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Patton Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend – An Absolutely Brilliant Book

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Patton Oswalt’s new memoir about four years of incessant movie watching is an amazing book.

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from An Addiction to Film is one of the most astonishingly erudite, unpretentious, and accessible volumes on the history and lure of the cinema ever written. It reminds me very much of Geoffrey O’Brien’s equally brilliant, and equally whacked-out book The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century, which traced the history of movies from the beginning to the end of the “film” era, before the advent of digital cinema. But Oswalt’s book really has two tracks; his manic devotion to films being screened at The New Beverly Theater (in particular), a rep house in Los Angeles which up until recently ran some of the most adventurous programming around – sort of like The Thalia in the New York in the 1980s – and his struggle to establish own career as a writer, stand up comedian, and actor.

Essentially a memoir of four years of binge movie watching, running the gamut from everything from Mr. Sardonicus to The Garden of the Finzi Continis with every imaginable stop in-between, from Spaghetti westerns to Hammer horror to Billy Wilder’s early films to Jean Cocteau’s luminous masterpiece Beauty and The Beast, Oswalt uses his manic consumption of images in the service of a larger consideration of what the true nature of cinephilia is, how it can become a religion, how most people have no idea what intense labor making a film is, and how they also don’t particularly like to pull films apart analytically, because it spoils the illusory nature of the spectacle they’ve just witnessed.

Along the way, there are considerations of Vincent Van Gogh, the craft of comedy and how it pays to hang around with people who are smarter than you are – all through your life – so you can pick up some real response to your material, as well an almost elegiac sense of time past and irrecoverable, along with the experience of watching a film in a theater, when now it’s so much easier -as this blog as pointed out time and time again – to watch them at home.

I’ve only recently come to know Oswalt’s work as a comedian, as in his recent stand up routine “Selling Out,” in which he describes playing a gig at a casino for an obscene amount of money during which he doesn’t even have to tell a single joke to earn his paycheck – all the audience wants to do is yell “King of Queens!” and “Ratatouille!” at him in a drunken stupor – King of Queens being a blue collar sitcom that Oswalt co-starred in for nine years, which simultaneously made him a small fortune, and also established his mainstream career.

But he’s really doing most of his interesting work on the margins, as all artists do, and his standup material is both dangerous and sharply observed – like the best of Louis C.K. – and Oswalt’s skills as a writer are formidable, a sort of gonzo endless riffing that simply won’t shut up, reeling off factoid after factoid, one film after another, in an endless genre mashup that eventually pushes him over the edge and back into the light, and out of the darkness of the movie theater, having learned what he needed to know from the movies before getting on with his life.

In the first pages of Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt tells the reader that she or he doesn’t “have to follow me into the darkness” of the movie theater, but by the end, having come off a four-year run of nonstop film viewing, he reiterates the opening with a slight variation: “listen – you don’t have to follow me into the sunshine. Is this your first time seeing Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole? By all means sit and see ‘em. They’re great. I envy your getting to watch them with new eyes. But take what you need from them  and get out of the dark once in a while. You’re going to have more of the dark than you can handle, sooner than you think. The thing about the dark is, it can never get enough of you.”

So in the end it’s a cautionary tale, just like O’Brien’s brilliant book, in which binge viewing films provides “minimal proof that you’re still alive.” And yet the dazzling brilliance of classic cinema – both high and low art, as if such distinctions really exist -  comes through in the pages of this volume full force, a world which seems to be vanishing into the realms of streaming and isolated viewing, and the cinematic community along with it.

I never expected someone like Oswalt to come along and write a book like this – it’s smart, assured, and as he would probably say, “it absolutely kills.” It jumps off the page, and I read it straight through in one sitting, and then bought some copies for friends. For people in their 20s, this would be a great place to start seriously thinking about films. It’s also the document of a personal voyage that’s both harrowing and illuminating. By the way, the front cover is a still from The Colossus of New York – another really odd, really fascinating piece of work – so this volume is full of surprises from beginning to end.

Patton Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from An Addiction to Film - check it out!

The Essential Raymond Durgnat

Saturday, January 10th, 2015

Raymond Durgnat was one the founders of modern film criticism, always cutting against the prevailing grain.

Marginalized by many during his lifetime, Durgnat is finally getting some measure of the respect he so richly deserves. I remember giving a lecture a few years back on the dominance of structuralist and semioticist film criticism, and being surprised when a member of the audience in the back of the room raised his hand during the Q&A that followed to invoke Durgnat’s name, as one of the “forgotten” or deliberately neglected voices of contemporary film criticism, and wondering when and if he would ever be reclaimed by academe. Needless to say, I welcomed this question, and agreed that Durgnat’s contribution had been considerable, but also noted that he had been thrown out of favor by the French school of film “systematizing” criticism in the 1970s and 80s, and that as with all such shifts in public reception, Durgnat’s work was now obviously no longer in public view. I added that I hoped this matter would soon be rectified. Since Durgnat died in 2002, obviously, this work had to be done by others.

Thus, I was very pleased to read that Henry K. Miller has collected a vast trove of Durgnat’s writings and collected them in one volume from Palgrave Macmillan, appropriately entitled The Essential Raymond Durgnat. As the book’s publicity materials note, “Raymond Durgnat was a maverick voice during the golden age of film criticism. From the French new Wave and the rise of Auteurism, through the late 1960s counter-culture to the rejuvenated Hollywood of the 1970s, his work appeared in dozens of publications in Britain, France and the USA. At once evoking the film culture of his own times and anticipating our digital age, in which technology allows everyone to create their own ‘moving image-text combos’, Durgnat’s writings touch on crucial questions in film criticism that resonate more than ever today. Bringing together Durgnat’s essential writing for the very first time, this career-spanning collection includes previously unpublished and untranslated work and is thoroughly introduced and annotated . . .”

As Durgnat himself said of his approach to cinema in a 1977 interview, aptly entitled “Culture Always is A Fog,” “I’m an analogic thinker, not a digital one. Or rather I don’t think much in either-slash-or terms — digital ones, binary oppositions. Especially as having MBD (Minimal Brain Dysfunction), I have things like perseveration and word-substitution and reverse most numbers. And right and left. It’s hereditary, probably. At least there’s a history of left-handed mirror-writers and stammerers in the family. My brother as a child couldn’t even see the difference between his mirror-writing and regular writing. Maybe I’m dyslexic, but not for reading. Strange, eh? Maybe difficulties can make one over-compensate. Be doubly careful. It is a coordination affair, because I’ve got fast motor reflexes. In intellectual work I really think in two stages. Right brain dominance, which makes all sorts of approximate comparisons — that’s the analogic half — then a fairly separate phase of very light order with no affect. First I’m intuitive, muddled, fertile, and all my opinions are easily reversible. Then I reason. I learned math with difficulty because they never explained the principles, which I needed to analogize from.”

Wikipedia also offers this brief but accurate summary of Durgnat’s career and eventual eclipse, writing that “in the 1950s, he had written for Sight and Sound, but he later fell out with this British Film Institute publication after the exit of Gavin Lambert in 1957, often accusing it of elitism, puritanism and upper-middle-class snobbery . . . he did, however, return to write for another BFI publication, the Monthly Film Bulletin, in the years before its merger with Sight and Sound in 1991, and contributed to that publication again later in the 1990s.In the mid-’60s he was a major player in the nascent London Film-Makers’ Co-op, then based at Better Books off Charing Cross Road, a hub of the emerging British ‘underground.’ As the counter-culture turned left and, simultaneously, sought state funding for its activities, Durgnat looked to the past in major works on film style (Images of the Mind, 1968-9), Hitchcock and Renoir.

In the late 1970s he taught film at the University of California, San Diego alongside Manny Farber, Jean-Pierre Gorin and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Returning to the UK at the close of the decade, he launched a series of withering assaults on the linguistics-based film theory that had come to dominate the young film academia over the previous decade. Durgnat’s socio-political approach — strongly supportive of the working classes and, almost as a direct result of this, American popular culture, and dismissive of Left-wing intellectuals whom he accused of actually being petit-bourgeois conservatives in disguise, and dismissive of overt politicisation of film criticism, refusing to bring his own Left-wing views overtly into his writings on film — can best be described as ‘radical populist.’”

So this collection of Durgnat’s essential writing is a cause for celebration, and brings to the contemporary reader some sense of an alternative voice in film criticism that has been unjustly lost over time – the book received a rave review in the latest issue of Film Comment, with which I am happy to concur. You may not agree with him, but Durgnat’s urgent critical voice, always somehow instinctively at loggerheads with whatever the prevailing orthodoxy of the era was, is an essential element of modern film theory, one that I hope is coming back into vogue, based as it is on the humanist structures and concerns of the cinema, and not entirely dependent upon their formal characteristics.

See more about this excellent collection by clicking here.

Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide – The Last Edition

Friday, December 26th, 2014

This is the last – the very last – edition of this iconic, essential movie guide.

Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide has been a staple for film fans both serious and casual for decades – providing succinct summaries, reliable cast and director information, correct running times and aspect ratios, and w whole lot more. Maltin is a popular movie critic, so it’s not depth you get here, but encyclopedic grasp, much as with the late Ephraim Katz’s Film Encyclopedia, both pre-internet era staples. In recent times, the Internet Movie Data Base and to a lesser extent The All Movie Guide online have supplanted both these works, but with both these sources, you get facts, but not reliable opinions – it’s all fan stuff. The great thing about Maltin’s book is that it covers the classics, as well as more mainstream films, and Maltin knows what the films are trying to do – whether they’re aiming for something beyond mere entertainment, or just hoping for sheer escapism.

Thus, the news that Maltin is hanging it up after 45 years with this volume, because he simply can’t compete with the ubiquity of the web, is sad indeed. This newest edition omits silent films for the most part, and dropped some features that were useful in previous editions (lists of credits for actors and directors at the back of the book, for example), but what makes Maltin’s guide unique and extremely valuable is the even-handedness of his critical appraisal of each film, with entries written both by Maltin himself and his band of colleagues, especially Luke Sader. If you get this last edition – which right now is #1 on Amazon’s film book list – please get the oversize paperback edition, not the smaller pocket book size. The typeface is bigger, and the book is much easier to skim through, looking for your favorite titles.

And that’s a pleasure that you can’t replicate on IMDb. Just open Maltin’s book to any page, and start reading. Listed in strict alphabetical order, you’ll soon be careening from high to low art within just a few entries, browsing through cinema history in the company of someone who really does know the entire history of cinema. Not every film is listed here, of course- they couldn’t be, or the book would be several million pages long. And sometimes you’ll disagree with Maltin, whether you’re a serious academic or merely a recreational film viewer. But for an overview of film history available on both TV and DVD as well as streaming on the web, Maltin’s guide is hard to beat, and I for one am sorry to see it go.

As Pete Hammond wrote in Deadline of Maltin’s Movie Guide, “Director Noah Baumbach told Maltin he grew up with the book and actually referenced it in his 2010 film Greenberg. When someone asks the morose Ben Stiller how he’s doing, Stiller answers ‘okay’ and guesses ‘Leonard Maltin would give him two stars.’ Once Were Warriors director Lee Tamahori told Maltin, ‘I am thrilled to just be on the same page as Once Upon A Time In The West.’  Alexander Payne said a review in the Guide meant the most to him because it was ‘for the ages.’ Maltin says Billy Bob Thornton told him he spotted a copy for sale once in the Singapore Airport and it made him feel like there was a touch of home. In fact the Guide is sold around the world and has been translated into Italian and Swedish, among other languages.” For 45 years, Maltin’s Movie Guide was an essential film reference tool, and remains so today.

After 45 years, Maltin’s Movie Guide is no more – get a copy while you can.

The Triumph of Human Empire by Rosalind Williams

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

Here’s a brilliant book on the intersection of science and romantic culture.

As the publisher’s website for this book notes, “in the early 1600s, in a haunting tale titled New Atlantis, Sir Francis Bacon imagined the discovery of an uncharted island. This island was home to the descendants of the lost realm of Atlantis, who had organized themselves to seek ‘the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.’ Bacon’s make-believe island was not an empire in the usual sense, marked by territorial control; instead, it was the center of a vast general expansion of human knowledge and power.

Rosalind Williams uses Bacon’s island as a jumping-off point to explore the overarching historical event of our time: the rise and triumph of human empire, the apotheosis of the modern ambition to increase knowledge and power in order to achieve world domination. Confronting an intensely humanized world was a singular event of consciousness, which Williams explores through the lives and works of three writers of the late nineteenth century: Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

As the century drew to a close, these writers were unhappy with the direction in which their world seemed to be headed and worried that organized humanity would use knowledge and power for unworthy ends. In response, Williams shows, each engaged in a lifelong quest to make a home in the midst of human empire, to transcend it, and most of all to understand it. They accomplished this first by taking to the water: in life and in art, the transition from land to water offered them release from the condition of human domination.

At the same time, each writer transformed his world by exploring the literary boundary between realism and romance. Williams shows how Verne, Morris, and Stevenson experimented with romance and fantasy and how these traditions allowed them to express their growing awareness of the need for a new relationship between humans and Earth.

The Triumph of Human Empire shows that for these writers and their readers romance was an exceptionally powerful way of grappling with the political, technical, and environmental situations of modernity. As environmental consciousness rises in our time, along with evidence that our seeming control over nature is pathological and unpredictable, Williams’s history is one that speaks very much to the present.”

This is an absolutely remarkable achievement, managing to effortlessly synthesize science and the arts – two supposedly polar pursuits in the modern era – and demonstrates that each cannot function without the other, and that all of us are interconnected by both areas, which are of equal importance in the creation and continuance of our shared cultural heritage.

I’m still digesting this marvelous work, which took the author fully 20 years to complete, with some interruptions, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t gotten more attention – but perhaps that’s because the text’s message of inclusiveness is not one that’s currently popular.

Williams argues convincingly, without being strident about it, that without the Romantic instinct we will never really fully comprehend our human condition, and at the same time, provides a thorough yet concise outline of the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne – who despite his futuristic fantasies was not all that taken with the notion of what was then considered “progress” in the industrial era – and the author William Morris, whose work clearly needs wider attention.

The result is a fascinating and altogether indispensable book, which I urge you to read at once.

Marilyn Monroe Day By Day by Carl Rollyson

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

Want to know what Marilyn Monroe did nearly every single day of her life?

I’m not a Monroe cultist by any means, but Rollyson’s book is one of the most carefully detailed and dispassionate accounts of the actor’s life to appear in print. Rather than trying to psychoanalyze Marilyn, or judging her, or adding editorial opinion, Rollyson simply takes the reader practically day by day starting in 1950 – Monroe’s earlier years are more scantily documented, due to lack of data – and then follows her career right up to the moment of her untimely death.

Reading these flat, “just the facts” entries, one can see the enormous pressure Monroe was under to uphold her star image, fend off unwanted admirers, deal with actors and directors who were often unsympathetic, and bear the enormous weight of being an international sex symbol in an era that was both aggrandizing and unforgiving – in short, she lived most of her life in the spotlight, and it took an enormous toll on her, both personally and professionally.

As the book’s website notes, “In Marilyn Monroe Day by Day: A Timeline of People, Places, and Events, Carl Rollyson provides a documentary approach to the life and legend of this singular personality. With details of her childhood, her young adult years, her ascent to superstardom, and the hour by hour moments leading to her tragic early death, this volume supplements—and, in some cases, corrects—the accounts of previous biographies. In addition to restoring what is left out in other narratives about Marilyn’s life, this book also illuminates the gaps and discrepancies that still exist in our knowledge of her.

Drawing on excerpts from her diaries, journals, letters, and even checks and receipts—as well as reports of others—Rollyson recreates the day-to-day world of a woman who still fascinates us more than fifty years after her death. In addition to the calendar, Rollyson also profiles important figures in Marilyn’s life and includes a brief biography of the actress, providing a context for the timeline. An annotated bibliography of books and websites highlights the most reliable sources about Marilyn.”

What results is a unique document, rich in detail, compassionate, and superbly researched.

Hoarders, Doomsday Preppers, and the Culture of Apocalypse

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new book out July 10th, in a cutting edge series from Palgrave Pivot.

As the official website for the book notes, “the culture of twenty-first century America largely revolves around narcissistic death, violence, and visions of doom. As people are bombarded with amoral metanarratives that display an almost complete lack of empathy for others on television, in films, and on the internet, their insatiable appetite for excessive pain and routine death reflects an embrace of an endlessly warring culture. Foster explores this culture of the apocalypse, from hoarding and gluttony to visions of the post-apocalyptic world.”

“Gwendolyn Audrey Foster writes passionately about the debased media-scape of our death-worshipping culture. She probes into our collective fascination with an Earth without us, even as we continue activities that are sure to lead to yet more ecological devastation and mass extinction. Hoarders, Doomsday Preppers, and the Culture of Apocalypse is not a comforting book, but it is an eloquent call from a voice crying in the wilderness: a warning that we ignore at our peril.” – Steven Shaviro, DeRoy Professor, English, Wayne State University

“In this urgent and important book, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster exposes and explores the multiform obscenities – of violence, wealth, consumption, ownership, avarice, aggression, and more – that infect the politics, businesses, entertainments, and mentalities of today’s narcissistic, fear-peddling, death-celebrating culture, shining a laser-sharp spotlight on excesses of sexism, neo-liberalism, speciesism, capitalism, and nationalism in the contemporary media.” – David Sterritt, Columbia University

“In her newest book, Hoarders, Doomsday Preppers, and the Culture of Apocalypse, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster explores the excesses of late-capitalist American consumerism; her exploration of media representation of gluttony, hoarding, waste, and debt is compelling reading for anyone interested in contemporary popular culture.” – Patrice Petro, Professor, English, Film Studies, and Global Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

“Gwendolyn Audrey Foster challenges us to confront the apocalyptic narratives of our time in her engaging and thought-provoking book. Through our desire for what she terms ‘apocotainment’ – the apocalypse as entertainment for the masses – we eagerly digest the mediatized horrors of our planet’s ecological destruction on screen as we continue to deny it as reality in our own front yards. Foster’s book is a wakeup call to take notice of the preciousness of our common humanity, before we confront the death of our planet in real life.” – Valérie K. Orlando, Professor, French and Francophone Literature and Film, University of Maryland

Click here, or on the image above, to go to the book’s official website.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Friday, May 9th, 2014

Roz Chast’s new book about the last years of her mother and father’s lives is a masterpiece.

As the publisher’s website for this remarkable volume notes, “In her first memoir, Roz Chast brings her signature wit to the topic of aging parents. Spanning the last several years of their lives and told through four-color cartoons, family photos, and documents, and a narrative as rife with laughs as it is with tears, Chast’s memoir is both comfort and comic relief for anyone experiencing the life-altering loss of elderly parents. When it came to her elderly mother and father, Roz held to the practices of denial, avoidance, and distraction. But when Elizabeth Chast climbed a ladder to locate an old souvenir from the ‘crazy closet’—with predictable results—the tools that had served Roz well through her parents’ seventies, eighties, and into their early nineties could no longer be deployed.

While the particulars are Chast-ian in their idiosyncrasies—an anxious father who had relied heavily on his wife for stability as he slipped into dementia and a former assistant principal mother whose overbearing personality had sidelined Roz for decades—the themes are universal: adult children accepting a parental role; aging and unstable parents leaving a family home for an institution; dealing with uncomfortable physical intimacies; managing logistics; and hiring strangers to provide the most personal care. An amazing portrait of two lives at their end and an only child coping as best she can, Can We Talk about Something More Pleasant? show[s] the full range of Roz Chast’s talent as cartoonist and storyteller.”

This last sentence is especially true; Chast’s mordantly sardonic cartoons of domestic life, which have graced The New Yorker for decades, are always grimly funny and all-too-accurate, but here, she has the space to really stretch out and deal with the subject matter at considerable length, and the results are astonishing. George and Elizabeth Chast lived together for more than forty years in a small, untidy apartment in a rather depressing section of Brooklyn; Elizabeth was, by all accounts, wildly domineering, while George was so inept and cowed that he couldn’t even use a toaster without worrying about the possible consequences. Nevertheless, they loved each other deeply, and as old age crept up on them, bad things began to happen.

Much against her will, Roz was drafted into the entire process of intervening when they fell and had to go to the hospital; when it became impossible for them to live anymore at the apartment they had shared for so long; then moving them into an assisted care facility; and finally dealing with slow, agonizing death watch that took far too long to bring release to them both. Drawn with passionate intensity and care throughout – the entire volume is written in Chast’s own hand, and illustrated throughout with drawings, photographs, poems that her mother wrote, and other ephemera – Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? emerges as much more than a typical memoir, if only because nothing seems to come between the page and Roz Chast’s expressive prose and illustrations.

It’s obviously a work of anguished love, riddled with endless details of recalled memories, conversations that seemed to go nowhere and ended in fights or resignation, and punctuated by a full page few “splash” panels, such as an unforgettable cartoon image of George welcoming his wife home after a lengthy stay in this hospital with the single word “Elizabeth!” – a scene heartbreaking in its intensity. The book builds and builds towards its inevitable conclusion – first George’s death, and then Elizabeth’s – and towards the end of the volume, Chast abandons her cartoon style to include a series of twelve straightforward line drawings, breathtaking in their intimacy, of Elizabeth’s last days in hospice care, ending with a drawing of her mother right after her death.

“I drew her. I didn’t know what else to do” Chast writes, but in doing this, she’s not only unburdened herself of a narrative of incredible difficulty and loss, but also has given her readers a much more accurate picture of what the end of life is often like – not just drifting off to sleep painlessly, but dying with difficulty and anger. It’s clear from the text that though Roz loved both her parents, she felt much closer to her father, while her mother’s continual need to dominate everything and everyone around her drove her to distraction. Roz could could sit up quietly with her father watching The Twilight Zone as a child, but was routinely subjected to what her mother termed “a blast from Chast” whenever Elizabeth was upset about something, which was quite often.

In this loving, meticulously drawn and measured memoir, Roz Chast has rendered us all a remarkable service, making her own life come alive, as well as the lives of her parents, and providing a road map for the journey into old age that most of us will inevitably wind up taking, whether we like it or not, as we deal with our parents’ mortality, as well as our own. By turns wryly humorous and deadly (literally) serious, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is easily one of the most impressive books of the year, and one that repays repeated readings, no matter how difficult the subject matter might be to deal with.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a book you should read – now.

Book: The New American Crime Film by Matthew Sorrento

Monday, May 5th, 2014

Here’s a real “sleeper” of a book; Matthew Sorrento’s The New American Crime Film.

I missed this book when it came out in 2012, but boy — am I glad I found it now. When I first glanced at this volume, I thought that it was a collection of essays edited by Sorrento written by a number of different writers, simply because the range of films covered was so wide. But no – Sorrento is the sole author of this work, and it’s one of the most comprehensive and intelligent books on the subject I’ve ever come across. I met Sorrento, who teaches Film Studies at Rutgers Camden for the first time at the screening of my films at The Microscope Gallery a few days ago, although I have always admired his writing for Film Internationalsee some of his work for that journal by clicking here - and he was kind enough to give me a copy. It was a revelation; this is an entirely new way of looking at these films, and at the history and evolution of crime films in general, especially as they morph and adapt the demands of new audiences.

In truth, I was knocked out – this is a superb course text, and outlines each film in detail. Sorrento has a sharp and accessible style, and a solid grounding in the genre, and it shows in every sentence of every essay; it simply jumps off the page as lively, informed, and important critical writing. As the publicity material for the volume notes, “the most pervasive genre in contemporary cinema, the American crime film has recently enjoyed a new surge of popularity and proliferation. Though these innovative films now tackle topical issues, they continue to reference the classic narratives and archetypes established in the great crime pictures of past decades. The titles explored in this critical survey span many themes that have fused with other genres to create fascinating filmic hybrids. Focusing on character and plot construction, the author highlights the gangster and film noir traditions that still run strongly through recent American cinema.”

But this gives only the merest suggestion of what this text accomplishes, as it deals with such directors as David Lynch, Gus Van Sant, David Mamet, Werner Herzog, Sam Raimi, David Cronenberg and the Coen Brothers and Stuart Gordon, who also provides a foreword to the volume, and whose despairing and overlooked classic Edmond, with a standout performance by William Macy, is examined here in detail. Other films covered include Spike Lee’s Inside Man, Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Paranoid Park, David Fincher’s Se7en, the brutal films of Andrew Jarecki, the nightmarish visions of David Lynch, the late films of Clint Eastwood, and how they developed and deepened the characters he created in his early work with Don Siegel, Woody Allen (an interesting and rewarding choice for this volume), David Mamet,  the much underrated films Public Enemies and American Gangster, nothing less than a mini career survey of the Coen Brothers from their first film Blood Simple to No Country for Old Men, the hallucinatory work of David Cronenberg in such films as Eastern Promises, Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan – ambitious enough for you?

What distinguishes this volume above all is the effortless erudition on display here; the skill with which Sorrento brings you into the the inner world of the film, and refuses to settle for summary analysis; the verse and style with which he attacks his work, and brings these films to life for the reader. Though obviously an aficionado of the genre – and of genre films in general – Sorrento remains rigorously critical in his writing, pointing up elements of some films that are problematic, while at the same time remaining deeply sympathetic to the aims of these individualistic filmmakers. Personally, while reading the volume, I could easily see a class centered around the text, that would embrace a wide variety of films – recent work, not just the classics – and offbeat titles, such as Gordon’s film, that certainly deserve more attention.

Sorrento is now working on a new book on “extreme cinema” in a variety of genres; we had a detailed and fascinating discussion about the project, and I hope it comes to fruition. There’s no question that in the early part of the 21st century, films have become more graphic, more daring, and more explicit than every before, putting the hearts and minds of the audience on trial – a responsibility that must not be taken lightly. Other have done volumes on “extreme” horror films, for example, but Sorrento’s new book will argue that this tendency towards “testing” the audience has now spread across nearly every genre in the cinema, including comedy. In the meantime, Sorrento’s The New American Crime Film stands as a singular and original text in a wilderness of re-treads, and in all sincerity, got me thinking about these films in an entirely new light – there’s a course there, for sure.

Matthew Sorrento – a sharp and engaging writer and critic; keep an eye out for his new work.

John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Scott Eyman’s new book on John Wayne is the definitive study of the legendary actor and Western icon.

There have been lots of books on John Wayne – some celebratory, others taking him to task for his conservative views – but Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend is easily the best of the lot, because it transcends such obvious categorizing to bring to the reader a fully realized picture of both the man and the actor. Generous, impulsive, much smarter than people gave him credit for, a solid producer and script analyst, indebted to directors John Ford and Howard Hawks for the entire length of his career, and at the same time an architect of the Hollywood Blacklist, along with his longtime pal actor Ward Bond, Wayne deserved a book that would treat him honestly and fairly, highlighting his incredible work ethic and stamina, his loyalty to his friends, and the long, hard road Wayne climbed to stardom.

What’s so remarkable about Eyman’s book is that it isn’t only compulsively readable – a page turner in every sense of the word – but that Eyman manages to be “fair and balanced” in the truest sense of that often-abused phrase, combining a skillful narrative sense with truly prodigious research. It’s all here – the marriages, the divorces, the directors, Wayne’s passion to make a film on The Alamo (1960), which took him decades to get off  the ground, right down to the early “Z” westerns for Lone Star Pictures that Wayne worked his way through after his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930) failed to catch on the with the public.

John Ford, until then Wayne’s champion, cut him dead, leading to Wayne’s upward struggle through several ultra-cheap serials for Mascot Pictures, a group of three-day (!!) westerns for producer Leon Schlesinger at Warner Brothers (made with copious amounts of stock footage), and even some singing cowboy westerns (as “Singin’ Sandy”) before Ford relented, and rescued Wayne from Poverty Row with Stagecoach (1939), the film that made Wayne an “overnight” star. And that was really just the beginning of his career, after a decade of hard work – Wayne never stopped climbing, and it’s clear from Eyman’s book that Wayne had to keep fighting to the end to keep his name before the public.

There’s also a lot of anecdotage in the book – including an amazing tale of Wayne drinking in a Hollywood bar, when an unsteady Humphrey Bogart shows up owing $600 to the management, which Wayne immediately covers, and then notices that Bogart has an apple corer stuck “up to the hilt” in his back, courtesy of Bogart’s then-wife Mayo Methot. Wayne tries to pull it out, but it’s in so deeply that he finally has to plant his foot in the middle of Bogart’s back, and pull the corer out with both hands, and then drive Bogart to the hospital – and thankfully, there’s also some detail, finally, about the role that Marlene Dietrich played in Wayne’s career, both as a lover and a person who put Wayne in touch with the right people to advance his career.

There are lots of facts and figures, as well, which some reviewers have complained about, as making the book a bit too complete, but I don’t think so; here’s a book that has all the budgets, release dates, box office figures, memos, and interoffice correspondence to really get to the heart of Wayne’s life and work. The most striking that about John Wayne: The Life and Legend is that even as he relates the least appealing aspects of Wayne’s life, you never get the feeling that Eyman is sitting in judgement. There’s the good, the bad, and the inexplicable, and Eyman covers it all, with skill and style.

This is Wayne, as he was, in complete and straightforward detail, along with the people he knew, loved, and worked with. While Eyman clearly respects Wayne’s work, he never goes overboard into hagiography, and with what appears to have been complete access to Wayne’s personal archives, creates a fully rounded portrait of John Wayne – or Marion Morrison, if you prefer – perhaps the most iconic star Hollywood has ever produced.

Scott Eyman has written a number of film biographies, including one on John Ford, but this is his finest work.

New Article – Preliminary Notes on the Monochrome Universe

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International; click here, or on the image above, to read the entire essay.

In the essay, I note that “lately I’ve been thinking about black and white movies, and how they’ve almost completely disappeared from the current cinematic landscape. There are occasional projects shot in black and white, but with cinema rapidly becoming an all-digital medium, and black and white film stock almost impossible to purchase, color has taken over completely, either glossy and popped-out, or desaturated for a more dramatic effect, but always using some palette of color. Furthermore, while there have been numerous books on the use of color in the cinema, there has been no book-length study on the black and white film, and yet black and white cinema dominated the industry internationally for nearly seven decades, until the late 1960s.

Certainly, numerous cameramen and directors have weighed in on the use of black and white in their works, most notably John Alton in Painting With Light, but in each case, these works were created when black and white was still a commercially viable medium. Most of the texts I’ve encountered, with the exception of Alton’s book, and to a lesser extent Edward Dmytryk’s Cinema: Concept and Practice, written after the director had long since retired, treat black and white filmmaking as a part of everyday life, the main production medium for most movies, which at the time, it certainly was.

In these necessarily practical books, it’s about f-stops, filters and cookies, but very little about the aesthetics of the medium. Indeed, when Alton published his landmark study, he was famously excoriated by his colleagues as being a pretentious self-promoter; what cameramen did was work, nothing more, and any notions of artistic ambition were inherently suspect. In most of the books cited below, color is dealt with as a special case, which again, it was; but now, in the all color, all digital world of images we currently inhabit, black and white has become the anomaly. Thus, I wanted to set down some preliminary notes on my new project here, before they elude me; the title is Black and White: A Brief History of Monochrome Cinema, the term used by British filmmakers until the medium’s demise in the mid 1960s.

And yet shooting in black and white is inherently a transformative act. As the filmmaker and opera director Jonathan Miller – whose beautiful film of Alice in Wonderland (1966) was elegantly photographed in black and white by the gifted Dick Bush – once observed in a conversation with me, the very act of making a black and white film transmutes the original source material, for life, as we know, takes place in color. Therefore, there is an intrinsic level of stylization and re-interpretation of reality when one makes a black and white film, leading to an entirely different way of cinematography. Indeed, it’s an entirely different world altogether, one that is rapidly slipping away from us as it recedes in the mists of the past.”

The book will take several years of work, but this is, at least, a start.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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