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Thursday, January 9th, 2014

I’ve moved my website to wheelerwinstondixon.com – follow me there!

Take a look at the image above, and you’ll see how it works.

The new website is much cleaner, has more information, and works more smoothly.

At the top left, there’s an “about” tab, where you can also download my complete cv as a pdf; next to that there are two tabs covering the 32 books that I’ve written, with the covers on display as clickable links that go directly to information on each title; next to that is a tab that goes to some 30 online articles of mine that are available out of the nearly 100 that I have written over the years; then comes a link to the Frame by Frame videos that I’ve made, with a clickable link to a carousel playlist that starts automatically and takes you through more than 70 titles; then a tab for this blog; then a tab for my film work — I have a show coming up in New York this Spring, 2014 — and finally a contact page, where you can e-mail me if you wish to.

This is where you will find me from now on; the old website is dead, so let’s move on into the future.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Claire Denis’ Beau Travail

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new article out on Claire Denis’ classic film Beau Travail.

As she writes in her essay, “Reconsidering The Landscape of the Homoerotic Body in Claire Denis’s Beau Travail” in the September 10, 2013 issue of Film International, “I begin, as my title suggests, with a quote from Agnès Godard, the cinematographer of Beau Travail (1999): ‘The most inexhaustible landscapes for me remain faces and bodies.’

The inexhaustible possibilities for cinematically inhabiting the homoeroticized male body are remarkable in Beau Travail, a tale told largely in aestheticized shots of male bodies. As Claire Denis states, the abstract nature of the film relies on performativity; ‘the abstraction was in the meeting of the landscape and the rules, and all those bodies doing the same thing.’

Jim Hoberman argued that ‘in its hypnotic ritual, Beau Travail suggests a John Ford cavalry western interpreted by Marguerite Duras’, and the comparison seems extremely apt. It is a film that relies on memory editing techniques, memories of bodies sutured together by the voice-over of the central protagonist, Galoup. Denis also relies on performances rendered through the subjective re-membered gaze of a narrator whose mental landscape is rife with homoeroticized images of faces and bodies.”

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

Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s – Part 4

Monday, September 10th, 2012

Peter Cook as The Prince of Darkness in Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled (1967).

Part Four of my essay on “Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s” appeared today in Film International, along with links back to parts 1, 2, and 3.

I start the essay with these thoughts: ”As the 1960s drew to a close, so did the string of dark comedies; the real world was bleak enough, and audiences began to prize artificial optimism over satiric criticism. John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 was seen at the time as aberrational; but by the end of the decade, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X had also been assassinated, and the public’s taste for “sick humor” started to wane. Simply surviving seemed a tough enough goal. Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled (1967), an updating of the Faust legend with Peter Cook as Satan and Dudley Moore as the hapless Stanley Moon, a short order cook, offered a graphic demonstration of the hopelessness of ambition. Stanley wants to be loved by Margaret (Eleanor Bron), a waitress at the Wimpy hamburger restaurant he works in, and Satan promises to help him in his quest with a series of seven wishes, but every time Stanley thinks up what he imagines to be a foolproof plan for romantic bliss, Satan can’t resist adding a little wrinkle to frustrate Stanley’s dreams.

For one wish, Stanley asks to be a pop star, and his wish is granted; shrieking a wanton ballad of unbridled lust, ‘Love Me,’ on television, he seems to have attained Margaret’s love, until Satan, appearing in the role of a rival pop singer, begins intoning a dirge-like song of rejection (‘You turn me off – go away – you disgust me – I’m not available’) that proves to be the next new trend in rock music, rendering Stanley’s pleading ballads obsolete. Stanley’s numerous other attempts to seduce Margaret, as an intellectual bachelor, and finally as a nun, also fail to work. In the end of the film, Stanley manages to escape from Satan’s clutches through a loophole in his contract, and is back at his old post, frying burgers, but this time, content with his lot. The film’s message is clear; one must be content with what one has, and not hope for more. Ambition, in a sense, is potentially disastrous.”

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

Capitalism Eats Itself: Gluttony and Coprophagia from Hoarders to La Grande Bouffe

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

You really are what you eat.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new article in the journal Film International, entitled “Capitalism Eats Itself: Gluttony and Coprophagia from Hoarders to La Grande Bouffe,” which examines a number of television programs and films that deal with excess consumption and wastage, seemingly a more and more popular topic in contemporary throwaway culture. Here’s the opening paragraphs:

“Consumption. Excess. Gluttony. Hoarding. Waste. Massive debt. The pathologies of capitalism are our greatest export. Endless examples of unproductive expenditure only add to our credibility as gluttons with little or no use-value. Americans consume recklessly in order to convince ourselves that we are not alienated, and that late-stage capitalism will provide for us, and fulfill our emotional needs. TV and media reflect and take part in insatiable hoarding, gluttonous consumption, and excessive production and dissemination of images that reify the very same pathologies and deadly sins they purport to expose – in a cyclical loop that I call ‘capitalism eating itself.’

The US has a long history of excessive gluttony and hoarding, starting with people, as one prime example. Human beings, slaves were hoarded and gluttonously exchanged for their value in capital and manufacture of products. Our historical pathology of gluttony is easily demonstrated by our origins; we are a stolen nation; a huge gobbled up land mass birthed from colonial theft, gluttony, and hoarding. America’s bloody legacy of greed, theft, and violence is one we obsessively and compulsively deny. By replacing our primal beginnings with a narrative of so-called patriotic struggle for freedom, we deny, (like hoarders deny their compulsions), our long complex history of thievery of capital, bodies, countries, vast amounts of land, commodities and wealth.”

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

So You Want To Write A Novel?

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

Here’s an absolutely hilarious instant cartoon about an “aspiring” novelist.

I usually don’t post on these things, but this one really nails it; the complete absence of any thought or preparation on the part of the would-be novelist in this short cartoon is truly staggering. It’s also somewhat shocking that this kind of “I can do anything I set my mind to” approach to writing a book or a novel is so prevalent; sadly, the cartoon’s depiction of this sort of unjustified blind optimism isn’t all that far off the mark. Kudos to David Kazzie, the creator of this sharp and pointed video, which has much more truth to it than one might immediately think.

Click here, or on the image above, to see this short, clever video.

Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s — Part 3

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

I have a new article out today; part three of my essay on “Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s,” in the journal Film International.

Here’s the opening paragraphs: “Death has often been used to comic effect in films, but an all out assault on what Jessica Mitford termed “the American way of death” is another thing entirely. Loosely based on Evelyn Waugh’s acerbic novel of the same name on life, death, and the attendant collapse of civilization in Hollywood, Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965) was a stand alone film even in a decade devoted to dark humor; indeed, it was boldly advertised as ‘the motion picture with something to offend everyone,’ and largely lived up to its billing. Though hampered by Haskell Wexler’s uncharacteristically stolid camerawork (Richardson hired Wexler because of his signature handheld ‘newsreel’ style, but was appalled when Wexler categorically refused to utilize it on the film – more on this later) and an uneven screenplay by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood, the film still succeeds on a number of counts. America was becoming death obsessed in the mid 1960s, with the costs of funerals and memorials rising dramatically.

The Loved One centers on the Whispering Glades cemetery – a stand in for Hollywood’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park – where the corrupt Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters) presides over a kingdom of death. His key aide is Mr. Joyboy (a suitably effete Rod Steiger), who is the chief embalmer, assisted by Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjanette Comer), who helps to ‘make up’ the corpses that pass through Whispering Glades for their final public appearance. Into this complicated scenario comes Dennis Barlow (a very young Robert Morse), as a clueless Briton trying to ingratiate himself with the ‘British Colony’ in Hollywood, with the help of his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud). Dennis falls madly in love with Aimee, but Joyboy is also attracted to her, and a love match ensues.

Meanwhile, the ‘Blessed Reverend’ is becoming worried that Whispering Glades is no longer a money spawning operation. The graveyard is filling up, and he’s running out of room; at first, Glenworthy tries to increase profits by holding back-to-back weddings and funerals in the same chapel, each performed in a matter of minutes, with canned music cues (both presided over by the unctuous actor Ed Reimers in an unbilled cameo; in real life, Reimers shilled for both Crest Toothpaste and Allstate Insurance). But it’s not enough; something has to give. Suddenly, Reverend Glenworthy is seized with an inspiration. Instead of a cemetery, Whispering Glades can be turned into a retirement complex, assuring continual turnover and a constant stream of revenue. There’s only one problem; what to do with all those pesky bodies buried at Whispering Glades? ‘There’s got to be a way to get those stiffs off my property!’ Glenworthy barks to one of his subordinates, and indeed, there is.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image at the top of this post.

Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s – Part 2

Monday, August 27th, 2012

Out this morning (August 27, 2012) is Part Two of my four part series on Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s in Film International.

The scene above is from Stanley Kramer’s epic comedy of wretched excess, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, about which I have this to say: “Back in America, producer/director Stanley Kramer was readying a much more ambitious project, perhaps the most overwhelmingly brutal comedy ever made: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). With a cast featuring literally every living comedian in either a leading, cameo, or supporting role, including Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters, Mickey Rooney, Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Phil Silvers, Dick Shawn, The Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis, and everyone else in between, the film, budgeted at a then-colossal $9.4 million, was of such epic proportion that when released at 192 minutes (in two parts, with a 15 minute intermission), after preview screenings of 210 minutes, it was one of the most spectacular films of the year, regardless of genre.

But what is most striking about the film, in the end, is not its epic dimension or scope (the film was shot in ‘Ultra Panavision,’ then touted as the new seamless form of Cinerama, a popular 1950s three camera, three projector process that produced an illusion of depth), but rather the film’s view of life, which is acerbic in the extreme. The premise of the film is slim; an aging gangster, ‘Smiler’ Grogan (Durante), runs off the highway in his car, and with his dying words, tells a group of ‘good Samaritans’ who have stopped to help him that there is $350,000 in stolen loot stashed under a ‘big W’ in the fictional Santa Rosita State Park in California, and the money is theirs, if they can find it. With that, Grogan dies, literally ‘kicking a bucket’ down the culvert as he does so. Almost immediately, the passersby begin fighting amongst themselves for the money, and soon each one is trying to stop the others from leaving the park, and finding the $350,000. The film then becomes a literally mind-numbing orgy of violence and destruction, as gas stations, cars, planes, and anything else in sight is destroyed with ritualistic, almost sadistic fetishism.

The members of the group are shadowed in their quest by Captain T. G. Culpepper (Spencer Tracy, in one of his last roles), the Chief of Detection of the Santa Rosita Police Department, but in the end, he, too, succumbs to the temptation of ‘Smiler’s’ loot, and tries to abscond with the entire fortune, tricking the others into thinking he will turn it in to his superiors at police headquarters. When the group discovers they’ve been tricked, they give chase, and in the end all wind up in the hospital as a result of injuries sustained in their pursuit, including Captain Culpepper. All their efforts have availed them nothing, and in the bargain, all face lengthy hospital stays while they recuperate. The film has developed a cult following other the years, and certainly, in terms of excess, violence, and spectacle, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is one of the most expensive and epic “dark” comedies ever produced.

Yet the majority of humor in the film derives from outright cruelty – Ethel Merman perpetually screaming at her on-screen husband, Milton Berle, or anyone else in her line of fire; Phil Silvers offering a lift to the stranded Jonathan Winters, who is puffing along in the desert on a child’s bicycle; when Winters throws the bike away, Silvers speeds off, leaving him in the dust; Sid Caesar and Edie Adams locked in a basement full of exploding fireworks – and as many critics remarked at the time, the sheer wastage of the film is appalling. All that motivates the film’s central characters is greed, anger, lust and avarice. As a compelling vision of the dark side of the American dream, the film certainly succeeds. But when viewing the film, one can’t help but wonder how much of it was conscious, and how much simply a byproduct of the movie’s brutal trajectory.

Lured on by the ‘promise’ of instant wealth, the protagonists of Kramer’s film are locked into a headlong race to their own destruction, and they lay waste to everything they touch in the process. The film remains controversial to this day for its sheer overkill; how many more car crashes can the mind absorb? How many more shouting matches? How much more destruction? There seems to be no answer forthcoming in the film, which ends with Ethel Merman’s character slipping on a banana peel in the hospital ward where all of her co-stars are convalescing. At this, everyone starts laughing hysterically. Humiliation, pain, violence, cruelty; is this really the stuff of comedy? Yet the colossal perversity of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World remains a monument to over indulgence; ‘give me more, more, more,’ the film seems to say – which is just what its protagonists want, as well.”

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

Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s – Part 1

Monday, August 20th, 2012

I have a new essay in the journal Film International, entitled Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s.

It’s a long piece, so the journal is running it in four parts, one each Monday starting today, Monday August 20, 2012. You can watch this space for further installments in the series; for the moment, here’s the beginning of the essay for your delectation;

“There’s a story about an adolescent boy who was taken to a psychiatrist. The doctor drew a rectangle on a sheet of paper and showed it to the boy. ‘What does it make you think of?’ he asked. The boy looked at it and said, ‘Sex.’ The doctor got the same response when he drew a circle on the paper. When he had drawn a triangle and an octagon and an ellipse with the same results, he said, ‘Son, you need help.’ The boy was amazed. ‘But, doc,’ he protested, ‘you’re the one that’s drawing the dirty pictures!’” (Zern 1958: n.p.)

In the 1960s, themes which had previously been dealt with only in the most serious fashion were suddenly subject to burlesque, or parody, as filmmakers and audiences sought to move beyond the strained seriousness that characterized many of the most respected problem films of the 1960s. In such films as Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and A Bucket of Blood (1959), Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Theodore J. Flicker’s The President’s Analyst (1967), Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), William Castle’s The Old Dark House (1963), George Axelrod’s Lord Love A Duck (1966), Mel BrooksThe Producers (1968), Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965), Roy Boulting’s I’m All Right, Jack (1959), Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled (1967), Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget What’s ’is Name (1967), Karel Reisz’s Morgan! A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope (1969), to say nothing of Richard Lester’s The Knack… and How to Get It (1965), as well as Kevin Billington’s acidic political comedy The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970), viewers embraced a new vision of the world unfettered by the constraints of prior censorship, and wedded to a sense of the absurdity of life, in which all previous values were suddenly called into question, and found either morally or socially bankrupt. These films, which treated such subjects as war, sex, death, the workplace, national politics and the family with studied irreverence, found both a willing audience, and a place in the emerging national consciousness of the post JFK assassination era.”

You can read the rest of part one by clicking here; see you next week for Part Two, and so on.

Eclipse Series 33: Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr.

Monday, May 14th, 2012

At last! At last! At last!

Robert Downey Sr. has been a friend of mine since the late 1960s, and his films have been criminally neglected since then, and for years he’s been telling me about a box set of his movies coming out, and now, finally, it’s here from Criterion.

As Criterion’s notes point out, “rarely do landmark works of cinema seem so . . . wrong. Robert Downey Sr. emerged as one of the most irreverent filmmakers of the new American underground of the early sixties, taking no prisoners in his rough-and-tumble treatises on politics, race, and consumer culture. In his most famous, the midnight-movie mainstay Putney Swope, an advertising agency is turned on its head when a militant African American man takes charge. Like Swope, Downey held nothing sacred. This selection of five of his most raucous and outlandish films, dating from 1964 to 1975, offers a unique mix of the hilariously abrasive and the intensely experimental.

The set includes Babo 73 (1964), in which Warhol superstar Taylor Mead plays the president of the United Status, who conducts his top-secret international affairs on a deserted beach when he isn’t at the White House (a dilapidated Victorian), in Robert Downey Sr.’s political satire. Downey’s first feature is a rollicking, slapstick, ultra-low-budget 16 mm comedy experiment that introduced a twisted new voice to the American underground scene;

Chafed Elbows (1966), a breakthrough for Downey Sr., thanks to rave notices. Visualized largely in still 35 mm photographs, it follows a shiftless downtown Manhattanite having his “annual November breakdown,” wandering from one odd job to the next;

No More Excuses (1968), in which Downey takes his camera and microphone onto the streets for a close look at Manhattan’s swinging singles scene of the late sixties. Of course, that’s not all: No More Excuses cuts between this footage and the fragmented tale of a time-traveling Civil War soldier, a rant from the director of the fictional Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, and other assorted improprieties;

Putney Swope (1969), Downey’s most popular film, an oddball classic about the antics that ensue after Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson, his voice dubbed by a gravelly Downey), the token black man on the board of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, is inadvertently elected chairman. Putney summarily fires everyone else, replaces them with Black Power apostles, renames the company Truth and Soul, Inc., and proceeds to wreak politically incorrect havoc; and finally;

Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight
(1975), ‘a film without a beginning or an end,’ in Downey’s own words, this Dadaist thingamajig—a never-before-seen, newly reedited version of the director’s 1975 release Moment to Moment (also known as Jive)—is a cascade of curious sketches, scenes, and shots that takes on a rhythmic life. It stars Downey’s wife at the time, Elsie, in an endless succession of off-the-wall roles, from dancer to cocaine fiend.”

Downey Sr. is a one of a kind original, a brilliant satirist, and a take-no-prisoners filmmaker. Buy this set immediately; these films are essential documents of the 1960s, and some of the funniest films ever made, and I honestly never thought they’d see the light of day.

And now they’re out on Criterion, no less! Congratulations, Bob; long overdue!!

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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