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Don’t Gamble With Strangers

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

William Beaudine was a very uneven director, but sometimes, he really delivered the goods.

As Dave Kehr, writing in The New York Times, notes of this film, and Beaudine’s career at Monogram, the 1940s studio where Beaudine did the bulk of his work, “Beaudine was the workhorse of Monogram, signing his name to an astonishing 71 features from 1942 to 1953 [emphasis added]. Although . . . Beaudine had been a prominent silent director [starting out with D.W. Griffith, and later directing Mary Pickford in a series of films, including the highly successful Sparrows (1926)], he seemed to have lost interest in his art by [the 1940s], and most of his films have a generic, disengaged quality . . . Not so this 1946 astonishment, the thoroughly sordid tale of a card shark (the square-jawed serial hero Kane Richmond, cast spectacularly against type) who unhesitatingly betrays pretty much everyone he comes across — including his brother, his female partner and his fiancée — as he takes over a small-town casino somewhere in the Midwest.

Perhaps Beaudine was shaken from his indifference by the strikingly sordid script by the mysterious Caryl Coleman (whose only other credited screenplay [was the equally unrelenting Monogram entry] Wife Wanted) and Harvey Gates (another silent-film veteran who had seen better days); perhaps it is a case of the material’s being perfectly matched to the available means. No major studio of the time would have tolerated the cynicism that courses through this film; nor would a major studio have been capable of capturing the film’s agonizingly expressive shabbiness. In Don’t Gamble With Strangers, Monogram isn’t just a studio — it’s a way of life.”

Along with the equally brutal Black Market Babies, a 1945 Beaudine/Monogram film in which Kane Richmond again appears as a sleazy con man running an “adoption service” with the help of an aging, alcoholic doctor played by Ralph Morgan, Don’t Gamble With Strangers paints a truer picture of post-war American society in the mid 1940s than anything the major studios would touch, as Kehr suggests above. Much of what Beaudine produced is pure junk, and often he simply didn’t care what he was directing, just so long as he got paid – a major force in silent films, Beaudine fell into disfavor after a sojourn in Britain in the late 1930s, and when he returned to Hollywood, found himself unemployable, and deep in debt. But he had to work, so he took anything he could get, and soon was the most prolific director in Hollywood, along with the equally adept Sam Newfield.

Working his way back in at the bottom rung of the studio system, for Monogram or anyone else who would hire him for his flat fee of $500 for six days work – the standard length of time it took him to direct a feature film, working at top speed -  Beaudine racked up more than 350 feature films, in addition to television work on such series as the Green Hornet and Lassie – his last major job as a director – before his death at age 78 in 1970. The famous story is often told of a Monogram executive rushing on to the set of one of Beaudine’s films, demanding to know when it would be finished. “You mean there’s someone out there waiting for this?” Beaudine replied, pretty much indicating what he thought of much of the work he was forced to direct by economic necessity. Or, as he told another interviewer, “these films are going to be made regardless of who directs them. There’s a market for them and the studios are going to continue to make them. I’ve been doing this long enough I think I can make them as good or better than anyone else.” And at his best, he absolutely could.

Monogram films in general have frequently been derided for their poor quality sound tracks, indifferent cinematography and lighting, as if the entire film was shot through a gauze filter on outdated film stock, and recorded with the cheapest equipment available. In the pre-digital era, one could always tell a Monogram film by its flat lighting, cheap sets, and distorted soundtrack. But a new series of DVDs from Warner Archive is setting the record straight; earlier viewers were simply being subjected to cheap 16mm prints of the film, while the 35mm masters were as good in terms of pictorial quality as anything turned out by Universal or Republic. These new transfers are literally dazzling, and give a whole new life to Monogram’s output as a whole. It’s a revelation; these are lost films, come back to life at last.

These two 75 minute films are “pre-code / film noir / neorealism” – the real picture of life in postwar America.

The Spartans Meet The Muppets, or 300: Rise of an Empire

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

I have a review essay out today on the new film 300: Rise of An Empire in Film International.

As I write, “It would be a mistake to dismiss director Noam Murro’s sword and sandal “historical” pageant 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) entirely, if only because mainstream pop culture films can often tell us more about the times we live in than so-called ‘quality’ films, since they pander so shamelessly to their audiences. So it is with 300: ROAE, but let me hasten to add that most of what it has to tell us is unintentional freight. The makers of this film – the producers, screenwriters and the director – wanted a serviceable follow-up to Zack Snyder’s 2007 original, to create what could be a profitable franchise, if properly handled – and Murro delivered it. It’s a maelstrom of unending cruelty, barbarism, and conflict.

You want endless, mindless, slow motion violence, delivered with a minimum of dialogue or motivation (other than the standard ‘I want revenge’ card)? You got it. Battlefields littered with corpses? Check. Huge, panoramic vistas that trail off into infinity, as the protagonists strike heroic poses in the twilight? Coming up! Spectacular battles on sea and land? Gotcha! Sex scenes with a dollop of violence? Of course! It’s all here, trotted out to meet audience demand, something Murro is no stranger to. Murro has directed numerous high-end commercials and videos, and one feature, Smart People (2008), starring Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker. He’s even worked with The Muppets! Now, if only he could learn to direct people.

That’s probably good training for this film, because most of the cast walks through their paces like so many automatons; what really saves the film as a visual construct is Murro’s sense of non-stop kineticism, which is easily the equal of some of the best action directors in motion picture history. Mind you, I’m talking sheer technique here, not resonance; the film is as empty as it is dazzling, but nevertheless, some main points come to mind. Watching the film, I kept thinking of what a first rate talent like Sam Peckinpah might have done with similar material in his prime; ‘Bloody Sam’ would have been right at home here, provided he was willing to bring the film in on time and under budget.”

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

Guest Blog: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Věra Chytilová

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Let us celebrate the life and work of Czech New Wave director Věra Chytilová.

Věra Chytilová, a central figure in the radically experimental Czech New Wave who passed away on March 12, 2014 at the age of 85, is best known for her stunning film Daisies (1966). Chytilová called the film “a philosophical documentary in the form of a farce,” which is a good way to phrase it. Daisies is best described as a Brechtian comedy about two young women who loll around naked as they talk directly to the audience about philosophical questions.

A prototypical New Wave feminist film, complete with direct political statements (“everything is spoiled for us in this world”), jarring editing (the narrative sequences of the two women are intercut with stock images of buildings falling apart), and existential ponderings (the women state that “if you are not registered, [there is] no proof that you exist”), Daisies remains a classic of the era, which shocked and surprised audiences around the world when it was first released.

The suppressed violence of Bourgeois culture is suggested through a bizarre orgy sequence, and the wildly experimental visuals are underscored by gunshots on the soundtrack, as the camera pans over the ruins of a city. It is nearly impossible to describe the frantic pace, dazzling beauty, and the revolutionary qualities of Daisies; Chytilová’s avant-garde use of brilliant colors, her rapid fire editing, and her approach to film itself was in many ways more revolutionary than that of Jean-Luc Godard and the other, better known directors of the French New Wave.

Not surprisingly, Daisies was almost immediately banned by the Czech authorities, but not before Chytilová’s film won the Grand Prix at the Bergamo Film Festival in Italy in 1967. Indeed, Daisies was perceived as being so subversive film and controversial that Chytilová was not allowed to make films for several years after the film’s release. But with the recent release of a magnificently restored version of the film from Criterion in DVD and Blu-Ray format, Daisies is now being rightly being hailed as “an aesthetically and politically adventurous film that’s widely considered one of the great works of feminist cinema.”

After a number of years, Chytilová was able to return to film making, which she continued throughout her life, a life that we should mark with celebration. So break out the bubbly and enjoy a screening of Daisies, a film that continues to dazzle audiences and inspire young filmmakers: here are just a few of the sites that are celebrating both the film, and Chytilová’s lifetime of work — see these links to Dazed, The AV Club, ABC News for more on this deeply important and influential artist, as well as this list of online sources on Chytilová’s work from Kinoeye.

If you have not seen Daisies, you are in for a real Dadaist treat; this is bold, adventurous filmmaking that breaks all the rules, an authentic feminist vision which has gathered additional power and resonance with the passing of time, and is now considered one of the key works of the Czech New Wave, and of experimental cinema as a worldwide artistic movement. Chytilová was, simply, a master filmmaker.

Věra Chytilová, an authentic original, and a deeply visionary filmmaker.

About the Author: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is a Professor of Film Studies in the Department of English, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and co-editor of the book series New Perspectives on World Cinema from Anthem Press, London. Her many books include 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011) and the second, revised edition of A Short History of Film (2013), as well as Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture (2005), Identity and Memory: The Films of Chantal Akerman (2003), and Women Filmmakers of the African and Asian Diaspora: Decolonizing the Gaze, Locating Subjectivity (1997). Her book Women Filmmakers: A Bio-Critical Dictionary, which covers the work of hundreds of women filmmakers, is considered a classic in the field of feminist film studies.

The Narcissistic Sociopathology of Gender: Craig’s Wife and The Hitch-Hiker, Part 2

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

Here’s Part II of Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s essay on The Hitch-Hiker and Craig’s Wife in Film International.

As Foster writes, “while Dorothy Arzner’s Craig’s Wife (1936) revolves around a pathological female who is undone by her desperate attempts to conform to the norms of patriarchy during the depression era, Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953) presents us with a male serial killer, another malignant narcissist in Emmett Myers (William Talman) who is similarly desperate to prove his identity and gender through sadistic and sociopathic homicidal behavior. Talman, as Myers, spends most of the movie terrorizing two World War II veterans, Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) and Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien). He is a serial killer with a chip on his shoulder; he likes to verbally abuse men, keeping them alive just to taunt them. He is not a veteran, and doesn’t have the baggage of a family, or the debts that the men have to support the suburban lifestyle, as he constantly reminds them, but that’s because he lives entirely outside society, preying on it, rather than participating in it.

The key to understanding The Hitch-Hiker is simply asking ourselves why Myers doesn’t just kill the men off at the earliest opportunity. At first he uses them as drivers and he uses them to get food, but as we learn from radio broadcasts, the law has no idea where he is for most of the movie so Myers doesn’t really need these men to survive. Of course it adds to the suspense that he can simply kill them at any time but oddly, he doesn’t kill them. Perhaps he wants them around to admire him and obey him and fulfill his needs as a narcissist? Myers could simply take the car and move on to the next victim, but he actually appears to enjoy trying to come between these two war veterans who themselves are close companions and prefer one another’s company over the company of their wives. Myers may be a serial killer, but he clearly enjoys the company of men. They bring him pleasure.”

Your can read the entire piece by clicking here now, or on the image above – - must reading!

Missing in Action: The Lost Version of Vanishing Point

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

I have a new article out today on the “lost” version of Vanishing Point, one the key films of the early 70s.

As I write, “Much has been deservedly written on Richard C. Sarafian’s existential road movie Vanishing Point (1971), a shambling, glorious wreck of a film that nevertheless manages to achieve a certain sort of ragged splendor in its countercultural tale of loner driver Kowalski (Barry Newman), who takes on a nearly impossible drive from Denver to San Francisco to deliver a Dodge Challenger in less than 24 hours.

Based on two true life stories; one of a San Diego police officer who was kicked off the force in disgrace, and a separate story of a man who died after a high speed chase when he crashed into a police roadblock, Vanishing Point is pure twentieth century high octane nihilism – but with a twist. The archetypal loner, Kowalski (no first name is ever given) has a checkered past; at various times a race car driver, a policeman kicked off the force for stopping his partner from raping a woman during a routine traffic stop, and a Vietnam veteran, Kowalski has clearly given up on life, and seeks only speed and escape.

On his way out of Denver late Friday night, Kowalski stops by a biker bar to score some speed from his pal Jake (Lee Weaver), and bets him he’ll make it to San Francisco by Saturday at 3PM – way ahead of schedule. Jake is skeptical, but Kowalski is on a mission – indeed, when he first pulls into the garage on Friday night to pick up the Challenger, we have no idea when he’s last slept at all, if ever. Like a shark, Kowalski has to keep moving or die, constantly in motion, and constantly evading those who would seek to knock him out of the game.

For, not surprisingly, Kowalski’s epic speed trip soon attracts the attention of the police in the various states he crisscrosses on his way to the West Coast, and as he crosses one state line after another, the cops play tag team with him, each group hoping to stop him for good. From Colorado to Utah to Nevada and finally to California, Kowalski has got the cops on the run – but they’re gaining on him, and with each new state line, the obstacles get tougher and tougher to deal with.

But something’s missing, and it’s only available on the initial US release of the DVD, which presents two versions of the film with almost no fanfare; the 98 minute standard US version, and the 105 minute cut featuring a key, lost sequence with none other than Charlotte Rampling – absolutely assured as usual – as a mysterious hitchhiker in the dead of night, suitcase in hand.”

It’s true; the cut seven minutes changes the entire film. Click here, or on the image above, to read more.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

The Narcissistic Sociopathology of Gender: Craig’s Wife and The Hitch-Hiker, Part One

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Here’s an important new article by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on two key feminist films in Film International.

The image above shows director Dorothy Arzner on the set of her 1936 film Craig’s Wife, with Director of Cinematography Lucien Ballard at her side. As Foster writes, “it’s instructive to study the work of Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino in context with one another. Though at first glance, one might easily conclude that the only thing they have in common is that they were the only women who managed to direct films during the days of the classical Hollywood studio system, a deeper look into their work exposes a stronger connection between the two; an ability to decimate and undermine the values of home and hearth as they are offered in the union of marriage under the umbrella of capitalism and an expose of the hypocrisy of American gender roles as deeply sociopathic and destructive.

Dorothy Arzner’s bleak “women’s picture” Craig’s Wife (1936) a Depression era adaptation of a stage play – and I’d argue, a feminist horror film – made as a major studio project for Columbia Pictures, revolves around the sociopathy of a destructive female narcissist, while Ida Lupino’s darkly expressionist film The Hitch-Hiker (1953), is based on the true story of male serial killer independently financed, and combines elements of several genres: horror, noir, suspense, the home invasion film and the crime thriller. These films are from different decades and genres, and may seem, at first glance, to have little in common. What I find most interesting and full of critical potential is that both are dominated by sociopaths; characters who suffer from malignant narcissism who act as mirrors held up to America; and both have queer potential.

Though I must stress that they were unique as individuals and had very different directorial styles, Arzner and Lupino remain historically linked by the fact that they were the only two women in the sound era to direct films in Hollywood and the first two women to belong to the Director’s Guild. Women, who had once flourished as film directors in the silent era, had by the sound era been pushed out of the field.Yet, both these filmmakers despised the special attention the media paid to their gender and they were equally vocal about their deep distaste for such attention, even when their uniqueness as female directors was routinely used as a selling point in the studio trades and publicity materials.”

There’s much more here to read; click on this link, or the image above, to read this important essay.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

New Article – Preliminary Notes on the Monochrome Universe

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International; click here, or on the image above, to read the entire essay.

In the essay, I note that “lately I’ve been thinking about black and white movies, and how they’ve almost completely disappeared from the current cinematic landscape. There are occasional projects shot in black and white, but with cinema rapidly becoming an all-digital medium, and black and white film stock almost impossible to purchase, color has taken over completely, either glossy and popped-out, or desaturated for a more dramatic effect, but always using some palette of color. Furthermore, while there have been numerous books on the use of color in the cinema, there has been no book-length study on the black and white film, and yet black and white cinema dominated the industry internationally for nearly seven decades, until the late 1960s.

Certainly, numerous cameramen and directors have weighed in on the use of black and white in their works, most notably John Alton in Painting With Light, but in each case, these works were created when black and white was still a commercially viable medium. Most of the texts I’ve encountered, with the exception of Alton’s book, and to a lesser extent Edward Dmytryk’s Cinema: Concept and Practice, written after the director had long since retired, treat black and white filmmaking as a part of everyday life, the main production medium for most movies, which at the time, it certainly was.

In these necessarily practical books, it’s about f-stops, filters and cookies, but very little about the aesthetics of the medium. Indeed, when Alton published his landmark study, he was famously excoriated by his colleagues as being a pretentious self-promoter; what cameramen did was work, nothing more, and any notions of artistic ambition were inherently suspect. In most of the books cited below, color is dealt with as a special case, which again, it was; but now, in the all color, all digital world of images we currently inhabit, black and white has become the anomaly. Thus, I wanted to set down some preliminary notes on my new project here, before they elude me; the title is Black and White: A Brief History of Monochrome Cinema, the term used by British filmmakers until the medium’s demise in the mid 1960s.

And yet shooting in black and white is inherently a transformative act. As the filmmaker and opera director Jonathan Miller – whose beautiful film of Alice in Wonderland (1966) was elegantly photographed in black and white by the gifted Dick Bush – once observed in a conversation with me, the very act of making a black and white film transmutes the original source material, for life, as we know, takes place in color. Therefore, there is an intrinsic level of stylization and re-interpretation of reality when one makes a black and white film, leading to an entirely different way of cinematography. Indeed, it’s an entirely different world altogether, one that is rapidly slipping away from us as it recedes in the mists of the past.”

The book will take several years of work, but this is, at least, a start.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Je Veux Voir (2008)

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster just introduced me to a stunning film by Joana Hadjithomas and Kahil Joreige.

In a scant 69 minutes, this hypnotic, absolutely transcendent film sketches many of the issues surrounding the war in Lebanon in 2006, as seen through the eyes of Catherine Deneuve, the famed French film star, who traveled to Beirut to appear in the film, and is listed as one of the backers of the project, probably in that she donated her services to the project for free. As the makers of this astonishing film told interviewer Chantal Pointbriand in the web journal Afterall,

“In Je veux voir we worked on the idea that the 2006 war represents a schism. At the time we were outside the country. We saw and lived this war out through images on television, blogs and the internet. These incredibly spectacular images ended up being, in a way, powerless. It was a very strange moment. We really felt this was a time of rupture in our history, not only in the history of our country, but also in our history as artists in the region. It’s like what Hannah Arendt said about the uncertain future, you know that there is no certainty in it.

We decided to deal with this by confronting someone from our history as Lebanese film-makers and artists, with someone outside of it, bringing together the artist and actor Rabih Mroué, with whom we have worked with a lot, and Catherine Deneuve, the French film icon. In this way we are attempting to experiment with new strategies for film-making in the aftermath of the 2006 war.

KJ: Traditionally when television shows victims of war, you can’t really identify with them because the images are designed to distance you. You sympathise but don’t identify. By bringing someone who is familiar in the Western history of cinema and someone from our world together, we wanted to see if through this encounter we could regain our face, our images, our identity, our names. And not play the role of the faraway victim, but create something that could engage the spectator. The idea was to displace the gaze and to question it. Paradoxically, the film is called I Want to See, but explores what you don’t see, or haven’t seen.

JH: The film works by constantly making you question what you’re seeing and what you’re not seeing. The film is about the way images are used in reporting conflict today and what this does to you, the spectator. Our big fear is always that, in the use of images, the use of art, the use of intellect, everything can be co-opted or instrumentalized, in order to make the individual into less of a thinking person, less of a subject, depoliticized, accepting reality in a lesser way.”

The resulting film is an absolute tour-de-force, one of those films that never leaves you once you’ve seen it. When one considers how much time is spent watching absolute junk, even entertaining mainstream junk, the shock and pleasure of a really evocative, thoughtful film comes as an absolutely pleasant surprise, a palate cleanser after so much trash and throwaway pop filmmaking, usually in the service of worn out genre and gender rules. Je Veux Voir instantly jumped into my top ten films of all time — in which there are more than 250 constantly rotating titles — but in all seriousness, this is a thrillingly intellectual film without one frame of wasted footage; at 69 minutes, it’s just perfect.

Easily available on DVD or streaming video; check it out!

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Herbert Marcuse on The Information Society

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

I’ve been reading Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 classic One-Dimensional Man again; more relevant today than ever.

“In the most advanced areas of this civilization, the social controls have been introjected to the point where even individual protest is affected at its roots. The intellectual and emotional refusal ‘to go along’ appears neurotic and impotent. This is the socio-psychological aspect of the political event that marks the contemporary period: the passing of the historical forces which, at the preceding stage of industrial society, seemed to represent the possibility of new forms of existence. But the term ‘introjection’ perhaps no longer describes the way in which the individual by himself reproduces and perpetuates the external controls exercised by his society. Introjection suggests a variety of relatively spontaneous processes by which a Self (Ego) transposes the ‘outer’ into the ‘inner.’ Thus introjection implies the existence of an inner dimension distinguished from and even antagonistic to the external exigencies—an individual consciousness and an individual unconscious apart from public opinion and behavior.

The idea of ‘inner freedom’ here has its reality: it designates the private space in which man may become and remain ‘himself.’ Today this private space has been invaded and whittled down by technological reality. Mass production and mass distribution claim the entire individual, and industrial psychology has long since ceased to be confined to the factory. The manifold processes of introjection seem to be ossified in almost mechanical reactions. The result is, not adjustment but mimesis: an immediate identification of the individual with his society and, through it, with the society as a whole. This immediate, automatic identification (which may have been characteristic of primitive forms of association) reappears in high industrial civilization; its new ‘immediacy,’ however, is the product of a sophisticated, scientific management and organization.

In this process, the ‘inner’ dimension of the mind in which opposition to the status quo can take root is whittled down. The loss of this dimension, in which the power of negative thinking—the critical power of Reason—is at home, is the ideological counterpart to the very material process in which advanced industrial society silences and reconciles the opposition. The impact of progress turns Reason into submission to the facts of life, and to the dynamic capability of producing more and bigger facts of the same sort of life. The efficiency of the system blunts the individuals’ recognition that it contains no facts which do not communicate the repressive power of the whole. If the individuals find themselves in the things which shape their life, they do so, not by giving, but by accepting the law of things—not the law of physics but the law of their society.”

You can read the entire text of this absolutely essential book by clicking here.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Bert Beyens and Marcel Hanoun

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Bert Beyens and Marcel Hanoun in France, Summer, 2011.

A while ago, I posted on an article I’d written in Film International on the cinema of Marcel Hanoun, one of the greatest and most neglected European filmmakers of the 1960s, 70s and beyond, whose international reputation was trashed almost immediately by a series of rather unperceptive reviews of his work immediately following his American debut.

But his work is being restored now by the archivist Pip Chodorov, who contacted me after the article was published, and I was also happy to receive a very kind e-mail a few days ago from his friend Bert Beyens, head of the RITS Film School in Belgium, noting that “I met Marcel in 1976, when I was a film student in Brussels, and a retrospective of his work was held in the film museum. I was taken immediately by the 3 short and 8 long films I could watch. I got in touch with him, and we became life-long friends. For me, Hanoun in a unique filmmaker and artist.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I love this photo of Marcel and Bert in the summer of 2011; summer was one of Hanoun’s favorite seasons, and also the title of one of his best films. I hope to be able to visit Bert in Belgium sometime in 2015, and talk about Hanoun’s work with him, and perhaps his students; it seems that at last, Hanoun may be about to get the attention he so richly deserves.

Click here to read my article on the life and work of Marcel Hanoun.
For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

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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