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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.

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s L’Immortelle Finally Released on DVD and Blu-ray

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Click here to read my review of the DVD of L’Immortelle released yesterday, a full 51 years after the fact.

As I note, “L’Immortelle was shot in 1962, and released in France on March 27, 1963, but despite the enormous success of Marienbad, L’Immortelle was deemed too difficult for American audiences, and resolutely uncommercial – which it is – and with a rough negative cost of $100,000, the producer and distributor of the film deemed a United States release more trouble than it was worth. And so it was not until six years later that L’Immortelle made the rounds of screening rooms in Manhattan; after that, I think it might have played at a few art houses for a week or so, but then it vanished from sight completely.

L’Immortelle itself has a curious genesis; it was made with blocked funds in Turkey that couldn’t be taken out of the country, and so shooting in Istanbul was a given, though Robbe-Grillet had ties to the city and knew it well. The producers even went so far as to say that they didn’t even really care if the film made money, just so long as they could get something out of Turkey. Thus, Robbe-Grillet and his wife, Catherine, who appears in the film as the enigmatic Catherine Sarayan, scouted locations and had the entire project ready to go, when a revolution interrupted their plans, and shooting had to be put off for two years before a new regime was installed, and some semblance of order restored. Then the film was shot quickly and efficiently, in richly saturated black and white.

The film’s narrative is so slight as to be nonexistent; the official press synopsis describes the film as ‘an erotic, dream-like fantasy in which a despondent man meets a beautiful, secretive woman who may, or may not, be involved in using kidnapped women as prostitutes.’ This is as good a synopsis as any might be, because the real psychic and visual terrain of the film is memory, repetition, the impossibility of knowing another, the unreliability of the senses, and a circularity of narrative that keeps bringing the viewer back to one location after another with the stubborn insistence of a spectral tour guide who seemingly insists that we visit a room, a mosque, a nightclub, an antique store, an apartment and numerous other locations just one more time, until they are indelibly imprinted on our memory.

The leading characters, Françoise Brion and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, known only as L and N respectively, are not so much characters as situations; people frozen in time and memory who walk through the film with an air of complete detachment from any sort of reality, as if they are the principals in their own fantasy of Istanbul, and the few supporting characters who surround them behave in exactly the same fashion. Scenes are routinely repeated two, three times or more, sometimes exactly the same, down to the slightest detail, and other times with minor variations, seemingly in slow motion, as if actors are sleepwalking through the world they inhabit. Often, characters appear within a scene without explanation, as if they had always been there, and perhaps always will be there; timeless, unchanging, fixed and motionless.

There is a timelessness about the film, and for good reason; as Robbe-Grillet has acknowledged on numerous occasions, Françoise Brion’s character is already dead when the film begins, although she assumes a phantom corporeality for the purposes of the film, and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, for all intents and purposes, is in love with someone who no longer exists, if she ever existed – in fact, we can’t be sure if any of the narrative ever occurred, or if everything we’re seeing is a fever dream, something conjured up out of loneliness, isolation, or the sheer existential longing of one man’s need to be loved.”

This is essential cinema; get the DVD or Blu-ray now, and prepare to be astonished.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Alice Guy’s La Vie du Christ (1906)

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new article in Film International on Alice Guy’s La Vie du Christ (1906).

As she notes, “Alice Guy is a filmmaker whose body of work is still a site of contestation for modern critics; after all these years, her name is nearly unknown. Yet her output was prodigious. Of the nearly four hundred films Guy directed between 1896 and 1920, Guy has two main periods of work as a director: for Leon Gaumont’s studios, where she began her career after breaking out of the secretarial pool in 1896 to become, within a short space of time, the principal director for the studio; and in the United States for her own company, Solax, which flourished for a few brief years after the turn of the century in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Yet much of her work is lost. For a long time, only a handful of Guy’s many films were thought to have survived, among them Les Cambrioleurs (1898), Surprise d’une maison au petit jour (Episode de la Guerre de 1870) (1898), Les Maçons (1905), Le Fils du garde-chasse (1906), Le Noël de monsieur le Curé (1906), and La Course à la saucisse (1907).

However, in 2009, Gaumont released a shockingly well-preserved DVD of more than sixty of Alice Guy’s films made between 1987 and 1913, including Baignade dans le torrent (1897), Chez le magnétiseur (1898), La bonne absinthe (1899), her remake of her 1896 hit La Fée aux choux, ou la naissance des enfants (1900), Faust and Mephistopheles (1903), The Consequences of Feminism (1906), On the Barricade (1907) and La Vie du Christ (1906), at 33 minutes one of the most ambitious films made up to that point in cinema history, long before D.W. Griffith even stepped behind the camera to direct his first one-reel film, The Adventures of Dollie (1908). But history has not treated Alice Guy kindly, or even fairly; even with the release of the 60 films on this disc, she is still marginalized from most conventional cinema histories, and new articles appear on an almost annual basis “discovering” her for the first time, even as her films go unscreened in film history classes.

Yet Alice Guy is in the forefront of cinema history by any measure, working in sync-sound, hand tinted color, and making films of relatively epic length when the medium was still in its infancy. Indeed, close readings of the films of Alice Guy place her work at the center of cinema history. For the most part, the films of Alice Guy have been overlooked by film historians who incorrectly assume that Guy’s films represent a footnote to film history, rather than being one of the first major bodies of work in narrative cinema. Indeed, as one of the first persons to direct a film with a narrative structure, and thus to direct actors to convey the essence of the narrative through gestures and actions, Alice Guy is one of the originators of filmic acting, both in theory and in practice. Indeed, she is the first real auteur of the cinema.”

Alice Guy is the foremother of the cinema; you can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Conjuring

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

I have a new essay on James Wan’s film The Conjuring in the latest issue of Film International.

As I note, “The Conjuring is a remarkably traditional film in both style and content; once again exorcism and possession are ramped up for the usual thrill ride, complete with objects flying around the house, children in peril, a possessed mother, ghosts from the past tormenting the living, with special effects that seem remarkably similar to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), the film that really kicked off the whole trend nearly half a century ago.  Indeed, the film itself is set in the early 1970s, and everything about it seems linked to the past; one might easily imagine that it was shot in the 1970s, as well. And, of course, it’s based on a true story!

Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters move into a crumbling isolated house in the middle of nowhere because it’s the best deal they can get; they don’t have much money, and the house is a real fixer-upper. Having gotten the property from the bank in a foreclosure proceeding for a song, they haven’t really inquired too closely into the house’s past – like, for example, the fact that it has a walled off cellar that apparently no one ever told them about, or that several murders and suicides have taken place on the grounds, but hey – a bargain is a bargain.”

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

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on “I Was Impaled”

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay on I Was Impaled and similarly warped “reality” TV shows in Film International.

As she writes, “television shows such as I Was Impaled (2012-) and 1000 Ways to Die (2008-) appropriate tropes from horror film and re-narrate them into digestible bite-size “safe” forms. I’d argue they have similar voyeuristic pleasures as the horror film, but they are almost entirely shorn of narrative and any sense of morality. In 1000 Ways to Die, ‘hilarious’ stories of death, loosely based on actual stories, are stripped of any humanism, and edited together as a series of graphic and repetitive mini-narratives of sadistic slaughter. It’s all for sick kicks; set to quirky music, sutured together by a wisecracking voice-over narrator. Here, the destruction of the body is almost a postmodern destruction of humanity, with a snuff-like lack of ethos; presented much in the same manner as the ‘funny’ clips from America’s Funniest Home Videos, which themselves often rely on the humor in watching, for example, children hurting themselves.

For anyone unfamiliar with I Was Impaled, I’ll offer here some brief plot summaries. I Was Impaled features people who accidentally end up with foreign objects impaled in their body. While examining how these mysterious items were often initially ignored and later ‘discovered,’ the program carefully reenacts the gruesome impalements and also features faux forensic material popular to any reality programming. Here, in CSI style, we are treated to gruesome reenactments of actors playing medics and surgeons who use the most groundbreaking techniques to extract objects from bodies as a flat voice over narrative explains what we are watching in excessively bloody detail. Using cutting-edge animation, firsthand testimony and sophisticated recreations, often including CGI, each 60-minute episode highlights the stories of three or four ‘impalements,’ from the time the injury occurs to the moment the person ‘realizes’ they are actually impaled by something, through the euphoric moment when the object is removed, and usually it includes an actor saying ‘I should not be alive,’ or some variant on that idea, in this way gesturing to the trope of the so-called ‘deservedness’ of death as it is featured on 1000 Ways to Die.

The stories include a woman who was impaled on a five-inch iron spike railing; a man whose esophagus was ripped open by a French fry; a gardener whom fell face first onto his pruning shears; a young man who was accidentally shot with a five-foot long fishing spear; a man who was impaled by a six-foot fence post; a woman who fell directly onto a hooked planter while gardening; a man who had a foreign object mysteriously lodged into his brain; a woman who was impaled through her neck by a Christmas tree; a boy who accidentally swallowed a barbed hook while fishing; a man who nearly died after being pumped full of enough air to blow up a thousand party balloons; a surfer who ended up with his fiberglass surfboard embedded in his skull; a motocross rider who crashed and ended up with a stick in his face; a 64-year-old woman who discovered a bug in her ear and a pencil in her brain; a carpenter who got a splinter in his eye; and an ex-Marine who was left with a pole penetrating his mouth after a car accident (TV Tango).

As you can tell from these plot descriptions, the definition of ‘impalement’ is stretched beyond credulity. The show promises the kinds of impalements one would expect from a horror film, but impalement from within by a French fry, or being pumped up with excess air seems hardly comparable with classic horror movie impalements. A classic horror film, usually a moral tale, often involves the impalement of a vampire by wooden stake, or a villain being impaled on an iron spike, specifically a black wrought iron spiked gate of the type found either in Victorian England, or the Transylvanian countryside. While I Was Impaled may borrow from the classic horror film (one that almost always features a clear morality tale), it leaves behind the moral binarisms of good vs. evil in the traditional horror film. Instead, the program foregrounds a series of impalements and dismemberments without the narrative conscience of a moral center.”

This is where television is today; essential reading. Click here to read the entire essay.

Just the Facts, Man: the Complicated Genesis of Television’s Dragnet

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

I have a new piece out in Film International on the genesis of the classic 1950s television series Dragnet.

Here’s the part of what I have to say on the subject: The 1950s version of Dragnet was in many ways an “outlier” in the contemporary televisual landscape; easily burlesqued and imitated, there was still nothing else like it in terms of hard-nosed stylization, grimly procedural story lines, and, for the period, grimy authenticity. Just a look at some of the plot lines demonstrates just how out of sync Dragnet was in a world populated by the likes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver, and other enormously popular, family-oriented series of the era. Dragnet, in contrast, concentrated almost entirely on the downside of 1950s American existence; the misfits, psychos, drifters, conmen, and ne’er do wells who collectively comprised the series’ world. Dragnet’s world was the netherworld of American society; and every episode made it clear that only the LAPD was holding back the tide of scum that threatened to engulf Los Angeles, and by extension, the entire nation.

In “The Big Death” (January 17, 1952), an unsuspecting husband hires Joe Friday as a hit man to kill his wife; in “The Big Mother” (January 31, 1952), a newborn infant is abducted from a hospital by an unstable young woman, who is unable to have children herself; in “The Big Speech” (February 28, 1952), Friday delivers a lecture warning on the evils of drug addiction at his former high school, even as he tracks down a teenage hoodlum, who, seeking his next fix, beats up and robs a friendly druggist; in “The Big Blast” (April 10, 1952), which Webb both wrote and directed, a young mother is killed in her bed by a shotgun blast, as her infant son slumbers next to her; in “The Big September Man” (May 8, 1952), an unbalanced sociopath feels divinely inspired to kill “a sinner,” and his former fiancée is his most recent victim; in the justly infamous “.22 Rifle for Christmas” (December 18, 1952, Dragnet’s first “Christmas episode”), co-written by [James] Moser and Webb, a young boy prematurely opens a Christmas gift – a .22 rifle – and accidentally kills one of his friends while playing with the rifle, subsequently hiding the young victim’s body in the brush on Christmas Eve.

In “The Big Lay Out” (April 16, 1953), a high school honor student becomes strung out on heroin; in “The Big Hands” (May 21, 1953), a young woman is found strangled to death in a cheap hotel room; in “The Big Nazi” (November 25, 1958), Friday uncovers a high school neo-Nazi ring; and on and on it goes, a parade of beatings, stabbings, murders, rapes, robberies, and wanton brutality that seems to have no end in sight, an unstoppable tidal wave of human greed, violence, and corruption. Compared to the 1960s version of the series, which kicked off with an unintentionally risible episode on the dangers of LSD – the “Blue Boy” episode, actually titled “The LSD Story,” first broadcast on January 12, 1967 – the 1950s version of Dragnet bristles with menace, energy, and simmering social disruption; no one even thinks of “Mirandizing” suspects, because, of course, no such law existed.

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

“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.

Subverting Capitalism and Blind Faith: Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs

Monday, August 20th, 2012

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a fascinating piece on Pascal Laugier’s controversial film Martyrs (2008) in the current issue of Film International. Here’s the opening paragraph:

“It’s not a likable movie. Even me, myself, I hate the film.” (Pascal Laugier)

Pascal Laugier’s radically experimental horror film Martyrs (2008) is a persuasive and explosive leveling of capitalism, which is not limited to materialism, the Catholic Church, the cynical genre of torture porn, and the widespread embrace of anti-humanist postmodern irony. Martyrs joins the work of Pasolini, Bava, Bataille and other confrontational artists, including Luis Buñuel. Specifically, Martyrs recalls the eye-slitting scene in Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. It directly assaults viewers with both detestable visuals and agonizing sounds of pain, in an almost unbearable filmic experience of terror that rouses the even the most cynical viewer from her/his postmodern stance of superiority. Martyrs makes the viewer responsible for the reinforcement of institutionalized capitalism, particularly religion, and more specifically religion’s obsessive embrace of death, its insistence on afterlife, its abuse of women, and its concomitant obsession with martyrdom. It is also a critique of the consumer of the horror film and an astounding film in and of itself.”

You can read the rest of this excellent essay by clicking here.

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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