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The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age

Monday, April 17th, 2017

I have a new article out today: “The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age.”

As I note in the article, “this essay takes its title from Erle C. Kenton’s 1942 film The Ghost of Frankenstein, one of the last credible films in the original Universal series, and asks the question, ‘What are we to do with, or make of, the Frankenstein monster in the 21st century?’ Tracing the monster in film from its beginnings to the present, we see a disturbing but not altogether unexpected trend. Newer iterations of the classic tale feature more special effects, but less real content.

Universal is rebooting their stable of classic monsters with yet another version of The Mummy in Alex Kurtzman’s 2017 film of the same name starring Tom Cruise, with revamped versions of Frankenstein and Dracula to follow if the film is successful. Significantly, the 2017 Mummy is more of an action film than anything else; it seems that mood and menace will no longer hold an audience. But will any of these versions have lasting impact, or value?”

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

Personal Shopper – A Ghost Story for the Digital Age

Saturday, April 15th, 2017

Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is a brilliant, hypnotic film – a ghost story for the modern era.

Pictured above are actress Kristen Stewart, and writer/director Oliver Assayas, who first teamed several years ago for Clouds of Sils Maria, another enigmatic, haunting film. Here, Stewart plays Maureen, who is – as the title plainly states – a personal shopper living in Paris whose interests lean more towards art history and personal discovery than the quotidian nature of her daily grind, as she zips from one high-end emporium after another, picking up jewels, designer clothing, and accessories for her demanding boss – Kyra, a high fashion model (Nora von Waldstätten), whom she almost never sees.

When Kyra wants something, she phones or texts, and Maureen runs and fetches, with little thanks and much haggling over her fee, leaving the items in Kyra’s apartment. But that’s just one strand of the film; all the while that she pursues these meaningless errands, Maureen is haunted (literally) by the death of her twin brother Lewis, a medium who made a pact with Maureen that he would reach out after death to make contact with her. Both Maureen and Lewis have congenital heart defects; in Lewis’ case, his heart gave out in his early 20s, and Maureen knows that her heart, too, could stop rupture at any moment, causing instant death.

In the cold, brutal world of the film, there’s no such thing as friendship, and even love is often deeply suspect, inasmuch as all the characters with the exception of Maureen are engaged in a deeply commercial, throwaway life style, in which dazzle counts for more than substance – as if they had any substance to begin with. In the film’s first third, Maureen alternates with nightly visits to Lewis’ now vacant house, in the hope that his spirit will manifest itself, intercut with endless trips on her motorbike on this or that errand for Kyra.

To say more would be to give the game away; let’s just say that as real and empty as the world of high fashion is in the film, so too is the supernatural domain, which is rendered in some eerily spectral special effects reminiscent of the unearthly inhabitants of a similarly dilapidated house in Lewis Allen’s classic ghost story The Uninvited (1944). As with Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart is a revelation, and while she seems to nicely balance her career between mainstream films and even music videos for the Rolling Stones’ latest album, I certainly prefer her work here, given a role she can absolutely inhabit, in a performance which keeps her on screen for nearly every scene in the film.

Personal Shopper was actually shot in 2015; premiered at Cannes in May, 2016, where Assayas won Best Director for his work on the film, and is just now bring released in the United States on the art house circuit. In world in which everyone seems fixated on the latest installment in the Fast & Furious franchise, a thoughtful, suspenseful, and intelligent film is something of a rarity – more’s the pity – and fans who know Stewart from her work in the Twilight series and other commercial work will probably be disappointed in the film, which builds slowly and carefully to a superbly executed climax.

Much has been made of the fact that the film was “booed” by some audience members at its first Cannes screening, and this has inaccurately been reported as the sole audience reception at Cannes. Not so: as Chris Gardner wrote in The Hollywood Reporter right after the official Cannes premiere, “Personal Shopper, starring Kristen Stewart, received a four-and-a-half-minute standing ovation Tuesday night at the psychological thriller’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Following the screening, a happy Stewart, who changed into sneakers after walking the red carpet in heels and a Chanel dress, was seen hugging her co-stars and the film’s director, Olivier Assayas, while the crowd applauded.

The Paris-set ghost story triggered both boos and applause when it first screened for critics on Monday. In the film, Stewart plays a young American in Paris who half-believes she’s in contact with her late twin brother. While discussing the Cannes competition entry during the festival, Stewart said: ‘It’s a ghost story, sure, but the supernatural aspects of it just lead you to very basic questions.’ As for the boos, Assayas, who also directed Stewart in 2014 Cannes competition entry Clouds of Sils Maria, said ahead of Tuesday night’s premiere, ‘It happens to me once in a while, where people just don’t get the ending.’ He added, ‘When you come to Cannes, you have to be prepared for everything.’”

And that includes people who want everything spelled out for them. If you want something that’s easily digestible, by all means head out to see The Fate of the Furious. But if you’d like something more thoughtful, and more elegantly constructed, with multiple layers of meaning and significance to peel back, please go go to the nearest art house and see this film. It’s a tonic in an age of empty glitter and flash; a human story set in an inhuman age, where machines – a prominent feature in the film is the endless array of digital gadgetry Maureen has to contend with everyday to get her work done – are the ultimate arbiters of our destiny.

Click here to see the trailer for this astonishing film.

Jason Bourne Meets Mission Impossible Meets The Mummy

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

Universal is starting a reboot of their classic horror films this summer, starting with The Mummy (2017).

As I write in my new article, The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age, “at Universal Studios in Hollywood, the parking decks for visitors are named after the various classic monsters (the Frankenstein lot, the Dracula lot, the Mummy lot, and so on), with enormous paintings on the outside depicting the first iterations of each character, but that’s about all Universal seems to be able to come up with. Universal is desperate to restore their ‘creations’ to some semblance of their former glory, but the 2017 version of The Mummy promises little in the way of originality or imagination, while piling on the special effects and action sequences in a frenzied attempt to sustain flagging audience interest.

Copying the Marvel and DC Universe method of churning out franchise films on a regular basis, Universal is plowing ahead with a similarly designed program of entries in the coming years. Noted Universal chairperson Donna Langley of this strategy, ‘we have to mine our resources. We don’t have any capes [in our film library]. But what we do have is an incredible legacy and history with the monster characters. We’ve tried over the years to make monster movies — unsuccessfully, actually. So, we took a good, hard look at it, and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre, put it more in the action-adventure genre and make it present day, bringing these incredibly rich and complex characters into present day and reimagine them and reintroduce them to a contemporary audience.’

I would argue that it’s not going to work; that it hasn’t worked thus far; and that it won’t work in the future. Indeed, this would seem to me to be the very worst possible strategy. The Frankenstein legend, and with it The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and Dracula are not material for a Bourne or Mission: Impossible series – they’re not action movie characters. All this will do is degrade the material further. They’re not action films; they’re films that inspire genuine dread. The original Mummy, for example, depended upon pacing, atmosphere, and Karloff’s iconic performance in the title role.

Only by returning to the source material, treated with utmost fidelity, can anything worthwhile be attained. What is needed is a creative force like the Hammer Film Productions team in the mid 20th century, which took the material seriously, and treated each project with the utmost care and attention, placing the emphasis on character, setting, and thematic development, rather than relying on special effects and fleeting star power to put these forthcoming projects across in the marketplace.

Until Hollywood returns to the original narratives that inspired the first wave of classic monster films, as Christopher Nolan did when he rescued the Batman franchise from ignominious parody with the straight-ahead reboot Batman Begins (2005), there’s no real hope for a Renaissance of horror. In these new Universal monster films and others like them, we will get only a simulacric vision of these mythic characters, especially Victor Frankenstein and his creation; in short, all we will get is the ghost of Frankenstein.

That’s hardly enough to inspire a whole new generation of millennial horror fans, let alone resuscitate the classic figures that inspired two cycles of Gothic horror films – the first Universal series, and then the Hammer remakes in the 1950s and 60s, which brought the various monster back to their original roots. Frankenstein’s ‘undying monster’ may finally be dead after all; we’ll just have to wait and see what Hollywood is cooking up in their own mad labs.”

Click here, or on the trailer above to see for yourself; this may make money, but it’s not The Mummy.

Theatrical vs. VOD – The Future is Now

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

As Lindsey Bahr of the Associated Press notes, theatrical vs. VOD is a key issue for filmmakers today.

As she writes, “would you pay $40 to watch a movie in the comfort of your own home 10 days after its big-screen release? How about $30 after 45 days? These are just a few of the ideas being thrown around by major Hollywood studios looking to more effectively compete with streaming services, television, smartphones and everything else that consumers can choose to spend their time with nowadays.

Premium video on demand (PVOD) is less disruptive than Sean Parker’s troubled Screening Room idea, which would have offered movies in the home for $50 on the same day they’re released in theaters. Yet PVOD still had many questioning its merits this past week at the theater industry’s CinemaCon in Las Vegas, from big studio execs to small theater owners, and stars and filmmakers in between.

For most exhibitors, shortening the theatrical window, as the industry calls it, from the traditional 90 days is seen as a bad idea, especially for those who’ve invested large sums of money to upgrade seats and projection tools at the behest of the studios. ‘The shortening of the theatrical window would be horrible for the entire industry,’ said Glen Gray, an exhibitor from South Florida.

As would be expected at an annual gathering of exhibitors, from big theater chains to single-screen operations – many studio executives were quick to emphasize their commitment to the theatrical experience. Dave Hollis, the executive vice president of distribution at the Walt Disney Company, used his platform to speak on behalf of his company and other Hollywood studios to tell exhibitors that they ‘all believe deeply that films should be seen in a theater’ and that they ‘have a common goal to get people to see them in your cinemas.’

Even Amazon Studios, with its blatant streaming strategy, offered encouragement to theater owners. ‘We really believe in the theatrical experience by fully supporting the theatrical window for our releases,’ said Jason Ropell, Amazon’s head of motion pictures, noting that Manchester by the Sea‘ is in its ‘19th week and counting’ in theaters.

But there’s no question the marketplace is changing. The North American box office may have reached record highs the past two years, yet attendance has remained nearly flat for over a decade. In other words, growth is coming from higher ticket prices, not more people seeing movies.Warner Bros. marketing and distribution chief Sue Kroll was the rare executive at CinemaCon to speak openly about theatrical threats.

Customers, she said, ‘want more choices in where and how they consume our content. Where there is demand, somebody is going to step in and fill that void,’ Kroll said. ‘We have to be creative and innovative in addressing the challenges of this marketplace, as we always have [and] move toward a future that will be beneficial and profitable to all of us.’

Moments later, director Christopher Nolan took the stage to preview footage from his ambitious, large-format celluloid epic Dunkirk and offered a different view from Kroll, who is distributing his film. ‘The only platform I’m interested in talking about is theatrical exhibition,’ Nolan said. The usually quiet audience erupted into applause. Earlier, the director told The Associated Press that while the threat [of VOD]  is nothing new, it’s also not something filmmakers are, ‘particularly excited about.’

‘You really want your film to be in theaters as long as possible because that’s where they are meant to be seen,’ Nolan said. Indeed, most of the filmmakers sided with Nolan, including Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve, who said he will ‘always make movies for massive screens,’ and Downsizing director Alexander Payne. ‘I don’t work in television, I work in cinema and I like my films to be seen on the big screen. Period,’ Payne said.”

And yet the future of cinema is undoubtedly through streaming platforms, in digital cinema formats, however much we might want to return to the immersive nature of the theatrical experience, sharing a viewing of a film with a large audience. But theatrical exhibition, once the norm, is now becoming a niche format, except for the most grandiose blockbusters, which seemingly demand Dolby Surround Sound and IMAX screens.

Amazon may tout the virtues of theatrical distribution, but Manchester by The Sea would play just as well on the small screen as it does in theaters, and the bulk of Amazon’s product, such as Mozart in the Jungle and the forthcoming series The Last Tycoon, is distributed through streaming video, where Amazon makes most of its money.

So theatrical is superior, but in the end, streaming video will win out for home viewers.

Typical Script Detail at Universal in the 1940s

Saturday, April 1st, 2017

Even on the most minor projects, Universal in the 1940s paid attention to the smallest details.

Weird Woman was a modest 1944 release from Universal in their “Inner Sanctum” series, all starring Lon Chaney Jr. – here as Professor Norman Reed – many of which were directed by Reginald Le Borg, including this film. It’s about an hour long, and had a very short shooting schedule – but Le Borg manages to squeeze the most atmosphere possible out of the proceedings, even if Chaney Jr. seems a rather unlikely college professor (much of his dialogue is delivered in voice over, to heighten the claustrophobic feel of the film). But as even a cursory glance at the script page above demonstrates, on the most overtly commercial offerings from the studio during this period, a great deal of care was taken to make the film as precise and detailed as possible.

For an average shooting script, there’s a great deal of description – and even camera movements – spelled out in minute detail, so that the entire film is carefully pre-planned, and can be shot with maximum efficiency, without sacrificing quality. The budget for the film was somewhere in the $100,000 range, and Chaney Jr. at this point in his career was being used as the studio’s “clean up” man, tackling any role they threw at him – even in a western – with only a few complaints. Above all, during the 1940s, Universal was a factory, operating in a nation at war, delivering a product to audiences that satisfied genre expectations. The shooting schedule was at the most a few weeks, if that.

But even though the film is resolutely a program picture, it’s also enlivened by the skill of a gallery of gifted supporting actors, including Anne Gwynne, Evelyn Ankers, the always reliable Ralph Morgan, Elisabeth Risdon, and the ever-alarming Elizabeth Russell. Based on a novel by the gifted Fritz LieberConjure Wife – which was remade in 1962 as Night of the Eagle – this is a solid entry in the “Inner Sanctum” series, which everyone involved took seriously, even if the end result is somewhat threadbare, if only because of the circumstances of budgetary constraints, lack of time, and the ever present need for a “happy ending.” Still, it’s very much worth watching, and you can now see the whole film online.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the entire film.

Dorothy Arzner Retrospective in Melbourne – Interview

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

Recently, I was interviewed on the Dorothy Arzner Retrospective at the Melbourne Cinematheque.

Click here, or on the image above to hear the podcast, and as the site notes, “the Melbourne Cinémathèque hosts a season dedicated to the zesty, irreverent films of Dorothy Arzner, a pioneer female filmmaker whose career spanned the silent era into the 1940s.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is a film critic who has written an essay accompanying the season for the Senses of Cinema online journal on her 1932 film, Merrily We Go to Hell. He places Arzner in the pantheon of early women whose role as pioneers is still under appreciated.”

The interview was conducted by Jason Di Rosso, for his show The Final Cut, and he did a superb job with the editing – cutting in sound bites from several of Arzner’s films to really drive the point home – and the entire event was a distinct pleasure – with a sound link via telephone to Melbourne that was as clear as a bell.

I’m thrilled that Arzner is finally getting some measure of the international respect she so clearly deserves; my thanks to Jason, to Senses of Cinema, and of course, hats off to the Melbourne Cinematheque for making the retrospective an event not to be missed. Now, how about a box set of her work on DVD?

Here’s a chance to see a classic film on the big screen, the way it was meant to be shown.

This Remake Is Generating A Lot of Buzz!

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

Herbert Marshall and Vincent Price in the 1958 version of The Fly – click here to see the trailer.

As Dave McNary reports in Variety, “Fox is developing a remake of the iconic horror movie The Fly, and is in negotiations with Sleight writer-director J.D. Dillard. Should the deal go through, Dillard would direct the remake from a script that would be co-written with his writing partner Alex Theurer. Blumhouse and WWE bought rights to Sleight at last year’s Sundance Film Festival following its premiere.

The original 1958 movie The Fly, starring David Hedison, Patricia Owens, Vincent Price, and Herbert Marshall, centered on a scientist who mutates into a human insect after a fly flies into his transportation machine. Directed by Kurt Neumann, The Fly was based on a George Langelaan short story.

David Cronenberg remade The Fly in 1986 with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis with Goldblum’s character slowly mutating into a giant insect. It became the top grosser of Cronenberg’s career with more than $60 million at the box office and won an Academy Award for best makeup.”

The Fly is one property that Fox keeps rebooting at regular intervals; not mentioned here is the fact that the 1958 version had two immediate sequels, Return of the Fly and Curse of the Fly. While some people are objecting to a remake of the original film – and remembering that the Cronenberg version was really a riff on the 1958 version – the time might be right for a complete reboot of the franchise, which with the proper treatment could be a compelling film.

This should be interesting; let’s see what happens.

Leslie Reed on The New Book Series “Quick Takes”

Monday, March 13th, 2017

Our new Quick Takes series is taking off!

As Leslie Reed writes of our new book series in UNL Today, “ Quick Takes, a new series of short books on popular culture topics edited by University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon, launches March 17 with the publication of Disney Culture by John Wills and Zombie Cinema by Ian Olney. Foster and Dixon . . .will oversee at least 12 books in the series, to be published by Rutgers University Press over the next three years.

‘Gwendolyn and I think about interesting topics that people might want to know about, and then we find the top experts in the field to write about it,’ Dixon said. ‘It’s a bleeding-edge, major book series on pop culture.’

The Quick Takes books have been in the works for about two years. Loosely patterned after the British Film Institute’s Film Classics series, the Quick Takes books will range from 30,000 to 40,000 words, making them pocket-sized and readable in one sitting. Paperbacks and E-books will cost $17.95; cloth copies are priced at $65.

‘They’re free of jargon, direct and accessible,’ Dixon said. ‘We’re aiming at college kids, pop culture fiends and the general public.’ ‘These are topics that are really important in the 21st century,’ Foster said. ‘The series is designed to introduce them to the widest possible audience.’

The first two books have been well received by critics. In Disney Culture, Wills, director of American Studies at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, explores how Disney grew from a small animation studio to a global media giant. Critic Blair Davis describes Disney Culture as a ‘well written and thoroughly engaging overview’ of the Disney Empire.

Olney is an associate professor of English at York College of Pennsylvania, who received his doctoral degree in English and Film Studies from Nebraska. In Zombie Cinema, he explores why the genre has captured the imagination of 21st century audiences. Critic Stephen Prince said Zombie Cinema is a ‘zesty tour through an amazingly prolific and popular contemporary film cycle.’

Future volumes will feature rock-and-roll movies, action movies and comic-book movies, among other topics. Digital Music Videos by Steven Shaviro of Wayne State University in Detroit, and New African Cinema by Valérie K. Orlando of the University of Maryland are due to be released in April. The book series will be showcased at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies March 22-26 in Chicago.”

Thanks, Leslie, for an excellent overview of the series, which promises to be quite exciting.

Sweet and Lowdown: Woody Allen’s Cinema of Regret

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

Lloyd Michaels has an excellent new book out on the cinema of Woody Allen.

As the publisher, Wallflower Press / Columbia UP note on their website, “Over a career that has spanned more than six decades, Woody Allen has explored the emotion of regret as a response to the existentialist dilemma of not being someone else.

Tracing this recurrent theme from his stand-up comedy routines and apprentice work through classics like Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Bullets Over Broadway as well as less esteemed accomplishments (Another Woman, Sweet and Lowdown, Cassandra’s Dream), this volume argues that it is ultimately the shallowness of his protagonists’ regret—their lack of deeply felt, sustained remorse—that defines Allen’s pervasive view of human experience.

Drawing on insights from philosophy, theology, psychology, and literature, the book discusses nearly every Woody Allen film, with extended analyses of the relationship films (including Alice and Husbands and Wives), the murder tetralogy (including Match Point and Irrational Man), the self-reflexive films (including Stardust Memories and Deconstructing Harry), and the movies about nostalgia (including Radio Days and Midnight in Paris).

The book concludes by considering Allen’s most affirmative resolution of regret (Broadway Danny Rose) and speculating about the relevance of this through-line for understanding Allen’s personal life and prospects as an octogenarian auteur.”

Lloyd Michaels edited the journal Film Criticism from 1977 through 2015 and has published four previous books on cinema, and this is one of his most ambitious and transcendent works – absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in American cinema, and the fate of the individual talent in contemporary Hollywood. It’s also nice to see that the book is named after Sweet and Lowdown – one of my favorite Woody Allen films, and arguably Sean Penn’s finest performance.

Available now from your local bookseller; a book not to be missed.

Reel Film Day – March 5th, 2017

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

Support Reel Film Day – films screened the way they were meant to be seen.

As The Alamo Draft House theatre chain announces, “mark your calendars, cinephiles! 35mm film will be alive in all its glory on March 5th — or 3/5. A collaborative initiative from Alamo Drafthouse and Kodak, the first-ever Reel Film Day will champion the beauty of cinema’s richest and most enduring format with celebratory screenings at Alamo Drafthouse and independent theaters across the U.S.

‘There is nothing like experiencing actual 35mm projected film,’ said Steve Bellamy President of Kodak Motion Picture Film and Entertainment. ’I don’t care if it is the greatest 8K projector in the world, 35mm is a radically different thing and there is simply no comparison. Projected film is watching light blast through dozens of layers of color dye clouds and emulsion, 24 times per second.

A film projectionist is a master craftsman and seeing his or her work is akin to performance art. While the world has largely migrated to the utility of video projectors, there is a massive growth in consumers who understand the experience of film projection. This is why theatres projecting film are coming back so strongly and doing so well!’

As a true celebration of the wide-ranging scope of cinema, Reel Film Day programming will be deeply eclectic, featuring classics including Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil rubbing reels with cult favorites like W. D. Richter’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.

At press time over 25 screenings are taking place, and it is expected that ultimately hundreds of theaters across the country will join in. No matter the location, the unifying factor is that all films will be presented large and lustrous from 35mm film.

‘Less than 5% of our film history exists in a high-definition digital format,’ says Alamo Drafthouse CEO and Founder Tim League. ‘If you really love film, then join us to recognize, celebrate and support film screenings in independent theaters everywhere. This scrappy group of fellow cinephiles is truly preserving film history. Support your local theater, support 35mm (and 70mm) film on 3/5, the first annual Reel Film Day.’”

‘Nuff said, as Stan Lee would say. Support Reel Film Day at a theater near you!

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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