Music in Friedkin's Movies : Aint' No Mickey Mouse-ing Going On Here!

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

By Jim Healy, Director of Programming

In a terrific interview with Vulture last month, complete flim-maker John Carpenter (whose action masterpiece, Escape from New York will have a Cinematheque/WUD Film screening next month) answers a question about the Ennio Morriconne score for his 1982 remake of The Thing. Carpenter, who typically composes the music for his films, talks about his preference for minimalist music in movies, as opposed to the "Mickey Mouse-ing" of something like Max Steiner's score for King Kong, where, as Carpenter says:

"The footsteps of King Kong are scored: bom-bom-bom. Mickey Mouse–ing is over-scoring. It's what happens today. Everything is over-scored. Minimalist music, a lot of it from my time — '60s, '70s, and '80s. Tangerine Dream did some. The Exorcist's score is another. They weren't Mickey Mouse scores. By Mickey Mouse, I don't mean dumb, or cartoonish, but everything was musically it: footsteps, everything."

Tangerine Dream, of course, got their first offer to score a Hollywood film from director William Friedkin, who invited the German musicians to score his 1977 existentialist action movie, Sorcerer. Friedkin discovered the trio, then made up of Edgar Froese, Christopher Franke, and Peter Baumann, performing their special brand of electronic music at a concert in an abandoned chruch in Germany's Black Forest. Instead of having the band score the film after it was shot and edited, which is what usually happens, Friedkin sent Tangerine Dream the script. Friedkin had them read it and the band recorded their musical impressions which Friedkin used to establish rhythm when assembling the footage with editor Bud Smith. Despite the fact that Sorcerer was rather famously rejected by audiences and most critics when first released, the score proved highly influential and led to steady work for Tangerine Dream in movies, most notably Michael Mann's Thief, Paul Brickman's Risky Business, Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark, and the American release version of Ridley Scott's Legend (which, in its international release version, had a very fine, if slightly MIckey Mouse-y score by Jerry Goldsmith).

You can hear Tangerine Dream's Sorcerer score for yourself this Thursday, October 9, when the UW Cinematheque and WUD Film present a new DCP restoration of Friedkin's riveting adventure. For now, here's a little musical prelude:


Friedkin has always been a director who pays close attention to sound design and music is always a big part of that design. The director brought on experimental jazz musician Don Ellis for The French Connection and, in the 80s, hired pop rockers Wang Chung to write songs and a score for To Live and Die in L.A. (Ben Reiser reflects on that movie music here). Before his biggest box-office hit, 1973's The Exorcist wound up with the eclectic, minimalist score mentioned above by John Carpenter, Friedkin commissioned a score from then in-vogue composer Lalo Schifrin, whose body of work then included the theme for Mission: Impossible and the scores for Bullitt, Dirty Harry and another colossol 1973 hit, Enter the Dragon. While Friedkin found Schifrin's music abstract enough when he first heard it played back on piano, the director was not pleased when the score was recorded by a 70-piece orchestra (at the same Warner Bros. facility where Max Steiner recorded his scores in the 30s, 40s and 50s). According to Friedkin, "[The score] was wall-to-wall noise, using every component of this big band, including electric brass...I was in shock. It's not that the music was badly written or played; but it was the opposite of what I wanted."


Friedkin rather notoriously discarded Schifrin's work, effectively destroying their friendship, and replaced the score with pre-existing cues by Anton Webern, Krzysztof Penderecki, and, of course, Mike Oldfield, whose "Tubular Bells" helped launch Richard Branson's Virgin Records because of its inclusion in The Exorcist. Friedkin's move was not unprecedented in Hollywood history: Stanley Kubrick rejected a score by Alex North for 2001: A Space Odyssey in favor of the now famous pre-existing cues by Johann Strauss and Richard Strauss.

While "Mickey Mouse" scoring continues its dominance (consider Hans Zimmer's overdone music for Disney's production of The Lone Ranger as one example), the kind of minimalist scoring preferred by Carpenter and Friedkin in Sorcerer and The Exorcist has its contemporary descendants, like the music Johnny Greenwood has written for Paul Thomas Anderson's most recent films and the Carpenter-esque scores by Kurt Stenzel for Jodorowsky's Dune and Steve Moore for The Guest.

The Exorcist screens tonight, October 8, at 7 p.m. in the Marquee Theater at Union South. The 2000 re-release version, featuring added footage not seen in the original 1973 release, will be shown. A newly restored DCP of Sorcerer screens Thursday, October 9 at 7 p.m. at the Marquee Theater at Union South. Both screenings are co-presented by Cinematheque and WUD Film and both are free and open to the public.

Some Things to Know About MARKETA LAZAROVA

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

By Jim Healy

From Professor David S. Danaher in UW Madison's Slavic Languages Department comes word of a new, NEA-funded translation of Vladislav Vancura's epic 1931 Czech novel Markéta Lazarová.

You can read more on the book and the translation project here.

A bestseller in Europe, the book eventually inspired a 1967 film adaptation by director František Vláčil which has earned comparisons to Tarkovsky by some and has been proclaimed the greatest of all Czech films by a few others. You have the opportunity to see the movie version this Friday, October 10 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. What makes the screening extra special is the fact that we will be showing the film from a recently struck 35mm print. Opportunities to see new restorations like this one in their original 35mm formats have been greatly diminished since DCP projection has become the standard of most commercial theaters. The new 35mm print of Markéta Lazarová is brought to us courtesy of the good folks at Janus Films, the theatrical releasing arm of the Criterion Collection, who have made Markéta Lazarová available on blu-ray and DVD.



Levitation Test Footage from THE EXORCIST

Monday, October 6th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

By Ben Reiser

Writer Mike McPadden currently resides in Chicago, where his encyclopedic knowledge of exploitation movies of all types and his winning way with double entendres and sex-based puns had served him well as editor-in-chief of the website, Mr. Skin. These days Mike is doing a ton of freelance writing and has had two books published within the last year. His most recent tome, Heavy Metal Movies is informative and entertaining in exactly the ways I’ve come to expect from McPadden.

For a recent blog post on death and taxes, Mike has compiled a wonderful list of movie clips featuring screen tests and unused alternative early versions from a wide gamut of films that were then famously revised. Included in this list is some super cool levitation test footage from The Exorcist. Check it out:


More to the point, I’ve never seen The Exorcist in a movie theater. Not sure how that happened but I’m gonna fix that this Wednesday night, October 8 at 7 p.m. when the Cinematheque and WUD Film present the 2000 re-release version as part of the Cinematheque's William Friedkin series.

UW Student Blake Davenport on Hitchcock's LIFEBOAT

Friday, October 3rd, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat was written by UW Madison student Blake Davenport. A 35mm print of Lifeboat will screen as part of the Cinematheque's 'More Hitchcock!' series on Sunday, October 5 at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art.

Lifeboat: Hitchcock on Survival and Wartime Conditions

By Blake Davenport

As I stare out my window on this particularly cold and rainy night, I can’t help but identify with the many protagonists in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, alone and hungry with just the wind and sounds of Lake Mendota to keep me company. Well slight difference being that I’m curled up in my warm apartment waiting for pizza while they were adrift at sea.... but parallels nonetheless.

Lifeboat, screening as part of the Cinematheque’s wonderful ongoing Hitchcock series, is in many ways, one of the esteemed director's most unique films in relation to setting, characterization, and moral tensions between characters.

Set during the height of World War II, the film begins with a single long take, displaying varietal ship wreckage and debris. Shortly after however, a diverse group of both British and American survivors are introduced and seek refuge together on a lifeboat, as it is revealed that the allied liner they were traveling on sank during combat. Because Hitchcock couldn’t make just a simple survival film, a further twist befalls the gang, as the last survivor they pull out of the sea turns out to be a Nazi officer from the enemy German U-boat. Although many of the survivors initially vote to throw the Nazi overboard, it is slowly revealed that the officer is the only person who knows how to survive at sea, essentially forcing our allied protagonists to trust their fate to a German.

Through Lifeboat, it becomes very clear early on that Hitchcock aimed to produce a film that incorporated multiple distinct characterizations to act as a sort of mirror to the relations between the Allied forces amidst the hardships of war. In his interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock himself notes,

“We wanted to show that at the moment there were two world forces confronting  each other, the democracies and the Nazis, and while the democracies were completely disorganized, all of the Germans were clearly headed in the same direction. So here was a statement telling the democracies to put their differences aside temporarily and to gather their forces to concentrate on the common enemy.”

In many ways, by crafting such a unique cast of characters ranging from Tallulah Bankhead’s austere British reporter to the African American ship steward George (Canada Lee), Hitchcock effectively reveals many underlying social tensions and challenges that affected both civilians and service workers in the time of war. As the film unfolds, the most intriguing aspect revolves around the survivors attempt to gather as one and coexist successfully in order to survive the shipwreck.

One of Hitchcock’s “limited-setting” films (the list also includes Rope and Dial M for Murder), Lifeboat is a sharp and quick film that takes place entirely on the titular object.  The camera work is quite astonishing, as almost every scene presents a different perspective or angle. Additionally, the use of lighting and shadow create emphasis on characters and situations, preventing redundancy to the look and pacing of the film. The somewhat surprising choice to eliminate background music entirely from the story produces a surprisingly unique effect as well, elevating dramatic tension and allowing for more detailed characterization. For those of you naysayers wondering how Hitchcock could possibly work a cameo into a film that takes place entirely on a lifeboat, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for a certain humorous newspaper clipping.

While Lifeboat may not immediately come to one’s mind when considering the all-time Hitch classics, the film retains excellent stylistic and narrative touches that allows the director to work in a wholly unique setting and story structure. With a relatively short running time of 96 minutes, the film operates on multiple levels, providing the audience with a taut and thrilling story of survival, as well as a revealing look at how a master filmmaker worked with the constraints of this particular material.

Leo Rubinkowski Prepares You for 2 X Carax/Lavant

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay by Leo Rubinkowski, Graduate Student and Teaching Assistant in UW Madison's Communication Arts Department, discusses the first two features of Leos Carax, Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais Sang, both of which star Denis Lavant. The two films screen respectively at the UW Cinematheque on Saturday, October 4 and Saturday, October 11.

It is probably safe to assume that before the appearance of Holy Motors (2012) on US screens, most of that film’s American viewers (including yours truly) were more or less unfamiliar with Leos Carax. Helped along by the usual festivals, but surely benefitting from the ubiquity of online film criticism (Carax’s previous feature, Pola X, came out in 1999), Holy Motors performed respectably despite a very limited release in art houses and independent theaters. It is tempting, therefore, to fold renewed interest in Boy Meets Girl (1984) and Mauvais Sang (1986) neatly into the success of his latest work. Why else should Paris-based distributor Carlotta Films have inaugurated their US office with the first two features of an inarguably distinct, though commercially marginal, figure of contemporary French cinema?

In the mid-1980s, though, Leos Carax was not a pre-sold brand. To make sense of the new director, critics tended to look backwards, recognizing that what is idiosyncratic of Carax’s stories and style is also unabashedly familiar.

In Boy Meets Girl, Carax tells the story of Alex (Denis Lavant) and Mireille (Mireille Perrier), one an aspiring filmmaker recently dumped by his girlfriend and the other a suicidal actress whom Alex overhears breaking up with her boyfriend through an apartment intercom system. Despite not having actually seen Mireille, Alex falls in love with her. Later, the two meet at a dinner party and spend the night together until chance intervenes (again).

In contrast, Mauvais Sang is a heist picture. Marc (Michel Piccoli) must plot a crime to pay off a gangster known as “The American.” To help with the job, he brings on Alex (Lavant), the son of a recently deceased colleague. Alex falls in love with Marc’s lover, Anna (Juliette Binoche), who keeps Alex’s romantic overtures in check. Of course, the eventual robbery does not go as planned. Guns are fired, agreements are broken, a hostage is taken, and before long, all lines of action and feeling intersect in Alex’s dramatic final moments. (According to Carax, he stole several plot elements from a Raoul Walsh picture, Salty O’Rourke [1945].)

Following its run at the 1985 New York Film Festival, Vincent Canby mused of Boy Meets Girl, “one recognizes a bit of Jean-Luc Godard here, something of François Truffaut there, and every now and then one hears what may be the faint, original voice of Mr. Carax trying to make himself heard around and through the images of others.” Canby’s observations were not unique. More than a few critics treated Carax as a continuation of the French New Wave’s spirit, and the influence seems evident in both Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais Sang in many ways. When Alex and Mireille talk for the first time in Boy Meets Girl, can we imagine Carax is not quoting Vivre sa vie (Godard, 1962)? Mourning the vicissitudes of youth and l’amour fou, will Alex go to Antoine Doinel or Patricia Franchini for sympathy? And speaking of fated love, whose chemistry was more obvious: Michel and Patricia’s in the half-hour bedroom sequence from Breathless (Godard, 1960) or Alex and Anna’s during their all-night vigil in Mauvais Sang? Of course, the ties that bind Carax to the New Wave run deeper than mere situation. In Mauvais Sang, for instance, foreboding strings, primary colors, abrupt inserts, and flat stagings all call to mind similar stylistic elements at play in Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965).

However, it would be misleading to think that Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais Sang are the products of a director working after his time. As likely as they were to praise Carax as a reincarnation of the past, French critics in the mid-1980s also associated him with a contemporary trend in French cinema unofficially dubbed le cinéma du look. Like contemporaries Luc Besson (Subway, 1985; Nikita, 1990) and Jean-Jacques Beineix (Diva, 1981), Carax’s non-naturalistic approach to aesthetics seems to draw heavily from the conventions of television commercials, music videos, and fashion photography. Tight depth of focus, lighting set-ups that cause faces and props almost to glow while drowning backgrounds in shadow, and framings that militantly organize attention to the mise-en-scène all contribute to a visual resonance atypical of most films, including those of the New Wave directors. If, as Alex observes in Mauvais Sang, “You need to feed the eyes for your dreams,” many a night of sound sleep must have originated in the minds of Leos Carax and his director of photography, Jean-Yves Escoffier.

This dream-like quality is likely the feature that will impress viewers most during a first viewing. In part, this is a consequence of Carax’s style. Editing, sound, cinematography, and mise-en-scène all conspire to suggest that the story is happening out of focus, out of earshot, or outside the frame. Mystery suffuses the look and sound of Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais Sang. In the best surrealist tradition, though, Carax allows that mystery – that fantasy – to tear at the seams of his story worlds. Indeed, it is as if Alex (both of them), Mireille, Marc, Anna, Hans (Hans Meyer), and Lise (Julie Delpy) occupy a universe not identical to our own, but adjacent, where the day-to-day vies for relevance with the grandiose and the subtly absurd. A man and a woman lock in a passionate embrace, and then begin to rotate in place like mannequins; a passer-by tosses loose change for their trouble. A bed retains only the barest signs of a would-be lover: a cigarette, a tissue, a single hair, and the impossible indentation of her curled body. A desperate criminal takes an equally desperate hostage. A wall of cupboards reveals a single, chipped teacup. The radio plays “the very tune that [is] humming inside your head.”

This last moment may be the most important, because it responds best to the tragedy of viewing Leos Carax’s work. There is no way to freeze Lavant mid-stride, capture Piccoli and Serge Reggiani mid-scuffle, or halt Binoche mid-stretch. The intensity of despair in Mireille’s shorn hair will always be locked away on film. The experience resonates, but that resonance is a shadow. Nevertheless, when the feeling of loss is too great, when the cement in our stomachs begins to harden, there’s the smile of speed…and there’s David Bowie.


An Early Film Role for BUG Star Michael Shannon

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

by Jim Healy

In his memoir, The Friedkin Connection, Oscar-winning film director William Friedkin heaps praise on the leading man of his 2006 creepfest, Bug. Before he turned Tracy Letts's play into a movie, Friedkin had seen Shannon play the deeply paranoid, cocaine-fueled Peter in an off-Broadway production. Though he faced pressure to cast only big-name stars in the film version, Friedkin did everything he could to retain Shannon as Peter, a role originated by Shannon in a 1996 London stage production: "I've never known an actor more focused, dedicated, or capable of reaching the outer ranges of human behavior." You can see Bug, projected from a 35mm print, on Friday, October 3 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

Though the intense and always memorable Shannon had been in several films (like Pearl Harbor and Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) and television shows before Bug made its premiere at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, Friedkin's film led to his being cast in many more high-profile projects, including an Oscar-nominated turn in Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road and leading roles in other films directed by auteurs such as Werner Herzog, Jeff Nichols, David Koepp, and Ramin Bahrani. Many will recognize him as General Zod from 2013's summer Superman blockbuster, Man of Steel and as Nelson van Alden on HBO's Boardwalk Empire.

Michael Shannon has been an acquaintance of mine since the mid-1990s when he was a Chicago theater actor. I met him through my actor-screenwriter brother Pat, who later appeared with Shannon in author David Hauptschein's almost unbearably tense play The Persecution of Arnold Petch. Produced by A Red Orchid Theater, a Chicago troupe which Shannon co-founded, Arnold Petch was a dry run for Peter in Bug: the title character is a paranoiac living in a squalid studio apartment who later resorts to violence against his "persecutors".

After they both appeared in Pearl Harbor, Pat embarked on directing his first short film, Mullitt (2001), and he approached Michael to play the duplicitous roommate/best friend of Earl Lippy, the main character played by Pat. In another echo of Bug, Shannon's character is a frantic user of drugs (in Mullit's case, the trendy crack) and a highly volatile young man. I was around for about 75% of the filming of Mullitt, and, like Friedkin, I was impressed by Michael's intensity and devotion and preparedness. Always quiet and observant off-camera, he turned on a volcano of emotions as soon as the film was rolling and I was truly in awe of his abilitiles while I witnessed him destroying a chair in a crack-addled frenzy, covering his otherwise naked body in cottage cheese, and breaking down at the moment his dreams of riches (and more crack) evaporate.

You can see Mullitt, in its entirety, here:


Mullitt from Three Eyed Bros on Vimeo.

That's yours truly as the mouth-breathing nerd flunky (the other flunky is Harmony and Me writer-director Bob Byington). If Michael Shannon's final monologue seems familiar, that's because the same words are spoken by Luis Guzman's character when he similarly betrays Al Pacino at the end of Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way (1993). Many years later, in David Koepp's Premium Rush (2012), Shannon's unforgettable villain refers to several characters as "Papi". Reliable sources tell me this was Shannon's improvisation - a nod, I'd like to believe, to Mullitt. Coincidentally, the screenplay for Carlito's Way was written by David Koepp, but Guzman's lines about "Sometime it bes' that way" are themselves lifted, with credit, from one of the Edwin Torres novels on which De Palma's film is based.


Sunday, September 28th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 were written by UW Madison's Maureen Rogers, Ph.D candidate and Teaching Assistant in the Department of Communication Arts. Ms. 45 screens as the Cinematheque's first 'Marquee Monday' for the Fall 2014 season at the Marquee Theater at Union South on Monday, September 29, at 7 p.m.

Ms. 45 and the Rape and Revenge Film

by Maureen Rogers

Ms. 45 (1981) marks Abel Ferrara's third directorial feature and third collaboration with screenwriter Nicholas St. John. Since its release, Ms. 45's melange of gore and low-budget stylization, set in gritty pre-Giuliani New York, has made the film a favorite among fans of cult and exploitation cinema.

Ms. 45 stars the 18-year-old Zoe Lund as Thana, a mute seamstress working for a two-bit fashion designer (played by a delightfully smarmy Albert Sinkys) in the Manhattan Garment District. (Lund would go on to collaborate with Ferrara in writing 1992's Bad Lieutenant.) Returning from work one day, Thana is brutally assaulted and raped twice in a span of mere hours. Traumatized and enraged, Thana doles out revenge on her assailants and, as the film proceeds, on the unrelenting array of sexual predators that populate Ferrara's early-1980s downtown Manhattan.

At a brisk 84 minutes, Ms. 45 is quickly plotted and rarely drags. Given the expressive limitations of the Thana character, Lund offers a moving and dynamic performance with impressive range conveyed largely through facial expression. The film also benefits from interesting sound design and music that ranges from expressive use of a tenor sax (a likely influence on Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill) to synth music more characteristic of the period and genre.

Ms. 45 is also among the most pared down examples of the rape and revenge film, a subgenre of the action revenge genre. Most rape and revenge films involve a similar set of situations and events that include extended scenes of the female protagonist's suffering. The protagonist typically survives the sexual assault(s), and the remainder of the narrative is spent detailing her plotting to kill the perpetrator(s) and finally achieving her revenge. There are a few common variations to this formula; for instance, in some rape and revenge films, as in the Japanese film Lady Snowblood (1973) and Death Wish (1974), family members seek vengeance on behalf of the female victim who is unable to carry out revenge herself. Many rape and revenge films present both the sexual assaults and the acts of revenge as moments of hyperviolent, sexualized spectacle and titillation.

It's worth noting that the rape and revenge plot has been used in a variety of budget levels and production contexts; higher-budget examples include Lipstick (1976), Wild Things (1998), and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo novel and film adaptations. However, in common parlance, the rape and revenge film is almost exclusively associated with a low-budget, exploitation mode of filmmaking. As such, 1970s and 1980s rape and revenge films, such as I Spit On Your Grave (1978), the Swedish sexploitation film Thriller: A Cruel Picture (aka They Call Her One Eye, 1973), and Ms. 45, are often considered classics of the subgenre. Indeed, in Ms. 45, Ferrara appears to draw significantly from Thriller: A Cruel Picture. Like Thana, Madeleine, the female protagonist in Thriller, is also mute, and there are substantial similarities in sound design and costume.

Ms. 45 is grisly at times and, at other times, playfully vengeful, particularly as Thana begins to fully inhabit her new persona as a killer. Indeed, the ambiguous moral valence of Ms. 45 and other rape and revenge films has been a topic of considerable controversy. On the one hand, some critics and commentators have understood films such as Ms. 45 as tales of female empowerment and patriarchal critique. On the other hand, the rape scenes in these films occupy a good deal of screen time and often depict the sadistic violence of the story in a highly sexualized, often troubling fashion. For some viewers, Thana's inability to speak might further mitigate a reading of Ms. 45 as feminist or politically transgressive, while the film's climax and Thana's fate further muddies the film's politics. Whichever way you understand it, Ms. 45 is a disturbing, entertaining, and controversial film.


Thursday, September 25th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen's ongoing Alfred Hitchcock series and this weekend's film, Young and Innocent, was written by UW Madison undergraduate student Blake Davenport. Young and Innocent screens in a 35mm print on Sunday, September 28 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art.

Young and Naïve: Getting to Know Hitchcock
By Blake Davenport

Upon entering my senior (yikes) year as communications major in the glorious film/radio/television track, one could say that I had a pretty “been there done that” attitude towards my studies. Classic Hollywood films? Done. Russian silent films? I’ve written some papers.

In any case, whilst weeding through the bevy of communications courses during the delightful process of schedule making, I just wasn’t finding a whole lot from which to take inspiration. Sure it would be great to take film from 1970s onward, but after a full semester of silent and classic films, I just wasn’t quite ready to leap over to a whole new era. At what might have been the pinnacle of my despair, I arrived at the bottom of the list and noticed a special topics class entitled The Films of Hitchcock.

“Hitchcock movies eh?” I pondered aloud while stuffing my face with whatever candy was lying around my apartment at the time (Sidenote: always keep candy in your home you’ll appreciate it and so will your guests). Although I was marginally familiar with “the classics” – Vertigo, The Birds and so on, I suddenly realized that there was a large absence in my filmic knowledge in the shape of a distinctive bald filmmaker. Determined to wrong this personal injustice, I fervently clicked on the enroll button and vowed that by the end of my fall semester I would become a Hitchcock EXPERT...or die trying.

Cut to 3 weeks into the new semester, and I now realize at how silly the full completion of this notion now seems. One can almost hear Norman Bates chuckling to himself as he stuffs birds in his parlor. Although strides are being made towards full Hitchcockian mastery, the challenge of grasping the intricacies and evolution of Hitchcock’s films turned out to be far more daunting than I had imagined. Quite literally, this is a director who hallmarked the element of suspense in film, while simultaneously carving out a distinctive voice that almost demands a full examination of his filmography.

Luckily for myself and any other Madison film buffs looking to sharpen up on Hitch knowledge, the UW Cinematheque has expanded their ever popular Hitchcock series into the fall semester, screening his works almost every Sunday from September to December at the Chazen Museum of Art. Presenting films and archival material spanning from Hitch’s early British career to the titular Hollywood era, the series offers a rare treat to cinephiles in exhibiting the material in original 35mm prints.

Kicking off on Septemebr 14, the series has already treated viewers to a pair of quite tonally different Hitchcock films, the romantic thriller Suspicion (1941) and a film from the height of his British career Sabotage (1936).  Suspicion, starring Joan Fontaine and the ever affable Cary Grant, transports viewers into the psyche of an unstable marriage, as Fontaine’s wealthy socialite Lina is swept away by smooth talking Jonny who may or may not be who he says he is. Although it does play a bit melodramatic at times, the leads turn in a pair of excellent performances, most notably Fontaine, who received the only performance Academy Award ever for a Hitchcock film. In sharp contrast, Sabotage starring Sylvia Sidney and Oskar Homolka, ramps up the danger in classic British Hitch style, as Homolka’s Mr. Verloc finds himself the subject of a police investigation for his role in a terrorist organization. 

Although there is much more that one can say about the above-mentioned titles, I thought it might be advantageous for us to switch gears and delve a little deeper into the 1937 caper Young and Innocent in anticipation of it’s screening this coming Sunday. In almost blatantly obvious fashion, the story sticks to Hitchcock’s old standby theme of “the wrongly accused man”as Derrick de Marney’s character, Robert, stands accused of murdering an actress he was having an affair with, after being seen running away from the body when he was really trying to get help. Complicating the action further is a belt from a missing raincoat washing up next to the strangled actress (in classic Hitch fashion he can’t find his damn raincoat), and a sum of 1200 pounds left in her will to the young actor. In a panic, Derrick escapes the courthouse and enlists the help of the constable’s young daughter (Nova Pilbeam) who becomes an accomplice in his plight to find his stolen coat and clear his name.

In any other director’s hands, Young and Innocent could easily have turned into a straightforward cat and mouse story, as the plot itself is very quick. Thankfully we have Hitchcock who, as master of tight plotting, incorporates a host of highly stylized scenes that elevate the suspense and danger of the film to a whole new level. The children’s party scene largely displays the classic Hitchcock irony as Robert and Erica have to literally duck out of the party during a game of blind-mans bluff in order to evade capture. Additionally, during the ever suspenseful chase episode later on, the couple narrowly avoids capture and death, speeding past a train just as it is about to pass in a scene that echoes Hitchcock’s later action scenes in films such as North by Northwest.

Perhaps the most stunning revelation, and one that makes the film worth seeing alone, occurs in the final unveiling of the antagonist. In a last ditch effort to Robert’s name, Erica and a tramp who knows the man who stole Robert’s coat by his signature eye twitch, attempt to go to the Grand Hotel in order to locate him. In a single masterful shot utilizing cranes and dollies, Hitchcock identifies the villain to the audience, while holding the suspense until the very last minute. Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that the ending provides a satisfying (and disturbing) textbook Hitchcock resolution that personally has me hungry for next weeks pick, Lifeboat.



Wednesday, September 24th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the legendary Ealing Studios and the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers, was written by UW Cinematheque's Project Assistant and UW Madison PhD candidate Amanda McQueen. The Ladykillers will screen in 4070 Vilas Hall on Saturday, September 27 at 7 p.m. The screening concludes our series "Alec Guinness: Centennial for a Comic Genius".

The Ladykillers: The Twisted Last Hurrah of Ealing Comedy

By Amanda McQueen

The Ladykillers is the last of a group of nine films commonly referred to as the Ealing comedies. Along with Hue and Cry (1947), Passport to Pimlico (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Whisky Galore! (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Titfield Thunderbolt (1952) and The Maggie (1954), The Ladykillers has become an exemplar of Ealing Studios' output and part of the canon of classic British cinema.

Michael Balcon, who became head of production at Ealing Studios in 1938, was a strong advocate for the development of a thriving British film industry. He was divisively outspoken about legislative and financial actions that could curtail Hollywood's box office dominance, and he frequently attacked British filmmakers, like Alfred Hitchcock, who left for America, and British studios, like the vertically integrated Rank Organization, that used big-budget films with international stars to try and break into foreign markets. Balcon's criticisms are complicated somewhat by the fact that Ealing films - particularly the comedies - were quite successful internationally, and by the fact that, from 1944 to 1955, Rank actually financed and distributed Ealing productions. Nevertheless, Balcon wanted Ealing to be "The Studio for Good British Films," and this was reflected in the company's work methods and overall philosophy.

Filmmaking facilities were first built in the London borough of Ealing in 1902, but it wasn't until Balcon took over, following stints as head of production at Gainsborough, Gaumont British, and MGM-British, that Ealing Studios became a production company in its own right. In reaction to his unpleasant experience at MGM, Balcon organized Ealing as an intimate, familial company, adopting the motto "The Studio with the Team Spirit." By 1942, he had assembled a stable group of writers, producers, and directors who collaborated at round table discussions (or over a pint in the pub across the road) but who were also encouraged to run with their individual ideas. Ealing released only four to seven films a year, and they were modestly budgeted so that they could recoup their costs solely from the domestic market.

Ealing's approach to filmmaking was strongly influenced by the documentaries of John Grierson's GPO Film Unit, which focused on British institutions. In fact, in 1940, after an unsuccessful attempt to wrest control of the GPO Film Unit from the Ministry of Information, Balcon hired away two of its filmmakers, Harry Watt and Alberto Cavalcanti. Watt became one of Ealing's core directors, and Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well? (1942) is a brilliant, wryly subversive example of the studio's interest in "projecting Britain and the British character." Moreover, Ealing films tended to be more diverse than those of other companies; while films from other studios featured predominantly middle-class characters from London's West End, Ealing's often displayed a wider range of socio-economic classes and regional accents, emphasizing the importance of a strong British community.
By the early-1950s, the studio's greatest successes were comedies - particularly the nine films that have come to be known as the "Ealing comedies." These were the films that spurred imitators at other studios, helped bring Alec Guinness to fame, and left an indelible mark on British popular culture. Though a diverse set of films, the Ealing comedies are united by an interest in the loveably eccentric, the dreams of "little men," and a tension between modestly progressive values and the power of tradition. While some display Ealing's penchant for warm-hearted whimsy, others are more cynical and morally ambivalent. Indeed, it was comedy's ability to "do things that are too dangerous, or that a certain audience can't accept" that attracted director Alexander Mackendrick to projects like The Ladykillers.

The plot for The Ladykillers reportedly came to screenwriter William Rose in a dream, and is dark comedy at its best. A gang of criminals, headed by "Professor" Marcus (Alec Guinness), rent a room from the widowed, slightly dotty, Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson, in a BAFTA-winning performance). Posing as musicians, Marcus and his four companions (Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Danny Green, and Peter Sellers - who also supplies the voice of Mrs. Wilberforce's parrot) plan to use the old woman as a cover for a robbery, but when she discovers what they are up to, they decide to kill her. Mrs. Wilberforce proves difficult to dispatch, however, and in their attempts to do her in, the criminals eliminate themselves one by one, leaving the little old lady - a staple figure of Ealing films - with all the loot.

The Ladykillers was received domestically and abroad as a distinctly British picture, and many have interpreted it as an allegory of the conflict between progressive forces (the criminals, the Labour party) and obstinate resistance to change (Mrs. Wilberforce, the Conservative party) that the country experienced both politically and socially after World War II. Moreover, some have seen it - and many other Ealing films - as being reflexively about the studio itself.

By the mid-1950s, Ealing was struggling and its films seemed more reactionary and stale than they had in earlier years, particularly alongside the rise of Hammer horror films and the angry young men of kitchen sink realism. In 1955, the studio facilities were sold to the BBC - fitting, perhaps, given that much of the audience for Ealing films had been lost to television. Balcon returned to MGM, and made films under the Ealing name at the facilities at Elstree until 1957. The Ladykillers is thus often seen as Ealing comedy's "twisted last hurrah"; it was the last comedy Balcon made at Ealing Studios (excepting a Benny Hill film, a comedy of a different type), and some claim it is a farewell, both mocking and affectionate, not only to the quaint little Britain the company had frequently depicted, but also to the type of filmmaking in which the studio had specialized.

Ealing Studios is still active, and iconic British productions continue to be shot there - Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead (2004) and the "downstairs" scenes in Downton Abbey (2010 - present), for example. And so, perhaps in some small way, the Ealing tradition, like Mrs. Wilberforce, carries resolutely on.


Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the work of David Cronenberg was written by Katherine Quanz, a doctoral candidate in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her dissertation examines how government policy and technological innovation shaped Canadian post-production practices from 1968 to 2012.  Her other research investigates Canadian Aboriginal and experimental cinemas. Before attending graduate school, she worked as an assistant sound editor in a Toronto-based post-production facility.

David Cronenberg is considered to be one of Canada’s top directors and potentially one of the most influential filmmakers working today; however, at the beginning of his career, Cronenberg’s films were initially panned by critics. The critical attack on Cronenberg began after the release of his first mainstream film Shivers (1974), which was partly financed by the newly-formed Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC), a government-run investment bureau aimed at kick-starting the country's fiction film industry. The film, which features small parasites that drive victims into a sexual frenzy, became a box office success that generated revenue for the CFDC. However, like the parasites, the critics mercilessly attacked Shivers for being amoral and a cheap American horror knockoff. Robert Fulford, under the pseudonym Marshall Delaney, led the attack with his review “You Should Know How Bad This Film Is After All, You Paid for It.”  In an examination of Cronenberg’s place within Canadian cinema, scholar Bart Testa notes that “critics prophylactically placed the director beyond the pale of discussable Canadian cinema for almost a decade.”  Incidentally, the reviews of Cronenberg’s films supposedly led to his eviction because his landlady did not want to associate with a director of lurid films. (Cronenberg moved into a house down the street that he would later feature in his 1979 film The Brood).

The critical response to Cronenberg's films became more positive with the release of his special effects-driven Videodrome in 1983. Equally ambitious in both imagery and emotional resonance were The Fly (1986) and Dead Ringers (1988), each of which further cemented his place in both Canadian and horror film circles. Consequently, Cronenberg's conspicuous use of Toronto as the setting for all three of these films helped to win the adoration of critics and scholars who sought to identify the director as a uniquely Canadian auteur. According to William Beard, “Cronenberg's cinema is most ‘Canadian’ in its bleakness of Affekt, its overriding sense of defeat and powerlessness, its alienated dualism of nature against consciousness, its fearful cautiousness in the face of a hostile universe, and its powerful feelings of isolation and exclusion.”  Additionally, Cronenberg repeatedly worked with a predominantly Canadian crew that included Ron Sanders (editor), Carol Spier (art director), and Howard Shore (composer). As a consequence of his critical achievements and his dedication to remaining in the Canadian film industry, Cronenberg became a mentor for other Canadian directors like Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema, Don McKellar, and Vincenzo Natali.

All three of the Cronenberg films screening at the Cinematheque this fall demonstrate Cronenberg’s interest in combining the narrative ambiguities and production design of art cinema with the genre tropes of horror, science fiction, and melodrama. The first film of the series, Dead Ringers (screening September 25) was inspired by a headline published in the National Enquirer: "Twin Docs Found Dead in Posh Pad". Dead Ringers was the first of his films to receive wide spread Oscar buzz, yet despite the special effects and Jeremy Irons’ critically acclaimed performance as the twin gynecologists, the film failed to receive one nomination. When Irons won the Oscar for his role in Reversal of Fortune two years later, he nonetheless thanked Cronenberg in his speech, coyly explaining to the Academy, “some of you may understand why.”

The main character of the second film of the series, 1983’s Videodrome (screening October 23), is loosely based on Moses Znaimer, co-founder of CityTV and a Toronto resident who notoriously broadcasted baby blue films (soft core pornography) to Canadian television sets in the 1970s. The film follows Max Renn (James Woods) the manager of the fictional CivicTV who becomes obsessed with isolating a television signal that appears to contain images of highly violent, sexual acts. This film is Cronenberg’s last monaural film, and there are some great sonic moments in the film, especially during key special effects scenes. Howard Shore’s score for this film complements the other sounds and the film’s emphasis on technology, as it was primarily composed on synclavier synthesizer and uses only minimal orchestral instruments.

For the final film of the series, 1999’s eXistenZ (screening November 20) Cronenberg drew inspiration from the death threats against author Salman Rushdie for the plot of the film. The story follows game designer Allegra Geller through multiple realities as she fights against terrorists on a mission to assassinate her. Released mere weeks after The Matrix in 1999, eXistenZ failed to produce big returns at the box office, earning less than $3 million on a $15 million production budget. eXistenZ was a major critical success, despite being a commercial bomb, the exact opposite reaction to the release of Shivers.

Much of the research for this piece was conducted at the TIFF Film Reference Library using the main collection and the David Cronenberg Archive, courtesy of TIFF’s Film Reference Library - Special Collections. Special thanks to the staff of the TFRL.