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Archive for February, 2013

Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access — New Video Trailer

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Click here to see the trailer for my new book, Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access.

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.

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.

“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

Film/Television/Popular Culture
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

Forthcoming from The University Press of Kentucky

Christopher Sharrett on Zero Dark Thirty

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Christopher Sharrett has an excellent essay on Zero Dark Thirty in the latest issue of Film International.

As he notes, “Bigelow’s films have always contained enough frisson, enough of a patina of film school sophistication that her overall enterprise has gone unquestioned, to a point that some reviewers of an ostensibly progressive bent seem absolutely blind to what is on the screen. Her first film, The Loveless (1982), about a listless group of outlaw bikers, is clearly the kind of exercise that flows from film education. It is the work of an impoverished sensibility, one grounded in film alone, with the rest of the humanities left on the shelf. We hardly need Bigelow’s DVD commentary track to know that the film adds nothing to the sources to which she must pay homage, such as The Wild One and Scorpio Rising. Her’s seems to be a temperament born of the video age, yet another movie brat, unable to discriminate, to figure the significance of her own enterprise, in order to give a piece of art a sense of value; indeed, one wonders if she has any real criteria for establishing value. She is a temperament of Tarantino’s ilk, but without his false humor, crudity, and nihilism.”

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

Spencer Gordon Bennet

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

Spencer Gordon Bennet was one of the masters of the American action film.

As film historian Hans J. Wollstein notes, “born on January 5, 1893 in Brooklyn, NY, according to legend, veteran action director Spencer Gordon Bennet entered films by answering an ad for a stuntman to perform a daring jump from the New Jersey Palisades into the Hudson River. The year was 1912 and the employer, the legendary Edison Film Mfg. Company. Bennet was hooked on filmmaking from that moment on and went on to become one of the three or four most important names in the field of motion picture action serials.

Of Anglo-French descent, Spencer Gordon Bennet had sold programs and played bit roles in a Brooklyn theater before earning $62.50 for that fateful jump into the Hudson. He remained with Edison for a while, performing stunts and playing bit parts, before switching to Pathé, where he served as assistant to legendary serial directors Bertram Millhauser and George B. Seitz, actually replacing Seitz as the company’s leading cliffhanger director in the late ’20s when he helmed all the influential Allene Ray and Walter Miller chapterplays.

Concentrating on B-Westerns and feature action films in the early years of sound, Bennet returned to the serial field in 1932 when picked by RKO to direct that studio’s 12-chapter The Last Frontier. It was a homecoming or sorts and he remained in the field until helming the final American action serial, Blazing the Overland Trail, in 1956. Best remembered today, perhaps, for his work for cheapskate producer Sam Katzman, including the 1948 Superman and its 1950 sequel, Atom Man vs. Superman, Bennet also did yeoman work for industry leader Republic, where he co-directed some of the most beloved serials of all time, including The Masked Marvel (1943), The Tiger Woman (1944), Zorro Rides Again (1945), and The Purple Monster Strikes (1945).

Signing an exclusive contract with Katzman in 1947, Bennet went on to direct, or co-direct, all of Columbia Pictures later serials, save one, including Batman and Robin (1949) and Captain Video (1951). His ability to work fast and furiously, a prerequisite for steady employment in the B-Western and serial fields, never alienated him from cast and crew, however. ‘He was probably my favorite director of all and was one terrific man,’ said veteran B-Western and serial villain Pierce Lyden. Bennet, who directed his final feature film in 1965, the nicely old-fashioned The Bounty Killer, was the uncle of legendary special-effects wizard Linwood Dunn. He died on October 8, 1987, at the age of 94.”

Spencer Gordon Bennet; another director whose films need to be on DVD.

Ozu’s Gangster Films

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

I have a new review in Film International on Yasujiro Ozu’s “gangster” films.

As I note in the essay, “Yasujiro Ozu is no longer a name unknown in the Western world; for a long time, this ‘most Japanese’ of directors was overshadowed on the international scene by Akira Kurosawa, whose flashier, more action oriented style translated much more easily to 1950s American culture, and paved the way for a series of remakes of his films – even now, almost 15 years after his death, Kurosawa’s estate is overseeing Hollywood remakes of many of his original films.

By contrast, Ozu was almost unknown outside Japan until the 1960s. When his sublime later films, such as Tokyo Story (1953), finally became publicly available in 16mm prints for university and museum screenings, Ozu’s reputation soared to new heights, easily eclipsing Kurosawa’s dwindling critical reputation. Now, at last, we have this superb collection of three of his earlier, formative films, The Gangster Films in a 2-DVD set from the British Film Institute (as their new motto notes, ‘Film Forever,’ a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree), and it’s a must for cineastes, collectors, and all lovers of cinema.”

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

The Eternal Present

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

“No one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.” — the master computer Alpha 60 in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965).

There’s an interesting piece in Forbes this morning by Anthony Wing Kosner on the Harlem Shake meme, a massively duplicated performance piece which is spreading virally over the web, and which, by now, has probably peaked. Kosner offers a succinct summary of the meme, noting that “ the Harlem Shake meme has a simple form: with the first 30-seconds of the song Harlem Shake by the DJ and producer Baauer in the background, a single person does something in the presence of others (who act as if nothing is happening), and then all of a sudden everyone is doing something together. The sound snippet is divided equally between the electronic tropes of the ‘build up,’ and the ‘bass drop,’ and the juncture between the two is punctuated by a deep, pitch-shifted voice commanding, ‘do the Harlem Shake.’ Unlike the video response parodies for Gangnam Style, Call Me Maybe or Somebody That I Used To Know, making a Harlem Shake requires very little preparation. This is not only because of the short duration, but also because the ‘’something’ that ‘happens’ doesn’t matter. It could be anything.”

Kosner intriguingly links this phenomenon to Douglas Rushkoff’s soon-to-be-released book Present Shock, adding that “before you accuse me of taking this class of 30-second trifles too seriously, consider them in relation to Present Shock, the soon-to-be released book by Douglas Rushkoff [see Kosner's review here.] The book, subtitled When Everything Happens Now, is a follow-up to Alvin Toffler’s 70s touchstone, Future Shock. Where Toffler argued that the pace of change was radically accelerating, Rushkoff finds that time itself has now metastasized to the point that all we can see is the present moment.

This ‘presentism’ effects every corner of our lives from finance to politics to entertainment. And the meme, whether it be an image plastered with ironic type, an animated gif or, as in Harlem Shake, a short video, is the perfect cultural expression of Present Shock. We don’t have time for the five-act play—give me the 30-second video! [. . .] Rushkoff explains, ‘Essentially, this is a presentist society’s equivalent of mass spectacle [ . . .] We don’t have overarching stories that we’re a part of, no national narrative really—just lots of opinions.”

To [an] audience of publishers he made the point that as much as we want to give our audience what they want, the impatience of the readership and the desire for everything to be à la carte, changes the way we now write non-fiction books. Instead of the grand five-act play structure of previous tomes, we have a series of chapters that essentially say the same thing about different topics.

Like a fractal, you can ‘get the picture,’ at any point. And Baauer’s song is just that way. Undoubtably Harlem Shake has sold a bunch of downloads since the meme took off, but most people have only heard the first 30 seconds, and the rest of the tune adds no significant development. Once you get it, that’s all there is.

Rushkoff continues, ‘So something like this stands in for the centralized broadcast spectacle. It’s interactive, in that people actually ‘make’ one of these things. And being in one, or knowing people who are in one, or even just knowing this phenomenon exists ‘when it’s happening’ is a form of connection. In some ways, the brevity of the fad makes it all the more tempting to participate in. It’s going to be over so soon that you want to get in on it before it’s not cool anymore.’”

But this “eternal presentism,” which I agree certainly exists, is certainly not a new concept, and both Rushkoff and Kosner instantly put me in mind of Jean-Luc Godard’s brilliant vision of the future Alphaville, made way back in 1965. In the 21st century (actually then-contemporary Paris), a master computer, Alpha 60, rules society with an iron hand, and issues dictates which must be followed upon pain of death. Everything is informed by consumerism; genuine emotion is outlawed. A man is executed in a swimming pool spectacle for  the “crime” of weeping when his wife dies; vending machines instruct consumers to insert a coin for some unspecified product, only to receive a token marked simply “thanks” — nothing for something, the hallmark of 21st century imagistic commerce.

In short, everything that both Rushkoff and Posher notes is absolutely true — as Alpha 60 says to private Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), who is sent from the “outerlands” to destroy the massive computer, ”No one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.” Lemmy responds, “I refuse to become what you call normal.” Alphaville ends on an optimistic note, with Alpha 60’s destruction, but the present offers us no such panacea; the computers have won. Everything is available online, but no one really wants anything of substance; they just want the latest fads and trends, tailored to their own tastes.

When this happens, we forget what the past has taught us, and thus the future becomes dependent solely upon the fad and whim of the moment, instantly disposable and utterly without consequence. It’s interesting that as Godard has cut down on his output as a filmmaker in recent years, his most recent films have developed a strong link to the past — to the culture of another era, in books, music, art, films — which Godard obviously mourns and celebrates simultaneously. But Godard knows that the past is gone, and irrecoverable, and the future is unknowable; we are all forced to live, whether we like it or not, in the eternal present.

No one remembers the past any more. And that’s precisely the tragedy of the present.

Philip Glass’s New Opera: The Perfect American

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

Click here, or on the image above, to see a clip from Philip Glass’s new opera, The Perfect American.

As Seth Colter Walls reports in the Browbeat section of Slate, “for the next 83 days, Medici.tv will be presenting a TV-quality broadcast of the recent Italian premiere of a new opera by Philip Glass. Titled The Perfect American—and adapted from Peter Stephen Jungk’s novel of the same name—it’s a tale of Walt Disney’s last days, in which the media titan slips in and out of what we might call empirical reality.

In it, Walt Disney, while supervising the team that is building one of the Animatronic American Personages that have become part of his parks’ public lore, gets into a debate with his Robot Lincoln—about the scope of Honest Abe’s liberalism, and whether it properly extends to Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington and the bearded hippie set.

The schism between the robot and Disney’s technicians stems from the surprising fact that the animatronic Lincoln seems to have a mind of his own. And so the developer team brings Lincoln to Disney, who tries to convince the robotic president that they both belong to the same class of Iconic American. (‘We’re folk heroes, Mr. President. But we have enemies …’)

Not getting quite the response he wants, Disney tries another tack, by asking (among other things): ‘Martin Luther King, Eldridge Cleaver, is that what you wanted? Doesn’t that go too far even for you, Mr. President? The black people’s march in Washington; would you really agree with that?’”

As the liner notes for the world premiere of the opera at the Teatro Real de Madrid add, “The Perfect American is a fictionalized biography of Walt Disney’s final months. We discover Walt’s delusions of immortality via cryogenic preservation, his tirades alongside his Abraham Lincoln talking robot, his utopian visions and his backyard labyrinth of toy trains.

Yet, if at first Walt seems to have a magic wand granting him all his wishes, we soon discover that he is as tortured as the man who crosses his story, Wilhelm Dantine, a cartoonist who worked for him, illustrating sequences for [the film] Sleeping Beauty. Dantine is fascinated by the childlike omnipotence of a man who identifies with Mickey Mouse, and desperately seeks Disney’s recognition at the risk of his own ruin.

Walt’s wife Lillian, his confidante and perhaps mistress Hazel, his brother Roy, his children Diane and Sharon, his close and ill-treated collaborators, and famous figures such as Andy Warhol, all contribute to the opera’s animation, its feel for the life of the Disney world.”

Typically brilliant stuff from Philip Glass, who has a long tradition of composing some of the late 20th and early 21st century’s most engaging and innovative music. Don’t miss the opportunity to see this remarkable, original, and compelling piece of work.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the entire opera The Perfect American.

Lewis D. Collins’ Wild Stallion (1952)

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

Click here, or on the image above, for scenes from Lewis D. Collins’ White Stallion (1952).

As Frank Miller writes of this exceptionally odd film on the TCM Website, “many movies have been built around the pursuit of a childhood love. Heathcliff pursued his [lifelong love] Cathy in nine film and 13 television versions of Wuthering Heights, and Charles Foster Kane built a business empire while dreaming of his [childhood sled] Rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941). In the 1952 Western Wild Stallion, Dan Light (Ben Johnson) searches the Black Hills for Top Kick, the horse he lost the same day an Indian raid killed his parents.

Wild Stallion was an early production from Walter Mirisch, who started his career at Monogram Pictures making low-budget Westerns and action films, most notably the Bomba series that Johnny Sheffield moved into after he ended his run as Boy in the Tarzan films. Mirisch shot the film quickly, during the month of December 1951, with the land around the Corrigan and Iverson Ranches in California standing in for the Black Hills of Wyoming. Even a windstorm that destroyed some of the sets didn’t keep him from getting the film into theatres by April 1952.

Like many films from Poverty Row studios like Monogram, Wild Stallion provided a showcase for young actors on the way up though leading man fame may have seemed far away for Ben Johnson at the time he starred in the film. A former cowboy and rodeo champion, he had come to Hollywood as a wrangler when Howard Hughes hired him to transport horses to the locations for The Outlaw (1943).

After years of stunt riding for stars like John Wayne and Randolph Scott, he was spotted by John Ford, who promoted him to ever bigger roles in his Cavalry Trilogy and the title role in Wagon Master (1950). Then the two quarreled while making the third Cavalry film, Rio Grande (1950), after Johnson’s agent tried to squeeze Ford for more money on an upcoming film. As a result, the director simply stopped working with him, and Johnson’s career stalled. He even left Hollywood for a year to work the rodeo circuit. He wouldn’t get his career back on track until Ford convinced him to accept the role of Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show (1971), which won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Leading lady Martha Hyer went to school with Charlton Heston, Patricia Neal and Cloris Leachman, and, like them, went to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. After being spotted at the Pasadena Playhouse, she started landing film roles, earning her first billing as Tim Holt’s leading lady in Thunder Mountain (1947). It wasn’t until she signed with Universal, where she was promoted as their answer to Grace Kelly, that the icy blonde started moving up the career ladder.

Her biggest success came with a loan to MGM in 1958 to co-star as the frigid English professor thawed by Frank Sinatra in Some Came Running. The role won her an Oscar nomination, but she had a hard time finding a suitable follow-up in a Hollywood changing rapidly with the decline of the studio system. Instead she found a more satisfying role off-screen as the wife of independent producer Hal Wallis.

Rounding out the cast of Wild Stallion [are several] reliable character actors caught between the decline of the studio contract system and the rise of television. Edgar Buchanan, co-starring as the horse tracker who trains Johnson, had been a staple of Columbia releases in the ’40s, most notably as Cary Grant and Irene Dunne’s closest friend in Penny Serenade (1941). He did well as a free-lancer in the ’50s, but is best remembered as Uncle Joe on Petticoat Junction.

Second-generation actor Hayden Rorke came to Hollywood after years on the stage and was a familiar face on movie screens in the ’50s, with small roles in everything from An American in Paris (1951) to Pillow Talk (1959). He entered television history as Captain Bellows, the suspicious commanding officer on I Dream of Jeannie.

In 1952, the cast of Wild Stallion was still far from the fame they would achieve in later years. As a result, ads for the film sold not the human characters, but rather the horse. Top Kick was billed as the ‘Untamed King of the Wild Outlaw Herds!’ and ‘Outlaw stallion defying man’s ruthless guns…battling snarling killer wolves!’ Hype aside, however, the taglines capture one of the film’s evergreen selling points, its focus on one of the animals that helped win the West. In most low-budget Westerns, the love story is of relatively minor importance. In Wild Stallion, it takes center stage, even if it represents a departure from the boy meets girl formula to create a boy meets horse epic.”

Indeed, this is what’s oddest about the film; Ben Johnson’s character seems utterly uninterested in anything except his beloved white stallion, to the point that any romantic interest between Johnson and Martha Hyer is reduced to the absolute margins of the film. The other thing, of course, is that when watching Wild Stallion, the viewer is conscious of the fact that these are real cowboys in the film, doing most of their own stunts; it’s as if Hollywood in the 1950s was desperately recreating the American saga of  ”manifest destiny,” using ranch hands as out of date in their time as the cowboy drifters in John Huston’s The Misfits a decade later, in an attempt to hold on to the past.

A really bizarre little film, more “boy meets horse” than “boy meets girl”; worth seeing.

Henry Koster’s The Robe (1953)

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

Roman Tribune Marcellus (Richard Burton, right), kneels before an offscreen Caligula (Jay Robinson, extreme left) in The Robe.

Henry Koster’s The Robe, the first film released in CinemaScope on September 16, 1953 — the first film made in CinemaScope was How to Marry a Millionaire, which was released November 4, 1953 — has always gotten a bad rap, supposedly for Koster’s flat and uninspired direction, and the primitive use of the ’scope frame in the film. And I admit, I myself was one of the crowd of detractors. But the new Blu-Ray restoration of The Robe brings out qualities that even the 35mm original didn’t fully reveal during the film’s initial theatrical presentation in 1953.

If such a thing is possible, The Robe ultimately emerges as a quiet, thoughtful epic, with a great deal of intelligence behind it, much more successful to my mind than Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, William Wyler’s Ben Hur, or even Nicholas Ray’s maverick project King of Kings, all of which have a much higher conventional critical profile.

It isn’t in the same league as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s masterful The Gospel According to St. Matthew, but then again, that’s arguably the best version of the Christ tale ever brought to the screen. But The Robe has a certain quiet holding power to it, mostly anchored in the understated performances of the entire cast throughout the film, though it doesn’t neglect the visual aspect of the piece, and only occasionally wanders off track into maudlin sentiment.

As the anonymous reviewer for Blu-Ray.com noted, “The Robe dazzles on Blu-ray with its masterful 1080p transfer framed at 2.55:1. This is another high-quality classic catalogue release from Fox, and rarely does the transfer fail to impress. Colors are astounding and are the highlight of the image. The shade of dark red that marks the color of the Roman soldier’s uniforms in particular stands out, but the many colors of the flowing and wonderfully adorned garments worn by both Roman royalty and the populace of Jerusalem sparkle. The color stands out particularly well against the earthen tones of the sandy floors and the numerous gray façades of various buildings.

Fine detail, too, is generally exceptional. The disc reveals textures and fine lines in clothing, armor, weaponry, and the adornments of the luxurious Roman palaces. Some scenes are noticeably soft, lacking in clarity, sharpness, and detail, but such scenes are the exception to the rule. There are also a few instances of dramatic shifts in color one frame to another, but again, such is the exception to the rule. Generally, The Robe looks marvelous on Blu-ray.”

And in a lengthy review in the website DVD Beaver, Leonard Norwitz concurs, stating flatly that “next to the DVD or any video or theatrical presentation in memory, this Blu-ray is a revelation, which is not to say that it is always perfect, but where there are difficulties, I feel comfortable in attributing them to the source.  The image most often has the feel of a painting in motion, which I imagine was the intended effect.  There is an almost pastel quality to the color.

The lighting is deliberately evenhanded most of the time, not natural at all, but in stark contrast to the dramatic material in Palestine that concerns the robe itself: the crucifixion and Marcellus’ crisis most especially. In those scenes, blacks are intense and the color deep and sinister.  Some of the darkly lit interior scenes get oversaturated the point of blurring detail – the result is not subtle, and certainly not intentional.  Artifacts, enhancements or noise reduction do not appear to be visited upon this Blu-ray.”

Diana (Jean Simmons) and Caligula (Jay Robinson) in The Robe

I also think that The Robe has been unjustly maligned over the years as an overblown religious spectacle, and while it certainly indulges in visual excess, the performances are all very finely tuned, particularly a very young Richard Burton in the role that made him a star, as well as Jean Simmons as Diana, Richard Boone as Pontius Pilate, Ernest Thesiger as Emperor Tiberius, Victor Mature as Demetrius, and Michael Rennie as Peter. In contrast, Jay Robinson’s suitably over-the-top Caligula is a fully realized monster, and arguably the performance of his career.

CinemaScope, of course, was 20th Century Fox’s answer to the threat of television, and although the ’scope version is the most widely seen, the film was simultaneously shot in regular academy (flat) ratio to accommodate theaters that couldn’t afford to convert to the CinemaScope screen format. Alfred Newman’s suitably lush score is also a plus. While the film is certainly sentimentalized, it’s really an actor’s film, and a deeply felt one at that, in which the cast never seems overpowered by the pageantry the surrounds them. All in all, The Robe is worth another look, and now it looks better than ever.

This is digital cinema at its best; restoring the classics.

Steven Soderbergh’s Retirement?

Friday, February 8th, 2013

Steven Soderbergh’s new film, Side Effects, is out today.

Soderbergh claims it’s his last film, but as just about everyone is saying, “don’t hold your breath,” and it would be sad to lose him as a working director, when he’s one of the most original voices out there right now, at least in contemporary Hollywood filmmaking. But as Mary Kaye Schilling wrote in Vulture on January 27, 2013, “Steven Soderbergh has directed 26 films since his 1989 debut, sex, lies, and videotape — the behind-closed-doors portrait of yuppie Louisiana often credited with kick-starting the indie-film revolution of the nineties, released when he was only 26. In the 24 years since, he’s been a remarkably prolific chameleon, managing arguably more than any other director of his generation to successfully bounce between the low- and high-budget, not only directing but often editing and shooting his own films, each, in its way, an audacious experiment.

In one extraordinary three-year streak — 1998 to 2001 — he directed two noirish classics (Out of Sight, The Limey), pulled an Oscar performance out of Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich), earned an Oscar of his own (Traffic, the same year he was also nominated for Brockovich), and launched a lucrative franchise (Ocean’s Eleven, followed by Twelve and Thirteen). Then in 2011, the seemingly abrupt ­announcement: He wanted to be done making movies by the time he was 50, to focus on painting, among many other things.

[As Soderbergh noted] ‘when I was growing up, there was a sort of division: Respect was accorded to people who made great movies and to people who made movies that made a lot of money. And that division just doesn’t exist anymore: Now it’s just the people who make a lot of money. I think there are many reasons for that. Some of them are cultural. I’ve said before, I think that the audience for the kinds of movies I grew up liking has migrated to television. The format really allows for the narrow and deep approach that I like, and a lot of people … Well, the point is, three and a half million people watching a show on cable is a success. That many people seeing a movie is not a success [. . .]

The worst development in filmmaking—particularly in the last five years—is how badly directors are treated [. . .] It’s not just studios—it’s anyone who is ­financing a film. I guess I don’t understand the assumption that the director is presumptively wrong about what the audience wants or needs when they are the first audience, in a way. And probably got into making movies ­because of being in that audience.

But an alarming thing I learned during Contagion is that the people who pay to make the movies and the audiences who see them are actually very much in sync. I remember during previews how upset the audience was by the Jude Law character. The fact that he created a sort of mixed reaction was viewed as a flaw in the filmmaking [. . .] People were really annoyed by that. And I thought, Wow, so ambiguity is not on the table anymore. They were angry.’”

Fascinating stuff. You can read the entire interview here.

Andy Says . . .

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

“It’s the movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented. They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it.” — Andy Warhol

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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