Belmondo: Cascadeur

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

By Jim Healy, UW Cinematheque Director of Programming

In the U.S. today, Jean-Paul Belmondo is still recognized as an iconic superstar of international cinema, but American audiences of today might not be quite as aware of the incredible range of this legendary performer. Belmondo is now best known for his leading roles in the groundbreaking features of the French nouvelle vague, films like Godard's Breathless (1960), A Woman is a Woman (1961) and Pierrot le fou (1965), Melville's Leon Morin, Priest (1961) and Le Doulos (1963), Truffaut's Mississippi Mermaid (1969) and Resnais' Stavisky (1974). Thanks to enterprising independent American distributors like Rialto Pictures and The Film Desk and specialty home video labels like The Criterion Collection, most of these Belmondo titles have been kept in circulation for American art house theaters and on DVD/Blu-Ray. But these New Wave movies represent the more cerebral side of Belmondo's filmography and only a small fraction of his more than 60 feature film appearances.

In Europe, Belmondo is much better known as a light-hearted man-of-action. A former boxer with a memorable mug that has earned him comparisons with Humphrey Bogart, Belmondo made several dozen films in his native France during the 1960s, 70s and 80s that exploit his marvelous physicality and his willingness to do his own stunts. These movies - some straight-forward action thrillers, some comic spoofs - frequently found Belmondo pairing with one of a handful of French directors who knew best how to capture the charisma and antics of this unique star. The most notable of these directors include Henri Verneuil, Georges Lautner and Jacques Deray, and, in fact, several of their Belmondo vehicles, like Deray's Borsalino (1970) and Verneuil's The Burglars (1971) were originally given wide releases in American theaters. That neither of these popular films have been made available on DVD in the U.S. is indicative of the access most American viewers have to Belmondo's less-serious side.

The auteur who gave Belmondo his greatest exposure as an action superstar was Philippe de Broca (1933-2004). Belmondo and de Broca made five features together, beginning with the 1962 swashbuckler Cartouche and ending with 1975's L'incorrigible. Over the next two Saturdays, October 18 and 25, the Cinematheque will present new restorations of their second and third collaborations, the rollicking action-comedies That Man from Rio (1964) and Up to His Ears (1965). An only partial listing of Belmondo's activities in That Man from Rio alone include: driving a tractor across an airport runway, skydiving into a jungle swamp (where he has a showdown with a live alligator!), clinging to the side of an eight-story building and swinging, Tarzan-style, from a vine. But if that's not enough for ya, here's a montage of awe-inspiring moments from over a dozen different movies where Belmondo, in the tradition of Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan, risks life and limb for your entertainment. This compilation includes clips from Verneuil's The Burglars and The Night Caller (aka Fear Over the City, 1975), as well as de Broca's Le Magnifique (1973), three fun movies that we included in our Cinematheque's Belmondo retrospective during the summer of 2011.


Like Keaton and Chan, Belmondo suffered numerous injuries for his art, including fractured hands and legs. A heavy metal pulley struck him in the face during the making of Hold-Up in 1985 and Belmondo swore off doing his own stunts from that point on. A stroke in 2001 has kept him almost entirely off-screen for the last decade but he returned to take on the leading role in Un Homme et son chien, a remake of Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D, in 2008. While we anxiously await his return to cinema screens, a few efforts by American distributors have been made to remind us of Belmondo's range and extraordinary use of his physical instrument. In 2012, Olive Films released DVDs and Blu-Rays of two Belmondo vehicles from the 60s, Gerard Oury's jokey The Brain (1969) and Verneuil's Green in the Sun (1964). The latter film, a lighter knock-off of Clouzot's The Wages of Fear, concludes with a rollicking bare-knuckle brawl between Belmondo and Lino Ventura.

Now, the good folks at Cohen Film Collection are theatrically re-releasing That Man from Rio in honor of its 50th anniversary. That Man from Rio was conceived in order to cash in on the growing popularity of the James Bond franchise, but Sean Connery's got nothing on Belmondo when it comes to action scenes. The film proved so popular everywhere it played (especially in the U.S.) that Belmondo and de Broca immediately teamed up again for Up to His Ears the very next year. Cohen has made both films available in new 2K restorations. That Man from Rio screens Saturday, October 18 at 7 p.m. and Up to His Ears screens Saturday, October 25 at 7 p.m. Both screenings in 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue.



Even More Hitchcock!

Friday, October 10th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

by Amanda McQueen, UW Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant

Not only is Alfred Hitchcock one of cinema's most popular directors, he is also one of the most studied and analyzed. It has helped, of course, that he was prolific; with a career spanning about 55 years, there's no shortage of material for critics, scholars, and fans to delve into. In the early-1920s, after some time designing title cards for silent films, he graduated to work as an art director, writer, editor, and assistant director - sometimes performing all four roles on the same film. Between 1925 and 1976, he directed over 50 feature films, spanning the transition from silent to sound and working in both Britain and Hollywood. He also produced and directed a number of additional projects for television, mostly for his series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

When auteur theory arose in the 1950s and 1960s, Hitchcock was one of the first directors brought into the pantheon of great filmmakers. Since then, book upon book and article upon article have sought and analyzed the director's signatures - those elements of narrative, character, and style that seem to reveal his personal vision and that mark a film as definitively Hitchcockian. There's his preoccupation with blonde women, with doubles, and with false accusations and mistaken identity. There's his penchant for narrative twists, for favoring suspense over surprise, and for MacGuffins - those plot elements that turn out to be completely unimportant. And there's his interest in psychoanalysis, in sexuality, and in voyeurism.

Hitchcock films often explore the act of looking. Using camera movement, editing, and framing, Hitchcock is famous for putting the viewer in a voyeuristic position, but his films are also full of characters looking - watching each other and even breaking the forth wall to stare right at us. The Criterion Collection recently posted a wonderful, rather eerie video that speaks to this particular theme: "Eyes of Hitchcock."


Eyes of Hitchcock from Criterion Collection on Vimeo.

But perhaps the most literal of Hitchcock's directorial signatures - and certainly the most fun - are his cameos. He makes a brief appearance in 39 out of his 52 surviving films, and spotting him has become a game for Hitchcock fans. (In my opinion, composer John Addison ruins the game in Torn Curtain by signaling the director's presence with the theme song from Alfred Hitchcock Presents). Indeed, the cameos were so popular, that audiences would become distracted searching for them and would not pay attention to the plot; so Hitchcock began putting his personal appearances into the first part of the film, to get them out of the way relatively quickly. Some of his cameos are tricky; there are times when he keeps his back to the camera or otherwise obscures himself from direct view. Many other cameos function as amusing gags, often unrelated to the plot, but providing moments of levity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Internet is full of supercuts putting together all of the director's cameos, from that in 1927's The Lodger through 1976's Family Plot. Can you spot him in all of the clips compiled here?


See Hitchcock's 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much on Sunday, October 12, 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art, part of our ongoing More Hitchcock! series.

The Slaprobatics of Denis Lavant

Thursday, October 9th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

By Amanda McQueen, UW Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant

Denis Lavant is an incredibly physical actor. Though also known for his distinctive face - interesting, but not really classically handsome - Lavant has become associated with a markedly kinetic performance style. Slapstick, acrobatics, and dance are all within his wheelhouse, and Lavant has said that when approaching his roles, his body - not the text - is his first language. Taking inspiration from theater and street performing, where a particular intensity is needed to attract audiences, Lavant at times moves with an electrifying abandon that belies the control he is able to wield over his body. Those who work with Lavant - perhaps most notably director Leos Carax, who helped launch Lavant's career with Boy Meets Girl (1984) and who has featured the actor in most of his films - are often attracted to him because of his ability to shift from quiet to frenetic, from graceful to unrestrained. Carax, Lavant explains, "directs me more like a sculptor, physically."

Lavant's career is long and varied; though he describes himself as primarily a theater actor, he has done a great deal of work for film and television, appearing in shorts, features, and music videos. In 1998, for example, he starred in the award-winning video for "Rabbit in Your Headlights" from British electronic duo UNKLE (featuring vocals from Radiohead's Thom Yorke). The video relies primarily on Lavant's physicality; he stumbles erratically down a road, mumbling almost incoherently, and is repeatedly hit by passing cars. The payoff at the video's end, however, demonstrates just how powerful Lavant's body can be.


UNKLE - Rabbit in Your Headlights from Onur Akdeniz on Vimeo.

Some of Lavant's physical performances have become iconic. The pop culture website The Dissolve recently posted a list of "The Movies' 50 Greatest Pop Music Moments," and Lavant features twice. First, at #42, the celebrated final scene from Claire Denis' Beau Travail (1999), in which Lavant dances to Corona's "Rhythm of the Night." And then, at #41, is a scene from Carax's Mauvais Sang (1986), in which Lavant runs, leaps, and cartwheels down the street to David Bowie's "Modern Love."

In a 2008 interview, Lavant said: "Maybe I am more physical than the average [actor], but I admit it. It is part of my pleasure. I love dancing, I love all my body to play. For me, a role isn't just a face and a voice, and the great actors that I admire are those who use their body to give a shape to their character." By these criteria, surely Lavant himself will long be considered one of the greats.

Mauvais Sang screens at the Cinematheque this Saturday, October 11, at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.



Music in Friedkin's Movies : Aint' No Mickey Mouse-ing Going On Here!

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

By Jim Healy, Director of Programming

In a terrific interview with Vulture last month, complete flim-maker John Carpenter (whose action masterpiece, Escape from New York will have a Cinematheque/WUD Film screening next month) answers a question about the Ennio Morriconne score for his 1982 remake of The Thing. Carpenter, who typically composes the music for his films, talks about his preference for minimalist music in movies, as opposed to the "Mickey Mouse-ing" of something like Max Steiner's score for King Kong, where, as Carpenter says:

"The footsteps of King Kong are scored: bom-bom-bom. Mickey Mouse–ing is over-scoring. It's what happens today. Everything is over-scored. Minimalist music, a lot of it from my time — '60s, '70s, and '80s. Tangerine Dream did some. The Exorcist's score is another. They weren't Mickey Mouse scores. By Mickey Mouse, I don't mean dumb, or cartoonish, but everything was musically it: footsteps, everything."

Tangerine Dream, of course, got their first offer to score a Hollywood film from director William Friedkin, who invited the German musicians to score his 1977 existentialist action movie, Sorcerer. Friedkin discovered the trio, then made up of Edgar Froese, Christopher Franke, and Peter Baumann, performing their special brand of electronic music at a concert in an abandoned chruch in Germany's Black Forest. Instead of having the band score the film after it was shot and edited, which is what usually happens, Friedkin sent Tangerine Dream the script. Friedkin had them read it and the band recorded their musical impressions which Friedkin used to establish rhythm when assembling the footage with editor Bud Smith. Despite the fact that Sorcerer was rather famously rejected by audiences and most critics when first released, the score proved highly influential and led to steady work for Tangerine Dream in movies, most notably Michael Mann's Thief, Paul Brickman's Risky Business, Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark, and the American release version of Ridley Scott's Legend (which, in its international release version, had a very fine, if slightly MIckey Mouse-y score by Jerry Goldsmith).

You can hear Tangerine Dream's Sorcerer score for yourself this Thursday, October 9, when the UW Cinematheque and WUD Film present a new DCP restoration of Friedkin's riveting adventure. For now, here's a little musical prelude:


Friedkin has always been a director who pays close attention to sound design and music is always a big part of that design. The director brought on experimental jazz musician Don Ellis for The French Connection and, in the 80s, hired pop rockers Wang Chung to write songs and a score for To Live and Die in L.A. (Ben Reiser reflects on that movie music here). Before his biggest box-office hit, 1973's The Exorcist wound up with the eclectic, minimalist score mentioned above by John Carpenter, Friedkin commissioned a score from then in-vogue composer Lalo Schifrin, whose body of work then included the theme for Mission: Impossible and the scores for Bullitt, Dirty Harry and another colossol 1973 hit, Enter the Dragon. While Friedkin found Schifrin's music abstract enough when he first heard it played back on piano, the director was not pleased when the score was recorded by a 70-piece orchestra (at the same Warner Bros. facility where Max Steiner recorded his scores in the 30s, 40s and 50s). According to Friedkin, "[The score] was wall-to-wall noise, using every component of this big band, including electric brass...I was in shock. It's not that the music was badly written or played; but it was the opposite of what I wanted."


Friedkin rather notoriously discarded Schifrin's work, effectively destroying their friendship, and replaced the score with pre-existing cues by Anton Webern, Krzysztof Penderecki, and, of course, Mike Oldfield, whose "Tubular Bells" helped launch Richard Branson's Virgin Records because of its inclusion in The Exorcist. Friedkin's move was not unprecedented in Hollywood history: Stanley Kubrick rejected a score by Alex North for 2001: A Space Odyssey in favor of the now famous pre-existing cues by Johann Strauss and Richard Strauss.

While "Mickey Mouse" scoring continues its dominance (consider Hans Zimmer's overdone music for Disney's production of The Lone Ranger as one example), the kind of minimalist scoring preferred by Carpenter and Friedkin in Sorcerer and The Exorcist has its contemporary descendants, like the music Johnny Greenwood has written for Paul Thomas Anderson's most recent films and the Carpenter-esque scores by Kurt Stenzel for Jodorowsky's Dune and Steve Moore for The Guest.

The Exorcist screens tonight, October 8, at 7 p.m. in the Marquee Theater at Union South. The 2000 re-release version, featuring added footage not seen in the original 1973 release, will be shown. A newly restored DCP of Sorcerer screens Thursday, October 9 at 7 p.m. at the Marquee Theater at Union South. Both screenings are co-presented by Cinematheque and WUD Film and both are free and open to the public.

Some Things to Know About MARKETA LAZAROVA

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

By Jim Healy

From Professor David S. Danaher in UW Madison's Slavic Languages Department comes word of a new, NEA-funded translation of Vladislav Vancura's epic 1931 Czech novel Markéta Lazarová.

You can read more on the book and the translation project here.

A bestseller in Europe, the book eventually inspired a 1967 film adaptation by director František Vláčil which has earned comparisons to Tarkovsky by some and has been proclaimed the greatest of all Czech films by a few others. You have the opportunity to see the movie version this Friday, October 10 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. What makes the screening extra special is the fact that we will be showing the film from a recently struck 35mm print. Opportunities to see new restorations like this one in their original 35mm formats have been greatly diminished since DCP projection has become the standard of most commercial theaters. The new 35mm print of Markéta Lazarová is brought to us courtesy of the good folks at Janus Films, the theatrical releasing arm of the Criterion Collection, who have made Markéta Lazarová available on blu-ray and DVD.



Levitation Test Footage from THE EXORCIST

Monday, October 6th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

By Ben Reiser

Writer Mike McPadden currently resides in Chicago, where his encyclopedic knowledge of exploitation movies of all types and his winning way with double entendres and sex-based puns had served him well as editor-in-chief of the website, Mr. Skin. These days Mike is doing a ton of freelance writing and has had two books published within the last year. His most recent tome, Heavy Metal Movies is informative and entertaining in exactly the ways I’ve come to expect from McPadden.

For a recent blog post on death and taxes, Mike has compiled a wonderful list of movie clips featuring screen tests and unused alternative early versions from a wide gamut of films that were then famously revised. Included in this list is some super cool levitation test footage from The Exorcist. Check it out:


More to the point, I’ve never seen The Exorcist in a movie theater. Not sure how that happened but I’m gonna fix that this Wednesday night, October 8 at 7 p.m. when the Cinematheque and WUD Film present the 2000 re-release version as part of the Cinematheque's William Friedkin series.

UW Student Blake Davenport on Hitchcock's LIFEBOAT

Friday, October 3rd, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat was written by UW Madison student Blake Davenport. A 35mm print of Lifeboat will screen as part of the Cinematheque's 'More Hitchcock!' series on Sunday, October 5 at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art.

Lifeboat: Hitchcock on Survival and Wartime Conditions

By Blake Davenport

As I stare out my window on this particularly cold and rainy night, I can’t help but identify with the many protagonists in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, alone and hungry with just the wind and sounds of Lake Mendota to keep me company. Well slight difference being that I’m curled up in my warm apartment waiting for pizza while they were adrift at sea.... but parallels nonetheless.

Lifeboat, screening as part of the Cinematheque’s wonderful ongoing Hitchcock series, is in many ways, one of the esteemed director's most unique films in relation to setting, characterization, and moral tensions between characters.

Set during the height of World War II, the film begins with a single long take, displaying varietal ship wreckage and debris. Shortly after however, a diverse group of both British and American survivors are introduced and seek refuge together on a lifeboat, as it is revealed that the allied liner they were traveling on sank during combat. Because Hitchcock couldn’t make just a simple survival film, a further twist befalls the gang, as the last survivor they pull out of the sea turns out to be a Nazi officer from the enemy German U-boat. Although many of the survivors initially vote to throw the Nazi overboard, it is slowly revealed that the officer is the only person who knows how to survive at sea, essentially forcing our allied protagonists to trust their fate to a German.

Through Lifeboat, it becomes very clear early on that Hitchcock aimed to produce a film that incorporated multiple distinct characterizations to act as a sort of mirror to the relations between the Allied forces amidst the hardships of war. In his interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock himself notes,

“We wanted to show that at the moment there were two world forces confronting  each other, the democracies and the Nazis, and while the democracies were completely disorganized, all of the Germans were clearly headed in the same direction. So here was a statement telling the democracies to put their differences aside temporarily and to gather their forces to concentrate on the common enemy.”

In many ways, by crafting such a unique cast of characters ranging from Tallulah Bankhead’s austere British reporter to the African American ship steward George (Canada Lee), Hitchcock effectively reveals many underlying social tensions and challenges that affected both civilians and service workers in the time of war. As the film unfolds, the most intriguing aspect revolves around the survivors attempt to gather as one and coexist successfully in order to survive the shipwreck.

One of Hitchcock’s “limited-setting” films (the list also includes Rope and Dial M for Murder), Lifeboat is a sharp and quick film that takes place entirely on the titular object.  The camera work is quite astonishing, as almost every scene presents a different perspective or angle. Additionally, the use of lighting and shadow create emphasis on characters and situations, preventing redundancy to the look and pacing of the film. The somewhat surprising choice to eliminate background music entirely from the story produces a surprisingly unique effect as well, elevating dramatic tension and allowing for more detailed characterization. For those of you naysayers wondering how Hitchcock could possibly work a cameo into a film that takes place entirely on a lifeboat, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for a certain humorous newspaper clipping.

While Lifeboat may not immediately come to one’s mind when considering the all-time Hitch classics, the film retains excellent stylistic and narrative touches that allows the director to work in a wholly unique setting and story structure. With a relatively short running time of 96 minutes, the film operates on multiple levels, providing the audience with a taut and thrilling story of survival, as well as a revealing look at how a master filmmaker worked with the constraints of this particular material.

Leo Rubinkowski Prepares You for 2 X Carax/Lavant

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay by Leo Rubinkowski, Graduate Student and Teaching Assistant in UW Madison's Communication Arts Department, discusses the first two features of Leos Carax, Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais Sang, both of which star Denis Lavant. The two films screen respectively at the UW Cinematheque on Saturday, October 4 and Saturday, October 11.

It is probably safe to assume that before the appearance of Holy Motors (2012) on US screens, most of that film’s American viewers (including yours truly) were more or less unfamiliar with Leos Carax. Helped along by the usual festivals, but surely benefitting from the ubiquity of online film criticism (Carax’s previous feature, Pola X, came out in 1999), Holy Motors performed respectably despite a very limited release in art houses and independent theaters. It is tempting, therefore, to fold renewed interest in Boy Meets Girl (1984) and Mauvais Sang (1986) neatly into the success of his latest work. Why else should Paris-based distributor Carlotta Films have inaugurated their US office with the first two features of an inarguably distinct, though commercially marginal, figure of contemporary French cinema?

In the mid-1980s, though, Leos Carax was not a pre-sold brand. To make sense of the new director, critics tended to look backwards, recognizing that what is idiosyncratic of Carax’s stories and style is also unabashedly familiar.

In Boy Meets Girl, Carax tells the story of Alex (Denis Lavant) and Mireille (Mireille Perrier), one an aspiring filmmaker recently dumped by his girlfriend and the other a suicidal actress whom Alex overhears breaking up with her boyfriend through an apartment intercom system. Despite not having actually seen Mireille, Alex falls in love with her. Later, the two meet at a dinner party and spend the night together until chance intervenes (again).

In contrast, Mauvais Sang is a heist picture. Marc (Michel Piccoli) must plot a crime to pay off a gangster known as “The American.” To help with the job, he brings on Alex (Lavant), the son of a recently deceased colleague. Alex falls in love with Marc’s lover, Anna (Juliette Binoche), who keeps Alex’s romantic overtures in check. Of course, the eventual robbery does not go as planned. Guns are fired, agreements are broken, a hostage is taken, and before long, all lines of action and feeling intersect in Alex’s dramatic final moments. (According to Carax, he stole several plot elements from a Raoul Walsh picture, Salty O’Rourke [1945].)

Following its run at the 1985 New York Film Festival, Vincent Canby mused of Boy Meets Girl, “one recognizes a bit of Jean-Luc Godard here, something of François Truffaut there, and every now and then one hears what may be the faint, original voice of Mr. Carax trying to make himself heard around and through the images of others.” Canby’s observations were not unique. More than a few critics treated Carax as a continuation of the French New Wave’s spirit, and the influence seems evident in both Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais Sang in many ways. When Alex and Mireille talk for the first time in Boy Meets Girl, can we imagine Carax is not quoting Vivre sa vie (Godard, 1962)? Mourning the vicissitudes of youth and l’amour fou, will Alex go to Antoine Doinel or Patricia Franchini for sympathy? And speaking of fated love, whose chemistry was more obvious: Michel and Patricia’s in the half-hour bedroom sequence from Breathless (Godard, 1960) or Alex and Anna’s during their all-night vigil in Mauvais Sang? Of course, the ties that bind Carax to the New Wave run deeper than mere situation. In Mauvais Sang, for instance, foreboding strings, primary colors, abrupt inserts, and flat stagings all call to mind similar stylistic elements at play in Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965).

However, it would be misleading to think that Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais Sang are the products of a director working after his time. As likely as they were to praise Carax as a reincarnation of the past, French critics in the mid-1980s also associated him with a contemporary trend in French cinema unofficially dubbed le cinéma du look. Like contemporaries Luc Besson (Subway, 1985; Nikita, 1990) and Jean-Jacques Beineix (Diva, 1981), Carax’s non-naturalistic approach to aesthetics seems to draw heavily from the conventions of television commercials, music videos, and fashion photography. Tight depth of focus, lighting set-ups that cause faces and props almost to glow while drowning backgrounds in shadow, and framings that militantly organize attention to the mise-en-scène all contribute to a visual resonance atypical of most films, including those of the New Wave directors. If, as Alex observes in Mauvais Sang, “You need to feed the eyes for your dreams,” many a night of sound sleep must have originated in the minds of Leos Carax and his director of photography, Jean-Yves Escoffier.

This dream-like quality is likely the feature that will impress viewers most during a first viewing. In part, this is a consequence of Carax’s style. Editing, sound, cinematography, and mise-en-scène all conspire to suggest that the story is happening out of focus, out of earshot, or outside the frame. Mystery suffuses the look and sound of Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais Sang. In the best surrealist tradition, though, Carax allows that mystery – that fantasy – to tear at the seams of his story worlds. Indeed, it is as if Alex (both of them), Mireille, Marc, Anna, Hans (Hans Meyer), and Lise (Julie Delpy) occupy a universe not identical to our own, but adjacent, where the day-to-day vies for relevance with the grandiose and the subtly absurd. A man and a woman lock in a passionate embrace, and then begin to rotate in place like mannequins; a passer-by tosses loose change for their trouble. A bed retains only the barest signs of a would-be lover: a cigarette, a tissue, a single hair, and the impossible indentation of her curled body. A desperate criminal takes an equally desperate hostage. A wall of cupboards reveals a single, chipped teacup. The radio plays “the very tune that [is] humming inside your head.”

This last moment may be the most important, because it responds best to the tragedy of viewing Leos Carax’s work. There is no way to freeze Lavant mid-stride, capture Piccoli and Serge Reggiani mid-scuffle, or halt Binoche mid-stretch. The intensity of despair in Mireille’s shorn hair will always be locked away on film. The experience resonates, but that resonance is a shadow. Nevertheless, when the feeling of loss is too great, when the cement in our stomachs begins to harden, there’s the smile of speed…and there’s David Bowie.


An Early Film Role for BUG Star Michael Shannon

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

by Jim Healy

In his memoir, The Friedkin Connection, Oscar-winning film director William Friedkin heaps praise on the leading man of his 2006 creepfest, Bug. Before he turned Tracy Letts's play into a movie, Friedkin had seen Shannon play the deeply paranoid, cocaine-fueled Peter in an off-Broadway production. Though he faced pressure to cast only big-name stars in the film version, Friedkin did everything he could to retain Shannon as Peter, a role originated by Shannon in a 1996 London stage production: "I've never known an actor more focused, dedicated, or capable of reaching the outer ranges of human behavior." You can see Bug, projected from a 35mm print, on Friday, October 3 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

Though the intense and always memorable Shannon had been in several films (like Pearl Harbor and Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) and television shows before Bug made its premiere at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, Friedkin's film led to his being cast in many more high-profile projects, including an Oscar-nominated turn in Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road and leading roles in other films directed by auteurs such as Werner Herzog, Jeff Nichols, David Koepp, and Ramin Bahrani. Many will recognize him as General Zod from 2013's summer Superman blockbuster, Man of Steel and as Nelson van Alden on HBO's Boardwalk Empire.

Michael Shannon has been an acquaintance of mine since the mid-1990s when he was a Chicago theater actor. I met him through my actor-screenwriter brother Pat, who later appeared with Shannon in author David Hauptschein's almost unbearably tense play The Persecution of Arnold Petch. Produced by A Red Orchid Theater, a Chicago troupe which Shannon co-founded, Arnold Petch was a dry run for Peter in Bug: the title character is a paranoiac living in a squalid studio apartment who later resorts to violence against his "persecutors".

After they both appeared in Pearl Harbor, Pat embarked on directing his first short film, Mullitt (2001), and he approached Michael to play the duplicitous roommate/best friend of Earl Lippy, the main character played by Pat. In another echo of Bug, Shannon's character is a frantic user of drugs (in Mullit's case, the trendy crack) and a highly volatile young man. I was around for about 75% of the filming of Mullitt, and, like Friedkin, I was impressed by Michael's intensity and devotion and preparedness. Always quiet and observant off-camera, he turned on a volcano of emotions as soon as the film was rolling and I was truly in awe of his abilitiles while I witnessed him destroying a chair in a crack-addled frenzy, covering his otherwise naked body in cottage cheese, and breaking down at the moment his dreams of riches (and more crack) evaporate.

You can see Mullitt, in its entirety, here:


Mullitt from Three Eyed Bros on Vimeo.

That's yours truly as the mouth-breathing nerd flunky (the other flunky is Harmony and Me writer-director Bob Byington). If Michael Shannon's final monologue seems familiar, that's because the same words are spoken by Luis Guzman's character when he similarly betrays Al Pacino at the end of Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way (1993). Many years later, in David Koepp's Premium Rush (2012), Shannon's unforgettable villain refers to several characters as "Papi". Reliable sources tell me this was Shannon's improvisation - a nod, I'd like to believe, to Mullitt. Coincidentally, the screenplay for Carlito's Way was written by David Koepp, but Guzman's lines about "Sometime it bes' that way" are themselves lifted, with credit, from one of the Edwin Torres novels on which De Palma's film is based.


Sunday, September 28th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 were written by UW Madison's Maureen Rogers, Ph.D candidate and Teaching Assistant in the Department of Communication Arts. Ms. 45 screens as the Cinematheque's first 'Marquee Monday' for the Fall 2014 season at the Marquee Theater at Union South on Monday, September 29, at 7 p.m.

Ms. 45 and the Rape and Revenge Film

by Maureen Rogers

Ms. 45 (1981) marks Abel Ferrara's third directorial feature and third collaboration with screenwriter Nicholas St. John. Since its release, Ms. 45's melange of gore and low-budget stylization, set in gritty pre-Giuliani New York, has made the film a favorite among fans of cult and exploitation cinema.

Ms. 45 stars the 18-year-old Zoe Lund as Thana, a mute seamstress working for a two-bit fashion designer (played by a delightfully smarmy Albert Sinkys) in the Manhattan Garment District. (Lund would go on to collaborate with Ferrara in writing 1992's Bad Lieutenant.) Returning from work one day, Thana is brutally assaulted and raped twice in a span of mere hours. Traumatized and enraged, Thana doles out revenge on her assailants and, as the film proceeds, on the unrelenting array of sexual predators that populate Ferrara's early-1980s downtown Manhattan.

At a brisk 84 minutes, Ms. 45 is quickly plotted and rarely drags. Given the expressive limitations of the Thana character, Lund offers a moving and dynamic performance with impressive range conveyed largely through facial expression. The film also benefits from interesting sound design and music that ranges from expressive use of a tenor sax (a likely influence on Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill) to synth music more characteristic of the period and genre.

Ms. 45 is also among the most pared down examples of the rape and revenge film, a subgenre of the action revenge genre. Most rape and revenge films involve a similar set of situations and events that include extended scenes of the female protagonist's suffering. The protagonist typically survives the sexual assault(s), and the remainder of the narrative is spent detailing her plotting to kill the perpetrator(s) and finally achieving her revenge. There are a few common variations to this formula; for instance, in some rape and revenge films, as in the Japanese film Lady Snowblood (1973) and Death Wish (1974), family members seek vengeance on behalf of the female victim who is unable to carry out revenge herself. Many rape and revenge films present both the sexual assaults and the acts of revenge as moments of hyperviolent, sexualized spectacle and titillation.

It's worth noting that the rape and revenge plot has been used in a variety of budget levels and production contexts; higher-budget examples include Lipstick (1976), Wild Things (1998), and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo novel and film adaptations. However, in common parlance, the rape and revenge film is almost exclusively associated with a low-budget, exploitation mode of filmmaking. As such, 1970s and 1980s rape and revenge films, such as I Spit On Your Grave (1978), the Swedish sexploitation film Thriller: A Cruel Picture (aka They Call Her One Eye, 1973), and Ms. 45, are often considered classics of the subgenre. Indeed, in Ms. 45, Ferrara appears to draw significantly from Thriller: A Cruel Picture. Like Thana, Madeleine, the female protagonist in Thriller, is also mute, and there are substantial similarities in sound design and costume.

Ms. 45 is grisly at times and, at other times, playfully vengeful, particularly as Thana begins to fully inhabit her new persona as a killer. Indeed, the ambiguous moral valence of Ms. 45 and other rape and revenge films has been a topic of considerable controversy. On the one hand, some critics and commentators have understood films such as Ms. 45 as tales of female empowerment and patriarchal critique. On the other hand, the rape scenes in these films occupy a good deal of screen time and often depict the sadistic violence of the story in a highly sexualized, often troubling fashion. For some viewers, Thana's inability to speak might further mitigate a reading of Ms. 45 as feminist or politically transgressive, while the film's climax and Thana's fate further muddies the film's politics. Whichever way you understand it, Ms. 45 is a disturbing, entertaining, and controversial film.