A World Turned Over: Wellman’s BEGGARS OF LIFE

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017
Posted by Matt St John

These notes on William Wellman’s Beggars of Life by film scholar Thomas Gladysz are adapted from his new book, Beggars of Life: A Companion to the 1928 Film, as well as his audio commentary to the movie, which can be heard on the recent Kino Lorber release. A recently restored DCP, featuring a score by the Mount Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, will screen as part of our Silents Please! series on Friday, December 1 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Thomas Gladysz

In 1928, thirty-two year old director William Wellman was at the top of his profession. He was still basking in the critical and commercial triumph of Wings when his latest production, Beggars of Life, hit screens in the fall. Considered one the studio’s most important dramatic productions of the season, Beggars of Life was a film which couldn’t help but provoke. Wellman was already developing a reputation as a maverick director. And this film’s gritty realism stood at odds with the otherwise carefree glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age.

Beggars of Life was loosely based on a bestselling book of the same name by Jim Tully, a celebrated, rough-and-tumble, two-fisted “tramp writer of Hobohemia.” In Tully’s book—a kind of novelistic memoir, the author gave a grim account of the nearly seven years he spent wandering America as a “road kid.” It is a book not only about Tully’s journeys (many of them made jumping trains), but also about the colorful and sometimes unsavory characters he met along the way—in jails, bars, hobo camps and small towns across the Midwest.

Though cut from the same rough cloth, Wellman’s movie tells a different story. Beggars of Life is a tersely filmed drama about an orphan girl (Louise Brooks) dressed as a boy who flees the law after killing her abusive stepfather. With the help of a young tramp (Richard Arlen), the two hop a freight train, ending up at a hobo camp ruled by Oklahoma Red (future Oscar winner Wallace Beery). In this male-dominated underworld, with the police on their trail, danger is always close at-hand.

Wellman’s artfully photographed, morally dark tale of the down-and-out stars Beery. He receives top billing, and gives an especially vital performance. Arlen, an otherwise indifferent actor, is also good. However, it is Brooks (the only woman in the film) who dominates the screen in what is arguably her best role in her best American film. Brooks stands out, and not just for her appealing, androgynous appearance. Rather, she captures our attention through her authentic performance. As a young girl in Kansas, Brooks was sexually abused. It marked her life. In Beggars of Life, she plays a vulnerable young woman who is sexually assaulted.

In Wellman’s film, Brooks seemingly reached down inside herself to give an authentic performance. She would do so again in Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, two 1929 films where she once again plays a character who is sexually abused. Too what degree Brooks’ childhood experience affected her performance in these films we can never know, but, in all likelihood, it’s there in ways the camera could only record superficially. Watch Brooks’ face.

Beggars of Life is a film filled with transgression, acts that go against a law, rule, or code of conduct. In the film, Brooks plays a character identified only as “The Girl.” Her abuse at the hands of a farmer who has “adopted” her, and the assault that leads to his manslaughter, in turn causes this orphan to flee disguised as a boy.

On the run, this cross-dressing young woman descends into a desperate social stratum even lower than her standing as an orphan. Brooks’ and Arlen’s characters enter a “hobo jungle”—a camp of homeless men where criminal activity is rampant. We see fighting, theft, drinking (this was during prohibition), trespassing, attacks upon the police, and the suggestion that Brooks’ character would be claimed by another and in all-likelihood again sexually assaulted. Set in America’s heartland, this is pastoral life gone awry. And too, there is race mixing at a time when black and white characters were seldom shown as equals. In fact, the sole African American actor in the film, Edgar “Blue” Washington, plays one of its very few noble characters.

The late 1920’s marked a period of transition in the film industry, as the studios came to grips with emerging sound technologies. At the time, Wellman was resistant to using sound: according to film historian and Wellman authority Frank Thompson, Wellman felt its intrusion into his carefully constructed drama would prove disturbing to the mood of the film. The director, however, was overruled, and Paramount instructed special effect engineer Roy Pomeroy to supervise a scene that would feature a bit of dialogue and a song sung by Beery.

At the time, the use of sound equipment was notorious for slowing down a film’s action. Actors had to stand still in order to be heard in near proximity to hidden microphones. And that was a problem in the making of Beggars of Life, which was all about movement. Throughout the film, its many colorful characters are frequently in motion, either walking down a road or across a field or riding on trains, automobiles, or even a slow-moving bread-cart. When Wellman wants to indicate a character’s mood, he will show us their feet.

A bit of dialogue (song lyrics actually) was first heard well into the sound version of the movie, in the scene when Oklahoma Red first enters the story. Paramount executives wanted the stout actor to arrive, stand in the midst of the hobo camp, and sing a hobo song. Wellman thought such a scene would prove too static, and the director asked Beery to instead walk into the camp while singing and carrying a barrel of moonshine. The soundman insisted it couldn’t be done, and that the microphone couldn’t be moved.

The director’s near obsession with movement led to a solution, and something of an innovation. Others have been credited with first moving a microphone during the making of a film, but according to David O. Selznick, Wellman did it first for Paramount. Selznick made his claim to Kevin Brownlow, who included it in his 1968 book, The Parade's Gone By. “I was also present on the stage when a microphone was moved for the first time by Wellman, believe it or not. Sound was relatively new and at that time the sound engineer insisted that the microphone be steady. Wellman, who had quite a temper in those days, got very angry, took the microphone himself, hung it on a boom, gave orders to record—and moved it.”

Though a few earlier Paramount releases had also utilized music and sound effects, Beggars of Life was notably the first studio release to include spoken dialogue. The film was released in September of 1928 as both a silent and sound film (the latter with added music, sound effects—including the dramatic sounds of a locomotive, and a bit of dialogue, all of which are now considered lost). The sound version played in larger markets like Madison and Milwaukee, while the silent version played in smaller towns and those markets not yet “wired for sound.” Despite not being a full-fledged talkie, Beggars of Life remained in circulation for nearly two years, as both sound films and the Depression overtook the country.

Beggars of Life has long been a somewhat little known and little seen film. Within the last few years, however, things have begun to change. A rare surviving 16mm print of Beggars of Life (owned by the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York) was optically enlarged to 35mm, making it available to festivals and other special screenings. And earlier in 2017, Beggars of Life enjoyed its first real commercial release when Kino Lorber issued the George Eastman print on DVD/Blu-ray.

According to Wellman’s son, Beggars of Life was the director’s favorite among his silent movies. Not as grand in scope as Wings, Beggars of Life is, rather, a small masterpiece. It is also a film which speaks to our troubled times.

The Maternal Voice in Almodóvar's THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET

Friday, November 17th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Pedro Almodóvar's The Flower of My Secret were written by Erica Moulton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of The Flower of My Secret will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series of Almodóvar's work on Sunday, November 19 at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art's auditorium.

By Erica Moulton

There is a strong continuity to the cinematic world of Pedro Almodóvar, and if you have been faithfully attending Cinematheque screenings every Sunday this semester (as I hope you have been), you could begin to predict what you will see onscreen: vibrant colors, camp sensibilities, a strong connection to Spanish cultural heritage, complicated and neurotic women.

After more than a decade of making films, Almodóvar was also widely recognized for his frank and oftentimes graphic depictions of sexuality, which provided an easy avenue for critics to link him to the tradition of European art house cinema. (two of his films have received X or NC-17 ratings when released in America.) The Flower of My Secret (1995) is often described as being a departure from his usual fare—less high camp and more pure melodrama. However, I see the film not as a departure but rather a deepening of themes that he had been addressing in his work since Pepi, Luci, Bom, and Other Girls Like Mom was released in 1980, including and especially the nature of artistic expression and what it means to be a woman and a mother. 

Leocadia, the protagonist of The Flower of My Secret, is self-consciously a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The actress who plays Leocadia (called Leo in the film, more on that name later) is Marisa Paredes, a member of Almodóvar’s stable of performers since she played one of the demented nuns in 1983’s Dark Habits. Paredes portrays Leo with intensity and a tortured weariness that befits a woman torn between two loves. Leo writes what she calls “pink novels”, trashy romances, under the nom de plume Amanda Grís but longs to write dark tales about tortured female psyches, and cites Djuna Barnes, Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, and Edith Wharton among her literary influences. She calls these women “adventurous, suicidal lunatics,” a phrase that could be as easily applied to Leo at the beginning of the film. While she strives to break out of her Amanda Grís contract, the heavier weight on her mind is her absent husband Paco, a military officer involved in the Bosnian War. He doesn’t appear onscreen until the midpoint of the film, but his presence is felt throughout her apartment which is filled with pictures of him, one of them framed by a literal sun. By positioning Leo as trapped between the sentimental femininity associated with her pen name and the oppressive masculine energy of her husband, Almodóvar constructs a film that comments on the nature of authorship itself, both as it relates to Leo, and to himself as a director. 

Although Almodóvar is never one to offer easy solutions to the complex moral and philosophical questions he poses, in The Flower of My Secret he does suggest that the maternal voice, the voice of his motherland, can help Leo to reclaim authentic emotion and construct a new path forward for herself as an author and as a woman. In the film Leo’s mother, Jacinta, is voiced by another of Almodóvar’s frequent collaborators, Chus Lampreave, whose usual zany presence is tempered by a tenderness that emerges in the relationship between Leo and her mother. At a crucial moment in the film, Lampreave’s voice guides Leo back from the brink of death and continues to lead Leo back to her roots by reciting a poem she wrote about their village in La Mancha. The poem conjures an idyllic countryside full of the sights and sounds of Jacinta’s past, and when she ends, declaring, “It’s my village,” the camera rests on a beautiful cobblestone street lined with white houses. Listening to her mother, Leo is reduced to tears, but the poem’s effect on her is not derived from sentimentality, but from a kind of painful nostalgia, full of longing and loss.

Almodóvar translates this brand of feminine, emotional authorship into the sounds and visuals associated with the mother’s village (based on Almodóvar’s own mother’s village). The lace that the country women sit and embroider all day long serves as a powerful visual metaphor for feminine creativity, especially in the scene where Almodóvar hangs the lace between the camera and the mother-daughter pair in the bedroom of their house. Its position suggests a shroud of feminine solidarity in loneliness, something Jacinta describes as being “a cow without a cowbell”. For the first half of the film, Leo is lost and alone, struggling against her relationship with her husband, and in her attempt to write more serious literature. The second half of the film finds Leo reconnecting with her fellow cows without cowbells, and beginning to find her own voice again through solidarity with these maternal figures. She even spurs the women to sing an ode to their motherland, joining them as they chant, “I’m from Almagro/I’m from fertile land/Where we make lace/cook eggplant.” The sounds of the needles clacking together recalls the sound of Leo’s typewriter and the sounds of flamenco dancing first heard over the opening credits. Speaking about the film, Almodóvar confirmed that Leo “returns to the bed and the house of her childhood, not to die, but to rediscover the origin of life. And to regain the strength to face the future.”

Almodóvar’s cinematic world is known for being built on pastiche, reflexivity, and testing the boundaries of good and bad taste. In The Flower of My Secret, he is still self-consciously creating a cinematic hall of mirrors, in which his characters and images quote from films like Casablanca, Psycho, and the 1981 melodrama Rich and Famous. However, in this film I think he’s also pointing the mirror towards himself, attempting to bridge the boundary between his own artistic voice and that of his female protagonist. Almodóvar is a highly literate director, and he gives his protagonist a name that means “I read” (“leo” in Spanish). The Flower of My Secret can be read as a meditation by a director trying to find his place in a world where the cinematic auteurs are largely men who etch their vision of the world onto celluloid. By reclaiming and celebrating the female voice, and especially the strength derived from the maternal voice, he suggests an authorship that may be embraced by male and female creators alike, not based in control, but in solidarity.

They're Coming to Get You: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead were written by Lillian Holman, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A newly restored DCP, personally supervised by Romero, will screen as part of a tribute to the late director on Saturday, November 18 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Lillian Holman

On its surface there is nothing scary about a middle aged man staggering slowly through a cemetery. He is not grotesque and he is wearing a suit; he is the prime example of unassuming. Yet this man is the first big scare of Night of the Living Dead (1968), one of the forerunners of decades of zombie movies made in its image. You’ll forget how harmless said man appeared when he is banging on your car door, blank-faced, and determined to kill you. The late George Romero directed Dead and it is his incredible power of taking the unassuming and making it terrifying that makes Dead iconic. Much like B-level horror movies from the studio era, Romero makes use of a low budget to generate horror from the unexpected and tension from the cinematic.

Most of the plot takes place in one house during one night, as Ben, played by Duane Jones, shelters in place and works to protect himself and the rest of the house’s occupants against the oncoming swarm of the mysterious undead. As the night wears on, Ben and the group (a young woman named Barbara, a family called the Coopers and a teenage couple named Tom and Judy) try to survive and also piece together what on earth is happening through snippets on the radio and TV. The threat of the dead is always there as the zombies linger outside waiting either for the humans to slip up or their numbers to grow strong enough to break through. This ticking time bomb frightens us as much as the zombies themselves. Ben is remarkably competent, but the implications are that he will have to maintain perfection in order to survive the night. Therefore, his competence is a double-edged sword. We can have more faith that he will make it, but we can take no comfort in potentially knowing more than he does. Romero doesn’t give us privileged information and Ben seems to anticipate anything we would. We are forced to fear the unexpected, therefore, and wonder at what window Ben is going to miss or what loophole the dead are going to find. If we were the ones in Ben’s place, there is little chance we could do better than he does and it is all the more likely we would end up like Barbara.

The horror does not just lie in the oncoming dead, however. Jason Zinoman of the New York Times wrote in a reflection about George Romero, that “Romero will always be known for turning hordes of dead people into a new kind of mainstream monster, but what made him a revolutionary artist is that he didn’t let the living off the hook.” As Ben works tirelessly to board up the house, he has to balance his fear of the zombies with the terrifying incompetence of the shell-shocked Barbara and the actively unhelpful blowhard, Harry Cooper. Barbara was our red-herring protagonist, who lives on in the film as mute reminder of our own fear and helplessness. She follows Ben in a catatonic state and even though she is technically another living adult, she must be protected like a child. Cooper, meanwhile, is a different kind of problem. His ego and his selfishness is as life-threatening as the zombies themselves. He is confident that he knows best and refuses to listen to Ben’s sound logic. He also continues to choose what will save his family over what will save the group. While not heavy-handed, the fact that it is 1968 and a middle aged white man is refusing to listen to or care about a young black man is not insignificant. Neither Cooper nor Ben references the color of Ben’s skin, but the implied racism is there. According to Matt Thompson of NPR’s Code Switch, who in turn cites Joe Kane, “Ben was not originally envisioned as a black character. But the casting of Duane Jones in the role gave it a societal resonance that later zombie fiction would strive to recreate.” This is present in Ben’s relationship with Cooper, but becomes even more tragic and impactful during the iconic ending that is not worth spoiling here, but maintains chilling relevance to this day.

In his obituary for Romero, director Edgar Wright remarks that “‘Romero’, immediately conjures more images and themes than 99 percent of writer/directors out there.” Night of the Living Dead was the first conjuring of those images and themes and it is remarkably prescient to this day. As the dead walk across our movie and TV screens, it was Romero who released them and warned us with the ever chilling “They’re coming to get you, Barbara…” Get us they did and oddly enough, we are grateful.

Cinema as Labyrinth: Almodóvar's BAD EDUCATION

Thursday, November 9th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Pedro Almodóvar Bad Education were written by Matt Connolly, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Bad Education will screen in our ongoing Sunday Cineamtheque at the Chazen series devoted to Almodóvar on November 12 at 2 p.m.

By Matt Connolly

With their luscious color palettes, twisting narratives, and bold genre revisionism, the films of Pedro Almodóvar embody full-throated cinephilia in both their formal richness and their knowing nods to movie history. For all his explicit cinematic citations, though, Almodóvar can take a strikingly equivocal stance on the role of film in the lives and dreams of his characters. Bad Education stands as one of the director’s most ambivalent meditations on the powers and perils of the moving image.

We are first introduced to director Enrique (Fele Martínez) scrounging for new film ideas in the local tabloids. In the midst of this artistic stagnation, he receives an unexpected visit from Ignacio (Gael García Bernal), an old friend from Catholic boarding school and Enrique’s first love. Ignacio is an aspiring actor now going by Ángel, and he brings along a short story he wrote based on their shared childhood that he hopes Enrique will adapt for the screen (with Ángel in the lead role). Entitled “The Visit,” the story envisions an alternative reunion between the two men. Ignacio (also Bernal) is portrayed here as a trans performer and junkie named Zahara who hopes to reignite her adolescent relationship with Enrique. To obtain the money to complete her sexual-reassignment surgery, Zahara returns to her childhood Catholic school and visits Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho). She slips him a story she has written entitled (you guessed it) “The Visit.” In it, we finally see Ignacio and Enrique’s childhood romance and how it was broken apart by the sexual predations of Manolo. Zahara demands cash for her surgeries in exchange for her continued silence on Manolo’s past abuses. Eventually returning to the original frame story, Enrique agrees to adapt and direct “The Visit” as his next project, but almost immediately begins to question the true identity and motives of Ángel.

Bad Education shuttles effortlessly between these three stories-within-stories within its first half. That Almodóvar pushes his narrative gamesmanship to at-times head-spinning limits while retaining a legible emotional through line speaks to both his exquisite formal control and the nuance of his central performers. There’s a delicious interplay within Almodóvar’s later films between the riotous hues of his mise-en-scene and the restraint of his cinematography. Such a dynamic structures many of Bad Education’s most memorable scenes, with the brazen colors and pitched emotions set before the camera captured via fastidiously composed static framings and subtly creeping tracking shots. His cast, meanwhile, elegantly delivers the film’s cascade of plot revelations and emotional reversals. First among equals is Bernal, who is tasked not only with portraying (at least) two versions of the same character, but unmasking a core of genuine pain even as Ignacio’s true identity becomes evermore clouded in suspicion.

Indeed, as the film-within-a-film finally gets underway in Bad Education’s second half, art’s would-be transformative power proves inadequate in the face of the true story behind Ignacio’s past and present. Without disclosing the twists that make Bad Education’s final movement so powerful, it’s fair to say that both Enrique and Ángel enter into the film’s production with divergent but equally vivid hopes—the former to rekindle lost childhood relationship; the latter to transform private demons into professional opportunities. Film figures centrally in their previous romance, with their first moment of intimacy occurring in the semi-private sanctuary of the local picture palace. As adults, however, their director-actor relationship becomes increasingly riddled with deception and coercion. And when it seems as if Ángel has found a kind of emotional catharsis in front of the camera, a shadowy figure from the past enters the set and provides the film’s final series of epiphanies. What Ángel has written and Enrique has filmed ends up proving but a pale imitation of the anguished cycle of trauma that is Ignacio’s true history and destiny.

It’s a piquant irony, of course, that Almodóvar can so dexterously use the cinematic form in the service of a story that pointedly reveals its limits. His sumptuous images, agile narration, and tough-minded empathy illuminate the inner lives of even the most odious of his characters, achieving the very insights that Enrique and Ángel search for. This tension forms the bruised heart of Bad Education, making it amongst Almodóvar’s bleakest yet most invigorating works. This is cinema as labyrinth—a flickering maze of elusive images and shifting identities in which its characters seek salvation but only find delusion, despair, death.

Behind the Mask: THE SKIN I LIVE IN

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on of Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito, 2011) were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of The Skin I Live In will screen as part of our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series tribute to Almodóvar on Sunday, October 29 at 2 p.m. in the auditorium of the Chazen Museum of Art. Free admission!

By Tim Brayton

Just in time for Halloween, Cinematheque's ongoing series celebrating the work of director Pedro Almodóvar turns to the Spanish master's closest brush with horror cinema. 2011's The Skin I Live In, like any other Almodóvar film, is ultimately too densely packed with a wide variety of styles and narrative ideas to belong in any one genre: questions of gender and sexual identity rub elbows with a melodramatic tale about a bereaved doctor trying to make the synthetic skin that might have saved his unfaithful wife from suicide. It's the usual Almodóvar mixture of absurdity, horniness, and unapologetic grotesquerie, far more than it slots into any conventional category.

But what else are we to make of a film whose story mainly focuses on the demented revenge plot of a genuine mad scientist? Dr. Robert Ledgard (played by Antonio Banderas, reuniting with the director 22 years after Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) is a perfect example of a latter-day Dr. Frankenstein, his desire to make the world a better place through the power of a medical scientist turning into something curdled and perverse as a result of his suffering. Almodóvar himself was quick to notice this in interviews immediately following the film's premiere at Cannes:

"I was most interested in the thrillers of the 1940s of filmmakers like Fritz Lang… but the screenplay did not fit this perfectly. Finally, the only clear reference was George Franju’s Eyes Without a Face. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or better yet the myth of Prometheus on which it’s based, is a better reference that I noticed only afterwards."

The Franju comparison is obvious from any piece of promotional artwork used around the world to sell the film during its initial release: one of the most striking images in The Skin I Live In is the translucent plastic mask Robert attaches to the face of Vera (Elena Anaya), the chief victim of his mad science, whose face has been replaced with the bad doctor's new synthetic skin. It's an obvious visual reference to the unnaturally smooth, expressionless mask worn by Edith Scob throughout most of Franju's art-horror classic, and certainly the most tasteful, respectable nod to the work of horror films past.

Not that Almodóvar has ever been a filmmaker overly concerned with good taste! The Skin I Live In borrows from substantially less critically-approved sources than Franju's film. The sordid, violent sexuality that underpins everything about the movie (the plot hinges on two separate rapes, and that's saying nothing of Robert's maniacal plan, a sex crime that I'll not spoil except to say that it seems carefully designed to offend the maximum number of people of every political leaning) has more to do with the sleazy thrillers being made across the globe in the 1970s, with a particularly seedy hub of production in the director's own Spain.

In fact, though Almodóvar has never apparently spoken of this connection, The Skin I Live In bears a remarkable number of similarities to 1962's The Awful Dr. Orlof, a rip-off of Eyes Without a Face that's often credited as being Spain's very first horror film. Dr. Orlof was one of the earliest works directed by Jesús Franco, whose critical reputation comes as close as possible to being the exact polar opposite of Almodóvar's: frequently castigated as morally crass and aesthetically incompetent even by the trash cinema fans most likely to make excuses for the prurient grind house fare that was Franco's stock in trade. Still, the unapologetic excess and front-and-center sexuality in Franco's work bears no small similarity to Almodóvar's most extravagantly lurid work, including The Skin I Live In.

Still, while we can position The Skin I Live In as the arthouse successor to the Spanish exploitation films of generations prior, there's no denying how far beyond their model Almodóvar's body horror melodrama goes. Robert is a '50s-style mad scientist, all right, but he's also a quintessential Almodóvar sexually obsessive male, funneling his broken lust into cruelty and control. Vera is an emblem of the fluidity of identity and desire who could fit comfortably in any of the director's most transgressive early films, though the extraordinary black-hearted tawdriness hiding in her backstory would have been extreme even by the standards of Almodovar's '80s films.

The result is one of the director's most aggressively sexual works (it is difficult to find reviews from 2011 that managed to avoid the word "kinky"), though it lacks virtually any of the eroticism that typifies so many of his sunnier, more openly comic efforts. The Skin I Live In isn't without its campy humor, or its self-amusement at the extremes of its scenario, but camp wasn't Almodóvar's main goal. "It promises endless cruelty," he said in that same Cannes interview, and while it's not as bleak as all that, it's certainly impressive how successfully the film takes the gaudiness of something like Dr. Orlof and transforms it into a sober-minded psychological thriller. In the absence of gore or jump scares, The Skin I Live In proves to be a much more effectively adult kind of horror film: one where the source of horror isn't a movie monster, but the nasty, squalid evil of respectable human beings.

The Equal Opportunity Exploitation of Stephanie Rothman: TERMINAL ISLAND

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Stephanie Rothman's Terminal Island were written by Maureen Rogers, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A DCP of Terminal Island will be the first of two Rothman movies to screen at the Cinematheque on Saturday, October 21 at 7 p.m., in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Rothman's The Student Nurses will screen on Saturday, October 28. Admission is free for both screenings.

By Maureen Rogers

The pantheon of exploitation auteurs includes some familiar names—Russ Meyer, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, and Jack Hill—while the directors who got their start in the Corman school are some of the most acclaimed American filmmakers of New Hollywood—Jonathan Demme, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. It is not controversial to say that the work of Stephanie Rothman, a student of the Corman method and colleague to the movie brats, has been entirely elided from histories of 1970s Hollywood and from fan and academic considerations of exploitation cinema. “The Equal Opportunity Exploitation of Stephanie Rothman,” Cinematheque’s 2-film series, shows Rothman as an able exploiteer and innovator; her exploitation cinema could titillate and entertain, and also present female characters with complexity and agency, something her peers rarely attempted.

The first woman awarded the Directors Guild of America fellowship at USC, Rothman directed seven films, earning screenplay or story writing credits for each film. Working within the most prominent independent studios at the time, Rothman made Blood Bath (1966) and It’s a Bikini World (1967), at American International Pictures. The Student Nurses (1970) and The Velvet Vampire (1971) were produced and released by Corman’s New World Pictures. Citing dismal pay at New World, Rothman and co-collaborator Charles Swartz moved to Dimension Pictures, a commercial exploitation firm founded by Corman colleague and former drive-in exhibitor Larry Woolner. There, Rothman directed 1973’s Terminal Island and Group Marriage (1973).

Terminal Island was released in the twilight of drive-in exploitation cinema, just prior to the blockbuster film’s economic dominance over the southeastern drive-ins and second-run theaters that were the foundation of the exploitation market. Strategic in its appeal to the low-budget drive-in market, 1973’s Terminal Island combined several of the most prominent exploitation film trends (the women-in-prison picture, sexploitation, and blaxploitation).

Some have noted, however, that Rothman’s films transcended the predictable narrative formulae of exploitation cinema (which Dante has neatly summarized as “sex, death, and car crashes.”) Working within exploitation’s protocols of sexual objectification and racial caricature, Rothman injected elements of social progressiveness, however superficially—often in the ‘empowered babe’ female characters type depicted in her films.

On Terminal Island specifically, Rothman said she and Swartz were handed the project and therefore locked-in to making a conventional, women-in-prison action film released in the drive-ins during the summer season, then the dumping grounds for genre fare. In a 2016 Interview feature by Colleen Kelsey, Rothman said:

“Now, of course, in a film like Terminal Island [1973], practically the whole film involves violence because the subject matter is violent people. I accepted that…. What I needed to do was try to refine that and give it some meaning beyond the violence itself, or beyond the nudity itself. In that sense, I tried very hard to not make it exploitative.”

In a review of the film, Boxoffice observed that Rothman “handles rugged material well,” noting that “the women [in the film] are used as sexual objects and beasts of burden, yet there is little sex and just a fair amount of nudity. They become every bit as resourceful and tough as the men.”

Such modest acclaim from trade press failed to open doors for Rothman in Hollywood. Indeed, Rothman has talked openly about her disappointment in being relegated to exploitation filmmaking for her entire directorial career. Discussing her efforts to give voice to creative expression within this formulaic mode of filmmaking, Rothman explained to Interview:

“…I was making low-budget films that were transgressive in that they showed more extreme things than what would be shown in a studio film, and whose success depended on their advertising, because they had no stars in them. It was dismaying to me, but at the same time I decided to make the best exploitation films I could. If that was going to be my lot, then that’s what I was going to try and do with it.”

Wiseman Smiles Too: CENTRAL PARK

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Frederick Wiseman's Central Park were written by Matt St. John, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 16mm archival print from Wiseman's Zipporah Films will screen on Friday, October 20 as part of our ongoing Wiseman series in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Matt St. John

Within our Cinematheque Frederick Wiseman series, Central Park may seem like a surprising follow up to High School (1968), Hospital (1969), and Welfare (1975), the more clearly institution-focused films that we have already screened. This is not solely a result of our selections, as critics commented on Central Park’s departures from Wiseman’s previous twenty-two documentaries when it aired on PBS in 1990. The Los Angeles Times’s Robert Koehler notes that the park “seems like an utterly eccentric subject choice” for Wiseman after so many films about “environments ruled by stress.” In his Washington Post review, Tom Shales describes it as “one of the most accessible and salutary films ever made by master documentarian Frederick Wiseman -- it's even in color.”

Compared to films with extended sequences of people fighting for their welfare benefits or doctors pleading with stubborn patients to remain in their care, a documentary about New Yorkers inhabiting an iconic public space is, in some ways, a shift. While a few of Wiseman’s earlier films dealt with seemingly lighter topics, like Model (1980) and the Neiman-Marcus-focused The Store (1983), Central Park is a notably relaxed portrait of a space that takes on many different meanings for its visitors, supporters, and employees. Wiseman has always attended to the various groups involved with his topics, but Central Park often highlights the people who use the park. And they use it in plentiful ways––exercise, romance, performance, and activism, to name a few.

There are moments of tension and drama, but overall the film offers an impression of a space created for leisure and public gathering that generally fulfills its purpose, even when that requires meetings about rule-breaking cyclists or fiery debates like the hearing about a new tennis house. While the film does acknowledge problems like drugs and homelessness, Wiseman emphasizes the vast array of recreational daytime activities in the park, rather than its widespread associations with crime and fear at the time. As Shales writes in his review, “For the most part, this is a portrait of Central Park smiling. Wiseman seems to be smiling too.”

Even with its different topic, Central Park contains many similarities to Wiseman’s other documentaries. The film lacks voiceovers, explanatory titles, and interviews, and it was produced using lightweight equipment that allowed Wiseman and his cinematographer, John Davey, to be flexible in their shooting locations and selections. Wiseman recorded sound, as he typically does, and worked closely with frequent collaborator Davey to define the aesthetic tendencies of the project. In a 1991 interview with Documentary Magazine, Wiseman stated that he and Davey discussed the film’s style between shots and while watching rushes, saying, “We're talking about it in one way or another all day long and all night long.”

Defining this style, Wiseman explained that Central Park “is not so dependent on talk; it is more of a movie where the pictures tell the story and the sequences are short and each shot that I've used is meant to suggest a story.” This quality appears through the wider shots of the film. In contrast with Welfare’s tight close-ups on faces in intense conversation, for example, Central Park is about a larger scale of activity, with parades, demonstrations, marathons, and picnics. Wiseman also balances the short scenes with longer sequences, like the activist group that passionately argues with park officers over a merchandise-selling policy. This balance of brief and extended events allows Wiseman to include a remarkably varied set of observations in the three-hour film, culled from the eighty hours of material he and Davey recorded in a five-week shoot.

Within these observations, Wiseman uncovers topics that appear often in his other films. While the fundraising and board meetings in Central Park are not a primary focus, they provide some of its most candid discussion about the meanings and functions of the park. The complex interactions of business meetings feature heavily in some of Wiseman’s later projects, like At Berkeley (2013) and this year’s Ex Libris (screening in this series on November 3). In Central Park, his attention to artistic performance includes theater rehearsals, opera productions, and film shoots, and his interest in performance is the structuring topic for films like Ballet (1995), La Danse – Le Ballet de l’Opera de Paris (2009), and the Paris-cabaret-set Crazy Horse (2011). In all of his films, Wiseman discovers unexpected social practices, behaviors, and events, and that tendency is on full display in Central Park, from a festival for Mississippians to a dinosaur celebration, complete with a dinosaur-impression contest. And like all of Wiseman’s work, Central Park contains pronounced traces of the period when it was produced. These range from amusing celebrity cameos (keep an eye out for a younger Francis Ford Coppola) to sobering reminders of crises––a father takes his young children to the AIDS quilt to remember a family friend.

Despite its unusual subject matter, Central Park remains a Wiseman film to its core, endlessly curious about the intricacies of human behavior and emotion, especially in public. He considers it similar to his other films about institutions, because, as he told the New York Times in 1990, “Central Park is a vehicle in which people express their social concerns.” They certainly express (and argue over) concerns in the film, but they also paint, play, sing, dance, mourn, and relax. Above all, people actually choose to be in Central Park and choose what they want to do there, making it one of Wiseman’s most revealing, engaging films about contemporary American life.


Thursday, September 28th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on the late Jonathan Demme's Something Wild (1986) were written by Zachary Zahos, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Something Wild will screen in our tribute to Demme on Saturday, September 30 at 7 p.m. in our regular screening venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Zachary Zahos

Eight years before Pulp Fiction’s soundtrack climbed the Billboard 200, Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986) advanced, to less immediate acclaim, the art of the pop music soundtrack. Few movies, before or since, match it in terms of sheer volume of songs, and even fewer rival the internal diversity of its selections, from unique artists, genres, and countries of origin. At last month’s BAM Cinema series commemorating Demme, who died in April, Paul Thomas Anderson marveled at the soundtrack’s scope: “[It] was historic how much music was in that movie. Watching it again, it’s there and it does everything, but it doesn’t overpower it. There’s all these long silences, too. I still can’t figure out how he did it.”

By associating certain tones, locations, and story acts with distinct musical styles, Demme—along with music supervisors Sharon Boyle and Gary Goetzman, composers John Cale and Laurie Anderson, and music editor Suzana Perlic—managed to squeeze some fifty-plus songs into this romantic comedy/neo-noir/road trip movie, and help give shape to this highly elastic concept. Following the impromptu journey of square Charlie (Jeff Daniels) and chic Audrey (Melanie Griffith, who first goes by “Lulu”) from New York City to Pennsylvania, Virginia, and back, Something Wild spends significant time in top-down cars with cranked-up radios, like American Graffiti (1973) before it. As with George Lucas’s film, one can detect in Something Wild’s soundtrack a personality behind its curation, but here the range of musical genres, the largely contemporary vintage of the tracks, and the organizing principles behind their arrangement showcase Demme’s famously democratic sensibility.

With his effortless, quintessentially American style, Demme mastered, and thus obscured, the technical nightmares underlying his projects. For Something Wild, Demme assumed the formidable challenge of sourcing nearly all the film’s music—excepting Anderson and Cale’s gentle, infrequent original score and Jean-Michel Jarre’s eerie “Ethnicolor,” over a scene of climactic violence—to the story world, making the songs “diegetic.” This self-imposed rule comes across not as overindulgence but—to paraphrase one of Demme’s heroes, Jean Renoir—as a way of keeping one door always open to the outside world. For instance, before fading out David Byrne and Celia Cruz’s opening credits song, “Loco de amor (Crazy for Love)" (hear below), to commence the story proper, Demme grounds this song in the film’s world with a shot of a man listening to this song from a boombox in front of the café where Charlie and Audrey meet. A salsa riff on The Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” “Loco de amor” in turn impresses the thematic importance (recall the film’s title) of that British Invasion classic, which is sung three more times by characters during lax moments of harmony.  

The first act of the film—a 25-minute run from opening titles to the first nightfall—breezes by with an exuberant, wall-to-wall mix of world music. Including “Loco de amor,” ten songs populate this aural space, mostly via car radios, and all but three hail from Latin America or Africa. These include the following: On the café radio, “Si Por Mi Llueve” by Puerto Rican salsa singer Cheo Feliciano; in the Holland Tunnel, “Wozani Mahipi (Hippies Come to Soweto),” by Mahotella Queens, leading practitioners of South Africa’s mbaqanga style; Jamaican deejay Big Youth’s “Feel It” on the New Jersey Turnpike; “Highlife,” by Nigerian pop star Sonny Okosun, greeting Charlie and Audrey’s first kiss; and “Ooh! Aah!” by Jamaican reggae group Fabulous Five Inc., played from a dazzling tape player shaped like an ancient African Transformer. Aside from “Wild Thing,” the only notable continental selection in this opening stretch comes when Charlie flees an unpaid bill and an irate Charles Napier: Big Audio Dynamite’s “Medicine Show,” which prominently samples Ennio Morricone’s theme from The Good, the Bad and The Ugly, cheers this moment of coerced lawlessness.

After a tellingly pop music-free interlude at Audrey’s mother’s house, Charlie and Audrey arrive at her Pennsylvania high school reunion, which is surely one of the most graceful sequences in Demme’s career. Introduced on-stage with a loving, star-spangled tracking shot, New Jersey college rock legends The Feelies perform a set of covers and originals as Charlie and Audrey feel the first shivers of a deeper attraction on the dance floor. Music supervisor Gary Goetzman—who also won an Oscar producing Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991)—joins the band on stage for a partly Spanish language rendition of Freddy Fender’s “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” To a funky cover of Bowie’s “Fame,” Jeff Daniels commits to screen an indelible dance that defies notions of good or bad, and immediately after, The Feelies’ own “Loveless Love” scores the snakelike entrance of the volatile ex-lover in Audrey’s life, Ray (Ray Liotta).

Once Ray takes over the literal and narrative wheel, the soundtrack turns toward punk (X’s “The New World,” to start) and new wave (Madison’s own Timbuk3, whose “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” plays at the first gas station). When reggae music returns, at a pivotal moment later at a diner, it comes in the hybrid form of “Zero, Zero Seven Charlie” by UB40 (also hear below), a new wave-influenced reggae outfit from England—perhaps suggesting that some of Ray has rubbed onto Charlie. But beyond defining character, Something Wild’s soundtrack creates a utopian sense of place (and taste), which is pure Demme: a Pennsylvania thrift shop in on the joke of, and otherwise enjoying, “Yahoo Eeee” by Wazmo Nariz; a group of black men freestyle rapping outside of a Virginia gas station; a whole world ready to sing “Wild Thing,” from the heart. 

Through the Darkness of Future Past: TWIN PEAKS FIRE WALK WITH ME

Wednesday, September 27th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) was written by WUD Film’s Kristen Johnson-Salazar. A new DCP of Fire Walk with Me will screen at our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, September 29 at 7 p.m. The screening will be preceded, at 6:30 p.m., by special Twin Peaks pre-show material assembled by Daniel Knox.

By Kristen Johnson-Salazar

Some movies have the power to transport you to a certain time and place.  It could be the year the film came out, the first time you saw it, or just where and when the film is set.  For me, the Twin Peaks film and show capture a specific time and mood for when I first became captivated by the fantastical and devious world of Twin Peaks. 

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me entered theaters in 1992, a year after its television counterpart’s untimely cancellation that left fans in a whirlwind of questions pertaining to the fate of many of Twin Peaks’ notable residents.  Director David Lynch successfully carries the already cinematic world of Twin Peaks to the silver screen, allowing the audience to once again slip into the obscure and dark realities that lie beneath the town’s upbeat quirkiness.  Unfortunately for fans of the show, many believed the film to be a sequel rather than a prequel, so it was to their disappointment that the film wasn’t going to further the plot where the series’s cliffhanger left off. 

The film’s timeline spans from a year before the events that transpire in the series to the last days of Laura Palmer’s life.  We are treated to reprise performances of characters the audience has come to know, like Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), Gordon Cole (David Lynch), Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and so on.  Yet, within the first twenty minutes of the film, the only people to inhabit the world are a new investigative team of Special Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Agent Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland), who are sent to a town after a body is found in a similar fashion to other murders in the area.  From this segment we head over to the FBI headquarters where supernatural manifestations begin to transpire, including an unnatural routine by Special Agent Phillip Jefferies (David Bowie).  This acts as our transition between the two storylines, as now we are in the deep waters of Lynch’s nightmarish spirits that have a hand in the terrible occurrences that lay before the path of Laura Palmer.

Sheryl Lee’s presence in Fire Walk with Me as Laura Palmer is something supernatural in and of itself.  Her mesmerizing character and electric performance can finally be seen on screen, instead of in video and pictures frames or in dreams where she lived in the television series.  Laura is a sympathetic and endearing young woman, who struggles with drug addiction, parental abuse, and the supernatural.  We, like her best friend Donna Hayward (Moira Kelly, who replaced Lara Flynn Boyle in the film), see Laura in glimpses of her real self, and want to reach out to help her. Yet, through our ironic knowledge of the television series, we know she is doomed.  The film embraces this fact and, by the end, we prepare for the shock and horror of Laura’s fate.

For many, this was seen as a step backwards for the series.  Critically and financially, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me did not perform as well as many thought it would.  It received negative critiques, especially in the realm of the film feeling joyless and having a lack of clarity.  Since its release in 1992, an assemblage of deleted footage from Fire Walk with Me came out in July 2014, titled Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces.  In October of the same year, Showtime announced a Twin Peaks miniseries as a continuation of the television show and film, with series creators David Lynch and Mark Frost returning. While pre-production was hazy in the beginning, with rumors of Lynch leaving the project due to creative and financial issues, Frost and Lynch finally agreed with Showtime to create the 18 episode return to Twin Peaks that aired this year. I cried in class the day I heard this news.

Even if the revival of Twin Peaks had never transpired and the only new stories we received were Mark Frost’s books about the history of Twin Peaks, this film, years later after the water has settled, does feel complete and whole.  We are given closure to Laura’s story and to her character.  The ending sequence is both empowering and emotional.  Angelo Badalamenti’s “The Voice of Love,” is orchestrated with such ambiance and love that it transcends our world similar to Laura’s transcendence.  It’s beautiful, heartbreaking, haunting, and, most of all, Angelo.  It isn’t Twin Peaks without Angelo’s score.

Amongst everything that has been said, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is a film that needs to be watched and re-watched, not just for the references to the old show, but especially now in relation to the revival series.  Viewing some scenes post this most recently aired season can add more depth to not just character actions, but also to characters’ reactions.  I would highly encourage all who view this film to watch this third season of Twin Peaks, as it not only adds to Fire Walk with Me, but it’s an experience similar to the original series, which is something you won’t see anywhere else.

How Do You Want to Be Loved? Almodóvar's LAW OF DESIRE

Thursday, September 21st, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Law of Desire (La Ley Del Deseo) were written by Erica Moulton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Law of Desire will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen salute to Pedro Almodóvar on Sunday, September 24 at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art.

How do you want to be loved? That is the question that drives the narrative of Pedro Almodóvar's striking 1987 film, Law of Desire, his sixth feature film to be released in Spain. This question, of not only "who do you desire" but "how do you wish to be desired by others", torments the film's protagonist, Pablo Quintero, a director who finds himself at a crossroads both personally and professionally following the release of his new feature. Apart from his creative burdens, including his struggle to define his voice in the Spanish cultural marketplace, Pablo is also reeling from the rejection of his advances by his lover Juan. His transgender sister Tina (played by Almodóvar regular, Carmen Maura) further complicates matters by hoisting her daughter, Ada, on Pablo to look after. Finally, a new figure enters Pablo's life in the form of the obsessive Antonio (Antonio Banderas), whose sudden, intense burst of feeling for Pablo throws everyone's lives into violent disarray. 

Law of Desire sees Almodóvar continue to develop his unique blend of high melodrama and psycho-sexual thriller, which is always underscored by a strong sense of Spanish cultural identity. Like Matador, his fifth feature, Almodóvar presents a vibrant and beautifully shot film, drawing inspiration from the films of Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock, but always adding his own irreverent spin on the material. For his directorial efforts, he was awarded the 'best new director' prize by the Los Angeles critics association. Certainly, Law of Desire was the film that provided Almodóvar with his biggest international platform yet in his career, and critics and the press alike were eager to seize on the film's autobiographical aspects, quickly labeling Almodóvar a 'gay director'. 

At the time of its release, Spanish critics, in particular, were quick to label it an autobiography, with one declaring that Almodóvar was 'stripped bare' in the film. Even Almodóvar was willing to admit that he drew inspiration from his own life in telling Pablo's story. The close relationship of Pablo and Tina in the film mirrors his own close connection to his brother Augustín, who acts as a producer on Almodóvar's films and runs his production company, appropriately called El Deseo (The Desire). The film's subplot about Tina confronting a priest who sexually abused her as a child was influenced by Almodóvar's own experiences as a young boy in the church (a topic that Almodóvar would return to again in Bad Education).  In his book Desire Unlimited: The Cinema of Pedro Almodóvar, scholar Paul Julian Smith argues that Law of Desire "clearly offers itself as an auteurist work, one in which the figure of the director informs and transforms the audience's reception of the film" (80). While his films can all stand on their own, it is helpful to understand Law of Desire within the context of Almodóvar's life and experience in his native country of Spain. 

Almodóvar's celebrity on the global stage was just emerging in 1987, but with his films, he was drawing on a personal history that was all too familiar to his fellow Spaniards. Born in 1949, he grew up in the shadow of the Franco regime, a harsh totalitarian government that sought to control every aspect of its citizens' lives, especially their religious practices, and enforced strict Catholic codes of behavior. After Franco's death in 1975, a countercultural movement known as La Movida Madrileña emerged in retaliation, with participants in the movement embracing previously taboo practices like drug use and punk culture. Almodóvar was an active part of this movement, and drew inspiration from the punk scene in Madrid for his first film Pepi, Luci, Bom. He never fully lost the punk ethos, even as his filmmaking became more sophisticated, and throughout his career, there is always a strong sense of subversive playfulness that infuses his films. 

Law of Desire is a wonderful example of how Almodóvar is able to balance the subversive elements in his films with the melodramatic. In a discussion of how his films blur genre lines at AFI Fest in 2011, reported by Indiewire, Almodóvar stated: “Melodrama was the first genre I saw as a child, housewives would listen to it on the radio. I also loved musicals. I’ve been a moviegoer since I was a child, and I started making movies as a projection of my life… I mix genres because during the day I pass through a lot of genres. Sometimes even science-fiction! Comedy, noir. These are mixed in life, so they are mixed in my movies.” As Law of Desire deftly cycles between genres, Almodóvar crafts a film about desire and being desired that is as thrilling and mysterious as the real life experience. When asked about making the film, Almodóvar likened the process to a disastrous love affair, saying “when you're madly in love with a boy and someone asks you: 'Do you like him?', you don't know. All you know if that that's the only thing in your head right now, and that includes every imaginable state of mind, from delight to despair." (Smith 80)

Almodóvar’s description perfectly captures the experience of watching Law of Desire for the first time—it’s an intoxicating combination of attraction and befuddlement. You will delight and you will despair. What more could a filmmaker hope to achieve!