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Archive for November, 2012

Frame by Frame Video: Film Journals

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Here’s a new video I just finished, directed by Curt Bright, on film journals and magazines.

As I note in this brief video, there are really three types of film journals: fanzines, which are designed for the general public; trade journals, which keep abreast of developments within the industry; and more scholarly journals, which seriously examine film as an art form. This brief list of cinema journals isn’t by any means exhaustive; for example, Film International has recently emerged as one of the most important scholarly film journals available on the web, and also publishes a print edition; and Hollywood Wiretap has recently changed its name to Studio System News, offering inside industry information on a daily basis, also free; all you have to do is sign up for a subscription.

There’s also Cinema Journal, one of the most important of all scholarly film journals, published by The Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and numerous other journals that could also have been mentioned in this video.There are many, many other journals to choose from. What I really wanted to do here was not to be a completist — otherwise the video would be thirty minutes long – but rather to give the viewer some idea of the general outlines of what’s available in film journalism beyond the “daily reviews” and blogs that proliferate on the web and in print, which offer more detailed analysis that daily reviewers can possibly offer.

In any event, check out the video for yourself, and also the journals it mentions, as well as other publications in the field, available either online, or at your local library; they’ll give you a much better picture of film as a business, and an art form.

Click on the image above to see the video.

Just the Facts, Man: the Complicated Genesis of Television’s Dragnet

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

I have a new piece out in Film International on the genesis of the classic 1950s television series Dragnet.

Here’s the part of what I have to say on the subject: The 1950s version of Dragnet was in many ways an “outlier” in the contemporary televisual landscape; easily burlesqued and imitated, there was still nothing else like it in terms of hard-nosed stylization, grimly procedural story lines, and, for the period, grimy authenticity. Just a look at some of the plot lines demonstrates just how out of sync Dragnet was in a world populated by the likes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver, and other enormously popular, family-oriented series of the era. Dragnet, in contrast, concentrated almost entirely on the downside of 1950s American existence; the misfits, psychos, drifters, conmen, and ne’er do wells who collectively comprised the series’ world. Dragnet’s world was the netherworld of American society; and every episode made it clear that only the LAPD was holding back the tide of scum that threatened to engulf Los Angeles, and by extension, the entire nation.

In “The Big Death” (January 17, 1952), an unsuspecting husband hires Joe Friday as a hit man to kill his wife; in “The Big Mother” (January 31, 1952), a newborn infant is abducted from a hospital by an unstable young woman, who is unable to have children herself; in “The Big Speech” (February 28, 1952), Friday delivers a lecture warning on the evils of drug addiction at his former high school, even as he tracks down a teenage hoodlum, who, seeking his next fix, beats up and robs a friendly druggist; in “The Big Blast” (April 10, 1952), which Webb both wrote and directed, a young mother is killed in her bed by a shotgun blast, as her infant son slumbers next to her; in “The Big September Man” (May 8, 1952), an unbalanced sociopath feels divinely inspired to kill “a sinner,” and his former fiancée is his most recent victim; in the justly infamous “.22 Rifle for Christmas” (December 18, 1952, Dragnet’s first “Christmas episode”), co-written by [James] Moser and Webb, a young boy prematurely opens a Christmas gift – a .22 rifle – and accidentally kills one of his friends while playing with the rifle, subsequently hiding the young victim’s body in the brush on Christmas Eve.

In “The Big Lay Out” (April 16, 1953), a high school honor student becomes strung out on heroin; in “The Big Hands” (May 21, 1953), a young woman is found strangled to death in a cheap hotel room; in “The Big Nazi” (November 25, 1958), Friday uncovers a high school neo-Nazi ring; and on and on it goes, a parade of beatings, stabbings, murders, rapes, robberies, and wanton brutality that seems to have no end in sight, an unstoppable tidal wave of human greed, violence, and corruption. Compared to the 1960s version of the series, which kicked off with an unintentionally risible episode on the dangers of LSD – the “Blue Boy” episode, actually titled “The LSD Story,” first broadcast on January 12, 1967 – the 1950s version of Dragnet bristles with menace, energy, and simmering social disruption; no one even thinks of “Mirandizing” suspects, because, of course, no such law existed.

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

Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

Who would have expected this from Criterion; a box set of classic Japanese horror?

Following years of a certain radioactive beast’s domination at the box office, many Japanese studios tried to replicate the formula with their own brands of monster movies. One of the most fascinating, if short-lived, dives into that fiendish deep end was the one by Shochiku, a studio better known for elegant dramas by the likes of Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu. In 1967 and 1968, the company created four certifiably batty, low-budget fantasies, tales haunted by watery ghosts, plagued by angry insects, and stalked by aliens—including one in the form of a giant chicken-lizard. Shochiku’s outrageous and oozy horror period shows a studio leaping into the unknown, even if only for one brief, bloody moment. This four DVD set contains impeccable transfers of the following films, at least two of which are much better than the promotional material suggests:

THE X FROM OUTER SPACE
Kazui Nihonmatsu 1967
When a crew of scientists returns from Mars with a sample of the space spores that contaminated their ship, they inadvertently bring about a nightmarish earth invasion.

GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL
Hajime Sato 1968
After an airplane is forced to crash-land in a remote area, its passengers find themselves face-to-face with an alien force that wants to possess them body and soul—and perhaps take over the entire human race.

THE LIVING SKELETON
Hiroshi Matsuno 1968
In this atmospheric tale of revenge from beyond the watery grave, a pirate-ransacked freighter’s violent past comes back to haunt a young woman living in a seaside town.

GENOCIDE
Kazui Nihonmatsu 1968
The insects are taking over in this nasty piece of disaster horror directed by Kazui Nihonmatsu. A group of military personnel transporting a hydrogen bomb are left to figure out how and why swarms of killer bugs took down their plane.

Of these, Genocide and The Living Skeleton are easily the most interesting entries. Genocide is an intriguing genre hotwire fusing elements of the Yakuza crime films, horror and science fiction films, melded together with a political subtext which becomes more pronounced as the film rockets through its brief 84 minute running time. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the American occupation forces in the film are clearly the villains of the piece, and when the film finally crashes to an abrupt halt with an appropriately apocalyptic conclusion, I guarantee that you won’t have seen it coming. It’s a fascinating pop culture commentary on the uneasy truce between East and West during the waning years of the Cold War, when the tensions of World War II — particularly in Japan — were still omnipresent.

The Living Skeleton, the only film of the group shot in black and white CinemaScope, comes off like a moody mixture of Carl Th. Dreyer meets Lucio Fulci, with nods to Val Lewton and the early films of AIP along the way. The film is, to my mind, the most accomplished and sophisticated of the quartet in terms of its visual structure and narrative, while Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell and The X From Outer Space are more traditional Japanese horror movies, though Goke does have an usually downbeat conclusion, as do all of the films here; happy endings are definitely not on the menu.

My only caveat is the liner notes, which occasionally descend into dreaded fanboy territory; factually accurate, they nevertheless display an unfortunate condescension to the films — partially deserved, it must be admitted — but in doing so, the notes miss much of the pop culture relevance of the films, even though they allude to this in passing. Still, this is essential viewing for anyone interested in pop culture of the 1960s, genre films, or the ways in which various genres can be used to deliver a potent social and political message in the guise of escapist entertainment.

But no matter; here they are in immaculate transfers, and they’re well worth owning.

Don’t Throw Film Away – The International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) 70th Anniversary Manifesto

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

“Motion picture film forms an indispensable part of our cultural heritage and a unique record of our history and our daily lives.

Film archives, both public and private, are the organizations responsible for acquiring, safeguarding, documenting and making films available to current and future generations for study and pleasure. The International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) and its affiliates comprising more than 150 archives in over 77 countries have rescued over two million films in the last seventy years. However for some genres, geographical regions and periods of film history the survival rate is known to be considerably less than 10% of the titles produced.

On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, FIAF offers the world a new slogan: “DON’T THROW FILM AWAY”. If you are not sufficiently equipped to keep film yourself, then FIAF and its members will gladly help you locate an archive that is. Film is culturally irreplaceable, and can last a long time, especially in expert hands.

While fully recognizing that moving image technology is currently driven by the progress achieved in the digital field, the members of FIAF are determined to continue to acquire film and preserve it as film. This strategy is complementary to the development of efficient methods for the preservation of the digital-born heritage. FIAF affiliates urge all those who make and look after films, whether they be professionals or amateurs, and the government officials in all nations responsible for safeguarding the world cinema heritage, to help pursue this mission.

The slogan “DON’T THROW FILM AWAY” means that film must not be discarded, even though those who hold it may think they have adequately secured the content by transferring it onto a more stable film carrier or by scanning it into the digital domain at a resolution which apparently does not entail any significant loss of data. Film archives and museums are committed to preserve film on film because:

• A film is either created under the direct supervision of a filmmaker or is the record of an historical moment captured by a cameraman. Both types are potentially important artifacts and part of the world’s cultural heritage. Film is a tangible and “human-eye readable” entity which needs to be treated with great care, like other museum or historic objects.

• Although film can be physically and chemically fragile, it is a stable material that can survive for centuries, as long as it is stored and cared for appropriately. Its life expectancy has already proved much longer than moving image carriers like videotape that were developed after film. Digital information has value only if it can be interpreted, and digital information carriers are also vulnerable to physical andchemical deterioration while the hardware and software needed for interpretation are liable to obsolescence.

• Film is currently the optimal archival storage medium for moving images. It is one of the most standardized and international products available and it remains a medium with high resolution potential. The data it contains does not need regular migration nor does its operating system require frequent updating.

• The film elements held in archive vaults are the original materials from which all copies are derived. One can determine from them whether a copy is complete or not. The more digital technology is developed, the easier it will be to change or even arbitrarily alter content. Unjustified alteration or unfair distortion, however, can always be detected by comparison with the original film provided it has been properly stored.

Never throw film away, even after you think something better comes along. No matter what technologies emerge for moving images in the future, existing film copies connect us to the achievements and certainties of the past. FILM PRINTS WILL LAST – DON’T THROW FILM AWAY.”

You can read more on FIAF’s essential work by clicking here.

“Lost in a Roman Wilderness of Pain”: Film and Television After 9/11

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Here’s an article I published on film and television after 9/11 in Film International; above, Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears, which is discussed in the article (see link below).

As I argue in the essay, “In the years following 9/11, the arts have been transformed into a mirror of the fear, death, paranoia and uncertainty that now pervades American existence. The disaster of the Twin Towers has transformed the cultural landscape profoundly, inescapably, and forever; it’s one of those defining moments in which a culture is shaped anew by the social events that impact it. Fear, death, and paranoia are the new social currency. What is celebrated now is not art; it’s artifice. Our culture now reifies itself with unrelenting images of destruction, from such television series as Life After People (2008-2010), which predicted what might happen in a post-apocalyptic future; to films like Andrew Niccol’s In Time (2011), in which life expectancy is a commodity to be bought and sold, and the rich have all the cards, including potential immortality.

New York, arguably the artistic hub of the United States, has become a museum of itself, seeking to recreate the past by selling off the totemic paintings, sculptures and other art works of the pre 9/11 era for outrageous prices to the stratospherically rich. The emptiness of every aspect of post 9/11 art, except where it deals with themes of pain, destruction and violence, is everywhere apparent; pop music – once a potent force for social change – has largely been transformed into mindless escapism, even as the digitization of culture wipes out record stores, bookstores, and video stores, as text, music, and images become streamed liked utilities – available for a price, stored in a cloud, accessed only by a continual outlay of cash by the consumer.

The more original and authentic arts are being attacked vigorously everywhere by the ruling classes throughout the world, because they are dangerous; they offer a voice to the individual, in a society that now seeks to rule by forced consensus. This is part of the conglomerization of art; it’s become a corporate commodity, a trophy, rather than something that an individual creates. More than ever, it seems true that the best artist is a dead artist, because there’s a limited supply of his or her work, which can be sold as a commodity, and the best celebrity spokesperson is also a corpse, because the iconic images of Kerouac, Bogart, Hepburn and Taylor can be used to sell anything, without the slightest risk of possible future scandal, or an unflattering headline. All their future is in the past, and thus it can be recycled, packaged, and used to sell new goods to those too young to remember the world the way it was. Spectacle, as in films such as Zack Snyder’s call to war, 300 (2007), has replaced content, and action has replaced thought. Music cues tell you how to feel; when to feel sad, when to rejoice. Everything is laid out in a clear, schematic design. The films of the 21st century are designed, because of their ever-increasing cost, for mass audiences, leaving no one behind.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here.

Frame by Frame Video: Documentary Films

Friday, November 9th, 2012

I have a new Frame by Frame video episode out today, directed by Curt Bright, on documentary films.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the video.

Curt and I have done a lot of Frame by Frame videos, but we’ve never really delved into the world of non-fiction filmmaking, until now. In this video, I very briefly highlight some of the key documentary filmmakers in the history of the medium, along with some of their most important works, so this should be a handy guide for further viewing for those who aren’t familiar with this area of cinema. You’ll notice that I jump around in time a lot in the video, highlighting documentarians of both the past and present, roughly arranged according to the themes they were attracted to.

For the record, in the image above, David (left) and Albert (far right) Maysles, two of the most prominent filmmakers of the 1960s in this area, are working on a film about Truman Capote (center), who had just published his groundbreaking “non fiction novel,” In Cold Blood. This video is just an introduction to the documentary presence in cinema, and lists only the major players — with some left out for reasons of space — but the still runs a full 7 minutes. Enjoy, and thanks to Curt Bright for doing such a superb job of editing the piece.

Documentary films hold up a mirror to life that we simply can’t ignore.

New Book – Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Streaming is the future of the moving image.

Film stocks are vanishing, but the image remains, albeit in a new, sleeker format. Today, viewers can instantly stream movies on demand on televisions, computers, and smartphones. Long gone are the days when films could only be seen in theaters: Videos are now accessible at the click of a virtual button, and there are no reels, tapes, or discs to store. Any product that is worth keeping may be collected in the virtual cloud and accessed at will through services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant.

The movies have changed, and we are changing with them. The ways we communicate, receive information, travel, and socialize have all been revolutionized. In Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access, Winston Wheeler Dixon reveals the positive and negative consequences of the transition to digital formatting and distribution, exploring the ways in which digital cinema has altered contemporary filmmaking and our culture.

Many industry professionals and audience members feel that the new format fundamentally alters the art while others laud the liberation of the moving image from the “imperfect” medium of film, asserting that it is both inevitable and desirable. Dixon argues that the change is neither good nor bad; it’s simply a fact.

Hollywood has embraced digital production and distribution because it is easier, faster, and cheaper, but the displacement of older technology will not come without controversy. This groundbreaking book illuminates the challenges of preserving digital media and explores what stands to be lost, from the rich hues present in film stocks to the classic movies that are not profitable enough to offer as streaming video.

Dixon also investigates the financial challenges of the new distribution model, the incorporation of new content such as webisodes, and the issue of ownership in an age when companies have the power to pull purchased items from consumer devices at their own discretion.

Streaming touches upon every aspect of the shift to digital production and distribution. It not only explains how the new technology is affecting movies, music, books, and games, but also how instant access is permanently changing the habits of viewers and influencing our culture.

“Dixon has written a lively, opinionated, and detailed up-to-the-minute dispatch on the current state of the moving-image media as they experience a period of rapid transition marked by instability and uncertainty regarding the future of viewing and exhibition practices. It is a timely and urgent contribution to current scholarship in the constantly evolving discipline of media studies.”—David Sterritt, author of Screening the Beats: Media Culture and the Beat Sensibility

“Dixon’s book offers a cogent overview of the history of digital film production and its impact on traditional filmmaking. His work is more than just a historical map of the development of digitalized filmmaking, but also a socio-cultural and psychological study of how digitally formed film will (and does) impact viewers. Streaming will make a significant contribution to the field, as no scholar has yet looked at digital cinema and its impact on the socio-cultural experience of viewing film.”—Valerie Orlando, author of Screening Morocco: Contemporary Film in a Changing Society

Wheeler Winston Dixon, James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies and professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, is coeditor-in-chief of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video and the author of numerous books, including A History of Horror, Visions of the Apocalypse: Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema, and Film Talk: Directors at Work.

Film/Television/Popular Culture
University Press of Kentucky – May 2013
184 pages ∙ 6 x 9
ISBN 978-0-8131-4217-3 ∙ Cloth $69.00x
ISBN 978-0-8131-4219-7 ∙ Paper $24.95
ISBN 978-0-8131-4224-1 ∙ PDF
ISBN 978-0-8131-4218-0 ∙ EPUB

Daniel Lindvall on Cosmopolis

Monday, November 5th, 2012

Daniel Lindvall has a brief but brilliant essay on David Cronenberg’s film Cosmopolis in the web journal Film International.

As Lindvall writes, “The economic divide that places a super-wealthy elite in a condition of invulnerability, social and physical isolation, simultaneously blocks the ability to empathize. The distance separating them from the rest of us becomes so great that they simply lose the ability to see us as proper fellow humans. The logic of the market that transforms everything and everyone into commodities does the rest. When a yuppie looks at us we should probably imagine that he looks at us much as we might look at a dog. Of course there are all sorts of dogs; good dogs, cute dogs, difficult dogs, dangerous dogs, dogs that need to be put down. This is the psychological realism that was captured with such steely elegance by Mary Harron and Christian Bale when they brought American Psycho to the screen in 2000. Patrick Bateman is the image of a monstrous, deranged neoliberalism at its peek; invincible and opaque. No matter how far into madness Bateman takes his blood thirst the world cannot see through the polished masque that he ritually dons every morning with the help of his battery of ultra-exclusive skin care products.

The 28-year old financial billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), whose continuously disrupted journey across Manhattan in a sound proof limousine is narrated in Cosmopolis, is every bit as mentally estranged from the everyday world around him as Bateman and just as brutally indifferent. But Packer’s universe is falling apart around him, assaulted both by anti-capitalist protesters and a market that suddenly turns unpredictable. In the course of the film’s 108 minutes he loses everything. Seen as a story about the financial crisis as such this is obviously not a very realistic depiction. With very few exceptions, the ultra-rich have become even richer, protected with absolute loyalty by the neoliberal state that remains the slavishly obedient guarantor of their wealth and power.

But Cosmopolis is, perhaps, rather more realistic if understood as the nightmare of the contemporary yuppie in a time when neither the vulnerability of the economy in itself nor the realization of Earth’s incapacity to sustain the capitalist production system can be fully repressed. Perhaps, then, what we see here is the initial crumbling of the psychological foundation of the yuppie, the sociopathic self-confidence.

Erich Hobsbawm has spoken of “the short twentieth century,” from the outbreak of World War One to the fall of the Soviet Union. Giovanni Arrighi, on the other hand, wrote about “the long twentieth century,” starting with the Great Depression of 1873-96. Perhaps we could also speak of “the long 1980s” of unlimited neoliberal self-confidence, beginning with the election of the first Thatcher government and possibly reaching the beginning of its end with the Lehman Brothers crash in September 2008. Then again, Eric Packer may well wake up from his nightmare once more, like he did after the initial crisis of the twenty-first century, the period when Don DeLillo’s here adapted novel was written. After all, the yuppie has proven just as difficult to kill off as those other monsters of the long 1980s, Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers.”

This is sharp, cogent, impassioned writing, on a topic that is of ever greater importance as the economic scale becomes ever more skewed not only in the United States, but around the world. Cosmopolis is a slick, sleek, and ultimately superficial film, and not one of Cronenberg’s best by a long shot, but then again, the world the film depicts is equally empty, as is Pattinson’s character, which is why, perhaps, the film wasn’t a financial success. For all of its surface sheen, the world Cosmopolis depicts is ultimately the domain of the dead, people interested only in money and status symbol consumption, and perhaps that cuts too close to heart of what has become, in the eyes of some, the “American Dream.” There’s no such thing as equality in this film; only a financially enforced hierarchy in which there are winners and losers. Money is simply a way of keeping score. And when Pattinson’s character loses all his money, there’s nothing left of his life to salvage. In the cold, insular, spectacularly self-absorbed world of Cosmopolis, all anyone wants is cash.

As the fictitious Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane) famously observed in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, “It’s no trick to make a lot of money, if all you want to do is make a lot of money.

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/