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Simon Denny – All You Need Is Data

Saturday, May 30th, 2015

Artist Simon Denny nails the darker side of the headlong rush to digital – the loss of humanity.

In his new show at MoMA PS1, which originally appeared in an earlier version Germany in 2012, artist Simon Denny critiques the culture of endless data, acquisition, and money as the ultimate value in an impressive installation entitled “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” based on the concept that “All You Need Is Data,” an obvious and ironic spin on the Beatles’ oft-repeated, if somewhat simplistic mantra, “All You Need Is Love.”

As the museum notes of the exhibition, “Denny’s work often refers to the psychology and abstract language of the new media economy, invoking ‘clouds’ of big data and the constant pressure to ‘update’ our lives. He typically finds the sources for his work within the materials, advertising, and packaging produced by technology and media companies, and often deploys graphic interfaces borrowed from commercial display to highlight connections between the utopian goals of the new media economy and those of historical modernism.”

Ken Johnson reviewed the show for The New York Times, observing that “in a recent column for The New York Times, the economist Paul Krugman argued that the benefits of the digital technology revolution of the past four decades have been greatly overestimated. The new technologies, he suggested, might be ‘more fun than fundamental.’ Worse, euphoric media chatter about how they’re changing the world for the better ‘acts as a distraction from more mundane issues,’ like putting people to work in usefully productive jobs.

In a similar vein, ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma,’ a hyperactive multimedia extravaganza by the Berlin-based artist Simon Denny at MoMA PS 1, takes down such irrational exuberance about technology and does it with sardonic verve. Along the way, it indirectly damns the high-end art market’s own inflationary mania. If Mr. Denny doesn’t get to the bottom of what’s causing the sociopathology infecting both industries, his show is certainly a rousing conversation starter . . .

To contemporary art followers, Mr. Denny’s strategies of satirical appropriation and parodic simulation might not appear particularly novel. Those who keep up with business journalism might find little of it especially newsworthy. Nevertheless, the combination of form and content makes for a persuasive protest against soulless capitalism.

In his catalog essay, Peter Eleey, PS 1’s chief curator and the show’s organizer, notes the obvious parallel of the tech industry’s drive to innovate to the contemporary art world’s hunger for the new and to today’s billionaire-inflated art market, with its proliferating fairs and private museums. It’s not an exact parallel: Old art may rise or fall in market value, but it usually doesn’t become worthless the way obsolete electronic devices do. But you get the idea.

In any case, there’s a deeper level of insight that Mr. Denny doesn’t quite crystallize, which has to do less with new technology than with money and how money disrupts and corrupts non-monetary values. As the title character of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, on discovering buried gold, put it, ‘Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair/Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.’

What happens in a society and culture where money becomes the measure of all things and technological innovation becomes just a way to make more money faster?”

More is less, and more wants more – I’d add another quote from Psalm 39.6 in the King James Bible, “Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.”

I’d say that this more than applies here – what’s the point of this endless acquisition, numbering of word patterns, the endless roll out of time wasting video games, the non-stop proliferation of useless apps and devices that separate us more and more from each other, plunging us into a wilderness of supposed “tech innovation?”

I’m with Simon Denny – I’ve seen the future, and it doesn’t work – for humans.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

Click here, or on the image above, to see the first trailer for The Scorch Trials.

This is the second in the Maze Runner films, inspired by a group of science fiction novel novels by James Dashner, which will apparently conclude with Maze Runner: The Death Cure in 2017. The Maze Runner films, as well as the books, owe an obvious debt to William Golding’s classic 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, which was made into a brilliant film by Peter Brook in 1963, and a terrible film by Harry Hook in 1990, but despite the clear thematic links, the first Maze Runner film lingers in my memory far more than the less-inspired, and much more formulaic Hunger Games films, which are, of course, enormously successful, and to my mind, at least, owe a clear debt to Koushun Takami’s 1996 novel Battle Royale, which was made into an excellent film (sadly, his last, before his death from cancer) by director Kinji Fukasaku in 2000.

Director Wes Ball, just 29 years old, is the creative mind behind the Maze Runner series, and as of now, he looks set to direct all three films, and has revealed that the third novel will not, for once, be split into two segments to drag things out, but rather released as a final stand alone project. As the official 20th Century Fox release notes for the film state, “in this next chapter of the epic Maze Runner saga, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien, returning from the first film, along with many other cast members) and his fellow Gladers face their greatest challenge yet: searching for clues about the mysterious and powerful organization known as WCKD. Their journey takes them to the Scorch, a desolate landscape filled with unimaginable obstacles. Teaming up with resistance fighters, the Gladers take on WCKD’s vastly superior forces and uncover its shocking plans for them all.”

With a cast that includes the excellent actors Giancarlo Esposito, Lili Taylor and Patricia Clarkson, despite the recycled plot tropes, Ball’s vision the future is both fresh and convincing, and he’s clearly mastered the use of special effects and CGI imagery in an intelligent fashion, using them to enhance the story rather than to overwhelm the viewer. In the end, I found myself both caring about the characters, and curious as to what would befall them in subsequent installments of the trilogy, and so I look forward to the release of The Scorch Trials this September. I also think it’s a solid idea not to drag this out, and release the final film in 2017 – let’s say what we want, and then move on, to new projects and new ideas, which I’m hopeful that Ball will handle with equal restraint and economy.

However, it should be noted that Dashner has added two additional novels to the series; one published, and one forthcoming – The Kill Order (2012) and The Fever Code (coming in 2016). The trilogy has thus been stretched into a pentalogy, seemingly so as not to let a profitable franchise die, which is to my mind never a good reason for continuing anything. So we will probably see films of those books sometime in the future, but I don’t know if Ball will be directing them. For now, I’ll just be content with what we have on hand, and wish the cast and creators of the first three films the best.

I’m surprised that I liked the first film so much; let’s see how The Scorch Trials measures up.

Archie Panjabi as 007

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

Am I the only one whole thinks that the 007 franchise needs a major overhaul?

Archie Panjabi, criminally underused on the television series The Good Wifeshe has now left the series – would be a great choice for the 007 character, and move it away from the thuggishness of Daniel Craig, even if Skyfall, the latest Bond installment, did make more than a billion dollars worldwide. But it was such a dreary film – isn’t it time we got over the attitudes of the 1960s and moved into the 21st century with an action star who could give the role a whole new dimension?

As Mike Hale said of Panjabi’s character, Kalinda Sharma, in The Good Wife, “just like Bogie — and just like Bacall: that’s the secret of Kalinda Sharma. She’s a mash-up of film noir archetypes (and gender roles), both gumshoe and femme fatale, tough broad and heartbroken sap. Panjabi takes a genre cliché — the combination of hard shell and tender interior — and redeems it by maintaining a constant but perfectly poised intensity, one whose tight control only emphasizes its operatic force.”

Apparently, she’s in line to play a “Bond girl” in the next 007 film – but why not the leading role instead?

He’d Like To Buy The World a Coke

Monday, May 18th, 2015

In the end, Don Draper co-copted the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s to sell soda pop.

I’ve read a number of Mad Men finale recaps this morning, but this one, from Quartz, by Zachary M. Seward, seems the most perceptive by far. As Seward writes, “In the end, Don Draper bought the world a Coke. Mad Men’s final scene was perhaps the most iconic commercial ever to air in the United States: the 1971 ‘Hilltop’ ad for Coca-Cola.

The implication, though it’s hardly clear from the sequence of events at the end, is that Don’s wayward journey across the country, a reckoning and rebirth of his soul, ultimately leads back to New York, where he conjures the commercial. In real life, ‘Hilltop’ was created by a McCann-Erickson creative director, just like Don. But none of that is shown on screen.

Instead, we leave Don meditating at a retreat in California that resembles Esalen. ‘The new day brings new hope,’ their spiritual leader says. ‘The lives we led, the lives we’ve yet to lead. A new day, new ideas, a new you.’ Don and the rest of the group respond with ommm, and then it cuts to the ad.”

But not before a small bell goes off inside Don’s head – just a little “ping” – and he sees that he can turn this whole nightmare of a series ending to his advantage. Why not use this “rebirth” to sell something – as he always done, starting with himself? For the rest of the characters, a variety of endings, which I’ll let you read about here, but for Don, it’s simple – everything is a commodity.

Once an ad man, always an ad man. Not a bad way to end the series.

Mad Men Ends Tonight – Four Key Cast Members Look Back

Sunday, May 17th, 2015

Elizabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks and John Slattery on the set of Mad Men, which concludes tonight.

Like a lot of other people, I would expect, I have been binge watching the Mad Men marathon on AMC sporadically over the last few days, and what a depressing trip it’s been! It’s done wonders for the various cast members, and launched a slew of careers, but I won’t have one bit of regret in seeing the series in the rear-view mirror – these are some of the most unpleasant, manipulative, and narcissistic characters to ever grace a television screen.

Yet the long, long storyline remains perversely captivating, and perfectly mirrors the “fall from the skyscraper” opening that’s been a constant fixture during the credits of the show over seven seasons – the last season drawn out for maximum audience impact. For me, the earlier seasons were much stronger than the more recent ones, which often verge on parody, even as they engage with some serious themes – and there was simply no reason to drag the series out by splitting the last season into two sections – but it doesn’t matter – tonight is the last episode.

In this entertaining and sharp feature, Becca Nadler rounds up interviews with four of the key cast members of the series and gets their thoughts on what the show has done for their careers, why viewers tune in week after week to watch the continuing self-destruction of the whole Sterling Cooper (and now McCann) gang, with nary a prediction about how the show will end up – which is great. There’s been such so much ridiculous speculation about Don’s final scenes, or Joan’s, or Roger’s, though we know that Betty has cancer, and it clearly won’t end well for her.

But what do the actors have to say about the show that quite literally put them on the map? Here’s a chance to find out. As Jon Hamm says of his character Don, “there are these bright colors and vibrant things, a montage and all this beautiful stuff [in Season 7] and you see this gray figure kind of moving through it, he hasn’t changed much. The world has, but he hasn’t,” while John Slattery (Roger Sterling) adds that “you don’t come through this journey without getting banged up. You’re not perfect at the end, and you’re not pristine.” You can say that again!

See what you think in these four excellent interviews from Indiewire.

Our Attention Span is Now Shorter Than That of a Goldfish

Friday, May 15th, 2015

Yes, we’re so distracted by digital media, that we now can’t pay attention for more than 8 seconds.

As Meredith Engel writes in The New York Daily News, “Humans now have shorter attention spans than goldfish — and we would write more, but you’re probably clicking somewhere else already. The new finding — by, of all companies, Microsoft — suggests that the little fish can concentrate for nine seconds compared to eight for humans.

The researchers looked at three different types of attention: Sustained attention is the ability to focus on one task continuously; selective attention is the ability to respond when distractions come up; and alternating attention is multitasking. To get a measure of focus levels, the researchers asked 2,000 Canadians to take online surveys, play games and have their brain electricity measured.

The researchers found that increased use of digital devices lessens our sustained attention, doesn’t affect our selective attention, and actually improves our alternating attention. That means we are less able to focus on one task, but are getting better at doing multiple tasks at once. The report says that the human attention span has decreased by four seconds since 2000 — and that tech innovations may be blame.” You think?

Maybe that’s why movies are so hyper-edited these days – or maybe they’re part of the cause.

Forthcoming Book – Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s

Friday, May 15th, 2015

I have a new book from Palgrave Pivot this July – pre-order it here now!

As the promotional materials for the book note, “Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s presents six detailed chapters on various topics that relate to genre cinema, concentrating on films and filmmakers whose films offered wide ranging commentary on popular culture. Covering both little and well-known films and filmmakers (Vanishing Point, Marcel Hanoun, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Max Ophüls), Dixon’s writings draw on a multitude of critical, historical, and archival sources to capture the reader’s attention from start to finish.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, and Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA. He is the author of Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, and Cinema at the Margins and editor, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture.”

“Dixon is a first-rate film scholar, critic, and historian, and the qualities he has cultivated and refined over the years are evident in everything from the clarity, lucidity, and liveliness of his prose to the accuracy of his research, the force of his arguments, and the perspicuity of his judgments.” – David Sterritt, Chair, National Society of Film Critics

A short and concise look at some of the films that shaped a decade.

Mike Fleming Jr. Interviews Woody Allen in Deadline

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

Mike Fleming Jr. of Deadline just published a fabulous interview with Woody Allen.

Even with his newest film, Irrational Man, at Cannes, Allen despairs of the current state of the movie business, and I must say I agree with him entirely. He has a deal for a series with Amazon, but doesn’t know what to do with it; he seems genuinely unhappy with all his work, and is only now turning to digital with a sort of “meh – why not?” attitude – “digital is really not cheaper and it’s not faster” – and he gets no pleasure from seeing his films – “I hate them all. None are different, and all are…unsatisfying, when you’re finished” – and never goes back to see them again.

But most of all, like all of us who love the cinema, he sees where Hollywood is heading, and he doesn’t like it one bit. Asked what he thought of the way the industry was heading, Allen responded flatly “well, I think it’s terrible. To me, movies are valuable as an art form and as a wonderful means of popular entertainment. But I think movies have gone terribly wrong. It was much healthier when the studios made a hundred films a year instead of a couple, and the big blockbusters for the most part are big time wasters. I don’t see them. I can see what they are: eardrum-busting time wasters.

I think Hollywood has gone in a disastrous path. It’s terrible. The years of cinema that were great were the ’30s, ’40s, not so much the ’50s…but then the foreign films took over and it was a great age of cinema as American directors were influenced by them and that fueled the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. Then it started to turn.

Now it’s just a factory product. They can make a billion dollars on a film and spend hundreds of millions making it. They spend more money on the advertising budget of some of those films than all the profits of everything Bergman, Fellini and Bunuel made on all their films put together in their lifetimes. If you took everything that Bergman made in profit, everything Bunuel made and everything that Fellini made in their lifetimes and added it all together, you wouldn’t equal one weekend with the The Avengers and its $185 million to $200 million.

Hollywood is just commerce, and it’s a shame. There are all these wonderfully gifted actors out there that, as you said before, will be in a film of mine for virtually nothing, union minimum, for what you called validation. Really, it’s because they want to work on something that doesn’t insult their intelligence; they don’t want to have to get in to a suit and practice stunts for two months and then do stunts and then… they want to be in something that doesn’t demean their artistic impulses.”

Much more here in Deadline - read the entire interview – it’s essential.

Andrew Wallenstein on The New Video Ecosystem

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

Our viewing habits have changed dramatically, as Andrew Wallenstein notes in Variety.

As he writes, “watching TV used to be so simple, or at least it seems that way in retrospect. First there were just a handful of networks. Then broadcast TV gave way to cable. But even as the number of channels multiplied exponentially, it was all still easy to understand, not to mention incredibly profitable: The combination of advertising and affiliate fees delivered approximately $90 billion annually to a small group of content companies.

That was then, this is now: Advertising revenues and multichannel subscriptions are endangered by significant ratings declines across the cable TV landscape as audiences — particularly younger viewers — get bombarded by a dizzying array of cheaper programming choices delivered over the Internet. Some, like Netflix, charge viewers a monthly fee; others, like many of the ventures pitching advertisers at this week’s NewFronts presentations in New York, are as free as broadcast television.

Many of these ventures are backed by the biggest companies in the tech sector. Which isn’t to say the incumbent entertainment conglomerates are simply sitting on the sidelines while the challengers eat their lunch. To the contrary, Hollywood’s participation in the likes of Sling TV and HBO Now is something akin to baby Kal-El launching out of planet Krypton in Superman: A culture facing the threat of extinction is seeking to find life for itself elsewhere in the solar system.”

A fascinating article, with superb graphics and excellent detail – click here, or above to read it all.

Miss Mend, or The Adventures of Three Reporters on TCM

Friday, May 8th, 2015

Once again, TCM scores with another amazing classic film – this Sunday night May 10th, 2015.

Almost unknown in the West, even today, though luckily actually available on DVD, Miss Mend, or The Adventures of Three Reporters is a really wild Russian film that mixes equal parts action serial, Dr. Mabuse crime film, and political satire in a film that breaks tradition with all other Soviet film of the silent era.

Made in 1926, the film chronicles the attempts of “three reporters and an office girl trying to stop a bacteriological strike by some powerful western business leaders against the USSR,” and while the whole film is typically outrageous Soviet propaganda, it’s filled with an energy and kinetic power akin to the work of Sergei Eisenstein crossed with a dash of Fritz Lang, and succeeds almost through sheer outrageousness alone.

As film critic Bret Wood notes of the film, “when one thinks of the Soviet cinema of the 1920s, the images that come to mind are those of state-sponsored propaganda, rendered in a dynamic visual style, orchestrated with the rhythm of hammer blows, engineered to deliver the maximum emotional and intellectual impact. But not every Russian film at the time was cut from the cloth of Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Pudovkin. There was a whole other movement that embraced the conventions of American and European film as a means of imparting its sociopolitical messages.

Films such as The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom (1924) and even the sci-fi romance Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924) proved that some Red Russians served up their agitprop with joie de vivre. The most prominent purveyor of this breed of film was the Mezhrabpom-Rus studio. In her book Movies for the Masses: Popular Cinema and Soviet Society in the 1920s, Denise J. Youngblood writes that ‘the studio was a flourishing concern, its commercial style already well established. Despite its dependence on leftist, German capital, it turned out unabashedly bourgeois films — films with the dash and glamour which had characterized the pre-revolutionary cinema.’

One of Mezhrabpom’s most ambitious films was Boris Barnet and Fyodor Otsep’s Miss Mend (1926), which tapped into the adventure serial genre that had proven popular in the U.S. (The Perils of Pauline [1914]), Germany (Fritz Lang’s The Spiders [1919-20]), and France (Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires [1915]). Broken into three feature-length installments and clocking a total of more than four hours, Miss Mend is a hyperkinetic comedy thriller that achieves the near-impossible challenge of maintaining audience interest over the course of a plot that expansive without being exhausting.

The labyrinthine plot follows the exploits of a muck-raking reporter, Barnet (Barnet), a photographer named Vogel (Vladimir Fogel), Hopkins the clerk (Igor Ilyinsky), and a typist named Vivian Mend (Natalya Glan), who stumble upon a conspiracy to murder American industrialist Gordon Stern and lay the blame on the Bolsheviks. Through a falsified will, Stern’s empire will go to the vampish second wife Elizabeth (Natalya Rozenel), who hands it over to a ‘gigantic criminal conspiracy’ known as the Organization, led by an assassin named Chiche (Sergei Komarov).

In part two, the nefarious Chiche reveals a plot to sell plague-inducing biological weapons to a cabal of wealthy industrialists. To demonstrate the effectiveness of the germs, he sends an ampule to be discharged in Soviet Russia (where it will eliminate thousands of labor activists). A motorboat chase ensues and the ampule is intercepted by Vogel, but is accidentally smashed, and the passengers and crew on the S.S. Preussen begin dropping like flies.

In the concluding section, the plague is contained and pursuit of Chiche reaches a fever pitch. Hopkins falls under Chiche’s hypnotic spell (a reference perhaps to Fritz Lang’s arch-villain Dr. Mabuse, who was a master of mind control) but it is unclear just how deeply entranced he may be. As the Organization begins to unravel, its mastermind makes a last-ditch effort to release the plague-bearing bacterium upon the world, but he hasn’t accounted for the presence of the Soviet Police, who have the chance to be the heroes of the climactic third act.

According to Youngblood, ‘Miss Mend was one of the most-seen [Soviet] films of the twenties, with a recorded audience of more than 1.7 million in the first six months. It played at least two months at the deluxe Ars theatre in Moscow.’ But Youngblood reveals that the critics were not as enthusiastic as the ticket-buyers. ‘Miss Mend was one of the most criticized movies of the twenties . . . The reviews ranged from the dismissive (“naive and stupid” and “varnished barbarism”) to the denunciatory (accusations that the film’s cheerful antics promoted “hooliganism”).’ Not exactly an intellectual exercise, the film was nonetheless laced with bits of social commentary, often aimed at various forms of Western decadence (including corrupt cops and red hot jazz).”

And you’re going to miss this? No, you’re not – DVR it. Miss Mend is an astounding piece of filmmaking.

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 wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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