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   from the issue of April 13, 2006

  ORCA Award

Dixon forges path to become film historian


Wheeler Winston Dixon is inspired by film.

ORCA RECIPIENT - Wheeler Winston Dixon, James P. Ryan professor of Film Studies, stands in his Andrews Hall office. Dixon received...
 ORCA RECIPIENT - Wheeler Winston Dixon, James P. Ryan professor of Film Studies, stands in his Andrews Hall office. Dixon received the Outstanding Research and Creative Activity award for ongoing research into the history of film. Photo by Troy Fedderson/University Communications.

With classic movie posters on the walls and an old film projector in the corner of his Andrews Hall office, Dixon easily recalls influences that led him to becoming enamored with, "light punched through dyed plastic and projected on the screen."

Those influences include the Army-McCarthy hearings; light playing on a church cross; all-day screenings at the New Brunswick, N.J. theatres; all-nighters in front of the family television; and, being accepted (as a teenager) into the underground/experimental film scene in New York City.

"I know some people have to try and figure out what they want to do with their lives," said Dixon, the James P. Ryan professor of film studies. "But, I've always wanted to be exactly what I am. A writer, theoretician and historian of film."

Since coming to UNL in 1982, Dixon has become a prolific writer on film history and industry trends. He has written 25 film-related books and is co-editor of The Quarterly Review of Film and Video. A professor of English, Dixon also created the film studies program from courses already in place on campus.

His unique research niche has earned Dixon a 2006 Outstanding Research and Creative Activity award. The ORCA is a universitywide honor given annually to two of the University of Nebraska's most outstanding researchers.

"This award is very gratifying," Dixon said. "But, I am a member of an incredibly prolific department. We have a number of first class scholars here doing papers around the world. It's just a great atmosphere in which to work."

As a child, Dixon found similar inspiration at home.

Losing his father at a young age, Dixon was prodded toward the arts by his mother - an English teacher and head of the Rutgers Prep School, the K-12 branch of Rutgers University.

For some unknown reason, the family television was placed in Dixon's bedroom when he was about four years old.

"Back then, there were no commercials and you could watch movies around the clock," said Dixon. "When television came into my life, I watched all the movies I could. I was four years old and just obsessed with film."

His earliest memories came in the crib. He remembers watching the Army-McCarthy hearings while his mother ironed clothes in his room. He also recalls desire striking after watching, from his bedroom window, light and shadow play on a church cross.

"I wanted to seize that image," Dixon said of the cross. "And not just with a camera. But, with images that showed the clouds going by and the changing sunlight. So, I was four and I asked for a movie camera."

He received his first - an 8-millimeter model - when he was 6 years old. He began to churn out movies, first in animation then with real people. He also continued to absorb as many movies as he could view, even altering his sleep schedule to catch films on the Late, Late, Late, Late Show.

"I made a deal with my mom early on," Dixon said. "Our deal was if I kept my grades up and, you know, kept myself in good physical shape, then I could basically see as many movies as I wanted to.

"And I soaked them up."

EXPLODING EYE - One of Dixon's 25 books,
EXPLODING EYE - One of Dixon's 25 books, "Exploding Eye" explores the experimental film scene he was once heavily involved in.


Attending Rutgers Prep School, Dixon adjusted his class schedule, starting early and ending his day in the early afternoon. He remembers hustling home to finish homework, then darting off to bed.

"It allowed me to wake up at 11 p.m. and watch movies all night," Dixon said. "That is where I got my education."

In his teen years, Dixon journeyed to New York City where he learned as much as he could about the arts.

Those efforts led him into the underground/experimental film scene, where he made more films, aided numerous productions (including some by Andy Worhol) and simply absorbed more experiences through the 1960s. His first film was accepted into the New York film cooperative's film catalogue in 1964.

"They basically accepted me because I was interested in their work, I was interesting and I was useful," Dixon said. "We helped each other out and supported each other's vision."

However, at the dawn of the 1970s, the film industry changed and experimental film fell by the wayside.

Dixon continued to make movies while pursing his education. He earned a master's in arts and a doctorate with a major focus in film studies and 20th century American and British literature from Rutgers.

In 1982, he interviewed for and accepted a teaching position at UNL. Two years later, Dixon seriously started writing film-related books.

"I published three books in 1984," Dixon said. "When I got started writing, you couldn't stop me.

"When I write, it's like I'm downloading all the stuff I've accumulated."

While he is now inspired by writing and teaching - Dixon continues to teach film history, from introductory to graduate level coures - he also continues to devour movies.

"I still watch three or four movies a day, on average," Dixon said. "I am still absolutely fascinated with cinema. I still discover things all the time. It is a continual process of learning."

Research Dossier

Wheeler Winston Dixon
James P. Ryan Professor, Film Studies
Area of focus: Film Studies

Dixon's research interest is focused on film studies.

He has written 25 film-related books and is the co-editor of The Quarterly Review of Film and Video - a leading journal in the field of film studies.

He has also written for Life magazine and Andy Worhol's Interview magazine.

His current project is a book that will outline the history of film worldwide. The book will be published by Rutgers University Press.

"I'm gathering a massive amount of material for the history project," Dixon said. "It is a pretty daunting task, but one I'm looking forward to."

In April 2003, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City honored Dixon with a retrospective and placed his experimental films in its permanent collection.

Dixon continues to teach film studies classes ranging from entry-level to graduate courses.

For more information on Dixon's research - including clips from his movies - go online to

Discover more online

UNL Today is featuring a University Communications video on Dixon's research and award. The video is available here.



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