Jim Healy's Favorite Movies of 2016

Monday, January 2nd, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

By Jim Healy, Director of Programming, UW Cinematheque & Wisconsin Film Festival

Between January 1 and December 31 in 2016, I managed to view 634 feature films that I had never seen before. My list of favorites contains recent releases and other movies from throughout cinema history. I encourage you to see as many as you can.

My very favorites, in alphabetical order:

ALLIED (2016, Robert Zemeckis)

THE BFG (2016, Steven Spielberg)

BLONDE CRAZY (1932, Roy del Ruth)

DON’T BREATHE (2016, Fede Alvarez)

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016, Kelly Fremon Craig)

ELLE (2016, Paul Verhoeven)

FINDING DORY (2016, Andrew Stanton)

LA HORSE (1970, Pierre Granier-Deferre)


KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (2016, Travis Knight)

LA LA LAND (2016, Damien Chazelle)

MOANA (2016, John Musker, Ron Clements)


PATTES BLANCHE (1949, Jean Gremillon)

RAWHIDE (1951, Henry Hathaway)

SAMMY GOING SOUTH (1963, Alexander Mackendrick)

SING (2016, Garth Jennings)

THE WELL (1951, Leo Popkin & Russell Rouse)

TO EACH HIS OWN (1946, Mitchell Leisen)

ZOOTOPIA (2016, Rich Moore, Byron Howard)


I also got a lot of pleasure out of the following movies, in alphabetical order:

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016, Dan Trachtenberg)

20,000 YEARS IN SING SING (1932, Michael Curtiz)

A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE (1958, Douglas Sirk)

AFRAID TO TALK (1932, Edward L. Cahn)

ALICE IN THE CITIES (1974, Wim Wenders)

ARRIVAL (2016, Denis Villenueve)

AUTHOR: THE J.T. LEROY STORY (2016, Jeff Feuerzeig)

L'AVENIR/THINGS TO COME (2016, Mia Hansen-Love)

BACHELOR’S AFFAIRS (1932, Alfred Werker)

BACK STREET (1932, John M. Stahl)

BACKGROUND TO DANGER (1943, Raoul Walsh)

BIG CITY BLUES (1931, Mervyn LeRoy)

THE BIG BROADCAST (1932, Frank Tuttle)

THE BIG RACKET (1976, Enzo G. Castellari)

THE BIG SHAKEDOWN (1934, John Francis Dillon)


BITE THE BULLET (1975, Richard Brooks)



IL CAPPOTTO (1952, Alberto Lattuada)

CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935, Michael Curtiz)

CAROL (2015, Todd Haynes)

CENTRAL AIRPORT (1933, William A. Wellman)

CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (1932, Marcel Varnel & Wm. Cameron Menzies)

THE CHASE (1946, Arthur Ripley)

THE CINEMA TRAVELERS (2016, Shirley Abraham, Amit Madheshiya)

COLOSSAL (2016, Nacho Vigalondo)

COPS AND ROBBERS (1973, Aram Avakian)

DANTE’S INFERNO (1935, Harry Lachman)

DE PALMA (2015, Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow)

DEATH IN SARAJEVO (2016, Danis Tanovic)

DEVIL AND THE DEEP (1932, Marion Gering)

DIARY OF A MADMAN (1963, Reginald Le Borg)



DOGS (2016, Bogdan Mirica)

DOUBLE JEOPARDY (1999, Bruce Beresford)

DRAGON LORD (1982, Jackie Chan)

DRUM (1976, Steve Carver)

THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK (1933, Stuart Walker)

THE FIRST LEGION (1951, Douglas Sirk)

EL NORTE (1983, Gregory Nava)

EUROPE ’51 (1952, Roberto Rossellini)

EVER IN MY HEART (1933, Archie Mayo)

EX-LADY (1933, Robert Florey)

FALBALAS (1945, Jacques Becker)

FENCES (2016, Denzel Washington)

LES FILS DE JOSEPH (2016, Eugene Green)

FIRST GIRL I LOVED (2016, Kerem Sanga)

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS (2016, Stephen Frears)

FLYING DEUCES (1939, A. Edward Sutherland)

FRONT PAGE WOMAN (1935, Michael Curtiz)

THE GLASS WEB (1954, Jack Arnold)

GOLDSTONE (2016, Ivan Sen)

HACKSAW RIDGE (2016, Mel Gibson)

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016, Joel & Ethan Coen)

HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016, David Mackenzie)

A HEN IN THE WIND (1948, Yasujiro Ozu)

HER MAN (1930, Tay Garnett)

HER SISTER’S SECRET (1946, Edgar G. Ulmer)

HI, NELLIE! (1934, Mervyn LeRoy)

HOTEL DU NORD (1938, Marcel Carné)

A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931, William Wyler)


I SELL ANYTHING (1934, Robert Florey)

I, DANIEL BLAKE (2016, Ken Loach)

ILLEGITIM (2016, Adrian Sitaru)

THE INTERN (2015, Nancy Meyers)

JULIETA (2016, Pedro Almodóvar)



KUNG FU PANDA 3 (2016, Alessandro Carloni, Jennifer Yuh)

THE LAST CHANCE (1945, Leopoldo Lindtberg)

LAUGHTER IN HELL (1933, Edward L. Cahn)

LILIES OF THE FIELD (1963, Ralph Nelson)

LITTLE MEN (2016, Ira Sachs)

LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN (1976, Ruggero Deodato)

LA MAIN AU DIABLE (1943, Maurice Tourneur)

THE LOVE WITCH (2016, Anna Biller)

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016, Antoine Fuqua)

MALONE (1987, Harley Cokliss)

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016, Kenneth Lonergan)

MANDY (1952, Alexander Mackendrick)

MARCH OR DIE (1977, Dick Richards)

THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940, Rouben Mamoulian)

MELODIE EN SOUS-SOL (1963, Henri Verneuil)

MELODY TIME (1948, Clyde Geronimi, et al)

MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT (1968, Thomas Gutierrez Alea)

MERCENAIRE (2016, Sacha Wolff)

MESSAGE FROM THE KING (2016, Fabrice Du Welz)


MILANO ROVENTE (1973, Umberto Lenzi)


MOONLIGHT (2016, Barry Jenkins)

MORRIS FROM AMERICA (2016, Chad Hartigan)

LA MORTE RISALE A IERI SERA (1970, Duccio Tessari)

MOTHER KÜSTERS GOES TO HEAVEN (1975, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

MR. BILLION (1977, Jonathan Kaplan)

MULTIPLE MANIACS (1970, John Waters)

MUSTANG (2015, Deniz Gamze Urguven)

THE NIGHT HOLDS TERROR (1955, Andrew L. Stone)

NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER (1980, Robert Butler)

NO SAD SONGS FOR ME (1950, Rudolph Mate)

OJ: MADE IN AMERICA (2016, Ezra Edelman)

OLD ACQUAINTANCE (1943, Vincent Sherman)

L’OMBRE DES FEMMES (2015, Philippe Garrel)

PAYMENT ON DEMAND (1951, Curtis Bernhardt)

PEE-WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY (2016, John Lee)

THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1991, Stuart Gordon)

PORK CHOP HILL (1959, Lewis Milestone)

LA PROVINCIALE (1953, Mario Soldati)

QUEEN OF KATWE (2016, Mira Nair)

THE REVENANT (2015, Alejandro G. Iñárritu)

THE RICH ARE ALWAYS WITH US (1932, Alfred E. Green)

RUBY GENTRY (1952, King Vidor)

RULES DON’T APPLY (2016, Warren Beatty)

THE SATAN BUG (1965, John Sturges)

THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (1934, Harold Young)

SCUM (1979, Alan Clarke)

THE SEA WOLF (1941, Michael Curtiz)

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS (2016, Chris Renaud)

THE SHALLOWS (2016, Jaume Collet-Serra)

SI MUERO ANTES DE DESPERTAR (1952, C.H. Christensen)

SIGNORE E SIGNORI (1966, Pietro Germi)

SING STREET (2016, John Carney)

SOLO SUNNY (1980, Konrad Wolf)

LES SORCIERES DE SALEM (1957, Raymond Rouleau)

STELLA DALLAS (1925, Henry King)

THE STRANGER'S HAND (1954, Mario Soldati)

THE STUDENT (2016, Kiril Serebrennikov)

SUGAR CANE ALLEY (1983, Euzhan Palcy)

SULLY (2016, Clint Eastwood)

SWEET CHARITY (1969, Bob Fosse)

TICKLED (2016, David Farrier, Dylan Reeve)

TRUE CONFESSION (1937, Wesley Ruggles)

UN CARNET DU BAL (1937, Julien Duvivier)

UNDER THE SHADOW (2016, Babak Anvari)

THE WAYWARD BUS (1957, Victor Vicas)

WEINER (2016, Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg)

WHEN LADIES MEET (1933, Harry Beaumont)

WHEN THE WIND BLOWS (1986, Jimmy Murakami)

WHERE TO INVADE NEXT (2015, Michael Moore)

THE WITNESS (2015, James Solomon)

XMEN: APOCALYPSE (2016, Bryan Singer)

THE YOUNG MASTER (1980, Jackie Chan)

THE SNAKE PIT: Prestige, Paternal Psychoanalysis and Performance

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the 1948 drama The Snake Pit  was written by Megan Boyd, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm archival print of The Snake Pit will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series honoring the centennial of Olivia de Havilland on December 4 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art.

By Megan Boyd

It is not mere coincidence that 20th Century Fox’s unsettling film, The Snake Pit, was released the same year as the monumental Paramount decision. Even before the Paramount decision ordered studios to divest themselves of their theaters, 1940s films like The Snake Pit were rendered possible by shifting production practices and power relations between studios, directors and performers throughout the decade. Directors and performers were able to obtain some influence within the studio system, and the 1940s would be marked by these developments—developments that would allow personnel to explore controversial ‘prestige’ themes and for performers such as Oliva de Havilland to have more control over their projects.

Even before the Paramount decision in 1948, studios like Fox had already been shifting from central producers to a package-unit system that granted certain producers, directors and performers a certain amount of independence during their working process. This encouragement of certain directors and performers, particularly those associated with A pictures, to pursue riskier but more ‘artistic’ projects was partially in response to the lessening of B-level production in the 1940s. Studios now had to compete with one another primarily with A films and thus, there was increased competition to make the A projects distinctive from those of other studios. At Fox, Daryl Zanuck produced a series of ‘social problem’ projects that might have previously been considered box office poison. The Snake Pit’s use of psychoanalysis and Olivia de Havilland’s performance both demonstrate critical shifts in film content engendered by this more permissive atmosphere.

Following the critical acclaim and award onslaught for Zanuck’s Academy Award-winning Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), an indictment of anti-Semitism, Zanuck went on to produce The Snake Pit. The Snake Pit was based on Mary Jane Ward’s semi-autobiographical novel, which described a woman’s mental breakdown and experiences within a mental institution. While The Snake Pit is often examined within the context of Zanuck’s social problem films, the content of the film correlates more directly with a rising interest in psychoanalysis in 1940s American cinema. Like Gentleman’s Agreement, The Snake Pit both benefits and suffers from its 1940s cultural context. By this decade, Sigmund Freud’s notions of psychoanalysis, particularly in regards to social repression and women’s hysteria, had acquired a significant pop cultural cache. Filmmakers frequently explored character psychology, sexual repression and problematic familial relations, seen in films such as King’s Row (1941), Spellbound (1945), The Locket (1946) or Mourning Becomes Electra (1947).  As in many of these other film efforts (with the exception of Spellbound), the female mind is presented as a fragile, problematic site to be investigated.  While Ward’s novel was much more critical of mental institutions as a whole and openly addressed some of the restrictive elements of marriage that led her to her breakdown, the film adaptation, as with Gentleman’s Agreement and some of Zanuck’s other social problem films, rewrites the institutional problem as an individualized problem—often localizing blame for social injustices on female characters. For instance, many of the dislikable male nurses from the book are removed and replaced with cruel, female nurses, who are given extended sequences in the film where they are shown tying protagonist Virginia in a straight jacket or speaking harshly to other patients. The blame for Virginia’s condition is assigned in flashbacks to the cold, callous nature of her mother, which forced her to become unnaturally fixated on her father. These childhood concerns are attributed as the source of Virginia’s inability to let her husband touch her. This maternal source of Mary’s breakdown differs from the blame placed on marital discord and stifling domesticity present throughout Ward’s autobiography. Finally, while the character Virginia is equally critical of her male doctors in the book, Virginia’s male doctor in the film is portrayed as a sympathetic savior—the only one willing to treat Virginia like a human being. In the book, Virginia critiques, “I do not like thee, Dr. Kik. I think you are rather silly.” This is quite a contrast from Virginia’s reliance on Dr. Kik and male diagnosis in the film, where she instantly accepts his judgment with responses such as, “It’s funny…everything you’ve said makes sense. I feel as though I know it.” The troubles of mental and marital institutions then, are reassigned to ‘nasty’ women—the callousness of the institutions’ nurses, Virginia’s mother and Virginia’s own frigidity.

Despite the troubling nature of the film’s recasting of institutional problems, the film presents Olivia de Havilland in a memorable performance. De Havilland’s treatment by film scholars often seems to reflect her treatment by characters in her films; she is never a source of fascination or fixation, but rather, acknowledged as dependable and competent. Yet de Havilland’s double Academy Award-winning career, particularly in the 1940s, was nothing short of remarkable. Though de Havilland began her career in sweet, ingénue roles, such as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) or Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), she transformed her career (partially thanks to a lawsuit against Warner Brothers that encouraged more freedom of choice in actors’ selection of screen roles) by specializing in plain or somewhat unsympathetic characters that are underestimated by those around them. These were the crowing achievements of her career—not the seductive or glamorous roles embodied by many of the 1940s female stars, from Rita Hayworth to Betty Grable.

De Havilland’s performance as Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939) provided a blueprint for many of her memorable 1940s screen performances, including The Snake Pit. De Havilland performs Melanie largely as a sweet, liltingly voiced character, almost too gentle for this world—until she begins to create key vocal shifts in moments of surprising grit. The audience is almost taken aback when, having gotten used to the contrast between Melanie’s sweetness and Scarlett’s spirit, Scarlett has shot a Northern soldier and Melanie emerges from her room to pronounce in a low, husky voice (while holding a sword), “Scarlett, you killed him. Good. I’m glad you killed him.” This ability to shift abruptly from lilting to harsh vocal tones remained a key staple throughout de Havilland’s most acclaimed performances. De Havilland incorporates this in The Snake Pit as we see the contrast between early moments of happiness between Virginia and her husband and Virginia’s later jarring screeches and cynical, dry narration in the mental institution. The performance contrasts are perhaps most effectively employed in de Havilland’s Academy Award-winning appearance the following year in The Heiress (1949), in which the audience watches de Havilland’s plain, naïve protagonist gradually shift to a bitter, stronger woman determined to teach her former, fortune-hunting suitor a lesson. That de Havilland could remain such a star in the 1940s, when her Academy Award nominated performances contain such a lack of romance—even bordering on the grotesque—is particularly worthy of note in a decade not often seen as opportunity-laden for female film performers.

Please enjoy The Snake Pit, both for its place within a radically shifting 1940s film industry and for Olivia de Havilland’s unusual position amongst Hollywood screen heroines.

Please Give to the Cinematheque Today!

Tuesday, November 29th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

"Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else's life for a while. I can walk in somebody' else's shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.

This is a liberalizing influence on me. It gives me a broader mind. It helps me to join my family of men and women on this planet. It helps me to identify with them, so I'm not just stuck being myself, day after day.

The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people."

Roger Ebert
As we approach the end of 2016, we hope you can reflect on how the UW Cinematheque has enriched your life this year.

This year, the Cinematheque has presented nearly 150 screenings and programs, all for free, in our regular venues at 4070 Vilas Hall, the Chazen Museum of Art, and the Marquee Theater at Union South. Our selections have included series devoted to 1960s musicals, new restorations from UCLA, new cinema from Mexico, Italian restorations, French tough guy actors, one-shot directors, and heroines of anime. Plus, retrospectives that paid homage to acclaimed international directors like Wim Wenders, Ingmar Bergman, and Brian De Palma, as well as centennial celebrations for the great movie stars Kirk Douglas and Olivia de Havilland. We welcomed speakers and artists like writer/director Andrew Bergman, UW Professor and author David Bordwell, filmmakers Peter Flynn and Ted Nakamura, and Robert Ryan biographer J.R. Jones. We brought you the first and, in some cases, only area theatrical screenings of such acclaimed new movies as Hitchcock-Truffaut;Miguel Gomes' epic Arabian Nights; Chantal Akerman's final work, No Home Movie; Brady Corbet's The Childhood of a Leader; Roberto Minervini's The Other Side; and coming up in December, Lewis Klahr's mesmerizing Sixty Six.

The equipment in our projection booth at the Cinematheque's main venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, allows us to maintain the highest standards of digital and 35mm film exhibition. Our venues remain a rarefied regular exhibitor of films shown in their beautiful, original 35mm format.

Our upcoming January-May calendar will begin with an exciting four-day series of programs in 3-D, presented with temporarily installed special equipment. Other early 2016 series will focus on Fox film restorations from the New York's Museum of Modern Art collection; the music of John Williams; and the avant-garde masterworks of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. You can also look forward to a healthy offering of new international cinema in our Premiere Showcase selections and other series!

Cinematheque screenings will continue to be free and open to the public, but we still rely on donations from our audiences to keep our technical facilities up-to-date. Please help us in providing the Cinematheque with the most exciting film programming in the region by clicking here and making a donation today to the Cinematheque's Friends of Film fund.

See you at the Cinematheque!

Jim Healy, Director of Programming

Exit Shakespeare: STRANGE BREW

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Dave Thomas' & Rick Moranis' Strange Brew (1983) was written be Leo Rubinkowski, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Strange Brew will screen at the Chazen Museum of Art on Thursday, November 17 at 6 p.m.. The screening is one of two adaptations of Shakespeare's Hamlet presented in conjunction with the Chazen's presentation of the First Shakespeare Folio through December 11.

By Leo Rubinkowski

Here’s the short version:

Last week, Hamlet (1948): “Good night, sweet prince: And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”
This week, Strange Brew (1983): “Take off, you hoser!”

If you don’t like it, take off, eh!

Here’s the long version:

From their first appearance in 1980 as hosts of SCTV’s fictional talk-show segment “Great White North,” the McKenzies were defined by genial irreverence. At the time, SCTV’s half-hour broadcasts to Canadian audiences included two extra minutes of programming compared to the broadcasts syndicated for NBC affiliates in the United States. Seeing an opportunity for cultural outreach, the Canadian Broadcasting Company required that SCTV devote the time to uniquely “Canadian content.” Seeing an opportunity for mischief, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas complied by inventing Bob and Doug, respectively, avatars of the Canadian spirit who spent their time frying back-bacon, drinking beer, eating jelly donuts, and discussing issues of national significance (like how to fit a mouse into a beer bottle).

The McKenzie sketches were bare-bones—two actors improvising two-minute bits back-to-back-to-back for an hour with a single cameraman after the rest of SCTV’s crew had left for the night—but they proved wildly popular, both at home and south of the border. (When SCTV occasionally ran short, network affiliates in the US made up the difference by running the longer Canadian version with the McKenzie bits.) In 1981, Moranis and Thomas released a comedy album as their alter-egos titled “The Great White North,” which charted in the US and Canada and earned the duo a Grammy nomination for Best Comedy Album in 1983. A feature film seemed like a reasonable next step.

(Enter Shakespeare.)

At a glance, Strange Brew is very obviously based on Hamlet. (Why else would we have paired the two for a Cinematheque series?) In place of the Danish royal family’s estate, Elsinore, we get Elsinore Brewery. Rather than King Hamlet’s murder by his brother Claudius, who usurps his throne and steals his wife, Uncle Claude takes over the family brewery as a lackey of Brewmeister Smith, who murdered John Elsinore (Claude’s brother) to keep him from exposing a plan to take over the world through tainted beer. Instead of Hamlet and Ophelia, who both end up very dead, Pam Elsinore and one-time hockey great Jean LeRose save the day while very much alive. Finally, the comic relief: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the original, and the McKenzies here. (Is there a Hosehead-Laertes connection I’ve missed? Oh! I forgot the play-within-the play, which is reproduced in minute detail as The Mutants of 2051 AD.)

If the correspondences look cursory, and if any perceived homages feel indelicate, that’s because they are. Taking Dave Thomas at his word, he and Rick Moranis faced a pair of problems in developing the McKenzies for the big screen, and Shakespeare solved both problems. First, their executive producer at SCTV had threatened to sue the pair for breach of contract if they wrote a movie using their “Great White North” characters, so they handed off the initial script-writing duties to Steve De Jarnatt. Second, Bob and Doug were products of improvisation; neither Moranis nor Thomas was fully prepared to develop a 90-minute script for two characters who spent their lives on a couch. Rather than leave De Jarnatt with nothing, though, they offered him Hamlet, saying “Why don’t you play with that structure. That’s at least a story that works.”

And that’s about as far as Shakespeare influenced Strange Brew (at least as far as I can tell).

(Exit Shakespeare.)

With a script in hand, Moranis and Thomas had no trouble securing a distribution deal with MGM. At the same time, the two actually rewrote a good deal of the script, because they felt that their improvisational style hadn’t been adequately reproduced in the first draft. What could they add to Shakespeare? Basically anything that entertains despite (or because of) its cartoonish absurdity. Some portions of the script toward the end were re-worked (apparently, Hosehead couldn’t fly in the first go-around), but Dave Thomas points primarily to the first half of the film, when he said: "…the opening of the movie, if you look at it texturally, is quite different than the back half. The back half really locks into the story of the evil Brewmeister trying to take over the world, whereas [in] the beginning of the movie Bob and Doug present a little sci-fi with Rick as Charlton Heston at the end of the world…picking up a miniature Statue of Liberty and…then we’re in a movie theater watching our own movie and we release moths, cause a riot, and end up having to run out of our own movie premiere. The script was far more bizarre and conceptual in the beginning than it ended up being at the end. If we had been able to rewrite the whole thing, we would have made the whole thing like that probably, but we weren’t sure how far we could go with the studio."

When Strange Brew hit North American screens in late August 1983, Janet Maslin of the New York Times called it “a movie that’s barely there,” assuring her readers that the cost of admission “could buy enough beer for an experience at least as memorable as this one.” With all due respect to Maslin, she must not have been watching in the preferred 3-B. While allowing that the plot isn’t exactly air-tight (“Tunnel to the brewery? Take off! How convenient!”) and acknowledging that it lacks the emotional and psychological force of, say, The Merchant of Venice, viewers should also keep in mind that this isn’t Shakespeare. A better point of comparison, in fact, is offered right in the film: cartoons. In MGM’s Tom & Jerry shorts (to say nothing of the Merry Melodies and Looney Tunes libraries owned by Warner Bros.), basic rules of logic don’t apply. The same goes for the universe inhabited by Bob and Doug; critical comparisons to the real world (or to basic standards of dramatic narrative) just get in the way. It’s easier to suspend expectations and be perpetually surprised at the antics of these two lovable goofballs and at the inarguable novelty of their adventures.

Oh! Beauty!


Friday, November 11th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the 1935 Warner Bros. adaptation of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written by Erica Moulton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of A Midsummer Night's Dream will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen retrospective honoring the centennial of Olivia de Havilland on Sunday, November 13 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art. Shakespeare's First Folio will be on display at the Chazen through December 11.

By Erica Moulton

Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s 1935 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream tests the elasticity of Shakespeare’s comedies and how effectively they can be translated into the Hollywood mold. The film was made with the best of artistic intentions, with the accomplished theatre director Reinhardt coming to work for Warner Brothers after fleeing Germany. His vision of Midsummer was set in an entirely fantastical, supernatural landscape, an Athenian forest lit by thousands of twinkling fairy lights, illuminating the mirth and mayhem that unfolds. The film succeeds on a number of fronts, being both an opulent spectacle and a lively recreation of Shakespeare’s play. However, it also paradigmatic of the dubious relationship between Hollywood and Shakespeare.

The story of the play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (originally performed in the 1590s) comprises three separate stories woven together in a common setting. The lovers, the fairies, and the rude mechanicals (actors) all frolic through the forest the night before King Theseus will wed his beloved Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. The lovers’ story plays out as a typical youthful romance with a supernatural twist. Helena (Jean Muir) loves Demetrius. Demetrius (Ross Alexander) wants to marry Hermia (Olivia De Havilland). Hermia loves Lysander (Dick Powell). When Oberon, king of the fairies, and his mischievous sprite Puck intervene with an enchanted flower, the lovers’ affections comically shift from scene to scene, until Puck sets them right. Meanwhile, the rude mechanicals rehearse for their upcoming performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe” at Theseus’ wedding. The pompous self-appointed leading man of the acting troupe, Bottom (James Cagney), clashes with the beleaguered manager Peter Quince, before the actors also become embroiled in the supernatural plot when Bottom is cursed with a donkey’s head by Puck. Bottom is taken in by Titania, Oberon’s estranged fairy wife, who is under the spell of Puck’s love potion. Eventually, all is set right by the supernaturals and the play ends with the performance of the mechanicals’ hilariously awful play.

The chaotic energy Midsummer elicits on the stage, with the frequent shifts between the action of the three groups, and Puck running through them all, commenting to the audience, make it an awkward fit for the screen. Moreover, Reinhardt changes little in adaptation, mostly due to his background in theatre, and because the 1935 film started out as a stage production that he mounted at the Hollywood Bowl the previous year. Reinhardt brought from the stage production his obsession with foliage, and he attempted to fill every last film frame with as many trees as he could until his cinematographer, Hal Mohr, intervened, pointing out that the excess of trees were making it impossible for him to light properly. A compromise was reached when Mohr discovered he could spray paint the leaves in the forest silver to achieve the sparking, eye-catching effect Reinhardt desired. For the filmed version, Reinhardt brought in famed choreographer and ballerina Bronislava Njinska to arrange the elaborate fairy ballets. For the music, Erich Wolfgang Korngold was hired by Reinhardt to arrange the music of Felix Mendelssohn for the film, which would prove to be the beginning of Korngold’s compositional career at Warner Brothers.

Despite the artistic effort being deployed by Reinhardt and his company, the executives at Warner Brothers were considerably nervous at the prospect of a Shakespeare movie, after the disastrous box-office failure of Taming of the Shrew in 1929. In the end, A Midsummer Night’s Dream did little to quell the studios’ fears of the Bard. The film was received mildly by both audiences and critics, and after another underwhelming Shakespeare adaptation in 1937 with Romeo and Juliet, Hollywood largely avoided Shakespeare’s plays for the next decade.

In reality, the film’s tepid response might have less to do with Shakespeare, and more to do with the general mismatch of stage comedy and screen comedy. Midsummer on stage thrives in moments of messiness and the unexpected or spontaneous. The closest Reinhardt and Dieterle’s film comes to recreating that is in the mechanicals’ rehearsal scenes, which allow Cagney and comic actors like Hugh Herbert and Joe E. Brown to shine. However, even the way the film was marketed betrays the discomfort of Warner Brothers with Reinhardt’s approach towards adaptation. The original trailer for the production shows the actors first in their modern, 1930s clothes, and then transformed in their Midsummer costumes. This self-referential touch is out of step with Reinhardt’s opulent all-consuming vision of the play. He is going for a high romantic, even operatic interpretation, especially in the scenes with the fairies. The film’s marketing also emphasizes the high cultural value of the film, calling it a “screen masterpiece” and saying the story’s romance has “inspired lovers for 300 years”. Yet, Shakespeare’s name is not mentioned once.

Despite some of the film’s awkwardness, there is beauty to behold in Reinhardt and Dieterle’s Midsummer. In the spangled forest, the magic of film allows the fairies to be fully realized ethereal beings, dancing like supernatural chorus girls. Olivia de Havilland is charming as Hermia, a woman first beloved, then spurned by two suitors. And Mickey Rooney’s performance as Puck, which can be polarizing for his manic energy and unusual line deliveries, is at least fascinating in the sense that Rooney’s youth makes him of similar age to the boy performers that would have played Puck in the 1590s production. Warner Brothers and the other studios may have shunned Shakespeare for years after, but A Midsummer Night’s Dream proves that they were at least willing to take risks, even if they didn’t always pay off.

Laurence Olivier and the HAMLET Problem

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Laurence Olivier's movie of William Shakespeare's Hamlet was written by Erica Moulton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Hamlet will screen at the Chazen Museum of Art on Thursday, November 10 at 6 p.m.. The screening is one of two adaptations of Hamlet presented in conjunction with the Chazen's presentation of the First Shakespeare Folio through December 11. A screening of Warner Bros' 1935 adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream will screen as part of our Olivia de Havilland retrospective on Sunday, November 13.

By Erica Moulton

“This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

Laurence Olivier opens his 1948 film adaptation of Hamlet with these words, the only ones heard in the film that do not belong to William Shakespeare’s play text. Despite the simplicity of this statement, upon closer inspection, it proves to be more question than axiom. The “man” at the center of the statement, the young prince Hamlet, has posed many problems for critics, theatre directors, filmmakers, and actors since he first appeared on the page and stage around 1600.

Since then, he has been the favorite son of the literary and theatrical set, with every critic worth their muster penning an essay or book on Hamlet, and every actor waiting for their chance to cut their teeth on the role. In the 1910s, D.H. Lawrence said of the character: “I have always felt a strong aversion from Hamlet: a creeping unclean thing he seems….[the] character is repulsive in its conception, based on a self-dislike and spirit of disintegration.” Lawrence’s attitude towards Hamlet is extreme, but in describing a poster-boy for self-loathing and neuroses, Lawrence is not far removed from the 20th century project of aligning Shakespeare’s plays, particularly Hamlet, with the work of Sigmund Freud.

Freud’s influence on Olivier’s Hamlet is well-documented and highly evident to viewers even casually familiar with Freud’s writing. When Olivier stages a climactic argument between Hamlet and his mother Gertrude, with the two writhing and struggling on her bed, he isn’t insinuating anything. Psychoanalysis had edged its way into popular consciousness by the middle of the 20th century, with filmmakers like Hitchcock directing his ode to head-shrinking, Spellbound, in 1945. Olivier was certainly interested in laying the subconscious of Shakespeare’s characters bare in the film, but it is the way that he does this, how he shoots and frames the action, that ultimately makes this Hamlet both satisfying and occasionally frustrating.

While Freud gets referenced often in discussions of this film, of equal importance is Hollywood cinematographer Gregg Toland, whose collaborations with directors like John Ford, Orson Welles, and William Wyler in The Long Voyage Home, Citizen Kane, and The Best Years of Our Lives greatly impacted Olivier and his cinematographer Desmond Dickinson. Olivier is adept at using deep space to stage the conflicts both external and internal between Hamlet and the members of the court at Elsinore. When Hamlet is introduced, he sits at the end of a long table, foregrounded, with his uncle (now step-father) Claudius gazing imperiously at him from a throne in the background. Hamlet has become a stranger in his own home, and after receiving a shocking revelation from the ghost of his dead father, the old King Hamlet, he sets out on his journey of revenge. The camera roves, meanders, peeks around corners, eavesdrops on private conversations, and leads its audience through the labyrinthine castle Elsinore.

The cast of Hamlet are also subjects of scrutiny as they move through the dark and cavernous halls and winding stairwells. Felix Aylmer and a very young Jean Simmons are standouts in the cast, as the grizzled royal advisor Polonius and his daughter Ophelia, who is caught between her duty to her father and her love for prince Hamlet. This family drama mirrors that between the royal family, and loyalties between fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters are tested. Olivier chose to pare down his text to only include the family intrigue, jettisoning the larger political themes of the play, as well as multiple characters. What is left is an intense psychological drama, a cat and mouse game that, like the title of Hamlet’s play-within-a-play, traps the characters, each brought down by a fatal flaw.

One question that Olivier grapples with is—whose flaw is it? Is it, as the opening declaration suggests, Hamlet’s inability to make up his mind that brings about the downfall of his family, and consequently, the entire nation of Denmark? Or is it the “stamp of one defect” each man (and woman) is cursed to bear that causes this unraveling of humanity? Olivier offers no easy answers, but the film, like the play, is a puzzle to get lost in again and again. It is not a tragedy—it’s the tragedy.

The Lost Cult of CATCH MY SOUL

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Catch My Soul (aka Santa Fe Satan) was written by Amanda McQueen, faculty assistant in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A restored DCP of Catch My Soul will screen as the last of our Marquee Monday selections for 2016 on Monday, November 7 at 7 p.m. in the Marquee Theater at Union South. Marquee Monday screenings are co-presented by the Cinematheque and WUD Film.

By Amanda McQueen

For decades, Catch My Soul was considered a lost film. By 1979, just five years after its debut, all available prints seemed to have disappeared. Without the home video release that allowed similarly niche films to find new audiences, Catch My Soul slipped into obscurity, becoming merely an intriguing cinematic footnote. However, thanks to its recent restoration, this low-budget, rock musical version of Shakespeare's Othello now has the chance to develop the cult following many critics feel it deserves.

Catch My Soul was the brainchild of English music and television producer Jack Good, and was originally written for the stage. The musical premiered in 1968 in Los Angeles, with rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis playing the villainous Iago. Following a successful six-week run in LA, Good retooled the show and took it to London, where it was a long-running critical smash. Then, in 1971, Good decided to adapt his musical to the screen and optioned the rights to Metromedia, a television conglomerate diversifying into feature film production. Metromedia's new head of production, Charles W. Fries, set the budget at a modest $750,000.
Good made significant changes to his musical during the adaptation process. Inspired by the landscape surrounding his New Mexico home, he changed Othello from a solider in the army to a preacher in a hippie commune, where Iago, now literally Satan, seeks to bring about his damnation. In addition, much of the original score was replaced with new songs by Tony Joe White ("Polk Salad Annie," "Rainy Night in Georgia").

White also joined the cast of Catch My Soul as Cassio, the pawn in Iago's scheming. He appears alongside rock singer Richie Havens, making his acting debut as Othello, and Lance LeGault, reprising the role of Iago, which he'd played to great acclaim on stage in London. (Perhaps best known for playing Colonel Roderick Decker on The A-Team [1983-1987], LeGault started in Hollywood as Elvis Presley's stunt double.) The cast was rounded out by relative newcomer Season Hubley as Desdemona, Othello's angelic wife, and Susan Tyrrell as Emilia, Iago's wife and partner in crime.

Although he'd directed both stage versions himself, Good opted not to direct the film and asked—some say coerced—actor Patrick McGoohan (The Prisoner [1967-1968], Braveheart [1995]) to take the job. Principal cinematography began in October 1972 with a 28-day shoot around Sante Fe. Accounts from the cast and crew paint a picture of a tense and wild set, plagued by McGoohan's difficult personality, inclement weather, and overly realistic party scenes. By March 1973, McGoohan and editor Richard A. Harris (who later worked with James Cameron on blockbusters like Terminator 2 [1991] and Titanic [1997]) had completed the final cut. Then, reportedly, Jack Good, motivated by his conversion to Catholicism, shot another 15-20 minutes of footage and re-edited the film. McGoohan asked that his name be removed, but the request was ignored.

Catch My Soul premiered in April 1973 at the 3rd Annual USA Film Festival in Dallas, Texas, where it was a favorite among the "younger set." This is certainly what Metromedia and distributor Cinerama were hoping for. The youth-oriented rock musical, with its counter-culture slant and "Jesus Freak"-style of Christianity, was firmly in the mold of Godspell (1973) and Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973). Variety further noted that the film's racial subject matter aligned it with the popular Blaxploitation cycle. In short, Catch My Soul seemed perfectly in tune with the cultural zeitgeist.

The film's box office returns, however, told a different story. In November 1973, Catch My Soul played in London for about three disappointing weeks. When it opened in New York City the following March, its reception was no better. Most critics hated everything but the music; The New York Times advised its readers to "Forget the movie and get the soundtrack album." In October 1974, New Line picked up the distribution rights, retitled the film Sante Fe Satan, and sent it out on the drive-in circuit. The film stayed in circulation a little longer this time around, but played mostly at the bottom of double and triple bills.
And then it was gone. For years, Catch My Soul was known only by its poor reputation and its soundtrack, which continued to attract new fans.

The film's "phantom existence" endured until 2003, when David Spencer, Senior Film Curator at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, happened upon a 35mm print of Santa Fe Satan that had been discovered in the trailer of 18-wheeler on a farm near Raleigh, NC. While Spencer was investigating options for restoring the film, two additional copies were found: a 16mm print of Catch My Soul at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and a 35mm negative in the vaults at 20th Century-Fox, acquired when Fox bought out Metromedia in the late-1990s. Etiquette Pictures, a company dedicated to home video releases of cult and exploitation films, used the Fox negative to complete their restoration of Catch My Soul in 2015. (The title change, unfortunately, was made using the original negative, and so the restoration still announces the film as Santa Fe Satan.)

There's no way of knowing whether an earlier home video release would have allowed Catch My Soul to develop a cult following, and it's hard to imagine this film evolving into a participatory event, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) or The Room (2003). (If it did, handkerchiefs would definitely be involved.) That being said, Tom Mayer, likely the foremost authority on Catch My Soul, is right when he asserts that this musical has "everything one could ask for in a bizarre, cult obscurity."

Like any true cult film, Catch My Soul is worth at least one viewing. Because, as Craig Butler notes in his review for AllMovie, even if you don’t think it’s a good film, it will at least make you appreciate a time when movies could be “bad in such an interesting way." Shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall (Cool Hand Luke [1967], Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [1969]), the film looks fantastic, and the songs are toe-tappingly catchy. Though its pace and performances are uneven, its unexpected changes in direction are undeniably engaging. Ultimately, Catch My Soul exemplifies the almost-anything-goes approach of early-1970s Hollywood filmmaking, and as a result, it quite unlike anything else. 

For more information on Catch My Soul’s production and restoration, I highly recommend Tom Mayer's four-part article: http://www.theunmutual.co.uk/catchmysoul1.htm

The Delightfully Disturbing HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE

Thursday, October 27th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) was written by Erica Moulton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen salute to Olivia de Havilland on Sunday, October 30, at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art.

By Erica Moulton

Hush hush, sweet Charlotte
Charlotte, don't you cry
Hush hush, sweet Charlotte
He'll love you till he dies

The lyrics to the theme song of Robert Aldrich’s delightfully disturbing 1964 film Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte sound like a lullaby from a bygone era, but in between the dulcet tones of Frank De Vol’s song hides a deadly message. The eponymous Charlotte, played with maniacal élan by Bette Davis, is an aging southern belle plagued by violent mystery from her past that has left her an agoraphobic deranged old women. She clings to the dilapidated Louisiana mansion left to her by her long dead father (an imposing Victor Buono in flashback scenes), refusing to yield the property to the construction crew who show up every day to tear down her house to make way for a highway (Bette Davis even fires a shotgun at the crew foreman played in a cameo by George Kennedy.)

The story has its roots in the southern gothic stories written by the likes of Flannery O’Connor or Carson McCullers, but the execution is pure psycho-biddy, with Davis and Agnes Moorehead hamming it up as mistress and housekeeper of Hollis house, screeching and mugging their way through the film. Olivia de Havilland shows up as cousin Miriam, who is tasked with talking reason into Charlotte. Moorehead, sporting a nearly incomprehensible southern dialect, plays Velma, who suspects that Miriam’s intentions may not be entirely honorable.

At the core of the film is a murder mystery, which Aldrich introduces in a lengthy pre-credit sequence. Flashing back to 1927, Charlotte’s father, Big Sam Hollis, is unhappy his young daughter has taken a married lover (Bruce Dern in one of his first roles). At a glamorous party, the lover is brutally decapitated and the murderer is never found. The townsfolk and, at times Charlotte herself, suspect that she murdered him when he told her he planned to go back to his wife (played in present day by Mary Astor). The shocking sequence is as disturbing today as it must have been to audiences in 1964. Back in present day, a group of children stand outside Charlotte’s house taunting her, singing:

Chop Chop Sweet Charlotte
Chop chop ‘til he’s dead
Chop Chop Sweet Charlotte
Chop off his hand and head.

The film was made for 20th Century Fox and planned to reunite costars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford after the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, which was also directed by Robert Aldrich. Hush…Hush was the first film produced by Aldrich’s newly formed Associates & Aldrich production company, and his entire family was involved in the production, with his younger children appearing as actors and his older daughter acting as script supervisor. Aldrich may have surrounded his cast and crew with his family, but one person who did not feel welcome on the set was Joan Crawford.

The legendary feud between Crawford and Davis came to a head during the making of Hush…Hush, and Aldrich sided with Davis. Halfway through production, a dissatisfied and bitter Crawford left the film, citing illness. Aldrich accused her of lying to get out of her contract, and even hired a private investigator to follow Crawford. The director was forced to shut down his production for three weeks in search of an actress to fill Crawford’s role. Davis suggested her old friend from Warner Brothers, Olivia De Havilland, but convincing her to take the role proved a challenge for Aldrich. De Havilland lived in a remote estate in Switzerland, which Aldrich traveled to and spent four days at her home cajoling her into taking Crawford’s part. Looking back on the decision, De Havilland remarked, “I can't say I regretted it, because working with [Davis] was special, but I can't say it was a picture I am proud to put on my résumé.”

Despite her reservations, De Havilland relented, and the film was reshot with her in the role of Miriam. Davis, Joseph Cotten (who plays Charlotte’s family doctor) and Aldrich reportedly toasted Crawford’s replacement on set with Coca-colas (a dig at Crawford, whose late husband was the chairman of Pepsi). There was not enough time to make new costumes, so many of the clothes De Havilland wears in the film are her own, and the cosmopolitan glamor and gentility she brings to the role perfectly offsets Davis’ unhinged look, all spindly braids and flowing nightgowns.

After a fraught production, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte was released in December of 1964. Part horror film, part demented romance, part crime thriller, and a southern gothic tale to boot, it perplexed some critics but delighted audiences, grossing $7,000,000 at the box office. Bosley Crowther, chief critic for the New York Times called the film “grisly, pretentious, disgusting and profoundly annoying” in his review. He also mentions the rather eccentric acting styles, singling out Agnes Moorehead in particular, writing that she “is allowed to get away with some of the broadest mugging and snarling ever done by a respectable actress on the screen. If she gets an Academy award for this performance—which is possible, because she's been nominated for it—the Academy should close up shop!”

De Havilland gives by far the most restrained performance of the main cast. Her naturally warm onscreen presence belies the more sinister aspects of her mysterious character, making the film’s final twist both surprising and ridiculous. Who would have thought that Melanie Hamilton from Gone with the Wind would one day wield a severed head!

Humanity Amidst Austerity: Wim Wenders' ALICE IN THE CITIES

Thursday, October 27th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Wim Wenders' Alice in the Cities (1974) was written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A recently restored DCP of Alice will be the second offering in the Cinematheque's Wim Wenders series on Saturday, October 29, at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Tim Brayton

Alice in the Cities was the fourth feature directed by then 28-year-old Wim Wenders, and by his later account, it was the first one that felt was entirely "his." In particular, coming off of the critical and commercial failure of his adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, the young Wenders was anxious to make something that would speak to his own worldview and sense of aesthetics; he also wanted to continue his working relationship with 9-year-old Yella Rottländer, whose performance as Hester Prynne's daughter Pearl was the only element of The Scarlet Letter that the director felt had turned out well.

The solution to these hopes came in the form of a suggestion by Peter Handke, the young Austrian author whose work was ushering in a new phase of German-language literature (Wenders had already worked with Handke on his second feature, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, screening Saturday, December 3 at Cinematheque). Drawing on Handke's experience as a single father, Wenders wrote the story of a creatively frustrated writer/photographer who is unexpectedly saddled with a young girl to take care of, after her mother (Lisa Kreuzer, haunting in a small part) disappears for vague reasons in New York City. Together, Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) and Alice Van Dam (Rottländer) travel from America to Amsterdam to Germany, ostensibly hunting for Alice's grandparents, but in fact fulfilling that greatest function of the characters in a road movie: to be our eyes and ears observing a changing world at a single moment in time.

It's clear even before Alice herself shows up that Alice in the Cities will be a film extensively concerned about human landscapes. The film opens with a geographically vague tour of America, with Philip ostensibly writing a magazine article, but far more interested in spending his time trying to capture something of the places he sees with his camera. He fails, perhaps, but the film itself tries to make it up for him: Alice in the Cities was shot on black-and-white 16mm film by the great cinematographer Robby Müller (who'd worked on all of Wenders' features to that point), making the first masterpiece in the stark high-contrast style he'd later use in such films as Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law and Dead Man. Throughout the whole film, but especially in the largely empty scenes of American streets and towns in the first act, Müller's images evoke the crisp stylistic harshness of the great documentary photographers like the Swiss-born Robert Frank, another German-speaking European who captured an outsider's perspective of America on celluloid.

Unlike Wenders and Müller's subsequent collaboration Paris, Texas, however, Alice in the Cities isn't primarily a referendum on America, but on Europe, here conceived of as a series of places which have lost their identity. For Wenders, this void is filled, for better or worse, by fragments of American pop culture (such as a Chuck Berry concert, filmed in Canada by D.A. Pennebaker, but repositioned in Germany by Wenders), including the structure of this very movie, a version of the quintessentially American genre of the road movie transformed into a study of two Germans abroad. Like so many road movies, this is primarily a study of two lost souls: Philip, whose sojourn in America has left him with a gloomy view on the world and culture, and Alice, whose search for the details of a past that she's forgotten provides the bulk of the narrative spine. It's not hard to see them as a metaphor for a Germany that has lost everything that defines it, trying to find its place in a new world.

Let us not focus so much on the symbolic aspects of the film that we lose sight of its very real strengths as a story about two people, though. There's nothing terribly innovative about the story of a sad adult man who is rejuvenated from the presence of a spirited child (Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon explored the same theme just a year prior to Alice in the Cities, very nearly shaking Wenders's resolve to make this film at all), but rarely if ever has that stock narrative been handled to such brilliant effect as we see here. Wenders's instinct about Rottländer was spot on: her performance as Alice is surely one of the great triumphs of child acting in all of cinema, playing the character with the natural inquisitiveness and lack of self-consciousness of childhood. She's quick-witted but never precocious, and she inhabits the screen with a comfortable naturalism that cuts against the stylized imagery and heavily literary qualities in the plotting to keep Alice in the Cities first and always a story about actual people.

She's well-paired with Vogler, a Wenders regular appearing in his third consecutive film for the director. Initially serving as little more than the vessel for the script's themes (the frustrated artist, angry at the coarsening effects of noisy mass culture, is an obvious stand-in for Wenders), Vogler is note-perfect in depicting the way that a sentimental cynic can be charmed by a cute kid. It's almost unreasonable, from a logical standpoint, how quickly and effortlessly Philip turns into a good-natured surrogate dad; the great achievement of the two leads is to establish such a warm sense of chemistry that we fully believe in Philip's redemption. There's no shortage of great elements within Alice in the Cities, one of the most beautiful and culturally-attuned films of its era. But perhaps the greatest of all its strengths is the affection and compassion it shows towards its central pair, a bright point of humanity in the midst of an austere, conflicted world.

A Divine Shockfest: MULTIPLE MANIACS

Monday, October 17th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on John Waters' Multiple Maniacs (1970) was written by Matt Connolly, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A new DCP restoration of Multiple Maniacs will screen Monday, October 17, at the Marquee Theater at Union South in our Marquee Monday series, co-presented with WUD Film.

By Matt Connolly

Those who have come to know John Waters through his later, irreverent-but-accessible films such as Hairspray (1988), Cry-Baby (1990), and Serial Mom (1994) are often dumbstruck when they explore the director’s 70s-era cinematic shockers. The sexual and scatological excesses of films like Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), and Desperate Living (1977) continue to jolt some forty-odd years later. Waters’s aficionados take a certain amount of pride in their love for these movies’ hair-raising scenes of gleeful cannibalism, feces gobbling, and chicken-inclusive copulation.

To those die-hard fans, I can only say: you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Rarely screened for decades, Multiple Maniacs showcases some of Waters’s most startling scenes of taboo-shattering humor, not to mention the cock-eyed critique of societal norms and hypocrisy that would run throughout his oeuvre. Waters himself deemed Multiple Maniacs his personal favorite amongst his own films, writing in his memoir, Shock Value, “I like the meanness and harsh documentary look; and for the first time the actors could spew forth the endless pages of dialogue I had written, lip-synced at last.” (Indeed, Multiple Maniacs was the first of Waters’s films to have sync-sound—a somewhat astonishing fact, given how central his foul-mouthed dialogue would become to his cinematic world.) Finally back in theaters in a newly restored DCP, Waters’s acolytes and newbies alike can bask in the director’s self-proclaimed “celluloid atrocity.”

The film’s loose plot offers Waters both the opportunity to scandalize his audience and to mock our own desire for such appalling sights. Run by the wild-eyed Lady Divine (Divine) and her sleazy boyfriend Mr. David (David Lochary), the traveling freak show deemed the Cavalcade of Perversion lures in suburban gawkers with the promise of witnessing such “horrors” as puke eaters, bicycle-seat sniffers, and (in a winking nod to the still-restrictive sexual norms of the time) “two actual queers kissing.” Once inside the tent, the audience that sneers and leers at the show’s performers becomes the victims of Lady Divine herself, who proceeds to rob her patrons at gunpoint. Lady Divine grows increasingly unglued when it becomes clear that Mr. David has been cheating on her with the endlessly chatty Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pearce). Her desperation and rage leads Lady Divine into a series of increasingly jaw-dropping situations, including a “rosary job” given in a local church by prowling sex fiend Mink Stole. The confirmation of David’s infidelity soon pushes Lady Divine into pure psychosis. Without giving away any of the twisted surprises of the film’s final few scenes, I will only say that you’ll never look at a lobster quite the same way again.

As with all of Waters’s films, Multiple Maniacs was shot on location in and around his beloved hometown of Baltimore. Waters recalled the particularly tricky task of finding a church in which they could film the deeply sacrilegious sexual acts that Stole performs on Lady Divine as the latter prays for spiritual enlightenment. The solution came when Waters was introduced to a left-leaning local priest who agreed to allow the filmmaker to shoot in his house of worship. As a radical friend of Waters’s distracted the priest with political chatter, Waters got his scandalous footage, and even grabbed an image of a local actor shooting up on the altar for that extra touch of impiety. With typical impish understatement, Waters would later write “Multiple Maniacs really helped me to flush Catholicism out of my system.”

Ironically, Waters had relied upon local religious institutions as exhibition sites for his previous short films and his first feature, Mondo Trasho (1969). He had first screened his work at the Great Hall of Emmanuel Church, but switched to First Unitarian Church for the premiere of Multiple Maniacs after the reverends at Emmanuel had, in Waters’s words, “decided they had risked their necks enough for ‘art.’” These first showings offered glimpses of the midnight-movie bacchanalia that would soon become associated with Pink Flamingos. A consummate if highly self-conscious showman, Waters loved the outrageous gimmicks of such B-cinema masters as William Castle. He took up exploitation film’s mantle of anything-to-get-em-in-the-door overkill, but did so with an eye towards the trash culture he celebrated in Multiple Maniacs. As a result, lucky viewers at the midnight showings of Multiple Maniacs received such fabulous “door prizes” as a book on Sharon Tate and a pound of ground beef.

Even more so than his previous feature, Multiple Maniacs also made a splash outside of Charm City. Underground Cinema 12, a traveling series of experimental and independent movies, picked up the film and circulated it across the country. Perhaps more importantly to Waters’s burgeoning reputation within the countercultural and queer communities of the early 1970s, Multiple Maniacs played as part of the Nocturnal Dream Shows. A notable midnight-movie program run out of San Francisco’s Palace Theater, the Nocturnal Dream Shows both screened films and showcased the wild stage shows of the Cockettes, a San Francisco drag troupe whose performances blended campy Hollywood glamour with the drug-infused ethos of the Bay Area hippie scene. Waters would soon collaborate with the Cockettes on original live productions starring Divine, who received a rapturous airport greeting by the Cockettes upon first arriving in San Francisco. Such a glowing reception would, in Waters’s eyes, give Divine the confidence that he needed to fully embrace the “terrorist drag queen” persona perfected in Pink Flamingos. “It was the first time Divine became Divine in his other life,” Waters told critic Scott MacDonald, adding that Divine’s “whole life changed. He realized he wanted to do this for a living.”

Certainly, Multiple Maniacs proves fascinating in how it lays the groundwork for Waters’s later 1970s masterpieces. Not only does Divine fully come into focus as a character and persona, but Waters’s stalwart and Pink Flamingos stand-out Edith Massey first graces the screen here as a barmaid and confidante of Lady Divine. You don’t have to be a Waters’s devotee, however, to appreciate Multiple Maniacs’s defiantly grimy aesthetic, its pitiless upending of social mores and good taste, its fervent and witty celebration of the deviant and debased. Few lines capture that unique Waters’s mixture of aggression, affection, and bodily excretion better than Mr. David’s breathless ode to his beloved Bonnie: “I love you so fucking much I could shit.”