Violence and Sex as Spectacle in Pedro Almodóvar's MATADOR

Friday, September 8th, 2017
Posted by Matt St John

This essay on Matador was written by Erica Moulton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Matador will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen "The Cinema of Pedro Almodóvar" series on Sunday, September 10 at 2 p.m.

By Erica Moulton

Throughout Pedro Almodóvar’s 1986 film Matador, comparisons are drawn between bullfighting and seduction. The film opens with a masterful intercut montage of a bullfighting lesson given by ex-matador Diego, and a female serial killer (María) luring an unsuspecting man to his death. Almodóvar cuts from Diego instructing his students where to sink their swords into the bull for the best kill to María driving her hairpin into the back of her lover’s neck mid-coitus. It’s a breathtaking sequence that sets the stage for the film that follows, one that explores the darkest impulses of its characters while also painting a vivid scene of post-Franco Spain. Matador is Almodóvar’s first truly cinematic film. As he grapples with themes of religion, misogyny, and the commodification of violence (especially against women), he also presents a beautiful film, full of vibrancy and color.

The film focuses on three characters, María (Assumpta Serna), Diego (Nacho Martinez), and Ángel, a student in Diego’s bullfighting academy played by a baby-faced Antonio Banderas. Banderas and Almodóvar had already collaborated four years prior in Labyrinth of Passion, and would work together several more times in the 1980s, with Almodóvar often casting Banderas as some type of lunatic. Matador is no exception, as Banderas plays a disturbed young man, twisted by his strict religious upbringing, whose obsessive desire to prove his masculinity leads him to rape Diego’s girlfriend in an early scene of the film. Almodóvar’s camera never looks away from any of the brutality depicted on screen, choosing to punctuate scenes of sexual violence with wide shots that emphasize the awkwardness of bodies. Wracked with guilt over the act he has committed, Ángel turns himself in for his crime. In the process, he is also accused of murdering several people, who are in fact the victims of Diego and María.

María volunteers to be Ángel’s lawyer, and a cat and mouse game ensues between her and Diego, as their violent passions draw them to discover the truth about each other. The film focuses on this tryptic of characters, and their desires and passions unfold in vivid detail. Diego, for instance, can only be sexually aroused by death, and forces his girlfriend to play dead while he makes love to her. In characteristic Almodóvar fashion, there is little attempt to explore the motivations of such behavior. Almodóvar is always more interested in the effect and less concerned with the cause. He is generally contemptuous of psychoanalysis, even to the extent of introducing a psychiatrist in the third act played by Almodóvar regular Carmen Maura, whose “treatment” of Ángel consists of her trying and failing to make romantic overtures and kissing him when he is unconscious.

Unlike Almodóvar’s earlier films which took inspiration from the punk movement of the 1970s that favored a loose and improvisational direction, this is his most controlled film to date. The violent spectacle is balanced by the look of the film, which relies on reds, pinks, and yellows (colors associated with bullfighting) to offset and perhaps underscore the brutality depicted onscreen. He incorporates the architecture of both new and old Madrid into his frames, shooting from a high-angle down a spiral staircase in one scene, or alternately from a low-angle looking up through a grated walkway in another scene. More attention is paid to the overall design and feel of each location—Diego’s house is cavernous and impersonal, while Ángel and his mother live in a sterile and neatly appointed apartment with little to no personal space. Even the door to the bathroom has a window, so Ángel’s mother is always watching him.

Almodóvar connects the bullfighting theme of spectacle to other realms of Spanish society, including the world of high fashion. In one very funny scene, Almodóvar makes a cameo as a pretentious fashion designer who barks instructions at the models backstage at a runway show that he tells a reporter is called “Spain Divided.” One of the models is Diego’s girlfriend Eva, who is dressed in a red wedding dress with blood painted running down her face. Almodóvar as the fashion designer hands her a gun and tells her to use it at the end of the show. Later in the film, Almodóvar shows Diego watching a VHS tape of himself being gored by a bull, the crowd looking on as his bedecked body is tossed about like a rag doll for their entertainment.

The characters in Almodóvar’s films operate on the extreme ends of the spectrum of human behavior. In Matador, they commit horrific acts of rape and murder. They behave in strange and unpredictable manners. Almodóvar’s filmmaking doesn’t elucidate their behavior, but beginning with Matador, he brings a level of sophistication and visual pleasure to his stories that make their subject matter all the more troubling and engaging. Almodóvar has been alternately labeled a “women’s filmmaker” and a filmmaker who traffics in female suffering. Reviewing Matador for the New York Times, critic Vincent Canby called Almodóvar “Spain’s most reputable disreputable film maker.” He has certainly earned all of these labels, and his films, including and especially Matador, deserve to be watched and re-watched, studied, and most of all, debated.

Night of the House Hunter: THE STEPFATHER

Thursday, June 29th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on The Stepfather (1987) were written by WUD Film Programmer Vincent Mollica. A 35mm print of The Stepfather will screen in our film series tribute to writer Donald E. Westlake on Wednesday, July 5 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening is free and open to the public.

By Vincent Mollica

Speaking of the Seattle-set 1987 thriller The Stepfather, producer Jay Benson said: “I’ve never budgeted a movie for filming in Seattle, but I know the costs were definitely less in Vancouver”. Like its setting, the film – about a man who changes his identity to marry into different families and murdering them if they do not fit his standards – speaks to a kind of hidden cheapness. Both in the film’s satirical meaning, and in its style, something nasty lies beneath a more pristine surface.

The most memorable element of the film, and the focal point for many warm reviews, is the contrast between the kindly exterior of the Stepfather character (Terry O’Quinn), who goes by Jerry Blake in the film, and his hideous inner nature. Pauline Kael in The New Yorker wrote “Jerry the model citizen who’s out in the open whistling ‘Camptown Races’ becomes more frightening the more we see of him” and Vogue evocatively speaks to O’Quinn’s “Cheshire Cat face”. There’s political level of this contrast as well. In his four-star review for the Chicago Tribune, Dave Kehr writes of the “1950s sitcom” quality to Blake: “Yet once that world leaves the box and collides with reality, its distortions, its oppressiveness and its murderous refusal of human complexity become clear, and chilling”. In a very short write up of the film for Film Comment, director Guillermo Del Toro echoed this by calling the film a “Brave, unflinching attack on our pastoral illusions”. As all these authors suggest, what makes The Stepfather compelling is the way that it upends Blake’s character and reveals what he truly represents. 

As this high praise might suggest, there is an air of classiness to The Stepfather. This is helped in part by a fine lead performance by O’Quinn, who was widely praised for the role (in an otherwise negative review, Roger Ebert singles out O’Quinn’s performance as the film’s “one wonderful element”). Cinematographer John Lindley provides an autumnal quality to much of the film which is clean and easy to watch. As discussed in the film’s DVD commentary, beyond allusions to several of Hitchock’s films, Ruben also borrows his clever use of doubling characters throughout that also speaks to a kind of formal substance. The film even contains a degree of legitimate emotionality, most notably through the purposeful emphasis on the family that is found through different spaces in the film. However, there’s undoubtedly an unhinged quality to the film as well. 

In an LA Times article about attempts to properly advertise The Stepfather, as it was flopping in its first few weeks, the marketing director of the film’s distributor (New Century) claimed audiences were turned off by terms used in otherwise positive reviews like “B-movie” and “low budget”. The critics who used them have a point though. The film does have a certain “B-Movie” looseness, that can border on comic. For example, when Blake’s stepdaughter (an excellent Jill Schoelen) is expelled from high school, it is met by reactions that never amount to much beyond mild disappointment.

More interesting, though, are the films sharply emotional turns, which seem similarly “B-Movie”. In an early fight scene between two girls at a high school Lindley uses handheld photography in a way that’s unexpectedly visceral. In a moment that Ruben claims was even made less brutal than it was before, Blake’s first on screen murder, in which he batters a man with a plank of wood in an empty house, climaxes in a disturbing image of his victim’s vaguely contorted body finally collapsing on the floor. At another point, the brother of one of Blake’s previous victims holds up a picture of his deceased family while a sad version of Patrick Moraz’s synth score plays. Benefitting largely by the wonderful use of music, the moment is so openly manipulative it forces an emotional reaction. These “B-Movie” moments offer unpolished cheap thrills, but O’Quinn’s performance and the witty and satirical script by novelist and crime specialist Donald Westlake regularly remind us that the movie has more on its mind than mere exploitation. Westlake and his original collaborators Carolyn Lefcourt and Brian Garfield were, in fact, inspired by the real life case of mass murderer John List who disappeared and relocated under a completely new identity after murdering his wife, mother and three children in 1971. List evaded arrest for nearly 18 years until his crimes were recounted on America’s Most Wanted.

The Stepfather had a productive afterlife. Ruben claims this is the film that pushed him into big studio filmmaking, and he followed it up with Sleeping with the Enemy and The Good Son for 20th Century Fox in the early 1990s. Star Terry O’Quinn would appear in other films, but his most notable credit afterwards would come long after as John Locke on the show Lost. The Stepfather would also have two sequels (although O’Quinn only appeared in the second one) and a 2009 remake, all featuring the same character. O’Quinn regretted starring in The Stepfather II: Make Room For Daddy, but this first sequel maintains a light, funny, sensibility. However, most of the remakes and sequels lose the focus of satire and of Jerry Blake’s central goal, which is not to murder more people, but to truly create the perfect family. This is what provides the first film with its staying power.

The Anxiety and Awe of JURASSIC PARK

Thursday, May 4th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Jurassic Park (1993) was written by JJ Bersch, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Jurassic Park will conclude our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series saluting the Music of John Williams on May 7 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art.

By JJ Bersch

There is one video on the Internet that is better than all of the other videos on the Internet. Uploaded by a mysterious user named P. Lo, its title is pleasingly simple and descriptive: “Jurassic Park Theme Song (Melodica Cover).” Mr. Lo opens the video with unaltered footage from one of said film’s earliest and most iconic scenes. Park founder John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) rises from the ground to gaze adoringly into an immaculate field as Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) slowly realize the majesty unfolding before their eyes. Perhaps the most famous instance of the patented “Spielberg face” mobile close-up follows as Grant dramatically turns his attention from prehistoric grass towards the marvelous beasts roaming the park’s grounds. In director Steven Spielberg’s film, this majestic moment is met with majestic music: the strings swell, the unmistakable theme kicks in; in P. Lo’s video, this majestic moment is met with an entirely less majestic melodica: the strings swell, the unmistakable theme kicks in, poorly, awfully, embarrassingly. Funny as it is, the melodica is wisely not the only punchline, as composer John Williams’s score returns in the video’s final moments to back Grant’s amazed remark of “They do move in herds.” I have never seen someone avoid laughing at this video. I believe it is impossible.

The video capitalizes on something that is very obvious to us now: John Williams’s score for Jurassic Park is really the only score there ever could have been for Jurassic Park. Williams, as you have learned if you have followed this series this semester (or followed American cinema for any of the past fifty years), is a composer who loves a good theme (or seven). From Jaws, Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones, and E.T. to more recent additions to the theme canon like Harry Potter and the film in question today, Williams has created many of the most eminently recognizable themes in film history. To his most ardent detractors, this is said to be all of which he is capable, but as this series has shown, such Williams scores as the jazzy looseness of Catch Me If You Can or the pop perfection and madness of The Long Goodbye showcase a much more varied composer. But, even with that in mind, if we are being totally honest with ourselves, when we see the name John Williams pop up on a film’s opening credits, we are probably anticipating the theme most of all. In Jurassic Park, that theme is monumental, perhaps a bit slower than you remember, triumphant but a little bit wistful, too. It matches the scale of the dinosaurs but also the scale of Hammond’s misstep. It is spectacle and sadness. When I heard the theme played at my wife’s college graduation, it felt perfectly apt; what else could match that sense of achievement and loss?

Beyond the Williams score, Jurassic Park is packed to the (dino) gills with entertainment. It was my favorite movie at the age of 3, and it is easy to see why: dinosaurs. It contains some of Steven Spielberg’s very best set pieces: the first altercation with the Tyrannosaurus, the power outage sequence (“clever, girl”), the RAPTORS IN THE KITCHEN. Considering Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark contains at least three of Cinema’s very best set pieces, this says quite a bit. Jurassic Park is a film that knows that spectacle matters most when you match it with scares, and that those two words do not mean anything if you do not first define the geography of a space. It is one of the last times a Spielberg movie featured children you did not instantly want expunged from the screenplay. It features maybe the best Samuel L. Jackson catchphrase that does not feature a curse word (“Hold onto your butts.”) as well as Wayne Knight turning in a performance that is improbably and incredibly more annoying than Seinfeld’s Newman. It gave us those glorious, glorious, glorious shots of a shirtless Jeff Goldblum (so glorious, in fact, that it made the studio think Goldblum could carry the next film himself).

A couple of years ago, the series made a financially successful return with Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World, but that film, for all of its merits, could not solve the problem that has haunted all of the series’s entries after the first: how could you possibly match the hubris and bravado it took to make Jurassic Park, and make it feel authentic at that? This is perhaps no truer anywhere else than the play between Williams’s score and the images on screen, perfectly paired to create a breathtaking sensation matched by nearly no other film in blockbuster history. Sure, life finds a way of doing most things, but it has not found a way to replicate the delightful concoction of anxiety and awe that is Jurassic Park.

A Dracula for the Disco Era

Thursday, April 27th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on John Badham's 1979 version of Dracula was written by Erica Moulton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Dracula will screen as part of our "Music By John Williams" series at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, April 30 at 2 p.m. Admission to the screening is free.

The immortal bloodsucker Dracula has had many incarnations on film, from the grotesque (Nosferatu) to the to the grotesquely seductive (Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 version), and from the urbane (Bela Lugosi's definitive characterization) to the menacing (Christopher Lee). Frank Langella's interpretation might be categorized as urbanely seductive, and this 1979 film was one of the first Dracula films to cast the undead creature as more of a romantic hero than ghoulish villain. If Frank Langella's billowing white shirt and feathered hair weren't big enough clues, the tagline to the film was simply, "A Love Story."

The film started out as a revival of the play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, based on the novel by Bram Stoker. Langella played the role on Broadway, earning a Tony-nomination in the process. Producer Walter Mirisch and his wife attended a performance of the play, and during intermission she turned to him and insisted that he try to bring the play to the big screen. Once Langella was on board, Mirisch recruited John Badham, hot off directing Saturday Night Fever (1977), and they set out to research Bram Stoker's novel to find a fresh approach to the material. Screenwriter W.D. Richter came up with the idea that Dracula would have been descended from an ancient Hungarian bloodline, and Langella sells this with his air of pedigreed grace. Rounding out the cast were Donald Pleasance, a veteran scene stealer, as Dr. Jack Seward and Laurence Olivier as Professor Van Helsing. Olivier, giving a campy, heavily-accented late-in-life performance, was so frail at the time of production that a body double had to be used for many of his wide shots and stunts.

The film was helped tremendously in its endeavor to make Dracula a gothic hero by production designer Peter Murton and by John Williams' lush orchestral score. Their work allows Badham to execute some truly bravura moments of filmmaking, especially in the scene where Lucy visits Dracula's castle for the first time. Her movement through the great hall is shot from a bird's eye view, and a silver spider's web is interposed between her and the camera. Another impressive scene is Dracula's nighttime crawl along the walls of Carfax Abbey into the bedchamber of Mina Van Helsing (changed from Mina Harker in the novel). Williams' music plays up the romantic aspects of the story, drawing inspiration from the operatic score to Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, and imbuing the scenes between Dracula and the two female leads (Lucy and Mina) with erotic bombast.

While the finished film carries off the moody tone just right, the making of the film was certainly not without challenges. Badham and the producers often fought with Langella over his portrayal of Dracula, in particular Langella's refusal to wear fangs or to be seen covered in blood. Langella despised many of Badham's directorial choices, especially the smoke-filled sequence filmed in silhouette when Dracula and Lucy make love for the first time. Badham bathed the scene in crimson light and superimposed flying bats to produce something that would not be out of place in a James Bond movie. The film also ran into trouble upon being released the same year as a parody vampire film called Love at First Bite, which undercut the serious drama of Badham's Dracula.

Despite its failure at the box office, the 1979 Dracula seems strangely prescient to a modern filmgoer, especially in the aftermath of the decade-long obsession with sexy vampires that plagued the early aughts. Langella and the Dracula filmmakers tapped into the primal fear of unchecked sexuality that inspired Bram Stoker to pen the novel in the late 19th century, and over a hundred years later, vampires still have the power to seduce audiences.

Just Added! TAKE ME Screening, May 12. Pat Healy in Person!

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

The UW Cinematheque's Spring 2017 calendar has been extended to Friday, May 12 when we present a screening of the new movie Take Me. A dark comedy, Take Me marks the feature directorial debut of actor Healy, working here with screenwriter Mike Makowsky and Executive Producers Jay and Mark Duplass. Healy, who has appeared at the Cinematheque and the Wisconsin Film Festival in the past with such movies as The Innkeepers (2011), Compliance (2012), and Cheap Thrills (2013), will join us in person for the Wisconsin Premiere screening. Take Me will make its World Premiere at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival on April 25, 2017.

The story: Ray Moody (Pat Healy) is a not-too-successful entrepreneur who is struggling to re-launch Kidnap Solutions, LLC, a service offering simulated abductions as an alternative form of therapy. His latest client is Anna St. Blair (Taylor Schilling, star of Orange is the New Black), an affluent businesswoman who makes a hefty offer to Ray for a weekend kidnapping package.  Soon, however, Ray realizes that he is in for a lot more than just the negotiated price. Take Me is a twisty and twisted dark comedy with more than a few surprises in store.

Take Me will screen on Friday, May 12, 7 p.m., at our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.
UW Cinematheque
4070 Vilas Hall
821 University Avenue
Madison, WI 53706

Admission free, seating limited. No admission 15 minutes after scheduled start time.

FRI., 5/12, 7 p.m.
Special Presentation
TAKE ME – Pat Healy in Person!
USA | 2017 | DCP | 84 min.
Director: Pat Healy
Cast: Taylor Schilling, Pat Healy, Alycia Delmore
Pat Healy will join us in person for a post-screening discussion.

Unnatural Beauty: Neil Young’s HUMAN HIGHWAY

Sunday, April 16th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Vincent Mollica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, April 15th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Matt Connolly

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schoenberg Meets Straub-Huillet: MOSES AND AARON

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

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

By Zachary Zahos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Controversy of CRUISING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Vincent Mollica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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