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Michelangelo Antonioni’s “I Vinti” (“The Vanquished”) – 1952

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

Michelangelo Antonioni’s I Vinti (The Vanquished) is a forgotten masterpiece of the postwar Italian cinema.

In his early years as a filmmaker, emerging out of the shadow of Mussolini’s Cinecitta, working for the Italian Fascists during World War II – unwillingly, but nevertheless involved – Michelangelo Antonioni created a number of controversial and deeply ambitious projects, beginning with his first feature film, Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore, 1950), and then moving on to the even more accomplished I Vinti (The Vanquished, 1952) – both of which initially received a hostile reception from critics and the general public. While Story of A Love Affair has been available on DVD for quite some time, I Vinti is only recently receiving the DVD release it so richly deserves, from Raro Video. But looking at I Vinti from nearly any angle, it’s amazing that Antonioni even got this project off the ground.

Opening with a ferocious collage of newsreel footage with a relentless voiceover track decrying postwar youth’s lust for instant fame at any price, the film goes on to tell three stories, in three languages; in France, a group of rich, bored teens decide to kill one of their group for the money he claims to have, only to find after the murder that the cash is counterfeit; in Italy, a well-off young man caught up in the cigarette smuggling racket kills a Customs Agent trying to escape after a raid, and dies in his parents’ home as the police close in; and in England, a young ne’er do well “poet” kills a middle aged prostitute in order to sell the story to a tabloid newspaper, and achieve instant “fame” of a sort as a thrill killer.

Grim, to say the least. Even more amazingly, all of the incidents in the film were taken from actual crimes committed around that time, each in their respective country; the French story of bored teen killers was a national scandal; the Italian story – which was censored for the film, and actually involved a young political radical blowing up a munitions factory as a form of protest – was also a matter of record; and the British story concerned the case of teenager Herbert Leonard Mills, who in 1951 murdered a woman simply for the notoriety that it would bring him, and then tried to sell the story to a newspaper.

The Italian story was shot first, and seems the most like later Antonioni, especially L’Avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La Notte (The Night, 1961) and L’Eclisse (Eclipse, 1962). Franco Interlenghi, then a popular matinee idol of the period in Italian cinema, plays Claudio, whose political “idealism” ends in tragedy, when the factory he blows up results in numerous casualties among the workers. This storyline was much too strong for the Italian censors, and Antonioni was forced to reshoot almost two-thirds of the episode to shift Claudio’s criminal activities to smuggling. Astoundingly, the original version of this section of the film survives, and is included on the disc as an extra, and makes for essential viewing, to say the least.

The British story was shot next, and eerily prefigures Antonioni’s later film Blowup (1966), in which a bored and narcissistic fashion photographer (played by David Hemmings) accidentally witnesses and photographs a murder in a park, and then can’t make up his mind whether or not to tell the police about the crime. In I Vinti, Peter Reynolds stars as Aubrey, the dissolute layabout and would-be poet who commits a murder simply for the notoriety it will bring him. Reynolds’ performance is brilliantly self-absorbed and loathsome; indeed, I Vinti effectively typecast him for life in a series of roles as as a decadent, dishonest aristocrat, before his tragically early death at the age of 49.

The French episode also ran into trouble from the censors, as well it might, dealing with the notorious “Affaire J3,” in which a young man was killed by his companions during a picnic outside of Paris. As with the other sections of the film, the truth was too close to the film’s scenario for comfort, so after combined protests from the British, Italian and French authorities and numerous recuts, the film was finally premiered at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival, but only out of competition. Then, since the film was a commercial failure, it was was consigned to the vaults, and given the deeply troubling nature of the film, for a long time it seemed that I Vinti would never see the light of day again.

But in 2013, The Museum of Modern Art brought the film out of oblivion, so to speak, and screened it in their To Save and Project series. But for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to attend that screening, the Raro DVD is a real find. As Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker in 2011, “with the opening monologue of his second feature, the three-part film I Vinti (The Vanquished), Michelangelo Antonioni polemically affirms the theme that would dominate his entire career: the erosion of reason and morality throughout society, due to the onslaught of mass media and the dominion of the bourgeoisie who both produce it and fall under its sway.”

The Raro DVD contains the complete film, immaculately restored, as well as a host of extras, including the original version of the Italian Episode; an interview with the film’s producer, the late Turi Vasile (in his 80s, his memory was entirely intact, and he effortlessly quotes Marx, Hegel and Kierkegaard from memory in his account of the film’s genesis – name one Hollywood producer who can do that!); an interview with Franco Interlenghi, now deceased, who played Claudio in the Italian episode; as well as a short film by Antonioni, Tentato Suicidio, one episode of the 1953 multi-director feature L’Amore in Citta’/Love in the City, as well as a superbly detailed essay on the film by Stefania Parigi. All in all, it’s a stunning viewing experience.

So there you are – a masterpiece. Can you afford to pass it up? No.

New Article: “Rockin’ the Boat’s a Drag. You Gotta Sink the Boat!”: Robert Downey Sr.’s Anarchist Cinema

Sunday, July 10th, 2016

I have a new article on the life and films of Robert Downey Sr. in the July, 2016 issue of Senses of Cinema.

As I write, in part, “long, long, long ago and very far away, in Manhattan in the 1960s, I knew Robert Downey Sr. as a friend and colleague, and we are still in touch today. At the time, we were all part of what was then euphemistically called the ‘Underground Cinema’, a loose conglomeration of filmmakers and artists who centered around The Filmmakers’ Cooperative and the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, which moved from location to location, continually offering screenings of decidedly outré films, for something like $2 a show. We were part of a group of 100 filmmakers – tops.

All of us were cinematic anarchists, spearheaded by the aggressively confrontational filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas, whose long running column ‘Movie Journal’ in The Village Voice encouraged everyone to make as many films as possible, in as many ways as possible, with as few materials as possible, and to not listen to anyone’s criticism – just their own artistic inner voice.

Robert Sr. was one of those people who really took up the banner of experimental film and ran with it, remaining as controversial as possible, and eager to offend as many people as possible, but with a disarming, almost ingratiatingly cheerful air.” I’m very happy to have done this piece, as I respect Bob’s work enormously; he’s the foremost American social satirist of the 1960s and 70s, and remains as active today as ever.

You can read the entire article by clicking on the link here, or on the image above.

Denis Côté’s Boris sans Béatrice (2016)

Saturday, July 9th, 2016

Denis Côté’s new film Boris sans Béatrice (2016) is a stripped-down, sharp tale of moral redemption.

As Brendan Kelly writes in the Montreal Gazette, “Denis Côté’s films may not make bazillions at the box office, but the Montreal auteur’s original, highly stylized offerings travel the world as much as the work of almost any other Canadian director this side of David Cronenberg. [You can watch an interview with the director by clicking here, or on the image above.]

Côté’s ninth feature, Boris sans Béatrice, had its world première in official competition at the Berlin International Film Festival [in February 2016], and then opened the recent Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois. James Hyndman stars as a successful Quebec businessman who enters a moral crisis after his wife (Simone-Élise Girard), a federal cabinet minister, falls into a coma-like state. It opens in cinemas Friday, including a version with English subtitles. [I asked the filmmaker a few questions] . . .

Q: There has been a debate here for a while about whether we should be making popular films or more artsy films. What do you think of this whole discussion?

A: Look, I’m 42 years old. I’ve made nine features. At a certain moment, I’m allowed to get up in the morning and just be Denis Côté, no? I’m not capable of making a commercial film. It’s not that I don’t want to do it — I’m not able to do it. If you ask me to film a bank robbery, I’m sorry, but I’m allergic to conventional filmmaking. I can’t make a film for M. or Madame Tout le Monde. I’m a cinephile, I was a film critic, and I’ve seen loads of films. I’m a bit obsessed with being different and having my own signature. So by definition, you lose a certain audience because of that.

And I’ve been encouraged to keep my signature. People in the business said, ‘Wow, you made Carcasses [a strange, low-budget 2009 film about a man who has a bunch of burnt-out cars on his land] and you went to Cannes.’ They said, ‘Wow, you filmed animals in Bestiaire [a 2012 film shot at Parc Safari] and you went to 100 festivals around the world and it was sold in seven or eight countries. So at a certain moment you start to believe in Denis Côté. You don’t think of la madame in Verdun.

And the business continues to support me. I didn’t need to fight for four years to make Boris sans Béatrice. I had one meeting at [Canadian provincial film funding agency] SODEC, and it was supported right away by [federal film agency] Telefilm. The agencies are sensitive to two things: box office and international exposure. With me, everyone knows I’m the guy who represents Canada internationally. They like that and they need that. And they don’t expect me to blow up at the box office. So if you ask me if Boris sans Béatrice is an art-house film, I’d answer, ‘Yes it is, and I’m proud of it.’”

The film marks something of a departure, at least for me, from Côté’s other films, in that it’s much more human, and humane, and also about human fallibility, than some of his darker films, like Vic and Flo Saw A Bear, a minimalist masterpiece with a heavenly happy ending, but only after the characters in the film go through all sorts of earthly Hell.

In Boris sans Béatrice, the protagonist’s Hell is of his own making; neglecting his wife for his hyper-successful business, tumbling from one meaningless affair into the next, and most of all behaving with an overpowering sense of arrogant entitlement for most of the film, Boris is clearly headed straight for the wall, in one sense or another.

This all changes when he receives a mysterious summons in his mailbox from a mysterious, otherworldly judge, billed appropriately as “l’Inconnu” in the film’s credits, played superbly by Denis Lavant, who calls Boris to account for his hubris, neglect, and his failure to take care of his wife, his mother, or even his daughter, other than bailing her out of jail after she’s arrested during a protest action.

In a sense, Lavant’s character resembles a more severe version of the character Heurtebise (as played by François Périer) in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), who aids but also chastises the poet Orpheus (Jean Marais) when he similarly neglects his wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa).

Immaculately photographed, superbly acted, and entirely the work of someone who – for once – wants to please himself and no one else, Boris sans Béatrice gives us a indelible portrait of an utterly selfish, self-involved man who finally, through the agency of some supernatural guidance, is restored to the ones he truly loves, after realizing that the rest of his life, without love, is meaningless.

In this, the film is perhaps Côté’s most accessible work, despite his protestations to the contrary. Unlike the fashionably death-obsessed and self-conciously brutal allegories offered up by, for example, Michael Haneke, Boris sans Béatrice – which starts out with an unrelenting coldness – shifts gradually into a film that exudes a palpable sense of realistic hope, becoming a study of a life examined, found wanting, and reclaimed – a spectacle all too rare these days.

My thanks to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for introducing me to this beautiful, thoughtful film.

Glenn Erickson on Cy Endfield’s Try And Get Me!

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

Cy Endfield’s noir classic Try and Get Me! (aka The Sound of Fury) finally gets a DVD release.

As Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant writes in a guest post on Steve Eifert’s excellent site Noir of The Week, “1950’s Try and Get Me! has never been an easy film to see. Its only home video release [was] a Republic Home Video VHS from 1990. [Thankfully, the film has just now been released in a superb transfer by Olive Films, which makes a business of rescuing lost classics before it's too late - so check it out.]

It’s both a socially conscious tract against lynching, and one of the most pessimistic, frightening films noir from the classic period. It encourages examination from several angles. Its director was blacklisted. It was released as The Sound of Fury late in 1950, and underwent a title change while in its initial run. No official reason is given, but the title might have been uncomfortably similar to MGM’s 1936 film Fury, which is loosely based on the same factual incident.

Not unlike Jules Dassin of Night and the City, versatile director Cyril (Cy) Endfield was just getting his career in motion when the blacklist made him unemployable in Hollywood. Endfield would later achieve success in England directing, writing or producing tough minded pictures like Hell Drivers, Zulu, Sands of the Kalahari and Zulu Dawn. Try and Get Me! was filmed on location in the Phoenix area. Unemployed Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) already has one young boy. His wife Judy (Kathleen Ryan) is anxious that he finds a job soon so she can see a doctor to deliver her second child.

Demoralized by the bleak job prospects, Howard falls in with Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges), a narcissistic braggart who lures him with promises of easy money: ‘Getting any other offers lately?’ Howard drives the getaway car for a series of robberies; he tells his wife that he’s found a job and begins to drink heavily. Then Jerry bullies his reluctant partner into helping kidnap the son of a wealthy local. The unstable Jerry murders the kidnapped man.

Torn by guilt and self-loathing, Howard continues to drink. He accompanies Jerry on a nightclub holiday with the loose Velma (Adele Jergens) and her mousy friend Hazel Weatherwax (Katherine Locke). Unable to keep silent, Howard breaks down in Katherine’s apartment. The secret gets out and the police close in. Howard is locked up with the now-deranged Jerry. Stirred up by alarmist newspaper headlines, a huge mob converges on the city jail. The sheriff (Cliff Clark, in one of his finest roles) can’t hold them back.

A social horror movie for depressed times, Try and Get Me! is not recommended for everybody — its emotions run high even before the crime and kidnap story gets in gear. Howard Tyler’s unemployment experience is sheer misery and humiliation, death in small doses. It hurts when his kid asks for money to go to a ball game. He can’t possibly tell his wife how hopeless things have become. The neighbors’ new television is just more evidence of Howard’s failure.

Author-screenwriter Jo Pagano indicts American society as aloof to the needs of working class citizens in economic straits — the Land of Riches doesn’t give a damn if Howard’s family goes homeless or starves. A bartender sees nothing wrong with charging Howard extra for a grade of beer he didn’t order. The situation is emasculating, especially with the preening, suppressed homoerotic Jerry showing off his muscles and asserting his superiority. The film’s key image shows Howard unable to sleep, standing in the dark staring out the window. He’s a criminal; he knows that he’ll be caught sooner or later.”

You can read the rest of this excellent essay by clicking here, or on the image above – it’s must see viewing!

New Article – Kelly Reichardt: Working Against The Grain

Thursday, June 9th, 2016

I have a new article on the films of Kelly Reichardt in Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

As I write in the article on her film River of Grass, ”like so many of Reichardt’s protagonists, Cozy and Lee want to leave the lives they’re drifting through behind, but they have no clear idea – indeed no idea at all, what to do about it. They have no money, no real aim, in life, but they’re not so much hopeless as they are bereft of imagination. There’s a world out there beyond Florida, but somehow, home is home, and that’s where they seem to be stuck, in a state of permanent stasis.

And, of course, the film has many stylistic and thematic debts, which Reichardt is all too willing to acknowledge. As she told Iain Blair, in River of Grass ‘I can clearly see Godard’s influence, and noir and early Terrence Malick. It’s all laid quite bare.’ The film was recently restored as part of a Kickstarter campaign by Oscilloscope Laboratories, and released as an extra on Oscilloscope’s DVD of Reichardt’s ultra-realistic, almost existential Western Meek’s Cutoff (2010). It’s a solid first effort, and certainly offers an early clue to the direction her career was heading in.

Reichardt followed this up with two shorter films, Ode (1999), clocking in at 48 minutes, which is a sort of riff on the plot of the 1960s pop song hit Ode to Billy Joe, and then two very short films: Then A Year (2001), dealing with the consequences of a ‘crime of passion,’ and Travis (2004), centering on the human cost of Iraq war. But at the same time, Reichardt’s enthusiasm for making films had dwindled; these newer films were shorter, less ambitious, and she was clearly backpedaling in her career – indeed, she wondered if she had any real future as a filmmaker in any realistic sense, even working at the margins of the industry.

River of Grass has made something of a splash on the festival circuit, being nominated for Best First Feature, Best First Screenplay, and Best Debut Performance (Lisa Bowman), as well as the rather enigmatically named Someone to Watch Award at the 1996 Independent Spirit Awards, as well as being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994, and for Best Feature Film at the Torino International Festival of Young Cinema – but none of those nominations translated into a win, and gradually, the ‘heat’ surrounding Reichardt began to wear off.

As she admitted to Iain Blair, ‘making [River of Grass] was a real eye-opener, and even going to Sundance and all of it – that was my first realization that it was different for women in this business. There were just two of us women filmmakers at Sundance in ’94, and there was no sense of camaraderie or welcoming – no fault of Sundance. And I took it really personally and it took me a long time to get over it. That was a part of my retreating afterwards.

The other part was, I just couldn’t get financing, and it was so frustrating. I tried so hard to be a more avant-garde, less narrative filmmaker, but it just didn’t come naturally to me. I went to L.A. for a while, and Jodie Foster was going to produce a film I was doing, but it never got made. I simply didn’t have the social skills needed to operate in the business. So I went back to Super 8, which is what I’d done in college.

It seemed like nothing happened during my time in L.A., but I’d worked – in the art department – on Poison, and I became friends with (director) Todd Haynes. And he introduced me to (novelist) Jonathan Raymond, and one of his stories became the basis for Old Joy (2006) – but I had no idea when we did it that it’d even become a feature.’”

In short, it’s a tough world out there, but Kelly Reichardt keeps working, which is the only way to get anything to happen, no matter what your chosen field. Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall, but you can gain access through Love Library Reference, if you’re interested, and in the meantime, check out some of Reichardt’s superb films – she’s one of the most truly original directors working in America today.

That’s Kelly Reichardt – working against the grain.

The Night Manager – Totally Addictive Television

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

The Night Manager, from John le Carré’s 1993 novel, is a British drama ideal for non-stop binge watching.

Produced by the BBC, and already screened on British television, the six-part miniseries debuted on AMC on April 19, 2016, and I was hooked from the first moments on. Tom Hiddleston, who was so good in Jim Jarmusch’s post-modern vampire thriller Only Lovers Left Alive, and Hugh Laurie, who made a fortune from umpteen seasons of House, combine with Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, who directed all six episodes, to create a rattling good yarn that keeps you enthralled from first frame to last.

Le Carré, who is now 84, is apparently even musing the idea of writing a sequel to his novel with the same characters, because he’s so pleased with the result as well, and the actors in the mini-series have made pact that if le Carré does, in fact, turn out another novel as a follow up, they’ll all line up to do it. The entire series is out on Region 2 DVD in the UK now, and after watching just one episode on AMC, I snapped up the DVD of the entire series immediately – commercial free, of course.

As Hiddleston told Debra Birnbaum of Variety, “It’s fascinating to hear that Le Carré himself is up for it and considering writing new material for characters he created 25 years ago.” As Birnbaum further reported, “Le Carré — now 84 and living and working in Cornwall, on the southwestern tip of England — was part of the creative process throughout, contributing extra scenes, answering spycraft questions, sitting through the table read and, yes, cringing at the changes to his book. But ultimately, he was satisfied.

‘It seems to me that this time ’round we may really have got it: Film doing its own job, opening up my novel in ways I didn’t think anyone had noticed. And what I like best of all is how Susanne Bier goes on chewing at the bone of the drama long after other directors would have given up.”

The series was filmed on location in four countries over the course of 75 days. Bier approached it like a very long feature, shooting scenes out of order. She gave the actors ample freedom to explore — beginning each day by allowing them to improvise in rehearsals to see how a scene might play out. Making sure she didn’t stray from the story, while still maintaining creative freedom, was ‘like having a number of chess games running at the same time,’ she notes.”

The plot is vintage le Carré, but brought up to date with a modern twist. During the midst of the Arab Spring of 2011, a mysterious and utterly unscrupulous arms dealer, Richard Roper (Laurie) –  repeatedly described as “the worst man in the world”  - who hides in plain sight as a supposedly legitimate businessman and philanthropist, tries to strike a deal with some militants for a massive shipment of weapons – enough to equip an entire army ten times over.

But his plans are derailed by former British soldier Jonathan Pine (Hiddleston), now the night manager at a Cairo hotel, who comes into possession of some incriminating documents, and leaks them to the British authorities. And that, of course, leads to absolute mayhem – and naturally all the governments involved are corrupt, intelligence agencies are underfunded, and no one can be trusted at all.

From there, I honestly have no idea what happens, and I’m just going to wait for the DVD to arrive, and then sit down and watch the entire series in one gulp, but I can tell you this much; it’s not Masterpiece Theater. This is sharp, smart filmmaking with a real bite, stylishly directed by Bier with real skill and feeling. Hiddleston and Laurie are both superb in their roles, and it’s clear that no expense was spared to bring the project to the screen. And although it’s television, one can’t help but imagine it on a theater screen – talk about impact.

So buy the DVD, or see it on AMC: The Night Manager is definitely worth a look!

Video Essay: What is Neorealism?

Saturday, April 2nd, 2016

Here is a brilliant video essay by the filmmaker / critic :: kogonada on two versions of one film.

When director Vittorio De Sica, above, was hired by David O. Selznick (the “O”, he admitted, stood for nothing, being entirely his own invention to make his name sound more prestigious – or so he imagined) to direct a film starring Selznick’s wife, Jennifer Jones, and the American actor Montgomery Clift, a clash of visions was almost inevitable, given Selznick’s well known penchant for interfering with a director’s work (as was the case with Alfred Hitchcock, who got around the problem by shooting precisely what he needed for a film, and no more, starting with his first film for Selznick, Rebecca [1940]), which reached manic levels as Selznick’s career as a producer deteriorated.

As :: kogonada writes in his introduction to this brilliant examination of the film Terminal Station aka Indiscretion of American Wife, “what rival visions would emerge if you pitted the director of The Bicycle Thieves against the producer of Gone with the Wind on the same movie material? History can tell us . . . every cut is a form of judgment, whether it takes place on the set or in the editing room. A cut reveals what matters and what doesn’t. It delineates the essential from the non-essential. To examine the cuts of a filmmaker is to uncover an approach to cinema.

The happenstance of Vittorio De Sica’s Terminal Station and David O. Selznick’s Indiscretion of an American Wife offers a rare opportunity to compare two cuts of the same film from a leading figure of neorealism and a leading figure of Hollywood. If neorealism exists, it is in contrast to the dominant approach to moviemaking, shaped and exemplified by Hollywood. In comparing Terminal Station to Indiscretion of an American Wife, we must ask, ‘what difference does a cut make?’”

For those not familiar with the saga of the making – and unmaking – of this film, Wikipedia offers this brief, sad summary: “Terminal Station (Italian: Stazione Termini) is a 1953 film by Italian director Vittorio De Sica. It tells the story of the love affair between an Italian man and an American woman. The film was entered into the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. The film is based on the story Stazione Termini by Cesare Zavattini. Truman Capote was credited with writing the entire screenplay, but later claimed to have written only two scenes.

The film was an international co-production between De Sica’s own company and the Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, who commissioned it as a vehicle for his wife, Jennifer Jones. The production of the film was troubled from the very beginning. Carson McCullers was originally chosen to write the screenplay, but Selznick fired her and replaced her with a series of writers, including Paul Gallico, Alberto Moravia and Capote. Disagreements ensued between De Sica and Selznick, and during production, Selznick would write 40- and 50-page letters to his director every day, although De Sica spoke no English. After agreeing to everything, De Sica has said, he simply did things his way.

Montgomery Clift sided with De Sica in his disputes with Selznick, claiming that Selznick wanted the movie to look like a slick little love story, while De Sica wanted to depict a ruined romance . . . The original release of the film ran 89 minutes, but it was later re-edited by Selznick down to 64 minutes and re-released as Indiscretion of an American Wife (and as Indiscretion in the UK). Clift declared that he hated the picture and denounced it as ‘a big fat failure.’ Critics of the day agreed, giving it universally bad reviews. The two versions have been released together on DVD by The Criterion Collection.”

Taking advantage of the existence of these two highly different and in a sense competing versions of the film, :: kogonada has created a side-by-side comparison of the two edits of the film, showing how Selznick simplified and “dumbed down” the American cut, while De Sica left more to the audience’s imagination, rather than spelling everything out as Selznick insisted. De Sica’s original version, though not his best work, is clearly a much more resonant film; Selznick’s edit, chopped down to a minimal 64 minutes, accomplishes nothing less than the destruction of De Sica’s film – but now we can see the original version, and the recut – and what a difference there is between them!

This is a fascinating experiment – and demonstrates why Hollywood films are so often deeply unsatisfying.

Tina Hassannia – No DVDs of Many Films by Women Directors

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

Tina Hassannia has a superb article on the lack of DVDs of films directed by women in Movie Mezzanine.

As she notes, “one consistent request on Twitter from female film critics and cinephiles in particular is more female-directed films. Last month, film critic Sophie Mayer analyzed Criterion’s entire collection and found that only 21 of their titles were directed or co-directed by women (including films released under Criterion’s Eclipse banner). That’s 2.6% of the whole collection, which in Mayer’s estimation is a ‘pretty meagre number.’

As telling as that number might be about a potential gender bias, the statistic only scratches the surface of what is a much broader and more complicated picture when it comes to releasing female-directed films on home video. It’s worth pointing out other characteristics of Criterion’s collection in relation to that figure.

While Mayer notes a higher number of films are directed by women in mainstream film—a still-measly 7%—Criterion’s titles represent a diverse number of cinemas that do not fall necessarily in the mainstream category; it would likely be impossible to determine the percentage of women directors in every national cinema around the world since the birth of movies. That number is likely to be much lower than 7%.

The 2.6% number also doesn’t account for the decades when there were few working women directors around the world. While women directed movies in the early Hollywood era, the profession became mostly male territory by the 1930s, and for several subsequent decades, there were almost no female directors working at all in the studio system (with some notable exceptions, like Ida Lupino). Even by the 1960s, some of the world cinemas we cherish today were only starting to find their roots and hadn’t yet standardized the practice, or even implicitly decided to allow, encourage, or prohibit women to helm a picture.

There were also more notable films made by women in the 1930s-1960s in other types of cinema—like avant-garde, independent, and documentary films—than in Hollywood. This hasn’t changed that much in the last half-century, as the gender bias in Hollywood continues to be a systemic problem. Even so, think of your favorite female-directed films: no matter which genre or country they hail from, the largest percentage were likely made in the 1970s or later.

Despite the continuing gender bias, more women have been making movies of note in the last 30 to 40 years than in the decades preceding. This is an important factor to consider, as more than half of Criterion’s collection are films that were made in the 1930s-’70s. Much of their library derives from a period when there were generally fewer working female filmmakers.

Instead of relying on statistics to examine Criterion’s collection, then, it may be more helpful to think of women-directed titles that deserve a deluxe treatment. No matter what the numbers, statistics, or decades show, given their power, Criterion would go a long way in challenging the canon by releasing more titles made by women. But the reality is that releasing films from a smaller demographic is much more difficult than one might imagine.

Last week, I queried Twitter for female-directed titles that should get the Criterion treatment. Great responses poured in, among them the films of Dorothy Arzner and Maya Deren, Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, Barbara Loden’s Wanda, and Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning. Some of these films, however, are already available from other distributors, some with restorations and supplements that are on par with or close to the quality associated with Criterion.”

All I can do is second this heartily, but also note that in addition to the directors mentioned, I would love to see a complete box set of the films of Alice Guy – some of her films are out on a Gaumont two disc set – Lois Weber (pictured at the top of this post), Ida May Park, and especially Ida Lupino, who is mentioned in this article, but whose pioneering work deserves a complete box set of all her work in the 1950s, when she was the only female director working in Hollywood. In any event, this is a real issue, one that won’t go away, and one that needs to be rectified, not only by Criterion, but by all the archival DVD labels – and no EST downloads, either. DVDs – restored, remastered, pristine, living – are the only way to go here.

This is a sharp, impassioned article – you can read the entire essay by clicking here.

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.

Batman v Superman: Diminishing Returns

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

After two years of post-production, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice finally his theaters today.

As I wrote back in June 26, 2015 of Zack Snyder’s latest film,”in the mid 1940s, Universal was coming off a two decade wave of horror movies, such as Frankenstein and Dracula (both 1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Wolf Man (1941), but at length, audiences were bored with just one monster, and demanded something to amp up the franchise. Thus, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943) was born, the first of the Universal monster ‘team ups,’ but in short order, the entire franchise collapsed as Universal combined nearly all their famed horror icons in two ‘monster rally’ entries, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in cheap, hastily staged films that did little more than revive the monsters only to destroy them.

With these final two films in the initial series, it seemed that the franchise was exhausted, and the next Universal horror entry wasn’t a horror entry at all; it was the parody Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). It wasn’t until Hammer films re-energized these classic characters in such films as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) that the franchise once again took on new life.

It seems to me that we’re now at a similar point with the DC Universe; the Superman series seems a bit played out, as the character seems a bit too straight arrow to relate to 21st century audiences; and Christopher Nolan has run the Batman series into the ground, as did Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher before him, so that both characters seem, for the moment, played out for the contemporary viewer.

What to do? Why, just put them both in one film, as a a sort of WWF smackdown, recalling the first Universal team up, Frankenstein Meets (or more accurately, ‘battles’) The Wolf Man. And so now we have Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Zack ‘300′ Snyder on a $200 million dollar budget, which wrapped filming in December 2014, and is now going through an apparently intensive post-production process, and won’t be released – at latest word – until March 25, 2016. What the final cost will be, who knows? Will it ‘blow up’ like Jurassic World, and make a fortune? DC certainly hopes so.

It seems worth noting to me that Marvel has been much more successful at these ‘ensemble’ films lately, but then they have a much larger cast of characters to work with. And when one character gets tired, they just sideline her or him for a while, and go for an Avengers team-up, and everyone seems happy as the dollars roll in, and then Marvel eventually gets around to rebooting whatever needs to be jump started next, as the cycle continues with Sisyphian relentlessness.

But DC, I think, doesn’t have the same depth in its playing field, and so this team-up has, at least for me, the inescapable whiff of ‘last chance at the genre corral,’ when you take your two most influential characters and put them into a face-off. After this, what can you do; repeat the same thing all over again, perhaps throwing in The Green Lantern for some added traction?

It seems sad to me that this is one of the most hotly anticipated tickets of next year – because the whole thing seems so formulaic and predestined, but there it is. On yes, and Wonder Woman, in the person of Gal Godot, will also swing by to get in on the action, so this in many ways might be closer to the ‘monster rally’ films than the first Universal team-up film.”

All of the above was written long before the film was released; it actually finished principal photography in 2014, and has spent close to two years in post-production, which is never a good sign. Now everyone can see the film for themselves – it is, after all, rated PG-13, with an R rated “director’s cut,” one half hour longer, forthcoming on DVD in the coming months.

That said, it looks like most of what I predicted way back nearly a year ago has come true, and it seems that the film is more of a miss than a hit with fans and critics alike, though the ticket presales have been spectacular. But with audiences able to text “instant reviews” during the film as to whether or not they approve, who knows what will happen? Batman v Superman wound up costing north of $250 million, and will need to clear at least $800,000 to a billion dollars at the box office just to break even. That’s a lot of money.

Yet as Michael Roffman noted in a perceptive review of the film published on the website Consequence of Sound, Batman v Superman represents – perhaps – both the beginning of the end for comic book movies, which may have finally reached an audience saturation point, as well as a failure of the imagination. Notes Roffman, “the adrenaline and the excitement of a superhero film has taken back seat to morbid curiosity and blind acceptance.

To paraphrase the late Hunter S. Thompson, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice offers us an ideal vantage point to look at the near past, where with the right kind of eyes we can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. Some might say that was 2012’s The Avengers; others might argue it was 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Whatever the case, we’re coasting into a no-wake zone right now, and it’s getting harder to keep the signal on and tiring to glue our eyes toward the sky.”

Or as A.O. Scott put it more bluntly in a review in The New York Times, “the point of Batman v Superman isn’t fun, and it isn’t thinking, either. It’s obedience. The theology is invoked not to elicit meditations on mercy, justice or sacrifice, but to buttress a spectacle of power. And in that way the film serves as a metaphor for its own aspirations. The corporations that produce movies like this one, and the ambitious hacks who sign up to make them, have no evident motive beyond their own aggrandizement. Entertainment is less the goal than the byproduct, and as the commercial reach of superpower franchises grows, their creative exhaustion becomes ever more apparent.”

Which seems about right to me – it’s time to move on to something new.

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.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, 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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