Shakespeare at WB: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM

Friday, November 11th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Erica Moulton

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laurence Olivier and the HAMLET Problem

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Erica Moulton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost Cult of CATCH MY SOUL

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Amanda McQueen


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Delightfully Disturbing HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE

Thursday, October 27th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Erica Moulton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humanity Amidst Austerity: Wim Wenders' ALICE IN THE CITIES

Thursday, October 27th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Tim Brayton

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Divine Shockfest: MULTIPLE MANIACS

Monday, October 17th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Matt Connolly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

de Havilland Does du Maurier: MY COUSIN RACHEL

Thursday, October 13th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on My Cousin Rachel were written by Matt St. John, Cinematheque Project Assistant and Programmer, and PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of My Cousin Rachel will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series honoring the centennial of Olivia de Havilland on Sunday, October 16.

By Matt St. John

In the early 1950s, the American film industry felt pressure from television’s increasing popularity and its potential impact on film going. A January 1953 feature in Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin indicates some reactions to this pressure. The article describes 20th Century-Fox’s film slate as “a shattering answer to the little living room screens,” and it quotes studio head Darryl Zanuck’s claim that his film season “certainly shapes up like the kind of entertainment that can’t be matched on the printed page, on the stage, or in any man’s living room.” While he dismissed the ability of other forms of entertainment to compete with cinema, Zanuck continued to adapt their stories. Along with its promotion of upcoming Biblical epics and Technicolor musicals, the article also notes that the studio kicked off its year with “plenty of aces,” including Henry Koster’s My Cousin Rachel, a widely promoted adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier novel.

20th Century-Fox purchased the screen rights to My Cousin Rachel for $80,000 in September 1951, after du Maurier’s literary agent failed to sell them for the original price of $100,000 (plus 5% of worldwide gross). After the book’s American publication in early 1952, however, the trades reported that two British production companies and one in the United States attempted to buy the screen rights from Fox—the property became more promising when the novel was another bestseller by du Maurier. Her earlier novel Rebecca was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock to critical acclaim and box office success in 1940, and the new book appeared to have similar potential, with its story of a man who struggles to determine if his deceased cousin’s charming wife is a mourning widow or a heartless murderer. Leading up to the premiere of My Cousin Rachel in December 1952, the studio emphasized its connection to du Maurier, as well as the celebrated lead actress, with ads stating, “Over 31,000,000 readers are waiting to see Olivia de Havilland in Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel.”

Audience had waited three years since Olivia de Havilland’s last screen appearance in William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949), a performance that won her a second Academy Award for Best Actress. During her break from film acting, she performed in stage productions of Romeo and Juliet and George Bernard Shaw’s Candida to limited success, and her return to film was eagerly anticipated. A highly publicized separation from her husband also added to the interest in de Havilland and her latest performance.

These two characteristics—the return of a major star and the adaptation of a popular novel—made My Cousin Rachel a prestige release for Fox, and critics praised many aspects of the film when it premiered. Variety noted the “compelling performances and a clean touch in its presentation” as highlights, and the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther applauded the “eerie and fateful mood that prevails through this excellent screen translation of Daphne du Maurier's literate romance.” De Havilland’s performance was routinely appreciated by critics, although Richard Burton’s American debut in the film gained even more recognition, as in the Film Bulletin review: “While Miss de Havilland’s performance is another Oscar contender, Richard Burton’s portrayal of her harried young lover is the top role in the film and overshadows even Miss de Havilland’s artistry.” Reviews also emphasize the score and cinematography as particular strengths of the film.

Despite the widespread acclaim for the performances and technical elements of My Cousin Rachel, critics repeatedly pointed to the central mystery’s lack of resolution as a problem, in either their own estimation or the presumed taste of audiences. Variety claimed that the film’s box office would depend in part on “how readily the general public will accept the responsibility for solving the main theme’s mystery implications,” and Crowther argued more forcefully that the “impulse of ambiguity, which runs all the way through the film and endows it with constant fascination and uninhibited suspense, considerably obliterates the effect when it crashes against the stone wall of the author's deliberate admission of inconclusiveness.”

Even as an anticipated adaptation, with the return of de Havilland and the emergence of Burton as a new star, the film was only a moderate success at the box office with a gross of $1.3 million. Perhaps critics correctly feared the audience reaction to My Cousin Rachel’s ambiguity, yet this quality remains one of the film’s greatest pleasures, alongside the excellent performances and pervasive suspenseful tone. When compared with the frequent use of widescreen formats, 3D, and Technicolor in the early 1950s, My Cousin Rachel may seem like a conventional, old-fashioned film for the period. But its stubborn adherence to an ambiguous story is anything but traditional for a Hollywood narrative, offering a bold approach to a prestige mystery.

How Could People Get So Unkind?: Dennis Hopper and Linda Manz’s OUT OF THE BLUE

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Dennis Hopper's Out of the Blue was written by Vincent Mollica, WUD Film Programmer and previous contributor to this blog. A 35mm print of Out of the Blue will screen at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Saturday, October 1, at 7 p.m.

By Vincent Mollica

Following the massive success of Easy Rider, people wanted more directed by Dennis Hopper. However, when the counterculture radical/actor/director released the gonzo The Last Movie in 1971, audiences wanted nothing to do with it. Although a fascinating achievement, the film was a colossal failure leaving Hopper, at least as a director, to become a persona non grata in Hollywood. A 1978 New York Times interview finds Hopper, although still acting, tucked away in New Mexico, drinking with his pals Neil Young and Dean Stockwell, truly living the hippie dream. Hopper ends the interview by saying that if he were to direct another feature he would like this one to be easier to follow, while still being a film that would “torment” audiences.

An opportunity to make such a film would arise for Hopper soon after that interview. Hopper was initially meant to act as the abusive father in the Canadian melodrama Cebe about a young girl in peril (Linda Manz, star of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven) and her kindly psychiatrist (Raymond Burr). However, Hopper became director after producer Paul Lewis deemed its current director (Leonard Yakir) too inexperienced. Although he doesn’t carry a screenwriting credit, Hopper completely reconstructed the film. Hopper seemed to have a lot of contempt for the aging Burr. He shot many scenes with him, but Hopper knew he would cut him down to two scenes. Hopper comically notes Burr never knew he wasn’t the film’s lead. The emphasis was placed on Manz’s character with a secondary focus on her father and their troubled relationship.

The film, now called Out of the Blue, starts with the father (still Hopper) crashing into a school bus full of children and blowing it up. The story picks up with Hopper in prison and Manz living in a state of total independence, despite living with her kind, but ineffectual, mother (Sharon Farrell). She struts around with her walkman and denim jacket, acting as if the rest of the world exists only to entertain her. Hopper is released from prison, and although he starts to acclimate back into society, with an adoring Manz by his side, he descends into a drunken, violent state. This results in a troubling and unexpectedly brutal finale, especially for Manz’s character. At the end of the film, whether it’s better or not, its characters burn out rather than fade away.

On the film’s DVD commentary track, Hopper claims the film is a “pretty raw look at life.” Despite its more conventional aesthetic and style, Out of the Blue is certainly a raw film. Some have seen it as a kind of commentary on American society at the end of the ‘70s, a reading perhaps driven by having Hopper at the helm. A Variety review from Cannes claims the film looks at “what the 70s drug culture and dregs of the counterculture could have wrought on those easy riders who got off their bikes and tried to conform and had children.” Hopper says that allusions to the kind of characters found in Easy Rider are unintentional, although he doesn’t dismiss the idea.

Another reading might be a feminist one, invited by a gender non-conforming lead character as well as her, eventually, violently intolerant father figure. In a 1983 Heavy Metal interview, when asked about his use of such a “strong, independent, female lead,” Hopper seems progressively minded but he also self-consciously remarks “there’s a great part of me that has always been very cruel, I guess, to women, because I don’t understand them.” It’s a statement that forces one to think about the threat of physical and sexual violence that permeates Out of the Blue’s conclusion, as well as Hopper’s own abuse in his marriage to Brooke Hayward years earlier. The film feels like both a reflexive look at toxic masculinity and potentially an expression of the same.

However, there’s still a lot of joy in Out of the Blue. The film’s most notable aspect is Linda Manz’s Cebe and her relationship with music. Hopper took a liking to Manz on set, and helped form a unique punk character for her. In one sequence Cebe hitchhikes to Vancouver and infiltrates a punk show where the drummer allows Cebe to play. Cebe and the drummer are up against a brightly lit open wall, complete with silly poster, so the moment has a warm quality which matches the sweet interaction between the two. In this moment music is an awesome force that Manz timidly starts to tap into. Hopper says of this moment “she’s scared to death, you can see it in her.” However, as indicated by the warm mise en scène, this fear is an exciting one. Like many people in real life, without other guiding forces, music is Cebe’s roadmap in life, shaping her identity and serving as a great emotional outlet. One wonders about a grownup Cebe, perhaps becoming a Riot Grrl or a Penelope Spheeris-like filmmaker.

Out of the Blue played at Cannes IN 1980, where it picked up fans like Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby, however, it took several years until getting distribution through Discovery Films. Ebert and Canby supported the film on successful small release, and Jack Nicholson, another fan, did a radio spot promoting it. Three years later Hopper would act as Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which may go down as his most known performance. Manz did not really work in film after Out of the Blue, although she does appear in 1997’s Gummo. However, a 2011 Village Voice interview with her makes it seems like it’s not a huge deal for her (“I haven’t been to a movie in 20 years…”). It may not carry a huge reputation but, even with its problematic climax, Out of the Blue is a special film. In some ways it’s a follow up to Easy Rider (it was this similarity that attracted the film’s eventual distributor). It’s another tragedy about sticking it to the man, and living a life out of a status quo. However, in placing a focus on gender and music, as well as reigning in some of his excesses, Hopper made a deeply felt, sympathetic piece of cinema.

De Palma Accepts a Blockbuster MISSION

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Mission: Impossible  was written by JJ Bersch, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Mission: Impossible will kick off the final night in our Brian De Palma series on Friday, September 23 at 7 p.m. Mission: Impossible will be followed by De Palma's other major blockbuster, The Untouchables, at 9 p.m.

On May 18, 1996, Cleveland hip-hop group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony achieved a level of success that previously seemed unimaginable; their somber but celebratory single “Tha Crossroads” reached the top position on the Billboard Hot 100. The song—written in remembrance of their recently deceased mentor Eazy-E—opens with the following lines: “Now tell me what you gonna do / When it ain’t nowhere to run / When judgment comes for you / When judgment comes for you.”

These were the words you likely would have heard on the radio while driving to the multiplex to see Mission: Impossible on its opening weekend, and if you had followed any of the press leading up to its release, you probably would have felt like judgment had been coming for the film well before then. Take the following introduction from a prerelease Entertainment Weekly story: “Good morning, Mr. Phelps. This microchip contains a photograph of Brian De Palma, director of Mission: Impossible. De Palma has vanished from the realm of movie hyping without a trace. Although publicists for the film deny any knowledge of his whereabouts, sources close to the director say he chose to make himself scarce after a series of creative battles with Impossible star Tom Cruise. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to make sure this movie doesn't self-destruct…”

Budgeted at $85 million, Mission: Impossible was easily the most expensive film De Palma had ever directed—his previous biggest budget was $47 million for 1990’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, a critical and commercial flop—and the strains of blockbuster filmmaking were evident throughout the production process. Some of the problems stemmed from this very budget; EW claims that Paramount executives wanted to “keep the budget for the film in the $40 to $50 million range,” but that Tom Cruise’s “vision” called “for a big, showy action piece” that brought it closer to $62 million. Others came from the screenplay; it went through a troubling set of revisions, with Jurassic Park screenwriter David Koepp receiving $1 million to revamp an earlier script by husband-and-wife team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz. His version called for an extremely dark and deadly opening to the film, and original cast members of the Mission: Impossible television series such as Peter Graves and Martin Landau were outspoken in the press about their concerns over the film’s tone and its treatment of the source material.

And then there’s the matter of De Palma’s relationship with Cruise. Here, again, is Entertainment Weekly: “Trouble between the director and the star-producer supposedly flared throughout the production. ‘Brian had the s--- beaten out of him by Tom and Paula [Wagner, coproducer],’ says a De Palma crony. ‘Tom second-guessed everything he did. One of the reasons the movie went over budget is that Cruise would change his mind at the last minute. 'I want this couch to be red, not beige.' Things like that. I think Brian felt pulverized during the making of this film.’ Pulverized enough to ditch Mission's press junket earlier this month.”

Yet almost none of these difficulties are apparent in the film itself. As Cineaste writes, “Although Brian De Palma's name was all but ignored in the prerelease ballyhoo for this summer blockbuster, the vision behind this witty adaptation of the hit TV spy series of the Sixties is very recognizable.” From the voyeurism and “movieness” of the film’s opening moments to the discomfort provided by the level of viewer knowledge in the film’s central set piece, Mission: Impossible is pretty soundly a Brian De Palma film. It is smaller, darker, and more contemplative than most of the series’ later entries, and probably a lot more confusing, but that’s part of the film’s enduring appeal; few popcorn films have ever had this much fun in the murkiness of the shadows.

Two full decades later, the franchise is still running strong and loud; the most recent, 2015’s Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, was released to critical and commercial success, and industry trades have spent this summer detailing the salary disputes that temporarily halted production on the next. Whether it be John Woo’s stylistic excess, J.J. Abrams’s misguided attempt to center the series around familial drama, or the brief moment studio executives thought they could hand over the series to Jeremy Renner, Cruise and his varying crews at IMF have time and again proven that they will always find somewhere to run, even when it ain’t nowhere to run.

De Palma, however, does not seem likely to run with it (or blockbuster Hollywood), again. In response to a question about the series from Moviefone in 2013, De Palma quips, “It always amazed me why somebody would want to make one thing over and over again. I think Tom has done a fantastic job in keeping this franchise going. It's just, aesthetically, it holds no interest in me. It's all about economics. Why would you want to keep making Mission: Impossibles?”

Even if he cannot, you will probably be able to find the answer (or a couple of answers) in De Palma’s film.

Heroines of Anime: PAPRIKA

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Satoshi Kon's Paprika (2006) was written by Jacob Mertens, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Paprika will screen at 7 p.m. on Saturday, September 24, a screening that marks the conclusion of our Heroines of Anime series.

By Jacob Mertens

The international trailer for Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006) offered a compelling pull quote from The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, stating that Kon’s film proved “that Japanese animators are reaching for the moon, while most of their American counterparts remain stuck in the kiddie sandbox.” The quote never made Dargis’ print review, but resonates in a trailer filled with fantastic imagery. Her words underscore a promise for experimentation and mature themes delivered by a national cinema committed to exploring animation’s full potential. In practice, Paprika over-delivers on this promise, not only demonstrating the diversity of Japan’s animation but also the mastery of a director at the height of his expressive powers.

In the opening sequence of the film, Detective Kogawa Toshimi wanders through his own dream, accompanied by the dream therapist Paprika. The two flit between environments as a circus bleeds into a jungle, then a train, a crowded dock on the water, and a hotel hallway that spans into an endless horizon. Kon transitions between these settings through a series of matches on action, creating a sense of continuity amidst these discordant shifts. In other words, the film’s match cuts help to reinforce the coherence of an otherwise incoherent dream. Kon further complicates this sequence by undermining the dreamer’s identity, such as when the circus crowd suddenly mimics the detective’s appearance and charges him, or by having the world of the dream deteriorate at its end. All this happens in less than three minutes, setting the tone for a film that subverts the boundaries of waking life and fantasy.

Paprika also signaled the culmination of themes that had preoccupied Kon throughout his career. In Perfect Blue (1997), the director used disjunctive edits to disrupt a character’s sense of reality and identity. In Millennium Actress (2001), he used an unconventional narrative structure and matches on action to show an aged actress shifting into past roles and memories. And in Tokyo Godfathers (2003), admittedly the most conventional of Kon’s films, the director privileged characters who are, for one reason or another, haunted by their past while living in a stagnated present. Throughout Kon’s cinema, characters are not always who they say they are or even who they think they are. Notions of identity, memory, and reality remain constantly in flux and the world reflects that uncertainty in increasingly bold and nuanced ways. 

These motifs find fruition in Satoshi Kon’s final film. In Paprika, the therapist Dr. Atsuko Chiba gains the ability to enter the dreams of her patients using a device called the DC Mini. Once there, she assumes the appearance and wholly changed personality of her alter-ego Paprika. In real life, Dr. Chiba appears reserved and thoughtful. In the dream world, Paprika is suddenly free and vivacious. Presumably, the dream allows Dr. Chiba to express a part of her personality that remains carefully controlled, and in some respects repressed, in the real world. However, after the DC Mini is stolen, reality and dreams begin to merge and the environment that once gave Dr. Chiba affirmation and freedom becomes compromised by the ill will of other dreamers. As the film spirals, Dr. Chiba must resolve her conflicted sense of self and past suppression of emotions, all while navigating a dream world that devolves into a nightmare. In the end, the film refuses to give its viewers level footing, embracing a radical narrative progression that prioritizes imagination and emotional engagement above all else.  

Satoshi Kon’s career was short-lived. He died of pancreatic cancer four years after completing Paprika, at the age of 42. However, with just four films and a televised series to his name, he managed to push the boundaries of style and storytelling in ways that captured the full power of his medium. Unlike some artists who died before their time, we do not have to lament potential left unrealized. Among Satoshi Kon’s limited oeuvre, his first film Perfect Blue and last film Paprika stand out as unquestionable masterpieces. They are films that not only experiment with animation in formally exciting ways but do so while telling stories that make use of animation’s ability to show us a world that can change or dissolve or reconfigure itself at will. And while Perfect Blue was conceived amidst the opening gambit of a new movement in Japanese animation—joined by influential works like Akira (1988), Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Ghost in the Shell (1995), and Princess Mononoke (1997)—Paprika in many ways marked that movement’s zenith. One only wishes that Kon lived long enough to tackle the unenviable task of following up such a critical success.

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