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Tod Browning’s The Devil Doll (1936)

Monday, October 13th, 2014

“Once you’re in my shop, I’ll wager you’ll do anything I ask.”

With Halloween coming up soon, here’s a few thoughts on Tod Browning’s hypnotic 1936 thriller, The Devil Doll, all but forgotten today in the wake of his highly successful film Dracula (1931), which despite its undoubted influence, is much less interesting as a film than this later work from the director.

Working from a screenplay co-authored by the unlikely trio of Garrett Fort, Guy Endore (author of the classic horror novel The Werewolf of Paris) and none other than legendary director Erich von Stroheim – this last credit is a real surprise, given von Stroheim’s other work in his films as a director in his own right, to say nothing of von Stroheim’s work as an actor in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion just one year later in 1937 – based on the 1933 novel Burn, Witch, Burn! by Abraham Merritt (which subsequently served as the template for at least two other films in the 1940s and 1960s), Browning creates an eerie dream world of suspense, fantasy and mystery, aided in no small part by Franz Waxman’s gorgeous score, Lionel Barrymore’s bravura performance in the leading role, and the film’s then state-of-the art special effects.

As Michael Toole writes on the TCM website of the film, the film’s plot concerns “Paul Lavond, a falsely incarcerated businessman, and Marcel, a maniacal inventor, [who] escape from prison on Devil’s Island, and take refuge at the latter’s former laboratory where they are welcomed by Marcel’s wife, Malita (Rafaela Ottiano). The ailing scientist reveals to Lavond his secret formula for reducing living creatures to a fraction of their original size. Following Marcel’s death, Lavond returns to France to extract revenge on the three bankers who framed him and left his daughter [Maureen O' Sullivan] destitute. With the assistance of Malita, Lavond opens a toy shop where he poses as a kindly old woman and begins a campaign of terror [using a group of miniaturized humans as his weapons of destruction].

Few critics, if any, have ever commented on Tod Browning’s visual style, which could best be described as static and resembling a photographed stage play. This is certainly true of his most famous film, Dracula (1931) but The Devil Doll is another matter entirely. It’s a very smooth, visually accomplished piece of cinema that has earned it a cult following in recent years. The special effects are impressive for the era, particularly the scenes featuring oversized sets and ‘miniature’ people. Also part of the film’s cult appeal is Browning’s twisted sense of humor, which is most evident in the scenes with Malita who becomes addicted to miniaturizing humans. It’s actually surprising that the Hays Office didn’t have major censorship issues with The Devil Doll but they did dictate a moralistic ending in which the Barrymore character atones for his crimes.” Now available on DVD, it’s definitely a film worth checking out, and in my opinion, clearly Browning’s best work as a director.

Click here, or on the image above, to see a sequence from the film.

Media Services at UNL – An Incredible Resource!

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Media Services at UNL are an often overlooked and invaluable resource for students and faculty.

As reporter Jack Forey wrote in the Daily Nebraskan on October 8, 2014, “Student fees cover plenty of things students themselves may not know about. Few students realize that one of those services allows them to rent a select variety of movies and video games, for free. ‘I had no idea we could get movies and video games from the library,’ said Matt Mejstrik, former University of Nebraska-Lincoln student. ‘The first thing I checked out was Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus trilogy and also his original version of Beauty and the Beast.

Paying student fees gives UNL students access to the wide range of materials provided by Media Services, located on the 2nd floor of the Love Library’s south building. Students can check out DVDs, video games, camcorders, laptops and board games. Items can be checked out anywhere from three to seven days. ‘Students should realize that there is an incredible collection of materials on film and video that are readily accessible to them through Media Services,’ said Wheeler Winston Dixon, professor of Film Studies at UNL. ‘A huge DVD collection, a remarkable library of books and online media sources can all be readily accessed through Media Studies. Students should take advantage as an essential resource and part of their education.’

The Criterion Collection is included in Media Service’s DVD and Blu-Ray collection. Director of Media Studies Richard Graham said Criterion DVDs can go out of print quickly, making them a rarity. ‘Criterion is renowned for their meticulous attention to digital transfer, interviews and the supplementary materials that they produce, as well as the films or directors they spotlight,’ Graham said. ‘So they certainly are a treasure.’

Graham guides the mission of Media Services and helps to grow the collection of available media. ‘I consolidate student and faculty requests for non-print materials or media materials and see what fits the current curriculum and research needs of the university,’ he said. ‘“Browsing the area and recommending purchases also lets us know that people are using the services and materials we provide.’

The wide selection of Criterion films, as well as a select offering of local Nebraska films, presents a unique opportunity for Film Studies majors, as well as students generally interested in cinema. ‘Under Richard Graham, director of Media Studies, the DVD library has grown exponentially and now includes classic films by nearly every major director, most of which aren’t available on Netflix or Amazon Prime,’ Dixon said. ‘Films by such directors as Cocteau, Fassbinder, Dyerer, Bergman, Rossellini, Fellini and others are now available directly to students. The collection keeps growing every day.’

Outside of the English department, Media Services serves as a study space for students of all colleges and majors. Study rooms can be reserved for hours at a time as students utilize the many resources available to them. Dixon comments, ‘Media Services provides an invaluable link to not only the arts, but also to all literature on everything from astrophysics to contemporary painting—literally all subjects, creating a database for students to use, which is an incredible resource.’

‘The arts are an essential part of everyone’s life,’ Dixon said when asked about the role media plays in the average person’s everyday life. ‘The books, films, music and art of the 20th century are deeply influential in 21st century society, and one can’t really understand the present without knowing the precedence – and importance – of the classics. Some of the material is pop art, some of it is high art, but a thorough understanding of the classics – in film, art, literature and other allied fields – is an essential part of a well-rounded college education.’”

Media Services at Love Library – an amazing opportunity for UNL students and faculty.

The 15 Best Silent Horror Films You Can Watch On YouTube

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

Jake Walters of Taste of Cinema has compiled an excellent list – with videos – of fifteen classic horror films.

It’s getting closer and closer to Halloween, and Jake Walters of Taste of Cinema has thoughtfully compiled an annotated list of some of the greatest silent horror films that you can watch – for free – on YouTube. As he writes, “early cinema was less a known quantity bolstered up by professionalism and stately film-making than a playground of pure delight, a cavalcade of wonders experiencing the birth pains of newness to the world. In place of a defined set of filmic rules, men and women were free to exploit the unease of the medium to create works of wonder and awe that looked to all inspirations and mashed them together with cheerful abandon. Silent cinema, when traditional narrative film-making was still finding its legs, was a time of wild-man exploration, when film could descend to the pit of man’s fears and the heights of human desire. And all without too much of a pesky plot to get in the way.

Fittingly, the genre that saw the greatest fruits for silent cinema was horror. Horror was never particularly well fitted to narrative – perhaps tellingly the genre found its greatest and most consistent prestige during the silent era. A focus on story often only had the effect of distracting from the more primal, primordial haunted imagery and the raw, viciously oppressive direct sensation of experiencing a screen of demented wonders. Silent horror was a place for audiences to directly address the screen, to confront images placed before them, and for those images to imbue themselves less onto the thinking mind than the unconscious one. While it wasn’t busy trying to make logical sense, silent horror found time to capture the human soul in all its facets, laid bare and split open uncomfortably and given to us on a silver platter. Even when they don’t scare, silent horror films provoke in untold ways that often can’t be described through written word. To this extent, here are fifteen of the greatest silent horror films.”

You can see all fifteen films by clicking here, or on the image above.

John Carpenter Interview in Vulture

Friday, September 26th, 2014

John Carpenter (left) on the set of The Thing in 1981.

Vulture has a great interview with director John Carpenter conducted by Simon Abrams, who notes that “horror filmmaker John Carpenter’s body of work is atypical in that his films often seem to have been made by an uncompromisingly intuitive commercial artist. Never content just to take a check, Carpenter abandoned the Halloween franchise after co-writing and producing the series’ first two unsuccessful sequels and took on bold projects, such as Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness that suggested he knew how to make movies without giving in to creative pressure to make palatable pablum. Vulture talked to Carpenter about how he resolved key conflicts on projects that defined his career, particularly The Thing, his Halloween sequels, and others.”

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

William Cameron Menzies’ The Maze (1953)

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

William Cameron Menzies’ The Maze (1953) has to be seen – in 3D - to be believed.

With everyone talking about The Maze Runner, a pallid rehash of Lord of The Flies, I thought I would highlight this little-seen gem from 1953, which is the subject of a thoughtful essay by Jeff Kuykendall, which begins by noting that “if you’ve ever seen the Douglas Fairbanks version of The Thief of Bagdad (1924), then you love and respect William Cameron Menzies. In the 1920′s Menzies quickly established himself as a first-rate art director, and the Fairbanks vehicle was enlivened considerably by Menzies’ sets, which resembled the exaggerated illustrations of a child’s Arabian Nights storybook, while Fairbanks hopped, skipped, and swashbuckled through every inch of them.

In 1929 Menzies won the first Oscar ever awarded for art direction (for The Dove and The Tempest), and he quickly graduated to directing his own films, his first solo directing effort being the visually stunning (if dramatically lacking) H.G. Wells adaptation Things to Come (1936). David O. Selznick put him in charge of Gone with the Wind‘s art direction, for which he won another Oscar, but in the subsequent decades Menzies never quite established himself as a director of note. His best-regarded film is Invaders from Mars (1953), a dream-like, dread-filled science fiction yarn tailored for the Cold War. Less remembered is the film’s companion-piece, 1953′s The Maze. Shot in 3-D, it’s even more surreal than Invaders.”

Check out the trailer for the film here, and the rest of Jeff Kuykendall’s essay here, with a number of excellent frame grabs; like Kuykendall, I, too, am a Menzies fan (as who isn’t, I might ask?) and when watching The Maze Runner, I kept wondering what Menzies would have done with the material from a visual standpoint, especially given CGI and green screen capabilities which he, of course, didn’t have the advantage of using back in the 20s through the 50s. But I’m sure he would have jumped at the chance to design The Maze Runner; in the meantime, check out this moody Gothic from Menzies, and see what you think.

The Maze is a completely bizarre and deeply original film; well worth watching.

Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

I’ve just published an article on Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia in Senses of Cinema.

The essay is a part of a preview of three pieces on Peckinpah for Senses of Cinema Issue 72, and as I note in my piece on this film,Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) is easily Peckinpah’s bleakest, most brutal film, and that in itself is saying something. It’s also a film that seems almost willfully self-destructive, inasmuch as it is completely uncompromising in its vision of an utterly amoral and violent world. Peckinpah was just coming off the failure of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), which despite the ’stunt’ casting of Bob Dylan, a number of impressive performances and some bravura sequences showcasing the director’s trademark bloodshed, had performed poorly at the box office.

In this atmosphere of professional uncertainty, pursuing a project like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was hardly designed to restart one’s career. Yet, as many of his closest associates were convinced, it was only with this film, and the later Cross of Iron (1977), that Peckinpah had what amounted to final cut; a degree of control over the final film, for better or worse, that had eluded him throughout much of his career. Even The Wild Bunch (1969), Peckinpah’s most famous film, suffered extensive cuts and re-edits before it went into general release. People always seemed to be trying to rein Peckinpah in, and he didn’t appreciate it one bit.

Peckinpah was never chasing a ‘hit film.’ He wanted to put his personal vision on screen, no matter the consequences. And so, despite the slapdash execution of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and the unremitting savagery of the production’s script, which had been in development since 1972, when ‘Bloody’ Sam was still a hot commodity, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was the film – or one of the films – that Peckinpah truly wanted to make, and despite the almost universally hostile reception it received, he never wavered from defending the finished product. ‘I did Alfredo Garcia,’ he said later, ‘and I did exactly what I wanted to, good or bad, like it or not. That was my film.’”

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

Millie (1931) – A Lost Feminist Classic

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

Millie is an astonishing film that has fallen between the cracks of film history; now, you can see it here.

John Francis Dillon was a prolific director of silent features, who nevertheless easily made the transition to sound. Only his premature death as the result of a heart ailment at the age of 49 in 1934 stopped him from going on to establish a major career in Hollywood history; Millie is one of his finest works. The film stars Helen Twelvetrees, then a major cinema star, as the title character, Millie Blake, who, as a very young woman, has the bad luck to marry one Jack Maitland (James Hall), a thoroughly unlikable but wealthy businessman, who sets Millie up in a palatial estate, but offers her no real love, and rapidly starts cheating on her. The couple has a child, Connie (Anita Louise), but when Millie discovers Jack’s numerous infidelities, she walks away from the marriage without asking for a cent of alimony, leaving Connie with Jack’s mother (Charlotte Walker), on the rather reasonable theory that in the midst of the Depression, Connie will be better off with people who can provide for her, while Millie tries to make her way in the world on her own.

Refusing all offers of assistance, Millie lands a job at the newsstand in a major hotel, and soon falls in love with Tommy Rock (Robert Ames), a newspaper reporter, whom she loves but refuses to marry because of her past experience with Jack Maitland, even as she is continually pursued by a variety of men, most especially the seemingly dignified but utterly unscrupulous man about town Jimmy Damier (John Halliday), for whom Millie has become an obsession. Millie is eventually promoted to a better position at the hotel due to her hard work, but her relationship with Tommy is ruined when she discovers that he, too, has been cheating on her.

Completely disillusioned, Millie begins to live a wild, reckless life, which with the passage of years takes a toll on her looks, as well as her dignity, even as her daughter, Connie, blossoms in the Maitland home, becoming a beautiful young woman – something that Jimmy Damier notices, too. With Connie’s attractions fading for Damier, he decides to seduce Connie, then just sixteen years old, at his lodge in the country, despite his assurances to Millie that he will leave Connie alone. Discovering Damier’s duplicity, Millie trails Damier and Connie to Damier’s country house, and just as Damier is about to rape Connie, breaks in and shoots Damier to death.

In a more conventional maternal melodrama, such as Stella Dallas or Madame X, one might expect that Millie would then be sentenced to death for her crime, sacrificing herself for her daughter’s future, but no – Millie’s newspaper friends, including erstwhile boyfriend Tommy Rock, come to her aid. Although Millie tries to keep her daughter’s name out of the case, Connie willingly takes the stand, and tells the judge and jury exactly what happened, resulting in Millie’s acquittal on all charges. In the film’s final scenes, Millie is reunited with her daughter and her first husband’s mother at their country estate, as Tommy notes that “she’s going home” to a much better life.

There are many things about the film that are remarkable; Connie’s lesbian friends, who offer aid to Millie throughout the film – Helen Riley (Lilyan Tashman) and Angie Wickerstaff (Joan Blondell) – are completely forthright about their relationship, and no one else seems to give it more than a passing thought, either. People party all night, drink too much, and yet seem resignedly fatalistic about the future – there’s no guarantees that things will get any better. The brutal reality of the Depression is evident in nearly every frame of the film, and, of course, liquor flows freely although the film takes place during Prohibition. Men are depicted as being unreliable and thoroughly dishonest, and so self-reliance for women is viewed as the only possible course of action. Yet in the end of the film, when Millie really needs a friend, her newspaper pals (including a young Frank McHugh, a veteran cinema “sidekick” who remained active in films as late as 1967) rally to her aid to clear her during the trial.

Millie fell into the Public Domain, and is thus available – complete and uncut – not only on YouTube, but also in a surprisingly good (don’t believe the reviews) transfer on DVD from Alpha Video, which can be purchased for as little as 99 cents on Amazon, and which I heartily recommend here. Millie is yet another example of a film which has been lost, essentially forgotten, and ignored by such DVD labels as Criterion because of its Public Domain status, and thus relegated to the margins of cinema history. There are a number of rather uninformed “reviews” of the film on the web, but you should ignore them – see the film for yourself, which is the only reliable way to judge any work of art. At a scant 85 minutes, Millie is a taut, compelling, deeply feminist film which deserves a much more prominent place in the canon of Pre-Code cinema, with a stand out performance by Helen Twelvetrees in the title role.

Thanks to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for telling me about this film – it’s a key piece of cinema history.

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.

Aldous Huxley

Saturday, September 6th, 2014

For some reason, I am thinking of Aldous Huxley today.

He probably wrote too much, as he well knew, but in his best writings, which are scattered throughout his life, he penetrated the false fabric of society which is thrown up for all of us to admire, and was, of course, along with George Orwell, one of the first to fully understand and articulate the very real dangers of living in a detached, technologically driven society.

Everyone knows Brave New World as an instant catch-phrase used to suggest a Dystopian future, but if they read the novel thoughtfully, along with some of his other works, such as the essays from his lecture series The Human Situation, collected after his death and published posthumously as a slim but deeply insightful volume, as well as Brave New World Revisited, and skip his final novel Island, they will find someone who knew a great deal about the lure of technological progress as a genuine danger to one’s own humanity, and humanity in general.

In one of his last pieces of writing, “Shakespeare and Religion,” he summarized a lifetime of work along these lines by stating that “the world is an illusion, but it is an illusion, which we must take seriously, because it is real as far as it goes, and in those aspects of the reality, which we are capable of apprehending. Our business is to wake up. We have to find ways in which to detect the whole of reality in the one illusory parts which our self-centered consciousness permit us to see. We must not live thoughtlessly, taking our illusion for the complete reality, but at the same time we must not live too thoughtfully in the sense of trying to escape from the dream state.

We must continually be on the watch for ways in which we may enlarge our consciousness, we must not attempt to live outside the world, which is given us, but we must somehow learn how to transform it and transfigure it. Too much ‘wisdom’ is as bad as too little wisdom, and there must be no magic tricks. We must learn to come to reality without the enchanter’s wand and his book of the words. One must find a way of being in this world while not being of it. A way of living in time without being completely swallowed up in time.”

In time, or impassive technology – which knows everything about us, but can teach us nothing at all.

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.

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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