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“A Lioness on the Prowl”: Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

I have an article out today on Jonathan Glazer’s new film Under The Skin in Film International.

As I write, in part, “Under The Skin is being sold on the basis of a simple premise, which is true on the face of it, but also offers just the merest suggestion of what the film is in its totality. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien inhabiting a woman’s body, who trolls through the Scottish countryside and cities searching for young men, enticing them with the promise of a sexual encounter, and then killing them for food.

In this, she is monitored by another alien, who takes on the form of a sinister motorcyclist (played by real life champion cyclist Jeremy McWilliams), who is there to make sure that Johansson’s character stays on track with her mission. That’s pretty much the plot, or as much of it as I want to give away, but there’s a great deal more going on here than this bare outline would suggest.

Firstly, there’s no real sex in the film, just the promise of sex. Although Johansson lures several men into her white van during the first third of the film, and then takes them back to her flat, ostensibly for sex, nothing really happens; the men strip off and approach Johansson, who backs away from them, as the men sink into some sort of primordial ooze that swallows them up, and then reduces them to fleshy pulp for otherworldly consumption. Indeed, there is more frontal male nudity here than female, and it’s clear that one of the many things that the film is interested in is the fetishization of sex; Johansson’s simulacric image has been created as nothing more than a stock male fantasy.

We get only one glimpse of the actual harvesting process, in which two men, both victims, are now in a sort of limbo, and desperately attempt to touch each other to make some sort of contact, and perhaps escape the trap they’ve fallen into. But no such luck; in an instant, one of the men is reduced to nothing more than a human husk, and the pulp of his body is sucked through a chute into a door of some kind, food for Johansson’s cohorts in a distant galaxy.

Although there are a number of scenes in the film in which Johansson is nude, they’re sequences in which, as an alien, she examines her new body, and wonders at its construction, and why it’s so alluring to her victims. In the opening third of the film, she is utterly without humanity, clubbing one man to death on a beach and leaving an infant baby to be swept out into the tide without even the slightest shred of remorse. But then again, she’s not human – she doesn’t understand the meaning of the word.”

This is a remarkable film, but you’ll have to seek it out; see it as soon as you can.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or, Nothing You Believe is True

Saturday, April 5th, 2014

I have a new review out on this rather remarkable project in Film International; read it here!

As I write, in part, “I’m teaching a class right now in comic book movies, partly to trace the history of the genre from the 1940s on – when they began as Saturday morning serials – and partly to discover, if I could, why these films have moved to the mainstream of cinematic discourse. There’s no question about it anymore; Comic-Con rules the multiplex, and for the most part, I’ve avoided these films like the plague.

I remember sitting through Christopher Nolan’s interminable and interminably boring Inception (2010) impatiently looking at my watch throughout the film; there was nothing in it even remotely original, and plenty that had been “borrowed” from Cocteau, Resnais, and others, and at the center, it really wasn’t about anything.But at least the emptiness of that film was less offensive than the straight out class warfare of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), which Daniel Lindvall effectively eviscerated in the pages of Film International. And yet from the Iron Man films to Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011), emptiness, coupled with over-the-top violence, is all that’s on display.

Here, we have something different. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes on the CIA, hypersurveillance systems, killer drones, and the Snowden affair, and comes down on the side of the average citizen for a change, rather than the ruling elite. The special effects are absolutely non-stop, the violence is ramped up to hyperkinetic levels, with cutting to match, and the performances are all cardboard, but at the center of the film, giving one of his most effective performances in years, is none other than Robert Redford, who’s never done a comic book film before, superbly playing the villain of the piece.”

Read the rest of the review here now; it’s best in 3-D, on a big screen – who says I don’t like some mainstream movies?

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s L’Immortelle Finally Released on DVD and Blu-ray

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Click here to read my review of the DVD of L’Immortelle released yesterday, a full 51 years after the fact.

As I note, “L’Immortelle was shot in 1962, and released in France on March 27, 1963, but despite the enormous success of Marienbad, L’Immortelle was deemed too difficult for American audiences, and resolutely uncommercial – which it is – and with a rough negative cost of $100,000, the producer and distributor of the film deemed a United States release more trouble than it was worth. And so it was not until six years later that L’Immortelle made the rounds of screening rooms in Manhattan; after that, I think it might have played at a few art houses for a week or so, but then it vanished from sight completely.

L’Immortelle itself has a curious genesis; it was made with blocked funds in Turkey that couldn’t be taken out of the country, and so shooting in Istanbul was a given, though Robbe-Grillet had ties to the city and knew it well. The producers even went so far as to say that they didn’t even really care if the film made money, just so long as they could get something out of Turkey. Thus, Robbe-Grillet and his wife, Catherine, who appears in the film as the enigmatic Catherine Sarayan, scouted locations and had the entire project ready to go, when a revolution interrupted their plans, and shooting had to be put off for two years before a new regime was installed, and some semblance of order restored. Then the film was shot quickly and efficiently, in richly saturated black and white.

The film’s narrative is so slight as to be nonexistent; the official press synopsis describes the film as ‘an erotic, dream-like fantasy in which a despondent man meets a beautiful, secretive woman who may, or may not, be involved in using kidnapped women as prostitutes.’ This is as good a synopsis as any might be, because the real psychic and visual terrain of the film is memory, repetition, the impossibility of knowing another, the unreliability of the senses, and a circularity of narrative that keeps bringing the viewer back to one location after another with the stubborn insistence of a spectral tour guide who seemingly insists that we visit a room, a mosque, a nightclub, an antique store, an apartment and numerous other locations just one more time, until they are indelibly imprinted on our memory.

The leading characters, Françoise Brion and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, known only as L and N respectively, are not so much characters as situations; people frozen in time and memory who walk through the film with an air of complete detachment from any sort of reality, as if they are the principals in their own fantasy of Istanbul, and the few supporting characters who surround them behave in exactly the same fashion. Scenes are routinely repeated two, three times or more, sometimes exactly the same, down to the slightest detail, and other times with minor variations, seemingly in slow motion, as if actors are sleepwalking through the world they inhabit. Often, characters appear within a scene without explanation, as if they had always been there, and perhaps always will be there; timeless, unchanging, fixed and motionless.

There is a timelessness about the film, and for good reason; as Robbe-Grillet has acknowledged on numerous occasions, Françoise Brion’s character is already dead when the film begins, although she assumes a phantom corporeality for the purposes of the film, and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, for all intents and purposes, is in love with someone who no longer exists, if she ever existed – in fact, we can’t be sure if any of the narrative ever occurred, or if everything we’re seeing is a fever dream, something conjured up out of loneliness, isolation, or the sheer existential longing of one man’s need to be loved.”

This is essential cinema; get the DVD or Blu-ray now, and prepare to be astonished.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster: Surviving the Monster Mom: Child’s Pose

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay in Film International on the Romanian film Child’s Pose.

As she writes, “If a toxic abusive mother raised you, be forewarned. Child’s Pose is a harrowing and deeply traumatic film that will leave you shaken far beyond any previous cinematic exploration of familial horror and dysfunction. Another superb example of the Romanian New Wave Cinema, Child’s Pose (Pozitia copilului), directed by Călin Peter Netzer, and co-written by Netzer and novelist Răzvan Rădulescu, emerged from lengthy discussions Netzer and Rădulescu had about their own domineering mothers. The result is one of the most emotionally demanding films one can imagine.

The plot of Child’s Pose is deceptively simple: a wealthy Romanian mother, Cornelia Keneres (Luminita Gheorghiu) will stop at nothing to keep her son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) from going to jail after he hits and kills a young boy while speeding on the freeway in a race with another driver. That a wealthy son is responsible for the death of an underprivileged child is important in that it is used to force us into an engagement with a spectacularly dysfunctional mother-son relationship and, at a secondary level, to explore the evil of the class system of Romania, a society rife with blatant corruption and moral decay.

As Dana Stevens notes in Slate, “the original title, Pozitia copiluilui, refers to the literal physical position of a child – an image which might have several meanings in the movie’s context, none of them involving a relaxing forehead-to-floor asana,” and much more to do with the cringing, child-like, defeated persona of Barbu, who seems to have no life or will of his own. I have never witnessed another film that so effectively captures the inescapable trauma of being the spawn of such a dangerously toxic pathological mother. There is no doubt in my mind that both Netzer and Rădulescu understand first hand the pathology of the monstrous parent; the level of realism in the film obviously has much to do with personal experience.”

You can read the rest of Foster’s essay on this amazing film by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Narcissistic Sociopathology of Gender: Craig’s Wife and The Hitch-Hiker, Part 2

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

Here’s Part II of Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s essay on The Hitch-Hiker and Craig’s Wife in Film International.

As Foster writes, “while Dorothy Arzner’s Craig’s Wife (1936) revolves around a pathological female who is undone by her desperate attempts to conform to the norms of patriarchy during the depression era, Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953) presents us with a male serial killer, another malignant narcissist in Emmett Myers (William Talman) who is similarly desperate to prove his identity and gender through sadistic and sociopathic homicidal behavior. Talman, as Myers, spends most of the movie terrorizing two World War II veterans, Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) and Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien). He is a serial killer with a chip on his shoulder; he likes to verbally abuse men, keeping them alive just to taunt them. He is not a veteran, and doesn’t have the baggage of a family, or the debts that the men have to support the suburban lifestyle, as he constantly reminds them, but that’s because he lives entirely outside society, preying on it, rather than participating in it.

The key to understanding The Hitch-Hiker is simply asking ourselves why Myers doesn’t just kill the men off at the earliest opportunity. At first he uses them as drivers and he uses them to get food, but as we learn from radio broadcasts, the law has no idea where he is for most of the movie so Myers doesn’t really need these men to survive. Of course it adds to the suspense that he can simply kill them at any time but oddly, he doesn’t kill them. Perhaps he wants them around to admire him and obey him and fulfill his needs as a narcissist? Myers could simply take the car and move on to the next victim, but he actually appears to enjoy trying to come between these two war veterans who themselves are close companions and prefer one another’s company over the company of their wives. Myers may be a serial killer, but he clearly enjoys the company of men. They bring him pleasure.”

Your can read the entire piece by clicking here now, or on the image above – - must reading!

The Narcissistic Sociopathology of Gender: Craig’s Wife and The Hitch-Hiker, Part One

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Here’s an important new article by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on two key feminist films in Film International.

The image above shows director Dorothy Arzner on the set of her 1936 film Craig’s Wife, with Director of Cinematography Lucien Ballard at her side. As Foster writes, “it’s instructive to study the work of Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino in context with one another. Though at first glance, one might easily conclude that the only thing they have in common is that they were the only women who managed to direct films during the days of the classical Hollywood studio system, a deeper look into their work exposes a stronger connection between the two; an ability to decimate and undermine the values of home and hearth as they are offered in the union of marriage under the umbrella of capitalism and an expose of the hypocrisy of American gender roles as deeply sociopathic and destructive.

Dorothy Arzner’s bleak “women’s picture” Craig’s Wife (1936) a Depression era adaptation of a stage play – and I’d argue, a feminist horror film – made as a major studio project for Columbia Pictures, revolves around the sociopathy of a destructive female narcissist, while Ida Lupino’s darkly expressionist film The Hitch-Hiker (1953), is based on the true story of male serial killer independently financed, and combines elements of several genres: horror, noir, suspense, the home invasion film and the crime thriller. These films are from different decades and genres, and may seem, at first glance, to have little in common. What I find most interesting and full of critical potential is that both are dominated by sociopaths; characters who suffer from malignant narcissism who act as mirrors held up to America; and both have queer potential.

Though I must stress that they were unique as individuals and had very different directorial styles, Arzner and Lupino remain historically linked by the fact that they were the only two women in the sound era to direct films in Hollywood and the first two women to belong to the Director’s Guild. Women, who had once flourished as film directors in the silent era, had by the sound era been pushed out of the field.Yet, both these filmmakers despised the special attention the media paid to their gender and they were equally vocal about their deep distaste for such attention, even when their uniqueness as female directors was routinely used as a selling point in the studio trades and publicity materials.”

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

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

New Article – Preliminary Notes on the Monochrome Universe

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International; click here, or on the image above, to read the entire essay.

In the essay, I note that “lately I’ve been thinking about black and white movies, and how they’ve almost completely disappeared from the current cinematic landscape. There are occasional projects shot in black and white, but with cinema rapidly becoming an all-digital medium, and black and white film stock almost impossible to purchase, color has taken over completely, either glossy and popped-out, or desaturated for a more dramatic effect, but always using some palette of color. Furthermore, while there have been numerous books on the use of color in the cinema, there has been no book-length study on the black and white film, and yet black and white cinema dominated the industry internationally for nearly seven decades, until the late 1960s.

Certainly, numerous cameramen and directors have weighed in on the use of black and white in their works, most notably John Alton in Painting With Light, but in each case, these works were created when black and white was still a commercially viable medium. Most of the texts I’ve encountered, with the exception of Alton’s book, and to a lesser extent Edward Dmytryk’s Cinema: Concept and Practice, written after the director had long since retired, treat black and white filmmaking as a part of everyday life, the main production medium for most movies, which at the time, it certainly was.

In these necessarily practical books, it’s about f-stops, filters and cookies, but very little about the aesthetics of the medium. Indeed, when Alton published his landmark study, he was famously excoriated by his colleagues as being a pretentious self-promoter; what cameramen did was work, nothing more, and any notions of artistic ambition were inherently suspect. In most of the books cited below, color is dealt with as a special case, which again, it was; but now, in the all color, all digital world of images we currently inhabit, black and white has become the anomaly. Thus, I wanted to set down some preliminary notes on my new project here, before they elude me; the title is Black and White: A Brief History of Monochrome Cinema, the term used by British filmmakers until the medium’s demise in the mid 1960s.

And yet shooting in black and white is inherently a transformative act. As the filmmaker and opera director Jonathan Miller – whose beautiful film of Alice in Wonderland (1966) was elegantly photographed in black and white by the gifted Dick Bush – once observed in a conversation with me, the very act of making a black and white film transmutes the original source material, for life, as we know, takes place in color. Therefore, there is an intrinsic level of stylization and re-interpretation of reality when one makes a black and white film, leading to an entirely different way of cinematography. Indeed, it’s an entirely different world altogether, one that is rapidly slipping away from us as it recedes in the mists of the past.”

The book will take several years of work, but this is, at least, a start.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

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 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.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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