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UNL Film Studies Alumnus Matt DeGroot at Buzzfeed Motion Pictures

Monday, February 15th, 2016

UNL Film Studies grad Matt DeGroot oversees three producers at Buzzfeed Motion Pictures.

As UNL English Department Media Specialist Erin Chambers writes, “Matt DeGroot has been obsessed with film for as long as he can remember. ‘Very early on as a kid I was fascinated by the movie making process and soaked up everything I could possibly find,’ he writes. In the days before DVDs came packaged with featurettes and behind-the-scenes material, DeGroot turned to his favorite filmmakers’ biographies. There, he would learn what films most inspired them, and then track down those films to watch, discovering a whole new set of filmmakers to study.

When it came time to choose a major as an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, DeGroot was immediately drawn to film studies. ‘It was a no-brainer.’ After graduating from UNL in 2006, he received his Masters in Media and Public Affairs from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Time spent working for a D.C. public relations and production company earned him his first job as a producer of educational media content for universities around the world. Then, last year, a unique opportunity presented itself: a managment position with the popular social news and entertainment company, BuzzFeed.

Now a year into his job as Production Manager with BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, DeGroot finds himself functioning as a jack of all trades. ‘It has been thrilling to see the company grow and evolve as my own position continues to morph with it. It’ll be fascinating to see what we’re doing another year from now.’ Currently, DeGroot oversees three teams of producers who create content focused on a specific subject, from food to identity and diversity issues.

He not only assists his teams with their ‘creative slate,’ but also the physical process of production; he finds locations, manages casting needs, arranges for equipment, and supervises post-production and distribution. ‘All in all, this process helps crank out 60-70 new short videos each week, as if it were the old factory method of film production on steroids,’ says DeGroot. ’Needless to say, I don’t suffer for things to keep my days occupied.’

DeGroot continues to flex his creative muscles on the side, as well, writing film reviews and honing a stage play he hopes to soon have performed. Through it all, he offers encouragement to his fellow film nerds and students of film studies. [As he notes,] ‘there are definitely jobs out there!’ You can learn more about the BuzzFeed Motion Pictures production team at Buzzfeed.com. Interested in a Film Studies major or minor? Check out the intro video and degree information on our Film Studies page.”

Great job, Erin, and yes, as Matt says – there are definitely jobs out there!

David Bowie 1947-2016

Monday, January 11th, 2016

One the world’s most influential pop /music / film/ performance artists has died at the age of 69.

As Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times, “David Bowie, the infinitely changeable, fiercely forward-looking songwriter who taught generations of musicians about the power of drama, images and personas, died on Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday. Mr. Bowie’s death was confirmed by his publicist, Steve Martin, on Monday morning.

He died after an 18-month battle with cancer, according to a statement on Mr. Bowie’s social-media accounts. ‘David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family,’ a post on his Facebook page read. His last album, Blackstar [produced by Bowie's long time associate Tony Visconti] a collaboration with a jazz quintet that was typically enigmatic and exploratory, was released on Friday — on his birthday . . . He had also collaborated on an Off Broadway musical, Lazarus, that was a surreal sequel to his definitive 1976 film role, The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider: an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut. His music was always a mutable blend: rock, cabaret, jazz and what he called ‘plastic soul,’ but it was suffused with genuine soul. He also captured the drama and longing of everyday life, enough to give him No. 1 pop hits like Let’s Dance . . .

Mr. Bowie earned admiration and emulation across the musical spectrum — from rockers, balladeers, punks, hip-hop acts, creators of pop spectacles and even classical composers like Philip Glass, who based two symphonies on Mr. Bowie’s albums Low and Heroes. Mr. Bowie’s constantly morphing persona was a touchstone for performers like Madonna and Lady Gaga; his determination to stay contemporary introduced his fans to Philadelphia funk, Japanese fashion, German electronica and drum-and-bass dance music.”

David Bowie crossed nearly every boundary in popular culture and art, appearing in films, creating a multitude of characters such as Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke, and then abandoning them when they were no longer of interest. Bowie was also much underrated as a singer, and in this era of auto-tuning, it’s interesting to listen to this isolated vocal track for the song Under Pressure, in which Bowie belts out the lyrics to the song with both skill and passion.

Bowie also has a surprisingly long and effective film career, appearing in a wide variety of films, from Labyrinth, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Prestige (in which he played the equally visionary Nikola Tesla) the biopic Basquiat, as well as The Hunger, The Last Temptation of Christ, and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. In all these films, the persona he projected was very much like his stage presence; distant, but absolutely in the moment, whatever that moment might be.

Two years ago, the BBC produced an excellent documentary on one of Bowie’s most creative periods, Five Years, and as columnist Paul Morley observed in The Telegraph, Bowie “was the human equivalent of a Google search, a portal through which you could step into an amazing, very different wider world – if he mentioned in an interview, or referenced in his work, someone like Andy Warhol, Jean Cocteau, Antonin Artaud or Marcel Duchamp, I would immediately want to find out what he was talking about.

He flooded plain everyday reality with extraordinary, unexpected information, processing the details through a buoyant, mobile mind, and made intellectual discovery seem incredibly glamorous. He helped create in my own mind a need to discover ways of making sense of both the universe and the self by seeking out the different, the difficult and the daring.”

David Bowie – one of the art world’s major figures – now no longer with us.

Frame by Frame Video: Film Noir

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

Here’s a brief Frame by Frame video, directed by Curt Bright, in which I discuss Film Noir.

The scene above is from Jacques Tourneur’s noir classic Out of the Past (1947), and in this video I briefly discuss some of the more dominant characteristics of noir, in a video which was produced roughly at the same time my book Film Noir and The Cinema of Paranoia came out. Oddly enough, I never blogged directly on this video, and it’s too good to pass up, so here it is.

When Choice: The Library Journal reviewed Film Noir and The Cinema of Paranoia, they noted that “Dixon seeks to broaden the scope and definition of film noir by focusing on its most dominant motif–paranoia. Concentrating on that impulse, and also on fear and violence, the author demonstrates that these all-encompassing aspects of film noir are found not only in gangster/detective films of the 1940s but also in such genres as science fiction and horror.

Beginning with the pre-Code era, Dixon guides the reader through a comprehensive overview of the evolution of film noir to its present form, along the way presenting an enlightening examination of American and British society and politics and revealing the role film noir has played during certain periods.

[Dixon] demonstrates how film noir serves to contradict the false “feel good” images mediated to the public through movies and television programming. [Dixon]’s observations illustrate how paranoia, as constructed through the lens of film noir, proves more relevant than ever in lieu of the veil of fear that envelops every aspect of post-9/11 life.”

And that’s still true today – noir tells us how things really are.

Peter Stults’ Imaginary Movie History

Monday, December 21st, 2015

Here’s an art project by Peter Stults that reinvents Hollywood’s past in a most unusual fashion.

As Kathryn Bromwich writes in The Guardian, “when he was studying film at college, Peter Stults used to come up with imaginary movie ideas and turn them into posters. Fifteen years on, the New York-based graphic designer makes modern films look like old classics in his What If series, using a mix of Photoshop and collage. ‘People assume I don’t like modern movies – I do,’ he says, ‘But I am attracted to the poster art of the golden age.’

He spends weeks, sometimes months, researching directors, actors and studios in a quest to make the posters look as authentic as possible. ‘I like it when I trick people into thinking the modern movie is a remake of the film in my poster. If I can do that, I’m doing my job right.’” Of his re-imagined poster for Gone Girl, Stults says that “I think Marlon Brando captures the ambiguities of the character – did he kill her? Is he insane? Is he innocent? And I’d recently seen Vanessa Redgrave in The Devils and she seemed perfect.”

So take a walk through the imaginary world of Hollywood’s past, by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Star Wars Juggernaut

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be the most commercially successful film of all time.

As Anthony D’Alessandro and Anita Busch write in what is arguably the entertainment industry’s most authoritative business news website, Deadline Hollywood, ”industry analysts currently see Star Wars: The Force Awakens with an opening day record of $125M-$127M+ en route for an all-time record opening of $251M-$255M, calculated from midnight tickets sales on both the east and west coast.

To put Force Awakens’ opening in perspective, consider the following: Disney made $100M from the film in just 21 hours at 1PM PST; an amount that most successful tentpoles open to in a 3-day weekend. By Sunday, Force Awakens will beat or come close to beating the entire domestic runs of the last two Hobbits which were released over the last two Decembers— The Desolation of Smaug ($258.4M) and The Battle of Five Armies ($255.1M). It took Jurassic World five days to cross $250M.

Domestic all-time grosser Avatar, which opened during this frame back in 2009 to $77M and ended its stateside cume at $749.8M, took 12 days to clear $250M. However, that was during the pre-historic days of digital and 3D cinema. When Avatar opened there were 3,100 RealD screens in the U.S./Canada; now there are 14,000 with the majority of them playing Force Awakens.”

As I write this, screenings of the new Star Wars film are literally going on around the clock, with some theaters staying open 24/7 to meet audience demand.  This is all very good news for the Walt Disney Company, which owns the rights not only to the Star Wars franchise, but also the whole of Marvel Entertainment, just for starters – two of the current industry’s most profitable money-spinners.

Although some see signs of fan fatigue in the distance, I can’t agree - while I am resolutely not a Star Wars fanI’ll side with Alec Guinness in his opinion of the franchise – there’s no question that this 1977 film which started out as an indie film no one wanted has become a totemic part of our shared worldwide cinema culture. With Disney’s plans to roll out another episode in the series one a year for the next fifteen years, it seems there is no end in sight.

If this what audiences want in an era of terrorism and fear, so be it. It is, however, disturbing that more thoughtful screen fare has been pushed off the big screen into the limbo of VOD or the increasingly marginal art house circuit, but as always in Hollywood, the bottom line rules.

As far as The Force Awakens, I’ll have to agree with Sam C. Mac of Slant - “it exists less as a meaningful extension of its world than as a fan-service deployment device” – or J.R. Jones of The Chicago Reader – “as with other installments, this is less a movie than an exercise in massaging a juvenile-minded audience that wants the experience to be new and familiar at the same time” – and Roger Moore of Movie Nation -”a glib facsimile” – but then again, these are minority opinions.

So I’ll make a prediction of my own; when the film finally exhausts itself at the box office – just this installment, mind you – I predict (channeling The Amazing Criswell here) that Star Wars: The Force Awakens will gross more than two billion dollars worldwide, to recoup roughly half the $4 billion that Disney paid to buy the entire franchise a few years back from George Lucas. And, as the box office numbers clearly show, this was a very smart business decision indeed.

May The Force Be With You!

Video: The Celluloid Backlash

Friday, December 18th, 2015

More and more, commercial and indie filmmakers are embracing the values that only actual film can offer.

While 99% of all Hollywood films, and independent films as well, are being shot and post-produced digitally – i.e. “born digital” – there is a new phenomenon which seems to be expanding throughout the industry – major commercial filmmakers returning to the physical film medium because the celluloid image offers a different, warmer, and some would argue superior set of visual values, resulting in a new countermovement within the industry, which challenges the conventional wisdom that “film is dead” and digital rules.

I would argue that film is more alive than ever, and that the headlong rush to digital is something that has its benefits and drawbacks, and there are many within the industry – as noted in this video -  who feel actual film stock is an indispensable part of the cinema. To date, the list of new movies shot on film includes J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Sam Mendes’ latest installment of the Bond franchise, Spectre, David O. Russell’s Joy and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. More films – shot on film – are in the pipeline.

Thanks again to Curt Bright for creating this video; see you in 2016!

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 are 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 oddly claustrophobic CinemaScope 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.

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

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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