Rivette's Parallel Universe: DUELLE

Monday, December 3rd, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Jacques Rivette's Duelle (1976) was written by WUD Film's Henry Witt. The Cinematheque's New French Restorations series concludes with a DCP of Duelle on Saturday, December 8 at 7 p.m. in our regular screening venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Admission is free!

By Henry Witt

“The ambition of these films is to discover a new approach to acting in the cinema, where speech, reduced to essential phrases, to precise formulas, would play a role of “poetic’ punctuation.” - Jacques Rivette on his
"Scenes of Parallel Life" movies.

“I believe you were lured into a trap. The story was only a pretext.” - Viva, Duelle


Jacques Rivette’s decision to follow the ambling, improvisational yarns of his early 1970s films (Out 1, Céline and Julie Go Boating) with the scripted and genre-inflected Duelle could at a glance be mistaken for a retreat from the prior films’ playfully unconventional production methods. The plot synopsis lays out a clear—if unusual—central conflict, “Two goddesses battle over a magic diamond.” The transposition of myth and fairytale to a contemporary Paris setting has precedent in Cocteau, and invocations of film noir provide comfortable aesthetic and narrative reference points. As the quotes above suggest, however, these anchors are merely the framework for something far more challenging and ineffable.

A feature that was meant to be consistent across all four films (of which only two, Duelle and Noroît, were completed as conceived) in Rivette’s “scènes de la vie parallèle” cycle was on-location, live, improvised musical accompaniment, creating what he called a “simultaneous musical space.” Any given scene, then, would capture the unpredictable and (hopefully) fruitful combination of two related but separate performances happening in parallel. One of the pleasures of watching Duelle is experiencing genuinely unexpected moments of formal unity, when music intrudes upon an unfolding scene at just the right time.

One such revelatory moment occurs when the night porter turned amateur detective Lucie, having tailed Bulle Ogier’s baton-wielding Viva to a secluded casino, is found out and must herself begin improvising a reason for being where she doesn’t belong. Hermine Karagheuz, acting as Lucie, turns and reacts to the sudden entrance of the piano from a dimly lit corner in the background as she begins to spin a lie for Viva, the only other person in the room. Viewers might also be surprised to realize they hadn’t noticed Jean Wiener tucked away until the first note. A light shines on him in an even more drastic break from any naturalistic motivation for mise-en-scène .

Though always on-location when providing accompaniment, Jean Wiener and his piano are only sometimes visible on-screen. His appearances vary from having entirely sensible diegetic  motivations—performing at a nightclub, for instance—to the nonsensical, like when he appears midway through a private hotel room conversation between Viva and Pierrot. This slippery approach to the diegesis reflects the film’s handling of realism and fantasy generally.

Formally, the use of real-world locations, direct sound, and cinematographer William Lubtchansky’s handheld camerawork lends itself to comparisons with documentary filmmaking, but there is just as much noir and B-movie in Duelle’s DNA. The two goddesses are femme fatales elevated to the status of trickster deities, and there are numerous references to classic film noir. A rendez-vous in a lush garden channels The Big Sleep’s greenhouse, a row of lockers housing the film’s MacGuffin recalls Kiss Me Deadly, and there is even a shadowy aquarium torn right from The Lady From Shanghai. There’s also kinship with the Val Lewton horror movies and their enveloping shadows, though it was specifically Mark Robson’s The Seventh Victim with its quotidian setting and cult murders that Rivette screened for the cast and crew. If the language of cinema is the language of dreams and fantasy, these references conjure the fantasies of films past.

The reduction of speech to “essential phrases” that Rivette envisioned for the Scenes of Parallel Life in Duelle’s case involves many direct quotations from Jean Cocteau. One of the tragic pawns in the goddesses’ battle, the ticket girl Elsa, quotes an iconic line from the Bresson-directed, Cocteau-scripted film Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, and various cryptic statements related to the supernatural elements are lifted from an obscure Cocteau play titled The Knights of the Round Table. Most of the quoted phrases are too cryptic to make much sense of narratively, but the story is only a pretext anyway. The illusion of Rivette’s cinema is that the right combination of gesture, light, shadow, and improvised notes on the piano can create miracles, right in the middle of everyday Paris. “Two plus two no longer make four.”


The Recovering Romantic: Fassbinder's THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN

Wednesday, November 28th, 2018
Posted by Zachary Zahos

This essay on Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) was written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Maria Braun will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series of Fassbinder films on Sunday, December 2, at 2 p.m. Free admission!

By Tim Brayton

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 31st feature in 10 years, The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) was also his biggest commercial success, both at home in West Germany and abroad. After years of being celebrated by the film cognoscenti of Europe and North America, this was to be his greatest attempt to court audiences, a note sounded repeatedly in early reviews: “the prolific and controversial German director is by now well-known to people knowledgeable about film, but Maria Braun may become his breakthrough film to mass audiences in the U.S.” according to Ruth McCormick in Cinéaste; “for him… an extremely naturalistic and accessible work,” in the terser words of the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr. Back in Germany, we find the same: “the most accessible (and thus most commercial) and mature work of the director” enthused Hans-Christoph Blumenberg in Die Zeit.

This early reception gave the film a reputation as the “easy” Fassbinder film, which it has never quite managed to shake. With the increasing availability of lesser-known Fassbinder films over the course of the 21st century, younger cinephiles have been able to re-enact the mildly patronizing tone of critics like Kehr or the New York Times’ Vincent Canby, citing Maria Braun as the “accessible” film for people who missed out on thornier works like Chinese Roulette (1976) or In a Year of 13 Moons (1978). But this writer would rather stick with Blumenberg: yes, Maria Braun may be unusually “accessible,” thanks to its conventional melodramatic plot and its obvious thematic symbolism. But so too does it represent an exceptional artistic maturity that ushered the 33-year-old director into the final phase of masterpieces, including the titanic 15-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and Maria Braun’s quasi-sequels Lola (1981) and Veronika Voss (1982).

It takes no more than the first shot of the film to realize that we’re in the presence of a filmmaker with an extraordinary level of control over his medium. The Marriage of Maria Braun opens with the muted sounds of a wedding ceremony barely audible under the screaming engines and thunderous explosions of an Allied bombing raid, as the camera regards an anonymous wall. An explosion rips a hole in the side of the building, giving us our first look at Maria (Hanna Schygulla) herself, on the day of her wedding to Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch). The next few minutes present a cruelly hilarious travesty of the holy sacrament of marriage, with the newlyweds crouching on the ground in the rubble as they hastily sign the paperwork  that will unite them for “one-half of a day and a whole night,” before Hermann ships off to war. As the soundtrack blares out with battle sounds and an unseen screaming baby, the screen fills with bright red title cards in an incongruously fancy typeface, creating an almost illegible wall of text that fills the frame. Visually and audibly, the film pitches us right into a hellish chaos where stable, normal things like weddings can only ever look like a sick joke.

It’s the perfect start to a movie that might not flaunt social propriety as openly as Fassbinder’s earlier, snottier masterpieces, but still insists on tweaking and challenging the viewer at every turn. As with so many of the director’s films, Maria Braun (written by Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer) takes the form of a classic melodrama, the story of a woman presumably widowed by the slaughterhouse of World War II, forced to cope with life during the American occupation of Germany in the years immediately following the war. But the tone is anything but melodramatic. Adopting the flat tone and physical presence of late-‘40s neorealism, Maria Braun is above all a portrayal of the coldness that one must adopt in order to survive under the harshest circumstances. Schygulla, a frequent Fassbinder collaborator, excels in the role for which she won Best Actress at the 1979 Berlin International Film Festival: she refuses to play Maria as a tragic soul and still less as an ice queen, but rather as a recovering romantic, obligated to make hard choices and deprived of the luxury of regretting them. Consider the scene where Maria brains an American ex-lover with a wine bottle; Schygulla’s body language and expression both speak to a quickness of action that’s more instinctive than calculating, more pragmatic than emotionally overwrought.

As a tribute to the survivalists who managed to create a new German society from the wreck of the war, Maria Braun adopts the austere lack of sentiment of its protagonist, curtly transforming all the messy stuff of melodrama into a series of obstacles to be overcome with an almost mathematic level of precision. Schygulla contributes a great deal to this, of course; a great deal of it is also thanks to that artistic maturity of Fassbinder and his collaborators, who create a tightly-controlled vision of a broken world. The great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, in one of his very last collaborations with the director, uses deep focus throughout to emphasize the large empty rooms and streets of the post-war city, while stripping the film bare of bright colors: it is not merely a drab film, but somehow aggressively drab, like all of life has been bleached. And after that extraordinary opening, it’s no surprise that the soundtrack will continue to be a major feature of the film’s style: throughout, we hear snatches of dialogue, machines, music, all of them divorced completely from the image, and frequently mixed as loud or louder than the words of onscreen characters. The soundtrack suggests a world of no walls or other boundaries, with everything bleeding into an omnipresent whirlwind of indistinct noise. This, perhaps more than anything, is what gives the film its extraordinary power as a portrait of a collapsed society struggling to rebuild itself from pure chaos. It’s a potent theme that Fassbinder would return to multiple times in the few years remaining to him, but Maria Braun is a compelling enough vision of post-war life to stand entirely on its own.

Powers Greater Than Any Empire: BLACK NARCISSUS

Tuesday, November 27th, 2018
Posted by Zachary Zahos
Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) in BLACK NARCISSUS

This essay on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947) was written by Zachary Zahos, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison and Project Assistant for the UW-Cinematheque. A new digital restoration of Black Narcissus will screen in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Saturday, December 1. Free admission!

By Zachary Zahos

“This clear air, and the wind always blowing. And the mountain, and the holy man sitting there day in, day out. And the people coming to see him. They climb the path by the house, and they stop and sit and stare at us.” So rants Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) to the uncouth government agent Mr. Dean (David Farrar), her fellow countryman, as they make their way up a mountain, through vines and brush, to see the elderly holy man (Ley On) themselves. Ironies abound in Sister Clodagh’s complaint: For one, she rebukes the native peoples of Mopu, a fictitious village somewhere near Darjeeling, for ogling her convent of Anglican nuns, before doing the same to this presumably Hindu man.

An obvious hypocrisy, but Black Narcissus succeeds not because it is exactly, or at least exclusively, subtle. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 Technicolor spectacle is an unclassifiable object: hothouse melodrama, gothic horror, pioneering erotic thriller, cautionary tale of colonial overreach. The scenario—a group of English nuns struggle to repress desires provoked by their Himalayan surroundings, and by a scantily clad David Farrar—lends itself to frequent scenes of hysteria, innuendo, and bald hypocrisy. Atop such a dramatically thin premise, Powell and Pressburger fashion a vast, interlocking formal architecture of motifs, oppositions, rhymes, and fluid points of view. Like all great films, the film’s craft, and indeed much of its meaning, is not too difficult to discern on first viewing, but its cumulative intellectual, sensorial, and emotional effect remain nigh-impossible to do justice. Blessed with such pleasure-affording parts, Black Narcissus nevertheless exceeds their sum handily.

As one of the pearls of classical British cinema, Black Narcissus has been analyzed exhaustively since its release. UW-Madison’s own Kristin Thompson undertook one of the more illuminating efforts this past May with “Color Motifs in Black Narcissus,” a video essay for FilmStruck’s Observations on Film Art series. (Though FilmStruck is no more, the series will continue on The Criterion Channel, a forthcoming streaming service from Criterion and WarnerMedia.) Thompson describes the power wielded by an oft-overlooked agent in the film’s production: Natalie Kalmus, color supervisor for virtually all Technicolor films made between 1934 and 1949. In her pursuit of a uniform Technicolor aesthetic, Kalmus required cinematographers to use a light meter, meaning that excessive shadows or overexposure, even when intentional, were not allowed.

On at least one occasion, Thompson explains, cinematographer Jack Cardiff (who won an Oscar along with production designer Alfred Junge) and Kalmus’s Technicolor team were at loggerheads over this issue of “flare.” Eighty-four minutes into the film, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) runs through the convent to find Sister Clodagh and Dean, in one of the many instances of shifting point-of-view between these three main characters. At the bottom of a striking shot, when Ruth swings open the doors, a sharp blade of sunlight reflects off the floor. Because this bright spot deviated from their standards, the Technicolor consultants considered the shot ruined. Cardiff responded with fury, and the shot survived to see the final cut. “My indignation was excusable,” Cardiff later reflected, “after the trouble I had in getting that flare as glaring as possible, just like one indeed sees it when the sun is low and dazzling. And though it was admittedly ugly, I believe it was more dramatic than a typically pleasant effect.” While I personally find this flare not ugly but gorgeous, Cardiff describes with eloquence a hard-fought commitment to realism, in the service of drama.

Cardiff’s stated intentions are instructive, insofar as they remind the viewer of the care and even the strife that went into crafting each shot. They furthermore puncture received wisdom we may bring into watching this film. Despite featuring, well, color, Technicolor movies were seen by many critics and theorists in the 1940s and 1950s as paradigms of artifice, especially when sized against black-and-white Italian Neorealist films. But Powell, Pressburger, and Cardiff were invested in their own style of realism. In addition to these pictorial flourishes, and the general astonishment many have when learning it was filmed in England’s Pinewood Studios, the film features an immersive, sensual soundscape, of tunneling wind, tolling bells, and ceremonial drums beating into the night.

The drama of Black Narcissus furthermore hinges on a haunting and unresolved psychological realism. According to Sister Clodagh, and virtually all critics, the nuns lose sight of their mission due to the sensuousness of their surroundings. The opening voiceover proclaims the Mopu valley’s dominant mountain is called Nanga Dalle, or “Bare Goddess Peak.” Moreover, the would-be convent was formerly a palace, decked in erotic tapestries, where the old General (Esmond Knight) “kept his women.” All this stimuli and history, clashing with the nuns’ puritan work ethic and disavowal of sexual desire, lead to some erratic behavior. Charged with growing staple crops, Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) instead, inexplicably, plants native flowers like honeysuckle. When Sister Clodagh confronts her, Sister Philippa volunteers to be reassigned and punished without mercy. Robson’s moving performance in this scene illustrates a painful tug between doctrine and all-consuming sorrow, service to God and sexual desire, repentance and sadomasochism. Her plight mirrors those of all the nuns, and their failure.

Before departing, Sister Philippa muses how in Mopu there are only two types of man. On one side, there is the mute, celibate holy man, and on the other, the arrogant, promiscuous Mr. Dean, whose resting virility basically drives Sister Ruth mad and fuels the climactic action of the film. Philippa neglects to mention Joseph, a precocious local child, or the Young General (Sabu), a dandyish aristocrat whose cologne inspires the film’s title. Even still, the duality Sister Philippa proposes, between Dean and the holy man, fails to hold up. Dean reveals the holy man’s military past, and insinuates he once led a lavish lifestyle. Dean himself softens over the course of the film, forming a genuine and chaste kinship with Sister Clodagh. By the end, it is Dean, and not the holy man, who leaves Mopu, but the possibility for change and complication persists. Rather than direct these possibilities toward a hackneyed, uplifting ending, Powell and Pressburger ultimately side with mystery, as the onset of fog and coming of rain signal powers at work far greater than any empire.

Knowing the End Before the Beginning: THE VANISHING

Monday, November 26th, 2018
Posted by Zachary Zahos

This essay on director George Sluizer's The Vanishing (1988) was written by Kristen Johnson-Salazar, a senior in the Communication Arts Department at UW Madison. The Vanishing will screen on Friday, November 30 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Free admission!

By Kristen Johnson-Salazar

In the early 2000s, the cable channel Bravo aired a documentary series titled The 100 Scariest Movie Moments, which featured famous horror directors and actors discussing creepy or terrifying scenes from movies ranging from established American horror films to international art cinema. I was in my early adolescence when my sisters and I watched it for the first time. We were in the basement watching the talking heads on screen describe each scene in detail and how they felt while seeing it for the first time. The Vanishing was listed in the middle at number 55. Similar to Psycho (number 4 on the Bravo list), once you see The Vanishing, there is no unseeing or un-remembering. It will never be new to you again. So, when Bravo showed the ending to the film, I was left in shock and disgust. I was horrified both of what I just saw and that the ending was spoiled for me. However, I knew The Vanishing was more than just that one scene. When I finally got around to watch it years later, I was astounded that the whole movie was unsettling, echoing real life kidnappings and true crime stories. The ending, while brilliant, was just the cherry on top.

The Vanishing is a dual story. Part of the story is about Rex (Gene Bervoets) strenuously searching for his missing girlfriend Saskia (Johanna ter Steege). The other story is about Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), the man who kidnapped Saskia. The two stories connect with each other as Rex’s obsession with finding the abductor intertwines with Raymond’s temptation of Rex to see how far he is willing to go with his search.

Interestingly enough, George Sluizer directed two films titled The Vanishing. Five years after the first film released, it was remade with an American cast featuring Jeff Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland, and Sandra Bullock. It joins the pantheon of remakes that are directed by the same director of the original such as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge, and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. However, much of the suspense is lost in translation—especially the ending, which was changed from the original. Fortunately, the original 1988 version still exists. Perhaps the best thing about the 1993 remake is that it amplifies why the ’88 version works so well.

The slow and gritting agony of wanting to know where Saskia is, speaks to the film’s influences in realism. While watching, you start to notice that because of how unassuming Raymond is, he instantly becomes more of a threat. We’ve seen his dips into sociopathy before, from real life serial killers like Ted Bundy. For instance, he uses an arm cast to gain sympathy from his victims, showing how unnervingly close he is to our reality. He methodically writes down how long each action takes in order for him to kidnap someone without anyone noticing. Then he practices each action over and over again until it becomes second nature. He does this all the while he is a husband and a father of two girls. Our hero, Rex, also parallels many who have lost loved ones who have gone missing. Whether that be putting up missing signs, appearing on the news, or answering any tips he receives, he never gives up hope in trying to find Saskia. This is why this film is so uncomfortable.  We have seen this story thousands of times in real life. Yet, now we are given the duality of seeing how both perspectives, the kidnapper and the victim, go on after the initial event. Unlike real life, we see the dramatic irony of who the kidnapper is, but like Rex, we just don’t know what or even why it happened.

The film gathers these moments to form an overwhelming ache for the truth. The real horror The Vanishing pushes us into is to understand our own fascination with these stories of true crime. Instead of just wanting the villain to get caught in the end, we want to know the secrets that lie within their head. We want to know: Why? Otherwise, we are left with uncertainty. The eternal uncertainty, that is the worst.

Capturing the Uncatchable: THE EAGLE HUNTRESS

Monday, November 12th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on director Otto Bell's The Eagle Huntress (2016) were written by Kristen Johnson-Salazar, a senior in the Communication Arts Department at UW Madison. The Eagle Huntress will screen on Friday, November 16 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening will be introduced by the movie's producer, Stacey Reiss, who will also participate in a post-screening discussion.

By Kristen Johnson-Salazar

The other day, I was talking to my friend on the bus about The Eagle Huntress, and I told her the one scene that really made me sit back and put the documentary in perspective. It was not the beautiful sweeping shots of the Mongolian mountain sides or the slow motion of the golden eagles swooping down with their talons exposed for the attack. It was of our heroine, Aisholpan Nurgaiv, 13 years old, about to embark on her journey to the Gold Eagle Festival. Like her father Rys Nurgaiv, she is dressed in furs and the traditional attire meant for those who claim the title of eagle hunter. They begin their day-long journey to the nearest town by horseback, holding their 15 pound eagle with one hand while the other holds the horse’s reins. Stacey Reiss, University of Wisconsin-Madison Journalism alumna and producer for The Eagle Huntress, also acknowledges this moment in an interview with The Women’s Eye, “I was just sitting there on a stationary horse holding the bird on my arm. Meanwhile, here’s [Aisholpan] a thirteen-year-old girl riding a horse, holding a bird and competing. It was then that I appreciated how challenging it all was.” This scene, along with many other smaller moments, truly brought forth the strength and dedication Aisholpan has for the art and skill of being an eagle huntress.

The Eagle Huntress is a powerful and influential documentary. While our focus is of Aisholpan, navigating through her different identities as a daughter, a sister, a family member, a student, and an eagle huntress, the documentary also touches on themes of family trust and the meaning of tradition. Aisholpan is like most of her friends that we see in the documentary, in that she is expressive, loving, brave, and loves a challenge. Five days of her week are at school, miles away from home, where she lives in the in-school dormitories with her siblings. On the weekends, she returns home and helps her family around and outside the yurt. The training and hunting she undergoes with her father Rys breaks this routine, and leads to one of the most breathtaking scenes of the documentary, when Aisholpan retrieves her eagle for training.

The scene encapsulates the emotional stress and hardship of any eagle hunter. With only a rope knotted around her torso, Aisholpan relies on her communication skills, courage, and luck, to obtain a baby eagle from its nest. Director Otto Bell described the scene stating, “The scene where she takes the baby eagle out of the nest - people are always surprised to know that's one single take. I filmed it like I would film a live sports event.” There are only three angles we see: Rys’s perspective, Aisholpan’s GoPro footage, and Bell, far away with a zoom lens, capturing both of them through the process. It’s as exhilarating as it is important to tradition. Every eagle hunter before Aisholpan, her father, her grandfather, and so on and so forth, have gone through the same trials as she did that day. However, unlike previous generations of eagle hunters, it is this time that an audience outside of family, and perhaps interested spectators from afar, get to see the spectacle.

In regard to eagle hunting, tradition to the Kazakh people is not only passing down skills to generations (usually fathers to sons) that help in winning competitions, but a way of understanding family histories and memories. Such is the custom of eagle hunters releasing their trained eagle back into the wild after seven years to make sure that the eagle’s life continues in nature until she flies her last flight. In the documentary, we see the form of tradition take the face of the many eagle hunter elders who dismiss women eagle hunters. It is tradition for fathers to pass down their knowledge to sons, but as the opening monologue spoken by Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) makes clear, “this relationship between man and bird is finite.” An exclusionary tradition that has men as gatekeepers to eagle hunting traditions? It is finite. Countless times in this documentary, Aisholpan breaks free from these repressive boundaries, to not only show that she is just as good as the boys, but often better.

In discussing why she wanted to work on this film in the first place, Stacey Reiss said, “I felt like I would do anything to work on that film. Her story is universal. It’s a story of a father supporting and teaching his daughter, which I can certainly appreciate as the mother of two children.”  Some of the greatest documentaries are about specific people, places, things, or ideas, but what makes these documentaries stand out is the exploration of universality in the extraordinary. The emotions, courage, and hopefulness shown by Aisholpan during her tests to be titled an eagle huntress are amazing, and for the majority of us who watch, we could never imagine achieving such feats. However, it is not the moments of her horseback riding and calling to her eagle that define Aisholpan. Rather, it is in the moments with her friends and her siblings, as they draw inspiration from her, that she shows them, and us, a true eagle huntress.


Tuesday, October 30th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

The UW Cinematheque has made one program addition and one schedule change to our upcoming programming.

The November 17 screening of a new restoration of Arthur Bressan, Jr.’s landmark independent movie Buddies (1985) will now be followed by an in-person discussion with Roe Bressan, Arthur Bressan's sister, who will talk about her brother's work and legacy.

Due to a schedule conflict, a talk by UW Madison Professor Kathryn Sanchez related to her recently published book Creating Carmen Miranda has been moved from December 14 to December 7 at 6 p.m., prior to a screening of Carmen Miranda in Down Argentine Way.

All Cinematheque screenings are free and open to the public.

The Glow of 7TH HEAVEN

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Frank Borzage's 7th Heaven were written by Lillian Holman, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A new 4K restoration of 7th Heaven will screen on Saturday, October 27 at 7 p.m. as part of our "Silents Please!" series. The screening takes place in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The new restoration featuring the original Movietone score and sound effects will be introduced by Katie Trainor, Film Collections Manager at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

By Lillian Holman

When Hollywood transitioned to sound in the late 1920s, there was a sense of panic among theorists that the high artistic achievements of the medium so far would be lost. When you watch a film like 7th Heaven (1927) released the same year as The Jazz Singer (1927), it is much easier to understand what the theorists were so afraid of losing. Directed by Frank Borzage and starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, the film epitomizes both silent Hollywood romance and silent Hollywood melodrama.

“Chico…Diane…Heaven.” The three words that replace “I love you” in the film’s script also represent Borzage’s holy trinity within the film. The theme of divinity permeates both the plot and the style as the central couple navigates being poor and in love in Paris. The style is one of the major take-aways from the film: everything glows, especially scenes like the angelic shot of Diane in her white dress in the window. By playing with lighting and including such halos, Borzage paints a convincingly appealing picture of Chico and Diane’s world, even as the dialogue deems it downtrodden. We believe it when Diane calls their 7th floor apartment “heaven” since it is lit as such.

The style also adds credence to Chico’s development throughout the film: even as he declares himself an atheist, God is seemingly looking out for him in the form of the filmmaker. By the time he converts, it feels obvious since we have seen a deity there the whole time in the narrative coincidences and the literal halos.

Chico and Diane are two characters made for each other, who help each other ascend both socially and physically. In Gaynor’s case, the ascent is physical: According to a most charming anecdote, Borzage first cast the two actors together because Gaynor was so tiny, and Farrell was so big. They fit together, yet the size comparison helps emphasize Gaynor’s vulnerability (see the shot where she is dwarfed by his pillows in bed) or accentuate his when he crouches to her level for an embrace. While there is plenty of drama in terms of Diane’s evil sister and Chico’s military service, the wonder of 7th Heaven takes place in these middle scenes, when we can just witness their love and Borzage’s faith in their goodness.

Watching as a modern audience, there are many preconceptions that must be left at the theater doors. More than anything else, the plot, especially the final third, is fairly ridiculous and more than a little implausible. Much like many melodramas, it is fraught with coincidence, and there is both a sense that the world is out to completely destroy our two protagonists’ happiness or to save them, depending on the moment. For example, there is nothing more inconvenient in silent cinema than the pesky call to war, especially at exactly the worst moment.

Meanwhile, while the central pairing is one of the iconic Hollywood duos, it is also a portrayal of a woman and a heterosexual romance that would be considered sexist and condescending today. For instance, it is always a little jarring to hear Farrell confidently declare to Gaynor, “Leave the big thinking to me!” But that being said, Gaynor’s ready agreement comes with a healthy dose of indulgence in his arrogance as well. Her charm is plenty enough to make up for her size and he is as emotionally dependent on her as she is physically dependent on him. Meanwhile, while he took her in, it was her perseverance that made her survive in the first place. In fact, Farrell and Gaynor's star power and Borzage’s deft hand behind the camera makes it so that, even with these small road bumps, it is still a magical journey to ascend the seven flights of stairs with the three of them.

Sibling Rivalry and Sexual Rage: BASKET CASE

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

This analysis of Frank Henenlotter's Basket Case was written by Dillon Mitchell, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A new 4K restoration of Basket Case will be screened on Friday, October 26 at 7 p.m. at our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The sreening will be introduced by Katie Trainor, Film Collections Manager at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Basket Case has been restored by The Museum of Modern Art with support from The Celeste Bartos Fund for Film Preservation.

By Dillon Mitchell

Warning: Contains potential "spoilers."

Our first glimpse of Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck), the naïve, plucky protagonist of Frank Henenlotter’s debut film Basket Case, finds him strolling down 42nd Street in New York City past a row of unsavory storefronts with signs selling nude shows and pornographic magazines. He’s approached by a man on the street who rattles through an extensive list of contraband before finally offering some “nice girls” to Duane, who continues walking without a second thought or reaction. When he eventually arrives at a hotel and checks into a room, one of his first encounters with a fellow tenant is witnessing Casey (Beverly Bonner) welcome a john into her room. She gives Duane a wink, eliciting an eye-popping reaction that is almost cartoonish.

Overt sexuality has never been a stranger to the horror film. Flagrant nudity and a penchant for punishing oversexed teenagers are trademarks of the slasher subgenre that was nearing its cultural peak at the time of Basket Case’s release in 1982. Henenlotter has spoken extensively on classifying his movies as exploitation films, rather than horror, and here he is actively working against the trope that sex must be punished. Though the main narrative of Basket Case follows Duane and his monstrous, once conjoined twin Belial (who is brought to life by a combination of puppetry and, in two instances, claymation) seeking revenge on the doctors who forcibly separated them years ago, Basket Case also explores the competitive nature of brothers and Belial’s sexual frustration.

In the course of seeking their revenge, Duane meets Sharon (Terri Susan Smith), the secretary of Dr. Needleman (Lloyd Pace). It’s hard to say that palpable sparks fly between the two considering the acting in Basket Case exists somewhere on the spectrum between The Room and Sleepaway Camp, but a date is set up for the following day. Duane whispers so that his brother, tucked away in his basket across the room, cannot hear. Henenlotter only shoots two aspects of New York City – the landmarks, and the seediest buildings and alleyways he could find, so naturally the idyllic date between Duane and Sharon occurs at the base of the Statue of Liberty. When the two begin to sloppily make out (the bad acting extends to kissing as well), the film cuts to a shot of Belial shooting out of his basket, screaming in a mixture of agony and rage. He wrecks the room before retreating back into his wicker home when the hotel manager forces his way into the room.

It’s made explicit later in the film that Duane and Belial share a telepathic connection from their time spent conjoined. Other than this patently ludicrous and stereotypical aspect though, Basket Case is working through real issues of twindom, like the fear of abandonment and a need for personal space. It just happens to be doing so through a conversation between Duane and Belial in which the latter is set up in a toilet bowl. The brothers’ downfall also ultimately stems from a real issue: Belial’s growing frustrating over his sexual incapacity. Henenlotter doesn’t delve far into Belial’s psychology, but he and Duane seem to share a sort of sexual awakening after they leave their small town in Upstate New York to visit the big city; however, only Duane is able to act on these new feelings.

Belial has two “intimate” encounters with women. In the first, he sneaks into Casey’s room and hides among her pillows, waiting until she goes to sleep to reach out from his hiding place and touch her breast. She is immediately woken up and flees the room in a panic, while Belial sneaks out the window, returning to his basket with a pair of Casey’s underwear in hand. The second occurs after Sharon and Duane’s attempt to have sex in the motel room is spoiled by Belial again bursting out of his basket shrieking with fury.

Duane’s vocal resentment over this is the first time we see him openly chastise Belial for interfering in his brother’s life, and this spurs the monstrosity to further, more spiteful action. As Duane sleeps, Belial slips out the window, his eyes glowing red. The film then cuts between footage of Duane running naked through the streets of New York and shots of him tossing and turning in bed, his body drenched in sweat (no doubt calling forth the imagery of a pubescent boy experiencing a wet dream). The Duane on the streets then finds himself at Sharon’s apartment. When Henenlotter switches to a point-of-view shot coming through her window, we may begin to think that this Duane is in fact Belial; it’s made clear when, after a lengthy POV sequence of “Duane” caressing the woman’s nude, sleeping body, Sharon wakes up and finds herself face-to-face with her beau’s disfigured brother. Belial has simultaneously punished his twin for daring to scold him and beaten him to having sex (in an incredibly twisted way). When Duane arrives and returns his brother to the motel to berate him, Belial picks him up by his crotch, lifting him high into the air and establishing physical dominance in their relationship. Despite his deformity, or perhaps because of it, Belial feels the need to prove his masculinity and sexual potency by any means necessary, ultimately driving him and his brother toward tragedy.  


The Genius of Lon Chaney: LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH

Wednesday, October 17th, 2018
Posted by Zachary Zahos
Lon Chaney in Laugh, Clown, Laugh

This essay on Herbert Brenon's Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison. A 35mm print of Laugh, Clown, Laugh will screen with live piano accompaniment by David Drazin on Saturday, October 20 at 7 p.m., as the second program in our "Silents Please!" series. The screening takes place in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Free admission!

By Tim Brayton

Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera Pagliacci is a bitter, raging tragedy about a love affair ending in murder at the hands of a jealous husband. The 1928 feature film Laugh, Clown, Laugh, ultimately based on the opera – via a 1923 play in English, based upon a 1919 play in Italian, itself based upon the opera – is no less tragic, though it is far less bitter. Unlike the appealingly torrid opera, the film’s sorrows are almost entirely internal, its tragedy that of a man coming to grips with the knowledge that the world doesn’t care if he’s sad and old and alone.

So, a perfect scenario for silent cinema, with its singular ability to focus on the expressive powers of the human face. And a perfect scenario for Lon Chaney, whose face was expressive even by the standards of the late silent period. Though today we mostly associate Chaney with his skull-faced Phantom of the Opera, or his soulfully grotesque Quasimodo, hunchback of Notre Dame, more of Chaney’s career was in weepy character dramas, of a sort that Laugh, Clown, Laugh exemplifies. The role of an aging sad-sack who fruitlessly longs for hopeless love was a stock Chaney figure in the ‘20s, meaning that in this late-career role (he appeared in only five more features before his death at age 47), he’d had years of practice refining this character type. That experience pays off, with Chaney giving perhaps his own greatest performance, and one of the great tear-jerking screen turns of the era.

The plot is old-fashioned in its unabashed embrace of melodrama (and, we must confess, its sexual politics): an itinerant clown, Tito (Chaney), takes in an abandoned child, Simonetta. Years later, after she’s grown to adulthood (embodied by 14-year-old future movie star Loretta Young, in her first screen performance), Tito finds himself romantically obsessed with her, but he’s outmatched by Count Luigi Ravelli (Nils Asther), who is younger, handsomer, richer, and not her adopted father. The film leaves little doubt as to the outcome: even Tito recognizes from the start that he’s a totally inappropriate match for Simonetta, that he’s a bit pathetic even for fantasizing about it. This pathos is precisely the fuel of the film’s tragic melodrama, as we watch the middle-aged man grapple with his knowledge of the inevitability of his own loneliness, all while being forced to put on make-up and dance around for the mindless entertainment of audiences.

The irony is not applied with a light touch: signs declaring “Ridi, Pagliaccio” (“laugh, clown”, a key line from the opera’s most famous aria) abound, and the film boasts an angry anti-joke when Tito’s psychiatrist recommends that he should go to see the great clown Flik to cheer himself up, not knowing that Tito is Flik. What keeps Laugh, Clown, Laugh from feeling heavy-handed is partially the medium itself, and the almost mystical effect of silent cinema. If the emotions are drawn with a broad brush, this feels somehow not merely right, but necessary, as though Tito’s pain which cannot be expressed in spoken words must erupt out of his body somehow.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh came out in the last great year of silent cinema. The Jazz Singer had just been a massive hit, and the first all-talking picture, Lights of New York, was just three months in the future. The silent features of 1928 thus represent the last flourishing of a sophisticated, mature art form, and while this film lacks the tremendous innovation of The Crowd or The Wind, it nevertheless demonstrates much of that sophistication. The film was directed by Herbert Brenon, well-regarded in his day by critics (if not always by actors; by Young’s account, Chaney spent this film’s production constantly protecting her from Brenon’s verbal abuse), though many of his films have been lost: even this film is missing one of its reels, though the story is little affected as a result. He brings to the film, with the great cinematographer James Wong Howe,  a complex mixture of close-ups and deep spaces, positioning characters against fully three-dimensional spaces like they’ve been dropped into dollhouse rooms, busy with bits and pieces of design. At the same time, the staging rarely allows the characters to fully navigate that space, except inasmuch as different layers of depth are used to keep them separated. The result is a busy, fleshed-out world that feels constantly separated from Tito, amplifying our impression that he is fundamentally alone.

It always comes back to Tito. The film’s beautiful cinematography, Young’s self-assured debut, and everything else notwithstanding, the film that lives and dies entirely on Chaney’s extraordinary work. We see displayed here some of the subtlest make-up he designed in his famous career, silently adding one year after another, exaggerating the wrinkles and whitening hairs. Even his bright white clown make-up, which practically radiates off the screen, changes to reflect time passing. For a film largely about the awareness of a middle-aged man that his time has passed, this never-stressed but omnipresent awareness of the physical toll of aging is heartbreaking in its own right.

Let us never say that Chaney was simply relying on his make-up, though! His work in Laugh, Clown, Laugh is, in this writer’s opinion, one of the great achievements of silent film acting, mixing stereotypically broad poses (to evoke his character’s theatrical background), with tightly constrained facial expressions that shift so gradually as to be nearly invisible. His body language alone imbues the film with an almost unbearable amount of human feeling: consider, for example the way he hangs his arms at his side, rocking his shoulders forward so that it almost seems that his hangdog look is going to pull him to the ground. And then combine the sheer exhaustion and sadness of that pose with Chaney’s skill at slowly allowing tears to form in the corner his eyes while his mouth is set in a curl of self-loathing, a devastating mix of pathos and self-accusation. If this is first and foremost a performance piece, the performance is enough to justify a whole feature: the final masterpiece from one of the quintessential silent film stars.


Wednesday, October 10th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on The Red Kimona and The Curse of Quon Gwon were written by Lillian Holman, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Both films will screen in one program on Saturday, October 13 at 7 p.m., the initial program in our "Silents Please!" series. The screening takes place in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Free admission!

By Lillian Holman

When thinking of great American silent films, it is common to only think of the names of the canonized greats. For example, Griffith, DeMille, Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd can all be listed without their first names and a good portion of those reading this will know exactly to whom I’m referring. That being said, if that same reader were asked to name other silent film directors, I’m sure the list would be much shorter. The limited sphere of this perception is due to two competing factors, neither of which is the implied reader’s ignorance. First, the names listed were certainly valorized in the years these films were released and have always been on the lips of movie fans. Second, they also represent a catalogue of films that happened to have been preserved partially due to that valorization. This issue of preservation is the more important of the two since so many silent films were lost due to the fragility of nitrate and the lack of consistent preservation standards at the time they were released. It means that even if we wanted to look beyond these names in the past, it has been too difficult or impossible. It is therefore a luxury now that new digital preservation techniques and wider spheres of inquiry are allowing many forgotten or “lost” films to be rereleased and finally shown to a modern public. The Red Kimona (1925), directed by Walter Lang and Dorothy Davenport, and The Curse of Quon Gwon (1926), directed by Marion E. Wong, are two of these treasures, and unlike the films made by the list above, were directed (or co-directed) by women and, in the case of Wong, directed by the woman thought-to-be the first Asian-American director regardless of gender.

Both these films deal intensely with the issues surrounding their directors’ gender and race. The Red Kimona is a shockingly relevant piece about the sacrifices women shouldn’t have to make and the violence they shouldn’t have to endure in order to work in show business or, in the case of our protagonist, to work at all. Davenport herself makes this abundantly clear in the very rare instance of direct address in the frame narrative of the film, where she “speaks” to the audience about how this is based on a true story and that there are women like our protagonist out there who we should both pity and take care of. It is easy to say that dealing with sexual harassment has always been an issue for women; it is quite different to see it played out almost 80 years before even the invention of Twitter, let alone the introduction of #MeToo.

Meanwhile, The Curse of Quon Gwon , a movie that only exists as a 35 minute fragment of its original feature length, is also about the female experience, but in a very different context than Red Kimona. The female protagonist of Curse, is navigating the more traditional customs of her new Chinese mother-in-law after she has been solidly immersed in western culture. It is a push and pull between the “ancient” and the “modern,” but with the “modern” meaning 1926. It is therefore a unique cultural artifact where we not only get to see a culture ridiculously underrepresented on screen, but we get to witness two different iterations of it and the struggles of westernization at a personal level. What is even more remarkable: the intertitles of Curse have been lost so we experience this all without words, yet it seems like nothing is lost at all.

While these films are remarkable for reasons beyond the identities of their directors, it is still worth taking a step back and noting the fresh perspective it allows us on Hollywood at the turn of the century. When Manohla Dargis wrote about these films on the occasion of July’s BAMcinématek series, “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers,” she wrote how:

Women have a history of being hidden in plain sight, whether they’re written out of even recent histories or yet more studio executives insist that that they can’t find suitable women to hire. A series like “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers” is a crucial part of this revisionism, a corrective to our collective amnesia.

As Dargis suggests, the issue of racial and gender diversity in Hollywood is certainly nothing new, and when looking as far back as the 1920s, it is easy to overlook it or dismiss it as a product of the time, hence the “collective amnesia.” Such amnesia causes us to forget that there were in fact women working in high level creative spheres in Hollywood during the silent era, especially in the early years. Media historian Erin Hill also covers this forgotten chapter of film history when she mentions how in the early 1910s, “in this informal work system, a few women infiltrated such male-dominated fields … [and] ascended from the lower ranks of film companies to roles as writers, directors, producers, and production owners.” The “informal work system” Hill is referring to was the less standardized Hollywood where roles on set were more fluid and open to all, including the women present. She outlines how the increased standardization of the industry was one of the key factors that forced out female creatives. While Red Kimona and Curse of Quon Gwon came out 10 years after the era Hill is referring to and after systems of standardization were beginning to be in place, the women who worked on these films carry on this legacy of female authorship that began in the 1910s. In fact, Hill references Dorothy Arzner, co-writer of Red Kimona, specifically as one of the women who learned every aspect of the trade when she first arrived in Hollywood in the 1910s. Therefore, when we appreciate these films anew, not only are we expanding our canon of great films, they are giving us primary evidence of the work of female artists too easy to assume never existed in the first place.