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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The Horrifying Future of Movies – Nothing But Franchises

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

Here’s an absolutely brilliant and deeply impassioned piece by author Mark Harris.

Writing in the journal Grantland, Harris sees a future of nothing but utterly predictable franchise films, made by cost accountants and others with no real investment in film as an art form, which it most certainly is. As he writes, in part, “I believe that what studios see when they look at the bumper-to-bumper barricade of a 2015–20 lineup they’ve built is a sense of security — a feeling that they have gotten their ducks in a row. But these lists, with their tremulous certainty that there is safety in numbers, especially when numbers come at the end of a title, represent something else as well: rigidity and fear. If you asked a bunch of executives without a creative bone in their bodies to craft a movie lineup for which the primary goal is to prevent failure, this is exactly what the defensive result would look like. It’s a bulwark that has been constructed using only those tools with which they feel comfortable — spreadsheets, P&L statements, demographic studies, risk-avoidance principles, and a calendar. There is no evident love of movies in this lineup, or even just joy in creative risk. Only a dread of losing.”

You can see the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above; essential reading.

Robert De Niro’s Actual Hack License for Taxi Driver

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Talk about method acting!

This has been floating around the web, and is worth posting here; this is Robert De Niro’s actual hack license that he used to prep for his career defining role as Travis Bickle, a loner taxicab driver in New York City driven to a homicidal frenzy by forces he can’t control. It’s one of the great American movies, and was shot right around the corner from where I then lived, at 203 East 14th Street in Manhattan. De Niro – a total professional, completely dedicated to his craft, and it shows in the finished film, which is perhaps the finest film from Scorsese, De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster and everyone else involved. No other film so authentically captured the grit and grime of New York City in the 1970s.

A fascinating artifact from a lost era.

The Permanent Crisis of Film Criticism by Mattias Frey

Monday, December 15th, 2014

Here’s an interesting book on the current state of film criticism – a real concern of this blog.

Published by Amsterdam University Press, Frey’s book posits that “film criticism is in crisis. Dwelling on the many film journalists made redundant at newspapers, magazines, and other ‘old media’ in past years, commentators have voiced existential questions about the purpose and worth of the profession in the age of WordPress blogospheres and proclaimed the ‘death of the critic.’ Bemoaning the current anarchy of internet amateurs and the lack of authoritative critics, many journalists and academics claim that in the digital age, cultural commentary has become dumbed down and fragmented into niche markets. Mattias Frey, arguing against these claims, examines the history of film critical discourse in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He demonstrates that since its origins, film criticism has always found itself in crisis: the need to show critical authority and the anxieties over challenges to that authority have been longstanding concerns.”

It’s refreshing to see someone taking a level-headed, non-apocalyptic look at this issue; as Frey argues, “film criticism has always found itself in crisis,” from the earliest iterations of the cinema, and the rise of poplar “fan magazines” as opposed to the serious study of the cinema.The gap between pop culture “reviews” of the latest blockbuster – actually just opinion pieces with little real critical analysis, usually posted in daily newspapers or on the web, and considered by most readers not familiar with the study of film to be serious reviews, and work that actually takes the film apart, places it within a critical and historical context, measures it against similar films from the past, and operates from a detailed understanding of the medium as a whole – has been an ongoing issue in film criticism from the 1900s onward.

Frey’s book offers an excellent overview of the history of this contest between superficial, throwaway writing and actual critical analysis, and as he puts it, demonstrates that “the need to show critical authority and the anxieties over challenges to that authority have been longstanding concerns” in film history, theory and criticism. This is fascinating and important reading, demonstrating that the problem here isn’t so much the web – it’s the fact that many of the people writing on the web on film, as well as numerous other topics, substitute their own personal likes and dislikes for any real, informed analysis. In film as in all the arts, the audience is really an afterthought; it’s what the creators of any given work of art want to express that is paramount.

You can read a pdf of the introduction the book by clicking here, or on the image above.

100 Year Old Canadian Film Found, Restored

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

A one hundred year old film has been found and restored – against all odds.

As Shawn Conner reported on December 6, 2014 in The Vancouver Sun, “It’s been lost, found, restored, misunderstood, and restored again. This weekend, 100 years after its initial release, In the Land of the Head Hunters is once again being released, this time in a digitized format. Written and directed by Edward S. Curtis, the 1914 film is the American photographer’s attempt to document the customs of the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) peoples of the Central Coast, while telling a story about how their ancestors lived.

But the film, which opened in New York City and Seattle, disappeared soon after its initial release, having made less than a seventh of what Curtis spent on it.  It wasn’t until 1947 that a film collector found a 35mm nitrate print in a back alley. He donated his find to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. In the late ’60s, anthropologists Bill Holm and George Quimby used the museum’s damaged, incomplete version to make a 16mm version. Holm then took the 16mm up the Inside Passage and showed the film at a number of Kwakwaka’wakw villages.

‘It was the first time anybody up there had seen it, even though many of their parents had acted in it,’ said SFU emeritus professor Colin Browne, who served as a consultant for a new restoration. Holm brought some elders to watch the film at the Newcombe Auditorium at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. ‘They spoke to the screen the words they thought the characters were saying, and layered those with some comments,’ said Browne, who taught film history, production and critical writing at SFU School of Contemporary Arts until about a year ago. ‘That became the soundtrack of the movie.’

Adding the recordings of the Kwakwaka’wakw elders, Holm and Quimby refashioned the film as In the Land of the War Canoes. ‘That’s how it showed up in the ’70s, with new intertitles and the Kwakwaka’wakw soundtrack,’ said Browne. Good portions of the beginning and ending were missing. ‘It seemed to everybody that it must be a documentary.’ In the Land of the War Canoes, with its depiction of warring tribes and First Nations customs, was mostly shown in anthropology classes in universities, and rarely in film studies classes.

But the original got a revival following the discovery of the original score in 2007. Around the same time, a 35mm print of the film’s final reel was also discovered. A restored version was screened in various cities, including Vancouver in 2008. The restored version is made up of footage from both the 16mm and 35mm prints, as well as still images in places where footage has been permanently lost or damaged. (The still images come from the Library of Congress. At the time In the Land of the Headhunters was made, producers copyrighted their work by submitting stills from every scene of their films.)

At the screenings, orchestras and ensembles played the original music along with the restored version. Among the musical groups was Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble, and it is their recording that appears on the digital version, which [was] released Sunday, Dec. 7 on DVD by Milestone Films. The Land of the Head Hunters is the first feature film made in B.C., and the first ever with an all-indigenous cast. It deserves to be seen for those reasons alone, but it’s also full of indelible images that have inspired other filmmakers, Browne notes.

‘People haven’t really had a chance to see the film the way we’re going to see it now, which is probably the best restoration we’ll ever have,’ Browne said. ‘I’m hoping film scholars and historians will see it and they’ll go “Oh my God, here’s another great film, we have to include this in the canon of cinema.’” And indeed, the canon of film is constantly expanding – due in large part to archival work like this.

See the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

Highway to Hollywood – Maury Dexter

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

Writing about The One I Love, I ran across this interesting surprise.

Director Maury Dexter, certainly not one of the major figures in film history by a long shot, has nevertheless written his autobiography – published in 2012 – and made it available as a free pdf file (click on the image above to access). Dexter’s work is extremely straightforward, and he specialized in low budget, quickly produced films for producer Robert L. Lippert for 20th Century Fox, after breaking in as an actor and getting advice from no less than director William Beaudine on how to effectively “act” on screen – Beaudine’s advice; “don’t act!”

From this, Dexter segued into assistant work, then directorial assignments, and more often than not made routine films for a set price, with the notable exception of the groundbreaking science fiction film The Day Mars Invaded Earth (not, sadly, available on DVD), winding up working for Michael Landon on Little House on the Prairie.

Dexter’s memory remains sharp, and if he’s not a great prose stylist, he’s still got a lot of tales to tell. Dexter’s memoirs are short and punchy, with lots of inside information, and make for a light, easy read. This is a story of the underside of Hollywood, and the “bread and butter” pictures that cost so much, made so much, and never strained the limits of genre filmmaking.

But the price is right – so check it out; Hollywood in the 50s and 60s.

Show Them No Mercy (1935)

Thursday, November 27th, 2014

Here’s a direct link to the Depression era crime film Show Them No Mercy – absolutely worth watching.

Kubec Glasmon, the almost forgotten co-author of the script for Public Enemy, the 1931 William Wellman film that shot James Cagney to stardom, had a real knack for hard-boiled crime drama, and though this film from 1935, Show Them No Mercy, has been unjustly neglected, it’s a stunning piece of work, and you can see it here, now, by simply clicking on the image above.

Produced by Nebraska native Darryl F. Zanuck for his Twentieth Century Film Company, just before he bought out the Fox Film Corporation to create 20th Century Fox, Show Them No Mercy tells the story of a young couple and their infant daughter who seek shelter from a rainstorm in a seemingly abandoned house, only to discover a bunch of gangsters holed up inside, with lots of hot money on their hands. They’ve just successfully pulled off a kidnapping, have $200,000 in ransom money, and want to get out of the country, but the question is, how?

Initially too innocent to realize the danger they’re in, the young couple soon figures out that the group will literally stop at nothing, especially the psychotic trigger man Pitch (Bruce Cabot, best known for his work in King Kong, and absolutely brilliant here in a role based on real-life gunman Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll) and the gang’s suave leader, Tobey (the always reliable Cesar Romero, turning in another top flight performance).

To tell you more about what happens next would be a mistake, but take my word for it – this is a film that has been unfairly overlooked, and at 75 minutes, moves along like a streak of lightning, with an ending that’s still shocking nearly a century after the film was made.

As TCM notes, “the film was inspired by the kidnapping in May 1935 of George Weyerhaeuser, scion of a wealthy lumber family, who was released after ransom money was paid. The ransom money, which the FBI arranged so that the serial numbers could be used as clues, was then traced, and the kidnappers were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms,” but that’s not what happens here. Glasmon’s script follows an entirely different trajectory, leading up to a satisfactorily brutal conclusion.

Suffice it to say that the film raised a number of eyebrows when it was first released, and barely managed to scrape through Code censorship, thanks largely to the adept machinations of producer Zanuck, who was an expert in telling the Code authorities what they wanted to hear, and then doing precisely as he pleased with the film itself. The result is astonishing.

Now you can see the film for yourself – this is a real find!

Essay on Fisher’s To The Public Danger (1948) by David Cairns

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Here’s another Terence Fisher film worthy of a second look – if you know it at all.

Well, having just discussed the restoration of The Devil Rides Out, up pops another Fisher rarity. In my book length study of Terence Fisher, The Charm of Evil, I devote considerable space to this deeply undervalued film, which was Fisher’s second directorial effort after his debut “curtain raiser,” Colonel Bogey. When I wrote that book, I had to travel to the British Film Institute to see a 35mm print of the film; now, here it is on YouTube, in a very good version, too.

It was posted there by David Cairns, who also wrote an essay on the film for Mubi, which notes in part that “1948 was one of the great years of British film, with Powell & Pressburger, David Lean and others on top form. Terence Fisher, later to make his name at Hammer (Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, etc.) was only just beginning his career, but he began it well: soon he would co-direct the gripping Hitchcockian yarn So Long at the Fair (1950), but before that came 40-minute short subject To the Public Danger, a thriller revolving around drunk driving.

As four characters meet in an English roadhouse and begin the kind of inebriate evening people fresh from WWII seemed to take in their strides, recklessness and arrogance leads towards inevitable doom, with the boozing accompanied by bullying, seduction, class prejudice, cowardice, paranoia and a slew of other unattractive qualities. The result is not so much mounting tension as an oppressive, agonizing sense of suffocating anxiety and unpleasantness.

This is the world of writer Patrick Hamilton, specialist in psychological torment (Gaslight), nerve-shredding anxiety (Rope) and alcoholic madness (Hangover Square). Few other writers can abuse their protagonists, and their public, with such merciless cruelty, while displaying at the same time a pained compassion for life’s victims.

To the Public Danger is adapted from a BBC radio play by Hamilton, and abounds in sharply-drawn detail, mostly delivered as dialogue: it must have made a gripping listen, and if the film has a flaw, it’s that nearly every effect is achieved by sound and voice. Still, Fisher serves up some nice nocturnal joyriding, all via rear projection of course, but with some intense low angles from under the steering wheel.

The premise may make the film sound like a Public Information film about highway safety, and it does have a socially redeeming function, but derives its power from the vicious interplay of its quartet of dysfunctional character.

Dermot Walsh is the loathsome Captain Cole, ex-army snob, manic boozer and bully; Susan Shaw is the beautiful blonde with a heart of brass; Barry Letts her milquetoast mark who must locate his backbone amidst the drunken maelstrom; and Roy Plomley the utterly sloshed Reggie, whose main contribution is adding to the general confusion. The script very sharply delineates their varied reactions to an apparent hit-and-run accident during which Shaw was holding the wheel while Walsh, in the driving seat, was lighting a cigarette . . .

Fisher’s style tended to be straightforward, blunt, at times crude, suiting him to Hammer’s penny dreadful approach. While British cinema was supposed to favor restraint and discretion, Fisher dealt with things head-on, however unpleasant. The impressionistic flurries of montage with which he suggests car accidents here, all screaming and flash-cuts and onrushing trees, suggests the savagery that would eventually birth Christopher Lee’s mush-faced Frankenstein creature, looking, as one reviewer wrote, ‘like a road accident.’”

This is another remarkable film that deserves more attention; see it by clicking here, or on the image above.

Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1968) Out Restored at Last!

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

I must admit I missed the initial release of this restoration, but I’m glad I found it now.

The Devil Rides Out, known as The Devil’s Bride in the US, is perhaps Terence Fisher’s last unalloyed masterpiece, and a film whose reputation has grown exponentially over the years since its 1968 release. Based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley, and as Wikipedia notes, “set in London and the south of England in 1929, the story finds Nicholas, Duc de Richleau [Christopher Lee], investigating the strange actions of the son of a friend, Simon Aron [Patrick Mower], who has a house complete with strange markings and a pentagram.

He quickly deduces that Simon is involved with the Occult. Nicholas de Richleau and Rex Van Ryn [Leon Greene, dubbed throughout the film by Patrick Allen] manage to rescue Simon and another young initiate, Tanith [Niké Arrighi], from a devil-worshipping cult. During the rescue they disrupt a ceremony on Salisbury Plain in which the Devil (Baphomet) himself appears.

They escape to the home of Richard and Marie Eaton [Paul Eddington and Sarah Lawson], friends of Richleau and Van Ryn, and are followed by the group’s leader, Mocata [Charles Gray, in a career-defining performance], who has a psychic connection to the two initiates. After visiting the house to discuss the matter and an unsuccessful attempt to influence the initiates to return, Mocata forces Richleau and the other occupants to defend themselves through a night of black magic attacks, ending with the conjuring of the angel of death.

Richleau is able to repel the angel, but it kills Tanith instead (as once summoned, it must take a life). His attacks defeated, Mocata kidnaps the Eatons’ daughter Peggy [Rosalyn Landor]. The Duc has Tanith’s spirit possess Peggy’s mother in order to find Mocata, but they are only able to get a single clue, from which Rex realizes that the cultists are at a house he visited earlier.

Simon tries to rescue Peggy on his own, but is recaptured by the cult. The Duc, Richard, and Peggy’s family, also try to rescue her, but they are defeated by Mocata. Suddenly, a powerful force (or Tanith herself) begins ruling Mrs. Eaton and puts a stop to Peggy’s trance.

She then leads Peggy in the recitation of a spell, which kills all of the cultists and transforms their coven room into a church. When the Duc and his companions awaken, then they discover that the spell Peggy was led into casting has reversed time and changed the future in their favor.

Simon and Tanith have survived, while Mocata’s spell to conjure the angel of death has been reflected back on him. Now, he pays the price of loss of life and eternal damnation of his soul for having wrongly summoned the angel of death. Nicholas de Richleau comments that it is God that they must be thankful for.”

I’ve admired this film for a long time, both as one of Hammer’s best works, and one of the most intelligent, but despite the customary brilliance of Fisher’s direction and Arthur Grant’s superb cinematography, by this time, Hammer was struggling with pressing financial concerns, and the quality of the studio’s films was declining precipitously as a result.

There are shots in the film involving special effects that were left unfinished; uneven matte lines in some the miniature sequences; and the film’s climactic sequence, involving the appearance of the Angel of Death, has always been problematic from a strictly visual point of view – indeed, during a close-up of the the Angel’s head, the background behind the shot in simply a blue screen, without any image at all – a clear compromise in the face of time and budgetary constrictions.

Thus I was both pleased and surprised that Hammer would undertake nothing less than the rescue of this film, performing more than 1.5 million — that’s right, million — repairs to the original 35mm negative, by scanning to 4K digital, and then creating a 2K DVD and Blu-ray master of the result. Since the performances throughout the film are absolutely impeccable, it’s only right that the last minute haste of then-contemporary post-production should be corrected.

As one of Fisher’s most deeply felt and personal films – and a profoundly Christian film in every sense of the word, concerned with the continual battle between good and evil in the world, The Devil Rides Out stands as one of the key works of the British cinema in the late 1960s, and still speaks to audiences today. Indeed, just this semester one of my students did a research paper on Terence Fisher, and of all of the director’s works, singled this film out as her favorite. If you haven’t seen it, you should really take a look.

You can see a featurette on the restoration of The Devil Rides Out by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Triumph of Human Empire by Rosalind Williams

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

Here’s a brilliant book on the intersection of science and romantic culture.

As the publisher’s website for this book notes, “in the early 1600s, in a haunting tale titled New Atlantis, Sir Francis Bacon imagined the discovery of an uncharted island. This island was home to the descendants of the lost realm of Atlantis, who had organized themselves to seek ‘the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.’ Bacon’s make-believe island was not an empire in the usual sense, marked by territorial control; instead, it was the center of a vast general expansion of human knowledge and power.

Rosalind Williams uses Bacon’s island as a jumping-off point to explore the overarching historical event of our time: the rise and triumph of human empire, the apotheosis of the modern ambition to increase knowledge and power in order to achieve world domination. Confronting an intensely humanized world was a singular event of consciousness, which Williams explores through the lives and works of three writers of the late nineteenth century: Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

As the century drew to a close, these writers were unhappy with the direction in which their world seemed to be headed and worried that organized humanity would use knowledge and power for unworthy ends. In response, Williams shows, each engaged in a lifelong quest to make a home in the midst of human empire, to transcend it, and most of all to understand it. They accomplished this first by taking to the water: in life and in art, the transition from land to water offered them release from the condition of human domination.

At the same time, each writer transformed his world by exploring the literary boundary between realism and romance. Williams shows how Verne, Morris, and Stevenson experimented with romance and fantasy and how these traditions allowed them to express their growing awareness of the need for a new relationship between humans and Earth.

The Triumph of Human Empire shows that for these writers and their readers romance was an exceptionally powerful way of grappling with the political, technical, and environmental situations of modernity. As environmental consciousness rises in our time, along with evidence that our seeming control over nature is pathological and unpredictable, Williams’s history is one that speaks very much to the present.”

This is an absolutely remarkable achievement, managing to effortlessly synthesize science and the arts – two supposedly polar pursuits in the modern era – and demonstrates that each cannot function without the other, and that all of us are interconnected by both areas, which are of equal importance in the creation and continuance of our shared cultural heritage.

I’m still digesting this marvelous work, which took the author fully 20 years to complete, with some interruptions, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t gotten more attention – but perhaps that’s because the text’s message of inclusiveness is not one that’s currently popular.

Williams argues convincingly, without being strident about it, that without the Romantic instinct we will never really fully comprehend our human condition, and at the same time, provides a thorough yet concise outline of the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne – who despite his futuristic fantasies was not all that taken with the notion of what was then considered “progress” in the industrial era – and the author William Morris, whose work clearly needs wider attention.

The result is a fascinating and altogether indispensable book, which I urge you to read at once.

The End of Physical Media?

Saturday, November 15th, 2014

Is the end of physical media imminent? Here’s an interesting post on this subject by Jason Stershic.

As Stershic wrote on his website Agent Palmer (named after the character Harry Palmer in Sidney Furie’s film The Ipcress File), “on January, 18th, 2014, The Los Angeles Times Entertainment Section ran an article that was titled, ‘Paramount stops releasing major movies on film.’ I’m very aware of the new technologies that exist – digital media players have made physical albums a thing of the past and streaming video services have made DVDs virtually obsolete – so the fact that Paramount is ‘the first big Hollywood studio to embrace digital-only U.S. releases’ should come as a natural progression.

But I, for one, don’t really know how I feel about this. Sure, I consume music and watch movies and television shows through various streaming services, but I’m not ready to go completely digital. Are you? It’s not just audio and visual mediums that are going this way. The eBook, in all of its various incarnations, has pushed physical book retailers to their limits as well [emphasis added]. Even comic books can be read in digital formats.

But I am not ready to go completely digital. The entire world seems to be heading that way, but I can not seem to follow suit. I still read physical books, buy comic books and magazines, DVDs and CDs. I enjoy having a physical collection that I can see on my shelves.

It seems now is the time to embrace physical media as never before, if for no other reason than it seems to be disappearing. I know that the physical media aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but every time a big company like Paramount makes a decision like it has, others will follow suit.

So what happens when Paramount, or Fox, or Universal decide to stop making DVDs? What happens when a  big music company decides not to lay down tracks on CDs? What happens a major book publisher decides to to release their books only in digital form?

I collect things and I’m not alone. We all have our collections – books, movies, albums, comics, art, games, the list goes on. I understand that big corporations need to save money, but they’re only saving it for themselves. They aren’t passing the savings on to the consumer. You’re still going to be shelling out $8+ for movie tickets. But when the physical media goes away, you can’t own anything, and we all like owning things.

The best example is Netflix. I enjoy plenty of shows and movies that they stream, but those things won’t always be there. Their library is subject to contracts and sometimes contracts run out. What then? [emphasis added] If you’re favorite movie is on Netflix and you don’t own a physical copy, how will you watch it?

Honestly, I see Netflix in the same way I look at libraries. I get access to a plethora of things, I wouldn’t normally have access to, but when I like something, I go out and buy it. I buy the book, movie or show that I enjoyed, as I want to be able to watch it when I want as a permanent part of my collection [. . .]

I guess the lesson is, if you want something in your collection, don’t wait to buy it. At some point it may be too late. Of course the flip-side is that the secondary market on eBay could be a booming business. But not everyone wants to buy things secondhand. What’s the other lesson we can take away?

Well, for the sake of the economy buy, buy, buy! For the sake of your collection, buy, buy, buy! For the sake of control buy, buy, buy! Control is the part of the equation that is lost in what could happen, but it’s there to be lost. If you don’t have the physical media, your access to your favorite book, comic, album, movie or show could be limited or even eliminated by higher powers. Don’t let that happen to you [emphasis added]“

Really – I’m doing the same thing myself. Buy those DVDs now – they may not be available forever.

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.

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