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The Most Prolific Director in American Film History

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

This unassuming man made more films during the classical Hollywood era than any other director.

As I wrote about Sam Newfield a number of years ago in Senses of Cinema, “Sam Newfield is, in all probability, the most prolific director in American sound-film history, but very little archival material survives on his career. The director of more than 250 feature films, as well as numerous shorts and television series episodes, in a career that spanned four decades, from 1923 to 1958, Newfield leaves behind him only his work on the set; next to nothing is known of his personal life. However, using conversations with Sigmund Neufeld, Jr., and Stanley Neufeld, the sons of Sam Newfield (born Neufeld)’s brother Sigmund Neufeld (all quotes from them in this essay are from these interviews), as well as materials from the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, I was able to piece together a rough sketch of the man behind such a torrential output of work.

Comedies, musicals, westerns, horror films, jungle pictures, crime dramas, espionage thrillers – Sam Newfield did them all, often on budgets of less than $20,000 per feature, and shooting schedules of as little as three days. But, as Martin Scorsese notes, watching Newfield’s work is hard, because he often seems absolutely detached from the images that appear on the screen, as if he is an observer rather than a participant. Then, too, the conditions of extreme economy that Newfield labored under created a pressure-cooker environment in which the ultimate goal of all his films was simply to get them done on time and under budget. Nevertheless, as arguably the most prolific auteur in American motion-picture history, Newfield deserves mention and brief examination as one of the key ’second-rung’ directors of 1940s Hollywood, Newfield’s most productive era.”

Since then, Neil Roughley has compiled a staggeringly complete filmography; check it out here.

Ardennes Fury

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

Joseph Lawson’s new film, Ardennes Fury, is nearing completion.

Some time ago, I wrote an article in the journal Film International on the Hollywood production house The Asylum, famous for its “tie in” or “mockbuster” movies, as well as frankly commercial fare such as Sharknado. In response, I got a stack of comments from various viewers, but also two from Asylum insiders – one, an anonymous freelancer who worked on numerous Asylum films, describing in the detail the day-to-day process of making a film for the company; and the other from Joseph Lawson, supervisor of special visual effects for The Asylum, with over fifty projects to his credit, with a comment on his forthcoming film, Ardennes Fury. It seems only fair to note that this is yet another “tie in” film from The Asylum, clearly inspired by the new Brad Pitt World War II action film Fury, directed by David Ayer, coming out this October, but still, it seems clear that Lawson is deeply involved in the project.

As Lawson wrote in the comments section, “so, the question was posited, what will happen when The Asylum makes a ‘good’ film, something character driven with a heart and soul? May I humbly offer that folks give Ardennes Fury a look-see when it’s released in October or November. It’s a World War 2 drama and while certainly not perfect there’s a lot of heart and sheer effort that went into making it the best it could be in its short road from creation to release. I’ll be genuinely curious to see what the viewer reaction is and what it portends for future such storytelling from The Asylum. By the way, in the interest of transparency, yes, I directed it; and yes, I’m the VFX supervisor at The Asylum, so I’m probably a tad bit biased.”

Which is perfectly OK; why not publicize your own work? In the meantime, clicking on the image above, or here, will take you to the Facebook page for the film – as much as I dislike Facebook, as readers of this blog know – and I’ve put in a request to interview Lawson once the film is delivered, so we’ll see what happens. A clip from the film should be forthcoming in a few days. Anyway, if you read my original article, you’ll see that while I admire The Asylum’s industry, their product leaves a lot to be desired, but I hope this film is a step forward.

In style, if not plot, the film reminds me of Burt Topper’s Tank Commandos (1959) – another film made with no money, but a lot of heart – so I hope that same sense of urgency plays out here. Topper’s film was a clean, economical and tightly focused war film, and I’m even more impressed that Lawson plans to release Ardennes Fury not only in color, but also in widescreen black and white – clearly the best choice for the project. It would be nice to see The Asylum do something which made money, satisfied genre requirements, and still had some sense of artistic integrity. Even though Ardennes Fury follows in the shadow of a much larger film, this is obviously a personal project for Lawson, and I hope it works.

You can “like” the Ardennes Fury page by clicking here, or on the image above.

A World of Constant Peril: Seriality, Narrative, and Closure

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International on the impact of serials on contemporary cinema.

As I write, in part, “What are we watching now at the movies, or on television or Netflix for that matter? Serials – though now they’re called franchises, or mini-series, or ‘cable dramas,’ but they have the same structure, and the same limitations, the same narrative predictability. What will happen, for example, in the next episode of Game of Thrones? Who will be slaughtered, who will survive, who will make yet another grab for power? What scheme will the fictional Walter White (Bryan Cranston) come up with in the next episode of the recently concluded Breaking Bad? You’ll just have to tune in next week and find out, because all we’re leaving you with this week is an open ended ‘conclusion’ – whatever happens next, we’re not telling. But then again, when the trap is finally sprung, are the results all that surprising? Yet you keep coming back, week after week. You can’t stop watching . . .

And yet, unlike any other structural format in commercial cinema, even the theatrical cartoon, the original iteration of the motion picture serial has vanished from contemporary view. Nevertheless, when one compares both the overall narrative structure of these chapter plays, as well as the elaborate fight scenes, exoticist sets, and – despite what some may say – the absolutely one-dimensional nature of the characters, one can easily see where the films in the current Marvel or DC ‘universe’ came from – starting, of course, with the original Star Wars film in 1977, which was transparently formatted as a serial, replete with opening crawl title receding endlessly into infinity, and even an “episode number,” as if the entire film was just one section of a sprawling epic – which indeed it ultimately was.

Comic-Con, which now dominates the commercial film industry, with, for the most part the empty escapism of such films as James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – the runaway hit of the current summer – doesn’t want to admit it, but the truth of the matter is that these are films for children, as the serials were, and were relegated, in the 1940s and 50s, to Saturday morning entertainment. No one who made them had any illusions about them, and though they contained both the template for most contemporary Hollywood action and superhero films, they were designed to exist at the margins of the theatrical world, as something for adolescents to view before moving on to more demanding fare. Today, that more ‘demanding’ cinema has all but vanished, as comic book cinema moves to the mainstream, and erases nearly everything else.”

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

David Fincher for The Gap

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

David Fincher has just directed a series of four great black and white 30 second ads for The Gap.

Am I big David Fincher fan? No. But these four thirty second spots — shot with Fincher’s usual William Wyler-esque “forty takes” style of doing it over and over again until he gets precisely what he wants, are haunting, understated, and most interestingly for me, all the more compelling because they are in black and white.

I’m writing a book on black and white cinematography right now, and one of my central arguments is that black and white creates a world apart from the “all color” world we inhabit by the simple act of shooting in monochrome. There’s an immediate transformation of reality into something else, something moody and stylized, and that’s really the case here. This is a great use of black and white, and we should have more of it – in theatrical features, please, and not just commercials.

As Todd Wassermann reported in Mashable, “David Fincher, best known for his obsessive and meticulous direction of The Social Network, Zodiac and Fight Club, has helmed the latest round of ads for Gap, which are shot in black and white and strive to be enigmatic. The four ads, which roll out next week, complement a print campaign the retailer launched in mid-August . . . [and] feature Anjelica Huston, Elisabeth Moss and The Wire’s Michael K. Williams, among others.

Seth Farbman, Gap’s global CMO, told Mashable that the tagline was meant to be a ‘gentle provocation, in a way’ and are designed to connected with Millennials who are ‘pushing back on some of the chaos’ in their lives, some of which is driven by technology . . . The Fincher ads were created with that positioning in mind. However, they aren’t anthemic. Instead, they’re a bit cryptic and generate an atmosphere rather than tell a complete story. As Farbman puts it, they sort of jump into the middle of the story, skipping the beginning and leaving out the end.”

You can see all four thirty second spots by clicking here, or on the image above.

Netflix and National Cinemas

Monday, August 25th, 2014

I have a new article in Film International, on the effects of Netflix on national cinemas.

As I write, in part, “People would much rather watch from the comfort and safety of their living rooms than trek out to the theater for anything other than the most immersive spectacle; the clearest evidence of this is the complete collapse of video rental stores, even in such major cities as New York, a metropolis of eight million people, which seemingly can’t sustain more than few revival houses, and only one or two video rental locations, even though they offer the kinds of films you’re not likely to find on Netflix.

Why go out when you can have the images delivered with a touch of a button? Why bother to seek out anything new when there’s seemingly so much product – all of it pretty much the same, even the supposed ‘indies’ – available on demand? You don’t need to do any exploring. We’ll do it for you, and not only that – we’ll put the films in nice little slots like ‘foreign’ or ‘indie,’ thus ensuring a miniscule audience. Along these lines, the Amazon ’suggestion’ feature on their website continues to amaze me, because of its utter lack of discrimination.

If you order one DVD of a French film, suddenly they recommend nothing but French films for you; order one Barbara Stanwyck film, and they think you’re only interested in films in which she stars; order a gothic thriller, and you’re inundated with offers for like material. Erase all of these possible options, and the suggestion engine comes up blank – it can’t figure you out. How come you like so many different kinds of films? Where’s the thread here that they can track? Why won’t you stick to a predictable pattern? And why do you want a DVD anyway, when there are these great films to stream, so easily, at the touch of a button?”

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

Beat Girl (1960)

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

Those looking for compelling early 1960s British cinema could do worse than watching Beat Girl.

Actually, the film exists in two versions; the complete film, originally entitled Wild For Kicks, and the American re-cut, shortened by about thirty minutes, entitled Beat Girl. For once, the re-cut is the better version; the original has a whole lot of unnecessary backstory, and the American version just plows right into the adventures of Gillian Hills (seen in the image above) and her gang.

Ruthlessly exploitational, the film nevertheless boasts a truly amazing array of talent, from The John Barry Seven (yes, that John Barry) performing the title track as well as the incidental music throughout the film, as well as (get ready) Oliver Reed, Nigel Green, Christopher Lee (yes, that Christopher Lee), Adam Faith, Shirley Anne Field, Peter McEnery and numerous others, and was scripted by Eric Ambler’s son, Dail Ambler.

The plot of the film is simplicity in its extreme: Jennifer (Gillian Hills, who later appeared in Blowup and A Clockwork Orange) is bored, bored, bored, and just wants to have fun. With her nightclub pals, she roams the streets of London looking for action, finding it, and regretting it. Christopher Lee is marvelous to watch as the villainous nightclub owner who figures heavily in the film’s narrative, and Oliver Reed, just out of his teens when the film was shot, turns in a fabulous performance as one of her acolytes.

The director, Edmond T. Gréville, was French, and this was one of his last works; Gréville started his career working on Abel Gance’s epic film Napoleon (1927), and in truth, by this time, was in fairly desperate straits. But though the film ultimately falls apart at the seams, in its embrace of youthful rebellion, and the punk ethos long before anyone knew there was such a thing, Beat Girl — the American re-cut only, please — is a nifty slice of hardboiled teen cinema, as the credits above (click on the image to see them) aptly demonstrate.

So check out the main titles, and then the film itself; a real time capsule.

4-D Cinema, or, Return to The Past

Friday, August 1st, 2014

Ethan Gilsdorf has a new piece on 4-D cinema in The Boston Globe, including my thoughts on the subject.

As he writes of a recent trip to the Boston Museum of Science, “kids will surely be charmed by the 8½-minute Dora & Diego’s 4-D Adventure, another of the museum’s 4-D shorts. When Boots the monkey peels his banana, the theater fills both with yellow light and the distinct odor of (artificial) banana. Wind machines and falling snowflakes make a propeller plane ride to the Arctic all the more delightful.

But to my mind, some tricks, like that Shallow Seas tentacular ‘ankle tickler’ (a thin plastic hose under each theater seat that flaps back and forth when activated by a blast of air) or the ‘back poke’ effect (when sea snakes swim on screen, a secret jab from your seat back triggers your ’startle reflex’), seem more at home in a horror film or haunted house ride, not an educational science film.

Others agree. ‘So-called 4-D cinema is just a gimmick,’ said Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. ‘It’s a desperate ploy that has its roots in the 1950s movie theaters trying to get patrons away from their televisions, only now it’s Netflix.’ The sheer novelty, ‘will soon wear off,’ he says. ‘It won’t work.’

Indeed, for decades, directors and theater owners have used various tricks to combat moviegoer apathy. Scent of Mystery (1960) employed ‘Smell-O-Vision’ (pumped-in aromas synchronized to various scenes) and The Tingler (1959) tried ‘Percepto’ (seats that gave patrons mild electric shocks); both were released as television began to dominate leisure time.

Next up, Sensurround, which made theaters shake during films like 1974’s Earthquake. In recent years, Hollywood’s embrace of 3-D has coincided with the proliferation of giant-screen TVs and in-home theaters. Luxury seating, in-seat dining, and films shot at 48 frames-per-second are other ways cinemas are trying to address plummeting box office and make a night at the movies, or a school field trip, a destination event once again.”

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

Why Can’t You Stop Watching Netflix? – CNN

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Netflix wants you as a viewer – and you’re responding – in droves.

As Todd Leopold writes in today’s CNN.com, “the streaming and DVD service [Netflix] knows what you’ve rented and streamed and how long it took you to watch. It knows what genres you like and what performers you prefer. Who knows? It may even have an idea whether you prefer your popcorn lightly salted or slathered with butter. (Don’t want the rest of the world to know? It’s also testing a privacy mode.)

It has taken this knowledge and managed to produce a few hits of its own — not just with audiences, but also within the industry. Netflix is having a moment. Its series, such as House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, recently picked up 31 Emmy nominations. Wall Street approves of the strategy, having bid up Netflix’s share price 10-fold in the last five years.

And the audience? Netflix just announced it has cracked 50 million subscribers, more than double the number it had just four years ago. It has taken some old showbiz lessons — trust the creatives, budget them appropriately — and added some new twists: Binge-watching. Deep data mining. Exploiting the catalog as if there were nowhere else to go.

Can it maintain its dominance? It wasn’t so long ago that the place was posting losses and alienating customers. Pop culture doesn’t sit still, and neither does business. Netflix, which helped drive Blockbuster into oblivion, has to watch challenges from distributors such as Amazon and Hulu — not to mention stay friendly with content providers like movie studios.”

What will happen next? Stay tuned – I contributed a few thoughts to this piece.

 

Approved for All Audiences: A Brief History of the Modern Movie Trailer

Saturday, July 19th, 2014

Gary Susman has an excellent overview of the movie trailer in Yahoo News with my comments.

As he notes, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, movie trailers were just commercials, disposable ads for upcoming films. Then, in 1998, came the trailer for what was then the most eagerly awaited movie in years: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Fans bought tickets to Meet Joe Black just to see the Star Wars clip and walked out before the supposed main attraction started.

In a pre-broadband, pre-YouTube era, fans downloaded the Phantom Menace promo millions of times, poring over it for clues. And an evolution that had begun more than 20 years earlier finally became evident: the modest movie trailer had grown into an attraction in itself, one as worthy of scrutiny and appreciation as the art form it advertised.

Today, the Internet has made available to us a cornucopia of trailers we can watch when we want, as often as we want, for free. In addition to tracking the box office, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter now chart the most popular new trailers as well, with the top clips scoring in the millions of streaming views. (The Fault in Our Stars trailer, at this writing, has drawn more than 25 million viewers, more than twice as many as have bought tickets to the hit movie itself.) And online critics can now give close readings of trailers the way they do for full-length films.

The humble film promo wasn’t necessarily built to withstand such intense scrutiny. But over the past 50 years or so, trailers have matured into bite-size pop-art commodities, worthy of both critical study and mass consumption. (Indeed, it’s easy to watch the online clips the way we eat popcorn, one morsel after another, after another.) Here’s a brief history of how trailers have come into their own.”

You can read the entire piece by clicking here or on the image above; lots of great trailers embedded throughout.

Frame by Frame Videos on Film History, Theory, and Criticism

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Here’s a carousel of more than sixty videos in my Frame by Frame series; click here, or above, to play!

Frame by Frame is a series of short videos I made with Curt Bright on film theory, history, and criticism — each is about 3 minutes long or so. Episodes of Frame by Frame cover The Hollywood Blacklist, Ridley Scott, Commercials in Movie Theaters, Inception, 3-D, Film Critics, War Movies, Film Composers, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Subtitles vs. Dubbing, The Aura, John Ford, Remakes, Special Effects, John Huston, Ridley Scott, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, Alice Guy Blaché, Oscar Micheaux, Horror Movies, Deep Focus, Pan and Scan, Jean-Luc Godard, Camera Movement, Metropolis, Psycho, Movie Trailers, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Minorities in American Film, The King’s Speech, Alfred Hitchcock, The Great Gatsby in 3-D, Digital Cinema, Special Effects, John Huston, Manoel de Oliveira, Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese, Westerns, Nicholas Ray, Busby Berkeley, Claire Denis, Woody Allen, Film Archives, George Cukor, Roger Corman, Billy Wilder, trailers, the Hollywood Ratings System, and many other topics.

Check it out! Useful for your classes; feel free to download as you see fit; use as you wish.

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.

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

  • War Movies
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon at one of the earliestand most enduring film genres, the war movie. […]
  • Frame By Frame - Hollywood Composers
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon highlights the most prolific Hollywood film composers. […]

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/