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.

UW MADISON'S ALEX LOVENDAHL ON 'BOTTLE ROCKET'

Friday, July 25th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket were written by Alex Lovendahl, UW Madison student. Bottle Rocket will screen at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 25 in the Marquee Theater at Union South.

Though Wes Anderson is best known for the diorama-and -dollhouse-like sets of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and the almost literal dioramas and dollhouses of the stop-motion film Fantastic Mr. Fox, viewers will see the intricacy of production design and specificity of detail pared down in Anderson’s first feature film, Bottle Rocket. The story of bumbling would-be bandits who happen to be would-be brothers grants us a naïve and vulnerable look at the filmmaker’s relationship to his home territory and fellow dreamers.

Bottle Rocket marks the feature debut of screenwriter/actor Owen Wilson, who co-wrote the script with Anderson. The two lived in a small home and shared two beds with the other two Wilson brothers, Luke and Andrew (also debuting as protagonist Anthony and John “Future Man” Mapplethorpe, respectively).  Anderson and Wilson would write three films together, culminating with The Royal Tenenbaums. They stopped writing together as Wilson became in higher demand as an actor, and Anderson’s films took a somber turn, beginning with his meditation on irrelevancy with The Life Aquatic (co-written by Noah Baumbach.)

Not until The Life Aquatic would an Anderson film be as sun-drenched as Bottle Rocket. Few films look as warm in their depictions of summer without saturating their oranges and blues; Bottle Rocket instead highlights its yellows, from Dignan’s jumpsuits to the bedsheets of the motel. Few turn of the century filmmakers captured yellows and warmth with the same enthusiasm as Anderson and his go-to cinematographer Robert Yeoman.

Though Bottle Rocket’s visual style is less meticulously staged than its successors, the production design is outstanding. The trademark Anderson handwritten insert – Dignan’s seventy-five year plan – utilizes multiple colors of markers not to reflect Dignan’s inability to plan the heist quickly, but rather his highly capable organization (note that only headers and prefaces appear in blue, whereas actual “plans” appear in red). However, don’t mistake that organization for capability; Dignan’s plans remain vague, often suggesting simple ideas like “odds” as keys to living successfully. Consider that the scenes at the Mapplethorpes’ house were filmed in Frank Lloyd Wright’s John Gillen Residence, a home designed by an architect out of time for a Texan geophysicist.

Though laughs permeate all of Anderson’s films, Bottle Rocket is consistently funny. The majority of the staff deliver these lines casually and conversationally, making the absurd seem normal, nondescript. None relish the opportunity more than James Caan, who chews his way through a rejection of Anthony and a total shutdown of Future Man in his first ten minutes on screen as Mr. Henry. Given a short amount of time in the film, Caan chooses to make the most of what he’s given.

I claim the true star, of surprise to no one who has seen the film, is Owen Wilson’s Dignan, the excitable obsessive and one of Anderson’s iconic characters. Hungry for adventure, he wants to live on the edges of normal life, an outlaw with a heart of gold. He rejects the simple, the casual, the conversational, always “calling his gang” with a birdcall or launching into another layer of his scheme, alienating himself to the point of ignoring his friends’ happiness. But, unlike the self-destructive Max Fischer of Rushmore, Dignan refuses to advance without his companions. Though he storms off angrily, one request from Bob to be on the team is enough to make Dignan declare his one ultimatum; the slightest hint of interest from Anthony is enough to make Wilson flash a beautiful smile. Without the combination of Wilson’s belief in the character’s beauty and his failings, both in the writing and the acting, Bottle Rocket could not exist in its current form.

The film performs a balancing act. It is about the naïveté, adventurous spirit, and social ignorance of Dignan and his love for friends and brothers. Simultaneously it carries the “Born to Run” spirit of living in a town too small for one’s dreams. Each viewing, I have come away feeling differently about its core, though Dignan runs away with my affection each and every time.

The final heist is as ridiculous as an amateur heist could be. It is truly amazing that Bottle Rocket and Fargo were both released in the first months of 1996 and that one film could not have directly inspired the other. How else could the absurd misconduct of Dignan and Steve Buscemi’s Carl Showalter reflect the same ridiculous misunderstanding of the importance of masks and the value of awareness? But where Fargo damns its kidnappers, facing the darkest elements of their psyche, Bottle Rocket absolves them. Dignan/Wilson’s last lines in the film foreshadow the fall from innocence Anderson and Wilson would explore in their next, more well-regarded film, Rushmore.

SCREENING ADDED OF ROGER EBERT DOC 'LIFE ITSELF' - AUGUST 9

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

UW CINEMATHEQUE ADDS LIFE ITSELF

TO SUMMER 2014 SCREENING CALENDAR

NEW DOC FROM HOOP DREAMS DIRECTOR COVERS LIFE AND TIMES OF ROGER EBERT

A late addition to the UW Cinematheque’s Summer 2014 screening calendar, Steve James’ new documentary Life Itself will have its only Madison-area theatrical screening on Saturday, August 9 at 3 p.m. at the Marquee Theater at Union South.

James, the director of Hoop Dreams, tells the life story of the most beloved and influential film critic of our times, Roger Ebert (1942-2013). Based on Ebert’s best-selling memoir, James’ funny, revealing, nostalgic and emotional bio-doc covers all of the major chapters in Ebert’s life: his childhood and university education in Urbana, IL; his Pulitzer Prize-winning career at the Chicago Sun-Times; his alcoholism; his marriage to Chaz Ebert; and his frequently tumultuous television partnership with fellow critic Gene Siskel.  For some of the most memorable sequences, Ebert allowed James to film him in the final months of his struggles with cancer, an illness that took his speaking voice, but not his ability to experience the joy of living.

Life Itself is a work of deftness and delicacy, by turns a film about illness and death, about writing, about cinema and, finally, and very movingly a film about love.” (Geoffrey O’Brien, The New York Times)

Following its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Life Itself received another acclaimed screening at the Cannes Film Festival, and was released theatrically around the country earlier this month.

Life Itself and all other Cinematheque screenings are free and open to the public. Please see below for a complete listing of programs and series descriptions. The Cinematheque’s website (http://cinema.wisc.edu) currently features further information on the rest of our Summer 2014 lineup.

Life Itself will screen August 9, 3 p.m. at

Marquee Theater at Union South

1308 W. Dayton Street

Madison, WI 53715

Admission free, seating limited. No admission 15 minutes after scheduled start times.

Our website: http://cinema.wisc.edu

See you at the Movies!

Jim Healy, Director of Programming

WISCONSIN MOVIE - SEE 'COVEN'

Thursday, July 17th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

If you have not experienced the charming and sincere pleasures of the Wisconsin-made documentary American Movie, you are surely in for a treat. It will be screening this Friday, July 18th, in the Marquee Theater at Union South at 7 PM. A 35mm print will be shown. The first time I watched the film, I loved it so much that I watched it three days in a row, ready for a fourth. There is something truly sweet and endearing in young aspiring filmmaker Mark Borchardt’s journey to make his film, and the depiction of his relationships with his family and friends who help him along the way is what make the movie truly great. I'm particularly thinking here of Mark's relationship with the begrudgingly assigned executive producer- his dying uncle. An honest gem, American Movie will forever stay at the top of my list of favorite films, largely due to Mark’s earnest, good-hearted nature and determination, along with the hysterical, thick Wisconsin accents. Oh, you betcha! 

Here is a link to Mark’s debut short film Coven, the movie you'll see him make in American Movie. Coven was meant to create attention and raise funds so that Mark could finish his feature film project, Northwestern. While Northwestern was never completed, Mark has reasons to be proud of Coven, a harrowing short  which focuses on a downtrodden man
going to what appears to be a support group, but which turns out to be a gathering for a Wiccan cult. Have at it!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhQ64V-KdFA

(Bianca Martin)

A CLOSE-UP LOOK AT 'CLOSE-UP'

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

These Notes on Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up were written by Hamidreza Nassiri, a Teaching Assistant and Ph.D candidate in UW Madison's Communication Arts Department. The UW Cinematheque will present a 35mm print of Close-Up on Thursday, July 17, at 7 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art.

Abbas Kiarostami is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of the last two decades, one who represents “the highest level of artistry in cinema” according to Martin Scorsese. His initial studies were in painting at the University of Tehran, later embarking upon filmmaking in the 1970s and 80s at Kanoon, an institute in Tehran that played an important role in forming young filmmakers during this period. Kiarostami first became known to international audiences with the film Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), which won the Bronze Leopard at the Locarno film festival. In 1997 he won the Cannes Palme d’Or for Taste of Cherry (1997). Kiarostami has made films in so many different fields and styles that David Bordwell has acknowledged him as the filmmaker with the “widest octave range” he has ever known. The most well-known Iranian director in the world, Kiarostami has influenced such filmmakers as Michael Haneke, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Aki Kaurismaki, and Ramin Bahrani.

Close-Up followed Where Is the Friend’s Home? and Homework (1989). Prior to its production, Kiarostami was already in pre-production for Pocket Money when he read a piece of news about a man who impersonated the famous Iranian director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, in order to take advantage of a middle-class family. Kiarostami thus decided to postpone Pocket Money, and Kiarostami and his crew began shooting Close-Up shortly thereafter.

The news of this impersonator, Hossain Sabzian, was published in Soroush magazine and the film itself begins with a sequence where a Soroush reporter, Hassan Farazmand, accompanies a soldier and a taxi driver to arrest Sabzian. Following a non-chronological narrative structure, Close-Up also depicts Kiarostami’s efforts to make a film about him and Sabzian’s trial. Flashbacks of what happened to Sabzian and the Ahankhahs are interspersed between the courtroom scenes. Finally, the film ends with Sabzian’s release from prison, and his encounter with the real Makhmalbaf. This structure is a departure from the chronological order of the film’s first edit. As Godfrey Cheshire elucidates, the projectionist at a festival in Munich made a mistake and showed the reels in the wrong order. Kiarostami for his part liked this new version of the film, compelling him to re-edit the film to its current iteration.

Close-Up is a combination of documentary and fiction. It is based on a real story and all the people in the film play themselves as they are in the real world. Even the soldier who arrests Sabzian in the film is the same individual who did so in reality. This blending is to such an extent that it has made it difficult for audiences to realize which parts of the film are documentary filmmaking and which parts were re-enacted or constructed.

Close-Up is, more than anything, concerned with illusion and identity. Farazmand, the reporter, is another version of Sabzian in his emulation of Oriana Fallaci, the great Italian journalist. Later in the film, Mr. Ahankhah (the father of the family that was infiltrated by Sabzian) claims that he had realized Sabzian was not the real Makhmalbaf, while Farazmand writes in his magazine that it was he himself who resolved the case and the flashbacks confirm this.. Farazmand aspires to the persona of Fallaci in order to achieve the fame, respect, and perhaps even the money such figures earn. For his part, Sabzian also craves respect and money—though more the former than the latter. He confesses in court that he found pleasure in the Ahankhahs obeying him when he asked them to do something. An unemployed man burdened with financial issues, he further confesses to the judge that he can sometimes not even afford to buy anything for his family’s breakfast. In spite of his disparate social positioning to Farazmand, the film draws distinct thematic parallels between their impersonations of more successful figures.

In our reading of this piece, we can further extrapolate this depiction of impersonation to the illusions implicit in cinema itself. According to Alireza Zarrindast, the film’s director of photography, the flashback scenes where we see the story of Sabzian and the Ahankhahs were shot on 35mm film, while those in the courtroom were shot instead on 16mm. In the courtroom, the camera is also relatively restless in comparison to other scenes, zooming in and out several times. Such cinematography is reminiscent of news reportage and documentary filmmaking. Moreover, the performances, from Sabzian and the Ahankhahs to the judge are very realistic. However, this scene was in fact recreated, but with the intent of remaining faithful to the actual words recorded in the courtroom. Even, according to Cheshire, interruptions in sound in the final sequence were created in post-production and are not real. Close-Up as such questions not only documentary cinema, but cinema in general, and challenges viewers to distinguish the reality and its imitations.

This theme is achieved in a confluence of both style and narrative. Sabzian is an extreme cinephile, sacrificing his life and family for the cinema. He is enraptured not only by movies themselves, but also by the aura that surrounds them and their makers. It is for this reason that, of all the people he could impersonate, he chose a film director. Hence, Close-Up underlines its critique of the illusionistic quality of cinema and its peripheries. As Werner Herzog remarks, it is “the greatest documentary on filmmaking” he has ever seen.

Issues of alienation stemming from socio-economics are truly transnational, and the commentary on these issues in Close-Up has engendered its warm reception with audiences around the globe. In this critique, Kiarostami discusses the similarities between Sabzian and the Ahankhah family, pointing out how their similarities draw them to each other. The Ahankhahs are likewise challenged by socio-economic problems and unemployment as a result of both the revolution and the 8-year war with Iraq. The Ahankhahs belong to the middle class, but their sons, both educated in engineering, are either unemployed or working in unrelated fields.

We can track Close-Up’s influence on different films. An example could be Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012), in which, like in Close-Up, different characters tell their own stories about a unique event and it is hard for an audience to find the truth. Polley’s recreation of real events and combining documentary and fiction in the way that it would be sometimes hard to distinguish them is another important thing inspired by Close-Up. Many filmmakers and critics around the world have admired and drawn upon Close-Up. In 2012, Sight and Sound chose it as one of their “Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time.”

Close-Up ends with a frozen image of Sabzian, regretful but smiling. His dream has come true; now his picture is on the billboards on the streets and festivals around the world. With this framing, I am compelled to say that, while criticizing the illusionistic quality of cinema, Close-Up is also thus an act of homage to it, an art that can make dreams and illusions into reality.

- Hamidreza Nassiri

RYAN WAAL ON DAVID GORDON GREEN'S 'GEORGE WASHINGTON'

Thursday, March 27th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay reflecting on David Gordon Green's George Washington (2000), was written by UW Madison student Ryan Waal (class of 2015). Green personally presented George Washington at the 2001 Wisconsin Film Festival. Green will appear in person at the April 3 Opening Night screening of the Wisconsin Film Festival with his new film, Joe, starring Nicolas Cage. Tickets for the screening of Joe are currently "rush only". George Washington has just been released on blu-ray by the Criterion Collection.

David Gordon Green’s George Washington stands alongside Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Richard Linklater’s Slacker as one of the most auspicious no-budget debuts in recent film history. Made for only $42,000 with mostly non-professional actors, the film’s small theatrical release prevented it from achieving the same breakout success as those other two films, but strong critical praise and festival showings helped Green rise to prominence as a major new player on the indie scene. But George Washington’s importance for Green’s career can sometimes overshadow the film itself—a lyrical, inspired, bizarre, permanently memorable parable that conjures an entire world unique both in setting and in feeling.

It takes place in an unidentified lower-class town in North Carolina, a town colored in various shades of brown, brimming with dilapidated buildings, dirt, excrement, landfill and stray animals. Despite the setting, this movie is hardly concerned with social messages about poverty—Green devotes his energy to crafting a tapestry of unique and complex characters. There are Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) and George Richardson (Donald Holden), two young boys fighting for the affection of Nasia (Candace Evanofski), who narrates the story. Their friends, the older, larger Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee) and the tiny, monotone Sonya (Rachel Handy) play around town, steal cars and harass a group of eccentric train mechanics who provide much of the film’s comic relief. George, whose father is in jail, lives with his Aunt Ruth (Janet Taylor) and Uncle Damascus (Eddie Rouse), a hot-tempered rail-and-woodworker desperately afraid of animals.

George Washington begins innocuously as a tale of young love set against this backdrop of colorful individuals; in the film’s opening scene, Nasia dumps Buddy for George. It’s a scene at once heartbreaking and mirthful—these kids are too young to understand what love really means. Soon though, the tone and focus of the film changes. George is implicated in two major events: the death of one child, the rescue of another. The complicated juxtaposition of these two events, the way George and his friends wrestle with them internally and the acceptance they ultimately find are the center of this film. Green unspools an enormously complicated morality play and places it in the midst of a coming-of-age story, making the film an unusual, yet captivating genre hybrid.

Viewers of George Washington will almost certainly pick up on at least one of Green’s stylistic influences early on: that would be Terrence Malick, of whom Green is a self-professed partisan (Malick co-produced Green’s Undertow in 2004). Green incorporates a great deal of Malick’s aesthetic: the lyrical, meditative voiceover narration of children; the languid pacing; the exhaustive use of natural imagery and his general emphasis of feeling over narrative. Green overtly acknowledges Malick’s influence upon him in one scene, when he essentially recreates the final shot of Malick's Days of Heaven (1978) by having George walk along a railroad track.

Like that film, George Washington is largely concerned with the way children grapple with the trauma and complexity of adulthood. Nassia’s voice-over narration recalls Linda Manz, whose innocent musing buffers and frames the adults’ story in Heaven. Both directors see childhood as a period of objective purity, and both films convey the loss of that purity by throwing the characters straight into the dark realities of life.
But it would be dismissive and unfair to say that Green merely copies Malick’s style; Green has talents and idiosyncrasies that no other director has. Malick, for instance, never incorporates humor in his movies in the same way Green does here—he knows just how long to hold an awkward pause and when to cut a shot for maximum comedic effect. When George becomes a town hero for rescuing a young boy from the county pool, his newfound confidence transforms him (both mentally and sartorially) into a superhero, providing surprising yet tonally appropriate levity to a heavy story.

Green is also willing to let his narrative bloom out into many different strands, incorporating asides with characters that appear unimportant. One of the great surprise moments in the film involves Damascus explaining his fear of dogs to George. He tells a traumatic, formative story from his childhood that changes our opinion of him from a selfish jerk to a fragile, human person. The scene makes us wonder how George will be changed by his experiences, what fears and ideologies coagulate within his mind. The narrative may seem disjointed and unfocused at times, but it is the thematic rather than causal relationships between the characters that makes this film fascinating and rewatchable.

You may be wondering what the title means. I don’t know either. Nasia tells us repeatedly throughout the film that George wants to be the President of the United States, and George’s bedroom prominently features a portrait of George H.W. Bush. Perhaps we are meant to laugh at and pity George’s ambitions. Or perhaps we are meant to consider the childhoods of our own heroes, and wonder what moments in their lives made them who they are today. Presidents, like lawyers, I suppose, were children once.

I don’t know, and part of me doesn’t care. Many elements of George Washington remain puzzling and unclear. Some may say this makes the film flawed; I say it makes it a classic.

Leo Rubinkowski on MARJOE

Friday, March 7th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan's 1972 documentary Marjoe, were written by Leo Rubinkowski Ph.D candidate, Film Studies, Communication Arts Department. Marjoe screens Friday, March 7 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall

 

“No matter how you slice it, it still comes out as self-exploitation of a sort that strikes me as being exceedingly sleazy.”

Vincent Canby chose these words to describe Marjoe in a New York Times review of the 1972 documentary, but his acid criticism arguably applies just as well to Marjoe Gortner’s first brush with national exposure. At four years of age, the “World’s Youngest Minister” married Raymond Miller and Alma Brown in a ceremony apparently calculated to prove the adage “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Indeed, while clergy, legislators, and onlookers criticized the Long Beach wedding and its pint-sized presider (Life Magazine quoted one Catholic priest: “The child is as incapable of witnessing a contract as Charlie McCarthy.” ), the Gortner’s reaped just the rewards they had sought. The boy’s fame spread within Pentecostal communities, he toured the revival and church circuit as a star attraction, and his income supported the family for several years, until deceit, divorce, and disillusionment ended that part of Marjoe’s life.

The sensational details of our protagonist’s early years exist primarily as background, though. In a sense, it is the cherubic tyke greeting viewers with his excited “Howdy, neighbors! May the Lord bless you!” who justifies the documentary, but Marjoe’s ambitions exceed the biographical in at least two respects.

First, the filmmakers have clearly designed the film to comment on the Pentecostal community through which Gortner escorted them during production. Juxtapositions between images, as well as between sound and image, allow Kernochan and Smith to substantiate Marjoe’s cynicism in interviews. During the first extended sequence in which we see Gortner work a crowd, there is an abrupt and brief change of scene from the tent to an office, wherein we find Marjoe and his host dividing the night’s take. Later, during the 24-Hour Prayer Crusade sequence, a close-up of the lead preacher’s gaudy, glittering broach complements audio of her assurances that donations will not be wasted on foolishness. At every turn, Marjoe works to remind its audience that big religion means big business for traveling evangelists. Most often, it is Marjoe himself who makes the case, his status as a leading participant grounding his authority as a chief skeptic. Who but a professional could have provided the film crew with careful instructions for filming congregants speaking in tongues?

Significantly, however, Gortner’s expertise also complicates whatever commentary viewers find lurking within the film’s mise-en-scène, cinematography, sound, and editing. For one thing, Gortner’s explicit criticisms of the business of religion are just that: criticisms of the business of religion. If he is frustrated with the close-mindedness of his flocks, his comments are more damning of their shepherds. At the same time, and still counting himself among the wolves in sheep’s clothing, Gortner is also on record rationalizing the business. In a conversation with Grace Lichtenstein for a Sunday issue of the New York Times in August 1972, he explained: “I justified it, in a sense. These people don’t go to any musical comedy. They spend no money on alcohol. It’s a sin to go to the movies. [Was this a source of comfort for Gortner?] Their only form of entertainment is these revivals. You figure you spend $3.50, $4 on a movie, well, that’s about what I got [per person in offerings]. And I gave them a show.”  By this logic, entertainers who entertain deserve compensation for their labor, even if they are frauds. Though Gortner apparently never wholly embraced this position, it remains a provocative one, especially in light of Marjoe’s second aim.

In the same review cited above, Vincent Canby observes that the film is “less a documentary about Marjoe’s final weeks on the Pentecostal church-and-tent circuit than a feature-length screen test.”  Indeed, at the time of Marjoe’s production, its namesake was looking for an opportunity to leave preaching for work as a musician or an actor, and this film was only the latest attempt at making the transition. He certainly had chops. Many reviewers echoed Lichtenstein’s claim that Gortner was “evangelism’s answer to Mick Jagger.”  The justification is obvious. Microphone to his lips, left hand on his hip, arm cocked back, and marching his svelte frame before the pulpit, Marjoe reproduces the lead singer’s mannerisms almost to a tee. (There’s a joke about Marjoe’s sympathy for the devil’s music hiding here…) To extend the comparison, Marjoe itself treats its subject as though he were a famous musician on tour, perhaps inspired by the example of vérité films like those of D.A. Pennebaker. Much of the 88-minute running time is organized around three tent meetings and a 24-Hour Prayer Crusade. In each case, footage and audio organize our attention around Marjoe, so that he is always either audible or visible. Viewers are also regularly treated to the sounds and images of Gortner’s audiences as they react to his presence and message with devotion and fervor. In between these gigs, Marjoe takes its audiences “behind the scenes.” In the last of these sequences, when Marjoe converts a dog, the two threads running throughout the film intertwine – Gortner may not believe in what he is doing, but his talent is so thoroughly honed that his audiences cannot tell the difference between performance and witness, if there is a practical difference at all.

Marjoe may have been exploitative, but it was also successful. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature of 1972, and Gortner quickly found his way to Hollywood. After peaking with his appearance in the disaster classic Earthquake (1974), Marjoe continued to work through the next two decades, taking primarily minor television roles or leading and supporting roles in minor films, such as the Star Wars knock-off Starcrash (1978) and the Evel Knievel vehicle Viva Knievel! (1977).

Lasting fame may never have been in the cards for Marjoe Gortner, but thanks to Marjoe, he remains something more than a footnote in history. “Glory gee to besus!”

RYAN WAAL ON ZEMECKIS' 'USED CARS'

Thursday, February 6th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay, on Robert Zemeckis' Used Cars, was written by Ryan Waal, UW Madison class of 2015. Zemeckis' I Wanna Hold Your Hand screens as part of the Cinematheque and WUD Film Committee's 'Marquee Monday' series on Monday, February 10, 7 p.m., in the Marquee Theater at Union South, 1308 W. Dayton Street.

Before Robert Zemeckis’ breakthrough as an A-list director in the eighties with Back to the Future, he was just a USC graduate struggling to forge a foothold (and a voice) in the film industry. Zemeckis’ early projects, many of which were collaborations with writing partner Bob Gale, didn’t sell many tickets, but they developed cult followings for their energy, ingenuity and wholeheartedness. Used Cars, released in 1980 to disappointing box office, is among both Zemeckis’ earliest and most unusual films; this black comedy/satire/action film is simultaneously vicious and sweet, macabre and playful, with a full, black heart affectionate towards characters who may not deserve any sympathy. In short, there’s no other film quite like it, which may be exactly what Zemeckis and Gale were going for.

The film exists in a reality as cartoonish as Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s. Kurt Russell stars as Rudy Russo, an unapologetically sleazy used car salesman. The film’s opening sequence, in which Rudy attaches a ten-dollar bill to a fishing line and literally reels in a customer, wouldn’t have been out of place in a Looney Tunes short—Rudy has the same sly, anarchic charm as Bugs Bunny. The “New Deal” lot where Rudy works is filled with all sorts of peculiar characters: the superstitious and technologically savvy Jeff (Gerrit Graham), a lackadaisical mechanic named Jim (Frank McCrae), and even a comic relief dog named Toby. The sole voice of reason on the lot (and in this film, perhaps) is its owner, Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), who agrees to help Rudy fund his state senate campaign on the condition that he keep his business alive after his death.

Rudy’s promise to Luke is tested early on; Roy L. Fuchs (also Jack Warden), Luke’s more successful brother whose lot neighbors New Deal, puts a hit out on Luke in order to collect on his life insurance policy. Rudy, realizing that Roy arranged the murder, decides to hide Luke’s body (preventing Roy from collecting inheritance) and avenge his death by wreaking havoc upon Roy’s business.

Rudy and the New Deal crew use every base tactic to attract customers away from Roy. They perform signal intrusion on a football game to get advertising without paying for it. They hire topless dancers to perform on their lot. Jeff tricks customers into thinking they have run over Toby (a very convincing actor), and tells them he can only be consoled by selling the car. They even fire shotguns on Roy’s cars and set off bombs on his lot. There’s an uncomfortable satisfaction in watching the chaos unfold—that this was directed by the same man who made the family-friendly The Polar Express is astonishing.

But the war between New Deal and Roy is more than just a silly food fight; it represents a conflict of business ethos and ideology. Rudy and Roy are both bad people in their own ways; each lies to their customers and goes past moral boundaries in order to make a buck. But Roy’s lies are bigger; the family friendly, self-righteous image he cultivates for his business is so drastically disingenuous that Rudy seems like a petty thief by comparison. Rudy eschews ethics, but like a taxi cab covered in a thin sheen of blue paint, something real exists behind his all his huckster artifice.

This clash of values speaks to the rich political subtext of this film, which was released at the dawn of the eighties and produced during the Carter administration. As a film about America, Used Cars shows a nation in disarray, filled with doubt about the ethics and efficacy of their leaders and consumed by materialism and debauchery. It may be no coincidence that the New Deal crew perform a second signal intrusion on a speech by Jimmy Carter, whose “malaise” speech challenged the indulgence of this period directly, and whose struggle with the Iran hostage crisis compromised people’s faith in government. Luke Fuchs, whose lot is named after Franklin Roosevelt’s major policy achievement and owned by a member of the Greatest Generation, is a relic of a very different epoch: a time of stability, progress and decency which seems light years away from the world of this film.

It may be a stretch to call Used Cars a conservative film—Zemeckis himself is a Democrat. Really, the film serves as a broad critique of antiquated notions of politics and of “what your country can do for you.” No political intervention will stop Roy from taking control of Luke’s lot, and New Deal has to take matters into their own hands to keep the business alive. In Roy’s case, political leaders have failed him outright—his lot is on the verge of being seized by eminent domain throughout the film. Politicians are just as crooked and sleazy as these used car salesmen (why else would Rudy run for senate?), so Roy and Rudy are essentially left to fend for themselves.

The characters live in a harsh world of bad people, where everyone is consumed by self-interest, and all the bad things the characters do to survive are, ultimately, somewhat justifiable. The disturbing final message of this movie is that everyone lies and cheats and rips people off, and that all this deception is necessary when everyone’s looking out for themselves. If this idea upsets you, you’d be right to be upset, though you may also not be living in the real world.

The film is a time capsule of period fashion and technology, and also shows future comedy heavyweights (Michael McKean, Joe Flaherty, director Betty Thomas) at the start of their careers. But above all else, Used Cars is an exhilaratingly fun example of early filmmaking. The young Zemeckis throws everything at the screen and experiments with genre, tone and subject matter in ways that only people truly excited about making movies do. This film may disgust or even scare you, but you will not be bored.

RYAN WAAL ON JIA ZHANGKE'S 'STILL LIFE'

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Jia Zhangke's Still Life were written by UW student Ryan Waal ('15). Jia Zhangke's newest film, A Touch of Sin, will have its only area theatrical screening at the Cinematheque on Friday, December 13 at 7 p.m.

When we think of modernization, we tend to think of big things: infrastructure, technologies, economies, societies. People tend to think about progress through these larger structures because they make change easily identifiable. But in the midst of these larger changes, it’s easy to forget about the people that change happens to, and the ways in which modernity descends upon their lives.

Still Life, director Jia Zhangke’s 2006 drama which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, is about these smaller stories of change and progress, crafting characters that struggle to forge their own, personal progress against the backdrop of a Chinese city which is itself in a state of transition. Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of this immensely soulful, visually sumptuous film is that it shows both the tragedy and the beauty of change, simultaneously mourning the loss of past traditions while reminding of the need to move forward.

Set in Fengjie, a city irreparably altered by the creation of China’s Three Gorges Dam, the film unfolds over the course of four chapters—“Cigarettes,” “Liquor,” “Tea” and “Toffee.” Han Sanming (played by an actor of the same name), returns to Fengjie sixteen years after leaving, in search of a wife and daughter he lost contact with. When he gets there, the ways in which his home has changed are immediately apparent; after docking, a street magician forces Han to watch a magic trick and then gets mad when he doesn’t want to pay him for it. The corrupting influence of capitalism is readily apparent. When Han takes a taxi to his former address, Jia presents an enormous shot of his street submerged in the dam’s flood waters, which only continue to rise. While searching for his family, Han takes a job as a demolitions worker. Still Life presents a Chinese society replete with destruction of the past.

Running parallel to Han’s story is Shen Hong (Zhao Tao), a nurse who also travels to Fengjie to reconnect with family—in her case, an estranged husband who she has barely spoken to in years. Like Han, Shen is lost in the chaos of the new, modernized Fengjie, where the landscape is so crammed with people, businesses and demolished buildings that finding anything in particular is a struggle. Shen and Han never meet face to face in the film, although their journeys almost intersect at various moments. While both characters initially seem partially culpable for their problems, the movie reveals both of them to be victims of modernity more than anything else. There is a sense that these characters, with their shared feelings of regret and dislocation, and their comparable struggles for achieving closure, could find solace with one another if they had the chance.

Jia’s vision of present-day China is incredibly complex. The film’s four chapters each constitute a different commodity of exchange in Fengjie; old values of generosity and brotherhood have been replaced by quid pro quo and outright theft. Modern influence manifests itself in ways that are funny—when characters do impressions from martial arts movies and jam out to ring tones—and tragic—when people abandon their partners for career opportunities.

In keeping with its themes of modernity, Jia filmed Still Life in a most modern—and controversial—format: high-definition digital video. Film purists who deny the legitimacy of digital filmmaking should give this movie a chance; cinematographer Yu-Lik Wai’s camera renders Fengjie wonderfully, absorbing all the grime, dirt and fog as well as the golden sunlight, green hills and enormous bodies water which envelop it. The film’s photography also evinces the influence of Michelangelo Antonioni; the opening shots of the film contain slow, 180-degree pivots across characters that appear in films like La’aventura.

Critics have also noted Jia’s Antonioni-like use of images to convey emotional or thematic subtext. The film’s final shot, a flourish of visual poetry whose exact meaning still eludes me, will leave viewers appropriately confounded. And while, on the surface, the film is a restrained character-drama, it also contains several moments of baffling wonder and cinematic intrigue. There are scenes of magical realism, as when a UFO appears out of nowhere or a demolished building blasts off like a spaceship. One character’s tragic death is handled with such cinematic skill that you will never see it coming, even after it’s happened.

Many critics have viewed Still Life as a lamentation, a sorrowful docudrama of the ways that socio-economic change has disenfranchised China’s people. But I don’t see this so much as a sad film, but rather, a realistic one. Shen and Han’s stories end with renewed hope, and amidst the oppression of change, the citizens of Fengjie have all found ways to keep spirits high and full. These people have uncovered a necessary truth: the floods will come whether we want them or not. We can either find higher ground, or drown. We can’t just stand still.

-Ryan Waal

Still Life can be purchased through Amazon.com and rented through Netflix.

2ND SCREENING OF 'INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS' ADDED! - DECEMBER 12

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013
Posted by Jim Healy

UW CINEMATHEQUE ADDS 2ND PRE-RELEASE SCREENING OF JOEL AND ETHAN COEN’S ‘INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS’

DECEMBER 8 & DECEMBER 12 SCREENINGS OF NEW FILM ABOUT 60S NYC FOLK MUSIC SCENE WILL BE SHOWN ON 35MM

The UW Cinematheque has added a second special free preview screening of the new film Inside Llewyn Davis. In addition to the already announced screening on Sunday, December 8 at 7 p.m., a second screening will take place Thursday, December 12 at 7 p.m.. Both screenings will take place in the Cinematheque’s regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue.

Inside Llewyn Davis, the new film from Academy Award-winners Joel and Ethan Coen, follows a week in the life of a young folk singer at a crossroads, struggling to make it in the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac)—guitar in tow, huddled against the unforgiving New York winter—is beset by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, some of them of his own making. Living at the mercy of both friends and strangers, scaring up what work he can find, Llewyn journeys from the baskethouses of the Village to an empty Chicago club—on a misbegotten odyssey to audition for a music mogul—and back again. Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, and Garrett Hedlund,

No passes required. Seating is limited and provided on a first-come, first-seated basis. Doors open at 6:15 p.m. We anticipate a full-house. Please arrive early!

A 35mm print will be shown

What and Where:

A screening of Inside Llewyn Davis.

Sunday, December 8, 7 p.m.

AND

Thursday, December 12, 7 p.m.

at:

UW Cinematheque
4070 Vilas Hall
821 University Avenue
Madison, WI 53706

Admission free. Seating limited.

Cinematheque website: http://cinema.wisc.edu

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
USA | 2013 | 35mm | 106 min.
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan

See you at the Movies!

Jim Healy, Director of Programming

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