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Forthcoming Book – Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s

Friday, May 15th, 2015

I have a new book from Palgrave Pivot this July – pre-order it here now!

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 Hollywood, Streaming: 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.”

“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

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

Roland Emmerich Tackles the Stonewall Riots

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

Director Roland Emmerich has created a new film on the historic Stonewall Riots.

Too few people today remember the Stonewall Riots, which started in a gay bar in Greenwich Village in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn. Police harassment of lesbians and gays was routine during the 1960s, even in Manhattan, but on this particular occasion, the patrons of the Stonewall decided to fight back for their rights, serving as a flashpoint for the Gay and Lesbian liberation movement. Roland Emmerich has directed a stack of forgettable disaster and science fiction action movies, most of which made a fortune at the box office – films like Stargate (1994), Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (the 1998 version), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009), and most recently White House Down (2013) – but with Stonewall Emmerich turns his attention, with a much smaller budget of just $20 million, to a project which he has a deep connection to as a gay man, and I only hope he does the subject justice.

As Emmerich told Jeff Labrecque during the shooting of the film in the June 4, 2014 issue of Entertainment Weekly, “I was always naturally interested in the subject matter. Then, maybe two or three years ago, a couple of friends and I were kind of talking about marriage equality, and one of them said to me, ‘You know, Roland, you should make a gay movie.’ And I’m saying, ‘Well, nobody wants to see a gay movie from me.’ And then I kind of said, ‘Well, if it’s an important subject matter, then maybe they will.’ At the same time, I was involved with the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, and they told me that 40 percent of all homeless youth are gay, which is a disproportionate amount. That was like the bridge to today. It’s still going on. [Gay] kids get thrown out of their homes and become homeless, and [my movie] is like a story of one of these kids who gets involved in the whole Stonewall riots, because the riots were actually kind of done by the kids . . .”

The film was shot in Montreal, partly for tax reasons, but also because, as Emmerich noted, “nothing in New York looks like the ’60s anymore, so we actually ended up with quite a big undertaking. We actually built part of Christopher Street and of the side of the Stonewall, just to be correct and how it really looked. Secondly, we do a lot of blue-screen. The movie ends with the first gay march, the gay liberation march in 1970, and that’s not possible anymore. So we do the whole scene with special effects, like blue-screen. We shot [that] in modern New York and turn it into 1969,  Well, it has a kind of quiet main-street approach, you know. I think it’s a very good story, a very good script. It’s more into the indie world, but I’m hoping it can break out like Brokeback Mountain. We’ll see. That’s the cool thing about it. I don’t have to worry as much about how many people see it or not. There’s not so much pressure when you make a movie like this. I think the movie will make its money back through presales.”

This is a story that needs to be told, and as I said, I only hope that Emmerich does a good job with it; working with actors Jeremy Irvine,  Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ron Perlman, it would seem that he has a chance. Emmerich really is much more at home with big budget films, and as he told Labrecque, “It’s really cool to go from small project to big project. I’m going to do this in the future a lot. There’s nothing worse than sitting around for two or three years, and sometimes that naturally happens between these big movies, because they’re very expensive and very hard. You’ve got to get a green light. And then you just fill up [your time] with stuff that you want to make, and that’s cool.”

Distribution plans in the US seem to be on hold, or at least proceeding very quietly; though it’s already been pre-sold in Germany. I wonder what kind of US distribution it will get – probably “selected cities,” and then art houses, and VOD, which would be a shame if the movie lives up to its potential. Clearly, for the US market, this would seem like an “indie,” and Emmerich’s usual audience probably won’t give the film a chance. But I personally hope that it’s successful, and that Emmerich can successfully make a humanly scaled production – even if he thinks of it as a “small project” – because this is a part of American cultural history that people need to know more about.

Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall is – at this writing – scheduled for a 2015 US release date.

“I have seized the light – I have arrested its flight!” – Louis Daguerre

Friday, January 2nd, 2015

One of the earliest surviving photographs by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, taken in 1838.

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre had been working on a photographic process since the 1820s, but it took him more than a decade to perfect what would become the basis for all modern photography, until the advent of the digital era. As noted in Wikipedia, the photograph above, “Boulevard du Temple, taken by Daguerre in 1838 in Paris, includes the earliest known candid photograph of a person. The image shows a street, but because of the over ten-minute exposure time the moving traffic does not appear. At the lower left, however, a man apparently having his boots polished, and the bootblack polishing them, were motionless enough for their images to be captured.”

This image was taken before Daguerre had publicly demonstrated his new invention, which he guarded carefully so that his process would not be revealed to the the world. Perhaps not surprisingly, most investors thought the entire idea of a realistic image taken from life by mechanical means was impossible, and Daguerre wanted to make sure that he, and he alone, controlled the rights to his invention – at least until the details were made public.

As Malcolm Daniel of the Department of Photographs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote in an essay on Daguerre’s work, “on January 7, 1839, members of the French Académie des Sciences were shown products of an invention that would forever change the nature of visual representation: photography. The astonishingly precise pictures they saw were the work of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851), a Romantic painter and printmaker most famous until then as the proprietor of the Diorama, a popular Parisian spectacle featuring theatrical painting and lighting effects. Each daguerreotype (as Daguerre dubbed his invention) was a one-of-a-kind image on a highly polished, silver-plated sheet of copper.

Daguerre’s invention did not spring to life fully grown, although in 1839 it may have seemed that way. In fact, Daguerre had been searching since the mid-1820s for a means to capture the fleeting images he saw in his camera obscura, a draftsman’s aid consisting of a wood box with a lens at one end that threw an image onto a frosted sheet of glass at the other. In 1829, he had formed a partnership with Nicéphore Niépce, who had been working on the same problem—how to make a permanent image using light and chemistry—and who had achieved primitive but real results as early as 1826. By the time Niépce died in 1833, the partners had yet to come up with a practical, reliable process.

Not until 1838 had Daguerre’s continued experiments progressed to the point where he felt comfortable showing examples of the new medium to selected artists and scientists in the hope of lining up investors. François Arago, a noted astronomer and member of the French legislature, was among the new art’s most enthusiastic admirers. He became Daguerre’s champion in both the Académie des Sciences and the Chambre des Députés, securing the inventor a lifetime pension in exchange for the rights to his process. Only on August 19, 1839, was the revolutionary process explained, step by step, before a joint session of the Académie des Sciences and the Académie des Beaux-Arts, with an eager crowd of spectators spilling over into the courtyard outside.

The process revealed on that day seemed magical. Each daguerreotype is a remarkably detailed, one-of-a-kind photographic image on a highly polished, silver-plated sheet of copper, sensitized with iodine vapors, exposed in a large box camera, developed in mercury fumes, and stabilized (or fixed) with salt water or ‘hypo’ (sodium thiosulphate). Although Daguerre was required to reveal, demonstrate, and publish detailed instructions for the process, he wisely retained the patent on the equipment necessary to practice the new art.

Neither Daguerre’s microscopic nor his telescopic daguerreotypes survive, for on March 8, 1839, the Diorama—and with it Daguerre’s laboratory—burned to the ground, destroying the inventor’s written records and the bulk of his early experimental works. In fact, fewer than twenty-five securely attributed photographs by Daguerre survive—a mere handful of still lifes, Parisian views, and portraits from the dawn of photography.”

In an interesting twist, once the public demonstration took place, the French government acquired all rights to the process from Daguerre, in return for a lifetime pension given to the inventor, and then made the technique available free on a worldwide basis. It’s hard to imagine something so altruistic happening today.

January 7, 2015 – the 176th anniversary of the first public exhibition of photography by Louis Daguerre.

The Search for Legendary Los Angeles P.I. Samuel Marlowe

Saturday, November 1st, 2014

Daniel Miller of the Los Angeles Times has an amazing story: the saga of the first African-American Hollywood private eye, Samuel Marlowe.

As Daniel Miller wrote tn the Los Angeles Times today,I spent more than a year reporting the story of Samuel Marlowe, the man who may have been Los Angeles’ first licensed black private detective. Family members and a dogged screenwriter believe he also knew noir writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and corresponded with them regularly. If Marlowe’s connection to the authors could be verified, he’d belong in history books. But like so many characters out of L.A. noir, he remains cloaked in mystery, his exploits partly unverifiable.

To get the story, I interviewed dozens of people — from Marlowe’s great-grandsons to scholars of Chandler and Hammett. I combed archives and canvassed South L.A. properties. Along the way, screenwriter Louise Ransil, who has penned a script about Marlowe, provided her own insight into the PI’s life. Ransil said that after Marlowe died, his son gave her access to the private detective’s files — but they have since gone missing. In a conversation about the reporting of the story, Ransil shared her thoughts on the private eye who called himself the ‘Answer Man,’ and the hunt to find his lost letters.

You can read the rest of this fascinating story by clicking here; to see a video, click on the image above.

80,000 British Pathé Newsreel Clips Free Online

Monday, May 19th, 2014

British Pathé Newsreel has put up more than 80,000 newsreel clips on YouTube  – all free.

As the site notes, “Pathé News was a producer of newsreels, cinemagazines, and documentaries from 1910 until 1976 in the United Kingdom. Its founder, Charles Pathé, was a pioneer of moving pictures in the silent era. The Pathé News archive is known today as British Pathé. Its collection of news film and movies is fully digitized and available online. Follow us through the 20th Century and dive into the good and the bad times of the past. Feel free to explore more than 80,000 videos of filmed history and maybe you’ll find stuff no one else has ever seen. From next week on you’ll get a new playlists each Monday and Thursday, a special collection of videos we’ve picked out for you. On top of that you’ll get a weekly highlight video every Friday! Look forward to Top Ten lists, special occasions and recent events put into context. Have fun with 3,500 hours of filmed history!”

This is a truly amazing resource; click here, or on the image above, to access the entire library – free!

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.

Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe

Saturday, May 10th, 2014

I was in New York recently, and saw an incredible show of Italian Futurist art at the Guggenheim Museum.

As the museum’s site notes, “Italian Futurism was officially launched in 1909 when Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, an Italian intellectual, published his “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” in the French newspaper Le Figaro. Marinetti’s continuous leadership ensured the movement’s cohesion for three and half decades, until his death in 1944.

To be a Futurist in the Italy of the early 20th century was to be modern, young, and insurgent. Inspired by the markers of modernity—the industrial city, machines, speed, and flight—Futurism’s adherents exalted the new and the disruptive. They sought to revitalize what they determined to be a static, decaying culture and an impotent nation that looked to the past for its identity. Futurism began as a literary avant-garde, and the printed word was vital for this group. Manifestos, words-in-freedom poems, novels, and journals were intrinsic to the dissemination of their ideas.

But the Futurists quickly embraced the visual and performing arts, politics, and even advertising. Futurist artists experimented with the fragmentation of form, the collapsing of time and space, the depiction of dynamic motion, and dizzying perspectives. Their style evolved from fractured elements in the 1910s to a mechanical language in the ’20s, and then to aerial imagery in the ’30s. No vanguard exists in a void—all are touched by their historical context. The Futurists’ celebration of war as a means to remake Italy and their support of Italy’s entrance into World War I also constitute part of the movement’s narrative, as does the later, complicated relationship between Futurism and Italian fascism.

This exhibition endeavors to convey the spirit of Italian Futurism in all of its complexity. The Guggenheim Museum’s architecture lends itself to the display of this multidisciplinary idiom. Taking its cue from the Futurists’ concept of the ‘total work of art’ (an ensemble that surrounds the viewer in a completely Futurist environment) and their aim to achieve a “reconstruction of the universe,” the presentation integrates works in multiple mediums on all levels of the rotunda. Objects are organized in a roughly chronological order, with filmic components bringing to life some of the movement’s more ephemeral activities, such as performance and declamation. The Futurists were insurrectionary and stridently vocal, and thus Italian Futurism welcomes a certain amount of visual and aural cacophony.

Futurism was punctuated by paradoxes: while predominantly antifeminine, it had active female participants; while calling for a breakdown between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, it valued painting above other forms of expression; while glorifying the machine, it shied away from the mechanized medium of film. By 1929, the artists who had denounced traditional institutions saw their leader, Marinetti, become a member of the Academy of Italy. And many of the revolutionary Futurists complied in some way with the Fascist regime. Through a comprehensive examination of Italian Futurism’s full history, the exhibition offers an opportunity to reassess one of the most contentious of modernist movements.”

This is a landmark exhibition, dazzling in its complexity and scope. See it if you possibly can.

Radio Caroline’s 50th Anniversary

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

Radio Caroline changed the face of pop music.

In the 1950s and 60s, commercial radio and television in Britain were unknown. The BBC — the British Broadcasting Corporation — was the only game in town, a government run enterprise that was commercial free, but much like today’s cable systems, obtained its revenue by requiring anyone who owned a radio or television to pay an annual licensing fee, a practice that continues to this day.

The BBC produced, and continues to produce, excellent television and radio programming, but in the early 1960s, the BBC wasn’t inclined to embrace pop music, and so Radio Caroline, a “pirate” radio station, took up the challenge, and began broadcasting pop music from a ship safely anchored outside the three-mile limit international waters, creating an entirely new style of DJ programming – the “motor mouth DJ” who played as many records as possible during any given hour, sandwiched in between an avalanche of commercials – something that no one in Britain had experienced up until that point.

Teenagers embraced Radio Caroline, which broadcast the latest pop hits from 6AM to 6PM daily, and it isn’t too much to say that it changed the face of radio in Great Britain, much to the BBC’s displeasure. Radio Luxembourg was another “pirate” pop station of the era, broadcasting pop music from that country 24 hours a day, in English, again using manic DJs who played nonstop pop, while also throwing in as many commercials as absolutely possible.

None of this was new to the United States, of course, where radio stations had been commercial from the start, and flagship pop stations of the era, such as WABC (“Radio 77″ – now, sadly, a talk radio station) were instrumental in bringing the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other British pop acts to national prominence in America.

The pop musician Dave Clark once observed that if you wanted your record to be a hit on Radio Caroline or Radio Luxembourg, you’d better make it short, repetitive, and to the point, as you could estimate that only 45 seconds of your song would actually make it on to the air uninterrupted by commercial pitches at the beginning and end of the disc. But it served as an invaluable service for pop musicians, because it was the only way to get their music before the public — which teenagers would then buy as 45 RPM “singles” in record shops.

And thus it was with pop music in the 60s – relentlessly commercial, frantic in delivery, but opening up an entirely new world for listeners, and signalling the emergence of top 40 pop radio as an international format. It all seems very quaint now, but at the time, it was a revolution.

Click here, or on the image above, to see a 1964 newsreel on Radio Caroline from British Pathé News.

Spies of Mississippi: Filmmaker Dawn Porter

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Last night, I saw Spies of Mississippi, an amazing documentary on the civil rights struggle in the 1960s.

Spies of Mississippi covers ground that’s been mined before, but Porter has done something new here, uncovering the amazing story of  “the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission’s [MSSC] efforts to preserve segregation during the 1950s and ‘60s — when its network of informants spied on over 87,000 Americans — as it covered up violence and murder in order to preserve the status quo.” Clocking in at just an hour, Porter’s documentary is much more than a succession of talking heads; it’s a gripping, compact, and absolutely riveting mix of raw footage from the period, much of it never before seen, recently declassified documents from the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission showing just how rampant racism was in the state, and interviews with the people who lived through the period, and know better than anyone else the reality of the situation. In an interview you can read by clicking here, or on the image above, Porter opens up about the making of Spies of Mississippi. As she told Craig Phillips,

“before I heard this story I thought I knew a lot about the era. That’s what is so wonderful about history — if we look, there are more things to find. Many people know about the FBI’s efforts to undermine the civil rights leaders, but very few people knew of the network established by Mississippi state government. And that’s what really attracted me to this story; this is not a story of a few rogue racist individuals, it’s state government, using taxpayer dollars to deny rights to a group of people based on race. I think it’s a remarkable story about abuse of power and how secrecy is not always a friend to democracy.

I was surprised by so many things, but clearly one of the most shocking was the information about the black informants.  The idea that African Americans would spy for white supremacists probably should not shock me, but it did. Second, I feel like this fills in a piece of the puzzle regarding the tragic deaths of the young civil rights workers [James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael 'Mickey' Schwerner].  They didn’t have an accidental run in with the racist police or the Klan, they were tracked using information from spies.

I was shocked to learn that the State of Mississippi, not just the FBI, used spies to try and intimidate and stop integration. When I learned that some of them were black I wanted to know what would motivate people. Digging into the story, it makes sense that there were complicated feelings in the African American community about the marchers and civil rights activity. There was a lot of fear.”

This is the kind of work we need much more of on television, and the sort of hard-edged and innovative reporting that only PBS seems to offer. In addition, it’s also superbly confident filmmaking, thrilling in its mastery of the medium, and the work of a master filmmaker.

Just minutes after I saw this documentary, I ordered the DVD. This is brilliant, important work.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

“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.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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