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Mad Men Ends Tonight – Four Key Cast Members Look Back

May 17th, 2015

Elizabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks and John Slattery on the set of Mad Men, which concludes tonight.

Like a lot of other people, I would expect, I have been binge watching the Mad Men marathon on AMC sporadically over the last few days, and what a depressing trip it’s been! It’s done wonders for the various cast members, and launched a slew of careers, but I won’t have one bit of regret in seeing the series in the rear-view mirror – these are some of the most unpleasant, manipulative, and narcissistic characters to ever grace a television screen.

Yet the long, long storyline remains perversely captivating, and perfectly mirrors the “fall from the skyscraper” opening that’s been a constant fixture during the credits of the show over seven seasons – the last season drawn out for maximum audience impact. For me, the earlier seasons were much stronger than the more recent ones, which often verge on parody, even as they engage with some serious themes – and there was simply no reason to drag the series out by splitting the last season into two sections – but it doesn’t matter – tonight is the last episode.

In this entertaining and sharp feature, Becca Nadler rounds up interviews with four of the key cast members of the series and gets their thoughts on what the show has done for their careers, why viewers tune in week after week to watch the continuing self-destruction of the whole Sterling Cooper (and now McCann) gang, with nary a prediction about how the show will end up – which is great. There’s been such so much ridiculous speculation about Don’s final scenes, or Joan’s, or Roger’s, though we know that Betty has cancer, and it clearly won’t end well for her.

But what do the actors have to say about the show that quite literally put them on the map? Here’s a chance to find out. As Jon Hamm says of his character Don, “there are these bright colors and vibrant things, a montage and all this beautiful stuff [in Season 7] and you see this gray figure kind of moving through it, he hasn’t changed much. The world has, but he hasn’t,” while John Slattery (Roger Sterling) adds that “you don’t come through this journey without getting banged up. You’re not perfect at the end, and you’re not pristine.” You can say that again!

See what you think in these four excellent interviews from Indiewire.

Our Attention Span is Now Shorter Than That of a Goldfish

May 15th, 2015

Yes, we’re so distracted by digital media, that we now can’t pay attention for more than 8 seconds.

As Meredith Engel writes in The New York Daily News, “Humans now have shorter attention spans than goldfish — and we would write more, but you’re probably clicking somewhere else already. The new finding — by, of all companies, Microsoft — suggests that the little fish can concentrate for nine seconds compared to eight for humans.

The researchers looked at three different types of attention: Sustained attention is the ability to focus on one task continuously; selective attention is the ability to respond when distractions come up; and alternating attention is multitasking. To get a measure of focus levels, the researchers asked 2,000 Canadians to take online surveys, play games and have their brain electricity measured.

The researchers found that increased use of digital devices lessens our sustained attention, doesn’t affect our selective attention, and actually improves our alternating attention. That means we are less able to focus on one task, but are getting better at doing multiple tasks at once. The report says that the human attention span has decreased by four seconds since 2000 — and that tech innovations may be blame.” You think?

Maybe that’s why movies are so hyper-edited these days – or maybe they’re part of the cause.

Forthcoming Book – Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s

May 15th, 2015

I have a new book from Palgrave Pivot this July – pre-order it here now!

As the promotional materials for the book note, “Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s presents six detailed chapters on various topics that relate to genre cinema, concentrating on films and filmmakers whose films offered wide ranging commentary on popular culture. Covering both little and well-known films and filmmakers (Vanishing Point, Marcel Hanoun, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Max Ophüls), Dixon’s writings draw on a multitude of critical, historical, and archival sources to capture the reader’s attention from start to finish.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, and Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA. He is the author of Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, and Cinema at the Margins and editor, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture.”

“Dixon is a first-rate film scholar, critic, and historian, and the qualities he has cultivated and refined over the years are evident in everything from the clarity, lucidity, and liveliness of his prose to the accuracy of his research, the force of his arguments, and the perspicuity of his judgments.” – David Sterritt, Chair, National Society of Film Critics

A short and concise look at some of the films that shaped a decade.

Mike Fleming Jr. Interviews Woody Allen in Deadline

May 14th, 2015

Mike Fleming Jr. of Deadline just published a fabulous interview with Woody Allen.

Even with his newest film, Irrational Man, at Cannes, Allen despairs of the current state of the movie business, and I must say I agree with him entirely. He has a deal for a series with Amazon, but doesn’t know what to do with it; he seems genuinely unhappy with all his work, and is only now turning to digital with a sort of “meh – why not?” attitude – “digital is really not cheaper and it’s not faster” – and he gets no pleasure from seeing his films – “I hate them all. None are different, and all are…unsatisfying, when you’re finished” – and never goes back to see them again.

But most of all, like all of us who love the cinema, he sees where Hollywood is heading, and he doesn’t like it one bit. Asked what he thought of the way the industry was heading, Allen responded flatly “well, I think it’s terrible. To me, movies are valuable as an art form and as a wonderful means of popular entertainment. But I think movies have gone terribly wrong. It was much healthier when the studios made a hundred films a year instead of a couple, and the big blockbusters for the most part are big time wasters. I don’t see them. I can see what they are: eardrum-busting time wasters.

I think Hollywood has gone in a disastrous path. It’s terrible. The years of cinema that were great were the ’30s, ’40s, not so much the ’50s…but then the foreign films took over and it was a great age of cinema as American directors were influenced by them and that fueled the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. Then it started to turn.

Now it’s just a factory product. They can make a billion dollars on a film and spend hundreds of millions making it. They spend more money on the advertising budget of some of those films than all the profits of everything Bergman, Fellini and Bunuel made on all their films put together in their lifetimes. If you took everything that Bergman made in profit, everything Bunuel made and everything that Fellini made in their lifetimes and added it all together, you wouldn’t equal one weekend with the The Avengers and its $185 million to $200 million.

Hollywood is just commerce, and it’s a shame. There are all these wonderfully gifted actors out there that, as you said before, will be in a film of mine for virtually nothing, union minimum, for what you called validation. Really, it’s because they want to work on something that doesn’t insult their intelligence; they don’t want to have to get in to a suit and practice stunts for two months and then do stunts and then… they want to be in something that doesn’t demean their artistic impulses.”

Much more here in Deadline - read the entire interview – it’s essential.

Cannes 2015 – What’s Been Sold, and What’s Still Out There

May 14th, 2015

So what’s been sold at Cannes, and what’s left, as of May 14, 2015?

Well, by the time I post this, it will already be outdated, but as of this writing, Ron Howard’s authorized documentary on The Beatles is still up for grabs, but a lot of the top picks have already found a home. As Diane Panosian writes in Studio System News, “there’s a lot buzzing at this year’s Cannes Film Festival that’s running from May 13 through the 24. But the films with flashy premieres at the festival are just the tip of the iceberg, what with the market, Marché du Film, running concurrently and over 5,000 films being offered up to distributors.

Many films have already been scooped up by distributors for a domestic release. Lionsgate picked up the Colin Firth/Nicole Kidman starrer Genius as well as Sicario with Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt and the studio is teaming up with Roadside Attractions to distribute the Matthew McConaughey-starring The Sea of Trees. Weinstein will distribute the much talked about lesbian romance film, Carol starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara along with the Robert De Niro Boxing pic, Hands Of Stone. Woody Allen’s Irrational Man and the Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister will be released by Sony Pictures Classic. Fox Searchlight also made a deal for Paolo Sorrentino’s Cannes Competition film Youth [shot in English, with Michael Caine in the lead, always a good sign].

Not to mention Elvis & Nixon and Macbeth have been making waves at the fest, both of which were picked by SSN in our AFM most bankable list. Macbeth will also be distributed domestically by Weinstein. You’ll need to be fast on the trigger, but there are still a lot of titles up for grabs, so SSN is wading through the titles to pick the most bankable out of the lot for U.S. audiences. Since it is Cannes, these won’t be blockbusters, but they also won’t come with a blockbuster price tag. These are the types of indie and mid-budget films that will give investors a solid return on investment and if handled correctly could pick up awards in fall.”

The list of films still available includes A Tale of Love and Darkness, Bleed for This, I Kill Giants, Jackie (starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy), The Lobster, Nocturnal Animals, Maggie’s Plan, The Operators, HHHH and the untitled Ron Howard Beatles documentary. So things are off to a fast start, and there’s still a lot of dealing to be done, but all of this, at least for me, seems to obscure the original purpose of Cannes – to celebrate the very best in international cinema, and sell it at the same time – but now, with theatrical dead, and Netflix swooping in to make deals that cut out theatrical play in return for paying up to 130% of a film’s budget to lock it up for international streaming, many of these films, even if sold, will never really reach a wide audience.

This is the real problem, as I have said so many times before, with the digital era. While it seems that everything is more accessible than ever before, only the most commercial films get a theatrical run, and this attain some visibility, while the rest go straight to VOD and streaming – not even DVD anymore, which is becoming a niche platform. So for all of those at Cannes who are dragging themselves from one screening to another in exhaustion, I have only limited sympathy – at least they get a chance to see some of the most adventurous films being made, screened in a theater as they were meant to be seen, while the rest of us will have to be content with flatscreens and laptops.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot on offer here – and most of it will eventually find a home.

Hollywood Blocks Women Directors

May 12th, 2015

Women directors in Hollywood have never gotten a fair shake.

When Ida Lupino started her directing career in 1949, with her film Not Wanted, she was the first woman to direct a feature film in Hollywood since 1943, when Dorothy Arzner fell ill during shooting of First Comes Courage, and was replaced by Charles Vidor. Before that, of course, such women as Lois Weber, Dorothy Davenport Reid, and the cinema’s foremother, Alice Guy Blaché, were a significant force in the American film industry – at one time Weber was the highest paid director in Hollywood – but all were forced out in 1920 as Hollywood became an all male bastion.

And it hasn’t gotten any better since – in fact, it’s gotten worse. As Eliana Dockterman reported in Time Magazine on May 12, 2015, “Gender bias in movie making has reached a tipping point. The American Civil Liberties Union is targeting sexism in Hollywood, and it wants the government to step in and help.

Only 7% of the top 250 grossing films in 2014 were directed by women—two percentage points lower than in 1998, according to the annual Celluloid Ceiling report conducted by San Diego State University. The organization believes systematic gender bias is to blame.

‘Many of these women directors have been told that they “can’t be trusted with money” by studio executives,’ says Ariela Migdal, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU. ‘This isn’t just about stereotypes and implicit bias, it’s about blatant discrimination. We heard over and over again from female directors that they’ve been told, “This show is too hard for women” or “You can’t do this movie, it’s action”—this to women who have directed plenty of action.’

So on Tuesday, the ACLU sent letters to three federal organizations charged with ensuring equal employment opportunity. The letters included research and testimonies from 50 women directors, exemplifying bias and reporting sexist practices such as secret, studio-compiled ’short lists’ of potential directors who are almost exclusively male. These shortlists may explain why in television, for example, only 17% of directors were female last year.

The civil rights group hopes the messages will lead to a federal investigation and government intervention, which might include requiring short lists to be public and a database of women directors to be made available to producers who claim they ‘don’t know any female filmmakers’ . . .

The problem is not isolated to directors; behind the camera, only 17% of all directors, writers, producers, editors and cinematographers working on the top 250-grossing films are women. Women are also far less likely than men to graduate from critically-lauded independent features to bigger budget studio movies, according to a Sundance and Women in Film study that found that award-winning female directors rarely lead to the kind of studio opportunities a man would get.

Women like Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) and Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, The Bling Ring) are very much the exception to the rule.

And even female actors struggle for the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Leaked Sony emails revealed that stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams were being paid less than their male counterparts in films, despite having equal or more screen time. The two problems are, of course, related: when fewer women write and direct films, movies are less likely to tell women’s stories and consequently fewer robust female roles are available.

Even though 2013 research found that movies that passed the Bechdel Test—a simple analysis that measures whether two women speak to each other in the film about something other than a man—made more money at the box office, studio executives continue to assume that audiences don’t want to see films made by and about women.

Hollywood insiders generally think of women’s films as ‘niche,’ according to recent study from the University of Southern California’s Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative. And that view persists despite the massive box office success of female-centric films like Frozen, Gravity and The Hunger Games, which are consistently considered flukes.”

Adds Jessica Ogilvie in L.A. Weekly, “in 2013, according to researchers at USC, just 1.9 percent of the top-grossing Hollywood studio movies were directed by a woman, making Hollywood among the most, if not the most, heavily male professional pursuits in America.

The ACLU demand comes after years of pressure on studios by people like director Maria Gieise, and follows on the heels of an L.A. Weekly investigation last week, “How Hollywood Keeps Out Women,” that details deep gender biases among studio chiefs and top agents . . .”

As Ogilvie notes, “Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the filmmaker wife of California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, has issued a damning statement against the entertainment industry, claiming a blacklist is used against women [stating that] ‘I applaud the ACLU for looking into the hiring practices of women in Hollywood.

As a female filmmaker, I’ve witnessed firsthand discrimination in the entertainment industry, particularly against female directors, who are repeatedly told they’re not as qualified to direct as men and who are blacklisted for speaking out.

That was a major impetus for my first film, Miss Representation, which exposes the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence, particularly within the entertainment industry. With only 4.1% of the top-grossing films over the past decade being directed by women, it is high time we seriously advocate for and invest in women in Hollywood.’”

This is just the beginning of the fight- but the issue is real, and must be addressed.

The NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt

May 12th, 2015

Lester Holt should anchor the NBC Nightly News permanently.

He’s more than paid his dues, and he’s a complete professional, putting the news first, delivering it with authority and clarity. And as Jordan Charlton reports in The Wrap, Holt’s killing it in the ratings, beating out the ABC Nightly News with David Muir for the past two weeks. Notes Charlton, “Lester Holt has now won back-to-back weeks in total viewers [for the NBC Nightly News] over ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir after ABC had won for a month straight.

For the week of May 4, Holt attracted 7,569,000 viewers compared to WNT’s  7,468,000. CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley ranked third with 6,535,000 viewers. David Muir’s ABC broadcast won the ad-coveted 25-54 demo, 1,773,000 viewers vs. 1,732,000 viewers for NBC Nightly News.

Holt’s second victory in a row following a month-long losing streak comes at an important time for NBC as advertising upfronts were held Monday. Those advertisers care more about the 25-54 demo, which Muir has been victorious in eight of the last nine weeks. But NBC leading in total viewers while being within striking distance in the demo week-to-week is a stabilizing image the network will want advertisers to see.”

Exactly – Holt deserves the gig, and he’s delivering audiences.

Interview: Agnès Varda by Violet Lucca

May 12th, 2015

Here’s a fabulous interview with Agnès Varda by Violet Lucca published in Film Comment on May 11, 2015.

As Varda notes, in part, “each film has its history, its beauty or not beauty, and its meaning.  The meaning can change over the years for people who watch the film, because there is a lot of evolution in the sense of history, the sense of understanding.  But when you speak about 35 millimeter or DCP or video, it’s unimportant. The film is what it is, but what is different are the people who made the film.  I change.  I wouldn’t do the same film today about Cuba or about the planters or about women.

Each film has a date glued to it.  And what we try is to overcome the date and make a meaning that can be more than ’62 or ’61 or whatever.  But still, even Cleo from 5 to 7, which deals with a temporal history about being afraid of an illness, being afraid of dying, still has in the film itself a purpose— we include for example the radio broadcasts telling the news of the time. Or in Kung-fu Master!, you have the awareness of AIDS in ’87. I think that we try to escape the limits of history and the time, but still I like to have a point that gives a date to the film, and not make believe that it’s nowhere, no time.”

You can read the rest of this excellent piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

Freddie Francis, BSC, on The Innocents (1961)

May 10th, 2015

Freddie Francis, the Oscar winning cinematographer, did some of his best work on The Innocents.

Freddie Francis was one of the greatest cinematographers in the history of the cinema, in addition to directing a number of underrated Gothic thrillers in the 1960s and 70s, but he is best remembered for his fantastic work in monochrome, or black and white, films.

One of his favorite films was Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), adapted from Henry James’ classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw. I knew Freddie from 1984 up until his death in 2007, and watched him at work on the sets of many of his films, including his last as a DP, The Straight Story (1999), which was directed by David Lynch and shot in Iowa in a mere 23 days.

I wrote a book on Freddie’s work, aptly titled The Films of Freddie Francis in 1991, conducted a lecture /screening of his work at the British Film Institute with him shortly thereafter, and frankly, I miss him a lot – he was a good friend, and a good colleague. When I shot my feature film What Can I Do? in 1993, it was Freddie who put me in touch for much of the technical staff who worked on the film, and though we never had a chance to work together formally, we remained close friends throughout the years.

In any event, Freddie and I had a friendly argument over the years that above all other formats, he loved black and white CinemaScope the best. Freddie always denied it, saying that such things as aspect ratios were just part of the business arrangement of setting up the production of a film, and as this excerpt from his autobiography demonstrates, there was certainly some truth to that – The Innocents started out as a project in Academy ratio, but was bumped up to CinemaScope at the insistence of the 20th Century Fox front office.

Nevertheless, as the triptych of stills above illustrate, once he was told that he had to shoot The Innocents in ’scope, Francis and director Jack Clayton embraced the format with such stylish assurance that it seems that the film had always been meant to be shot that way.

In Francis’ later films, it always seems to me that in his ’scope work, especially with his tendency to highlight the outer edges of the frame on the left and right, and leave the middle as a more atmospheric buffer, Francis was pursuing a conscious strategy that prevented his work from ever effectively being subjected to “pan and scan” treatment, which shows only a portion of the film. One of the most effective Gothic thrillers of all time, The Innocents is well worth seeking out and viewing – it’s a remarkable film in every respect.

You have to see The Innocents in its original format, as this interview clearly demonstrates.

Andrew Wallenstein on The New Video Ecosystem

May 9th, 2015

Our viewing habits have changed dramatically, as Andrew Wallenstein notes in Variety.

As he writes, “watching TV used to be so simple, or at least it seems that way in retrospect. First there were just a handful of networks. Then broadcast TV gave way to cable. But even as the number of channels multiplied exponentially, it was all still easy to understand, not to mention incredibly profitable: The combination of advertising and affiliate fees delivered approximately $90 billion annually to a small group of content companies.

That was then, this is now: Advertising revenues and multichannel subscriptions are endangered by significant ratings declines across the cable TV landscape as audiences — particularly younger viewers — get bombarded by a dizzying array of cheaper programming choices delivered over the Internet. Some, like Netflix, charge viewers a monthly fee; others, like many of the ventures pitching advertisers at this week’s NewFronts presentations in New York, are as free as broadcast television.

Many of these ventures are backed by the biggest companies in the tech sector. Which isn’t to say the incumbent entertainment conglomerates are simply sitting on the sidelines while the challengers eat their lunch. To the contrary, Hollywood’s participation in the likes of Sling TV and HBO Now is something akin to baby Kal-El launching out of planet Krypton in Superman: A culture facing the threat of extinction is seeking to find life for itself elsewhere in the solar system.”

A fascinating article, with superb graphics and excellent detail – click here, or above to read it all.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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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/