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September 2012
The Shadowcatchers: A History of Cinematography in Australia Online
by Martha Ansara
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The contributions of Australian cinematographers have been widely lauded in recent years, thanks to the international profile of directors of photography like Russell Boyd, Don McAlpine, Andrew Lesnie and John Seale (all ASC and ACS), among others. Yet for all the attention paid to these modern masters, the bulk of Australian film history remains largely unknown to film viewers in the rest of the world. 
Alfred Hitchcocks FRENZY: The Last Masterpiece Online
by Raymond Foery
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The latest scholar to tackle Hitchcock is Raymond Foery, whose Alfred Hitchcock’s FRENZY: The Last Masterpiece takes one late Hitchcock production as its sole focus. It is a sign of the skill of both Hitchcock and Foery that Frenzy can sustain such close study: by examining the movie from every possible perspective, the author makes an important contribution to Hitchcock studies that summarizes previous writings on the film as it opens new lines of inquiry.
Peckinpah Today: New Essays on the Films of Sam Peckinpah Online
by edited by Michael Bliss
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The films of Sam Peckinpah have generated a formidable library of scholarship in the decades since The Wild Bunch established him as one of the great American directors. Paul Seydor’s Peckinpah: The Western Films — a Reconsideration remains a seminal piece of visual and thematic analysis; Stephen Prince’s Savage Cinema convincingly argues the case for Peckinpah’s massive influence on the filmmakers that followed him, and David Weddle’s If They Move, Kill ’Em! is one of the best studies ever written on the intersection between a filmmaker’s personal and artistic lives. Given these and many other books on Peckinpah, one might be forgiven for assuming little is left to say about this visionary yet divisive director, but Peckinpah Today: New Essays on the Films of Sam Peckinpah shows Peckinpah remains an inexhaustible source of fascination for filmmakers and scholars.

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The Shadowcatchers: A History of Cinematography in Australia
by Martha Ansara
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The contributions of Australian cinematographers have been widely lauded in recent years, thanks to the international profile of directors of photography like Russell Boyd, Don McAlpine, Andrew Lesnie and John Seale (all ASC and ACS), among others. Yet for all the attention paid to these modern masters, the bulk of Australian film history remains largely unknown to film viewers in the rest of the world. It is as though the entire industry there began in the 1970s with the Australian New Wave that brought us Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career and Mad Max. This is partly because before that decade — the one in which the government stepped up to fund a national cinema after decades of American dominance in the region, Australia’s film industry was rather intermittent and erratic, owing to a complicated combination of economic, cultural and technological determinants.

The country’s unusual yet rich history as a producer of film and television is finally given its full due in Martha Ansara’s The Shadowcatchers: A History of Cinematography in Australia. Drawing from a variety of sources, including Australia’s National Film & Sound Archive as well as the personal archives of many ACS members and associates, Ansara has compiled a history that is both oral and pictorial and a smashing success on both levels. A cinematographer herself, Ansara understands the power of the image and has packed her book with hundreds of gorgeous stills portraying film crews at work. Yet she also supplies the necessary context to fully understand those photographs by incorporating interviews, biographical sketches and historical overviews of significant developments to create a definitive history of Australian cinematography.

The book is cleanly organized and takes the reader through the key movements and figures in Australian cinema, starting in 1896. Ansara’s clear and concise text in the early chapters beautifully explains how and why Australia failed to become a major center for fiction-film production through most of the 20th century — and how and why it succeeded at sustaining a prolific industry of documentaries and educational films. The chapters on silent and early sound film are revelatory in their exploration of early technologies and pioneers, with superbly written and researched portraits of seminal figures such as Lacey Percival, ACS, and Frank Hurley, ACS. Ansara’s text accompanies a wealth of spectacular production stills and excerpts from interviews with filmmakers who supply firsthand knowledge of the era, resulting in a vivid, riveting account.

As the narrative progresses into the post-WWII years, both the stills and the interviews become more plentiful, and by the time Ansara gets to the most fertile period in Australian cinematography (beginning in 1970), she is able to draw on a large pool of interviewees and photographic sources to generate a hundred pages of sheer perfection for cinematography buffs. Personal observations by legends such as Seale and documentarian David Parer, ACS, supplement Ansara’s profiles of other notable figures, including Boyd, Lesnie and Dion Beebe, ASC, ACS, with an abundance of images representing the cinematographers’ work and the cinematographers at work. All the while, the author never loses sight of the fact film is a business that does not exist in a vacuum, and her ruminations on the ways in which the Australian film industry affected and was affected by the society in which it existed are insightful and illuminating.

Ansara’s scope not only gives full attention to iconic filmmakers, but also goes beyond them to provide perspectives from a variety of crew positions and profiles of cinematographers in a wide array of mediums, including animation. Readers unfamiliar with Australian film history will get a crash course from Ansara’s survey, but the breadth of her approach ensures even more learned film scholars will glean new information. Ansara wraps up her tome with a couple of useful appendices, one listing all ACS members accredited since 1963 and another listing the society’s top award winners for every year since 1968. Looking at these lists after reading Ansara’s book is to be struck with the ambition and excellence of Australia’s image-makers and to be driven to visit or revisit as many of their films as possible. Shadowcatchers is the best possible guide to those films, a history that celebrates their artistry while ambitiously exploring the ways that artistry was affected by the politics and economy of the country that fostered (or, at low points, thwarted) it. It is a landmark work.        

Australian Cinematographers Society,
$66.00 paperback


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Alfred Hitchcocks FRENZY: The Last Masterpiece
by Raymond Foery
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In his 2002 book The Encyclopedia of Alfred Hitchcock, author Thomas Leitch asserted Hitchcock is “by far the most analyzed filmmaker in the world.” It is a claim with a great deal of justification; just a cursory search on Amazon reveals hundreds of books on the director and his films. Yet year after year, Leitch and other writers continue to return to the “master of suspense” as a subject, hoping to mine his psychologically complex and compositionally rigorous films for new revelations. The latest scholar to tackle Hitchcock is Raymond Foery, whose Alfred Hitchcock’s FRENZY: The Last Masterpiece takes one late Hitchcock production as its sole focus. It is a sign of the skill of both Hitchcock and Foery that Frenzy can sustain such close study: by examining the movie from every possible perspective, the author makes an important contribution to Hitchcock studies that summarizes previous writings on the film as it opens new lines of inquiry.

Frenzy holds an interesting place in Hitchcock’s oeuvre; it came following a rare period of commercial and critical failure for the director. Marnie, Torn Curtain and Topaz had all left audiences and critics feeling Hitchcock had lost his way (though Marnie acquired a cult following in subsequent years), and when he embarked on a new tale of an innocent man being mistaken for a vicious serial killer, the director clearly hoped to triumph by returning to the genre for which he was an acknowledged master. Teaming up with mostly new collaborators, including writer Anthony Shaffer and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, BSC, Hitchcock reclaimed his reputation with a thriller as popular as it was acclaimed.

Foery traces the way this came to be, step-by-step, taking the reader through the writing process, casting, shoot, post-production and release of Frenzy. Relying on a multitude of sources, including the Alfred Hitchcock papers at the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, the author has created an account that is exhaustive — and, occasionally, a little exhausting. Indeed, at times, Foery’s attention to detail borders on the monotonous as the midsection of the book becomes little more than a glorified production report, with information about what scenes were shot on which days, how many takes were required and when the crew was called and wrapped. Yet what Foery loses in terms of pace and entertainment value, he gains in comprehensiveness; while more casual readers can just skim over the chapters relating to the more mundane aspects of shooting, Hitchcock completists can turn to Foery’s book as a kind of one-stop shop for all there is to know about the movie’s production and reception.

Foery’s thorough research helps to counter several myths that have persisted regarding the making of Frenzy, such as the oft-repeated claim Hitchcock was not fully involved in the direction of the picture. This legend, established by Donald Spoto in his entertaining but gossipy biography The Dark Side of Genius and derived primarily from claims made by actor Barry Foster, is contradicted by the production reports to which Foery refers. Far from being disinterested in the process, Hitchcock actively shaped his material with full commitment and created several classic set pieces in the process. Foery perceptively scrutinizes several of these set pieces — a chilling rape/murder and a darkly comic ride in a potato truck with a dead body among them — by juxtaposing behind-the-scenes accounts with his own thoughtful analysis and a larger discussion of Hitchcock’s mastery of cinematic space and the moving camera. The upshot is a tutorial in mise-en-scene that holds value for filmmakers, students and casual viewers alike.

This balance between production history and visual analysis is what makes Alfred Hitchcock’s FRENZY: The Last Masterpiece special. Foery is judicious on both levels, avoiding gossip and hyperbole to offer an account that justly celebrates Hitchcock without resorting to the kind of hagiography practiced by many of his admirers. Foery, also, following a systematic documentation of the movie’s creation and his own cogent thematic and aesthetic evaluation, devotes many pages to summarizing other writers’ responses to Frenzy, with particular emphasis on the film’s complicated relationship to feminism. That Foery acknowledges critics whose assessments are often at odds with his own does not weaken his case for the book as a masterpiece; rather, it strengthens it, as he calmly and lucidly makes his case while respecting the opinions of others. This makes for a refreshingly even-handed read and yet another title Hitchcock buffs will want to add to their libraries.

The Scarecrow Press
$40.00 hardcover


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Peckinpah Today: New Essays on the Films of Sam Peckinpah
by edited by Michael Bliss
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The films of Sam Peckinpah have generated a formidable library of scholarship in the decades since The Wild Bunch established him as one of the great American directors. Paul Seydor’s Peckinpah: The Western Films — a Reconsideration remains a seminal piece of visual and thematic analysis; Stephen Prince’s Savage Cinema convincingly argues the case for Peckinpah’s massive influence on the filmmakers that followed him, and David Weddle’s If They Move, Kill ’Em! is one of the best studies ever written on the intersection between a filmmaker’s personal and artistic lives. Given these and many other books on Peckinpah, one might be forgiven for assuming little is left to say about this visionary yet divisive director, but Peckinpah Today: New Essays on the Films of Sam Peckinpah shows Peckinpah remains an inexhaustible source of fascination for filmmakers and scholars.

Edited by Michael Bliss, himself the author of an important tome on Peckinpah (Justified Lives: Morality and Narrative in the Films of Sam Peckinpah), Peckinpah Today collects nine new pieces by the director’s foremost admirers and critics, Seydor and Prince among them. The subjects range from Peckinpah’s debut feature (The Deadly Companions) to his last (The Osterman Weekend), with Bliss wisely giving emphasis to films that have received less critical and commercial support than the director’s acknowledged classics. There is only one piece on The Wild Bunch, for example (authored by Bliss himself), and iconic Peckinpah films Ride the High Country, Major Dundee and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia are mentioned only in passing.

The most popular Peckinpah movie to be given an in-depth treatment is Straw Dogs, which critic Michael Sragow explores in “From The Siege of Trencher’s Farm to Straw Dogs: The Narrative Brilliance of Sam Peckinpah.” This excellent piece discredits the conventional wisdom on Straw Dogs (most of which comes from Pauline Kael’s inane but widely quoted review declaring it a “fascist piece of art”) to redefine it as a complex, scathing dissection of a marriage — Peckinpah’s riff on Ingmar Bergman. Sragow’s essay also provides unique insights into the nature of adaptation by comparing the novel on which Straw Dogs is based with the film it inspired, a film that stays true to many of the events of the book but which, nevertheless, evokes a completely different set of responses through subtle shifts in moral emphasis.

Like Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid has received a fair amount of critical attention over the years, but the two essays on it in Peckinpah Today are packed with new information. The first, Stephen Prince’s “The Recutting of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: Ethical Problems in Film Restoration,” examines the 2005 “special edition” of the movie that was created for DVD and finds it to be an artistic as well as a moral failure. Paul Seydor, who supervised that special edition in close consultation with several Peckinpah collaborators, answers Prince’s charges in an essay of his own, “The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: The Several Versions of Peckinpah’s Last Western.” These two pieces, which form the center of the book, offer contradictory yet equally valid points of view on the thorny issue of restoration and “director’s cuts” in the age of DVD. The questions both authors raise make their essays essential reading, not only for Peckinpah scholars, but also for anyone concerned with film heritage in a broader sense.   

The remaining chapters in Peckinpah Today focus on movies that either have not been widely seen (or, in the case of The Deadly Companions, seen frequently in hideous, panned-and-scanned video transfers) or have received primarily negative commentaries in other books and journals (The Killer Elite, The Osterman Weekend). The material on The Deadly Companions in Garner Simmons’s “The Deadly Companions Revisited” is particularly valuable for its reclamation of the film as an important Peckinpah work. The director himself disowned the movie, and, as a result, many critics have given it scant attention. Yet Simmons and Gerard Camy, in a later essay comparing Companions to The Osterman Weekend, prove the artist is not always to be trusted as a judge of his own work; the two pieces devoted to The Deadly Companions prove it to be a significant explication of many of the themes that would obsess Peckinpah for his entire career. The two pieces also serve as bookends for a collection that proves the films of Peckinpah are as vital and thought-provoking today as ever.   

Southern Illinois University Press
$29.95 paperback


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