The Year So Far: Documentaries

There have been so many great documentaries in recent years. It’s an incredibly flexible art form. The following fourteen are the best of what I saw from January through June of this year.


Abacas: Small Enough to Jail (Steve James, director) Abacas Federal Savings Bank, a family-owned community bank in New York City’s Chinatown, was the 2600th in size among U.S. banks, and was also the only financial institution criminally indicted in the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown. The ensuing court case lasted five years and cost $10 million dollars, and it’s a rare instance where the little guy wins. Steve James has had a long career, with films such as Hoop Dreams (1994), Stevie (2002), and Life Itself (2014), in which film critic Roger Ebert talks about his life with movies and the devastating illness that didn’t seem to slow him down much. James was also a producer, series editor, and segment director of the astounding multi-part The New Americans (2004). A strong sense of humanity and respect for his subjects is reflected in all of his films. Abacas: Small Enough to Jail is ample evidence of that.

City of Ghosts (Matthew Heineman, director) Follows a number of citizen journalists who exhibit unbelievable courage in transmitting accounts of life in Raqqa, a Syrian city under ISIS domination. Their lives are at risk, even for those who have left Syria for other European countries. Seeing City of Ghosts made me realize I don’t have all that much to complain about in my life.

David Lynch: The Art Life (Jon Hguyen & Rick Barnes & Olivia Neergaard-Holm, directors) I hadn’t known (or had forgotten) that David Lynch started out as a painter. Examples of his early work indicate a clear, if twisted, path to his films. The Art Life feels very intimate. We see Lynch in his home in the Hollywood Hills as he speaks in voice-over or directly to the camera about his early life as a painter and how he eventually segued into film. He’s very casual, yet quite precise. The Art Life only takes us up to Eraserhead (1977),  but it provides a context for thinking about his subsequent films and televison shows. If you have any interest in the work of David Lynch, you have to see this, especially in light of his revival of Twin Peaks on Showtime. Trust me.

Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison, director) My previous post on this film can be accessed here.

Hummus! The Movie (Oren Rosenfeld, director) A love of hummus can bring Israelis and Arabs together. Hummus is the road to peace in the Middle East. At least this film makes you think it might be. We see a number of fascinating people in different European countries who have eating establishments that feature hummus. They talk about their lives and how and why they make hummus. You will definitely get hungry seeing this film.

Karl Marx City (Petra Epperlein & Michael Tucker, directors) Petra Epperlein grew up in the former East Germany. After the Berlin Wall came down, she moved to the West and became a filmmaker. Following her father’s suicide, she returned home in an effort to unravel rumors that he had been a collaborator with the Stasi security service. This is a very personal film for Epperlein. She’s on camera much of the time, but distances herself somewhat by referring to herself as “she” rather than “I” in the voice-over narration. The subject of a surveillance society in Karl Marx City feels very timely in the current climate.

Kedi (Ceyda Torum, director) If you don’t like cats, this film is not for you. But if you do, it’s a must. Hundreds of cats walk the streets of Istanbul. Kedi focuses on several of these cats and the people who feed them when they drop in. The camerawork is amazing.

Kiki (Sara Jordenö, director) Bursting with humanity, this is a film of fascinating personalities determined to be themselves, and proud of it. Yet another subculture I was only vaguely aware of.

Mr. Gaga: A True Story of Love and Dance (Tomer Heymann, director) I hadn’t heard of Ohad Naharin before seeing this film, but I definitley know about him now. His percussive choreography is incredibly exciting to see. He speaks eloquently in the film of his early life and how he came to be who he is. Mr. Gaga is powerful and often quite moving.

Obit (Vanessa Gould, director) This fascinating film profiles several obituary writers at the New York Times and examines how they do what they do. The process is laid out from start to finish. We saw Obit at Film Forum last April on its opening day. I’d seen it the week before at a press screening, but I knew that Nancy, being a writer and editor, would love it. The director and two of the subjects in the film, Bruce Weber and Jeff Roth, were there for a Q&A after. This always adds a lot to anything you’ve just seen, and that day was no exception. Bruce Weber is seen as he works throughout the day to finish an obit on time. Jeff Roth oversees the Times’ morgue where thousands of clippings and photographs are archived, ready to be accessed as necessary. Roth is a live-wire presence in the film, and just as entertaining in person. Something I found especially interesting is that when a celebrity dies unexpectedly, such as Michael Jackson, and an obit hasn’t already been prepared in advance, as it normally is for luminaries of a certain age, the obit reporters have to work against the clock to artfully write the summation of a person’s life in a matter of hours.

Quest (Jonathan Olshefski, director) We saw Quest last March at this year’s New Directors/New Films series and loved it. The director filmed the Rainey family in North Philadelphia over a ten-year period. The result is an intimate study of human beings through good times and bad. When we saw Quest, Jonathan Olshefski went on stage after the screening and asked the Raineys to join him. It turned out the entire family had been sitting directly in front of us. Considering the feeling the film generated for these people, this was quite a kick.

I couldn’t find a trailer or clips that give a sense of the film, but here is a review from Slant Magazine, followed by an interview with the director at the Sundance Film Festival and another interview in Filmmaker Magazine that tell how the film came to be.

Below (from left) are director Jonathan Olshefski, Christine’a “Ma” Rainey, William Rainey, Pearl “PJ” Rainey, and Ma’s husband, Christopher “Quest” Rainey.

Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan (Linda Saffire & Adam Schlesinger, directors) Just as I hadn’t been aware of Mr. Gaga‘s Ohad Naharin, I also knew nothing about Wendy Whelan until I started seeing trailers for this film, despite the fact that she had been the prima ballerina for the New York City Ballet for decades. She’s truly inspiring as the film follows her through a surgery that could end her career and the challenges of transitioning from ballet to contemporary dance. As with some other films on this list, Restless Creature feels very intimate. Whelan is surprisingly open as she talks about her fears and anxieties. These are feelings we all experience to varying degrees. To hear someone who’s the best at what she does talking about this stuff brings us closer to her.

Risk (Laura Poitras, director) While not quite the tour de force that Citizenfour (2014) was, this is an extremely interesting and problematic look at Julien Assange, the wizard of Wikileaks. Assange is a strange figure, likeable and reptilian at the same time. Laura Poitras was granted an incredible degree of access, but her relationship with Assange  soured by the time production ended. The last I’d heard was that Assange had disavowed the version of the film that was released in theaters. A review from The Atlantic can be read here.

Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? (Barak Heymann & Tomer Heymann, directors) What links most of the films on this list is a strong sense of humanity. This film has that in abundance. The Heymann Brothers are excellent filmmakers, as their earlier film on this list, Mr. Gaga, will attest. Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? is a wonderful story of love, identity, and acceptance, but what really sets it apart is that the process of making the film influenced the outcome. If the Heymann brothers had not made this film, Saar Maoz’s story would not have gone the way it did. The title poses a question that engages us even before we know what it means in context. When we hear it asked in the film, it’s a punch to the heart.

Below are two trailers for the film. Even though there’s some overlap, I think they’re different enough to justify including them here.


David Lynch: The Art Life is available for streaming on Amazon Prime. Mr. Gaga: A True Story of Love and Dance and Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? are available on Netflix. Risk will be aired by Showtime beginning July 22nd. Abacas: Small Enough to Jail and Quest will be aired by PBS later this year on “Frontline”and “Independent Lens,” respectively, with dates yet to be announced. – Ted Hicks

Posted in Art, Documentaries, Film, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | 5 Comments

The Year So Far: Feature Films

The following feature films are some of the best that I’ve seen in the last six months. We’ll see how this shakes out at the end of the year, after six more months of movies. But in the meantime…

Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, director) In the Alien films chronology, this one takes place between Prometheus (2012) and the original Alien (1979). I don’t think it holds together, but it has some absolutely terrifying scenes that really freaked me out — always a plus. The feeling that no one can possibly make it out alive is pervasive, which probably doesn’t make it a great first-date movie. Ridley Scott is a terrific director. Like Michael Mann, his films are solid and concrete; you feel the weight of things. I liked Prometheus, which many people didn’t. The first film and the James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) are still the best, though Alien: Covenant has nothing to be ashamed of.

Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, director & writer) An amazing rush of energy with a killer soundtrack to keep it rolling. This is a break-out role for Ansel Elgort. He’s incredibly appealing and engaging in the title role. Kevin Spacey does his thing as only he can do it. Jaime Foxx and especially Jon Hamm make very strong impressions. Everybody is really on the money in this one.

Beatriz at Dinner (Miguel Arteta, director & Mike White, writer) Here’s Selma Hyack as you’ve never seen her before, no makeup, dressed down, a little dumpy, but a spitfire when standing up for what she believes in. She’s great, as is John Lithgow as her dinner party nemesis, an unscrupulous land developer who would probably be close friends with Donald Trump. The running time is a tight 82 minutes, all of them dead on target.

The Big Sick (Michael Showalter, director) Looks and sounds like a rom-com at the outset, but becomes something much deeper and more authentic by the end. The film is written by Kumail Nanjiami and his wife Emily Gordon, based on their real-life romance. Nanjiami plays a version of himself and Emily is played by Zoe Kazan. Anyone who’s followed Nanjiami on HBO’s Silicon Valley knows how special he is. A stellar Holly Hunter and Ray Romano play Emily’s parents who rush to Chicago when she falls ill. The Big Sick is very funny and very moving as it looks at family relationships and the messiness of falling in love, as well as the dynamics of being a Pakistani in today’s America.

The Dancer (Stéphanie Di Giusto, director) I saw The Dancer at this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a US distributor, which is really sad, as it’s quite extraordinary. The Dancer tells the real-life story of Loïe Fuller (played by Soko), an who starts out in the American West with her prospector father and makes her way to Paris at the turn of the 20th century. She becomes famous throughout Europe with her “Serpentine Dance” style, which she discovered by accident, crossing paths along with way with the Lumière Brothers, Toulouse-Lautrec, and a young Isadore Duncan, among others. This is one to watch out for. In addition to the trailer, I’ve added a clip from the film that shows more of her unique dancing style, which is quite sensational.

Get Out (Jordan Peele, director & writer) Jordan Peele (of Key & Peele) has done something extraordinary and cleverly subversive here. In the guise of sci-fi horror films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Stepford Wives, he’s given us a study of race relations as deep and insightful as the documentaries I Am Not Your Negro, O.J.: Made in America, and 13th.

The Giant (Johannes Nyholm, director & writer) Here’s another film that doesn’t have a US distributor as yet. I saw The Giant at this year’s New Directors/New Films series and was completely entranced. It tells the story of Rikard, an autistic, severely deformed 30-year-old man who hopes to win the Scandinavian Championship of pétanque, a game similar to boules. Rikard was taken from his mother at birth. He imagines he can get her back if he wins this championship. His challenges are many, but he’s helped at times by a 200 foot giant, which brings a fairy-tale quality to the film. The giant, though obviously imaginary, is presented in very realistic, concrete terms. He’s quite wonderful.

Harmonium (Kôji Fukada, director & writer) This terrific Japanese film is a slow-burn psychological thriller that starts out as one thing and slowly becomes something else. It’s quietly disturbing with a creeping sense of dread. I’m not sure what to make of the ending, but the film is so good overall that I don’t really care.

The Hero (Brett Haley, director & co-writer) I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Sam Elliott. He’s great here as an aging, over-the-hill cowboy star, who we see at the beginning doing voice-over work for a barbecue-sauce commercial, take after take after take. I just wish it was a better film. What’s here is fine, but there’s something missing. It needs to be longer; it ends before it’s over, for me anyway. Regardless, Sam Elliott in a starring role his whole career has prepared him for makes The Hero more than worth seeing.

It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Shults, director & writer) This film is terrifying in an understated way. It’s set in the near future. An unspecified, extremely contagious viral catastrophe has occurred. We don’t know any more than those trying to survive, which is very little. There’s no radio, no television, no communication with the outside world. What they do know is to keep the doors bolted, don’t go outside at night, have gas masks ready at all times, trust no one. The always excellent Joel Edgerton is barricaded in a remote house in the woods with his wife, her father, and their son. A second family shows up seeking shelter. After tense negotiations, Edgerton takes them in. This is life on a razor’s edge. You do whatever you have to in order to survive. I’ve said the film is understated, but it tightens the screws every step of the way.

Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd, director) This is a nasty little film that I liked a lot. I’ve seen it twice so far; once at a press screening and again when it was screened in this year’s New Directors/New Films series. A plot synopsis from IMDB sets it up more concisely than I probably could: “Rural England, 1865. Katherine is stifled by her loveless marriage to a bitter man twice her age, whose family are cold and unforgiving. When she embarks on a passionate affair with a young worker on her husband’s estate, a force is unleashed inside her, so powerful that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants.” Set in a desolate landscape, the film has echos of Wuthering Heights, but with a fairly modern sensibility. Florence Pugh’s Katherine is smarter and deadlier than anyone around her, determined to survive no matter what. Lady Macbeth opens in New York next Friday, July 14th.

Logan (James Mangold, director & story) Hugh Jackman is the title character, aka Wolverine from Marvel Comics. He’s played this character many times before in X-Men and Wolverine films. But this one is different, a superhero movie that’s not really a superhero movie. It’s R-rated, down and dirty, and very violent. Logan shows the bloody consequences of violent actions that are played for thrills in conventional PG-13 action films where it’s more about the body count than it is about the bodies. This one feels real, even if it’s not. There’s more at stake. Life, death, redemption. Not everyone walks away.









Maudie (Aisling Walsh, director) I didn’t know before seeing this that Maude Lewis was an actual person who became a well-known Canadian folk artist in the 1940s and 50s. Sally Hawkins is simply wonderful in the title role, as is Ethan Hawke as the lonely, extremely gruff (to put it mildly) fishmonger who becomes Maude’s initially unwilling companion. They’re an odd couple if there ever was one. This is a film with a lot of human feeling, but not maudlin or sentimentalized. It earns the emotional response you’re likely to have for it.

The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, director & writer) Anyone who has seen About Elly
(2009) or the Oscar-winning A Separation (2011) knows how good this Iranian director can be. The Salesman, which also received an Oscar, is no exception. A husband and wife performing in a local production in Teheran of Death of a Salesman attempt to deal with the ramifications of an assault on the wife when she was alone in their apartment. Who attacked her and what will the husband do about it? Like Farhadi’s earlier films, it’s a suspenseful drama with no easy answers.

Their Finest (Lone Scherfig, director) Set in 1940 during the London Blitz, a film company is recruited by government officials to produce a patriotic film about the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk. I generally like films about filmmaking, and this one is no exception. It’s a fairly traditional and straight-forward, which seems right for a film set in this period with this subject matter. There are few surprises, but it’s all in the telling, which is excellent. The great Bill Nighy is a standout in the role of an actor past his prime and quite indignant about that. Gemma Arterton plays a young woman hired to work on the film in a writing capacity. The obstacles she encounters add a feminist layer to the film. There’s also, as you might expect, a love story.

Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, director) Enormously successful at the box-office, and for good reason. Wonder Woman is a knockout. It may not carry the real-world weight that Logan aspires to, but it’s pretty great, and raises the bar for the superhero (or superheroine) genre. This is largely due to the casting of Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman. She’s a stunning, dynamic presence. The climactic showdown is the special-effects blowout we’ve seen many times before, but the film works like gangbusters in spite of that.



A Ghost Story (David Lowery, director & writer) Strictly speaking, I shouldn’t include this film at all, since initially I was limiting this post to films I’d seen during the first six months of the year. But I saw A Ghost Story this past Friday when it opened and knew I couldn’t not write about it now. It’s one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen. At the beginning we see Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in and around their house on land that might be in Texas. They’re married and in love. She wants to move; he doesn’t. Then he dies. And is resurrected as the classic kid’s idea of a ghost, a someone in a sheet with two blank eye holes, the least-expensive Halloween costume ever. The ghost stays in the house, haunting it, I think, silently watching Mara dealing with grief as her life goes on. He remains in the house after she moves out and as a succession of  families move in. The film is a strong evocation of loss, loneliness, existence, and time. That’s a heavy load for a film to carry, but I think A Ghost Story more than does it. The film suggests why ghosts might hang around at all, why objects in haunted houses suddenly fly off shelves, and gives new meaning to the expression “giving up the ghost.” This shouldn’t work at all, but it does. Or maybe it doesn’t, I don’t know. You’ll either go with it or reject it entirely. It’s hard to describe the effect it had on me. Well, not hard, exactly; it’s more that I’m kind of embarrassed to spell it out. At the end, A Ghost Story left me feeling lonely and alone, but also exhilarated. At dinner that night I was telling my wife Nancy about the final moments in the film and I got choked up. I didn’t expect this, but I can’t ignore something that provokes a reaction this strong. Maybe I identified too much with the ghost. You might wonder why someone should want to go through that. The answer is because it’s beautiful. I don’t know, maybe I’ll see it again and it won’t work at all. But I strongly doubt it. – Ted Hicks


The following titles are available now for streaming: Get Out, Logan, The Salesman, and Their Finest. Alien: Covenant will be available on August 15.

Posted in Film, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | 3 Comments

More Tie-Ins: TV Shows & John Wayne comics!

Novelizations and comic book adaptations in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s weren’t limited to motion pictures alone. Television provided a large array of material to be novelized and turned into comics. Most of these, though not all, were derived from popular genres such as Westerns, cop & detective stories, science-fiction, and even sit-coms. I don’t remember reading many, if any, novels and comic books based on TV shows. I don’t know why, because I was certainly watching most of these shows.

Here are examples of novelizations based on “adult” Westerns of the period. I particularly like the covers for The Scout (based on Wagon Train characters) and Have Gun Will Travel, both of which are illustrations rather than photographs of the actors.








Science-Fiction & Fantasy novelizations include the following. Some of these are for fairly recent TV shows, so novelizations aren’t exactly dead.











Some detectives. The Peter Gunn cover is especially nice.
































The vast majority of comic book adaptations of TV shows was published by Gold Key Comics. The format was almost identical in appearance with that of Dell Comics. Gold Key’s parent company, Western Publishing, had previously provided content for Dell. In 1962, Western created Gold Key, which concentrated on popular television shows for newsstand distribution. Gold Key was active from 1962 to 1984.

Here are some of their titles. It’s like waking up inside TV Land.




































Here are two Star Trek covers — one using photographs of the actors, as was usually done, and the other an illustrated cover with small inset photos of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.

Below are examples of story artwork, to give you an idea of what these looked like on the inside. Not bad, though Spock’s ears are a bit exaggerated.


While researching material for this post, I chanced upon something that seems pretty bizarre to me: John Wayne Adventure Comics. Thirty-one issues were published by Toby Press from 1949 to 1955. I’d never heard of these before and don’t recall ever seeing one. They are strange, to say the least. A photo or illustration of John Wayne in a movie role adorns most of the covers, usually in a Western or military setting. His character in all of the stories is called John Wayne. Each issue plays off his established movie persona as a cowboy or gung-ho soldier, or in at least two cases below, a wrestler of alligators or harpooner of whales.

Here is a sampling of John Wayne Adventure Comics covers:


















The cover below is my favorite from an artistic point of view. Below that is an an example of the inside artwork.


I initially thought the cover below was for a real — though profoundly weird — DC comic, but it turns out to have been created by a comics fan and posted online. I’m glad I checked further. Nonetheless, it’s too cool not to include here.


John Wayne did many print ads for Camel cigarettes and other products, but this is the only one I’ve seen that uses illustrations rather than photographs, showing him in cowboy garb throwing a “two-fisted” punch. (Wayne survived lung cancer in 1964, then died of stomach cancer in 1979.)


Finally, the strangest John Wayne tie-in of them all — John Wayne Paper Dolls. Though this is not quite as strange as I initially thought, seeing as there’s a whole world of paper-doll aficionados out there. This one was done by Tom Tierney in 1981. Per his obituary in the New York Times in 2014: “From the mid-1970s until his death, Mr. Tierney reigned as the undisputed king of the international paper-doll world… a milieu that comprises thousands of collectors in the United States alone.” He created more than 400 paper-doll books that have sold four million copies. Okay, but the idea of John Wayne paper-dolls is still pretty weird. The book contains two dolls, a young and an old Wayne, and 32 costumes representing 30 of his films, including one titled Girls Demand Excitement (1931).










That’s a hard act to follow, so I think I’ll bring this to a close. I hope it’s been interesting. There’s a lot more of this stuff online, just a Google away. – Ted Hicks

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“Dawson City: Frozen Time” – Amazing!

Dawson City: Frozen Time is unlike any film you’re likely to have seen before. The discovery and subsequent restoration of 533 reels of 35mm nitrate film prints buried as landfill in a swimming pool provides the way into director Bill Morrison‘s astonishing new documentary. The film is a multi-layered study so densely packed with information that it had my head spinning. The cast of characters includes the Lumière Brothers, Thomas Edison, photographer Eric Hegg, newsboy Sid Grauman, “Klondike Kate” Rockwell and Alexander Pantages, poet Robert Service, William Desmond Taylor, Apple Jimmy Oglow and Chief Isaac, Robert Flaherty, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, sports promoter Tex Rickard, and Alice Guy-Blaché, who directed over 1000 films from 1896 to 1920. These are but a few of the people we encounter along the way; there are many more. The stories weave in and out of each other and connect, often in surprising ways, part of a little-known history. It’s like reading E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.

Dawson City is in Canada, in the Yukon, approximately 173 miles below the Arctic Circle. In 1978, while digging up ground to start construction of a new community center, reels of film were found buried. They’d been in the ground for 50 years. These represented 372 silent films from the 1910s to the 1920s. On one level, Morrison’s film is a history of Dawson City at the turn of the 20th Century, told through the use of many clips from the recovered films, as well as archival news footage and still photographs, to give a sense of the time and place. It’s also about the early years of cinema, loss, recovery, and memory.

Per Bill Morrison: “It is an amazing story in and of itself, the rediscovery of 533 film reels that were preserved in permafrost while all other known copies perished from fire or neglect. But that discovery was only part of a larger and perhaps even more compelling story – the story of the gold rush town of Dawson City and how it went from a sleepy fishing camp of First Nation Hän-speaking natives, to a town of 40,000 gold-crazed stampeders within two years, and then how it then reverted back to a town of 1000 where it weathered out the century. And then it contains many more stories, those specific to this town and its unique relationship to cinema, and those stories told in the newsreels and features that were recovered in 1978. It is literal time capsule of histories converging on each other, layered and self-referential, silver film having been returned to the same earth that gold was removed from. The role cinema played was central and essential to the telling of these stories. For me, you only come across a film story like this once in a lifetime. It is my Titanic. It is a perfect distillation of the 20th century.”

Dawson City was the last stop on the film distribution circuit. Many of the films didn’t play there until two to three years after their initial release. Studios and distributors didn’t want to pay to have the films returned, so hundreds of them piled up, many to be later dumped into the Yukon River after talkies came on the scene. I didn’t recognize any of the films Morrison included here. They had titles I’d never heard of before, such as The Bludgeon (1915), The Purple Mask (1916), and The Recoil (1917). Later, when I saw the listing of the films in the end credits, there was a film directed by D. W. Griffith (Brutality – 1912), and The Half-Breed (1916), directed by Alan Dwan, starring Douglas Fairbanks. But these were mostly films that hadn’t lived on because they’d disappeared.

Information is conveyed through on-screen titles rather than spoken narration. Of the 372 films from the collection that were preserved, 124 titles are presented in this film. An example of a device the film frequently uses is that when we’re told that Pathé introduced the Newsreel in 1911, this is accompanied by clips of characters reading newspapers from different recovered films. I feel that sometimes this goes on too long, with too many clips, but the opportunity to see more footage from these films outweighs that reservation. The extremely effective music score by Alex Somers conveys a sense of great expectations, of something always building.

Dawson City: Frozen Time begins with the discovery of the buried film, then flashes back in time. I was startled to see actual footage of the Lumière Brothers themselves, and then later, Thomas Edison. We then get a history of nitrate film, how it was discovered and how it was made. Nitrate stock is extremely volatile, it can burst into flames at the slightest provocation. It’s difficult to store and dangerous to handle. No one in their right mind would use it, and yet it was the standard. As the film tells us, after decades of warehouse fires, it was finally replaced by acetate safety stock in 1949. The irony of this is that a safety film was developed in 1910, but studios continued to use nitrate stock because it was cheaper to make. In an interesting side note we learn that in 1913 in Toronto, Robert Flaherty accidentally ignited the first 30,000 feet of Nanook of the North with a lit cigarette. In 1914, Thomas Edison’s film manufacturing plant spontaneously exploded. These are but two examples cited in the film. Nitrate films were bursting into flame and exploding all over the place. A tag line on the Dawson City: Frozen Time poster is “Film was born of an explosive.” After arrangements were made to restore the recovered films, the problem was how to get it to the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa. No one was willing to transport nitrate film, though the Canadian Air Force agreed to take the films on a C-130 cargo plane.

I mentioned earlier that Dawson City: Frozen Time is densely packed with information. Dawson City becomes a kind of nexus of people and events that radiate out from Dawson itself. Sid Grauman, a newsboy in Dawson, moves to Hollywood and builds several movie theaters, including Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Tex Rickard, who promoted boxing matches at the Monte Carlo, the largest hotel-casino-dancehall in Dawson, later founds the New York Nets and re-builds Madison Square Garden. “Klondike Kate” Rockwell and bartender Alexander Pantages rebuild the Orpheum Theater in Dawson and begin showing motion pictures. Pantages later became a great movie tycoon with over 70 theaters in North America, including the RKO Pantages in Hollywood, where the Academy Awards were presented for many years. William Desmond Taylor worked as a time keeper on a mining dredge from 1908 to 1912, then moved to Hollywood where he directed 60 films before his still-unsolved murder in 1922. There’s more. I saw the film again and took seven pages of notes, but this is enough for now.

There are clips at the end that take Dawson City: Frozen Time to a powerfully moving climax. Two of them really got me. The first, from The Butler and the Maid (1912), shows a woman’s arms extending out of a swath of water damage on the right half of the frame toward a man clearly seen in the left half of the frame. The man suddenly sees her and reaches back, but they do not touch. It has a very mysterious feel, a kind of longing. For me it begins to suggest the presence of something Other trying to break into the film.

Most of the recovered films exhibit some degree of water damage to the image. Rather than detracting, it adds something hard to define, a weird beauty all its own.

The final scene in the film, from a 1912 newsreel, is of a woman dancing with frenzied abandoned on a stage, her head and face wrapped in a diaphanous scarf, fighting to survive as she’s nearly consumed by the erupting clouds of water damage. It’s haunting, moving, and sad.

Earlier I found myself writing the title as Dawson City: Frozen Dreams, instead of Frozen Time. That would work as well. – Ted Hicks


Dawson City: Frozen Time is playing at the IFC Center in New York City from Friday, June 9 through Thursday, June 15. Additional playdates and locations can be found here. When the page opens, scroll down and click on “playdates.”

A Film Comment interview with Bill Morrison last October when Dawson City: Frozen Time was shown at the New York Film Festival can be accessed here.

Here is a short interview with Bill Morrison at the 54th New York Film Festival, where Dawson City: Frozen Time was shown.

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Movie Tie-Ins: Novelizations & Comic Books


Film novelizations have been around since the 1920s, but it was in the 1950s, with the proliferation of mass-market paperbacks, that they began to appear in large numbers. This is when I started reading them. Novelizations, as you would suppose, are written versions of popular motion pictures. They allowed you to revisit a movie you’d seen and liked, to re-experience it in a way. Novelizations still appear, but with the advent of home video in the 1980s and subsequently streaming to TVs, computers, and mobile devices, the demand for them has declined. If you can simply re-watch a film anytime you’d like, then why read a book of the movie? Though there’s something to be said for imagining the movie in your head while you’re reading it.

The first novelizations I remember reading were, predictably, of science fiction and horror films. Here are some of them.








I read Forbidden Planet years before actually seeing the movie, which was released in 1956. Since it hadn’t played at any of the theaters accessible to me in small-town Iowa, reading a version of the movie was better than nothing. The Brides of Dracula (1960) had the distinction of being a Dracula movie without Dracula. I don’t remember much about the novelization, except that Van Helsing has a sex scene that’s not in the film, and reveals to the young lady that his first name is Lee. Dean Owen, the author, either didn’t know that Van Helsing’s name is Abraham, or didn’t care. I’d already seen King Kong (1933) many times on television before buying the novelization copy pictured above. This paperback edition was a reprint of the original book version, which was one of the first talkies novelized. The earliest novelization I could find record of was for Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927). Both can be seen below.

This edition with scenes from the film would be particularly valuable now since London After Midnight has long been considered a lost film.

Another paperback novelization I had was for The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1960). Like The Brides of Dracula, this was a Hammer Films production, and I was obsessed with all things Hammer. The cover of the paperback showing a still from from the film’s climax, compares badly to the stunning British poster for the film. I remember nothing from the book version, but the film starred Anton Differing in the title role, an actor who turned up more frequently portraying Nazi SS officers in World War II films, and Christopher Lee, who, with Peter Cushing, more or less defined Hammer horror films.


More recent novelizations include the following, from 1976 to 2002. With the exception of Taxi Driver, all were written by either Max Allan Collins or Alan Dean Foster, who have created a kind of cottage industry for this work. Road to Perdition is interesting in that the film was based on a graphic novel, also written by Collins.














In 1977 Berkley Books published a set of six titles based on classic horror films from Universal Studios. They are all attributed to Carl Dreadstone, a pseudonym of horror writer Ramsey Campbell, and possibly one other writer. Yesterday I ordered a copy of The Mummy from a used bookseller. I’m curious to see what it’s like.

The Bride of Frankenstein had previously been adapted by Michael Egremont in 1935. Here are the covers of two editions.



Dell Comics published comic books from 1929 to 1974. In the 1950s & 60s, Dell had pretty much cornered the market on comic book versions of motion pictures. The covers would typically be photos of the stars in poses from the films. I don’t remember what the inside artwork was like, but Dell wasn’t very edgy, so it was probably fairly bland. Movies adapted were primarily Westerns, science fiction, war, adventure, and, oddly enough, a number of Poe films directed by Roger Corman. Even more oddly, I found one adapted from Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965). I’d like to see what that one is like. Here’s a sampling of titles from Dell’s “Movie Classic” series.



























Comic book versions of motion pictures existed long before the 1950s. Movie Comics #1 hit the stands in April of 1939. It was one of two titles published by All-American Publications, which was founded by Max Gaines. Gaines has been called the “inventor of the modern comic book format.” In 1944, Gaines sold his interest in All-American Publications and started Entertaining Comics, which became Educational Comics, finally known as just EC. After Gaines was killed in an accident in 1947, his son William took over. Under his guidance, EC became famous (and notorious) for publishing Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, Weird Science, Weird Fantasy, and finally, the monumental Mad. (I wrote about Al Feldstein, Mad, and the EC titles in a previous blog post, which can be accessed here.)

The first issue of Movie Comics had adaptations of Son of Frankenstein, Gunga Din, The Great Man Votes, and Fisherman’s Wharf. It differed from other comics in that it used stills and publicity photos to create illustrations. Speech bubbles and captions were added. This is the “photonovel,” or “fumetti” style. It’s not entirely successful, but it is unusual. I found the entire 8-page Son of Frankenstein online, and thought it interesting enough to include here. Below is the cover of the first issue of Movie Comics, followed by Son of Frankenstein. Behold!


Still with me? Congratulations! I hope you enjoyed the ride. – Ted Hicks

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Jonathan Demme & Talking Heads – Burning Down the House

Until this past Sunday, the last time I’d seen Stop Making Sense in a theater was in 1999 during a 15th anniversary re-release at Film Forum. At that showing I looked around to check out the audience before the lights went down. It was a weekday matinee and a small crowd, but I noticed to my surprise that Jonathan Demme was seated a few rows back with two kids. All through the film I was sharply aware that the director was watching it with the rest of us. This definitely added another layer to the experience. Stop Making Sense was even better than I’d remembered. Afterward I jokingly asked him how he thought it held up. He was very nice. It gave me a kick that apparently only a couple others in the audience had realized he was there.

Jonathan Demme

Last Sunday I saw Stop Making Sense again for the first time in years. The Film Society of Lincoln Center was showing it, along with Married to the Mob (1988), in a tribute to Jonathan Demme, who’d died on April 26 at age 73. I loved it just as much as I had when I saw it several times during its initial release in ’84.

Stop Making Sense was filmed with seven cameras over three nights in December of 1983 at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. Released in October 1984, the film received wide acclaim. Leonard Maltin described it as “brilliantly conceived, shot, edited and performed…one of the greatest rock movies ever made.” I can’t argue with that. The music and performances by Talking Heads are rapturous and transcendent. I continue to be in awe of David Byrne, a truly singular presence. His often strangled vocals and body language that suggests a marionette receiving electroshock are all part of a uniquely eccentric style. It’s quite odd, but great. And whatever else, Stop Making Sense really ROCKS. Here are some numbers from the film that illustrate that better than anything I could say. In particular, backup singers Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt pumping their legs up and down in unison with David Byrne in “Slippery People” knocks me out. It’s beautiful.

And the full-bore finale, where we finally see audience members.

While David Byrne was certainly the focal point and central intelligence of Talking Heads, he didn’t do it alone. Everyone on stage in this film was at the top of their game. There are the core band members — Tina Weymouth on bass, Chris Frantz on drums, Jerry Harrison on guitar and keyboards — and also Steve Scales on percussion, Alex Weir on guitar, Bernie Worrell on keyboards, and Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt on backing vocals, all adding to the drama and complexity of the music.

If you’ve never seen Stop Making Sense, I strongly recommend that you do. It’s a sustained rush of positive energy that’s almost impossible to resist. In fact, a close friend was here on business in ’84 and we saw the film together. I wanted to see it again, and I knew she’d like it, too. She was pregnant with her first child. She told me later that the baby had really kicked during the film. So Stop Making Sense makes everybody want to dance! – Ted Hicks



Jonathan Demme interviewed in 2007.

David Byrne interviewed following a screening of Stop Making Sense at the Walter Reade Theater in 2014.


Stop Making Sense is available for streaming or purchase from Amazon. Play it LOUD.

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Men’s Adventure Magazines: Weasels Ripped My Flesh

I often find some very interesting stuff when I’m doing a search for film posters, stills, and other materials. Recently the cover for a men’s adventure magazine from the 1950s popped up. I dropped what I was doing and started looking for more of them. The ones I found are mostly from the 50s and 60s. I remember seeing these at news stands when I was a kid, but that was as close as I got. My dad regularly bought True, Argosy, and Saga, which I got to look at when he was done with them. Those were fairly rational publications, but these others were another thing entirely, more like the National Enquirer compared to the New York Times. There’s no denying the disturbing Stone Age attitudes and macho fantasies reflected in these covers, but they’re so ridiculous it’s hard to take them seriously. Though that might be a mistake, given the current climate.

The cover at left illustrates the story “Trapped in a Sea of Giant Crabs,” while the one at right features “Chewed to Death by Giant Turtles.” As you can see, “Man’s Life” had a thing about rugged shirtless men —  who all appear to be the same guy — being attacked by man-eating rats or “Eaten Alive by Killer Pigs.” That’s one unlucky dude. It’s hard to imagine anyone reading this stuff with a straight face, but what do I know?








I was startled by the cover below that illustrates “Weasels Ripped My Flesh,” which is the title of a Mothers of Invention album of the same name. The record jacket drawn by Neon Park has always been one of my favorites, one of the greatest album covers of all time. Frank Zappa had to have seen this magazine.

Many of these magazines feature scantily-clad young women being tortured by Nazis or Communists or attacked by large snakes. I’m not sure what this snake motif is about, but I suspect Freud might have an idea.














 The cover at left shares DNA with the EC Comics cover at right. This sensationalistic approach can also be seen in exploitation and science-fiction/horror films of the period.



There were occasional surprises in what I found. The Hemingway cover below may have been an attempt to appeal to a more literary crowd (though I doubt it), while the tiger reflection cover below that is subtler than most. It’s almost poetic by comparison to the usual lurid presentations.

My favorite of the covers I found has to be this one showing a guy with his arm shoved half-way down the throat of a leopard. Good luck, pal. Any bets on how that would turn out in real life?


There’s probably a limit to how much of this a person wants to look at, and I may have exceeded that here. Believe me, I didn’t have the nerve to include some of the more extreme examples. If, however, you haven’t had enough and would like to see more, you can do that here. – Ted Hicks

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