“Serial Metaphysics”: A fever dream of pure Americana as seen thru early 70s TV commercials

By on November 29, 2015

Filmmaker Wheeler Winston Dixon’s Serial Metaphysics (1984-1986) — a twenty-minute experimental 16mm film which has been described as “an examination of the American commercial lifestyle, recut entirely from existing television advertisements” — was edited by Dixon himself, on a single night, New Year’s Eve 1972, culled down from 72 hours of American TV commercials.

The film is a fever dream as seen through our existing television advertisements, foreshadowing for hopeful future generations a promised futurelife of happiness and security in the land of plenty. These two clips, found on Youtube, obviously show signs of color fading: the cyan, magenta and yellow dyes that form the image in color back then take on an even more surreal look now, adding to the feverish quality, along with the semi-psychedelic soundtrack that Dixon created, on a reel-to-reel recorder, a week later, with some help from his friends Jeff Travers and Phil Cohen (collectively, the Mix Group).

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Dixon — a film instructor at Rutger’s Livingston College in Piscataway, New Jersey at the time — has said he edited film together in one night using a silent film view called a Moviscope, which was available to him in the school’s film studies department, where he was teaching students how to make their first 16mm films with optical soundtracks, using spring-wound Bolex cameras.

The Whitney Museum of American Art began screening the film after Dixon, a professor at Livingston College at the time, first offered it to them in 1973, and then screened it again the following year. The film was also shown at the Oberhausen Film Festival and several other film festivals.

In 2003, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, acquired all of Dixon’s experimental films — which include the following: Quick Constant and Solid Instant (1969) Madagascar, or, Caroline Kennedy’s Sinful Life in London (1976) — for a career retrospective, “The Films Of Wheeler Winston Dixon.”

A Village Voice review, written by Ed Halter in 2003, said: “loopy Americana remix Serial Metaphysics (1984-86) grooves to an increasingly trippy reverb.”

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Dixon was once a member of New York’s underground film scene from the late 1960s, while also working as a writer for Life magazine and Andy Warhol’s Interview. He’s probably best known today as a film scholar — Halter again: “His 1997 book The Exploding Eye provides a who’s who of 1960s experimentalists.”

Dixon — who has previously taught English at Rutgers University (1974-1984), and was a visiting professor in Film Studies at The New School for Social Research in New York (one semester in 1983) — is currently the James P. Ryan endowed professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, where he coordinates the Film Studies Program. He is a highly-respected author of many books and essays about film.

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About Bryan

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • john ngyuen

    very interestomg article….
    i nver knew about this film before…very good

  • nadia

    oohoo very nice subject. the silent film industry was very big in my country during the 80’s. I miss those days. nver heard of thsi movie but i think illl give it a watch

  • kelly j

    oh wow. never kne there was such a thing as a silent movie meuseum

  • jamesworth

    very insightful

  • jimmy

    very well written article. Good Job Bryan!

  • Kevin K

    I would have never know that the clips were all edited from commercials and put into one short clip. That’s very interesting!

  • Chrissy

    Amazing video for the 80’s! I know some film makers now that try to duplicate and get this same effect but fail at it. Very interesting, I’m going to pass this along to some of my film friends.

  • Beth Anne

    It’s definitely a semi-psychedelic soundtrack. Psychedelic music can take something “normal” and turn it into something that seems creepy. I don’t understand the music choice here, but loved the video.

  • Lynn V.

    Oh my gosh I love this kind of stuff!! My boyfriend is a film maker and he does stuff like this all the time in his movies. This is the sort of film that you either understand it or you don’t. There is really no in between. I’m going to check out more from Dixon!

  • Grace J.

    This talks about him editing the film in one day. It makes me wonder exactly how long it took him to do this back in the 80’s. I know today editing can take some time, so I can’t imagine how long it took then.

  • Villemar

    Fascinating…kind of a precursor of the styles that documentarian Adam Curtis would adopt decades later!