Favorites of 2015: Amanda McQueen

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

By Amanda McQueen, UW Cinematheque & Wisconsin Film Festival Programmer

Once again, I didn’t get to see as many new films over the course of the year as I would have liked, but I did see some good ones. Here’s a list of my 20 favorite new-to-me films of 2015, in alphabetical order:

Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (Yes, I’m cheating and counting this as one film): PATHER PANCHALI (1955), APARAJITO (1956), APUR SANSAR (1959)

THE BABADOOK (2014, Jennifer Kent)

BRIGHTON ROCK (1947, John Boulting)

DEAD OF NIGHT (1945, Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, and Robert Hamer)

GREMLINS (1984, Joe Dante)

INSIDE OUT (2015, Pete Docter)

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2014, Matthew Vaughn)

KRAMPUS (2015, Michael Dogherty)

LOVE STREAMS (1984, John Cassavetes)

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015, George Miller)

MAGIC MIKE XXL (2015, Gregory Jacobs)

PAPER MOON (1973, Peter Bogdanovich)

PITCH PERFECT 2 (2015, Elizabeth Banks)

PRIDE (2014, Matthew Warchus)

PRINT GENERATION (1974, J.J. Murphy)

SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE (2015, Mark Burton and Richard Starzak)

SONG OF THE SEA (2014, Tomm Moore)

STAR WARS, EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015, J.J. Abrams)

TRAINWRECK (2015, Judd Apatow)

USE OF A MAGAZINE RACK (LA UTILIDAD DE UN REVISTERO) (2013, Adriano Salgado)

Favorites of 2015: Ben Reiser

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

By Ben Reiser, Wisconsin Film Festival Coordinator and UW Cinematheque Programmer

(POTENTIAL SPOILERS BELOW)

Movies I saw in a theater more than once and what I learned the second time:

Mad Max: Fury Road - The second time through I adjusted my expectations and knew to follow Furiosa’s journey as the primary protagonist, and also knew not to expect Tom Hardy’s performance to be verbal as well as physical. I loved it the first time through, but appreciated it even more the second time due to those two factors.

Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens - I focused on and prepared myself for the act III change in tone and was able to greater appreciate the things that happen after one character’s shocking death. I also learned that seeing a rectangular film in an IMAX dome is not a good idea, at all.

Jurassic World - Sitting in the front row at an ultrascreen theater, even with the motorized recliner in full recline, is not a good idea, at all.

Movies I found interesting enough to watch a second time, but this time at home:

Kingsman: The Secret Service
It Follows
The D Train
Heaven Knows What
Tangerine

Movies I missed in a theater but am glad I caught up with at home:

The Visit
Steve Jobs
Manson Family Vacation
Project Almanac

Movies I really wish I’d skipped:

Ex Machina
Terminator: Genisys
Entourage
Chi-Raq

Older movies I saw for the first time this year that blew my mind:

Brighton Rock
The Saragossa Manuscript
About Elly
Senso
The Underworld Story
Zulu
Sea Fury
Angst
The Apu Trilogy

Favorites of 2015: Mike King

Monday, January 4th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

By Mike King, Senior Programmer, Wisconsin Film Festival & UW Cinematheque Programmer

Top ten new films to play Madison in 2015:

Carol (2015, Todd Haynes)

Girlhood (2014, Céline Sciamma)

Heaven Knows What (2014, Josh and Benny Safdie)

Inherent Vice (2014, Paul Thomas Anderson)

Inside Out (2015, Pete Docter)

The Look of Silence (2014, Joshua Oppenheimer)

Mistress America (2015, Noah Baumbach)

Tangerine (2015, Sean Baker)

Western (2015, Bill and Turner Ross)

The Wonders (2014, Alice Rohrwacher)

Runners up:

The Forbidden Room (2015, Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson)
The Hateful Eight (2015, Quentin Tarantino)
Stinking Heaven (2015, Nathan Silver)
Wild Tales (2014, Damián Szifron)
Young Bodies Heal Quickly (2014, Andrew Betzer)

Favorites of 2015: Jim Healy

Sunday, January 3rd, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

By Jim Healy, Director of Programming, UW Cinematheque & Wisconsin Film Festival

Of the many movies I saw for the first time in 2015, I've selected 20 that were my favorites. In alphabetical order they are:

ABOUT ELLY (2009, Asghar Farhadi)
BEYOND THE FOREST (1949, King Vidor)
BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015, Steven Spielberg)
CREED (2015, Ryan Coogler)
DAÏNAH LA MÉTISSE (1932, Jean Grémillon)
THE EMIGRANTS (1971, Jan Troell)
GREEN ROOM (2015, Jeremy Saulnier)
THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015, Quentin Tarantino)
INTRUDER IN THE DUST (1949, Clarence Brown)
KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2015, Matthew Vaughn)
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015, George Miller)
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION (2015, Christopher McQuarrie)
PRIVATE PROPERTY (1960, Leslie Stevens)
RICKI AND THE FLASH (2015, Jonathan Demme)
RISATE DI GIOIA (aka THE PASSIONATE THIEF, 1960, Mario Monicelli)
SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE (2015, Richard Starzak & Mark Burton)
SON OF SAUL (2015, László Nemes)
SPOTLIGHT (2015, Tom McCarthy)
SUNSET SONG (2015, Terence Davies)
TANGERINE (2015, Sean Baker)

Here are another 100 titles that I really enjoyed:

ALL FALL DOWN (1962, John Frankenheimer)
ANGST (1983, Gerald Kargl)
ANT-MAN (2015, Peyton Reed)
THE ASPHYX (1973, Peter Newbrook)
AVENGING FORCE (1986, Sam Firstenberg)
THE BABY MAKER (1970, James Bridges)
BACHELOR MOTHER (1939, Garson Kanin)
BEWARE OF MR. BAKER (2012, Jay Bulger)
BEYOND THE LIGHTS (2014, Gina Prince-Blythewood)
BLUES IN THE NIGHT (1941, Anatole Litvak)
BORN FREE (1966, James Hill)
THE BRIDGE (1960, Bernhard Wicki)
BROOKLYN (2015, John Crowley)
THE BUBBLE (1966, Arch Oboler)
CARAVAN (1934, Erik Charrel)
CHUCK NORRIS VS. COMMUNISM (2014, Ilina Calugareanu)
COP CAR (2015, Jon Watts)
THE D TRAIN (2015, Jarrad Paul, Andrew Mogel)
DANGEROUS TO KNOW (1938, Robert Florey)
DANGEROUS WHEN WET (1953, Charles Walters)
DAUGHTERS COURAGEOUS (1939, Michael Curtiz)
DAY OF ANGER (1967, Tonino Valerii)
DEAD OF NIGHT (1945, Basil Dearden, Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer, Cavalcanti)
EATING RAOUL (1982, Paul Bartel)
END OF AUGUST AT THE HOTEL OZONE (1966, Jan Schmidt)
EVEREST (2015, Baltasar Kormakur)
THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG (1982, Lawrence Schiller)
FAMILY FILM (2015, Olmo Omerzu)
FEBRUARY (2015, Osgood Perkins)
FIVE FINGERS (1952, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
THE FORBIDDEN ROOM (2015, Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson)
FOXCATCHER (2014, Bennett Miller)
THE GOOD DINOSAUR (2015, Peter Sohn)
THE GREAT RUPERT (1950, Irving Pichel)
HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY (2015, Stephen Cone)
HERO’S ISLAND (1962, Leslie Stevens)
HESTER STREET (1975, Joan Micklin Silver)
HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN (1944, Delmer Daves)
HOME (2015, Tim Johnson)
IN NAME ONLY (1939, John Cromwell)
IRRATIONAL MAN (2015, Woody Allen)
JAUJA (2014, Lisandro Alonso)
JET STORM (1959, Cy Endfield)
JURASSIC WORLD (2015, Colin Trevorrow)
KEEPER (2015, Guillaume Senez)
A KID FOR TWO FARTHINGS (1955, Carol Reed)
KIDNAP SYNDICATE (1975, Fernando Di Leo)
KING OF THE WILD STALLIONS (1959, R.G. Springsteen)
LA PETITE LISE (1930, Jean Grémillon)
THE LADY IN THE VAN (2015, Nicholas Hytner)
THE LAST MOVIE (1971, Dennis Hopper)
LAZYBONES (1925, Frank Borzage)
LONDON ROAD (2015, Rufus Norris)
THE LONG, HOT SUMMER (1958, Martin Ritt)
LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY’S ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (2014, David Gregory)
LOVE AND PEACE (2015, Sion Sono)
LUMIÈRE D’ÉTÉ (1943, Jean Grémillon)
MADAME BOVARY (1949, Vincente Minnelli)
MARIE’S STORY (2014, Jean-Pierre Ameris)
MISTRESS AMERICA (2015, Noah Baumbach)
MY SISTER EILEEN (1955, Richard Quine)
THE NIGHTMARE (2015, Rodney Ascher)
NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (1984, Sam Firstenberg)
OKAY, AMERICA! (1932, Tay Garnett)
ONE CROWDED NIGHT (1940, Irving Reis)
PADDINGTON (2014, Paul King)
PETE KELLY’S BLUES (1955, Jack Webb)
PICKUP (1951, Hugo Haas)
A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE (2014, Roy Andersson)
POLLYANNA (1960, David Swift)
PRINT GENERATION (1974, J.J. Murphy)
THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1956, Val Guest)
THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE (1958, Vincente Minnelli)
RESULTS (2015, Andrew Bujalski)
ROOM (2015, Lenny Abrahamson)
THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER (2015, Chad Gracia)
SAPS AT SEA (1940, Gordon Douglas)
THE SEVENTH CROSS (1944, Fred Zinnemann)
SHOW PEOPLE (1928, King Vidor)
THE SINS OF RACHEL CADE (1961, Gordon Douglas)
SPARTANS (2014, Nicolas Wadimoff)
THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE OUT OF WATER (2015, Paul Tibbitt)
SPY (2015, Paul Feig)
STAR WARS EPISODE VII THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015, J.J. Abrams)
THE STEEL TRAP (1952, Andrew L. Stone)
STINKING HEAVEN (2015, Nathan Silver)
THE SYSTEM (1953, Lewis Seiler)
TENDER COMRADE (1943, Edward Dmytryk)
THE TREASURE (2015, Corneliu Porumboiu)
TURKEY SHOOT (1982, Brian Trenchard-Smith)
UNCLE KENT 2 (2015, Todd Rohal)
VARIETY (1983, Bette Gordon)
THE WALK (2015, Robert Zemeckis)
WHILE WE’RE YOUNG (2014, Noah Baumbach)
WHITE GOD (2014, Kornél Mundruczó)
WHITE SHADOWS IN THE SOUTH SEAS (1928, W.S. Van Dyke)
WILD TALES (2014, Damian Szifron)
THE WISE KIDS (2011, Stephen Cone)
WOMAN ON THE RUN (1950, Norman Foster)
YOU AND ME (1938, Fritz Lang)

"The Apu Trilogy" 3: THE WORLD OF APU

Thursday, December 17th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Satyajit Ray's The World of Apu was written by Tim Brayton, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A newly restored 4K DCP of The World of Apu, the final film in Ray's Apu trilogy, will screen at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, December 18, at 7 p.m.

By Tim Brayton

The English-language title of Apur Sansar, the 1959 finale of Satyajit Ray's monumental trilogy about the youth and young adulthood of one Apu Roy, translates as The World of Apu. It's a fitting label for a film that moves away from the domestic intimacy of Pather Panchali and Aparajito to depict, if not the world of Apu, then certainly the world and Apu; it is a story of the discovery that one is not, after all, the main character in the grand narrative of the universe, that there's a whole teeming mass of humans with their own needs and dreams. This is clear even from the opening scene, which ends with the main character (played this time by radio announcer Soumitra Chatterjee, making his film debut) overhearing the sounds of political radicals agitating on the street. It's the first time in the trilogy that the outside world muscles its way into Apu's awareness through his comfortable self-regard; it will not be the last.

The World of Apu is a story in two parts, each of them describing the process by which a pleasant and selfish young man grows up. In the beginning, Apu is doggedly trying to write an autobiographical novel and receiving no positive feedback for it. To get him out of his head, his friend drags him to a wedding, where events transpire that would fit right into the fabric of a particularly absurd romantic comedy. It seems that the groom has lost his mind, and the mother of the bride won't let the marriage go on. According to local custom, however, if the bride Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) doesn't marry on this date, she will be forever after branded as unmarriageable. With some goading, Apu agrees to save the day by getting married.

This is nothing if not contrived, but Ray and his two extraordinary lead actors (who would both return to collaborate with the director several times) invest their scenario with great depth of feeling. There are few filmed depictions of the giddy rush of young marriage that have anything like the sweetness of Apu and Aparna's shy, clumsy happiness around each other. Their nervous glances during her first night in his cramped bachelor pad give way to charmingly low-key bliss as the couple settles into their domestic roles. Robin Wood described this as "one of the cinema's classic affirmative depictions of married life," and there are few movies indeed that derive so much of their power and pleasure from presenting a wholly functional romantic relationship. Nor does the film focus solely on the lovers in their intimate moments: it contrasts the central relationship with the full, noisy life of the city – the sound of crying babies is used as an important repeating motif – and plays Apu's goofy, swooning romanticism against the workaday reality of the city around him to touching, and at times comic effect.

Following his two debut films, Pather Panchali and Aparajito, Ray shifted away from their steady realist aesthetic: The Philosopher's Stone (1958) is a magical realist comedy, while The Music Room (also 1958) is a mood piece set inside a costume drama. With The World of Apu, he turned back in the direction of realism, although it would be impossible to pretend that the director's excursions into new styles and storytelling forms didn't inform the feel of his fifth feature. Compared to the rawness of the other Apu films, The World of Apu is more polished and confident in its artistic gestures. A cinema screen dissolving into the rear window of a cab (with its attendant implication that the world outside the cab is just as rife with entertainment as the movies), for example, is the kind of flourish that would never have fit into the sparer aesthetic modes of the earlier films.

Where Ray's new artistic control is shown off to best affect is in the film's second and shorter part, in which Apu deals with tragedy by dropping out of life to become a wanderer, abandoning his family, his artistic ambitions, and the world itself. The tone of the film is much closer to the intellectual moodiness and abstraction of The Music Room than anything in the concrete realism of the previous films in the trilogy, with Subrata Mitra's cinematography striving for a more self-consciously epic scope in its accumulation of wide exteriors and intense close-ups, and Ravi Shankar's score frequently eschewing the comforting tunefulness he'd brought to the earlier films. It is filmmaking that privileges open, raw emotion above all things, using the landscape itself as an extension of personality – especially in the powerful final image, a variation on the closing shots of Pather Panchali and Aparajito, that soundlessly communicates the growth as a responsible human that Apu has experienced.

The World of Apu is typically regarded as the least of the three films, a judgment made by critics from Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader to the AV Club, in its review of the recent 4K restorations under the auspices of the Criterion Collection, which the Cinematheque has been showing throughout December. Perhaps this criticism is fair; certainly, the screentime devoted to a strong female foil for Apu – arguably the greatest strength of both of the previous films – is notably lacking compared to the prominence given to his sister in Pather Panchali and his mother in Aparajito (Tagore is wonderful, but it takes the film quite some time to arrive at her). The film is a remarkable piece of humanist art on its own terms, however, telling a story of fatherly responsibility that's thoughtful and profound in ways that well-worn theme often isn't; and Chatterjee is a revelation as Apu, by turns arrogant and soft, tender and wrathful. It is a film to be cherished no less than its predecessors, and it marks the conclusion of one of cinema's most brilliantly sustained series, a portrait of childish self-interest blossoming into adulthood that soars like no other coming-of-age story in all of film.

Matt Connolly on THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER

Friday, December 11th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Cornere was written by Matt Connolly, Ph.D. candidate in UW Madison Dept. of Communication Arts. Shop will screen as the final Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen, in the Chazen Museum of Art, on Sunday, December 13 at 2 p.m. Due to circumstances beyond our control, we are not able to screen the film on 35mm as originally announced. A DVD will be shown in its place.

By Matt Connolly

Writing in Film Comment on the striking paucity of films dealing with the workplace as a concrete reality of everyday life, Kent Jones notes at least one movie that honors the daily grind with neither an overreliance on cynicism nor an overdose of sentimentality. “What separates The Shop Around the Corner from almost every other work-centered movie is its honesty,” says Jones of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 romantic comedy, adding that it’s “known for its ingenious and delicate romantic entanglements, but it would be nothing without this frank acknowledgment of human fallibility in the workplace, unencumbered by moral hierarchies.”

Jones is one of our very finest critics, and there’s little I can say in response to his broader analysis of The Shop Around the Corner’s nuanced portrait of retail labor besides an enthusiastic nod of the head. I can only add that the film’s great strength and singularity lies in how effortlessly it links the aforementioned “ingenious and delicate romantic entanglements” of its protagonists with the workplace in which they squabble, negotiate, and finally connect with one another. Few films so strikingly underscore the barriers we attempt to place between our work and our private lives, only to reveal (with great wit and insight) how inevitably fuzzy that line really is.

In true romantic comedy fashion, the eventual couple at the center of The Shop Around the Corner meet cute. Unbeknownst to them for much of the movie, they actually do it twice. Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), the top salesman at leather goods shop Matuschek and Company, has answered a newspaper personals ad placed by a fellow Budapest resident. He delights in their written exchanges on literature, culture, and ideas, and hopes that it will develop into a real-life romance. Around the same time, he meets Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan), who comes to Matuschek and Company seeking a job and who is soon hired after selling a particularly undesirable cigarette box to a fellow customer. (The cigarette box plays a grating rendition of “Ochi Chërnye” whenever it’s opened, but Klara reframes the item as a candy box whose tune reminds one to watch their consumption of sweets.) Alfred and Klara quickly grate on one another at work, while both privately continue a rewarding written back-and-forth with their respective pen pals. (Klara has also found a smart and charming companion via the newspaper.)

Needless to say, Alfred and Klara are one another’s mystery correspondents—a charming contrivance in and of itself, but one that takes on evermore humorous and poignant dimensions as the film progresses. Alfred eventually discovers that Klara is the woman on the other end of the letters, keeping the revelation under wraps as he attempts to pursue her in person. Klara rebuffs these tentative advances by drawing withering contrasts between Alfred and the man with whom she’s been writing to. In a stinging rebuke, she dismisses Alfred as “a little insignificant clerk.” The moment lands with particular impact as it succinctly underscores how inconceivable it is to Klara that the poetic, intellectually engaged man with whom she’s been falling for might also occupy the same quotidian workplace as herself. (In fairness, Alfred feels much the same way about Klara before discovering her true identity.) Both Klara and Alfred so strive to distance themselves from the commonplace nature of their job that they’re largely blind to the fellow dreamer right beside them.

So much of The Shop Around the Corner rests upon a knowing—and knowingly empathetic—conception of how work fosters relationships at once tender and uneasy. It’s one of the film’s great unspoken jokes that, though we hear snippets of their poetry-laden letters to one another, it is Alfred and Klara’s snappish workplace repartee that let us know how truly aligned they are in intellect and emotional temperament. Their relationship exists within a wider network of friendships, alliances, and affinities throughout the staff of Matuschek and Company. And while at least one of these is revealed to be built on deception, most exude a kind of ambivalent warmth, illuminating the singular blend of affection and proximity that defines so many workplace bonds. The complex rapport between Alfred and shop owner Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) particularly exemplifies this, with Hugo looking upon Alfred as variously a mentee, subordinate, romantic rival, and surrogate son.

The Shop Around the Corner fittingly concludes on Christmas Eve, a traditional time to gather with loved ones that’s also a typical financial windfall for retail stores. The delicate imbrication of professional and personal intimacies that the film charts so well find their logical conclusion in these last moments: the triumph of teamwork; the bonds of time and labor; the gradual dissipation of the group as each one says their goodnights and heads home to spouses and children, or parents, or friends, or an empty house or apartment. We are finally left with our two would-be lovers, chatting as they close up shop for the hundredth (or thousandth) time. It’s just another day of work—a prospect within which The Shop Around the Corner finds both the most prosaic of pleasures and the most precious of possibilities.

"The Apu Trilogy" 2: APARAJITO

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Satyajit Ray's Aparajito was written by Tim Brayton, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A newly restored 4K DCP of Aparajito, the second film in Ray's Apu trilogy, will screen at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, December 11, at 7 p.m.

By Tim Brayton

Satyajit Ray had no plans to make a sequel to his directorial debut, Pather Panchali, but that film's enormous success both in India and internationally caused him to relent. Thus his second effort was a sequel, Aparajito [aka The Unvanquished], which bridges novelist Bibhutibhushan Bannerjee's two novels about young Apu Roy, depicting his growth from childhood to college. It begins shortly after Pather Panchali ended: Apu (Pinaki Sengupta) and his parents, mother Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) and father Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) have recently moved from their rural home to the great city of Benares, one of the most spiritual places in India, so that Harihar may ply his trade as a priest.

Although Pather Panchali and its tragedies rest in the background, Aparajito does not require familiarity with the earlier work to appreciate its profound richness as a great humanist document complete unto itself. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, one of the few prominent Western critics who had little enthusiasm for Pather Panchali, referred to Aparajito in haunted, glowing terms: "done with such rare feeling and skill at pictorial imagery… develops a sort of hypnotism for the serene and tolerant viewer." The famed cultural critic Sigfried Kracauer ended his 1960 Theory of Film with an encomium to the film's spiritually and morally resonant universality. In more recent years, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has declared Aparajito to be the greatest leg of Ray's Apu trilogy.

The film's unique identity comes in part from its subtle but decisive aesthetic shift from its predecessor. The visual language Ray and cinematographer Subrata Mitra use in this film ignores the impressionistic qualities of Pather Panchali for something more directly realist. It's a keen decision, mirroring Apu's increasingly unromantic awareness of the world around him as he grows into young adulthood (at which point the role is taken over by Smaran Ghosal), while also capturing something of 1920s Benares and Calcutta—major urban centers in a moment when Indian culture was borrowing parts of its identity from Europe. It's surely no accident that Aparajito's style eschews lyricism for flat realism in tandem with Apu's decision to reject the family business of the priesthood to study English at a Western-style university.

Casting the film in such bluntly symbolic terms, however, robs it of the most important source of its greatness: the relationship between Apu and Sarbajaya, one of the great mother-son stories in all of cinema. Karuna Banerjee, already so great in Pather Panchali, returned to the role with all of the weariness and ragged resolve in place and amplified: even more than before, she's an equal protagonist in this story, which explores in painstaking, painful detail how a loving, widowed mother finds herself inexorably abandoned by the child whose bright future she eagerly supports, even while she understands that his success can only mean an ever-greater distance between them. Her performance of this tension is one of the great triumphs of Aparajito: she describes a remarkable transition from beginning to end, starting with an encouraging but openly baffled expression at Apu's energetic chatter about science, ending with an empty gaze from sullen eyes as her arm hangs lifelessly beside her body as she realizes that her son will not be returning to be with her in her final illness (it was this scene, in particular, that so moved Kracauer). Aparajito is never more moving than when it focuses with sorrow and understanding on Sarbajaya's loneliness; she is cinema's great exemplar of parental sacrifice, a figure who'll leave you anxious to call up your mother the moment the film stops to apologize for every terrible thing you've ever done to her, if only you can stop weeping for long enough to pick up the phone.

The film was a great success in America and Europe, becoming the only sequel ever to win the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. It also continued the dubious trend begun with Pather Panchali of leaving Ray and his austere Bengali art films as the sole Indian exports that international film audiences had much interest in watching. This success wasn't matched at home; Indian audiences that had flocked to Pather Panchali resisted and disliked Aparajito. In his 1958 essay "Problems of a Bengali Filmmaker," Ray surmised that the problem was his boldness in darkening the source material, with a confidence birthed by the first film's unexpected success. "The urban audience which was largely familiar with the plot of Aparajito was irritated by the deviations. As for the suburban audience, it was shocked by the portrayal of the mother and son relationship, so sharply at variance with the conventional notion of mutual sweetness and devotion."

There's no doubt that the family relationship driving Aparajito is stripped of both sweetness and devotion; but the rueful director (who always considered commercial appeal to be as important as artistic rigor) certainly had no need to second-guess or apologize. If Aparajito is unsentimental, it is nonetheless enormously kind, offering a great deal of tearful sympathy to Sarbajaya while also understanding Apu's desire to continue growing as an independent adult, even if it means curtly rejecting his past life and home. That there can be no happy middle ground between these two reasonable people and their emotional needs is a bitter truth, one ripped out of Apu's sobbing form in a powerful climax, as the camera pulls back respectfully to leave the young man standing under a dead tree in an empty space to fully understand what he has given up in order to pursue his future. This is not the tragedy of melodramatic suffering as seen in Pather Panchali; it is the everyday tragedy of children becoming adults and realizing what that costs them, of parents finding that they are no longer needed and thus no longer wanted. In this simple, casual tragedy, Aparajito finds incredible power, and becomes one of cinema's greatest stories of human behavior.

Outside the Law: Joseph Losey's THE PROWLER

Friday, December 4th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Joseph Losey’s The Prowler (1951) was written by Harry Gilbert, a graduate of Williams College (B.A., History). A 35mm print of The Prowler, will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen "35mm Forever" series on Sunday, December 6 at 2 p.m. The 35mm restored print screens courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Restoration funding provided by the Film Noir Foundation.

By Harry Gilbert

In a New York Times interview conducted a year before his death in 1984, Joseph Losey reflected on the ambivalent effects of the Hollywood blacklist. “Without it,” Losey mused, “I would have three Cadillacs, two swimming pools and millions of dollars, and I'd be dead. It was terrifying, it was disgusting, but you can get trapped by money and complacency. A good shaking up never did anyone any harm.” If Losey’s comments can be taken as indicators of his interests in social issues and investments in film as a mode of social critique, one could chart a trajectory that extends through the director’s oeuvre. In this respect, The Prowler (1951) is Losey par excellence.

The Prowler was produced at an historical moment in which the crime film was undergoing transformation. In the early 1940s, the plurality of crime films featured a “fugitive outsider” as the protagonist towards whom the camera structured the sympathies of the viewer. In this narrative, a working or middle class citizen, rather than the gangster or organized crime network of earlier crime films, comes into conflict with the law through false accusations or crimes of poverty, and subsequently resists social, political, and economic authority in an attempt to ascertain the true origins of the crime. Put differently, these films offered a critique of contemporary conditions that located guilt with hegemonic systems of power—the state and capitalism foremost among them—and situated the “fugitive outsider” as an ordinary person struggling to get by. This, when placed within the chiaroscuro sets of the urban environment, was film noir.

These films emerged during a period of violent and prolonged class conflict in Hollywood and the United States more broadly. Repression followed. Among other national and international factors, the House Un-American Activites Committee (HUAC) pressured unions to purify themselves of their more radical members and Hollywood studios to police—or blacklist—their more radical artists. This moment marked a shift in the dominant narratives of the crime film. By the 1950s, the police officer or detective became the protagonist, and the once sympathetic “fugitive outsider” became the criminal whose apprehension would show audiences the mechanisms of the criminal justice system and demonstrate the need to preserve order in the shadow of the Red Scare.

The Prowler, then, finds itself among a small group of films that persisted as once-effective avenues for social critique became increasingly foreclosed. Indeed, Losey goes so far as to provide a critique of the narrative shift itself. The story follows patrolman Webb Harwood (Van Heflin) to the suburban Los Angeles home of Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes), who had earlier reported a late-night prowler outside of her window. Both Webb and Susan aspire to attain the American Dream. Webb is just an “ordinary guy” from a working class background who “hates being a cop” and desires to one day own a motel so that he may “make money while he sleeps.”  Webb hopes to forge a path for himself that his father was too complacent to take. For Webb, the acquisition of a wife is a part of this process, and he will do whatever it takes to secure that asset.  Serendipitously, Susan grew up in the same town as Webb, but lived in the other, richer community. After a few years “knocking around” Hollywood, Susan marries disc jockey John Gilvray in a “happy,” “unexciting,” and, much to Susan’s dismay, childless marriage. 

The development of a physically, emotionally, and psychologically abusive relationship between Webb and Susan—despite what critics might say, the film has not persuaded me to believe that any of the interactions between the two are consensual—drives a narrative that theorizes and indicts how systems of power create the contexts in which individual decisions are made and poses questions about who is most effected and why, often with uneasy or absent answers. In a contemporary moment where the issue of race, gender, sexuality, and police oppression has re-entered mainstream (i.e., white) discourse due to the political work of people of color, these questions remain just as pressing today as they did when the film was first released.

The Prowler positions the figure of the cop outside of the law and thereby questions the role of the police, the decidedly illegal yet state-sanctioned means by which the law is enforced or skirted, and the privileges and pressures the role ordains upon a person—in this case, a man. The film thinks through the distinct ways the police as an institution exerts violence, in particular the patriarchal violence against women, and generates sympathy for itself. This critique, however, is tempered in ways that (I think) are important to consider as a viewer of the film. How does the characterization of Charles “Bud” Crocker (John Maxwell) suggest an exceptionalism to Webb that exculpates the police more generally? And how might the conclusion suggest that the police force is capable of regulating itself and thereby reinvest in the organization’s inviolability?

Susan registers the configurations of patriarchal forces in the 1950s, and her decisions enable her to survive. How might the camera-as-prowler implicate the viewer in the male gaze, one which Susan attempts to control through an internalized belief in the justice of the police and a recourse to carceral feminism? What does it mean for Susan to seek the security of marriage because of the precarity of Hollywood and capitalist labor markets for women? And how does the body of Susan become a site for masculine impotency, and how does she negotiate the repressive and creative potentials of this (im)position?

This prowler only exists outside of the frame, yet this role names the film, establishes the film, and makes possible the relationship between Webb and Susan. How do we think about the always-already racialized figure of the prowler and their visual absence from the film? Who is the “stranger” in the context of 1950s Los Angeles, with a particular history of white supremacist violence, redlining and policing neighborhoods, xenophobia, and colonialism? Bud asks us to think about how “There’s history slathered over every square foot of this country of ours.” In a film that commences with the racialized figure of the prowler, and stages the extrajudicial practices of the police and the endorsement of these measures by the state, the specter of lynching and white supremacist violence is not far. In a genre that that takes the white working class man as its subject and capitalist systems as the antagonistic object of inquiry, does The Prowler move beyond and critique this racist logic, or does it rely on them?

To pose, answer, and complicate these questions, The Prowler assembled a team of politically aligned artists who were masters of film noir. Losey himself had already directed two film noirs released in 1951 alone: a remake of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and The Big Night. Dalton Trumbo, blacklisted in 1947 for Soviet sympathies and connections to the Communist Party, composed a screenplay credited to close friend Hugo Butler, whose name would also soon be found on the blacklist. Boris Leven, whose recent filmography included noir classics Criss Cross (1949) from Robert Siodmak and House by the River (1950) from Lang, served as art director and hired uncredited—read: blacklisted—designer John Hubley, famous for his experiments in animation, to craft the film’s sets.

"The Apu Trilogy" 1: PATHER PANCHALI

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali was written by Tim Brayton, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A newly restored 4K DCP of Pather Panchali, the first film in Ray's Apu trilogy, will screen at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, December 4, at 7 p.m.

By Tim Brayton

Following its triumph at the 1956 Cannes International Film Festival, Satyajit Ray's debut as writer and director, Pather Panchali [aka Song of the Little Road], was immediately put under the unfair burden of being the cinematic ambassador of Indian filmmaking in Europe and America. For it was the first film made on the subcontinent to enjoy any kind of meaningful international release, and the critics of the world were quick to identify it as a masterpiece. Which it is; but it's still the worst kind of cultural pandering. Of course, there isn't such a thing as "Indian filmmaking", only a collection of regional and linguistic filmmaking traditions. Even if that weren't the case, Pather Panchali wouldn't be the film to exemplify anything other than the latent talent of its creator: a graphic designer working in advertising, with the beating heart of a great cinephile.

In 1947, Ray co-founded the Calcutta Film Society, which would soon become one of the primary conduits by which that city's audiences could have any access to foreign films. It was around that year that he first hit upon the idea to adapt Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay's 1928 novel Pather Panchali into a movie, though the mechanism for doing so wouldn't become clear to him for a few years. His resolve to become a filmmaker seems to have firmly solidified thanks to two events that occurred in 1950: first, he worked as location scout for Jean Renoir's The River; that autumn, in England, he first saw Bicycle Thieves, which became a primary influence and motivating force on his desire to go out and make a film on his own.

When Pather Panchali emerged—after years of no-budget production racing against the aging process of his juvenile leads—it was far more than just a riff on Italian neorealism. The film is an almost unclassifiable hybrid: the domestic setting and focus on the poverty of a rural family and especially that family's youngest child Apu (Subir Banerjee) are right line with the films of De Sica and Rossellini. So is the use of non-professional actors to make up the bulk of the cast, and the downplaying of any significant plot arc in favor of capturing the unfocused events of the everyday. But the visuals have an expressionistic quality that veers towards melodrama rather than realism: one of Pather Panchali's most striking sequences is a terrifying thunderstorm near the end, with flashes of light transforming the comforting domestic space of the family home into a horror film setting. The score, composed by future superstar sitar player Ravi Shankar, sounds as unabashedly Indian as the rest of the style is European, but this is nowhere near the everything-goes tradition of Hindi-language musicals that dominated Indian film production till then. Pather Panchali was one of the inaugural films in Parallel Cinema movement, a new wave of Bengali-language films derived from literary sources and favoring aesthetic and narrative realism.

Whatever national and international trends Pather Panchali borrows from or discards, what matters most is the film itself. This is one of the finest movies of the 1950s, and among the strongest directorial debuts ever. It is a particularly strong example of a child's-eye view film, though not dogmatically so. In fact, Apu is a mere baby for the first twenty minutes, at which point the action skips ahead, and he's reintroduced to us in a sequence in the annals of character introductions on par with John Ford's zoom into John Wayne early in Stagecoach: he sits up from bed into a dramatic close-up, at which point the score revs up and the film launches into a montage of childhood behavior. These montages show up frequently throughout the film, and they're cumulatively one of its strongest gestures: Shankar's plinking music provides a lulling rhythm, while the onscreen action combines disjointed moments into a single flow, not suggesting the passage of time but instead leaving us with a sense of a constant, eternal present.

Like many films about the experience of childhood, Pather Panchali includes a narrative that occurs above the awareness of its young protagonists, Apu and his older sister Durga (Uma Dasgupta): father Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) dreams of being a poet and artist, but must move away to the city to make a real living, while mother Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) retreats into her own depression as her woes pile up. It's to the great credit of everyone involved, especially Karuna Banerjee, whose reflective, sad performance is one of the great pieces of screen acting in the '50s, that this adult plotline is revealed to us with objective clarity, but without ever swamping the more delicate, aimless material surrounding Apu, who does, after all, remain the anchor of the film's superlative use of perspective. We see, generally, what Apu sees, but we understand more of it than he does. One of the key visual motifs in Pather Panchali are close-ups of Subir Banerjee's face, allowing his dark eyes to dominate our impressions as he stares out at the world around him, preternaturally watchful. We are encouraged, not to match his point-of-view—the close-ups tend to confirm the difference between the boy and the audience, not to elide that difference—but to look where he's looking, with the same intent gaze.

The result is a film that is most successful as a work of observation: settling down in a locale almost as unfamiliar to the urbanite Ray as to his earliest Western audiences, and just trying to see it, in all its fullness. This task becomes far more engaging than ever thanks to Janus Films' brand new 4K reconstruction of the film's badly burned camera negatives, which the Cinematheque will be showing as a DCP; after generations of muddy DVD and VHS transfers, Pather Panchali takes on a clarity and luminosity that very nearly make it a new film altogether. The shapes and textures of the world it depicts are more tangible, the realist aesthetic more overwhelming, and the lives depicted all the more vivid. It is the best possible way to experience a film whose intensely intimate depiction of physically palpable humanity has always been its greatest strength.

MUR MURS & DOCUMENTEUR: Agnès Varda in Los Angeles

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Agnès Varda's Mur Murs and Documenteur (both 1981) was written by Jenny Oyallon-Koloski, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Mur Murs and Documenteur will both screen on Saturday, November 21, beginning at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The program will begin with a special introduction by Kelley Conway, Professor of Film, author of Contemporary Film Director's: Agnès Varda, now available from Univeristy of Illinois Press.

By Jenny Oyallon-Koloski

Agnès Varda enjoys filming real people. She says as much in Varda par Agnès, suggesting that she likes “watching them put themselves into the scene, listening to the way they talk, observing their gestures, their settings, and the objects they surround themselves with.” Her children, Rosalie Varda-Demy and Mathieu Demy, would agree with her. The latter proposes in an interview that his mother has always chosen to work with reality, in stark contrast to his father, fellow filmmaker Jacques Demy, who stresses instead “the importance of tales and wonder.”

Varda and Demy spent several years in Los Angles at the end of the 1960s, during which time she became fascinated with the proliferation of murals around the city. A subsequent visit to California from 1979 to 1981 revitalized the interest, and Varda spent months inventorying and studying the neighborhood-specific art forms. Made in part thanks to a grant from the French Ministry of Culture, Murs Murs (1981) is the result of Varda’s determination to discover the creators behind these murals and interview them by their art. “Murs has all the sun and glory of Los Angeles,” the filmmaker tells Variety: “It’s all in there—the bad, like gang killings, as well as the good. But it’s very alive. And the people I filmed say incredible things about this city, about the dream-like quality of life here.” As Varda and her editor, Sabine Mamou, were finishing the final cut, an idea for a new film—about a woman struggling with the recent separation from her husband—emerged like the “shadow,” as Varda recalls, of the first.

As a continuation of her interest in non-actors, Varda links her narrative strategies in Documenteur (1981) to several of her earlier works—La Pointe Courte (1955), L’Opéra-Mouffe (1958), and Cleo de 5 à 7 (1962)—in which she also films everyday people in a documentary style and juxtaposes these images with the fictionalized concerns of her protagonists. The film’s Variety reviewer finds that “Varda has a great eye for composition, with remarkably bleak but arresting shots of the beach where the woman works, accompanied by well-chosen minimalist shots of the city and beach plus montages of blank, lonely faces.” But Varda’s subsequent Los Angeles-based project is also a family affair. Sabine Mamou emerged as the natural choice in Varda’s mind to play Emilie because of her presence during the early planning stages but also because “she was like a part of the family.” The natural choice, then, to play Emilie’s son, Martin, was Mathieu Demy.

The incorporation of friends and family, especially, into her work is not unusual for Varda’s filmmaking practice, or for the greater Varda-Demy household. Rosalie Varda-Demy can be seen in Varda’s earlier film One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977) and had small roles as a child in some of Demy’s films, notably playing Genvieve’s daughter at the end of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964). She subsequently pursued a career as a costume designer, working on several of Demy’s later films as well as Varda’s Vagabond (1985). Mathieu Demy, now a professional actor and filmmaker, appears in Varda’s Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988) and Kung-Fu Master! (1988), while also playing a bit role in Demy’s final feature of the same year, Trois places pour le 26 (1988). His presence in Documenteur seems to have stuck with him the most, however, as he incorporates shots from Varda’s film into his directorial debut, Americano (2011). As Varda explains before a 2014 screening of her film at the Cinémathèque française, her son’s desire to incorporate parts of Documenteur motivated a restoration that appealed to both parties, since “he got the bits he wanted, and I got the rest.” The choice to cast family members in her film, especially, allows us to observe what Mathieu Demy refers to as Varda’s “re-appropriation of reality.”

We should be wary of taking these people’s realities and Varda’s portrayals of them at face value. The pun in Documenteur (menteur = liar) suggests as much. But we also cannot completely separate the film’s fictionalized account of a woman and her son’s struggles from Varda’s separation from Jacques Demy during this period; “like much of Varda’s work” Variety suggests, “the film is more than a little autobiographical.” Rosalie mentions in an interview that Documenteur was an emotionally difficult film for her to watch at the time of its making, given its “focus on Agnès’ suffering.” Mathieu also remembers the early 1980s as a painful period, but recalls with pleasure his time roller-skating around Los Angles with his father. A photograph from Varda’s collection shows the duo in action, with a series of abstract murals framing them in the background. Like Mathieu and Jacques Demy skating around Venice Beach, Varda’s films and their blend of reality and fiction will never cease to keep us on our toes.

Pages