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New Book: Cinema at The Margins

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

I have a new book out today, Cinema at The Margins, from Anthem Press, London.

More and more, just a few canonical classics, such as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) or Victor Fleming’s Gone With The Wind (1939), are representing the entire output of an era to a new generation that knows little of the past, and is encouraged by popular media to live only in the eternal present. What will happen to the rest of the films that enchanted, informed and transported audiences in the 1930s, 1940s, and even as recently as the 1960s?

For the most part, these films will be forgotten, and their makers with them. In this book, I argue that even obvious historical markers such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) represent shockingly unknown territory for the majority of today’s younger viewers; and yet once exposed to these films, they are enthralled by them. In the 1980s and 1990s, the more adventurous video stores served a vital function as annals of classic cinema. Today, those stores are gone and the days of this kind of browsing are over.

This collection of essays aims to highlight some of the lesser-known films of the past – the titles that are being pushed aside and forgotten in today’s oversaturation of the present. The work is divided into four sections, rehabilitating the films and filmmakers who have created some of the most memorable phantom visions of the past century, but who, for whatever reason, have not successfully made the jump into the contemporary consciousness.

“Few have explored the cinematic margins as thoroughly as Wheeler Winston Dixon, and few match his talent for finding and celebrating the secret glories of overlooked, undervalued films. Gliding from Peter Bogdanovich to Myra Breckinridge by way of Robert Bresson, this is an exciting and ever-surprising collection.” —David Sterritt, Columbia University and Chair, National Society of Film Critics

“The marginalization of important films is a constant threat in the age of the New Hollywood blockbuster, with commercial cinema reduced to a cheap thrill and the audience conceived as adolescents. Dixon’s thoughtful remarks on neglected films testify not only to his own fine sensibility, but to the urgency of the concerns he sets before us.” —Christopher Sharrett, Seton Hall University

You can read more here, or click on the image above; available now from Amazon in all formats.

We Like You So Much and Want To Know You Better

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

Dave Eggers’ brilliant new novel The Circle explores the culture of forced consensus and hypersurveillance.

Dave Eggers is a brilliant novelist, and his previous works have certainly captured my imagination, but with his newest book, The Circle, to be published October 8th, he hits a note that particularly resonates in our “everywhere-at-once” culture. The protagonist, Mae, goes to work for a large social networking colossus, and while she is initially impressed by the splendor and grandeur of her corporate surroundings, she soon finds herself being seduced into a culture of continual updates, shared personal information, and an endless chain of “social connections” and roving video cameras that render humanity virtually obsolete.

As with George Orwell’s 1984, which The Circle is often compared to, but also Joseph Heller’s brilliant 1974 novel Something Happened, which has somehow disappeared from the canon of 20th century fiction, and is perhaps the most unsparing exposé of corporate culture the literary world has ever produced, The Circle unsparingly documents the false bonhomie, the lies, the surface “friendliness” that lies at thedark heart of corporate culture, where people are almost instantly disposable unless they go along with the group, as in 1984.

The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy excerpt from the book this past Sunday, and thankfully, it’s online, so I can link to it both here, and on the image above. It’s supposed to be fiction, of course, but it’s all too close to the truth in the way that contemporary corporations treat their employees, as endless extensions of their culture, while denying them a life of their own. The excerpt begins with these words:

“My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven. The campus was vast and rambling, wild with Pacific color, and yet the smallest detail had been carefully considered, shaped by the most eloquent hands. On land that had once been a shipyard, then a drive-in movie theater, then a flea market, then blight, there were now soft green hills and a Calatrava fountain. And a picnic area, with tables arranged in concentric circles. And tennis courts, clay and grass. And a volleyball court, where tiny children from the company’s day care center were running, squealing, weaving like water. Amid all this was a workplace, too, 400 acres of brushed steel and glass on the headquarters of the most influential company in the world. The sky above was spotless and blue.

Mae was making her way through all of this, walking from the parking lot to the main hall, trying to look as if she belonged. The walkway wound around lemon and orange trees, and its quiet red cobblestones were replaced, occasionally, by tiles with imploring messages of inspiration. ‘Dream,’ one said, the word laser-cut into the stone. ‘Participate,’ said another. There were dozens: ‘Find Community.’ ‘Innovate.’ ‘Imagine.’ She just missed stepping on the hand of a young man in a gray jumpsuit; he was installing a new stone that said, ‘Breathe.’

On a sunny Monday in June, Mae stopped in front of the main door, standing below the logo etched into the glass above. Though the company was less than six years old, its name and logo — a circle surrounding a knitted grid, with a small ‘c’ in the center — were already among the best known in the world. There were more than 10,000 employees on this, the main campus, but the Circle had offices all over the globe and was hiring hundreds of gifted young minds every week. It had been voted the world’s most admired company four years running.”

Of course, many of the reviewers thus far have remarked on the implicit irony of reading a book about social networking, and then immediately going on to Twitter or Facebook to “share” the news with others. But since I have no Facebook account, and don’t Tweet, I’ll confine my comments to this blog, which is more than enough. I’m more a fan of history than fiction, but this is fiction that is also the present truth, if only we take a closer look at it.

You can read the rest of the excerpt by clicking here; better yet, buy the book and zoom through the whole thing. It’s a frightening, prophetic page turner, and you literally won’t be able to put The Circle down; it’s essential reading.

‘In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema’ by Gabriele Pedullà

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

I have a review of Gabriele Pedullà’s book In Broad Daylight in the new issue of Film International.

As I write, “This slight but explosive volume, published in an English translation by Verso in 2012, has been kicking around on my work desk for about a year. I wrote a rather negative review of it for Choice, the library journal, and while I don’t want to recant anything I said there, I nevertheless find the book sticking with me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I don’t agree with most of what Pedullà has to say, as I’ll detail, but he puts up a good fight.

Pedullà, a professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of Rome 3 and visiting professor at Stanford, is first and foremost a polemicist – he’s the guy who throws verbal bombs into the mix, and phrases statements of opinion as if they were fact. But for all of that, there is really very little that’s controversial here. Pedullà’s main thesis is inarguably correct, at least from my perspective; the era of dominance for the theatrical exhibition of motion pictures is finished. Or as he puts it on the opening page of his book,

‘The age of cinema, it is commonly claimed, is now drawing to a close. Day after day signs of a profound change in our relationship with moving images proliferate. The winnowing of box-office receipts, the shrinking size of the audience, the decreasing time lag between a film’s theatrical release and it commercialization on video, television’s growing cultural prestige: these indications, at once social, economic and aesthetic – only make the prophecy all the more credible. If cinema for decades represented the standard and even optimal filmic experience, the touchstone for all other forms of viewing, this formerly undisputed and indisputable centrality is today contested at its very core.’

All true, and yet, as I thought then, and still do now, Pedullà protests too much. The impact of web here is barely even mentioned, and as for ‘television’s growing cultural prestige,’ I have serious doubt about that. For Pedullà, the idea that viewing a film in a theater is the optimal way to see a film is an object of ridicule; summoning up derisively the words of Chris Marker as a member of the ‘old guard,’ Pedullà quotes Marker as noting that ‘on television, you can see the shadow of a film, the trace of a film, the nostalgia, the echo of a film, but never the film,’ and then takes Jean Eustache to task for the similar statement that ‘you can discover a film only at the movie theater.’

To these statements, which to my mind have more than a grain of truth to them, Pedullà’s disdain notwithstanding, I would add the words of the late director Roy Ward Baker, a friend of mine, who directed the only really first-rate film on the Titanic disaster (A Night To Remember, 1958). During an afternoon’s discussion in 1994 at his home in London, Baker told me that he’d been shocked by the impact of viewing a recent theatrical screening of A Night To Remember at a retrospective of his work at Britain’s National Film Theatre.

As Baker told me, ‘I felt like I was seeing it for the first time, you know? Like it was real again. I’d grown so used to seeing it on television, I’d forgotten what it was really like.’ Then, he leaned forward and said two sentences that I have never forgotten since; at least for me, they cut to the center of this entire argument. ‘You see’ Baker said, ‘on television, or on a DVD, you can inspect a film. But you can’t experience it.’ That comment hit me like a bolt of lightning; true, direct, and utterly incisive.”

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

Robert Heide on the Death of A Great Newspaper – The Village Voice

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Click here to read Bob’s full story in WestView News on this deeply troubling event.

The Village Voice used to be the arts newspaper in New York. It had the best film criticism – Andrew Sarris, Jonas Mekas, Jim Hoberman, Amy Taubin and many others all wrote for The Voice. It had the best critics in dance, theater, literature, and the liveliest coverage of the New York City scene in general. It was, indeed, essential reading. You couldn’t really say you were “up” on the arts in the city without it.

Then, The Voice went “free,” when it used to be sold on newsstands, and could thus have some independence from advertisers, which was the beginning of the end, and then it was sold to a national conglomerate that runs supposedly “alternative” newspapers, and then management started firing people, thinking they could just plug in this or that person and the quality would be the same, but it isn’t.

This leads to cultural degradation; as Ian McEwan, the distinguished British author of such novels as Atonement and Amsterdam, said of criticism from people who clearly have no idea what they’re talking about: “Reviewing takes expertise, wisdom and judgment. I am not much fond of the notion that anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s.” This is now in short supply at The Voice, which has gone from being an essential part of city life to a throwaway piece of trash that isn’t fit for wrapping fish.

But the management won’t care; as long as they can sell ad space, and hire a few freelancers to write some meager editorial content, they’ll be content. They don’t want care about running a newspaper; they just want a vehicle for their advertisers. The demise of a great newspaper is always a sad event; in the case of The Voice, there is nothing that even come close to replacing it for those who read it, and for those whose wit and intelligence graced its pages for so many years.

This is the end of The Village Voice, and I am sorry to see it go; its coverage is irreplaceable.

Before They Were Movies

Monday, August 12th, 2013

Today I took part in a radio discussion of books made into films on the NPR affiliate KNPR, Las Vegas.

Thanks to producer Ian Mylchreest, I was asked to appear with Rebecca Romney of Bauman’s Rare Books to discuss famous books that have been made into films, including The Great Gatsby, To Kill A Mockingbird, Gone With the Wind and many more. As the show’s website above notes, “Bauman’s Rare Books in the Palazzo Shoppes has assembled an exhibition of novels that became famous films. The store has everything from a signed copy of Gone with the Wind to first editions of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. We look at some of the books and the movies that were made — what kind of books makes a great movie?” It was a fascinating discussion, and you can listen to it by clicking here, or on the image above.

Many thanks to KNPR for this opportunity; I had a great time.

Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access on “Inquiry” with Mark Lynch

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

I just did an interview with host Mark Lynch on the radio program Inquiry, from NPR affiliate WICN in Worcester, MA, on my new book, Streaming.

As it says on the website for the podcast of the show, “Tonight on Inquiry we welcome back Wheeler Winston Dixon. He is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies and professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His new book is Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access. Professor Dixon declares that we are now in the “postfilmic era”, a time when movie film will no longer exist and all movies will be shot digitally. DVDs will also cease to exist as all films will be “streamed” and movie houses, those that are still extant, will only show digital copies of movies. But what are the implications of all of this for the art of film, the preservation of old films and how we watch movies? The answers are disheartening and  a little bit frightening. Tune in and find out why.”

And you can tune in by clicking here, or on the image above.

Lissa Price’s Enders Cover Debuts

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

And while we’re in a YA mood, the paperback edition of Lissa Price’s Starters debuts tomorrow — and here’s a sneak peek at the cover of the sequel, Enders.

As Breia Brissey writes in today’s edition of Entertainment Weekly, “the paperback version of Starters, author Lissa Price’s debut novel, hits shelves tomorrow. In honor of the re-release—complete with a new look, and a never-been-seen short story “Portrait of a Spore”—we got our hands on the cover of Enders, the sequel to the 2012 YA novel, due out January 7, 2014.” Starters and Enders are the hot new young adult novels on the scene; the film versions of these books are a natural, because both novels offer something new and fresh for readers and viewers, rather than rehashing yet another tired franchise.

Lissa Price can really write page turning stuff, and these books are both really fast paced, absorbing reading, no matter what your age. Starters really impressed me — assured, fast moving, great characters, and an absolutely original plot. And to top it off, if you click here, or on the image above, you can see a brief preview from Enders – about ten compelling pages that will leave you wanting more, right now – at the bottom of the page.

Check it out — after The Hunger Games, this is the next big thing!

Streaming Directly from the Cloud to Your Brain

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

I have a new interview in Moving Image Archive News on my recent book, Streaming.

As I note in the interview, “I’ve watched film change and morph for more than half a century. As I grew up, everything was being shown in theaters in 35mm, and at colleges, universities and libraries in 16mm, and there was, of course, no such thing as home video, VHS or DVD. Films screened on television were really ’streaming’ – they were broadcast at a certain date and time, and you had to be present at that time to see them.

I remember vividly setting my alarm clock for 1 a.m. or later to see films on WCBS TV’s The Late Show, and then The Late, Late Show, and even The Late, Late, Late Show, which is how I saw most of the classics growing up. I would also haunt revival theaters in New York City, such as the Thalia and the New Yorker, to see the classics projected in their proper format.

Video, of course, has been around since the early 1950s, but I don’t think anyone, even professional archivists, ever thought it would completely replace film, but it has. 16mm is completely defunct as a production medium, except in the case of Super 16mm which is used sometimes in features (such as The Hurt Locker) to save costs, but then blown up to 35mm, or now, skipping that step entirely and moving straight to a DCP.

Film is finished. It’s simply a fact. 35mm and 16mm projection are now a completely rarity, and screenings on actual film are becoming ‘events,’ rather than the norm. This is simply a platform shift, and it comes with various problems, mainly archiving the digital image, which is much more unstable than film.

But with the image quality of RED cameras for production, and digital projection taking over, it’s an inescapable fact that shooting on film is now the moving image equivalent of stone lithography. So now, my own viewing habits have moved to DVD and Blu-Ray, and I have a ridiculously large collection of DVDs in my home library, some 10,000 or more.

I have to have them in this format, because I can’t count on the quality of streaming videos from Netflix, Amazon, or other online sources. Blu-Ray, in particular, yields a truly remarkable image. So that’s how I watch films now, and in any event, the revival houses, even in major cities, are all now pretty much a thing of the past.”

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

Book: Hopper by Tom Folsom

Friday, June 14th, 2013

Tom Folsom’s new book on the life and work of Dennis Hopper is a knockout.

Madman, shaman, mystic, brilliant actor and filmmaker and a complete pain in the neck, Dennis Hopper started out in the early 50s with a chip on his shoulder and enormous talent, falling in with James Dean and appearing in Rebel Without A Cause, though clashes with the director, Nicholas Ray, caused his part in the film to be severely cut down. What followed was an epic journey through the last days of the Hollywood studio system, the making of the counter-culture classic Easy Rider, and his lost masterpiece, The Last Movie, which as Folsom makes clear went through so many different edits that a “definitive” version of the work is almost impossible to identify. After that, a spiral into drugs and madness, and then one of the biggest comebacks in film history in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a whole second career as a director of his own films, an artist, and a world class collector of other people’s work.

Using archival sources and interviews, writing in a free form style reminiscent of both Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, Folsom paints a compelling, multifaceted picture of this deeply conflicted and influential filmmaker, pursued by countless demons of his own making, and yet still able to create work of lasting beauty and quality despite it all. I met Hopper just once, at a screening of The Last Movie at Preview Theater in New York in 1971, just before the film came out; I was editing one of my own films there, and stumbled into him in the hallway, looking for change for the Coke machine. He invited me to the screening, which was specially set up for critic Judith Crist — who clearly didn’t like or understand the film — and was polite and forthcoming about the difficulties of the film even for an unsympathetic viewer, which Crist clearly was. Universal hated the movie, too, and dumped it in one theater, where it closed in a few weeks; never mind that it had won the Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

For myself, I was knocked out by the film, and had another connection to it — my friend and colleague Brad Darrach at Life Magazine, where I worked as a writer and critic in 1969-70, had gone down to South America for the shoot, and witnessed all the madness, excess and brilliance of the production first hand, so I had a pretty good idea what to expect. Sadly, and somewhat amazingly, the film isn’t available legally on DVD, though bootlegs and downloads abound, perhaps appropriately for such an outlaw film. But it would seem that it’s time for Universal to put out The Last Movie in an official version, so that everyone can see for themselves what Hopper was capable of when left alone with a decent budget and complete creative freedom, including final cut — one of the most adventurous, challenging, and utterly original movies ever made.

Until then, The Last Movie is yet another “lost” film that needs a DVD release; in the meantime, read Tom Folsom’s book.

Mr. B.I.G.

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Orson Welles and director Bert I. Gordon on the set of Gordon’s film Necromancy (1972).

He never made any big budget films, and never really made any truly successful films, but Bert I. Gordon’s threadbare special effects extravaganzas, if that’s the right word for them, have a place in the affections of many film goers from the 1950s and 1960s. With such titles as The Cyclops, The Amazing Colossal Man, Beginning of the End (all 1957), Earth vs. the Spider, War of the Colossal Beast, and Attack of the Puppet People (all 1958), along with many other films to his credit, Gordon seemed obsessed with films that employed bargain basement trick photography (which Gordon himself was responsible for) to create images of enormous animals, insects, and/or humans wreaking havoc on society, shot in matter-of-fact black and white, and presented with ruthless economy in every department.

For sheer absurdity, they’re hard to top; perhaps my favorite moment in any of his films comes in Earth vs. The Spider, in which a group of teenagers accidentally discover a truly enormous and seemingly lifeless arachnid in a local cavern. The spider is subsequently transported to the local high school gymnasium (of course) for further study. Naturally, the students decide that this would be an excellent time for a rock and roll dance party, which awakens the spider, allowing it to embark on yet another murderous rampage. It’s all junk, but it’s pop art junk, and a real part of the American cinema experience in the 1950s, and for 75 minutes or so, worth the time to view as an authentic talisman of a vanished era. Still alive as of this writing, Gordon is in retirement, but his films are shown all the time on television, and many are available on DVD.

To see a brief video interview from 2010 with Bert I. Gordon, click 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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/