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New Article – “Synthetic Cinema” in QRFV

July 7th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advice to Young Filmmakers from Denis Côté

July 7th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 6th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brilliant Book: Steven Shaviro on Accelerationism

July 3rd, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Videos on Vimeo – Full Speed

July 1st, 2017

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

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

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

My films have been screened at The Maryland Institute College of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Anthology Film Archives, The Microscope Gallery, The British Film Institute, The Jewish Museum, The Millennium Film Workshop, The San Francisco Cinématheque, The New Arts Lab, The Collective for Living Cinema, The Kitchen Center for Experimental Art, The Filmmakers Cinématheque, Film Forum, The Amos Eno Gallery, Sla 307 Art Spacesee the video for that screening here –  The Gallery of Modern Art, The Oberhausen Film Festival and at numerous universities and film societies throughout the world.

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

Forthcoming Book: The Films of Terence Fisher

June 30th, 2017

I have a new book coming out from Auteur Press / Columbia University Press this Fall, 2017.

Tracing the entire career of the British director Terence Fisher, best known for his Gothic horror films for Hammer Film Productions―such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958)―The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond covers not only his horror films, but also his film noirs, comedies, and early apprenticeship work to create a full picture of Fisher’s life and work.

Based on the work Dixon did in his groundbreaking study The Charm of Evil, this is an entirely revised and rewritten work with new research, new details, and fresh critical insights. Brimming with rare stills, interviews, and detailed analysis of Fisher’s films―both for Hammer as well as his earlier work―this is the ultimate “one-stop” book on Terence Fisher, both in his horror films, and his entire body of work, as well as his legacy to the British cinema.

“This book is a cinephile’s dream, as well as an exemplary work of scholarship. Wheeler Winston Dixon illuminates the movies and the career of Terence Fisher in loving detail, bringing us close to an important director whose work now gets its proper due for the first time.” – Steven Shaviro, author of The Universe of Things

The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond will appeal especially to fans of Fisher, of Hammer horror films, and of British cinema more generally. It made me want to watch and re-watch these movies!” – Daniel Herbert, author of Videoland

“Dixon’s book is the definitive study of Terence Fisher, the director who spearheaded Britain’s 1950s Gothic revival and put Hammer Films on the map of international horror cinema.  An invaluable resource that belongs on the shelf of any serious horror fan or scholar.” – Ian Olney, author of Zombie Cinema

“Dixon recreates Fisher’s world of filmmaking with true skill, bringing each movie to life, and highlighting the many challenges that surrounded the director’s projects. The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond provides a valuable guide not just to Fisher, but also to the twentieth-century British Film Industry in general.” – John Wills, author of Disney Culture

Look for it this Fall; my thanks to all who helped with this project.

Director Oscar Micheaux Finally Gets A Biopic

June 30th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Klaus Kreimeier’s Origins of Cinema Website

June 29th, 2017

Here’s a very interesting website from German film historian Klaus Kreimeier.

This remarkably comprehensive website covers the history of film from 1900 to 1915, and what’s more, has linked videos for nearly every director mentioned, and gives full credit (at last!) to Alice Guy, who is perpetually marginalized (as readers of this blog now full well) from most cinema histories. The site is in English, and offers thoughtful commentary on a wide-ranging group of filmmakers from around the globe, who helped to create the cinema as we knew it in the 20th century, before CGI took over and turned it into something blenderized and unreal.

Of course, Georges Méliès was already moving the cinema into the zone of the fantastic with such films as À la conquête du pôle, L’alchimiste Parafaragaramus ou la cornue infernale, La sirène, Le diable au convent, Les trésors de Satan, Le voyage à travers l’impossible, Le voyage dans la lune, Le voyage de Gulliver à Lilliput et chez les géants and many other pioneering short films, but this site also has numerous selections from many other key figures in early documentary and narrative cinema, with over 900 short films in all.

Absolutely worth a visit – a real resource for cinema historians.

Classic Thriller Portrait of Alison – See It Here For Free

June 28th, 2017

Here’s an excellent little thriller; a tight, compact 77 minutes – see it for free, here.

As Wikipedia succinctly notes,Portrait of Alison is a 1956 British atmospheric crime film directed by Guy Green. It was based on a BBC television series Portrait of Alison which aired the same year. In the United States the film was released as Postmark for Danger.

The film opens with a car plunging over a cliff in Italy. The killed driver is newspaperman Lewis Forrester. The woman with him is supposedly Alison Ford, an actress. But she wasn’t actually in the car and turns up later in England to try and solve what was in truth a murder to shut the newspaper man up, not an accident. She solicits the help of Forrester’s brother, Tim, an artist.

Then, as the story unfolds, a number of mysterious, unsolved questions keep emerging, along with two more murders and a suicide. And before it’s over it has been learned that an international ring of diamond thieves is at the bottom of everything, that no less than four of the major characters are part of it, and that an independent blackmailer is at work as well.”

Filled with superb British character actors such as William Sylvester, who much later got the role of a lifetime in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, as well as Geoffrey Keen, Josephine Griffin, the eternally shady William Lucas as a larcenous used car dealer, and American star Terry Moore brought over for marquee value, Postmark for Danger is a sharp, taut little thriller than will keep you guessing to the very end.

And the best thing about it? You can see it for free by clicking here, or on the image above.

Nell Shipman and Back To God’s Country

June 28th, 2017


Here’s an excellent article from Offscreen on the pioneer filmmaker and film actor Nell Shipman.

As the author of the piece, David George Menard, writes, “to discuss the role of women in Canada’s film culture, and even in Hollywood’s film culture, over a period of about a hundred years, is to discuss absence, gaps, discontinuities, and distortion. The images of women in feature films are distorted by a male dominated industry, and at times, inflated through men’s visual obsessions. The trend in any film culture over the last century has been to display the images of women as adjuncts to images of men.

The visual ideas of women have been represented as symbols of ‘otherness’, reflecting the male dominated world of filmmaking, a world of male narcissism and power. Although women have made great contributions to the world of film throughout its history, such efforts have been obscured and belittled —the visions and voices of the women of cinema have been suppressed.

This historical fact is unfortunate because there were great women film pioneers such as Alice Guy who made the first edited fiction film, La Fee Aux Choux (1896); Esther Shub who created the art of compilation film, as seen in The Fall Of The Romanov Dynasty (1927); Lotte Reiniger who made a feature length film a decade before Disney, as seen in The Adventures Of Prince Ahmed (1926); and finally there was Nell Shipman from Canada, also a scriptwriter and a star actress who performed as the principal protagonist in one of Canada’s earliest major feature length film, Back To God’s Country, released on October 27th, 1919.

In the early days of cinema, many young women embarked on acting careers to become Hollywood starlets. Some of the actresses who succeeded at this grand and noble endeavor sometime showed remarkable versatility behind the cameras, and many of them became writers, directors, and producers. Nell Shipman was one of these talented women. She was born Helen Barham in 1892, Victoria, British Columbia.

At the young age of thirteen, she left home to attend acting school. In 1907, she performed in the Jesse Lasky play The Pianophiends. In 1909, she was the leading lady in the Charles Taylor play The Girl From Alaska. In 1910, she got the leading role in The Barrier, a play produced by the famous Canadian producer and theatrical entrepreneur Ernest Shipman, whom she married in 1911.

Thereafter, Nell and Ernest moved to Pasadena, California, in an attempt to wedge their way into the film business. In 1912, Nell Shipman won a script writing contest sponsored by the Tally Theater in Los Angeles, and her winning script, Outwitted Billy, was produced by Selig Polyscope in 1913. In 1914, she scripted the first film produced in Australia, Shepherd Of The Southern Cross.

In 1915, she accepted the leading role in a film, produced by the Vitagraph studios, playing a character from a script adapted from James Oliver Curwood’s novel God’s Country And The Woman. The picture, her first film for a major film company, was an outstanding success, and resulted in movie contracts with Vitagraph, Fox, and Lasky for 1916-17, a period in which she completed thirteen films. All of Nell Shipman’s film experience to this point set the stage for one of Canada’s earliest feature length film, Back To God’s Country.”

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

About the Author

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

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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