3 WOMEN: Altman and the Feminine Mystique

Thursday, April 28th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Robert Altman's 3 Women were written by Matthew Connolly, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A new 4K restoration of 3 Women will screen as part of our "Robert Altman: Five Masterworks" series on Friday, April 29, at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular screening venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue

By Matthew Connolly

At the time, of course, I was not aware of it. I don’t sit and think, ‘Oh, I’ll use a female character.’ That’s simply what attracted me. I don’t know if that relates particularly to my own life or experience. I don’t know where that interest in strong female characters comes from.” – Robert Altman, in response to critic Graham Fuller’s observation on how his films which “seem to be making personal statements” often “focus on strong female characters.”

Among Robert Altman’s most formally innovative and narratively beguiling works, 3 Women (1977) offers a particularly fruitful example of the filmmaker’s career-long investment in chronicling female identity and experience. This interest has taken many forms and produced varying representational results throughout his career. At his best, he has helped to create (and, just as importantly, given actresses the space to shape) some of the richest and most vibrant female roles in contemporary American cinema: Constance Miller in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Linnea Reese in Nashville (1975), Joanne in Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), Marian Wyman in Short Cuts (1993), to name just a few. Still, even the most ardent Altman acolyte has assuredly cringed at the abrasive, even cruel treatment that women have sometimes received throughout his oeuvre.

Within this body of work, though, 3 Women stands out both for its almost-exclusive focus on female protagonists and its increasingly mysterious handling of their relationships to one another. A physical therapist at a California health spa for the elderly, Millie (Shelley Duvall) is a socially isolated extrovert whose constant attempts to connect with neighbors and co-workers end in derision. She nevertheless becomes an object of adoration for Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek), a shy and almost childlike new employee at the spa. The two move in together after Millie’s old roommate moves out, with Millie introducing Pinky to the co-owners of both their apartment building and the bar that Millie frequents: Willie (Janice Rule), pregnant and silent and almost always painting unsetting murals of lizard-like creatures; and her boozy, philandering husband, Edgar (Robert Fortier). A combination of Millie’s blinkered romantic pursuits and Pinky’s blatant attempts to infiltrate herself into Millie’s personal life soon cause friction between the two, leading to a series of bizarre events that cause the personalities of the two women to bleed into one another. To reveal any more to potential first-time viewers is to dampen the elegantly unsettling and slippery maneuvers through which Altman shifts the identities of Willie, Pinky, and Millie. Suffice to say, though, that the Bergman-esque (see Persona, which is screening on May 1) blurring of selves within the film’s second half pushes 3 Women beyond Altman’s usual brand of free-floating, acid-tinged social commentary and into the realm of the surreal.

What to make of the fact – as suggested in the above interview excerpt – that one of Altman’s most explicit forays into art-cinema ambiguity and narrative indeterminacy became so deeply entangled with the mystery of female identity? Critics came up with varying explanations and opinions upon the film’s release in April 1977, with some linking 3 Women’s enigmatic qualities to its well-publicized origins in a dream that Altman had while his wife Kathryn was hospitalized with a duodenal ulcer. In his largely glowing notice, Vincent Canby of The New York Times deemed the film “the moviemaker’s dream more than that of the characters’ within,” adding that “it’s not a narrative in any strict sense but a contemplation of three stages of a woman’s life by a man who appreciates women and may not be without a bit of guilt.” This notion of the film as more male reverie than a contemplation of lived female experience became echoed more critically in articles that discussed the film in relation to larger trends in the representation of women in late-1970s Hollywood. Jane Wilson, also in The New York Times, wrote that 3 Women “speaks powerfully of Altman’s own apprehensions of female nature as it impinges on him in his dreams,” but “hasn’t much to say to women now about themselves, nor does it provide any fresh perceptions about their relationships with one another and with men.”

Historical distance and critical hindsight have done little to resolve such debates. 3 Women’s depiction of the fluctuating friendship between Millie and Pinky possesses all the markers of Altman’s career-long observational acuity, particularly when documenting Millie’s consumerist obsessions fueled by McCall’s and other women’s magazines of the era. (The preparations of her abortive dinner party are a jaw-dropping cavalcade of late-70s processed food.) Yet such comic bite cannot easily be disentangled from Altman’s compassion, especially towards Millie. “She’s simply trying to do the right thing,” Altman told Betty Jeffries Demby in a 1977 interview when discussing Millie’s slavish devotion to all things conventionally feminine, “and what is the right thing? It’s the thing people tell you is right.” In the same interview, his thoughts on the film’s final vision of female solidarity hints at a complicated interweaving of utopian collectivity and unsparing instinct: “The women in 3 Women survive because they are taking care of each other. And they do that because they are forced into it … surviving is stronger than morals. It’s the strongest thing because it’s the least understood and it’s the least logical.”

If the film’s deeply imbricated strands of up-to-the-minute satire and dream logic, anxiety and empathy, ensures that it will remain a productively complicated example of Altman’s larger relationship to female representation, 3 Women also showcases how Altman’s emphasis on collaboration allowed the actresses within his film opportunities to shine that they rarely received elsewhere. Spacek’s perfectly calibrated blankness proves all the more unsettling as Pinky’s obsession deepens and then dissipates, while Duvall (who improvised several of her most memorable monologues) brings such astute comic timing and fierce presence to Millie that her most pedestrian wants and desires take on a shocking depth of feeling. They form an essential center to a film built around ever growing indeterminacy; or, to quote Melissa Anderson, they’re “reminders of a very specific somewhere, the one immutable truth in a film abounding with fantasies.”

WALKER: This is a True Story

Friday, April 8th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Alex Cox's Walker (1987) were written by UW student and WUD Film programmer Vincent Mollica. A 35mm print of Walker will be our final Marquee Monday for the spring season on Monday, April 11 at 7 p.m., in the Marquee Theater at Union South.

By Vincent Mollica

Walker is perhaps the only film of its type: an ornate 19th century period comedy that is also a vicious piece of political agitprop. Walker is about a real life figure named William Walker, a filibuster who imperialized Nicaragua in the 1850s as a means to create a transit route between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Walker eventually took over Nicaragua’s government, declared himself president, and finally, following much international warfare and intrigue around the mishandling of this transit route, he burned Grenada to the ground and fled. Author T.J Stoles describes him as “one of the most dangerous international criminals of the nineteenth century, if not all our history.” Director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy) and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) depict Walker’s mission of manifest destiny as a fraught, bloody, jungle expedition, resulting in the unnecessary deaths of many.

However, Cox was driven less by his interest in Nicaragua in the 1850s than by his interest in Nicaragua in the 1980s. At this time the leftist Sandinista government, who had recently over thrown Somoza’s dictatorship, was under attack by “contras.” These were counterrevolutionaries who, as revealed in Iran-Contra, were funded by President Reagan’s administration, which was implementing its own subtler form of imperialism. Cox claims that while visiting Nicaragua, two Sandinistas asked if he would make a movie there, planting the seeds of what would become Walker. Of this, Cox later said on his website, “If people like these two lads could overthrow a hated dictator and American stooge, how hard could it be for two gringos to scam some money in the USA, bring it back and make a movie about Nicaraguan history, Nicaraguan reality?” In making a Hollywood film almost entirely in Nicaragua, using William Walker’s invasion as an explicit allegory of US-Nicaraguan relations at the time, Cox did just that (if you need that proved, just stay for the film’s end credits, which may go down as one of the most explicitly political moments in Hollywood film).

Using visual anachronisms, like props of Time magazine or Coke bottles strewn in period setting, Cox draws these two periods of American history together. These anachronisms are a good example of how Walker moves far away from a realistic style, embracing lunacy over honesty. With its barrage of sight gags, over the top violence and cartoonish performances, the world of Walker barely resembles our own. Speaking on and pointing out these stylistic elements on the film’s DVD commentary, Cox claims “we’re struggling against a conventional narrative, we’re working in a revolutionary country and we’re trying to make a film that is itself revolutionary.” This was not a film to passively view, reflect on, and agree with, but a film that would confront and agitate viewers.

Not all the film’s politics are so loud though. As Cox gets at in his commentary, at different parts of the film, the story will pause and focus on small moments and dialogues, to investigate the racial, ethnic, and gender politics debated among its different characters. Walker and his black right hand man exchange passages from Walker’s own journal to debate his instatement of slavery; a real life Sandinista actor works to inform audiences of the contra point of view by acting in the film as a Walker sympathizer who walks through a street Walker’s army has ravaged screaming Walker’s praises; Walker’s politically engaged deaf fiancé (Marlee Matlin) confronts him for mistranslating her sign language to other politicians and generally calling out his spinelessness. These moments are political and often stylistically “revolutionary” in their own, smaller way.

Of course, the film was a complete failure which ensured Cox was locked out of Hollywood for the rest of his career. In a short feature on the Criterion DVD, Cox goes through various negative reviews from the film’s release, which mostly chide it for it being “clever.” It’s perhaps understandable that critics—and audiences—were not quite ready to embrace Cox’s aggressive attitude and disregard for convention, but it’s a shame nonetheless. It’s also a shame that—like 1987’s other US-Policy related Hollywood super-flop, Ishtar—the film has never developed the cult audience a film like Repo Man has (it doesn’t even carry Ishtar’s infamy). Even removed from its political nature, the film’s loud, punk aesthetic is deeply satisfying. It gives a transgressive sense of clutter and disarray, that only a Hollywood budget can allow, that also doesn’t feel too exhausting or unfocused. It’s richly deserving of a second life, if only as a reminder of how subversive and experimental a Hollywood film—let alone a Hollywood comedy—can be.

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER: The Richest Gift a Body Could Have

Thursday, April 7th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Charles Laughton's masterpiece, The Night of the Hunter (1955), were written by UW student and WUD Film programmer Vincent Mollica. A 35mm print of The Night of the Hunter, from the UCLA Film and Television Archive, will be the first screening in the Cinematheque's "One and Done" series on Saturday, April 9 at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Vincent Mollica

If I were to choose a single film to introduce someone, of any age, to classic cinema, it would be The Night of the Hunter, a southern gothic-thriller whose great stylishness and emotional depth make it endlessly watchable. Director Charles Laughton was known primarily as an actor, both on stage and on screen, working with many of the most famous filmmakers of the 1930s-1960s such as Alfred Hitchcock, Leo McCarey and Billy Wilder. In the early 1950s Laughton worked with producer Paul Gregory on a bible reading tour as well as theater directing work, before Gregory helped Laughton direct his first and only Hollywood film.

Set in the midst of the Depression, The Night of the Hunter is about a young boy, John, and his younger sister, Pearl, whose father is sent to death row after a bank heist gone wrong. John’s final moment with his father is right before the police whisk him away, in front of their West Virginia home, as he entrusts John with hiding his stolen booty. In prison John’s father meets Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a woman-murdering psychopath in preacher’s clothing. Upon learning of his hidden prize, Powell leaves prison to ingratiate himself in John and Pearl’s lives by taking advantage of their lonely mother (Shelly Winters). The film becomes a mind game between Powell and the ever vigilant John who wants nothing more than to protect his father’s honor.

To his great credit, Laughton didn’t squander his time in the director’s chair by making an anonymous actors picture. He thrills his audience by creating a rich, unique, visual world for John and Pearl to get lost in, as laid out in the invaluable featurette, “The Making of the Night of the Hunter” on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD release. In it author Preston Neal Jones explains that Laughton made the film to return viewers to the era of silent film where he felt they engaged with films on a more active level. Jones and academic Jeffrey Couchman show how the filmmakers set out to create the film’s world from a child’s point of view. They applied stripped down sets, mimicking what a child might notice, and formed expressionistic visuals and special effects to evoke the world of a nightmare (helped in great part by Stanley Cortez’s stark lighting). In skillfully using the medium of film as fully as any of the auteurs he worked under as an actor, Laughton made a film world that thrills and excites an audience in a timeless way.

Although there is clearly great technical skill on the screen, what has always had the most immediate effect on me as a viewer are the film’s performances. Most famous is Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell, whose high theatricality and flair, used to con and manipulate everyone he meets, is constantly on. The drive that Mitchum possesses is especially notable in the film’s final moments, after he has been arrested, and it is as if all the life has drained from his body, reducing him to a human rag doll. Perhaps more than any other one element of the film, there is nothing more reliably entertaining and engrossing than Mitchum’s mannered villainy. My favorite moment with Mitchum is a rare scene where I think we see past this persona. It’s the moment right before he kills Shelly Winters where, in an extravagant long shot, he tenderly reaches to the heavens while, as revealed in a later close up, his face ominously twitches. Benefitted by the shadow on his body and face, which allows us to partly fill in Powell’s emotion ourselves, it comes off as a much more private, genuinely religious, version of Powell.

The second listed adult lead is Lillian Gish, as Ms. Cooper, who protects the children from Powell in the film’s final act. Gish was a carryover from the silent cinema of D.W. Griffith, a director whose work had inspired Laughton and that he had studied in preparation for the film. She transforms her lines, many of which are meant to underline the film’s themes about survival and the durability of youth, from the potentially tacky into something weary and beautiful. However, it’s Billy Chapin that gets my favorite moment of the film. It comes at the very end as Chapin runs, crying, to the arrested, broken Powell, who he begs to just take the money, mirroring his final scene with his father. This scene’s unexpected complexity and sadness haunted me so much when I first saw the film at age 10, I felt the need to try to explain it to anyone who would listen.

Night of the Hunter’s initial commercial failure, which crushed the insecure Laughton, meant he was only allowed create such a rich vision once (his follow up would have been an adaptation of Norman Mailer's novel The Naked and the Dead), which gives an added tragic quality to the film. However, despite this failure The Night of the Hunter has rightfully risen higher and higher in the ranks of the canon of great American cinema over the intervening 60 years. It even spawned a few worthwhile pseudo-remakes: the subversive anti-Reagan slasher The Stepfather, David Gordon Green’s dreamy Undertow and of course Radio Raheem’s take on Mitchum’s Love and Hate speech in Do the Right Thing. Like many “great” pieces of cinema it’s maybe best to not overthink its myriad qualities, as touched on here, while watching the film, and rather let the film come back to you later, piecemeal, like a dream. Watch the film as Laughton intended it to be seen: On the edge of your seat, attention rapt. As if a child.


Tuesday, March 29th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Powell and Pressburger's The Tales of Hoffmann were written by Jenny Oyallon-Koloski, Ph.D candidate in the Communication Arts Department of UW Madison. A newly restored version of The Tales of Hoffmann will screen on Saturday, April 2 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening is co-presented by Madison Opera, whose production of Tales of Hoffmann will be presented April 15 & 17.

By Jenny Oyallon-Koloski

In the fall of 1950, the British fan magazine PictureGoer described The Tales of Hoffmann as a “pure essay in musical fantasy” and “the biggest film experiment since ‘The Red Shoes.’” In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find contemporary reviews of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s cinematic endeavor that don’t evoke or make the comparison to the duo’s earlier production, The Red Shoes (1948), a melodrama about the alluring yet sinister world of ballet. The two projects are difficult to separate, given that The Red Shoes laid the groundwork for The Tales of Hoffmann’s marketing and formal experimentation.

The Tales of Hoffmann adapts Jacques Offenbach’s final opera. While waiting to meet the prima ballerina he idolizes, Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) drunkenly recounts the tales of three of his lost loves: Olympia, an automaton; Giulietta, a courtesan; and Antonia, a consumptive singer. Powell and Pressburger were in part able to put this film into production as a result of The Red Shoes’ international financial success. Producers, as a result, viewed The Red Shoes as a model for selling British prestige pictures abroad. Even though The Tales of Hoffmann adapts an opera, advertising for the film explicitly emphasized images of its ballet dancers over its singers in the ads to indicate the presence of balletic content and draw attention to the overlap of casting between the two films—of dancers Moira Shearer (as both Stella and Olympia), Leonide Massine, and Robert Helpmann, especially. The film’s producers made a point to sell the film’s appeal to American audiences, PictureGoer reports, choosing to premiere the film in the United States instead of Britain, and creating buzz by holding that premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House, making it the first film “ever to be shown at the tradition-bound Met.” Not only was Tales of Hoffmann breaking barriers for cinematic opera, the reviewer suggests, it was expanding the horizons of operatic conventions in general.

Comparisons between the films arise equally because the filmmaking duo saw The Tales of Hoffmann as doing for opera what The Red Shoes did for ballet, and marketed it as such. “The ‘Red Shoes’ Line will be Adapted for ‘Tales of Hoffmann,’” touts Box Office in 1951. Critics were mixed on the earlier film’s narrative qualities but praised its technical achievements and balletic sequences, proving that traditional ballet on screen could be financially profitable. Audiences were equally taken with the visual spectacle of the dancing and impressive set pieces, qualities that Powell and Pressburger sought to re-create in Tales of Hoffmann, this time with the addition of an operatic context. Yet despite the shift in source material, The Tales of Hoffmann contains more dancing than The Red Shoes (as well as a looser narrative), with the ballet sequences largely upstaging the musical performances.

Ultimately, The Tales of Hoffmann did not achieve the critical and audience favor of the earlier Red Shoes; the trade press warns exhibitors that the film’s episodic structure, long running time, and dialogue presented exclusively through song could be challenging to certain demographics, especially those seeking an “evening’s relaxation” at the movies. The film lacks at times the narrative redundancy common in Hollywood cinema, rewarding instead the viewer who devotes their full attention to the stories developing on screen. And you’ll want to: The Tales of Hoffman provides plenty of audiovisual stimuli to delight the senses.

Variety praised the film for its technical achievements, pointing to its inventive use of effects and Technicolor, excellent casting and performance choices, and a “brilliant integration of dance, story and music.” Opera connoisseurs will recognize musical strains from the Jacques Offenbach opera that bears the same name, but there is much in the film to visually impress operatic amateurs. The filmmakers create a variety of optical effects to accompany sequences like the opening “Dragonfly Ballet,” including selective blurring to enhance the sense of blurred motion evoked by Shearer’s fluttering movements. The production consists exclusively of abstract, impressive set pieces, including an early illusion as we shift between shots of a flat scenery wall to one that is painted and filled with posed performers—in the style of living portraits—who join in the fun as Hoffmann recounts his first tale. Powell and Pressburger do not focus their efforts exclusively on the aesthetic qualities of these nested operatic and balletic scenes however; the vignettes also include moments that humorously undercut the flawlessness of the performers (and their athletic bodies) seen elsewhere in the production. We can observe some farcical, mickey-moused gags at the end of Olympia’s number as her neck extends with a rising musical note in the score. The humor becomes more perverse and grotesque, however, when Olympia is torn apart by her makers who then fight and beat one another with her dismembered body parts. With a little something for everyone, Tales of Hoffmann is truly a spectacle of color, movement, and music.

IL BRIGANTE screening postponed

Thursday, March 17th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

Due to a shipping problem, our screening of the new restored Il Brigante, part of our New Italian Restoration series, has been postponed. Originally scheduled to screen on Saturday, March 19 at 2 p.m., Il Brigante will now screen on Saturday, April 2, at 2 p.m. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Alexander Payne on I KNEW HER WELL

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

"My favorite national cinemas, other than American, are Japanese and Italian from the forties to the seventies—and particularly from the fifties and sixties. As one continues to dig, one finds in this period an inexhaustible supply of gems, and I Knew Her Well is nothing short of pay dirt. It stands with Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso, and Antonioni’s trilogy as a brilliant—and brilliantly entertaining—document of Italy’s contradictions in the second decade after the war, and, like Antonioni, Pietrangeli put women at the center of his films. Here winds of both sadness and compassion blow through his portrait of an aspiring starlet who moves to Rome and, in a series of minutely observed episodes, allows herself to be used by a string of men. The perfectly cast Stefania Sandrelli plays Adriana, a wannabe who realizes too late the pointlessness of her dreams. Pretty much everyone who sees this movie is blown away.”

- Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election, Nebraska) on Antonio Pietrangeli's masterpiece I Knew Her Well (Io lo conoscevo bene), which will screen in our New Italian Restorations series on Saturday, March 5, at 7 p.m., in our regular screening venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY: The Beginnings of Bergman's Chamber Cinema

Friday, February 26th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (1961) was written by Harry Gilbert. A 35mm print of Through a Glass Darkly will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen: Ingmar Bergman in Black and White series on Sunday, February 28 at 2 p.m.

By Harry Gilbert

In the November 1960 issue of the Swedish film journal Chaplin, then unknown Frenchman Ernest Riffe inveighed against the films of Ingmar Bergman. Riffe declaimed that Bergman’s “deep misanthropy” and “lack of contact with his surroundings” foreclosed any possibility that his work might approximate “originality,” and that his continued filmmaking confirmed the poverty of his writing, for which he had “never [...] been well-regarded [...] in his homeland” and for which he “suffered under the contempt from his literary colleagues.”  Such allegations were not without intellectual or popular support. Indeed, that single issue of Chaplain contained three critiques of Bergman’s work from three preeminent Swedish film critics.

Moreover, the landscape in which films were produced and circulated, and the aesthetics of “European art cinema” were shifting.  In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Sweden witnessed a significant decline in cinema attendance, with the nation’s film production making up an increasingly small portion of the market. The appearance of television also offered new ways to distribute, aestheticize, and see the moving-image. Both of these transformations in modes of (re)production affected how—or, indeed, whether—Bergman was seen and how his work was received. Furthermore, the advent of French New Wave and Italian auteurs, some scholars have contended, crowded Bergman out of Swedish and European intellectual circles. This is a limited portrait of the environment which launched Through a Glass Darkly.

Up until that point, however, critiques had not taken Bergman to task for the inferiority of his writing or disparaged him personally—at least not to the degree Riffe had. Prior to the publication of the third issue of Chaplin, Bergman had revealed Riffe to be a personal pseudonym. Bergman recalled in a later interview: “I experienced a special freedom in collecting my innermost self-criticism (which, to some extent, matched the criticism directed at me from outside), verbalizing it, tricking it out to seem a bad Swedish translation from the French, and then opening Expressen to read: ‘This is the best statement about Ingmar Bergman in recent years.’”

Much has been made of Bergman’s thematic and artistic interests, and how these questions are uniquely bound to Bergman’s life: he is serious and deals with serious issues, he is interested in existential truths, he is of a bad temperament and difficult, etc.  To some degree, Bergman’s trick speaks to that. Less, I think, has been made of the way Bergman gets at these serious, difficult, existential truths through play and playfulness of varying kinds and of varying effects.

This idea of play can be understood in different ways. For one, Bergman was an active producer and consumer of different media—film, theatre, television, music, writing, etc.—and was interested in how various art forms might have resonances with and could speak through one another. Music and theatre were such forms. Married at the time to renowned concert pianist Käbi Laretei and intrigued by music more generally, Bergman noted in interviews before the release of Through a Glass Darkly that he was interested in structuring his films not as symphonies but in the chamber music format of Beethoven and Bartók. Indeed, Bergman’s initial choice (later renounced as a “decoy for eager journalists”) to compose Through a Glass Darkly as the first of a trilogy of films, including Winter Light and The Silence (both released in 1963), known as “God’s Silence” speaks to organizing music as a suite. 

Moreover, Bergman was interested in the intimacy of chamber music’s format. As opposed to a “sprawling” and “grandiose” symphony, chamber music brought attention to how a few instruments—like a few actors—could interact and produce tension with each other within a confined space—such as the isolated island of Fårö, a Baltic isle that would form the setting of many of Bergman’s films. 

The intimacy of space might have been on Bergman’s mind for a host of other reasons, all related to his interest in other media. Just four years prior, Bergman had made his directorial debut on television with Mr. Sleeman Is Coming and went on to direct three more television films before the release of Through a Glass Darkly. In interviews, Bergman had admitted that “television was his new theater,” which brought new artistic, technical, and commercial freedoms and constraints. Among other things, this new context prompted Bergman to work exclusively with director of photography and “sculptor of light” Sven Nykvist over the next thirty years.

Bergman's merging of cinema, theater and chamber music allowed for an exposition of interior lives and an intimate look at the tense, textured relationships between people. Perhaps no better example of this is Minus’s (Lars Passgård) intimate—chamber?—play, “The Artistic Haunting; or, The Funeral Vault of Illusions,” that crowns the first act of Through a Glass Darkly. The morality play quite literally stages the questions of the film: father David (Gunnar Björnstrand) watches on as Minus, playing the artist, becomes seduced by the Princess of Castile, played by his sister, Karin (Harriet Andersson); ultimately, the Artist cannot follow the Princess “into the realm of death” and, instead, chooses to “write a poem about my meeting with the princess. Or paint a picture, or compose an opera—though the end, of course, must be given a more heroic twist.” 

Artist desires woman but refrains in order to turn her and his experience into a commercial product, son desires (the position of the) father, brother desires sister, men are cold and distant, and play penetrates film.


Bjorkman, Stig, Torsten Manns, and Jones Sima.  Bergman on Bergman: Interviews with Ingmar Bergman.  Trans. Paul Britten.  Cambridge: De Capo Press, 1993.

Gado, Frank.  The Passion of Ingmar Bergman.  Durham: Duke University Press, 1986.

Koskinen, Maaret.  Ingmar Bergman Revisited: Performance, Cinema and the Arts.  London: Wallflower Press, 2008.

Mandelbaum, Jacques.  Masters of Cinema: Ingmar Bergman.  Paris: Cahiers du Cinema Sarl, 2011.

Just Added!: Pre-release Screening of THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY

Monday, February 15th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

The UW Cinematheque has added a special free preview screening of the new comedy The Brothers Grimsby. The screening will take place, Wednesday, February 24, 7:30 p.m., at the Cinematheque’s regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

MI6’s top assassin (Mark Strong) has a brother. Unfortunately for him, he’s an English football hooligan (Sacha Baron Cohen) from the town of Grimsby.

Nobby has everything a man from the poor English fishing town of Grimsby could want – 9 children and the most attractive girlfriend in northern England (Rebel Wilson). There’s only one thing missing in his life: his little brother, Sebastian. After they were adopted by different families as children, Nobby spent 28 years searching for him. Upon hearing of his location, Nobby sets off to reunite with his brother, unaware that not only is his brother an MI6 agent, but he's just uncovered a plot that puts the world in danger.  On the run and wrongfully accused, Sebastian realizes that if he is going to save the world, he will need the help of its biggest idiot.The Brothers Grimsby’s original screenplay is co-written by UW Madison graduate Phil Johnston (’94). No passes required. Seating is limited and provided on a first-come, first-seated basis. Doors open at 7:00 p.m. We anticipate a full-house. Please arrive early!

What and Where:

A screening of The Brothers Grimsby

Wednesday, February 24, 7:30 p.m.


UW Cinematheque
4070 Vilas Hall
821 University Avenue

Admission free. Seating limited.

OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR: A Musical Masterpiece

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Richard Attenborough's Oh! What a Lovely War was written by Cinematheque Programmer Amanda McQueen. The conclusion of our Musicals of 1969 series, Oh! What a Lovely War will screen on Friday, February 12, at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's main venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Amanda McQueen

Fabulous, shrewd, mocking, emotional, witty, technically brilliant: these are just some of the adjectives Variety used to describe Oh! What a Lovely War. But Variety also anticipated that this musical recounting the events of World War I could be a hard sell. Indeed, as director Richard Attenborough explained, it was a “courageous move” by Paramount to fund the film in the first place; it was anti-war, it was exceedingly British in subject and tone, and its style was unorthodox. But what it lacked in commercial potential, it made up for in artistic promise. Hailed as a “masterpiece,” Lovely War is a moving and beautiful example of the unusual approach to film musical production that makes the late-1960s such a fascinating period of the genre’s history.

Lovely War began in 1962 as The Long Long Trail, a BBC radio play that critiqued WWI through a combination of facts, reminiscences, and contemporary popular songs—including the soldiers’ alternate versions of those songs, written in the trenches and recorded in the 1917 collection Tommy's Tunes (e.g. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” became “When This Lousy War is Over”). The broadcast was adapted for the stage in March 1963 by Joan Littlewood, director of the alternative Theatre Workshop in London's East End. Littlewood presented Oh, What a Lovely War! as a commedia dell'arte-style revue, in which actors, dressed in Pierrot costumes, improvised against a backdrop of period photographs and a neon ticker-tape running statistics. In June—despite objections from the family of Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig—the musical transferred to the West End, where it enjoyed a long and celebrated run. Lovely War made the jump to Broadway in September, but despite four Tony nominations, it closed in January 1965 at a financial loss. Variety surmised that Broadway’s audience was “too old, too passive, and too frivolity-minded” to appreciate Littlewood's endeavor.

Two years later, John Mills brought his friend and fellow actor Richard Attenborough a screenplay for a film version of Lovely War, insisting that he direct it. Attenborough had long been considering moving into directing, but, following David Lean's advice that “the time to direct is when you feel that if you don’t direct that particular film, you’ll die,” he’d been hesitating. But Attenborough had a penchant for socially-conscious projects, and he’d seen Lovely War multiple times on stage, so he accepted Mills’ proposal.

To secure funding for the challenging project, Attenborough went directly to Charles Bludhorn, head of Paramount’s parent company, Gulf+Western, who was thought to be just nuts enough to say yes. As part of his pitch, Attenborough promised to fill a significant portion of Lovely War’s 120 speaking parts with top British actors. Bludhorn agreed: if Attenborough could supply the marquee names—chief among them Sir Laurence Olivier—Paramount would supply the money. Thanks to Attenborough’s personal connections and Lovely War’s strong reputation, the director more than delivered, and a veritable Who’s Who of British stars agreed to take small, featured roles for minimal pay. Mills, in return for initiating the project, was cast as Haig. With Paramount on board, Attenborough partnered with producer Brian Duffy and writer Len Deighton (Duffy and Deighton had purchased the film rights from Littlewood) to co-produce under the newly-formed Accord Productions.

Deighton also worked on Lovely War’s screenplay. Interestingly, though, while Variety claims Deighton as the sole author, Attenborough attributes the script to both Deighton and John Mills. Furthermore, early in 1969, for reasons that are slightly unclear, Deighton quit the film and asked that his name be removed. Nevertheless, it does seem to have been Deighton who was chiefly responsible for reshaping Littlewood’s play for the screen. He replaced the Pierrot concept with that of a seaside arcade; he created the Smiths—an archetypal British family, played by unknown actors—to provide a narrative through-line; and he turned the stage musical’s M.C. character into The Photographer (Joe Melia), who provides commentary and records the events of the war. Other conceits of the play—such as tallying deaths on a cricket scoreboard—were retained.

Principal photography began in March 1968 at Brighton Pier and the surrounding area, where the entire film was shot over a period of fourteen weeks. After shooting wrapped in September, Attenborough went to Twickenham Studios, London, to assist with editing. Going only slightly over budget, Lovely War came in around $3 million—a tiny sum compared to other late-1960s musicals. It was released in the UK in April 1969, and opened in America that October, immediately following its showing at the New York Film Festival.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lovely War was only a modest commercial success; it was, however, a critical favorite. Judith Crist called it not only “the best film of 1969 but an outstanding film for all time.” Roger Ebert called it “breathtaking.” It won 6 BAFTAs and the Golden Globe for Best English Language Foreign Film. The acting and the technical credits were all deservedly applauded, and the film’s final shot—16,000 white wooden crosses in a field—was universally singled out for its emotional impact. The bulk of the praise, however, went to Attenborough and his skillful blending—in Crist’s words—of “theatrical fantasy with the realism that the camera demands and creates.” Indeed, Lovely War transitions fluidly—sometimes through editing, sometimes through camera movement—from the cheerful artificiality of Brighton Pier to the devastating reality of war. It layers the symbolic over the realistic: men lie in the muddy trenches, not blown to bits, but clutching poppies. And woven throughout are dozens of optimistic, bawdy, cynical, and tragic songs, sometimes presented as lavish production numbers and sometimes presented starkly a capella.

In the late-1960s, Hollywood seemed particularly willing to gamble on artistically adventurous film musical productions. Oh! What a Lovely War proves that those gambles could pay off. Born of experimental theater and shaped by a deft and daring cinematic hand, Lovely War is nothing if not unique. It is a challenging musical—history, politics, and Britain’s class hierarchies are key to its arguments—but it is also visually striking, emotionally rich, and truly unforgettable.

WHITE ZOMBIE: A Horror Subgenre Begins

Thursday, February 4th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Victor Halperin's White Zombie was written by Timothy Brayton, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of White Zombie will be the fourth of four screenings on the first day of the UCLA Festival of Preservation on Saturday, February 6 at 8:15 p.m. The screening takes place in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Timothy Brayton

There's no movie monster more reliable than the zombie, which can be had for cheap (some red food dye and a dirty, ripped shirt – boom, instant undead), and which can be pressed into duty for just about any storytelling need, be it social satire, gory action, or plain old jump scares. From the prestige of TV's The Walking Dead all the way to the self-consciously disreputable camp of Zombeavers, we live in an age of zombie ubiquity; but of course it was not ever thus. The whole teeming mass of undead cinema and television had to start somewhere, and by all accounts, that was White Zombie, a 1932 independent production made by the Halperin brothers, director Victor and producer Edward.

The very word "zombie" was still a novelty in 1932; though it can be spotted in English texts back to the beginning of the 19th Century, it owed its popularity to the 1929 pulp novel The Magic Island, which kicked off a vogue for stories of dead bodies revived through voodoo magic to serve as the slave army for this or that unscrupulous landowner in Haiti. Earlier in 1932, the stage play Zombie opened in New York, greeted by a New York Times review which spent nearly as much time explaining the concept to its reader as examining the play. Still, by the time the Halperins' film (written by Garnett Weston) rolled around in August, the reviewers clearly assumed they needed to define this bafflingly exotic phrase for their readers. A sarcastic, dismissive notice in the Times observes "the idea of the picture is that in Haiti there are individuals who dig up bodies [and] invest them with motive power", while the far more enthusiastic Variety reviewer lingers over the idea in somewhat morbid detail: "they are animate bodies without souls, generally corpses disinterred before dissolution of the physical structure..."

In short, White Zombie made quite a splash, for good or ill. While it wasn't a box office hit on the order of Dracula and Frankenstein, from the year prior, it handily made back the Halperins' $50,000 investment and then some, and its influence stretches on for decades. It provides the basic structure and many of the ingredients for very nearly every English-language zombie film into the 1960s, including those made by RKO's horror movie B-unit under Val Lewton, and by England's legendary Hammer Films. In the 1980s, aspiring rocker Robert Cummings took the film's name for his metal band White Zombie, while christening himself Rob Zombie.

Notwithstanding how important the film was in establishing one of the most prolific of horror subgenres, the contemporary viewer of White Zombie is likely to be thrown by how altogether unfamiliar it is. There are none of the cannibalistic rotting ghouls from Night of the Living Dead and its countless imitators to be found here. Here, zombies are uncanny and disturbingly otherworldly, with the true danger coming in the form of their controller, Murder Legendre, played by horror icon Béla Lugosi. Quite a potent villain he is, too. Since Variety declared him "exceptionally good" as the prime mover of all the evil in the film, virtually every commentary on White Zombie has singled out Lugosi as its strongest element. Much as in his star-making Dracula performance, the actor marries his singularly charismatic screen presence with a leering, sexually hungry menace. Whatever shortcomings White Zombie might have, Lugosi has ably kept the film charged with tension long after so many other early zombie films have entirely disappeared from view.

Murder Legendre is, to be fair, more of a background presence in White Zombie, serving as the catalyst to a relatively sedate conflict between affianced lovers Helen Short (Madge Bellamy) and Neil Parker (John Harror), and unscrupulous plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), the latter of whom is willing to use Legendre's dark magic to have his way with Helen. If it sounds a little creaky and hokey, that's because it is. This is very much a film of its time, both in its relatively slow pace and melodramatic plot for a horror film, and certainly in its gender and racial politcs: no matter how potent the image of a white plantation owner with an army of unresisting brown-skinned workers performing menial agricultural tasks, White Zombie doesn't care a whit about any of those implications, honing in only on the title's promise of a pretty blonde American woman horrifyingly turned into the dead-eyed slave of Béla Lugosi.

Even so, in the moments where everything comes together just right, this is one of the clear highlights of horror cinema in the '30s. The foggy images, barely lit by cineamtographer Arthur Martinelli with murky shadows, paint the sets borrowed from Universal's much better-funded horror films with a glowering menace, and the hollowed sound, an artifact of early recording techniques, increases our sense of foreboding through minimalism. In one of the film's signature moments, we see Legendre's zombies driving a mill in the dark, making no sound except the rhythmic creak of the blades chopping sugar cane. One zombie stumbles and falls, mutely, into those same blades, with nothing interrupting the steady movement and sound of the mill. Not even the passage of eight decades have dulled the basic horror generated by this stillness, and its when it reaches these heights of unearthly atmosphere that White Zombie justifies itself as a horror classic.