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The Racket (1951) in Noir of the Week

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Here’s a piece I wrote a while ago on the 1951 film The Racket for Noir of the Week.

“Who said I was an honest citizen? And what would it get me if I was?”

– Lizabeth Scott to Robert Mitchum in The Racket

Left to right above: Robert Ryan, John Cromwell, Lizabeth Scott and Robert Mitchum

As I wrote, “the traumatized figure of Robert Ryan as old-school rough and tough gangster Nick Scanlon towers over the wreckage of John Cromwell’s The Racket (1951), although the film has so many “punch up” scenes inserted after the completion of principal photography by director Nicholas Ray that it almost qualifies as a co-direction job. In addition, the actor/director Mel Ferrer, the film’s editor Sherman Todd, the film’s producer Edmund Grainger, and even director Tay Garnett (of The Postman Always Rings Twice) also took a hand in the proceedings, all under the overzealous and one might say hyper-controlling supervision of Howard Hughes, who at this point owned RKO Radio, the studio where this film was made, having acquired controlling interest in the company in 1948.

Hughes could never leave a project alone after it was finished shooting, in some cases scrapping whole elements of a film’s plot after principal photography. William Cameron Menzies’ delirious noir The Whip Hand comes immediately to mind; the film originally was about a plot devised by Adolf Hitler (Bobby Watson) to fatally poison America’s water supply, but after the film wrapped, Hughes decided that the villains should be Communists, who were suddenly much more trendy, and large segments of the film were reshot, at considerable added expense.

In the case of The Racket, the film was based on a silent film from 1928, also produced by Howard Hughes, and directed by a youthful Lewis Milestone, which was based in turn on a Broadway play by Bartlett Cormack, and starred Thomas Meighan, Louis Wolheim and Marie Prevost. Interestingly, the Broadway play version starred Edward G. Robinson, and, as an actor, a young John Cromwell, the director of the 1951 version, and the stage production subsequently toured throughout the country, winding up in Los Angeles, where Robinson was discovered by Warner Bros. and thrust into a series of gangster films that made him a star.

For many years, the 1928 version of The Racket was considered a “lost film,” but a print was finally located by Dr. Hart Wegner of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Film Department, and restored by Jeffrey Masino, with a new music track by Robert Israel. In 2004, the film was screened on Turner Classic Movies for the first time, but has yet to make it on to DVD; the 1928 version is certainly more coherent than the 1951 version, but the later version also has its merits – in a bizarre sort of way.

Chief among the pluses for the 1951 version are Robert Ryan, at his psychotic, raging best as outmoded gangster Nick Scanlon; Robert Mitchum somnolently strolling through his role as Captain Thomas McQuigg, an honest police captain in a city that has gone completely corrupt; the always dependable Lizabeth Scott as Irene Hayes, a nightclub singer who is predictably mixed up in the rackets; William Talman, surprisingly cast against type – he usually played murderers, thugs, and psychotic killers – as eager-beaver Officer Bob Johnson; Ray Collins as the exquisitely corrupt District Attorney Mortimer X. Welch; and last but far from least, William Conrad as Detective Sergeant Turk, another corrupt cop, who says almost nothing throughout the entire film but always seems to be hanging around the edges of the frame, chewing gum, and effectively stealing scenes from anyone who tries to upstage him.

Nor is this all; a gallery of pug-uglies, stoolies and other assorted noir characters round out the dramatis personae, from Walter Sande as a reliable sidekick cop to Mitchum’s Captain McQuigg, Les Tremayne as Harry Craig, head of the Crime Commission, the smooth heavy Don Porter as R.G. Connolly, front man for the never-seen “Old Man” who runs the entire corrupt enterprise, and noir regulars Harry Lauter, Don Dillaway, Howland Chamberlain, Tito Vuolo, Herb Vigran, Richard Reeves, Iris Adrian, Don Beddoe and others too numerous to mention. RKO had a heavy pool of talent to draw from in 1950s Hollywood, and even if these actors weren’t stars, they were solid professionals who could be counted on to show up on time, know their lines, and get through their scenes efficiently and with absolute conviction, even if the film’s script sometimes crumbled beneath them.”

That’s just an excerpt; read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria is Olivier Assayas’ finest film in quite some time – a really dazzling achievement.

And as Peter Debruge noted in part in his review for Variety, the film had an unusual genesis. According to Debruge, “after collaborating with Assayas on 2008’s perfect, albeit ultra-safe Summer Hours, actress Juliette Binoche challenged the director to write a part that delved into genuine female experience. Though deceptively casual on its surface, Clouds of Sils Maria marks his daring rejoinder, a multi-layered, female-driven meta-fiction that pushes all involved — including next-generation starlets Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz — to new heights.

Binoche plays Maria Enders, a 40-ish movie star approached about appearing in a fresh staging of the play Maloja Snake, a film adaptation of which launched her career two decades earlier. This time, she’s being asked to interpret the older role — a burnt-out, middle-aged businesswoman manipulated by her young female assistant. Maria has always identified with the other character, the one she played at age 20, whereas the role of the has-been is haunted by her previous co-star, who died in a car accident a year after they shot the movie . . .

As the film opens, Maria is traveling with her assistant Val (Stewart) to accept an award on behalf of her close friend and mentor, playwright Wilhelm Melchior (a provocateur loosely inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant echoes below the surface here). En route, while dealing with the particulars of her in-progress divorce, Marie receives word that Melchior has died, dredging up an unpleasant figure from her past, an old co-star named Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler) whose desperation provides a horrifying glimpse into where her own career could be headed.

For this and her myriad other insecurities, Marie has Val, the hyper-reliable young woman who serves as her minder, mother, therapist and rehearsal partner. It is Val who talks her nervous boss into doing the Maloja Snake revival, dragging Marie to a studio-produced superhero movie just to see Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz), the edgy young actress tapped to play the other part. Running lines from the play, Marie and Val may as well be describing their own sexually charged codependency, so perversely does the dialogue fit the pair’s own increasingly unhealthy dynamic.

At times, Val excuses herself to visit a photographer boyfriend (although a weird mountain-driving montage suggests she may simply need to get away when the connection becomes too intense), until finally, she seems to disappear altogether, just one of the many mysteries woven into this rich and tantalizingly open-ended psychological study . . .

Ultimately, Stewart is the one who actually embodies what Binoche’s character most fears, countering the older actress’ more studied technique with the same spontaneous, agitated energy that makes her the most compellingly watchable American actress of her generation . . .

Sils Maria reaches for the stratosphere — which incidentally, is where most of the film takes place, high in the Swiss Alps, above the clouds. From this celestial vantage, Maria and Val are free to observe the real Maloja Snake, a seething meteorological formation that sends clouds winding serpent-like through a valley lined by mountains on either side.

In addition to documenting this spectacle afresh, Assayas unearths an old 1924 silent movie by German director Arnold Fanck, the sort of relic that makes one grateful someone thought to capture this mesmerizing phenomenon on film. Binoche leaves audiences with the same exhilarating feeling here — of having witnessed something precious and rare — answering the challenge of Assayas’ script by revealing a character incredibly closer to her soul.”

With links not only Fassbinder and American pop culture films, as seen in the film-within-a-film ostensibly starring Chloë Grace Moretz, as well to Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Sils Maria instantly jumps into my Top Ten List — in which there are, admittedly, 250 films at least – and is a work of mysterious, mesmerizing brilliance, which should be seen by everyone.

This excellent film will play May 1 – 7, 2015 at The Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater – don’t miss it.

Patrick Morganelli’s New Opera – Hercules vs. Vampires

Friday, April 24th, 2015

The LA Opera Company – Patrick Morganelli’s new opera Hercules vs. Vampires, from the film by Mario Bava.

There are some times I wish I had a private jet I could simply go to the airport and use at will, and this is one of those times. Patrick Morganelli’s superb new opera,  Hercules vs. Vampires, is playing at the LA Opera House tomorrow and Sunday, and that’s it. By clicking on the image above, you can go to the LA Opera’s site for the production, which features a snippet of video, and a section of the work, which sounds, as Morganelli intended, very much like something influenced by Ravel and Debussy – brilliantly performed.

Bava’s film, featuring the haunting image of a young Christopher Lee (on the screen above) is a masterwork of Italian 60s atmospheric fantasy. Morganelli’s score lifts both the narrative and the images to an entirely new level, and the reviews thus far have been raves. My good friend Dennis Coleman, who lives in Los Angeles, saw the production, and gave it very high marks – and I believe him. This is an inspired “mash-up” of cinema and classical music, performed by some of the brightest talents in the world of opera working today.

As the LA Opera’s web site notes, “buckle your seat belts for our most offbeat presentation ever! Hercules vs. Vampires combines opera and midcentury pop culture, synchronizing live music with cult fantasy film Hercules in the Haunted World, a 1961 sword-and-sandal epic starring bodybuilder Reg Park. When the actors projected on the silver screen open their mouths to speak, the audience will hear their lines sung by our cast of singers from the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, accompanied by a 26-piece orchestra.

Directed by the great Italian filmmaker Mario Bava, the film itself is fantastic in every sense of the term, swaddled in glorious early-1960s Technicolor. Action-packed and wildly operatic in scope, the film follows Hercules on a heroic journey to rescue his beloved from a fiendish mastermind of terror (played onscreen by horror legend Christopher Lee). Fresh and full of fun, an atmospheric new operatic score by L.A.-based composer Patrick Morganelli provides the perfect accompaniment to Bava’s gorgeously gaudy world.”

As composer Morganelli told Michelle Lanz in The Frame, “one of the amazing things about Mario Bava was that because he was originally a cinematographer, he had an amazing sense of how to light a scene, how to frame it…when he stepped up to become a director he was really able to bring this visual sense to it. Specifically what we see in this particular film is he shot it in anamorphic widescreen, which of course looks spectacular for a low-budget film like that. The color composition of it, and in particular roughly a third of the film takes place in Hades. The scenes in Hades are beyond belief.

I stuck as close as I could to the story of the film. I didn’t want to start doing things that were going to not really make sense with the picture. The difficulty there is that in taking film dialogue and creating an operatic libretto out of it, you have not only artistic issues of how do you condense everything into fewer words, but artistically they have to be words that are singable when you put all that together and then try and match that up with the actual mouth movements of the screen — it was technically quite difficult.” But the results, it seems, are spectacular.

I truly wish I could see this in person; it seems like a remarkable and daring achievement.

Patty Jenkins Is The New Wonder Woman Director

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

Warner Bros. made a real “tone switch” on this one – can’t say I agree.

As Justin Kroll reports in Variety, “While Warner Bros. made a swift decision this week to hire Patty Jenkins as its new Wonder Woman director, industry insiders are still chattering about why original helmer Michelle MacLaren suddenly vanished from the project. The studio is declining to elaborate on the clichéd ‘creative differences’ joint statement that was issued when the two parted ways. But, according to multiple sources close to the project, the director’s vision for the movie was vastly different from the studio’s view.

MacLaren envisioned the DC Comics-based Wonder Woman movie as an epic origin tale in the vein of Braveheart, whereas Warner wanted a more character-driven story that was less heavy on action. Warner executives, these insiders said, became increasingly concerned about MacLaren directing a large-scale, action-packed production when her experience was limited to the small screen, where she made her name directing episodes of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.”

While Jenkins has directed episodes of The Killing and the excellent feature film Monster, somehow, I think this is a mistake. Wonder Woman needs the epic sweep MacLaren was going for, and as strong as Jenkins’ resumé is, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead seem like excellent calling cards to me — we’ll have to see what happens, but I think I would have preferred MacLaren’s version.

Read Kroll’s entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Internet is Not The Answer – Andrew Keen

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

Watch an interview with Andrew Keen on C-Span by clicking here, or on the image above.

As Andrew Naughton perceptively notes in his review of Keen’s book in The Guardian, “Andrew Keen – like many who were involved in the net in the early days – started out as an internet evangelist. In the 1990s he founded a startup in the Bay Area and drank the Kool-Aid that fueled the first internet bubble. But he saw the light before many of us, and rapidly established himself as one of the net’s early contrarians.

His first book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, was a lacerating critique of the obsession with user-generated content which characterized the early days of web 2.0, and whenever conference organizers wanted to ensure a bloody good row, Andrew Keen was the man they invited to give the keynote address.

If his new book is anything to go by, Keen has lost none of his edge, but he’s expanded the scope and depth of his critique. He wants to persuade us to transcend our childlike fascination with the baubles of cyberspace so that we can take a long hard look at the weird, dysfunctional, inegalitarian, comprehensively surveiled world that we have been building with digital tools.

In that sense, The Internet Is Not the Answer joins a number of recent books by critics such as Jaron Lanier, Doc Searls, Astra Taylor, Ethan Zuckerman and Nicholas Carr, who are also trying to wake us from the nightmare into which we have been sleepwalking.

Like these other critics, Keen challenges the dominant narrative about the internet – that it’s a technology that liberates, informs and empowers people. The problem with this narrative, he points out, is not that it’s wrong – the network does indeed have the potential to do all of these marvelous things, and much more besides. The problem is that it’s not the whole story, and perhaps it will turn out to be the least important part of it.

The more important truth about the internet, Keen thinks, is that it has evolved into a global machine for creating a world characterized by vast and growing inequality. ‘The error that evangelists make,’ he writes, ‘is to assume that the internet’s open, decentralized technology naturally translates into a less hierarchical or unequal society.

But rather than more openness and the destruction of hierarchies, an unregulated network society is breaking the old center, compounding economic and cultural inequality, and creating a digital generation of masters of the universe. This new power may be rooted in a borderless network, but it still translates into massive wealth and power for a tiny handful of companies and individuals . . .’

Far from being the ‘answer’ to society’s problems, Keen argues, the internet is at the root of many of them. As a result, it poses an existential question for democracies everywhere: can elected governments control the waves of creative destruction now sweeping through our societies as the digital revolution gathers momentum?”

As Keen told Brian Lamb in an interview on C-SPAN on January 15, 2015, part of which included an excerpt from a TED Talk Keen delivered in Brussels, “we are being sold something also, which is a scam. Something which is undermining who we are as a species. One of the previous speakers talked about the importance of community-what I call the ‘cult of the social’- this idea that community is everything . . .

You come to these events and all you ever hear about is community, community, community. Community is supposed to be so wonderful. Community brings us together. These books-too many of them-all about the ‘we.’ All about how important it is for us to work together. All premised on this absurd idea that technology will finally enable community.

For those of you who read Marx’s German question, it’s really taken a lock stock and barrel from Marx – the idea that technology allows us to realize our species being, that we have this network, 2 billion people on it now, all this data, DNA. We are all becoming information, and we can share that information and become community. But of course, it’s nonsense. And worse than nonsense, it’s dangerous nonsense . . .

It’s dangerous because it’s not true. It’s dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, as [John Stuart] Mill realized in his great work On Liberty, it’s the interior that’s so important. And the role of government . . . is to protect that interior.  I’m a believer in the Mill-ian idea of protecting the individual to think for themselves and that the social tends to lend itself to conformity. So that’s the first thing.

The second thing is that the social – which I’m not against. I don’t think being social is a bad thing. I don’t think we should lock ourselves in our room. I’m not in favor of going back to the cave and separating myself from my fellow man. But the other problem is that social media in the digital age isn’t social. It’s an extension of the self. It’s an extension of the culture of narcissism that increasingly pervades the internet.

So when you go on Facebook, you’re not really networking. You’re not really being social – or some people of course are. But more and more people are using it- or on Instagram or any of these other networks or on Twitter. You’re using it to broadcast yourself, to show off yourself. And actually, ironically enough, it’s more and more alienating.

As I show in The Internet Is Not the Answer, a lot of research shows that the more people use Facebook, the lonelier they are, the more separate they are. So the social is actually fragmenting. It’s alienating, it’s atomizing.”

This is absolutely essential reading, as everyone piles on the digital bandwagon.

So That Happened – Jon Cryer’s New Memoir

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

Jon Cryer’s memoir of his long and checkered career makes for surprisingly thoughtful, entertaining reading.

Show biz memoirs are usually “and then I did this” or “and then I met” or else redolent of both scandal and self-promotion, but despite the high octane material Jon Cryer has the ability to exploit, with the whole Two and A Half Men saga just a part of his many decades as an actor, Cryer’s So That Happened deals most effectively not with shock, but rather introspection – into his personal life, but more importantly, into the craft of comedy itself.

After his initial hits in films, Cryer wandered in the wilderness with a string of failed television pilots until he was considered within the industry to be almost “the kiss of death” for any new project, until, by a long and torturous route, he finally landed the gig on Two and a Half Men.

But his major discovery was that, for some reason, his mere presence on a set seems out of place for audiences, who are almost waiting for some misfortune to befall him, and when he registers confusion, disbelief, or irritation, the result is amusement, as if his very being is perpetually alien.

He also discusses the mechanics of building a joke; how the auditioning process in Hollywood has become completely corrupted by the fact that one has sign an agreement merely to audition for a part, with no assurance of getting it; how the entertainment industry is so mercurial that success can vanish literally overnight; and how his oldest friends sadly fell away when fame finally came to him.

Sad, ruminative, literate and deeply analytical, this book is a real surprise, and offers some genuine insight into why the entertainment world is so stratified today, into the superstar brackets and nothing else, as the middle class of movies, music, books and other media are shuffled off into VOD oblivion.

For Cryer, it’s a craft, but it’s also job, and you have to hit your marks and perform, no matter what. So That Happened is about the triumph of professionalism. As Cryer notes, “you can’t do television shows caring whether or not the network picks you up. You can only do them enjoying the work, because if you’re always on pins and needles about whether you’ll be picked up, you’ll lose your mind. I learned that the hard way.”

All in all, very much worth reading.

New Book: Peter Stanfield’s The Cool and The Crazy

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

Peter Stanfield’s new book is a crash course in 1950s pop cinema – not to be missed!

I had the opportunity to see this book in page proofs, whose title is a homage to William Witney’s classic teen film of the same name. It’s a magnificent piece of work, both from a critical and new historical perspective. As Rutgers University Press, the publisher of the book, notes of Stanfield’s volume: “Explosive! Amazing! Terrifying! You won’t believe your eyes! Such movie taglines were common in the 1950s, as Hollywood churned out a variety of low-budget pictures that were sold on the basis of their sensational content and topicality.

While a few of these movies have since become canonized by film fans and critics, a number of the era’s biggest fads have now faded into obscurity. The Cool and the Crazy examines seven of these film cycles, including short-lived trends like boxing movies, war pictures, and social problem films detailing the sordid and violent life of teenagers, as well as uniquely 1950s takes on established genres like the gangster picture.

Peter Stanfield reveals how Hollywood sought to capitalize upon current events, moral panics, and popular fads, making movies that were ‘ripped from the headlines’ on everything from the Korean War to rock and roll. As he offers careful readings of several key films, he also considers the broader historical and commercial contexts in which these films were produced, marketed, and exhibited. In the process, Stanfield uncovers surprising synergies between Hollywood and other arenas of popular culture, like the ways that the fashion trend for blue jeans influenced the 1950s Western.

Delivering sharp critical insights in jazzy, accessible prose, The Cool and the Crazy offers an appreciation of cinema as a ‘pop’ medium, unabashedly derivative, faddish, and ephemeral. By studying these long-burst bubbles of 1950s ‘pop,’ Stanfield reveals something new about what films do and the pleasures they provide.”

As I noted in my critical commentary for The Cool and The Crazy, the volume has “fresh ideas, fresh arguments, and a good feel for the 1950s—Stanfield has it all. This book is one of a kind,” while critic Will Straw adds that “this dazzling archaeology of cycles and genres in postwar cinema goes deep into cultural history, then pulls back to reveal patterns and movements unseen until Stanfield saw them. Highly recommended.”

New, dazzling, and absolutely cutting edge – the inner workings of 1950s American pop cinema.

David Cronenberg’s Hollywood Nightmare – Maps To The Stars

Friday, March 6th, 2015

David Cronenberg’s Maps to The Stars may be the truest film ever made about the real world of Hollywood.

Working from a twenty-year old script by Bruce Wagner, which hasn’t aged one bit, Cronenberg’s corrosive film about the Hollywood mythos easily outstrips such films as Sunset Boulevard, The Big Knife, Day of the Locust, and other critical examinations of the American movie capital. For Maps to The Stars isn’t a satire at all, or a dark comedy – a melodrama, perhaps, but firmly rooted in fact. As Bruce Wagner noted in several interviews, “Hollywood [Wagner's home town] is so much a part of me. The thought of writing a straight satire about Hollywood – I would reach for my revolver, as they say . . .

I don’t see this as satirical. I see it simply as a melodrama that’s closer to August Strindberg or Joe Orton than it is to anything like The Player (1992) or Mulholland Drive (2001). David [Cronenberg] and I thought we were making our Sunset Blvd. (1950), in a way. The original script [of Sunset Boulevard] began with a scene of cadavers in a morgue talking about how they had died, how they had come to our demise. Our script is filled with ghosts as well . . .

I don’t see anything in Maps to the Stars that’s an exaggeration in order to expose a truth. It’s more realism than anything else. It’s is a fever dream, it’s a melodrama, I don’t see it as a satire. The default is to call anything that makes one uncomfortable and in which someone may laugh something satirical or quote ‘dark’. I’ve been hit with that label all my life. I don’t believe in only darkness; I’m not interested. I’m interested in the poles: Darkness and light. Extreme poverty and extreme wealth. Extreme fame, anonymity. The sacred and the profane. Without the profane, I’m not interested. Without the sacred, I’m not interested.”

The cast members are uniformly excellent; Julianne Moore (above) won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 for her work in the film, and Cronenberg was nominated for the Palme d’Or; John Cusack is suitably repellent as a new age “self fulfillment” guru whose entire life is a sham; and Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, and Evan Bird – Bird is especially effectively as an absolutely hateful child star, already over the hill at 13 – are all utterly compelling in their roles. The entire film is so immaculately shot, edited, and scored (by the gifted Howard Shore) that I watched it straight through twice back to back, and it seemed to move even faster the second time than the first.

The reviews have been all over the place, from outright pans to critical raves, but those who dismiss the film, or who try to pigeonhole it as “satire” have never really lived in Hollywood, and don’t know how it works. This is a town that is ruled by franchises, in which selfishness and greed are necessary commodities if one wants to get ahead, a place where every conceivable human character flaw is exploited for gain or momentary advantage.

With echoes of Jean Cocteau and Paul Eluard in its script – which fit in here beautifully – Maps to the Stars is that rare thing; a film about the industry that tells the truth about a system that destroys people and then spits them out. Perhaps that’s why it’s been so ignored by Academy – what am I saying? of course it is! - and why the film is more or less being dumped in VOD slots rather than in mainstream theaters. But don’t let that stop you.

See this brilliant film at once – not for the faint of heart, but an absolutely mesmerizing experience.

Nathaniel Carlson on Manoel de Oliveira’s “Inquietude”

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

Here’s a great review of Manoel de Oliveira’s superb film Inquietude by Nathaniel Carlson in Offscreen.

As Carlson notes, “even within the already established challenges of Manoel de Oliveira’s body of work, Inquietude stands out for its unique difficulty. For the sake of convenience and an initial direct access, it’s easy enough to allot a general theme to most of the other films (e.g. Vale Abraão is about beauty, O Convento is about evil, La Lettre is about love, etc.). This at least allows for some means of approach, but Inquietude defies any such orderly schematic. What is it about finally? One is tempted to say death or immortality or notions of the eternal but somehow even these broad terms do not seem adequate enough.

Finally, it really must be that titular disquiet, an existential unease or angst. But this is even more vague than usual, given that it describes a foundational condition upon which everything else is built or develops. It’s a self-awareness that gives rise to poetry, philosophy, the specific conditions of human cognition itself (the comprehension of immortality as an idealized quality, for example). The synthesis brought about by this shifting set of contexts and active agents produces a surfeit of meaning. One character demonstrates the effect of that supercharge of ambiguity in noting on a friend’s lover: ‘She is dead. In your mind, she is not the same.’

Narratively and structurally the film is a triptych. The three stories it contains are laid out in an interwoven, interdependent form. The first is a rather confined, even claustrophobic, extended dialogue between an aged, successful scientist father and his almost equally acclaimed middle aged son. The discussion centers around insuring a lasting legacy (i.e. immortality) and the means by which to secure it (i.e. suicide at the peak of one’s renown). This broad comedy verges often on farce and, once it pitches irretrievably over the edge, is revealed as a theater performance witnessed by characters from the second story, one set within the upper tier environment of Portuguese society in what would appear to be the early part of the twentieth century.

In this section, the unnamed male lead is troubled by his love for a courtesan, Suzy. Eventually he is comforted by a friend who tells him a mythic folk tale which in turn is also told to us cinematically. In it, a dissatisfied young peasant girl in an isolated rural area assumes the identity of Mother of the River from another woman, virtually immortal, who has grown dissatisfied herself with the role. The transitions between these stories could not be more readily apparent and clearly administered. What the implication of their association is cannot be so easily assessed. As is remarked by the friend in the second story: ‘There’s a connection and yet none at all.’”

You can read the entire essay by clicking hereor click on the image above to see the trailer.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on La Notte (1961)

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Michelangelo Antonioni (right) directs Monica Vitti (left) in Antonioni’s classic film La Notte (1961)

In issue 74 of Senses of Cinema, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster discusses Antonioni’s classic film La Notte (1961), writing in part that “in reviewing the critical reception of La notte (1961), it strikes me that many observers seem to almost completely miss the fact that the film is, in part, a feminist critique of capitalist society, which centers around women, consumption, and the failure of our ecosystem, and not just the director’s trademark alienation and ennui.

Conventional plot summaries of the film routinely insist that La notte centres around a male author, Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni), his uncertain career, and his failing relationship with his wife, Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), as well as his flirtations with beautiful socialite Valentina Gherardini (Monica Vitti).

I would argue, rather, that women are both the centre of the film and the mirrors upon which Antonioni reflects his dark perceptions and stark conclusions about the human condition. At a launch party for his latest novel, those who celebrate Giovanni’s newest book spend precious little time actually reading, opting instead to party all night, while simultaneously remaining oblivious to their own mortality.

As in most of his films, Antonioni’s wealthy protagonists in La notte live in a hell of their own making. So thoroughly alienated are they from one another (and from the environment) that they experience the rain from the sky (in the pool sequence) as a sublime rapture from above, giggling like schoolchildren, briefly lifted out of their stupor for a moment’s play with the actual elements.The tragedy of Antonioni’s characters is not simply a matter of bored bourgeois ennui; these people are disconnected from the feminine, from the earth, and from life itself.”

Brilliant writing – you can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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