The Equal Opportunity Exploitation of Stephanie Rothman: TERMINAL ISLAND

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Maureen Rogers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wiseman Smiles Too: CENTRAL PARK

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Matt St. John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, September 28th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Zachary Zahos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 27th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Kristen Johnson-Salazar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 21st, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Must Be the Place: Jonathan Demme's STOP MAKING SENSE

Thursday, September 21st, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Stop Making Sense were written by JJ Bersch, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Stop Making Sense will screen on Saturday, September 23 as part of a tribute to the late Jonathan Demme in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

One take: A stretch of light extends from an opening. Almost instantly and overwhelmingly, a shadow overtakes the light, briefly teasing the head of a guitar before revealing a squeaky clean pair of white sneakers and the shins of a gray-suited figure. After a ten second walk towards a cheering audience, the figure arrives at a microphone, offers a brief greeting, places a boombox on the stage, presses play, and bounces along to the beat. The camera climbs the figure, who is now strumming a guitar and bobbing in a way that only David Byrne, lead vocalist of Talking Heads, has ever bobbed. He sings, “I can’t seem to face up to the facts / I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax / I can’t sleep cause my bed’s on fire.” And then, finally, a 180-degree cut, showing us Byrne’s back as he performs in front of a crowd. The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads, and they are going to control our lives for the next 86 minutes.

This is the way Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s peerless 1984 concert documentary stitched together from three Talking Heads performances at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood in December of 1983, begins; this is, however, not exactly the way any of Talking Heads’ shows at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood in December of 1983 began. It’s close—these shows did start with a solo performance of “Psycho Killer”—but as Demme states on the Blu-ray release of the film’s commentary track, the opening shot “is one of a few shots that were done outside of the context of the concert.” Demme identifies this shot as incredibly important—they had to get it right, regardless of “authenticity”—for it builds up from Byrne’s feet in the same way the show will continually build up the band’s sound, adding accompanying musician after accompanying musician until Talking Heads sound bigger than any band before or after ever has. Demme found the perfect complement to Talking Heads’ live show; he just couldn’t do it live, so he didn’t.

This is emblematic of Jonathan Demme’s approach to capturing the live experience of seeing and hearing Talking Heads. Let the band do their thing, but make sure you’ve done everything you can to make sure everyone leaves knowing just how great that thing is, even if you have to stray from the live performance just a little bit to do that. Demme, who sadly passed earlier this year, knew music, and he loved music. His respect for Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and all of the other musicians on stage is palpable in every frame of the film. Demme often lets the band’s work speak for itself—consider the four-and-a-half-minute take of Byrne’s bravura performance of “Once in a Lifetime” or the film’s reliance on wide shots—but the director is not afraid to embellish the ‘Heads with a flourish here and there: the ethereal dissolves of “Heaven,” the shot/reverse-shot call-and-response of “Slippery People,” the mobile camera work of “Girlfriend is Better,” the disarming jump from “Take Me to the River” to the encore performance of “Crosseyed and Painless.” Demme lets Byrne and Company speak for themselves, but they let him speak as well.

Most curiously, Demme withholds cutting to the audience, even drowning them in darkness or shallow focus in many of the shots from the stage that might reveal the watching faces. Demme would use this strategy in his later concert documentaries such as Storefront Hitchcock (1998), Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006), and Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (2016); his rationale for Stop Making Sense, as told to the Los Angeles Times: “When we were editing, we had so much great footage, why cut to the audience? And then there’s a more subtle reason for not showing the crowd—all that ever does is remind the movie viewers that they’re watching a filmed record of a concert. But this way it seems more a concert expressly for them. Our approach takes away that generation of distance, of having to look at people who were really there.” And yet, Demme does eventually cut to said “people who were really there” towards the very end of the film, as he alternates footage of the band performing their final song, “Crosseyed and Painless,” with shots of the audience a total of seven times. A release occurs as the tight grip the band held on the camera dissipates. It is a jarring sequence, but one which aligns the two audiences. These people saw Talking Heads live—my God, they saw that performance of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” in person!—and you didn’t. But because of Demme’s work, that difference doesn’t matter quite so much.


Thursday, September 14th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Bless Their Little Hearts were written by Zachary Zahos, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A new restoration of Bless Their Little Hearts from Milestone Films will screen in our series tribute to Charles Burnett this Friday, September 15, at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Charles Burnett will deliver a talk in the UW's Distinguished Lecture Series on Thursday, September 21 at the Memorial Union Theater. He will also appear in person at the Cinematheque's screening of To Sleep With Anger on Friday, September 22.

By Zachary Zahos

The gap between Bless Their Little Hearts’s excellence and any wide recognition of such reveals the limits on our access to film history. Once yawning, this gap has narrowed considerably since this past spring, when Milestone Films began distributing a restored cut of the 1984 film to theaters around the world. With home media and streaming availability around the corner, Bless Their Little Hearts presently enjoys its widest audience ever. On top of rave reviews from respected critics, members of the African-American community have embraced the film at venues like Harlem’s RAW SPACE gallery, where director Billy Woodberry and screenwriter-cinematographer Charles Burnett hosted a joint Q&A following a screening in May.

That Bless Their Little Hearts always seems to trail Burnett’s 1977 feature Killer of Sheep in conversation and, subsequently, evaluation hints at the former film’s obscured place in black American independent cinema—to say nothing of American cinema as a whole. First, both films share Burnett in key creative roles, and both star Kaycee Moore as the leading woman as well as Burnett’s niece, Angela, and nephew, Ronald. In 16mm black-and-white, both tell stories of disadvantaged, depressed black men struggling to support their families in the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles; more specifically, both feature scenes of fathers and mothers berating their sons for not acting or looking enough “like a man.” Both highlight the jazz, blues, and gospel tradition with inspired soundtrack selections from Dinah Washington and Paul Robeson, in Killer, and Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan, in Bless. Both typify the aesthetic and social concerns of the L.A. Rebellion, the movement of black educators and filmmakers—Burnett, Woodberry, Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), and Haile Gerima (Bush Mama) among them—who forged a vibrant, collaborative creative community at UCLA’s Film School following the 1965 unrest in Watts.
All these affinities, and yet of the two, cinephiles know only Killer of Sheep. The wonky, counterintuitive distribution histories of these two films, which are inextricably informed by deeper biases, help to clarify this discrepancy. Despite being made over half a decade before Bless, Killer of Sheep rather famously did not receive an official release until 2007. Sporadic college screenings confirmed to the lucky few the quality of Burnett’s film, but the expense of securing the music rights for its soundtrack precluded even limited distribution. It took the herculean efforts of Milestone’s Amy Heller and Dennis Doros, in restoration, fundraising, and publicity, to clear the legal hurdles thirty years later. Glowing appraisals from Roger Ebert, Dave Kehr, Manohla Dargis, and the entire upper shelf of film critics followed suit, viewers paid to watch it, and ever since Killer of Sheep has cemented a formidable reputation as an unearthed treasure, a classic of black American cinema.  

Throughout this same time, Bless Their Little Hearts weathered an inverse, adverse fate. Unlike Killer, Bless received proper—albeit highly limited—theatrical distribution, playing at New York’s Film Forum and other small but influential screens in 1984. Yet few watched it in the intervening years, a fact awkwardly evident even when it has been singled out for praise. In an article announcing the 2013 additions to Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, for instance, Variety described honoree Bless as a documentary. It is true that Woodberry, post-Bless, has not followed up with another narrative project, instead pursuing documentary (most recently And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead, about beat poet Bob Kaufman, in 2015—after the Variety article), art installations, and a full-time teaching job at the CalArts School of Film and Video since 1989. But just because Woodberry, unlike Burnett, cannot be championed via the standard auteurist framework (i.e., teasing themes out of a wide oeuvre) does not lessen Bless Their Little Heart’s power of expression. Such a film poses welcome evaluative challenges that we as spectators should accept, without lapsing into erasure or stubborn hierarchizing. What do we make of Bless’s shared authorship—between Woodberry, Burnett, and actors Kaycee Moore and Nate Hardman—beside raising one man, mythically, above the others? Can we identify the rhymes between Bless and Killer while also calling attention to their differences? Can Killer of Sheep simply not be the only black American film not directed by Spike Lee allowed in the pantheon of great films?

For my part, I want to single out for appreciation one gorgeous, multivalent scene from Bless Their Little Hearts. Not the nine-minute, single-take fight between husband, Charlie Banks (Hardman), and wife, Andais (Moore)—if anything about Bless is legend, it is that improvised, heartrending torrent. Rather, I am equally struck by a much quieter, earlier scene that takes place in the Banks household’s only bathroom. Framed from a considerable distance, Charlie shaves in front of the mirror. While unemployment dogs his waking hours and nights, Charlie’s absorption in this ritual, underscored via his gentle humming and the shot’s unhurried duration, suggests a man at ease. In close-up, Charlie side-eyes an intruder at the door: daughter Angie (Angela Burnett), who impatiently scurries away. His shave continues. Clear razor strokes work at the remainder of the chin, white shaving cream disappearing from black skin in a simple, captivating bit of graphic play. In a series of faster, full-on close-ups, the faucet grows louder, Charlie bends slowly toward the sink to wash his face, and, channeling fearsome energies straight from his subconscious, he closes both faucet handles impossibly tight.

Through camera angle, ambience, and a sly escalation of dramatic stakes, this small, two-line scene of shaving somehow takes on a dimension of the sacred. It echoes the famous, unexpectedly cryptic episode of the housemaid preparing coffee in Vittorio de Sica’s Umberto D., where it is “life itself that becomes spectacle” as critic André Bazin memorably claimed. It answers that film, too, by evoking a fuller, more rambunctious sense of community within this small house. After Charlie leaves the bathroom, Angie reenters and struggles to turn on the faucet her father sealed shut. Her solution to this problem is too satisfying to spoil, but it demonstrates that, like all great filmmakers, Woodberry and Burnett can turn from profound contemplation to comedy on a dime.

Violence and Sex as Spectacle in Pedro Almodóvar's MATADOR

Friday, September 8th, 2017
Posted by Matt St John

This essay on Matador was written by Erica Moulton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Matador will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen "The Cinema of Pedro Almodóvar" series on Sunday, September 10 at 2 p.m.

By Erica Moulton

Throughout Pedro Almodóvar’s 1986 film Matador, comparisons are drawn between bullfighting and seduction. The film opens with a masterful intercut montage of a bullfighting lesson given by ex-matador Diego, and a female serial killer (María) luring an unsuspecting man to his death. Almodóvar cuts from Diego instructing his students where to sink their swords into the bull for the best kill to María driving her hairpin into the back of her lover’s neck mid-coitus. It’s a breathtaking sequence that sets the stage for the film that follows, one that explores the darkest impulses of its characters while also painting a vivid scene of post-Franco Spain. Matador is Almodóvar’s first truly cinematic film. As he grapples with themes of religion, misogyny, and the commodification of violence (especially against women), he also presents a beautiful film, full of vibrancy and color.

The film focuses on three characters, María (Assumpta Serna), Diego (Nacho Martinez), and Ángel, a student in Diego’s bullfighting academy played by a baby-faced Antonio Banderas. Banderas and Almodóvar had already collaborated four years prior in Labyrinth of Passion, and would work together several more times in the 1980s, with Almodóvar often casting Banderas as some type of lunatic. Matador is no exception, as Banderas plays a disturbed young man, twisted by his strict religious upbringing, whose obsessive desire to prove his masculinity leads him to rape Diego’s girlfriend in an early scene of the film. Almodóvar’s camera never looks away from any of the brutality depicted on screen, choosing to punctuate scenes of sexual violence with wide shots that emphasize the awkwardness of bodies. Wracked with guilt over the act he has committed, Ángel turns himself in for his crime. In the process, he is also accused of murdering several people, who are in fact the victims of Diego and María.

María volunteers to be Ángel’s lawyer, and a cat and mouse game ensues between her and Diego, as their violent passions draw them to discover the truth about each other. The film focuses on this tryptic of characters, and their desires and passions unfold in vivid detail. Diego, for instance, can only be sexually aroused by death, and forces his girlfriend to play dead while he makes love to her. In characteristic Almodóvar fashion, there is little attempt to explore the motivations of such behavior. Almodóvar is always more interested in the effect and less concerned with the cause. He is generally contemptuous of psychoanalysis, even to the extent of introducing a psychiatrist in the third act played by Almodóvar regular Carmen Maura, whose “treatment” of Ángel consists of her trying and failing to make romantic overtures and kissing him when he is unconscious.

Unlike Almodóvar’s earlier films which took inspiration from the punk movement of the 1970s that favored a loose and improvisational direction, this is his most controlled film to date. The violent spectacle is balanced by the look of the film, which relies on reds, pinks, and yellows (colors associated with bullfighting) to offset and perhaps underscore the brutality depicted onscreen. He incorporates the architecture of both new and old Madrid into his frames, shooting from a high-angle down a spiral staircase in one scene, or alternately from a low-angle looking up through a grated walkway in another scene. More attention is paid to the overall design and feel of each location—Diego’s house is cavernous and impersonal, while Ángel and his mother live in a sterile and neatly appointed apartment with little to no personal space. Even the door to the bathroom has a window, so Ángel’s mother is always watching him.

Almodóvar connects the bullfighting theme of spectacle to other realms of Spanish society, including the world of high fashion. In one very funny scene, Almodóvar makes a cameo as a pretentious fashion designer who barks instructions at the models backstage at a runway show that he tells a reporter is called “Spain Divided.” One of the models is Diego’s girlfriend Eva, who is dressed in a red wedding dress with blood painted running down her face. Almodóvar as the fashion designer hands her a gun and tells her to use it at the end of the show. Later in the film, Almodóvar shows Diego watching a VHS tape of himself being gored by a bull, the crowd looking on as his bedecked body is tossed about like a rag doll for their entertainment.

The characters in Almodóvar’s films operate on the extreme ends of the spectrum of human behavior. In Matador, they commit horrific acts of rape and murder. They behave in strange and unpredictable manners. Almodóvar’s filmmaking doesn’t elucidate their behavior, but beginning with Matador, he brings a level of sophistication and visual pleasure to his stories that make their subject matter all the more troubling and engaging. Almodóvar has been alternately labeled a “women’s filmmaker” and a filmmaker who traffics in female suffering. Reviewing Matador for the New York Times, critic Vincent Canby called Almodóvar “Spain’s most reputable disreputable film maker.” He has certainly earned all of these labels, and his films, including and especially Matador, deserve to be watched and re-watched, studied, and most of all, debated.

Night of the House Hunter: THE STEPFATHER

Thursday, June 29th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on The Stepfather (1987) were written by WUD Film Programmer Vincent Mollica. A 35mm print of The Stepfather will screen in our film series tribute to writer Donald E. Westlake on Wednesday, July 5 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening is free and open to the public.

By Vincent Mollica

Speaking of the Seattle-set 1987 thriller The Stepfather, producer Jay Benson said: “I’ve never budgeted a movie for filming in Seattle, but I know the costs were definitely less in Vancouver”. Like its setting, the film – about a man who changes his identity to marry into different families and murdering them if they do not fit his standards – speaks to a kind of hidden cheapness. Both in the film’s satirical meaning, and in its style, something nasty lies beneath a more pristine surface.

The most memorable element of the film, and the focal point for many warm reviews, is the contrast between the kindly exterior of the Stepfather character (Terry O’Quinn), who goes by Jerry Blake in the film, and his hideous inner nature. Pauline Kael in The New Yorker wrote “Jerry the model citizen who’s out in the open whistling ‘Camptown Races’ becomes more frightening the more we see of him” and Vogue evocatively speaks to O’Quinn’s “Cheshire Cat face”. There’s political level of this contrast as well. In his four-star review for the Chicago Tribune, Dave Kehr writes of the “1950s sitcom” quality to Blake: “Yet once that world leaves the box and collides with reality, its distortions, its oppressiveness and its murderous refusal of human complexity become clear, and chilling”. In a very short write up of the film for Film Comment, director Guillermo Del Toro echoed this by calling the film a “Brave, unflinching attack on our pastoral illusions”. As all these authors suggest, what makes The Stepfather compelling is the way that it upends Blake’s character and reveals what he truly represents. 

As this high praise might suggest, there is an air of classiness to The Stepfather. This is helped in part by a fine lead performance by O’Quinn, who was widely praised for the role (in an otherwise negative review, Roger Ebert singles out O’Quinn’s performance as the film’s “one wonderful element”). Cinematographer John Lindley provides an autumnal quality to much of the film which is clean and easy to watch. As discussed in the film’s DVD commentary, beyond allusions to several of Hitchock’s films, Ruben also borrows his clever use of doubling characters throughout that also speaks to a kind of formal substance. The film even contains a degree of legitimate emotionality, most notably through the purposeful emphasis on the family that is found through different spaces in the film. However, there’s undoubtedly an unhinged quality to the film as well. 

In an LA Times article about attempts to properly advertise The Stepfather, as it was flopping in its first few weeks, the marketing director of the film’s distributor (New Century) claimed audiences were turned off by terms used in otherwise positive reviews like “B-movie” and “low budget”. The critics who used them have a point though. The film does have a certain “B-Movie” looseness, that can border on comic. For example, when Blake’s stepdaughter (an excellent Jill Schoelen) is expelled from high school, it is met by reactions that never amount to much beyond mild disappointment.

More interesting, though, are the films sharply emotional turns, which seem similarly “B-Movie”. In an early fight scene between two girls at a high school Lindley uses handheld photography in a way that’s unexpectedly visceral. In a moment that Ruben claims was even made less brutal than it was before, Blake’s first on screen murder, in which he batters a man with a plank of wood in an empty house, climaxes in a disturbing image of his victim’s vaguely contorted body finally collapsing on the floor. At another point, the brother of one of Blake’s previous victims holds up a picture of his deceased family while a sad version of Patrick Moraz’s synth score plays. Benefitting largely by the wonderful use of music, the moment is so openly manipulative it forces an emotional reaction. These “B-Movie” moments offer unpolished cheap thrills, but O’Quinn’s performance and the witty and satirical script by novelist and crime specialist Donald Westlake regularly remind us that the movie has more on its mind than mere exploitation. Westlake and his original collaborators Carolyn Lefcourt and Brian Garfield were, in fact, inspired by the real life case of mass murderer John List who disappeared and relocated under a completely new identity after murdering his wife, mother and three children in 1971. List evaded arrest for nearly 18 years until his crimes were recounted on America’s Most Wanted.

The Stepfather had a productive afterlife. Ruben claims this is the film that pushed him into big studio filmmaking, and he followed it up with Sleeping with the Enemy and The Good Son for 20th Century Fox in the early 1990s. Star Terry O’Quinn would appear in other films, but his most notable credit afterwards would come long after as John Locke on the show Lost. The Stepfather would also have two sequels (although O’Quinn only appeared in the second one) and a 2009 remake, all featuring the same character. O’Quinn regretted starring in The Stepfather II: Make Room For Daddy, but this first sequel maintains a light, funny, sensibility. However, most of the remakes and sequels lose the focus of satire and of Jerry Blake’s central goal, which is not to murder more people, but to truly create the perfect family. This is what provides the first film with its staying power.

The Anxiety and Awe of JURASSIC PARK

Thursday, May 4th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Jurassic Park (1993) was written by JJ Bersch, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Jurassic Park will conclude our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series saluting the Music of John Williams on May 7 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art.

By JJ Bersch

There is one video on the Internet that is better than all of the other videos on the Internet. Uploaded by a mysterious user named P. Lo, its title is pleasingly simple and descriptive: “Jurassic Park Theme Song (Melodica Cover).” Mr. Lo opens the video with unaltered footage from one of said film’s earliest and most iconic scenes. Park founder John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) rises from the ground to gaze adoringly into an immaculate field as Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) slowly realize the majesty unfolding before their eyes. Perhaps the most famous instance of the patented “Spielberg face” mobile close-up follows as Grant dramatically turns his attention from prehistoric grass towards the marvelous beasts roaming the park’s grounds. In director Steven Spielberg’s film, this majestic moment is met with majestic music: the strings swell, the unmistakable theme kicks in; in P. Lo’s video, this majestic moment is met with an entirely less majestic melodica: the strings swell, the unmistakable theme kicks in, poorly, awfully, embarrassingly. Funny as it is, the melodica is wisely not the only punchline, as composer John Williams’s score returns in the video’s final moments to back Grant’s amazed remark of “They do move in herds.” I have never seen someone avoid laughing at this video. I believe it is impossible.

The video capitalizes on something that is very obvious to us now: John Williams’s score for Jurassic Park is really the only score there ever could have been for Jurassic Park. Williams, as you have learned if you have followed this series this semester (or followed American cinema for any of the past fifty years), is a composer who loves a good theme (or seven). From Jaws, Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones, and E.T. to more recent additions to the theme canon like Harry Potter and the film in question today, Williams has created many of the most eminently recognizable themes in film history. To his most ardent detractors, this is said to be all of which he is capable, but as this series has shown, such Williams scores as the jazzy looseness of Catch Me If You Can or the pop perfection and madness of The Long Goodbye showcase a much more varied composer. But, even with that in mind, if we are being totally honest with ourselves, when we see the name John Williams pop up on a film’s opening credits, we are probably anticipating the theme most of all. In Jurassic Park, that theme is monumental, perhaps a bit slower than you remember, triumphant but a little bit wistful, too. It matches the scale of the dinosaurs but also the scale of Hammond’s misstep. It is spectacle and sadness. When I heard the theme played at my wife’s college graduation, it felt perfectly apt; what else could match that sense of achievement and loss?

Beyond the Williams score, Jurassic Park is packed to the (dino) gills with entertainment. It was my favorite movie at the age of 3, and it is easy to see why: dinosaurs. It contains some of Steven Spielberg’s very best set pieces: the first altercation with the Tyrannosaurus, the power outage sequence (“clever, girl”), the RAPTORS IN THE KITCHEN. Considering Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark contains at least three of Cinema’s very best set pieces, this says quite a bit. Jurassic Park is a film that knows that spectacle matters most when you match it with scares, and that those two words do not mean anything if you do not first define the geography of a space. It is one of the last times a Spielberg movie featured children you did not instantly want expunged from the screenplay. It features maybe the best Samuel L. Jackson catchphrase that does not feature a curse word (“Hold onto your butts.”) as well as Wayne Knight turning in a performance that is improbably and incredibly more annoying than Seinfeld’s Newman. It gave us those glorious, glorious, glorious shots of a shirtless Jeff Goldblum (so glorious, in fact, that it made the studio think Goldblum could carry the next film himself).

A couple of years ago, the series made a financially successful return with Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World, but that film, for all of its merits, could not solve the problem that has haunted all of the series’s entries after the first: how could you possibly match the hubris and bravado it took to make Jurassic Park, and make it feel authentic at that? This is perhaps no truer anywhere else than the play between Williams’s score and the images on screen, perfectly paired to create a breathtaking sensation matched by nearly no other film in blockbuster history. Sure, life finds a way of doing most things, but it has not found a way to replicate the delightful concoction of anxiety and awe that is Jurassic Park.