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Roger Corman – Film As Art and Business

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

Nick Pinkerton has a revealing interview with Roger Corman in the September 2016 issue of Film Comment.

As he passes his 90th birthday, and moves towards his 91st, Roger Corman remains very much in the game in the world of commercial cinema, but as always, he balances art with commerce, and even as he makes some films that are frankly commercial enterprises, one must remember that his ultra-commercial film production company in the 1970s and 80s, New World, also served as the American distributor for the films of Truffaut, Bergman, and other frankly “art” filmmakers, and that as theatrical distribution collapsed around the world, he was one of the last to make sure that even the most difficult films still found an audience.

As Corman states at the end of Pinkerton’s interview: “The film industry will always exist, but it will no longer be the film industry. It will be digital or possibly virtual reality, or holograms. I think of it as an industry, a business, and an art form. Today, the business end of it has become more powerful than the art form. I think what we need to save it—although it’s making real money and it’s not in real trouble—to reinvigorate it is to remember this is an art form as well as a business. You can’t continually spend $100- or $200-million dollars on a superhero picture. You’ve got to at least let some films come through that are closer to art.”

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

Happy Birthday to F. Scott Fitzgerald!

Sunday, September 25th, 2016

F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood, 1937 – he was born on September 24th in 1896.

There’s really no question in my mind that F. Scott Fitzgerald is my favorite author, perhaps the best American novelist of the first third of the 20th century, and not just for The Great Gatsby, which is nevertheless a brilliant book. I’ve always had a real affection for Tender is The Night, as well as the unfinished The Last Tycoon, and even Fitzgerald’s late short stories, which were frankly pounded out for much-needed cash.

A while ago, I wrote a book on Fitzgerald’s work in Hollywood in his last years - he died in 1940 – which was mentioned in a piece in The New Yorker by Arthur Krystal, who wrote that Fitzgerald arrived in Hollywood in 1937 “to take a job at the M-G-M studio in Culver City. He occupied a small office on the third floor of the writers’ building, where from ten in the morning until six at night he worked on scripts and drank bottles of Coca-Cola, carefully arranging the empties around the room.

Fitzgerald lasted eighteen months at M-G-M, during which time he worked on five scripts, wrote another one more or less from scratch, and generated a pile of notes and memos. And if his work was altered or rejected, he’d follow up with bitter, self-justifying letters.

There was a spate of such letters. Fitzgerald, to put it mildly, did not impress the studio bosses. The rap against him was that he couldn’t make the shift from words on the page to images on the screen. His plotting was elaborate without purpose; his dialogue arch or sentimental; and his tone too serious—at times, even grim. Billy Wilder, who seemed genuinely fond of Fitzgerald, likened him to ‘a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job’—with no idea how to connect the pipes and make the water flow.

On the face of it, he should have taken Hollywood by storm: he wrote commercially successful stories; he knew how to frame a scene; and his dialogue, at least in his best fiction, was smart, sophisticated, evocative. And of all the American novelists writing in the nineteen-twenties and thirties—Dreiser, Lewis, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Steinbeck—Fitzgerald had the strongest attachment to Hollywood.

As a boy, he was a passionate moviegoer; he directed and acted in plays, and his desk was filled, he later recalled, with ‘dozens of notebooks containing the germs of dozens of musical comedies.’ Moreover, three of his early stories had been made into silent films, as had his novels The Beautiful and Damned and The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald began trying to write for the movies as early as 1922, and yet, for all his efforts, he earned exactly one screen credit: a shared billing on Three Comrades. So what was the problem?”

It’s a fascinating question, which I tackled in my book The Cinematic Vision of F. Scott Fitzgerald; basically, Fitzgerald was way ahead of his time, and also an artist who adapted poorly to the studio system, even though he wrote and rewrote some of his late short stories over and over to please the magazine editors who would eventually publish them. But he always thought that the cinema could be something more than what it was, and now resolutely is – mass entertainment – and this individual vision pushed him beyond his limits, to his death.

But Fitzgerald’s last work in Hollywood, the screenplay for the unproduced film Infidelity (which would never have gotten past the Breen office in that era) is one of his finest pieces of work, and remains unproduced to this day. Four-fifths of the screenplay was published in Esquire years ago; in the early 1980s, when MGM was still at its original headquarters at 10202 West Washington Blvd., I found Fitzgerald’s outline for the ending of Infidelity in studio’s files, and a good screenwriter could finish the script up in a matter of weeks.

And perhaps someday it will happen . . .

The Bestseller Code by Matthew Jockers and Jodie Archer

Monday, September 12th, 2016

The Bestseller Code is a groundbreaking work, exploring the secrets of what makes a hyper-successful book.

As Leslie Reed writes in UNL Today, “after reading 4,500 of the latest English-language novels, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln supercomputer named Tusker helped crack the bestseller code and explain why some books shine while others languish.

Matthew Jockers, an English professor who uses computers to study literature, and his colleague, Jodie Archer, a former acquisitions editor for Penguin Books UK, enlisted Tusker in their quest to identify the secret to making the New York Times Bestseller List.

They found there is more to it than marketing, luck and a name like Stephen King. Their conclusions will be unveiled in their new book, The Bestseller Code, to be released Sept. 20 by St. Martin’s Press.

Tusker, a room-sized cluster computer based at the Peter Kiewit Institute in Omaha, is one of four supercomputer systems operated by the university’s Holland Computing Center. Red, the oldest and most powerful, is used by physicists working on the Compact Muon Solenoid project at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

Named for the mammoth-like creatures that once roamed the Great Plains, Tusker typically is used by biology researchers for gene mapping and genome sequencing, according to David Swanson, Holland Computing Center director, and Adam Caprez, a high-performance computing specialist.

For this project, Tusker’s reading list included some of the hottest novels published in the last three decades – titles such as Fifty Shades of Grey, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The DaVinci Code, Gone Girl and The Devil Wears Prada. Perennial bestsellers Danielle Steel, John Grisham, James Patterson, Jonathan Franzen, Anne Tyler, Barbara Kingsolver, Lisa Scottoline and Jodi Piccoult were among the authors on the list.

Jockers worked with Emelie Harstad, a high-performance computing specialist at the Holland Center, to implement the algorithms that guided Tusker on the project. ‘It was a particularly interesting project. It wasn’t a typical field like physics, computer science or even economics,’ Harstad said. ‘It was kind of a unique use of our system.’

Tusker extracted approximately 28,000 features from each novel and then studied those data looking for patterns in word choice, sentence construction, topic, plot structure and pacing.

Using a form of artificial intelligence, it learned which features best differentiated a bestseller from a flop, identifying about 2,800 features that make the difference. In rigorous, class balanced cross validation experiments, Tusker was able to correctly identify the bestselling and the non-bestselling novels 80 percent of the time.

It took up to 15 hours of computer time for each novel studied, Jockers said. An ordinary computer would have had to run constantly for nearly eight years to complete the analysis. Tusker, with the equivalent capability of thousands of laptops, analyzed the novels in a matter of weeks.

Now in his fifth year at the university, Jockers specializes in text mining, a technique that uses high-powered computing to identify thematic and stylistic patterns among thousands of literary works. A co-founder of the Stanford University Literary Laboratory, Jockers first began working with Archer when she was his doctoral student at Stanford.

Archer’s publishing background piqued her interest in using text mining to identify the traits of bestsellers. Her doctoral dissertation, which Jockers supervised, formed the foundation for the joint project that resulted in The Bestseller Code.’After her graduation, Jodie suggested we write a book together,’ Jockers said. ‘Neither of us could have taken on this project solo.’

The pair continued their collaboration after Jockers moved to Nebraska. In fact, Jockers now teaches a course on bestsellers at the university, with Archer serving as a guest lecturer. Though Tusker is smart enough to recognize the hallmarks of a bestselling novel, the computer is not yet capable of writing one, Jockers added.

Writing a successful novel still requires creative and critical thinking, Jockers said. Even though computers can be programmed to write, such efforts often pull strongly from previously published works, shared online texts and input from programmers. ‘We would rather just sit down together with pen and paper and use the findings of our research to attempt to write a novel ourselves,’ Jockers said.”

This is fascinating and groundbreaking work – a whole new way of looking at the craft of commercial writing.

New Book – “Hollywood in Crisis or: The Collapse of The Real”

Saturday, August 13th, 2016

Wheeler Winston Dixon has published a new book, Hollywood in Crisis or: The Collapse of the Real.

Hollywood in Crisis or: The Collapse of the Real examines late stage capitalism in films, detailing the Hollywood production process, and explores the benefits and downsides of social media in relationship to the cinema, outlining the collapse and transformation of the Hollywood movie machine in the twenty-first century, and the concomitant social collapse being felt in nearly every aspect of society.

Examining key works in contemporary cinema, analyzing Hollywood films and the current wave of independent cinema developed outside of the Hollywood system as well, Dixon illustrates how movies and television programs across these spaces have adopted, reflected, and generated a society in crisis, and with it, a crisis for the cinematic industry itself.

The book is available online now, by clicking here or on the image above, as well as in hardcover format.

New Article: “It’s All About Relationships” – An Interview with Peter Medak

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

I have a new article out today – a career interview with director Peter Medak in QRFV.

As I write in my introduction to the interview, “by his own admission, Peter Medak has had a very unusual career as a director. Forced to leave his homeland at the age of 18 during the Hungarian Revolution, leaving his parents behind in the process, Medak fled to London, then a welcoming haven for emigrants, and began a film career from the absolute bottom rung of the business, eventually working his way up to his first film as a director, Negatives, in 1968.

Along the way, he had a lot of good luck, and made many connections within the film business that were of great value to him later – and still are today – but after the critical and commercial success of arguably his most famous film, The Ruling Class (1972), for which Peter O’Toole was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, Medak made the great mistake of doing a favor for his friend, the actor Peter Sellers, by agreeing to undertake the direction of Ghost in The Noonday Sun (1973), a film which soon ran aground due to Sellers’ capricious demands and the interference of his friend, the British comic Spike Milligan.

Completed but immediately shelved by the studio, the blame for Ghost in The Noonday Sun’s failure fell, unfairly, on Medak, who suddenly found himself going from “hot” to “not” status almost overnight, beginning a long period of working on films that he didn’t really believe in to pay the rent, until he managed to break the losing streak with the ghost story The Changeling, starring George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere, and more spectacularly with The Krays (1990) and Let Him Have It (1991), two films in which Medak finally had a free hand.

But even when he worked in television, Medak’s visual style and his skill with actors always shines through, and as we both agreed during this interview, there’s nothing wrong with working on an episode of a series like Breaking Bad – “Peekaboo,” in 2009 – and Medak continues to be active to the present day, and is now working on a documentary of sorts on the film that almost ended his career, with The Ghost of Peter Sellers, a work in progress which reunites the surviving cast members of that memorable debacle for a fascinating “what went wrong?” trip down memory lane.”

What followed was a fascinating and frank interview with a gifted filmmaker; I hope you get a chance to read the article, which is unfortunately behind a paywall. But you should be able to gain access easily enough through many of the online databases that UNL subscribes to, and I hope you’ll take a moment to read the really amazing adventures of this uncompromising artist – who suffered through a difficult time, and came out the other end with two stunningly successful films.

I’m glad I got a chance to talk to Peter – it’s great stuff.

Matthew Rosza on Fan Culture and Suicide Club

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

Here’s a brilliant piece by Matthew Rosza from Salon on Comic-Con and fan based movie culture.

As Rosza writes, in part, “it’s easy to roll your eyes at the Suicide Squad petition. In case you’ve been lucky enough to miss the news, fans of the new movie Suicide Squad have created an online movement to shut down aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes for posting predominantly negative reviews of their beloved film. Cue the inevitable jokes about how nerds need to get a life.

Is it really that simple, though? Over the past few years, it’s become increasingly clear that fans of pop culture properties — whether movies, TV shows, books, video games, or anything else — don’t merely view them as forms of entertainment, or themselves as consumers of said media . . .

The underlying logic is fundamentally irrational: Because they’ve financially supported these industries their whole lives and received an embarrassing social stigma for doing so, these industries owe them. While being a fan gives you a legitimate emotional connection, the underlying relationship is still that of consumer with product.

Any loyalty that a fan feels is a personal choice about how to invest time and money; any choice made by a producer, from corporations to individuals, is done to promote their own self-interest. Because that involves appealing to as broad an audience as possible, this means ignoring some fans who insist on exclusivist attitudes.

What can be done about this? More than anything else, we need to change the conversation that we’re having about pop culture in general. For better or worse, the fact that an entire generation holds pop culture on such a pedestal means that the cultural has become political.

As a result, when a disproportionately large number of movies, TV shows, video games, and books feature white, straight and male characters at the expense of other groups, this is an inherently political act (deliberately or otherwise) and needs to be confronted . . . [and] conversely, it is terribly disheartening when the producers of entertainment refuse to recognize the cultural power they wield and utilize it in an inclusive way . . .

While it’s important  . . . to stand up to problematic trends and tropes in cultural products, we still need to remember that they are ultimately just that — products. There is a great deal to be said about a society that loves its popular culture so fervently that they will turn them into platforms on which greater social justice causes are fought.

For right now, though, it behooves all of us to take a step back and recognize that there is an air of entitlement which makes all of this possible, and none of us look good so long as it remains unaddressed.”

Maureen Honey’s New Book – Aphrodite’s Daughters

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

Cultural historian and theorist Maureen Honey has an essential new book out from Rutgers University Press.

As the website for the book notes, “the Harlem Renaissance was a watershed moment for racial uplift, poetic innovation, sexual liberation, and female empowerment. Aphrodite’s Daughters introduces us to three amazing women who were at the forefront of all these developments, poetic iconoclasts who pioneered new and candidly erotic forms of female self-expression.

Maureen Honey paints a vivid portrait of three African American women—Angelina Weld Grimké, Gwendolyn B. Bennett, and Mae V. Cowdery—who came from very different backgrounds but converged in late 1920s Harlem to leave a major mark on the literary landscape.

Honey examines the varied ways these poets articulated female sexual desire, ranging from Grimké’s invocation of a Sapphic goddess figure to Cowdery’s frank depiction of bisexual erotics to Bennett’s risky exploration of the borders between sexual pleasure and pain. Yet Honey also considers how they were united in their commitment to the female body as a primary source of meaning, strength, and transcendence.

The product of extensive archival research, Aphrodite’s Daughters draws from Grimké, Bennett, and Cowdery’s published and unpublished poetry, along with rare periodicals and biographical materials, to immerse us in the lives of these remarkable women and the world in which they lived. It thus not only shows us how their artistic contributions and cultural interventions were vital to their own era, but also demonstrates how the poetic heart of their work keeps on beating.”

Aphrodite’s Daughters has already attracted a great deal of favor able critical attention, with Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, author of Dorothy West’s Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color describing Aphrodite’s Daughters as ”an excellent book on a trio of under-read and often misunderstood poets. Maureen Honey’s portrait of this unique cadre of modernists reveals the fascinating conflicts of politics and poetics that exemplify the Harlem Renaissance’s artistic production.”

Cheryl A. Wall, author of Women of the Harlem Renaissance adds that ”Maureen Honey’s archival research and critical acumen transform our understanding of Gwendolyn Bennett, Mae Cowdery, and Angelina Grimké, poets who explored their interior and erotic lives with deft lyricism and uncommon courage.”

This is a stunning, groundbreaking piece of work – well worth your time and attention.

Wonder Woman Trailer Drops at Comic-Con

Saturday, July 23rd, 2016

The new Wonder Woman trailer just premiered at Comic-Con.

As Eliana Dockterman writes in Time Magazine, “The first Wonder Woman trailer premiered exclusively at San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday. The movie looks like it will deliver on female empowerment. In the trailer, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) finds a passed out Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) on the beach. ‘You’re a man?’ the warrior who has never seen the opposite sex before asks.

We see shots of Wonder Woman carrying a sword in a ballgown, fighting on horseback, blocking bullets in the World War I trenches with her shield and wielding her golden lasso of truth. Hammering home the message that Diana Prince is an independent woman, when Steve Trevor tells her, ‘I can’t let you do this,’ she replies: ‘What I do is not up to you.’

‘I wanted to portray this character in a way that everyone could relate too. Not only girls, not only boys, but men and women too,’ said Gal Gadot. ‘The world needs love and forgiveness in such a huge way. It’s not about who’s right anymore,’ director Patty Jenkins said during the panel. ‘We need heroes who are strong enough to be loving and forgiving . . . That’s what Wonder Woman in particular stands for.’”

With Patty Jenkins directing, there’s some hope for this, and the trailer looks like a typically loud and action packed comic book movie film, but on the poster for the film, Will Brooker perceptively noted in another article in Time by Raisa Bruner on the film that “I have not yet found a single male superhero poster that cuts his head off and focuses solely on body” – a sharp comment indeed.

Since the world is currently ruled by comic book films, it’s good that Jenkins and Gadot got a chance to compete in the big-budget arena, but just from the trailer, it seems like the film amps up the love relationship between Diana Prince and Steve Trevor over all the other plot elements, and somehow, I just don’t think it will be as solidly grounded as Lauren Montgomery’s 2009 animated Wonder Woman feature film – but then, that had a minuscule budget, and went straight to DVD.

Here, there’s more than $150 million at stake, just in getting the film to the screen, to say nothing of promotional and DCP “print” costs, as well as other exhibition expenses. But it has to be better than Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, though that’s setting the bar very low indeed. And Gal Gadot was the best thing about that film, so I hope this turns out as well as it possibly can, for all concerned.

For, as Raisa Bruner notes, “‘Power. Grace. Wisdom. Wonder,’ reads the stripped-down poster, which features a striking silhouette of Gadot against a fiery sky. Her iconic costume has gotten an update — they added knee guards and dropped the traditionally spangled tiny blue bottoms in favor of a simpler skirt, doubling down on the Amazonian origins of the character — but it’s the glinting sword in her hand that makes the strongest point. The takeaway? You don’t want to mess with this woman.”

It’s way overdue – should have happened decades ago – but at least now it’s here.

New Article – Kelly Reichardt: Working Against The Grain

Thursday, June 9th, 2016

I have a new article on the films of Kelly Reichardt in Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

As I write in the article on her film River of Grass, ”like so many of Reichardt’s protagonists, Cozy and Lee want to leave the lives they’re drifting through behind, but they have no clear idea – indeed no idea at all, what to do about it. They have no money, no real aim, in life, but they’re not so much hopeless as they are bereft of imagination. There’s a world out there beyond Florida, but somehow, home is home, and that’s where they seem to be stuck, in a state of permanent stasis.

And, of course, the film has many stylistic and thematic debts, which Reichardt is all too willing to acknowledge. As she told Iain Blair, in River of Grass ‘I can clearly see Godard’s influence, and noir and early Terrence Malick. It’s all laid quite bare.’ The film was recently restored as part of a Kickstarter campaign by Oscilloscope Laboratories, and released as an extra on Oscilloscope’s DVD of Reichardt’s ultra-realistic, almost existential Western Meek’s Cutoff (2010). It’s a solid first effort, and certainly offers an early clue to the direction her career was heading in.

Reichardt followed this up with two shorter films, Ode (1999), clocking in at 48 minutes, which is a sort of riff on the plot of the 1960s pop song hit Ode to Billy Joe, and then two very short films: Then A Year (2001), dealing with the consequences of a ‘crime of passion,’ and Travis (2004), centering on the human cost of Iraq war. But at the same time, Reichardt’s enthusiasm for making films had dwindled; these newer films were shorter, less ambitious, and she was clearly backpedaling in her career – indeed, she wondered if she had any real future as a filmmaker in any realistic sense, even working at the margins of the industry.

River of Grass has made something of a splash on the festival circuit, being nominated for Best First Feature, Best First Screenplay, and Best Debut Performance (Lisa Bowman), as well as the rather enigmatically named Someone to Watch Award at the 1996 Independent Spirit Awards, as well as being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994, and for Best Feature Film at the Torino International Festival of Young Cinema – but none of those nominations translated into a win, and gradually, the ‘heat’ surrounding Reichardt began to wear off.

As she admitted to Iain Blair, ‘making [River of Grass] was a real eye-opener, and even going to Sundance and all of it – that was my first realization that it was different for women in this business. There were just two of us women filmmakers at Sundance in ’94, and there was no sense of camaraderie or welcoming – no fault of Sundance. And I took it really personally and it took me a long time to get over it. That was a part of my retreating afterwards.

The other part was, I just couldn’t get financing, and it was so frustrating. I tried so hard to be a more avant-garde, less narrative filmmaker, but it just didn’t come naturally to me. I went to L.A. for a while, and Jodie Foster was going to produce a film I was doing, but it never got made. I simply didn’t have the social skills needed to operate in the business. So I went back to Super 8, which is what I’d done in college.

It seemed like nothing happened during my time in L.A., but I’d worked – in the art department – on Poison, and I became friends with (director) Todd Haynes. And he introduced me to (novelist) Jonathan Raymond, and one of his stories became the basis for Old Joy (2006) – but I had no idea when we did it that it’d even become a feature.’”

In short, it’s a tough world out there, but Kelly Reichardt keeps working, which is the only way to get anything to happen, no matter what your chosen field. Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall, but you can gain access through Love Library Reference, if you’re interested, and in the meantime, check out some of Reichardt’s superb films – she’s one of the most truly original directors working in America today.

That’s Kelly Reichardt – working against the grain.

Special Issue of Cinephile – Visions of the 60s

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

This came out in 2015, but somehow it slipped past my radar.

I have an essay in this issue of the excellent journal Cinephile on experimental cinema in the 1960s, Cinephile 11.1, “Visions of the Sixties.” As the journal’s website notes, “marking the tenth anniversary of the University of British Columbia’s Film Journal, this issue features articles by Wheeler Winston Dixon, David E. James, Victoria Kennedy, Andrew Marzoni, and Emma Pett, with an introduction by Timothy Scott Brown. For more information, please click here.”

It was a pleasure working with the editors of the journal, Molly Lewis and Angela Walsh, on the essay. I love the cover, which really captures the spirit of the era. As Timothy Scott Brown notes in an introductory essay for the issue, “if one theme or question emerges from the essays in this issue, it is about the status of popular culture as a field for the creation, elaboration, and consumption of the 1960s cultural revolution.

Wheeler Winston Dixon’s essay, ‘The End of the Real: 1960s Experimental Cinema, and The Loss of Cinema Culture,’ calls to mind the now (in some cases, literally) lost world of 1960s independent filmmaking, a world in which the notion of making art outside of normal channels of production and distribution was understood by its protagonists as its own form of radical praxis.

It is difficult to call to mind now, in an era of almost unlimited access to the cultural means of production—no further away than one’s laptop—the radical imperative at work in the artistic initiatives Dixon examines. Against the backdrop of our current and seemingly endless horizon of digital possibility, the technical inaccessibility of this earlier wave of underground art reads as particularly ironic.”

If you get a chance to pick up a copy, do so – it’s an excellent issue all around.

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. 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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