FutureNoir: Godard's ALPHAVILLE

Thursday, March 28th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville were written by Garrett Strpko, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A new 4K DCP of Alphaville will screen at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 30, following the Madison Premiere of Godard's final work: Trailer of a Film That Will Never Exist: Phony Wars, at 7 p.m. The screening is in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Garrett Strpko.

Even for a filmmaker whose films are known for their idiosyncrasy, Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville remains one of his most fascinating and singular works. The film is in many ways a hybrid piece: at once a transmedia franchise genre picture and a puzzling work of European art cinema, a science fiction film and a hard-boiled pulp detective thriller, a canonical French film and a tribute to Hollywood. Now over a year after his passing, this new restoration of Alphaville attests to the director’s seemingly effortless ability to explode and reorient the limitations, labels, and rigidities so often imposed on the cinematic medium.

The film follows American agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), who arrives from an interplanetary journey to Alphaville, a futuristic city controlled by Professor von Braun (Howard Vernon) and his creation, the artificial intelligence computer Alpha 60. Alpha 60 exercises complete control over the city and its citizens through the application and enforcement of cold logic and apathy. In Alphaville things like love, emotion, art, and poetry are strictly forbidden—and in many cases have been forgotten. Caution’s mission is to recover a missing fellow agent, Henry Dickson (Akim Tamiroff), as well as assassinate or capture Von Braun. Joined by Von Braun’s daughter Natacha (Anna Karina, in one of many collaborations with Godard), Caution eventually resolves to destroy Alpha 60 once and for all.

Importantly, Lemmy Caution was not an invention of Godard’s, but a well-known character in France and England, one who had already been portrayed by Constantine in no fewer than seven films since 1953. Caution was originally invented by British pulp author Peter Cheyney, who debuted the character in his first novel, This Man is Dangerous (1936). At first an FBI agent, and later a private investigator, Caution in many ways resembles the stereotypical hardboiled detective of American literature and film, from Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. In the wake of pro-American sentiment in France following the Second World War, the character became a sensation, especially as portrayed by American expatriate Constantine, who likewise became synonymous with the role for most of his career.

Terminally interested in the film medium’s affinity for iconicity and genre, Godard and Constantine make full use of the character and his prototypical characterization as the hardboiled gumshoe. He shares much in common with his counterparts portrayed by actors like Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum: he is no-nonsense, quick-witted, and quicker with a gun. He is almost always dressed in a trench coat and fedora. He speaks in cynical, jaded voiceover about the nature of life’s great mysteries (“Yes, it's always like that. You never understand anything. And one night, you end it in death”).

However, in Alphaville, Caution and the detective figure are also parodied and complicated. Caution’s initial motivations and jurisdiction are deliberately mystified throughout. We know only that Caution is some sort of secret agent—we get little to no indication for exactly which agency he works for, who it is that has given him this mission. This self-conscious move (one of many in the film) creates an even stronger connection between Caution, Constantine, and the figure of the cinematic detective in general. It is almost as if Caution’s status and authority emerges from the film itself, from its genre identity as a Noir, rather than being justified by narrative detail. It is perhaps this vagueness surrounding Caution’s character—ultimately an outsider’s take on the American detective hero—that allows him to emerge as the Noir detective par excellence.

Nothing contributes more to this vagueness and iconic status, of course, than the fact that the contemporary Caution has inexplicably and without question been transplanted to the film’s futuristic, sci-fi setting from which the old-fashioned detective often stands out. As much as Alphaville pays tribute to film noir, it is also a science fiction film. It is a strange science fiction film in that rather than creating the complex sets, props, and special effects most viewers have come to expect from the genre to create the world, Godard relies entirely on existing locations and material. To suggest otherworldliness, Godard shot all the outdoor scenes at night, making it seem as though Alphaville is a city bathed in near-perpetual darkness. The high contrast of the black-and-white cinematography and accompanying brightness of light sources in the Paris night create a techno-dystopian atmosphere. Even the film’s many computers, including the ultra-advanced Alpha 60, are simply the wires and machines of their own day. The hard edges and blank/empty spaces of 1960s modernist architecture suggest all the futuristic setting one could need. By simply foregrounding and revealing the technological and futuristic aspects of our day-to-day world, Godard constructs a dynamic and potent ‘alien’ world in which to drop the old-fashioned and ‘naturalistic’ hero of American noir.

One way of approaching Alphaville is as Godard’s experiment in exploring what is necessary for genre. On the one hand genres have icons and stock characters; on the other they have narratives and styles. Is a film still a detective thriller if we drop the iconic central character into this apparently alien environment and situation? Can it be science fiction if nearly all the world-specific technological and futuristic details emerge primarily from dialogue and narrative rather than the mise-en-scene? But the questions and insights, of course, do not stop there. With Alphaville, Godard is as interested as ever in expanding the possibilities of cinema. What can happen when these icons, styles, environments, themes, and narratives merge? Through this amalgamation, in which both stand in greater relief, one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers draws us back to what appeals about them—and the medium itself—the most.

Godard's PHONY WARS: A Cinematic Palimpsest

Thursday, March 28th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Jean-Luc Godard's Trailer of a Film That Will Never Exist: “Phony Wars” were written by Pate Duncan, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Godard's final work, Phony Wars will be screened at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque on Saturday, March 30, just prior to a 7:30 p.m. screening of Godard's Alphaville, showing in a new 4K DCP restoration. The screenings will be held in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is Free!

By Pate Duncan

In his 1985 book Narration in the Fiction Film, the late film scholar David Bordwell described French iconoclast Jean-Luc Godard as having a “palimpsest” style. For Bordwell, Godard seemed to overwrite norms, conventions, and stylistic parameters on top of each other at different moments in the film’s production the way you or I might write out a grocery list on top of a receipt. It seems fitting, then, that Godard’s final film, Trailer of a Film That Will Never Exist: Phony Wars, released posthumously in 2023, is composed entirely of a series of static collages and palimpsests. The title itself pulls us in two directions, opening and foreclosing possibilities: it is both an anticipatory suggestion of what might be and an assurance of what will never come. Godard, famous in his early career for the prominent placement of consumerist French and American advertisements in his mise-en-scène, gives us one final advertisement—produced by French couturier Yves Saint Laurent, no less—with no accompanying product to buy.

Phony Wars is the last work in a diverse corpus of films, the likes of which we will never see again in cinema. Cinephiles will certainly recall Godard’s early period of films during the 1960s, a set of stylish, cool works like Breathless (1960), Vivre sa vie (1962), and Alphaville (1965) that boast formal experimentation over the material of Hollywood genre filmmaking and 1960s French consumer culture. In line with his status as a member of the left-wing French intelligentsia and interested in Marxism and semiotics, Godard’s works gave way to more political films like La Chinoise (1967), Weekend (1967), and Le Gai savoir (1969) before Godard moved into his Maoist period. During this more militant time, Godard partnered with Jean-Pierre Gorin to organize the filmmaking collective Dziga Vertov Group, named after the pseudonymous Soviet filmmaker and theorist. The most famous collaboration between Godard and Gorin is Tout va bien (1972), a Jane Fonda and Yves Montand vehicle that pulls equally from Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man (1960) and Bertolt Brecht’s separation of elements to show the events surrounding a strike in a dollhouse-like abattoir.

Godard’s films become increasingly puzzling after the mid-1970s, perhaps in an attempt to stand out from the younger crop of arthouse auteurs coming up around the same time. Films like Numéro Deux (1975), Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980), Prénom Carmen (1983), Hail Mary (1985), and King Lear (1985) see Godard jettison the radical polemics in the film’s material while moving ever forward with his project of parametric film style. This period stretches the viewer’s capacity for narrative comprehension and remains esoteric in comparison to his ‘60s works (though these films are no less enjoyable than their more populist counterparts, at least amongst connoisseurs of Godard). In the 90s, we see the beginning of an era that might be described as late-period Godard, an era that includes the eclectic Histoire(s) du cinéma (1998), the fitful Film Socialisme (2010), the dizzying 3D Goodbye to Language (2014), and the revolutionary and hyper-saturated The Image Book (2018). The Godard of this period remained ruthlessly critical of the contemporary cultural and geopolitical order, impishly experimental in his film style, off-beat in his sense of humor, and iconoclastic to the last breath. These works alternatingly fascinate and frustrate even the most dyed-in-wool Godard fans, both Letterboxd hobbyists and tenured academics alike.

Late Godard is likely to confound viewers longing for the yé-yé needle drops, unexpected dance sequences, red-white-yellow-blue pop colors, and self-consciously cartoonish French sensibility of his ‘60s films. That is to Godard’s credit: unlike his peers of a certain prestige, Godard neither tried to return to his early appeal nor phoned these films in. Even minor works feel like something you’ve never seen before, challenge your viewing skills and patience in equal measure, and evince a deep love for what cinema can do at its extremes.

Phony Wars is the only of Godard’s films to be late style in both senses of the word: besides coming far into an illustrious career, it is his only posthumous release. We get a series of disparate still images, including an early image of red paint, tactile with impasto, scrawled over black. One is reminded of Godard’s famous quip that the excessive blood in his cinema is not blood, but red, that Godard’s excessive formal concerns should point us towards the graphic qualities of his works and not always or only to the real-life material they defamiliarize. It makes sense that Godard’s final moving images (in line with the fixations of his late style) are a series of photographs ordered in succession. We see mannered cursive handwriting spelling out quotes, witticisms, aphorisms, and even individual words struck through or covered over, often offset or accompanied by images of all stripes. We see paintings with artificially increased contrasts, Godard’s iPhone selfies, pictures of strangers and faces in such poor definition as to become uncanny. Fragments of sound are affixed to these curated collages, a few stingers of foreboding strings here, a few lines of speech there. Godard’s militant concerns rupture throughout, anchoring his aesthetic flights in a materialist sense of history. Under a repeat of the blood-red paint, we hear a politically prescient and timely line towards the end of the film: “Why Sarajevo? Because of Palestine, because I live in Tel Aviv. I want to see a place where reconciliation seems possible.” The extent to which Godard’s style or politics cohere into anything unified here is dubious, but to seek such coherence is to miss the point entirely: Godard, favoring process over product, prompts us towards politically engaged spectatorial experience, not a static or complete politics. Ekphrasis or visual description cannot do justice to the simultaneity of Phony Wars, cannot recreate verbally the complex push and pull that Godard’s palimpsestic style creates.

Kristin Thompson’s writing on Godard’s Sauve qui peut (la vie) in her 1988 book Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis refers to a different film and a different context, but her description gives us a certain truism to Godard’s work that brings Phony Wars into a different light: “Few, if any, filmmakers have so resolutely refused to settle into one approach; Godard’s experimentation has continued throughout his career [...] There is no one familiar Godardian landscape, though each of us may have a favorite work; the appearance of a new Godard film consistently holds out the promise of taking us unto unknown country” (288). Phony Wars gives us a number of “unknown countr[ies]” to ponder, be it the film itself as a final formal novelty, the nonexistent film for which it serves as a trailer, or perhaps what Shakespeare called “the dread of something after death/The undiscovered country from whose bourn/No traveler returns.” Whatever unknown Phony Wars conjures, it is undoubtedly a fitting swan song for one of the cinema’s finest artists.

Kurosawa's HIGH AND LOW: Perspective is Everything

Wednesday, March 20th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Akira Kurosawa's High and Low were written by Josh Martin, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of High and Low will screen on Saturday, March 23 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free! The screening is presented with the support of the Center for East Asian Studies at UW Madison.

By Josh Martin

Near the midpoint of Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1962), the viewer experiences a pronounced change in perspective. For the first hour of the film, the drama is almost exclusively confined to the interior of a magnificent home, perched high above the Japanese city of Yokohama. This beautiful domicile, an oasis that remains insulated from the harsh chaos of the city, belongs to pitiless shoe executive Kingo Gondo (Toshirō Mifune). Kurosawa aligns the spectator with this elevated position, restricting us to the high-class space that Gondo and his family enjoy. However, the god-like visibility afforded by this home is also what makes this space so vulnerable, so easy to be despised from those below. As the film’s second half commences, Kurosawa presents the exterior of the home from a lower angle—from the perspective of the city’s inhabitants. The house suddenly feels alien and removed, an outlandish beacon of wealth and superiority. Two cops walk through the city below, with one remarking: “The kidnapper’s right. That house gets on your nerves.” Moments later, we meet that very same kidnapper (Tsumotu Yamazaki): a young man in a ramshackle apartment, which features an unobstructed view of this perfect, pristine house. A house that looms over him and the millions of impoverished people throughout Yokohama.

Perspective is everything in High and Low; this is a film that toys with the viewer’s allegiances—with our own moral and ethical positions. The film’s legacy as one of Kurosawa’s most enduring achievements (so enduring, in fact, that Spike Lee will soon direct a remake with Denzel Washington) arises partially from this play with perspective, which allows it to proceed from kidnapping drama to scrupulous procedural to suspense thriller with ease. Based loosely on an American novel by Ed McBain, the film begins with Gondo plotting a hostile takeover of National Shoes Corporation, his longtime employer. He has leveraged everything on this gamble, borrowing against his accumulated capital to usurp his rivals; if the deal falls through, he will lose even “the clothes on [his] back.” On the fringes of this corporate drama, Gondo’s son Jun (Toshio Egi) and Shinichi (Masahiko Shimazu), the son of his loyal chauffeur Aoki (Yutaka Sada), run around the home, playing cowboys and outlaws with a popgun.

Just as Gondo prepares to send his deputy to Osaka to close the deal, he receives a call informing him that his son has been kidnapped. An ultimatum is given: pay an enormous ransom or Jun dies. Only Jun is not in danger: the kidnapper mistakenly took Aoki’s son instead. Thus, a moral dilemma ensues for Gondo. His son is no longer at risk, but another young boy—the only son of his beloved employee—remains in peril. Aoki has no chance of paying the large sum, yet if Gondo pays, his deal will collapse. Everything he built will evaporate in front of his eyes. 

One cannot discuss any Kurosawa film—especially one shot in the luscious widescreen canvas of TohoScope—without emphasizing the meticulous nature of his compositions. High and Low’s first act is contained to spacious rooms, yet the organization and placement of figures within the frame tells the viewer everything about the emotional register of the action. Close-ups of faces huddled around the telephone communicate the urgency of the moment; a long shot of Gondo and Aoki, with a gulf of negative space between them, centers the distance between the positions of these men. Power is revealed through one’s location in the frame – a character’s foregrounding or their placement on the periphery is essential. The fluidity of Kurosawa’s blocking – his control of cinematic space – is nearly indescribable, yet Kurosawa scholar Donald Richie’s on-set account of these practices gives one a sense of his precision. As Richie writes, “extreme care is blended with extreme patience” in a Kurosawa film. For High and Low, Mifune, Nakadai, and their colleagues rehearsed extensively while Kurosawa crafted the camera movements; Richie’s essay chronicles the director correcting subtle discrepancies by each camera operator, aiming for his ideal compositions.

Of course, such stylistic concerns are carefully intertwined with Kurosawa’s thematic preoccupations. When asked by Richie about the message of his picture, Kurosawa responded: “If I could just say it, there wouldn’t be any need to show it.” Questions of social class in Japan—binaries of rich and poor, heaven and hell (the film’s international title), high and low—are all expressed in purely cinematic terms. Following the resolution of the initial crisis, Kurosawa swaps protagonists: Gondo recedes to a supporting role, with Chief Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) and his colleagues taking center stage as they pursue the kidnapper. Working in the tradition of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and other tales of observant police on the hunt, High and Low morphs into a cat-and-mouse thriller, defined by a process-oriented approach. “The criminal must be in these details,” Tokura emphasizes to the throngs of policemen, solidifying the necessity of their painstaking consideration of each clue.

Throughout this section, Kurosawa aligns us with the single-minded modus operandi of the police, whose pursuit raises further ethical questions. As our agents of the state deceive, lie, and employ the press in their manipulations—all in hopes of pursuing the death penalty for the kidnapper, a young medical intern named Takeuchi—the film again aligns us with a challenging position.

Indeed, despite its status as a class-conscious thriller, echoed by more recent pictures such as Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite (2019), High and Low’s politics are far from clear-cut. Critic and scholar Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto notes that Kurosawa claimed to have “made High and Low ‘to show how detestable a kidnapping is,’” an assertion that suggests our identification with wealth and power should perhaps be taken at face value. As such, Yoshimoto notes that many, including Noël Burch, see Kurosawa’s film as “ideologically reactionary,” a “conservative” picture about the virtues of the police and the rich. Yoshimoto rejects such a notion, instead suggesting that “the more a contrast between good and evil is emphasized [in Kurosawa’s cinema], the more a difference between the two becomes ambiguous.”

In a film that cycles through political positions, immersing its viewers in the sphere of wealthy power, determined cops, and desperate criminals, Kurosawa saves the most chilling encounter for last: a meeting between Gondo and Takeuchi in prison. In a series of images that zigzag across the barrier of the reflective prison glass, the two men share their perspectives. Gondo laments their antagonism; Takeuchi expresses no remorse, quipping that it is “amusing to make fortunate men taste the same misery as the unfortunate.” Such gleeful defiance does not preclude an outcry of despair: captured in a long take, Takeuchi lets out a piercing scream, gripping the barrier with an intense fervor. It is not a performative gesture, but, as critic Geoffrey O’Brien frames it, “a scream of pain,” an overflow of excruciating emotion that erupts from deep inside Takeuchi. It is here that we are reminded of Yoshimoto’s insistence: to look beyond Kurosawa’s stated intentions to view clearly what is on the screen. What is visible is a film that views this emotion with immense sympathy, recognizing the honesty of Takeuchi’s anger. For a film that takes such a prismatic approach to the perspective of its characters—in a world where neither Gondo nor Takeuchi truly come out as winners—it is fitting that we end with Takeuchi’s cry, a “scream of pain” that remains haunting today. 

Lumet/Fonda: 12 ANGRY MEN

Wednesday, March 13th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on 12 Angry Men were written by Garrett Strpko, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A DCP of 12 Angry Men will show on Friday, March 15 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas, 821 University Ave. This is the first of three screenings in our Fonda/Lumet series. Admission is free!

By Garrett Strpko

It might surprise viewers to know that 12 Angry Men, long regarded as a classic American film (number 87 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American movies), actually began its life as a television program. Screenwriter and playwright Reginald Rose first penned the script as a teleplay for the CBS live broadcast anthology series Studio One in 1954, where its broadcast was met with acclaim. The story follows a panel of twelve jurists in what seems at first to be a cut-and-dry homicide case. The seemingly inevitable verdict is shaken when Juror #8, played in the film by Henry Fonda, questions the conclusions of the prosecution and seeks to persuade his fellow jurors that the defendant, a minor accused of killing his father, is not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The ensuing debate reveals tensions between prejudice and righteousness, selfishness and altruism, fear and courage among and within the twelve individuals.

Perhaps because of its near-universally recognizable themes and characters, 12 Angry Men has proven to be a highly malleable work. Immediately following the television production’s success, Rose set out to continue producing the script in as many forms as possible, adapting it first for the stage and then pursuing a feature film version. Rose and the script eventually reached and interested Fonda, whose experience playing morally upright yet decidedly ordinary characters in films like The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) made him an excellent fit for Juror #8. Fonda jumped on to the project as a producer—the first and only time he would receive such credit for a feature film. To direct the project, Rose and Fonda hired Sidney Lumet, himself a budding television and Off-Broadway director whose work in the latter particularly garnered Fonda’s attention. This would be the first of three collaborations between the actor and director which the Cinematheque is presenting this March.

In his interview for the PBS series American Masters, Lumet stated that he had no interest in critiquing the criminal justice system with 12 Angry Men. “Absolutely not,” he remarks. “I was interested in doing my first movie, and I was very impressed that Henry Fonda wanted me as the director because he had seen something I had done off Broadway.” According to film scholar Stephen E. Bowles in the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, nearly half of Lumet’s films throughout his career had their origins in theater. 12 Angry Men’s affinities with the stage and with the related live teleplay format of the 1950s are clear. For one, the action takes place almost entirely (though not exclusively) within a single room. Furthermore, the action basically unfolds in ‘real time.’ That is, there is little to no use of editing devices such as dissolves, which would indicate a passage of time which we as the audience do not have access to. Rather, Lumet places us in the room to sit with these men and their frustration. We are there for the intense deliberations as well as the breaks, the heated discussion as well as awkward silences. Like your average play, the time experienced by the characters and by the audience is roughly the same.

Yet 12 Angry Men excels, and is well-remembered, precisely because it is not simply a filmed play. Its canonical status rests in how Lumet uses filmic techniques within this narrow set of parameters. Keen viewers will notice the importance of camera placement and staging. On the one hand, Lumet often employs angles at, or very often above, the eye level of the characters. These high, wide angles not only provide us with a sense of the space but provide insight into the dynamic relationships between the twelve characters by how they are staged alongside each other. Whereas on the stage the actors must be positioned so these relationships are clear from every point of view in the audience, the single point-of-view of the camera allows for unique and especially potent staging configurations. The most notable of these occurs close to the end of the film, when one of the jurors holding out for a ‘guilty’ verdict, #10 (Ed Begley), launches into a what quickly devolves into a racist diatribe against the defendant. His fellow jurors, one-by-one, turn and look away in shame, removing themselves to the edges of the room. From the high, wide angle of the camera, they form a sort of horseshoe along the edges of the frame, leaving Juror #10 stranded in center of it as his words begin to falter and the motivations for his ‘guilty’ verdict become uncomfortably clear.

Lumet counters such masterful use of high-angle wide shots with eye-level and low-angle close ups that bring out the actors’ engaging performances and manage to succinctly display the personality and motivations of each individual juror. As the twelve angry men get angrier and angrier, close-ups fill the frame with the force of each’s emotions. Many critics have noted that the use of high-angle wide shots becomes gradually overtaken by these affective close-ups as the film progresses, fostering a sense of increasing tension.

Finding its way from television, to the stage, and then to film (and back to television once more with William Friedkin’s 1997 adaptation), 12 Angry Men has maintained its relevance not only because it is a masterclass in adapting a work to film, but in large part due to how it marshals these strategies into a story concerning fundamental issues of justice. While Lumet may not have been very interested in doing so at the time, 12 Angry Men raises key questions regarding the moral role of citizens in society. What responsibilities do I hold to my government? To my community? How do I balance these with my individual rights and desires with these responsibilities? Who should have the power to decide if someone lives or dies? Ultimately, Rose’s script, Lumet’s style, and the actors’ performances all attest to the force of these questions.

STRANGE DAYS: Virtues of a Would-be Sci-fi Blockbuster

Tuesday, March 5th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Strange Days were written by David Vanden Bossche, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Strange Days screens on Friday, March 8, at 7 p.m., at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By David Vanden Bossche

Strange Days, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and based on an idea developed and co-written by her ex-husband James Cameron, is a cyberthriller neo-noir whose central plot hinges on a futuristic contraption that allows people to record and share their full sensory experiences. This “S.Q.U.I.D.” device, as it’s known in the film, recalls a similar idea used in special effects guru Douglas Trumbull’s 1983 film Brainstorm, but in Bigelow and Cameron’s hands, it becomes a catalyst for a gritty tale of exploitation, corruption, and voyeurism in the information age.

Bigelow started out studying painting but followed it up by pursuing a master’s degree in film while she was living in New York, becoming part of an artistic scene that included the likes of Julian Schnabel, as well as UW alum and director Bette Gordon. She rose to prominence as a filmmaker with beloved cult classics like The Loveless (1981), Near Dark (1987), and Blue Steel (1990) but did not find her first commercial breakthrough until 1991’s surfers-turned-bank robbers action classic Point Break. Coming off her first hit, Bigelow was in search of a new project. Cameron presented Bigelow with an extensive treatment he had been developing since the mid-80s. Working with Cameron, Bigelow infused the premise with contemporary cultural relevance—there are many thinly veiled references to the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots throughout the movie—and, as she claimed in interviews, “upped the ante on the grittier parts.” This grittier approach is especially apparent in our protagonist, LAPD officer turned black-market S.Q.U.I.D. dealer Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), who sells the recorded experiences of sex, crime, and high-octane thrills for anyone willing to pay the right price. After Lenny comes into possession of a high-tech snuff film, he and his bodyguard/driver Mace (Angela Basset) are drawn into a web of conspiracy that threatens to tear the city of Los Angeles apart on the last night of the millennium.

The world that Bigelow and her versatile director of photography Matthew Leonetti created for Strange Days pushes the aesthetic of neo-noir expressionism to extremes and adds a creative use of point-of-view shots for the film’s S.Q.U.I.D. sequences. For these shots, Leonetti combined several different techniques, resulting in a visceral and direct approach to movement that tries to mimic the experiences of our characters as they view these recordings. Elsewhere, working with camera operator James Muro, the film combines fluid Steadicam shots—some of which, like a jump off a roof, demanded weeks of planning—with more frantic handheld work shot with a specially devised lightweight camera that was stripped of its ballast to for maximum mobility. According to an interview in American Cinematographer with Leonetti, almost sixty percent of the shoot employed Steadicam or another moving camera system. This meant that lighting the sets was incredibly demanding (mobile shots are notoriously unforgiving when it comes to hiding light fixtures) and made the already difficult task of matching footage between various camera rigs all the more complex. This results in a film that often consciously uses these jarring transitions in image quality and tactility—at times emphasized by color correcting on a video system and scanning the results back to film—a practice that perfectly aligns itself not only with the visual mannerisms that constitutes the core of noir cinema but also with the chaotic unfolding of events leading up to the film’s massive climax. Strange Days’s finale required massive resources on an extremely tight schedule. More than ten thousand people amassed for the scene, which required the supervision of fifty off-duty police officers and had to be completed in one night.

With a script co-written by mega-blockbuster maestro Cameron and a cast that included recent Oscar nominees Fiennes and Bassett along with up-and-coming young star Juliette Lewis, Strange Days seemed poised for a successful run at the box-office, but failed to deliver. After the dust had settled, the film had made a paltry $7.5 million domestically (roughly $19 million adjusted for inflation), earning back only a fraction of its $42 million dollar budget. The next decade of Bigelow’s career was defined by struggle. Her 2000 film The Weight of Water was roundly ignored, and her attempted return to blockbuster filmmaking, 2002’s K-19: The Widowmaker, proved even more costly than Strange Days. It wasn’t until 2008 that Bigelow, working on a minimal $15 million budget, came roaring back with The Hurt Locker, which both revived her flagging career and earned her a Best Director Oscar, the first ever awarded to a female filmmaker.

In hindsight, Strange Days can be seen as the capstone of the director’s early career, which focused more on experimenting with genre conventions and channeling Bigelow’s work as a visual artist. From The Loveless to Strange Days, Bigelow’s films are extremely expressive, often pushing the envelope when it comes to mobile shots (such as the famous Steadicam-shot chase scene in Point Break) or unconventional use of genre tropes (as in Near Dark and Blue Steel). The latter part of her career has seen a move towards a more classical style and more journalistic subject matter, though even in films like The Hurt Locker, we can see experimentation with POV and varying cameras. Revisiting Strange Days more than two decades after its initial release offers viewers an opportunity to rediscover Bigelow as both a master of genre thrills and an artist with a provocative political and social perspective. It’s no wonder that Bigelow is now rightfully regarded as one of the most influential and talented directors working in American cinema.

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA: A New Era for the Marx Bros.

Wednesday, February 28th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on A Night at the Opera were written by Lance St. Laurent, the Cinematheque’s Project Assistant and PhD Candidate in the department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A DCP of A Night at the Opera will screen on Saturday, March 2, at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. This screening is co-presented by the Cinematheque and Madison Opera. Admission is free!

By Lance St. Laurent

For scholars and critics, the films of the Marx Brothers represent the height of vaudevillian anarchy translated to movie screens. In their films at Paramount Studios, the brothers caused all manner of chaos and comic lunacy with almost no consideration for pesky things like plot or character. A Night at the Opera, the brothers’ 1935 classic and their first with MGM, represents a major turning point in their creative careers, and watching it in retrospect can be a somewhat bittersweet experience. It is one of the brothers’ most beloved and accomplished films, enshrined as a comedy landmark by both the AFI and the Library of Congress for its iconic comic set pieces and memorable songs—including “Alone”, a charting hit of 1936. However, it was also the beginning of the end for the esteemed funnymen, whose transition to a new studio home started with triumphant promise but was soon followed by a steady decline into formulaic and increasingly toothless comic trifles.

Real-life brothers Julius (Groucho), Adolph (Harpo), Leonard (Chico), and Herbert (Zeppo) Marx were born into a family of performers and Jewish immigrants, beginning their careers on the vaudeville stage from an early age. By the 1920s, the brothers had become a popular and highly regarded comedy troupe, well-known for their satirical and anarchic comedic sensibility that mocked the mores of upper-crust society. This was also where they each developed the comic personas for which they would become world famous screen icons. With the introduction of sound cinema in the late 1920s, the Marx Brothers were signed to a contract by Paramount Studios in hopes that their quick-witted comic repartee would translate to the talkies. The five films produced at Paramount successfully adapted the free-for-all absurdity of their stage shows into lean, loosely structured showcases for rapid-fire jokes, physical buffoonery, and goofy songs, only barely resembling traditional narratives. The last of these films, 1933’s political satire Duck Soup, was a box office flop which ended the Marx’s time at Paramount on a sour note and led to straight man Zeppo leaving the troupe, embarking on a lucrative career as a talent agent with fifth Marx brother Gummo.

With their careers in transition, the remaining trio were approached by producer Irving Thalberg about signing with MGM, who reportedly asked if three brothers would cost less than four. Despite Groucho’s characteristically pointed retort—“Don’t be silly, without Zeppo we’re worth twice as much.”—Thalberg signed the brothers, though his vision for their films would not align with the take-no-prisoners approach of their films with Paramount. At Thalberg’s insistence, A Night at the Opera began to soften the brothers’ personas and introduce a more formal narrative structure to their work. (Note that Opera is over twenty minutes longer than Duck Soup.) No longer would the brothers be equal opportunity troublemakers. Instead, the Marxes would become forces for good, aiding in the coupling of romantic heroes and limiting their buffoonish buffaloing to clear-cut villains and stodgy high society figures (including a returning Margaret Dumont, the brothers’ favorite punching bag). Thalberg’s rationale was that more story-driven films with more sympathetic brothers could appeal to a wider audience, “twice the audience with half the laughs”, a logic that the brothers, still reeling from the failure of Duck Soup, embraced with gusto.

For A Night at the Opera, at least, the adjustments made to the Marx formula proved extremely lucrative. The film was a sizable box office hit and helped extend the brothers’ film careers well into the 1940s. Critics, too, praised the film upon release. The New York Evening Post wrote, “None of their previous films is as consistently and exhaustingly funny, or as rich in comic invention and satire.” Groucho Marx himself was particularly fond of A Night at the Opera, writing in his autobiography that, of the brothers’ films, “The best two were made by Thalberg.”

Subsequent Marx films made at MGM did not fare nearly as well. The brothers’ follow-up A Day at the Races (1937) found box office success but was met with relatively tepid notices from critics. Things only got worse from there, and by the end of the 1940s, after 13 feature films, the brothers disbanded. Most historical accounts tend to place the blame for the brothers’ decline squarely on Thalberg and the MGM formula, which domesticated the brothers’ comic chaos into a more palatable mold. A Night at the Opera, though, raises questions about this long-held assumption. Opera certainly lacks some of the unbridled madness of their Paramount work, and the film’s romance plot sometimes sits awkwardly alongside the lunatic capering of the brothers, but it still showcases some of their most inspired comic bits, including a sequence set inside a crowded stateroom that remains one of their most famous. If they could produce such inspired silliness even when reined in by Thalberg, why couldn’t they keep it going? Were they truly stifled by MGM, or did the brothers—like most comedy stars—simply run out of steam?

Even taking into account their decade of decline, the Marx Brothers left behind a body of work that would be enviable for any comic performers, and A Night at the Opera remains one of their greatest highlights, despite adjustments to the formula. As with all the best Marx Brothers films, it overflows with life, energy, and comic invention that thumbs its nose at polite society and waggles its eyebrows suggestively at good taste. To watch A Night at the Opera is to immerse oneself in a film world where—to paraphrase Groucho—joy is unconfined, a place with dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor. The opera house didn’t know what hit them.

A History of STARMAN

Thursday, February 22nd, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Starman were written by Madison Barnes-Nelson, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Starman will screen at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, February 25, at 2 p.m. The screening is the first of three movies in the series "Cinematic Messages from Our Planet," all presented in conjunction with the currently-on-view Chazen exhibit, "Message from Our Planet."  The Chazen is located at 750 University Avenue. Admission to the exhibit and the Starman screening is free!

By Madison Barnes-Nelson

Part road movie, part romance, part melancholic science fiction, John Carpenter’s Starman is, at its core, a film about the search for hope and connection in the aftermath of tragedy. Jeff Bridges plays the titular Starman, an alien, who, after crash landing on Earth in rural Wisconsin, takes the bodily form of Scott, the late husband of grief-stricken widow Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen). What follows is surprisingly sweet and sincere romantic drama from Carpenter, who is primarily known for his cynical, hard-edged genre films such as Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), and Escape from New York (1981).

Starman spent five years in development at Columbia Pictures and was repeatedly delayed due to the studio’s commitment to a project called Night Skies, a quasi-sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) from director Steven Spielberg and writer John Sayles. Night Skies was re-written by Melissa Mathison in 1981 as E.T. and Me, later re-titled as E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Columbia rejected E.T., calling it a “kid’s picture,” and the film moved to Universal, later becoming the highest-grossing film in history at the time of its release in 1982. After fumbling E.T., Columbia re-focused attention to the more adult-themed Starman, with Michael Douglas serving as executive producer and star and famed 70s and 80s Hollywood screenwriter and script doctor Dean Riesner, known for his collaborations with Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel, set to write the screenplay.

The film passed through many directors before landing in John Carpenter’s lap, including Adrian Lyne, Mark Rydell, John Badham, Tony Scott, and Peter Hyams. Riesner would end up writing a total of seven different drafts of the film, with an assist from screenwriting duo Edward Zwick and Diane Thomas (Romancing the Stone), who did uncredited rewrites on the final script. Eventually, Carpenter came on board, hoping for the chance to do a sci-fi film with elements of the screwball romantic comedy It Happened One Night (1934), a major departure from his “thriller-exploitation image.” While working with Carpenter, Riesner shifted focus from the science fiction storyline, instead writing “a ‘Getting to Know You On the Run’ kind of picture, like The 39 Steps and The Defiant Ones, only now it was about a girl and an alien.” Somewhat bafflingly, the final screenplay is not credited to Riesner. Instead, The Writer’s Guild of America arbitrated that Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, who originated the story and wrote two early drafts, would receive sole writing credit. However, Carpenter himself has publicly acknowledged Riesner for developing the actual shooting script for the film and received a special dedication in the film’s credits.

After Michael Douglas dropped out the film (though retaining an executive producer credit), Kevin Bacon was briefly attached to play Starman/Scott. However, according to a making-of documentary, Jeff Bridges was John Carpenter’s and script supervisor Sandy King’s choice to play Starman, not only because of his charismatic, masculine persona he had built up in films such as The Last Picture Show (1972) and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1975), but also after seeing his original, method-like approach to playing the title character. To create Starman, Bridges turned to real-life friends who he “always thought seemed like they came from outer space.” He was particularly inspired by friend and dancer Russell Clark, rehearsing extensively with him to nail down Starman’s strange bodily movements when he mimics a video of the deceased Scott. Bridges even studied his own newborn daughters, watching “their newness, and the way they would look at the world, their perception of things.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin highlighted the performance in her review, calling it “a fine showcase for the actor’s blend of grace, precision, and seemingly offhanded charm.”

Carpenter also sought out Karen Allen, who had broken out in National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and later achieved international fame as Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), a performance that showcased both a hard-edged cynicism and a deep emotional vulnerability. While Bridges brings an incredible affability and physicality to the titular role, Allen’s performance as Jenny is really the tender heart of the film, demonstrating tremendous empathy for a grieving widow astounded at the chance to gaze once more upon her lost love’s face.

The film boasts an impressive roster of special effects creators, including Stan Winston (The Terminator), Rick Baker (Star Wars, An American Werewolf in London), and Dick Smith (The Godfather, The Exorcist), who were all hired to work on the film’s famously elaborate alien transformation, designing numerous puppets to depict Starman’s minute-long growth from infant to man. Additionally, Joe Alves (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws) was a visual consultant on the film and scouted shooting locations. Sadly, over the years, all four men have had harsh and disappointed words for their experience working on Starman and with Industrial Light & Magic, the supervising VFX production company. Special make-up effects artist Rick Baker said to The Chicago Tribune on creating the puppets and VFX, “They went out and got the best and most expensive people in the business, then made them work within ridiculous limitations…frankly, I never thought the sequence, as story-boarded, was that exciting to begin with.”

Starman was released on December 14th, 1984, the same day as David Lynch’s Dune, a similarly auteur-driven, somewhat underappreciated sci-fi film of the 1980s. Starman received positive reviews from critics, with The Chicago Sun Times’ Roger Ebert calling it one of the year’s “more touching love stories.” However, it underperformed at the box office, only grossing $2.8 million in its opening weekend and $23 million total in its original run. However, star Jeff Bridges was nominated for Best Actor at the 1985 Academy Awards, his third nomination and, shockingly, the only Oscar nomination for any John Carpenter film to date. Bridges would go on to lose Best Actor to F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus (1984), but he’s remained an Academy mainstay, receiving four subsequent nominations and winning Best Actor in 2010 for Crazy Heart (2009). Today, Starman can be seen as something of an anomaly in the career of a filmmaker best known as a “Master of Horror”, but the patient and emotionally attuned direction from Carpenter, warm performances by Bridges and Allen, and surprisingly gentle screwball-esque screenplay by Riesner make for a beautiful and earnest exploration of love and loss.


Wednesday, February 14th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) were written by Lance St. Laurent, the Cinematheque’s Project Assistant and PhD Candidate in the department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A new 4K DCP of Invasion of the Body Snatchers will screen at 7 p.m. on Saturday, February 17, in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Lance St. Laurent

Jack Finney’s serialized novel The Body Snatchers presents a central premise that has proven resonant across generations, adaptable to different political climates while always appealing to the same fundamental (and fundamentally egocentric) anxiety. What if everyone is out to get me? What if I’m the only real person left? Finney’s novel has inspired four different film adaptations to date, along with countless others that have reworked or ripped off some element of its central premise. 1954’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by low-budget genre specialist Don Siegel, is usually discussed in the context of the Cold War, inviting disparate readings as either a warning against Communist infiltration or as a broadside against McCarthyite groupthink. Abel Ferrara’s 1993 Body Snatchers (written by UW-Madison alums Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli) was seen on release as a pointed critique of militarism and conformity in the wake of the America’s first Gulf War. However, it is Philip Kaufman’s second adaptation—1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers—that has most managed to transcend its specific cultural and political context to gain broader acceptance as a horror classic.

All four versions of Body Snatchers start with the same premise. Alien, plant-like lifeforms make their way to Earth and begin discreetly duplicating and replacing human beings, leaving their loved ones terrified and unable to explain to onlookers that their seemingly unchanged spouse or sibling is someone, something different than they were before. Kaufman, working with screenwriter W.D. Richter, moves the action from small-town Southern California to San Francisco, taking advantage of the city’s unique weather and landscape along with its (then still recent) associations with the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s. For Kaufman, who had relocated from Chicago to San Francisco in the 60s as part of this countercultural wave, moving the setting was a choice with deep, personal meaning. “Could it happen in the city I love the most? The city with the most advanced, progressive therapies, politics and so forth?”

Donald Sutherland stars as Matthew Bennell, a prickly health inspector approached by his colleague Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) about her boyfriend’s unusual behavior. She suspects he may be an imposter, but Matthew approaches the problem rationally, first suggesting that she talk to a local celebrity psychologist (Leonard Nimoy, in terrific form as a smug, shallow intellectual) about her relationship. Matthew is skeptical, despite the warnings of a raving man (Kevin McCarthy, in a cameo nod to the original film) suspiciously pursued by an emotionless mob. Despite the psychologist’s attempts to hand-wave her concerns, Elizabeth finds others with similar stories, and after answering a call to a local spa, the truth is revealed. Elizabeth’s paranoia is founded in fact; an alien force is indeed assimilating unsuspecting citizens of San Francisco. What remains to be seen is whether they can be stopped or if the entire human race is doomed to succumb to a silent invasion.

Kaufman looked to the original film’s noir-adjacent black and white cinematography as a starting point for the look of his own film, collaborating with cinematographer Michael Chapman—between his work on Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in 1976 and Raging Bull in 1980—to create an evocative, moody palette and, in Kaufman’s words, “get that film-noirish feeling in color.” Kaufman describes using these expressive lighting and framing techniques to “code” the film and clue the audience in to potential threats. “We would say, ‘What degree of poddiness does this character have?’ And we would put a slight purplish tinge around the gills. We had certain angles that we hoped would sort of indicate a pod creepiness to things.”

Kaufman gave similar attention to the film’s soundtrack. The film’s score, the only film credit from jazz pianist Denny Zeitlin, is a mixture of traditional Hollywood bombast with more experimental, electronically infused compositions, all contributing to the film’s classical, yet modern approach. Sound designer Ben Burtt (fresh off Star Wars) further contributed to the film’s sense of encroaching dread, employing still relatively new Dolby Stereo sound technologies to create a soundscape that shifts through the film, “highlight[ing] strong elements of nature amid bustling humanity in the early stages that give way to a more industrial noise.” The collective effect of these various elements is a remake that pays respect to the spirit of Siegel’s original film (and Finney’s original story) while achieving what Kaufman referred to as “a variation on a theme.”

Invasion of the Body Snatchers opened as the feel-bad event of the Christmas season, December 22, 1978, earning a healthy $25 million (over $100 million adjusted for inflation) in its initial box office run. Critics, too, lauded Kaufman’s remake, particularly Pauline Kael, who called it “the American movie of the year” and “maybe the best movie of its kind ever made.” Its reputation has only grown in stature since, with the film frequently cited as a top-tier blend of two popular subgenres of the era—socially-conscious dystopian sci-fi and post-Watergate conspiracy thrillers. It has also entered the rare canon of horror remakes that match or even exceed their original inspiration, a distinction shared by the likes of John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Anyone who has seen the film, particularly its unforgettable ending, is likely to understand its storied reputation and continued relevance. Philip Kaufman (now in his late 80s) has spoken about the film extensively in recent years, particularly around the film’s 40th anniversary in 2018, and he has not been shy about what he sees as the film’s appeal in today’s political climate. “I feel that ‘poddiness’ has taken over a lot of our discourse. […] What I like about the film and the original is the subtext that if we go to sleep we could turn into pods. We should not only say our prayers before we go to sleep, but we should examine ourselves upon waking in the morning […] In the end, if the film is valid — which I hope it still is — it’s really the loss of humanity that’s the tragedy.”

ONE FROM THE HEART REPRISE: Reviving and Reconfiguring the Golden Age Hollywood Musical

Tuesday, February 6th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Francis Coppola's One from the Heart were written by Nimish Sarin, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. One from the Heart Reprise, a newly revamped version supervised by Coppola himself, will screen on Saturday, February 10, at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Nimish Sarin

Coming off the commercial success of Apocalypse Now (1979), MGM had initially offered $2 million to Francis Ford Coppola to direct his proposed follow-up, One from The Heart. Instead, Coppola decided to handle the project at his own company, Zoetrope Studios. Working with screenwriter Armyan Bernstein, Coppola changed the story from a romantic comedy to a musical and shifted the setting from Chicago to Las Vegas. Reportedly spending over $4.5 million for elaborate matte-painted backgrounds and a miniature recreation of Fremont Avenue on the soundstages of his Zoetrope Studios, Coppola, along with production designer Dean Tavoularis, created a regal replica of the glitter gulch. The lavish sets were captured by the dynamic camera of legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (working in the traditional Academy aspect ratio of 1.37:1), bathing the bustling buildings in candy-colored neon lights that somehow seem to out-Vegas the real thing. In addition to the glitzy visual track, Coppola enlisted Tom Waits to create the Oscar-nominated soundtrack for the faux-musical. With accompanying vocals from Crystal Gayle, Waits provided jazzy mournful ballads in his trademark raspy timbre that often worked to fill in the gaps of what is left unarticulated, or perhaps, unvoiced.

To oversee this ambitious production, Coppola also employed a pioneering technological process, termed “electronic cinema”, where he ran production not on set, but from a high-tech trailer (called “Starfish”) equipped with state-of-the-art monitors and video editing equipment. Recording storyboards and rehearsals on videotape to pre-visualize the film, these stand-ins were later replaced by principal photography in real-time that was captured on videotape from the 35mm film camera using a special coding process, removing the need to look at rushes (a precursor to “video-assist” so to speak). Coppola, ever the forward thinker, saw this technology as revolutionary and thought it would change the process of post-production permanently. What’s ironic about One from the Heart is that these elaborate resources and new technologies were ultimately in the service of a simple, modest story.

One from the Heart follows Hank (Fredric Forrest) a misanthropic mechanic, and Frannie (Teri Garr), a wistful travel agent, whose relationship hits the skids on the eve of their fifth anniversary (which happens to fall on the 4th of July). After a heated argument sends them on their separate ways, both spend the weekend indulging in rebound romances: he meets ethereal circus performer Leila (Nastassja Kinski) and she meets dashing waiter/cocktail singer Ray (Raul Julia). After an amorous weekend with their new flings, both lovers reconsider the state of their long-term relationship, and, in a classic romantic climax, Hank chases after Frannie through McCarran Airport (another miniature recreation) hoping for one last shot at love.

Opening in February of 1982, the film was an immediate critical and commercial failure, failing to earn even a million dollars on its initial run. This investment ultimately led to years of financial turmoil and legal trouble for Coppola and ended with both him and his company Zoetrope filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1992. Contemporaneous critics lambasted the film for its obscene spending yet diminishing narrative return, although usually complementing the glamorous visuals themselves. Pauline Kael decried the film for its privileging of auterist excess over narrative depth stating that Coppola “didn't think out the character relationships but simply piled visual ideas…until the movie became so jewel-encrusted that the story practically disappeared from sight.” Similarly, Roger Ebert called it “a ballet of graceful and complex camera movements occupying magnificent sets” but ultimately lamented that the characters and story got lost in the process.

While the film received a slightly better response on its re-release in 2003 (with minor trims and changes), the uneasiness with its grand stylization but “wafer-thin” story persisted. The version being screened at the UW Cinematheque is a new 4K restoration titled One from The Heart Reprise that was overseen by Coppola himself and sourced from the original camera negatives. Despite a run time that comes in almost fifteen minutes shorter than the original cut, Coppola also incorporated roughly thirteen additional minutes of new footage sourced from the same negatives. “This new version is an improvement in many ways, and I am proud of what was achieved with One from the Heart Reprise” remarks Coppola, “despite the disruption it caused in my dreams for American Zoetrope,” he adds.

Whether read as an allegory for the malaise that set in during the new Reaganite America (we hear Hank remark that in America “there are no more secrets, it's phony tinsel, it's phony bullshit man. Nothing's real!”), Coppola’s take on a classic lover’s spat, or as yet another example of a New Hollywood director both reviving and reconfiguring the Golden Age Hollywood musical (see, for example, Scorsese’s New York, New York or Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love), One From The Heart is first and foremost a stylistic tour de force. Employing an almost blinding cinematic excess, the stock characters and predictable narrative tropes become a broad canvas on which Coppola unleashes his phantasmagoric flourishes. Utilizing trick photography, superimpositions, rear projection, matte backgrounds, and abrupt, dramatic changes in lighting between sequences, Coppola seems to privilege, rather than eschew, the artifice of Hollywood production. In this way, the setting of Las Vegas becomes a perfect synecdoche for his larger project; an uncurbed cinematic play of light and shadow is apt for the land of glistening neon lights and uninhibited vice.

However, towards the end of the film, as Frannie nears a life-changing decision, she hears Hank emerging behind her, pleading with her to come back to him. As the camera tries to capture Hank from within a bustling throng of people, Frannie tells him to stop. Undeterred, he continues to beg, eventually breaking out into a rendition of country standard “You Are My Sunshine”. For once, we are not greeted with Tom Waits’ guttural yet melodious voice. Instead, we only hear Hank, who serenades Frannie in a warbling, off-pitch rendition. The artifice is lifted, the proscenium revealed, and finally the ineffable is articulated, if only for a minute. It is debatable if the romanticized mawkishness combined with the stoic pessimism at play here ultimately works or not, if the bid to turn a banal tale of ordinary romantic rupture and reconciliation into an aesthetically audacious experiment succeeds. It is, however, undeniable that Coppola’s unabashed and utopian, if ultimately doomed production, is worth one’s time.

The Controversies and Visual Pleasures of Clouzot's MANON

Wednesday, January 31st, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on H.G. Clouzot's Manon were written by Pate Duncan, PhD Student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A new restoration of Manon will screen on Saturday, February 3, at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening is part of a series of new French restorations and admission is free!

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Manon (1949), a loose adaptation of Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescault (1731), occupies a strange position in Clouzot’s filmography. The film begins aboard a ship. As a crew takes in several boats of Jewish refugees fleeing postwar Europe, they discover two stowaways: Manon (Cécile Aubry) and Robert (Michel Auclair). Robert catches the crew’s attention when they recognize him from the papers as a man on the run, wanted for murder. As he and Manon tell their story to the crew, we watch the noirish story of these doomed lovers unfold in flashback with little to guide our interpretation of their journey towards a fugitive fate. Manon is a young woman accused in her village of both sexual immorality and collaboration with occupying Nazi forces, while Robert is a resistance soldier who believes her innocence and falls in love with her. Robert and Manon are swept up in the upheaval of postwar France, trying to climb their way into high society, though Manon’s independence and Robert’s possessiveness lead the couple through a series of violent spats and passionate reconciliations. Manon is not the stereotypical femme fatale; alongside her self-interest and sexual intrigue, she is in her own way a sincerely loving partner, a double-bind that proves difficult for Robert to resolve.

This genre play of romance and intrigue—even comedy at times—comes dressed in Clouzot’s characteristic low-key cinematography. Clouzot is an exquisite stylist, making use of languid, self-consciously high-contrast camerawork from Armand Thirard, who would continue to work on Clouzot’s movies that are best-known to U.S. audiences: The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diabolique (1955). The influence of then-recently imported American film noir and earlier works of French poetic realism can be seen in the fragmented compositions, ample shadows, and silky smoke that decorate Manon. These stylizations are cut by postwar film movements like Italian neorealism and the German Trümmerfilm that use location shooting to add a gritty realism to the whole affair.

Robert and Manon’s story ultimately collides with the displacement of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, a significant move for Clouzot considering his own ambiguous politics while working under the Occupation-era French film studio Continental, work that saw him reprimanded for collaboration and banned from filmmaking. He was reinstated after two years following support on his behalf from artists and intellectuals like Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre alongside arguments that his film Le Corbeau (1943) allegorized and agitated against Occupation policies. As Richard Neupert notes in French Film History, 1895–1946, “It is still unclear how much Clouzot supported the Occupation, but his cinematographer, [Nicolas] Hayer, secretly organized a resistance network among cinematographers.” Within this context, Manon can be viewed as a complicated attempt to clarify Clouzot’s political concerns and support a postwar ethos. Its finale, set in Palestine, is a politically flattened depiction of the region’s settlement (filmed in Morocco and released after the Nakba in 1948) and remains an object of critique among scholars of the film.

In French film scholarship, Manon remains an oddity, receiving just a brief mention in Alan Williams’ foundational Republic of Images and a fairly blistering critique in Noёl Burch and Geneviève Sellier’s The Battle of the Sexes in French Cinema, 1930–1956, who call it “[a] typically ‘revisionist’ film” and “a very good example, coming from a right-wing filmmaker, of how anti-Arab racism can replace anti-Semitism so as to draw a veil over the complicity of the French in the Jewish genocide.” Despite these contemporary views of the film, Manon was wildly popular upon its initial release and won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Manon marks a more explicit political turn in Clouzot’s filmography and remains striking as a document of his development as an auteur. Like Le Corbeau, this film focuses on a village’s accusations and recriminations, here in the form of the femme tondue: a shaven and marked woman paraded about as punishment for collaboration with Nazis and a phenomenon later depicted poignantly in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). On a technical level, the movie provides a showcase for Clouzot as a director equally capable in exquisitely detailed interior scenes and sequences set on sprawling locations. Manon is particularly memorable for its odd angles, high-contrast silhouettes, and Hollywood-style backlight sculpting using stray sunbeams on location. These stylistic innovations in Clouzot’s oeuvre would pave the way for the tense nitroglycerine delivery through the mountains in The Wages of Fear and Diabolique’s gothic psychological drama set in a dingy boarding school.

Manon is a work as ambivalent and complicated as the director behind it. The politics behind the film’s violent finale in the desert remain inscrutable, and at the same time the sequence provides exquisite stylistic pleasures when Clouzot adds his characteristic shadows, textured images, and poetic details to such a bright expanse. The film is a troubling work on its own and especially as a document of the ambiguities after Occupation, yet it holds an important space within the development of one of France’s most refined stylists of the moving image.