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Public Domain Collections: Free to Share & Reuse

January 7th, 2016

The New York Public Library has just released an amazing collection of Public Domain materials.

As Shana Kimball, Manager of Public Programs and Outreach at the New York Public Library announced on January 5, 2016, “Today we are proud to announce that out-of-copyright materials in NYPL Digital Collections are now available as high-resolution downloads. No permission required, no hoops to jump through: just go forth and reuse!

The release of more than 180,000 digitized items represents both a simplification and an enhancement of digital access to a trove of unique and rare materials: a removal of administration fees and processes from public domain content, and also improvements to interfaces — popular and technical — to the digital assets themselves.

Online users of the NYPL Digital Collections website will find more prominent download links and filters highlighting restriction-free content; while more technically inclined users will also benefit from updates to the Digital Collections API enabling bulk use and analysis, as well as data exports and utilities posted to NYPL’s GitHub account.

These changes are intended to facilitate sharing, research and reuse by scholars, artists, educators, technologists, publishers, and Internet users of all kinds. All subsequently digitized public domain collections will be made available in the same way, joining a growing repository of open materials.”

So, as Shana Kimball says, “go forth and reuse” – an incredible resource.

Video: Things to Come (1936) – H.G. Wells’ Vision of the Future

January 6th, 2016

H.G. Wells’ Things To Come is one of the most prophetic visions of the future ever created for the screen.

H.G. Wells wrote many novels about the possible future of mankind, all of which have been filmed in various adaptations, but he wrote only one futuristic vision with a film adaptation directly in mind; his 1933 magnum opus The Shape of Things To Come, which Wells then adapted into the screenplay for the film Things to Come in 1936.

The production designer and director of the film, William Cameron Menzies, is lately having a run on this blog, with posts on his film Invaders from Mars and James Curtis’ book William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, but it’s only right that this film, perhaps the only time that Menzies really had a decent budget at his disposal as a director, gets its own entry here.

The collaboration between Wells and Menzies – as well as the actors, including Raymond Massey, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and Sir Ralph Richardson – was stormy at best, with the major stumbling block being that Wells, who had almost no visual or dramatic sensibility for the cinema, kept insisting that his long, declamatory speeches remain intact on the screen, despite Menzies’ and the cast’s insistence that judicious cuts to the material would make the end product more effective.

But Wells wouldn’t hear of it, and so there are, in truth, about thirty minutes of the film that could easily be cut – something that all the contemporary reviewers of the film readily pointed out – and Wells, disappointed with the film’s initial reception, amazingly blamed Menzies for this – but it simply isn’t so.

Despite this problem, however, Things to Come remains an astonishing film, accurately predicting the onset on World War II, for one thing, as well as such technological advances as television, space travel, enclosed cities, social breakdown bordering on feudalism in some areas, and clearly posited science as the savior of mankind.

It’s essential, of course, to see Things to Come on a big screen; it’s one of those films that calls insistently for large scale projection – and for many years, when the film fell into the Public Domain, inferior 16mm and video copies circulated from a variety of sources, none of which approached the scope and grandeur of the original film. However, in recent years, the film has come back under copyright.

Legend Films has thus brought out a superb DVD and Blu-ray of the film, completely restored, which can be seen either in its original black and white version (my choice), or in a remarkably good colorized version, supervised by the late special effects master Ray Harryhausen. So, thanks to Curt Bright, here’s a short video essay on the film as part of the Frame by Frame series, and now, you can see the film for yourself.

Don’t miss a chance to see this classic if you can; click here for a video essay on the film.

Why Women Are Underrepresented in Hollywood

December 31st, 2015

Director Lois Weber, a true cinema pioneer, directing in Hollywood in 1916.

Critic Manohla Dargis zeroes in on why women are so poorly represented in Hollywood today, even more so than in the past. Notes Dargis, “The movie industry is failing women. And until the industry starts making serious changes, nothing is going to change . . . American commercial cinema has long been dominated by men, but I don’t think there has ever been another time when women have been as underrepresented on screen as they are now.

The biggest problem isn’t genuinely independent cinema, where lower budgets mean more opportunities for women in front of and behind the camera. The problem is the six major studios that dominate the box office, the entertainment chatter and the popular imagination. Their refusal to hire more female directors is immoral, maybe illegal, and has helped create and sustain a representational ghetto for women.”

What will it take to break the logjam?

Raoul Walsh and Maritta Wolff’s The Man I Love (1947)

December 30th, 2015

Raoul Walsh’s hard boiled Post World War II noir is an underappreciated classic.

Seated above are Ida Lupino and Andrea King, rehearsing on a kitchen set during the filming of Raoul Walsh’s The Man I Love. The movie is based on a novel by Maritta Wolff, who, according to Wikipedia “was born on December 25, 1918 in born in Grass Lake, Jackson County, Michigan. She grew up on her grandparents’ farm and attended a one-room country school. She was a senior at the University of Michigan when she wrote a novel-length story for an English composition class that won the 1940 Avery Hopwood Award, a university prize for excellent writing, worth $1,000. Whistle Stop is a seamy tale of the Veeches, a shiftless family living in a whistle-stop town near Detroit.

The novel, depicting incest, violence, and containing much more vulgar language than was usual at the time, was published the next year by Random House. That Wolff, a mere 22-year-old, was the author of so hard-boiled a novel gave her an instant notoriety, and Whistle Stop became an immediate best-seller, going into five editions and a special armed forces edition. Yet the book was not without literary merit, Sinclair Lewis calling it ‘the most important novel of the year.’ Whistle Stop was adapted into a 1946 film starring Ava Gardner and George Raft.

Wolff’s second novel, Night Shift, attracted more critical praise, especially for its dialog [and was made into the film The Man I Love]. Over the next 20 years she wrote four more best-selling novels. Always a private person who shunned publicity, Wolff, in 1972, refused her publisher’s request to go on a promotional tour for a recently finished novel, Sudden Rain, and as a result the novel was never published during her lifetime. At that point she evidently ceased writing fiction.

While at the University of Michigan she had met and married a prolific young writer, Hubert Skidmore, who published six novels before he was 30. Skidmore died in a house fire in 1946. In 1947 Wolff married a costume jeweller, Leonard Stegman, by whom she had a son, Hugh Stegman. After Wolff’s death, the manuscript for Sudden Rain, which had been kept safely in her refrigerator for the last thirty years of her life, was published (along with re-issues of Whistle Stop and Night Shift) to much acclaim.”

With a script by W. R. “Little Caesar” Burnett and Catherine Turney, The Man I Love deals with love, loss, and the search for some sort of permanence in a world that’s constantly throwing the worst at you – a world in which one expects nothing, and gets it. As Wikipedia summarizes the film’s basic narrative, “homesick for her family in Los Angeles, lounge singer Petey Brown (Ida Lupino) decides to leave New York City to spend some time visiting her two sisters and brother on the West Coast. Shortly she lands a job at the nightclub of small-time-hood Nicky Toresca (Robert Alda) where her sister Sally (Andrea King) is employed.

While evading the sleazy Toresca’s heavy-handed passes, Petey falls in love with down-and-out ex-jazz pianist San Thomas (Bruce Bennett), who has never recovered from an old divorce. Variously solving the problems of her sisters, brother and their next-door neighbor, the no-nonsense Petey must wait as San decides whether to start a new life with her or sign back on with a merchant steamer.”

The film deals with surviving on a limited income, the transience of friendship, the need to live in the moment in a world of uncertain tomorrows, and even such topical issues as PTSD – Sally’s husband Roy Otis (John Ridgely) has returned from World War II an emotional wreck, and is confined to a Veterans Hospital for most of the film – as well as Nicky Teresa’s unceasing sexual harassment of Petey.

But what is most remarkable about the film is Lupino’s performance – her singing voice is dubbed, but in the dramatic scenes, and in the intensity of her love for the seemingly doomed San Thomas, the depth of emotional investment in the role is absolutely heartbreaking. There will be no happy ending for Petey and San, “the man she loves” – after a few days of companionship, San, his career in ruins, ships out out with the merchant marine, while Petey decides not to stay with her sister, but instead go back of the road as a torch singer – perhaps in Chicago, or New York, or wherever the road takes her.

Raoul Walsh was a tough director, unsentimental in his approach to life and his work as a filmmaker, and Lupino, who learned her craft as a director by watching Walsh, steals every scene she’s in simply through the intensity of her screen presence – Walsh often just hangs on her face, as she listens to San play the piano, or lends a sympathetic era to her sister’s problems, and thus effortlessly dominates the proceedings.

As Jeremy Arnold wrote of the film, “The Man I Love is not a film which thrives on plot. Atmosphere is everything here. The late-night jam sessions, underworld characters and steamy songs all make for a memorably moody experience . . . critics were mixed to negative (‘a brittle sex romance’ is how Variety described it), but The Man I Love touched something in filmgoers and became a big hit. [Lupino biographer William Donati noted that], ‘Lupino fans, especially women, lined up to see it. When hard-edged Petey Brown, tough but emotionally vulnerable, finds herself alone when her man sails to sea, a responsive chord was struck in many a woman’s heart.’”

The Man I Love doesn’t take place in neat little houses with white picket fences; it’s a world of cheap apartments, jobs from which one can be fired at a moment’s notice, and constant scrimping and saving just to get by. No one has time to feel sorry for themselves – they’re too busy simply trying to survive. Available on DVD only in archival format, The Man I Love tells more about the late 1940s American than many better known films, and thus deserves a much wider audience – it isn’t escapism, and it isn’t really a romance – it’s more a document of a time and place, and the people who lived through an era.

The Man I Love runs quite often on TCM; when you get a chance to see it, do so.

William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders from Mars (1953)

December 28th, 2015

Click here, or on the image above, to see Menzies’ entire film Invaders From Mars.

Invaders From Mars is a classic of 1950s Red Scare science fiction, depicting a world that is paranoid beyond belief, photographed in garish color, as directed and designed by the renowned William Cameron Menzies, the production designer of many excellent films, including Gone With The Wind (1939) — the first film on which a “production designer” credit was formally listed in the credits. The film is being screened in January at the UCLA Film Archive in its original 35mm format, and has long since been recognized as one of the classic “childhood nightmare” films of the era, and one of Menzies’ finest achievements. Menzies’ biographer, James Curtis, will introduce the screening.

As Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant notes of the film:

Invaders from Mars was made relatively early in the 50s Sci Fi cycle, when the field was still dominated by “A” quality efforts. A script by John Tucker Battle, optioned by one set of producers, eventually landed with Edward L. Alperson, who made the uncharacteristically brilliant decision to put the entire project into the hands of legendary production designer and sometime film director William Cameron Menzies. Menzies was the genius who practically invented the concept of production design, on big silent movies like The Thief of Baghdad. His unique graphic sense graced the films of Sam Wood (Our Town, For Whom the Bell Tolls, King’s Row). Menzies made Hollywood history with David O. Selznick by single-handedly engineering Gone With the Wind’s visual dimension. Without him, the divergent contributions of a half-dozen directors might have created a shambles.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here.

As Glenn Erickson continues, “the furious action that concludes Invaders from Mars becomes even more dreamlike with the repetitions of shots and scenes [. . .] Dialogue lines are also repeated, especially young David’s, “Colonel Fielding!, Colonel Fielding!,” which is heard so often it becomes an unending echo. These repetition patterns make the ending more dreamlike in two ways. First, a high level of anxiety is maintained while the actual story progression slows to a crawl. A classic anxiety dream situation is ‘running in place but not getting anywhere,’ exactly the feeling imparted to Invaders. Second, the repetition forces a fixation on the images that keep coming back, a fixation that has the obsessive quality of dream logic. In our dreams, shocking moments seem to hang forever in the consciousness, or illogically ‘come back again, but for the first time,’ over and over.”

Click here, or on the image above, to read the entire screenplay for the original film.

Video: The Films of Val Lewton

December 22nd, 2015

Val Lewton was one of the most influential producers during the Golden Era of Hollywood in the 1940s.

I have blogged before – actually, four years ago – on the films of Val Lewton, but now Curt Bright has made a video on Lewton for our Frame by Frame series, in which I discuss Lewton’s work as a filmmaker creating an entirely new style of supernatural cinema – and his legacy goes well beyond that. Lewton was David O. Selznick’s right hand man on Gone With The Wind, one of the most ambitious and lavish films ever made, and shortly after that film wrapped, he accepted an offer from RKO Radio Pictures to create a series of low-budget horror films designed to break the Universal mold of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and so on.

Lewton stepped into the job, making superb films on minimal budgets – roughly $100,000 a film, using pre-sold titles assigned by the publicity department, on very short shooting schedules, and created some of the most effective and atmospheric films of the era, such as I Walked With A Zombie and The Cat People. Of all the producers working in Hollywood during the 1940s, Lewton was clearly the most intellectual, the most artistically ambitious, and perhaps the only producer of the era – though others might argue with this – who could rightly be called a creative artist, someone who contributed to his films on more than a bottom-line level.

Working with such talented people as well known director Jacques Tourneur, ace cinematographers Nicholas Musuraca and Roy Hunt, and giving people like Robert Wise and Mark Robson their first directorial assignments, Lewton created a series of memorable Gothic films in a very short space of time, and then – suddenly – it was over. A brief period at MGM, and finally Universal, led only to his early death from a heart attack in his late 40s – a tragic loss to the cinema. Clearly, he could have done so much more, but time was limited.

Here, let’s celebrate the films of Val Lewton – timeless classics, that still enthrall and thrill today.

William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come

December 21st, 2015

An absolutely essential book on one of the most influential cinema artists of all time.

James Curtis’s William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come is easily one of the best film books of 2015. It manages to pull off an amazing feat; it’s prodigiously researched, but it never succumbs to a recitation of mere facts; it includes an enormous amount of personal detail, but never gets lost in a forest of statistics.

It is above all a supreme synthesis of history and theory, treating all of Menzies’ work, whether as a director or a production designer (or often, as both simultaneously) with great care and respect, illustrated with a stunning array of color and black and white plates, including many rare behind the scenes shots that really put the reader into the center of the narrative.

Most of all, it is the careful, conscientious, but never pedantic style of the book that impresses. Curtis clearly knows Menzies’ work inside out, and yet he wears this knowledge easily, creating an accessible, reasoned, brilliantly written book, one of the most carefully detailed and critically measured volumes written on any historical figure, no matter what their profession.

Time and again, I was struck by the carefully reasoned tone of Curtis’s work, his sharp yet graceful prose style, and the remarkable way in which he managed to gather such an incredible amount of material in one volume, and make the whole thing flow so smoothly – it’s easily his finest book. The design of The Shape of Films to Come is another plus factor; the volume is overflowing with images, and the layout of the text and illustrations – something Menzies would appreciate – is impeccable.

Curtis’s book is thus a supreme achievement on every level, and for those who don’t know Menzies or his work, it opens up a world of wonder and amazement – often amazement at how much Menzies managed to accomplish on many of his assignments with very little in the way of a budget.

From Menzies’ production design on Gone With The Wind, to his science-fiction children’s nightmare Invaders from Mars, to the pioneering futuristic epic Things To Come, to his work on such projects as The Whip Hand, Address Unknown, The Maze, Around The World in 80 Days and numerous other films, Curtis meticulously details Menzies’ long career, a life filled with hard work and a good deal of tragedy, but one which ultimately left us with some of the most memorable images in cinema history.

In short, this is a must read for anyone with even the remotest interest in the cinema, and a singular accomplishment in every respect. The Shape of Films to Come gets my highest possible recommendation – this is literally a flawless book. And considering the massive amount of detail that went into it, that in itself is a stellar accomplishment. Once you pick this book up, I guarantee you won’t put it down.

This is a major work of scholarship, history and theory, and a genuine delight to read.

Peter Stults’ Imaginary Movie History

December 21st, 2015

Here’s an art project by Peter Stults that reinvents Hollywood’s past in a most unusual fashion.

As Kathryn Bromwich writes in The Guardian, “when he was studying film at college, Peter Stults used to come up with imaginary movie ideas and turn them into posters. Fifteen years on, the New York-based graphic designer makes modern films look like old classics in his What If series, using a mix of Photoshop and collage. ‘People assume I don’t like modern movies – I do,’ he says, ‘But I am attracted to the poster art of the golden age.’

He spends weeks, sometimes months, researching directors, actors and studios in a quest to make the posters look as authentic as possible. ‘I like it when I trick people into thinking the modern movie is a remake of the film in my poster. If I can do that, I’m doing my job right.’” Of his re-imagined poster for Gone Girl, Stults says that “I think Marlon Brando captures the ambiguities of the character – did he kill her? Is he insane? Is he innocent? And I’d recently seen Vanessa Redgrave in The Devils and she seemed perfect.”

So take a walk through the imaginary world of Hollywood’s past, by clicking here, or on the image above.

Ration Books and Rabbit Pies: Films from the Home Front

December 19th, 2015

Here’s a fascinating collection of British wartime short films – another treat from the British Film Institute.

As CineOutsider reports, “continuing the BFI’s work of unlocking film heritage in Britain, this fascinating DVD collection brings together a selection of public information films, propaganda shorts and adverts from the Second World War, drawn from the BFI National Archive, and contains films that give essential advice to a nation living in an age of austerity.

Originally shown in cinemas to British audiences during the Second World War, these films served to boost morale, covering topics which include rationing, staying healthy, how to grow vegetables, cooking tips and salvaging and recycling. These films were crucial to the British war effort and the campaign messaging has been much reproduced in modern advertising to this day.

Highlights of the collection include Tea Making Tips (1941), with ‘the six golden tips’ for making the perfect cuppa; director/artist/animator Len Lye’s When the Pie Was Opened (1941); Did You Ever See a Dream Talking (1943) starring comedian Claude Hulbert playing a Home Guard volunteer; Wisdom of the Wild (1940), a wartime twist on the long-running Secrets of Life natural history series; the Wicked Witch (1943), an advert for Rinso and A-Tish-oo! (1941), an instructional film on how to make a face-mask.”

There’s also a collection of Food Flash mini-shorts, each about 15 seconds long, which cover everything from ‘victory meals’ to the necessity of reporting rat infestations to the local council to prevent them from raiding food supplies. All the films are very brief, and together they give a fascinating look at a time and place long vanished from authentic recall for most people.

There’s nothing like living history – which this DVD supplies – to bring the past back to life before our eyes. I was lucky enough to get an advance copy from the BFI, and it’s a pip! You won’t see these films anywhere else – pick up a copy, and support the BFI, and international film history.

A fascinating collection – absolutely worthwhile, and beautifully restored.

The Star Wars Juggernaut

December 19th, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be the most commercially successful film of all time.

As Anthony D’Alessandro and Anita Busch write in what is arguably the entertainment industry’s most authoritative business news website, Deadline Hollywood, ”industry analysts currently see Star Wars: The Force Awakens with an opening day record of $125M-$127M+ en route for an all-time record opening of $251M-$255M, calculated from midnight tickets sales on both the east and west coast.

To put Force Awakens’ opening in perspective, consider the following: Disney made $100M from the film in just 21 hours at 1PM PST; an amount that most successful tentpoles open to in a 3-day weekend. By Sunday, Force Awakens will beat or come close to beating the entire domestic runs of the last two Hobbits which were released over the last two Decembers— The Desolation of Smaug ($258.4M) and The Battle of Five Armies ($255.1M). It took Jurassic World five days to cross $250M.

Domestic all-time grosser Avatar, which opened during this frame back in 2009 to $77M and ended its stateside cume at $749.8M, took 12 days to clear $250M. However, that was during the pre-historic days of digital and 3D cinema. When Avatar opened there were 3,100 RealD screens in the U.S./Canada; now there are 14,000 with the majority of them playing Force Awakens.”

As I write this, screenings of the new Star Wars film are literally going on around the clock, with some theaters staying open 24/7 to meet audience demand.  This is all very good news for the Walt Disney Company, which owns the rights not only to the Star Wars franchise, but also the whole of Marvel Entertainment, just for starters – two of the current industry’s most profitable money-spinners.

Although some see signs of fan fatigue in the distance, I can’t agree - while I am resolutely not a Star Wars fanI’ll side with Alec Guinness in his opinion of the franchise – there’s no question that this 1977 film which started out as an indie film no one wanted has become a totemic part of our shared worldwide cinema culture. With Disney’s plans to roll out another episode in the series one a year for the next fifteen years, it seems there is no end in sight.

If this what audiences want in an era of terrorism and fear, so be it. It is, however, disturbing that more thoughtful screen fare has been pushed off the big screen into the limbo of VOD or the increasingly marginal art house circuit, but as always in Hollywood, the bottom line rules.

As far as The Force Awakens, I’ll have to agree with Sam C. Mac of Slant - “it exists less as a meaningful extension of its world than as a fan-service deployment device” – or J.R. Jones of The Chicago Reader – “as with other installments, this is less a movie than an exercise in massaging a juvenile-minded audience that wants the experience to be new and familiar at the same time” – and Roger Moore of Movie Nation -”a glib facsimile” – but then again, these are minority opinions.

So I’ll make a prediction of my own; when the film finally exhausts itself at the box office – just this installment, mind you – I predict (channeling The Amazing Criswell here) that Star Wars: The Force Awakens will gross more than two billion dollars worldwide, to recoup roughly half the $4 billion that Disney paid to buy the entire franchise a few years back from George Lucas. And, as the box office numbers clearly show, this was a very smart business decision indeed.

May The Force Be With You!

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

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

In The National News

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

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