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Frame by Frame

Andy Warhol on Relationships and Expectations

November 25th, 2015

Andy Warhol – as usual – had some perceptive things to say about what we want, and what we get in life.

“At the times in my life when I was feeling the most gregarious and looking for bosom friendships, I couldn’t find any takers so that exactly when I was alone was when I felt the most like not being alone. The moment I decided I’d rather be alone and not have anyone telling me their problems, everybody I’d never even seen before in my life started running after me to tell me things I’d just decided I didn’t think it was a good idea to hear about. As soon as I became a loner in my own mind, that’s when I got what you might call a ‘following.’ As soon as you stop wanting something you get it. I’ve found that to be absolutely axiomatic.”

Word of wisdom from someone whom most people still dismiss.

Essential Reading: A New Deal for The Humanities

November 20th, 2015

The humanities are essential for a well-rounded education.

As Rutgers University Press notes in their publicity materials for this timely volume, “many in higher education fear that the humanities are facing a crisis. But even if the rhetoric about ‘crisis’ is overblown, humanities departments do face increasing pressure from administrators, politicians, parents, and students.

In A New Deal for the Humanities, Gordon Hutner and Feisal G. Mohamed bring together twelve prominent scholars who address the history, the present state, and the future direction of the humanities. These scholars keep the focus on public higher education, for it is in our state schools that the liberal arts are taught to the greatest numbers and where their neglect would be most damaging for the nation.

The contributors offer spirited and thought-provoking debates on a diverse range of topics. For instance, they deplore the push by administrations to narrow learning into quantifiable outcomes as well as the demands of state governments for more practical, usable training.

Indeed, for those who suggest that a college education should be ‘practical’—that it should lean toward the sciences and engineering, where the high-paying jobs are—this book points out that while a few nations produce as many technicians as the United States does, America is still renowned worldwide for its innovation and creativity, skills taught most effectively in the humanities.

Most importantly, the essays in this collection examine ways to make the humanities even more effective, such as offering a broader array of options than the traditional major/minor scheme, options that combine a student’s professional and intellectual interests, like the new medical humanities programs.

A democracy can only be as energetic as the minds of its citizens, and the questions fundamental to the humanities are also fundamental to a thoughtful life. A New Deal for the Humanities takes an intrepid step in making the humanities—and our citizens—even stronger in the future.”

This is an essential volume; without the humanities, we really lose our own humanity.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2

November 19th, 2015

Relentlessly grim and doggedly procedural, the last film in this franchise is easily the best of the lot.

Unlike the other films in The Hunger Games series, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 – despite its clumsy title – is the most efficient and involving film of the series, for the simple reason that it’s the most direct and linear; there’s no “hunger games” in the film, but rather Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence) death march with a group of fellow freedom fighters to the Capitol of Panem to kill the despotic President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and that’s about it.

Shot in CinemaScope mostly with a mostly handheld camera, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 is dominated by the grim visage of Lawrence’s character, who is usually seen in tight close-up, and is hardly off the screen for a moment. The other characters in the series make brief cameos, but they’re really peripheral to the main thrust of the film; will Katniss make it to the Capitol and kill Snow, or not? Of course she will.

This is, of course, predestined, just as Julianne Moore’s turn as President Alma Coin – who from the first plans to take over as dictator of Panem once Snow has been dispatched – along with Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, and other players in the game seem to be merely distractions, trotted on and off merely to satisfy followers of the franchise as a whole.

The saddest part of the film is the ghostly presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died during production with one week left to go. Director Francis Lawrence wisely decided not to recreate Hoffman digitally to finish out the film, giving Hoffman’s closing speech to Harrelson in the form of a letter, which Harrelson reads to Katniss, in a penultimate scene so obvious that it’s painful.

But comparisons to The Battle of Algiers and Kanał – I know, I know, but it’s true – are not far off the mark in this aggressively Dystopian film, in which one dictatorship inevitably gives way to another, and everyone is being played for a sucker by some higher power on the political food chain.

Most of all, the film belongs to Jennifer Lawrence – no longer “the girl on fire,” but rather a battle weary Joan of Arc leading her followers on to victory – who steps up and dominates the entire proceedings with an air of solemn gravity, making this the most brutal, and in a curious sense, realistic film of the series.

As Todd VanDerWerff notes in his review of the film in the web journal Vox, “the point of all of this is simple: War is a machine that grinds ever onward, and it steamrolls its participants. It’s repackaged as entertainment for an unsuspecting populace, lest they get too bored by it, but those who took part in it have to live with the scars forever.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the face of Katniss Everdeen, who spends almost the entire first half of the movie in a state of shell-shocked horror, wandering from one encounter to the next, after a former trusted compatriot tried to kill her. It’s like she’s been hollowed out and propped up, transformed into a symbol more than a person.”

There are many things wrong with the film, of course, but overall, the impact of the work is undeniable; The Hunger Games franchise speaks to those in their teens and 20s because it accurately depicts a world in which nothing is fair, the rich have everything and the poor have nothing, and even revolution seems doomed from the start. The stark message of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 is that nothing can be counted on, and the daily struggle to survive is all that awaits.

Worth a look, by any measure – a thoughtful, and well executed mainstream film.

UNL Film Studies Alumna Staci Hogsett at UCLA Film Archive

November 19th, 2015

A UNL Film Studies graduate has gotten a really prestigious position at one of the country’s top film archives.

As Erin Chambers writes on the UNL English and Film Studies Department website, “this past summer, UNL alumna Staci Hogsett became a Collections Services Assistant at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, one of the most renowned visual arts archives in the nation.

In her very first film studies class at UNL, she listened as Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon spoke of the possibility of finding missing scenes from Fritz Lang’s pioneering science-fiction epic, Metropolis, and the prospect of recovering pieces of film history is what eventually led her to pursue a career in film archiving.

Staci graduated from UNL with a BA in English and Film Studies in May 2011, and went on to volunteer with the Nebraska State Historical Society. There, she worked with ephemeral or sponsored films and home movies, and spent much of her time caring for the collection by clearning, repairing, and creating more detailed records for items.

She soon began applying for graduate schools, and in 2013 moved to Los Angeles to pursue a master’s degree in Moving Image Archive Studies at UCLA. ‘During my time there I had the opportunity to intern at places such as Western Costume Company, where I worked with their costume archive, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science Film Archive, where I helped to inventory home movies that were on deposit from the Japanese American National Museum,’ she writes.

Her work with the UCLA Film & Television Archive began with a work-study position in the publicity department, which she held for two years while working towards her MA. She eventually secured an internship at the Archive, where she helped inventory new acquisitions. She received her MA in June 2015, and thanks to her hard work at the Archive, she joined the Collections department as a staff member one month later.”

Congratulations, Staci – an incredible accomplishment!

UNL – “No One Saw Coming” 15 Second Spot

November 18th, 2015

Here’s a great commercial spot for UNL – really sharp editing and sound design.

The University of Nebraska, Lincoln, where I teach, puts out a good deal of material on the various offerings of the university – which are remarkably diverse – but for me, this 15 second spot – ultra modern, brilliantly directed and edited, with an exceptionally sharp soundtrack – really stands out. It’s the work of Amanda Christi and Andrew Swenson, and asks a simple question: “will your story be like all the others? Or will you write something that no one saw coming?

The University of Nebraska–Lincoln is a top 50 public university, a member of the Big Ten, and is located in a bustling Midwestern city that’s on the rise. Top-tier education, 150 areas of study, an award-winning undergraduate research program, over 500 student organizations, and rich athletic traditions all make UNL an exciting place to be. If you make it to Lincoln, you can go anywhere.”

Kudos to the creative team behind this ad, which perfectly captures the spirit of UNL.

Lost Landscapes of Los Angeles

November 18th, 2015

Rick Prelinger’s new film is a fascinating look into the history of Los Angeles.

As Carolina A. Miranda wrote in The Los Angeles Times on November 15, 2015, “A camera pans the streets of downtown Los Angeles from the window of a moving car, cruising past Mickie’s Café, John’s Dog House, an Orange Julius, the Angel’s Flight Café and the Burbank Burlesque, boasting a chorus line of ‘ California Beauties.’

If these places don’t sound familiar it’s because they’re long gone — shuttered, reborn as restaurants or discount clothing shops or torn down to make way for Bunker Hill’s towering Financial District.

But in a beguiling new film by Rick Prelinger, the Bay Area filmmaker known for working with bits of found film, they have come back to life. Lost Landscapes of Los Angeles splices together home movies and studio outtakes, primarily stock driving footage that serves as background in scenes where characters ride in cars or buses.

The film, whose footage dates from the 1920s to the 1960s, is more about mood than in telling a literal story — a nonlinear, highly poetic gathering of moving images that examine our city as it no longer exists.

It also doesn’t contain a soundtrack — which means the audience is free to chat or name a location they might be familiar with as the film screens. Says Prelinger: ‘I really like the idea of people talking and making the soundtrack and coming to an understanding together.’

The film is one in a series of movies that Prelinger has made in this way — including 10 on San Francisco and five on Detroit. He also made the 2013 film No More Road Trips, which tells the story of a road trip — from one side of the country to the other — by employing an array of amateur footage.”

A really interesting project – check it out if you can.

Spike Lee Finally Gets An Oscar

November 15th, 2015

Spike Lee, one of America’s greatest filmmakers, is finally getting some Academy recognition.

As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences noted, “Spike Lee, a champion of independent film and an inspiration to young filmmakers, made an auspicious debut with his NYU thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, which won a Student Academy Award in 1983.  He proceeded to blaze a distinctive trail with such features as She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze and Do the Right Thing, which earned him a 1989 Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay.

His work as a director ranges from the Oscar-nominated documentary feature 4 Little Girls to such mainstream successes as Malcolm X and Inside Man.  Lee’s other feature credits include Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Crooklyn, He Got Game, 25th Hour, Miracle at St. Anna and Red Hook Summer.  He currently serves as the artistic director of the graduate film program at NYU.”

In truth, Spike Lee should have won an Oscar for Direction a loooooooong time ago, probably for Malcolm X, one of his most powerful and influential films, on the life of the great civil rights leader. But Lee has always worked as an outsider, and even on Malcolm X, with Denzel Washington cast in the leading role, he had to seek funding from outside investors, such as Oprah Winfrey, to bring the film in on time and on budget.

As he tweeted shortly after he received his Academy Award, “you have to bust your ass, roll up your sleeves, and attack, attack, attack every single day” to make a film, and it’s a never ending battle to get meaningful films made.

As Access Hollywood wrote of the event, “Spike Lee told an audience of entertainment luminaries that it’s easier for a black person to become President of the United States than head of a Hollywood studio or network. Lee made the remarks Saturday as he accepted an Oscar statuette at the film academy’s seventh annual Governors Awards dinner in Hollywood. ‘We need to have some serious discussions about diversity and get some flavor up in this,’ Lee said. ‘This industry is so behind sports it’s ridiculous.’

The filmmaker praised Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs for ‘trying to do something that needs to be done.’ Earlier in the evening, Isaacs called on the industry powers in attendance to take action toward ‘recognizing and embracing a broad cross-section of talent.’ She also announced the academy’s new five-year plan to improve diversity in its staff and governance.”

And yet Spike Lee continues to struggle – his latest film, Chi-raq, due out December 4th, was finally funded by Amazon after every conventional Hollywood studio turned the project down flat. In an industry dominated by followers, Spike Lee is a leader, and a genuine original, who continues to tackle projects that deal with contemporary issues of race, politics, disenfranchisement, and social inequality in a town that loves fantasy more than anything else. Spike Lee will never make a conventional film, and it’s high time that that Academy honored him for his amazing body of work.

Spike Lee – one of the most important American filmmakers working today.

Interview on Sirius XM – “The Enduring Appeal of James Bond”

November 12th, 2015

James Bond seems immortal, despite all the changes he’s gone through over the years.

On November 12, 2015, I participated in a discussion on Sirius XM on the James Bond franchise. As the site for the program notes, “the latest James Bond blockbuster, Spectre, opened last weekend, and while its flavor may be a little bit different from previous outings, it’s still firmly in the 007 oeuvre, filled with amazing stunts, twisty plots, improbable villainy and of course, its magnetically attractive yet coldly distant hero.

Since the first film was made featuring Ian Fleming’s signature secret agent back in the 1960s — Dr. No, starring Sean Connery and filmed for a mere million bucks — the Bond movies have grown steadily more successful and deeply embedded in the culture, evolving with each sequel to fit the moment.

But in the modern era of film and society, do we even need 007 anymore? What’s next for the super spy, and what does his ever-growing popularity signify? The Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 recently interviewed Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska, and Christoph Lindner, a professor of media and culture at the University of Amsterdam who has edited a couple of books about the James Bond phenomenon, to discuss those ideas — and to answer that nagging question: Who is the best Bond?”

You can read the transcript, or listen to the podcast, by clicking here, or on the image above.

Epictetus on Popular Entertainment

November 11th, 2015

Epictetus is more relevant today than ever – especially when it comes to pop culture.

As Wikipedia notes, “Epictetus was a Greek speaking Stoic philosopher. He was born a slave at Hierapolis, Phrygia (present day Pamukkale, Turkey), and lived in Rome until his banishment, when he went to Nicopolis in north-western Greece for the rest of his life. His teachings were written down and published by his pupil Arrian in his Discourses.

Epictetus taught that philosophy is a way of life and not just a theoretical discipline. To Epictetus, all external events are determined by fate, and are thus beyond our control; we should accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately. However, individuals are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline.”

Here is what Epictetus had to say about the popular culture of his day: “Most of what passes for legitimate entertainment is inferior or foolish and only caters to or exploits people’s weaknesses. Avoid being one of the mob who indulges in such pastimes. Your life is too short and you have important things to do.

Be discriminating about what images and ideas you permit into your mind. If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will, and their motives may not be the highest. It is the easiest thing in the world to slide imperceptibly into vulgarity. But there’s no need for that to happen if you determine not to waste your time and attention on mindless pap.”

Words to ponder when headed to the nearest multiplex.

The Spectre of James Bond

November 10th, 2015

Spectre is the latest and least in the long-running James Bond series.

Call it exhaustion, call it the end of Empire, call it playing to diminishing returns, put it down to indifference and fatigue – call it whatever you wish. Spectre, the latest of the James Bond films, which has opened to solid but not spectacular grosses, is 2 1/2 hours of almost unrelieved boredom, all dressed up in production values that put the film into the $200 to $300 million production range. It’s a spectacle, all right, but one that is so jam packed with promotional tie-ins and self-referential nods to the series’ past that it ultimately has no identity of its own.

Daniel Craig, who has famously suggested that he is tired of the entire franchise, walks through the film as if he has absolutely no interest in the proceedings, and only Ralph Fiennes as the new “M” – replacing the departed Dame Judy Dench – offers any sense of gravitas at all. Christoph Walz similarly drifts through his role as the latest incarnation of Ernst Blofeld as if the part were an obligation, rather than an opportunity – but then, given the tediousness of the dialogue, there really isn’t much he can do with the role.

All the set pieces are here – Bond once again designated as a “rogue agent” and left in the field to fend for himself; Léa Seydoux as the latest in a long procession of “Bond girls” – and shouldn’t that be retired?; “Q” played by Ben Whishaw as a techno nerd with the usual plethora of gimmicks up his sleeve; the requisite scene in which Bond is tortured by Blofeld but miraculously escapes in the nick of time; Monica Bellucci in for about three minutes as another love interest, soon abandoned by the narrative; Bond’s ubiquitous Aston Martin; and, of course, the opening crane / tracking shot in Mexico City, a spectacular piece of camerawork ending in an enormous explosion, which is technically impressive, but really has no need to be there.

Most of all, though, there is the film’s crushing length – about forty minutes too long at least – and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s dark, brooding cinematography, which masks Walz’s Blofeld in deep shadows until the last third of the film, making him almost a peripheral character, while giving the entire film an unmistakably fatalist air of a franchise which has run out of gas.

Daniel Craig, here credited as a co-producer of the film, still has one film to go on his contract, and despite his protestations that he doesn’t want to continue in the role, he no doubt will. Apparently, the producers wanted him to film the next Bond entry back-to-back with this one, and Craig refused, but maybe he should have gotten it over with; the Bond role is a career straitjacket that none of the series’ leading men have ever really escaped.

Missing here is any sense of urgency or imagination – the script and story, devised by no less than seven screenwriters, hits all the bases with a tired sense of duty – but the speed, energy and verve of series entries such as Dr. No, Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and other top notch Bond films is entirely missing here. Sam Mendes’ slack direction is partly to blame, but the whole film is overstuffed, lacking in focus, more interested in scenery than scenes, and watching it quickly becomes a chore rather than a pleasure.

At the screening I attended on a Sunday morning, the theater was populated by only a few patrons, all of whom made frequent trips to the lobby to replenish their giant tubs of popcorn, when they weren’t otherwise occupied texting mini-reviews on their cellphones in the darkness. No one seemed very interested in what was happening on the screen, and when the film was over, we all filed out without comment. It’s sad – casting someone like Archie Punjabi or Idris Elba as Bond would be a really smart move at this point, and give the series new energy – but it’s doubtful that anything like that will happen.

But the Bond films – a lucrative enterprise for all concerned – need a reboot if they are to continue.

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 or

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