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Women Who Built The New York Art World

Sunday, July 9th, 2017

Here’s a fascinating piece on the women – often forgotten – who built the New York art world of today.

As Alexxa Gotthardt writes in Artsy, “over the course of 10 years, between 1929 and 1939, four of New York City’s most iconic museums emerged in Manhattan: the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, The Frick Collection, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. These institutions are now world-famous. But their founders—predominantly women—are relatively unknown.

During this period, other women—like Peggy Guggenheim, Grace Nail Johnson, and Florine Stettheimer—also helped carve out the New York art landscape by establishing influential galleries and salons that fostered avant-garde art.

Today, their work is still visible in the fabric of Manhattan’s landmark art scene, filled with progressive museums, galleries, and experimental art spaces. Rarely, however, are these women heralded as the pioneers they were. Below, we highlight the radical tastes and essential contributions of the women who shaped the New York art world we know today.”

See the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above – essential reading!

New Article – “Synthetic Cinema” in QRFV

Friday, July 7th, 2017

I have a new article out today on the rise of “synthetic” cinema in QRFV.

Above, Mark Ruffalo in what he all too accurately terms the “man cancelling suit” for his role as The Hulk in yet another Marvel comic book movie; this is just the sort of thing I’m talking about in this article – films that are so far removed from the real that there’s no human agency left in them.

As I write, in part, in the article, “there’s a force at work that has pushed mainstream cinema almost entirely into the fantasy franchise zone; the DC, Marvel, and now Universal Dark Universe films, comic book movies that rely almost entirely on special effects for that added ‘wow’ factor, often shot or reprocessed into 3-D, almost entirely lacking in plot, characterization, depth, or innovation – films that have no connection to the real world at all. I’ve [recently] published a book, A Brief History of Comic Book Movies, co-written with comic book historian Richard Graham on the history of the comic book movie, and for me, it was by far the most difficult project I’ve ever worked on, because as Gertrude Stein famously put it in another context, in comic book movies, ‘there’s no there there.’

There’s nothing remotely real here, or even authentic, and absolutely nothing is at stake. There are meaningless titanic battles, but the outcome is always predestined – the major characters will live until they have outlived fan base demand, and then they’ll ‘die’ – only to be resurrected in a reboot after sufficient time has passed. Most pressingly, nothing really happens in a comic book film despite the constant bombast, the endless ‘shared universe’ team-ups, and the inevitably angst ridden backstories that most superheroes and heroines are provided with today – a trend started in the early 1960s in Marvel comics, whose protagonists had a seemingly human, sympathetic edge, as opposed to the square jawed certainty of DC’s Superman and Batman.

There’s no real progression here, just repetition, for as Marvel head Stan Lee has famously stated, ‘fans don’t want change; they want the illusion of change.’ And that’s what they get – a film that starts off with things in a pattern of stasis, disrupted by an artificial crisis, which amid much hand wringing and supposed character development is brought to some sort of conclusion in the final reel of the film, but with a trapdoor always – always – left open for a possible sequel, because what Hollywood wants more than anything else in 2017 is a film that can turn into a long running, reliable franchise, as witness the long string of the ultra-comic book action films in the Fast and Furious series. This is the central issue that is facing the cinema today.”

You can read the entire article here – behind a paywall. But it’s worth it!

Brilliant Book: Steven Shaviro on Accelerationism

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

Here’s a brilliant collection of essays from cutting-edge scholar Steven Shaviro.

In an interview in the online journal Vice, Shaviro outlined the basic thesis of his work on accelerationism with writer Charlie Ambler, which is as good an introduction as any to the theory behind this approach to rampant consumerism – one which, by the way, makes complete sense to me, and is at once both revolutionary and really, really frightening. Notes Shaviro:

“Broadly defined, ‘accelerationism’ is the idea that the only way out is the way through. If we want to get beyond the current social and economic order and reach a post-capitalist future, then we need to push through all the messy complications of capitalism, rather than revert to something supposedly older and purer.

Accelerationism rejects certain ideas currently popular on the left, like ‘small is beautiful,’ and the Luddite enmity towards new technologies. Instead, it urges us to embrace and repurpose all the most advanced technologies.

If computational technologies are eliminating millions of jobs, then the best response is not to demand the jobs back, but to spread the wealth—to give back what the 1 Percent has stolen from everybody else—so that people can afford to lead comfortable lives without always worrying about the cost of housing or the size of their credit card bills.

There are different varieties of accelerationism. At one extreme, accelerationism might embrace the idea that the worse things get, the better the prospect for a revolution to overthrow everything. This seems obviously foolish to me, and I don’t think that it is actually advocated by many accelerationists.

Much more subtly, Marx claimed that the contradictions that beset capitalism would eventually lead to a struggle between workers and capitalists. He hoped that this struggle would end in the establishment of communism, but he warned that it could also result in ‘the mutual destruction of the contending parties.’

Marx was saying that, due to its inherent strains and stresses, capitalism will lead to catastrophe if it isn’t somehow overcome. This is an accelerationist view, to the extent that it sees the possibilities for overcoming capitalism arising out of the very development of capitalism as a world system. But this doesn’t happen in any mechanistic or predetermined way.

As for how redistribution of wealth might be related to accelerationism—when somebody like Thomas Piketty argues for global taxes in order to force a redistribution of wealth, he is trying to save the capitalist system from its own self-destructive excesses. But as Slavoj Zizek has observed, the rich will never pay such a tax voluntarily; so just getting such a tax enacted would involve other changes as well, indeed radical ones that would change capitalism substantially.”

There’s much more in this groundbreaking text; to read the full interview in Vice, just click here.

Nell Shipman and Back To God’s Country

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017


Here’s an excellent article from Offscreen on the pioneer filmmaker and film actor Nell Shipman.

As the author of the piece, David George Menard, writes, “to discuss the role of women in Canada’s film culture, and even in Hollywood’s film culture, over a period of about a hundred years, is to discuss absence, gaps, discontinuities, and distortion. The images of women in feature films are distorted by a male dominated industry, and at times, inflated through men’s visual obsessions. The trend in any film culture over the last century has been to display the images of women as adjuncts to images of men.

The visual ideas of women have been represented as symbols of ‘otherness’, reflecting the male dominated world of filmmaking, a world of male narcissism and power. Although women have made great contributions to the world of film throughout its history, such efforts have been obscured and belittled —the visions and voices of the women of cinema have been suppressed.

This historical fact is unfortunate because there were great women film pioneers such as Alice Guy who made the first edited fiction film, La Fee Aux Choux (1896); Esther Shub who created the art of compilation film, as seen in The Fall Of The Romanov Dynasty (1927); Lotte Reiniger who made a feature length film a decade before Disney, as seen in The Adventures Of Prince Ahmed (1926); and finally there was Nell Shipman from Canada, also a scriptwriter and a star actress who performed as the principal protagonist in one of Canada’s earliest major feature length film, Back To God’s Country, released on October 27th, 1919.

In the early days of cinema, many young women embarked on acting careers to become Hollywood starlets. Some of the actresses who succeeded at this grand and noble endeavor sometime showed remarkable versatility behind the cameras, and many of them became writers, directors, and producers. Nell Shipman was one of these talented women. She was born Helen Barham in 1892, Victoria, British Columbia.

At the young age of thirteen, she left home to attend acting school. In 1907, she performed in the Jesse Lasky play The Pianophiends. In 1909, she was the leading lady in the Charles Taylor play The Girl From Alaska. In 1910, she got the leading role in The Barrier, a play produced by the famous Canadian producer and theatrical entrepreneur Ernest Shipman, whom she married in 1911.

Thereafter, Nell and Ernest moved to Pasadena, California, in an attempt to wedge their way into the film business. In 1912, Nell Shipman won a script writing contest sponsored by the Tally Theater in Los Angeles, and her winning script, Outwitted Billy, was produced by Selig Polyscope in 1913. In 1914, she scripted the first film produced in Australia, Shepherd Of The Southern Cross.

In 1915, she accepted the leading role in a film, produced by the Vitagraph studios, playing a character from a script adapted from James Oliver Curwood’s novel God’s Country And The Woman. The picture, her first film for a major film company, was an outstanding success, and resulted in movie contracts with Vitagraph, Fox, and Lasky for 1916-17, a period in which she completed thirteen films. All of Nell Shipman’s film experience to this point set the stage for one of Canada’s earliest feature length film, Back To God’s Country.”

There’s much more to read; click here, or on the image above, to read the entire essay.

Offscreen – An Essential Canadian Film Journal

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

Here’s an absolutely essential, completely free film journal that deserves much more attention.

I came across this journal this morning, and was shocked that I hadn’t heard of it before – mea culpa! Offscreen, an online film journal based in Canada, offers a refreshing alternative to the Hollywood based fan mania which is currently inundating the web, and showcases the major contributions that Canadian cinema – often neglected in the United States – offers to cinema culture and practice.

As the journal’s editor, Donato Totaro notes, “Offscreen has been online since 1997, along with its French language sister journal Hors Champ. Based in Montréal, Offscreen is a wide-ranging film journal that covers film festivals, retrospectives, film forums, and both popular and more academic events. Part of our mandate is to cover the Montreal film scene, but within an international context. The scope of its content, and the type of material featured and promoted in Offscreen can be summarized as follows:

  1. personal and independent film above big budget, formulaic film
  2. the under-represented (young, up and coming filmmakers)
  3. films with creative design and broad social commitment
  4. local and Canadian films/filmmakers
  5. Asian and alternative cinemas (horror, exploitation, esoteric,
    experimental, documentary, etc.)

Offscreen features extensive interviews, in-depth festival coverage, and lengthy, well-researched essays. The latter is in line with the guiding editorial policy at Offscreen, which is to allow for the flexibility to feature rigorous, well-researched texts alongside material that does not fit into traditional scholarly formats (director interviews, film festival reports, DVD reviews, etc.).

In short, our goal is to produce intelligent, thoughtful, and combative film criticism, analysis, discussion, and theory. We are driven to this end because we feel strongly that, within today’s image saturated info-entertainment landscape, cinema needs to be rigorously discussed in order to continue being an important voice of cultural and artistic expression well into the 21st century.”

It’s an excellent journal, and I found several articles of immediate interest. Click here, or on the image above to go straight to the journal’s website, and see for yourself the wealth of material available, covering everything from experimental cinema to indie features, decisively in favor of independent visions over corporate franchise films. It’s really breath of fresh air, and I recommend it highly.

Check out Offscreen by clicking here, or on the image above – happy reading!

Manohla Dargis & A.O. Scott – Best 25 of the 21st Century

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott of The New York Times pick the best films of the 21st century.

As they immediately add, “so far.” The introduction to the article notes that “we are now approximately one-sixth of the way through the 21st century, and thousands of movies have already been released. Which means that it’s high time for the sorting – and the fighting – to start.

As the chief film critics of The Times, we decided to rank, with some help from cinema savants on Facebook, the top 25 movies that are destined to be the classics of the future. While we’re sure almost everyone will agree with our choices, we’re equally sure that those of you who don’t will let us know.” And we’re off to the races.

My favorites on the list are The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Boyhood, Summer Hours [I was genuinely surprised and delighted to see this film on the list, but even so, I would have gone with Clouds of Sils Maria, but hey . . . Assayas is a master, so fine with me], The Hurt Locker [shot by multiple crews in Super 16mm so it looks as real as any battlefield coverage], In Jackson Heights, The Gleaners and I, Moonlight, Wendy and Lucy, and the exquisite Silent Light.

Missing for me immediately are The Aura and Melancholia, two stunning films that have gone into my ever-expanding Top Ten list, which now has at least 250 films in it, but that’s the fun of these listings, and it’s a solid stab at what will be remembered, and revered in the future. I’ll never, ever vote for a Pixar film, that’s for sure, but these are all solid and thoughtful choices, the kind of journalism we could use more of in daily newspapers.

Read the entire lavishly illustrated article by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Mummy – Brutal Reviews And A $177M Opening Week

Wednesday, June 7th, 2017

The 2017 Mummy is out; the reviews are brutal, and yet it still seems destined to make a fortune.

As I wrote in an article earlier this year, “The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age,” “Universal is desperate to restore their ‘creations’ to some semblance of their former glory, but the 2017 version of The Mummy promises little in the way of originality or imagination, while piling on the special effects and action sequences in a frenzied attempt to sustain flagging audience interest.

Copying the Marvel and DC Universe method of churning out franchise films on a regular basis, Universal is plowing ahead with a similarly designed program – the so-called Dark Universe – of entries in the coming years, with Johnny Depp tentatively attached as the lead in a reboot of The Invisible Man; Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson potentially linked to a reboot of The Wolf Man; and a remake of the 2004 film Van Helsing.

Scarlett Johansson is being considered for a remake of The Creature from The Black Lagoon; with Javier Bardem, perhaps, as the monster in a remake of The Bride of Frankenstein, with Angelia Jolie considered for the role of the Bride. These are tentative casting choices at the moment, but no doubt, one ‘A’ list star or another will appear in each of these reboot attempts.

Noted Universal chairperson Donna Langley of this strategy, ‘we have to mine our resources. We don’t have any capes [in our film library; but what about Dracula?]. But what we do have is an incredible legacy and history with the monster characters. We’ve tried over the years to make monster movies — unsuccessfully, actually. So, we took a good, hard look at it, and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre, put it more in the action-adventure genre and make it present day, bringing these incredibly rich and complex characters into present day and reimagine them and reintroduce them to a contemporary audience.’

I would argue that it’s not going to work; that it hasn’t worked thus far; and that it won’t work in the future. Indeed, this would seem to me to be the very worst possible strategy. The Frankenstein legend, and with it The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and Dracula are not material for a Bourne or Mission: Impossible series – they’re not action movie characters.

All this will do is degrade the material further. Horror films are not action films; they’re films that inspire genuine dread. The original Mummy, for example, depended upon pacing, atmosphere, and Karloff’s iconic performance in the title role. Only by returning to the source material, treated with utmost fidelity, can anything worthwhile be attained.”

Critic A.O Scott in The New York Times commented that the 2017 version of The Mummy “deserves a quick burial,” adding “it will be argued that this one was made not for the critics but for the fans. Which is no doubt true. Every con game is played with suckers in mind.” Harsh. And the other major critics aren’t far behind. But as Nancy Tartaglione and Anthony D’Alessandro argue in the trade journal Deadline, The Mummy could “turn out to be Tom Cruise’s biggest global opening of all-time with [a] $177M [opening weekend]” despite a lackluster US showing at the box-office, noting that “industry sources tell us that The Mummy stands to clear $125M-$135M in its overseas release in 63 territories, which when added to its domestic range puts global between $160M–$177M

On the high end, that would be a record global opening for Cruise, besting War of the Worlds which posted a traditional global opening of $167.4M (3-day domestic + 5-day foreign; Box Office Mojo’s $203.1M figure rolls in extra domestic days). After War of the Worlds, Cruise’s next best worldwide debut is Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation ($120.5M).” So, is there a link between quality and profitability? Or are we just making one cash cow after another? It saddens me that it’s come to this, but it has; everything is a franchise, and everything is a “Universe.”

As A.O. Scott concludes, “the old black-and-white Universal horror movies were a mixed bag, but they had some imagination. They could be creepy or campy, weird or lyrical. The Mummy gestures — or flails — in a number of directions but settles into the dreary 21st-century action-blockbuster template. There’s chasing and fighting, punctuated by bouts of breathless explaining and a few one-liners that an archaeologist of the future might tentatively decode as jokes. A more interesting movie might have involved a similar struggle within Ahmanet [the film’s central character], but a more interesting movie was not on anybody’s mind.”

Only by returning to the roots of Universal horror can anything worthwhile be achieved. 

Maybe VR Isn’t The Future of Cinema – Just a Gimmick?

Friday, May 5th, 2017

Many Best Buy VR pop-up stores closed in February; now Facebook is shutting down its Oculus Story Studio.

As Janko Roettgers reported in Variety, “Oculus Story Studio, the award-winning studio behind virtual reality (VR) short films like Dear Angelica and Henry is being shut down, Facebook announced Thursday afternoon. The studio’s 50 staffers are encouraged to apply for new jobs within Oculus, but all ongoing projects of the studio are being cancelled.

‘We’ve been looking at the best way to allocate our resources to create an impact on the ecosystem,’ said Oculus VP of Content Jason Rubin in a blog post. ‘After careful consideration, we’ve decided to shift our focus away from internal content creation to support more external production. As part of that shift, we’ll be winding down Story Studio.’

Oculus officially unveiled Story Studio to the world in early 2015, when it also premiered Lost as the studio’s first narrative piece. In 2016, Story Studio followed up with Henry, an animated VR short about a lovable hedgehog that won an Emmy for Outstanding Original Interactive Program later that year. And earlier this year, Oculus Story Studio premiered its most ambitious project with Dear Angelica, a VR film that was animated entirely within VR itself and that featured Geena Davis voicing one of the two main characters.

All three films will continue to be available on the Oculus Store, Rubin said Thursday. For Dear Angelica, the Story Studio team also developed an entire authoring tool called Quill that allows animators to draw 3-D scenes while wearing a headset and that has been available for free on the Oculus Store. Quill could be open sourced, according to a spokesperson, but Oculus is not going to provide any active support for it anymore.

That could be bad news for animators looking to explore new forms of storytelling in VR; the Story Studio team had in recent months been looking to venture into 3-D comics, and debuted a collection of VR comics at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. At the time, it announced that these comics would be released on the Oculus Store later this year, but that seems less certain now.”

This comes on the heels of an announcement in February 2017 that roughly 200 “pop up” Oculus demo booths located in Best Buy stores in the United States were being shuttered due to lack of consumer interest. As Michael Rougeau reported in Digital Trends, “just under half of the Oculus Rift demo kiosks in Best Buy stores across the U.S. are being shut down, according to a report from Business Insider. The reason? It could be a lack of interest from shoppers.

Apparently, it wasn’t uncommon for Best Buy employees ‘to go days without giving a single demonstration,’ the website said. A memo between a third-party company and store employees reportedly confirmed that the move is due to poor ‘store performance.’ An Oculus spokesperson later confirmed with the website that the Best Buy Rift pop-ups are closing, but said the shift is due to ‘seasonal changes’ and that Oculus is ‘prioritizing demos … in larger markets.’

The move will reportedly affect 200 of the 500 Best Buy locations in the U.S. that currently have Oculus Rift demo stations. ‘We still believe the best way to learn about VR is through a live demo,’ the spokesperson, Andrea Schubert, said. ‘We’re going to find opportunities to do regular events and pop-ups in retail locations and local communities throughout the year.’ She mentioned that stores in Canada will still have the demo kiosks as well.

Business Insider’s report cited multiple unnamed sources who said that the demo stations were often too buggy to use and demos were infrequent even during the holidays. Another of the site’s sources said that Facebook, which owns Oculus, has considered opening dedicated storefronts to sell the headset, but that those talks are still in the early stage.” Summing up the move, Rougeau noted that “the removal of Oculus Rift kiosks from Best Buy stores may be a signal of the product’s declining status.”

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the coming months.

Lucy Fischer’s New Book “Cinema By Design”

Friday, May 5th, 2017

Lucy Fischer has an excellent new book out on the influence of Art Nouveau in film.

As the website for the book from Columbia University Press notes, “Art Nouveau thrived from the late 1890s through the First World War. The international design movement reveled in curvilinear forms and both playful and macabre visions and had a deep impact on cinematic art direction, costuming, gender representation, genre, and theme. Though historians have long dismissed Art Nouveau as a decadent cultural mode, its tremendous afterlife in cinema proves otherwise. In Cinema by Design, Lucy Fischer traces Art Nouveau’s long history in films from various decades and global locales, appreciating the movement’s enduring avant-garde aesthetics and dynamic ideology.

Fischer begins with the portrayal of women and nature in the magical ‘trick films’ of the Spanish director Segundo de Chomón; the elite dress and décor design choices in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Affairs of Anatol (1921); and the mise-en-scène of fantasy in Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Reading Salome (1923), Fischer shows how the cinema offered an engaging frame for adapting the risqué works of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Moving to the modern era, Fischer focuses on a series of dramatic films, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), that make creative use of the architecture of Antoni Gaudí; and several European works of horror—The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Deep Red (1975), and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013)—in which Art Nouveau architecture and narrative supply unique resonances in scenes of terror.

In later chapters, she examines films like Klimt (2006) that portray the style in relation to the art world and ends by discussing the Art Nouveau revival in 1960s cinema. Fischer’s analysis brings into focus the partnership between Art Nouveau’s fascination with the illogical and the unconventional and filmmakers’ desire to upend viewers’ perception of the world. Her work explains why an art movement embedded in modernist sensibilities can flourish in contemporary film through its visions of nature, gender, sexuality, and the exotic.”

This is a brilliant and wide-ranging book, written in a direct and accessible style, which moves smoothly from one film to another, and one era to another, effortlessly navigating both space and time in cinema history, in a text which is at once adventurous, incisive, and thoroughly grounded in cinema and art history. Fischer is a brilliant scholar whose work is always deeply informed and carefully considered, and with this book, she tackles a theme in cinema art direction which is far more wide-spread than one might expect. Complete with a plethora of illustrations, this is a must have text for any lover of film.

Again, proof of the old saying that the only new history is that which you don’t know – essential reading.

Books Are Still An Essential Part of Any Library

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

A library without books isn’t a serious library – too much material hasn’t been digitized.

In an interview in The Christian Science Monitor today, I told writer Weston Williams that “‘as the author of some 30 books on cinema history, I can readily attest that most of the deep research materials in this area, and in other related humanities areas, have never made the jump to digital format . . . The more superficial and recent articles are readily available, but once you get into the history of the medium, in the early part of the 20th century, you’re working with microfilm, or even more likely, actual print materials.’

Ignoring these older physical media, Dixon argues, is ‘erasing the past,’ until every scrap of information is online. And even then, there are other potential problems. The removal of 60 percent of the physical collection at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for instance, caused an uproar after it was reported that many of the books removed had been destroyed. A campus spokesman said that nothing had been lost from the scholarly record, since duplicates were retained in other libraries or available online. Given the short timeframe and seeming lack of consultation of the faculty, however, many critics expressed doubts that this was actually the case.

‘Only by trundling through the archives in detail – a process that would probably take a staff of people a number of years – could one be sure that nothing not digitized was being eliminated,’ says Dixon. ‘Also, in a number of cases, when materials are scanned, a very bad job is done of it, and the scan quality is so poor as to make the document almost unreadable.’ So, in most cases the primary research sources one needs for serious humanities research simply aren’t online – as I found writing my recent book Black & White Cinema: A Short History – and only print materials, properly preserved, gave me the information I needed.

If everything – everything – every scrap of information – is digitized, then perhaps one can make the case for a “bookless library.” But that will never happen, and so books, microfilm, periodicals, and other print materials from the dawn of the printing press to the end of the 20th century should be preserved at all costs, and readily accessible – not in high density storage. Otherwise, one has no idea what one is missing, which is indeed erasing the past.

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

About the Author

Headshot of 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 Fast Company, 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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