Maureen Rogers Enters Cannon's NINJA Cycle

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the history of Cannon Films' Ninja cycle of action movies was written by Maureen Rogers, Teaching Assistant and Ph.D candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Ninja III: The Domination will screen as part of our Cannon Fodder series on Monday, March 9, 7 p.m., at the Marquee Theater at Union South.

By Maureen Rogers

Ninja III: The Domination (1984) is the third and final installment of a rather loosely connected series of films starring Japanese martial arts star Sho Kosugi and released by the Cannon Group. Enter the Ninja (1981) inaugurated this mini-franchise, followed by Revenge of the Ninja (1983) and Ninja III one year later. Though some industry pundits complained of martial arts exhaustion at the time, Cannon followed the Ninja films with yet another martial arts series, the American Ninja franchise, made up of five films starring Michael Dudikoff and released from 1985-1993.

Cannon's commitment to the low-budget martial arts franchise fit with their overall emphasis on selling to the foreign market and on keeping production costs down. After purchasing the Cannon label in 1979, Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus began to build Cannon as an internationally-oriented company that produced or acquired films for under $5 million and released a large number of them each year. Golan and Globus became particularly known within Hollywood for outsized displays at film markets such as Cannes, AFM, and Mifed, where they often arrived with a dozen or so film titles to sell to international distributors. At Cannes, Golan and Globus often bragged about Cannon's appeal to international buyers. In one interview, Golan explained his emphasis on foreign sales: “The world wants American movies, but the American producers and distributors live like there is only America. There are hundreds of independent distributors who can't get good American movies. So me and my partner had the idea: make American-quality pictures... sell to distributors in Europe, Japan.” Over and over again, Golan framed Cannon's niche in Hollywood as selling low-budget Hollywood knock-offs to distributors outside of North America.

Martial arts franchising also helped Cannon to develop B-grade stars. By making films in the same series, Golan and Globus could create buzz around recurring martial arts heroes. This was more easily achieved with stars who had pre-existing name recognition, such as Charles Bronson. I would argue, though, that Cannon also tried to create some kind of star persona around Sho Kosugi in the Ninja series as well as around Michael Dudikoff in the American Ninja series. Star-powered low-budget action franchises had several advantages in a place like Cannes. International distributors had some idea of what they were getting, and if audiences had responded to Kosugi in the past, it was a good bet that they might in the future.

Action films in general also sold remarkably well to theatrical distributors and in ancillary markets. In 1987, Variety reported that the action genre were the best performing genre at international film markets. Several factors contributed to this including the fact that action films lacked the gory violence of the slasher film, a popular genre at the time. Second, the action film was thought to have unique cross cultural appeal. Conventions of the genre, like shoot outs and explosions, were easy for audiences to comprehend even if the film was poorly dubbed. One Texas based producer explained: “[Action films] translate well through all social, political and economic differences." Action titles also sold well on home video, which was another important component of Cannon's sales strategy.

This strategy mostly worked with the Ninja series. Enter the Ninja (1981), the first installment, was the most commercially successful of the three films. For one, Franco Nero and Susan George, both well-known actors, starred alongside Kosugi. The two subsequent Ninja films were never able to match the star power of this initial release. Enter the Ninja was also filmed in the Philippines, which added a kind of flair that the other two films (filmed in Salt Lake City and Arizona) never matched. Golan and Globus were able to secure a foreign distribution deal with MGM/UA, further offsetting prints and advertising costs. In addition, at Cannes in 1981, Golan and Globus made deals with Columbia Pictures International, Viacom, and HBO to release the film theatrically and on pay cable.

1983's Revenge of the Ninja arrived amid Cannon's massive expansion. Golan and Globus were in the midst of purchasing several theater chains and further increasing their position in Hollywood and beyond. Kosugi returned in Revenge of the Ninja, and Sam Firstenberg was hired to direct the film. While reviews for Enter the Ninja were rather mediocre, Revenge of the Ninja fared even worse. Variety complained of the bad acting, lack of star power, and weak script but praised the "solid action sequences spotlighting topliner Sho Kosugi."

An inspired example of genre hybridity, Ninja III is a wonderful amalgam of a martial arts film, Flashdance, and a possession horror film. Firstenberg returned to direct, and Kosugi continued to play his role as the virtuous Ninja. This time, however, Lucinda Dickey of Breakin' and Breakin' 2 fame joined the cast as an aerobics instructor who, as Variety describes her character, is "blessed with ESP and a morbid interest in Japanese culture." This aerobics premise helps to motivate some wonderfully odd scenes and costume choices, and it is worth the price of admission (free) to see how Firstenberg attempts to meld these generic elements into a plausible, unified story. Discussing the film's box office appeal, Variety ended its review of Ninja III with a sentiment that is also a fitting exhortation to any readers who are considering seeing Ninja III: "If the spirit is willing, the fun and a few thrills are there to be had."

Evan Davis on Orson Welles's TOUCH OF EVIL

Friday, February 27th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay discusses Orson Welles's TOUCH OF EVIL and was written by UW Alum and former Cinematheque staff member Evan Davis. TOUCH OF EVIL screens in a 35mm print of the 1998 "memo cut" restoration in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Saturday, February 28 at 7 p.m.

By Evan Davis

We finally arrive at the concluding miasma that was Orson Welles’s long relationship with Hollywood, the culmination of the film noir movement as it has been understood up to now, with the noir form stretched as far and as grotesquely as it could go: Touch of Evil (1958). Perhaps more studied and analyzed than any other Welles film besides Citizen Kane (1941), this nasty little tale of police corruption and border town crime has been thoroughly canonized. But that fate wasn’t always guaranteed.

By now, the story is approaching tired cliché: Welles goes to work for a minor studio, leaves or is tossed off the lot, and then the studio re-cuts, re-writes, and re-shoots behind his back. Everyone goes back and forth as to whether Welles was self-indulgent, slow, wasteful, and didn’t care about protecting his own work, or if he was maligned by the suits who only cared about the bottom line. The case of Touch of Evil is no different. What is different is what came after.

Welles shot Touch of Evil in the spring of 1957. In July of that year, he left the editing room (whether by choice or by mandate is unclear). Meanwhile, Universal hired Harry Keller to direct some additional scenes to be included in the film. Welles saw a rough cut that autumn, and wrote a 58-page memo that December, detailing all the changes he wanted Universal’s team to make. A small number were implemented, but most were ignored. The studio released a 93-minute edit in early 1958. In 1976, a 108-minute cut initially used as a preview version made it into circulation, with several more minutes of Welles’s footage included. It also contained a great deal more of Keller’s re-shot material. And so the preview version and release version were the only things people could judge Touch of Evil on for 40 years.

You may recall: the studio destroyed the cut footage from The Magnificent Ambersons; if the excised material from The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai exists, then no one’s turned it up. Welles’s Hollywood career is woefully incomplete. Universal Studios, however, hung onto the sloughed-off images and sounds of Touch of Evil, and in 1997, a project began that was to do for that film what couldn’t be done for so many earlier ones. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum—who originally published the memo in 1992—producer Rick Schmidlin, and legendary editor Walter Murch set about instituting every single editing request Welles made in the memo. They had to keep some of the Keller footage for reasons of continuity, but once they premiered the film at Cannes in 1998, the world finally had as close a “Welles version” as they were ever likely to get. It may not be a director’s cut per sé (who knows what Welles would have done had he been allowed to complete the editing himself), but it’s still an incredible reconstruction.

What’s most impressive about it is the subtle shifts in rhythm and tone. At 111 minutes, it’s the longest version of the film—only about five or six minutes are completely new. But Murch and his team incorporated Welles’s rigorous cross-cutting methods to depict up to four different plotlines simultaneously unfolding. They also changed the soundtrack to emphasize Quinlan’s (Welles) brutality in order to make him less sympathetic. (Note Quinlan’s offscreen beating of Sanchez [Victor Millan] while Mike Vargas [Charlton Heston] searches Sanchez’s apartment.) Lines that more explicitly describe the Grandi gang’s plan to frame Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh) for heroin use are added. All of this is per Welles’s instruction. And of course, the greatest coup is the opening tracking shot, with Henry Mancini’s score removed, the credits deleted, and the “radio-dial” atmospherics of sound added, sounds emanating through the town while Mike and Susan stroll to the border. 

Touch of Evil brought back the long, sinewy mobile takes of Welles’s initial Hollywood period, coupled with a thoroughly contemporary representation of the seedy side of life on the US-Mexican border. It is scabrously funny and also tender and mournful. It is full of bravura and also of nuance and subtlety. It is, in other words, an Orson Welles film. (It also contains the last great performance by Marlene Dietrich.) It is undoubtedly one of Welles’s best, and we are pleased to present this reconstruction in glorious 35mm.

Evan Davis on Welles's CONFIDENTIAL REPORT (MR. ARKADIN) & F FOR FAKE

Friday, February 20th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay discusses Orson Welles' Confidential Report (aka Mr. Arkadin, 1955) and F for Fake (1973) and was written by UW Alum and former Cinematheque staff member Evan Davis. Both films screen in original 35mm prints on Saturday, February 21, beginning at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

by Evan Davis

Confidential Report (Mr. Arkadin)

Borges once said of Citizen Kane (1941) that the film was "a labyrinth with no center."  A provocative and partially true statement, no doubt. At the very least, Orson Welles's first featureexists as a stable text that can be viewed as its director intended for it to be seen. The same cannot be said for Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report).

As many as six versions of the film are extant, none of which were fully edited by Welles. Each has different footage and a different editing structure. Very little documentation of Welles's intentions is available, making a reconstruction damn near impossible. It is, in a lot of ways, themost unknowable film Welles ever made. At least there is a record of how The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, and Touch of Evil were supposed to look, sound andfeel like. If ever there was a labyrinth with no center in the Welles canon, Mr. Arkadin is it. That is oddly appropriate--the story of a man hired to find out the story of a man's life is a perverse echo of Citizen Kane, with inflections of The Third Man mixed in throughout. The version that you will see is the European release cut, re-titled Confidential Report. Missing is the more rigorous flashback structure we know Welles intended, along with the addition of Guy Van Stratten's (Robert Arden) voiceover, which Welles did not want to use. What remains is a grotesque, satirical thriller about amnesia, white slavery and the Electra complex.

There arepassages of weird, undeniable beauty, like Van Stratten's snow-filled approach to Jacob Zook's (Akim Tamiroff) apartment; the wide-angle clutter of Trebitsch's (Michael Redgrav) workshop; the confrontation between Arkadin (Welles) and Milly (Patricia Medina); and the final meeting between Arkadin and Zook, where one cannot help but laugh and weep at the thought of old age. It's as weird and unstable as Welles ever got.


F for Fake

There are three masterpieces in Welles's career that each signify a phase of his work. The first is Citizen Kane, the apotheosis of his Hollywood period. The second is Chimes at Midnight (1966), the apex of his achievements in European independent cinema. The third, and the crown jewel of his late, essayistic phase, is F for Fake (1974).

To the naked eye, F for Fake might seem like a departure for Welles. It is his first completed theatrical documentary, full of lightning-fast cutting and non-narrative digressions. A closer look reveals this to be perhaps Welles's great thesis statement on his own work. It is "a film about trickery," as Welles states at the beginning. Trickery is too small a word for what he accomplishes. It is an essay about the making of art itself, about the fallacy of authorship, and the crowning of art in the tapestry of human experience. It is the headiest movie about the relationship of art and truth, yet is also the most fun. Few films were more influential.

A little backstory: Elmyr de Hory, the famous Hungarian art forger, was recently outed and living a comfortable life on the island of Ibiza, away from the jurisdictions of more than a few countries where he was wanted for forging Modiglianis, Picassos, and a heap of other European masters. French documentarian Francois Reichenbach began making a fairly anodyne film about de Hory and his biographer, journalist Clifford Irving. But then Irving himself was outed as a forger, having faked an autobiography "by Howard Hughes," the famously reclusive tycoon. This is where Welles stepped in. Welles took Reichenbach's footage, re-edited it, and added in material of his own. Welles films himself at an editing table, literally making and re-making the film as it goes along (a technique Godard would use in his films only a few years later). He digresses about Hughes's life, Welles's own life, and finally arrives at the conclusion that while artists and authorship may be a fluid and dubious concept, the artworks themselves must be heralded as one of the only things humanity has left to hold onto. You see, only through the lens of the fake can one finally arrive at the real. Nothing is more important than the truth; sometimes, you have to lie to get to it. I love this film more than words can say. I hope you love it, too.

Evan Davis on Welles's THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI

Friday, February 13th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay discusses Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai and was written by UW Alum and former Cinematheque staff member Evan Davis. The Lady from Shanghai screens in a new Sony Pictures 4K restoration in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Saturday, February 14 at 7 p.m.

By Evan Davis

Did Orson Welles belong in Hollywood? He was certainly a figure of great national renown, and if someone so popular in America was going to make movies, Hollywood was going to be the place. And yet time and again, he seems like such an outlier, an exception to prove the rule. His 1939 contract for RKO that gave him full creative control was unprecedented at the time. Not even major directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, or Frank Capra had similar deals at their studios--at least, not at first. Furthermore, his working methods ran counter to what major studios were accustomed. He loved to revise and reshape. He once famously said that he could never watch his own work, because he'd want to bust open the projection booth and start re-cutting the film. As influenced by his experiences in the theater and radio, Welles loved process over product.

It is perhaps no accident that of the five movies Welles made in Hollywood in the 1940s, none were for the four major studios (MGM, Paramount, Warner, Fox). They never would have been able to forgo their standardized production methods for his way of working--and he would have never been able to shackle himself to the confines of major studio production. What he could offer the minor studios, however, was prestige.

Citizen Kane made quite a splash in the run-up to its release, and while it was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, it was seen as an anomaly in the Hollywood landscape, and lost money. The Magnificent Ambersons met a similar fate, in addition to being bowlderized by RKO. Which brings us to his relationship with Columbia Pictures and the making of The Lady from Shanghai.

They may be owned by Sony these days, but Columbia wasn't always a powerhouse in the Hollywood landscape. President and head of production Harry Cohn had lost Frank Capra to Warner Brothers in 1940, and was without any director of equal notoriety. Not that Columbia could have afforded it; their budget structure wouldn't allow for the number of big-budget films made by the likes of Paramount and MGM, nor could it attract that kind of talent. (Columbia didn't even make a film in color until 1943, years after the other studios had done it.) Cohn could see the profits and prestige that big films could bring a studio, and he wanted back in the game.

Welles also wanted to revive his career. He was looking to get back into directing and needed money to fund his traveling production of Around the World in 80 Days in the spring of 1946. When he approached Columbia with an offer to write, produce, direct and star in a feature with his estranged wife (and Columbia's newest superstar, Rita Hayworth), Cohn envisioned a "Class AA" picture that would garner his studio some of the plaudits it had missed since Capra's departure. Both Welles and Cohn needed each other, but their needs would soon sharply diverge.

It didn't work out the way anyone had planned. When one studies the production files housed at the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington, one gets the sense that Columbia simply wasn't equipped to handle a production of The Lady from Shanghai's scope. Welles wanted a small, gritty picture shot entirely in New York City, but if Hayworth was to be involved, Cohn demanded exotic locations and lush romance. Cohn insisted on Welles changing the script to include sequences in Acapulco and San Francisco; Welles acquiesced. When Cohn demanded a sequence involving a love song and more close-ups of Hayworth, Welles acquiesced. In fact, Welles grudgingly bent to every demand Cohn made. Long tracking shots were broken up by inserts; voiceover was added to make the plot somewhat comprehensible after Cohn and editor Viola Lawrence cut the film down to 86 minutes. But all these changes slowed things down and ramped up the budget. Welles viewed the added shooting time and expense to be unnecessary, especially since he felt that his original design would be more efficient; Cohn wanted the film to appeal to stylistic norms. When all was said and done, Columbia had budgeted the film for an adjusted-for-inflation $18 million. The production went 33 days over schedule and cost an extra $5 million (adjusted for inflation).

So what film are we left with? The Lady from Shanghai is a Frankenstein's monster of a picture. Every word and image is Welles's, even though he didn't want to make many of them. There is a large swath of footage cut without Welles's consent, making much of its narrative incomprehensible. the score, sound effects, and dubbing process are not Welles's. Location footage to process shots, direct sound to dubbed lines--they oscillate from shot to shot. It's a positive mess. That said, every image is sumptuous, every line bitterly caustic and darkly funny. It is a film of competing stylistic norms and production practices all fused into a gloriously surreal melange. (Maybe my favorite of these touches is Hayworth's character, Elsa, speaking perfect Cantonese in San Francisco's Chinatown.)

Welles would knock off an adaptation of Macbeth for Poverty Row outfit Republic Pictures in only 21 days in the summer of 1947--well under budget--and would then decamp for Europe, not to return to a Hollywood director's chair for 10 years. His experiment with being an independent inside the Hollywood machine was effectively over.

Evan Davis on Orson Welles's OTHELLO

Friday, February 6th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay discusses Orson Welles' Othello and was written by UW Alum and former Cinematheque staff member Evan Davis. Othello screens in a new restoration in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Saturday, February 7 at 7 p.m.

By Evan Davis

By virtue of its production and for its aesthetic qualities (and trust me, the two are interwoven as tightly as thread), Orson Welles's Othello represents a rebirth in his filmmaking career. It was the first film he made in Europe; it was the first film he financed independently, mostly from his own pocket; and it was the first film to abandon his trademark deep-focus, mobile long-take style for one more reliant on editing to provide its stylistic ballast. The fact remains, however, that Othello is one of Welles's greatest triumphs--and one of the best Shakespeare adaptations ever committed to screen. It would serve as the template for Welles's working methods for the rest of his life.

Welles had escaped both the artistic and political turmoil of postwar Hollywood in 1947, just after finishing his version of Macbeth for Republic Pictures. A year later, an Italian producer asked him to make Othello. It seemed only fitting, as Welles was a great admirer of the play and had played the Moor at various points throughout his life. Financing was put together, and a plan was in place to shoot multiple scenes in single takes at a studio near Nice, France. But of course, as it would so often for the rest of Welles's career, the producer's finances dried up at the last minute. Welles was not deterred, however. Instead of building sets in a studio and shooting long takes, he decided to continue working, shooting on location in such far-flung places as Italy, Morocco and Tunisia. A simple enough fix, right? Wrong.

Welles was financing the movie from his own bankroll. That bankroll would quickly run out, and the cast and crew would have to shut down production. Welles would then take acting jobs (The Third Man, Prince of Foxes and The Black Rose among them) to raise more money to keep going. The obvious problem was that his actors and crew members wouldn't always be available at the same time, as months would pass between production sessions. Welles was then forced to use editing to maintain continuity within a scene. So rigorous were his scheduling and budgetary limitations that locations often moved a thousand miles from shot to shot, even though Iago (Micheal MacLiammoir) may only pass through a door in the scene. (Both MacLiammoir and Welles told a famous story of the scene in which Roderigo is murdered: Welles had ordered the costumes for the scene, but they never arrived. He only had so much time to film it, so on the fly, at the suggestion of his production designer, Alexandre Trauner, he converted a fish market into a Turkish bathhouse, shot the actors topless, and finished the scene.) All in all, the film took three years to film and edit.

How did Welles prevent Othello from becoming a jumbled mess? He was very conscious to obey the basic rules of classical continuity editing. Eyelines always match up from shot to reverse-shot; matches on action are smooth and graceful; lighting cues are consistent and properly sourced within the frame; even the locations themselves are visually complementary. Welles shot for three years on multiple continents with multiple cinematographers, with no script supervisor, and yet the film is seamless. To say that this is a phenomenal achievement is understating the case.

Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine the film without its extraordinary location work. Welles put his camera in every possible place within castles, on turrets, behind doors, above stone columns. His vision of Cyprus is an expressionist nightmare, with chiaroscuro pools of light piercing a labyrinth of secrets and betrayals. Welles's images are graphically overloaded with patterns and barriers, separating characters, always peering in with nefarious intent. The final, high-angle shot of Othello's death is cut with such perfectly brilliant force that Welles may never have made so starkly lonely an image for the rest of his career. Chimes at Midnight is Welles's heart, but Othello is the darkness inside his soul.

The version screening at the Cinematheque demands some commentary. Welles completed Othello in 1952, and then re-edited it slightly for its American release in 1955. The inferior dubbing equipment found in Europe at the time made the dialogue synchronization a little precarious. In 1992, Welles's youngest daughter and Othello's rights holder, Beatrice, commissioned a restoration to resync the dialogue. Beatrice and restoration producer Michael Dawson went further, re-recording the score in stereo based on a flawed source, and altering many of the film's sound effects. Some mistakes were corrected upon the restoration's release to home video, but the fact remains that the soundtrack is not Welles's. Carlotta Films recently digitally restored the film, and there is no doubt that this edition looks astonishingly beautiful; however, the same soundtrack from the 1992 restoration remains.

BREAKIN' VS. BEAT STREET: A 1984 HIP-HOP MOVIE WAR

Sunday, February 1st, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the battle for box-office supremacy between the 1984 breakdancing movies Breakin' and Beat Street, was written by Jenny Oyallon-Koloski, Fellow in Film in the UW Communication Arts Department at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Breakin' will kick off our Marquee Monday: Cannon Fodder series on Monday, February 3, in the Marquee Theater at Union South. The screening will be preceded by 20 minutes of vintage Cannon Films trailers!

By Jenny Oyallon-Koloski

1984 was a busy year for break dancing in the movies. Hollywood studios, afraid that hip hop would be a short-lived phenomenon, attempted to capitalize upon the South Bronx-based artistic movement that was gaining awareness and popularity. “The breakdance tornado approaches,” touts Variety, announcing the May release of Breakin'. The trade journal describes the dance-centered movie as a “surprise break-dancing hit,” but Cannon Films went to extreme measures to ensure its success.

Like the rivalry between the dancing crews of its plot, Breakin’ had to compete for audience attention from Orion Pictures’ Beat Street, another “contemporary new directions musical film” as Variety puts it. Beat Street was certainly lauded as the more prestigious film, with Harry Belafonte as a co-producer, location shooting in New York City (as opposed to the Los-Angeles-based production of Breakin' ), and a world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Citing the “hourly” change in youth market musical trends, Beat Street’s producers rushed production of their film to ensure they didn’t miss out on the vogue of the break dancing craze. So they must have been infuriated to learn that Cannon Films was also rushing the release of Breakin’, now scheduled to appear in theaters one month before their film. Beat Street even had to share its Cannes limelight with Breakin’ and two other films that contained references to the popular new dance form, Body Rock and Prison Dancer.

Things went downhill for Beat Street from there. Variety’s review of the film was positive, but their prediction—“success of the recent ‘Breakin’’ bodes well for the b.o. potential of this much larger Harry Belafonte-David V. Picker production”—didn’t quite pan out as expected. Cannon was able to “steal a march on Orion,” says Variety, “whose more expensive breakdance and music pic ‘Beat Street’ opened Friday.” When Beat Street finally hit theaters in June, it received only lukewarm enthusiasm from audiences. In contrast, the Variety reviewer predicted Breakin’s box-office success, given its low cost, light tone, and entertaining breakdancing sequences. Try as they might, Beat Street’s producers couldn’t make up the box office momentum Breakin’ gained from its earlier release.

Breakin’ did well on two additional counts. While the U.S. Catholic Conference deemed most of 1984’s film content “morally offensive” or for “adults only,” as Variety reports, Cannon producers could rest easy knowing that Breakin’ was one of the few films of the year deemed appropriate for adults and adolescents. Cannon Films also wasted no time putting a sequel into production. Variety ads for Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo appeared only a month after the initial film’s release, with Cannon modestly heralding the new film as “The Making of the 7th Major” (despite the superior title, Breakin’ 2 did not live up to the widespread success of its predecessor, though it does get a shout-out in Gilmore Girls [S2 E12] as a contender in “the worst film festival ever”).

The competition for audiences between Breakin’ and Beat Street was more balanced in album sales. The importance of selling pop soundtracks and singles alongside their cinematic counterparts was an important marketing strategy for both films. Mutual interest existed between Hollywood and record companies to produce films with “pop-oriented soundtracks” that could help sell the albums and vice versa, with Flashdance (1983) and Footloose (1984) as recent, successful models. Variety suggests Breakin’s album was a hit for Polygram Records, with the soundtrack “shaping up as the diskery’s biggest soundtrack LP since ‘Flashdance.’” Atlantic Records used a cluster release strategy for Beat Street’s singles, a relatively new way of selling records and building hype for the movie right before it hit theaters by flooding the radio waves with multiple singles. Based on this model, used successfully for the wildly popular Footloose and its soundtrack album, Atlantic had four of Beat Street’s singles in circulation while the film was in release. A loftier goal, per Variety, was the hope that the album would “help hip-hop to make the transition from an urban phenomenon to a more widely accepted form of mainstream entertainment,” with some help from a promotional video on hip-hop culture narrated by co-producer Harry Belafonte.

Beyond their cinematic rivalries, Breakin’ and its break dancing cinematic counterparts seem to have had some unexpected effects on dance culture in cities beyond New York. In July, when both Breakin’ and Beat Street were battling it out at the box office, city councilors in Boston were considering enacting an ordinance against public exhibitions, given the rise of breakers performing in the streets. In addition to the complaints about inconveniences to pedestrians, Variety reports, city officials expressed concerns over potential “lawsuits against the city if the dancers trip over the parking meters.” So much for the short-lived nature of break dancing that Hollywood anticipated.

Evan Davis on Orson Welles's 2nd & 3rd Features

Friday, January 30th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay discusses Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons and The Stranger and was written by UW Alum and former Cinematheque staff member Evan Davis. The Magnificent Ambersons screens in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Saturday, January 31 at 7 p.m., followed at 8:45 p.m. by The Stranger. Both films will screen in original 35mm prints.

So much of The Magnificent Ambersons has passed into the realm of myth. Orson Welles's second feature carries with it the inglorious reputation of potential unfulfilled, its lost elements never to be recovered. Joseph McBride has claimed that its original form, before the butchers at RKO got their hands on it, was likely to be "the greatest American film made up to that point," and it would be hard to argue, based on what remains. Citizen Kane certainly announced Welles to the world, but Ambersons was much closer to his heart. As a tragic and nostalgic portrait of Midwestern America—a time just before Welles's birth—the film is a heartbreaking elegy to lost time. But, of course, RKO didn't see it that way.

The history of Ambersons' fate is labyrinthine. A great many factors contributed to its final form and theatrical release. For many decades, however, RKO had successfully tarred Welles as a tyrant gone mad, wasting the studio's time and money on something pretentious and unentertaining. It was their job, RKO argued, to bring him to heel. The studio system was at the height of its power in 1941 and 1942, when Ambersons was being made. But as film historian and UW alum Douglas Gomery has demonstrated, Welles should be better understood as an independent filmmaker working within Hollywood. After all, he had his own production unit inside RKO. He wrote, produced, directed and starred in his own projects. His first contract guaranteed him final cut, a rarity for directors at the time. Welles enjoyed making mainstream art, but didn’t have much interest or gumption for being part of the economic structure offered by Hollywood.

Welles worked on numerous projects at once, rather than take on one film at a time. While filming Ambersons, he co-wrote, produced, and starred in Journey into Fear, shot simultaneously. He started developing an omnibus, It’s All True, a documentary about Brazil made at the behest of the Roosevelt administration. All of these projects, including Ambersons, happened in the months after the release of Citizen Kane—an extraordinary amount of work, especially considering that Welles was also producing radio and theater throughout that whole period. John Ford and Howard Hawks were great artists; one-man bands, they were not.

So, how did Citizen Kane become a sensation, while Ambersons was shunted to the dustbin of movie history? First and foremost, Welles negotiated away his right to final cut in order to get It’s All True made in the timeframe both he and RKO demanded. Second, he wasn’t in Hollywood to personally oversee the editing of Ambersons; he was down in Rio de Janeiro filming It’s All True. Third, editor Robert Wise was supposed to fly to Brazil with a workprint so that he and Welles could work on the film together; that never occurred, either due to flight restrictions during the war or because RKO prevented it. Fourth, RKO production chief George Schaefer was ousted and replaced by Charles Koerner in June 1942, who famously issued a memo with the letterhead, “showmanship, not genius.” No more stinging a rebuke to Welles and those who protected him could have been uttered. When all was said and done, Wise, along with assistant director Fred Fleck, business manager Jack Moss, and actor Joseph Cotten, had cut almost 40 minutes from the film, along with rewriting and re-shooting a great many scenes, including the ending.

The myth has persisted—strongly under the lasting influence of RKO’s publicity machine—that Welles was profligate in his handling of both Ambersons and It’s All True, and therefore the studio was justified in their behavior. Gomery even agrees with Ambersons’s editor and re-shoots director, Robert Wise, in claiming that the studio made the right decision in re-cutting and re-shooting the film. We’ll never know the answer, as the studio destroyed the footage. What we can evaluate is the remaining work, which remains a powerful, emotionally rich and tragic elegy to the power of memory and history, as told through a group of lovely, damaged people.

Welles couldn’t get a job as a director for over three years after Ambersons and It’s All True fell apart. His next mission was to demonstrate (though he didn’t have to) that he could bring a movie in on time and under budget—in other words, be a Hollywood filmmaker. The project he settled on was The Stranger (1946), a thriller set in a small Connecticut town about a government agent (Edward G. Robinson) trying to smoke out a Nazi (Welles) hiding in plain sight, just after the end of the war. The film is notable for being one of the first (if not the first) to use footage from Nazi concentration camps, and its appearance toward the film’s end is jarring and raw. Indeed, it is a documentary flourish with which Welles was often preoccupied, as seen in the “News on the March” sequence from Citizen Kane and the masterwork that is F for Fake. The Stranger is Welles at his most Hollywood, but its grotesque, warped vision of small town America, its political leanings, and its comically over-the-top violence render it very much of a piece with Welles’s narrative and thematic interests. Almost 30 minutes was cut from the film by producer Sam Spiegel, so not even Welles’s most Hollywood picture could be saved from the cutting room floor. By all appearances, this is his least significant work. But William Friedkin recently declaimed, quite emphatically, that The Stranger “is NOT minor Welles!!!” I am inclined to agree. At the very least, enjoy the four-minute lateral tracking shot that marks a murder in the woods, and Edward G. Robinson’s incredibly fun performance. The Stranger was Welles’s first thriller, but it certainly would not be his last.

Wisconsin's Own Agnes Moorehead!

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Agnes Moorehead and her performance in Citizen Kane was written by Evan Davis, UW Alum and former Cinematheque staff member

 

What is there left to say about Citizen Kane, the “greatest movie ever made” (or second-greatest, depending on who you read)? The stories of its production and release have been visited and re-visited, refuted and affirmed, analyzed and and analyzed and analyzed. On a personal level, the film was my cinephile origin story: A late-night viewing in September 2001, at the raw age of 16, changed my life forever. But even that experience has been picked through in the dark corners of my own psyche. Orson Welles’s first feature is a bleached skeleton on the dried riverbed of movie history, the vultures fat and happy from their feast. So I’m just going to talk about Agnes Moorehead, the most underrated actor of her generation.

Moorehead has deep Wisconsin roots. Her family moved to Reedsburg from St. Louis in 1919, when Moorehead was a young woman. She earned a Master’s degree in English at UW-Madison, working as a teacher throughout her young life. She studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, and just before turning 30, she decided to chase her childhood dream of being a star. But it wasn’t to be, not at first, anyway. Moorehead struggled to find work, going hungry for much of those early years in New York. Radio gave her a steady paycheck, and in 1937, the 36-year-old Moorehead met a hotshot 22-year-old theatre director who would become the catalyst for her nascent career: Orson Welles. Moorehead spent two years as part of the Mercury Theatre on the Air and Campbell Playhouse cast, in addition to playing Margo Lane opposite Welles’s Lamont Cranston in The Shadow. When Welles uprooted Mercury to Hollywood in late 1939, Moorehead went along. Citizen Kane was their first film, and dear old Agnes was off and running.

Moorehead’s role in Kane is not exactly a large one based on screen time; she’s in only one scene—two shots total—for all of four minutes. But as Mary, the mother of Charles Foster Kane, she may have the most important role in the whole film. She is, after all, the psychological engine that drives Kane for the rest of his life, the symbol of lost innocence, of love never received; Rosebud in the flesh.

Moorehead has to make quick work of her time onscreen in order to convey the importance of Mary’s position in relation to young Charlie, but also the importance of the decision she makes. Welles helps anchor those acting choices by using the famous long-take, reverse tracking shot that keeps the young Kane perfectly framed in the boarding house window while Mary signs her brand-new gold fortune—and Kane’s legal guardianship—over to Walter Thatcher’s (George Coulouris) bank in the foreground. Watch Moorehead in this first shot, the icy resolve in her face, curtly shutting down Kane’s father, Jim (Harry Shannon). It’s all business, an investment made for future return. Jim subtly shuts the window as she signs the papers, closing the link between Mary and Charles, however briefly. And in a feat of pure, unbridled power, the camera tracks forward again as Mary goes to open the window, restoring the maternal bond.

It’s the first part of that second shot where you realize that Mary Kane is not simply a woman doing what she thinks is best for her son, but is bearing the full, tragic weight of that decision. A part of her is being severed. She stares out the window in medium-close-up, Thatcher and Jim in deep-focus midground, framing her. She maintains the same steely resolve, but her pain boils underneath her face, simmering and seething with false placidity. Citizen Kane comes down to this face, and the single line she utters: “I’ve got his trunk all packed. I’ve had it packed for a week now…” Mary Kane is confident that her son will be better off. But she can barely suppress the tragedy of losing him to the pages of history. Most actors portray such a loss by using every facial contortion and bodily gesticulation in the book; Moorehead doesn’t move an inch.

Welles’s critics often like to paint him as a showboat, a clever trickster more interested in showing off with the camera than a director possessed of any emotional or thematic depth. One can charitably describe this position as foolish. The man knew what he wanted to convey in his work, and used the oft-unconventional, always expressive tools at his disposal to get there. But when it came down to it, he loved actors most of all, and knew how to get the best out of them. With Moorehead, he had a perfect foil. It’s not insignificant that Welles called her “one of the best in the world.” Moorehead’s greatest performance was probably Fanny Minafer in The Magnificent Ambersons, but in her four minutes of screen time in Citizen Kane, she set in motion the tragedy of Charles Foster Kane’s life, all while masking the anguish of doing so. Those two shots never fail to bring me to tears, and it’s all because of Agnes Moorehead’s quietly devastating performance.

Lea Jacobs' New Book!

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

By Amanda McQueen

We at UW Cinematheque are pleased to announce the release of a new book from our founder and former director Dr. Lea Jacobs, entitled Film Rhythm After Sound: Technology, Music, and Performance. Jacobs' book focuses on the early years of sound filmmaking and the evolving methods for synchronizing sound and image -- both technological and formal -- that transitioned us from the awkward first talkies to the comparatively advanced films of the late-1930s. In particular, Jacobs examines the strategies filmmakers employed during the early sound period to create cinematic rhythms. Looking beyond just the beat of the score or the speed of the editing, Jacobs analyzes the intricate relationships between music, dialogue, acting, and visual style that were made possible by the coming of sound.

Jacobs undertakes her analysis through a diverse set of case studies, which she combines with discussions of sound technologies and examinations of contemporary discourse on film tempo and rhythm. She begins with director Sergei Eisenstein's theory of rhythmic montage and an analysis of his collaboration with composer Sergei Prokofiev on Ivan the Terrible (1944). Jacobs then turns to a number of prototypical examples of early sound filmmaking, including:

  • Walt Disney cartoons like The Three Little Pigs (1933) and Playful Pluto (1934)
  • The Paramount operettas directed by Ernst Lubitsch and Rouben Mamoulian, such as Monte Carlo (1930) and Love Me Tonight (1932)
  • The early sound films of Howard Hawks, such as The Dawn Patrol (1930)

Through these examples, Jacobs shows how filmmakers in the early sound period experimented with different sound synchronization technologies and developed a variety of formal strategies to create rhythmically unified scenes. Jacobs thus demonstrates that cinematic rhythm can take many forms -- from the tight matching of sound and image known as "mickey mousing" in the Disney cartoons to the carefully timed dialogue in Hawks' films -- and her book offers a new method of audiovisual analysis that takes into account how rhythm, as a formal device, is best understood as a complex relationship between multiple elements of film style.

The detailed prose analysis in Film Rhythm After Sound is also nicely supplemented by online clips, which generally place the scene under consideration alongside a musical score that has been annotated with lines of dialogue and key figure movements. As the clip plays, the annotations help the reader see and hear how various filmic elements work together in real time to create the scene's overall rhythm. As an example, here's one of Jacobs' annotated clips of Ivan the Terrible.

Lea Jacobs' Film Rhythm After Sound offers fascinating new insights into early sound filmmaking practices and has been receiving high praise within the academic film community. We hope that you'll check out this work for yourself. For those interested in film sound and music, in films of the 1930s, or in questions of film history and aesthetics, Jacobs' book proves a particularly rich and readable source of information. Film Rhythm After Sound is currently available from the University of California Press.

NINJA III - Screening Date Changed

Monday, January 5th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

Due to a scheduling conflict, the screening date for Ninja III: The Domination, part of our Marquee Mondays: Cannon Fodder series, has been changed from Monday, March 2 to Monday, March 9, 7 p.m. The 35mm screening will take place at the Marquee Theater at Union South. We apologize for any inconvenience.
 

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