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New Book: Cinema at The Margins

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

I have a new book out today, Cinema at The Margins, from Anthem Press, London.

More and more, just a few canonical classics, such as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) or Victor Fleming’s Gone With The Wind (1939), are representing the entire output of an era to a new generation that knows little of the past, and is encouraged by popular media to live only in the eternal present. What will happen to the rest of the films that enchanted, informed and transported audiences in the 1930s, 1940s, and even as recently as the 1960s?

For the most part, these films will be forgotten, and their makers with them. In this book, I argue that even obvious historical markers such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) represent shockingly unknown territory for the majority of today’s younger viewers; and yet once exposed to these films, they are enthralled by them. In the 1980s and 1990s, the more adventurous video stores served a vital function as annals of classic cinema. Today, those stores are gone and the days of this kind of browsing are over.

This collection of essays aims to highlight some of the lesser-known films of the past – the titles that are being pushed aside and forgotten in today’s oversaturation of the present. The work is divided into four sections, rehabilitating the films and filmmakers who have created some of the most memorable phantom visions of the past century, but who, for whatever reason, have not successfully made the jump into the contemporary consciousness.

“Few have explored the cinematic margins as thoroughly as Wheeler Winston Dixon, and few match his talent for finding and celebrating the secret glories of overlooked, undervalued films. Gliding from Peter Bogdanovich to Myra Breckinridge by way of Robert Bresson, this is an exciting and ever-surprising collection.” —David Sterritt, Columbia University and Chair, National Society of Film Critics

“The marginalization of important films is a constant threat in the age of the New Hollywood blockbuster, with commercial cinema reduced to a cheap thrill and the audience conceived as adolescents. Dixon’s thoughtful remarks on neglected films testify not only to his own fine sensibility, but to the urgency of the concerns he sets before us.” —Christopher Sharrett, Seton Hall University

You can read more here, or click on the image above; available now from Amazon in all formats.

Light From the Screen: Cinema, Painting and Spectatorship

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Here’s my recent essay on the relationship(s) between cinema and painting for Film International.

As I noted, “Noël Coward once observed that ‘television is for appearing on – not for looking at,’ but as the twenty-first century takes firm hold of our collective consciousness, it seems that everyone has become, in one form or another, a spectator of the events of everyday existence, whether at home or in the cinema. Reality shows and YouTube videos offer the prospect of instant stardom for the ‘lucky’ few whose videos ‘go viral,’ but for every video posted, there are literally millions of viewers who would rather watch than participate in the production of images.

It has become so much easier – and potentially safer – to stay home and let the images come to us, rather than to go out to a public place and view them with a crowd of strangers. Indeed, this is the era of what the theorist Gabriele Pedullà has described as “the spectator’s extreme volatility” (original emphasis). Images are anywhere, and everywhere, and there seems to be no escaping them, even if we wanted to, and weren’t constantly returning to our various digital screens for another visual ‘fix.’ And we aren’t only watching movies and videos; we’re viewing paintings, sculptures, drawings, live video camera feeds; we like to watch, just as Chauncey Gardiner did in Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979). Life was ‘real’ for Chauncey only if it was on television; for us, too, the image has become more real than life itself.

With lightweight portable tablets, smartphones, and other electronic devices proliferating rapidly in our culture, when one looks at images of family gatherings in 2013, one is struck by the fact that everyone is watching something on their own portable image device, and ignoring each other; we’re all watching each other all the time, but on some sort of electronic device, rather than face to face, and we have little time, thus, for any real communication or intimacy. We have been gradually transformed from a culture of human communication into a mediated society in which simulacrum images of the real have replaced human interaction. We’ve been both spectators and participants in the process of image production since the dawn of imagistic representation, but now it seems that more and more, we are content to simply watch anything that’s on, removing ourselves from existence.”

You can read the rest of the article here; my thanks again to Daniel Lindvall, the editor of Film International.

We Like You So Much and Want To Know You Better

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

Dave Eggers’ brilliant new novel The Circle explores the culture of forced consensus and hypersurveillance.

Dave Eggers is a brilliant novelist, and his previous works have certainly captured my imagination, but with his newest book, The Circle, to be published October 8th, he hits a note that particularly resonates in our “everywhere-at-once” culture. The protagonist, Mae, goes to work for a large social networking colossus, and while she is initially impressed by the splendor and grandeur of her corporate surroundings, she soon finds herself being seduced into a culture of continual updates, shared personal information, and an endless chain of “social connections” and roving video cameras that render humanity virtually obsolete.

As with George Orwell’s 1984, which The Circle is often compared to, but also Joseph Heller’s brilliant 1974 novel Something Happened, which has somehow disappeared from the canon of 20th century fiction, and is perhaps the most unsparing exposé of corporate culture the literary world has ever produced, The Circle unsparingly documents the false bonhomie, the lies, the surface “friendliness” that lies at thedark heart of corporate culture, where people are almost instantly disposable unless they go along with the group, as in 1984.

The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy excerpt from the book this past Sunday, and thankfully, it’s online, so I can link to it both here, and on the image above. It’s supposed to be fiction, of course, but it’s all too close to the truth in the way that contemporary corporations treat their employees, as endless extensions of their culture, while denying them a life of their own. The excerpt begins with these words:

“My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven. The campus was vast and rambling, wild with Pacific color, and yet the smallest detail had been carefully considered, shaped by the most eloquent hands. On land that had once been a shipyard, then a drive-in movie theater, then a flea market, then blight, there were now soft green hills and a Calatrava fountain. And a picnic area, with tables arranged in concentric circles. And tennis courts, clay and grass. And a volleyball court, where tiny children from the company’s day care center were running, squealing, weaving like water. Amid all this was a workplace, too, 400 acres of brushed steel and glass on the headquarters of the most influential company in the world. The sky above was spotless and blue.

Mae was making her way through all of this, walking from the parking lot to the main hall, trying to look as if she belonged. The walkway wound around lemon and orange trees, and its quiet red cobblestones were replaced, occasionally, by tiles with imploring messages of inspiration. ‘Dream,’ one said, the word laser-cut into the stone. ‘Participate,’ said another. There were dozens: ‘Find Community.’ ‘Innovate.’ ‘Imagine.’ She just missed stepping on the hand of a young man in a gray jumpsuit; he was installing a new stone that said, ‘Breathe.’

On a sunny Monday in June, Mae stopped in front of the main door, standing below the logo etched into the glass above. Though the company was less than six years old, its name and logo — a circle surrounding a knitted grid, with a small ‘c’ in the center — were already among the best known in the world. There were more than 10,000 employees on this, the main campus, but the Circle had offices all over the globe and was hiring hundreds of gifted young minds every week. It had been voted the world’s most admired company four years running.”

Of course, many of the reviewers thus far have remarked on the implicit irony of reading a book about social networking, and then immediately going on to Twitter or Facebook to “share” the news with others. But since I have no Facebook account, and don’t Tweet, I’ll confine my comments to this blog, which is more than enough. I’m more a fan of history than fiction, but this is fiction that is also the present truth, if only we take a closer look at it.

You can read the rest of the excerpt by clicking here; better yet, buy the book and zoom through the whole thing. It’s a frightening, prophetic page turner, and you literally won’t be able to put The Circle down; it’s essential reading.

Kevin Spacey on The Future of Televison

Sunday, August 25th, 2013

Kevin Spacey has a few words of wisdom on the future of broadcast television and convergence with the web.

Spacey, who gave the keynote James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival on August 23rd, as reported in The Guardian — one of my favorite newspapers — told the audience that “clearly the success of the Netflix model – releasing the entire season of House Of Cards at once – has proved one thing: the audience wants control. They want freedom. If they want to binge – as they’ve been doing on House Of Cards – then we should let them binge. [This] demonstrated that we have learned the lesson that the music industry didn’t learn – give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and they’ll more likely pay for it rather than steal it. If you watch a TV show on your iPad is it no longer a TV show? The device and length are irrelevant. For kids growing up now there’s no difference watching Avatar on an iPad or watching YouTube on a TV and watching Game Of Thrones on their computer. It’s all content. It’s all story.”

You can view video excerpts from the lecture here — about five minutes, condensed — and Spacey makes some very good points.

‘In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema’ by Gabriele Pedullà

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

I have a review of Gabriele Pedullà’s book In Broad Daylight in the new issue of Film International.

As I write, “This slight but explosive volume, published in an English translation by Verso in 2012, has been kicking around on my work desk for about a year. I wrote a rather negative review of it for Choice, the library journal, and while I don’t want to recant anything I said there, I nevertheless find the book sticking with me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I don’t agree with most of what Pedullà has to say, as I’ll detail, but he puts up a good fight.

Pedullà, a professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of Rome 3 and visiting professor at Stanford, is first and foremost a polemicist – he’s the guy who throws verbal bombs into the mix, and phrases statements of opinion as if they were fact. But for all of that, there is really very little that’s controversial here. Pedullà’s main thesis is inarguably correct, at least from my perspective; the era of dominance for the theatrical exhibition of motion pictures is finished. Or as he puts it on the opening page of his book,

‘The age of cinema, it is commonly claimed, is now drawing to a close. Day after day signs of a profound change in our relationship with moving images proliferate. The winnowing of box-office receipts, the shrinking size of the audience, the decreasing time lag between a film’s theatrical release and it commercialization on video, television’s growing cultural prestige: these indications, at once social, economic and aesthetic – only make the prophecy all the more credible. If cinema for decades represented the standard and even optimal filmic experience, the touchstone for all other forms of viewing, this formerly undisputed and indisputable centrality is today contested at its very core.’

All true, and yet, as I thought then, and still do now, Pedullà protests too much. The impact of web here is barely even mentioned, and as for ‘television’s growing cultural prestige,’ I have serious doubt about that. For Pedullà, the idea that viewing a film in a theater is the optimal way to see a film is an object of ridicule; summoning up derisively the words of Chris Marker as a member of the ‘old guard,’ Pedullà quotes Marker as noting that ‘on television, you can see the shadow of a film, the trace of a film, the nostalgia, the echo of a film, but never the film,’ and then takes Jean Eustache to task for the similar statement that ‘you can discover a film only at the movie theater.’

To these statements, which to my mind have more than a grain of truth to them, Pedullà’s disdain notwithstanding, I would add the words of the late director Roy Ward Baker, a friend of mine, who directed the only really first-rate film on the Titanic disaster (A Night To Remember, 1958). During an afternoon’s discussion in 1994 at his home in London, Baker told me that he’d been shocked by the impact of viewing a recent theatrical screening of A Night To Remember at a retrospective of his work at Britain’s National Film Theatre.

As Baker told me, ‘I felt like I was seeing it for the first time, you know? Like it was real again. I’d grown so used to seeing it on television, I’d forgotten what it was really like.’ Then, he leaned forward and said two sentences that I have never forgotten since; at least for me, they cut to the center of this entire argument. ‘You see’ Baker said, ‘on television, or on a DVD, you can inspect a film. But you can’t experience it.’ That comment hit me like a bolt of lightning; true, direct, and utterly incisive.”

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

Pics or It Didn’t Happen – The Primacy of the Visual

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013

Here’s a fascinating article on the rising dominance of totally visual culture by CNN’s Todd Leopold.

As Leopold notes, “the blur of communications has progressed from letters and e-mails to texts, tweets and Instagram pictures. Long, detailed speeches have turned into clips, then sound bites, then Vines, Snapchat and animated GIFs. Yes, we’re adjusting to an image-intensive, brevity-favoring world, a world as close and available as our smartphone. It’s a fast-growing, hugely popular world that rewards short attention spans.

Instagram was born in 2010; as of June, it has 130 million monthly active users and 45 million photos posted per day. Vine, the six-second video app introduced by the Twitter folks in January, became the iTunes app store’s most popular free download within three months. It had 13 million users as of June, and its most active users post more than 14 Vines per day. Not to be outdone, Instagram launched its own short-video feature in June.

Users of Snapchat, a messaging platform popular with teens, exchange 200 million pictures a day. President Obama’s campaign used a Twitter photo to express thanks after his 2012 re-election; it became the most popular tweet in Twitter’s history. Danny DeVito sends out photo- bombing pictures of his ‘troll foot’ at every opportunity. Creative types have used Vine and Instagram to create memes, jokes and art. All this gives new meaning to the Internet rule, ‘Pics or it didn’t happen.’”

My thanks to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for sharing this with me; fascinating reading.

Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access on “Inquiry” with Mark Lynch

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

I just did an interview with host Mark Lynch on the radio program Inquiry, from NPR affiliate WICN in Worcester, MA, on my new book, Streaming.

As it says on the website for the podcast of the show, “Tonight on Inquiry we welcome back Wheeler Winston Dixon. He is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies and professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His new book is Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access. Professor Dixon declares that we are now in the “postfilmic era”, a time when movie film will no longer exist and all movies will be shot digitally. DVDs will also cease to exist as all films will be “streamed” and movie houses, those that are still extant, will only show digital copies of movies. But what are the implications of all of this for the art of film, the preservation of old films and how we watch movies? The answers are disheartening and  a little bit frightening. Tune in and find out why.”

And you can tune in by clicking here, or on the image above.

Inside The Asylum: The Outlaw Studio That Changed Hollywood

Friday, July 26th, 2013

I have a new article on The Asylum Studio in Los Angeles in the latest issue of Film International.

As I write, “Some people get into the movie business because they have a passion for film. Some have dreams of creating the ‘great American movie,’ or rising to the top of the Hollywood Dream Factory. But as mainstream films become ever more expensive, routinely costing $100,000,000 or more simply to produce, and then under-performing at the box office – Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger are two prime examples – it seems that the old system of making movies is broken.

The risks are simply too great – a few bad bets can sink a studio. Low budget films like The Purge and The Conjuring, both made for a pittance, rule the multiplexes. Spectacle and special effects just don’t bring in audiences anymore; people want something new, and outrageous, for their entertainment dollar. And a relatively new studio in Hollywood, The Asylum, is dedicated to doing just that; giving the viewer something the majors won’t. Something like Sharknado (2013).

The Asylum is following in a long line of low budget Hollywood production companies. Independent film studios, like American International Pictures in the 1950s and 60s, and Roger Corman’s New World Pictures and Concorde/New Horizons in the 1970s and 80s, offered viewers something the mainstream studios couldn’t; films aimed directly at their target audience – outlaw movies that made up their own rules as they went along.”

You can read the rest of the article on this fascinating studio here, or by clicking on the image above.

Sharknado / The Asylum Studio

Saturday, July 13th, 2013

Everyone is talking about Sharknado, which is both preposterous and quite entertaining.

Most of the chatter on this film centers on the sheer implausibility of its premise, and that’s certainly a factor here. But it seems to me that in the end, Sharknado is no better or worse than 2012, War of the Worlds, White House Down, Olympus Has Fallen, Paranormal Activity, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or any number of big budget multiplex movies that have been flooding theaters in recent years. The studio behind this cheerfully insane project, aptly named The Asylum, has been cranking out “mockbusters” (or cheap copies of major studio films) for quite some time — most recently Asylum released Atlantic Rim as a response to Pacific Rim, and in the past has created such films as Snakes on a Train (yes, Train), The Day The Earth Stopped (or Stood Still), and numerous other unorthodox projects.

But for films that are made for a pittance — anywhere from $500,000 to $1,000,000 all in, and then released either through the SyFy Channel, or as On Demand streaming video, or even on DVDs and Blu-Rays, The Asylum’s projects are the essence of action movies; fast moving, shamelessly designed to appeal to audiences, utterly poker-faced no matter how outrageous the concept, and most of all economical – they move along at a rapid clip, and thanks to the legions of interns working for little or no money, have surprisingly high production values. Add a few stars on the way down, some recognizable faces from the soaps or reality shows, and a whole lot of CGI effects, and you have the Asylum formula.

In the end, it seems to me that Sharknado is altogether a better dumb genre action movie than many films currently in release – think of The Lone Ranger, for example – and that film cost $225,000,000 (!!) just to shoot, before promotion and DCP print costs. It’s staggering to think that a film can still be made these days for as little as $500,000, and at that price, The Asylum could make a stunning 450 full-length features – amazing when you think about it even for a moment. There’s so much wastage in Hollywood now, in both above and below the line costs — critics and the majors deride The Asylum’s films, but they’re the essence of crowd-engineered responsive genre filmmaking.

All in all, The Asylum’s films are often better, I think, than their big-screen genre counterparts.

Streaming Directly from the Cloud to Your Brain

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

I have a new interview in Moving Image Archive News on my recent book, Streaming.

As I note in the interview, “I’ve watched film change and morph for more than half a century. As I grew up, everything was being shown in theaters in 35mm, and at colleges, universities and libraries in 16mm, and there was, of course, no such thing as home video, VHS or DVD. Films screened on television were really ’streaming’ – they were broadcast at a certain date and time, and you had to be present at that time to see them.

I remember vividly setting my alarm clock for 1 a.m. or later to see films on WCBS TV’s The Late Show, and then The Late, Late Show, and even The Late, Late, Late Show, which is how I saw most of the classics growing up. I would also haunt revival theaters in New York City, such as the Thalia and the New Yorker, to see the classics projected in their proper format.

Video, of course, has been around since the early 1950s, but I don’t think anyone, even professional archivists, ever thought it would completely replace film, but it has. 16mm is completely defunct as a production medium, except in the case of Super 16mm which is used sometimes in features (such as The Hurt Locker) to save costs, but then blown up to 35mm, or now, skipping that step entirely and moving straight to a DCP.

Film is finished. It’s simply a fact. 35mm and 16mm projection are now a completely rarity, and screenings on actual film are becoming ‘events,’ rather than the norm. This is simply a platform shift, and it comes with various problems, mainly archiving the digital image, which is much more unstable than film.

But with the image quality of RED cameras for production, and digital projection taking over, it’s an inescapable fact that shooting on film is now the moving image equivalent of stone lithography. So now, my own viewing habits have moved to DVD and Blu-Ray, and I have a ridiculously large collection of DVDs in my home library, some 10,000 or more.

I have to have them in this format, because I can’t count on the quality of streaming videos from Netflix, Amazon, or other online sources. Blu-Ray, in particular, yields a truly remarkable image. So that’s how I watch films now, and in any event, the revival houses, even in major cities, are all now pretty much a thing of the past.”

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

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of 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/