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‘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.

Cinespect

Monday, August 5th, 2013

Here’s a great web journal on the film scene in New York City, and it’s completely free to all.

As the journal’s website notes, “Cinespect is a leading media source on the New York City cinema experience and beyond. Founded in 2010, Cinespect is dedicated to offering readers the most robust and well-rounded content, including reviews of new releases and repertory programming, articles about film-related events in the city, interviews with industry professionals, op-eds, film festival coverage, and in-depth features.”

The current issue features articles on new DVD and Blu-ray releases; what’s happening at Film Forum, one of the last and most respected repertory cinema theaters in the United States, and one of the only theaters left that still has 35mm projection capability, regularly screening new 35mm prints of the classics in their original format; as well as reviews, festival coverage from around the world, interviews with emerging and established filmmakers and critics, and a host of other material.

Contributors include Genevieve Amaral, Joel Neville Anderson, Rachel Chu, Matt Cohen, Brian Doan, Will Dodson, Judith Dry, David Fitzgerald, Christopher Garland, Daniel Guzmán, Daniel Kavanagh, Sheila Kogan, Mónica López-González, John Oursler, Claire E. Peters, Nathan Rogers-Hancock, Jennifer Simmons, Ed Vallance, Stuart Weinstock, Marshall Yarbrough and a wide range of additional writers, each with their own distinctive voice and point of view, allowing for the widest possible range of discourse.

One of the most interesting critics working for Cinespect right now is Will Dodson, whose work on the site can be found by clicking here; right now he seems most interested in Japanese cinema both high and low, no pun intended. Subscriptions are free, and you can sign for the newsletter on the home page, which can be accessed by clicking the image above; check it out – this is some sharp and invigorating writing from a host of new voices, and absolutely worth your time and attention if you care at all about the past, present and future of the cinema.

Cinespect; check it out, and subscribe now!

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.

The $50 Movie Ticket?

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

World War Z is offering a $50 Mega Ticket in some theatres, to see if it works. I hope not.

As Hillary Busis noted in PopWatch on June 14th, under the tags “boatloads of money, head scratcher, to care or not to care” among other designations, “Paramount and Regal Entertainment have partnered for what they’re calling the ‘ultimate fan event’ — a World War Z package offered at just five theaters nationwide, including screens in Orange County, Houston, San Diego, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. Its price tag? A hefty $50.

To be fair, those who purchase these ‘mega tickets’ will get more than just a pass to see Brad Pitt fight zombies. The bundle includes a ticket to see World War Z in RealD 3-D two days before its official release, a pair of custom RealD 3D glasses, a small popcorn, a limited-edition movie poster, and an HD digital copy of the film once it’s released for home viewing.

Knowing this, let’s break down the mega ticket’s cost.  An adult evening ticket for a movie comparable to World War ZMan of Steel — in RealD 3D at the five theaters listed as mega ticket partners costs $16.30 on average before tax, according to prices listed online. A small popcorn at a theater was $4.75 on average in 2009, and that number has certainly gone up in the past four years; let’s estimate it conservatively at $5. An HD digital download of a newly-released film — Oz the Great and Powerful, for example — costs $19.99 on iTunes and $14.99 on Amazon, so let’s average them to get $17.49

Add those together, and you get $38.79 (plus tax) — meaning that Paramount and Regal are charging around a $11.21 premium for a poster, the custom glasses, and the privilege of seeing the movie in advance.
Is that fair? Considering that $50 can buy you eight $6 beers at a reasonably-priced bar, or six months (plus one week) of unlimited streaming titles on Netflix, or 50 McDoubles at McDonald’s, it doesn’t really seem to be.”

I agree; I can’t imagine paying this, and I’ll add one other fact to Ms. Busis’s summary; today I went to see The Purge at the 12:20PM show in a theater that seated more than 500 people, and I was the only one – the absolute only person – in the theater, and that cost me $6.75 for a 2-D matinee. If you can’t fill theaters at $6.75 a pop in summer with The Purge, a film that’s already demonstrated that it’s a solid hit, how on earth are you going to get away with charging $50 for a souped up ticket for World War Z?

Not going to happen, no matter what Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lucas say.

Roger Corman’s You Tube Channel

Saturday, June 8th, 2013

Legendary producer/director Roger Corman is launching a pay YouTube channel on June 13th; click here, or on the image above, to listen to Corman introduce the new venture.

Always a few steps ahead of the game when it comes to distribution and exploitation of his product, Roger Corman has cut a deal with YouTube to stream his library of more than 400 films on his own YouTube channel, films that he either produced or directed, with the initial emphasis on the more “mainstream” fare, but who knows what will happen as the channel evolves?

Let’s not forget that when no one else would strike a deal with Ingmar Bergman for the American rights to his masterpiece Cries and Whispers, Corman stepped in with a telephone offer to distribute the film in the US based solely on two conditions; one, that it be a “representative Bergman film,” and two, that it was shot in color. This was no problem for Bergman, who readily agreed, and the film went on to become Bergman’s biggest American hit, which Corman booked in not only legitimate theaters, so to speak, but also in drive-ins.

Roger Corman has inspired dozens of filmmakers, actors, writers, and marches very much to his own drum; he was finally recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a special Academy Award© for his lifetime contribution to the cinema. Corman has directed and produced, or served as the co-producer or distributor, for a lot of excellent films, and he’s constantly, even in his 80s, reinventing himself to keep up with the times.

Streaming is the way to go these days, and Roger is one of the first to jump on the bandwagon with a pay channel in this area; judging by the enthusiastic comments from his many fans, the channel should be a solid hit, and hopefully he’ll run some of the more interesting arthouse films he championed in the 1970s and 80s along with the solidly commercial work; this could be a very interesting undertaking.

Click here for a more detailed article on Corman’s Drive In Theater.

Film Convert – People Still Want The Film “Look”

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

Despite the “breakneck shift” to digital cinema, it seems people still want the film “look.”

So here’s a fascinating video tutorial — which loads immediately when you click the image above — on some new software that takes the rather hard looking digital images put out by conventional HD cameras and softens then up into something approximating what film looks like, with artificial grain, color balance, and other artifacts of the filmic image. It’s all an illusion, of course; this is still HD. But it’s interesting to me that the more people use digital, the more they seem to long for the “look” of film, and the warmth, depth, and tactile feel that film brings to the image being captured.

As tech writer Joe Marine notes on the No Film School website, “we’ve said a lot about the digital versus film debate, and a lot of people have a lot of different opinions. Film still had a technological advantage over digital until really the last few years or so, and now we have digital sensors which can match or exceed film stocks with dynamic range. Either way, with digital sensors being ‘too clean’ for some people who have loved the look of film, there is a program called FilmConvert that takes the color information of specific cameras and actually uses that to determine how a specific film stock could best be represented using that sensor.”

So, click here, or the image above, and see for yourself how it works.

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/