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The Collapsing Theatrical Window for Films

May 18th, 2017

As Anthony D’Alessandro notes in Deadline, theatrical release windows for movies are in jeopardy.

There’s been a lot of talk recently that film distribution is moving away from theaters, and towards PVOD – Premium Video on Demand – viewing a film at home on the day of release for as much as $50 a pop. It’s been tried before, and except for big ticket sporting events, it hasn’t really worked out. But that may be changing.

As  D’Alessandro reports, “The urban myth feared by many is that if the per-title rental price in the PVOD window drops down to $20, consumers ultimately will realize that it’s cheaper to watch a movie at home then in cinemas, forgoing costs that come with a night out, i.e. babysitter, parking, dinner, etc. Some studio executives claim their talks with exhibition over PVOD aren’t contentious, but many insiders say that both parties’ working relationship is best described as ‘frenemies.’

Says one distribution veteran: ‘Exhibitors are freaking out. They can’t make money unless they grow their companies, and it’s hard to build these $40M multiplexes. If you have your investors hearing about windows closings, what incentive is there for them to hold on to their stocks?’ The former executive adds that PVOD, if not managed properly, could cause ‘a slowdown in exhibitions’ luxury-seat remodeling and force the mom-and-pop theaters out of business.’ Some also forecast that the domestic supply will shrink, that moviegoing will be relegated to tentpoles with mid- to low-budget fare relegated to in-home streaming.

However, these are doomsday theories, and there’s some positive evidence that the majors aren’t going to cannibalize their own business. Here they are:

The Theatrical Window Will Be Protected: ‘The last thing studios would want to do is threaten that lucrative revenue stream by encroaching on the theatrical window,’ says Tony Wible, Media & Entertainment Senior Analyst at Drexel Hamilton. ‘Theatrical plays a role in pricing the TV licenses for films, and there’s an incentive for studios to maintain the theatrical window.’

Despite Their Bullishness, Studios Haven’t Figured Out a PVOD Formula Yet: There’s buzz that Warner Bros. will come to terms on a PVOD solution by Q4 or Q1 2018, but they’re not going to act alone in the marketplace without another studio. In addition, there are too many moving parts to the PVOD equation, and the whole notion of it goes beyond the Monday-morning haggling between a distributor and exhibitor to hold a film on screens. Other windows like electronic sell-through [EST, when the consumer purchases a permanent video download, either in the cloud or on their computer] would be impacted, and that’s another discussion studios need to have with digital partners including iTunes and Vudu.

If PVOD Becomes a Reality, It Will Face Its Own Challenges: Home consumers already have committed their [money] to cable bundles, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. When it comes to content in the home, they have way too much of it, not to mention VOD menus are already crowded. So, where’s the incentive to rent one title for [as an example] $30? ‘If you have a $30 VOD product, it’s going to be too expensive for the home consumer when it’s priced against these services,’ says Wible, ‘There’s a value trade-off.’

In Addition, Exhibition Claims That In-Home Streaming Services Aren’t Their Direct Competition: According to Alamo Drafthouse and Neon label chief Tim League,’Theaters are more in competition with restaurants and comedy clubs and the types of entertainment that gets you out of the house.’ Currently, exhibitors such as Regal, Cinemark and AMC are barreling forward with luxury modeling and food/alcohol amenities, and these efforts have led to increased capacity and B.O. revenue upticks, with increased cash-on-cash returns.

Mid- and Low-Budget Movies Can Remain in the Theatrical Space: Some have screamed that economically budgeted fare doesn’t have a chance going forward in an event-driven theatrical marketplace, but the success of Get Out, Split, Fifty Shades Darker, Hidden Figures, John Wick: Chapter 2 and even La La Land have proved otherwise; that’s all about how a studio positions and sells a film. ‘There’s not a clear delineating line of what is meant for theatrical and what’s intended for streaming,’ says Amazon’s distribution and marketing chief Bob Berney.

Whether a mid-budget or indie film winds up on streaming or theatrical has a lot to do with a film’s financiers, and when there’s a company like Netflix willing to pony up big bucks for the smaller screen, money talks. In addition, mid-level and low-budget films ‘need to be event-ized,’ says Berney. Whether they thrive on the big screen boils down to several factors, i.e. a distributor’s passion for the film, how far they’re willing to go with it, a pic’s critical and festival reactions. Not to mention, as long as there are Oscars, there will be smart, upscale specialty movies on the big screen.”

There’s much more to this excellent article; you can read the whole piece by clicking here.

Maybe VR Isn’t The Future of Cinema – Just a Gimmick?

May 5th, 2017

Many Best Buy VR pop-up stores closed in February; now Facebook is shutting down its Oculus Story Studio.

As Janko Roettgers reported in Variety, “Oculus Story Studio, the award-winning studio behind virtual reality (VR) short films like Dear Angelica and Henry is being shut down, Facebook announced Thursday afternoon. The studio’s 50 staffers are encouraged to apply for new jobs within Oculus, but all ongoing projects of the studio are being cancelled.

‘We’ve been looking at the best way to allocate our resources to create an impact on the ecosystem,’ said Oculus VP of Content Jason Rubin in a blog post. ‘After careful consideration, we’ve decided to shift our focus away from internal content creation to support more external production. As part of that shift, we’ll be winding down Story Studio.’

Oculus officially unveiled Story Studio to the world in early 2015, when it also premiered Lost as the studio’s first narrative piece. In 2016, Story Studio followed up with Henry, an animated VR short about a lovable hedgehog that won an Emmy for Outstanding Original Interactive Program later that year. And earlier this year, Oculus Story Studio premiered its most ambitious project with Dear Angelica, a VR film that was animated entirely within VR itself and that featured Geena Davis voicing one of the two main characters.

All three films will continue to be available on the Oculus Store, Rubin said Thursday. For Dear Angelica, the Story Studio team also developed an entire authoring tool called Quill that allows animators to draw 3-D scenes while wearing a headset and that has been available for free on the Oculus Store. Quill could be open sourced, according to a spokesperson, but Oculus is not going to provide any active support for it anymore.

That could be bad news for animators looking to explore new forms of storytelling in VR; the Story Studio team had in recent months been looking to venture into 3-D comics, and debuted a collection of VR comics at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. At the time, it announced that these comics would be released on the Oculus Store later this year, but that seems less certain now.”

This comes on the heels of an announcement in February 2017 that roughly 200 “pop up” Oculus demo booths located in Best Buy stores in the United States were being shuttered due to lack of consumer interest. As Michael Rougeau reported in Digital Trends, “just under half of the Oculus Rift demo kiosks in Best Buy stores across the U.S. are being shut down, according to a report from Business Insider. The reason? It could be a lack of interest from shoppers.

Apparently, it wasn’t uncommon for Best Buy employees ‘to go days without giving a single demonstration,’ the website said. A memo between a third-party company and store employees reportedly confirmed that the move is due to poor ‘store performance.’ An Oculus spokesperson later confirmed with the website that the Best Buy Rift pop-ups are closing, but said the shift is due to ‘seasonal changes’ and that Oculus is ‘prioritizing demos … in larger markets.’

The move will reportedly affect 200 of the 500 Best Buy locations in the U.S. that currently have Oculus Rift demo stations. ‘We still believe the best way to learn about VR is through a live demo,’ the spokesperson, Andrea Schubert, said. ‘We’re going to find opportunities to do regular events and pop-ups in retail locations and local communities throughout the year.’ She mentioned that stores in Canada will still have the demo kiosks as well.

Business Insider’s report cited multiple unnamed sources who said that the demo stations were often too buggy to use and demos were infrequent even during the holidays. Another of the site’s sources said that Facebook, which owns Oculus, has considered opening dedicated storefronts to sell the headset, but that those talks are still in the early stage.” Summing up the move, Rougeau noted that “the removal of Oculus Rift kiosks from Best Buy stores may be a signal of the product’s declining status.”

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the coming months.

Lucy Fischer’s New Book “Cinema By Design”

May 5th, 2017

Lucy Fischer has an excellent new book out on the influence of Art Nouveau in film.

As the website for the book from Columbia University Press notes, “Art Nouveau thrived from the late 1890s through the First World War. The international design movement reveled in curvilinear forms and both playful and macabre visions and had a deep impact on cinematic art direction, costuming, gender representation, genre, and theme. Though historians have long dismissed Art Nouveau as a decadent cultural mode, its tremendous afterlife in cinema proves otherwise. In Cinema by Design, Lucy Fischer traces Art Nouveau’s long history in films from various decades and global locales, appreciating the movement’s enduring avant-garde aesthetics and dynamic ideology.

Fischer begins with the portrayal of women and nature in the magical ‘trick films’ of the Spanish director Segundo de Chomón; the elite dress and décor design choices in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Affairs of Anatol (1921); and the mise-en-scène of fantasy in Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Reading Salome (1923), Fischer shows how the cinema offered an engaging frame for adapting the risqué works of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Moving to the modern era, Fischer focuses on a series of dramatic films, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), that make creative use of the architecture of Antoni Gaudí; and several European works of horror—The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Deep Red (1975), and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013)—in which Art Nouveau architecture and narrative supply unique resonances in scenes of terror.

In later chapters, she examines films like Klimt (2006) that portray the style in relation to the art world and ends by discussing the Art Nouveau revival in 1960s cinema. Fischer’s analysis brings into focus the partnership between Art Nouveau’s fascination with the illogical and the unconventional and filmmakers’ desire to upend viewers’ perception of the world. Her work explains why an art movement embedded in modernist sensibilities can flourish in contemporary film through its visions of nature, gender, sexuality, and the exotic.”

This is a brilliant and wide-ranging book, written in a direct and accessible style, which moves smoothly from one film to another, and one era to another, effortlessly navigating both space and time in cinema history, in a text which is at once adventurous, incisive, and thoroughly grounded in cinema and art history. Fischer is a brilliant scholar whose work is always deeply informed and carefully considered, and with this book, she tackles a theme in cinema art direction which is far more wide-spread than one might expect. Complete with a plethora of illustrations, this is a must have text for any lover of film.

Again, proof of the old saying that the only new history is that which you don’t know – essential reading.

Books Are Still An Essential Part of Any Library

April 25th, 2017

A library without books isn’t a serious library – too much material hasn’t been digitized.

In an interview in The Christian Science Monitor today, I told writer Weston Williams that “‘as the author of some 30 books on cinema history, I can readily attest that most of the deep research materials in this area, and in other related humanities areas, have never made the jump to digital format . . . The more superficial and recent articles are readily available, but once you get into the history of the medium, in the early part of the 20th century, you’re working with microfilm, or even more likely, actual print materials.’

Ignoring these older physical media, Dixon argues, is ‘erasing the past,’ until every scrap of information is online. And even then, there are other potential problems. The removal of 60 percent of the physical collection at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for instance, caused an uproar after it was reported that many of the books removed had been destroyed. A campus spokesman said that nothing had been lost from the scholarly record, since duplicates were retained in other libraries or available online. Given the short timeframe and seeming lack of consultation of the faculty, however, many critics expressed doubts that this was actually the case.

‘Only by trundling through the archives in detail – a process that would probably take a staff of people a number of years – could one be sure that nothing not digitized was being eliminated,’ says Dixon. ‘Also, in a number of cases, when materials are scanned, a very bad job is done of it, and the scan quality is so poor as to make the document almost unreadable.’ So, in most cases the primary research sources one needs for serious humanities research simply aren’t online – as I found writing my recent book Black & White Cinema: A Short History – and only print materials, properly preserved, gave me the information I needed.

If everything – everything – every scrap of information – is digitized, then perhaps one can make the case for a “bookless library.” But that will never happen, and so books, microfilm, periodicals, and other print materials from the dawn of the printing press to the end of the 20th century should be preserved at all costs, and readily accessible – not in high density storage. Otherwise, one has no idea what one is missing, which is indeed erasing the past.

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

I’d Die For You: The Lost Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald

April 23rd, 2017

Here’s a new collection of Fitzgerald’s short stories, from his Golden Era as a writer.

As the Manuscripts Division of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collection at Princeton University Library notes of this new release, “lovers of the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), Class of 1917, can celebrate the publication of I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories (Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster). Anne Margaret Daniel,  a literature professor at The New School, prepared this eagerly awaited edition. The book includes sixteen previously unpublished short stories and two ‘uncollected stories.’

Some are what Fitzgerald labeled ‘false starts.’ Others had been rejected outright by publishers; needed revision, for which he lacked time; or dealt with taboo subjects. Daniel has edited most of these unpublished stories from handwritten and typescript drafts in the F. Scott Fitzgerald Papers. The author’s daughter, Scottie Fitzgerald Lanahan, donated the papers to Princeton in 1950, along with the papers of her mother, Zelda Fitzgerald. Scottie retained a group of unpublished stories in the hope of finding a publisher. Unfortunately, most of these stories were not published. Put aside and forgotten, they were rediscovered by the Fitzgerald family a half century later.

Fitzgerald is celebrated today for The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender is the Night (1934), though his youthful first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), holds a special place in Tiger hearts. Yet for most of his life, Fitzgerald made a living as a successful writer of light fiction, especially for The Saturday Evening Post. Fitzgerald published more than 150 short stories in popular American magazines, from ‘Babes in the Woods’ (1919) to the posthumous ‘Gods of Darkness’ (1941).

Some stories were published in series, like the Basil Duke Lee stories in The Saturday Evening Post and Pat Hobby Stories in Esquire. A number of the short stories are highly regarded by critics, such as ‘Winter Dreams’ (1922), ‘Absolution’ (1924), ‘The Rich Boy’ (1926), ‘Babylon Revisited’ (1931), and ‘Crazy Sunday’ (1932). Many of Fitzgerald’s short stories were anthologized by Charles Scribner’s Sons in Flappers and Philosophers (1920), Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), All the Sad Young Men (1926) and Taps at Reveille (1935).

All but one of the short stories in I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories date from the 1930s, when the intertwined lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were unraveling and Fitzgerald was struggling to make a living as an author and screenwriter. Several stories are clearly autobiographical, including ‘The I.O.U.’ (1920), written early in Fitzgerald’s literary career, about publishing; ‘Nightmare (Fantasy in Black)’ (1932), set in a mental hospital; ‘I’d Die for You (The Legend of Lake Lure)’ (1935/36), drawing on his time in North Carolina ; ‘Travel Together’ (1935/36), about a struggling screenwriter; ‘Offside Play’ (1937), about collegiate football, ostensibly at Yale; and ‘Love is a Pain’ (1939/40), recalling Princeton days.

Providing a context for Fitzgerald’s very readable stories are the editor’s general introduction, head notes and explanatory notes for each story, and a selection of illustrations (mostly from the Fitzgerald Papers).” It’s always a treat when any previously unpublished Fitzgerald work comes to light; ‘The I.O.U.’ was recently printed in The New Yorker as a sort of appetizer for the volume; I’ll come clean and admit that Fitzgerald is my favorite early 20th century writer, and so the chance to read some more of his work is always welcome.

I bought my copy today – how about you?

The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age

April 17th, 2017

I have a new article out today: “The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age.”

As I note in the article, “this essay takes its title from Erle C. Kenton‘s 1942 film The Ghost of Frankenstein, one of the last credible films in the original Universal series, and asks the question, ‘What are we to do with, or make of, the Frankenstein monster in the 21st century?’ Tracing the monster in film from its beginnings to the present, we see a disturbing but not altogether unexpected trend. Newer iterations of the classic tale feature more special effects, but less real content.

Universal is rebooting their stable of classic monsters with yet another version of The Mummy in Alex Kurtzman’s 2017 film of the same name starring Tom Cruise, with revamped versions of Frankenstein and Dracula to follow if the film is successful. Significantly, the 2017 Mummy is more of an action film than anything else; it seems that mood and menace will no longer hold an audience. But will any of these versions have lasting impact, or value?”

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

Personal Shopper – A Ghost Story for the Digital Era

April 15th, 2017

Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is a brilliant, hypnotic film – a ghost story for the modern era.

Pictured above are actress Kristen Stewart, and writer/director Oliver Assayas, who first teamed several years ago for Clouds of Sils Maria, another enigmatic, haunting film. Here, Stewart plays Maureen, who is – as the title plainly states – a personal shopper living in Paris whose interests lean more towards art history and personal discovery than the quotidian nature of her daily grind, as she zips from one high-end emporium after another, picking up jewels, designer clothing, and accessories for her demanding boss – Kyra, a high fashion model (Nora von Waldstätten), whom she almost never sees.

When Kyra wants something, she phones or texts, and Maureen runs and fetches, with little thanks and much haggling over her fee, leaving the items in Kyra’s apartment. But that’s just one strand of the film; all the while that she pursues these meaningless errands, Maureen is haunted (literally) by the death of her twin brother Lewis, a medium who made a pact with Maureen that he would reach out after death to make contact with her. Both Maureen and Lewis have congenital heart defects; in Lewis’ case, his heart gave out in his early 20s, and Maureen knows that her heart, too, could stop rupture at any moment, causing instant death.

In the cold, brutal world of the film, there’s no such thing as friendship, and even love is often deeply suspect, inasmuch as all the characters with the exception of Maureen are engaged in a deeply commercial, throwaway life style, in which dazzle counts for more than substance – as if they had any substance to begin with. In the film’s first third, Maureen alternates with nightly visits to Lewis’ now vacant house, in the hope that his spirit will manifest itself, intercut with endless trips on her motorbike on this or that errand for Kyra.

To say more would be to give the game away; let’s just say that as real and empty as the world of high fashion is in the film, so too is the supernatural domain, which is rendered in some eerily spectral special effects reminiscent of the unearthly inhabitants of a similarly dilapidated house in Lewis Allen’s classic ghost story The Uninvited (1944). As with Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart is a revelation, and while she seems to nicely balance her career between mainstream films and even music videos for the Rolling Stones’ latest album, I certainly prefer her work here, given a role she can absolutely inhabit, in a performance which keeps her on screen for nearly every scene in the film.

Personal Shopper was actually shot in 2015; premiered at Cannes in May, 2016, where Assayas won Best Director for his work on the film, and is just now bring released in the United States on the art house circuit. In world in which everyone seems fixated on the latest installment in the Fast & Furious franchise, a thoughtful, suspenseful, and intelligent film is something of a rarity – more’s the pity – and fans who know Stewart from her work in the Twilight series and other commercial work will probably be disappointed in the film, which builds slowly and carefully to a superbly executed climax.

Much has been made of the fact that the film was “booed” by some audience members at its first Cannes screening, and this has inaccurately been reported as the sole audience reception at Cannes. Not so: as Chris Gardner wrote in The Hollywood Reporter right after the official Cannes premiere, “Personal Shopper, starring Kristen Stewart, received a four-and-a-half-minute standing ovation Tuesday night at the psychological thriller’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Following the screening, a happy Stewart, who changed into sneakers after walking the red carpet in heels and a Chanel dress, was seen hugging her co-stars and the film’s director, Olivier Assayas, while the crowd applauded.

The Paris-set ghost story triggered both boos and applause when it first screened for critics on Monday. In the film, Stewart plays a young American in Paris who half-believes she’s in contact with her late twin brother. While discussing the Cannes competition entry during the festival, Stewart said: ‘It’s a ghost story, sure, but the supernatural aspects of it just lead you to very basic questions.’ As for the boos, Assayas, who also directed Stewart in 2014 Cannes competition entry Clouds of Sils Maria, said ahead of Tuesday night’s premiere, ‘It happens to me once in a while, where people just don’t get the ending.’ He added, ‘When you come to Cannes, you have to be prepared for everything.'”

And that includes people who want everything spelled out for them. If you want something that’s easily digestible, by all means head out to see The Fate of the Furious. But if you’d like something more thoughtful, and more elegantly constructed, with multiple layers of meaning and significance to peel back, please go go to the nearest art house and see this film. It’s a tonic in an age of empty glitter and flash; a human story set in an inhuman age, where machines – a prominent feature in the film is the endless array of digital gadgetry Maureen has to contend with everyday to get her work done – are the ultimate arbiters of our destiny.

Click here to see the trailer for this astonishing film.

A Letter from John Carpenter on “The Thing” – January 2, 1983

April 6th, 2017

In 1983, shortly after the release of his film The Thing, I got a letter from John Carpenter about the film.

John Carpenter‘s 1982 version of The Thing is now considered a masterpiece, something I’ve always thought, but when it first came out in the Summer of 1982, roughly at the same time as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, audiences opted for the cute little Reese’s pieces eating alien over Carpenter’s relentlessly nihilistic vision of a visitor from outer space, and the film was almost universally reviled by critics – proving, once again, that when a work is ahead of its time, it can almost be assured of an uncomprehending, hostile reception.

Carpenter had argued with Universal, who produced both films, that pitting them against each other would have disastrous results, suggesting that the release be delayed to Halloween, which of course is the title of Carpenter’s iconic 1978 indie film, which was shot for roughly $300,000, and went on to gross more than $70 million worldwide. But Universal insisted on putting the two films out within weeks of each other, and Spielberg’s film took off, while Carpenter’s film languished.

As Carpenter told one interviewer about the film’s initial reception, “I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit. I don’t think the studio knew what kind of movie they were getting. I think they wanted Alien, a crowd-pleaser. And it was way too ferocious for them. They were upset by the ending—too dark. But that’s what I wanted: Who goes there? Who are we? Which one of you is real? The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane.”

In the Fall of 1982, I was teaching film at Rutgers University, and as part of my fall class schedule, I wanted to run The Thing in 16mm CinemaScope format, but figured it was out of my budget range. Nevertheless, I called up Universal’s non-theatrical booking agency in Manhattan, chatted with a young woman there who was as enthused about the film as I was, and eventually negotiated a rental price of $100 – a fraction of the going rate – for the class screening.

At the same time, I mentioned to her how disappointed I was in the poor critical reception the film was receiving, and asked if I could have John Carpenter’s address so that I could write a letter to him in support of the film. In those much more egalitarian times, this was no problem, and she gave me Carpenter’s production company address, and I dispatched a letter to him giving my thoughts about the film, and various related topics, on December 15, 1982.

On January 2, 1983, I received a lengthy response from Carpenter, which I’ll quote most of here – with the note that for many years, I considered this letter lost, until it surfaced only a few days ago at the home of a friend in New Jersey, where apparently I had left it one evening. (Parenthetically, I’m a terrible archivist; I once had a signed letter from Orson Welles, no less, and lost that, too!)

But in any event, here is what Carpenter had to say to about the film, and horror films in general: “My favorite Gothic directors are Roman Polanski, Mario Bava (simply for style alone), George Romero, Terence Fisher and James Whale. Each of these directors brought a personality and a style to the horror film. I’ve always thought that Freddie Francis was a better Director of Photography. William Castle was more a producer / entrepreneur.

You asked me about the issue of cinematic violence, which is really, I feel, the issue of stylistic realism. Sam Peckinpah popularized the ‘too real effect’ in The Wild Bunch [1969]. Human beings don’t really die with little blood bag explosions popping out all over the place, but the effect soon became a kind of realism used widely in movies and even television; you shoot someone, you pop a couple of blood bags here and there.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Halloween didn’t use this stylistic realism. The brutal, sadistic killings were suggested, sparing us any enjoyment of the sadism. We’re voyeurs, true, but there’s a point to which we want to be thrashed around in that dark corner of our minds.

The Thing was a monster movie, meaning simply that the protagonist was ‘an other,’ non-human alien. I felt that in order to convince the audience that The Thing was real, stylistic realism was in order. [Special effects artist] Rob Bottin came in to me with a concept of the actual visual manifestations that seemed to coincide with the amorphous, non-evil-acting ‘otherness’ reality that had to be a part of The Thing.

Systematic inclusion of graphic violence or sex or whatever may enhance a film, or may destroy it, or simply relegate it to pornography or exploitation. [That being said], there should be no restrictions, other than the intentions of the director.

Your idea of the ‘the icon’ is a sound one. Movies carry our mythology now [emphasis added]. Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster is as much as legend now as Prometheus. Perhaps The Thing could be seen as an examination of exactly what constitutes ‘humanness.’ The creature itself is just simply non-human, but like a cancer, it grows and takes us over, distorts, ravages. It isn’t gory, at least not to me.”

Carpenter closed with the thoughts that he was especially fond of the films of director Luis Buñuel, and the films The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, Invisible Invaders, The Big Sleep (the 1946 version, please) and Los Olvidados. I’ve always been grateful that Carpenter took the time and effort to type such a long letter in response to a total stranger at the time, and that he so carefully and perceptively articulated precisely what he was up to with The Thing, which was based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There?, and first brought to the screen by Howard Hawks as The Thing from Another World (1951).

Carpenter, of course, is a big fan of Howard Hawks, with excellent reason, and his first real feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) has distinct debts to Hawks which Carpenter readily acknowledges. Hawks’ version of The Thing is a brilliant film, but it has an upbeat, optimistic ending – as all Hawks films do – as a ragtag group of dedicated survivors pull together to defeat the threat of a hostile invasion from outer space. Carpenter’s film offers no such assurances, and as such is more in tune with the noirish temper of the present day era, in which “every person for themselves first” seems to be the governing principle.

So, if you haven’t seen The Thing, do so now, but only in the proper CinemaScope ratio; in addition to Bottin’s astounding and thankfully pre-digital special effects, the actors Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart and Keith David – superb performers all – have seldom had better roles. Then, too, Bill Lancaster‘s astonishingly bleak screenplay and dialogue for the film make a distinct contribution to the proceedings. The production of the film was by all accounts grueling, but the end result is more than worth it. And so it’s nice to see this letter again after some thirty years (!!) and have a chance to share it with the readers of this blog.

A special thanks goes out to David Dutcher, who found this letter, and sent it on – thanks, Dutch!

Wally Wood’s 22 Frames That Always Work

April 3rd, 2017

Click here, or on the image above, to see 22 great ways to design and set up a shot for maximum impact.

Wally Wood was one of the most talented comic artists of all time – and he left behind this invaluable guide to designing shots for maximum impact with speed and efficiency. Anne Lukeman and some of her friends put together this brief tutorial on the 22 shots, how they’re designed, and what they accomplish.

As Wikipedia notes, “Wood struggled to be as efficient as possible in the often low-paying comics industry. Over time he created a series of layout techniques sketched on pieces of paper which he taped up near his drawing table. These ‘visual notes,’ collected on three pages, reminded Wood (and select assistants he showed the pages to) of various layouts and compositional techniques to keep his pages dynamic and interesting . . .

Around 1981, Wood’s ex-assistant Larry Hama, by then an editor at Marvel Comics, pasted up photocopies of Wood’s drawings on a single page, which Hama titled ‘Wally Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work!!’ (It was subtitled, ‘Or some interesting ways to get some variety into those boring panels where some dumb writer has a bunch of lame characters sitting around and talking for page after page!’)

Hama left out 2 of the original 24 panels as his photocopies were too faint to make out some of the lightest sketches. Hama distributed Wood’s ‘elegantly simple primer to basic storytelling’ to artists in the Marvel bullpen, who in turn passed them on to their friends and associates. Eventually, ’22 Panels’ made the rounds of just about every cartoonist or aspiring comic book artist in the industry and achieved its own iconic status.”

While these shots are designed for comic books and graphic novels, they have a nice film noir feel, and can easily be seen as setups used in numerous comic book films today. Wood’s no-nonsense design template has been handily transferred to live action by Lukeman, with live action figures demonstrating the usefulness of the various designs. As has been pointed out, the acting here is minimal, but as a tutorial, this is an extremely useful tool for both filmmakers and artists.

And yes, these 22 panels always do work – a tribute to Wood’s genius as an artist.

Jason Bourne Meets Mission Impossible Meets The Mummy

April 2nd, 2017

Universal is starting a reboot of their classic horror films this summer, starting with The Mummy (2017).

As I write in my new article, The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age, “at Universal Studios in Hollywood, the parking decks for visitors are named after the various classic monsters (the Frankenstein lot, the Dracula lot, the Mummy lot, and so on), with enormous paintings on the outside depicting the first iterations of each character, but that’s about all Universal seems to be able to come up with. Universal is desperate to restore their ‘creations’ to some semblance of their former glory, but the 2017 version of The Mummy promises little in the way of originality or imagination, while piling on the special effects and action sequences in a frenzied attempt to sustain flagging audience interest.

Copying the Marvel and DC Universe method of churning out franchise films on a regular basis, Universal is plowing ahead with a similarly designed program of entries in the coming years. Noted Universal chairperson Donna Langley of this strategy, ‘we have to mine our resources. We don’t have any capes [in our film library]. But what we do have is an incredible legacy and history with the monster characters. We’ve tried over the years to make monster movies — unsuccessfully, actually. So, we took a good, hard look at it, and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre, put it more in the action-adventure genre and make it present day, bringing these incredibly rich and complex characters into present day and reimagine them and reintroduce them to a contemporary audience.’

I would argue that it’s not going to work; that it hasn’t worked thus far; and that it won’t work in the future. Indeed, this would seem to me to be the very worst possible strategy. The Frankenstein legend, and with it The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and Dracula are not material for a Bourne or Mission: Impossible series – they’re not action movie characters. All this will do is degrade the material further. They’re not action films; they’re films that inspire genuine dread. The original Mummy, for example, depended upon pacing, atmosphere, and Karloff’s iconic performance in the title role.

Only by returning to the source material, treated with utmost fidelity, can anything worthwhile be attained. What is needed is a creative force like the Hammer Film Productions team in the mid 20th century, which took the material seriously, and treated each project with the utmost care and attention, placing the emphasis on character, setting, and thematic development, rather than relying on special effects and fleeting star power to put these forthcoming projects across in the marketplace.

Until Hollywood returns to the original narratives that inspired the first wave of classic monster films, as Christopher Nolan did when he rescued the Batman franchise from ignominious parody with the straight-ahead reboot Batman Begins (2005), there’s no real hope for a Renaissance of horror. In these new Universal monster films and others like them, we will get only a simulacric vision of these mythic characters, especially Victor Frankenstein and his creation; in short, all we will get is the ghost of Frankenstein.

That’s hardly enough to inspire a whole new generation of millennial horror fans, let alone resuscitate the classic figures that inspired two cycles of Gothic horror films – the first Universal series, and then the Hammer remakes in the 1950s and 60s, which brought the various monster back to their original roots. Frankenstein’s ‘undying monster’ may finally be dead after all; we’ll just have to wait and see what Hollywood is cooking up in their own mad labs.”

Click here, or on the trailer above to see for yourself; this may make money, but it’s not The Mummy.

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.

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