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First Fruits of Inspiration: The Films of Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

Filming in 1969; photo by Bruce Nadelson.

I recently had a screening of my early films at The Microscope Gallery in New York; Matthew Sorrento offers this review, which reads in part “as a teenager, Dixon was moved by the films screened at his local New Jersey library, noting how the works followed either the Hollywood or the independent models and how the later was an open field for artists (though the former would certainly interest him in his later criticism).

He found a welcoming community of artists at Rutgers University and then in New York, where enthusiasm and usefulness, as Dixon puts it, were all one needed to enter. Years later he would reflect on the scene in his essential 1997 text, The Exploding Eye, which sets right a lot of the debates lost in worship and revisionist history – but in the late 1960s Dixon was part of the thriving experimental scene.

Incorporating found footage, home movies, spur-of-the-moment camerawork, and poetry readings, Dixon’s catalog sums the best the times had to offer. To the post-digital generation, his work captures an era of democratic art, the materials for little investment and content composed anywhere, for nearly anyone.

On May 4th, 2014, New Yorkers had the rare – and perhaps final – chance to view Dixon’s films (now archived at the Museum of Modern Art) at the Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn. With Dixon in attendance, the artist-critic provided lively commentary on his collection of works that emit constant energy and passion.”

You can read the rest of the view by clicking here, or on the image above.

80,000 British Pathé Newsreel Clips Free Online

Monday, May 19th, 2014

British Pathé Newsreel has put up more than 80,000 newsreel clips on YouTube  – all free.

As the site notes, “Pathé News was a producer of newsreels, cinemagazines, and documentaries from 1910 until 1976 in the United Kingdom. Its founder, Charles Pathé, was a pioneer of moving pictures in the silent era. The Pathé News archive is known today as British Pathé. Its collection of news film and movies is fully digitized and available online. Follow us through the 20th Century and dive into the good and the bad times of the past. Feel free to explore more than 80,000 videos of filmed history and maybe you’ll find stuff no one else has ever seen. From next week on you’ll get a new playlists each Monday and Thursday, a special collection of videos we’ve picked out for you. On top of that you’ll get a weekly highlight video every Friday! Look forward to Top Ten lists, special occasions and recent events put into context. Have fun with 3,500 hours of filmed history!”

This is a truly amazing resource; click here, or on the image above, to access the entire library – free!

Godzilla – Savior of Mankind

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

Sadly, Gareth Edwards’s attempted reboot of the Godzilla franchise is deeply disappointing.

As I note in Film International today, “Now, we have Gareth Edwards’ 2014 version of Godzilla, and the results are decidedly mixed. I am a great admirer of Edwards’ 2010 film Monsters, which Edwards, an accomplished digital special effects technician, wrote, directed, photographed, produced and edited on a budget of significantly less than $500,000. Unlike most tech-heavy films of its type, Monsters betrayed real signs of intelligence and originality, imbuing the aliens, who are only glimpsed in full during a final, eerily mystic mating sequence at a desert gas station, with a genuine if other-worldly presence.

Edwards made up Monsters as he went along, shooting out of the back of a van on location, improvising most of the film with just two actors, and later described it as being ‘Lost in Translation meets War of the Worlds,’ which really does sum the film up rather neatly. One might almost call it an alien romantic fantasy, and the bare bones, documentary style of the film, combined with the laid back performances of Scott McNairy and Whitney Able as the two leads, created a work of genuine quality – a rarity in effects driven films. Though the film was only a modest commercial success, Hollywood took notice, and recognizing Edwards’ skill with actors as well as CGI effects, quickly snapped him up for bigger things.

Bigger, yes, but sadly not better. Made for $160 million, with extensive location shooting, and an added promotional budget of $80 million to put the film over the top, Edwards’ version of Godzilla has benefited from a shrewd marketing campaign, with a trailer that, as with Monsters, withheld the title character from view almost entirely, while banking heavily on actor Bryan Cranston’s presence in what seems to be a leading role in the film – in the trailer, he gets nearly all of the dialogue, intercut with suitably spectacular scenes of destruction. But – spoilers ahead – the trailer is one of the most remarkably deceptive ad campaigns in recent memory.”

You can read more by clicking here, or on the image above. This is a real missed opportunity.

The Film Fatales Collective

Sunday, May 11th, 2014

“We’re a group of filmmakers who make each other’s dreams come true.” – Danielle Lurie

As their site – follow the links above in the photo and the opening quote – accurately notes, “Film Fatales is a collective of female filmmakers based in New York who have written or directed at least one feature narrative or documentary film. Our members meet the first week of every month, hosted at the home of a different filmmaker each time. Gatherings consist of a meal, a topical conversation relevant to the creative process, and a sharing of the current projects of our members. Film Fatales has quickly become a grassroots community of collaboration and support, with over a dozen films in production by our members this year alone. By offering a space for mentorship, peer networking and direct participation, we hope to promote the creation of more stories by and about women.”

Filmmaking is tough; collectives such as this make it easier to create new and original work.

Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe

Saturday, May 10th, 2014

I was in New York recently, and saw an incredible show of Italian Futurist art at the Guggenheim Museum.

As the museum’s site notes, “Italian Futurism was officially launched in 1909 when Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, an Italian intellectual, published his “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” in the French newspaper Le Figaro. Marinetti’s continuous leadership ensured the movement’s cohesion for three and half decades, until his death in 1944.

To be a Futurist in the Italy of the early 20th century was to be modern, young, and insurgent. Inspired by the markers of modernity—the industrial city, machines, speed, and flight—Futurism’s adherents exalted the new and the disruptive. They sought to revitalize what they determined to be a static, decaying culture and an impotent nation that looked to the past for its identity. Futurism began as a literary avant-garde, and the printed word was vital for this group. Manifestos, words-in-freedom poems, novels, and journals were intrinsic to the dissemination of their ideas.

But the Futurists quickly embraced the visual and performing arts, politics, and even advertising. Futurist artists experimented with the fragmentation of form, the collapsing of time and space, the depiction of dynamic motion, and dizzying perspectives. Their style evolved from fractured elements in the 1910s to a mechanical language in the ’20s, and then to aerial imagery in the ’30s. No vanguard exists in a void—all are touched by their historical context. The Futurists’ celebration of war as a means to remake Italy and their support of Italy’s entrance into World War I also constitute part of the movement’s narrative, as does the later, complicated relationship between Futurism and Italian fascism.

This exhibition endeavors to convey the spirit of Italian Futurism in all of its complexity. The Guggenheim Museum’s architecture lends itself to the display of this multidisciplinary idiom. Taking its cue from the Futurists’ concept of the ‘total work of art’ (an ensemble that surrounds the viewer in a completely Futurist environment) and their aim to achieve a “reconstruction of the universe,” the presentation integrates works in multiple mediums on all levels of the rotunda. Objects are organized in a roughly chronological order, with filmic components bringing to life some of the movement’s more ephemeral activities, such as performance and declamation. The Futurists were insurrectionary and stridently vocal, and thus Italian Futurism welcomes a certain amount of visual and aural cacophony.

Futurism was punctuated by paradoxes: while predominantly antifeminine, it had active female participants; while calling for a breakdown between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, it valued painting above other forms of expression; while glorifying the machine, it shied away from the mechanized medium of film. By 1929, the artists who had denounced traditional institutions saw their leader, Marinetti, become a member of the Academy of Italy. And many of the revolutionary Futurists complied in some way with the Fascist regime. Through a comprehensive examination of Italian Futurism’s full history, the exhibition offers an opportunity to reassess one of the most contentious of modernist movements.”

This is a landmark exhibition, dazzling in its complexity and scope. See it if you possibly can.

The Cinema of Agnès Varda: Resistance and Eclecticism

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Delphine Bénézet’s new book on Agnès Varda is a superb piece of work.

Agnès Varda never seems to get enough credit. The fore-mother of the French New Wave, long before Godard, Truffaut and the rest of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd picked up a camera, Varda was making feature films from 1954, employing Alain Resnais as her editor, and pretty much setting out the basic precepts of simplicity, communality, and originality that her colleagues would later follow. But while Godard and Truffaut became art house darlings in the 60s – and certainly their work deserves the attention it got – Varda was somehow overlooked, although such films as Cleo from 5 to 7, Les Creatures, and Le Bonheur remain absolutely daring in their approach to the film medium, as well as dynamics of relationships between men and women, and particularly in affairs of the heart.

As the volume’s website notes, “Agnès Varda, a pioneer of the French New Wave, has been making radical films for over half a century. Many of these are considered by scholars, filmmakers, and audiences alike, as audacious, seminal, and unforgettable. This volume considers her production as a whole, revisiting overlooked films like Mur, Murs/Documenteur (1980–81), and connecting her cinema to recent installation work. This study demonstrates how Varda has resisted norms of representation and diktats of production. It also shows how she has elaborated a personal repertoire of images, characters, and settings, which all provide insight on their cultural and political contexts. The book thus offers new readings of this director’s multifaceted rêveries, arguing that her work should be seen as an aesthetically influential and ethically-driven production where cinema is both a political and collaborative practice, and a synesthetic art form.”

In five succinct chapters, detailing Varda’s place within cinema history, her “ethics of filming,” and the aesthetic and technical concerns that inform her films, Bénézet, who teaches comparative literature in the School of Languages, Linguistics, and Film at Queen Mary, University of London, offers a compelling case for Varda as a major filmmaker of not only 20th century, but also 21st century cinema, and one of the most successful at embracing digital cinema in her newer films, such as the transcendent documentary feature The Gleaners and I, shot entirely on a small home digital camera. Bénézet makes it clear that Varda has never stopped evolving as both a filmmaker and an artist in general, embracing new technology and the changing culture of France to create work of stunning resonance and beauty with absolutely minimal resources.

Varda has survived many of her contemporaries, and she keeps on working to this day; in the end, Varda is finally managing to get some measure of the respect and care she so clearly deserves simply by the act of sheer survival – she has outlived her detractors, mostly male, who really couldn’t see the value in her work. Dismissed or marginalized when first released, her films, now lovingly restored by Varda herself in DVD editions available throughout the world, have finally taken their place in the cinematic canon along with those of her male counterparts. There have been other excellent books on Varda, but this particular text, neatly illustrated with frame blow-ups, and graced with a detailed filmography, is one of the best, and also has the virtue of being the most complete.

In short, this is an excellent book from Wallflower Press / Columbia UP; pick up a copy now.

The DGA Visual History Archive – Director Interviews Online Here

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

The DGA Visual History Program offers an excellent collection of free video interviews with directors.

As the Directors Guild of America website notes, “founded in 2000, the DGA’s Visual History Program has conducted more than 160 interviews with directors and director’s team members discussing their careers and creative processes in film, television and other media.” These include such luminaries as Agnes Varda, Constantine Costa-Gavras, Claude Lelouch, Robert Altman and many, many others. You can see the interviews by clicking on the image above, and then searching the data base, or clicking on the images of some of the directors featured this month. My friend Dennis Coleman brought this to my attention; many thanks, Dennis! This is is an incredible resource.

Click here, or on the image above, to access these remarkable video interviews.

William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977) and How Star Wars Changed Movies

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

William Friedkin’s superb film Sorcerer (1977) has finally been released on Blu-ray.

As Jason Guerrasio notes in the April 21, 2014 issue of Vanity Fair, “In 1977, there was no director hotter in Hollywood than William Friedkin. His last two films, The French Connection and The Exorcist, were instant classics and now he was about to release what he considered his masterwork, Sorcerer. What he didn’t foresee, however, was that a modestly budgeted science-fiction epic called Star Wars would destroy his beloved film and change the Hollywood landscape forever.

A reimagining of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer stars Roy Scheider as one of four outcasts who take on a lucrative but dangerous job of transporting unstable dynamite through a South American jungle in dingy trucks. Though the film boasts solid acting and a thrilling sequence where the trucks must cross an ancient bridge—not to mention an incredible score from Tangerine Dream—production on the film was marred in delays and on-set conflict.

Things didn’t get any better when Paramount released the film a month after Star Wars, quickly becoming a casualty of the craze over George Lucas’s intergalactic opera. Outside of the occasional repertory screening over the decades, Sorcerer was forgotten. Then in 2012, Friedkin sued both Paramount and Universal (which had international rights) to find who owned the film. Through that, Warner Bros. bought it and on Tuesday will release a remastered Blu-ray of the film; a select theatrical release is planned as well.”

[As Friedkin told Guerrasio] “I’d say 80 percent of American films today are all offshoots of Star Wars. If Star Wars had failed you would not have the kind of films that are popular today. Hollywood has given over completely to the comic-book and video-game heroes, and rightly so because they are successful, the audience wants them. But that hunger, that desire, was tapped by Star Wars. None of us could see the tsunami of Star Wars. It happened rather quickly. You know, virtually every studio passed on Star Wars. I had a company with Coppola and [Peter] Bogdanovich then called the Directors Company, it was financed by Paramount and we had the right to green-light any films we wanted, outside of our own, at a certain budget.

Francis brought us the script of Star Wars and Peter and I looked at it and said, ‘What the hell is this? Who’s going to direct this?’ And he said, ‘George.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ I couldn’t believe George could pull it off, and I was wrong. I think fate plays the most significant part in all of our lives and that’s what happened. For a long period there I enjoyed nothing but success: critical and commercial. All I was interested in then and now is how close I could come to my vision of the film I wanted to make. In those days, we had no idea what kind of money films made, until Star Wars. It wasn’t in the papers every day. The quality of the film is all I cared about. Of course, you’re disappointed, but I never guided my life by any of that.”

It’s a remarkable and all but forgotten film; check out the Blu-ray now.

“A Lioness on the Prowl”: Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

I have an article out today on Jonathan Glazer’s new film Under The Skin in Film International.

As I write, in part, “Under The Skin is being sold on the basis of a simple premise, which is true on the face of it, but also offers just the merest suggestion of what the film is in its totality. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien inhabiting a woman’s body, who trolls through the Scottish countryside and cities searching for young men, enticing them with the promise of a sexual encounter, and then killing them for food.

In this, she is monitored by another alien, who takes on the form of a sinister motorcyclist (played by real life champion cyclist Jeremy McWilliams), who is there to make sure that Johansson’s character stays on track with her mission. That’s pretty much the plot, or as much of it as I want to give away, but there’s a great deal more going on here than this bare outline would suggest.

Firstly, there’s no real sex in the film, just the promise of sex. Although Johansson lures several men into her white van during the first third of the film, and then takes them back to her flat, ostensibly for sex, nothing really happens; the men strip off and approach Johansson, who backs away from them, as the men sink into some sort of primordial ooze that swallows them up, and then reduces them to fleshy pulp for otherworldly consumption. Indeed, there is more frontal male nudity here than female, and it’s clear that one of the many things that the film is interested in is the fetishization of sex; Johansson’s simulacric image has been created as nothing more than a stock male fantasy.

We get only one glimpse of the actual harvesting process, in which two men, both victims, are now in a sort of limbo, and desperately attempt to touch each other to make some sort of contact, and perhaps escape the trap they’ve fallen into. But no such luck; in an instant, one of the men is reduced to nothing more than a human husk, and the pulp of his body is sucked through a chute into a door of some kind, food for Johansson’s cohorts in a distant galaxy.

Although there are a number of scenes in the film in which Johansson is nude, they’re sequences in which, as an alien, she examines her new body, and wonders at its construction, and why it’s so alluring to her victims. In the opening third of the film, she is utterly without humanity, clubbing one man to death on a beach and leaving an infant baby to be swept out into the tide without even the slightest shred of remorse. But then again, she’s not human – she doesn’t understand the meaning of the word.”

This is a remarkable film, but you’ll have to seek it out; see it as soon as you can.

Oculus: Another Look In the Haunted Mirror

Friday, April 11th, 2014

I have a new review essay out on the film Oculus in Film International.

As I write, “Oculus is a rather pretentious title for a rather straightforward movie, but despite the assembly line nature of its’ construction, the film still has something going for it. At first it’s hard to say precisely what the film has to offer, because on the surface it deals with so many basic and time-worn horror conventions that it seems to be almost aggressively unoriginal. But as the film picks up speed, and accelerates its march towards death and damnation, it gathers a certain sort of peculiar power that isn’t without value. I’m not about to give away the ending here, or any of the major plot twists, because those are the main things the film has to recommend it. Yet having said that, there’s a certain Resnais-like fatalism to the film that reverberates in one’s memory, despite the workmanlike nature of the film as a whole.

Though released theatrically today, April 11, 2014, the film was shot in 2012-2013, and was first screened on September 8, 2013, at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s yet another of the Jason Blum / Blumhouse Productions, all of which are low budget horror films, and the best of which to date is The Purge. Blum has a deal with Universal under which he cranks out numerous horror films in the $3 million or so range, but many of them don’t even see the light of day in DVD or streaming format, much less get a theatrical release. His idea is to keep on cranking out as many films as he can, and then see if anything sticks.

Despite the fact that there are a number of cinematic corpses, so to speak, sitting around in Blum’s vaults, with the number of films Blum makes, some of them are bound to hit. The Purge is going into a sequel, which from the looks of the trailer seems a sort of knock off of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) – the premise being that for twelve hours all criminal acts are legal, which acts as a societal safety valve. In the sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, a group of people are left outside when the purge starts, and have to run across a city in lockdown to safety, but it lacks Ethan Hawke in the lead, and screams “knock off” in every department. But I digress.

Oculus is about a haunted mirror, a staple of cinematic fantasy since the days of Georges Méliès. It’s been used in countless episodes of television series, such as Thriller and Twilight Zone, though my favorite variation on this well-worn theme remains the episode of the classic omnibus British horror film Dead of Night (1945), directed by Robert Hamer, in which Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) buys an ornate, oversize antique mirror as a gift for her husband Peter (Ralph Michael), only to discover that the previous owner killed his wife in front of it in a fit of jealousy, and that Peter is now falling under the mirror’s influence, as well. It’s one of the great horror stories of the cinema, and remains the most effective version of this tale, but for all that Oculus still has, as I suggested, something to add to the subgenre.”

You can read the entire essay here. Here’s looking at you, kids!

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 numerous books and more than 70 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.

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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/