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Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on “I Was Impaled”

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay on I Was Impaled and similarly warped “reality” TV shows in Film International.

As she writes, “television shows such as I Was Impaled (2012-) and 1000 Ways to Die (2008-) appropriate tropes from horror film and re-narrate them into digestible bite-size “safe” forms. I’d argue they have similar voyeuristic pleasures as the horror film, but they are almost entirely shorn of narrative and any sense of morality. In 1000 Ways to Die, ‘hilarious’ stories of death, loosely based on actual stories, are stripped of any humanism, and edited together as a series of graphic and repetitive mini-narratives of sadistic slaughter. It’s all for sick kicks; set to quirky music, sutured together by a wisecracking voice-over narrator. Here, the destruction of the body is almost a postmodern destruction of humanity, with a snuff-like lack of ethos; presented much in the same manner as the ‘funny’ clips from America’s Funniest Home Videos, which themselves often rely on the humor in watching, for example, children hurting themselves.

For anyone unfamiliar with I Was Impaled, I’ll offer here some brief plot summaries. I Was Impaled features people who accidentally end up with foreign objects impaled in their body. While examining how these mysterious items were often initially ignored and later ‘discovered,’ the program carefully reenacts the gruesome impalements and also features faux forensic material popular to any reality programming. Here, in CSI style, we are treated to gruesome reenactments of actors playing medics and surgeons who use the most groundbreaking techniques to extract objects from bodies as a flat voice over narrative explains what we are watching in excessively bloody detail. Using cutting-edge animation, firsthand testimony and sophisticated recreations, often including CGI, each 60-minute episode highlights the stories of three or four ‘impalements,’ from the time the injury occurs to the moment the person ‘realizes’ they are actually impaled by something, through the euphoric moment when the object is removed, and usually it includes an actor saying ‘I should not be alive,’ or some variant on that idea, in this way gesturing to the trope of the so-called ‘deservedness’ of death as it is featured on 1000 Ways to Die.

The stories include a woman who was impaled on a five-inch iron spike railing; a man whose esophagus was ripped open by a French fry; a gardener whom fell face first onto his pruning shears; a young man who was accidentally shot with a five-foot long fishing spear; a man who was impaled by a six-foot fence post; a woman who fell directly onto a hooked planter while gardening; a man who had a foreign object mysteriously lodged into his brain; a woman who was impaled through her neck by a Christmas tree; a boy who accidentally swallowed a barbed hook while fishing; a man who nearly died after being pumped full of enough air to blow up a thousand party balloons; a surfer who ended up with his fiberglass surfboard embedded in his skull; a motocross rider who crashed and ended up with a stick in his face; a 64-year-old woman who discovered a bug in her ear and a pencil in her brain; a carpenter who got a splinter in his eye; and an ex-Marine who was left with a pole penetrating his mouth after a car accident (TV Tango).

As you can tell from these plot descriptions, the definition of ‘impalement’ is stretched beyond credulity. The show promises the kinds of impalements one would expect from a horror film, but impalement from within by a French fry, or being pumped up with excess air seems hardly comparable with classic horror movie impalements. A classic horror film, usually a moral tale, often involves the impalement of a vampire by wooden stake, or a villain being impaled on an iron spike, specifically a black wrought iron spiked gate of the type found either in Victorian England, or the Transylvanian countryside. While I Was Impaled may borrow from the classic horror film (one that almost always features a clear morality tale), it leaves behind the moral binarisms of good vs. evil in the traditional horror film. Instead, the program foregrounds a series of impalements and dismemberments without the narrative conscience of a moral center.”

This is where television is today; essential reading. Click here to read the entire essay.

Heinz Ketchup 1968 TV Spot Storyboard

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Here’s a fascinating, at least to me, document, which is somewhat off the beaten path for this blog.

This is a storyboard for a 1968 TV spot for Heinz ketchup, which was presented at a company sales meeting as an alternative to the advertising the company had done up to that point. Created by DDB, the iconic advertising agency of the 1960s — and still a major force in the advertising world today — the ad emphasized the quality, texture, and taste of the product, as compared to other, cheaper brands. You can read the entire story behind the reasoning that led up to this spot here; sadly, the video of the commercial isn’t on the web, but I think this almost frame-by-frame analysis of the advertisement is much more enlightening than the finished version. This is how stuff is sold, folks; careful consideration, a lot of contemplation, and a desire to make all of us more effective consumers.

Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access — New Video Trailer

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Click here to see the trailer for my new book, Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access.

Film stocks are vanishing, but the image remains, albeit in a new, sleeker format. Today, viewers can instantly stream movies on demand on televisions, computers, and smartphones. Long gone are the days when films could only be seen in theaters: Videos are now accessible at the click of a virtual button, and there are no reels, tapes, or discs to store. Any product that is worth keeping may be collected in the virtual cloud and accessed at will through services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant.

The movies have changed, and we are changing with them. The ways we communicate, receive information, travel, and socialize have all been revolutionized. In Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access, Winston Wheeler Dixon reveals the positive and negative consequences of the transition to digital formatting and distribution, exploring the ways in which digital cinema has altered contemporary filmmaking and our culture. Many industry professionals and audience members feel that the new format fundamentally alters the art while others laud the liberation of the moving image from the “imperfect” medium of film, asserting that it is both inevitable and desirable. Dixon argues that the change is neither good nor bad; it’s simply a fact.

Hollywood has embraced digital production and distribution because it is easier, faster, and cheaper, but the displacement of older technology will not come without controversy. This groundbreaking book illuminates the challenges of preserving digital media and explores what stands to be lost, from the rich hues present in film stocks to the classic movies that are not profitable enough to offer as streaming video. Dixon also investigates the financial challenges of the new distribution model, the incorporation of new content such as webisodes, and the issue of ownership in an age when companies have the power to pull purchased items from consumer devices at their own discretion.

Streaming touches upon every aspect of the shift to digital production and distribution. It not only explains how the new technology is affecting movies, music, books, and games, but also how instant access is permanently changing the habits of viewers and influencing our culture.

Wheeler Winston Dixon, James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies and professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, is coeditor-in-chief of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video and the author of numerous books, including A History of Horror, Visions of the Apocalypse: Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema, and Film Talk: Directors at Work.

“Dixon has written a lively, opinionated, and detailed up-to-the-minute dispatch on the current state of the moving-image media as they experience a period of rapid transition marked by instability and uncertainty regarding the future of viewing and exhibition practices. It is a timely and urgent contribution to current scholarship in the constantly evolving discipline of media studies.”—David Sterritt, author of Screening the Beats: Media Culture and the Beat Sensibility

“Dixon’s book offers a cogent overview of the history of digital film production and its impact on traditional filmmaking. His work is more than just a historical map of the development of digitalized filmmaking, but also a socio-cultural and psychological study of how digitally formed film will (and does) impact viewers. Streaming will make a significant contribution to the field, as no scholar has yet looked at digital cinema and its impact on the socio-cultural experience of viewing film.”—Valerie Orlando, author of Screening Morocco: Contemporary Film in a Changing Society

Film/Television/Popular Culture
May, 2013
184 pages ∙ 6 x 9
ISBN 978-0-8131-4217-3 ∙ Cloth $69.00x
ISBN 978-0-8131-4219-7 ∙ Paper $24.95
ISBN 978-0-8131-4224-1 ∙ PDF
ISBN 978-0-8131-4218-0 ∙ EPUB

Forthcoming from The University Press of Kentucky

Federico Fellini’s Television Commercials

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

Yes, Federico Fellini directed television commercials — click here, or on the image above, to see them!

Just posted by the website Open Culture, here are a series of television commercials (!!) that the great Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini directed shortly before his death. Perhaps the most interesting one is for the Bank of Rome, in which Fernando Rey appears as a sympathetic psychiatrist. As the Open Culture website notes, “in 1991 Fellini made a series of three commercials for the Bank of Rome called Che Brutte Notti or The Bad Nights. ‘These commercials, aired the following year,’ writes Peter Bondanella in The Films of Federico Fellini, ‘are particularly interesting, since they find their inspiration in various dreams Fellini had sketched out in his dream notebooks during his career.’

In the commercial The Picnic Lunch Dream, the classic damsel-in-distress scenario is turned upside down when a man (played by Paolo Villaggio) finds himself trapped on the railroad tracks with a train bearing down on him while the beautiful woman he was dining with (Anna Falchi) climbs out of reach and taunts him. But it’s all a dream, which the man tells to his psychoanalyst (Fernando Rey). The analyst interprets the dream and assures the man that his nights will be restful if he puts his money in the Banco di Roma.”

Really worth watching; you can see Fellini’s masterful touch in every image.

Just the Facts, Man: the Complicated Genesis of Television’s Dragnet

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

I have a new piece out in Film International on the genesis of the classic 1950s television series Dragnet.

Here’s the part of what I have to say on the subject: The 1950s version of Dragnet was in many ways an “outlier” in the contemporary televisual landscape; easily burlesqued and imitated, there was still nothing else like it in terms of hard-nosed stylization, grimly procedural story lines, and, for the period, grimy authenticity. Just a look at some of the plot lines demonstrates just how out of sync Dragnet was in a world populated by the likes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver, and other enormously popular, family-oriented series of the era. Dragnet, in contrast, concentrated almost entirely on the downside of 1950s American existence; the misfits, psychos, drifters, conmen, and ne’er do wells who collectively comprised the series’ world. Dragnet’s world was the netherworld of American society; and every episode made it clear that only the LAPD was holding back the tide of scum that threatened to engulf Los Angeles, and by extension, the entire nation.

In “The Big Death” (January 17, 1952), an unsuspecting husband hires Joe Friday as a hit man to kill his wife; in “The Big Mother” (January 31, 1952), a newborn infant is abducted from a hospital by an unstable young woman, who is unable to have children herself; in “The Big Speech” (February 28, 1952), Friday delivers a lecture warning on the evils of drug addiction at his former high school, even as he tracks down a teenage hoodlum, who, seeking his next fix, beats up and robs a friendly druggist; in “The Big Blast” (April 10, 1952), which Webb both wrote and directed, a young mother is killed in her bed by a shotgun blast, as her infant son slumbers next to her; in “The Big September Man” (May 8, 1952), an unbalanced sociopath feels divinely inspired to kill “a sinner,” and his former fiancée is his most recent victim; in the justly infamous “.22 Rifle for Christmas” (December 18, 1952, Dragnet’s first “Christmas episode”), co-written by [James] Moser and Webb, a young boy prematurely opens a Christmas gift – a .22 rifle – and accidentally kills one of his friends while playing with the rifle, subsequently hiding the young victim’s body in the brush on Christmas Eve.

In “The Big Lay Out” (April 16, 1953), a high school honor student becomes strung out on heroin; in “The Big Hands” (May 21, 1953), a young woman is found strangled to death in a cheap hotel room; in “The Big Nazi” (November 25, 1958), Friday uncovers a high school neo-Nazi ring; and on and on it goes, a parade of beatings, stabbings, murders, rapes, robberies, and wanton brutality that seems to have no end in sight, an unstoppable tidal wave of human greed, violence, and corruption. Compared to the 1960s version of the series, which kicked off with an unintentionally risible episode on the dangers of LSD – the “Blue Boy” episode, actually titled “The LSD Story,” first broadcast on January 12, 1967 – the 1950s version of Dragnet bristles with menace, energy, and simmering social disruption; no one even thinks of “Mirandizing” suspects, because, of course, no such law existed.

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.

The Archive of American Television

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Here’s a fantastic site on the history of American television, with interviews, video clips, bloopers, inside stories and statistics, all of it thoroughly indexed.

While the main site for the Archive of American Television is here, I have linked to the interview site as the first stop for viewers, since it offers something like 700 interviews with actors, writers, directors, producers and others who created television programming — the good, the bad, and the indifferent — from the first 75 years or so of television history. It’s an invaluable resource for those who are interested in researching the medium, and highly recommended.

Another example of the value of digital archives. It’s all at your fingertips.

Embracing The Apocalypse: A World Without People

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay in the latest issue of Film International, “Embracing the Apocalypse: A World Without People,” examining visions of the future as imagined by various Dystopian films and television programs.

As she writes, “Human-centered popular folktales of Apocalypse and Doomsday narratives of every imaginable scenario are undeniably as powerful and plentiful as they have been from the beginnings of human narrative tradition. Indeed, apocalyptic events permeate a plethora of grand narratives from myriad cultures and textual sources that prominently, almost ecstatically, feature and carefully describe the gory details of our violent end times. They are set in the future, and almost all revolve around human-centered stories complete with often similarly violent narratives, inevitable tropes of conflict, judgment, drama, and resolution, the stops we require of any genre or tradition in human narrative form.

At the center of apocalyptic vision we find, perhaps predictably, a human-dominant form of speciesism, revealing a widespread, almost universally held belief in the dominance of human beings as a species. Human beings are placed at the center of events and narratives, even narratives that don’t involve human beings. This is something that often goes unnoticed, but it is especially notable in apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and depeopled futuristic visions.

The plethora of doomsday scenarios and apocalyptic narratives are far too numerous to list, from religious scripture and Revelations, to secular visions of end times, to the myriad, often bizarre and insane sounding predictions of the end by various individuals and groups. All are narratives of human-centered destruction; some invoke the end of the earth, and some portray the end of people and human civilization; but all embrace, and seem to enjoy visions of the end. We cannot agree on much, but people agree that the end is near, the end is coming, and the end is usually defined as the end of people and human civilization.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above; fascinating work in an area that is largely unexplored.

Topper

Saturday, August 18th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to watch a complete episode of Topper.

Anne Jeffreys and Robert Sterling, standing; Leo G. Carroll and Lee Patrick, seated, in this 1953 cast photo from the television series Topper.

The character of Cosmo Topper, a button down banker haunted by the ghosts of George and Marian Kerby, was originally created by novelist Thorne Smith in the late 1920s, and served as the springboard for several indifferent films, but found its most lasting fame as a television series that lasted from 1953 to 1955, racking up a total of 78 episodes, which were played and replayed in syndication forever after.

In the television series, Topper was played by veteran actor Leo G. Carroll, whose eternally befuddled character was the perfect foil for the ghostly Kerbys, played by real life husband and wife team Anne Jeffreys and Robert Sterling. Lee Patrick, who had been knocking around in movies in bit parts — she was Sam Spade’s secretary in The Maltese Falcon, for example — was superb in role of Henrietta, Topper’s somewhat scatterbrained spouse.

The plots usually revolved around the fact that only Topper, and the audience, could see the Kerbys, who had perished in an avalanche while on a skiing vacation. For everyone else, things seemed to float around the house of their own accord, unexplained noises would erupt, and the Kerbys in general delighted in putting Topper in uncomfortable situations, all in an effort to loosen him up.

Further, the Kerbys had an alcoholic pet St. Bernard, Neil, who spent most of his time lapping up one martini after another, while Cosmo’s Boss, the exquisitely corrupt Mr. Schuyler (magnificently played by veteran heavy Thurston Hall), president of the bank where Topper works, keeps testing Topper’s patience with a variety of schemes and threats designed to make his life at the office miserable.

With the aid of the Kerbys, however, Cosmo Topper triumphs over the mendacity and mediocrity of 1950s American suburban life, and the series, which long ago passed into the Public Domain, and is available on DVD from Alpha Video, is well worth seeking out – it’s a real gem. Leo G. Carroll’s droll timing is a wonder to behold, and Sterling and Jeffries, very much in love, have a ball with their roles. Everyone on the series had to work very quickly, but they make it seem so effortless that it’s a real delight to watch.

Scripts were handled by a variety of writers, including a young Stephen Sondheim and George Oppenheimer; directors included Leslie Goodwins, Leslie H. Martinson — who later worked on the Batman TV series — and Lew Landers, and all the episodes were shot in two days or less, including time for Bewitched-style special effects, at the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, Calif.

Topper — one of the most sophisticated, literate, and adult 1950s TV shows.

The Anger Management Assembly Line

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Charlie Sheen’s new sitcom Anger Management seems poised for a 90-episode pickup deal with FX.

You may or may not recall that Charlie Sheen has landed on his feet with a new series, Anger Management, which was launched on FX with a 10 episode commitment, and then, providing that the ratings were good enough, the series would get the green light for 90 additional episodes — an unheard of deal — to be shot over the course of two years, in order to reach the magic number of 100 episodes for syndication as rapidly as possible. That’s shooting an average of an episode a week with no breaks for two years, though of course there will be downtime, so it’s actually being shot faster than that.

Well, apparently, he’s pulled it off. As The Associated Press reported, “with the expected pickup, FX plans to bring aboard Sheen’s dad, Martin Sheen, as a recurring cast member. He will play the father of Charlie Goodson, the anger-management therapist played by Charlie Sheen [. . .] Adding Sheen’s father to the series ‘will give an extra dimension and make it a multi-generational family show,’ FX boss John Landgraf said in making the announcement.

The production schedule would call for filming a total of 100 episodes in just two years. This kind of cost-saving routine means no time for rehearsals, said executive producer Bruce Helford.’The actors get the lines, we see the scene, the writers make changes, the actors go to makeup, cameras are blocked, we come back together and shoot the scene,’ he explained. At first, the cast members ‘felt like basically they were on the ledge. But by the third episode, everyone found the characters to the point that the writers were following their lead,’ Helford said.”

As Sheen himself notes in the sneak peek below, “we’re [shooting] 49 pages [of script] every two days.” This is the fastest sitcom production schedule in history. But then again, with the speed everything else is moving at, it makes a lot of sense.

Here’s a peek behind the scenes.

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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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/