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New Book Series: “Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture”

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon announce their new book series.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon are proud to announce the publication of the first two volumes in their new book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture from Rutgers University Press – Disney Culture by John Wills, and Zombie Cinema by Ian Olney.

Disney Culture explores the Walt Disney Company, which has grown into a diversified global media giant. But is it still possible to identify a coherent Disney ethos? Examining everything from theme parks to merchandising to animation to live-action films, Disney Culture proposes that they all follow a core corporate philosophy dating back to the 1920s.

Zombie Cinema notes that the living dead have been lurking in popular culture since the 1930s, but they are now ubiquitous. Presenting a historical overview of zombies in film and on television, Zombie Cinema also explores this globalized phenomenon, examining why the dead have captured the imagination of twenty-first-century audiences worldwide.

Early reviews are excellent: Blair Davis, author of Movie Comics: Page to Screen/Screen to Page writes that in Disney Culture, “Wills makes a strong contribution to both the fields of media studies as well as Disney scholarship with this concise, well written and thoroughly engaging overview of how the cultural, artistic, and economic factors surrounding the Disney corporation intersect.”

Janet Wasko, author of Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy adds that “Disney Culture is a notable addition to the growing critical work on Disney and its cultural significance. Wills skillfully dissects the Disney ethos and even challenges the multimedia giant to ‘mean something beyond merchandise’ in the twenty-first century.”

Of Zombie Cinema, Stephen Prince, author of Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality writes,”Zombie Cinema is a brisk, informative read that gives us a zesty tour through an amazingly prolific and popular contemporary film cycle. He’s clearly done his homework in excavating – or disinterring, as the case may be – zombie movies from disparate cultural and historical contexts.”

Rick Worland, author of The Horror Film: An Introduction notes that “what the vampire was to the 1980s and 90s, the zombie has become for early twenty-first century audiences, the monster of choice, spreading through a multitude of media texts. [In Zombie Cinema] Ian Olney organizes the history of the zombie in popular culture from Haitian voodoo practice to the present, providing clear analysis of its evolution and development. Theoretically informed, the writing is engaging and accessible throughout.”

New African Cinema by Valérie K. Orlando, and Digital Music Videos by Steven Shaviro are forthcoming soon.

Click here for more information on the new series.

Recent Video: Time’s Up!

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

Recently, I have been making a number of recombinant videos; click here to see Time’s Up!

I’ve been making films and videos since 1966, and my work has been screened at The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Anthology Film Archives, The Microscope Gallery, The British Film Institute, The Jewish Museum, The Millennium Film Workshop, The San Francisco Cinématheque, The New Arts Lab, The Collective for Living Cinema, The Kitchen Center for Experimental Art, The Filmmakers Cinématheque, Film Forum, The Amos Eno Gallery, Sla 307 Art Space, The Gallery of Modern Art, The Oberhausen Film Festival and at numerous universities and film societies throughout the world.

In 2003, I was honored with a retrospective of my films at The Museum of Modern Art, and my films from 1966 to 1994 were acquired for the permanent collection of the Museum, in both print and original format. However, as film became ever more expensive in the 1980s and 1990s, I turned more towards writing and critical work, but suddenly, I was drawn again to making films. Now, with the advent of digital HD video, and the ease of video distribution on Vimeo, I’m working again, creating new films, with screenings in New York this past November, 2016, and more to come in the future.

As someone who is fascinated with pop culture, many of my films use footage and soundtracks that are in the public domain, or released under a creative commons license, and are made entirely from recycled, repurposed and refashioned images and sounds. Time’s Up! is a good example of the style of video production. The other interesting point for me is that I’m reaching more viewers through Vimeo than in all my museum screenings put together; as I observed to a friend of mine who is also a video and film artist, Vimeo is now the new “cinematheque” for experimental work.

When my film Serial Metaphysics was screened at The Whitney Museum of American Art, Bruce Rubin, then Associate Curator film and video programming for the museum, wrote in part that “Dixon is a masterful film editor. His sensitivity to the movement within the frame and of the camera itself allows for a fluidity in his editing that is exuberant and refreshing. He is skillful not only in manipulating the flow of images but the flow of ideas as well.” So take a look at this brief film – which runs about two minutes in all -

and then if the mood strikes you, click here to go to my Vimeo site.

The Met Goes Digital!

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has more than 400,000 images free for download for non-commercial use.

As the museum’s website notes, “Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, announced today that more than 400,000 high-resolution digital images of public domain works in the Museum’s world-renowned collection may be downloaded directly from the Museum’s website for non-commercial use—including in scholarly publications in any media—without permission from the Museum and without a fee. The number of available images will increase as new digital files are added on a regular basis.

In making the announcement, Campbell said: ‘Through this new, open-access policy, we join a growing number of museums that provide free access to images of art in the public domain. I am delighted that digital technology can open the doors to this trove of images from our encyclopedic collection.’

The Metropolitan Museum’s initiative—called Open Access for Scholarly Content (OASC)—provides access to images of art in its collection that the Museum believes to be in the public domain and free of other known restrictions; these images are now available for scholarly use in any media. Works that are covered by the new policy are identified on the Museum’s website (http://www.metmuseum.org/collections) with the acronym OASC.

Certain works are not available through the initiative for one or more of the following reasons: the work is still under copyright, or the copyright status is unclear; privacy or publicity issues; the work is owned by a person or an institution other than the Metropolitan Museum; restrictions by the artist, donor, or lender; or lack of a digital image of suitable quality.

OASC was developed as a resource for students, educators, researchers, curators, academic publishers, non-commercial documentary filmmakers, and others involved in scholarly or cultural work. Prior to the establishment of OASC, the Metropolitan Museum provided images upon request, for a fee, and authorization was subject to terms and conditions.

A related blog post by Sree Sreenivasan, the Met’s Chief Digital Officer, about the Metropolitan Museum’s new OASC policy can be found at http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/museum-departments/office-of-the-director/digital-media-department/digital-underground/2014/image-use-policy. Additional information and instructions can also be found at http://www.metmuseum.org/research/image-resources/frequently-asked-questions.”

For more details, click here, or on the image above; an incredible free resource is now available to all.

New Video: Jacket

Saturday, February 4th, 2017

I have a new video in collaboration with artist Klaus Hausmann: click here, or above, to see it.

This is the sort of collaboration that could only happen in the digital era; Hausmann lives in Germany, and posted an 11 second version of this video on a video sharing website I sometimes visit. I expanded on the existing video, added the track, and voila – a collaboration that crosses borders, space and time with impunity.

As I wrote in the brief description for the video, “is it a jacket, or a straitjacket – it’s hard to tell.” Hausmann’s struggle to get the jacket on in the proper fashion – aided and sometimes thwarted by stop motion videography – is a metaphor for the knotty situations we sometimes find ourselves in, and triumph anyway.

If you like Jacket, check out some of my other videos by clicking here.

Pioneering Video Artist Lillian Schwartz

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

Lillian Schwartz is a pioneering video artist, who is only now getting the attention she deserves.

As Wikipedia notes, “Lillian Schwartz (born 1927) is a 20th-century American artist considered a pioneer of computer-mediated art and one of the first artists notable for basing almost her entire oeuvre on computational media. Many of her ground-breaking projects were done in the 1960s and 1970s, well before the desktop computer revolution made computer hardware and software widely available to artists . . .

As a young girl during the Great Depression, Schwartz experimented with slate, mud, sticks, and chalk as free materials for making art. She studied to become a nurse under a World War II education program and later on found her training in anatomy, biology, and the use of plaster valuable in making art. Stationed in Japan during the postwar occupation in an area between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she contracted polio, which paralyzed her for a time. As part of her rehabilitation, she studied calligraphy with the artist Tshiro . . .

By 1966, Schwartz had begun working with light boxes and mechanical devices like pumps, and she became a member of the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) group that brought together artists and engineers as collaborators. In 1968 her kinetic sculpture Proxima Centauri was included in the important early show of machine art at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, entitled ‘The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age’ . . .

Schwartz was brought into Bell Labs in 1968 by Leon Harmon. While there, she worked with engineers John Vollaro and others, including extensive collaboration with Ken Knowlton, a software engineer and computer artist who had also had work in the 1968 Museum of Modern Art show. She began making paintings and films with a combination of hand painting, digital collaging, computer and other image processing, and optical post-processing . . .

Schwartz used the works of Leonardo da Vinci extensively in experiments with computers. One notable work she created is Mona/Leo, for which she compared the image of a Leonardo da Vinci self-portrait with the Mona Lisa, matching the two faces feature by feature to show their underlying structural similarity. Specifically, she replaced the right side of the Mona Lisa with the flipped left side of a red chalk self-portrait of Leonardo.

Superimposed lines drawn on the image showing the close alignments of the bottom of the eye, eyebrow, nose and chin prompted her to argue that the Mona Lisa is in part a cryptic self-portrait of the artist. In further experiments along these lines, she removed the gray tones in Leonardo da Vinci’s self-portrait and superimposed the Mona Lisa eye over it.

Schwartz has been called a pioneer in ‘establishing computers as a valid and fruitful artistic medium’ by physicist and Nobel laureate Arno Penzias and a trailblazer and virtuoso by the philosopher-artist Timothy Binkley.Her films have been included in the Venice Biennale and the Cannes Film Festival, among many others, and have received numerous awards. Among these is an Academy Award (with Ed Emshwiller) in 1980 for special effects on the film The Lathe of Heaven. In the 1980s, a computer-generated TV spot that she created for the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art in New York won an Emmy Award.

Schwartz’s artworks have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Moderna Museet (Stockholm), Centre Beauborg (Paris), Stedlijk Museum of Art (Amsterdam), the Grand Palais Museum (Paris), and at numerous galleries and festivals worldwide.

Schwartz has been a visiting member of the Computer Science Department at the University of Maryland; an adjunct professor at the Kean College, Fine Arts Department; an adjunct professor at Rutgers University’s Visual Arts Department; an adjunct professor at the Psychology Department of the School of Arts and Sciences, New York University; and a Member of the Graduate Faculty of The School of Visual Arts, NYC. She has also been an Artist in Residence at Channel 13, WNET, New York. She has been a fellow of the World Academy of Science and Art since 1988.”

This is just a brief overview of Schwartz’s work as an artist; still very active with a gallery show at the prestigious Capri Gallery in Germany running through the end of March, 2017 (click here for full details), she is also the subject of an excellent short documentary on her life and work, which can be found by clicking here, made just before her 87th birthday. Direct, unpretentious, and absolutely determined, Schwartz has too long labored in the shadows of the art world, when her prodigious accomplishments clearly place her in the absolute vanguard of computer and video art.

I thank Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for introducing me to Schwartz’s work; see more by clicking here.

Glenn Kenny: “Is Watching a Movie on a Phone Really So Bad?”

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

Glenn Kenny of The New York Times has an interesting take on cellphone film viewing.

As he writes, “‘People who watch movies on phones (especially if they think they can leave valid critical comments on imdb) should be shot,” the critic Anne Billson declared on Twitter in mid-December. I quote her not to scold her, or to hold her to her word, but to underscore that passions in the format-platform controversies run high.

I’ve already cited, in my first installment of this column, David Lynch’s condemnation — more than a decade old — of The Very Idea of Watching a Movie on a Phone. Over the century-plus of cinema, new ways of watching movies have made film folk antsy. In a sense, it’s the one thing that the money guys and the creatives have fretted over in more or less equal measure. Steven Spielberg was initially wary of having his works put on home video, grumbling about movie theaters being sacred spaces and such.

Martin Scorsese had more optimism, writing in 1989: ‘[H]aving instant access to movies, being able to pick something up and show it at the drop of a hat, is great.’ Much of the work of his nonprofit restoration and preservation concern the Film Foundation is made available on home video, with high-definition formats preferred.

Still, smartphone movie-watching is for many a kind of line in the sand, albeit one that streaming services are obliged to ignore. The whole point of a streaming service is that it makes content available to watch on a panoply of devices, from a big-screen display to a tablet or Nook or Kindle or Galaxy or iPhone. I recently got my first iPhone, largely to put a bunch of streaming services on it (also because I was getting sick of everybody asking me ‘Why do you still have a BlackBerry?’), and dove in.

I thought it would be interesting to watch some 100-year-old Charlie Chaplin pictures on the device. After all, when Chaplin was making his shorts for Keystone and Essanay in the early 20th century, they were not necessarily projected in the cathedrals Mr. Spielberg once spoke of but in intimate, barely appointed nickelodeon theaters and in shortened versions made for penny-in-the-slot single-viewer Mutoscope machines . . .

The Criterion Channel, a part of the new streaming service FilmStruck, offers Chaplin shorts in batches, each a feature-length compilation from a particular period, and nicely restored. They look great on an iPhone — their black-and-white and sometimes sepia tones are nice and crisp, and the action is more than coherent. At 14 or so minutes a short, they’re well-suited to the contracted attention span that holding an iPhone in one’s hand tends to encourage.”

It’s an interesting hypothesis, but I have to disagree, simply quoting the director Roy Ward Baker, who summed up the issue for me, and I think for many others, when he told me in an interview at his London home late one afternoon, shortly before his death, that “one can inspect a film on DVD, but you can’t experience it.” Baker, of course, directed the best movie about the Titanic disaster, A Night to Remember (1958), and had just come from a theatrical screening of the film, as part of a retrospective of his work.

“It just hit me with such impact” he told me. “I’ve seen it many times on television, and thought to myself, ‘that’s a good movie,’ but it didn’t really hit me with same impact as when I first made it until I saw it again in its proper aspect ratio, on a large screen, with an appreciative audience [another thing - and not a small matter either - that's missing with the cellphone experience].” Of course, our conversation took place long before the advent of the cellphone and video streaming, but the basic concept is still the same – small screen vs. the real thing.

Want a quick viewing of a film? By all means, use a cellphone or whatever else is handy. Want to really see the film? There’s only one way; in a proper theatrical setting, with an audience, in the proper aspect ratio, on a big screen – the format that the movies were designed for. Thomas Edison, as Kenny points out elsewhere in his article, was against theatrical motion picture projection, but since the inception of the cinema, films have been made to be screened in large, theatrical format.

On a cellphone, you’re just getting a fraction of the actual experience.

“Poligrafo Bakarra” – Music Video by Joseba Elorza

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

Here’s a stunning new music video by the Spanish artist Joseba Elorza.

One of the great things about Vimeo is that it allows you to see work by cutting edge visual artists all over the world – not just in the United States and Europe. The image above is taken by from a music video by Joseba Elorza for the band Berri Txarrak (literally “Bad News”), a Spanish rock group that uses the Basque language for all their work. For more examples of Elorza’s work, check out his video demo here.

Elorza has done illustrations for Esquire, TV spots for National Geographic, and numerous video adverts as well, but the deep knowledge of pop culture in this video – check out the clips from such films as The Last Man on Earth, House on Haunted Hill, The Hitch-Hiker, Alias John Preston and others – really takes his work to another dimension. Playful, serious, and endlessly creative, Elorza is clearly a talent to watch – as you can see for yourself.

Check out the video by clicking here, or on the image above.

Everyone Wants To Be A Star!

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

According to an interesting study, everyone wants to be a star – no matter what.

In an intriguing article, “The Rise of Fame: An Historical Content Analysis” by Yalda T. Uhls and Patricia M. Greenfield in Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, the desire for instant fame in teenagers and “tweens” has grown by leaps and bounds since the late 1960s, to the point that notoriety is prized above almost any other value. As the authors write,

“[The] recent proliferation of TV programming for the tween audience is supported on the Internet with advertising, fan clubs, and other online communities. These Internet tools expand TV’s potential influence on human development. Yet little is known about the kinds of values these shows portray. To explore this issue, a new method for conducting content analysis was developed; it used personality indices to measure value priorities and desire for fame in TV programming.

The goal was to document historical change in the values communicated to tween audiences, age 9-11, who are major media consumers and whose values are still being formed. We analyzed the top two tween TV shows in the U.S. once a decade over a time span of 50 years, from 1967 through 2007. Greenfield’s theory of social change and human development served as the theoretical framework; it views technology, as well as urban residence, formal education, and wealth, as promoting individualistic values while diminishing communitarian or familistic ones.

Fame, an individualistic value, was judged the top value in the shows of 2007, up from number fifteen (out of sixteen) in most of the prior decades. In contrast, community feeling was eleventh in 2007, down from first or second place in all prior decades. According to the theory, a variety of sociodemographic shifts, manifest in census data, could be causing these changes; however, because social change in the U.S. between 1997 and 2007 centered on the expansion of communication technologies, we hypothesize that the sudden value shift in this period is technology driven.”

Read the rest of this fascinating article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Cal Newport’s Book “Deep Work”

Tuesday, November 29th, 2016

Cal Newport’s Deep Work is a book with an important, yet really simple message.

One of the unfortunate by-products of the digital era – and there any many plusses, so don’t get me wrong on this – is that there’s so much noise, so much chatter, so much social media static that sitting down and getting any real, substantial work done is a real challenge. Quentin Tarantino, for example, found it impossible to work on a script on a computer that was wired into the web; so now, he works on a machine that isn’t hooked up to anything, so he can simply concentrate on the task at hand, without the temptation to surf the web every so often, even to check a fact. He can do that later.

The important thing is to keep working, keep writing, and finish whatever it is you’re working on in one continuous blast, and then go back and clean it up later. The late Roger Ebert was an adherent to this philosophy; keep going to the end, and then edit. I do the same thing with my books and articles – I write everything by hand, to avoid the distraction of the web entirely, and then have it typed up, and edit that draft. You’d be surprised at the number of people who do the same thing. It’s one thing to write a book directly on a computer, but it’s much more intimate to simply have yourself, the page, and a pen to work with, and results are often much better.

Newport’s central thesis is essentially “get rid of all distractions, get the work done, find a space where you’ll be left alone, and drill down until it’s finished.” That’s a paraphrase, of course, but it’s the essence of the book. Newport, a computer scientist, is in love with code and Power Point presentations and Excel spread sheets, which many of us are not – myself included – but surprisingly, even though he works in a world of 1s and 0s, his guiding principles work in any area of creative endeavor.

As Newport puts it, “deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep—spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.”

After finishing the book, I wrote Newport discussing this, and he replied “I appreciate the kind words and agree strongly with the premise that Deep Work cuts across many different fields and pursuits,” which is absolutely true. In an era in which superficial click bait and fake news articles proliferate with alarming regularity, it’s nice to come across a book that says, essentially, “you can do better. You can do serious work that will have a real impact. You can do work that has real depth, and it’s the most valuable work to do. All you have to do it create a space for yourself, and your thoughts, and then just keep at it until you’ve got something real down on paper, or on film, or video, or whatever your discipline might be.”

Simply put, Newport provides a solid blueprint for thoughtful, considered creative work – whatever your area of expertise –  and that’s a much needed concept in this age of instant information and immediate gratification. This is, in short, a very useful book, whose central theme can be distilled into this guiding maxim:

Avoid superficial work. Tune the digital world out, and do Deep Work. In the end, it has much more value.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s “Men and Machines” Series on Vimeo

Thursday, November 24th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new series of videos on the theme of “Men and Machines.”

“The meaning of things lies not in the things themselves, but in our attitude towards them. The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“It is interesting to view Nature through the lens of construction ’sight’ – after all – is Nature itself not the Mother of all construction sites? I wonder if we have always viewed the world as a potential building site? The binary between these coexistent worlds is not so easily defined. Are domesticated plants and meadows, for example, all that ‘natural’ — or are they not liminal hybrids; both ‘natural’ and ‘artificial?’ Are machines ‘natural’ or hybrid and liminal?

Modern experience of the environment is mediated through a mechanical duo-consciousness. I admire the often breathtaking beauty of ‘Nature’ as an ongoing organic ‘construction site’; but I am also in awe of human industry and construction – particularly our aural and visual resonances – waste and decay in tracings, relics, and ruins.

The ‘Men and Machines’ series invites meditation into the complex relationship between man, machine, and ‘Nature’ – the politics, philosophy and aesthetics of the sights and sounds of industry as they are mechanically mediated and manufactured by the camera eye and ear.” – Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Videos in the “Men and Machines” series include:

Echo and Narcissus – vimeo.com/187504524

Construction Site – vimeo.com/188719797

Johnny’s Machines – vimeo.com/188380596

Machine – vimeo.com/190509450

Inside – vimeo.com/189477394

Col Bleu – vimeo.com/185865697

Mirror – vimeo.com/184270334

Not – vimeo.com/172252797

Waste – vimeo.com/165976297

Product – vimeo.com/179584124

Selfie – vimeo.com/178762302

Foster’s meditational videos are both moving and insightful – essential viewing.

About the Author

Headshot of 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 Fast Company, 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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