DESERT HEARTS: The Biggest Little Love Story in the World

Thursday, March 15th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Donna Deitch's Desert Hearts (1985) were written by Pauline Lampert, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A restored DCP of Desert Hearts, courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive and Janus Films, will screen in our UCLA Festival of Preservation series on Saturday, March 17 at 7 p.m. at our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The DCP has been digitally restored by The Criterion Collection/Janus Films and UCLA Film & Television Archive in conjunction with Outfest UCLA Legacy Project and Sundance Institute.

By Pauline Lampert

The legacy of Donna Deitch’s 1985 romantic drama, Desert Hearts, typically concerns its standing as the first American film to feature a lesbian couple in which neither partner dies, is institutionalized, or winds up in a heterosexual relationship. It is an unabashedly queer film, made on a shoestring budget and set in 1959 Eisenhower-era America, and it was released during the height of Reagan-era conservatism. A film of this subject matter is a purposeful affront to the social values of both the time in which it is set and the time in which it was released, and yet it managed to find a small but loyal fan base which has continued to flourish in the intervening years. This story of triumph mirrors the narrative of the film, in which its characters learn to rebuild their lives in a similarly unforgiving climate.

To those unused to the oppressive heat and parched soil of the desert, such a landscape may seem foreboding or even dangerous. It is not just hellscapes that are evoked in the terrain of sand-dunes and tumbleweeds, the desert also has a purgatorial connotation. It is a liminal space-- neither here nor there--a land where the displaced are left to wander for generations until they are deemed fit for polite society. However, despite what the cultural or biblical associations would have us believe, there are plenty of species that manage to survive in these areas despite the limited resources. The desert, it seems, is made for creatures who know scarcity and have learned to live without.

Desert Hearts’s co-protagonists, Vivian Bell and Cay Rivvers, are two such creatures of this sparsity. Helen Shaver plays Vivian, a high-strung Professor of English at Columbia University who has thrown her life into disarray by ending her marriage of over a decade and running off to Reno to begin divorce proceedings. Vivian’s sojourn to Nevada is in part a function of the state’s liberal divorce policies. From the 1930s through the 70s, Nevada was the go-to destination for a quickie divorce. This phenomenon became known as the “Reno Cure,” where women would establish residency by living in a hotel or dude ranch for six weeks, and eventually be granted license to rid themselves of their unhealthy marriages.

While the practicality of Vivian’s sabbatical in Nevada is apparent, the reasoning behind the self-inflicted upheaval is more opaque. She has no concrete justification for getting this divorce, at least none that she is prepared to articulate. When her lawyer enquires about grounds for divorce, the only explanation she can offer is that her marriage was polite and professionally advantageous, but never full of love or happiness. She claims she wants out of this marriage so she can pursue “an honest life.”

And so Vivian casts herself out of her ill-fitting life amongst the New York City intelligentsia, and sets off for the no-man’s-land of the Parker Guest Ranch, in Reno, Nevada. It’s there where she meets the free-spirited ingénue, Cay Rivvers (played by Patricia Charbonneau). Cay provides the ideal romantic foil for Vivian. Cay is outgoing and open about her sexuality, whereas Vivian is shy and repressed. However, like Vivian, Cay’s life is missing something that she can’t quite identify, but has something to do with surviving in an existential limbo of working rotten waitressing jobs at the local casino and the lack of viable romantic partners. Though ten years Vivian’s junior, the pair share an immediate connection that transcends their age and background. It is established quickly that Cay is able to intuit what Vivian’s desire for “an honest life” really means without Vivian having to directly communicate her feelings.

One of the film’s great strengths is its judicious use of expository dialogue. While Natalie Cooper’s screenplay does have some overt declarations of love, as well as some pointed homophobic language, the script mostly provides scaffolding for the production design and the nuanced performances. The film’s director of photography, Robert Elswit, (who would go on to win an Oscar for shooting the similarly arid terrain of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2008 film There Will Be Blood) lends the film a dusty romanticism. Though the film is a period piece, the sets never feel overly manicured or yoked to a specific time. From the kitschy Ranch House to the dingy hotel rooms, all the locations are imbued with a well-worn familiarity and comfort.

The photography also highlights the small gestures of Shaver and Charbonneau’s central performances. Shaver’s role in shaping Vivian’s character arc deserves special attention, as she serves a dual function as both the object of, and the primary obstacle to, the love story. When Vivian first appears onscreen her posture and costuming recall the icy remove of a Hitchcock heroine--specifically Kim Novak in Vertigo--with her fastidiously fashioned spiraled hair and grey pencil skirt. Shaver’s performance is a masterclass in subtlety. Throughout the course of the film she slowly unmasks the reserves of anxiety that lie underneath Vivian’s chilly demeanor.

Watch for a scene in the first act when Cay takes Helen shopping for some more Nevada-appropriate attire. Shaver’s comportment slowly alters as Vivian becomes more comfortable in Cay’s presence. Her arched shoulders start to relax and the stoicism that marked her character at the beginning gives way to an endearing tenderness. 

Despite all of its formal and narrative triumphs, Desert Hearts was initially met with indifference by mainstream viewers. The reviews of the film were often dismissive, particularly Vincent Canby’s sneering take-down of the film’s earnestness and representation of female sexuality. However, the film found a small but vocal group of advocates. Deitch herself was among the most ardent champions of her film and helped cultivate and sustain the fan base. Eventually interest in the film became so strong that in 2017 Criterion saw fit to put out a beautifully restored 4K digital transfer on Blu-Ray. How fitting that a film that is in part about second chances and forging a circuitous path toward happiness should find itself the subject of renewed interest from critics and audiences. It is heartening to find that a film as good as this one can flourish even in the most unlikely of environments. It goes to show that although the landscape of quality lesbian filmmaking can often feel like a dustbowl, it can also be warm and full of life, especially when sharing it with fellow desert-dwelling film fans.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE: The Beautiful Mess of Intelligent People

Friday, March 2nd, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932) were written by Matt Connolly, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Trouble in Paradise will screen in our UCLA Film & Television Archive Festival of Preservation on Saturday, March 3 at 7 p.m. in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Print courtesy UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation and The Film Foundation.

By Matthew Connolly

“It could have been marvelous,” sighs the man. “Divine,” laments the woman. “Wonderful,” responds the gentleman. The scene finds two lovers potentially parting forever, the air thick with regret over what could have been, were it not for the circumstances driving them asunder. Mind you, said circumstances are that the man has been conning the woman throughout their brief affair, masquerading as her loyal secretary in a plot to abscond several hundred thousand francs from her personal safe. (Did I mention that he’s doing so while involved with another woman, also a seasoned thief?) And yet, despite the knowledge of the con by both parties, their affection for one another is not a joke. A genuine affinity has formed between them—a shared sexual desire, yes, but also a sensibility that sees crime, passion, and longing as all mixed together in the same bracing cocktail of human experience.

By the time you get to this scene in Trouble in Paradise, such pirouettes between urbane wit and knowing pathos have become almost commonplace. Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 masterpiece exemplifies its director’s remarkable plays with mood, innuendo, humor, and emotion as succinctly as any film in his oeuvre and does so with an ease that belies its meticulous construction and pitch-perfect tonal control. Like its protagonist, it conceals its ever-whirring mind behind a veneer of effortless charm and sophistication.

That would be Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), an infamous thief whom we first meet after a successful robbery in Venice. He is greeted at his hotel room by Lily (Miriam Hopkins), a wily pickpocket masquerading as a wealthy socialite, for a dinner engagement. As the evening progresses, it becomes clear that both have figured out the other’s criminal identities, having successfully lifted multiple items off the other (money, jewelry, a garter belt) throughout the meal. The scene embodies the essence of the film’s approach to romance—an endless game between people whose affections are filtered through a private language of insinuation and playful one-upmanship.

Together, Gaston and Lily plot their next job: robbing Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), the wealthy heiress to a perfume empire. Gaston steals and then returns Mariette’s handbag at the opera, ingratiating himself to the point that she hires him as her personal secretary. How personal Mariette intends the position to be soon becomes clear. Gaston finds himself not only torn between his plan to rob Mariette and his increasingly mutual feelings toward her, but also between Mariette and Lily, who grows increasingly suspicious of Gaston’s true feelings toward their mutual target.

Lubitsch is known as a master of the double entendre in classical Hollywood cinema, though it’s worth noting the immense contributions of writer Samson Raphaelson, a frequent Lubitsch collaborator who wrote the script based on a play by Aladar Laszlo. (The credits somewhat confusingly name Raphaelson as the film’s screenwriter while crediting Grover Jones as the “adapter” of Laszlo’s stage work.) The film contains an endless string of deliciously crafted bon mots. “She’s says he’s her secretary, and he says he’s her secretary” a party guest observes as she eyes Mariette and Gaston looking cozy together at a midday soiree. She pauses and shrugs: “Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he is her secretary.” Such winking suggestion is delightful enough, but it’s Lubitsch’s handling of visual humor that marks Trouble in Paradise as a film whose winking eye is matched by a wise, beating heart. Lubitsch constructs a series of running gags around the adjacent locations of Mariette’s bedroom door and Gaston’s office door—who goes in, who comes out, who answers when butler Jacques (Robert Greig) knocks. It would be the stuff of slamming-door farce, except that doors are rarely slammed in Trouble in Paradise. They’re gingerly opened, or softly closed, or hovered near as someone tries (futilely) to untangle logical planning from erotic impulse.

The remarkable cast of Trouble in Paradise maneuver through these comic and romantic complications with otherworldly grace. Marshall, Francis, and Hopkins form an impeccable love triangle, with each performer giving off an expertly-calibrated mixture of urbane wit and poignant emotional confusion. You genuinely understand the connection between each one of them, making the final pairings at once inevitable and wistful. The film also showcases two of the great dolts of classical Hollywood comedy in Mariette’s two ineffectual suitors, played to boobish perfection by Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles.

So often when discussing Trouble in Paradise’s creator, we return to a valuable if shopworn phrase: “the Lubitsch touch.” Broadly, it connotes an affinity for double entendre, a relaxed attitude toward sexual mores, a general sophistication surrounding matters of the heart. No arguments here. And still, I feel that Trouble in Paradise reveals how Lubitsch’s cinema transcends the clever handling of a naughty joke or the shimmering elegance of an adroitly-filmed cocktail party. To borrow a title of another Lubitsch classic, his films provide a design for living—one that cherishes complexity, understands human foibles, and delights in the beautiful mess that the most intelligent people make when they fall in love. His cinema is one of arched eyebrows and forgiving hearts, and you can hardly separate the two at any given moment.

So many scenes in Trouble in Paradise embody this spirit of tender wordliness, but one always sticks with me. In a moment of regret, Gaston rings up a florist. He orders five-dozen roses to be delivered to Mariette, deep red like the lipstick color he insisted made her look her most beautiful. It’s a genuine token of remembrance for a romance he never expected. Gaston is about to hang up the phone when there’s one more question asked from the florist. We don’t hear what it is, and we don’t need to. “Oh,” Gaston responds. “Charge it to Madame Colet.”

THE GUILT OF JANET AMES: A Quintessential & Self-Reflexive "Psychological Picture"

Thursday, February 22nd, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on The Guilt of Janet Ames (1947) were written by Erica Moulton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Janet Ames will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series inspired by David Bordwell's new book, Reinventing Hollywood on February 25 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art.

By Erica Moulton

The Guilt of Janet Ames (1947) is a film of its time, in every possible sense. It fits neatly into the tradition of the "psychological picture" that became so prevalent in late 1940s Hollywood. The psychological film could be considered an offshoot of the detective genre, with films like The Dark Mirror (1946), The Snake Pit (1948), and Whirlpool (1949) taking up the fractured psyches of women and enlisting male psychiatrists as brain sleuths, rummaging around in their heads for the origins of their neuroses. Perhaps the greatest stylistic and narrative influence on the film is Hitchcock's ode to Freud, Spellbound, released two years before The Guilt of Janet Ames, which inverts the male/female roles, but like Janet Ames, also espouses the power of psychoanalysis (or Hollywood's bastardized version of it) to rid people of their psychological woes. Spellbound featured Ingrid Bergman trying to cure Gregory Peck of his trauma-induced amnesia by analyzing his dreams (in a sequence designed in collaboration with Salvador Dali). In The Guilt of Janet Ames, we get Melvyn Douglas trying to cure Rosalind Russell of a guilt complex brought on by her husband's death in WWII.

While Ames faithfully adheres in many ways to schemas set up by previous psychological pictures, it is most notable for its unusual narrational strategies, which are enumerated in David Bordwell's new book Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling. The film begins with something of a jolt, as Russell's titular character is introduced looking at a bar from across a busy city street, only to be struck by a car moments later. Douglas' character, Smitty, an alcoholic journalist, discovers that his name is on a list that Janet was carrying with her when she had her accident. He pieces together that she is the widow of a man in his unit during the war, who sacrificed himself on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers. Both Janet and Smitty are reeling from their guilt surrounding this past event, but rather than using flashbacks, a common device in the psycho-drama, the filmmakers hit upon a new device that even gets a name in the film: the word picture.

Smitty proffers this psychoanalytic technique to Janet, inspired by the eponymous character from George du Maurier’s novel Peter Ibbetson, who Smitty explains "refused to let a prison cell make him stay put." Bordwell observes that "this literary parallel motivates the premise that Janet in her wheelchair can mentally visit David's far-flung comrades. But the film also draws on a second aspect of du Maurier's tale: that a man and a woman could sustain their love by entering one another's dreams... it posits a shared fantasy [between Smitty and Janet]" (336). This shared fantasy is expressed in a series of mental projections, which Smitty calls "word pictures," that follow Janet as she confronts each of the five men on her list. This atypical narrational device is buoyed by distinctive stylistic choices: each "word picture" is expressed with a unique visual look designed to elicit a response from Janet as she begins to confront her marital problems.

Art director Stephen Goosón (who designed the infamous hall of mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai in the same year as Ames) clearly drew inspiration from Spellbound for the first fantasy sequence that takes place in a cocktail lounge, with its shadowy corners and warped silhouetted patrons. The distinctive style of each "word picture" sequence peels the corners of Janet's psyche back a little farther until she has nothing left to hide. Unsurprisingly, in her vulnerable state, she begins to fall in love with Smitty, and at the film's end, she paints a "word picture" of their shared future together.

A final note about the film—in addition to its novel narrative techniques, the film is also striking for the last "word picture" sequence that features a young Sid Caesar as a comedian who mocks the "psychological picture." Performing with a thick Austrian accent, Caesar presents himself as a famous Viennese psychoanalyst who consults with Hollywood producers on how best to depict mental ailments onscreen. This scene of jarring reflexivity doesn't seem to be reflected in the rest of the film proper, but it is telling that the filmmakers were sure that audiences in 1947 would be familiar enough with the sub-genre that they would get the joke. And even more remarkable still that despite including an extended scene mocking the psycho-drama, they would make a film that hit every predictable beat of the psycho -drama, including the rather improbable romantic finale.

Damien Chazelle Events: Reminders

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

Since we anticipate over-capacity attendance for our Damien Chazelle In Person events this Friday and Saturday, February 23 and 24, we have set up the following procedures:

  • Queues will begin forming 90 minutes before the 7 p.m. Friday screening of La La Land and the 12 noon Saturday screening of Chronicle of a Summer. Queues will start forming outside the 4th level northwest entrace of 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue.
  • Doors to 4070 Vilas Hall will open at 6:30 p.m. on Friday and 11:30 a.m. on Saturday.
  • Seating is first-come, first-served. Place holding in line and seat saving inside the cinema will not be permitted.

Stretching Out the Suspense: SORRY, WRONG NUMBER

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Anatole Litvak's Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) were written by Lillian Holman, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Sorry, Wrong Number, courtesy of the Library of Congress, will screen on Sunday, February 18 at 2 p.m. in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series inspired by David Bordwell's new book, Reinventing Hollywood.

Many unanswered questions remain when you finish listening to “Sorry, Wrong Number,” an episode of the CBS radio show Suspense written by Louise Fletcher in 1943. Who is this woman confined to her bed? Who is her husband and why is he not there? Who are the people on the other end of the wrong number? Why is she so rude so quickly to the poor telephone operators? I’m being suitably vague for the uninitiated among us. That being said, the modern concept of spoilers was a significant consideration for the writers of the film version of Sorry, Wrong Number released in 1948. At that point, the episode of Suspense was so popular that general audiences would know the storyline. Therefore the filmmakers had a question that was far more important than the ones listed above: How do you entertain an audience with a story centered around suspense when they already know the end?

David Bordwell answers this question in his book Reinventing Hollywood, explaining how you “stretch out the suspense and multiply mysteries without seeming to pad”. The key to this is what Bordwell refers to as “1940s character shading”. The film takes it upon itself to answer all of the unanswered questions from the radio broadcast, exposing the limits of that particular medium while on the other hand highlighting the radio format’s strengths. Limits do not necessarily mean weaknesses, and in many ways the two media have different goals. We have a significant list of unanswered questions at the end of the radio broadcast, but what is most important is the fact that we don’t care. The title of the show was called Suspense and “Sorry, Wrong Number” delivers. All we need to know is that a woman is confined to her bed, a murder is about to happen, and no one is going to help her. That is enough to fill a half hour of escalating frustration and fear, as Mrs. Stevenson encounters increasing levels of incompetence that render the phone, as a method of protection, mute.

With the extra hour to contend with, the filmmakers cannot follow through on the same strategy. Mrs. Stevenson has to be someone beyond a terrified invalid. Her situation has to have a reason for being so dire. What results is a sort of prequel, made up of the flashbacks Bordwell highlights in his book. Not only do these flashbacks create a drama that will make the whole situation almost plausible, it also creates characters out of placeholders. It speaks to the strengths of Agnes Moorehead as an actress that she takes the radio version of Mrs. Stevenson and elevates her beyond just a distressed voice on the phone, but once again, that characterization is not sustainable for a ninety-minute film. By recasting her with Barbara Stanwyck, the film adds a level of mystery that wasn’t there in the radio show. Stanwyck’s previous roles as a femme fatale in Double Indemnity (1944) and a hardened comedienne in Ball of Fire (1941) and The Lady Eve (1941) established her persona as woman who is not quite so innocent. Stanwyck’s casting allows the audience to doubt her as a narrator, which comes into play after her conversation with Dr. Alexander.

As Bordwell elaborates, the casting of Burt Lancaster as a partner for Stanwyck is the key element that makes this a feature-length narrative, rather than a setup that merely serves to give everyone a good jump. The two stars transform the story into a complex marriage plot beyond the drama with the phone. To elaborate further would give too much away, but in the end the casting and the flashbacks expand a rather excellent radio play, that expertly manipulates your emotions and gives you a memorable scare, into a complicated and entertaining mystery film centered not just on the phone, but the people on the end of the line.

Wilder in Wartime: FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO

Thursday, February 8th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Billy Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo (1943) were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Five Graves will screen in our "Reinventing Hollywood" series on Sunday, February 11 at the Chazen Museum of Art.

By Tim Brayton

In his new book, Reinventing Hollywood, Madison's own David Bordwell singles out Five Graves to Cairo as an example of the kind of crisp, clear, straightforward narrative strategies that Hollywood screenwriters had become great at by the dawn of World War II. The film neatly introduces new conflicts and goals for the beleaguered British Cpl. John J. Bramble (Franchot Tone) reliably at breaks between each of its four acts, while pairing his plot with a well-developed B-plot for French expatriate Mouche (Anne Baxter), that both complements and contrasts with his own. Complements, because both characters after all want the same thing: to beat the Germans in the form of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (Erich von Stroheim), who has at this point in the summer of 1942 enjoyed great success in his conquest of North Africa. Contrasts, because Bramble's strategic, patriotically-minded goal is incompatible with Mouche's more direct quest for personal vengeance.

There's certainly no denying the efficiency and clarity of the script by writing partners Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder (the latter also directed, for just the second time in Hollywood). This should come as no surprise at all. By 1943, the duo had honed their skills on a full ten films, including comedy masterpieces like Ninotchka (dir. Ernst Lubitsch, 1939), Midnight, (dir. Mitchell Leisen, 1939), and Ball of Fire (dir. Howard Hawks, 1941). Five Graves to Cairo represents a major shift in tone, to be sure: prior to this, Brackett and Wilder had written only comedies or the occasional melodrama, never anything like the tense wartime thrills of this project. Still, the airtight plotting and timing demanded in comedy seems to have been an effective training ground for the very different generic requirements of this project.

Setting all that aside, as fine as the screenplay is for Five Graves to Cairo, we shouldn't allow our admiration for its narrative mechanics to get in the way of noticing that it's an equally strong representative of Hollywood filmmaking in other respects as well. The film received Oscar nominations for its cinematography, art direction, and editing, all of them well-deserved. John Seitz's black-and-white cinematography is a particular stand-out, effectively capturing the flat white expanse of the Mojave Desert (convincingly standing in for the Sahara) against the softer grey of the sky, an exaggerated contrast of shading and texture that suggests the isolating deadliness of the landscape to excellent effect.

The Oscars notwithstanding, the film's chief accomplishment, nearly 75 years after its premiere date, is probably its great strength as a thriller. Bordwell notes the skill with which Brackett and Wilder add complications and create ever-escalating trials for Bramble to overcome (first to survive the desert; next to outwit the Germans who think he's an undercover Nazi spy; then to solve the puzzle of the titular five graves, while the German Lt. Schwegler, played by Peter van Eyck, grows increasingly suspicious of his story). But it takes watching the film to appreciate how gracefully these complications are added, woven into the dialogue and character interactions so deftly that you only notice in retrospect that the film's conflict has completely shifted over the course of the last scene.

Above and beyond the film's narrative success as a thriller, we must also pay attention to the extraordinary skill with which Wilder the director executes the film's scenes of tension. We now know, with access to the subsequent 38 years of his career, what a remarkably uncharacteristic film this was for Wilder. It all but completely lacks the sardonic, satiric humor on full display in everything from unassailable classics like Sunset Blvd. (1950) to lesser known curiosities such as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). It also stands out as the only pure thriller he ever directed. Despite this, the film is a strong example of its genre, from the very first moments of a seemingly abandoned tank chugging through the desert underneath the opening credits. Note the steady progression of opening images: first a wide angle of the tank in the middle of nowhere, which dissolves to a shot of the tank mostly filling the screen, allowing us to notice the body slumped out of the hatch. A second dissolve brings us right next to the body, firmly and morbidly answering the mystery posed in the first shot: what has happened to this tank? A hard cut next brings us inside, to where the dead man's hanging legs sway gently with the movement of the tank, over a floor littered with spent ammunition, providing further clarification of the violence that has befallen these dead soldiers. This wordless introduction, which ends by revealing the still-alive but delirious Bramble, is a miniature version of the strategy of this film, but also of the whole Hollywood approach to filmmaking: raise a question, answer it, answer it again with a different question. What's wrong with the tank? – whose body is that? – where did those shells come from? – we are quickly ushered into the ugly violence of war in just a few precise visuals. It's visual exposition at its finest.

The filmmakers' use of imagery to build a sense of danger remains constant throughout the film. In one early scene, Bramble hides behind a box with a decorative screen: Wilder and Seitz cover Tone in a crosshatch pattern of shadows that mimics his subsequent point-of-view shot as he looks through the screen to see Schwegler harassing hapless hotelier Farid (Akim Tamiroff), visually stressing Bramble's feeling of being confined with no place to run. A few shots later, Wilder exploits an ambiguous eyeline to make it seem that Shwegler has spotted Bramble – but instead, he was looking just above the concealed British soldier. The compositions and editing align perfectly to give us a momentary kick of dread that relaxes into a wary watchfulness; but we're always prepared for another kick, and it animates the film's tension throughout.

None of this is particularly special or artful, one might say, and that is of course exactly the point. Five Graves to Cairo matters not because it is an unmatched original, but because it so wholly embodies the strengths of 1940s filmmaking and screen storytelling. It is, no doubt, an atypically good version of 1940s filmmaking, but in most respects, this is exactly what 1940s Hollywood was capable of as a matter of course, and it's as an exemplar rather than as a one-off that the film remains worthy of study and admiration – and, no less, pure enjoyment.

The Delirious Alternate Reality of the Cloververse

Thursday, February 8th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on the Damien Chazelle-co-scripted 10 Cloverfield Lane were written by Tom Welch, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. 10 Cloverfield will screen in our series tribute to Chazelle on Friday, February 9 at 8:45 p.m., the second half of a double-feature that begins with Grand Piano at 8:45 p.m. The double feature screens for free in our regular screening room, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Tom Welch

At first blush, 10 Cloverfield Lane appears to have very little to do with its predecessor, the 2008 found footage monster movie Cloverfield. The latter was known—aside from featuring Mean Girls’s Lizzy Caplan and The Emoji Movie’s TJ Miller in an early role—as a fast-paced scramble through the streets of Manhattan. Cloverfield was at the same time entirely innovative and entirely derivative, relying on the already-established conventions of found footage horror and the kaiju movie and mashing them up into something new. On the other hand, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a claustrophobic and tightly-plotted thriller. There is no excess of destruction and special effects to distract the viewer. Instead, the film relies heavily on the performances of John Goodman, Mary-Elizabeth Winstead, and John Gallagher Jr. to move the plot forward. How can these movies, which seemingly share nothing in common aside from a name, be related, spiritually or otherwise?

The answer, at least partly, lies not in the films themselves, but in the marketing, bonus texts, and fan activity surrounding them. They engage audiences not only through the story, but also in the mystery and interactivity leading up to their release. Both films engaged their fanbases in an Alternate Reality Game, or ARG. The premise of an ARG is simple; fans plumb the depths of the internet for clues that relate to the film, or which can be used to solve the next part of the puzzle. These games are framed as something real—stories and information from the world of the film that are treated like factual information. An ARG is like a virtual scavenger hunt where players find clues scattered around. Often, the clues are incredibly esoteric and difficult to find, whether they be hidden in the source code of a website (the Cloverfield ARG), in real-life payphones (a Halo 2 ARG), or a flash drive hidden in a real-life concert venue containing a sound clip that, when decoded, would reveal the longitude and latitude of where the next clue would be (a Nine Inch Nails ARG). Cloverfield producer JJ Abrams is no stranger to this kind of intense marketing experience; his television show Lost famously included one.

Lost paved the way for the Cloverfield experiment, but the new game took a flavor all its own. I know this because, as a 14-year-old movie fan with too much time on his hands in 2008, I fell down this strange and wondrous rabbit hole. The plots of the ARGs connect the stories of the two Cloverfield movies explicitly in a way that the plots of the films do not. The original game begins with the background of a fictional Japanese conglomerate called Tagruato that specializes in deep-sea oil drilling and advanced technology. According to some videos found after digging through the original Cloverfield website, it is possible that the original monster came from a volcanic rupture drilling for the deep-sea flora that flavored the company’s addictive Slurpee-esque subsidiary, Slusho (a product that has appeared in many Bad Robot projects like Alias and Heroes). Or perhaps it came from genetic experiments gone awry at a secret lab off of New York. Or both. 10 Cloverfield Lane fits perfectly into this world because we learn from a second ARG released before the film that John Goodman’s character Howard Stambler is a former employee of Bold Futura, the space subsidiary of Tagruato. Whether or not that makes his story any more credible is up for debate.

The beauty of an ARG is that the player is not alone in figuring out these mysteries. As ARGs grew in popularity so too did the forums and fan sites dedicated to solving their puzzles. Playing the games by watching the videos for clues and decoding ciphers became a collaborative experience where players would share their information for the common good of learning more about the universe created in the film. Moreover, the films themselves become part of the overall puzzle of the game. Rather than enjoying a passive viewing experience, fans are able to watch and re-watch the movies for clues about the origins of the threats and the overall universe that the films inhabit. The ARG adds to the viewing experience by providing context to otherwise opaque plot points and giving more nuance and information to the events onscreen, and the films themselves become interactive games and puzzles where viewers try to work out exactly how they fit together. What the Cloverfield movies have been successfully able to do through the ARGs is create an extended universe, not because their films share characters, settings, or even genre, but because they take place in the same lived-in world and are connected through the mysterious conglomerate at the heart of the ARG. In many ways, the games encapsulate the cinematic joy surrounding the franchise.

A new Cloverfield film was released on Netflix directly after the 2018 Super Bowl. Although it was a huge surprise for most viewers, hardcore fans of the “Cloververse” were already hard at work piecing together clues from as early as the 2017 San Diego Comic Con, where a Slusho truck was handing out both frozen treats and Snapchat codes that would open up new pieces of information once followed. This is great news, because the films just aren’t the same without the ARG component that ties them all together and contextualizes them. It’s a Cloverfield tradition.

Seriously Talented: GRAND PIANO

Wednesday, February 7th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Eugenio Mira's Grand Piano (2013) were written by WUD Film’s Vincent Mollica. Featuring a screenplay by Damien Chazelle, Grand Piano will screen in our series tribute to Chazelle on Friday, February 9 at 7 p.m., the first half of a double-feature that concludes with 10 Cloverfield Lane at 8:45 p.m. The double feature screens for free in our regular screening room, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Vincent Mollica

Before his ascent to Oscardom, Grand Piano was part of a slew of films that Damien Chazelle had written but not directed. These include the infamously titled The Last Exorcism Part II and the more fondly regarded 10 Cloverfield Lane. In Grand Piano, directed by Eugenio Mira, Elijah Wood plays Tom Selznik, a piano prodigy who returns to the stage years after screwing up an “impossible” piece written by his now dead mentor. All goes well until a man talking to him via a small ear piece (John Cusack) threatens to shoot his wife if he gets one note of the concert wrong. It’s an undeniably silly premise that, through the efforts of the film’s writer, director and stars, reaches its full cartoonish potential.

Chazelle told Vulture that his strategy in screenwriting was “Get them to turn the page, get them to turn the page, get them to turn the page,” and that comes through in the very propulsive plotting of both Grand Piano and 10 Cloverfield Lane. However, unlike Cloverfield’s constantly shifting form, Grand Piano sticks to a single, clear premise. It is an unabashedly high concept plot that critics would refer to, warmly and less-warmly, as “preposterous” and “ludicrous,” and a big part of what keeps Grand Piano exciting, on the page at least, is the outlandishness of its story.

As critics were quick to point out, a sustained, florid sense of style also distinguishes the film. Careful editing and tricky cinematography (most notably a surprise split screen at one point) give even the straightest scenes of exposition a highly dynamic quality. Important to note, though, is the actual skill necessary to pull this off. Rather than shooting for coverage, Mira shot the film by picking up specific moments, which he edited over the course of filming and placed on an animatic. “He prevized that entire movie,” Chazelle told Indiewire, “I literally saw the entire movie on a computer.”

Indeed, both Chazelle and Mira speak very highly of one another’s efforts. In a Cineuropa interview, Mira claims that “the screenplay works without us thinking about its absurdity and lack of logic.” Chazelle applauds the incredible detail of the production in his Indiewire interview, saying, “I like movies where you feel like it was actually thought through.” This mutual respect speaks to the way in which the writer and director’s sensibilities work together in the film. Chazelle and Mira craft something that sharply engages the viewer; Mira’s very visible craft, as pointed out by Chazelle, means that those hooks for the viewer have weight to them. There’s a serious sensibility underpinning unserious subject matter.

Although not as immediately noticeable, the same is true of the film’s performances. In an Indiewire interview, Elijah Wood describes his ability to find an intriguing character in the film’s plot-driven script and to merge it interestingly with the film’s story. Truly, Elijah Wood is the film’s MVP. He describes working on the film as akin to being in a marathon; he had to play along to music, as well as listen to John Cusack and act himself.  Speaking with Den of Geek, Alex Winter (Bill and Ted’s Bill), who plays Cusack’s lackie, discusses the process of developing his character, notably saying, “Eugenio didn’t want us playing this movie with a nod and a wink, that would have been disastrous.” Like the film’s plot, the characters, or at least their situations, border on cartoonish, but the talent behind them lets the viewer engage with the film on a serious level.

Perhaps Grand Piano does carry the same weight as the similarly over-the-top 10 Cloverfield Lane, as they both contain a dramatic pull that feels genuine. That obviously works on a larger scale in Grand Piano, as the viewer is pulled through bizarre twists and turns, but also in small, sillier bits of business throughout. A pivotal moment in which Wood crumples up and throws down a piece of sheet music is underscored with a janitor in the background. Mira takes considerable time to observe the janitor shaking his head in disappointment and walking away. It’s a funny moment, but the film’s tone, established by its direction and performances, suggests a world that is so heightened that even the silliest of gestures can reasonably take place.

Following Grand Piano, Chazelle and Mira went different ways. Obviously, Chazelle would continue to explore an interest in music in his work as a Hollywood director with Whiplash and La La Land. The sense of ever snowballing catastrophe found in Grand Piano, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and even The Last Exorcist II (which climaxes in the apocalypse) is carried over into Whiplash. Mira has not made a film in the intervening 5 years. Talking to Indiewire, he clarifies that although he’d like to make Hollywood films, he thinks a time in which he’d get the creative freedom to make something interesting has passed (he and Wood discuss the halcyon days of the 1990s in which The Frighteners could be made). Grand Piano is unmistakably a distinct creative effort––a remarkable collaboration between writer, director, and performers working in unison.

Classical Hollywood: UNFAITHFULLY YOURS

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours (1948) were written by John Bennett, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Unfaithfully Yours will screen as part of our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series highlighting films discussed in David Bordwell's new book, Reinventing Hollywood. The February 4 screening begins at 2 p.m. in the auditorium of the Chazen Museum of Art.

By John Bennett

By 1948, the year Preston Sturges’ delightfully mean-spirited comedy Unfaithfully Yours was released, the glory days for the writer/director had ended. A playwright-turned-screenwriter, Sturges wrote finely crafted screenplays for snappy comedies like Easy Living (Leisen, 1937). In 1940, he began directing his own screenplays for Paramount, starting with the successful The Great McGinty. For the first half of the 40s, Sturges continued to direct his own screenplays, churning out successful, cynical slapstick satires at an astonishing rate, all of which are worth watching and the best of which include The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1942), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). By 1945, however, Paramount and Sturges parted ways, leaving the orphaned director searching for a studio where he could continue working. After making The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), a disappointing Harold Lloyd comeback made for the mercurial Howard Hughes, Sturges teamed up with 20th Century Fox to make Unfaithfully Yours, a wildly original comedy that, though not successful during its original release, has not lost its power to shock, confound, and delight.

“By all means, be vulgar!” exclaims Sir Alfred De Carter (brilliantly played by Rex Harrison), a renowned orchestra conductor, to a timid cymbalist during a rehearsal. Indeed, brassy vulgarity abounds in the narrative of this unusual comedy. Unfaithfully Yours opens with Sir Alfred returning to America from England. Waiting for him on the tarmac is his devoted wife, Daphne (played by the underrated Linda Darnell). Their reunion is tender, even passionate. But then Sir Alfred learns that his milquetoast brother-in-law (Rudy Vallee) had a detective follow Daphne during Sir Alfred’s absence. The detective’s report claims that Daphne spent a mysterious 38 minutes in the hotel room of Tony (Kurt Kreuger), Sir Alfred’s trusty young secretary. This news whips Sir Alfred into a rage on the day of a big concert he will be conducting. In the film’s wildly inventive coup de théâtre (to which David Bordwell draws much attention in his new book, Reinventing Hollywood), Sir Alfred has three devilish revenge fantasies while conducting three overtures. The concert is a huge success, but Sir Albert does not stay long enough to bask in the glory; he rushes back to his apartment to try to realize his dastardly fantasies…

Unfaithfully Yours is undoubtedly one of the great films about classical music. Like Sir Alfred, Sturges masterfully conducts excerpts of three pieces during the fantasy sequences—Rossini’s overture to Semiramide, Wagner’s overture to Tannhäuser, and Tchaikovsky’s overture to Francesca di Rimini—revealing surprising qualities in the music through his inventive storytelling. In the first murderous fantasy sequence, Sir Alfred erupts into maniacal laughter at the overture’s most giddy passage, proving how well Sturges understood Rossini’s joyous bounce and thrilling crescendos. In the fantasy sequence in which Sir Alfred releases Daphne with ostentatious magnanimity, Sturges teases out something showy and pretentious in Wagner. When the fantasy ends, and we see the real, devoted Daphne tearing up at the beautiful music her husband is able to conduct, Sturges restores the overture’s grand majesty once more, making us feel moved by the same music we found so pompous and empty just moments before. Of course, much credit must go to musical director Alfred Newman. When Sir Alfred tries to realize his murderous plan and fails miserably at every stage, Newman arranges Rossini’s overture in such a way that is filled with amusing cartoon trumpet blares and timpani hits.

Sturges was one of American film’s most democratic directors; every fop and every floozy, every baroness and every bum gets to speak his or her snarky peace—and boy do they do it in style. Few writer/directors gave so many plum lines to their supporting players. Only in a Sturges film would a character named Detective Sweeney (Edgar Kennedy) turn out to be such an effusive classical music fan (“Nobody handles Handel like you handle Handel!” he gushes to Sir Alfred). Many members of Sturges’ dependable troop of character actors turn up in Unfaithfully Yours as well. Robert Grieg, as Sir Alfred’s cockney dressing room attendant, appeared in six Sturges films; Al Bridge, as the hotel detective, appeared in an astonishing ten films by the writer/director, a record surpassed only by Torben Meyer (Dr. Schultz), who appeared in eleven. The popular 30s crooner Rudy Vallee, who appeared in four Sturges films, takes on the thankless role of playing Sir Alfred’s stuffed-shirt brother-in-law who, humorously enough, professes his dislike of music. Barbara Lawrence, as Daphne’s sister, gets some great cynical throwaway lines as well. In the world of Unfaithfully Yours, nearly everyone is just a little rotten and just a little loveable, a quality that gives the film great comedic texture.

Ultimately, the plot structure of Unfaithfully Yours isn’t the film’s only unusual characteristic. Sturges’ comedy is one of the few Classical Hollywood films to take on the pettiness of the male ego and demolish the mythos surrounding the concept of “artistic genius” with such savagery. After the Semiramide overture has ended, Sir Albert’s associate, Hugo Standoff (played by the inimitable Lionel Stander affecting a convincing Russian accent) rushes to Sir Albert’s dressing room. He asks, in awe, “What did you have in your head? What visions of eternity?” Though he has masterfully conducted the piece, Sir Albert’s visions are petty and cruel. By the time the concert ends, Sir Alfred is a musical genius, adored by thousands of audience members; that same night, as he tries to realize his murderous fantasy, he’s simply “some jerk on the line” according to a phone operator who is perplexed after Sir Alfred accidentally kicks his phone off the receiver for the umpteenth time. Sturges isn’t interested in the agony and the ecstasy of a great artist. Instead, he quite brilliantly shows how a great artist can also be a grade-A jerk, a perspective that continues to feels as fresh and funny as the film’s surprising narrative structure.

THE CHASE - An Essential Noir Doubles Down on the Unsavory

Thursday, January 25th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Arthur Ripley's The Chase (1946) were written by Zachary Zahos, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of The Chase will screen on Sunday, January 28 as the first in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series inspired by Professor David Bordwell's new book, Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling. The free screening will be preceded by a one-hour lecture from Professor Bordwell at 2 p.m. in the auditorium at the Chazen Museum of Art.  The print of The Chase comes courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Restoration funding provided by The Film Foundation and the Franco-American Cultural Fund.'

By Zachary Zahos

No less strange eight decades removed, The Chase (1946) confounds from all angles. Unlike other famously confusing noirs like The Big Sleep, The Chase keeps the gears of its plot spinning front and center, hinging on a spectacular twist. The set-up is simple enough: WWII veteran Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings, also the wrong man in Hitchcock’s Saboteur) chauffeurs for Miami criminal Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran), only to fall for his wife, Lorna (Michèle Morgan, from Port of Shadows) and flee with her to Havana. Toward the film’s end, however, Chuck seemingly gains the ability of second sight, and the story’s conflicts resolve through coincidences and ironic twists of fate. Throughout The Chase, an aura of unrest and impossibility permeates the surprising turns, sinister performances, baroque sets, uneasy pauses—the very fabric of the film.
UW-Madison’s Professor David Bordwell, who introduces Sunday’s Chazen screening, has demystified The Chase’s unusual narrative structure in recent years. In two 2016 blog posts and his new book, Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling, Bordwell situates The Chase within the dramatic trends of its time. But if earlier, successful films like Spellbound and The Woman in the Window indulged respectively in amnesia and it-was-all-a-dream tropes, then The Chase distinguished itself as one of the few to join the two devices at the hip. Furthermore, Bordwell cites studio correspondence, novelizations, and an early script tucked away in the Munich Film Museum to illuminate how, in the process of trying to meet producer Seymour Nebenzal’s request to slap a happy ending onto Cornell Woolrich’s source material, The Black Path of Fear, screenwriter Philip Yordan first devised an even more disorienting plot structure. The rushed final product beguiles in part because Nebenzal, Yordan, and director Arthur Ripley apparently worked toward a compromise that was somehow both neater and still rife with loose ends.

As fascinating as its plot is, The Chase also compels on stylistic grounds alone. With roughly half the action in Miami and the rest in Havana, Ripley, art director Robert Usher, and set decorator Victor Gangelin (who also worked on The Searchers) collaborated on a dreamy, suggestive mise-en-scène. Compare Eddie Roman’s absurd Miami mansion, with its classical sculptures and cherubs guarding its front door peepholes, to the oriental statues filling the Cuban curio store owned by Madame Chin, played by Russian opera singer and Rachmaninoff muse Nina Koshetz. While critics this century have drawn connections between The Chase’s plot and David Lynch projects like Lost Highway, the attention paid to enigmatic, artisan props—like the jade-handled knives sold by Chin—surpasses conventional use of the MacGuffin and approaches totemic, Lynchian abstraction.

Even light itself regularly assumes an intimidating sense of agency. Surely cinematographer Franz Planer labored to get the timing of the falling and cresting of light over Chuck and Lorna’s porthole, during their boat ride to Cuba, just right. Not long after, in a Havana nightclub, a photographer’s flash syncs with a moment of fatal stabbing—predating the flash-bulb-as-weapon climax of Rear Window (another Woolrich adaptation) by eight years. Earlier in the film, the gorgeous rear projection of waves crashing against a pier appears twice, and the contrast in lighting between them subverts expectations: nighttime for Lorna and Chuck’s stolen moment, and bright daylight when Eddie, backed by henchman Gino (Peter Lorre), needles Chuck about his feelings for his wife.

Steve Cochran, as Eddie, and Lorre as Gino deliver the most nuanced performances in the film, and together establish much of The Chase’s unsettling atmosphere. Introduced as a disembodied eye and voice through one of the cherub peepholes, Lorre soon proves his abilities as a master of on-screen business: In one gap between lines, Lorre wields a nail file, bites his nail, spits, and pulls back to take a drag from a cigarette. In contrast, Cochran at times lowers his voice to a whisper and restricts all movement to a panther-like stillness—during these moments he shoots an unblinking glare that is terrifying. Cochran projects an aggressive virility that, underneath the attractive surface, is the source of Eddie’s power, and the audience’s fear of that power. He is the kind of proto-Bond (and post-Freud) villain who installs a set of back-seat pedals to override his own driver, simply to assert his dominance. That Eddie spends a key scene of crisis lazing on a couch, only offering Gino cryptic orders (“Play the other side.”), adds a banal and unpredictable layer to his evil.

With Eddie so cruel a character, The Chase ranks among the more sadistic of film noirs. After all, the film introduces Eddie with him assaulting a woman and leaving blood. Later, too, he locks a rival (Lloyd Corrigan) in his wine cellar and feeds him to his dog, whereupon the shattering of a bottle of vintage Napoleon brandy vividly stands for the off-screen ravaging. For these reasons and more (including the uninflected central relationship between Chuck and Lorna), The Chase remains a troubling, flawed work—though it is telling how many of the “neo-noirs” from the late 20th century to the present have since doubled down on these unsavory elements. In the dual contexts of its time and ours today, The Chase sells a bold narrative gamble with brio, downplaying sense—and with it meaning—in favor of pure evocation.