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Ingmar Bergman Retrospective at Film Streams

Friday, February 1st, 2013

Film Streams in Omaha is running an retrospective on filmmaker Ingmar Bergman.

Bob Fischbach interviewed me for a piece on the Ingmar Bergman festival at Film Streams in Omaha that begins today. Bob’s piece in the Omaha World Herald notes that: “‘You can’t say you’ve got an understanding of film unless you see the films of Bergman,’ Dixon contends. ‘His films are riveting, they have great entertainment value and they’re absorbing experiences. From the beginning, he addressed the timeless questions of human existence: life, death, love, faith, hope. Meditations on what it is to be alive, to have friends and lovers, to face mortality.’

Ernst Ingmar Bergman was born in Uppsala, Sweden, in July 1918. His father was a Lutheran minister, later chaplain to the king of Sweden. He directed more than 60 films and documentaries, most of which he also wrote. Bergman also directed 170 stage plays, through which he developed a core company of actors for his films: Max von Sydow, Liv Ullman, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Anders Ek and Gunnar Björnstrand among them.

He was one of the first European filmmakers to break through in the United States. Three of his films won the foreign-language Oscar: The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), and Fanny and Alexander (1983). Another, Cries and Whispers (1974), was nominated for best film.

Dixon said Bergman’s career began with a stroke of luck: being born in Sweden. Through its Svensk Filmindustri, the nation underwrites the first film of its best students from the national film school. ‘He never had to cater to anyone other than himself,’ Dixon said. ‘He created cinema as an art form because he didn’t worry about audience feedback or test screenings or producers.’ When Dick Cavett once asked Bergman what he’d do if a producer told him to change a script, Bergman replied that he’d tell the producer to go to hell. ‘That was a deeply inspirational model to filmmakers around the world, an art form undiluted,’ Dixon said.”

You can read the entire piece here; a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the work of an undisputed master on the big screen. Don’t miss it.

Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture by Ian Olney

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

Here’s an excellent new book on European horror cinema by Ian Olney, from Indiana UP.

This is a book that has been long in the making, and the effort and work show on every page. Olney does a superb job tracking modern European horror films from Italy, Spain and France, in a style that is at once academically rigorous and at the same time absolutely accessible; in short, this is a theoretical text that doesn’t drown itself in artificial systematizing or outdated jargon. Instead, this is a lively, informed, authoritative text on a group of films that have become increasingly influential in horror filmmaking in the United States, exploring the work of such artists as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava and many, many others.

As the jacket copy notes, “beginning in the 1950s, ‘Euro Horror’ movies materialized in astonishing numbers from Italy, Spain, and France and popped up in the US at rural drive-ins and urban grindhouse theaters such as those that once dotted New York’s Times Square. Gorier, sexier, and stranger than most American horror films of the time, they were embraced by hardcore fans and denounced by critics as the worst kind of cinematic trash. In this volume, Olney explores some of the most popular genres of Euro Horror cinema—including giallo films, named for the yellow covers of Italian pulp fiction, the S&M horror film, and cannibal and zombie films—and develops a theory that explains their renewed appeal to audiences today.”

The first reviews are already in, and they are raves:

“From lesbian vampires to cannibal zombies, this remarkable book charts the rise and fall of the European horror film, and most significantly its rediscovery by Western fans and critics in the 21st century. In a style both sophisticated and lucid, Olney examines key films and filmmakers within their national and international contexts. Guaranteed to send scholars and fans running back to their DVD outlets, either to discover or revisit some of the oddest and most provocative horror films of all time.” —Harry M. Benshoff, author of Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film.

“Ian Olney’s new book takes us on a journey into the dark world of European horror cinema. He offers up fascinating analyses of individual Eurohorror films while also, more provocatively, arguing for the value of Eurohorror generally to a contemporary politics of identity. Not everyone will agree with what Olney has to say, but his approach is always thoughtful and accessible and it demands our attention. This is an important contribution to the literature on horror cinema.” —Peter Hutchings, author of The Historical Dictionary of Horror Cinema

“Olney takes on a cinema that, much like the monsters it features, keeps coming back no matter how often you kill it. His welcome study traces the emergence, disappearance, and return of Euro-Horror within US culture since the fifties, its revilers and devotees, its subversive potential, and its echoes in the work of filmmakers like Haneke, von Trier, or Almódovar. In the process, Olney explodes the last of our treasured binaries: art vs. schlock, “real” vs. fan scholar, hack vs. auteur, progressive vs. regressive movie.” —Linda Schulte-Sasse, Macalester College

This last quote really sums up the book’s impressive achievement: Olney really does “the last of our treasured binaries: art vs. schlock, “real” vs. fan scholar, hack vs. auteur, progressive vs. regressive movie,” documenting the varying ways in which these films are apprehended by audiences around the globe, and the ways in which they transcend the boundaries of genre and artificial binaries to reach out to the widest possible audience.

This is a book to buy, and read, at once.

Happy 104th Birthday, Manoel de Oliveira!

Sunday, January 13th, 2013

Manoel de Oliveira directs Claudia Cardinale in his new film Gebo and the Shadow (2012).

I simply can’t get around it; Manoel de Oliveira is my favorite director working right now, period, and at the age of 104 — it’s just astounding — he has released a few film, Gebo and the Shadow (2012). His birthday was actually December 11th, but he’s been making films since 1927, and directing since 1931 — also simply astounding — which means he has been directing films for 82 years. There’s no one else who can even approach that record, and the most amazing thing is that Oliveira is still vital, active, writing and directing films that are among the best he’s ever done, really only hitting his stride in his late 80s. In this latest film, working with such topflight talent as Claudia Cardinale, Jeanne Moreau, Michael Lonsdale and Ricardo Trepa, Oliveira spins the tale of Gebo, a man living in a house in reduced circumstances with his mother and daughter in law, whose son Joao has long since vanished for parts unknown. Suddenly, one night, Joao returns. Is it for good, or for ill?

As Boyd van Hoeij of Variety notes of the film, which screened at the Venice Film Festival on September 5, 2012, “the dean of helmers, [the then] 103-year-old Portuguese maestro Manoel de Oliveira, adds another striking entry to his ever-lengthening filmography with Gebo and the Shadow. The French-language adaptation of a Raul Brandao play, about a poor Lusitanian family awaiting the return of its vagabond offspring, offers a variation on the parable of the prodigal son. In a late-career standout, Claudia Cardinale limns the role of the impressionable mother, who’s been kept in the dark about her son’s nothing-to-write-home-about ways.”

Oliveira’s long career has long been a source on wonderment and inspiration for me; even now, at the age of 104, he is currently working on pre-production for his sixtieth film, The Church of the Devil. His 2010 film The Strange Case of Angelica marked the first time Oliveira used digital special effects work, but he handled it with his typical restraint and mastery. It’s a shame that his work doesn’t get the distribution in the US that it so clearly deserves, since 1997 in particular, he’s racked up a stack of absolute masterpieces, including Voyage to the Beginning of the World, I’m Going Home, A Talking Picture, Magic Mirror, Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl and many others.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Gebo and The Shadow.

Surrealism and Sudden Death in the Films of Lucio Fulci

Monday, December 24th, 2012

I have a new article out today in Film International; “Surrealism and Sudden Death in the Films of Lucio Fulci.” Click here to see the entire article, or on the image above.

As I argue in my essay, “the films of Lucio Fulci, the Italian horror filmmaker, are usually lumped in with those of other ‘gore’ specialists, but it seems to me that this is just one component of Fulci’s work. Running through all his films is a strangely dreamlike, hyper-violent abandonment of narrative, which seeks to disrupt normative social values, perhaps as a result of Fulci’s youthful excursions into Marxist political thought.

In such films as The House by the Cemetery, The Beyond, City of the Living Dead and other works, Fulci continually works against audience expectations, both in terms of characterization and plot. In The Beyond, for example, a young blind woman’s faithful guide dog turns on her without warning, tearing her throat out; in City of the Living Dead, a young couple are making out in the front seat of a car when the girl’s father discovers them, and drags the young man to a drill press, which he uses to push a huge bolt through his skull.

Zombies roam hospitals, highways lead into the ocean with no end or beginning in sight, protagonists discover themselves trapped inside an oil painting, and there’s no logic to any of this. Fulci usually makes some desultory stab at a framing story, but once a central premise is set forth, the rest of the film is given over to random, unconnected, and seemingly unmotivated sequences that follow with no discernible order or reason. I would argue that the chaotic non-narrative structure of Fulci’s films puts him closer to the work of Luis Buñuel or Jean Cocteau; he creates a walking dream state from which the sleeper never awakes.”

My thanks to Daniel Lindvall for his patience in editing this piece; this essay is dedicated to the memory of an old friend, Rick Lopez, who first introduced me to Fulci’s work.

Global Cinema Journal Collection (1904-1946) Online

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

The Media History Digital Library has a new and valuable resource available to scholars: their collection of international film journals from 1904 to 1946, all online for the first time.

As the site notes, “the history of media is a global history – involving the exchange of workers, styles, and technologies across national borders. French publications, such as Cine-Journal and Cinéa, reveal the important contributions of French filmmakers to film history. However, these French periodicals also contain advertisements for American films and demonstrate the popularity of certain global stars, such as Charles Chaplin and Sessue Hayakawa (both of whom had careers that criss-crossed national borders).

Some publications themselves were transnational creations. American and Canadian film enthusiasts were among the readers of Home Movies & Home Talkies, the British magazine for amateur filmmakers. Meanwhile, J.P. Chalmers—publisher of the American trade paper Moving Picture World—also published Cine-Mundial for the Spanish language market. As a global history, media history has also been greatly influenced by the course of international events. The increased number of American film advertisements in Cinéa (1921-1923) compared to Cine-Journal (1908-1912) speaks to the global market dominance of the American film industry that occurred due to the devastation of European lives, economies, and film industries during World War I (1914-1918).

The Italian journal Cinema championed film as an art form, and it contains articles by future art cinema icons, such as Michelangelo Antonioni. However, no film or publication exists in a political vacuum. Just look at the masthead and see the name of Cinema’s editor-in-chief: Vittorio Mussolini, son of the nation’s dictator Benito Mussolini.”

Definitely worth a look for inside information on international cinema from the first half of the 20th century.

New Frame by Frame Video: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

I have a new Frame by Frame video out today, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on the 1945 films Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne by Robert Bresson.

I have blogged about this film before; as I wrote then, “one of Robert Bresson’s most incandescent works, this early film also marks the teaming of two of France’s most personal and idiosyncratic artists: Robert Bresson and Jean Cocteau. Cocteau (whose 1949 film Orpheus [Orphée] mesmerized post-World War II audiences), in addition to his numerous other accomplishments, wrote the dialogue for Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, loosely based on Denis Diderot’s short story Jacques le Fataliste et Son Maître. Elina Labourdette plays Agnès, a young woman who has been forced into a life of prostitution in wartime Vichy, France, in order to support herself and her ailing mother (Lucienne Bogaert).

At the same time, Hélène (the serpentine Maria Casarés) is breaking up with her longtime lover, Jean (Paul Bernard), and, feeling jilted by him, concocts an elaborate plot for revenge. Contacting Agnès and her mother, Hélène offers to take over their debts, move them out of the brothel they call home, and set them up in a sleek, modern apartment, with no strings attached. We discover too late Hélène’s true motives; she is doing all of this so that Jean will ‘accidentally’ meet Agnès, fall in love with her, marry her, and then become the subject of public ridicule because of Agnès’s past. All of this goes off with clockwork precision, but Jean, when confronted with the monstrousness of Hélène’s treachery, shakes off his bourgeois prudishness, embraces Agnès despite her fall from grace, and the film ends on a note of hope and Bressonian redemption. This film never fails to stun me with its sheer, vibrant beauty and psychological insight; I return to it again and again, and it never disappoints.”

I wrote an essay on the film in Senses of Cinema 46; you can read it here.

Frame By Frame: Subtitles vs. Dubbing

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

Subtitles rule.

I have a new episode out today in the Frame by Frame series, brilliantly edited by Curt Bright, in which I discuss the various disadvantages of dubbing, most tellingly that it separates the actor from his/her voice, and results in only half a performance, or less, on the screen. I watch subtitled versions of films whenever possible; sadly, most viewers seem to prefer dubbed versions, feeling that it’s too much work to watch an image and read the dialogue at the same time, but you get the real essence of a foreign language film when you view it with accurate subtitles — and I stress accurate subtitles — which you really don’t get when you see other actors providing their voices. Imagine Humphrey Bogart, or Marilyn Monroe, or John Wayne, or any other iconic American actor dubbed by someone else into another language; you’d miss all the nuances, the particular speech patterns, the pauses (as in John Wayne), the breathiness (in Monroe) or the world weary angst of Bogart’s raspy voice.

The image above is from Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (Swedish: Låt den rätte komma in, 2008), a film that would have been utterly ruined it it fell into the hands of a dubbing company; as it was, there was a terrible US remake of the film by Matt Reeves, titled simply The Right One (2010), which no one saw, and failed completely at the box office. The original film, in contrast, was a significant box office hit, and played around the world with subtitles, quite profitably. It’s a remarkable modern vampire film, and the actors are superb; much of the impact of the film would have been lost if the voices had been replaced with dubbing.

So the next time you have a choice on a foreign film, choose the subtitled version. It’s the only way to go.

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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