Cinema at the Margins

Mar 17th, 2014


Wheeler Winston Dixon’s Cinema at the Margins is an enlightening collection of essays and interviews. Wearing his encyclopedic knowledge lightly, Dixon shares his expert insights and research in an eloquent, eminently readable style. I chose to review his new book because its reference to the ‘margins’ held the enticing promise of new discoveries, and a brief survey of its table of contents confirmed that, alongside well-known and much-loved names, there were also unfamiliar ones. The volume covers an early film by Peter Bogdanovich, the horror movies of Lucio Fulci, American 1930s and 40s science fiction serials, the TV series Dragnet, the brief career of Argentine director Fabián Bielinsky and the long one of Hollywood director Sam Newfield, Robert Bresson’s Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), U.S. 1960s experimental cinema, Dixon’s own meditation on the shift to digital, and interviews with music video director Dale “Rage” Resteghini, J.C. Chandor (director of Margin Call [2011]), veteran British director Pat Jackson, assistant director Gerry O’Hara, Hollywood Golden Age director Andrew V. McLaglen and British director Michael Sarne.

Dixon’s focus is more the historian’s than the aesthetician’s, so both essays and interviews focus more on the conditions of production than the content of the films. In this, and in the choice of films and directors, Dixon risks disappointing the reader’s expectations, and this is the main reason for my critique of his otherwise largely irreproachable volume. Dixon is one of the editors of the series to which this book belongs: New Perspectives in World Cinema, which publishes ‘monographs on neglected films and filmmakers’, among other subjects. In his introduction, Dixon confirms that he wishes to rescue the films ‘that have moved [him] deeply and yet have been omitted from the dominant canon of film history…These oft-obscured titles can teach us much about life as it really was during certain eras – life not as the dominant cinema wishes us to remember it, but rather, as it actually was’ (p.xvii).

The idea that any film can ever give a sense of what life was really like during any period is an epistemologically contentious one, which Dixon can’t really answer when he focuses so much on production contexts and so little on what the films themselves actually represent. On a less philosophical level, readers might question whether all, or even most of the films and practitioners in this volume can be considered marginal at all, or whether they need rescuing when digital technology has already intervened. Several of the chapters reveal that at least some of the films in question are being revived for a new generation through restoration (Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond [1981]), DVD releases (Jackson’s Don’t Talk to Strange Men [1962], O’Hara’s Pleasure Girls [1965] and Sarne’s Joanna [1968], to name a few) or free availability online (Sam Newfield’s work).

Of course, many truly marginal directors have found their work restored or made available on DVD; it doesn’t automatically classify them as mainstream. But a large proportion of names in Cinema at the Margins are ones that are already well-known to cinephiles: while Peter Bogdanovich’s directorial debut, Targets (1968), may be more obscure, the director himself is famous for The Last Picture Show (1971). Similarly, Flash Gordon is hardly a fringe character (especially not now that, according to Dixon, a film revival is on the cards) while Dragnet is a 1950s cultural touchstone (and a TV one at that, so not marginal cinema). Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne, as a film by Bresson, is a firm part of the French cinema canon. And Margin Call had enough success to be familiar, even if J.C. Chandor’s name is not yet a household one. Sam Newfield seems to have been ‘the most prolific director in American sound film history’ (p.61), while Resteghini is one of the most prolific music video directors (but again, not properly a part of cinema, marginal or otherwise), Jackson worked with key figures in British cinema, and Andrew V. McLaglen was, as mentioned, a part of Golden Age Hollywood.

This leaves barely a third of Dixon’s book devoted to figures and films that can truly be considered marginal: the horror director Fulci, for his disregard for narrative; Michael Sarne for the critically reviled Myra Breckinridge (1970); O’Hara as an assistant director (where film history tends to focus on directors and actors); perhaps Bielinsky for the unreal sense of detachment he conveyed in his second (and final) feature film; and, of course, experimental cinema by definition.

In his acknowledgements, Dixon draws the link between the ephemerality of film and that of online criticism. He explains that all of the essays and interviews included were previously published online in modified form, and that he’s pleased to ‘bring [them] together in one volume…so that these texts – like many of the films they examine – do not become phantoms themselves’ (p.ix). Here, I believe, we have the explanation for the book’s overall misnomer: in order to have the opportunity to publish a collection of his online criticism, Dixon has shoe-horned much of this material into a title which doesn’t really fit. While readers will surely appreciate the opportunity to read Dixon’s digital work in analogue form, work that they might have overlooked online, highlights of online criticism should ideally be identified as such, and given a more general title, rather than forced to fit a given theme.

publication details:

Cinema at the Margins (Wheeler Winston Dixon, 2013)

London: Anthem, 220pp., ISBN: 9781783080168 (pbk), £25

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