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New Essay – Humanities in the Digital Era

Friday, February 13th, 2015

I have a new essay on “humanities in the digital era” in the web journal Film International – here’s a link.

As I argue, “We live in the age of the visible invisible; everything is supposedly available to us online, but in fact, only a small fraction of the knowledge and culture of even the most recent past is available on the web. The digitization of our culture is now an accomplished fact; physical media is disappearing, books are being harvested from library shelves and thrown into the anonymity of high density storage, digital facsimiles of these documents are often illegible or hidden behind pay walls. It’s a world of never-ending passwords, permissions, and a whole new group of “gatekeepers,” which the digital revolution was supposed to do away with, in which everyone got a place at the table. In fact, it has created a far more intrusive and much less intuitive group of cultural taste makers in place of the 20th century regime of editors, writers, critics and the like; technology specialists, who, really don’t understand the humanities at all, and are, in fact alarmed by the amorphousness of humanist work – after all, you know, it’s just so unquantifiable.

As Wieseltier notes, in part, in the January 7th issue of the NYT Sunday Book Review, ‘aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different. We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof. Presumptions of obsolescence, which are often nothing more than the marketing techniques of corporate behemoths, need to be scrupulously examined. By now we are familiar enough with the magnitude of the changes in all the spheres of our existence to move beyond the futuristic rhapsodies that characterize much of the literature on the subject. We can no longer roll over and celebrate and shop. Every phone in every pocket contains a “picture of ourselves,” and we must ascertain what that picture is and whether we should wish to resist it. Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.’

Needless to say, Wieseltier’s essay has touched a real nerve among both humanists and the digerati - you can read some responses here - some agreeing with him, and some not, but for me, it seems that more often than not, he hits the mark straight on. As one reader, Carl Witonksy, wrote in response, ‘Leon Wieseltier’s essay should be required reading and discussion by all college students, regardless of major. Technology is penetrating every aspect of their lives, and they should come to grips with its pluses and minuses,’ while Cynthia M. Pile, co-chair of the Columbia University Seminar in the Renaissance, added that ‘for the humanities, the library is the laboratory, and books and documents are the petri dishes containing the ideas and records of events under study. We use the Internet, to be sure, and are grateful for it. But its rapid and careless ascent has meant that we cannot rely on it for confirmation of reality or of fact.’

Pile goes on to note that ‘we require direct observation of material (stone, wood, ink, paper and parchment) documents, manuscripts and printed books, which we then subject to critical, historical analysis. We also require that these materials be spread out in front of us to analyze and compare with one another, like the scientific specimens they are. In great research libraries (which used to be the hearts of great universities), these were formerly available on site, so that an idea could be confirmed or contradicted on the spot. Instead, today librarians are taught that a delay of several days while a book is fetched from a warehouse dozens, or even hundreds, of miles away — to the detriment of the book — is irrelevant to our work. This is false. Our work is impeded by these assumptions, based on technological dreams, not on reality.’

I’ve seen the impact of this in many fields of the arts, which are now faced with a crisis unlike anything since the Middle Ages – the cultural work of the past is being relegated to archives, museums, and warehouses, and despite claims to the contrary, is not available in any meaningful way to the general public or students. Great swaths of material have been left unscanned and unindexed, and with the demise of paper copies becomes essentially unobtainable. Browsing through library stacks is not only a pleasurable experience; it is also an essential part of the discovery process and intellectual investigation. You come in, presumably, looking for one book, but now you find another. And another. And another. They’re all together in one section on the shelves. You’re not calling for a specific text, which would give you only one side of any given question – you have immediate access to them all, and can pick and choose from a wide variety of different perspectives. Now, it seems that only the eternal present is with us.

I wrote an essay that touched on some of these issues a few years ago for The College Hill Review about working in New York in the 1960s as part of the community of experimental filmmakers, aptly entitled ‘On The Value of “Worthless” Endeavor,‘ in which I noted – again, in part – that ‘the only art today is making money, it seems; in fact, today, there are plaques all over New York identifying where this artist, or that artist, used to have a studio; today, all the locations are now office buildings or bank . . . it seems that no one has time or money for artistic work, when, in fact, such work would redeem us as a society, as it did in the 1930s when Franklin Roosevelt put artists to work, and then sold that work, to get that segment of the economy moving again. Now, the social conservativism that pervades the nation today belatedly recognizes the power of “outlaw” art, and no longer wishes to support it, as it might well prove — in the long run — dangerous.

Money can create, but it can also destroy. Out of economic privation, and the desperate need to create, the artists [of the 1960s] created works of lasting resonance and beauty with almost no resources at their disposal, other than the good will and assistance of their colleagues; a band of artistic outlaws. These artists broke the mold of stylistic representation . . . and offered something new, brutal, and unvarnished, which confronted audiences with a new kind of beauty, the beauty of the outsider, gesturing towards that which holds real worth in any society that prizes artistic endeavor. It’s only the work that comes from the margins that has any real, lasting value; institutional art, created for a price, or on commission, documents only the powerful and influential, but doesn’t point in a new direction. It’s the work that operates off the grid, without hype or self-promotion, under the most extreme conditions, that has the greatest lasting value, precisely because it was made under such difficult circumstances.’

In his brilliant film Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard depicted a futuristic dystopia - in 1965! – in which an entire civilization is run by a giant computer, Alpha 60, which directs and supervises the activities of all its inhabitants; a computer that is absolutely incapable of understanding nuance, emotion, or the chance operations of something like, for instance, Surrealism or poetry. As the supervisor of the computer and all its operations, one Professor Von Braun (played by Howard Vernon; the symbolism is obvious) is pitted against the humanist Secret Agent Lemmy Caution (the always excellent Eddie Constantine), who has been sent from the ‘Outerlands’ to destroy the computer and restore humanity to Alphaville. As Von Braun warns Lemmy, ‘men of your type will soon become extinct. You’ll become something worse than dead. You’ll become a legend.’ And as if to confirm this, Alpha 60 instructs his subjects that ‘no one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.’

But, of course, it isn’t, and while the end of Alphaville strikes a positive note – technology reined in by Lemmy’s timely intervention, I can’t be so sure that this time, in real life, that there will be a happy ending. When a society no longer has bookstores, or record stores, or theaters because – supposedly – everything is online and streaming – when corporations make decisions, guided by the bottom line alone, as to what materials are disseminated and which remain in oblivion – and when mass culture alone – the popularity index – determines what works are allowed to find any audience, we’re in trouble. If you don’t know something is there, then you can’t search for it. Works buried in an avalanche of digital materials – and please remember that I am someone who contributes to this, and publishes now almost exclusively in the digital world – lose their currency and importance, just as libraries continue to discard books that later wind up on Amazon for one cent, in hardcover editions, where those of us who care about such work snap it up – until it’s gone forever.

What will the future hold for those of us in the humanities? It’s a really serious question – perhaps the most important question facing us as scholars right now. Alpha 60 rightly recognized Lemmy Caution as a threat, and had him brought in for questioning, telling Lemmy that ‘I shall calculate so that failure is impossible,’ to which Lemmy replied ‘I shall fight so that failure is possible.’ The work of technology is valuable and useful, and without it, we would be stuck entirely in the world of physical media, which would mark an unwelcome return to the past. But in the headlong rush to digital technology, we shouldn’t sacrifice the sloppiness, the uncertainty, the messiness that comes from the humanities in all their uncertain glory, representing widely divergent points of view, with the aid of ready access to the works of the past, which, after all, inform and help to create the present, as well as what is to come. As Lemmy Caution tells Alpha 60, ‘the past represents its future. It advances in a straight line, yet it ends by coming full circle.’”

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

Cinematography Roundtable – The Hollywood Reporter

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

The Hollywood Reporter’s Cinematography Roundtable is an invaluable video seminar.

As Gregg Kilday and Carolyn Giardina note in the text that accompanies this revealing half-hour discussion, “The visionaries behind some of the year’s most visually striking movies — Unbroken, Into the Woods, Gone Girl, The Theory of Everything, Noah and Mr. Turner — open up about everything from how to develop a relationship with a director to high-dynamic-range technologies

They’re sad that instead of projecting movies on film, theaters have turned to digital projection — even if it means they no longer have to worry about scratched or fraying prints. They’re resigned to the fact that reviewers never quite know what to make of their work. And especially when filming outdoors, they always keep one eye on the weather — in fact, veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, 65, confessed he has four weather apps on his phone to make sure he remains prepared.

Fortunately the sun was shining when Deakins, who recently finished shooting Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, got together at THR’s invitation with five fellow directors of photography: Into the Woods’ Dion Beebe, 46; Gone Girl’s Jeff Cronenweth, 52; The Theory of Everything’s Benoit Delhomme, 53; Noah’s Matthew Libatique, 46; and Mr. Turner’s Dick Pope, 67. They happily compared notes on their recent movies, which took them from the biblical realm of Noah to the 19th century British salons of Mr. Turner to the contemporary crime scenes of Gone Girl.

[But their work goes largely unappreciated by most observers. As Benoit Delhomme noted] ‘for me, it’s incredible to realize that what you can expect as a DP is to get one line at the end of the review saying just two words about your work.’ [Added Deakins,] ‘People confuse pretty with good cinematography. [The late cinematographer] Freddie Francis said there is good cinematography and bad cinematography, and then there’s the cinematography that’s right for the movie. I often feel that if reviewers don’t mention your work, it’s probably better than if they do.’”

Having just finished a book on the history of black and white cinematography on a worldwide basis, Black & White: A Brief History of Monochrome Cinema, which will be published by Rutgers University Press in late 2015, I can attest that this is absolutely true. As fate or luck would have it, I knew Freddie Francis very well from 1984 up until his death, and watched him at work on the sets of several films he either directed or photographed, and it’s absolutely true that most reviewers and critics have absolutely no idea of what the DP does on a film, or the degree of input they have on the final project.

Most often, from the beginning of cinema up to the present day, directors are more than content to take all the credit for the visual design of a film, when in fact the choice of a DP on any given film tells you much about how the finished project will look. I often think about the bold black and white work of DP John L. Russell on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award – but lost out to Freddie Francis for Sons and Lovers – and while Hitchcock was certainly an assured and accomplished visual stylist, it’s clear to me that Russell’s work on the film was a major factor in the overall impact of the film.

But as with the DPs discussing their work here, credit often is not readily forthcoming, and so this discussion is an invaluable look behind the scenes for those who stick to a strictly “auteurist” view of the cinema – without the DP, you wouldn’t have any images on the screen at all.

The best DPs in cinema history, such as James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, Stanley Cortez, Nicholas Musuraca, Robert Krasker, John Alton, Boris Kaufman, Gunnar Fischer, Sven Nykvist, Karl Freund, Fritz Arno Wagner, John Seitz, Robert Burks and many others created an alluring and phantasmal world out of nothing more than light and shadow, transforming the real world into a cinematic trompe-l’œil which was so seductive and all – encompassing that it became an entirely new universe. It’s only right that we acknowledge and celebrate their contribution to cinema history.

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

American Smalltown Life in the 1950s — Fantasy and Truth

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Click on this image to see a 10 minute instructional film on the “idyllic” 1950s.

The atomic bomb, the Cold War, fallout shelters, the Red Scare, the Army-McCarthy hearings, the HUAC — we don’t remember any of the bad stuff about the past. We only remember what we want to remember, or what we’re told to remember, as in the film above.

Here’s a link to an excellent article, The Other American Kitchen: Alternative Domesticity in 1950s Design, Politics, and Fiction by Caroline Hellman, about the ways in which these images of domesticity and comfort are created, and then propagated as a historical record, when in fact, what marked the 1950s more than anything else was conformity. History is nothing more than the version of events that the dominant culture wants us to remember; never forget that. The truth – whatever that might be, and however we might discover it -  is buried in the archives.

There Is Nothing Wrong With Your TV Set

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission.”

From Imre Szeman’s review of Bourdieu on Television, translated from the French by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson. New York, 1998: The New Press, as published in Topia, The Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies.

“It is clear that Bourdieu believes that, when it comes to television, it has become increasingly dificult to accomplish anything that might be seen as intellectually constructive, no matter how carefully one approaches it. Television becomes, in Bourdieu’s analysis of the journalistic field, a field that dominates other fields. Not only does he argue that television has altered the function of the entire journalistic field, forcing the print media to approximate it more and more in form and content, he maintains that television has profoundly challenged the autonomy of all other fields. ‘The most important development, and a difficult one to foresee,’ he writes, ‘was the extraordinary extension of the power of television over the whole of cultural production, including scientific and artistic production.’ Television now holds a virtual monopoly on what today constitutes public space, and, as such, it controls cultural producers’ access to the public.

You can download a pdf of the review here.

You can read the entire text of Bourdieu’s book here.

The Pre-Digital Era

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

I went camping throughout the United States in the early 1960s, and I remember drifting through one sleepy town after another, usually in the morning or in the late afternoon. The local movie theater would be a hub of activity as the sun set, and people from all over town would gather to see the latest double bills — entire families, not just young adults — as television had only recently been introduced. The movie theater from the 1920s through the 1960s was often a central social gathering place for the residents of many towns — that’s gone today, and everyone is online, at home. Some of the old theaters remain, but the sense of community is gone.

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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