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Archive for October, 2015

Why Aren’t More Women Directing Action Films?

Friday, October 30th, 2015

Lexi Alexander knows why women aren’t getting the opportunities they should in Hollywood.

As ReBecca Theodore wrote in Vulture on October 28, 2015, “Lexi Alexander doesn’t suffer fools lightly. The Oscar-nominated director, and outspoken advocate for women filmmakers, made waves in Hollywood last year when she wrote an essay on the deeply ingrained bias women directors face in the industry. Since then, Alexander has kept the pressure on studios to allow more opportunities for female directors.

Born to a German mother and Palestinian father, Alexander is a former World Kickboxing Champion who got her start in the business as a stuntwoman, and soon segued into directing. Her 2002 short Johnny Flynton landed an Academy Award–nomination, and her 2005 feature Green Street Hooligans won the SXSW Jury and Audience Awards. That led to a gig directing Punisher: War Zone, making her the first woman to direct a comic-book feature. Most recently, Alexander directed tonight’s episode of Arrow, which had previously brought on two women directors (Wendey Stanzler and Bethany Rooney). We spoke to Alexander about working on the CW’s comic-book series, embracing her biracial identity, and why more women aren’t directing multimillion-dollar superhero franchises.

How did you land this project?  How much did you know about the show going in?
I was contacted by the showrunners, specifically Andrew Kreisberg, who was a fan of Punisher: War Zone. I knew about the show and had watched the pilot when it came out. When I got the call for the meeting, I binged on three seasons of Arrow over an entire weekend.

Can you share some details about the shoot — how long it took to prepare, to find shooting locales?
All in all, I was there for three and a half weeks. Location scouting is a lot of fun, especially in a town where ten shows are being shot at the same time, because you’re constantly running into other crews scouting the same places. Then we all give each other side eye, because nobody wants to use a location that another show is using as well. It’s quite amusing, really.

Did you have a specific look or feel you wanted for this episode?
It was very clear to me that TV is a writers’ medium and that a show in its fourth season comes with an established look and style. The first meeting I had with Kreisberg and [executive producer] Marc Guggenheim, they were very clear they were interested in me as a director because they believed I could bring something different and new to the show. So my directions were basically ’same but different.’ Now this might sound like I’m being sarcastic, but I’m not. I completely understood what they wanted. There’s definitely a way, even within an existing style and tone, to add something new or unique without making it look like it’s from a completely different show. I’m not sure if I completely achieved that, but I’m pretty sure the audience will see my fingerprint here and there.

You were the only woman director to helm a comic-book feature with Punisher: War Zone in 2008. Not much has changed since then. What do you think accounts for this?
The only reason I was offered Punisher was because I had made an indie film that was rated R for violence and was filled with fight scenes. I think in industries riddled with bias, you tend to hire women only if their previous work is very masculine, which is hilarious given that this is not how male directors are chosen. I am pretty sure when Kenneth Branagh came up for Thor, nobody at Marvel thought: ‘Yes, that Kenneth Branagh is masculine enough to do action, just look at Henry V and The Magic Flute.’ Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge Branagh fan, I’m just trying to demonstrate how ridiculous it is that women have to be ‘one of the boys’ to get in on the superhero business, whereas male directors don’t have to have any proof on their résumé that they can deliver hardcore action.”

It’s all too true – read the entire interview by clicking here.

Too Many Films Stuck in The Vaults

Saturday, October 24th, 2015

Too many great films are still stuck in the vaults, with no way to see them in any format.

As Michael Hiltzik writes in The Los Angeles Times today, “Will McKinley, a New York film writer, is dying to get his hands on a copy of Alias Nick Beal, a 1949 film noir starring Ray Milland as a satanic gangster. For classic film blogger Nora Fiore, the Grail might be The Wild Party (1929), the first talkie to star 1920’s “It” girl Clara Bow, directed by the pioneering female director Dorothy Arzner.

Film critic Leonard Maltin says he’d like to score a viewing of Hotel Haywire a 1937 screwball comedy written by the great comic director Preston Sturges. Produced by Paramount Studios, these are all among 700 titles assumed to be nestled in the vaults of Universal Pictures, which inherited Paramount’s 1930s and 1940s film archive from its forebear MCA, which acquired the collection in 1958. They’re frustratingly near at hand but out of reach of film fans and cinephiles.

Like most of the other major studios, Universal is grappling with the challenging economics of making more of this hoard accessible to the public on DVD, video on demand or streaming video. Studios have come to realize that there’s not only marketable value in the films, but publicity value in performing as responsible stewards of cultural assets.”

I, too, would love to see a legitimate copy of Alias Nick Beal, one of my favorite noirs, but it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. To date, Universal has done almost nothing in this regard. As just one example, I’ve been waiting for years for a DVD of William Castle’s The Night Walker (Universal, 1964), which, as Wikipedia notes, is “one of the last black and white theatrical features released by Universal Pictures, and Barbara Stanwyck’s last motion picture, [but] The Night Walker is one of the few William Castle films from his ‘horror’ period that is unavailable on DVD.”

Yet Hiltzik’s article demonstrates that there’s clearly a market for these older films, beyond the canonical classics. As George Feltenstein, who heads the Warner Archive imprint of on-demand DVDs of classic films notes, the WB service, launched in March 2009 with 150 titles, has proved “far more successful than we even dreamed. I thought that all the studios would follow in our footsteps, but nobody has been as comprehensive as we’ve been.” And that’s putting it mildly – to date, no other major studio has stepped up to the plate with the same commitment as WB has.

This isn’t altruism. As Feltenstein candidly told Hiltzik, “‘my job is to monetize that content, make it available to the largest number of people possible and do so profitably.’ That gives [Warner Archive] a window into values that others might miss. Take B-movie westerns made in the 1940s and 1950s that landed in the Warners vault. To Allied Artists and Lorimar, their producers, ‘these films were worthless and they said it’s OK to let them rot,’ Feltenstein [said].

Instead, Warner Archives packaged them into DVD collections, ‘and they’ve all been nicely profitable.’ Feltenstein says Warners is releasing 30 more titles to its manufacturing-on-demand library every month. ‘It’s growing precipitously and there’s no end in sight.’”

Yet much more work clearly needs to be done, and especially since all films made before 1950 were shot on cellulose nitrate film, which decomposes rapidly and is highly flammable, things have to move along at a much faster clip if we’re going to preserve what’s left of our cinematic heritage. I’ve been noting this for a long time, in any number of articles, but even though Warner Archive is leading the pack, there’s plenty of films left that need a solid DVD release – not streaming, thank you, but on a DVD, which can be permanently kept in one’s collection.

Let’s get these films out where everyone can see them – now!

Jack Kerouac on The Steve Allen Show (1959)

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

In 1959, writer Jack Kerouac and musician Steve Allen cut a record, Poetry for the Beat Generation.

Jack Kerouac has long been one of my favorite American novelists, whose importance and value has only become more apparent with each passing decade. We also share the same birthday, which has always pleased me, and like many young people, when I was in college, I devoured Kerouac’s work, most especially his epic novel Desolation Angels, which was written in the early to mid 1950s, but only published in 1965, after the enormous success of his most popular novel, On The Road (1957).

It’s become fashionable, in some circles, to dismiss Kerouac’s work, the bulk of which was written long before it appeared in print, “published [only] in heaven” as Allen Ginsberg put it – and then, in the aftermath of On The Road, publishers were suddenly eager to print everything he’d written up until then – thank goodness. And so the work of a lifetime came tumbling out.

One of the most quoted jibes of Kerouac’s work comes from Truman Capote, who famously remarked of the non-stop writing blast that produced On The Road, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” It’s a clever riposte, but it seems to me that in the end, Capote’s claim to lasting literary value lies only with a few books, in particular the “non-fiction” novel In Cold Blood, whereas Kerouac’s vision, which literally encompassed all of American culture, is a sprawling, multi-layered, deeply penetrating look at the society, and the values of the era he lived in.

Kerouac’s style – pure bop writing – is heavily indebted to the art of jazz riffing. Sometimes he’s simply writing to fill up the page, but the best of Kerouac’s work – On the Road, Doctor Sax, The Dharma Bums, Mexico City Blues, The Subterraneans, Desolation Angels, and Visions of Cody – repays repeated readings, and stands as a monument to Kerouac’s passion and restless intensity, which did not mix well with the pressures of overnight fame. Becoming a heavy drinker as he coped with instant celebrity, Kerouac died at the age of 47, yet still managed to leave behind a unique, and utterly compelling body of work.

So it’s nice to see this archival clip from The Steve Allen Show in 1959, in which a visibly nervous Kerouac recites some of his poetry as Allen accompanies him on piano – telling a few jokes along the way in an attempt to ease his guest’s palpable uneasiness – which is some of the only footage of Kerouac reciting his work in existence. Allen, a gifted musician and television personality of the era, made it his business to showcase rising talent – Elvis Presley and Frank Zappa come immediately to mind – and the album that resulted from their collaboration (now available on CD) is a vital and impressive piece of work – and here’s the proof.

Indeed, Kerouac is, for me, sort of an “acid test” of someone’s reaction to American writing – he comes from the tradition of Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe and other authentic visionaries (as he makes clear to Allen in this clip) – and Kerouac is simply driven to put down on paper the experiences of his life, and has no time for traditional prose forms. His work flows from one sentence to the next in a sweep of nearly inexhaustible improvisation, and thus he leaves himself open to rather ordinary criticism – “not enough discipline,” “dashed off,” “free form” and the like.

But that’s just the point – Kerouac is clearly working out of a driving need to create, over which he almost has no control – he was compelled to put his life down on paper. As he famously wrote in On The Road, “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars,” adding later that “I want to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money. I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down.”

So here it is – Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen – a transcendent moment in American culture.

Lou Reed Reads Delmore Schwartz

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

Delmore Schwartz was a brilliant, if tragic American poet; Lou Reed was, at one time, his student.

As Josh Jones writes in the web journal Open Culture, “in a galloping vignette in Tablet, writer Lee Smith manages to evoke the essences of both sentimental tough guy Lou Reed and his literary mentor and hero, ‘Brooklyn Jewish Troubadour’ Delmore Schwartz. Although Schwartz’s ‘poetry is his real legacy,’ Smith writes, that rich body of work is often obscured by the fact that ‘his most famous work is a short story,’ the much-anthologized In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (1935).

It’s a story written in prose as lyrical as can be—with sentences one wants to pause and linger over, reading again and again, out loud if possible. It’s also a story in which we see ‘a direct line… between Schwartz and Reed,’ whose song Perfect Day performs a similar kind of magical cataloguing of urban impermanence. For Reed, onetime student of Schwartz at Syracuse University, ‘Delmore Schwartz is everything.’

Reed dedicated the last song, European Son, on the first Velvet Underground album to Schwartz, and wrote an eloquent forward to a reissue of Schwartz’s first collection of stories and poems, also titled In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. And just above, you can hear Reed himself read the story aloud, savoring those lyrical sentences in his Brooklyn deadpan. It’s easy to imagine Reed writing many of these sentences, such was Schwartz’s influence on him.

They shared not only common origins, but also a common sensibility; in Reed’s songs we hear the echo of Schwartz’s voice, the satirical world-weariness and the lyricism and longing. In the biographical documentary Rock and Roll Heart, Reed says that Schwartz showed him how, ‘with the simplest language imaginable, and very short, you can accomplish the most astonishing heights.’ Reading, and listening to Schwartz’s astonishing In Dreams Begin Responsibilities may help you understand just what he meant.”

I’ve always loved Schwarz’s poetry and prose, and here, Lou Reed gives an excellent reading of his work.

Interview on NPR’s “Inquiry” With Mark Lynch

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

Mark Lynch’s NPR program Inquiry interviewed me on my new book, Black & White Cinema: A Short History.

You can see what Mark wrote above as an introduction to the interview – it was a fun session, and Mark always asks all the right questions – plus, he knows what he’s talking about, so it’s always a pleasure to converse with him. Inquiry comes from WICN, the New England NPR station, and Mark Lynch really does his homework – and it shows. There’s really no need to say anything further – just click here, or on the image above, to go to the interview, and listen for yourself – it runs about 30 minutes, which absolutely flew by.

Thanks, Mark- much appreciated!

Roberto Rossellini’s General Della Rovere (1959)

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

And as long as I’m in a De Sica mood, here he is in Rossellini’s masterpiece General Della Rovere.

Vittorio De Sica wasn’t only a director; he was comfortable on both sides of the camera, and did some of his very best work as the lead actor in Roberto Rossellini’s tragic drama of the Italian Resistance during World War II, General Della Rovere.

Shot in a mere 33 days, and edited in 10 days after that in order to make the deadline for the Cannes Film Festival that year, Rossellini’s film is audacious on any number of levels – from the gradual shifting of the lead character’s complete selfishness to resolute heroism; the stunning use of actual newsreel stock footage of the war, used here both as establishing material, as well as an occasional backdrop for an actor performing in front of a rear-projection screen, in a completely self-referential fashion; to Rossellini’s revolutionary use of the zoom lens in a manner which anticipates his later historical films – and won the Golden Lion at the Festival.

As DVD Beaver notes, “Roberto Rossellini’s first box-office success after a string of commercial failures, notably with Ingrid Bergman, was also a return to the themes of the film that brought him international fame, Rome, Open City and his other neorealist classics. In a magnetic performance, Vittorio De Sica is Emanuele Bardone, an opportunistic rascal in wartime Genoa, conning his fellow Italians and exploiting their tragedies by promising to help find their missing loved ones in exchange for money. But when the Nazis force him to impersonate a dead partisan general in prison to extract information from fellow inmates, Bardone finds himself wrestling with his conscience for the first time.

Based on an article by the Italian journalist Indro Montanelli, Rossellini casts Vittorio De Sica as confidence trickster Emanuele Bardone who helps to save Italians arrested by the Gestapo or at least pretending to do so in exchange for money or gifts from their family. When he attempts to save a man already executed he is turned over by the man s wife and is given the choice of execution or carrying out a confidence trick for the Germans; to assume the identity of the General Della Rovere. Turning on his country to save his skin Bardone enters prison to seek out the identity of the partisan commander, Fabrizio.”

I watched this film again a few days ago, a film I have known and loved for more than four decades, and once again, it simply knocked me to the floor. In addition to De Sica’s indelible and letter-perfect performance in the lead, there is the equally masterful performance of Hannes Messemer as SS Col. Müller, who attempts to use Bardone’s skills as a con man to get information from the members of the resistance. But as the film moves inexorably towards its tragic yet transcendent finish, it’s clear that Bardone’s transformation from scam artist to patriot can lead to only one conclusion, and one of the most powerful endings in the history of cinema. Simply put, this is a must see film.

Fortunately available on several DVD formats, General Della Rovere is simply essential cinema.

Vittorio de Sica on the “Crisis of Cinema”

Monday, October 19th, 2015

Vittorio De Sica directing Marcello Mastroianni and Faye Dunaway in A Place for Lovers (1968).

“There is no crisis in cinema. There are negative periods. There are times when some films are received well and others aren’t. The past teaches us that some films were received badly, while others go sailing on.

There are two films doing very well right now in the Italian market: One is Il gattopardo, which earns seven million lire a day, and the other is Il diavolo, starring Sordi, which earns 3 1/2 million. So there are films that are doing very well. What I notice is that producers have been known to make errors in judgment, which have caused them to be overly daring.

For example, I’ve been told many millions were spent, somewhere around half a billion, for a film entrusted to a young person. We must make room for young people, but with half a billion we could have made eight of Bicycle Thieves. Experimental cinema should be inexpensive cinema. Half a billion lire should be entrusted to those professionals who we can be sure will bring home the half billion spent. We should be cautious with new initiatives. Producers should be cautious.

As for television as a competitor, yes, there I see a danger. Let television do television, let them do documentaries, but cinema as such should be shown on screens, because there’s no one more lazy than the public. When people don’t have to leave their homes, they’re very happy. A film shown in the home encourages the audience not to budge.”

So do as Vittorio says – go out to the movies!

The Paramount Vault Channel on YouTube – Free Feature Films!

Monday, October 19th, 2015

The Paramount Vault has an excellent selection of classic and contemporary feature films.

As J.E. Reich reports in Tech Times, Paramount Pictures is throwing open its vault of feature films from the 1930s to the present on a free You Tube channel which showcases some of the studio’s biggest hits, along with more esoteric films, many of them well worth watching.

As he writes, “Norma Desmond proclaimed in Paramount’s Sunset Boulevard, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small!” True to the word of one of the studio’s greatest films, Paramount has brought its bigger pictures to the small screen: by making them available to watch for free on YouTube.

Named The Paramount Vault, the studio’s newly-minted YouTube channel allows viewers to stream a plethora of the studio’s titles, ranging from the timeless screeners (Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Star Trek I) to more off-beat indies . . . the selection is generally veritable, mixing popular selections with forgotten gems.

Paramount Vault also gives a gift to would-be GIFers and movie buffs: clips from indelible moments in cinema history, such as Indiana Jones taking some lackeys to task after they mess with the wrong guy in the aforementioned Raiders, Cher Horowitz ferreting out driving tips in Clueless, a creepy neighbor making a seemingly normal housecall in Rosemary’s Baby, and — you guessed it — Norma Desmond getting ready for her close-up in Sunset Boulevard.

What remains unclear is the shelf life of each movie: whether each title will remain on the channel after it’s posted or if they’ll be on a type of rotation or phase cycle (i.e., phased in and out), essentially on a system akin to a streaming site like Netflix.”

Adds Joe Blevins of The A.V. Club, “Paramount Pictures, which has recently launched a YouTube Channel called the Paramount Vault where it will be making many of its full-length motion pictures available for free streaming. Since the studio is responsible for such popular films as Grease, Airplane!, Top Gun, Sunset Boulevard, Clueless, and Ghost, as well as such mighty franchises as Star Trek, Transformers, and Indiana Jones, this is potentially big news.

As it is, the Paramount Vault already has plenty of hours of free-of-charge entertainment awaiting the adventurous viewer. Under the science fiction category, for instance, [one can see] The Deadly Bees and The Space Children, as well as such cult favorites I Married A Monster From Outer Space and . . . the indescribable Marcel Marceau vehicle Shanks, among others.

Among the designated Paramount classics, perhaps the most striking selection is Bernardo Bertolucci’s once-controversial 1900 from 1976, starring Robert De Niro. Those without the patience for full-length movies will find clips to share and comedic moments, too, as well as a smattering of digital series. Viewers might well find themselves wandering around in the Paramount Vault for hours or days, unaware of how much time they’ve been spending there.”

You should spend some time there, too. Check it out!

All Alone in the Digital World – “Removed” by Eric Pickersgill

Sunday, October 18th, 2015

Eric Pickersgill’s “removed” photos capture the personal isolation and disconnectedness of the digital age.

As he writes on his website about his work,”the joining of people to devices has been rapid and unalterable. The application of the personal device in daily life has made tasks take less time. Far away places and people feel closer than ever before. Despite the obvious benefits that these advances in technology have contributed to society, the social and physical implications are slowly revealing themselves.

In similar ways that photography transformed the lived experience into the photographable, performable, and reproducible experience, personal devices are shifting behaviors while simultaneously blending into the landscape by taking form as being one with the body. This phantom limb is used as a way of signaling busyness and unapproachability to strangers while existing as an addictive force that promotes the splitting of attention between those who are physically with you and those who are not.

The work began as I sat in a café one morning. This is what I wrote about my observation:  Family sitting next to me at Illium café in Troy, NY is so disconnected from one another. Not much talking. Father and two daughters have their own phones out. Mom doesn’t have one or chooses to leave it put away. She stares out the window, sad and alone in the company of her closest family. Dad looks up every so often to announce some obscure piece of info he found online. Twice he goes on about a large fish that was caught. No one replies. I am saddened by the use of technology for interaction in exchange for not interacting. This has never happened before and I doubt we have scratched the surface of the social impact of this new experience. Mom has her phone out now.

The image of that family, the mother’s face, the teenage girls’ and their father’s posture and focus on the palm of their own hands has been burned in my mind. It was one of those moments where you see something so amazingly common that it startles you into consciousness of what’s actually happening and it is impossible to forget. I see this family at the grocery store, in classrooms, on the side of the highway and in my own bed as I fall asleep next to my wife. We rest back to back on our sides coddling our small, cold, illuminated devices every night.

The large format portraits are of individuals who appear to be holding personal devices although the devices have been physically removed from the sitter’s hand. They are asked to hold their stare and posture as I remove their device and then I make the exposure. The photographs represent reenactments of scenes that I experience daily. We have learned to read the expression of the body while someone is consuming a device and when those signifiers are activated it is as if the device can be seen taking physical form without the object being present.”

I can’t think of any other art project that so perfectly captures the inherent loneliness and sensory deprivation of the digital world, in which we are all supposedly “connected,” but actually cut off from any real interaction with each other by a series of screens that separate us from face to face communication, and the real world. Even in a group, as you can see in Pickersgill’s “removed” photos, people remain isolated from one another, endlessly checking their phones and iPads for some “update” from the digital realm.

Scroll through Pickersgill’s photos by clicking here, or on the image above – and see what people are missing.

Five New Videos on My Amazon Author Central Page

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

I have five new videos posted today on my Amazon Author Central site – check them out!

Amazon is the world’s largest store for everything, of course, but they started out with books, and one of their most valuable features for an author is Amazon Author Central, where authors can put up a bio, a picture, some videos, and the latest blog posts that they have. I’ve been using the service for about four years, but have never blogged on it.

Today, however, I freshened up the site with five new-to-the-page videos, including one on “The Theatrical Experience” of going to the movies, as opposed to flopping down on the couch and watching Netflix, Amazon, or just plain old cable on the family flat screen – there really is a difference. As always, these videos are edited and directed by Curt Bright, to whom I send many thanks for his excellent work.

So here’s a link to the page, and an invitation from me to check it out – in addition to the videos, you can see the latest books I’ve published, in addition to earlier works which are also of interest, all in one place. No matter what you’re looking for, Amazon Author Central is one of the fastest and easiest ways to keep track of your favorite authors.

Amazon Author Central is a real service for all authors – fiction, theory, history – in short, all books.

About the Author

Headshot of 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. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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