Unnatural Beauty: Neil Young’s HUMAN HIGHWAY

Sunday, April 16th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Neil Young's Human Highway was written by WUD Film's Vincent Mollica. A restored DCP of Human Highway, supervised and recut by Neil Young, will screen as our latest Marquee Monday selection on Monday, April 17 at 7 p.m. in the Marquee Theater at Union South. The screening is co-presented by WUD Film.

By Vincent Mollica

For everyone starting the adventure of listening to the music of Neil Young I give the same piece of advice: Give the ‘80s a chance! Acknowledged as one of the great popular musicians of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the 1980s remain a generally maligned period of his career. However, if one seeks them out, they can find many of Young's greatest songs in the deeply strange music produced between Live Rust and Freedom. Some of this strangeness rubs off on the kitschy movie Human Highway, begun by young in the late ‘70s and released in 1982.

Young, under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey, co-directed the film with veteran actor Dean Stockwell, who also acts alongside Young in the film. The film is an over the top musical comedy featuring songs by Young and art-pop stars Devo. It’s about a small gas station and diner, the strange characters that inhabit it, and the eventual nuclear holocaust that destroys it and the world.

Talking to The New York Times as the film was being re-released, Neil Young claimed that the film was more of an experiment in filmmaking and an opportunity to act. In the same piece, Young and co-star Charlotte Stewart describe how the film was initially unscripted, with planning taking place in the morning and actual writing of the script being done post-shooting (in the biography Shakey, it’s revealed Young thought this was akin to how Chaplin made film).

Variety’s full page advertisement for Human Highway shows black outlined stars featuring the films biggest performers in big capital letters. Indeed, the cast, which also includes Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn and Sally Kirkland, is ultimately the most immediately notable quality of the film. However, it’s really Dennis Hopper and Mark Mothersbaugh who bring life to Human Highway. As the Devo character Booji Boy, especially, Mothersbaugh feels like a genuine force of chaos, dressed in a horrifying child costume and shouting confusing nonsense throughout.

However, in Shakey, some of the members of Devo depressingly speak to the drink and drug heavy atmosphere on the set, where they were frequently antagonized by Hopper and Stockwell. Talking to The New York Times, Devo's Bob Casale pointedly refers to Stockwell and Hopper as both “at the nadir of the financial box office success” while still “somewhat entitled,” before claiming that Hopper had accidentally cut co-star Sally Kirkland with a knife in a fight causing an ambulance to come (maybe tellingly, Shakey also has Hopper describing making the film as “a great fuckin’ party”).
According to a press release from Shakey Pictures, the production company behind Human Highway, the movie essentially faded away after the film’s festival premiere, with the major exception of a ‘90s VHS/Laser Disc release, before being restored and re-cut for a 2014 re-release. This did not stop Variety from calling it a “simple story about simple people that is simply awful” or the L.A Times ranking it the 521st best “rock film” in 1984, just being beat out by Magical Mystery Tour at #520. Today, and perhaps then, the film is not without its defenders. At the defunct website The Dissolve, Noel Murray kindly described the film as a “live-action Ralph Bashki film, full of druggy jive and attitude.”

As Human Highway was first being released, Young was working on and touring with the music of Trans, a polarizing 1982 record defined by a heavy use of vocoder on Neil Young’s vocals. In a lengthy 1982 interview with Cameron Crowe, he discusses the way in which he says “computer music is like a mask” and how he liked the different characters he could slip into via vocoder. He excitedly talks about the boundless musical potential that the vocoder holds for him. The appealingly artificial quality of Young’s voice using the vocoder helps set the stage for Human Highway.

Human Highway revels in artificiality. Asked about a potential influence for the film in Shakey, Young says, “Cheap Japanese horror-movie kind of things? I like that vibe. I like something that’s so unreal that you could believe it…”. He also claimed, “I wanted [Human Highway] to look like a storybook so people could realize that there was nothing real about it.” From the ornate props and sets to the trains running in the background that evoke Young’s own massive model train set, the film looks like the best kind of fake.

As well as this, when the film focuses on music, it excels. An early dance number with Devo performing “It Takes a Worried Man” at a nuclear power plant lets you soak in the garish irradiated aesthetic of Devo’s costume design; a dream sequence where we see Devo, featuring Booji Boy on vocals, perform “Hey Hey, My My (Out of the Black)” with Young sporting a Sex Pistols shirt is legitimately grotesque; and a final reprise with the whole cast of “It Takes a Worried Man” is charmingly grandiose.

Best of all is a scene where Young, playing a mechanic named Lionel, discovers the tuning-fork-like properties of wrenches in his garage. Musically, the scene builds and builds. As Young continues to hit the metal, he also starts to whistle, which is supported by a non-diegetic score that sweeps in. The scene culminates in an also non-diegetic roar of applause. The Neil Young who excitedly told Crowe about all the new musical machines he anticipated playing with is evident in this blissful moment. Neil Young's passion for artifice and an ability to let great musicianship takeover is what ultimately makes Human Highway worth seeing.

Vincent Mollica’s Top 5 ‘80s Neil Young Songs:

1. “Depression Blues” (Lucky 13, Geffen)
2. “Inca Queen” (Life, Geffen)
3. “Hippie Dream” (Landing on Water, Geffen)
4. “Twilight” (Bluenote Café, Reprise)
5. “Nothing is Perfect” (A Treasure, Reprise)


Saturday, April 15th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on The Poseidon Adventure (1972) was written by Matt Connolly, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of The Poseidon Adventure will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen "Music by John Williams" series on Sunday, April 16 at 2 p.m.

By Matt Connolly

Often seen today as either objects of camp or receptacles of cultural anxieties, the disaster films of the 1970s proved hugely successful in offering audiences an experience that combined a bit of both. On the one hand, movies like Airport (1970), The Towering Inferno (1974), and Earthquake (1974) provided the perversely satisfying spectacle of watching a more-stars-than-there-are-in-the-heavens cast get slowly picked off as they collectively braved the films’ titular cataclysms. On the other hand, the post-disaster bands of survivors created social microcosms within which questions of morality, leadership, and social cohesion could get worked out in simplified but often gripping fashion. Critics might have expressed ambivalence about these works’ thin characterizations and often head-spinning mixtures of ruthlessness and sentimentality, but the sheer popularity of the genre’s early-to-mid 70s entries made them a staple throughout the decade.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972) remains one of the superlative disaster films of the era, combining all that is stirring, silly, and satisfying about the genre’s heyday. We meet a menagerie of characters aboard the titular sea craft, including an unorthodox reverend (Gene Hackman); a police officer (Ernest Borgnine) and his wife, a former prostitute (Stella Stevens); a melancholy, health-obsessed haberdasher (Red Buttons); and an elderly couple (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters) traveling to Israel to meet their grandson for the first time. As the passengers gather in the grand ballroom to ring in the New Year, an undersea earthquake unleashes a massive tidal wave that overturns the ship. The ship’s purser (Byron Webster) insists that the survivors remain in the ballroom to await help, but Hackman’s tempestuous preacher rightly intuits that the crew has perished and that the only hope for survival is to escape the capsized vessel. The aforementioned passengers comprise the ragtag crew who follow the reverend, joined by a pair of young siblings (Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea), an injured waiter (Roddy McDowall), and the traumatized singer of the ship’s band (Carol Lynley).

Having grown up with the world-demolishing threats of such 1990s disaster films as Independence Day (1996) and Deep Impact (1998), I’m always struck by The Poseidon Adventure’s assiduously limited scope. Once the initial catastrophe has occurred, the ship becomes a shadowy maze where quite literally up is down. There’s an Alice in Wonderland-esque absurdity to some of the overturned mise-en-scene, as when one character enters a ship bathroom and looks up to find the toilets hanging from the ceiling. Formerly quotidian objects and structures are either transformed into death traps or reimagined as tools of survival. Most memorably, the ballroom’s stately Christmas tree crushes a number of passengers as it tumbles to the ground mid-capsizing, only to become a makeshift ladder to safety for the preacher and his cohort. Such scenes give The Poseidon Adventure a tactility that is sometimes missing from later, CGI-enhanced disaster films—the sense of desperate ingenuity with which the characters navigate a helter-skelter yet stubbornly concrete space.

Disaster films from the 1970s negotiate a constant tension between the bounty of acting talent present within their ensembles and the often-flimsy characters and eyebrow-raising situations they’re asked to play. The Poseidon Adventure navigates this as much as any of the era’s films. Newspaper advertisements conspicuously threaded the needle between prestige and sensationalism, touting “the talents of 15 Academy Award winners” amongst the film’s creative team while trumpeting with wild-eye hyperbole: “Who will survive—in one of the greatest escape adventures ever!” While no one would characterize the film’s dramatic arcs as Chekhovian, the cast nevertheless finds moral weight and pathos within the screenplay’s considerations of religious faith and collective responsibility. Winters stands as first amongst equals here, bringing humor and tenderness to her Mrs. Rosen, who (in simultaneously the film’s most affecting and parodied moment) stuns all with her bravery and prodigious lung capacity.

Winters received a 1973 Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress for her work in The Poseidon Adventure—one of nine nominations and two statuettes awarded to the film, presumably in recognition of both its quality and its massive popularity. (John Williams justifiably received one of those nominations for his stirring score; in a marker of the composer’s oft-underrated versatility, he received a second nod that same year for composing the music for Robert Altman’s psychological thriller Images (1972).) The Poseidon Adventure opened to much fanfare in December 1972. The film’s premiere doubled as the inaugural screening for the National Theater in New York, which was reported to be the first brand-new movie house to open in Times Square since 1935. Once in theaters, the film proved to be a box-office sensation. It ended its run at the domestic box-office with roughly $42,000,000 in rentals, financially besting such 70s-era touchstones as MASH  (1970), The Godfather: Part II (1974), and Young Frankenstein (1975). Critics, meanwhile, offered (often tempered) praise of The Poseidon Adventure’s technical achievements, standout performances, and masterful orchestration of suspense. As New York Times’ critic Vincent Canby noted, “You simply enjoy the engineering feats of the moviemakers, which are so effective that they touch even outrageous things with credibility.”

Attempts to replicate the success of The Poseidon Adventure have proven spotty. A 2005 television remake has been largely forgotten; while both the 1979 sequel, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, and the 2006 theatrical remake, Poseidon, were received with relative indifference by critics and audiences. The fandom surrounding the original, on the other hand, has remained fiercely dedicated over the years. A New York Times report from 2006 noted that the official Poseidon Adventure Fan Club had roughly 2,000 members. One such super-fan, playwright David Cerda, even adapted the film for the stage. Poseidon! An Upside Down Musical has been performed throughout the United States—a testament, Cerda insists, to the film’s enduring combination of earnest uplift and spectacular excess. “This group of misfits is able to surmount such overwhelming odds,” he told The New York Times. “‘Plus, he added, ‘it’s big and splashy.’”

Schoenberg Meets Straub-Huillet: MOSES AND AARON

Friday, April 14th, 2017
Posted by Matt St John

These notes on Moses and Aaron were written by Zachary Zahos, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A DCP restoration of Moses and Aaron will screen as part of our Straub-Huillet series on Saturday, April 15 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The feature will be preceded by Straub-Huillet's 1962 short Machorka-Muff.

By Zachary Zahos

Stalking the stage of Alice Tully Hall, Jean-Marie Straub read aloud the New York Times review of Moses and Aaron, his and Danièle Huillet’s new film. Or, as the paper called it, “Aaron and Moses,” which was assessed as follows: “In his latest film—it can't be called a movie because virtually nothing moves, neither the camera nor what it is photographing—Mr. Straub has come close to purging the screen of anything to see. At the same time, he will come close to purging the movie theater of anybody to watch.” Straub’s Q&A at the 1975 New York Film Festival devolved into an apoplectic live reading of the review and did not recover.

Insipid the review may be—the critic dismisses Arnold Schoenberg because he is “rarely whistled” today—it anticipates a famous quote from Straub himself: “We make our films so that audiences can walk out of them.” Given that the reportedly “accessible” The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach prompted upwards of ten walkouts from 4070 Vilas last Saturday, it is safe to say that Straub and Huillet (who were married until the latter’s death in 2006) still hit a nerve. With their unorthodox, materialist film style and hard-left politics, this French duo has smoldered at the fringes of international art cinema for over five decades.

Which is to say that Moses and Aaron, a masterpiece, poses certain challenges. When struggling to comprehend a Straub-Huillet film, the viewer has less of a chance to simply “bathe in” its sensory details as he may do when viewing, say, an Antonioni or Tarkovsky film. Moses and Aaron’s stunning, plein air 35mm cinematography offers, if you let it, as many pleasures as any Tarkovsky, but the difference here is that Straub and Huillet insist, within their films and in interviews, on the importance of meaning. “Most of all, the film is an idea,” Straub said, directly, of Moses and Aaron. Across their filmography, that central idea boils down to the tension, informed by Marxist dialectics, between ideas and the means through which we express them.

By more than coincidence, the source text for this film, Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron, concerns the very same and very first struggle. Beginning with the burning bush, the libretto dramatizes Moses’s failed efforts to communicate the Word of God, clearly and faithfully, to the Hebrews. Detecting an autocratic impulse in Moses’s insistence that he alone comprehends God, Aaron permits the Hebrews their idolatry—in the form of a golden calf—while Moses spends his 40 days on Mount Sinai. This betrayal further disparages Moses’s pure, formless notion of the Almighty. This dichotomy between Moses and Aaron extends from the libretto to the score. As Claudia Plummer observes, Schoenberg “writes Moses’ part in Sprechstimme (a declamatory mode of vocal operatic performance), while Aaron’s part is assigned to the lyrical colorations of a bel canto tenor.” Provided you are not alienated by opera on principle, and can tolerate Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique on top of that, the container of “opera” gives neat structure and form to Straub and Huillet’s own ideas.

As they did for The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, Straub and Huillet went to lengths to ensure the precise, pristine recording of direct sound. Unlike their 1968 film, which took place entirely indoors, Moses and Aaron’s outdoor setting posed difficulties in scouting for Italian locations hospitable to the recording of an entire opera. Huillet said they first looked for a plateau, but “no matter how beautiful” what they initially found, “everything was lost in the air and the wind.” They decided on the ancient Alba Fucens amphitheater in Abruzzo. “In the end,” Huillet reflected, “we saw that to film in a basin ... was better for the images too, because we had a natural theatrical space in which the subject, instead of being dissolved, was concentrated.” Critics Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson, another cinephile power couple, grasped Straub and Huillet’s achievement, praising in Film Comment “the delicious and joyful Moses and Aaron” as “one of the few times when weather, sound, and physical setting have been united with such tactile objectivity.”

For those still daunted by the task of the film before them, perhaps it bears a passing mention that Straub and Huillet’s favorite filmmaker is John Ford. For distinct reasons, maybe: Per Straub, Ford is the “most Brechtian” director, in that “‘he shows things that make people think” rather than feeding “images that tell them what to think.” Despite diametrically opposed production and distribution strategies between the two filmmakers (Straub and Huillet filmed mostly in Germany and Italy, with university screenings as the norm), the generosity Straub finds in Ford is a quality Straub and Huillet also together share.

While at first forbidding, the Straub-Huillet project beckons the intellectually and aesthetically curious. “I don’t think a film should impose at all the ideas of a director,” Straub has said. “He should propose ideas that people can accept or refuse.” The struggle for the viewer to comprehend those ideas in the first place is very real, but in Moses and Aaron’s case, the staggering final scene states the themes clearly while leaving open their political consequence. Commenting on the film’s ending forty years ago, Straub predicted a stark future: “All of a sudden you see this reaction in the audiences that have seen the film. The bourgeoisie cannot accept this film, because it says something at the end that they don't want to admit. It says, ‘It can't last. The established order just can't last.’”

The Controversy of CRUISING

Friday, April 14th, 2017
Posted by Matt St John

These notes on Cruising were written by Chelsea McCracken, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Cruising will screen as a Special Presentation on Friday, April 14 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

The production of William Friedkin’s Cruising in 1980 caused an uproar from the gay and lesbian community.  Cruising follows a detective’s investigation of a serial killer who murders members of the gay S/M leather community.  The film was based on a novel that Vito Russo, in his seminal book The Celluloid Closet, called “homophobic in spirit and in fact; it sees all its gay characters as having been ‘recruited,’ condemned to the sad gay life like modern vampires who must create new victims to survive” (236).  The controversy, intense reactions, and protests sparked by the film reflect a vocal section of the gay community’s concern over Hollywood’s representation of gay characters.  Gay rights activists called for a boycott of the film because, as Philip Shehadi of Gay Community News put it, “the systematic pattern of misrepresentation that has always characterized Hollywood's treatment of homosexuality is simply intolerable, and the release of Cruising is an excellent opportunity to make that statement” (“Cruising: How Dangerous?” (23 February 1980): 1).

Cruising’s script was leaked before production began, giving gay advocacy groups ample time to organize.  Activists created pamphlets to call people to arms against the film.  One such pamphlet noted that violence against homosexuals is rooted in “feelings of hatred and fear” towards a group of people, and films like Cruising “not only reinforce and foster these feelings, they exploit them for profit.”  Put even more forcefully, one pamphlet stated that in Cruising, “gay men are presented as one-dimensional sex-crazed lunatics, vulnerable victims of violence and death.  This is not a film about how we live: it is a film about why we should be killed… ‘Cruising’ is a film which will encourage more violence against homosexuals.  In the current climate of backlash against the gay rights movement, this movie is a genocidal act.” 

Cruising was shot in New York City, and by the time filming began, the film had garnered intense criticism and resentment.  Protestors interfered with the production in a number of ways, including crowding shooting locations, unhooking or even cutting cables, and blowing whistles so that shots had to be reshot, all of which cost the production time and money.   The violence of the reaction apparently startled Friedkin, who claimed that the protests went beyond peaceful disagreement and were the result of key, inflammatory articles written about the film, in particular by Arthur Bell of the Village Voice.  Friedkin maintains that the film is not homophobic but rather “just a murder mystery, with the gay leather scene as a backdrop... The vitriol that the film was greeted with still confounds me” (qtd in Alex Simon, “Cruising with Billy.”  Friedkin initially thought he would benefit from the protests and demonstrations, but they ended up working against the film, keeping it from reaching its expected box office potential.  Cruising had a disappointing theatrical run, and some theaters refused to show the film because of the negative press attention.  

Gay and lesbian protests did not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of the entire community.  Despite the vocal opposition to the film’s production, more than 1600 gay men participated in the filming of Cruising.  Many of them were members of the leather subculture who welcomed the opportunity to bring attention to a subsection of the gay community that did not get recognition from mainstream gay associations.  Gay liberation political agendas tended to view with embarrassment sexual practices that deviated significantly from normative conventions.  So while some protested the film’s lack of “real images” of gay men, there were others who countered this attack by illustrating that there is no single way to be gay. 

Some sensed at the time of its initial release that Cruising could become a gay cult film, and efforts were made to preserve some of the promotional materials and prints.  The film did undergo re-evaluations as it aged, and Cruising has been reclaimed to some extent as a camp time capsule.  As Nathan Lee of The Village Voice put it, the film is a “heady, horny, flashback to the last gasp of full-blown sexual abandon, and easily the most graphic depiction of gay sex ever in a mainstream movie...  The atmosphere of uninhibited sexual camaraderie—invisible to the protestors and long since vanished from the scene—overpowers the trite homophobic conceits.”

While not uniform in their responses, contemporary viewers were heavily influenced by the press surrounding the film, and Cruising’s lasting legacy is deeply informed by the fractious situation of its production and release.  Cruising became a lightning rod for gay visibility, censorship, and conversations about LGBTQ images in media.  In this moment, what was widely considered to be a negative depiction of the gay community brought the issue of gay representations to the forefront of national discussions.  These actions drew more attention to the filmic medium as a battleground of representation, as well as to LGBTQ populations as a political force.

'He’s All I Got’: Genre, Gender, and THE MISSOURI BREAKS

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Arthur Penn's The Missouri Breaks (1976) was written by WUD Film’s Vincent Mollica. A 35mm print of The Missouri Breaks will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen tribute to composer John Williams on March 19 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art.

By Vincent Mollica

Midway through The Missouri Breaks, after an attempted rustling of Canadian Mounties gone horribly wrong, one of the rustlers, nursing a blown off finger, says of the Mounties chasing them in the U.S., “It’s not even legal!” At different points during Arthur Penn’s 1976 Western, the audience might feel a similar sense of confused shock. In an interview around the release of the film with Film Comment, Penn claims it was the pairing of its stars, Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando, which drew Penn to the film. After explaining the tight production schedule, relative lack of preparation, and Brando’s difficult work schedule, Penn also claimed the film was more of a for-hire production. This might lead one to think that the film might be a conventional, star-delivery-system, but as the film and Penn’s own comments about it reveal, it is decidedly unconventional. The feeling of something straightforward skidding off the rails––that some fundamental law has been broken––plays a key role in a film that pushes conventions and expectations of genre, performance and gender.

Indeed, Penn did not seem very interested in making a film for everybody, especially in terms of genre. In the Film Comment interview Penn asks, “What is a western?” claiming that he feared that film was being placed into strict categories. (Penn follows up by saying that he didn’t even see the film as a Western, identifying it as an “early robber baron film.”) Reviewers picked up on this strained relationship with the Western genre as well. In an unkind review, Rex Reed refers to the film as “one of those big, brawling, pretentious Stanislavsky Westerns.” In a much warmer Boxoffice review the film is affectionately dubbed “strange on the range.”

Similarly, difficult to characterize is Brando’s turn as the “regulator” Robert E. Lee, who’s hired to defend a small town from rustlers. On set, Brando told Rolling Stone that he read his lines off cue cards, believing that had he memorized them, his lines would sound too rote. In his Film Comment interview, Penn reacted to this interview, maybe worried at the appearance of laziness, saying that he wishes he could express how “publicly frivolous and privately serious Brando is…[he] works alone for three or four hours in the most intensely personal, improvisatory way - searching, searching, searching for some kind of resonance inside himself.” The performance is maybe another shade of the spontaneity that Brando brought to films like A Streetcar Named Desire decades earlier. Fitting Brando and Penn’s own remarks, the performance, which Sight and Sound refers to as having a “mood of pixilated extravagance,” feels unmannered and genuine in a way that clearly reflects craft. His performance becomes a consistently bewildering and entertaining element of the film.

Brando’s strangeness takes many forms, from his vague Irish accent, to his unrepentant sadism, and most notably an overall play with masculinity. In their review, Film Comment claimed that Brando replaced “macho swagger for effete affectations.” Jonathan Lethem, referring to a scene in which a bathing Brando exposes his “appallingly fleshy back,” claims Brando “collapse[s]..his masculine energies” in the film. Looking more at sexuality, in an interview with Brando’s biographer David Thompson, Thompson claims the film has a “witty sort of gay teasing, although a very standard heterosexual figure.” In Brando’s character the way we might conventionally characterize masculinity, especially in a space like the old west, becomes difficult to pin down.

This expands beyond Brando. Penn peppers in small moments of disjuncture where personality traits and power dynamics we might assume from characters based on their gender become questioned. One such scene comes when Kathleen Lloyd’s character intimidates Jack Nicholson by asking him to have sex with her in an open field, briefly seeming to reverse gender roles (before the scene confusingly turns them back). However, the film, predictably, is more interested in the men.

In the film’s greatest moment, Nicholson goes to kill the man who hired Lee, only to find him paralyzed from the shock of the events of the film’s climax. As he attempts to shoot him, his assistant Vern, who has been spooning food into his open mouth, clings onto his limp body, mumbling pleas to have Nicholson shoot him instead. The moment plays on the unexpectedly close relationship between these two, older men breaking the boundaries of masculine kinship. A potentially sweet moment is turned unsettling by Vern’s completely unselfconscious desperation and groveling, turning male intimacy into something queasy. (This appears to be actor Vern Chandler’s only film, which is a shame, because in a movie starring Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando, he turns in the single most memorable performance.)  In ways that can feel transgressive, or in moments like this, rather questionable, Penn plays with the conventions of sexuality and gender.

Jonathan Lethem and Peter Biskind, in their respective reflections on the film, write rather smugly of 1976, and The Missouri Breaks, as the end of an era for a certain kind of lawless Hollywood filmmaking. For better or worse, the film is a mess of its era, fascinated with questions of genre and masculinity; never fully cohering, but leaving a laundry list of memorable moments.


Wednesday, March 8th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) were written by Zachary Zahos, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Temple of Doom will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series tribute to composer John Williams on March 12 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art. Admission is free!

Despite all its success, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom still rankles some, its creators especially. “It was too dark, too subterranean, and much too horrific,” Spielberg said five years after its release. “There’s not an ounce of my own personal feeling in Temple of Doom.” (He was promoting Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, a much more uplifting film, at the time.) Co-writer and executive producer George Lucas has similar misgivings, but contrary to Spielberg, he blames the film’s intensity entirely on their personal states: “I was going through a divorce, and I was in a really bad mood. So I really wanted to do dark. And Steve then broke up with his girlfriend, and so he was sort of into it, too. That’s where we were at that point in time.”

These tensions potentially inform the film’s most disturbing passages, like when the Thuggee cult brainwashes Indy (Harrison Ford) into punching his young sidekick, Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan), and—remember this?—nearly sacrificing Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) to a ceremonial pyre. Outside of what critic Dave Kehr identified as some “blunt Freudian” significance, this darkness seizes our attention for being so extraneous to the plot, which after all harkens back to the light programmers of yore. Critic Filipe Furtado jokingly notes how the film “somehow [doubles] down on the racism and sexism inherent to that [serial] tradition,” which in the end may be Temple of Doom’s most awkward legacy. Curiously, Roshan Seth (who plays the Maharaja’s Prime Minister, Chattar Lal) has since insisted that Spielberg knew the pitfalls and tried to avoid them. With the infamous Pankot Palace banquet scene, for instance, Seth said, “Steven intended it as a joke, the joke being that Indians were so f’ing smart that they knew all Westerners think that Indians eat cockroaches, so they served them what they expected.” “That joke was too subtle for that film,” Seth concluded.

If we accept Temple of Doom, then, as an incongruous and often nasty piece of work, it becomes easier to admire the filmmaking brio on display as well as the audacity with which it clashes genres and remixes film history. A litmus test for this approach comes early on, when Lao Che’s pilot henchmen try to kill our heroes by ditching their airplane: Are you bothered that Spielberg decided to stock this doomed flight with cages full of live, clucking chickens? Or is their presence justified by the cool, snow-like effect their white feathers make as they blow about the cabin? And doesn’t this also work as some frayed riff on Only Angels Have Wings? The more agreeable you find the latter two options, the more fun you will have watching (and especially rewatching) Temple of Doom.

It begins, after all, with perhaps the most jaw-dropping 15 minutes of Spielberg’s career. Apropos of nothing, Temple of Doom introduces itself as a Busby Berkeley-style musical, with high-kicking tap dancers, door-wide hand fans, and Capshaw’s Willie singing the Cole Porter song “Anything Goes” in Mandarin. A lower third title, “Shanghai, 1935,” sets the action, without fanfare, one year before Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indy enters the nightclub (its name, an in-joke, is hard to miss), where he is promptly poisoned by kingpin Lao Che. All hell breaks loose, starting with Indy spearing one of Lao Che’s sons with a flambé shishkebab and then punching a waitress for some reason. Two shiny, kickable items — the antidote vial and a golf ball-size diamond — fly about the dance floor, where Willie grovels beneath panicking diners, falling ice buckets, hundreds of balloons, and cool-headed dancers shaking to “Anything Goes” in cut time. Kung fu, throwing knives, and a tommy gun all besiege Indy before he grabs Willie, ducks behind a rolling gong, jumps out of the window, and falls into a Duesenberg Auburn convertible driven by Short Round. One rear-ended rickshaw and another Wilhelm scream later, the three pull up to an airport where Dan Aykroyd, in a cameo, escorts them to Lao Che’s aircraft while speaking the King’s English.

The opening, which is a nightmare on paper, works flawlessly, and nothing subsequent can quite match it. But plenty of other scenes possess comparable integrity and imagination, like when Indy, Willie, and Short Round set up camp at a forest clearing. Short Round argues with Indy over their card game, accusing him of cheating — Ke Quan improvised this dialogue in auditions and won himself the role. Parallel to this, Willie loses her mind as she encounters a series of large jungle animals: a bat, a baboon, two lizards, an owl, a leopard roaring off-screen. Willie collapses by the fire, where an elephant batters her with its trunk and Indy begins to hit on her. She responds, “I’d rather sleep with a snake.” On cue, a python slithers down her shoulder, and thinking it’s the elephant, she hurls it across the clearing. The sight, of course, stuns Indy to silence, capping the scene with the tables turned.

A great screwball comedy hides between the cracks of this movie, and the much-maligned Willie Scott is its star. Her screaming, “I hate the water, and I hate being wet, and I hate you!” while careening down whitewater rapids basically takes Katherine Hepburn from The African Queen and turns it up to 11. Though the screaming can indeed go overboard, especially in the second half, her vanity fits the scenario perfectly and is furthermore matched, coif for coif, by Indy’s. In another great scene rife with puns seen and spoken, Indy slides into Willie’s palace bedroom roleplaying as a scientist in need of some “research,” before she casts the “conceited ape” into the hallway. “I’m not that easy either,” he responds, and thanks to the 1000-situps regimen Ford underwent with personal trainer Jake Steinfeld, he is right.

Lacking the usual inhibitions, Spielberg let his stars in the Temple of Doom be sexy and taunt one another like autonomous adults, which is frankly a rarity for him even to this day. This playful attention to surfaces turns out to be the unexpected flipside to the film’s more prominent Sturm und Drang. While every minute remains a master class in craft, Temple of Doom’s fissures offer rare evidence that an “id film” could possibly exist. That Spielberg and Capshaw got hitched after, and that the same carnality has been largely absent from his films since, further teases at the possibility.

The Greatest Animated Film That Ever Wasn't: THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on The Thief and the Cobbler: A Moment in Time were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A screening of the preserved Thief and the Cobbler  from the Academy Film Archive will screen as a Special Presentation on Saturday, March 4 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

The specific version of The Thief and the Cobbler that Cinematheque will be screening is subtitled "A Moment in Time". That moment in time, as it happens, was May 1992, when director and animator Richard Williams assembled all of the footage he and a rotating crew of animators and technicians had created over the years, and presented it as an approximately 90-minute workprint to Warner Bros. This was merely one stopping point among many in the decades-long production of Williams's magnum opus, but possibly the most critical: this workprint represented the most complete version of the film that Williams would ever personally oversee, and so we might well regard as the closest to the "true" version of the film that exists.

Before we arrive at the summer of 1992, though, we should start at the beginning. The Thief and the Cobbler began gestating in 1964, when then 31-year-old commercial animator Williams started developing an idea for a feature-length animated fantasy based on 13th Century Sufi folktales. This project, initially titled The Amazing Nasrudin, progressed slowly, as Williams labored over it in between paying projects, but by 1972 it was advanced enough that the filmmaker was able to arrange for a distributor. Here, for the first time, legal issues beset the production, meaning that Williams was obliged to start essentially from scratch with a new, original story. Work continued throughout the '70s, however, as Williams scraped together whatever he could from commercials and television work, assembling a team of animation legends including Ken Harris, Grim Natwick, and Art Babbitt to help in the realization of his feature.

Throughout the 1980s, Williams had enough material put together that he could start shopping the project around in earnest, under the title Once... It was this version that caught the eye of Steven Spielberg, who hired Williams to serve as the animation director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit as a result; in turn, it was Roger Rabbit's success, and the extraordinarily ambitious work on display in certain scenes, that encouraged Warner Bros. to sign a deal with Williams. But by this point, The Thief and the Cobbler had grown so complex in the filmmaker's mind that he and his overworked crew were simply incapable of keeping up with the demands and deadlines of the contract. This brings us to 1992, and the "Moment in Time" workprint, and the financiers' conclusion that Williams would not be able to deliver a completed version of the film on time. The Thief and the Cobbler was taken away from him at this point, and handed to producer Fred Calvert, who spent the next year hacking the footage into something releasable, with the addition of new, much cruder animation. Under the title The Princess and the Cobbler, this version impressed few people (no doubt in part because Disney had, in the interim, released Aladdin, a film which borrowed more than a few elements of Williams's designs). In 1994, Miramax distributed it in the United States, in an even more cut-down version with a new soundtrack, as Arabian Knight, and impressed even fewer people.

And here the story would end, but the mysterious, apparently lost Thief and the Cobbler became a cult object among animation fans, among them no less a figure than Roy E. Disney, Walt Disney's nephew, who attempted to use the might of the Disney corporation to restore and complete the original version of the film. This project, however, has seemingly stalled out since Disney's 2009 death. In 2006, a filmmaker named Garrett Gilchrist released the first incarnation of what he called The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut, primarily based upon the workprint, but with additional material taken from the butchered later versions as needed. There have been four versions of The Recobbled Cut, collected (along with a treasure trove of Williams rarities) on Gilchrist's YouTube channel, TheThiefArchive. In 2012, in part because of Gilchrist's work in exposing the original work to a broader audience, Kevin Schreck directed the documentary Persistence of Vision, capturing the torturous story of Williams's life's work through the eyes of the animators who entered and left the project over the years.

But what of the film itself that was the result of all this trial and tribulation? Richard Williams avowedly intended The Thief and the Cobbler to be nothing less than the finest animated film ever made, and much of the footage comes tantalizingly close to realizing that ambition. In such passages as the beloved-by-animation-buffs War Machine sequence, initially completed in 1982, we see some of the most incredible artistry that hand-drawn animation is capable of: the raw number of moving elements, and the three-dimensional movement through and around sets, would still be dazzlingly complicated even today. And Williams and his animators did it without the benefit of a single, solitary computer.

Other sequences of almost as much complexity abound. In one chase scene, the thief and cobbler themselves chase each other down a geometrically outlandish stairway in stark black and white, a complex deep space made out of strong, basic shapes. Even as simple a matter as a character shuffling cards is graced with Williams's intense fixation on detail and perfection: all 52 cards in the deck have been individually drawn. The great majority of the film has been animated "on ones," meaning that every frame of film is a different drawing (even the most prestigious, expensive animation of the sort practiced at Disney is generally "on twos," with new drawing only every second frame). This allows for an exceptional amount of fluidity in character movement and in the non-existent camera's journey's through three-dimensional space. It's also a major reason why the film was perpetually over budget and behind schedule; that many drawings do take a great deal of time.

Stylistically and visually, The Thief and the Cobbler is like no other animated feature; it draws from the modernist mid-century style of the UPA animation studio, from traditional Middle Eastern aesthetics, and from the rich history of American cartoons. It's a great treat for the eyes, highly skilled craftsmanship making some of the most spectacular imagery you will ever see in an animated film. This emphasis on style does come at a cost, though: the film can be a bit clumsy as a story. There are slow patches, redundancies, and a generally aimless momentum throughout. It's hard not to conclude that Williams really was getting lost in his head and ambitions, losing sight of how the film was actually working.

Still, those ambitions are magnificent. The Thief and the Cobbler, even incomplete, is a once-in-a-lifetime triumph, a panoply of gorgeous visuals like you've never seen and very likely won't see again. For Williams, still actively working (he received an Oscar nomination for the 2015 short film Prologue), the film represents a lost dream; while he supports the restoration efforts in all their various states of completion, he's steadfastly remained separate from them. For the rest of us, it is a cinematic vision like few others, and the greatest work of animation that ever wasn't.

A Musical Milestone: SUNNYSIDE UP

Thursday, February 23rd, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Sunnyside Up (1929) were written by Casey Long, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Sunnyside Up will screen on Saturday, February 25 at 7 p.m., concluding our series of Fox Studios movies from the archives of the Museum of Modern Art.

The story is familiar; a working girl falls in love with a wealthy man and he eventually learns that he loves her too. However, Sunnyside Up’s boastful tagline points to several aspects of this early sound film which serve to make it unique: “The screen's first original all talking, singing, dancing musical comedy.” Indeed, contemporaneous reviews of the film (and later career decisions made by Janet Gaynor) would indicate that while audiences generally enjoyed the film’s soundtrack, criticism of certain aspects of the two leads’ vocal abilities coupled with— at times— lackluster choreography in various numbers would have lasting effects on the medium and genre in Hollywood.

Susan Doll notes: “Released in 1929, Sunnyside Up reflects that fleeting moment in Hollywood history when the studios were trying to cope with the difficulties of sync-sound technology and deal with the resultant changes in acting styles, genres, and staging. At the same time, stars Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell were hoping to make the transition from silent to sound movies, and this musical comedy proved a successful step in their careers.” A 1929 New York Times review reveals how filmgoers viewed the addition of aural stylistic elements (on a recorded soundtrack, instead of the live musical accompaniment featured during silent films) to what had previously only been visual entertainment: “It is a motion picture that might easily stand on its own feet, but there is no doubt but sound adds considerably to the general effect. The fact that the audience remained seated to the last fade-out proves the worth of this entertainment… nobody left until they could see and hear exactly what happened.”

Both the screenplay and the music were written by a popular songwriting team of the time: Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson. The group wrote and published pop songs and Broadway musicals from roughly 1925 to 1930, including the hit Magnolia (1927) and the musical Good News (also 1927). Prior to working within this trio, DeSylva had written songs performed and popularized by Al Jolson and teamed with George Gershwin on the one-act jazz opera Blue Monday. (DeSylva would also later co-found Capitol Records.) Lew Brown, the lyricist for the group, had written for several successful Tin Pan Alley songwriters, including Albert Von Tilzer and Harold Arlen. Rounding out the trio, Ray Henderson, who served as the composer to the group, had also worked in Tin Pan Alley, and was an accompanist to song and dance acts in Vaudeville.

The music in this film would prove to be popular and long lasting. From a Variety review of the time: “Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson have turned out an average Cinderella story for Janet Gaynor, and she plays it. And sings it. David Butler in direction does so well by Gaynor that you even believe she has a voice. The ace songsters pile up likeable songs so fast they have to be sung over again in the picture to decide which is the best. And here it’s ‘If I Had a Talking Picture of You’. But for delivery Gaynor’s ‘I’m a Dreamer – Aren’t We All?’ leads.” Sunnyside Up, an iconic example of a quality early sound era musical, would continue to be referenced through the decades. In the 1933 animated short, Hot and Cold (Walter Lantz/Universal), the song “Turn on the Heat” would be prominently featured. The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956) depicts the filming of the "If I Had a Talking Picture of You" production number. It also recreates the premiere of the movie. (The film's title is shown as "Sunny Side Up" rather than as the authentic but misspelled "Sunnyside Up”.) Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You features a vocally-shy Drew Barrymore lip-synching “(I’m a Dreamer) Aren’t We All?” And, finally, Sunnyside Up is the oldest film to be featured in the 1982 comedy documentary, It Came From Hollywood, wherein comedians such as Dan Akroyd, Gilda Radner, and Cheech and Chong narrated and joked about various B movies made between the 20s and the 70s.

There is one number in the film that especially stands out to critics both past and present due to its larger-scale, more complex design. From Variety again: “‘Turn on the Heat’ is a cooch by 36 gals. And what a cooch! As the hot dance proceeds, the snow melts, trees and palms grow, and all of this while 36 coochers go the limit. There’s a bit of hinted color in this scene.” Indeed, this sequence, as it existed in the original print, was shot in a color-tinting process dubbed "Multicolor," adding a sense of spectacle to the production, but reportedly no prints exist today with that effect.

Performers’ voices, at this early stage in the sound era, were closely scrutinized and critiqued. Producers, directors and actors, plus audiences and critics, sought to define and understand what type of vocal performance suited the medium—what worked and what did not. One major early concern was whether certain actors’ voices were simply not suited to the demands of the new microphone technology and recording devices. Morduant Hall had quite a bit to say about Gaynor and Farrell’s speech-style and singing abilities in his review of the film’s premiere at the Gaiety Theatre in New York City, noting: “Miss Gaynor's voice may not be especially clear, but the sincerity with which she renders at least two of her songs is most appealing.” And, “Her talking voice seems a little husky, or is it that the microphone has been unkind to her? This may be possible, for in several passages her tones are much clearer than in others.” Lastly, of Gaynor’s co-star, Hall states, “Mr. Farrell's singing is possibly just what one might expect from the average young man taking a chance on singing a song at a private entertainment. His presence is, however, ingratiating and his acting and talking are natural. He may not strike one as an experienced stage actor, but one is gazing upon a motion picture comedy in which the people are not on a stage, but walking through real roads and into houses that look real and sometimes are real. So his speech and even his singing suits the part.”

Indeed, while critics and audiences warmly praised Gaynor’s charming manner when acting and speaking (particularly noting her ease, naturalism, ‘sassy sparkle’ or ‘sweet flirtatiousness’), her singing was another matter entirely. From Doll: “Gaynor must have realized her shortcomings as a musical comedy performer. After appearing with Farrell in the musicals Happy Days (1929) and High Society Blues (1930), she sailed to Hawaii where she remained until Fox agreed to make several changes in her contract. Near the top of her list of demands was that she never be required to star in another musical comedy.”

Aside from the film’s soundtrack, Sunnyside Up’s photography is notable as well.  Director David Butler and cinematographer Ernest Palmer make a clear attempt to include some complex and virtuosic camera movement into the picture— something that, with the introduction of sound, would have been more difficult to integrate initially. Many reviewers note the four-minute-long crane shot that reveals life on the Lower East Side (Molly’s milieu), which is followed soon after by another long tracking shot through Jack Cromwell’s mansion. From the New York Times review, again, “David Butler, the director, has done extraordinarily good work on his scenes, the opening glimpse being of a few of O. Henry's four millions who are enjoying a shower bath on the east side.” Lastly, there is at least one instance of some early special effects work, wherein a still photograph of Molly is replaced by her moving image as Jack sings to her, giving the appearance of a picture come to life.


Friday, February 17th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban were written by Matt St. John, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of this third chapter in the Harry Potter saga will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series salute to film music composer John Williams on February 19 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art.

By Matt St. John

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the titular young hero still attends wizard school in a magic castle, he still fears the legendary evil wizard Voldemort, and he still bears his trademark glasses and lightning-bolt scar. But some things have changed between years two and three at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry Potter is taller, his hair is messier, and he’s much quicker to express himself (especially his anger). And the world around him is different, too. Director Alfonso Cuarón keeps many of the basic design elements established in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), both directed by Chris Columbus, but Cuarón also makes notable changes that shift the direction of the series for its remaining five films.

Cuarón’s arrival to big-budget franchise filmmaking was welcomed by critics, who often took the occasion of reviewing Prisoner of Azkaban to relay their negative thoughts about Columbus, even though both earlier Harry Potter films were well-received upon their release. While Slate’s David Edelstein designates Columbus a “genial Hollywood company man” in one of the more generous references to his work, the A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias calls him a “hack auteur,” and the Atlantic’s Christopher Orr refers to Columbus as “the corporate sentimentalist who gave us such explorations of contemporary domesticity as Stepmom, Mrs. Doubtfire, Adventures in Babysitting, and the Home Alone movies.” Cuarón was also no stranger to a general audience, having directed a family film, 1995’s A Little Princess. But his better-known works, like the 2001 coming-of-age drama Y Tu Mamá También, suggested a moodier adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s enormously popular novels, or at least a departure from Columbus’s vision.

Like the first two films, Prisoner of Azkaban contains sequences that joyfully explore the magical world (candy that makes you roar like a lion! snowball fights with invisible cloaks!), but Cuarón’s film is much darker than the prior entries in both narrative and stylistic terms. The characters certainly faced danger before, but the threat of escaped murderer Sirius Black hangs over this entire film. His raving mugshot appears frequently in magical posters, reminding us that Harry is being hunted––and the hunter is terrifying. The newly arrived protectors at Hogwarts, the soul-sucking Dementors, offer little comfort. Danger and darkness lurk around the edges of Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, but Cuarón fully embraces them in the tone and look of Harry’s world, reinforcing Rowling’s shift to a more frightening story for this novel. While Prisoner of Azkaban does not have the grit or intensity of other Cuarón films like 2006’s Children of Men (this is still a PG-rated family film, after all), Harry and his friends often explore ominous, mysterious environments. In an American Cinematographer interview, cinematographer Michael Seresin states, “It's a dangerous world, even for a wizard, and the film's look had to suggest that… The lighting is moodier, with more shadowing and cross-lighting." He claims that his goal with the visual style was to be “as dramatic as could be without it starting to look like Seven.” John Williams also adds some drama with his new music for the film, in the third and final time he would compose the score for the Harry Potter series. The sweeping, classical themes of the first two films are joined by compositions with medieval instruments, like the festive welcome-back-to-school anthem “Double Trouble,” featuring lyrics that might be familiar from Macbeth.

Cuarón manages to make Hogwarts not only darker for Harry’s third year, but also more magical. Unlike the memorable sequences of students learning to transform animals or repot creepy plants in the first two films, magic is usually not the focus of a scene. The film has less Quidditch and less wizarding classroom time; its magic is casual, not always about instruction or competition. Cuarón’s Hogwarts is so embedded with magic that it can become mundane even for its young characters. Chairs overturn themselves as the Leaky Cauldron closes up, quills write on parchment on their own, and moving photographs and paintings appear briefly in the background as characters pass them by. There’s plenty of wonder for us to see, but it isn’t always underlined in a way that demands a reaction. This approach grants even greater impact to Cuarón’s few emphases on magic, especially Harry’s aerial tour of Hogwarts on the majestic eagle-horse hybrid creature Buckbeak––a sequence that also allows the audience to observe the beautiful, newly expanded terrain of the Hogwarts’ grounds.

Prisoner of Azkaban’s Hogwarts may look and feel more magical and mysterious, but it fortunately remains home to an extended cast of compelling characters played by both franchise veterans and rookies. The supporting lineup of adult actors continues to be excellent, with return performers like Alan Rickman (Severus Snape) and Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall) joined by impressive additions. Michael Gambon assumes the role of Albus Dumbledore after Richard Harris’s death, bringing spontaneity and mischief to a part previously defined by kind, quiet wisdom. Gary Oldman as Sirius Black, David Thewlis as Remus Lupin, and Emma Thompson as Sybill Trelawney also appear for the first time in the series, expanding the always-growing roster of great actors occupying Hogwarts. The young stars, Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), and Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), also show considerable improvement in their performances, adding dimension to their emotional experience of the wizarding world, after the delighted awe that dominated (and charmed) in the earlier films.

Perhaps part of the teen actors’ improvement results from their ability to appear and behave more like real young people in this film. Harry, Ron, and Hermione spend more of their third year at Hogwarts in contemporary clothing, with striped sweaters, ringer tees, and track jackets frequently replacing the familiar black robes that Hogwarts students wore throughout Columbus’s films. Even in their official Hogwarts uniforms, the students look more like actual teenagers, as Cuarón encouraged them to wear the outfits as they really would––untucked shirts and loosened ties offer a hint of the rebellious attitudes developing in the young witches and wizards.

There’s magic in the spells, the mythical beasts, and the enchanted objects, but Cuarón is also devoted to the fundamental wonders of an exciting (and terrifying) adventure populated by endearing characters. More than any of the Harry Potter films before or after it, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban presents a universe saturated with magic, making it the most engaging, thrilling installment in the series.

Action, Action, and Comedy: Raoul Walsh's WILD GIRL

Thursday, February 16th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Raoul Walsh's Wild Girl were written by Casey Long, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Wild Girl from the Museum of Modern Art will screen in our Fox Restorations from MoMA series on Saturday, February 18 at 7 p.m., followed at 8:30 p.m. by a 35mm print of Walsh's The Yellow Ticket (1931).

By Casey Long

Director and actor Peter Bogdanovich kept a movie card-file from 1952 through 1970 in which he preserved notes and impressions on the films he viewed. When reviewing his screening notes for an article entitled ‘The Golden Age of American Talkies: 1932’, he discovered his 1966 card for Wild Girl. It read: “Beautifully photographed and robustly directed adventure set in the West, centering around a backwoods girl, delightfully played by Joan Bennett, and her dealings with several men: a good-hearted gambler, a hypocritical, lecherous politician, a two-faced rancher, and a young stranger who fought with [Gen. Robert E.] Lee and has come to kill the politician because he wronged his sister. The location shooting much improves the film, and Walsh’s unpretentious handling, speedy pace and sense of humor—as shown in the amusing stage-driver Eugene Pallette scenes—keeps things going even when the script bogs down in plots and sub-plots.”

Indeed, 1932 was a notable (or, “golden”) year for the industry. Many directors who would later become established contributors to the classical Hollywood canon made—not one—but several great films in that short time. Ernst Lubitsch did Trouble in Paradise and One Hour With You; Howard Hawks made Scarface, Tiger Shark, and The Crowd Roars; Josef von Sternberg filmed Blonde Venus and Shanghai Express; Frank Borzage made A Farewell to Arms and After Tomorrow; and the list goes on, including films by George Cukor, Allan Dwan, John Ford, Leo McCarey, Cecil B. DeMille, and King Vidor. Among the prolific filmmakers of 1932 was Raoul Walsh, who made two significant works in that year: the Joan Bennett/Spencer Tracy rom-com, Me and My Gal, and its near-immediate predecessor, Wild Girl, which paired Walsh with Bennett again and replaced Tracy with Charles Farrell as the romantic lead. Walsh, previously an actor himself, came to exclusively direct after a car crash led to the loss of his right eye during the 1928 filming of Sadie Thompson. His career rose to new heights after moving to Warner Bros. in the late 1930s, where he would direct such films as The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive By Night (1940), The Strawberry Blonde (1941) and White Heat (1949). Often regarded as a filmmaker’s filmmaker, Walsh’s films are known to move quickly from start to finish, without a dull moment. When asked what he considered to be the three greatest virtues of a film, he famously replied: “Action, action, and then action.”

As Bogdanovich also notes, the film was primarily shot on location— in California’s Sequoia National Park. Several reviewers have pointed to the picturesque landscapes and naturalistic setting as a highpoint of the film— imagery that would be nearly impossible for cinematographers and set designers to recreate on the studio lot. It is really no wonder that so many have noted the beauty of Wild Girl— the cinematographer, Norbert Brodine, began his career as a WWI photographer and would later acquire a reputation as an ‘outdoor cameraman,’ praised for his black-and-white location shooting on films such as the film noir, Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway, 1949). Of course, location shooting can have its downsides as well. Sally Gainsborough, a correspondent for Picturegoer magazine, was present for filming in August of 1932 and recounted the difficulties of shooting on location in the ‘High Sierras’: “one of the electricians [on set] described how a bear got into a garbage can during the night and scared him and his fellows almost to death!” And, later during filming: “…rangers soon have their hands full stopping all cars. It looks as if everyone in Central California has come to the park to-day… Suddenly in the middle of a love scene a distant car squeaks its horn. ‘Cut!’ The whole scene has to be done over again.”

The wilderness setting lends certain scenes with what one reviewer deems a “fairy-tale feel,” and also provides a loose motivation for Joan Bennett to perform in a nude lake swimming scene. This was, after all, pre-code Hollywood! Such arguably risqué behavior in American cinema would come to a swift halt only after the establishment of the Production Code Administration, which began censoring films released on or after July 1, 1934. Prior to this date, the flouting of the production code’s suggested ‘principles and applications’ was a well-known secret in the industry, since initial oversight (by Jason Joy and, later, James Wingate) was ineffective and the concurrent slump in ticket sales called for more scandalous content to boost attendance.

The source material for the film certainly does seem ideal for prodding or even mocking the pre-code censors. The lead character, Salomy Jane, is a non-conforming tomboy and the narrative’s major inciting incident is a Purity League member (and mayoral candidate) making a pass at her in a stagecoach. The screenplay was based on the short story "Salomy Jane's Kiss" by Bret Harte included in Stories of Light and Shadow (1898), his novel Salomy Jane (1910) and the play of the same name by Paul Armstrong (1907). From the AFI catalogue: “A [Hollywood Reporter] news item indicates that a working title for this film was Salomy Jane. Other films based on the Bret Harte story include the 1914 independent film Salomy Jane, starring Beatriz Michelena and House Peters; the 1923 Famous Players-Lasky Corp. film, also entitled Salomy Jane, directed by George Melford and starring Jacqueline Logan and George Fawcett; and the 1938 Twentieth Century-Fox film Arizona Wildcat.”