Capturing the Uncatchable: THE EAGLE HUNTRESS

Monday, November 12th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on director Otto Bell's The Eagle Huntress (2016) were written by Kristen Johnson-Salazar, a senior in the Communication Arts Department at UW Madison. The Eagle Huntress will screen on Friday, November 16 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening will be introduced by the movie's producer, Stacey Reiss, who will also participate in a post-screening discussion.

By Kristen Johnson-Salazar

The other day, I was talking to my friend on the bus about The Eagle Huntress, and I told her the one scene that really made me sit back and put the documentary in perspective. It was not the beautiful sweeping shots of the Mongolian mountain sides or the slow motion of the golden eagles swooping down with their talons exposed for the attack. It was of our heroine, Aisholpan Nurgaiv, 13 years old, about to embark on her journey to the Gold Eagle Festival. Like her father Rys Nurgaiv, she is dressed in furs and the traditional attire meant for those who claim the title of eagle hunter. They begin their day-long journey to the nearest town by horseback, holding their 15 pound eagle with one hand while the other holds the horse’s reins. Stacey Reiss, University of Wisconsin-Madison Journalism alumna and producer for The Eagle Huntress, also acknowledges this moment in an interview with The Women’s Eye, “I was just sitting there on a stationary horse holding the bird on my arm. Meanwhile, here’s [Aisholpan] a thirteen-year-old girl riding a horse, holding a bird and competing. It was then that I appreciated how challenging it all was.” This scene, along with many other smaller moments, truly brought forth the strength and dedication Aisholpan has for the art and skill of being an eagle huntress.

The Eagle Huntress is a powerful and influential documentary. While our focus is of Aisholpan, navigating through her different identities as a daughter, a sister, a family member, a student, and an eagle huntress, the documentary also touches on themes of family trust and the meaning of tradition. Aisholpan is like most of her friends that we see in the documentary, in that she is expressive, loving, brave, and loves a challenge. Five days of her week are at school, miles away from home, where she lives in the in-school dormitories with her siblings. On the weekends, she returns home and helps her family around and outside the yurt. The training and hunting she undergoes with her father Rys breaks this routine, and leads to one of the most breathtaking scenes of the documentary, when Aisholpan retrieves her eagle for training.

The scene encapsulates the emotional stress and hardship of any eagle hunter. With only a rope knotted around her torso, Aisholpan relies on her communication skills, courage, and luck, to obtain a baby eagle from its nest. Director Otto Bell described the scene stating, “The scene where she takes the baby eagle out of the nest - people are always surprised to know that's one single take. I filmed it like I would film a live sports event.” There are only three angles we see: Rys’s perspective, Aisholpan’s GoPro footage, and Bell, far away with a zoom lens, capturing both of them through the process. It’s as exhilarating as it is important to tradition. Every eagle hunter before Aisholpan, her father, her grandfather, and so on and so forth, have gone through the same trials as she did that day. However, unlike previous generations of eagle hunters, it is this time that an audience outside of family, and perhaps interested spectators from afar, get to see the spectacle.

In regard to eagle hunting, tradition to the Kazakh people is not only passing down skills to generations (usually fathers to sons) that help in winning competitions, but a way of understanding family histories and memories. Such is the custom of eagle hunters releasing their trained eagle back into the wild after seven years to make sure that the eagle’s life continues in nature until she flies her last flight. In the documentary, we see the form of tradition take the face of the many eagle hunter elders who dismiss women eagle hunters. It is tradition for fathers to pass down their knowledge to sons, but as the opening monologue spoken by Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) makes clear, “this relationship between man and bird is finite.” An exclusionary tradition that has men as gatekeepers to eagle hunting traditions? It is finite. Countless times in this documentary, Aisholpan breaks free from these repressive boundaries, to not only show that she is just as good as the boys, but often better.

In discussing why she wanted to work on this film in the first place, Stacey Reiss said, “I felt like I would do anything to work on that film. Her story is universal. It’s a story of a father supporting and teaching his daughter, which I can certainly appreciate as the mother of two children.”  Some of the greatest documentaries are about specific people, places, things, or ideas, but what makes these documentaries stand out is the exploration of universality in the extraordinary. The emotions, courage, and hopefulness shown by Aisholpan during her tests to be titled an eagle huntress are amazing, and for the majority of us who watch, we could never imagine achieving such feats. However, it is not the moments of her horseback riding and calling to her eagle that define Aisholpan. Rather, it is in the moments with her friends and her siblings, as they draw inspiration from her, that she shows them, and us, a true eagle huntress.

UW CINEMATHEQUE PROGRAM ADDITION & SCHEDULE CHANGE

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

The UW Cinematheque has made one program addition and one schedule change to our upcoming programming.

The November 17 screening of a new restoration of Arthur Bressan, Jr.’s landmark independent movie Buddies (1985) will now be followed by an in-person discussion with Roe Bressan, Arthur Bressan's sister, who will talk about her brother's work and legacy.

Due to a schedule conflict, a talk by UW Madison Professor Kathryn Sanchez related to her recently published book Creating Carmen Miranda has been moved from December 14 to December 7 at 6 p.m., prior to a screening of Carmen Miranda in Down Argentine Way.

All Cinematheque screenings are free and open to the public.

The Glow of 7TH HEAVEN

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Frank Borzage's 7th Heaven were written by Lillian Holman, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A new 4K restoration of 7th Heaven will screen on Saturday, October 27 at 7 p.m. as part of our "Silents Please!" series. The screening takes place in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The new restoration featuring the original Movietone score and sound effects will be introduced by Katie Trainor, Film Collections Manager at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

By Lillian Holman

When Hollywood transitioned to sound in the late 1920s, there was a sense of panic among theorists that the high artistic achievements of the medium so far would be lost. When you watch a film like 7th Heaven (1927) released the same year as The Jazz Singer (1927), it is much easier to understand what the theorists were so afraid of losing. Directed by Frank Borzage and starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, the film epitomizes both silent Hollywood romance and silent Hollywood melodrama.

“Chico…Diane…Heaven.” The three words that replace “I love you” in the film’s script also represent Borzage’s holy trinity within the film. The theme of divinity permeates both the plot and the style as the central couple navigates being poor and in love in Paris. The style is one of the major take-aways from the film: everything glows, especially scenes like the angelic shot of Diane in her white dress in the window. By playing with lighting and including such halos, Borzage paints a convincingly appealing picture of Chico and Diane’s world, even as the dialogue deems it downtrodden. We believe it when Diane calls their 7th floor apartment “heaven” since it is lit as such.

The style also adds credence to Chico’s development throughout the film: even as he declares himself an atheist, God is seemingly looking out for him in the form of the filmmaker. By the time he converts, it feels obvious since we have seen a deity there the whole time in the narrative coincidences and the literal halos.

Chico and Diane are two characters made for each other, who help each other ascend both socially and physically. In Gaynor’s case, the ascent is physical: According to a most charming anecdote, Borzage first cast the two actors together because Gaynor was so tiny, and Farrell was so big. They fit together, yet the size comparison helps emphasize Gaynor’s vulnerability (see the shot where she is dwarfed by his pillows in bed) or accentuate his when he crouches to her level for an embrace. While there is plenty of drama in terms of Diane’s evil sister and Chico’s military service, the wonder of 7th Heaven takes place in these middle scenes, when we can just witness their love and Borzage’s faith in their goodness.

Watching as a modern audience, there are many preconceptions that must be left at the theater doors. More than anything else, the plot, especially the final third, is fairly ridiculous and more than a little implausible. Much like many melodramas, it is fraught with coincidence, and there is both a sense that the world is out to completely destroy our two protagonists’ happiness or to save them, depending on the moment. For example, there is nothing more inconvenient in silent cinema than the pesky call to war, especially at exactly the worst moment.

Meanwhile, while the central pairing is one of the iconic Hollywood duos, it is also a portrayal of a woman and a heterosexual romance that would be considered sexist and condescending today. For instance, it is always a little jarring to hear Farrell confidently declare to Gaynor, “Leave the big thinking to me!” But that being said, Gaynor’s ready agreement comes with a healthy dose of indulgence in his arrogance as well. Her charm is plenty enough to make up for her size and he is as emotionally dependent on her as she is physically dependent on him. Meanwhile, while he took her in, it was her perseverance that made her survive in the first place. In fact, Farrell and Gaynor's star power and Borzage’s deft hand behind the camera makes it so that, even with these small road bumps, it is still a magical journey to ascend the seven flights of stairs with the three of them.

Sibling Rivalry and Sexual Rage: BASKET CASE

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

This analysis of Frank Henenlotter's Basket Case was written by Dillon Mitchell, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A new 4K restoration of Basket Case will be screened on Friday, October 26 at 7 p.m. at our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The sreening will be introduced by Katie Trainor, Film Collections Manager at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Basket Case has been restored by The Museum of Modern Art with support from The Celeste Bartos Fund for Film Preservation.

By Dillon Mitchell

Warning: Contains potential "spoilers."

Our first glimpse of Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck), the naïve, plucky protagonist of Frank Henenlotter’s debut film Basket Case, finds him strolling down 42nd Street in New York City past a row of unsavory storefronts with signs selling nude shows and pornographic magazines. He’s approached by a man on the street who rattles through an extensive list of contraband before finally offering some “nice girls” to Duane, who continues walking without a second thought or reaction. When he eventually arrives at a hotel and checks into a room, one of his first encounters with a fellow tenant is witnessing Casey (Beverly Bonner) welcome a john into her room. She gives Duane a wink, eliciting an eye-popping reaction that is almost cartoonish.

Overt sexuality has never been a stranger to the horror film. Flagrant nudity and a penchant for punishing oversexed teenagers are trademarks of the slasher subgenre that was nearing its cultural peak at the time of Basket Case’s release in 1982. Henenlotter has spoken extensively on classifying his movies as exploitation films, rather than horror, and here he is actively working against the trope that sex must be punished. Though the main narrative of Basket Case follows Duane and his monstrous, once conjoined twin Belial (who is brought to life by a combination of puppetry and, in two instances, claymation) seeking revenge on the doctors who forcibly separated them years ago, Basket Case also explores the competitive nature of brothers and Belial’s sexual frustration.

In the course of seeking their revenge, Duane meets Sharon (Terri Susan Smith), the secretary of Dr. Needleman (Lloyd Pace). It’s hard to say that palpable sparks fly between the two considering the acting in Basket Case exists somewhere on the spectrum between The Room and Sleepaway Camp, but a date is set up for the following day. Duane whispers so that his brother, tucked away in his basket across the room, cannot hear. Henenlotter only shoots two aspects of New York City – the landmarks, and the seediest buildings and alleyways he could find, so naturally the idyllic date between Duane and Sharon occurs at the base of the Statue of Liberty. When the two begin to sloppily make out (the bad acting extends to kissing as well), the film cuts to a shot of Belial shooting out of his basket, screaming in a mixture of agony and rage. He wrecks the room before retreating back into his wicker home when the hotel manager forces his way into the room.

It’s made explicit later in the film that Duane and Belial share a telepathic connection from their time spent conjoined. Other than this patently ludicrous and stereotypical aspect though, Basket Case is working through real issues of twindom, like the fear of abandonment and a need for personal space. It just happens to be doing so through a conversation between Duane and Belial in which the latter is set up in a toilet bowl. The brothers’ downfall also ultimately stems from a real issue: Belial’s growing frustrating over his sexual incapacity. Henenlotter doesn’t delve far into Belial’s psychology, but he and Duane seem to share a sort of sexual awakening after they leave their small town in Upstate New York to visit the big city; however, only Duane is able to act on these new feelings.

Belial has two “intimate” encounters with women. In the first, he sneaks into Casey’s room and hides among her pillows, waiting until she goes to sleep to reach out from his hiding place and touch her breast. She is immediately woken up and flees the room in a panic, while Belial sneaks out the window, returning to his basket with a pair of Casey’s underwear in hand. The second occurs after Sharon and Duane’s attempt to have sex in the motel room is spoiled by Belial again bursting out of his basket shrieking with fury.

Duane’s vocal resentment over this is the first time we see him openly chastise Belial for interfering in his brother’s life, and this spurs the monstrosity to further, more spiteful action. As Duane sleeps, Belial slips out the window, his eyes glowing red. The film then cuts between footage of Duane running naked through the streets of New York and shots of him tossing and turning in bed, his body drenched in sweat (no doubt calling forth the imagery of a pubescent boy experiencing a wet dream). The Duane on the streets then finds himself at Sharon’s apartment. When Henenlotter switches to a point-of-view shot coming through her window, we may begin to think that this Duane is in fact Belial; it’s made clear when, after a lengthy POV sequence of “Duane” caressing the woman’s nude, sleeping body, Sharon wakes up and finds herself face-to-face with her beau’s disfigured brother. Belial has simultaneously punished his twin for daring to scold him and beaten him to having sex (in an incredibly twisted way). When Duane arrives and returns his brother to the motel to berate him, Belial picks him up by his crotch, lifting him high into the air and establishing physical dominance in their relationship. Despite his deformity, or perhaps because of it, Belial feels the need to prove his masculinity and sexual potency by any means necessary, ultimately driving him and his brother toward tragedy.  

 

The Genius of Lon Chaney: LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH

Wednesday, October 17th, 2018
Posted by Zachary Zahos
Lon Chaney in Laugh, Clown, Laugh

This essay on Herbert Brenon's Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison. A 35mm print of Laugh, Clown, Laugh will screen with live piano accompaniment by David Drazin on Saturday, October 20 at 7 p.m., as the second program in our "Silents Please!" series. The screening takes place in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Free admission!

By Tim Brayton

Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera Pagliacci is a bitter, raging tragedy about a love affair ending in murder at the hands of a jealous husband. The 1928 feature film Laugh, Clown, Laugh, ultimately based on the opera – via a 1923 play in English, based upon a 1919 play in Italian, itself based upon the opera – is no less tragic, though it is far less bitter. Unlike the appealingly torrid opera, the film’s sorrows are almost entirely internal, its tragedy that of a man coming to grips with the knowledge that the world doesn’t care if he’s sad and old and alone.

So, a perfect scenario for silent cinema, with its singular ability to focus on the expressive powers of the human face. And a perfect scenario for Lon Chaney, whose face was expressive even by the standards of the late silent period. Though today we mostly associate Chaney with his skull-faced Phantom of the Opera, or his soulfully grotesque Quasimodo, hunchback of Notre Dame, more of Chaney’s career was in weepy character dramas, of a sort that Laugh, Clown, Laugh exemplifies. The role of an aging sad-sack who fruitlessly longs for hopeless love was a stock Chaney figure in the ‘20s, meaning that in this late-career role (he appeared in only five more features before his death at age 47), he’d had years of practice refining this character type. That experience pays off, with Chaney giving perhaps his own greatest performance, and one of the great tear-jerking screen turns of the era.

The plot is old-fashioned in its unabashed embrace of melodrama (and, we must confess, its sexual politics): an itinerant clown, Tito (Chaney), takes in an abandoned child, Simonetta. Years later, after she’s grown to adulthood (embodied by 14-year-old future movie star Loretta Young, in her first screen performance), Tito finds himself romantically obsessed with her, but he’s outmatched by Count Luigi Ravelli (Nils Asther), who is younger, handsomer, richer, and not her adopted father. The film leaves little doubt as to the outcome: even Tito recognizes from the start that he’s a totally inappropriate match for Simonetta, that he’s a bit pathetic even for fantasizing about it. This pathos is precisely the fuel of the film’s tragic melodrama, as we watch the middle-aged man grapple with his knowledge of the inevitability of his own loneliness, all while being forced to put on make-up and dance around for the mindless entertainment of audiences.

The irony is not applied with a light touch: signs declaring “Ridi, Pagliaccio” (“laugh, clown”, a key line from the opera’s most famous aria) abound, and the film boasts an angry anti-joke when Tito’s psychiatrist recommends that he should go to see the great clown Flik to cheer himself up, not knowing that Tito is Flik. What keeps Laugh, Clown, Laugh from feeling heavy-handed is partially the medium itself, and the almost mystical effect of silent cinema. If the emotions are drawn with a broad brush, this feels somehow not merely right, but necessary, as though Tito’s pain which cannot be expressed in spoken words must erupt out of his body somehow.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh came out in the last great year of silent cinema. The Jazz Singer had just been a massive hit, and the first all-talking picture, Lights of New York, was just three months in the future. The silent features of 1928 thus represent the last flourishing of a sophisticated, mature art form, and while this film lacks the tremendous innovation of The Crowd or The Wind, it nevertheless demonstrates much of that sophistication. The film was directed by Herbert Brenon, well-regarded in his day by critics (if not always by actors; by Young’s account, Chaney spent this film’s production constantly protecting her from Brenon’s verbal abuse), though many of his films have been lost: even this film is missing one of its reels, though the story is little affected as a result. He brings to the film, with the great cinematographer James Wong Howe,  a complex mixture of close-ups and deep spaces, positioning characters against fully three-dimensional spaces like they’ve been dropped into dollhouse rooms, busy with bits and pieces of design. At the same time, the staging rarely allows the characters to fully navigate that space, except inasmuch as different layers of depth are used to keep them separated. The result is a busy, fleshed-out world that feels constantly separated from Tito, amplifying our impression that he is fundamentally alone.

It always comes back to Tito. The film’s beautiful cinematography, Young’s self-assured debut, and everything else notwithstanding, the film that lives and dies entirely on Chaney’s extraordinary work. We see displayed here some of the subtlest make-up he designed in his famous career, silently adding one year after another, exaggerating the wrinkles and whitening hairs. Even his bright white clown make-up, which practically radiates off the screen, changes to reflect time passing. For a film largely about the awareness of a middle-aged man that his time has passed, this never-stressed but omnipresent awareness of the physical toll of aging is heartbreaking in its own right.

Let us never say that Chaney was simply relying on his make-up, though! His work in Laugh, Clown, Laugh is, in this writer’s opinion, one of the great achievements of silent film acting, mixing stereotypically broad poses (to evoke his character’s theatrical background), with tightly constrained facial expressions that shift so gradually as to be nearly invisible. His body language alone imbues the film with an almost unbearable amount of human feeling: consider, for example the way he hangs his arms at his side, rocking his shoulders forward so that it almost seems that his hangdog look is going to pull him to the ground. And then combine the sheer exhaustion and sadness of that pose with Chaney’s skill at slowly allowing tears to form in the corner his eyes while his mouth is set in a curl of self-loathing, a devastating mix of pathos and self-accusation. If this is first and foremost a performance piece, the performance is enough to justify a whole feature: the final masterpiece from one of the quintessential silent film stars.

Expanding the Canon: THE RED KIMONA & THE CURSE OF QUON GWON

Wednesday, October 10th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on The Red Kimona and The Curse of Quon Gwon were written by Lillian Holman, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Both films will screen in one program on Saturday, October 13 at 7 p.m., the initial program in our "Silents Please!" series. The screening takes place in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Free admission!

By Lillian Holman

When thinking of great American silent films, it is common to only think of the names of the canonized greats. For example, Griffith, DeMille, Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd can all be listed without their first names and a good portion of those reading this will know exactly to whom I’m referring. That being said, if that same reader were asked to name other silent film directors, I’m sure the list would be much shorter. The limited sphere of this perception is due to two competing factors, neither of which is the implied reader’s ignorance. First, the names listed were certainly valorized in the years these films were released and have always been on the lips of movie fans. Second, they also represent a catalogue of films that happened to have been preserved partially due to that valorization. This issue of preservation is the more important of the two since so many silent films were lost due to the fragility of nitrate and the lack of consistent preservation standards at the time they were released. It means that even if we wanted to look beyond these names in the past, it has been too difficult or impossible. It is therefore a luxury now that new digital preservation techniques and wider spheres of inquiry are allowing many forgotten or “lost” films to be rereleased and finally shown to a modern public. The Red Kimona (1925), directed by Walter Lang and Dorothy Davenport, and The Curse of Quon Gwon (1926), directed by Marion E. Wong, are two of these treasures, and unlike the films made by the list above, were directed (or co-directed) by women and, in the case of Wong, directed by the woman thought-to-be the first Asian-American director regardless of gender.

Both these films deal intensely with the issues surrounding their directors’ gender and race. The Red Kimona is a shockingly relevant piece about the sacrifices women shouldn’t have to make and the violence they shouldn’t have to endure in order to work in show business or, in the case of our protagonist, to work at all. Davenport herself makes this abundantly clear in the very rare instance of direct address in the frame narrative of the film, where she “speaks” to the audience about how this is based on a true story and that there are women like our protagonist out there who we should both pity and take care of. It is easy to say that dealing with sexual harassment has always been an issue for women; it is quite different to see it played out almost 80 years before even the invention of Twitter, let alone the introduction of #MeToo.

Meanwhile, The Curse of Quon Gwon , a movie that only exists as a 35 minute fragment of its original feature length, is also about the female experience, but in a very different context than Red Kimona. The female protagonist of Curse, is navigating the more traditional customs of her new Chinese mother-in-law after she has been solidly immersed in western culture. It is a push and pull between the “ancient” and the “modern,” but with the “modern” meaning 1926. It is therefore a unique cultural artifact where we not only get to see a culture ridiculously underrepresented on screen, but we get to witness two different iterations of it and the struggles of westernization at a personal level. What is even more remarkable: the intertitles of Curse have been lost so we experience this all without words, yet it seems like nothing is lost at all.

While these films are remarkable for reasons beyond the identities of their directors, it is still worth taking a step back and noting the fresh perspective it allows us on Hollywood at the turn of the century. When Manohla Dargis wrote about these films on the occasion of July’s BAMcinématek series, “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers,” she wrote how:

Women have a history of being hidden in plain sight, whether they’re written out of even recent histories or yet more studio executives insist that that they can’t find suitable women to hire. A series like “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers” is a crucial part of this revisionism, a corrective to our collective amnesia.

As Dargis suggests, the issue of racial and gender diversity in Hollywood is certainly nothing new, and when looking as far back as the 1920s, it is easy to overlook it or dismiss it as a product of the time, hence the “collective amnesia.” Such amnesia causes us to forget that there were in fact women working in high level creative spheres in Hollywood during the silent era, especially in the early years. Media historian Erin Hill also covers this forgotten chapter of film history when she mentions how in the early 1910s, “in this informal work system, a few women infiltrated such male-dominated fields … [and] ascended from the lower ranks of film companies to roles as writers, directors, producers, and production owners.” The “informal work system” Hill is referring to was the less standardized Hollywood where roles on set were more fluid and open to all, including the women present. She outlines how the increased standardization of the industry was one of the key factors that forced out female creatives. While Red Kimona and Curse of Quon Gwon came out 10 years after the era Hill is referring to and after systems of standardization were beginning to be in place, the women who worked on these films carry on this legacy of female authorship that began in the 1910s. In fact, Hill references Dorothy Arzner, co-writer of Red Kimona, specifically as one of the women who learned every aspect of the trade when she first arrived in Hollywood in the 1910s. Therefore, when we appreciate these films anew, not only are we expanding our canon of great films, they are giving us primary evidence of the work of female artists too easy to assume never existed in the first place. 

Feed Your Head: Michelangelo Antonioni’s ZABRISKIE POINT

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point were written by Will Quade, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Zabriskie Point will screen on Friday, October 12 in our regular screening venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. This screening is presented with the support of the Center for European Studies, in conjunction with a Saturday, October 13 workshop entitled “Tracing the Impacts and Representations of 1968."

By Will Quade

Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960s output made him the preeminent scholar of modern alienation, but the beginning of Zabriskie Point strikes one as immediately different from his previous explorations. The camera darts from face to face in violent swish pans and close-ups as an eerie patter of drums and whispered vocals (Pink Floyd’s “Heart Beat, Pig Meat”) fill the soundtrack but then are soon replaced by a cacophony of passionate, earnest young voices. Above the noise, real life Black Panther leader Kathleen Cleaver attempts to inform and organize a politically radical group of mostly white students. We are privy to snippets of speeches and grand questions (“What if you want to abolish sociology?”) but are frequently lost spatially in this cramped room as we scramble to hold on to something consistent amid the mess of raised hands and erratic volume. Slowly we are shown a slouching young man three times, our soon-to-be protagonist Mark (Mark Frechette), eyes glazed over at the incessant speechifying. Soon, he finally stands up to the group, announcing, “Well I’m willing to die too… But not of boredom.”

It’s quite clear from this statement and fly-on-the-wall opening that it is Antonioni himself who feels distanced among the most politically active participants of his new world. Along with other directors such as John Boorman and Jacques Demy, Antonioni was one of a cadre of European filmmakers to be given unprecedented freedom by a major studio (MGM) and used this to come to the west coast. After his commercial and critical smash Blow-Up (1966), Antonioni took his newfound countercultural status and bankability to Los Angeles to document the rising student rebellions happening in 1968. But unlike his polished and highly manicured first English language film, Zabriskie Point is rough, raw, and perfectly willing to embody the confusion and half-formed ideas of his two young leads.

Besides Mark, the film follows Daria (Daria Halprin), a flower child willing to secretary for some bread. Along the way her sometimes-boss Lee (Rod Taylor) becomes smitten and invites her to a real estate development in Phoenix. Contrasting with the crowded telephoto framings of Mark’s student meeting and subsequent riot and jail footage, Daria’s office building is photographed in the trademark cavernous lobbies and sharply defined offices of Antonioni’s previous films. As an enormous American flag billows quietly behind Lee’s upscale workstation, there’s nary a single diagonal to add any kind of further dimension to its image. In Antonioni’s most striking deletion of depth, Lee’s secretary is seen scrunched in the right fourth of the frame as she takes a message, seemingly crushed by an accordion-like wall that threatens to push her out of existence.

It doesn’t take long to see where Antonioni’s sympathies lay. Mark is forced to flee unfeeling authorities as we follow him from a violent encounter with police at a county jail to a murderous student demonstration. But beyond the cops that assault Mark, the sheer signage of the Los Angeles cityscape represents another type of oppression. Consistently dwarfed by ads for 7UP, airlines, or foodstuffs, Antonioni forces us to ride shotgun in filmed car rides spying on billboards, signposts, and painted advertising murals in all their gargantuan horror. It’s little wonder that Mark’s means of escape from the law and the America he so despises is to steal a small plane and ride joyfully above the cramped, commodified city set to Grateful Dead’s victorious “Dark Star”.

But after this midway point, Antonioni shifts his focus to the real estate firm Daria works for; here another altogether more sinister villain. We are forced to watch in quickly cut extreme close-ups a commercial for a future desert suburban paradise Lee is bankrolling posed entirely with dolls and models. If Los Angeles served as a current source of shameless capitalistic parasitism and political rut, the rape of the land and expansion of these literally hollow ideals prove to be the most insidious arms of American exploitation. In contrast, Daria and Mark flirt in the Arizona desert, fall in love, and begin a childlike tryst in the desolate Zabriskie Point, culminating in a playful, dusty orgy of young people (most of whom were members of Joseph Chaikin’s experimental Open Theater troupe). While Daria’s superiors would believe this land is empty and ripe for development, and Mark claims flatly, “It’s dead,” Antonioni and Daria view it with boundless life — even her proposed “killing game” is in fact an ever-growing list of all the living creatures inhabiting the severe landscape. In her eyes, the desert’s epic vistas are filled with scores of gyrating, exuberant lovers, presenting more of a utopian idyll than a freak sex romp. But it is exactly this type of innocence which cannot possibly last back in the real world.

With Antonioni fully investing us in Daria’s heart and mind, it’s only fitting that she guide us to the film’s shattering conclusion. Positioned precariously between the worlds of violent political protest and callous big business, we are implicated in her final choice and revelation. A suitably thundering finale provides an indoctrination of sorts that aligns the viewer completely with her experience. Amidst Pink Floyd’s narcotizing soft-loud “Come in Number 51 (Your Time Is Up)” and lengthened climactic imagery, what begins as pure metaphor soon evolves into something akin to the Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A galactic hole is ripped open in Daria’s mind and by the end we have been transformed — we have evolved. Antonioni is no longer merely observing and reporting with an outsider’s suspicion. He has distilled in us a true insurgent spirit. In each viewer, a new revolutionary is born.

The Power and Pain of Fassbinder's THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT

Thursday, September 20th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) were written by John Bennett, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Petra von Kant will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series of Fassbinder films on Sunday, September 23 at 2 p.m. This screening also serves as an appropriate prelude to our upcoming September 28 Madison Premiere of Nicolas Wackerbarth's Casting, a new movie about the pre-production process of a Petra von Kant remake.

By John Bennett

We have every reason to believe, at the beginning of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, that the titular character has commanding control over her life. A successful fashion designer, Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen, whose brilliance is hard to overstate) has just landed a coveted contract with Karstadt, a department store chain. She appears to be pals with American film director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. And she has recently left her husband, Frank, to whom she had formerly been devoted. She has her maid, the ethereally mute Marlene (Irm Hermann) do much of her designing legwork for her. When it comes to relationships, Petra seems well girded against the pain that they can cause. She notes to a friend that in relationships “you’re afraid of losing points” and that “people are made to need each other. But they haven’t learned to live with each other.” Not long thereafter, however, Petra meets Karin (Hanna Schygulla) a beautiful young model. Smitten, Petra initiates a relationship with Karin with the same crocodilian assurance with which she seems to conduct all of her business.

Things go south from there. A film about the destructive nature of power and submission in relationships, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant elides any display of happy times shared by Petra and Karin (if any were had at all). The film instead leaps forward in time to a point where things between the designer and the model have soured substantially, the former hopelessly in love with the latter, all veneer of control abandoned. The silent Marlene watches all the while, even as Petra’s orders for her become more spiteful and insulting.

In its original iteration, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was a stage play by Fassbinder that was first performed in 1971. The film retains an air of theatricality through its clearly defined three-act structure, its dramatic monologues, and its fixed bedroom setting. Yet despite all this, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant could hardly be called canned theater. Fassbinder explores Petra’s lair with a specifically cinematic visual resourcefulness, diluting the theatricality of the original text. Fassbinder uses close-ups to show snarling laughter and tear-streaked cheeks, images that are so crucial to the heart of the material that would have been difficult to communicate as effectively on stage.

Fassbinder also uses a camera to redirect focus, making characters’ reactions just as worthy of attention as their words. When Sidonie (Petra’s friend who first introduces her to Karin) first arrives at Petra’s apartment, the friends’ first moments of conversation are heard but barely seen through two windows, the second of which has venetian blinds drawn nearly all the way. The shot’s main subject is the silent Marlene, forlornly bowing her head so that her face is obscured by shadow as she presses a hand against the window. What’s more, the camera often places us on or close to Petra’s bed, heightening the feelings of frustration and inertia that are experienced by both Petra, crippled by her romantic longing, and Karin, who lounges on the bed with a discontented air of a cat whose owner won’t let it go nap somewhere by itself. In all these ways, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant captivates us without ever needing to let us leave its sole setting.

It’s true that the film isn’t the easiest watch, and there are no doubt countless people for whom the film’s painful romance may hit a little too close to home in one way or another. But can we also say that The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant offers kinds of pleasure as well? There are times when we all wish we could behave as badly as Petra during the film’s last act. When Sidonie arrives at Petra’s apartment with a birthday present, von Kant squeezes her glass of gin so hard that it explodes. Soon thereafter, she stomps on her tea set like Godzilla wearing Gaultier. The insults hurled by Petra at Karin, Marlene, and even her own family have a spitting, vituperative precision that one wishes were as easy to summon under certain circumstances as Petra makes it seem. At times, you can’t help but marvel at the devastating wit of some of the acrimonious rejoinders Fassbinder was able to dream up. When Karin prepares to walk out on Petra, the designer drunkenly muses: “I wonder why you didn’t work the streets from the beginning.” Alluding to Petra’s money and status, Karin replies, “It was less strenuous with you, darling.” Check mate. When Karin clinically and cuttingly tells Petra that “you thrive on suffering,” she might as well be addressing an audience that will gladly stay put until they witness just how far, fast, and hard Von Kant will fall—an audience that may simultaneously cheer the titular protagonist on as she sobs and barks invective and supplication, as she both downs and breaks glass after glass of gin.

If you’re not enough of a masochist to enjoy such emotional excess, than you could at least remain transfixed by the hellish splendor of the production design of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. von Kant’s white shag carpet—a kind of flooring perfect for gripping in besotted despair—runs all the way to the film’s most beautifully ludicrous piece of décor: a print Poussin’s “Midas and Bacchus,” whose characters seem to writhe in similar pleasure and agony as those of the film. A small menagerie of nude mannequins seems, like Marlene, to silently move and observe the film’s actions on their own volition. And then there are the costumes. Designer Maja Lemcke apparently did not work on any other film besides The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, but the film contains a career’s worth of beautifully insane dresses and wigs. Though there are many great looks to savor in the film, nothing can quite top the flamboyance of the outfits worn by Petra and Karin during their first evening together. Petra, nearly topless and draped with beads, looks like someone just rubbed a lamp to summon her. Karin, in a sultry Egyptian looking dress accessorized with metallic neck and arm bands, looks like Cleopatra from some angles and Barbarella from others. These may sound like knocks, but they’re not: they’re part of the over-the-top aesthetic that makes The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant a joy to watch, despite (or, for the Marlenes in the audience, in addition to the film’s challenging and perceptive ideas about the power and pain of relationships.

All That the Neighbors Allow: Todd Haynes's FAR FROM HEAVEN

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven (2002) was written by Pauline Lampert, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Far from Heaven will screen in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, September 21. Free admission!

By Pauline Lampert

The title sequence for Todd Haynes’ 2002 film, Far From Heaven, mirrors that of Douglas Sirk’s 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows to such an extent that one might assume the film that follows is a faithful remake of Sirk’s original masterpiece. While not identical, the rhythms and imagery of both sequences feature obvious similarities. They each have cameras craning down between tableaus of suburban pastoralism, replete with autumn leaves and quaint city squares, until they eventually rest on the facade of a single family home. The similarity in the films titles, announced in arresting 1950s-style-typeface, draw further comparisons and hint at the films’ parallel narrative trajectories. Both tell the story of a middle-aged housewife who falls in love with a man that the community deems unworthy, and is faced with either letting go of her chance at happiness or giving up her position in suburban paradise.

In All That Heaven Allows the feather-ruffling “forbidden love” is between a lonely widow, Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), and her strapping young gardener, Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson). Far From Heaven, on other hand, features an interracial romance between an unhappily married housewife, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), and her black gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). The premise bears enough resemblance that Far From Heaven is often understood as a “retelling” of All That Heaven Allows. However, that classification oversimplifies Haynes larger project. While Far From Heaven certainly pays homage to All That Heaven Allows, it does not just shoehorn a contemporary social issue into a readymade narrative structure. Rather, Far From Heaven adopts traits from a variety of melodramas, including the Max Ophüls drama The Reckless Moment (1949), and both Sirk's 1959 and John M. Stahl's 1934 versions of Imitation of Life, creating an amalgam of different conventions of the genre.

Prior to making Far From Heaven, Haynes was best known for his association with the New Queer Cinema movement of the late-1980s/90s. Haynes, who majored in semiotics in undergrad at Brown University, got his start in low-budget, experimental productions where he combined his interest in film and linguistics to explore the constructs of cinematic language. His first major work is Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) in which he reenacts the life and career of Karen Carpenter using a combination of documentary footage, miniatures, and Barbie Dolls. Given his background in D.I.Y. filmmaking techniques, Haynes might not seem the obvious choice to recreate the Technicolor splendor of a 1950s melodrama. However, he readily took to the formalism of the Sirkian style and proved the ideal person to bridge the gulf between the intellectualism of art cinema and the demonstrative emotional content of the so-called “weepie.”

While it may not be obvious upon first glance, roots of Far From Heaven can be found in some of Haynes’ earliest work. The bricolage style of Haynes’ Superstar is worlds away from the gloss and glamour of Far From Heaven’s Hollywood production, but the aim of both projects is very similar: to create entirely manufactured worlds, and to use the artifice as a means of exploring the genuine emotionalism of the films’ themes.

In a 2002 interview with Indiewire, Haynes discusses his fondness for creating these erzatz spaces as means of exploring the emotional terrain of his characters. He says the cinematic language of the Sirkian melodrama “embodies more potential for emotional feeling than anything that mimics what we think of as reality.” In Haynes’ hands, Far From Heaven becomes a study of surfaces and the way that the artificial sonic and visual textures of melodramas are able to convey the interiority of the characters. All the formal elements of the film, including the Elmer Bernstein score, and the brightly colored lighting, work in unison to create a bold expressive palate. For every scene, Haynes and his cinematographer Ed Lachman designed color charts that were specifically calibrated to convey the emotional tenor of the moment.  

One of the primary and most obvious aspects of the filmic language that Haynes is manipulating is the dialogue. The script makes unironic use of 1950s slang and shorthand, and the actors perform in such a way to augment the mannerisms of their performances. Julianne Moore doesn’t so much speak her lines, but intone them—delivering them in a cheerful sing-songy rhythm which both recreates the vocal patterns of the era and disguises the reserves of frustration and sadness at the core of her character.

Despite the obvious artifice of the form, Haynes doesn’t provide any emotional remove. The audience is asked to accept the outdated mode of filmmaking, and to let the expressivity of the form work its magic. The result is a compounding of the resonance of every aspect of drama. We are made extra uneasy at the very obvious power-imbalance between the wealthy white figures in the movie and their limited interactions with people of color. This is made particularly apparent in scenes between Cathy and her maid (future Oscar winner, Viola Davis), which is marked by a stilted politeness, despite their desires for a genuine connection.The stylization also serves to underscore when things are amiss in Cathy’s world. For instance, there is a deliberate, but subtle, break from the Production Code milieu when, during the first third of the movie, Cathy’s husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) drops an “f-bomb.” This moment of emotional violence is made all the more shocking by its fracturing of established dialogue patterns.

But of course the artifice’s primary function is to heighten the romantic drama between Cathy and Raymond--this is a melodrama, after all. The experiment at the heart of Far From Heaven shows that while the oppressive social forces at play may alter and shift, the underlying emotions of forbidden romance will always resonate. With this project, Haynes proved that postmodern pastiche can be just as heart-wrenching as any 1950s Hollywood film, showing once and for all that the road to heaven is fraught for everyone, of every generation, and audiences who care to accompany these characters on their journeys would do well to pack a hanky.

Fassbinder's Spin on Sirk: ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL

Thursday, September 13th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst Essen Seele Auf, 1973) was written by John Bennett, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Fear Eats the Soul will screen at 2 p.m. on Sunday, September 16 in the Chazen Museum of Art as part of our Fassbinder series and also as the middle film in an unofficial trilogy beginning with Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (screening September 15) and concluding with Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven (screening September 21).

By John Bennett

The blunt, philosophical statements that abound in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder might lead one to believe that the German director could have been the world’s most humorously pessimistic fortune cookie writer. Among the titles that sound like sad advice—Love Is Colder Than Death, Beware of a Holy Whore, etc.—Ali: Fear Eats the Soul stands out as one of the most notable. As if “fear eats the soul” might be misconstrued as too cheery, Fassbinder begins his 1974 film with another melancholy admonishment that could have easily served as a title of another one of his wonderfully bonkers feel-bad movies: “happiness is not always fun.” With these two simple, sad statements, Fassbinder begins his simple, sad film about Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira), an older cleaning lady from Munich who begins a deeply emotional affair with Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a strapping migrant laborer from Morocco. As the two initiate their passionate affair, they must face the adversarial forces of Ali’s demanding and demeaning job, Emmi’s selfish children, and, most stingingly, the unconcealed racism and condescension of Emmi’s neighbors and coworkers.

In both story and style, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul owes a great deal to the excessive melodramas of Douglas Sirk—specifically Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows (1955), in which an older woman begins an affair with a younger man in an uptight and gossipy American town. Fassbinder more or less grafted this plot template onto Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, making the heroine older, the hero a foreigner, the neighbors nastier, and the children lazier and stupider. Fassbinder drew not only from the story of Sirk’s film, but also its mise-en-scène. In a 1971 article extolling the virtues of Sirk’s films, Fassbinder wrote that Sirk made films “with people, with light, with flowers, with mirrors, with blood, with all these crazy things that make it worthwhile.” Fassbinder populates his frames with similarly ostentatious imagery. Brightly colored costumes with elaborate designs burst at the neckline with severe collars, not unlike the costumes Dorothy Malone wore in Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1957). Like Sirk, Fassbinder lights his actors in a bright, confrontational way that leaves no flicker of affect unobserved and in a way that casts shadows of stair railings and window grates in large decorative patterns on walls.

Yet Fassbinder takes care to put his own spin on this style of mise-en-scène as well. Where Sirk uses movement of both camera and subject, Fassbinder seems to value stillness. Emmi’s gossipy neighbors or lunching coworkers adorn stairways and halls with the frozenness of statues. A similar stillness pervades long shots that observe and frame characters through doorways. The film’s close-ups linger on expressions, frozen with emotion, for several seconds before a character begins to speak. Sirk gave full stylistic voice to his characters emotional lives. In Ali, Fassbinder gives his images and story a Sirkian intensity, but arrests the fluidity of Sirk’s style, making the passions of the film simmer in a frustrated slow burn.

In addition to being an intellectual melodrama, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a film that is interested in both the immigrant experience in Germany as well as German xenophobia. This was not the first time Fassbinder had addressed this issue on the screen. In his second feature, Katzelmacher (1969), the director stepped in front of the lens to play a Greek migrant worker who faces harassment at the hands of young, listless Münchner. As is baldly apparent in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, many German characters openly harbor viciously racist attitudes towards African immigrants. The film also doesn’t shy away from the systemic disadvantages that immigrants face. When Ali is rushed to the hospital with a stomach ulcer, a doctor with the bedside manner of an undertaker informs Emmi that many migrant workers develop them due to the stress of their working conditions and that Ali will be back in the hospital before long.

These moments of xenophobia are plainly expressed by the film, but a closer look forces us to ask a more uncomfortable question: just how enlightened is Emmi? Though it is alluring to accept a somewhat pat interpretation of the film in which Emmi is a simple yet benevolent older woman, her statements about the Nazi regime deserve more scrutiny. During her first meeting with Ali, Emmi alludes to her own stint as a member of the Nazi party. Though she does make the membership sound as if it were compulsory, she nevertheless talks about the time with not a small hint of nostalgia. Later, she takes Ali to a restaurant whose sole virtue for her seems to be that it was a place where Hitler used to go to eat. More blatantly, Emmi begins bossing Ali around and showing him off as a physical specimen once she regains favor with her coworkers who had previously shunned her over the romance. These details should be taken into consideration along with Emmi’s apparent comfort around Ali and his friends in our ultimate estimation of the character.

On the macrocosmic level, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul deals with the social world of Germany in the 1970s. On a more intimate level, the social world of Fassbinder and his stable of skilled actors bleeds into the film as well. As Fassbinder said in a 1974 interview about the film: “at some point films have to stop being films.” Brigitte Mira had, in real life, been in a relationship with a much younger man during the making of the film. Fassbinder himself had a fairly tumultuous relationship with El Hedi ben Salem. The director shows up in the film as the beer-swilling louse husband of Krista, Emmi’s daughter—a role played by the versatile Irm Hermann, with whom Fassbinder had lived for a period of time. If so much of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul feels true to life despite its florid, stilted stylization, it may be because the film is true to life on scales both vast and intimate.

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