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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.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Post Tenebras Lux

Monday, July 8th, 2013

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay out on Post Telebras Lux in Film International

As Foster points out, “I’m always attracted to films that cause an uproar, critical polarization, outrage, anger, dismissal, and confusion. Thus I was drawn to the Mexican film Post Tenebras Lux when I read about the decidedly mixed critical reaction it received at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. It was loudly booed, some critics were openly hostile and dismissive towards it, and yet Carlos Reygadas, who directed the film, was awarded the Best Director Award at the same festival. Audiences at Cannes, though, have a history of booing films that are later hailed as masterworks. BAMcinétmatek recently ran a series of films that most agree are masterpieces, but were initially rejected and “booed” at Cannes. Films such as Buñuel’s El (This Strange Passion, 1953), Antonioni’s L’eclisse (Eclipse, 1962), Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964), Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Bresson’s L’argent (1983) and Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) are among the list of films that were initially met with loud jeering, harsh criticism, and general incomprehension.

After a cursory glance at reviews, I fully expected an almost incomprehensible, dull, self-indulgent, inscrutable and difficult, if not impossible film. I figured I could always leave early if it was downright awful, but I had a sneaking suspicion that it might be quite the opposite, and my suspicions were more than confirmed. I am so thrilled that I was fortunate to see such a dazzling and beautiful film projected on the big screen. Where others found an overly “demanding” and “difficult” film, I felt Post Tenebras Lux was anything but “difficult.” I experienced the film as an exhilarating and sublime poetic examination of patriarchy and class wound into a liberating and absorbing dream-like narrative deliciously open to interpretation and openly imaginative.

Post Tenebras Lux is purposefully rendered precisely in the realm described in Buñuel’s words, “somewhere between chance and mystery.” Like Luis Buñuel, Carlos Reygadas values highly both freedom and imagination, and I find it very disturbing that so many critics, those whom should champion films that embrace the dream state between chance and mystery, reject the film as too difficult. Carlos Reygadas actively gives the gift of freedom of interpretation to the audience, but, unfortunately, many critics seem to reject that free space of imagination that Buñuel valued so highly. Ironically, ‘Post Tenebras Lux’ translates from Latin into ‘Light After Darkness.’ Perhaps if critics would return to the film for a second viewing, they may be lucky enough to experience that revealing glow and step out of the darkness into light.”

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

The Disquieting Aura of Fabián Bielinsky

Monday, April 29th, 2013

I have a new article today on the late director Fabián Bielinsky in Film International.

As I note, “the roots of [Bielinsky's film] The Aura go way back in Bielinsky’s childhood, to a screening of John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), which so mesmerized the young cineaste that he refused to leave his seat until the management gave him a poster of the film as a souvenir. Over the years, Deliverance occupied almost the entire space in the young director’s mind, and it’s worth noting that even as he suggested after the success of Nine Queens that he might next like to try his hand at ‘a psychological thriller,’ the first draft of the script for The Aura was written in 1983, the year he directed the short film La Espera, and graduated from the national film school. The film was in every way darker and more fatalistic than Nine Queens; as he declared from the outset of the film’s production, The Aura was designed to please no one but its maker.

As Bielinsky told Jorge Letelier in the film journal Mabuse, ‘the [film’s] theme is crime, but its structure allows for more discussions because […] I decided to accept a series of brutal and dangerous breaks in the structure, because in a genre film audiences expect a certain type of structure and rhythm according to the rules of the genre in question. I opted to go on breaking those rules, so that things wouldn’t happen when they were supposed to happen.’ And this, indeed, is precisely what sets The Aura apart from more traditional crime ‘thrillers’ – it is, at its heart, a study in psychological penetration, gesturing back to the director’s early studies in psychology, and his examination of the ethos of machismo in Latin American society.

And it’s clear that as an omnivorous moviegoer, Bielinsky knew, much better than most of the people who interviewed him, that Nine Queens had been a work of precise calculation, every bit the same sleight-of-hand trick that the film itself celebrated. Make The Aura first? Not likely. Make a crowd pleaser first, designed to appeal to the widest possible audience, and then, if you were lucky and worked hard, you just might get a shot at a script that had been kicking around in your file drawers since your 24th birthday – a work so dark, so uncompromising, so willfully designed not to please, that it might as well have been Godard’s Le Petit Soldat or Les Carabiniers (both 1963), films which represented an outright assault on their respective audiences. And when an unsuspecting critic suggested that someone like David Mamet might be an influence on Bielinsky’s work, the director was quick to disabuse them of that mistaken notion.

When David Edwards ventured that Mamet might perhaps have been ‘a particular influence,’ Bielinsky good naturedly, but firmly, put Edwards in his place, saying that, ‘well, you know I was writing ideas like this before I even knew David Mamet existed! Of course, it’s flattering to be compared to him because he’s such a great scriptwriter and playwright. But, you know, Mamet didn’t invent this. There’s a whole history of con man movies before he came on the scene. I mean, I think about films like The Sting, Paper Moon, The Flim Flam Man, House of Games, the films of Fellini and other Italian films I saw when I was a teenager.’

So the roots of both Nine Queens and The Aura run deeply into not only Bielinsky’s past, but the past of cinema as a whole, and now, with the immense success of his first film, and the American remake racking up acceptable grosses, producers who were formerly unwilling to take a chance on Bielinsky’s pet project now agreed to participate. True, he had to cobble together financing from a variety of sources, and especially in the wake of Argentina’s financial collapse, everything – not just filmmaking – was a daily struggle, but at length, all was in place, and Bielinsky was allowed to embark upon the dark journey of The Aura which, though he did not know it at the time, would be his last testament as a filmmaker.

If Nine Queens presents the picture of a world becoming undone, a picture, in the words of Michael Chanan ‘of a corrupt society, where everyone is conning everyone else, a metaphor for a dangerous political situation on the verge of coming to a head, with a closing scene – as a bank puts up its shutters and depositors clamor for their money – that is nothing short of prophetic,’ then The Aura shows the aftermath of that society’s collapse, which is now no longer a joking matter, but rather a deadly serious fight for survival.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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