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The Films of Jim Krell

March 8th, 2014

Jim Krell filming, Summer 1974, 3AM; Jeff Travers on sound. Photo: John Vasilik.

One of the most original and iconoclastic personalities of the New American Cinema, Jim Krell created work that is simultaneously so important, and yet so unknown, that the news that his complete works are being now being archived by Anthology Film Archives constitutes a major event, closing a significant gap in experimental film history. When screenings of his work will now appear is anyone’s guess, but the news that Krell’s original 16mm printing materials will now be safely archived is cause for a genuine sigh of relief.

Starting in the early 1970s, Krell created a series of mysterious and rigorous films that defy written description, visionary works that conjure up an entirely different vision of the physical universe. During that time, I had the opportunity to watch him at work on several occasions. What always impressed me (or perhaps “astonished” is a better word) concerning Krell’s shooting methods was the intrinsic speed and seemingly random technique he brought to his work, creating films with offhand precision that both challenged and engaged the viewer.

For one of his films, for example, Krell descended into a storm drain with a spring wound Bolex and a box of railroad flares; while shooting in the darkened tunnel, he threw lighted flares in front of him, illuminating the viaduct with rings of flaming red. For a projected film on the Patty Hearst kidnapping that was never completed, Krell shot two hours of sync-sound film in a single weekend, creating a film that, even in its unfinished state, worked both as a fictive narrative and a deconstruction of the events that led up to the affair.

In Paper Palsy (1972), one of his earliest films, archival footage of an amateur night performance at the Apollo Theater in New York is superimposed over blown up Super 8mm footage of scraped, baked, and chemically treated unexposed film stock, causing huge multi-colored blotches to interrupt the visual terrain of the Apollo Theater material at irregular intervals. The soundtrack is a recording of dolphins mating in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, played in reverse.

For his film Finally A Lamb, completed in 1976, Krell documented a performance piece by the German artist Hermann Nitsch of the Orgies/Mysteries Theater, which took place at Douglass College in the early 1970s, in which a dead sheep’s carcass was disemboweled in front of a stunned audience. For The Shoreline of China (1973), Krell shot two rolls of footage of a young woman walking up and down a beach on the coast of New Jersey at dawn, creating fades and dissolves in the camera during shooting. He then printed the color positive and negative images on top of each other in A and B roll format, with the images flipped so they cross over in the center of the frame, creating a disquieting vision of an alien landscape.

For yet another film, All Area (1978), Krell shot the shadow of a curtain on the floor of his New York loft for 30 minutes with ancient black and white Portapack ½” video equipment, then remastered the material on negative film stock with a professional film chain to achieve astonishing results in contrast, frame sizing, and the arbitrary duration of this reductive image. Soundtracks were composed out of found materials, or created electronically by Krell working with a homemade synthesizer. Running into many hours of finished work, Krell’s films would take several evenings or more to project, and have never received a fraction of the attention and critical commentary they deserve.

Other key titles from Krell’s extensive filmography include Coda/M. C. (1975), Wolverine Kills T. V. (1975), 30 Days: Speed Or Gravity (1976); Action Past Compassion (1976), Four Rolls (Rarely Pre-Dated) (Tribute to Marcel Duchamp) (1976), Fur (But Less Fun) (1976), Shame, Shame: Dallas Diary, 1964 (1977), Thank You/Your Receipt (1977), All Area (1978), (Kozo Okamoto’s Quote) (1979), and Second Thoughts (1980). But there’s a lot more on top of this, and I’m glad to see that his work will finally get the care and recognition it deserves.

Now living in Italy, Krell has long since moved on to other pursuits, but during the white hot period in which he turned out one amazing film after another in a veritable torrent of work, Krell created a singular vision that is all the more impressive because each of his films is entirely different from any other of his works; he never does the same thing twice. So the chance to see, and save, his work, is something that isn’t to be taken lightly; if nothing else, Jim Krell is a genuine original, in every sense of the word.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Best Picture = Best Director

March 4th, 2014

Steve McQueen was robbed. Best Picture = Best Director – it’s that simple.

Just one last thought on the Oscars; Twelve Years A Slave won Best Picture, but not Best Director, though Steve McQueen (pictured above) did take home an Oscar for his work on the film in a production capacity. But this is wrong, and not just because the Best Director winner, Gravity, is a very, very slight piece of work, and also the least of all of Alfonso Cuaron’s films, except for the utterly inconsequential Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Since the Oscars marginalize all foreign films except for one in a Best Foreign Film category, which is inherently wrong as well, there is really no such thing as “best” picture, because the field is artificially narrowed. But of all the films that did get Oscar nominations, Twelve Years was clearly the most important and artistically successful film of the group, yet McQueen didn’t get the nod as Best Director, as well. I will never understand the non-logic behind this; if a film is the “Best Picture,” then who is responsible for this? The producers? The actors? Or could it perhaps be the director, who brought the entire vision to the screen?

I remember a long time ago, when I was living in Los Angeles, Jaws — admittedly, we are moving from the deeply important to the utterly trivial here — was nominated for Best Picture, though it didn’t win, yet Steven Spielberg wasn’t nominated for Best Director. Jaws is simply an action picture, and certainly didn’t deserve to win anything, but in that case, Hollywood insiders were incensed, demanding “Best Picture, but no nod for Spielberg as Best Director? Who do they think directed it – the shark?” And they were right — if it wins Best Picture, it gets Best Director.

So again, while there is no comparison between these two films, the basic principle holds true.

Best Picture? Best Director. End of story.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Missing in Action: The Lost Version of Vanishing Point

March 3rd, 2014

I have a new article out today on the “lost” version of Vanishing Point, one the key films of the early 70s.

As I write, “Much has been deservedly written on Richard C. Sarafian’s existential road movie Vanishing Point (1971), a shambling, glorious wreck of a film that nevertheless manages to achieve a certain sort of ragged splendor in its countercultural tale of loner driver Kowalski (Barry Newman), who takes on a nearly impossible drive from Denver to San Francisco to deliver a Dodge Challenger in less than 24 hours.

Based on two true life stories; one of a San Diego police officer who was kicked off the force in disgrace, and a separate story of a man who died after a high speed chase when he crashed into a police roadblock, Vanishing Point is pure twentieth century high octane nihilism – but with a twist. The archetypal loner, Kowalski (no first name is ever given) has a checkered past; at various times a race car driver, a policeman kicked off the force for stopping his partner from raping a woman during a routine traffic stop, and a Vietnam veteran, Kowalski has clearly given up on life, and seeks only speed and escape.

On his way out of Denver late Friday night, Kowalski stops by a biker bar to score some speed from his pal Jake (Lee Weaver), and bets him he’ll make it to San Francisco by Saturday at 3PM – way ahead of schedule. Jake is skeptical, but Kowalski is on a mission – indeed, when he first pulls into the garage on Friday night to pick up the Challenger, we have no idea when he’s last slept at all, if ever. Like a shark, Kowalski has to keep moving or die, constantly in motion, and constantly evading those who would seek to knock him out of the game.

For, not surprisingly, Kowalski’s epic speed trip soon attracts the attention of the police in the various states he crisscrosses on his way to the West Coast, and as he crosses one state line after another, the cops play tag team with him, each group hoping to stop him for good. From Colorado to Utah to Nevada and finally to California, Kowalski has got the cops on the run – but they’re gaining on him, and with each new state line, the obstacles get tougher and tougher to deal with.

But something’s missing, and it’s only available on the initial US release of the DVD, which presents two versions of the film with almost no fanfare; the 98 minute standard US version, and the 105 minute cut featuring a key, lost sequence with none other than Charlotte Rampling – absolutely assured as usual – as a mysterious hitchhiker in the dead of night, suitcase in hand.”

It’s true; the cut seven minutes changes the entire film. Click here, or on the image above, to read more.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

The Narcissistic Sociopathology of Gender: Craig’s Wife and The Hitch-Hiker, Part One

March 3rd, 2014

Here’s an important new article by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on two key feminist films in Film International.

The image above shows director Dorothy Arzner on the set of her 1936 film Craig’s Wife, with Director of Cinematography Lucien Ballard at her side. As Foster writes, “it’s instructive to study the work of Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino in context with one another. Though at first glance, one might easily conclude that the only thing they have in common is that they were the only women who managed to direct films during the days of the classical Hollywood studio system, a deeper look into their work exposes a stronger connection between the two; an ability to decimate and undermine the values of home and hearth as they are offered in the union of marriage under the umbrella of capitalism and an expose of the hypocrisy of American gender roles as deeply sociopathic and destructive.

Dorothy Arzner’s bleak “women’s picture” Craig’s Wife (1936) a Depression era adaptation of a stage play – and I’d argue, a feminist horror film – made as a major studio project for Columbia Pictures, revolves around the sociopathy of a destructive female narcissist, while Ida Lupino’s darkly expressionist film The Hitch-Hiker (1953), is based on the true story of male serial killer independently financed, and combines elements of several genres: horror, noir, suspense, the home invasion film and the crime thriller. These films are from different decades and genres, and may seem, at first glance, to have little in common. What I find most interesting and full of critical potential is that both are dominated by sociopaths; characters who suffer from malignant narcissism who act as mirrors held up to America; and both have queer potential.

Though I must stress that they were unique as individuals and had very different directorial styles, Arzner and Lupino remain historically linked by the fact that they were the only two women in the sound era to direct films in Hollywood and the first two women to belong to the Director’s Guild. Women, who had once flourished as film directors in the silent era, had by the sound era been pushed out of the field.Yet, both these filmmakers despised the special attention the media paid to their gender and they were equally vocal about their deep distaste for such attention, even when their uniqueness as female directors was routinely used as a selling point in the studio trades and publicity materials.”

There’s much more here to read; click on this link, or the image above, to read this important essay.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

UNL Breaking News Panel – Moderated by Steve Smith – 2/26/14

March 3rd, 2014

Here’s news of a recent panel on breaking news, moderated by Steve Smith of UNL Communications.

Breaking News! was a panel discussion about UNL’s news “voice” and how it’s an important part of the university’s story. What makes a good news story? How can you identify stories, experts and elements within your college or unit and get them placed in the local, regional or national media? UNL News Director Steve Smith moderated a panel about the different aspects of news at UNL and the many ways to push UNL’s message and voice far and wide. The panel was very well attended, and a video it is up on the web, continuing to get a significant number of hits – more than 4,000 so far.

The panelists were:
  • Molly Brummond, assistant Dean of Student & alumni relations and annual giving for the NU College of Law
  • Mekita Rivas, communications associate with the School of Natural Resources
  • Vicki Miller, director of research communications in the Office of Research and Economic Development
  • Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at UNL

You can check out the entire session by clicking here, on the image above; fascinating viewing.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

The Big Party — The 86th Annual Academy Awards

March 3rd, 2014

Here’s the star-studded selfie taken by host Ellen DeGeneres at the Oscars that really did crash Twitter.

I worked with Dan Wood of The Christian Science Monitor on this Oscars this year; you can read his article here. For me, the only surprises were The Act of Killing not winning Best Documentary, and The Hunt not winning Best Foreign Film. I was also mildly surprised that Spike Jonze won for Best Original Screenplay for Her, but the rest were all predicted in my previous blog posts. It was business as usual, with the accent on business. A more artificial spectacle could hardly be imagined.

Gravity, one of the emptiest films of all time, swept most of the categories, including Best Director; Twelve Years A Slave won Best Film, because it obviously was the best film nominated, and the Academy could hardly ignore it. The show itself was overlong, as usual, with interminable musical numbers, tributes to cinema’s Hollywood past, but as I’ve noted before, and stressed in my interview with the Monitor, the Oscars are not an index of quality, but rather an industry event that advertises and reaffirms Hollywood as the center of the cinematic firmament, even as it marginalizes all of the rest of the world’s film output.

It isn’t voted on by critics, or even audience members; you have to be a member of the Academy to vote, and this year they turned out in record numbers, thanks to an aggressive e-mail campaign. So it’s really a popularity contest, or, as the actress Janet Gaynor once observed, a “nice pat on the back.” Anyway, it’s over now, and hopefully winter with it, and so we can wait until next year when the whole mad carnival whips up again, with more competition, more self-advertising, and more “bests” culled from a narrow field that is comprised, for the most part, of mainstream commercial films alone.

Click here for a complete list of the winners.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

New Article – Preliminary Notes on the Monochrome Universe

February 26th, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International; click here, or on the image above, to read the entire essay.

In the essay, I note that “lately I’ve been thinking about black and white movies, and how they’ve almost completely disappeared from the current cinematic landscape. There are occasional projects shot in black and white, but with cinema rapidly becoming an all-digital medium, and black and white film stock almost impossible to purchase, color has taken over completely, either glossy and popped-out, or desaturated for a more dramatic effect, but always using some palette of color. Furthermore, while there have been numerous books on the use of color in the cinema, there has been no book-length study on the black and white film, and yet black and white cinema dominated the industry internationally for nearly seven decades, until the late 1960s.

Certainly, numerous cameramen and directors have weighed in on the use of black and white in their works, most notably John Alton in Painting With Light, but in each case, these works were created when black and white was still a commercially viable medium. Most of the texts I’ve encountered, with the exception of Alton’s book, and to a lesser extent Edward Dmytryk’s Cinema: Concept and Practice, written after the director had long since retired, treat black and white filmmaking as a part of everyday life, the main production medium for most movies, which at the time, it certainly was.

In these necessarily practical books, it’s about f-stops, filters and cookies, but very little about the aesthetics of the medium. Indeed, when Alton published his landmark study, he was famously excoriated by his colleagues as being a pretentious self-promoter; what cameramen did was work, nothing more, and any notions of artistic ambition were inherently suspect. In most of the books cited below, color is dealt with as a special case, which again, it was; but now, in the all color, all digital world of images we currently inhabit, black and white has become the anomaly. Thus, I wanted to set down some preliminary notes on my new project here, before they elude me; the title is Black and White: A Brief History of Monochrome Cinema, the term used by British filmmakers until the medium’s demise in the mid 1960s.

And yet shooting in black and white is inherently a transformative act. As the filmmaker and opera director Jonathan Miller – whose beautiful film of Alice in Wonderland (1966) was elegantly photographed in black and white by the gifted Dick Bush – once observed in a conversation with me, the very act of making a black and white film transmutes the original source material, for life, as we know, takes place in color. Therefore, there is an intrinsic level of stylization and re-interpretation of reality when one makes a black and white film, leading to an entirely different way of cinematography. Indeed, it’s an entirely different world altogether, one that is rapidly slipping away from us as it recedes in the mists of the past.”

The book will take several years of work, but this is, at least, a start.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014)

February 25th, 2014

Four years ago, Gareth Edwards (that’s him above) made a small and very effective film, Monsters (2010).

That film cost practically nothing, and was shot on location in Mexico on a catch as catch can basis, picking up scenes along the way and then repropping them with low cost but very effective CGI enhancement, something that Edwards is really good at. At the time, Edwards said that with Monsters, he wanted to create a film that was a cross between War of The Worlds and Lost in Translation, and oddly enough, the film was just that; a thoughtful, low key monster film, in which the monsters were kept out of view for most of the movie, only to be revealed rather spectacularly at a gas station in the middle of the desert in the film’s final moments.

Now, he’s back, with something much more conventional; yet another reboot of Godzilla, based on the 1954 Ishiro Honda original. Actually, Godzilla – both the character, and the movie – could really use a reboot, for once, since it’s been the subject of so many subpar remakes and sequels, not to mention – let’s please don’t mention – the miserable Matthew Broderick remake a few years back. But here, Edwards seems to be taking a Christopher Nolan approach to the material, and the cast is first rate; Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn and Juliette Binoche all are involved. So this may work.

Click here to view the trailer , which is full of destruction, but no monster until the very end. Check it out.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Je Veux Voir (2008)

February 16th, 2014

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster just introduced me to a stunning film by Joana Hadjithomas and Kahil Joreige.

In a scant 69 minutes, this hypnotic, absolutely transcendent film sketches many of the issues surrounding the war in Lebanon in 2006, as seen through the eyes of Catherine Deneuve, the famed French film star, who traveled to Beirut to appear in the film, and is listed as one of the backers of the project, probably in that she donated her services to the project for free. As the makers of this astonishing film told interviewer Chantal Pointbriand in the web journal Afterall,

“In Je veux voir we worked on the idea that the 2006 war represents a schism. At the time we were outside the country. We saw and lived this war out through images on television, blogs and the internet. These incredibly spectacular images ended up being, in a way, powerless. It was a very strange moment. We really felt this was a time of rupture in our history, not only in the history of our country, but also in our history as artists in the region. It’s like what Hannah Arendt said about the uncertain future, you know that there is no certainty in it.

We decided to deal with this by confronting someone from our history as Lebanese film-makers and artists, with someone outside of it, bringing together the artist and actor Rabih Mroué, with whom we have worked with a lot, and Catherine Deneuve, the French film icon. In this way we are attempting to experiment with new strategies for film-making in the aftermath of the 2006 war.

KJ: Traditionally when television shows victims of war, you can’t really identify with them because the images are designed to distance you. You sympathise but don’t identify. By bringing someone who is familiar in the Western history of cinema and someone from our world together, we wanted to see if through this encounter we could regain our face, our images, our identity, our names. And not play the role of the faraway victim, but create something that could engage the spectator. The idea was to displace the gaze and to question it. Paradoxically, the film is called I Want to See, but explores what you don’t see, or haven’t seen.

JH: The film works by constantly making you question what you’re seeing and what you’re not seeing. The film is about the way images are used in reporting conflict today and what this does to you, the spectator. Our big fear is always that, in the use of images, the use of art, the use of intellect, everything can be co-opted or instrumentalized, in order to make the individual into less of a thinking person, less of a subject, depoliticized, accepting reality in a lesser way.”

The resulting film is an absolute tour-de-force, one of those films that never leaves you once you’ve seen it. When one considers how much time is spent watching absolute junk, even entertaining mainstream junk, the shock and pleasure of a really evocative, thoughtful film comes as an absolutely pleasant surprise, a palate cleanser after so much trash and throwaway pop filmmaking, usually in the service of worn out genre and gender rules. Je Veux Voir instantly jumped into my top ten films of all time — in which there are more than 250 constantly rotating titles — but in all seriousness, this is a thrillingly intellectual film without one frame of wasted footage; at 69 minutes, it’s just perfect.

Easily available on DVD or streaming video; check it out!

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s Dune

February 14th, 2014

From Nancy Tartaglione of Deadline Hollywood comes this trailer for a film about a film that never got made.

Alejandro Jodorowsky famously made the metaphorical “western” El Topo, but his output has been minimal over the years, perhaps because he tries to mount such elaborate projects. Here’s the trailer for a film about his version of the classic science-fiction novel Dune, which never got made for various reasons. As Tartaglione reports, “Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune debuted in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar in Cannes last year before being acquired by Sony Pictures Classics and playing the fall fest circuit. A trailer has dropped for the documentary about veteran Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s ill-fated attempt to bring Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel, Dune, to the screen.

In the mid-1970s, Jodorowsky (El Topo, Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre) came up with an ambitious take on the tome and spent two years in pre-production. The film was to star Jodorowsky’s own 12-year-old son Brontis alongside Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, David Carradine and Salvador Dali, set to a musical score by Pink Floyd with art design by H.R. Giger and Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud. But the project ultimately went unrealized and the rights lapsed.

David Lynch made his own version of Dune in 1984 with Kyle MacLachlan, Sting and Sean Young. Here’s a look at what might have been.” As you can see from the trailer, a lot of work went into the design of the film, and the casting was certainly ambitious. I’m sorry that this never saw the light of day, as I think it would have been a fascinating project — perhaps better than Lynch’s version, but we’ll never know.

Click here, or on the image above, to read Deadline’s coverage, and see the trailer for the film.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

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 numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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