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John Flaus on Film and Television Acting

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

Mia Wasikowska and John Flaus in John Curran’s film Tracks (2014)

Although his name may be unfamiliar to American audiences, John Flaus has been a major force in Australian cinema since the 1960s, as well as key figure in the rise of Film Studies in Australia in academe. As Wikipedia summarizes his career, Flaus “attended Sydney University as an undergraduate from 1953 to 1971, eventually attaining a B.A. degree. Flaus has been active in the film society movement since 1953, and published his first film reviews in 1954. In the 1960s, he was a member of the Sydney University Film Group and the WEA Film Study Group with such notable people as Frank Moorhouse, Michael Thornhill, John Baxter and Ken Quinnell. He has lectured on film at various tertiary institutions, was Head of Education at the AFTRS, and designed the original Cinema Studies course at La Trobe University in 1970, the first of its kind in Australia. He became a professional actor in 1977 and has over 100 credits in theatre, film and television.”

While his influence in cinema as an actor is undeniable, what makes Flaus’s career all the more remarkable is the degree of thought and intelligence that goes into his work – whether the project at hand be a television movie or a feature film, he gives his all to every project he’s in. More importantly, he was able to articulate – brilliantly – the entire process of film and television acting. In a detailed article in Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture 5.2 (1990), edited by Adrian Martin, entitled “Thanks For Your Heart, Bart,” Flaus described both what it is like to work on various film projects, and why film acting is so very different than acting on stage.

As he put it, “Everybody is an actor, each of us wears a mask – except for saints and simpletons. Our motives may be several: affectation, emulation, defense, attack, manipulation, self-indulgence. We select our own role, choose when and where to perform (thereby selecting our audience), write or improvise our own scenario, decide how much is too much and when to stop. Each of us is the sole recipient of full satisfaction and (hopefully) understanding of our own performance. If we misunderstand we come to believe in the Role and mistake it for the Self; we are in ‘bad faith’ as we delude ourselves. The situation chooses us and we become misguided critics of our own acting.

The vocational actor must put himself at the disposal of other intelligences, other values, other strategies; and must simulate emotions germane to an imaginary situation which is the product of someone else’s imagining. The psychology of the vocational actor’s practice is radically different from that of everyday ’social acting’; his technique requires more skills, his psychology requires stronger discipline.

The historical origins of vocational acting cannot be dated accurately; it may be two and a half millennia since drama detached from ritual. Four centuries have passed since European drama became ‘theater’, its production commercial, acting professional and commentary influential. In this phase the text of the play was ‘company property’. Commentators drew upon ancient precepts and contemporary prejudices, and their comments were published.

Drama theory had little to say about acting theory, which did not become a topic in the public domain until the Romantic backlash to industrialism and absolutism, when the term ‘art’ acquired its current predication and yielded its old territory to ‘craft’. Before that, theory of acting had been virtually a guild secret. I think it reasonable to assume that most of such theory was pragmatic and normative. The advice I am going to offer later in this article will fit that description, too.

Nowadays theory of acting makes it into print for the general reader (‘at all good bookstores’), yet radical differences between live drama and photographed drama are not widely understood or practiced. Often film actors are undeservedly blamed – and praised – for creative decisions made by other artists: directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, designers, editors.

Much of the art and some of the craft of the stage actor provide the basis for the film actor’s practice. Most actors come to film work after some stage experience, and with some stage preconceptions and traditions. There are still things to learn – and maybe some to unlearn, depending on how ‘filmic’ the particular film or TV drama is.

Because the vocation of stage acting is so long established, rich in expertise and lore, and its virtues more widely understood than those of film acting, I will delineate my concern with my topic – film acting – by frequent reference to what it is not – stage acting.” Essential reading; my sincere thanks to Adrian Danks for bringing Flaus’s critical work to my attention.

This is brilliant writing; you can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

A World of Constant Peril: Seriality, Narrative, and Closure

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International on the impact of serials on contemporary cinema.

As I write, in part, “What are we watching now at the movies, or on television or Netflix for that matter? Serials – though now they’re called franchises, or mini-series, or ‘cable dramas,’ but they have the same structure, and the same limitations, the same narrative predictability. What will happen, for example, in the next episode of Game of Thrones? Who will be slaughtered, who will survive, who will make yet another grab for power? What scheme will the fictional Walter White (Bryan Cranston) come up with in the next episode of the recently concluded Breaking Bad? You’ll just have to tune in next week and find out, because all we’re leaving you with this week is an open ended ‘conclusion’ – whatever happens next, we’re not telling. But then again, when the trap is finally sprung, are the results all that surprising? Yet you keep coming back, week after week. You can’t stop watching . . .

And yet, unlike any other structural format in commercial cinema, even the theatrical cartoon, the original iteration of the motion picture serial has vanished from contemporary view. Nevertheless, when one compares both the overall narrative structure of these chapter plays, as well as the elaborate fight scenes, exoticist sets, and – despite what some may say – the absolutely one-dimensional nature of the characters, one can easily see where the films in the current Marvel or DC ‘universe’ came from – starting, of course, with the original Star Wars film in 1977, which was transparently formatted as a serial, replete with opening crawl title receding endlessly into infinity, and even an “episode number,” as if the entire film was just one section of a sprawling epic – which indeed it ultimately was.

Comic-Con, which now dominates the commercial film industry, with, for the most part the empty escapism of such films as James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – the runaway hit of the current summer – doesn’t want to admit it, but the truth of the matter is that these are films for children, as the serials were, and were relegated, in the 1940s and 50s, to Saturday morning entertainment. No one who made them had any illusions about them, and though they contained both the template for most contemporary Hollywood action and superhero films, they were designed to exist at the margins of the theatrical world, as something for adolescents to view before moving on to more demanding fare. Today, that more ‘demanding’ cinema has all but vanished, as comic book cinema moves to the mainstream, and erases nearly everything else.”

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

Netflix and National Cinemas

Monday, August 25th, 2014

I have a new article in Film International, on the effects of Netflix on national cinemas.

As I write, in part, “People would much rather watch from the comfort and safety of their living rooms than trek out to the theater for anything other than the most immersive spectacle; the clearest evidence of this is the complete collapse of video rental stores, even in such major cities as New York, a metropolis of eight million people, which seemingly can’t sustain more than few revival houses, and only one or two video rental locations, even though they offer the kinds of films you’re not likely to find on Netflix.

Why go out when you can have the images delivered with a touch of a button? Why bother to seek out anything new when there’s seemingly so much product – all of it pretty much the same, even the supposed ‘indies’ – available on demand? You don’t need to do any exploring. We’ll do it for you, and not only that – we’ll put the films in nice little slots like ‘foreign’ or ‘indie,’ thus ensuring a miniscule audience. Along these lines, the Amazon ’suggestion’ feature on their website continues to amaze me, because of its utter lack of discrimination.

If you order one DVD of a French film, suddenly they recommend nothing but French films for you; order one Barbara Stanwyck film, and they think you’re only interested in films in which she stars; order a gothic thriller, and you’re inundated with offers for like material. Erase all of these possible options, and the suggestion engine comes up blank – it can’t figure you out. How come you like so many different kinds of films? Where’s the thread here that they can track? Why won’t you stick to a predictable pattern? And why do you want a DVD anyway, when there are these great films to stream, so easily, at the touch of a button?”

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

How to Cast Bill Murray in Your Movie

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

Waaaaaay back in 1976, when I was living in Los Angeles, I helped Bill Murray cut his demo reel for SNL.

I walked in the door, looking for a job, and Bill was just a young and up-and-coming comic in those days, looking for his big shot. We met in an editing room, where I was auditioning for a job as an editor, which I eventually got, and my first assignment was to help Bill cut the demo reel for a short film entitled “The World’s Largest Car Wash,” directed by the late Harold Ramis, in which Bill played two characters; a fast talking sharpie on an “on” ramp overlooking the LA freeway, pretending that all the cars were coming to his car wash; and a sort of precursor to his character in Groundhog Day, his idiot brother, who actually ran the business. It was about four minutes long, we cut it in a matter of hours, it came out quite well, and of course, he got the job.

We were all working at TVTV, short for Top Value Television, where Bill was joined by Harold Ramis, Michael Shamberg and a host of other talented people who were creating off the wall television that was way ahead of the norms of the era. Bill, of course, went on to SNL, and thence to a whole string of movies, which gradually became deeper as he went along in his career, with films like Broken Flowers, Lost in Translation, and his latest film, St. Vincent. His powers as an actor have only grown over the years, and he’s doing some of the best work of his entire career right now.

As is well known, Bill marches to a very different drummer, and has no agent or contact in LA, just a 1 800 telephone number where hopefuls can leave messages to try and get him for their films, which eventually leads to actual contact if Bill thinks the project is right. For St. Vincent, it was a long and arduous process to get him to come on board, for as the director Theodore Melfi told Entertainment Weekly writer Anthony Breznican “you know what the truth is? You don’t find Bill Murray. Bill ­Murray finds you.”

As Melfi told Breznican, Murray “finds everything he’s supposed to be involved in by not chasing anything. If it’s supposed to happen, the person will hound him until it happens, or he’ll run into them at a bar or restaurant. He has a zen-like protocol in regard to what he does and doesn’t do.” Oh, and the last time I saw Bill was in 1980, so don’t ask me how to get in touch with him. I don’t know!

You can read Melfi’s whole amazing saga by clicking here, or on the image above.

At DuArt Lab in New York, Thousands of “Orphan” Films

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

More proof, as if any were needed, of the fragility of film as an artistic medium.

As John Anderson writes in The New York Times, “the Midtown Manhattan building that houses DuArt, the premiere hatchery of American independent cinema for about 70 years, is 12 stories high. The elevator only goes to the 11th floor. To reach DuArt’s rooms of wonder, you need to take the stairs.

On the top floor, in one musty, institutional-green room after another, hundreds of film cans are stacked, floor to ceiling, each negative bearing the name of a long-gone production company, an obscure director or a title that may as well read ‘Dead End.’ This repository of broken dreams is also an orphanage, for movies awaiting adoption. Who made all these films? DuArt wonders the same thing.

With the rise of digital filmmaking and the subsequent demise of celluloid, DuArt in 2010 closed its photochemical division, which developed negatives and struck prints. At that point, DuArt had about 60,000 cans of film in its warren of vaults.

‘I have trouble throwing away film,’ the company’s chairman, Irwin Young, said. His father founded the company in 1922. ‘We never threw anything away. It’s because we were film people.’

Films by Woody Allen, James Ivory, Ang Lee, Gordon Parks, Tom DiCillo, Spike Lee, Susan Seidelman and more have been spoken for, but others remain unclaimed and the trail has gone cold on many of them, said Steve Blakely, a former DuArt vice president who has continued to track down filmmakers since 2010.”

Click here, or on the image above, to view the entire story; essential reading.

4-D Cinema, or, Return to The Past

Friday, August 1st, 2014

Ethan Gilsdorf has a new piece on 4-D cinema in The Boston Globe, including my thoughts on the subject.

As he writes of a recent trip to the Boston Museum of Science, “kids will surely be charmed by the 8½-minute Dora & Diego’s 4-D Adventure, another of the museum’s 4-D shorts. When Boots the monkey peels his banana, the theater fills both with yellow light and the distinct odor of (artificial) banana. Wind machines and falling snowflakes make a propeller plane ride to the Arctic all the more delightful.

But to my mind, some tricks, like that Shallow Seas tentacular ‘ankle tickler’ (a thin plastic hose under each theater seat that flaps back and forth when activated by a blast of air) or the ‘back poke’ effect (when sea snakes swim on screen, a secret jab from your seat back triggers your ’startle reflex’), seem more at home in a horror film or haunted house ride, not an educational science film.

Others agree. ‘So-called 4-D cinema is just a gimmick,’ said Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. ‘It’s a desperate ploy that has its roots in the 1950s movie theaters trying to get patrons away from their televisions, only now it’s Netflix.’ The sheer novelty, ‘will soon wear off,’ he says. ‘It won’t work.’

Indeed, for decades, directors and theater owners have used various tricks to combat moviegoer apathy. Scent of Mystery (1960) employed ‘Smell-O-Vision’ (pumped-in aromas synchronized to various scenes) and The Tingler (1959) tried ‘Percepto’ (seats that gave patrons mild electric shocks); both were released as television began to dominate leisure time.

Next up, Sensurround, which made theaters shake during films like 1974’s Earthquake. In recent years, Hollywood’s embrace of 3-D has coincided with the proliferation of giant-screen TVs and in-home theaters. Luxury seating, in-seat dining, and films shot at 48 frames-per-second are other ways cinemas are trying to address plummeting box office and make a night at the movies, or a school field trip, a destination event once again.”

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

Why Can’t You Stop Watching Netflix? – CNN

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Netflix wants you as a viewer – and you’re responding – in droves.

As Todd Leopold writes in today’s CNN.com, “the streaming and DVD service [Netflix] knows what you’ve rented and streamed and how long it took you to watch. It knows what genres you like and what performers you prefer. Who knows? It may even have an idea whether you prefer your popcorn lightly salted or slathered with butter. (Don’t want the rest of the world to know? It’s also testing a privacy mode.)

It has taken this knowledge and managed to produce a few hits of its own — not just with audiences, but also within the industry. Netflix is having a moment. Its series, such as House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, recently picked up 31 Emmy nominations. Wall Street approves of the strategy, having bid up Netflix’s share price 10-fold in the last five years.

And the audience? Netflix just announced it has cracked 50 million subscribers, more than double the number it had just four years ago. It has taken some old showbiz lessons — trust the creatives, budget them appropriately — and added some new twists: Binge-watching. Deep data mining. Exploiting the catalog as if there were nowhere else to go.

Can it maintain its dominance? It wasn’t so long ago that the place was posting losses and alienating customers. Pop culture doesn’t sit still, and neither does business. Netflix, which helped drive Blockbuster into oblivion, has to watch challenges from distributors such as Amazon and Hulu — not to mention stay friendly with content providers like movie studios.”

What will happen next? Stay tuned – I contributed a few thoughts to this piece.

 

Approved for All Audiences: A Brief History of the Modern Movie Trailer

Saturday, July 19th, 2014

Gary Susman has an excellent overview of the movie trailer in Yahoo News with my comments.

As he notes, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, movie trailers were just commercials, disposable ads for upcoming films. Then, in 1998, came the trailer for what was then the most eagerly awaited movie in years: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Fans bought tickets to Meet Joe Black just to see the Star Wars clip and walked out before the supposed main attraction started.

In a pre-broadband, pre-YouTube era, fans downloaded the Phantom Menace promo millions of times, poring over it for clues. And an evolution that had begun more than 20 years earlier finally became evident: the modest movie trailer had grown into an attraction in itself, one as worthy of scrutiny and appreciation as the art form it advertised.

Today, the Internet has made available to us a cornucopia of trailers we can watch when we want, as often as we want, for free. In addition to tracking the box office, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter now chart the most popular new trailers as well, with the top clips scoring in the millions of streaming views. (The Fault in Our Stars trailer, at this writing, has drawn more than 25 million viewers, more than twice as many as have bought tickets to the hit movie itself.) And online critics can now give close readings of trailers the way they do for full-length films.

The humble film promo wasn’t necessarily built to withstand such intense scrutiny. But over the past 50 years or so, trailers have matured into bite-size pop-art commodities, worthy of both critical study and mass consumption. (Indeed, it’s easy to watch the online clips the way we eat popcorn, one morsel after another, after another.) Here’s a brief history of how trailers have come into their own.”

You can read the entire piece by clicking here or on the image above; lots of great trailers embedded throughout.

Great Advice from Great Directors

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Here are some excellent tips from directors past and present; above, director Claire Denis.

As Alison Nastasi, who compiled these quotes, writes in Flavorwire, “artistic expression is an assertion of individuality, and all artists compose their work differently. In the case of filmmaking, there are numerous approaches to translating a story to celluloid. Inspired by director Wim Wenders’ recent advertising short, Wim Wenders’ Rules for Cinema Perfection, we’ve collected the golden rules of filmmaking employed by 100 famous directors. These tips and tricks are a wonderful source of advice and inspiration — even for the most seasoned professionals. The rules also serve as a fascinating snapshot of each directors’ filmography, capturing the spirit of their work.”

Click here, on the image above, to see the entire collection of quotes; interesting reading.

Frame by Frame Videos on Film History, Theory, and Criticism

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Here’s a carousel of more than sixty videos in my Frame by Frame series; click here, or above, to play!

Frame by Frame is a series of short videos I made with Curt Bright on film theory, history, and criticism — each is about 3 minutes long or so. Episodes of Frame by Frame cover The Hollywood Blacklist, Ridley Scott, Commercials in Movie Theaters, Inception, 3-D, Film Critics, War Movies, Film Composers, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Subtitles vs. Dubbing, The Aura, John Ford, Remakes, Special Effects, John Huston, Ridley Scott, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, Alice Guy Blaché, Oscar Micheaux, Horror Movies, Deep Focus, Pan and Scan, Jean-Luc Godard, Camera Movement, Metropolis, Psycho, Movie Trailers, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Minorities in American Film, The King’s Speech, Alfred Hitchcock, The Great Gatsby in 3-D, Digital Cinema, Special Effects, John Huston, Manoel de Oliveira, Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese, Westerns, Nicholas Ray, Busby Berkeley, Claire Denis, Woody Allen, Film Archives, George Cukor, Roger Corman, Billy Wilder, trailers, the Hollywood Ratings System, and many other topics.

Check it out! Useful for your classes; feel free to download as you see fit; use as you wish.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

  • War Movies
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon at one of the earliestand most enduring film genres, the war movie. […]
  • Frame By Frame - Hollywood Composers
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon highlights the most prolific Hollywood film composers. […]

In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/