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The Interview Opens On The Web

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

Sony suddenly decided to upload The Interview to the web today – after nearly pulling it altogether.

So Sony decides to dump The Interview on Google, XBox and YouTube VOD for $6.99 or so, thus creating the first saturation booking campaign on the web, essentially opening everywhere at once to forestall negative word of mouth. At the same time, however, this undercuts all the independent theaters who plan to open the film tomorrow when the major chains wouldn’t, thus depriving them of some very profitable playdates – most people will simply stay home and watch it.

And, of course, within minutes, literally hundreds of “rips” were uploaded to YouTube, but were almost immediately taken down, with a cheerful announcement that “we’re sorry, but this video has been removed . . .” etc. So this is a public relations coup for Google – a major Hollywood film opening on YouTube, which will drag more eyes there – and a nice “save face” for Sony, in the form of an early Christmas present to viewers – and if it works, we may see less of theaters in the future altogether.

Why go out, when you can stay home and see first run films on your laptop? But I wonder what the theater chains will do if this becomes the new model; they can’t compete against streaming home video using 4D, 3D and huge screens forever. Streaming The Interview, since the major chains won’t touch it, is a really innovative strategy, along with the “art house” break in major cities, as well as small ones – it’s even playing at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. This may be the way all movies are distributed in the future – but you have to admit, this one had one heck of a viral buzz going for it.

It’s an interesting strategy.

New Book – Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

Here’s a new, groundbreaking book on the horror film in the 1940s.

As the editors, Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare, Charlie Ellbé and Kristopher Woofter note of this excellent collection of new essays, “the 1940s is a lost decade in horror cinema, undervalued and written out of most horror scholarship. This collection revises, reframes, and deconstructs persistent critical binaries that have been put in place by scholarly discourse to label 1940s horror as somehow inferior to a ‘classical’ period or ‘canonical’ mode of horror in the 1930s, especially as represented by the monster films of Universal Studios.

The book’s four sections re-evaluate the historical, political, economic, and cultural factors informing 1940s horror cinema to introduce new theoretical frameworks and to open up space for scholarly discussion of 1940s horror genre hybridity, periodization, and aesthetics. Chapters focused on Gothic and Grand Guignol traditions operating in forties horror cinema, 1940s proto-slasher films, the independent horrors of the Poverty Row studios, and critical reevaluations of neglected hybrid films such as The Vampire’s Ghost (1945) and ’slippery’ auteurs such as Robert Siodmak and Sam Newfield, work to recover a decade of horror that has been framed as having fallen victim to repetition, exhaustion, and decline.”

In essays by Paul Corupe, Blair Davis, Louise Fenton, Anne Golden, David Hanley, Karen Herland, Mark Jancovich, Kier-La Janisse, Cory Legassic, Peter Marra, Ian Olney, Dennis R. Perry, Selma Purac, Gary D. Rhodes and Rick Trembles, the authors examine a wide range of Gothic films from the era, including such long forgotten gems as Lew Landers’ Return of the Vampire (1944), Bela Lugosi’s last “straight” turn as a rapacious creature of the night; the long-neglected Universal Inner Sanctum series of films, starring Lon Chaney Jr.; and the above-mentioned The Vampire’s Ghost, directed by Lesley Selander from a script by the great Leigh Brackett, who would later go on to work on Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), and a little film called Star Wars (1977). All of these films, and the other works discussed in this volume, deserve greater attention, and this superb group of essays by some of the most accomplished younger writers in the field is real contribution to the existing literature on the subject.

As critic L. Andrew Cooper says of the volume, “Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade surveys that touch on horror’s fate during the 1940s, and is a must-read for genre scholars and for anyone who teaches film history. Not only does this collection of essays offer an overwhelming amount of evidence—including accessible, teachable examples—of the genre’s vitality during the period, but it also shows Gothic horror’s presence in film noir’s monstrous gangsters, melodrama’s silenced women, and other cinematic traditions more often discussed as vital to the 1940s. The book’s diverse perspectives offer productive challenges to long-held assumptions about the boundaries and histories of film genres; it’s a great learning opportunity for experienced researchers or for educated readers coming to the subject for its inherently dark pleasures.”

Read more about this intriguing new book by clicking here, or on the image above.

Edwin L. Marin’s A Christmas Carol (1938)

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

Time for a true Christmas classic!

As Christmastime rolls around again, with all of its attendant merchandising and commerciality now firmly and sadly attached, I always make it a point to watch the 1938 version of Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol, directed by Edwin L. Marin and starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge. The story has been burlesqued and retold countless times, but this traditional version from MGM, made in the waning days of the Depression, carries more emotional resonance for me than any other version.

Clicking on the image above will take you to a curiosity — a 2:45 minute trailer for the film, as introduced by Lionel Barrymore, who played the role of Scrooge on radio during the 30s and 40s nearly every Christmas, but who, by 1938, was confined to a wheelchair, and unable to handle the leading role in anything but a radio drama. It was Barrymore who suggested that Owen take over the role for this film version — a very generous gesture, giving Owen one of the finest roles he was ever to have — and while the film is deeply traditional, it also radiates an honest sentiment and cheer that continues to brighten my holiday season, year after year.

The 1951 version, ably directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge, also has its adherents, and justly so; it’s an excellent rendition of the classic story. But the 1938 version seems cheerier, more compact — much like the story itself — and full of the optimism and hope that characterizes the best of the holiday season. See it for yourself on TCM, where it runs regularly at this time of year, or buy it on DVD — it’s a Christmas tradition for me, and always will be.

Happy Holidays and all the best for 2015 from Frame by Frame!

The Colbert Report Signs Off

Friday, December 19th, 2014

The Colbert Report signed off with a star-studded finale that no other comic of this generation could match.

On the last show, a mammoth sing along to the tune of We’ll Meet Again featured everyone from Randy Newman to Henry Kissinger to Willie Nelson to James Franco to Gloria Steinem to Charlie Rose and every imaginable stop in-between – a fitting end to what was arguably the greatest late night satirical talk show in television history.

As Richard Corliss wrote in Time Magazine, “I’m blue. After nine years and two months, The Colbert Report is off the air. I’ve seen each of the 1446 episodes leading to tonight’s sign-off, and cherished almost all of them. The show’s conclusion will leave a void in my life and in my writing, since I’ve shoehorned Colbert references into reviews of Superbad, Prince of Persia, Pompeii, Jackass 3D, Nightcrawler and Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, and into essays about Richard Nixon, Ingmar Bergman, Derek Jeter, makeup artist Dick Smith and the 2012 Super Bowl.

For my wife Mary Corliss and me, Colbert has been destination viewing. Even in the early years, we never took the show’s excellence for granted, agreeing that some day we’d look back on the double whammy of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as the golden age of TV’s singeing singing satire.

That age ends now. Colbert is gone from TV until September, when he takes over David Letterman’s CBS 11:35 slot and, at 51, becomes the oldest man to debut as the host of a late-night network talk show. He’ll be off the air for nine months — a long time for admirers like me to go cold, or Colbert, turkey. And when he finally starts on CBS, he’ll just be Stephen Colbert. Not ‘Stephen Colbert,’ the greatest fake newsman in TV history, and one of the richest fictional characters in any popular art form of the past decade.”

So until September, it’s cold turkey for Colbert fans – when we’ll meet again.

Robert De Niro’s Actual Hack License for Taxi Driver

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Talk about method acting!

This has been floating around the web, and is worth posting here; this is Robert De Niro’s actual hack license that he used to prep for his career defining role as Travis Bickle, a loner taxicab driver in New York City driven to a homicidal frenzy by forces he can’t control. It’s one of the great American movies, and was shot right around the corner from where I then lived, at 203 East 14th Street in Manhattan. De Niro – a total professional, completely dedicated to his craft, and it shows in the finished film, which is perhaps the finest film from Scorsese, De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster and everyone else involved. No other film so authentically captured the grit and grime of New York City in the 1970s.

A fascinating artifact from a lost era.

Highway to Hollywood – Maury Dexter

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

Writing about The One I Love, I ran across this interesting surprise.

Director Maury Dexter, certainly not one of the major figures in film history by a long shot, has nevertheless written his autobiography – published in 2012 – and made it available as a free pdf file (click on the image above to access). Dexter’s work is extremely straightforward, and he specialized in low budget, quickly produced films for producer Robert L. Lippert for 20th Century Fox, after breaking in as an actor and getting advice from no less than director William Beaudine on how to effectively “act” on screen – Beaudine’s advice; “don’t act!”

From this, Dexter segued into assistant work, then directorial assignments, and more often than not made routine films for a set price, with the notable exception of the groundbreaking science fiction film The Day Mars Invaded Earth (not, sadly, available on DVD), winding up working for Michael Landon on Little House on the Prairie.

Dexter’s memory remains sharp, and if he’s not a great prose stylist, he’s still got a lot of tales to tell. Dexter’s memoirs are short and punchy, with lots of inside information, and make for a light, easy read. This is a story of the underside of Hollywood, and the “bread and butter” pictures that cost so much, made so much, and never strained the limits of genre filmmaking.

But the price is right – so check it out; Hollywood in the 50s and 60s.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – But Who Cares?

Friday, November 28th, 2014

The first “teaser trailer” for the new Star Wars film is here, and I have only one question – who cares?

Talk about playing to diminishing returns – this film reunites a bunch of the cast members from the original 1977 film, which was quite a fun piece of entertainment, even if deeply indebted – by design – to the Saturday morning movie serials of the 1930s and 40s, but hasn’t this whole franchise been done to death? At least one of the original participants – now deceased – wasn’t happy with the film from the start, though he shrewdly realized it would be a huge hit, and negotiated a percentage of the profits as part of his salary, which paid off handsomely.

As Keir Mudie reported in The Sun on May 3, 2014, the gifted actor Sir Alec Guinness, forever after typecast as Obi-Wan Kenobi, called the first film “fairytale rubbish” with “lamentable dialogue” and complained during the shooting that ” [I] can’t say I’m enjoying the film… rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper – and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable” though he noted after Star Wars was completed that “it’s a pretty staggering film as spectacle and technically brilliant. Exciting, very noisy and warm-hearted. The battle scenes at the end go on for five minutes too long, I feel, and some of the dialogue is excruciating and much of it is lost in noise, but it remains a vivid experience.

But must we keep beating it to death with one useless sequel after another? Aren’t there better things to do with our lives? Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens won’t come out until December 2015, and people are already talking about the film as if it’s a must-see event. Personally, I can’t think of any less imaginative or duller way to spend an afternoon – and even though the original film earned Guinness “more than £56million in royalties, a best supporting actor Oscar nomination and global stardom,” I have to agree with him – it is sheer rubbish. The follow up sequels are even more tedious, while the first film, at least, had some energy. But now that Disney owns the rights to the franchise, and plans to to put out a new film every year for the foreseeable future, I’m sure that, just like the endless chain of James Bond films, there will be a Star Wars film playing in cinemas from now until the end of time.

Indeed, Guinness disliked the film so much – which pretty much erased all of his previous work in a single stroke in the public consciousness – that he threw out all of the fan mail that came to him associated with Star Wars, and when confronted by a young boy who told him enthusiastically that he had seen the film 100 times, tartly responded “well, do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?” If only it were possible, but unfortunately, the franchise grinds on – with the only possible upside being that it supplies work for an army of technicians and extras, and will certainly draw crowds to theaters. But when I think of all the excellent films that will be completely ignored in the stampede to see this latest iteration, well, it makes me more than a bit sad.

Isn’t it time to just drop the whole thing, and move on to something new?

The Triumph of Human Empire by Rosalind Williams

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

Here’s a brilliant book on the intersection of science and romantic culture.

As the publisher’s website for this book notes, “in the early 1600s, in a haunting tale titled New Atlantis, Sir Francis Bacon imagined the discovery of an uncharted island. This island was home to the descendants of the lost realm of Atlantis, who had organized themselves to seek ‘the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.’ Bacon’s make-believe island was not an empire in the usual sense, marked by territorial control; instead, it was the center of a vast general expansion of human knowledge and power.

Rosalind Williams uses Bacon’s island as a jumping-off point to explore the overarching historical event of our time: the rise and triumph of human empire, the apotheosis of the modern ambition to increase knowledge and power in order to achieve world domination. Confronting an intensely humanized world was a singular event of consciousness, which Williams explores through the lives and works of three writers of the late nineteenth century: Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

As the century drew to a close, these writers were unhappy with the direction in which their world seemed to be headed and worried that organized humanity would use knowledge and power for unworthy ends. In response, Williams shows, each engaged in a lifelong quest to make a home in the midst of human empire, to transcend it, and most of all to understand it. They accomplished this first by taking to the water: in life and in art, the transition from land to water offered them release from the condition of human domination.

At the same time, each writer transformed his world by exploring the literary boundary between realism and romance. Williams shows how Verne, Morris, and Stevenson experimented with romance and fantasy and how these traditions allowed them to express their growing awareness of the need for a new relationship between humans and Earth.

The Triumph of Human Empire shows that for these writers and their readers romance was an exceptionally powerful way of grappling with the political, technical, and environmental situations of modernity. As environmental consciousness rises in our time, along with evidence that our seeming control over nature is pathological and unpredictable, Williams’s history is one that speaks very much to the present.”

This is an absolutely remarkable achievement, managing to effortlessly synthesize science and the arts – two supposedly polar pursuits in the modern era – and demonstrates that each cannot function without the other, and that all of us are interconnected by both areas, which are of equal importance in the creation and continuance of our shared cultural heritage.

I’m still digesting this marvelous work, which took the author fully 20 years to complete, with some interruptions, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t gotten more attention – but perhaps that’s because the text’s message of inclusiveness is not one that’s currently popular.

Williams argues convincingly, without being strident about it, that without the Romantic instinct we will never really fully comprehend our human condition, and at the same time, provides a thorough yet concise outline of the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne – who despite his futuristic fantasies was not all that taken with the notion of what was then considered “progress” in the industrial era – and the author William Morris, whose work clearly needs wider attention.

The result is a fascinating and altogether indispensable book, which I urge you to read at once.

John Huston’s Lost Film – In This Our Life (1942)

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

In This Our Life is John Huston’s forgotten film — click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer.

. . . and it doesn’t deserve to be. Though star Bette Davis was critical of the project from the outset, and caused all sorts of problems during production, and even more problems when Huston had to leave to serve during World War II, and the gifted Raoul Walsh took over to finish the film, In This Our Life is a brutally corrosive look at American society in the early 1940s, about the things that power and money can buy, about race relations in the United States during the era, and affords all the stars of the film a chance to do something more than make a conventional melodrama – something Warner Bros. excelled at during the era.

But with its hints of incest, frank references to racial prejudice, the unexpected suicide of a major character, and a fatal hit and run accident added to the mix, In This Our Life showed that behind the placid exterior of the white picket fence houses of the rich there lurked a world of almost complete moral corruption, highlighted only by a few bright spots of decency that pop up with distressing infrequency.

Needless to say, the film didn’t get the critical attention it deserved when first released, and Bette Davis’s public bad-mouthing of the film also did little to help its then-contemporary reputation, but with the passing of more than seven decades, it’s clear that this film has much to say about the time in which it was made – more so than Huston’s other slick entertainments of the period, especially his first film, the crowd pleasing and utter unoffensive detective thriller The Maltese Falcon (1941).

Don’t get me wrong; The Maltese Falcon is a stunning directorial debut, but it’s really more of an escapist puzzle than anything else – an above average mystery with superb performances all around. In This Our Life is something much more – a study of a family and of society in collapse, undone not only by the dissembling of Davis’s scheming central character, but also the weakness of the film’s more thoughtful protagonists, who nevertheless fail to act until it is almost too late.

As TCM notes of the film, “Ellen Glasgow’s novel won the 1942 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. According to a Los Angeles Examiner news item dated February 27, 1941, the studio paid $40,000 for rights to the novel. A February 27, 1941 Hollywood Reporter news item adds that the film was to star Olivia De Havilland and Errol Flynn. Warner Bros. was named to the Honor Roll of Race Relations of 1942 for making this film because of its dignified portrayal of an African-American, although, according to a September 8, 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item, Warner Bros. cut scenes which treated Ernest Anderson’s character [who is framed in the film for a hit and run accident he had absolutely nothing to do with] in a ‘friendly fashion’ in order to avoid offending viewers in the South.

In 1943, when the film was examined by the Office of Censorship in Washington, D.C. prior to general export, it was disapproved because ‘only by the effort of a conscientious white man in whose law office a Negro boy is studying law is the young man saved from a charge of murder…recklessly made by a white woman….[who] claimed that the Negro and not she, was driving the car at the time of the accident and so strong is the race feeling in this Virginia community that the young Negro was practically condemned in advance. It is made abundantly clear that a Negro’s testimony in court is almost certain to be disregarded if in conflict with the testimony of a white person.’ Actor Walter Huston, director John Huston’s father, appears briefly in the film in a cameo role as a bartender.”

With its brutally frank commentary on the sad state of racial inequality in the United States, especially in the South, the film was bound to cause a good deal of trouble. It seems to me that even today, people are more than willing to sweep it under the rug, and favor Huston’s more frankly commercial efforts, such as Key Largo or even The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (both 1948) – again, excellent films, but productions that are much more frankly genre efforts.

But here, as in Sam Wood’s similarly themed indictment of small town American society, King’s Row (1942) – though that film takes place in the 19th century – the foremost concern is social commentary, on both the personal and larger level. Everything about the world that In This Our Life inhabits is wrong from the start, and suggests that there was a corrosive cancer in American society that was about to burst into full view in the postwar era – something that we’re still contending with now, albeit on a much larger scale. Yet In This Our Life is almost never singled out in retrospectives of the director’s career – which is a shame. It’s a strong, honest piece of work.

In This Our Life deserves to be much more widely seen and appreciated – it really is John Huston’s lost film.

Mom

Friday, November 7th, 2014

Mom is a television sitcom that steps outside the usual box.

Mom, a half hour sitcom which debuted in 2013, stars Anna Faris and Allison Janney, and was created by Chuck Lorre, Eddie Gorodetsky, and Gemma Baker. Chuck Lorre is the current “king” of half hour TV sitcoms, with a whole string of credits under his belt, starting with writing duties on Roseanne, and the moving on to create or co-create Grace Under FireCybill, Dharma & Greg, Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, and Mike & Molly, but Mom is probably the best thing he’s ever done. Anna Faris has been knocking around in medium budget “spoof” feature film comedies for nearly a decade now, wasted for the most part in the Scary Movie franchise and other similar projects, where she really couldn’t show the true range. Allison Janney is also a superb actor, who has also been working of late in an excellent supporting role on the cable series Masters of Sex.

The series itself often steps outside the usual TV comfort zone to deal with such issues as homelessness, alcoholism, compulsive gambling, teen pregnancy, the realities of living paycheck to paycheck in an unforgiving world, and manages to mix real social observations with some pretty funny punch lines, which both Janney and Faris deliver with expert aplomb. Don’t get me wrong; there’s always a happy ending around the corner, even when the extended family is evicted from their home for non-payment of rent, and is forced to move into a sleazy motel rather than sleep in their car.

But the show clearly passes the “means test” – the characters don’t live in palatial mansions on their minimum wage jobs, as happens in many TV sitcoms. Faris’ character works as a waitress; her mother, played by Janney, has a distinctly sketchy past; they don’t always get along, and all the plot lines don’t neatly wrap up with each half hour (of 22 minutes, if you want to deduct time for the commercials). In between the laughs, there are some hard truths on display here. Despite the fact that Mom’s primary mission is to entertain, there’s some really good acting from the ensemble cast, sharply funny dialogue, and genuine insight – imagine! – in this show, which has just been renewed for a second season. The series is picking up viewers, and is just starting a second season. You could do worse than to watch an episode.

Mom is a welcome respite from most of the junk you’ll find on TV; check it out.

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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