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“Four Nights of a Dreamer” On Robert Bresson’s 116th Birthday

Monday, September 25th, 2017

Here’s a brief essay I wrote for Transmissions today on one of Bresson’s key works.

As I noted, “Four Nights of a Dreamer is, for me, one of the most sublime films by Robert Bresson, along with his much-maligned French Resistance drama Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, with a script by Bresson from Denis Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste and incomparably witty dialogue by Jean Cocteau. But while Les Dames is readily available on DVD, Four Nights is not.

I saw it when it first opened in New York at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in a gorgeous 35mm print, and was stunned by the film’s sensuous beauty, and its rendition of Paris at night as a city of romance and artistic endeavor, in which the young – giving their lives to love and art – were the film’s undoubted protagonists.

Since then, I’ve screened Four Nights on several 16mm prints in my film classes when that format dominated college programs. But with the collapse of New Yorker Films as a non-theatrical distribution agency and end of 16mm as a viable distribution platform, it has, for all intents and purposes, been completely unavailable in anything other than very-poor-quality bootleg DVDs (don’t bother – really) and a streaming version on Filmbox that does little justice to Bresson’s sumptuous mise-en-scène, to say nothing of Pierre Lhomme’s gorgeous cinematography.”

Transmissions is published by the theatrical and non-theatrical distributor Grasshopper Films, which has an amazing catalogue of work to choose from, including the very hard to find works of two of my favorite auteurs, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. These films were recently restored by Joshua Siegel of the Museum of Modern Art, and now they’re available to the public again through Grasshopper; in an era in which only mainstream blockbusters are readily accessible, distributors like Grasshopper are ever more essential.

You can read the rest of my essay by clicking here; my thanks to Transmissions.

“Star Trek: Discovery” Premieres Tonight on CBS

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

From left to right: Doug Jones as Lieutenant Saru, Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham, Michelle Yeoh as Captain Philippa Georgiou in Star Trek: Discovery (Jan Thijs/CBS).

I was interviewed a few days ago by George M. Thomas of the Akron Beacon Journal about the return of this iconic franchise, and here’s a brief portion of the article: “The last Star Trek series, Enterprise, warped off into television syndication more than 12 years ago after a lackluster first run of four seasons on UPN, now known as The CW.

It finally revealed a franchise that had run out of original ideas and energy, showing its age after more than 30-something years in 2005. Absence or nostalgia makes the heart grow fonder, apparently. Now 51 years into Trekdom’s existence, the franchise, which is set 10 years before the original Star Trek, returns to the medium where it first gained a smallish, but rabid following — television.

When Star Trek: Discovery premieres tonight at 8:30 on CBS,  it will represent the first Trek series to hit the airwaves since Enterprise’s departure. It will star Sonequa Martin-Green and Michelle Yeoh in the leads. Television, however, has evolved into its own final frontier.

Fans shouldn’t get too comfy with the prospect of 15 new episodes of a series available to them over the air. After Discovery’s one-hour premiere on broadcast TV, the show will promptly beam onto CBS’ streaming platform, CBS All Access, where it will cost fans $5.99 per month to subscribe with limited commercials and $9.99 without.

‘Debuting the show on CBS broadcast television will give the series a wider audience initially,’ said Wheeler Winston Dixon, the Ryan professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska, ‘but CBS is smart to move the series to All Access, where it will reach a much more rabid, fan-based audience, and episodes can be streamed and viewed at will — which is the most popular platform for millennials.'”

You can read the entire article here – the move from broadcast TV to streaming is the future.

Short Film: The Algerian War! (2014) by Jean-Marie Straub

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

Here’s a brief, but resolutely uncompromising film from one of my favorite directors.

As noted in Grasshopperfilm.com, where this short, two minute film is embedded, “as a young man, Straub fled to West Germany after refusing to fight for France in the Algerian War. Later in his life, he returned to this bitter historical experience with this terse noir about ‘the instinct to heal’ and to murder. Selected by Pedro Costa as one of his ten favorite films from the last ten years, it stands among Straub’s most acclaimed short works.” It’s also absolutely typical of Straub, paring down the issues at hand – both moral and thematic – to their barest essence. “I have come to kill you” says one actor, delivering the line in a stark, matter of fact tone. “Can’t we talk a little before?” responds his intended victim, and thereby hangs a tale that Straub delivers with quiet, remorseless intensity. It’s just two minutes long – you can spare the time, surely.

You can see it by clicking here, or on the image above.

New Video: Risk

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

Here’s a new video I made a few days ago – Risk.

I’ve shown this brief video to some friends and colleagues, and it’s been described as a moving Warhol disaster painting, or an homage to Edweard Muybridge’s multi-frame experimental still photography, or possibly a reference to the photographic work of Jacques Henri Lartigue – and it’s probably all of these things. All of us are constantly balanced on the knife-edge of risk, but these daredevils, seen here in manipulated archival footage from the 1930s, were more desperate than that – this was simply a way to make living, while risking one’s life and limb. It’s a reminder of a time when the economy collapsed, and everyone was simply trying to hang on – to a plane, to a building, to anything at all.

So see what you think – in a world full of risk.

Flash! Patty Jenkins Finally Inks Deal to Direct Wonder Woman 2

Monday, September 11th, 2017

Patty Jenkins has finally signed a deal to direct Wonder Woman 2 – after a long, long fight.

As Borys Kit wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, “Patty Jenkins is returning for Wonder Woman 2. After an unusually lengthy and tough negotiation, the director has closed a deal with Warner Bros. to helm, co-write and produce the sequel to the movie sensation of the summer.

The deal is precedent-setting, making Jenkins the highest-paid female filmmaker in history, though getting to this point was ‘challenging,’ according to one source. [Negotiations have been going on in earnest since August 19th, when it was rumored that a deal was imminent; now it’s September 11th; this should have been settled long ago.]

Jenkins came on to Wonder Woman as a replacement for director Michelle McLaren, who left the project over creative differences. But she became an indispensable figure and, along with star Gal Gadot, the face of the movie in the months before its June opening.

But Jenkins only had a deal for one movie.

When the film became an immediate hit, lassoing over $103 million in its opening weekend, Jenkins and her camp found themselves in a very enviable position. Negotiations began for her return after that first weekend but dragged on even as the movie showed remarkable staying power, becoming a true (and rare for summer 2017) phenomenon. The pic grossed over $402 million domestically and has topped the $800 million mark worldwide.

Sources say Jenkins will receive directing and writing fees in the high seven figures (think somewhere in the $7 million to $9 million range) on Wonder Woman 2 but, more significantly, will have a considerable backend. (At her peak, filmmaker Nancy Meyers earned in the $5 million range, according to sources.)

The deal is a superheroic leap for Jenkins, who was paid $1 million for directing the initial Wonder Woman but was looking to get something more on the level of Zack Snyder’s pay after he helmed Man of Steel, according to sources. Just as Wonder Woman broke barriers for superhero movies, Jenkins’ deal breaks a glass ceiling for women directors.”

It’s ridiculous; this deal should have been signed long ago, and it’s just more evidence of the fact that women don’t get an even shake in Hollywood, or elsewhere in the business world, for that matter. Why on earth should Patty Jenkins have had to fight so hard for what was clearly her due? They would have given this to J.J. Abrams or Zack Snyder (but thank God they didn’t) a loooooong time ago.

Gadot already is attached to the follow-up, which Warner Bros. will release on Dec. 13, 2019.

Wheeler Winston Dixon – New Videos

Monday, September 11th, 2017

With 390 films in my Vimeo account, it seemed time to select a few I’m particularly fond of.

So here’s a portfolio of some of my favorite recent videos; none of my pre-2004 work is curated here. My films and videos have been screened at The Maryland Institute College of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Anthology Film Archives, The Microscope Gallery, The British Film Institute, The Jewish Museum, The Millennium Film Workshop, The San Francisco Cinématheque, The New Arts Lab, The Collective for Living Cinema, The Kitchen Center for Experimental Art, The Filmmakers Cinématheque, Film Forum, The Amos Eno Gallery, Sla 307 Art Space, The Gallery of Modern Art, The Oberhausen Film Festival and at numerous universities and film societies throughout the world. In 2003, Dixon was honored with a retrospective of his films at The Museum of Modern Art, and his films were acquired for the permanent collection of the Museum, in both print and original format. This is a collection of my most recent work.

Take some time, and check out a few if the mood strikes you.

The Night of Counting the Years (1969)

Friday, September 8th, 2017

One of the greatest Egyptian films of all time is not available on DVD – but you can see it here.

As an anonymous critic at the website Public Domain Movies notes, “Egyptian critics consistently list The Night of Counting the Years (also known as The Mummy) as one of the most important Egyptian films, and perhaps the most important one, but it remains largely unknown, both within Egypt and elsewhere, despite winning a number of awards at European film festivals. Directed by Shadi Abdel Salam in 1969, it was his first feature film, after a long career directing experimental short films, and was selected as the Egyptian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 43rd Academy Awards.

Set in 1881, on the eve of British colonial rule, it is based on a true story: an Upper Egyptian clan had been robbing a cache of mummies near the village of Qurna, and selling the artifacts on the black market. After a conflict within the clan, one of its members went to the police, helping the Antiquities Service find the cache of stolen goods. While this is the nominal plot of the film, it is much more interested in establishing a sense of the past, and embracing cultural history, than in the advancement of a narrative structure.

The film casts this story in terms of the search for an authentic, lost Egyptian national identity (represented by the neglected and misunderstood artifacts of ancient Egyptian civilization), but the conflict between city and countryside suggests questions that are not resolved in the film, making it an ambiguous, unsettling reflection on the price of identity. Unusual camera angles, striking colors and slow editing give the film a dreamlike quality, reinforced by Mario Nascimbene‘s trance like music. For those who know Arabic, the dialogue is entirely in classical Arabic, which adds to the film’s sense of timelessness.”

As Wikipedia notes of the director’s career, “Shadi Abdel Salam was an Egyptian film director, screenwriter and costume and set designer. Born in Alexandria on 15 March 1930, Shadi graduated from Victoria College, Alexandria, 1948, and then moved to England to study theater arts from 1949 to 1950. He then joined faculty of fine arts in Cairo where he graduated as an architect in 1955. He worked as assistant to the artistic architect, Ramsis W. Wassef, 1957, and designed the decorations and costumes of some of the most famous historical Egyptian films, [and] taught at the Cinema Higher Institute of Egypt in the Departments of Decorations, Costumes and Film Direction from 1963–1969. He died on 8 October 1986.” This film remains his only feature length work.

I’ve seen the film projected in 35mm format on a number of occasions, and it’s one of my very favorite films – absolutely dreamlike in its construction, slow and meditational, but with an enormous presence in every single frame. Now, although the film is still unavailable in a full-quality HD DVD, there is at least a YouTube video version of the film with English and Spanish subtitles, which you can view by clicking here, or on the image above. The best way to watch the film would be to stream it to your television, and get carried away by the intensity of the imagery.

The Night of Counting The Years is a brilliant film, which absolutely should be on DVD.

Disney’s New Streaming Service Adds Marvel, Star Wars

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

Disney’s new streaming service will be the exclusive home of Star Wars and Marvel movies.

While this doesn’t really make me all that upset, since I’m certainly not the target audience for Disney, Marvel or Star Wars product – which is what it is – I’m astonished that everyone is surprised by this move. When Disney first announced their forthcoming split from Netflix, they assured all and sundry that they were simply going to concentrate on Disney brand product, and leave the Star Wars and Marvel Universe films for a later date.

I never believed this for a second. Now, Disney has formally announced it’s all going to roll out at once. As The Associated Press noted, in a widely syndicated story, “Disney is adding more firepower to its upcoming streaming service. Its Star Wars and Marvel comic-book movies will be included in the service, making it the only way to stream those movies on demand in the U.S. as part of a monthly subscription. (So, not on Netflix.)

A price hasn’t been announced yet. The service is expected to debut in late 2019 after Disney’s current deal with Netflix expires. Previously Disney announced the inclusion of just Disney and Pixar movies and Disney TV shows. Adding the Star Wars and Marvel movies could make the new service appealing to teenagers and adults, not just families with young children. The Marvel movies include the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy franchises.

The service will also have original Disney movies, TV series and shorts. Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger said thousands of TV episodes and hundreds of movies will be available, though shows from Disney’s ABC network aren’t coming to the service.”

But you know what? I bet the ABC TV content – because Disney owns ABC, ESPN, and a bunch of other stuff as well – will soon be added to the streaming service. Why not? They own it – and eventually, they’ll claim it for themselves on the web. And people will pay whatever Disney charges to get the service – it’s perhaps the only major studio that can pull off its own streaming channel, given the incredible depth of the company’s multi-genre library.

So, where does this leave Netflix? Not in the greatest shape in the world, I would think. The company itself is shrugging off the whole Disney exit scenario as just another business day, but whether you like Disney’s product or not, it’s not a happy day for Netflix – which will still get along just fine, I’m sure – they have such a global imprint – but now without Marvel, Star Wars, Disney, and whatever else Disney decides to put on their streaming service. It’s got to to hurt.

It’s another blow to cable, as well, as the whole motion picture and television business moves to streaming, and a blow to theatrical exhibition too – as well as to TV networks, though Disney is now in the delicate situation of not wanting to gut one of the three major networks – ABC – which it owns, and has a vested interest in seeing it survive. But the shift is inescapable – physical media is dead, streaming rules, and the Disney service is going to be a monster – and a great baby sitter for harried parents.

Disney has had a long history of using distributors, and then dumping them when they figure out how to do it themselves – in the 1930s and early 40s, they were distributed by the now-defunct RKO Radio Picture company – but they left that arrangement to form Buena Vista, their own theatrical arm. Then Disney moved into television, one of the first major studios to do so – “we can use this” Disney is reported to have said – making their back catalogue available to home viewers. Now, they’ve used Netflix to get the lay of the land in the digital world, and learned what they need to know. So they’re moving on alone – and taking a lot of business with them.

It’s all going to the web, folks – every last moving image in existence.

John Farrow’s “The Big Clock” (1948)

Saturday, August 26th, 2017

Charles Laughton and Ray Milland in the superb 1948 film noir, The Big Clock.

As Joseph D’Onofrio writes perceptively on the TCM website, “In The Big Clock, George Stroud, (Ray Milland) the editor of Crimeways magazine has been given the task of solving a murder before his own staff finds evidence that will point to him as the killer. As he races to find the real murderer, Milland discovers that his search has led him to his magazine’s corporate headquarters. Located in a massive tower within the cold confines of those headquarters, the big clock seems to dominate everything. Even when Milland hides in a room just behind the clock, it’s as if he’s trapped inside a box of time within other boxes, one onto the other. All of them enclosed in the labyrinthian corridors of the imposing, futuristic-looking Janoth building. Time is the real enemy in The Big Clock. Even the murder weapon, a sundial, reinforces this notion.

The Big Clock is directed by John Farrow in an elegantly understated style, described by Simon Callow in his book, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor, as ‘nearly’ noir. As Callow puts it, ‘The play of shadows is handled in a masterly way, while the plot with its inversions and convolutions, presents an image of nightmarish reversals.’ Callow also speculates that Charles Laughton, as Earl Janoth, the owner of a publishing empire, seemed to be intentionally ‘drawing attention to the robotic heartlessness of big business.’ Janoth’s right hand man, Steve Hagen, is superbly played by veteran heavy George Macready, while Harry Morgan, in a very early role, appears as Janoth’s bodyguard, Bill Womack, without saying one word in the film.

Just after World War Two, Americans were witnessing the building of corporate giants, and the complications that come from such growth and progress. As much as The Big Clock is an entertaining thriller, it also seems to be an attempt to come to grips with that loss of identity within the corporate milieu. Workers, now faced with more powerful corporate heads in the new streamlined workplace, could relate to Laughton’s cunning portrayal of what Callow called, ‘a Napoleon of print.’

Farrow’s camera follows Laughton closely. It captures his nervous tics and twitches as he rules his employees with a fierce adherence to the adage that time does, indeed, equal money. A perfect example of this occurs when Laughton gives an order to an underling: ‘There’s a bulb that’s been burning for several days in a closet on the fourth floor to no apparent purpose. Find out who’s responsible; dock his pay.’ As Callow puts it, ‘The performance is a technical tour-de-force of high-speed throwaway, comic and powerful at the same time. We know everything about what he (Janoth) is, and how he works – like a clock, as it happens, the image that dominates and unifies the whole film.’

But it was Ray Milland who received top billing in The Big Clock, a rather ironic turn of events considering that Laughton once helped Milland as a struggling young actor in a supporting role in Payment Deferred (1932). If anything was made of this Hollywood twist of fate, it doesn’t show in the final product. The two men work well together and Milland is, as always, the consummate professional. We feel his confusion and anxiety as a man who misses a train and has a fateful, soon-to-be disastrous meeting which leaves him a man on the run, desperate to clear himself of murder.

When Milland won the Oscar for his gritty portrayal of an alcoholic in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945), he began to take on less glamorous, more challenging roles. In movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954), for example, he comes full circle, playing a jaded sophisticate and man-about-town who plots his wife’s murder. The Big Clock came at a transitional point in Milland’s career, offering him a role that falls somewhere between the elegant leading man of his earlier period and the more cynical and corrupt characters he later essayed.”

See the trailer for the film, featuring on-screen narrator Art Gilmore, by clicking here.

Patty Jenkins in Final Talks to Direct Wonder Woman 2

Saturday, August 19th, 2017

Patty Jenkins is closing a deal to direct Wonder Woman 2 – but what’s taking so long?

As Anita Busch and Anthony D’Alessandro reported on August 17th in Deadline Hollywood (or Deadline for short, if you prefer – perhaps the industry’s most reliable trade journal, and usually first with the facts), “it’s been over two months since Wonder Woman opened to a staggering $103.2M and went on to gross close to $800M worldwide for Warner Bros. (with Japan yet to bow). The movie, directed by Patty Jenkins, not only re-invigorated DC movies and the studio itself, but became a symbol of strength for women across the country. Now Jenkins is returning to the director’s chair to helm the second film in the franchise that she was so instrumental in starting.

Last month at Comic-Con, the studio confirmed both a sequel with Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot and a release date of Dec. 13, 2019. However, curiously, there was no deal with Jenkins. Why the delay? Because Jenkins — who was lauded repeatedly during the Women in Film Crystal Awards this year by several of its nominees — expects to be paid substantially more and the same as a male director would receive after such a box office coup. That desire was seconds away from becoming a reality on Thursday evening as a deal was being finalized which would elevate her as the highest-paid female director in town.

And why not? Wonder Woman shattered several glass ceilings at the box office, including the best opening ever for a title by a female director and the best global haul for a live-action film directed by a woman as well as the third-highest grossing film in Warner Bros.’ history (behind only Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series). Although no payday was revealed, we understand that her payday and deal is in line with any other director who has performed at this level. A studio source said they were ‘confident the deal will be reached soon.’

Typically, according to sources, a frosh director on a comic book movie gets $1.5M to $3M, while a director in the realm of Zack Snyder (who is helming DC’s Justice League) received $10M against 10% cash break even for his second DC film Man of Steel. (That’s usually paid out as 20% during pre-production, 60% during production, 10% during post and 10% following).

Jenkins burst on the scene with the critically acclaimed indie film Monster in 2003 — she wrote and directed while Charlize Theron won [the Academy Award for Best Actress for the film] — then directed a number of TV episodes for such shows as Entourage and The Killing before she was hired on for Wonder Woman.”

But now it’s Saturday night, and there’s still no word if this is happening.

I’m not really a comic book movie fan, but that’s hardly the point: Wonder Woman was a groundbreaking entry in the comic book movie universe, and Jenkins’ direction was solidly effective, especially in the opening thirty minutes of the film, and the kick-ass action scenes throughout. She also imbued the characters in the film with a sense of depth and realism missing in nearly all other comic book films, where one character after another is shuffled on and off the screen solely to advance the narrative.

There’s no doubt that if Jenkins were male, after the smash success of Monster, she would have directed a stack of films by now, and not have been relegated to the second-tier world of series television. Michelle McLaren was originally slated to direct, but left over the usual creative differences, so Jenkins was the second choice, but she more than delivered the goods, and she’s busy cooking up ideas for the sequel. And indeed, in contrast to the endless bombast of Zack Snyder’s films, Wonder Woman was a genuine relief this summer.

But here she is – still just trying to get paid precisely what she’s worth. Ever sadder are the comments that follow the story in Deadline; while many are supportive, some are openly sexist, asking why a man shouldn’t take over the job. Good grief! Are we still stuck in the 1950s? Or the 1900s? Hollywood is a bottom line business, and if you deliver the goods – as Patty Jenkins did – you should get paid for it, and not have to haggle with studio bosses for an equitable paycheck.

Let’s hope this is resolved soon, with Jenkins victorious in her quest.

About the Author

Headshot of 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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