Through the Darkness of Future Past: TWIN PEAKS FIRE WALK WITH ME

Wednesday, September 27th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) was written by WUD Film’s Kristen Johnson-Salazar. A new DCP of Fire Walk with Me will screen at our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, September 29 at 7 p.m. The screening will be preceded, at 6:30 p.m., by special Twin Peaks pre-show material assembled by Daniel Knox.

By Kristen Johnson-Salazar

Some movies have the power to transport you to a certain time and place.  It could be the year the film came out, the first time you saw it, or just where and when the film is set.  For me, the Twin Peaks film and show capture a specific time and mood for when I first became captivated by the fantastical and devious world of Twin Peaks. 

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me entered theaters in 1992, a year after its television counterpart’s untimely cancellation that left fans in a whirlwind of questions pertaining to the fate of many of Twin Peaks’ notable residents.  Director David Lynch successfully carries the already cinematic world of Twin Peaks to the silver screen, allowing the audience to once again slip into the obscure and dark realities that lie beneath the town’s upbeat quirkiness.  Unfortunately for fans of the show, many believed the film to be a sequel rather than a prequel, so it was to their disappointment that the film wasn’t going to further the plot where the series’s cliffhanger left off. 

The film’s timeline spans from a year before the events that transpire in the series to the last days of Laura Palmer’s life.  We are treated to reprise performances of characters the audience has come to know, like Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), Gordon Cole (David Lynch), Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and so on.  Yet, within the first twenty minutes of the film, the only people to inhabit the world are a new investigative team of Special Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Agent Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland), who are sent to a town after a body is found in a similar fashion to other murders in the area.  From this segment we head over to the FBI headquarters where supernatural manifestations begin to transpire, including an unnatural routine by Special Agent Phillip Jefferies (David Bowie).  This acts as our transition between the two storylines, as now we are in the deep waters of Lynch’s nightmarish spirits that have a hand in the terrible occurrences that lay before the path of Laura Palmer.

Sheryl Lee’s presence in Fire Walk with Me as Laura Palmer is something supernatural in and of itself.  Her mesmerizing character and electric performance can finally be seen on screen, instead of in video and pictures frames or in dreams where she lived in the television series.  Laura is a sympathetic and endearing young woman, who struggles with drug addiction, parental abuse, and the supernatural.  We, like her best friend Donna Hayward (Moira Kelly, who replaced Lara Flynn Boyle in the film), see Laura in glimpses of her real self, and want to reach out to help her. Yet, through our ironic knowledge of the television series, we know she is doomed.  The film embraces this fact and, by the end, we prepare for the shock and horror of Laura’s fate.

For many, this was seen as a step backwards for the series.  Critically and financially, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me did not perform as well as many thought it would.  It received negative critiques, especially in the realm of the film feeling joyless and having a lack of clarity.  Since its release in 1992, an assemblage of deleted footage from Fire Walk with Me came out in July 2014, titled Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces.  In October of the same year, Showtime announced a Twin Peaks miniseries as a continuation of the television show and film, with series creators David Lynch and Mark Frost returning. While pre-production was hazy in the beginning, with rumors of Lynch leaving the project due to creative and financial issues, Frost and Lynch finally agreed with Showtime to create the 18 episode return to Twin Peaks that aired this year. I cried in class the day I heard this news.

Even if the revival of Twin Peaks had never transpired and the only new stories we received were Mark Frost’s books about the history of Twin Peaks, this film, years later after the water has settled, does feel complete and whole.  We are given closure to Laura’s story and to her character.  The ending sequence is both empowering and emotional.  Angelo Badalamenti’s “The Voice of Love,” is orchestrated with such ambiance and love that it transcends our world similar to Laura’s transcendence.  It’s beautiful, heartbreaking, haunting, and, most of all, Angelo.  It isn’t Twin Peaks without Angelo’s score.

Amongst everything that has been said, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is a film that needs to be watched and re-watched, not just for the references to the old show, but especially now in relation to the revival series.  Viewing some scenes post this most recently aired season can add more depth to not just character actions, but also to characters’ reactions.  I would highly encourage all who view this film to watch this third season of Twin Peaks, as it not only adds to Fire Walk with Me, but it’s an experience similar to the original series, which is something you won’t see anywhere else.

How Do You Want to Be Loved? Almodóvar's LAW OF DESIRE

Thursday, September 21st, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Law of Desire (La Ley Del Deseo) were written by Erica Moulton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Law of Desire will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen salute to Pedro Almodóvar on Sunday, September 24 at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art.

How do you want to be loved? That is the question that drives the narrative of Pedro Almodóvar's striking 1987 film, Law of Desire, his sixth feature film to be released in Spain. This question, of not only "who do you desire" but "how do you wish to be desired by others", torments the film's protagonist, Pablo Quintero, a director who finds himself at a crossroads both personally and professionally following the release of his new feature. Apart from his creative burdens, including his struggle to define his voice in the Spanish cultural marketplace, Pablo is also reeling from the rejection of his advances by his lover Juan. His transgender sister Tina (played by Almodóvar regular, Carmen Maura) further complicates matters by hoisting her daughter, Ada, on Pablo to look after. Finally, a new figure enters Pablo's life in the form of the obsessive Antonio (Antonio Banderas), whose sudden, intense burst of feeling for Pablo throws everyone's lives into violent disarray. 

Law of Desire sees Almodóvar continue to develop his unique blend of high melodrama and psycho-sexual thriller, which is always underscored by a strong sense of Spanish cultural identity. Like Matador, his fifth feature, Almodóvar presents a vibrant and beautifully shot film, drawing inspiration from the films of Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock, but always adding his own irreverent spin on the material. For his directorial efforts, he was awarded the 'best new director' prize by the Los Angeles critics association. Certainly, Law of Desire was the film that provided Almodóvar with his biggest international platform yet in his career, and critics and the press alike were eager to seize on the film's autobiographical aspects, quickly labeling Almodóvar a 'gay director'. 

At the time of its release, Spanish critics, in particular, were quick to label it an autobiography, with one declaring that Almodóvar was 'stripped bare' in the film. Even Almodóvar was willing to admit that he drew inspiration from his own life in telling Pablo's story. The close relationship of Pablo and Tina in the film mirrors his own close connection to his brother Augustín, who acts as a producer on Almodóvar's films and runs his production company, appropriately called El Deseo (The Desire). The film's subplot about Tina confronting a priest who sexually abused her as a child was influenced by Almodóvar's own experiences as a young boy in the church (a topic that Almodóvar would return to again in Bad Education).  In his book Desire Unlimited: The Cinema of Pedro Almodóvar, scholar Paul Julian Smith argues that Law of Desire "clearly offers itself as an auteurist work, one in which the figure of the director informs and transforms the audience's reception of the film" (80). While his films can all stand on their own, it is helpful to understand Law of Desire within the context of Almodóvar's life and experience in his native country of Spain. 

Almodóvar's celebrity on the global stage was just emerging in 1987, but with his films, he was drawing on a personal history that was all too familiar to his fellow Spaniards. Born in 1949, he grew up in the shadow of the Franco regime, a harsh totalitarian government that sought to control every aspect of its citizens' lives, especially their religious practices, and enforced strict Catholic codes of behavior. After Franco's death in 1975, a countercultural movement known as La Movida Madrileña emerged in retaliation, with participants in the movement embracing previously taboo practices like drug use and punk culture. Almodóvar was an active part of this movement, and drew inspiration from the punk scene in Madrid for his first film Pepi, Luci, Bom. He never fully lost the punk ethos, even as his filmmaking became more sophisticated, and throughout his career, there is always a strong sense of subversive playfulness that infuses his films. 

Law of Desire is a wonderful example of how Almodóvar is able to balance the subversive elements in his films with the melodramatic. In a discussion of how his films blur genre lines at AFI Fest in 2011, reported by Indiewire, Almodóvar stated: “Melodrama was the first genre I saw as a child, housewives would listen to it on the radio. I also loved musicals. I’ve been a moviegoer since I was a child, and I started making movies as a projection of my life… I mix genres because during the day I pass through a lot of genres. Sometimes even science-fiction! Comedy, noir. These are mixed in life, so they are mixed in my movies.” As Law of Desire deftly cycles between genres, Almodóvar crafts a film about desire and being desired that is as thrilling and mysterious as the real life experience. When asked about making the film, Almodóvar likened the process to a disastrous love affair, saying “when you're madly in love with a boy and someone asks you: 'Do you like him?', you don't know. All you know if that that's the only thing in your head right now, and that includes every imaginable state of mind, from delight to despair." (Smith 80)

Almodóvar’s description perfectly captures the experience of watching Law of Desire for the first time—it’s an intoxicating combination of attraction and befuddlement. You will delight and you will despair. What more could a filmmaker hope to achieve!

This Must Be the Place: Jonathan Demme's STOP MAKING SENSE

Thursday, September 21st, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Stop Making Sense were written by JJ Bersch, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Stop Making Sense will screen on Saturday, September 23 as part of a tribute to the late Jonathan Demme in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

One take: A stretch of light extends from an opening. Almost instantly and overwhelmingly, a shadow overtakes the light, briefly teasing the head of a guitar before revealing a squeaky clean pair of white sneakers and the shins of a gray-suited figure. After a ten second walk towards a cheering audience, the figure arrives at a microphone, offers a brief greeting, places a boombox on the stage, presses play, and bounces along to the beat. The camera climbs the figure, who is now strumming a guitar and bobbing in a way that only David Byrne, lead vocalist of Talking Heads, has ever bobbed. He sings, “I can’t seem to face up to the facts / I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax / I can’t sleep cause my bed’s on fire.” And then, finally, a 180-degree cut, showing us Byrne’s back as he performs in front of a crowd. The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads, and they are going to control our lives for the next 86 minutes.

This is the way Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s peerless 1984 concert documentary stitched together from three Talking Heads performances at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood in December of 1983, begins; this is, however, not exactly the way any of Talking Heads’ shows at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood in December of 1983 began. It’s close—these shows did start with a solo performance of “Psycho Killer”—but as Demme states on the Blu-ray release of the film’s commentary track, the opening shot “is one of a few shots that were done outside of the context of the concert.” Demme identifies this shot as incredibly important—they had to get it right, regardless of “authenticity”—for it builds up from Byrne’s feet in the same way the show will continually build up the band’s sound, adding accompanying musician after accompanying musician until Talking Heads sound bigger than any band before or after ever has. Demme found the perfect complement to Talking Heads’ live show; he just couldn’t do it live, so he didn’t.

This is emblematic of Jonathan Demme’s approach to capturing the live experience of seeing and hearing Talking Heads. Let the band do their thing, but make sure you’ve done everything you can to make sure everyone leaves knowing just how great that thing is, even if you have to stray from the live performance just a little bit to do that. Demme, who sadly passed earlier this year, knew music, and he loved music. His respect for Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and all of the other musicians on stage is palpable in every frame of the film. Demme often lets the band’s work speak for itself—consider the four-and-a-half-minute take of Byrne’s bravura performance of “Once in a Lifetime” or the film’s reliance on wide shots—but the director is not afraid to embellish the ‘Heads with a flourish here and there: the ethereal dissolves of “Heaven,” the shot/reverse-shot call-and-response of “Slippery People,” the mobile camera work of “Girlfriend is Better,” the disarming jump from “Take Me to the River” to the encore performance of “Crosseyed and Painless.” Demme lets Byrne and Company speak for themselves, but they let him speak as well.

Most curiously, Demme withholds cutting to the audience, even drowning them in darkness or shallow focus in many of the shots from the stage that might reveal the watching faces. Demme would use this strategy in his later concert documentaries such as Storefront Hitchcock (1998), Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006), and Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (2016); his rationale for Stop Making Sense, as told to the Los Angeles Times: “When we were editing, we had so much great footage, why cut to the audience? And then there’s a more subtle reason for not showing the crowd—all that ever does is remind the movie viewers that they’re watching a filmed record of a concert. But this way it seems more a concert expressly for them. Our approach takes away that generation of distance, of having to look at people who were really there.” And yet, Demme does eventually cut to said “people who were really there” towards the very end of the film, as he alternates footage of the band performing their final song, “Crosseyed and Painless,” with shots of the audience a total of seven times. A release occurs as the tight grip the band held on the camera dissipates. It is a jarring sequence, but one which aligns the two audiences. These people saw Talking Heads live—my God, they saw that performance of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” in person!—and you didn’t. But because of Demme’s work, that difference doesn’t matter quite so much.


Thursday, September 14th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Bless Their Little Hearts were written by Zachary Zahos, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A new restoration of Bless Their Little Hearts from Milestone Films will screen in our series tribute to Charles Burnett this Friday, September 15, at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Charles Burnett will deliver a talk in the UW's Distinguished Lecture Series on Thursday, September 21 at the Memorial Union Theater. He will also appear in person at the Cinematheque's screening of To Sleep With Anger on Friday, September 22.

By Zachary Zahos

The gap between Bless Their Little Hearts’s excellence and any wide recognition of such reveals the limits on our access to film history. Once yawning, this gap has narrowed considerably since this past spring, when Milestone Films began distributing a restored cut of the 1984 film to theaters around the world. With home media and streaming availability around the corner, Bless Their Little Hearts presently enjoys its widest audience ever. On top of rave reviews from respected critics, members of the African-American community have embraced the film at venues like Harlem’s RAW SPACE gallery, where director Billy Woodberry and screenwriter-cinematographer Charles Burnett hosted a joint Q&A following a screening in May.

That Bless Their Little Hearts always seems to trail Burnett’s 1977 feature Killer of Sheep in conversation and, subsequently, evaluation hints at the former film’s obscured place in black American independent cinema—to say nothing of American cinema as a whole. First, both films share Burnett in key creative roles, and both star Kaycee Moore as the leading woman as well as Burnett’s niece, Angela, and nephew, Ronald. In 16mm black-and-white, both tell stories of disadvantaged, depressed black men struggling to support their families in the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles; more specifically, both feature scenes of fathers and mothers berating their sons for not acting or looking enough “like a man.” Both highlight the jazz, blues, and gospel tradition with inspired soundtrack selections from Dinah Washington and Paul Robeson, in Killer, and Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan, in Bless. Both typify the aesthetic and social concerns of the L.A. Rebellion, the movement of black educators and filmmakers—Burnett, Woodberry, Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), and Haile Gerima (Bush Mama) among them—who forged a vibrant, collaborative creative community at UCLA’s Film School following the 1965 unrest in Watts.
All these affinities, and yet of the two, cinephiles know only Killer of Sheep. The wonky, counterintuitive distribution histories of these two films, which are inextricably informed by deeper biases, help to clarify this discrepancy. Despite being made over half a decade before Bless, Killer of Sheep rather famously did not receive an official release until 2007. Sporadic college screenings confirmed to the lucky few the quality of Burnett’s film, but the expense of securing the music rights for its soundtrack precluded even limited distribution. It took the herculean efforts of Milestone’s Amy Heller and Dennis Doros, in restoration, fundraising, and publicity, to clear the legal hurdles thirty years later. Glowing appraisals from Roger Ebert, Dave Kehr, Manohla Dargis, and the entire upper shelf of film critics followed suit, viewers paid to watch it, and ever since Killer of Sheep has cemented a formidable reputation as an unearthed treasure, a classic of black American cinema.  

Throughout this same time, Bless Their Little Hearts weathered an inverse, adverse fate. Unlike Killer, Bless received proper—albeit highly limited—theatrical distribution, playing at New York’s Film Forum and other small but influential screens in 1984. Yet few watched it in the intervening years, a fact awkwardly evident even when it has been singled out for praise. In an article announcing the 2013 additions to Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, for instance, Variety described honoree Bless as a documentary. It is true that Woodberry, post-Bless, has not followed up with another narrative project, instead pursuing documentary (most recently And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead, about beat poet Bob Kaufman, in 2015—after the Variety article), art installations, and a full-time teaching job at the CalArts School of Film and Video since 1989. But just because Woodberry, unlike Burnett, cannot be championed via the standard auteurist framework (i.e., teasing themes out of a wide oeuvre) does not lessen Bless Their Little Heart’s power of expression. Such a film poses welcome evaluative challenges that we as spectators should accept, without lapsing into erasure or stubborn hierarchizing. What do we make of Bless’s shared authorship—between Woodberry, Burnett, and actors Kaycee Moore and Nate Hardman—beside raising one man, mythically, above the others? Can we identify the rhymes between Bless and Killer while also calling attention to their differences? Can Killer of Sheep simply not be the only black American film not directed by Spike Lee allowed in the pantheon of great films?

For my part, I want to single out for appreciation one gorgeous, multivalent scene from Bless Their Little Hearts. Not the nine-minute, single-take fight between husband, Charlie Banks (Hardman), and wife, Andais (Moore)—if anything about Bless is legend, it is that improvised, heartrending torrent. Rather, I am equally struck by a much quieter, earlier scene that takes place in the Banks household’s only bathroom. Framed from a considerable distance, Charlie shaves in front of the mirror. While unemployment dogs his waking hours and nights, Charlie’s absorption in this ritual, underscored via his gentle humming and the shot’s unhurried duration, suggests a man at ease. In close-up, Charlie side-eyes an intruder at the door: daughter Angie (Angela Burnett), who impatiently scurries away. His shave continues. Clear razor strokes work at the remainder of the chin, white shaving cream disappearing from black skin in a simple, captivating bit of graphic play. In a series of faster, full-on close-ups, the faucet grows louder, Charlie bends slowly toward the sink to wash his face, and, channeling fearsome energies straight from his subconscious, he closes both faucet handles impossibly tight.

Through camera angle, ambience, and a sly escalation of dramatic stakes, this small, two-line scene of shaving somehow takes on a dimension of the sacred. It echoes the famous, unexpectedly cryptic episode of the housemaid preparing coffee in Vittorio de Sica’s Umberto D., where it is “life itself that becomes spectacle” as critic André Bazin memorably claimed. It answers that film, too, by evoking a fuller, more rambunctious sense of community within this small house. After Charlie leaves the bathroom, Angie reenters and struggles to turn on the faucet her father sealed shut. Her solution to this problem is too satisfying to spoil, but it demonstrates that, like all great filmmakers, Woodberry and Burnett can turn from profound contemplation to comedy on a dime.

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)