Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Posts Tagged ‘Film Criticism’

“Take The Hardest Path” – Roberto Rossellini’s “Voyage to Italy”

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini at work on the set.

In July 2009, I wrote in Senses of Cinema about Rossellini’s remarkable Voyage to Italy that the film “was shot from 2 February through 30 April 1953, on a variety of locations throughout Italy, including Naples, Capri, Pompeii, and at the Titanus studios in Rome, and was a tempestuous production throughout. The plot is simple: an unhappily married couple, Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) and Alex Joyce (George Sanders) are traveling from London through Italy to Naples, where they have inherited a villa.

Their marriage is a shambles, and they quarrel constantly; indeed, it is hard to imagine a more ill suited couple in the history of cinema. Katherine, relatively young and vibrant, seems trapped in a loveless match with the ill-tempered, dour Alex, who thinks only of money, and openly flirts with other women while ignoring his wife. Katherine has made the journey not only to sell the villa, but also in the hope that the “voyage” will reignite the passion of their marriage; instead, as the trip becomes more complex, and fraught with delays and interruptions, Alex’s boredom and frustration turns to outright hostility towards his wife.

In desperation, Katherine recounts to her disaffected husband the tale of a former suitor who, long ago, has been passionately in love with her; but Alex is unmoved, and Katherine seems resigned to the fact that their marriage will end in divorce, as soon as the necessary papers for the sale of the villa have been signed. The couple decide to split up, and spend their remaining time in Naples separately; Katherine visits a series of natural wonders with a succession of paid, only professionally attentive Italian tour guides, while Alex seeks out the company of a group of British nationals vacationing in Capri.

Katherine’s time is nevertheless redolent of the state of her collapsing marriage; viewing the ruins of Pompeii, with human bodies still entombed in centuries-old ash, as well as witnessing first-hand a small volcanic eruption on a tour, Katherine seems lost, lonely, and disconnected from the world around her, yet at the same time she years for some sort of human compassion. Alex is clearly disinterested.

And yet, in the film’s final, unforgettable sequence, as the now-reunited, but still-quarreling couple watch a passing religious procession, they are seized with an unexpected emotion, and fervently embrace each other, declaring their love, and wondering how they could possibly have become so estranged. Their renewal of love is a miracle, entirely inexplicable by any conventional narrative standards; the entire film, indeed, has been consistently moving away from such a reconciliation.

Love appears to have conquered a seemingly irreparable emotional breakdown. It is one of the most unexpected and transcendent moments in not just all of Rossellini, but in all of cinema; as one might imagine, the ending was also highly controversial at the time of the film’s release, and remains so, because it seems to come out of thin air, rather than in response to any section or aspect of the film’s narrative exposition.”

Much of the film was improvised; often Rossellini didn’t really know which direction the film was going in. The actors, especially George Sanders, were often irritated by Rossellini’s seeming indecision during the production, but the director was searching for something through the film, something perhaps related to his difficult and ultimately doomed relationship with Ingrid Bergman, who worked with Rossellini in three of his films, and abandoned her Hollywood career to work with him in Italy.

As I observed back in 2009, “Voyage to Italy is a film in search of itself, a film that only knows its own conclusion when it appears, miraculously, in front of it, arriving at a final destination that no one in the audience could possibly have foreseen. And yet, the final moments of the film seem absolutely ‘right’; indeed, it seems to be the only possible conclusion to the film.” And yet this could not have been an easy path to take; rather, it was a jump into the void, with only the slightest idea of how the film would finally end. And yet only with such a quest can anything worthwhile be made; if you aren’t searching for something, then you are lost.

“When you don’t know which path to take, choose the hardest one.” – Roberto Rossellini

Forgotten African American Women of Early Hollywood

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

Here’s a really important new exhibition at the California African American Museum; above, Iris Hall as Eve Mason in The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), directed by Oscar Micheaux.

As the notes for exhibition outline, “curated by Tyree Boyd-Pates, History Curator and Program Manager, CAAM, and the Tyree Boyd-Pates, Center Stage [is] an exhibition that considers pioneering African American filmmakers and production companies in the early 20th century that provided African American women the opportunity to participate in front of, and behind, the camera. They challenged disparaging portrayals of black women in Hollywood, and instead conveyed their wit, intelligence, and talent for largely black audiences to admire and emulate. The exhibition runs from June 28 to October 15, 2017.

Produced for American audiences between 1910 and 1950, these motion pictures were commonly called race films. CAAM will screen several rarely seen examples, including Oscar Micheaux‘s Within Our Gates (1920) and The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), extant clips from Lincoln Picture Company’s The Symbol of the Unconquered (1921, dir. Harry Grant), The Scar of Shame (1929), The Scar of Shame (1941, dir. Spencer Williams), and others. Each film features women protagonists and captures the spirit of entrepreneurship and African American upliftment characteristic of race films from this era.”

As Nadra Nittle adds in an article on the series on the KCET website, “Hollywood has long had a problem with representation and diversity, especially concerning anyone female and nonwhite. In the first half of the 20th century, black women were largely relegated to playing mammy and Jezebel roles. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation even depicted African Americans as rapists and imbeciles, leading to a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

The black woman’s unfortunate standing in Hollywood history is why the California African American Museum’s “Center Stage: African American Women in Silent Race Films,” which runs until October 15, is so significant. It reveals how as early as 100 years ago, independent black filmmakers presented complex portrayals of women of color that major studios never fathomed. These silent gems depict black women exploring their religious faith, fighting for the rights of African Americans and in loving relationships. They underscore how even today Hollywood has much ground to cover in its depiction of black women.”

I have been running these films in my classes for years, way back in the 1970s in the 16mm era, when they were first made available in prints from the original 35mm negatives. But with the passing of time, it seems that people forget, and new generations need to be reminded, of the immense value of these works – films, directors, and actors who made an enormous and indelible contribution to the history of the cinema. Not only are these films an essential part of cinema history; they offer an effective antidote to the evils of D.W. Griffith’s ultra-racist Birth of A Nation, which is still being widely screened while these far superior films are neglected. It’s time to change that – forever.

This is an amazing chance to see these key works; don’t miss it if you’re in Los Angeles.

Klaus Kreimeier’s Origins of Cinema Website

Thursday, June 29th, 2017

Here’s a very interesting website from German film historian Klaus Kreimeier.

This remarkably comprehensive website covers the history of film from 1900 to 1915, and what’s more, has linked videos for nearly every director mentioned, and gives full credit (at last!) to Alice Guy, who is perpetually marginalized (as readers of this blog now full well) from most cinema histories. The site is in English, and offers thoughtful commentary on a wide-ranging group of filmmakers from around the globe, who helped to create the cinema as we knew it in the 20th century, before CGI took over and turned it into something blenderized and unreal.

Of course, Georges Méliès was already moving the cinema into the zone of the fantastic with such films as À la conquête du pôle, L’alchimiste Parafaragaramus ou la cornue infernale, La sirène, Le diable au convent, Les trésors de Satan, Le voyage à travers l’impossible, Le voyage dans la lune, Le voyage de Gulliver à Lilliput et chez les géants and many other pioneering short films, but this site also has numerous selections from many other key figures in early documentary and narrative cinema, with over 900 short films in all.

Absolutely worth a visit – a real resource for cinema historians.

Nell Shipman and Back To God’s Country

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017


Here’s an excellent article from Offscreen on the pioneer filmmaker and film actor Nell Shipman.

As the author of the piece, David George Menard, writes, “to discuss the role of women in Canada’s film culture, and even in Hollywood’s film culture, over a period of about a hundred years, is to discuss absence, gaps, discontinuities, and distortion. The images of women in feature films are distorted by a male dominated industry, and at times, inflated through men’s visual obsessions. The trend in any film culture over the last century has been to display the images of women as adjuncts to images of men.

The visual ideas of women have been represented as symbols of ‘otherness’, reflecting the male dominated world of filmmaking, a world of male narcissism and power. Although women have made great contributions to the world of film throughout its history, such efforts have been obscured and belittled —the visions and voices of the women of cinema have been suppressed.

This historical fact is unfortunate because there were great women film pioneers such as Alice Guy who made the first edited fiction film, La Fee Aux Choux (1896); Esther Shub who created the art of compilation film, as seen in The Fall Of The Romanov Dynasty (1927); Lotte Reiniger who made a feature length film a decade before Disney, as seen in The Adventures Of Prince Ahmed (1926); and finally there was Nell Shipman from Canada, also a scriptwriter and a star actress who performed as the principal protagonist in one of Canada’s earliest major feature length film, Back To God’s Country, released on October 27th, 1919.

In the early days of cinema, many young women embarked on acting careers to become Hollywood starlets. Some of the actresses who succeeded at this grand and noble endeavor sometime showed remarkable versatility behind the cameras, and many of them became writers, directors, and producers. Nell Shipman was one of these talented women. She was born Helen Barham in 1892, Victoria, British Columbia.

At the young age of thirteen, she left home to attend acting school. In 1907, she performed in the Jesse Lasky play The Pianophiends. In 1909, she was the leading lady in the Charles Taylor play The Girl From Alaska. In 1910, she got the leading role in The Barrier, a play produced by the famous Canadian producer and theatrical entrepreneur Ernest Shipman, whom she married in 1911.

Thereafter, Nell and Ernest moved to Pasadena, California, in an attempt to wedge their way into the film business. In 1912, Nell Shipman won a script writing contest sponsored by the Tally Theater in Los Angeles, and her winning script, Outwitted Billy, was produced by Selig Polyscope in 1913. In 1914, she scripted the first film produced in Australia, Shepherd Of The Southern Cross.

In 1915, she accepted the leading role in a film, produced by the Vitagraph studios, playing a character from a script adapted from James Oliver Curwood’s novel God’s Country And The Woman. The picture, her first film for a major film company, was an outstanding success, and resulted in movie contracts with Vitagraph, Fox, and Lasky for 1916-17, a period in which she completed thirteen films. All of Nell Shipman’s film experience to this point set the stage for one of Canada’s earliest feature length film, Back To God’s Country.”

There’s much more to read; click here, or on the image above, to read the entire essay.

Manohla Dargis & A.O. Scott – Best 25 of the 21st Century

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott of The New York Times pick the best films of the 21st century.

As they immediately add, “so far.” The introduction to the article notes that “we are now approximately one-sixth of the way through the 21st century, and thousands of movies have already been released. Which means that it’s high time for the sorting – and the fighting – to start.

As the chief film critics of The Times, we decided to rank, with some help from cinema savants on Facebook, the top 25 movies that are destined to be the classics of the future. While we’re sure almost everyone will agree with our choices, we’re equally sure that those of you who don’t will let us know.” And we’re off to the races.

My favorites on the list are The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Boyhood, Summer Hours [I was genuinely surprised and delighted to see this film on the list, but even so, I would have gone with Clouds of Sils Maria, but hey . . . Assayas is a master, so fine with me], The Hurt Locker [shot by multiple crews in Super 16mm so it looks as real as any battlefield coverage], In Jackson Heights, The Gleaners and I, Moonlight, Wendy and Lucy, and the exquisite Silent Light.

Missing for me immediately are The Aura and Melancholia, two stunning films that have gone into my ever-expanding Top Ten list, which now has at least 250 films in it, but that’s the fun of these listings, and it’s a solid stab at what will be remembered, and revered in the future. I’ll never, ever vote for a Pixar film, that’s for sure, but these are all solid and thoughtful choices, the kind of journalism we could use more of in daily newspapers.

Read the entire lavishly illustrated article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Happy Birthday Howard Hawks!!

Tuesday, May 30th, 2017

Director Howard Hawks and star Angie Dickinson on the set of Rio Bravo (1959).

Howard Hawks, one of the most famous and revered multi-genre directors of all time, was born on this date in 1896. As Oliver Lyttelton noted in Indiewire back in 2012, “Howard Hawks was one of the first, and one of the best. Across a 55-year career that spanned silents and talkies, black-and-white and color, Hawks tackled virtually every genre under the sun, often turning out films that still stand as among the best in that style. Romantic comedy? Two of the finest ever. War? To Have And Have Not and Sergeant York [to name just two films] the latter of which won him his only Best Director Academy Award nomination (though he did win an Honorary Award in 1975, two years before his death).

Science-fiction? The much ripped-off The Thing From Another World [officially credited to Christian Nyby, Hawks’ editor for many years, but actually directed by Hawks]. Gangster movies? Scarface, which practically invented a whole genre. From film noir and melodrama to Westerns and musicals, Hawks took them all in his stride. [Hawks] famously said that the secret to a good movie was ‘three great scenes and no bad ones,’ and he hit that target many times.”

Here’s an interesting site that celebrates his work, in great detail, as we consider the career of an artist who was comfortable with westerns, comedies, straight drama, film noir, even historical spectacle films. Check it out here, and consider the career of a director who could do it all, and make it look easy in the process. There aren’t many directors who ever matched Hawks’ versatility and drive, and he worked with all the greats, from actors like Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant to writers like William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett. Here’s to a person you should know more about: Howard Hawks.

Howard Hawks – one of the absolute giants of Hollywood history.

Indiewire’s Cannes 2017 Roundup

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

There’s lots of great films at Cannes. Most will never get real distribution.

Cannes is still going on until May 28th, but the coverage provided by Indiewire above gives one an idea of the embarrassment of riches on display at the fest, even if it has been marred – ever so slightly – be tech snafus and some less than stellar entries and sidebars.

But consider: the festival offered a superb restoration of Belle de Jour, as well as a new documentary on Stanley Kubrick’s long and illustrious career; animated films from Iran; talks by Wim Wenders and Spike Lee at the American Pavilion; the premiere of Todd Haynes’ new film Wonderstruck; a wealth of technical information for aspiring and practicing filmmakers; the first two episodes of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks reboot; a seminar on how VOD and theaters will continue to co-exist; as well as new films by Arnaud Desplechin, Vanessa Redgrave in her directorial debut, Takashi Miike’s 100th feature film, Bruno Dumont’s “heavy metal” Joan of Arc film Jeanette, Sofia Coppola’s take on The Beguiled and so much more.

There’s so much going on here – so much more than what’s going at your local multiplex. If you’re lucky enough to live in a town that supports an art theater, please go and see the more adventurous films there. They won’t be coming to the main commercial houses, who are too busy prepping for Top Gun 2 (seriously). For all the expense and crowds and security and other inconveniences of Cannes, it remains a magnet for talent and controversy in the cinema, all the more important in an era that doesn’t value art as an essential aspect of human existence, which it absolutely is.

Follow all of Indiewire‘s coverage of Cannes by clicking here, or on the image above.

Lucy Fischer’s New Book “Cinema By Design”

Friday, May 5th, 2017

Lucy Fischer has an excellent new book out on the influence of Art Nouveau in film.

As the website for the book from Columbia University Press notes, “Art Nouveau thrived from the late 1890s through the First World War. The international design movement reveled in curvilinear forms and both playful and macabre visions and had a deep impact on cinematic art direction, costuming, gender representation, genre, and theme. Though historians have long dismissed Art Nouveau as a decadent cultural mode, its tremendous afterlife in cinema proves otherwise. In Cinema by Design, Lucy Fischer traces Art Nouveau’s long history in films from various decades and global locales, appreciating the movement’s enduring avant-garde aesthetics and dynamic ideology.

Fischer begins with the portrayal of women and nature in the magical ‘trick films’ of the Spanish director Segundo de Chomón; the elite dress and décor design choices in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Affairs of Anatol (1921); and the mise-en-scène of fantasy in Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Reading Salome (1923), Fischer shows how the cinema offered an engaging frame for adapting the risqué works of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Moving to the modern era, Fischer focuses on a series of dramatic films, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), that make creative use of the architecture of Antoni Gaudí; and several European works of horror—The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Deep Red (1975), and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013)—in which Art Nouveau architecture and narrative supply unique resonances in scenes of terror.

In later chapters, she examines films like Klimt (2006) that portray the style in relation to the art world and ends by discussing the Art Nouveau revival in 1960s cinema. Fischer’s analysis brings into focus the partnership between Art Nouveau’s fascination with the illogical and the unconventional and filmmakers’ desire to upend viewers’ perception of the world. Her work explains why an art movement embedded in modernist sensibilities can flourish in contemporary film through its visions of nature, gender, sexuality, and the exotic.”

This is a brilliant and wide-ranging book, written in a direct and accessible style, which moves smoothly from one film to another, and one era to another, effortlessly navigating both space and time in cinema history, in a text which is at once adventurous, incisive, and thoroughly grounded in cinema and art history. Fischer is a brilliant scholar whose work is always deeply informed and carefully considered, and with this book, she tackles a theme in cinema art direction which is far more wide-spread than one might expect. Complete with a plethora of illustrations, this is a must have text for any lover of film.

Again, proof of the old saying that the only new history is that which you don’t know – essential reading.

Jason Bourne Meets Mission Impossible Meets The Mummy

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

Universal is starting a reboot of their classic horror films this summer, starting with The Mummy (2017).

As I write in my new article, The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age, “at Universal Studios in Hollywood, the parking decks for visitors are named after the various classic monsters (the Frankenstein lot, the Dracula lot, the Mummy lot, and so on), with enormous paintings on the outside depicting the first iterations of each character, but that’s about all Universal seems to be able to come up with. Universal is desperate to restore their ‘creations’ to some semblance of their former glory, but the 2017 version of The Mummy promises little in the way of originality or imagination, while piling on the special effects and action sequences in a frenzied attempt to sustain flagging audience interest.

Copying the Marvel and DC Universe method of churning out franchise films on a regular basis, Universal is plowing ahead with a similarly designed program of entries in the coming years. Noted Universal chairperson Donna Langley of this strategy, ‘we have to mine our resources. We don’t have any capes [in our film library]. But what we do have is an incredible legacy and history with the monster characters. We’ve tried over the years to make monster movies — unsuccessfully, actually. So, we took a good, hard look at it, and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre, put it more in the action-adventure genre and make it present day, bringing these incredibly rich and complex characters into present day and reimagine them and reintroduce them to a contemporary audience.’

I would argue that it’s not going to work; that it hasn’t worked thus far; and that it won’t work in the future. Indeed, this would seem to me to be the very worst possible strategy. The Frankenstein legend, and with it The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and Dracula are not material for a Bourne or Mission: Impossible series – they’re not action movie characters. All this will do is degrade the material further. They’re not action films; they’re films that inspire genuine dread. The original Mummy, for example, depended upon pacing, atmosphere, and Karloff’s iconic performance in the title role.

Only by returning to the source material, treated with utmost fidelity, can anything worthwhile be attained. What is needed is a creative force like the Hammer Film Productions team in the mid 20th century, which took the material seriously, and treated each project with the utmost care and attention, placing the emphasis on character, setting, and thematic development, rather than relying on special effects and fleeting star power to put these forthcoming projects across in the marketplace.

Until Hollywood returns to the original narratives that inspired the first wave of classic monster films, as Christopher Nolan did when he rescued the Batman franchise from ignominious parody with the straight-ahead reboot Batman Begins (2005), there’s no real hope for a Renaissance of horror. In these new Universal monster films and others like them, we will get only a simulacric vision of these mythic characters, especially Victor Frankenstein and his creation; in short, all we will get is the ghost of Frankenstein.

That’s hardly enough to inspire a whole new generation of millennial horror fans, let alone resuscitate the classic figures that inspired two cycles of Gothic horror films – the first Universal series, and then the Hammer remakes in the 1950s and 60s, which brought the various monster back to their original roots. Frankenstein’s ‘undying monster’ may finally be dead after all; we’ll just have to wait and see what Hollywood is cooking up in their own mad labs.”

Click here, or on the trailer above to see for yourself; this may make money, but it’s not The Mummy.

Leslie Reed on The New Book Series “Quick Takes”

Monday, March 13th, 2017

Our new Quick Takes series is taking off!

As Leslie Reed writes of our new book series in UNL Today, ” Quick Takes, a new series of short books on popular culture topics edited by University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon, launches March 17 with the publication of Disney Culture by John Wills and Zombie Cinema by Ian Olney. Foster and Dixon . . .will oversee at least 12 books in the series, to be published by Rutgers University Press over the next three years.

‘Gwendolyn and I think about interesting topics that people might want to know about, and then we find the top experts in the field to write about it,’ Dixon said. ‘It’s a bleeding-edge, major book series on pop culture.’

The Quick Takes books have been in the works for about two years. Loosely patterned after the British Film Institute’s Film Classics series, the Quick Takes books will range from 30,000 to 40,000 words, making them pocket-sized and readable in one sitting. Paperbacks and E-books will cost $17.95; cloth copies are priced at $65.

‘They’re free of jargon, direct and accessible,’ Dixon said. ‘We’re aiming at college kids, pop culture fiends and the general public.’ ‘These are topics that are really important in the 21st century,’ Foster said. ‘The series is designed to introduce them to the widest possible audience.’

The first two books have been well received by critics. In Disney Culture, Wills, director of American Studies at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, explores how Disney grew from a small animation studio to a global media giant. Critic Blair Davis describes Disney Culture as a ‘well written and thoroughly engaging overview’ of the Disney Empire.

Olney is an associate professor of English at York College of Pennsylvania, who received his doctoral degree in English and Film Studies from Nebraska. In Zombie Cinema, he explores why the genre has captured the imagination of 21st century audiences. Critic Stephen Prince said Zombie Cinema is a ‘zesty tour through an amazingly prolific and popular contemporary film cycle.’

Future volumes will feature rock-and-roll movies, action movies and comic-book movies, among other topics. Digital Music Videos by Steven Shaviro of Wayne State University in Detroit, and New African Cinema by Valérie K. Orlando of the University of Maryland are due to be released in April. The book series will be showcased at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies March 22-26 in Chicago.”

Thanks, Leslie, for an excellent overview of the series, which promises to be quite exciting.

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.

RSS Recent Frame by Frame Videos