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Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s book is more relevant than ever in our era of disposable celebrity culture.

Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump, Roseanne Barr, Martha Stewart, and Britney Spears typify class-passers—those who claim different socioeconomic classes as their own—asserts Gwendolyn Audrey Foster in Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture. According to new rules of social standing in American popular culture, class is no longer defined by wealth, birth, or education. Instead, today’s notion of class reflects a socially constructed and regulated series of performed acts and gestures rooted in the cult of celebrity.

In examining the quest for class mobility, Foster deftly traces class-passing through the landscape of popular films, reality television shows, advertisements, the Internet, and video games. She deconstructs the politics of celebrity, fashion, and conspicuous consumerism and analyzes class-passing as it relates to the American Dream, gender, and marriage.

Class-Passing draws on dozens of examples from popular culture, from old movie classics and contemporary films to print ads and cyberspace, to illustrate how flagrant displays of wealth that were once unacceptable under the old rules of behavior are now flaunted by class-passing celebrities. From the construction worker in Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? to the privileged socialites Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie of The Simple Life, Foster explores the fantasy of contact between the classes.

She also refers to television class-passers from The Apprentice and Survivor and notable class-passing achievers Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and P. Diddy. Class-Passing is a notable examination of the historical, social, and ideological shifts in expressions of class. The first serious book of its kind, Class-Passing is fresh, innovative, and invaluable for students and scholars of film, television, and popular culture.

Class-Passing is positively overflowing with ideas and insights, teeming with splendid observations of an original and challenging nature. Foster’s ability to link class with issues of race, gender, and the body is quite marvelous and convincing. Class-Passing is very much in the forefront of contemporary film and cultural studies, superior in every way.”—David Desser, University of Illinois

“At a time when studies of social class in media representation have taken a back seat to analyses of race and gender, Class-Passing, in daring and original fashion, maps and elaborates on contradictions in performing social class via the media and popular culture. The book is commendable for the range of examples that illustrate continuities and changes in representations of social class as well as their relation to treatments of race and gender. Foster’s innovative analysis is not restricted to cinema but includes television, advertising, etiquette books, popular manuals, and video games, providing a broad field from which to assess the character and vicissitudes of class passing.”—Marcia Landy, University of Pittsburgh

This is a groundbreaking book in every respect- bleeding edge cultural criticism.

Calum Marsh: Ten Movies Not To Miss in 2016

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

Village Voice critic Calum Marsh picks ten must-see movies in 2016.

The Village Voice, once an indispensable source for film reviews in the 1950s through the late 1990s, fell on hard times when critics Andrew Sarris and Jonas Mekas retired, followed by the departure of Jim Hoberman, and then the Voice itself went from being a paid newspaper to a freebie distributed throughout Manhattan in giveaway boxes. But now it seems to have found itself again in the 21st century with a new group of sharp, perceptive critics, one of whom is Calum Marsh.

In this brief article, Marsh picks out ten films to look forward to in 2016 which are outside the normal fare one might find at the local multiplex, such as Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier, Jodie Foster’s Money Monster, Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch – which Amirpour, the director of the highly acclaimed vampire thriller A Girl Walks Home Along at Night describes as “‘Road Warrior meets Pretty in Pink” – Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Lorene Scafaria’s The Meddler (shown above) and several other interesting films.

These are all films that absolutely deserve your attention in the New Year, and this brief, informal overview is a great way to think about what you’re going to spend your time watching in 2016. Look beyond the local first-run theaters. Look for more interesting stuff, and you’ll find it. And while you’re exploring this article, click on some of the other links to see The Village Voice’s increasingly interesting film coverage, as we move towards the second decade of the new century.

There’s great filmmaking going on out there – you just have to find it.

Frame by Frame Video: Film Noir

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

Here’s a brief Frame by Frame video, directed by Curt Bright, in which I discuss Film Noir.

The scene above is from Jacques Tourneur’s noir classic Out of the Past (1947), and in this video I briefly discuss some of the more dominant characteristics of noir, in a video which was produced roughly at the same time my book Film Noir and The Cinema of Paranoia came out. Oddly enough, I never blogged directly on this video, and it’s too good to pass up, so here it is.

When Choice: The Library Journal reviewed Film Noir and The Cinema of Paranoia, they noted that “Dixon seeks to broaden the scope and definition of film noir by focusing on its most dominant motif–paranoia. Concentrating on that impulse, and also on fear and violence, the author demonstrates that these all-encompassing aspects of film noir are found not only in gangster/detective films of the 1940s but also in such genres as science fiction and horror.

Beginning with the pre-Code era, Dixon guides the reader through a comprehensive overview of the evolution of film noir to its present form, along the way presenting an enlightening examination of American and British society and politics and revealing the role film noir has played during certain periods.

[Dixon] demonstrates how film noir serves to contradict the false “feel good” images mediated to the public through movies and television programming. [Dixon]’s observations illustrate how paranoia, as constructed through the lens of film noir, proves more relevant than ever in lieu of the veil of fear that envelops every aspect of post-9/11 life.”

And that’s still true today – noir tells us how things really are.

Video: The Films of Val Lewton

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

Val Lewton was one of the most influential producers during the Golden Era of Hollywood in the 1940s.

I have blogged before – actually, four years ago – on the films of Val Lewton, but now Curt Bright has made a video on Lewton for our Frame by Frame series, in which I discuss Lewton’s work as a filmmaker creating an entirely new style of supernatural cinema – and his legacy goes well beyond that. Lewton was David O. Selznick’s right hand man on Gone With The Wind, one of the most ambitious and lavish films ever made, and shortly after that film wrapped, he accepted an offer from RKO Radio Pictures to create a series of low-budget horror films designed to break the Universal mold of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and so on.

Lewton stepped into the job, making superb films on minimal budgets – roughly $100,000 a film, using pre-sold titles assigned by the publicity department, on very short shooting schedules, and created some of the most effective and atmospheric films of the era, such as I Walked With A Zombie and The Cat People. Of all the producers working in Hollywood during the 1940s, Lewton was clearly the most intellectual, the most artistically ambitious, and perhaps the only producer of the era – though others might argue with this – who could rightly be called a creative artist, someone who contributed to his films on more than a bottom-line level.

Working with such talented people as well known director Jacques Tourneur, ace cinematographers Nicholas Musuraca and Roy Hunt, and giving people like Robert Wise and Mark Robson their first directorial assignments, Lewton created a series of memorable Gothic films in a very short space of time, and then – suddenly – it was over. A brief period at MGM, and finally Universal, led only to his early death from a heart attack in his late 40s – a tragic loss to the cinema. Clearly, he could have done so much more, but time was limited.

Here, let’s celebrate the films of Val Lewton – timeless classics, that still enthrall and thrill today.

Video: The Celluloid Backlash

Friday, December 18th, 2015

More and more, commercial and indie filmmakers are embracing the values that only actual film can offer.

While 99% of all Hollywood films, and independent films as well, are being shot and post-produced digitally – i.e. “born digital” – there is a new phenomenon which seems to be expanding throughout the industry – major commercial filmmakers returning to the physical film medium because the celluloid image offers a different, warmer, and some would argue superior set of visual values, resulting in a new countermovement within the industry, which challenges the conventional wisdom that “film is dead” and digital rules.

I would argue that film is more alive than ever, and that the headlong rush to digital is something that has its benefits and drawbacks, and there are many within the industry – as noted in this video -  who feel actual film stock is an indispensable part of the cinema. To date, the list of new movies shot on film includes J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Sam Mendes’ latest installment of the Bond franchise, Spectre, David O. Russell’s Joy and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. More films – shot on film – are in the pipeline.

Thanks again to Curt Bright for creating this video; see you in 2016!

Video: The Theatrical Experience

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

If you’re going to watch a movie, you should see it on the big screen if at all possible.

Here, in another episode of Frame by Frame, I discuss the decline in theatrical film viewing in favor of at home video on demand streaming, as used in platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and others, as DVDs fade into the distance, and theatrical screenings become a more and more rare experience. This is unfortunate, because the only way you can really see a film – and see all the detail within each shot, is on a big screen, which is the size that 90% of all films were originally made to be seen in, before the advent of television.

Now, of course, TV is fading away, as more and more people are content to watch films in their living room, and given the relative convenience and safety of seeing a film at home – as I note – who can blame them? But nevertheless, the fact remains that, as my late friend the director Roy Ward Baker once told me – and I never forgot it – “on a DVD or television, you can inspect a film, but you can’t experience it.” And it’s absolutely true, which is why seeing a film in a theater remains – after all these years – the optimal way to really see a film.

Check out the video above to find out why.

Video: Independent Filmmaking in the 21st Century

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

Here’s a brief video by Curt Bright about the difficulties facing indie filmmakers in the 21st century.

For some time now, Curt Bright and I have been creating educational videos for a UNL series called Frame by Frame, covering various aspects of film, media, and the digital world as we enter the first decades of the 21st century. In this episode, I talk about the problems facing independent creators now – most specifically, how to get their work out before the public in an oversaturated marketplace.

Where once every film had to open in a theater in order to make back its investment, now there are so many different platforms available that distributors throw their cash at those films where they have the highest degree of financial exposure, resulting in a world in which only mainstream blockbusters make it to a large audience. Here, I discuss ways to work around this, and get a more balanced view of what’s going in the world of cinema on a national and international level.

Thanks to Curt Bright, as always, for such a great job in shooting and editing these videos.

20th Century Fox Launches Ambitious EST Program

Saturday, December 12th, 2015

Just a few days ago, Manohla Dargis quoted me on the disappearance of DVDs – well, here’s more proof.

As Brent Lang notes in Variety, 20th Century Fox “has just reached the century mark and to recognize the milestone, it is re-releasing a hundred films spanning the silent era, continuing through the golden age of Hollywood and ending in the early ’90s.

The pictures will be available on digital HD for the first time in their history, and include such classic films as F.W. Murnau’s  Sunrise, Raoul Walsh’s Big Trail and John Ford’s Men Without Women. The first batch of titles will be available Thursday and includes the musical Can-Can, the western My Darling Clementine and Pigskin Parade — a 1936 musical that marked Judy Garland’s film debut. There are also more modern offerings such as the Julia Roberts thriller  Sleeping With the Enemy and the Michael Douglas adventure Romancing the Stone.

The shift away from DVDs and the collapse of the video store could have dealt a death blow to classic movies, but Fox’s home entertainment team says the digital revolution appears to have ushered in a renaissance of film appreciation. ‘You’re not trying to hold shelf space in a retail outlet,’ said Mike Dunn, president of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

‘It allows you to have more of your catalog readily available, because you put it on iTunes and it stays there. You’re not being judged by how many units it sells. Services like iTunes want to be completists.’

In fact, catalogue titles now make up more than 40% of digital sales. That’s massive growth from four years ago, when they comprised approximately 5% of digital receipts, and Dunn expects their popularity will continue. To help draw attention to the offerings, Apple will have a dedicated iTunes landing page featuring these new titles.

‘Acquiring movies is so easy now,’ said Dunn. ‘You read about something and maybe there’s a reference to a filmmaker’s historical work, and my thumb moves across my phone and I’ve bought it.’ Although there are financial incentives to offering these pictures to the public, the studio positioned the move as about more than dollars and cents.

‘We are custodians of a great legacy of filmmakers whose contributions here span 100 years,’ said Jim Gianopulos, chairman and CEO of Twentieth Century Fox Film. ‘We owe their work our best efforts to preserve and protect it, and to make these important films accessible in their best possible presentation for generations to come.’”

Well, that’s all very well, but for those who want the superior visual quality of physical media, HD downloads just don’t make it. Watching a film on your iPhone really has nothing to with really experiencing the film on the screen – these films were never made for such small dimensions. While this is better than simply storing these titles away in a vault, it’s just not the same as theatrical, or physical media, which with care will last a fairly long time. HD downloads, not so much.

But this is the future – EST, or “electronic sell through” – is here to stay.

Manohla Dargis – “The Best Advice for Movie Lovers”

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Thanks to Manohla Dargis of The New York Times for this mention.

The quote comes from an interview I gave to Peter Monaghan of Moving Image Archive News back in August on my new book Black and White Cinema: A Short History, in which I said that “if you go on Amazon and you see some great black-and-white film, and it’s going for $3, or any kind of foreign or obscure film, buy it, because it’s going out of print, and they’re not going to put them back into print. With VHS, everything came out, everything. And then they looked at what sold, and what didn’t sell didn’t make the jump to DVDs.

There were thousands of films, tens of thousands of films, that were on VHS and never made the jump to DVD. Important films. Now that we’re going to Blu-ray, lots of films aren’t making that jump. And then there’s electronic sell-through. If you download something, you’re not going to put it on your computer because it takes up too much space, so you’re going to have to put it up on ‘the cloud,’ and then you’re going to have to pay to store what you ostensibly own.”

And it’s true – if you see a valuable DVD listed for a low price, grab it. It isn’t coming back.

Jannik Splidsboel’s “Misfits” (2015)

Saturday, December 5th, 2015

This brilliant documentary really cuts to the heart of LGBT society in America today.

Misfits is a short, sharply observed 73 minute documentary about three American teenagers from conservative Tulsa, Oklahoma struggling with isolation and instability in a heartfelt story that portrays family bonds, poverty, survival, love and the consequences of coming out as a young LGBT in the Bible Belt. While the general public opinion towards gays within America is slowly changing, this coming-of-age story closely follows the three gay teen protagonists as they struggle to achieve a sense of self within families in a community that still widely condemns homosexuality.

Misfits was directed by Danish filmmaker Jannik Splidsboel, who earned a nomination at The Berlinale in 2009 for his documentary How Are You?, and was shot over a two year period on location. It’s a stunning, deeply moving film. Without sentimentalizing the material, and with a calm, almost meditational air, Misfits takes the viewer into a world which is once hard and yet beautiful, in which love struggles to find a voice, yet ultimately wins, despite seemingly overwhelming odds. It’s one of the finest films of 2015.

As critic Guy Lodge noted in a deeply perceptive review of the film in Variety, “if the global ‘It Gets Better’ campaign has lent a certain familiarity to narratives of gay teenage oppression and self-realization, that’s hardly something to be held against Misfits: Rather, Jannik Splidsboel’s delicate documentary works as a progress report on a movement that, in a just world, would be far older news by now. Sensitively following three members of an LGBT youth support group . . . as they find their respective paths in a society largely hostile to their alternative identities, Splidsboel’s film touches lightly on community politics, but is most illuminating and uplifting in its portrayal of hard-won domestic battles.

This is essential viewing – gorgeous, deeply felt, a film that deserves the widest possible audience.

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.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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