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New Book: Cinema at The Margins

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

I have a new book out today, Cinema at The Margins, from Anthem Press, London.

More and more, just a few canonical classics, such as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) or Victor Fleming’s Gone With The Wind (1939), are representing the entire output of an era to a new generation that knows little of the past, and is encouraged by popular media to live only in the eternal present. What will happen to the rest of the films that enchanted, informed and transported audiences in the 1930s, 1940s, and even as recently as the 1960s?

For the most part, these films will be forgotten, and their makers with them. In this book, I argue that even obvious historical markers such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) represent shockingly unknown territory for the majority of today’s younger viewers; and yet once exposed to these films, they are enthralled by them. In the 1980s and 1990s, the more adventurous video stores served a vital function as annals of classic cinema. Today, those stores are gone and the days of this kind of browsing are over.

This collection of essays aims to highlight some of the lesser-known films of the past – the titles that are being pushed aside and forgotten in today’s oversaturation of the present. The work is divided into four sections, rehabilitating the films and filmmakers who have created some of the most memorable phantom visions of the past century, but who, for whatever reason, have not successfully made the jump into the contemporary consciousness.

“Few have explored the cinematic margins as thoroughly as Wheeler Winston Dixon, and few match his talent for finding and celebrating the secret glories of overlooked, undervalued films. Gliding from Peter Bogdanovich to Myra Breckinridge by way of Robert Bresson, this is an exciting and ever-surprising collection.” —David Sterritt, Columbia University and Chair, National Society of Film Critics

“The marginalization of important films is a constant threat in the age of the New Hollywood blockbuster, with commercial cinema reduced to a cheap thrill and the audience conceived as adolescents. Dixon’s thoughtful remarks on neglected films testify not only to his own fine sensibility, but to the urgency of the concerns he sets before us.” —Christopher Sharrett, Seton Hall University

You can read more here, or click on the image above; available now from Amazon in all formats.

The Invisible Cinema of Marcel Hanoun

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

I have an new essay in Film International on the deeply underappreciated filmmaker Marcel Hanoun.

As I note at the beginning of my article, “When Marcel Hanoun died on September 22, 2012 at the age of 82, it caused barely a ripple in the media, and even in the world of experimental cinema. And yet Hanoun was a major filmmaker, whose near total critical eclipse after an initial burst of critical interest is an indictment of cinema history as a function of canon. It’s true that Hanoun’s films are difficult, but no more so than Jean-Luc Godard’s, who was a fan of Hanoun’s work; it’s true that Hanoun turned his back on commercial cinema to work as a perennial outsider, but again, cinema has many rebellious figures in its history who continue to hold a claim on our memory.

But Hanoun is in death, as he was in life, an almost phantom figure, ‘discovered’ in the early 60s, and then summarily dismissed. There is a French Wikipedia page on Hanoun, cited in the works below, but not one in English. Most of his films, with the exception of his first, Une Simple Histoire (1958), are not readily available. His list of film credits on official websites like IMDb is woefully inaccurate. What critical writing there is on him in English is mostly from the 1960s and 70s, and after that, it just stops. Indeed, for most of his films, there’s scant information to be had in any language. To me, this is inexplicable. Hanoun’s importance is clear. Nevertheless, it’s a sobering fact; most people have never heard of Marcel Hanoun.”

You can read the rest of this article here; again, my thanks to Daniel Lindvall, editor of Film International.

Light From the Screen: Cinema, Painting and Spectatorship

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Here’s my recent essay on the relationship(s) between cinema and painting for Film International.

As I noted, “Noël Coward once observed that ‘television is for appearing on – not for looking at,’ but as the twenty-first century takes firm hold of our collective consciousness, it seems that everyone has become, in one form or another, a spectator of the events of everyday existence, whether at home or in the cinema. Reality shows and YouTube videos offer the prospect of instant stardom for the ‘lucky’ few whose videos ‘go viral,’ but for every video posted, there are literally millions of viewers who would rather watch than participate in the production of images.

It has become so much easier – and potentially safer – to stay home and let the images come to us, rather than to go out to a public place and view them with a crowd of strangers. Indeed, this is the era of what the theorist Gabriele Pedullà has described as “the spectator’s extreme volatility” (original emphasis). Images are anywhere, and everywhere, and there seems to be no escaping them, even if we wanted to, and weren’t constantly returning to our various digital screens for another visual ‘fix.’ And we aren’t only watching movies and videos; we’re viewing paintings, sculptures, drawings, live video camera feeds; we like to watch, just as Chauncey Gardiner did in Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979). Life was ‘real’ for Chauncey only if it was on television; for us, too, the image has become more real than life itself.

With lightweight portable tablets, smartphones, and other electronic devices proliferating rapidly in our culture, when one looks at images of family gatherings in 2013, one is struck by the fact that everyone is watching something on their own portable image device, and ignoring each other; we’re all watching each other all the time, but on some sort of electronic device, rather than face to face, and we have little time, thus, for any real communication or intimacy. We have been gradually transformed from a culture of human communication into a mediated society in which simulacrum images of the real have replaced human interaction. We’ve been both spectators and participants in the process of image production since the dawn of imagistic representation, but now it seems that more and more, we are content to simply watch anything that’s on, removing ourselves from existence.”

You can read the rest of the article here; my thanks again to Daniel Lindvall, the editor of Film International.

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.

Andy’s Gang, or Saturday Morning of the Living Dead

Friday, August 16th, 2013

I have a new article in Film International on the utterly bizarre 1950s children’s television show Andy’s Gang.

As I write, in part, “let us now consider Andy’s Gang, a horrific children’s television show from the 1950s. For those who live outside the United States, and didn’t grow up during the Cold War, this series may be absolutely unknown, and if this is the case, you can be thankful. For Andy’s Gang is the most twisted, most willfully odd and perverse television show imaginable, no matter what age group it’s aimed at. As one viewer put it, ‘the show reminds me of something David Lynch would come up with,’ but actually, that’s selling the show short. This one is truly off the charts, existing in a hermetically sealed land all its own, a phantom zone of non-performance and non-participation which is staggering in its dimensions and implications.

That’s quite a claim, but if I had to compare Andy’s Gang to anything else that comes under the heading of a moving image construct, I’d be almost instantly reaching for the horror films Castle of the Living Dead (1964), The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967), or Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon (1973, a.k.a. The Mansion of Madness). For here is a television show, ostensibly aimed at children, in which the host never met – not even once – any of the members of his supposed audience, or was even in the same room with them, or even the same year – and which is comprised of such serial repetition of actual footage, as well as ceaselessly repeating its own internal structure, that it almost defies description. Indeed, as I’ll show later, there are virtually web support groups for aging baby boomers who seem to have been traumatized by the show as children, more than 53 years after the final episode of the series aired.

Saturday morning television in the United States in the 1950s belonged exclusively to children; this was a holdover from the tradition of Saturday morning shows in movie theaters in the 1920s through the early 1950s, when boys and girls would rush down to the local theater to see a double bill of two genre films, usually a western and/or a science-fiction or horror film, plus some cartoons, a chapter of a serial or ‘cliffhanger,’ some trailers, travelogues, shorts, and other assorted screen fare. When television took hold in the mid 1950s, it spelled the death of these morning screenings – serials, for example, ceased production entirely in 1956 as a direct result of competition from television – and television did its best to slavishly copy the model the movie theaters had followed so successfully.

So, on Saturday morning network television, you could forget about anything aimed at an adult audience; instead, one got a nonstop diet of such series as Kukla, Fran And Ollie, Howdy Doody, Flash Gordon, Lassie, Annie Oakley, Ding Dong School, The Paul Winchell Show, The Roy Rogers Show, Captain Z-RO, The Rootie Kazootie Club, Winky Dink And You, Super Circus, The Cisco Kid, Sky King, Captain Midnight, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, The Pinky Lee Show, Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle and many more.

Each of these shows had their own peculiarities; Howdy Doody was a live puppet show, with a real live ‘Peanut Gallery’ where kids would scream and holler as the show progressed – in short, genuine audience interaction; Flash Gordon, starring Steve Holland, was filmed in West Berlin in converted beer halls on a miniscule budget; Winky Dink and You encouraged kids to actually draw on the picture tubes of their television sets with crayons to trace this week’s mystery clue – one was supposed to place a special “magic screen,” actually thin plastic film, over the screen before marking it up, but many kids, enthralled by the suspense, simply forgot this part of the process – and so on.

But Andy’s Gang was a breed apart. One thing above all set it apart from its competitors; all of the shows listed above were fiction, and presented themselves as fiction, and the audience – except perhaps for the very young viewers – recognized this. But Andy’s Gang was fiction masquerading as reality. None of it was real; the whole series was a fictive construct. But it didn’t start out that way; it took the death of the original host, and a canny television producer/director possessed of a peculiar vision to make this particular Twilight Zone of fantasy/reality.”

You can read rest of the article by clicking here, or on the image above; an amazing cultural Cold War artifact.

Harrison Ford on Contemporary Hollywood Cinema

Monday, August 12th, 2013

Harrison Ford had some interesting thoughts in this past Sunday’s New York Times on Hollywood today.

Speaking with Adam Sternbergh, Ford, just back from an appearance at Comic-Con to promote his new film Ender’s Game, Ford noted that if the Star Wars films, or the Indiana Jones series, were released today in the intensely fan-driven environment created by the convention, and others like it, “everyone would be ahead of it, and everybody would know what it was, and it would be no fun at all. But people still went to movies in those days. People went to movie theaters. It was a community experience, and that was part of the fun. Now people see a movie on their iPad, alone, with interruptions for snacks [. . .] I think the success of Comic-Con is based on the partnership between the fans and the service providers, the entities — I won’t necessarily call them filmmakers — that supply the film product that supports their particular interest, whether it’s vampires or science-fiction fantasies or Transformers or whatever is going on [. . .] I think the smaller-scale movies, which I like very much, would be harder to conceive another iteration of.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I wouldn’t “necessarily call them filmmakers” either.

Breaking Bad Begins Final Lap

Monday, August 12th, 2013

“If that’s true, if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.”

Never a fan of Breaking Bad, while at the same not a detractor — just disinterested — I accidentally fell into the first of the final eight episodes on AMC last night. While I don’t care about any of the characters, or their fictitious plights, and though the whole episode was laden with cliché after cliché, such as the montage sequence with Tommy James and The Shondell’s Crystal Blue Persuasion playing over a series of images of drug dealing – yawn – and Jesse’s pitching the ill-gotten gains of their criminal enterprise out the window struck me as as similarly obvious – and while for most of the episode I could actually predict what the next line of dialogue would be with almost unerring accuracy (which isn’t that hard), this last scene, easily the best part of the episode, shows two excellent actors at the top of their game, with lead actor Bryan Cranston also directing the episode.

AMC obviously thinks so, too, or otherwise they wouldn’t have singled it out as a special feature on their website. There are seven more episodes to go; I don’t feel I have missed anything by skipping the previous five (is it five?) seasons, and have no urge to view them now, but I feel I can now watch the conclusion of Breaking Bad with a modicum of interest – while having absolutely no interest in the series that hopes to replace it, Low Winter Sun – or is that Low Winter Ratings. But this scene really works; check it out by clicking on the image above; there’s an advertisement before it, but of course, I can’t help that. And of course, that last line – quoted right under the frame grab – is a killer, and Cranston delivers it with absolute perfection.

Cinespect

Monday, August 5th, 2013

Here’s a great web journal on the film scene in New York City, and it’s completely free to all.

As the journal’s website notes, “Cinespect is a leading media source on the New York City cinema experience and beyond. Founded in 2010, Cinespect is dedicated to offering readers the most robust and well-rounded content, including reviews of new releases and repertory programming, articles about film-related events in the city, interviews with industry professionals, op-eds, film festival coverage, and in-depth features.”

The current issue features articles on new DVD and Blu-ray releases; what’s happening at Film Forum, one of the last and most respected repertory cinema theaters in the United States, and one of the only theaters left that still has 35mm projection capability, regularly screening new 35mm prints of the classics in their original format; as well as reviews, festival coverage from around the world, interviews with emerging and established filmmakers and critics, and a host of other material.

Contributors include Genevieve Amaral, Joel Neville Anderson, Rachel Chu, Matt Cohen, Brian Doan, Will Dodson, Judith Dry, David Fitzgerald, Christopher Garland, Daniel Guzmán, Daniel Kavanagh, Sheila Kogan, Mónica López-González, John Oursler, Claire E. Peters, Nathan Rogers-Hancock, Jennifer Simmons, Ed Vallance, Stuart Weinstock, Marshall Yarbrough and a wide range of additional writers, each with their own distinctive voice and point of view, allowing for the widest possible range of discourse.

One of the most interesting critics working for Cinespect right now is Will Dodson, whose work on the site can be found by clicking here; right now he seems most interested in Japanese cinema both high and low, no pun intended. Subscriptions are free, and you can sign for the newsletter on the home page, which can be accessed by clicking the image above; check it out – this is some sharp and invigorating writing from a host of new voices, and absolutely worth your time and attention if you care at all about the past, present and future of the cinema.

Cinespect; check it out, and subscribe now!

Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access on “Inquiry” with Mark Lynch

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

I just did an interview with host Mark Lynch on the radio program Inquiry, from NPR affiliate WICN in Worcester, MA, on my new book, Streaming.

As it says on the website for the podcast of the show, “Tonight on Inquiry we welcome back Wheeler Winston Dixon. He is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies and professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His new book is Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access. Professor Dixon declares that we are now in the “postfilmic era”, a time when movie film will no longer exist and all movies will be shot digitally. DVDs will also cease to exist as all films will be “streamed” and movie houses, those that are still extant, will only show digital copies of movies. But what are the implications of all of this for the art of film, the preservation of old films and how we watch movies? The answers are disheartening and  a little bit frightening. Tune in and find out why.”

And you can tune in 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 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/