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David Bowie 1947-2016

Monday, January 11th, 2016

One the world’s most influential pop /music / film/ performance artists has died at the age of 69.

As Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times, “David Bowie, the infinitely changeable, fiercely forward-looking songwriter who taught generations of musicians about the power of drama, images and personas, died on Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday. Mr. Bowie’s death was confirmed by his publicist, Steve Martin, on Monday morning.

He died after an 18-month battle with cancer, according to a statement on Mr. Bowie’s social-media accounts. ‘David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family,’ a post on his Facebook page read. His last album, Blackstar [produced by Bowie's long time associate Tony Visconti] a collaboration with a jazz quintet that was typically enigmatic and exploratory, was released on Friday — on his birthday . . . He had also collaborated on an Off Broadway musical, Lazarus, that was a surreal sequel to his definitive 1976 film role, The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider: an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut. His music was always a mutable blend: rock, cabaret, jazz and what he called ‘plastic soul,’ but it was suffused with genuine soul. He also captured the drama and longing of everyday life, enough to give him No. 1 pop hits like Let’s Dance . . .

Mr. Bowie earned admiration and emulation across the musical spectrum — from rockers, balladeers, punks, hip-hop acts, creators of pop spectacles and even classical composers like Philip Glass, who based two symphonies on Mr. Bowie’s albums Low and Heroes. Mr. Bowie’s constantly morphing persona was a touchstone for performers like Madonna and Lady Gaga; his determination to stay contemporary introduced his fans to Philadelphia funk, Japanese fashion, German electronica and drum-and-bass dance music.”

David Bowie crossed nearly every boundary in popular culture and art, appearing in films, creating a multitude of characters such as Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke, and then abandoning them when they were no longer of interest. Bowie was also much underrated as a singer, and in this era of auto-tuning, it’s interesting to listen to this isolated vocal track for the song Under Pressure, in which Bowie belts out the lyrics to the song with both skill and passion.

Bowie also has a surprisingly long and effective film career, appearing in a wide variety of films, from Labyrinth, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Prestige (in which he played the equally visionary Nikola Tesla) the biopic Basquiat, as well as The Hunger, The Last Temptation of Christ, and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. In all these films, the persona he projected was very much like his stage presence; distant, but absolutely in the moment, whatever that moment might be.

Two years ago, the BBC produced an excellent documentary on one of Bowie’s most creative periods, Five Years, and as columnist Paul Morley observed in The Telegraph, Bowie “was the human equivalent of a Google search, a portal through which you could step into an amazing, very different wider world – if he mentioned in an interview, or referenced in his work, someone like Andy Warhol, Jean Cocteau, Antonin Artaud or Marcel Duchamp, I would immediately want to find out what he was talking about.

He flooded plain everyday reality with extraordinary, unexpected information, processing the details through a buoyant, mobile mind, and made intellectual discovery seem incredibly glamorous. He helped create in my own mind a need to discover ways of making sense of both the universe and the self by seeking out the different, the difficult and the daring.”

David Bowie – one of the art world’s major figures – now no longer with us.

Public Domain Collections: Free to Share & Reuse

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

The New York Public Library has just released an amazing collection of Public Domain materials.

As Shana Kimball, Manager of Public Programs and Outreach at the New York Public Library announced on January 5, 2016, “Today we are proud to announce that out-of-copyright materials in NYPL Digital Collections are now available as high-resolution downloads. No permission required, no hoops to jump through: just go forth and reuse!

The release of more than 180,000 digitized items represents both a simplification and an enhancement of digital access to a trove of unique and rare materials: a removal of administration fees and processes from public domain content, and also improvements to interfaces — popular and technical — to the digital assets themselves.

Online users of the NYPL Digital Collections website will find more prominent download links and filters highlighting restriction-free content; while more technically inclined users will also benefit from updates to the Digital Collections API enabling bulk use and analysis, as well as data exports and utilities posted to NYPL’s GitHub account.

These changes are intended to facilitate sharing, research and reuse by scholars, artists, educators, technologists, publishers, and Internet users of all kinds. All subsequently digitized public domain collections will be made available in the same way, joining a growing repository of open materials.”

So, as Shana Kimball says, “go forth and reuse” – an incredible resource.

Video: The Theatrical Experience

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

If you’re going to watch a movie, you should see it on the big screen if at all possible.

Here, in another episode of Frame by Frame, I discuss the decline in theatrical film viewing in favor of at home video on demand streaming, as used in platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and others, as DVDs fade into the distance, and theatrical screenings become a more and more rare experience. This is unfortunate, because the only way you can really see a film – and see all the detail within each shot, is on a big screen, which is the size that 90% of all films were originally made to be seen in, before the advent of television.

Now, of course, TV is fading away, as more and more people are content to watch films in their living room, and given the relative convenience and safety of seeing a film at home – as I note – who can blame them? But nevertheless, the fact remains that, as my late friend the director Roy Ward Baker once told me – and I never forgot it – “on a DVD or television, you can inspect a film, but you can’t experience it.” And it’s absolutely true, which is why seeing a film in a theater remains – after all these years – the optimal way to really see a film.

Check out the video above to find out why.

20th Century Fox Launches Ambitious EST Program

Saturday, December 12th, 2015

Just a few days ago, Manohla Dargis quoted me on the disappearance of DVDs – well, here’s more proof.

As Brent Lang notes in Variety, 20th Century Fox “has just reached the century mark and to recognize the milestone, it is re-releasing a hundred films spanning the silent era, continuing through the golden age of Hollywood and ending in the early ’90s.

The pictures will be available on digital HD for the first time in their history, and include such classic films as F.W. Murnau’s  Sunrise, Raoul Walsh’s Big Trail and John Ford’s Men Without Women. The first batch of titles will be available Thursday and includes the musical Can-Can, the western My Darling Clementine and Pigskin Parade — a 1936 musical that marked Judy Garland’s film debut. There are also more modern offerings such as the Julia Roberts thriller  Sleeping With the Enemy and the Michael Douglas adventure Romancing the Stone.

The shift away from DVDs and the collapse of the video store could have dealt a death blow to classic movies, but Fox’s home entertainment team says the digital revolution appears to have ushered in a renaissance of film appreciation. ‘You’re not trying to hold shelf space in a retail outlet,’ said Mike Dunn, president of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

‘It allows you to have more of your catalog readily available, because you put it on iTunes and it stays there. You’re not being judged by how many units it sells. Services like iTunes want to be completists.’

In fact, catalogue titles now make up more than 40% of digital sales. That’s massive growth from four years ago, when they comprised approximately 5% of digital receipts, and Dunn expects their popularity will continue. To help draw attention to the offerings, Apple will have a dedicated iTunes landing page featuring these new titles.

‘Acquiring movies is so easy now,’ said Dunn. ‘You read about something and maybe there’s a reference to a filmmaker’s historical work, and my thumb moves across my phone and I’ve bought it.’ Although there are financial incentives to offering these pictures to the public, the studio positioned the move as about more than dollars and cents.

‘We are custodians of a great legacy of filmmakers whose contributions here span 100 years,’ said Jim Gianopulos, chairman and CEO of Twentieth Century Fox Film. ‘We owe their work our best efforts to preserve and protect it, and to make these important films accessible in their best possible presentation for generations to come.’”

Well, that’s all very well, but for those who want the superior visual quality of physical media, HD downloads just don’t make it. Watching a film on your iPhone really has nothing to with really experiencing the film on the screen – these films were never made for such small dimensions. While this is better than simply storing these titles away in a vault, it’s just not the same as theatrical, or physical media, which with care will last a fairly long time. HD downloads, not so much.

But this is the future – EST, or “electronic sell through” – is here to stay.

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.

UNL – “No One Saw Coming” 15 Second Spot

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

Here’s a great commercial spot for UNL – really sharp editing and sound design.

The University of Nebraska, Lincoln, where I teach, puts out a good deal of material on the various offerings of the university – which are remarkably diverse – but for me, this 15 second spot – ultra modern, brilliantly directed and edited, with an exceptionally sharp soundtrack – really stands out. It’s the work of Amanda Christi and Andrew Swenson, and asks a simple question: “will your story be like all the others? Or will you write something that no one saw coming?

The University of Nebraska–Lincoln is a top 50 public university, a member of the Big Ten, and is located in a bustling Midwestern city that’s on the rise. Top-tier education, 150 areas of study, an award-winning undergraduate research program, over 500 student organizations, and rich athletic traditions all make UNL an exciting place to be. If you make it to Lincoln, you can go anywhere.”

Kudos to the creative team behind this ad, which perfectly captures the spirit of UNL.

Lou Reed Reads Delmore Schwartz

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

Delmore Schwartz was a brilliant, if tragic American poet; Lou Reed was, at one time, his student.

As Josh Jones writes in the web journal Open Culture, “in a galloping vignette in Tablet, writer Lee Smith manages to evoke the essences of both sentimental tough guy Lou Reed and his literary mentor and hero, ‘Brooklyn Jewish Troubadour’ Delmore Schwartz. Although Schwartz’s ‘poetry is his real legacy,’ Smith writes, that rich body of work is often obscured by the fact that ‘his most famous work is a short story,’ the much-anthologized In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (1935).

It’s a story written in prose as lyrical as can be—with sentences one wants to pause and linger over, reading again and again, out loud if possible. It’s also a story in which we see ‘a direct line… between Schwartz and Reed,’ whose song Perfect Day performs a similar kind of magical cataloguing of urban impermanence. For Reed, onetime student of Schwartz at Syracuse University, ‘Delmore Schwartz is everything.’

Reed dedicated the last song, European Son, on the first Velvet Underground album to Schwartz, and wrote an eloquent forward to a reissue of Schwartz’s first collection of stories and poems, also titled In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. And just above, you can hear Reed himself read the story aloud, savoring those lyrical sentences in his Brooklyn deadpan. It’s easy to imagine Reed writing many of these sentences, such was Schwartz’s influence on him.

They shared not only common origins, but also a common sensibility; in Reed’s songs we hear the echo of Schwartz’s voice, the satirical world-weariness and the lyricism and longing. In the biographical documentary Rock and Roll Heart, Reed says that Schwartz showed him how, ‘with the simplest language imaginable, and very short, you can accomplish the most astonishing heights.’ Reading, and listening to Schwartz’s astonishing In Dreams Begin Responsibilities may help you understand just what he meant.”

I’ve always loved Schwarz’s poetry and prose, and here, Lou Reed gives an excellent reading of his work.

The Paramount Vault Channel on YouTube – Free Feature Films!

Monday, October 19th, 2015

The Paramount Vault has an excellent selection of classic and contemporary feature films.

As J.E. Reich reports in Tech Times, Paramount Pictures is throwing open its vault of feature films from the 1930s to the present on a free You Tube channel which showcases some of the studio’s biggest hits, along with more esoteric films, many of them well worth watching.

As he writes, “Norma Desmond proclaimed in Paramount’s Sunset Boulevard, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small!” True to the word of one of the studio’s greatest films, Paramount has brought its bigger pictures to the small screen: by making them available to watch for free on YouTube.

Named The Paramount Vault, the studio’s newly-minted YouTube channel allows viewers to stream a plethora of the studio’s titles, ranging from the timeless screeners (Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Star Trek I) to more off-beat indies . . . the selection is generally veritable, mixing popular selections with forgotten gems.

Paramount Vault also gives a gift to would-be GIFers and movie buffs: clips from indelible moments in cinema history, such as Indiana Jones taking some lackeys to task after they mess with the wrong guy in the aforementioned Raiders, Cher Horowitz ferreting out driving tips in Clueless, a creepy neighbor making a seemingly normal housecall in Rosemary’s Baby, and — you guessed it — Norma Desmond getting ready for her close-up in Sunset Boulevard.

What remains unclear is the shelf life of each movie: whether each title will remain on the channel after it’s posted or if they’ll be on a type of rotation or phase cycle (i.e., phased in and out), essentially on a system akin to a streaming site like Netflix.”

Adds Joe Blevins of The A.V. Club, “Paramount Pictures, which has recently launched a YouTube Channel called the Paramount Vault where it will be making many of its full-length motion pictures available for free streaming. Since the studio is responsible for such popular films as Grease, Airplane!, Top Gun, Sunset Boulevard, Clueless, and Ghost, as well as such mighty franchises as Star Trek, Transformers, and Indiana Jones, this is potentially big news.

As it is, the Paramount Vault already has plenty of hours of free-of-charge entertainment awaiting the adventurous viewer. Under the science fiction category, for instance, [one can see] The Deadly Bees and The Space Children, as well as such cult favorites I Married A Monster From Outer Space and . . . the indescribable Marcel Marceau vehicle Shanks, among others.

Among the designated Paramount classics, perhaps the most striking selection is Bernardo Bertolucci’s once-controversial 1900 from 1976, starring Robert De Niro. Those without the patience for full-length movies will find clips to share and comedic moments, too, as well as a smattering of digital series. Viewers might well find themselves wandering around in the Paramount Vault for hours or days, unaware of how much time they’ve been spending there.”

You should spend some time there, too. Check it out!

All Alone in the Digital World – “Removed” by Eric Pickersgill

Sunday, October 18th, 2015

Eric Pickersgill’s “removed” photos capture the personal isolation and disconnectedness of the digital age.

As he writes on his website about his work,”the joining of people to devices has been rapid and unalterable. The application of the personal device in daily life has made tasks take less time. Far away places and people feel closer than ever before. Despite the obvious benefits that these advances in technology have contributed to society, the social and physical implications are slowly revealing themselves.

In similar ways that photography transformed the lived experience into the photographable, performable, and reproducible experience, personal devices are shifting behaviors while simultaneously blending into the landscape by taking form as being one with the body. This phantom limb is used as a way of signaling busyness and unapproachability to strangers while existing as an addictive force that promotes the splitting of attention between those who are physically with you and those who are not.

The work began as I sat in a café one morning. This is what I wrote about my observation:  Family sitting next to me at Illium café in Troy, NY is so disconnected from one another. Not much talking. Father and two daughters have their own phones out. Mom doesn’t have one or chooses to leave it put away. She stares out the window, sad and alone in the company of her closest family. Dad looks up every so often to announce some obscure piece of info he found online. Twice he goes on about a large fish that was caught. No one replies. I am saddened by the use of technology for interaction in exchange for not interacting. This has never happened before and I doubt we have scratched the surface of the social impact of this new experience. Mom has her phone out now.

The image of that family, the mother’s face, the teenage girls’ and their father’s posture and focus on the palm of their own hands has been burned in my mind. It was one of those moments where you see something so amazingly common that it startles you into consciousness of what’s actually happening and it is impossible to forget. I see this family at the grocery store, in classrooms, on the side of the highway and in my own bed as I fall asleep next to my wife. We rest back to back on our sides coddling our small, cold, illuminated devices every night.

The large format portraits are of individuals who appear to be holding personal devices although the devices have been physically removed from the sitter’s hand. They are asked to hold their stare and posture as I remove their device and then I make the exposure. The photographs represent reenactments of scenes that I experience daily. We have learned to read the expression of the body while someone is consuming a device and when those signifiers are activated it is as if the device can be seen taking physical form without the object being present.”

I can’t think of any other art project that so perfectly captures the inherent loneliness and sensory deprivation of the digital world, in which we are all supposedly “connected,” but actually cut off from any real interaction with each other by a series of screens that separate us from face to face communication, and the real world. Even in a group, as you can see in Pickersgill’s “removed” photos, people remain isolated from one another, endlessly checking their phones and iPads for some “update” from the digital realm.

Scroll through Pickersgill’s photos by clicking here, or on the image above – and see what people are missing.

It Can Wait – No Post Is Worth A Life

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Here’s a really powerful commercial from AT&T on the dangers of texting and driving.

I don’t usually comment on commercials, but this one is really powerful – with a minimal voiceover from actor Forest Whitaker, “two cars collide in a horrific crash when one swerves into the other lane. The scene reverses and you see a mom posting an update while she drives. Just before she crashes, she looks back to tell her daughter everyone loves the picture she posted of her. AT&T wants you to know that looking at your phone can wait. No post is worth a life.”

Absolutely true – and a really compelling reminder not to text, or post, and drive.

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 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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