2017 Favorites: Jim Healy

Sunday, December 31st, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

Jim Healy is Director of Programming of the UW Cinematheque and the Wisconsin Film Festival.

I don't think I saw any one movie this year that gave me as much pleasure as the new season of David Lynch's TWIN PEAKS did, but of all the individual movies I saw for the first time in 2017, these were my very favorites:

In alphabetical order:

DUNKIRK (2017, Christopher Nolan)

THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK (1940, Robert Florey)

THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017, Sean Baker)

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017, James Gunn)

AN INN IN TOKYO (1935, Yasujiro Ozu)

LOGAN (2017, James Mangold)



THE POST (2017, Steven Spielberg)



I also got a lot of enjoyment from these movies, presented in alphabetical order:

L’AFFAIRE MAURIZIUS (1954, Julien Duvivier)
LES AFFAMES (2017, Robin Aubert)
AFTERIMAGE (2016, Andrzej Wajda)
ALIAS JIMMY VALENTINE (1915, Maurice Tourneur)
ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (2017, Ridley Scott)
APOSTASY (2017, Dan Kokotaljo)
AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON (1962, Yasujiro Ozu)
BACHELOR FLAT (1962, Frank Tashlin)
BAD DAY FOR THE CUT (2017, Chris Baugh)
THE BARGAIN (1914, Thomas Ince)
BEAST (2017, Michael Pearce)
BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017, Miguel Arteta)
THE BOOGENS (1981. James L. Conway)
IL BOOM (1963, Vittorio De Sica)
BRAD'S STATUS (2017, Mike White)
THE BRAT (1931, John Ford)
THE BULLET TRAIN (1975, Junya Sato)
BY SIDNEY LUMET (2015, Nancy Buirski)
THE CARIBOO TRAIL (1950, Edwin L. Marin)
CASTING (2017, Nicolas Wackerbarth)
CATCH THE WIND (2017, Gael Morel)
CÉSAR (1936, Marcel Pagnol)
COCK OF THE AIR (1934, Tom Livingston)
COCO (2017, Lee Unkrich)
COLUMBUS (2017, Kogonada)
CRAIG’S WIFE (1936, Dorothy Arzner)
D.O.A. (1949, Rudolph Maté)
DAMSEL IN DISTRESS (1937, George Stevens)
DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME (2016, Bill Morrison)
THE DEATH OF STALIN (2017, Armando Iannucci)
DESPERATE LIVING (1977, John Waters)
DIRIGIBLE (1931, Frank Capra)
THE DONOR (2016, Zang Qiwu)
DON’T FORGET ME (2017, Ram Nehari)
DOWNSIZING (2017, Alexander Payne)
ECSTASY (1933, Gustav Machaty)
THE END OF SUMMER (1961, Yasujiro Ozu)
UNA ESPECIE DE FAMILIA (2017, Diego Lerman)
DER FAN (1982, Eckhart Schmidt)
FANNY (1932, Marc Allegret)
FIRSTBORN (2017, Aik Karapetian)
FLOATING WEEDS (1959, Yasujiro Ozu)
FOR THEM THAT TRESPASS (1949, Cavalcanti)
FORBIDDEN GAMES (1951, Réne Clément)
THE FOREIGNER (2017, Martin Campbell)
FOREVER PURE (2016, Maya Zinstein)
GET OUT (2017, Jordan Peele)
GILBERT (2017, Neil Berkeley)
THE GOOD DIE YOUNG (1954, Lewis Gilbert)
THE GREAT SINNER (1949, Robert Siodmak)
THE GREAT WALL (2016, Zhang Yimou)
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017, Michael Gracey)
HELL ON FRISCO BAY (1955, Frank Tuttle)
HIGH SCHOOL (1968, Frederick Wiseman)
HITLER’S MADMAN (1943, Douglas Sirk)
I REMEMBER MAMA (1946, George Stevens)
INSIDE OUT (1975, Peter Duffell)
INVISIBLE GHOST (1941, Joseph H. Lewis)
IT'S LOVE I'M AFTER (1937, Archie Mayo)
THE GRASSHOPPER (1970, Jerry Paris)
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973, Norman Jewison)
JIM AND ANDY: THE GREAT BEYOND...(2017, Chris Smith)
JOHN WICK, CHAPTER 2 (2017, Chad Stahelski)
THE KID FROM SPAIN (1932, Leo McCarey)
KIDNAP (2017, Luis Prieto)
KILLING GROUND (2016, Damien Power)
KOKO: A TALKING GORILLA (1978, Barbet Schroeder)
LADY BIRD (2017, Greta Gerwig)
THE LADY IN RED (1979, Lewis Teague)
THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1935, Ernest B. Schoedsack)
LATE AUTUMN (1960, Yasujiro Ozu)
THE LETTER NEVER SENT (1959, Mikhail Kalatozov)
LION (2016, Garth Davis)
LITTLE WING (2016, Selma Vilhunen)
MARIUS (1931, Alexander Korda)
THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (2017, Noah Baumbach)
LA MOGLIE PIU BELLA (1970, Damiano Damiani)
MOM AND DAD (2017, Brian Taylor)
NAPALM (2017, Claude Lanzmann)
THE NIGHT VISITOR (1970, Laszlo Benedek)
1984 (1956, Michael Anderson)
NORTHERN PURSUIT (1943, Raoul Walsh)
ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO (1964, Larry Peerce)
THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE (2017, Aki Kaurismaki)
OUR SOULS AT NIGHT (2017, Ritesh Batra)
PANIQUE (1947, Julien Duvivier)
PARTS THE CLONUS HORROR (1979, Steven Fiveson)
PATERSON (2016, Jim Jarmusch)
PATTI CAKE$ (2017, Geremy Jasper)
PERSON TO PERSON (2017, Dustin Guy Defa)
THE PHANTOM OF CRESTWOOD (1932, J. Walter Ruben)
THE POLKA KING (2017, Maya Forbes)
RANDOM HARVEST (1942, Mervyn LeRoy)
RAVENS (2017, Jens Assur)
RHUBARB (1951, Arthur Lubin)
RILEY THE COP (1928, John Ford)
RING OF SPIES/RING OF TREASON (1963, Robert Tronson)
ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. (2017, Dan Gilroy)
ROMAN SCANDALS (1933, Frank Tuttle)
SAVING BRINTON (2017, T. Haines/J. Richard/A. Sherburne)
THE SHADOW OF THE CAT (1961, John Gilling)
SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM/BLAZING MAGNUM (1976, Alberto De Martino/Martin Herbert)
SILENCE (2016, Martin Scorsese)
SMALL CRIMES (2017, Evan Katz)
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017, Rian Johnson)
STREET SCENE (1931, King Vidor)
STREETWISE (1984, Martin Bell)
STRIKE ME PINK (1936, Norman Taurog)
THE STUDENT NURSES (1970, Stephanie Rothman)
TAKE ME (2017, Pat Healy)
TERMINAL ISLAND (1973, Stephanie Rothman)
THERE WAS A FATHER (1942, Yasujiro Ozu)
THESE THREE (1936, William Wyler)
THIRST (1979, Rod Hardy)
TITICUT FOLLIES (1967, Frederick Wiseman)
TONI ERDMANN (2016, Maren Ade)
TORMENTO (1950, Raffaello Matarazzo)
THE TRAVELER (1974, Abbas Kiarostami)
THE TRIAL OF VIVIENNE WARE (1932, William K. Howard)
TWICE-TOLD TALES (1963, Sidney Salkow)
THE WALL (2017, Doug Liman)
THE WHIP HAND (1951, Wm. Cameron Menzies)
WIGILIA (2016, Graham Drysdale)
WIND RIVER (2017, Taylor Sheridan)
WOLF GUY (1975, Kazuhiko Yamaguchi)


COVER GIRL: The Pearl of Columbia, 1944

Tuesday, December 12th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Cover Girl (1944) were written by Amanda McQueen, faculty assistant in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A newly restored 4K DCP of Cover Girl will screen in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, December 15 at 7 p.m.

By Amanda McQueen

In 1942, Bob Taplinger, publicity chief at Columbia Pictures, hit upon an idea for a film and magazine tie-up, in which real-life models would be featured in a musical, appropriately titled Cover Girl. Fifteen publications, including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, and Look, agreed to participate. These publicity stunt origins are belied, however, by the ingenuity and skill that Gene Kelly brought to the finished picture. Though not as well-known as the musicals he would subsequently make with MGM’s famous Freed Unit, Cover Girl first showed the world what Kelly was capable of and launched him to stardom.

From the start, Cover Girl was intended for Rita Hayworth, Columbia’s biggest star and the favorite pin-up girl for millions of GIs, but the studio struggled to transform Taplinger’s concept into a suitable screenplay. Ultimately, Columbia chief Harry Cohn brought in Virginia Van Upp, an established screenwriter and script doctor at Paramount. Van Upp’s screenplay for Cover Girl is conventional, but perfectly suited to Hayworth’s talents and star image. Hayworth (singing voice dubbed by Martha Mears) plays Rusty Parker, a dancer at a small Brooklyn night club. Magazine publisher John Coudair (Otto Kruger), spurred by memories of his lost love Maribelle (also Hayworth), selects Rusty to be his new cover girl, whisking her into the world of high society—much to the dismay of her boss and fiancé, Danny McGuire (Kelly). Ultimately, Rusty must decide between a life of honest, hard work with Danny, or a life of glamour and ease with Broadway impresario Noel Wheaton (Lee Bowman). Of course, there’s little doubt who Rusty will choose.

Columbia spared no expense shaping Cover Girl into a prestige production worthy of its top leading lady. As one of Hollywood’s smaller studios, Columbia had fewer resources at its disposal, but the prosperity of the early-1940s had led the company to increase its budgets, particularly for top-tier productions. Cover Girl was thus Columbia’s second ever Technicolor film, and for a while, held the studio record for longest shooting schedule. The production grew so large, in fact, that Columbia had to rent shooting space at outside facilities. Further adding to its prestige, the musical marked the first collaboration between legendary songsmiths Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin. Given the film’s importance, Cohn actually considered producing it himself, but instead hired Broadway songwriter and producer Arthur Schwartz to make his Hollywood debut. It is thanks to Schwartz that Cover Girl evolved from standard big-budget musical into something truly special.

Cover Girl had been in production for several weeks without a leading man when Gene Kelly was finally cast in July 1943. Kelly had jumped from Broadway to Hollywood in 1941, but his home studio of MGM didn’t know what to do with him and gave him little creative involvement in his projects. Cohn objected to Kelly’s looks, but Schwartz borrowed him from MGM anyway, even agreeing to let him choreograph his own numbers. Kelly, working for the first time with his future co-director Stanley Donen, took full advantage of this creative freedom, exploring the cinematic possibilities of the musical genre. Even today, scenes like the “Alter-Ego Dance,” in which Danny dance-battles with his own superimposed reflection, make it clear why contemporary critics hailed Cover Girl as “a milestone in screen musical history.”

Upon its release in March 1944, Cover Girl was an instant hit. It broke box office records at Radio City Music Hall, and its signature tune, “Long Ago (And Far Away),” was the year’s #2 song on the Hit Parade. Audiences loved it, and so it’s no surprise—particularly given its optimistic depiction of the war—that Cover Girl was the first film screened for GIs in France following the D-Day victory. Though some critics thought the plot cliche, others praised Van Upp’s “inspired” script, with its compact balance of drama, romance, comedy, and music. Cohn rewarded Van Upp by promoting her to producer; as one of only three women producing in Hollywood, she would go on to co-write and produce Hayworth’s most famous film, Gilda (1946). Most critics concurred, moreover, that Hayworth and Kelly were perfect. They have excellent chemistry—especially when dancing—and it’s a shame they never worked together again. Hayworth gives one of her best performances, and the film’s success cemented her as one of the biggest box office attractions in the world.

But Cover Girl also made it clear that Gene Kelly was more than a capable contract player: he was a star. And not only that—Kelly’s work in Cover Girl was said to be on par with “Fred Astaire’s greatest triumphs,” proof that he was capable of challenging Astaire for the dancing crown. In fact, in 1949, when Columbia re-issued Cover Girl with You Were Never Lovelier (1942) starring Hayworth and Astaire, enterprising exhibitors promoted the double feature as “Astaire vs. Kelly: The Dance Battle of the Century.” Back at MGM, Kelly was now permitted to choreograph his own musical numbers, beginning with Anchors Aweigh (1945). The rest is film musical history.

In 1952, Picturegoer magazine looked back on Cover Girl as “a shrewd combination of screen art and entertainment and a forerunner of On the Town and An American in Paris.” The musical certainly presages the pinnacle of Kelly’s career and what many consider the Golden Age of the Hollywood musical; this is perhaps why Kelly returned to the character of Danny McGuire forty years later in Xanadu (1980). But Cover Girl is charming on its own merits. Its Oscar win for Best Musical Score is well deserved, as are its nominations for Best Color Cinematography and Best Art Direction. Charles Vidor’s direction is brisk, and the supporting cast is strong, particularly Phil Silvers, who provides just the right amount of corn, and Eve Arden, who injects a much-needed dose of cynical wit. The nearly perfect way in which Cover Girl’s elements come together make it much like the pearl at the heart of its plot: a rare and magical thing.

Roller Skates and Existential Crises: IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER

Wednesday, December 6th, 2017
Posted by Matt St John

These notes on Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's It's Always Fair Weather were written by Lillian Holman, PhD candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of It's Always Fair Weather will screen in our Gene Kelly series on Friday, December 8 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. 

By Lillian Holman

During one of the major flirtation scenes in It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), Ted (Gene Kelly) turns to Jackie (Cyd Charisse), and says: “You’re inhibited.” Coming from Kelly, that is the worst possible insult. Whether it be in Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, On the Town, The Pirate, or a whole host of other MGM musicals, Gene Kelly would always rather be dancing, and for Kelly, dancing is freedom. Luckily for him, the audience usually has no objections to such a desire. Weather is the third film directed by both Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly and also starring Kelly. Previously the pair worked together on On the Town (1949) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

The two borrow freely from their previous successes in It’s Always Fair Weather. On the Town tells the story of sailors from the Navy on leave for one night in New York, and Weather picks up on the story of three men just out of the Army after World War II is over. While the military may not be the first thought that comes to mind when you think of singing and dancing, it provides a cohesive unit for Kelly to work with in terms of choreography. These men are bonded by circumstance both emotionally and physically which makes them an ideal dance group. In both films, the men are not just members of their military unit, they literally move as a unit. This is seen more obviously in the musical numbers, but it is also apparent in the way they interact with their non-musical environments as well. The mischief that Ted, Doug, and Angie get into in the bar at the very beginning of Weather is only possible through perfect coordination akin to the same choreography as the drunk sequence just a few minutes later. Meanwhile, the allusions to Singin’ in the Rain are not really present (except for Charisse’s green dress) until Ted falls in love. It turns out Gene Kelly in love looks the same in pretty much every movie. Just like Rain, he wanders into the street, bats his eyelashes a bit, and then starts to glide in time with the music and his own sonorous voice. In Rain, his partner is his umbrella and a lamppost with no one out to watch him but one grumpy old man. In Weather, he exchanges a partner for roller-skates and solitude for a crowd, but since he doesn’t seem to care one wit about the crowd, the tone is identical. He is so overflowing with love, he must dance. Nothing else matters and he lets us in on his joy almost by accident.

With these two homages to some of the most joyful movie experiences ever filmed, it would be easy to assume that Weather is a similarly carefree experience. What is odd and notable about the film, however, is the somewhat more subdued tone that envelops even the most exuberant of the musical numbers. The film centers on the reunion of the three soldiers ten years after they have been discharged. Each has moved on from his life as a mischievous, young man and each is dissatisfied with their grown life for different reasons. If the three sailors who had only 24 hours in New York in On the Town had to beat the clock, in It’s Always Fair Weather the clock has beaten the three soldiers. If in Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly was the picture of confidence, in Weather Kelly is the picture of insecurity. If Kelly’s love makes him sing in the face of bad weather in Singin’ in the Rain, in Weather he sings that “she likes me so I like myself.” This translates into other numbers too. If “Make ‘Em Laugh,” the delightfully nonsensical tour de force by Donald O’Connor, was the comedic centerpiece of Rain, in Weather it is Dan Dailey’s drunken charades at the workplace party. In the Rain sequence, O’Connor means to cheer Kelly up, while in Weather, Dailey, beset by marital problems, is so desperate to cheer himself up, he is driven to drink.  Ultimately, while It’s Always Fair Weather has the same bright colors and names on the marquee as Singin’ in the Rain and On the Town, the slight differences reveal its greater kinship to the films of the 1950s that explore the darker side of post-war American life, like Bigger Than Life, All that Heaven Allows, and A Star is Born.

Almodóvar's Ambivalence: TALK TO HER

Wednesday, November 29th, 2017
Posted by Matt St John

These notes on Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her were written by Erica Moulton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Talk to Her will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series of Almodóvar's work on Sunday, December 3 at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art's auditorium.

By Erica Moulton

Talk to Her is Pedro Almodóvar’s first film of the new millennium, and it finds him both reflecting upon his legacy and relying on some of his favorite filmmaking strategies, most notably his use of metadramatic elements, while also turning his eye forward for a contemporary reappraisal of the most sustained theme in his body of work: obsession. The result of this revisitation is a film that is rapturously beautiful and deeply unsettling in equal measure. It has been fifteen years since the film was released, and yet, recent headlines in Hollywood only make this film more disturbing and relevant as it concerns two men and their attractions to women who are in comas.

Almodóvar introduces the main characters, Marco and Benigno, sitting side by side at a performance of Pina Bausch’s modern dance “Cafe Müller,” in which a female performer rushes across a stage strewn with chairs, relying on the male performer to move them out of her way. The two main female characters in this film unknowingly find themselves dependent on men for their physical well-being, a theme that Almodóvar develops in both strands of his story, one dealing with the relationship between the journalist Marco and a female matador named Lydia, and the other the story of male nurse Benigno’s obsession with a comatose ballerina named Alicia. We see the women before their accidents, both involved in physically demanding careers, and then for the remainder of the film, their bodies are limp, bending to the will of their male caretakers.

In giving us two couples, Almodóvar invites us to draw comparisons between the men and their situations. Marco seems to be the more stable force in the film, as he has an established relationship with Lydia before her coma, and Almodóvar spends more time depicting their interactions at the beginning of the film. Benigno is the more leery presence in the film, and his connection to Alicia before her coma borders on stalker behavior. He leaps at the opportunity to become her nurse, and even lies to Alicia’s father about being gay to assuage his suspicions about the devotion Benigno shows for his patient. Despite the generally creepy tone struck by Almodóvar, critics at the time of the film’s release found the men’s treatment of their somnolent partners to be both unsettling and commendable. Roger Ebert wrote that “both men seem happy to devote their lives to women who do not, and may never, know of their devotion. There is something selfless in their dedication, but something selfish, too, because what they are doing is for their own benefit; the patients would be equally unaware of treatment whether it was kind or careless.” Characterizing devotion in a relationship that is so entirely one-sided as selfless is potentially dangerous, and yet, I think Ebert’s reaction is wholly in line with the message that Almodóvar sought to convey with Talk to Her. Perhaps that is why the film is all the more troubling now, when the harm of men exerting control over female bodies is such a painfully visible part of our national dialog.

Almodóvar engages every facet of his storytelling apparatus to present the darker undertones of Benigno’s character with ambivalence, most notably in the sequence where he shows a film-within-a-film called “The Shrinking Man.” The sequence is notable for its comically shocking and fantastical presentation of the female anatomy, but the director’s comments about this metadramatic interlude prove that even in his most outrageous moments, he is making shrewd narrative decisions. In an interview with The Guardian, Almodóvar alludes to the function of “The Shrinking Man,” saying that “with this silent film, I wanted to hide what was going on in the clinic [where Benigno bathes Alicia]. I wanted to cover it up in the best cinematic way and in an entertaining manner. Benigno had become like a friend of mine, although I wrote the character. Sometimes, you don't want to see things that your friends do. I didn't want to show Benigno doing what he did in the clinic. I also did not want to show the audience that image. So I put the silent movie in there to hide what was happening.”

Almodóvar’s comments are revealing. His desire to be ambivalent towards a character that may or may not be committing horrific acts is problematic, yet it’s perhaps an understandable impulse. It is easier not to see. But is it right to ignore the truth when it is in front of you?

I don’t know how well this film will continue to age, but Almodóvar’s commitment to the beauty and power of cinema makes his films hard to ignore, even as they tap into the most uncomfortable aspects of life. His films are never easy, nor should they be.

Oh No, Let’s Go!: Romero's THE CRAZIES

Wednesday, November 29th, 2017
Posted by Matt St John

These notes on George A. Romero's The Crazies were written by WUD Film’s Vincent Mollica. A DCP of the film will screen as part of a tribute to the late director on Saturday, December 2 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Vincent Mollica

George A. Romero built a relationship with the distributor Cambist working on There’s Always Vanilla, his 1971 non-supernatural follow up to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, and the company then approached him to work on a script entitled “The Mad People.” The script introduced the key plot elements of what would become The Crazies, which follows the military cover up of a leaked neurological weapon that drives inhabitants of a small town to become deranged and murderous. Cambist wanted a film that was more action driven than the initial screenplay, so Romero was brought in to rewrite and direct the film that they would help produce and distribute. Always the political satirist, Romero was careful to maintain aspects of the original script’s intellectual nature.

Like Night, The Crazies was a decidedly non-Hollywood production shot in Evans City, Pennsylvania, and although it was Romero’s first SAG film, they still largely used performers from the Evans City and Pittsburgh areas. Many volunteers round out the large film cast, including local high schoolers enlisted to play the white-suited soldiers that haunt the film. Indeed, the town raised issues with elements of the film, including its incestuous rape scene (which led to the crew being locked out of the high school) and, more dubiously, a scene of a black man stripping his clothes.

Once finished, the film endured a difficult release. Romero argues that although Night had been made five years earlier, it hadn’t entered its “re-release phase” and as a result The Crazies couldn’t use its success as a marketing hook. Either way, Cambist was fresh and inexperienced, and the film was sold incorrectly and placed in the wrong markets. “It’s a potboiler, a B movie, an action melodrama … and it needed to be played that way,” Romero remarked to Film Comment in 1979.  The few reviews it received at the time were mixed, although The New York Times and Variety provided downright scathing write ups.

A notable exception would come long after its release in Robin Wood’s political appraisals of Romero’s work, along with many other ‘70s horror films. Most notably, he offers great insight on The Crazies in his 1986 book Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan, where he describes it as an “ambitious and neglected work.”

In some ways, it’s easy to understand this mixed reaction, because The Crazies is a bewildering experience for many reasons. As far as the story, Robin Wood describes the way in which the viewer is never aware of who is “crazy” and who is not. Romero’s style is also overwhelming. “It’s a very brutally paced, unrelenting kind of a piece,” Romero said in an interview with Sam Nicotero while the film was still in production. In the film’s Blu-ray commentary, he describes its style as “staccato” and “cubist,” capturing images from many different angles, and he says, “I’d rather have 100 lousy shots than one great one.” The result is a feeling of constant freneticism, spread across scenes both of helicopter shoot outs and government bureaucracy.

The weight of the violence presented is also difficult to grasp. The film picked up on its political moment, following a grossly abusive and overreaching military presence in a small town. In a 1977 interview, Romero said, “At the time I made it, we were still in Vietnam and it was a very heartfelt problem, a part of the national consciousness and I don’t think anyone was ready to see that situation––even though it’s not a Vietnam film, it’s an anti-military film.” One of the most unsettling scenes of the movie occurs when a priest, deeply angered by the military’s evacuation of his church, lights himself on fire. It is an immediately recognizable visual reference to Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation, which Romero acknowledges in the film’s commentary. Women’s Wear Daily’s (very positive!) review also brings up the film’s relationship with the Kent State shootings. This parallel becomes especially poignant during the casual military gun violence that erupts during a riot at the high school towards the film’s end.

The key to the film’s satire lies in military violence, a theme that would be picked up in the great Day of the Dead, but even removed from a political context, the most unsettling element of the film is the prop that comes with the military. Each figure is dressed in white suit and gas mask, and many scenes feature these anonymous squadrons wreaking havoc across the Pennsylvania countryside. As Romero discusses in a 2014 interview with Sight and Sound, the different masked soldiers have their own personalities, much like the dynamically dressed every-person zombies of Dawn of the Dead. Romero claims, “I’m just always looking for things, you know? Like, this guy is going to walk through here, he might think, ‘Oh, look at those fishing rods. Why don’t I just grab ’em?’” It’s this touch which makes it difficult to truly be able to gauge the film’s military antagonists, who are at once both completely anonymous and unique personalities. It’s another example of the film pushing unanticipated layers on what a viewer might expect, in a way that bewilders and disturbs.

A World Turned Over: Wellman’s BEGGARS OF LIFE

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

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

By Thomas Gladysz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 17th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Erica Moulton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Lillian Holman

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

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

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

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

Cinema as Labyrinth: Almodóvar's BAD EDUCATION

Thursday, November 9th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Matt Connolly

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Mask: THE SKIN I LIVE IN

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Tim Brayton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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