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The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop

November 23rd, 2016

As Allison Meier writes in the website Hyperallergic, Hollywood’s background art has long been ignored.

As Meier notes, “when backdrop painters were successful at their jobs, the filmgoing audience didn’t notice their work at all. From the 1930s, up to the emergence of CGI and higher quality photography, painted backings were an essential part of the cinema industry.

However, the artists were barely credited, no matter how important their transformation of reality was to a film — whether a colossal painting that transported the viewer to an exotic locale or a fantastic mural for an entirely fictional realm. The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop by Karen L. Maness and Richard M. Isackes, out now from Regan Arts, is a visual compendium of over 300 images highlighting this unheralded history.

‘These special effect backings, the largest paintings ever created, were breathtaking in their artistic and technical virtuosity,’ the authors write. They note that although the ’majority of backings used today are digitally printed photographic enlargements,’ the painted backdrop still remains a part of film, albeit in a reduced role:

But, paradoxically, the painted image often looks more realistic than the photographic image. Scenic artists can manipulate backings by adjusting light, color, and texture, helping to support the movie camera’s constructed image. Some information and details can be selectively accentuated, while others can be deemphasized. A photograph, on the other hand, is static and has a tendency to contradict the artifice of the rest of the setting.

They also point out how recent films, like 2004’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and 2014’s Interstellar, also incorporated painted backings to instill an otherworldly atmosphere. Most of the book is concentrated on artists who made significant contributions to the “golden age” of Hollywood.

Before the 1930s, films were often staged like theater, backgrounds not intended to be viewed as anything other than flat space. Then emerged films like 1936’s The Petrified Forest. Shot entirely at the Warner Bros studio in Burbank, California, all its scenes were set in the Arizona desert, with realistic backdrops integral to moving the action, even if the actors didn’t go anywhere.

You probably haven’t heard the backdrop artists’ names — although Salvador Dalí makes a brief appearance with his dream sequence backing for the 1945 Alfred Hitchcock film Spellbound.

You’ve almost certainly seen their work, even if your brain perceived it as a real three-dimensional space, such as George Gibson’s scenic art for the Wizard of Oz or North by Northwest, and Ben Carré’s artwork for classics like The Phantom of the Opera. No matter the place, the painted backdrop was crucial to the audience’s immersion in the cinematic world.”

A fascinating look at an under-appreciated art form; well worth checking out.

Mozart in The Jungle

November 21st, 2016

Since I have abandoned traditional television, this is a delightful web series worth your attention.

Amazon Studios just keeps getting better and better. They have a pilot right now online for The Last Tycoon, loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final, unfinished novel, which is quite compelling – which was recently green lit for a series – and other remarkably well-produced series, of such as their two seasons, with a third in the offing of Mozart in The Jungle, which deals with the world of classical music in the 21st century era. It’s a time in history when if one wants to dedicate one’s self to the arts, it’s akin to taking a lifetime vow of poverty in pursuit of beauty.

As the press release for the book on which the series is based notes, in part, “In the tradition of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Gelsey Kirkland’s Dancing on My Grave, Mozart in the Jungle delves into the lives of the musicians and conductors who inhabit the insular world of classical music.

In a book that inspired the Amazon original series starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Malcolm McDowell, oboist Blair Tindall recounts her decades-long professional career as a classical musician, from the recitals and Broadway orchestra performances to the secret life of musicians who survive hand to mouth in the backbiting New York classical music scene . . .

Tindall and her fellow journeymen musicians live in decrepit apartments, and perform in hazardous conditions. These are working-class musicians who schlep across the city between low-paying gigs, without health-care benefits or retirement plans―a stark contrast to the rarefied experiences of overpaid classical musician superstars.”

The series itself is a lot less hard-edged, and centers around Gael García Bernal as Rodrigo De Souza, a tempestuous Maestro who’s been brought in to help an ailing New York symphony orchestra regain its former greatness. Malcolm McDowell as Thomas Pembridge, the outgoing conductor, and Bernadette Peters as Gloria Windsor, the fundraiser who tries to keep the orchestra above water are both excellent in their roles, and Lola Kirke as Hailey Rutledge, the ostensible stand in for author Blair Tindall, shines in her role as a young, ambition oboist whose dream is to get a permanent gig with with the orchestra.

Billed as a comedy, and blessedly free of a laugh track, Mozart in the Jungle sometimes strays into darker territory, but it’s a real and distinct pleasure to hear so much classical music played so beautifully in a contemporary, one-camera sitcom, which is obviously made with loving care and a real attention to detail. You can stream the series on Amazon – two whole seasons, with half-hour episodes – and in an era dominated by serial killers and ultra-violence on both the web and in theaters, it’s a relief to view something more thoughtful, more passionate, and much more optimistic about life.

Mozart in The Jungle – definitely worth checking out.

Dixon & Foster Video Shows in NYC November 11 & 12

November 20th, 2016

From The UNL Newsroom: Two New Video Shows in New York City.

As mentioned in UNL Today, “Wheeler Winston Dixon, professor of film studies, and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, professor of English and film studies, had two screenings of their new video work. The screenings took place on Nov 11 in The Amos Eno Gallery in Brooklyn, New York and Nov. 12 at The Sla307 Art Space, in New York City. Videos by Dixon include Life of Luxury, An American Dream and Beat Box. Foster’s videos include Echo and Narcissus, Mirror, Tenderness, and more.”

We’re grateful to the galleries for inviting us to screen our work, and for the excellent turnout at both shows, especially the Saturday screening in Manhattan. Altogether, we screened some 40 new films in two one-hour programs, with excellent projection and sound, and a deeply appreciative audience. Indeed, since these videos are publicly curated on Vimeo, this was the first time that they’ve been screened in full theatrical format, which was an experience in itself.

Again, thanks to everyone involved for making these programs possible.

Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s “Pull My Daisy”

November 7th, 2016

Every so often, it’s good to go back and look at a classic.

As Wikipedia notes in their discussion of the film, “Pull My Daisy (1959) is a short film that typifies the Beat Generation. Directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, Daisy was adapted by Jack Kerouac from the third act of his play, Beat Generation; Kerouac also provided improvised narration.

The film starred poets Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso, artists Larry Rivers (Milo) and Alice Neel (the Bishop’s mother), musician David Amram, actors Richard Bellamy (the Bishop) and Delphine Seyrig (Milo’s wife), dancer Sally Gross (the Bishop’s sister), and Pablo Frank, Robert Frank’s then-young son.

Based on an incident in the life of Beat icon Neal Cassady and his wife, the painter Carolyn, the film tells the story of a railway brakeman whose wife invites a respected Bishop over for dinner. However, the brakeman’s bohemian friends crash the party, with comic results.

Originally intended to be called The Beat Generation the title Pull My Daisy was taken from the poem of the same name written by Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Cassady in the late 1940s. Part of the original poem was used as a lyric in David Amram’s jazz composition that opens the film . . .

Pull My Daisy was accordingly praised for years as an improvisational masterpiece, until Leslie revealed in a November 28, 1968 article in The Village Voice that the film was actually carefully planned, rehearsed, and directed by him and Frank, who shot the film on a professionally lit studio set.

Leslie and Frank discuss the film at length in Jack Sargeant’s book Naked Lens: Beat Cinema. An illustrated transcript of the film’s narration was also published in 1961 by Grove Press. Pull My Daisy was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1996, as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.’”

Shot in 35mm on a shoestring budget in a New York City which has long since passed into legend, Pull My Daisy is an authentic talisman of a bygone era, in which art was valued over gloss and artificial perfection. The film was shot silent, because there was no money for sync-sound, but despite the rough look of the film, it’s a work of raw, authentic beauty. Definitely worth 25 minutes of your time; this is the way it was in a more egalitarian and compassionate era.

Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” at The Ross

November 2nd, 2016

Kelly Reichardt, one of America’s finest filmmakers, is coming to The Ross Theater Nov. 4th.

As the website for The Ross notes, “Kelly Reichardt is a screenwriter and film director working within American indie cinema.  Her credits include Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves and Certain Women.  Her debut film River of Grass was released in 1994. It was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards, as well as the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. In 1999, she completed her sophomore feature, Ode, based on Herman Raucher’s novel Ode to Billie Joe. Next, she made two short films, Then a Year, made in 2001, and Travis, which deals with the Iraq War, in 2004.  Most of her films are regarded by critics to be part of the minimalist movement in films.

In 2006, she completed Old Joy, based on a short story in Jon Raymond’s collection Livability. Daniel London and singer-songwriter Will Oldham portray two friends who reunite for a camping trip to the Cascades and Bagby Hot Springs, near Portland, Oregon. The film won awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Rotterdam International Film Festival, and Sarasota Film Festival. Neil Kopp won the Producer’s Award at the 2007 Independent Spirit Awards for his work on Old Joy and Paranoid Park.

For her next film, Wendy and Lucy, she and Jon Raymond adapted another story from Livability. The film was released in December 2008 and earned Oscar buzz for lead actress Michelle Williams. It was nominated for Best Film and Best Female Lead at the Independent Spirit Awards.  She then directed Meek’s Cutoff, a western starring Michelle Williams. It competed for the Golden Lion at the 67th Venice International Film Festival.  In 2013 her film, Night Moves, debuted in competition at the 70th Venice International Film Festival.

Reichardt is also an Artist-in-Residence in the Film and Electronic Arts program at Bard College. Ms. Reichardt is the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.  Reichardt’s next film, Certain Women, is based on Maile Meloy’s 2009 collection of short stories, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, and was shot in March and April 2015 in Montana.  Starring Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, and Kristen Stewart, Certain Women premiered on January 24, 2016 at the Sundance Film Festival.  Reichardt won the top award at the 2016 London Film Festival for Certain Women.”

This is an opportunity not to be missed; Reichardt’s work is astounding, and chance to see her in person should not be passed up. This is is one of those once-in-a-lifetime events; you get to see a brand new film from one of America’s finest filmmakers, and you also get the opportunity to talk about the film with the director. The screening begins at 7:30PM on Friday, November 4th, followed by the Q&A with Kelly Reichardt.

Click here to read a superb profile on Reichardt’s work from The New York Times.

New Video – Kaleidoscope – See It Here

October 31st, 2016

I’ve just finished a new video – Kaleidoscope – and you can see it here, free.

I’ve been working lately in HD video, making nearly one hundred new videos of varying lengths and aesthetic approaches in the past year, but here’s a new one that I think everyone will enjoy – an ever-changing, constantly morphing video entitled Kaleidoscope. Here’s some quotes on the thought behind it; always the same, yet always changing, our lives are kaleidoscopes of endless possibility, constantly moving from one moment to the next.

“At any one time language is a kaleidoscope of styles, genres and dialects.” – David Crystal

“At the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.” – Jean Houston

“Our days are a kaleidoscope. Every instant a change takes place in the contents. New harmonies, new contrasts, new combinations of every sort. Nothing ever happens twice alike. The most familiar people stand each moment in some new relation to each other, to their work, to surrounding objects. The most tranquil house, with the most serene inhabitants, living upon the utmost regularity of system, is yet exemplifying infinite diversities.” – Henry Ward Beecher

Just click here, or on the image above to view the video, and see for yourself.

Pipilotti Rist’s New Video Retrospective

October 27th, 2016

The renowned video artist Pipilotti Rist has a new retrospective of her work in Manhattan.

As Roberta Smith reports in The New York Times, “the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist has gone supernova at the New Museum. A 30-year survey, “Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest,” traces her ever-expanding journey into the wilds of video, with a rapturous fusion of lights, sights and music that ebbs and flows through the museum’s main gallery floors.

It is also a journey into different kinds of intimacy — with ourselves, with one another and with nature. Naked bodies, and myriad plants and flowers, often seen under water and in immense close-up, drift and mingle amid kaleidoscopic color.

And because Ms. Rist began making video in the long ago days of analog and has rarely met a technological breakthrough that she couldn’t use, the 30-year arc of her work also traces much of the medium’s progress, as explored by one of its true naturals.

Arranged mostly chronologically from the bottom to the top of the building, the show has been organized by Massimiliano Gioni, the museum’s artistic director, with Margot Norton and Helga Christoffersen. Its 24 works begin with several single-channel videos from the late 1980s, when Ms. Rist more or less backed into art with the first work she ever exhibited . . .

The show culminates in two floors of aqueous, immersive environments, radiant with color, one completed this year. Sometimes comfortable seating — big pillows or actual beds — is provided for viewers to relax on while watching and listening, and perhaps leave with a sense of encountering nature as never before.”

Read the entire article by clicking here, or above; this a stunning show.

Forthcoming, 2017 – A Brief History of Comic Book Movies

October 21st, 2016

Richard Graham and I have a forthcoming book on comic book films, from Palgrave Macmillan.

A Brief History of Comic Book Movies traces the meteoric rise of the hybrid art form of the comic book film. These films trace their origins back to the early 1940s, when the first Batman and Superman serials were made. The serials, and later television shows in the 1950s and 60s, were for the most part designed for children.

But today, with the continuing rise of Comic-Con, they seem to be more a part of the mainstream than ever, appealing to adults as well as younger fans. This book examines comic book movies from the past and present, exploring how these films shaped American culture from the post-World War II era to the present day, and how they adapted to the changing tastes and mores of succeeding generations.

Broken down into chapters that cover the origins of the comic book film, the films in the DC and Marvel “Universe” series, animé films, as well as indies and outliers, this is a book that covers the entire history of the genre in one compact volume.

Here’s some early critical commentary:

“This history of an under-studied field is original, enlightening, and exemplary. I recommend it highly.” – David Sterritt, Editor-in-Chief, Quarterly Review of Film and Video

“Engaging and very accessible…its value to readers will continue even as many more films enter into production and distribution.” – Cynthia J. Miller, co-editor of 1950s “Rocketman” TV Series and Their Fans: Cadets, Rangers, and Junior Space Men

Out in January 2017 – see you then with more on this project!

Dan Duryea – Heel With A Heart

October 19th, 2016

One of Hollywood’s m0st enduring character actors finally has a solid biography.

Here’s an excellent, thoroughly researched biography by Mike Peros of one of Hollywood’s most memorable “heavies,” Dan Duryea, who introduced a new level of menace and cynicism to “noir” films starting in the mid 1940s, and continued on in a string of memorable roles in Ministry of Fear (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Black Angel (1946), Too Late for Tears (1949), and the brutal western Winchester ’73 (1950), usually top-billed as one of the main attractions of the film. As Peros makes clear, however, in real life Duryea was a dedicated family man with a long marriage, two sons, and was even the leader of a Boy Scout Troup in the 1950s, in sharp contrast to his ne’er-do-well on-screen image.

As the 1960s dawned, Duryea worked more in television and second features, but always brought an air of relaxed skill to all his roles.  The death of his wife Helen in 1967 hit Duryea hard, but he kept working – both out of financial necessity and dedication to his craft. Duryea’s final role was as the con man Eddie Jacks on the television series Peyton Place, in 60 episodes from 1967 to 1968, the year of his death. Though Duryea often felt limited by the parts he was offered, he lived to work, and kept delivering polished performances right up to the end of his life. Well illustrated, with a comprehensive filmography and a complete index, the book offers a detailed overview of a true Hollywood professional.

Long overdue, this is a book that aficionados of classical Hollywood will deeply appreciate.

Vimeo vs. Theatrical or, The 21st Century Cinematheque

October 18th, 2016

Vimeo is the 21st century version of the experimental cinematheques of the 1960s.

I’m old enough to remember the countless theatrical screenings I’ve attended in my life, both of mainstream and experimental films, and there’s still – after all these years – no substitute for seeing a film in a theater, properly projected on a big screen. But times change, and we change with them. Theatrical repertory houses have all but died off, projection on 35mm film is now a boutique item – sort of like watching an opera live – and the cost of making films in traditional media has skyrocketed.

I’ve had many screenings of my films over the years at museums and galleries, and I’m deeply grateful for the experience of having a live audience – there’s nothing like it – but we have to realize that much of this resides in the past. The future is online, and as David Bowie observed way back in 2002 with typical prescience, the world is going to streaming as the preferred form of access for books, movies and music, adding that “it’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen.”

So although I have two video shows coming up in New York, which I’m very excited about – at the SLA 307 Gallery and The Amos Eno Gallery, offering the chance to interact with a live audience – in many ways, the audience on Vimeo is just as real, and the videos are seen by a vastly larger number of viewers. Just yesterday, I received an invitation to participate in group exhibition in Bologna, Italy – by using Vimeo as part of a group installation – that I never would have had the chance to appear in, were it not for the global reach of Vimeo on the web.

YouTube has a much wider audience, of course, but the quality of the image, and the control that one has over the video files that one uploads, is vastly inferior to the degree of artistic and viewer control that one has on Vimeo. It’s the first high-definition video upload site, and although there is more and more that’s commercial on the site, by and large it’s a place for artists, which is as it should be. It gives all video and filmmakers a chance to reach out to the entire world. Thanks to Bill Domonkos for the gif above; he’s a superb artist, whom I met through Vimeo; much appreciated.

The image above is from my video Real & Unreal: click here, or on the image above, to access my Vimeo site.

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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