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wheelerwinstondixon.com

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

I’ve moved my website to wheelerwinstondixon.com – follow me there!

Take a look at the image above, and you’ll see how it works.

The new website is much cleaner, has more information, and works more smoothly.

At the top left, there’s an “about” tab, where you can also download my complete cv as a pdf; next to that there are two tabs covering the 32 books that I’ve written, with the covers on display as clickable links that go directly to information on each title; next to that is a tab that goes to some 30 online articles of mine that are available out of the nearly 100 that I have written over the years; then comes a link to the Frame by Frame videos that I’ve made, with a clickable link to a carousel playlist that starts automatically and takes you through more than 70 titles; then a tab for this blog; then a tab for my film work — I have a show coming up in New York this Spring, 2014 — and finally a contact page, where you can e-mail me if you wish to.

This is where you will find me from now on; the old website is dead, so let’s move on into the future.

Some Thoughts on Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, and The Ephemeral Nature of Pop Celebrity

Saturday, December 28th, 2013

Miley Cyrus, in yellow blouse, cheers on Britney Spears at the opening night performance of her Piece of Me show at the Planet Hollywood Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, December 28, 2013.

Like everyone else who follows popular culture, I’ve been aware of Madonna, Britney Spears, and more recently Miley Cyrus, as power pop performers who deliberately court “controversy.” During the summer of 1999, when I was guest lecturing at The University of Amsterdam, Britney Spears was exploding out of every record store in the city, as well as on The Box, a 24/7 music cable television station that played Britney’s hits in heavy rotation. My Dutch students bought her CDs, played them incessantly, and her early hits became instant teen anthems.

Britney Spears was just 18 at the time, but already the ruling pop star of the era, eclipsing Madonna’s long reign as the queen of pop, something Madonna was smart enough to acknowledge and embrace, thus assuring her own continued longevity as a performer. Now, Britney Spears is 32 years old, and what seemed easy at 18 is considerably more difficult. Spears went into a well-publicized meltdown a few years back, which seemed to me an utterly genuine cry for help; shaving her head bald on impulse, acting out in public, seemingly unable to handle the undoubted pressures of stardom anymore.

Now, Britney’s back, for a two-year residency at the Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, in a glitzy, lavish show entitled Piece of Me, something out of Cirque de Soleil. The show opened to middling reviews this past Friday, December 28, 2013. Spears is committed to doing roughly 90 shows through 2015, with more in the offing if things go well. This is, make no mistake about it, a major production, whether you care for this sort of thing or not. A lot is at stake, not least of which is Britney’s continued currency as a pop icon.

It’s also very hard work; E! aired a two hour documentary on the pre-production of the show just before it opened, which actually had some substance for a change, illustrating just how many people, how much money, how much rehearsal, how much time, energy, and blood, sweat and years went into creating the entire spectacle.

Performers suffered injuries, dance routines were drilled into Britney’s surrounding ensemble in non-stop rehearsals, enormous sets built, elaborate videos shot, and in what seems to me to be a rather questionable choice simply from a safety angle, Britney spends part of the show suspended in the air on wires as an angel, and later swoops out of a giant revolving tree, also with the aid of wires, as her troupe of dancers do everything they possibly can to showcase her to best advantage.

For, truth to be told, Britney’s dance work isn’t as crisp now as it was in 1999; how could it be? She’s older now, and more careful. Watching a video of the entire concert in segments, it’s clear that Britney is leaving heavily on her support staff at this point. She needs the spectacle to prop her up, as she rockets through a medley of past hits as well some new material, with an air of detached and somewhat bewildered resignation. This is her job, she needs the money, and if this is what it takes to keep on top, she’ll dutifully hit her marks and deliver.

Yet another graduate of the Disney stable, Spears is above all a professional performer, and has been a star since she was a child. Her meltdown was all but inevitable as she morphed from teen idol into adulthood, but now she seems to be grounded in the one true ethic that always gets professionals though anything: work, work, and more work. And I personally have no doubt that she’ll get through this two year gig, hopefully bank some cash, and then perhaps consider retiring.

But in the audience on her first night, in one of the front rows, was the new pop tart of the moment, Miley Cyrus, whose recent “provocative” videos “Wrecking Ball” and “Adore You” have grabbed literally hundreds of millions of views on YouTube. She’s clearly the next big threat on the horizon. Ostensibly, Miley just came to Britney’s show, and that was all.

But in what might be construed as an incredibly smart and yet seemingly generous gesture, Miley stood in the front row throughout Britney’s entire opening night performance, not hanging back, but rather singing along to the hits word for word, exhorting the audience to higher peaks of frenzy with shrieks of delight, jumping up and down in time to the music, pumping her fist in the air, at one with the music. It was her show, too.

It was clear to me what was happening; like the famous Madonna/Britney kiss at the VMA awards at Radio City Music Hall on August 28, 2003, in which Madonna both acknowledged and passed the torch to Spears as the next ruling princess of pop, this was the moment when the past met the future. With Miley simultaneously paying court to Britney while also amplifying her own celebrity, the 21 year old pop star was there to pay homage, but also to announce to the world that she, Miley Cyrus, was the new pop diva.

After the show, Britney tweeted “@MileyCyrus Love you so much! Thank you for coming to #PieceOfMe! I adore you :) ,” and she’s right to be grateful; Miley Cyrus really pushed Britney through her all-important first night, and got plenty of publicity for her herself in the process. Help a friend out, and help yourself out at the same time; it’s very convenient. It was abundantly clear that a lot was riding on Britney’s “comeback,” and Miley’s fame and energy was certainly an asset.

But as I watched, I wondered; what will Miley feel like when she’s 32, and the white-hot blast furnace of pop fame has cooled a bit? Yet another Disney alumnus herself, Miley Cyrus may well find herself doing a residency gig in some other Vegas hotel, as the newest pop diva of the era cheers her on, while also signaling her obsolescence. One day, perhaps, Madonna, Britney and Miley will team up together for a triple threat show, say in 2023 or so, in response to the attention being paid to the next big pop female star, whomever she may be.

Audrey Totter

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

“If you haven’t got enough brains to agree with me, then keep your mouth shut. From here on in, I’m answering all the questions — got it?”

Audrey Totter, one of the great noir stars of the screen in the 1940s, has died; as Matt Schudel noted in The Washington Post, “Totter, an actress who specialized in playing temptresses, dangerous dames and women harboring dark schemes in a series of movies from Hollywood’s film noir period of the 1940s and ’50s, died Dec. 12 at a hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif. She was 95. She had congestive heart failure after a stroke, her daughter, Mea Lane, said.

Miss Totter first set the screen afire with a small but sizzling part in the 1946 noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice [. . .] Over the next several years, Miss Totter was in demand as one of Hollywood’s sexiest and most alluring actresses, often playing cynical and malevolent women who, in the words of film historian Eddie Muller, ‘had a heart as big and warm as an ice cube.’ [. . .]

‘For years nobody bothered with me — didn’ t know who I was, didn’t care,’ she told the Toronto Star in 2000. ‘Now I’m recognized on the street, I’m asked for my autograph, I get loads of fan mail. Who knew these movies would be so popular 50 years later? Maybe it’s because the world isn’t like that anymore. The fantasy of it. They painted with light in those days, it’s a look that just isn’t done anymore.”

She acted in radio dramas before going to Hollywood and signing on as a contract player with MGM. After film noir began to fade in the 1950s, she acted in westerns and television, including a recurring role as a nurse on Medical Center in the 1970s. Miss Totter’s final acting role came in 1987, when she appeared on an episode of Angela Lansbury’s Murder, She Wrote. She continued to receive offers but seldom found anything that appealed to her.

‘What could I play?’ she asked in 2000. ‘A nice grandmother? Boring! Critics always said I acted best with a gun in my hand.’”

Colin Wilson

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

Colin Wilson drinking tea in his London flat, 1957.

I was saddened to hear of the recent death of Colin Wilson, a brilliant if erratic writer who wrote at least one excellent book, The Outsider, and a raft of other volumes, numbering nearly 100 in all, with the best among them being The Mind Parasites, the first edition of Poetry and Mysticism (the revised version ruined the book), The Space Vampires, and numerous other works. Much of what he wrote was junk, and he often seemed to keep writing until he could figure out what he really wanted to say, filling up the pages in a seemingly unending stream while striving to get at some almost indefinable conclusion.

But ultimately, if he was an outsider, Wilson was essentially an optimist, which is refreshing in itself. As he told one interviewer, “in The Outsider my starting point was all those 19th century writers and artists who came to a sad end, and who ended by saying (in the words of a friend of mine) ‘the answer to life is no.’ My reaction was like that of an accountant who is reacting to the statement ‘We had better declare bankruptcy.’  [My response was] ‘No, no, no.  You’ve plenty of better alternatives.’”

One of his books, The Space Vampires, was made into a truly terrible film by Tobe Hooper, and his outrageous ego – “I suspect that I am probably the greatest writer of the 20th century,” he told the British newspaper The Guardian in 2006. “In 500 years’ time, they’ll say, ‘Wilson was a genius,’ because I’m a turning point in intellectual history” - assured his critical marginalization. But despite his faults, his best work does offer an early clue to a new direction, and for that, I will miss Colin Wilson and his work.

Happy 105th Birthday Manoel de Oliveira!

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Manoel de Oliveira, the oldest active director in film history, will be 105 years young on December 11, 2013.

As I wrote in Film Quarterly 66.2 (Winter 2012), “Manoel de Oliveira remarked on the occasion of his 103rd birthday two years ago that ‘whether we like it or not, it [death] will come one day, but generally people are not in a hurry, and I personally have never been in a hurry in my life; this is perhaps why I reached this age.’

At 105, the Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is the oldest living filmmaker still actively working within the industry, and also the filmmaker with the longest career in the cinema, having directed films since 1927, beginning with a tantalizing project on the First World War that was never completed. His first real project was completed in 1931.

If you consider that 1927 project Oliveira’s baptism in the cinema, then he’s been a director for 87 years – longer than most of us manage simply to stay alive. During all this time, he’s developed a style that is so uniquely his own as to be instantly identifiable, something like the rigorousness of Straub and Huillet with a more emotional and less didactic edge, but nevertheless still challenging for most viewers.

But the good news is that the world has finally caught up with Manoel de Oliveira after nearly a century’s worth of work; at last, he’s being acknowledged as an absolute master of the cinema. And he has a project in the works for 2014 – long live Manoel!”

You can read the entire article on JStor by clicking here.

New Book: Cinema at The Margins

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

I have a new book out today, Cinema at The Margins, from Anthem Press, London.

More and more, just a few canonical classics, such as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) or Victor Fleming’s Gone With The Wind (1939), are representing the entire output of an era to a new generation that knows little of the past, and is encouraged by popular media to live only in the eternal present. What will happen to the rest of the films that enchanted, informed and transported audiences in the 1930s, 1940s, and even as recently as the 1960s?

For the most part, these films will be forgotten, and their makers with them. In this book, I argue that even obvious historical markers such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) represent shockingly unknown territory for the majority of today’s younger viewers; and yet once exposed to these films, they are enthralled by them. In the 1980s and 1990s, the more adventurous video stores served a vital function as annals of classic cinema. Today, those stores are gone and the days of this kind of browsing are over.

This collection of essays aims to highlight some of the lesser-known films of the past – the titles that are being pushed aside and forgotten in today’s oversaturation of the present. The work is divided into four sections, rehabilitating the films and filmmakers who have created some of the most memorable phantom visions of the past century, but who, for whatever reason, have not successfully made the jump into the contemporary consciousness.

“Few have explored the cinematic margins as thoroughly as Wheeler Winston Dixon, and few match his talent for finding and celebrating the secret glories of overlooked, undervalued films. Gliding from Peter Bogdanovich to Myra Breckinridge by way of Robert Bresson, this is an exciting and ever-surprising collection.” —David Sterritt, Columbia University and Chair, National Society of Film Critics

“The marginalization of important films is a constant threat in the age of the New Hollywood blockbuster, with commercial cinema reduced to a cheap thrill and the audience conceived as adolescents. Dixon’s thoughtful remarks on neglected films testify not only to his own fine sensibility, but to the urgency of the concerns he sets before us.” —Christopher Sharrett, Seton Hall University

You can read more here, or click on the image above; available now from Amazon in all formats.

The Invisible Cinema of Marcel Hanoun

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

I have an new essay in Film International on the deeply underappreciated filmmaker Marcel Hanoun.

As I note at the beginning of my article, “When Marcel Hanoun died on September 22, 2012 at the age of 82, it caused barely a ripple in the media, and even in the world of experimental cinema. And yet Hanoun was a major filmmaker, whose near total critical eclipse after an initial burst of critical interest is an indictment of cinema history as a function of canon. It’s true that Hanoun’s films are difficult, but no more so than Jean-Luc Godard’s, who was a fan of Hanoun’s work; it’s true that Hanoun turned his back on commercial cinema to work as a perennial outsider, but again, cinema has many rebellious figures in its history who continue to hold a claim on our memory.

But Hanoun is in death, as he was in life, an almost phantom figure, ‘discovered’ in the early 60s, and then summarily dismissed. There is a French Wikipedia page on Hanoun, cited in the works below, but not one in English. Most of his films, with the exception of his first, Une Simple Histoire (1958), are not readily available. His list of film credits on official websites like IMDb is woefully inaccurate. What critical writing there is on him in English is mostly from the 1960s and 70s, and after that, it just stops. Indeed, for most of his films, there’s scant information to be had in any language. To me, this is inexplicable. Hanoun’s importance is clear. Nevertheless, it’s a sobering fact; most people have never heard of Marcel Hanoun.”

You can read the rest of this article here; again, my thanks to Daniel Lindvall, editor of Film International.

The Noir Vision of Max Ophüls, Romantic Fatalist

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Here’s a new piece I wrote on the American noir films of the great Max Ophüls in Film International.

As I note at the start of my essay, “Max Ophüls, born Maximillian Oppenheimer on 6 May 1902, Saarbrücken, Germany, was a director known primarily for his romance films, often with sweeping tracking shots, and often taking place in the past. Ophüls’ luxurious camera style is evident in such superb romance films as Letter from An Unknown Woman (1948), with Louis Jourdan as Stefan Brand, a ne’er do well pianist who seduces and then abandons a young woman, Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine), and pays for his crime in a dueling match; La Ronde (1950), a sex comedy based on Arthur Schnitzler’s eponymous play, in which lovers float from one affair to the next with delightful abandon; Madame de… (1953), another romance film in which a spoiled Countess (Danielle Darrieux) engages in an extra-marital dalliance, highlighted by Ophüls’ trademark “waltzing camera” technique, and his penchant for long takes; and his final film, the Technicolor and CinemaScope extravaganza Lola Montès (1955), based on the life of a notorious courtesan who eventually winds up as the main attraction in a circus sideshow.

Ophüls started directing films in 1931, scoring an early success with his romantic drama Liebelei (1933), completing a total of eighteen films in Germany and France between 1931 and 1940. While these films, especially Liebelei, gesture towards his later, more mature work, Ophüls was still establishing himself. The director made only two true noir films in his long and distinguished career, back to back: Caught (1948) and The Reckless Moment (1949), both from his brief period in the United States. To this most European and continental director, for whom romance was a sacred trust, with the camera revealing the innermost workings of the hearts of his characters, these two noirs were a distinct departure from his earlier work, and stand out as near aberrations in the director’s long and illustrious career. But they were created out of necessity, not design, for Ophüls never really wanted to come to Hollywood in the first place.”

You can read the rest of the essay here; my thanks to Daniel Lindvall, editor of Film International.

To Save and Project: The 11th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation – October 9–November 12, 2013

Saturday, October 19th, 2013

Here’s an opportunity you can’t afford to miss.

Once again, The Museum of Modern Art is running a stunning series of films, saved and restored from archives around the world, in film format, as part of their ongoing annual series To Save and Project, MoMA’s international festival of film preservation, which celebrates its 11th year with gloriously preserved masterworks and rediscoveries of world cinema. Virtually all of the films in the festival are having their New York premieres, and some are shown in versions never before seen in the United States.

As the program notes indicate, “this year’s edition features a Carte Blanche selection by filmmaker Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants, Election). Other guests include Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, who introduces Hotel Monterey (1972) and News from Home (1977), her beautiful New York films of the 1970s; and Filipino sensation Lav Diaz, who presents the full-length version of his 2001 crime drama Batang West Side. An evening with the great American writer E. L. Doctorow, a special presentation of Le Conversazioni literary festival, includes a screening and a conversation moderated by its artistic director, Antonio Monda.

A sidebar dedicated to the Royal Film Archive of Belgium, includes classics of Belgian cinema as well as a fascinating rediscovery: the first American anti-fascist film, Hitler’s Reign of Terror (1934). To Save and Project also features Jacques Barratier’s gorgeous French-Tunisian drama Goha (1958); Rowland V. Lee’s demented pre-Code puppet romance I Am Suzanne! (1934); and one of the most anticipated films in the festival, the world premiere of Karl Brown’s Stark Love (1927), with a new musical arrangement performed live by the NYU Cinemusica Viva Players, conducted by Gillian B. Anderson. The festival also includes gems of film noir; the premiere of rarely screened Andy Warhol film shorts, followed by a panel discussion with Warhol collaborators and scholars; a Modern Mondays premiere of Bruce Conner’s Crossroads (1976); and a theatrical run of Mikko Niskanen’s Eight Deadly Shots (1972), together with Peter Von Bagh’s The Story of Mikko Niskanen (2010).

What distinguishes To Save and Project among the world’s film preservation festivals is that nearly all the titles are presented on celluloid, respecting their original format of 35mm or 16mm. This festival, then, is a celebration of the vital work of archives around the world, including MoMA’s Department of Film, as well as Hollywood and international studios, distributors, and independent filmmakers, to save our cinema heritage.”

Organized by Joshua Siegel, Associate Curator, Department of Film, this is an event not to be missed. Click here, or on the image above, to get a complete schedule of all the screenings for this remarkable event.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Yayoi Kusama

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay on Yayoi Kusama and Jud Yalkut’s film Self Obliteration in Film International.

As Foster notes, “as an internationally acclaimed Japanese/American artist, Yayoi Kusama rejects any Orientalist assumptions about her work or her self. Yet her playful performances and challenging happenings of the 1960s at times featured images of her wearing the traditional Japanese kimono. Kusama seemingly catered to the audiences of the West in evoking the spectacle of the demure and passive Asian female as much as she challenged those very notions in her performances and films. Kusama subverted the image of the woman in the kimono by juxtaposing it against her ‘happenings,’ which featured images of nude (often white) American bodies, often cavorting in sexual displays associated with the period, especially as seen in the New York art and experimental film subculture.

In filming and practicing the self and her own female Japanese body as art, the experimental visual artist and filmmaker Yayoi Kusama overturns Western white feminist and Eurocentrist notions of identity, especially those of the late 1950s and the following decade. Her work defies the borders of identity as much as it defies the reception of women artists, particularly Japanese women artists and filmmakers. Furthermore, by refusing to limit herself to film and video, she challenges the definition of the visual artist to include forms that range from poetry, music, novels, performance art and happenings, to digital artistry and conceptual films.

Similarly, her artistry and performance of her self-as-artist effectively displace any easy or overdetermined notions of the objectified Japanese female Other as a subject that is often seemingly ‘mastered’ or received as exotic, inscrutable, small, cute, foreign, nurturing, quiet or representing the passive sexually available female. While not limited to refashioning the Japanese female body as a self-mastered entity, her art and film work move the viewer into an active postionality that fosters a contemplation of art and bodies that are not easily defined.”

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

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/