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Henri-Georges Clouzot Directs Herbert von Karajan

January 13th, 2017

In the 1960s, the conductor Herbert von Karajan and director Henri-Georges Clouzot made history.

As Linda Perkins notes on her website dedicated to the work of Herbert von Karajan, “in the mid-1960’s von Karajan collaborated with the French film director, Henri-Georges Clouzot. The filmed concerts they made together had rehearsals, workshop sessions with students and interviews added as they were originally transmitted as television programs for a series entitled ‘Die Kunst des Dirigierens’ (‘The Art of Conducting’).

The series was originally going to consist of 13 films but only 5 were actually made: Beethoven’s  Symphony No. 5 and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 [both with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Karajan's orchestra for decades], Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Yehudi Menuhin as the soloist; Schumann’s Symphony No 4, again with the Vienna Symphony, and Verdi’s Requiem Mass with the La Scala Orchestra.”

Henri-Georges Clouzot was a highly idiosyncratic and highly individualistic film director, whose most famous films, The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1954)  are some of the most brutal films in French cinema. Yet he had an interest in documentary films as well, as evidenced by his direction of The Mystery of Picasso (1956), which I wrote about in the film journal Senses of Cinema.

But his films with Karajan are much more austere; unlike the Picasso film, they’re in black and white, shot in 35mm film, with immaculate cinematography by the great Armand Thirard, and one is stunned by their casual brilliance. Karajan is dressed rather informally, and conducts with his eyes closed, as he usually did, as if in a trance, and the members of the orchestra follow his direction unfailingly. In the film shown here, Karajan conducts Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

Hearing and seeing Karajan at the height of his powers, effortlessly conducting a piece that has become over time something of a concert hall staple, yet still managing to make it seem both fresh and immediate, is an overwhelming experience. These films offer us something more than a window to the past; they give us a concrete example of absolutely first rate orchestral precision, captured by Clouzot with efficiency and directness. This is cinema at its most essential.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the entire film; an amazing experience.

New Book: A Brief History of Comic Book Movies

January 12th, 2017

New Book: A Brief History of Comic Book Movies

Wheeler Winston Dixon and Richard Graham have published a new book, A Brief History of Comic Book Movies (Palgrave Macmillan). These films trace their origins back to the early 1940s, when the first Batman and Superman serials were made. The serials, and later television shows in the 1950s and 60s, were for the most part designed for children.

But today, with the continuing rise of Comic-Con, they seem to be more a part of the mainstream than ever, appealing to adults as well as younger fans. This book examines comic book movies from the past and present, exploring how these films shaped American culture from the post-World War II era to the present day, and how they adapted to the changing tastes and mores of succeeding generations.

Organized in rough chronological order, the book’s five chapters cover Origins, The DC Universe, The Marvel Universe, Animé Films, and Indies and Outliers, examining not only Hollywood films, but European, Asian, and French animated films as well. Literally hundreds of films, directors, and comic book characters are examined in the book, making this a one-stop source for information on this emerging genre.

Cynthia J. Miller calls the volume “engaging and very accessible…its value to readers will continue even as many more films enter into production and distribution,” while David Sterritt adds that “this history of an under-studied field is original, enlightening, and exemplary. I recommend it highly.”

The book is available right now as an e-book or pdf, and will be published in hardcover on February 5, 2017. It’s a solid, comprehensive overview of this new and emerging genre, so check it out if you can. Whether you like it or not, comic book movies rule the world right now, and yet they emerged from the margins of mainstream cinema – read all about it here.

My thanks to Richard Graham for his unstinting help and expertise in this project.

Twin Peaks is Coming Back – Lynch to Direct Entire Series

January 9th, 2017

David Lynch’s cult series Twin Peaks is coming back for a full season on Showtime.

As James Hibberd wrote in Entertainment Weekly just a few hours ago, “Showtime just surprised the Television Critics Association with a David Lynch press conference for its upcoming revival of Twin Peaks. The reclusive Lynch is directing all 18 hours of the limited series.

The resulting 15-minute Q&A was a rapid-fire flinging of questions from the ballroom of reporters who received Lynch’s maddeningly vague, occasionally illuminating, and sometimes hilariously brief responses.

How does this compare to your other projects, and what should fans expect?

First, it was just the same as all the others. I see it as a film. A film in parts is what people will experience. It was a joyful, fantastic trip with this great crew and cast . . . This word ‘expect’ is a magical word. People expect things, and their expectations are met when they hopefully see the thing.

What’s your process of working with co-writer Mark Frost?

Well, in the beginning, many years ago, Mark and I were as if lost in the wilderness, as it always is in the beginning. Then we seemed to find a mountain and began to climb, and when we rounded the mountain, we entered a deep forest, and going through the forest for a time the trees began to thin, and then coming out of the forest we discovered a small town of Twin Peaks. We got to know the people of Twin Peaks and got to know this mystery. … We discovered this world. And within this world there are other worlds. That’s how it started.

What makes Mark a good co-writer for you?

Mark is very smart. We’re both strong, but both different. We bring to the table different things, but we each understand the other thing. It’s just a good combo for Twin Peaks.

So what’s your process then?

We work together on Skype. Mark lives in Ohio. I live in Hollywood, and we Skype and write together.

What have you been thinking about Twin Peaks over the years?

I’ve often wondered about this beautiful world and characters. Mark asked if I wanted to go back to this world. That’s what got us going again for this one.

What did you appreciate about the original series?

I’ll tell you what I loved: The pilot of Twin Peaks. That for me set the tone. That made the world and the characters for me. I felt really good about that. I just fell into deep, deep love…

You can read the entire interview here – the series premieres this coming May, 2017.

Hands Down – The Most Important Film Book of 2016

December 30th, 2016

Along with Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph, this is one of the essential film books of 2016.

Robert Bresson is one of the most mysterious, and yet the most accessible of filmmakers – much like his compatriots Yasujirō Ozu and Carl Th. Dreyer (forming writer / director Paul Schrader’s holy trinity of cinema). His classic, epigrammatic text Notes on the Cinematograph, first published in English in 1975 in an edition entitled Notes on Cinematography translated by Jonathan Griffin, has been out of print since its initial publication. I came across the first hardcover edition in a remainder pile at Brentano’s in New York in the early 1980s, going for $2 a copy. I bought five copies on the spot, and it remains on my shelf as one of the key books by any filmmaker on their work, stripped down to the essentials.

Now, New York Review Books has republished Notes on the Cinematograph in a new translation, back in print in a real edition – a very cheaply bound one circulated for a time a few years back – but just as importantly, they’ve gathered together interviews with the director on all of his films from 1943 to 1983, the year of his last film, L’Argent, along with a few supplementary texts written by those who worked with him, and with a selection of exceedingly rare production stills, in an essential text entitled simply Bresson on Bresson – Interviews, 1943–1983.

The result is mesmerizing; Bresson is absolutely modest, serious, and above all patient – my first takeaway from the volume was how extremely tolerant he was of the various interviewers who interrogated him over the years, asking the same questions again and again – how he used actors (or “models,” he called them), how he used as little music as possible, how his camera lingered on an empty space long after the actors had departed. Yet Bresson managed to turn even the most banal questions to his advantage, never passing up an opportunity to offer some fresh thoughts on his work.

Bresson on Bresson – Interviews, 1943–1983, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis, edited by Mylène Bresson, with a preface by Pascal Mérigeau, offers an series of penetrating insights into the director’s work, and serves as a useful model for filmmakers today, in an era where spectacle and special effects have replaced, for the most part, thoughtful cinema.

As the NYRB notes,”Robert Bresson, the director of such cinematic master-pieces as Pickpocket, A Man Escaped, Mouchette, and L’Argent, was one of the most influential directors in the history of French film, as well as one of the most stubbornly individual: He insisted on the use of nonprofessional actors; he shunned the ‘advances’ of Cinerama and CinemaScope (and the work of most of his predecessors and peers); and he minced no words about the damaging influence of capitalism and the studio system on the still-developing—in his view—art of film.

Bresson on Bresson collects the most significant interviews that Bresson gave (carefully editing them before they were released) over the course of his forty-year career to reveal both the internal consistency and the consistently exploratory character of his body of work. Successive chapters are dedicated to each of his fourteen films, as well as to the question of literary adaptation, the nature of the sound track, and to Bresson’s one book, the great aphoristic treatise Notes on the Cinematograph.

Throughout, his close and careful consideration of his own films and of the art of film is punctuated by such telling mantras  as ‘Sound…invented silence in cinema,’ ‘It’s the film that…gives life to the characters—not the characters that give life to the film,’ and (echoing the Bible) ‘Every idle word shall be counted.’

Bresson’s integrity and originality earned him the admiration of younger directors from Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette to Olivier Assayas. And though Bresson’s movies are marked everywhere by an air of intense deliberation, these interviews show that they were no less inspired by a near-religious belief in the value of intuition, not only that of the creator but that of the audience, which he claims to deeply respect: ‘It’s always ready to feel before it understands. And that’s how it should be.’”

Anyone even remotely interested in film should buy this volume immediately, along with the republished text of Notes on the Cinematograph, as a useful tonic to the current ultra-commercial cinematic landscape. As Alan Pavelin wrote in Senses of Cinema long ago, “Robert Bresson’s 13 features over 40 years constitute arguably the most original and brilliant body of work over a long career from a film director in the history of cinema. He is the most idiosyncratic and uncompromising of all major filmmakers.” Or as Martin Scorsese put it, “we are still coming to terms with Robert Bresson, and the peculiar power and beauty of his films.”

This is the essential film book of the year. Pick up a copy now – right now.

Debbie Reynolds Dies

December 28th, 2016

Debbie Reynolds, the irrepressible star of stage and screen, has died at age 84.

As Carmel Dagan writes in Variety, “Debbie Reynolds, the Oscar-nominated singer-actress who was the mother of late actress Carrie Fisher, has died at Cedars-Sinai hospital. She was 84. ‘She wanted to be with Carrie,’ her son Todd Fisher told Variety. She was taken to the hospital from Todd Fisher’s Beverly Hills house Wednesday after a suspected stroke, the day after her daughter Carrie Fisher died.

The vivacious blonde, who had a close but sometimes tempestuous relationship with her daughter, was one of MGM’s principal stars of the 1950s and ’60s in such films as the 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain and 1964’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown, for which she received an Oscar nomination as best actress.

Reynolds received the SAG lifetime achievement award in January 2015; in August of that year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voted to present the actress with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Nov. 14 Governors Awards . . . Reynolds had a wholesome girl-next-door look which was coupled with a no-nonsense attitude in her roles. They ranged from sweet vehicles like Tammy to more serious fare such as The Rat Race and  How the West Was Won . . .

In 1955 Reynolds was among the young actors who founded the Thalians, a charitable organization aimed at raising awareness and providing treatment and support for those suffering from mental health issues; Reynolds was elected president of the organization in 1957 and served in that role for more than five decades, and she and actress Ruta Lee alternated as chair of the board.

Through Reynolds’ efforts, the Thalians donated millions of dollars to the Mental Health Center at Cedars-Sinai (closed in 2012) and to UCLA’s Operation Mend, which provides medical and psychological services to wounded veterans and their families.”

Read the entire story here. Debbie Reynolds, 1932 – 2016 – rest in peace.

“Poligrafo Bakarra” – Music Video by Joseba Elorza

December 27th, 2016

Here’s a stunning new music video by the Spanish artist Joseba Elorza.

One of the great things about Vimeo is that it allows you to see work by cutting edge visual artists all over the world – not just in the United States and Europe. The image above is taken by from a music video by Joseba Elorza for the band Berri Txarrak (literally “Bad News”), a Spanish rock group that uses the Basque language for all their work. For more examples of Elorza’s work, check out his video demo here.

Elorza has done illustrations for Esquire, TV spots for National Geographic, and numerous video adverts as well, but the deep knowledge of pop culture in this video – check out the clips from such films as The Last Man on Earth, House on Haunted Hill, The Hitch-Hiker, Alias John Preston and others – really takes his work to another dimension. Playful, serious, and endlessly creative, Elorza is clearly a talent to watch – as you can see for yourself.

Check out the video by clicking here, or on the image above.

Carrie Fisher – Actor, Writer, Script Doctor – 1956-2016

December 27th, 2016

Carrie Fisher has died December 27th, 2016 at the age of just 60.

As readers of this blog may know, I don’t usually do obituaries here, but the death of Carrie Fisher puts the capper on a truly awful year for the arts, with one death piling up after another to the point where it simply can’t be ignored. Fisher, for example, was much more than just an actor in the Star Wars films. In addition to Fisher’s credits as an actor and author, she was also one of Hollywood’s most sought after script doctors, working on existing screenplays and punching them up to make them just that little bit better – a tough profession, and she was very good at it.

As Wikipedia notes, she worked on the scripts for “Hook (1991), Lethal Weapon 3 and Sister Act (1992), Made in America, Last Action Hero and So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993), My Girl 2, Milk Money, The River Wild and Love Affair (1994), Outbreak (1995), The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), The Wedding Singer (1998), The Out-of-Towners and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), Coyote Ugly and Scream 3 (2000), Kate & Leopold (2001), Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005).” And yet none of these films give her any on-screen credit, and by 2004 she had moved on from script doctoring.

Carrie Fisher thus joins the long, long list of irreplaceable talents who have left us – many, like Fisher, far too soon – in 2016, including (and this is just a partial list) David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Harper Lee, George Kennedy, George Martin, Patty Duke, Lonnie Mack, Prince, Guy Hamilton, John Berry, Alan Young, Billy Paul, Burt Kwouk, Scotty Moore, Kenny Baker, Raoul Coutard, Leonard Cohen, Robert Vaughn, Leon Russell, Florence Henderson, George Michael, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Abe Vigoda, Doris Roberts, Jacques Rivette, Abbas Kiarostami, Lita Baron, Andrzej Wajda, Michael Cimino, Bill Nunn, Gene Wilder, Anton Yelchin – a terrible loss to us all.

So, this day, we take a moment to think about, and thank, all the artists who have contributed so much to the cinema and related arts – many of them crossover artists, such as Prince and David Bowie, and the great directors, like Rivette, Kiarostami and Hamilton – who are now no longer with us. But it is now for us, the living, to continue their work as best we can, and to remember and honor their work, which they gave their lives and talents to, and which will live on through the cinema and its allied disciplines, to continue to inspire, enlighten, and entertain us.

You can see the 2016 “TCM Remembers” video – an excellent tribute – by clicking here.

Everyone Wants To Be A Star!

December 21st, 2016

According to an interesting study, everyone wants to be a star – no matter what.

In an intriguing article, “The Rise of Fame: An Historical Content Analysis” by Yalda T. Uhls and Patricia M. Greenfield in Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, the desire for instant fame in teenagers and “tweens” has grown by leaps and bounds since the late 1960s, to the point that notoriety is prized above almost any other value. As the authors write,

“[The] recent proliferation of TV programming for the tween audience is supported on the Internet with advertising, fan clubs, and other online communities. These Internet tools expand TV’s potential influence on human development. Yet little is known about the kinds of values these shows portray. To explore this issue, a new method for conducting content analysis was developed; it used personality indices to measure value priorities and desire for fame in TV programming.

The goal was to document historical change in the values communicated to tween audiences, age 9-11, who are major media consumers and whose values are still being formed. We analyzed the top two tween TV shows in the U.S. once a decade over a time span of 50 years, from 1967 through 2007. Greenfield’s theory of social change and human development served as the theoretical framework; it views technology, as well as urban residence, formal education, and wealth, as promoting individualistic values while diminishing communitarian or familistic ones.

Fame, an individualistic value, was judged the top value in the shows of 2007, up from number fifteen (out of sixteen) in most of the prior decades. In contrast, community feeling was eleventh in 2007, down from first or second place in all prior decades. According to the theory, a variety of sociodemographic shifts, manifest in census data, could be causing these changes; however, because social change in the U.S. between 1997 and 2007 centered on the expansion of communication technologies, we hypothesize that the sudden value shift in this period is technology driven.”

Read the rest of this fascinating article by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Four Just Men – Classic British Television

December 21st, 2016

Long before the current era of superheroes, The Four Just Men were way ahead of the curve.

The Marvel and DC Universe films may be ruling the box office right now, but more than half a century ago, The Four Just Men ruled British television, constantly criss-crossing the globe to right wrongs, and mete out justice to those who deserved it, without the benefit of superpowers or enormous wealth – just using their wits, and their skills, in the service of humanity.

As Wikipedia accurately notes, “The Four Just Men was a 1959 Sapphire Films production for ITC Entertainment. It ran for one season of 39 half-hour monochrome episodes. The series, loosely based on a series of novels by Edgar Wallace, presents the adventures of four men who first meet while fighting in Italy during the Second World War. The men later reassemble, and decide to fight for justice and against tyranny, using money set aside for the purpose by their late commanding officer.

They operate from different countries: Jeff Ryder (Richard Conte) is a professor of law at Columbia University in New York, Tim Collier (Dan Dailey) is an American reporter based in Paris, Ben Manfred (Jack Hawkins) is a crusading independent MP who works from London and Ricco Poccari (Vittorio De Sica) is an Italian hotelier based in Rome.

The series is unusual in having the four lead actors appear in turn other than in the first episode; one or occasionally two makes a brief appearance in each other’s episode, usually on the phone. Guest stars included Judi Dench, Alan Bates, Leonard Sachs, Patrick Troughton, Donald Pleasence, Richard Johnson, Ronald Howard, Basil Dignam, Roger Delgado, Charles Gray, and Frank Thornton.

At the time Four Just Men was the most ambitious film series yet made for British TV. It was produced by Sapphire Films at Walton Studios, and on location in Britain, France and Italy. None of its four stars had been cast as regulars in a TV series before. Filming on the 39 episodes, each 25 minutes long, began in January 1959, and lasted for five months, using up to seven units in the studio or on location, and producing two or three episodes simultaneously. [Future director] John Schlesinger was credited as exterior unit or second unit director on a number of episodes.”

This, of course, was back when a season of a television series amounted to something – 39 episodes, in fact. All the actors involved were certifiable stars at the time in their respective countries, particularly Jack Hawkins in England and the esteemed director/actor Vittorio De Sica in Italy, thus giving the series an international commercial appeal. But most central to the series’ success – and its recent release on Region 2 DVD – is the sense that someone was out there, watching out for the everyday person, who had no authority or influence.

Thus, in a way, not only do The Four Just Men prefigure the current craze for superheroes, offering hope in an uncertain world, but they also work their will through the actual channels of government and the law, without taking matters into their own hands, or using extra-terrestrial powers. This makes the series all the more relatable. From the opening title sequence – seen above – to the end of each episode, The Four Just Men act on the side of right against the forces of corruption and evil, winning on a human scale, rather than one of exaggerated influence.

As the series’ announcer intones at the start of each episode, “throughout time, there have been men to whom justice is more important than life itself. From these ranks come four men, prepared to fight valiantly on the side of justice wherever the need may be. Joined together in this cause, they are The Four Just Men.” It’s a nice dream- if only they were with us now.

See the intro to the series, as well as some episodes, by clicking here, or on the image above.

Restoring Sir Laurence Olivier’s “Richard III” (1955)

December 21st, 2016

Film restoration is one of the essential tasks for the cinema in the 21st century.

In this brief video, Martin Scorsese takes the viewer through the restoration of Oliver’s classic film Richard III in 2013 for release as a Blu-ray disc from Criterion, one of the masterpieces of cinema, shot in gorgeous Technicolor in the VistaVision process in 1955.

As Scorsese demonstrates in the video, the process to bring the film back to its original splendor was long and painstaking, and not helped by the fact that the film was extensively cut during various re-releases from its original running time. This was all the more problematic since in the film, Olivier used a “long take” strategy that meant that any one shot excised from the film also cut significant sections of Shakespeare’s play.

Then, too, the film was shot on various color stocks, and processed at different labs during its initial production, making the task of restoration all the more difficult, and in the places were segments were cut, whole frames of the original negative were destroyed, and had to be recreated digitally during the scanning process.

One thinks – or at least some people think – that film has a sort of permanence, but nothing could be further from the truth. Without assiduous care and attention, films – even relatively recent films such as this – soon fade and eventually cease to exist.

The task was made easier by the fact that the British Film Institute was involved; as someone who has been to the BFI Film Archive, and had the privilege of seeing some of the classic films of there 20th century in their original 35mm format there, including some shot on nitrate film, I can only applaud both the BFI’s efforts to keep restoring “film forever” – that’s now their official motto – and Martin Scorsese, for having such a significant hand in the process.

You can see the video by clicking here, or on the image above; fascinating 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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