Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Posts Tagged ‘Film History’

Spectacle and Reality in the Cinema

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

Warner Baxter in the classic film 42nd Street (1933); Depression era reality vs. manufactured escapism.

These thoughts came to mind today, in an age awash in endless, often empty spectacle: from the inception of the medium, exoticism has remained the movies’ stock in trade, the one key element that pervaded every thought Hollywood had to offer. The silent era had been redolent with sin, sensuality and illicit romance, in such films as George Fitzmaurice’s Lilac Time (1928), one of the last of the major studio silents, or Wesley Ruggles’ look at decadent college life in The Plastic Age (1925), to say nothing of the dangerous encroachments of the “new Morality” in Sam Wood’s “flaming youth” exposé Prodigal Daughters (1923) with Gloria Swanson, promising viewers “new lips to kiss, freedom from conventions, life with a kick in it [and] a new world for women” as just four of the “Seven Deadly Whims” the film depicted, but with the addition of synchronized sound, things only got steamier, in every sense of the word.

Depression-era audiences wanted escapism, above all — whether in the brutal realism of gangster films, or the luxuriant excess of such musicals as Mervyn LeRoy and Busby Berkeley’s justly iconic Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), in which the familiar “let’s put on a show” plot line collides with then-contemporary reality even in the film’s opening moments, when an onscreen rehearsal of “We’re in the Money” is halted by bailiffs removing the sets for nonpayment of production costs. The conclusion of the film, the production number “Remember My Forgotten Man,” is an ode to World War I soldiers ground under by the Depression, living from day to day without hope. Similarly, in Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street (1933), bankrupt director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) dangerously exhausted and on the brink of physical collapse, is forced by economic necessity to direct a Broadway musical, even with all the odds stacked against him, simply to survive.

The Depression era artist Reginald Marsh knew this milieu all too well; in his numerous charcoal sketches and drawings, such as Breadline (1932), he tracked the world of a society in collapse, as the cruelty and exploitation of Capitalism became all too obvious; those who had, and those who only stood and waited for a few crumbs of sustenance. And yet these images are just a few that we will be given to see in our lifetime; as Paolo Cherchi Usai notes, “relatively few moving images can be seen in the course of a lifetime, a tiny fraction of those actually made. Given an average lifespan of seventy-five years, the time spent viewing them rarely exceeds one hundred thousand hours, little more than a decade.” And yet it seems we always want more.

As early as 1954, long before he became an international celebrity, Marshall McLuhan railed against the intentionally mesmerizing effect of pop culture imagery on television in films, noting that it was designed to create “a mindless, helpless, entranced audience” which would then do whatever its creators required. In short, consume, exist, and die. This is why the experimental cinema of the 1960s was such a tonic in the onslaught of calculated commercialism, in a world of “morally corrupt, aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, [and] temperamentally boring” film production, as the 1962 manifesto of The New American Cinema Group, which spawned the still-extant Film-Makers’ Cooperative, so aptly put it.

The late Manoel de Oliveira, the Portuguese filmmaker who died on April 2, 2015 at the age of 106, and who worked almost until the end of his long life, was perhaps the last film director who had an authentic memory of what the world was like before electricity, when the night was lit with oil lamps and torches. His painterly work, as exhibited in such ravishing films as The Strange Case of Angelica (2010) evokes a world in which spectatorship was very much a personal pursuit, and not one mass produced for audience consumption. Indeed, the entire narrative of Angelica centers on a young man who is a solitary photographer, and whose images bring the title character “back to life” after a fashion. Much of the film is spent watching the photographer at work, as he documents the lives of the field hands in a nearby vineyard, and the moment of reproduction is central to the film; the second when the image is captured. This is the moment that will be memorialized, remembered, fetishized, examined, deconstructed and discussed.

Thus, we are ultimately in thrall to what we witness, which is ultimately what the filmmaker desires, whether she/he will admit it or not. Every film implies an audience, and every image implies a viewer, even if the maker specifies otherwise, or perhaps especially then. Light from the screen transfixes; the inescapable two-dimensionality of cinema is something that the medium continually strives to overcome, but unless the screen of the theater physically and actually projects towards the viewer, this will forever remain only an illusion. And yet we remain transfixed, drawn to the screen of light, hoping to see something there that we won’t see in real life, something that will take us, for a moment, out of our real lives, and transport us — to where?

The cinema of the moment is just that; the cinema of a single instant. There is much more.

The Mostly Lost Film Festival

Sunday, August 9th, 2015

Here’s a great story on an essential cultural event for cinema buffs – the Mostly Lost Film Festival.

As Noah Bierman wrote in The Los Angeles Times, “beneath glimmering chandeliers at an Art Deco movie house built into the side of a mountain, 150 silent-movie buffs sat wide-eyed as snippets from films lost decades ago lighted up the screen. Their quest: Name the film, or at least spot details that will advance the cause.

The fans shouted clues as a piano player wearing an old-time parlor vest and a thick period mustache improvised jaunty scores. They scoured vintage magazines on their laptops, checked film databases on their tablets, and scrubbed their brains for odd bits of early 20th century cultural history. Every frame had the potential to unlock a secret.

‘East Coast vegetation!’ someone yelled, shortly after a brief segment of a Western began. A locomotive flashed, and someone deduced that a scene had been filmed in France, given the placement of the boiler. When dialogue titles popped up on another clip, a viewer guessed that it was produced by Thomas Edison’s studio because of the distinctive font.

And then there was the lucky glimpse of a calendar with a key nugget — the date April 1 falling on a Saturday. That movie was probably shot in 1922, a fan surmised, based on a quick online search of old calendars.

This was the Mostly Lost Film Festival, which has become a pilgrimage for a subset of movie fans who revere the era long before the advent of computer-enhanced animatronic dinosaurs.

For four years, the event at the State Theatre on the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus has attracted historians with advanced degrees, old men with stacks of even older film tins in their basements and self-taught aficionados who can quickly determine a car’s model year or identify a never-famous actor by the shape of his posterior.

This year, an 11-year-old boy, who has appeared on Turner Classic Movies to introduce Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, missed two days of school to be here. What they all had in common was an obsession with a time when movies were made without color, sound or social media campaigns.

The Packard Campus, about 90 minutes from Washington, D.C., near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, houses the largest and most comprehensive film collection in the world. The 125 films screened over three days in June were mere fragments — five- to 10-minute clips — mostly from movies so obscure that even top film archivists could not decipher the titles, name the actors, or determine the year they were made.

The clue from the 1922 calendar turned out to be a clincher. It matched the film to a publicity photograph — found in an online database called Lantern — from a film called Small Town Hero, which involved a woman who works alongside a chimpanzee at a general store. (Chimpanzees show up often in silent movies, as do men in bowler hats.)

Movies like this are unlikely to be revered alongside Chaplin classics, even after they are identified. Many, after all, were forgotten for a reason. ‘Very few of them will ever make it to an audience,’ said Serge Bromberg, a 54-year-old Parisian who owns Lobster Films, a company that restores, sells and shows old films and who regularly screens movies here. ‘We are the unique animals who will watch these films.’”

This may be true, but this work is absolutely essential if we are to have real understanding of our cinematic past. Click on the link here, or the image above, to read the rest of this fascinating article; the site also includes a number of excellent videos detailing the sorry state of film preservation today, just how few silent films still actually exist, how archives go about restoring a film, and numerous other related topics.

This is an excellent idea – and helps us to put together the history of cinema, as a group effort.

Nicholas Musuraca, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bedazzled – Drimble Wedge & The Vegetations

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Drimble Wedge and the Vegetations – from Stanley Donen’s classic film Bedazzled.

As Jaime J. Weinman wrote on his Something Old, Nothing New blog, “I’m glad that Bedazzled (the [1967] original, not the Brendan Fraser remake) finally got reissued. I notice from the booklet notes that Peter Cook expressed some reservations about Stanley Donen’s direction of the film, or at least the way he and Dudley Moore responded to his direction. As film neophytes working for an experienced director like Donen, they perhaps deferred too much to his judgment and didn’t give themselves all the freedom they needed to be at their funniest.

Also, by this time Donen — who had been living in Europe for years and had just made the innovative, fragmented Two For the Road — was filling all his movies with crazy camera angles and trendy ‘cinematic’ effects. Which works fine for something like Two For the Road, but not so much for a straight-up comedy-thriller (compare Donen’s incomprehensible Arabesque to the much more normal Charade, which he made only three years earlier) or a satirical comedy like Bedazzled . . .

But Cook and Moore are so funny that even a tilted camera angle can’t stop them. And despite my carping about Donen, he does bring a certain warmth to the film and to the relationship between Cook’s devil and Moore’s sad-sack Faust. And there are a number of scenes where he tones down the with-it technical flourishes and lets Cook and Moore have more leeway; and still other scenes where his attempt to be groovy sits well with the material.

Like this scene where Moore wishes to be a pop star so girls will love him — only to find that his fame is eclipsed within minutes by Cook’s rival act (‘Drimble Wedge and the Vegetations’). Moore’s music — the same melody arranged into two different styles of song — is a dead-on parody of late ’60s pop styles, and Donen matches it with a spoof of in-concert films and broadcasts.”

I think he’s entirely too hard on the film itself, which is a brilliant piece of satire, but he’s dead right about Cook’s satiric pop song. Here are the minimalist lyrics, aproproatelyspoken in an entirely flat, disinterested monotone:

“I don’t care.
So you said.
I don’t want you.
I don’t need you.
I don’t love you.
Leave me alone.
I’m self-contained.
Just go away.
I’m fickle.
I’m cold.
I’m shallow.
You fill me with inertia.
Don’t get excited.
Save your breath.
Cool it.
I’m not interested.
It’s too much effort.
Don’t you ever leave off?
I’m not available.”

Click here, or on the image above, to see this truly groundbreaking “anti-pop” song.

Robert Downey Jr. on Growing Up With This Father

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Sam Jones has a great web series entitled Off Camera – and here’s an interview with Robert Downey Jr.

As readers of this blog will hopefully know, I am a longtime friend and fan of the work of Robert Downey Sr. - Robert Jr’s father – who made such brilliant films as Putney Swope, Too Much Sun and Chafed Elbows. In this intimate, warm chat with Sam Jones, Downey Jr. describes what it was like to grow up in the Downey household, where his mother and father were constantly making one film after another, “spitballing” ideas for new projects, and trying to top each other with one liners, especially after Downey Sr.’s film Putney Swope came out. It’s a fascinating and contemplative chat session, well worth watching, which gives you some idea of what it was like to grow up in the 1960s in the world of experimental cinema – a world now lost forever, but not lost to authentic recall.

View the clip by clicking here, or on the image above.

New Book – Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

I have a new book from Palgrave Pivot on the “sick” humor films of the 1960s.

As the promotional materials for the book note, “Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s presents six detailed chapters on various topics that relate to genre cinema, concentrating on films and filmmakers whose films offered wide ranging commentary on popular culture. Covering both little and well-known films and filmmakers (Vanishing Point, Marcel Hanoun, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Max Ophüls), Dixon’s writings draw on a multitude of critical, historical, and archival sources to capture the reader’s attention from start to finish.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, and Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA. He is the author of Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical HollywoodStreaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, and Cinema at the Margins and editor, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture.”

Here are some early comments by reviewers:

“Dixon is a first-rate film scholar, critic, and historian, and the qualities he has cultivated and refined over the years are evident in everything from the clarity, lucidity, and liveliness of his prose to the accuracy of his research, the force of his arguments, and the perspicuity of his judgments.” – David Sterritt, Chair, National Society of Film Critics

“The Dixon dynamo’s done it again. In a swift and assured push, he opens doors to the sights, sounds—and smells—of the other world cinematic story. He peels back eyelids for us to see one built not only on the backs of the Griffiths, Hitchcocks, Bunuels, and Truffauts, but on the extraordinary creativity of those pushed into penumbric shadows; those cineastes like Max Ophüls, Juan Orol, Marcel Hanoun, and D. Ross Lederman who dared to bend minds and expectations at any cost. We have our world cinematic critic and he’s invited us to strap ourselves for a journey to the chaotic dark side of world cinematic history. As with Kubrick’s Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong, with Dixon you’re in for a hell of a ride!” – Frederick Luis Aldama, Arts & Humanities Distinguished University Professor and author of The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s new collection of essays, Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s, offers even more than its title promises.  To be sure, its opening essay presents a richly detailed and thoughtful meditation on the iconoclastic ‘sick’ humor of sixties films from Dr. Strangelove to Putney Swope.  But readers will also find much else of value, including pieces on the unsung Hollywood auteur D. Ross Lederman, the lost version of the 1971 cult road movie classic Vanishing Point, and the fatalistic noir films of Max Ophüls.  All are written with Dixon’s customary verve, wit, and attention to historical detail, making this book a must for any serious student of cinema.” – Ian Olney, author of Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture

“This book glitters with a treasure of informative, witty, and acute insights into films and filmmakers too long neglected in their unconventional but deeply provocative importance.  No one writes about film with more infectious vivacity than Wheeler Winston Dixon, especially in these pages.” – Murray Pomerance, author of The Eyes Have It: Cinema and the Reality Effect

A short and concise look at some of the films that shaped a decade.

Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond at MoMA

Monday, July 6th, 2015

The Museum of Modern Art is running a stunning retrospective of 100 years of Technicolor.

As Ben Kenigsberg writes in The New York Times, “this year [Technicolor] turns 100. The breadth and variety of American films that used Technicolor processes between 1922 and 1955 are apparent in a recent book, The Dawn of Technicolor, 1915-1935 by James Layton and David Pierce, and a continuing series at the Museum of Modern Art running through Aug. 5 . . . [after early experiments with a variety of processes, the company created "three-strip Technicolor," used extensively during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and] with a refined combination of cyan, magenta and yellow on its prints, the company unveiled that process in Flowers and Trees, a 1932 Disney short (showing in the MoMA series Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond, on July 31 and Aug. 3).

A three-color Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp (Sunday), followed in 1935. The film series presents Technicolor as more than a novelty and tries to convey what the MoMA curator Joshua Siegel calls a ‘misunderstood’ story. He added, ‘I think we have these associations with Technicolor as this kind of garish, highly saturated, candy-color look, which was certainly true of a certain period of filmmaking.’” But that’s just a small part of the story.

As The Museum of Modern Art’s website adds, “This 100th-anniversary celebration of Technicolor, initiated by George Eastman House and presented in collaboration with the Berlinale, Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen, and Austrian Film Museum, presents more than 60 feature films, along with a rich selection of cartoons, short subjects, industrials, and screen tests. MoMA’s exhibition focuses exclusively on American films made between 1922 and 1955 (the year that Hollywood studios stopped using Technicolor three-strip cameras), with a delirious range of musicals, melodramas, swashbuckling and seafaring adventures, sword-and-sandal Biblical epics, Orientalist fantasies, Westerns, literary adaptations, homespun Americana, and even rare instances of film noir and 3-D.

The exhibition honors Technicolor’s most immortal achievements, presenting rare 35mm dye-transfer prints of The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, and Singin’ in the Rain. It also deepens and complicates our appreciation of Technicolor’s history—and our nostalgic memories of movie-palace dreams—by revisiting some of the more muted and delicate, even diaphanous, uses of Technicolor in films like The Toll of the Sea and The Garden of Allah.

Even as period advertisements for Technicolor heralded the process as uniquely ‘natural,’ and ‘truer to life’ —a reflection of the painstaking efforts of the company’s technicians and color supervisors to achieve greater verisimilitude—filmmakers like Vincente Minnelli and Rouben Mamoulian were working closely with their cinematographers, production designers, costumers, and makeup artists to explore the expressive, fanciful, and even psychological uses of color by experimenting with light and shadow, chiaroscuro and sfumato, in emulation of Old Masters like El Greco, Titian and Zurburán, or with the brash, electric colors and bold contours of Fauvists like Raoul Dufy.”

Organized by Joshua Siegel, Curator of Film at the Museum of Modern Art, the series runs from June 5 through August 5, 2015, and is an absolute must for all cineastes, even if you’ve seen these films before. The chance to see them projected in their original format- 35mm film as opposed to digital prints – is becoming increasingly rare, and the work and effort that went into this amazing series is really quite amazing. As Kenigsberg notes, “in a sense, digital work can’t compare to the artistry represented by the company’s heyday. ‘Technicolor is not just about color,’ Mr. Siegel said. ‘It’s about light and shadow, and it’s about depth and molding.’ These qualities are lost, he added, ‘in digital projections of contemporary films.’”

This is a must-see exhibition for everyone who loves cinema.

New Book: Historia del cine mundial – Guía esencial

Friday, June 26th, 2015

Ma Non Troppo has just published a Spanish language translation of our book, A Short History of Film.

Written by Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, our textbook A Short History of Film (Rutgers University Press, 2013) has gone through six re-printings and two editions in the United States; now, there is a new Spanish language edition published by Ma Non Troppo in Barcelona, translated by Isabel Hernández Argilés.

The Spanish title is roughly translated as History of World Cinema: An Essential Guide, From the Precursors to Today’s CGI, and is described by the publisher as “an exciting book on the history of the seventh art – [a] must for any fan – this concise history of cinema provides a comprehensive and accessible perspective on the main movements, directors, studios and film genres from 1880 until today. In addition, more than 250 outstanding stills and photographs accompany the text, to familiarize the reader with the key directors and films of the motion picture industry.” We’re very glad to see this new edition of our book make its public debut, in Castilian Spanish, which will be distributed in Spain, Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Uruguay, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and elsewhere in South America.

As Library Journal noted of the English-language version in a starred review, “this excellent introduction stands out in a crowded field with its lively, accessible writing, broad coverage, and particular focus on traditionally marginalized figures in film history…the most striking aspect of the book is the coverage of women, African Americans, and Third World filmmakers, which strongly complements its solid coverage of American and European film. Illustrations abound, and even the best-versed cineaste will find new films to track down after reading the breezy, enthusiastic analysis in this book. Highly recommended for all collections, this text would also make an excellent textbook for introductory film-studies courses.”

So, here’s to reaching a wider audience.

Norman McLaren’s Pas de deux (1968) – A Forgotten Classic

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Norman McLaren’s classic short film Pas de deux deserves a wider audience.

Growing up, this film was everywhere, and now it seems to have vanished from our collective memory. It’s a superb short film by the gifted animator Norman McLaren, created near the end of his long career at the National Film Board of Canada. As the NFB notes, in this hypnotic film McLaren uses “cinema effects that are all that you would expect from this master of improvisation in music and illustration. By exposing the same frames as many as ten times, the artist creates a multiple image of the ballerina and her partner (Margaret Mercier and Vincent Warren).” Pas de deux received 17 awards, including the 1969 BAFTA Award for Best Animated Film and an Academy Award nomination.

This is just another of the many, many brilliant short and feature films that have been plowed under by the relentless onslaught of mainstream multiplex fare; and while there are numerous bootleg copies of this film circulating on the web, even one with a supposedly “enhanced” music track, which one commenter rightly noted was “an insult to McLaren,” this is the original version, as uploaded by the NFB to Vimeo, and thus available to all to watch, and marvel at. Pas de deux was made near the end of the photochemical era of moving image production, and McLaren and his associates push the limits of conventional optical printing to their absolute edge in this film, which remains as entrancing as it was when first created.

There really isn’t much more to say; I’ll let the film speak for itself.

Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

In this deeply trying time in our nation’s struggle for basic human rights, this is a key film.

Spike Lee is, of course, the most important and influential African-American filmmaker working today, and one of the most important and influential filmmakers working today, period. In 1997, Spike Lee created a brilliant and moving documentary on the horrific September 15, 1963 murder of four African-American girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

As Wikipedia notes, “Lee had first intended to create a dramatic reproduction of the incident, but decided that would not be the best approach. He shifted to a documentary. Once he secured funding, Lee went to Birmingham with a small skeleton film crew. He wanted to have the families be as comfortable as possible. Ellen Kuras was the Director of Photography and Sam Pollard the producer/editor.

Kuras said of her desire to shoot 4 Little Girls, ‘I was really interested because my background is in political documentaries . . .I always felt that one of the reasons that I had got into filmmaking was that I wanted to use my craft to be able to say something about the human condition, however I could, in my own humble way. For me this was an opportunity to make a small contribution.’

The film covered the events in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 related to civil rights demonstrations and the movement to end racial discrimination in local stores and facilities. In 1963 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King arrived in the town to help with their strategy.

People of the community met at the 16th Street Baptist Church while organizing their events. The demonstrations were covered by national media, and the use by police of police dogs and pressured water from hoses on young people shocked the nation. So many demonstrators were arrested that the jail was filled.

A local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan placed bombs at the Baptist Church and set them off on Sunday morning 15 September 1963. Four young girls were killed in the explosion. The deaths provoked national outrage, and that summer the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The film ends with trial and conviction of Robert Edward Chambliss in 1977 as the main person responsible for bombing. The film also delves into black churches being set on fire in Birmingham in 1993, giving the impression that while progress has been made, there are some aspects that still haven’t changed. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.”

No, it’s very clear that “some aspects still haven’t changed” at all, as the brutal massacre of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015 has more than aptly proved.

The subsequent campaign to remove the confederate flag from various public places, license plates, and the ban on such merchandise by Sears, Walmart, Amazon and Ebay – something that should have happened a long time ago – is one outcome of this senseless series of murders, but the cost of creating such change is much too high. Nine people were killed, including the senior pastor and state senator from South Carolina, Clementa C. Pinckney.

As I write this, these events are still unfolding, and it’s too early to tell if any real positive change will occur as a result of this senseless violence. I know that it has profoundly shaken me,  as well as all people of conscience, in the United States and around the world, and I can only be heartened that perhaps something will come out of this terrible tragedy that will move us all to a better place.

In the meantime, let us remember that the struggle for basic human rights for all goes on day after day, year in and year out, and is never really full accomplished. All we can do is continue to move towards the light, and a better tomorrow.

Spike Lee’s brilliant movie is a reminder of that struggle; if you have not seen it, do so now.

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. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by 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