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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.

Book: The New American Crime Film by Matthew Sorrento

Monday, May 5th, 2014

Here’s a real “sleeper” of a book; Matthew Sorrento’s The New American Crime Film.

I missed this book when it came out in 2012, but boy — am I glad I found it now. When I first glanced at this volume, I thought that it was a collection of essays edited by Sorrento written by a number of different writers, simply because the range of films covered was so wide. But no – Sorrento is the sole author of this work, and it’s one of the most comprehensive and intelligent books on the subject I’ve ever come across. I met Sorrento, who teaches Film Studies at Rutgers Camden for the first time at the screening of my films at The Microscope Gallery a few days ago, although I have always admired his writing for Film Internationalsee some of his work for that journal by clicking here - and he was kind enough to give me a copy. It was a revelation; this is an entirely new way of looking at these films, and at the history and evolution of crime films in general, especially as they morph and adapt the demands of new audiences.

In truth, I was knocked out – this is a superb course text, and outlines each film in detail. Sorrento has a sharp and accessible style, and a solid grounding in the genre, and it shows in every sentence of every essay; it simply jumps off the page as lively, informed, and important critical writing. As the publicity material for the volume notes, “the most pervasive genre in contemporary cinema, the American crime film has recently enjoyed a new surge of popularity and proliferation. Though these innovative films now tackle topical issues, they continue to reference the classic narratives and archetypes established in the great crime pictures of past decades. The titles explored in this critical survey span many themes that have fused with other genres to create fascinating filmic hybrids. Focusing on character and plot construction, the author highlights the gangster and film noir traditions that still run strongly through recent American cinema.”

But this gives only the merest suggestion of what this text accomplishes, as it deals with such directors as David Lynch, Gus Van Sant, David Mamet, Werner Herzog, Sam Raimi, David Cronenberg and the Coen Brothers and Stuart Gordon, who also provides a foreword to the volume, and whose despairing and overlooked classic Edmond, with a standout performance by William Macy, is examined here in detail. Other films covered include Spike Lee’s Inside Man, Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Paranoid Park, David Fincher’s Se7en, the brutal films of Andrew Jarecki, the nightmarish visions of David Lynch, the late films of Clint Eastwood, and how they developed and deepened the characters he created in his early work with Don Siegel, Woody Allen (an interesting and rewarding choice for this volume), David Mamet,  the much underrated films Public Enemies and American Gangster, nothing less than a mini career survey of the Coen Brothers from their first film Blood Simple to No Country for Old Men, the hallucinatory work of David Cronenberg in such films as Eastern Promises, Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan – ambitious enough for you?

What distinguishes this volume above all is the effortless erudition on display here; the skill with which Sorrento brings you into the the inner world of the film, and refuses to settle for summary analysis; the verse and style with which he attacks his work, and brings these films to life for the reader. Though obviously an aficionado of the genre – and of genre films in general – Sorrento remains rigorously critical in his writing, pointing up elements of some films that are problematic, while at the same time remaining deeply sympathetic to the aims of these individualistic filmmakers. Personally, while reading the volume, I could easily see a class centered around the text, that would embrace a wide variety of films – recent work, not just the classics – and offbeat titles, such as Gordon’s film, that certainly deserve more attention.

Sorrento is now working on a new book on “extreme cinema” in a variety of genres; we had a detailed and fascinating discussion about the project, and I hope it comes to fruition. There’s no question that in the early part of the 21st century, films have become more graphic, more daring, and more explicit than every before, putting the hearts and minds of the audience on trial – a responsibility that must not be taken lightly. Other have done volumes on “extreme” horror films, for example, but Sorrento’s new book will argue that this tendency towards “testing” the audience has now spread across nearly every genre in the cinema, including comedy. In the meantime, Sorrento’s The New American Crime Film stands as a singular and original text in a wilderness of re-treads, and in all sincerity, got me thinking about these films in an entirely new light – there’s a course there, for sure.

Matthew Sorrento – a sharp and engaging writer and critic; keep an eye out for his new work.

New Frame by Frame Video: War Movies

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

I have a new Frame by Frame video, directed and edited by Curt Bright, out today.

As historian and critic Tim Dirks notes on his excellent website, “war and Anti-War Films often acknowledge the horror and heartbreak of war, letting the actual combat fighting or conflict (against nations or humankind) provide the primary plot or background for the action of the film. Typical elements in the action-oriented war plots include POW camp experiences and escapes, submarine warfare, espionage, personal heroism, ‘war is hell’ brutalities, air dogfights, tough trench/infantry experiences, or male-bonding buddy adventures during wartime. Themes explored in war films include combat, survivor and escape stories, tales of gallant sacrifice and struggle, studies of the futility and inhumanity of battle, the effects of war on society, and intelligent and profound explorations of the moral and human issues. Some war films do balance the soul-searching, tragic consequences and inner turmoil of combatants or characters with action-packed, dramatic spectacles, enthusiastically illustrating the excitement and turmoil of warfare. And some ‘war’ films concentrate on the homefront rather than on the conflict at the military war-front. But many of them provide decisive criticism of senseless warfare.”

You can check out the video by clicking here, or on the image above.

No Name on The Bullet

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

Here’s to director Jack Arnold, who deserves a second look.

I was watching Jack Arnold’s Tarantula last night on TCM, and was struck once again by Arnold’s economy in his shot structure, the simplicity and style with which he sets up his shots, the smooth and precise editing patterns, and the way in which he takes his material seriously, no matter how outlandish the basic premise. With such films as The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Space Children, and Creature From The Black Lagoon to his credit, it’s easy to forget that Arnold also directed one of the most interesting Westerns of the 1950s, No Name on the Bullet, starring World War II veteran Audie Murphy as hired killer John Gant who arrives in a small town, intent on killing someone for pay — but whom? Everyone in the town seems to have some secret in their past, some enemy who wants them out of the way, but Gant refuses to tip his hand, resulting in a complete meltdown of the fabric as the community, since everyone thinks Gant is after them alone. Arnold is a really underrated American director, and his work deserves a great deal more scrutiny; here, then, is just a tip of the hat to the man who defined 1950s science fiction, but was also capable of a great deal more, if only he hadn’t become so identified with one genre alone.

Jack Arnold, an American original.

Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s – Part 1

Monday, August 20th, 2012

I have a new essay in the journal Film International, entitled Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s.

It’s a long piece, so the journal is running it in four parts, one each Monday starting today, Monday August 20, 2012. You can watch this space for further installments in the series; for the moment, here’s the beginning of the essay for your delectation;

“There’s a story about an adolescent boy who was taken to a psychiatrist. The doctor drew a rectangle on a sheet of paper and showed it to the boy. ‘What does it make you think of?’ he asked. The boy looked at it and said, ‘Sex.’ The doctor got the same response when he drew a circle on the paper. When he had drawn a triangle and an octagon and an ellipse with the same results, he said, ‘Son, you need help.’ The boy was amazed. ‘But, doc,’ he protested, ‘you’re the one that’s drawing the dirty pictures!’” (Zern 1958: n.p.)

In the 1960s, themes which had previously been dealt with only in the most serious fashion were suddenly subject to burlesque, or parody, as filmmakers and audiences sought to move beyond the strained seriousness that characterized many of the most respected problem films of the 1960s. In such films as Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and A Bucket of Blood (1959), Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Theodore J. Flicker’s The President’s Analyst (1967), Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), William Castle’s The Old Dark House (1963), George Axelrod’s Lord Love A Duck (1966), Mel BrooksThe Producers (1968), Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965), Roy Boulting’s I’m All Right, Jack (1959), Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled (1967), Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget What’s ’is Name (1967), Karel Reisz’s Morgan! A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope (1969), to say nothing of Richard Lester’s The Knack… and How to Get It (1965), as well as Kevin Billington’s acidic political comedy The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970), viewers embraced a new vision of the world unfettered by the constraints of prior censorship, and wedded to a sense of the absurdity of life, in which all previous values were suddenly called into question, and found either morally or socially bankrupt. These films, which treated such subjects as war, sex, death, the workplace, national politics and the family with studied irreverence, found both a willing audience, and a place in the emerging national consciousness of the post JFK assassination era.”

You can read the rest of part one by clicking here; see you next week for Part Two, and so on.

Frame by Frame Video: Science Fiction Films

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

Here’s the latest video in my Frame by Frame series, edited and directed by Curt Bright. This is the subtitled version; here’s a transcript of my text:

“Hi. I’m Wheeler Winston Dixon, James Ryan professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and this is Frame By Frame. Science fiction films first came about in the beginning of cinema with Georges Méliès’ Trip to the Moon, but they’ve come in sporadic waves of interest.

I’m thinking, for example, of Things to Come, the fantastic British film, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927. But a vogue for science fiction didn’t really hit till the 1950s in America, 
with things like When Worlds Collide, The Thing, which was one of the first great science fiction films, 
The Day the Earth Stood Still, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, when science fiction reflected a kind of Cold War paranoia.

The other thing about science fiction is that it’s tied curiously to the Western. As the westerns sort of became moribund, and now people don’t make too many westerns these days, science fiction became ‘the final frontier.’ As manifest destiny was more or less explored, space became the new frontier that had to be explored. And this, of course, led to the success of the Star Trek and Star Wars series, and of course, the dystopian science fiction films like Alien.

Now, that we’re here in the 21st century, science fiction has become an absolute generic staple. Science fiction films are more popular than ever. I think they offer a sense of escape; they offer a sense of wonder, they offer a sense of exploring something beyond what we know. The world has become very small now. We’re in touch with everyone around the world, whether we like to or not. Science fiction offers us a sense that there’s frontier out there that we don’t know.

There’s civilizations out there that we don’t know, and science fiction offers us a way to escape, but also it’s a commentary on the smallness of our world right now, and also it projects into the future the possibilities of what can happen, in terms of both good, or in terms of bad… as in Blade Runner, in which the future does not work. So science fiction projects both our fear, and our hopes, on the cinema screen.”

You can view the video by clicking here, or on the image above.

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.

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

  • War Movies
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon at one of the earliestand most enduring film genres, the war movie. […]
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    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon highlights the most prolific Hollywood film composers. […]

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/