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Bertrand Tavernier on Edward L. Cahn

October 10th, 2016

Edward L. Cahn – a much maligned American auteur – is finally getting some of the respect he deserves.

As John Hopewell and Martin Dale reported from the Lumière Festival in Lyon, France yesterday in Variety, “Time puts everybody in their place. But often rather slowly. The American director, Edward L. Cahn, was best-known, indeed notorious for his prolific B-movie output in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Yet, this is the same man who, legend has it, oversaw or at least advised on the final cut of All Quiet on the Western Front, and made a clutch of movies in the early 1930s, one of which, Afraid To Talk, screened at the Lumière Festival on Sunday, being greeted as a masterpiece. ‘You might say he worked his way to the bottom,’ writes journalist Imogen Sara Smith.

Dave Kehr, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, included three of Cahn’s films in an Carl Laemmle Jr. retrospective this May. This week, Lyon’s Lumière Festival screens the same titles: Afraid To Talk, Law and Order, and Laughter in Hell, introduced by the celebrated French director-film buff Bertrand Tavernier, president of the Institut Lumière. Here Tavernier adds his voice to others who have rediscovered Cahn’s early work. It is worth quoting Tavenier [extensively; as he noted]:

‘For some time now I have wanted to show the films directed by Edward L. Cahn. He’s a key director that for many of us remains an enigma, because my generation first became familiar with his work in the 1960s, essentially in Belgium where his films were released theatrically. They were never released in France. The smallest minimalist productions. Zombies of Mora Tau. Five Guns to Tombstone, westerns and horror films.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space, which we could say was the forerunner to Alien. When we see the film it is however rudimentary because of the creature. It’s true that it circulates in the corridors of the space ship.  But it’s hyper rudimentary, in comparison with Alien. It’s a kind of a guy wearing a rubber suit. Not great. But I recently saw two or three films that he made at this time that were very interesting, such as Experiment Alcatraz.

Between 1932 and 1934 he made four-to-five films, which are amazing – which are very different from these subsequent Z-movie productions, very demanding with a great deal of visual style: Law and Order, the first film about OK Corral. It’s a revisionist western film before the genre had been fully established which is kind of unique in the history of film genres – a film that contradicts the canon before the canon is established. Laughter in Hell. And my favorite film, full of energy, which is Radio Patrol.

Why did his career reach a hiatus at this moment in time? He left Universal and went to MGM. There’s something strange. He made a very personal and strange project. A film produced by the Anti-Defamation League in 1949. A film called Prejudice, which was only released in churches. Which I believe was a tremendous commercial flop. From that point onwards everything changed in his career. He became a mystery. Now just a little note.

He was also a film editor. He was the editor of The Man who Laughs by Paul Leni. He is believed to have been the person who determined the final edited version of All Quiet on the Western Front, which he edited on the train between Los Angeles and New York. It took four days. And that’s where he finalized the version.

Finally it was the producer Carl Laemmle Jr., who commissioned his first film, Law and Order, co-written by John Huston, based on a remarkable book by W. R. Burnett, which is still in available. And then Afraid to Talk which was a film noir, inspired on a play by Albert Maltz and George Sklar.  Albert Maltz later became famous in Hollywood as one of the Hollywood Ten. He stopped working as a screenwriter under his own name and began working under a pseudonym.

He worked for example on the screenplay of Broken Arrow by Delmer Daves and other films. He returned with the films starring Clint Eastwood, Two Mules for Sister Sara and The Beguiled. So, Afraid to Talk was a stage play that had been heavily cut by the censorship, which had been adapted by Tom Reed – an ancient journalist who specialized in crime, the kind of person that Carl Laemmle Jr. employed as a screenwriter, to spice up the films – to give them reality.

So Tom Reed worked on three occasions with Edward Cahn and they produced quite amazing screenplays. For example Afraid to Talk. You will see that this is a film that is unrelenting. Which is incredibly strong in terms of its social content. Corruption, the problems of the gangs. On the cowardice of the public authorities.

It’s a very surprising film, almost expressionist in terms of its directing style, the search for light. It’s also a film that groups together a huge number of actors in the secondary roles that later became very famous. You will recognize them all. For example, Louis Calhern, but there are others. I hope you will be amazed.” Cahn’s work has indeed undertone a Renaissance of sorts, mainly because of the efforts of Dave Kehr, first writing for The New York Times, and now as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art.

As I’ve often noted in this blog, Cahn’s films all have a sense of awful, deliberate pacing, which smoothly moves from one set-up to another with the precision and calm of someone like Robert Bresson – never in a hurry to move the narrative or camerawork along, but always in precisely the right place with each new shot. I’ve seen this film, which is remarkable, as is much of the rest of Cahn’s work; I hope you get a chance to see it, too.

Edward L. Cahn – another director getting more attention – thanks to Bertrand Tavernier.

Dorothy Arzner at the Lumière Festival

October 10th, 2016

Dorothy Arzner’s work as a director is being appreciated anew at the Lumière Festival.

As Damon Wise perceptively writes in Variety, “Dorothy Arzner died with no Oscars to her name, honorary or otherwise, and to date, her only reward, to mark a prolific career that spanned from 1922 to 1943, is a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.

And yet Arzner, who receives a tribute at France’s Lumière Festival,  remains one of the most interesting, if not one of the more significant, directors of the so-called Golden Age. Rising swiftly up through the ranks in the silent era, Arzner broke the glass ceiling at the age of 30, becoming one of the first ever women allowed to call the shots within the male-dominated studio system.

In retrospect, it was perhaps not so strange that Arzner, born in 1897, was attracted to the movies – while she was growing up, her father Louis ran a famous Hollywood restaurant that served all the heavy hitters of the silent era: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Mack Sennett and directing legend D.W. Griffith.

Arzner originally aimed to pursue medicine, having studied the subject at USC, but dropped out shortly after WW1. By chance, a flu epidemic had swept the country, and every industry needed workers, no matter how inexperienced, and the movie business was no exception.

Hired by Cecil B DeMille’s brother William, Arzner began at Famous Players-Lasky in the script room, and after six months progressed to the editing department, cutting, by her own estimation, some 52 movies, including the 1922 Rudolph Valentino classic Blood and Sand. Fatefully, Arzner also shot some (uncredited) bull-fighting scenes for that movie, and it was her desire to direct that brought matters to a head in 1927. Arzner had been moonlighting as a scriptwriter and was about to quit, to take up a directing job at Columbia.

But instead of walking out, Arzner wanted to say goodbye to someone – anyone – at the studio that had played fair by her. By chance, this turned out to producer Walter Wanger, who organized a summit meeting to keep her. Wanger offered her a directing job, but Arzner played hardball.

‘Not unless I can be on a set in two weeks with an A-picture,’ she insisted. ‘I’d rather do a picture for a small company and have my own way than a B-picture for Paramount.’ She got her wish: the result was Fashions For Women, with Esther Ralston, then a major star.

Arzner’s deal with Paramount was good by anyone’s standards. ‘I was under contract to Paramount for three years at a time,’ she told film historians Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary in a rare interview in 1974, ‘[and] paid by the week. I ended with a two-year contract, including choice of story. I never had to worry about control over phases of the production. The departments were geared to give a director what he wanted, if he knew exactly what he wanted.’

After five films, and a reshuffle of top brass, Arzner left Paramount to go freelance, which is when Arzner began to make her name as a director of women. Although she didn’t get to realize one of several dream projects – an anti-war movie called Stepdaughters of War with Marlene Dietrich, Arzner worked with many big names of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, including Clara Bow, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Lucille Ball.

The Wild Party, Arzner’s 1929 film with Bow, her first talking picture, is often cited as a key work in the director’s filmography, being the story of a college girl whose party lifestyle gets her into trouble. Made before the restrictive Hays Code was introduced in 1930,  The Wild Party features many of the themes that would recur in Arzner’s films, in which women choose independence and refuse to be dominated by men, or even each other.

Though Arzner remained private about her personal life, her sexuality was an open secret in Hollywood and has since made her films a treasure trove for latter-day critics and theorists. Legendary critic Pauline Kael described Arzner’s 1933 film Christopher Strong, starring Katherine Hepburn as a female aviator, as ‘one of the rare movies told from a woman’s sexual point of view.’

Sadly, Arzner’s most famous film is also one of her last; a film so ahead of its time that it didn’t find its fanbase until the ’70s. Starring Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball, Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) is an unlikely-female-buddy burlesque movie that conceals a withering attack on the male gaze under its showgirl wardrobe of sequins and feathers.

This was to be Arzner’s penultimate film – after contracting pneumonia that laid her low for a year, the director – who died in 1979, aged 82 – made the decision in 1943 to quit for good, and stuck to it. The story might have ended there, but somehow Arzner’s legacy endured, just as she herself had survived in her heyday. As Katharine Hepburn put it to Arzner in a telegram, when she was honoured by the DGA in 1975, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?’”

This last comment is a rather ironic comment coming from one of Hollywood’s greatest women of the screen during the era; and incidentally, Arzner didn’t quit the business in 1943 – in the middle of directing her last feature, First Comes Courage (1943), concerning a young woman, Nikki (Merle Oberon) who works undercover against the Nazis for the Swedish resistance, Arzner fell ill with pneumonia, and was replaced with another director, rather than allowing her to finish the film herself.

After that, it was Pepsi-Cola commercials for her long-time friend Joan Crawford, as well as a long career as a lecturer, teacher, and speaker. I’ve been saying this for years; why isn’t there a box set of her work? But there isn’t, and it isn’t likely to happen now, but nevertheless Arzner’s work remains, as a signpost to younger directors willing to take on the system and fight for what they believe – something that’s even harder to do today than it was then.

Dorothy Arzner – one of the great pioneers of the American sound film.

TCM and Criterion Launch FilmStruck Video on Demand

October 6th, 2016

TCM and Criterion are launching a new streaming film service, with a great selection of titles.

As Todd Spangler writes in Variety, “Turner is set to launch FilmStruck — its first subscription video-on-demand service, stocked with hundreds of arthouse, indie, foreign and cult films along with a host of additional related content — on Oct. 19. FilmStruck, which Turner execs have said is an opportunity to test out the direct-to-consumer SVOD segement, is developed and managed by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) in collaboration with the Criterion Collection.

FilmStruck will be available only in the U.S. initially. It will have three pricing tiers: the entry-level service is $6.99 per month; FilmStruck + The Criterion Channel is $10.99 monthly, offering everything in the base FilmStruck subscription plan plus unlimited access to Criterion’s entire streaming library of films and special features, along with exclusive original programming; and an annual subscription of $99 per year for FilmStruck + The Criterion Channel.

FilmStruck’s rotating selection includes films from such indie studios as Janus Films, Flicker Alley, Icarus Films, Kino, Milestone, Zeitgeist, Film Movement, Global Lens, First Run Features, Oscilloscope Laboratories and Shout Factory, along with movies from major studios including Warner Bros. and MGM.

‘By combining the expertise at TCM and the Criterion Collection – two of the leading authorities in film preservation and history – we have created something really special that is a must-have for passionate film lovers,’ said Jennifer Dorian, general manager of TCM and FilmStruck. Turner commissioned a research study of 2,000 film fans across the U.S., conducted by Frank N. Magid Associates, and drew from that an estimate that there are 15 million people 18-49 in the States who would be interested in a service like FilmStruck . . .

The challenge for FilmStruck will be to capture a share of consumers’ wallets against a myriad of other SVOD offerings in the market, including mainstream players like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, as well as more directly competitive services tailored to film buffs, including Fandor and Tribeca Shortlist, a joint venture of Lionsgate and Tribeca Enterprises.

Titles to be featured on FilmStruck include Babette’s Feast, Blood Simple, Blow-Up, Breaker Morant, A Hard Day’s Night, Mad Max, Metropolis, Moulin Rouge, My Life as a Dog, Paths of Glory, The Player, A Room with a View, Seven Samurai, The Seventh Seal, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Stardust Memories, The Trip to Bountiful, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Woodstock.

In addition, beginning Nov. 11, FilmStruck will become the exclusive streaming home to The Criterion Channel, offering what the companies say is the largest streaming collection of Criterion films available, including classic and contemporary films from around the world, interviews and conversations with filmmakers and never-before-seen programming.

With the FilmStruck deal, Criterion films are rolling off Hulu, which had been the exclusive streaming partner for Criterion’s library in the U.S. since 2011. FilmStruck will be available on the web, Android and iOS devices, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV, with additional platforms and devices coming in the future. As with Netflix, Hulu and other services, FilmStruck offers only video streaming (with no downloads for offline viewing).

The FilmStruck service will feature over 70 curated and constantly refreshed programming themes, along with exclusive bonus content like hosted introductions, originally produced pieces, interviews and rare footage.” Sounds promising, and also exclusive, as the highlighted section above demonstrates. If you want Criterion versions of these classic films – the best on the market – as streaming media, then FilmStruck will be your one and only choice.

In addition, as TCM itself uses an ever-tighter playlist of classic films, this will be a welcome opportunity to move beyond the televised offerings and program your own film festival, so to speak. But as Spangler notes, the real problem will be gaining market share in an already crowded field, but for the dedicated movie buff, the Criterion “exclusive” angle will more than solve that problem, I would think.

All in all, everything is moving to the web – streaming, with no downloads and physical media. This is both a good and bad thing; I’m a diehard physical media person, and if possible, I like to get the films that I really want to see again and again on DVD or Blu-ray. But there’s no denying that there’s vast market to be tapped here, and if TCM and Criterion can do it with FilmStruck, more power to them. With the collapse of the art house circuit worldwide, everything is moving online.

Starting October 19th – FilmStruck – the new destination for streaming classic films.

50th Anniversary Screening of The Chelsea Girls at Anthology

October 2nd, 2016

Fifty years ago today, Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls had its first public screening.

Tonight at Anthology Film Archives, Jonas Mekas will introduce the 50th anniversary screening of this indelible, inexhaustible masterpiece, which is a very difficult film to project, requiring two 16mm projectors, stereo sound, and a great deal of patience on the part of the projectionist.

Starring nearly the entire gallery of Warhol 60s superstars, including Nico, Ondine, Marie Menken, Mary Woronov, Gerard Malanga, International Velvet, Ingrid Superstar, Mario Montez, Eric Emerson, and Brigid Berlin, the film runs a mammoth 210 minutes, but is worth every second of your time.

As Anthology’s website notes, “Warhol’s double-screen masterpiece – consisting of 12 unedited reels, shown side-by-side, with only one soundtrack audible at a time – depicts the Chelsea Hotel as a teeming hive of Superstars, junkies, prostitutes, and generally out-sized personalities.

An underground sensation upon its release, it ultimately broke out of the underground cinema circuit, invading a ‘respectable’ uptown theater and leading uptight New York Times critic Bosley Crowther to declare, ‘now that [the] underground has surfaced on West 57th Street and taken over a theater with carpets…it is time for permissive adults to stop winking at their too-precious pranks….’

Before having the gall to blow uptown minds, however, The Chelsea Girls premiered in 1966 at Jonas Mekas’s Film-Makers’ Cinematheque at 125 West 41st Street (apparently far enough downtown for Crowther), where it sold out many of its initial screenings and enjoyed several return engagements, before moving to the Cinema Rendezvous on 57th.

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, we present this special screening (safely downtown), hosted by Jonas Mekas himself, who will share stories of how The Chelsea Girls was let loose on the world.”

The original projectionists were Jerome Hiler and Bob Cowan; the Cinemathque in this particular iteration was run by the late Greg Sharits; and as the notes above indicate, it was an instant smash, with ads running in The New York Times, and nearly universal critical acclaim.

More than any other film, with the exception of La Dolce Vita, The Chelsea Girls holds a mirror up to the culture of the 1960s; it is at all surprising that the late chanteuse and actor Nico is in both films?

So, if you’re in New York City tonight, this is a must see – of course, there’s also a great new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde playing at The Metropolitan Opera this week, so that’s something – just something – of a toss up. But that should give you some idea of just how important The Chelsea Girls is as a cultural landmark – it’s an absolutely brilliant, merciless, and altogether stunning experience, of equally epic stature.

The Chelsea Girls is on my “top ten” list – which has 250 films in it – see it if you can.

Roger Corman – Film As Art and Business

September 28th, 2016

Nick Pinkerton has a revealing interview with Roger Corman in the September 2016 issue of Film Comment.

As he passes his 90th birthday, and moves towards his 91st, Roger Corman remains very much in the game in the world of commercial cinema, but as always, he balances art with commerce, and even as he makes some films that are frankly commercial enterprises, one must remember that his ultra-commercial film production company in the 1970s and 80s, New World, also served as the American distributor for the films of Truffaut, Bergman, and other frankly “art” filmmakers, and that as theatrical distribution collapsed around the world, he was one of the last to make sure that even the most difficult films still found an audience.

As Corman states at the end of Pinkerton’s interview: “The film industry will always exist, but it will no longer be the film industry. It will be digital or possibly virtual reality, or holograms. I think of it as an industry, a business, and an art form. Today, the business end of it has become more powerful than the art form. I think what we need to save it—although it’s making real money and it’s not in real trouble—to reinvigorate it is to remember this is an art form as well as a business. You can’t continually spend $100- or $200-million dollars on a superhero picture. You’ve got to at least let some films come through that are closer to art.”

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

Agnès Varda – “From Here to There”

September 28th, 2016

Agnès Varda walking down the street with Chris Marker, behind his signature “cat symbol.”

Agnès Varda has a relatively new documentary out – it was actually completed in 2011, and shot over several years before that – which in five roughly hour long parts examines the creative process inherent in her own work, and the work of her friends and colleagues, which is at once playful, experimental, deeply personal, and imbued with the joy of life and creating art for the sake of art.

Though, as she points out, now that he is older, everywhere she goes people give her medals and retrospective screenings, Varda is still very much alive as a filmmaker and video artist, and one is struck not only be her relaxed and assured embrace of video technology, but also her multifaceted persona as an artist: a still photographer, environmental creator, sculptor, filmmaker, painter – you name it.

Many of her friends are colleagues with whom she has been working since the 1950s, and now are extremely successful artists in a variety of mediums, but Varda seems not at all affected by her hard-won fame and the new – and richly deserved – level of respect her work is now experiencing. While contemporaries such as Jean-Luc Godard, wildly prolific in the 1960s, but merely a shadow of his former self now – as he himself put it in an interview, “I’m on my last legs” – seem to drift off into the past, Varda keeps looking forward to future, and finding endless possibilities and new directions in her work.

As Fernando F. Croce wrote in Film Comment in 2014, “early in the marvelously fluid, five-part cine-essay Agnès Varda: From Here to There, the eponymous veteran auteur briefly pauses to ponder the difference between cinema and photography. Legendary French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson is Varda’s subject in this mini-digression, yet her comments on stillness and movement as captured through a camera lens clearly apply to her own art, particularly in light of her eccentric and deeply personal recent documentaries.

Like The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008), this miniseries (shot for French television roughly over the course of one year) envisions a form of portraiture that is forever on the move, its brisk, airy images darting and rippling like the frank, fearless filmmaker’s memories and emotions.

That feeling of emotional mobility is something Varda has always shared with her late husband, the great director Jacques Demy, whose benevolent specter is never far. Visiting Brazil—in the first of the various global travels she documents in Here and There—Varda shares some of the home movies Demy shot in the country many years earlier. (‘Jacques was known for his tracking shots, but here his camera stood still,’ she muses over the grainy, flickering footage.)

While in Demy’s hometown of Nantes for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of his feature debut Lola, Varda captures the aged Anouk Aimée abstractedly repeating a coquettish gesture from the young heroine she once portrayed. That tinge of continuity is further enforced in a heartening moment when Demy’s poetic manifesto on why he films is recited by his son Mathieu over a montage of pictures depicting his cinema as well as his family life.

Agnes Varda From Here to There

Indeed, renewal and continuity are recurring themes. Each of the segments is prefaced with glimpses of Varda’s backyard, where wild foliage has sprouted on previously bare trees. It’s a spiritual metaphor that, like the key image of mirrors on a beach, would feel heavy-handed if it weren’t worn in such a fleet and open-hearted manner, its transparency an integral part of the film’s dizzying array of friends and events. Now in her mid-eighties, the director savors playfully childlike artifice.

In The Beaches of Agnès, sand is poured in a Parisian street as clerks in a mock-office lounge in bathing suits, and former child actors from Varda’s neorealist early effort La Pointe Courte (1955) enact one of their scenes as old men. From Here to There doesn’t have as many tableaux, but it retains that same impish, analog spirit as she makes her way across the continents, omnivorously searching for ‘fragments, moments, people.’” The series is now available on DVD, or for the moment on Amazon streaming; you should take the time to see it if you possibly can.

Varda’s work should be an inspiration to us all; this is simply essential viewing.

Happy Birthday to F. Scott Fitzgerald!

September 25th, 2016

F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood, 1937 – he was born on September 24th in 1896.

There’s really no question in my mind that F. Scott Fitzgerald is my favorite author, perhaps the best American novelist of the first third of the 20th century, and not just for The Great Gatsby, which is nevertheless a brilliant book. I’ve always had a real affection for Tender is The Night, as well as the unfinished The Last Tycoon, and even Fitzgerald’s late short stories, which were frankly pounded out for much-needed cash.

A while ago, I wrote a book on Fitzgerald’s work in Hollywood in his last years - he died in 1940 – which was mentioned in a piece in The New Yorker by Arthur Krystal, who wrote that Fitzgerald arrived in Hollywood in 1937 “to take a job at the M-G-M studio in Culver City. He occupied a small office on the third floor of the writers’ building, where from ten in the morning until six at night he worked on scripts and drank bottles of Coca-Cola, carefully arranging the empties around the room.

Fitzgerald lasted eighteen months at M-G-M, during which time he worked on five scripts, wrote another one more or less from scratch, and generated a pile of notes and memos. And if his work was altered or rejected, he’d follow up with bitter, self-justifying letters.

There was a spate of such letters. Fitzgerald, to put it mildly, did not impress the studio bosses. The rap against him was that he couldn’t make the shift from words on the page to images on the screen. His plotting was elaborate without purpose; his dialogue arch or sentimental; and his tone too serious—at times, even grim. Billy Wilder, who seemed genuinely fond of Fitzgerald, likened him to ‘a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job’—with no idea how to connect the pipes and make the water flow.

On the face of it, he should have taken Hollywood by storm: he wrote commercially successful stories; he knew how to frame a scene; and his dialogue, at least in his best fiction, was smart, sophisticated, evocative. And of all the American novelists writing in the nineteen-twenties and thirties—Dreiser, Lewis, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Steinbeck—Fitzgerald had the strongest attachment to Hollywood.

As a boy, he was a passionate moviegoer; he directed and acted in plays, and his desk was filled, he later recalled, with ‘dozens of notebooks containing the germs of dozens of musical comedies.’ Moreover, three of his early stories had been made into silent films, as had his novels The Beautiful and Damned and The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald began trying to write for the movies as early as 1922, and yet, for all his efforts, he earned exactly one screen credit: a shared billing on Three Comrades. So what was the problem?”

It’s a fascinating question, which I tackled in my book The Cinematic Vision of F. Scott Fitzgerald; basically, Fitzgerald was way ahead of his time, and also an artist who adapted poorly to the studio system, even though he wrote and rewrote some of his late short stories over and over to please the magazine editors who would eventually publish them. But he always thought that the cinema could be something more than what it was, and now resolutely is – mass entertainment – and this individual vision pushed him beyond his limits, to his death.

But Fitzgerald’s last work in Hollywood, the screenplay for the unproduced film Infidelity (which would never have gotten past the Breen office in that era) is one of his finest pieces of work, and remains unproduced to this day. Four-fifths of the screenplay was published in Esquire years ago; in the early 1980s, when MGM was still at its original headquarters at 10202 West Washington Blvd., I found Fitzgerald’s outline for the ending of Infidelity in studio’s files, and a good screenwriter could finish the script up in a matter of weeks.

And perhaps someday it will happen . . .

Jean Cocteau in 1963: “I Hope You Have Not Become Robots”

September 15th, 2016

In August 1963, just a few months before his death, Jean Cocteau recorded a message for the year 2000.

As Josh Jones perceptively writes in Open Culture, “Jean Cocteau was a great many things to a great many people—writer, filmmaker, painter, friend, and lover. In the latter two categories he could count among his acquaintances such modernist giants as Pablo Picasso, Kenneth Anger, Erik Satie, Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf, Jean Marais, Marcel Proust, André Gide, and a number of other famous names . . .

As you’ll see in the short film above, Cocteau Addresses the Year 2000, the great 20th century artist considered the many awards bestowed upon him naught but ‘transcendent punishment.’ What Cocteau cared for most was poetry; for him it was the ‘basis of all art, a religion without hope.’

Cocteau began his career as a poet, publishing his first collection, Aladdin’s Lamp, at the age of 19. By 1963, at the age of 73, he had lived one of the richest artistic lives imaginable [though he was materially poor, and relied upon the generosity of others for his daily needs], transforming every genre he touched.

Deciding to leave one last artifact to posterity, Cocteau sat down and recorded the film above, a message to the year 2000, intending it as a time capsule only to be opened in that year (though it was discovered, and viewed a few years earlier). Biographer James S. Williams describes the documentary testament as ‘Cocteau’s final gift to his fellow human beings.’

He reiterates some of his long-standing artistic themes and principles: death is a form of life; poetry is beyond time and a kind of superior mathematics; we are all a procession of others who inhabit us; errors are the true expression of an individual, and so on. The tone is at once speculative and uncompromising…

Portraying himself as ‘a living anachronism’ in a ‘phantom-like state,’ Cocteau, seated before his own artwork, quotes St. Augustine, makes parables of events in his life, and addresses, primarily, the youth of the future.

The uses and misuses of technology comprise a central theme of his discourse: ‘I certainly hope that you have not become robots,’ Cocteau says, ‘but on the contrary that you have become very humanized: that’s my hope.’ The people of his time, he claims, ‘remain apprentice robots.’

Among Cocteau’s concerns is the dominance of an ‘architectural Esperanto, which remains our time’s great mistake.’ By this phrase he means that ‘the same house is being built everywhere and no attention is paid to climate, atmospherical conditions or landscape.’

Whether we take this as a literal statement or a metaphor for social engineering, or both, Cocteau sees the condition as one in which these monotonous repeating houses are ‘prisons which lock you up or barracks which fence you in.’ The modern condition, as he frames it, is one ’straddling contradictions’ between humanity and machinery. Nonetheless, he is impressed with scientific advancement, a realm of ‘men who do extraordinary things.’

And yet, ‘the real man of genius,’ for Cocteau, is the poet, and he hopes for us that the genius of poetry ‘hasn’t become something like a shameful and contagious sickness against which you wish to be immunized.’ He has very much more of interest to communicate, about his own time, and his hopes for ours.

Cocteau recorded this transmission from the past in August of 1963. On October 11 of that same year, he died of a heart attack, supposedly shocked to death by news of his friend Edith Piaf’s death that same day in the same manner.

His final film, and final communication to a public yet to be born, accords with one of the great themes of his life’s work—’the tug of war between the old and the new and the paradoxical disparities that surface because of that tension.’

Should we attend to his messages to our time, we may find that he anticipated many of our 21st century dilemmas between technology and humanity, and between history and myth. It’s interesting to imagine how we might describe our own age to a later generation, and, like Cocteau, what we might hope for them.”

It’s also remarkable that even in his last months, Cocteau remained dedicated to the future of humanity, and the humanities, and the need for poetry in the modern world, and that he created this last film entirely extemporaneously, speaking from the heart without notes or preparation, with a desperate urgency to communicate one last time with the youth of the future – albeit from beyond the grave. On his tomb, it says simply “I stay with you,” and so he does, more important now than ever, as one of the foremost humanists of the modern era.

This is an invaluable document; a real call for humanity to a future that desperately needs it.

New Article: T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral

September 15th, 2016

I have a new article out in Senses of Cinema on the restored film of Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

As I write, “I’ve always had a curious affection for George Hoellering’s 1951 film adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s verse play Murder in the Cathedral. Eliot composed it as a stage play in 1935, with the first performance taking place on June 15th that year in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral, in every way an appropriate location for the production. As is well known, Eliot’s play deals with the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket by four knights in 1170 at the Canterbury Cathedral. This crime was committed at the behest of King Henry II, who was seeking both to establish his own authority on a higher scale and to break ties with the Papacy in Rome. Eliot’s play uses a great deal of material written by one Edward Grim, who saw the actual assassination of Becket in person, and was even wounded during the attack.

The first production at Canterbury Cathedral featured actor Robert Speaight as Becket, which then was transferred to London’s Mercury Theatre in Notting Hill Gate for a modest run, with Speaight reprising his leading role. As many have noted, the main theme of Eliot’s play is the power of resistance to authority that one believes to be either corrupt or fraudulent. Since Eliot wrote the work in the shadow of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, there can be little doubt that he had the usurping forces of fascism in mind as he composed Murder in the Cathedral. It’s a superb accomplishment as a text, and requires a minimum of dramatic translation for the stage: it is essentially performed as a series of tableaux, and so eloquent is Eliot’s text that it needs little more in the way of staging or blocking.

Subsequent stage productions included Robert Donat’s turn as Becket in an Old Vic production directed by Robert Helpmann in 1953; a 1971 New York stage version with Dark Shadows alumnus Jonathan Frid in the title role; a Royal Shakespeare Company version in 1972 starring Hammer Films regular Richard Pasco as Becket; and most recently in 2014 at St. Bartholomew-the-Great Church in London, testifying to the continual appeal of Eliot’s work. Murder in the Cathedral also served as source material for one of the very first experimental television broadcasts: the 1936 BBC presentation of the play directed by George More O’Ferrall, which according to Kenneth Baily (who witnessed the transmission on television) included ‘the earliest recollection I have of a really inspired use of the close-up in television drama.’

But there the matter of a visual translation of Eliot’s work rested, until George Hoellering stepped in. He was an Austro-Hungarian filmmaker and entrepreneur who had fled the continent in 1936 to escape the Nazi onslaught, with only a handful of films to his credit. Hoellering brought Murder in the Cathedral to the screen in what was clearly a ‘passion project,’ with Eliot’s full help and participation. Hoellering’s previous films included the 1936 movie Life on the Hortobagy (a slightly fictionalized feature documentary centering on the everyday life of Hungarian peasants) and the 1944 British-made shorts Tyre Economy (of which the title says all) and Message from Canterbury (essentially an ode to Canterbury Cathedral, centering on a sermon delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. William Temple).

What resulted was the product of a collaboration between one of the 20th century’s most gifted and exacting poets and a filmmaker intent on creating a feature film based on Eliot’s work, which had moved him deeply since his youth. The most conspicuous – even conscious – aspect of Hollering’s film of Eliot’s play is its theatricality, coupled with an austere visual sensibility that prefigures the dark landscapes of such later films as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1943), or harkens back to Carl Th. Dreyer’s equally severe Day of Wrath (1943). For many years, Murder in the Cathedral has been out of circulation – even as a 1952 book by Eliot and Hoellering on the making of the film, replete with numerous stills, remained tantalisingly in print – but now, in a newly restored DVD and Blu-ray combination release from the BFI - we have a chance once again to see Murder in the Cathedral for ourselves.”

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

Louis Augustine Aimé Le Prince – The First Filmmaker

September 14th, 2016

Here’s a new documentary out on Louis Augustine Aimé Le Prince - the very, very first filmmaker.

As the site for the film on Vimeo notes, during “October 1888 Louis Le Prince produced the world’s first films in Leeds, England. These were shot on cameras patented in both America and the UK. Once he had perfected his projection machine Le Prince arranged to demonstrate his discovery to the American public and thus the world.

On 16th September 1890, just days before he was due to sail to New York Louis Augustine Aimé Le Prince stepped onto the Dijon to Paris train and was never seen again. No body was ever found so legally no one could fight the Le Prince claim that he invented a camera that recorded the very first moving image.

As a result, several years later, Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers were to claim to the glory and the prize of being acknowledged as the first people to pioneer film. Louis Le Prince was never added to history books. But for one lone voice, who worked with him, Le Prince’s name and his pioneering work was forgotten.

The First Film is David Nicholas Wilkinson’s decades long quest to prove to the world that a Frenchman Louis Le Prince made the first films in 1888 and that the birthplace of motion pictures was not America nor France but in fact the city of Leeds in the county of Yorkshire, England.”

Le Prince’s story has long been one of the great mysteries of the cinema, and the subject of a book and a documentary by Christopher Rawlence, The Missing Reel. However, in the ensuing years, a great deal of new material has come to light, and The First Film takes full advantage of these discoveries, to demonstrate convincingly – though many have argued this for years, myself among them – that Le Prince is the true pioneer of the motion picture medium.

This is a fascinating documentary of a tragically forgotten pioneer – absolutely essential viewing.

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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