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The 87th Annual Oscars – A Night of Surprises

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

The 87th Annual Oscars were a night of surprises.

And The Winners Are:

  • Best Picture – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – a real surprise to me; I thought Boyhood was the one here, but it was neck and neck.
  • Best Actress – Julianne Moore, Still Alice - an excellent film, and a much deserved win, though Marion Cotillard was superb in Two Days, One Night
  • Best Actor – Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything - this was a real upset – everyone thought Michael Keaton had this one in the bag.
  • Directing  – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - if you think the film was good, then Iñárritu wins.
  • Best Supporting Actress – Patricia Arquette, Boyhood – her win was no surprise; but the film was completely shut out in every other category.
  • Best Supporting Actor – J.K. Simmons, Whiplash – absolutely deserved for his performance here, and a lifetime of work.
  • Animated Feature Film - Big Hero 6 – honestly can’t speak to this; not a category I follow.
  • Documentary Feature – Citizenfour - another surprise, and hardly a safe choice, with an impassioned acceptance speech from the stage.
  • Foreign Language Film – Ida (Poland) – I’d go for Two Days, One Night – not enamored of this film at all, but it’s a small, sincere film.
  • Adapted Screenplay – Graham Moore, The Imitation Game – good choice here; Moore’s acceptance speech was raw and honest.
  • Original Screenplay – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – OK.
  • Original Score – Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel – don’t like the film, don’t like Wes Anderson, but he’s a cult favorite, so it wins.
  • Original Song – “Glory” from Selma - the most moving moment of the evening, with an electrifying performance of the song, which got the evening’s first standing ovation & tears in the audience.
  • Film Editing – Whiplash - picked this, and agree with it; in this small scale film, the editing had to be razor sharp, and it was.
  • Production Design – The Grand Budapest Hotel - if you insist.
  • Sound Editing – American Sniper – deserved; whatever you think of the film, the sound editing was utterly complex, and multi-layered.
  • Sound Mixing – Whiplash - again, a great and deserving win for a film about a world of music – harder to mix that one might think.
  • Visual Effects – Interstellar - dull film, average SPFX; I would have preferred Captain America, Winter Soldier here.
  • Cinematography – Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – superb cinematography, and a worthy win.
  • Costume Design – Milena Canonero, The Grand Budapest Hotel - again, if you insist.
  • Makeup and Hairstyling – Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier, The Grand Budapest Hotel - it picks up all these minor awards, but nothing major.
  • Animated Short Film – Feast – haven’t seen it.
  • Live Action Short Film – The Phone Call – haven’t seen it.
  • Documentary Short Subject – Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 - a really good documentary; searing, honest, timely.

Those are my major thoughts; Neil Patrick Harris kept things moving, but the “predictions in a box” bit was lame and over-stretched; he seemed bored with the whole thing, and more or less just pushed things along; the songs keep slowing things down, especially the one after the memorial reel, which should just have been a fade to black; Selma will get a lot of much deserved traction as a result of the Glory performance, which was the standout moment of the evening for raw sincerity and passion; but it’s still not right that the director, Ava DuVernay, wasn’t nominated, but Glory did the most with what it had at hand. I predict that down the line it will get more attention than it has now; it certainly deserves it.

It was nice to see Jean-Claude Carrière win in the Governor’s Awards highlights reel for his many screenplays, especially for his work with the great Luis Buñuel; the tech awards deserve more than 30 seconds, and you could cut some of the endless musical numbers to give them just a bit more space; seen in 100 countries and 24 time zones by roughly half a billion viewers, the telecast of the 87th Oscars once again affirms, more than anything else, the continuing commercial dominance of the American cinema; but at the same time it’s interesting to see that the big budget “tent pole” movies were almost completely ignored in favor of smaller, more personal visions from the margins, where all the best ideas come from anyway.

The studios are stuck in this pattern of releasing big budget spectacles at enormous expense to drag viewers into the theaters, but while the Marvel and DC movies make money, it’s clear that the industry doesn’t really respect them – they want content, and thoughtful filmmaking. All in all, I was surprised by the end of the ceremonies – it’s always an ordeal, but people were allowed to speak their minds on any number of controversial topics from the stage. Some people went on & on forever, and got played off at the start of the ceremonies, but when someone had a real message to deliver, I noticed that the orchestra held back on a number of occasions.

The impassioned speech after the Glory production number was a real stunner, and Patricia Arquette’s call for equal pay and equal rights for women was met with resounding approval from the audience, and a raised fist shout out from Meryl Streep and others in support. However, as much as Julie Andrews is a cinematic icon, I thought the placement of the Sound of Music salute was bizarre to say the least, though Lady Gaga demonstrated that she’s learned a thing or two from Tony Bennett lately, singing the songs rather than belting them. All in all, a mixed bag that kept one thinking. No one film swept the awards, which was great – instead they seemed to be spread out over a number of interesting films, all of which will now get a lift at the box office and on VOD.

All in all, the Academy could have done much worse; glad it’s over until next year. See you then!

Accidental Surrealism in 1940s Advertising

Friday, February 13th, 2015

Salvador Dalí, eat your heart out!

No real comment here, other than the fact that this 1940s ad for nail polish is a real mind-blower; accidental surrealism at its most bizarre. As Dalí famously noted, “surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.” Actually, this reminds me a great deal of Dalí’s nightmare dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), but that was designed to be surreal and disturbing.

This is a just a commercial image designed to sell a product – I wonder how successful it was? In any event, it’s given us something much more valuable some seventy years later; a vision of the past, with an unsettling link to the present. This image was created to be consumed and then abandoned, but has been archived on the web. How many more images, films, texts, drawings, paintings, advertisements will offer us the same disquieting glimpse into our consumerist past?

Sometimes the most interesting work is produced through sheer accident.

New Essay – Humanities in the Digital Era

Friday, February 13th, 2015

I have a new essay on “humanities in the digital era” in the web journal Film International – here’s a link.

As I argue, “We live in the age of the visible invisible; everything is supposedly available to us online, but in fact, only a small fraction of the knowledge and culture of even the most recent past is available on the web. The digitization of our culture is now an accomplished fact; physical media is disappearing, books are being harvested from library shelves and thrown into the anonymity of high density storage, digital facsimiles of these documents are often illegible or hidden behind pay walls. It’s a world of never-ending passwords, permissions, and a whole new group of “gatekeepers,” which the digital revolution was supposed to do away with, in which everyone got a place at the table. In fact, it has created a far more intrusive and much less intuitive group of cultural taste makers in place of the 20th century regime of editors, writers, critics and the like; technology specialists, who, really don’t understand the humanities at all, and are, in fact alarmed by the amorphousness of humanist work – after all, you know, it’s just so unquantifiable.

As Wieseltier notes, in part, in the January 7th issue of the NYT Sunday Book Review, ‘aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different. We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof. Presumptions of obsolescence, which are often nothing more than the marketing techniques of corporate behemoths, need to be scrupulously examined. By now we are familiar enough with the magnitude of the changes in all the spheres of our existence to move beyond the futuristic rhapsodies that characterize much of the literature on the subject. We can no longer roll over and celebrate and shop. Every phone in every pocket contains a “picture of ourselves,” and we must ascertain what that picture is and whether we should wish to resist it. Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.’

Needless to say, Wieseltier’s essay has touched a real nerve among both humanists and the digerati - you can read some responses here - some agreeing with him, and some not, but for me, it seems that more often than not, he hits the mark straight on. As one reader, Carl Witonksy, wrote in response, ‘Leon Wieseltier’s essay should be required reading and discussion by all college students, regardless of major. Technology is penetrating every aspect of their lives, and they should come to grips with its pluses and minuses,’ while Cynthia M. Pile, co-chair of the Columbia University Seminar in the Renaissance, added that ‘for the humanities, the library is the laboratory, and books and documents are the petri dishes containing the ideas and records of events under study. We use the Internet, to be sure, and are grateful for it. But its rapid and careless ascent has meant that we cannot rely on it for confirmation of reality or of fact.’

Pile goes on to note that ‘we require direct observation of material (stone, wood, ink, paper and parchment) documents, manuscripts and printed books, which we then subject to critical, historical analysis. We also require that these materials be spread out in front of us to analyze and compare with one another, like the scientific specimens they are. In great research libraries (which used to be the hearts of great universities), these were formerly available on site, so that an idea could be confirmed or contradicted on the spot. Instead, today librarians are taught that a delay of several days while a book is fetched from a warehouse dozens, or even hundreds, of miles away — to the detriment of the book — is irrelevant to our work. This is false. Our work is impeded by these assumptions, based on technological dreams, not on reality.’

I’ve seen the impact of this in many fields of the arts, which are now faced with a crisis unlike anything since the Middle Ages – the cultural work of the past is being relegated to archives, museums, and warehouses, and despite claims to the contrary, is not available in any meaningful way to the general public or students. Great swaths of material have been left unscanned and unindexed, and with the demise of paper copies becomes essentially unobtainable. Browsing through library stacks is not only a pleasurable experience; it is also an essential part of the discovery process and intellectual investigation. You come in, presumably, looking for one book, but now you find another. And another. And another. They’re all together in one section on the shelves. You’re not calling for a specific text, which would give you only one side of any given question – you have immediate access to them all, and can pick and choose from a wide variety of different perspectives. Now, it seems that only the eternal present is with us.

I wrote an essay that touched on some of these issues a few years ago for The College Hill Review about working in New York in the 1960s as part of the community of experimental filmmakers, aptly entitled ‘On The Value of “Worthless” Endeavor,‘ in which I noted – again, in part – that ‘the only art today is making money, it seems; in fact, today, there are plaques all over New York identifying where this artist, or that artist, used to have a studio; today, all the locations are now office buildings or bank . . . it seems that no one has time or money for artistic work, when, in fact, such work would redeem us as a society, as it did in the 1930s when Franklin Roosevelt put artists to work, and then sold that work, to get that segment of the economy moving again. Now, the social conservativism that pervades the nation today belatedly recognizes the power of “outlaw” art, and no longer wishes to support it, as it might well prove — in the long run — dangerous.

Money can create, but it can also destroy. Out of economic privation, and the desperate need to create, the artists [of the 1960s] created works of lasting resonance and beauty with almost no resources at their disposal, other than the good will and assistance of their colleagues; a band of artistic outlaws. These artists broke the mold of stylistic representation . . . and offered something new, brutal, and unvarnished, which confronted audiences with a new kind of beauty, the beauty of the outsider, gesturing towards that which holds real worth in any society that prizes artistic endeavor. It’s only the work that comes from the margins that has any real, lasting value; institutional art, created for a price, or on commission, documents only the powerful and influential, but doesn’t point in a new direction. It’s the work that operates off the grid, without hype or self-promotion, under the most extreme conditions, that has the greatest lasting value, precisely because it was made under such difficult circumstances.’

In his brilliant film Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard depicted a futuristic dystopia - in 1965! – in which an entire civilization is run by a giant computer, Alpha 60, which directs and supervises the activities of all its inhabitants; a computer that is absolutely incapable of understanding nuance, emotion, or the chance operations of something like, for instance, Surrealism or poetry. As the supervisor of the computer and all its operations, one Professor Von Braun (played by Howard Vernon; the symbolism is obvious) is pitted against the humanist Secret Agent Lemmy Caution (the always excellent Eddie Constantine), who has been sent from the ‘Outerlands’ to destroy the computer and restore humanity to Alphaville. As Von Braun warns Lemmy, ‘men of your type will soon become extinct. You’ll become something worse than dead. You’ll become a legend.’ And as if to confirm this, Alpha 60 instructs his subjects that ‘no one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.’

But, of course, it isn’t, and while the end of Alphaville strikes a positive note – technology reined in by Lemmy’s timely intervention, I can’t be so sure that this time, in real life, that there will be a happy ending. When a society no longer has bookstores, or record stores, or theaters because – supposedly – everything is online and streaming – when corporations make decisions, guided by the bottom line alone, as to what materials are disseminated and which remain in oblivion – and when mass culture alone – the popularity index – determines what works are allowed to find any audience, we’re in trouble. If you don’t know something is there, then you can’t search for it. Works buried in an avalanche of digital materials – and please remember that I am someone who contributes to this, and publishes now almost exclusively in the digital world – lose their currency and importance, just as libraries continue to discard books that later wind up on Amazon for one cent, in hardcover editions, where those of us who care about such work snap it up – until it’s gone forever.

What will the future hold for those of us in the humanities? It’s a really serious question – perhaps the most important question facing us as scholars right now. Alpha 60 rightly recognized Lemmy Caution as a threat, and had him brought in for questioning, telling Lemmy that ‘I shall calculate so that failure is impossible,’ to which Lemmy replied ‘I shall fight so that failure is possible.’ The work of technology is valuable and useful, and without it, we would be stuck entirely in the world of physical media, which would mark an unwelcome return to the past. But in the headlong rush to digital technology, we shouldn’t sacrifice the sloppiness, the uncertainty, the messiness that comes from the humanities in all their uncertain glory, representing widely divergent points of view, with the aid of ready access to the works of the past, which, after all, inform and help to create the present, as well as what is to come. As Lemmy Caution tells Alpha 60, ‘the past represents its future. It advances in a straight line, yet it ends by coming full circle.’”

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

Filmmaking Tips from Mike Leigh

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Landon Palmer offers six filmmaking tips from master British realist Mike Leigh in Film School Rejects.

As Palmer writes, “Mike Leigh is one of few filmmakers who could say something like, ‘given the choice of Hollywood and poking steel pins in my eyes, I’d prefer steel pins’ without suggesting even a hint of hyperbole. Leigh is deeply principled in terms of the dramatics, process, and politics of filmmaking, and we’re all the better off for it. The filmmaker made a name for himself with acutely humanist works of British social realism that bore some inheritance to the ‘kitchen sink’ tradition, but imbue drama with a type of wit, spontaneity, and empathy that is simply inimitable. Leigh’s patient, improvisatory, and collaborative process appears seriously counterintuitive from the perspective of commercial filmmaking, and as a result produces human dramas that are deeply felt and strikingly insightful.

And in his early seventies – after making a dozen feature films and even more TV programs – Leigh is still finding new, seemingly unlikely means of representing life through the moving image. His most recent film, Mr. Turner, was his first to be shot digitally. It’s a surprising move for a period piece, but Leigh and longtime cinematographer Dick Pope use the relatively new technology of capturing 21st century images in order to depict how painter J.M.W. Turner found new ways of capturing 18th century images. So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the guy who has realized the best performances by your favorite British character actors.”

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

Kino Lorber’s “Pioneers of African-American Cinema”

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

The films of Spencer Williams, Oscar Micheaux, and other pioneering African-American filmmakers get a much deserved Blu-ray upgrade.

As Tambay A. Obenson reports in Shadow and Act: On Cinema of the African Diaspora in Indiewire, Kino Lorber is starting a Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation of one of the most ambitious projects involving the history of African-American cinema ever attempted, involving an enormous amount of research, restoration, and a wide range of films.

As Obenson writes, “considering conversations we’ve long had on this blog about efforts to collect the lot of ’black films’ from yesteryear (especially those considered ‘lost’ to history, unseen or rarely screened publicly) and making them widely-accessible in one complete set, digitally restored (HD) and remastered, this is one message, one campaign that S&A certainly approves of.

Coincidentally, starting this Friday, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, kicks off its own groundbreaking series, ‘Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968 – 1986,’ programmed by Michelle Materre and Jake Perlin, and co-presented by Creatively Speaking. The below collection from Kino Lorber will cover the years 1914 to 1944.

I recall attending an Oscar Micheaux celebration some years ago, and in speaking to the curators, learned the challenges they faced in hunting down prints of as many of his films as they could get their hands on. It was interesting to learn of how scattered ownership of each was. Not rights specifically, but rather where each physically resided. For example, a print for one of his films (I can’t recall which title it was right now) was tracked down all the way in France, and, as I remember, it was the only one in existence. So this is all quite ambitious!”

As Kino Lorber’s comments on the project note, “renowned for its deluxe editions of masterpieces of world cinema, Kino Lorber will now pay tribute to the Pioneers of African-American Cinema with an ambitious four-disc collection. If the campaign achieves its primary goal, the series will include eight feature films and a variety of short films and fragments, a color booklet of photos and essays, and will be offered on Bluray and DVD.

All films will be newly mastered in high definition from film elements preserved by the country’s leading film archives, including The Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Silent films will be accompanied by a variety of original music scores. Some soundtracks will have a more contemporary sound, encouraging the viewer to watch these films with a fresh perspective. For the sake of historical accuracy, each silent film will also include a traditional score intended to replicate the 1920s moviegoing experience.

Curated by film historians Charles Musser and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, and presented by executive producer DJ Spooky, Pioneers of African-American Cinema will showcase not only the works of MIcheaux and Williams, but lesser-known filmmakers such as James and Eloyce Gist, as well as rarely-seen footage shot by writer Zora Neale Hurston.  It will also include selections of ‘race films’ made by white directors, such as Richard E. Norman and Frank Peregini . . .”

“Pioneers of African-American Cinema”  will be released February, 2016.

The Continuing Battle to Save Classic Films

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

Richard Verrier has an excellent piece in the Los Angeles Times on the battle to save the films of the past.

As Verrier writes, “Inside a 260,000-square-foot warehouse just over the Grapevine off Interstate 5, an archivist from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences clambered up a ladder to inspect a stack of dusty 35-millimeter film cans . . . The man on the ladder pulled several silver-colored canisters off the shelf and plunked them on a pallet that would later be shrink-wrapped and loaded onto a truck for delivery to the academy’s film archive. By the end of the day, some 5,000 cans of film would find a new home at the academy.

That left just 40,000 cans to go in the mission to rescue Hollywood’s ‘orphan films’ — movies abandoned by producers or the companies that financed them. Patiently watching over the operation was Greg Lea, a cheerful native of west London and fervent film historian. He and his colleagues at Deluxe Entertainment Services Group have spent the last two years trying to return the forgotten films, some dating back half a century, to their rightful owners. Most are art house or independent films that never made it to the big leagues.

‘This is 20th century American history, so you don’t want it to be lost,’ Lea said. ‘It may be someone’s dream that didn’t get abandoned, but they couldn’t afford to move the project any further. When you’ve got someone’s dreams, you don’t want to end up throwing them in the trash can.’ The end of film is a dramatic story in Hollywood. Paramount made headlines last year when it told exhibitors it would release virtually all future movies digitally. Most theaters around the country have invested millions to ditch their film projectors and install digital systems.

Slackening demand for film prints prompted Deluxe and Technicolor to close their film labs, laying off hundreds of workers. Fujifilm Corp. has exited the movie film business, leaving Eastman Kodak as the sole remaining major supplier of film stock. Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012, though several studios have banded together to keep the company’s film business alive.

Although digital technology enables studios to distribute movies much more cheaply than film, not everyone is happy about film’s pending demise. Prominent directors, including Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, have opposed the relentless march to digital formats, contending the medium is inferior to 35-millimeter film. But there is a more fundamental question: When Hollywood goes all digital, what happens to the film legacy left behind?

It’s not an idle question. The original negatives of some 90% of the films made between 1901 and 1929 no longer exist. The same nearly happened in the 1970s when studios decided to divest themselves of nitrate film, which was used before 1950 and was highly flammable.  For the last two years, Deluxe has worked closely with the major studios and others to ensure that tens of thousands of film negatives were rightfully claimed.

But many more are orphans — produced by companies that either forgot about them, went out of business or no long wanted to pay to keep them in storage facilities . . . ‘Some companies make a decision that they don’t really want it anymore,’ Lea said. ‘It’s somebody else’s problem. You can understand it. But for those of us who want to preserve the film history, it’s the wrong decision.’”

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

Terence Fisher and Peter Cushing On The Set

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

Peter Cushing and director Terence Fisher on the set of Frankenstein Created Woman in 1966.

This completely silent, unedited, straight-from-the-camera newsreel footage from British Pathé News documents a day’s work on one of the last first-rate Hammer horror films, and one of the last Hammer films shot at Bray Studios, Windsor, Berkshire, where the company created some of their greatest Gothic thrillers in the late 1950s up to the mid 1960s. There’s really little more to say; we see Cushing in the beginning posing for the camera, ostensibly going over his script; greeting actor Susan Denberg; and then on set with Thorley Walters and director Fisher (above, right) during shooting.

Fisher, as was always his habit, kept a very low profile on the set, gently coaxing the actors through the script while at the same time quietly and efficiently fighting the clock to comply with Hammer’s legendarily frugal shooting schedules. I wish there was more of this material, but at least we have this – there’s a commercial in front of it, it seems, but there’s nothing I can do about that. Nice to see Fisher and Cushing in color, working on one of their last truly successful films, though even here, it was spoiled by producer interference when a plot element was added that didn’t fit in with the overall material – but that’s another story.

Click here, or on the image above, to see this short silent newsreel.

Roland Emmerich Tackles the Stonewall Riots

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

Director Roland Emmerich has created a new film on the historic Stonewall Riots.

Too few people today remember the Stonewall Riots, which started in a gay bar in Greenwich Village in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn. Police harassment of lesbians and gays was routine during the 1960s, even in Manhattan, but on this particular occasion, the patrons of the Stonewall decided to fight back for their rights, serving as a flashpoint for the Gay and Lesbian liberation movement. Roland Emmerich has directed a stack of forgettable disaster and science fiction action movies, most of which made a fortune at the box office – films like Stargate (1994), Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (the 1998 version), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009), and most recently White House Down (2013) – but with Stonewall Emmerich turns his attention, with a much smaller budget of just $20 million, to a project which he has a deep connection to as a gay man, and I only hope he does the subject justice.

As Emmerich told Jeff Labrecque during the shooting of the film in the June 4, 2014 issue of Entertainment Weekly, “I was always naturally interested in the subject matter. Then, maybe two or three years ago, a couple of friends and I were kind of talking about marriage equality, and one of them said to me, ‘You know, Roland, you should make a gay movie.’ And I’m saying, ‘Well, nobody wants to see a gay movie from me.’ And then I kind of said, ‘Well, if it’s an important subject matter, then maybe they will.’ At the same time, I was involved with the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, and they told me that 40 percent of all homeless youth are gay, which is a disproportionate amount. That was like the bridge to today. It’s still going on. [Gay] kids get thrown out of their homes and become homeless, and [my movie] is like a story of one of these kids who gets involved in the whole Stonewall riots, because the riots were actually kind of done by the kids . . .”

The film was shot in Montreal, partly for tax reasons, but also because, as Emmerich noted, “nothing in New York looks like the ’60s anymore, so we actually ended up with quite a big undertaking. We actually built part of Christopher Street and of the side of the Stonewall, just to be correct and how it really looked. Secondly, we do a lot of blue-screen. The movie ends with the first gay march, the gay liberation march in 1970, and that’s not possible anymore. So we do the whole scene with special effects, like blue-screen. We shot [that] in modern New York and turn it into 1969,  Well, it has a kind of quiet main-street approach, you know. I think it’s a very good story, a very good script. It’s more into the indie world, but I’m hoping it can break out like Brokeback Mountain. We’ll see. That’s the cool thing about it. I don’t have to worry as much about how many people see it or not. There’s not so much pressure when you make a movie like this. I think the movie will make its money back through presales.”

This is a story that needs to be told, and as I said, I only hope that Emmerich does a good job with it; working with actors Jeremy Irvine,  Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ron Perlman, it would seem that he has a chance. Emmerich really is much more at home with big budget films, and as he told Labrecque, “It’s really cool to go from small project to big project. I’m going to do this in the future a lot. There’s nothing worse than sitting around for two or three years, and sometimes that naturally happens between these big movies, because they’re very expensive and very hard. You’ve got to get a green light. And then you just fill up [your time] with stuff that you want to make, and that’s cool.”

Distribution plans in the US seem to be on hold, or at least proceeding very quietly; though it’s already been pre-sold in Germany. I wonder what kind of US distribution it will get – probably “selected cities,” and then art houses, and VOD, which would be a shame if the movie lives up to its potential. Clearly, for the US market, this would seem like an “indie,” and Emmerich’s usual audience probably won’t give the film a chance. But I personally hope that it’s successful, and that Emmerich can successfully make a humanly scaled production – even if he thinks of it as a “small project” – because this is a part of American cultural history that people need to know more about.

Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall is – at this writing – scheduled for a 2015 US release date.

Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

Stewart O’Nan’s novel covering the last years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life is the real deal.

This was recommended to me by the writer Timothy Schaffert, who, knowing of my own work on Fitzgerald many years ago, thought I would find it interesting. And he’s absolutely right. Most Hollywood fictionalized bios ring rather false, given the fact that the era of classic Hollywood is now so long ago and far away, and the tendency to sentimentalize, or over sensationalize Fitzgerald’s last truly harrowing years, from 1937 to 1940, when he batted around Hollywood in a number of jobs, starting at MGM but eventually sliding down the ladder to near oblivion before his premature death from a heart attack in 1940, seems almost irresistible to most writers.

But here, O’Nan brings the story of Fitzgerald’s last days to life, when he struggled to stay sober in the face of crippling alcoholism – not always with success -and managed to alienate almost everyone around him when he fell off the wagon. Agents deserted him, his powers were declining, and he never really understood the way the Hollywood game was played. O’Nan captures all of it, in a book of such page turning intensity that I sat down and read it straight through in a matter of hours. As the end of the narrative nears, the velocity picks up with truly cataclysmic intensity, and one feels that one gets a new, and appropriately sympathetic vision of Fitzgerald, an artist who waged war against his own self-destructive impulses and lost the battle.

There may be one too many star cameos here and there, and Humphrey Bogart looms larger in the book than he did in Fitzgerald’s real life, but others, such as Hunt Stromberg, Robert Benchley, Alan Campbell, Dorothy Parker, and of course, Sheilah Graham, the great love of his later life, a gossip columnist who seemed to understand Fitzgerald better than anyone else during his tenure in Tinseltown, and in whose apartment he died on December 21, 1940, are real and tangible presences. Not for the faint of heart, this is a novel about irrecoverable loss and isolation – the promise of youth and the collapse of overnight fame – and most importantly, about the Hollywood studio system, which never understood artists – then or now. O’Nan’s book is a stunning achievement, in which Fitzgerald appears as a fully rounded person, with all of his flaws and charm intact.

All in all, an amazing accomplishment.

Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1962)

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

On this appropriately bleak winter day, I sat down to view Ingmar Bergman’s stark masterpiece Winter Light.

From my forthcoming book Black & White Cinema: A Short History: “by 1962 with Winter Light, photographed by Sven Nykvist, Bergman had refined his vision into an austere, almost sculptural sensibility of blacks, whites, and varying shades of gray, striving for a complete simplicity in all his work. As Nykvist recalled of working with Bergman,

‘The whole crew meets two months before shooting to read the whole script, then we start to make tests. We build sets, and when everyone—the costume designer, the production designer, the makeup artist—is there, we make tests for the whole picture so we will never be surprised when we start shooting. We are already halfway through a picture when we start to shoot it, and that is psychologically very important for all the people because everyone, including the grips and electricians, feels that he or she is as important as all the others. . . . When you are operating the camera, you forget all about the other people around you. You just see this little scene and you live in that and you feel it. For me, operating the camera is a sport and it helps me do better lighting sometimes.

When Ingmar and I made Winter Light . . . which takes place in a church on a winter day in Sweden, we decided we should not see any shadow in it at all because there would be no logical shadow in that setting. I said, ‘Oh, that will be an easy picture for me because the light doesn’t change in three hours.’ Ingmar said, ‘That’s what you think. Let’s go to the churches in the north of Sweden.’ And there we sat for weeks, looking at the light during the three hours between eleven and two o’clock. We saw that it changed a lot, and it helped him in writing the script because he always writes the moods. . .

It has taken me 30 years to come to simplicity. Earlier, I made a lot of what I thought were beautiful shots with much backlighting and many effects, absolutely none of which were motivated by anything in the film at all. As soon as we had a painting on the wall, we thought it should have a glow around it. It was terrible and I can hardly stand to see my own films on television anymore. . . . I prefer to shoot on location because in the studio you have too many possibilities—too many lights to destroy your whole picture.’”

And as Roger Ebert observed of Winter Light in 2007, “on the day Ingmar Bergman died, the first film of his that came into my mind was Winter Light. Odd, because I had not seen it since teaching a film class in the 1970s. In the weeks that passed, I found it lingering there, asking to be seen again. What did I remember about it? That it was part of Bergman’s ‘Silence of God’ trilogy. That it was about a pastor who was unable to comfort a man in dread of nuclear holocaust. That the pastor rejected a woman who sought to comfort him. That Bergman and his cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, sat in a rural church for a winter day to note how the sunlight moved through the space. In short, I hardly remembered the film at all, because those sparse memories were not enough to ignite a need to see it again. Yet I felt one. Finally I took Winter Light down from the shelf, watched it again, and was awestruck by its bleak, courageous power.

It is, first of all, much more complex than the broad outlines I held in memory. It is about more than God, silent or not. It is about the silence of a man, Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Bjornstrand), who speaks enough in the film but is unable to say anything of use to himself or anyone else. About another man, the fisherman Jonas (Max Von Sydow), obsessed by evil in the world, who calls God’s bluff, so to speak, by killing himself. About Marta, a schoolteacher (Ingrid Thulin) who cares for the pastor, loves him, worries about him, and is thanked by coldness and hostility. And it is about two monologues in which the pastor and the teacher describe their real feelings, and deeply wound each other . . .

The film’s visual style is one of rigorous simplicity. Nykvist does not use a single camera movement for effect. He only wants to regard, to show. His compositions, while sometimes dramatic, are mostly static. He uses slow push-ins and pull-outs to underline dialogue of intensity. His gaze is so unblinking that sequences with the potential to be boring, like the opening scenes of the consecration and distribution of hosts and wine, become fascinating: More is going on here than ritual, and there are buried currents between the communicants. Nykvist focuses above all on faces, in closeup and medium shot, and they are even the real subject of longer shots, recalling Bergman’s belief that the human face is the most fascinating study for the cinema.”

Fortunately, there is also a feature on the making of Winter Light, available on the Criterion DVD set of the Bergman “Silence of God” trilogy, of which Criterion’s program notes add that “the year is 1961, and Ingmar Bergman is making a movie. While planted on the scene as apprentice to Bergman, Vilgot Sjöman suggests to Swedish Television that they take the opportunity to record with the acclaimed director. In August, Sjöman and the television crew begin to capture what would become a comprehensive five-part documentary on the making of Winter Light, offering views of script development, set construction and lighting, rehearsals and editing, as well as intimate conversations with Bergman and members of his cast and crew. Footage from the film’s Swedish premiere delivers immediate audience reactions and the critics’ reviews the following day. Originally recorded on 16mm film, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie is presented here in its entirety for the first time outside of Sweden.”

A brilliant film, available on Criterion DVD; get a copy now, before it goes out of print.

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 at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website, wheelerwinstondixon.com

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