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Archive for the ‘Criticism’ Category

Idris Elba’s Keynote Speech to Parliament on Diversity in the Media

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

Here’s Idris Elba’s powerful speech to Parliament on the need for diversity in the media.

As he says in the speech, “I’m here to talk about diversity. Diversity in the modern world is more than just skin color – it’s gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, social background, and – most important of all, as far as I’m concerned – diversity of thought. Because if you have genuine diversity of thought among people making TV & film, then you won’t accidentally shut out any of the groups I just mentioned . . .

Ask women, they’ll say the same thing. Or disabled people. Or gay people. Or any number of under-represented groups. So today I’m asking the TV & film industry to think outside the box, and to GET outside the box. This isn’t a speech about race, this is a speech about imagination. Diversity of thought.” Certainly, that’s not too much to ask in the 21st century!

His talk is illuminating and inspiring – read the full text by clicking here.

Recommended Book: Women, Art and the New Deal

Sunday, January 17th, 2016

Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene have published an excellent, and much needed new book.

As the book’s description notes, “in 1935, the United States Congress began employing large numbers of American artists through the Works Progress Administration—fiction writers, photographers, poster artists, dramatists, painters, sculptors, muralists, wood carvers, composers and choreographers, as well as journalists, historians and researchers. Secretary of Commerce and supervisor of the WPA Harry Hopkins hailed it a ‘renascence of the arts, if we can call it a rebirth when it has no precedent in our history.’

Women were prominently involved, creating a wide variety of art and craft, interweaving their own stories with those of other women whose lives might not otherwise have received attention. This book surveys the thousands of women artists who worked for the U.S. government, the historical and social worlds they described and the collaborative depiction of womanhood they created at a pivotal moment in American history.”

I have a personal connection to this, as my late aunt, Nina Barr Wheeler, aka Nina Blake, was part of the WPA during the 1930s, and as a starving New York City artist was bussed out to the Midwest along with a group of other young women to assist the muralist Hildreth Meiere in creating murals for the Nebraska State Capitol Building, and told me about her experiences in detail – for her, as for many others, the WPA program was a life saver.

This is a fascinating book, richly illustrated with photographs of the paintings, sculptures and other works created by women during this era, as part of a progressive government program that valued the arts as an essential part of the fabric of society, and shines a light on an area of 20th century art that is too often ignored. It’s a first class piece of historical, cultural, and critical work, written in a lively, accessible style designed for both academics and the lay reader – it would make a great course text for a semester long examination of women in the arts in the 1930s and 40s.

Highest possible recommendation – don’t miss this landmark volume!

Underwhelmed by Oscar Nods?

Thursday, January 14th, 2016

Leslie Reed of UNL News & Information interviewed me on the upcoming Oscars.

As she writes, “University of Nebraska-Lincoln film studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon wants you to understand one key thing about the Oscar nominations unveiled Jan. 14: They don’t tell you much about movies today. Dixon, known internationally as an expert on modern film as well as its history, was among scholars and critics invited to submit a list of 2015’s ten best films to the web journal Senses of Cinema, which some maintain is the most influential web journal on film in existence. See Dixon’s choices here and the entire list of all critics’ picks here.

None of those picks were included in the list of Oscar nominees. ‘For me, this year the Oscars are increasingly irrelevant, as they are for many of my colleagues,’ he said. ‘These are a small set of films, picked by industry people to showcase the Hollywood film industry, and they really don’t give an accurate picture of what’s going on in the world of film, even nationally anymore.’

The Oscar nominees for best picture are The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Room and Spotlight.

Meanwhile, Dixon’s top 10 for Senses of Cinema were Clouds of Sils Maria, Uncle John, Apollo 18, Queen of Earth, Chi-Raq, 99 Homes, Being Elizabeth Bishop, Infinitely Polar BearThe Gift and Pasolini. (Caveat: Dixon now says he’d boot Apollo 18 from his list and add No Home Movie, Maps to the Stars and The Lesson.)

He’s not surprised if you have heard of few, if any, of those films. ‘Only the big blockbusters get ad dollars behind them, and thus national theater screens, while the smaller more adventurous films simply don’t get the exposure they once did,’ he said. ‘Where once everything had to open in a theater to make its cost back, now smaller-scale films can easily be shunted to DVD, VOD, or digital HD downloads with little risk of losing ad dollars.’

Studios want to put the most ad dollars behind the films that cost the most and have the most to lose, he said, while leaving the rest to find whatever audience they can. Even marginally risky films like Carol, Trumbo and Spotlight got only a token release.

Dixon is also among film critics who predict that the Motion Picture Academy will get blowback for its all-white slate in the acting categories. Straight Outta Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray, was nominated for its screenplay, but Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq was nowhere to be seen.

‘There are many, many excellent films out there, and performances, that deserve attention, not least of which is Samuel L. Jackson for either Chi-Raq or The Hateful Eight,’ Dixon said. “And why didn’t Spike Lee’s film get a nomination? Sad.’ Dixon discusses who he thinks will win the 2016 Oscars in his Frame by Frame blog.”

Thanks, Leslie – now we’ll have to see how this plays out.

Twenty British Films – A Guided Tour by Brian McFarlane

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

British film specialist Brian McFarlane has an excellent new book on British cinema, old and new.

Here’s a remarkable new book from the seemingly indefatigable Brian McFarlane, Honorary Associate Professor, School of English, Communication and Performance Studies, Monash University, Melbourne, and Visiting Professor, Film Studies, University of Hull.

In choosing twenty films, many of them classics of their kind – think of Brief Encounter, The Third Man, Genevieve – as well as some less well-known titles, Brian McFarlane communicates his enthusiasm for the sheer range of British cinema as well as a keenly critical interest in what has made these films stay in the mind often after many decades and many viewings.

The book ends in the present day with titles such as Last Orders and In the Loop and it is intended to provoke discussion as much as recollection. Though it is rigorous in conducting its “guided tour” of these films, it does so in ways that make it accessible to anyone with a passion for cinema.

“Brian McFarlane is one of the best friends British cinema has ever had. An Autobiography of British Cinema, an assembly of his enthusiastic interviews with British filmmakers, is valuable, informative and enjoyable. An Encylopedia of British Film is indispensible and without equal.

Now, in Twenty British Films: A Guided Tour, a highly personal but carefully argued choice of ‘twenty films to cherish,’ McFarlane takes us into the heart of a lifelong obsession that became an academic pursuit without losing any of its passion.” — Philip French

You don’t have to be a specialist to enjoy this tour.

Calum Marsh: Ten Movies Not To Miss in 2016

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

Village Voice critic Calum Marsh picks ten must-see movies in 2016.

The Village Voice, once an indispensable source for film reviews in the 1950s through the late 1990s, fell on hard times when critics Andrew Sarris and Jonas Mekas retired, followed by the departure of Jim Hoberman, and then the Voice itself went from being a paid newspaper to a freebie distributed throughout Manhattan in giveaway boxes. But now it seems to have found itself again in the 21st century with a new group of sharp, perceptive critics, one of whom is Calum Marsh.

In this brief article, Marsh picks out ten films to look forward to in 2016 which are outside the normal fare one might find at the local multiplex, such as Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier, Jodie Foster’s Money Monster, Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch – which Amirpour, the director of the highly acclaimed vampire thriller A Girl Walks Home Along at Night describes as “‘Road Warrior meets Pretty in Pink” – Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Lorene Scafaria’s The Meddler (shown above) and several other interesting films.

These are all films that absolutely deserve your attention in the New Year, and this brief, informal overview is a great way to think about what you’re going to spend your time watching in 2016. Look beyond the local first-run theaters. Look for more interesting stuff, and you’ll find it. And while you’re exploring this article, click on some of the other links to see The Village Voice’s increasingly interesting film coverage, as we move towards the second decade of the new century.

There’s great filmmaking going on out there – you just have to find it.

Frame by Frame Video: Film Noir

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

Here’s a brief Frame by Frame video, directed by Curt Bright, in which I discuss Film Noir.

The scene above is from Jacques Tourneur’s noir classic Out of the Past (1947), and in this video I briefly discuss some of the more dominant characteristics of noir, in a video which was produced roughly at the same time my book Film Noir and The Cinema of Paranoia came out. Oddly enough, I never blogged directly on this video, and it’s too good to pass up, so here it is.

When Choice: The Library Journal reviewed Film Noir and The Cinema of Paranoia, they noted that “Dixon seeks to broaden the scope and definition of film noir by focusing on its most dominant motif–paranoia. Concentrating on that impulse, and also on fear and violence, the author demonstrates that these all-encompassing aspects of film noir are found not only in gangster/detective films of the 1940s but also in such genres as science fiction and horror.

Beginning with the pre-Code era, Dixon guides the reader through a comprehensive overview of the evolution of film noir to its present form, along the way presenting an enlightening examination of American and British society and politics and revealing the role film noir has played during certain periods.

[Dixon] demonstrates how film noir serves to contradict the false “feel good” images mediated to the public through movies and television programming. [Dixon]’s observations illustrate how paranoia, as constructed through the lens of film noir, proves more relevant than ever in lieu of the veil of fear that envelops every aspect of post-9/11 life.”

And that’s still true today – noir tells us how things really are.

William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come

Monday, December 21st, 2015

An absolutely essential book on one of the most influential cinema artists of all time.

James Curtis’s William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come is easily one of the best film books of 2015. It manages to pull off an amazing feat; it’s prodigiously researched, but it never succumbs to a recitation of mere facts; it includes an enormous amount of personal detail, but never gets lost in a forest of statistics.

It is above all a supreme synthesis of history and theory, treating all of Menzies’ work, whether as a director or a production designer (or often, as both simultaneously) with great care and respect, illustrated with a stunning array of color and black and white plates, including many rare behind the scenes shots that really put the reader into the center of the narrative.

Most of all, it is the careful, conscientious, but never pedantic style of the book that impresses. Curtis clearly knows Menzies’ work inside out, and yet he wears this knowledge easily, creating an accessible, reasoned, brilliantly written book, one of the most carefully detailed and critically measured volumes written on any historical figure, no matter what their profession.

Time and again, I was struck by the carefully reasoned tone of Curtis’s work, his sharp yet graceful prose style, and the remarkable way in which he managed to gather such an incredible amount of material in one volume, and make the whole thing flow so smoothly – it’s easily his finest book. The design of The Shape of Films to Come is another plus factor; the volume is overflowing with images, and the layout of the text and illustrations – something Menzies would appreciate – is impeccable.

Curtis’s book is thus a supreme achievement on every level, and for those who don’t know Menzies or his work, it opens up a world of wonder and amazement – often amazement at how much Menzies managed to accomplish on many of his assignments with very little in the way of a budget.

From Menzies’ production design on Gone With The Wind, to his science-fiction children’s nightmare Invaders from Mars, to the pioneering futuristic epic Things To Come, to his work on such projects as The Whip Hand, Address Unknown, The Maze, Around The World in 80 Days and numerous other films, Curtis meticulously details Menzies’ long career, a life filled with hard work and a good deal of tragedy, but one which ultimately left us with some of the most memorable images in cinema history.

In short, this is a must read for anyone with even the remotest interest in the cinema, and a singular accomplishment in every respect. The Shape of Films to Come gets my highest possible recommendation – this is literally a flawless book. And considering the massive amount of detail that went into it, that in itself is a stellar accomplishment. Once you pick this book up, I guarantee you won’t put it down.

This is a major work of scholarship, history and theory, and a genuine delight to read.

Digital Detox

Saturday, December 5th, 2015

From Gillian Brockell and The Washington Post, click here or on this image for five tips to avoid digital overload.

Epictetus on Popular Entertainment

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015

Epictetus is more relevant today than ever – especially when it comes to pop culture.

As Wikipedia notes, “Epictetus was a Greek speaking Stoic philosopher. He was born a slave at Hierapolis, Phrygia (present day Pamukkale, Turkey), and lived in Rome until his banishment, when he went to Nicopolis in north-western Greece for the rest of his life. His teachings were written down and published by his pupil Arrian in his Discourses.

Epictetus taught that philosophy is a way of life and not just a theoretical discipline. To Epictetus, all external events are determined by fate, and are thus beyond our control; we should accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately. However, individuals are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline.”

Here is what Epictetus had to say about the popular culture of his day: “Most of what passes for legitimate entertainment is inferior or foolish and only caters to or exploits people’s weaknesses. Avoid being one of the mob who indulges in such pastimes. Your life is too short and you have important things to do.

Be discriminating about what images and ideas you permit into your mind. If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will, and their motives may not be the highest. It is the easiest thing in the world to slide imperceptibly into vulgarity. But there’s no need for that to happen if you determine not to waste your time and attention on mindless pap.”

Words to ponder when headed to the nearest multiplex.

Why Aren’t More Women Directing Action Films?

Friday, October 30th, 2015

Lexi Alexander knows why women aren’t getting the opportunities they should in Hollywood.

As ReBecca Theodore wrote in Vulture on October 28, 2015, “Lexi Alexander doesn’t suffer fools lightly. The Oscar-nominated director, and outspoken advocate for women filmmakers, made waves in Hollywood last year when she wrote an essay on the deeply ingrained bias women directors face in the industry. Since then, Alexander has kept the pressure on studios to allow more opportunities for female directors.

Born to a German mother and Palestinian father, Alexander is a former World Kickboxing Champion who got her start in the business as a stuntwoman, and soon segued into directing. Her 2002 short Johnny Flynton landed an Academy Award–nomination, and her 2005 feature Green Street Hooligans won the SXSW Jury and Audience Awards. That led to a gig directing Punisher: War Zone, making her the first woman to direct a comic-book feature. Most recently, Alexander directed tonight’s episode of Arrow, which had previously brought on two women directors (Wendey Stanzler and Bethany Rooney). We spoke to Alexander about working on the CW’s comic-book series, embracing her biracial identity, and why more women aren’t directing multimillion-dollar superhero franchises.

How did you land this project?  How much did you know about the show going in?
I was contacted by the showrunners, specifically Andrew Kreisberg, who was a fan of Punisher: War Zone. I knew about the show and had watched the pilot when it came out. When I got the call for the meeting, I binged on three seasons of Arrow over an entire weekend.

Can you share some details about the shoot — how long it took to prepare, to find shooting locales?
All in all, I was there for three and a half weeks. Location scouting is a lot of fun, especially in a town where ten shows are being shot at the same time, because you’re constantly running into other crews scouting the same places. Then we all give each other side eye, because nobody wants to use a location that another show is using as well. It’s quite amusing, really.

Did you have a specific look or feel you wanted for this episode?
It was very clear to me that TV is a writers’ medium and that a show in its fourth season comes with an established look and style. The first meeting I had with Kreisberg and [executive producer] Marc Guggenheim, they were very clear they were interested in me as a director because they believed I could bring something different and new to the show. So my directions were basically ’same but different.’ Now this might sound like I’m being sarcastic, but I’m not. I completely understood what they wanted. There’s definitely a way, even within an existing style and tone, to add something new or unique without making it look like it’s from a completely different show. I’m not sure if I completely achieved that, but I’m pretty sure the audience will see my fingerprint here and there.

You were the only woman director to helm a comic-book feature with Punisher: War Zone in 2008. Not much has changed since then. What do you think accounts for this?
The only reason I was offered Punisher was because I had made an indie film that was rated R for violence and was filled with fight scenes. I think in industries riddled with bias, you tend to hire women only if their previous work is very masculine, which is hilarious given that this is not how male directors are chosen. I am pretty sure when Kenneth Branagh came up for Thor, nobody at Marvel thought: ‘Yes, that Kenneth Branagh is masculine enough to do action, just look at Henry V and The Magic Flute.’ Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge Branagh fan, I’m just trying to demonstrate how ridiculous it is that women have to be ‘one of the boys’ to get in on the superhero business, whereas male directors don’t have to have any proof on their résumé that they can deliver hardcore action.”

It’s all too true – read the entire interview by clicking here.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by 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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