture Company’s The Symbol of the Unconquered (1921, dir. Harry Grant), The Scar of Shame (1929), The Scar of Shame (1941, dir. Spencer Williams), and others. Each film features women protagonists and captures the spirit of entrepreneurship and African American upliftment characteristic of race films from this era.”

As Nadra Nittle adds in an article on the series on the KCET website, “Hollywood has long had a problem with representation and diversity, especially concerning anyone female and nonwhite. In the first half of the 20th century, black women were largely relegated to playing mammy and Jezebel roles. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation even depicted African Americans as rapists and imbeciles, leading to a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

The black woman’s unfortunate standing in Hollywood history is why the California African American Museum’s “Center Stage: African American Women in Silent Race Films,” which runs until October 15, is so significant. It reveals how as early as 100 years ago, independent black filmmakers presented complex portrayals of women of color that major studios never fathomed. These silent gems depict black women exploring their religious faith, fighting for the rights of African Americans and in loving relationships. They underscore how even today Hollywood has much ground to cover in its depiction of black women.”

I have been running these films in my classes for years, way back in the 1970s in the 16mm era, when they were first made available in prints from the original 35mm negatives. But with the passing of time, it seems that people forget, and new generations need to be reminded, of the immense value of these works – films, directors, and actors who made an enormous and indelible contribution to the history of the cinema. Not only are these films an essential part of cinema history; they offer an effective antidote to the evils of D.W. Griffith’s ultra-racist Birth of A Nation, which is still being widely screened while these far superior films are neglected. It’s time to change that – forever.

This is an amazing chance to see these key works; don’t miss it if you’re in Los Angeles.

Storm de Hirsch’s “Goodbye in the Mirror” (1964)

Sunday, July 9th, 2017

Storm de Hirsch’s Goodbye in the Mirror is an early masterpiece of feminist cinema.

Storm de Hirsch is finally getting something of a reappraisal of her long career; right now, archivist Stephen Broomer is trying to track down some of her more obscure books of poetry, but her major work was in film, and Goodbye in The Mirror, shot in 16mm with post-synced sound in Rome in 1964 is one of her most affecting films. I knew de Hirsch, and she was kind, generous, and very much her own person; like Shirley Clarke, who is better remembered, she was very much a founding member of the New York avantgarde.

Goodbye in the Mirror was shot for less than $20,000, and later blown up to 35mm – I ran the 35mm version in my class on experimental cinema sometime ago, to excellent audience reaction – and was, in de Hirsch’s words, “a dramatic feature shot on location in Rome. Centered around the adventures and illusions of three girls living abroad, the film explores their restlessness and personal involvements in assuming the role of woman as hunter”, prompting critic / filmmaker Jonas Mekas to proclaim that “I, myself, belonging to the Spies for Beauty, Inc., and the humble monk of the Order of Fools, was allowed to peek at this film, and I couldn’t believe what beauty struck my eyes, what sensuousness.”

As filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos noted of the film, “from the beginning to the end of the film, the spectator’s pleasure and understanding are enhanced on the same social filmic scale of that grand experimentalist Rossellini. Though the images in most films are easily forgotten, such is not the case with those of Goodbye in the Mirror. Best retained and rooted are the images and episodes of the turning streetcar; the central characters Maria and Marco; the sweeper; the scurrying nuns; the steps of the water supply tank ([a] homage, perhaps, to Maya Deren‘s Meshes of the Afternoon); the visual melodies as conceived in the walk episodes which alternate between one character and another; Marco’s performance; the grapes being washed and the paper bag crumpled by the same two lovers. One is reminded that there is a sense of existence as in the famous Sous les toits de Paris by René Clair.”

In a conversation with de Hirsch, Shirley Clarke called Goodbye in the Mirror the first “real woman’s film” and added that “so far in film, we have yet to have treated on the most basic level, very personal reactions of women. Because so far, we’ve had mostly men directors who, whether they’ve been very sensitive or not, have not really been able to deal with women this way. Just like when they write about women, they’re writing from a certain separateness. Goodbye in the Mirror is dealing with women. And women’s reactions to a series of events.”

The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in Spring 1964. It was screened at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland that summer, and at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 1966, and yet it’s mostly forgotten today. A DVD of this film would be a very welcome addition to the filmic canon; and bear in mind that this is just one of de Hirsch’s many works, all of which can be rented from the Filmmakers’ Cooperative in New York in 16mm format.

Storm de Hirsch – yet another important artist who deserves more attention.

Women Who Built The New York Art World

Sunday, July 9th, 2017

Here’s a fascinating piece on the women – often forgotten – who built the New York art world of today.

As Alexxa Gotthardt writes in Artsy, “over the course of 10 years, between 1929 and 1939, four of New York City’s most iconic museums emerged in Manhattan: the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, The Frick Collection, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. These institutions are now world-famous. But their founders—predominantly women—are relatively unknown.

During this period, other women—like Peggy Guggenheim, Grace Nail Johnson, and Florine Stettheimer—also helped carve out the New York art landscape by establishing influential galleries and salons that fostered avant-garde art.

Today, their work is still visible in the fabric of Manhattan’s landmark art scene, filled with progressive museums, galleries, and experimental art spaces. Rarely, however, are these women heralded as the pioneers they were. Below, we highlight the radical tastes and essential contributions of the women who shaped the New York art world we know today.”

See the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above – essential reading!

New Article – “Synthetic Cinema” in QRFV

Friday, July 7th, 2017

I have a new article out today on the rise of “synthetic” cinema in QRFV.

Above, Mark Ruffalo in what he all too accurately terms the “man cancelling suit” for his role as The Hulk in yet another Marvel comic book movie; this is just the sort of thing I’m talking about in this article – films that are so far removed from the real that there’s no human agency left in them.

As I write, in part, in the article, “there’s a force at work that has pushed mainstream cinema almost entirely into the fantasy franchise zone; the DC, Marvel, and now Universal Dark Universe films, comic book movies that rely almost entirely on special effects for that added ‘wow’ factor, often shot or reprocessed into 3-D, almost entirely lacking in plot, characterization, depth, or innovation – films that have no connection to the real world at all. I’ve [recently] published a book, A Brief History of Comic Book Movies, co-written with comic book historian Richard Graham on the history of the comic book movie, and for me, it was by far the most difficult project I’ve ever worked on, because as Gertrude Stein famously put it in another context, in comic book movies, ‘there’s no there there.’

There’s nothing remotely real here, or even authentic, and absolutely nothing is at stake. There are meaningless titanic battles, but the outcome is always predestined – the major characters will live until they have outlived fan base demand, and then they’ll ‘die’ – only to be resurrected in a reboot after sufficient time has passed. Most pressingly, nothing really happens in a comic book film despite the constant bombast, the endless ‘shared universe’ team-ups, and the inevitably angst ridden backstories that most superheroes and heroines are provided with today – a trend started in the early 1960s in Marvel comics, whose protagonists had a seemingly human, sympathetic edge, as opposed to the square jawed certainty of DC’s Superman and Batman.

There’s no real progression here, just repetition, for as Marvel head Stan Lee has famously stated, ‘fans don’t want change; they want the illusion of change.’ And that’s what they get – a film that starts off with things in a pattern of stasis, disrupted by an artificial crisis, which amid much hand wringing and supposed character development is brought to some sort of conclusion in the final reel of the film, but with a trapdoor always – always – left open for a possible sequel, because what Hollywood wants more than anything else in 2017 is a film that can turn into a long running, reliable franchise, as witness the long string of the ultra-comic book action films in the Fast and Furious series. This is the central issue that is facing the cinema today.”

You can read the entire article here – behind a paywall. But it’s worth it!

Advice to Young Filmmakers from Denis Côté

Friday, July 7th, 2017

As Leo Barraclough reports in Variety, director Denis Côté does not suffer fools gladly.

As Barraclough writes, “Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté has won multiple awards at top festivals, including Berlin with Vic + Flo Saw a Bear and Locarno for Curling. This week he has been mentoring a group of student filmmakers at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, where he advised them on how to get ahead in the independent film world. Variety was given exclusive access to the discussion.

Although he is genial, Côté doesn’t seem like a man to take hostages. He told the 10 students – gathered together by European Film Promotion as part of its Future Frames program — that they were ‘shy,’ and given the context of the discussion – how to get your films selected by film festivals — it wasn’t a compliment.

‘You need to be social. If you are this kind of weird poet director who has no friends and is always alone you might be a genius but… you need to talk to people,’ he said. ‘Cinema is a social world. It is not like playing a guitar alone in your room or painting. Cinema is the most social art.’

Young filmmakers needed to be proactive when trying to get on the festival circuit, and not leave it to others to put their films in front of festival programmers. ‘Never trust sales agents, distributors or films schools when they say they are taking care of your film. Send [the submissions] yourself.’

He cautioned against being overly pushy. ‘There is a thin line. You need to be respectful and not annoying. The moment you become annoying everybody knows.’

Côté’s go-getting attitude is also applied to generating projects. ‘I’m my own job provider. If I don’t write a new script, no one will write it for me. I’m my own locomotive bringing people with me. I’m open to collaboration but it’s never happened to me.’

He explained that he has developed the reputation for being ‘this alien weird guy making these weird films,’ which may put off writers from sending him their scripts to direct. His ‘weird’ – a.k.a. experimental — films include Bestiaire, a documentary in which a variety of zoo animals stare into the camera, and Carcasses, about a man who collects wrecked cars, and four teenagers with Down Syndrome, carrying guns, who invade his junkyard.

He advises young people to be brave and not to wait too long to go into production on their first feature. ‘Young filmmakers are just afraid to shoot sometimes,’ he said. ‘If they feel that they don’t have the right budget for their story they don’t start.’

Many of his films have been shot with very little money and just a few people. His latest feature documentary A Skin So Soft, which follows six body builders, was shot over 27 days on a budget of Euros 40,000 ($45,700). Although unconfirmed, the intention is for the film to have its world premiere at Locarno.

Côté’s love affair with cinema started in his early teenage years when his diet was purely horror movies, mainly European artistic genre filmmakers like Dario Argento, who filled his head with images of ‘witches, zombies, skulls, blood and cannibals.’

When he went to college at 18 his film teacher opened his eyes to the delights of arthouse movies by the likes of Fassbinder, Godard and Cassavetes. ‘It changed my life,’ Côté says. ‘I never watched horror cinema after that, but its DNA was still inside me, so when you watch some of my films there is a feeling of menace. There is always something that I borrowed from horror cinema because it has stuck in my head and my personality somewhere.’

After college he became a film critic on community radio, and later worked as the critic for a local publication. He then decided to make his first feature film. ‘I said, “I’m going to show the world what I can do with zero money, a video camera and four people,” he recalled. ‘I was pretentious like that.’

He decided to ‘make a movie at the end of the world’ and so chose a village at the end of a road heading out of Quebec. Drifting States (2005) featured a man driving for 16 hours – shortened to two minutes and 45 seconds in the film – until the road stopped (‘for me that was super poetic,’ he said), and then starting his life afresh.

The film won the video section award at Locarno and the prize money allowed him to quit his job and follow the film as it appeared in around 50 festivals over one and a half years. When the film won $10,000 at a festival in Korea, he used the money to make his next film, Our Private Lives (2007).

Bigger-budget films followed, like All That She Wants (2008) and Curling (2010), but Côté has repeatedly returned to low-budget filmmaking. He remains an independent film guy at heart and admits he has an aversion to folks from the mainstream movie industry. [As for Hollywood filmmaking, he notes] ‘I can’t be around these people. I hate these people so much.'”

Words of wisdom from someone who knows what he’s talking about.

Brilliant Book: Steven Shaviro on Accelerationism

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

Here’s a brilliant collection of essays from cutting-edge scholar Steven Shaviro.

In an interview in the online journal Vice, Shaviro outlined the basic thesis of his work on accelerationism with writer Charlie Ambler, which is as good an introduction as any to the theory behind this approach to rampant consumerism – one which, by the way, makes complete sense to me, and is at once both revolutionary and really, really frightening. Notes Shaviro:

“Broadly defined, ‘accelerationism’ is the idea that the only way out is the way through. If we want to get beyond the current social and economic order and reach a post-capitalist future, then we need to push through all the messy complications of capitalism, rather than revert to something supposedly older and purer.

Accelerationism rejects certain ideas currently popular on the left, like ‘small is beautiful,’ and the Luddite enmity towards new technologies. Instead, it urges us to embrace and repurpose all the most advanced technologies.

If computational technologies are eliminating millions of jobs, then the best response is not to demand the jobs back, but to spread the wealth—to give back what the 1 Percent has stolen from everybody else—so that people can afford to lead comfortable lives without always worrying about the cost of housing or the size of their credit card bills.

There are different varieties of accelerationism. At one extreme, accelerationism might embrace the idea that the worse things get, the better the prospect for a revolution to overthrow everything. This seems obviously foolish to me, and I don’t think that it is actually advocated by many accelerationists.

Much more subtly, Marx claimed that the contradictions that beset capitalism would eventually lead to a struggle between workers and capitalists. He hoped that this struggle would end in the establishment of communism, but he warned that it could also result in ‘the mutual destruction of the contending parties.’

Marx was saying that, due to its inherent strains and stresses, capitalism will lead to catastrophe if it isn’t somehow overcome. This is an accelerationist view, to the extent that it sees the possibilities for overcoming capitalism arising out of the very development of capitalism as a world system. But this doesn’t happen in any mechanistic or predetermined way.

As for how redistribution of wealth might be related to accelerationism—when somebody like Thomas Piketty argues for global taxes in order to force a redistribution of wealth, he is trying to save the capitalist system from its own self-destructive excesses. But as Slavoj Zizek has observed, the rich will never pay such a tax voluntarily; so just getting such a tax enacted would involve other changes as well, indeed radical ones that would change capitalism substantially.”

There’s much more in this groundbreaking text; to read the full interview in Vice, just click here.

Forthcoming Book: The Films of Terence Fisher

Friday, June 30th, 2017

I have a new book coming out from Auteur Press / Columbia University Press this Fall, 2017.

Tracing the entire career of the British director Terence Fisher, best known for his Gothic horror films for Hammer Film Productions―such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958)―The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond covers not only his horror films, but also his film noirs, comedies, and early apprenticeship work to create a full picture of Fisher’s life and work.

Based on the work Dixon did in his groundbreaking study The Charm of Evil, this is an entirely revised and rewritten work with new research, new details, and fresh critical insights. Brimming with rare stills, interviews, and detailed analysis of Fisher’s films―both for Hammer as well as his earlier work―this is the ultimate “one-stop” book on Terence Fisher, both in his horror films, and his entire body of work, as well as his legacy to the British cinema.

“This book is a cinephile’s dream, as well as an exemplary work of scholarship. Wheeler Winston Dixon illuminates the movies and the career of Terence Fisher in loving detail, bringing us close to an important director whose work now gets its proper due for the first time.” – Steven Shaviro, author of The Universe of Things

The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond will appeal especially to fans of Fisher, of Hammer horror films, and of British cinema more generally. It made me want to watch and re-watch these movies!” – Daniel Herbert, author of Videoland

“Dixon’s book is the definitive study of Terence Fisher, the director who spearheaded Britain’s 1950s Gothic revival and put Hammer Films on the map of international horror cinema.  An invaluable resource that belongs on the shelf of any serious horror fan or scholar.” – Ian Olney, author of Zombie Cinema

“Dixon recreates Fisher’s world of filmmaking with true skill, bringing each movie to life, and highlighting the many challenges that surrounded the director’s projects. The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond provides a valuable guide not just to Fisher, but also to the twentieth-century British Film Industry in general.” – John Wills, author of Disney Culture

Look for it this Fall; my thanks to all who helped with this project.

Director Oscar Micheaux Finally Gets A Biopic

Friday, June 30th, 2017

Pioneering African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux is finally getting a biopic – about time!

As Cynthia Littleton reports exclusively in Variety, “HBO is developing a biopic of pioneering African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux that has Tyler Perry on board to star. Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are shepherding the project for Sony Pictures TV through their Storyline Entertainment banner. Perry is set to executive produce with Zadan and Meron but does not plan to direct.

Charles Murray, an alum of Sons of Anarchy and [The History Channel’s remake] of Roots, is penning the script. It’s based on the 2007 biography Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker by film historian Patrick McGilligan. ‘We’re thrilled to be partnering with Tyler Perry to bring Oscar Micheaux’s inspiring and trailblazing life story to HBO,’ said Zadan. Added Meron: ‘There are so many parallels between the groundbreaking work that Micheaux pioneered and Perry’s achievements as an artist that it feels like a natural fit.’

A novelist turned director, Micheaux raised the money to produce the film adaptation of his 1917 book The Homesteader [in 1919] after rejecting an option offer from another company when they refused to let him direct. Micheaux is believed to have helmed more than 40 features between 1919 and 1948, working outside the confines of Hollywood in the face of discrimination against an African-American entrepreneur.

Early on, Micheaux tackled the problem of distribution by personally driving prints of his films to black communities around the country, where they played to segregated audiences. His films largely featured all-black casts and were an effort to counter racial stereotypes with humanistic portrayals of black life. His notable works included 1920’s Within Our Gates, a response to D.W. Griffith’s appallingly racist Birth of a Nation (1915); 1931’s The Exile, his first sound picture; 1938’s Swing! and 1940’s The Notorious Elinor Lee.

Many of Micheaux’s films have been lost to history given the lack of preservation and the decomposition of film stock of the era. Micheaux died in 1951 at the age of 67. The Directors Guild of America recognized his contributions to film with a posthumous award for directorial achievement in 1986.”

Many have minimized Oscar Micheaux’s contributions to the cinema, but in an ultra-racist Hollywood during the 1920s up through his death, and indeed continuing on today, Micheaux was forced to make his feature films on almost nothing at all; budgets would range from a few thousand dollars up to $10,000 tops. Making a sound feature film in 1931 was a major victory in itself. He sold his films on a states rights basis, working state-by-state across the country, raising enough money from screenings to make his next project, when no one else would help him at all.

Micheaux’s work is passionate, accomplished, and compromised by the financial exigencies forced upon him, but the alternative was to make no films at all, to offer no representation to African-Americans at a time when the screen was overwhelmingly white – a problem, as I’ve noted in the past, that persists to this day. If some of his films have a few rough edges, it doesn’t bother me. I see Micheaux as a real trailblazer, and even the DGA agrees – with a lifetime achievement award, albeit one awarded after his death.

I don’t know how the HBO biopic will turn out, but McGilligan’s book is fair, honest, sympathetic, and entirely in sync with Micheaux’s tireless work ethic, his willingness to keep going when everyone else told him to stop, and his unyielding opposition to racism in American society, as evidenced by his landmark 1920 film Within Our Gates, a stunning reply to Griffith’s vicious racism.

We’ll have to see, but this is promising material; I hope it turns out well.

Klaus Kreimeier’s Origins of Cinema Website

Thursday, June 29th, 2017

Here’s a very interesting website from German film historian Klaus Kreimeier.

This remarkably comprehensive website covers the history of film from 1900 to 1915, and what’s more, has linked videos for nearly every director mentioned, and gives full credit (at last!) to Alice Guy, who is perpetually marginalized (as readers of this blog now full well) from most cinema histories. The site is in English, and offers thoughtful commentary on a wide-ranging group of filmmakers from around the globe, who helped to create the cinema as we knew it in the 20th century, before CGI took over and turned it into something blenderized and unreal.

Of course, Georges Méliès was already moving the cinema into the zone of the fantastic with such films as À la conquête du pôle, L’alchimiste Parafaragaramus ou la cornue infernale, La sirène, Le diable au convent, Les trésors de Satan, Le voyage à travers l’impossible, Le voyage dans la lune, Le voyage de Gulliver à Lilliput et chez les géants and many other pioneering short films, but this site also has numerous selections from many other key figures in early documentary and narrative cinema, with over 900 short films in all.

Absolutely worth a visit – a real resource for cinema historians.

Offscreen – An Essential Canadian Film Journal

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

Here’s an absolutely essential, completely free film journal that deserves much more attention.

I came across this journal this morning, and was shocked that I hadn’t heard of it before – mea culpa! Offscreen, an online film journal based in Canada, offers a refreshing alternative to the Hollywood based fan mania which is currently inundating the web, and showcases the major contributions that Canadian cinema – often neglected in the United States – offers to cinema culture and practice.

As the journal’s editor, Donato Totaro notes, “Offscreen has been online since 1997, along with its French language sister journal Hors Champ. Based in Montréal, Offscreen is a wide-ranging film journal that covers film festivals, retrospectives, film forums, and both popular and more academic events. Part of our mandate is to cover the Montreal film scene, but within an international context. The scope of its content, and the type of material featured and promoted in Offscreen can be summarized as follows:

  1. personal and independent film above big budget, formulaic film
  2. the under-represented (young, up and coming filmmakers)
  3. films with creative design and broad social commitment
  4. local and Canadian films/filmmakers
  5. Asian and alternative cinemas (horror, exploitation, esoteric,
    experimental, documentary, etc.)

Offscreen features extensive interviews, in-depth festival coverage, and lengthy, well-researched essays. The latter is in line with the guiding editorial policy at Offscreen, which is to allow for the flexibility to feature rigorous, well-researched texts alongside material that does not fit into traditional scholarly formats (director interviews, film festival reports, DVD reviews, etc.).

In short, our goal is to produce intelligent, thoughtful, and combative film criticism, analysis, discussion, and theory. We are driven to this end because we feel strongly that, within today’s image saturated info-entertainment landscape, cinema needs to be rigorously discussed in order to continue being an important voice of cultural and artistic expression well into the 21st century.”

It’s an excellent journal, and I found several articles of immediate interest. Click here, or on the image above to go straight to the journal’s website, and see for yourself the wealth of material available, covering everything from experimental cinema to indie features, decisively in favor of independent visions over corporate franchise films. It’s really breath of fresh air, and I recommend it highly.

Check out Offscreen by clicking here, or on the image above – happy reading!

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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