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Posts Tagged ‘motion pictures’

A World of Constant Peril: Seriality, Narrative, and Closure

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International on the impact of serials on contemporary cinema.

As I write, in part, “What are we watching now at the movies, or on television or Netflix for that matter? Serials – though now they’re called franchises, or mini-series, or ‘cable dramas,’ but they have the same structure, and the same limitations, the same narrative predictability. What will happen, for example, in the next episode of Game of Thrones? Who will be slaughtered, who will survive, who will make yet another grab for power? What scheme will the fictional Walter White (Bryan Cranston) come up with in the next episode of the recently concluded Breaking Bad? You’ll just have to tune in next week and find out, because all we’re leaving you with this week is an open ended ‘conclusion’ – whatever happens next, we’re not telling. But then again, when the trap is finally sprung, are the results all that surprising? Yet you keep coming back, week after week. You can’t stop watching . . .

And yet, unlike any other structural format in commercial cinema, even the theatrical cartoon, the original iteration of the motion picture serial has vanished from contemporary view. Nevertheless, when one compares both the overall narrative structure of these chapter plays, as well as the elaborate fight scenes, exoticist sets, and – despite what some may say – the absolutely one-dimensional nature of the characters, one can easily see where the films in the current Marvel or DC ‘universe’ came from – starting, of course, with the original Star Wars film in 1977, which was transparently formatted as a serial, replete with opening crawl title receding endlessly into infinity, and even an “episode number,” as if the entire film was just one section of a sprawling epic – which indeed it ultimately was.

Comic-Con, which now dominates the commercial film industry, with, for the most part the empty escapism of such films as James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – the runaway hit of the current summer – doesn’t want to admit it, but the truth of the matter is that these are films for children, as the serials were, and were relegated, in the 1940s and 50s, to Saturday morning entertainment. No one who made them had any illusions about them, and though they contained both the template for most contemporary Hollywood action and superhero films, they were designed to exist at the margins of the theatrical world, as something for adolescents to view before moving on to more demanding fare. Today, that more ‘demanding’ cinema has all but vanished, as comic book cinema moves to the mainstream, and erases nearly everything else.”

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

The Future of Cinema?

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

As David S. Cohen writes in Variety, “Last week must have been surreal for Douglas Trumbull. On the one hand, he was showered with accolades — the George Melies Award from the Visual Effects Society, honoring his pioneering vfx work; and the Sawyer Award, an Oscar statuette, from the Academy for his work across a wide range of technological and creative fronts — but while he was being feted by the industry’s movers and shakers, he’s still seeking financial backing for those innovations.

Working on a stage on his property in Massachusetts, Trumbull is combining high frame rates and 3D on the production side with advanced projection tech and curved screens that get brightness up to 30 foot Lamberts — more than a full stop above the current standard of 14 foot Lamberts for standard 2D projection, and several stops above the typical brightness at multiplexes for 3D.

“No one in the industry has seen a 3D movie at 30 foot Lamberts at 120 frames per second,” he said. “What happens when you get into this hyper-real realm of a movie, that seems to be a window onto reality, is that the entire cinematic language begins to change.” He wants to make a movie using Hypercinema and move away from the master shots, two-shots, over-the-shoulder shots and close-ups we’ve all seen thousands of times, to create “an experience of tremendous participation in an alternate world, which I think people will crave and are ready to pay for.”

You can read the entire article here; fascinating stuff.

The Art of the Modern Movie Trailer on NPR

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to read the whole transcript of the story on NPR.

Brent Baughman of NPR interviewed me recently, along with some other folks who work in the industry making what are known as “trailers” or “coming attractions” for films about to be released. It’s both a science and an art, blending marketing and creativity to get people out of their houses and into the theaters, which is proving increasingly hard to do in the era of pads. cellphones, and laptops; even television is outmoded.

People would rather stay at home and stream a film instead of going out to the movies; this is why only the most mainstream films now get a national release. The more thoughtful films get a “select cities” release in New York, Los Angeles, and other major markets; at the same time, the film is unceremoniously dumped into video on demand, either on television or the web, at sites such as Amazon, Netflix, and numerous other locations.

All of which makes getting people to actually “go to the movies” all the more important for major studio releases, which cost upwards of $80 – 100 million to make on average, and another $12-25 million or so to market. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

“[The] trailer for the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol features the actor Lionel Barrymore (Drew’s great-uncle), speaking directly into the camera about this charming new film. Leatherbound book? Check. Pipe? Check. Armchair by the fire? Check. The whole thing is so clearly not the savvy, heavily focus-grouped work of a modern trailer house that it’s hard to imagine it ever worked.

Early trailers, says film historian Wheeler Winston Dixon, were all like this. Very comfortable — and often full of over-the-top superlatives, like the trailer for Gone With the Wind. “‘Never so tremendous!’” Dixon says by way of example. “‘The screen’s greatest achievement!’ One critic at the time said it was the supreme example of writing so as never to be believed.”

Compare that with something like last year’s trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, which set a record for downloads in 2011. “The shots are shorter and shorter and shorter, and more fragmented,” Dixon says. “There have been a number of studies that demonstrate that the average length of a shot in a film have been shrinking every single year, because audiences absorb information faster — and there’s also a sense that you don’t want to bore them.”

You can read the entire interview, and see the trailers as well, by clicking here, or on the image above.

Kim Jong-il’s Movie Mania

Monday, December 19th, 2011

Kim Jong-Il on the set of one of his “masterworks” in 1979

Kim Jong-il is dead; good riddance! But perhaps you don’t know that the late despot also fancied himself a superb filmmaker and theoretician, as evidenced by his remarkably self-referential (but then, is that really any surprise?) text On the Art of the Cinema, which he wrote – ahem – in 1973. Among numerous other rambling digressions, the text admonishes the reader that “the cinema is now one of the main objects on which efforts should be concentrated in order to conduct the revolution in art and literature. The cinema occupies an important place in the overall development of art and literature. As such it is a powerful ideological weapon for the revolution and construction. Therefore, concentrating efforts on the cinema, making breakthroughs and following up success in all areas of art and literature is the basic principle that we must adhere to in revolutionizing art and literature.” Is this, perhaps, a tad repetitive?

As S.T. Vanairsdale notes in Movieline, “Kim Jong-il, the reclusive North Korean leader who died Sunday at age 69, was a tyrant, a thug, a meddler, a menace, a fanatic, a spendthrift, a dilettante, and [was] responsible for some of the worst abuses witnessed by world civilization in the last half century. But enough about his movies.

The awfulness of Kim’s regime — its human-rights transgressions, its warmongering, its political ruthlessness — obviously cannot be overstated, and anyone who’s seen such bracing nonfiction fare as Yodok Stories (about DPRK concentration camp refugees who stage a musical about their lives), Kimjongilia (about surviving under the Dear Leader’s oppressive thumb) or The Red Chapel (about Kim’s sociocultural stranglehold on Pyongyang) knows full well about the nightmare that is life above the 38th Parallel.

And once you’ve got that out of the way, let’s reflect on that time when Kim — a notorious cinephile who had put an international assortment of filmmakers and other “cultural consultants” (read: political prisoners) to work as DPRK propagandists (several of whom wound up committing suicide) — kidnapped South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife Choi Eun-hee. Their mission: Help Kim establish North Korea as a force in world cinema. They did exactly that with Pulgasari, quite possibly the worst monster movie in the history of a genre absolutely choked with awful films.”

You can view a clip from Pulgasari here, if you really think you need to.

All kidding aside, the man was a monster, and I’m glad to see him go; I hope that whatever happens next in North Korea is better than what Kim brought to his people, which was a regime of terror, enslavement, and perpetual surveillance. However, it seems that his son Kim Jong-un will succeed him, so we’ll probably get more of the same — too bad.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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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/