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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:

RESEARCH, RESEARCH AND MORE RESEARCH

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.

KNOW THE NEWS

I work primarily in entertainment news. So I read all the sites: deadline.com, thehollywoodreporter.com, variety.com. I also keep up on the gossip sites: tmz.com and perezhilton.com. 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.

MEMORIZE YOUR QUESTIONS

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.

IT SHOULD BE A CONVERSATION

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” – Forthcoming January 2016

Friday, November 6th, 2015

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s newest book will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in January, 2016.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s new book, Disruptive Feminisms: Raced, Gendered, and Classed Bodies in Film, to be published in January 2016 from 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.

This is a book well worth waiting for – you can read it in 2016.

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.

All Alone in the Digital World – “Removed” by Eric Pickersgill

Sunday, October 18th, 2015

Eric Pickersgill’s “removed” photos capture the personal isolation and disconnectedness of the digital age.

As he writes on his website about his work,”the joining of people to devices has been rapid and unalterable. The application of the personal device in daily life has made tasks take less time. Far away places and people feel closer than ever before. Despite the obvious benefits that these advances in technology have contributed to society, the social and physical implications are slowly revealing themselves.

In similar ways that photography transformed the lived experience into the photographable, performable, and reproducible experience, personal devices are shifting behaviors while simultaneously blending into the landscape by taking form as being one with the body. This phantom limb is used as a way of signaling busyness and unapproachability to strangers while existing as an addictive force that promotes the splitting of attention between those who are physically with you and those who are not.

The work began as I sat in a café one morning. This is what I wrote about my observation:  Family sitting next to me at Illium café in Troy, NY is so disconnected from one another. Not much talking. Father and two daughters have their own phones out. Mom doesn’t have one or chooses to leave it put away. She stares out the window, sad and alone in the company of her closest family. Dad looks up every so often to announce some obscure piece of info he found online. Twice he goes on about a large fish that was caught. No one replies. I am saddened by the use of technology for interaction in exchange for not interacting. This has never happened before and I doubt we have scratched the surface of the social impact of this new experience. Mom has her phone out now.

The image of that family, the mother’s face, the teenage girls’ and their father’s posture and focus on the palm of their own hands has been burned in my mind. It was one of those moments where you see something so amazingly common that it startles you into consciousness of what’s actually happening and it is impossible to forget. I see this family at the grocery store, in classrooms, on the side of the highway and in my own bed as I fall asleep next to my wife. We rest back to back on our sides coddling our small, cold, illuminated devices every night.

The large format portraits are of individuals who appear to be holding personal devices although the devices have been physically removed from the sitter’s hand. They are asked to hold their stare and posture as I remove their device and then I make the exposure. The photographs represent reenactments of scenes that I experience daily. We have learned to read the expression of the body while someone is consuming a device and when those signifiers are activated it is as if the device can be seen taking physical form without the object being present.”

I can’t think of any other art project that so perfectly captures the inherent loneliness and sensory deprivation of the digital world, in which we are all supposedly “connected,” but actually cut off from any real interaction with each other by a series of screens that separate us from face to face communication, and the real world. Even in a group, as you can see in Pickersgill’s “removed” photos, people remain isolated from one another, endlessly checking their phones and iPads for some “update” from the digital realm.

Scroll through Pickersgill’s photos by clicking here, or on the image above – and see what people are missing.

Supergirl – The TV Series

Monday, October 5th, 2015

Finally, a Supergirl television series – and it’s long overdue.

I seem to be in a comic book vein these days, and now comes word that Supergirl, who has always been neglected in both TV and movies, just like Wonder Woman – can you say gender discrimination? – is finally going to get a TV series, long, long after the 1950s Superman series hit the airwaves, starting October 26th on CBS. Of course, it’s pop culture stuff, but at the same time, it offers a powerful role model for young women to identify with, and starts – just starts – to balance out the scales, which have long been tipped in favor of male protagonists, both in regular dramas, as well as comic book/pop culture films and television shows.

As the show’s official bio notes of the series, “Supergirl is an action-adventure drama based on the DC Comics character Kara Zor-El, Superman’s (Kal-El) cousin who, after 12 years of keeping her powers a secret on Earth, decides to finally embrace her superhuman abilities and be the hero she was always meant to be. Twelve-year-old Kara escaped the doomed planet Krypton with her parents’ help at the same time as the infant Kal-El. Protected and raised on Earth by her foster family, the Danvers, Kara grew up in the shadow of her foster sister, Alex, and learned to conceal the phenomenal powers she shares with her famous cousin in order to keep her identity a secret.

Years later at 24, Kara lives in National City assisting media mogul and fierce taskmaster Cat Grant. She works alongside her friend and IT technician Winn Schott and famous photographer James Olsen, who Grant just hired away from the Daily Planet to serve as her new art director. However, Kara’s days of keeping her talents a secret are over when Hank Henshaw, head of a super-secret agency where her sister also works, enlists her to help them protect the citizens of National City from sinister threats. Though Kara will need to find a way to manage her newfound empowerment with her very human relationships, her heart soars as she takes to the skies as Supergirl to fight crime.”

Let’s see what this develops into – I, for one, wish the series all the best.

New Video – Science Fiction Futurism

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

I have a new video out on Science Fiction Futurism and Ridley Scott’s The Martian.

Science fiction films have been predicting the future since Georges Méliès’s A Trip To The Moon in 1902, and as with that film, as much as they might get things right, they often err in describing what the future holds.

In this short video, edited and photographed by Curt Bright, I talk about some of the other films that have shaped our consciousness of the future, to mark the release today of Ridley Scott’s new film The Martian, such as Things To Come (1936), Metropolis (1927), Blade Runner (1982), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

While these visions of the future are often fanciful, sometimes they hit the mark, as with hologram projection, talking computers, two-way television and numerous other technological advances. So click here, or on the link above to take a quick trip into the cinematic future, and remember, as Criswell famously noted, “we are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I will spend the rest of our lives.”

Maybe some of these things will actually come to pass.

Another New Frame by Frame Video – Batman v Superman

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

Ben Affleck and Zack Snyder on the set of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Curt Bright and I have really been pumping these Frame by Frame videos out – three in the last week alone! This time around, it’s the new Batman v Superman movie, directed by Zack Snyder, on which I have real reservations. As I note in the video commentary, this seems like reaching for the end of the franchise waaaaaay too soon – the comparison I make is Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), which spelled the beginning of the end for the classic Universal monster series, and led to the “monster rally” films House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), before the entire franchise collapsed in parody with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948.

Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman has much the same basic plot arc as Superman v Batman, but with Snyder’s film, it proved necessary to turn Superman into something of a villain, seemingly out of control, thus forcing Batman to travel to Gotham City to challenge Superman, who is suddenly seem as a threat to humanity, rather than a savior, his more traditional role.

As Snyder told Katie Roberts when he undertook the project, “after Man of Steel finished and we started talking about what would be in the next movie, I started subtly mentioning that it would be cool if he faced Batman… You’re in a story meeting talking about, like, who should [Superman] fight if he fought this giant alien threat Zod who was basically his equal physically, from his planet, fighting on our turf… You know, who to fight next?… But I’m not gonna say at all that when I took the job to do Man of Steel that I did it in a subversive way to get to Batman. I really believe that only after contemplating who could face [Superman] did Batman come into the picture.”

Which is all very well, but what’s the next act? And with Wonder Woman thrown in as an extra added attraction, along with DC superheroes Aquaman and Cyborg, all in their first live action big-screen iterations, it would seem to me that this is becoming more and more like a series ender, rather than a franchise extender. If you’re setting up this conflict, even if everything turns out all right in the end, which of course it will, you’ve nevertheless created a mash-up which could easily lead to parody, rather than an extension of the DC Universe.

Really, all of this is rather inconsequential in the long run, at least for me, but for fans, I think this is starting down the road to a series of films with endless cataclysmic fights, explosions, and violence, rather than character development, in which the members of the DC universe are shuffled on screen for some marquee time, and then moved off into the shadows, waiting for the next franchise entry. But we’ll find out soon enough whether or not it works. And meantime, when is the Wonder Woman film going to come out – were going to have to wait until 2017 for that – long overdue!

Coming in March 2016 to a theater near you: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

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.

In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of film, media and other topics in the past month - http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/

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