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How International Film Boards Help Women Directors

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

Director Ava DuVernay on the set of her film Selma.

As Rebecca Keegan writes in The Los Angeles Times, “in March 2015, an Australian researcher published a statistic that drew both laughs and gasps in the business community there: Fewer large Australian companies were run by women than by men named Peter. The damning statistic prompted some introspection in the Australian film industry in particular, where women represent 17% of directors, a number that hasn’t budged since 1970.

‘We’ve got this wonderful networking psyche here called “mateship,”‘ said Fiona Cameron, chief executive of Screen Australia, the nation’s government-funded film board. ‘It typically involves men helping like-minded men. There’s been an informal quota in the Australian film business forever. That made our filmmakers stop in their tracks and say, “What are we going to do?”‘

In December, Screen Australia committed $5 million to changing the number, setting a goal that its money would go to films with creative teams at least 50% female. Australia is one of several countries that have launched such programs in recent years — Canada, Ireland and Sweden have also started aggressive, state-financed initiatives aimed at increasing the number of female directors, writers and producers on their films.

The programs stand in stark contrast to the American film industry, where a controversy is roiling over the same issue, but where there is no comparable government agency that finances movies. Here in Hollywood, change is mostly taking a different path, with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission launching an investigation into gender bias in the hiring of female directors last fall.

In the U.S., women are even less likely to be in the director’s chair than they are abroad — women direct just 4% of the 100 top-grossing Hollywood movies, according to a USC study, making filmmakers like Elizabeth Banks (who directed Pitch Perfect 2,) Sam Taylor-Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) and Ava DuVernay (Selma) the very definition of outliers.

At the urging of the American Civil Liberties Union, the EEOC began interviewing female directors in October, and is now meeting with executives, agents and others to determine whether a pattern of bias exists. Internationally, the film industry is in the midst of a kind of feminist awakening, with the inciting incident being slightly different in each country.

In Ireland, a protest in the theater world last fall kicked off the discussion, when a planned centenary celebration of the 1916 Easter Uprising at the country’s national theater included just one female playwright, and nine men.

‘We went, “Hang on a minute, we’re just as bad,”‘ said Annie Doona, chair of the Irish Film Board, where 20% of the movies financed between 2010 and 2015 had female directors. ‘We need to know what’s happening here.’ In December, the agency set a target of achieving 50/50 funding within three years, as part of a larger program that also includes mentorship, training and film school initiatives. ‘We’ve said to production companies, “We’re looking to you to find that female talent,”‘ Doona said.

In Canada, the National Film Board announced a similar program in March — going forward, the agency will devote 50% of its $65-million annual budget to projects directed by women. ‘We’re funded equally by Canadians who are men and Canadians who are women,’ said board President Claude Joli-Coeur. ‘The talent of women directors is there. We just decided to make it so.’

Many countries are looking to Sweden as an example. When Anna Serner, an outspoken chief executive from the advertising world, became head of the Swedish Film Institute in 2011, 26% of the movies the agency financed were directed by women. Due in large part to Serner’s aggressive advocacy, by 2014, 50% of the films the institute financed were directed by women. Female directors now win about 60% of the prizes at Sweden’s version of the Oscars, and the majority of Swedish directors invited to international film festivals are women.

Sweden’s programs, which are partly funded by a 10% tax on movie tickets, would seem unthinkably interventionist in the market-driven American film industry, and have even been controversial in a country that considers gender equality a cornerstone of its identity. ‘Some male directors have been very upset,’ Serner said. ‘They still get 50% of our financing, but they feel we’re manipulating the arts. People say they want equality, as long as it doesn’t affect them.’”

This is long overdue; you can read the entire story by clicking here, or on the image above.

David W. Packard and Film Preservation in the 21st Century

Sunday, March 6th, 2016

Film preservation is crucial in the 21st century – without it, cinema history would cease to exist.

As Kenneth Turan writes in The Los Angeles Times, “if you care even a little about the art and history of American motion pictures, about being able to see classic films now and forever, you owe a debt of gratitude to David W. Packard.

Packard, the son of Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard, has never seen a Steven Spielberg movie and takes pleasure in reading Homer in the original Greek. But he cares deeply about film history, and his Packard Humanities Institute has become one of the leading philanthropic organizations funding film preservation.

Now a landmark moment in that cause is nearing completion on 65 acres in the hills of Santa Clarita: a $180-million facility that houses vintage movies in the UCLA Film & Television Archive, including The Maltese Falcon, the Flash Gordon serials, Laurel & Hardy’s Way Out West, Cecil B. DeMille’s personal collection and producer Hal Wallis’ own print of Casablanca.

“UCLA was looking for a modest little place to move to, and I got involved and turned it into something monumental,” Packard, 75, said during an extended tour of the facility. “It’s a labor of love and a labor of craziness. I could have just built an adequate facility, but it didn’t cost that much more for it to be something wonderful.”

The campus is designed primarily for storage, research and work related to film preservation, although there may be occasional semi-public events in one of the three screening rooms. The facility is known as the PHI Stoa, for the Packard Humanities Institute and because the exterior resembles a type of classical Greek building known as a stoa, an outdoor colonnade structure supported by an impressive row of marble columns.

The interior is patterned after the 15th century Convent of Saint Marco in Florence, with offices resembling the cells of a monastery. Packard, who rarely grants interviews, acknowledges that the design fits his style. ‘I’m more like a monk; I like to do my work,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to be a person who goes around boasting about doing things. What’s the point of that?’

For moviegoers who want the classic films they love to be seen on the big screen by their children in the best condition possible, the stakes are enormous. It may seem films are forever, but history tells us this is not the case. Nitrate-based negatives, Hollywood’s choice until about 1951, are notoriously unstable and over time often deteriorated to chemical goo, taking their one-of-a-kind images with them.

Before efforts like Packard’s, so many films were routinely lost or destroyed that it’s estimated that approximately half the films made before 1951, not to mention that more than eight of 10 features made between 1912 and 1930, no longer exist, according to film historians. Talk to anyone in the film preservation world and you hear echoes of the words of James H. Billington, the recently retired librarian of Congress, who says: ‘If you want an analogy to David in American history, Andrew Carnegie would be the best.’

Packard’s institute financed a similar facility dedicated to film preservation outside of Washington, D.C., in Culpeper, Va. Built inside a disused Federal Reserve bunker that once held billions of dollars of shrink-wrapped currency, it includes nearly 90 miles of shelving, plus storage for highly flammable nitrate materials. It was donated to the Library of Congress in 2008 [. . .]

‘Frankly, I can think of no one and no institution which has done more for the cause of film preservation, specifically the preservation of classic American films,’ than David Packard, said Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. ‘There are a lot of wealthy people in the film industry, but no one has stepped up to the plate the way David has. The amount of funding he has provided is staggering.’

About 90% of the films at PHI Stoa belong to the UCLA collection. They are stored in 120 nitrate vaults, built at a cost of $48 million. Looking like cells in a 1930s big house movie, these structures are a chilly 38 degrees inside, with contents protected by an elaborate complex of anti-fire technologies, including exhaust ducts and a system called VESDA for ‘Very Early Smoke Detection Apparatus.’

‘They’re the most modern nitrate vaults in existence,’ Packard said. ‘This is not just buying five more years; they’re supposed to last centuries [. . .] It broke up my friendship with Steve Jobs when I told him movies were not meant to be seen on 21/2 -inch screens’ [said Packard],” and of course, they aren’t. And, as the saying goes, “nitrate won’t wait”- this is work that has to be done now.

This is an absolutely essential project; film preservation is the key issue in cinema studies right now.

Tom Cabela – UNL Film Studies Alumni – Builds Major Career

Friday, March 4th, 2016

Tom Cabela, a UNL Film Studies Alumni, has built himself a brilliant career in Hollywood.

As Erin Chambers writes on the UNL English Department website in an article posted today, “Tom Cabela was one of the first Film Studies Majors at UNL in the late 1990s, and has since gone on to a stellar career in Hollywood, with great personal and professional success.

Interested in film since childhood, Cabela started making his own films in while attending Lincoln Southeast High School, where he helped found Southeast’s first film program. He soon realized he wanted to pursue a career in filmmaking, and decided to come to UNL after graduating.

Cabela joined the Film Studies Program at UNL, where Professors Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon helped shape the way he viewed and analyzed cinema. They also helped prepare him for the rigors of the industry and in finding his own artistic voice.

‘Professor Foster was always so encouraging and supportive, and really helped shape me intellectually and as a person,’ says Cabela. ‘Thanks to her I was one step ahead on post-modern and feminist film theory when I got to the University of California. Professor Dixon also helped prepare me for the demands and high expectations of the industry. His lessons have always held me in good stead.’

After graduating from UNL in 2001, Cabela moved to Santa Cruz and completed the production program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He then moved to Los Angeles, where he worked briefly for production designer Jennifer Williams. Williams introduced him to a friend, Oscar nominated editor Peter Honess, who soon hired Cabela as a Post Production Assistant.

Honess and his team trained Cabela, got him into the union, and brought him up to assistant editor. As a part of that team, Cabela worked on films like Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, Aeon Flux, and Poseidon. He also worked on Blades of Glory, Get Smart, and Red Dawn under editor Richard Pearson.

Eventually he went to work for James Cameron’s company C.P.G., where Cameron and his partner Vince Pace trained him as a stereo (3D) picture specialist. There, he worked on Transformers 3, Sin City 2, Walking with Dinosaurs, Cirque Du Soleil, and others.

However, the 3D ‘bubble’ soon burst, and he found himself looking for work elsewhere. His background in 3D/VFX as well as editorial made VFX Editing a perfect fit. Since becoming a VFX Editor, Cabela’s editing and visual effects work has appeared in Entourage the Movie and the new Todd Phillips film War Dogs.

He continues to make his own films, which have shown at festivals like Mill Valley, Sarasota, and South by Southwest. You can view samplings of his work on Vimeo. But for Cabela, this is only the beginning. “Who knows what the future holds?” Cabela wonders. “The possibilities are limitless.”

Indeed they are – this is just the beginning for Tom – who knows what will come next?

Jaume R. Lloret’s Side by Side Remakes of 25 Films

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Here’s a fresh look at the ways in which remakes dominate the current cinema.

As Joe Berkowitz writes on the website FastCoCreate, “when director Gus Van Sant announced that he would be following up his breakthrough commercial hit, Good Will Hunting, with a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, many were confused. That confusion did not go away when the film was eventually released either. Audiences and critics couldn’t tell whether the whole exercise was a dadaist art statement or what was even happening. Was Van Sant’s message that no cows are sacred or that all cows are sacred? Nobody could quite tell. If the director’s aim was to urge other filmmakers away from remake culture, however, it was a resounding failure.

Nearly 20 years later, remakes, reboots, and reinterpretations make up what feels like at least half of each year’s major cinematic offerings. (The other half are adaptations.) The degree to which studios, filmmakers, and audiences have embraced remake culture, though, means more opportunities to approach these properties from different angles. Every now and then, a film will treat its source material with nearly the same perhaps ironic reverence as Gus Van Sant did Psycho, but most others indulge in more of a flickering faithfulness. A new video puts together side by side comparisons of scenes from 25 movies and their remakes to show how different (or not) the same movie can be the second time.

Barcelona-based filmmaker and editor Jaume R. Lloret had his work cut out for him in some movies more than others. Finding footage from Psycho that matches up is like shooting a barrel in a barrel factory. (Steven Soderbergh once overlaid both versions of the film on top of each other to play simultaneously.) Lloret also includes the curious case of when Michael Haneke remade his own Austrian film (Funny Games) in English with different actors but no other changes whatsoever. The other films, however, comprise just about the entire spectrum of remakes and reveal a lot about how these are made and received.”

Fascinating stuff - read the entire article, and see the video by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Star Wars Juggernaut

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be the most commercially successful film of all time.

As Anthony D’Alessandro and Anita Busch write in what is arguably the entertainment industry’s most authoritative business news website, Deadline Hollywood, ”industry analysts currently see Star Wars: The Force Awakens with an opening day record of $125M-$127M+ en route for an all-time record opening of $251M-$255M, calculated from midnight tickets sales on both the east and west coast.

To put Force Awakens’ opening in perspective, consider the following: Disney made $100M from the film in just 21 hours at 1PM PST; an amount that most successful tentpoles open to in a 3-day weekend. By Sunday, Force Awakens will beat or come close to beating the entire domestic runs of the last two Hobbits which were released over the last two Decembers— The Desolation of Smaug ($258.4M) and The Battle of Five Armies ($255.1M). It took Jurassic World five days to cross $250M.

Domestic all-time grosser Avatar, which opened during this frame back in 2009 to $77M and ended its stateside cume at $749.8M, took 12 days to clear $250M. However, that was during the pre-historic days of digital and 3D cinema. When Avatar opened there were 3,100 RealD screens in the U.S./Canada; now there are 14,000 with the majority of them playing Force Awakens.”

As I write this, screenings of the new Star Wars film are literally going on around the clock, with some theaters staying open 24/7 to meet audience demand.  This is all very good news for the Walt Disney Company, which owns the rights not only to the Star Wars franchise, but also the whole of Marvel Entertainment, just for starters – two of the current industry’s most profitable money-spinners.

Although some see signs of fan fatigue in the distance, I can’t agree - while I am resolutely not a Star Wars fanI’ll side with Alec Guinness in his opinion of the franchise – there’s no question that this 1977 film which started out as an indie film no one wanted has become a totemic part of our shared worldwide cinema culture. With Disney’s plans to roll out another episode in the series one a year for the next fifteen years, it seems there is no end in sight.

If this what audiences want in an era of terrorism and fear, so be it. It is, however, disturbing that more thoughtful screen fare has been pushed off the big screen into the limbo of VOD or the increasingly marginal art house circuit, but as always in Hollywood, the bottom line rules.

As far as The Force Awakens, I’ll have to agree with Sam C. Mac of Slant - “it exists less as a meaningful extension of its world than as a fan-service deployment device” – or J.R. Jones of The Chicago Reader – “as with other installments, this is less a movie than an exercise in massaging a juvenile-minded audience that wants the experience to be new and familiar at the same time” – and Roger Moore of Movie Nation -”a glib facsimile” – but then again, these are minority opinions.

So I’ll make a prediction of my own; when the film finally exhausts itself at the box office – just this installment, mind you – I predict (channeling The Amazing Criswell here) that Star Wars: The Force Awakens will gross more than two billion dollars worldwide, to recoup roughly half the $4 billion that Disney paid to buy the entire franchise a few years back from George Lucas. And, as the box office numbers clearly show, this was a very smart business decision indeed.

May The Force Be With You!

Video: The Celluloid Backlash

Friday, December 18th, 2015

More and more, commercial and indie filmmakers are embracing the values that only actual film can offer.

While 99% of all Hollywood films, and independent films as well, are being shot and post-produced digitally – i.e. “born digital” – there is a new phenomenon which seems to be expanding throughout the industry – major commercial filmmakers returning to the physical film medium because the celluloid image offers a different, warmer, and some would argue superior set of visual values, resulting in a new countermovement within the industry, which challenges the conventional wisdom that “film is dead” and digital rules.

I would argue that film is more alive than ever, and that the headlong rush to digital is something that has its benefits and drawbacks, and there are many within the industry – as noted in this video -  who feel actual film stock is an indispensable part of the cinema. To date, the list of new movies shot on film includes J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Sam Mendes’ latest installment of the Bond franchise, Spectre, David O. Russell’s Joy and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. More films – shot on film – are in the pipeline.

Thanks again to Curt Bright for creating this video; see you in 2016!

Video: Independent Filmmaking in the 21st Century

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

Here’s a brief video by Curt Bright about the difficulties facing indie filmmakers in the 21st century.

For some time now, Curt Bright and I have been creating educational videos for a UNL series called Frame by Frame, covering various aspects of film, media, and the digital world as we enter the first decades of the 21st century. In this episode, I talk about the problems facing independent creators now – most specifically, how to get their work out before the public in an oversaturated marketplace.

Where once every film had to open in a theater in order to make back its investment, now there are so many different platforms available that distributors throw their cash at those films where they have the highest degree of financial exposure, resulting in a world in which only mainstream blockbusters make it to a large audience. Here, I discuss ways to work around this, and get a more balanced view of what’s going in the world of cinema on a national and international level.

Thanks to Curt Bright, as always, for such a great job in shooting and editing these videos.

Video: Frame by Frame on Star Wars – The Force Awakens

Friday, September 18th, 2015

Click here, or above, to see my new Frame by Frame video on Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Amazingly, this episode in the Star Wars series will actually be shot on film, rather than digitally. As director J.J. Abrams told Ben Fritz of The Wall Street Journal, “I appreciate how that technology opens the doors for filmmakers who never had access to that level of quality before. However, I do think film itself sets the standard for quality. You can talk about range, light, sensitive, resolution — there’s something about film that is undeniably beautiful, undeniably organic and natural and real.

I would argue film sets the standard and once it’s no longer available, the ability to shoot the benchmark goes away. Suddenly you’re left with what is, in many cases, perfectly good but not necessarily the best, the warmest, the most rich and detailed images. Especially on movies like Star Trek and Star Wars, you have so much that will be created or extended digitally, and it’s a slippery slope where you can get lost in a world of synthetic. You really have to keep away from that, especially with Star Wars, which I wanted very much to feel like it is part of another era.

I’m very grateful to Kodak for keeping the lab open for now. As a filmmaker, you want to have every tool available. That doesn’t mean digital doesn’t have huge advantages, nor that I wouldn’t want to experiment and shoot digitally on something. I would hope filmmakers who are just getting started will be able to have this as an option as they continue in their careers because movies are nothing if not a romantic experience and film is a big part of that.”

The result should be quite interesting; slated to open December, 2015.

New Book Published – Black & White Cinema: A Short History

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

I have a new book out today from Rutgers University Press – Black & White Cinema: A Short History.

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

Black and White Cinema is the first study to consider the use of black-and-white as an art form in its own right, providing a comprehensive and global overview of the era when it flourished, from the 1900s to the 1960s. Acclaimed film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon introduces us to the masters of this art, discussing the signature styles and technical innovations of award-winning cinematographers like James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, and Sven Nykvist.

Giving us a unique glimpse behind the scenes, Dixon also reveals the creative teams—from lighting technicians to matte painters—whose work profoundly shaped the look of black-and-white cinema. More than just a study of film history, this book is a rallying cry, meant to inspire a love for the artistry of black-and-white film, so that we might work to preserve this important part of our cinematic heritage. Lavishly illustrated with more than forty on-the-set stills, Black and White Cinema provides a vivid and illuminating look at a creatively vital era.

Here are some early reviews:

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

“Dixon has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and a subtle and well-honed aesthetic sense. He rescues important films from oblivion, and finds fresh angles of approach to films that are already familiar.” —Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s colorful study of black-and-white cinema reaffirms yet again his unfailing expertise as a critic, historian, and dazzlingly fine writer. Indispensable for students, scholars, and movie buffs alike.”—David Sterritt, author of The Cinema of Clint Eastwood: Chronicles of America

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

My thanks to all who helped with this very complex project.

Floyd Crosby, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

Director Fred Zinnemann (seated); DP Floyd Crosby standing (with glasses); and star Gary Cooper on the set of High Noon.

My new book, Black and White Cinema: A Short History, is coming out in a few weeks – I already have the advance proof copy – and Amazon has listed their official release date as September 17th; it goes to press on September 4th. I’m really happy with the finished project, but as with my entry on Nick Musuraca earlier in this blog, there were sections of my original text that had to be cut for reasons of space.

So here’s some additional material on the great cinematographer Floyd Crosby, and the long, often odd trajectory of his distinguished career.

As I wrote in the original draft of the book, “Floyd Crosby was another master of black and white cinematography, who early on in his career served as an assistant of sorts on W. S. Van Dyke’s and Robert Flaherty’s White Shadows in the South Seas (1928). But as Crosby told historian Mark Langer, ‘when Flaherty went down there [Tahiti], it was supposed to be a co-direction, but he didn’t direct any of it. Van Dyke directed it all. But I went down there and got a job, just as an assistant cameraman.

I was there, I think, three months, and then Flaherty left, and I came back when he did…Flaherty had no idea of how to direct a story film. All his work had been with documentaries, where he’d tell the natives to go fishing or do something he didn’t already know, and then he’d photograph it. He’d never done any story direction and this was a story picture and he was completely lost in it. Van Dyke did the whole thing.’

Van Dyke was known as a tough, no-nonsense director, commonly referred to as ‘One Take Woody’ for his speed and proficiency on the set, and as with many of the key directors of the 1930s, his career stretched back to the silent days, with The Land of Long Shadows (1917), and in the early sound era, by the astonishing accomplishment of Trader Horn (1931), shot on location in Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in synchronized sound, using an enormous crew, and the talents of Clyde De Vinna as cinematographer.

[De Vinna, who was the principal cameraman on White Shadows on the South Seas, took advantage of the opportunity to shoot literally miles of 'second unit' footage of native dancers, ceremonies, and everyday life for later use as stock footage in other productions, and indeed, the Trader Horn materials shot by De Vinna informed the spectatorial vision of Africa for more than thirty years, endlessly recycled in numerous 'jungle' films, and in the 1950s, such television series as Ramar of the Jungle (1952-1954)].

For his next project, Crosby worked on F. W. Murnau’s and Robert Flaherty’s Tabu (1931), but again, the collaboration was uneasy at best. As Crosby put it, when they arrived on location in Bora Bora, Flaherty rapidly demonstrated that he had no idea how to create a fiction film. As Crosby told Mark Langer, ‘the trouble was this. The idea that it was to be a co-production, and to be co-directed.

But when they got down [to the location], there was the same old story, that Flaherty couldn’t direct and Murnau was an expert, so Murnau was directing. In fact, he said to me one day, “My, I wish Flaherty could direct.” He said, “I’m sick. I don’t feel like working for a few days, but we can’t stop, and I wish Flaherty could take over.” But he knew he couldn’t. And Flaherty was upset because Murnau took over the picture.

Murnau was a great director, you know, and he was a very interesting workman, but personally had all kinds of problems. He was an arrogant person — and he and Flaherty hated each other. At least Flaherty hated him. Flaherty used to three times a day tell me how much he hated Murnau… At the end of the picture, Murnau had some titles made and asked me to shoot them.

One of the titles was “And at the camera — Crosby.” I said, “This is not the correct credit. The credit is Photographed by . . .” He said, “You won’t shoot it then?” And I said, “No. I won’t shoot it.” So we were hardly speaking after that. Then, of course, when Paramount made the titles, they gave me the correct credits.’

Floyd Crosby on the set of Tabu, behind the camera.

Despite all of this friction, the finished film is an evocative, deeply romantic and ineffably tragic work, which not only won Crosby the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, but also was selected by the National Board of Review as one of the Top Ten Films of 1931, and, in 1994, chosen by the National Film Preservation Board for the National Film Registry as being ‘culturally, historically [and] aesthetically significant.’

In Crosby’s laconic reckoning of Tabu’s success, he told Langer that ‘…it came out well enough to get the Academy Award. It was a little uneven, I must admit. And you know, this was before the days of exposure meters, and one day Flaherty was developing some film and we were talking outside and we forgot about it. The film was ten minutes in a three and a half minute developer. So we had to shoot that over again, you know.’

And for Flaherty, Crosby maintained a certain measure of respect, as opposed to his feelings on working with Murnau. As he told Langer, ‘I learned things. They weren’t things that I was particularly able to use, but the good thing about [Flaherty] was that he would make a good documentary without trying to louse it up by bringing in a lot of other things to make excitement, that had no business in the picture.

You know, so many people go out to make a documentary, who want to make something that’s going to sell, so they try to bring in some Hollywood elements of excitement, and it ceases to be a really true documentary. Well, he didn’t do that in his films. He was honest about them.’

Crosby went on to shoot a series of documentaries in the 1930s, such as Mato Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness (1931), often cited as one of the first sync sound documentaries, shot in Mato Grosso, Brazil; Pare Lorentz’s The Plow That Broke The Plains (1936); Joris Iven’s The Power and the Land (1940), as well as working on Orson Welles’ aborted semi-documentary It’s All True (1942), with cinematographers Joe Noreigo, Joseph Biroc, William Howard Greene, Harry J. Wild, and George Fanto; the film was shelved, and the materials vaulted for fifty years, before the production emerged in a reconstructed version in 1993; Crosby photographed the ‘My Friend Benito’ sequence of the film, which was actually directed by Welles’s associate Norman Foster.

Crosby on location for Mato Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness

In his later work, one of Crosby’s most impressive achievements was his parched, unadorned work on director Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), which, ironically, led back to Crosby’s work with Flaherty, as Zinnemann had a strong affinity for Flaherty’s work, along with a personal connection to the director. As Zinnemann told Brian Neve,

‘Flaherty wrote me a letter of introduction in 1931, and as a result I got a job at Goldwyn. He influenced me in every possible way, not only technically, but also in what I learnt from him by being his assistant, his whole spirit of being his own man, of being independent of the general spirit of Hollywood, to the point where he didn’t worry about working there.

That’s probably why he made only five or six pictures in his life. But he influenced me in his whole way of approaching the documentary, which he really initiated with films like Nanook of the North. I learned from Flaherty to be rather uncompromising an to defend what I wanted to say, and not let someone else mix it up. He had the true feeling of a documentary director — he took life as it was. This influenced me enormously because I found myself almost subconsciously following his style in films like High Noon …’

And so, when Zinnemann shot High Noon, he argued that, ‘if you want to make a picture like High Noon, and you want to make it feel like the world felt in the days of the Civil War in America, that kind of gritty, dusty feeling, you had to get a cameraman who knew how to handle that, like Floyd Crosby,’ with the result that the film had a cinematographic style very different from other films of the period.

As Zinnemann noted in another interview on High Noon with historian Alan Marcus, ‘I wanted to organize High Noon in the way a documentary would have been made at that time when the action happened. Except that in the 1880s there was no such thing as motion pictures. So that in using the style, the cameraman Floyd Crosby and I studied very carefully contemporary still photography, particularly the photographs of Mr. Lincoln’s [still] cameraman [Matthew Brady] who photographed parts of the Civil War in America.

That meant that we used a grainy kind of print, deliberately grainy and flat, with a very white sky, instead of a dark sky with pretty clouds on it. So, it reasonably looks a bit like photography of that period and gives it a feeling of being authentic, which was not the usual method at all at the time when this film was made.’

A superb setup by Crosby from High Noon ; Will Kane alone, deserted by the townspeople.

The completed film won four Academy Awards — Best Actor (Gary Cooper), Best Film Editing (Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad — this is a whole story in itself, as Elmo Williams’ near ‘real time’ — actually slightly stretched out, rather than strictly accurate — editing of the final cut of the film considerably tightened up the flow of the narrative), and Best Music and Best Original Song for Dimitri Tiomkin.

For his part, Floyd Crosby won a Golden Globe for his work on High Noon, and though the film was generally well-received critically, it infuriated the more politically conservative members of the Hollywood community. With its script, by Carl Foreman, depicting the craven, cowardly members of a small Western town refusing to help the town’s marshal, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), when his arch nemesis Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley), whom Kane has sent to prison, comes back explicitly to kill Kane, High Noon painted a deeply unflattering picture of American society, and was widely seen as a political allegory, commenting on the Hollywood Blacklist of the era.

As a result of this, the film’s scenarist Carl Foreman was blacklisted himself, and Floyd Crosby, as a sort of ‘collateral damage’ to the entire affair, found himself “grey listed” — not officially on the blacklist, but definitely out of favor.Out of this, however, came the final, blazingly brilliant act of Crosby’s career, a long alliance with legendary director Roger Corman, starting with the six day Western Five Guns West in 1955.

Rather than looking down on Corman’s output, Crosby became Corman’s most prolific cinematographer, lensing everything from the stark, black and white imagery of Reform School Girl and Teenage Doll — with one ‘A’ assignment in between, John Sturges’ and Henry King’s production of The Old Man and the Sea, based on Hemingway’s novel, photographed by Crosby and James Wong Howe — before slickly moving into color work for Corman on House of Usher (1960) and Pit and the Pendulum (1961), along with many other films for the director.

For his part, Crosby observed that – much to his surprise -  he didn’t have to tell Corman as much about how to direct as with some of the other helmers he’d worked with in his career; and as Corman told historian Lawrence French of working with Crosby, and of Crosby’s unjust treatment at the hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the early 1950s, working with Crosby was both practical and delightful:

‘Floyd was certainly not a communist, but during the fifties, some studios did not like him. However, that meant nothing to me. I used him simply because he was a good cameraman. I remember Floyd talking about that, and saying it was somewhat ironic that his patriotism should come under questioning, after he had served in the Army Air Corps command during World War II as a Captain, working with [the pioneering documentary filmmaker] Pare Lorentz on combat documentaries and winning citations for bravery. Floyd was really a great gentleman and a brilliant cameraman.

Crosby lights Barbara Steele on the set of Corman’s The Pit and The Pendulum

I went on to use him for my first film as a director, Five Guns West, and he was probably the best cameraman I ever worked with. He was quick, efficient and gave me the kind of quality that you would normally associate with much bigger studio films. We got along very well, and although he was somewhat older than I was, we became very good friends and I had great respect for him and for his work.

It’s not that difficult to get a good cameraman if the cameraman has hours to set up each shot. It’s not difficult to get a cameraman who works quickly. He just sets up a few lights, and says he’s ready to shoot. But to get somebody to work quickly and does fine work is very unusual. [Crosby could do that].’”

Floyd Crosby, another master of the black and white cinema.

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 Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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