An Early Film Role for BUG Star Michael Shannon

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

by Jim Healy

In his memoir, The Friedkin Connection, Oscar-winning film director William Friedkin heaps praise on the leading man of his 2006 creepfest, Bug. Before he turned Tracy Letts's play into a movie, Friedkin had seen Shannon play the deeply paranoid, cocaine-fueled Peter in an off-Broadway production. Though he faced pressure to cast only big-name stars in the film version, Friedkin did everything he could to retain Shannon as Peter, a role originated by Shannon in a 1996 London stage production: "I've never known an actor more focused, dedicated, or capable of reaching the outer ranges of human behavior." You can see Bug, projected from a 35mm print, on Friday, October 3 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

Though the intense and always memorable Shannon had been in several films (like Pearl Harbor and Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) and television shows before Bug made its premiere at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, Friedkin's film led to his being cast in many more high-profile projects, including an Oscar-nominated turn in Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road and leading roles in other films directed by auteurs such as Werner Herzog, Jeff Nichols, David Koepp, and Ramin Bahrani. Many will recognize him as General Zod from 2013's summer Superman blockbuster, Man of Steel and as Nelson van Alden on HBO's Boardwalk Empire.

Michael Shannon has been an acquaintance of mine since the mid-1990s when he was a Chicago theater actor. I met him through my actor-screenwriter brother Pat, who later appeared with Shannon in author David Hauptschein's almost unbearably tense play The Persecution of Arnold Petch. Produced by A Red Orchid Theater, a Chicago troupe which Shannon co-founded, Arnold Petch was a dry run for Peter in Bug: the title character is a paranoiac living in a squalid studio apartment who later resorts to violence against his "persecutors".

After they both appeared in Pearl Harbor, Pat embarked on directing his first short film, Mullitt (2001), and he approached Michael to play the duplicitous roommate/best friend of Earl Lippy, the main character played by Pat. In another echo of Bug, Shannon's character is a frantic user of drugs (in Mullit's case, the trendy crack) and a highly volatile young man. I was around for about 75% of the filming of Mullitt, and, like Friedkin, I was impressed by Michael's intensity and devotion and preparedness. Always quiet and observant off-camera, he turned on a volcano of emotions as soon as the film was rolling and I was truly in awe of his abilitiles while I witnessed him destroying a chair in a crack-addled frenzy, covering his otherwise naked body in cottage cheese, and breaking down at the moment his dreams of riches (and more crack) evaporate.

You can see Mullitt, in its entirety, here:

 

Mullitt from Three Eyed Bros on Vimeo.

That's yours truly as the mouth-breathing nerd flunky (the other flunky is Harmony and Me writer-director Bob Byington). If Michael Shannon's final monologue seems familiar, that's because the same words are spoken by Luis Guzman's character when he similarly betrays Al Pacino at the end of Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way (1993). Many years later, in David Koepp's Premium Rush (2012), Shannon's unforgettable villain refers to several characters as "Papi". Reliable sources tell me this was Shannon's improvisation - a nod, I'd like to believe, to Mullitt. Coincidentally, the screenplay for Carlito's Way was written by David Koepp, but Guzman's lines about "Sometime it bes' that way" are themselves lifted, with credit, from one of the Edwin Torres novels on which De Palma's film is based.

UW MADISON'S MAUREEN ROGERS ON 'MS. 45' AND THE RAPE AND REVENGE MOVIE

Sunday, September 28th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 were written by UW Madison's Maureen Rogers, Ph.D candidate and Teaching Assistant in the Department of Communication Arts. Ms. 45 screens as the Cinematheque's first 'Marquee Monday' for the Fall 2014 season at the Marquee Theater at Union South on Monday, September 29, at 7 p.m.

Ms. 45 and the Rape and Revenge Film

by Maureen Rogers

Ms. 45 (1981) marks Abel Ferrara's third directorial feature and third collaboration with screenwriter Nicholas St. John. Since its release, Ms. 45's melange of gore and low-budget stylization, set in gritty pre-Giuliani New York, has made the film a favorite among fans of cult and exploitation cinema.

Ms. 45 stars the 18-year-old Zoe Lund as Thana, a mute seamstress working for a two-bit fashion designer (played by a delightfully smarmy Albert Sinkys) in the Manhattan Garment District. (Lund would go on to collaborate with Ferrara in writing 1992's Bad Lieutenant.) Returning from work one day, Thana is brutally assaulted and raped twice in a span of mere hours. Traumatized and enraged, Thana doles out revenge on her assailants and, as the film proceeds, on the unrelenting array of sexual predators that populate Ferrara's early-1980s downtown Manhattan.

At a brisk 84 minutes, Ms. 45 is quickly plotted and rarely drags. Given the expressive limitations of the Thana character, Lund offers a moving and dynamic performance with impressive range conveyed largely through facial expression. The film also benefits from interesting sound design and music that ranges from expressive use of a tenor sax (a likely influence on Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill) to synth music more characteristic of the period and genre.

Ms. 45 is also among the most pared down examples of the rape and revenge film, a subgenre of the action revenge genre. Most rape and revenge films involve a similar set of situations and events that include extended scenes of the female protagonist's suffering. The protagonist typically survives the sexual assault(s), and the remainder of the narrative is spent detailing her plotting to kill the perpetrator(s) and finally achieving her revenge. There are a few common variations to this formula; for instance, in some rape and revenge films, as in the Japanese film Lady Snowblood (1973) and Death Wish (1974), family members seek vengeance on behalf of the female victim who is unable to carry out revenge herself. Many rape and revenge films present both the sexual assaults and the acts of revenge as moments of hyperviolent, sexualized spectacle and titillation.

It's worth noting that the rape and revenge plot has been used in a variety of budget levels and production contexts; higher-budget examples include Lipstick (1976), Wild Things (1998), and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo novel and film adaptations. However, in common parlance, the rape and revenge film is almost exclusively associated with a low-budget, exploitation mode of filmmaking. As such, 1970s and 1980s rape and revenge films, such as I Spit On Your Grave (1978), the Swedish sexploitation film Thriller: A Cruel Picture (aka They Call Her One Eye, 1973), and Ms. 45, are often considered classics of the subgenre. Indeed, in Ms. 45, Ferrara appears to draw significantly from Thriller: A Cruel Picture. Like Thana, Madeleine, the female protagonist in Thriller, is also mute, and there are substantial similarities in sound design and costume.

Ms. 45 is grisly at times and, at other times, playfully vengeful, particularly as Thana begins to fully inhabit her new persona as a killer. Indeed, the ambiguous moral valence of Ms. 45 and other rape and revenge films has been a topic of considerable controversy. On the one hand, some critics and commentators have understood films such as Ms. 45 as tales of female empowerment and patriarchal critique. On the other hand, the rape scenes in these films occupy a good deal of screen time and often depict the sadistic violence of the story in a highly sexualized, often troubling fashion. For some viewers, Thana's inability to speak might further mitigate a reading of Ms. 45 as feminist or politically transgressive, while the film's climax and Thana's fate further muddies the film's politics. Whichever way you understand it, Ms. 45 is a disturbing, entertaining, and controversial film.

UW MADISON STUDENT BLAKE DAVENPORT ON 'YOUNG AND INNOCENT' AND OUR HITCHCOCK SERIES

Thursday, September 25th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy
YOUNG AND INNOCENT

This essay on the Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen's ongoing Alfred Hitchcock series and this weekend's film, Young and Innocent, was written by UW Madison undergraduate student Blake Davenport. Young and Innocent screens in a 35mm print on Sunday, September 28 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art.

Young and Naïve: Getting to Know Hitchcock
By Blake Davenport

Upon entering my senior (yikes) year as communications major in the glorious film/radio/television track, one could say that I had a pretty “been there done that” attitude towards my studies. Classic Hollywood films? Done. Russian silent films? I’ve written some papers.

In any case, whilst weeding through the bevy of communications courses during the delightful process of schedule making, I just wasn’t finding a whole lot from which to take inspiration. Sure it would be great to take film from 1970s onward, but after a full semester of silent and classic films, I just wasn’t quite ready to leap over to a whole new era. At what might have been the pinnacle of my despair, I arrived at the bottom of the list and noticed a special topics class entitled The Films of Hitchcock.

“Hitchcock movies eh?” I pondered aloud while stuffing my face with whatever candy was lying around my apartment at the time (Sidenote: always keep candy in your home you’ll appreciate it and so will your guests). Although I was marginally familiar with “the classics” – Vertigo, The Birds and so on, I suddenly realized that there was a large absence in my filmic knowledge in the shape of a distinctive bald filmmaker. Determined to wrong this personal injustice, I fervently clicked on the enroll button and vowed that by the end of my fall semester I would become a Hitchcock EXPERT...or die trying.

Cut to 3 weeks into the new semester, and I now realize at how silly the full completion of this notion now seems. One can almost hear Norman Bates chuckling to himself as he stuffs birds in his parlor. Although strides are being made towards full Hitchcockian mastery, the challenge of grasping the intricacies and evolution of Hitchcock’s films turned out to be far more daunting than I had imagined. Quite literally, this is a director who hallmarked the element of suspense in film, while simultaneously carving out a distinctive voice that almost demands a full examination of his filmography.

Luckily for myself and any other Madison film buffs looking to sharpen up on Hitch knowledge, the UW Cinematheque has expanded their ever popular Hitchcock series into the fall semester, screening his works almost every Sunday from September to December at the Chazen Museum of Art. Presenting films and archival material spanning from Hitch’s early British career to the titular Hollywood era, the series offers a rare treat to cinephiles in exhibiting the material in original 35mm prints.

Kicking off on Septemebr 14, the series has already treated viewers to a pair of quite tonally different Hitchcock films, the romantic thriller Suspicion (1941) and a film from the height of his British career Sabotage (1936).  Suspicion, starring Joan Fontaine and the ever affable Cary Grant, transports viewers into the psyche of an unstable marriage, as Fontaine’s wealthy socialite Lina is swept away by smooth talking Jonny who may or may not be who he says he is. Although it does play a bit melodramatic at times, the leads turn in a pair of excellent performances, most notably Fontaine, who received the only performance Academy Award ever for a Hitchcock film. In sharp contrast, Sabotage starring Sylvia Sidney and Oskar Homolka, ramps up the danger in classic British Hitch style, as Homolka’s Mr. Verloc finds himself the subject of a police investigation for his role in a terrorist organization. 

Although there is much more that one can say about the above-mentioned titles, I thought it might be advantageous for us to switch gears and delve a little deeper into the 1937 caper Young and Innocent in anticipation of it’s screening this coming Sunday. In almost blatantly obvious fashion, the story sticks to Hitchcock’s old standby theme of “the wrongly accused man”as Derrick de Marney’s character, Robert, stands accused of murdering an actress he was having an affair with, after being seen running away from the body when he was really trying to get help. Complicating the action further is a belt from a missing raincoat washing up next to the strangled actress (in classic Hitch fashion he can’t find his damn raincoat), and a sum of 1200 pounds left in her will to the young actor. In a panic, Derrick escapes the courthouse and enlists the help of the constable’s young daughter (Nova Pilbeam) who becomes an accomplice in his plight to find his stolen coat and clear his name.

In any other director’s hands, Young and Innocent could easily have turned into a straightforward cat and mouse story, as the plot itself is very quick. Thankfully we have Hitchcock who, as master of tight plotting, incorporates a host of highly stylized scenes that elevate the suspense and danger of the film to a whole new level. The children’s party scene largely displays the classic Hitchcock irony as Robert and Erica have to literally duck out of the party during a game of blind-mans bluff in order to evade capture. Additionally, during the ever suspenseful chase episode later on, the couple narrowly avoids capture and death, speeding past a train just as it is about to pass in a scene that echoes Hitchcock’s later action scenes in films such as North by Northwest.

Perhaps the most stunning revelation, and one that makes the film worth seeing alone, occurs in the final unveiling of the antagonist. In a last ditch effort to Robert’s name, Erica and a tramp who knows the man who stole Robert’s coat by his signature eye twitch, attempt to go to the Grand Hotel in order to locate him. In a single masterful shot utilizing cranes and dollies, Hitchcock identifies the villain to the audience, while holding the suspense until the very last minute. Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that the ending provides a satisfying (and disturbing) textbook Hitchcock resolution that personally has me hungry for next weeks pick, Lifeboat.

 

UW CINEMATHEQUE'S AMANDA MCQUEEN ON EALING STUDIOS & 'THE LADYKILLERS'

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy
THE LADYKILLERS

This essay on the legendary Ealing Studios and the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers, was written by UW Cinematheque's Project Assistant and UW Madison PhD candidate Amanda McQueen. The Ladykillers will screen in 4070 Vilas Hall on Saturday, September 27 at 7 p.m. The screening concludes our series "Alec Guinness: Centennial for a Comic Genius".

The Ladykillers: The Twisted Last Hurrah of Ealing Comedy

By Amanda McQueen

The Ladykillers is the last of a group of nine films commonly referred to as the Ealing comedies. Along with Hue and Cry (1947), Passport to Pimlico (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Whisky Galore! (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Titfield Thunderbolt (1952) and The Maggie (1954), The Ladykillers has become an exemplar of Ealing Studios' output and part of the canon of classic British cinema.

Michael Balcon, who became head of production at Ealing Studios in 1938, was a strong advocate for the development of a thriving British film industry. He was divisively outspoken about legislative and financial actions that could curtail Hollywood's box office dominance, and he frequently attacked British filmmakers, like Alfred Hitchcock, who left for America, and British studios, like the vertically integrated Rank Organization, that used big-budget films with international stars to try and break into foreign markets. Balcon's criticisms are complicated somewhat by the fact that Ealing films - particularly the comedies - were quite successful internationally, and by the fact that, from 1944 to 1955, Rank actually financed and distributed Ealing productions. Nevertheless, Balcon wanted Ealing to be "The Studio for Good British Films," and this was reflected in the company's work methods and overall philosophy.

Filmmaking facilities were first built in the London borough of Ealing in 1902, but it wasn't until Balcon took over, following stints as head of production at Gainsborough, Gaumont British, and MGM-British, that Ealing Studios became a production company in its own right. In reaction to his unpleasant experience at MGM, Balcon organized Ealing as an intimate, familial company, adopting the motto "The Studio with the Team Spirit." By 1942, he had assembled a stable group of writers, producers, and directors who collaborated at round table discussions (or over a pint in the pub across the road) but who were also encouraged to run with their individual ideas. Ealing released only four to seven films a year, and they were modestly budgeted so that they could recoup their costs solely from the domestic market.

Ealing's approach to filmmaking was strongly influenced by the documentaries of John Grierson's GPO Film Unit, which focused on British institutions. In fact, in 1940, after an unsuccessful attempt to wrest control of the GPO Film Unit from the Ministry of Information, Balcon hired away two of its filmmakers, Harry Watt and Alberto Cavalcanti. Watt became one of Ealing's core directors, and Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well? (1942) is a brilliant, wryly subversive example of the studio's interest in "projecting Britain and the British character." Moreover, Ealing films tended to be more diverse than those of other companies; while films from other studios featured predominantly middle-class characters from London's West End, Ealing's often displayed a wider range of socio-economic classes and regional accents, emphasizing the importance of a strong British community.
 
By the early-1950s, the studio's greatest successes were comedies - particularly the nine films that have come to be known as the "Ealing comedies." These were the films that spurred imitators at other studios, helped bring Alec Guinness to fame, and left an indelible mark on British popular culture. Though a diverse set of films, the Ealing comedies are united by an interest in the loveably eccentric, the dreams of "little men," and a tension between modestly progressive values and the power of tradition. While some display Ealing's penchant for warm-hearted whimsy, others are more cynical and morally ambivalent. Indeed, it was comedy's ability to "do things that are too dangerous, or that a certain audience can't accept" that attracted director Alexander Mackendrick to projects like The Ladykillers.

The plot for The Ladykillers reportedly came to screenwriter William Rose in a dream, and is dark comedy at its best. A gang of criminals, headed by "Professor" Marcus (Alec Guinness), rent a room from the widowed, slightly dotty, Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson, in a BAFTA-winning performance). Posing as musicians, Marcus and his four companions (Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Danny Green, and Peter Sellers - who also supplies the voice of Mrs. Wilberforce's parrot) plan to use the old woman as a cover for a robbery, but when she discovers what they are up to, they decide to kill her. Mrs. Wilberforce proves difficult to dispatch, however, and in their attempts to do her in, the criminals eliminate themselves one by one, leaving the little old lady - a staple figure of Ealing films - with all the loot.

The Ladykillers was received domestically and abroad as a distinctly British picture, and many have interpreted it as an allegory of the conflict between progressive forces (the criminals, the Labour party) and obstinate resistance to change (Mrs. Wilberforce, the Conservative party) that the country experienced both politically and socially after World War II. Moreover, some have seen it - and many other Ealing films - as being reflexively about the studio itself.

By the mid-1950s, Ealing was struggling and its films seemed more reactionary and stale than they had in earlier years, particularly alongside the rise of Hammer horror films and the angry young men of kitchen sink realism. In 1955, the studio facilities were sold to the BBC - fitting, perhaps, given that much of the audience for Ealing films had been lost to television. Balcon returned to MGM, and made films under the Ealing name at the facilities at Elstree until 1957. The Ladykillers is thus often seen as Ealing comedy's "twisted last hurrah"; it was the last comedy Balcon made at Ealing Studios (excepting a Benny Hill film, a comedy of a different type), and some claim it is a farewell, both mocking and affectionate, not only to the quaint little Britain the company had frequently depicted, but also to the type of filmmaking in which the studio had specialized.

Ealing Studios is still active, and iconic British productions continue to be shot there - Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead (2004) and the "downstairs" scenes in Downton Abbey (2010 - present), for example. And so, perhaps in some small way, the Ealing tradition, like Mrs. Wilberforce, carries resolutely on.

KATHERINE QUANZ ON DAVID CRONENBERG

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy
DEAD RINGERS

This essay on the work of David Cronenberg was written by Katherine Quanz, a doctoral candidate in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her dissertation examines how government policy and technological innovation shaped Canadian post-production practices from 1968 to 2012.  Her other research investigates Canadian Aboriginal and experimental cinemas. Before attending graduate school, she worked as an assistant sound editor in a Toronto-based post-production facility.

David Cronenberg is considered to be one of Canada’s top directors and potentially one of the most influential filmmakers working today; however, at the beginning of his career, Cronenberg’s films were initially panned by critics. The critical attack on Cronenberg began after the release of his first mainstream film Shivers (1974), which was partly financed by the newly-formed Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC), a government-run investment bureau aimed at kick-starting the country's fiction film industry. The film, which features small parasites that drive victims into a sexual frenzy, became a box office success that generated revenue for the CFDC. However, like the parasites, the critics mercilessly attacked Shivers for being amoral and a cheap American horror knockoff. Robert Fulford, under the pseudonym Marshall Delaney, led the attack with his review “You Should Know How Bad This Film Is After All, You Paid for It.”  In an examination of Cronenberg’s place within Canadian cinema, scholar Bart Testa notes that “critics prophylactically placed the director beyond the pale of discussable Canadian cinema for almost a decade.”  Incidentally, the reviews of Cronenberg’s films supposedly led to his eviction because his landlady did not want to associate with a director of lurid films. (Cronenberg moved into a house down the street that he would later feature in his 1979 film The Brood).

The critical response to Cronenberg's films became more positive with the release of his special effects-driven Videodrome in 1983. Equally ambitious in both imagery and emotional resonance were The Fly (1986) and Dead Ringers (1988), each of which further cemented his place in both Canadian and horror film circles. Consequently, Cronenberg's conspicuous use of Toronto as the setting for all three of these films helped to win the adoration of critics and scholars who sought to identify the director as a uniquely Canadian auteur. According to William Beard, “Cronenberg's cinema is most ‘Canadian’ in its bleakness of Affekt, its overriding sense of defeat and powerlessness, its alienated dualism of nature against consciousness, its fearful cautiousness in the face of a hostile universe, and its powerful feelings of isolation and exclusion.”  Additionally, Cronenberg repeatedly worked with a predominantly Canadian crew that included Ron Sanders (editor), Carol Spier (art director), and Howard Shore (composer). As a consequence of his critical achievements and his dedication to remaining in the Canadian film industry, Cronenberg became a mentor for other Canadian directors like Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema, Don McKellar, and Vincenzo Natali.

All three of the Cronenberg films screening at the Cinematheque this fall demonstrate Cronenberg’s interest in combining the narrative ambiguities and production design of art cinema with the genre tropes of horror, science fiction, and melodrama. The first film of the series, Dead Ringers (screening September 25) was inspired by a headline published in the National Enquirer: "Twin Docs Found Dead in Posh Pad". Dead Ringers was the first of his films to receive wide spread Oscar buzz, yet despite the special effects and Jeremy Irons’ critically acclaimed performance as the twin gynecologists, the film failed to receive one nomination. When Irons won the Oscar for his role in Reversal of Fortune two years later, he nonetheless thanked Cronenberg in his speech, coyly explaining to the Academy, “some of you may understand why.”

The main character of the second film of the series, 1983’s Videodrome (screening October 23), is loosely based on Moses Znaimer, co-founder of CityTV and a Toronto resident who notoriously broadcasted baby blue films (soft core pornography) to Canadian television sets in the 1970s. The film follows Max Renn (James Woods) the manager of the fictional CivicTV who becomes obsessed with isolating a television signal that appears to contain images of highly violent, sexual acts. This film is Cronenberg’s last monaural film, and there are some great sonic moments in the film, especially during key special effects scenes. Howard Shore’s score for this film complements the other sounds and the film’s emphasis on technology, as it was primarily composed on synclavier synthesizer and uses only minimal orchestral instruments.

For the final film of the series, 1999’s eXistenZ (screening November 20) Cronenberg drew inspiration from the death threats against author Salman Rushdie for the plot of the film. The story follows game designer Allegra Geller through multiple realities as she fights against terrorists on a mission to assassinate her. Released mere weeks after The Matrix in 1999, eXistenZ failed to produce big returns at the box office, earning less than $3 million on a $15 million production budget. eXistenZ was a major critical success, despite being a commercial bomb, the exact opposite reaction to the release of Shivers.

Much of the research for this piece was conducted at the TIFF Film Reference Library using the main collection and the David Cronenberg Archive, courtesy of TIFF’s Film Reference Library - Special Collections. Special thanks to the staff of the TFRL.

UW CINEMATHEQUE'S BEN REISER ON 'TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.'

Monday, September 22nd, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy
Wm. Friedkin & cast of TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985)

This essay on William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. was written by the UW Cinematheque's Ben Reiser. To Live and Die in L.A. will screen on Friday, September 26, 2015 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

To Relive and Die in L.A.

By Ben Reiser

UW Cinematheque offers us the chance to revisit films we may have seen at other times in our lives, affording us the opportunity to see how our memory of these films compares to the reality of how they play out onscreen for us in our present day. In some cases, we may have previously seen a film only on TV, or at a drive-in while on a hot date, or on opening night with no idea what to expect. When I was eight years old, my grandparents took me to see The Towering Inferno, and my grandmother spent half of the first twenty-five minutes putting her hand over my eyes to shield me from any possible trauma, then a guy emerged, on fire, from an elevator, and we left. Four years ago my nine-year old daughter and I started watching that same movie on TV and she turned to me after a half hour to say, “This is boring” and left the room.

In any case, we bring something different to the table every time we watch a movie. No two viewings are ever quite the same, and revisiting a film tells us more about both the film and ourselves. Where we are in our lives affects what we are able to appreciate and understand when it comes to this art form.

What I brought to my first viewing of To Live and Die in L.A. was mostly Wang Chung. Sure, I knew who William Friedkin was, I’d seen (most of) The French Connection and (some of) The Exorcist on television, but if anyone had bothered to ask me why I was in Brooklyn New York’s Kingsway theater on the film’s opening weekend in 1985, I would have said (in the words of Mickey Rourke’s character, “Boogie”, at the beginning of Diner), “I’m only here because I appreciate the fine music.”

I’d first encountered Wang (then Huang) Chung a few years earlier while combing the racks of Titus Oaks, a used record store on Avenue U.  I was intrigued by the album cover, which looked like an ornate Chinese restaurant menu.

I gambled $3.99 brought it home and immediately fell in love with a song called “Hold Back The Tears.” Two albums later I was still a fan, and when I found out the band had scored To Live and Die in L.A., I went out and bought the soundtrack album, and made plans to check out the movie.

My memories of that first viewing center on my enjoyment of the prominent role the score played in the film, the unsettlingly intense vibe of many of the performances, and the sense that the narrative was careening out of control at several key points in the movie. Every time I thought I had a handle on where the story was going, the plot took a jarring and nerve-wracking turn.

Looking back I realize it was my first encounter with many actors who are now household names. For instance, it was the first time I took notice of John Turturro, who would soon cement his status as an actor of uncommon force in The Color of Money. William Petersen, who stars as Secret Service agent, Richard Chance, would go on to complete an impressive leading man one-two punch the next year with his turn as Will Graham in Michael Mann’s Manhunter before fading into obscurity for over a decade (consider that not one but both of TV’s biggest CSI franchises were built around Friedkin stars who hadn’t been visible in the years leading up to their CSI star turns: Petersen and David  Caruso, the star of Friedkin’s Jade,). Then, of course, there’s Willem Dafoe, whom I’d erased from my memory along with the rest of  Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire only to have him freak me out all over again in To Live and Die

Watching the film again this week it will be impossible for me to see it without the knowledge of these actors and all the roles they’ve inhabited in the ensuing years. This knowledge will in some way lessen the impact of their performances (now I know they are “only” actors) while at the same time perhaps deepen my appreciation of these actors who arrived on screen so rivetingly and fully formed.

What I bring to the table this week is the fact that I haven’t listened to a Wang Chung album in years, and I have a nagging fear that perhaps their score has not aged well, and might come off as more Hans Zimmer and less Tangerine Dream. I also bring with me a relatively newfound appreciation of Friedkin as a director, whose career resurgence has taken the form of lean, mean adaptations of Bug and Killer Joe and a recent restoration and Blu-ray release of his unjustly neglected Sorcerer.

And of course, those of us who saw Cinematheque’s screening of The French Connection a few weeks ago will be tempted to read To Live and Die in L.A. as a companion piece, a mirror, a re-telling of that earlier film, a comparative exploration of the similarities and differences between crime and punishment and law and order in the two cities that define our country’s coasts.

Certainly To Live and Die in L.A. invites these comparisons. For the first hour the film follows virtually the same structure as French Connection, and at the very least, I’d suggest that Friedkin does this deliberately if for no other reason than to further disorient us when things stop following the trajectory of his earlier masterpiece. Suddenly our roadmap disintegrates and as an audience we break into a collective cold sweat, as unsure of where to rest our allegiances as John Pankow’s character John Vucovich (Pankow’s deliciously awkward fish-out-of-water turn as Petersen’s partner in justice and crime is one of the more entertaining aspects of the film).

Disorientation and forward momentum are hallmarks of many great thrillers; the trick being to get us so caught up in both fearing for our protagonist’s well being while at the same time trying to unravel what we are witnessing that we don’t have time to start questioning the interior logic of the piece. Repeated viewings are always tough on a thriller, a genre where logic is often sacrificed for the sake of a fun ride, but some of the really good ones (and I’d argue that To Live and Die in L.A. is one of the really really good ones) have enough visceral action, clever twists, and bravura set pieces to counteract the scrutiny.

Repeated viewings of well-crafted films often unearth hidden layers, and in this respect, To Live and Die pays off big time. I’m loathe to offer any spoilers for those who will experience the film for the first time on Friday, but Friedkin gets off to a fast start in establishing a leitmotif of abruptness: The opening theme song stops suddenly, and there are two quick deaths. Scenes start and end quickly, and time elapses suddenly, without warning both within scenes and as transitions between scenes.

Mirroring and twinning are everywhere, as one main character sets a self-portrait on fire and another jumps off a bridge without a safety net. Suffice to say there is significance in all of these things that are readily apparent only with repeated viewings. These moments and other seemingly random images, as well as subtle hints of androgyny and homoeroticism are all part of a deliberate and methodical structure and style that Friedkin, collaborating with co-screenwriter Gerald Petievich and veteran cinematographer Robby Muller, has constructed for our viewing and re-viewing pleasure.

UW'S ANDREW ZOLIDES ON 'THE CAPTAIN'S PARADISE'

Friday, September 12th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Anthony Kimmin's 1953 film The Captain's Paradise were written by UW Madison Graduate Student and Teaching Assistant Andrew Zolides. The Captain's Paradise will screen in a 35mm print as part of our series "Alec Guinness: Centennial for a Comic Genius" on Saturday, September 13, at 7 p.m. in 4070 Vilas Hall.

My Grandfather’s Paradise
By Andrew Zolides

Last year, my 79-year old grandmother became quite reflective on her past. Often without prompting, she clearly and articulately began recalling memories from her childhood, her teenage years, and her time raising my father, uncle, and aunt. Interested in learning more and realizing this may be our last chance, my family has started pushing her for stories and tidbits, both mundane and exceptional. Despite her age, her mind seems as sharp as ever, detailing events as far back as the 1939 New York World’s Fair, as well as the double-feature pictures her older brother would take her to in Astoria every week.

All the memories were not positive, of course, particularly as she revealed to us never-before-discussed minutiae of the dissolution of her marriage to her first husband, my late grandfather. My dad was only 16 when the two divorced, after it was revealed that my grandfather had started another family with a younger woman; she was a secretary from work, just to solidify the old stereotype.

These were all facts we knew, but during my grandmother’s recent reflections a minor detail about my grandfather’s favorite film changed the way we all viewed this man, who had only passed the year before. One night, she remembered my grandfather particularly liking a certain “Alec Guinness picture” enough to see it multiple times, which was rare for the man. While my grandmother couldn’t recall all the details, she believed Guinness played a sailor or ship captain and that the film took place in Europe. This was enough for me to deduce that the film in question was 1953’s The Captain’s Paradise, a film that came out when my grandfather was an impressionable 23-year old man considering marriage and family. Three years after the film’s release, he would marry my grandmother and set his goals in motion.

Captain Henry St. James (Alec Guinness) has it all figured out. As he tells his Chief Officer Carlos Ricco (Charles Goldner), “That, Ricco, is my solution to man’s happiness on Earth. Two happy women, each in their way perfect, and in between the company of men, the clash of intellects to stimulate the mind.” Putting aside the blatant sexism one uncovers when asking why neither of his two women could provide the intellect he required, St. James proves a reliable man to both his women. For wife Maud (Celia Johnson), he provides a sober, stable life filled with warm cocoa and a new vacuum cleaner. And for his lover Nita (Yvonne de Carlo), St. James provides the money and energy she needs to enjoy fancy restaurants, impromptu night swimming, and exotic lingerie.

Guinness plays Henry St. James as the classic con artist with a heart of gold. He lies, deceives, and plays every angle (including having his wife arrested to avoid being caught), yet his charm and humor win us over in the end. Of course much of this comes from Guinness’s natural charisma. It is difficult to imagine many other contemporary actors who could play such a scoundrel, yet make us like him all the same. St. James wishes for his women to be happy, but in the end this is ultimately in service to himself; later in the film, the comic juxtaposition of each woman desiring a life more like her unknown counterpart causes St. James great concern over how it will affect his “solution,” and if it will cause things to crumble around him.

Which brings me back to my grandfather. The Captain’s Paradise was not just his favorite movie; it was his guide to life. Guinness was able to win over not just the two women in the film, but the hearts and minds of the young men in the audience. My grandmother was Maud, the housewife and mother who kept the home and raised the children. Jane, the secretary with whom my grandfather had an affair and eventually started a second family, was Nita. Young, tall, and blonde, she was the socialite desiring furs and frivolity.

When my family gathered to watch The Captain’s Paradise for the first time, you might expect a somber realization of the personal parallels between my grandfather’s life and that of Henry St. James. Make no doubt; seeing the trials and successes of Guinness’ character certainly provided new insight into how we all viewed the family patriarch. The motivations for actions throughout his life seemed to become clearer, perhaps even understandable, in the right frame of reference.

We noted the similarities and the coincidences, the lines of dialogue from Alec Guinness that sounded near perfect to the way my grandfather would speak. But we also simply watched and enjoyed the film for what it was: a comedy of errors. The subject matter seemed far too serious for such a light tone; if any family could see that, it was mine. Yet there is something so appealing about watching Alec Guinness play the loving, calm husband and the fun-loving, jovial party-animal within mere minutes of each other. We laughed when Maud and Nita meet and as they verbally tip-toed around their shared ‘interest,’ feeling the suspense as they walked through the market. And we even let out a chuckle of relief as Captain St. James escaped certain death using, what else, a bribe.

The Captain’s Paradise is a reminder of the power of those ineffable qualities: charm, charisma, and quick wit. Guinness’s natural personality and talent shine through to help make a film about bigamy fun and light-hearted, not just in spite of the subject matter, but because of it. I would never recommend anyone follow Henry St. James’s “solution” to happiness, but that wouldn’t stop me recommending watching his attempts at fulfilling it play out.

AUSTIN WELLENS ON NOSTALGHIA

Monday, August 18th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes by UW Madison student Austin Wellens were distributed at our screenings of Andrei Tarkovsky's Nostalghia in January and August of this year.

Tarkovsky’s stated purpose in creating Nostalghia was “to make a film about Russian nostalgia – about that state of mind peculiar to our nation which affects Russians who are far from their native land,” and the window he gives us to peer through at this unique affliction is Andrei, the displaced Russian writer at the center of the film. Surrounded by postcard-worthy Italian scenery, he is alternatingly impassive and overwhelmed; in either case, his disconnection from everything around him is palpable, as he finds more of himself in in the centuries-dead Russian serf composer he’s researching than he can in the woman guiding him on his tour, or anything in the grandeur of the cathedrals he drifts through.

Tarkovsky’s camera glides and hovers through Andrei’s settings in long, gorgeous takes, the never ending Italian hallways and arches interrupted only by the gold and grain of Russian memories, the only instances which feel tangible, textile, and real. An all-encompassing atmosphere that, moment by moment, presses down onto the central character amplifies the weight of every deliberate motion. The air hangs heavy, broken by light and saturated with moist and chill. Every breath is oppressive. Water flows and falls at seemingly all times, keeping Andrei pinned with the cold and damp and allowing not a second’s respite from the waves of ancient and Italian architecture. Even his language has been taken from him. His Italian is stiff, uncomfortable and inexpressive; Russian poetry loses its song in a foreign tongue. When he does find a brief moment to shelter in some flooded ruins, waste himself on vodka and let his native speech flow, he is transformed. Yankovsky’s performance lights up, growing a kinetic dimension that dispels the gloom of Andrei’s separation for a brief period. And yet the world remains just outside, like a nightmare to be returned to after being startled awake.

Tarkovsky’s ability to stretch a second far beyond itself and to create space is total, and it crafts a film heavy with its character’s psyche and suffering through and beyond its final frame. Yet while Andrei is wholly consumed by this distance, there is some shimmering hope seen beyond and above through the eyes of Domenico the madman and Eugenia.

In Domenico, Andrei finds the only thing that can fascinate him. His life mangled by fascism, considered a lunatic by the society that surrounds him, he’s a man as removed from the moment as the Russian, but his concerns run far beyond “getting home,” back to where he was. He sees all around him the disconnected nature and distress of modern society, the overwhelming bustle and emptiness that Andrei finds in the postcard beauty of Italian chapels. While it is easy to view Andrei as a sort of authorial avatar for Tarkovsky, it is through Domenico that the director’s voice can be most directly heard. His demonstration of two drops of water making not two drops but one larger drop, of one plus one being one, pleads for wholeness on a universal scale, an appeal to retie the bonds holding present to past to future and restore humanity to a cold and distant society. Domenico shouts his pleas from statues, through the streets of Rome, gives all of himself in a desperate appeal to an impassive and unmoving audience. He cries for an apocalypse taking place before his eyes, incites people to revolt, to reconnect, and to reach for something deeper and higher than simple nationality or place.

This wholeness that Tarkovsky searches for is found rooted in women, in femininity, in Eugenia, and in sacred motherhood. Nostalghia is dedicated to his mother, the woman to whom he would compare all others in his life, and in her, or at least in the idea of her, the director finds the promise of completion that is needed to rescue humanity from itself. Sexuality is completely removed from the equation; the closest it comes is base and furious and, frankly, below the purpose of the film. Rather, Tarkovsky conflates women and femininity with the holy and the divine, with the source of our being that we’ve grown so far from. When Andrei dreams of home, it is of his wife, his mother and his sisters. In Italy, it’s just a man and his dog. Do not believe for a moment it is coincidental that the country he pines for is known as the Motherland. 

At the end of the film, it is Eugenia, not Domenico or Andrei, who speaks with god about the possibility of being saved. Tarkovsky extrapolates from motherhood, to nationhood, to the broadest sense of belonging imaginable. In this he creates a film that is deeply personal, unique and specific, but also operates on the largest and most universal level that art is capable of. And ultimately, he concludes with the greatest promise imaginable; that salvation is already here. We are surrounded by our redemption, even if we cannot see it.

The production of Nostalghia, which saw Tarkovsky leave the Soviet Union to work for only the second time in his life, came at a huge cost. In his notes following its completion, he confessed to feeling the stress of working so far from home, and in an unfamiliar language, writing “when I first saw all the material shot for the film I was startled to find it was a spectacle of unrelieved gloom…irrespective of my own specific theoretical intentions, the camera was obeying first and foremost my inner state during filming.” The tragic reflections of life and art don’t end there, though, as his Russian support was withdrawn halfway through filming, forcing him to draw on Italian resources to finish the picture and exiling him from his home. He would never again return to Russia. As he wrote, “How could I have imagined as I was making Nostalghia that the stifling sense of longing that fills the screen space of that film was to become my lot for the rest of my life; that from now until the end of my days I would bear the painful malady within myself?” - Austin Wellens

THE DISTRIBUTOR BEHIND 'JE T'AIME JE T'AIME'

Thursday, July 31st, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

Our recent screening of Alan Resnais’ rarely seen masterpiece, Je T’aime, Je T’aime (called "A magnificent film” by Manohla Dargis of The New York Times), was brought to you in part through the burgeoning film distributor Bleeding Light Film Group.

The founder of Bleeding Light, Brian Block is an Alumnus of the UW-Madison Communications Department. Brian kindly took the time to speak with us on his new company and his thoughts on the film. Here is a transcript of the Q&A.

How did you get started as a film distributor?
It grew out of a need to share films with people. The transition from doing it as a hobby to a business is really about the availability of films in certain formats and the responsibilities that come with that. Look at it this way, if I can't loan a friend a copy of JE T'AIME, JE T'AIME because it's not on DVD in the US, then I might as well strike a 35mm print and show it to as many people as possible.   
 
What is in the future for the Bleeding Light Film Group? What films are you trying to acquire next?
We don't have anything nailed down at the moment, but we are hoping to get weirder.

What are your thoughts on Je T’aime, Je T’aime?
It's a film I love. I tell people that it's about a time travel experiment gone wrong, forcing the protagonist to relive all the tragedies of his life over and over and over again. Response is typically, "I don't wanna see that - that's already my life." Exactly!

Do you know of anyone planning on releasing Je T'aime, Je T'aime on DVD in the near future such as Criterion Collection?
We're working on making a video version available in North America later this year - stay tuned for details.

When will be the next chance after our screening for folks to see the film?
The print is touring the US and Canada through the end of the year, so there are many opportunities to catch it on screen before it's finally released on home video. Our distribution partners at The Film Desk list all the Je T’aime Je T’aime play dates here: http://thefilmdesk.com/jetaimejetaime/.

(interview by Bianca Martin)

UW MADISON'S AUSTIN WELLENS ON 'RUSHMORE'

Friday, July 25th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Wes Anderson's Rushmore were written by Austin Wellens, UW, Madison student. Rushmore will screen at 9 p.m. on Friday, July 25, in the Marquee Theater at Union South.

While his first feature Bottle Rocket bears all the trappings that its director would come to be associated with, it was Rushmore that inaugurated the world of Wes Anderson as we’ve come to know it. Where his debut film feels a bit like a collision between the universe we all share and the one he envisions, its follow-up is more distinctly defined by its artifice (transparently foregrounded by the “acts and seasons” structure imposed on it). At the same time it shows a much deeper, personal connection between the art and the artist; the story of a kid struggling to belong to his prep school world is straight out of Anderson’s past in Houston, with the actual school he’d attended serving as Rushmore itself (they were filming in the building while the director’s ten year class reunion was taking place. Anderson failed to attend) and the high school his father had gone to doubling as the public school from later in the film. If the first film provides an introduction to the world of Wes Anderson, Rushmore is an invitation.

Inside, we find the characters of Max Fischer, Herman Blume, and Rosemary Cross, three people sharing the same ailment; loss. For Max, who is the closest Anderson has come to writing himself into his films, it’s the childhood loss of his mother. But more than that, it’s a loss of that childhood sense of everything fitting together, of having control over everything. In the face of his early childhood tragedy, Max tries to find something comparable in an adopted, premature adulthood, re-staging mature works like Serpico and Platoon as school plays and trying to consort with authority figures as equals.

But beyond constantly performing his idea of a grown-up, Max works to control the world around him with almost total indifference to its reality; he imposes a post-graduate year on his school, he orders piranhas from “his guy” in South America, and he alternatingly works to destroy and resurrect Latin as it suits his purposes. And as far as we can tell, he believes these fictions whole-heartedly. It’s as if by simply willing himself to be in command, he can convince everyone that he is. The one lie he can’t be forced to believe is the one he tells about his father working as a surgeon, rather than a barber.

This balance of would-be adult swagger and childish desperation is carefully struck by first time actor Jason Schwartzmann, who would go on to become one of Anderson’s many regulars. Hair swept back and eyes deadly serious behind oversized glasses, he embodies both the fear and want driving Max, and the sincere confidence that he surrounds it with (his drunken “Oh, R they?” impression of “grown-up” humor perfectly, hilariously marries the two). In giving the audience access to the raging bravado of his character without letting them forget his fragile sincerity, Schwartzmann’s performance lets the viewer cringe at and sometimes hate Max while at the same time wishing he could pull himself back together.

As it began one career, Rushmore marked the rebirth of another. As Herman Blume, Max Fischer’s friend and adversary, Bill Murray found a second life as an actor. Anderson had the famously reclusive Murray in mind for the part, and sent him the script with little hope that he’d even read it; he not only read and loved it, but agreed to be paid union minimums to accommodate the film’s meager budget (a story of his writing the director a personal check worth more than his sum payment to fund a helicopter shot the studio wouldn’t cover is not apocryphal).

Murray’s casting turned out to be perfect. Having built his earlier work on a sort of affable goofiness that was effortless to love, he stretches into a darker, lonelier dimension of the same; something like Ghostbusters’ Pete Venkman sitting up alone at 2 o’clock in the morning. In this context the tired hound dog eyes lose their goofiness and gain a profoundly heavy, relatable, everyday sort of sadness that’s perfectly matched to the loss his character feels in the film. His world is as disheveled and out of control as Max’s and to some degree Rosemary’s, but if Max and Rosemary crashed into loss, Herman arrived on a long slow downhill, a much truer, more recognizable type of loss than the childhood loss of a mother or the death of an oceanographer husband. For the most part, we don’t get to watch that sense of childhood “rightness” disappear; we just sort of notice that it’s gone.

Regardless of how they arrived at this pain, both Max and Herman try to get their respective worlds reassembled through their pursuits of a relationship with Ms. Cross, played by Olivia Williams. And at least part of their attraction is rooted in the idea that the losses they’ve all suffered are the same. Yet while Max’s mother had died when he was a child, Rosemary has lost a husband. Max can still imagine some perfect and impossible world where everything is right again; Ms. Cross knows that it can’t be, and there’s a sort of mature resignation in that. While she’d been happy until her husband’s death, Herman may have never actually had his world that together. Herman and Max blur the lines between adult and childhood in their impossible pursuits of control, while Rosemary (a kindergarten teacher, of course) enforces the separation between the two while allowing them to exist side by side. Yes she’s in pain, but she’s come to understand it as a part of life; the world doesn’t get to be as perfect as we want it to, but it can still be pretty good (her husband’s being an oceanographer is a typical Anderson touch, as he’s frequently expressed his admiration for Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and made a full film tribute to him. But where in The Life Aquatic he revisits these childhood fantasies as an adult, in Rushmore they serve as the shining marker of a lost past).

This reconciliation of childhood “all together-ness” with the absurdity of real life is at the core of all Anderson’s work. Rushmore serves, effectively, as a construction piece, the building of a world on this tension, a world that he would inhabit for many of his following films (he wouldn’t address this conflict so directly again until The Grand Budapest Hotel). Despite the immaculate details of all these worlds, he always hints at the violence and messiness of the reality surrounding them. This is, I think, what he had in mind when he originally wanted to score Rushmore entirely with music by The Kinks, referring to their “madmen in blazers” vibe, and in his frequent visual/audio references to Peanuts (the profound melancholy wrapped in the wonderful imagination of a cartoon). My friend is fond of pointing out Anderson’s penchant for breaking characters noses; I prefer to notice that Felicity Fox always paints thunderstorms, and Richie Tenenbaum just paints poorly.

One complaint I’ve heard is that Wes Anderson’s films feel like giant inside jokes. If they are, then the joke is that while the universe is big and scary and never fits the way we want it to, for a little bit it doesn’t have to be. It’s not just being an adult and building a blanket fort with friends; it’s making eye contact with your best friend and knowing that you’re both thinking of that time you built a blanket fort as adults. During a thunderstorm. And for a little while everything felt the way it was supposed to. And missing that feeling.

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