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Archive for May, 2012

1950s Children’s Television

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

I have an essay forthcoming in this volume, edited by Cynthia Miller and A. Bowdoin Van Riper from Palgrave/Macmillan.

The fourteen essays featured here focus on series such as Space Patrol, Tom Corbett, and Captain Z-Ro, exploring their roles in the day-to-day lives of their fans through topics such as mentoring, promotion of the real-world space program, merchandising, gender issues, and ranger clubs – all the while promoting the fledgling medium of television. The distinguished group of authors involved includes Henry Jenkins, J.P. Telotte, Roy Kinnard, Patrick Lucanio and many others. Should be out in late August, early September 2012.

You can read more by clicking here, or on the image above.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho — Frame by Frame Video

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the new Frame by Frame video on Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

I’ve blogged on Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic masterpiece Psycho before, and here’s part of what I had to say back then, on October 7, 2011;

“Psycho had a curious genesis: Hitchcock was under contract to Paramount Studios for his theatrical films, but was also contracted to Universal Studios for his television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, an anthology series of mysteries, each running roughly 30 minutes, which debuted in 1955 (the show expanded to an hour in 1962, and ended its run in 1965).

Hitchcock usually confined his input on the series to helping to select the stories for dramatization, lending his name and image to the project, and also providing a series of delightfully droll introductions and postscripts to each teleplay, which he personally delivered in his usual laconic style.

THitchcock would direct an episode of the series, and when he did, the speed and professionalism of the Universal crews astounded him. Ordinarily bored by the filmmaking process — the actual shooting seemed almost an afterthought to his exquisitely detailed storyboards — Hitchcock found himself caught up again in the excitement of actually shooting a movie.

Having known for some time that his 1950s big budget suspense film strategy was fast falling out of favor, Hitchcock cast around for some fresh material, and found it in Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho. Using an intermediary to keep the cost down, Hitchcock bought the rights to the novel, and pitched the project to Paramount.

But Paramount found the material too exotic, offbeat, and problematic, and refused to finance the film. After much negotiation, Hitchcock struck a deal to shoot the film at Universal in black and white, using his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV crew, funding the budget of $806,947 entirely with his own money, and also deferring his standard director’s fee of $250,000 in return for a 60% ownership of the film’s negative. Still unconvinced that the finished film would click, Paramount nevertheless acquiesced, and agreed to release the finished film.

Hitchcock shot Psycho on a very tight schedule, starting on November 11, 1959, and wrapping on February 1, 1960. When Psycho opened, it broke the box-office record of all of Hitchcock’s previous features, and signaled the beginning of the end for traditional Hollywood censorship, with its sinuous synthesis of sex, violence, and hitherto uncharted psychiatric territory — at least in a major Hollywood film.

Viewers wanted something fresh, and Psycho provided precisely that — the shock of the new. The film became an instant classic, and remains so today; the Psycho house and the Bates Motel sets still stand at Universal Studios, and remain a potent attraction for visiting tourists. More than half a century old, Psycho still has the power to shock, to surprise, to enthrall the viewer.”

Now, there’s a new Frame by Frame video on the making of the film, which you can view by clicking here, or on the image of Hitchcock himself above.

The Reward (1965)

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

Emilio Fernández (kneeling), Gilbert Roland (with gun), Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (lying on the ground), and Henry Silva (back to camera) in Serge Bourguignon’s The Reward (1965).

Here’s my essay on the remarkable and deeply eccentric film The Reward in the Noir of the Week website; this is the beginning of the text, and you can read the rest by clicking here, or on the image above.

“If you are looking for the latest news, Señor, you’re out of luck. News reaches us like light from the stars – it takes a long time.” — Gilbert Roland as Captain Carbajal in Serge Bourguignon’s The Reward.

“I’m not going to deny that Serge Bourguignon’s The Reward is an odd film in many respects; it’s often classified as a Western, which it isn’t, despite the fact that most of the film was shot in Death Valley, and the film has a definite Western edge to it, with much of the dialogue spoken in Spanish with no translation. Produced as a West German/French/English co-production, the film seems to exist in no man’s land, a zone in which no nationality is dominant. Indeed, English is very much a second language here, and the equally eccentric casting of the film drives this home even further.

Top lining the film is Max Von Sydow as Scott Swenson, a down-on-his-luck crop duster whose plane isn’t even his own; as the film opens, Swenson is making one last flight for some much needed cash, but his plane crash lands after hitting an exposed pipeline, taking out a water tower and utterly destroying the aircraft. Crawling from the wreckage as the plane explodes behind him, Swenson coolly surveys the damage, and then walks to a local cantina, where he uses his last few dollars to buy some drinks. All of this is shown with almost no dialogue, and Bourguignon’s smooth CinemaScope framing makes the desert seem arid, endless, and infernal, a living Hell for all who inhabit it.”

It’s only a shame, as I note in my essay, that this isn’t on DVD; it runs occasionally on the Fox Movie Network in a “pan and scan” version that destroys the visuals in the film, but the real film is lost in the vaults, and will probably never get the restoration it so richly deserves.

Read the complete essay here.

Tex Avery on DVD

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

The French are always ahead of us, it seems, when it comes to the cinema, not only in their own films, but also in preserving and presenting classic films of all kinds.

A few posts back, I video blogged on the birth of the auteur theory, the invention of André Bazin in Cahiers du cinéma, the then-revolutionary idea that the director — who’d have thought? — was the primary creative force behind the creation of a film. Now it’s a commonplace concept; once, it was absolutely groundbreaking.

The French have also been in the forefront of preserving the films of the past, as witness the tireless and pioneering work of Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française, who was among the first to save Hollywood films from destruction when the studios short-sightedly no longer thought they had any commercial value — before television, DVD, steaming video and the like — and they were the first to suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, certain key directors were worth extensive study, as one discovered the themes and obsessions that circulated throughout all their work.

This extends to cartoons, as well, and once again, it’s the French who are in the forefront with an extensive set of DVDs covering the work of one the greatest animators who ever lived — a contemporary of Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and the rest of the Termite Terrace gang — the one, the only Tex Avery. Avery was one of the originators of the animated cartoon in the United States, and as Gary Morris notes, “[Avery] steered the Warner Bros. house style away from Disney-esque sentimentality and made cartoons that appealed equally to adults, who appreciated Avery’s speed, sarcasm, and irony, and to kids, who liked the nonstop action. Disney’s ‘cute and cuddly’ creatures, under Avery’s guidance, were transformed into unflappable wits like Bugs Bunny, endearing buffoons like Porky Pig, or dazzling crazies like Daffy Duck.

Even the classic fairy tale, a market that Disney had cornered, was appropriated by Avery, who made innocent heroines like Red Riding Hood into sexy jazz babies, more than a match for any Wolf. Avery also endeared himself to intellectuals by constantly breaking through the artifice of the cartoon, having characters leap out of the end credits, loudly object to the plot of the cartoon they were starring in, or speak directly to the audience.”

Avery did all that and more at Warner Brothers, but he arguably did his best work when he moved to MGM, where his anarchic vision found full flower in such brilliantly warped shorts as Blitz Wolf (1942), The Early Bird Dood It! (1942), Dumb-Hounded (1943), Red Hot Riding Hood (1943), Who Killed Who? (1943), the utterly twisted What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard? (1943), Screwball Squirrel (1944), The Shooting of Dan McGoo (1945), Jerky Turkey (1945), Swing Shift Cinderella (1945), Wild and Woolfy (1945), Lonesome Lenny (1946) and many, many others.

But amazingly, there isn’t a collection of Avery’s work available on DVD in the United States. Some of his cartoons featuring his signature character Droopy are available in a domestic DVD, but if you want a larger selection of Avery’s best work, well, you’ll have to go to Amazon in France, where you’ll find a superb collection of Avery’s best work available in four separate volumes, as well as two collections of DVDs.

Though some have criticized the transfers here, I am not one of them. They are sharp, clean, and almost perfect. The DVDs are, after all, official Warner Brothers releases, and they feature many of Avery’s best MGM shorts, and also — as extras — some of his earlier work for Warners. The cartoons come with optional French subtitles, but these can easily be clicked off so as not to interfere with one’s viewing pleasure; in addition, they’re also viewable in a dubbed French version, in which both the dialogue and the voice characterizations are lovingly detailed and surprisingly accurate.

Avery’s brilliant cartoons obviously aren’t going to be released on DVD in the US anytime soon, though I have no idea why. If anyone cries out for a DVD box set of their best work, it’s Avery, so don’t hesitate — before the DVDs are gone, get them now, and enjoy the work of one of the most obstinately individualistic auteurs the medium has ever known.

Yes, these are Region 2 DVDs, but if you don’t have a Region 2 player by this point, why not?

Chicago Calling

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

I don’t usually blog on other blogs, so to speak, but I’m making an exception for this essay on the film Chicago Calling.

The film was originally brought to my attention by an article in the May/June issue of Film Comment by Dave Kehr; the director in question is John Reinhardt, who had a scattershot career to say the least, and I saw his film The Guilty a few weeks back, a sort of rundown version of Robert Siomak’s The Dark Mirror, and thought that despite the fact that it was unremittingly grim and depressing, it really didn’t have much to recommend it.

Chicago Calling is a different matter altogether; as Frank M. Young notes in his excellent essay on the Noir of the Week website, the film owes a considerable debt to the down-in-the-street neorealism of Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, shot on the rundown streets of Los Angeles in 1951, with some minimal studio to round things out. Dan Duryea, a noir veteran to say the least, is perfectly cast in the role of William Cannon, once a promising photographer, but now a spectacular flameout, given to alcoholic binges and completely irresponsible behavior, and his wife Mary (Mary Anderson) is walking out on him at last, not in fury, but in resignation, because she simply doesn’t see the situation improving.

The family lives in a near hovel, on the absolute edge of starvation, and William has to pawn his camera to raise the cash so that Mary and their daughter Peggy (Marsha Jones) can pay $30 for a ride back to Chicago to stay with her mother until William cleans up his act, if he ever will. What happens after that forms the basis for one of the most harrowing, uncompromising, and original films of the early 1950s, a film that doesn’t flinch at showing what life was really like for the marginalized in the Eisenhower era — the dark side of the American dream.

As Young writes, “the film is, arguably, not a bona fide noir. Its main goal is to emulate the neo-realist movement of post-war Italian cinema. Director/co-writer John Reinhardt has no interest in crafting a routine tale of crime and punishment. Everything that happens in Chicago Calling could reasonably occur in your life or mine—were the chips to fall as miserably as they do for the feckless Cannon.” This is top shelf work from a generally unknown director who’s obviously out to make a personal statement, and in the process, gives Duryea the role of his career. A must see, now available from Warner Archives, and refreshingly, only 75 minutes long.

You can read the rest of the essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Amazon’s New “Never Before on DVD” Store

Friday, May 25th, 2012

As has been widely reported, most notably by Marc Graser in Variety, Amazon has just launched a new “never before on DVD” movie service, featuring some 2,000 titles that studios don’t feel have enough traction for commercial release, but which have enough interest for cineastes and collectors to purchase on a made-to-order basis, much like the titles offered through the successful Warner Archive service.

In this case, a consortium of studios have decided that it’s more cost-effective to let Amazon do the retailing, rather than opening their own divisions, a la Warner Archive’s service; the studios involved include Disney, Sony, Warner Bros., Lionsgate, Universal, 20th Century Fox and  MGM. The real surprise here for me is Disney, who are notoriously protective with their back catalogue.

Many of these titles will be of no interest to readers of this blog, as you can see from the image above; TV shows, mainstream commercial fare and the like dominate the offerings. But hidden in the stacks are some films of real merit, so readers should check it out for themselves and see what’s of interest. Most of these titles were previously available, and still are available, as streaming video on Amazon, but now you can get them in a more stable format. So take a look, and see what’s on offer.

Of course, with only 2,000 films or so for sale, that means the vast majority of these studios’ films are still locked away in a vault somewhere, and this is just a drop in the bucket. Between them, the studios mentioned above could easily put some 20,000 or even 200,000 films up for potential buyers, and why don’t they? Since the discs are made-to-order, what have they got to lose? I guess that’s the only downside to this announcement; while it’s nice that 2,000 titles never before on DVD will now see the light of day, one should never forget that there are literally hundreds of thousands of films yet-to-be-released, still waiting in the wings.

You can read Marc Graser’s piece in Variety by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Auteur Theory in Film

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

I have a new video today in the Frame by Frame series on auteur theory in film, which is one of the basic building blocks in beginning to understand any serious work of cinema.

You can click here, or on the image above, to see the video.

Here’s a transcript:

Hi. I’m Wheeler Winston Dixon, James Ryan professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and this is Frame By Frame. I want to speak for a few moments about the “auteur theory, “ the basic building block of all contemporary film theorists. Amazingly, in America, which is kind of the capitol of film production in the world, or one of the major film capitols, films were not considered as being made by directors,  producers, or even studios.

They were a “Clark Gable film,” or a “Bette Davis film,” or a “Boris Karloff film,” or a “Marx Brothers film,” or a genre film… a western, a science fiction, a horror film, and on and on. It was only in the 1940s that a film theorist named André Bazin founded a journal called Cahiers du Cinéma, literally “the notebooks of cinema,” and a group of young critics — people like Jean Luc Godard, writing as Hans Lucas, Eric Rohmer, Francois Truffaut — began writing about films from the point of view that the director is the primary creator of the film, and that each director’s individual signature is distinct, but also that each director has certain key thematic preoccupations that one can find throughout their work.

So just briefly, in John Ford’s films “professionalism” is something which is foregrounded; in Howard Hawks’ films, you have the “Hawksian woman,” a pre-feminist construct, a woman who can hold her own with the men in the picture. Alfred Hitchcock’s films offer an incredibly bleak worldview. Frank Capra’s films have a theme of small town populism and optimism running through all of them. This kind of distinction of the director as the primary creator of a film was something that only crossed to the United States in 1963, when Andrew Sarris, an American film critic in New York, wrote a book called The American Cinema, which listed for the first time the major film makers and their major preoccupations.

Auteurism is now almost taken for granted. People consider films as an “Alfred Hitchcock film,” a “Howard Hawks film,” an “Ingmar Bergman film,” a “Bernardo Bertolucci film,” a “Quentin Tarantino film.” And in most cases, the director is the primary force behind the making of a film. Movies are a team effort. But without one vision to guide them, films collapse into committee projects, which may be commercially successful, but aren’t personal statements. And so the director’s input into a film is absolutely essential, and auteurism has become the dominant way of looking at films in theory and criticism.

Film, Nostalgia, and The Digital Divide

Saturday, May 19th, 2012

I have a new piece in the journal Flow today, entitled Film, Nostalgia, and The Digital Divide, which begins with these words:

“A few days ago, I was watching Kathryn Bigelow’s excellent film The Hurt Locker (2008) – on DVD of course – and I was suddenly struck by the fact that it may be one of the last movies to be actually shot on film; in the case of The Hurt Locker, Super 16mm film, with 4 handheld crews working at once, piling up roughly 200 hours of footage to be eventually edited down into a 130 minute film. With its rough, raw look, its smash zooms and its hectic intercutting, mirroring battlefield news photography from the Vietnam war, The Hurt Locker has a visceral reality, especially in its nighttime sequences, that seems to me to be intrinsically tied to the filmic process. You could have the same images in video, of course, but I somehow don’t think the same level of textures and contrasts would be available to you; you’d get a perfect, pristine, scratch free image, but a certain richness to the images would be missing. Digital technology simply doesn’t have the same spectrum of tonal possibilities, and even though it can mimic millions of different shades of color, the end result is cold, artificial, distant. There’s something unreal about it.

When you’re making a film, so to speak, it would be nice to have a choice as to whether or not to use film, or to go with digital. But it seems that the choice has been made for you. Aesthetic issues aside, film is being swept into the dustbin of history. As Richard Verrier reported in the Los Angeles Times, Birns and Sawyer, the oldest film equipment rental house in Hollywood, has thrown in the towel on film — everything’s gone digital. Responding in the shift to all-digital production, the company auctioned off all its film camera equipment, both 35mm and 16mm, though 16mm has been a dinosaur for some time. But now 35mm film is going out the door, too. It’s just like The Jazz Singer in 1927, when films converted to sound; digital is now the only way to go. And it’s happening fast.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Eclipse Series 33: Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr.

Monday, May 14th, 2012

At last! At last! At last!

Robert Downey Sr. has been a friend of mine since the late 1960s, and his films have been criminally neglected since then, and for years he’s been telling me about a box set of his movies coming out, and now, finally, it’s here from Criterion.

As Criterion’s notes point out, “rarely do landmark works of cinema seem so . . . wrong. Robert Downey Sr. emerged as one of the most irreverent filmmakers of the new American underground of the early sixties, taking no prisoners in his rough-and-tumble treatises on politics, race, and consumer culture. In his most famous, the midnight-movie mainstay Putney Swope, an advertising agency is turned on its head when a militant African American man takes charge. Like Swope, Downey held nothing sacred. This selection of five of his most raucous and outlandish films, dating from 1964 to 1975, offers a unique mix of the hilariously abrasive and the intensely experimental.

The set includes Babo 73 (1964), in which Warhol superstar Taylor Mead plays the president of the United Status, who conducts his top-secret international affairs on a deserted beach when he isn’t at the White House (a dilapidated Victorian), in Robert Downey Sr.’s political satire. Downey’s first feature is a rollicking, slapstick, ultra-low-budget 16 mm comedy experiment that introduced a twisted new voice to the American underground scene;

Chafed Elbows (1966), a breakthrough for Downey Sr., thanks to rave notices. Visualized largely in still 35 mm photographs, it follows a shiftless downtown Manhattanite having his “annual November breakdown,” wandering from one odd job to the next;

No More Excuses (1968), in which Downey takes his camera and microphone onto the streets for a close look at Manhattan’s swinging singles scene of the late sixties. Of course, that’s not all: No More Excuses cuts between this footage and the fragmented tale of a time-traveling Civil War soldier, a rant from the director of the fictional Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, and other assorted improprieties;

Putney Swope (1969), Downey’s most popular film, an oddball classic about the antics that ensue after Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson, his voice dubbed by a gravelly Downey), the token black man on the board of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, is inadvertently elected chairman. Putney summarily fires everyone else, replaces them with Black Power apostles, renames the company Truth and Soul, Inc., and proceeds to wreak politically incorrect havoc; and finally;

Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight
(1975), ‘a film without a beginning or an end,’ in Downey’s own words, this Dadaist thingamajig—a never-before-seen, newly reedited version of the director’s 1975 release Moment to Moment (also known as Jive)—is a cascade of curious sketches, scenes, and shots that takes on a rhythmic life. It stars Downey’s wife at the time, Elsie, in an endless succession of off-the-wall roles, from dancer to cocaine fiend.”

Downey Sr. is a one of a kind original, a brilliant satirist, and a take-no-prisoners filmmaker. Buy this set immediately; these films are essential documents of the 1960s, and some of the funniest films ever made, and I honestly never thought they’d see the light of day.

And now they’re out on Criterion, no less! Congratulations, Bob; long overdue!!

Ian McEwan on Fanboy Culture

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

Ian McEwan, the distinguished British author of such novels as Atonement and Amsterdam, had this to say recently about online criticism from people who clearly have no idea what they’re talking about:

“I don’t have much time for the kind of [Internet] site where readers do all the reviewing. Reviewing takes expertise, wisdom and judgment. I am not much fond of the notion that anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s.”

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 numerous books and more than 70 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.

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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/