UW Student Blake Davenport on Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND

Thursday, December 4th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound were written by UW Undergraduate student Blake Davenport. Spellbound  will screen on Sunday, December 7 at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art.

By Blake Davenport

“I like stories with lots of psychology” – Alfred Hitchcock

Although Hitchcock will forever live on through his masterful films, the public persona he cultivated during his more than 50 years in cinema undoubtedly opened up a realm of discourse that propelled the director to legendary status. From villainous misogynist to eccentric oddball, opinions on the auteur are dizzying in number and largely compounded by the fact that Hitch was notoriously misleading in interviews.

One aspect of his persona that Hitchcock would gladly reveal was his love of the good practical joke. These included: dyeing every course of one of his dinner parties blue; sending 400 smoked herrings to one of his stars; and even handcuffing his leads together for hours during the filming of The 39 Steps. Clearly, this was a man who took a certain delight in testing the psychological limits of those around him both in his work and private life. Invariably, Hitchcock’s penchant for psychological play becomes dramatically grounded in the 1940s, when Freudianism was very much in vogue, in such films as Rebecca (1940) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). In 1945, Hitchcock would direct his first film narratively centered on psychoanalysis, the romantic thriller Spellbound.

Top-billed by Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, Spellbound weaves together the intricate threads of whodunit murder and psychological romance in an effective and suspenseful, if at times taxing, narrative. Bergman stars as Dr. Constance Peterson, an up and coming psychiatrist and the only female doctor at Green Manors mental hospital. Although Constance is charming, intelligent and essentially a great catch, her fellow doctors tease her for her overly clinical attitude towards patients and life. One of her fellow doctors even attempts to melt her façade with romance, which she notably rebuffs.

With the arrival of young and brilliant new hospital director Dr. Edwardes (Peck), Constance soon finds her world turned upside down, as the two immediately develop a strong attraction to each other. Unfortunately for the happy couple, this is a Hitchcock film and things cant be so cut and dry. Constance soon discovers that Edwardes is not the esteemed psychologist at all, but a deeply disturbed and amnesiac patient of the real Edwardes, who may or may not have been murdered by his pretender. As the police soon pick up on the mysterious “John Brown’s” trail, Constance throws all caution to the wind and the two set out in an attempt to uncover the truth behind Edwardes death and the root of John’s psychosis.

While Spellbound might not top the list of favorite Hitchcock films for cinephiles, there are many elements throughout that make the film a worthwhile treat for admirers of the esteemed director. On a certain level the character roles are quite demanding of its two leads, as Peck and Bergman have to juggle the duality of romance and patient-doctor relationship. However, the two characters anchor the film beautifully and create a passionate web of love and psychology that is made even more interesting by the rumor that Bergman and Peck carried on an affair during filming.

Perhaps the most impressive aspects of Spellbound lie in some of the technical decisions that were made as well. Bernard Herrmann, who became Hitchcock’s usual musical composer 10 years after Spellbound was released, famously declined to work on the film, which fortunately paved the way for Miklos Rozsa’s beautifully sweeping score. Ever the perfectionist, Hitchcock complained that the music “got in the way of his direction”, but Rozsa’s work is perfect for the tone of the film and well deserving of one of only seven Academy Awards won for a Hitchcock film.

And then there’s the famous dream sequence. As a major plot point in the film revolves around Constance and her mentor attempting to analyze John’s dreams, Hitchcock had his producer David O. Selznick bring in none other than Salvador Dali to design the entire sequence. The result? A stunning 2-minute (cut from 20!) twilight-zone journey, abound with gigantic blinking eyes, men with no faces and a variety of other symbols which unfortunately went right over this film major’s head. Nonetheless, the sequence is a must see quite simply for the visual pleasure, but also as one of the first filmic illustrations of psychoanalysis on screen!

Spellbound is not without its problems. In spending so much time developing the psychoanalytic framework of the film, the suspense plotline ultimately falls short, as it never really seems that our couple is in any pressing danger. Disregarding narrative qualms however, Spellbound takes the audience on a highly entertaining adventure that is a must see for anyone looking to gleam a little bit more about the psychology of Hitchcock.

Support Alternative Cinema. Please Give to the UW Cinematheque.

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

By Jim Healy, UW Cinematheque Director of Programming

During this season of giving, please take a moment to consider how the UW Cinematheque has enhanced our cinematic culture in 2014.

This year, the Cinematheque has presented nearly 150 screenings and programs, all for free, in our regular venues at 4070 Vilas Hall, the Chazen Museum of Art, and the Marquee Theater at Union South. Our selections have included series of films devoted to directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Claire Denis, Jacques Demy, Richard Fleischer, William Friedkin and David Cronenberg. Our other series included a salute to actor Alec Guinness, in honor of his centennial; plus, New Chilean Cinema, Rare Film Noir, New Restorations from the Academy Film Archive, Horror Classics for Halloween and WWI movies. Plus, we welcomed filmmaker Guy Maddin in person and brought you the only area theatrical screenings of such acclaimed new movies as the Oscar nominated documentary Cutie and the Boxer, Juliette Binoche in Camille Claudel 1915, Lars von Trier's epic Nymphomaniac, Jesse Eisenberg in The Double and Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves, Desiree Akhavan's Appropriate Behavior and, still coming up on December 5, the final film of Alain Resnais, Life of Riley.

In August of 2014, DCP (Digital Cinema Package) was added to the list of formats that can currently be shown in the UW Cinematheque's main venue, at 4070 Vilas Hall. As we prepare for our January-May 2015 programming season, our projection booth is being upgraded so that 4K DCP, currently the highest standard of digital exhibition, can be screened. Upcoming 4K screenings will include canonized titles such as The Lady from Shanghai by Orson Welles (whose centennial we will celebrate with screenings throughout 2015), Roberto Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia and The Beatles' first movie, A Hard Day's Night. Meanwhile, we've done more than our part in keeping 35mm projection alive with screenings of dozens of films in the original format throughout the year, including our upcoming December 7 screening of Hitchcock's Spellbound and our December 12 show of Minnelli's Meet Me in St. Louis.

Additionally, our auditorium at 4070 Vilas will be given a rejuvenating boost with new seats and carpeting, all improvements that make our venue an ideal place to watch a movie.

Our next improvement project will bring digital 3D projection capabilities to the UW Madison campus. In November of 2014, the Cinematheque held an off-site benefit 3D screening of Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language, which raised nearly 25% of the funds needed to give 3D a permanent home at the Cinematheque.  

Whether DCP or 35mm, 2K or 4K, 3D or 2D, the Cinematheque screenings will continue to be free and open to the public, but we still rely on donations from our audiences to keep our technical facilities up-to-date. Please help us in providing the Cinematheque with the most state-of-the-art, most versatile exhibition equipment in the region by making a donation today to the Cinematheque's Friends of Film fund here.

While we plan for the future, the Cinematheque continues to provide you with a bounty of cinematic treasures at our three regular venues. In addition to the above-mentioned Orson Welles salute, our January-May calendar includes another centennial tribute, this time to maestro of Italian comedy Mario Monicelli. Plus, more important premieres, Polish masterpieces, new Argentine cinema, the schlocky and the sublime from Cannon Films, and in-person visits from Cineteca di Bologna's Guy Borlee and acclaimed screenwriter/director (and Pewaukee native) David Koepp. 

See you at the Cinematheque!

Mike King on the Resnais/Ayckbourn Collaborations

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on the working relationship between director Alain Resnais and writer Alan Ayckbourn were written by UW Cinematheque and Wisconsin Film Festival Programmer Mike King. The final Resnais/Ayckbourn movie collaboration, Life of Riley (Aimer, Boire et Chanter)  will have its only area theatrical screening at 7 p.m. on Friday, December 5, in the Cinematheque's main venue, 4070 Vilas Hall

By Mike King

Given that his early films are among the most intrinsically cinematic of their era, particularly in their bold temporal experimentation, it may seem surprising that the late Alain Resnais dedicated much of his later career to theatrical adaptations.  But beginning with Mélo in 1986, Resnais regularly turned to material originally produced for the stage for his scripts, ranging from the operetta Not on the Lips to his Eurydice riff You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (which was screened at the 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival).  During this time, no playwright captured his imagination as fervently as British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, whose work Resnais adapted three times.

In the early 1980s, Resnais began making pilgrimages to the Scarborough theater where Ayckbourn served as Artistic Director, but the director did not make himself known until the world premiere of The Revengers’ Comedies in 1989.  Upon learning that Resnais was in the audience, Ayckbourn quipped in disbelief, “…and Jean-Luc Godard is in the toilet.”  One of France’s most legendary auteurs taking an interest in Ayckbourn’s very British comedies perplexed even the playwright, who recalls of their meeting, “I said, 'How nice you're here. What are you doing in Scarborough?' He said, 'I've come to see the play.' I said, 'Why?' The work he'd done, I couldn't quite square it. And he said, very very simply, 'I am a fan.' To which I said, 'Oh well, mutual.'"  Before long, Resnais asked for permission to adapt one of the prolific playwright’s works, which by then numbered in the high thirties.

The notion of the director of renowned masterpieces like Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year in Marienbad taking a crack at his work held obvious appeal for Ayckbourn, not least because he had just suffered the indignity of his first cinematic adaptation, a botched version of A Chorus of Disapproval by Death Wish auteur Michael Winner.  Still, he was mystified by Resnais’s selection: the mammoth Intimate Exchanges, an eight-part epic with sixteen endings.  Of Ayckbourn’s reaction, Resnais recalled, “I remember he said he thought I was mad.  I suppose that was his seal of approval.”

Though they are in effect the co-authors of several films, Ayckbourn and Resnais did not actually collaborate on their screenplays—according to Ayckbourn, he simply wished Resnais luck and “never had another artistic word on the subject.”  Instead, Resnais worked with co-writers Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri (also the writers and stars of Resnais’s musical followup, Same Old Song), to whittle Intimate Exchanges’s 16 hours of dialogue into a two-feature diptych entitled Smoking/No Smoking.  The films won the Silver Bear at the 1993 Berlin Film Festival, and four of the five top prizes at that year’s Cesar Awards (the French Oscar equivalent).

By now, the playwright and filmmaker became close friends.  In fact, Ayckbourn and his wife were the sole witnesses at Resnais’s 1998 wedding to Sabine Azéma (who starred in all of Resnais' Ayckbourn adaptations, along with virtually everything he directed after they met filming 1983’s Life is a Bed of Roses).  As a wedding gift, Ayckbourn wrote her a French speaking part in his next play, House & Garden.  The year also saw the release of the other non-Resnais film of an Ayckbourn play, coincidentally an adaptation of the play they met at.  Retitled Sweet Revenge, it starred Sam Neill and Helena Bonham Carter.

Resnais returned to Ayckbourn’s work with increasing frequency in his final years, creating with writer Jean-Michel Ribes an adaptation of the playwright’s 67th work, Private Fears in Public Places, to great acclaim in 2006.  Most recently, with Laurent Herbiet and Jean-Marie Besset, Resnais himself co-adapted Life of Riley under the nom de plume he adopted for his final three features, Alex Reval.  Resnais was reportedly at work on yet another Ayckbourn adaptation, of Arrivals and Departures, when he died in March of this year.  On his enduring fascination with bringing Ayckbourn’s theater to the screen, Resnais wrote:

“I still get a kick out of bringing together things that shouldn’t meet. It’s what I call the attraction of danger, of the abyss. Keeping constantly in mind the standard answer I give the question, ‘Why do you make movies?’ – ‘To see how they’re made.’ So I naturally fell for Ayckbourn’s theater, which might seem like light comedy, but that’s not at all the case. Just look at the risks he takes with dramatic construction every time. One day he said this, ‘I try to do cinema with my theater, and Resnais does theater for the cinema.’”

Mike King Prepares You for APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

Appropriate Behavior will have its only Madison-area theatrical screening on Friday, November 21, at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Mike King, UW Cinematheque Programmer & Chief Projectionist

When Desiree Akhavan emerged as a breakout star at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with her debut film Appropriate Behavior, few in the film world may have been aware of her.  That’s because, like an increasing amount of budding auteurs, writer/director/actress Akhavan honed her craft online.  The Slope, her self-produced, semiautobiographical comic web series about “superficial, homophobic lesbians” had a twenty episode run on Vimeo stretching from August 2010 to June 2012.  Running approximately five minutes apiece and generally structured around a single scene, these vignettes are where Akhavan refined her promiscuous, politically incorrect sensibility—and frequently led to her being branded “the next Lena Dunham,” an inevitable comparison Akhavan had already reckoned with while still in preproduction on Appropriate Behavior.

Co-created by and costarring her then-partner, Ingrid Jungerman, The Slope is an amiably knowing takedown of Park Slope minutia (at one point, Desiree argues that she and Ingrid can’t break up because they “still have a month left on their CSA”), with a more biting slant on LGBTQ politics.  In one of the series’ most daring episodes, the duo spoofs Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign, then a viral sensation perceived as untouchably benevolent.  Akhavan reveals that she was bullied not because of her sexuality, but because she was “very ugly and a little bit fat,” and the pair offer a sarcastic checklist for gay kids who don’t want to just wait around for things to get better, but actually want to take steps to “make things better.”

Episode 5: "It Gets Better?" from The Slope on Vimeo.

The Slope’s Kickstarter-funded second season ramped up the production values slightly (some episodes even spread out to contain more than one scene), acquiring niceties like a ten-second theme song and a producer (Frances Bodomo, director of the short Afronauts, which was featured at the 2014 Wisconsin Film Festival).  It earned positive mentions in publications ranging from Indiewire to Out to Slate to The Guardian, landed the creators a spot in the 2012 class of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film,” and played the prestigious Rotterdam Film Festival.  “Primary Care Giver,” a miniature satire of helicopter parenting featuring Michael Showalter (then Jungermann’s NYU professor), was featured on The Huffington Post.

Season 2, Episode 3: "Primary Care Giver" from The Slope on Vimeo.

Akhavan is hardly the first indie filmmaker to have cut her teeth in bite-sized chunks online; in fact, she may be part of a burgeoning wave. Early in his career, Joe Swanberg created web series commissioned by pop culture sites, like Nerve and Spout.  More recently, Matt Johnson’s endearingly goofy web series Nirvana The Band The Show served as the staging ground for his stylistically similar feature The Dirties, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival. 

Nirvana the Band the Show: Episode 1 from Rich Williamson on Vimeo.

For young filmmakers, web series have tended to serve as industry calling cards for much bigger, paying jobs: Johnson is adapting Encyclopedia Brown for Warner Brothers, and Akhavan will has been added as a cast member to the upcoming fourth season of Girls.  However, filmmakers who have been around the block may envy the creative freedom offered by a low-stakes web series—Showalter’s frequent collaborator (and Akhavan’s fellow Sundance 2014 alum) David Wain uses the form as a creative refresher between higher profile projects with his delightfully loopy, star-studded singles saga Wainy Days.

A Video Game Fan on eXistenZ

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on David Cronenberg's eXistenZ was written by former WUD Film committee member Victor Alicea ('14). A 35mm print of eXistenZ will screen on Thursday, November 20, 7 p.m., at the Chazen Museum of Art.

eXistenZ is one of the most under-appreciated films of the last twenty years.  Despite the fact that it received some acclaim at the time, including a Silver Bear at the 1999 Berlin Film Festival for an outstanding artistic contribution it still never received much attention (it was overshadowed by another 1999 virtual reality film, The Matrix). eXistenZ, and that is in fact how it is spelled, is one of Cronenberg’s finest films. (I would only rank Videodrome and maaaybe Dead Ringers above it). 

The basics of the story: a virtual reality game designer, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose scenes in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut were cut when she could not do reshoots because of eXistenZ), is attacked by a ‘realist’ (anti-game terrorists) during a public trial of her new game. She is forced to go on the run with marketing intern Ted Pikul (Jude Law) and enter her own virtual-reality game, which also involves dealings with realist terrorists and virtual reality games. That plot description would normally be a fairly unremarkable postmodern techno-thriller, but David Cronenberg turns it into something special; investigating our perceptions of reality, technology, and how they affect each other.

The first thing to note about the film is the trademark Cronenbergian biotechnology. Instead of some normal metal technology, in eXistenZ people enter their virtual realities through ‘gamepods,’ weird fleshy lumps (which we later learn are possibly made out of animal organs harvested in factories) that people plug into ‘bioports’ in their lower spine. Instead of normal guns, people use organic guns that shoot human teeth. This biotechnology is creepy, weird, gross and wonderful.

The animal organs factory also brings up some pretty interesting thematics. It's easy for us to think of our technology as something different to us, a tool made of wiring and plastic. Cronenberg forces us to consider the nature of our technology. The idea of exploiting animal organs to create game parts is pretty horrific and disgusting, but how far removed is it from the exploitation of minerals to create new phones without considering environmental damage? Early on in the film, Leigh's character comments on how a two-headed mutant amphibian is a “sign of the times,” this quote makes this parallel pretty clear. Additionally, this biotechnology made me consider how integral technology has become to our basic functioning, echoing a theme from Cronenberg's masterpiece Videodrome.

Videodrome is a good comparison; eXistenZ feels a lot like a followup, continuing some of the themes while also doing its own thing. Beyond the aforementioned relationship between technology and our bodies, they also both evoke themes about our relationship to media. Long story short, Videodrome is about how many people experience the world through TV: one character says “The television is the retina of the mind's eye.”  Videodrome is the world as seen from the incredibly subjective  (or is it?) perspective of someone going crazy.  eXistenz is more like a Philip K. Dick novel, an examination of an artificially created subjective world with a paranoid streak.  As a matter of fact, the fast food restaurant Pikul and Allegra go to is named Perky Pat’s, a reference to one of Dick’s best novels, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.  In that book people take special drugs called Can-D and Chew-Z to escape from their grim, dystopian reality to subjective virtual worlds.

One of my favorite things about eXistenZ is how it really understands why videogames are interesting.  Many characters mention about how games allow them to escape from “the most pathetic level of reality” to have new experiences.  These experiences are not devalued by the movie for being unreal, in fact the people who are against the idea of games and virtual reality (the realists) are shown as terrorists.  This idea reminds me of how one of my friends once described why he likes video games: “one of my favorite things about video games is getting the memories of a video game confused with real memories.”

eXistenZ is one of the very few movies that really “understands” videogames at all, the only others I could think of are Wreck-It Ralph, Sans Soleil and the recent Edge of Tomorrow (anyone who has played Dark Souls understands the journey of self-improvement through failure Tom Cruise takes in that film). Other movies that take on games as a subject seem like the equivalent of parents complaining about rock & roll music: games are this new thing that they don't understand and don't like.

One of my favorite little things about eXistenZ is that gets a lot of the “texture” of games correct.  It gets the “rhythm” of games correctly, particularly the ones of the late 90s.  The actors give some incredibly strange performances, but to me they are perfect (and strangely hilarious).  A lot of scenes and plot developments are also very reminiscent of common tropes in games. Cronenberg’s film feels less like a judgmental attack and much more like someone poking fun at something they also love.

UW's Jonah Horwitz on J'ACCUSE

Thursday, November 13th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Abel Gance's J'accuse was written by Jonah Horwitz, Ph.D Candidate in the Communication Arts Department at UW Madison. A recent DCP restoration of J'accuse will screen with a synchronous soundtrack on Saturday, November 15 at 2 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Jonah Horwitz

Abel Gance's J'accuse is not only one of the earliest and best-known films about the Great War, but also a landmark in French film history. Its director and writer, Abel Gance, was widely recognized by critics and his peers as being one of the most artistically accomplished filmmakers of his time. J'accuse was the film to announce the scope of his ambition. It combines a narrative both epic and intimate, a style full of strange and startling juxtapositions, a poetic sensibility, and grand themes. It was one of the first major films of French cinema's narrative avant-garde.

Gance began writing and directing films around 1910, and rose to particular prominence during the war. His Mater Dolorosa (1917) and La Dixième symphonie ("The Tenth Symphony," 1918) were melodramas, highly indebted to contemporaneous American films. Gance synthesized the advances of pioneers like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. De Mille, combining rapid editing and elaborate lighting effects. The results were mixed: Mater Dolorosa was a hit, but La Dixième symphonie was considered arty and inaccessible. It was full of high-flown allusions, attempting to align cinema with a cultural heritage dating back to antiquity—an ambition that was mocked as often as it was praised.

But rather than backing off, Gance doubled down: J'accuse was artier, more stylistically audacious, much longer, more expensive, and ultimately much more popular than either of his previous features. By taking on the recent war, Gance's film was automatically an "event film," discussed extensively not only by cinephiles but also by the popular press. It's a massive film—in its original release it was about three and one-half hours long—and many believe Gance was inspired by, and competing with, Griffith's masterpiece Intolerance (1916), a film that famously intercuts narratives taking place in several historical periods.

Gance ups the ante on Griffith's use of parallel editing to combine epic historical sweep with intimate drama, mixing elaborate tableaux of battles and aching close-ups of lovers torn apart. More unusually, Gance includes daringly ambiguous subjective sequences that represent both characters’ internal fantasies or imaginings. And he goes further than Griffith in attempting to overly a complex symbolism on the story with repeated "editorial" imagery that is often literally superimposed on the story, like an image of Charlemagne hovering above a battlefield. Film historian Richard Abel has likened Gance's approach to the collage aesthetic pioneered by painters like Picasso, Léger, and Delaunay and poets like Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars, in which "quite divergent events and images, both objective and subjective" are assimilated into a "continuous present" (Abel, French Cinema: The First Wave, 1918­–1929, pp. 299–300). In stretches of Gance's film, the connection between one shot and the next will be serve less to advance the story and more to establish a metaphor or to develop graphic or rhythmical motif. Critics of the time debated whether such techniques were visionary or pretentious—or possibly a bit of both—but nearly all applauded Gance's attempt to expand and enrich cinematic discourse. He would go on to develop such devices further in La Roue ("The Wheel," 1923).

J'accuse's title is, of course, an allusion to the Dreyfus Affair of several decades prior, and specifically to Emile Zola's famous broadside attaching official hypocrisy. But who or what is being accused in Gance's film? The reference to Zola would seem to suggest that Gance is blaming the government for the horrors of the Great War, but this line of argument is not aggressively pursued in the film itself. The war's horrors are lingered over, and the loss of nearly an entire generation of French young men is lamented in sequences of great power—indeed, some of the most powerful depictions of war and its emotional consequences in cinema. But paradoxically, that sacrifice is also celebrated in explicitly patriotic terms. At film's end, one of the film's central characters curses the sun for its indifference to human suffering. Gance's attempt to universalize his accusation is also something of a hedge: by blaming nature itself, Gance arguably lets humans off the hook.

J'accuse is a mélange of elements that looks both forward and backward. Like Griffith, Gance mixes a style that still seems bold and modern (or modernist) with capital-"R" Romantic attitudes that already seemed old-fashioned to many in 1919. Its contradictory view of war is hardly antiquated, though. Contemporary war films still rely on a strategic ambivalence—a mix of grief and thrills—so that they can appear "anti-war" without actually challenging the varying political sensibilities of their viewers  (see e.g. Fury, now playing at your local multiplex). But few contemporary war films are as ambitious or as downright strange as J'Accuse, and it's that strangeness that's most likely to impress contemporary viewers.

J'accuse has been exhibited over the years in several different versions. Gance tinkered with many of his films, re-editing them for foreign distribution and re-release. The version that UW Cinematheque is showing on November 15 is a recent restoration, and at nearly three hours the most complete version of J'Accuse that exists today.

UW's Derek Long on THE BIG PARADE

Thursday, November 13th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on King Vidor's The Big Parade was written by Derek Long, Graduate Student and Teaching Assistant in the Communication Arts Department at UW Madison. A restored 35mm print of the silent version of The Big Parade,  courtesy of George Eastman House, will screen on Saturday, November 15 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening will feature live piano accompaniment by David Drazin.

John Gilbert Goes to the Front, or How Ya Gonna Keep MGM Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen The Big Parade)?

By Derek Long

Along with Ben-Hur (1926), The Big Parade (1925) solidified Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s reputation for highly polished, star-studded, and prestigious productions—a reputation that would last through to the end of the silent era and beyond. Except where Ben-Hur was a success largely in terms of industry prestige and publicity (it wouldn’t actually make a profit for MGM until it was re-released with a synchronous soundtrack in 1931), The Big Parade was a genuine commercial hit. Initially planned as a John Gilbert programmer at a modest budget of $205,000, the film was later expanded for a roadshow release handled by J.J. McCarthy, the entrepreneur-showman who had managed the distribution of The Birth of a Nation (1915), The Covered Wagon (1923), and The Ten Commandments (1923). This setup would eventually yield MGM $3.5 million in distribution profits, as The Big Parade enjoyed exceptionally long runs at theaters like the Grauman’s Egyptian in Hollywood and the Astor on Broadway, where it played for two years. All this for a final negative cost of $382,000—a pittance compared to the nearly $4 million Fred Niblo threw at the screen to make Ben-Hur. As Thomas Schatz argues, The Big Parade exemplified the new approach to studio filmmaking put in place by MGM production head Irving Thalberg, which emphasized a different kind of extravagance—not of production cost per se, but of ensuring the profitability of a film in distribution through audience previews, retakes, and careful editing. Thus, director King Vidor knew that in telling the story of idle rich kid Jim Apperson’s (John Gilbert) decision to head “Over There,” his friendship with working class comrades (Karl Dane and Tom O’Brien), and his subsequent love affair with French farmer’s daughter Melisande (Renée Adorée), The Big Parade would have to be an epic of more intimate and carefully-crafted proportions.

And at least according to his autobiography, Vidor tinkered with The Big Parade considerably in the weeks leading up to its release in November 1925. After audience previews elicited unwanted laughs in a moment where Melisande embraces Jim’s putteed leg, Vidor successively trimmed frames from the shot: “Each night the laugh kept diminishing in volume until it was barely a snicker. After the seventh day of frame elimination, it wasn’t there at all.” When MGM demanded the film be shortened by 800 feet for release, Vidor reportedly cut thousands of individual frames from throughout the film’s thirteen reels rather than excise a single scene in its entirety. Regardless of the truth of either of these anecdotes, Vidor certainly deserves credit for the film’s most famous sequence, wherein Jim’s unit advances toward snipers in the Belleau Wood. Struck by footage of a military funeral procession at the front lines in France, Vidor decided to replicate the cadence of the procession in The Big Parade:

“I was in the realm of my favorite obsession, experimenting with the possibilities of ‘silent music.’ I took a metronome into the projection room and set the tempo to conform with the beat on the screen. When we filmed the march through Belleau Wood in a small forest near Los Angeles, I used the same metronome, and a drummer with a bass drum amplified the metronomic ticks so that all in a range of several hundred yards could hear. I instructed the men that each step must be taken on a drum beat, each turn of the head, lift of a rifle, pull of a trigger, in short every physical move must occur on the beat of the drum. Those extras who were veterans of the A.E.F. [American Expeditionary Forces] and had served time in France thought I had gone completely daft and expressed their ridicule most volubly. One British veteran wanted to know if he were performing in ‘some bloody ballet.’ I did not say so at the time, but that is exactly what it was—a bloody ballet, a ballet of death.”

Apart from Vidor’s direction, much of the credit for The Big Parade’s success lies in its source material, Laurence Stallings’ autobiographical novel Plumes, which had been a huge success in 1924. Stallings, a veteran of the Great War, is probably most famous as the co-writer (with Maxwell Anderson) of the play What Price Glory?, which later received film adaptations by Raoul Walsh in 1926 and John Ford in 1952. Stallings would go on to collaborate with Ford multiple times, on films such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and The Sun Shines Bright (1953). Harry Behn and Vidor expanded Stallings’ initial five-page treatment for The Big Parade into the film’s screenplay, adding the character of Apperson’s mother to make Jim more of a “mama’s boy.” Due credit must also be paid to Joseph Farnham, MGM’s title-writer, as well as playwright Donald Ogden Stewart, whose chance visit to the set while chewing gum inspired the film’s famous love scene between Jim and Melisand

Gilbert’s un-mustachioed Jim Apperson might surprise viewers accustomed to the star’s “Great Lover” image, but The Big Parade made John Gilbert as much as it made MGM. Gilbert had been something of a minor star at Fox before coming to MGM in 1924, but this film made him the biggest male draw of Hollywood’s late silent period (most famously, of course, in his films with Greta Garbo). Renée Adorée never enjoyed quite the same level of fame as Gilbert, though she continued to star in MGM films through the end of the decade. Sadly, her health declined rapidly after that and she died of tuberculosis in 1933.

The Big Parade was not the first 20s epic set during the Great War—Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) had launched Valentino’s career some years earlier, and was actually re-released in 1926 as Vidor’s film smashed records in the big city picture palaces. However, The Big Parade did set off a cycle of Great War films in the latter half of the twenties, including What Price Glory? (1926), Wings (1927), Seventh Heaven (1927), Four Sons (1928), and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). While these films would often surpass The Big Parade in their stylistic brilliance or the power of their antiwar sentiments, to an extent they could only aspire to Vidor’s intimate depiction of the human costs of the First World War. Of course, they could only aspire to The Big Parade’s box office receipts as well.

Amanda McQueen on Billy Wilder's FEDORA

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Billy Wilder's Fedora was written by Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant Amanda McQueen. A new DCP restoration of Fedora will screen at the Cinematheque on Friday, November 14 at 7 p.m. in 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Amanda McQueen

In 2008, I spent a month in New York City chaperoning my little sister. Luckily, the summer dance program she was attending was located just down the street from the Walter Reade Theatre, so I spent my afternoons watching whatever films happened to be playing. The Film Society of Lincoln Center was doing a retrospective of William Holden at the time, and sandwiched between movies like Sunset Blvd. (1950), which I'd seen over and over, and movies like S.O.B. (1981), which I'd been wanting to see for ages, was this movie called Fedora, which I'd never heard of. They only had a beat up 16mm print, but even through the scratches and fading, Billy Wilder's penultimate film shone through and stuck with me.

 Based on a novella by actor-turned-writer Thomas Tryon, Fedora has been seen as a companion piece to Sunset Blvd., albeit with some role reversals, a bit more autobiography, and a dose of Dorian Gray. Another of Wilder's films about Hollywood, Fedora tells of down-on-his-luck producer Barry "Dutch" Detwiler (Holden), who travels to an island near Corfu to try and convince retired, reclusive actress Fedora (Marthe Keller) to return to the screen and help revive his career. Though middle-aged, Fedora has mysteriously retained her youthful beauty, and Detwiler learns she is also being held prisoner on the island by the Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef) and Dr. Vando (Jose Ferrer). Moreover, the secret of Fedora's youth leads to a dramatic plot twist and a further series of melodramatic turns.

Comparisons to Sunset Blvd. appeared throughout Fedora's initial reviews. The films share a bitter commentary on Hollywood and stardom; the use of voiceover and flashbacks; and William Holden in the lead. And like Sunset Blvd., Fedora’s inside-Hollywood authenticity is aided by a number of people playing themselves - Michael York, Arlene Francis, and Henry Fonda - and veiled references to other stars and films, even Wilder's own. Fedora looks back on the films of the 1940s in a way analogous to Sunset Blvd.'s reflections on silent films of the 1920s.

But Wilder would not have the success with Fedora that he had on Sunset Blvd. While the latter film was blessed with what the writer-director called "a miraculous series of lucky incidents," Fedora was a struggle from beginning to end. In 1976, when Wilder first began work on the project, it had been several years since he'd had a big hit, and he was hoping his one-picture deal with Universal would turn things around. He pitched them Fedora. Studio executives initially agreed to the film, but changed their minds a few months later, deciding it didn't have commercial potential. So Wilder, still working on the screenplay with his long-time collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, bought out Universal's share in the project and began looking elsewhere for financing. Like his own Dutch Detwiler, Wilder found himself desperately searching for someone to fund his comeback film. The money eventually came from West Germany, where Wilder had a strong critical reputation. Geria Films, a tax-shelter subsidiary of Bavaria Films Studios, put up $6.7 million, and Wilder shot everything abroad in Greece, Paris, and Munich in the fall of 1977.

But even with production completed, Fedora's troubles were not over. Lorimar Productions was supposed to distribute the film in America, yet after some disappointing preview screenings, during which viewers reportedly laughed at inappropriate moments, Lorimar backed out, leaving Fedora without a domestic distributor. So United Artists, who had handled some of Wilder's films in the past, stepped in; although the decision to do so was perhaps solely, as executive David Picker put it, "for old time's sake," rather than out of any real faith in Fedora itself. And indeed, although Fedora had a splashy premiere at Cannes in May 1978, UA waited a full year to release it and put little effort or money into the marketing.

Fedora also failed to garner the same critical acclaim as Sunset Blvd.. Most American critics saw the film as decidedly old fashioned and overly melodramatic; even those who liked it described it as "an old man's film." Roger Ebert also found the film predictable, noting that audiences will guess the major plot twist in the first fifteen minutes and that Wilder's insights and observations were, by 1979, rather clichéd. These negative reactions were reflected in the film's poor box office performance, suggesting that audiences - those who had snickered during the previews - agreed that the director was out of touch with contemporary filmmaking.

For his part, the 73-year-old Wilder embraced this criticism with some bravado, admitting that he was unable - and unwilling - to change his method of filmmaking to fit the mores and conventions of New Hollywood: "They call it old-fashioned; that's the only way I know to work. [So] that's the way I'm going to do it until they take the cameras away." Moreover, Wilder insisted that the charge of being "out of touch with the times" was, in fact, a compliment, retorting, "Who the hell wants to be in touch with these times?"

It is perhaps this particular attitude of Wilder's that spoke to those critics, like Janet Maslin of The New York Times, who liked Fedora and saw it as "old-fashioned with a vengence, a proud, passionate remembrance of the way movies used to be, and a bitter smile at what they have become." For Ebert, the way to enjoy Fedora was not to take its matinee romance clichés at face value, but to "accept the dumb parts, and the unsurprising revelations, as part of the film's style," and to recognize that Wilder's "movie is about movies like this."

As often happens with certain films from the great auteurs, Fedora has more recently been reclaimed as one of Wilder's best works. And now that it is more readily available with a new digital restoration, I would heartily recommend it to those who like Sunset Blvd. and especially for those who like Billy Wilder. Fedora is - in Vincent Canby's words - "a seasoned, elegant, and funny film" from a "brilliant, irascible man." And if you've never seen it before, just remember what Maslin wrote in 1979: "It is rich, majestic, very close to ridiculous, and also a little bit mad."

When SUNSET BLVD. Went to Broadway

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the Broadway version of Sunset Blvd. is by UW Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant Amanda McQueen. A restored 35mm print of Sunset Blvd.  will screen in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, November 7, 7 p.m.

From Wilder to Lloyd Webber: Sunset Boulevard Goes to Broadway

By Amanda McQueen

Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder's reflexive and cynical story of the fall of Old Hollywood, has become one of the undisputed classics of American cinema since its release in 1950. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 3 - for Best Screenplay, Best Black-and-White Art Direction, and Best Score (composed by Franz Waxman). In 1989, the Library of Congress included it in the first batch of films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, and it has remained a critical and popular favorite for decades. Even people who haven't actually seen the movie probably know its (usually misquoted) final line: "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."

It's probably unsurprising, then, that many saw Sunset Boulevard as ripe for adaptation as a Broadway stage musical. As early as 1952, Gloria Swanson herself, who had played aging actress Norma Desmond to great acclaim in the film, was involved in an attempt to bring the property to Broadway. But although several songs were written and several years were spent on the project - which was given the typically exuberant musical title Boulevard! - Paramount, the movie's distributor, ultimately withdrew its consent and the musical never materialized. In the early 1990s, however, Dickson Hughes developed some of the material he and Richard Stapley had written for Boulevard! into an intimate musical about his experiences working with Swanson, called Swanson on Sunset. Stephen Sondheim also considered adapting Sunset Boulevard on a couple of occasions in the 1960s and 1970s, but taking Wilder's suggestion to heart that any musicalized version of Sunset should be an opera, he decided against it. Finally, in 1993, Andrew Lloyd Webber, master of the international mega-musical, succeeded in bringing Sunset Boulevard from silver screen to the Great White Way.

Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard has a book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, but much of the original script by Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman Jr. remains intact. As is typical for a Lloyd Webber show, Sunset Boulevard also sported lavish production values which some critics thought overwhelmed the intimate story. The musical opened to somewhat mixed reviews in London in July 1993, with Patti LuPone as Norma and Kevin Anderson as jaded writer Joe Gillis (played by William Holden in the film). Another stage version opened in Los Angeles in December with Glenn Close as Norma and Alan Campbell as Joe. Both Close and Campbell took the show to Broadway in November 1994. Sunset Boulevard had strong advance sales and long runs both in New York and abroad and the show won several Tony awards including Best Actress in a Musical for Close (although there was only one other musical up for nomination that year).

Here is Close's performance for the 1995 Tony Award broadcast of "As If We Never Said Goodbye," which Norma sings when she returns to Paramount Studios, under the false impression that she is about to relaunch her film career with legendary director Cecil B. DeMille. Though not quite as technically proficient as other actresses who have played Norma on stage, Close's performance is certainly packed with raw emotion and very powerful.

Despite its popularity, Sunset Boulevard did not recoup its exorbitant costs. Not only did Lloyd Webber's emphasis on visual spectacle make each production difficult and expensive to mount, but legal battles upped the show's expenses ever further. Webber was sued by both LuPone and Faye Dunaway for breach of contract; LuPone had been promised the role of Norma on Broadway and Dunaway had been told she would take over for Close in LA, but Lloyd Webber changed his mind on both accounts and was forced to pay large settlements to both actresses.

Sunset Boulevard has not become as well-known as some of Andrew Lloyd Webber's other musicals, but then it's hard to match the international phenomena of Phantom of the Opera and Cats. Nevertheless, the musical was revived in London in 2008 and it's become a staple of regional and touring companies all over the world. It was even featured on an episode of Glee.

For another little taste of Lloyd Webber's show, here's John Barrowman singing the title number on the 2006 BBC special The Sound of Musicals. Though perhaps best known in the US for his supporting role on Arrow and his signature character of Captain Jack Harkness on Doctor Who and Torchwood, Barrowman has a musical theater background and played the role of Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard in the West End after the show was revamped in 1994, making him one of the first actors to play the part. "Sunset Boulevard," which opens the second act of the show, is Joe's reflection on the turn his life has taken since meeting and moving in with Norma, and it nicely captures the cynicism of the original through both lyrics and musical style

So whether on screen or stage, Sunset Boulevard is, and long will be, a cultural touchstone.


Friday, October 31st, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain was written by Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant Amanda McQueen. A 35mm print of Torn Curtain will screen at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, November 2 at 2 p.m.

Revisiting Torn Curtain

by Amanda McQueen

Torn Curtain was Alfred Hitchcock's 50th film, and many expected that the director would produce something great to mark this seminal moment of his career. Hitchcock had spent most of the 1960s producing psychological thrillers, but given the vogue for spy films ushered in by James Bond, he decided to return to a genre with which he was quite familiar, but that he hadn't tackled in several years. However, Hitchcock didn't want his film to be derivative of the popular Bond series, and so he attempted to make Torn Curtain a different type of spy thriller. Hitchcock explained, "In realizing that James Bond and the imitators of James Bond were more or less making my wild adventure films such as North by Northwest wilder than ever, I felt that I should not try and go one better."

Torn Curtain tells of double agent Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), a physicist enlisted to gather information about anti-missile technology in East Germany. Unlike Bond, but in keeping with the Hitchcockian tradition of ordinary people pulled into extreme situations, Michael is strictly an amateur spy. And because Hitchcock did not want Torn Curtain to be "a James Bond type 'comic strip' film with its invincible hero and mechanical gimmickry," Michael has no fancy gadgets or special combat skills. This is particularly evident during the film's murder sequence, which takes up nearly five, very tense minutes of screen time, and which certainly proves Hitchcock's point that it is "very difficult, very painful, and it takes a long time to kill a man."

Hitchcock also avoids presenting a straightforward binary between good and evil - such as that between Bond and an enemy organization like SPECTRE. Instead, the director wanted to show that "a spy is a hero in his own country but a villain in enemy country." So Torn Curtain does not have a traditional villain. Instead Michael is pitted against characters that have no openly evil intentions - they just happen to be communists. Some are even quite likable, particularly Hermann Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling), Michael's East German bodyguard, who lets out humorous quips and never operates outside the law. Even though James Bond is often described as an anti-hero, he is still meant to be likable and we are still meant to take pleasure in the skillful way he takes out the bad guys and completes his missions. Torn Curtain, however, asks us to consider how we would respond if roles were reversed and raises the audience's doubt about whether Michael is fully justified in his actions.

Our doubt about Michael is also partially determined by our strong identification with his assistant and fiancée, Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews). The idea for Torn Curtain came from the true story of British diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who spied for and defected to the USSR, but Hitchcock was less interested in the spies themselves than he was in Melinda Maclean, who helped conceal her husband's actions and eventually followed him to the Soviet Union. Torn Curtain thus focuses a great deal of screen time on Sarah's reactions to and participation in Michael's mission, and for the first half of the film, the audience is aligned with her, rather than with our spy hero. Though Sarah proves to be just one of several women who supply Michael with much-needed assistance, she is also the film's moral center.

Hitchcock's attempts to differentiate his film from the Bond series were tempered somewhat by Universal. It was the studio that wanted Hitchcock to hire Paul Newman, in part because he was one of Hollywood's hot new stars, but also because he possessed an athleticism and sex appeal akin to that of Sean Connery (and Newman's body is often on display in Torn Curtain). But where the James Bond connection is perhaps most apparent is in the film's score. The Bond films were known for their soundtracks - for the unique themes written for each installment by John Barry and for their profitable pop songs. Since 1955, Hitchcock's films had been scored by Bernard Herrmann, who was responsible for some of the director's most memorable and lauded soundtracks, including Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960). For Torn Curtain, however, Universal didn't want the same old Herrmann style, and he was instructed to write something more in keeping with contemporary popular music - something that would sell. When Hitchcock rejected Herrmann's attempt, which is structured around repeating and inverted simple scale patterns and unusual juxtapositions between brass and woodwinds, the composer replied, "You don't make pop pictures. What do you want with me? I don't write pop music." Herrmann was fired and replaced by John Addison, who wrote a score built around identifiable themes, or leitmotifs, quite similar to those found in the Bond films.

Torn Curtain was not well received, and comparisons to James Bond were perhaps inevitable. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, for example, complained that "alongside such Bondian adventures as From Russia With Love . . . [Torn Curtain] looks no more novel or sensational than grandma's old knitted shawl." Hitchcock himself was disappointed with the film, and found it interesting only as an experiment with light and color; he relied heavily on natural light and shot through a gray gauze. But the film also displays Hitchcock's continued interest in psychologically complicated characters and manipulation of audience expectations, and the murder sequence is a set piece that holds its own alongside similar moments throughout the director's oeuvre. So even though Torn Curtain is often pushed aside as an aesthetic failure, remembered primarily for breaking up the long-standing Hitchcock/Herrmann collaboration, it has a great deal to offer and is worthwhile viewing for any Hitchcock fan.