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Posts Tagged ‘Manoel de Oliveira’

Spectacle and Reality in the Cinema

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

Warner Baxter in the classic film 42nd Street (1933); Depression era reality vs. manufactured escapism.

These thoughts came to mind today, in an age awash in endless, often empty spectacle: from the inception of the medium, exoticism has remained the movies’ stock in trade, the one key element that pervaded every thought Hollywood had to offer. The silent era had been redolent with sin, sensuality and illicit romance, in such films as George Fitzmaurice’s Lilac Time (1928), one of the last of the major studio silents, or Wesley Ruggles’ look at decadent college life in The Plastic Age (1925), to say nothing of the dangerous encroachments of the “new Morality” in Sam Wood’s “flaming youth” exposé Prodigal Daughters (1923) with Gloria Swanson, promising viewers “new lips to kiss, freedom from conventions, life with a kick in it [and] a new world for women” as just four of the “Seven Deadly Whims” the film depicted, but with the addition of synchronized sound, things only got steamier, in every sense of the word.

Depression-era audiences wanted escapism, above all — whether in the brutal realism of gangster films, or the luxuriant excess of such musicals as Mervyn LeRoy and Busby Berkeley’s justly iconic Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), in which the familiar “let’s put on a show” plot line collides with then-contemporary reality even in the film’s opening moments, when an onscreen rehearsal of “We’re in the Money” is halted by bailiffs removing the sets for nonpayment of production costs. The conclusion of the film, the production number “Remember My Forgotten Man,” is an ode to World War I soldiers ground under by the Depression, living from day to day without hope. Similarly, in Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street (1933), bankrupt director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) dangerously exhausted and on the brink of physical collapse, is forced by economic necessity to direct a Broadway musical, even with all the odds stacked against him, simply to survive.

The Depression era artist Reginald Marsh knew this milieu all too well; in his numerous charcoal sketches and drawings, such as Breadline (1932), he tracked the world of a society in collapse, as the cruelty and exploitation of Capitalism became all too obvious; those who had, and those who only stood and waited for a few crumbs of sustenance. And yet these images are just a few that we will be given to see in our lifetime; as Paolo Cherchi Usai notes, “relatively few moving images can be seen in the course of a lifetime, a tiny fraction of those actually made. Given an average lifespan of seventy-five years, the time spent viewing them rarely exceeds one hundred thousand hours, little more than a decade.” And yet it seems we always want more.

As early as 1954, long before he became an international celebrity, Marshall McLuhan railed against the intentionally mesmerizing effect of pop culture imagery on television in films, noting that it was designed to create “a mindless, helpless, entranced audience” which would then do whatever its creators required. In short, consume, exist, and die. This is why the experimental cinema of the 1960s was such a tonic in the onslaught of calculated commercialism, in a world of “morally corrupt, aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, [and] temperamentally boring” film production, as the 1962 manifesto of The New American Cinema Group, which spawned the still-extant Film-Makers’ Cooperative, so aptly put it.

The late Manoel de Oliveira, the Portuguese filmmaker who died on April 2, 2015 at the age of 106, and who worked almost until the end of his long life, was perhaps the last film director who had an authentic memory of what the world was like before electricity, when the night was lit with oil lamps and torches. His painterly work, as exhibited in such ravishing films as The Strange Case of Angelica (2010) evokes a world in which spectatorship was very much a personal pursuit, and not one mass produced for audience consumption. Indeed, the entire narrative of Angelica centers on a young man who is a solitary photographer, and whose images bring the title character “back to life” after a fashion. Much of the film is spent watching the photographer at work, as he documents the lives of the field hands in a nearby vineyard, and the moment of reproduction is central to the film; the second when the image is captured. This is the moment that will be memorialized, remembered, fetishized, examined, deconstructed and discussed.

Thus, we are ultimately in thrall to what we witness, which is ultimately what the filmmaker desires, whether she/he will admit it or not. Every film implies an audience, and every image implies a viewer, even if the maker specifies otherwise, or perhaps especially then. Light from the screen transfixes; the inescapable two-dimensionality of cinema is something that the medium continually strives to overcome, but unless the screen of the theater physically and actually projects towards the viewer, this will forever remain only an illusion. And yet we remain transfixed, drawn to the screen of light, hoping to see something there that we won’t see in real life, something that will take us, for a moment, out of our real lives, and transport us — to where?

The cinema of the moment is just that; the cinema of a single instant. There is much more.

Manoel de Oliveira – Greatest Living Filmmaker – Dies at 106

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira shooting his film The Magic Mirror in 2005.

Since we’re all mortal, it had to happen, and now it has; Manoel de Oliveira, to my mind the greatest living filmmaker – without question – has finally died at age 106. His second to last feature film, Gebo and the Shadow, was an austere masterpiece, and he adapted readily to digital cinema, but remained a master of the quiet, patiently constructed image, creating films that always ended with an unexpected twist, but on a metaphorical level rather than being a mere plot shift.

Not that Oliveira was without humor – far from it – as evidenced in this great clip in which he does a Chaplin imitation for filmmaker Agnes Varda. And of course, the Tweets are piling in – as well they should. Since he picked up the pace of production in his late 80s, Oliveira has emerged as the most innovative, deeply moral, and absolutely humanist filmmaker of the late 20th and early 21st century. There’s really no one else like him – before, or now, after his death.

As Ali Jaafar perceptively writes in Deadline, “Manoel De Oliveira, the Portugese filmmaker who for so many years appeared to defy the laws of gravity and physics, has died at the age of 106. He was, by some measure, the world’s oldest active filmmaker, working up until last year when his latest — and last — film, The Old Man Of Belem premiered at the Venice Film Festival.

Born in 1908, De Oliveira’s productivity — he directed 29 films in all — is all the more remarkable given he had only made two films by the time he was 55. The latter half of his long, and critically acclaimed, career would see him earn a dozen career achievement prizes from major film festivals, including two career Venice Golden Lions (in 1985 and 2004) and a special jury prize for 1991’s The Divine Comedy. In 1999, he took home the Cannes jury prize for The Letter.

Unapologetically art house and cerebral in taste, De Oliveira confounded his peers with both his longevity as well as the consistency of his output in his latter years.  He got better with age, making a film a year once he turned 80 until his death. He might not even be finished just yet: He is reputed to have insisted that one of his films, Memories And Confessions, not be shown publicly while he was alive.

De Oliveira was born into privilege. His industrialist father, amongst other things, produced Portugal’s first electric light bulb. Finding himself out of favor under the iron rule of Portugul’s Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar from 1932-1968, De Oliveira found it similarly difficult under the socialist government in the early 1970’s as his upper class roots counted against him. Nevertheless, he persisted with his dream to become a filmmaker, even while he managed his family’s factory well into middle age.

In time De Oliveira moved from the neorealist verité style that categorized his early work — his debut feature was Aniki-Bobo in 1942 about the slums of his hometown Porto — eventually gave way to a more formal, literary approach often dealing with themes of unrequited and unfulfilled love. He often adapted literary works, including four books by Agustina Bessa-Luis.

He worked with many fine actors, including Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich, Michel Piccoli, Jeanne Moreau, Claudia Cardinale and also Marcello Mastroianni in the iconic Italian actor’s final role in Voyage To The Beginning Of The World.” His other standout films include Acto de Primavera, The Strange Case of Angelica, The Convent, A Talking Picture, and numerous other works – Oliveira was one of a kind, and his films – as well as his life – serve as an inspiration to all who love and cherish the cinema.

As Cahiers du Cinema said of Oliveira’s work, “He is sovereign, free, unique, perched high on a tightrope no one else can reach, defying the laws of gravity and above all the rules of cinematic decorum and commerce.” I try to avoid obits in this blog, but this is just too major a passing to omit – our greatest living filmmaker is now gone.

All day long, I have had the feeling something was terribly wrong – now I know why.

Francisco Ferreira on Manoel de Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Here’s Francisco Ferreira on Manoel de Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow in the journal Cinemascope.

As Ferreira notes, in part, “Gebo (Michael Lonsdale) is an aged, decent and broke family man subdued by routine and a sense of duty who has learned from life that ‘when money’s involved, no one ever forgives.’ He lives with his wife Doroteia (Claudia Cardinale), a woman who does not accept reality, pushing upon Gebo and their daughter-in-law Sofia (Leonor Silveira) an endless pack of lies about their missing son, João (Ricardo Trêpa, speaking in a disarming French accent that draws attention to his character’s dubious nature). Gebo often receives his faithful neighbors Chamiço and Candidinha (Luís Miguel Cintra and Jeanne Moreau): their favorite sport is complaining, which nicely complements Gebo’s perpetual sense of hopelessness. A man without ambition, Gebo often laments: ‘The question is whether we come to this world to be happy.’ In fact, happiness here is a temptation and a sordid object in the house: a bag full of money collected from the company where Gebo works.

The shadow of the title, on the other hand, seems to be a far more complex issue. Because first of all in the film, brilliantly shot by Renato Berta in HD on a studio set, faint oil lamps are always flickering, and there is no distinction between day and night. This is a perennially dark world where there is almost no light to reflect any shadows at all: we could dare to say that colors and image here have a pictorial sense and a distinctive purpose . . . the shadow [of the title] is a suffocating thought, commenting on the Portuguese soul and despair from the perspective of the myth of Sebastianism, a topic addressed by Oliveira in both No, or the Vainglory of Command (1990) and The Fifth Empire (2004). For a director who once said that the truth and the event are the two greatest vectors of his work, this historical approach is not an abuse of our imagination: ‘Today is a product of yesterday,’ as Oliveira once said.”

To which Gwendolyn Audrey Foster adds, “Oliveira is like a time traveler who takes us back to another century, illuminated by candles and philosophy . . . he’s the only truly significant classical artist left in the cinema,” a sentiment with which I heartily agree. Oliveira is now 106 years old – his birthday is December 11th, 1908 – and I keep hearing reports that his health is now, perhaps inevitably, precarious, though he has just completed two short films, and I sincerely hope that he will make more features.

After laboring in near-obscurity for decades, Oliveira really began to burst forth on the international scene in his eighties, and has in the last yen years developed a very late classical style which is at once restrained and deeply penetrating; as I’ve said before, he makes viewers work for their pleasures in his films, but in the end, the cumulative effect is staggering. Oliveira truly is the last great classical filmmaker, in the tradition of Renoir, Bresson, and others, and yet his works are still little known, and Gebo and the Shadow, to date, has only a European Region 2 DVD release – but with English subtitles, so there’s no excuse for not getting a copy now. Having recently suffered through the trivialities of the Academy Awards – and every year, though I’m asked to comment, this year vowing never to do so again – seeing something of this quality restores my faith in the cinema, and in art, though no one- absolutely no one – is now working in the cinema at the same level as Oliveira. I urge you to see this film at once.

You can read Ferreira’s excellent article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Nathaniel Carlson on Manoel de Oliveira’s “Inquietude”

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

Here’s a great review of Manoel de Oliveira’s superb film Inquietude by Nathaniel Carlson in Offscreen.

As Carlson notes, “even within the already established challenges of Manoel de Oliveira’s body of work, Inquietude stands out for its unique difficulty. For the sake of convenience and an initial direct access, it’s easy enough to allot a general theme to most of the other films (e.g. Vale Abraão is about beauty, O Convento is about evil, La Lettre is about love, etc.). This at least allows for some means of approach, but Inquietude defies any such orderly schematic. What is it about finally? One is tempted to say death or immortality or notions of the eternal but somehow even these broad terms do not seem adequate enough.

Finally, it really must be that titular disquiet, an existential unease or angst. But this is even more vague than usual, given that it describes a foundational condition upon which everything else is built or develops. It’s a self-awareness that gives rise to poetry, philosophy, the specific conditions of human cognition itself (the comprehension of immortality as an idealized quality, for example). The synthesis brought about by this shifting set of contexts and active agents produces a surfeit of meaning. One character demonstrates the effect of that supercharge of ambiguity in noting on a friend’s lover: ‘She is dead. In your mind, she is not the same.’

Narratively and structurally the film is a triptych. The three stories it contains are laid out in an interwoven, interdependent form. The first is a rather confined, even claustrophobic, extended dialogue between an aged, successful scientist father and his almost equally acclaimed middle aged son. The discussion centers around insuring a lasting legacy (i.e. immortality) and the means by which to secure it (i.e. suicide at the peak of one’s renown). This broad comedy verges often on farce and, once it pitches irretrievably over the edge, is revealed as a theater performance witnessed by characters from the second story, one set within the upper tier environment of Portuguese society in what would appear to be the early part of the twentieth century.

In this section, the unnamed male lead is troubled by his love for a courtesan, Suzy. Eventually he is comforted by a friend who tells him a mythic folk tale which in turn is also told to us cinematically. In it, a dissatisfied young peasant girl in an isolated rural area assumes the identity of Mother of the River from another woman, virtually immortal, who has grown dissatisfied herself with the role. The transitions between these stories could not be more readily apparent and clearly administered. What the implication of their association is cannot be so easily assessed. As is remarked by the friend in the second story: ‘There’s a connection and yet none at all.’”

You can read the entire essay by clicking hereor click on the image above to see the trailer.

Reset! Check Out Frame by Frame from 2011 To The Present!

Monday, December 29th, 2014

Click on the button above to check out this blog from the first entry to the present!

Frame by Frame began more than three years ago with a post on Rebel Without A Cause – now, with more than 590 posts & much more to come, we’re listed on Amazon, in the New York Times blogroll,  the Film International blogroll and elsewhere on the net, as well as being referenced in Wikipedia and numerous other online journals and reference websites. With thousands of hits every day, we hope to keep posting new material on films and people in films that matter, as well as on related issues, commercial free, with truly open access, for the entire film community. So look back and see what we’ve been up to, and page through the past to the present.

There are also more than 70 videos on film history, theory and criticism to check out on the Frame by Frame video blog, arranged in carousel fashion to automatically play one after the other, on everything from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to film aspect ratios, to discussions of pan and scan, Criterion video discs, and a whole lot more. So go back and see what you’ve been missing – you can always use the search box in the upper right hand corner to see if your favorite film or director is listed, but if not, drop me a line and we’ll see if we can’t do something about it. We’ve just updated our storage space on the blog, so there will be plenty more to come, so check it out – see you at the movies!

So click on the button & see what you can find!

Manoel de Oliveira Directs A New Film at Age 105

Sunday, October 5th, 2014

At 105, Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira has just completed production on a new film.

As Vitor Pinto reports in Cineuropa, the director Manoel de Oliveira began production of O Velho do Restelo, a reflection on Portuguese history, produced by O Som e a Fúria, on September 9, 2014. Pinto continues, “at 105 years old, Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is beginning the shoot for his new film, O Velho do Restelo (literally The Old Man from the Restelo) today in Porto. The short film sees the return of the filmmaker two years after his feature Gebo and the Shadow as well as his involvement in the omnibus film Historic Centre.

With a title evoking the pessimistic character created by Luis de Camões in his 16th-century epic poem Os Lusiadas, O Velho do Restelo is based on excerpts from the work O Penitente by Teixeira de Pascoaes, which recounts the life and work of Portuguese romantic writer Camilo de Castelo Branco. It is through these literary references, which also incorporate others such as those of Miguel de Cervantes, that the film will create a reflection on Portugal and its history. O Velho do Restelo will see actor Luís Miguel Cintra playing the role of Camões, Ricardo Trepa as Don Quixote, Diogo Dória as Teixeira de Pascoaes and Mário Barroso as Camilo de Castelo Branco.

Oliveira, who in an interview last year with French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma described the process of securing funding for the film as ‘a battle’ finally managed to raise enough funds in order to go ahead with the five-day shoot. O Velho do Restelo is being produced by O Som e a Fúria, and has backing from the Porto Film Commission and the Catholic University of Portugal. The film is expected to be completed by August [2015].”

As Kevin Jagernauth adds in Indiewire, “Manoel de Oliveira is 105 years-old, and while other filmmakers talk about retirement or wanting to try something different, the Portuguese director doesn’t know the word quit. That’s right, he’s already in production on his next project, so whatever little complaints you might have about your day, maybe take it down a notch because Oliveira is still shuffling around, getting it down.”

There’s hope for the cinema yet; the powers that be should give him all the financing he wants.

Frame by Frame Videos on Film History, Theory, and Criticism

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Here’s a carousel of more than sixty videos in my Frame by Frame series; click here, or above, to play!

Frame by Frame is a series of short videos I made with Curt Bright on film theory, history, and criticism — each is about 3 minutes long or so. Episodes of Frame by Frame cover The Hollywood Blacklist, Ridley Scott, Commercials in Movie Theaters, Inception, 3-D, Film Critics, War Movies, Film Composers, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Subtitles vs. Dubbing, The Aura, John Ford, Remakes, Special Effects, John Huston, Ridley Scott, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, Alice Guy Blaché, Oscar Micheaux, Horror Movies, Deep Focus, Pan and Scan, Jean-Luc Godard, Camera Movement, Metropolis, Psycho, Movie Trailers, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Minorities in American Film, The King’s Speech, Alfred Hitchcock, The Great Gatsby in 3-D, Digital Cinema, Special Effects, John Huston, Manoel de Oliveira, Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese, Westerns, Nicholas Ray, Busby Berkeley, Claire Denis, Woody Allen, Film Archives, George Cukor, Roger Corman, Billy Wilder, trailers, the Hollywood Ratings System, and many other topics.

Check it out! Useful for your classes; feel free to download as you see fit; use as you wish.

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.

The Strange Case of Angelica by Manoel de Oliveira

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for this magical film.

At 103, when most of us are either retired or departed, Manoel de Oliveira is stronger than ever as a filmmaker. He made this gorgeous film, The Strange Case of Angelica, in 2010, at the age of 101. Here’s the trailer; this is a gorgeous, deeply felt film, with more than a touch of Oliveira’s usual humor.

A young photographer, Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa) is summoned to the home of a rich landowner, to photograph his daughter, Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala) who has just died, shortly after being married, and is lying in state with a serene smile on her face. To Isaac’s shock, when he looks through the viewfinder of his camera, Angelica seems to return to life, and smile at him warmly, though no one else in the room sees this. When he returns to his small room in a boarding house where he lives, Isaac develops the photos, and once again sees Angelica seemingly beckoning to him from the beyond.

What happens next is a sublime mystery, which I won’t reveal here, other than to echo the words of Jim Hoberman, Manohla Dargis, and numerous other critics; the film is a masterpiece, one of the most deeply felt films of recent memory, and a splendid antidote to the junk being churned out by the major studios.

The DVD of The Strange Case of Angelica also contains Manoel de Oliveira’s first film, Douro, Faina Fluvial (Labor on the Douro River, 1931); a documentary on Oliveira’s work by by Paulo Rocha; and an interview with Oliveira shot during the production of the film, entitled Absoluto, in which Oliveira contemplates the moral bankruptcy of modern cinema, rattles off a list of his favorite directors (including Godard, Bresson, Kiarostami, Welles, Ford, and numerous others), and deplores the “brain washing” that is currently taking place with the “forced consensus” of mass media.

All in all, The Strange Case of Angelica is a gorgeous film, which you absolutely should not miss if you have any love for the cinema at all; available in DVD or Blu-ray; take your pick. Oliveira has the distinction of being the oldest continually active filmmaker in the history of the cinema; he is also, thankfully, one of the greatest, whose work, amazingly, only improves with age. The Strange Case of Angelica is a romantic, thoughtful, absolutely transcendent work — please see it without delay.

The charm of The Strange Case of Angelica lies in the way it balances this mysticism with a thoroughly secular sense of the business of everyday life. Not that any of the nonsupernatural occurrences that surround Isaac — the Greek-chorus chitchat among his landlady and her friends; the steady work in the fields and olive groves; the rise and fall of empires and economies — are exactly banal. The world as seen through Mr. Oliveira’s lens is as fresh as if it had just been discovered and as thick with secrets as if it had always existed.

Of course, both things are more or less true, and Oliveira’s film has the added virtue of feeling entirely original even as it evokes a number of rich literary and cinematic traditions. As a ghost story, it owes more to Henry James’ psychological curiosity than to Edgar Allan Poe’s sensationalism, but it is also indebted to the various kinds of realism that flourished, in film and in novels, in the early and middle decades of the last century. Finally, though, it exhausts comparison, even to other films by this director, who has both done everything and is just getting started.” – A.O. Scott, The New York Times 12/28/2010

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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