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Posts Tagged ‘Senses of Cinema’

Stella Dallas: The Female Hero in the Maternal Melodrama

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster offers a fresh take on the “maternal melodrama” in a new essay in Senses of Cinema.

As Foster writes in her discussion of the film, “Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937) is the most well known and celebrated of the genre known as the ‘maternal melodrama.’ Stella Dallas (Barbara Stanwyck) is but one of many unsung female heroes who sacrifice, yet always prevail, in maternal melodramas such as Min and Bill (1930); The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931); Madame X (1937); and Forbidden (1932) to name but a few of this rich, largely forgotten and dismissed treasure-trove.

Maternal melodramas are a subgenre of films referred to as ‘women’s pictures’ – films that catered to a vast and powerful female audience; once considered crucial to box office success. They traffic in sentimentality, laughter and tears. These are uncontrollable emotions that are routinely debased as overly feminine, as are ‘chick flicks,’ another female-centered genre that is reviled and callously disregarded, disrespecting female viewers, women’s struggles, and female heroes.

In 1937, audiences were not only familiar with the popular novel of the same name written by poet and novelist Olive Higgins Prouty in 1923; they also knew the 1924 stage play and the silent film version of 1925, adapted for the screen by Frances Marion and directed by Henry King. Stella Dallas was so popular with women that it was even adapted into a radio serial that ran from 1937 to 1955, one of the first and most successful soap operas . . .

In dismissing genre films made for women, critics not only erase the female spectator; they erase women and female heroes, real and fictional. Maternal melodramas, by contrast, recognize and reward the victories of women at the bottom of society. Women like Stella Dallas tend to be poor and destitute, prostitutes, unwed and pregnant, and non-conformist in terms of romance. In short, they subvert society with their disruptive acts of maternal heroism. It is very important to note, however, that Stella Dallas figures always win, at least in the world of the maternal melodrama.”

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

William Wellman’s Night Nurse (1931)

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck in William Wellman’s brutal Pre-Code drama Night Nurse.

I have a new essay out on this remarkable film in Senses of Cinema, which notes in part that “there are precious few ‘ethics’ on display in William Wellman’s brief and brutal film Night Nurse, a bluntly titled and efficiently directed Pre-Code film from Warner Bros., a studio that specialized in hard boiled melodramas with a social message in the early 1930s. Wellman and star Barbara Stanwyck would make five films together, and in this, their first outing, it’s clear that Stanwyck’s innate toughness as a performer, coupled with her unrelenting work ethic, found favor with Wellman, who was a very tough customer himself.

Known for carrying a loaded gun on the set, and occasionally threatening actors with it if he felt they were sloughing off on the job (as he did with Ronald Colman in his 1939 film The Light That Failed, when Colman deliberately fluffed his lines during a key scene due to a disagreement with Wellman over casting), Wellman knew exactly what he wanted when he walked on the set each morning, and usually got the results in one or two takes.

This was just fine with Stanwyck, who was known as a ‘one take wonder,’ capable of memorizing pages of dialogue at the last minute, and then delivering the results in one flawless take after another, and delighted Wellman. He was almost as much of a speed demon on the set as MGM’s W.S. Van Dyke, another rough and ready director who famously shot the hit film The Thin Man in a mere 12 days.

For above everything else, Warner’s in the early 1930s was a factory, pumping out films at the rate of one a week to keep pace with the insatiable demand of Depression era audiences for something – anything – to take their minds off the crushing burden of the nationwide financial collapse.

Films such as Wellman’s Public Enemy (1931), Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1930), Roy Del Ruth’s Blonde Crazy (1931), and Alfred E. Green’s Smart Money (1931) set the tone and pace for a series of films that moved with breakneck speed in their narrative thrust, and dealt matter of factly with Prohibition (and the complete failure of that ‘great experiment’), murder, rape, drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution and a host of other social ills, pulling no punches in the process.”

You can read the rest of the essay by clicking here, or on the image above; this is a real gem.

Underwhelmed by Oscar Nods?

Thursday, January 14th, 2016

Leslie Reed of UNL News & Information interviewed me on the upcoming Oscars.

As she writes, “University of Nebraska-Lincoln film studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon wants you to understand one key thing about the Oscar nominations unveiled Jan. 14: They don’t tell you much about movies today. Dixon, known internationally as an expert on modern film as well as its history, was among scholars and critics invited to submit a list of 2015’s ten best films to the web journal Senses of Cinema, which some maintain is the most influential web journal on film in existence. See Dixon’s choices here and the entire list of all critics’ picks here.

None of those picks were included in the list of Oscar nominees. ‘For me, this year the Oscars are increasingly irrelevant, as they are for many of my colleagues,’ he said. ‘These are a small set of films, picked by industry people to showcase the Hollywood film industry, and they really don’t give an accurate picture of what’s going on in the world of film, even nationally anymore.’

The Oscar nominees for best picture are The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Room and Spotlight.

Meanwhile, Dixon’s top 10 for Senses of Cinema were Clouds of Sils Maria, Uncle John, Apollo 18, Queen of Earth, Chi-Raq, 99 Homes, Being Elizabeth Bishop, Infinitely Polar BearThe Gift and Pasolini. (Caveat: Dixon now says he’d boot Apollo 18 from his list and add No Home Movie, Maps to the Stars and The Lesson.)

He’s not surprised if you have heard of few, if any, of those films. ‘Only the big blockbusters get ad dollars behind them, and thus national theater screens, while the smaller more adventurous films simply don’t get the exposure they once did,’ he said. ‘Where once everything had to open in a theater to make its cost back, now smaller-scale films can easily be shunted to DVD, VOD, or digital HD downloads with little risk of losing ad dollars.’

Studios want to put the most ad dollars behind the films that cost the most and have the most to lose, he said, while leaving the rest to find whatever audience they can. Even marginally risky films like Carol, Trumbo and Spotlight got only a token release.

Dixon is also among film critics who predict that the Motion Picture Academy will get blowback for its all-white slate in the acting categories. Straight Outta Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray, was nominated for its screenplay, but Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq was nowhere to be seen.

‘There are many, many excellent films out there, and performances, that deserve attention, not least of which is Samuel L. Jackson for either Chi-Raq or The Hateful Eight,’ Dixon said. “And why didn’t Spike Lee’s film get a nomination? Sad.’ Dixon discusses who he thinks will win the 2016 Oscars in his Frame by Frame blog.”

Thanks, Leslie – now we’ll have to see how this plays out.

New Article in Senses of Cinema 76 – “Being Elizabeth Bishop”

Saturday, September 19th, 2015

I have a new article on Barbara Hammer’s new feature film Welcome to This House in Senses of Cinema.

As I write, in part, “Barbara Hammer’s Welcome to This House: A Film on Elizabeth Bishop (2015) is that rarity among documentary films – rather than the usual succession of talking heads, shot in a utilitarian fashion, as befits its subject the film is a primarily poetic project, which inhabits the world of Bishop and her poetry, entranced by the beauty of life in all its forms.

As the film’s press materials note, ‘Welcome to This House is a feature documentary film on the homes and loves of poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979), about life in the shadows, and the anxiety of art making without full self-disclosure, filmed in Bishop’s ‘best loved homes’ in the US, Canada, and Brazil.’ It is also much more than that; it is an act of love and resurrection, in which Bishop emerges from the shadows as a fully rounded personage, freed from the constraints of society which so often failed to accept her for who she truly was.

In the film’s opening sequence, for example, photos of Bishop and the covers of her books give way to a view from the front porch of her home in Nova Scotia, with flowers and the image of a young Elizabeth intertwined in a tapestry of memory and abstract wonder. As the scene progresses, there are equally dreamlike images of her typewriter, and then a child’s hand writing ‘Elizabeth’ on a chalk slate, as the soundtrack hums and whirs with the sounds of an indolent, mesmeric summer. This gives way to reminiscences of how Bishop was left with her grandparents as a child, deprived of a mother and father, and how she grew up in world of her own creation as a result.

There are, of course, numerous archival materials interwoven throughout the film, but more than anything, Welcome to This House is a film about being Elizabeth Bishop, about finding one’s self as an artist, something that Barbara Hammer has being doing for her entire life, over a body of work that covers more than 80 films and four decades of continuous artistic production. In many ways, Welcome to This House is the sort of film that could only be made by a director after years of patient dedication; effortlessly mixing the past, the present, the imaginary and the real to evoke the inner life of Elizabeth Bishop, all the while demonstrating Hammer’s absolutely assured grasp of the moving image.”

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

The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle is a minor but enchanting Eric Rohmer film . . .

. . . and it’s too bad there won’t be any more, as even the slightest of Rohmer’s film is a tonic in the oversaturated, hyper-edited CGI world of the present, harking back to a time when humanistic concerns, were more important than the latest mobile gadget. As Aaron Goldberg wrote of the film when it first appeared in the web journal Senses of Cinema, “while not highly regarded (by some) in the expansive Rohmer canon, The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle stands as one of Rohmer’s most playful, if not hilarious features.

Filmed quickly on 16mm while Rohmer was waiting to get decent sunset shots for his sublime Le Rayon vert (1986), The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle features mainly non-professional actors who improvised most of the witty and frank dialogue . . .  Rohmer’s old-school (cinematic) ‘new wave’ chops are working in full effect here. From the shaky vérité camerawork, to long discussions about morality and art, his romantic heart is working in cruise control, delivering a film that ably stands it’s own ground.”

Added Caryn James in The New York Times, “as if making a joke about the famous talkiness of his films, Eric Rohmer’s latest work begins and ends with silence – or at least the idea of silence. In the first of the connected episodes in Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, the voluble Reinette treasures silence so much she wakes her friend Mirabelle before dawn to hear ‘the blue hour,’ which is not an hour but a second, not a sound but a brief silence between darkness and light, when the night birds stop singing and the day birds have not yet begun.

Four Adventures is more conspicuously comic, more overtly ethical, more pointed in its action than most of his recent works . . . Part of Rohmer’s genius, of course, is that he keeps creating such lives – ordinary and rarefied at once, almost but not quite beyond our grasp. No one actually lives in the world of a Rohmer film, where the name of a specific television show or rock star never mars a character’s timeless dialogue, where his characters’ heightened sense of everyday life seems absolutely adventurous.

But the deep lure of his work is the suggestion that it is possible to be as articulate or as witty or even as extravagantly morose as a Rohmer character, to stumble across those undramatic moments of perfect grace on some beach or in some meadow.”

Indeed, while the film may appear to be slight, it is in fact a resonant and uplifting work; it just seems effortless, but then again, when you’re a genius, you can knock films out like this in your sleep. But the saddest part about The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle is that it isn’t available on DVD; there’s so much junk trolling about the web, but here’s a sublime and joyful film that really deserves a DVD release. But there is a VHS release, and since I still have a VHS player for such emergencies, I ordered one of the last copies available – used – on Amazon for about $10. You should do the same.

Every Eric Rohmer film is worth seeing, and this is one of his most playful, and joyful films.

Dreams of Jules Verne: Karel Zeman’s Invention of Destruction

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

I have a new article in Senses of Cinema #75 on Karel Zeman’s classic film Invention of Destruction.

As I write, in part, “Like so many others in the United States, I was first exposed to Karel Zeman’s exotic adventure film Vynález zkázy (Invention of Destruction, 1958), when it was released in the West in a dubbed and retitled as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne in 1961. Zeman was one of the greatest of all Czech animators and special effects artists, and used a process unique in Vynález zkázycombining 19th century pictorial steel engravings with live action photography. This created a fantastic vision of what can be identified today as a steampunk past, where elaborate mechanical devices, hot air balloons, oddly constructed airplanes, submarines, and other infernal machines were brought to life in a manner at once poetic and yet deeply sinister.

Jules Verne (1928-1905) was in many ways one of the most forward thinking of all imaginative popular writers, and his works were both commercially and critically successful. Films such as De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to The Moon, 1865, famously made into an early film by Georges Méliès in 1902), Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, 1869-1870), Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1872), and L’Île mystérieuse (Mysterious Island, 1874-75) consolidated his reputation as a prolific and prophetic futurist. Verne’s works have been filmed countless times, either as straight adaptations or updated versions, but Zeman’s film stands alone as perhaps the most faithful of all filmic versions of Verne on the screen. It embraces not only his then-fanciful (and now all too real) vision of the future, but also remains faithful to the iconic images of Verne’s own era.”

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

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Magnolia

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has published a brilliant essay on P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia in Senses of Cinema.

As she writes, in part, “It’s a shame that Hollywood audiences have been taught that films are made primarily to entertain and amuse. That’s only for the mass audience; other films challenge us to look inside ourselves, especially the places we want to hide from the rest of the world. Magnolia (1999), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is a real departure from supposed mainstream ‘entertainment,’ a film that’s both challenging and deeply disturbing.

Magnolia is a sprawling and operatic music video that interweaves so many characters, complex plots, and an ever-present sense of heightened melodrama, so that the viewer looks in vain for any element that holds the movie together. Ricky Jay’s narration provides one thread, but the narrative itself is a series of interlocking stories that intersect and collide over and over again. At the directorial level, the film is stitched together by Anderson’s trademark lengthy takes, long confusing tirades, a series of stellar performances, and an overwhelming music track that makes the whole film feel like a rather traumatic carnival ride that can’t be escaped, or a drug induced nightmare of epic proportions.

Nevertheless, at the core of this operatic journey through Hell is a study of the fragility and obsolescence of white masculinity, here closely tied to death, specifically death by cancer. The myriad plots are deliberately edited in such a way that they are almost impossible to follow, as if mirroring life itself, but all roads eventually lead back to pale men near death, men whose bodies are metastatic sites of a lingering, devastating form of cancer, their decaying bodies metaphors of white masculinity and patriarchy itself as a form of cancer.

The convoluted nature of film is what makes it stand apart from any number of films that center around the crisis in masculinity, specifically white male masculinity that acts as Thanatos, the death drive of modernity that destroys everyone and everything in its path. It is ultimately up to the viewer how to decipher Magnolia, but the film undeniably centers on the cancer-ridden near corpses of patriarchs Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) and Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall).

It is telling that Ingmar Bergman, of all filmmakers, singled out Magnolia on several occasions as one of the finest examples of the strength of contemporary American cinema. Bergman repeatedly attacked the oppression of patriarchy in his masterworks, but he did so in refined, clinical detail, in films that are the absolute opposite of Magnolia in almost every respect – underplayed, resolute, sparsely scored, and restrained.

This certainly isn’t a description of Magnolia, which Jonathan Rosenbaum characterized as ‘a wonderful mess.’ But Anderson is speaking to a desensitized, postmodern audience – not the spectator of Bergman’s most influential era, the 1960s – a viewer that perhaps requires a boisterous, grotesque and operatic approach, something to offer a shock to the system. This is exactly what Magnolia provides.”

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

Punch Drunk Love

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

I have a new essay on P.T. Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love in Senses of Cinema 74.

As I write, in part, “Adam Sandler has become such a reliable conveyor belt of cinematic schlock that people forget he once had aspirations beyond Dennis Dugan’s truly dreadful film Jack and Jill (2011), in which Sandler plays both Jack and Jill, the latter in drag, managing to rope Al Pacino and Katie Holmes into the film in the process.

As if to offer confirmation of this downward trend, Sandler recently signed a deal for four straight-to-VOD features with Netflix, commenting ‘when these fine people came to me with an offer to make four movies for them, I immediately said yes for one reason and one reason only. Netflix rhymes with Wet Chicks. Let the streaming begin!’

So it’s hard to remember that once upon a time, Sandler had plans for making more ambitious films, and that, indeed, he was ever involved with a director of Paul Thomas Anderson’s caliber, or that the resultant film, Punch-Drunk Love (2002), would win Anderson the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film festival that year, an honour Anderson shared with Kwon-taek Im for his film Painted Fire (2002).

But it’s true – Adam Sandler once sought to move beyond more obvious film fare and really stretch himself as an actor, and this rather remarkable film is the end result. Often referred to as ‘the Adam Sandler movie for people who don’t like Adam Sandler movies’ – count me in with that group – Punch-Drunk Love is a bizarre comedy with serious overtones that scored heavily with critics, but lost money at the box office, a factor that probably led to Sandler’s subsequent involvement with nothing more than a string of absolute lowest common denominator moneymakers.”

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

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on La Notte (1961)

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Michelangelo Antonioni (right) directs Monica Vitti (left) in Antonioni’s classic film La Notte (1961)

In issue 74 of Senses of Cinema, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster discusses Antonioni’s classic film La Notte (1961), writing in part that “in reviewing the critical reception of La notte (1961), it strikes me that many observers seem to almost completely miss the fact that the film is, in part, a feminist critique of capitalist society, which centers around women, consumption, and the failure of our ecosystem, and not just the director’s trademark alienation and ennui.

Conventional plot summaries of the film routinely insist that La notte centres around a male author, Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni), his uncertain career, and his failing relationship with his wife, Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), as well as his flirtations with beautiful socialite Valentina Gherardini (Monica Vitti).

I would argue, rather, that women are both the centre of the film and the mirrors upon which Antonioni reflects his dark perceptions and stark conclusions about the human condition. At a launch party for his latest novel, those who celebrate Giovanni’s newest book spend precious little time actually reading, opting instead to party all night, while simultaneously remaining oblivious to their own mortality.

As in most of his films, Antonioni’s wealthy protagonists in La notte live in a hell of their own making. So thoroughly alienated are they from one another (and from the environment) that they experience the rain from the sky (in the pool sequence) as a sublime rapture from above, giggling like schoolchildren, briefly lifted out of their stupor for a moment’s play with the actual elements.The tragedy of Antonioni’s characters is not simply a matter of bored bourgeois ennui; these people are disconnected from the feminine, from the earth, and from life itself.”

Brilliant writing – you can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Adrian Danks on Bruce Conner’s Report (1967)

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

Bruce Conner’s classic film Report is a masterpiece of montage, dealing with the death of JFK.

As Adrian Danks noted in his brilliantly detailed essay on the film in the journal Senses of Cinema, “completed over a three-year period, Bruce Conner’s Report [1967] is one of the key works of 1960s avant-garde cinema, a refinement and extension of the filmmaker-artist’s film work to that date. In some respects, it is a return to the montage, association and found footage driven preoccupations of his first cinematic opus, the truly seminal and massively influential A Movie (1958), and something of a condensation of Conner’s key interests in popular culture, mass media, the contemporary power of celebrity, recontextualization, and the constitutive significance of cataclysmic violence to both the United States and what we might call late modernity.

Although enmeshed in the nature of cinema itself, as well as our experience of it (it is in essence both a visceral and intellectual encounter), Report equally resonates with Conner’s significant work in sculptural assemblage and what would become known as conceptual art. Initially conceived in the immediate aftermath of Kennedy’s murder, Report is a deeply felt work, an often lacerating but emotionally draining attempt to deal with John F. Kennedy’s death and the ways it was exploited by the mass media, particularly television (in fact, its use of such material as the “cross-hairs” included in countdown leader suggest an even greater level of culpability). It is also, aesthetically, a prescient but undervalued work, prefiguring the structuralist turn in much avant-garde cinema in the late 1960s.

Report is a film that asks for an affective response from its viewer but also requires forensic attention to detail and structure. It is never an easy film to watch. Roughly divided into uneven halves, it relies upon the principles of association, repetition, variation, recognition, and the often-contrapuntal relationship between sound and image to try to capture the “feeling” of the event. Conner’s decision to only partially ‘illustrate’ Kennedy’s assassination and its aftermath is both pragmatically and intellectually apt. Initially, Conner wanted to make a more conventional and fully-formed documentary on Kennedy’s death (how conventional even this film would have ended up being is another matter).

Living in Kennedy’s birthplace, Brookline, Massachusetts, at the time of his death, Conner originally intended to draw heavily upon television archives and to film the burial he expected to occur in his own neighborhood (Kennedy was ultimately buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Pennsylvania). The ambitious nature of Conner’s project was partly driven by the Ford Foundation Grant he had received (one of ten given to experimental filmmakers in 1964), but was also an outcome of an uncommon obsession (though perhaps quite common at the time) with the assassination. In this regard, Report can be considered as something of a mourning work, an attempt to deal with and actually register Kennedy’s death (an aspect that Conner builds into the form and structure of the film itself).”

Another masterpiece of the cinema, which deserves a much wider audience.

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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