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Archive for August, 2013

The Last 3-D Film Expo?

Friday, August 30th, 2013

They say all good things must come to an end, and for classic 3-D films, this may be the last call; click here, or on the image above, to see the entire program for this one-of-a-kind festival.

This evening I got a very kind note from one of the organizers of the Third Annual World 3-D Film Expo at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, one of the finest projection facilities for 35mm film left in the United States, in which he wrote,

“I just ran across an article of yours from two years ago, with the title “Real 3D (2011) vs. Natural Vision 3D (1953).” Very good, and very perceptive. Coincidentally, the very film which you mentioned (Dial M for Murder) is going to be shown again at the theater mentioned (the Egyptian) in a few days. The third (and likely final) World 3D Expo is going to take place here at the Expo from September 6 through September 15. It is likely the last one, since Jeff Joseph, the Expo producer is retiring. After that, it is unlikely that it will be possible to see these in their original form any more. 35 different 3D productions will be shown, most of which are from the 1950’s, being shown twin strip 35mm in the original format.

Already some of the 1950’s 3D productions are no longer available on film, so they will be shown in RealD digital, about a half dozen of the 35 screenings, if I recall. The upside is that it will now be possible to make a direct comparison of RealD to 35mm film twinstrip in the same venue. This is probably the only time that 35mm film 3D and digital are being shown on the same screen in the same auditorium at the same event. I remember actually seeing many of these films back in 1952 to 1955.

At that time they were even brighter, because now they are using xenon lamps, but back then they were using lamp houses equipped with the brightest light source ever used to illuminate a screen, white flame carbon arcs with blowers directly on the arc. These produced 16 ft./Lamberts through the polarizers on the screen, for a total of 32 ft./Lamberts with both projectors running. RealD is normally only 3 ft./Lamberts, or 5 in the so-called “bright” version.  I don’t know what the output of the xenon lamps are, but I am sure that they will be brighter than the digital, but not anywhere near as bright as the original full blown white flame carbon arcs.”

The amazing schedule includes such films as Hondo, House of Wax, the wildly eccentric thriller The Maze and Miss Sadie Thompson all from 1953, (the peak year for classic 3-D Matural Vision technology) along with many other classics; while it’s too late for me to make it out there, which I regret, especially since this sounds very much like the last hurrah — if you are in the Los Angeles area from September 6 through the 15th, you should really take advantage of the opportunity to view these films in their original format, as they were meant to be shown — double projection 35mm prints in perfect frame-for-frame sync, for an unforgettable viewing experience.

The World 3-D Film Expo; don’t miss it if you’re in the Los Angeles area. Last chance!!

Kevin Spacey on The Future of Televison

Sunday, August 25th, 2013

Kevin Spacey has a few words of wisdom on the future of broadcast television and convergence with the web.

Spacey, who gave the keynote James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival on August 23rd, as reported in The Guardian — one of my favorite newspapers — told the audience that “clearly the success of the Netflix model – releasing the entire season of House Of Cards at once – has proved one thing: the audience wants control. They want freedom. If they want to binge – as they’ve been doing on House Of Cards – then we should let them binge. [This] demonstrated that we have learned the lesson that the music industry didn’t learn – give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and they’ll more likely pay for it rather than steal it. If you watch a TV show on your iPad is it no longer a TV show? The device and length are irrelevant. For kids growing up now there’s no difference watching Avatar on an iPad or watching YouTube on a TV and watching Game Of Thrones on their computer. It’s all content. It’s all story.”

You can view video excerpts from the lecture here — about five minutes, condensed — and Spacey makes some very good points.

‘In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema’ by Gabriele Pedullà

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

I have a review of Gabriele Pedullà’s book In Broad Daylight in the new issue of Film International.

As I write, “This slight but explosive volume, published in an English translation by Verso in 2012, has been kicking around on my work desk for about a year. I wrote a rather negative review of it for Choice, the library journal, and while I don’t want to recant anything I said there, I nevertheless find the book sticking with me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I don’t agree with most of what Pedullà has to say, as I’ll detail, but he puts up a good fight.

Pedullà, a professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of Rome 3 and visiting professor at Stanford, is first and foremost a polemicist – he’s the guy who throws verbal bombs into the mix, and phrases statements of opinion as if they were fact. But for all of that, there is really very little that’s controversial here. Pedullà’s main thesis is inarguably correct, at least from my perspective; the era of dominance for the theatrical exhibition of motion pictures is finished. Or as he puts it on the opening page of his book,

‘The age of cinema, it is commonly claimed, is now drawing to a close. Day after day signs of a profound change in our relationship with moving images proliferate. The winnowing of box-office receipts, the shrinking size of the audience, the decreasing time lag between a film’s theatrical release and it commercialization on video, television’s growing cultural prestige: these indications, at once social, economic and aesthetic – only make the prophecy all the more credible. If cinema for decades represented the standard and even optimal filmic experience, the touchstone for all other forms of viewing, this formerly undisputed and indisputable centrality is today contested at its very core.’

All true, and yet, as I thought then, and still do now, Pedullà protests too much. The impact of web here is barely even mentioned, and as for ‘television’s growing cultural prestige,’ I have serious doubt about that. For Pedullà, the idea that viewing a film in a theater is the optimal way to see a film is an object of ridicule; summoning up derisively the words of Chris Marker as a member of the ‘old guard,’ Pedullà quotes Marker as noting that ‘on television, you can see the shadow of a film, the trace of a film, the nostalgia, the echo of a film, but never the film,’ and then takes Jean Eustache to task for the similar statement that ‘you can discover a film only at the movie theater.’

To these statements, which to my mind have more than a grain of truth to them, Pedullà’s disdain notwithstanding, I would add the words of the late director Roy Ward Baker, a friend of mine, who directed the only really first-rate film on the Titanic disaster (A Night To Remember, 1958). During an afternoon’s discussion in 1994 at his home in London, Baker told me that he’d been shocked by the impact of viewing a recent theatrical screening of A Night To Remember at a retrospective of his work at Britain’s National Film Theatre.

As Baker told me, ‘I felt like I was seeing it for the first time, you know? Like it was real again. I’d grown so used to seeing it on television, I’d forgotten what it was really like.’ Then, he leaned forward and said two sentences that I have never forgotten since; at least for me, they cut to the center of this entire argument. ‘You see’ Baker said, ‘on television, or on a DVD, you can inspect a film. But you can’t experience it.’ That comment hit me like a bolt of lightning; true, direct, and utterly incisive.”

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

Christopher Sharrett on Beyond the Hills, or The Woman’s Prison

Friday, August 16th, 2013

Christopher Sharrett has a brilliant piece on the film Beyond The Hills in the latest issue of Film International.

As Sharrett notes, in part, “it amazes me that so few reviewers noted emphatically that Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (2012), like his earlier 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007), is a film about women, about the oppression of women, in an era that constantly rolls back the rights of women even in so-called enlightened nations. This is especially disturbing when we look at the reception of Beyond the Hills. Reviewers focused on the plight of two orphans more so than on sexual politics, and the culture of oppression and repression imposed on women [. . .]

Given how much disinformation has been disseminated in the US about the Soviet Union and its satellite states ever since the Bolshevik Revolution, it may be sensible to make a few observations about history before proceeding with comments about Mungiu’s cinema, especially if we are to see his art as relevant to us all, and not simply narratives to be read as documents of awful things that could not happen here. Neither the Soviet Union nor a satellite like Romania can be seen as ‘communist’ if one has a rudimentary knowledge (my level to be sure) of political economy [. . .]

The dreary backdrop of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days compares well indeed not just with the horror film, but with distinguished contemporary melodramas about American women of the working poor, like Frozen River (2009). The setting of Beyond the Hills would also look good in a cautionary fright film about a cult, except Mungiu reminds us how useless the notion of “cult” can be. The Orthodox monastery of this film has all the usual ingredients of a cult (the unquestioned authority of the male, women in a very vulnerable situation, adherence to arcane, bizarre dogma), but the film provokes the question: is this setting a strange aberration or simply the norm in miniature?”

You can read the entire piece by clicking here, or on the image above. Brilliant, timely, disturbing work.

Andy’s Gang, or Saturday Morning of the Living Dead

Friday, August 16th, 2013

I have a new article in Film International on the utterly bizarre 1950s children’s television show Andy’s Gang.

As I write, in part, “let us now consider Andy’s Gang, a horrific children’s television show from the 1950s. For those who live outside the United States, and didn’t grow up during the Cold War, this series may be absolutely unknown, and if this is the case, you can be thankful. For Andy’s Gang is the most twisted, most willfully odd and perverse television show imaginable, no matter what age group it’s aimed at. As one viewer put it, ‘the show reminds me of something David Lynch would come up with,’ but actually, that’s selling the show short. This one is truly off the charts, existing in a hermetically sealed land all its own, a phantom zone of non-performance and non-participation which is staggering in its dimensions and implications.

That’s quite a claim, but if I had to compare Andy’s Gang to anything else that comes under the heading of a moving image construct, I’d be almost instantly reaching for the horror films Castle of the Living Dead (1964), The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967), or Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon (1973, a.k.a. The Mansion of Madness). For here is a television show, ostensibly aimed at children, in which the host never met – not even once – any of the members of his supposed audience, or was even in the same room with them, or even the same year – and which is comprised of such serial repetition of actual footage, as well as ceaselessly repeating its own internal structure, that it almost defies description. Indeed, as I’ll show later, there are virtually web support groups for aging baby boomers who seem to have been traumatized by the show as children, more than 53 years after the final episode of the series aired.

Saturday morning television in the United States in the 1950s belonged exclusively to children; this was a holdover from the tradition of Saturday morning shows in movie theaters in the 1920s through the early 1950s, when boys and girls would rush down to the local theater to see a double bill of two genre films, usually a western and/or a science-fiction or horror film, plus some cartoons, a chapter of a serial or ‘cliffhanger,’ some trailers, travelogues, shorts, and other assorted screen fare. When television took hold in the mid 1950s, it spelled the death of these morning screenings – serials, for example, ceased production entirely in 1956 as a direct result of competition from television – and television did its best to slavishly copy the model the movie theaters had followed so successfully.

So, on Saturday morning network television, you could forget about anything aimed at an adult audience; instead, one got a nonstop diet of such series as Kukla, Fran And Ollie, Howdy Doody, Flash Gordon, Lassie, Annie Oakley, Ding Dong School, The Paul Winchell Show, The Roy Rogers Show, Captain Z-RO, The Rootie Kazootie Club, Winky Dink And You, Super Circus, The Cisco Kid, Sky King, Captain Midnight, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, The Pinky Lee Show, Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle and many more.

Each of these shows had their own peculiarities; Howdy Doody was a live puppet show, with a real live ‘Peanut Gallery’ where kids would scream and holler as the show progressed – in short, genuine audience interaction; Flash Gordon, starring Steve Holland, was filmed in West Berlin in converted beer halls on a miniscule budget; Winky Dink and You encouraged kids to actually draw on the picture tubes of their television sets with crayons to trace this week’s mystery clue – one was supposed to place a special “magic screen,” actually thin plastic film, over the screen before marking it up, but many kids, enthralled by the suspense, simply forgot this part of the process – and so on.

But Andy’s Gang was a breed apart. One thing above all set it apart from its competitors; all of the shows listed above were fiction, and presented themselves as fiction, and the audience – except perhaps for the very young viewers – recognized this. But Andy’s Gang was fiction masquerading as reality. None of it was real; the whole series was a fictive construct. But it didn’t start out that way; it took the death of the original host, and a canny television producer/director possessed of a peculiar vision to make this particular Twilight Zone of fantasy/reality.”

You can read rest of the article by clicking here, or on the image above; an amazing cultural Cold War artifact.

Robert Heide on the Death of A Great Newspaper – The Village Voice

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Click here to read Bob’s full story in WestView News on this deeply troubling event.

The Village Voice used to be the arts newspaper in New York. It had the best film criticism – Andrew Sarris, Jonas Mekas, Jim Hoberman, Amy Taubin and many others all wrote for The Voice. It had the best critics in dance, theater, literature, and the liveliest coverage of the New York City scene in general. It was, indeed, essential reading. You couldn’t really say you were “up” on the arts in the city without it.

Then, The Voice went “free,” when it used to be sold on newsstands, and could thus have some independence from advertisers, which was the beginning of the end, and then it was sold to a national conglomerate that runs supposedly “alternative” newspapers, and then management started firing people, thinking they could just plug in this or that person and the quality would be the same, but it isn’t.

This leads to cultural degradation; as Ian McEwan, the distinguished British author of such novels as Atonement and Amsterdam, said of criticism from people who clearly have no idea what they’re talking about: “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.” This is now in short supply at The Voice, which has gone from being an essential part of city life to a throwaway piece of trash that isn’t fit for wrapping fish.

But the management won’t care; as long as they can sell ad space, and hire a few freelancers to write some meager editorial content, they’ll be content. They don’t want care about running a newspaper; they just want a vehicle for their advertisers. The demise of a great newspaper is always a sad event; in the case of The Voice, there is nothing that even come close to replacing it for those who read it, and for those whose wit and intelligence graced its pages for so many years.

This is the end of The Village Voice, and I am sorry to see it go; its coverage is irreplaceable.

Harrison Ford on Contemporary Hollywood Cinema

Monday, August 12th, 2013

Harrison Ford had some interesting thoughts in this past Sunday’s New York Times on Hollywood today.

Speaking with Adam Sternbergh, Ford, just back from an appearance at Comic-Con to promote his new film Ender’s Game, Ford noted that if the Star Wars films, or the Indiana Jones series, were released today in the intensely fan-driven environment created by the convention, and others like it, “everyone would be ahead of it, and everybody would know what it was, and it would be no fun at all. But people still went to movies in those days. People went to movie theaters. It was a community experience, and that was part of the fun. Now people see a movie on their iPad, alone, with interruptions for snacks [. . .] I think the success of Comic-Con is based on the partnership between the fans and the service providers, the entities — I won’t necessarily call them filmmakers — that supply the film product that supports their particular interest, whether it’s vampires or science-fiction fantasies or Transformers or whatever is going on [. . .] I think the smaller-scale movies, which I like very much, would be harder to conceive another iteration of.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I wouldn’t “necessarily call them filmmakers” either.

Before They Were Movies

Monday, August 12th, 2013

Today I took part in a radio discussion of books made into films on the NPR affiliate KNPR, Las Vegas.

Thanks to producer Ian Mylchreest, I was asked to appear with Rebecca Romney of Bauman’s Rare Books to discuss famous books that have been made into films, including The Great Gatsby, To Kill A Mockingbird, Gone With the Wind and many more. As the show’s website above notes, “Bauman’s Rare Books in the Palazzo Shoppes has assembled an exhibition of novels that became famous films. The store has everything from a signed copy of Gone with the Wind to first editions of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. We look at some of the books and the movies that were made — what kind of books makes a great movie?” It was a fascinating discussion, and you can listen to it by clicking here, or on the image above.

Many thanks to KNPR for this opportunity; I had a great time.

Breaking Bad Begins Final Lap

Monday, August 12th, 2013

“If that’s true, if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.”

Never a fan of Breaking Bad, while at the same not a detractor — just disinterested — I accidentally fell into the first of the final eight episodes on AMC last night. While I don’t care about any of the characters, or their fictitious plights, and though the whole episode was laden with cliché after cliché, such as the montage sequence with Tommy James and The Shondell’s Crystal Blue Persuasion playing over a series of images of drug dealing – yawn – and Jesse’s pitching the ill-gotten gains of their criminal enterprise out the window struck me as as similarly obvious – and while for most of the episode I could actually predict what the next line of dialogue would be with almost unerring accuracy (which isn’t that hard), this last scene, easily the best part of the episode, shows two excellent actors at the top of their game, with lead actor Bryan Cranston also directing the episode.

AMC obviously thinks so, too, or otherwise they wouldn’t have singled it out as a special feature on their website. There are seven more episodes to go; I don’t feel I have missed anything by skipping the previous five (is it five?) seasons, and have no urge to view them now, but I feel I can now watch the conclusion of Breaking Bad with a modicum of interest – while having absolutely no interest in the series that hopes to replace it, Low Winter Sun – or is that Low Winter Ratings. But this scene really works; check it out by clicking on the image above; there’s an advertisement before it, but of course, I can’t help that. And of course, that last line – quoted right under the frame grab – is a killer, and Cranston delivers it with absolute perfection.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Betty White

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

Click here, or on the image above, to read Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s new essay “Life with Betty White: Performing the Authentic Proto-Feminist in Pioneering Early Television” in the latest issue of Film International.

As Foster notes, “Betty White has always been ahead of her time. This has been both a blessing and a curse. Most people, even scholars who specialize in television history, have little to no knowledge of the importance of Betty White in early live television, in the invention of the television sitcom, and as a pioneering television writer, producer, and actor. At 91, Betty White couldn’t be much hotter. As of February 20, 2013, her television “Q” score – her “likability quotient” – was the highest in the industry. Her popularity amongst all different markets, regardless of age, race, and demographics, is truly staggering, giving the Kardashians a run for their money.

White currently appears in two first-run TV programs, the network series Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, which she also co-produces, and Nick at Nite’s Hot in Cleveland, a show worth watching primarily to catch White stealing scene after scene and to watch her inventively breathe life into a character (Elka Ostrovsky) who is a strong, smart, unapologetically sexy elderly woman like none other. White won a Screen Actors Guild Award for her portrayal of Elka (Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor) in 2011. And she is considered to be the most popular and most trusted celebrity among Americans according to a 2011 poll conducted by Reuters.

But being ahead of her time has not always best served the interests of Betty White. Back in the nineteen-fifties, both playing and living the life of an independent and very capable funny and pretty woman in charge of her own sexuality, Betty was arguably too far ahead of her time, and she was eclipsed by the dim-witted, clowning, simple-minded character portrayed by Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy. It’s fascinating to compare the trajectories of Betty White and Lucille Ball in early TV history, and even more interesting to think about how female gender roles on television may have had an entirely different influence on American women had Betty White’s Life with Elizabeth (1952-1955) and Date with the Angels (1957-1958) stayed on the air and enjoyed the success and seemingly endless syndication of I Love Lucy. Lucy was still in reruns when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s and even now enjoys legendary popularity, despite its retrograde and sadly influential characterization of the female comic as sexless, clownish, childish, stupid and ever dependent on men, most significantly her husband ‘Ricky.’

Few note that well before Betty had success with Life with Elizabeth she had actually begun her TV career as early as 1939, when, only three months after graduating high school, Betty appeared on an early experimental Los Angeles TV station, singing songs from The Merry Widow. She did modelling, and during the war she served in the American Women’s Voluntary Services. She was very active in radio, in programs such as Blondie, The Great Gildersleeve, and This is Your FBI. She even had her own radio show, The Betty White Show. Even before White developed Life with Elizabeth, she rose to prominence as a beautiful, confident, intelligent, quick-witted comedic actress and eventual writer/producer known for her writing skills, her business acumen, her comic timing and her ability to ad-lib and write for television.

After an early career in radio and modelling, White was one of the first recognized early TV stars. White starred in the live five and one half hour ad-libbed variety show, Hollywood on Television, which was shown six days a week on station KLAC in Los Angeles from 1952 to 1956. This grueling trial by fire afforded White a platform to hone her skills as a writer and actress noted for both her audacity and her authenticity, the same elements she is celebrated for today. Hollywood on Television taught White to think on her feet, and connect with her viewers, most of whom were women working at home. They identified with White’s independence and resourcefulness. They enjoyed her intellect, her delicious sense of humor, and her ability to create a woman of both intellect and sensuality, especially in the repressive environment of the nineteen-fifties.

Betty had a mind for business, and in 1952, the same year she began solo hosting Hollywood on Television, she co-founded Bandy Productions with producer Don Fedderson and writer George Tibbles. The three of them created the comedy Life with Elizabeth. Betty was not only the star of the show but one of the producers. Life with Elizabeth enjoyed national syndication, and White was one of the only women in TV at that time with full creative control both in front of and behind the camera. In 2010, White won a Screen Actors Guild award for Lifetime Achievement, in recognition not just for her work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Golden Girls, but also for her early pioneering work on Life with Elizabeth and [her other pioneering television series, discussed at length in the Foster's article] Date with the Angels. It’s truly a shame that most people are not as familiar with Life with Elizabeth or Date with the Angels, because in these very unusual programs, Betty White created and performed a very modern version of what I’d call a proto-feminist visionary in the 1950s.”

This is fascinating, deeply incisive work, with excellent research and detail. Read all about it 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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