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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.

Lissa Price’s Enders Cover Debuts

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

And while we’re in a YA mood, the paperback edition of Lissa Price’s Starters debuts tomorrow — and here’s a sneak peek at the cover of the sequel, Enders.

As Breia Brissey writes in today’s edition of Entertainment Weekly, “the paperback version of Starters, author Lissa Price’s debut novel, hits shelves tomorrow. In honor of the re-release—complete with a new look, and a never-been-seen short story “Portrait of a Spore”—we got our hands on the cover of Enders, the sequel to the 2012 YA novel, due out January 7, 2014.” Starters and Enders are the hot new young adult novels on the scene; the film versions of these books are a natural, because both novels offer something new and fresh for readers and viewers, rather than rehashing yet another tired franchise.

Lissa Price can really write page turning stuff, and these books are both really fast paced, absorbing reading, no matter what your age. Starters really impressed me — assured, fast moving, great characters, and an absolutely original plot. And to top it off, if you click here, or on the image above, you can see a brief preview from Enders – about ten compelling pages that will leave you wanting more, right now – at the bottom of the page.

Check it out — after The Hunger Games, this is the next big thing!

Book: Hopper by Tom Folsom

Friday, June 14th, 2013

Tom Folsom’s new book on the life and work of Dennis Hopper is a knockout.

Madman, shaman, mystic, brilliant actor and filmmaker and a complete pain in the neck, Dennis Hopper started out in the early 50s with a chip on his shoulder and enormous talent, falling in with James Dean and appearing in Rebel Without A Cause, though clashes with the director, Nicholas Ray, caused his part in the film to be severely cut down. What followed was an epic journey through the last days of the Hollywood studio system, the making of the counter-culture classic Easy Rider, and his lost masterpiece, The Last Movie, which as Folsom makes clear went through so many different edits that a “definitive” version of the work is almost impossible to identify. After that, a spiral into drugs and madness, and then one of the biggest comebacks in film history in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a whole second career as a director of his own films, an artist, and a world class collector of other people’s work.

Using archival sources and interviews, writing in a free form style reminiscent of both Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, Folsom paints a compelling, multifaceted picture of this deeply conflicted and influential filmmaker, pursued by countless demons of his own making, and yet still able to create work of lasting beauty and quality despite it all. I met Hopper just once, at a screening of The Last Movie at Preview Theater in New York in 1971, just before the film came out; I was editing one of my own films there, and stumbled into him in the hallway, looking for change for the Coke machine. He invited me to the screening, which was specially set up for critic Judith Crist — who clearly didn’t like or understand the film — and was polite and forthcoming about the difficulties of the film even for an unsympathetic viewer, which Crist clearly was. Universal hated the movie, too, and dumped it in one theater, where it closed in a few weeks; never mind that it had won the Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

For myself, I was knocked out by the film, and had another connection to it — my friend and colleague Brad Darrach at Life Magazine, where I worked as a writer and critic in 1969-70, had gone down to South America for the shoot, and witnessed all the madness, excess and brilliance of the production first hand, so I had a pretty good idea what to expect. Sadly, and somewhat amazingly, the film isn’t available legally on DVD, though bootlegs and downloads abound, perhaps appropriately for such an outlaw film. But it would seem that it’s time for Universal to put out The Last Movie in an official version, so that everyone can see for themselves what Hopper was capable of when left alone with a decent budget and complete creative freedom, including final cut — one of the most adventurous, challenging, and utterly original movies ever made.

Until then, The Last Movie is yet another “lost” film that needs a DVD release; in the meantime, read Tom Folsom’s book.

Robert Downey Jr. and Sr.

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

I have known Robert Downey Sr. since the late 1960s in New York.

Robert Downey Sr. is a remarkable filmmaker in his own right; you can check out my blog on the recent Criterion release of some of his early films for more proof of this. He’s also, of course, the father of Robert Downey Jr., whose recent success is one of the more amazing comeback stories in cinema history; a brilliant actor whose life nearly spun out of control, he’s now the star of two franchises, the Iron Man series and the recently rejuvenated Sherlock Holmes series, and has never delivered a bad performance. In a recent issue of Esquire, Downey Jr. remembered the “tough love” that his father dished out at one point in his life, to help in him get back on the straight and narrow:

“The greatest thing my dad taught me came one day when I called him from a phone booth and said, ‘Hungry. No bus token. Please. Out of options. Friends aren’t picking up the phone.’

He said, ‘Pfft, get a job.’

I couldn’t believe it. He just completely stiffed me. I thought I had this guy by some sort of guilt hook still. I thought I could at least get five bucks or something. He said, ‘Call your friends.’

I said, ‘I called them.’

He said, ‘Get a job.’

I said, ‘Dad, where am I going to get a job in enough time to get a paycheck and eat a slice of pizza?’

He said, ‘Enough.’

And you know what? I made do. The next phone call was to some Irish chick whose dad was out of town, and I wound up over at her place. And pretty soon I had a job. I wouldn’t wish that lesson on an enemy. But, you know, sometimes you just gotta be drop-kicked out of the nest.

And by the way, I don’t think those lessons are exclusive to your formative years. I think that human beings tend to keep re-creating some secret, covert mess as they go along.

What do they call it in pop psychology — your comfort zone? I have such a deep empathy for seeing someone’s private Idaho crushed. But it’s the only thing that ever really gets you to the next level, right?”

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

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

Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture by Ian Olney

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

Here’s an excellent new book on European horror cinema by Ian Olney, from Indiana UP.

This is a book that has been long in the making, and the effort and work show on every page. Olney does a superb job tracking modern European horror films from Italy, Spain and France, in a style that is at once academically rigorous and at the same time absolutely accessible; in short, this is a theoretical text that doesn’t drown itself in artificial systematizing or outdated jargon. Instead, this is a lively, informed, authoritative text on a group of films that have become increasingly influential in horror filmmaking in the United States, exploring the work of such artists as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava and many, many others.

As the jacket copy notes, “beginning in the 1950s, ‘Euro Horror’ movies materialized in astonishing numbers from Italy, Spain, and France and popped up in the US at rural drive-ins and urban grindhouse theaters such as those that once dotted New York’s Times Square. Gorier, sexier, and stranger than most American horror films of the time, they were embraced by hardcore fans and denounced by critics as the worst kind of cinematic trash. In this volume, Olney explores some of the most popular genres of Euro Horror cinema—including giallo films, named for the yellow covers of Italian pulp fiction, the S&M horror film, and cannibal and zombie films—and develops a theory that explains their renewed appeal to audiences today.”

The first reviews are already in, and they are raves:

“From lesbian vampires to cannibal zombies, this remarkable book charts the rise and fall of the European horror film, and most significantly its rediscovery by Western fans and critics in the 21st century. In a style both sophisticated and lucid, Olney examines key films and filmmakers within their national and international contexts. Guaranteed to send scholars and fans running back to their DVD outlets, either to discover or revisit some of the oddest and most provocative horror films of all time.” —Harry M. Benshoff, author of Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film.

“Ian Olney’s new book takes us on a journey into the dark world of European horror cinema. He offers up fascinating analyses of individual Eurohorror films while also, more provocatively, arguing for the value of Eurohorror generally to a contemporary politics of identity. Not everyone will agree with what Olney has to say, but his approach is always thoughtful and accessible and it demands our attention. This is an important contribution to the literature on horror cinema.” —Peter Hutchings, author of The Historical Dictionary of Horror Cinema

“Olney takes on a cinema that, much like the monsters it features, keeps coming back no matter how often you kill it. His welcome study traces the emergence, disappearance, and return of Euro-Horror within US culture since the fifties, its revilers and devotees, its subversive potential, and its echoes in the work of filmmakers like Haneke, von Trier, or Almódovar. In the process, Olney explodes the last of our treasured binaries: art vs. schlock, “real” vs. fan scholar, hack vs. auteur, progressive vs. regressive movie.” —Linda Schulte-Sasse, Macalester College

This last quote really sums up the book’s impressive achievement: Olney really does “the last of our treasured binaries: art vs. schlock, “real” vs. fan scholar, hack vs. auteur, progressive vs. regressive movie,” documenting the varying ways in which these films are apprehended by audiences around the globe, and the ways in which they transcend the boundaries of genre and artificial binaries to reach out to the widest possible audience.

This is a book to buy, and read, at once.

Death of The Moguls Radio Interview with Mark Lynch

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, watches rushes in his screening room.

This afternoon, I had the good fortune to talk with Mark Lynch for his NPR show Inquiry from WICN radio, on my new book Death of the Moguls. In the 1930s and 40s the great Hollywood studios were ruled by a small group of men who had complete control over which films got made and what stars got to appear in those films. These moguls rule was absolute and together they had a feeling of “absolute immortality.” They were the real gods of Hollywood. But after they died, the era of the classic Hollywood studio also came to an end and the studios lost their individual identities. Here, I get a chance to talk about the book with Mark Lynch; we ran out of time just as we were getting started! Hope to do it again.

Click here, or on the image above, to hear the entire half hour show.

Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

Captain Marvel was the first comic book superhero to hit the screen.

A lot of people probably don’t know that Captain Marvel, originally a comic book character for Fawcett Publications, was the first superhero whose exploits were adapted for the screen, in a Republic Pictures serial from 1941, directed by William Witney (Quentin Tarantino’s favorite director) and John English. With an epic running time of 216 minutes, the serial played out in 12 chapters, spread out over 12 Saturday mornings, when it would run as a continuing feature as part of the Saturday matinee program at movie theaters. Serials in the sound era ended production in 1956, and the genre had been around since the silent era, but among serial aficionados, Republic’s serials have a special place of pride as being the most slickly produced and directed, with superb special effects by Howard and Theodore Lydecker, and non-stop, pulse pounding action.

As Wikipedia notes of Captain Marvel’s genesis and production, the “Adventures of Captain Marvel is a 1941 twelve-chapter film serial directed by John English and William Witney for Republic Pictures, adapted from the popular Captain Marvel comic book character then appearing in Fawcett Comics [. . .] during an archaeological expedition to Siam, the Malcolm Archaelogical Expedition unearths the lost Golden Scorpion, an ancient, multi-lensed statue with a curse attached, which has the power to transmute base metals into gold, but also to destroy those who seek to misuse its power. Billy Batson [Frank Coghlan, Jr.], a young man who has tagged along on the expedition, meets the ancient wizard Shazam, who grants him the power to become Captain Marvel [Tom Tyler] and protect those who may be in danger from the Scorpion’s curse.

The lenses from the Golden Scorpion are divided among five scientists of the Expedition, but a black-hooded villain known as the Scorpion then attempts to acquire all of the lenses and the Scorpion device itself. Several expedition members are killed in the Scorpion’s quest despite Captain Marvel’s continual efforts to thwart him. Deducing that the Scorpion always seems to know what goes on at all the meetings with the scientists, Billy later confides his suspicions to his friends, Betty Wallace [Louise Currie] and Whitey Murphy [William Benedict], that the Scorpion might be one of the archaeological team.

The Scorpion later discovers the connection between Billy and Captain Marvel. After capturing him, the Scorpion interrogates Billy for the secret. Billy transforms into Captain Marvel and reveals the Scorpion to be one of the last surviving scientists, who is then killed by an angry Siamese native. Captain Marvel tosses the scorpion statue into a volcano’s molten lava to prevent it from ever being used for evil. Once it is destroyed, Captain Marvel is instantly transformed back into Billy Batson [. . .]

Adventures of Captain Marvel was budgeted at $135,553, although the final negative cost was actually $145,588 (a $10,035, or 7.4%, overspend) — [still a mere $2,330,151.43 in 2012 dollars]. It was filmed between December 23, 1940 and January 30, 1941 under the working title Captain Marvel. The serial was an outgrowth of Republic’s failed attempt at a serial which would feature National Periodical Publications [today known as DC Comics]’s Superman. When DC refused to grant Republic the rights to the character, Republic approached Fawcett Comics, and struck a deal to bring Captain Marvel to the screen. Captain Marvel was actually more popular the Superman as a comic book character at the time, outselling Superman by a a considerable margin.

Director William Witney was, however, skeptical about trying to film Captain Marvel after the legal problems with Superman, but the serial went ahead on schedule. DC attempted legal action to prevent the filming, citing Republic’s previous attempt at a Superman serial, but was unsuccessful. Adventures of Captain Marvel was a huge success at the box office, and is considered by many to be Republic’s finest chapter play of the 66 serials the company produced. About a decade later, following a legal battle with DC and a declining market, Fawcett ceased publication of all its comic series. In the 1970s, the Captain Marvel family of characters was licensed and revived (and ultimately purchased) by DC Comics.”

The problem with Republic serials for the contemporary viewer, however, is that almost none of them are available in DVD format. When VHS tapes were first introduced, Republic put out most their serials in excellent two-tape transfers, necessitated by the long running time of each production, but when DVDs were phased in, for some reason, the serials never made the jump to the new format. Happily, Adventures of Captain Marvel is the exception to that rule, and is readily available on a legal DVD from Artisan Releasing and Republic Pictures, in a sparkling transfer.

If you’re interested in the history of comic book films, this is indispensable viewing.

Colour Films in Britain: The Negotiation of Innovation 1900-1955

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

Here is an essential volume on the history of color (or colour) in British cinema.

Sarah Street’s groundbreaking study, Colour Films in Britain: The Negotiation of Innovation 1900-1955, on the development of color in the British cinema, is that rare film history text which is at once absolutely authoritative, and pitched at a very high level in terms of discourse, but still readily accessible to the general reader. In addition, the volume is richly — and I mean intensely – illustrated with numerous, exquisitely printed frame blowups from the many films it examines, all in full color, and Street’s analysis of the development of color, not only in the commercial British cinema, but also in the the experimental work of artists such as Len Lye, is meticulous and detailed.

As the British Film Institute’s website for the book notes, “how did the coming of colour change the British film industry? Unlike sound, the arrival of colour did not revolutionise the industry overnight. For British film-makers and enthusiasts, colour was a controversial topic. While it was greeted by some as an exciting development – with scope for developing a uniquely British aesthetic – others were deeply concerned. How would audiences accustomed to seeing black-and-white films – which were commonly regarded as being superior to their garish colour counterparts – react? Yet despite this initial trepidation, colour captivated many British inventors and film-makers. Using different colour processes, these innovators produced films that demonstrated remarkable experimentation and quality.

Sarah Street’s illuminating study is the first to trace the history of colour in British cinema, and analyses the use of colour in a range of films, both fiction and non-fiction, including The Open Road, The Glorious Adventure, This is Colour, Blithe Spirit, This Happy Breed, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffmann and Moulin Rouge. Beautifully illustrated with full colour film stills, this important study provides fascinating insights into the complex process whereby the challenges and opportunities of new technologies are negotiated within creative practice. The book also includes a Technical Appendix by Simon Brown, which provides further details of the range of colour processes used by British film-makers.”

One of the most interesting aspects of British color cinematography that Street takes pains to point out is the ways in which British cinematographers changed the “look” of the three-strip Technicolor process from the hard, bright, bold colors used in many American films during the same era, such as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and other Hollywood projects. As she demonstrates, color was used in a variety of ways in the British cinema, with much more variation than in the States; effectively muted in the superb film This Happy Breed to convey the drabness of workaday British life during World War II, or strikingly bold in the films of The Archers — Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), of which my favorite is probably A Matter of Life and Death (known as Stairway to Heaven in the United States).

There are a number of books presently available dealing with the use of color in film, and the problem with many of them is that in describing the works they examine, they often fall back on black and white illustrations to demonstrate their case, astonishing as that may seem. Color printing is expensive, but in this case, using an excellent and sensitive paper stock, Street has managed to create a book at a very reasonable price that is bursting with color images from the many films she discusses, so much so that the book becomes almost a coffee table book, gorgeous simply for the images it contains, as well as an excellent study of the various color processes used in the UK from 1900 to 1955.

The is a prodigious accomplishment; indeed, it is a masterwork. Essential for anyone with a serious interest in color in the cinema, British or otherwise.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/