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Screening at The Microscope Gallery May 4 2014

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

I’m having a screening of my early films at the Microscope Gallery on Sunday, May 4th, 2014.

As the Microscope Gallery website notes, “Microscope Gallery is extremely pleased to welcome Wheeler Winston Dixon for the first screening of his film works in over a decade. The author, professor and filmmaker last had his works screened in 2003 at a retrospective at MoMA, where the originals now reside. For the evening, Dixon presents a program of six early works made from 1969 to 1976 incorporating  original footage shot in the world around him, including peace marches and Fluxus performances, commercials, and appropriated footage.

“Though he’s best known today as a scholar (his book The Exploding Eye provides a who’s who of 1960s experimentalists), Dixon’s short films are themselves visual catalogs of underground techniques: snarky Bruce Conner-ish montage, psychoactive Conrad/Sharits flicker effects, and Mekasian home-movie diaries. The distinctive Dixon kick comes from witty edits to far-out music. …” Ed Halter, The Village Voice

Film International added, “on Sunday 4 May 2014 at 7PM, filmmaker, film studies professor and regular Film International contributor Wheeler Winston Dixon will be screening some of his earliest films at Brooklyn’s Microscope Gallery. The screening, which will include films made between 1969 and 1976, is the first chance to see Dixon’s films since New York’s Museum of Modern Art hosted a retrospective of his work in 2003. At that time, MoMA also acquired all of Dixon’s films for their permanent collection.

Dixon was a member of New York’s underground film scene from the late 1960s, while also working as a writer for Life magazine and Andy Warhol’s Interview. ‘I first realized that I wanted to make movies when I was about four years old,’ Dixon told Senses of Cinema in 2003. Already as a teenager, ‘around 1965,’ he started distributing his films through the legendary Filmmakers’ Cooperative.”

You can read more here and here; I will be attending, and hope to see you there.

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.

Advice for Living and Writing from Epictetus – The Enchiridion

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Here is a saying that has guided me for many years: “If you wish to be a writer, write.” Click here for more.

John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Scott Eyman’s new book on John Wayne is the definitive study of the legendary actor and Western icon.

There have been lots of books on John Wayne – some celebratory, others taking him to task for his conservative views – but Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend is easily the best of the lot, because it transcends such obvious categorizing to bring to the reader a fully realized picture of both the man and the actor. Generous, impulsive, much smarter than people gave him credit for, a solid producer and script analyst, indebted to directors John Ford and Howard Hawks for the entire length of his career, and at the same time an architect of the Hollywood Blacklist, along with his longtime pal actor Ward Bond, Wayne deserved a book that would treat him honestly and fairly, highlighting his incredible work ethic and stamina, his loyalty to his friends, and the long, hard road Wayne climbed to stardom.

What’s so remarkable about Eyman’s book is that it isn’t only compulsively readable – a page turner in every sense of the word – but that Eyman manages to be “fair and balanced” in the truest sense of that often-abused phrase, combining a skillful narrative sense with truly prodigious research. It’s all here – the marriages, the divorces, the directors, Wayne’s passion to make a film on The Alamo (1960), which took him decades to get off  the ground, right down to the early “Z” westerns for Lone Star Pictures that Wayne worked his way through after his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930) failed to catch on the with the public.

John Ford, until then Wayne’s champion, cut him dead, leading to Wayne’s upward struggle through several ultra-cheap serials for Mascot Pictures, a group of three-day (!!) westerns for producer Leon Schlesinger at Warner Brothers (made with copious amounts of stock footage), and even some singing cowboy westerns (as “Singin’ Sandy”) before Ford relented, and rescued Wayne from Poverty Row with Stagecoach (1939), the film that made Wayne an “overnight” star. And that was really just the beginning of his career, after a decade of hard work – Wayne never stopped climbing, and it’s clear from Eyman’s book that Wayne had to keep fighting to the end to keep his name before the public.

There’s also a lot of anecdotage in the book – including an amazing tale of Wayne drinking in a Hollywood bar, when an unsteady Humphrey Bogart shows up owing $600 to the management, which Wayne immediately covers, and then notices that Bogart has an apple corer stuck “up to the hilt” in his back, courtesy of Bogart’s then-wife Mayo Methot. Wayne tries to pull it out, but it’s in so deeply that he finally has to plant his foot in the middle of Bogart’s back, and pull the corer out with both hands, and then drive Bogart to the hospital – and thankfully, there’s also some detail, finally, about the role that Marlene Dietrich played in Wayne’s career, both as a lover and a person who put Wayne in touch with the right people to advance his career.

There are lots of facts and figures, as well, which some reviewers have complained about, as making the book a bit too complete, but I don’t think so; here’s a book that has all the budgets, release dates, box office figures, memos, and interoffice correspondence to really get to the heart of Wayne’s life and work. The most striking that about John Wayne: The Life and Legend is that even as he relates the least appealing aspects of Wayne’s life, you never get the feeling that Eyman is sitting in judgement. There’s the good, the bad, and the inexplicable, and Eyman covers it all, with skill and style.

This is Wayne, as he was, in complete and straightforward detail, along with the people he knew, loved, and worked with. While Eyman clearly respects Wayne’s work, he never goes overboard into hagiography, and with what appears to have been complete access to Wayne’s personal archives, creates a fully rounded portrait of John Wayne – or Marion Morrison, if you prefer – perhaps the most iconic star Hollywood has ever produced.

Scott Eyman has written a number of film biographies, including one on John Ford, but this is his finest work.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or, Nothing You Believe is True

Saturday, April 5th, 2014

I have a new review out on this rather remarkable project in Film International; read it here!

As I write, in part, “I’m teaching a class right now in comic book movies, partly to trace the history of the genre from the 1940s on – when they began as Saturday morning serials – and partly to discover, if I could, why these films have moved to the mainstream of cinematic discourse. There’s no question about it anymore; Comic-Con rules the multiplex, and for the most part, I’ve avoided these films like the plague.

I remember sitting through Christopher Nolan’s interminable and interminably boring Inception (2010) impatiently looking at my watch throughout the film; there was nothing in it even remotely original, and plenty that had been “borrowed” from Cocteau, Resnais, and others, and at the center, it really wasn’t about anything.But at least the emptiness of that film was less offensive than the straight out class warfare of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), which Daniel Lindvall effectively eviscerated in the pages of Film International. And yet from the Iron Man films to Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011), emptiness, coupled with over-the-top violence, is all that’s on display.

Here, we have something different. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes on the CIA, hypersurveillance systems, killer drones, and the Snowden affair, and comes down on the side of the average citizen for a change, rather than the ruling elite. The special effects are absolutely non-stop, the violence is ramped up to hyperkinetic levels, with cutting to match, and the performances are all cardboard, but at the center of the film, giving one of his most effective performances in years, is none other than Robert Redford, who’s never done a comic book film before, superbly playing the villain of the piece.”

Read the rest of the review here now; it’s best in 3-D, on a big screen – who says I don’t like some mainstream movies?

Dorothy Arzner Gets A Retrospective

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Dorothy Arzner, left, on the set of her last film, First Comes Courage (1943), with star Merle Oberon.

As John Hopewell reports from Madrid for Variety, “Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979), the first woman member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and still one of – if not the – most prolific of woman helmers in Hollywood –will be honored with a career retrospective at September’s 62nd San Sebastian Festival in Spain. Though not the world’s first woman director – that honor [goes] to France’s Alice Guy – Arzner was the first to carve out a career in Los Angeles during the golden age of Hollywood’s studios, first as an editor, where she is credited with working on 52 movies, including 1922’s Rudolph Valentino-starrer Blood and Sand, on which she also directed second unit shots of its bullfights. Her [directorial] debut, for Paramount, was 1927’s Fashion For Women.

The first woman in Hollywood to direct a sound film, 1928’s Manhattan Cocktail, Arzner is said to have invented the boom mike when, on Clara Bow’s first talkie, box office hit The Wild Party, she had technicians hang a mike onto a fishing rod to give it more mobility. From Party, she shot a string of movies, comedies or melodramas – Anybody’s Woman (1930), Honor Among Lovers (1931), The Bride Wore Red (1937) – which often championed strong femme characters, helped consolidate the early careers of Katharine Hepburn – with whom she quarreled -  and Lucille Ball, and sometimes suggested – think 1933’s Christopher Strong – lesbian sub-texts.

The retrospective will be accompanied by the publication of a book that, it is hoped, will clarify why Arzner’s directorial career abruptly ended with 1943’s First Comes Courage. During the 1960s and 1970s, she taught directing and screenwriting at UCLA, her students including Francis Ford Coppola. In 1975, she was honored with a DGA Tribute, which, in an anecdote collected by IMDB, included a telegram from Katharine Hepburn: ‘Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?’ The text admits multiple readings. The 62nd San Sebastian Festival runs Sept. 17-26.”

The Hepburn telegram really stings; was this dig really necessary? Arzner deserves a box set of her work, and I’d love to read the book that accompanies the festival. Much of Arzner’s work simply isn’t on DVD, though more and more is coming out every day, but I have to wonder – how long is it going to take for Hollywood historians to put Arzner in the rightful place in the directorial pantheon, and how long is it going to take before she does get that box set of DVDs, complete with a history of her work? Not that it was ever easy; as she said of working within the Hollywood system, “when I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.

Ida Lupino – who started directing in 1949 with Not Wanted – also deserves the same treatment; a comprehensive set of her films, properly mastered, so future generations can see the importance of their work.  Hopewell doesn’t mention it above, but in addition to the work he lists, Arzner also directed a stack of television commercials for Pepsi Cola, at the suggestion of Pepsi board member Joan Crawford, who worked with Arzner in the 1930s, and also directed training films for the WACs during World War II.

Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn forced Arzner out of the director’s chair on First Comes Courage, a feminist tale of a Norwegian resistance fighter, Nikki, played by Merle Oberon. When Arzner became ill during filming, rather than waiting for her to recover, Cohn pressed Columbia contract director Charles Vidor into service to finish the film as quickly as possible; when she recovered, Arzner discovered that Columbia no longer required her services. Nevertheless, the film is still a standout, and one can readily see where Arzner left off and Vidor began; the film is entirely hers, and a fitting last project for her career. If only, however, she could have done more.

Dorothy Arzner – another figure who deserves more attention than she gets.

Radio Caroline’s 50th Anniversary

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

Radio Caroline changed the face of pop music.

In the 1950s and 60s, commercial radio and television in Britain were unknown. The BBC — the British Broadcasting Corporation — was the only game in town, a government run enterprise that was commercial free, but much like today’s cable systems, obtained its revenue by requiring anyone who owned a radio or television to pay an annual licensing fee, a practice that continues to this day.

The BBC produced, and continues to produce, excellent television and radio programming, but in the early 1960s, the BBC wasn’t inclined to embrace pop music, and so Radio Caroline, a “pirate” radio station, took up the challenge, and began broadcasting pop music from a ship safely anchored outside the three-mile limit international waters, creating an entirely new style of DJ programming – the “motor mouth DJ” who played as many records as possible during any given hour, sandwiched in between an avalanche of commercials – something that no one in Britain had experienced up until that point.

Teenagers embraced Radio Caroline, which broadcast the latest pop hits from 6AM to 6PM daily, and it isn’t too much to say that it changed the face of radio in Great Britain, much to the BBC’s displeasure. Radio Luxembourg was another “pirate” pop station of the era, broadcasting pop music from that country 24 hours a day, in English, again using manic DJs who played nonstop pop, while also throwing in as many commercials as absolutely possible.

None of this was new to the United States, of course, where radio stations had been commercial from the start, and flagship pop stations of the era, such as WABC (“Radio 77″ – now, sadly, a talk radio station) were instrumental in bringing the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other British pop acts to national prominence in America.

The pop musician Dave Clark once observed that if you wanted your record to be a hit on Radio Caroline or Radio Luxembourg, you’d better make it short, repetitive, and to the point, as you could estimate that only 45 seconds of your song would actually make it on to the air uninterrupted by commercial pitches at the beginning and end of the disc. But it served as an invaluable service for pop musicians, because it was the only way to get their music before the public — which teenagers would then buy as 45 RPM “singles” in record shops.

And thus it was with pop music in the 60s – relentlessly commercial, frantic in delivery, but opening up an entirely new world for listeners, and signalling the emergence of top 40 pop radio as an international format. It all seems very quaint now, but at the time, it was a revolution.

Click here, or on the image above, to see a 1964 newsreel on Radio Caroline from British Pathé News.

24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by Jonathan Crary

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Working more now, and enjoying it less? Perhaps you need more sleep.

Here’s a brilliant new book by cultural theorist Jonathan Crary, who teaches at Columbia University, and is one of the founders of Zone Books, one of the most important publishers of critical theory today. Crary’s thesis is simple: in the world of late capitalism, the one area that the tech-heads and bean counters don’t control is sleep – and it bothers them. You should be awake, consuming things, performing tasks, and not wasting all that time on sleeping and refreshing your mind and body. When you’re awake, you’re useful; when you sleep, you are disconnected, and that will never do.

Opening with an alarming passage on the government’s study of the migratory patterns of the white-crowned sparrow, which is able to stay awake for seven days at a clip during flight, and noting how the military and also civilian researchers are working to see if this can’t be applied to humans, so that they, too, can remain alert and functional for a week at a time – and not content with that, perhaps for as long as fourteen days without sleep – Crary links this colonization of our sleeping hours to an unforgiving regime created by hypercapitalism, which values us only as consumers or producers of materials that can then be sold, and not as individuals – just cogs in the machine.

As the book’s promotional materials note, “24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep explores some of the ruinous consequences of the expanding non-stop processes of twenty-first-century capitalism. The marketplace now operates through every hour of the clock, pushing us into constant activity and eroding forms of community and political expression, damaging the fabric of everyday life.

Crary examines how this interminable non-time blurs any separation between an intensified, ubiquitous consumerism and emerging strategies of control and surveillance. He describes the ongoing management of individual attentiveness and the impairment of perception within the compulsory routines of contemporary technological culture. At the same time, he shows that human sleep, as a restorative withdrawal that is intrinsically incompatible with 24/7 capitalism, points to other more formidable and collective refusals of world-destroying patterns of growth and accumulation.”

This is a brilliant blast of a book, all the more important in a world where social inequity is becoming more and more pronounced. Brief — it’s only 128 pages long – and written in a direct, accessible style, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep is an indispensable study of capitalism run amok, in which people cease to exist, and become bits of information in vast data machines, to be sold, used, and dispensed with at whim.

Buy it; read it; this is perhaps the most important book I have come across thus far in 2014.

Guest Blog: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Věra Chytilová

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Let us celebrate the life and work of Czech New Wave director Věra Chytilová.

Věra Chytilová, a central figure in the radically experimental Czech New Wave who passed away on March 12, 2014 at the age of 85, is best known for her stunning film Daisies (1966). Chytilová called the film “a philosophical documentary in the form of a farce,” which is a good way to phrase it. Daisies is best described as a Brechtian comedy about two young women who loll around naked as they talk directly to the audience about philosophical questions.

A prototypical New Wave feminist film, complete with direct political statements (“everything is spoiled for us in this world”), jarring editing (the narrative sequences of the two women are intercut with stock images of buildings falling apart), and existential ponderings (the women state that “if you are not registered, [there is] no proof that you exist”), Daisies remains a classic of the era, which shocked and surprised audiences around the world when it was first released.

The suppressed violence of Bourgeois culture is suggested through a bizarre orgy sequence, and the wildly experimental visuals are underscored by gunshots on the soundtrack, as the camera pans over the ruins of a city. It is nearly impossible to describe the frantic pace, dazzling beauty, and the revolutionary qualities of Daisies; Chytilová’s avant-garde use of brilliant colors, her rapid fire editing, and her approach to film itself was in many ways more revolutionary than that of Jean-Luc Godard and the other, better known directors of the French New Wave.

Not surprisingly, Daisies was almost immediately banned by the Czech authorities, but not before Chytilová’s film won the Grand Prix at the Bergamo Film Festival in Italy in 1967. Indeed, Daisies was perceived as being so subversive film and controversial that Chytilová was not allowed to make films for several years after the film’s release. But with the recent release of a magnificently restored version of the film from Criterion in DVD and Blu-Ray format, Daisies is now being rightly being hailed as “an aesthetically and politically adventurous film that’s widely considered one of the great works of feminist cinema.”

After a number of years, Chytilová was able to return to film making, which she continued throughout her life, a life that we should mark with celebration. So break out the bubbly and enjoy a screening of Daisies, a film that continues to dazzle audiences and inspire young filmmakers: here are just a few of the sites that are celebrating both the film, and Chytilová’s lifetime of work — see these links to Dazed, The AV Club, ABC News for more on this deeply important and influential artist, as well as this list of online sources on Chytilová’s work from Kinoeye.

If you have not seen Daisies, you are in for a real Dadaist treat; this is bold, adventurous filmmaking that breaks all the rules, an authentic feminist vision which has gathered additional power and resonance with the passing of time, and is now considered one of the key works of the Czech New Wave, and of experimental cinema as a worldwide artistic movement. Chytilová was, simply, a master filmmaker.

Věra Chytilová, an authentic original, and a deeply visionary filmmaker.

About the Author: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is a Professor of Film Studies in the Department of English, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and co-editor of the book series New Perspectives on World Cinema from Anthem Press, London. Her many books include 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011) and the second, revised edition of A Short History of Film (2013), as well as Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture (2005), Identity and Memory: The Films of Chantal Akerman (2003), and Women Filmmakers of the African and Asian Diaspora: Decolonizing the Gaze, Locating Subjectivity (1997). Her book Women Filmmakers: A Bio-Critical Dictionary, which covers the work of hundreds of women filmmakers, is considered a classic in the field of feminist film studies.

The Films of Jim Krell

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

Jim Krell filming, Summer 1974, 3AM; Jeff Travers on sound. Photo: John Vasilik.

One of the most original and iconoclastic personalities of the New American Cinema, Jim Krell created work that is simultaneously so important, and yet so unknown, that the news that his complete works are being now being archived by Anthology Film Archives constitutes a major event, closing a significant gap in experimental film history. When screenings of his work will now appear is anyone’s guess, but the news that Krell’s original 16mm printing materials will now be safely archived is cause for a genuine sigh of relief.

Starting in the early 1970s, Krell created a series of mysterious and rigorous films that defy written description, visionary works that conjure up an entirely different vision of the physical universe. During that time, I had the opportunity to watch him at work on several occasions. What always impressed me (or perhaps “astonished” is a better word) concerning Krell’s shooting methods was the intrinsic speed and seemingly random technique he brought to his work, creating films with offhand precision that both challenged and engaged the viewer.

For one of his films, for example, Krell descended into a storm drain with a spring wound Bolex and a box of railroad flares; while shooting in the darkened tunnel, he threw lighted flares in front of him, illuminating the viaduct with rings of flaming red. For a projected film on the Patty Hearst kidnapping that was never completed, Krell shot two hours of sync-sound film in a single weekend, creating a film that, even in its unfinished state, worked both as a fictive narrative and a deconstruction of the events that led up to the affair.

In Paper Palsy (1972), one of his earliest films, archival footage of an amateur night performance at the Apollo Theater in New York is superimposed over blown up Super 8mm footage of scraped, baked, and chemically treated unexposed film stock, causing huge multi-colored blotches to interrupt the visual terrain of the Apollo Theater material at irregular intervals. The soundtrack is a recording of dolphins mating in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, played in reverse.

For his film Finally A Lamb, completed in 1976, Krell documented a performance piece by the German artist Hermann Nitsch of the Orgies/Mysteries Theater, which took place at Douglass College in the early 1970s, in which a dead sheep’s carcass was disemboweled in front of a stunned audience. For The Shoreline of China (1973), Krell shot two rolls of footage of a young woman walking up and down a beach on the coast of New Jersey at dawn, creating fades and dissolves in the camera during shooting. He then printed the color positive and negative images on top of each other in A and B roll format, with the images flipped so they cross over in the center of the frame, creating a disquieting vision of an alien landscape.

For yet another film, All Area (1978), Krell shot the shadow of a curtain on the floor of his New York loft for 30 minutes with ancient black and white Portapack ½” video equipment, then remastered the material on negative film stock with a professional film chain to achieve astonishing results in contrast, frame sizing, and the arbitrary duration of this reductive image. Soundtracks were composed out of found materials, or created electronically by Krell working with a homemade synthesizer. Running into many hours of finished work, Krell’s films would take several evenings or more to project, and have never received a fraction of the attention and critical commentary they deserve.

Other key titles from Krell’s extensive filmography include Coda/M. C. (1975), Wolverine Kills T. V. (1975), 30 Days: Speed Or Gravity (1976); Action Past Compassion (1976), Four Rolls (Rarely Pre-Dated) (Tribute to Marcel Duchamp) (1976), Fur (But Less Fun) (1976), Shame, Shame: Dallas Diary, 1964 (1977), Thank You/Your Receipt (1977), All Area (1978), (Kozo Okamoto’s Quote) (1979), and Second Thoughts (1980). But there’s a lot more on top of this, and I’m glad to see that his work will finally get the care and recognition it deserves.

Now living in Italy, Krell has long since moved on to other pursuits, but during the white hot period in which he turned out one amazing film after another in a veritable torrent of work, Krell created a singular vision that is all the more impressive because each of his films is entirely different from any other of his works; he never does the same thing twice. So the chance to see, and save, his work, is something that isn’t to be taken lightly; if nothing else, Jim Krell is a genuine original, in every sense of the word.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

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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