Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Archive for the ‘Film History’ Category

Black & White Cinema – A Short History on TCM

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

I was honored to have Robert Osborne discuss my book Black & White Cinema on TCM last night.

For a special evening of black and white films on October 7, 2015 entitled “Artists in Black and White,” showcasing the work of such brilliant cinematographers as James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Haskell Wexler and Karl Freund, Robert Osborne and Turner Classic Movies ran a series of five films that best exemplify the brilliance of monochrome cinema during the classical Hollywood studio era, including Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (photographed by Toland) and Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (shot by Wexler).

Introducing the films, Osborne remarked that “there’s an interesting new book by Wheeler Winston Dixon called Black & White Cinema: A Short History, and it tells the history of black and white movies, its origins and impact, and it’s really well worth reading. It’s filled with all kinds of insights about black and white cinematography, and the many artists who mastered the tricky interplay in capturing light and shadow.”

Needless to say, I thank Robert Osborne and TCM for their interest in my work, and TCM, as always, is a national treasure – the last place on television where one can see the classics, complete and uncut, in their original aspect ratios – with no commercials. Many thanks, and long may TCM continue into the future!

Black and White Cinema is available in Kindle, paperback and hardcover formats – check it out now!

Director Chantal Akerman Dies at 65

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

The brilliant filmmaker Chantal Akerman has died unexpectedly in Paris.

As reported by Rachel Donadio and Cara Buckley in The New York Times just minutes ago, “Chantal Akerman, the Belgian filmmaker whose ruminative, meticulous observation of women’s everyday and inner lives, often using long, protracted takes, made her a pioneer in feminist and experimental filmmaking and influenced generations of directors, has died in Paris. She was 65.

Her death was confirmed by her sister, Sylviane Akerman, and by Nicola Mazzanti, the director of the Royal Belgian Film Archive, which had worked closely with Ms. Akerman over the years and restored her films. Mr. Mazzanti said the cause and precise date of her death, which he said he believed had occurred in the past few days, were not yet known.

Born in Brussels to Polish Holocaust survivors, Chantal Akerman was inspired to begin making films after seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 Pierrot le Fou as a teenager. At age 25, she made her groundbreaking 1975 film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which follows a housewife in real time over the course of more than three hours as she prepares food, does chores, and receives clients paying for sex. The minimalist repetition builds up quietly to a traumatic climax.

Jeanne Dielman is a film that created, overnight, a new way of making films, a new way of telling stories, a new way of telling time,’ Mr. Mazzanti said. ‘There are filmmakers who are good, filmmakers who are great, filmmakers who are in film history. And then there are a few filmmakers who change film history.’”

The director of more than forty films, Akerman’s work specialized in deep contemplation of her subjects, and resolutely refused to cater to public tastes. Most recently, she was teaching filmmaking at CCNY in Manhattan, and her latest film, No Home Movie, has just been selected for the upcoming New York Film Festival.

A documentary consisting of detailed conversations with her mother, Natalia, an Auschwitz survivor who recently died, the film was inexplicably booed at the recent Locarno Film Festival, and as The Times reports, the initial hostile reception of the film was “devastating [to] Ms. Akerman, who friends said had been in a dark place of late, and who had previously suffered emotional breakdowns.”

That’s all we know now, except that her films will live on, and that her place as someone who changed the language of cinema is absolutely assured. All across the world, tributes are pouring in, but nothing can really capture the brilliance of her work, which must be seen, and experienced, to be truly appreciated.

Chantal Akerman – one of the masters of modern cinema.

New Video – Science Fiction Futurism

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

I have a new video out on Science Fiction Futurism and Ridley Scott’s The Martian.

Science fiction films have been predicting the future since Georges Méliès’s A Trip To The Moon in 1902, and as with that film, as much as they might get things right, they often err in describing what the future holds.

In this short video, edited and photographed by Curt Bright, I talk about some of the other films that have shaped our consciousness of the future, to mark the release today of Ridley Scott’s new film The Martian, such as Things To Come (1936), Metropolis (1927), Blade Runner (1982), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

While these visions of the future are often fanciful, sometimes they hit the mark, as with hologram projection, talking computers, two-way television and numerous other technological advances. So click here, or on the link above to take a quick trip into the cinematic future, and remember, as Criswell famously noted, “we are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I will spend the rest of our lives.”

Maybe some of these things will actually come to pass.

21 Days Together (1940)

Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Leslie Banks on the set of 21 Days Together.

Shot in 1937, but not released until 1940 to capitalize on the newly famous Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind (1939), 21 Days Together (also known simply as 21 Days) is a rather curious film, based on a 1920 novel by John Galsworthy, The First and The Last, scripted by none other than novelist Graham Greene, directed by Basil Dean, and edited by future director Charles Crichton, who later made The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and much later after that, A Fish Called Wanda (1988). That’s a lot of talent on board!

Without giving away too much of the plot, Laurence Olivier plays ne’er do well Larry Durant, who kills Henry Wallen (Esmé Percy), the husband of his lover Wanda (Vivien Leigh), and then confesses the crime to his brother, Keith (Leslie Banks), who is in line for a judgeship, and in no mood to have Larry spoil his career.

Thus, he talks Larry into staying silent about the matter, and Larry instead spends an idyllic 21 days with Wanda (Leigh), even as an innocent man is being tried for the crime. The simple question hanging over all of this is will Larry let an innocent man hang for his crime, or come clean and face the consequences?

The on-the-set shot above gives a sense of the relaxed mood of the piece – it really isn’t so much a murder mystery as a romance, and Olivier and Leigh were really falling love, so much so that director Basil Dean thought they were derailing the finished product. Indeed, it’s really not that suspenseful at all, but rather a curiosity that’s more important as a record of a time and place now lost to authentic recall.

But with these hands on board, the result, clocking in at a scant 72 minutes, is well worth watching, and just another example of a film lost to conventional history, and the kind of filmmaking that flourished during this era in Britain, when costs were minimal, and everyone’s career was just taking off.

See the entire film by clicking here!

Forthcoming Book – Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s “Disruptive Feminisms”

Monday, September 28th, 2015

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a forthcoming book entitled Disruptive Feminisms: Raced, Gendered, and Classed Bodies in Film

Disruptive Feminisms: Raced, Gendered, and Classed Bodies in Film offers a revolutionary approach to feminism as a disruptive force. By examining texts that do not necessarily announce themselves as “feminist,” or “Marxist,” Gwendolyn Audrey Foster brings a unique critical perspective to a wide variety of films, such as Post Tenebras Lux, Craig’s Wife, and Bright Days Ahead, to name just a few of the many films discussed in this text.

From the classical Hollywood films of Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino, to the subversive global films of Carlos Reygadas, Claire Denis, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Buñuel, Paul Thomas Anderson, Călin Peter Netzer and many others, Foster highlights these filmmaker’s abilities to openly challenge everything from class privilege and colonial racism, to sexism, ageism, homophobia and the pathologies of white privilege.

Disruptive Feminisms: Raced, Gendered, and Classed Bodies in Film thus fills a fresh and much­‐needed critical perspective, which Foster dubs “disruptive feminism” – an entirely new way of looking at these groundbreaking films, and brings to the center a number of marginalized and under-appreciated films, offering a truly global perspective on feminist cinema.

Forthcoming late Fall, 2015; something to look forward to.

“The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film”

Sunday, September 27th, 2015

A frame blowup from Mikhail Kalatozov’s Salt for Svanetia (1930), now screening at the Jewish Museum.

Here’s a great review by Holland Cotter of The New York Times of a new show at the Jewish Museum in New York City.  As Cotter writes, in part: “Revolutions sell utopias; that’s their job. Art, if it behaves itself and sticks to the right script, can be an important part of the promotional package. This is the basic tale told by ‘The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film’ at the Jewish Museum, but with a question added: What happens to art and its makers when the script is drastically revised?

In the years following the 1917 revolution, Russia was a social and political experiment in progress, and a wild, risky one. It had a stake in emphasizing its brand-newness, its difference from the rest of the world. Its young government made every effort to promote the idea that it was creating a liberated, radical Now to set against a repressive, conservative Then.

In this heady atmosphere, avant-garde art, chance-taking by definition, was officially embraced as a natural complement to progressive politics. Photography and film, modern forms as yet untainted by history, were considered particularly suitable for molding life in the present. And both had inventive practitioners.

Already, by the mid-1920s, Sergei Eisenstein, a Red Army veteran, was memorializing the revolution in movies. Utopia-minded painters like El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko were proposing alternative modes of seeing by bringing abstraction into photography . . .

Like photography, film in this period was ideologically constrained but conceptually advanced. The symphonic brilliance of Eisenstein’s 1925 Battleship Potemkin and his 1927 October, or Ten Days That Shook the World transcends the official approved narratives. Mikhail Kalatozov’s far less familiar Salt for Svanetia from 1930, a quasi-ethnographic film shot in the remote Caucasus, is enchantingly strange even with its tacked-on Soviets-come-to-the-rescue ending.

Remarkably, the show presents these films complete, along with nine other beauties in a small, comfortable viewing theater built into one of the Jewish Museum’s galleries. They are all screened back-to-back, four a day, with a few, including Grigory Kozintsev’s fascinatingly operatic 1926 adaptation of Gogol’s The Overcoat, repeated twice in the rotation.”

If you’re in Manhattan, check it out – some beautiful and little known work here.

Another New Frame by Frame Video – Batman v Superman

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

Ben Affleck and Zack Snyder on the set of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Curt Bright and I have really been pumping these Frame by Frame videos out – three in the last week alone! This time around, it’s the new Batman v Superman movie, directed by Zack Snyder, on which I have real reservations. As I note in the video commentary, this seems like reaching for the end of the franchise waaaaaay too soon – the comparison I make is Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), which spelled the beginning of the end for the classic Universal monster series, and led to the “monster rally” films House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), before the entire franchise collapsed in parody with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948.

Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman has much the same basic plot arc as Superman v Batman, but with Snyder’s film, it proved necessary to turn Superman into something of a villain, seemingly out of control, thus forcing Batman to travel to Gotham City to challenge Superman, who is suddenly seem as a threat to humanity, rather than a savior, his more traditional role.

As Snyder told Katie Roberts when he undertook the project, “after Man of Steel finished and we started talking about what would be in the next movie, I started subtly mentioning that it would be cool if he faced Batman… You’re in a story meeting talking about, like, who should [Superman] fight if he fought this giant alien threat Zod who was basically his equal physically, from his planet, fighting on our turf… You know, who to fight next?… But I’m not gonna say at all that when I took the job to do Man of Steel that I did it in a subversive way to get to Batman. I really believe that only after contemplating who could face [Superman] did Batman come into the picture.”

Which is all very well, but what’s the next act? And with Wonder Woman thrown in as an extra added attraction, along with DC superheroes Aquaman and Cyborg, all in their first live action big-screen iterations, it would seem to me that this is becoming more and more like a series ender, rather than a franchise extender. If you’re setting up this conflict, even if everything turns out all right in the end, which of course it will, you’ve nevertheless created a mash-up which could easily lead to parody, rather than an extension of the DC Universe.

Really, all of this is rather inconsequential in the long run, at least for me, but for fans, I think this is starting down the road to a series of films with endless cataclysmic fights, explosions, and violence, rather than character development, in which the members of the DC universe are shuffled on screen for some marquee time, and then moved off into the shadows, waiting for the next franchise entry. But we’ll find out soon enough whether or not it works. And meantime, when is the Wonder Woman film going to come out – were going to have to wait until 2017 for that – long overdue!

Coming in March 2016 to a theater near you: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Terence Stamp – An Actor’s Unusual Life

Sunday, September 20th, 2015

Terence Stamp and Julie Christie in the 1967 version of Far From The Madding Crowd.

Though most people know him today almost solely as General Zod in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, Terence Stamp has had a long and deeply varied career. On March 12, 2015, Stamp sat down with Andrew Pulver of The Guardian for a detailed interview, which makes for fascinating reading, both as an overview of the actor’s life, but also as a reminder of the whimsical nature an acting career – one moment you’re hot, the next moment, nothing.

As Pulver notes, “It’s funny how things work out. Now 76, Stamp had a fantastic 1960s, during which he starred in a handful of imperishable classics (Billy Budd, Ken Loach’s Poor Cow, Pasolini’s Theorem) and consorted with some of the era’s most beautiful women (Julie Christie, Jean Shrimpton, Brigitte Bardot). His career fell off a cliff at the start of the 1970s, the drought ending with an improbable offer to play General Zod in the first two Superman movies.

A peripatetic revival followed, with occasional juicy roles (The Hit, Wall Street, The Adventures of Priscilla – Queen of the Desert, Song for Marion) alternating with pay-the-bills Hollywood (Young Guns, Elektra, Wanted). Retro fetishism started in 1999 with the Steven Soderbergh-directed The Limey, in which Stamp played a Get Carter-ish avenging gangster, and has continued to the present day, with Stamp currently lionized by another 60s-fetishising film-maker, Tim Burton, with roles in Big Eyes (as a snooty art critic) and the yet-to-be-completed Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

But cinema has a habit of folding back on itself; this week sees the reissue of one of those imperishable 1960s films, Far From the Madding Crowd, an adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel, in which Stamp plays the coldly raffish Sergeant Troy opposite Julie Christie’s Bathsheba. Spruced-up and spring-cleaned, and just less than half a century old, Far From the Madding Crowd is something else: they really don’t make them like this any more.

Almost three hours long, smeared with mud and sheep dung in its grimly realistic recreation of early 19th-century Dorset, and benefiting from performances from actors at the top of their games, it glows on the screen exactly the way it must have when first released in 1967. At the time, however, it was considered a disaster: poor reviews, especially in the US, and a general inability to see past the with-it celebrity personas of Stamp and Christie, translated into underwhelming box-office and a severe career misstep for its director, John Schlesinger.

These days, Stamp is sanguine about the film, which has regained some cultural currency with the impending release of another adaptation, featuring Carey Mulligan in the Julie Christie role and Tom Sturridge in Stamp’s. [Said Stamp,] ‘It was the first really commercial project I got involved with, and I was rather shocked by the reaction. I thought it had everything.’”

An excellent interview; read the entire piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

Frame by Frame on Star Wars – The Force Awakens

Friday, September 18th, 2015

I have a new Frame by Frame video on Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Amazingly, this episode in the Star Wars series will actually be shot on film, rather than digitally. As director J.J. Abrams told Ben Fritz of The Wall Street Journal, “I appreciate how that technology opens the doors for filmmakers who never had access to that level of quality before. However, I do think film itself sets the standard for quality. You can talk about range, light, sensitive, resolution — there’s something about film that is undeniably beautiful, undeniably organic and natural and real.

I would argue film sets the standard and once it’s no longer available, the ability to shoot the benchmark goes away. Suddenly you’re left with what is, in many cases, perfectly good but not necessarily the best, the warmest, the most rich and detailed images. Especially on movies like Star Trek and Star Wars, you have so much that will be created or extended digitally, and it’s a slippery slope where you can get lost in a world of synthetic. You really have to keep away from that, especially with Star Wars, which I wanted very much to feel like it is part of another era.

I’m very grateful to Kodak for keeping the lab open for now. As a filmmaker, you want to have every tool available. That doesn’t mean digital doesn’t have huge advantages, nor that I wouldn’t want to experiment and shoot digitally on something. I would hope filmmakers who are just getting started will be able to have this as an option as they continue in their careers because movies are nothing if not a romantic experience and film is a big part of that.”

The result should be quite interesting; slated to open December, 2015.

New Book Published – Black & White Cinema: A Short History

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

I have a new book out today from Rutgers University Press – Black & White Cinema: A Short History.

From the glossy monochrome of the classic Hollywood romance, to the gritty greyscale of the gangster picture, to film noir’s moody interplay of light and shadow, black-and-white cinematography has been used to create a remarkably wide array of tones. Yet today, with black-and-white film stock nearly impossible to find, these cinematographic techniques are virtually extinct, and filmgoers’ appreciation of them is similarly waning.

Black and White Cinema is the first study to consider the use of black-and-white as an art form in its own right, providing a comprehensive and global overview of the era when it flourished, from the 1900s to the 1960s. Acclaimed film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon introduces us to the masters of this art, discussing the signature styles and technical innovations of award-winning cinematographers like James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, and Sven Nykvist.

Giving us a unique glimpse behind the scenes, Dixon also reveals the creative teams—from lighting technicians to matte painters—whose work profoundly shaped the look of black-and-white cinema. More than just a study of film history, this book is a rallying cry, meant to inspire a love for the artistry of black-and-white film, so that we might work to preserve this important part of our cinematic heritage. Lavishly illustrated with more than forty on-the-set stills, Black and White Cinema provides a vivid and illuminating look at a creatively vital era.

Here are some early reviews:

“Dixon covers the entire history of black and white movies in one volume, and talks about the films and cinematographers who created these films, and often got little credit for their work. Fascinating and compelling, this is essential reading for anyone who loves movies.”—Robert Downey Sr., director, Putney Swope

“Dixon has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and a subtle and well-honed aesthetic sense. He rescues important films from oblivion, and finds fresh angles of approach to films that are already familiar.” —Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s colorful study of black-and-white cinema reaffirms yet again his unfailing expertise as a critic, historian, and dazzlingly fine writer. Indispensable for students, scholars, and movie buffs alike.”—David Sterritt, author of The Cinema of Clint Eastwood: Chronicles of America

“In his latest book, Black and White Cinema, Wheeler Winston Dixon rediscovers the art of cinematography in those glorious black-and-white movies from Hollywood’s classic age.” –Jan-Christopher Horak, Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive.

My thanks to all who helped with this very complex project.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

  • Frame by Frame: Science Fiction Futurism
    UNL Film Studies Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon discusses the 2015 Ridley Scott film "The Martian," and the accuracy (and often inaccuracy) of science-fiction films at predicting real advancements in science and technology. […]
  • Frame by Frame: Batman v Superman
    UNL Film Studies Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon discusses the genre of comic book movies in the context of "Batman v Superman."  […]

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