Ben Reiser's Favorite Movies of 2018

Thursday, January 3rd, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

Ben Reiser is a Programmer for the UW Cinematheque and the Wisconsin Film Festival.

 

Ten recent movies I thoroughly enjoyed in 2018:

BLOCKAGE (Mohsen Gharaie, 2017)

CREED II (Steven Caple Jr., 2018)

THE DEATH OF STALIN (Armando Iannucci, 2017)

THE GUILTY (Gustav Moller, 2018)

MAKALA (Emmanuel Gras, 2017)

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT (Christopher McQuarrie, 2018)

PRIVATE LIFE (Tamara Jenkins, 2018)

A QUIET PLACE (John Krasinski, 2018)

THE RIDER (Chloe Zhao, 2018)

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr., Rodney Rothman, 2018)

Eleven more I enjoyed just as much: 

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2018)

CUSTODY (Xavier Legrand, 2017)

DAMSEL (David Zellner & Nathan Zellner, 2018)

ISLE OF DOGS (Wes Anderson, 2018)

LIFE AND NOTHING MORE (Antonio Mendez Esparza, 2018)

PADDINGTON 2 (Paul King, 2018)

THE PREDATOR (Shane Black, 2018)

RAMPAGE (Brad Peyton, 2018)

REVENGE (Coralie Fargeat, 2017)

SWEET COUNTRY (Warwick Thornton, 2017)

THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS (Tim Wardle, 2018)

Mike King's Favorite Films of 2018

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

Mike King is the Cinematheque's Programmer and Chief Projectionist and is Senior Programmer for the Wisconsin Film Festival.

 

Top ten new films to play Madison in 2018, in alphabetical order:

3 FACES (2018, Jafar Panahi)

FIRST MAN (2018, Damien Chazelle)

FIRST REFORMED (2017, Paul Schrader)

THE GREEN FOG (2017, Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson)

MANDY (2018, Panos Cosmatos)

THE MULE (2018, Clint Eastwood)

THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE (2017, Aki Kaurismäki)

PHANTOM THREAD (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson)

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (2017, Lynne Ramsay)

ZAMA (2017, Lucrecia Martel)

Kelley Conway's Favorite Movies of 2018

Monday, December 31st, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

Kelley Conway is Department Chair and Professor of Film in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. She is also Artistic Director of the Wisconsin Film Festival and the UW Cinematheque.

 

Films I enjoyed this year:

THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)

FIRST MAN (Damien Chazelle, 2018)

WHAT A WOMAN! (LA FORTUNA DI ESSERE DONNA, Alessandro Blasetti, 1956)

WHEN TOMORROW COMES (John M. Stahl, 1939)

SEED (John M. Stahl, 1931)

THREE FACES (Jafar Panahi, 2018)

A STAR IS BORN (Bradley Cooper, 2018)

THE FAVOURITE (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018)

PHANTOM THREAD (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2018)

JEUNE FEMME (Léonor Serraille, 2017)

 

Films I know I’ll love when I see them:

ROMA (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018)

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (Barry Jenkins, 2018)

SHOPLIFTERS (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2018)

BURNING(Lee Chang-dong, 2018)

LEAVE NO TRACE (Debra Granik, 2018)

Jim Healy's Favorite Movies of 2018

Sunday, December 30th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

Jim Healy is Director of Progamming of the UW Cinematheque and the Wisconsin Film Festival.

I saw 721 feature films that were new to me in 2018. These 10, presented in alphabetical order, provided me with the most pleasure:

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018, Joel & Ethan Coen)

GAME NIGHT (2018, John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein)

ISLE OF DOGS (2018, Wes Anderson)

LEAVE NO TRACE (2018, Debra Granik)

MANDY (2018, Panos Cosmatos)

PHANTOM THREAD (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson)

LA RAGAZZA IN VENTRINA (1961, Luciano Emmer)

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET (2018, Phil Johnston, Rich Moore)

ROMA (2018, Alfonso Cuaron)

WHEN TOMORROW COMES (1939, John M. Stahl)

Here's a list of 20 other movies that I enjoyed almost as much:

ANT MAN AND THE WASP (2018, Peyton Reed)

CAMILLA (1954, Luciano Emmer)

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME (2018, Marielle Heller)

GREEN BOOK (2018, Peter Farrelly)

THE L-SHAPED ROOM (1963, Bryan Forbes)

HEREDITARY (2018, Ari Aster)

ICE COLD IN ALEX (1958, J. Lee Thompson)

I AM NOT A WITCH (2017, Rungano Nyoni)

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE FALLOUT (2018, Christopher McQuarrie)

NONE SHALL ESCAPE (1943, Andre de Toth)

ONE MORE SPRING (1935, Henry King)

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (2018, Orson Welles)

PADDINGTON 2 (2017, Paul King)

PETERLOO (2018, Mike Leigh)

PRIVATE LIFE (2018, Tamara Jenkins)

THE RED KIMONA (1925, Walter Lang, Dorothy Davenport)

ROSAURO CASTRO (1950, Roberto Gavaldon)

SEED (1931, John M. Stahl)

SUPPORT THE GIRLS (2018, Andrew Bujalski)

24 FRAMES (2017, Abbas Kiarostami)

Just for the hell of it, here are another 20 movies that I really liked:

BUMBLEBEE (2018, Travis Knight)

CEILING ZERO (1935, Howard Hawks)

CHANG: A DRAMA OF THE WILDERNESS (1927, Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack)

CREED II (2018, Steven Caple, Jr.)

FIRST MAN (2018, Damien Chazelle)

49TH PARALLEL (1941, Michael Powell)

GONE TO EARTH (1950, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

IN FABRIC (2018, Peter Strickland)

INCREDIBLES 2 (2018, Brad Bird)

THE JERICHO MILE (1979, Michael Mann)

THE MAD GAME (1933, Irving Cummings)

MAKING MONTGOMERY CLIFT (2018, Robert A. Clift, Hillary Demmon)

NOS BATAILLES (2018, Guillaume Senez)

OUR VINES HAVE TENDER GRAPES (1945, Roy Rowland)

THE PREDATOR (2018, Shane Black)

READY PLAYER ONE (2018, Steven Spielberg)

A STAR IS BORN (2018, Bradley Cooper)

LOS TALLOS AMARGOS (1956, Fernando Ayala)

ULYSSES & MONA (2018, Sebastian Betbeder)

WOMEN OF ALL NATIONS (1931, Raoul Walsh)

Pure Monochrome: VERONIKA VOSS

Wednesday, December 12th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Veronika Voss (1982) were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Veronika Voss will screen on on Sunday, December 16, 2018 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art, a screening that will conclude our Fassbinder series and our 2018 programming.

By Tim Brayton

It’s not difficult to see why Veronika Voss might inspire such passion. More than most of Fassbinder’s films, it offers no ironic detachment from its own artistry; it openly demands respect and admiration, showcasing some of the most complex imagery in the director’s career. It also presents one of his most serious and mirthless visions of human suffering. While one might reasonably wonder what has happened to the light, sardonic camp of his great melodramas, this is no mere wallow in human misery. Rather, Veronika Voss is a work of profound empathy, a gesture of kindness from one drug user spiraling out of control to another (when Fassbinder died, less than four months after the film’s premiere, it was of an accidental overdose).

The story was inspired by the post-war career and death of Sybille Schmitz, one of Fassbinder’s favorite movie stars. Despite her success in the 1930s, her reputation suffered a fatal blow thanks to her willing collaboration with the Third Reich filmmakers of the state-run UFA film studio. By the mid-’50s, she was a ghost, filling the gaps between rare supporting roles with alcohol and drugs supplied by the shady Dr. Ursula Moritz. The sordid tale of Schmitz’s degraded life in 1955, and the black market criminality of Moritz’s alleged morphine ring, made for a perfect melodramatic crime scenario, though in the end, Veronika Voss (with names changed and details smudged to avoid legal repercussions), is not at all the sort of film that the phrase “crime melodrama” calls to mind.

It is, rather, a bleak but loving character study of Schmitz/Voss as made by one of the world’s great cinephile-directors. If there’s anything that connects Veronika Voss with the rest of Fassbinder’s prodigious output, it’s the rich sense of cinema history he brings to the proceedings. This time, the warm colors and fulsome emotions of his Sirkian melodramas is abandoned for the black-and-white of German Expression or its little American sibling, film noir; though only rarely even in the high-contrast chiaroscuro of noir do we find a film so austere in its palette as this. To call a film “black-and-white” generally implies that there will be some greys, too, but Fassbinder and cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger have very little interest in such nuance: Veronika Voss is a film of pure monochrome, made up of little else than layered slashes of deepest blacks and harshest whites. The hospital run by the corrupt Dr. Marianne Katz (Annemarie Düringer) is one of the all-time great cinematic asylums, made entirely from featureless slabs of sterile white, glowing with inhuman malevolence as they crush in against poor Veronika (Rosel Zech).

Even outside of the walls of this institution, the dominate visual scheme of the film is of imprisonment. The filmmakers use precise compositions, dominated by straight lines and geometric forms, to pin Veronika into tiny spaces, paradoxically using deep compositions to emphasize how little room she has to maneuver. Even in the happiest memory we’ll ever see, when she recalls the shooting of one of her many successful movies of yesteryear, the image is dominated by huge, star-shaped lens flares (the film used special lenses to exaggerate these and other flares), which form an impenetrable grid of diagonal lines that present Veronika almost literally as an inmate behind bars, caged by the film industry that will shortly view her as a disreputable memory to be buried and forgotten.

Like the other two protagonists of Fassbinder’s BRD trilogy, Hanny Schygulla’s Maria Braun and Barbara Sukowa’s Lola, Veronika stands in as a symbol for a particular form of West German life in the decade following World War II. But while her predecessors are hard-edged survivors, Veronika is a victim and a scapegoat, an emblematic “Bad” German who can be burdened with all the sins of West Germany’s Nazi past, thereby freeing all the “Good” Germans from having to seriously reckon with their recent behavior. Rosel Zech captures all of the terror and despair of being caught in this position, bringing Veronika to life with an array of facial expressions so frightened and needful that it’s almost painful to watch. The film’s German title translates as The Longing of Veronika Voss, and “longing” is plastered over every inch of Zech’s performance: longing for comfort, for understanding, for a place in a world that turned on her for cruel and selfish reasons.

It is bleaker, sadder, and angrier than most Fassbinder films, but tinged with sympathy. Veronika and the invented character Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate), a married investigative journalist who falls desperately in love with her, agonized by his inability to save her (he’s an obvious stand-in for Fassbinder himself) are both pathetic in the fullest sense of the word. That is, they are hapless and hampered by their own misjudgments, but also – and far more importantly – they are imbued by their director with great pathos. In looking at Veronika, Fassbinder clearly sees a woman who did terrible things during the war, but is now being martyred by people who also did terrible things during the war. She is the victim of mid-century Germany’s anxious desire to boost its economy, to indiscriminately devour American culture as a ward against too much German-ness (the corny 1959 Johnny Horton country hit “The Ballad of New Orleans” anachronistically appears as a tragic leitmotif), and she is a powerful anchor to Fassbinder’s last and most lacerating attack on the corrupt modern history of his country.

Corruption Under the Rainbow: Fassbinder's LOLA

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Fassbinder's Lola (1981) were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Lola will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen Fassbinder series on Sunday, December 9 at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art's Auditorium.

By Tim Brayton

The opening credits of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1981 Lola end with a title card displaying in the upper right corner, in bright pink, “Lola BRD 3.” If you’re confused where BRD 1 and BRD 2 went, don’t worry. It was only during the making of this film that Fassbinder realized that this story of economic reconstruction and corruption in post-World War II Germany, centered around a woman embodying the spirit of her age, was a perfect thematic match to his earlier The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979). And so it was that the director decided to make the duo into an after-the-fact trilogy about West Germany (AKA Bundesrepublik Deutschland, or “BRD”) reasserting itself from the rubble of war. Though since Lola took place in 1957, a full decade later than Maria Braun, it made sense to leave room for another story in between them. Thus did Maria Braun end up unofficially serving as BRD 1, with the as-yet unrealized BRD 2, Veronika Voss, coming in 1982 (this last film will be concluding the UW-Cinematheque’s Fassbinder series on Sunday, December 16).

Lola has long been the black sheep of the BRD Trilogy, enjoying neither Maria Braun’s extraordinary financial success nor Veronika Voss’s critical reputation. Even so, there’s quite a lot going on here. The story takes place in Coburg, a city lying almost right on the border separating West and East Germany, and this unstated fact lies at the heart of the film’s drama. In fact, Coburg is something of a lawless frontier town, where all the worst parts of the reconstructing West Germany are allowed to run free: seemingly every public official we’ll ever meet is hopelessly corrupt, and they all congregate at the town nightclub/whorehouse, owned by a happily dissolute property developer named Schuckert (Mario Adorf). This is where we meet Lola (Barbara Sukowa), born Marie-Luise, a star cabaret singer.

Fassbinder chose 1957, and a plot centered around the politics of land development, to make a very pointed comment about what he considered to be the most amoral half-decade in post-war German history – and, of course, to comment about the reliable sordidness of human nature, a pet theme of his. One of the bleaker aspects of Lola is that literally every character we meet is in some way rotten, and somehow the worst of them all is also the most sternly moral. That would be Von Bohm, a refugee from the post-war expulsion of Germans from East Prussia, who has just come to the West to serve as Coburg’s building commissioner. He’s played, magnificently, by Armin Mueller-Stahl, himself a Prussian-born actor, and it’s easy to see in him a wary, unsmiling otherness in the face of all the jolly cosmopolitan hedonism of the rest of the cast. Unlike the other two films in the trilogy, which focus strictly on their leading women, Lola functions as a two-way character study, as Von Bohm inevitably falls in love with Lola. Sukowa and Mueller-Stahl are an exemplary mis-matched set, she bringing the theatricalized sarcasm we expect of a Fassbinder film, he remaining far colder and coiled up with the tension of a predatory animal. Both are wretches in their way, but the film seems to consider that at least Lola, like the rest of the West Germans, is honest in her depravity and greed, and so it finds a way into rooting for her against the priggish commissioner.

Fassbinder's Lola is based, unofficially, on Heinrich Mann’s 1905 novel Professor Unrat, and even more unofficially on that film’s iconic 1930 film adaptation The Blue Angel, starring Marlene Dietrich as Lola Lola. It’s a far cry from the torrid Hollywood melodramas that had fueled most of Fassbinder’s work in the preceding decade, and perhaps that explains why Lola is so much more openly cynical than most of the director’s other major films. Still, it’s a characteristic Fassbinder exercise in worshipful cinephilia, and for all of its curdled psychology, Lola is an extraordinarily pleasurable movie, albeit ironic. It is among the most blatantly stylized of all the director’s films: as you will notice immediately, Lola is saturated with the most profoundly unnatural colors of some hallucinogenic rainbow. The film was shot by Xaver Schwarzenberger to mimic the bright saturation of Hollywood Technicolor cinematography, and the gap between the glowing colors of that style and the inherent brown grottiness of the film stock available in West Germany leaves Lola with a paradoxical beauty, both spectacular and toxic. It hardly needs saying that this visual aesthetic is a perfect match for a story about the corrupt heart underneath the bright and shiny face of a rebuilt midcentury Germany.

For all the nauseous greens and yellows, though, color in Lola is ultimately used to define the characters, and the destructive eroticism between Lola and Von Bohm. Throughout the movie, Lola is defined by shades of hot red: pink text in the opening credits, a cherry red stage for her singing, a scorching red sports car, red lighting practically everywhere. Von Bohm is defined, less aggressively, by cool blues and teals, especially the shockingly strong, almost glowing blue of his eyes, carefully lit to seem supernaturally oversaturated. These colors come into visual conflict with each other constantly, in all defiance of anything resembling realism: at one point, the two characters sit in a convertible that has been almost perfectly split in half between red and blue lighting, without even a glance at plausible motivation. They’re not the only contrasting colors here, either: the film’s color design perversely thrives on irreconcilable patterns of colors that the human eye can’t physically handle, giving the entire film an aggressive charge solely through its visuals. This expressionistic use of color, turning the characters’ inner lives into bold images, is startling, gorgeous, uncomfortable: it exaggerates the sumptuous cinematic pleasure of rich color into something so overindulgent as to feel rotten with decadence. Of all Fassbinder’s sardonic attacks on bourgeois culture throughout his career, this final assault on cinematic beauty itself just might be the most savage.

 

Rivette's Parallel Universe: DUELLE

Monday, December 3rd, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Jacques Rivette's Duelle (1976) was written by WUD Film's Henry Witt. The Cinematheque's New French Restorations series concludes with a DCP of Duelle on Saturday, December 8 at 7 p.m. in our regular screening venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Admission is free!

By Henry Witt

“The ambition of these films is to discover a new approach to acting in the cinema, where speech, reduced to essential phrases, to precise formulas, would play a role of “poetic’ punctuation.” - Jacques Rivette on his
"Scenes of Parallel Life" movies.

“I believe you were lured into a trap. The story was only a pretext.” - Viva, Duelle

 

Jacques Rivette’s decision to follow the ambling, improvisational yarns of his early 1970s films (Out 1, Céline and Julie Go Boating) with the scripted and genre-inflected Duelle could at a glance be mistaken for a retreat from the prior films’ playfully unconventional production methods. The plot synopsis lays out a clear—if unusual—central conflict, “Two goddesses battle over a magic diamond.” The transposition of myth and fairytale to a contemporary Paris setting has precedent in Cocteau, and invocations of film noir provide comfortable aesthetic and narrative reference points. As the quotes above suggest, however, these anchors are merely the framework for something far more challenging and ineffable.

A feature that was meant to be consistent across all four films (of which only two, Duelle and Noroît, were completed as conceived) in Rivette’s “scènes de la vie parallèle” cycle was on-location, live, improvised musical accompaniment, creating what he called a “simultaneous musical space.” Any given scene, then, would capture the unpredictable and (hopefully) fruitful combination of two related but separate performances happening in parallel. One of the pleasures of watching Duelle is experiencing genuinely unexpected moments of formal unity, when music intrudes upon an unfolding scene at just the right time.

One such revelatory moment occurs when the night porter turned amateur detective Lucie, having tailed Bulle Ogier’s baton-wielding Viva to a secluded casino, is found out and must herself begin improvising a reason for being where she doesn’t belong. Hermine Karagheuz, acting as Lucie, turns and reacts to the sudden entrance of the piano from a dimly lit corner in the background as she begins to spin a lie for Viva, the only other person in the room. Viewers might also be surprised to realize they hadn’t noticed Jean Wiener tucked away until the first note. A light shines on him in an even more drastic break from any naturalistic motivation for mise-en-scène .

Though always on-location when providing accompaniment, Jean Wiener and his piano are only sometimes visible on-screen. His appearances vary from having entirely sensible diegetic  motivations—performing at a nightclub, for instance—to the nonsensical, like when he appears midway through a private hotel room conversation between Viva and Pierrot. This slippery approach to the diegesis reflects the film’s handling of realism and fantasy generally.

Formally, the use of real-world locations, direct sound, and cinematographer William Lubtchansky’s handheld camerawork lends itself to comparisons with documentary filmmaking, but there is just as much noir and B-movie in Duelle’s DNA. The two goddesses are femme fatales elevated to the status of trickster deities, and there are numerous references to classic film noir. A rendez-vous in a lush garden channels The Big Sleep’s greenhouse, a row of lockers housing the film’s MacGuffin recalls Kiss Me Deadly, and there is even a shadowy aquarium torn right from The Lady From Shanghai. There’s also kinship with the Val Lewton horror movies and their enveloping shadows, though it was specifically Mark Robson’s The Seventh Victim with its quotidian setting and cult murders that Rivette screened for the cast and crew. If the language of cinema is the language of dreams and fantasy, these references conjure the fantasies of films past.

The reduction of speech to “essential phrases” that Rivette envisioned for the Scenes of Parallel Life in Duelle’s case involves many direct quotations from Jean Cocteau. One of the tragic pawns in the goddesses’ battle, the ticket girl Elsa, quotes an iconic line from the Bresson-directed, Cocteau-scripted film Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, and various cryptic statements related to the supernatural elements are lifted from an obscure Cocteau play titled The Knights of the Round Table. Most of the quoted phrases are too cryptic to make much sense of narratively, but the story is only a pretext anyway. The illusion of Rivette’s cinema is that the right combination of gesture, light, shadow, and improvised notes on the piano can create miracles, right in the middle of everyday Paris. “Two plus two no longer make four.”

 

The Recovering Romantic: Fassbinder's THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN

Wednesday, November 28th, 2018
Posted by Zachary Zahos
Hanna Schygulla in THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN

This essay on Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) was written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Maria Braun will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series of Fassbinder films on Sunday, December 2, at 2 p.m. Free admission!

By Tim Brayton

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 31st feature in 10 years, The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) was also his biggest commercial success, both at home in West Germany and abroad. After years of being celebrated by the film cognoscenti of Europe and North America, this was to be his greatest attempt to court audiences, a note sounded repeatedly in early reviews: “the prolific and controversial German director is by now well-known to people knowledgeable about film, but Maria Braun may become his breakthrough film to mass audiences in the U.S.” according to Ruth McCormick in Cinéaste; “for him… an extremely naturalistic and accessible work,” in the terser words of the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr. Back in Germany, we find the same: “the most accessible (and thus most commercial) and mature work of the director” enthused Hans-Christoph Blumenberg in Die Zeit.

This early reception gave the film a reputation as the “easy” Fassbinder film, which it has never quite managed to shake. With the increasing availability of lesser-known Fassbinder films over the course of the 21st century, younger cinephiles have been able to re-enact the mildly patronizing tone of critics like Kehr or the New York Times’ Vincent Canby, citing Maria Braun as the “accessible” film for people who missed out on thornier works like Chinese Roulette (1976) or In a Year of 13 Moons (1978). But this writer would rather stick with Blumenberg: yes, Maria Braun may be unusually “accessible,” thanks to its conventional melodramatic plot and its obvious thematic symbolism. But so too does it represent an exceptional artistic maturity that ushered the 33-year-old director into the final phase of masterpieces, including the titanic 15-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and Maria Braun’s quasi-sequels Lola (1981) and Veronika Voss (1982).

It takes no more than the first shot of the film to realize that we’re in the presence of a filmmaker with an extraordinary level of control over his medium. The Marriage of Maria Braun opens with the muted sounds of a wedding ceremony barely audible under the screaming engines and thunderous explosions of an Allied bombing raid, as the camera regards an anonymous wall. An explosion rips a hole in the side of the building, giving us our first look at Maria (Hanna Schygulla) herself, on the day of her wedding to Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch). The next few minutes present a cruelly hilarious travesty of the holy sacrament of marriage, with the newlyweds crouching on the ground in the rubble as they hastily sign the paperwork  that will unite them for “one-half of a day and a whole night,” before Hermann ships off to war. As the soundtrack blares out with battle sounds and an unseen screaming baby, the screen fills with bright red title cards in an incongruously fancy typeface, creating an almost illegible wall of text that fills the frame. Visually and audibly, the film pitches us right into a hellish chaos where stable, normal things like weddings can only ever look like a sick joke.

It’s the perfect start to a movie that might not flaunt social propriety as openly as Fassbinder’s earlier, snottier masterpieces, but still insists on tweaking and challenging the viewer at every turn. As with so many of the director’s films, Maria Braun (written by Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer) takes the form of a classic melodrama, the story of a woman presumably widowed by the slaughterhouse of World War II, forced to cope with life during the American occupation of Germany in the years immediately following the war. But the tone is anything but melodramatic. Adopting the flat tone and physical presence of late-‘40s neorealism, Maria Braun is above all a portrayal of the coldness that one must adopt in order to survive under the harshest circumstances. Schygulla, a frequent Fassbinder collaborator, excels in the role for which she won Best Actress at the 1979 Berlin International Film Festival: she refuses to play Maria as a tragic soul and still less as an ice queen, but rather as a recovering romantic, obligated to make hard choices and deprived of the luxury of regretting them. Consider the scene where Maria brains an American ex-lover with a wine bottle; Schygulla’s body language and expression both speak to a quickness of action that’s more instinctive than calculating, more pragmatic than emotionally overwrought.

As a tribute to the survivalists who managed to create a new German society from the wreck of the war, Maria Braun adopts the austere lack of sentiment of its protagonist, curtly transforming all the messy stuff of melodrama into a series of obstacles to be overcome with an almost mathematic level of precision. Schygulla contributes a great deal to this, of course; a great deal of it is also thanks to that artistic maturity of Fassbinder and his collaborators, who create a tightly-controlled vision of a broken world. The great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, in one of his very last collaborations with the director, uses deep focus throughout to emphasize the large empty rooms and streets of the post-war city, while stripping the film bare of bright colors: it is not merely a drab film, but somehow aggressively drab, like all of life has been bleached. And after that extraordinary opening, it’s no surprise that the soundtrack will continue to be a major feature of the film’s style: throughout, we hear snatches of dialogue, machines, music, all of them divorced completely from the image, and frequently mixed as loud or louder than the words of onscreen characters. The soundtrack suggests a world of no walls or other boundaries, with everything bleeding into an omnipresent whirlwind of indistinct noise. This, perhaps more than anything, is what gives the film its extraordinary power as a portrait of a collapsed society struggling to rebuild itself from pure chaos. It’s a potent theme that Fassbinder would return to multiple times in the few years remaining to him, but Maria Braun is a compelling enough vision of post-war life to stand entirely on its own.

Powers Greater Than Any Empire: BLACK NARCISSUS

Tuesday, November 27th, 2018
Posted by Zachary Zahos
Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) in BLACK NARCISSUS

This essay on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947) was written by Zachary Zahos, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison and Project Assistant for the UW-Cinematheque. A new digital restoration of Black Narcissus will screen in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Saturday, December 1. Free admission!

By Zachary Zahos

“This clear air, and the wind always blowing. And the mountain, and the holy man sitting there day in, day out. And the people coming to see him. They climb the path by the house, and they stop and sit and stare at us.” So rants Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) to the uncouth government agent Mr. Dean (David Farrar), her fellow countryman, as they make their way up a mountain, through vines and brush, to see the elderly holy man (Ley On) themselves. Ironies abound in Sister Clodagh’s complaint: For one, she rebukes the native peoples of Mopu, a fictitious village somewhere near Darjeeling, for ogling her convent of Anglican nuns, before doing the same to this presumably Hindu man.

An obvious hypocrisy, but Black Narcissus succeeds not because it is exactly, or at least exclusively, subtle. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 Technicolor spectacle is an unclassifiable object: hothouse melodrama, gothic horror, pioneering erotic thriller, cautionary tale of colonial overreach. The scenario—a group of English nuns struggle to repress desires provoked by their Himalayan surroundings, and by a scantily clad David Farrar—lends itself to frequent scenes of hysteria, innuendo, and bald hypocrisy. Atop such a dramatically thin premise, Powell and Pressburger fashion a vast, interlocking formal architecture of motifs, oppositions, rhymes, and fluid points of view. Like all great films, the film’s craft, and indeed much of its meaning, is not too difficult to discern on first viewing, but its cumulative intellectual, sensorial, and emotional effect remain nigh-impossible to do justice. Blessed with such pleasure-affording parts, Black Narcissus nevertheless exceeds their sum handily.

As one of the pearls of classical British cinema, Black Narcissus has been analyzed exhaustively since its release. UW-Madison’s own Kristin Thompson undertook one of the more illuminating efforts this past May with “Color Motifs in Black Narcissus,” a video essay for FilmStruck’s Observations on Film Art series. (Though FilmStruck is no more, the series will continue on The Criterion Channel, a forthcoming streaming service from Criterion and WarnerMedia.) Thompson describes the power wielded by an oft-overlooked agent in the film’s production: Natalie Kalmus, color supervisor for virtually all Technicolor films made between 1934 and 1949. In her pursuit of a uniform Technicolor aesthetic, Kalmus required cinematographers to use a light meter, meaning that excessive shadows or overexposure, even when intentional, were not allowed.

On at least one occasion, Thompson explains, cinematographer Jack Cardiff (who won an Oscar along with production designer Alfred Junge) and Kalmus’s Technicolor team were at loggerheads over this issue of “flare.” Eighty-four minutes into the film, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) runs through the convent to find Sister Clodagh and Dean, in one of the many instances of shifting point-of-view between these three main characters. At the bottom of a striking shot, when Ruth swings open the doors, a sharp blade of sunlight reflects off the floor. Because this bright spot deviated from their standards, the Technicolor consultants considered the shot ruined. Cardiff responded with fury, and the shot survived to see the final cut. “My indignation was excusable,” Cardiff later reflected, “after the trouble I had in getting that flare as glaring as possible, just like one indeed sees it when the sun is low and dazzling. And though it was admittedly ugly, I believe it was more dramatic than a typically pleasant effect.” While I personally find this flare not ugly but gorgeous, Cardiff describes with eloquence a hard-fought commitment to realism, in the service of drama.

Cardiff’s stated intentions are instructive, insofar as they remind the viewer of the care and even the strife that went into crafting each shot. They furthermore puncture received wisdom we may bring into watching this film. Despite featuring, well, color, Technicolor movies were seen by many critics and theorists in the 1940s and 1950s as paradigms of artifice, especially when sized against black-and-white Italian Neorealist films. But Powell, Pressburger, and Cardiff were invested in their own style of realism. In addition to these pictorial flourishes, and the general astonishment many have when learning it was filmed in England’s Pinewood Studios, the film features an immersive, sensual soundscape, of tunneling wind, tolling bells, and ceremonial drums beating into the night.

The drama of Black Narcissus furthermore hinges on a haunting and unresolved psychological realism. According to Sister Clodagh, and virtually all critics, the nuns lose sight of their mission due to the sensuousness of their surroundings. The opening voiceover proclaims the Mopu valley’s dominant mountain is called Nanga Dalle, or “Bare Goddess Peak.” Moreover, the would-be convent was formerly a palace, decked in erotic tapestries, where the old General (Esmond Knight) “kept his women.” All this stimuli and history, clashing with the nuns’ puritan work ethic and disavowal of sexual desire, lead to some erratic behavior. Charged with growing staple crops, Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) instead, inexplicably, plants native flowers like honeysuckle. When Sister Clodagh confronts her, Sister Philippa volunteers to be reassigned and punished without mercy. Robson’s moving performance in this scene illustrates a painful tug between doctrine and all-consuming sorrow, service to God and sexual desire, repentance and sadomasochism. Her plight mirrors those of all the nuns, and their failure.

Before departing, Sister Philippa muses how in Mopu there are only two types of man. On one side, there is the mute, celibate holy man, and on the other, the arrogant, promiscuous Mr. Dean, whose resting virility basically drives Sister Ruth mad and fuels the climactic action of the film. Philippa neglects to mention Joseph, a precocious local child, or the Young General (Sabu), a dandyish aristocrat whose cologne inspires the film’s title. Even still, the duality Sister Philippa proposes, between Dean and the holy man, fails to hold up. Dean reveals the holy man’s military past, and insinuates he once led a lavish lifestyle. Dean himself softens over the course of the film, forming a genuine and chaste kinship with Sister Clodagh. By the end, it is Dean, and not the holy man, who leaves Mopu, but the possibility for change and complication persists. Rather than direct these possibilities toward a hackneyed, uplifting ending, Powell and Pressburger ultimately side with mystery, as the onset of fog and coming of rain signal powers at work far greater than any empire.

Knowing the End Before the Beginning: THE VANISHING

Monday, November 26th, 2018
Posted by Zachary Zahos

This essay on director George Sluizer's The Vanishing (1988) was written by Kristen Johnson-Salazar, a senior in the Communication Arts Department at UW Madison. The Vanishing will screen on Friday, November 30 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Free admission!

By Kristen Johnson-Salazar

In the early 2000s, the cable channel Bravo aired a documentary series titled The 100 Scariest Movie Moments, which featured famous horror directors and actors discussing creepy or terrifying scenes from movies ranging from established American horror films to international art cinema. I was in my early adolescence when my sisters and I watched it for the first time. We were in the basement watching the talking heads on screen describe each scene in detail and how they felt while seeing it for the first time. The Vanishing was listed in the middle at number 55. Similar to Psycho (number 4 on the Bravo list), once you see The Vanishing, there is no unseeing or un-remembering. It will never be new to you again. So, when Bravo showed the ending to the film, I was left in shock and disgust. I was horrified both of what I just saw and that the ending was spoiled for me. However, I knew The Vanishing was more than just that one scene. When I finally got around to watch it years later, I was astounded that the whole movie was unsettling, echoing real life kidnappings and true crime stories. The ending, while brilliant, was just the cherry on top.

The Vanishing is a dual story. Part of the story is about Rex (Gene Bervoets) strenuously searching for his missing girlfriend Saskia (Johanna ter Steege). The other story is about Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), the man who kidnapped Saskia. The two stories connect with each other as Rex’s obsession with finding the abductor intertwines with Raymond’s temptation of Rex to see how far he is willing to go with his search.

Interestingly enough, George Sluizer directed two films titled The Vanishing. Five years after the first film released, it was remade with an American cast featuring Jeff Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland, and Sandra Bullock. It joins the pantheon of remakes that are directed by the same director of the original such as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge, and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. However, much of the suspense is lost in translation—especially the ending, which was changed from the original. Fortunately, the original 1988 version still exists. Perhaps the best thing about the 1993 remake is that it amplifies why the ’88 version works so well.

The slow and gritting agony of wanting to know where Saskia is, speaks to the film’s influences in realism. While watching, you start to notice that because of how unassuming Raymond is, he instantly becomes more of a threat. We’ve seen his dips into sociopathy before, from real life serial killers like Ted Bundy. For instance, he uses an arm cast to gain sympathy from his victims, showing how unnervingly close he is to our reality. He methodically writes down how long each action takes in order for him to kidnap someone without anyone noticing. Then he practices each action over and over again until it becomes second nature. He does this all the while he is a husband and a father of two girls. Our hero, Rex, also parallels many who have lost loved ones who have gone missing. Whether that be putting up missing signs, appearing on the news, or answering any tips he receives, he never gives up hope in trying to find Saskia. This is why this film is so uncomfortable.  We have seen this story thousands of times in real life. Yet, now we are given the duality of seeing how both perspectives, the kidnapper and the victim, go on after the initial event. Unlike real life, we see the dramatic irony of who the kidnapper is, but like Rex, we just don’t know what or even why it happened.

The film gathers these moments to form an overwhelming ache for the truth. The real horror The Vanishing pushes us into is to understand our own fascination with these stories of true crime. Instead of just wanting the villain to get caught in the end, we want to know the secrets that lie within their head. We want to know: Why? Otherwise, we are left with uncertainty. The eternal uncertainty, that is the worst.

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