FACES PLACES: Varda & JR Hit the Road

Thursday, January 25th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Agnès Varda's & JR's Faces Places (Visages Villages)  were written by Matt St. John, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. The Cinematheque will present the only theatrical screenings of the Oscar-nominated Faces Places on Friday, January 26 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, January 27 at 5 p.m. in our regular venue at 4070 Vilas Hall. Free admission for both screenings.

By Matt St. John

After making films for more than sixty years, Agnès Varda continues to try new approaches. With Faces Places (Visages Villages), the now 89-year-old French New Wave veteran has co-directed for the first time, working with 34-year-old artist JR. Their unlikely intergenerational friendship becomes one of the guiding topics of Faces Places, a warmhearted, thoughtful film that won awards at major festivals throughout the last year and just received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature earlier this week. Faces Places contemplates many of the concerns from Varda’s other documentary work like The Gleaners & I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008), such as autobiography and the creation of art. But Varda now addresses these ideas through a collaboration with a younger artist, in a project that benefits from their shared artistic affinities and investments.

Faces Places frequently shows Varda and JR’s collaborative filmmaking choices in observational footage or amusing staged reenactments, making the content of the film inseparable from its creation. This project began after Varda and JR were introduced by her daughter (and the film’s producer), Rosalie. Just a few days later, Varda and JR started filming a road trip to villages throughout France, traveling in his photo-booth truck. Meeting people who live and work in the small communities, they found subjects for JR’s large format, ephemeral photographs. Black-and-white images of individuals and groups were printed from his truck and pasted on buildings for their fellow villagers to observe and enjoy, making art out of ordinary people. Varda and JR often filmed their subjects in front of the final mounted photographs, preserving these temporary images through a documentary about their production.

These artistic processes used in Faces Places, photography and filmmaking, draw on Varda and JR’s backgrounds working in different media. While Varda is primarily known for her films, shifting between the categories of shorts, features, documentary, and fiction throughout her career, she was first a professional photographer and has also created mixed media installations, which have become increasingly important to her artistic practice in recent years. Her past work is repeatedly referenced in Faces Places, from specific photographs to famous scenes from her films. Sometimes these references inspire parts of her art-making road trip with JR, while at other times they cause her to reflect on personal experiences, such as her friendship with Jean-Luc Godard. Just as critics and audiences tend to associate Varda with film alone, JR is usually linked to his photography. His famous large-scale works often address political subjects in contested spaces, like his recent photography installation of a Mexican toddler peering over the border wall into California, but this popular format was not his only artistic medium before Faces Places. JR previously directed Ellis, a short film about immigrant experience starring Robert De Niro, and documentaries based on his photography works Women Are Heroes, a tribute to women who suffer violence in Rio de Janeiro, and Inside Out, a global crowdsourced project to create large portraits advocating for change. One medium certainly dominates each of their careers (film for Varda and photography for JR), but they both have diverse backgrounds working with the various formats involved in Faces Places.

Varda and JR’s partnership may stem, in part, from this experience with both photography and film, but they also share an investment in the lives of ordinary people as a topic for their art. In their interview with Slant, JR notes that his artwork presents regular people as if they were famous, in the enormous, instantly noticeable format usually reserved for advertising and images of celebrities. Varda’s films often attend to marginalized people living outside of mainstream awareness, like the homeless young woman in the 1985 fiction film Vagabond or the subjects of The Gleaners and I. In an interview with New York Magazine’s Jada Yuan, Varda explains that this similarity led to her partnership with JR: “Because our aims, on his side and on my side, had some common points, really: to be interested in other people, unknown people, not being famous people. We decided on people who have no power. People that you can meet in villages.” This interest leads them to places as varied as goat farms, a chemical plant, and shipping docks in Faces Places, but they always discover ways to celebrate the people they meet through art, using both JR’s photography and the film itself.

In the Slant interview, Varda claims the film “is energetic because it says life is interesting, people are interesting, and it’s worth creating a link between them and us, between the people and the audience.” Through the artistic process and the fundamental interest in daily life, the film underscores the possibility of connections between ordinary people, as well as Varda’s openness to establishing new links of her own, like her friendship with JR. Varda reflects on her prior work and friendships while creating a film with this new collaborator, and a subtle theme of the relationship between past and present develops throughout Faces Places. This grants the film an emotional resonance that builds during its seemingly light and playful journey to a profound, memorable ending to their road trip. Agnès Varda has been dedicated to incorporating new methods throughout her career, and in Faces Places, she adds to her curious and generous artistic practice by inviting a new face along for the ride.

2017 Favorites: J.J. Murphy

Friday, January 5th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

Professor J.J. Murphy, Hamel Family Distinguished Chair in Communication Arts Department at UW Madison, is the Director of the UW Cinematheque and Artistic Director of the Wisconsin Film Festival

1. The Florida Project (Sean Baker)

2. Good Time (Josh and Ben Safdie)

3 Columbus (Kogonada)

4. Person to Person (Dustin Guy Defa)

5. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)

6. A Ghost Story (David Lowery)

7. Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman)

8. Dark Night (Tim Sutton)

9. The Rider (Chloé Zhao)

10. Get Out (Jordan Peele)

2017 Favorites: Ben Reiser

Thursday, January 4th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

Ben Reiser is a Programmer and Accounts Manager for the Cinematheque and a Programmer for the Wisconsin Film Festival


37 movies I saw for the first time in 2017 that left me happy, sad, angry, exhilarated, delirious and coming back for more:

KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017, Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

LIFE (2017, Daniel Espinosa)

WILSON (2017, Craig Johnson)

COLOSSAL (2016, Nacho Vigalondo)

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2 (2017, James Gunn)

ALIEN: COVENANT (2017, Ridley Scott)

THE MUMMY (2017, Alex Kurtzman)

IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017, Trey Edward Shults)

BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017, Miguel Arteta)

OKJA (2017, Bong Joon-ho)


DUNKIRK (2017, Christopher Nolan)


WIND RIVER (2017, Taylor Sheridan)

GOOD TIME (2017, Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie)

LOGAN LUCKY (2017, Steven Soderbergh)

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (2017, Matthew Vaughn)

THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017, Sean Baker)

THE FOREIGNER (2017, Martin Campbell)

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017 Taika Waititi)
LADY BIRD (2017, Greta Gerwig)


GET OUT (2017, Jordan Peele)

PHANTOM THREAD (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson)

MARIUS (1931, Alexander Korda)

FANNY (1932, Marc Allegret)

CESAR (1936, Marcel Pagnol)

KILLER OF SHEEP (1978, Charles Burnett)

THE STUDENT NURSES (1970, Stephanie Rothman)

IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER (1955, Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen)


THE CHALLENGE (2016, Yuri Ancarani)

THE INCIDENT (1967, Larry Peerce)

KILLING GROUND (2016, Damien Power)

OBIT (2016, Vanessa Gould)

THE SALESMAN (2016, Asghar Farhadi)

ELLE (2016, Paul Verhoeven)

And three television series that were just as essential to me:

TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN (2017, David Lynch)

GODLESS (2017, Scott Frank)

THE KEEPERS (2017, Ryan White)

2017 Favorites: Matt St. John

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

Matt St. John is Project Assistant for the Cinematheque and a Programmer for the Wisconsin Film Festival.

I enjoyed many new movies this year, but these are the ones I just couldn’t shake.

1. FACES PLACES (2017, Agnès Varda & JR)

2. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017, Luca Guadagnino)

3. EX LIBRIS: THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY (2017, Frederick Wiseman)

4. STRONG ISLAND (2017, Yance Ford)

5. DINA (2017, Dan Sickles & Antonio Santini)

6. PARIS 05:59: THÉO & HUGO (2016, Olivier Ducastel & Jacques Martineau)

7. WONDERSTRUCK (2017, Todd Haynes)

8. PRINCESS CYD (2017, Stephen Cone)

9. QUEST (2017, Jonathan Olshefski)

10. THOR: RAGNAROK (2017, Taika Waititi)

2017 Favorites: Mike King

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

Mike King is a Programmer for the Cinematheque and Senior Programmer for the Wisconsin Film Festival

Top ten new films to play Madison in 2017:

DINA (2016, Dan Sickles & Antonio Santini)

ELLE (2016, Paul Verhoeven)

FRAUD (2016, Dean Fleischer-Camp)

A GHOST STORY (2017, David Lowery)

GOOD TIME (2017, Josh & Benny Safdie)

NOCTURAMA (2016, Bertrand Bonello)

THE ORNITHOLOGIST (2016, João Pedro Rodrigues)

PATERSON (2016, Jim Jarmusch)

PERSON TO PERSON (2017, Dustin Guy Defa)

PERSONAL SHOPPER (2016, Olivier Assayas)

Plus three more, just as good:

AQUARIUS (2016, Kleber Mendonça Filho)

THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017, Sean Baker)

NERUDA (2016, Pablo Larraín)

2017 Favorites: Jim Healy

Sunday, December 31st, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

Jim Healy is Director of Programming of the UW Cinematheque and the Wisconsin Film Festival.

I don't think I saw any one movie this year that gave me as much pleasure as the new season of David Lynch's TWIN PEAKS did, but of all the individual movies I saw for the first time in 2017, these were my very favorites:

In alphabetical order:

DUNKIRK (2017, Christopher Nolan)

THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK (1940, Robert Florey)

THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017, Sean Baker)

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017, James Gunn)

AN INN IN TOKYO (1935, Yasujiro Ozu)

LOGAN (2017, James Mangold)



THE POST (2017, Steven Spielberg)



I also got a lot of enjoyment from these movies, presented in alphabetical order:

L’AFFAIRE MAURIZIUS (1954, Julien Duvivier)
LES AFFAMES (2017, Robin Aubert)
AFTERIMAGE (2016, Andrzej Wajda)
ALIAS JIMMY VALENTINE (1915, Maurice Tourneur)
ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (2017, Ridley Scott)
APOSTASY (2017, Dan Kokotaljo)
AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON (1962, Yasujiro Ozu)
BACHELOR FLAT (1962, Frank Tashlin)
BAD DAY FOR THE CUT (2017, Chris Baugh)
THE BARGAIN (1914, Thomas Ince)
BEAST (2017, Michael Pearce)
BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017, Miguel Arteta)
THE BOOGENS (1981. James L. Conway)
IL BOOM (1963, Vittorio De Sica)
BRAD'S STATUS (2017, Mike White)
THE BRAT (1931, John Ford)
THE BULLET TRAIN (1975, Junya Sato)
BY SIDNEY LUMET (2015, Nancy Buirski)
THE CARIBOO TRAIL (1950, Edwin L. Marin)
CASTING (2017, Nicolas Wackerbarth)
CATCH THE WIND (2017, Gael Morel)
CÉSAR (1936, Marcel Pagnol)
COCK OF THE AIR (1934, Tom Livingston)
COCO (2017, Lee Unkrich)
COLUMBUS (2017, Kogonada)
CRAIG’S WIFE (1936, Dorothy Arzner)
D.O.A. (1949, Rudolph Maté)
DAMSEL IN DISTRESS (1937, George Stevens)
DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME (2016, Bill Morrison)
THE DEATH OF STALIN (2017, Armando Iannucci)
DESPERATE LIVING (1977, John Waters)
DIRIGIBLE (1931, Frank Capra)
THE DONOR (2016, Zang Qiwu)
DON’T FORGET ME (2017, Ram Nehari)
DOWNSIZING (2017, Alexander Payne)
ECSTASY (1933, Gustav Machaty)
THE END OF SUMMER (1961, Yasujiro Ozu)
UNA ESPECIE DE FAMILIA (2017, Diego Lerman)
DER FAN (1982, Eckhart Schmidt)
FANNY (1932, Marc Allegret)
FIRSTBORN (2017, Aik Karapetian)
FLOATING WEEDS (1959, Yasujiro Ozu)
FOR THEM THAT TRESPASS (1949, Cavalcanti)
FORBIDDEN GAMES (1951, Réne Clément)
THE FOREIGNER (2017, Martin Campbell)
FOREVER PURE (2016, Maya Zinstein)
GET OUT (2017, Jordan Peele)
GILBERT (2017, Neil Berkeley)
THE GOOD DIE YOUNG (1954, Lewis Gilbert)
THE GREAT SINNER (1949, Robert Siodmak)
THE GREAT WALL (2016, Zhang Yimou)
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017, Michael Gracey)
HELL ON FRISCO BAY (1955, Frank Tuttle)
HIGH SCHOOL (1968, Frederick Wiseman)
HITLER’S MADMAN (1943, Douglas Sirk)
I REMEMBER MAMA (1946, George Stevens)
INSIDE OUT (1975, Peter Duffell)
INVISIBLE GHOST (1941, Joseph H. Lewis)
IT'S LOVE I'M AFTER (1937, Archie Mayo)
THE GRASSHOPPER (1970, Jerry Paris)
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973, Norman Jewison)
JIM AND ANDY: THE GREAT BEYOND...(2017, Chris Smith)
JOHN WICK, CHAPTER 2 (2017, Chad Stahelski)
THE KID FROM SPAIN (1932, Leo McCarey)
KIDNAP (2017, Luis Prieto)
KILLING GROUND (2016, Damien Power)
KOKO: A TALKING GORILLA (1978, Barbet Schroeder)
LADY BIRD (2017, Greta Gerwig)
THE LADY IN RED (1979, Lewis Teague)
THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1935, Ernest B. Schoedsack)
LATE AUTUMN (1960, Yasujiro Ozu)
THE LETTER NEVER SENT (1959, Mikhail Kalatozov)
LION (2016, Garth Davis)
LITTLE WING (2016, Selma Vilhunen)
MARIUS (1931, Alexander Korda)
THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (2017, Noah Baumbach)
LA MOGLIE PIU BELLA (1970, Damiano Damiani)
MOM AND DAD (2017, Brian Taylor)
NAPALM (2017, Claude Lanzmann)
THE NIGHT VISITOR (1970, Laszlo Benedek)
1984 (1956, Michael Anderson)
NORTHERN PURSUIT (1943, Raoul Walsh)
ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO (1964, Larry Peerce)
THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE (2017, Aki Kaurismaki)
OUR SOULS AT NIGHT (2017, Ritesh Batra)
PANIQUE (1947, Julien Duvivier)
PARTS THE CLONUS HORROR (1979, Steven Fiveson)
PATERSON (2016, Jim Jarmusch)
PATTI CAKE$ (2017, Geremy Jasper)
PERSON TO PERSON (2017, Dustin Guy Defa)
THE PHANTOM OF CRESTWOOD (1932, J. Walter Ruben)
THE POLKA KING (2017, Maya Forbes)
RANDOM HARVEST (1942, Mervyn LeRoy)
RAVENS (2017, Jens Assur)
RHUBARB (1951, Arthur Lubin)
RILEY THE COP (1928, John Ford)
RING OF SPIES/RING OF TREASON (1963, Robert Tronson)
ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. (2017, Dan Gilroy)
ROMAN SCANDALS (1933, Frank Tuttle)
SAVING BRINTON (2017, T. Haines/J. Richard/A. Sherburne)
THE SHADOW OF THE CAT (1961, John Gilling)
SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM/BLAZING MAGNUM (1976, Alberto De Martino/Martin Herbert)
SILENCE (2016, Martin Scorsese)
SMALL CRIMES (2017, Evan Katz)
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017, Rian Johnson)
STREET SCENE (1931, King Vidor)
STREETWISE (1984, Martin Bell)
STRIKE ME PINK (1936, Norman Taurog)
THE STUDENT NURSES (1970, Stephanie Rothman)
TAKE ME (2017, Pat Healy)
TERMINAL ISLAND (1973, Stephanie Rothman)
THERE WAS A FATHER (1942, Yasujiro Ozu)
THESE THREE (1936, William Wyler)
THIRST (1979, Rod Hardy)
TITICUT FOLLIES (1967, Frederick Wiseman)
TONI ERDMANN (2016, Maren Ade)
TORMENTO (1950, Raffaello Matarazzo)
THE TRAVELER (1974, Abbas Kiarostami)
THE TRIAL OF VIVIENNE WARE (1932, William K. Howard)
TWICE-TOLD TALES (1963, Sidney Salkow)
THE WALL (2017, Doug Liman)
THE WHIP HAND (1951, Wm. Cameron Menzies)
WIGILIA (2016, Graham Drysdale)
WIND RIVER (2017, Taylor Sheridan)
WOLF GUY (1975, Kazuhiko Yamaguchi)


COVER GIRL: The Pearl of Columbia, 1944

Tuesday, December 12th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Cover Girl (1944) were written by Amanda McQueen, faculty assistant in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A newly restored 4K DCP of Cover Girl will screen in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, December 15 at 7 p.m.

By Amanda McQueen

In 1942, Bob Taplinger, publicity chief at Columbia Pictures, hit upon an idea for a film and magazine tie-up, in which real-life models would be featured in a musical, appropriately titled Cover Girl. Fifteen publications, including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, and Look, agreed to participate. These publicity stunt origins are belied, however, by the ingenuity and skill that Gene Kelly brought to the finished picture. Though not as well-known as the musicals he would subsequently make with MGM’s famous Freed Unit, Cover Girl first showed the world what Kelly was capable of and launched him to stardom.

From the start, Cover Girl was intended for Rita Hayworth, Columbia’s biggest star and the favorite pin-up girl for millions of GIs, but the studio struggled to transform Taplinger’s concept into a suitable screenplay. Ultimately, Columbia chief Harry Cohn brought in Virginia Van Upp, an established screenwriter and script doctor at Paramount. Van Upp’s screenplay for Cover Girl is conventional, but perfectly suited to Hayworth’s talents and star image. Hayworth (singing voice dubbed by Martha Mears) plays Rusty Parker, a dancer at a small Brooklyn night club. Magazine publisher John Coudair (Otto Kruger), spurred by memories of his lost love Maribelle (also Hayworth), selects Rusty to be his new cover girl, whisking her into the world of high society—much to the dismay of her boss and fiancé, Danny McGuire (Kelly). Ultimately, Rusty must decide between a life of honest, hard work with Danny, or a life of glamour and ease with Broadway impresario Noel Wheaton (Lee Bowman). Of course, there’s little doubt who Rusty will choose.

Columbia spared no expense shaping Cover Girl into a prestige production worthy of its top leading lady. As one of Hollywood’s smaller studios, Columbia had fewer resources at its disposal, but the prosperity of the early-1940s had led the company to increase its budgets, particularly for top-tier productions. Cover Girl was thus Columbia’s second ever Technicolor film, and for a while, held the studio record for longest shooting schedule. The production grew so large, in fact, that Columbia had to rent shooting space at outside facilities. Further adding to its prestige, the musical marked the first collaboration between legendary songsmiths Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin. Given the film’s importance, Cohn actually considered producing it himself, but instead hired Broadway songwriter and producer Arthur Schwartz to make his Hollywood debut. It is thanks to Schwartz that Cover Girl evolved from standard big-budget musical into something truly special.

Cover Girl had been in production for several weeks without a leading man when Gene Kelly was finally cast in July 1943. Kelly had jumped from Broadway to Hollywood in 1941, but his home studio of MGM didn’t know what to do with him and gave him little creative involvement in his projects. Cohn objected to Kelly’s looks, but Schwartz borrowed him from MGM anyway, even agreeing to let him choreograph his own numbers. Kelly, working for the first time with his future co-director Stanley Donen, took full advantage of this creative freedom, exploring the cinematic possibilities of the musical genre. Even today, scenes like the “Alter-Ego Dance,” in which Danny dance-battles with his own superimposed reflection, make it clear why contemporary critics hailed Cover Girl as “a milestone in screen musical history.”

Upon its release in March 1944, Cover Girl was an instant hit. It broke box office records at Radio City Music Hall, and its signature tune, “Long Ago (And Far Away),” was the year’s #2 song on the Hit Parade. Audiences loved it, and so it’s no surprise—particularly given its optimistic depiction of the war—that Cover Girl was the first film screened for GIs in France following the D-Day victory. Though some critics thought the plot cliche, others praised Van Upp’s “inspired” script, with its compact balance of drama, romance, comedy, and music. Cohn rewarded Van Upp by promoting her to producer; as one of only three women producing in Hollywood, she would go on to co-write and produce Hayworth’s most famous film, Gilda (1946). Most critics concurred, moreover, that Hayworth and Kelly were perfect. They have excellent chemistry—especially when dancing—and it’s a shame they never worked together again. Hayworth gives one of her best performances, and the film’s success cemented her as one of the biggest box office attractions in the world.

But Cover Girl also made it clear that Gene Kelly was more than a capable contract player: he was a star. And not only that—Kelly’s work in Cover Girl was said to be on par with “Fred Astaire’s greatest triumphs,” proof that he was capable of challenging Astaire for the dancing crown. In fact, in 1949, when Columbia re-issued Cover Girl with You Were Never Lovelier (1942) starring Hayworth and Astaire, enterprising exhibitors promoted the double feature as “Astaire vs. Kelly: The Dance Battle of the Century.” Back at MGM, Kelly was now permitted to choreograph his own musical numbers, beginning with Anchors Aweigh (1945). The rest is film musical history.

In 1952, Picturegoer magazine looked back on Cover Girl as “a shrewd combination of screen art and entertainment and a forerunner of On the Town and An American in Paris.” The musical certainly presages the pinnacle of Kelly’s career and what many consider the Golden Age of the Hollywood musical; this is perhaps why Kelly returned to the character of Danny McGuire forty years later in Xanadu (1980). But Cover Girl is charming on its own merits. Its Oscar win for Best Musical Score is well deserved, as are its nominations for Best Color Cinematography and Best Art Direction. Charles Vidor’s direction is brisk, and the supporting cast is strong, particularly Phil Silvers, who provides just the right amount of corn, and Eve Arden, who injects a much-needed dose of cynical wit. The nearly perfect way in which Cover Girl’s elements come together make it much like the pearl at the heart of its plot: a rare and magical thing.

Roller Skates and Existential Crises: IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER

Wednesday, December 6th, 2017
Posted by Matt St John

These notes on Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's It's Always Fair Weather were written by Lillian Holman, PhD candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of It's Always Fair Weather will screen in our Gene Kelly series on Friday, December 8 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. 

By Lillian Holman

During one of the major flirtation scenes in It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), Ted (Gene Kelly) turns to Jackie (Cyd Charisse), and says: “You’re inhibited.” Coming from Kelly, that is the worst possible insult. Whether it be in Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, On the Town, The Pirate, or a whole host of other MGM musicals, Gene Kelly would always rather be dancing, and for Kelly, dancing is freedom. Luckily for him, the audience usually has no objections to such a desire. Weather is the third film directed by both Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly and also starring Kelly. Previously the pair worked together on On the Town (1949) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

The two borrow freely from their previous successes in It’s Always Fair Weather. On the Town tells the story of sailors from the Navy on leave for one night in New York, and Weather picks up on the story of three men just out of the Army after World War II is over. While the military may not be the first thought that comes to mind when you think of singing and dancing, it provides a cohesive unit for Kelly to work with in terms of choreography. These men are bonded by circumstance both emotionally and physically which makes them an ideal dance group. In both films, the men are not just members of their military unit, they literally move as a unit. This is seen more obviously in the musical numbers, but it is also apparent in the way they interact with their non-musical environments as well. The mischief that Ted, Doug, and Angie get into in the bar at the very beginning of Weather is only possible through perfect coordination akin to the same choreography as the drunk sequence just a few minutes later. Meanwhile, the allusions to Singin’ in the Rain are not really present (except for Charisse’s green dress) until Ted falls in love. It turns out Gene Kelly in love looks the same in pretty much every movie. Just like Rain, he wanders into the street, bats his eyelashes a bit, and then starts to glide in time with the music and his own sonorous voice. In Rain, his partner is his umbrella and a lamppost with no one out to watch him but one grumpy old man. In Weather, he exchanges a partner for roller-skates and solitude for a crowd, but since he doesn’t seem to care one wit about the crowd, the tone is identical. He is so overflowing with love, he must dance. Nothing else matters and he lets us in on his joy almost by accident.

With these two homages to some of the most joyful movie experiences ever filmed, it would be easy to assume that Weather is a similarly carefree experience. What is odd and notable about the film, however, is the somewhat more subdued tone that envelops even the most exuberant of the musical numbers. The film centers on the reunion of the three soldiers ten years after they have been discharged. Each has moved on from his life as a mischievous, young man and each is dissatisfied with their grown life for different reasons. If the three sailors who had only 24 hours in New York in On the Town had to beat the clock, in It’s Always Fair Weather the clock has beaten the three soldiers. If in Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly was the picture of confidence, in Weather Kelly is the picture of insecurity. If Kelly’s love makes him sing in the face of bad weather in Singin’ in the Rain, in Weather he sings that “she likes me so I like myself.” This translates into other numbers too. If “Make ‘Em Laugh,” the delightfully nonsensical tour de force by Donald O’Connor, was the comedic centerpiece of Rain, in Weather it is Dan Dailey’s drunken charades at the workplace party. In the Rain sequence, O’Connor means to cheer Kelly up, while in Weather, Dailey, beset by marital problems, is so desperate to cheer himself up, he is driven to drink.  Ultimately, while It’s Always Fair Weather has the same bright colors and names on the marquee as Singin’ in the Rain and On the Town, the slight differences reveal its greater kinship to the films of the 1950s that explore the darker side of post-war American life, like Bigger Than Life, All that Heaven Allows, and A Star is Born.

Almodóvar's Ambivalence: TALK TO HER

Wednesday, November 29th, 2017
Posted by Matt St John

These notes on Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her were written by Erica Moulton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Talk to Her will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series of Almodóvar's work on Sunday, December 3 at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art's auditorium.

By Erica Moulton

Talk to Her is Pedro Almodóvar’s first film of the new millennium, and it finds him both reflecting upon his legacy and relying on some of his favorite filmmaking strategies, most notably his use of metadramatic elements, while also turning his eye forward for a contemporary reappraisal of the most sustained theme in his body of work: obsession. The result of this revisitation is a film that is rapturously beautiful and deeply unsettling in equal measure. It has been fifteen years since the film was released, and yet, recent headlines in Hollywood only make this film more disturbing and relevant as it concerns two men and their attractions to women who are in comas.

Almodóvar introduces the main characters, Marco and Benigno, sitting side by side at a performance of Pina Bausch’s modern dance “Cafe Müller,” in which a female performer rushes across a stage strewn with chairs, relying on the male performer to move them out of her way. The two main female characters in this film unknowingly find themselves dependent on men for their physical well-being, a theme that Almodóvar develops in both strands of his story, one dealing with the relationship between the journalist Marco and a female matador named Lydia, and the other the story of male nurse Benigno’s obsession with a comatose ballerina named Alicia. We see the women before their accidents, both involved in physically demanding careers, and then for the remainder of the film, their bodies are limp, bending to the will of their male caretakers.

In giving us two couples, Almodóvar invites us to draw comparisons between the men and their situations. Marco seems to be the more stable force in the film, as he has an established relationship with Lydia before her coma, and Almodóvar spends more time depicting their interactions at the beginning of the film. Benigno is the more leery presence in the film, and his connection to Alicia before her coma borders on stalker behavior. He leaps at the opportunity to become her nurse, and even lies to Alicia’s father about being gay to assuage his suspicions about the devotion Benigno shows for his patient. Despite the generally creepy tone struck by Almodóvar, critics at the time of the film’s release found the men’s treatment of their somnolent partners to be both unsettling and commendable. Roger Ebert wrote that “both men seem happy to devote their lives to women who do not, and may never, know of their devotion. There is something selfless in their dedication, but something selfish, too, because what they are doing is for their own benefit; the patients would be equally unaware of treatment whether it was kind or careless.” Characterizing devotion in a relationship that is so entirely one-sided as selfless is potentially dangerous, and yet, I think Ebert’s reaction is wholly in line with the message that Almodóvar sought to convey with Talk to Her. Perhaps that is why the film is all the more troubling now, when the harm of men exerting control over female bodies is such a painfully visible part of our national dialog.

Almodóvar engages every facet of his storytelling apparatus to present the darker undertones of Benigno’s character with ambivalence, most notably in the sequence where he shows a film-within-a-film called “The Shrinking Man.” The sequence is notable for its comically shocking and fantastical presentation of the female anatomy, but the director’s comments about this metadramatic interlude prove that even in his most outrageous moments, he is making shrewd narrative decisions. In an interview with The Guardian, Almodóvar alludes to the function of “The Shrinking Man,” saying that “with this silent film, I wanted to hide what was going on in the clinic [where Benigno bathes Alicia]. I wanted to cover it up in the best cinematic way and in an entertaining manner. Benigno had become like a friend of mine, although I wrote the character. Sometimes, you don't want to see things that your friends do. I didn't want to show Benigno doing what he did in the clinic. I also did not want to show the audience that image. So I put the silent movie in there to hide what was happening.”

Almodóvar’s comments are revealing. His desire to be ambivalent towards a character that may or may not be committing horrific acts is problematic, yet it’s perhaps an understandable impulse. It is easier not to see. But is it right to ignore the truth when it is in front of you?

I don’t know how well this film will continue to age, but Almodóvar’s commitment to the beauty and power of cinema makes his films hard to ignore, even as they tap into the most uncomfortable aspects of life. His films are never easy, nor should they be.

Oh No, Let’s Go!: Romero's THE CRAZIES

Wednesday, November 29th, 2017
Posted by Matt St John

These notes on George A. Romero's The Crazies were written by WUD Film’s Vincent Mollica. A DCP of the film will screen as part of a tribute to the late director on Saturday, December 2 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Vincent Mollica

George A. Romero built a relationship with the distributor Cambist working on There’s Always Vanilla, his 1971 non-supernatural follow up to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, and the company then approached him to work on a script entitled “The Mad People.” The script introduced the key plot elements of what would become The Crazies, which follows the military cover up of a leaked neurological weapon that drives inhabitants of a small town to become deranged and murderous. Cambist wanted a film that was more action driven than the initial screenplay, so Romero was brought in to rewrite and direct the film that they would help produce and distribute. Always the political satirist, Romero was careful to maintain aspects of the original script’s intellectual nature.

Like Night, The Crazies was a decidedly non-Hollywood production shot in Evans City, Pennsylvania, and although it was Romero’s first SAG film, they still largely used performers from the Evans City and Pittsburgh areas. Many volunteers round out the large film cast, including local high schoolers enlisted to play the white-suited soldiers that haunt the film. Indeed, the town raised issues with elements of the film, including its incestuous rape scene (which led to the crew being locked out of the high school) and, more dubiously, a scene of a black man stripping his clothes.

Once finished, the film endured a difficult release. Romero argues that although Night had been made five years earlier, it hadn’t entered its “re-release phase” and as a result The Crazies couldn’t use its success as a marketing hook. Either way, Cambist was fresh and inexperienced, and the film was sold incorrectly and placed in the wrong markets. “It’s a potboiler, a B movie, an action melodrama … and it needed to be played that way,” Romero remarked to Film Comment in 1979.  The few reviews it received at the time were mixed, although The New York Times and Variety provided downright scathing write ups.

A notable exception would come long after its release in Robin Wood’s political appraisals of Romero’s work, along with many other ‘70s horror films. Most notably, he offers great insight on The Crazies in his 1986 book Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan, where he describes it as an “ambitious and neglected work.”

In some ways, it’s easy to understand this mixed reaction, because The Crazies is a bewildering experience for many reasons. As far as the story, Robin Wood describes the way in which the viewer is never aware of who is “crazy” and who is not. Romero’s style is also overwhelming. “It’s a very brutally paced, unrelenting kind of a piece,” Romero said in an interview with Sam Nicotero while the film was still in production. In the film’s Blu-ray commentary, he describes its style as “staccato” and “cubist,” capturing images from many different angles, and he says, “I’d rather have 100 lousy shots than one great one.” The result is a feeling of constant freneticism, spread across scenes both of helicopter shoot outs and government bureaucracy.

The weight of the violence presented is also difficult to grasp. The film picked up on its political moment, following a grossly abusive and overreaching military presence in a small town. In a 1977 interview, Romero said, “At the time I made it, we were still in Vietnam and it was a very heartfelt problem, a part of the national consciousness and I don’t think anyone was ready to see that situation––even though it’s not a Vietnam film, it’s an anti-military film.” One of the most unsettling scenes of the movie occurs when a priest, deeply angered by the military’s evacuation of his church, lights himself on fire. It is an immediately recognizable visual reference to Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation, which Romero acknowledges in the film’s commentary. Women’s Wear Daily’s (very positive!) review also brings up the film’s relationship with the Kent State shootings. This parallel becomes especially poignant during the casual military gun violence that erupts during a riot at the high school towards the film’s end.

The key to the film’s satire lies in military violence, a theme that would be picked up in the great Day of the Dead, but even removed from a political context, the most unsettling element of the film is the prop that comes with the military. Each figure is dressed in white suit and gas mask, and many scenes feature these anonymous squadrons wreaking havoc across the Pennsylvania countryside. As Romero discusses in a 2014 interview with Sight and Sound, the different masked soldiers have their own personalities, much like the dynamically dressed every-person zombies of Dawn of the Dead. Romero claims, “I’m just always looking for things, you know? Like, this guy is going to walk through here, he might think, ‘Oh, look at those fishing rods. Why don’t I just grab ’em?’” It’s this touch which makes it difficult to truly be able to gauge the film’s military antagonists, who are at once both completely anonymous and unique personalities. It’s another example of the film pushing unanticipated layers on what a viewer might expect, in a way that bewilders and disturbs.