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Juan Orol, Phantom of the Mexican Cinema

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International on the prolific Mexican filmmaker Juan Orol.

As I write, in part, “Juan Orol’s “first directorial credit was on the 1927 silent film El sendero gris (1927, co-directed with Jesús Cárdenas), but his first big hit was the 1935 maternal tearjerker Madre querida (Beloved Mother), which he produced, directed, and introduced on screen, with a seemingly heartfelt paean to all the mothers in the audience, in addition to providing the story for the film. This was followed by the equally sudsy Honrarás a tus padres (Honor Thy Mother and Father, 1937), which Orol produced, directed, and starred in – this last function serving as the beginning of a long string of performances in his films, despite his somewhat unprepossessing appeal as a matinee idol.

After exhausting the public’s appetite for melodrama and musicals, Orol turned to gangster films, and soon became the foremost exponent of the ‘Cine Negro Mexicano,’ also known as the ‘Cine de Gangsters.’ It was here that Orol truly found his métier. Orol idolized the Warner Bros. gangster films of the early 1930s, and imagined himself as a worthy competitor of the likes of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. Soon, he invented a recurring character that he would play for most of the rest of his life – Johnny Carmenta, a supposedly suave denizen of the underworld who would eventually become Orol’s almost real-life alter ego.

This gave rise to the best-known film of Orol’s long career, the genre bending Gángsters contra charros (Gangsters Against Cowboys, 1948), in which Orol, as gangster Johnny Carmenta, battles cowboy Pancho Domínguez (José Pulido) in a Mexico City turf war, further complicated by the presence of cabaret dancer Rosa (Rosa Carmina, who was also Orol’s third wife at the time), who deftly plays one man off against the other. As with the majority of Orol’s films, most of the 79 minute running time of Gángsters contra charros is comprised of long dialogue scenes, in which Orol and Pulido threaten each other with a singular lack of conviction, interspersed with equally interminable series of dance numbers, making the film in effect a gangster/cowboy/musical. Despite its shoddy production values, audiences flocked to the film, and Orol seemed utterly unstoppable.

Demonstrating the truth of Jack Warner’s oft repeated mantra, ’successful films aren’t made; they’re remade,’ Orol created an updated version of Madre querida (Beloved Mother) in 1951, and then continued on for the next two decades with such offerings as El sindicato del crimen (The Crime Syndicate, 1954), Zonga, el ángel diabólico (Zonga, the Diabolical Angel, 1958), Antesala de la silla eléctrica (Prelude to the Electric Chair, 1968, which was actually shot in Miami, Florida) and Historia de un gangster (Story of a Gangster, 1969) [. . .]

Dubbed the creator of ‘accidental surrealism,’ the world that Orol’s films depict is at once alluring and evanescent, existing in a twilight zone of cheap sets, shabby nightclub acts, and the seemingly eternal presence of Orol’s gangster alter ego. Like [Roger] Corman in his best films, his early black and white work from the 1950s, Orol presented his viewers with a world of pervasive corruption, yet infused with his own sense of indomitable optimism.

Pop culture reflects the needs and desires of the time in which it is created; at Orol’s retrospective, only a few patrons showed up, while during his heyday, his films packed movie houses throughout the country, earning record grosses, but were never really allowed to find an audience outside Mexico. In short, he knew precisely what his audiences wanted to see.

Hotwiring existing genres into a mind-bending meld all his own, Orol created a cinema that is absolutely unique, and utterly without precedent. [Directors] Emilio Fernández and Luis Buñuel, who both knew him, would agree; whatever his faults, Juan Orol was doing precisely what he wanted to, answering to no one but himself, and yet at the same time creating films that the public clamored to see, cloaking his own vision in the venerable disguise of a genre filmmaker – which he was, and yet he wasn’t.  This, perhaps, is his most significant accomplishment, one any cineaste would envy.”

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

The Trouble With Hitchcock

Saturday, June 7th, 2014

I have a new article in Film International on the films of Alfred Hitchcock; above, Hitchcock directs Marnie.

In my essay, “The Trouble With Hitchcock,” I note in part that “Alfred Hitchcock is routinely regarded as one of the most profound and technically adept directors in the history of cinema, but I would argue that only the latter half of that statement is accurate. Starting in his American period, if one picks Hitchcock up with Shadow of A Doubt (1943) and then continues up to his final film, Family Plot (1976), the cumulative effect is both traumatizing and disappointing. No doubt Hitchcock would find this amusing, as one who explored the darkest regions of the human psyche – particularly his own.

But Hitchcock only understood the dark side of existence. In the end, he emerges as the ultimate anti-humanist, in love with nihilism and the emptiness it represents. After one strips away the numerous displays of technical virtuosity that are his cinematic trademarks, one is left with a barren landscape of despair, madness, and obsession. And it’s clear, at least to me, that as Hitchcock grew older, his obsessions took hold of him to the point that he couldn’t control them – or perhaps, he simply didn’t want to anymore.

From Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) in Shadow of a Doubt to Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) in Marnie (1964) to the appalling Robert Rusk (Barry Foster) in Frenzy (1972), whenever Hitchcock has, as his protagonist, not the “wrong man,” but rather a deeply “wrong” man, that person is the character he most identifies with. The most compelling sections of his films nearly always center on a disturbed, usually homicidal man who is driven by compulsions beyond his control to destroy those around him, as if they were phantoms to be dispatched on a whim.”

You can read the rest of this essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Goodbye to Language, or, Godard in 3-D

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

Jean-Luc Godard’s new 70 minute experimental feature has just premiered at Cannes.

Jean-Luc Godard’s latest feature, Goodbye to Language, shot in 3-D (see the image above, with Godard seated at the right of the frame) has just been screened at Cannes. Writing in The New York Times, Manohla Dargis filed a rave review, which reads in part “on Wednesday afternoon, the 83-year-old rock star Jean-Luc Godard shook up the Cannes Film Festival with his latest, a 70-minute 3-D extravaganza, Goodbye to Language. Finally, the competition lineup had something it has desperately needed all week: a thrilling cinematic experience that nearly levitated the packed 2,300-seat Lumière theater here, turning just another screening into a real happening. You could feel the electric charge — the collective effervescence — that can come when individuals transform into a group. ‘Godard forever!’ a voice boomed out to laughter and applause, as the congregated viewers waited for their brains to light up with the screen.

Goodbye to Language is, like much of the director’s work, deeply, excitingly challenging. The thickly layered movie offers up generous, easy pleasures with jolts of visual beauty, bursts of humor, swells of song and many shots of a dog, Roxy, but it will provide other satisfactions with repeat viewings. Divided into alternating sections (nature and metaphor), the movie is a churn of sights and sounds that opens with nods to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a discussion of Hitler and the words ‘usine à gaz’ (French for ‘gas plant,’ as well as an idiom for something overly complicated). A man flips through a book on the artist Nicolas de Staël; someone else blurts out, ‘I am here to tell you no’; Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner smolder in The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

That’s just the beginning of this enthusiastic review; you can read the entire piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

First Fruits of Inspiration: The Films of Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

Filming in 1969; photo by Bruce Nadelson.

I recently had a screening of my early films at The Microscope Gallery in New York; Matthew Sorrento offers this review, which reads in part “as a teenager, Dixon was moved by the films screened at his local New Jersey library, noting how the works followed either the Hollywood or the independent models and how the later was an open field for artists (though the former would certainly interest him in his later criticism).

He found a welcoming community of artists at Rutgers University and then in New York, where enthusiasm and usefulness, as Dixon puts it, were all one needed to enter. Years later he would reflect on the scene in his essential 1997 text, The Exploding Eye, which sets right a lot of the debates lost in worship and revisionist history – but in the late 1960s Dixon was part of the thriving experimental scene.

Incorporating found footage, home movies, spur-of-the-moment camerawork, and poetry readings, Dixon’s catalog sums the best the times had to offer. To the post-digital generation, his work captures an era of democratic art, the materials for little investment and content composed anywhere, for nearly anyone.

On May 4th, 2014, New Yorkers had the rare – and perhaps final – chance to view Dixon’s films (now archived at the Museum of Modern Art) at the Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn. With Dixon in attendance, the artist-critic provided lively commentary on his collection of works that emit constant energy and passion.”

You can read the rest of the view by clicking here, or on the image above.

Some Final Thoughts on Reviewing Godzilla (2014)

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

This image of the Hollywood sign in collapse seems sadly appropriate for this post.

My review of the new Godzilla film seems to have sparked some real response, and in the comments section, I added these thoughts, which I think should be repeated here. In response to a number of people agreeing with my assessment of the film, and some people disagreeing, I added these final comments on both the film, and on reviewing films that I’m not fond of – something I don’t enjoy doing.

“I took no particular pleasure in doling out a bad review of the film — and I really went in expecting a genuine return to the roots of Godzilla, so to speak. But we have to keep these things in perspective. On one level, the whole thing is ridiculous – I mean, who really cares if a Godzilla reboot works? On the other, the original film was such a serious and potent metaphor for the nuclear decimation of Japan in 1945 that to see the whole concept turn into just another monster movie is a real betrayal of the 1954 original.

Pop thought it may be, the first Gojira had depth, which this film lacks; then again, I wish Edwards would go back to smaller, more thoughtful projects, but now that Hollywood has him in its grasp, there’s little likelihood of that. The 2014 Godzilla reminded me most strongly of Ataque de Pánico! (Panic Attack!; 2009), a short film made by another spfx wizard, Fede Alvarez on a dimestore budget, which also led to another Hollywood deal.

So it’s like this; make one good film with no money, then Hollywood snaps you up, and you make one bad film after another which is totally compromised by studio/exec interference, but they’re still hits because the studios have sunk so much money into them that they can’t afford to let them die, so they promote the hell out of them, and thus they become ’successes,’ and so you do another.

So I’m waiting for Manoel de Oliveira’s next film, which will have no money, lots of ideas, and will no doubt challenge and engage me more than this — but circling around all of this for me is my conviction that the 1954 Gojira and Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica (2011) are roughly approximate in seriousness of intent, and that a stronger case needs to be made for Ishirō Honda in the first film. The genre really doesn’t matter here; it’s seriousness of intent.” As Honda himself famously noted, “monsters are born too tall, too strong, too heavy—that is their tragedy,” and that’s the tragedy of this film, too.

And that’s more than enough on that topic.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Friday, May 9th, 2014

Roz Chast’s new book about the last years of her mother and father’s lives is a masterpiece.

As the publisher’s website for this remarkable volume notes, “In her first memoir, Roz Chast brings her signature wit to the topic of aging parents. Spanning the last several years of their lives and told through four-color cartoons, family photos, and documents, and a narrative as rife with laughs as it is with tears, Chast’s memoir is both comfort and comic relief for anyone experiencing the life-altering loss of elderly parents. When it came to her elderly mother and father, Roz held to the practices of denial, avoidance, and distraction. But when Elizabeth Chast climbed a ladder to locate an old souvenir from the ‘crazy closet’—with predictable results—the tools that had served Roz well through her parents’ seventies, eighties, and into their early nineties could no longer be deployed.

While the particulars are Chast-ian in their idiosyncrasies—an anxious father who had relied heavily on his wife for stability as he slipped into dementia and a former assistant principal mother whose overbearing personality had sidelined Roz for decades—the themes are universal: adult children accepting a parental role; aging and unstable parents leaving a family home for an institution; dealing with uncomfortable physical intimacies; managing logistics; and hiring strangers to provide the most personal care. An amazing portrait of two lives at their end and an only child coping as best she can, Can We Talk about Something More Pleasant? show[s] the full range of Roz Chast’s talent as cartoonist and storyteller.”

This last sentence is especially true; Chast’s mordantly sardonic cartoons of domestic life, which have graced The New Yorker for decades, are always grimly funny and all-too-accurate, but here, she has the space to really stretch out and deal with the subject matter at considerable length, and the results are astonishing. George and Elizabeth Chast lived together for more than forty years in a small, untidy apartment in a rather depressing section of Brooklyn; Elizabeth was, by all accounts, wildly domineering, while George was so inept and cowed that he couldn’t even use a toaster without worrying about the possible consequences. Nevertheless, they loved each other deeply, and as old age crept up on them, bad things began to happen.

Much against her will, Roz was drafted into the entire process of intervening when they fell and had to go to the hospital; when it became impossible for them to live anymore at the apartment they had shared for so long; then moving them into an assisted care facility; and finally dealing with slow, agonizing death watch that took far too long to bring release to them both. Drawn with passionate intensity and care throughout – the entire volume is written in Chast’s own hand, and illustrated throughout with drawings, photographs, poems that her mother wrote, and other ephemera – Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? emerges as much more than a typical memoir, if only because nothing seems to come between the page and Roz Chast’s expressive prose and illustrations.

It’s obviously a work of anguished love, riddled with endless details of recalled memories, conversations that seemed to go nowhere and ended in fights or resignation, and punctuated by a full page few “splash” panels, such as an unforgettable cartoon image of George welcoming his wife home after a lengthy stay in this hospital with the single word “Elizabeth!” – a scene heartbreaking in its intensity. The book builds and builds towards its inevitable conclusion – first George’s death, and then Elizabeth’s – and towards the end of the volume, Chast abandons her cartoon style to include a series of twelve straightforward line drawings, breathtaking in their intimacy, of Elizabeth’s last days in hospice care, ending with a drawing of her mother right after her death.

“I drew her. I didn’t know what else to do” Chast writes, but in doing this, she’s not only unburdened herself of a narrative of incredible difficulty and loss, but also has given her readers a much more accurate picture of what the end of life is often like – not just drifting off to sleep painlessly, but dying with difficulty and anger. It’s clear from the text that though Roz loved both her parents, she felt much closer to her father, while her mother’s continual need to dominate everything and everyone around her drove her to distraction. Roz could could sit up quietly with her father watching The Twilight Zone as a child, but was routinely subjected to what her mother termed “a blast from Chast” whenever Elizabeth was upset about something, which was quite often.

In this loving, meticulously drawn and measured memoir, Roz Chast has rendered us all a remarkable service, making her own life come alive, as well as the lives of her parents, and providing a road map for the journey into old age that most of us will inevitably wind up taking, whether we like it or not, as we deal with our parents’ mortality, as well as our own. By turns wryly humorous and deadly (literally) serious, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is easily one of the most impressive books of the year, and one that repays repeated readings, no matter how difficult the subject matter might be to deal with.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a book you should read – now.

The Cinema of Agnès Varda: Resistance and Eclecticism

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Delphine Bénézet’s new book on Agnès Varda is a superb piece of work.

Agnès Varda never seems to get enough credit. The fore-mother of the French New Wave, long before Godard, Truffaut and the rest of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd picked up a camera, Varda was making feature films from 1954, employing Alain Resnais as her editor, and pretty much setting out the basic precepts of simplicity, communality, and originality that her colleagues would later follow. But while Godard and Truffaut became art house darlings in the 60s – and certainly their work deserves the attention it got – Varda was somehow overlooked, although such films as Cleo from 5 to 7, Les Creatures, and Le Bonheur remain absolutely daring in their approach to the film medium, as well as dynamics of relationships between men and women, and particularly in affairs of the heart.

As the volume’s website notes, “Agnès Varda, a pioneer of the French New Wave, has been making radical films for over half a century. Many of these are considered by scholars, filmmakers, and audiences alike, as audacious, seminal, and unforgettable. This volume considers her production as a whole, revisiting overlooked films like Mur, Murs/Documenteur (1980–81), and connecting her cinema to recent installation work. This study demonstrates how Varda has resisted norms of representation and diktats of production. It also shows how she has elaborated a personal repertoire of images, characters, and settings, which all provide insight on their cultural and political contexts. The book thus offers new readings of this director’s multifaceted rêveries, arguing that her work should be seen as an aesthetically influential and ethically-driven production where cinema is both a political and collaborative practice, and a synesthetic art form.”

In five succinct chapters, detailing Varda’s place within cinema history, her “ethics of filming,” and the aesthetic and technical concerns that inform her films, Bénézet, who teaches comparative literature in the School of Languages, Linguistics, and Film at Queen Mary, University of London, offers a compelling case for Varda as a major filmmaker of not only 20th century, but also 21st century cinema, and one of the most successful at embracing digital cinema in her newer films, such as the transcendent documentary feature The Gleaners and I, shot entirely on a small home digital camera. Bénézet makes it clear that Varda has never stopped evolving as both a filmmaker and an artist in general, embracing new technology and the changing culture of France to create work of stunning resonance and beauty with absolutely minimal resources.

Varda has survived many of her contemporaries, and she keeps on working to this day; in the end, Varda is finally managing to get some measure of the respect and care she so clearly deserves simply by the act of sheer survival – she has outlived her detractors, mostly male, who really couldn’t see the value in her work. Dismissed or marginalized when first released, her films, now lovingly restored by Varda herself in DVD editions available throughout the world, have finally taken their place in the cinematic canon along with those of her male counterparts. There have been other excellent books on Varda, but this particular text, neatly illustrated with frame blow-ups, and graced with a detailed filmography, is one of the best, and also has the virtue of being the most complete.

In short, this is an excellent book from Wallflower Press / Columbia UP; pick up a copy now.

The Most Important Film Book of 2014: Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures

Monday, April 28th, 2014

I have a new review on this remarkable book in today’s issue of Film International.

As I note in my review, “literally hundreds of film books cross my desk every year; I review books on every imaginable genre, director, movement or filmic era on an almost daily basis for a variety of publications, but every so often, a book appears that instantly commands my attention as a work of inescapable importance. Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology is such a volume. Running to a staggering 680 pages, and yet priced in hardcover for a mere $85 on Amazon, this collection of film writings from the dawn of cinema to the present day, edited by Scott MacKenzie, is one of the most inspirational and informative volumes I’ve ever come across, because it highlights the constant need for renewal which typifies the cinema, potentially that most compromised of art forms. It is, indeed, one of the most important volumes on the history, theory and practice of the cinema ever compiled.

The struggle between capital and creation is an ongoing one, even with the advent of digital cinema, and yet it is more than ever vitally important that artists reclaim the cinema, making films that challenge and enlighten the viewer, and break away from established orthodoxies of cinema production. Most of the texts here were written by filmmakers, actual practitioners of the cinematic arts, and they are direct calls to action, even if they (blessedly) contradict each other, and often insist that only “they” are correct in their approach to the cinema. This is the sort of conflicting chaos that creates the most interesting and lasting films in cinema history; films born not out of the studio system, but out of warring, marginalized factions, working with outdated equipment, insufficient funds, no distribution, and nothing more than a vision, and a desperate desire to get the vision recorded by any means available.”

You can read the rest of my review on this absolutely essential volume by clicking here, or on the image above.

“A Lioness on the Prowl”: Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

I have an article out today on Jonathan Glazer’s new film Under The Skin in Film International.

As I write, in part, “Under The Skin is being sold on the basis of a simple premise, which is true on the face of it, but also offers just the merest suggestion of what the film is in its totality. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien inhabiting a woman’s body, who trolls through the Scottish countryside and cities searching for young men, enticing them with the promise of a sexual encounter, and then killing them for food.

In this, she is monitored by another alien, who takes on the form of a sinister motorcyclist (played by real life champion cyclist Jeremy McWilliams), who is there to make sure that Johansson’s character stays on track with her mission. That’s pretty much the plot, or as much of it as I want to give away, but there’s a great deal more going on here than this bare outline would suggest.

Firstly, there’s no real sex in the film, just the promise of sex. Although Johansson lures several men into her white van during the first third of the film, and then takes them back to her flat, ostensibly for sex, nothing really happens; the men strip off and approach Johansson, who backs away from them, as the men sink into some sort of primordial ooze that swallows them up, and then reduces them to fleshy pulp for otherworldly consumption. Indeed, there is more frontal male nudity here than female, and it’s clear that one of the many things that the film is interested in is the fetishization of sex; Johansson’s simulacric image has been created as nothing more than a stock male fantasy.

We get only one glimpse of the actual harvesting process, in which two men, both victims, are now in a sort of limbo, and desperately attempt to touch each other to make some sort of contact, and perhaps escape the trap they’ve fallen into. But no such luck; in an instant, one of the men is reduced to nothing more than a human husk, and the pulp of his body is sucked through a chute into a door of some kind, food for Johansson’s cohorts in a distant galaxy.

Although there are a number of scenes in the film in which Johansson is nude, they’re sequences in which, as an alien, she examines her new body, and wonders at its construction, and why it’s so alluring to her victims. In the opening third of the film, she is utterly without humanity, clubbing one man to death on a beach and leaving an infant baby to be swept out into the tide without even the slightest shred of remorse. But then again, she’s not human – she doesn’t understand the meaning of the word.”

This is a remarkable film, but you’ll have to seek it out; see it as soon as you can.

Oculus: Another Look In the Haunted Mirror

Friday, April 11th, 2014

I have a new review essay out on the film Oculus in Film International.

As I write, “Oculus is a rather pretentious title for a rather straightforward movie, but despite the assembly line nature of its’ construction, the film still has something going for it. At first it’s hard to say precisely what the film has to offer, because on the surface it deals with so many basic and time-worn horror conventions that it seems to be almost aggressively unoriginal. But as the film picks up speed, and accelerates its march towards death and damnation, it gathers a certain sort of peculiar power that isn’t without value. I’m not about to give away the ending here, or any of the major plot twists, because those are the main things the film has to recommend it. Yet having said that, there’s a certain Resnais-like fatalism to the film that reverberates in one’s memory, despite the workmanlike nature of the film as a whole.

Though released theatrically today, April 11, 2014, the film was shot in 2012-2013, and was first screened on September 8, 2013, at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s yet another of the Jason Blum / Blumhouse Productions, all of which are low budget horror films, and the best of which to date is The Purge. Blum has a deal with Universal under which he cranks out numerous horror films in the $3 million or so range, but many of them don’t even see the light of day in DVD or streaming format, much less get a theatrical release. His idea is to keep on cranking out as many films as he can, and then see if anything sticks.

Despite the fact that there are a number of cinematic corpses, so to speak, sitting around in Blum’s vaults, with the number of films Blum makes, some of them are bound to hit. The Purge is going into a sequel, which from the looks of the trailer seems a sort of knock off of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) – the premise being that for twelve hours all criminal acts are legal, which acts as a societal safety valve. In the sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, a group of people are left outside when the purge starts, and have to run across a city in lockdown to safety, but it lacks Ethan Hawke in the lead, and screams “knock off” in every department. But I digress.

Oculus is about a haunted mirror, a staple of cinematic fantasy since the days of Georges Méliès. It’s been used in countless episodes of television series, such as Thriller and Twilight Zone, though my favorite variation on this well-worn theme remains the episode of the classic omnibus British horror film Dead of Night (1945), directed by Robert Hamer, in which Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) buys an ornate, oversize antique mirror as a gift for her husband Peter (Ralph Michael), only to discover that the previous owner killed his wife in front of it in a fit of jealousy, and that Peter is now falling under the mirror’s influence, as well. It’s one of the great horror stories of the cinema, and remains the most effective version of this tale, but for all that Oculus still has, as I suggested, something to add to the subgenre.”

You can read the entire essay here. Here’s looking at you, kids!

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 numerous books and more than 70 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.

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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/