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New Book Series: “Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture”

February 21st, 2017

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon announce their new book series.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon are proud to announce the publication of the first two volumes in their new book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture from Rutgers University Press – Disney Culture by John Wills, and Zombie Cinema by Ian Olney.

Disney Culture explores the Walt Disney Company, which has grown into a diversified global media giant. But is it still possible to identify a coherent Disney ethos? Examining everything from theme parks to merchandising to animation to live-action films, Disney Culture proposes that they all follow a core corporate philosophy dating back to the 1920s.

Zombie Cinema notes that the living dead have been lurking in popular culture since the 1930s, but they are now ubiquitous. Presenting a historical overview of zombies in film and on television, Zombie Cinema also explores this globalized phenomenon, examining why the dead have captured the imagination of twenty-first-century audiences worldwide.

Early reviews are excellent: Blair Davis, author of Movie Comics: Page to Screen/Screen to Page writes that in Disney Culture, “Wills makes a strong contribution to both the fields of media studies as well as Disney scholarship with this concise, well written and thoroughly engaging overview of how the cultural, artistic, and economic factors surrounding the Disney corporation intersect.”

Janet Wasko, author of Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy adds that “Disney Culture is a notable addition to the growing critical work on Disney and its cultural significance. Wills skillfully dissects the Disney ethos and even challenges the multimedia giant to ‘mean something beyond merchandise’ in the twenty-first century.”

Of Zombie Cinema, Stephen Prince, author of Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality writes,”Zombie Cinema is a brisk, informative read that gives us a zesty tour through an amazingly prolific and popular contemporary film cycle. He’s clearly done his homework in excavating–or disinterring, as the case may be–zombie movies from disparate cultural and historical contexts.”

Rick Worland, author of The Horror Film: An Introduction notes that “what the vampire was to the 1980s and 90s, the zombie has become for early twenty-first century audiences, the monster of choice, spreading through a multitude of media texts. [In Zombie Cinema] Ian Olney organizes the history of the zombie in popular culture from Haitian voodoo practice to the present, providing clear analysis of its evolution and development. Theoretically informed, the writing is engaging and accessible throughout.”

New African Cinema by Valérie K. Orlando, and Digital Music Videos by Steven Shaviro are forthcoming soon.

Click here for more information on the new series.

Recent Video: Time’s Up!

February 18th, 2017

Recently, I have been making a number of recombinant videos; click here to see Time’s Up!

I’ve been making films and videos since 1966, and my work has been screened at The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Anthology Film Archives, The Microscope Gallery, The British Film Institute, The Jewish Museum, The Millennium Film Workshop, The San Francisco Cinématheque, The New Arts Lab, The Collective for Living Cinema, The Kitchen Center for Experimental Art, The Filmmakers Cinématheque, Film Forum, The Amos Eno Gallery, Sla 307 Art Space, The Gallery of Modern Art, The Oberhausen Film Festival and at numerous universities and film societies throughout the world.

In 2003, I was honored with a retrospective of my films at The Museum of Modern Art, and my films from 1966 to 1994 were acquired for the permanent collection of the Museum, in both print and original format. However, as film became ever more expensive in the 1980s and 1990s, I turned more towards writing and critical work, but suddenly, I was drawn again to making films. Now, with the advent of digital HD video, and the ease of video distribution on Vimeo, I’m working again, creating new films, with screenings in New York this past November, 2016, and more to come in the future.

As someone who is fascinated with pop culture, many of my films use footage and soundtracks that are in the public domain, or released under a creative commons license, and are made entirely from recycled, repurposed and refashioned images and sounds. Time’s Up! is a good example of the style of video production. The other interesting point for me is that I’m reaching more viewers through Vimeo than in all my museum screenings put together; as I observed to a friend of mine who is also a video and film artist, Vimeo is now the new “cinematheque” for experimental work.

When my film Serial Metaphysics was screened at The Whitney Museum of American Art, Bruce Rubin, then Associate Curator film and video programming for the museum, wrote in part that “Dixon is a masterful film editor. His sensitivity to the movement within the frame and of the camera itself allows for a fluidity in his editing that is exuberant and refreshing. He is skillful not only in manipulating the flow of images but the flow of ideas as well.” So take a look at this brief film – which runs about two minutes in all -

and then if the mood strikes you, click here to go to my Vimeo site.

Jean-Luc Godard’s First Film – Une Femme Coquette (1955)

February 17th, 2017

See Godard’s first film, shot in 1955 – with English subtitles! Click here, or on the image above!!

As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky writes on The AV Club Website, “Une Femme Coquette may not sound like anything special—a 9-minute no-budget short film, shot on a borrowed 16mm camera by a 24-year-old amateur with no formal film school training. But the short . . .  has for decades been a sought-after item for art-house buffs and rare movie fiends.

Filmed in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1955, it was the first attempt at a narrative film by the iconic French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard—a pivotal figure in the evolution of movie style, who would make his feature debut just five years later, with the hugely influential and perennially cool Breathless.

Never distributed, Une Femme Coquette has had less than half a dozen public screenings since the 1960s; we were able to track down the only known 16mm print to a national film archive in Europe, where it was being stored unlisted for a private owner, to be loaned out only with the personal permission of Jean-Luc Godard himself.

This makes it the holy grail of the game-changing New Wave era—a film so rare that it has often been listed as lost by biographies and film history books. And it might as well have been. No other surviving narrative film by a major, big-name director has been as difficult to see—until now.

Earlier this week, a copy of Une Femme Coquette surfaced on the digital back channels frequented by obscure movie enthusiasts. An enterprising user named David Heslin has uploaded this rarity of rarities to YouTube, complete with English subtitles.

Credited to ‘Hans Lucas,’ a German pseudonym that the Franco-Swiss Godard would sometimes employ during his brief career as a film critic, Une Femme Coquette was the budding director’s modern update of a Guy De Maupassant short story called ‘The Signal.’

Godard—who makes a cameo around the 2-minute mark, wearing his famous prescription sunglasses—would readapt the story as an Ingmar Bergman parody for the film-within-the-film portion of his 1966 feature Masculin Féminin.

While nothing is known about Une Femme Coquette’s lead actress, Maria Lysandre, the man on the park bench is played by Roland Tolmatchoff (credited as ‘Roland Tolma’), a cinephile and car dealer with whom Godard maintained a friendship for years, and who loaned many of the convertibles memorably featured in the director’s 1960s films.”

An amazing discovery – click here and see for yourself!

The Hidden Benefits of Television

February 16th, 2017

A Canadian man stashed $100,000 in a television set, and then forgot all about it.

As CTV (Canadian Television Network) reported, ‘more than $100,000 in cash was found inside an old television that was being processed at a recycling plant in Barrie, Ont., and police say the money was a man’s lost inheritance. The shocking discovery was made by an employee, who uncovered a cash box inside the TV as it was dismantled. The recycling company then contacted police.

‘There was like, four stacks of $50 bills, and I knew it was a large amount of money,’ Rick Deschamps, general manager [of the recycling plant] told CTV Barrie. Inside the cash box were documents that helped lead police to the money’s rightful owner: a 68-year-old man from Bolsover, Ont.

When investigators spoke with the man, he told them that he stored the money inside the television about 30 years ago. The plan was to pass along the money to family members as an inheritance.

That is, until he forgot about the cash and gave the TV to a family friend.

The recycling company has praised the employee for her honesty. ‘She’s representative of all our employees and it’s what we stand for and this kind of behavior is really what we would expect from everyone here,’ said Lew Coffin, GEEP vice president of operations.

Now that the owner has his money back, police offered him a word of advice. ‘Hopefully he’s put it in a savings account now,’ Barrie Police Constable Nicole Rodgers said.”

Click here, or on the image above, to see a news video on this story. Amazing!

New Book Launch: Salvador Dali & Andy Warhol

February 16th, 2017

My long-time friends Bob Heide and John Gilman sent me this invitation.

As John wrote, in part: “on Sunday February 19th at 7:00pm, the public is invited to a new book launch, Salvador Dali & Andy Warhol by Torsten Otte, at Howl!, the art gallery/performance space at 6 East 1st Street.

A panel led by Torsten Otte, including WestView writer Robert Heide, photographer Peter Beard, William Rothlein, George Mason, and Jade Albert, will discuss aspects of encounters in New York and Greenwich Village between two leading 20th century artists.

The meeting between Warhol and Dali occurred on December 17, 1965, at the opening of a Dali retrospective at the Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art in Columbus Circle. Dali had asked Warhol to show him the Village and, later, Andy obliged by leading in the footsteps of Marcel Duchamp, who in 1965 was still, surprisingly, alive.

Duchamp was one of the bohemians who had occupied the top of the Washington Archway back in 1916 when they declared Greenwich Village an independent sovereignty. They refused to leave without official recognition, which they eventually received from the Mayor of New York.

The tour of places the King of Pop Art took the King of Surrealism included the Caffe Reggio (still there), Kettle of Fish, The Gaslight Cafe, Cafe Figaro, and the San Remo Cafe (a bar), all on MacDougal Street.

For more fascinating tales of the New York and Village adventures of two icons of the modern age, hurry on over to Howl! on February 19th—no reservations needed, just pop in. – John Gilman.”

If you’re in New York, this sounds too good to miss – drop on by!

New Article: “Service Providers” : Genre Cinema in the 21st Century

February 15th, 2017

I’ve just published a new article in QRFV on 21st century genre filmmaking.

As I write in the article, Harrison Ford in 2013 noted that “‘I think the success of Comic-Con is based on the partnership between the fans and the service providers, the entities—I won’t necessarily call them filmmakers —that supply the film product that supports their particular interest, whether it’s vampires or science-fiction fantasies of Transformers or whatever is going on . . .’

When Harrison Ford made these comments to Adam Sternbergh, a reporter for The New York Times, no particular controversy ensued. Ford was simply stating a fact: Directors today, most of whom work within rigid genre formats, are indeed little more than ’service providers,’ who create long, loud, open-ended and ultimately unsatisfying “epic” films for an ever more indiscriminate audience.

Yet, it’s really not the fault of the viewers who flock to see the endless interactions of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Star Trek and other franchise films; they simply don’t know any better. There is nothing else on offer at the multiplex, and with everything online — behind a pay wall, usually with a subscription attached —any impulse to be adventurous in one’s viewing habits died long ago. It’s like McDonald’s: It is what it is, nothing more or less, and it’s reliably available, and always the same.

As Derek Thompson wrote in 2014, ‘The reason why Hollywood makes so many boring superhero movies [is because] studios were better at making great movies when they were worse at figuring out what we wanted to see,’ adding that ‘Hollywood has become sensational at predicting what its audiences want to see. And, ironically, for that very reason, it’s become better at making relentlessly average movies …

In 1950, movies were the third-largest retail business in America, after grocery stores and cars …Watching films approached the ubiquity of a bodily function: Every week, 90 million Americans—60 percent of the country—went to the cinema, creating an audience share that’s bigger than today’s Super Bowl.

The six major studios (MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, Twentieth Century-Fox, and RKO) could basically do whatever they wanted and be sure to make money. Owning their own theater chains (which accounted for half their total revenue), they controlled the means and distribution of a product that was as essential to mid-century life as grilled chicken. Surprise, surprise: Virtually all their films made money.’” Not so today.


Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet (1952)

February 14th, 2017

Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet, based on a novel by director Samuel Fuller, is brilliant filmmaking.

So let’s get this out of the way right off the bat; I admire Samuel Fuller’s work immensely, especially Underworld U.S.A. (1961), but in the final analysis, I think that Phil Karlson is a better filmmaker. Fuller was enormously talented, and a superb self-promoter, but while Fuller was making a name for himself, Karlson was simply hammering out one excellent film after another, without bothering too much to toot his own horn.

One result of this is that Scandal Sheet (1952), which is one of the toughest noirs ever made, never really got the attention it deserved, nor did it get Karlson a place in the pantheon of first-rate hardboiled filmmakers, an honor he clearly deserves. I never got the chance to speak with Karlson, who passed away before I could get in touch with him, but I did correspond with his late wife, Dixie, who confirmed that Karlson felt that he’d never really gotten the respect that he deserved – in part because Fuller, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, The Dark Page, went out of his way to slam Karlson’s work.

Somehow I think this says more about Fuller than Karlson, for Scandal Sheet is a remarkable film – one that really stands up today. As critic Michael Atkinson astutely observed, “Phil Karlson and Samuel Fuller’s Scandal Sheet (1952) exemplifies a certain strand of noir not the sweaty wrong-man-tripped-up-by-fate noirs (think Detour [1945], Somewhere in the Night [1946], Where Danger Lives [1950]), but the life-in-the-jungle noirs, dark elegies wherein citizens had to tough up to survive in modern urban sewers rife with impulse killing, squalor, crazed greed and moral desolation. Here, the systems themselves industry, community, the law, the mob, the press were rotten from the inside.

Karlson and Fuller were reigning warriors in this vein: director Karlson was a no-nonsense journeyman who with Scandal Sheet, Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953) and The Phenix City Story (1955) perfected a confrontational, violent, subtlety-immune noir style in which the world, not merely the individuals stuck in it, seemed to be on the edge of social upheaval.

Fuller was, of course, Fuller, the most notorious idiosyncratic-pulpster of the postwar age, an unstoppable creative force whose particular view of the world was a vulgar, cynical mashup between first-hand realism (no American filmmaker knew the actualities of tabloid journalism, ground warfare and the criminal sector as well) and outrageous pop-cinema hyperbole.

Scandal Sheet, in any case, was not Fuller’s film. It was based on his hot-property novel The Dark Page, published in 1944 after Fuller had already defected from being a reporter to being a screenwriter, and while the young Fuller was fighting in Europe with the Big Red One. Still, it boils over with his storytelling energy and his signature reflex, the urge to discover, expressionistically, the painful, hard-boiled reality as he knew it within the movie universe of Golden Age Hollywood.

The set-up itself is nearly autobiographical: Fuller used to work on the New York Graphic, a screaming-mimi, truth-manipulating exploitative tabloid on Park Row that makes the contemporary New York Post look like The London Review of Books. (Fuller has described its editorial principle to be one of ‘creative exaggeration.’) It’s easy to see how Fuller’s own distinctive tale-telling style, visual and narrative, was formed by the daily creation of howling headlines, sensational fabrication and punchy, don’t-lose-the-reader prose.

In the film, Broderick Crawford’s Mark Chapman is the New York Express’s bulldog editor, pulling the daily out of its economic doldrums with lurid front pages and invented news; John Derek’s Steve McCleary is his amoral star reporter, the two of them heading a newsroom that has only Donna Reed’s Julie Allison to recommend it in the way of moral compunction and compassion. The thorny patter and amoral brio proceeds apace until Chapman is confronted at a publicity event by a middle-aged woman (Rosemary DeCamp), who immediately pegs him as ‘George,’ and summons an entire unwanted past that places Chapman’s present success in mysterious jeopardy.

Soon it’s made clear: she’s the unstable wife he abandoned years before, and now she will not be ignored – an ultimatum that leads, somewhat predictably, to a scuffle and her accidental death. From there, Chapman is all about covering his tracks, which as we all know simply creates more tracks, more corpses and more bad fortune.

Scandal Sheet is a fast-gabbing, meat-eating show [and is] expertly fashioned; Fuller was careful to make the tabloid mercenariness turn in on itself: McCleary is hot on the story, and despite his neck being in the noose Chapman must bait him on, because if he relents one iota from the Rupert Murdochian ethos that made him and the Express a hit, suspicion will fall on him like a safe from a window . . . [the film] scans today like a prescient indictment of media sensationalism, Murdoch’s and otherwise. ‘Thinking people,’ it is suggested, like Allison’s humane feature stories, ‘even if there aren’t many of them reading the Express anymore.’

Perhaps things haven’t changed in the American mediascape, we may speculate, but perhaps things have grown many times worse. The very idea of courting a ‘thinking’ newspaper reader today is ludicrous, as monopoly regulations have all but vanished, and only six corporations . . . own the vast majority of media outlets in the U.S., as compared to over 50 in 1983, and many hundreds in the 1950s. Fuller and Karlson had their ears to the ground in the mid-century, and however relevant it was in 1952, their movie feels like a prophecy come true.”

Atkinson is right on target. Seeing the film on a big screen in class today with a deeply enthusiastic group of students confirmed my high opinion of the film; Karlson’s camerawork, aided by DP Burnett Guffey, glides smoothly through the entirely amoral universe of Mark Chapman’s world.

The film absolutely brims with appropriately lurid details: a fast closeup of a would-be suicide’s wrists; a gallows-humored functionary who informs us that business at the local morgue is “dead, just dead,” a harrowing trip through the depths of the Bowery’s worst saloons; the endless tick of the clocks on the walls of the drab, grey newsrooms; an editing style that breathlessly propels the narrative to its doom-laden conclusion; and a gallery of first rate performances not only from Crawford, but also such old pros as Henry O’Neill, Harry Morgan, Rosemary De Camp, Cliff Work, and Pierre Watkin – to name just a few.

When it was made, Scandal Sheet was thrown away on double bills as just another piece of product from Harry Cohn’s prolific film factory, Columbia Pictures, even if it did have Academy Award winner Crawford (for All The King’s Men, 1949) in the leading role – but today, we can see it is much more than that. It’s a sharp, economical film, without an ounce of fat on it; indeed, Jerome Thomas’s editing is so sharp that one would be hard pressed to even remove a frame from the finished work.

It’s available on DVD as part of a box set of Samuel Fuller’s films (!!) – but no such set exists for Karlson, of course. That’s a shame, and it also isn’t right – towards the end of his life, Karlson made some junk, like the appalling Matt Helm films, but when the fever was upon him, he hit the mark every time.

Click here to read a great interview with Phil Karlson – then see the film.

The Met Goes Digital!

February 12th, 2017

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has more than 400,000 images free for download for non-commercial use.

As the museum’s website notes, “Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, announced today that more than 400,000 high-resolution digital images of public domain works in the Museum’s world-renowned collection may be downloaded directly from the Museum’s website for non-commercial use—including in scholarly publications in any media—without permission from the Museum and without a fee. The number of available images will increase as new digital files are added on a regular basis.

In making the announcement, Campbell said: ‘Through this new, open-access policy, we join a growing number of museums that provide free access to images of art in the public domain. I am delighted that digital technology can open the doors to this trove of images from our encyclopedic collection.’

The Metropolitan Museum’s initiative—called Open Access for Scholarly Content (OASC)—provides access to images of art in its collection that the Museum believes to be in the public domain and free of other known restrictions; these images are now available for scholarly use in any media. Works that are covered by the new policy are identified on the Museum’s website (http://www.metmuseum.org/collections) with the acronym OASC.

Certain works are not available through the initiative for one or more of the following reasons: the work is still under copyright, or the copyright status is unclear; privacy or publicity issues; the work is owned by a person or an institution other than the Metropolitan Museum; restrictions by the artist, donor, or lender; or lack of a digital image of suitable quality.

OASC was developed as a resource for students, educators, researchers, curators, academic publishers, non-commercial documentary filmmakers, and others involved in scholarly or cultural work. Prior to the establishment of OASC, the Metropolitan Museum provided images upon request, for a fee, and authorization was subject to terms and conditions.

A related blog post by Sree Sreenivasan, the Met’s Chief Digital Officer, about the Metropolitan Museum’s new OASC policy can be found at http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/museum-departments/office-of-the-director/digital-media-department/digital-underground/2014/image-use-policy. Additional information and instructions can also be found at http://www.metmuseum.org/research/image-resources/frequently-asked-questions.”

For more details, click here, or on the image above; an incredible free resource is now available to all.

UNL English and Film Studies “Major For A Day”

February 8th, 2017

The UNL English and Film Studies Program hosts the “Major for a Day” program this week.

Under the guidance of Kelly Payne, Lecturer and Chief Undergraduate Advisor for English and Film Studies, groups of high school students this week attended UNL for a day, participating in the various programs that the department offers, such as Creative Writing, Digital Humanities, Shakespeare, African American Studies and other related disciplines.

Channel 8 News covered the event: you can see their video story by clicking here, or on the image above.

I was lucky enough to host a group of students yesterday in my English 219 Film Noir class, where we screened Michael Curtiz’s classic film Mildred Pierce, and then analyzed the film in small groups, before a general Q&A after the film. The students were a delight to have in the class, enthusiastically joining in during discussions, and really becoming a part of the overall group, contributing many valuable observations and insights.

The “Major for a Day” program is an excellent idea for outreach to the community as a whole, demonstrating the value of a college education in the Arts and Humanities, and offering high school students a chance to see for themselves precisely what UNL has to offer – a remarkable opportunity to see the world from a wider perspective.

Thanks to the students for participating, and to Kelly Payne for organizing the event. A great idea!

Drew Taylor in Vulture: The Disney Vault is Real!

February 4th, 2017

Long shrouded in mystery, the “The Disney Vault” is very, very real.

As Drew Taylor writes in Vulture, “in an anonymous block of Glendale, California, sits a nondescript beige building free of signage or distinction. The only thing that would even alert you to the fact that this is the Disney equivalent of Fort Knox is the abundance of insane security procedures stationed around the building.

Even for employees of the company, the building remains elusive and hard to gain entry to. (Full disclosure: I worked for the company for almost two years and never once got to go.) Unlike the main studio archives down the street, which are housed in an inviting glass building with ample signage — it’s this location that appears on-camera whenever the company makes documentaries about the Disney Vault — this place feels like a mirage . . .

Just in terms of size, the vault is insane — there are 12 vaults, each organized by project. This includes everything from the original sketches for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to larger-scale items like all of the puppets from The Nightmare Before Christmas and Frankenweenie.

Each room is climate controlled and meticulously catalogued, with state-of-the-art security and fire-suppression systems in place. By the library’s own estimates, there are something like 65 million pieces of art in the collection, which makes it the largest collection of animation artwork in the entire world.

The vaults look like what you’d think something like this might — the rows of stuff are located in cabinets which can be moved with a big spinning handle (like a vault), so you can easily get to them. As for the artwork, it’s filed in a way that it should be, with cells or production artwork stacked horizontally, while other, less sensitive items are filed vertically, in accordion-style folders.

Oversize items like large background paintings are housed in separate flat files. The sensation of walking into one of the vaults is like stumbling into the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark . . .

I was there as part of a small group of journalists who had been brought to the building ostensibly to celebrate Pinocchio leaving the Disney Vault with a digital rerelease. While there, I got to chat with Fox Carney, the manager at the Animation Research Library, and he told me that the archives contained ‘over a million’ pieces of artwork for Pinocchio alone.” And that’s just for starters . . .

Fascinating stuff, and you can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Headshot of 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.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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