The Political and Aesthetic Significance of Ashby’s COMING HOME

Thursday, February 17th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Hal Ashby's Coming Home was written by Ashton Leach, graduate student at UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Coming Home will screen on Saturday, February 19 at 7:15 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission for this screening is free.

The screening is presented in conjunction with University Theatre’s production of Shirley Lauro’s A Piece of My Heart directed by Baron Kelly. Performances run March 3-11.

By Ashton Leach

The 1970s saw the rise of the auteur director—someone who seems to craft every element of the film as if they were authoring a book themselves. Because of this intense dedication and control, Hal Ashby’s eccentric films of the 1970s have gained a cult following that pushed his once-controversial pieces into the canon of the decade. He directed back-to-back hits starting in 1970 with a debut that is politically charged and funny throughout, The Landlord. In 1971 he shocked audiences with his romantically taboo-yet-lust-for-life-inducing film Harold and Maude, followed by the humorously profane sailor film The Last Detail in 1973. Next, the sexual, comedic, and politically puissant Shampoo was released in 1975, followed by the insightful 1976 biopic of musical folk hero Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory. In 1978, Ashby released his anti-war manifesto in the romance, Coming Home. He concluded his string of superb films with Being There in 1979.

Before becoming a director, Ashby was known for being a meticulous editor, working on films such as The Cincinnati Kid and In the Heat of the Night. Ashby would spend hours re-watching clips until he could craft the perfect transition, and it has been said that he would not leave the editing room for months at a time as he clipped and dissolved film reels to his level of perfection. Ashby stated, “Make your film so goddamned good that you see something in it all the time. Every sonofabitching time you sit down and thread up a goddamn reel and you punch a button and you start to look at it, you get a different idea. And whether you pursue it or not doesn’t matter. The film will tell you what to do.” Ashby moved from editing to direction in 1970 when his filmmaking partner, Norman Jewison, passed along a project Jewison was set to direct on race relations and the comedically ignorant white aristocrats in New York, The Landlord. The film took on the political ideologies that Ashby and Jewison had been wanting to delve into. Ashby’s manner of directing led to an indescribable intimacy between the audience and the characters. His films take on the feel of a documentary, utilizing raw but subtle emotion to complicate the personalities of his characters. He continued to use the wit, the poignant political themes, and the personable approach that he utilized in The Landlord throughout his filmography, and it is seen unobscured in Coming Home.

Coming Home, a staunchly anti-war film, came out after America had left Vietnam, but the war’s effects were still ravaging the world. The title of the film itself references the hardship faced by many of the soldiers who returned after their tour was complete. Most people would associate coming home with the feeling of comfort, knowing everything around us, and a sense of freedom, but Coming Home pushes back against that narrative of open arms and joyous reunions. Ashby’s film gives face to those who have returned from war but no do not experience that comfort. They are physically back, but their home is not the same, or rather they have changed in a way that makes “home” feel foreign.

The film opens with cigarette smoking and pool being played—balls ricocheting while we hear talking about “going back.” As the camera moves away, it is clear that the nameless men playing this game of billiards are physically disabled—sitting in wheelchairs or laying on beds while maneuvering around the table. “Going back” is going back to Vietnam or running away to Canada—these men are vets who served in Vietnam and have come home. The year is 1968, the war in Vietnam is at its height. Sally Hyde (Jane Fonda) is the perfect, friendly, doting wife to Bob (Bruce Dern), a Marine who is preparing to ship off for duty in Vietnam. Once he is gone, Sally’s time is free in a way she has not known. There are no more watchful eyes at country clubs and Bob is not around to tell her what to think. In dedication to her husband and to do her part for the war effort, Sally volunteers at the local veterans’ hospital. She gets a beach house and spends her time increasingly away, not only from Bob, but from the way of life they led before his departure. A meet-cute if there ever was one, Sally is run into by a patient who is lying face down on a bed, using a cane to move throughout the hospital. When they collide, his urine bag falls to the floor, and a familiar face from the opening scene reappears. His angry outburst defines a great deal of Luke Martin’s (played by Jon Voight) personality for the rest of the film, foiling Sally’s gentle demeanor. Upon further discussion, outside of the frequent anger-filled outbursts, Sally and Luke realize they went to high school together. Though they were never friends, it gives them the tiny connection to start something more than a caregiver and patient relationship.

The manner in which Ashby captures the relationship of Sally and Luke is astonishing, building chemistry between them in a sort of opposites attract theme while keeping them raw and real, but what Ashby does best in this film is the visual perspective he crafts for Luke. Luke has been paralyzed from the waist down after an injury in the war and when a shot is taking Luke’s perspective, Ashby keeps the camera at Luke’s eye level. There will be shots with disembodied people walking on the screen. It is jarring at first watching torsos move without the faces leading, but this method of capturing just one way in which Luke sees the world since coming home from Vietnam is substantial and poignant. Luke is seen both in a wheelchair and in a mobile bed, each of which takes on different heights and visual cues.

Ashby does not craft characters that are simply good or bad—Luke is hot-headed and violent at times, while Sally was naïve and did not tend to think critically about the world around her beyond what was told to her by her husband. This relationship changes them in ways that, depending on the character in the film, might be for the better or worse. Nothing feels clean cut or easy in this film, and that is how Ashby creates fathomable narratives that teach a lesson and push audiences to think about their perception of the world.

DRAGON INN : Wuxia Defined

Friday, February 11th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on King Hu’s Dragon Inn were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Dragon Inn, courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research, will screen in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue, on Sunday, February 13, at 2 p.m. On the same screen on week later, the Cinematheque will present Tsai Ming-Liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Both screenings are co-presented by our friends at WUD Film. Admission is free for both screenings.

By Tim Brayton

Over the past few years, Cinematheque has showcased several of the wuxia epics of the great action director King Hu. But now we bring to you a truly special example of Hu’s art, the proverbial “one he’ll be remembered for”: Dragon Inn, a 1967 historical adventure that was a massive hit in its native Taiwan, and has gone on to become one of the most beloved examples of its cult-favorite genre. Its legacy extends beyond the legions of action epics mixing costume drama and violent exploitation cinema, to reach the arthouse: the film has been released on home video as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection, in addition to inspiring the great slow cinema director Tsai Ming-Liang in the creation of his 2003 masterpiece Goodbye Dragon Inn (which is showing next week at Cinematheque).

Even King Hu himself ended up living in the film’s shadow: six years later, he’d direct The Fate of Lee Khan, which in some ways plays as an uncredited remake of Dragon Inn. But that’s perfectly understandable. Dragon Inn is a consummate work of action filmmaking, political storytelling, and good old-fashioned cinematic spectacle, parading its large cast in a rainbow of bright costumes across the great expanse of an anamorphic widescreen frame. It has a cast full of memorably larger-than-life characters, and a story that’s simultaneously a complicated web of political intrigue, and a pretty straightforward Wild West-style narrative about the need to defend a base of operations from an encroaching army.

Many of these elements are central to the wuxia film. If you’re not familiar with the genre by that name, wuxia is an exceedingly broad term that basically refers to any story built around gifted warriors in ancient China following a chivalric notion of heroism and defending the weak. Fantasy may be involved, as might swords, along with trampolines and wirework, or camera trickery designed to make the heroes and villains alike seem to possess superhero fighting abilities. You’ll see some of these elements in Dragon Inn and not others; wuxia is a generous genre, and as long as the basic setting and ethos are in place, it can withstand a great many different tones, plots, and styles.

In this case, the setting is an inn on the edge of an unfathomable desert. Here, a group of heroes come together to prevent a treacherous warlord-eunuch from killing the surviving children of his dead political enemy. And there’s not much more to it than that, though in the moment of watching Dragon Inn, it can easily seem like the film is full to bursting with factional intrigues and the ever-present threat of ambush or betrayal. The eunuch himself, Cao Shao-qin (Pai Ying) barely appears until late in the film, and most of what happens before then is that we’re introduced to our band of heroes, more or less one at a time, the better to appreciate their skills. Hu refrains from making any of of them a clear-cut lead, though by virtue of being the first one to show off his talents, the lone swordsman Xiao, played by Chun Shih (a mainstay of Hu’s subsequent films, working with the director for the first time) perhaps makes the strongest impression. And one must also give a nod to Miss Zhu (Lingfeng Shangguan), an excellent swordswoman disguised as a man when we meet her; she’s the archetype for all of the highly competent, self-sufficient female warriors who would become a particular strength of Hu’s going forward.

The insistence on treating the protagonists as a collaborative group rather than individual fighters leads to one of Dragon Inn’s most celebrated elements, its extraordinary fight choreography captured within unusually elegant widescreen compositions. In treating his protagonists collectively, Hu is able to introduce some bold ideas into the action scenes, which unfold according to some very different rhythms than anything else out there in ‘67. This is most apparent in the film’s climax, when the heroes have greatly tired themselves out over a long stretch of fighting, and throw themselves into a five-against-one boss battle. Between the feeling of exhaustion that the film generates from the performers (not to mention the sheer momentum of how action-packed the second hour is; the viewer is likely to be more than a little worn out themselves), and the possibilities for choreography brought in by the arrangement of combatants, this brutal and abrupt final fight proves to be remarkably fresh and surprising, even with the film having spawned so many copycats through the years.

Of course, there’s still room for taciturn warriors showing off their individual skills in bravura setpieces. Xiao’s arrival at the inn is a particularly great example of this, with clever angles and some basic filmmaking trickery (running film backwards, speeding it up) setting him up as pragmatic and startlingly good at flinging around bowls full of food without spilling a drop. It’s a real virtuoso sequence, using some of the film’s most striking compositions to work through some of its most delightfully showy fight choreography.

Dragon Inn balances this spectacle with more grounded, muted human feelings: everybody might be an archetype, some of them pretty garish at that, but they also feel like distinctly worked-out people. The evocation of a fraught political struggle is tempered and cynical just enough to give the film a feeling of grown-up bite. It’s not a serious historical document, and it’s not trying to be, but there’s a perfect amount of depth in the characters and large-scale stakes in the conflict for Dragon Inn to feel like a more fully-realized story than a great many action scenes on either side of the Pacific. It has popcorn movie gravity, deep enough for it to feel consequential even while its main goal is to keep knocking you out with one creative fight scene, punchy joke (the play has an admirable amount of drily dark humor), or gorgeous tableau of human soldiers arranged against an undulating environment in crisp lines. It’s a truly special, ambitious film, in other words, more than worthy of being considered, even now, one of the defining examples of wuxia.

See Oscar-nominated WRITING WITH FIRE & Hear Cinematalk Podcast with Filmmakers

Tuesday, February 8th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

Our ongoing series of new movies from India continues on Saturday, February 12 at 4 p.m. with Pebbles, India's official submission for Best International Feature at the 2022 Academy Awards. Then, at 7 p.m., the first area theatrical screening of Writing with Fire, which today was nominated for the Best Feature Documentary Oscar!

The screenings will be held at 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is free. Masks are required for entry. New Indian Cinema is presented with the support of UW Madison’s Center for South Asia. Special thanks to Sarah Beckham and Darshana Sreedhar Mini.

Writing with Fire screened virtually at the 2021 Wisconsin Film Festival. An episode of our Cinematalk podcast, recorded in May, 2021, features Writing with Fire co-directors Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas in conversation with Professor Darshana Sreedhar Mini of UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. You can listen to the podcast below, or you can subscribe to Cinematalk through Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podccasts.

Favorites of 2021: Pauline Lampert

Monday, January 10th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

Pauline Lampert is a Phd candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. She is also Project Assistant and Programmer for the Cinematheque and the Wisconsin Film Festival.

Best of 2021

1. Power of the Dog (Campion)

2. West Side Story (Spielberg)

3. A Hero (Farhadi)

4. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (Greenbaum)

5. The French Dispatch (Anderson)

6. Pretend It’s a City (Scorsese)

7. The Velvet Underground (Haynes)

8. The Lost Daughter (Gyllenhaal)

9. Flee (Poher Rasmussen)

10. Petite Maman (Sciamma)

2021 Honorable Mentions

The Worst Person in the World (Trier)

Parallel Mothers (Almodóvar)

Try Harder! (Lum)

Best first views of 2021 in alphabetical order:

1. Bell, Book and Candle (Quine, 1958)

2. Blue Hawaii (Taurog, 1961)

3. Chan is Missing (Wang, 1982)

4. Chess of the Wind (Reza Aslani, 1975)

5. Crossing Delancey (Micklin Silver,1988)

6. The End of the Track (Mou Tun-fei, 1970)

7. Ghost ( Zucker, 1990)

8. He Ran All the Way (Berry, 1951)

9. Hester Street (Micklin Silver, 1975)

10. Klute (Pakula, 1971)

11. The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (Mambéty, 1999)

12. Miss Juneteenth (Godfrey Peoples, 2020)

13. She-Devil (Seidelman, 1989)

14. The Story of Temple Drake (Roberts, 1933)

15. West Indies (Hondo, 1979)

Favorites of 2021: Jim Healy

Wednesday, January 5th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

Jim Healy is the UW Cinematheque's Director of Programming and a contributing programmer for the Wisconsin Film Festival.

There are no "new" movies or "old" movies. Only movies I have seen and movies I haven't seen. I saw 577 feature-length films in 2021 that were all new to me. My three top favorites are:

GET BACK (2021, Peter Jackson)

LICORICE PIZZA (2021, Paul Thomas Anderson)

ONE SECOND (2020, Zhang Yimou)

And, in alphabetical order, here are 55 more movies that are all exceptionally good.

A CHIARA (2021, Jonas Carpignano)

ABOUT ENDLESSNESS (2019, Roy Andersson)

AN ACT OF MURDER (1948, Michael Gordon)

ANNETTE (2021, Leos Carax)

BACK STREET (1961, David Miller)

LA BELLE DE NUIT (1934, Louis Valray)

THE BLUE KNIGHT (1973, Robert Butler)

BUSTER AND BILLIE (1974, Daniel Petrie)


THE DISCIPLE (2020, Chaitanya Tamhane)

ENCANTO (2021, Jared Bush, Byron Howard)

ESCALE (1935, Louis Valray)

FLEE (2021, Jonas Poher Rasmussen)


A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX (2021, Rodney Ascher)

GOLDEN VOICES (2020, Evgeny Ruman)

HEARTWORN HIGHWAYS (1976, James Szalapski)

I WOULDN'T BE IN YOUR SHOES (1948, William Nigh)

IN JACKSON HEIGHTS (2015, Frederick Wiseman)

ISLANDS (2021, Martin Edralin)

KING RICHARD (2021, Reinaldo Marcus Green)

LARCENY (1947, George Sherman)

LET HIM GO (2020, Thomas Bezucha)

THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD (1971, Kevin Billington)

LOVERS AND LOLLIPOPS (1956, Ruth Orkin, Morris Engel)

LUCA (2021, Enrico Casarosa)

MAD GOD (2021, Phil Tippett)

MINARI (2020, Lee-Isaac Chung)

NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY (1976, John Llewelyn Moxley)

NOBODY (2021, Ilya Naishuller)

PARTY GIRL (1995, Daisy von Scherler Mayer)

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS (1934, Alexander Hall)

A QUIET PLACE PART II (2020, John Krasinski)


RED ROCKET (2021, Sean Baker)

THE RESCUE (2021, Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi)

THE ROAD TO SALINA (1970, Georges Lautner)




SPIDER MAN NO WAY HOME (2021, Jon Watts)

STILLWATER (2021, Tom McCarthy)

SUN CHILDREN (2020, Majid Majidi)

SUNDOWN (2021, Michel Franco)

SHE WANTED A MILLIONAIRE (1932, John Blystone)

THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME (1947, Irving Pichel)


TRUE MOTHERS (2020, Naomi Kawase)

LA VÉRITÉ (1960, Henri-Georges Clouzot)

THE VICTORS (1963, Carl Foreman)

THE WEB (1947, Michael Gordon)

WEST SIDE STORY (2021, Steven Spielberg)

WHEEL OF FORTUNE AND FANTASY (2021, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)

WHY DOES HERR R. RUN AMOK? (1977, Michael Fengler, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)


The Lovely, Lonely World of THE APARTMENT

Thursday, December 16th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Billy Wilder’s The Apartment were written by John Bennett, PhD candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 4K DCP of The Apartment will be the Cinematheque's final feature film presentation of 2021 on Friday, December 17, 7 p.m., in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is Free!

By John Bennett

As of 2021, the Academy Award for Best Picture has been bestowed on over ninety films. Usually, these films deal with momentous topics, whether that entails historical heroism (as in Patton (1970), Gandhi (1982), Schindler’s List (1993)) or the condemnation of social ills (How Green Was My Valley (1941), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), 12 Years a Slave (2013)). They include visually dazzling epics (Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Titanic (1997)) and examinations of the entertainment industry itself (All About Eve (1950), The Artist (2011)). The Apartment, one of legendary writer/director Billy Wilder’s best films, and the winner of the 1960 Oscar for Best Picture, is notable for its depiction of normal people experiencing normal, human emotions. Of all the Best Picture Oscar winners, The Apartment may have the best understanding of ordinary people (surpassing even, yes, Ordinary People, which won the same award twenty years after The Apartment).

The film tells the story of C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a cog in the vast machinery of Consolidated Life, an insurance behemoth in Manhattan. Baxter is a popular employee with some of the Consolidated Life brass, not because of his innate abilities as an insurance clerk, but rather because he allows them to use his Central-Park-adjacent apartment as a pied-à-terre for their extramarital affairs. In exchange for these accommodations, Baxter’s superiors are happy to recommend him for promotions. Though this arrangement exhausts Baxter and disturbs his kindly neighbors (who are under the humorous impression that Baxter is indulging in a parade of noisy evening jaunts), he nevertheless enjoys the professional leg-up it brings him, which puts enough wind in the timid clerk’s sails for him to pursue his longtime office crush, elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacClaine). Fran initially seems charmed by Baxter, but before long it is revealed that she, too, is swept up in corporate infidelities. In fact, she is in love with Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the powerful executive who is now Baxter’s direct supervisor. It is this affair that weighs down and nearly destroys both Baxter and Fran with crushing loneliness amid the sprawl of lively Manhattan. With this love triangle in place, Wilder unspools The Apartment’s lovely, lonely story.

Throughout Wilder’s oeuvre, one can discern two tonal tendencies that are striking in their sheer contrapuntal difference. On one hand, Wilder’s films can be mischievously acerbic, as in A Foreign Affair (1948), Ace in the Hole (1951), or Kiss Me Stupid (1964). In this mode, Wilder’s stories cuttingly explore sex and deception through the schemes and shenanigans of morally compromised characters. In these films, the men are cads and the women forgo virtue both casually and opportunistically. On the other hand, Wilder’s work can exhibit an earnest, almost plaintive romanticism, as in Sabrina (1954), The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), or Avanti! (1972). In this mode, Wilder’s characters are more likely to reveal their deep-seated vulnerabilities, expressing regret and/or loneliness among the turmoil of an indifferent world. All of Wilder’s films mix these two sensibilities in some fashion, but none blends them more expertly than The Apartment.

But what sets The Apartment out in Wilder’s body of work is its deployment of the romantic tone to actively comment upon, and even condemn, the cynicism that the writer/director was so skilled at conjuring. The Apartment generates sympathy for Baxter and Fran in depicting them as sincere, well-intentioned individuals cast in a pit of lecherous and egotistical vipers. Whereas Dean Martin’s excessive prurience is played for laughs in Kiss Me Stupid, the sexual impropriety of Consolidated Life’s executives is revolting to the audience because we can see how it twists more sincere characters like Baxter and Fran into miserable knots. No character represents this sliminess more than Sheldrake, who, through his syrupy vows of love to Fran and subsequent off-hand dismissal of Fran to Baxter, betrays a total disregard for basic human consideration. The ardent executives have as their counterpoint Dr. and Mrs. Dreyfuss, Baxter’s friendly neighbors who, despite the disturbances that emanate from Baxter’s apartment, treat him with parental fondness. The film’s moral core seems to be summed up at one point during the film’s climactic crisis, during which Dr. Dreyfuss, misunderstanding a near-tragic situation, admonishes Baxter to “be a mensch.” As Ed Sikov notes in his excellent biography of Wilder, “...[he] puts the world’s baseness to the service of a higher good in this film, his most genuinely sweet-tempered and generous work to date.”

Billy Wilder is perhaps remembered more for the wit of his stories and dialogue than for the formal properties of his images. Nevertheless, The Apartment boasts many beautifully composed visuals that also reinforce the film’s story and themes. The visual flair of the film is obvious from the very first shot of Baxter’s vast workplace. In this shot, Wilder positions the camera’s height and angle such that much of the ceiling and floor are visible; the office’s ceiling lights and the rows of the clerks’ desks create a grid of lines that run cleanly to a seemingly eternally distant vanishing point. The cavernous office (along with Baxter’s introductory voice over reducing large sums of people to mere statistics) establishes the idea of the anonymity that the film’s characters can use as cover for their various indiscretions. The richness of the impossibly large open plan office is explored again in the final shot of the holiday party scene after Baxter has learned of Fran’s affair with Sheldrake. The shot, which lasts nearly forty seconds, opens with the image of a company telephone operator (Joan Shawlee, who played bandleader Sweet Sue in Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959)) dancing suggestively on a table as a large crowd of employees cheer her on. As Baxter dejectedly scoots by the revelers, the camera tilts down and tracks left. Kirkeby, one of his bosses, catches up to him as the camera comes to a halt. The two are now isolated in an eerily empty shot that had teemed seconds ago with carousing coworkers. Kirkeby further wounds Baxter’s pride by imploring once more for the use of his apartment. After Baxter quietly assents, the camera pans left as he recedes alone to the deceptively endless depths of the office. These three compositions, all nestled within one shot, help drive home the film’s preoccupation with lechery and loneliness. Excellent, too, are many of the compositions depicting the apartment itself. With Baxter’s bedroom and kitchen existing as offshoots of the central den, Wilder can carve out pockets of space that allow characters to secretly observe the actions of others in the foreground. Similarly strong are the visuals that transform a recurring Chinese restaurant into a dense urban jungle that affords, nominally, a degree of anonymity for unfaithful men and kept women.

It would take a monograph to adequately draw attention to all of The Apartment’s rich cinematic details. The film is full of recurring jokes, the reappearance of each taking on new emotional significance in light of new narrative information. Detail-filled, too, are the film’s many long takes, which allow the tiniest gestures to convey secrecy, solitude, desire, and power. (Note, for example, the quiet, tender care with which Baxter removes blades from a razor in the film’s second half). A book length study might also be necessary to sufficiently praise the contributions of Wilder’s collaborators, including writer I.A.L. Diamond (with whom Wilder wrote all of his subsequent films), cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, set designer Alex Trauner, and composer Adolph Deutsch–to say nothing of the three excellent lead performances by Lemmon, MacClaine, and MacMurray. Wilder masterfully marshals all of these details, all of these artistic contributions of other skilled craftspeople, into a story that understands so perceptively what it means to be lonely in the midst of so much callousness and the reserves of strength that are necessary to take a stab at overcoming these forces to find some trace of happiness.

Please Give to UW Cinematheque

Tuesday, November 30th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

As we near the end of 2021, we are taking a moment to reflect on what the Cinematheque has been able to provide for our audiences during this unique year.

The year began much as 2020 had ended, with our home venue of 4070 Vilas Hall shuttered due to Covid 19 health and safety concerns. Cinematheque continued our Cinematheque at Home series of films available to view online, as well as regular installments of our Cinematalk podcast. Highlights included the latest works from Rodney Ascher (A Glitch in the Matrix), Nicolas Pareda (Fauna) along with podcast interviews with the directors; an in-depth discussion with interdisciplinary artist-in-residence, Litza Bixler and at home screenings of The World’s End featuring her choreography, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a profound influence on Bixler’s work. We also presented free online screenings of a generous slate of bold new films including Shiva Baby, Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream, and There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways of Showing a Man Getting on a Horse. In April we took deep dives into the films of independent Midwestern filmmakers Frank V. Ross and Emir Cakaroz with multiple film screenings and companion podcasts.

Cinematheque made a much-anticipated return to 4070 Vilas Hall at the end of June with six weeks of free screenings. Starting with Leo McCarey’s classic tearjerker Make Way for Tomorrow and ending with James Cameron’s summer blockbuster spectacular, Aliens, we presented an exciting, typically eclectic slate of films, everything from Where’s Poppa? to Pepe Le Moko; and from Ruggles of Red Gap to The Lunchbox. We also celebrated the Charles Bronson centennial with a handful of his best films, ending with the singular From Noon Till Three and a podcast discussion with writer/director Dan Gilroy, whose father, Frank Gilroy, wrote and directed From Noon.

Fall kicked off with Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness and a 35mm screening of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and proceeded with well-attended screenings of Rashomon, New Order, and a sneak preview of Dear Evan Hansen. October brought a tribute to the trailblazing career of Joan Micklin Silver, the return of in-person guests to the Cinematheque in the form of Brandon Colvin, presenting his latest, A Dim Valley, and archivist & UW alum, Olivia Babler, presenting the recently discovered, long lost silent feature, The First Degree, featuring live piano by David Drazin. In November, we hosted acclaimed writer/director Ken Kwapis, here to present special 35mm screenings of his modern- day classic, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and a personal favorite, American Graffiti.

Our programming goes on hiatus mid-December as we prepare for an exciting 2022 Cinematheque season that will begin in late January. Our free film programming would not be possible without the generous support of individuals like you. In the spirit of this season of giving, please donate here to the UW Cinematheque. Our organization continues to take the lead in keeping cinema culture and cinema talk alive and well in Madison during this uncertain time for movie-going.


Jim Healy, Director of Programming


Wednesday, November 10th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Ken Kwapis’s The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants were written by Ashton Leach, graduate student in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Sisterhood will be screening on Thursday, November 11, at the Marquee Theater at Union South. After the screening, director Ken Kwapis will join us in person to answer audience questions. This screening is a collaboration between the UW Cinematheque and WUD Film.

By Ashton Leach

Tears, laughter, love. These are the key components of Ken Kwapis' The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Based on the 2001 Ann Brashares book by the same name, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants revels in the complexities of teenage girlhood, intertwining comedy and drama seamlessly as the narrative follows four girls during their first summer apart as they spread out across the world. The sixteen-year-olds that comprise the Sisterhood of the title question the importance of love, especially as they approach it in a way they have never done before. Carmen (America Ferrera) seeks affection from her father as cultural differences leave her feeling othered in his new WASP family in South Carolina. Lena (Alexis Bledel) finds a boyfriend who is seen as a family enemy by the relatives she's visiting in Greece. After the death of her mother, Bridget (Blake Lively) confronts her feelings of depression, loss, and shame while at soccer camp in Mexico. Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) makes new friends with a younger girl while working through the summer in Maryland.

Director Ken Kwapis is best known for his contributions to sitcoms, including Freaks and Geeks, Malcolm in the Middle, and most notably, The Office. Kwapis' film offers a look at the connection friendship creates beyond the differences of size, class, and distance and the director excels at crafting spaces that leave the four protagonists vulnerable while also showing their fortitude. Sisterhood remains a cornerstone of late-night sleepovers, and as America Ferrera, Blake Lively, Amber Tamblyn, and Alexis Bledel continue to dominate both small and large screens, Sisterhood stays in conversation as an important achievement in their early careers.

The way Kwapis represents the intensity of change on the screen leaves the viewer reflecting on the changes that cause the character shifts in the four protagonists. From Greece to South Carolina, from Mexico to Maryland, the girls send the pants to each other seemingly when they need them most. The pants come to represent the confidence that is gained through companionship, giving each of the girls the encouragement to take the risks in new places where their friends aren't. The pants, in actuality, get little screen time, and aren't a particularly memorable aspect of the movie. This just goes to show that the pants, which also represent the affection between the four friends, were never really important, and the cost of shipping the jeans all over the world is well worth the price for friendship.

Four girls, four vastly different backgrounds, one hip-hugging pair of denim jeans that represent much more than a fashion trend of 2005. Sisterhood digs into the difficulty of change: each girl realizes that what they wanted is much more complicated than they ever expected and the characters offer so much more beyond the usual trite depiction of bland and vapid teenagers. Kwapis' film instead focuses on the struggles that many girls will have to face during this sensitive time of immense metamorphosis. The dramatic actions taken by each of the girls might seem cliched on the surface, but the film sensitively reveals the emotional turmoil that lead them to their actions, giving weight to their experiences and pain. That is why Sisterhood remains a staple in the library of teenage girlhood cinema.

Sisterhood provides an honest portrayal of finding oneself with a little help from your friends, even when they are not physically there. The familiarity of Sisterhood is moving, painfully relatable, and guaranteed to elicit a plethora of emotions. Though the girls are not stereotypes, the performances and writing make it possible for anyone watching the film to sympathize with the girls. Sisterhood leaves the audience reflecting upon the pressures of teenagerhood and acts as a reminder that chosen family is just as valuable as any blood relation. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants will undoubtedly live on in the pantheon of teenage girlhood films, but it leaves all its viewers, regardless of age, knowing that perhaps “being happy isn't having everything in your life be perfect. Maybe it's about stringing together all the little things, like wearing these pants.”

Cinematalk Podcast: J.J. Murphy on THE FLORIDA PROJECT

Wednesday, November 10th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

On Saturday, November 13th, the Cinematheque will present a 35mm print of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. Our free screening coincides with the publication of J.J. Murphy’s revelatory new monograph on the film’s production from University of Texas press.

On this new episode of our Cinematalk podcast, our special guest is  J.J. Murphy, author, filmmaker and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Communication Arts at University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he taught film production and studies courses for many years. His films include the avant-garde classics Print Generation and Sky Blue Water Light Sign, which have been restored by the Academy Film Archive. His two most recently published books are Rewriting Indie Cinema: Improvisation, Psychodrama and the Screenplay, and The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol.

Listen to Cinematalk below or subscribe through Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

The Nasty Business of POSSESSION

Thursday, November 4th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession, were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Possession will screen on Friday, November 5, at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is Free.

By Tim Brayton

The fourth film directed Andrzej Żuławski, 1981’s Possession, has had a difficult history in the English-speaking world. The film (itself shot in English, the director’s only film in that language) was heavily cut down for its 1983 United States release: fully one-third of the film was carved away to bring it down to an incoherent 81 minutes, received with hostility by critics and ignored by audiences. On the other side of the Atlantic, it was initially released uncut in the United Kingdom, but then fell under a bizarre form of notoriety, when it was targeted as one of the 72 “Video Nasties,” the 1983 list of films that the Director Public Prosecutions sought to ban on obscenity grounds.

The Video Nasties list came about due to concerns, in the wake of the first wave of slasher films reaching the new medium of VHS tapes, that young people were being exposed to too much violence and other depraved content. In this context, the presence of Possession is especially bizarre, given that it is, uniquely among those 72 titles, a politically-laden art film, not any kind of exploitation film, and certainly not one that impressionable children would likely have encountered in the first place. Nor, if they had, would they be likely to have understood some of the most challenging and unsettling material in the film. Since its initial European release, critics have struggled to describe Possession: is it horror? Is it a character drama, the symbolic expression of Żuławski’s misery at his acrimonious 1976 divorce from Małgorzata Braunek? Is it a metaphor for Cold War Europe trying desperately to maintain a sense of cohesion even as it is split between two irreconcilable political blocs?

The simple answer is that it’s horror because it’s the other things. Look to Possession in the hope of finding a collection of gory jump scares, and you will look in vain (there is a monster, though: a tremendously convincing and uncomfortably organic-looking one co-created by the great make-up and effects designer Carlo Rambaldi, who went directly from this to the title character of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial). But its portrayal of psychological despair is its own kind of bone-deep horror. Viewed as a study of life in West Berlin, right in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, it achieves a surreal, alien quality: Żuławski wanted to suggest the fundamentally anti-human character of the space around the wall, using a Steadicam, then still a fairly novel cinematography tool, to create a weightless, frictionless feeling. It’s part of the film’s overall visual strategy of creating an eerily clean, lifeless vision of Berlin, one that feels like the ghost of a city rather than a place that people go about their days (another part of the filmmakers’ strategy was to use the “wrong” color lights for their film stock, deliberately creating a sickly blue sheen over the whole film).

More still than that, the film’s horror resides in its utter despair with which it presents the collapse of an unhealthy marriage. Żuławski reveals perhaps more than he intended, and perhaps more than we should be comfortable with, of his anger at women in this film’s reality-bending depiction of sexual desire gone wrong. Surely, it’s the film’s visceral portrayal of bodies, human and otherwise, that earned it a spot among the Video Nasties; those were the elements foregrounded in the butchery that transformed the American cut into a bit of gross-out exploitation. Like David Cronenberg’s The Brood, two years earlier, another work of body horror in which an unhappily divorced man worked out his feelings towards his ex-wife and his own failures as a man, Possession finds something fundamentally terrifying in the female sex drive and incomprehensible in female psychology. But here, the restored material filling in the marriage between Mark and Anna moves past body horror into the realm of psychological thriller. The real focus of the film is not on the cephalopod-like thing that Anna is apparently having an affair with, but the sense of comprehensible reality fracturing for Mark and Anna alike as their inner lives shatter.

This focus on the psychological disintegration of two people, fueled by their incompatibility as marriage partners, and Mark’s desperate failed attempts to understand anything about Anna’s mind, is the real source of Possession’s deepest horrors. Isabelle Adjani (who won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for her work in this film and Quartet) and Sam Neill, playing the central couple, have both reported in later interviews that the experience of filming the movie nearly broke them psychologically. The extremes they are pushed to, physically and expressively, are raw and shocking – especially for Adjani, whose work verges into genuine incoherence as she pushes herself all the way into a portrait of unpredictable frenzy. We are watching actors trying to drive themselves to insanity right in front of our eyes, and the results are as gripping as they are disturbing and disorienting.

Possession isn’t an easy film to sit through, in other words. Both in its portrait of the world at large and in its attitude towards the two broken figures who make up its central marriage. It is nihilistic, angry, and unstinting in its attempt to match their mental collapse in the aggressive visual style and frequently unclear narrative. The film’s cult status is well-earned: it holds nothing back emotionally or physically, resulting in a depiction of mental uncertainty and instability that’s like very little else that has ever been made. It’s not an experience for every viewer, but for anyone looking to take a disquieting, disturbing trip through some dark corners of the human mind, Possession lives up to every bit of its nasty reputation.