Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Posts Tagged ‘Film Genre’

Movie Theaters’ $1.3 Billion Stock Collapse

Friday, August 4th, 2017

2017 hasn’t been that great for movie box office figures – what does the future hold?

As Anousha Sakoui and Emma Orr report on the Bloomberg News website, “Hope is fading for a feel-good ending at the U.S. box office. After several months of flops like Warner Bros.’ King Arthur and EuropaCorp’s Valerian, movie studios and theaters are beginning to acknowledge that their streak of record-setting ticket sales may be coming to an end. AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., the world’s biggest cinema chain, laid out a worse-than-projected outlook for the North American box office this week.

That announcement dragged down shares of theater stocks, wiping out $1.3 billion from the value of the top four cinema operators in North America since Aug. 1. Even with a new Star Wars, a Marvel superhero movie and the sequel to Blade Runner on the docket for the holiday season, the box office is unlikely to make up for a ‘severe hit’ in the third quarter, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. To date, receipts are down 2 percent in 2017, and AMC is projecting a 1.5 percent decline for the full year.

The concern is that the slump isn’t just a run of bad luck. Cinema operators have managed for years to keep increasing sales by raising ticket prices amid stagnant attendance, but a sharp drop in film going would make that harder to sustain. And the tried-and-true formula of churning out big-budget sequels and cinematic universes populated with super beings seems to be wearing on film goers. Movies featuring once-reliable draws Jack Sparrow, the Transformers and the Mummy did poorly in the U.S.

Meanwhile, competition is heating up. Netflix Inc. and other digital distributors are creating more original movies, and consumers have more demands on their attention than ever, from Snapchat to YouTube. Further exacerbating the trend, studios are expected to push for a new premium video-on-demand window this year.

It’s possible that Hollywood could reverse the trend next year, when a new movie about Han Solo, an Avengers film, and sequels to Deadpool and Jurassic World are scheduled. ‘This is very typical of the movie business,’ said Paul Sweeney, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. ‘You could make the argument that the slate for next year looks really good, which should grow the market next year in North America. That part’s a cyclical thing, and it’s likely to come back.’

And movie-theater operators Regal Entertainment Group, Cinemark Holdings Inc. and Imax Corp. aren’t facing the same level of pressure as AMC, which is carrying almost $5 billion in debt after expanding its empire to Europe, with acquisitions in the U.K. and Sweden.

Controlled by Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin’s Dalian Wanda Group Co., AMC has become the poster child for China’s incursion into Hollywood. Concern that Dalian Wanda’s international investments may wane is adding to AMC’s troubles. ‘With China cracking down on funding for AMC’s majority shareholder, Dalian Wanda, the cinema chain faces murky prospects given its high debt level and appetite for global M&A,’ wrote Geetha Ranganathan, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst.”

Now, it could be that we’re just going through a run of bad films – or it could be, as Sakoui and Orr note, that “the tried-and-true formula of churning out big-budget sequels and cinematic universes populated with super beings seems to be wearing on film goers.” I’d argue it’s the latter, and though a new Star Wars or Marvel film may come along that rocks the box office, eventually this is a formula that’s bound to collapse. The figures above show it – theatrical box office is steadily going down.

But then again, what are the theaters to do? Audiences have been force fed junk for so long that they no longer know what a more thoughtful, challenging film looks like – they wouldn’t know how to approach anything that doesn’t have three act plot format, cardboard cutout characters, and a massive dose of CGI. Can you imagine if Ingmar Bergman’s Persona were released theatrically today? Or Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (which incidentally, holds the record for the biggest box office success for any foreign subtitled film to this day, adjusted for inflation)?

No one would come. Contemporary audiences only want genre films, franchise films, spectacle films, and superhero/heroine films. That’s it. And furthermore, theaters are locked into multi-year contracts stretching into the next decade for upcoming films from Marvel, DC, Disney, Lucasfilm (bearing in mind that Marvel and Lucasfilm are part of Disney) so they have to run their films no matter what.  What are theater owners to do? They could convert their auditoriums into gigantic videogame parlors, with multiplayer games on the screen, but that, too, would eventually fade.

The future is online. The future is streaming. The future is Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and similar companies. The future is people sitting in their living room watching web series, or feature films, on their 50″ plasma, streaming from the web, or cable – if they still live in the dark ages – but the future is not in movie theaters. It costs too much to go out, the prices at the concession stand are out of control (it’s really the only way the multiplexes can make any money), and furthermore, in today’s violent society, theaters are simply not safe. And with Amazon and Netflix making their own features, distributed through their own online network, who needs movie theaters?

The outlook for theatrical exhibition is grim indeed – what can turn it around?

Patty Jenkins / Richard Donner DGA Screening – Wonder Woman

Monday, June 12th, 2017

Last night, Richard Donner hosted a screening of Wonder Woman at the DGA with Patty Jenkins.

I know, I know, I’ve blogged on this before, but this is becoming a really landmark event – Patty Jenkins is finally, hopefully, breaking through the artificial “glass ceiling” of mainstream directing, fourteen years after her first feature, Monster, which was a smaller scale character study rather than being a big budget action film – and a masterpiece.

But at the DGA screening, which was attended by a  friend of mine, action director Richard Donner literally passed the baton – he actually pulled out a baton, and passed it – to Jenkins, acclaiming her as the premier action director of the 21st century. While it may surprise some people, despite her art house cred with Monster, Jenkins is an unabashed fan of Donner’s work on such films as Superman (1978), as she told Emily Zemler in a recent interview:

“‘I’ve been influenced by a lot of films,’ says Patty Jenkins. ‘And a lot of them are the typical interesting, artsy films. But I haven’t talked enough about how there are those few big blockbusters that really rock your world.’ She’s [talking about] Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman, which was essentially the first-ever comic book superhero film. The movie, adapting the DC Comics character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, starred Christopher Reeve as the titular hero, pitting him against Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor. Unlike some of today’s comic book tentpoles, it was very character-driven—a film that allied the viewer with its protagonist in a genuine, grounded way.

‘It had a huge influence on me making Wonder Woman [. . .] There is a really strong reason that I’m making it, and it is because of the experience I had seeing this movie when I was 7. I loved Star Wars too, but [Superman] was, to me, what Star Wars was to so many little boys. It rocked my world completely. I sobbed through half the movie. I stood up and cheered through the other half. It stayed in my subconscious ever after [ . . .] Here’s a story of a little boy who loses his father twice over and discovers that he can be something else in the world. Superhero movies are so [relevant] because of the metaphor that they trigger in one’s self about who you could be if things were different.'”

It’s no secret that Wonder Woman is cleaning up at the boxoffice, essentially burying Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy, but for me it was quite a discovery that Jenkins had such an affinity for action films, and for Donner’s work in particular. As a number of people have commented, the first thirty minutes of the film are particularly strong, and Jenkins’ action direction reminds one of the work of serial specialist William Witney, still the absolute master of the action film, and creator of the first wave of superhero serials in the 1940s.

A great evening – bravo Patty Jenkins!

Film Franchises: Closing Time, Please!

Monday, June 5th, 2017

Film franchises have got to go – here are two ready for the scrapheap.

As Owen Gleiberman writes in Variety, “A character who rules over a multi-billion-dollar global movie franchise always deserves a grand entrance. But Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Alien: Covenant raise the question: How grand can your entrance really be when you’ve never gone away? In Dead Men Tell No Tales, Jack Sparrow, the sloshed freebooter [. . .] shows up as a dissipated mess, rousing himself to consciousness as he lies inside a great big metal bank overflowing with gold coins [ . . . ] But even as the series winks at the idea that Jack has seen better days, it leaves us with a non-winking reality: He sure has.

In Alien: Covenant, the Alien’s first appearance gives you a similar what’s-old-is-new-but-not-really feeling. We’re on a leafy planet, in rugged terrain that looks perfect for a camping trip; the novelty is that the Alien is going to explode into view not on a sterile spaceship, or inside a slimy obsidian cave with walls like a T. rex’s rib cage, but in the great outdoors. We’ve already seen microbes float into a crew member’s ear like pollen, which leaves you wondering what happened to the facehugger (as it happens, the facehugger is still around, which makes the film seem like it’s playing by two sets of rules, which it is, but never mind). Then the moment of truth arrives. There is much coughing and writhing, there is blood-vomiting, there’s a mood that strains to come off like shock and awe. But when the alien fetus bursts out, the audience feels a bit like an obstetrician presiding over his 10,000th birth. Yep, that’s what it looks like. Next!

It’s worth noting that in the original franchise era, the 1980s, when the word ‘franchise’ was an inside-baseball syllogism that was only just starting to be used by people like Michael Ovitz and Jeffrey Katzenberg, almost all Hollywood sequels were bad — Halloween II, Jaws 3-D, Poltergeist II: The Other Side, Amityville II: The Possession, Grease 2, The Sting II, Conan the Destroyer, Staying Alive, The Jewel of the Nile, Meatballs Part II, The Karate Kid Part II, Revenge of the Nerds II, Beverly Hills Cop II, Crocodile Dundee II, Ghostbusters II, Arthur 2: On the Rocks, Fletch Lives, Big Top Pee-wee, Caddyshack II, The Gods Must be Crazy II, The Fly II, Back to the Future Part II, and on and on.

There was a cynicism, not just among film critics but among the audiences who went to see these movies, that a sequel might turn out to be cheesy fun, but that it was almost always going to be an inherently second-rate bill of goods, because it was based, transparently, on commerce: taking the original movie and squeezing its appeal dry. The very word “sequel” had a déclassé aura.

That era, of course, is long gone. Franchises are the basic commercial architecture on which the movie business now rests, so the whole culture — audiences, critics, the industry — has a vested interest in viewing this situation without cynicism. Besides, in our era, there have been enough artful and transporting sequels, from The Dark Knight to the Bourne films to the Before Sunrise films to Toy Story 3 to Mad Max: Fury Road, that one’s hope can always burn bright.

Yet that doesn’t mean that the old rules don’t apply. One of the reasons the word “franchise” passed from industry talk to a colloquial term is that it sounds strong and powerful. You’re not just seeing a movie, you’re glimpsing a part of something larger. You’re not just watching it, you’re joining it. But it can be healthy to return to the mindset of the ’80s and remind yourself that a sequel is often just a sequel: a movie that has no organic reason for being, even if it pretends otherwise [emphasis added].”

This raises a number of very interesting points. In the 80s, as Gleiberman usefully points out, we were assailed with a veritable tidal wave of terrible sequels, prequels, and knock-offs from original and interesting films, and they were, indeed, all absolutely terrible. There was something a bit more than “déclassé” about these films – they were strictly down-market affairs, made on the cheap, designed to wring a few more dollars out of an existing hit. Today, studios routinely through hundreds of millions of dollars at the same thing – remakes, sequels – and try to convince us that we’re getting something new and worthwhile.

But are the “franchise” films today really any different? They trod the same well-worn path as their predecessors, where nothing is at risk, and no original ideas are countenanced – answering the unspoken audience request “give us something like what we just saw, only slightly different.” And so the wave of Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man films continues on unabated, along with another in the endless series of Bond films, and the moment that something truly new and original arrives on the scene, and is a hit, it too becomes fodder for the remake mill. When Get Out came out earlier this summer, it was something sharp, different, and original – but will there be a Get Out II? I hope not.

It’s said that all genres go through four distinct phases – origin, classical, baroque and finally parody – and then they have to be scraped up off the floor, injected with some new blood – so to speak – and brought back to life, just like the Frankenstein monster, to give some artificial existence to a concept that should have expired long ago. The first Alien came out in the summer of 1979, and was at once original, surprising, and innovative – introducing not only the famous “chest burster” scene and the “face hugger” creatures, but also the concept that the future would be rundown and falling apart, as the commercial towing vehicle Nostromo is.

Then, too, the company that all of the crew members of the Nostromo work for thinks nothing of sacrificing their lives to obtain a specimen of a structurally perfect, indestructible killing machine, by misdirecting them to a Hellish planet, knowing that it means certain death, and even secreting a humanoid robot on board to make sure everything goes according to plan. And it has – again, and again, and again, and again. Enough! It’s time to put the plug in all these franchises, and – just a suggestion – go back to making films that are based on books, rather than comic books; on ideas, rather than leftovers; made with passion, rather than in pursuit of a buck.

Of course, I’m dreaming – but what the heck – I can dream, can’t I?

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.

A Letter from John Carpenter on “The Thing” – January 2, 1983

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

In 1983, shortly after the release of his film The Thing, I got a letter from John Carpenter about the film.

John Carpenter‘s 1982 version of The Thing is now considered a masterpiece, something I’ve always thought, but when it first came out in the Summer of 1982, roughly at the same time as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, audiences opted for the cute little Reese’s pieces eating alien over Carpenter’s relentlessly nihilistic vision of a visitor from outer space, and the film was almost universally reviled by critics – proving, once again, that when a work is ahead of its time, it can almost be assured of an uncomprehending, hostile reception.

Carpenter had argued with Universal, who produced both films, that pitting them against each other would have disastrous results, suggesting that the release be delayed to Halloween, which of course is the title of Carpenter’s iconic 1978 indie film, which was shot for roughly $300,000, and went on to gross more than $70 million worldwide. But Universal insisted on putting the two films out within weeks of each other, and Spielberg’s film took off, while Carpenter’s film languished.

As Carpenter told one interviewer about the film’s initial reception, “I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit. I don’t think the studio knew what kind of movie they were getting. I think they wanted Alien, a crowd-pleaser. And it was way too ferocious for them. They were upset by the ending—too dark. But that’s what I wanted: Who goes there? Who are we? Which one of you is real? The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane.”

In the Fall of 1982, I was teaching film at Rutgers University, and as part of my fall class schedule, I wanted to run The Thing in 16mm CinemaScope format, but figured it was out of my budget range. Nevertheless, I called up Universal’s non-theatrical booking agency in Manhattan, chatted with a young woman there who was as enthused about the film as I was, and eventually negotiated a rental price of $100 – a fraction of the going rate – for the class screening.

At the same time, I mentioned to her how disappointed I was in the poor critical reception the film was receiving, and asked if I could have John Carpenter’s address so that I could write a letter to him in support of the film. In those much more egalitarian times, this was no problem, and she gave me Carpenter’s production company address, and I dispatched a letter to him giving my thoughts about the film, and various related topics, on December 15, 1982.

On January 2, 1983, I received a lengthy response from Carpenter, which I’ll quote most of here – with the note that for many years, I considered this letter lost, until it surfaced only a few days ago at the home of a friend in New Jersey, where apparently I had left it one evening. (Parenthetically, I’m a terrible archivist; I once had a signed letter from Orson Welles, no less, and lost that, too!)

But in any event, here is what Carpenter had to say to about the film, and horror films in general: “My favorite Gothic directors are Roman Polanski, Mario Bava (simply for style alone), George Romero, Terence Fisher and James Whale. Each of these directors brought a personality and a style to the horror film. I’ve always thought that Freddie Francis was a better Director of Photography. William Castle was more a producer / entrepreneur.

You asked me about the issue of cinematic violence, which is really, I feel, the issue of stylistic realism. Sam Peckinpah popularized the ‘too real effect’ in The Wild Bunch [1969]. Human beings don’t really die with little blood bag explosions popping out all over the place, but the effect soon became a kind of realism used widely in movies and even television; you shoot someone, you pop a couple of blood bags here and there.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Halloween didn’t use this stylistic realism. The brutal, sadistic killings were suggested, sparing us any enjoyment of the sadism. We’re voyeurs, true, but there’s a point to which we want to be thrashed around in that dark corner of our minds.

The Thing was a monster movie, meaning simply that the protagonist was ‘an other,’ non-human alien. I felt that in order to convince the audience that The Thing was real, stylistic realism was in order. [Special effects artist] Rob Bottin came in to me with a concept of the actual visual manifestations that seemed to coincide with the amorphous, non-evil-acting ‘otherness’ reality that had to be a part of The Thing.

Systematic inclusion of graphic violence or sex or whatever may enhance a film, or may destroy it, or simply relegate it to pornography or exploitation. [That being said], there should be no restrictions, other than the intentions of the director.

Your idea of the ‘the icon’ is a sound one. Movies carry our mythology now [emphasis added]. Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster is as much as legend now as Prometheus. Perhaps The Thing could be seen as an examination of exactly what constitutes ‘humanness.’ The creature itself is just simply non-human, but like a cancer, it grows and takes us over, distorts, ravages. It isn’t gory, at least not to me.”

Carpenter closed with the thoughts that he was especially fond of the films of director Luis Buñuel, and the films The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, Invisible Invaders, The Big Sleep (the 1946 version, please) and Los Olvidados. I’ve always been grateful that Carpenter took the time and effort to type such a long letter in response to a total stranger at the time, and that he so carefully and perceptively articulated precisely what he was up to with The Thing, which was based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There?, and first brought to the screen by Howard Hawks as The Thing from Another World (1951).

Carpenter, of course, is a big fan of Howard Hawks, with excellent reason, and his first real feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) has distinct debts to Hawks which Carpenter readily acknowledges. Hawks’ version of The Thing is a brilliant film, but it has an upbeat, optimistic ending – as all Hawks films do – as a ragtag group of dedicated survivors pull together to defeat the threat of a hostile invasion from outer space. Carpenter’s film offers no such assurances, and as such is more in tune with the noirish temper of the present day era, in which “every person for themselves first” seems to be the governing principle.

So, if you haven’t seen The Thing, do so now, but only in the proper CinemaScope ratio; in addition to Bottin’s astounding and thankfully pre-digital special effects, the actors Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart and Keith David – superb performers all – have seldom had better roles. Then, too, Bill Lancaster‘s astonishingly bleak screenplay and dialogue for the film make a distinct contribution to the proceedings. The production of the film was by all accounts grueling, but the end result is more than worth it. And so it’s nice to see this letter again after some thirty years (!!) and have a chance to share it with the readers of this blog.

A special thanks goes out to David Dutcher, who found this letter, and sent it on – thanks, Dutch!

New Article: “Service Providers” : Genre Cinema in the 21st Century

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

I’ve just published a new article in QRFV on 21st century genre filmmaking.

As I write in the article, Harrison Ford in 2013 noted that “‘I think the success of Comic-Con is based on the partnership between the fans and the service providers, the entities—I won’t necessarily call them filmmakers —that supply the film product that supports their particular interest, whether it’s vampires or science-fiction fantasies of Transformers or whatever is going on . . .’

When Harrison Ford made these comments to Adam Sternbergh, a reporter for The New York Times, no particular controversy ensued. Ford was simply stating a fact: Directors today, most of whom work within rigid genre formats, are indeed little more than ‘service providers,’ who create long, loud, open-ended and ultimately unsatisfying “epic” films for an ever more indiscriminate audience.

Yet, it’s really not the fault of the viewers who flock to see the endless interactions of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Star Trek and other franchise films; they simply don’t know any better. There is nothing else on offer at the multiplex, and with everything online — behind a pay wall, usually with a subscription attached —any impulse to be adventurous in one’s viewing habits died long ago. It’s like McDonald’s: It is what it is, nothing more or less, and it’s reliably available, and always the same.

As Derek Thompson wrote in 2014, ‘The reason why Hollywood makes so many boring superhero movies [is because] studios were better at making great movies when they were worse at figuring out what we wanted to see,’ adding that ‘Hollywood has become sensational at predicting what its audiences want to see. And, ironically, for that very reason, it’s become better at making relentlessly average movies …

In 1950, movies were the third-largest retail business in America, after grocery stores and cars …Watching films approached the ubiquity of a bodily function: Every week, 90 million Americans—60 percent of the country—went to the cinema, creating an audience share that’s bigger than today’s Super Bowl.

The six major studios (MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, Twentieth Century-Fox, and RKO) could basically do whatever they wanted and be sure to make money. Owning their own theater chains (which accounted for half their total revenue), they controlled the means and distribution of a product that was as essential to mid-century life as grilled chicken. Surprise, surprise: Virtually all their films made money.'” Not so today.


Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet (1952)

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet, based on a novel by director Samuel Fuller, is brilliant filmmaking.

So let’s get this out of the way right off the bat; I admire Samuel Fuller‘s work immensely, especially Underworld U.S.A. (1961), but in the final analysis, I think that Phil Karlson is a better filmmaker. Fuller was enormously talented, and a superb self-promoter, but while Fuller was making a name for himself, Karlson was simply hammering out one excellent film after another, without bothering too much to toot his own horn.

One result of this is that Scandal Sheet (1952), which is one of the toughest noirs ever made, never really got the attention it deserved, nor did it get Karlson a place in the pantheon of first-rate hardboiled filmmakers, an honor he clearly deserves. I never got the chance to speak with Karlson, who passed away before I could get in touch with him, but I did correspond with his late wife, Dixie, who confirmed that Karlson felt that he’d never really gotten the respect that he deserved – in part because Fuller, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, The Dark Page, went out of his way to slam Karlson’s work.

Somehow I think this says more about Fuller than Karlson, for Scandal Sheet is a remarkable film – one that really stands up today. As critic Michael Atkinson astutely observed, “Phil Karlson and Samuel Fuller’s Scandal Sheet (1952) exemplifies a certain strand of noir not the sweaty wrong-man-tripped-up-by-fate noirs (think Detour [1945], Somewhere in the Night [1946], Where Danger Lives [1950]), but the life-in-the-jungle noirs, dark elegies wherein citizens had to tough up to survive in modern urban sewers rife with impulse killing, squalor, crazed greed and moral desolation. Here, the systems themselves industry, community, the law, the mob, the press were rotten from the inside.

Karlson and Fuller were reigning warriors in this vein: director Karlson was a no-nonsense journeyman who with Scandal Sheet, Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953) and The Phenix City Story (1955) perfected a confrontational, violent, subtlety-immune noir style in which the world, not merely the individuals stuck in it, seemed to be on the edge of social upheaval.

Fuller was, of course, Fuller, the most notorious idiosyncratic-pulpster of the postwar age, an unstoppable creative force whose particular view of the world was a vulgar, cynical mashup between first-hand realism (no American filmmaker knew the actualities of tabloid journalism, ground warfare and the criminal sector as well) and outrageous pop-cinema hyperbole.

Scandal Sheet, in any case, was not Fuller’s film. It was based on his hot-property novel The Dark Page, published in 1944 after Fuller had already defected from being a reporter to being a screenwriter, and while the young Fuller was fighting in Europe with the Big Red One. Still, it boils over with his storytelling energy and his signature reflex, the urge to discover, expressionistically, the painful, hard-boiled reality as he knew it within the movie universe of Golden Age Hollywood.

The set-up itself is nearly autobiographical: Fuller used to work on the New York Graphic, a screaming-mimi, truth-manipulating exploitative tabloid on Park Row that makes the contemporary New York Post look like The London Review of Books. (Fuller has described its editorial principle to be one of ‘creative exaggeration.’) It’s easy to see how Fuller’s own distinctive tale-telling style, visual and narrative, was formed by the daily creation of howling headlines, sensational fabrication and punchy, don’t-lose-the-reader prose.

In the film, Broderick Crawford‘s Mark Chapman is the New York Express‘s bulldog editor, pulling the daily out of its economic doldrums with lurid front pages and invented news; John Derek’s Steve McCleary is his amoral star reporter, the two of them heading a newsroom that has only Donna Reed’s Julie Allison to recommend it in the way of moral compunction and compassion. The thorny patter and amoral brio proceeds apace until Chapman is confronted at a publicity event by a middle-aged woman (Rosemary DeCamp), who immediately pegs him as ‘George,’ and summons an entire unwanted past that places Chapman’s present success in mysterious jeopardy.

Soon it’s made clear: she’s the unstable wife he abandoned years before, and now she will not be ignored – an ultimatum that leads, somewhat predictably, to a scuffle and her accidental death. From there, Chapman is all about covering his tracks, which as we all know simply creates more tracks, more corpses and more bad fortune.

Scandal Sheet is a fast-gabbing, meat-eating show [and is] expertly fashioned; Fuller was careful to make the tabloid mercenariness turn in on itself: McCleary is hot on the story, and despite his neck being in the noose Chapman must bait him on, because if he relents one iota from the Rupert Murdochian ethos that made him and the Express a hit, suspicion will fall on him like a safe from a window . . . [the film] scans today like a prescient indictment of media sensationalism, Murdoch’s and otherwise. ‘Thinking people,’ it is suggested, like Allison’s humane feature stories, ‘even if there aren’t many of them reading the Express anymore.’

Perhaps things haven’t changed in the American mediascape, we may speculate, but perhaps things have grown many times worse. The very idea of courting a ‘thinking’ newspaper reader today is ludicrous, as monopoly regulations have all but vanished, and only six corporations . . . own the vast majority of media outlets in the U.S., as compared to over 50 in 1983, and many hundreds in the 1950s. Fuller and Karlson had their ears to the ground in the mid-century, and however relevant it was in 1952, their movie feels like a prophecy come true.”

Atkinson is right on target. Seeing the film on a big screen in class today with a deeply enthusiastic group of students confirmed my high opinion of the film; Karlson’s camerawork, aided by DP Burnett Guffey, glides smoothly through the entirely amoral universe of Mark Chapman’s world.

The film absolutely brims with appropriately lurid details: a fast closeup of a would-be suicide’s wrists; a gallows-humored functionary who informs us that business at the local morgue is “dead, just dead,” a harrowing trip through the depths of the Bowery’s worst saloons; the endless tick of the clocks on the walls of the drab, grey newsrooms; an editing style that breathlessly propels the narrative to its doom-laden conclusion; and a gallery of first rate performances not only from Crawford, but also such old pros as Henry O’Neill, Harry Morgan, Rosemary De Camp, Cliff Work, and Pierre Watkin – to name just a few.

When it was made, Scandal Sheet was thrown away on double bills as just another piece of product from Harry Cohn’s prolific film factory, Columbia Pictures, even if it did have Academy Award winner Crawford (for All The King’s Men, 1949) in the leading role – but today, we can see it is much more than that. It’s a sharp, economical film, without an ounce of fat on it; indeed, Jerome Thomas’s editing is so sharp that one would be hard pressed to even remove a frame from the finished work.

It’s available on DVD as part of a box set of Samuel Fuller’s films (!!) – but no such set exists for Karlson, of course. That’s a shame, and it also isn’t right – towards the end of his life, Karlson made some junk, like the appalling Matt Helm films, but when the fever was upon him, he hit the mark every time.

Click here to read a great interview with Phil Karlson – then see the film.

Stella Dallas: The Female Hero in the Maternal Melodrama

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster offers a fresh take on the “maternal melodrama” in a new essay in Senses of Cinema.

As Foster writes in her discussion of the film, “Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937) is the most well known and celebrated of the genre known as the ‘maternal melodrama.’ Stella Dallas (Barbara Stanwyck) is but one of many unsung female heroes who sacrifice, yet always prevail, in maternal melodramas such as Min and Bill (1930); The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931); Madame X (1937); and Forbidden (1932) to name but a few of this rich, largely forgotten and dismissed treasure-trove.

Maternal melodramas are a subgenre of films referred to as ‘women’s pictures’ – films that catered to a vast and powerful female audience; once considered crucial to box office success. They traffic in sentimentality, laughter and tears. These are uncontrollable emotions that are routinely debased as overly feminine, as are ‘chick flicks,’ another female-centered genre that is reviled and callously disregarded, disrespecting female viewers, women’s struggles, and female heroes.

In 1937, audiences were not only familiar with the popular novel of the same name written by poet and novelist Olive Higgins Prouty in 1923; they also knew the 1924 stage play and the silent film version of 1925, adapted for the screen by Frances Marion and directed by Henry King. Stella Dallas was so popular with women that it was even adapted into a radio serial that ran from 1937 to 1955, one of the first and most successful soap operas . . .

In dismissing genre films made for women, critics not only erase the female spectator; they erase women and female heroes, real and fictional. Maternal melodramas, by contrast, recognize and reward the victories of women at the bottom of society. Women like Stella Dallas tend to be poor and destitute, prostitutes, unwed and pregnant, and non-conformist in terms of romance. In short, they subvert society with their disruptive acts of maternal heroism. It is very important to note, however, that Stella Dallas figures always win, at least in the world of the maternal melodrama.”

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

New Film Series – Picturing The West at Film Streams in Omaha

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

Film Streams in Omaha, Nebraska has a great new series this Feburary/ March 2016 on The Western Film.

As the theater’s website notes, “for many, the term ‘the West’ is likely to conjure memories of screen cowboys, like John Wayne, or anti-heroes, like Clint Eastwood. Movies played a huge role in creating the popular image of an entire chapter of history, not to mention many misguided or harmful stereotypes about Native Americans.

Part of Westward O, a celebration of all things west in Omaha, corresponding with Joslyn Art Museum’s ‘Go West! Art of the American Frontier’ from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West exhibition, this series will offer an opportunity to revel in beloved, classic films and also to think about how these works of art impact or perception of America, past and present.

Curated in collaboration with Toby Jurovics, Joslyn’s Chief Curator & Richard and Mary Holland Curator of American Western Art, the series includes beloved standard-bearers that helped establish the wholesome image of the open range, psychological westerns that challenged ideas of right and wrong, and more recent takes on the genre that reflect changes in filmmaking and the cultural zeitgeist.” Here’s a chance to check out these classics on the big screen; don’t miss it!

Click here, or on the image above, to see the full schedule for the series.

William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders from Mars (1953)

Monday, December 28th, 2015

Click here, or on the image above, to see Menzies’ Invaders From Mars.

Invaders From Mars is a classic of 1950s Red Scare science fiction, depicting a world that is paranoid beyond belief, photographed in garish color, as directed and designed by the renowned William Cameron Menzies, the production designer of many excellent films, including Gone With The Wind (1939) — the first film on which a “production designer” credit was formally listed in the credits. The film is being screened in January at the UCLA Film Archive in its original 35mm format, and has long since been recognized as one of the classic “childhood nightmare” films of the era, and one of Menzies’ finest achievements. Menzies’ biographer, James Curtis, will introduce the screening.

As Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant notes of the film:

Invaders from Mars was made relatively early in the 50s Sci Fi cycle, when the field was still dominated by “A” quality efforts. A script by John Tucker Battle, optioned by one set of producers, eventually landed with Edward L. Alperson, who made the uncharacteristically brilliant decision to put the entire project into the hands of legendary production designer and sometime film director William Cameron Menzies. Menzies was the genius who practically invented the concept of production design, on big silent movies like The Thief of Baghdad. His unique graphic sense graced the films of Sam Wood (Our Town, For Whom the Bell Tolls, King’s Row). Menzies made Hollywood history with David O. Selznick by single-handedly engineering Gone With the Wind’s visual dimension. Without him, the divergent contributions of a half-dozen directors might have created a shambles.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here.

As Glenn Erickson continues, “the furious action that concludes Invaders from Mars becomes even more dreamlike with the repetitions of shots and scenes [. . .] Dialogue lines are also repeated, especially young David’s, “Colonel Fielding!, Colonel Fielding!,” which is heard so often it becomes an unending echo. These repetition patterns make the ending more dreamlike in two ways. First, a high level of anxiety is maintained while the actual story progression slows to a crawl. A classic anxiety dream situation is ‘running in place but not getting anywhere,’ exactly the feeling imparted to Invaders. Second, the repetition forces a fixation on the images that keep coming back, a fixation that has the obsessive quality of dream logic. In our dreams, shocking moments seem to hang forever in the consciousness, or illogically ‘come back again, but for the first time,’ over and over.”

Click here, or on the image above, to read the entire screenplay for the original film.

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