Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Archive for the ‘Digital Cinema’ Category

Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” Is Unbearably Sad

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

As Aaron Couch wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, this teaser dropped at Comic-Con; click here.

As Couch notes, “It’s game on. Fans got a first look at Steven Spielberg’s anticipated Ready Player One in Hall H on Saturday at Comic-Con [based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline]. The footage for the ’80s-themed (but future-set) action adventure debuted during Warner Bros.’ presentation, which included DC films and Blade Runner 2049.

The footage sees star Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts, teenager and gamer on a high-stakes treasure hunt in the all-encompassing video game, Oasis, designed by the nostalgic eccentric James Halliday, played by Spielberg-favorite Mark Rylance. We see the stacks of Ohio, the slum where Wade lives. Trailers are stacked one atop another, sky-high. Inside his trailer, we see Wade put on the Oasis gear, and then he’s transported into the game.

There are flashes of the different environments: a futuristic dance party, Wade hanging out with the Iron Giant (‘The Iron Giant is a real player in this story,’ Spielberg said), Wade racing around in the DeLorean from Back to the Future as he avoids wrecking balls, and fighting Freddie Kruger. We also see the forces of evil, who sit in an office and control avatars in the game, clearly trying to find the treasure before our hero . . .

[Said Spielberg of the film], “what made me want to tell the story more than anything else was the kind of world 2045 gives to people, which is so Dystopian. People are leaving the country and all of a sudden virtual reality gives you a choice, gives you another world to exist in. And you can do anything in that world — anything you can possibly imagine. . . . That interaction between real life and virtual life, by the third act of this movie, is virtually nonexistent.”

You can see for yourself how the frightening the trailer is; Watts lives in a series of stacked trailers in a spawling Hell of the future – born in 2025, but desperately wanting to live in the past. The Oasis supposedly offers him the chance to do that, but of course, it’s just an illusion. There’s no escape – he’s still stuck in a trailer wearing a VR mask.

What strikes me most about this new wave of ultra-synthetic movies is that both audiences and filmmakers seem to have given up on saving the world from ecological disaster, and are instead conditioning viewers – and by extension, society at large – to expect nothing from the future, other than providing VR as a means of escape.

VR is a prison; I wrote an article about it entitled Slaves of Vision, and that’s exactly what it is. VR is the prison of the present, and, if we let it happen, the prison of the future – a hopeless panacea in a world that needs solid answers, not another way of avoiding reality. Spielberg to the contrary, virtual reality does not gives you a choice, does not give you another world to exist in. It’s a place where no one can exist, and nothing really happens.

Again, a quick read of Charles Eric Maine’s prescient novel Escapement (written in 1956) will tell you where all of this is headed; VR as an addiction for people without hope, without prospects, without education, without a real life. There is nothing here of any value – just a fun house full of distorted mirrors, offering momentary respite from non-existence.

And this is the future we want? The future we embrace?

Forgotten African American Women of Early Hollywood

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

Here’s a really important new exhibition at the California African American Museum; above, Iris Hall as Eve Mason in The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), directed by Oscar Micheaux.

As the notes for exhibition outline, “curated by Tyree Boyd-Pates, History Curator and Program Manager, CAAM, and the Tyree Boyd-Pates, Center Stage [is] an exhibition that considers pioneering African American filmmakers and production companies in the early 20th century that provided African American women the opportunity to participate in front of, and behind, the camera. They challenged disparaging portrayals of black women in Hollywood, and instead conveyed their wit, intelligence, and talent for largely black audiences to admire and emulate. The exhibition runs from June 28 to October 15, 2017.

Produced for American audiences between 1910 and 1950, these motion pictures were commonly called race films. CAAM will screen several rarely seen examples, including Oscar Micheaux‘s Within Our Gates (1920) and The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), extant clips from Lincoln Picture Company’s The Symbol of the Unconquered (1921, dir. Harry Grant), The Scar of Shame (1929), The Scar of Shame (1941, dir. Spencer Williams), and others. Each film features women protagonists and captures the spirit of entrepreneurship and African American upliftment characteristic of race films from this era.”

As Nadra Nittle adds in an article on the series on the KCET website, “Hollywood has long had a problem with representation and diversity, especially concerning anyone female and nonwhite. In the first half of the 20th century, black women were largely relegated to playing mammy and Jezebel roles. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation even depicted African Americans as rapists and imbeciles, leading to a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

The black woman’s unfortunate standing in Hollywood history is why the California African American Museum’s “Center Stage: African American Women in Silent Race Films,” which runs until October 15, is so significant. It reveals how as early as 100 years ago, independent black filmmakers presented complex portrayals of women of color that major studios never fathomed. These silent gems depict black women exploring their religious faith, fighting for the rights of African Americans and in loving relationships. They underscore how even today Hollywood has much ground to cover in its depiction of black women.”

I have been running these films in my classes for years, way back in the 1970s in the 16mm era, when they were first made available in prints from the original 35mm negatives. But with the passing of time, it seems that people forget, and new generations need to be reminded, of the immense value of these works – films, directors, and actors who made an enormous and indelible contribution to the history of the cinema. Not only are these films an essential part of cinema history; they offer an effective antidote to the evils of D.W. Griffith’s ultra-racist Birth of A Nation, which is still being widely screened while these far superior films are neglected. It’s time to change that – forever.

This is an amazing chance to see these key works; don’t miss it if you’re in Los Angeles.

How Are Indie Films Doing These Days? Not So Well . . .

Monday, July 17th, 2017


If you don’t care about the latest Apes movie, how are more thoughtful films doing?

As Tom Brueggemann of Indiewire notes in this perceptive overview of the current field, not all that well. Sofia Coppola’s new rendition of The Beguiled is racking up respectable but not incredible numbers, while as of July 16th the much-heralded film A Ghost Story has grossed just $288,751 in limited release. On the other hand, Eleanor Coppola’s subdued Paris Can Wait has made $5,304,000 in 177 theaters in 10 weeks. But it’s a tough world out there for independent art house films, and most viewers are simply flocking to the franchise films – they’re a sure bet.

The upcoming Blade Runner 2049, which dropped a trailer today, is sure to make money, and War for the Planet of the Apes (is this trip realllllly necessary?) has garnered $102.5 million in the first days of release. Meanwhile, the films that Brueggemann writes about are dying on the vine – they get no publicity and push at all, and so they wind up on streaming – no more DVDs. Try to find these films in a theater near you; unless you’re very lucky, you won’t be able to. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; every one of the films that Brueggemann mentions deserves a real shot at theatrical distribution, with a solid ad budget, rather than vanishing into the mists of the digital domain.

Read Brueggemann’s entire article here; a stark look at the art film today.

Man in the Dark – The First Major Studio 3-D Movie

Sunday, July 9th, 2017

Man in the Dark – not House of Wax – was the first major studio 3-D movie.

The more you know, the more you know how conventional “history” is often wrong. Warner Bros. produced House of Wax, directed by André De Toth in 1953, and touted it as the first major studio 3-D movie – and it’s an excellent thriller, shot in lush color, with Vincent Price in the leading role, devouring the scenery as usual with his customary professionalism.

But House of Wax was not the first major studio 3-D release. That distinction – sort of like a cinematic horse race – belongs to Lew LandersMan in the Dark, starring Edmond O’Brien, seen above in the trailer for the film, which wisely doesn’t show a single scene from the film in question. Instead, O’Brien admonishes the audience that “you’re not allowed in there” and that the film “of necessity, had to be filmed behind closed doors.”

Landers was a prolific but undistinguished director, who director Budd Boetticher referred to as “a no-talent guy. They called him the ‘D’ director there at Columbia; he just wasn’t any good. Whenever they had a picture they didn’t really care about, they’d give it to Landers.”

Well, that’s probably true, although he directed some good films when left to his own devices, such as Bela Lugosi’s last turn as Count Dracula (in all but name) in 1943’s Return of the Vampire, and much earlier Universal’s surprisingly sadistic horror film The Raven (1935, as Louis Friedlander, his real name).

But on Man in the Dark, Landers was ordered by Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn to crank out the finished film in 11 days flat – an astonishing speed for any film, much less one in 3-D – to beat House of Wax into theaters by two days – a slim margin, but nevertheless, a first for a major studio.

So how is the film? Actually, it’s not bad, with a really bizarre plot, as aptly summarized by critic Glenn Erickson: “convicted criminal Steve Rawley (Edmond O’Brien) volunteers for [experimental brain surgery designed to ‘cure’ his criminal tendencies – in the original script, specifically described as a lobotomy] half-assuming that he’ll not survive. He awakes with total amnesia and a more cheerful personality, and under a new name, ‘Blake’ actually looks forward to beginning life afresh tending the hospital’s hedges.

Steve is instead kidnapped and beaten bloody by his old cronies in crime Lefty, Arnie and Cookie (Ted de Corsia, Horace McMahon & Nick Dennis), who want to know where Steve hid the loot from their last robbery. Steve remembers nothing, and kisses from his old girlfriend Peg Benedict (Audrey Totter) fail to extract the location of the $130,000. But weird dreams provide clues that might lead Steve and Peg to the money everyone is so desperate to possess.”

Shot by the gifted cinematographer Floyd Crosby using a modified version of the Natural Vision system, involving two “slaved” cameras in frame-for-frame synchronization in one blimp to muffle the sound of the camera motor – a rather unwieldy system at best – the film could have been much better than it is. As critic Gary W. Tooze pointed out, “Man in the Dark has a pretty good concept going for it – although, perhaps, not dynamically realized or protected with the dialogue. I could see a strong director taking a hold of this project and really making the most of it.”

Nevertheless, it’s still an interesting project, now available on 3-D DVD. It’s certainly worth your time to check it out, and if it was shot under drastic time and budget constraints, it’s still a genuine cultural artifact. Critic Elliot Stein described the film in The Village Voice as “a rescued gem” and added that Man in the Dark “seems to be the 3-D [film] that most exploits the short-lived medium. An endless array of stuff comes whiffling at your face—a lit cigar, a repulsive spider, scissors, forceps, fists, falling bodies, and a roller coaster. The prolific Landers may not have been a great director, but he was a pretty good pitcher.”

You can see it now on DVD in full 3-D; a genuinely intriguing part of cinema history.

New Article – “Synthetic Cinema” in QRFV

Friday, July 7th, 2017

I have a new article out today on the rise of “synthetic” cinema in QRFV.

Above, Mark Ruffalo in what he all too accurately terms the “man cancelling suit” for his role as The Hulk in yet another Marvel comic book movie; this is just the sort of thing I’m talking about in this article – films that are so far removed from the real that there’s no human agency left in them.

As I write, in part, in the article, “there’s a force at work that has pushed mainstream cinema almost entirely into the fantasy franchise zone; the DC, Marvel, and now Universal Dark Universe films, comic book movies that rely almost entirely on special effects for that added ‘wow’ factor, often shot or reprocessed into 3-D, almost entirely lacking in plot, characterization, depth, or innovation – films that have no connection to the real world at all. I’ve [recently] published a book, A Brief History of Comic Book Movies, co-written with comic book historian Richard Graham on the history of the comic book movie, and for me, it was by far the most difficult project I’ve ever worked on, because as Gertrude Stein famously put it in another context, in comic book movies, ‘there’s no there there.’

There’s nothing remotely real here, or even authentic, and absolutely nothing is at stake. There are meaningless titanic battles, but the outcome is always predestined – the major characters will live until they have outlived fan base demand, and then they’ll ‘die’ – only to be resurrected in a reboot after sufficient time has passed. Most pressingly, nothing really happens in a comic book film despite the constant bombast, the endless ‘shared universe’ team-ups, and the inevitably angst ridden backstories that most superheroes and heroines are provided with today – a trend started in the early 1960s in Marvel comics, whose protagonists had a seemingly human, sympathetic edge, as opposed to the square jawed certainty of DC’s Superman and Batman.

There’s no real progression here, just repetition, for as Marvel head Stan Lee has famously stated, ‘fans don’t want change; they want the illusion of change.’ And that’s what they get – a film that starts off with things in a pattern of stasis, disrupted by an artificial crisis, which amid much hand wringing and supposed character development is brought to some sort of conclusion in the final reel of the film, but with a trapdoor always – always – left open for a possible sequel, because what Hollywood wants more than anything else in 2017 is a film that can turn into a long running, reliable franchise, as witness the long string of the ultra-comic book action films in the Fast and Furious series. This is the central issue that is facing the cinema today.”

You can read the entire article here – behind a paywall. But it’s worth it!

Advice to Young Filmmakers from Denis Côté

Friday, July 7th, 2017

As Leo Barraclough reports in Variety, director Denis Côté does not suffer fools gladly.

As Barraclough writes, “Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté has won multiple awards at top festivals, including Berlin with Vic + Flo Saw a Bear and Locarno for Curling. This week he has been mentoring a group of student filmmakers at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, where he advised them on how to get ahead in the independent film world. Variety was given exclusive access to the discussion.

Although he is genial, Côté doesn’t seem like a man to take hostages. He told the 10 students – gathered together by European Film Promotion as part of its Future Frames program — that they were ‘shy,’ and given the context of the discussion – how to get your films selected by film festivals — it wasn’t a compliment.

‘You need to be social. If you are this kind of weird poet director who has no friends and is always alone you might be a genius but… you need to talk to people,’ he said. ‘Cinema is a social world. It is not like playing a guitar alone in your room or painting. Cinema is the most social art.’

Young filmmakers needed to be proactive when trying to get on the festival circuit, and not leave it to others to put their films in front of festival programmers. ‘Never trust sales agents, distributors or films schools when they say they are taking care of your film. Send [the submissions] yourself.’

He cautioned against being overly pushy. ‘There is a thin line. You need to be respectful and not annoying. The moment you become annoying everybody knows.’

Côté’s go-getting attitude is also applied to generating projects. ‘I’m my own job provider. If I don’t write a new script, no one will write it for me. I’m my own locomotive bringing people with me. I’m open to collaboration but it’s never happened to me.’

He explained that he has developed the reputation for being ‘this alien weird guy making these weird films,’ which may put off writers from sending him their scripts to direct. His ‘weird’ – a.k.a. experimental — films include Bestiaire, a documentary in which a variety of zoo animals stare into the camera, and Carcasses, about a man who collects wrecked cars, and four teenagers with Down Syndrome, carrying guns, who invade his junkyard.

He advises young people to be brave and not to wait too long to go into production on their first feature. ‘Young filmmakers are just afraid to shoot sometimes,’ he said. ‘If they feel that they don’t have the right budget for their story they don’t start.’

Many of his films have been shot with very little money and just a few people. His latest feature documentary A Skin So Soft, which follows six body builders, was shot over 27 days on a budget of Euros 40,000 ($45,700). Although unconfirmed, the intention is for the film to have its world premiere at Locarno.

Côté’s love affair with cinema started in his early teenage years when his diet was purely horror movies, mainly European artistic genre filmmakers like Dario Argento, who filled his head with images of ‘witches, zombies, skulls, blood and cannibals.’

When he went to college at 18 his film teacher opened his eyes to the delights of arthouse movies by the likes of Fassbinder, Godard and Cassavetes. ‘It changed my life,’ Côté says. ‘I never watched horror cinema after that, but its DNA was still inside me, so when you watch some of my films there is a feeling of menace. There is always something that I borrowed from horror cinema because it has stuck in my head and my personality somewhere.’

After college he became a film critic on community radio, and later worked as the critic for a local publication. He then decided to make his first feature film. ‘I said, “I’m going to show the world what I can do with zero money, a video camera and four people,” he recalled. ‘I was pretentious like that.’

He decided to ‘make a movie at the end of the world’ and so chose a village at the end of a road heading out of Quebec. Drifting States (2005) featured a man driving for 16 hours – shortened to two minutes and 45 seconds in the film – until the road stopped (‘for me that was super poetic,’ he said), and then starting his life afresh.

The film won the video section award at Locarno and the prize money allowed him to quit his job and follow the film as it appeared in around 50 festivals over one and a half years. When the film won $10,000 at a festival in Korea, he used the money to make his next film, Our Private Lives (2007).

Bigger-budget films followed, like All That She Wants (2008) and Curling (2010), but Côté has repeatedly returned to low-budget filmmaking. He remains an independent film guy at heart and admits he has an aversion to folks from the mainstream movie industry. [As for Hollywood filmmaking, he notes] ‘I can’t be around these people. I hate these people so much.'”

Words of wisdom from someone who knows what he’s talking about.

Watch It For Free – Steve Sekely’s Hollow Triumph (1948)

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

“First comes you, second comes you, third comes you, and then comes you.”

That’s perhaps the key line in this vicious little film noir from Hungarian director Steve Sekely, who was forced out of his native land by the Nazis, and landed in Hollywood with enormous skill but few connections, and so labored in the 1940s at the minor studios, such as Eagle-Lion (formerly PRC) which produced Hollow Triumph (aka The Scar) as a semi-prestige film. He’s much underrated, and this is a film that proves it.

In the scene above, smooth and over-confident con man John Muller (Paul Henreid), smoking a cigarette, is getting a pep talk from his law-abiding brother Frederick (the always reliable Eduard Franz) on the need to “go straight” after a stint in prison, but as you might expect, John is having none of it.

A college dropout who was headed for an MD, John Muller abruptly quit in his sixth year of studies, and embarked on a run of criminal behavior; practicing medicine without a license, selling shares in non-existent oil wells, until he inevitably got caught. Intriguingly, there’s never any reason given for this abrupt decision – it’s just another mystery in a world without explanations. Somehow, John was always destined to be a criminal.

Now, fresh out of jail, John can’t wait to pull a really big job – knocking over a casino run by mobster Rocky Stansyck (Thomas Brown Henry, another excellent character actor). His pals try to tell him that it’s a lose – lose proposition; Stansyck is notorious for killing anyone who tries to cross him. But John persuades – or threatens – his associates until they play along, and then, of course, the robbery goes wrong.

But in a rather unusual twist, John finds the perfect place to hide in plain sight – as the respected psychologist Dr. Muller, who just happens to be a dead ringer for him, except for scar on his left cheek – or is it his right cheek? One has to be careful about such things. It’s the small details that count. And therein hangs a compelling tale of murder, double-cross, revenge and duplicity.

Joan Bennett – another excellent actor somewhat down on her luck in the late 1940s – is the nominal “love” interest in the film as Evelyn Hahn, but as the line underneath the photo above attests, she quickly sums up John as a hopeless egotist, bound for self-destruction. However, being a noir icon, Joan somehow can’t resist going along for the ride – much to her regret.

As John tells Evelyn early on in the film, “it’s a bitter little world full of sad surprises, and you don’t let anyone hurt you.” But that’s what everyone in this film is destined for – a world of hurt and disappointment. Superbly photographed by the gifted John Alton on a shoestring budget, Hollow Triumph long ago fell into the Public Domain – so now you see it here, for free.

Hollow Triumph – a sharp, slick little film – well worth the time to check it out.

Brilliant Book: Steven Shaviro on Accelerationism

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

Here’s a brilliant collection of essays from cutting-edge scholar Steven Shaviro.

In an interview in the online journal Vice, Shaviro outlined the basic thesis of his work on accelerationism with writer Charlie Ambler, which is as good an introduction as any to the theory behind this approach to rampant consumerism – one which, by the way, makes complete sense to me, and is at once both revolutionary and really, really frightening. Notes Shaviro:

“Broadly defined, ‘accelerationism’ is the idea that the only way out is the way through. If we want to get beyond the current social and economic order and reach a post-capitalist future, then we need to push through all the messy complications of capitalism, rather than revert to something supposedly older and purer.

Accelerationism rejects certain ideas currently popular on the left, like ‘small is beautiful,’ and the Luddite enmity towards new technologies. Instead, it urges us to embrace and repurpose all the most advanced technologies.

If computational technologies are eliminating millions of jobs, then the best response is not to demand the jobs back, but to spread the wealth—to give back what the 1 Percent has stolen from everybody else—so that people can afford to lead comfortable lives without always worrying about the cost of housing or the size of their credit card bills.

There are different varieties of accelerationism. At one extreme, accelerationism might embrace the idea that the worse things get, the better the prospect for a revolution to overthrow everything. This seems obviously foolish to me, and I don’t think that it is actually advocated by many accelerationists.

Much more subtly, Marx claimed that the contradictions that beset capitalism would eventually lead to a struggle between workers and capitalists. He hoped that this struggle would end in the establishment of communism, but he warned that it could also result in ‘the mutual destruction of the contending parties.’

Marx was saying that, due to its inherent strains and stresses, capitalism will lead to catastrophe if it isn’t somehow overcome. This is an accelerationist view, to the extent that it sees the possibilities for overcoming capitalism arising out of the very development of capitalism as a world system. But this doesn’t happen in any mechanistic or predetermined way.

As for how redistribution of wealth might be related to accelerationism—when somebody like Thomas Piketty argues for global taxes in order to force a redistribution of wealth, he is trying to save the capitalist system from its own self-destructive excesses. But as Slavoj Zizek has observed, the rich will never pay such a tax voluntarily; so just getting such a tax enacted would involve other changes as well, indeed radical ones that would change capitalism substantially.”

There’s much more in this groundbreaking text; to read the full interview in Vice, just click here.

My Videos on Vimeo – Full Speed

Saturday, July 1st, 2017

Here’s a brief abstract video I’ve made – nice and short – entitled Full Speed.

I have been making quite a number of videos, and posting them on Vimeo – free to view for all – and here’s one I made two years ago that seems particularly popular. I check my viewing stats on a relatively daily basis, and re-order the playlist in order of changing viewer preferences – not necessarily my own favorites, but the ones that get played and loaded the most. Actually, our tastes coincide most of the time, and I’m drawn, especially these days, to my lighter, more accessible work.

Full Speed is a brief abstract animation, nice and bright, to add some color and cheer to your day. You can see my front page on Vimeo by clicking here, which includes my latest works, just posted today – Dome and Flowers along with a batch of other popular videos, including Serial Metaphysics, DJ, Dana Can Deal, Numen Lumen, Beat Box, Real & Unreal, Life of Luxury, Escape and about 300 more videos from 1974 to the present. They cover a wide range of approaches, from documentary to abstract and nearly all the possible stops in-between. Most run about 5 minutes or so, with some longer works in the 20 to 30 minute range.

My films 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 Spacesee the video for that screening here –  The Gallery of Modern Art, The Oberhausen Film Festival and at numerous universities and film societies throughout the world.

Now’s your chance to see them – for free – whenever you wish.

Director Oscar Micheaux Finally Gets A Biopic

Friday, June 30th, 2017

Pioneering African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux is finally getting a biopic – about time!

As Cynthia Littleton reports exclusively in Variety, “HBO is developing a biopic of pioneering African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux that has Tyler Perry on board to star. Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are shepherding the project for Sony Pictures TV through their Storyline Entertainment banner. Perry is set to executive produce with Zadan and Meron but does not plan to direct.

Charles Murray, an alum of Sons of Anarchy and [The History Channel’s remake] of Roots, is penning the script. It’s based on the 2007 biography Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker by film historian Patrick McGilligan. ‘We’re thrilled to be partnering with Tyler Perry to bring Oscar Micheaux’s inspiring and trailblazing life story to HBO,’ said Zadan. Added Meron: ‘There are so many parallels between the groundbreaking work that Micheaux pioneered and Perry’s achievements as an artist that it feels like a natural fit.’

A novelist turned director, Micheaux raised the money to produce the film adaptation of his 1917 book The Homesteader [in 1919] after rejecting an option offer from another company when they refused to let him direct. Micheaux is believed to have helmed more than 40 features between 1919 and 1948, working outside the confines of Hollywood in the face of discrimination against an African-American entrepreneur.

Early on, Micheaux tackled the problem of distribution by personally driving prints of his films to black communities around the country, where they played to segregated audiences. His films largely featured all-black casts and were an effort to counter racial stereotypes with humanistic portrayals of black life. His notable works included 1920’s Within Our Gates, a response to D.W. Griffith’s appallingly racist Birth of a Nation (1915); 1931’s The Exile, his first sound picture; 1938’s Swing! and 1940’s The Notorious Elinor Lee.

Many of Micheaux’s films have been lost to history given the lack of preservation and the decomposition of film stock of the era. Micheaux died in 1951 at the age of 67. The Directors Guild of America recognized his contributions to film with a posthumous award for directorial achievement in 1986.”

Many have minimized Oscar Micheaux’s contributions to the cinema, but in an ultra-racist Hollywood during the 1920s up through his death, and indeed continuing on today, Micheaux was forced to make his feature films on almost nothing at all; budgets would range from a few thousand dollars up to $10,000 tops. Making a sound feature film in 1931 was a major victory in itself. He sold his films on a states rights basis, working state-by-state across the country, raising enough money from screenings to make his next project, when no one else would help him at all.

Micheaux’s work is passionate, accomplished, and compromised by the financial exigencies forced upon him, but the alternative was to make no films at all, to offer no representation to African-Americans at a time when the screen was overwhelmingly white – a problem, as I’ve noted in the past, that persists to this day. If some of his films have a few rough edges, it doesn’t bother me. I see Micheaux as a real trailblazer, and even the DGA agrees – with a lifetime achievement award, albeit one awarded after his death.

I don’t know how the HBO biopic will turn out, but McGilligan’s book is fair, honest, sympathetic, and entirely in sync with Micheaux’s tireless work ethic, his willingness to keep going when everyone else told him to stop, and his unyielding opposition to racism in American society, as evidenced by his landmark 1920 film Within Our Gates, a stunning reply to Griffith’s vicious racism.

We’ll have to see, but this is promising material; I hope it turns out well.

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.

RSS Recent Frame by Frame Videos