First Fruits of Inspiration: The Films of Wheeler Winston Dixon
By Matthew Sorrento.
Here at Film International, we’re honored to have the hardest working man in film culture as a regular contributor. Since taking up film history, theory, and criticism in 1984, Wheeler Winston Dixon has authored and edited over 30 book-length works, on titles ranging from the criticism of Truffaut, the history of the horror film, celebrity culture, experimental cinema, and several other topics. The impression readers get of him – even those not admitting their struggle to keep up with his output – is that his passion for film matches his encyclopedic knowledge of the subject. His titles read with that kind of liveliness and acumen, the recent ones showing that he hasn’t abandoned diversity: Death of the Moguls (Rutgers University Press, 2012), a group-biography-cum-production history, looks at the heads of major studios as their era came to an end; Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access (2013, University of Kentucky Press) looks at cinema in transformation – how the celluloid and other tactile forms of visual media have disappeared into ethereal streams no longer owned by viewer, along with the pros of the transition; and Cinema at the Margins (Anthem, 2013), on outliers to film history and the mainstream, including horror specialist Lucio Fulci, genre workman Andrew V. McLaglen, and contemporary auteur JC Chandor, and others.
The fervor of Dixon’s prose is infectious, and I’m convinced that the means of composition is a key factor. If you find accounts of the late journalistic critic Roger Ebert composing finished copy as fast as he could type to be inspiring, then hearing of Dixon’s feverish pace will get you to your keyboard, if not to some other activity of your own passion. In Kerouacian spirit, Dixon wrote Film Noir: Cinema of Paranoia in a matter of weeks, all in long-hand (his usual practice). Such an astonishing, noble feat underscores how the rest of us – like Ebert’s late counterpart, Gene Siskel – sweat blood for much less.
And yet, we’re honored to have such a lodestone of critical insight, even if Dixon hints that it may be time to slow down (though his Black & White: A Short History of Monochrome Cinema is forthcoming from Rutgers University Press, and a likely short book on the collapse of memory in the 21st century). His passion for cinema originated not from the critic’s seat and the lecture podium, but from behind the camera – a wind-up Bolex, to be exact, in the heydey of experimental film, circa late 60s/early 70s New York. As a teenager, Dixon was moved by the films screened at his local New Jersey library, noting how the works followed either the Hollywood or the independent models and how the later was an open field for artists (though the former would certainly interest him in his later criticism). He found a welcoming community of artists at Rutgers University and then in New York, where enthusiasm and usefulness, as Dixon puts it, were all one needed to enter. Years later he would reflect on the scene in his essential 1997 text, The Exploding Eye, which sets right a lot of the debates lost in worship and revisionist history – but in the late 1960s Dixon was part of the thriving experimental scene. Incorporating found footage, home movies, spur-of-the-moment camerawork, and poetry readings, Dixon’s catalog sums the best the times had to offer. To the post-digital generation, his work captures an era of democratic art, the materials for little investment and content composed anywhere, for nearly anyone.
On May 4th, 2014, New Yorkers had the rare – and perhaps final – chance to view Dixon’s films (now archived at the Museum of Modern Art) at the Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn. With Dixon in attendance, the artist-critic provided lively commentary on his collection of works that emit constant energy and passion.
Serial Metaphysics (1972, 15 min.) consists completely of found materials. Having received 72 hours of television commercials, in one night Dixon edited down the material into a brisk short study of candy-colored consumptive messages. Like many of his works, Serial reads as a study of movement: the film begins with a rodeo bull, a racecar, a child’s bigwheel all racing from right to left of the frame. By reversing out visual reference (since we view images from left to right, by nature), the film juts against our comfortable gaze to reveal the images as the capitalistic intrusions they are. Later weaving in a clip that moves from left to right, Dixon then returns to the reverse assault. The remaining collage matches together various clips into a steady stream of kinesis, the montage finding order in bright reflections of dream we buy and consume rapidly. The order, naturally, reflects that they consume us. For a time it would become Dixon’s trademark film, though other styles awaited him.
The DC Five Memorial Film (1969, 9 min.) – a personal favorite of its author – shows Dixon with a Bolex finding inspiration at various turns. The film begins with a long-haired, androgynous boy whipping his head in a closed-frame composition. Its as if the film’s universe owns him, even if the footage is obviously taken on the fly. As his head whips slower and slower, we see him under the control of something beyond his director; in the spirit of the times we fear Washington, the Draft, the Man, or perhaps a bad trip – all coming as a buzzing zen. The close-up cuts to atomic-shelter childhood, to pastoral freedom, then multiple-exposed footage of parties – all, perhaps, elements buzzing in the trippy boy’s head. Women return from a DC peace march, walking about the cave-like shoppes of a nighttime Port Authority: the spirit of youth walking among the dead.
With the mental landscape of DC Five in memory, the frame finds a house in Tight Rope (1974, 4 mins). Together the films invoke as sense of mind and body much like Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” though Tight Rope offers a blissful clip of community removed from conformity. Wedding (1969, 3 min.) finds poetry in the title event, with repeated shots of a young girl invoking the youth to which the long-haired, coming-of-agers around grasp, even if remaining cool for the camera. Quick Constant and Solid Instant (1969, 4 min.) moves Dixon’s sensibility to the exploits of a Dadaist theatrical production, with a motorcycle engine as a lively counterpart behind the zippy, undercranked Big Wheel in the opening film. A poetry reading on the soundtrack is like a spirit of fear/hope of the parties gathered for the film. Dana Can Deal (1976, 4 min.) returns to group shots associated with an isolated, possibly disturbed boy pondering the dangerous choice to dive into a lake. Like Dixon’s other original footage works, the film reflects a communal experience captured and interpreted in the editing booth.
The screening of these works, along with the dreamlike London Clouds (1970, 3 min.), showed detail and sensibility of a time too often romanticized in retrospect. To some, these works may seem like things past, though laying the groundwork for a master critic who now works with digital materials. You’ll find that the ebullient critic here and several other print and online publications. Never interested in narrative as a filmmaker, Dixon celebrates it all in commentary.
Matthew Sorrento is Interview Editor of Film International.