Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Forthcoming Book – Black & White Cinema: A Short History

May 20th, 2015

Coming this Fall, 2015 from Rutgers University Press – the first history of black and white cinema.

From the glossy monochrome of the classic Hollywood romance, to the gritty greyscale of the gangster picture, to film noir’s moody interplay of light and shadow, black-and-white cinematography has been used to create a remarkably wide array of tones.

Yet today, with black-and-white film stock nearly impossible to find, these cinematographic techniques are virtually extinct, and filmgoers’ appreciation of them is similarly waning. Black and White Cinema is the first study to consider the use of black-and-white as an art form in its own right, providing a comprehensive and global overview of the era when it flourished, from the 1900s to the 1960s.

Acclaimed film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon introduces us to the masters of this art, discussing the signature styles and technical innovations of award-winning cinematographers like James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, and Sven Nykvist. Giving us a unique glimpse behind the scenes, Dixon also reveals the creative teams—from lighting technicians to matte painters—whose work profoundly shaped the look of black-and-white cinema.

More than just a study of film history, this book is a rallying cry, meant to inspire a love for the artistry of black-and-white film, so that we might work to preserve this important part of our cinematic heritage. Lavishly illustrated with more than 40 on-the-set stills, Black & White Cinema provides a vivid and illuminating look at a creatively vital era.

“Dixon covers the entire history of black-and-white movies in one volume, and talks about the films and cinematographers who created these films, and often got little credit for their work. Fascinating and compelling, this is essential reading for anyone who loves movies.” —Robert Downey Sr., director, Putney Swope.

“Dixon has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and a subtle and well-honed aesthetic sense. He rescues important films from oblivion, and finds fresh angles of approach to films that are already familiar.” —Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University.

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s colorful study of black-and-white cinema reaffirms yet again his unfailing expertise as a critic, historian, and dazzlingly fine writer. Indispensable for students, scholars, and movie buffs alike.” —David Sterritt, author of The Cinema of Clint Eastwood: Chronicles of America.

“In his latest book, Black and White Cinema, Wheeler Winston Dixon rediscovers the art of cinematography in those glorious black-and-white movies from Hollywood’s classic age.” —Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive.

My thanks to all who helped with this extremely complex and ambitious project.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

May 19th, 2015

Click here, or on the image above, to see the first trailer for The Scorch Trials.

This is the second in the Maze Runner films, inspired by a group of science fiction novel novels by James Dashner, which will apparently conclude with Maze Runner: The Death Cure in 2017. The Maze Runner films, as well as the books, owe an obvious debt to William Golding’s classic 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, which was made into a brilliant film by Peter Brook in 1963, and a terrible film by Harry Hook in 1990, but despite the clear thematic links, the first Maze Runner film lingers in my memory far more than the less-inspired, and much more formulaic Hunger Games films, which are, of course, enormously successful, and to my mind, at least, owe a clear debt to Koushun Takami’s 1996 novel Battle Royale, which was made into an excellent film (sadly, his last, before his death from cancer) by director Kinji Fukasaku in 2000.

Director Wes Ball, just 29 years old, is the creative mind behind the Maze Runner series, and as of now, he looks set to direct all three films, and has revealed that the third novel will not, for once, be split into two segments to drag things out, but rather released as a final stand alone project. As the official 20th Century Fox release notes for the film state, “in this next chapter of the epic Maze Runner saga, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien, returning from the first film, along with many other cast members) and his fellow Gladers face their greatest challenge yet: searching for clues about the mysterious and powerful organization known as WCKD. Their journey takes them to the Scorch, a desolate landscape filled with unimaginable obstacles. Teaming up with resistance fighters, the Gladers take on WCKD’s vastly superior forces and uncover its shocking plans for them all.”

With a cast that includes the excellent actors Giancarlo Esposito, Lili Taylor and Patricia Clarkson, despite the recycled plot tropes, Ball’s vision the future is both fresh and convincing, and he’s clearly mastered the use of special effects and CGI imagery in an intelligent fashion, using them to enhance the story rather than to overwhelm the viewer. In the end, I found myself both caring about the characters, and curious as to what would befall them in subsequent installments of the trilogy, and so I look forward to the release of The Scorch Trials this September. I also think it’s a solid idea not to drag this out, and release the final film in 2017 – let’s say what we want, and then move on, to new projects and new ideas, which I’m hopeful that Ball will handle with equal restraint and economy.

However, it should be noted that Dashner has added two additional novels to the series; one published, and one forthcoming – The Kill Order (2012) and The Fever Code (coming in 2016). The trilogy has thus been stretched into a pentalogy, seemingly so as not to let a profitable franchise die, which is to my mind never a good reason for continuing anything. So we will probably see films of those books sometime in the future, but I don’t know if Ball will be directing them. For now, I’ll just be content with what we have on hand, and wish the cast and creators of the first three films the best.

I’m surprised that I liked the first film so much; let’s see how The Scorch Trials measures up.

Archie Panjabi as 007

May 19th, 2015

Am I the only one whole thinks that the 007 franchise needs a major overhaul?

Archie Panjabi, criminally underused on the television series The Good Wifeshe has now left the series – would be a great choice for the 007 character, and move it away from the thuggishness of Daniel Craig, even if Skyfall, the latest Bond installment, did make more than a billion dollars worldwide. But it was such a dreary film – isn’t it time we got over the attitudes of the 1960s and moved into the 21st century with an action star who could give the role a whole new dimension?

As Mike Hale said of Panjabi’s character, Kalinda Sharma, in The Good Wife, “just like Bogie — and just like Bacall: that’s the secret of Kalinda Sharma. She’s a mash-up of film noir archetypes (and gender roles), both gumshoe and femme fatale, tough broad and heartbroken sap. Panjabi takes a genre cliché — the combination of hard shell and tender interior — and redeems it by maintaining a constant but perfectly poised intensity, one whose tight control only emphasizes its operatic force.”

Apparently, she’s in line to play a “Bond girl” in the next 007 film – but why not the leading role instead?

He’d Like To Buy The World a Coke

May 18th, 2015

In the end, Don Draper co-copted the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s to sell soda pop.

I’ve read a number of Mad Men finale recaps this morning, but this one, from Quartz, by Zachary M. Seward, seems the most perceptive by far. As Seward writes, “In the end, Don Draper bought the world a Coke. Mad Men’s final scene was perhaps the most iconic commercial ever to air in the United States: the 1971 ‘Hilltop’ ad for Coca-Cola.

The implication, though it’s hardly clear from the sequence of events at the end, is that Don’s wayward journey across the country, a reckoning and rebirth of his soul, ultimately leads back to New York, where he conjures the commercial. In real life, ‘Hilltop’ was created by a McCann-Erickson creative director, just like Don. But none of that is shown on screen.

Instead, we leave Don meditating at a retreat in California that resembles Esalen. ‘The new day brings new hope,’ their spiritual leader says. ‘The lives we led, the lives we’ve yet to lead. A new day, new ideas, a new you.’ Don and the rest of the group respond with ommm, and then it cuts to the ad.”

But not before a small bell goes off inside Don’s head – just a little “ping” – and he sees that he can turn this whole nightmare of a series ending to his advantage. Why not use this “rebirth” to sell something – as he always done, starting with himself? For the rest of the characters, a variety of endings, which I’ll let you read about here, but for Don, it’s simple – everything is a commodity.

Once an ad man, always an ad man. Not a bad way to end the series.

Mad Men Ends Tonight – Four Key Cast Members Look Back

May 17th, 2015

Elizabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks and John Slattery on the set of Mad Men, which concludes tonight.

Like a lot of other people, I would expect, I have been binge watching the Mad Men marathon on AMC sporadically over the last few days, and what a depressing trip it’s been! It’s done wonders for the various cast members, and launched a slew of careers, but I won’t have one bit of regret in seeing the series in the rear-view mirror – these are some of the most unpleasant, manipulative, and narcissistic characters to ever grace a television screen.

Yet the long, long storyline remains perversely captivating, and perfectly mirrors the “fall from the skyscraper” opening that’s been a constant fixture during the credits of the show over seven seasons – the last season drawn out for maximum audience impact. For me, the earlier seasons were much stronger than the more recent ones, which often verge on parody, even as they engage with some serious themes – and there was simply no reason to drag the series out by splitting the last season into two sections – but it doesn’t matter – tonight is the last episode.

In this entertaining and sharp feature, Becca Nadler rounds up interviews with four of the key cast members of the series and gets their thoughts on what the show has done for their careers, why viewers tune in week after week to watch the continuing self-destruction of the whole Sterling Cooper (and now McCann) gang, with nary a prediction about how the show will end up – which is great. There’s been such so much ridiculous speculation about Don’s final scenes, or Joan’s, or Roger’s, though we know that Betty has cancer, and it clearly won’t end well for her.

But what do the actors have to say about the show that quite literally put them on the map? Here’s a chance to find out. As Jon Hamm says of his character Don, “there are these bright colors and vibrant things, a montage and all this beautiful stuff [in Season 7] and you see this gray figure kind of moving through it, he hasn’t changed much. The world has, but he hasn’t,” while John Slattery (Roger Sterling) adds that “you don’t come through this journey without getting banged up. You’re not perfect at the end, and you’re not pristine.” You can say that again!

See what you think in these four excellent interviews from Indiewire.

Our Attention Span is Now Shorter Than That of a Goldfish

May 15th, 2015

Yes, we’re so distracted by digital media, that we now can’t pay attention for more than 8 seconds.

As Meredith Engel writes in The New York Daily News, “Humans now have shorter attention spans than goldfish — and we would write more, but you’re probably clicking somewhere else already. The new finding — by, of all companies, Microsoft — suggests that the little fish can concentrate for nine seconds compared to eight for humans.

The researchers looked at three different types of attention: Sustained attention is the ability to focus on one task continuously; selective attention is the ability to respond when distractions come up; and alternating attention is multitasking. To get a measure of focus levels, the researchers asked 2,000 Canadians to take online surveys, play games and have their brain electricity measured.

The researchers found that increased use of digital devices lessens our sustained attention, doesn’t affect our selective attention, and actually improves our alternating attention. That means we are less able to focus on one task, but are getting better at doing multiple tasks at once. The report says that the human attention span has decreased by four seconds since 2000 — and that tech innovations may be blame.” You think?

Maybe that’s why movies are so hyper-edited these days – or maybe they’re part of the cause.

Forthcoming Book – Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s

May 15th, 2015

I have a new book from Palgrave Pivot this July – pre-order it here now!

As the promotional materials for the book note, “Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s presents six detailed chapters on various topics that relate to genre cinema, concentrating on films and filmmakers whose films offered wide ranging commentary on popular culture. Covering both little and well-known films and filmmakers (Vanishing Point, Marcel Hanoun, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Max Ophüls), Dixon’s writings draw on a multitude of critical, historical, and archival sources to capture the reader’s attention from start to finish.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, and Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA. He is the author of Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, and Cinema at the Margins and editor, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture.”

“Dixon is a first-rate film scholar, critic, and historian, and the qualities he has cultivated and refined over the years are evident in everything from the clarity, lucidity, and liveliness of his prose to the accuracy of his research, the force of his arguments, and the perspicuity of his judgments.” – David Sterritt, Chair, National Society of Film Critics

A short and concise look at some of the films that shaped a decade.

Mike Fleming Jr. Interviews Woody Allen in Deadline

May 14th, 2015

Mike Fleming Jr. of Deadline just published a fabulous interview with Woody Allen.

Even with his newest film, Irrational Man, at Cannes, Allen despairs of the current state of the movie business, and I must say I agree with him entirely. He has a deal for a series with Amazon, but doesn’t know what to do with it; he seems genuinely unhappy with all his work, and is only now turning to digital with a sort of “meh – why not?” attitude – “digital is really not cheaper and it’s not faster” – and he gets no pleasure from seeing his films – “I hate them all. None are different, and all are…unsatisfying, when you’re finished” – and never goes back to see them again.

But most of all, like all of us who love the cinema, he sees where Hollywood is heading, and he doesn’t like it one bit. Asked what he thought of the way the industry was heading, Allen responded flatly “well, I think it’s terrible. To me, movies are valuable as an art form and as a wonderful means of popular entertainment. But I think movies have gone terribly wrong. It was much healthier when the studios made a hundred films a year instead of a couple, and the big blockbusters for the most part are big time wasters. I don’t see them. I can see what they are: eardrum-busting time wasters.

I think Hollywood has gone in a disastrous path. It’s terrible. The years of cinema that were great were the ’30s, ’40s, not so much the ’50s…but then the foreign films took over and it was a great age of cinema as American directors were influenced by them and that fueled the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. Then it started to turn.

Now it’s just a factory product. They can make a billion dollars on a film and spend hundreds of millions making it. They spend more money on the advertising budget of some of those films than all the profits of everything Bergman, Fellini and Bunuel made on all their films put together in their lifetimes. If you took everything that Bergman made in profit, everything Bunuel made and everything that Fellini made in their lifetimes and added it all together, you wouldn’t equal one weekend with the The Avengers and its $185 million to $200 million.

Hollywood is just commerce, and it’s a shame. There are all these wonderfully gifted actors out there that, as you said before, will be in a film of mine for virtually nothing, union minimum, for what you called validation. Really, it’s because they want to work on something that doesn’t insult their intelligence; they don’t want to have to get in to a suit and practice stunts for two months and then do stunts and then… they want to be in something that doesn’t demean their artistic impulses.”

Much more here in Deadline - read the entire interview – it’s essential.

Cannes 2015 – What’s Been Sold, and What’s Still Out There

May 14th, 2015

So what’s been sold at Cannes, and what’s left, as of May 14, 2015?

Well, by the time I post this, it will already be outdated, but as of this writing, Ron Howard’s authorized documentary on The Beatles is still up for grabs, but a lot of the top picks have already found a home. As Diane Panosian writes in Studio System News, “there’s a lot buzzing at this year’s Cannes Film Festival that’s running from May 13 through the 24. But the films with flashy premieres at the festival are just the tip of the iceberg, what with the market, Marché du Film, running concurrently and over 5,000 films being offered up to distributors.

Many films have already been scooped up by distributors for a domestic release. Lionsgate picked up the Colin Firth/Nicole Kidman starrer Genius as well as Sicario with Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt and the studio is teaming up with Roadside Attractions to distribute the Matthew McConaughey-starring The Sea of Trees. Weinstein will distribute the much talked about lesbian romance film, Carol starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara along with the Robert De Niro Boxing pic, Hands Of Stone. Woody Allen’s Irrational Man and the Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister will be released by Sony Pictures Classic. Fox Searchlight also made a deal for Paolo Sorrentino’s Cannes Competition film Youth [shot in English, with Michael Caine in the lead, always a good sign].

Not to mention Elvis & Nixon and Macbeth have been making waves at the fest, both of which were picked by SSN in our AFM most bankable list. Macbeth will also be distributed domestically by Weinstein. You’ll need to be fast on the trigger, but there are still a lot of titles up for grabs, so SSN is wading through the titles to pick the most bankable out of the lot for U.S. audiences. Since it is Cannes, these won’t be blockbusters, but they also won’t come with a blockbuster price tag. These are the types of indie and mid-budget films that will give investors a solid return on investment and if handled correctly could pick up awards in fall.”

The list of films still available includes A Tale of Love and Darkness, Bleed for This, I Kill Giants, Jackie (starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy), The Lobster, Nocturnal Animals, Maggie’s Plan, The Operators, HHHH and the untitled Ron Howard Beatles documentary. So things are off to a fast start, and there’s still a lot of dealing to be done, but all of this, at least for me, seems to obscure the original purpose of Cannes – to celebrate the very best in international cinema, and sell it at the same time – but now, with theatrical dead, and Netflix swooping in to make deals that cut out theatrical play in return for paying up to 130% of a film’s budget to lock it up for international streaming, many of these films, even if sold, will never really reach a wide audience.

This is the real problem, as I have said so many times before, with the digital era. While it seems that everything is more accessible than ever before, only the most commercial films get a theatrical run, and this attain some visibility, while the rest go straight to VOD and streaming – not even DVD anymore, which is becoming a niche platform. So for all of those at Cannes who are dragging themselves from one screening to another in exhaustion, I have only limited sympathy – at least they get a chance to see some of the most adventurous films being made, screened in a theater as they were meant to be seen, while the rest of us will have to be content with flatscreens and laptops.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot on offer here – and most of it will eventually find a home.

Hollywood Blocks Women Directors

May 12th, 2015

Women directors in Hollywood have never gotten a fair shake.

When Ida Lupino started her directing career in 1949, with her film Not Wanted, she was the first woman to direct a feature film in Hollywood since 1943, when Dorothy Arzner fell ill during shooting of First Comes Courage, and was replaced by Charles Vidor. Before that, of course, such women as Lois Weber, Dorothy Davenport Reid, and the cinema’s foremother, Alice Guy Blaché, were a significant force in the American film industry – at one time Weber was the highest paid director in Hollywood – but all were forced out in 1920 as Hollywood became an all male bastion.

And it hasn’t gotten any better since – in fact, it’s gotten worse. As Eliana Dockterman reported in Time Magazine on May 12, 2015, “Gender bias in movie making has reached a tipping point. The American Civil Liberties Union is targeting sexism in Hollywood, and it wants the government to step in and help.

Only 7% of the top 250 grossing films in 2014 were directed by women—two percentage points lower than in 1998, according to the annual Celluloid Ceiling report conducted by San Diego State University. The organization believes systematic gender bias is to blame.

‘Many of these women directors have been told that they “can’t be trusted with money” by studio executives,’ says Ariela Migdal, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU. ‘This isn’t just about stereotypes and implicit bias, it’s about blatant discrimination. We heard over and over again from female directors that they’ve been told, “This show is too hard for women” or “You can’t do this movie, it’s action”—this to women who have directed plenty of action.’

So on Tuesday, the ACLU sent letters to three federal organizations charged with ensuring equal employment opportunity. The letters included research and testimonies from 50 women directors, exemplifying bias and reporting sexist practices such as secret, studio-compiled ’short lists’ of potential directors who are almost exclusively male. These shortlists may explain why in television, for example, only 17% of directors were female last year.

The civil rights group hopes the messages will lead to a federal investigation and government intervention, which might include requiring short lists to be public and a database of women directors to be made available to producers who claim they ‘don’t know any female filmmakers’ . . .

The problem is not isolated to directors; behind the camera, only 17% of all directors, writers, producers, editors and cinematographers working on the top 250-grossing films are women. Women are also far less likely than men to graduate from critically-lauded independent features to bigger budget studio movies, according to a Sundance and Women in Film study that found that award-winning female directors rarely lead to the kind of studio opportunities a man would get.

Women like Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) and Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, The Bling Ring) are very much the exception to the rule.

And even female actors struggle for the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Leaked Sony emails revealed that stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams were being paid less than their male counterparts in films, despite having equal or more screen time. The two problems are, of course, related: when fewer women write and direct films, movies are less likely to tell women’s stories and consequently fewer robust female roles are available.

Even though 2013 research found that movies that passed the Bechdel Test—a simple analysis that measures whether two women speak to each other in the film about something other than a man—made more money at the box office, studio executives continue to assume that audiences don’t want to see films made by and about women.

Hollywood insiders generally think of women’s films as ‘niche,’ according to recent study from the University of Southern California’s Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative. And that view persists despite the massive box office success of female-centric films like Frozen, Gravity and The Hunger Games, which are consistently considered flukes.”

Adds Jessica Ogilvie in L.A. Weekly, “in 2013, according to researchers at USC, just 1.9 percent of the top-grossing Hollywood studio movies were directed by a woman, making Hollywood among the most, if not the most, heavily male professional pursuits in America.

The ACLU demand comes after years of pressure on studios by people like director Maria Gieise, and follows on the heels of an L.A. Weekly investigation last week, “How Hollywood Keeps Out Women,” that details deep gender biases among studio chiefs and top agents . . .”

As Ogilvie notes, “Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the filmmaker wife of California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, has issued a damning statement against the entertainment industry, claiming a blacklist is used against women [stating that] ‘I applaud the ACLU for looking into the hiring practices of women in Hollywood.

As a female filmmaker, I’ve witnessed firsthand discrimination in the entertainment industry, particularly against female directors, who are repeatedly told they’re not as qualified to direct as men and who are blacklisted for speaking out.

That was a major impetus for my first film, Miss Representation, which exposes the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence, particularly within the entertainment industry. With only 4.1% of the top-grossing films over the past decade being directed by women, it is high time we seriously advocate for and invest in women in Hollywood.’”

This is just the beginning of the fight- but the issue is real, and must be addressed.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

  • War Movies
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon at one of the earliestand most enduring film genres, the war movie. […]
  • Frame By Frame - Hollywood Composers
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon highlights the most prolific Hollywood film composers. […]

In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/