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Godfathers of Comic Book Films

Friday, November 27th, 2015

Before the Marvel and DC Universe, these were the pioneers who created the comic book film.

In this one astonishing shot, taken at a nostalgia convention in 1973, some of the greatest action directors of all time stand with cast members, a cinematographer, and stunt men who helped to create such classic serials as Spy Smasher, Captain America, Superman, Batman and many others – in their original versions as Saturday morning serials in the 1940s and 50s – working for most part for Republic Pictures, the studio that created the modern action film.

From left to right, director William Witney, who helmed numerous serials with his friend and colleague John English, in addition to directing a stack of classic Westerns – and incidentally, he’s Quentin Tarantino’s favorite director; Billy Benedict, a reliable sidekick in numerous action films of the era; Spencer Gordon Bennet, dean of serial directors, with hundreds of films to his credit; and Bud Thackery, sporting a goatee, an ace action cinematographer who later finished up his career at Universal in the 1960s.

Continuing on, stuntman George DeNormand stands in the back; Frank Coghlan Jr., who played the role of Billy Batson, Captain Marvel’s alter-ego in the serial of that name; Kirk Alyn, the original Superman in two serials, both directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; legendary stuntman “Crazy Duke” Green, whose specialty was running up walls and then launching himself into space during a fight scene; the equally capable stuntman and actor Tom Steele; and stuntman Davey Sharp, whose credits as a stunt double number into the thousands.

Just watching these amazing professionals at work, knocking out three and four hour serials in 30 days on budgets in the $200,000 range, or lower, is an amazing sight – a look into the past of motion pictures, before CGI and motion capture replaced feats of genuine athleticism and skill. None of these people thought twice about working twelve hour days, or longer, six days a week, for decades at a clip, to deliver the thrills that entranced audiences in the middle part of the 20th century.

Let’s not forget them now – they created the comic book film.

Andy Warhol on Relationships and Expectations

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

Andy Warhol – as usual – had some perceptive things to say about what we want, and what we get in life.

“At the times in my life when I was feeling the most gregarious and looking for bosom friendships, I couldn’t find any takers so that exactly when I was alone was when I felt the most like not being alone. The moment I decided I’d rather be alone and not have anyone telling me their problems, everybody I’d never even seen before in my life started running after me to tell me things I’d just decided I didn’t think it was a good idea to hear about. As soon as I became a loner in my own mind, that’s when I got what you might call a ‘following.’ As soon as you stop wanting something you get it. I’ve found that to be absolutely axiomatic.”

Word of wisdom from someone whom most people still dismiss.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

Relentlessly grim and doggedly procedural, the last film in this franchise is easily the best of the lot.

Unlike the other films in The Hunger Games series, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 – despite its clumsy title – is the most efficient and involving film of the series, for the simple reason that it’s the most direct and linear; there’s no “hunger games” in the film, but rather Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence) death march with a group of fellow freedom fighters to the Capitol of Panem to kill the despotic President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and that’s about it.

Shot in CinemaScope mostly with a mostly handheld camera, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 is dominated by the grim visage of Lawrence’s character, who is usually seen in tight close-up, and is hardly off the screen for a moment. The other characters in the series make brief cameos, but they’re really peripheral to the main thrust of the film; will Katniss make it to the Capitol and kill Snow, or not? Of course she will.

This is, of course, predestined, just as Julianne Moore’s turn as President Alma Coin – who from the first plans to take over as dictator of Panem once Snow has been dispatched – along with Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, and other players in the game seem to be merely distractions, trotted on and off merely to satisfy followers of the franchise as a whole.

The saddest part of the film is the ghostly presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died during production with one week left to go. Director Francis Lawrence wisely decided not to recreate Hoffman digitally to finish out the film, giving Hoffman’s closing speech to Harrelson in the form of a letter, which Harrelson reads to Katniss, in a penultimate scene so obvious that it’s painful.

But comparisons to The Battle of Algiers and Kanał – I know, I know, but it’s true – are not far off the mark in this aggressively Dystopian film, in which one dictatorship inevitably gives way to another, and everyone is being played for a sucker by some higher power on the political food chain.

Most of all, the film belongs to Jennifer Lawrence – no longer “the girl on fire,” but rather a battle weary Joan of Arc leading her followers on to victory – who steps up and dominates the entire proceedings with an air of solemn gravity, making this the most brutal, and in a curious sense, realistic film of the series.

As Todd VanDerWerff notes in his review of the film in the web journal Vox, “the point of all of this is simple: War is a machine that grinds ever onward, and it steamrolls its participants. It’s repackaged as entertainment for an unsuspecting populace, lest they get too bored by it, but those who took part in it have to live with the scars forever.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the face of Katniss Everdeen, who spends almost the entire first half of the movie in a state of shell-shocked horror, wandering from one encounter to the next, after a former trusted compatriot tried to kill her. It’s like she’s been hollowed out and propped up, transformed into a symbol more than a person.”

There are many things wrong with the film, of course, but overall, the impact of the work is undeniable; The Hunger Games franchise speaks to those in their teens and 20s because it accurately depicts a world in which nothing is fair, the rich have everything and the poor have nothing, and even revolution seems doomed from the start. The stark message of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 is that nothing can be counted on, and the daily struggle to survive is all that awaits.

Worth a look, by any measure – a thoughtful, and well executed mainstream film.

Interview on Sirius XM – “The Enduring Appeal of James Bond”

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

James Bond seems immortal, despite all the changes he’s gone through over the years.

On November 12, 2015, I participated in a discussion on Sirius XM on the James Bond franchise. As the site for the program notes, “the latest James Bond blockbuster, Spectre, opened last weekend, and while its flavor may be a little bit different from previous outings, it’s still firmly in the 007 oeuvre, filled with amazing stunts, twisty plots, improbable villainy and of course, its magnetically attractive yet coldly distant hero.

Since the first film was made featuring Ian Fleming’s signature secret agent back in the 1960s — Dr. No, starring Sean Connery and filmed for a mere million bucks — the Bond movies have grown steadily more successful and deeply embedded in the culture, evolving with each sequel to fit the moment.

But in the modern era of film and society, do we even need 007 anymore? What’s next for the super spy, and what does his ever-growing popularity signify? The Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 recently interviewed Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska, and Christoph Lindner, a professor of media and culture at the University of Amsterdam who has edited a couple of books about the James Bond phenomenon, to discuss those ideas — and to answer that nagging question: Who is the best Bond?”

You can read the transcript, or listen to the podcast, by clicking here, or on the image above.

Epictetus on Popular Entertainment

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015

Epictetus is more relevant today than ever – especially when it comes to pop culture.

As Wikipedia notes, “Epictetus was a Greek speaking Stoic philosopher. He was born a slave at Hierapolis, Phrygia (present day Pamukkale, Turkey), and lived in Rome until his banishment, when he went to Nicopolis in north-western Greece for the rest of his life. His teachings were written down and published by his pupil Arrian in his Discourses.

Epictetus taught that philosophy is a way of life and not just a theoretical discipline. To Epictetus, all external events are determined by fate, and are thus beyond our control; we should accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately. However, individuals are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline.”

Here is what Epictetus had to say about the popular culture of his day: “Most of what passes for legitimate entertainment is inferior or foolish and only caters to or exploits people’s weaknesses. Avoid being one of the mob who indulges in such pastimes. Your life is too short and you have important things to do.

Be discriminating about what images and ideas you permit into your mind. If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will, and their motives may not be the highest. It is the easiest thing in the world to slide imperceptibly into vulgarity. But there’s no need for that to happen if you determine not to waste your time and attention on mindless pap.”

Words to ponder when headed to the nearest multiplex.

The Spectre of James Bond

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

Spectre is the latest and least in the long-running James Bond series.

Call it exhaustion, call it the end of Empire, call it playing to diminishing returns, put it down to indifference and fatigue – call it whatever you wish. Spectre, the latest of the James Bond films, which has opened to solid but not spectacular grosses, is 2 1/2 hours of almost unrelieved boredom, all dressed up in production values that put the film into the $200 to $300 million production range. It’s a spectacle, all right, but one that is so jam packed with promotional tie-ins and self-referential nods to the series’ past that it ultimately has no identity of its own.

Daniel Craig, who has famously suggested that he is tired of the entire franchise, walks through the film as if he has absolutely no interest in the proceedings, and only Ralph Fiennes as the new “M” – replacing the departed Dame Judy Dench – offers any sense of gravitas at all. Christoph Walz similarly drifts through his role as the latest incarnation of Ernst Blofeld as if the part were an obligation, rather than an opportunity – but then, given the tediousness of the dialogue, there really isn’t much he can do with the role.

All the set pieces are here – Bond once again designated as a “rogue agent” and left in the field to fend for himself; Léa Seydoux as the latest in a long procession of “Bond girls” – and shouldn’t that be retired?; “Q” played by Ben Whishaw as a techno nerd with the usual plethora of gimmicks up his sleeve; the requisite scene in which Bond is tortured by Blofeld but miraculously escapes in the nick of time; Monica Bellucci in for about three minutes as another love interest, soon abandoned by the narrative; Bond’s ubiquitous Aston Martin; and, of course, the opening crane / tracking shot in Mexico City, a spectacular piece of camerawork ending in an enormous explosion, which is technically impressive, but really has no need to be there.

Most of all, though, there is the film’s crushing length – about forty minutes too long at least – and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s dark, brooding cinematography, which masks Walz’s Blofeld in deep shadows until the last third of the film, making him almost a peripheral character, while giving the entire film an unmistakably fatalist air of a franchise which has run out of gas.

Daniel Craig, here credited as a co-producer of the film, still has one film to go on his contract, and despite his protestations that he doesn’t want to continue in the role, he no doubt will. Apparently, the producers wanted him to film the next Bond entry back-to-back with this one, and Craig refused, but maybe he should have gotten it over with; the Bond role is a career straitjacket that none of the series’ leading men have ever really escaped.

Missing here is any sense of urgency or imagination – the script and story, devised by no less than seven screenwriters, hits all the bases with a tired sense of duty – but the speed, energy and verve of series entries such as Dr. No, Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and other top notch Bond films is entirely missing here. Sam Mendes’ slack direction is partly to blame, but the whole film is overstuffed, lacking in focus, more interested in scenery than scenes, and watching it quickly becomes a chore rather than a pleasure.

At the screening I attended on a Sunday morning, the theater was populated by only a few patrons, all of whom made frequent trips to the lobby to replenish their giant tubs of popcorn, when they weren’t otherwise occupied texting mini-reviews on their cellphones in the darkness. No one seemed very interested in what was happening on the screen, and when the film was over, we all filed out without comment. It’s sad – casting someone like Archie Punjabi or Idris Elba as Bond would be a really smart move at this point, and give the series new energy – but it’s doubtful that anything like that will happen.

But the Bond films – a lucrative enterprise for all concerned – need a reboot if they are to continue.

Dennis Coleman’s Hollywood Interview Tips

Monday, November 9th, 2015

Dennis Coleman, Ernest Borgnine and Leonard Maltin in Hollywood.

I’ve known Dennis Coleman for a long time, and for many years now, he’s been working in Hollywood doing celebrity interviews for such shows as Entertainment Tonight, Lifetstyles of the Rich and Famous, and numerous other show business programs.

As Richard Botto notes on his Stage 32 blog, ”Dennis is a writer, producer and director with decades of experience in broadcast television and feature films. Having conducted over 10,000 celebrity interviews in his career, I think it’s safe to say that Dennis knows a thing or two about the interview process. Whether you’re conducting an interview for a documentary, research, a host or for other film related endeavors, you won’t find better tips than those below.”

That said, here’s a brief sample of Dennis’ advice:


Find out everything you can about the person you’re going to interview. Not just their IMDB bio or their Wikipedia entry: everything. Find print interviews with them, look at video interviews with them on Youtube. See what they respond to – and what questions they hate.

What did they study in school? What kinds of jobs did they have early in their career? What do their brothers and sisters do? What do their mothers and fathers do? Any or all of this could come up in the interview and you have to be prepared to follow up.


I work primarily in entertainment news. So I read all the sites:,, I also keep up on the gossip sites: and You have to know what’s going on at all times. Because you may suddenly be in a situation where you need to know the latest breaking news.

A few weeks ago I was sent at the last minute to follow Donald Trump around Iowa. No time to read anything. But since I watch the news and I’m a political junkie, I knew all the latest information, all the latest speeches, all the latest trivia. So I could ask intelligent questions when I had to yell them out at a press conference with Mr. Trump.


You don’t want to be reading from a list of questions – ever. That’s unprofessional. Memorize your questions as best you can. There’s no problem in glancing at your notes towards the end of the interview to see if you’ve forgotten anything, but you can’t be staring at them throughout the interview.

Try to figure out an order for the questions that would work best in drawing out your subject – and then be prepared when it doesn’t work out that way. If you’ve memorized your questions, then that’s no problem.


You should be talking to your interview subject as you talk to your best friend. Keep eye contact, make it a conversation, not an interrogation. That’s another reason to memorize your questions. You need to get your subject at ease, make them feel comfortable – and the best way to do that is to look at them and talk with them, not at them.”

And that’s just a brief sample; you can read the whole article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s “Disruptive Feminisms” – Sneak Preview

Friday, November 6th, 2015

Click here, or on the image above, for a sneak preview of Disruptive Feminisms.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s new book, Disruptive Feminisms: Raced, Gendered, and Classed Bodies in Film, from Palgrave Macmillan, is a really groundbreaking book in every respect. As the publisher’s comments on the book note, “Amy Schumer and Betty White use subversive feminist wit to expose sexism and ageism in film and TV. This is but one example of ‘disruptive feminism’ discussed in this groundbreaking book. Disruptive Feminisms: Raced, Gendered, and Classed Bodies offers a revolutionary approach to feminism as a disruptive force.

By examining texts that do not necessarily announce themselves as ‘feminist,’ or ‘Marxist,’ Foster brings a unique critical perspective to a wide variety of films, from the classical Hollywood films of Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino, to the subversive global films of Carlos Reygadas, Claire Denis, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Buñuel, Paul Thomas Anderson, and many others. In highlighting these filmmaker’s abilities to openly challenge everything from class privilege and colonial racism, to sexism, ageism, homophobia and the pathologies of white privilege, Disruptive Feminisms fills a fresh and much-needed critical perspective, that which Foster dubs disruptive feminism’.”

As Foster herself writes of the book, “In my research, I’ve found that ‘disruptive feminism’ often lurks in unlikely and unexpected places – from the dry feminist humor of Amy Schumer, Betty White, Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, and Luis Buñuel, to the more serious and contemplative postcolonial films of Carlos Reygadas and Claire Denis. Filmmakers who are not so obviously read as ‘feminist’ or ‘marxist’ seem to find their way onto my radar. My scope is wide; I include work from classical Hollywood, early television, and global filmmakers. I  highlight the ways that film and media can disrupt, challenge, and potentially overturn ‘norms’ of race, gender, age, sexuality, and class. Indeed, I hope this book disrupts feminism itself, because it can always use some shaking up.”

Here are some advance reviews.

“I think the book is superior in many ways, just simply a jewel. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s peculiar and enchanting magic is to blend keen socio-critical attention with an unyielding poetic sensitivity to the world of hints, provocations, resonances, and allusions. Through the films examined here, and through Foster’s eyes, gender, class, and race fly beyond rhetoric and come alive.” – Murray Pomerance, Ryerson University, author of The Eyes Have It: Cinema and The Reality Effect

“This book passionately advocates a cinema that challenges injustice and oppression across the globe by disrupting ‘normative values’ and ‘received notions’ of race and class as well as gender. Not least of the book’s strengths is its illumination of culturally and aesthetically diverse works ranging from Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux (2012) and Claire Denis’ No Fear, No Die (1990) to Betty White’s television programs of the 1950s.” – Ira Jaffe, Professor Emeritus, University of New Mexico and author of Slow Movies: Countering the Cinema of Action.

“Written with a strong sense of personality, and even stronger and laudable political commitments, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s Disruptive Feminisms extends her ongoing endeavor to provide meaningful critiques of film and film culture.  This thoughtful book demonstrates how a number of films, from around the world and from different genres, disrupt the status quo through a feminist and postcolonial analysis.” – Daniel Herbert, author of Videoland: Movie Culture at the American Video Store

“An excellent volume – Foster establishes at the outset that she writes as a global cultural feminist. By shrewdly focusing on specific films (and TV shows and star personas) that ‘disrupt, challenge, and overturn the norms of race, gender, age, sexuality, and class,’ this volume provides a much-needed alternative to the approaches that dominate the field today, although Foster uses those methodologies judiciously in her treatment of cinema as a political art form. Clear, well written, and without jargon, Disruptive Feminisms could easily be a valuable textbook, not just a volume for film scholars. Brava!” – Frank P. Tomasulo, Visiting Professor of Film Studies, Pace University.

Right now, you can see a sample of the text by clicking on the image above. Happy reading!

Allison Janney and Stephen Colbert Perform “Hot Blooded”

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015

Allison Janney and Stephen Colbert “performing” the song Hot Blooded on The Late Show.

Allison Janney is one of my favorite actors – from her current series Mom, to her work on the series Masters of Sex, The West Wing and so much more – she always delivers a superb performance. At the same time, she also has roots in improvisational acting, as does Colbert, and so watching the two of them “act out” the ludicrous lyrics to Foreigner’s 1978 hit Hot Blooded is a real treat – it’s funny as hell, and at the same time, showcases two incredibly gifted actors having a great time, and improvising with real skill and style.

When Colbert springs this little skit on Janney with no advance notice, she’s nevertheless instantly ready, shouting “bring it on!” and snatching a pen from Colbert’s desk to serve as a prop thermometer in her reading – immediately thinking on her feet, and using the available materials to bring the skit to life. At the end, you can see that both Janney and Colbert have had a marvelous time with the bit, and also deeply respect each other’s work – although this is all in fun, it’s a great example of how to bring new life to old, and very trite, material.

Pop culture and improvisation – it’s a really impressive piece of off-the-cuff work.

Why Aren’t More Women Directing Action Films?

Friday, October 30th, 2015

Lexi Alexander knows why women aren’t getting the opportunities they should in Hollywood.

As ReBecca Theodore wrote in Vulture on October 28, 2015, “Lexi Alexander doesn’t suffer fools lightly. The Oscar-nominated director, and outspoken advocate for women filmmakers, made waves in Hollywood last year when she wrote an essay on the deeply ingrained bias women directors face in the industry. Since then, Alexander has kept the pressure on studios to allow more opportunities for female directors.

Born to a German mother and Palestinian father, Alexander is a former World Kickboxing Champion who got her start in the business as a stuntwoman, and soon segued into directing. Her 2002 short Johnny Flynton landed an Academy Award–nomination, and her 2005 feature Green Street Hooligans won the SXSW Jury and Audience Awards. That led to a gig directing Punisher: War Zone, making her the first woman to direct a comic-book feature. Most recently, Alexander directed tonight’s episode of Arrow, which had previously brought on two women directors (Wendey Stanzler and Bethany Rooney). We spoke to Alexander about working on the CW’s comic-book series, embracing her biracial identity, and why more women aren’t directing multimillion-dollar superhero franchises.

How did you land this project?  How much did you know about the show going in?
I was contacted by the showrunners, specifically Andrew Kreisberg, who was a fan of Punisher: War Zone. I knew about the show and had watched the pilot when it came out. When I got the call for the meeting, I binged on three seasons of Arrow over an entire weekend.

Can you share some details about the shoot — how long it took to prepare, to find shooting locales?
All in all, I was there for three and a half weeks. Location scouting is a lot of fun, especially in a town where ten shows are being shot at the same time, because you’re constantly running into other crews scouting the same places. Then we all give each other side eye, because nobody wants to use a location that another show is using as well. It’s quite amusing, really.

Did you have a specific look or feel you wanted for this episode?
It was very clear to me that TV is a writers’ medium and that a show in its fourth season comes with an established look and style. The first meeting I had with Kreisberg and [executive producer] Marc Guggenheim, they were very clear they were interested in me as a director because they believed I could bring something different and new to the show. So my directions were basically ’same but different.’ Now this might sound like I’m being sarcastic, but I’m not. I completely understood what they wanted. There’s definitely a way, even within an existing style and tone, to add something new or unique without making it look like it’s from a completely different show. I’m not sure if I completely achieved that, but I’m pretty sure the audience will see my fingerprint here and there.

You were the only woman director to helm a comic-book feature with Punisher: War Zone in 2008. Not much has changed since then. What do you think accounts for this?
The only reason I was offered Punisher was because I had made an indie film that was rated R for violence and was filled with fight scenes. I think in industries riddled with bias, you tend to hire women only if their previous work is very masculine, which is hilarious given that this is not how male directors are chosen. I am pretty sure when Kenneth Branagh came up for Thor, nobody at Marvel thought: ‘Yes, that Kenneth Branagh is masculine enough to do action, just look at Henry V and The Magic Flute.’ Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge Branagh fan, I’m just trying to demonstrate how ridiculous it is that women have to be ‘one of the boys’ to get in on the superhero business, whereas male directors don’t have to have any proof on their résumé that they can deliver hardcore action.”

It’s all too true – read the entire interview by clicking here.

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 thirty books and more than 100 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. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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