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Posts Tagged ‘Film Theory’

The Permanent Crisis of Film Criticism by Mattias Frey

Monday, December 15th, 2014

Here’s an interesting book on the current state of film criticism – a real concern of this blog.

Published by Amsterdam University Press, Frey’s book posits that “film criticism is in crisis. Dwelling on the many film journalists made redundant at newspapers, magazines, and other ‘old media’ in past years, commentators have voiced existential questions about the purpose and worth of the profession in the age of WordPress blogospheres and proclaimed the ‘death of the critic.’ Bemoaning the current anarchy of internet amateurs and the lack of authoritative critics, many journalists and academics claim that in the digital age, cultural commentary has become dumbed down and fragmented into niche markets. Mattias Frey, arguing against these claims, examines the history of film critical discourse in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He demonstrates that since its origins, film criticism has always found itself in crisis: the need to show critical authority and the anxieties over challenges to that authority have been longstanding concerns.”

It’s refreshing to see someone taking a level-headed, non-apocalyptic look at this issue; as Frey argues, “film criticism has always found itself in crisis,” from the earliest iterations of the cinema, and the rise of poplar “fan magazines” as opposed to the serious study of the cinema.The gap between pop culture “reviews” of the latest blockbuster – actually just opinion pieces with little real critical analysis, usually posted in daily newspapers or on the web, and considered by most readers not familiar with the study of film to be serious reviews, and work that actually takes the film apart, places it within a critical and historical context, measures it against similar films from the past, and operates from a detailed understanding of the medium as a whole – has been an ongoing issue in film criticism from the 1900s onward.

Frey’s book offers an excellent overview of the history of this contest between superficial, throwaway writing and actual critical analysis, and as he puts it, demonstrates that “the need to show critical authority and the anxieties over challenges to that authority have been longstanding concerns” in film history, theory and criticism. This is fascinating and important reading, demonstrating that the problem here isn’t so much the web – it’s the fact that many of the people writing on the web on film, as well as numerous other topics, substitute their own personal likes and dislikes for any real, informed analysis. In film as in all the arts, the audience is really an afterthought; it’s what the creators of any given work of art want to express that is paramount.

You can read a pdf of the introduction the book by clicking here, or on the image above.

John Flaus on Film and Television Acting

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

Mia Wasikowska and John Flaus in John Curran’s film Tracks (2014)

Although his name may be unfamiliar to American audiences, John Flaus has been a major force in Australian cinema since the 1960s, as well as key figure in the rise of Film Studies in Australia in academe. As Wikipedia summarizes his career, Flaus “attended Sydney University as an undergraduate from 1953 to 1971, eventually attaining a B.A. degree. Flaus has been active in the film society movement since 1953, and published his first film reviews in 1954. In the 1960s, he was a member of the Sydney University Film Group and the WEA Film Study Group with such notable people as Frank Moorhouse, Michael Thornhill, John Baxter and Ken Quinnell. He has lectured on film at various tertiary institutions, was Head of Education at the AFTRS, and designed the original Cinema Studies course at La Trobe University in 1970, the first of its kind in Australia. He became a professional actor in 1977 and has over 100 credits in theatre, film and television.”

While his influence in cinema as an actor is undeniable, what makes Flaus’s career all the more remarkable is the degree of thought and intelligence that goes into his work – whether the project at hand be a television movie or a feature film, he gives his all to every project he’s in. More importantly, he was able to articulate – brilliantly – the entire process of film and television acting. In a detailed article in Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture 5.2 (1990), edited by Adrian Martin, entitled “Thanks For Your Heart, Bart,” Flaus described both what it is like to work on various film projects, and why film acting is so very different than acting on stage.

As he put it, “Everybody is an actor, each of us wears a mask – except for saints and simpletons. Our motives may be several: affectation, emulation, defense, attack, manipulation, self-indulgence. We select our own role, choose when and where to perform (thereby selecting our audience), write or improvise our own scenario, decide how much is too much and when to stop. Each of us is the sole recipient of full satisfaction and (hopefully) understanding of our own performance. If we misunderstand we come to believe in the Role and mistake it for the Self; we are in ‘bad faith’ as we delude ourselves. The situation chooses us and we become misguided critics of our own acting.

The vocational actor must put himself at the disposal of other intelligences, other values, other strategies; and must simulate emotions germane to an imaginary situation which is the product of someone else’s imagining. The psychology of the vocational actor’s practice is radically different from that of everyday ’social acting’; his technique requires more skills, his psychology requires stronger discipline.

The historical origins of vocational acting cannot be dated accurately; it may be two and a half millennia since drama detached from ritual. Four centuries have passed since European drama became ‘theater’, its production commercial, acting professional and commentary influential. In this phase the text of the play was ‘company property’. Commentators drew upon ancient precepts and contemporary prejudices, and their comments were published.

Drama theory had little to say about acting theory, which did not become a topic in the public domain until the Romantic backlash to industrialism and absolutism, when the term ‘art’ acquired its current predication and yielded its old territory to ‘craft’. Before that, theory of acting had been virtually a guild secret. I think it reasonable to assume that most of such theory was pragmatic and normative. The advice I am going to offer later in this article will fit that description, too.

Nowadays theory of acting makes it into print for the general reader (‘at all good bookstores’), yet radical differences between live drama and photographed drama are not widely understood or practiced. Often film actors are undeservedly blamed – and praised – for creative decisions made by other artists: directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, designers, editors.

Much of the art and some of the craft of the stage actor provide the basis for the film actor’s practice. Most actors come to film work after some stage experience, and with some stage preconceptions and traditions. There are still things to learn – and maybe some to unlearn, depending on how ‘filmic’ the particular film or TV drama is.

Because the vocation of stage acting is so long established, rich in expertise and lore, and its virtues more widely understood than those of film acting, I will delineate my concern with my topic – film acting – by frequent reference to what it is not – stage acting.” Essential reading; my sincere thanks to Adrian Danks for bringing Flaus’s critical work to my attention.

This is brilliant writing; you can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Most Important Film Book of 2014: Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures

Monday, April 28th, 2014

I have a new review on this remarkable book in today’s issue of Film International.

As I note in my review, “literally hundreds of film books cross my desk every year; I review books on every imaginable genre, director, movement or filmic era on an almost daily basis for a variety of publications, but every so often, a book appears that instantly commands my attention as a work of inescapable importance. Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology is such a volume. Running to a staggering 680 pages, and yet priced in hardcover for a mere $85 on Amazon, this collection of film writings from the dawn of cinema to the present day, edited by Scott MacKenzie, is one of the most inspirational and informative volumes I’ve ever come across, because it highlights the constant need for renewal which typifies the cinema, potentially that most compromised of art forms. It is, indeed, one of the most important volumes on the history, theory and practice of the cinema ever compiled.

The struggle between capital and creation is an ongoing one, even with the advent of digital cinema, and yet it is more than ever vitally important that artists reclaim the cinema, making films that challenge and enlighten the viewer, and break away from established orthodoxies of cinema production. Most of the texts here were written by filmmakers, actual practitioners of the cinematic arts, and they are direct calls to action, even if they (blessedly) contradict each other, and often insist that only “they” are correct in their approach to the cinema. This is the sort of conflicting chaos that creates the most interesting and lasting films in cinema history; films born not out of the studio system, but out of warring, marginalized factions, working with outdated equipment, insufficient funds, no distribution, and nothing more than a vision, and a desperate desire to get the vision recorded by any means available.”

You can read the rest of my review on this absolutely essential volume by clicking here, or on the image above.

New Perspectives on World Cinema Series — Anthem Press

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and I have a new series of books from Anthem Press, London.

The New Perspectives on World Cinema series publishes engagingly written, highly accessible, and extremely useful books for the educated reader and the student as well as the scholar.

Volumes in this series will fall under one of the following categories: monographs on neglected films and filmmakers; classic as well as contemporary film scripts; collections of the best previously published criticism (including substantial reviews and interviews) on single films or filmmakers; translations into English of the best classic and contemporary film theory; reference works on relatively neglected areas in film studies, such as production design (including sets, costumes, and make-up), music, editing, and cinematography; and reference works on the relationship between film and the other performing arts (including theater, dance, opera, etc.).

Many of our titles will be suitable for use as primary or supplementary course texts at undergraduate and graduate levels. The goal of the series is thus not only to address subject areas in which adequate classroom texts are lacking, but also to open up additional avenues for film research, theoretical speculation, and practical criticism. There are already several books in the series — you can see them by clicking on the image above — and we are now actively looking for new volumes for publication.

Series Editors

Wheeler Winston Dixon – University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster – University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA

Editorial Board

David Sterritt – Columbia University, USA

Valérie K. Orlando – University of Maryland, USA

Thomas Cripps – Morgan State University, USA

Robert Shail – University of Wales Lampeter, UK

Catherine Fowler – University of Otago, New Zealand

Andrew Horton – University of Oklahoma, USA

Frank P. Tomasulo – City College of New York, USA

Proposals: We welcome submissions of proposals for challenging and original works that meet the criteria of this series.

Please contact us at: proposal@wpcpress.com

The Auteur Theory in Film

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

I have a new video today in the Frame by Frame series on auteur theory in film, which is one of the basic building blocks in beginning to understand any serious work of cinema.

You can click here, or on the image above, to see the video.

Here’s a transcript:

Hi. I’m Wheeler Winston Dixon, James Ryan professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and this is Frame By Frame. I want to speak for a few moments about the “auteur theory, “ the basic building block of all contemporary film theorists. Amazingly, in America, which is kind of the capitol of film production in the world, or one of the major film capitols, films were not considered as being made by directors,  producers, or even studios.

They were a “Clark Gable film,” or a “Bette Davis film,” or a “Boris Karloff film,” or a “Marx Brothers film,” or a genre film… a western, a science fiction, a horror film, and on and on. It was only in the 1940s that a film theorist named André Bazin founded a journal called Cahiers du Cinéma, literally “the notebooks of cinema,” and a group of young critics — people like Jean Luc Godard, writing as Hans Lucas, Eric Rohmer, Francois Truffaut — began writing about films from the point of view that the director is the primary creator of the film, and that each director’s individual signature is distinct, but also that each director has certain key thematic preoccupations that one can find throughout their work.

So just briefly, in John Ford’s films “professionalism” is something which is foregrounded; in Howard Hawks’ films, you have the “Hawksian woman,” a pre-feminist construct, a woman who can hold her own with the men in the picture. Alfred Hitchcock’s films offer an incredibly bleak worldview. Frank Capra’s films have a theme of small town populism and optimism running through all of them. This kind of distinction of the director as the primary creator of a film was something that only crossed to the United States in 1963, when Andrew Sarris, an American film critic in New York, wrote a book called The American Cinema, which listed for the first time the major film makers and their major preoccupations.

Auteurism is now almost taken for granted. People consider films as an “Alfred Hitchcock film,” a “Howard Hawks film,” an “Ingmar Bergman film,” a “Bernardo Bertolucci film,” a “Quentin Tarantino film.” And in most cases, the director is the primary force behind the making of a film. Movies are a team effort. But without one vision to guide them, films collapse into committee projects, which may be commercially successful, but aren’t personal statements. And so the director’s input into a film is absolutely essential, and auteurism has become the dominant way of looking at films in theory and criticism.

The Limits of the Image

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Here’s an image by Michelle Lyles from the web, which she titled “God had some fun painting the clouds this morning,” which is stunningly beautiful. But it got me thinking about the limits of the image, and what it can and can’t express. As transcendent and Wordsworthian as this image is, it can’t convey the experience of witnessing this morning sky firsthand. Jean-Luc Godard’s oft-quoted maxim “it isn’t a just image; it’s just an image” is part of what I’m getting at here, but what really is at stake is the essence of the image, and what it really represents.

As film critics, theorists, and historians, we are obsessed with images, and continually deconstruct them as part of our daily work. Yet in the end, the image above is simply a series of pixels and color tones on a screen, possessing only a phantom existence, which it would have even if it were fixed on paper as an analogue photograph.

André Bazin commented that if one looked intently at an object with a  camera, one might be able to document the essence of that which was being photographed. But in reality, all one comes away with is a portion of the experience, an aide de memoire to remind one of the experience, but not contain it. I’m curiously suspicious of the power of the image to sway us emotionally, or to allow us to drift into sentiment; it asks the viewer to be transported to another space or time, and yet the experience of that moment remains beyond authentic recall.

Perhaps this is why I have so few photos of vacations, family members, and the like, and have only been photographed a few times; images always fail, always interpret, always deceive by their very nature. The nature of the cinema is illusion, and the nature of illusion is to make that which is not real seem actual. But it isn’t. It isn’t even “just an image.” It’s a deception — something designed to evoke a certain response, or randomly executed by chance. It’s only a talisman of the real, and possesses no reality of its own.

Senses of Cinema

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

While there is a lot of writing on film available on the web today, much of it is fan-based, or of highly variable quality. And the really intelligent, thoughtful work on the web is often locked behind a pay wall, on a “download by article” basis. That’s why it’s so important that Senses of Cinema, one of the first, and certainly one of the most prestigious, online journals continues to flourish. Senses of Cinema brings together some of the most accessible and informed writing on film that’s available today, in a format that is accessible to all. As the journal says in its mission statement,

Senses of Cinema is an online journal devoted to the serious and eclectic discussion of cinema. We believe cinema is an art that can take many forms, from the industrially-produced blockbuster to the hand-crafted experimental work; we also aim to encourage awareness of the histories of such diverse forms. As an Australian-based journal, we have a special commitment to the regular, wide-ranging analysis and critique of Australian cinema, past and present.

Senses of Cinema is primarily concerned with ideas about particular films or bodies of work, but also with the regimes (ideological, economic and so forth) under which films are produced and viewed, and with the more abstract theoretical and philosophical issues raised by film study. As well, we believe that a cinephilic understanding of the moving image provides the necessary basis for a radical critique of other media and of the global “image culture”.

We are open to a range of critical approaches (auteurist, formalist, psychoanalytic, humanist…) and encourage contributors to experiment with different forms of writing (personal memoir, academic essay, journalistic report, poetic evocation…). We commission and accept articles from academics and journalists, internationally-known authorities and previously unpublished cinephiles alike; our only criteria are that they should shed new light on their subjects, and be informed by a broad knowledge and love of cinema. Likewise, our readership is a genuinely diverse group, bringing together people from a wide range of backgrounds, professions and interests but bound by a single common element: an informed, passionate and serious attitude toward cinema as an art.

We recognise that an art as ephemeral and ethereal as cinema continues to fascinate, provoke, inspire, turn on, and evolve. Above all, we seek to facilitate approaches to cinema that present new possibilities for exploring, experiencing and imagining the world we live in.”

The journal also has an excellent series of essays on the “great directors” which is continually expanding; if you’re doing research for a project, or just want to read some truly informed and intelligent film theory and criticism, Senses of Cinema is one of the few web-based film theory journals that can consistently be relied upon for accuracy, quality, and depth.

Frame by Frame Videos

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

Here’s a link to a collection of short, 2-3 minute videos I do for the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, directed and edited by Curt Bright; this page is regularly updated, and lists all of them, in reverse chronological order. There are about 47 right now, with more added nearly every week.

Just click on the box above, or here, and happy viewing!

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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