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Aldous Huxley on Reality and Illusion

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

In his very last essay, Aldous Huxley was still on point.

As he wrote, “the world is an illusion, but it is an illusion which we must take seriously, because it is real as far as it goes, and in those aspects of the reality which we are capable of apprehending. Our business is to wake up.

We have to find ways in which to detect the whole of reality in the one illusory part which our self-centered consciousness permits us to see. We must not live thoughtlessly, taking our illusion for the complete reality, but at the same time we must not live too thoughtfully in the sense of trying to escape from the dream state.

We must continually be on our watch for ways in which we may enlarge our consciousness. We must not attempt to live outside the world, which is given us, but we must somehow learn how to transform it and transfigure it. Too much ‘wisdom’ is as bad as too little wisdom, and there must be no magic tricks.

We must learn to come to reality without the enchanter’s wand and his book of the words. One must find a way of being in this world while not being of it. A way of living in time without being completely swallowed up in time.” – Aldous Huxley

This was dictated on his deathbed, and published in 1964 in the now defunct Show Magazine under the title “Shakespeare and Religion.” As always, and despite the numerous problems that Huxley had in his later years, especially with his eyesight, he still had his intellectual vision fixed firmly on the horizon, and was as suspicious of spectacle as he had been when he wrote Brave New World in 1931.

“Our business is to wake up” – words to live by.

Éric Rohmer: A Biography by Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe

Friday, April 1st, 2016

I’ve been reading an advance copy of Éric Rohmer: A Biography, and it’s an absolutely brilliant book.

As the Columbia University Press website notes, “the director of twenty-five films, including My Night at Maud’s (1969), which was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and the editor in chief of Cahiers du cinéma from 1957 to 1963, Éric Rohmer set the terms by which people watched, made, and thought about cinema for decades. Such brilliance does not develop in a vacuum, and Rohmer cultivated a fascinating network of friends, colleagues, and industry contacts that kept his outlook sharp and propelled his work forward. Despite his privacy, he cared deeply about politics, religion, culture, and fostering a public appreciation of the medium he loved.

This exhaustive biography uses personal archives and interviews to enrich our knowledge of Rohmer’s public achievements and lesser known interests and relations. The filmmaker kept in close communication with his contemporaries and competitors: François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette. He held a paradoxical fascination with royalist politics, the fate of the environment, Catholicism, classical music, and the French nightclub scene, and his films were regularly featured at New York and Los Angeles film festivals. Despite an austere approach to life, Rohmer had a voracious appetite for art, culture, and intellectual debate captured vividly in this definitive volume.”

To that, I can only add that this is the book on Rohmer’s life and work, superbly translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal. Both of the volume’s authors are eminently qualified for the project: Antoine de Baecque is a professor of the history of cinema at the University of Nanterre, and has published biographies of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, in addition to serving for a number of years as editor in chief of Cahiers du cinema, while Noël Herpe is a senior lecturer at the Université de Paris VIII, and has published works on René Clair and Sacha Guitry, as well as a book of interviews with Éric Rohmer about his text Le Celluloïd et le Marbre.

With many behind the scenes photographs, selections from correspondence, detailed financial accountings of production circumstances, and offering a sympathetic yet clear-eyed portrayal of Rohmer as alternatively imperious and yet by turns extraordinarily generous to neophyte filmmakers, Éric Rohmer: A Biography is a feast of a book. I have been returning repeatedly to the volume in the past few days, marveling at the detail and precision of the text, which in many ways mirrors the precise yet romantic tone of Rohmer’s films themselves. Now, if only all of Rohmer’s works would come out in a complete DVD box set, we’d have a much fuller sense of this extraordinary artist’s legacy.

Éric Rohmer: A Biography will be released in June 2016 – you should order an advance copy now.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on Suspiria (1976)

Saturday, March 26th, 2016

Here’s an interesting new book on Dario Argento’s classic horror film, Suspiria.

Part of the relatively new series of short monographs on individual horror films, Devil’s Advocates, published by Auteur Press in the UK and distributed in the US by Columbia University Press, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas‘ take on Suspiria is at once original and deeply subversive, for as the notes for the volume argue, “as one of the most globally recognizable instances of 20th century Eurohorror, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1976) is poetic, chaotic, and intriguing. The cult reputation of Argento’s baroque nightmare is reflected in the critical praise it continues to receive almost 40 years after its original release, and it appears regularly on lists of the greatest horror films ever.

For fans and critics alike, Suspiria is as mesmerizing as it is impenetrable: the impact of Argento’s notorious disinterest in matters of plot and characterization combines with Suspiria’s aggressive stylistic hyperactivity to render it a movie that needs to be experienced through the body as much as through emotion or the intellect. For its many fans, Suspiria is synonymous with European horror more broadly, and Argento himself is by far the most famous of all the Italian horror directors.

If there was any doubt of his status as one of the great horror auteurs, Argento’s international reputation was solidified well beyond the realms of cult fandom in the 1990s with retrospectives at both the American Museum of the Moving Image and the British Film Institute. This book considers the complex ways that Argento weaves together light, sound and cinema history to construct one of the most breathtaking horror movies of all time, a film as fascinating as it is ultimately unfathomable.”

This is a really sharp book, and an excellent series, which seems to take its inspiration from the long-beloved BFI series on individual film classics, but concentrating on one genre – the horror film – alone. Volumes in the series thus far include studies of the classic British horror film Dead of Night (1945 – and a particular favorite of mine), Nosferatu, The Curse of Frankenstein, John Carpenter’s version of The Thing and many others – there are so many potential candidates for examination that this series seems to be just beginning.

I’d love to see a volume on Terence Fisher’s Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula), or Roger Corman’s version of The Pit and The Pendulum, right off the top of my head, and the writers are all clearly enthusiastic about their work, so I’m sure we’ll see books on these key films shortly. Brief, compact, and authoritative, these are the volumes to beat on these classic genre films, and augur well for the continuation of the series, which seems to have really filled a niche. In any event, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ book on Suspiria is a good place to start – and then you can go on from there.

This is an intriguing group of short volumes – well worth exploring.

“Consuming the Apocalypse, Marketing Bunker Materiality” by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Thursday, March 17th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has published a new article in Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

Foster’s article, “Consuming the Apocalypse, Marketing Bunker Materiality” has just appeared in the latest issue of Quarterly Review of Film and Video (March 17, 2016), in which she argues that “there are two parallel social movements that may, at first glance, seem unrelated, but are in fact closely intertwined; the rapid increase in economic inequity in contemporary society (as evidenced in the enormously wide gap between the wealthy and the poor) on the one hand, and the current apocalyptic cultural mindset (associated with paranoia, prepping, the rise of the gated community, the return of the underground bunker, and a massive uptick in gun sales) as celebrated in myriad apocalyptically-themed films and television programs, programs I define as apocotainment.

The upwardly mobile class and preppers have more in common than one might think, and in some ways the two groups have even merged; what brings these two identities together is a decided lack of empathy for others and a sense of free-floating paranoia, centering on a crisis in masculinity, whiteness, and a fascination with Doomsday scenarios.”

Needless to say, this is a very timely essay, and expands on Foster’s work in her 2014 book Hoarders, Doomsday Preppers and the Culture of Apocalypse, which explores the current American, and indeed worldwide fascination with an ever expanding universe of Doomsday scenarios. The current vogue for “end of the world” or “end of civilization” narratives has taken hold of practically every area of the public consciousness, and Foster’s article examines the ways in which this cultural trend has moved to the center of contemporary public discourse.

Here’s a link to the article; fascinating reading in every respect.

New Article: From Hippie to Yuppie: The Big Chill . . .

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

 

I have a new article in Quarterly Review of Film and Video on the collapse of the 1960s counterculture.

It’s odd that both this article, and the one that precedes it, should be published at the same time; they were written years apart, but clearly circulate around the same ideas; the loss of artistic idealism as collateral damage in the digital era, and the end of a true community, only to be subsumed by a virtual one. The article is behind a paywall, so you will have to download it through a library or other facility, but the preview, shown above, is available for all to see.

As I note in the article, which discusses not only the culture of the era, but also the films that were produced during this period, “for casual observers, the hippie movement meant money to be made. This, of course, was Hollywood territory, and in a mad dash to cash in, the studios began cranking out one ‘hippie’ film after another, ‘inspired’ by the underground film scene that flourished in Manhattan and San Francisco during the era. While such artists as Bruce Conner, Ben Van Meter, Stan Brakhage, Scott Bartlett and others offered a more authentic vision of an alternate lifestyle, the studios churned out such much more commercial offerings.

Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (1969), loosely based on Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 folk song ‘Alice’s Restaurant Massacree’ was one such effort. I have a personal connection to this project, as I watched the legendary editor Dede Allen – who famously edited Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) – put the film together from hundreds of hours of raw material at an editing room at Preview Theater in New York, during a snowstorm that trapped us all in the building.

There was also Christian Marquand’s disastrous Candy (1968), ostensibly inspired by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s novel, and more blatantly such films as Conrad Rooks’ Chappaqua (1966), about the director’s personal battle with hard drugs; and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), which came late to the party, and galvanized rednecks everywhere when, in its final scene, a good old boy blasts actor/director Hopper off his bike with a shotgun – the scene was met by audience cheers in many areas of the Southern United States. For the establishment, the hippies represented a genuine threat; after all, they were openly rejecting the materialism most Americans based their lives on.

There was also Bob Rafelson’s Head (1968), starring the ‘pre-Fab Four,’ The Monkees; Arthur Dreifuss’s The Love-Ins and Riot on Sunset Strip (both 1967), which actually painted a more realistic and less rose-colored vision of the Haight-Ashbury and Los Angeles hippie life; Roger Corman’s idyllic ode to LSD, The Trip (1967); and the Beatles’ self-indulgent and self-consciously psychedelic Yellow Submarine (1968). Yet none them really contained more than a surface impression of the hippie movement.”

So, I hope you can get to read the article itself; it’s about a time and place that repays detailed consideration.

William Wellman’s Night Nurse (1931)

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck in William Wellman’s brutal Pre-Code drama Night Nurse.

I have a new essay out on this remarkable film in Senses of Cinema, which notes in part that “there are precious few ‘ethics’ on display in William Wellman’s brief and brutal film Night Nurse, a bluntly titled and efficiently directed Pre-Code film from Warner Bros., a studio that specialized in hard boiled melodramas with a social message in the early 1930s. Wellman and star Barbara Stanwyck would make five films together, and in this, their first outing, it’s clear that Stanwyck’s innate toughness as a performer, coupled with her unrelenting work ethic, found favor with Wellman, who was a very tough customer himself.

Known for carrying a loaded gun on the set, and occasionally threatening actors with it if he felt they were sloughing off on the job (as he did with Ronald Colman in his 1939 film The Light That Failed, when Colman deliberately fluffed his lines during a key scene due to a disagreement with Wellman over casting), Wellman knew exactly what he wanted when he walked on the set each morning, and usually got the results in one or two takes.

This was just fine with Stanwyck, who was known as a ‘one take wonder,’ capable of memorizing pages of dialogue at the last minute, and then delivering the results in one flawless take after another, and delighted Wellman. He was almost as much of a speed demon on the set as MGM’s W.S. Van Dyke, another rough and ready director who famously shot the hit film The Thin Man in a mere 12 days.

For above everything else, Warner’s in the early 1930s was a factory, pumping out films at the rate of one a week to keep pace with the insatiable demand of Depression era audiences for something – anything – to take their minds off the crushing burden of the nationwide financial collapse.

Films such as Wellman’s Public Enemy (1931), Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1930), Roy Del Ruth’s Blonde Crazy (1931), and Alfred E. Green’s Smart Money (1931) set the tone and pace for a series of films that moved with breakneck speed in their narrative thrust, and dealt matter of factly with Prohibition (and the complete failure of that ‘great experiment’), murder, rape, drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution and a host of other social ills, pulling no punches in the process.”

You can read the rest of the essay by clicking here, or on the image above; this is a real gem.

Hamilton Babylon: A History of the McMaster Film Board

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016

Stephen Broomer’s new book is a fascinating study of a lost era of truly innovative student filmmaking.

Broomer, an experimental filmmaker and scholar working in Canada, has produced a landmark volume, published by the University of Toronto Pressyou can read sections of it on Google Books, just enough to make you want to buy the entire volume – which focuses on a deeply influential student filmmaking collective in the 1960s, whose most notable founders were about as far apart aesthetically as one might imagine – future commercial filmmaker Ivan Reitman, and experimentalist and critic John Hofsess, whose split-screen color film Palace of Pleasure, which Broomer helped to restore as part of the work of this volume, is a stunning half-hour of free form, poetic cinema, which I was lucky enough to see several times at the now-defunct Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, then located in the basement of the now-demolished Wurlitzer Building on 41st Street in Manhattan, as projected by the filmmaker Bob Cowan.

The film stunned me with its beauty, romanticism, and sensual visuals, and it came at the very end of what one might call the Romantic period in 1960s experimental cinema; the next year, Michael Snow created his landmark structuralist film Wavelength, and a whole group of films made in the vein of Hofsess’s work suddenly fell by the wayside, as critics rushed to embrace this much more formalist cinema. Broomer makes no secret in this text of how he feels about this; his work as a preservationist of Hofsess’s film speaks for itself, and he clearly embraces the purely experimental art of cinema – in its freeform, and less austere incarnation – over the more commercial aspects 0f the medium.

An experimental filmmaker himself, whose works may be found on Vimeo, Broomer’s work in this volume, and as an artist in his own right, is a healthy antidote – and hopefully, an “early clue to a new direction” (to paraphrase the title of a work by the American 1960s experimental filmmaker Andrew Meyer, another deeply Romantic artist of the era) in the university study of film, which has increasingly, in our STEM era, embraced the industrial model of filmmaking over purely artistic endeavors. Obviously, Broomer’s films will never make any money, and perhaps not even get that wide distribution, but he’s not pitching to the stands – he’s making work on his own terms for those who choose to appreciate it, and I wish that others would follow his example.

As the notes for the book read, in part: “founded in 1966 at McMaster University by avant-garde filmmaker John Hofsess and future frat-comedy innovator Ivan Reitman, the McMaster Film Board was a milestone in the development of Canada’s commercial and experimental film communities. McMaster’s student film society quickly became the site of art filmmaking and an incubator for some of the country’s most famous commercial talent.

In Hamilton Babylon, Stephen Broomer traces the history of the MFB from its birth as an organization for producing and exhibiting avant-garde films, through its transformation into a commercial-industrial enterprise, and into its final decline as a show business management style suppressed many of its voices. The first book to highlight the work of Hofsess, an innovative filmmaker whose critical role in the MFB has been almost entirely eclipsed by Reitman’s legend, Hamilton Babylon is a fascinating study of the tension between art and business in the growth of the Canadian film industry.”

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 Book: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s Disruptive Feminisms

Monday, February 8th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s newest book has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s new book, Disruptive Feminisms: Raced, Gendered, and Classed Bodies in Film, published in January 2016 from Palgrave Macmillan, is a really groundbreaking book in every respect. As the publisher’s comments on the book note, “Amy Schumer and Betty White use subversive feminist wit to expose sexism and ageism in film and TV. This is but one example of ‘disruptive feminism’ discussed in this groundbreaking book. Disruptive Feminisms: Raced, Gendered, and Classed Bodies offers a revolutionary approach to feminism as a disruptive force.

By examining texts that do not necessarily announce themselves as ‘feminist,’ or ‘Marxist,’ Foster brings a unique critical perspective to a wide variety of films, from the classical Hollywood films of Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino, to the subversive global films of Carlos Reygadas, Claire Denis, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Buñuel, Paul Thomas Anderson, and many others. In highlighting these filmmaker’s abilities to openly challenge everything from class privilege and colonial racism, to sexism, ageism, homophobia and the pathologies of white privilege, Disruptive Feminisms fills a fresh and much-needed critical perspective, that which Foster dubs disruptive feminism’.”

As Foster herself writes of the book, “In my research, I’ve found that ‘disruptive feminism’ often lurks in unlikely and unexpected places – from the dry feminist humor of Amy Schumer, Betty White, Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, and Luis Buñuel, to the more serious and contemplative postcolonial films of Carlos Reygadas and Claire Denis. Filmmakers who are not so obviously read as ‘feminist’ or ‘marxist’ seem to find their way onto my radar. My scope is wide; I include work from classical Hollywood, early television, and global filmmakers. I  highlight the ways that film and media can disrupt, challenge, and potentially overturn ‘norms’ of race, gender, age, sexuality, and class. Indeed, I hope this book disrupts feminism itself, because it can always use some shaking up.”

Here are some recent reviews:

“I think the book is superior in many ways, just simply a jewel. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s peculiar and enchanting magic is to blend keen socio-critical attention with an unyielding poetic sensitivity to the world of hints, provocations, resonances, and allusions. Through the films examined here, and through Foster’s eyes, gender, class, and race fly beyond rhetoric and come alive.” – Murray Pomerance, Ryerson University, author of The Eyes Have It: Cinema and The Reality Effect

“This book passionately advocates a cinema that challenges injustice and oppression across the globe by disrupting ‘normative values’ and ‘received notions’ of race and class as well as gender. Not least of the book’s strengths is its illumination of culturally and aesthetically diverse works ranging from Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux (2012) and Claire Denis’ No Fear, No Die (1990) to Betty White’s television programs of the 1950s.” – Ira Jaffe, Professor Emeritus, University of New Mexico and author of Slow Movies: Countering the Cinema of Action.

“Written with a strong sense of personality, and even stronger and laudable political commitments, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s Disruptive Feminisms extends her ongoing endeavor to provide meaningful critiques of film and film culture.  This thoughtful book demonstrates how a number of films, from around the world and from different genres, disrupt the status quo through a feminist and postcolonial analysis.” – Daniel Herbert, author of Videoland: Movie Culture at the American Video Store

“An excellent volume – Foster establishes at the outset that she writes as a global cultural feminist. By shrewdly focusing on specific films (and TV shows and star personas) that ‘disrupt, challenge, and overturn the norms of race, gender, age, sexuality, and class,’ this volume provides a much-needed alternative to the approaches that dominate the field today, although Foster uses those methodologies judiciously in her treatment of cinema as a political art form. Clear, well written, and without jargon, Disruptive Feminisms could easily be a valuable textbook, not just a volume for film scholars. Brava!” – Frank P. Tomasulo, Visiting Professor of Film Studies, Pace University.

Check it out by clicking here, or on the image above.

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!

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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