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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.

Dixon and Foster – Sla307 Art Space Video Screening

Sunday, November 27th, 2016

On November 12, 2016, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and I had a screening of our videos in New York City.

Here’s a brief, time lapse video shot by Laura Zavecka of our video show at the Sla307 Art Space on West 30th Street in Manhattan on November 12, 2016. We had a great crowd – notice how a lot of people coming tumbling in the door just as the lights go down – and the projection and the crowd response were excellent. It’s one of the first time these videos, all of which are on Vimeo online, have been projected for an audience. We had another screening of our work on the previous evening, November 11th, at the Amos Eno Gallery in Brooklyn.

As mentioned in UNL Today, “Wheeler Winston Dixon, professor of film studies, and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, professor of English and film studies, had two screenings of their new video work. The screenings took place on Nov 11 in The Amos Eno Gallery in Brooklyn, New York and Nov. 12 at The Sla307 Art Space, in New York City. Videos by Dixon include Life of Luxury, An American Dream and Beat Box. Foster’s videos include Echo and Narcissus, Mirror, Tenderness, and more.” It was a great evening, and we look forward to more screenings in the future.

Click here, or on the image above to see the video.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s “Men and Machines” Series on Vimeo

Thursday, November 24th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new series of videos on the theme of “Men and Machines.”

“The meaning of things lies not in the things themselves, but in our attitude towards them. The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“It is interesting to view Nature through the lens of construction ’sight’ – after all – is Nature itself not the Mother of all construction sites? I wonder if we have always viewed the world as a potential building site? The binary between these coexistent worlds is not so easily defined. Are domesticated plants and meadows, for example, all that ‘natural’ — or are they not liminal hybrids; both ‘natural’ and ‘artificial?’ Are machines ‘natural’ or hybrid and liminal?

Modern experience of the environment is mediated through a mechanical duo-consciousness. I admire the often breathtaking beauty of ‘Nature’ as an ongoing organic ‘construction site’; but I am also in awe of human industry and construction – particularly our aural and visual resonances – waste and decay in tracings, relics, and ruins.

The ‘Men and Machines’ series invites meditation into the complex relationship between man, machine, and ‘Nature’ – the politics, philosophy and aesthetics of the sights and sounds of industry as they are mechanically mediated and manufactured by the camera eye and ear.” – Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Videos in the “Men and Machines” series include:

Echo and Narcissus – vimeo.com/187504524

Construction Site – vimeo.com/188719797

Johnny’s Machines – vimeo.com/188380596

Machine – vimeo.com/190509450

Inside – vimeo.com/189477394

Col Bleu – vimeo.com/185865697

Mirror – vimeo.com/184270334

Not – vimeo.com/172252797

Waste – vimeo.com/165976297

Product – vimeo.com/179584124

Selfie – vimeo.com/178762302

Foster’s meditational videos are both moving and insightful – essential viewing.

Mozart in The Jungle

Monday, November 21st, 2016

Since I have abandoned traditional television, this is a delightful web series worth your attention.

Amazon Studios just keeps getting better and better. They have a pilot right now online for The Last Tycoon, loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final, unfinished novel, which is quite compelling – which was recently green lit for a series – and other remarkably well-produced series, of such as their two seasons, with a third in the offing of Mozart in The Jungle, which deals with the world of classical music in the 21st century era. It’s a time in history when if one wants to dedicate one’s self to the arts, it’s akin to taking a lifetime vow of poverty in pursuit of beauty.

As the press release for the book on which the series is based notes, in part, “In the tradition of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Gelsey Kirkland’s Dancing on My Grave, Mozart in the Jungle delves into the lives of the musicians and conductors who inhabit the insular world of classical music.

In a book that inspired the Amazon original series starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Malcolm McDowell, oboist Blair Tindall recounts her decades-long professional career as a classical musician, from the recitals and Broadway orchestra performances to the secret life of musicians who survive hand to mouth in the backbiting New York classical music scene . . .

Tindall and her fellow journeymen musicians live in decrepit apartments, and perform in hazardous conditions. These are working-class musicians who schlep across the city between low-paying gigs, without health-care benefits or retirement plans―a stark contrast to the rarefied experiences of overpaid classical musician superstars.”

The series itself is a lot less hard-edged, and centers around Gael García Bernal as Rodrigo De Souza, a tempestuous Maestro who’s been brought in to help an ailing New York symphony orchestra regain its former greatness. Malcolm McDowell as Thomas Pembridge, the outgoing conductor, and Bernadette Peters as Gloria Windsor, the fundraiser who tries to keep the orchestra above water are both excellent in their roles, and Lola Kirke as Hailey Rutledge, the ostensible stand in for author Blair Tindall, shines in her role as a young, ambition oboist whose dream is to get a permanent gig with with the orchestra.

Billed as a comedy, and blessedly free of a laugh track, Mozart in the Jungle sometimes strays into darker territory, but it’s a real and distinct pleasure to hear so much classical music played so beautifully in a contemporary, one-camera sitcom, which is obviously made with loving care and a real attention to detail. You can stream the series on Amazon – two whole seasons, with half-hour episodes – and in an era dominated by serial killers and ultra-violence on both the web and in theaters, it’s a relief to view something more thoughtful, more passionate, and much more optimistic about life.

Mozart in The Jungle – definitely worth checking out.

Pipilotti Rist’s New Video Retrospective

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

The renowned video artist Pipilotti Rist has a new retrospective of her work in Manhattan.

As Roberta Smith reports in The New York Times, “the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist has gone supernova at the New Museum. A 30-year survey, “Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest,” traces her ever-expanding journey into the wilds of video, with a rapturous fusion of lights, sights and music that ebbs and flows through the museum’s main gallery floors.

It is also a journey into different kinds of intimacy — with ourselves, with one another and with nature. Naked bodies, and myriad plants and flowers, often seen under water and in immense close-up, drift and mingle amid kaleidoscopic color.

And because Ms. Rist began making video in the long ago days of analog and has rarely met a technological breakthrough that she couldn’t use, the 30-year arc of her work also traces much of the medium’s progress, as explored by one of its true naturals.

Arranged mostly chronologically from the bottom to the top of the building, the show has been organized by Massimiliano Gioni, the museum’s artistic director, with Margot Norton and Helga Christoffersen. Its 24 works begin with several single-channel videos from the late 1980s, when Ms. Rist more or less backed into art with the first work she ever exhibited . . .

The show culminates in two floors of aqueous, immersive environments, radiant with color, one completed this year. Sometimes comfortable seating — big pillows or actual beds — is provided for viewers to relax on while watching and listening, and perhaps leave with a sense of encountering nature as never before.”

Read the entire article by clicking here, or above; this a stunning show.

TCM and Criterion Launch FilmStruck Video on Demand

Thursday, October 6th, 2016

TCM and Criterion are launching a new streaming film service, with a great selection of titles.

As Todd Spangler writes in Variety, “Turner is set to launch FilmStruck — its first subscription video-on-demand service, stocked with hundreds of arthouse, indie, foreign and cult films along with a host of additional related content — on Oct. 19. FilmStruck, which Turner execs have said is an opportunity to test out the direct-to-consumer SVOD segement, is developed and managed by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) in collaboration with the Criterion Collection.

FilmStruck will be available only in the U.S. initially. It will have three pricing tiers: the entry-level service is $6.99 per month; FilmStruck + The Criterion Channel is $10.99 monthly, offering everything in the base FilmStruck subscription plan plus unlimited access to Criterion’s entire streaming library of films and special features, along with exclusive original programming; and an annual subscription of $99 per year for FilmStruck + The Criterion Channel.

FilmStruck’s rotating selection includes films from such indie studios as Janus Films, Flicker Alley, Icarus Films, Kino, Milestone, Zeitgeist, Film Movement, Global Lens, First Run Features, Oscilloscope Laboratories and Shout Factory, along with movies from major studios including Warner Bros. and MGM.

‘By combining the expertise at TCM and the Criterion Collection – two of the leading authorities in film preservation and history – we have created something really special that is a must-have for passionate film lovers,’ said Jennifer Dorian, general manager of TCM and FilmStruck. Turner commissioned a research study of 2,000 film fans across the U.S., conducted by Frank N. Magid Associates, and drew from that an estimate that there are 15 million people 18-49 in the States who would be interested in a service like FilmStruck . . .

The challenge for FilmStruck will be to capture a share of consumers’ wallets against a myriad of other SVOD offerings in the market, including mainstream players like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, as well as more directly competitive services tailored to film buffs, including Fandor and Tribeca Shortlist, a joint venture of Lionsgate and Tribeca Enterprises.

Titles to be featured on FilmStruck include Babette’s Feast, Blood Simple, Blow-Up, Breaker Morant, A Hard Day’s Night, Mad Max, Metropolis, Moulin Rouge, My Life as a Dog, Paths of Glory, The Player, A Room with a View, Seven Samurai, The Seventh Seal, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Stardust Memories, The Trip to Bountiful, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Woodstock.

In addition, beginning Nov. 11, FilmStruck will become the exclusive streaming home to The Criterion Channel, offering what the companies say is the largest streaming collection of Criterion films available, including classic and contemporary films from around the world, interviews and conversations with filmmakers and never-before-seen programming.

With the FilmStruck deal, Criterion films are rolling off Hulu, which had been the exclusive streaming partner for Criterion’s library in the U.S. since 2011. FilmStruck will be available on the web, Android and iOS devices, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV, with additional platforms and devices coming in the future. As with Netflix, Hulu and other services, FilmStruck offers only video streaming (with no downloads for offline viewing).

The FilmStruck service will feature over 70 curated and constantly refreshed programming themes, along with exclusive bonus content like hosted introductions, originally produced pieces, interviews and rare footage.” Sounds promising, and also exclusive, as the highlighted section above demonstrates. If you want Criterion versions of these classic films – the best on the market – as streaming media, then FilmStruck will be your one and only choice.

In addition, as TCM itself uses an ever-tighter playlist of classic films, this will be a welcome opportunity to move beyond the televised offerings and program your own film festival, so to speak. But as Spangler notes, the real problem will be gaining market share in an already crowded field, but for the dedicated movie buff, the Criterion “exclusive” angle will more than solve that problem, I would think.

All in all, everything is moving to the web – streaming, with no downloads and physical media. This is both a good and bad thing; I’m a diehard physical media person, and if possible, I like to get the films that I really want to see again and again on DVD or Blu-ray. But there’s no denying that there’s vast market to be tapped here, and if TCM and Criterion can do it with FilmStruck, more power to them. With the collapse of the art house circuit worldwide, everything is moving online.

Starting October 19th – FilmStruck – the new destination for streaming classic films.

Agnès Varda – “From Here to There”

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

Agnès Varda walking down the street with Chris Marker, behind his signature “cat symbol.”

Agnès Varda has a relatively new documentary out – it was actually completed in 2011, and shot over several years before that – which in five roughly hour long parts examines the creative process inherent in her own work, and the work of her friends and colleagues, which is at once playful, experimental, deeply personal, and imbued with the joy of life and creating art for the sake of art.

Though, as she points out, now that he is older, everywhere she goes people give her medals and retrospective screenings, Varda is still very much alive as a filmmaker and video artist, and one is struck not only be her relaxed and assured embrace of video technology, but also her multifaceted persona as an artist: a still photographer, environmental creator, sculptor, filmmaker, painter – you name it.

Many of her friends are colleagues with whom she has been working since the 1950s, and now are extremely successful artists in a variety of mediums, but Varda seems not at all affected by her hard-won fame and the new – and richly deserved – level of respect her work is now experiencing. While contemporaries such as Jean-Luc Godard, wildly prolific in the 1960s, but merely a shadow of his former self now – as he himself put it in an interview, “I’m on my last legs” – seem to drift off into the past, Varda keeps looking forward to future, and finding endless possibilities and new directions in her work.

As Fernando F. Croce wrote in Film Comment in 2014, “early in the marvelously fluid, five-part cine-essay Agnès Varda: From Here to There, the eponymous veteran auteur briefly pauses to ponder the difference between cinema and photography. Legendary French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson is Varda’s subject in this mini-digression, yet her comments on stillness and movement as captured through a camera lens clearly apply to her own art, particularly in light of her eccentric and deeply personal recent documentaries.

Like The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008), this miniseries (shot for French television roughly over the course of one year) envisions a form of portraiture that is forever on the move, its brisk, airy images darting and rippling like the frank, fearless filmmaker’s memories and emotions.

That feeling of emotional mobility is something Varda has always shared with her late husband, the great director Jacques Demy, whose benevolent specter is never far. Visiting Brazil—in the first of the various global travels she documents in Here and There—Varda shares some of the home movies Demy shot in the country many years earlier. (‘Jacques was known for his tracking shots, but here his camera stood still,’ she muses over the grainy, flickering footage.)

While in Demy’s hometown of Nantes for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of his feature debut Lola, Varda captures the aged Anouk Aimée abstractedly repeating a coquettish gesture from the young heroine she once portrayed. That tinge of continuity is further enforced in a heartening moment when Demy’s poetic manifesto on why he films is recited by his son Mathieu over a montage of pictures depicting his cinema as well as his family life.

Agnes Varda From Here to There

Indeed, renewal and continuity are recurring themes. Each of the segments is prefaced with glimpses of Varda’s backyard, where wild foliage has sprouted on previously bare trees. It’s a spiritual metaphor that, like the key image of mirrors on a beach, would feel heavy-handed if it weren’t worn in such a fleet and open-hearted manner, its transparency an integral part of the film’s dizzying array of friends and events. Now in her mid-eighties, the director savors playfully childlike artifice.

In The Beaches of Agnès, sand is poured in a Parisian street as clerks in a mock-office lounge in bathing suits, and former child actors from Varda’s neorealist early effort La Pointe Courte (1955) enact one of their scenes as old men. From Here to There doesn’t have as many tableaux, but it retains that same impish, analog spirit as she makes her way across the continents, omnivorously searching for ‘fragments, moments, people.’” The series is now available on DVD, or for the moment on Amazon streaming; you should take the time to see it if you possibly can.

Varda’s work should be an inspiration to us all; this is simply essential viewing.

Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory

Saturday, August 13th, 2016

Here’s a fascinating, troubling book about the problems inherent in archiving digital work.

Ever since I switched to working in digital HD for making my experimental movies, the problem of long term storage of the films has become more and more important to me everyday. When I was working in 16mm, it was – and still is – a simple matter to archive the original materials in a “cold vault,” where they will last hundreds of years, provided that the temperature and humidity conditions are optimal.

No such “file it and forget it” method applies to digital archiving, as this fascinating book by Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito aptly demonstrates.

As the description for Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory asks, “how will our increasingly digital civilization persist beyond our lifetimes? Audio and videotapes demagnetize; CDs delaminate; Internet art links to websites that no longer exist; Amiga software doesn’t run on iMacs.

In Re-collection, Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito argue that the vulnerability of new media art illustrates a larger crisis for social memory. They describe a variable media approach to rescuing new media, distributed across producers and consumers who can choose appropriate strategies for each endangered work.

New media art poses novel preservation and conservation dilemmas. Given the ephemerality of their mediums, software art, installation art, and interactive games may be heading to obsolescence and oblivion.

Rinehart and Ippolito, both museum professionals, examine the preservation of new media art from both practical and theoretical perspectives, offering concrete examples that range from Nam June Paik to Danger Mouse.

They investigate three threats to twenty-first-century creativity: technology, because much new media art depends on rapidly changing software or hardware; institutions, which may rely on preservation methods developed for older mediums; and law, which complicates access with intellectual property constraints such as copyright and licensing.

Technology, institutions, and law, however, can be enlisted as allies rather than enemies of ephemeral artifacts and their preservation. The variable media approach that Rinehart and Ippolito propose asks to what extent works to be preserved might be medium-independent, translatable into new mediums when their original formats are obsolete.”

This is a question – perhaps the question – in archival studies today. What will ultimately be done, other than backing up three or four times for all media, and then trying constantly to keep abreast of changing platforms?

The “rule of three” pretty much sums up the current approach – back it up on your computer, an external hard drive, and somewhere in long term storage with something like Amazon Glacier, and then hope for the best. But that’s still a pretty thin comfort zone. This is an excellent study on this important question, and deserves the widest possible audience.

I’d like to thank video artist Bill Domonkos for recommending this; it’s on his mind, too.

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.

Wheeler Winston Dixon – New Films Posted on Vimeo

Sunday, July 31st, 2016

I have a number of new films posted on Vimeo, all in digital HD.

The titles include An American Dream, Real and UnrealStill Life, Light and ShadowCaptive AudienceClosed Circuit, The Shapes of Things, Summer Storm, CityLago di Garda and Acceleration and many more. You can check them all out by clicking on the image above, or the individual links for each title. I’ve been working on these films for the past couple of years, but all were released in 2016. They range in length from a half an hour to two minutes, and cover a number of different topics and approaches. They’re ”cinepoems” in the tradition of Man Ray, gathering widely disparate images together into an often conflicting, sometimes coherent whole.

An American Dream traces the rise of late-stage capitalism in the United States, and the decline of personal interaction. Money, violence, and consumerism dominate the images here, as befits a society in which 1% of the populace control 99% of the nation’s wealth, leaving the rest of us as mere spectators. In the final analysis, An American Dream is a requiem for a society in which inequality is the new norm.

Of An American Dream, critic Peter Monaghan noted that “the film’s theme is the rise of late-stage American capitalism, and the decline of personal interaction amidst increasing attachment to money, violence, and consumerism,” while David Finkelstein wrote that “watching An American Dream, hypnotized by the beautiful motion of slowly flying fragments of glass accompanied by heavenly voices, is like washing down several Valium pills with a martini, and musing on the state of American life as you drift off into a long, imperturbable sleep.”

Of the much more optimistic Still Life, critic Jorge Orduna wrote that “the world turns. The oceans give and take their power. The trees grow, the sun rises and sets, and we all go through it daily, and yet we don’t think about it. In this collection of images, you’re forced to think about it, even if it’s only for a brief time. For 30 minutes, you see both the stillness and motion of life. Watching the film without interruption, with headphones on, you feel as though you’re in your own cocoon, and by the end, you’ll have a new appreciation for the world around you.”

I have a show coming up this Fall at the Amos Eno Gallery in New York, but you can see the films now, right here on Vimeo. But they do look better on a large screen. So if you’ve got a video projector lying around the house, try one of the longer ones, like An American Dream, Real and UnrealStill Life, or The Shapes of Things, and see what you think. Those are perhaps my favorites of the group of films, and The Shapes of Things, especially, looks fabulous when projected in a theatrical setting. So get a blanket, some lawn chairs, and set it up in the backyard, or on the rooftop – after all, they’re free – something else I like about them.

Click on the various links or the image above, and have a look.

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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