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The Cinema of Agnès Varda: Resistance and Eclecticism

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Delphine Bénézet’s new book on Agnès Varda is a superb piece of work.

Agnès Varda never seems to get enough credit. The fore-mother of the French New Wave, long before Godard, Truffaut and the rest of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd picked up a camera, Varda was making feature films from 1954, employing Alain Resnais as her editor, and pretty much setting out the basic precepts of simplicity, communality, and originality that her colleagues would later follow. But while Godard and Truffaut became art house darlings in the 60s – and certainly their work deserves the attention it got – Varda was somehow overlooked, although such films as Cleo from 5 to 7, Les Creatures, and Le Bonheur remain absolutely daring in their approach to the film medium, as well as dynamics of relationships between men and women, and particularly in affairs of the heart.

As the volume’s website notes, “Agnès Varda, a pioneer of the French New Wave, has been making radical films for over half a century. Many of these are considered by scholars, filmmakers, and audiences alike, as audacious, seminal, and unforgettable. This volume considers her production as a whole, revisiting overlooked films like Mur, Murs/Documenteur (1980–81), and connecting her cinema to recent installation work. This study demonstrates how Varda has resisted norms of representation and diktats of production. It also shows how she has elaborated a personal repertoire of images, characters, and settings, which all provide insight on their cultural and political contexts. The book thus offers new readings of this director’s multifaceted rêveries, arguing that her work should be seen as an aesthetically influential and ethically-driven production where cinema is both a political and collaborative practice, and a synesthetic art form.”

In five succinct chapters, detailing Varda’s place within cinema history, her “ethics of filming,” and the aesthetic and technical concerns that inform her films, Bénézet, who teaches comparative literature in the School of Languages, Linguistics, and Film at Queen Mary, University of London, offers a compelling case for Varda as a major filmmaker of not only 20th century, but also 21st century cinema, and one of the most successful at embracing digital cinema in her newer films, such as the transcendent documentary feature The Gleaners and I, shot entirely on a small home digital camera. Bénézet makes it clear that Varda has never stopped evolving as both a filmmaker and an artist in general, embracing new technology and the changing culture of France to create work of stunning resonance and beauty with absolutely minimal resources.

Varda has survived many of her contemporaries, and she keeps on working to this day; in the end, Varda is finally managing to get some measure of the respect and care she so clearly deserves simply by the act of sheer survival – she has outlived her detractors, mostly male, who really couldn’t see the value in her work. Dismissed or marginalized when first released, her films, now lovingly restored by Varda herself in DVD editions available throughout the world, have finally taken their place in the cinematic canon along with those of her male counterparts. There have been other excellent books on Varda, but this particular text, neatly illustrated with frame blow-ups, and graced with a detailed filmography, is one of the best, and also has the virtue of being the most complete.

In short, this is an excellent book from Wallflower Press / Columbia UP; pick up a copy now.

Book: The New American Crime Film by Matthew Sorrento

Monday, May 5th, 2014

Here’s a real “sleeper” of a book; Matthew Sorrento’s The New American Crime Film.

I missed this book when it came out in 2012, but boy — am I glad I found it now. When I first glanced at this volume, I thought that it was a collection of essays edited by Sorrento written by a number of different writers, simply because the range of films covered was so wide. But no – Sorrento is the sole author of this work, and it’s one of the most comprehensive and intelligent books on the subject I’ve ever come across. I met Sorrento, who teaches Film Studies at Rutgers Camden for the first time at the screening of my films at The Microscope Gallery a few days ago, although I have always admired his writing for Film Internationalsee some of his work for that journal by clicking here - and he was kind enough to give me a copy. It was a revelation; this is an entirely new way of looking at these films, and at the history and evolution of crime films in general, especially as they morph and adapt the demands of new audiences.

In truth, I was knocked out – this is a superb course text, and outlines each film in detail. Sorrento has a sharp and accessible style, and a solid grounding in the genre, and it shows in every sentence of every essay; it simply jumps off the page as lively, informed, and important critical writing. As the publicity material for the volume notes, “the most pervasive genre in contemporary cinema, the American crime film has recently enjoyed a new surge of popularity and proliferation. Though these innovative films now tackle topical issues, they continue to reference the classic narratives and archetypes established in the great crime pictures of past decades. The titles explored in this critical survey span many themes that have fused with other genres to create fascinating filmic hybrids. Focusing on character and plot construction, the author highlights the gangster and film noir traditions that still run strongly through recent American cinema.”

But this gives only the merest suggestion of what this text accomplishes, as it deals with such directors as David Lynch, Gus Van Sant, David Mamet, Werner Herzog, Sam Raimi, David Cronenberg and the Coen Brothers and Stuart Gordon, who also provides a foreword to the volume, and whose despairing and overlooked classic Edmond, with a standout performance by William Macy, is examined here in detail. Other films covered include Spike Lee’s Inside Man, Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Paranoid Park, David Fincher’s Se7en, the brutal films of Andrew Jarecki, the nightmarish visions of David Lynch, the late films of Clint Eastwood, and how they developed and deepened the characters he created in his early work with Don Siegel, Woody Allen (an interesting and rewarding choice for this volume), David Mamet,  the much underrated films Public Enemies and American Gangster, nothing less than a mini career survey of the Coen Brothers from their first film Blood Simple to No Country for Old Men, the hallucinatory work of David Cronenberg in such films as Eastern Promises, Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan – ambitious enough for you?

What distinguishes this volume above all is the effortless erudition on display here; the skill with which Sorrento brings you into the the inner world of the film, and refuses to settle for summary analysis; the verse and style with which he attacks his work, and brings these films to life for the reader. Though obviously an aficionado of the genre – and of genre films in general – Sorrento remains rigorously critical in his writing, pointing up elements of some films that are problematic, while at the same time remaining deeply sympathetic to the aims of these individualistic filmmakers. Personally, while reading the volume, I could easily see a class centered around the text, that would embrace a wide variety of films – recent work, not just the classics – and offbeat titles, such as Gordon’s film, that certainly deserve more attention.

Sorrento is now working on a new book on “extreme cinema” in a variety of genres; we had a detailed and fascinating discussion about the project, and I hope it comes to fruition. There’s no question that in the early part of the 21st century, films have become more graphic, more daring, and more explicit than every before, putting the hearts and minds of the audience on trial – a responsibility that must not be taken lightly. Other have done volumes on “extreme” horror films, for example, but Sorrento’s new book will argue that this tendency towards “testing” the audience has now spread across nearly every genre in the cinema, including comedy. In the meantime, Sorrento’s The New American Crime Film stands as a singular and original text in a wilderness of re-treads, and in all sincerity, got me thinking about these films in an entirely new light – there’s a course there, for sure.

Matthew Sorrento – a sharp and engaging writer and critic; keep an eye out for his new work.

The Most Important Film Book of 2014: Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures

Monday, April 28th, 2014

I have a new review on this remarkable book in today’s issue of Film International.

As I note in my review, “literally hundreds of film books cross my desk every year; I review books on every imaginable genre, director, movement or filmic era on an almost daily basis for a variety of publications, but every so often, a book appears that instantly commands my attention as a work of inescapable importance. Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology is such a volume. Running to a staggering 680 pages, and yet priced in hardcover for a mere $85 on Amazon, this collection of film writings from the dawn of cinema to the present day, edited by Scott MacKenzie, is one of the most inspirational and informative volumes I’ve ever come across, because it highlights the constant need for renewal which typifies the cinema, potentially that most compromised of art forms. It is, indeed, one of the most important volumes on the history, theory and practice of the cinema ever compiled.

The struggle between capital and creation is an ongoing one, even with the advent of digital cinema, and yet it is more than ever vitally important that artists reclaim the cinema, making films that challenge and enlighten the viewer, and break away from established orthodoxies of cinema production. Most of the texts here were written by filmmakers, actual practitioners of the cinematic arts, and they are direct calls to action, even if they (blessedly) contradict each other, and often insist that only “they” are correct in their approach to the cinema. This is the sort of conflicting chaos that creates the most interesting and lasting films in cinema history; films born not out of the studio system, but out of warring, marginalized factions, working with outdated equipment, insufficient funds, no distribution, and nothing more than a vision, and a desperate desire to get the vision recorded by any means available.”

You can read the rest of my review on this absolutely essential volume by clicking here, or on the image above.

John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Scott Eyman’s new book on John Wayne is the definitive study of the legendary actor and Western icon.

There have been lots of books on John Wayne – some celebratory, others taking him to task for his conservative views – but Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend is easily the best of the lot, because it transcends such obvious categorizing to bring to the reader a fully realized picture of both the man and the actor. Generous, impulsive, much smarter than people gave him credit for, a solid producer and script analyst, indebted to directors John Ford and Howard Hawks for the entire length of his career, and at the same time an architect of the Hollywood Blacklist, along with his longtime pal actor Ward Bond, Wayne deserved a book that would treat him honestly and fairly, highlighting his incredible work ethic and stamina, his loyalty to his friends, and the long, hard road Wayne climbed to stardom.

What’s so remarkable about Eyman’s book is that it isn’t only compulsively readable – a page turner in every sense of the word – but that Eyman manages to be “fair and balanced” in the truest sense of that often-abused phrase, combining a skillful narrative sense with truly prodigious research. It’s all here – the marriages, the divorces, the directors, Wayne’s passion to make a film on The Alamo (1960), which took him decades to get off  the ground, right down to the early “Z” westerns for Lone Star Pictures that Wayne worked his way through after his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930) failed to catch on the with the public.

John Ford, until then Wayne’s champion, cut him dead, leading to Wayne’s upward struggle through several ultra-cheap serials for Mascot Pictures, a group of three-day (!!) westerns for producer Leon Schlesinger at Warner Brothers (made with copious amounts of stock footage), and even some singing cowboy westerns (as “Singin’ Sandy”) before Ford relented, and rescued Wayne from Poverty Row with Stagecoach (1939), the film that made Wayne an “overnight” star. And that was really just the beginning of his career, after a decade of hard work – Wayne never stopped climbing, and it’s clear from Eyman’s book that Wayne had to keep fighting to the end to keep his name before the public.

There’s also a lot of anecdotage in the book – including an amazing tale of Wayne drinking in a Hollywood bar, when an unsteady Humphrey Bogart shows up owing $600 to the management, which Wayne immediately covers, and then notices that Bogart has an apple corer stuck “up to the hilt” in his back, courtesy of Bogart’s then-wife Mayo Methot. Wayne tries to pull it out, but it’s in so deeply that he finally has to plant his foot in the middle of Bogart’s back, and pull the corer out with both hands, and then drive Bogart to the hospital – and thankfully, there’s also some detail, finally, about the role that Marlene Dietrich played in Wayne’s career, both as a lover and a person who put Wayne in touch with the right people to advance his career.

There are lots of facts and figures, as well, which some reviewers have complained about, as making the book a bit too complete, but I don’t think so; here’s a book that has all the budgets, release dates, box office figures, memos, and interoffice correspondence to really get to the heart of Wayne’s life and work. The most striking that about John Wayne: The Life and Legend is that even as he relates the least appealing aspects of Wayne’s life, you never get the feeling that Eyman is sitting in judgement. There’s the good, the bad, and the inexplicable, and Eyman covers it all, with skill and style.

This is Wayne, as he was, in complete and straightforward detail, along with the people he knew, loved, and worked with. While Eyman clearly respects Wayne’s work, he never goes overboard into hagiography, and with what appears to have been complete access to Wayne’s personal archives, creates a fully rounded portrait of John Wayne – or Marion Morrison, if you prefer – perhaps the most iconic star Hollywood has ever produced.

Scott Eyman has written a number of film biographies, including one on John Ford, but this is his finest work.

Dorothy Arzner Gets A Retrospective

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Dorothy Arzner, left, on the set of her last film, First Comes Courage (1943), with star Merle Oberon.

As John Hopewell reports from Madrid for Variety, “Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979), the first woman member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and still one of – if not the – most prolific of woman helmers in Hollywood –will be honored with a career retrospective at September’s 62nd San Sebastian Festival in Spain. Though not the world’s first woman director – that honor [goes] to France’s Alice Guy – Arzner was the first to carve out a career in Los Angeles during the golden age of Hollywood’s studios, first as an editor, where she is credited with working on 52 movies, including 1922’s Rudolph Valentino-starrer Blood and Sand, on which she also directed second unit shots of its bullfights. Her [directorial] debut, for Paramount, was 1927’s Fashion For Women.

The first woman in Hollywood to direct a sound film, 1928’s Manhattan Cocktail, Arzner is said to have invented the boom mike when, on Clara Bow’s first talkie, box office hit The Wild Party, she had technicians hang a mike onto a fishing rod to give it more mobility. From Party, she shot a string of movies, comedies or melodramas – Anybody’s Woman (1930), Honor Among Lovers (1931), The Bride Wore Red (1937) – which often championed strong femme characters, helped consolidate the early careers of Katharine Hepburn – with whom she quarreled -  and Lucille Ball, and sometimes suggested – think 1933’s Christopher Strong – lesbian sub-texts.

The retrospective will be accompanied by the publication of a book that, it is hoped, will clarify why Arzner’s directorial career abruptly ended with 1943’s First Comes Courage. During the 1960s and 1970s, she taught directing and screenwriting at UCLA, her students including Francis Ford Coppola. In 1975, she was honored with a DGA Tribute, which, in an anecdote collected by IMDB, included a telegram from Katharine Hepburn: ‘Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?’ The text admits multiple readings. The 62nd San Sebastian Festival runs Sept. 17-26.”

The Hepburn telegram really stings; was this dig really necessary? Arzner deserves a box set of her work, and I’d love to read the book that accompanies the festival. Much of Arzner’s work simply isn’t on DVD, though more and more is coming out every day, but I have to wonder – how long is it going to take for Hollywood historians to put Arzner in the rightful place in the directorial pantheon, and how long is it going to take before she does get that box set of DVDs, complete with a history of her work? Not that it was ever easy; as she said of working within the Hollywood system, “when I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.

Ida Lupino – who started directing in 1949 with Not Wanted – also deserves the same treatment; a comprehensive set of her films, properly mastered, so future generations can see the importance of their work.  Hopewell doesn’t mention it above, but in addition to the work he lists, Arzner also directed a stack of television commercials for Pepsi Cola, at the suggestion of Pepsi board member Joan Crawford, who worked with Arzner in the 1930s, and also directed training films for the WACs during World War II.

Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn forced Arzner out of the director’s chair on First Comes Courage, a feminist tale of a Norwegian resistance fighter, Nikki, played by Merle Oberon. When Arzner became ill during filming, rather than waiting for her to recover, Cohn pressed Columbia contract director Charles Vidor into service to finish the film as quickly as possible; when she recovered, Arzner discovered that Columbia no longer required her services. Nevertheless, the film is still a standout, and one can readily see where Arzner left off and Vidor began; the film is entirely hers, and a fitting last project for her career. If only, however, she could have done more.

Dorothy Arzner – another figure who deserves more attention than she gets.

UNL Breaking News Panel – Moderated by Steve Smith – 2/26/14

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Here’s news of a recent panel on breaking news, moderated by Steve Smith of UNL Communications.

Breaking News! was a panel discussion about UNL’s news “voice” and how it’s an important part of the university’s story. What makes a good news story? How can you identify stories, experts and elements within your college or unit and get them placed in the local, regional or national media? UNL News Director Steve Smith moderated a panel about the different aspects of news at UNL and the many ways to push UNL’s message and voice far and wide. The panel was very well attended, and a video it is up on the web, continuing to get a significant number of hits – more than 4,000 so far.

The panelists were:
  • Molly Brummond, assistant Dean of Student & alumni relations and annual giving for the NU College of Law
  • Mekita Rivas, communications associate with the School of Natural Resources
  • Vicki Miller, director of research communications in the Office of Research and Economic Development
  • Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at UNL

You can check out the entire session by clicking here, on the image above; fascinating viewing.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Review: Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture by Rebecca Prime

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

I have a review of Rebecca Prime’s excellent new book, Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture, in the latest issue of Film International.

As I note, “Let’s just start by saying that this is an excellent book. I get stacks of new titles every day from publishers, and it takes a lot for a book to really jump out of the pile and interest me, particularly on a topic that has been researched as thoroughly as the Hollywood Blacklist. But Rebecca Prime’s Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture (2013) is exceptional, and part of an equally exceptional series of books from Rutgers University Press, “New Directions in International Studies,” ably edited by Patrice Petro.

The Hollywood Blacklist is always an important topic, but there’s been so much written about it that one would think that all possible avenues of inquiry have been pursued. But that’s not the case: Prime’s book is fresh, original, written in a direct and accessible manner, and adds a great deal of new material to the existing literature on the era. This is a book, in short, that demands one’s attention.

What distinguishes Prime’s book above all else is the sense of urgency she brings to her examination of the key figures affected by the blacklist; Joseph Losey, Ben Barzman, Jules Dassin, and other well known Hollywood figures who decided it was better to leave America, then in the grip of madness, rather than battle it out with the openly hostile ‘authority’ of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

This is a familiar tale, but what Prime makes clear in her study is just how difficult it was for these talent writers, directors and producers to survive in England, which wasn’t as welcoming as is generally assumed in hindsight. The FBI and the HUAC still shadowed these exiles, with the help of the British authorities, and so they were never really free of surveillance.”

You can read the rest of the review here; a fascinating and compelling book.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Film International — One of The Best Film Journals on The Web

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Film International is one of the best film journals on the web.

Click here, or on the image above, to read more.

As the journal’s mission statement notes, in part, “Film International covers film culture as part of the broader culture, history and economy of society. We address topics of contemporary relevance from historically informed perspectives. We wish to bridge the gap between the academy and the outside world, and encourage the participation of scholars from a variety of disciplines, as well as journalists, freelance writers, activists and film-makers.

We refuse the facile dichotomies of ‘high’ and ‘low’, Hollywood and independent, art and commercial cinema. We discuss Hollywood films seriously, and ‘art’ movies critically. We aim at becoming a truly international journal, recognising local specificities, but also the ultimate interconnectedness of an increasingly globalised world.”

FI covers international film, Hollywood film, independent cinema, and everything else in between. It features reviews, interviews, and festival reports on a regular basis, and has an egalitarian spirit which allows all critical voices to be heard, without forcing any of the writers to adhere to a particular philosophical, political, or artistic school of thought.

Commercial cinema, radical cinema, the past, present and future of the medium all meet in the pages of FI, which is absolutely free for online use with just the click of a button. I regularly contribute to FI, but I also savor the contents provided by all of the other writers for the journal, and I constantly find that FI discusses those films that other journals simply pass over, giving a well rounded perspective on the current cinema scene.

Ably edited by Daniel Lindvall, Film International is one of most indispensable film journals on the web today.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

wheelerwinstondixon.com

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

I’ve moved my website to wheelerwinstondixon.com – follow me there!

Take a look at the image above, and you’ll see how it works.

The new website is much cleaner, has more information, and works more smoothly.

At the top left, there’s an “about” tab, where you can also download my complete cv as a pdf; next to that there are two tabs covering the 32 books that I’ve written, with the covers on display as clickable links that go directly to information on each title; next to that is a tab that goes to some 30 online articles of mine that are available out of the nearly 100 that I have written over the years; then comes a link to the Frame by Frame videos that I’ve made, with a clickable link to a carousel playlist that starts automatically and takes you through more than 70 titles; then a tab for this blog; then a tab for my film work — I have a show coming up in New York this Spring, 2014 — and finally a contact page, where you can e-mail me if you wish to.

This is where you will find me from now on; the old website is dead, so let’s move on into the future.

Colin Wilson

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

Colin Wilson drinking tea in his London flat, 1957.

I was saddened to hear of the recent death of Colin Wilson, a brilliant if erratic writer who wrote at least one excellent book, The Outsider, and a raft of other volumes, numbering nearly 100 in all, with the best among them being The Mind Parasites, the first edition of Poetry and Mysticism (the revised version ruined the book), The Space Vampires, and numerous other works. Much of what he wrote was junk, and he often seemed to keep writing until he could figure out what he really wanted to say, filling up the pages in a seemingly unending stream while striving to get at some almost indefinable conclusion.

But ultimately, if he was an outsider, Wilson was essentially an optimist, which is refreshing in itself. As he told one interviewer, “in The Outsider my starting point was all those 19th century writers and artists who came to a sad end, and who ended by saying (in the words of a friend of mine) ‘the answer to life is no.’ My reaction was like that of an accountant who is reacting to the statement ‘We had better declare bankruptcy.’  [My response was] ‘No, no, no.  You’ve plenty of better alternatives.’”

One of his books, The Space Vampires, was made into a truly terrible film by Tobe Hooper, and his outrageous ego – “I suspect that I am probably the greatest writer of the 20th century,” he told the British newspaper The Guardian in 2006. “In 500 years’ time, they’ll say, ‘Wilson was a genius,’ because I’m a turning point in intellectual history” - assured his critical marginalization. But despite his faults, his best work does offer an early clue to a new direction, and for that, I will miss Colin Wilson and his work.

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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