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Archive for January, 2012

The Art of the Modern Movie Trailer on NPR

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to read the whole transcript of the story on NPR.

Brent Baughman of NPR interviewed me recently, along with some other folks who work in the industry making what are known as “trailers” or “coming attractions” for films about to be released. It’s both a science and an art, blending marketing and creativity to get people out of their houses and into the theaters, which is proving increasingly hard to do in the era of pads. cellphones, and laptops; even television is outmoded.

People would rather stay at home and stream a film instead of going out to the movies; this is why only the most mainstream films now get a national release. The more thoughtful films get a “select cities” release in New York, Los Angeles, and other major markets; at the same time, the film is unceremoniously dumped into video on demand, either on television or the web, at sites such as Amazon, Netflix, and numerous other locations.

All of which makes getting people to actually “go to the movies” all the more important for major studio releases, which cost upwards of $80 – 100 million to make on average, and another $12-25 million or so to market. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

“[The] trailer for the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol features the actor Lionel Barrymore (Drew’s great-uncle), speaking directly into the camera about this charming new film. Leatherbound book? Check. Pipe? Check. Armchair by the fire? Check. The whole thing is so clearly not the savvy, heavily focus-grouped work of a modern trailer house that it’s hard to imagine it ever worked.

Early trailers, says film historian Wheeler Winston Dixon, were all like this. Very comfortable — and often full of over-the-top superlatives, like the trailer for Gone With the Wind. “‘Never so tremendous!’” Dixon says by way of example. “‘The screen’s greatest achievement!’ One critic at the time said it was the supreme example of writing so as never to be believed.”

Compare that with something like last year’s trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, which set a record for downloads in 2011. “The shots are shorter and shorter and shorter, and more fragmented,” Dixon says. “There have been a number of studies that demonstrate that the average length of a shot in a film have been shrinking every single year, because audiences absorb information faster — and there’s also a sense that you don’t want to bore them.”

You can read the entire interview, and see the trailers as well, by clicking here, or on the image above.

Michel Gondry’s 2 Minute Remake of “Taxi Driver”

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

There’s been a lot of talk lately about a possible remake of Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver (1976). Lars von Trier was attached for a while, then Scorsese even floated the idea of doing a 3-D remake, perhaps just as a whim; but in the meantime, director Michel Gondry has stripped the whole project down to a two minute bare-bones recap, which is at once brilliant and also very funny.

You can view it by clicking here, or on the image above.

“A History of Horror” Named an “Outstanding Academic Title” for 2011 by Choice, The Library Journal

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for a brief video on horror films.

My book A History of Horror (Rutgers UP) has just been selected by the prestigious journal Choice as one of the Outstanding Academic Titles of the Year for 2011.

As Choice notes, the list of Outstanding Academic Books “comprise[s] less than 9 percent of the titles reviewed during 2011 and 2.5 percent of those submitted during that same time span, [ensuring that] these exceptional titles are truly the ‘best of the best.’” In addition, A History of Horror will be released as an audiobook by Redwood Audiobooks in 2012, and has just gone into a second printing from Rutgers.

Ever since horror leapt from popular fiction to the silver screen in the late 1890s, viewers have experienced fear and pleasure in exquisite combination. Wheeler Winston Dixon’s A History of Horror is the only book to offer a comprehensive survey of this ever-popular film genre.

Arranged by decades, with outliers and franchise films overlapping some years, this one-stop sourcebook unearths the historical origins of characters such as Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman and their various incarnations in film from the silent era to comedic sequels. A History of Horror explores how the horror film fits into the Hollywood studio system and how its enormous success in American and European culture expanded globally over time.

Dixon examines key periods in the horror film—in which the basic precepts of the genre were established, then burnished into conveniently reliable and malleable forms, and then, after collapsing into parody, rose again and again to create new levels of intensity and menace. A History of Horror, supported by rare stills from classic films, brings fifty timeless horror films into frightfully clear focus, zooms in on today’s top horror web sites, and champions the stars, directors, and subgenres that make the horror film so exciting and popular with contemporary audiences. More than 50 rare stills from classic examples of the genre illustrate the text.

“This is an excellent survey of horror movies. The author, a veteran film historian, takes the reader back to the beginning, when, in the first three decades of the twentieth century, such directors as Georges Melies, F. W. Murnau, and Paul Wegener were defining not only the look of a genre but also cinema itself. The period between 1930 and the late 1940s saw the rise of the classic Universal Studios characters —Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy—and the actors who played them: Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney Jr. By the end of the 1940s, horror was dying, “killed by a plethora of poorly made sequels.” But never fear: the period between the late ‘40s and 1970 saw a massive resurgence, due in part to gimmicks (such as 3-D); low-budget quickies from the likes of Roger Corman, the wizard of the B movie; and the stylish resurrection of the classic Universal monsters by Britain’s Hammer Film Productions. This survey, which takes the reader right up to the present, is full of fascinating information and is delivered in an accessible manner. Required reading for horror fans.” — David Pitt, Booklist, August 4, 2010

“Dixon surveys the development of the horror genre from the earliest Frankenstein and Dracula films through the decades of classics by Hammer studios, William Castle, Roger Corman, and Val Lewton. Dixon covers movies seldom found in other histories and more modern, international titles such as Wolf Creek, Black Water, and The Grudge. The endurance of horror, trends like remakes and sequels, and such popular franchises as Child’s Play and Halloween are also discussed. In the final chapter, Dixon analyzes the decline of modern horror owing to desensitized audiences, graphic gore, violence, and lack of solid plot lines or character development. Lists of the best horror websites as well as the 50 movies covered round out this volume [. . .] This concise overview is an informative and entertaining read [. . .] Recommended for all libraries.” —Rosalind Dayen, Library Journal, September 16, 2010.

“In less than 250 pages, author Wheeler Winston Dixon manages to cover the trends and sub-genres of film horror from 1896 to 2009. Bonuses include a list of top horror sites, a list of fifty classic films, and a pretty wonderful bibliography. Dixon offers analysis without lapsing into academic language. He also provides the occasional behind-the-scenes anecdote. The main purpose of A History of Horror, however, seems to be delineating themes and trends as they work their way through each generation of horror filmmaking. At this the author excels, and the result is much more useful to fans than the clumsy attempts at thematic links provided by Amazon and Netflix. I found several titles that were completely unfamiliar to me and added them to my ‘watch instantly’ list [. . . ] Well written and well researched [. . . ] and offering an enjoyable overview of more than one hundred years of cinema, A History of Horror is a quick, delightful read. If you appreciate lucid, informed, but not stuffy analysis, here’s your guide.” — S. P. Miskowski, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, November 5, 2010

“[Dixon's] book is a page-turner!  It is a fabulous piece of work.  A breathtaking panorama, written with wit and candor, showing how the horror film has shaped cinema from its the origins of the genre until now.  I am really thrilled by the way A History of Horror refuses to fetishize the horror film at the same time it brings into view the complexities of history informing the genre.  The very critical assessment of recent films in the final pages is a reminder to readers and filmmakers that, as the author has done himself, they would do well to take keen note of its rich and variegated past in view of its reinvention.” –Tom Conley, Harvard University

“Rich with excellent illustrations and clever anecdotes, this book will appeal to fans of horror as well as film students and scholars interested in a readable overview of the history of the genre.” — Rebecca Bell-Metereau, author of Hollywood Androgyny

“There is a wealth of research material here for anyone willing to follow Dixon’s many threads [. . .] the author offers generous and moving portraits of three American giants of horror: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr. [. . .] Dixon’s book is illustrated with a sprinkling of photos from the classic moments of the horror film genre. We see Lugosi as Count Dracula, Karloff as the Frankenstein monster, Linda Blair looking possessed, Sissy Spacek covered with blood in Carrie, an unusually maniacal Jack Nicholson from The Shining, and more gore-bedecked actors than one could shake a skull at.” — Martin A. David, New York Journal of Books

“The metric ton of movies listed in Wheeler Winston Dixon’s A History of Horror could have easily overwhelmed. However, thanks to witty and clever summations, as well as his ability to group films in such a way as to provide an excellent overview, the book is a breeze for this horror fan . . . even a casual reader will find themselves needing to keep a notepad handy, so as to keep track of everything you’ll want to search out.” –Nick Spacek, Rock Star Journalist

“Where there is no imagination, there is no horror.” —Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Marc Cherry of “Desperate Housewives” on Hollywood, The Biz and Life

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

Click on the bucolic image above to see the promo for Season 8 of DH.

As I’m sure you know, the long-running nighttime soap Desperate Housewives is running its final lap right now, with the conclusion coming up shortly. Series creator Marc Cherry, above, will make a brief guest appearance on the final episode of the series, and offered these thoughts, as reported by Nellie Andreeva in Deadline Hollywood, on the end of the show, and his future within the industry. They’re worth reprinting here, as an example of how things change, how to cope with that change, and how to deal with what life hands you.

“People keep asking me if it’s bittersweet, and I go, ‘No.  It’s completely sweet,’ because I’m smart enough to know, when I started this ‑‑ this is my 23rd year as a professional writer ‑‑ there’s no such thing as a job that goes on forever.  All good things come to an end.  And I was SO [screwed]. I was in ‑‑ like a $100,000 in debt to my mother.  I went through years without an interview for a job.  No one thought I was anything.  I had friends that didn’t even call for a while.  And then, like, I write this script because it was my attempt to show people that I was a better writer than maybe they thought, and all hell broke loose.  And right from the start, I knew it was going to be a roller coaster, but I’m smart enough, and the way my mom brought me up, I was humane enough to go, ‘It’s all good.  Even the bad stuff is good.  Even those days when I’m exhausted’ ‑‑ and for those of you who saw me, I’m, like, 50 pounds thinner than I was the first season because I was stuffing carbs into my face constantly to write because I was writing so much of that first season.  That’s why I was so thankful when folks like (exec producer) Bob (Daily) came along to take some of the burden off me ‑‑ that even during the bad times, it was fantastic.  Even, like, when some other show comes along and it’s the hot new show, I’m like, ‘Good for you.  Go with it, babe.’  This is how this industry works.  It’s like life.  To everything there is a season.  Our seasons are coming to an end.  And so I just ‑‑ for all of us, we’re just so grateful for the ride we’ve had because not many people in this business get to experience what we have all collectively experienced.  So that’s how I feel, is just grateful and looking forward to the next chapter.”

Film Reviewing and Film Criticism

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for some key film criticism and theory books as selected by a group of panelists for the British film journal Sight and Sound.

They’re not the same thing. Film reviews are served up by daily critics, who no matter how knowledgeable they are, are writing for a day-by-day audience, who want a plot outline, a brief overview, and then some opinion on the film at hand, advising readers whether to see the film or not.

Film criticism and theory, in contrast, “unpacks” a film to see what makes it tick, and uses various theoretical approaches, such as feminist film theory, or auteurism, or structural film theory, or numerous other approaches — far too many to list here — to take the film apart in detail, and see how it works.

Film reviews are mainly an opinion pieces, but film criticism proceeds from a large base of historical, critical and theoretical information, and offers a detailed understanding of the director’s history, past projects, the history and practice of the genre in question (if it’s a genre film), of others working in the field, possible precedents for the film, shot structure, editing, choreography, lighting, acting styles, camera movement, framing, deep focus, costumes, and whatever else might apply; it deconstructs the film in detail.

So there’s a world of difference here, and it seems to me that sometimes people get the distinction blurred; anyone can have an opinion, and give you a thumbnail review of a film, or a book, or anything else; but it’s just their point of view.

In order to really understand a work of art (or even a commercial film, or perhaps I should say, especially a commercial film – they really need careful discussion), you need to really examine it, in an absolutely detailed fashion, and have the background in history, theory and criticism to really understand what’s going on. That’s the beginning of film criticism, and the beginning of a real understanding of the film (digital or otherwise) medium.

“Let the Sleepers Sleep, and the Haters Hate:” An Interview with Dale “Rage” Resteghini

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Dale Resteghini directing; photo © 2012 Kristen Glaze.

From my article “Let the Sleepers Sleep, and the Haters Hate:” An Interview with Dale “Rage” Resteghini” in Quarterly Review of Film and Video 29.1, 2012:

“On a plane coming back from a research trip in Los Angeles, I fell into a conversation with one of my seatmates, who turned out to be Dale Resteghini, one of the most prolific music video directors of the contemporary music scene. As it happened, he was on his way to Omaha to shoot a music video the next day. We swapped contact information, and this interview is the result. Rage, as he is professionally known, directs two to three videos a month, and by his own estimation has created at least 400 music videos in the course of his career. At one time, these videos were a staple of programming on MTV, VH1 and BET, but as these outlets turned to longer form programming, the music video has become something of a luxury for many performers. Yet the market for Rage’s services remains unabated. There are many interesting aspects to Rage’s work, but one of his chief attributes is his versatility. Rather than favoring one musical genre, his videos swing all the way from heavy metal to hip-hop, with numerous stops in-between, on budgets that range from several thousand dollars to large, complex productions with significant price tags. Nothing seems to faze him: as he told me when we first met, “I function best in absolute chaos, when everything seems to be falling apart. Everybody else is losing it, but I see the opportunities that arise. That’s the time I come up with some of my best ideas.” His production company, Raging Nation Films, is a joint effort between Rage and his wife Kim, who handles the business end of things.

Some of the artists he’s worked with since he broke into directing in 2003 include Anthrax, Busta Rhymes, Cypress Hill, P. Diddy, Fall Out Boy, Guns N’ Roses, Ice Cube, L’il Wayne, Method Man, Redman, Cam’ron and numerous others across the musical spectrum, usually wrapping up a video in a day or two of hectic shooting. Rage is something of a paradox: a tough customer who by his own admission was involved in more than few brushes with the law during his youth, he is nevertheless an artist with a definite visual signature to his work, which keeps him in constant demand as the “go to” guy for sharp, compelling concepts and cost-conscious execution. While he’s completely at home in the digital era, Rage still prefers to shoot 35mm film rather than high definition video, and at this point in his career, is poised to make the jump to features. Forthright, direct, and honest, Rage is a self-taught director whose street smart attitude allows him to create work that is commercially viable, while at the same time retains an edge that sets him apart from the rest of his peers. He’s an “up from the streets” auteur, which is what makes his work that much more real.”

You can download the entire article here.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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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/