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Interview: Agnès Varda by Violet Lucca

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Here’s a fabulous interview with Agnès Varda by Violet Lucca published in Film Comment on May 11, 2015.

As Varda notes, in part, “each film has its history, its beauty or not beauty, and its meaning.  The meaning can change over the years for people who watch the film, because there is a lot of evolution in the sense of history, the sense of understanding.  But when you speak about 35 millimeter or DCP or video, it’s unimportant. The film is what it is, but what is different are the people who made the film.  I change.  I wouldn’t do the same film today about Cuba or about the planters or about women.

Each film has a date glued to it.  And what we try is to overcome the date and make a meaning that can be more than ’62 or ’61 or whatever.  But still, even Cleo from 5 to 7, which deals with a temporal history about being afraid of an illness, being afraid of dying, still has in the film itself a purpose— we include for example the radio broadcasts telling the news of the time. Or in Kung-fu Master!, you have the awareness of AIDS in ’87. I think that we try to escape the limits of history and the time, but still I like to have a point that gives a date to the film, and not make believe that it’s nowhere, no time.”

You can read the rest of this excellent piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

Freddie Francis, BSC, on The Innocents (1961)

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

Freddie Francis, the Oscar winning cinematographer, did some of his best work on The Innocents.

Freddie Francis was one of the greatest cinematographers in the history of the cinema, in addition to directing a number of underrated Gothic thrillers in the 1960s and 70s, but he is best remembered for his fantastic work in monochrome, or black and white, films.

One of his favorite films was Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), adapted from Henry James’ classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw. I knew Freddie from 1984 up until his death in 2007, and watched him at work on the sets of many of his films, including his last as a DP, The Straight Story (1999), which was directed by David Lynch and shot in Iowa in a mere 23 days.

I wrote a book on Freddie’s work, aptly titled The Films of Freddie Francis in 1991, conducted a lecture /screening of his work at the British Film Institute with him shortly thereafter, and frankly, I miss him a lot – he was a good friend, and a good colleague. When I shot my feature film What Can I Do? in 1993, it was Freddie who put me in touch for much of the technical staff who worked on the film, and though we never had a chance to work together formally, we remained close friends throughout the years.

In any event, Freddie and I had a friendly argument over the years that above all other formats, he loved black and white CinemaScope the best. Freddie always denied it, saying that such things as aspect ratios were just part of the business arrangement of setting up the production of a film, and as this excerpt from his autobiography demonstrates, there was certainly some truth to that – The Innocents started out as a project in Academy ratio, but was bumped up to CinemaScope at the insistence of the 20th Century Fox front office.

Nevertheless, as the triptych of stills above illustrate, once he was told that he had to shoot The Innocents in ’scope, Francis and director Jack Clayton embraced the format with such stylish assurance that it seems that the film had always been meant to be shot that way.

In Francis’ later films, it always seems to me that in his ’scope work, especially with his tendency to highlight the outer edges of the frame on the left and right, and leave the middle as a more atmospheric buffer, Francis was pursuing a conscious strategy that prevented his work from ever effectively being subjected to “pan and scan” treatment, which shows only a portion of the film. One of the most effective Gothic thrillers of all time, The Innocents is well worth seeking out and viewing – it’s a remarkable film in every respect.

You have to see The Innocents in its original format, as this interview clearly demonstrates.

Andrew Wallenstein on The New Video Ecosystem

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

Our viewing habits have changed dramatically, as Andrew Wallenstein notes in Variety.

As he writes, “watching TV used to be so simple, or at least it seems that way in retrospect. First there were just a handful of networks. Then broadcast TV gave way to cable. But even as the number of channels multiplied exponentially, it was all still easy to understand, not to mention incredibly profitable: The combination of advertising and affiliate fees delivered approximately $90 billion annually to a small group of content companies.

That was then, this is now: Advertising revenues and multichannel subscriptions are endangered by significant ratings declines across the cable TV landscape as audiences — particularly younger viewers — get bombarded by a dizzying array of cheaper programming choices delivered over the Internet. Some, like Netflix, charge viewers a monthly fee; others, like many of the ventures pitching advertisers at this week’s NewFronts presentations in New York, are as free as broadcast television.

Many of these ventures are backed by the biggest companies in the tech sector. Which isn’t to say the incumbent entertainment conglomerates are simply sitting on the sidelines while the challengers eat their lunch. To the contrary, Hollywood’s participation in the likes of Sling TV and HBO Now is something akin to baby Kal-El launching out of planet Krypton in Superman: A culture facing the threat of extinction is seeking to find life for itself elsewhere in the solar system.”

A fascinating article, with superb graphics and excellent detail – click here, or above to read it all.

Agnès Varda To Receive Honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

Agnès Varda, here seen shooting The Gleaners and I, will be awarded an Honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes.

As Kinsey Lowe reports in the always-reliable online journal Deadline, “Agnès Varda will be honored for the body of her work at the closing ceremony of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. She’s the first woman selected for this distinction. Only three other directors — Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood and Bernardo Bertolucci — have been recognized in this way for the global impact of their body of work.

From her first film, La Pointe Courte in 1954, Varda’s style reflected elements of what would become the French New Wave although because she preceded that movement her work is more Left Bank in style. Her next feature, Cleo From 5 To 7, was a documentary style look at a singer awaiting results of a biopsy, which foreshadowed Varda’s fascination with human mortality. Her films also tended to focus on women and her subsequent film Vagabond [1985] examined the investigation of the death of a female drifter.

She married film director Jacques Demy in 1962 and after his death in 1990, she made Jacquot de Nantes, about his life and death. In 2000, she used a digital camera to make The Gleaners and I [see still above]. Her 2008 autobiographical work Les plages d’Agnès picked up France’s the César for best documentary. A well-rounded and multifaceted artist, she started out as a photographer. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art held an exhibition entitled Agnes Varda in Californialand in 2013. The show was a sort of reflection of the time Varda spent in Los Angeles in the ’60s and included sculpture, photographs and short films.”

This is an honor that is more than overdue – congratulations to the foremother of the New Wave.

Hollywood Goes Commercial – Really!

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

As Alexandra Bruell and Maureen Morrison report in AdAge, more and more stars are doing commercials.

As they write, “the plot of Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film, Lost in Translation, follows a movie star played by Bill Murray as he films a commercial in Tokyo to avoid lowering his status in Hollywood. That ploy certainly wouldn’t work today — and it certainly wouldn’t be necessary.

Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club coincided with a series of TV commercials for Lincoln. Charlize Theron is the face of Dior. Brad Pitt hawked Chanel No. 5. Katy Perry pitched Proactiv acne treatment. And Kevin Spacey replaced a talking baby as the face of E-Trade. In other words, adland has the keys to Hollywood.

‘There’s no question the relationship between entertainment and advertising is grander and more important and deeper than it’s ever been,’ said David Droga, creative chairman at Droga5. Some shops are capitalizing on the trend by aggressively teaming up with more established entertainment powers: In the past few years, Deutsch has formed relationships with music labels such as Capitol Records; Edelman started a joint venture with United Talent Agency; and Droga5 sold a 49% stake to William Morris Endeavor.

Agencies know what brands want from stars. ‘They need agencies for our strategic thinking, for our link to brands and money, for our consumer understanding,’ said Mr. Droga, whose shop is working with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, a star of Furious 7, to build his own brand. Brands have also made it easier for celebrities to lend their star power by improving production values and telling more relevant stories. BMW Films, which starred celebrities including Madonna and Clive Owen in 2001 and 2002, led the way.”

In short, it’s a new day in Hollywood – click here, or on the image above, to read the whole article.

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

“You Plan Around The Marvel Responsibilities – You Have To.”

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Seems like we’re going to be subjected to a seemingly endless series of movies from the “Marvel Universe.”

As Matt Goldberg reports in Collider, “there’s no rest for a weary superhero. Chris Evans is out promoting Avengers: Age of Ultron, and very soon he’ll be suiting up again to start filming on Captain America: Civil War. Evans spoke to Esquire about his upcoming shooting schedule and says that filming on Civil War will go until about ‘August or September’, which is the usual shoot time for a major blockbuster film.

However, because he’s on a Marvel contract and Marvel has release dates for all of its Phase Three movies, Evans also knows that he’ll be needed for Avengers: Infinity War, which will be two films shot back to back. Evans tells Esquire that he thinks filming begins in either fall or winter 2016 and, ‘That’s going to be like nine months to shoot both movies back to back.’

The lengthy production schedule isn’t too much of a surprise, and I’m curious to see how many other MCU actors will have to adhere to it. So many actors are getting sucked into the MCU, so how many of them will be spending the larger part of a year working on these two movies? Evans doesn’t sound bummed by the prospect, and just accepts it as part of his working schedule. ‘You know, you plan around the Marvel responsibilities,’ says Evans. ‘You have to.’

Avengers: Infinity War – Part 1 will be released on May 4, 2018, and Avengers: Infinity War – Part 2 will open on May 3, 2019. Captain America: The Winter Soldier screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely will pen the script and Joe and Anthony Russo will direct.” [Upcoming Marvel titles now in development include, with release dates;]

  • Avengers: Age of Ultron – May 1, 2015
  • Ant-Man – July 17, 2015
  • Captain America: Civil War – May 6, 2016
  • Doctor Strange - November 6, 2016
  • Guardians of the Galaxy 2 – May 5, 2017
  • Spider-Man Reboot – July 28, 2017
  • Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017
  • Avengers: Infinity War – Part 1 – May 4, 2018
  • Black Panther – July 6, 2018
  • Captain Marvel – November 2, 2018
  • Avengers: Infinity War – Part 2 – May 3, 2019
  • Inhumans – July 12, 2019

It looks like we live in Marvel universe, for better or worse.

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

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

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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/