Outside the Law: Joseph Losey's THE PROWLER

Friday, December 4th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Joseph Losey’s The Prowler (1951) was written by Harry Gilbert, a graduate of Williams College (B.A., History). A 35mm print of The Prowler, will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen "35mm Forever" series on Sunday, December 6 at 2 p.m. The 35mm restored print screens courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Restoration funding provided by the Film Noir Foundation.

By Harry Gilbert

In a New York Times interview conducted a year before his death in 1984, Joseph Losey reflected on the ambivalent effects of the Hollywood blacklist. “Without it,” Losey mused, “I would have three Cadillacs, two swimming pools and millions of dollars, and I'd be dead. It was terrifying, it was disgusting, but you can get trapped by money and complacency. A good shaking up never did anyone any harm.” If Losey’s comments can be taken as indicators of his interests in social issues and investments in film as a mode of social critique, one could chart a trajectory that extends through the director’s oeuvre. In this respect, The Prowler (1951) is Losey par excellence.

The Prowler was produced at an historical moment in which the crime film was undergoing transformation. In the early 1940s, the plurality of crime films featured a “fugitive outsider” as the protagonist towards whom the camera structured the sympathies of the viewer. In this narrative, a working or middle class citizen, rather than the gangster or organized crime network of earlier crime films, comes into conflict with the law through false accusations or crimes of poverty, and subsequently resists social, political, and economic authority in an attempt to ascertain the true origins of the crime. Put differently, these films offered a critique of contemporary conditions that located guilt with hegemonic systems of power—the state and capitalism foremost among them—and situated the “fugitive outsider” as an ordinary person struggling to get by. This, when placed within the chiaroscuro sets of the urban environment, was film noir.

These films emerged during a period of violent and prolonged class conflict in Hollywood and the United States more broadly. Repression followed. Among other national and international factors, the House Un-American Activites Committee (HUAC) pressured unions to purify themselves of their more radical members and Hollywood studios to police—or blacklist—their more radical artists. This moment marked a shift in the dominant narratives of the crime film. By the 1950s, the police officer or detective became the protagonist, and the once sympathetic “fugitive outsider” became the criminal whose apprehension would show audiences the mechanisms of the criminal justice system and demonstrate the need to preserve order in the shadow of the Red Scare.

The Prowler, then, finds itself among a small group of films that persisted as once-effective avenues for social critique became increasingly foreclosed. Indeed, Losey goes so far as to provide a critique of the narrative shift itself. The story follows patrolman Webb Harwood (Van Heflin) to the suburban Los Angeles home of Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes), who had earlier reported a late-night prowler outside of her window. Both Webb and Susan aspire to attain the American Dream. Webb is just an “ordinary guy” from a working class background who “hates being a cop” and desires to one day own a motel so that he may “make money while he sleeps.”  Webb hopes to forge a path for himself that his father was too complacent to take. For Webb, the acquisition of a wife is a part of this process, and he will do whatever it takes to secure that asset.  Serendipitously, Susan grew up in the same town as Webb, but lived in the other, richer community. After a few years “knocking around” Hollywood, Susan marries disc jockey John Gilvray in a “happy,” “unexciting,” and, much to Susan’s dismay, childless marriage. 

The development of a physically, emotionally, and psychologically abusive relationship between Webb and Susan—despite what critics might say, the film has not persuaded me to believe that any of the interactions between the two are consensual—drives a narrative that theorizes and indicts how systems of power create the contexts in which individual decisions are made and poses questions about who is most effected and why, often with uneasy or absent answers. In a contemporary moment where the issue of race, gender, sexuality, and police oppression has re-entered mainstream (i.e., white) discourse due to the political work of people of color, these questions remain just as pressing today as they did when the film was first released.

The Prowler positions the figure of the cop outside of the law and thereby questions the role of the police, the decidedly illegal yet state-sanctioned means by which the law is enforced or skirted, and the privileges and pressures the role ordains upon a person—in this case, a man. The film thinks through the distinct ways the police as an institution exerts violence, in particular the patriarchal violence against women, and generates sympathy for itself. This critique, however, is tempered in ways that (I think) are important to consider as a viewer of the film. How does the characterization of Charles “Bud” Crocker (John Maxwell) suggest an exceptionalism to Webb that exculpates the police more generally? And how might the conclusion suggest that the police force is capable of regulating itself and thereby reinvest in the organization’s inviolability?

Susan registers the configurations of patriarchal forces in the 1950s, and her decisions enable her to survive. How might the camera-as-prowler implicate the viewer in the male gaze, one which Susan attempts to control through an internalized belief in the justice of the police and a recourse to carceral feminism? What does it mean for Susan to seek the security of marriage because of the precarity of Hollywood and capitalist labor markets for women? And how does the body of Susan become a site for masculine impotency, and how does she negotiate the repressive and creative potentials of this (im)position?

This prowler only exists outside of the frame, yet this role names the film, establishes the film, and makes possible the relationship between Webb and Susan. How do we think about the always-already racialized figure of the prowler and their visual absence from the film? Who is the “stranger” in the context of 1950s Los Angeles, with a particular history of white supremacist violence, redlining and policing neighborhoods, xenophobia, and colonialism? Bud asks us to think about how “There’s history slathered over every square foot of this country of ours.” In a film that commences with the racialized figure of the prowler, and stages the extrajudicial practices of the police and the endorsement of these measures by the state, the specter of lynching and white supremacist violence is not far. In a genre that that takes the white working class man as its subject and capitalist systems as the antagonistic object of inquiry, does The Prowler move beyond and critique this racist logic, or does it rely on them?

To pose, answer, and complicate these questions, The Prowler assembled a team of politically aligned artists who were masters of film noir. Losey himself had already directed two film noirs released in 1951 alone: a remake of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and The Big Night. Dalton Trumbo, blacklisted in 1947 for Soviet sympathies and connections to the Communist Party, composed a screenplay credited to close friend Hugo Butler, whose name would also soon be found on the blacklist. Boris Leven, whose recent filmography included noir classics Criss Cross (1949) from Robert Siodmak and House by the River (1950) from Lang, served as art director and hired uncredited—read: blacklisted—designer John Hubley, famous for his experiments in animation, to craft the film’s sets.

"The Apu Trilogy" 1: PATHER PANCHALI

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Tim Brayton

Following its triumph at the 1956 Cannes International Film Festival, Satyajit Ray's debut as writer and director, Pather Panchali [aka Song of the Little Road], was immediately put under the unfair burden of being the cinematic ambassador of Indian filmmaking in Europe and America. For it was the first film made on the subcontinent to enjoy any kind of meaningful international release, and the critics of the world were quick to identify it as a masterpiece. Which it is; but it's still the worst kind of cultural pandering. Of course, there isn't such a thing as "Indian filmmaking", only a collection of regional and linguistic filmmaking traditions. Even if that weren't the case, Pather Panchali wouldn't be the film to exemplify anything other than the latent talent of its creator: a graphic designer working in advertising, with the beating heart of a great cinephile.

In 1947, Ray co-founded the Calcutta Film Society, which would soon become one of the primary conduits by which that city's audiences could have any access to foreign films. It was around that year that he first hit upon the idea to adapt Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay's 1928 novel Pather Panchali into a movie, though the mechanism for doing so wouldn't become clear to him for a few years. His resolve to become a filmmaker seems to have firmly solidified thanks to two events that occurred in 1950: first, he worked as location scout for Jean Renoir's The River; that autumn, in England, he first saw Bicycle Thieves, which became a primary influence and motivating force on his desire to go out and make a film on his own.

When Pather Panchali emerged—after years of no-budget production racing against the aging process of his juvenile leads—it was far more than just a riff on Italian neorealism. The film is an almost unclassifiable hybrid: the domestic setting and focus on the poverty of a rural family and especially that family's youngest child Apu (Subir Banerjee) are right line with the films of De Sica and Rossellini. So is the use of non-professional actors to make up the bulk of the cast, and the downplaying of any significant plot arc in favor of capturing the unfocused events of the everyday. But the visuals have an expressionistic quality that veers towards melodrama rather than realism: one of Pather Panchali's most striking sequences is a terrifying thunderstorm near the end, with flashes of light transforming the comforting domestic space of the family home into a horror film setting. The score, composed by future superstar sitar player Ravi Shankar, sounds as unabashedly Indian as the rest of the style is European, but this is nowhere near the everything-goes tradition of Hindi-language musicals that dominated Indian film production till then. Pather Panchali was one of the inaugural films in Parallel Cinema movement, a new wave of Bengali-language films derived from literary sources and favoring aesthetic and narrative realism.

Whatever national and international trends Pather Panchali borrows from or discards, what matters most is the film itself. This is one of the finest movies of the 1950s, and among the strongest directorial debuts ever. It is a particularly strong example of a child's-eye view film, though not dogmatically so. In fact, Apu is a mere baby for the first twenty minutes, at which point the action skips ahead, and he's reintroduced to us in a sequence in the annals of character introductions on par with John Ford's zoom into John Wayne early in Stagecoach: he sits up from bed into a dramatic close-up, at which point the score revs up and the film launches into a montage of childhood behavior. These montages show up frequently throughout the film, and they're cumulatively one of its strongest gestures: Shankar's plinking music provides a lulling rhythm, while the onscreen action combines disjointed moments into a single flow, not suggesting the passage of time but instead leaving us with a sense of a constant, eternal present.

Like many films about the experience of childhood, Pather Panchali includes a narrative that occurs above the awareness of its young protagonists, Apu and his older sister Durga (Uma Dasgupta): father Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) dreams of being a poet and artist, but must move away to the city to make a real living, while mother Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) retreats into her own depression as her woes pile up. It's to the great credit of everyone involved, especially Karuna Banerjee, whose reflective, sad performance is one of the great pieces of screen acting in the '50s, that this adult plotline is revealed to us with objective clarity, but without ever swamping the more delicate, aimless material surrounding Apu, who does, after all, remain the anchor of the film's superlative use of perspective. We see, generally, what Apu sees, but we understand more of it than he does. One of the key visual motifs in Pather Panchali are close-ups of Subir Banerjee's face, allowing his dark eyes to dominate our impressions as he stares out at the world around him, preternaturally watchful. We are encouraged, not to match his point-of-view—the close-ups tend to confirm the difference between the boy and the audience, not to elide that difference—but to look where he's looking, with the same intent gaze.

The result is a film that is most successful as a work of observation: settling down in a locale almost as unfamiliar to the urbanite Ray as to his earliest Western audiences, and just trying to see it, in all its fullness. This task becomes far more engaging than ever thanks to Janus Films' brand new 4K reconstruction of the film's badly burned camera negatives, which the Cinematheque will be showing as a DCP; after generations of muddy DVD and VHS transfers, Pather Panchali takes on a clarity and luminosity that very nearly make it a new film altogether. The shapes and textures of the world it depicts are more tangible, the realist aesthetic more overwhelming, and the lives depicted all the more vivid. It is the best possible way to experience a film whose intensely intimate depiction of physically palpable humanity has always been its greatest strength.

MUR MURS & DOCUMENTEUR: Agnès Varda in Los Angeles

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Agnès Varda's Mur Murs and Documenteur (both 1981) was written by Jenny Oyallon-Koloski, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Mur Murs and Documenteur will both screen on Saturday, November 21, beginning at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The program will begin with a special introduction by Kelley Conway, Professor of Film, author of Contemporary Film Director's: Agnès Varda, now available from Univeristy of Illinois Press.

By Jenny Oyallon-Koloski

Agnès Varda enjoys filming real people. She says as much in Varda par Agnès, suggesting that she likes “watching them put themselves into the scene, listening to the way they talk, observing their gestures, their settings, and the objects they surround themselves with.” Her children, Rosalie Varda-Demy and Mathieu Demy, would agree with her. The latter proposes in an interview that his mother has always chosen to work with reality, in stark contrast to his father, fellow filmmaker Jacques Demy, who stresses instead “the importance of tales and wonder.”

Varda and Demy spent several years in Los Angles at the end of the 1960s, during which time she became fascinated with the proliferation of murals around the city. A subsequent visit to California from 1979 to 1981 revitalized the interest, and Varda spent months inventorying and studying the neighborhood-specific art forms. Made in part thanks to a grant from the French Ministry of Culture, Murs Murs (1981) is the result of Varda’s determination to discover the creators behind these murals and interview them by their art. “Murs has all the sun and glory of Los Angeles,” the filmmaker tells Variety: “It’s all in there—the bad, like gang killings, as well as the good. But it’s very alive. And the people I filmed say incredible things about this city, about the dream-like quality of life here.” As Varda and her editor, Sabine Mamou, were finishing the final cut, an idea for a new film—about a woman struggling with the recent separation from her husband—emerged like the “shadow,” as Varda recalls, of the first.

As a continuation of her interest in non-actors, Varda links her narrative strategies in Documenteur (1981) to several of her earlier works—La Pointe Courte (1955), L’Opéra-Mouffe (1958), and Cleo de 5 à 7 (1962)—in which she also films everyday people in a documentary style and juxtaposes these images with the fictionalized concerns of her protagonists. The film’s Variety reviewer finds that “Varda has a great eye for composition, with remarkably bleak but arresting shots of the beach where the woman works, accompanied by well-chosen minimalist shots of the city and beach plus montages of blank, lonely faces.” But Varda’s subsequent Los Angeles-based project is also a family affair. Sabine Mamou emerged as the natural choice in Varda’s mind to play Emilie because of her presence during the early planning stages but also because “she was like a part of the family.” The natural choice, then, to play Emilie’s son, Martin, was Mathieu Demy.

The incorporation of friends and family, especially, into her work is not unusual for Varda’s filmmaking practice, or for the greater Varda-Demy household. Rosalie Varda-Demy can be seen in Varda’s earlier film One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977) and had small roles as a child in some of Demy’s films, notably playing Genvieve’s daughter at the end of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964). She subsequently pursued a career as a costume designer, working on several of Demy’s later films as well as Varda’s Vagabond (1985). Mathieu Demy, now a professional actor and filmmaker, appears in Varda’s Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988) and Kung-Fu Master! (1988), while also playing a bit role in Demy’s final feature of the same year, Trois places pour le 26 (1988). His presence in Documenteur seems to have stuck with him the most, however, as he incorporates shots from Varda’s film into his directorial debut, Americano (2011). As Varda explains before a 2014 screening of her film at the Cinémathèque française, her son’s desire to incorporate parts of Documenteur motivated a restoration that appealed to both parties, since “he got the bits he wanted, and I got the rest.” The choice to cast family members in her film, especially, allows us to observe what Mathieu Demy refers to as Varda’s “re-appropriation of reality.”

We should be wary of taking these people’s realities and Varda’s portrayals of them at face value. The pun in Documenteur (menteur = liar) suggests as much. But we also cannot completely separate the film’s fictionalized account of a woman and her son’s struggles from Varda’s separation from Jacques Demy during this period; “like much of Varda’s work” Variety suggests, “the film is more than a little autobiographical.” Rosalie mentions in an interview that Documenteur was an emotionally difficult film for her to watch at the time of its making, given its “focus on Agnès’ suffering.” Mathieu also remembers the early 1980s as a painful period, but recalls with pleasure his time roller-skating around Los Angles with his father. A photograph from Varda’s collection shows the duo in action, with a series of abstract murals framing them in the background. Like Mathieu and Jacques Demy skating around Venice Beach, Varda’s films and their blend of reality and fiction will never cease to keep us on our toes.

I Am a Child: A Brief History of John and Faith Hubley

Thursday, November 12th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the career and films of John and Faith Hubley were written by WUD Film Programmer Vincent Mollica. A selection of Hubley short films will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen "35mm Forever" series on November 15 at 2 p.m. in the auditorium of the Chazen Museum of Art.

By Vincent Mollica

Born in Wisconsin in 1914, legendary director of animation John Hubley didn’t even make it out of art school before he was picked up to work professionally with Disney. John then left Disney during a 1941 strike, eventually becoming creative director of the innovative animation studio UPA, which produced memorable series with characters like Gerald McBoing Boing and Mr. Magoo. However, Disney had turned the strikers’ names into the House Un-American Activities Committe, resulting in John’s forced exit from UPA. While evading HUAC, he started directing an animated adaptation of the Broadway musical Finian’s Rainbow, featuring the voices of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. However, the severely anti-communist IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) realized John had not testified for HUAC and demanded he do so. John stayed strong and refused to name names. Without the influential trade union’s support, however, funding for Finian’s was pulled and the project was destroyed. However, John still came out on top. In 1955, John Hubley and Finian’s editor/script girl Faith Elliott ⎯ friends of 10 years ⎯ were married.

Up to this point, Faith Elliott had lived an exceptional life of her own. She left her home in Hell’s Kitchen at 15, in reaction to her father’s insistence that she become a dentist. At 18, Faith moved to Los Angeles, where many jobs in the movie industry had opened for women because of the war. There she learned how to paint, helped form a film society, and taught a small class on Marxism, all while maintaining work at different studios. Faith eventually returned to New York City, continuing her work in the film industry through projects like Go Man Go (1955), a James Wong Howe-directed film about the Harlem Globetrotters, on which she served as editor.

While in New York, she was hired to work with John Hubley on Finian’s Rainbow and returned again to LA. John and Faith had met previously in LA while he was in the army, and they had remained friends. A very early collaboration occurred on a partially-animated sex education film; John worked on the animation of the menstrual cycle, and Faith worked on the live action. Thus far they had kept romantic tensions in check, but their friendship was tested when Faith went to work with John ⎯ who was already married with children ⎯ on Finian’s. They folded, and in 1955 they married and then moved to NYC where John had opened up a branch of his production company, Storyboard. Of this Faith said, “all I knew was that this was the luckiest moment in my life, and that one could influence the outcome of one's life if one was clear about what one wanted to do.”

John and Faith, starting to raise their new family, made an agreement to both make a film every year and eat dinner as a family every night. These sentiments reflect both the artistic rigor and the love of children that would show up in their films. In The Best of John and Faith Hubley, three shorts have a narrative explicitly driven by children: Adventures of an * (1956), the Academy Award-winning Moonbird (1959), and the program’s highlight, Windy Day (1968).

Adventures of an * is about a small child whose playful spirit eventually wins over his all-business father. Faith said of it, “the film turned out to be a visual experience about the vision of a little child, which is so pure and so wonderful…” Depicting play with what looks like moving Matisse cut outs, the Hubleys poignantly realize the purity of vision to which Faith refers.

Moonbird uses the improvised world and dialogue of John and Faith’s real life sons, who playfully bicker about trying to capture the titular bird, as fodder for the film’s story. Funnily enough, the film was funded through advertisements John and Faith had made for the cereal Maypo, featuring the character Marky Maypo. Wanting to evoke a sense of naturalism, Marky Maypo was voiced by their son, giving the piece the same general quality of Moonbird. The massive success of the ad campaign, as well as the Academy Award win for Moonbird, can be read as a popular enjoyment of being able to again look at everyday items or stories as child might.

Working with their daughters in 1968, Windy Day visualizes the playful interaction of their daughters Georgia and Emily, and consists partly of made up theater and partly of sisterly heart-to-heart. Windy Day’s narrative and physical world is completely formed and broken by the girls’ dialogue ⎯ to an even greater degree than Moonbird ⎯ and is guided by light, suggestive, watercolor. In her essay “Two Sisters,” Amy Lawrence writes of how, in Windy Day, “sisterhood becomes a space wherein the emergent female subject encounters both challenges to and support for her evolution into a powerful, capable, singular subject.” Lawrence’s quote gets at the depth with which a “Windy Day” depicts both the beauty and difficulties of a sibling relationship.

John and Faith would make films, features, and shorts together for two full decades, implementing both radical style and politics into their films. Together they had two sons, Mark and Ray, and two daughters, Georgia ⎯ of Yo La Tengo ⎯ and Emily, who also makes animated films. In 1977, at Yale, John died during heart surgery, while Faith continued making animated films, surviving a 1974 cancer diagnosis, until she, too, passed in 2001. Faith had produced another 20-plus years’ worth of material between John’s passing and her own, ranging from the autobiographical to the spiritual. In 1995, almost 50 years after John and Faith worked on an educational film covering the same topic, Emily made a beautiful short film about menstruation called Her Grandmother’s Gift (1995). In a strange reversal of Windy Day, Faith voices herself, talking to her grandchild about her changing body in grand, cosmic, context. Like John and Faith had done with Windy Day, Emily uses animation to reflect upon family, forming a whole world inside the moment of two lives merging.

Selected Bibliography:

Canemaker, John. "Lost Rainbow." Michael Sporn Animation, Inc. N.p., 25 Feb. 2010. Web.

Dessem, Matthew. "The Magnificent Hubleys." The Dissolve. N.p., 4 Sept. 2014. Web.

McGilligan, Patrick, and Paul Buhle. "Faith Hubley (and John Hubley)."Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist. New York: St. Martin's, 1997. N. pag. ProQuest. Web.


Monday, November 9th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova, 1969) was written by James Steffen, Ph.D., the Film and Media Studies Librarian at Emory University and author of The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013). Steffen will introduce a screening of the film at 7 p.m. on Friday, November 13 in 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening will be followed by a talk about the film and its restoration.

The 2014 restoration is by Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata and The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, in association with the National Cinema Centre of Armenia and Gosfilmofond of Russia. Restoration funding provided by the Material World Charitable Foundation and The Film Foundation.

By James Steffen

Martin Scorsese, a longtime admirer of Parajanov’s work and the driving force behind this restoration, wrote in the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival catalog: “Watching Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates, or Sayat Nova, is like opening a door and walking into another dimension, where time has stopped and beauty has been unleashed. On a very basic level, it’s a biography of the Armenian poet Sayat-Nova, but before all else it’s a cinematic experience, and you come away remembering images, repeated expressive movements, costumes, objects, compositions, colors.”

The Color of Pomegranates offers a poetic fantasy on the life and poetry of Sayat-Nova, the pen name for Arutin Sayadyan (ca. 1712-1795), an Armenian poet-troubadour (ashugh) whose songs are still commonly performed today. During the 1960s, Sayat-Nova was officially celebrated in the Soviet Union both as a great Armenian national poet and as a symbol of the brotherhood of the peoples of the Transcaucasus, since he wrote in three languages: Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian. For Parajanov, the film represented a kind of homecoming to his birthplace of Tbilisi and his ethnic Armenian roots. Up to this point, he had worked exclusively in Ukraine after completing his diploma at the VGIK (All-Union State Institute of Cinematography) in Moscow.

The basic plot outline more or less follows popular biographical legend: Sayat-Nova’s education in the Sanahin monastery in northern Armenia; his childhood in Tbilisi as the son of carpet-weavers; his youth as an ashugh; his service as a court poet to King Irakli II; his scandalous love for Princess Anna; his retreat to the Haghpat monastery; and his martyrdom during the sacking of Tbilisi by the troops of the Persian king Agha Mohammad Khan. Along the way Parajanov introduces striking, at times baffling visual metaphors, surreal dream-visions, and an undercurrent of bawdy humor. Despite these provocations, the film expresses a profound reverence for the peoples of the Transcaucasus, their historical travails, and their deeply spiritual creative vision.

Parajanov explained his approach in a 1969 interview for the annual Soviet film almanac Ekran: “We want to show the world in which the ashugh [Sayat-Nova] lived, the sources that nourished his poetry, and for that reason national architecture, folk art, nature, daily life, and music will play a large role in the film’s pictorial decisions. We are recounting the epoch, the people, their passions and thoughts through the conventional, but unusually precise language of things. Handicrafts, clothing, rugs, ornaments, fabrics, the furniture in their living quarters – these are the elements. From these the material look of the epoch arises.”

In fact, this fascination with handcrafted objects is a key trait of Parajanov’s mature filmmaking style. Although viewers tend to remember his international breakthrough Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) for its vertiginous camerawork, already a significant portion of that film consists of still life compositions and tableaux. In The Color of Pomegranates Parajanov explicitly invokes medieval Armenian and Persian miniature painting in the film’s deliberately flattened pictorial style. Combined with the film’s startling jump cuts, Méliès-style magic tricks, and richly textured, collage-like soundtrack, it creates an aesthetic that is at once austere and achingly sensual.

The film survives in two distinct versions. This restored version represents the original 1969 Armenian theatrical release, which ran at 77 minutes under the title Nran guyne (“The Color of Pomegranates”) and had Armenian language-credits and intertitles. Although this is the version which Parajanov signed off for release, it was the product of a protracted battle with various censorship bodies and other officials, among them the Communist Party of Armenia, who felt that the film took too many liberties with Sayat-Nova’s life. Alexei Romanov, the chair of Goskino, the USSR state film committee, further complained that the film failed to teach Soviet audiences about “the real life journey of the great poet of Transcaucasia and his place in the development of Armenian national culture.” As a result, not only was the film’s title changed from Sayat Nova, but all of the references to Sayat-Nova were removed from the chapter titles and likely from portions of the soundtrack as well. The new chapter titles, written by the popular Armenian novelist Hrant Matevosyan, are poetically evocative but hardly help situate the viewer in the proceedings.

The more widely known version, intended for Soviet-wide and later international distribution, was reedited by the filmmaker Sergei Yutkevich and runs at 73 minutes, with entirely new Russian-language credits and chapter titles. Yutkevich had reviewed the original script for Goskino, admired the film, and wanted to overcome the impasse with Romanov, who had permitted distribution only within Armenia. Mainly Yutkevich attempted to simplify the presentation, but he also rearranged some shots to make the film more ideologically palatable and removed some of its patently bizarre imagery. For many years it was the only version available anywhere, though Yutkevich deserves credit for enabling the film to be seen. Despite its challenges and compromises, the Armenian release version gives us a more direct line into Parajanov’s mind.

THE LUSTY MEN: Never a Cowboy That Couldn't Be Throwed

Thursday, October 29th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Nicholas Ray's The Lusty Men (1952) was written by Jonah Horwitz, Ph.D. candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A recently struck 35mm print of The Lusty Men, courtesy of The Film Foundation and the Academy Film Archive, will screen at 2 p.m. on Sunday, November 1, at the Chazen Museum of Art. This screening is part of the Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen "35mm Forever!" series.

By Jonah Horwitz

The Lusty Men was made by a dying film studio under chaotic conditions. Having passed through at least seven screenwriters and four titles, it still survives as one of director Nicholas Ray's most graceful and lyrical films—a subtle, melancholic exploration of machismo and its discontents.

The film’s origins go back to a 1946 Life magazine profile of Bob Crosby, "King of the Cowboys" by Claude Stanush. "Wild Horse Bob" was a 26-year veteran and the greatest champion of the North American rodeo circuit. Crosby paid for his "reckless" and "savage" performances with a series of gruesome injuries, leaving his right leg—which he delighted in showing off—"little more than an atrophied shank." At age 49, Crosby was a "paunchy, creaking champion well past his prime," but still competed in as many events as his insurance policy allowed.

Film producer Jerry Wald spotted the Life article, purchased the rights, and charged Stanush with preparing a film on Crosby’s life. He paired the Texan journalist with the more experienced New York novelist David Dotort. Their treatment had mutated by late 1950 into "Cowpoke," a semidocumentary look at the peripatetic milieu of rodeo cowboys, supplemented with a raft of research notes on their folkways: dialect, eating habits, mating rituals, and death drives.

Meanwhile, Wald left Warner Bros. (where he had produced a long series of successful films, including Mildred Pierce, Dark Passage, and Flamingo Road) for RKO. The studio’s new owner, millionaire Howard Hughes, lured Wald and partner Norman Krasna with a promise that they would make 60 films in five and a half years—with full creative control. Wald and Krasna brought with them a shelf of unproduced screenplays, including "Cowpoke."

However, Hughes proved a troublesome studio boss. When he wasn’t meddling in casting decisions, titles, budgets, and ad campaigns, he went incommunicado, taking months to respond to memos and approve scripts. As a result, output at RKO—already troubled before Hughes’s takeover—slowed to a crawl. The hurry-up-and-wait production of The Lusty Men exemplifies this dysfunction. When Hughes finally got around to "Cowpoke," he insisted on a change of title—to "Rough Company"—and that Stanush and Dotort’s discursive treatment be beat into more conventional dramatic shape. For this job Wald sought the services of Horace McCoy, a distinguished novelist (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) and screenwriter (Gentleman Jim) who specialized—per Wald’s secretary’s notes—in "masculine relationships." McCoy borrowed a stock situation, familiar from 1938’s Test Pilot among other films, involving tough men in dangerous occupations: a world-weary former daredevil takes an increasingly cocky upstart under his wing. The former became Jeff McCloud, a down-on-his-luck former champion with a few busted ribs and a yearning for stability; the latter, Wes Merritt, a cowhand whose first taste of the arena proves addicting.

Wald invited Nicholas Ray, a RKO contract director fresh off of the eccentric noir On Dangerous Ground, to helm the film. Within weeks, Ray was travelling with a small crew to the Pendleton Round-Up in Oregon to shoot documentary footage of bull riding, bronco busting, and trick roping. Ray also made crucial casting decisions, hiring Robert Mitchum to play Jeff—winning out over Wald’s concerns that the beefy star would "sleepwalk" through his part—and Arthur Kennedy for Wes.

By November 1951, McCoy had submitted only two-thirds of a script, and things became frantic. Hughes announced another title change—to "This Man Is Mine"—and a major addition to the cast: Susan Hayward, the star of Smash-Up (and invariably described as "tempestuous"), would play Wes’s wife Louise. Hayward would get top billing over Mitchum and Kennedy, and her part—anemic in McCoy’s draft—had to be expanded posthaste, the narrative reshaped from a two-hander into an understated triangle. What’s more, Hayward was on loan from 20th Century-Fox and was available for only a few short weeks before she would be whisked away to Africa to shoot Fox’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro—meaning the film would have to start shooting very soon, with or without a final written act.

Finding himself unwilling or unable to write a convincing female part, McCoy dropped out. (He soon cannibalized his own script for another rodeo film, Universal's Bronco Buster, which was completed and released before RKO had wrapped The Lusty Men.) Wald then corralled a series of experienced screenwriters—Krasna, Niven Busch, Alfred Hayes—to complete the screenplay. New scenes—some of them based on ideas supplied by Ray and Mitchum—were being dictated as late as December 17. Even after filming began, Hayward insisted on rewrites. Wald brought Andrew Solt to the set to touch up her dialogue.

Although in later years Ray would boast that The Lusty Men was largely improvised, there was a full script by the time shooting began, two days after Christmas 1951. Despite being the work of many hands, the story has a thematic coherence that resonated with both Ray and Mitchum. Ray declared that The Lusty Men "is not a Western." Indeed the film takes place long after the closing of the frontier, but its preoccupation with a rugged masculinity—unsettled, risk-taking, competitive—and its opposition between roaming and settling down echoes that of countless period Westerns. What Ray, the cast, and the many screenwriters brought to the archetypal plot and familiar theme was a behavioral nuance and sociological specificity. The dialogue is full of quotable found metaphors and droll aphorisms. Asked if he's "a thinkin' man," McCloud responds, "Oh, I can get in out of the rain."

Like his character, Mitchum was skilled at projecting tough-guy indifference, often protesting to appreciative interviewers that his job was merely one of memorizing lines and hitting marks. He later claimed—as would Kennedy—to have been bewildered by the lengthy discussions of motivation that the Method-trained Ray would indulge in preparing for scenes. But Ray surmised that Mitchum's persona was largely a defense mechanism; he worked closely with Mitchum and brought him to identify with his character, and the project became an unusually personal one for Mitchum. He had spent much of the Depression years wandering himself, and could sympathize with what Ray observed was the "great American search" of the postwar years: "People who want a home of their own." Mitchum's performance—possibly his best—is distinguished by delicate shades of dissimulation and guarded revelation. His Jeff wears the easy confidence of a proven champ and lothario, and his first passes at Hayward’s Louise are thoughtless, almost reflexive. But unlike the eager Wes, Jeff is all too aware of the hazards of his profession. His inchoate longings for a place to rest—the film begins with him returning to the homestead of his childhood, a scene restaged in Wim Wenders's 1976 Kings of the Road—gradually find expression in a desire for Wes’s wife, a desire born of empathy. Louise, the child of migrant farm workers, picked Wes as her best hope for a stable home life precisely for those qualities—modesty of ambition, consistency of character—that his shot at rodeo glory has tempted him to betray. Jeff will ultimately sacrifice himself to see this hope restored.

Unlike Mitchum, Hayward didn’t warm to Ray’s cryptic ministrations, feeling excluded from the conspiratorial rapport between co-star and director. It’s possible that something of that annoyance inflected her portrayal of Louise, who spends much of the film rolling her eyes and lashing out at the two man-children she is stuck with. Hayward’s star persona was of a driven woman calamitously undone by undependable men; here, the men remain undependable, but Louise has a self-possession that allows, for once, a measured triumph.

Hayward shot most of her scenes on studio lots in California, and when her loan period was up, Ray and his male stars went on the move, shooting at a number of rodeos: Tucson, San Angelo, Pendleton again. Mitchum and Kennedy insisted on riding bulls themselves, and these shots were later intermingled with the documentary footage made in the fall. Filming completed just before Valentine’s Day 1952. Wald was uncertain of the downbeat ending, and offered Ray a bonus to shoot a new, happier—but entirely implausible—one in April. The film was privately screened with this new ending, and everyone except Wald was duly chagrined; the producer eventually relented. But even after Ray and editor Ralph Dawson had finished a cut of the film, Hughes dithered, largely because he no longer liked the title he had chosen back in November. Handed a list of alternatives, he circled "The Lusty Men" and finally approved the film for release.

The Lusty Men made it to theaters in October 1952. It was given unusually wide distribution for the era, opening simultaneously in numerous cities and abetted by an innovative national television advertising campaign. Critics were very kind but box office was modest. The posters and trailers—not to mention the title—promised an action spectacle that the film didn't deliver. In France, where Ray had been gathering a reputation as a maverick auteur, it received a rapturous review by Jacques Rivette in Cahiers du cinéma. Rivette praised Ray’s "search for a certain breadth of modern gesture and an anxiety about life, a perpetual disquiet that is paralleled in the characters; and . . . his taste for paroxysm, which imparts something of the feverish and impermanent to the most tranquil of moments."

And RKO? The same month that The Lusty Men was released, Wald and Krasna parted ways with the studio, having made only five films in two years—many fewer than anyone had anticipated. Hughes was forced out of RKO around the same time. Production at the studio was temporarily halted as the new owners sought to make emergency repairs to the studio’s leaking hull. It didn’t take; RKO released its last picture in 1957, leaving behind a legacy of many glorious films, The Lusty Men not the least among them.

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS: Vivisection, Panther Women, and the Studio System

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the 1932 Paramount horror classic The Island of Lost Souls was written by Derek Long, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A recently struck 35mm print of The Island of Lost Souls will screen on Sunday, October 25 as part of the Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen's "35mm Forever" series. The screening begins at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art's auditorium.

By Derek Long

The so-called “pre-code” period is one of those well-known and much-loved eras in American cinema. In the years between the transition to sound and Joseph Breen’s Production Code enforcement crackdown of mid-1934, Hollywood cinema frequently featured explicit representations of sex, violence, drug use, homosexuality, and other “morally questionable” content, the likes of which would not be seen again until the 1960s. This leeway produced some of the finest films in American cinema, from gritty crime dramas like Scarface and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to Ernst Lubitsch’s frank and hilarious sex comedies.

Yet hidden among the gems of Hollywood cinema circa 1929-34 are some of the most bizarre, eccentric, and frankly disturbing films ever produced by the major studios. Island of Lost Souls is one of the best of the many weird films of 1932—a year that saw other horror features like Doctor X, White Zombie (coming to the Cinematheque in a new restoration in early 2016), and Murders in the Rue Morgue, but also harder-to-categorize films like Kongo, Chandu the Magician, and of course, Tod Browning’s Freaks (probably still the best weird film of 1932).

Many elements separate Island of Lost Souls from its fellow oddballs, but to start it’s probably worth pointing out that it’s one of the only films classical Hollywood ever produced about vivisection. This was enough to get it banned not only in the UK—where the Board of Film Censors refused to certify it for twenty-five years—but also in Sweden, Denmark, and other countries. For that, of course, the film largely has H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau to thank. Lost Souls remains the best adaptation of Wells’ novel, which tells the tale of Edward Prendick, a man shipwrecked on the private island of a mad scientist who creates human-animal hybrids through vivisection—in short, the kind of story Joe Breen would never have allowed into production in the first place. While there are important deviations, Lost Souls is largely faithful to Wells’ work, at least in broad narrative strokes and in spirit. The film wisely preserves many of the most compelling of Wells’ flourishes, from the Sayer of the Law’s phrase “Are we not men?” (made legendary thanks to Devo) to the “House of Pain,” where Dr. Moreau performs his grotesque acts of montage (and yes, Badgers, the name of that hip-hop group to which you sometimes Jump Around is a reference to the Wells novel).

While horror fans usually associate the early thirties with Universal’s classics, Lost Souls reminds us that Carl Laemmle, Jr. had no monopoly on the genre. Paramount, then in the midst of receivership, produced the film as a standard programmer, but as Variety reported, the studio took a fairly active interest in its production and marketing. Paramount originally assigned the film to Norman Taurog, but apparently decided that his approach to the material did not inject enough humor (!). Consequently, Erle Kenton, a Mack Sennett veteran, was made director. And it apparently worked—at least for L.G. Tewksbury, manager of the Stonington Opera House in Maine, who described the film in a report for his fellow exhibitors as “Weird, but with plenty of comedy relief” (one wonders if Tewksbury was laughing through gritted teeth). Indeed, in true studio form, Paramount’s marketing framed the picture as having something for everyone, with a healthy dose of sex in addition to horror thrills: “He took them from his mad menagerie…nights were horrible with the screams of tortured beasts…from his House of Pain they came remade…Pig-men…Wolf-women…thoughtful Human Apes, and his masterpiece—the Panther Woman—throbbing to the hot flush of love.”

This lurid copy was no accident; Lota the Panther Woman was the centerpiece of Paramount’s marketing campaign for the film. In July 1932, the studio held a highly-publicized nationwide talent contest to cast Lota, with screen tests to be held in the studio’s own Publix theaters. Ernst Lubitsch, Cecil B. De Mille, Rouben Mamoulian, and Norman Taurog were the ostensible judges, with the winner to receive a five-week contract with Paramount at $200 per week. The winner, out of an alleged 60,000 applicants, was Chicago dental hygienist Kathleen Burke, who went on to appear in a number of Paramount films through the rest of the 30s.

Nevertheless, the film’s gruesomeness was just too much for many viewers. While modern audiences may chuckle at the very idea of Lost Souls being horrific enough to ban, we would do well to remember that at the time this film was released, it was effectively torture porn—the Hostel or Saw of its day. Combine that with Paramount’s muscular booking policies, and we might be less surprised to learn that some small-town exhibitors despised the film. S. H. Rich, of the Rich Theatre in Montpelier, Idaho, wrote Motion Picture Herald, “In my opinion the poorest picture from Paramount this season. The makeup of the characters are terrible. How anyone can enjoy this is beyond me. No excuse for making a production of this kind.” Said Michigan exhibitor C. W. Bennett: “Just plain terrible. Impossible story, and characters made up to look horrible. Many women held their hands over their eyes and the rest walked out.” Of course, one wonders how much such appraisals actually helped the film—after all, who wouldn’t want to see the movie described by one Nebraska exhibitor thusly: “Three cheers for the foreign countries who have banned this picture, and shame on us for allowing this to be shown anywhere. Words fail me. Maybe by combining Esperanto, Volopuk, Zahlensproche and a few others I could describe it, and if that won’t, ‘putrid’ will. It actually sickened some of our patrons.”

Contemporary audiences may have been chilled mostly by the beast-men—and Bela Lugosi’s eyes as the Sayer of the Law are just as captivating as Dracula’s—but for my money, this film belongs to Charles Laughton’s whip-wielding, mustachioed Moreau. Laughton’s performance is matched by the unmistakable aesthetics of early-30s studio filmmaking; Moreau’s icy, repeated query to the beast-men—“What is the law?”—is answered not only by Lugosi’s words, but by the grunts, snarls, and screams of the film’s stark, score-less soundtrack (Lost Souls was made at the height of the pre-wall-to-wall scoring era ushered in by Max Steiner’s music for King Kong). The cinematography of Karl Struss, who had lensed F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise just five years earlier, creates on Moreau’s island a world of shimmering, technically-masterful menace—witness the pond light reflected onto a rim-lit Parker (Richard Arlen) and Lota as they embrace, or the classic low-angle expressionism of the lights illuminating Moreau and his assistant Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) as they vivisect some poor soul.

Thus, Island of Lost Souls represents the combination of two irresistible aesthetic traditions: the technical virtuosity of Hollywood filmmaking, and the imagination of H.G. Wells. While the film may have lost some of its power to literally sicken audiences, there’s no doubt that it continues to spook the beast in all of us.

A Musical Phoenix: The Resurrection of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE

Thursday, October 15th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Brian DePalma's Phantom of the Paradise (1974) was written by Leo Rubinkowski, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Phantom will screen on Sunday, October 18 at 2 p.m., as part of the Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen's "35mm Forever!" series at the Chazen Museum of Art.

By Leo Rubinkowski

Where my experience with the movies is concerned, the debt I owe my father is substantial. At some indistinct point in my youth, for example, he had the good sense to sit me down and show me Phantom of the Paradise. At the time, I wasn’t well-watched or well-read enough to fully appreciate the strange mélange of references to gothic horror, the music industry, and canonical cinema, but I knew that Phantom was the kind of movie I cared for deeply. Time and experience have only sharpened that love, providing some of the ideas and words necessary to describe and appraise this 1974 oddity’s strange élan and its hold over me.

Speaking for myself, one of the primary pleasures of viewing Phantom of the Paradise is teasing out the various influences and references that pervade Brian De Palma’s script and direction. The most obvious are Gaston Leroux’s 1909 print serial, Le Fantôme de l'Opéra, the tale of Faust, and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the latter two cases, De Palma restricts himself to the shared plot point of a deal with the devil (for “worldly experience and power” and youth, respectively). In the first case, though, more particular comparisons exist. Between 1925 and 1962, Universal released three versions of the Phantom story, and De Palma seems to draw most from the 1962 version, produced by Hammer Films. In that film, as in Phantom of the Paradise, the title character is thoroughly a victim of circumstance and others’ treachery, whereas the Phantoms portrayed by the iconic Lon Chaney (in 1925) and by Claude Rains (in 1943) more clearly verge on the obsessive, the violent, and even the insane. For example, in the 1925 adaptation, the Phantom is apparently deformed from birth, and in 1943, he suffers his injuries while taking murderous revenge. By contrast, both the 1962 and 1974 Phantoms wound themselves by accident while trying to sabotage the publication of their stolen compositions. Plot points aside, however, the fact that Phantom of the Paradise used Leroux’s storyline at all was enough for Universal to accuse the film’s production company, Harbor Productions, and its producer, Edward R. Pressman, of copyright infringement. According to Variety, Universal eventually settled out of court, reportedly for an upfront payment and “substantial participation in the film.”

If Phantom of the Paradise draws the general shape of its story from gothic horror, its comedic tone owes as much to popular music. Beef (Garrit Graham) — the proto-metal glam rocker enlisted by Swan (Paul Williams) to open The Paradise — exemplifies this facet, serving mainly as the butt of jokes about prima donna excess and rock and roll’s emphasis on masculinity. Often, the swipes are broad — Beef’s lisp, mannerisms, and general attitude recall those of Roger De Bris in The Producers — but there are smaller touches that reward the careful viewer; for instance, pay attention to the photos on Beef’s vanity mirror. De Palma extracts slightly more subtle comedy from Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor, and Harold Oblong, whose performances as The Juicy Fruits, The Beach Bums, and The Undead simultaneously parody 25 years of pop music stereotypes while showing off the musical range and performative versatility of the musicians themselves.

Equally humorous, but perhaps more difficult to spot because of their specificity, are Phantom’s visual jokes and references to popular cinema. The “Upholstery” number is a fine example: the split screen effect is surely drawn from Sisters, De Palma’s previous film, and the situation of a bomb suspensefully ticking away in a car trunk comes straight out of Welles’ Touch of Evil. In Beef and his back-up band, The Undead, De Palma finds occasion to evoke German Expressionist cinema, specifically The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Perhaps the most obvious film reference involves one of De Palma’s favorite points of contact, Alfred Hitchcock, in a loving and lovingly goofy parody of Psycho’s iconic shower scene.

Considering the light tone with which it deploys references and observes influences, as well as the general quality of De Palma’s writing and direction, more than one reviewer anticipated success for Phantom. Variety, in particular, expected the movie to attract both “teenyboppers” and “older filmgoers who can enjoy the inside sophistication.” Six months later, however, the trade called Phantom one of the “fabulous [box office] flops of 1974.” Budgeted at a reported $1.3 million, picked up for distribution by Twentieth Century-Fox for $2 million, and promoted in New York with a $70,000 campaign, the film had earned just $1 million or so in national rentals by the end of April 1975, and returns from a re-issue in 1976 appear to have been similarly poor.

Phantom of the Paradise was not a universal failure, though. North of the border, in Winnipeg, the picture ran a stunning 62 weeks after debuting on December 26, 1974, or so the Canadian Press reported in 2005 on the occasion of the city’s first Phantompalooza. Other unofficial sources cite more conservative run lengths, but all agree that Winnipeg’s support for the movie was unexpected and impressive. (Phantompalooza ran annually for two more years.) The obvious question, as one Winnipeg blogger asks, is “Why Winnipeg?” but I prefer to ask, “Why nowhere else?”

Certainly, the mechanics of Phantom of the Paradise’s long-term (lack of) popularity must be complex, but I can’t help thinking that part of the reason is that it isn’t a transportable musical. By this, I mean that its songs — arguably the most memorable narrative elements of any musical — don’t convey the story adequately on their own. As a backstage musical, in which songs are clearly distinguished as performances within the narrative, Phantom contains few musical performances that explicitly or directly express character motivations or plot. So while the songs do deal with thematic content — “Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye” looks ahead to Winslow’s (William Finley) self-sacrifice for Phoenix (Jessica Harper), for instance —which of them would I sing to re-capture the experiences of the Phantom committing suicide, Winslow stumbling away from Death Records after his injury, or the Phantom racing to Phoenix’s rescue? As appropriate as gothic organ, violins, and piano are to moments like these, my humming skills are not up to the challenge. With musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Mary Poppins, or The Sound of Music, we can sing the story back to ourselves, feeling invested and involved. Perhaps this lack of sing-ability partially explains why Phantom has not enjoyed the popularity it deserves.

As it goes, though, the Phantom’s music is for Phoenix; only she can sing it. At least we have the good fortune to listen.


Visions of Heaven, Visions of Hell: Derek Long on THE DANTE QUARTET & L'INFERNO

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Stan Brakhage's The Dante Quartet (1987) and L'Inferno (1911) was written by Derek Long, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. 35mm prints of both films will screen in a special Cinematheque program on Saturday, October 17, at 7 p.m., in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas. Hall. The program will include a special introduction by Professors Patrick Rumble and Jelena Todorović from the Department of French and Italian. L'Inferno will feature live piano accompaniment by David Drazin.

By Derek Long

There’s something appropriately purgatorial about the fact that these two Dante-inspired films, which together total seventy-five minutes of screen time, took a grand total of nine years to produce. Even more impressively, Stan Brakhage’s Dante Quartet, leading off the program, accounts for six of those years.

Brakhage’s film, though only eight minutes long, retains the epic scope of Dante’s poetry while distilling it into pure visual abstraction. This may be because each part of the film’s titular quartet—Hell Itself, Hell Spit Flexion, Purgation, and existence is song—evokes Dante’s literal journeys in the Divina Commedia. And yet, one suspects there is more to it than that. Brakhage’s hand-painted technique shows what might happen if Dante were able to transcend his own sense, as related in Paradiso, that his human eyes only permit him to see a particular, limited version of the afterlife. In the later sections of the Quartet, Brakhage invokes this ambiguity of human vision by painting on photographed (rather than clear) film stock, creating brief flashes of the familiar. These images remind us of Dante’s ascension to the Empyrean, the purely luminous abode of God: they are “shadowy prefaces of their truth; not that these things are lacking in themselves; the defect lies in you, whose sight is not yet that sublime” (Paradiso, Canto XXX: 78-81, trans. Allen Mandelbaum).

In contrast to Brakhage’s expressionism, Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe De Liguoro’s 1911 approach in L’Inferno is one of cultish, literalist reverence for some of the most familiar visual representations of Dante’s masterpiece. Each of the film’s fifty-four scenes is a faithful (and occasionally precise) transposition of Gustave Doré’s famous wood-engraved illustrations for his 1861 edition of Inferno. Far from falling into academicism, however, the film renders Doré’s scenes with the aid of impressive visual effects and lavish production values. From the sophisticated matte techniques undergirding the film’s depiction of the “infernal hurricane” blowing the souls of the Lustful, to the winged costumes of the Malebranche, to the double-exposed transformation of the Thieves into reptiles, L’Inferno remains the most technically masterful and visually resplendent film adaptation of Dante’s works.

As poet and translator John P. Welle has noted, L’Inferno was produced at Milano Films at the height of a Dante mania in the Italian film industry; between 1908 and 1912, “no fewer than eleven films based on the Divine Comedy, on Dante’s life, and on figures and scenes of Dantean inspiration” were produced. What set the film apart, however, was the sheer scale of its production. L’Inferno is often cited as Italian cinema’s first feature-length film. In 1911, when L’Inferno was released, the typical film seen by a mass audience (in Italy and elsewhere) rarely exceeded 300 meters—a screening time of about fifteen minutes—and was combined with several other films to form a mixed program. In America, studios like Biograph and Vitagraph could churn out such films every five days for less than $1,000 each. By contrast, L’Inferno spanned 1,200 meters and took three years to produce, at an astounding cost of more than 100,000 lire. It was so long and so big that it could be—indeed had to be—the sole film on a theater’s program, which also meant that it tended to be screened in high-class theatrical and opera venues at inflated ticket prices. According to Welle, L’Inferno’s lighthearted marketing campaign even made reference to these prices in a parody of several verses from Inferno. Virgil’s original line, “Li parenti miei furon Lombardi” (My parents were Lombards, Canto I: 68), is instead given to Dante himself—and a footnote helpfully explains that the poet is trying to establish his family relationship to the film’s producer, Gustavo Lombardo, so that he can get out of paying for a ticket.

L’Inferno wasn’t simply the first Italian feature; it was a superproduction that combined the literary cult of Dante, the supreme production ambitions of the Italian film industry, and cinema’s struggle for cultural legitimacy. When the film reached the United States in the fall of 1911, ads for Pliny Craft’s Monopol Film Company—which held the distribution rights for L’Inferno in the New York metropolitan market—sold the film as “A picture that is destined to establish motography as one of the fine arts…preserving all the dignity and reverence of the original poem and paintings.” The idea of the film as an authentic, faithful literary adaptation was the lynchpin of its success, and further enabled its distribution as a special feature. Indeed, L’Inferno set off an entire cycle of colossal Italian literary-historical films that would be distributed throughout the world, including Quo Vadis (Enrico Guazzoni, 1912), Antony and Cleopatra (Enrico Guazzoni, 1913), and Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914). These films had an important effect on American filmmaking; their release in the United States by distributors like Craft and George Kleine helped to spur on the American industry’s production of features in the mid-1910s, from companies like Famous Players, Mutual, and Triangle.

L’Inferno had reverberations in American film history well past the 1910s; the film’s relative explicitness in its depiction of suffering souls in Hell ensured that it was frequently repurposed in other works, often as the starkest imaginable vision of the infernal regions. The American avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger famously used footage from L’Inferno in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), his ode to Alastair Crowley and Thelema, but the film had been excerpted some eighteen years previously in exploitation filmmaker Dwain Esper’s appropriately-titled Hell-A-vision (1936), which dwelled, unsurprisingly, on the nude depictions of the damned. Spencer Williams’ under-seen race film Go Down, Death! (1944) faced censorship problems as a result of the same.

In any case, both of these films showcase unforgettable visions of Dante’s afterlife, from the spiritual apprehensions of Brakhage’s pure abstraction to the terrifyingly visceral quality of Doré’s illustrations put to film. These visions remain among the best cinematic adaptations of the Divina Commedia, a work approaching its seven hundredth anniversary. While we have only had one century to appreciate L’Inferno, it will doubtless continue to haunt us.

Just Added: SPOTLIGHT screening

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

The UW Cinematheque has added a special free preview screening of the new film Spotlight. After its premiere screenings at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals last month, the critically acclaimed Spotlight has been much-discussed as a year-end awards-contender. The screening will take place, Wednsday, October 28, 7 p.m., at the Marquee Theater at Union South, 1308 W. Dayton Street. Spotlight is co-presented by the Cinematheque and WUD Film.

Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James and Stanley Tucci, Spotlight tells the riveting true story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation that would rock the city and cause a crisis in one of the world’s oldest and most trusted institutions. When the newspaper’s tenacious “Spotlight” team of reporters delve into allegations of abuse in the Catholic Church, their year-long investigation uncovers a decades-long cover-up at the highest levels of Boston's religious, legal, and government establishment, touching off a wave of revelations around the world. Directed by Academy Award-nominee Tom McCarthy (Win Win, The Station Agent, The Visitor), Spotlight is a tense investigative thriller, tracing the steps to one of the biggest crime stories in modern times. No passes required. Seating is limited and provided on a first-come, first-seated basis.

Doors open at 6:30 p.m. We anticipate a full-house. Please arrive early!

Spotlight opens in theaters in November.


Wednesday, October 28, 7 p.m.


Marquee Theater at Union South
1308 W. Dayton Street
Madison, WI 53715

Admission free. Seating limited.

Official Spotlight website: http://spotlightthefilm.com/
WUD Film Website: http://wudfilm.com/