Humanity Amidst Austerity: Wim Wenders' ALICE IN THE CITIES

Thursday, October 27th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Wim Wenders' Alice in the Cities (1974) was written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A recently restored DCP of Alice will be the second offering in the Cinematheque's Wim Wenders series on Saturday, October 29, at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Tim Brayton

Alice in the Cities was the fourth feature directed by then 28-year-old Wim Wenders, and by his later account, it was the first one that felt was entirely "his." In particular, coming off of the critical and commercial failure of his adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, the young Wenders was anxious to make something that would speak to his own worldview and sense of aesthetics; he also wanted to continue his working relationship with 9-year-old Yella Rottländer, whose performance as Hester Prynne's daughter Pearl was the only element of The Scarlet Letter that the director felt had turned out well.

The solution to these hopes came in the form of a suggestion by Peter Handke, the young Austrian author whose work was ushering in a new phase of German-language literature (Wenders had already worked with Handke on his second feature, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, screening Saturday, December 3 at Cinematheque). Drawing on Handke's experience as a single father, Wenders wrote the story of a creatively frustrated writer/photographer who is unexpectedly saddled with a young girl to take care of, after her mother (Lisa Kreuzer, haunting in a small part) disappears for vague reasons in New York City. Together, Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) and Alice Van Dam (Rottländer) travel from America to Amsterdam to Germany, ostensibly hunting for Alice's grandparents, but in fact fulfilling that greatest function of the characters in a road movie: to be our eyes and ears observing a changing world at a single moment in time.

It's clear even before Alice herself shows up that Alice in the Cities will be a film extensively concerned about human landscapes. The film opens with a geographically vague tour of America, with Philip ostensibly writing a magazine article, but far more interested in spending his time trying to capture something of the places he sees with his camera. He fails, perhaps, but the film itself tries to make it up for him: Alice in the Cities was shot on black-and-white 16mm film by the great cinematographer Robby Müller (who'd worked on all of Wenders' features to that point), making the first masterpiece in the stark high-contrast style he'd later use in such films as Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law and Dead Man. Throughout the whole film, but especially in the largely empty scenes of American streets and towns in the first act, Müller's images evoke the crisp stylistic harshness of the great documentary photographers like the Swiss-born Robert Frank, another German-speaking European who captured an outsider's perspective of America on celluloid.

Unlike Wenders and Müller's subsequent collaboration Paris, Texas, however, Alice in the Cities isn't primarily a referendum on America, but on Europe, here conceived of as a series of places which have lost their identity. For Wenders, this void is filled, for better or worse, by fragments of American pop culture (such as a Chuck Berry concert, filmed in Canada by D.A. Pennebaker, but repositioned in Germany by Wenders), including the structure of this very movie, a version of the quintessentially American genre of the road movie transformed into a study of two Germans abroad. Like so many road movies, this is primarily a study of two lost souls: Philip, whose sojourn in America has left him with a gloomy view on the world and culture, and Alice, whose search for the details of a past that she's forgotten provides the bulk of the narrative spine. It's not hard to see them as a metaphor for a Germany that has lost everything that defines it, trying to find its place in a new world.

Let us not focus so much on the symbolic aspects of the film that we lose sight of its very real strengths as a story about two people, though. There's nothing terribly innovative about the story of a sad adult man who is rejuvenated from the presence of a spirited child (Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon explored the same theme just a year prior to Alice in the Cities, very nearly shaking Wenders's resolve to make this film at all), but rarely if ever has that stock narrative been handled to such brilliant effect as we see here. Wenders's instinct about Rottländer was spot on: her performance as Alice is surely one of the great triumphs of child acting in all of cinema, playing the character with the natural inquisitiveness and lack of self-consciousness of childhood. She's quick-witted but never precocious, and she inhabits the screen with a comfortable naturalism that cuts against the stylized imagery and heavily literary qualities in the plotting to keep Alice in the Cities first and always a story about actual people.

She's well-paired with Vogler, a Wenders regular appearing in his third consecutive film for the director. Initially serving as little more than the vessel for the script's themes (the frustrated artist, angry at the coarsening effects of noisy mass culture, is an obvious stand-in for Wenders), Vogler is note-perfect in depicting the way that a sentimental cynic can be charmed by a cute kid. It's almost unreasonable, from a logical standpoint, how quickly and effortlessly Philip turns into a good-natured surrogate dad; the great achievement of the two leads is to establish such a warm sense of chemistry that we fully believe in Philip's redemption. There's no shortage of great elements within Alice in the Cities, one of the most beautiful and culturally-attuned films of its era. But perhaps the greatest of all its strengths is the affection and compassion it shows towards its central pair, a bright point of humanity in the midst of an austere, conflicted world.

A Divine Shockfest: MULTIPLE MANIACS

Monday, October 17th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on John Waters' Multiple Maniacs (1970) was written by Matt Connolly, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A new DCP restoration of Multiple Maniacs will screen Monday, October 17, at the Marquee Theater at Union South in our Marquee Monday series, co-presented with WUD Film.

By Matt Connolly

Those who have come to know John Waters through his later, irreverent-but-accessible films such as Hairspray (1988), Cry-Baby (1990), and Serial Mom (1994) are often dumbstruck when they explore the director’s 70s-era cinematic shockers. The sexual and scatological excesses of films like Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), and Desperate Living (1977) continue to jolt some forty-odd years later. Waters’s aficionados take a certain amount of pride in their love for these movies’ hair-raising scenes of gleeful cannibalism, feces gobbling, and chicken-inclusive copulation.

To those die-hard fans, I can only say: you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Rarely screened for decades, Multiple Maniacs showcases some of Waters’s most startling scenes of taboo-shattering humor, not to mention the cock-eyed critique of societal norms and hypocrisy that would run throughout his oeuvre. Waters himself deemed Multiple Maniacs his personal favorite amongst his own films, writing in his memoir, Shock Value, “I like the meanness and harsh documentary look; and for the first time the actors could spew forth the endless pages of dialogue I had written, lip-synced at last.” (Indeed, Multiple Maniacs was the first of Waters’s films to have sync-sound—a somewhat astonishing fact, given how central his foul-mouthed dialogue would become to his cinematic world.) Finally back in theaters in a newly restored DCP, Waters’s acolytes and newbies alike can bask in the director’s self-proclaimed “celluloid atrocity.”

The film’s loose plot offers Waters both the opportunity to scandalize his audience and to mock our own desire for such appalling sights. Run by the wild-eyed Lady Divine (Divine) and her sleazy boyfriend Mr. David (David Lochary), the traveling freak show deemed the Cavalcade of Perversion lures in suburban gawkers with the promise of witnessing such “horrors” as puke eaters, bicycle-seat sniffers, and (in a winking nod to the still-restrictive sexual norms of the time) “two actual queers kissing.” Once inside the tent, the audience that sneers and leers at the show’s performers becomes the victims of Lady Divine herself, who proceeds to rob her patrons at gunpoint. Lady Divine grows increasingly unglued when it becomes clear that Mr. David has been cheating on her with the endlessly chatty Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pearce). Her desperation and rage leads Lady Divine into a series of increasingly jaw-dropping situations, including a “rosary job” given in a local church by prowling sex fiend Mink Stole. The confirmation of David’s infidelity soon pushes Lady Divine into pure psychosis. Without giving away any of the twisted surprises of the film’s final few scenes, I will only say that you’ll never look at a lobster quite the same way again.

As with all of Waters’s films, Multiple Maniacs was shot on location in and around his beloved hometown of Baltimore. Waters recalled the particularly tricky task of finding a church in which they could film the deeply sacrilegious sexual acts that Stole performs on Lady Divine as the latter prays for spiritual enlightenment. The solution came when Waters was introduced to a left-leaning local priest who agreed to allow the filmmaker to shoot in his house of worship. As a radical friend of Waters’s distracted the priest with political chatter, Waters got his scandalous footage, and even grabbed an image of a local actor shooting up on the altar for that extra touch of impiety. With typical impish understatement, Waters would later write “Multiple Maniacs really helped me to flush Catholicism out of my system.”

Ironically, Waters had relied upon local religious institutions as exhibition sites for his previous short films and his first feature, Mondo Trasho (1969). He had first screened his work at the Great Hall of Emmanuel Church, but switched to First Unitarian Church for the premiere of Multiple Maniacs after the reverends at Emmanuel had, in Waters’s words, “decided they had risked their necks enough for ‘art.’” These first showings offered glimpses of the midnight-movie bacchanalia that would soon become associated with Pink Flamingos. A consummate if highly self-conscious showman, Waters loved the outrageous gimmicks of such B-cinema masters as William Castle. He took up exploitation film’s mantle of anything-to-get-em-in-the-door overkill, but did so with an eye towards the trash culture he celebrated in Multiple Maniacs. As a result, lucky viewers at the midnight showings of Multiple Maniacs received such fabulous “door prizes” as a book on Sharon Tate and a pound of ground beef.

Even more so than his previous feature, Multiple Maniacs also made a splash outside of Charm City. Underground Cinema 12, a traveling series of experimental and independent movies, picked up the film and circulated it across the country. Perhaps more importantly to Waters’s burgeoning reputation within the countercultural and queer communities of the early 1970s, Multiple Maniacs played as part of the Nocturnal Dream Shows. A notable midnight-movie program run out of San Francisco’s Palace Theater, the Nocturnal Dream Shows both screened films and showcased the wild stage shows of the Cockettes, a San Francisco drag troupe whose performances blended campy Hollywood glamour with the drug-infused ethos of the Bay Area hippie scene. Waters would soon collaborate with the Cockettes on original live productions starring Divine, who received a rapturous airport greeting by the Cockettes upon first arriving in San Francisco. Such a glowing reception would, in Waters’s eyes, give Divine the confidence that he needed to fully embrace the “terrorist drag queen” persona perfected in Pink Flamingos. “It was the first time Divine became Divine in his other life,” Waters told critic Scott MacDonald, adding that Divine’s “whole life changed. He realized he wanted to do this for a living.”

Certainly, Multiple Maniacs proves fascinating in how it lays the groundwork for Waters’s later 1970s masterpieces. Not only does Divine fully come into focus as a character and persona, but Waters’s stalwart and Pink Flamingos stand-out Edith Massey first graces the screen here as a barmaid and confidante of Lady Divine. You don’t have to be a Waters’s devotee, however, to appreciate Multiple Maniacs’s defiantly grimy aesthetic, its pitiless upending of social mores and good taste, its fervent and witty celebration of the deviant and debased. Few lines capture that unique Waters’s mixture of aggression, affection, and bodily excretion better than Mr. David’s breathless ode to his beloved Bonnie: “I love you so fucking much I could shit.”

de Havilland Does du Maurier: MY COUSIN RACHEL

Thursday, October 13th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on My Cousin Rachel were written by Matt St. John, Cinematheque Project Assistant and Programmer, and PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of My Cousin Rachel will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series honoring the centennial of Olivia de Havilland on Sunday, October 16.

By Matt St. John

In the early 1950s, the American film industry felt pressure from television’s increasing popularity and its potential impact on film going. A January 1953 feature in Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin indicates some reactions to this pressure. The article describes 20th Century-Fox’s film slate as “a shattering answer to the little living room screens,” and it quotes studio head Darryl Zanuck’s claim that his film season “certainly shapes up like the kind of entertainment that can’t be matched on the printed page, on the stage, or in any man’s living room.” While he dismissed the ability of other forms of entertainment to compete with cinema, Zanuck continued to adapt their stories. Along with its promotion of upcoming Biblical epics and Technicolor musicals, the article also notes that the studio kicked off its year with “plenty of aces,” including Henry Koster’s My Cousin Rachel, a widely promoted adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier novel.

20th Century-Fox purchased the screen rights to My Cousin Rachel for $80,000 in September 1951, after du Maurier’s literary agent failed to sell them for the original price of $100,000 (plus 5% of worldwide gross). After the book’s American publication in early 1952, however, the trades reported that two British production companies and one in the United States attempted to buy the screen rights from Fox—the property became more promising when the novel was another bestseller by du Maurier. Her earlier novel Rebecca was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock to critical acclaim and box office success in 1940, and the new book appeared to have similar potential, with its story of a man who struggles to determine if his deceased cousin’s charming wife is a mourning widow or a heartless murderer. Leading up to the premiere of My Cousin Rachel in December 1952, the studio emphasized its connection to du Maurier, as well as the celebrated lead actress, with ads stating, “Over 31,000,000 readers are waiting to see Olivia de Havilland in Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel.”

Audience had waited three years since Olivia de Havilland’s last screen appearance in William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949), a performance that won her a second Academy Award for Best Actress. During her break from film acting, she performed in stage productions of Romeo and Juliet and George Bernard Shaw’s Candida to limited success, and her return to film was eagerly anticipated. A highly publicized separation from her husband also added to the interest in de Havilland and her latest performance.

These two characteristics—the return of a major star and the adaptation of a popular novel—made My Cousin Rachel a prestige release for Fox, and critics praised many aspects of the film when it premiered. Variety noted the “compelling performances and a clean touch in its presentation” as highlights, and the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther applauded the “eerie and fateful mood that prevails through this excellent screen translation of Daphne du Maurier's literate romance.” De Havilland’s performance was routinely appreciated by critics, although Richard Burton’s American debut in the film gained even more recognition, as in the Film Bulletin review: “While Miss de Havilland’s performance is another Oscar contender, Richard Burton’s portrayal of her harried young lover is the top role in the film and overshadows even Miss de Havilland’s artistry.” Reviews also emphasize the score and cinematography as particular strengths of the film.

Despite the widespread acclaim for the performances and technical elements of My Cousin Rachel, critics repeatedly pointed to the central mystery’s lack of resolution as a problem, in either their own estimation or the presumed taste of audiences. Variety claimed that the film’s box office would depend in part on “how readily the general public will accept the responsibility for solving the main theme’s mystery implications,” and Crowther argued more forcefully that the “impulse of ambiguity, which runs all the way through the film and endows it with constant fascination and uninhibited suspense, considerably obliterates the effect when it crashes against the stone wall of the author's deliberate admission of inconclusiveness.”

Even as an anticipated adaptation, with the return of de Havilland and the emergence of Burton as a new star, the film was only a moderate success at the box office with a gross of $1.3 million. Perhaps critics correctly feared the audience reaction to My Cousin Rachel’s ambiguity, yet this quality remains one of the film’s greatest pleasures, alongside the excellent performances and pervasive suspenseful tone. When compared with the frequent use of widescreen formats, 3D, and Technicolor in the early 1950s, My Cousin Rachel may seem like a conventional, old-fashioned film for the period. But its stubborn adherence to an ambiguous story is anything but traditional for a Hollywood narrative, offering a bold approach to a prestige mystery.

How Could People Get So Unkind?: Dennis Hopper and Linda Manz’s OUT OF THE BLUE

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Dennis Hopper's Out of the Blue was written by Vincent Mollica, WUD Film Programmer and previous contributor to this blog. A 35mm print of Out of the Blue will screen at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Saturday, October 1, at 7 p.m.

By Vincent Mollica

Following the massive success of Easy Rider, people wanted more directed by Dennis Hopper. However, when the counterculture radical/actor/director released the gonzo The Last Movie in 1971, audiences wanted nothing to do with it. Although a fascinating achievement, the film was a colossal failure leaving Hopper, at least as a director, to become a persona non grata in Hollywood. A 1978 New York Times interview finds Hopper, although still acting, tucked away in New Mexico, drinking with his pals Neil Young and Dean Stockwell, truly living the hippie dream. Hopper ends the interview by saying that if he were to direct another feature he would like this one to be easier to follow, while still being a film that would “torment” audiences.

An opportunity to make such a film would arise for Hopper soon after that interview. Hopper was initially meant to act as the abusive father in the Canadian melodrama Cebe about a young girl in peril (Linda Manz, star of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven) and her kindly psychiatrist (Raymond Burr). However, Hopper became director after producer Paul Lewis deemed its current director (Leonard Yakir) too inexperienced. Although he doesn’t carry a screenwriting credit, Hopper completely reconstructed the film. Hopper seemed to have a lot of contempt for the aging Burr. He shot many scenes with him, but Hopper knew he would cut him down to two scenes. Hopper comically notes Burr never knew he wasn’t the film’s lead. The emphasis was placed on Manz’s character with a secondary focus on her father and their troubled relationship.

The film, now called Out of the Blue, starts with the father (still Hopper) crashing into a school bus full of children and blowing it up. The story picks up with Hopper in prison and Manz living in a state of total independence, despite living with her kind, but ineffectual, mother (Sharon Farrell). She struts around with her walkman and denim jacket, acting as if the rest of the world exists only to entertain her. Hopper is released from prison, and although he starts to acclimate back into society, with an adoring Manz by his side, he descends into a drunken, violent state. This results in a troubling and unexpectedly brutal finale, especially for Manz’s character. At the end of the film, whether it’s better or not, its characters burn out rather than fade away.

On the film’s DVD commentary track, Hopper claims the film is a “pretty raw look at life.” Despite its more conventional aesthetic and style, Out of the Blue is certainly a raw film. Some have seen it as a kind of commentary on American society at the end of the ‘70s, a reading perhaps driven by having Hopper at the helm. A Variety review from Cannes claims the film looks at “what the 70s drug culture and dregs of the counterculture could have wrought on those easy riders who got off their bikes and tried to conform and had children.” Hopper says that allusions to the kind of characters found in Easy Rider are unintentional, although he doesn’t dismiss the idea.

Another reading might be a feminist one, invited by a gender non-conforming lead character as well as her, eventually, violently intolerant father figure. In a 1983 Heavy Metal interview, when asked about his use of such a “strong, independent, female lead,” Hopper seems progressively minded but he also self-consciously remarks “there’s a great part of me that has always been very cruel, I guess, to women, because I don’t understand them.” It’s a statement that forces one to think about the threat of physical and sexual violence that permeates Out of the Blue’s conclusion, as well as Hopper’s own abuse in his marriage to Brooke Hayward years earlier. The film feels like both a reflexive look at toxic masculinity and potentially an expression of the same.

However, there’s still a lot of joy in Out of the Blue. The film’s most notable aspect is Linda Manz’s Cebe and her relationship with music. Hopper took a liking to Manz on set, and helped form a unique punk character for her. In one sequence Cebe hitchhikes to Vancouver and infiltrates a punk show where the drummer allows Cebe to play. Cebe and the drummer are up against a brightly lit open wall, complete with silly poster, so the moment has a warm quality which matches the sweet interaction between the two. In this moment music is an awesome force that Manz timidly starts to tap into. Hopper says of this moment “she’s scared to death, you can see it in her.” However, as indicated by the warm mise en scène, this fear is an exciting one. Like many people in real life, without other guiding forces, music is Cebe’s roadmap in life, shaping her identity and serving as a great emotional outlet. One wonders about a grownup Cebe, perhaps becoming a Riot Grrl or a Penelope Spheeris-like filmmaker.

Out of the Blue played at Cannes IN 1980, where it picked up fans like Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby, however, it took several years until getting distribution through Discovery Films. Ebert and Canby supported the film on successful small release, and Jack Nicholson, another fan, did a radio spot promoting it. Three years later Hopper would act as Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which may go down as his most known performance. Manz did not really work in film after Out of the Blue, although she does appear in 1997’s Gummo. However, a 2011 Village Voice interview with her makes it seems like it’s not a huge deal for her (“I haven’t been to a movie in 20 years…”). It may not carry a huge reputation but, even with its problematic climax, Out of the Blue is a special film. In some ways it’s a follow up to Easy Rider (it was this similarity that attracted the film’s eventual distributor). It’s another tragedy about sticking it to the man, and living a life out of a status quo. However, in placing a focus on gender and music, as well as reigning in some of his excesses, Hopper made a deeply felt, sympathetic piece of cinema.

De Palma Accepts a Blockbuster MISSION

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Mission: Impossible  was written by JJ Bersch, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Mission: Impossible will kick off the final night in our Brian De Palma series on Friday, September 23 at 7 p.m. Mission: Impossible will be followed by De Palma's other major blockbuster, The Untouchables, at 9 p.m.

On May 18, 1996, Cleveland hip-hop group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony achieved a level of success that previously seemed unimaginable; their somber but celebratory single “Tha Crossroads” reached the top position on the Billboard Hot 100. The song—written in remembrance of their recently deceased mentor Eazy-E—opens with the following lines: “Now tell me what you gonna do / When it ain’t nowhere to run / When judgment comes for you / When judgment comes for you.”

These were the words you likely would have heard on the radio while driving to the multiplex to see Mission: Impossible on its opening weekend, and if you had followed any of the press leading up to its release, you probably would have felt like judgment had been coming for the film well before then. Take the following introduction from a prerelease Entertainment Weekly story: “Good morning, Mr. Phelps. This microchip contains a photograph of Brian De Palma, director of Mission: Impossible. De Palma has vanished from the realm of movie hyping without a trace. Although publicists for the film deny any knowledge of his whereabouts, sources close to the director say he chose to make himself scarce after a series of creative battles with Impossible star Tom Cruise. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to make sure this movie doesn't self-destruct…”

Budgeted at $85 million, Mission: Impossible was easily the most expensive film De Palma had ever directed—his previous biggest budget was $47 million for 1990’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, a critical and commercial flop—and the strains of blockbuster filmmaking were evident throughout the production process. Some of the problems stemmed from this very budget; EW claims that Paramount executives wanted to “keep the budget for the film in the $40 to $50 million range,” but that Tom Cruise’s “vision” called “for a big, showy action piece” that brought it closer to $62 million. Others came from the screenplay; it went through a troubling set of revisions, with Jurassic Park screenwriter David Koepp receiving $1 million to revamp an earlier script by husband-and-wife team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz. His version called for an extremely dark and deadly opening to the film, and original cast members of the Mission: Impossible television series such as Peter Graves and Martin Landau were outspoken in the press about their concerns over the film’s tone and its treatment of the source material.

And then there’s the matter of De Palma’s relationship with Cruise. Here, again, is Entertainment Weekly: “Trouble between the director and the star-producer supposedly flared throughout the production. ‘Brian had the s--- beaten out of him by Tom and Paula [Wagner, coproducer],’ says a De Palma crony. ‘Tom second-guessed everything he did. One of the reasons the movie went over budget is that Cruise would change his mind at the last minute. 'I want this couch to be red, not beige.' Things like that. I think Brian felt pulverized during the making of this film.’ Pulverized enough to ditch Mission's press junket earlier this month.”

Yet almost none of these difficulties are apparent in the film itself. As Cineaste writes, “Although Brian De Palma's name was all but ignored in the prerelease ballyhoo for this summer blockbuster, the vision behind this witty adaptation of the hit TV spy series of the Sixties is very recognizable.” From the voyeurism and “movieness” of the film’s opening moments to the discomfort provided by the level of viewer knowledge in the film’s central set piece, Mission: Impossible is pretty soundly a Brian De Palma film. It is smaller, darker, and more contemplative than most of the series’ later entries, and probably a lot more confusing, but that’s part of the film’s enduring appeal; few popcorn films have ever had this much fun in the murkiness of the shadows.

Two full decades later, the franchise is still running strong and loud; the most recent, 2015’s Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, was released to critical and commercial success, and industry trades have spent this summer detailing the salary disputes that temporarily halted production on the next. Whether it be John Woo’s stylistic excess, J.J. Abrams’s misguided attempt to center the series around familial drama, or the brief moment studio executives thought they could hand over the series to Jeremy Renner, Cruise and his varying crews at IMF have time and again proven that they will always find somewhere to run, even when it ain’t nowhere to run.

De Palma, however, does not seem likely to run with it (or blockbuster Hollywood), again. In response to a question about the series from Moviefone in 2013, De Palma quips, “It always amazed me why somebody would want to make one thing over and over again. I think Tom has done a fantastic job in keeping this franchise going. It's just, aesthetically, it holds no interest in me. It's all about economics. Why would you want to keep making Mission: Impossibles?”

Even if he cannot, you will probably be able to find the answer (or a couple of answers) in De Palma’s film.

Heroines of Anime: PAPRIKA

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Satoshi Kon's Paprika (2006) was written by Jacob Mertens, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Paprika will screen at 7 p.m. on Saturday, September 24, a screening that marks the conclusion of our Heroines of Anime series.

By Jacob Mertens

The international trailer for Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006) offered a compelling pull quote from The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, stating that Kon’s film proved “that Japanese animators are reaching for the moon, while most of their American counterparts remain stuck in the kiddie sandbox.” The quote never made Dargis’ print review, but resonates in a trailer filled with fantastic imagery. Her words underscore a promise for experimentation and mature themes delivered by a national cinema committed to exploring animation’s full potential. In practice, Paprika over-delivers on this promise, not only demonstrating the diversity of Japan’s animation but also the mastery of a director at the height of his expressive powers.

In the opening sequence of the film, Detective Kogawa Toshimi wanders through his own dream, accompanied by the dream therapist Paprika. The two flit between environments as a circus bleeds into a jungle, then a train, a crowded dock on the water, and a hotel hallway that spans into an endless horizon. Kon transitions between these settings through a series of matches on action, creating a sense of continuity amidst these discordant shifts. In other words, the film’s match cuts help to reinforce the coherence of an otherwise incoherent dream. Kon further complicates this sequence by undermining the dreamer’s identity, such as when the circus crowd suddenly mimics the detective’s appearance and charges him, or by having the world of the dream deteriorate at its end. All this happens in less than three minutes, setting the tone for a film that subverts the boundaries of waking life and fantasy.

Paprika also signaled the culmination of themes that had preoccupied Kon throughout his career. In Perfect Blue (1997), the director used disjunctive edits to disrupt a character’s sense of reality and identity. In Millennium Actress (2001), he used an unconventional narrative structure and matches on action to show an aged actress shifting into past roles and memories. And in Tokyo Godfathers (2003), admittedly the most conventional of Kon’s films, the director privileged characters who are, for one reason or another, haunted by their past while living in a stagnated present. Throughout Kon’s cinema, characters are not always who they say they are or even who they think they are. Notions of identity, memory, and reality remain constantly in flux and the world reflects that uncertainty in increasingly bold and nuanced ways. 

These motifs find fruition in Satoshi Kon’s final film. In Paprika, the therapist Dr. Atsuko Chiba gains the ability to enter the dreams of her patients using a device called the DC Mini. Once there, she assumes the appearance and wholly changed personality of her alter-ego Paprika. In real life, Dr. Chiba appears reserved and thoughtful. In the dream world, Paprika is suddenly free and vivacious. Presumably, the dream allows Dr. Chiba to express a part of her personality that remains carefully controlled, and in some respects repressed, in the real world. However, after the DC Mini is stolen, reality and dreams begin to merge and the environment that once gave Dr. Chiba affirmation and freedom becomes compromised by the ill will of other dreamers. As the film spirals, Dr. Chiba must resolve her conflicted sense of self and past suppression of emotions, all while navigating a dream world that devolves into a nightmare. In the end, the film refuses to give its viewers level footing, embracing a radical narrative progression that prioritizes imagination and emotional engagement above all else.  

Satoshi Kon’s career was short-lived. He died of pancreatic cancer four years after completing Paprika, at the age of 42. However, with just four films and a televised series to his name, he managed to push the boundaries of style and storytelling in ways that captured the full power of his medium. Unlike some artists who died before their time, we do not have to lament potential left unrealized. Among Satoshi Kon’s limited oeuvre, his first film Perfect Blue and last film Paprika stand out as unquestionable masterpieces. They are films that not only experiment with animation in formally exciting ways but do so while telling stories that make use of animation’s ability to show us a world that can change or dissolve or reconfigure itself at will. And while Perfect Blue was conceived amidst the opening gambit of a new movement in Japanese animation—joined by influential works like Akira (1988), Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Ghost in the Shell (1995), and Princess Mononoke (1997)—Paprika in many ways marked that movement’s zenith. One only wishes that Kon lived long enough to tackle the unenviable task of following up such a critical success.

When NAUSICAÄ Became WARRIORS OF THE WIND

Tuesday, September 6th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on the original American theatrical release of Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind were written by WUD Film's James LaPierre, co-programmer for the Cinematheque's ongoing "Heroines of Anime" series. The original, full-length Japanese version of Nausicaä will screen in a 35mm subtitled print on Saturday, September 10 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By James LaPierre

Princess Mononoke was released in Japan in July 1997 to massive critical and commercial success- the film quickly became the highest-grossing Japanese film of the year. When director Hayao Miyazaki was approached by Miramax Films’ CEO Harvey Weinstein about its U.S. distribution, Weinstein demanded that the film be heavily edited in order to appeal to American audiences. Offended by Weinstein’s insistence on modifying his work, Miyazaki left the meeting in anger. Days later, famed Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki sent a katana sword to Weinstein’s office, with an attached note reading “No cuts.” Miramax heard Miyazaki’s message loud and clear- the film was eventually released theatrically in the U.S. in its original, unedited form. When asked about the incident in a 2005 interview with The Guardian, Miyazaki simply smiled and remarked “I defeated him.”

Why did Miyazaki react defensively when told his film would be recut? The answer dates back to the U.S. release of his earlier 1987 film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Upon Nausicaä’s release in Japan, the film was met with critical acclaim- leading to the creation of Studio Ghibli shortly thereafter and the desire for Miyazaki to export his work outside of Japan. In 1984, production/distribution company New World Pictures was tasked with bringing the film to United States audiences. A 95-minute recut and English-language dub of the film titled Warriors of the Wind was released theatrically in 1985 with a VHS home video version available shortly thereafter. The plot of the film was modified to more closely resemble a traditional children’s action-adventure movie, and all promotional images featured a slew of male characters, none of which appear in the film. Many of the film's character names were changed (including titular character Princess Nausicaä who became Princess Zandra), and the voice actors working on the film were not told the film's plot line before recording their lines- simply put, Warriors of the Wind was an inferior and distorted version of Miyazaki’s original masterwork. To this day, it remains his only film to have been stripped down for U.S. distribution.

Fortunately, New World Picture’s rights to Nausicaä expired in 1995, leaving it up to Miyazaki and his team to find a new U.S. distributor for his films. In 1996, The Walt Disney Company reached an agreement with Tokuma Shoten (Miyazaki’s publisher)- the deal gave Disney the theatrical and home video distribution rights to most Studio Ghibli films (including Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind). In 2003, a new English dub of the film was announced with both Patrick Stewart and Uma Thurman cast. The uncut, original 117-minute version of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was released on DVD in the United States in 2005, containing Disney's new dub as well as an improved subtitle translation. This improved version is now available widely on home video, and is the version that will be shown on 35mm for Cinematheque's screening of the film on September 10th.

Nausicaä Scenes Absent in Warriors of the Wind (Total time of missing scenes: 23:36 min)

* Entire opening credits sequence prior to Nausicaä’s visit to the Toxic Jungle (95 sec)

* Nausicaä finding the Ohm shell in the Toxic Jungle (163 sec)

* Lord Yupa’s return to the Valley of the Wind (92 sec)

* Villagers searching for poisonous spores in the fields (28 sec)

* Lord Yupa’s discovery of Nausicaä’s secret garden (195 sec)

* Children giving Nausicaä chico nuts as a farewell gift (61 sec)

* Both of Nausicaä’s childhood flashback sequences (173 sec)

* Nausicaä and Asbel’s visit beneath the Toxic Jungle (214 sec)

* Villagers burning contaminated trees (54 sec)

* Nausicaä and the Pejite leader arguing (30 sec)

* Asbel leading Nausicaä to the room full of women with a secret passageway (21 sec)

* Kushana and Kurotowa awaiting the incoming Pejite attack (192 sec)

* Closing credits (98 sec)

3 WOMEN: Altman and the Feminine Mystique

Thursday, April 28th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Robert Altman's 3 Women were written by Matthew Connolly, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A new 4K restoration of 3 Women will screen as part of our "Robert Altman: Five Masterworks" series on Friday, April 29, at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular screening venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue

By Matthew Connolly

At the time, of course, I was not aware of it. I don’t sit and think, ‘Oh, I’ll use a female character.’ That’s simply what attracted me. I don’t know if that relates particularly to my own life or experience. I don’t know where that interest in strong female characters comes from.” – Robert Altman, in response to critic Graham Fuller’s observation on how his films which “seem to be making personal statements” often “focus on strong female characters.”

Among Robert Altman’s most formally innovative and narratively beguiling works, 3 Women (1977) offers a particularly fruitful example of the filmmaker’s career-long investment in chronicling female identity and experience. This interest has taken many forms and produced varying representational results throughout his career. At his best, he has helped to create (and, just as importantly, given actresses the space to shape) some of the richest and most vibrant female roles in contemporary American cinema: Constance Miller in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Linnea Reese in Nashville (1975), Joanne in Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), Marian Wyman in Short Cuts (1993), to name just a few. Still, even the most ardent Altman acolyte has assuredly cringed at the abrasive, even cruel treatment that women have sometimes received throughout his oeuvre.

Within this body of work, though, 3 Women stands out both for its almost-exclusive focus on female protagonists and its increasingly mysterious handling of their relationships to one another. A physical therapist at a California health spa for the elderly, Millie (Shelley Duvall) is a socially isolated extrovert whose constant attempts to connect with neighbors and co-workers end in derision. She nevertheless becomes an object of adoration for Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek), a shy and almost childlike new employee at the spa. The two move in together after Millie’s old roommate moves out, with Millie introducing Pinky to the co-owners of both their apartment building and the bar that Millie frequents: Willie (Janice Rule), pregnant and silent and almost always painting unsetting murals of lizard-like creatures; and her boozy, philandering husband, Edgar (Robert Fortier). A combination of Millie’s blinkered romantic pursuits and Pinky’s blatant attempts to infiltrate herself into Millie’s personal life soon cause friction between the two, leading to a series of bizarre events that cause the personalities of the two women to bleed into one another. To reveal any more to potential first-time viewers is to dampen the elegantly unsettling and slippery maneuvers through which Altman shifts the identities of Willie, Pinky, and Millie. Suffice to say, though, that the Bergman-esque (see Persona, which is screening on May 1) blurring of selves within the film’s second half pushes 3 Women beyond Altman’s usual brand of free-floating, acid-tinged social commentary and into the realm of the surreal.

What to make of the fact – as suggested in the above interview excerpt – that one of Altman’s most explicit forays into art-cinema ambiguity and narrative indeterminacy became so deeply entangled with the mystery of female identity? Critics came up with varying explanations and opinions upon the film’s release in April 1977, with some linking 3 Women’s enigmatic qualities to its well-publicized origins in a dream that Altman had while his wife Kathryn was hospitalized with a duodenal ulcer. In his largely glowing notice, Vincent Canby of The New York Times deemed the film “the moviemaker’s dream more than that of the characters’ within,” adding that “it’s not a narrative in any strict sense but a contemplation of three stages of a woman’s life by a man who appreciates women and may not be without a bit of guilt.” This notion of the film as more male reverie than a contemplation of lived female experience became echoed more critically in articles that discussed the film in relation to larger trends in the representation of women in late-1970s Hollywood. Jane Wilson, also in The New York Times, wrote that 3 Women “speaks powerfully of Altman’s own apprehensions of female nature as it impinges on him in his dreams,” but “hasn’t much to say to women now about themselves, nor does it provide any fresh perceptions about their relationships with one another and with men.”

Historical distance and critical hindsight have done little to resolve such debates. 3 Women’s depiction of the fluctuating friendship between Millie and Pinky possesses all the markers of Altman’s career-long observational acuity, particularly when documenting Millie’s consumerist obsessions fueled by McCall’s and other women’s magazines of the era. (The preparations of her abortive dinner party are a jaw-dropping cavalcade of late-70s processed food.) Yet such comic bite cannot easily be disentangled from Altman’s compassion, especially towards Millie. “She’s simply trying to do the right thing,” Altman told Betty Jeffries Demby in a 1977 interview when discussing Millie’s slavish devotion to all things conventionally feminine, “and what is the right thing? It’s the thing people tell you is right.” In the same interview, his thoughts on the film’s final vision of female solidarity hints at a complicated interweaving of utopian collectivity and unsparing instinct: “The women in 3 Women survive because they are taking care of each other. And they do that because they are forced into it … surviving is stronger than morals. It’s the strongest thing because it’s the least understood and it’s the least logical.”

If the film’s deeply imbricated strands of up-to-the-minute satire and dream logic, anxiety and empathy, ensures that it will remain a productively complicated example of Altman’s larger relationship to female representation, 3 Women also showcases how Altman’s emphasis on collaboration allowed the actresses within his film opportunities to shine that they rarely received elsewhere. Spacek’s perfectly calibrated blankness proves all the more unsettling as Pinky’s obsession deepens and then dissipates, while Duvall (who improvised several of her most memorable monologues) brings such astute comic timing and fierce presence to Millie that her most pedestrian wants and desires take on a shocking depth of feeling. They form an essential center to a film built around ever growing indeterminacy; or, to quote Melissa Anderson, they’re “reminders of a very specific somewhere, the one immutable truth in a film abounding with fantasies.”

WALKER: This is a True Story

Friday, April 8th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Alex Cox's Walker (1987) were written by UW student and WUD Film programmer Vincent Mollica. A 35mm print of Walker will be our final Marquee Monday for the spring season on Monday, April 11 at 7 p.m., in the Marquee Theater at Union South.

By Vincent Mollica

Walker is perhaps the only film of its type: an ornate 19th century period comedy that is also a vicious piece of political agitprop. Walker is about a real life figure named William Walker, a filibuster who imperialized Nicaragua in the 1850s as a means to create a transit route between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Walker eventually took over Nicaragua’s government, declared himself president, and finally, following much international warfare and intrigue around the mishandling of this transit route, he burned Grenada to the ground and fled. Author T.J Stoles describes him as “one of the most dangerous international criminals of the nineteenth century, if not all our history.” Director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy) and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) depict Walker’s mission of manifest destiny as a fraught, bloody, jungle expedition, resulting in the unnecessary deaths of many.

However, Cox was driven less by his interest in Nicaragua in the 1850s than by his interest in Nicaragua in the 1980s. At this time the leftist Sandinista government, who had recently over thrown Somoza’s dictatorship, was under attack by “contras.” These were counterrevolutionaries who, as revealed in Iran-Contra, were funded by President Reagan’s administration, which was implementing its own subtler form of imperialism. Cox claims that while visiting Nicaragua, two Sandinistas asked if he would make a movie there, planting the seeds of what would become Walker. Of this, Cox later said on his website, “If people like these two lads could overthrow a hated dictator and American stooge, how hard could it be for two gringos to scam some money in the USA, bring it back and make a movie about Nicaraguan history, Nicaraguan reality?” In making a Hollywood film almost entirely in Nicaragua, using William Walker’s invasion as an explicit allegory of US-Nicaraguan relations at the time, Cox did just that (if you need that proved, just stay for the film’s end credits, which may go down as one of the most explicitly political moments in Hollywood film).

Using visual anachronisms, like props of Time magazine or Coke bottles strewn in period setting, Cox draws these two periods of American history together. These anachronisms are a good example of how Walker moves far away from a realistic style, embracing lunacy over honesty. With its barrage of sight gags, over the top violence and cartoonish performances, the world of Walker barely resembles our own. Speaking on and pointing out these stylistic elements on the film’s DVD commentary, Cox claims “we’re struggling against a conventional narrative, we’re working in a revolutionary country and we’re trying to make a film that is itself revolutionary.” This was not a film to passively view, reflect on, and agree with, but a film that would confront and agitate viewers.

Not all the film’s politics are so loud though. As Cox gets at in his commentary, at different parts of the film, the story will pause and focus on small moments and dialogues, to investigate the racial, ethnic, and gender politics debated among its different characters. Walker and his black right hand man exchange passages from Walker’s own journal to debate his instatement of slavery; a real life Sandinista actor works to inform audiences of the contra point of view by acting in the film as a Walker sympathizer who walks through a street Walker’s army has ravaged screaming Walker’s praises; Walker’s politically engaged deaf fiancé (Marlee Matlin) confronts him for mistranslating her sign language to other politicians and generally calling out his spinelessness. These moments are political and often stylistically “revolutionary” in their own, smaller way.

Of course, the film was a complete failure which ensured Cox was locked out of Hollywood for the rest of his career. In a short feature on the Criterion DVD, Cox goes through various negative reviews from the film’s release, which mostly chide it for it being “clever.” It’s perhaps understandable that critics—and audiences—were not quite ready to embrace Cox’s aggressive attitude and disregard for convention, but it’s a shame nonetheless. It’s also a shame that—like 1987’s other US-Policy related Hollywood super-flop, Ishtar—the film has never developed the cult audience a film like Repo Man has (it doesn’t even carry Ishtar’s infamy). Even removed from its political nature, the film’s loud, punk aesthetic is deeply satisfying. It gives a transgressive sense of clutter and disarray, that only a Hollywood budget can allow, that also doesn’t feel too exhausting or unfocused. It’s richly deserving of a second life, if only as a reminder of how subversive and experimental a Hollywood film—let alone a Hollywood comedy—can be.

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER: The Richest Gift a Body Could Have

Thursday, April 7th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Charles Laughton's masterpiece, The Night of the Hunter (1955), were written by UW student and WUD Film programmer Vincent Mollica. A 35mm print of The Night of the Hunter, from the UCLA Film and Television Archive, will be the first screening in the Cinematheque's "One and Done" series on Saturday, April 9 at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Vincent Mollica

If I were to choose a single film to introduce someone, of any age, to classic cinema, it would be The Night of the Hunter, a southern gothic-thriller whose great stylishness and emotional depth make it endlessly watchable. Director Charles Laughton was known primarily as an actor, both on stage and on screen, working with many of the most famous filmmakers of the 1930s-1960s such as Alfred Hitchcock, Leo McCarey and Billy Wilder. In the early 1950s Laughton worked with producer Paul Gregory on a bible reading tour as well as theater directing work, before Gregory helped Laughton direct his first and only Hollywood film.

Set in the midst of the Depression, The Night of the Hunter is about a young boy, John, and his younger sister, Pearl, whose father is sent to death row after a bank heist gone wrong. John’s final moment with his father is right before the police whisk him away, in front of their West Virginia home, as he entrusts John with hiding his stolen booty. In prison John’s father meets Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a woman-murdering psychopath in preacher’s clothing. Upon learning of his hidden prize, Powell leaves prison to ingratiate himself in John and Pearl’s lives by taking advantage of their lonely mother (Shelly Winters). The film becomes a mind game between Powell and the ever vigilant John who wants nothing more than to protect his father’s honor.

To his great credit, Laughton didn’t squander his time in the director’s chair by making an anonymous actors picture. He thrills his audience by creating a rich, unique, visual world for John and Pearl to get lost in, as laid out in the invaluable featurette, “The Making of the Night of the Hunter” on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD release. In it author Preston Neal Jones explains that Laughton made the film to return viewers to the era of silent film where he felt they engaged with films on a more active level. Jones and academic Jeffrey Couchman show how the filmmakers set out to create the film’s world from a child’s point of view. They applied stripped down sets, mimicking what a child might notice, and formed expressionistic visuals and special effects to evoke the world of a nightmare (helped in great part by Stanley Cortez’s stark lighting). In skillfully using the medium of film as fully as any of the auteurs he worked under as an actor, Laughton made a film world that thrills and excites an audience in a timeless way.

Although there is clearly great technical skill on the screen, what has always had the most immediate effect on me as a viewer are the film’s performances. Most famous is Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell, whose high theatricality and flair, used to con and manipulate everyone he meets, is constantly on. The drive that Mitchum possesses is especially notable in the film’s final moments, after he has been arrested, and it is as if all the life has drained from his body, reducing him to a human rag doll. Perhaps more than any other one element of the film, there is nothing more reliably entertaining and engrossing than Mitchum’s mannered villainy. My favorite moment with Mitchum is a rare scene where I think we see past this persona. It’s the moment right before he kills Shelly Winters where, in an extravagant long shot, he tenderly reaches to the heavens while, as revealed in a later close up, his face ominously twitches. Benefitted by the shadow on his body and face, which allows us to partly fill in Powell’s emotion ourselves, it comes off as a much more private, genuinely religious, version of Powell.

The second listed adult lead is Lillian Gish, as Ms. Cooper, who protects the children from Powell in the film’s final act. Gish was a carryover from the silent cinema of D.W. Griffith, a director whose work had inspired Laughton and that he had studied in preparation for the film. She transforms her lines, many of which are meant to underline the film’s themes about survival and the durability of youth, from the potentially tacky into something weary and beautiful. However, it’s Billy Chapin that gets my favorite moment of the film. It comes at the very end as Chapin runs, crying, to the arrested, broken Powell, who he begs to just take the money, mirroring his final scene with his father. This scene’s unexpected complexity and sadness haunted me so much when I first saw the film at age 10, I felt the need to try to explain it to anyone who would listen.

Night of the Hunter’s initial commercial failure, which crushed the insecure Laughton, meant he was only allowed create such a rich vision once (his follow up would have been an adaptation of Norman Mailer's novel The Naked and the Dead), which gives an added tragic quality to the film. However, despite this failure The Night of the Hunter has rightfully risen higher and higher in the ranks of the canon of great American cinema over the intervening 60 years. It even spawned a few worthwhile pseudo-remakes: the subversive anti-Reagan slasher The Stepfather, David Gordon Green’s dreamy Undertow and of course Radio Raheem’s take on Mitchum’s Love and Hate speech in Do the Right Thing. Like many “great” pieces of cinema it’s maybe best to not overthink its myriad qualities, as touched on here, while watching the film, and rather let the film come back to you later, piecemeal, like a dream. Watch the film as Laughton intended it to be seen: On the edge of your seat, attention rapt. As if a child.

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