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Larry Teng Directs Hawaii Five-0

Saturday, November 8th, 2014

The reboot of Hawaii Five-O, which just aired its 100th episode, is superb action television.

I don’t watch that much TV, so I came late to this show, but even if my favorite directors are people like Manoel de Oliveira and Eric Rohmer, one simply has to admire the skill of people like Larry Teng, a young director who works in episodic television on such shows as Medium, Elementary, NCIS: Los Angeles, Criminal Minds and Hawaii Five-O, and has done a great deal to bring diversity to the director’s chair on television. Teng’s brilliance as an action director is simply stunning – fight scenes, car chases, shootouts – this is work much like that done by the gifted William Witney for Republic in the 1940s, and he’s obviously primed to make the jump to features.

Watching the show, and having been on as many sets as I have, it’s stunning that the cast and crew knock out each of these episodes in eight days flat – but as Teng told Cheryl Hollar,

“in Hawaii Five-O (on such episodes as ‘Ua Hopu,’ ‘Mai Ka Wa Kahiko,’ ‘Ka Hakaka Maika’i,’ ‘Ma Ke Kahakai’), there’s a visual grandeur built into the show. There’s a little more mission. It’s a different kind of storytelling specific to the need. You have to have the full cooperation of the island when you’re shooting. It’s one of the bigger budget shows out there. And it really shoots itself. It’s a beautiful location. That’s one reason we are able to do the big scope movie stuff that we do.

Anytime you work on a show as ambitious as Hawaii Five-O, you still try to do the show in eight days. You have to understand where you want to spend your time on a show like that. You have to have enough daylight to shoot a lot of different scenes. You’re always chasing the sun. And, there’s also the potential for breakdown of equipment that’s not always readily accessible to you as it would be in a production center like L.A.

Hawaii Five-O’s ‘Ua Hopu’ (2012) felt like a mini movie to do. It was an all-day shoot in the jungle. We had two and a half hours to do it. Alex O’Loughlin [one of the leads in the series] and Mark Dacascos [playing the villainous Wo Fat] only had about an hour that Sunday to really choreograph, which is like no time at all.

Normally, you have like a full day. So, coming on set, we narrowed about four hours work down to two and a half. Alex and Mark only had one hour rehearsal time. That is normally a full day as well. It was also the last scene of the day. So, the closer it got to quitting time, we started to lose a little bit of light.

Also, with something like that, you don’t want to harm your actors. So, you want to make sure it’s safe. You break down the fight scene into movements, like four separate sections.” In short, it’s hard work, which most people forget when they’re just sitting watching the tube.

Watch an episode, to see what cutting edge action direction is like today; really impressive.

Mom

Friday, November 7th, 2014

Mom is a television sitcom that steps outside the usual box.

Mom, a half hour sitcom which debuted in 2013, stars Anna Faris and Allison Janney, and was created by Chuck Lorre, Eddie Gorodetsky, and Gemma Baker. Chuck Lorre is the current “king” of half hour TV sitcoms, with a whole string of credits under his belt, starting with writing duties on Roseanne, and the moving on to create or co-create Grace Under FireCybill, Dharma & Greg, Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, and Mike & Molly, but Mom is probably the best thing he’s ever done. Anna Faris has been knocking around in medium budget “spoof” feature film comedies for nearly a decade now, wasted for the most part in the Scary Movie franchise and other similar projects, where she really couldn’t show the true range. Allison Janney is also a superb actor, who has also been working of late in an excellent supporting role on the cable series Masters of Sex.

The series itself often steps outside the usual TV comfort zone to deal with such issues as homelessness, alcoholism, compulsive gambling, teen pregnancy, the realities of living paycheck to paycheck in an unforgiving world, and manages to mix real social observations with some pretty funny punch lines, which both Janney and Faris deliver with expert aplomb. Don’t get me wrong; there’s always a happy ending around the corner, even when the extended family is evicted from their home for non-payment of rent, and is forced to move into a sleazy motel rather than sleep in their car.

But the show clearly passes the “means test” – the characters don’t live in palatial mansions on their minimum wage jobs, as happens in many TV sitcoms. Faris’ character works as a waitress; her mother, played by Janney, has a distinctly sketchy past; they don’t always get along, and all the plot lines don’t neatly wrap up with each half hour (of 22 minutes, if you want to deduct time for the commercials). In between the laughs, there are some hard truths on display here. Despite the fact that Mom’s primary mission is to entertain, there’s some really good acting from the ensemble cast, sharply funny dialogue, and genuine insight – imagine! – in this show, which has just been renewed for a second season. The series is picking up viewers, and is just starting a second season. You could do worse than to watch an episode.

Mom is a welcome respite from most of the junk you’ll find on TV; check it out.

Why Pan and Scan Wrecks Films – Watch This Video And See

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

Pan and scan wrecks movies when you see them on TV – click here, or on the image above, to see why.

When American Movie Classics, as it was then known, first went on the air, it had a half-day schedule, and split its satellite time with another network, and had a somewhat limited playlist. Nevertheless, all the films it ran were uncut, commercial-free, and presented in their original aspect ratio, whether Academy, widescreen, or CinemaScope (and their related formats). In time, American Movie Classics became a 24 hour network, running commercial free, uncut classic films, and I watched it all the time.

Then, as everyone who loves movies know, American Movie Classics “rebranded” itself as AMC, started running commercials, and hacking their films to ribbons (they’re all still complete, mind you, just intercut with hundred of commercials to completely ruin the film’s impact). I never watch AMC anymore, and in fact, regret it when I see a film I love advertised as forthcoming on the channel; I know I won’t watch it, I know it will be shredded with hundreds of ads, and I know it won’t be a movie at all, but rather an excuse to sell commercial time.

The Independent Film Channel, for many years, also ran films uncut and commercial free, but then they recently began running ads — while still advertising the films they present as “uncut” — but once again, you’re not seeing the movie you want, but rather the movie you wanted to see intercut with ads urging to you to buy this or that product, and so now, I don’t watch IFC anymore.

This could be because IFC wants consumers to move to their IFC in Theaters service, which I use quite frequently anyway; first run films presented on cable for a per-film fee the same day they open in theaters in “selected cities.” These commercials are uncut and commercial free, and presented in their original aspect ratios, and you pay for each one, but that seems fair; it’s cheaper than going to a theater to see them, especially when the nearest theater running the film is 1,000 miles away or so.

But now, there is only one basic cable service left that really runs feature films uncut and commercial free, in the original aspect ratio their makers intended; Turner Classic Movies, or TCM.

Robert Osborne and Alec Baldwin on the set of TCM’s The Essentials

TCM runs classic feature films and shorts 24/7, with absolutely no commercials (except for DVDs of the films they screen, promos for upcoming films, and self-promotional blurbs, inbetween the films, but never during), and, as hosted by Robert Osborne, who is insanely knowledgeable about films, is arguably the finest “repertory house” the cinema has ever known, with an enormous collection of MGM and UA films, and a lease on numerous Columbia titles as well, to say nothing of their excellent catalogue of foreign films.

And one other, very important thing: TCM nearly always runs the films they screen in their original aspect ratio. If it was shot in CinemaScope, you see it in CinemaScope, with the signature black bars at the top and bottom of the screen; if in widescreen, then with slightly smaller bars; and if in Academy, in full frame. This is something you can’t say of HBO, Showtime or the other so-called “premium” channels, who as a rule screen “pan and scan” versions of CinemaScope and widescreen films, so that up to one half of the original image is lost, all in the name of “filling the entire screen” with an image, even if it’s only half of the original image the director photographed.

Demo: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in “pan and scan” format

“Pan and scan” is, as Martin Scorsese has said (see this link here), tantamount to “redirecting the movie” — the sides of the frame are cut off, backgrounds eliminated, characters chopped out of the frame, all in the service of presenting a “full screen” image. But as Scorsese and others have pointed out over the years, with “pan and scan,” while you get a “full frame” with no black bars at the top and bottom, you’re not seeing the whole film. You get less, not more. HBO and the other “premium” channels do offer what they term “wide” versions of the some of their films in their on-demand section, but for their regular offerings, pan and scan is the rule.

When you watch a film in pan & scan format, you’re not seeing the whole movie!

John Flaus on Film and Television Acting

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

Mia Wasikowska and John Flaus in John Curran’s film Tracks (2014)

Although his name may be unfamiliar to American audiences, John Flaus has been a major force in Australian cinema since the 1960s, as well as key figure in the rise of Film Studies in Australia in academe. As Wikipedia summarizes his career, Flaus “attended Sydney University as an undergraduate from 1953 to 1971, eventually attaining a B.A. degree. Flaus has been active in the film society movement since 1953, and published his first film reviews in 1954. In the 1960s, he was a member of the Sydney University Film Group and the WEA Film Study Group with such notable people as Frank Moorhouse, Michael Thornhill, John Baxter and Ken Quinnell. He has lectured on film at various tertiary institutions, was Head of Education at the AFTRS, and designed the original Cinema Studies course at La Trobe University in 1970, the first of its kind in Australia. He became a professional actor in 1977 and has over 100 credits in theatre, film and television.”

While his influence in cinema as an actor is undeniable, what makes Flaus’s career all the more remarkable is the degree of thought and intelligence that goes into his work – whether the project at hand be a television movie or a feature film, he gives his all to every project he’s in. More importantly, he was able to articulate – brilliantly – the entire process of film and television acting. In a detailed article in Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture 5.2 (1990), edited by Adrian Martin, entitled “Thanks For Your Heart, Bart,” Flaus described both what it is like to work on various film projects, and why film acting is so very different than acting on stage.

As he put it, “Everybody is an actor, each of us wears a mask – except for saints and simpletons. Our motives may be several: affectation, emulation, defense, attack, manipulation, self-indulgence. We select our own role, choose when and where to perform (thereby selecting our audience), write or improvise our own scenario, decide how much is too much and when to stop. Each of us is the sole recipient of full satisfaction and (hopefully) understanding of our own performance. If we misunderstand we come to believe in the Role and mistake it for the Self; we are in ‘bad faith’ as we delude ourselves. The situation chooses us and we become misguided critics of our own acting.

The vocational actor must put himself at the disposal of other intelligences, other values, other strategies; and must simulate emotions germane to an imaginary situation which is the product of someone else’s imagining. The psychology of the vocational actor’s practice is radically different from that of everyday ’social acting’; his technique requires more skills, his psychology requires stronger discipline.

The historical origins of vocational acting cannot be dated accurately; it may be two and a half millennia since drama detached from ritual. Four centuries have passed since European drama became ‘theater’, its production commercial, acting professional and commentary influential. In this phase the text of the play was ‘company property’. Commentators drew upon ancient precepts and contemporary prejudices, and their comments were published.

Drama theory had little to say about acting theory, which did not become a topic in the public domain until the Romantic backlash to industrialism and absolutism, when the term ‘art’ acquired its current predication and yielded its old territory to ‘craft’. Before that, theory of acting had been virtually a guild secret. I think it reasonable to assume that most of such theory was pragmatic and normative. The advice I am going to offer later in this article will fit that description, too.

Nowadays theory of acting makes it into print for the general reader (‘at all good bookstores’), yet radical differences between live drama and photographed drama are not widely understood or practiced. Often film actors are undeservedly blamed – and praised – for creative decisions made by other artists: directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, designers, editors.

Much of the art and some of the craft of the stage actor provide the basis for the film actor’s practice. Most actors come to film work after some stage experience, and with some stage preconceptions and traditions. There are still things to learn – and maybe some to unlearn, depending on how ‘filmic’ the particular film or TV drama is.

Because the vocation of stage acting is so long established, rich in expertise and lore, and its virtues more widely understood than those of film acting, I will delineate my concern with my topic – film acting – by frequent reference to what it is not – stage acting.” Essential reading; my sincere thanks to Adrian Danks for bringing Flaus’s critical work to my attention.

This is brilliant writing; you can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Mad Men Half-Season Finale; Returns in 2015

Monday, May 26th, 2014

It’s been frustrating watching Mad Men this season, particularly with the final season split into two parts.

But last night’s episode was uncharacteristically optimistic – thank God! After one episode after another of down, down, down into the abyss of despair, to see Roger Sterling (John Slattery) come in and rescue the agency with a merger, and then Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse) take his final bow with a musical number reminiscent of his long stint in Broadway musicals, was more than refreshing – it was absolutely necessary. Here’s what Morse had to say about his song and dance sendoff:

“Matthew Weiner came to me and said, ‘Bobby, I want to talk to you… You’re going to pass away in this episode. I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘I perfectly understand.’ And he said, ‘By the way, I’ve always wanted to have you sing. That’s what I remember you from, all your Broadway and theater days. When I hired you, always, in the back of my mind, I wanted you to sing a song, but there was never a place to do it.’ And then he came up with this idea. He said, ‘I am going to make you come back in the last shot in the picture and sing a song to Don.’ [Morse sings] ‘The moon belongs to everyone. The best things in life are free.’

They had this wonderful choreographer, Mary Ann Kellogg, whom I knew very well, and hired four or five beautiful dancers who would play secretaries . . . I dance with them and also sing to Don, and it’s a whole production. I went and learned the song, and I went into the studio and we recorded it with a huge orchestra. Then we rehearsed it on the set for a couple of days, away from everybody else. Nobody knew what was going on . . . It was just a lovely way, a sweet way, for dear Matt to send me off.”

Now we just have to wait until 2015 – perhaps as late as April, 2015 – to see how this epic series ends.

The 86th Annual Academy Awards

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

The 86th Annual Academy Awards are upon us.

It continues to amaze me how few people understand that this isn’t some sort of national poll of either critics or audiences; it’s an industry event. And yet the public continues to tune in, year after year, to what is essentially a three hour plus commercial for the American film industry, which is all well and good, but one must remember that it marginalizes so many excellent films from around the world, as well as in the United States, into an “all or nothing sweepstakes” in which there can be only one winner in each category. That said, I blogged a few days ago on my initial thoughts on “who would win what”; now that the nominations are actually out, here are some more thoughts on the subject.

Directing, as I suggested in my last post, will go to Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity, though Steve McQueen for 12 Years A Slave is a strong contender, and in my opinion should get the nod; Best Actor to Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club, but Bruce Dern is a strong favorite for Nebraska, now that Robert Redford is out of the running; Best Actress to Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine, which seems to me pretty much a lock; 12 Years A Slave for Best Picture, again pretty much a lock; Best Supporting Actor to Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club, yet again pretty much a lock; and Best Animated Feature to Frozen, one more time, a lock. So that’s all recap of the earlier post.

So now, some new predictions, and here I’m venturing into much riskier territory. These thoughts should be taken with a huge grain of salt, and will be modified by future events that are, at this moment, too far away on the horizon to see; Best Supporting Actress is a toss up between Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle, Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave and June Squibb, for Nebraska, and Ms. Squibb might surprise everyone by taking this one home. Best Original Screenplay is again a long shot, but Bob Nelson’s nomination for Nebraska assures him of a decent shot. However, the other nominees are also very strong, so it’s really too close to call, and the same thing goes for Best Adapted Screenplay.

However, I’ll go out on a limb again and predict Thomas Vinterberg’s superb film The Hunt for Best Foreign Language Film, though this category continues to rankle. There are simply so many superb “foreign” films out there that to pick simply one film to represent the entire world is really a suspect enterprise, but in any event, that’s my pick in this least egalitarian of all Oscar categories. Best Documentary, the nearly unbearable The Act of Killing. Best Cinemtography, Emmanuel Lubezki for Gravity, simply because the film is such a visual tour-de-force; and Best Visual Effects, Gravity again, for obvious reasons.

That’s all for the moment; all of this, of course, is subject to change without notice.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

wheelerwinstondixon.com

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.

Ingmar Bergman for Bris Soap — 1951 Commercials

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Just like everyone else, Ingmar Bergman had to make a living in his early years.

As Martin Schneider notes on the Dangerous Minds website, “in 1951 the Swedish film industry went on strike to protest high taxes in the entertainment sector, and Ingmar Bergman, who at 33 had already directed a handful of movies and had also overseen the Gothenburg city theater for three years, signed on to do a series of commercials for Bris soap, in part to support his already teeming brood (two ex-wives and five children, with a sixth on the way). The commercials are playful, fascinating, and utterly Bergmanesque—in the best possible way.

What I don’t mean by ‘Bergmanesque’ is that they’re brooding or depressing or austere—as Bergman’s popular image would dictate. No, they are loose and original and supremely confident in the form of cinema. Bergman has had the misfortune to be identified with a couple of not overly representative movies—Persona (1966) and above all, The Seventh Seal (1957)—and his true nature as a restless and protean prober of human nature somehow got a little lost in the mix.

Bergman was nothing if not a relentlessly theatrical director, and few were more confident in exploring the limits of narrative in the medium. The parodies don’t quite suffice to encapsulate the director of the masterpieces Fanny and Alexander or Scenes from a Marriage. There are eight of the Bris commercials, they are all black-and-white, and the visual quality leaves something to be desired by the standards of 2013, but to Bergman’s credit, they are all wildly different and memorable and convey some succinct point about the nature of cinema as well as delivering the promised virtues of the soap.”

You can read more, and see the commercials, by clicking here.

Kevin Spacey on The Future of Televison

Sunday, August 25th, 2013

Kevin Spacey has a few words of wisdom on the future of broadcast television and convergence with the web.

Spacey, who gave the keynote James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival on August 23rd, as reported in The Guardian — one of my favorite newspapers — told the audience that “clearly the success of the Netflix model – releasing the entire season of House Of Cards at once – has proved one thing: the audience wants control. They want freedom. If they want to binge – as they’ve been doing on House Of Cards – then we should let them binge. [This] demonstrated that we have learned the lesson that the music industry didn’t learn – give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and they’ll more likely pay for it rather than steal it. If you watch a TV show on your iPad is it no longer a TV show? The device and length are irrelevant. For kids growing up now there’s no difference watching Avatar on an iPad or watching YouTube on a TV and watching Game Of Thrones on their computer. It’s all content. It’s all story.”

You can view video excerpts from the lecture here — about five minutes, condensed — and Spacey makes some very good points.

‘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.

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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