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New Video: Jacket

February 4th, 2017

I have a new video in collaboration with artist Klaus Hausmann: click here, or above, to see it.

This is the sort of collaboration that could only happen in the digital era; Hausmann lives in Germany, and posted an 11 second version of this video on a video sharing website I sometimes visit. I expanded on the existing video, added the track, and voila – a collaboration that crosses borders, space and time with impunity.

As I wrote in the brief description for the video, “is it a jacket, or a straitjacket – it’s hard to tell.” Hausmann’s struggle to get the jacket on in the proper fashion – aided and sometimes thwarted by stop motion videography – is a metaphor for the knotty situations we sometimes find ourselves in, and triumph anyway.

If you like Jacket, check out some of my other videos by clicking here.

USC Study: Women and Minorities in Hollywood Still Struggling

February 1st, 2017

As Rebecca Sun writes in The Hollywood Reporter, women and minorities are still short-changed in Hollywood.

As Sun notes, “USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative has uncovered sobering evidence that the lifespan of a female director’s career is a lot shorter than that of her male counterpart’s.

Analyzing the gender, race and age of the directors of the 1,000 top-grossing films from the past 10 years, researchers found that 80 percent of the female helmers were ‘one and done’ — that is, they made just one movie from 2007 to 2016. This percentage rose to 83.3 percent for women of color. By contrast, 54.8 percent of the men directed just one film during that span (with Asian and black male directors faring slightly worse, at 60 and 62.5 percent, respectively).

‘If you’re trying to feed a family or make your way in Hollywood, having one opportunity a decade is simply not going to get the job done,’ Dr. Katherine Pieper, who co-authored the study with Dr. Stacy L. Smith and Marc Choueiti, tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Although the average age of male and female directors was similar (46.2 and 47.4 years, respectively), the age range for each gender differed. All of the women who worked in the past 10 years were in their 30s to 60s, while eight 20-something men and six octogenarians released at least one movie during that span, including Clint Eastwood, whose eight titles make him the second-most prolific director of the past decade.

Tyler Perry is first, with 14, while the highest-ranking woman, The Proposal’s Anne Fletcher, shares 24th place with 31 male directors, with four films each.

In assessing the race and gender of directors of the annual 100 highest-grossing movies, the researchers found that over the past 10 years the share of films directed by women, black or Asian filmmakers (4, 5.1 and 3 percent, respectively) has experienced no significant statistical shift.

These proportions represent movies, not individuals; Perry, for example, is singlehandedly responsible for nearly a quarter of the movies helmed by black directors over the past decade, while James Wan, Justin Lin and Jon M. Chu held more than 40 percent of Asian directors’ credits, thanks to their franchise work.

In terms of unique individuals, 27 black and 17 Asian directors sat in the director’s chair. Five were women: Ava DuVernay, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Sanaa Hamri, Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Loveleen Tandan, who was credited as ‘Co-director (India)’ on Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire.

Although the study did not evaluate ethnicity, its authors noted that Miracles From Heaven’s Patricia Riggen was the only Latina director among the 1,000-film sample of the last decade.

Going forward, the USC researchers intend to continue their qualitative and quantitative examination of the entire pipeline to further pinpoint where and why women and people of color are losing opportunities to work.

Although the majority of those included in this study had agency representation, ‘there’s a breakdown in the process of getting women and people of color these top jobs,’ Smith says. ‘More inquiry needs to be conducted to find out where are they falling out, and what can be done to shore up those leaks or cracks in the consideration process.’

To that end, the authors have included a number of proposed solutions tailored for various sectors of the industry, from buyers and sellers, who can set specific proportions (i.e., 30 percent female/underrepresented race) for people they consider for a job, to A-list talent, who can add ‘equity riders’ to their contracts.

Says Smith: ‘It’s about asking what are all the levers that need to be pushed to open up the gates for more storytellers interested in developing their talent so that they can have opportunities over time?’”

We will undoubtedly hear more about this in the future – this is a real issue.

Pioneering Video Artist Lillian Schwartz

January 29th, 2017

Lillian Schwartz is a pioneering video artist, who is only now getting the attention she deserves.

As Wikipedia notes, “Lillian Schwartz (born 1927) is a 20th-century American artist considered a pioneer of computer-mediated art and one of the first artists notable for basing almost her entire oeuvre on computational media. Many of her ground-breaking projects were done in the 1960s and 1970s, well before the desktop computer revolution made computer hardware and software widely available to artists . . .

As a young girl during the Great Depression, Schwartz experimented with slate, mud, sticks, and chalk as free materials for making art. She studied to become a nurse under a World War II education program and later on found her training in anatomy, biology, and the use of plaster valuable in making art. Stationed in Japan during the postwar occupation in an area between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she contracted polio, which paralyzed her for a time. As part of her rehabilitation, she studied calligraphy with the artist Tshiro . . .

By 1966, Schwartz had begun working with light boxes and mechanical devices like pumps, and she became a member of the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) group that brought together artists and engineers as collaborators. In 1968 her kinetic sculpture Proxima Centauri was included in the important early show of machine art at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, entitled ‘The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age’ . . .

Schwartz was brought into Bell Labs in 1968 by Leon Harmon. While there, she worked with engineers John Vollaro and others, including extensive collaboration with Ken Knowlton, a software engineer and computer artist who had also had work in the 1968 Museum of Modern Art show. She began making paintings and films with a combination of hand painting, digital collaging, computer and other image processing, and optical post-processing . . .

Schwartz used the works of Leonardo da Vinci extensively in experiments with computers. One notable work she created is Mona/Leo, for which she compared the image of a Leonardo da Vinci self-portrait with the Mona Lisa, matching the two faces feature by feature to show their underlying structural similarity. Specifically, she replaced the right side of the Mona Lisa with the flipped left side of a red chalk self-portrait of Leonardo.

Superimposed lines drawn on the image showing the close alignments of the bottom of the eye, eyebrow, nose and chin prompted her to argue that the Mona Lisa is in part a cryptic self-portrait of the artist. In further experiments along these lines, she removed the gray tones in Leonardo da Vinci’s self-portrait and superimposed the Mona Lisa eye over it.

Schwartz has been called a pioneer in ‘establishing computers as a valid and fruitful artistic medium’ by physicist and Nobel laureate Arno Penzias and a trailblazer and virtuoso by the philosopher-artist Timothy Binkley.Her films have been included in the Venice Biennale and the Cannes Film Festival, among many others, and have received numerous awards. Among these is an Academy Award (with Ed Emshwiller) in 1980 for special effects on the film The Lathe of Heaven. In the 1980s, a computer-generated TV spot that she created for the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art in New York won an Emmy Award.

Schwartz’s artworks have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Moderna Museet (Stockholm), Centre Beauborg (Paris), Stedlijk Museum of Art (Amsterdam), the Grand Palais Museum (Paris), and at numerous galleries and festivals worldwide.

Schwartz has been a visiting member of the Computer Science Department at the University of Maryland; an adjunct professor at the Kean College, Fine Arts Department; an adjunct professor at Rutgers University’s Visual Arts Department; an adjunct professor at the Psychology Department of the School of Arts and Sciences, New York University; and a Member of the Graduate Faculty of The School of Visual Arts, NYC. She has also been an Artist in Residence at Channel 13, WNET, New York. She has been a fellow of the World Academy of Science and Art since 1988.”

This is just a brief overview of Schwartz’s work as an artist; still very active with a gallery show at the prestigious Capri Gallery in Germany running through the end of March, 2017 (click here for full details), she is also the subject of an excellent short documentary on her life and work, which can be found by clicking here, made just before her 87th birthday. Direct, unpretentious, and absolutely determined, Schwartz has too long labored in the shadows of the art world, when her prodigious accomplishments clearly place her in the absolute vanguard of computer and video art.

I thank Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for introducing me to Schwartz’s work; see more by clicking here.

Miles Malleson’s 1933 Play “Yours Unfaithfully” Debuts – in 2017

January 29th, 2017

Max von Essen, Mikaela Izquierdo, and Elisabeth Gray in the world premiere of Yours Unfaithfully (1933).

As The Stage Review notes in their commentary on Malleson’s play, “William Miles Malleson (1888-1969) is remembered, if at all, as a character actor on stage and screen ‘who had a line in nitwits in which he was unrivaled,’ such as the Sultan in The Thief of Bagdad (1940; which he also wrote), the hangman in Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (with Sir Alec Guinness, 1949) and Rev. Chasuble in Anthony Asquith’s The Importance of Being Earnest (with Edith Evans, 1952).

But as the author of numerous plays charged with the passion of reform, he never enjoyed the kind of popular success he had as an actor. The Stage and Television Today published a warm testimonial at his death in 1969: ‘Malleson was an actor of distinction, an artist of imagination and depth, whose best characterizations, especially in Shakespeare, were among the treasures of our theatre for many years . . .

He excelled in comedy that came from guileless but not silly men. His nit-wits had souls as well as stupidities. What might have been merely grotesque was never so, it was lit by human feeling. His work in the theatre spanned nearly sixty years, from the time he made his debut at Liverpool Playhouse under Basil Dean in 1911, in Justice. He worked with Granville Barker and J.B. Fagan, with Playfair, Gielgud and Olivier, at the Old Vic in London and Bristol; in the West End and in the provinces.

His acting, within its range, was unrivaled for effect, interest and significance, and he contributed valuable work as a translator of Moliere, as a writer, notably with The Fanatics and Six Men of Dorset—with H. Brooks—and as an influence for all that was intended to be of value to the theatre, irrespective of profit or fame.’”

It’s all true; I must admit I was completely unaware of this aspect of Malleson’s long career, as he did indeed specialize in befuddled character parts in everything from the 1945 British classic Dead of Night, to later roles in Hammer Gothics such as Terence Fisher’s The Horror of Dracula (1958), in which Malleson plays an absent-minded funeral director who manages to misplace a corpse during one of the film’s brief comic interludes.

The play has never been produced until now, and judging from the review in The New York Times, the results are remarkable: as their critic Alexis Soloski writes, “Yours Unfaithfully is both a daring play and a highly conventional one. Under the polished direction of Jonathan Bank, and in the hands of a fine team of designers, its arguments remain provocative, while its structure feels familiar, its tone decorous. Maybe that only makes it more unusual. It’s a bit like a sex farce with real sorrow instead of slammed doors, and something like a drawing room comedy with moral conundrums peeking out beneath the cushions. It is often very funny; it is also very nearly a tragedy . . .

what is extraordinary about Mr. Malleson is his ability to create characters who are capable of feeling several things at once, or who don’t really know what they’re feeling at all. Both Stephen and Anne seem genuinely surprised that their hearts and minds aren’t as orderly as they had believed. (Ms. Gray is especially adroit at rendering these intricate emotional shadings.)” The production was selected by The Times as a “NYT Critics’ Pick” – which The Times doesn’t give out easily.

Yours Unfaithfully is now running at The Samuel Beckett Theatre on 42nd Street in Manhattan; if you’re in the city, it should be on your must-see list, as a long overdue discovery of a playwright whose work is now being compared with Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw – which is heady company indeed.

You can see a clip from the dress rehearsal of the play by clicking here, or on the image above.

The 1956 Film Version of George Orwell’s 1984

January 28th, 2017

Lately, 1984 has been a very popular novel – but the best movie version was made in 1956.

When George Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair) finished his novel 1984 in 1948, after thinking about it since 1944, he was trying to warn his audience that unchecked totalitarianism could easily destroy democracy. Since then, there have been several film and television versions; the 1954 BBC version starring Peter Cushing; the 1956 version starring Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling; and the 1984 version – yes, that’s right – starring the late John Hurt as the hapless Winston Smith, and Richard Burton as his nemesis O’Brien, in what would prove to be his final screen role.

All the various versions have their adherents, but for me, the 1956 version comes closest to the mark. The 1954 version survives only on a battered Kinescope, and as much as I am fond of Peter Cushing as an actor (as readers of this blog no doubt know), he makes a very indifferent Winston Smith, one of the “proles” singled out for punishment and “rehabilitation” by the minions of Big Brother. He would have been much more effective in the O’Brien role, just as he’s superlatively evil as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars (1977).

The 1984 version has strong performances by both Burton and Hurt, but is ruined – really ruined - by a terrible pop score by The Eurythmics. There was one 2003 US DVD release with the original symphonic score by Dominic Muldowney, but most versions have the Eurythmics track, which so offended Michael Radford, the director of the film, that he publicly disowned the film. So . . .

That leaves the 1956 version, which although it has its flaws, is easily the most effective version of the novel, at least for me. Yes, one of the central problems is the casting of Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling in the leading roles of Winston Smith and Julia. Both were put in the film to increase the chances at the box-office in the United States – which didn’t work, despite a sensationalistic advertising campaign – and while O’Brien is much better than Sterling, they’re not ideally cast for the film.

But as General O’Connor (O’Brien in the book; the name change was to avoid confusion with the Edmond O’Brien’s credit), Sir Michael Redgave is absolutely immaculate – savage, smooth, duplicitous and unforgiving. The film’s narrative, which the title credits admit was “freely adapted” from Orwell’s novel, nevertheless touches all the important bases – cultural repression, institutionalized misinformation, social inequity, and a ruling class that cares nothing about the “proles” below.

Unfortunately, the film has existed in limbo for quite some time, and never got a real DVD release, except in England, and of course, being shot in 1956, it’s in black and white, modestly budgeted at a mere £80,073, or roughly $200,000 US dollars at the time. It’s yet another one of the many films that could use a proper DVD release.

The sets are minimal and coolly stylized, the effects are resolutely pre-digital, and there is even an alternate “happy ending” – thankfully, I have never seen it – tacked on to some prints. But in most surviving versions, the film ends with Smith, brutally tortured and now brainwashed into blindly accepting authority, leading a mob of citizens in a chant of “long live Big Brother” – the anonymous, and perhaps non-existent dictator of the future totalitarian state.

The director of the film was Michael Anderson, who directed Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) the same year – a much more crowd pleasing film – and would later go on to direct the almost equally Dystopian Logan’s Run (1976). The 1956 version of 1984, then, is certainly worth a look, if you can find it – and see how a group of talented people almost got it right.

You can see the entire film online by clicking here, or on the image above.

American International Pictures and Teen Films

January 27th, 2017

High School Caesar was one of the many AIP teen films of the 1950s – with a neat twist.

High School Caesar – a great title, by the way – was one of the many teen exploitation films released through American International Pictures in the mid to late 1950s, and represented the first time that a film production company directly targeted a teenage audience.

While the majors dithered and tried to return to the past, AIP – headed by co-founders James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff – stepped in to fill the gap the studios wouldn’t; films aimed at teenagers, which were as up to date as could possibly be.

In many ways, AIP changed the film business entirely in its most influential period from roughly 1955 through 1967, working closely with house director Roger Corman, who directed most of AIP’s output. But AIP also did a brisk business in “pick up” films, which were made by smaller companies and then distributed through AIP. High School Caesar belongs in the latter category.

Shot in Chillicothe, Missouri by the small company Marathon Productions, and directed by O’Dale Ireland, the film stars smooth-talking, baby faced John Ashley as Matt Stevens, who, unbeknownst to the teachers and principal at the local high school, runs a protection racket and other assorted graft schemes, terrorizing the students with impunity.

Made in a few weeks for roughly $100,000, the film was shot on actual locations, featured local residents in bit parts, and represents a kind of home-brew egalitarian filmmaking from an era in which anyone with a minimal budget and a good idea could get a theatrical release for their film – impossible today.

And if you can lift a great plot from William Shakespeare while keeping things contemporary – hey, why not? It also worked because the film spoke directly to its intended audience – not down to it. In general, AIP flourished because:

*AIP realized that no one was making films teenagers really wanted to see. AIP churned out one teen film after another, in a variety of genres, from horror to comedy to science-fiction to musicals, usually shot in a week, in black and white, on budgets in the $100,000 range – no more.

*AIP realized the importance of advertising, and would often spend more on promoting a film than actually making it. In addition to garish posters and “sensational” trailers, AIP’s sales staff would speak directly to teenagers, theater owners, and keep up on the latest trends, to deliver product that would find a ready audience.

*AIP invented saturation booking. Saturation booking, which has now become the standard for major film releases, opens a film everywhere at once so that it makes as much money up front as possible, before negative word of mouth sets in.

*AIP realized they had to control both halves of the double-bill. From the 1930s though the end of the 1970s, movies usually weren’t “stand alone” releases as they are today. Films were paired in a double bill, with an “A” on the top half, and a “B” or re-released film as the second part of the program. The second feature was often rented for a flat rate, rather than a percentage of the box office, so –

*AIP made double-bill combo pictures and sold them only as a double-bill, thus retaining all the box-office revenue, rather than splitting the box office receipts with another, larger company.

*AIP made their films available to drive-ins and distributors on a much more favorable financial basis. Where the majors would often insist on a 90/10 split of box office revenues for the first week of a film – which is why concession stand prices are so high – AIP would deal directly with theater chains and drive-ins (then a major factor in distribution) on a 50/50 basis, thus undercutting the majors.

*And finally, and amazingly, AIP was the first company to realize that summer was a great time to release a film. Until AIP came along, the majors thought that in the summer, everyone was on vacation, and didn’t want to see any movies until the Fall and/or Winter. AIP immediately swept in with summertime double-bills that caught teen audience attention, and pretty much created the summer movie season as we know it today.

So, back to High School Caesar. The film was a solid hit when released by AIP, and director O’Dale Ireland made a few other films, but nothing with as much box-office impact, a film that even spawned a hit single with the same title. But the residents of Chillicothe, where the film premiered at the local theater to record crowds, never forgot the film – which is run on TCM from time to time – or the impact it had on the community.

So in 2014, the local high school drama group decided rather than staging a traditional play for the year, they would do a video remake of High School Caesar, using a completely non-professional cast. Shot in a matter of weeks, with many of the local residents from the original film returning to the cast – now as mothers, fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers, in supporting roles – the new version was warmly received by the community. You can read the whole story of the 2014 remake by clicking here.

A remake of a local “classic” – a fitting tribute to the film, and to AIP.

Ricardo Darín: “I’m Fine Filming in Spanish, Thank You”

January 21st, 2017

Ricardo Darín, the brilliant Argentinian actor, has no plans to obey Hollywood’s demands.

As Elaine Guerini writes in Screen Daily, “Should every actor’s dream be to conquer Hollywood? Ricardo Darín, the Argentinian national treasure, has often asked himself this question following the umpteenth insinuation that success in a non-English language market is somehow not as valid.

‘I am fine filming in Spanish, thank you,’ reflects the 59-year-old actor who was in Uruguay last weekend to receive this year’s Platino Honor Award in recognition of his outstanding contributions to Ibero-American cinema. ‘Bombita Darín’, as he is known, is more than fine. For almost two decades, he has been the face of Argentinian cinema and among the most recognized on the Spanish-language film scene.

The actor is best known for roles in Juan José Campanella’s Oscar-winner The Secret In Their Eyes and Damián Szifrón’s most-seen Argentinina film ever Wild Tales (2014). But Darín’s career in cinema, theatre and TV stretches back to the 1960s.

He soared at home and abroad in Fabián Bielinsky’s Nine Queens (2000) and The Aura (2005), as well as Juan José Campanella’s Son Of The Bride (2001). He is particularly good in films which delve into the dark corners of human nature and Argentinian culture, preferably through taciturn characters whose expressions speak volumes.

‘I’m just lucky to find well-written scripts, which work with an economy of words,’ he says modestly. ‘A lot of explanation in the text is usually an attempt to compensate for the fragility of story or the lack of a good director on set.’

‘We shouldn’t feel inferior,’ says Darín about the separation between US studio and foreign independent films. ‘Facing the subjugation of US blockbusters, with disproportionate budgets, we must respond with talent, creativity, imagination, effort, enthusiasm and daring. That is the way to address the lack of money. We have talent so we just need to have confidence in ourselves,’ he adds.

The actor is known for having turned down several Hollywood offers, including a role opposite Denzel Washington in Tony Scott’s Man On Fire (2004). Darín didn’t see the point in starring in another US film which stereotyped Latin Americans as corrupt [the Mexican drug dealer has been another stock character in mainstream scripts].

‘It is not a matter of being anti-Hollywood per se. The screenplay needs to touch me somehow and I am not moved by surnames.’ Despite his misgivings, there are two US directors who could make him change his mind, ‘for their filmography and way of thinking. The only ones I would really want to work with are Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. If one of their films were suitable for me, it would be like touching the sky with my hand.’”

Darin is a stunningly good actor; I first encountered him in The Aura, one of this finest performances. His attitude here is a perfect example of how to deal with the temptations and blandishments of Hollywood’s film factory; just say no. Eventually, the right role will come around for you, and as a result, he’s never appeared in junk – today, that’s a major accomplishment.

Ricardo Darín – one of the most effective and individual actors working today.

Jean Renoir: A Biography by Pascal Mérigeau

January 20th, 2017

Now we have the definitive book on Jean Renoir, in a superb English translation.

As the Running Press, which has published Jean Renoir: A Biography in the United States notes of this excellent volume – clocking in at nearly 1,000 pages, but absolutely page-turning in its intensity and incredibly detailed research – “originally published in France in 2012, Pascal Mérigeau’s definitive biography of legendary film director Jean Renoir is a landmark work—the winner of a Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary achievement. Now available in the English language for the first time, Jean Renoir: A Biography, is the definitive study of one of the most fascinating and creative artistic figures of the twentieth century.

The French filmmaker made more than forty films from the silent era to the late ’60s and today he is revered by filmmakers and seen by many as one of the greatest of all time. Renoir made acclaimed movies in France, America, India, and Italy and became a writer during the last part of his life. Drawing from unpublished or little known sources, this biography is a completely fresh approach to the maker of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, redefining the very function of the movie director and simultaneously recounting the history of a century.”

Renoir was indeed one of the greatest of all filmmakers, noted for his humanism and his ability to move smoothly from one genre to another without a pause, as well as having a career not only in France, but in the United States in the 1940s at the now defunct studio RKO Radio Pictures, then journeying to India to make the first color film there, The River (1951), before returning to France in the 1950s to make a final group of masterpieces, and eventually settling in California before his death.

Mérigeau’s magisterial biography clearly surpasses all existing writing on Renoir, and it’s amazing that we had to wait four years for this remarkably deft translation by Bruce Benderson – and that the book is only available in paperback. Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) is routinely included in nearly every “ten best films of all time” list, but his other work, especially his work in America, clearly deserves more attention, which Mérigeau ably supplies.

While the publicity materials tout that fact that the book is supposedly the first to examine Renoir’s unfinished Hollywood film The Amazing Mrs. Holiday (1943) - which isn’t true; this has been common knowledge for quite some time – and also makes much of Renoir’s leftist work in France in the mid 1930s, for me the most intriguing sections came on such films as his American noir The Woman on the Beach (1947), which has long been known to have a troubled production history – yet Mérigeau has additional material on this film as well.

I had known that the finished film was sneak previewed to a teenage audience expecting an RKO musical or screwball comedy, and that the resultant debacle led to a savage recut of the film, but Mérigeau has unearthed the fact that the film was actually shot twice to appease both audiences and the censors – the original version, now lost; and the final version, with a different actor in a key role.

So, 2016 ended with a landmark volume on Robert Bresson, another giant of the cinema; now, in the opening days of 2017, we are given a superb – and smoothly translated – life of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, exploring not only his films, but also his life, and the way in which he viewed the human condition with both the greatest sympathy, as well as a sharply clinical eye.

This book is a must for anyone interested in the cinema – a major accomplishment.

Hyperallergic: Gordon Parks’ Long-Forgotten Color Photographs

January 16th, 2017

Gordon Parks was a master photographer – and some of his best work has been hidden – until now.

As Chris Cobb writes moving in the journal Hyperallergic, “when Life magazine sent Gordon Parks to document the daily lives of three black families living in Alabama, it was 1956, during the Montgomery bus boycott. He knew he could have gotten beaten or killed — but he went there anyway.

He was in Alabama shortly after Rosa Parks became world famous for not giving up her seat to a white man and around the same time the Klu Klux Klan had mobilized to defend segregation. In other words, Parks’s assignment was to become a fly on the wall during one of the most turbulent times in American history. While there, he witnessed, among other things, the emergence of a young leader named Martin Luther King Jr., then known as the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association.

But Parks was not there to photograph King; he was always in the foreground. On the contrary, Life wanted Parks to reveal what had always been in the background — ordinary black families — and show the magazine’s readers how they really lived. The project was to be a counterpoint to misinformation spread by segregationists who claimed that a racially separated, caste-based society was good for everyone.

So Parks followed various people around, going to the store, to the mall, to playgrounds, and to school; he hung out at their ramshackle homes, most of which looked like they were straight out of the 19th century, which they probably were, and took pictures everywhere he went.

In the end, Life published just 26 of those photographs — all shot on color slide film — and then the rest were put away in a small box and forgotten. Since that time, nobody has seen them — not until they were rediscovered in 2012 by archivists at the Gordon Parks Foundation. The gorgeous, large prints now on view at Salon 94 are a selection of those images, and like a candle in a dark room they illuminate that long-forgotten history.

Significantly, most images of the Civil Rights era are in black and white, shot mostly by photojournalists. Parks, however, was no ordinary photographer — he was an artist who happened to also be a photographer and as these pictures show, he frequently deviated from his journalistic impulses to capture what can only be considered great art.

The central photograph in the show is unmistakably brilliant and, I’d say, somewhat of a modern masterpiece. ‘Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-shopping, Mobile, Alabama, 1956′ surpasses the documentary tradition Parks excelled at, transforming everything in his viewfinder into charged symbolic space.

To get this image Parks placed himself on the other side of a big glass display case that was full of white-skinned mannequins and framed a woman and her grandchild in such a way that it seems as if the little girl were being guided through a forest of white, soulless zombies. You get the sense the woman and girl must tread lightly and be careful — lest they awaken these dangerous figures.

The sweetness of the gesture and the vibrant image shot in radiant color evoke both warmth and danger at the same time. More striking yet is the almost invisible reflection of the photographer in the window. It is not a didactic image; it is composed more like a Botticelli painting or a mannerist allegory.

About this photograph, Parks Foundation official Peter W. Kunhardt Jr. said, ‘So this is Ondria Tanner and her granddaughter looking into a white clothing store and sort of the life she doesn’t have … and you know Gordon really didn’t stage these pictures. He would follow them around and just observe what they were doing.’”

I was lucky enough to meet and talk with Gordon Parks in 1969, when he was moving from still photography into motion picture direction with The Learning Tree (1969), a truly pioneering film about civil rights which Parks wrote and directed. To my mind, at least, it is a forgotten American masterpiece, even though the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

But it still needs to be seen more often, as does his still photography work, which made his initial reputation as an artist of the first rank. I was working as a writer at Life at the time, for a new magazine that never came about – Life Movie – and Gordon Parks walked into my office one day, and we sat down and talked for awhile. He was kind, generous, and really excited about making the shift to motion pictures – and he pulled it off magisterially.

That there is so much of his work still to discover is a real gift in 2017.

Glenn Kenny: “Is Watching a Movie on a Phone Really So Bad?”

January 15th, 2017

Glenn Kenny of The New York Times has an interesting take on cellphone film viewing.

As he writes, “‘People who watch movies on phones (especially if they think they can leave valid critical comments on imdb) should be shot,” the critic Anne Billson declared on Twitter in mid-December. I quote her not to scold her, or to hold her to her word, but to underscore that passions in the format-platform controversies run high.

I’ve already cited, in my first installment of this column, David Lynch’s condemnation — more than a decade old — of The Very Idea of Watching a Movie on a Phone. Over the century-plus of cinema, new ways of watching movies have made film folk antsy. In a sense, it’s the one thing that the money guys and the creatives have fretted over in more or less equal measure. Steven Spielberg was initially wary of having his works put on home video, grumbling about movie theaters being sacred spaces and such.

Martin Scorsese had more optimism, writing in 1989: ‘[H]aving instant access to movies, being able to pick something up and show it at the drop of a hat, is great.’ Much of the work of his nonprofit restoration and preservation concern the Film Foundation is made available on home video, with high-definition formats preferred.

Still, smartphone movie-watching is for many a kind of line in the sand, albeit one that streaming services are obliged to ignore. The whole point of a streaming service is that it makes content available to watch on a panoply of devices, from a big-screen display to a tablet or Nook or Kindle or Galaxy or iPhone. I recently got my first iPhone, largely to put a bunch of streaming services on it (also because I was getting sick of everybody asking me ‘Why do you still have a BlackBerry?’), and dove in.

I thought it would be interesting to watch some 100-year-old Charlie Chaplin pictures on the device. After all, when Chaplin was making his shorts for Keystone and Essanay in the early 20th century, they were not necessarily projected in the cathedrals Mr. Spielberg once spoke of but in intimate, barely appointed nickelodeon theaters and in shortened versions made for penny-in-the-slot single-viewer Mutoscope machines . . .

The Criterion Channel, a part of the new streaming service FilmStruck, offers Chaplin shorts in batches, each a feature-length compilation from a particular period, and nicely restored. They look great on an iPhone — their black-and-white and sometimes sepia tones are nice and crisp, and the action is more than coherent. At 14 or so minutes a short, they’re well-suited to the contracted attention span that holding an iPhone in one’s hand tends to encourage.”

It’s an interesting hypothesis, but I have to disagree, simply quoting the director Roy Ward Baker, who summed up the issue for me, and I think for many others, when he told me in an interview at his London home late one afternoon, shortly before his death, that “one can inspect a film on DVD, but you can’t experience it.” Baker, of course, directed the best movie about the Titanic disaster, A Night to Remember (1958), and had just come from a theatrical screening of the film, as part of a retrospective of his work.

“It just hit me with such impact” he told me. “I’ve seen it many times on television, and thought to myself, ‘that’s a good movie,’ but it didn’t really hit me with same impact as when I first made it until I saw it again in its proper aspect ratio, on a large screen, with an appreciative audience [another thing - and not a small matter either - that's missing with the cellphone experience].” Of course, our conversation took place long before the advent of the cellphone and video streaming, but the basic concept is still the same – small screen vs. the real thing.

Want a quick viewing of a film? By all means, use a cellphone or whatever else is handy. Want to really see the film? There’s only one way; in a proper theatrical setting, with an audience, in the proper aspect ratio, on a big screen – the format that the movies were designed for. Thomas Edison, as Kenny points out elsewhere in his article, was against theatrical motion picture projection, but since the inception of the cinema, films have been made to be screened in large, theatrical format.

On a cellphone, you’re just getting a fraction of the actual experience.

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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