HEIRONYMOUS MERKIN: A Musical Cinematic Phantasmagoria

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Anthony Newley's Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? was written by Cinematheque staff member Amanda McQueen. Part of our Musicals of 1969 series, a 35mm print of Can Heironymous Merkin...will screen on Friday, February 5, at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's main venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Never before released on home video, this screening is an ultra-rare opportunity to see one of the era's wildest and most personal movies.

By Amanda McQueen

“You must read this review carefully. Every word of it. Yes, if you decide to run off and see Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? you are going to have to know what you are letting yourself in for.” So wrote the Chicago Tribune about Anthony Newley’s self-proclaimed “sexplicit” musical. Combining traditional show tunes with a Fellini-esque reflexivity and a surplus of nudity and bawdy humor, Merkin is indeed a very strange film. Merkin is also—as the Los Angeles Times noted—“a genuine document of its time,” tapping into nearly every contemporary cinematic and cultural fad. When else but in 1969 would a major studio produce an X-rated musical art film?

Newley came up with the idea for Merkin during down-time on the production of Doctor Dolittle (1967). “I would write down all I could remember about my life,” the English actor-singer-composer explained. “The ladies, the selfishness, the death of my first child. I decided this was going to be my movie. I would direct it and for once I’m the painter instead of one of the daubs of paint.” Newley also produced the film and starred as the titular Heironymus Merkin—an aging performer and womanizer reflecting on his life and legacy by making and watching a film about his life and legacy. He cast his own wife, Joan Collins, as Merkin’s wife, and his own children as Merkin’s children. He co-wrote the screenplay with Herman Raucher, and he composed the songs with lyricist Herbert Kretzmer (Les Miserables [1985]). In short, Merkin became Newley’s pseudo-autobiographical one-man show.

After some difficulty getting anyone interested in the project, Universal’s British arm agreed to co-produce and to distribute the film under its subsidiary, Regional Film, which, according to Variety, “handles product Universal doesn’t care to go out under its own banner.” The studio’s uncertainty was understandable. In Newley’s words, Merkin was a “modern musical with no plot, but very sexy, very funny and very serious.” Though not quite plot-less, it is an episodic, surreal, and telescoping film-within-a-film-within-a-film. Its characters are called Polyester Poontang (Collins), Good Time Eddie Filth (Milton Berle), and The Presence (George Jessel). It references everything from Ingmar Bergman to Rodgers and Hammerstein. It details Merkin’s obsession with the nymphette Mercy Humppe (Playboy Playmate Connie Kreski). It contains a suggestive song about a princess and a donkey. In short, Merkin was sexually explicit and arty—both factors that could limit its success with a general audience. Reportedly, though, Universal was more concerned about the musical’s “abstract and symbolic” elements than its “epidermis and erotica.” Hollywood's self-regulation of adult content had been relaxing for some time, and the MPAA would replace the Production Code with a rating system in November 1968. Sexy movies were in vogue; art cinema remained a niche market.

Budgeted at just over $1.25 million, Merkin went into production in March 1968 in Malta, where filming was inexpensive and scenic, but not without difficulties. The country was predominately Catholic, and a campaign was waged against Newley’s nudity-filled movie. Local authorities ultimately had to intervene to disperse protesters and allow shooting to continue. Upon its completion, Merkin was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and given an X rating by the MPAA—the sixth film to be so designated. (It was reclassified as R in 1972.)

In March 1969, Merkin had a profoundly disappointing premiere in New York City. Forty people walked out of the press preview, and the film was panned by many influential critics. The New York Times called it an “act of professional suicide.” Its box office performance was correspondingly “dismal.” But as Merkin made its way across the country that summer, it started to become a hit. Unlike many other X-rated films, Merkin encountered no grassroots censorship problems, and it played in many rural and suburban communities where X-rated films and hardcore pornography rarely screened. Variety hypothesized that the cast—Berle, Jessel, and particularly Newley, who was associated with family entertainment due to his musical theater work—had perhaps “softened” the film’s potentially offensive material, removing any “’dirty movie’ taint” for those “hinterland” audiences.

But industry insiders surmised that the true key to the musical’s success was its extensive advertising in Playboy Magazine, which had a strong influence on those under thirty and especially on those living outside major cities as “a source of mild titillation and tastemaker.” In March 1969, Playboy ran a ten-page spread on Merkin, emphasizing Connie Kreski's involvement. This was followed by a full-page advertisement in April, and another nude spread of Kreski in June, which further referenced her acting debut. For middle America, Playboy was the “acceptable view of erotica,” and Merkin was Playboy-approved. In cities like Detroit, Minneapolis, and Louisville, this X-rated musical was a smash.

Moreover, Merkin was not universally derided by critics. Though reviewers generally agreed that the film had flaws, many still admitted that its “moments of eccentric charm and bizarre interest” (Los Angeles Times) made it “somehow . . . a rather enjoyable little something” (Chicago Tribune). And in the end, as both Roger Ebert and Judith Crist acknowledged, Merkin was sort of “critic-proof.” The reflexive premise allows for characters who are screenwriters, producers, and critics—all of whom accuse Merkin’s cinematic project of being self-indulgent, meandering, and tasteless. Those same complaints were lobbed by real-life critics at Newley’s musical, but Merkin itself had already beaten them to the punch.

To my mind, Ebert gets the film just right: even if it’s “not quite successful” in its endeavor to be the nudie musical version of Fellini’s (1963), it is nevertheless “strange, wonderful, original.” It is, as Variety called it, a “cinematic phantasmagoria.” And it is, as the Los Angeles Times and many others noted, a filmic artifact that defines a generation—the “ultimate statement of the decade of the pink Cadillac, the mink-trimmed john, [and] the topless saloon.” Love it or hate it, Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? is a musical oddity not to be missed.

SWEET CHARITY: The Musical Pulse of 1969

Thursday, January 28th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Bob Fosse's film of the Broadway musical Sweet Charity was written by Cinematheque staff member Amanda McQueen. A screening of a 35mm print of Sweet Charity will kick off three weeks of unusual musicals from 1969 on Friday, January 29 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Amanda McQueen

Upon its release in April 1969, Universal declared Sweet Charity "The musical with the pulse of today." In many ways it was. It was part of the cycle of roadshow musicals that escalated following the unprecedented success of The Sound of Music (1965). Its plot, as Variety explained, "cater[ed] nicely" to the "nihilistic and cynical" attitude of the late-1960s. And its visual style, inspired by youth-oriented movies like The Graduate (1967), was decidedly contemporary. Memorable and unusual, Sweet Charity is indeed a hallmark of its generation.

The musical takes its story from Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (1957), which stars Fellini's wife, Giulietta Masina, as a prostitute vainly searching for true love. Conceived by director-choreographer Bob Fosse as a vehicle for his own wife, Gwen Verdon, and adapted for the stage by Neil Simon, with songs by Cy Coleman and Tin Pan Alley legend Dorothy Fields, Sweet Charity retained the basic plot of Fellini's film, including its bittersweet ending. But the protagonist, now called Charity Hope Valentine, did have her occupation changed to the less sordid dance hall hostess. Charity debuted on Broadway in January 1966. In October, Universal purchased the film rights for $500,000, and hired Fosse—who’d never directed a film before, but who did have Hollywood musical experience—to transfer his show to the big screen.

Conflicts soon arose over what approach to take to Charity’s somewhat risqué and cynical subject matter. I.A.L. Diamond (Billy Wilder’s regular collaborator) drafted the initial screenplay, which moved closer to Fellini's original. Producer Ross Hunter objected, believing that Charity should be glossy and cheerful—something akin to his previous musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). So Diamond was replaced by Peter Stone (Charade [1963]). Then, in November 1967, during the early stages of pre-production, Hunter and Fosse had a similar clash of artistic vision. Citing "serious and irreconcilable differences . . . between the director and me," Hunter bowed out, and veteran Univeresal producer Robert Arthur took over.

Principle photography began in January 1968. In May, the crew traveled to New York City for twelve weeks of tricky location shooting; in the canyons of Wall Street, for example, Fosse and Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Surtees (Ben-Hur [1959], The Graduate [1967]) had only twenty minutes of useable daylight. Fearing further studio objections to his musical's lack of pure optimism, Fosse also shot an alternate ending, in which Charity finds her happily-ever-after, but Arthur, claiming total faith in the first-time director, approved the original ending. At a final negative cost of $10 million—$3 million over budget—Sweet Charity was Universal's most expensive film since Spartacus (1960).

Charity needed to be a hit; Universal was struggling financially and Hollywood was on the brink of recession. But many critics found the musical over-long, over-produced, and miscast—the same complaints lobbed at most big-budget adaptations of the 1960s. After a few strong opening weeks, Charity's box office returns dropped. Maybe audiences agreed with the critics. Or maybe the marketplace was just overly-saturated; over the course of its run, Charity had to compete with seven other roadshow musicals, all vying for the same, increasingly limited audience. To try and revitalize the film's performance, Universal re-vamped its ad campaign. To capitalize on the vogue for films with more explicit sexual content—and ignoring the G rating from the MPAA—Universal emphasized Charity's prostitution angle with taglines like "Meet the pros" and "Men were their business." The new approach made little difference.

In spite of its poor box office performance, however, Sweet Charity has a great deal about it to recommend. There are Coleman and Fields' classic songs, including three new ones—"Sweet Charity," "My Personal Property," and "It's a Nice Face"—written specifically for the film. There’s Fosse’s Tony-winning choreography, best showcased during “The Rich Man’s Frug.” And there are stellar performances: the film debut of the incomparable Chita Rivera; cameos by Ricardo Montalban and Sammy Davis Jr.; and a Golden Globe-nominated turn by Shirley MacLaine as Charity Hope Valentine. MacLaine had been attached to the project from the very beginning and seemed an ideal choice: she was a popular young star with a musical theater background and a penchant for playing sympathetic, lovelorn women. Gwen Verdon, who served as an uncredited assistant choreographer, rehearsed the role extensively with her, and Fosse insisted that although MacLaine lacked some of Verdon's natural dance ability, "she makes up for [it] in her enthusiasm and drive." Variety thought Charity was MacLaine's "finest and most versatile performance to date."

Finally, Charity boasts a bold and expressive visual style. Employing a wide range of in-vogue techniques—zooms, freeze frames, rhythmic editing, tinting—Charity looks like no other Broadway adaptation of the time. Variety gushed that "In one giant step, Fosse has become a major film director . . . Atop his remembered [choreographic] style is a brilliant, film-oriented appreciation of the emphasis possible only with camera and movieola." Cue Magazine similarly proclaimed that Charity was "exactly the kind of shot in the arm so desperately needed for the world of movie musicals." Admittedly, it can sometimes feel like Fosse is an unsupervised kid playing with a camera, and the director did later concede that perhaps Charity had "too many cinematic tricks in it. I was trying to be kind of flashy. That's a pitfall on your first film." But Charity’s flashy tricks are a lot of fun, and there are undoubtedly moments when they demonstrate, as The New York Times put it, that "by golly, Fosse had got it . . . he was making a real movie musical."

In October 1968, Variety wrote, "It's an accepted fact of film history that the most innovative and influential directors of musicals came from choreographic origins." Fosse proved this with Sweet Charity, joining the ranks of Busby Berkeley, Stanley Donen, and Gene Kelly.  His follow-up film, the Oscar-sweeping Cabaret (1972), permanently enshrined him in the halls of film musical history. As a directorial debut, Sweet Charity is not as polished as Cabaret, but it is more surprising and more exuberant. And it absolutely captures the pulse of 1969.

Favorites of 2015: J.J. Murphy

Friday, January 8th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

By J.J. Murphy, Professor of Film, Department of Communication Arts, UW Madison & Director, UW Cinematheque

1. Tangerine (Sean Baker)

2. Heaven Knows What (Josh and Benny Safdie)

3. Uncle Kent 2 (Todd Rohal)

4. Stinking Heaven (Nathan Silver)

5. Carol (Todd Haynes)

6. Bloomin’ Mud Shuffle (Frank V. Ross)

7. The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt)

8. Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)

9. Tired Moonlight (Britni West)

10. Ned Rifle (Hal Hartley)

Favorites of 2015: Amanda McQueen

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

By Amanda McQueen, UW Cinematheque & Wisconsin Film Festival Programmer

Once again, I didn’t get to see as many new films over the course of the year as I would have liked, but I did see some good ones. Here’s a list of my 20 favorite new-to-me films of 2015, in alphabetical order:

Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (Yes, I’m cheating and counting this as one film): PATHER PANCHALI (1955), APARAJITO (1956), APUR SANSAR (1959)

THE BABADOOK (2014, Jennifer Kent)

BRIGHTON ROCK (1947, John Boulting)

DEAD OF NIGHT (1945, Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, and Robert Hamer)

GREMLINS (1984, Joe Dante)

INSIDE OUT (2015, Pete Docter)


KRAMPUS (2015, Michael Dogherty)

LOVE STREAMS (1984, John Cassavetes)

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015, George Miller)

MAGIC MIKE XXL (2015, Gregory Jacobs)

PAPER MOON (1973, Peter Bogdanovich)

PITCH PERFECT 2 (2015, Elizabeth Banks)

PRIDE (2014, Matthew Warchus)

PRINT GENERATION (1974, J.J. Murphy)

SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE (2015, Mark Burton and Richard Starzak)

SONG OF THE SEA (2014, Tomm Moore)


TRAINWRECK (2015, Judd Apatow)


Favorites of 2015: Ben Reiser

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

By Ben Reiser, Wisconsin Film Festival Coordinator and UW Cinematheque Programmer


Movies I saw in a theater more than once and what I learned the second time:

Mad Max: Fury Road - The second time through I adjusted my expectations and knew to follow Furiosa’s journey as the primary protagonist, and also knew not to expect Tom Hardy’s performance to be verbal as well as physical. I loved it the first time through, but appreciated it even more the second time due to those two factors.

Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens - I focused on and prepared myself for the act III change in tone and was able to greater appreciate the things that happen after one character’s shocking death. I also learned that seeing a rectangular film in an IMAX dome is not a good idea, at all.

Jurassic World - Sitting in the front row at an ultrascreen theater, even with the motorized recliner in full recline, is not a good idea, at all.

Movies I found interesting enough to watch a second time, but this time at home:

Kingsman: The Secret Service
It Follows
The D Train
Heaven Knows What

Movies I missed in a theater but am glad I caught up with at home:

The Visit
Steve Jobs
Manson Family Vacation
Project Almanac

Movies I really wish I’d skipped:

Ex Machina
Terminator: Genisys

Older movies I saw for the first time this year that blew my mind:

Brighton Rock
The Saragossa Manuscript
About Elly
The Underworld Story
Sea Fury
The Apu Trilogy

Favorites of 2015: Mike King

Monday, January 4th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

By Mike King, Senior Programmer, Wisconsin Film Festival & UW Cinematheque Programmer

Top ten new films to play Madison in 2015:

Carol (2015, Todd Haynes)

Girlhood (2014, Céline Sciamma)

Heaven Knows What (2014, Josh and Benny Safdie)

Inherent Vice (2014, Paul Thomas Anderson)

Inside Out (2015, Pete Docter)

The Look of Silence (2014, Joshua Oppenheimer)

Mistress America (2015, Noah Baumbach)

Tangerine (2015, Sean Baker)

Western (2015, Bill and Turner Ross)

The Wonders (2014, Alice Rohrwacher)

Runners up:

The Forbidden Room (2015, Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson)
The Hateful Eight (2015, Quentin Tarantino)
Stinking Heaven (2015, Nathan Silver)
Wild Tales (2014, Damián Szifron)
Young Bodies Heal Quickly (2014, Andrew Betzer)

Favorites of 2015: Jim Healy

Sunday, January 3rd, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

By Jim Healy, Director of Programming, UW Cinematheque & Wisconsin Film Festival

Of the many movies I saw for the first time in 2015, I've selected 20 that were my favorites. In alphabetical order they are:

ABOUT ELLY (2009, Asghar Farhadi)
BEYOND THE FOREST (1949, King Vidor)
BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015, Steven Spielberg)
CREED (2015, Ryan Coogler)
DAÏNAH LA MÉTISSE (1932, Jean Grémillon)
THE EMIGRANTS (1971, Jan Troell)
GREEN ROOM (2015, Jeremy Saulnier)
THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015, Quentin Tarantino)
INTRUDER IN THE DUST (1949, Clarence Brown)
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015, George Miller)
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION (2015, Christopher McQuarrie)
PRIVATE PROPERTY (1960, Leslie Stevens)
RICKI AND THE FLASH (2015, Jonathan Demme)
SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE (2015, Richard Starzak & Mark Burton)
SON OF SAUL (2015, László Nemes)
SPOTLIGHT (2015, Tom McCarthy)
SUNSET SONG (2015, Terence Davies)
TANGERINE (2015, Sean Baker)

Here are another 100 titles that I really enjoyed:

ALL FALL DOWN (1962, John Frankenheimer)
ANGST (1983, Gerald Kargl)
ANT-MAN (2015, Peyton Reed)
THE ASPHYX (1973, Peter Newbrook)
AVENGING FORCE (1986, Sam Firstenberg)
THE BABY MAKER (1970, James Bridges)
BACHELOR MOTHER (1939, Garson Kanin)
BEWARE OF MR. BAKER (2012, Jay Bulger)
BEYOND THE LIGHTS (2014, Gina Prince-Blythewood)
BLUES IN THE NIGHT (1941, Anatole Litvak)
BORN FREE (1966, James Hill)
THE BRIDGE (1960, Bernhard Wicki)
BROOKLYN (2015, John Crowley)
THE BUBBLE (1966, Arch Oboler)
CARAVAN (1934, Erik Charrel)
CHUCK NORRIS VS. COMMUNISM (2014, Ilina Calugareanu)
COP CAR (2015, Jon Watts)
THE D TRAIN (2015, Jarrad Paul, Andrew Mogel)
DANGEROUS TO KNOW (1938, Robert Florey)
DANGEROUS WHEN WET (1953, Charles Walters)
DAUGHTERS COURAGEOUS (1939, Michael Curtiz)
DAY OF ANGER (1967, Tonino Valerii)
DEAD OF NIGHT (1945, Basil Dearden, Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer, Cavalcanti)
EATING RAOUL (1982, Paul Bartel)
EVEREST (2015, Baltasar Kormakur)
THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG (1982, Lawrence Schiller)
FAMILY FILM (2015, Olmo Omerzu)
FEBRUARY (2015, Osgood Perkins)
FIVE FINGERS (1952, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
THE FORBIDDEN ROOM (2015, Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson)
FOXCATCHER (2014, Bennett Miller)
THE GOOD DINOSAUR (2015, Peter Sohn)
THE GREAT RUPERT (1950, Irving Pichel)
HERO’S ISLAND (1962, Leslie Stevens)
HESTER STREET (1975, Joan Micklin Silver)
HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN (1944, Delmer Daves)
HOME (2015, Tim Johnson)
IN NAME ONLY (1939, John Cromwell)
IRRATIONAL MAN (2015, Woody Allen)
JAUJA (2014, Lisandro Alonso)
JET STORM (1959, Cy Endfield)
JURASSIC WORLD (2015, Colin Trevorrow)
KEEPER (2015, Guillaume Senez)
A KID FOR TWO FARTHINGS (1955, Carol Reed)
KIDNAP SYNDICATE (1975, Fernando Di Leo)
KING OF THE WILD STALLIONS (1959, R.G. Springsteen)
LA PETITE LISE (1930, Jean Grémillon)
THE LADY IN THE VAN (2015, Nicholas Hytner)
THE LAST MOVIE (1971, Dennis Hopper)
LAZYBONES (1925, Frank Borzage)
LONDON ROAD (2015, Rufus Norris)
THE LONG, HOT SUMMER (1958, Martin Ritt)
LOVE AND PEACE (2015, Sion Sono)
LUMIÈRE D’ÉTÉ (1943, Jean Grémillon)
MADAME BOVARY (1949, Vincente Minnelli)
MARIE’S STORY (2014, Jean-Pierre Ameris)
MISTRESS AMERICA (2015, Noah Baumbach)
MY SISTER EILEEN (1955, Richard Quine)
THE NIGHTMARE (2015, Rodney Ascher)
NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (1984, Sam Firstenberg)
OKAY, AMERICA! (1932, Tay Garnett)
ONE CROWDED NIGHT (1940, Irving Reis)
PADDINGTON (2014, Paul King)
PETE KELLY’S BLUES (1955, Jack Webb)
PICKUP (1951, Hugo Haas)
POLLYANNA (1960, David Swift)
PRINT GENERATION (1974, J.J. Murphy)
THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE (1958, Vincente Minnelli)
RESULTS (2015, Andrew Bujalski)
ROOM (2015, Lenny Abrahamson)
SAPS AT SEA (1940, Gordon Douglas)
THE SEVENTH CROSS (1944, Fred Zinnemann)
SHOW PEOPLE (1928, King Vidor)
THE SINS OF RACHEL CADE (1961, Gordon Douglas)
SPARTANS (2014, Nicolas Wadimoff)
SPY (2015, Paul Feig)
THE STEEL TRAP (1952, Andrew L. Stone)
STINKING HEAVEN (2015, Nathan Silver)
THE SYSTEM (1953, Lewis Seiler)
TENDER COMRADE (1943, Edward Dmytryk)
THE TREASURE (2015, Corneliu Porumboiu)
TURKEY SHOOT (1982, Brian Trenchard-Smith)
UNCLE KENT 2 (2015, Todd Rohal)
VARIETY (1983, Bette Gordon)
THE WALK (2015, Robert Zemeckis)
WHILE WE’RE YOUNG (2014, Noah Baumbach)
WHITE GOD (2014, Kornél Mundruczó)
WILD TALES (2014, Damian Szifron)
THE WISE KIDS (2011, Stephen Cone)
WOMAN ON THE RUN (1950, Norman Foster)
YOU AND ME (1938, Fritz Lang)

"The Apu Trilogy" 3: THE WORLD OF APU

Thursday, December 17th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Satyajit Ray's The World of Apu was written by Tim Brayton, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A newly restored 4K DCP of The World of Apu, the final film in Ray's Apu trilogy, will screen at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, December 18, at 7 p.m.

By Tim Brayton

The English-language title of Apur Sansar, the 1959 finale of Satyajit Ray's monumental trilogy about the youth and young adulthood of one Apu Roy, translates as The World of Apu. It's a fitting label for a film that moves away from the domestic intimacy of Pather Panchali and Aparajito to depict, if not the world of Apu, then certainly the world and Apu; it is a story of the discovery that one is not, after all, the main character in the grand narrative of the universe, that there's a whole teeming mass of humans with their own needs and dreams. This is clear even from the opening scene, which ends with the main character (played this time by radio announcer Soumitra Chatterjee, making his film debut) overhearing the sounds of political radicals agitating on the street. It's the first time in the trilogy that the outside world muscles its way into Apu's awareness through his comfortable self-regard; it will not be the last.

The World of Apu is a story in two parts, each of them describing the process by which a pleasant and selfish young man grows up. In the beginning, Apu is doggedly trying to write an autobiographical novel and receiving no positive feedback for it. To get him out of his head, his friend drags him to a wedding, where events transpire that would fit right into the fabric of a particularly absurd romantic comedy. It seems that the groom has lost his mind, and the mother of the bride won't let the marriage go on. According to local custom, however, if the bride Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) doesn't marry on this date, she will be forever after branded as unmarriageable. With some goading, Apu agrees to save the day by getting married.

This is nothing if not contrived, but Ray and his two extraordinary lead actors (who would both return to collaborate with the director several times) invest their scenario with great depth of feeling. There are few filmed depictions of the giddy rush of young marriage that have anything like the sweetness of Apu and Aparna's shy, clumsy happiness around each other. Their nervous glances during her first night in his cramped bachelor pad give way to charmingly low-key bliss as the couple settles into their domestic roles. Robin Wood described this as "one of the cinema's classic affirmative depictions of married life," and there are few movies indeed that derive so much of their power and pleasure from presenting a wholly functional romantic relationship. Nor does the film focus solely on the lovers in their intimate moments: it contrasts the central relationship with the full, noisy life of the city – the sound of crying babies is used as an important repeating motif – and plays Apu's goofy, swooning romanticism against the workaday reality of the city around him to touching, and at times comic effect.

Following his two debut films, Pather Panchali and Aparajito, Ray shifted away from their steady realist aesthetic: The Philosopher's Stone (1958) is a magical realist comedy, while The Music Room (also 1958) is a mood piece set inside a costume drama. With The World of Apu, he turned back in the direction of realism, although it would be impossible to pretend that the director's excursions into new styles and storytelling forms didn't inform the feel of his fifth feature. Compared to the rawness of the other Apu films, The World of Apu is more polished and confident in its artistic gestures. A cinema screen dissolving into the rear window of a cab (with its attendant implication that the world outside the cab is just as rife with entertainment as the movies), for example, is the kind of flourish that would never have fit into the sparer aesthetic modes of the earlier films.

Where Ray's new artistic control is shown off to best affect is in the film's second and shorter part, in which Apu deals with tragedy by dropping out of life to become a wanderer, abandoning his family, his artistic ambitions, and the world itself. The tone of the film is much closer to the intellectual moodiness and abstraction of The Music Room than anything in the concrete realism of the previous films in the trilogy, with Subrata Mitra's cinematography striving for a more self-consciously epic scope in its accumulation of wide exteriors and intense close-ups, and Ravi Shankar's score frequently eschewing the comforting tunefulness he'd brought to the earlier films. It is filmmaking that privileges open, raw emotion above all things, using the landscape itself as an extension of personality – especially in the powerful final image, a variation on the closing shots of Pather Panchali and Aparajito, that soundlessly communicates the growth as a responsible human that Apu has experienced.

The World of Apu is typically regarded as the least of the three films, a judgment made by critics from Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader to the AV Club, in its review of the recent 4K restorations under the auspices of the Criterion Collection, which the Cinematheque has been showing throughout December. Perhaps this criticism is fair; certainly, the screentime devoted to a strong female foil for Apu – arguably the greatest strength of both of the previous films – is notably lacking compared to the prominence given to his sister in Pather Panchali and his mother in Aparajito (Tagore is wonderful, but it takes the film quite some time to arrive at her). The film is a remarkable piece of humanist art on its own terms, however, telling a story of fatherly responsibility that's thoughtful and profound in ways that well-worn theme often isn't; and Chatterjee is a revelation as Apu, by turns arrogant and soft, tender and wrathful. It is a film to be cherished no less than its predecessors, and it marks the conclusion of one of cinema's most brilliantly sustained series, a portrait of childish self-interest blossoming into adulthood that soars like no other coming-of-age story in all of film.


Friday, December 11th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Cornere was written by Matt Connolly, Ph.D. candidate in UW Madison Dept. of Communication Arts. Shop will screen as the final Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen, in the Chazen Museum of Art, on Sunday, December 13 at 2 p.m. Due to circumstances beyond our control, we are not able to screen the film on 35mm as originally announced. A DVD will be shown in its place.

By Matt Connolly

Writing in Film Comment on the striking paucity of films dealing with the workplace as a concrete reality of everyday life, Kent Jones notes at least one movie that honors the daily grind with neither an overreliance on cynicism nor an overdose of sentimentality. “What separates The Shop Around the Corner from almost every other work-centered movie is its honesty,” says Jones of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 romantic comedy, adding that it’s “known for its ingenious and delicate romantic entanglements, but it would be nothing without this frank acknowledgment of human fallibility in the workplace, unencumbered by moral hierarchies.”

Jones is one of our very finest critics, and there’s little I can say in response to his broader analysis of The Shop Around the Corner’s nuanced portrait of retail labor besides an enthusiastic nod of the head. I can only add that the film’s great strength and singularity lies in how effortlessly it links the aforementioned “ingenious and delicate romantic entanglements” of its protagonists with the workplace in which they squabble, negotiate, and finally connect with one another. Few films so strikingly underscore the barriers we attempt to place between our work and our private lives, only to reveal (with great wit and insight) how inevitably fuzzy that line really is.

In true romantic comedy fashion, the eventual couple at the center of The Shop Around the Corner meet cute. Unbeknownst to them for much of the movie, they actually do it twice. Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), the top salesman at leather goods shop Matuschek and Company, has answered a newspaper personals ad placed by a fellow Budapest resident. He delights in their written exchanges on literature, culture, and ideas, and hopes that it will develop into a real-life romance. Around the same time, he meets Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan), who comes to Matuschek and Company seeking a job and who is soon hired after selling a particularly undesirable cigarette box to a fellow customer. (The cigarette box plays a grating rendition of “Ochi Chërnye” whenever it’s opened, but Klara reframes the item as a candy box whose tune reminds one to watch their consumption of sweets.) Alfred and Klara quickly grate on one another at work, while both privately continue a rewarding written back-and-forth with their respective pen pals. (Klara has also found a smart and charming companion via the newspaper.)

Needless to say, Alfred and Klara are one another’s mystery correspondents—a charming contrivance in and of itself, but one that takes on evermore humorous and poignant dimensions as the film progresses. Alfred eventually discovers that Klara is the woman on the other end of the letters, keeping the revelation under wraps as he attempts to pursue her in person. Klara rebuffs these tentative advances by drawing withering contrasts between Alfred and the man with whom she’s been writing to. In a stinging rebuke, she dismisses Alfred as “a little insignificant clerk.” The moment lands with particular impact as it succinctly underscores how inconceivable it is to Klara that the poetic, intellectually engaged man with whom she’s been falling for might also occupy the same quotidian workplace as herself. (In fairness, Alfred feels much the same way about Klara before discovering her true identity.) Both Klara and Alfred so strive to distance themselves from the commonplace nature of their job that they’re largely blind to the fellow dreamer right beside them.

So much of The Shop Around the Corner rests upon a knowing—and knowingly empathetic—conception of how work fosters relationships at once tender and uneasy. It’s one of the film’s great unspoken jokes that, though we hear snippets of their poetry-laden letters to one another, it is Alfred and Klara’s snappish workplace repartee that let us know how truly aligned they are in intellect and emotional temperament. Their relationship exists within a wider network of friendships, alliances, and affinities throughout the staff of Matuschek and Company. And while at least one of these is revealed to be built on deception, most exude a kind of ambivalent warmth, illuminating the singular blend of affection and proximity that defines so many workplace bonds. The complex rapport between Alfred and shop owner Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) particularly exemplifies this, with Hugo looking upon Alfred as variously a mentee, subordinate, romantic rival, and surrogate son.

The Shop Around the Corner fittingly concludes on Christmas Eve, a traditional time to gather with loved ones that’s also a typical financial windfall for retail stores. The delicate imbrication of professional and personal intimacies that the film charts so well find their logical conclusion in these last moments: the triumph of teamwork; the bonds of time and labor; the gradual dissipation of the group as each one says their goodnights and heads home to spouses and children, or parents, or friends, or an empty house or apartment. We are finally left with our two would-be lovers, chatting as they close up shop for the hundredth (or thousandth) time. It’s just another day of work—a prospect within which The Shop Around the Corner finds both the most prosaic of pleasures and the most precious of possibilities.

"The Apu Trilogy" 2: APARAJITO

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Satyajit Ray's Aparajito was written by Tim Brayton, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A newly restored 4K DCP of Aparajito, the second film in Ray's Apu trilogy, will screen at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, December 11, at 7 p.m.

By Tim Brayton

Satyajit Ray had no plans to make a sequel to his directorial debut, Pather Panchali, but that film's enormous success both in India and internationally caused him to relent. Thus his second effort was a sequel, Aparajito [aka The Unvanquished], which bridges novelist Bibhutibhushan Bannerjee's two novels about young Apu Roy, depicting his growth from childhood to college. It begins shortly after Pather Panchali ended: Apu (Pinaki Sengupta) and his parents, mother Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) and father Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) have recently moved from their rural home to the great city of Benares, one of the most spiritual places in India, so that Harihar may ply his trade as a priest.

Although Pather Panchali and its tragedies rest in the background, Aparajito does not require familiarity with the earlier work to appreciate its profound richness as a great humanist document complete unto itself. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, one of the few prominent Western critics who had little enthusiasm for Pather Panchali, referred to Aparajito in haunted, glowing terms: "done with such rare feeling and skill at pictorial imagery… develops a sort of hypnotism for the serene and tolerant viewer." The famed cultural critic Sigfried Kracauer ended his 1960 Theory of Film with an encomium to the film's spiritually and morally resonant universality. In more recent years, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has declared Aparajito to be the greatest leg of Ray's Apu trilogy.

The film's unique identity comes in part from its subtle but decisive aesthetic shift from its predecessor. The visual language Ray and cinematographer Subrata Mitra use in this film ignores the impressionistic qualities of Pather Panchali for something more directly realist. It's a keen decision, mirroring Apu's increasingly unromantic awareness of the world around him as he grows into young adulthood (at which point the role is taken over by Smaran Ghosal), while also capturing something of 1920s Benares and Calcutta—major urban centers in a moment when Indian culture was borrowing parts of its identity from Europe. It's surely no accident that Aparajito's style eschews lyricism for flat realism in tandem with Apu's decision to reject the family business of the priesthood to study English at a Western-style university.

Casting the film in such bluntly symbolic terms, however, robs it of the most important source of its greatness: the relationship between Apu and Sarbajaya, one of the great mother-son stories in all of cinema. Karuna Banerjee, already so great in Pather Panchali, returned to the role with all of the weariness and ragged resolve in place and amplified: even more than before, she's an equal protagonist in this story, which explores in painstaking, painful detail how a loving, widowed mother finds herself inexorably abandoned by the child whose bright future she eagerly supports, even while she understands that his success can only mean an ever-greater distance between them. Her performance of this tension is one of the great triumphs of Aparajito: she describes a remarkable transition from beginning to end, starting with an encouraging but openly baffled expression at Apu's energetic chatter about science, ending with an empty gaze from sullen eyes as her arm hangs lifelessly beside her body as she realizes that her son will not be returning to be with her in her final illness (it was this scene, in particular, that so moved Kracauer). Aparajito is never more moving than when it focuses with sorrow and understanding on Sarbajaya's loneliness; she is cinema's great exemplar of parental sacrifice, a figure who'll leave you anxious to call up your mother the moment the film stops to apologize for every terrible thing you've ever done to her, if only you can stop weeping for long enough to pick up the phone.

The film was a great success in America and Europe, becoming the only sequel ever to win the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. It also continued the dubious trend begun with Pather Panchali of leaving Ray and his austere Bengali art films as the sole Indian exports that international film audiences had much interest in watching. This success wasn't matched at home; Indian audiences that had flocked to Pather Panchali resisted and disliked Aparajito. In his 1958 essay "Problems of a Bengali Filmmaker," Ray surmised that the problem was his boldness in darkening the source material, with a confidence birthed by the first film's unexpected success. "The urban audience which was largely familiar with the plot of Aparajito was irritated by the deviations. As for the suburban audience, it was shocked by the portrayal of the mother and son relationship, so sharply at variance with the conventional notion of mutual sweetness and devotion."

There's no doubt that the family relationship driving Aparajito is stripped of both sweetness and devotion; but the rueful director (who always considered commercial appeal to be as important as artistic rigor) certainly had no need to second-guess or apologize. If Aparajito is unsentimental, it is nonetheless enormously kind, offering a great deal of tearful sympathy to Sarbajaya while also understanding Apu's desire to continue growing as an independent adult, even if it means curtly rejecting his past life and home. That there can be no happy middle ground between these two reasonable people and their emotional needs is a bitter truth, one ripped out of Apu's sobbing form in a powerful climax, as the camera pulls back respectfully to leave the young man standing under a dead tree in an empty space to fully understand what he has given up in order to pursue his future. This is not the tragedy of melodramatic suffering as seen in Pather Panchali; it is the everyday tragedy of children becoming adults and realizing what that costs them, of parents finding that they are no longer needed and thus no longer wanted. In this simple, casual tragedy, Aparajito finds incredible power, and becomes one of cinema's greatest stories of human behavior.