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Posts Tagged ‘Criticism’

Agnès Varda – “From Here to There”

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

Agnès Varda walking down the street with Chris Marker, behind his signature “cat symbol.”

Agnès Varda has a relatively new documentary out – it was actually completed in 2011, and shot over several years before that – which in five roughly hour long parts examines the creative process inherent in her own work, and the work of her friends and colleagues, which is at once playful, experimental, deeply personal, and imbued with the joy of life and creating art for the sake of art.

Though, as she points out, now that he is older, everywhere she goes people give her medals and retrospective screenings, Varda is still very much alive as a filmmaker and video artist, and one is struck not only be her relaxed and assured embrace of video technology, but also her multifaceted persona as an artist: a still photographer, environmental creator, sculptor, filmmaker, painter – you name it.

Many of her friends are colleagues with whom she has been working since the 1950s, and now are extremely successful artists in a variety of mediums, but Varda seems not at all affected by her hard-won fame and the new – and richly deserved – level of respect her work is now experiencing. While contemporaries such as Jean-Luc Godard, wildly prolific in the 1960s, but merely a shadow of his former self now – as he himself put it in an interview, “I’m on my last legs” – seem to drift off into the past, Varda keeps looking forward to future, and finding endless possibilities and new directions in her work.

As Fernando F. Croce wrote in Film Comment in 2014, “early in the marvelously fluid, five-part cine-essay Agnès Varda: From Here to There, the eponymous veteran auteur briefly pauses to ponder the difference between cinema and photography. Legendary French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson is Varda’s subject in this mini-digression, yet her comments on stillness and movement as captured through a camera lens clearly apply to her own art, particularly in light of her eccentric and deeply personal recent documentaries.

Like The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008), this miniseries (shot for French television roughly over the course of one year) envisions a form of portraiture that is forever on the move, its brisk, airy images darting and rippling like the frank, fearless filmmaker’s memories and emotions.

That feeling of emotional mobility is something Varda has always shared with her late husband, the great director Jacques Demy, whose benevolent specter is never far. Visiting Brazil—in the first of the various global travels she documents in Here and There—Varda shares some of the home movies Demy shot in the country many years earlier. (‘Jacques was known for his tracking shots, but here his camera stood still,’ she muses over the grainy, flickering footage.)

While in Demy’s hometown of Nantes for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of his feature debut Lola, Varda captures the aged Anouk Aimée abstractedly repeating a coquettish gesture from the young heroine she once portrayed. That tinge of continuity is further enforced in a heartening moment when Demy’s poetic manifesto on why he films is recited by his son Mathieu over a montage of pictures depicting his cinema as well as his family life.

Agnes Varda From Here to There

Indeed, renewal and continuity are recurring themes. Each of the segments is prefaced with glimpses of Varda’s backyard, where wild foliage has sprouted on previously bare trees. It’s a spiritual metaphor that, like the key image of mirrors on a beach, would feel heavy-handed if it weren’t worn in such a fleet and open-hearted manner, its transparency an integral part of the film’s dizzying array of friends and events. Now in her mid-eighties, the director savors playfully childlike artifice.

In The Beaches of Agnès, sand is poured in a Parisian street as clerks in a mock-office lounge in bathing suits, and former child actors from Varda’s neorealist early effort La Pointe Courte (1955) enact one of their scenes as old men. From Here to There doesn’t have as many tableaux, but it retains that same impish, analog spirit as she makes her way across the continents, omnivorously searching for ‘fragments, moments, people.’” The series is now available on DVD, or for the moment on Amazon streaming; you should take the time to see it if you possibly can.

Varda’s work should be an inspiration to us all; this is simply essential viewing.

Aldous Huxley on Reality and Illusion

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

In his very last essay, Aldous Huxley was still on point.

As he wrote, “the world is an illusion, but it is an illusion which we must take seriously, because it is real as far as it goes, and in those aspects of the reality which we are capable of apprehending. Our business is to wake up.

We have to find ways in which to detect the whole of reality in the one illusory part which our self-centered consciousness permits us to see. We must not live thoughtlessly, taking our illusion for the complete reality, but at the same time we must not live too thoughtfully in the sense of trying to escape from the dream state.

We must continually be on our watch for ways in which we may enlarge our consciousness. We must not attempt to live outside the world, which is given us, but we must somehow learn how to transform it and transfigure it. Too much ‘wisdom’ is as bad as too little wisdom, and there must be no magic tricks.

We must learn to come to reality without the enchanter’s wand and his book of the words. One must find a way of being in this world while not being of it. A way of living in time without being completely swallowed up in time.” – Aldous Huxley

This was dictated on his deathbed, and published in 1964 in the now defunct Show Magazine under the title “Shakespeare and Religion.” As always, and despite the numerous problems that Huxley had in his later years, especially with his eyesight, he still had his intellectual vision fixed firmly on the horizon, and was as suspicious of spectacle as he had been when he wrote Brave New World in 1931.

“Our business is to wake up” – words to live by.

Underwhelmed by Oscar Nods?

Thursday, January 14th, 2016

Leslie Reed of UNL News & Information interviewed me on the upcoming Oscars.

As she writes, “University of Nebraska-Lincoln film studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon wants you to understand one key thing about the Oscar nominations unveiled Jan. 14: They don’t tell you much about movies today. Dixon, known internationally as an expert on modern film as well as its history, was among scholars and critics invited to submit a list of 2015’s ten best films to the web journal Senses of Cinema, which some maintain is the most influential web journal on film in existence. See Dixon’s choices here and the entire list of all critics’ picks here.

None of those picks were included in the list of Oscar nominees. ‘For me, this year the Oscars are increasingly irrelevant, as they are for many of my colleagues,’ he said. ‘These are a small set of films, picked by industry people to showcase the Hollywood film industry, and they really don’t give an accurate picture of what’s going on in the world of film, even nationally anymore.’

The Oscar nominees for best picture are The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Room and Spotlight.

Meanwhile, Dixon’s top 10 for Senses of Cinema were Clouds of Sils Maria, Uncle John, Apollo 18, Queen of Earth, Chi-Raq, 99 Homes, Being Elizabeth Bishop, Infinitely Polar BearThe Gift and Pasolini. (Caveat: Dixon now says he’d boot Apollo 18 from his list and add No Home Movie, Maps to the Stars and The Lesson.)

He’s not surprised if you have heard of few, if any, of those films. ‘Only the big blockbusters get ad dollars behind them, and thus national theater screens, while the smaller more adventurous films simply don’t get the exposure they once did,’ he said. ‘Where once everything had to open in a theater to make its cost back, now smaller-scale films can easily be shunted to DVD, VOD, or digital HD downloads with little risk of losing ad dollars.’

Studios want to put the most ad dollars behind the films that cost the most and have the most to lose, he said, while leaving the rest to find whatever audience they can. Even marginally risky films like Carol, Trumbo and Spotlight got only a token release.

Dixon is also among film critics who predict that the Motion Picture Academy will get blowback for its all-white slate in the acting categories. Straight Outta Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray, was nominated for its screenplay, but Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq was nowhere to be seen.

‘There are many, many excellent films out there, and performances, that deserve attention, not least of which is Samuel L. Jackson for either Chi-Raq or The Hateful Eight,’ Dixon said. “And why didn’t Spike Lee’s film get a nomination? Sad.’ Dixon discusses who he thinks will win the 2016 Oscars in his Frame by Frame blog.”

Thanks, Leslie – now we’ll have to see how this plays out.

New Article in Senses of Cinema 76 – “Being Elizabeth Bishop”

Saturday, September 19th, 2015

I have a new article on Barbara Hammer’s new feature film Welcome to This House in Senses of Cinema.

As I write, in part, “Barbara Hammer’s Welcome to This House: A Film on Elizabeth Bishop (2015) is that rarity among documentary films – rather than the usual succession of talking heads, shot in a utilitarian fashion, as befits its subject the film is a primarily poetic project, which inhabits the world of Bishop and her poetry, entranced by the beauty of life in all its forms.

As the film’s press materials note, ‘Welcome to This House is a feature documentary film on the homes and loves of poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979), about life in the shadows, and the anxiety of art making without full self-disclosure, filmed in Bishop’s ‘best loved homes’ in the US, Canada, and Brazil.’ It is also much more than that; it is an act of love and resurrection, in which Bishop emerges from the shadows as a fully rounded personage, freed from the constraints of society which so often failed to accept her for who she truly was.

In the film’s opening sequence, for example, photos of Bishop and the covers of her books give way to a view from the front porch of her home in Nova Scotia, with flowers and the image of a young Elizabeth intertwined in a tapestry of memory and abstract wonder. As the scene progresses, there are equally dreamlike images of her typewriter, and then a child’s hand writing ‘Elizabeth’ on a chalk slate, as the soundtrack hums and whirs with the sounds of an indolent, mesmeric summer. This gives way to reminiscences of how Bishop was left with her grandparents as a child, deprived of a mother and father, and how she grew up in world of her own creation as a result.

There are, of course, numerous archival materials interwoven throughout the film, but more than anything, Welcome to This House is a film about being Elizabeth Bishop, about finding one’s self as an artist, something that Barbara Hammer has being doing for her entire life, over a body of work that covers more than 80 films and four decades of continuous artistic production. In many ways, Welcome to This House is the sort of film that could only be made by a director after years of patient dedication; effortlessly mixing the past, the present, the imaginary and the real to evoke the inner life of Elizabeth Bishop, all the while demonstrating Hammer’s absolutely assured grasp of the moving image.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Humanities on The Edge – New 2015 / 2016 Series

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

Here’s a free lecture series at UNL that explores some really challenging topics.

As the site for the series notes, “Humanities on the Edge is a speaker series co-founded by Dr. Marco Abel and Dr. Roland Végsö, who now co-ordinate the series together with Dr. Jeannette Jones (Department of History and Institute for Ethnic Studies), Dr. Damien Pfister (Department of Communication Studies), and Jonathan Walz (Curator of American Art at the Sheldon). Founded in 2010, the series is now in its sixth year, and its mission remains the same: to promote cross-disciplinary conversation and theoretical research in the Humanities.”

For 2015- 2016, the central theme is Posthuman Futures, and as the co-founders state in their guiding manifesto, “the metaphor of our [series] title evokes the ambiguity of liminal spaces and transitional periods. It locates its subject, the “humanities,” in a precarious position between its revered past and its vague future possibilities. It suggests that we have reached a historical turning point, and the hour has arrived when we must assume full responsibility for the direction of our futures.

Our title, thus, speaks of a precarious balance that might be disturbed by the slightest movement of the air, by the smallest trembling of the ground, and even by the barely perceptible tremors of the human body. It names a moment of risk, when the urgency of action tightens our muscles and confounds our minds with the unbearable burden of a decision.

So what is this edge that the humanities appear to be teetering on? Few things would be more self-evident today than to assume that it is the edge of an abyss that threatens to swallow up everything that we have held so dear for so long. For quite some time now, we have been conditioned to take for granted the rhetoric of crisis that has invaded every publicly available discourse.

This is the edge that we live on today: the perpetual state of mobilization that has become the very medium of our existence. In fact, this perpetual crisis is more than mere rhetoric: it is the very means of the active reorganization of both human and non-human life through the reconfiguration of the institutions that give shape to our worlds.

But if there is more to our lives than the melancholy resignation to this apocalyptic diagnosis, there is still hope that this edge is also the edge of a new beginning. For what else could be the inverse of this perpetual crisis if not the ‘perpetual revolution’ of a field that must assume the responsibility of constantly reinventing itself.

Since the term ‘the humanities’ names a particular form of knowledge that the human being uses to understand itself, the very indeterminacy and openness of the object (the human being) must be clearly reflected in the discourses that try to describe it. This is then the edge that our title refers to: it is the link that simultaneously separates and joins together the dystopia of perpetual crisis and the utopia of perpetual invention.

Our objective with the speaker series is to bring to UNL the kind of cutting edge research in the humanities that promises to define the future of critical thought for some time to come. We plan to invite speakers from across the Humanities disciplines whose works have repeatedly forced us to rethink some of the most basic terms that we use to understand ourselves.”

Click here, or above, to see some of the top theorists in contemporary cultural studies – don’t miss it!

New Book – Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

I have a new book from Palgrave Pivot on the “sick” humor films of the 1960s.

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 HollywoodStreaming: 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.”

Here are some early comments by reviewers:

“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

“The Dixon dynamo’s done it again. In a swift and assured push, he opens doors to the sights, sounds—and smells—of the other world cinematic story. He peels back eyelids for us to see one built not only on the backs of the Griffiths, Hitchcocks, Bunuels, and Truffauts, but on the extraordinary creativity of those pushed into penumbric shadows; those cineastes like Max Ophüls, Juan Orol, Marcel Hanoun, and D. Ross Lederman who dared to bend minds and expectations at any cost. We have our world cinematic critic and he’s invited us to strap ourselves for a journey to the chaotic dark side of world cinematic history. As with Kubrick’s Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong, with Dixon you’re in for a hell of a ride!” – Frederick Luis Aldama, Arts & Humanities Distinguished University Professor and author of The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s new collection of essays, Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s, offers even more than its title promises.  To be sure, its opening essay presents a richly detailed and thoughtful meditation on the iconoclastic ‘sick’ humor of sixties films from Dr. Strangelove to Putney Swope.  But readers will also find much else of value, including pieces on the unsung Hollywood auteur D. Ross Lederman, the lost version of the 1971 cult road movie classic Vanishing Point, and the fatalistic noir films of Max Ophüls.  All are written with Dixon’s customary verve, wit, and attention to historical detail, making this book a must for any serious student of cinema.” – Ian Olney, author of Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture

“This book glitters with a treasure of informative, witty, and acute insights into films and filmmakers too long neglected in their unconventional but deeply provocative importance.  No one writes about film with more infectious vivacity than Wheeler Winston Dixon, especially in these pages.” – Murray Pomerance, author of The Eyes Have It: Cinema and the Reality Effect

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

Why Do You Watch Ads on YouTube?

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Really, why do you watch those damned ads on YouTube?

Erika Morphy of E-Commerce times asked me the same question, and as I told her, “YouTube encourages the viewer, more than other sites, to constantly keep clicking from one image source to the next, and with many of the ads starting automatically at the top of the video — though some have a five second ‘opt out’ feature — the temptation to click on the video to see what it might offer is almost overwhelming. Viewers essentially see ads on YouTube as another video, rather than being a commercial — just another video to click on and view. In a world which exists entirely through clicks, the viewer just keeps on hitting the next button, and then the next, until the entire site becomes a seamless blend of content and commercial advertising.”

You can read the whole story here; YouTube really is now all advertising – the death of a platform.

Some Final Thoughts on Reviewing Godzilla (2014)

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

This image of the Hollywood sign in collapse seems sadly appropriate for this post.

My review of the new Godzilla film seems to have sparked some real response, and in the comments section, I added these thoughts, which I think should be repeated here. In response to a number of people agreeing with my assessment of the film, and some people disagreeing, I added these final comments on both the film, and on reviewing films that I’m not fond of – something I don’t enjoy doing.

“I took no particular pleasure in doling out a bad review of the film — and I really went in expecting a genuine return to the roots of Godzilla, so to speak. But we have to keep these things in perspective. On one level, the whole thing is ridiculous – I mean, who really cares if a Godzilla reboot works? On the other, the original film was such a serious and potent metaphor for the nuclear decimation of Japan in 1945 that to see the whole concept turn into just another monster movie is a real betrayal of the 1954 original.

Pop thought it may be, the first Gojira had depth, which this film lacks; then again, I wish Edwards would go back to smaller, more thoughtful projects, but now that Hollywood has him in its grasp, there’s little likelihood of that. The 2014 Godzilla reminded me most strongly of Ataque de Pánico! (Panic Attack!; 2009), a short film made by another spfx wizard, Fede Alvarez on a dimestore budget, which also led to another Hollywood deal.

So it’s like this; make one good film with no money, then Hollywood snaps you up, and you make one bad film after another which is totally compromised by studio/exec interference, but they’re still hits because the studios have sunk so much money into them that they can’t afford to let them die, so they promote the hell out of them, and thus they become ’successes,’ and so you do another.

So I’m waiting for Manoel de Oliveira’s next film, which will have no money, lots of ideas, and will no doubt challenge and engage me more than this — but circling around all of this for me is my conviction that the 1954 Gojira and Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica (2011) are roughly approximate in seriousness of intent, and that a stronger case needs to be made for Ishirō Honda in the first film. The genre really doesn’t matter here; it’s seriousness of intent.” As Honda himself famously noted, “monsters are born too tall, too strong, too heavy—that is their tragedy,” and that’s the tragedy of this film, too.

And that’s more than enough on that topic.

Herbert Marcuse on The Information Society

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

I’ve been reading Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 classic One-Dimensional Man again; more relevant today than ever.

“In the most advanced areas of this civilization, the social controls have been introjected to the point where even individual protest is affected at its roots. The intellectual and emotional refusal ‘to go along’ appears neurotic and impotent. This is the socio-psychological aspect of the political event that marks the contemporary period: the passing of the historical forces which, at the preceding stage of industrial society, seemed to represent the possibility of new forms of existence. But the term ‘introjection’ perhaps no longer describes the way in which the individual by himself reproduces and perpetuates the external controls exercised by his society. Introjection suggests a variety of relatively spontaneous processes by which a Self (Ego) transposes the ‘outer’ into the ‘inner.’ Thus introjection implies the existence of an inner dimension distinguished from and even antagonistic to the external exigencies—an individual consciousness and an individual unconscious apart from public opinion and behavior.

The idea of ‘inner freedom’ here has its reality: it designates the private space in which man may become and remain ‘himself.’ Today this private space has been invaded and whittled down by technological reality. Mass production and mass distribution claim the entire individual, and industrial psychology has long since ceased to be confined to the factory. The manifold processes of introjection seem to be ossified in almost mechanical reactions. The result is, not adjustment but mimesis: an immediate identification of the individual with his society and, through it, with the society as a whole. This immediate, automatic identification (which may have been characteristic of primitive forms of association) reappears in high industrial civilization; its new ‘immediacy,’ however, is the product of a sophisticated, scientific management and organization.

In this process, the ‘inner’ dimension of the mind in which opposition to the status quo can take root is whittled down. The loss of this dimension, in which the power of negative thinking—the critical power of Reason—is at home, is the ideological counterpart to the very material process in which advanced industrial society silences and reconciles the opposition. The impact of progress turns Reason into submission to the facts of life, and to the dynamic capability of producing more and bigger facts of the same sort of life. The efficiency of the system blunts the individuals’ recognition that it contains no facts which do not communicate the repressive power of the whole. If the individuals find themselves in the things which shape their life, they do so, not by giving, but by accepting the law of things—not the law of physics but the law of their society.”

You can read the entire text of this absolutely essential book by clicking here.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at

Robert Heide on the Death of A Great Newspaper – The Village Voice

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Click here to read Bob’s full story in WestView News on this deeply troubling event.

The Village Voice used to be the arts newspaper in New York. It had the best film criticism – Andrew Sarris, Jonas Mekas, Jim Hoberman, Amy Taubin and many others all wrote for The Voice. It had the best critics in dance, theater, literature, and the liveliest coverage of the New York City scene in general. It was, indeed, essential reading. You couldn’t really say you were “up” on the arts in the city without it.

Then, The Voice went “free,” when it used to be sold on newsstands, and could thus have some independence from advertisers, which was the beginning of the end, and then it was sold to a national conglomerate that runs supposedly “alternative” newspapers, and then management started firing people, thinking they could just plug in this or that person and the quality would be the same, but it isn’t.

This leads to cultural degradation; as Ian McEwan, the distinguished British author of such novels as Atonement and Amsterdam, said of criticism from people who clearly have no idea what they’re talking about: “Reviewing takes expertise, wisdom and judgment. I am not much fond of the notion that anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s.” This is now in short supply at The Voice, which has gone from being an essential part of city life to a throwaway piece of trash that isn’t fit for wrapping fish.

But the management won’t care; as long as they can sell ad space, and hire a few freelancers to write some meager editorial content, they’ll be content. They don’t want care about running a newspaper; they just want a vehicle for their advertisers. The demise of a great newspaper is always a sad event; in the case of The Voice, there is nothing that even come close to replacing it for those who read it, and for those whose wit and intelligence graced its pages for so many years.

This is the end of The Village Voice, and I am sorry to see it go; its coverage is irreplaceable.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by 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 for more details.

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