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Why Aren’t More Women Directing Action Films?

Friday, October 30th, 2015

Lexi Alexander knows why women aren’t getting the opportunities they should in Hollywood.

As ReBecca Theodore wrote in Vulture on October 28, 2015, “Lexi Alexander doesn’t suffer fools lightly. The Oscar-nominated director, and outspoken advocate for women filmmakers, made waves in Hollywood last year when she wrote an essay on the deeply ingrained bias women directors face in the industry. Since then, Alexander has kept the pressure on studios to allow more opportunities for female directors.

Born to a German mother and Palestinian father, Alexander is a former World Kickboxing Champion who got her start in the business as a stuntwoman, and soon segued into directing. Her 2002 short Johnny Flynton landed an Academy Award–nomination, and her 2005 feature Green Street Hooligans won the SXSW Jury and Audience Awards. That led to a gig directing Punisher: War Zone, making her the first woman to direct a comic-book feature. Most recently, Alexander directed tonight’s episode of Arrow, which had previously brought on two women directors (Wendey Stanzler and Bethany Rooney). We spoke to Alexander about working on the CW’s comic-book series, embracing her biracial identity, and why more women aren’t directing multimillion-dollar superhero franchises.

How did you land this project?  How much did you know about the show going in?
I was contacted by the showrunners, specifically Andrew Kreisberg, who was a fan of Punisher: War Zone. I knew about the show and had watched the pilot when it came out. When I got the call for the meeting, I binged on three seasons of Arrow over an entire weekend.

Can you share some details about the shoot — how long it took to prepare, to find shooting locales?
All in all, I was there for three and a half weeks. Location scouting is a lot of fun, especially in a town where ten shows are being shot at the same time, because you’re constantly running into other crews scouting the same places. Then we all give each other side eye, because nobody wants to use a location that another show is using as well. It’s quite amusing, really.

Did you have a specific look or feel you wanted for this episode?
It was very clear to me that TV is a writers’ medium and that a show in its fourth season comes with an established look and style. The first meeting I had with Kreisberg and [executive producer] Marc Guggenheim, they were very clear they were interested in me as a director because they believed I could bring something different and new to the show. So my directions were basically ’same but different.’ Now this might sound like I’m being sarcastic, but I’m not. I completely understood what they wanted. There’s definitely a way, even within an existing style and tone, to add something new or unique without making it look like it’s from a completely different show. I’m not sure if I completely achieved that, but I’m pretty sure the audience will see my fingerprint here and there.

You were the only woman director to helm a comic-book feature with Punisher: War Zone in 2008. Not much has changed since then. What do you think accounts for this?
The only reason I was offered Punisher was because I had made an indie film that was rated R for violence and was filled with fight scenes. I think in industries riddled with bias, you tend to hire women only if their previous work is very masculine, which is hilarious given that this is not how male directors are chosen. I am pretty sure when Kenneth Branagh came up for Thor, nobody at Marvel thought: ‘Yes, that Kenneth Branagh is masculine enough to do action, just look at Henry V and The Magic Flute.’ Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge Branagh fan, I’m just trying to demonstrate how ridiculous it is that women have to be ‘one of the boys’ to get in on the superhero business, whereas male directors don’t have to have any proof on their résumé that they can deliver hardcore action.”

It’s all too true – read the entire interview by clicking here.

Too Many Films Stuck in The Vaults

Saturday, October 24th, 2015

Too many great films are still stuck in the vaults, with no way to see them in any format.

As Michael Hiltzik writes in The Los Angeles Times today, “Will McKinley, a New York film writer, is dying to get his hands on a copy of Alias Nick Beal, a 1949 film noir starring Ray Milland as a satanic gangster. For classic film blogger Nora Fiore, the Grail might be The Wild Party (1929), the first talkie to star 1920’s “It” girl Clara Bow, directed by the pioneering female director Dorothy Arzner.

Film critic Leonard Maltin says he’d like to score a viewing of Hotel Haywire a 1937 screwball comedy written by the great comic director Preston Sturges. Produced by Paramount Studios, these are all among 700 titles assumed to be nestled in the vaults of Universal Pictures, which inherited Paramount’s 1930s and 1940s film archive from its forebear MCA, which acquired the collection in 1958. They’re frustratingly near at hand but out of reach of film fans and cinephiles.

Like most of the other major studios, Universal is grappling with the challenging economics of making more of this hoard accessible to the public on DVD, video on demand or streaming video. Studios have come to realize that there’s not only marketable value in the films, but publicity value in performing as responsible stewards of cultural assets.”

I, too, would love to see a legitimate copy of Alias Nick Beal, one of my favorite noirs, but it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. To date, Universal has done almost nothing in this regard. As just one example, I’ve been waiting for years for a DVD of William Castle’s The Night Walker (Universal, 1964), which, as Wikipedia notes, is “one of the last black and white theatrical features released by Universal Pictures, and Barbara Stanwyck’s last motion picture, [but] The Night Walker is one of the few William Castle films from his ‘horror’ period that is unavailable on DVD.”

Yet Hiltzik’s article demonstrates that there’s clearly a market for these older films, beyond the canonical classics. As George Feltenstein, who heads the Warner Archive imprint of on-demand DVDs of classic films notes, the WB service, launched in March 2009 with 150 titles, has proved “far more successful than we even dreamed. I thought that all the studios would follow in our footsteps, but nobody has been as comprehensive as we’ve been.” And that’s putting it mildly – to date, no other major studio has stepped up to the plate with the same commitment as WB has.

This isn’t altruism. As Feltenstein candidly told Hiltzik, “‘my job is to monetize that content, make it available to the largest number of people possible and do so profitably.’ That gives [Warner Archive] a window into values that others might miss. Take B-movie westerns made in the 1940s and 1950s that landed in the Warners vault. To Allied Artists and Lorimar, their producers, ‘these films were worthless and they said it’s OK to let them rot,’ Feltenstein [said].

Instead, Warner Archives packaged them into DVD collections, ‘and they’ve all been nicely profitable.’ Feltenstein says Warners is releasing 30 more titles to its manufacturing-on-demand library every month. ‘It’s growing precipitously and there’s no end in sight.’”

Yet much more work clearly needs to be done, and especially since all films made before 1950 were shot on cellulose nitrate film, which decomposes rapidly and is highly flammable, things have to move along at a much faster clip if we’re going to preserve what’s left of our cinematic heritage. I’ve been noting this for a long time, in any number of articles, but even though Warner Archive is leading the pack, there’s plenty of films left that need a solid DVD release – not streaming, thank you, but on a DVD, which can be permanently kept in one’s collection.

Let’s get these films out where everyone can see them – now!

Jack Kerouac on The Steve Allen Show (1959)

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

In 1959, writer Jack Kerouac and musician Steve Allen cut a record, Poetry for the Beat Generation.

Jack Kerouac has long been one of my favorite American novelists, whose importance and value has only become more apparent with each passing decade. We also share the same birthday, which has always pleased me, and like many young people, when I was in college, I devoured Kerouac’s work, most especially his epic novel Desolation Angels, which was written in the early to mid 1950s, but only published in 1965, after the enormous success of his most popular novel, On The Road (1957).

It’s become fashionable, in some circles, to dismiss Kerouac’s work, the bulk of which was written long before it appeared in print, “published [only] in heaven” as Allen Ginsberg put it – and then, in the aftermath of On The Road, publishers were suddenly eager to print everything he’d written up until then – thank goodness. And so the work of a lifetime came tumbling out.

One of the most quoted jibes of Kerouac’s work comes from Truman Capote, who famously remarked of the non-stop writing blast that produced On The Road, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” It’s a clever riposte, but it seems to me that in the end, Capote’s claim to lasting literary value lies only with a few books, in particular the “non-fiction” novel In Cold Blood, whereas Kerouac’s vision, which literally encompassed all of American culture, is a sprawling, multi-layered, deeply penetrating look at the society, and the values of the era he lived in.

Kerouac’s style – pure bop writing – is heavily indebted to the art of jazz riffing. Sometimes he’s simply writing to fill up the page, but the best of Kerouac’s work – On the Road, Doctor Sax, The Dharma Bums, Mexico City Blues, The Subterraneans, Desolation Angels, and Visions of Cody – repays repeated readings, and stands as a monument to Kerouac’s passion and restless intensity, which did not mix well with the pressures of overnight fame. Becoming a heavy drinker as he coped with instant celebrity, Kerouac died at the age of 47, yet still managed to leave behind a unique, and utterly compelling body of work.

So it’s nice to see this archival clip from The Steve Allen Show in 1959, in which a visibly nervous Kerouac recites some of his poetry as Allen accompanies him on piano – telling a few jokes along the way in an attempt to ease his guest’s palpable uneasiness – which is some of the only footage of Kerouac reciting his work in existence. Allen, a gifted musician and television personality of the era, made it his business to showcase rising talent – Elvis Presley and Frank Zappa come immediately to mind – and the album that resulted from their collaboration (now available on CD) is a vital and impressive piece of work – and here’s the proof.

Indeed, Kerouac is, for me, sort of an “acid test” of someone’s reaction to American writing – he comes from the tradition of Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe and other authentic visionaries (as he makes clear to Allen in this clip) – and Kerouac is simply driven to put down on paper the experiences of his life, and has no time for traditional prose forms. His work flows from one sentence to the next in a sweep of nearly inexhaustible improvisation, and thus he leaves himself open to rather ordinary criticism – “not enough discipline,” “dashed off,” “free form” and the like.

But that’s just the point – Kerouac is clearly working out of a driving need to create, over which he almost has no control – he was compelled to put his life down on paper. As he famously wrote in On The Road, “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars,” adding later that “I want to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money. I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down.”

So here it is – Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen – a transcendent moment in American culture.

Interview on NPR’s “Inquiry” With Mark Lynch

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

Mark Lynch’s NPR program Inquiry interviewed me on my new book, Black & White Cinema: A Short History.

You can see what Mark wrote above as an introduction to the interview – it was a fun session, and Mark always asks all the right questions – plus, he knows what he’s talking about, so it’s always a pleasure to converse with him. Inquiry comes from WICN, the New England NPR station, and Mark Lynch really does his homework – and it shows. There’s really no need to say anything further – just click here, or on the image above, to go to the interview, and listen for yourself – it runs about 30 minutes, which absolutely flew by.

Thanks, Mark- much appreciated!

Roberto Rossellini’s General Della Rovere (1959)

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

And as long as I’m in a De Sica mood, here he is in Rossellini’s masterpiece General Della Rovere.

Vittorio De Sica wasn’t only a director; he was comfortable on both sides of the camera, and did some of his very best work as the lead actor in Roberto Rossellini’s tragic drama of the Italian Resistance during World War II, General Della Rovere.

Shot in a mere 33 days, and edited in 10 days after that in order to make the deadline for the Cannes Film Festival that year, Rossellini’s film is audacious on any number of levels – from the gradual shifting of the lead character’s complete selfishness to resolute heroism; the stunning use of actual newsreel stock footage of the war, used here both as establishing material, as well as an occasional backdrop for an actor performing in front of a rear-projection screen, in a completely self-referential fashion; to Rossellini’s revolutionary use of the zoom lens in a manner which anticipates his later historical films – and won the Golden Lion at the Festival.

As DVD Beaver notes, “Roberto Rossellini’s first box-office success after a string of commercial failures, notably with Ingrid Bergman, was also a return to the themes of the film that brought him international fame, Rome, Open City and his other neorealist classics. In a magnetic performance, Vittorio De Sica is Emanuele Bardone, an opportunistic rascal in wartime Genoa, conning his fellow Italians and exploiting their tragedies by promising to help find their missing loved ones in exchange for money. But when the Nazis force him to impersonate a dead partisan general in prison to extract information from fellow inmates, Bardone finds himself wrestling with his conscience for the first time.

Based on an article by the Italian journalist Indro Montanelli, Rossellini casts Vittorio De Sica as confidence trickster Emanuele Bardone who helps to save Italians arrested by the Gestapo or at least pretending to do so in exchange for money or gifts from their family. When he attempts to save a man already executed he is turned over by the man s wife and is given the choice of execution or carrying out a confidence trick for the Germans; to assume the identity of the General Della Rovere. Turning on his country to save his skin Bardone enters prison to seek out the identity of the partisan commander, Fabrizio.”

I watched this film again a few days ago, a film I have known and loved for more than four decades, and once again, it simply knocked me to the floor. In addition to De Sica’s indelible and letter-perfect performance in the lead, there is the equally masterful performance of Hannes Messemer as SS Col. Müller, who attempts to use Bardone’s skills as a con man to get information from the members of the resistance. But as the film moves inexorably towards its tragic yet transcendent finish, it’s clear that Bardone’s transformation from scam artist to patriot can lead to only one conclusion, and one of the most powerful endings in the history of cinema. Simply put, this is a must see film.

Fortunately available on several DVD formats, General Della Rovere is simply essential cinema.

Vittorio de Sica on the “Crisis of Cinema”

Monday, October 19th, 2015

Vittorio De Sica directing Marcello Mastroianni and Faye Dunaway in A Place for Lovers (1968).

“There is no crisis in cinema. There are negative periods. There are times when some films are received well and others aren’t. The past teaches us that some films were received badly, while others go sailing on.

There are two films doing very well right now in the Italian market: One is Il gattopardo, which earns seven million lire a day, and the other is Il diavolo, starring Sordi, which earns 3 1/2 million. So there are films that are doing very well. What I notice is that producers have been known to make errors in judgment, which have caused them to be overly daring.

For example, I’ve been told many millions were spent, somewhere around half a billion, for a film entrusted to a young person. We must make room for young people, but with half a billion we could have made eight of Bicycle Thieves. Experimental cinema should be inexpensive cinema. Half a billion lire should be entrusted to those professionals who we can be sure will bring home the half billion spent. We should be cautious with new initiatives. Producers should be cautious.

As for television as a competitor, yes, there I see a danger. Let television do television, let them do documentaries, but cinema as such should be shown on screens, because there’s no one more lazy than the public. When people don’t have to leave their homes, they’re very happy. A film shown in the home encourages the audience not to budge.”

So do as Vittorio says – go out to the movies!

Black & White Cinema: A Short History on Amazon Now!

Sunday, October 11th, 2015

My new book is out now on Kindle, and in paperback and hardcover on Amazon!

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

Black and White Cinema is the first study to consider the use of black-and-white as an art form in its own right, providing a comprehensive and global overview of the era when it flourished, from the 1900s to the 1960s. Acclaimed film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon introduces us to the masters of this art, discussing the signature styles and technical innovations of award-winning cinematographers like James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, and Sven Nykvist. Giving us a unique glimpse behind the scenes, Dixon also reveals the creative teams—from lighting technicians to matte painters—whose work profoundly shaped the look of black-and-white cinema.

More than just a study of film history, this book is a rallying cry, meant to inspire a love for the artistry of black-and-white film, so that we might work to preserve this important part of our cinematic heritage. Lavishly illustrated with more than forty on-the-set stills, Black and White Cinema provides a vivid and illuminating look at a creatively vital era, as featured on Turner Classic Movies in the series “Artists in Black and White.”

Critical Commentary:

“Dixon, no stranger to film history, gives us a complete overview of the black and white movie era, from the 1900s through the 1960s. He introduces us to the masters and talks about the styles and innovations of cinematographers long gone. Dixon also tells us how the crews working behind these cinematographers helped shape a bygone era of cinema . . . this book will help to inspire others to think about the artistry so that that this classic era of cinema is never forgotten. With more than 40 photos, the book provides a look at a vital era of film.” – Daniel Solzman, Flicksided

“Like artists painting with light and shadows, [cinematographers] perfected the lighting techniques and other innovations that often turned commerce into black-and-white art . . . Covering a hitherto neglected subject, this should be essential reading to all those with an interest in cinema history.” —Roy Liebman, Library Journal

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

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

“Dixon has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and a subtle and well-honed aesthetic sense. He rescues important films from oblivion, and finds fresh angles of approach to films that are already familiar.” -Steven Shaviro, author of Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s colorful study of black-and-white cinema reaffirms yet again his unfailing expertise as a critic, historian, and dazzlingly fine writer. Indispensable for students, scholars, and movie buffs alike.” – David Sterritt, Chair, National Society of Film Critics

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

My thanks to all who helped bring this book to life, and to the great cinematographers who inspired it.

Black & White Cinema – A Short History on TCM

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Supergirl – The TV Series

Monday, October 5th, 2015

Finally, a Supergirl television series – and it’s long overdue.

I seem to be in a comic book vein these days, and now comes word that Supergirl, who has always been neglected in both TV and movies, just like Wonder Woman – can you say gender discrimination? – is finally going to get a TV series, long, long after the 1950s Superman series hit the airwaves, starting October 26th on CBS. Of course, it’s pop culture stuff, but at the same time, it offers a powerful role model for young women to identify with, and starts – just starts – to balance out the scales, which have long been tipped in favor of male protagonists, both in regular dramas, as well as comic book/pop culture films and television shows.

As the show’s official bio notes of the series, “Supergirl is an action-adventure drama based on the DC Comics character Kara Zor-El, Superman’s (Kal-El) cousin who, after 12 years of keeping her powers a secret on Earth, decides to finally embrace her superhuman abilities and be the hero she was always meant to be. Twelve-year-old Kara escaped the doomed planet Krypton with her parents’ help at the same time as the infant Kal-El. Protected and raised on Earth by her foster family, the Danvers, Kara grew up in the shadow of her foster sister, Alex, and learned to conceal the phenomenal powers she shares with her famous cousin in order to keep her identity a secret.

Years later at 24, Kara lives in National City assisting media mogul and fierce taskmaster Cat Grant. She works alongside her friend and IT technician Winn Schott and famous photographer James Olsen, who Grant just hired away from the Daily Planet to serve as her new art director. However, Kara’s days of keeping her talents a secret are over when Hank Henshaw, head of a super-secret agency where her sister also works, enlists her to help them protect the citizens of National City from sinister threats. Though Kara will need to find a way to manage her newfound empowerment with her very human relationships, her heart soars as she takes to the skies as Supergirl to fight crime.”

Let’s see what this develops into – I, for one, wish the series all the best.

New Video – Science Fiction Futurism

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

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

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

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

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

Maybe some of these things will actually come to pass.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

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

In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website