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The Trip: Andy Warhol’s Plastic Fantastic Cross-Country Adventure

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016

Here’s a remarkable book by Deborah Davis that somehow didn’t get the attention it deserved.

Published in late 2015, Deborah Davis’ account of Warhol’s cross-country drive with some Factory regulars to an early gallery show of the artist’s work slipped past my radar, but it’s a fascinating and meticulously researched account of Warhol’s coast-to-coast odyssey, and sheds new light on his evolution as an artist, who started out at the extreme margins of “pop” and ultimately became the defining visual stylist of the second half of the 20th century.

As the website for the book notes, “in 1963, up-and-coming artist Andy Warhol took a road trip across America. What began as a madcap, drug-fueled romp became a journey that took Warhol on a kaleidoscopic adventure from New York City, across the vast American heartland, all the way to Hollywood and back.

With locations ranging from a Texas panhandle truck stop to a Beverly Hills mansion, from the beaches of Santa Monica to a Photomat booth in Albuquerque, The Trip captures Warhol’s interactions with Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Marcel Duchamp, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra. Along the way he also met rednecks, beach bums, underground filmmakers, artists, poets, socialites, and newly minted hippies, and they each left an indelible mark on his psyche.

In The Trip, Andy Warhol’s speeding Ford Falcon is our time machine, transporting us from the last vestiges of the sleepy Eisenhower epoch to the true beginning of the explosive, exciting ’60s. Through in-depth, original research, Deborah Davis sheds new light on one of the most enduring figures in the art world and captures a fascinating moment in 1960s America—with Warhol at its center.”

Really well worth reading – a penetrating snapshot of Warhol “on the road.”

New Film Series – Picturing The West at Film Streams in Omaha

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

Film Streams in Omaha, Nebraska has a great new series this Feburary/ March 2016 on The Western Film.

As the theater’s website notes, “for many, the term ‘the West’ is likely to conjure memories of screen cowboys, like John Wayne, or anti-heroes, like Clint Eastwood. Movies played a huge role in creating the popular image of an entire chapter of history, not to mention many misguided or harmful stereotypes about Native Americans.

Part of Westward O, a celebration of all things west in Omaha, corresponding with Joslyn Art Museum’s ‘Go West! Art of the American Frontier’ from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West exhibition, this series will offer an opportunity to revel in beloved, classic films and also to think about how these works of art impact or perception of America, past and present.

Curated in collaboration with Toby Jurovics, Joslyn’s Chief Curator & Richard and Mary Holland Curator of American Western Art, the series includes beloved standard-bearers that helped establish the wholesome image of the open range, psychological westerns that challenged ideas of right and wrong, and more recent takes on the genre that reflect changes in filmmaking and the cultural zeitgeist.” Here’s a chance to check out these classics on the big screen; don’t miss it!

Click here, or on the image above, to see the full schedule for the series.

Nate Parker’s “Birth Of A Nation” (2016) Electrifies Sundance

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016

Here’s a film that’s a real passion project – and really long overdue.

As Dominic Patten reports from the Sundance Film Festival in Deadline, “‘without an honest confrontation, there is no healing.’ That’s from Birth Of A Nation director-producer-star Nate Parker [speaking on January 25th, 2015] onstage at the Sundance Film Festival. In what I have to say was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve had at a movie theater, Parker world premiered what he called his seven-year ‘passion project.’ His telling of the early 19th century slave revolt led by Nat Turner had audience members crying in their seats and jumping to their feet in a prolonged standing ovation at the film’s conclusion.

Potential buyers for the film streamed out of the lobby mere minutes after the cast had left the stage post – screening. Some worked multiple cell phones (with assistants standing nearby fielding calls of their own) in what appeared to be fevered discussions about the awards-bait film. Speaking to the packed Eccles Theater crowd with almost the entire cast beside him after the lights came up, Parker said, ‘I made this movie for one reason only, creating change agents,’ adding, ‘there are still a lot of injustices in our world.’

Sanitizing nothing, from the systematic and brutal torture inflicted by slave owners on the men and women they enslaved to the 48-hour bloody uprising led by Turner depicted in the movie, the film challenges our conceptions of that terrible time in American history and the lives it destroyed.

‘These people thought they were doing good when they were doing bad,’ said Parker of his effort to depict the entirety of the slavery ecosystem. ‘In 2016, that echoes,’ he added, to a roar of approval from the Park City crowd. While comparisons undoubtedly will be made to such films as Best Picture Oscar winner 12 Years A Slave, Parker’s movie has the added visceral impact of a movie like Schindler’s List, or a handful of other well-told films that depict genocide. So often, I wanted to look away at the carnage as the slave owners and their henchmen mutilated their slaves, but in fact I think that this film demands it be looked at with open and honest eyes. That is why the Sundance crowd reacted so strongly to the film Parker made.”

Making the film was an incredibly long struggle for director/star Parker, who vowed in 2013 that this project would be his next film no matter what – and then spent the next two years getting the funding for the film together. As Wikipedia notes, “The Birth of a Nation is written, produced, and directed by Nate Parker, who also stars as Nat Turner. Parker learned about Turner from an African-American studies course at the University of Oklahoma. He began writing the screenplay for a Nat Turner film in 2009 and had a fellowship at a lab under the Sundance Institute.

While he got writing feedback from filmmakers like James Mangold, he was told that a Nat Turner film could not be produced. The Hollywood Reporter said, ‘But what he heard instead were all the reasons a movie about Nat Turner wouldn’t work: Movies with black leads don’t play internationally; a period film with big fight scenes would be too expensive; it was too violent; it wouldn’t work without a big box-office star leading it; Turner was too controversial — after all, he was responsible for the deaths of dozens of well-off white landowners.’

After Parker finished his acting role in Beyond the Lights in late 2013, he told his agents he would not continue acting until he had played Nat Turner in a film. He invested $100,000 of his money to hire a production designer and to pay for location scouting in Savannah, Georgia.

He met with multiple financiers, and the first to invest in the film were retired basketball player Michael Finley (who invested in the film The Butler) and active basketball player Tony Parker. Nate Parker eventually brought together 11 groups of investors to finance 60 percent of the $10 million production budget, and producer Aaron L. Gilbert of Bron Studios joined to cover the remaining financing.”

As director/star Parker said of the film, ‘I kind of sold this project to investors and cast on legacy. I honestly think this is a film that could start a conversation that can promote healing and systemic change in our country. There’s so many things that are happening right now in 2015 — 100 years after the original Birth of a Nation [1915] film, here we are. I’d say that is what I hope sets my film apart, is that it’s relevant now — that people will talk about this film with the specific intention of change.’

And here’s more good news, from Mike Fleming Jr. of Deadline: “In a record-breaking deal for the Sundance Film Festival, Fox Searchlight is wrapping up a deal to pay around $17.5 million to acquire world rights for The Birth Of A Nation. The deal’s still being finalized, but this brings to a close one of the most freewheeling all-night bidding battles ever seen here in Park City.

It also births a major new filmmaking voice in Nate Parker, who directed and stars in a film he scripted and produced. The deal, which calls for a widescreen commitment in awards season, far surpasses precedent-setting Sundance acquisitions like the $10.5 million deal for Little Miss Sunshine in 2006, and the $10 million deal for Hamlet 2 in 2008. So it looks like this film might actually receive the widespread theatrical release it so clearly deserves.

Sony, Universal, TWC, Netflix, Warner Bros, Paramount, Lionsgate and Fox Searchlight were all in the mix early Monday evening, chasing a world rights deal with bids that started around $12 million. At a time when focus has been on a lack of diversity in Oscar nominees for a second straight year, The Birth Of A Nation was viewed by potential buyers as having true awards potential [. . .]

The film marks the feature directorial debut of Parker, an actor who has directed several short films and been part of the ensemble casts of films including The Great Debaters, The Secret Life Of Bees, Red Tails and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. He will leave the mountain as a major filmmaker to watch [emphasis added]“

The response to D.W. Griffith’s appalling Birth of A Nation we’ve been waiting for - kudos to Nate Parker!

Idris Elba’s Keynote Speech to Parliament on Diversity in the Media

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

Here’s Idris Elba’s powerful speech to Parliament on the need for diversity in the media.

As he says in the speech, “I’m here to talk about diversity. Diversity in the modern world is more than just skin color – it’s gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, social background, and – most important of all, as far as I’m concerned – diversity of thought. Because if you have genuine diversity of thought among people making TV & film, then you won’t accidentally shut out any of the groups I just mentioned . . .

Ask women, they’ll say the same thing. Or disabled people. Or gay people. Or any number of under-represented groups. So today I’m asking the TV & film industry to think outside the box, and to GET outside the box. This isn’t a speech about race, this is a speech about imagination. Diversity of thought.” Certainly, that’s not too much to ask in the 21st century!

His talk is illuminating and inspiring – read the full text by clicking here.

Recommended Book: Women, Art and the New Deal

Sunday, January 17th, 2016

Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene have published an excellent, and much needed new book.

As the book’s description notes, “in 1935, the United States Congress began employing large numbers of American artists through the Works Progress Administration—fiction writers, photographers, poster artists, dramatists, painters, sculptors, muralists, wood carvers, composers and choreographers, as well as journalists, historians and researchers. Secretary of Commerce and supervisor of the WPA Harry Hopkins hailed it a ‘renascence of the arts, if we can call it a rebirth when it has no precedent in our history.’

Women were prominently involved, creating a wide variety of art and craft, interweaving their own stories with those of other women whose lives might not otherwise have received attention. This book surveys the thousands of women artists who worked for the U.S. government, the historical and social worlds they described and the collaborative depiction of womanhood they created at a pivotal moment in American history.”

I have a personal connection to this, as my late aunt, Nina Barr Wheeler, aka Nina Blake, was part of the WPA during the 1930s, and as a starving New York City artist was bussed out to the Midwest along with a group of other young women to assist the muralist Hildreth Meiere in creating murals for the Nebraska State Capitol Building, and told me about her experiences in detail – for her, as for many others, the WPA program was a life saver.

This is a fascinating book, richly illustrated with photographs of the paintings, sculptures and other works created by women during this era, as part of a progressive government program that valued the arts as an essential part of the fabric of society, and shines a light on an area of 20th century art that is too often ignored. It’s a first class piece of historical, cultural, and critical work, written in a lively, accessible style designed for both academics and the lay reader – it would make a great course text for a semester long examination of women in the arts in the 1930s and 40s.

Highest possible recommendation – don’t miss this landmark volume!

Download Millions of Feet of Newsreel Footage in Public Domain

Saturday, January 16th, 2016

Looking for a place to download millions of feet of free, Public Domain stock footage?

In the pre-TV era, people saw the news every week in their neighborhood movie theaters. Newsreels were shown before every feature film and in dedicated newsreel theaters located in large cities. Universal Newsreel, produced from 1929 to 1967, was released twice a week. Each issue contained six or seven short stories, usually one to two minutes in length, covering world events, politics, sports, fashion, and whatever else might entertain the movie audience.

These newsreels offer a fascinating and unique view of an era when motion pictures defined our culture and were a primary source of visual news reporting. Universal City Studios gifted Universal Newsreel to the American people, put the newsreels into the public domain, and gave film materials to the National Archives in 1976. Surviving materials from the entire collection are available at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland.

Here’s another invaluable free resource on the web – click here to enter the site.

The Films of Piero Heliczer – A Retrospective

Saturday, January 16th, 2016

On Tuesday, January 19th, EYE on Art presents an evening devoted to filmmaker and poet Piero Heliczer.

As a friend of Piero Heliczer during the 1960s in New York, I was happy to consult on this exhibition, which takes place on Tuesday at the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, Holland, where Piero spent much of his later life before his tragic early death in France. As the notes for the program by Ruth Sweeney relate, “Piero Heliczer was born in Italy in 1937. Throughout his life he gained notoriety as a poet and publisher. However, he also dedicated a lot of his time and energy to cinema and experimental filmmaking.  Wheeler Winston Dixon has described Heliczer’s film works to be ‘an important and too often forgotten part of 1960s experimental cinema.’

From a young age he was involved in the film industry; at the age of four he acted in Augusto Genina’s fascist propaganda film Bengasi which won first prize at Venice International Film Festival in 1942. It is curious that this was his first experience into the world of film; Heliczer’s mother was Jewish, from Prussia and his father, who, as member of the Resistance, was captured and killed by the Gestapo, was Italian-Polish. For the last two years of the war Heliczer and his remaining family went into hiding. Then, in 1947 he moved to the United States, where he lived for almost a decade.

In 1956 Heliczer returned to Europe. He initially resided in Paris where he began producing his own poetry and started his own small press – The Dead Language – hand-printing books and small publications, anthologies and magazines. It was during this period that Heliczer got involved with the Beat Generation; the likes of Angus Maclise, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso, to name but a few. In the early sixties he moved to England for a few years. He lived primarily in London, where he acquainted himself with the Avant-garde film scene, and then for some time in Brighton, where he made his first film with Jeff Keen, The Autumn Feast (1961).

A few years later Heliczer relocated to New York where he became involved with the Film-makers’ Cooperative and the circles surrounding Andy Warhol’s factory. He acted in Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), and Andy Warhol’s Couch (1964). It was during this period that Heliczer made the majority of his own experimental films thus associating himself with 1960s American Experimental Cinema. Looking back on those years Heliczer spent in New York, Gerard Malanga, a friend of Piero’s and also a filmmaker and poet, describes Heliczer’s filming style as ‘free-wheeling’ and ’spontaneous.’

He says: ‘There was a definite collaborative energy present when Piero would set up a shoot and begin filming, though he was very quiet in his approach. One never knew what was happening until it was nearly over. That is, he did shoot at different angles within the one space, which was usually a rooftop above the flat where he was living at the time. In a way he just let us do our thing. There were no scripts but lots of random shooting. We just kind of stood around or moved around like we were in some kind of dance. I never recall Piero shouting out directions or outlining to us what he planned on doing.’

Heliczer was a wanderer and a traveller. He never stuck around in any one place for a long period of time and by the end of the ‘60s it seems he was tired of New York. In the ‘70s he returned once more to Europe. The German government awarded him a sum of money as an act of reparation for the murder of his father and he invested this money into a house in Normandy, where he lived until his death. In 1993 Heliczer was tragically killed in a road-accident at the age of 56. Unfortunately, despite his strong associations with notable figures, Heliczer’s films have remained relatively unknown.”

It’s only fitting that Piero should have this retrospective; click here, or on the image above, to find out more.

David Bowie 1947-2016

Monday, January 11th, 2016

One the world’s most influential pop /music / film/ performance artists has died at the age of 69.

As Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times, “David Bowie, the infinitely changeable, fiercely forward-looking songwriter who taught generations of musicians about the power of drama, images and personas, died on Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday. Mr. Bowie’s death was confirmed by his publicist, Steve Martin, on Monday morning.

He died after an 18-month battle with cancer, according to a statement on Mr. Bowie’s social-media accounts. ‘David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family,’ a post on his Facebook page read. His last album, Blackstar [produced by Bowie's long time associate Tony Visconti] a collaboration with a jazz quintet that was typically enigmatic and exploratory, was released on Friday — on his birthday . . . He had also collaborated on an Off Broadway musical, Lazarus, that was a surreal sequel to his definitive 1976 film role, The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider: an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut. His music was always a mutable blend: rock, cabaret, jazz and what he called ‘plastic soul,’ but it was suffused with genuine soul. He also captured the drama and longing of everyday life, enough to give him No. 1 pop hits like Let’s Dance . . .

Mr. Bowie earned admiration and emulation across the musical spectrum — from rockers, balladeers, punks, hip-hop acts, creators of pop spectacles and even classical composers like Philip Glass, who based two symphonies on Mr. Bowie’s albums Low and Heroes. Mr. Bowie’s constantly morphing persona was a touchstone for performers like Madonna and Lady Gaga; his determination to stay contemporary introduced his fans to Philadelphia funk, Japanese fashion, German electronica and drum-and-bass dance music.”

David Bowie crossed nearly every boundary in popular culture and art, appearing in films, creating a multitude of characters such as Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke, and then abandoning them when they were no longer of interest. Bowie was also much underrated as a singer, and in this era of auto-tuning, it’s interesting to listen to this isolated vocal track for the song Under Pressure, in which Bowie belts out the lyrics to the song with both skill and passion.

Bowie also has a surprisingly long and effective film career, appearing in a wide variety of films, from Labyrinth, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Prestige (in which he played the equally visionary Nikola Tesla) the biopic Basquiat, as well as The Hunger, The Last Temptation of Christ, and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. In all these films, the persona he projected was very much like his stage presence; distant, but absolutely in the moment, whatever that moment might be.

Two years ago, the BBC produced an excellent documentary on one of Bowie’s most creative periods, Five Years, and as columnist Paul Morley observed in The Telegraph, Bowie “was the human equivalent of a Google search, a portal through which you could step into an amazing, very different wider world – if he mentioned in an interview, or referenced in his work, someone like Andy Warhol, Jean Cocteau, Antonin Artaud or Marcel Duchamp, I would immediately want to find out what he was talking about.

He flooded plain everyday reality with extraordinary, unexpected information, processing the details through a buoyant, mobile mind, and made intellectual discovery seem incredibly glamorous. He helped create in my own mind a need to discover ways of making sense of both the universe and the self by seeking out the different, the difficult and the daring.”

David Bowie – one of the art world’s major figures – now no longer with us.

Kodak’s New Super 8mm Camera – The Return of Film

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

Just like vinyl records vs. mp3s and CDs, actual film is making a comeback in cinema.

Still, I was surprised by this news item; Kodak is re-introducing a Super8mm camera that shoots actual film, which at this point is being marketed at much too high a price point for the average consumer, but is rather aimed at those who want to use film as a medium for artistic expression.

The last Super 8mm camera I owned, many years ago, was a Kodak Super 8mm sound camera, which used 50 ft. cartridges of film with a magnetic sound strip on the side – it worked well enough, particularly when one used high speed Ektachrome film, but it was almost instantly superseded by the advent of video cameras – and that, for the moment, was the end of that.

However, as Don Clark notes in The Wall Street Journal, “Eastman Kodak Co., the photography pioneer that was disrupted by the digital revolution, is placing a new bet on a gadget from a simpler time. The company is using the Consumer Electronics Show to lay out plans for a film camera based on the Super 8 design launched 50 years ago. Kodak stopped producing Super 8 units in 1982, after video cameras savaged the market for home movies made with film.

Jeff Clarke, Kodak’s chief executive, isn’t ignoring the changes in the market now that billions of consumers own mobile phones with digital cameras. But he believes professional filmmakers and serious amateurs will appreciate the subtle qualities of an analog medium that many Hollywood veterans used to learn their trade.

Mr. Clarke cites the preference among many Hollywood directors to shoot on 35-millimeter or 70-millimeter film. He also sees a parallel in the way some audiophiles prefer the analog medium of vinyl records.

Kodak plans to play on some of the conveniences of digital technology. Just as movies shot on film are usually converted to digital files for editing and projection, buyers of the new camera that turn to Kodak for processing will get a digital copy of their imagery as well as eight-millimeter film to use in projectors.

The new camera will feature a digital viewfinder, he said. ‘This is no longer the classic script of a war of digital versus analog,’ Mr. Clarke said. ‘What it really is now is the complementary characteristics of both.’ . . .

The first Super 8 camera was launched at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and went on sale the next year. It featured a pistol-style grip and packed eight millimeter film in a cartridge, an advance that avoided the need to thread film through the camera in the dark.

Kodak’s effort to revive Super 8 is aimed in large part at film schools, where many students no longer get a chance to experiment with analog footage, Mr. Clarke said. He also expects some people making commercial or experimental films–who have sometimes used eight- or 16-millimeter footage–to try the new product.

Mr. Clarke said Kodak has received expressions of support for the new camera by many Hollywood directors, including Steven Spielberg and Star Wars director J.J. Abrams, who directed a 2011 film called Super 8 and was famously hired by Mr. Spielberg as a 14-year-old to work on the older director’s Super 8 film archive.”

I would also venture to say that a lot of old Super 8mm cameras will now be brought back to life, assuming that Kodak makes enough raw stock. And as one commenter on the article noted, “Dwayne’s in Parsons, KS (notable as the final Kodachrome shop) will process a 50ft super-8 cartridge for $12. Just saying.” Hmmmm . . .

So – this is interesting – another sign of the celluloid backlash. We’ll have to see what happens.

Video: Things to Come (1936) – H.G. Wells’ Vision of the Future

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

H.G. Wells’ Things To Come is one of the most prophetic visions of the future ever created for the screen.

H.G. Wells wrote many novels about the possible future of mankind, all of which have been filmed in various adaptations, but he wrote only one futuristic vision with a film adaptation directly in mind; his 1933 magnum opus The Shape of Things To Come, which Wells then adapted into the screenplay for the film Things to Come in 1936.

The production designer and director of the film, William Cameron Menzies, is lately having a run on this blog, with posts on his film Invaders from Mars and James Curtis’ book William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, but it’s only right that this film, perhaps the only time that Menzies really had a decent budget at his disposal as a director, gets its own entry here.

The collaboration between Wells and Menzies – as well as the actors, including Raymond Massey, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and Sir Ralph Richardson – was stormy at best, with the major stumbling block being that Wells, who had almost no visual or dramatic sensibility for the cinema, kept insisting that his long, declamatory speeches remain intact on the screen, despite Menzies’ and the cast’s insistence that judicious cuts to the material would make the end product more effective.

But Wells wouldn’t hear of it, and so there are, in truth, about thirty minutes of the film that could easily be cut – something that all the contemporary reviewers of the film readily pointed out – and Wells, disappointed with the film’s initial reception, amazingly blamed Menzies for this – but it simply isn’t so.

Despite this problem, however, Things to Come remains an astonishing film, accurately predicting the onset on World War II, for one thing, as well as such technological advances as television, space travel, enclosed cities, social breakdown bordering on feudalism in some areas, and clearly posited science as the savior of mankind.

It’s essential, of course, to see Things to Come on a big screen; it’s one of those films that calls insistently for large scale projection – and for many years, when the film fell into the Public Domain, inferior 16mm and video copies circulated from a variety of sources, none of which approached the scope and grandeur of the original film. However, in recent years, the film has come back under copyright.

Legend Films has thus brought out a superb DVD and Blu-ray of the film, completely restored, which can be seen either in its original black and white version (my choice), or in a remarkably good colorized version, supervised by the late special effects master Ray Harryhausen. So, thanks to Curt Bright, here’s a short video essay on the film as part of the Frame by Frame series, and now, you can see the film for yourself.

Don’t miss a chance to see this classic if you can; click here for a video essay on the film.

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.

In The National News

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

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