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Why Aren’t More Women Directing Action Films?

Friday, October 30th, 2015

Lexi Alexander knows why women aren’t getting the opportunities they should in Hollywood.

As ReBecca Theodore wrote in Vulture on October 28, 2015, “Lexi Alexander doesn’t suffer fools lightly. The Oscar-nominated director, and outspoken advocate for women filmmakers, made waves in Hollywood last year when she wrote an essay on the deeply ingrained bias women directors face in the industry. Since then, Alexander has kept the pressure on studios to allow more opportunities for female directors.

Born to a German mother and Palestinian father, Alexander is a former World Kickboxing Champion who got her start in the business as a stuntwoman, and soon segued into directing. Her 2002 short Johnny Flynton landed an Academy Award–nomination, and her 2005 feature Green Street Hooligans won the SXSW Jury and Audience Awards. That led to a gig directing Punisher: War Zone, making her the first woman to direct a comic-book feature. Most recently, Alexander directed tonight’s episode of Arrow, which had previously brought on two women directors (Wendey Stanzler and Bethany Rooney). We spoke to Alexander about working on the CW’s comic-book series, embracing her biracial identity, and why more women aren’t directing multimillion-dollar superhero franchises.

How did you land this project?  How much did you know about the show going in?
I was contacted by the showrunners, specifically Andrew Kreisberg, who was a fan of Punisher: War Zone. I knew about the show and had watched the pilot when it came out. When I got the call for the meeting, I binged on three seasons of Arrow over an entire weekend.

Can you share some details about the shoot — how long it took to prepare, to find shooting locales?
All in all, I was there for three and a half weeks. Location scouting is a lot of fun, especially in a town where ten shows are being shot at the same time, because you’re constantly running into other crews scouting the same places. Then we all give each other side eye, because nobody wants to use a location that another show is using as well. It’s quite amusing, really.

Did you have a specific look or feel you wanted for this episode?
It was very clear to me that TV is a writers’ medium and that a show in its fourth season comes with an established look and style. The first meeting I had with Kreisberg and [executive producer] Marc Guggenheim, they were very clear they were interested in me as a director because they believed I could bring something different and new to the show. So my directions were basically ’same but different.’ Now this might sound like I’m being sarcastic, but I’m not. I completely understood what they wanted. There’s definitely a way, even within an existing style and tone, to add something new or unique without making it look like it’s from a completely different show. I’m not sure if I completely achieved that, but I’m pretty sure the audience will see my fingerprint here and there.

You were the only woman director to helm a comic-book feature with Punisher: War Zone in 2008. Not much has changed since then. What do you think accounts for this?
The only reason I was offered Punisher was because I had made an indie film that was rated R for violence and was filled with fight scenes. I think in industries riddled with bias, you tend to hire women only if their previous work is very masculine, which is hilarious given that this is not how male directors are chosen. I am pretty sure when Kenneth Branagh came up for Thor, nobody at Marvel thought: ‘Yes, that Kenneth Branagh is masculine enough to do action, just look at Henry V and The Magic Flute.’ Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge Branagh fan, I’m just trying to demonstrate how ridiculous it is that women have to be ‘one of the boys’ to get in on the superhero business, whereas male directors don’t have to have any proof on their résumé that they can deliver hardcore action.”

It’s all too true – read the entire interview by clicking here.

Too Many Films Stuck in The Vaults

Saturday, October 24th, 2015

Too many great films are still stuck in the vaults, with no way to see them in any format.

As Michael Hiltzik writes in The Los Angeles Times today, “Will McKinley, a New York film writer, is dying to get his hands on a copy of Alias Nick Beal, a 1949 film noir starring Ray Milland as a satanic gangster. For classic film blogger Nora Fiore, the Grail might be The Wild Party (1929), the first talkie to star 1920’s “It” girl Clara Bow, directed by the pioneering female director Dorothy Arzner.

Film critic Leonard Maltin says he’d like to score a viewing of Hotel Haywire a 1937 screwball comedy written by the great comic director Preston Sturges. Produced by Paramount Studios, these are all among 700 titles assumed to be nestled in the vaults of Universal Pictures, which inherited Paramount’s 1930s and 1940s film archive from its forebear MCA, which acquired the collection in 1958. They’re frustratingly near at hand but out of reach of film fans and cinephiles.

Like most of the other major studios, Universal is grappling with the challenging economics of making more of this hoard accessible to the public on DVD, video on demand or streaming video. Studios have come to realize that there’s not only marketable value in the films, but publicity value in performing as responsible stewards of cultural assets.”

I, too, would love to see a legitimate copy of Alias Nick Beal, one of my favorite noirs, but it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. To date, Universal has done almost nothing in this regard. As just one example, I’ve been waiting for years for a DVD of William Castle’s The Night Walker (Universal, 1964), which, as Wikipedia notes, is “one of the last black and white theatrical features released by Universal Pictures, and Barbara Stanwyck’s last motion picture, [but] The Night Walker is one of the few William Castle films from his ‘horror’ period that is unavailable on DVD.”

Yet Hiltzik’s article demonstrates that there’s clearly a market for these older films, beyond the canonical classics. As George Feltenstein, who heads the Warner Archive imprint of on-demand DVDs of classic films notes, the WB service, launched in March 2009 with 150 titles, has proved “far more successful than we even dreamed. I thought that all the studios would follow in our footsteps, but nobody has been as comprehensive as we’ve been.” And that’s putting it mildly – to date, no other major studio has stepped up to the plate with the same commitment as WB has.

This isn’t altruism. As Feltenstein candidly told Hiltzik, “‘my job is to monetize that content, make it available to the largest number of people possible and do so profitably.’ That gives [Warner Archive] a window into values that others might miss. Take B-movie westerns made in the 1940s and 1950s that landed in the Warners vault. To Allied Artists and Lorimar, their producers, ‘these films were worthless and they said it’s OK to let them rot,’ Feltenstein [said].

Instead, Warner Archives packaged them into DVD collections, ‘and they’ve all been nicely profitable.’ Feltenstein says Warners is releasing 30 more titles to its manufacturing-on-demand library every month. ‘It’s growing precipitously and there’s no end in sight.’”

Yet much more work clearly needs to be done, and especially since all films made before 1950 were shot on cellulose nitrate film, which decomposes rapidly and is highly flammable, things have to move along at a much faster clip if we’re going to preserve what’s left of our cinematic heritage. I’ve been noting this for a long time, in any number of articles, but even though Warner Archive is leading the pack, there’s plenty of films left that need a solid DVD release – not streaming, thank you, but on a DVD, which can be permanently kept in one’s collection.

Let’s get these films out where everyone can see them – now!

Jack Kerouac on The Steve Allen Show (1959)

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

In 1959, writer Jack Kerouac and musician Steve Allen cut a record, Poetry for the Beat Generation.

Jack Kerouac has long been one of my favorite American novelists, whose importance and value has only become more apparent with each passing decade. We also share the same birthday, which has always pleased me, and like many young people, when I was in college, I devoured Kerouac’s work, most especially his epic novel Desolation Angels, which was written in the early to mid 1950s, but only published in 1965, after the enormous success of his most popular novel, On The Road (1957).

It’s become fashionable, in some circles, to dismiss Kerouac’s work, the bulk of which was written long before it appeared in print, “published [only] in heaven” as Allen Ginsberg put it – and then, in the aftermath of On The Road, publishers were suddenly eager to print everything he’d written up until then – thank goodness. And so the work of a lifetime came tumbling out.

One of the most quoted jibes of Kerouac’s work comes from Truman Capote, who famously remarked of the non-stop writing blast that produced On The Road, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” It’s a clever riposte, but it seems to me that in the end, Capote’s claim to lasting literary value lies only with a few books, in particular the “non-fiction” novel In Cold Blood, whereas Kerouac’s vision, which literally encompassed all of American culture, is a sprawling, multi-layered, deeply penetrating look at the society, and the values of the era he lived in.

Kerouac’s style – pure bop writing – is heavily indebted to the art of jazz riffing. Sometimes he’s simply writing to fill up the page, but the best of Kerouac’s work – On the Road, Doctor Sax, The Dharma Bums, Mexico City Blues, The Subterraneans, Desolation Angels, and Visions of Cody – repays repeated readings, and stands as a monument to Kerouac’s passion and restless intensity, which did not mix well with the pressures of overnight fame. Becoming a heavy drinker as he coped with instant celebrity, Kerouac died at the age of 47, yet still managed to leave behind a unique, and utterly compelling body of work.

So it’s nice to see this archival clip from The Steve Allen Show in 1959, in which a visibly nervous Kerouac recites some of his poetry as Allen accompanies him on piano – telling a few jokes along the way in an attempt to ease his guest’s palpable uneasiness – which is some of the only footage of Kerouac reciting his work in existence. Allen, a gifted musician and television personality of the era, made it his business to showcase rising talent – Elvis Presley and Frank Zappa come immediately to mind – and the album that resulted from their collaboration (now available on CD) is a vital and impressive piece of work – and here’s the proof.

Indeed, Kerouac is, for me, sort of an “acid test” of someone’s reaction to American writing – he comes from the tradition of Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe and other authentic visionaries (as he makes clear to Allen in this clip) – and Kerouac is simply driven to put down on paper the experiences of his life, and has no time for traditional prose forms. His work flows from one sentence to the next in a sweep of nearly inexhaustible improvisation, and thus he leaves himself open to rather ordinary criticism – “not enough discipline,” “dashed off,” “free form” and the like.

But that’s just the point – Kerouac is clearly working out of a driving need to create, over which he almost has no control – he was compelled to put his life down on paper. As he famously wrote in On The Road, “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars,” adding later that “I want to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money. I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down.”

So here it is – Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen – a transcendent moment in American culture.

The Paramount Vault Channel on YouTube – Free Feature Films!

Monday, October 19th, 2015

The Paramount Vault has an excellent selection of classic and contemporary feature films.

As J.E. Reich reports in Tech Times, Paramount Pictures is throwing open its vault of feature films from the 1930s to the present on a free You Tube channel which showcases some of the studio’s biggest hits, along with more esoteric films, many of them well worth watching.

As he writes, “Norma Desmond proclaimed in Paramount’s Sunset Boulevard, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small!” True to the word of one of the studio’s greatest films, Paramount has brought its bigger pictures to the small screen: by making them available to watch for free on YouTube.

Named The Paramount Vault, the studio’s newly-minted YouTube channel allows viewers to stream a plethora of the studio’s titles, ranging from the timeless screeners (Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Star Trek I) to more off-beat indies . . . the selection is generally veritable, mixing popular selections with forgotten gems.

Paramount Vault also gives a gift to would-be GIFers and movie buffs: clips from indelible moments in cinema history, such as Indiana Jones taking some lackeys to task after they mess with the wrong guy in the aforementioned Raiders, Cher Horowitz ferreting out driving tips in Clueless, a creepy neighbor making a seemingly normal housecall in Rosemary’s Baby, and — you guessed it — Norma Desmond getting ready for her close-up in Sunset Boulevard.

What remains unclear is the shelf life of each movie: whether each title will remain on the channel after it’s posted or if they’ll be on a type of rotation or phase cycle (i.e., phased in and out), essentially on a system akin to a streaming site like Netflix.”

Adds Joe Blevins of The A.V. Club, “Paramount Pictures, which has recently launched a YouTube Channel called the Paramount Vault where it will be making many of its full-length motion pictures available for free streaming. Since the studio is responsible for such popular films as Grease, Airplane!, Top Gun, Sunset Boulevard, Clueless, and Ghost, as well as such mighty franchises as Star Trek, Transformers, and Indiana Jones, this is potentially big news.

As it is, the Paramount Vault already has plenty of hours of free-of-charge entertainment awaiting the adventurous viewer. Under the science fiction category, for instance, [one can see] The Deadly Bees and The Space Children, as well as such cult favorites I Married A Monster From Outer Space and . . . the indescribable Marcel Marceau vehicle Shanks, among others.

Among the designated Paramount classics, perhaps the most striking selection is Bernardo Bertolucci’s once-controversial 1900 from 1976, starring Robert De Niro. Those without the patience for full-length movies will find clips to share and comedic moments, too, as well as a smattering of digital series. Viewers might well find themselves wandering around in the Paramount Vault for hours or days, unaware of how much time they’ve been spending there.”

You should spend some time there, too. Check it out!

Supergirl – The TV Series

Monday, October 5th, 2015

Finally, a Supergirl television series – and it’s long overdue.

I seem to be in a comic book vein these days, and now comes word that Supergirl, who has always been neglected in both TV and movies, just like Wonder Woman – can you say gender discrimination? – is finally going to get a TV series, long, long after the 1950s Superman series hit the airwaves, starting October 26th on CBS. Of course, it’s pop culture stuff, but at the same time, it offers a powerful role model for young women to identify with, and starts – just starts – to balance out the scales, which have long been tipped in favor of male protagonists, both in regular dramas, as well as comic book/pop culture films and television shows.

As the show’s official bio notes of the series, “Supergirl is an action-adventure drama based on the DC Comics character Kara Zor-El, Superman’s (Kal-El) cousin who, after 12 years of keeping her powers a secret on Earth, decides to finally embrace her superhuman abilities and be the hero she was always meant to be. Twelve-year-old Kara escaped the doomed planet Krypton with her parents’ help at the same time as the infant Kal-El. Protected and raised on Earth by her foster family, the Danvers, Kara grew up in the shadow of her foster sister, Alex, and learned to conceal the phenomenal powers she shares with her famous cousin in order to keep her identity a secret.

Years later at 24, Kara lives in National City assisting media mogul and fierce taskmaster Cat Grant. She works alongside her friend and IT technician Winn Schott and famous photographer James Olsen, who Grant just hired away from the Daily Planet to serve as her new art director. However, Kara’s days of keeping her talents a secret are over when Hank Henshaw, head of a super-secret agency where her sister also works, enlists her to help them protect the citizens of National City from sinister threats. Though Kara will need to find a way to manage her newfound empowerment with her very human relationships, her heart soars as she takes to the skies as Supergirl to fight crime.”

Let’s see what this develops into – I, for one, wish the series all the best.

New Video – Science Fiction Futurism

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

I have a new video out on Science Fiction Futurism and Ridley Scott’s The Martian.

Science fiction films have been predicting the future since Georges Méliès’s A Trip To The Moon in 1902, and as with that film, as much as they might get things right, they often err in describing what the future holds.

In this short video, edited and photographed by Curt Bright, I talk about some of the other films that have shaped our consciousness of the future, to mark the release today of Ridley Scott’s new film The Martian, such as Things To Come (1936), Metropolis (1927), Blade Runner (1982), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

While these visions of the future are often fanciful, sometimes they hit the mark, as with hologram projection, talking computers, two-way television and numerous other technological advances. So click here, or on the link above to take a quick trip into the cinematic future, and remember, as Criswell famously noted, “we are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I will spend the rest of our lives.”

Maybe some of these things will actually come to pass.

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.

New Frame by Frame Video – Comic Book Movies

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

I have a new video out today on comic book movies in the Frame by Frame series.

Working with Curt Bright, I have a new video out today on comic book movies – specifically, where they’re headed in the next five years. Disney, DC, and Marvel (which Disney owns) are all battling each other at the box office to create the most effective brand domination, but as you will see from the video, I think Marvel has a real head start, and probably will remain the major force in comic book films for the immediate future – even if DC is planning out to 2020. I just don’t think DC has the depth of characters that Marvel has in their “universe,” and that’s really where the problem starts – at least for DC.

With DC, you have Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and that’s about it – and a sure sign of this early exhaustion of possibilities is that DC is already reaching into the ranks of their villains for the upcoming Suicide Squad, which is an attempt to broaden their character horizons. The next stop after that is parody, and we’re already perilously close to that with some of the current crop of superhero / comic book films, such as the recent Green Lantern film, which did little to help the franchise, to put it kindly.

For the most part, though, it seems all too predictable – another Star Wars film every year for the next fifteen years from Disney, DC dutifully rolling out their own product, while Marvel does the same. And now Disney is doing a live-action Winnie The Pooh reboot, to be written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, while Godzilla is also being ramped up for yet another go-round, and the Maze Runner series, as well as the Hunger Games series, continue on for what is supposedly their final films – but are they really? Franchises exist to be extended interminably – just ask James Bond.

We’ll just have to wait and see- check out the video here and see what you think!

Uncle John (2015)

Sunday, September 20th, 2015

Steven Piet, John Ashton and Erik Crary on the set of Uncle John.

As the film’s publicity materials succinctly note, “small town bully turned born again Christian, Dutch, has gone missing. Well-regarded member of the community, John, is not a suspect, but has everything to do with it. Dutch’s younger brother, Danny, has his own theory about the disappearance and it centers on John.

Meanwhile, John’s nephew, Ben, arrives in town with his new girlfriend Kate just as John finds himself confronted with threats from Danny.” And that’s just the beginning of one of the most beguiling and mesmeric films in recent memory, made by two young men in sixteen days on an absolutely minimal budget. But as David Lynch noted on his Twitter feed, “check out @UncleJohnMovie – it caught me up and held me for days!”

As Neil Genzlinger noted in a rave review in The New York Times, “the simmering mystery Uncle John is so subtle, so exquisitely paced and so determined not to go in any of the obvious directions that it’s hard to believe the film is Steven Piet’s first feature. Piet, who with Erik Crary also wrote the script, sketches some memorable characters while keeping his two-pronged story sparse, ominous and deliciously ambiguous.

John Ashton is just right as the inscrutable title character, an older fellow in a rural town where an unlikable man named Dutch has gone missing. Shortly before his disappearance, Dutch apparently found Jesus, and he had been visiting various townspeople, confessing to misdeeds and such. Dutch and John’s sister were an item long ago, but something murky happened to the sister, and perhaps now something murky has happened to Dutch.

While all of this is being slowly revealed, many miles away in Chicago a young man named Ben is becoming smitten with a new co-worker, Kate. Alex Moffat and Jenna Lyng are very watchable as this might-become-a-couple, but what do they have to do with the goings-on out in the country? Turns out Ben has a beloved uncle who raised him, a man by the name of John. And when the two young flirters head his way for an impromptu visit, all secrets will be revealed. Or will they? It’s tantalizing, sublimely creepy stuff that keeps you guessing even after the credits roll.”

Added Frank Scheck in The Hollywood Reporter, Uncle John’s “other virtue is reintroducing John Ashton to the screen in his first major role in decades. The character actor, memorable for his sardonic comic turns in Midnight Run and the Beverly Hills Cops movies, delivers an understated but career-defining performance as the title character.

Seen disposing of a body in the film’s opening moments, John is an unassuming widower who looks like he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Whether engaging in small town gossip with his buddies at the coffee shop or politely ignoring the flirtations of one of his carpentry clients, he maintains a low-key demeanor that is only betrayed by the quiet intensity of his gaze . . .

The film is an impressive dual calling card for its tyro director who keeps the tension at a simmering boil throughout both genres. And the late-career performance by the veteran Ashton (sans his usual mustache) is a revelation. The now 67-year-old actor has been steadily employed over the years, but he’s rarely had a role as good as this one and it’s a pleasure to watch him run away with it.”

You can also read an excellent interview with the director and screenwriter in Indiewire, in which Piet and Crary note that “throughout the process, we tried very hard to keep from becoming precious about the whole project. Not that its easy — trying to get a micro-budget film together is all-encompassing because it requires your non-stop attention and a willingness to ask for endless favors.

However, keeping that framed inside the fact that the rest of the world is also doing its own thing was incredibly helpful. Without proper money, way more no’s than yes’s came in. But, by keeping things reasonable and honest, the yes’s we got were for the right reasons.

In terms of production specifically, micro-budget on this one meant there would be no room for indulgence, ego or indecision because it was all going to be over in 16 days anyway. By doing what we could in extensive prep to set that up for success, and by trying to maintain a collaborative, healthy vibe on set because you are all there making a movie together, the whole experience was the most difficult but satisfying thing attempted to date. For us, the goal now will just be respecting those lessons and trying to grow from it all as the next project gets set up.”

There’s one other person who really deserves mention here – cinematographer Mike Bove. Bove’s clean, CinemaScope-ish visuals, shot with an Alexa digital camera, really bring the film to life, and take full advantage of natural light and the sparse settings of the film, which was shot on location in Wisconsin, and briefly, in Chicago.

It seems that Piet and Crary had three different levels of budgeting to work with – the dream budget, the “B” level budget, and the bare bones budget, and what happened in the end is that they mostly used the “C” schedule, shooting only what they needed. And that’s good – it’s perfect the way it is.

This is a dazzling debut film - check out the trailer here.

New Article in Senses of Cinema 76 – “Being Elizabeth Bishop”

Saturday, September 19th, 2015

I have a new article on Barbara Hammer’s new feature film Welcome to This House in Senses of Cinema.

As I write, in part, “Barbara Hammer’s Welcome to This House: A Film on Elizabeth Bishop (2015) is that rarity among documentary films – rather than the usual succession of talking heads, shot in a utilitarian fashion, as befits its subject the film is a primarily poetic project, which inhabits the world of Bishop and her poetry, entranced by the beauty of life in all its forms.

As the film’s press materials note, ‘Welcome to This House is a feature documentary film on the homes and loves of poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979), about life in the shadows, and the anxiety of art making without full self-disclosure, filmed in Bishop’s ‘best loved homes’ in the US, Canada, and Brazil.’ It is also much more than that; it is an act of love and resurrection, in which Bishop emerges from the shadows as a fully rounded personage, freed from the constraints of society which so often failed to accept her for who she truly was.

In the film’s opening sequence, for example, photos of Bishop and the covers of her books give way to a view from the front porch of her home in Nova Scotia, with flowers and the image of a young Elizabeth intertwined in a tapestry of memory and abstract wonder. As the scene progresses, there are equally dreamlike images of her typewriter, and then a child’s hand writing ‘Elizabeth’ on a chalk slate, as the soundtrack hums and whirs with the sounds of an indolent, mesmeric summer. This gives way to reminiscences of how Bishop was left with her grandparents as a child, deprived of a mother and father, and how she grew up in world of her own creation as a result.

There are, of course, numerous archival materials interwoven throughout the film, but more than anything, Welcome to This House is a film about being Elizabeth Bishop, about finding one’s self as an artist, something that Barbara Hammer has being doing for her entire life, over a body of work that covers more than 80 films and four decades of continuous artistic production. In many ways, Welcome to This House is the sort of film that could only be made by a director after years of patient dedication; effortlessly mixing the past, the present, the imaginary and the real to evoke the inner life of Elizabeth Bishop, all the while demonstrating Hammer’s absolutely assured grasp of the moving image.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

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

In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of film, media and other topics in the past month - http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/

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