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Cal Newport’s Book “Deep Work”

Tuesday, November 29th, 2016

Cal Newport’s Deep Work is a book with an important, yet really simple message.

One of the unfortunate by-products of the digital era – and there any many plusses, so don’t get me wrong on this – is that there’s so much noise, so much chatter, so much social media static that sitting down and getting any real, substantial work done is a real challenge. Quentin Tarantino, for example, found it impossible to work on a script on a computer that was wired into the web; so now, he works on a machine that isn’t hooked up to anything, so he can simply concentrate on the task at hand, without the temptation to surf the web every so often, even to check a fact. He can do that later.

The important thing is to keep working, keep writing, and finish whatever it is you’re working on in one continuous blast, and then go back and clean it up later. The late Roger Ebert was an adherent to this philosophy; keep going to the end, and then edit. I do the same thing with my books and articles – I write everything by hand, to avoid the distraction of the web entirely, and then have it typed up, and edit that draft. You’d be surprised at the number of people who do the same thing. It’s one thing to write a book directly on a computer, but it’s much more intimate to simply have yourself, the page, and a pen to work with, and results are often much better.

Newport’s central thesis is essentially “get rid of all distractions, get the work done, find a space where you’ll be left alone, and drill down until it’s finished.” That’s a paraphrase, of course, but it’s the essence of the book. Newport, a computer scientist, is in love with code and Power Point presentations and Excel spread sheets, which many of us are not – myself included – but surprisingly, even though he works in a world of 1s and 0s, his guiding principles work in any area of creative endeavor.

As Newport puts it, “deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep—spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.”

After finishing the book, I wrote Newport discussing this, and he replied “I appreciate the kind words and agree strongly with the premise that Deep Work cuts across many different fields and pursuits,” which is absolutely true. In an era in which superficial click bait and fake news articles proliferate with alarming regularity, it’s nice to come across a book that says, essentially, “you can do better. You can do serious work that will have a real impact. You can do work that has real depth, and it’s the most valuable work to do. All you have to do it create a space for yourself, and your thoughts, and then just keep at it until you’ve got something real down on paper, or on film, or video, or whatever your discipline might be.”

Simply put, Newport provides a solid blueprint for thoughtful, considered creative work – whatever your area of expertise –  and that’s a much needed concept in this age of instant information and immediate gratification. This is, in short, a very useful book, whose central theme can be distilled into this guiding maxim:

Avoid superficial work. Tune the digital world out, and do Deep Work. In the end, it has much more value.

Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media

Monday, November 28th, 2016

When the lights go out, strange things can happen.

Allison Meier has an excellent article in Hyperalleric (fast becoming one of my favorite online journals) on a remarkable new book, Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media by Noam M. Elcott was released earlier this year by the University of Chicago Press.

As Meier writes, “Elcott’s Artificial Darkness navigates this human-made gloam through a series of sites and individuals, such as Étienne-Jules Marey at his 19th-century Physiological Station in France. There Marey photographed movement against a black screen, with participants dressed partly in black, to emphasize certain motions while masking other parts of the body.

Elcott also emphasizes how darkness in the theater, whether for cinema or drama, is a relatively recent norm. At the turn of the century, a dark theater might have been referred to as ‘Wagnerian,’ referencing German composer Richard Wagner’s Festival Theater, which had a successful 1876 debut. Before that, a theater was ‘a space to see and be seen, two aims that were often in conflict.’

Elcott notes that ‘artificial darkness was, above all, a technology of visibility and invisibility.’  Of course, this new immersion of the audience into a tantalizing night quickly sparked fears about scandalous behavior, with reactionary actions such as the British National Council of Public Morals’s issuing the 1917 report ’The Moral Danger of Darkness.’ Nevertheless, the dark emphasis on the stage endured, and Elcott highlights later artists like Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus performers that involved the obscurity of dark space in avant-garde theater.

‘Modern artificial darkness negated the negative qualities ascribed to its timeless counterpart: divorced from nature and metaphor, highly controlled and circumscribed, it was a technology that fused humans and images,’ Elcott writes. ‘More precisely, controlled artificial darkness negated space, disciplined bodies, and suspended corporeality in favor of the production and reception of images.’

Artificial Darkness is definitely an academic book, although its thorough text is beautifully illustrated with the ghosts conjured with magic lanterns in Étienne-Gaspard Robert’s 19th-century phantasmagoria, ‘Black Art’ shows from the 1890s when skeletons hovered in inky space, held aloft by hidden performers, and Georges Méliès’s early 20th-century films that conjured fantastic illusions through dark screens, such as making heads of actors disappear [see above].

From the photography darkroom to the disorientation of time in theatrical spaces, the 19th and 20th centuries radically changed our perception of darkness, from a state of night and shadows, to an artificial setting for spectral spectacles.” This is a fascinating study, and despite Meier’s warning that it’s primarily an academic tome, the general reader will still find it visually enthralling – a study of a long vanished time, when “artificial darkness” was a relatively new phenomenon.

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

The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

As Allison Meier writes in the website Hyperallergic, Hollywood’s background art has long been ignored.

As Meier notes, “when backdrop painters were successful at their jobs, the filmgoing audience didn’t notice their work at all. From the 1930s, up to the emergence of CGI and higher quality photography, painted backings were an essential part of the cinema industry.

However, the artists were barely credited, no matter how important their transformation of reality was to a film — whether a colossal painting that transported the viewer to an exotic locale or a fantastic mural for an entirely fictional realm. The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop by Karen L. Maness and Richard M. Isackes, out now from Regan Arts, is a visual compendium of over 300 images highlighting this unheralded history.

‘These special effect backings, the largest paintings ever created, were breathtaking in their artistic and technical virtuosity,’ the authors write. They note that although the ’majority of backings used today are digitally printed photographic enlargements,’ the painted backdrop still remains a part of film, albeit in a reduced role:

But, paradoxically, the painted image often looks more realistic than the photographic image. Scenic artists can manipulate backings by adjusting light, color, and texture, helping to support the movie camera’s constructed image. Some information and details can be selectively accentuated, while others can be deemphasized. A photograph, on the other hand, is static and has a tendency to contradict the artifice of the rest of the setting.

They also point out how recent films, like 2004’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and 2014’s Interstellar, also incorporated painted backings to instill an otherworldly atmosphere. Most of the book is concentrated on artists who made significant contributions to the “golden age” of Hollywood.

Before the 1930s, films were often staged like theater, backgrounds not intended to be viewed as anything other than flat space. Then emerged films like 1936’s The Petrified Forest. Shot entirely at the Warner Bros studio in Burbank, California, all its scenes were set in the Arizona desert, with realistic backdrops integral to moving the action, even if the actors didn’t go anywhere.

You probably haven’t heard the backdrop artists’ names — although Salvador Dalí makes a brief appearance with his dream sequence backing for the 1945 Alfred Hitchcock film Spellbound.

You’ve almost certainly seen their work, even if your brain perceived it as a real three-dimensional space, such as George Gibson’s scenic art for the Wizard of Oz or North by Northwest, and Ben Carré’s artwork for classics like The Phantom of the Opera. No matter the place, the painted backdrop was crucial to the audience’s immersion in the cinematic world.”

A fascinating look at an under-appreciated art form; well worth checking out.

Dan Duryea – Heel With A Heart

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

One of Hollywood’s m0st enduring character actors finally has a solid biography.

Here’s an excellent, thoroughly researched biography by Mike Peros of one of Hollywood’s most memorable “heavies,” Dan Duryea, who introduced a new level of menace and cynicism to “noir” films starting in the mid 1940s, and continued on in a string of memorable roles in Ministry of Fear (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Black Angel (1946), Too Late for Tears (1949), and the brutal western Winchester ’73 (1950), usually top-billed as one of the main attractions of the film. As Peros makes clear, however, in real life Duryea was a dedicated family man with a long marriage, two sons, and was even the leader of a Boy Scout Troup in the 1950s, in sharp contrast to his ne’er-do-well on-screen image.

As the 1960s dawned, Duryea worked more in television and second features, but always brought an air of relaxed skill to all his roles.  The death of his wife Helen in 1967 hit Duryea hard, but he kept working – both out of financial necessity and dedication to his craft. Duryea’s final role was as the con man Eddie Jacks on the television series Peyton Place, in 60 episodes from 1967 to 1968, the year of his death. Though Duryea often felt limited by the parts he was offered, he lived to work, and kept delivering polished performances right up to the end of his life. Well illustrated, with a comprehensive filmography and a complete index, the book offers a detailed overview of a true Hollywood professional.

Long overdue, this is a book that aficionados of classical Hollywood will deeply appreciate.

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.”

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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