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Posts Tagged ‘Film Criticism’

Streaming Directly from the Cloud to Your Brain

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

I have a new interview in Moving Image Archive News on my recent book, Streaming.

As I note in the interview, “I’ve watched film change and morph for more than half a century. As I grew up, everything was being shown in theaters in 35mm, and at colleges, universities and libraries in 16mm, and there was, of course, no such thing as home video, VHS or DVD. Films screened on television were really ’streaming’ – they were broadcast at a certain date and time, and you had to be present at that time to see them.

I remember vividly setting my alarm clock for 1 a.m. or later to see films on WCBS TV’s The Late Show, and then The Late, Late Show, and even The Late, Late, Late Show, which is how I saw most of the classics growing up. I would also haunt revival theaters in New York City, such as the Thalia and the New Yorker, to see the classics projected in their proper format.

Video, of course, has been around since the early 1950s, but I don’t think anyone, even professional archivists, ever thought it would completely replace film, but it has. 16mm is completely defunct as a production medium, except in the case of Super 16mm which is used sometimes in features (such as The Hurt Locker) to save costs, but then blown up to 35mm, or now, skipping that step entirely and moving straight to a DCP.

Film is finished. It’s simply a fact. 35mm and 16mm projection are now a completely rarity, and screenings on actual film are becoming ‘events,’ rather than the norm. This is simply a platform shift, and it comes with various problems, mainly archiving the digital image, which is much more unstable than film.

But with the image quality of RED cameras for production, and digital projection taking over, it’s an inescapable fact that shooting on film is now the moving image equivalent of stone lithography. So now, my own viewing habits have moved to DVD and Blu-Ray, and I have a ridiculously large collection of DVDs in my home library, some 10,000 or more.

I have to have them in this format, because I can’t count on the quality of streaming videos from Netflix, Amazon, or other online sources. Blu-Ray, in particular, yields a truly remarkable image. So that’s how I watch films now, and in any event, the revival houses, even in major cities, are all now pretty much a thing of the past.”

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

Death of the Moguls: An Interview with Wheeler Winston Dixon

Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Here’s a new interview with Daniel Lindvall in Film International on my book Death of the Moguls.

With his new book, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, Wheeler Winston Dixon has performed no mean feat in finding a new and illuminating perspective on what is probably the most written about phenomenon in film history, the Hollywood studio system. By placing the stories of the moguls, from Louis B. Mayer at MGM to the likes of Herbert J. Yates at Republic, one next to the other Dixon captures simultaneously the tremendous impact they had through sheer force of personality on the film culture of their era, but also how they ultimately were, one and all, products of their time, of a specific economic and cultural period. That is, Dixon’s book captures the dialectical interplay between individual and structure. In the end, not just the moguls, but their way of running an industry had to die. “[N]o one came along to take their place, because their kingdom itself had vanished,” as Dixon puts it, eventually to be replaced by today’s corporate media empires. The email interview that follows was completed in March 2013.

Daniel Lindvall: How did you come up with this perspective? What was it that suggested it to you?

Wheeler Winston Dixon: Most conventional histories of the studio era either focus on the “golden age of Hollywood” aspect, in which the producers become heroic figures bending ordinary mortals to their collective wills, or else they become dry statistical surveys with box office tabulations and production schedules. In this book, I set out to concentrate on the late 1960s as the era in which the reign of the great moguls came to an end, as a result of unionization, anti-monopoly decisions, and also the fact that in each case, during the 1930s to the late 1960s, the major studios were run by one or two key people who held unquestioned authority, and believed they were immortal, and irreplaceable.

Thus, it was during the collapse of the studio system that the inherent flaws, inequities, and dictatorial aspect of the Hollywood production machine became most apparent. At the same time, while these men – and they were all men – were monsters, not benevolent despots as some would have us believe, they also made some absolutely superb movies, by exploiting their employees as much as they possibly could. Thus, it seemed to me that to focus on the “end days” of the system could tell us much about the entire mechanism that created the studio system, revealed in full detail as it unravelled.

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

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Fifties Hysteria and Doomsday Preppers

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay on Doomsday Preppers in the journal Film International.

As she writes, “on leaving office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a very famous and oft-quoted speech condemning the rise of the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower specified that Americans ‘must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.’ Though he no doubt was referring to the escalation of government funding for armaments, the military, and weapons of mass destruction, he would be appalled by the manner in which individual Americans have begun selfishly destroying the environment as they individually prepare for war.

A brief history of Atom Age hysteria films of the Cold War makes evident the through-line to prepping as a form of overcompensation around the fear of emasculation of the nation, from films such as Alfred E. Green’s Invasion, U.S.A. (1952) to more recent television programs such as Doomsday Preppers. Invasion U.S.A. is a prime example of a fascinating, almost forgotten genre of post-war red scare films that traded on American fear and hysteria in the Cold War era. It typifies the post-war captivity narratives in which Americans are subject to wholesale Communist takeovers in what amounts to a repetitive psychologically driven compulsive mass hysteria.

While trading upon the crisis of masculinity, the film poster for Invasion U.S.A. promised the exploitational kicks Americans love to devour in their filmed nightmares: ‘See vast U.S. cities vanish before your very eyes.’ Indeed, in a morally objectionable use of stock footage, audiences of the film were barraged with actual documentary war images from World War II; actual air raids, on camera deaths of American soldiers and images of endless destruction and mayhem were disturbingly exploited as stand-ins to portray a massive Communist military invasion of the United States. Invasion U.S.A. is an outright plea for massive spending and expansion of the American military. Repeatedly, the United States is dishonestly depicted as militarily emasculated, ill equipped, and poorly prepared.

Like Red Nightmare (George Waggner, 1962), Invasion U.S.A. is revealed to be a hypnotic dream, or a nightmare that is incurred by the brandy-swirling Dan O’Herlihy, who hypnotizes a bar full of patrons into believing that America has been taken over by an unnamed Communist nation. Red Nightmare and Invasion, U.S.A. were designed to both exploit hysteria and add even more irrational fear to an already frightened nation experiencing a crisis of masculinity.

‘It will scare the pants off you,’ wrote Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper for the poster of Invasion, U.S.A. Jack Webb, an ultra rightwing bully, and star of the radio and television series Dragnet, really scares the pants off the audience as the narrator of Red Nightmare. This ‘educational’ film features Jack Webb presenting a vision of an alternative America, a dream scenario proudly sponsored by the United States Department of Defense, in which average American Jerry Donavan (Jack Kelly), who is not much interested in civil defense, much less Army Reserve Conferences, gets his just comeuppance in the form of a nightmare sent by macho Jack Webb.

‘Let’s give him a real red nightmare,’ threatens Webb, and indeed Jerry’s character awakens to a frightening captivity narrative – once again, the United States has been taken over by Communist forces. Jerry’s daughter Linda (Patricia Woodell), formerly sweet, feminine, and docile, announces she is going off to work on a collective. The nuclear family falls apart completely; Jerry’s wife and friends turn against him when Jerry is arrested for treason and he has no one to turn to.”

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

Spike Lee’s America by David Sterritt

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Here’s a must-read book on the American filmmaker Spike Lee.

As the website for the book notes, “Spike Lee has directed, written, produced, and acted in dozens of films that present an expansive, nuanced, proudly opinionated, and richly multifaceted portrait of American society. As the only African-American filmmaker ever to establish a world-class career, Lee has paid acute attention to the experiences of racial and ethnic minorities. But white men and women also play important roles in his movies, and his interest in class, race, and urban life hasn’t prevented his films from ranging over broad swaths of the American scene in stories as diverse as the audiences who view them. His defining trait is a willingness to raise hard questions about contemporary America without pretending to have easy answers; his pictures are designed to challenge and provoke us, not ease our minds or pacify our emotions. The opening words of his 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing present his core message in two emphatic syllables: ‘Wake up!’” Spike Lee’s America is a vibrant and provocative engagement not only with the work of a great filmmaker, but also with American society and politics.”

The book’s author, David Sterritt, is Chair of the National Society of Film Critics and Professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art. Here are some early reviews: “Writing perceptively about class, race and recent US history (as well as the movies) Sterritt steers refreshingly far from the academic waffle that can plague this kind of book, and builds a reasoned portrait of one of America’s punchiest commentators.” — Total Film

“My admiration for Spike Lee has always been substantial, but thanks to this book I now admire him even more. Although David Sterritt does not blink at the many dilemmas the films present, he has greatly enriched our appreciation as well as our understanding of Spike Lee’s cinema.” — Krin Gabbard, Stony Brook University

“Since his filmmaking debut in the mid-eighties, Spike Lee has become one of the most influential African American directors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Through clear and cogent prose, David Sterritt also illustrates what makes Lee one of the finest American filmmakers working today.” — Paula Massood, Brooklyn College

This is essential reading from a major American film critic; my highest recommendation.

Frame by Frame Video: Film Critics

Friday, January 4th, 2013

I have a new video out today, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on film critics.

As the description on the video’s site notes, there is more to reviewing movies than simply giving a film a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” The major distinction here is between daily critics, who write for newspapers on a deadline basis, and more thoughtful critics, who really “unpack” films to get at what really makes them tick. The problem here is that many people confuse opinion with analysis; they’re two very different things. Saying that you like or don’t like a film, a song, a play, a painting, a sculpture — whatever — really tells the reader nothing other than what your personal feeling about the work in question is.

More serious criticism takes a film apart, and considers not only the director, but also the screenwriter, the cinematographer, the editor, the actors, the set designer, as well as examining the culture that produced the film in the first place, and how a film positions itself for a specific audience. And that’s just the beginning of things one might consider. There are many truly influential critics I don’t mention here, simply for reasons of space, but the important thing to remember is that daily film criticism is mostly opinion, rapidly rendered for a mass audience; more detailed work in film criticism takes time, effort, and a great deal of knowledge, and is aimed at those who view film both an art form, as well as a manifestation of popular culture.

Here, then are some of people who shape — or have shaped in the past — film criticism.

New Perspectives on World Cinema Series — Anthem Press

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and I have a new series of books from Anthem Press, London.

The New Perspectives on World Cinema series publishes engagingly written, highly accessible, and extremely useful books for the educated reader and the student as well as the scholar.

Volumes in this series will fall under one of the following categories: monographs on neglected films and filmmakers; classic as well as contemporary film scripts; collections of the best previously published criticism (including substantial reviews and interviews) on single films or filmmakers; translations into English of the best classic and contemporary film theory; reference works on relatively neglected areas in film studies, such as production design (including sets, costumes, and make-up), music, editing, and cinematography; and reference works on the relationship between film and the other performing arts (including theater, dance, opera, etc.).

Many of our titles will be suitable for use as primary or supplementary course texts at undergraduate and graduate levels. The goal of the series is thus not only to address subject areas in which adequate classroom texts are lacking, but also to open up additional avenues for film research, theoretical speculation, and practical criticism. There are already several books in the series — you can see them by clicking on the image above — and we are now actively looking for new volumes for publication.

Series Editors

Wheeler Winston Dixon – University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster – University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA

Editorial Board

David Sterritt – Columbia University, USA

Valérie K. Orlando – University of Maryland, USA

Thomas Cripps – Morgan State University, USA

Robert Shail – University of Wales Lampeter, UK

Catherine Fowler – University of Otago, New Zealand

Andrew Horton – University of Oklahoma, USA

Frank P. Tomasulo – City College of New York, USA

Proposals: We welcome submissions of proposals for challenging and original works that meet the criteria of this series.

Please contact us at: proposal@wpcpress.com

Frame by Frame Video: Film Journals

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Here’s a new video I just finished, directed by Curt Bright, on film journals and magazines.

As I note in this brief video, there are really three types of film journals: fanzines, which are designed for the general public; trade journals, which keep abreast of developments within the industry; and more scholarly journals, which seriously examine film as an art form. This brief list of cinema journals isn’t by any means exhaustive; for example, Film International has recently emerged as one of the most important scholarly film journals available on the web, and also publishes a print edition; and Hollywood Wiretap has recently changed its name to Studio System News, offering inside industry information on a daily basis, also free; all you have to do is sign up for a subscription.

There’s also Cinema Journal, one of the most important of all scholarly film journals, published by The Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and numerous other journals that could also have been mentioned in this video.There are many, many other journals to choose from. What I really wanted to do here was not to be a completist — otherwise the video would be thirty minutes long – but rather to give the viewer some idea of the general outlines of what’s available in film journalism beyond the “daily reviews” and blogs that proliferate on the web and in print, which offer more detailed analysis that daily reviewers can possibly offer.

In any event, check out the video for yourself, and also the journals it mentions, as well as other publications in the field, available either online, or at your local library; they’ll give you a much better picture of film as a business, and an art form.

Click on the image above to see the video.

“Lost in a Roman Wilderness of Pain”: Film and Television After 9/11

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Here’s an article I published on film and television after 9/11 in Film International; above, Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears, which is discussed in the article (see link below).

As I argue in the essay, “In the years following 9/11, the arts have been transformed into a mirror of the fear, death, paranoia and uncertainty that now pervades American existence. The disaster of the Twin Towers has transformed the cultural landscape profoundly, inescapably, and forever; it’s one of those defining moments in which a culture is shaped anew by the social events that impact it. Fear, death, and paranoia are the new social currency. What is celebrated now is not art; it’s artifice. Our culture now reifies itself with unrelenting images of destruction, from such television series as Life After People (2008-2010), which predicted what might happen in a post-apocalyptic future; to films like Andrew Niccol’s In Time (2011), in which life expectancy is a commodity to be bought and sold, and the rich have all the cards, including potential immortality.

New York, arguably the artistic hub of the United States, has become a museum of itself, seeking to recreate the past by selling off the totemic paintings, sculptures and other art works of the pre 9/11 era for outrageous prices to the stratospherically rich. The emptiness of every aspect of post 9/11 art, except where it deals with themes of pain, destruction and violence, is everywhere apparent; pop music – once a potent force for social change – has largely been transformed into mindless escapism, even as the digitization of culture wipes out record stores, bookstores, and video stores, as text, music, and images become streamed liked utilities – available for a price, stored in a cloud, accessed only by a continual outlay of cash by the consumer.

The more original and authentic arts are being attacked vigorously everywhere by the ruling classes throughout the world, because they are dangerous; they offer a voice to the individual, in a society that now seeks to rule by forced consensus. This is part of the conglomerization of art; it’s become a corporate commodity, a trophy, rather than something that an individual creates. More than ever, it seems true that the best artist is a dead artist, because there’s a limited supply of his or her work, which can be sold as a commodity, and the best celebrity spokesperson is also a corpse, because the iconic images of Kerouac, Bogart, Hepburn and Taylor can be used to sell anything, without the slightest risk of possible future scandal, or an unflattering headline. All their future is in the past, and thus it can be recycled, packaged, and used to sell new goods to those too young to remember the world the way it was. Spectacle, as in films such as Zack Snyder’s call to war, 300 (2007), has replaced content, and action has replaced thought. Music cues tell you how to feel; when to feel sad, when to rejoice. Everything is laid out in a clear, schematic design. The films of the 21st century are designed, because of their ever-increasing cost, for mass audiences, leaving no one behind.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here.

The Auteur Theory in Film

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

I have a new video today in the Frame by Frame series on auteur theory in film, which is one of the basic building blocks in beginning to understand any serious work of cinema.

You can click here, or on the image above, to see the video.

Here’s a transcript:

Hi. I’m Wheeler Winston Dixon, James Ryan professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and this is Frame By Frame. I want to speak for a few moments about the “auteur theory, “ the basic building block of all contemporary film theorists. Amazingly, in America, which is kind of the capitol of film production in the world, or one of the major film capitols, films were not considered as being made by directors,  producers, or even studios.

They were a “Clark Gable film,” or a “Bette Davis film,” or a “Boris Karloff film,” or a “Marx Brothers film,” or a genre film… a western, a science fiction, a horror film, and on and on. It was only in the 1940s that a film theorist named André Bazin founded a journal called Cahiers du Cinéma, literally “the notebooks of cinema,” and a group of young critics — people like Jean Luc Godard, writing as Hans Lucas, Eric Rohmer, Francois Truffaut — began writing about films from the point of view that the director is the primary creator of the film, and that each director’s individual signature is distinct, but also that each director has certain key thematic preoccupations that one can find throughout their work.

So just briefly, in John Ford’s films “professionalism” is something which is foregrounded; in Howard Hawks’ films, you have the “Hawksian woman,” a pre-feminist construct, a woman who can hold her own with the men in the picture. Alfred Hitchcock’s films offer an incredibly bleak worldview. Frank Capra’s films have a theme of small town populism and optimism running through all of them. This kind of distinction of the director as the primary creator of a film was something that only crossed to the United States in 1963, when Andrew Sarris, an American film critic in New York, wrote a book called The American Cinema, which listed for the first time the major film makers and their major preoccupations.

Auteurism is now almost taken for granted. People consider films as an “Alfred Hitchcock film,” a “Howard Hawks film,” an “Ingmar Bergman film,” a “Bernardo Bertolucci film,” a “Quentin Tarantino film.” And in most cases, the director is the primary force behind the making of a film. Movies are a team effort. But without one vision to guide them, films collapse into committee projects, which may be commercially successful, but aren’t personal statements. And so the director’s input into a film is absolutely essential, and auteurism has become the dominant way of looking at films in theory and criticism.

Film Reviewing and Film Criticism

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for some key film criticism and theory books as selected by a group of panelists for the British film journal Sight and Sound.

They’re not the same thing. Film reviews are served up by daily critics, who no matter how knowledgeable they are, are writing for a day-by-day audience, who want a plot outline, a brief overview, and then some opinion on the film at hand, advising readers whether to see the film or not.

Film criticism and theory, in contrast, “unpacks” a film to see what makes it tick, and uses various theoretical approaches, such as feminist film theory, or auteurism, or structural film theory, or numerous other approaches — far too many to list here — to take the film apart in detail, and see how it works.

Film reviews are mainly an opinion pieces, but film criticism proceeds from a large base of historical, critical and theoretical information, and offers a detailed understanding of the director’s history, past projects, the history and practice of the genre in question (if it’s a genre film), of others working in the field, possible precedents for the film, shot structure, editing, choreography, lighting, acting styles, camera movement, framing, deep focus, costumes, and whatever else might apply; it deconstructs the film in detail.

So there’s a world of difference here, and it seems to me that sometimes people get the distinction blurred; anyone can have an opinion, and give you a thumbnail review of a film, or a book, or anything else; but it’s just their point of view.

In order to really understand a work of art (or even a commercial film, or perhaps I should say, especially a commercial film – they really need careful discussion), you need to really examine it, in an absolutely detailed fashion, and have the background in history, theory and criticism to really understand what’s going on. That’s the beginning of film criticism, and the beginning of a real understanding of the film (digital or otherwise) medium.

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 numerous books and more than 70 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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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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/