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Frame by Frame Chosen As Blog of the Month By ProfNet

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

Frame by Frame has been chosen as Blog of the Month for May, 2015 by ProfNet.

ProfNet, the academic news professional network, has chosen Frame by Frame as the Blog of the Month for May, 2015. As Melissa Ibarra, writing for ProfNet, noted when she interviewed me about the Frame by Frame blog, every month “I’ll be highlighting one successful blogger on The Blog Blog. By ’successful,’ I mean someone who has been blogging for at least three years and has seen their audience engagement grow significantly. For this month’s feature, we conducted a short interview with Wheeler Winston Dixon, creator of Frame by Frame, a film and media blog:

1. What is your name and title?

Wheeler Winston Dixon, James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, University of Nebraska, Lincoln

2. What is the name and URL of your blog?

Frame by Frameblog.unl.edu/dixon/

3. Which audience does your blog cater to?

People interested in film history, theory, and criticism; media trends; streaming; film preservation; trends in viewing; cultural studies; pop culture; and classic films.

4. What inspired you to create your blog?

It offers a daily outlet to comment on the current film and related media subjects of the day. I keep it loaded with new material on a nearly daily basis. It seemed like there was nothing quite like it out there, and still isn’t.

5. What makes your blog so unique?

I cover everything related to film, television, the Web, streaming, changing patterns of distribution, classic cinema, from an informed perspective rather than a fan based one. It’s academic, but accessible, with multiple links to related materials. And best of all, it’s ad free.

6. What is your ultimate blogging goal?

To keep blogging and writing for as long as I can.

7. If you could choose one piece of advice to give to new bloggers, what would it be? Have you made any mistakes and learned from them?

You must put up fresh material every day. Every. Single. Day. You can take a day or two off for vacation, but you should keep abreast of current media and cinema trends, and blog on them as often as possible. Also, rather than always offering my opinion on something, my real goal is to expose people to as many new and interesting films as I can.

8. How successful has your blog grown to become versus when you first started it? If you could provide simple metrics, that would be great.

I started with only a handful of viewers; now I am used as a source throughout Wikipedia; there are multiple links to my blogs in various other articles; and on good days I get up to 20,000 hits on various stories.

9. How does blogging benefit you?

It provides me with a platform to get my ideas and concepts out on a regular basis, without having to go through regular editorial schedules, in a timely and positive fashion.

10. Any other interesting stories or information you would like to provide?

I’m both surprised and pleased at the success of the blog. It’s listed on blogrolls in major newspapers throughout the world, and I regularly get requests to comment on news stories from members of the traditional media.

Dixon took his expertise in film and media and transformed it into a successful blog. Not only is he extremely knowledgeable in his field, but his passion keeps his blogging fire burning. It’s great to find inspiration through the success of others.

Thanks, Melissa, and all those at ProfNet – much appreciated!

Filmmaking Tips from Richard Lester

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

Landon Palmer has some handy bits of advice from director Richard Lester in Film School Rejects.

As Palmer writes, “Any summary of Richard Lester’s career inevitably begins with his helming of A Hard Day’s Night. This is no dubious honor – what was meant to be simply a ‘jukebox musical’ when United Artists got the ball rolling on the project ultimately changed what the rock ‘n’ roll movie could be, and produced a hugely entertaining manic farce of modern celebrity in the process.

But Lester’s career in the 1960s alone is far more diverse than even his two enduringly fun Beatles films would suggest. The American-born Lester unwittingly became a major figure in transforming British cinema during the heyday of ‘Swinging London’ by pursuing radically unconventional means of filmic expression.

Where British exports were previously divided between Sean Connery for the mainstream and kitchen sink realism for the arthouse, Lester’s films catered equally to commercial and discerning audiences by combining experimental styles with lightning-paced, biting humor, like in his Palme d’Or winning The Knack…and How to Get It or his incisive anti-war film How I Won the War.

Lester made waves across the pond as well, between deeply felt dramas like the San Francisco-set Petulia (still one of New Hollywood’s underrated gems) and, in later decades, popcorn films like two Superman sequels and the internationally successful Three Musketeers. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from one of about a dozen people who was at one point referred to as the ‘fifth Beatle.’”

Click here, or on the image above, to read the entire article, with video clips.

“Fans Don’t Want Change – They Want The Illusion of Change”

Monday, May 4th, 2015

Graeme McMillan, writing in the May 3, 2015 issue of The Hollywood Reporter, has these thoughts.

As McMillan writes, “Throughout Age of Ultron, the specter of death looms heavily. Characters repeatedly tell each other that it’s unlikely that they’re going to make it through what’s happening alive, and Hawkeye practically gets awarded the Most Likely to Die prize when his wife tells him that she just wants him to come home alive, damn it, right before the final showdown . . . it should, by all rights, be something that makes the final battle feel even more dangerous, with everything up for grabs. But the very nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe undercuts the tension entirely.

After all, the audience knows that none of the big name characters are going to die [emphasis added]. Most of them are already announced to appear in next year’s Captain America: Civil War, or subsequent movies down the line (Thor: Ragnarok, for example, if not Avengers: Infinity War). Along the same lines, the very existence of those movies means that there’s never any possibility of Ultron’s plan succeeding even a little bit . . .

I’m reminded of a line often attributed to Stan Lee, when talking about what comic book fans look for in stories. Reportedly, as the common wisdom goes, he explained that fans don’t want change; they want the illusion of change [emphasis added].

It’s an attitude that makes sense, as much as it seems dispiriting to hear. With the many moving parts of the Marvel comic book universe, in which multiple series are published simultaneously, many of them sharing concepts if not characters, there needs to be a default status quo to which characters return to allow the toys to be used by as many creators as necessary at any given point. The same, it seems, is starting to become true of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In a way, it was unavoidable; there are only so many stories you can tell in a shared universe before they start, if not contradicting, then at least overlapping each other. When you promote, as Marvel has, the interrelatedness of your stories (‘It’s all connected,’ as the tagline goes), that’s a selling point, instead of a bug — until the existence of those other stories starts limiting what you can achieve with each individual movie or television series.

The question then becomes, at what point does your audience realize that you’re standing in place in terms of narrative momentum, and are you doing so in such an entertaining way that they don’t care?”

Fascinating stuff – read the whole story by clicking here, or on the image above.

Roberty Downey Sr.’s Pound (1970)

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

Robert Downey Sr. (center) with cast members on the set of his film Pound.

As readers of this blog know, I’m a friend and fan of the work of Robert Downey Sr., whose best known film after all these years is Putney Swope. I first met Bob back in 1969, right after the success of Putney, when he was editing Pound in a cutting room in the West 50s in Manhattan. We hit it off, and remain friends to this day, but although I’ve written about a lot of his other work, I’ve never really tacked Pound, which is simultaneously one of his most disturbing and ambitious films, and was – at least in my mind – a highly unlikely follow-up to Putney Swope. But at this point in his career, Bob could write his own ticket, and the result is one of the darkest, most unsettling visions of humanity in crisis that ever hit the screen – yet to this day, Pound is almost impossible to see.

As Rich Drees noted in a 2006 article on Pound, the plot of the film is simple: “set in a New York City dog pound, 18 dogs, played by human actors, wait to be adopted. Part existential comedy, part allegory, the dogs include a punch drunk Boxer (Stan Gottlieb), a hyperactive Mexican Hairless (a scene stealing Lawrence Wolf) and a sleek Greyhound (Antonio Fargas). Meanwhile, the city is being terrorized by a serial killer dubbed The Honky Killer (James Green). Pound also features the debut of performance of Downey’s son Robert Jr. as a puppy temporarily held at the pound.”

But that’s just the set-up. Hovering over all the characters is the continual threat of death from “the needle” – they’re not so much waiting to be adopted, as waiting to be executed. A terrier advises that they should revolt against their captors and escape, while an airedale argues that their deaths are not imminent, and a pardon is forthcoming. Throughout the film, there a number of mournful musical numbers which verge on nihilistic vaudeville, interspersed with a series of philosophical diatribes on the nature of existence, the transience of life, and the ways in which we’re all in a prison of one sort or another, whether we wish to admit it or not.

The end of the film is terrifying, as all of their ranting against the caprices of fate comes to naught. Without warning, a guard peremptorily pulls a switch that sends poisonous gas into the holding chamber, and one by one, the animals die an agonizing death, with each “dog” given a last, wistful closeup as they expire. Downey then cuts to a final sequence on a train to nowhere, as the “dogs” sit in their seats, bound for who knows where – heaven? hell? limbo? – and a candy barker walks through the aisle with a megaphone singing the 1930s song “Just One More Chance,” the lyrics of which, in part, lament that “we spend our lives in groping for happiness / I found it once and tossed it aside / I paid for it with hours of loneliness / I’ve nothing to hide.” And on this unresolved note, the film ends.

Not surprisingly, Pound was summarily rejected by the sponsoring studio, MGM, who for some reason, Downey told me, thought that the film would be an animated cartoon. When they saw the finished result, MGM dumped it on the bottom half of a double bill with Federico Fellini’s Satryicon, to Downey’s delight. Yet not surprisingly, given the film’s incredibly bleak outlook on life, Pound has never had a VHS or DVD release, although it was available as a streaming download on Netflix for a time, but has now been withdrawn.

Indeed, as Drees notes, it’s a miracle that the film exists at all, since “the only print of the film that Downey could locate was found in his ‘cameraman’s ex-wife’s closet . . . a 35mm print that was dead.’ Although the print itself was deemed unprojectable, it was able to be digitally scanned and restored. ‘So they put the color back in,’ says Downey. ‘They cleaned up the sound a bit too. Technology is great, it’s just the movies aren’t getting any better. It’s only because of digital technology that some of this stuff can be saved, because most of the colors just go. Most of my stuff in color other than Greasers Palace (1972), I hate the color. I love black and white.’”

Based on a play Downey wrote very early in his career, The Comeuppance, which was produced Off-Off Broadway in 1961, Pound betrays its theatrical origins, and has strong links to Sartre’s play No Exit, as well as to Downey’s even earlier efforts, such as his first play about two nuclear missiles in a silo, waiting go off, talking to each other about the destruction they will inevitably inflict on humankind. Pound can certainly be seen as an extension of that, and it’s no wonder that it was so roundly rejected by the general public, and got an NC-17 rating – it’s a real warning that the only one you can really trust in life is yourself.

There are bootlegs of the film, of course, drifting around on the web, and today, the film’s major curiosity draw seems to be the brief appearance of Bob Downey Jr. in a small role as a puppy – but the film is much more than that. It’s certainly not a masterpiece, and Downey himself has expressed definite reservations about Pound, but all in all, it’s one hell of a scary vision of life, and a real outlier in film history – the work of someone chasing not success, but his own vision, consequences be damned. As Downey said of his work as a filmmaker, “after being thrown out of the house, four schools and the United States Army, I discovered that I was on the right track.”

“I just think he’s one of our great American directors” — Paul Thomas Anderson

The New Audience: Moviegoing in a Connected World

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

The Academy is also running this interesting evening on May 12, 2015, on the future of cinema in the digital era.

As the program notes explain, “The Academy looks at the past, present and especially the future of moviegoing in this discussion moderated by Krista Smith, Vanity Fair’s executive West Coast editor.  Oscar-nominated producer and Academy member Michael Shamberg conceived and helped shape the program in consultation with the Academy.

Just as the television boom of the 1950s inspired filmmakers to expand the size and shape of the movie screen, today’s filmmakers and studios want to take advantage of the wide variety of platforms on which contemporary audiences view films.

Everything from portable devices to streaming videos competes with the traditional movie theater as the preferred ways to watch films for much of the current generation. The evening will include notable media-savvy contributors who will first offer their unique perspectives on the topic and then participate in a panel discussion moderated by Smith.

Professor Henry Jenkins, the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education at the University of Southern California, will discuss key historic shifts in motion picture viewing and fandom, describing how our social experiences in and around cinema have shifted over time, and what they look like in today’s networked era.

The president of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures and web pioneer Ze Frank will compare the way today’s digitally oriented audiences relate to content with the more traditional relationship between moviegoers and the theatrical experience.

Team Oscar winner Tayo Amos will speak about what it means to grow up as a digital native filmmaker and media consumer in the world of social media, and explain how social media and the Internet are changing storytelling for her generation.

The final speaker will be Oscar-winning filmmaker John Lasseter, the chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and principal creative advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering. The evening will also include archival footage, courtesy of the Academy Film Archive, showcasing early audiences interacting with movies and a look at past predictions of moviegoing in the 21st century.

Again, admission is just $5, and this promises to be an informative and deeply interesting evening.

This Is Widescreen – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is running an excellent new series on widescreen cinema.

From May 1st through June 19th, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a running a widescreen “retrospective” of the some of the most innovative CinemaScope and related processes films from the 1950s and 1960s – with the 1960 arguably being when the format reached its zenith. As their program notes for the series comment, “cinema has endured for decades through changes in technology and competing visual platforms, and now you can discover how studios and filmmakers – long before tablets, smartphones and the Internet – responded when audiences began trading regular visits to the movies for the ease and affordability of the first small screen: television.

In response, many impressive widescreen cinematic formats were rolled out around the world and capitalized on the breathtaking width of the projected image, not to mention the heightened fidelity of stereophonic sound, to achieve effects far beyond the reach of TV sets.

This Is Widescreen offers a colorful assortment of films (including classic musicals, crime films, sci-fi chillers, ghost stories and more) that demonstrate how filmmakers found new means of engaging the flexibility of the cinema and the key larger-than-life film formats in the ’50s and ’60s – from the launch of Cinerama in 1952 and the subsequent widescreen boom that included CinemaScope, VistaVision, Todd-AO and others – plus highlights from the first wave of ‘Scope filmmaking from around the globe.”

Admission to each screening, projected immaculately in 35mm format, is a mere $5 (!!), and the opportunity to see these remarkable films on the big screen in their original aspect ratio shouldn’t be missed. All screenings will feature pre-show presentations including shorts, trailers, cartoons and/or behind -the-scenes footage. Feature films screened during the series are:

Cinerama Holiday – May 1 at 7:30 pm
Lola Montès - May 7 at 7:30 pm
Carmen Jones and Bigger Than Life – May 8 at 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm
The Hidden Fortress – May 14 at 7:30 pm
To Catch a Thief
and Artists and Models – May 15 at 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm
Shoot the Piano Player and Lola – May 21 at 7:30 pm and 9:20 pm
Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt – May 22 at 7:30 pm  and 9:05 pm
Last Year at Marienbad and The Innocents – May 28 at 7:30 pm and 9:20 pm
Oklahoma! - May 29 at 7:30 pm
A Woman Is a Woman and Cruel Story of Youth – June 4 at 7:30 pm and 9:10 pm
The Vikings – June 5 at 7:30
Kwaidan - June 11 at 7:30
Grand Prix – June 12 at 7:30
The Big Gundown and Dragon Inn – June 18 at 7:30 pm and 9:35 pm

For more information on each program, click on the links above – not to be missed!

Laurel and Hardy: 40 Memorable Moments

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

Courtesy of The Telegraph, here are forty memorable scenes from the films of Laurel and Hardy.

As the newspaper notes, “Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy have inspired generations of comedians including Matt Lucas (“I always thought of them as friends”), John Cleese (“they’re wonderfully, wonderfully funny”), Steve Martin (“they are hard to top”), Steve Coogan (“they were geniuses of comedy”) and Stephen Fry (“a constant joy”). Laurel and Hardy will return to the big screen this summer to mark the 125th anniversary of Stan Laurel’s birth and cinemas across the UK will be showing a double bill of their classic 1933 feature length film Sons of the Desert and the short movie County Hospital. Martin Chilton celebrates this wonderful comic duo with a pick of 40 of their finest moments.”

Click here, or on the image above, to browse through this excellent gallery of photos.

The Black Film Center/Archive – Richard E. Norman Collection

Monday, April 20th, 2015

More essential films saved from destruction.

As The Indiana University – Bloomington Newsroom reports, “The Black Film Center/Archive will produce a new finding aid for the collection of Richard E. Norman, a pioneer in development of films for African-American audiences. Project staff, working in partnership with IU Libraries Digital Collections Services, will enhance this online resource with over 20,000 digitized items from the archive.

‘The Norman Collection constitutes a unique resource for the study of the formation of American cinema in general and the history of race films in particular,’ said Michael T. Martin, director of the Black Film Center/Archive and a professor of American studies and of communication and culture in The Media School. ‘Arguably, of no less importance to both histories as the Lincoln Motion Picture Co. and Micheaux Picture Corp. are, this grant ensures the preservation and access of our Norman holdings for current and future generations of researchers, film historians and the public, as it will be to the teaching mission of Indiana University.’

In the early 1900s, Norman, a southern-born white filmmaker, was among a small group of so-called race filmmakers who set out to produce black-oriented pictures to counteract the racist caricatures that had dominated cinema from its inception.

Norman began his filmmaking career in the Midwest before relocating his Norman Film Studios to Jacksonville, Fla., where from 1919 to 1928 he produced silent feature films featuring leading black actors and actresses. He cast his actors in positive roles such as a banker, businessman and cowboy, and not in demeaning roles often given to African Americans by Hollywood. In his 1926 feature, The Flying Ace, he notably depicted an African-American pilot in the U.S. Armed Forces — an impossible career in reality for a black man until 1940.

Apart from short fragments, all but one of Norman’s films are now lost, making the collection at IU even more important. His lone surviving film, “The Flying Ace,” was restored by the Library of Congress in 2010 and screened at IU in 2013 as part of the ‘Regeneration in Digital Contexts: Early Black Film’ conference.

Norman’s archive at IU — an extensive collection of his personal and professional correspondence, detailed theatrical distribution records, original shooting scripts and other records — is among the most important resources for the study of early African-American film and movie-going culture from 1912 to 1954. Norman ceased film production with the advent of the sound era, but he remained active in the motion picture industry as a distributor and owner of theaters.

‘Since the 2013 publication of Barbara Tepa Lupack’s scholarly biography on Norman, we’ve seen a surge of research interest in Norman’s collection from scholars internationally,’ said Brian Graney, archivist of the Black Film Center/Archive and principal investigator on the Norman project. ‘This support from NEH will greatly increase the discoverability of Norman’s records and make them readily available as digital resources for remote research and new forms of scholarship on African-American movie-going.’

The collection was donated by Norman’s son, Capt. Richard E. Norman Jr., to the Black Film Center/Archive under its founding director Phyllis Klotman, emeritus professor of African American and African diaspora studies, who died late last month.”

Fascinating history – read more by clicking here, or on the image above.

Columbia University Seminar Presentation – 4/16/15

Monday, April 20th, 2015

I was honored to be invited to deliver a seminar lecture at Columbia University on April 16, 2015.

My talk was entitled “The Current Fate of Experimental Works on 16mm from the 1960s and 1970s in a Digital Age,” with David Sterritt, Chair of the National Society of Film Critics and a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University serving as the respondent.

The problem we discussed is a serious one – most of the experimental films of the 1960s and 1970s were created on 16mm reversal film, which is now an obsolete format, and many of the artists involved in the era have died, leaving their films as essentially “orphan works.” Even such well known artists as D.A. Pennebaker are searching for archives to take their 16mm original printing materials, and for most independent filmmakers of the 1960s, the films sit on the shelf, unseen and undistributed, where once they commanded a wide audience around the world at colleges, museums, and galleries.

As I noted during my lecture, in part, “with the rise of what is supposedly ’social media,’ a sense of community is gone. I think a better term for it is ‘anti-social’ media, because it locks us all away from each other in our own little cubicle. True, I can communicate with anyone in the world with a few keystrokes, but it’s impersonal, fragmentary, lacking in any real person to person substance.

Skype or Facetime are poor substitutes for actually sitting in a room and talking to a group of people. Vimeo [a premium video sharing site] is supposed to be a haven for artists, as well, but there’s little real interaction – by design – and many of the artists’ sites are ‘ghost sites,’ of videos posted years ago, and viewed only a few times.

Bookstores have vanished, not only in New York City, but around the world. And now, when one goes into a coffee house, instead of discussions, one finds a group of solitary people staring at their iPads or laptops, alone together in a virtual world where the only interaction takes place on the screen. Most people aren’t even aware of it, but our private space is essentially gone . . .

The experimental film work I have discussed in this paper, made for the most part in 16mm format, is also now beyond general use, as 16mm projection and production – to say nothing of 35mm – becomes a thing of the past.

Most of these works will become mere memories, existing only in terrible copies uploaded on the web if they exist at all. These films will never make the jump to DVD or streaming video, and unless one wants to go Anthology Film Archives, they’re almost impossible to see. Indeed, it’s as if they never even existed to an entire new generation of potential artists.”

A difficult problem, for which there is no easy solution; well worth talking about.

The Films of Jim Krell at Anthology – At Last!

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

A sold out audience for the films of Jim Krell at Anthology Film Archives – 4/17/2015.

At last, in their first projection since a screening at the Rutgers University in 1982, six of Jim Krell’s films were shown to a large, receptive, and deeply enthusiastic audience at Manhattan’s Anthology Film Archive on April 17, 2015. Krell’s films are such utterly original works that the chance to see them should simply not be overlooked, not least because they were created in 16mm, and were screened in that format, something that is increasingly rare in the 21st century.

I curated the screening, in addition to presenting an introductory lecture offering an overview of Krell’s work, as someone who witnessed the creation of many of the films included in the program. Sadly, the prints of some of Krell’s earliest films, such as Paper Palsy and Shoreline of China, seem to have been lost in the thirty or so years since their last projection.

The originals for these early films, however, are happily all in Anthology’s collection of Krell’s materials; perhaps, someday, they will be printed up again. Nevertheless, what we saw was astounding, and demonstrates conclusively that a major retrospective of Krell’s work is long, long overdue.

One of the most original and iconoclastic figures of the New American Cinema, Jim Krell created work that is simultaneously so important, and yet so unknown, that this screening constitutes a major event, closing a significant gap in experimental film history. Starting in the early 1970s, Krell created a series of mysterious and rigorous films that defy written description, visionary works that conjure up an entirely different vision of the physical universe.

During that time, I had the opportunity to watch him at work on several occasions. What always impressed me (or perhaps ‘astonished’ is a better word) concerning Krell’s shooting methods was the intrinsic speed and seemingly random technique he brought to his work, creating films with offhand precision that both challenged and engaged the viewer.

Now living in Italy, Krell has long since moved on to other pursuits, but during the white hot period in which he turned out one amazing film after another in a veritable torrent of work, Krell created a singular vision that is all the more impressive because each of his films is entirely different from any other of his works; he never does the same thing twice. So the chance to see, and save, his work, is something that isn’t to be taken lightly.

Thanks to all at Anthology, including Jed Rapfogel, Andrew Lampert, Sarah Halpern, and the superb projectionists who really brought Jim’s films to life on this memorable night; I really do hope this will be the first of many more screenings of his work. You can read more about Krell’s work in my book The Exploding Eye: A Re-Visionary History of 1960s American Experimental Cinema.

Jim Krell is a genuine American original, in every sense of the word.

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 wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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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/