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Director Chantal Akerman Dies at 65

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

The brilliant filmmaker Chantal Akerman has died unexpectedly in Paris.

As reported by Rachel Donadio and Cara Buckley in The New York Times just minutes ago, “Chantal Akerman, the Belgian filmmaker whose ruminative, meticulous observation of women’s everyday and inner lives, often using long, protracted takes, made her a pioneer in feminist and experimental filmmaking and influenced generations of directors, has died in Paris. She was 65.

Her death was confirmed by her sister, Sylviane Akerman, and by Nicola Mazzanti, the director of the Royal Belgian Film Archive, which had worked closely with Ms. Akerman over the years and restored her films. Mr. Mazzanti said the cause and precise date of her death, which he said he believed had occurred in the past few days, were not yet known.

Born in Brussels to Polish Holocaust survivors, Chantal Akerman was inspired to begin making films after seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 Pierrot le Fou as a teenager. At age 25, she made her groundbreaking 1975 film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which follows a housewife in real time over the course of more than three hours as she prepares food, does chores, and receives clients paying for sex. The minimalist repetition builds up quietly to a traumatic climax.

Jeanne Dielman is a film that created, overnight, a new way of making films, a new way of telling stories, a new way of telling time,’ Mr. Mazzanti said. ‘There are filmmakers who are good, filmmakers who are great, filmmakers who are in film history. And then there are a few filmmakers who change film history.’”

The director of more than forty films, Akerman’s work specialized in deep contemplation of her subjects, and resolutely refused to cater to public tastes. Most recently, she was teaching filmmaking at CCNY in Manhattan, and her latest film, No Home Movie, has just been selected for the upcoming New York Film Festival.

A documentary consisting of detailed conversations with her mother, Natalia, an Auschwitz survivor who recently died, the film was inexplicably booed at the recent Locarno Film Festival, and as The Times reports, the initial hostile reception of the film was “devastating [to] Ms. Akerman, who friends said had been in a dark place of late, and who had previously suffered emotional breakdowns.”

That’s all we know now, except that her films will live on, and that her place as someone who changed the language of cinema is absolutely assured. All across the world, tributes are pouring in, but nothing can really capture the brilliance of her work, which must be seen, and experienced, to be truly appreciated.

Chantal Akerman – one of the masters of modern cinema.

21 Days Together (1940)

Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Leslie Banks on the set of 21 Days Together.

Shot in 1937, but not released until 1940 to capitalize on the newly famous Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind (1939), 21 Days Together (also known simply as 21 Days) is a rather curious film, based on a 1920 novel by John Galsworthy, The First and The Last, scripted by none other than novelist Graham Greene, directed by Basil Dean, and edited by future director Charles Crichton, who later made The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and much later after that, A Fish Called Wanda (1988). That’s a lot of talent on board!

Without giving away too much of the plot, Laurence Olivier plays ne’er do well Larry Durant, who kills Henry Wallen (Esmé Percy), the husband of his lover Wanda (Vivien Leigh), and then confesses the crime to his brother, Keith (Leslie Banks), who is in line for a judgeship, and in no mood to have Larry spoil his career.

Thus, he talks Larry into staying silent about the matter, and Larry instead spends an idyllic 21 days with Wanda (Leigh), even as an innocent man is being tried for the crime. The simple question hanging over all of this is will Larry let an innocent man hang for his crime, or come clean and face the consequences?

The on-the-set shot above gives a sense of the relaxed mood of the piece – it really isn’t so much a murder mystery as a romance, and Olivier and Leigh were really falling love, so much so that director Basil Dean thought they were derailing the finished product. Indeed, it’s really not that suspenseful at all, but rather a curiosity that’s more important as a record of a time and place now lost to authentic recall.

But with these hands on board, the result, clocking in at a scant 72 minutes, is well worth watching, and just another example of a film lost to conventional history, and the kind of filmmaking that flourished during this era in Britain, when costs were minimal, and everyone’s career was just taking off.

See the entire film by clicking here!

Terence Stamp – An Actor’s Unusual Life

Sunday, September 20th, 2015

Terence Stamp and Julie Christie in the 1967 version of Far From The Madding Crowd.

Though most people know him today almost solely as General Zod in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, Terence Stamp has had a long and deeply varied career. On March 12, 2015, Stamp sat down with Andrew Pulver of The Guardian for a detailed interview, which makes for fascinating reading, both as an overview of the actor’s life, but also as a reminder of the whimsical nature an acting career – one moment you’re hot, the next moment, nothing.

As Pulver notes, “It’s funny how things work out. Now 76, Stamp had a fantastic 1960s, during which he starred in a handful of imperishable classics (Billy Budd, Ken Loach’s Poor Cow, Pasolini’s Theorem) and consorted with some of the era’s most beautiful women (Julie Christie, Jean Shrimpton, Brigitte Bardot). His career fell off a cliff at the start of the 1970s, the drought ending with an improbable offer to play General Zod in the first two Superman movies.

A peripatetic revival followed, with occasional juicy roles (The Hit, Wall Street, The Adventures of Priscilla – Queen of the Desert, Song for Marion) alternating with pay-the-bills Hollywood (Young Guns, Elektra, Wanted). Retro fetishism started in 1999 with the Steven Soderbergh-directed The Limey, in which Stamp played a Get Carter-ish avenging gangster, and has continued to the present day, with Stamp currently lionized by another 60s-fetishising film-maker, Tim Burton, with roles in Big Eyes (as a snooty art critic) and the yet-to-be-completed Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

But cinema has a habit of folding back on itself; this week sees the reissue of one of those imperishable 1960s films, Far From the Madding Crowd, an adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel, in which Stamp plays the coldly raffish Sergeant Troy opposite Julie Christie’s Bathsheba. Spruced-up and spring-cleaned, and just less than half a century old, Far From the Madding Crowd is something else: they really don’t make them like this any more.

Almost three hours long, smeared with mud and sheep dung in its grimly realistic recreation of early 19th-century Dorset, and benefiting from performances from actors at the top of their games, it glows on the screen exactly the way it must have when first released in 1967. At the time, however, it was considered a disaster: poor reviews, especially in the US, and a general inability to see past the with-it celebrity personas of Stamp and Christie, translated into underwhelming box-office and a severe career misstep for its director, John Schlesinger.

These days, Stamp is sanguine about the film, which has regained some cultural currency with the impending release of another adaptation, featuring Carey Mulligan in the Julie Christie role and Tom Sturridge in Stamp’s. [Said Stamp,] ‘It was the first really commercial project I got involved with, and I was rather shocked by the reaction. I thought it had everything.’”

An excellent interview; read the entire piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

New Book Published – Black & White Cinema: A Short History

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

I have a new book out today from Rutgers University Press – Black & White Cinema: A Short History.

From the glossy monochrome of the classic Hollywood romance, to the gritty greyscale of the gangster picture, to film noir’s moody interplay of light and shadow, black-and-white cinematography has been used to create a remarkably wide array of tones. Yet today, with black-and-white film stock nearly impossible to find, these cinematographic techniques are virtually extinct, and filmgoers’ appreciation of them is similarly waning.

Black and White Cinema is the first study to consider the use of black-and-white as an art form in its own right, providing a comprehensive and global overview of the era when it flourished, from the 1900s to the 1960s. Acclaimed film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon introduces us to the masters of this art, discussing the signature styles and technical innovations of award-winning cinematographers like James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, and Sven Nykvist.

Giving us a unique glimpse behind the scenes, Dixon also reveals the creative teams—from lighting technicians to matte painters—whose work profoundly shaped the look of black-and-white cinema. More than just a study of film history, this book is a rallying cry, meant to inspire a love for the artistry of black-and-white film, so that we might work to preserve this important part of our cinematic heritage. Lavishly illustrated with more than forty on-the-set stills, Black and White Cinema provides a vivid and illuminating look at a creatively vital era.

Here are some early reviews:

“Dixon covers the entire history of black and white movies in one volume, and talks about the films and cinematographers who created these films, and often got little credit for their work. Fascinating and compelling, this is essential reading for anyone who loves movies.”—Robert Downey Sr., director, Putney Swope

“Dixon has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and a subtle and well-honed aesthetic sense. He rescues important films from oblivion, and finds fresh angles of approach to films that are already familiar.” —Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s colorful study of black-and-white cinema reaffirms yet again his unfailing expertise as a critic, historian, and dazzlingly fine writer. Indispensable for students, scholars, and movie buffs alike.”—David Sterritt, author of The Cinema of Clint Eastwood: Chronicles of America

“In his latest book, Black and White Cinema, Wheeler Winston Dixon rediscovers the art of cinematography in those glorious black-and-white movies from Hollywood’s classic age.” –Jan-Christopher Horak, Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive.

My thanks to all who helped with this very complex project.

The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle is a minor but enchanting Eric Rohmer film . . .

. . . and it’s too bad there won’t be any more, as even the slightest of Rohmer’s film is a tonic in the oversaturated, hyper-edited CGI world of the present, harking back to a time when humanistic concerns, were more important than the latest mobile gadget. As Aaron Goldberg wrote of the film when it first appeared in the web journal Senses of Cinema, “while not highly regarded (by some) in the expansive Rohmer canon, The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle stands as one of Rohmer’s most playful, if not hilarious features.

Filmed quickly on 16mm while Rohmer was waiting to get decent sunset shots for his sublime Le Rayon vert (1986), The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle features mainly non-professional actors who improvised most of the witty and frank dialogue . . .  Rohmer’s old-school (cinematic) ‘new wave’ chops are working in full effect here. From the shaky vérité camerawork, to long discussions about morality and art, his romantic heart is working in cruise control, delivering a film that ably stands it’s own ground.”

Added Caryn James in The New York Times, “as if making a joke about the famous talkiness of his films, Eric Rohmer’s latest work begins and ends with silence – or at least the idea of silence. In the first of the connected episodes in Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, the voluble Reinette treasures silence so much she wakes her friend Mirabelle before dawn to hear ‘the blue hour,’ which is not an hour but a second, not a sound but a brief silence between darkness and light, when the night birds stop singing and the day birds have not yet begun.

Four Adventures is more conspicuously comic, more overtly ethical, more pointed in its action than most of his recent works . . . Part of Rohmer’s genius, of course, is that he keeps creating such lives – ordinary and rarefied at once, almost but not quite beyond our grasp. No one actually lives in the world of a Rohmer film, where the name of a specific television show or rock star never mars a character’s timeless dialogue, where his characters’ heightened sense of everyday life seems absolutely adventurous.

But the deep lure of his work is the suggestion that it is possible to be as articulate or as witty or even as extravagantly morose as a Rohmer character, to stumble across those undramatic moments of perfect grace on some beach or in some meadow.”

Indeed, while the film may appear to be slight, it is in fact a resonant and uplifting work; it just seems effortless, but then again, when you’re a genius, you can knock films out like this in your sleep. But the saddest part about The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle is that it isn’t available on DVD; there’s so much junk trolling about the web, but here’s a sublime and joyful film that really deserves a DVD release. But there is a VHS release, and since I still have a VHS player for such emergencies, I ordered one of the last copies available – used – on Amazon for about $10. You should do the same.

Every Eric Rohmer film is worth seeing, and this is one of his most playful, and joyful films.

Russell Hicks – Hollywood Professional

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

“I want to show you I’m honest in the worst way!” – Russell Hicks in The Bank Dick

Russell Hicks, the consummate Hollywood professional character actor, is seen above in one of his most memorable roles as the astonishingly corrupt con man J. Frothingam Waterbury in W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick (1940, directed by Edward F. Cline), who successfully unloads some worthless shares in “the Beefsteak Mines” (whatever that is) on Fields in a rundown bar with some memorably shady hard-sell dialogue.

As Waterbury tells his mark, Egbert Sousé (Fields) in the film, “Waterbury’s my name, J. Frothingham Waterbury. I’m in the bond and stock business. Now, I have five thousand shares of the Beefsteak Mines in Leapfrog, Nevada, that I want to turn over to your bank. I like this little town and I want to get some contacts. I think you’re the very man.

Now, these shares are selling for ten cents a share. The telephone company once sold for five cents a share. These shares are twice as expensive, therefore, consequently they’ll be twice as valuable. Naturally, you’re no dunce. Telephone is now listed at one seventy-three and you can’t buy it. Three thousand, four hundred and sixty dollars for every nickel you put into it.

It’s simple arithmetic — if five’ll get you ten, ten will get you twenty. Sixteen-cylinder cars, a big home in the city — balconies upstairs and down. Home in the country — big trees, private golf course, stream running through the rear of the estate. Warm Sunday afternoon, fishing under the cool trees, sipping ice-cold beer.  And then this guy comes up the shady drive in an armored car from the bank, and he dumps a whole basket of coupons worth hundreds of thousands of dollars right in your lap.

And he says, ‘Sign here, please, on the dotted line.’ And then he’s off, to the soft chirping of our little feathered friends in the arboreal dell. That’s what these bonds mean. I’d rather part with my dear old grandmother’s paisley shawl or her wedding ring than part with these bonds. Gosh! Oh, pardon my language. . . I feel like a dog. But it’s now or never. It must be done. So take it or leave it.”

“I’ll take it!” Fields responds, thereby setting off a chain of events that makes The Bank Dick one of the handful of films that has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. But Hicks’ work in The Bank Dick is just one of more than 320 feature films and television programs the actor appeared in, including, among many other projects, such significant films as Scarlet Street,  Blood and Sand, The Great Lie, Sergeant York and The Black Arrow, racking up no less than 19 credits in 1942, and another 25 films in 1941.

For all of this, Hicks received comparatively little remuneration, as this employment card from for The Little Foxes from 1941 shows; he was a day player, with a rate of just $150 per day with a weekly guarantee for $600, and remained in constant demand because of his absolute professionalism, the fact that he could remember reams of dialogue and almost never blew a take, and could be relied on to essentially “direct himself,” so that even when the film he was appearing in fell apart, or the director had no idea what he was doing, Hicks would emerge unscathed, ready for his next assignment.

Russell Hicks’ employment contract for The Little Foxes, dated May 1, 1941.

Hicks worked right up until his death, and as you can see, he had to; for his entire professional career, Hicks was a perennial freelancer, moving from studio to studio, from the majors to the minors, without hardly missing a beat. With his sonorous voice, photographic memory, and dignified bearing, Hicks could move from playing a shady mob lawyer (in Hold That Ghost), to a judge (Tarzan’s New York Adventure), or an army colonel (They Died With Their Boots On), or a CIA “handler” (The Flying Saucer) without missing a beat.

Amazingly, he even took on the role of an aging Robin Hood – surely a stretch – in the 1946 film The Bandit of Sherwood Forest, and managed to pull it off in style. Some of his roles took just a day; others a week or so, but Hicks could always be relied to show up, say his lines, and wrap up his portion of the project with smooth assurance.

Indeed, his career stretched all the way back to 1915, and his work on D. W. Griffith’s horrifically racist Birth of A Nation, as well as Intolerance in 1916, and he was never out of work for more than few weeks before the next job came along.

Hicks’ last work was in Betty White’s pioneering television fantasy sitcom Date With The Angels in 1957; he died of a heart attack at the relatively young age of 61 that same year. So his career truly spanned cinema from almost the medium’s inception straight through until the modern sound era. It’s always fun to watch him at work; no matter how small the part, he never disappoints, and plays each new role with conviction and style.

Humanities on The Edge – New 2015 / 2016 Series

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

Here’s a free lecture series at UNL that explores some really challenging topics.

As the site for the series notes, “Humanities on the Edge is a speaker series co-founded by Dr. Marco Abel and Dr. Roland Végsö, who now co-ordinate the series together with Dr. Jeannette Jones (Department of History and Institute for Ethnic Studies), Dr. Damien Pfister (Department of Communication Studies), and Jonathan Walz (Curator of American Art at the Sheldon). Founded in 2010, the series is now in its sixth year, and its mission remains the same: to promote cross-disciplinary conversation and theoretical research in the Humanities.”

For 2015- 2016, the central theme is Posthuman Futures, and as the co-founders state in their guiding manifesto, “the metaphor of our [series] title evokes the ambiguity of liminal spaces and transitional periods. It locates its subject, the “humanities,” in a precarious position between its revered past and its vague future possibilities. It suggests that we have reached a historical turning point, and the hour has arrived when we must assume full responsibility for the direction of our futures.

Our title, thus, speaks of a precarious balance that might be disturbed by the slightest movement of the air, by the smallest trembling of the ground, and even by the barely perceptible tremors of the human body. It names a moment of risk, when the urgency of action tightens our muscles and confounds our minds with the unbearable burden of a decision.

So what is this edge that the humanities appear to be teetering on? Few things would be more self-evident today than to assume that it is the edge of an abyss that threatens to swallow up everything that we have held so dear for so long. For quite some time now, we have been conditioned to take for granted the rhetoric of crisis that has invaded every publicly available discourse.

This is the edge that we live on today: the perpetual state of mobilization that has become the very medium of our existence. In fact, this perpetual crisis is more than mere rhetoric: it is the very means of the active reorganization of both human and non-human life through the reconfiguration of the institutions that give shape to our worlds.

But if there is more to our lives than the melancholy resignation to this apocalyptic diagnosis, there is still hope that this edge is also the edge of a new beginning. For what else could be the inverse of this perpetual crisis if not the ‘perpetual revolution’ of a field that must assume the responsibility of constantly reinventing itself.

Since the term ‘the humanities’ names a particular form of knowledge that the human being uses to understand itself, the very indeterminacy and openness of the object (the human being) must be clearly reflected in the discourses that try to describe it. This is then the edge that our title refers to: it is the link that simultaneously separates and joins together the dystopia of perpetual crisis and the utopia of perpetual invention.

Our objective with the speaker series is to bring to UNL the kind of cutting edge research in the humanities that promises to define the future of critical thought for some time to come. We plan to invite speakers from across the Humanities disciplines whose works have repeatedly forced us to rethink some of the most basic terms that we use to understand ourselves.”

Click here, or above, to see some of the top theorists in contemporary cultural studies – don’t miss it!

Why Grow Up? by Susan Neiman

Saturday, September 5th, 2015

Susan Neiman’s new book is a brilliant inquiry into the current infantilization of culture.

I have been meaning to write about this book for a long time, which I originally overlooked because of the overly “pop” cover – one would think that this was a book about the perils of junk culture written in a simple, crowd-pleasing manner, but no – this is a text which seriously wrestles with the questions of why we value what we value, and what value this has for us as human beings. It’s a remarkable accomplishment in every respect.

It’s a dense text, but bears its scholarship lightly, and reminds me of nothing so much of Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols in its compactness and economy, even if Neiman’s views are markedly different on a number of topics that both texts examine.

Reviewing Why Grow Up?: Subversive Thoughts for an Infantie Age in The New York Times on June 15, 2015, A.O. Scott noted that “the ‘infantile age’ she has in mind goes back to the 18th century, and its most important figures are Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. ‘Coming of age is an Enlightenment problem,’ she writes, ‘and nothing shows so clearly that we are the Enlightenment’s heirs’ than that we understand it as a topic for argument and analysis, as opposed to something that happens to everyone in more or less the same way.

Before Kant and Rousseau, Neiman suggests, Western philosophy had little to say about the life cycle of individuals. As traditional religious and political modes of authority weakened, ‘the right form of human development became a philosophical problem, incorporating both psychological and political questions and giving them a normative thrust.’

How are we supposed to become free, happy and decent people? Rousseau’s Emile supplies Neiman with some plausible answers, and also with some cautionary lessons. A wonderfully problematic book — among other things a work of Utopian political thought, a manual for child-rearing, a foundational text of Romanticism and a sentimental novel — it serves here as a repository of ideas about the moral progress from infancy to adulthood. And also, more important, as a precursor and foil for Kant’s more systematic inquiries into human development . . .

In infancy, we have no choice but to accept the world as it is. In adolescence, we rebel against the discrepancy between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought.’ Adulthood, for Kant and for Neiman, ‘requires facing squarely the fact that you will never get the world you want, while refusing to talk yourself out of wanting it.’ It is a state of neither easy cynicism nor naïve idealism, but of engaged reasonableness.”

Neiman, who also is the director of the Einstein Forum in Berlin, has been working with many of these ideas before in her earlier texts, but this volume seems almost a distillation of all of her previous work into one spare, epigrammatic volume – easy to digest, but never suffering fools gladly – provided, of course, that one is also willing to engage fully with the many other philosophers she cites throughout the book.

In an era in which pop culture has become inescapably junk culture, Neiman finds much to value on the web and elsewhere, provided that one is willing to look for it, and then read and/or view it. The problem, of course, is the plethora of material available in the digital world, and the fact that so much of what is superficial and useless rises to the top in terms of popularity, while more thoughtful work is marginalized, with no real way to find it – unlike the analog era, in which one could still browse through the book stacks on any given topic, and harvest a range of critical voices.

This is an essential volume for anyone interested modern culture, and its numerous “discontents.”

Jean Renoir

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Jean Renoir – the most humanist of all filmmakers, something desperately needed now.

The distinguished and prescient film critic Michael Atkinson recently had this to say, in part, about the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir, who is, to my mind, one of the greatest film directors – along with Ozu, Bresson, and a few others – to ever work in the moving picture medium. As Atkinson notes, “in the shadow of the recent decennial Sight & Sound best-movie-ever poll, in which Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) supplanted the long-standing numero uno Citizen Kane (1941), let us just say without quibbling that Jean Renoir’s Le Regle de Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939) is the only genuine competition for the primary slot, and indeed it has claimed #2 or #3 status on the poll for half a century.

No slight to Vertigo is intended, and such is the consequence of rendering cultural opinion by way of crunched numbers and democratic aggregation. But Renoir’s pitch-perfect masterpiece (which has held as the fourth-greatest-ever) is more vital than ever for an art form slowly evolving into computer-generated carnival rides and empty-hearted noise, and that is because it is quintessentially Renoirian, that is, a bottomless harvest of humanity, which is seen in all of its thorny idiocy and yet viewed with the fiercest ardor ever put on celluloid.

If we were a sane species, it’d be Renoir that young filmmakers would take as a model, not Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese. Saying that Renoir is one of maybe seven unassailable masters in the history of cinema is not unlike saying the ocean is large and blue; demonstrating a shrugging nonchalance about his best films should and will peg you to those that know about these things as a flat-out pretender.

Simply, Renoir consistently took on the most complex territory available: the matrix of human camaraderie, the crystalline beauty of social respect and unexpected mutual empathies, the painful distance between the poles of a friendship under pressure, the folly and deathlessness of crazed romance. For Renoir, the tensile strength of love in all of its realizations was an inexhaustible subject, and no one explored it as wisely and whole-heartedly as he did.”

I once taught an entire semester of Renoir from the silents to his last TV movie, and through his films, he consistently amazed the class with his ability to work in any genre, and to always bring out the best in the performers, and to be, above all, forgiving – forgiving of human frailties and vanities, brave enough to make films that directly criticized French lassitude on the eve of World War II, smart enough to come to the United States for the duration of the conflict, but then to return to his homeland, and au courant enough to effortlessly make the switch from silents, to sound, to color, to three camera television shooting, and make it all look easy – eternally modern, eternally humanist.

Yes, if we were a sane species – Renoir would be constantly revived and screened.

Black-and-White is Dead. Long Live Black-and-White!

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Peter Monaghan has very kindly interviewed me on my new book, Black & White Cinema: A Short History.

Writing in Moving Image Archive News, Monaghan notes that “set to appear in November 2015 from Rutgers University Press, Black and White Cinema: A Short History describes a range of styles of black-and-white film art, and how they arose to create the distinctive looks of Hollywood romances, gangster dramas, films noirs, and other styles.

But Dixon, a film historian and theoretician at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where he coordinates the film studies program, is also a seasoned filmmaker, and that provides him with a keen eye for how black-and-white film was made. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including A Short History of Film (2nd edition 2013; with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access (2013); and Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012).

In this interview, he explains why black-and-white cinematography will not return, not just because black-and-white film stock is near impossible to acquire, but moreover because the skills and techniques needed to film with it are almost irreversibly moribund.

Why do you quote this, from Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love, as an epigraph to your book? The angel said, “I like black-and-white films more than color because they’re more artificial. You have to work harder to overcome your disbelief. It’s sort of like prayer.”

To me black and white is more sensuous. It’s such a transformative act to make a black-and-white film. You are entering an entirely different world, right from the start. It’s so much more of a leap into another universe. Color films and particularly color 3-D films attempt to mimic some sort of spectacular reality, whereas black-and-white films are really a meditation on the image.

It’s a medium that dominated film production up until 1966, as the normative medium in which films were created. Cameramen had the ability to look through the camera and see the world in black-and-white even though what they were seeing on the set was color. As a viewer, you have to accept its completely artificial world, so it requires a bit more of you. I think that’s what the Carroll quotation is about.

And in the 1940s you’d go to a film already willing to be transported, wouldn’t you?

Absolutely, but I don’t think audiences in the 1940s even thought about it, or the ’50s. Or even the ’60s. They just went to the movies, and expected black and white — it was the way movies looked. A black and white world.”

You can read the entire interview by clicking here, or on the image above. Thanks, Peter!

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. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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