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Video: Things to Come (1936) – H.G. Wells’ Vision of the Future

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

H.G. Wells’ Things To Come is one of the most prophetic visions of the future ever created for the screen.

H.G. Wells wrote many novels about the possible future of mankind, all of which have been filmed in various adaptations, but he wrote only one futuristic vision with a film adaptation directly in mind; his 1933 magnum opus The Shape of Things To Come, which Wells then adapted into the screenplay for the film Things to Come in 1936.

The production designer and director of the film, William Cameron Menzies, is lately having a run on this blog, with posts on his film Invaders from Mars and James Curtis’ book William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, but it’s only right that this film, perhaps the only time that Menzies really had a decent budget at his disposal as a director, gets its own entry here.

The collaboration between Wells and Menzies – as well as the actors, including Raymond Massey, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and Sir Ralph Richardson – was stormy at best, with the major stumbling block being that Wells, who had almost no visual or dramatic sensibility for the cinema, kept insisting that his long, declamatory speeches remain intact on the screen, despite Menzies’ and the cast’s insistence that judicious cuts to the material would make the end product more effective.

But Wells wouldn’t hear of it, and so there are, in truth, about thirty minutes of the film that could easily be cut – something that all the contemporary reviewers of the film readily pointed out – and Wells, disappointed with the film’s initial reception, amazingly blamed Menzies for this – but it simply isn’t so.

Despite this problem, however, Things to Come remains an astonishing film, accurately predicting the onset on World War II, for one thing, as well as such technological advances as television, space travel, enclosed cities, social breakdown bordering on feudalism in some areas, and clearly posited science as the savior of mankind.

It’s essential, of course, to see Things to Come on a big screen; it’s one of those films that calls insistently for large scale projection – and for many years, when the film fell into the Public Domain, inferior 16mm and video copies circulated from a variety of sources, none of which approached the scope and grandeur of the original film. However, in recent years, the film has come back under copyright.

Legend Films has thus brought out a superb DVD and Blu-ray of the film, completely restored, which can be seen either in its original black and white version (my choice), or in a remarkably good colorized version, supervised by the late special effects master Ray Harryhausen. So, thanks to Curt Bright, here’s a short video essay on the film as part of the Frame by Frame series, and now, you can see the film for yourself.

Don’t miss a chance to see this classic if you can; click here for a video essay on the film.

William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come

Monday, December 21st, 2015

An absolutely essential book on one of the most influential cinema artists of all time.

James Curtis’s William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come is easily one of the best film books of 2015. It manages to pull off an amazing feat; it’s prodigiously researched, but it never succumbs to a recitation of mere facts; it includes an enormous amount of personal detail, but never gets lost in a forest of statistics.

It is above all a supreme synthesis of history and theory, treating all of Menzies’ work, whether as a director or a production designer (or often, as both simultaneously) with great care and respect, illustrated with a stunning array of color and black and white plates, including many rare behind the scenes shots that really put the reader into the center of the narrative.

Most of all, it is the careful, conscientious, but never pedantic style of the book that impresses. Curtis clearly knows Menzies’ work inside out, and yet he wears this knowledge easily, creating an accessible, reasoned, brilliantly written book, one of the most carefully detailed and critically measured volumes written on any historical figure, no matter what their profession.

Time and again, I was struck by the carefully reasoned tone of Curtis’s work, his sharp yet graceful prose style, and the remarkable way in which he managed to gather such an incredible amount of material in one volume, and make the whole thing flow so smoothly – it’s easily his finest book. The design of The Shape of Films to Come is another plus factor; the volume is overflowing with images, and the layout of the text and illustrations – something Menzies would appreciate – is impeccable.

Curtis’s book is thus a supreme achievement on every level, and for those who don’t know Menzies or his work, it opens up a world of wonder and amazement – often amazement at how much Menzies managed to accomplish on many of his assignments with very little in the way of a budget.

From Menzies’ production design on Gone With The Wind, to his science-fiction children’s nightmare Invaders from Mars, to the pioneering futuristic epic Things To Come, to his work on such projects as The Whip Hand, Address Unknown, The Maze, Around The World in 80 Days and numerous other films, Curtis meticulously details Menzies’ long career, a life filled with hard work and a good deal of tragedy, but one which ultimately left us with some of the most memorable images in cinema history.

In short, this is a must read for anyone with even the remotest interest in the cinema, and a singular accomplishment in every respect. The Shape of Films to Come gets my highest possible recommendation – this is literally a flawless book. And considering the massive amount of detail that went into it, that in itself is a stellar accomplishment. Once you pick this book up, I guarantee you won’t put it down.

This is a major work of scholarship, history and theory, and a genuine delight to read.

The Star Wars Juggernaut

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be the most commercially successful film of all time.

As Anthony D’Alessandro and Anita Busch write in what is arguably the entertainment industry’s most authoritative business news website, Deadline Hollywood, ”industry analysts currently see Star Wars: The Force Awakens with an opening day record of $125M-$127M+ en route for an all-time record opening of $251M-$255M, calculated from midnight tickets sales on both the east and west coast.

To put Force Awakens’ opening in perspective, consider the following: Disney made $100M from the film in just 21 hours at 1PM PST; an amount that most successful tentpoles open to in a 3-day weekend. By Sunday, Force Awakens will beat or come close to beating the entire domestic runs of the last two Hobbits which were released over the last two Decembers— The Desolation of Smaug ($258.4M) and The Battle of Five Armies ($255.1M). It took Jurassic World five days to cross $250M.

Domestic all-time grosser Avatar, which opened during this frame back in 2009 to $77M and ended its stateside cume at $749.8M, took 12 days to clear $250M. However, that was during the pre-historic days of digital and 3D cinema. When Avatar opened there were 3,100 RealD screens in the U.S./Canada; now there are 14,000 with the majority of them playing Force Awakens.”

As I write this, screenings of the new Star Wars film are literally going on around the clock, with some theaters staying open 24/7 to meet audience demand.  This is all very good news for the Walt Disney Company, which owns the rights not only to the Star Wars franchise, but also the whole of Marvel Entertainment, just for starters – two of the current industry’s most profitable money-spinners.

Although some see signs of fan fatigue in the distance, I can’t agree - while I am resolutely not a Star Wars fanI’ll side with Alec Guinness in his opinion of the franchise – there’s no question that this 1977 film which started out as an indie film no one wanted has become a totemic part of our shared worldwide cinema culture. With Disney’s plans to roll out another episode in the series one a year for the next fifteen years, it seems there is no end in sight.

If this what audiences want in an era of terrorism and fear, so be it. It is, however, disturbing that more thoughtful screen fare has been pushed off the big screen into the limbo of VOD or the increasingly marginal art house circuit, but as always in Hollywood, the bottom line rules.

As far as The Force Awakens, I’ll have to agree with Sam C. Mac of Slant - “it exists less as a meaningful extension of its world than as a fan-service deployment device” – or J.R. Jones of The Chicago Reader – “as with other installments, this is less a movie than an exercise in massaging a juvenile-minded audience that wants the experience to be new and familiar at the same time” – and Roger Moore of Movie Nation -”a glib facsimile” – but then again, these are minority opinions.

So I’ll make a prediction of my own; when the film finally exhausts itself at the box office – just this installment, mind you – I predict (channeling The Amazing Criswell here) that Star Wars: The Force Awakens will gross more than two billion dollars worldwide, to recoup roughly half the $4 billion that Disney paid to buy the entire franchise a few years back from George Lucas. And, as the box office numbers clearly show, this was a very smart business decision indeed.

May The Force Be With You!

UNL Film Studies Alumna Directs Award-Winning Feature Film

Saturday, December 12th, 2015

Iris Elezi, a UNL Film Studies graduate, has a completed an award-winning feature film, Bota.

Iris Elezi, a UNL Film Studies graduate, has just completed her first feature film, Bota (The World), which she co-scripted and co-directed with her husband, Thomas Logoreci. Completed in 2014, the film has been making the rounds of festivals throughout Europe, and is now getting rave reviews here in the US, where it will be making the rounds of festivals and screenings on the art house circuit.

As Alissa Simon writes in Variety, “A pleasingly melancholy dramedy from first-time feature helmers Iris Elezi and Thomas Logoreci, Bota illustrates the complicated relationship Albanians have with their dark past. Set in the country’s isolated marshlands, the cleverly constructed film offers a multilayered slice of life and, like the swampy ground on which it is set, gradually reveals unexpected depths. Compelling, surprising and tenderly performed, this low-key arthouse title deserves further distribution and clearly marks its co-directors as talents to watch. It will represent Albania in the foreign-language Oscar race.

The title, which translates as The World, refers to the cafe-bar where most of the action unfolds. Perched on stilts, with a dilapidated Mercedes on the roof and mint-green walls full of original artwork, Bota is the spot where the hopes and dreams of the three main characters are revealed — and often dashed.

Bota overlooks a dusty road on the outskirts of a small village, consisting of a few run-down communist-era high-rises. Throughout the film, a running joke sees herds of animals wander by — sheep, cows, even ducks. So little happens in the vicinity that the chief waitress, Juli (Flonja Kodheli), doesn’t even have a cell phone. But in the old times, under the dictator Enver Hoxha, the area housed a penal camp for ‘enemies of the state,’ some of whom were even executed there, and their bodies thrown into the marshes. Now, the construction of a nearby highway creates hope that progress and perhaps even some prosperity may be at hand.

[Throughout the film] Elezi and Logoreci constantly and delightfully confound expectations. They keep the quirky action and tone true to their extensive character development . . . the production package is aces all around; the attractive music track incorporates beguiling Albanian pop tunes of the 1960s to atmospheric and nostalgic effect.” This is a real accomplishment for Iris – years of hard work, and it’s paid off. Iris just sent both myself and Professor Foster a note with the good news – we’re really happy for her success!

Click here, or on the image above, for an interview and some clips from the film.

Manohla Dargis – “The Best Advice for Movie Lovers”

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Thanks to Manohla Dargis of The New York Times for this mention.

The quote comes from an interview I gave to Peter Monaghan of Moving Image Archive News back in August on my new book Black and White Cinema: A Short History, in which I said that “if you go on Amazon and you see some great black-and-white film, and it’s going for $3, or any kind of foreign or obscure film, buy it, because it’s going out of print, and they’re not going to put them back into print. With VHS, everything came out, everything. And then they looked at what sold, and what didn’t sell didn’t make the jump to DVDs.

There were thousands of films, tens of thousands of films, that were on VHS and never made the jump to DVD. Important films. Now that we’re going to Blu-ray, lots of films aren’t making that jump. And then there’s electronic sell-through. If you download something, you’re not going to put it on your computer because it takes up too much space, so you’re going to have to put it up on ‘the cloud,’ and then you’re going to have to pay to store what you ostensibly own.”

And it’s true – if you see a valuable DVD listed for a low price, grab it. It isn’t coming back.

Jannik Splidsboel’s “Misfits” (2015)

Saturday, December 5th, 2015

This brilliant documentary really cuts to the heart of LGBT society in America today.

Misfits is a short, sharply observed 73 minute documentary about three American teenagers from conservative Tulsa, Oklahoma struggling with isolation and instability in a heartfelt story that portrays family bonds, poverty, survival, love and the consequences of coming out as a young LGBT in the Bible Belt. While the general public opinion towards gays within America is slowly changing, this coming-of-age story closely follows the three gay teen protagonists as they struggle to achieve a sense of self within families in a community that still widely condemns homosexuality.

Misfits was directed by Danish filmmaker Jannik Splidsboel, who earned a nomination at The Berlinale in 2009 for his documentary How Are You?, and was shot over a two year period on location. It’s a stunning, deeply moving film. Without sentimentalizing the material, and with a calm, almost meditational air, Misfits takes the viewer into a world which is once hard and yet beautiful, in which love struggles to find a voice, yet ultimately wins, despite seemingly overwhelming odds. It’s one of the finest films of 2015.

As critic Guy Lodge noted in a deeply perceptive review of the film in Variety, “if the global ‘It Gets Better’ campaign has lent a certain familiarity to narratives of gay teenage oppression and self-realization, that’s hardly something to be held against Misfits: Rather, Jannik Splidsboel’s delicate documentary works as a progress report on a movement that, in a just world, would be far older news by now. Sensitively following three members of an LGBT youth support group . . . as they find their respective paths in a society largely hostile to their alternative identities, Splidsboel’s film touches lightly on community politics, but is most illuminating and uplifting in its portrayal of hard-won domestic battles.

This is essential viewing – gorgeous, deeply felt, a film that deserves the widest possible audience.

The Spectre of James Bond

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

Spectre is the latest and least in the long-running James Bond series.

Call it exhaustion, call it the end of Empire, call it playing to diminishing returns, put it down to indifference and fatigue – call it whatever you wish. Spectre, the latest of the James Bond films, which has opened to solid but not spectacular grosses, is 2 1/2 hours of almost unrelieved boredom, all dressed up in production values that put the film into the $200 to $300 million production range. It’s a spectacle, all right, but one that is so jam packed with promotional tie-ins and self-referential nods to the series’ past that it ultimately has no identity of its own.

Daniel Craig, who has famously suggested that he is tired of the entire franchise, walks through the film as if he has absolutely no interest in the proceedings, and only Ralph Fiennes as the new “M” – replacing the departed Dame Judy Dench – offers any sense of gravitas at all. Christoph Walz similarly drifts through his role as the latest incarnation of Ernst Blofeld as if the part were an obligation, rather than an opportunity – but then, given the tediousness of the dialogue, there really isn’t much he can do with the role.

All the set pieces are here – Bond once again designated as a “rogue agent” and left in the field to fend for himself; Léa Seydoux as the latest in a long procession of “Bond girls” – and shouldn’t that be retired?; “Q” played by Ben Whishaw as a techno nerd with the usual plethora of gimmicks up his sleeve; the requisite scene in which Bond is tortured by Blofeld but miraculously escapes in the nick of time; Monica Bellucci in for about three minutes as another love interest, soon abandoned by the narrative; Bond’s ubiquitous Aston Martin; and, of course, the opening crane / tracking shot in Mexico City, a spectacular piece of camerawork ending in an enormous explosion, which is technically impressive, but really has no need to be there.

Most of all, though, there is the film’s crushing length – about forty minutes too long at least – and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s dark, brooding cinematography, which masks Walz’s Blofeld in deep shadows until the last third of the film, making him almost a peripheral character, while giving the entire film an unmistakably fatalist air of a franchise which has run out of gas.

Daniel Craig, here credited as a co-producer of the film, still has one film to go on his contract, and despite his protestations that he doesn’t want to continue in the role, he no doubt will. Apparently, the producers wanted him to film the next Bond entry back-to-back with this one, and Craig refused, but maybe he should have gotten it over with; the Bond role is a career straitjacket that none of the series’ leading men have ever really escaped.

Missing here is any sense of urgency or imagination – the script and story, devised by no less than seven screenwriters, hits all the bases with a tired sense of duty – but the speed, energy and verve of series entries such as Dr. No, Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and other top notch Bond films is entirely missing here. Sam Mendes’ slack direction is partly to blame, but the whole film is overstuffed, lacking in focus, more interested in scenery than scenes, and watching it quickly becomes a chore rather than a pleasure.

At the screening I attended on a Sunday morning, the theater was populated by only a few patrons, all of whom made frequent trips to the lobby to replenish their giant tubs of popcorn, when they weren’t otherwise occupied texting mini-reviews on their cellphones in the darkness. No one seemed very interested in what was happening on the screen, and when the film was over, we all filed out without comment. It’s sad – casting someone like Archie Punjabi or Idris Elba as Bond would be a really smart move at this point, and give the series new energy – but it’s doubtful that anything like that will happen.

But the Bond films – a lucrative enterprise for all concerned – need a reboot if they are to continue.

Black & White Cinema – A Short History on TCM

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

I was honored to have Robert Osborne discuss my book Black & White Cinema on TCM last night.

For a special evening of black and white films on October 7, 2015 entitled “Artists in Black and White,” showcasing the work of such brilliant cinematographers as James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Haskell Wexler and Karl Freund, Robert Osborne and Turner Classic Movies ran a series of five films that best exemplify the brilliance of monochrome cinema during the classical Hollywood studio era, including Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (photographed by Toland) and Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (shot by Wexler).

Introducing the films, Osborne remarked that “there’s an interesting new book by Wheeler Winston Dixon called Black & White Cinema: A Short History, and it tells the history of black and white movies, its origins and impact, and it’s really well worth reading. It’s filled with all kinds of insights about black and white cinematography, and the many artists who mastered the tricky interplay in capturing light and shadow.”

Needless to say, I thank Robert Osborne and TCM for their interest in my work, and TCM, as always, is a national treasure – the last place on television where one can see the classics, complete and uncut, in their original aspect ratios – with no commercials. Many thanks, and long may TCM continue into the future! You can see Robert’s introduction for Citizen Kane by clicking here, or on the image above.

Black and White Cinema is available in Kindle, paperback and hardcover formats – check it out now!

“The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film”

Sunday, September 27th, 2015

A frame blowup from Mikhail Kalatozov’s Salt for Svanetia (1930), now screening at the Jewish Museum.

Here’s a great review by Holland Cotter of The New York Times of a new show at the Jewish Museum in New York City.  As Cotter writes, in part: “Revolutions sell utopias; that’s their job. Art, if it behaves itself and sticks to the right script, can be an important part of the promotional package. This is the basic tale told by ‘The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film’ at the Jewish Museum, but with a question added: What happens to art and its makers when the script is drastically revised?

In the years following the 1917 revolution, Russia was a social and political experiment in progress, and a wild, risky one. It had a stake in emphasizing its brand-newness, its difference from the rest of the world. Its young government made every effort to promote the idea that it was creating a liberated, radical Now to set against a repressive, conservative Then.

In this heady atmosphere, avant-garde art, chance-taking by definition, was officially embraced as a natural complement to progressive politics. Photography and film, modern forms as yet untainted by history, were considered particularly suitable for molding life in the present. And both had inventive practitioners.

Already, by the mid-1920s, Sergei Eisenstein, a Red Army veteran, was memorializing the revolution in movies. Utopia-minded painters like El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko were proposing alternative modes of seeing by bringing abstraction into photography . . .

Like photography, film in this period was ideologically constrained but conceptually advanced. The symphonic brilliance of Eisenstein’s 1925 Battleship Potemkin and his 1927 October, or Ten Days That Shook the World transcends the official approved narratives. Mikhail Kalatozov’s far less familiar Salt for Svanetia from 1930, a quasi-ethnographic film shot in the remote Caucasus, is enchantingly strange even with its tacked-on Soviets-come-to-the-rescue ending.

Remarkably, the show presents these films complete, along with nine other beauties in a small, comfortable viewing theater built into one of the Jewish Museum’s galleries. They are all screened back-to-back, four a day, with a few, including Grigory Kozintsev’s fascinatingly operatic 1926 adaptation of Gogol’s The Overcoat, repeated twice in the rotation.”

If you’re in Manhattan, check it out – some beautiful and little known work here.

Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes (2015)

Saturday, September 26th, 2015

Michael Shannon as real estate predator Rick Carver in Ramin Bahrani’s new film 99 Homes.

Mixed in with the recent wave of ultraviolent films like Eli Roth’s Green Inferno, and feelgood Capraesque fantasies like Nancy Meyers’ The Intern, there are occasionally a few really good American films that get released, but they don’t get much of a theatrical run. That’s because they’re independent films, and so they have to compete with the majors for theater screens. So, now playing in just a few cities, and breaking a bit wider in October – but still not “in theaters everywhere” as it should be – Ramin Bahrani’s brutal drama 99 Homes brings the current US housing crisis into sharp focus, offering Americans a bleak landscape made up of winners or losers, with no ground inbetween.

Michael Shannon absolutely inhabits the role of Rick Carver, a real estate broker who makes a fortune repossessing homes and then flipping them, without even the slightest vestige of humanity, decency, or compassion. Indeed, he throws away his most threatening lines with such utter indifference that it almost seems as if the camera isn’t there – Shannon takes up the entire screen with his presence. Utterly cold and calculating, Shannon’s Carver is the bottom-line nightmare writ large, as people cease to matter, and all that counts are financial transactions, taking advantage of others’ misfortunes, and the ruthlessness to exploit and ultimately destroy those who can’t fight back.

As David Edelstein noted on NPR in an excellent review of 99 Homes, “the most powerful morality plays work like drama instead of melodrama, so you’re not just on the side of the victim, you also see the world through the eyes of the oppressor. Wall Street did that, although Oliver Stone made the devil-mentor of the wide-eyed protagonist, Gordon Gekko, so charismatic that a generation of moneymen adopted him as a role model. Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes works on the same principle, with one key difference. The villain is Rick Carver, a predatory Florida real estate agent played by Michael Shannon, but the guileless apprentice he corrupts begins as one of his victims.

That victim is Dennis Nash, played by Andrew Garfield. Nash is a skillful builder, but the market has fallen out of the construction business and he barely gets work. He takes out a loan he can’t repay on the house in which he lives with his mom, played by Laura Dern, and his young son. Early on, he fights foreclosure before a brusque judge. Then comes a knock at the door: the sheriff and, behind him, Carver. In the scene that follows, a hand-held camera swerves with the characters as the mother cries out in grief and Nash pleads and argues. Bahrani presents this as a primal violation. Owning a home in the U.S. is hugely freighted with issues of self-worth. I found the scene so excruciating I had to get up and walk around the back of the theater.”

In an America in which 1% of the populace control 99% of the nation’s wealth, and apartment sales in Manhattan routinely list in the high seven-figure bracket, the middle class is being increasing squeezed out, and only those who have the education, and the skills to survive will prevail – and as 99 Homes makes clear, at the same time navigate through a wilderness of payday loans, indifferent social systems, and an increasingly detached citizenry, who just sit by and watch these things happen – as long as they’re happening to someone else. Shannon, who was so remarkable in the offbeat drama Take Shelter does some of the finest work of his career here, and director Bahrani, whose earlier films – such as the much admired Chop Shop (2007) – always have a cutting edge, also delivers – at least in my opinion – his most unrelenting work to date.

This is one of the most powerful films of the year. See the trailer here.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by 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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