"Every Frame Was Precious": An Interview with Wheeler Winston Dixon

By Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey | Film Criticism, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

"Every Frame Was Precious": An Interview with Wheeler Winston Dixon


Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey, Film Criticism


"A grittier residue of '60s pop surrealism erupts in the works of Wheeler Winston Dixon. Though he's best known today as a scholar (his 1997 book The Exploding Eye provides a who's who of 1960s experimentalists), Dixon's short films [...] are themselves visual catalogs of underground techniques: snarky Bruce Conner-ish montage, psychoactive Conrad/Sharits flicker effects, and Mekasian home-movie diaries. The distinctive Dixon kick comes from witty edits to far-out music. His loopy Americana remix Serial Metaphysics (1972) grooves to an increasingly trippy reverb and teen portrait The DC5 Memorial Film (1969) prowls through Charles Ives, while the magnificent acid-structuralist London Clouds (1970) rocks to a Henri Pousseur electronic psych-out. The rich filmic collapse of personal memory into cultural history is summed up at the end of Quick Constant and Solid Instant (1969), a Fluxus performance set to a Gerard Malanga poetry reading. "It will take you a long time' intones Malanga, 'to understand why I wrote poems for you.'"--Ed Halter, The Village Voice, April 9-15, 2003.

Wheeler Winston Dixon, the prolific author of books on Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, American experimental cinema, and film theory, history, and criticism, has also been making experimental films and videos of his own for the past three decades. Dixon's career spans the late 1960s to the mid-1990s, including such early works as The DC Five Memorial Film (1969), which interweaves home movies of Dixon's 1950s Connecticut childhood with footage shot in 1969 in New York City and at a farm upstate; Quick Constant and Solid Instant (1969), featuring a Fluxus group performance piece and a poetry reading by Gerard Malanga; and Madagascar, or, Caroline Kennedy's Sinful Life in London (1976), in which a fictional Caroline recovers from a hangover. Later works include the cleverly edited Serial Metaphysics (1972), an examination of the American commercial lifestyle recut entirely from existing television advertisements; and the feature-length What Can I Do? (1993), a rigorous and tender portrait of an elderly woman who holds dinner party guests in thrall to her difficult family life. In April 2003, Dixon's films were honored by a retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art. Here, Dixon discusses his work with the Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, in an interview conducted February 10, 2003.

GF: Let's start with your obsession with movies. When did you first realize that you were interested in movies and the moving picture art form?

WWD: I was born March 12, 1950 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I first realized that I wanted to make movies when I was about four years old. I recall sitting in a crib and looking out the window at a church in the distance. There was a cross on top of the cathedral, and I wanted to capture that image and keep it with me always. That was the first image that I remember.

GF: It doesn't seem like you had any problems conceiving of yourself as an artist. That seems peculiar because that's a difficult thing to come to for many people.

WWD: I always wanted to be a filmmaker from the time I was four or five. I just have never not known this, and I've never understood how people could say, "I don't know what I want to do with my life." When I was about 10, somebody gave me a 16mm print of Strange Illusion, a really interesting Edgar G. Ulmer film, and I learned how to thread it in a 16mm projector that someone loaned me for a weekend. I watched the film that one weekend something like 20 times. I just memorized it. Later, I was involved in film societies, and began traveling into New York City to see films, and meet some experimental filmmakers.

GF: Tell me a bit more about these film societies; who was there, what you saw, and the like. With videocassettes, they're pretty much defunct. But this was all 16mm film projection.

WWD: In New Brunswick, at the Public Library, they screened classic films in 16mm format every Saturday or Friday night, for free. …

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