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The Cinema of Agnès Varda: Resistance and Eclecticism

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DGA Visual History Archive – Director Interviews Online Here

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

The DGA Visual History Program offers an excellent collection of free video interviews with directors.

As the Directors Guild of America website notes, “founded in 2000, the DGA’s Visual History Program has conducted more than 160 interviews with directors and director’s team members discussing their careers and creative processes in film, television and other media.” These include such luminaries as Agnes Varda, Constantine Costa-Gavras, Claude Lelouch, Robert Altman and many, many others. You can see the interviews by clicking on the image above, and then searching the data base, or clicking on the images of some of the directors featured this month. My friend Dennis Coleman brought this to my attention; many thanks, Dennis! This is is an incredible resource.

Click here, or on the image above, to access these remarkable video interviews.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or, Nothing You Believe is True

Saturday, April 5th, 2014

I have a new review out on this rather remarkable project in Film International; read it here!

As I write, in part, “I’m teaching a class right now in comic book movies, partly to trace the history of the genre from the 1940s on – when they began as Saturday morning serials – and partly to discover, if I could, why these films have moved to the mainstream of cinematic discourse. There’s no question about it anymore; Comic-Con rules the multiplex, and for the most part, I’ve avoided these films like the plague.

I remember sitting through Christopher Nolan’s interminable and interminably boring Inception (2010) impatiently looking at my watch throughout the film; there was nothing in it even remotely original, and plenty that had been “borrowed” from Cocteau, Resnais, and others, and at the center, it really wasn’t about anything.But at least the emptiness of that film was less offensive than the straight out class warfare of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), which Daniel Lindvall effectively eviscerated in the pages of Film International. And yet from the Iron Man films to Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011), emptiness, coupled with over-the-top violence, is all that’s on display.

Here, we have something different. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes on the CIA, hypersurveillance systems, killer drones, and the Snowden affair, and comes down on the side of the average citizen for a change, rather than the ruling elite. The special effects are absolutely non-stop, the violence is ramped up to hyperkinetic levels, with cutting to match, and the performances are all cardboard, but at the center of the film, giving one of his most effective performances in years, is none other than Robert Redford, who’s never done a comic book film before, superbly playing the villain of the piece.”

Read the rest of the review here now; it’s best in 3-D, on a big screen – who says I don’t like some mainstream movies?

The Spartans Meet The Muppets, or 300: Rise of an Empire

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

I have a review essay out today on the new film 300: Rise of An Empire in Film International.

As I write, “It would be a mistake to dismiss director Noam Murro’s sword and sandal “historical” pageant 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) entirely, if only because mainstream pop culture films can often tell us more about the times we live in than so-called ‘quality’ films, since they pander so shamelessly to their audiences. So it is with 300: ROAE, but let me hasten to add that most of what it has to tell us is unintentional freight. The makers of this film – the producers, screenwriters and the director – wanted a serviceable follow-up to Zack Snyder’s 2007 original, to create what could be a profitable franchise, if properly handled – and Murro delivered it. It’s a maelstrom of unending cruelty, barbarism, and conflict.

You want endless, mindless, slow motion violence, delivered with a minimum of dialogue or motivation (other than the standard ‘I want revenge’ card)? You got it. Battlefields littered with corpses? Check. Huge, panoramic vistas that trail off into infinity, as the protagonists strike heroic poses in the twilight? Coming up! Spectacular battles on sea and land? Gotcha! Sex scenes with a dollop of violence? Of course! It’s all here, trotted out to meet audience demand, something Murro is no stranger to. Murro has directed numerous high-end commercials and videos, and one feature, Smart People (2008), starring Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker. He’s even worked with The Muppets! Now, if only he could learn to direct people.

That’s probably good training for this film, because most of the cast walks through their paces like so many automatons; what really saves the film as a visual construct is Murro’s sense of non-stop kineticism, which is easily the equal of some of the best action directors in motion picture history. Mind you, I’m talking sheer technique here, not resonance; the film is as empty as it is dazzling, but nevertheless, some main points come to mind. Watching the film, I kept thinking of what a first rate talent like Sam Peckinpah might have done with similar material in his prime; ‘Bloody Sam’ would have been right at home here, provided he was willing to bring the film in on time and under budget.”

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

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster: Surviving the Monster Mom: Child’s Pose

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay in Film International on the Romanian film Child’s Pose.

As she writes, “If a toxic abusive mother raised you, be forewarned. Child’s Pose is a harrowing and deeply traumatic film that will leave you shaken far beyond any previous cinematic exploration of familial horror and dysfunction. Another superb example of the Romanian New Wave Cinema, Child’s Pose (Pozitia copilului), directed by Călin Peter Netzer, and co-written by Netzer and novelist Răzvan Rădulescu, emerged from lengthy discussions Netzer and Rădulescu had about their own domineering mothers. The result is one of the most emotionally demanding films one can imagine.

The plot of Child’s Pose is deceptively simple: a wealthy Romanian mother, Cornelia Keneres (Luminita Gheorghiu) will stop at nothing to keep her son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) from going to jail after he hits and kills a young boy while speeding on the freeway in a race with another driver. That a wealthy son is responsible for the death of an underprivileged child is important in that it is used to force us into an engagement with a spectacularly dysfunctional mother-son relationship and, at a secondary level, to explore the evil of the class system of Romania, a society rife with blatant corruption and moral decay.

As Dana Stevens notes in Slate, “the original title, Pozitia copiluilui, refers to the literal physical position of a child – an image which might have several meanings in the movie’s context, none of them involving a relaxing forehead-to-floor asana,” and much more to do with the cringing, child-like, defeated persona of Barbu, who seems to have no life or will of his own. I have never witnessed another film that so effectively captures the inescapable trauma of being the spawn of such a dangerously toxic pathological mother. There is no doubt in my mind that both Netzer and Rădulescu understand first hand the pathology of the monstrous parent; the level of realism in the film obviously has much to do with personal experience.”

You can read the rest of Foster’s essay on this amazing film by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Price of Digital Projection

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

My friend Michael Downey just returned from Belfast, Maine, where he visited the Colonial Theater, and photographed, as he aptly put it, this “sign of the times.”

This really says it all; here’s a theater that’s been running films for a century, but since movies are no longer shot on film, they have to make the digital switch or die. They probably could have moved faster on it, and taken part in the studios’ program to help theaters convert — but I bet that they just loved the look of film over digital projection, and never imagined the day would come when they simply couldn’t get 35mm prints anymore. The studios are actually destroying the 35mm prints of their older films; they don’t want them around as an option, even for archivists or collectors. It’s a DCP (Digital Cinema Package) world, and that’s all there is to it. There simply isn’t an option for 35mm projection anymore. Outside of a few museums and revival houses, and some university facilities, 35mm is gone, gone, gone.

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

Fewer Than 400 Theaters Still Run 35mm Film in US

Saturday, January 18th, 2014

As Alexandra Cheney and Andrew Stewart report in Variety, 35mm film is dead, dead, dead.

As Cheney and Stewart note, “The Weinstein Co. recently informed theater owners that its upcoming young adult fantasy Vampire Academy will be released only in a digital format. The move by Weinstein Co. and other distributors to alert theater owners to the change signals the long-awaited fade out for film stock, as the majors shift to digital formats for most releases [. . .] Weinstein Co.’s notice to exhibs comes on the heels of Paramount confirming to Variety that Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is the last movie it will release on 35mm film.

The move solely to digital was expected. Variety first reported in April that Paramount had run out of print stock. That did not stop the studio from striking 35mm prints for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.  As for Martin Scorsese’s Paramount-distributed The Wolf of Wall Street, it was shot digitally, with the exception of a few exterior shots, and will be distributed digitally only. Weinstein Co. said that it will not adhere to a digital-only policy going forward, but instead will strike prints when it is commercially viable. The Los Angeles Times was the first to report that Paramount had stopped releasing movies on film.

It’s worth noting however, that there are fewer than 400 locations still playing 35mm prints — most of which are smaller locations.”

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.

Martin Scorsese’s Open Letter to His Daughter On The Future of Cinema

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

As Paul Shirey reports on the website JoBlo, “director Martin Scorsese has already created a legacy of films that will long be remembered, revered, studied, and admired for a long time [ . . .] With the ever-changing landscape of film seemingly at a crossroads of change, particularly in the mass affordability and availability of filmmaking tools, the world of cinema is entering a revolutionary period, which Scorsese has taken heed of. As such, the director has penned an open letter to his youngest daughter, Francesca, about his optimism for the art of film, but with the caveat of remembering what’s most important in applying the craft. It’s an inspiring and thoughtful piece, especially for budding filmmakers.

Dearest Francesca,

I’m writing this letter to you about the future. I’m looking at it through the lens of my world. Through the lens of cinema, which has been at the center of that world.

For the last few years, I’ve realized that the idea of cinema that I grew up with, that’s there in the movies I’ve been showing you since you were a child, and that was thriving when I started making pictures, is coming to a close. I’m not referring to the films that have already been made. I’m referring to the ones that are to come.

I don’t mean to be despairing. I’m not writing these words in a spirit of defeat. On the contrary, I think the future is bright.

We always knew that the movies were a business, and that the art of cinema was made possible because it aligned with business conditions. None of us who started in the 60s and 70s had any illusions on that front. We knew that we would have to work hard to protect what we loved. We also knew that we might have to go through some rough periods. And I suppose we realized, on some level, that we might face a time when every inconvenient or unpredictable element in the moviemaking process would be minimized, maybe even eliminated. The most unpredictable element of all? Cinema. And the people who make it.

I don’t want to repeat what has been said and written by so many others before me, about all the changes in the business, and I’m heartened by the exceptions to the overall trend in moviemaking – Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, David Fincher, Alexander Payne, the Coen Brothers, James Gray and Paul Thomas Anderson are all managing to get pictures made, and Paul not only got The Master made in 70mm, he even got it shown that way in a few cities. Anyone who cares about cinema should be thankful.

And I’m also moved by the artists who are continuing to get their pictures made all over the world, in France, in South Korea, in England, in Japan, in Africa. It’s getting harder all the time, but they’re getting the films done. But I don’t think I’m being pessimistic when I say that the art of cinema and the movie business are now at a crossroads.

Audio-visual entertainment and what we know as cinema – moving pictures conceived by individuals – appear to be headed in different directions. In the future, you’ll probably see less and less of what we recognize as cinema on multiplex screens and more and more of it in smaller theaters, online, and, I suppose, in spaces and circumstances that I can’t predict.

So why is the future so bright? Because for the very first time in the history of the art form, movies really can be made for very little money [emphasis added]. This was unheard of when I was growing up, and extremely low budget movies have always been the exception rather than the rule. Now, it’s the reverse. You can get beautiful images with affordable cameras. You can record sound. You can edit and mix and color-correct at home. This has all come to pass.

But with all the attention paid to the machinery of making movies and to the advances in technology that have led to this revolution in moviemaking, there is one important thing to remember: the tools don’t make the movie, you make the movie. It’s freeing to pick up a camera and start shooting and then put it together with Final Cut Pro. Making a movie – the one you need to make – is something else. There are no shortcuts.

If John Cassavetes, my friend and mentor, were alive today, he would certainly be using all the equipment that’s available. But he would be saying the same things he always said – you have to be absolutely dedicated to the work, you have to give everything of yourself, and you have to protect the spark of connection that drove you to make the picture in the first place.

You have to protect it with your life. In the past, because making movies was so expensive, we had to protect against exhaustion and compromise. In the future, you’ll have to steel yourself against something else: the temptation to go with the flow, and allow the movie to drift and float away.

This isn’t just a matter of cinema. There are no shortcuts to anything. I’m not saying that everything has to be difficult. I’m saying that the voice that sparks you is your voice – that’s the inner light, as the Quakers put it.

That’s you. That’s the truth.

All my love, Dad”

Some words to take to heart; no matter the technology, content, and passion, are the keys to the future of cinema.

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

600 Legally Free Movies Online: Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns and More

Monday, December 30th, 2013

Any of these films sound interesting? Here are just a few titles you can see right now, for free, entirely legally. Just click here, or on the image above, to access the full list.

Where to watch free movies online? Let’s get you started. We have listed here 600 quality films that you can watch online. The collection is divided into the following categories: Comedy & Drama; Film Noir, Horror & Hitchcock; Westerns & John Wayne; Silent Films; Documentaries, and Animation.

A Farewell to Arms – Free – Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes star in film based on famous novel by Ernest Hemingway. (1932)
A Matter of Life and Death – Free – Romantic fantasy film created by the British writing-directing-producing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and set in England during the Second World War. It stars David Niven, Roger Livesey, Kim Hunter, Marius Goring and Raymond Massey. (1946)
A Star is Born – Free – Janet Gaynor portrays Esther Blodgett, a starry-eyed small town girl dreams of making it in Hollywood. (1937)
Adventures of Robinson Crusoe – Free – The classic novel by Daniel Defoe gets adapted by the great Luis Buñuel. (1954)
Alexander Nevsky – Free – A historical drama film directed by the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. (1938)
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge – Free – French short film directed by Robert Enrico; a hit at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Awards. (1962)
Andrei Rublev – Free – Andrei Tarkovsky’s film charting life of the great icon painter. Click CC for subtitles. Part 2 here. (1966)
Angel on My Shoulder – Free – A gangster comedy starring Claude Rains and Paul Muni. (1946)
As You Like It – Free – It’s Laurence Olivier’s earliest Shakespeare performance on film. (1936)
Becky Sharp – Free – The first feature film to use three-strip Technicolor film, or, put differently, the first real color film. (1935).
Bottle Rocket – Free – Wes Anderson’s first short film, which became the basis for his first feature film by the same name. (1992)
Breaking the Code – Free – A biography of the English mathematician Alan Turing, who was one of the inventors of the digital computer and one of the key figures in the breaking of the Enigma code. Stars Derek Jacobi. (1996)
Cannibal! The Musical – Free – Black comedy by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the makers of South Park. (1993)
Captain Kidd – Free – Charles Laughton and John Carradine star in film with drama on the high seas (1945).
Castello Cavalcanti – Free – Wes Anderson’s short film takes place in a hamlet tucked away somewhere in Italy. Features Jason Schwartzman, star of Anderson’s 1998 breakout Rushmore. (2013)
Charade – Free – Starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Part romance, comedy and thriller, this public domain film has been called “the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made. (1963)
Chimes at Midnight - Free – Directed by Orson Welles, the film focuses on Shakespeare’s recurring character Sir John Falstaff and his relationship with another character Prince Hal. (1966)
Cold Sweat – Free – Charles Bronson, Liv Ullman, James Mason, and Jill Ireland star in this action packed movie about a ruthless drug runner who holds a man’s family hostage. (1970)
Cyrano De Bergerac – Free – Michael Gordon’s film based on the classic French tale. (1950)
Darwin – Free – 53-minute exploration of the life and work of Charles Darwin by Peter Greenaway. (1993)
Diary – Free – Short film by Tim Hetherington (director of Restrepo) that reflects on his ten years of war reporting. (2010)
Doodlebug – Free – One of Christopher Nolan’s early short films. Made in 1997, released in 2003.
Dreams That Money Can Buy – Free – A surrealist film by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger & Hans Richter. (1947)
Duet for Cannibals – Free – A tale of emotional cannibalism by Susan Sontag. A pair of psychological & sexual cannibals come close to devouring a younger couple. (1969)
Eat, Sleep & Kiss – Free – Three silent anti-films by Andy Warhol. (1963-1964)
Evidence – Free – From the maker of Koyaanisqatsi, a short film about kids watching cartoons (1995).
Fear and Desire – Free – An uncut print of Stanley Kubrick’s “lost” early film. (1953)
Five Minutes to Live – Free – Amazing bank heist movie stars Johnny Cash, Vic Tayback, Ron Howard, and Merle Travis. (1961)
Flamenco at 5:15 – Free – Oscar-winning short film about a flamenco dance class given to senior students. (1983)
and many more.

Check them all out here!

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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