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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.

Mozart in The Jungle

Monday, 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.

Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory

Saturday, August 13th, 2016

Here’s a fascinating, troubling book about the problems inherent in archiving digital work.

Ever since I switched to working in digital HD for making my experimental movies, the problem of long term storage of the films has become more and more important to me everyday. When I was working in 16mm, it was – and still is – a simple matter to archive the original materials in a “cold vault,” where they will last hundreds of years, provided that the temperature and humidity conditions are optimal.

No such “file it and forget it” method applies to digital archiving, as this fascinating book by Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito aptly demonstrates.

As the description for Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory asks, “how will our increasingly digital civilization persist beyond our lifetimes? Audio and videotapes demagnetize; CDs delaminate; Internet art links to websites that no longer exist; Amiga software doesn’t run on iMacs.

In Re-collection, Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito argue that the vulnerability of new media art illustrates a larger crisis for social memory. They describe a variable media approach to rescuing new media, distributed across producers and consumers who can choose appropriate strategies for each endangered work.

New media art poses novel preservation and conservation dilemmas. Given the ephemerality of their mediums, software art, installation art, and interactive games may be heading to obsolescence and oblivion.

Rinehart and Ippolito, both museum professionals, examine the preservation of new media art from both practical and theoretical perspectives, offering concrete examples that range from Nam June Paik to Danger Mouse.

They investigate three threats to twenty-first-century creativity: technology, because much new media art depends on rapidly changing software or hardware; institutions, which may rely on preservation methods developed for older mediums; and law, which complicates access with intellectual property constraints such as copyright and licensing.

Technology, institutions, and law, however, can be enlisted as allies rather than enemies of ephemeral artifacts and their preservation. The variable media approach that Rinehart and Ippolito propose asks to what extent works to be preserved might be medium-independent, translatable into new mediums when their original formats are obsolete.”

This is a question – perhaps the question – in archival studies today. What will ultimately be done, other than backing up three or four times for all media, and then trying constantly to keep abreast of changing platforms?

The “rule of three” pretty much sums up the current approach – back it up on your computer, an external hard drive, and somewhere in long term storage with something like Amazon Glacier, and then hope for the best. But that’s still a pretty thin comfort zone. This is an excellent study on this important question, and deserves the widest possible audience.

I’d like to thank video artist Bill Domonkos for recommending this; it’s on his mind, too.

Robert Reed’s Hugo Nominated Novella “Truth” Is Now A Movie

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

Robert Reed’s Hugo Nominated Novella “Truth” Is Now A New Movie – And It’s Hot!

As the film’s official website notes, “on a cold February night, a young man is found unconscious at the wheel of a crashed vehicle in Montana not far from the Canadian border and a lump of weapons-grade Uranium is recovered from the trunk. He is immediately thrown into a high-security prison and tortured relentlessly for months. But apart from a few vicious-sounding curses in an unknown language, he utters nothing.

Then one day out of the blue, he gives his interrogators a list of numbers and letters, which turn out to be astronomical coordinates of upcoming Supernova explosions. The very next day the first of those celestial events occurs exactly as predicted, sending shock-waves through the security establishment. It’s obvious; the man in custody is no ordinary terrorist. He is a time-traveller from the future.

Fifteen years later, Ramiro still sits in the same secret prison two kilometers under the ground, but much has changed in the world above. Based on the information he has provided over the years, the US has waged a relentless war on terror in an attempt to neutralize the remaining ninety-eight ‘temporal jihadists’ Ramiro claims arrived with him. Several countries in the Middle-East have been invaded, Pakistan has been wiped off the map and India is next on the list. But the terrorists, led by their enigmatic leader Abraham, remain at large.

Such are the state of affairs the day CIA agent Carmen Reese arrives at the prison. Her immediate task is to investigate the mysterious death of her predecessor – a talented interrogator, who had successfully secured Ramiro’s cooperation for years. Was it suicide as the evidence suggests? Or was it murder? Carmen knows that the answers to these questions are linked to bigger, more important questions: Is Ramiro who he claims to be? And what is his real agenda?

As the world slips further into chaos and destruction and the threat of nuclear holocaust looms large, Carmen engages in an intense psychological battle with Ramiro, who seems to have a window into her inner world and is ready to exploit her emotional vulnerabilities to achieve his goal.”

The film, directed by Gaurav Seth, is already burning up the European film festival circuit, winning the Critics Choice Award (Prêmio da Crítica) at the Fantasporto Festival earlier this year, and opens in Canada on April 15th – in a just a few days. It seems like a promising bet for release in selected cities in the United States, with a national rollout a distinct possibility.

As one critic writes, “Seth keeps the film tight, tense, and claustrophobic, while his adaptation of Reed’s novella gets very big picture, while maintaining the intimate vibe. He effectively hides some twists in plain sight, ultimately building to a dramatic but logically consistent conclusion. Altogether, it is an excellent example of indie science fiction,” while Mario Trono of the CBC adds that the film is best described as “Zero Dark Thirty meets The X Files.” It’s a great example of a modestly made film that absolutely clicks on every level – and you can see the trailer by clicking here, or on the image above.

Good to see some small scale, intelligent sci-fi for a change!

The Trip: Andy Warhol’s Plastic Fantastic Cross-Country Adventure

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016

Here’s a remarkable book by Deborah Davis that somehow didn’t get the attention it deserved.

Published in late 2015, Deborah Davis’ account of Warhol’s cross-country drive with some Factory regulars to an early gallery show of the artist’s work slipped past my radar, but it’s a fascinating and meticulously researched account of Warhol’s coast-to-coast odyssey, and sheds new light on his evolution as an artist, who started out at the extreme margins of “pop” and ultimately became the defining visual stylist of the second half of the 20th century.

As the website for the book notes, “in 1963, up-and-coming artist Andy Warhol took a road trip across America. What began as a madcap, drug-fueled romp became a journey that took Warhol on a kaleidoscopic adventure from New York City, across the vast American heartland, all the way to Hollywood and back.

With locations ranging from a Texas panhandle truck stop to a Beverly Hills mansion, from the beaches of Santa Monica to a Photomat booth in Albuquerque, The Trip captures Warhol’s interactions with Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Marcel Duchamp, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra. Along the way he also met rednecks, beach bums, underground filmmakers, artists, poets, socialites, and newly minted hippies, and they each left an indelible mark on his psyche.

In The Trip, Andy Warhol’s speeding Ford Falcon is our time machine, transporting us from the last vestiges of the sleepy Eisenhower epoch to the true beginning of the explosive, exciting ’60s. Through in-depth, original research, Deborah Davis sheds new light on one of the most enduring figures in the art world and captures a fascinating moment in 1960s America—with Warhol at its center.”

Really well worth reading – a penetrating snapshot of Warhol “on the road.”

New Book: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s Disruptive Feminisms

Monday, February 8th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s newest book has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s new book, Disruptive Feminisms: Raced, Gendered, and Classed Bodies in Film, published in January 2016 from Palgrave Macmillan, is a really groundbreaking book in every respect. As the publisher’s comments on the book note, “Amy Schumer and Betty White use subversive feminist wit to expose sexism and ageism in film and TV. This is but one example of ‘disruptive feminism’ discussed in this groundbreaking book. Disruptive Feminisms: Raced, Gendered, and Classed Bodies offers a revolutionary approach to feminism as a disruptive force.

By examining texts that do not necessarily announce themselves as ‘feminist,’ or ‘Marxist,’ Foster brings a unique critical perspective to a wide variety of films, from the classical Hollywood films of Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino, to the subversive global films of Carlos Reygadas, Claire Denis, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Buñuel, Paul Thomas Anderson, and many others. In highlighting these filmmaker’s abilities to openly challenge everything from class privilege and colonial racism, to sexism, ageism, homophobia and the pathologies of white privilege, Disruptive Feminisms fills a fresh and much-needed critical perspective, that which Foster dubs disruptive feminism’.”

As Foster herself writes of the book, “In my research, I’ve found that ‘disruptive feminism’ often lurks in unlikely and unexpected places – from the dry feminist humor of Amy Schumer, Betty White, Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, and Luis Buñuel, to the more serious and contemplative postcolonial films of Carlos Reygadas and Claire Denis. Filmmakers who are not so obviously read as ‘feminist’ or ‘marxist’ seem to find their way onto my radar. My scope is wide; I include work from classical Hollywood, early television, and global filmmakers. I  highlight the ways that film and media can disrupt, challenge, and potentially overturn ‘norms’ of race, gender, age, sexuality, and class. Indeed, I hope this book disrupts feminism itself, because it can always use some shaking up.”

Here are some recent reviews:

“I think the book is superior in many ways, just simply a jewel. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s peculiar and enchanting magic is to blend keen socio-critical attention with an unyielding poetic sensitivity to the world of hints, provocations, resonances, and allusions. Through the films examined here, and through Foster’s eyes, gender, class, and race fly beyond rhetoric and come alive.” – Murray Pomerance, Ryerson University, author of The Eyes Have It: Cinema and The Reality Effect

“This book passionately advocates a cinema that challenges injustice and oppression across the globe by disrupting ‘normative values’ and ‘received notions’ of race and class as well as gender. Not least of the book’s strengths is its illumination of culturally and aesthetically diverse works ranging from Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux (2012) and Claire Denis’ No Fear, No Die (1990) to Betty White’s television programs of the 1950s.” – Ira Jaffe, Professor Emeritus, University of New Mexico and author of Slow Movies: Countering the Cinema of Action.

“Written with a strong sense of personality, and even stronger and laudable political commitments, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s Disruptive Feminisms extends her ongoing endeavor to provide meaningful critiques of film and film culture.  This thoughtful book demonstrates how a number of films, from around the world and from different genres, disrupt the status quo through a feminist and postcolonial analysis.” – Daniel Herbert, author of Videoland: Movie Culture at the American Video Store

“An excellent volume – Foster establishes at the outset that she writes as a global cultural feminist. By shrewdly focusing on specific films (and TV shows and star personas) that ‘disrupt, challenge, and overturn the norms of race, gender, age, sexuality, and class,’ this volume provides a much-needed alternative to the approaches that dominate the field today, although Foster uses those methodologies judiciously in her treatment of cinema as a political art form. Clear, well written, and without jargon, Disruptive Feminisms could easily be a valuable textbook, not just a volume for film scholars. Brava!” – Frank P. Tomasulo, Visiting Professor of Film Studies, Pace University.

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

Listen to Piero Heliczer Read His Poems

Saturday, January 16th, 2016

Listen to Piero Heliczer read his poems; London, 1960, by clicking here, or on the image above.

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.

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.

William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come

Monday, December 21st, 2015

An absolutely essential book on one of the most influential cinema artists of all time.

James Curtis’s William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come is easily one of the best film books of 2015. It manages to pull off an amazing feat; it’s prodigiously researched, but it never succumbs to a recitation of mere facts; it includes an enormous amount of personal detail, but never gets lost in a forest of statistics.

It is above all a supreme synthesis of history and theory, treating all of Menzies’ work, whether as a director or a production designer (or often, as both simultaneously) with great care and respect, illustrated with a stunning array of color and black and white plates, including many rare behind the scenes shots that really put the reader into the center of the narrative.

Most of all, it is the careful, conscientious, but never pedantic style of the book that impresses. Curtis clearly knows Menzies’ work inside out, and yet he wears this knowledge easily, creating an accessible, reasoned, brilliantly written book, one of the most carefully detailed and critically measured volumes written on any historical figure, no matter what their profession.

Time and again, I was struck by the carefully reasoned tone of Curtis’s work, his sharp yet graceful prose style, and the remarkable way in which he managed to gather such an incredible amount of material in one volume, and make the whole thing flow so smoothly – it’s easily his finest book. The design of The Shape of Films to Come is another plus factor; the volume is overflowing with images, and the layout of the text and illustrations – something Menzies would appreciate – is impeccable.

Curtis’s book is thus a supreme achievement on every level, and for those who don’t know Menzies or his work, it opens up a world of wonder and amazement – often amazement at how much Menzies managed to accomplish on many of his assignments with very little in the way of a budget.

From Menzies’ production design on Gone With The Wind, to his science-fiction children’s nightmare Invaders from Mars, to the pioneering futuristic epic Things To Come, to his work on such projects as The Whip Hand, Address Unknown, The Maze, Around The World in 80 Days and numerous other films, Curtis meticulously details Menzies’ long career, a life filled with hard work and a good deal of tragedy, but one which ultimately left us with some of the most memorable images in cinema history.

In short, this is a must read for anyone with even the remotest interest in the cinema, and a singular accomplishment in every respect. The Shape of Films to Come gets my highest possible recommendation – this is literally a flawless book. And considering the massive amount of detail that went into it, that in itself is a stellar accomplishment. Once you pick this book up, I guarantee you won’t put it down.

This is a major work of scholarship, history and theory, and a genuine delight to read.

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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