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The Real Value of A College Education

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

Here are some words of real wisdom from Hunter Rawlings on the true value of a college education.

As Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities and a former president of Cornell University and the University of Iowa, wrote in The Washington Post on June 9, 2015, “I entered academia 52 years ago as a student of Latin and Greek expecting to enter a placid sector of American life, and now find my chosen profession at the center of a media maelstrom. With college replacing high school as the required ticket for a career, what used to be a quiet corner is now a favorite target of policymakers and pundits. Unfortunately, most commentary on the value of college is naive, or worse, misleading . . .

Unlike a car, college requires the ‘buyer’ to do most of the work to obtain its value. The value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum. I know this because I have seen excellent students get great educations at average colleges, and unmotivated students get poor educations at excellent colleges. And I have taught classes which my students made great through their efforts, and classes which my students made average or worse through their lack of effort. Though I would like to think I made a real contribution to student learning, my role was not the sole or even determining factor in the value of those courses to my students.

A college education, then, if it is a commodity, is no car. The courses the student decides to take (and not take), the amount of work the student does, the intellectual curiosity the student exhibits, her participation in class, his focus and determination — all contribute far more to her educational “outcome” than the college’s overall curriculum, much less its amenities and social life. Yet most public discussion of higher ed today pretends that students simply receive their education from colleges the way a person walks out of Best Buy with a television.

The results of this kind of thinking are pernicious. Governors and legislators, as well as the media, treat colleges as purveyors of goods, students as consumers and degrees as products. Students get the message. If colleges are responsible for outcomes, then students can feel entitled to classes that do not push them too hard, to high grades and to material that does not challenge their assumptions or make them uncomfortable.

Hence colleges too often cater to student demands for trigger warnings, ’safe rooms,’ and canceled commencement speakers. When rating colleges, as everyone from the president to weekly magazines insist on doing nowadays, people use performance measures such as graduation rates and time to degree as though those figures depended entirely upon the colleges and not at all upon the students.

This point is made succinctly by an apocryphal story about a university president who said this to new freshmen each year: ‘For those of you who have come here in order to get a degree, congratulations, I have good news for you. I am giving you your degree today and you can go home now. For those who came to get an education, welcome to four great years of learning at this university.’” In short, you get out of it what you put into it – college is for learning, growing, exploring, and finding out what you don’t know.

Read the full article here - an excellent overview of the inestimable value of a university education.

Alex Ross Perry on Film vs. Digital

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

L to R; Alex Ross Perry and DP Sean Price Williams on the set of Queen of Earth – shooting film.

In the continuing debate between film vs. digital, director Alex Ross Perry, and his superbly gifted DP Sean Price Williams weigh in on why shooting on film gives you an undefinable edge over the rest of the field – provided, of course, that your film has some actual content. As Perry notes in an op-ed piece in Indiewire, in part:

“It is quite simple and affordable to shoot a movie of almost any budget on actual, honest to god celluloid. Perhaps I’m not the best authority on the subject; I have never actually shot a film on a digital format. Queen of Earth is my fourth film; the first, Impolex, was made in 2008 with a $15,000 budget and shot on Fuji 16mm film. So ever since then I’ve been getting asked, and really earnestly explaining in the hopes that my words mean something: how?

Impolex was shot in seven days. I think we bought 40 rolls of film. However many it was, the total was something like $2,500 and processing was another $3,000 or so. We got the Aaton camera for free because my cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, worked for the late great Albert Maysles and the company had all this older equipment just sitting around that nobody used or cared about. This is an important thing to remember when planning to shoot on film: practically nobody else wants that equipment so if you can’t get it for free, you should be able to get it for basically nothing.

The same cannot be said for whatever new Red camera is in high demand – if you won’t pay $500 a day for it, somebody else will. For a 16mm camera, I’d be surprised if anybody paid $500 for a whole week. So if you are making a small independent film with a shoot of about two weeks, the film stock, camera package and processing could be as low as five to six thousand dollars . . .

The numbers we landed on for shooting film on Queen of Earth were partially borrowed from producer Joe Swanberg’s identical production budget and model for his own Super 16mm film Happy Christmas . . . we bought $11,000 worth of Kodak Super 16mm and then paid close to $15,000 to develop and scan it.

Our camera and lighting package was about $10,000 but you’d absolutely be paying the same if renting a fancy pants HD camera and also you have to buy a bunch of hard drives and have some person on set whose sole job is to move stuff off of memory cards or whatever and deal with the footage all day.

That’s a whole extra mouth to feed, bed to rent, seat in the van, and so on. It adds up and the ultimate difference between film and digital on a production of this size isn’t 5:1. It’s probably more like 4:3 when you factor in all the nonsense you are paying for regardless.

Color correction will cost the same. Once the footage is scanned and edited, it doesn’t matter what the origin was, except now you aren’t paying some tech nerd in a post house several thousand dollars to press buttons and adjust knobs in order to retroactively add an visual aesthetic to your movie that realistically, you could have just spent the same amount of money on set and had that texture and experience be genuine instead of inauthentic.

Generally people really don’t seem to connect with that process, and it doesn’t matter if you shot on old converted 35mm lenses either.

The eye won’t connect with digital trickery the same way it will with tried and true imperfect film grain. It may look great and interesting in its own way, as many filmmakers have proven starting, for me, with Zodiac, but at these budget levels, you essentially are saving a little money on the format and then spending it later on somebody who works on your movie for like three days and probably gets paid more than most of the crew who woke up at seven am and worked for twelve hours.

My point is that shooting on film is like anything: if it is of importance you will find a way to make it happen. Nobody will know that you were able to buy an extra two days of filming by shooting on an Alexa but they will know if you are the rare independent film that was shot on actual film. You definitely will have to make a compromise or two but what you get in return is an instant and overwhelmingly present aesthetic that will do more in carrying the audience to whatever place you want them to be than just about anything else money can buy.”

An interesting take; you can read the entire piece by clicking here.

It Can Wait – No Post Is Worth A Life

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Here’s a really powerful commercial from AT&T on the dangers of texting and driving.

I don’t usually comment on commercials, but this one is really powerful – with a minimal voiceover from actor Forest Whitaker, “two cars collide in a horrific crash when one swerves into the other lane. The scene reverses and you see a mom posting an update while she drives. Just before she crashes, she looks back to tell her daughter everyone loves the picture she posted of her. AT&T wants you to know that looking at your phone can wait. No post is worth a life.”

Absolutely true – and a really compelling reminder not to text, or post, and drive.

Infinitely Polar Bear

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

Zoe Saldana, Mark Ruffalo and Director Maya Forbes on the set of Forbes’ Infinitely Polar Bear.

Here’s a beautiful little film that needs much more attention; it opened and closed in a matter of weeks, but it’s one of the best American films of the year; tender, daring, accomplished, with some terrific acting by the leads, as well as the supporting cast. In a detailed interview with San Francisco’s public television station KQED, the interviewer asked “what if you could go back in time to one of those moments that presaged your parents’ temporary separation or ugly divorce?

As an adult, what exactly do you remember about the fights they had, the struggles they went through to take care of their own lives and put food on the family table? Would you be more sympathetic to their flaws and failings if you could overhear those heated conversations and arguments? Could you forgive them, at last, after all these years?

Maya Forbes stages and recreates those moments in her debut feature film Infinitely Polar Bear [child speak for "infinitely bipolar"]. Like Kramer vs. Kramer and Shoot the Moon — films that depict marriages in turmoil — Forbes’s movie is generously empathetic to all the players involved, if not especially so to the character of her manic depressive father, as played by Mark Ruffalo.

For Forbes, the impulse to make the film was rooted, lovingly, during a moment of her childhood when her father was, briefly, the primary caregiver: ‘When I was little, I just so wanted to fix everything and solve everything and make everything okay.’ For 90 minutes, in her own cinematic way, she has.”

As Forbes herself noted, “My mother wanted to be a theater producer, and she was for a while. But then, when my father had his breakdown, she had to figure out how to make a living. A theater producer wasn’t going to pay the bills — it was like being an independent filmmaker. I saw that decision as a double sacrifice. She was doing this because she really wanted us to have an education, and she was giving up her dream of being in the world of arts, which is where she wanted to be.

She was very successful, but I saw the sadness in that, which was compelling to me. When I got older, because I knew I wanted to be an artist, I also had this conflict about motherhood and career and ambition. Career and ambition are often not even the same in some ways. I had a really good career as a Hollywood writer. But I wasn’t fulfilling my ultimate ambition, which was to make a movie that was very personal . . .

I didn’t want to do something that was either cartoonish or overly dangerous. My father certainly had a temper. He also had the ability to apologize. He had a lot to apologize for and he apologized a lot. Somehow, that was something he could do, which isn’t to say he could get away with all sorts of terrible things.

What was so fascinating to me was this period of stability for him. The only stable time of his life, really. My mother knew that he was a very loving father and I think she also knew that he needed responsibility, he needed some kind of anchor and he was better when he was with the family. He was better when she wasn’t around because then he was the responsible adult. When there’s another responsible adult there, you can be the crazy one . . .

My father died in 1998 so I was saying goodbye to this experience of being with him. What I also realized was, of course, that all he wanted was to take care of us. At the same time, all he was ever trying to say to us was, ‘You go out into the world and conquer.’ He was a feminist too and he had that conflict in him. That’s the whole sacrifice he has, which really hurt. I feel that every time thinking about him.”

You can read the entire interview here; this is a superb film, that should not be missed.

Marvel vs. DC – The Social Media Battle

Monday, August 17th, 2015

Talkwalker describes the social media battle between DC and Marvel as “a friendly rivalry” – but really, it’s a battle to the death.

As Julie Hong writes, “A friendly rivalry between Marvel and DC Comics has spawned since the 1930s, originating from comic books and then flourishing onto the big screens and video games. With more than 20 movie adaptations planned in the next 4 years, superhero movies are bound to break box office numbers, and social media records. While we must reckon that comparing Marvel and DC worlds is like comparing Coca-Cola and Pepsi – it’s a matter of taste – we can however determine who is catching the attention on the social web this summer in regards to figures and stats.

Using Talkwalker’s social media analytics platform, let’s see who wins each round in terms of social media trends, share of voice, hashtag analysis, sentiment, and engagement on Facebook and Twitter.” Hong then takes the various Marvel and DC films through a variety of social barometers, with Marvel sometimes winning, and DC sometimes coming out on top, but in the end – surprise – Marvel wins, mostly because they have a much deeper bench of characters than DC, and they’re clearly more adept at playing the social media game, and have been, long before Twitter, Facebook and the like were invented, and the only fan feedback was the “letters to the editor” column.

Hong concludes, “Our 8-round battle concludes to Marvel winning over DC on social media in terms of general conversations about comic books, volume of brand and hashtag mentions online, buzz originating from its cinematic universe, and Twitter activity. Winning the battle, but not necessarily the war. Superheroes fans, the floor is yours. Let us know who wins your heart @Talkwalker! This analysis was conducted using Talkwalker, a social listening and social media analytics platform that monitors and analyses online conversations on social networks, news websites, blogs, forums and more, in over 187 languages.”

So check it out – even if comic book films aren’t your main interest, this is fascinating material.

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit (2015)

Friday, August 14th, 2015

The Visit may be M. Night Shyamalan’s last chance at mainstream success.

As Chris McKinney argues in the web journal Movie Pilot, “while the majority of movie-goers might identify M. Night Shyamalan as washed up, I don’t. I don’t quite understand what happened to the days when he created films like the Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, but those days seem to have faded from Shyamalan. Every couple of years or so we get another announcement of the next Shyamalan film, and many articles have the same theme, ‘is this going to be when Shyamalan returns?’

I don’t have the answer yet, but because he’s shown an ability to do good work, I’ll always know it’s possible. While many people like to cast blame on directors for bad films, that’s not always the case. Sometimes studios like to put their fingers and toes in on projects, taking away creative freedom from the creator because they’ve somehow convinced themselves they’re the authority on good and bad ideas. While I’d like to use this as an excuse for Shyamalan, I can’t apply it to all his projects; there’s just too many. But what you shouldn’t do if you’re a studio is take and alter a filmmaker’s vision.

At first glance, from the clips I’ve seen, The Visit does have that original M. Night Shyamalan look and feel to it. It feels like a less complex project than we’ve come to see over the last 10 years and that might be a great remedy for him to get back on track.

The film has an estimated $5 million budget, and was somehow secretly filmed in Philadelphia. Shyamalan turned the money he made from the Will Smith produced After Earth, in which Smith clearly used the film as a launchpad for his son, to help fund The Visit. He said The Visit was ‘an attempt to regain artistic control’  after his recent movies had been denied in their final cut and some of those films taken from his hands in post-production.”

While Shyamalan is certainly not a major artist, and seems to have a very limited vision indeed, I think that McKinney is right when he cites big budget Hollywood interference as one of the many possible causes for the relative collapse of Shyamalan’s career of late. But with The Visit, he’s shooting a film on a tight budget, with a tight schedule, and working with Jason Blum, the showman / genius behind Blumhouse Productions, who clearly knows how to market a film, and also how to bring out the best in any existing project.

As just one example, The Visit was originally titled Sundowning, a title that clearly has no punch. Just as with Joel Edgerton’s The Gift (see below), which was originally titled Weirdo, the new title for Shyamalan’s film is much sharper, more direct, and the trailer is a minor wonder of mounting dread in a two minute, thirty second format. But the television spot for the film (click here, or on the image above) is even creepier, and I think the film may well be the path back to mainstream acceptance for Shyamalan.

As always, working with no money is really liberating when you’re making a film; you have almost no interference, and you can do exactly as you please. Most of the film is shot on one location – a large, seemingly comfortable house in the country – with a small cast of relative unknowns. Shyamalan edited the film himself in a mere two weeks, claiming he had to make only “minor adjustments” to get it to work, and in his Twitter account, he seems deeply grateful that Universal is giving him perhaps his last big shot at widespread theatrical distribution for a September 2015 release.

Once again, Blumhouse – horrormeisters extraordinaire, but also the producers of The Normal Heart and Whiplash, intervenes again with a solid sense of both artistic and commercial matters. While the final film may not work, and I may regret writing these words later – or even recant them – for the moment I’m sticking with McKinney, and giving Shyamalan the benefit of the doubt – I hope The Visit works for him. The film is already screening in Australia, and more fine tuning may be in order. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The Visit opens September 11, 2015.

Joel Edgerton’s The Gift (2015)

Saturday, August 8th, 2015

Joel Edgerton’s new thriller The Gift is full of unexpected surprises. Click here for the trailer.

Shot in 25 days on a tight budget in and around Hollywood Hills, Edgerton’s film (which he also stars in) is a minor miracle of intelligent suspense filmmaking – especially since you think it’s headed in one direction for the first half of the film, perhaps more, and then segues into something altogether darker and more trenchant, but still without succumbing to the usual tropes of over-the-top violence that traditionally dominate the genre.

No one gets killed, there’s no gunplay, just a sense of ever mounting dread, and an appropriately brutal critique of corporate culture, from a film that had little to work with in the way of physical resources, and made the most of it, setting most of the action in one location, a classic strategy for shooting a low budget film on a short schedule.

As Wikipedia notes, “The project was first announced in August 2012, when it was reported that Joel Edgerton had written a psychological thriller script titled Weirdo, with which Edgerton would also be making his directing debut. His inspirations for the screenplay include Alfred Hitchcock, Fatal Attraction, and Michael Haneke’s 2005 Austrian film Caché.

On September 9, 2013, talking with Screen International, Edgerton stated that he would be starring in the film in a supporting role, and that he would also produce, along with Rebecca Yeldham, through Blue-Tongue Films. Rebecca Hall signed on to star in the film on November 3, 2014. It was also confirmed that Jason Blum would also produce the film through his Blumhouse Productions banner. On January 13, 2015, Jason Bateman was set to star in the film, as Hall’s character’s husband.

Principal photography on the film began on January 19, 2015, and ended on February 20, 2015. A majority of filming took place at a home in the Hollywood Hills neighborhood, The film was shot on an Arri Alexa [digital] with Canon C35 lenses, and was filmed in 25 days, according to its cinematographer, Eduard Grau. Grau was recommended by [Joel Edgerton's brother] Nash Edgerton, who served as The Gift’s Stunt Coordinator.

In an interview with Collider.com, Joel Edgerton revealed that he did not start filming his acting role until two weeks into shooting (devoting that time, instead, solely to directing). As soon as he did, his older brother Nash assisted on set behind the camera. Joel Edgerton completed shooting his role [in the film] in seven days.

On January 20, 2015, STX Entertainment bought the United States distribution rights to the film. STX retitled the film The Gift. The film is Edgerton’s fourth feature screenplay to be filmed, after The Square (2008), Felony (2013) and The Rover (2014).”

Truth be told, The Gift is a much better title. But as Stephen Holden observed in The New York Times, “even if The Gift, the Australian director Joel Edgerton’s creepy stalker thriller, didn’t make a dramatic U-turn at around the halfway point, it would still rank as a superior specimen. This movie doesn’t foam at the mouth like Fatal Attraction.

No bunnies are boiled. But fish are poisoned, a family dog goes missing and the soundtrack is tricked out with the sudden jolts dear to the genre . . . Underneath it all, The Gift is a merciless critique of an amoral corporate culture in which the ends justify the means, and lying and cheating are O.K., as long as they’re not found out. Bullying and cruelty are good for business.”

The Gift has much to say about the world we live in now – a genre film with a real social message.

A Bad Day For Traditional Media

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Traditional media stocks are taking a beating today, as consumers move away from television for the web.

As Cecile Daurat reports on the Bloomberg News website, “Walt Disney Co.’s darkened outlook dragged down media stocks from Time Warner Inc. to 21st Century Fox Inc. and CBS Corp.

Disney, which through Tuesday had been the top-performing stock in the Dow Jones Industrial Average this year with a record of stellar sales and profit, surprised investors by posting lower-than-estimated quarterly revenue and cutting its forecast for cable-television profit.

Disney’s shares slumped as much as 10 percent — the most since August 2011 — after the results, while Fox and CBS Corp., which both report earnings after the close, dropped more than 5 percent. Time Warner and Scripps Networks Interactive Inc., the owner of Food Network and HGTV, also fell even though they beat second-quarter earnings predictions. Overall, the Bloomberg U.S. Media Index had its biggest intraday decline in almost four years.

‘Investors are definitely reading across the Disney earnings and extrapolating it to the broader media sector,’ said Paul Sweeney, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.

Disney is facing two challenges of it own: fewer subscribers at cable networks such as ESPN, its biggest business, and foreign exchange losses from the strong dollar that are hurting both cable TV and international theme parks.

But the concerns over ESPN’s growth and comments on affiliate revenue from pay-TV providers, which Disney now expects to fall short of previous forecasts, may be a gauge for other media companies.

Both Time Warner and Fox are doubling down on exclusive live sports programming to demand higher fees for their channels from pay-TV distributors. And those higher fees have helped them fuel earnings growth in recent quarters. Investors will get an update on Fox and CBS, which has also pushed into sports programming, when the companies post results.

Time Warner’s decision to keep its full-year profit forecast after second-quarter earnings per share beat analysts’ predictions by a wide margin also weighed on the stock Wednesday. Maintaining the guidance suggested estimates for the second half may be too high, Sweeney said. Shares of the New York-based owner of HBO were down 7 percent to $81.49 at 12:55 p.m. in New York.

Discovery, which dropped 9.5 percent to $29.74, posted results that fell short of sales and earnings estimates Wednesday. The cable-TV company still increased its outlook for annual earnings-per-share growth, excluding foreign exchanges.

Cable-TV stocks like Scripps and Viacom Inc. suffered after Disney cut its forecast for cable profit. For fiscal 2013 to 2016, the entertainment giant had promised profit growth in the high-single-digit range. Now, with just five quarters to go, the company expects a mid-single-digit gain for the division over that time frame.”

This is sort of a late wake-up call to something that has been building for a long time; look at the frame grabbed chart at the top (click here, on the image above, to see a Bloomberg video on this whole topic, with some really sharp analysis). Netflix is going through the roof with subscribers, while traditional media – i.e. television and cable – is essentially flatlining.

This has been coming for a long time, and it’s sort of a seismic shock to the system for all involved, but Netflix is really taking over the whole viewing sphere, allowing people to see whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want, and also to cut free of the “bundling” that cable systems force on customers, paying for what really want and nothing else.

This is just the first shot in a new system of distribution that has been building for quite a while; I’m really surprised it has taken traditional media this long to notice that frankly, they’re in long term trouble. There’s no way this trend is turning around, and what happens next is -as far as I can see- that Netflix gets bigger and bigger, and traditional media becomes less and less relevant to millennials.

We’ll have to see what happens next.

Nicholas Musuraca, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

L to R: Jane Greer, Robert Mitchum, Jacques Tourneur, and Nicholas Musuraca on the set of Out of The Past.

If you read my blog regularly, you know that I have a new book coming out in a month or so, entitled Black & White Cinema: A Short History. Writing the book was a tremendously difficult task, and I also had to cut a lot of interesting “sidebar” material that I would have liked to include to keep it at a more reasonable length. In my section on Nicholas Musuraca, one of the greatest of all Hollywood cinematographers, especially in his black and white work, I had to omit most of a fascinating 1941 interview with the cinematographer for reasons of space, so, in the run up to the book’s publication, I’m going to offer in this blog some sections on various cinematographers that aren’t in the final version of the text. Nick Musuraca seemed like an ideal place to begin.

As I wrote in the first draft of the book, “Musuraca was a major figure in the 1940s in Hollywood, whose visual style is instantly recognizable over a wide range of films, in a career that spanned more than four decades worth of work. Although he was deeply secretive about his personal life, even with his colleagues (a brief item in American Cinematographer from February, 1941, notes that “trade-papers report Nick Musuraca, A.S.C., secretly married early last month. If it’s so — congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Nick!”) at least some of his trade secrets have come down to us through second-hand sources, and at least one interview, conducted by Walter Blanchard. This is the period in which Musuraca did his best work, the work for which he is remembered, but what is truly astonishing is how much work he did, and despite his noir typing, how many different styles of cinematography he embraced.

One of his finest efforts was his cinematography on Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), considered by many to be one of the first noir thrillers ever made, with perpetual tough guy Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey, a former private investigator who now runs a gas station in Bridgeport, California, in a futile attempt to escape his shadowy past. But when smooth crime boss Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, in one of his earliest roles) asks him to find his “girlfriend” Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who has absconded with $40,000 of Whit’s money, things just get more complex from there, and soon Jeff is smitten with Kathie, and smooth talked into betraying Whit, and, of course, as in any true noir, everything ends very badly.

As George Turner noted of the film, “Out of the Past was generously financed and shot in 64 working days (an unusually long schedule at the time), mostly on the sound stages at RKO’s Hollywood studio and the Pathe lot in Culver City, [with] extensive location scenes with several of the principals made in the Lake Tahoe area on the California-Nevada boundary and second unit work from Acapulco, New York and San Francisco…The picture united for the third and final time one of the most remarkable director-cinematographer teams the industry has produced: Jacques Tourneur and Nicholas Musuraca.

Tourneur, husky but mild-mannered, was usually relaxed and seemingly devoid of temperament on the set, always keeping his actors at their ease and relying heavily upon Musuraca’s know-how to produce the combination of mystery and visual beauty essential to these films. He did not agree with the cinematic convention that heavy drama must be lit in a low key, comedy in high key, and romance in soft focus, but that the style should be determined by the logic of the scene.

‘For example, a vast amount of real-life drama occurs in hospitals, and a modern hospital isn’t by any means a somber appearing place,’ he pointed out. ‘Everything is light-colored and glistening; what’s more, everything is pretty well illuminated — trust these medical men to see to it that there’s enough illumination everywhere to prevent eyestrain. So why should we always have things somber and gloomy when…we try to portray sad or tragic action in a hospital?’

‘In the same way, if there’s no logical reason for it, why should comedy always be lit in a high key? Sometimes your action may really demand low-key effects to put it over…all too often we’re all of us [i.e., Musuraca’s A.S.C. colleagues] likely to find ourselves throwing in an extra light here, and another there, simply to correct something which is a bit wrong because of the way one basic lamp is placed or adjusted…If, on the other hand, that one original lamp is in its really correct place and adjustment, the others aren’t needed. Any time I find myself using a more than ordinary number of light sources for a scene, I try to stop and think it out. Nine times out of ten I’ll find I’ve slipped up somewhere, and the extra lights are really unnecessary.’”

Click here, or on the image above,  for a great clip from Out of The Past.

Musuraca had a clearly defined strategy in his classical 1940s work, and the uncanny ability to size up any scene and discern almost immediately precisely what tools he would need to effectively present the desired image on the screen — and Musuraca brought this same instinct for simplicity to his exterior work, as well.  As he told Walter Blanchard in 1941,

‘The same [technique of simplicity] applies to making exterior scenes. One of the commonest sources of unnecessary complication is in overdoing filtering. Just because the research scientists have evolved a range of several score filters of different colors and densities isn’t by any means a reason that we’ve got to use them — or even burden ourselves down with them! On my own part, I’ve always found that the simplest filtering is the best. Give me a good yellow filter, for mild correction effects, and a good red or red-orange one for heavier corrections, and I’ll guarantee to bring you back almost any sort of exterior effects (other than night scenes) that you’ll need in the average production.

And by the way — when in doubt about filtering — don’t. Nine times out of ten you’re better off that way, especially if there are people in the scene. The best example of misdirected enthusiasm for filtering is in making snow-scenes. I remember a while back I was on location doing some such scenes. As we approached our first set-up, my crew came to me and asked what filter they were to use. When I told them none, they couldn’t believe me. Everyone used some sort of filter in the snow! But what have you really got to filter? Your snow will render as an extreme white, no matter what you do. The evergreens, trees, rocks and so on will come out good and dark. You’re going to have extreme contrast no matter what you do. Under these conditions the sky automatically will take its proper place in rendering a pleasing picture. So why filter?

Filter to control that contrast, you say? I don’t agree. Most filters tend to increase contrast; in snow, even a Neutral Density filter will do so, for while it may hold back the snow, it will also hold back the dark areas. My experience has been that the real secret of good snow scenes is correct exposure — correct exposure for whatever part of the scene is most important to your shot. Usually it will be the people, and especially their faces. Expose for them, and the rest of the shot is likely to be all right.

This works out in practice, too. On the occasion I mentioned, my crew couldn’t be persuaded that my decision not to use the filter was or could be correct. They were very polite about it, but I could just feel them thinking, ‘Poor old Nick — he’s a back-number!’ [i.e., “out of date”] So I told them to make one take filtering as they thought they should. The operative [cameraman] saw to it that that take was unmistakably marked ‘print’ in that day’s negative reports! He was the first man in the projection-room next day, too, when we ran the rushes.

All went well until his shot came on. It was off-balance and unbelievably contrasty. The director hit the ceiling, and the operative wished he could sink through the floor! Immediately after, the un-filtered scenes came on — and were perfect. Since then, that gang has been a whole lot less ready to suggest using filters except where they were demonstrably necessary!’”

Black & White Cinema: A Short History will be out shortly; more “trims” coming soon.

New Book – Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

I have a new book from Palgrave Pivot on the “sick” humor films of the 1960s.

As the promotional materials for the book note, “Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s presents six detailed chapters on various topics that relate to genre cinema, concentrating on films and filmmakers whose films offered wide ranging commentary on popular culture. Covering both little and well-known films and filmmakers (Vanishing Point, Marcel Hanoun, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Max Ophüls), Dixon’s writings draw on a multitude of critical, historical, and archival sources to capture the reader’s attention from start to finish.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, and Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA. He is the author of Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical HollywoodStreaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, and Cinema at the Margins and editor, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture.”

Here are some early comments by reviewers:

“Dixon is a first-rate film scholar, critic, and historian, and the qualities he has cultivated and refined over the years are evident in everything from the clarity, lucidity, and liveliness of his prose to the accuracy of his research, the force of his arguments, and the perspicuity of his judgments.” – David Sterritt, Chair, National Society of Film Critics

“The Dixon dynamo’s done it again. In a swift and assured push, he opens doors to the sights, sounds—and smells—of the other world cinematic story. He peels back eyelids for us to see one built not only on the backs of the Griffiths, Hitchcocks, Bunuels, and Truffauts, but on the extraordinary creativity of those pushed into penumbric shadows; those cineastes like Max Ophüls, Juan Orol, Marcel Hanoun, and D. Ross Lederman who dared to bend minds and expectations at any cost. We have our world cinematic critic and he’s invited us to strap ourselves for a journey to the chaotic dark side of world cinematic history. As with Kubrick’s Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong, with Dixon you’re in for a hell of a ride!” – Frederick Luis Aldama, Arts & Humanities Distinguished University Professor and author of The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s new collection of essays, Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s, offers even more than its title promises.  To be sure, its opening essay presents a richly detailed and thoughtful meditation on the iconoclastic ‘sick’ humor of sixties films from Dr. Strangelove to Putney Swope.  But readers will also find much else of value, including pieces on the unsung Hollywood auteur D. Ross Lederman, the lost version of the 1971 cult road movie classic Vanishing Point, and the fatalistic noir films of Max Ophüls.  All are written with Dixon’s customary verve, wit, and attention to historical detail, making this book a must for any serious student of cinema.” – Ian Olney, author of Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture

“This book glitters with a treasure of informative, witty, and acute insights into films and filmmakers too long neglected in their unconventional but deeply provocative importance.  No one writes about film with more infectious vivacity than Wheeler Winston Dixon, especially in these pages.” – Murray Pomerance, author of The Eyes Have It: Cinema and the Reality Effect

A short and concise look at some of the films that shaped a decade.

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. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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In The National News

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