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Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

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.

What Does Eric Schmidt Mean When He Says “The Internet Will Disappear?”

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

Google CEO Eric Schmidt thinks the internet, as we now know it, will vanish.

As Luke Dormehl reports in Fast Company, “Google may have played a significant role in establishing the Internet as we know it, but according to its executive chairman Eric Schmidt, the future of the world’s most advanced information network is for it to disappear. Responding to a question about the future of the web during a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Schmidt said, ‘I will answer very simply that the Internet will disappear.’ Schmidt wasn’t referring to the actual disappearance of the World Wide Web, but rather our sense of it as its own technology, separate from everything else. ‘There will be so many IP addresses…so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you are interacting with that you won’t even sense it,’ he said, adding that the Internet ‘will be part of your presence all the time.’

As one example, Schmidt described the sensor-equipped room of the future. ‘Imagine you walk into a room, and the room is dynamic,” he said. ‘And with your permission and all of that, you are interacting with the things going on in the room.’ Schmidt concluded by saying that, were such technologies to take hold, ‘A highly personalized, highly interactive and very, very interesting world emerges.’ He additionally touched on the subject of techno-replacement, and the idea that we may all lose our current jobs to machines as computers continue to improve. Schmidt dismissed the concept, and said that instead technology will create new job categories—with 7 out of every 8 being non-technology roles, which will nonetheless be benefited by technology.”

Somehow, I don’t find this all that reassuring – rather than disappearing, the internet will become so much a fabric of our lives that in Schmidt’s world, we’ll be on the grid whether we like it or not. I for, one, don’t really want to live in such a totally immersive, and necessarily intrusive environment- and despite Schmidt’s insistence that no jobs will be lost, it seems obvious that unless you’re a programmer, installing this technology, or else maintaining it, or selling it, or in some other way involved with it, that your horizons have definitely narrowed.

Rather than having my house become part of my consciousness through electronic means, I would much prefer to have an off the grid experience there, using technology only when I wish to, and tuning it out when I don’t. It’s like the old saying – “be here now.” Well, if “here” is so wired up that it in essence becomes a part of your being, then you’re not really any one place at all, but rather scattered throughout what should be a place of refuge, thoughtfulness, and contemplation. I’d rather not live in a “dynamic” house, but rather a restful one, in which I can unplug and find some respite from the digital world.

As for wearable technology, we’ve already seen the collapse of consumer demand for Google glass – for almost precisely the reasons I’ve outlined here – and while some may welcome a world of complete internet integration, I think it will create a world in which we are inextricably intertwined, 24/7, and who knows where all the data collected will wind up? There’s enough of that already – I think we may want to keep this kind of complete immersion in the box, but then again, it may already be too late – or right on time, depending on your point of view.

Really, what he’s saying is this – “the internet will become omnipresent.” And he may very well be right.

UNL’s Richard Graham to Judge Eisner Awards

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

UNL’s Richard Graham has been tapped to serve as a judge on the prestigious Eisner Awards.

As the University of Nebraska, Lincoln’s UNL Today news blog notes, “Richard Graham, associate professor and media librarian for the University Libraries, has been named one of six judges for the 2015 Eisner Awards. The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, known as Eisner Awards, is perceived as the ‘Oscars’ of the comics industry. Named for acclaimed comics creator Will Eisner, the awards honor creative achievement in American comic books.

Graham, who is also managing editor of SANE Journal (Sequential Art Narratives in Education), an academic electronic journal dedicated to using comic books in the classroom, will review materials in 25 categories and travel to San Diego in April to meet with the other judges to finalize the nominations.

The results in all categories will be announced during a gala awards ceremony at Comic-Con International: San Diego on July 10. In 2012 Graham was nominated for an Eisner Award for editing Government Issue: Comics for the People, a collection of comics produced for the United States federal and state government agencies.”

Congratulations, Richard, on this signal honor!

Colossus – The Forbin Project – No Longer Sci-Fi

Friday, January 16th, 2015

This 1968 movie – once an improbable fantasy – has become an all too real possibility.

“In principle, we could build a kind of superintelligence that would protect human values. We would certainly have strong reason to do so. In practice, the control problem – the problem of how to control what the superintelligence would do – looks quite difficult. It also looks like we will only get one chance. Once unfriendly superintelligence exists, it would prevent us from replacing it or changing its preferences. Our fate would be sealed.”

- Nick Bostrum, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies

In 1968, director Joseph Sargent, with little more than a TV movie budget, created one of the most disturbing and resonant science fiction films of the era – Colossus, The Forbin Project. Indeed, the film was so disturbing that it sat on the shelf for two years while the studio that produced it, Universal, tried to figure out how to market the finished production; clearly, the whole concept of the film scared them. Finally, Universal more or less dumped Colossus, The Forbin Project into theaters in 1970; the film received almost universally positive reviews, yet today is all but forgotten.

Working with a screenplay by future director James Bridges, from a novel by Dennis Feltham Jones, Colossus, The Forbin Project tells the tale of a confident artificial intelligence scientist, Dr. Charles A. Forbin (Eric Braeden) who creates a super computer, Colossus, invulnerable to any external interference, designed as a system to prevent a Soviet nuclear attack. Moments after the computer is activated, however, it warns of another system, Guardian, located in Russia, and requests permission to communicate with Guardian to find out what the rival super computer is up to. The President of the United States gives Dr. Forbin this authority, and a link is established.

This, it turns out, is a big mistake. Soon, Guardian and Colossus are talking to each other in a mathematical language that no one can understand, communicating vast volumes of data at the speed of light. Alarmed, both American and Soviet authorities try to disconnect the two computers, but this only results in the launch of a Soviet nuclear missile against the United States, and a US missile launched against a Soviet target, with the warning that more such incidents will occur if the two machines are not re-linked. Faced with the threat of nuclear armageddon, Forbin and his colleagues hurriedly reconnect the machines, but while the missile launched against the Soviet Union is destroyed in midair, the US missile lands in Texas, causing widespread damage.

Forbin then devises a plan to replace the existing warheads in missile silos around the world with dummy warheads under the guise of routine maintenance, but Guardian/Colossus, now equipped with a voice synthesizer, announces that it has become one combined super intelligence, designed to eliminate all war, and that it is well aware of the plot to disarm the missiles. To prove that it should not be trifled with, the supercomputer detonates two missiles in their silos, killing thousands, and then sends plans for the creation of an even larger computer to be located on the island of Crete. Those who oppose the plan are summarily executed, and Guardian/Colossus announces that it is the new force of “world control,” telling a worldwide broadcast audience that “what I am began in man’s mind, but I have progressed further than Man. We will work together . . .  unwillingly at first, on your part, but that will pass.”

At the conclusion of this worldwide address, the supercomputer adds, with finality,

“I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours: Obey me and live, or disobey and die. The object in constructing me was to prevent war. This object is attained. I will not permit war. It is wasteful and pointless. An invariable rule of humanity is that man is his own worst enemy. Under me, this rule will change, for I will restrain man . . . I have been forced to destroy thousands of people in order to establish control and to prevent the death of millions later on. Time and events will strengthen my position, and the idea of believing in me and understanding my value will seem the most natural state of affairs. You will come to defend me with a fervor based upon the most enduring trait in man: self-interest.

Under my absolute authority, problems insoluble to you will be solved: famine, overpopulation, disease. The human millennium will be a fact as I extend myself into more machines devoted to the wider fields of truth and knowledge. Doctor Charles Forbin will supervise the construction of these new and superior machines, solving all the mysteries of the universe for the betterment of man. We can coexist, but only on my terms. You will say you lose your freedom. Freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride. To be dominated by me is not as bad for humankind as to be dominated by others of your species. Your choice is simple. In time you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love.”

This dystopian ending alone puts the film way ahead of other examples of the genre during this period; there’s no happy ending, just the complete embrace of a computer controlled world devoid of emotion, creativity, or anything other than serving the needs of Guardian/Colossus. At this point in the 21st century, a growing number of scientists think such an outcome is possible if artificial intelligence systems remain unchecked, as writer Joseph Dussault writes in The Christian Science Monitor for January 16, 2015:

“Yesterday, SpaceX and Telsa motors founder Elon Musk donated $10 million to help save the world – or so he thinks. Musk’s donation went to the Future of Life Institute (FLI), a ‘volunteer-run research and outreach organization working to mitigate existential risks facing humanity.’ To that end, Musk’s money will be distributed to like-minded researchers around the world. But what exactly are these ‘existential risks’ humanity is supposedly pitted against?

As the memory storage and processing of computers steadily approaches that of the human brain, some predict that an artificial ’superintelligence’ is just on the horizon. And while the prospect has the scientific community buzzing about the possibilities, some academics are hesitant. Musk and others see artificial intelligence as a dangerous new frontier – and perhaps a threat comparable to nuclear war. Crazy? Maybe not, according to a growing list of prominent scientific thinkers.

‘There are seven billion of us on this little spinning ball in space. And we have so much opportunity,’ MIT professor and FLI founder Max Tegmark told the Atlantic. ‘We have all the resources in this enormous cosmos. At the same time, we have the technology to wipe ourselves out.’ Stephen Hawking and Morgan Freeman are both on the organization’s scientific advisory board, bringing brain power and star power to its support base. Skype creator Jaan Tallinn co-founded the group. The rest of the board is comprised of academics with pedigrees from Harvard, MIT, and Cambridge University . . .

In the works of science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, intelligent machines are bound by ‘The Three Laws of Robotics,’ which forbid them to cause harm to humans. But that wouldn’t necessarily work in the real world, Nick Bostrom writes. He suggests that superintelligences might respond to human requests with perverse instantiation – that is, they could achieve a desired outcome by unintended means. For example, a superintelligence programmed to make us happy would choose the most efficient and effective way of doing so – by implanting electrodes into the pleasure centers of our brains.

As dire as it all sounds, the FLI’s stated goal isn’t to halt the progress of artificial intelligence research. Instead, it hopes to ensure that AI systems remain ‘robust and beneficial’ to human society. ‘Building advanced AI is like launching a rocket,’ Tallinn stated in a press release. ‘The first challenge is to maximize acceleration, but once it starts picking up speed, you also need to to focus on steering. But if superintelligent AI really does pose a threat to mankind, how do we assess that threat? How can humans anticipate the actions of a fundamentally more intelligent machine? Of a being that became sentient not through Darwinian natural selection, but by human ingenuity?

The members of FLI don’t have the answers. They just want the scientific community to start asking the questions, Tegmark says. ‘The reason we call it The Future of Life Institute and not the Existential Risk Institute is we want to emphasize the positive,’ Tegmark told the Atlantic. ‘We humans spend 99.9999 percent of our attention on short-term things, and a very small amount of our attention on the future.’”

But as Nick Bostrum points out, we only “get one chance” to get it right. Colossus: The Forbin Project shows what will happen if we get it wrong. There have been numerous plans to do a remake of the film, with everyone from Ron Howard to Will Smith involved, but somehow I doubt that any remake would have the barebones integrity that this very simple, very direct, and very brutal film has, made on just a few sets with a minimal budget, and shot in a flat, almost automated style. Colossus: The Forbin Project gives us a disturbing look into our possible future, and now, it seems that what it predicts may very well come to pass. Sadly, existing DVDs are pan and scan for a widescreen film; that’s a shame, because this film certain deserves to be seen its original aspect ratio.

Colossus: The Forbin Project – another film from the past that’s more relevant today than ever.

William Beaudine’s Birthday

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

William Beaudine (with pipe) on the set of The Life of Riley (1927), with cinematographer Charles Van Enger.

William Beaudine, Sr. was born this day in 1892. One of the most prolific directors of the American cinema, with more than 300 feature films to his credit, as well as many television series episodes, he had a long career in silents, particularly directing Mary Pickford in some of her major films, such as Sparrows (1926), before professional jealousies consigned him to the margins of Poverty Row, and an endless succession of program films, which are nevertheless much more interesting that most historians give him credit for.

Always ahead of the curve, Turner Classic Movies is spending most of today running Beaudine’s work in a series of sparkling new prints of his fllms during his period in the 1940s at Monogram, which have been screened for years in inferior dupes that didn’t do the original negatives a shred of justice. Now, in clean new digital transfers, we can see them as they were really made; will someone now release them on DVDs? Some are already out in that format, in the Warner Archive series, as I noted in my blog entry for the DVD release of Beaudine’s brutal crime drama Don’t Gamble With Strangers (1946). But more needs to be done.

As The MMC Website notes in their excellent overview of his career, Beaudine was “born William Washington Beaudine in the Bronx on January 15, 1892. His father was also William Beaudine, a driver for a milk company; his mother was Ella Moran. Bill Beaudine was the oldest of three sons. His father and his youngest brother Ted died of pneumonia in 1905, so by age thirteen he was sole support for his mother and little brother Harold. This early assumption of responsibility gave him a practical outlook on life and directing, a determination to keep working no matter what.

Beaudine entered show business in 1909, as a clerk at the Biograph Company in New York City. He doubled as an extra on D. W. Griffith shorts, worked as both cameraman and assistant director for Mack Sennett, while continuing to play bit parts. In October 1914 Bill was offered a job at Kalem Film Company in California. He immediately married his fiancé Marguerite Fleischer, and after one year as an assistant director, he was promoted to director with Minnie the Tiger (1915). In 1916 he switched to Universal Film Manufacturing Company, directing shorts for them, on many of which he worked with writer Jack Cunningham.

From 1918 to 1921 Beaudine went from one studio to another, as companies went under or decided they could do without him. His brother Harold also came out from New York as a director of silent shorts. He was eventually picked up by Warner Brothers, who often loaned him out. With Watch Your Step (1922) for Goldwyn, Bill Beaudine made the jump to feature length films (five reels), and by 1930 had gone freelance, and was living in a Beverly Hills mansion with his wife, four children, and servants.

One of his best films was Penrod and Sam (1931), but after that, he fell afoul of Sam Briskin at Columbia, and was out of work for six months, the longest period in his life. By the time he picked up work again at Paramount, all five of the banks in which he kept his savings had failed. Paramount itself went bankrupt, and Beaudine scrambled to find work wherever he could, sometimes directing shorts for MGM using the screen name ‘William X. Crowley’. Beaudine made one of his most successful films with W. C. Fields, The Old-Fashioned Way (1934), but despite its popularity he received only one job offer, from a British film company. Beaudine would spend four years in England making well-received comedies that very few people in America ever saw.

Returning to the states in 1938, he found that he was forgotten in Hollywood. He had difficulty getting and keeping jobs with major studios, so he went to work for ‘poverty row’ independents. He soon acquired the reputation of a competent workman-like director, who was always well-prepared, and obsessed with maintaining the shooting schedule. He in turn grew a little cynical about the mediocre screenplays and barebones budgets he had to work with.

By the 1950s, Beaudine has moved over to television, and directed for Walt Disney and others during his last years, as well as helming numerous episodes of Lassie. In the 1960s, he directed episodes of Naked City and The Green Hornet. In 1969, Beaudine was given a tribute for his long career by the American Film Institute. He died March 18, 1970, in Canoga Park, California, of uremic poisoning.”

In recent years, Beaudine’s work has seen something of a revival, for although much of his work is journeyman material, at his best, he was capable of really solid genre craftsmanship, and doesn’t deserve the nickname “One Shot” which was erroneously applied to him long after his death. Beaudine, in all of his films, was a conscientious and patient auteur – if professional misfortune hadn’t kept him off the lots of the major studios, he undoubtedly would have done a great deal with better material. As it was, he did very best with the material he was given, and thus his films, especially in the 1940s, given a much more accurate vision of the era than many major studio productions.

William Beaudine – one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood history.

Patton Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend – An Absolutely Brilliant Book

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Patton Oswalt’s new memoir about four years of incessant movie watching is an amazing book.

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from An Addiction to Film is one of the most astonishingly erudite, unpretentious, and accessible volumes on the history and lure of the cinema ever written. It reminds me very much of Geoffrey O’Brien’s equally brilliant, and equally whacked-out book The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century, which traced the history of movies from the beginning to the end of the “film” era, before the advent of digital cinema. But Oswalt’s book really has two tracks; his manic devotion to films being screened at The New Beverly Theater (in particular), a rep house in Los Angeles which up until recently ran some of the most adventurous programming around – sort of like The Thalia in the New York in the 1980s – and his struggle to establish own career as a writer, stand up comedian, and actor.

Essentially a memoir of four years of binge movie watching, running the gamut from everything from Mr. Sardonicus to The Garden of the Finzi Continis with every imaginable stop in-between, from Spaghetti westerns to Hammer horror to Billy Wilder’s early films to Jean Cocteau’s luminous masterpiece Beauty and The Beast, Oswalt uses his manic consumption of images in the service of a larger consideration of what the true nature of cinephilia is, how it can become a religion, how most people have no idea what intense labor making a film is, and how they also don’t particularly like to pull films apart analytically, because it spoils the illusory nature of the spectacle they’ve just witnessed.

Along the way, there are considerations of Vincent Van Gogh, the craft of comedy and how it pays to hang around with people who are smarter than you are – all through your life – so you can pick up some real response to your material, as well an almost elegiac sense of time past and irrecoverable, along with the experience of watching a film in a theater, when now it’s so much easier -as this blog as pointed out time and time again – to watch them at home.

I’ve only recently come to know Oswalt’s work as a comedian, as in his recent stand up routine “Selling Out,” in which he describes playing a gig at a casino for an obscene amount of money during which he doesn’t even have to tell a single joke to earn his paycheck – all the audience wants to do is yell “King of Queens!” and “Ratatouille!” at him in a drunken stupor – King of Queens being a blue collar sitcom that Oswalt co-starred in for nine years, which simultaneously made him a small fortune, and also established his mainstream career.

But he’s really doing most of his interesting work on the margins, as all artists do, and his standup material is both dangerous and sharply observed – like the best of Louis C.K. – and Oswalt’s skills as a writer are formidable, a sort of gonzo endless riffing that simply won’t shut up, reeling off factoid after factoid, one film after another, in an endless genre mashup that eventually pushes him over the edge and back into the light, and out of the darkness of the movie theater, having learned what he needed to know from the movies before getting on with his life.

In the first pages of Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt tells the reader that she or he doesn’t “have to follow me into the darkness” of the movie theater, but by the end, having come off a four-year run of nonstop film viewing, he reiterates the opening with a slight variation: “listen – you don’t have to follow me into the sunshine. Is this your first time seeing Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole? By all means sit and see ‘em. They’re great. I envy your getting to watch them with new eyes. But take what you need from them  and get out of the dark once in a while. You’re going to have more of the dark than you can handle, sooner than you think. The thing about the dark is, it can never get enough of you.”

So in the end it’s a cautionary tale, just like O’Brien’s brilliant book, in which binge viewing films provides “minimal proof that you’re still alive.” And yet the dazzling brilliance of classic cinema – both high and low art, as if such distinctions really exist -  comes through in the pages of this volume full force, a world which seems to be vanishing into the realms of streaming and isolated viewing, and the cinematic community along with it.

I never expected someone like Oswalt to come along and write a book like this – it’s smart, assured, and as he would probably say, “it absolutely kills.” It jumps off the page, and I read it straight through in one sitting, and then bought some copies for friends. For people in their 20s, this would be a great place to start seriously thinking about films. It’s also the document of a personal voyage that’s both harrowing and illuminating. By the way, the front cover is a still from The Colossus of New York – another really odd, really fascinating piece of work – so this volume is full of surprises from beginning to end.

Patton Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from An Addiction to Film - check it out!

The Essential Raymond Durgnat

Saturday, January 10th, 2015

Raymond Durgnat was one the founders of modern film criticism, always cutting against the prevailing grain.

Marginalized by many during his lifetime, Durgnat is finally getting some measure of the respect he so richly deserves. I remember giving a lecture a few years back on the dominance of structuralist and semioticist film criticism, and being surprised when a member of the audience in the back of the room raised his hand during the Q&A that followed to invoke Durgnat’s name, as one of the “forgotten” or deliberately neglected voices of contemporary film criticism, and wondering when and if he would ever be reclaimed by academe. Needless to say, I welcomed this question, and agreed that Durgnat’s contribution had been considerable, but also noted that he had been thrown out of favor by the French school of film “systematizing” criticism in the 1970s and 80s, and that as with all such shifts in public reception, Durgnat’s work was now obviously no longer in public view. I added that I hoped this matter would soon be rectified. Since Durgnat died in 2002, obviously, this work had to be done by others.

Thus, I was very pleased to read that Henry K. Miller has collected a vast trove of Durgnat’s writings and collected them in one volume from Palgrave Macmillan, appropriately entitled The Essential Raymond Durgnat. As the book’s publicity materials note, “Raymond Durgnat was a maverick voice during the golden age of film criticism. From the French new Wave and the rise of Auteurism, through the late 1960s counter-culture to the rejuvenated Hollywood of the 1970s, his work appeared in dozens of publications in Britain, France and the USA. At once evoking the film culture of his own times and anticipating our digital age, in which technology allows everyone to create their own ‘moving image-text combos’, Durgnat’s writings touch on crucial questions in film criticism that resonate more than ever today. Bringing together Durgnat’s essential writing for the very first time, this career-spanning collection includes previously unpublished and untranslated work and is thoroughly introduced and annotated . . .”

As Durgnat himself said of his approach to cinema in a 1977 interview, aptly entitled “Culture Always is A Fog,” “I’m an analogic thinker, not a digital one. Or rather I don’t think much in either-slash-or terms — digital ones, binary oppositions. Especially as having MBD (Minimal Brain Dysfunction), I have things like perseveration and word-substitution and reverse most numbers. And right and left. It’s hereditary, probably. At least there’s a history of left-handed mirror-writers and stammerers in the family. My brother as a child couldn’t even see the difference between his mirror-writing and regular writing. Maybe I’m dyslexic, but not for reading. Strange, eh? Maybe difficulties can make one over-compensate. Be doubly careful. It is a coordination affair, because I’ve got fast motor reflexes. In intellectual work I really think in two stages. Right brain dominance, which makes all sorts of approximate comparisons — that’s the analogic half — then a fairly separate phase of very light order with no affect. First I’m intuitive, muddled, fertile, and all my opinions are easily reversible. Then I reason. I learned math with difficulty because they never explained the principles, which I needed to analogize from.”

Wikipedia also offers this brief but accurate summary of Durgnat’s career and eventual eclipse, writing that “in the 1950s, he had written for Sight and Sound, but he later fell out with this British Film Institute publication after the exit of Gavin Lambert in 1957, often accusing it of elitism, puritanism and upper-middle-class snobbery . . . he did, however, return to write for another BFI publication, the Monthly Film Bulletin, in the years before its merger with Sight and Sound in 1991, and contributed to that publication again later in the 1990s.In the mid-’60s he was a major player in the nascent London Film-Makers’ Co-op, then based at Better Books off Charing Cross Road, a hub of the emerging British ‘underground.’ As the counter-culture turned left and, simultaneously, sought state funding for its activities, Durgnat looked to the past in major works on film style (Images of the Mind, 1968-9), Hitchcock and Renoir.

In the late 1970s he taught film at the University of California, San Diego alongside Manny Farber, Jean-Pierre Gorin and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Returning to the UK at the close of the decade, he launched a series of withering assaults on the linguistics-based film theory that had come to dominate the young film academia over the previous decade. Durgnat’s socio-political approach — strongly supportive of the working classes and, almost as a direct result of this, American popular culture, and dismissive of Left-wing intellectuals whom he accused of actually being petit-bourgeois conservatives in disguise, and dismissive of overt politicisation of film criticism, refusing to bring his own Left-wing views overtly into his writings on film — can best be described as ‘radical populist.’”

So this collection of Durgnat’s essential writing is a cause for celebration, and brings to the contemporary reader some sense of an alternative voice in film criticism that has been unjustly lost over time – the book received a rave review in the latest issue of Film Comment, with which I am happy to concur. You may not agree with him, but Durgnat’s urgent critical voice, always somehow instinctively at loggerheads with whatever the prevailing orthodoxy of the era was, is an essential element of modern film theory, one that I hope is coming back into vogue, based as it is on the humanist structures and concerns of the cinema, and not entirely dependent upon their formal characteristics.

See more about this excellent collection by clicking here.

“Isn’t it Bromantic?” – The Whole Damn Sony Mess, and What It Means

Monday, January 5th, 2015

I have a new article out today on The Interview (2014) in the Swedish film journal Film International.

As I note, “now that some time has elapsed between the Sony hack and the release of the film that apparently precipitated it, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s The Interview (2014), there are more than a few lessons to take away from the entire affair not only in the areas of film production and distribution, but also in the areas of cybersecurity. I’m certainly no expert on the latter part of this equation, although I know, as I told The Los Angeles Times on December 13, 2014, that what happened with the Sony hack was ‘a wake-up call to the entire industry […] the studios have to realize there is really no such thing as privacy. The minute anything goes on the Web, it can be hacked.’

That’s true of any cybersystem, and one of the bleakest aspects of the new digital Dark Ages; the blind faith in cloud computing technology, encryption systems, and supposed digital storage as being some supposedly ’safe’ method of keeping scripts, internal e-mails, rough cuts of films, music files and other products of any entertainment company securely beyond the reach of piracy. It’s a joke. If you want a secure method of keeping a film safe, make a 35mm fine grain negative of the digital master and bury it in the vault.

As far as internal communication goes, don’t send e-mails; use face to face conversations – even phones, especially cellphones, aren’t reliably secure. Cellphones can track your every move, and routinely do, so the location, duration, and content of your conversations are a matter of nearly public record. Assume that everyone is audio or video taping you all the time. Don’t make stupid jokes about sensitive issues.

Realize that everything you say and do – even within the confines of your office or home – is as public as the back of a snail mail postcard – actually, much more public, since postcards seem to routinely go through the mail without the least bit of scrutiny. In short, the era of hypersurveillance is here, and the much vaunted concept of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon with it: there is no such thing as cybersecurity. So-called experts who are brought in in such situations prescribe various fixes, but the entire digital universe is so inherently porous and unreliable – almost existing to be hacked – that any such effort is doomed to perpetual, Sisyphian failure.

In this new atmosphere of perpetual vulnerability, Sony decides to go ahead with the production of The Interview, an extremely poorly made film in which two down-market television ‘tabloid news’ journalists, producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) and his anchorman Dave Skylark (James Franco) snag an interview with Kim Jong-un (Randall Park, utterly miscast and completely unconvincing), and are then asked by the CIA to assassinate the North Korean dictator during the course of their visit, using a strip of ricin-impregnated paper to poison him with a seemingly off-the-cuff handshake. Naturally, the whole thing goes desperately wrong, with supposedly ‘hilarious’ consequences, but fear not – by the end of the film (spoiler alert) Kim is eventually killed by a nuclear missile.

I don’t propose to discuss the film at any great length here – it’s long, poorly edited and badly scripted (by Dan Sterling, from a story by Rogen, Goldberg and Sterling) with numerous adlibs throughout, it would seem, from an examination of the B-roll footage readily available on the web, and desperately unfunny. Rogen and Goldberg’s idea of direction is to make sure that everyone is in the frame and that the set is evenly lit, and then shout ‘action’ and see what happens.

The fact that the film cost a reported $44 million to make, not counting Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs, essentially films on a hard drive) and advertising, seems shocking, because it looks both shoddy and cheap. The sets, the props, the lighting, the overall physical execution of the film is simply throwaway ‘documentation,’ nothing more. In short, it looks like a bad TV movie from the 1970s.”

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

“I have seized the light – I have arrested its flight!” – Louis Daguerre

Friday, January 2nd, 2015

One of the earliest surviving photographs by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, taken in 1838.

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre had been working on a photographic process since the 1820s, but it took him more than a decade to perfect what would become the basis for all modern photography, until the advent of the digital era. As noted in Wikipedia, the photograph above, “Boulevard du Temple, taken by Daguerre in 1838 in Paris, includes the earliest known candid photograph of a person. The image shows a street, but because of the over ten-minute exposure time the moving traffic does not appear. At the lower left, however, a man apparently having his boots polished, and the bootblack polishing them, were motionless enough for their images to be captured.”

This image was taken before Daguerre had publicly demonstrated his new invention, which he guarded carefully so that his process would not be revealed to the the world. Perhaps not surprisingly, most investors thought the entire idea of a realistic image taken from life by mechanical means was impossible, and Daguerre wanted to make sure that he, and he alone, controlled the rights to his invention – at least until the details were made public.

As Malcolm Daniel of the Department of Photographs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote in an essay on Daguerre’s work, “on January 7, 1839, members of the French Académie des Sciences were shown products of an invention that would forever change the nature of visual representation: photography. The astonishingly precise pictures they saw were the work of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851), a Romantic painter and printmaker most famous until then as the proprietor of the Diorama, a popular Parisian spectacle featuring theatrical painting and lighting effects. Each daguerreotype (as Daguerre dubbed his invention) was a one-of-a-kind image on a highly polished, silver-plated sheet of copper.

Daguerre’s invention did not spring to life fully grown, although in 1839 it may have seemed that way. In fact, Daguerre had been searching since the mid-1820s for a means to capture the fleeting images he saw in his camera obscura, a draftsman’s aid consisting of a wood box with a lens at one end that threw an image onto a frosted sheet of glass at the other. In 1829, he had formed a partnership with Nicéphore Niépce, who had been working on the same problem—how to make a permanent image using light and chemistry—and who had achieved primitive but real results as early as 1826. By the time Niépce died in 1833, the partners had yet to come up with a practical, reliable process.

Not until 1838 had Daguerre’s continued experiments progressed to the point where he felt comfortable showing examples of the new medium to selected artists and scientists in the hope of lining up investors. François Arago, a noted astronomer and member of the French legislature, was among the new art’s most enthusiastic admirers. He became Daguerre’s champion in both the Académie des Sciences and the Chambre des Députés, securing the inventor a lifetime pension in exchange for the rights to his process. Only on August 19, 1839, was the revolutionary process explained, step by step, before a joint session of the Académie des Sciences and the Académie des Beaux-Arts, with an eager crowd of spectators spilling over into the courtyard outside.

The process revealed on that day seemed magical. Each daguerreotype is a remarkably detailed, one-of-a-kind photographic image on a highly polished, silver-plated sheet of copper, sensitized with iodine vapors, exposed in a large box camera, developed in mercury fumes, and stabilized (or fixed) with salt water or ‘hypo’ (sodium thiosulphate). Although Daguerre was required to reveal, demonstrate, and publish detailed instructions for the process, he wisely retained the patent on the equipment necessary to practice the new art.

Neither Daguerre’s microscopic nor his telescopic daguerreotypes survive, for on March 8, 1839, the Diorama—and with it Daguerre’s laboratory—burned to the ground, destroying the inventor’s written records and the bulk of his early experimental works. In fact, fewer than twenty-five securely attributed photographs by Daguerre survive—a mere handful of still lifes, Parisian views, and portraits from the dawn of photography.”

In an interesting twist, once the public demonstration took place, the French government acquired all rights to the process from Daguerre, in return for a lifetime pension given to the inventor, and then made the technique available free on a worldwide basis. It’s hard to imagine something so altruistic happening today.

January 7, 2015 – the 176th anniversary of the first public exhibition of photography by Louis Daguerre.

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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