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Posts Tagged ‘independent filmmaking’

Roberty Downey Sr.’s Pound (1970)

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

Robert Downey Sr. (center) with cast members on the set of his film Pound.

As readers of this blog know, I’m a friend and fan of the work of Robert Downey Sr., whose best known film after all these years is Putney Swope. I first met Bob back in 1969, right after the success of Putney, when he was editing Pound in a cutting room in the West 50s in Manhattan. We hit it off, and remain friends to this day, but although I’ve written about a lot of his other work, I’ve never really tacked Pound, which is simultaneously one of his most disturbing and ambitious films, and was – at least in my mind – a highly unlikely follow-up to Putney Swope. But at this point in his career, Bob could write his own ticket, and the result is one of the darkest, most unsettling visions of humanity in crisis that ever hit the screen – yet to this day, Pound is almost impossible to see.

As Rich Drees noted in a 2006 article on Pound, the plot of the film is simple: “set in a New York City dog pound, 18 dogs, played by human actors, wait to be adopted. Part existential comedy, part allegory, the dogs include a punch drunk Boxer (Stan Gottlieb), a hyperactive Mexican Hairless (a scene stealing Lawrence Wolf) and a sleek Greyhound (Antonio Fargas). Meanwhile, the city is being terrorized by a serial killer dubbed The Honky Killer (James Green). Pound also features the debut of performance of Downey’s son Robert Jr. as a puppy temporarily held at the pound.”

But that’s just the set-up. Hovering over all the characters is the continual threat of death from “the needle” – they’re not so much waiting to be adopted, as waiting to be executed. A terrier advises that they should revolt against their captors and escape, while an airedale argues that their deaths are not imminent, and a pardon is forthcoming. Throughout the film, there a number of mournful musical numbers which verge on nihilistic vaudeville, interspersed with a series of philosophical diatribes on the nature of existence, the transience of life, and the ways in which we’re all in a prison of one sort or another, whether we wish to admit it or not.

The end of the film is terrifying, as all of their ranting against the caprices of fate comes to naught. Without warning, a guard peremptorily pulls a switch that sends poisonous gas into the holding chamber, and one by one, the animals die an agonizing death, with each “dog” given a last, wistful closeup as they expire. Downey then cuts to a final sequence on a train to nowhere, as the “dogs” sit in their seats, bound for who knows where – heaven? hell? limbo? – and a candy barker walks through the aisle with a megaphone singing the 1930s song “Just One More Chance,” the lyrics of which, in part, lament that “we spend our lives in groping for happiness / I found it once and tossed it aside / I paid for it with hours of loneliness / I’ve nothing to hide.” And on this unresolved note, the film ends.

Not surprisingly, Pound was summarily rejected by the sponsoring studio, MGM, who for some reason, Downey told me, thought that the film would be an animated cartoon. When they saw the finished result, MGM dumped it on the bottom half of a double bill with Federico Fellini’s Satryicon, to Downey’s delight. Yet not surprisingly, given the film’s incredibly bleak outlook on life, Pound has never had a VHS or DVD release, although it was available as a streaming download on Netflix for a time, but has now been withdrawn.

Indeed, as Drees notes, it’s a miracle that the film exists at all, since “the only print of the film that Downey could locate was found in his ‘cameraman’s ex-wife’s closet . . . a 35mm print that was dead.’ Although the print itself was deemed unprojectable, it was able to be digitally scanned and restored. ‘So they put the color back in,’ says Downey. ‘They cleaned up the sound a bit too. Technology is great, it’s just the movies aren’t getting any better. It’s only because of digital technology that some of this stuff can be saved, because most of the colors just go. Most of my stuff in color other than Greasers Palace (1972), I hate the color. I love black and white.’”

Based on a play Downey wrote very early in his career, The Comeuppance, which was produced Off-Off Broadway in 1961, Pound betrays its theatrical origins, and has strong links to Sartre’s play No Exit, as well as to Downey’s even earlier efforts, such as his first play about two nuclear missiles in a silo, waiting go off, talking to each other about the destruction they will inevitably inflict on humankind. Pound can certainly be seen as an extension of that, and it’s no wonder that it was so roundly rejected by the general public, and got an NC-17 rating – it’s a real warning that the only one you can really trust in life is yourself.

There are bootlegs of the film, of course, drifting around on the web, and today, the film’s major curiosity draw seems to be the brief appearance of Bob Downey Jr. in a small role as a puppy – but the film is much more than that. It’s certainly not a masterpiece, and Downey himself has expressed definite reservations about Pound, but all in all, it’s one hell of a scary vision of life, and a real outlier in film history – the work of someone chasing not success, but his own vision, consequences be damned. As Downey said of his work as a filmmaker, “after being thrown out of the house, four schools and the United States Army, I discovered that I was on the right track.”

“I just think he’s one of our great American directors” — Paul Thomas Anderson

Artist Run Film Labs – A New Phenomenon

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

In the digital era, as the number of film labs decline, real artists are taking the lead.

As Genevieve Yue writes in the March 30, 2015 online issue of Film Comment, “there are roughly 65 film labs left in the world, of which around 20 are in North America. These ranks, along with the number of film stocks being manufactured, dwindled as digital technologies have saturated the realm of production and studios have moved away from film. When it comes to labs that process 16mm film—a mainstay of experimental film—and small-gauge stocks, only a few commercial options exist, mostly in the United States: Cinelab, in Boston; ColorLab in Maryland; Deluxe in New York City; Dwayne’s Photo in Kansas; and Fotokem in Burbank. One of the most recent casualties of this technological shift has been Pac Lab, which closed in New York, screening its unclaimed films at Anthology Film Archives.

The decline in commercial film production, however, has been countered by a rebirth in the phenomenon of artist-run film laboratories. What in the early Nineties was limited to a handful of cooperatively owned, independent labs, mostly in France, has grown into an international network of over 30, many of them formed within the last several years. The decline of film processing created a surplus of cheap, unwanted equipment that, in the right hands, could be repurposed for the smaller-scale operation of an artist-run lab. Saved from the scrap heap, many discarded contact printers and processing tanks have begun a second life as artists’ tools.

For many, this historical juncture between film and digital media has been cause for lament. But among those in the growing artist-run film lab community, the view is considerably more sanguine. Many are younger filmmakers drawn to the creative possibilities of hand-processing in workshops at places like Mono No Aware, in Brooklyn, or Big Mama’s Cinematheque in Philadelphia. For these artists, film offers a range of textures and expressive possibilities not available in digital formats. Others are drawn to the ‘home-brew’ DIY spirit that celebrates the autonomy of artist-run labs. Josh Lewis, who in 2012 founded the Negativland lab in Ridgewood, Queens, describes it as ‘a more involved way of being a filmmaker. You can’t rely on an industry that serves Hollywood. You need to be a technician and a filmmaker.’

For filmmakers like Lewis, the current moment offers the opportunity to sever cinema from its industrial tether. In many ways, this is the culmination of the avant-garde dream to become fully independent. Experimental film, at least at the level of materials, has been invariably tied to the commercial conditions of the film industry at large, though its output may have more in common, aesthetically and culturally, with the types of objects that circulate in the art world. Now, in response to a collapsing apparatus for the production of film, avant-garde filmmakers are developing the means and momentum to adapt and design their own methods of making films.”

This is a fascinating development – you can read the entire article by clicking here.

Filmmaking Tips from Mike Leigh

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Landon Palmer offers six filmmaking tips from master British realist Mike Leigh in Film School Rejects.

As Palmer writes, “Mike Leigh is one of few filmmakers who could say something like, ‘given the choice of Hollywood and poking steel pins in my eyes, I’d prefer steel pins’ without suggesting even a hint of hyperbole. Leigh is deeply principled in terms of the dramatics, process, and politics of filmmaking, and we’re all the better off for it. The filmmaker made a name for himself with acutely humanist works of British social realism that bore some inheritance to the ‘kitchen sink’ tradition, but imbue drama with a type of wit, spontaneity, and empathy that is simply inimitable. Leigh’s patient, improvisatory, and collaborative process appears seriously counterintuitive from the perspective of commercial filmmaking, and as a result produces human dramas that are deeply felt and strikingly insightful.

And in his early seventies – after making a dozen feature films and even more TV programs – Leigh is still finding new, seemingly unlikely means of representing life through the moving image. His most recent film, Mr. Turner, was his first to be shot digitally. It’s a surprising move for a period piece, but Leigh and longtime cinematographer Dick Pope use the relatively new technology of capturing 21st century images in order to depict how painter J.M.W. Turner found new ways of capturing 18th century images. So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the guy who has realized the best performances by your favorite British character actors.”

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

New Filmmakers, New Works – The Film Makers’ Cooperative

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

Looking for something new in the way of filmic visions?

The Film Makers’ Cooperative has been around since the early 1960s, when it was founded by Jonas Mekas and a host of other filmmakers; I myself was a member of the Coop for many years. It remains perhaps the most egalitarian distribution company in the United States, which is in itself a remarkable achievement. The Coop is open to all; anyone can submit a film, there are regular screenings throughout the year, and here’s one such example above. Of course, you have to be in Manhattan to take advantage of this, but The Coop stands alone as a beacon for independent film -willing to take any risk to bring more cutting edge works before the public. So if you’re in New York City at the end of the month, why not check out this screening, and see what some new people in the field are up to? I’m so tired of writing about the hegemony of the mainstream cinema; here’s your chance to supportive an alternative series of visions, and young filmmakers, and at a cost of just $10 – what you would pay for an ordinary film.

The Film Makers’ Cooperative is keeping the spirit of truly independent cinema alive.

The One I Love: Another Film Lost in The Cosmos

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

I have a new essay on Charlie McDowell’s film The One I Love in Film International.

As I note,The One I Love (2014) is yet another film that’s been completely overlooked in the headlong rush to the multiplex, yet it’s a stunning directorial debut by Charlie McDowell, from a script by Jonathan Lader, and produced by the Duplass Brothers, Mark and Jay (Charlie McDowell, incidentally, is actor Malcolm McDowell’s son with Mary Steenburgen). Mark Duplass does double duty – an apt turn of phrase, as you will see – starring in the film, in addition to his co-producer role, as harried husband Ethan, who is first seen in a therapy session, both angry and repentant after having cheated on his wife Sophie (Elizabeth Moss, best known for her work on the TV series Mad Men). More on that later.

Yet, for all the force and power that The One I Love possesses, it might as well not have been made at all, so quickly did it disappear. As Wikipedia notes, after a well received screening at the Sundance Film festival on January 21, 2014, ‘The One I Love opened in a limited release [on August 22, 2014] in the United States in 8 theaters and grossed $48,059 with an average of $6,007 per theater and ranking #42 at the box office. The film’s widest release was 82 theaters and it ended up earning $513,447 domestically and $69,817 internationally for a total of $583,264.’ And then it was gone.

That’s a shame, because The One I Love is both original and unsettling, even as it incorporates themes, either by design or simply through coincidence, from John Cromwell’s The Enchanted Cottage (1945), tinged with the much darker vision of Maury Dexter’s The Day Mars Invaded Earth (1963), with touches of Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999) and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) thrown in for added resonance.

The One I Love starts off in a seemingly predictable manner, as if the film will be another earnest study of a marriage in collapse, in the manner of Mike Nichols’ film of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, which is actually referenced in the film’s dialogue), but soon any clinical realism is abandoned for a far more sinister and elliptical scenario – a kind of dark ‘magical realism’ – in which the audience is never sure about the characters’ motives, or even their putative identities.

Not surprisingly, Ethan and Sophie are experiencing a moment of crisis in their relationship as a result of Ethan’s infidelity, and their smooth and all-too-affable therapist (effortlessly played by Ted Danson) suggests that they spend a weekend at a therapeutic retreat to ‘reconnect.’ At first, when the couple arrives at the lavishly appointed estate, which is to be their home for the next few days, all seems well. It’s a rather odd place, overflowing with flowers and lavishly decorated throughout, with a guest book in the front hallway attesting to the salutary effect it has had on the previous couples who have stayed there.”

Click here, or on the image above, to read the complete essay.

Bottled Up: The Treacherous Terrain of Poverty, Family, and Love by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a great piece on the indie film Bottled Up in Film International.

As she writes, “Indie directors love to mix genres in order to introduce us to fairly realistic characters, unusual stories and fresh narrative strategies. Enid Zentelis effectively mixes elements of serious drama, romantic comedy, and discomforting black comedic elements of the horror film in her low-budget gem, Bottled Up (2013), which is not only a ‘women’s picture,’ but also an unusual working class women’s story of painkiller addiction meets sobering eco-horror film. It was made on a very small budget and few have seen the film. There are moments in Bottled Up that are excruciating and difficult to watch, yet there are moments of light romantic comedy amongst the horror.

This odd mix captures the absurdities of modern life more effectively than films with much bigger budgets. A great deal of the credit needs to go to Melissa Leo, whose acting ability is so rare and so immensely gifted that her mere presence in a film often elevates it beyond and above the material. Bottled Up is a strange brew and it doesn’t always work entirely, but when it does work it is thanks not only to Leo’s acting, but also to the smart directorial choices of Enid Zentelis, whose last directorial effort was another working-class drama, Evergreen (2004).

Like many films that center on women and don’t play by the rules, Bottled Up is hard to pigeonhole; most critics annoyingly dub it “quirky,” but there is a gritty realism about it that stays with you. Shot on a shoestring budget in upstate New York, I could say that this film provides yet another demanding and terrific role for Melissa Leo, but it is probably more accurate to say that she crafts the leading role here into a major career achievement.”

You can read the rest of the essay by clicking here, or on the image above; essential reading.

Godard Directs Breathless

Saturday, May 24th, 2014

This astonishing shot of Jean-Luc Godard directing his first feature, Breathless (1960), has just surfaced.

What’s so amazing about it? This is the sequence in which Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) interviews the writer Parvulesco (in real life, director Jean-Pierre Melville) at the airport; what’s impressive and inspirational here is the simplicity of the working crew, stripped down to the bare essentials. Other than Godard, seated, gesturing towards the off-screen actors, the only other person directly involved in the shooting is camera operator Claude Beausoleil (Raoul Coutard was the director of cinematography, but Beausoleil did much of the actual shooting) – one cameraman, one director, to shoot the scene – that’s all.

The sound was all post-synchronized, so there’s no need for a Nagra and a boom mike. Natural sunlight provides all the illumination Godard needs. The resulting film reinvented the cinema, and established Godard as a director of the first rank. Filmmaking should be this simple; there’s no need for thirty people to supervise a simple scene such as this. If film is to reinvent itself again, it must return to the basics; a camera, some actors, a director, and the power of the direct image – above all else.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Breathless.

The Film Fatales Collective

Sunday, May 11th, 2014

“We’re a group of filmmakers who make each other’s dreams come true.” – Danielle Lurie

As their site – follow the links above in the photo and the opening quote – accurately notes, “Film Fatales is a collective of female filmmakers based in New York who have written or directed at least one feature narrative or documentary film. Our members meet the first week of every month, hosted at the home of a different filmmaker each time. Gatherings consist of a meal, a topical conversation relevant to the creative process, and a sharing of the current projects of our members. Film Fatales has quickly become a grassroots community of collaboration and support, with over a dozen films in production by our members this year alone. By offering a space for mentorship, peer networking and direct participation, we hope to promote the creation of more stories by and about women.”

Filmmaking is tough; collectives such as this make it easier to create new and original work.

The Curious Career of David Bradley

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

David Bradley filming Charlton Heston as Antony in Julius Caesar (1950); photo by Chalmers Butterfield.

I have long been aware of the life and work of David Bradley, whose career seems to have been cut short before it really got started. A teen prodigy, Bradley first attracted attention with his 16mm independent features, including his version of Julius Caesar, starring a very young Charlton Heston. Though he was signed to MGM by studio chief Dore Schary as a result of that film’s reception, which won a tie for First Prize at the Locarno Film Festival, Bradley’s first act was brighter than anything that followed.

This is not to say that his subsequent films, particularly the science fiction parable Twelve to The Moon (1959), photographed by the gifted John Alton, are not without interest, but it is safe to say that for some reason, after making so many striking films on his own, Bradley never really found his footing within the industry, and instead completed his career teaching film at UCLA and Santa Monica College.

His papers are archived at Northwestern University, and as their summary of his life notes, “David Shedd Bradley was born in Evanston, Illinois on April 6, 1920, the son of Addison Ballard and Katherine Shedd Bradley. A member of Chicago’s prominent Shedd family, Bradley earned his undergraduate degree at Northwestern University. He went on to direct films for MGM as well as teach at UCLA. Bradley died in 1997.

Bradley attended the Todd School from 1935 to 1937 and Lake Forest Academy during 1937-1940. At Lake Forest Bradley made one of his earlier films, Preps in Action, an account of a day in the life of an average student. His first experience with film came through his use of his family’s Winnetka basement as a movie theatre for neighborhood friends. Bradley had turned his hand to filmmaking by the mid-1930s. Preceding Preps in Action was a 16 millimeter short of Treasure Island (1937).

Other films from the period include Doctor X (1938), Emperor Jones (1938), and an adaptation of The Christmas Carol, titled Marley’s Ghost (1939). Bradley spent a year at the Goodman Memorial Theatre Drama Department of the Art Institute of Chicago and cast actors he met there in full-length film versions of Oliver Twist (1940), Peer Gynt (1941), and the Saki story, Sredni Vashtar (1943).

In September 1941, Bradley enrolled in the School of Speech of Northwestern University where he continued to pursue his interests in film and acting. He was accepted also into the Northwestern University Radio Playshop. In 1942 military service interrupted Bradley’s formal education. Following three years in the film section of the Signal Corps, he returned to Northwestern where he completed film versions of Macbeth (1946) and Julius Caesar (1950). The latter tied for first place at the Locarno Film Festival and won much international acclaim.

One of the first 16 millimeter films to be booked into theatres on a nationwide scale, Julius Caesar attracted the attention of Dore Schary, the M.G.M. studio chief. After graduating from Northwestern in June 1950, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Speech, Bradley went to Hollywood to work for M.G.M.

Bradley’s first assignment at M.G.M. was to assist in coaching pre-production rehearsals for first-time director Robert Pirosh’s Go For Broke. After two years of interning, Bradley was allowed to direct his own film, Talk About a Stranger (1952). At the age of 32 Bradley was then the youngest director at M.G.M. In the early 1950s, with Gerry Sherman, Bradley formed Oceanic Productions Inc. Their first project was to be a filmed version of Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian journal Noa-Noa. James Agee wrote the screenplay and Emile Gauguin was hired as a technical assistant. This project was not completed.

Bradley left M.G.M. in the mid-1950s and made three more films: Dragstrip Riot (1958, American International), Twelve To The Moon (1960, Columbia Pictures), and Madmen of Mandoras (1964, Crown International). Later in his life, as an adjunct to producing and directing and drawing upon his extraordinary collection of rare films and extensive knowledge of the field, Bradley taught courses in film aesthetics and history at the University of California at Los Angeles and at Santa Monica College.”

Bradley’s life is thus extremely curious, and he’s never really gotten the attention he deserves; his career, cut short by Hollywood, remains one of the most enigmatic in cinema history, and his later films have been unjustly maligned, especially Madmen of Mandoras, which was taken out of his hands and drastically recut and reshot; the original film, to the best of my knowledge, no longer survives.

I may do some writing on Bradley in the future; his work remains uneven, and deeply mysterious.

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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