Frame by Frame is a series of short videos I made with Curt Bright on film theory, history, and criticism — each is about 3 minutes long or so. Episodes of Frame by Frame cover The Hollywood Blacklist, Ridley Scott, Commercials in Movie Theaters, Inception, 3-D, Film Critics, War Movies, Film Composers, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Subtitles vs. Dubbing, The Aura, John Ford, Remakes, Special Effects, John Huston, Ridley Scott, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, Alice Guy Blaché, Oscar Micheaux, Horror Movies, Deep Focus, Pan and Scan, Jean-Luc Godard, Camera Movement, Metropolis, Psycho, Movie Trailers, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Minorities in American Film, The King’s Speech, Alfred Hitchcock, The Great Gatsby in 3-D, Digital Cinema, Special Effects, John Huston, Manoel de Oliveira, Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese, Westerns, Nicholas Ray, Busby Berkeley, Claire Denis, Woody Allen, Film Archives, George Cukor, Roger Corman, Billy Wilder, trailers, the Hollywood Ratings System, and many other topics.
As I write, in part, “Juan Orol’s “first directorial credit was on the 1927 silent film El sendero gris (1927, co-directed with Jesús Cárdenas), but his first big hit was the 1935 maternal tearjerker Madre querida (Beloved Mother), which he produced, directed, and introduced on screen, with a seemingly heartfelt paean to all the mothers in the audience, in addition to providing the story for the film. This was followed by the equally sudsy Honrarás a tus padres (Honor Thy Mother and Father, 1937), which Orol produced, directed, and starred in – this last function serving as the beginning of a long string of performances in his films, despite his somewhat unprepossessing appeal as a matinee idol.
After exhausting the public’s appetite for melodrama and musicals, Orol turned to gangster films, and soon became the foremost exponent of the ‘Cine Negro Mexicano,’ also known as the ‘Cine de Gangsters.’ It was here that Orol truly found his métier. Orol idolized the Warner Bros. gangster films of the early 1930s, and imagined himself as a worthy competitor of the likes of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. Soon, he invented a recurring character that he would play for most of the rest of his life – Johnny Carmenta, a supposedly suave denizen of the underworld who would eventually become Orol’s almost real-life alter ego.
This gave rise to the best-known film of Orol’s long career, the genre bending Gángsters contra charros (Gangsters Against Cowboys, 1948), in which Orol, as gangster Johnny Carmenta, battles cowboy Pancho Domínguez (José Pulido) in a Mexico City turf war, further complicated by the presence of cabaret dancer Rosa (Rosa Carmina, who was also Orol’s third wife at the time), who deftly plays one man off against the other. As with the majority of Orol’s films, most of the 79 minute running time of Gángsters contra charros is comprised of long dialogue scenes, in which Orol and Pulido threaten each other with a singular lack of conviction, interspersed with equally interminable series of dance numbers, making the film in effect a gangster/cowboy/musical. Despite its shoddy production values, audiences flocked to the film, and Orol seemed utterly unstoppable.
Demonstrating the truth of Jack Warner’s oft repeated mantra, ’successful films aren’t made; they’re remade,’ Orol created an updated version of Madre querida (Beloved Mother) in 1951, and then continued on for the next two decades with such offerings as El sindicato del crimen (The Crime Syndicate, 1954), Zonga, el ángel diabólico (Zonga, the Diabolical Angel, 1958), Antesala de la silla eléctrica (Prelude to the Electric Chair, 1968, which was actually shot in Miami, Florida) and Historia de un gangster (Story of a Gangster, 1969) [. . .]
Dubbed the creator of ‘accidental surrealism,’ the world that Orol’s films depict is at once alluring and evanescent, existing in a twilight zone of cheap sets, shabby nightclub acts, and the seemingly eternal presence of Orol’s gangster alter ego. Like [Roger] Corman in his best films, his early black and white work from the 1950s, Orol presented his viewers with a world of pervasive corruption, yet infused with his own sense of indomitable optimism.
Pop culture reflects the needs and desires of the time in which it is created; at Orol’s retrospective, only a few patrons showed up, while during his heyday, his films packed movie houses throughout the country, earning record grosses, but were never really allowed to find an audience outside Mexico. In short, he knew precisely what his audiences wanted to see.
Hotwiring existing genres into a mind-bending meld all his own, Orol created a cinema that is absolutely unique, and utterly without precedent. [Directors] Emilio Fernández and Luis Buñuel, who both knew him, would agree; whatever his faults, Juan Orol was doing precisely what he wanted to, answering to no one but himself, and yet at the same time creating films that the public clamored to see, cloaking his own vision in the venerable disguise of a genre filmmaker – which he was, and yet he wasn’t. This, perhaps, is his most significant accomplishment, one any cineaste would envy.”
In my essay, “The Trouble With Hitchcock,” I note in part that “Alfred Hitchcock is routinely regarded as one of the most profound and technically adept directors in the history of cinema, but I would argue that only the latter half of that statement is accurate. Starting in his American period, if one picks Hitchcock up with Shadow of A Doubt (1943) and then continues up to his final film, Family Plot (1976), the cumulative effect is both traumatizing and disappointing. No doubt Hitchcock would find this amusing, as one who explored the darkest regions of the human psyche – particularly his own.
But Hitchcock only understood the dark side of existence. In the end, he emerges as the ultimate anti-humanist, in love with nihilism and the emptiness it represents. After one strips away the numerous displays of technical virtuosity that are his cinematic trademarks, one is left with a barren landscape of despair, madness, and obsession. And it’s clear, at least to me, that as Hitchcock grew older, his obsessions took hold of him to the point that he couldn’t control them – or perhaps, he simply didn’t want to anymore.
From Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) in Shadow of a Doubt to Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) in Marnie (1964) to the appalling Robert Rusk (Barry Foster) in Frenzy (1972), whenever Hitchcock has, as his protagonist, not the “wrong man,” but rather a deeply “wrong” man, that person is the character he most identifies with. The most compelling sections of his films nearly always center on a disturbed, usually homicidal man who is driven by compulsions beyond his control to destroy those around him, as if they were phantoms to be dispatched on a whim.”
As the official website for the book notes, “the culture of twenty-first century America largely revolves around narcissistic death, violence, and visions of doom. As people are bombarded with amoral metanarratives that display an almost complete lack of empathy for others on television, in films, and on the internet, their insatiable appetite for excessive pain and routine death reflects an embrace of an endlessly warring culture. Foster explores this culture of the apocalypse, from hoarding and gluttony to visions of the post-apocalyptic world.”
“Gwendolyn Audrey Foster writes passionately about the debased media-scape of our death-worshipping culture. She probes into our collective fascination with an Earth without us, even as we continue activities that are sure to lead to yet more ecological devastation and mass extinction. Hoarders, Doomsday Preppers, and the Culture of Apocalypse is not a comforting book, but it is an eloquent call from a voice crying in the wilderness: a warning that we ignore at our peril.” – Steven Shaviro, DeRoy Professor, English, Wayne State University
“In this urgent and important book, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster exposes and explores the multiform obscenities – of violence, wealth, consumption, ownership, avarice, aggression, and more – that infect the politics, businesses, entertainments, and mentalities of today’s narcissistic, fear-peddling, death-celebrating culture, shining a laser-sharp spotlight on excesses of sexism, neo-liberalism, speciesism, capitalism, and nationalism in the contemporary media.” – David Sterritt, Columbia University
“In her newest book, Hoarders, Doomsday Preppers, and the Culture of Apocalypse, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster explores the excesses of late-capitalist American consumerism; her exploration of media representation of gluttony, hoarding, waste, and debt is compelling reading for anyone interested in contemporary popular culture.” – Patrice Petro, Professor, English, Film Studies, and Global Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
“Gwendolyn Audrey Foster challenges us to confront the apocalyptic narratives of our time in her engaging and thought-provoking book. Through our desire for what she terms ‘apocotainment’ – the apocalypse as entertainment for the masses – we eagerly digest the mediatized horrors of our planet’s ecological destruction on screen as we continue to deny it as reality in our own front yards. Foster’s book is a wakeup call to take notice of the preciousness of our common humanity, before we confront the death of our planet in real life.” – Valérie K. Orlando, Professor, French and Francophone Literature and Film, University of Maryland
As she writes, “Indie directors love to mix genres in order to introduce us to fairly realistic characters, unusual stories and fresh narrative strategies. Enid Zentelis effectively mixes elements of serious drama, romantic comedy, and discomforting black comedic elements of the horror film in her low-budget gem, Bottled Up (2013), which is not only a ‘women’s picture,’ but also an unusual working class women’s story of painkiller addiction meets sobering eco-horror film. It was made on a very small budget and few have seen the film. There are moments in Bottled Up that are excruciating and difficult to watch, yet there are moments of light romantic comedy amongst the horror.
This odd mix captures the absurdities of modern life more effectively than films with much bigger budgets. A great deal of the credit needs to go to Melissa Leo, whose acting ability is so rare and so immensely gifted that her mere presence in a film often elevates it beyond and above the material. Bottled Up is a strange brew and it doesn’t always work entirely, but when it does work it is thanks not only to Leo’s acting, but also to the smart directorial choices of Enid Zentelis, whose last directorial effort was another working-class drama, Evergreen (2004).
Like many films that center on women and don’t play by the rules, Bottled Up is hard to pigeonhole; most critics annoyingly dub it “quirky,” but there is a gritty realism about it that stays with you. Shot on a shoestring budget in upstate New York, I could say that this film provides yet another demanding and terrific role for Melissa Leo, but it is probably more accurate to say that she crafts the leading role here into a major career achievement.”
Leonhardt continues, “A new set of income statistics answers those questions quite clearly: Yes, college is worth it, and it’s not even close. For all the struggles that many young college graduates face, a four-year degree has probably never been more valuable. The pay gap between college graduates and everyone else reached a record high last year, according to the new data, which is based on an analysis of Labor Department statistics by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree. That’s up from 89 percent five years earlier, 85 percent a decade earlier and 64 percent in the early 1980s.”
As this story by Leslie Reed of the UNL News Service notes, “Brugger’s first work as a director, a seven-minute film called ‘The Pursuit of Happiness,’ was among those screened at the international film festival. It was one of two films directed by UNL film studies students at the annual film festival. Collin Baker’s eight-minute film, ‘Over Forgotten Roads,’ also screened. Brugger and Baker are the first two UNL students to have a film screened at Cannes. Several thousands of short films are submitted each year for consideration by the festival; Brugger’s was one of 31 selected for screening through the American Pavilion, the center of activity for the American film community at Cannes. UNL’s Wheeler Winston Dixon, professor of film studies and English, described the Cannes selection of Brugger’s film as a ‘distinct honor.’”
On her way back to the States, Aliza filed this report – “coming from Lincoln, Nebraska and having never been in Europe, let alone Southern France, entering the city of Cannes was quite a shock. It is a beautiful city. Much like Southern California, it’s engulfed by palm trees, aqua blue water and gorgeous weather. Also much like Southern California, Cannes is engulfed by the film business.
Plastered all over the shops and walls of Cannes were advertisements for the festival and the films showing. Needless to say, as a Film Studies student, I was elated. Not only was I going to get to watch a plethora of films, but my first short film as a director was also going to be screening at the festival. I was certain it was going to be an amazing two weeks.
There were so many things I learned, and so many people I met. I met many filmmakers who were genuinely passionate about the art of film, like myself. I was able to make real and probably much longer lasting connections with my own peers. Throughout the program our mentors repeatedly told us that these are the connections that matter, and by the end of the festival I realized it to be true.
I was able to meet several young filmmakers who are also pursuing their dreams, which has given me a real sense of community. I also met many of the other interns’ mentors who were familiar with jobs and internships where I would fit in quite well, so now I have whole set of new connections. The doors are now wide open!
Some really beautiful films that I watched during the festival included Timbuktu, Lost River, Goodbye to Language, Charlie’s Country, and Finding Eleanor Rigby. The screening of my own film, The Pursuit of Happiness, really went quite well. Almost 50 people saw it, and I received a really great response from the audience, who thought it was an interesting and innovative way to tell a story, which obviously made me quite proud.
I can’t express enough how glad I am that I attended this festival. I learned so much about the business, and about how it works. More than anything, it has given me a lot to think about regarding where I want to be in the world of film, and I look forward to making new contacts, and creating new projects.”
But last night’s episode was uncharacteristically optimistic – thank God! After one episode after another of down, down, down into the abyss of despair, to see Roger Sterling (John Slattery) come in and rescue the agency with a merger, and then Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse) take his final bow with a musical number reminiscent of his long stint in Broadway musicals, was more than refreshing – it was absolutely necessary. Here’s what Morse had to say about his song and dance sendoff:
“Matthew Weiner came to me and said, ‘Bobby, I want to talk to you… You’re going to pass away in this episode. I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘I perfectly understand.’ And he said, ‘By the way, I’ve always wanted to have you sing. That’s what I remember you from, all your Broadway and theater days. When I hired you, always, in the back of my mind, I wanted you to sing a song, but there was never a place to do it.’ And then he came up with this idea. He said, ‘I am going to make you come back in the last shot in the picture and sing a song to Don.’ [Morse sings] ‘The moon belongs to everyone. The best things in life are free.’
They had this wonderful choreographer, Mary Ann Kellogg, whom I knew very well, and hired four or five beautiful dancers who would play secretaries . . . I dance with them and also sing to Don, and it’s a whole production. I went and learned the song, and I went into the studio and we recorded it with a huge orchestra. Then we rehearsed it on the set for a couple of days, away from everybody else. Nobody knew what was going on . . . It was just a lovely way, a sweet way, for dear Matt to send me off.”
And the winners are: Palme d’Or – Winter Sleep, dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan; Grand Prize - Le Meraviglie (The Wonders), dir: Alice Rohrwacher; Best Director – Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher; Jury Prize – Tie - Mommy, dir: Xavier Dolan and Goodbye To Language, dir: Jean-Luc Godard; Best Screenplay – Andrey Zvyagintsev, Oleg Negin, Leviathan; Best Actress – Julianne Moore, Maps To The Stars; Best Actor – Timothy Spall, Mr Turner; Camera d’Or - Party Girl, dirs: Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger, Samuel Theis; Short Film - Leidi, dir: Simón Mesa Soto.
I agree with the awards, for what it’s worth – this seems to have been a lively and exciting festival, though how these films will do in the rapidly shrinking commercial marketplace is another question altogether – but we can hope. It’s nice to see Godard win something at last; nice also to see Bennett Miller, Julianne Moore and Timothy Spall emerge as victors; this year’s festival seemed to look both to the past – with Godard – and to the future, with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep and Xavier Dolan’s Mommy.
The Film Studies Program at UNL had a connection to the festival, as four of our students in the Film Studies Program – Aliza Brugger, Collin Baker, Thomas Peterson and Alannah Kennedy. – were working as interns in the American Pavilion at the festival, and two students, Aliza Brugger and Collin Baker, actually had short films screened at the festival.
We’re also going to be represented at Cannes next year, as the American Pavilion was very happy with the work of our students, and they’ve already contacted us again for the next edition of the festival. Needless to say, for our students in Film Studies, this was a real opportunity, and one which we hope will continue. Thanks to Kelly Payne, our chief adviser in Film Studies, for setting this up – much appreciated. It’s one more step towards international visibility.
What’s so amazing about it? This is the sequence in which Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) interviews the writer Parvulesco (in real life, director Jean-Pierre Melville) at the airport; what’s impressive and inspirational here is the simplicity of the working crew, stripped down to the bare essentials. Other than Godard, seated, gesturing towards the off-screen actors, the only other person directly involved in the shooting is camera operator Claude Beausoleil (Raoul Coutard was the director of cinematography, but Beausoleil did much of the actual shooting) – one cameraman, one director, to shoot the scene – that’s all.
The sound was all post-synchronized, so there’s no need for a Nagra and a boom mike. Natural sunlight provides all the illumination Godard needs. The resulting film reinvented the cinema, and established Godard as a director of the first rank. Filmmaking should be this simple; there’s no need for thirty people to supervise a simple scene such as this. If film is to reinvent itself again, it must return to the basics; a camera, some actors, a director, and the power of the direct image – above all else.
About the Author
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 email@example.com.
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In The National News
National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/