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Light From the Screen: Cinema, Painting and Spectatorship

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Here’s my recent essay on the relationship(s) between cinema and painting for Film International.

As I noted, “Noël Coward once observed that ‘television is for appearing on – not for looking at,’ but as the twenty-first century takes firm hold of our collective consciousness, it seems that everyone has become, in one form or another, a spectator of the events of everyday existence, whether at home or in the cinema. Reality shows and YouTube videos offer the prospect of instant stardom for the ‘lucky’ few whose videos ‘go viral,’ but for every video posted, there are literally millions of viewers who would rather watch than participate in the production of images.

It has become so much easier – and potentially safer – to stay home and let the images come to us, rather than to go out to a public place and view them with a crowd of strangers. Indeed, this is the era of what the theorist Gabriele Pedullà has described as “the spectator’s extreme volatility” (original emphasis). Images are anywhere, and everywhere, and there seems to be no escaping them, even if we wanted to, and weren’t constantly returning to our various digital screens for another visual ‘fix.’ And we aren’t only watching movies and videos; we’re viewing paintings, sculptures, drawings, live video camera feeds; we like to watch, just as Chauncey Gardiner did in Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979). Life was ‘real’ for Chauncey only if it was on television; for us, too, the image has become more real than life itself.

With lightweight portable tablets, smartphones, and other electronic devices proliferating rapidly in our culture, when one looks at images of family gatherings in 2013, one is struck by the fact that everyone is watching something on their own portable image device, and ignoring each other; we’re all watching each other all the time, but on some sort of electronic device, rather than face to face, and we have little time, thus, for any real communication or intimacy. We have been gradually transformed from a culture of human communication into a mediated society in which simulacrum images of the real have replaced human interaction. We’ve been both spectators and participants in the process of image production since the dawn of imagistic representation, but now it seems that more and more, we are content to simply watch anything that’s on, removing ourselves from existence.”

You can read the rest of the article here; my thanks again to Daniel Lindvall, the editor of Film International.

The Noir Vision of Max Ophüls, Romantic Fatalist

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Here’s a new piece I wrote on the American noir films of the great Max Ophüls in Film International.

As I note at the start of my essay, “Max Ophüls, born Maximillian Oppenheimer on 6 May 1902, Saarbrücken, Germany, was a director known primarily for his romance films, often with sweeping tracking shots, and often taking place in the past. Ophüls’ luxurious camera style is evident in such superb romance films as Letter from An Unknown Woman (1948), with Louis Jourdan as Stefan Brand, a ne’er do well pianist who seduces and then abandons a young woman, Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine), and pays for his crime in a dueling match; La Ronde (1950), a sex comedy based on Arthur Schnitzler’s eponymous play, in which lovers float from one affair to the next with delightful abandon; Madame de… (1953), another romance film in which a spoiled Countess (Danielle Darrieux) engages in an extra-marital dalliance, highlighted by Ophüls’ trademark “waltzing camera” technique, and his penchant for long takes; and his final film, the Technicolor and CinemaScope extravaganza Lola Montès (1955), based on the life of a notorious courtesan who eventually winds up as the main attraction in a circus sideshow.

Ophüls started directing films in 1931, scoring an early success with his romantic drama Liebelei (1933), completing a total of eighteen films in Germany and France between 1931 and 1940. While these films, especially Liebelei, gesture towards his later, more mature work, Ophüls was still establishing himself. The director made only two true noir films in his long and distinguished career, back to back: Caught (1948) and The Reckless Moment (1949), both from his brief period in the United States. To this most European and continental director, for whom romance was a sacred trust, with the camera revealing the innermost workings of the hearts of his characters, these two noirs were a distinct departure from his earlier work, and stand out as near aberrations in the director’s long and illustrious career. But they were created out of necessity, not design, for Ophüls never really wanted to come to Hollywood in the first place.”

You can read the rest of the essay here; my thanks to Daniel Lindvall, editor of Film International.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Yayoi Kusama

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay on Yayoi Kusama and Jud Yalkut’s film Self Obliteration in Film International.

As Foster notes, “as an internationally acclaimed Japanese/American artist, Yayoi Kusama rejects any Orientalist assumptions about her work or her self. Yet her playful performances and challenging happenings of the 1960s at times featured images of her wearing the traditional Japanese kimono. Kusama seemingly catered to the audiences of the West in evoking the spectacle of the demure and passive Asian female as much as she challenged those very notions in her performances and films. Kusama subverted the image of the woman in the kimono by juxtaposing it against her ‘happenings,’ which featured images of nude (often white) American bodies, often cavorting in sexual displays associated with the period, especially as seen in the New York art and experimental film subculture.

In filming and practicing the self and her own female Japanese body as art, the experimental visual artist and filmmaker Yayoi Kusama overturns Western white feminist and Eurocentrist notions of identity, especially those of the late 1950s and the following decade. Her work defies the borders of identity as much as it defies the reception of women artists, particularly Japanese women artists and filmmakers. Furthermore, by refusing to limit herself to film and video, she challenges the definition of the visual artist to include forms that range from poetry, music, novels, performance art and happenings, to digital artistry and conceptual films.

Similarly, her artistry and performance of her self-as-artist effectively displace any easy or overdetermined notions of the objectified Japanese female Other as a subject that is often seemingly ‘mastered’ or received as exotic, inscrutable, small, cute, foreign, nurturing, quiet or representing the passive sexually available female. While not limited to refashioning the Japanese female body as a self-mastered entity, her art and film work move the viewer into an active postionality that fosters a contemplation of art and bodies that are not easily defined.”

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

The Unbearable Lightness of Gravity; The Depth and Resonance of Adore

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

I have a review of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, and on a much happier note, Anne Fontaine’s Adore, in the latest issue of Film International. Spoilers abound, so proceed with caution.

I’ll lead off with my thoughts on Adore, which is much the better film, and let you take it from there; the section on Gravity is at the top of the piece: “Based on a novella by Doris Lessing, scripted by Christopher Hampton, with immaculate cinematography by Christophe Beaucarne, and a music score by Christopher Gordon that evokes Georges Delerue’s lush work for Godard’s Le Mépris (1963), Adore [aka Two Mothers in the film's first festival release] is an ambitious and daring film, which despite some minor flaws is a deeply evocative piece of work.

Naomi Watts, who also co-produced the film, stars as Lil, a widow in her mid 40s who has been best friends with Roz (Robin Wright) since childhood. Roz has a husband, Harold (Ben Mendelsohn, excellent as usual) and a son, Tom (James Frecheville). Lil lives close by with her son Ian (Xavier Samuel). Tom and Ian, both in their early 20s, are also best friends, and spend most of their time surfing and living a deceptively idyllic lifestyle. But matters become more complex when Ian and Roz tumble into bed, and then Tom and Lil follow suit. Harold, meantime, has found a teaching job in Sydney, and when Roz refuses to follow him there, he divorces her and remarries.

Both women decide to continue their relationships indefinitely, while keeping them a closely guarded secret – indeed, the rumor around town is that Lil and Roz are so close that they’re lesbian lovers, a rumor they do nothing to discourage. Both know that what they’re doing is potentially dangerous, but the pull of their emotions is too strong [. . .] Audiences, especially women, who rarely get a chance to see themselves portrayed as more than props or sidekicks on the screen, love it. The most perceptive review of the film thus far has come from Damon Wise in The Guardian, who called the film ‘an incredibly provocative piece of work, featuring a brave and vulnerable performance by Naomi Watts (who seems perhaps a little too young) and a career-high acting master class from Robin Wright (who is cast perfectly).’ I couldn’t agree more.”

So check them both out, and see for yourself.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Claire Denis’ Beau Travail

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new article out on Claire Denis’ classic film Beau Travail.

As she writes in her essay, “Reconsidering The Landscape of the Homoerotic Body in Claire Denis’s Beau Travail” in the September 10, 2013 issue of Film International, “I begin, as my title suggests, with a quote from Agnès Godard, the cinematographer of Beau Travail (1999): ‘The most inexhaustible landscapes for me remain faces and bodies.’

The inexhaustible possibilities for cinematically inhabiting the homoeroticized male body are remarkable in Beau Travail, a tale told largely in aestheticized shots of male bodies. As Claire Denis states, the abstract nature of the film relies on performativity; ‘the abstraction was in the meeting of the landscape and the rules, and all those bodies doing the same thing.’

Jim Hoberman argued that ‘in its hypnotic ritual, Beau Travail suggests a John Ford cavalry western interpreted by Marguerite Duras’, and the comparison seems extremely apt. It is a film that relies on memory editing techniques, memories of bodies sutured together by the voice-over of the central protagonist, Galoup. Denis also relies on performances rendered through the subjective re-membered gaze of a narrator whose mental landscape is rife with homoeroticized images of faces and bodies.”

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

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Alice Guy’s La Vie du Christ (1906)

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new article in Film International on Alice Guy’s La Vie du Christ (1906).

As she notes, “Alice Guy is a filmmaker whose body of work is still a site of contestation for modern critics; after all these years, her name is nearly unknown. Yet her output was prodigious. Of the nearly four hundred films Guy directed between 1896 and 1920, Guy has two main periods of work as a director: for Leon Gaumont’s studios, where she began her career after breaking out of the secretarial pool in 1896 to become, within a short space of time, the principal director for the studio; and in the United States for her own company, Solax, which flourished for a few brief years after the turn of the century in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Yet much of her work is lost. For a long time, only a handful of Guy’s many films were thought to have survived, among them Les Cambrioleurs (1898), Surprise d’une maison au petit jour (Episode de la Guerre de 1870) (1898), Les Maçons (1905), Le Fils du garde-chasse (1906), Le Noël de monsieur le Curé (1906), and La Course à la saucisse (1907).

However, in 2009, Gaumont released a shockingly well-preserved DVD of more than sixty of Alice Guy’s films made between 1987 and 1913, including Baignade dans le torrent (1897), Chez le magnétiseur (1898), La bonne absinthe (1899), her remake of her 1896 hit La Fée aux choux, ou la naissance des enfants (1900), Faust and Mephistopheles (1903), The Consequences of Feminism (1906), On the Barricade (1907) and La Vie du Christ (1906), at 33 minutes one of the most ambitious films made up to that point in cinema history, long before D.W. Griffith even stepped behind the camera to direct his first one-reel film, The Adventures of Dollie (1908). But history has not treated Alice Guy kindly, or even fairly; even with the release of the 60 films on this disc, she is still marginalized from most conventional cinema histories, and new articles appear on an almost annual basis “discovering” her for the first time, even as her films go unscreened in film history classes.

Yet Alice Guy is in the forefront of cinema history by any measure, working in sync-sound, hand tinted color, and making films of relatively epic length when the medium was still in its infancy. Indeed, close readings of the films of Alice Guy place her work at the center of cinema history. For the most part, the films of Alice Guy have been overlooked by film historians who incorrectly assume that Guy’s films represent a footnote to film history, rather than being one of the first major bodies of work in narrative cinema. Indeed, as one of the first persons to direct a film with a narrative structure, and thus to direct actors to convey the essence of the narrative through gestures and actions, Alice Guy is one of the originators of filmic acting, both in theory and in practice. Indeed, she is the first real auteur of the cinema.”

Alice Guy is the foremother of the cinema; you can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Christopher Sharrett on Beyond the Hills, or The Woman’s Prison

Friday, August 16th, 2013

Christopher Sharrett has a brilliant piece on the film Beyond The Hills in the latest issue of Film International.

As Sharrett notes, in part, “it amazes me that so few reviewers noted emphatically that Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (2012), like his earlier 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007), is a film about women, about the oppression of women, in an era that constantly rolls back the rights of women even in so-called enlightened nations. This is especially disturbing when we look at the reception of Beyond the Hills. Reviewers focused on the plight of two orphans more so than on sexual politics, and the culture of oppression and repression imposed on women [. . .]

Given how much disinformation has been disseminated in the US about the Soviet Union and its satellite states ever since the Bolshevik Revolution, it may be sensible to make a few observations about history before proceeding with comments about Mungiu’s cinema, especially if we are to see his art as relevant to us all, and not simply narratives to be read as documents of awful things that could not happen here. Neither the Soviet Union nor a satellite like Romania can be seen as ‘communist’ if one has a rudimentary knowledge (my level to be sure) of political economy [. . .]

The dreary backdrop of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days compares well indeed not just with the horror film, but with distinguished contemporary melodramas about American women of the working poor, like Frozen River (2009). The setting of Beyond the Hills would also look good in a cautionary fright film about a cult, except Mungiu reminds us how useless the notion of “cult” can be. The Orthodox monastery of this film has all the usual ingredients of a cult (the unquestioned authority of the male, women in a very vulnerable situation, adherence to arcane, bizarre dogma), but the film provokes the question: is this setting a strange aberration or simply the norm in miniature?”

You can read the entire piece by clicking here, or on the image above. Brilliant, timely, disturbing work.

Andy’s Gang, or Saturday Morning of the Living Dead

Friday, August 16th, 2013

I have a new article in Film International on the utterly bizarre 1950s children’s television show Andy’s Gang.

As I write, in part, “let us now consider Andy’s Gang, a horrific children’s television show from the 1950s. For those who live outside the United States, and didn’t grow up during the Cold War, this series may be absolutely unknown, and if this is the case, you can be thankful. For Andy’s Gang is the most twisted, most willfully odd and perverse television show imaginable, no matter what age group it’s aimed at. As one viewer put it, ‘the show reminds me of something David Lynch would come up with,’ but actually, that’s selling the show short. This one is truly off the charts, existing in a hermetically sealed land all its own, a phantom zone of non-performance and non-participation which is staggering in its dimensions and implications.

That’s quite a claim, but if I had to compare Andy’s Gang to anything else that comes under the heading of a moving image construct, I’d be almost instantly reaching for the horror films Castle of the Living Dead (1964), The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967), or Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon (1973, a.k.a. The Mansion of Madness). For here is a television show, ostensibly aimed at children, in which the host never met – not even once – any of the members of his supposed audience, or was even in the same room with them, or even the same year – and which is comprised of such serial repetition of actual footage, as well as ceaselessly repeating its own internal structure, that it almost defies description. Indeed, as I’ll show later, there are virtually web support groups for aging baby boomers who seem to have been traumatized by the show as children, more than 53 years after the final episode of the series aired.

Saturday morning television in the United States in the 1950s belonged exclusively to children; this was a holdover from the tradition of Saturday morning shows in movie theaters in the 1920s through the early 1950s, when boys and girls would rush down to the local theater to see a double bill of two genre films, usually a western and/or a science-fiction or horror film, plus some cartoons, a chapter of a serial or ‘cliffhanger,’ some trailers, travelogues, shorts, and other assorted screen fare. When television took hold in the mid 1950s, it spelled the death of these morning screenings – serials, for example, ceased production entirely in 1956 as a direct result of competition from television – and television did its best to slavishly copy the model the movie theaters had followed so successfully.

So, on Saturday morning network television, you could forget about anything aimed at an adult audience; instead, one got a nonstop diet of such series as Kukla, Fran And Ollie, Howdy Doody, Flash Gordon, Lassie, Annie Oakley, Ding Dong School, The Paul Winchell Show, The Roy Rogers Show, Captain Z-RO, The Rootie Kazootie Club, Winky Dink And You, Super Circus, The Cisco Kid, Sky King, Captain Midnight, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, The Pinky Lee Show, Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle and many more.

Each of these shows had their own peculiarities; Howdy Doody was a live puppet show, with a real live ‘Peanut Gallery’ where kids would scream and holler as the show progressed – in short, genuine audience interaction; Flash Gordon, starring Steve Holland, was filmed in West Berlin in converted beer halls on a miniscule budget; Winky Dink and You encouraged kids to actually draw on the picture tubes of their television sets with crayons to trace this week’s mystery clue – one was supposed to place a special “magic screen,” actually thin plastic film, over the screen before marking it up, but many kids, enthralled by the suspense, simply forgot this part of the process – and so on.

But Andy’s Gang was a breed apart. One thing above all set it apart from its competitors; all of the shows listed above were fiction, and presented themselves as fiction, and the audience – except perhaps for the very young viewers – recognized this. But Andy’s Gang was fiction masquerading as reality. None of it was real; the whole series was a fictive construct. But it didn’t start out that way; it took the death of the original host, and a canny television producer/director possessed of a peculiar vision to make this particular Twilight Zone of fantasy/reality.”

You can read rest of the article by clicking here, or on the image above; an amazing cultural Cold War artifact.

Inside The Asylum: The Outlaw Studio That Changed Hollywood

Friday, July 26th, 2013

I have a new article on The Asylum Studio in Los Angeles in the latest issue of Film International.

As I write, “Some people get into the movie business because they have a passion for film. Some have dreams of creating the ‘great American movie,’ or rising to the top of the Hollywood Dream Factory. But as mainstream films become ever more expensive, routinely costing $100,000,000 or more simply to produce, and then under-performing at the box office – Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger are two prime examples – it seems that the old system of making movies is broken.

The risks are simply too great – a few bad bets can sink a studio. Low budget films like The Purge and The Conjuring, both made for a pittance, rule the multiplexes. Spectacle and special effects just don’t bring in audiences anymore; people want something new, and outrageous, for their entertainment dollar. And a relatively new studio in Hollywood, The Asylum, is dedicated to doing just that; giving the viewer something the majors won’t. Something like Sharknado (2013).

The Asylum is following in a long line of low budget Hollywood production companies. Independent film studios, like American International Pictures in the 1950s and 60s, and Roger Corman’s New World Pictures and Concorde/New Horizons in the 1970s and 80s, offered viewers something the mainstream studios couldn’t; films aimed directly at their target audience – outlaw movies that made up their own rules as they went along.”

You can read the rest of the article on this fascinating studio here, or by clicking on the image above.

The Conjuring

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

I have a new essay on James Wan’s film The Conjuring in the latest issue of Film International.

As I note, “The Conjuring is a remarkably traditional film in both style and content; once again exorcism and possession are ramped up for the usual thrill ride, complete with objects flying around the house, children in peril, a possessed mother, ghosts from the past tormenting the living, with special effects that seem remarkably similar to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), the film that really kicked off the whole trend nearly half a century ago.  Indeed, the film itself is set in the early 1970s, and everything about it seems linked to the past; one might easily imagine that it was shot in the 1970s, as well. And, of course, it’s based on a true story!

Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters move into a crumbling isolated house in the middle of nowhere because it’s the best deal they can get; they don’t have much money, and the house is a real fixer-upper. Having gotten the property from the bank in a foreclosure proceeding for a song, they haven’t really inquired too closely into the house’s past – like, for example, the fact that it has a walled off cellar that apparently no one ever told them about, or that several murders and suicides have taken place on the grounds, but hey – a bargain is a bargain.”

You can read the rest of the by clicking here, or on the image above.

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 numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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