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Posts Tagged ‘Black & White Cinema: A Short History’

Books Are Still An Essential Part of Any Library

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

A library without books isn’t a serious library – too much material hasn’t been digitized.

In an interview in The Christian Science Monitor today, I told writer Weston Williams that “‘as the author of some 30 books on cinema history, I can readily attest that most of the deep research materials in this area, and in other related humanities areas, have never made the jump to digital format . . . The more superficial and recent articles are readily available, but once you get into the history of the medium, in the early part of the 20th century, you’re working with microfilm, or even more likely, actual print materials.’

Ignoring these older physical media, Dixon argues, is ‘erasing the past,’ until every scrap of information is online. And even then, there are other potential problems. The removal of 60 percent of the physical collection at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for instance, caused an uproar after it was reported that many of the books removed had been destroyed. A campus spokesman said that nothing had been lost from the scholarly record, since duplicates were retained in other libraries or available online. Given the short timeframe and seeming lack of consultation of the faculty, however, many critics expressed doubts that this was actually the case.

‘Only by trundling through the archives in detail – a process that would probably take a staff of people a number of years – could one be sure that nothing not digitized was being eliminated,’ says Dixon. ‘Also, in a number of cases, when materials are scanned, a very bad job is done of it, and the scan quality is so poor as to make the document almost unreadable.’ So, in most cases the primary research sources one needs for serious humanities research simply aren’t online – as I found writing my recent book Black & White Cinema: A Short History – and only print materials, properly preserved, gave me the information I needed.

If everything – everything – every scrap of information – is digitized, then perhaps one can make the case for a “bookless library.” But that will never happen, and so books, microfilm, periodicals, and other print materials from the dawn of the printing press to the end of the 20th century should be preserved at all costs, and readily accessible – not in high density storage. Otherwise, one has no idea what one is missing, which is indeed erasing the past.

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

Interview on NPR’s “Inquiry” With Mark Lynch

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

Mark Lynch’s NPR program Inquiry interviewed me on my new book, Black & White Cinema: A Short History.

You can see what Mark wrote above as an introduction to the interview – it was a fun session, and Mark always asks all the right questions – plus, he knows what he’s talking about, so it’s always a pleasure to converse with him. Inquiry comes from WICN, the New England NPR station, and Mark Lynch really does his homework – and it shows. There’s really no need to say anything further – just click here, or on the image above, to go to the interview, and listen for yourself – it runs about 30 minutes, which absolutely flew by.

Thanks, Mark- much appreciated!

Black & White Cinema: A Short History on Amazon Now!

Sunday, October 11th, 2015

My new book is out now on Kindle, and in paperback and hardcover on Amazon!

From the glossy monochrome of the classic Hollywood romance, to the gritty greyscale of the gangster picture, to film noir’s moody interplay of light and shadow, black-and-white cinematography has been used to create a remarkably wide array of tones. Yet today, with black-and-white film stock nearly impossible to find, these cinematographic techniques are virtually extinct, and filmgoers’ appreciation of them is similarly waning.

Black and White Cinema is the first study to consider the use of black-and-white as an art form in its own right, providing a comprehensive and global overview of the era when it flourished, from the 1900s to the 1960s. Acclaimed film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon introduces us to the masters of this art, discussing the signature styles and technical innovations of award-winning cinematographers like James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, and Sven Nykvist. Giving us a unique glimpse behind the scenes, Dixon also reveals the creative teams—from lighting technicians to matte painters—whose work profoundly shaped the look of black-and-white cinema.

More than just a study of film history, this book is a rallying cry, meant to inspire a love for the artistry of black-and-white film, so that we might work to preserve this important part of our cinematic heritage. Lavishly illustrated with more than forty on-the-set stills, Black and White Cinema provides a vivid and illuminating look at a creatively vital era, as featured on Turner Classic Movies in the series “Artists in Black and White.”

Critical Commentary:

“Dixon, no stranger to film history, gives us a complete overview of the black and white movie era, from the 1900s through the 1960s. He introduces us to the masters and talks about the styles and innovations of cinematographers long gone. Dixon also tells us how the crews working behind these cinematographers helped shape a bygone era of cinema . . . this book will help to inspire others to think about the artistry so that that this classic era of cinema is never forgotten. With more than 40 photos, the book provides a look at a vital era of film.” – Daniel Solzman, Flicksided

“Like artists painting with light and shadows, [cinematographers] perfected the lighting techniques and other innovations that often turned commerce into black-and-white art . . . Covering a hitherto neglected subject, this should be essential reading to all those with an interest in cinema history.” —Roy Liebman, Library Journal

“There’s an interesting new book by Wheeler Winston Dixon called Black & White Cinema: A Short History, and it tells the history of black and white movies, its origins and impact, and it’s really well worth reading. It’s filled with all kinds of insights about black and white cinematography, and the many artists who mastered the tricky interplay in capturing light and shadow.” – Robert Osborne, Turner Classic Movies

“Dixon covers the entire history of black and white movies in one volume, and talks about the films and cinematographers who created these films, and often got little credit for their work. Fascinating and compelling, this is essential reading for anyone who loves movies.” – Robert Downey Sr. director, Putney Swope

“Dixon has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and a subtle and well-honed aesthetic sense. He rescues important films from oblivion, and finds fresh angles of approach to films that are already familiar.” -Steven Shaviro, author of Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s colorful study of black-and-white cinema reaffirms yet again his unfailing expertise as a critic, historian, and dazzlingly fine writer. Indispensable for students, scholars, and movie buffs alike.” – David Sterritt, Chair, National Society of Film Critics

“In his latest book, Black and White Cinema, Wheeler Winston Dixon rediscovers the art of cinematography in those glorious black-and-white movies from Hollywood’s classic age.” –Jan-Christopher Horak, Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive.

My thanks to all who helped bring this book to life, and to the great cinematographers who inspired it.

Nicholas Musuraca, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

L to R: Jane Greer, Robert Mitchum, Jacques Tourneur, and Nicholas Musuraca on the set of Out of The Past.

If you read my blog regularly, you know that I have a new book coming out in a month or so, entitled Black & White Cinema: A Short History. Writing the book was a tremendously difficult task, and I also had to cut a lot of interesting “sidebar” material that I would have liked to include to keep it at a more reasonable length. In my section on Nicholas Musuraca, one of the greatest of all Hollywood cinematographers, especially in his black and white work, I had to omit most of a fascinating 1941 interview with the cinematographer for reasons of space, so, in the run up to the book’s publication, I’m going to offer in this blog some sections on various cinematographers that aren’t in the final version of the text. Nick Musuraca seemed like an ideal place to begin.

As I wrote in the first draft of the book, “Musuraca was a major figure in the 1940s in Hollywood, whose visual style is instantly recognizable over a wide range of films, in a career that spanned more than four decades worth of work. Although he was deeply secretive about his personal life, even with his colleagues (a brief item in American Cinematographer from February, 1941, notes that “trade-papers report Nick Musuraca, A.S.C., secretly married early last month. If it’s so — congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Nick!”) at least some of his trade secrets have come down to us through second-hand sources, and at least one interview, conducted by Walter Blanchard. This is the period in which Musuraca did his best work, the work for which he is remembered, but what is truly astonishing is how much work he did, and despite his noir typing, how many different styles of cinematography he embraced.

One of his finest efforts was his cinematography on Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), considered by many to be one of the first noir thrillers ever made, with perpetual tough guy Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey, a former private investigator who now runs a gas station in Bridgeport, California, in a futile attempt to escape his shadowy past. But when smooth crime boss Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, in one of his earliest roles) asks him to find his “girlfriend” Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who has absconded with $40,000 of Whit’s money, things just get more complex from there, and soon Jeff is smitten with Kathie, and smooth talked into betraying Whit, and, of course, as in any true noir, everything ends very badly.

As George Turner noted of the film, “Out of the Past was generously financed and shot in 64 working days (an unusually long schedule at the time), mostly on the sound stages at RKO’s Hollywood studio and the Pathe lot in Culver City, [with] extensive location scenes with several of the principals made in the Lake Tahoe area on the California-Nevada boundary and second unit work from Acapulco, New York and San Francisco…The picture united for the third and final time one of the most remarkable director-cinematographer teams the industry has produced: Jacques Tourneur and Nicholas Musuraca.

Tourneur, husky but mild-mannered, was usually relaxed and seemingly devoid of temperament on the set, always keeping his actors at their ease and relying heavily upon Musuraca’s know-how to produce the combination of mystery and visual beauty essential to these films. He did not agree with the cinematic convention that heavy drama must be lit in a low key, comedy in high key, and romance in soft focus, but that the style should be determined by the logic of the scene.

‘For example, a vast amount of real-life drama occurs in hospitals, and a modern hospital isn’t by any means a somber appearing place,’ he pointed out. ‘Everything is light-colored and glistening; what’s more, everything is pretty well illuminated — trust these medical men to see to it that there’s enough illumination everywhere to prevent eyestrain. So why should we always have things somber and gloomy when…we try to portray sad or tragic action in a hospital?’

‘In the same way, if there’s no logical reason for it, why should comedy always be lit in a high key? Sometimes your action may really demand low-key effects to put it over…all too often we’re all of us [i.e., Musuraca’s A.S.C. colleagues] likely to find ourselves throwing in an extra light here, and another there, simply to correct something which is a bit wrong because of the way one basic lamp is placed or adjusted…If, on the other hand, that one original lamp is in its really correct place and adjustment, the others aren’t needed. Any time I find myself using a more than ordinary number of light sources for a scene, I try to stop and think it out. Nine times out of ten I’ll find I’ve slipped up somewhere, and the extra lights are really unnecessary.’”

Click here, or on the image above,  for a great clip from Out of The Past.

Musuraca had a clearly defined strategy in his classical 1940s work, and the uncanny ability to size up any scene and discern almost immediately precisely what tools he would need to effectively present the desired image on the screen — and Musuraca brought this same instinct for simplicity to his exterior work, as well.  As he told Walter Blanchard in 1941,

‘The same [technique of simplicity] applies to making exterior scenes. One of the commonest sources of unnecessary complication is in overdoing filtering. Just because the research scientists have evolved a range of several score filters of different colors and densities isn’t by any means a reason that we’ve got to use them — or even burden ourselves down with them! On my own part, I’ve always found that the simplest filtering is the best. Give me a good yellow filter, for mild correction effects, and a good red or red-orange one for heavier corrections, and I’ll guarantee to bring you back almost any sort of exterior effects (other than night scenes) that you’ll need in the average production.

And by the way — when in doubt about filtering — don’t. Nine times out of ten you’re better off that way, especially if there are people in the scene. The best example of misdirected enthusiasm for filtering is in making snow-scenes. I remember a while back I was on location doing some such scenes. As we approached our first set-up, my crew came to me and asked what filter they were to use. When I told them none, they couldn’t believe me. Everyone used some sort of filter in the snow! But what have you really got to filter? Your snow will render as an extreme white, no matter what you do. The evergreens, trees, rocks and so on will come out good and dark. You’re going to have extreme contrast no matter what you do. Under these conditions the sky automatically will take its proper place in rendering a pleasing picture. So why filter?

Filter to control that contrast, you say? I don’t agree. Most filters tend to increase contrast; in snow, even a Neutral Density filter will do so, for while it may hold back the snow, it will also hold back the dark areas. My experience has been that the real secret of good snow scenes is correct exposure — correct exposure for whatever part of the scene is most important to your shot. Usually it will be the people, and especially their faces. Expose for them, and the rest of the shot is likely to be all right.

This works out in practice, too. On the occasion I mentioned, my crew couldn’t be persuaded that my decision not to use the filter was or could be correct. They were very polite about it, but I could just feel them thinking, ‘Poor old Nick — he’s a back-number!’ [i.e., “out of date”] So I told them to make one take filtering as they thought they should. The operative [cameraman] saw to it that that take was unmistakably marked ‘print’ in that day’s negative reports! He was the first man in the projection-room next day, too, when we ran the rushes.

All went well until his shot came on. It was off-balance and unbelievably contrasty. The director hit the ceiling, and the operative wished he could sink through the floor! Immediately after, the un-filtered scenes came on — and were perfect. Since then, that gang has been a whole lot less ready to suggest using filters except where they were demonstrably necessary!’”

Black & White Cinema: A Short History will be out shortly; more “trims” coming soon.

Gabriel Figueroa at El Museo del Barrio March 4 – June 27, 2015

Saturday, March 28th, 2015

Gabriel Figueroa, a brilliant cinematographer, has a retrospective at El Museo del Barrio in New York City.

I’m just finishing up a long and complex project on the worldwide history of black and white cinematography, and throughout writing the book, I’ve continually been struck by how undervalued cinematographers are by most critics and directors, and yet how much they contribute to the finished product – often without more than a few lines of acclaim. One of the very greatest DPs (directors of cinematography) in the history of the cinema is undoubtedly Gabriel Figueroa (1907- 1997), whose work is now the subject of a traveling exhibition, which was presented at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and now makes a welcome stop at Manhattan’s El Museo del Barrio. As I write in my forthcoming book, Black & White Cinema: A Short History, on Figueroa’s work,

“Born in Mexico City in 1907, Figueroa was orphaned at the age of 7, and became involved in the Mexi­can industry in his teens. After working as an assistant on various films, he photographed Grigori Aleksandrov and Sergei M. Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva Mexico! (1932) with Eduard Tisse, and then studied cinematogra­phy for a year in 1935 with Gregg Toland in Hollywood. Returning to Mexico, Figueroa photographed his first solo effort, Allá en el Ran­cho Grande (Out on the Big Ranch, dir. Fernando de Fuentes, 1936), after which he worked with several generations of legendary directors from around the world.

In his long career, Figueroa served as the director of cinematography for such eminent directors as Emilio Fernández, most notably on his gor­geous romantic drama María Candelaria (1944); John Ford on The Fugi­tive (1947); Luis Buñuel on his breakthrough study of life in Mexico City’s notorious slums, Los Olvidados (1950), as well as Buñuel’s Nazarin (1959) and the forty-five-minute featurette The Exterminating Angel (1962); in addition to working with John Huston on The Night of the Iguana (1963) and twenty years later, on Huston’s Under the Volcano (1983).  . . .

As he told Elena Feder in 1996, ‘It was with Fernández that I really began to develop my own style. He allowed me to compose a scene anyway I wanted. He would describe the set-up initially, explain what he wanted to convey, and then say something like, “There, now set up the lights and put the camera wherever you wish.”  So I would place the camera, choose the angle, and illuminate a scene, always looking for the desired effect. From the very beginning, when we shot the opening scene of María Candelaria, where she holds the piglet in her arms, Fernández told me to place the camera wherever I wanted. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the rushes; they went beyond his wildest imagi­nation. Since that point I had complete freedom to continue developing my own style.'”

On the Museo del Barrio’s website, the museum notes that “from the early 1930s through the early 1980s, the Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa helped forge an evocative and enduring image of Mexico. Among the most important cinematographers of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, Figueroa worked with leading directors from Mexico, the United States and Europe, traversing a wide range of genres while maintaining his distinctive and vivid visual style.

In the 1930s, Figueroa was part of a vibrant community of artists in many media, including Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, Edward Weston and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, who sought to convey the country’s transformation following the trauma of the Mexican Revolution. Later, he adapted his approach to the very different sensibilities of directors Luis Buñuel and John Huston, among others. Figueroa spoke of creating una imágen mexicana, a Mexican image. His films are an essential part of the network of appropriations, exchanges and reinterpretations that formed Mexican visual identity and visual culture in the mid-twentieth century and beyond.

The exhibition features film clips, paintings by Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, Manuel Rodriguez Lozano and José Chavez Morado, photographs, prints, posters and documents, many of which are drawn from Figueroa’s archive, the Televisa Foundation collection, the collections of the Museo de la Estampa and the Museo Nacional in Mexico. In addition, the exhibition includes work by other artists and filmmakers from the period such as Luis Buñuel, Sergei Eisenstein, Edward Weston, and Tina Modotti that draw from the vast inventory of distinctly Mexican imagery associated with Figueroa’s cinematography or were heavily influenced by his vision.”

So, all in all, an opportunity not to be missed; here’s the chance to see the work of a master.

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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