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.
Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category
Although such lists are inherently ridiculous, here are my ten best films of 2013, in no particular order.
Le Weekend (Roger Michell)
Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
In A World (Lake Bell)
What Maisie Knew (Scott McGehee, David Siegel)
The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)
12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen)
The Purge (James DeMonaco)
A Teacher (Hannah Fidell)
Adore (aka Two Mothers; Anne Fontaine)
Bastards (Claire Denis)
Significantly, none of these films with the exception of The Purge got any real national distribution, and many people will no doubt think this an aberrant choice, and perhaps it is, but for me, The Purge was economical, sharply observed, made some good points about the direction our society is headed in, and then got out of the room in under 85 minutes, which alone makes it an outlier in the bloated consumer economy of today’s mainstream cinema; Le Weekend tries to pass itself off as a comedy in the DVD packaging and posters, but it’s one of the most devastating and personal examinations of loss and failure I’ve ever seen; Blackfish is a properly despairing and unforgiving documentary, further testament to the fact that we’re destroying the planet and killing its wildlife in the process, all in the name of amusement; Lake Bell pulled off a triple-threat effortlessly with In A World, in which she wrote, directed and acted in a comedy/drama about a young woman trying to break into the voiceover business; and What Maisie Knew placed Henry James in modern Manhattan with style and immaculate conciseness.
The Hunt is a ringing indictment of mob mentality in a small town, with an unforgettable and absolutely “right” ending; Twelve Years A Slave was the most unflinching look at slavery that the screen has yet given us; A Teacher got unjustly trashed by nearly every other critic out there, but I thought it was a smart and affecting first feature, and will look for more from Hannah Fidell in the future; Adore (aka Two Mothers, aka Perfect Mothers, aka Adoration — make up your mind already!) offered a brilliant Doris Lessing novella adapted for the screen, a modern day family horror story in which two women take each other’s sons for lovers with predictably disastrous results, directed with a sure hand by the gifted Anne Fontaine; and Bastards shows us why Claire Denis continues to be one of the directors who matter, with a gritty 21st century Neo-Noir that is both compelling and stylish.
There were other worthy films out there, but not much mainstream work; as always, new cinema comes from the margins.
More and more, just a few canonical classics, such as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) or Victor Fleming’s Gone With The Wind (1939), are representing the entire output of an era to a new generation that knows little of the past, and is encouraged by popular media to live only in the eternal present. What will happen to the rest of the films that enchanted, informed and transported audiences in the 1930s, 1940s, and even as recently as the 1960s?
For the most part, these films will be forgotten, and their makers with them. In this book, I argue that even obvious historical markers such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) represent shockingly unknown territory for the majority of today’s younger viewers; and yet once exposed to these films, they are enthralled by them. In the 1980s and 1990s, the more adventurous video stores served a vital function as annals of classic cinema. Today, those stores are gone and the days of this kind of browsing are over.
This collection of essays aims to highlight some of the lesser-known films of the past – the titles that are being pushed aside and forgotten in today’s oversaturation of the present. The work is divided into four sections, rehabilitating the films and filmmakers who have created some of the most memorable phantom visions of the past century, but who, for whatever reason, have not successfully made the jump into the contemporary consciousness.
“Few have explored the cinematic margins as thoroughly as Wheeler Winston Dixon, and few match his talent for finding and celebrating the secret glories of overlooked, undervalued films. Gliding from Peter Bogdanovich to Myra Breckinridge by way of Robert Bresson, this is an exciting and ever-surprising collection.” —David Sterritt, Columbia University and Chair, National Society of Film Critics
“The marginalization of important films is a constant threat in the age of the New Hollywood blockbuster, with commercial cinema reduced to a cheap thrill and the audience conceived as adolescents. Dixon’s thoughtful remarks on neglected films testify not only to his own fine sensibility, but to the urgency of the concerns he sets before us.” —Christopher Sharrett, Seton Hall University
As I note at the beginning of my article, “When Marcel Hanoun died on September 22, 2012 at the age of 82, it caused barely a ripple in the media, and even in the world of experimental cinema. And yet Hanoun was a major filmmaker, whose near total critical eclipse after an initial burst of critical interest is an indictment of cinema history as a function of canon. It’s true that Hanoun’s films are difficult, but no more so than Jean-Luc Godard’s, who was a fan of Hanoun’s work; it’s true that Hanoun turned his back on commercial cinema to work as a perennial outsider, but again, cinema has many rebellious figures in its history who continue to hold a claim on our memory.
But Hanoun is in death, as he was in life, an almost phantom figure, ‘discovered’ in the early 60s, and then summarily dismissed. There is a French Wikipedia page on Hanoun, cited in the works below, but not one in English. Most of his films, with the exception of his first, Une Simple Histoire (1958), are not readily available. His list of film credits on official websites like IMDb is woefully inaccurate. What critical writing there is on him in English is mostly from the 1960s and 70s, and after that, it just stops. Indeed, for most of his films, there’s scant information to be had in any language. To me, this is inexplicable. Hanoun’s importance is clear. Nevertheless, it’s a sobering fact; most people have never heard of Marcel Hanoun.”
I’ll lead off with my thoughts on Adore, which is much the better film, and let you take it from there; the section on Gravity is at the top of the piece: “Based on a novella by Doris Lessing, scripted by Christopher Hampton, with immaculate cinematography by Christophe Beaucarne, and a music score by Christopher Gordon that evokes Georges Delerue’s lush work for Godard’s Le Mépris (1963), Adore [aka Two Mothers in the film's first festival release] is an ambitious and daring film, which despite some minor flaws is a deeply evocative piece of work.
Naomi Watts, who also co-produced the film, stars as Lil, a widow in her mid 40s who has been best friends with Roz (Robin Wright) since childhood. Roz has a husband, Harold (Ben Mendelsohn, excellent as usual) and a son, Tom (James Frecheville). Lil lives close by with her son Ian (Xavier Samuel). Tom and Ian, both in their early 20s, are also best friends, and spend most of their time surfing and living a deceptively idyllic lifestyle. But matters become more complex when Ian and Roz tumble into bed, and then Tom and Lil follow suit. Harold, meantime, has found a teaching job in Sydney, and when Roz refuses to follow him there, he divorces her and remarries.
Both women decide to continue their relationships indefinitely, while keeping them a closely guarded secret – indeed, the rumor around town is that Lil and Roz are so close that they’re lesbian lovers, a rumor they do nothing to discourage. Both know that what they’re doing is potentially dangerous, but the pull of their emotions is too strong [. . .] Audiences, especially women, who rarely get a chance to see themselves portrayed as more than props or sidekicks on the screen, love it. The most perceptive review of the film thus far has come from Damon Wise in The Guardian, who called the film ‘an incredibly provocative piece of work, featuring a brave and vulnerable performance by Naomi Watts (who seems perhaps a little too young) and a career-high acting master class from Robin Wright (who is cast perfectly).’ I couldn’t agree more.”
Dave Eggers is a brilliant novelist, and his previous works have certainly captured my imagination, but with his newest book, The Circle, to be published October 8th, he hits a note that particularly resonates in our “everywhere-at-once” culture. The protagonist, Mae, goes to work for a large social networking colossus, and while she is initially impressed by the splendor and grandeur of her corporate surroundings, she soon finds herself being seduced into a culture of continual updates, shared personal information, and an endless chain of “social connections” and roving video cameras that render humanity virtually obsolete.
As with George Orwell’s 1984, which The Circle is often compared to, but also Joseph Heller’s brilliant 1974 novel Something Happened, which has somehow disappeared from the canon of 20th century fiction, and is perhaps the most unsparing exposé of corporate culture the literary world has ever produced, The Circle unsparingly documents the false bonhomie, the lies, the surface “friendliness” that lies at thedark heart of corporate culture, where people are almost instantly disposable unless they go along with the group, as in 1984.
The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy excerpt from the book this past Sunday, and thankfully, it’s online, so I can link to it both here, and on the image above. It’s supposed to be fiction, of course, but it’s all too close to the truth in the way that contemporary corporations treat their employees, as endless extensions of their culture, while denying them a life of their own. The excerpt begins with these words:
“My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven. The campus was vast and rambling, wild with Pacific color, and yet the smallest detail had been carefully considered, shaped by the most eloquent hands. On land that had once been a shipyard, then a drive-in movie theater, then a flea market, then blight, there were now soft green hills and a Calatrava fountain. And a picnic area, with tables arranged in concentric circles. And tennis courts, clay and grass. And a volleyball court, where tiny children from the company’s day care center were running, squealing, weaving like water. Amid all this was a workplace, too, 400 acres of brushed steel and glass on the headquarters of the most influential company in the world. The sky above was spotless and blue.
Mae was making her way through all of this, walking from the parking lot to the main hall, trying to look as if she belonged. The walkway wound around lemon and orange trees, and its quiet red cobblestones were replaced, occasionally, by tiles with imploring messages of inspiration. ‘Dream,’ one said, the word laser-cut into the stone. ‘Participate,’ said another. There were dozens: ‘Find Community.’ ‘Innovate.’ ‘Imagine.’ She just missed stepping on the hand of a young man in a gray jumpsuit; he was installing a new stone that said, ‘Breathe.’
On a sunny Monday in June, Mae stopped in front of the main door, standing below the logo etched into the glass above. Though the company was less than six years old, its name and logo — a circle surrounding a knitted grid, with a small ‘c’ in the center — were already among the best known in the world. There were more than 10,000 employees on this, the main campus, but the Circle had offices all over the globe and was hiring hundreds of gifted young minds every week. It had been voted the world’s most admired company four years running.”
Of course, many of the reviewers thus far have remarked on the implicit irony of reading a book about social networking, and then immediately going on to Twitter or Facebook to “share” the news with others. But since I have no Facebook account, and don’t Tweet, I’ll confine my comments to this blog, which is more than enough. I’m more a fan of history than fiction, but this is fiction that is also the present truth, if only we take a closer look at it.
You can read the rest of the excerpt by clicking here; better yet, buy the book and zoom through the whole thing. It’s a frightening, prophetic page turner, and you literally won’t be able to put The Circle down; it’s essential reading.
As I write, “This slight but explosive volume, published in an English translation by Verso in 2012, has been kicking around on my work desk for about a year. I wrote a rather negative review of it for Choice, the library journal, and while I don’t want to recant anything I said there, I nevertheless find the book sticking with me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I don’t agree with most of what Pedullà has to say, as I’ll detail, but he puts up a good fight.
Pedullà, a professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of Rome 3 and visiting professor at Stanford, is first and foremost a polemicist – he’s the guy who throws verbal bombs into the mix, and phrases statements of opinion as if they were fact. But for all of that, there is really very little that’s controversial here. Pedullà’s main thesis is inarguably correct, at least from my perspective; the era of dominance for the theatrical exhibition of motion pictures is finished. Or as he puts it on the opening page of his book,
‘The age of cinema, it is commonly claimed, is now drawing to a close. Day after day signs of a profound change in our relationship with moving images proliferate. The winnowing of box-office receipts, the shrinking size of the audience, the decreasing time lag between a film’s theatrical release and it commercialization on video, television’s growing cultural prestige: these indications, at once social, economic and aesthetic – only make the prophecy all the more credible. If cinema for decades represented the standard and even optimal filmic experience, the touchstone for all other forms of viewing, this formerly undisputed and indisputable centrality is today contested at its very core.’
All true, and yet, as I thought then, and still do now, Pedullà protests too much. The impact of web here is barely even mentioned, and as for ‘television’s growing cultural prestige,’ I have serious doubt about that. For Pedullà, the idea that viewing a film in a theater is the optimal way to see a film is an object of ridicule; summoning up derisively the words of Chris Marker as a member of the ‘old guard,’ Pedullà quotes Marker as noting that ‘on television, you can see the shadow of a film, the trace of a film, the nostalgia, the echo of a film, but never the film,’ and then takes Jean Eustache to task for the similar statement that ‘you can discover a film only at the movie theater.’
To these statements, which to my mind have more than a grain of truth to them, Pedullà’s disdain notwithstanding, I would add the words of the late director Roy Ward Baker, a friend of mine, who directed the only really first-rate film on the Titanic disaster (A Night To Remember, 1958). During an afternoon’s discussion in 1994 at his home in London, Baker told me that he’d been shocked by the impact of viewing a recent theatrical screening of A Night To Remember at a retrospective of his work at Britain’s National Film Theatre.
As Baker told me, ‘I felt like I was seeing it for the first time, you know? Like it was real again. I’d grown so used to seeing it on television, I’d forgotten what it was really like.’ Then, he leaned forward and said two sentences that I have never forgotten since; at least for me, they cut to the center of this entire argument. ‘You see’ Baker said, ‘on television, or on a DVD, you can inspect a film. But you can’t experience it.’ That comment hit me like a bolt of lightning; true, direct, and utterly incisive.”
As Sharrett notes, in part, “it amazes me that so few reviewers noted emphatically that Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (2012), like his earlier 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007), is a film about women, about the oppression of women, in an era that constantly rolls back the rights of women even in so-called enlightened nations. This is especially disturbing when we look at the reception of Beyond the Hills. Reviewers focused on the plight of two orphans more so than on sexual politics, and the culture of oppression and repression imposed on women [. . .]
Given how much disinformation has been disseminated in the US about the Soviet Union and its satellite states ever since the Bolshevik Revolution, it may be sensible to make a few observations about history before proceeding with comments about Mungiu’s cinema, especially if we are to see his art as relevant to us all, and not simply narratives to be read as documents of awful things that could not happen here. Neither the Soviet Union nor a satellite like Romania can be seen as ‘communist’ if one has a rudimentary knowledge (my level to be sure) of political economy [. . .]
The dreary backdrop of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days compares well indeed not just with the horror film, but with distinguished contemporary melodramas about American women of the working poor, like Frozen River (2009). The setting of Beyond the Hills would also look good in a cautionary fright film about a cult, except Mungiu reminds us how useless the notion of “cult” can be. The Orthodox monastery of this film has all the usual ingredients of a cult (the unquestioned authority of the male, women in a very vulnerable situation, adherence to arcane, bizarre dogma), but the film provokes the question: is this setting a strange aberration or simply the norm in miniature?”
The Village Voice used to be the arts newspaper in New York. It had the best film criticism – Andrew Sarris, Jonas Mekas, Jim Hoberman, Amy Taubin and many others all wrote for The Voice. It had the best critics in dance, theater, literature, and the liveliest coverage of the New York City scene in general. It was, indeed, essential reading. You couldn’t really say you were “up” on the arts in the city without it.
Then, The Voice went “free,” when it used to be sold on newsstands, and could thus have some independence from advertisers, which was the beginning of the end, and then it was sold to a national conglomerate that runs supposedly “alternative” newspapers, and then management started firing people, thinking they could just plug in this or that person and the quality would be the same, but it isn’t.
This leads to cultural degradation; as Ian McEwan, the distinguished British author of such novels as Atonement and Amsterdam, said of criticism from people who clearly have no idea what they’re talking about: “Reviewing takes expertise, wisdom and judgment. I am not much fond of the notion that anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s.” This is now in short supply at The Voice, which has gone from being an essential part of city life to a throwaway piece of trash that isn’t fit for wrapping fish.
But the management won’t care; as long as they can sell ad space, and hire a few freelancers to write some meager editorial content, they’ll be content. They don’t want care about running a newspaper; they just want a vehicle for their advertisers. The demise of a great newspaper is always a sad event; in the case of The Voice, there is nothing that even come close to replacing it for those who read it, and for those whose wit and intelligence graced its pages for so many years.
Thanks to producer Ian Mylchreest, I was asked to appear with Rebecca Romney of Bauman’s Rare Books to discuss famous books that have been made into films, including The Great Gatsby, To Kill A Mockingbird, Gone With the Wind and many more. As the show’s website above notes, “Bauman’s Rare Books in the Palazzo Shoppes has assembled an exhibition of novels that became famous films. The store has everything from a signed copy of Gone with the Wind to first editions of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. We look at some of the books and the movies that were made — what kind of books makes a great movie?” It was a fascinating discussion, and you can listen to it by clicking here, or on the image above.
About the Author
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.
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National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/