A NIGHT AT THE OPERA: A New Era for the Marx Bros.

Wednesday, February 28th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on A Night at the Opera were written by Lance St. Laurent, the Cinematheque’s Project Assistant and PhD Candidate in the department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A DCP of A Night at the Opera will screen on Saturday, March 2, at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. This screening is co-presented by the Cinematheque and Madison Opera. Admission is free!

By Lance St. Laurent

For scholars and critics, the films of the Marx Brothers represent the height of vaudevillian anarchy translated to movie screens. In their films at Paramount Studios, the brothers caused all manner of chaos and comic lunacy with almost no consideration for pesky things like plot or character. A Night at the Opera, the brothers’ 1935 classic and their first with MGM, represents a major turning point in their creative careers, and watching it in retrospect can be a somewhat bittersweet experience. It is one of the brothers’ most beloved and accomplished films, enshrined as a comedy landmark by both the AFI and the Library of Congress for its iconic comic set pieces and memorable songs—including “Alone”, a charting hit of 1936. However, it was also the beginning of the end for the esteemed funnymen, whose transition to a new studio home started with triumphant promise but was soon followed by a steady decline into formulaic and increasingly toothless comic trifles.

Real-life brothers Julius (Groucho), Adolph (Harpo), Leonard (Chico), and Herbert (Zeppo) Marx were born into a family of performers and Jewish immigrants, beginning their careers on the vaudeville stage from an early age. By the 1920s, the brothers had become a popular and highly regarded comedy troupe, well-known for their satirical and anarchic comedic sensibility that mocked the mores of upper-crust society. This was also where they each developed the comic personas for which they would become world famous screen icons. With the introduction of sound cinema in the late 1920s, the Marx Brothers were signed to a contract by Paramount Studios in hopes that their quick-witted comic repartee would translate to the talkies. The five films produced at Paramount successfully adapted the free-for-all absurdity of their stage shows into lean, loosely structured showcases for rapid-fire jokes, physical buffoonery, and goofy songs, only barely resembling traditional narratives. The last of these films, 1933’s political satire Duck Soup, was a box office flop which ended the Marx’s time at Paramount on a sour note and led to straight man Zeppo leaving the troupe, embarking on a lucrative career as a talent agent with fifth Marx brother Gummo.

With their careers in transition, the remaining trio were approached by producer Irving Thalberg about signing with MGM, who reportedly asked if three brothers would cost less than four. Despite Groucho’s characteristically pointed retort—“Don’t be silly, without Zeppo we’re worth twice as much.”—Thalberg signed the brothers, though his vision for their films would not align with the take-no-prisoners approach of their films with Paramount. At Thalberg’s insistence, A Night at the Opera began to soften the brothers’ personas and introduce a more formal narrative structure to their work. (Note that Opera is over twenty minutes longer than Duck Soup.) No longer would the brothers be equal opportunity troublemakers. Instead, the Marxes would become forces for good, aiding in the coupling of romantic heroes and limiting their buffoonish buffaloing to clear-cut villains and stodgy high society figures (including a returning Margaret Dumont, the brothers’ favorite punching bag). Thalberg’s rationale was that more story-driven films with more sympathetic brothers could appeal to a wider audience, “twice the audience with half the laughs”, a logic that the brothers, still reeling from the failure of Duck Soup, embraced with gusto.

For A Night at the Opera, at least, the adjustments made to the Marx formula proved extremely lucrative. The film was a sizable box office hit and helped extend the brothers’ film careers well into the 1940s. Critics, too, praised the film upon release. The New York Evening Post wrote, “None of their previous films is as consistently and exhaustingly funny, or as rich in comic invention and satire.” Groucho Marx himself was particularly fond of A Night at the Opera, writing in his autobiography that, of the brothers’ films, “The best two were made by Thalberg.”

Subsequent Marx films made at MGM did not fare nearly as well. The brothers’ follow-up A Day at the Races (1937) found box office success but was met with relatively tepid notices from critics. Things only got worse from there, and by the end of the 1940s, after 13 feature films, the brothers disbanded. Most historical accounts tend to place the blame for the brothers’ decline squarely on Thalberg and the MGM formula, which domesticated the brothers’ comic chaos into a more palatable mold. A Night at the Opera, though, raises questions about this long-held assumption. Opera certainly lacks some of the unbridled madness of their Paramount work, and the film’s romance plot sometimes sits awkwardly alongside the lunatic capering of the brothers, but it still showcases some of their most inspired comic bits, including a sequence set inside a crowded stateroom that remains one of their most famous. If they could produce such inspired silliness even when reined in by Thalberg, why couldn’t they keep it going? Were they truly stifled by MGM, or did the brothers—like most comedy stars—simply run out of steam?

Even taking into account their decade of decline, the Marx Brothers left behind a body of work that would be enviable for any comic performers, and A Night at the Opera remains one of their greatest highlights, despite adjustments to the formula. As with all the best Marx Brothers films, it overflows with life, energy, and comic invention that thumbs its nose at polite society and waggles its eyebrows suggestively at good taste. To watch A Night at the Opera is to immerse oneself in a film world where—to paraphrase Groucho—joy is unconfined, a place with dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor. The opera house didn’t know what hit them.

A History of STARMAN

Thursday, February 22nd, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Starman were written by Madison Barnes-Nelson, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Starman will screen at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, February 25, at 2 p.m. The screening is the first of three movies in the series "Cinematic Messages from Our Planet," all presented in conjunction with the currently-on-view Chazen exhibit, "Message from Our Planet."  The Chazen is located at 750 University Avenue. Admission to the exhibit and the Starman screening is free!

By Madison Barnes-Nelson

Part road movie, part romance, part melancholic science fiction, John Carpenter’s Starman is, at its core, a film about the search for hope and connection in the aftermath of tragedy. Jeff Bridges plays the titular Starman, an alien, who, after crash landing on Earth in rural Wisconsin, takes the bodily form of Scott, the late husband of grief-stricken widow Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen). What follows is surprisingly sweet and sincere romantic drama from Carpenter, who is primarily known for his cynical, hard-edged genre films such as Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), and Escape from New York (1981).

Starman spent five years in development at Columbia Pictures and was repeatedly delayed due to the studio’s commitment to a project called Night Skies, a quasi-sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) from director Steven Spielberg and writer John Sayles. Night Skies was re-written by Melissa Mathison in 1981 as E.T. and Me, later re-titled as E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Columbia rejected E.T., calling it a “kid’s picture,” and the film moved to Universal, later becoming the highest-grossing film in history at the time of its release in 1982. After fumbling E.T., Columbia re-focused attention to the more adult-themed Starman, with Michael Douglas serving as executive producer and star and famed 70s and 80s Hollywood screenwriter and script doctor Dean Riesner, known for his collaborations with Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel, set to write the screenplay.

The film passed through many directors before landing in John Carpenter’s lap, including Adrian Lyne, Mark Rydell, John Badham, Tony Scott, and Peter Hyams. Riesner would end up writing a total of seven different drafts of the film, with an assist from screenwriting duo Edward Zwick and Diane Thomas (Romancing the Stone), who did uncredited rewrites on the final script. Eventually, Carpenter came on board, hoping for the chance to do a sci-fi film with elements of the screwball romantic comedy It Happened One Night (1934), a major departure from his “thriller-exploitation image.” While working with Carpenter, Riesner shifted focus from the science fiction storyline, instead writing “a ‘Getting to Know You On the Run’ kind of picture, like The 39 Steps and The Defiant Ones, only now it was about a girl and an alien.” Somewhat bafflingly, the final screenplay is not credited to Riesner. Instead, The Writer’s Guild of America arbitrated that Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, who originated the story and wrote two early drafts, would receive sole writing credit. However, Carpenter himself has publicly acknowledged Riesner for developing the actual shooting script for the film and received a special dedication in the film’s credits.

After Michael Douglas dropped out the film (though retaining an executive producer credit), Kevin Bacon was briefly attached to play Starman/Scott. However, according to a making-of documentary, Jeff Bridges was John Carpenter’s and script supervisor Sandy King’s choice to play Starman, not only because of his charismatic, masculine persona he had built up in films such as The Last Picture Show (1972) and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1975), but also after seeing his original, method-like approach to playing the title character. To create Starman, Bridges turned to real-life friends who he “always thought seemed like they came from outer space.” He was particularly inspired by friend and dancer Russell Clark, rehearsing extensively with him to nail down Starman’s strange bodily movements when he mimics a video of the deceased Scott. Bridges even studied his own newborn daughters, watching “their newness, and the way they would look at the world, their perception of things.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin highlighted the performance in her review, calling it “a fine showcase for the actor’s blend of grace, precision, and seemingly offhanded charm.”

Carpenter also sought out Karen Allen, who had broken out in National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and later achieved international fame as Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), a performance that showcased both a hard-edged cynicism and a deep emotional vulnerability. While Bridges brings an incredible affability and physicality to the titular role, Allen’s performance as Jenny is really the tender heart of the film, demonstrating tremendous empathy for a grieving widow astounded at the chance to gaze once more upon her lost love’s face.

The film boasts an impressive roster of special effects creators, including Stan Winston (The Terminator), Rick Baker (Star Wars, An American Werewolf in London), and Dick Smith (The Godfather, The Exorcist), who were all hired to work on the film’s famously elaborate alien transformation, designing numerous puppets to depict Starman’s minute-long growth from infant to man. Additionally, Joe Alves (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws) was a visual consultant on the film and scouted shooting locations. Sadly, over the years, all four men have had harsh and disappointed words for their experience working on Starman and with Industrial Light & Magic, the supervising VFX production company. Special make-up effects artist Rick Baker said to The Chicago Tribune on creating the puppets and VFX, “They went out and got the best and most expensive people in the business, then made them work within ridiculous limitations…frankly, I never thought the sequence, as story-boarded, was that exciting to begin with.”

Starman was released on December 14th, 1984, the same day as David Lynch’s Dune, a similarly auteur-driven, somewhat underappreciated sci-fi film of the 1980s. Starman received positive reviews from critics, with The Chicago Sun Times’ Roger Ebert calling it one of the year’s “more touching love stories.” However, it underperformed at the box office, only grossing $2.8 million in its opening weekend and $23 million total in its original run. However, star Jeff Bridges was nominated for Best Actor at the 1985 Academy Awards, his third nomination and, shockingly, the only Oscar nomination for any John Carpenter film to date. Bridges would go on to lose Best Actor to F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus (1984), but he’s remained an Academy mainstay, receiving four subsequent nominations and winning Best Actor in 2010 for Crazy Heart (2009). Today, Starman can be seen as something of an anomaly in the career of a filmmaker best known as a “Master of Horror”, but the patient and emotionally attuned direction from Carpenter, warm performances by Bridges and Allen, and surprisingly gentle screwball-esque screenplay by Riesner make for a beautiful and earnest exploration of love and loss.


Wednesday, February 14th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) were written by Lance St. Laurent, the Cinematheque’s Project Assistant and PhD Candidate in the department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A new 4K DCP of Invasion of the Body Snatchers will screen at 7 p.m. on Saturday, February 17, in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Lance St. Laurent

Jack Finney’s serialized novel The Body Snatchers presents a central premise that has proven resonant across generations, adaptable to different political climates while always appealing to the same fundamental (and fundamentally egocentric) anxiety. What if everyone is out to get me? What if I’m the only real person left? Finney’s novel has inspired four different film adaptations to date, along with countless others that have reworked or ripped off some element of its central premise. 1954’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by low-budget genre specialist Don Siegel, is usually discussed in the context of the Cold War, inviting disparate readings as either a warning against Communist infiltration or as a broadside against McCarthyite groupthink. Abel Ferrara’s 1993 Body Snatchers (written by UW-Madison alums Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli) was seen on release as a pointed critique of militarism and conformity in the wake of the America’s first Gulf War. However, it is Philip Kaufman’s second adaptation—1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers—that has most managed to transcend its specific cultural and political context to gain broader acceptance as a horror classic.

All four versions of Body Snatchers start with the same premise. Alien, plant-like lifeforms make their way to Earth and begin discreetly duplicating and replacing human beings, leaving their loved ones terrified and unable to explain to onlookers that their seemingly unchanged spouse or sibling is someone, something different than they were before. Kaufman, working with screenwriter W.D. Richter, moves the action from small-town Southern California to San Francisco, taking advantage of the city’s unique weather and landscape along with its (then still recent) associations with the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s. For Kaufman, who had relocated from Chicago to San Francisco in the 60s as part of this countercultural wave, moving the setting was a choice with deep, personal meaning. “Could it happen in the city I love the most? The city with the most advanced, progressive therapies, politics and so forth?”

Donald Sutherland stars as Matthew Bennell, a prickly health inspector approached by his colleague Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) about her boyfriend’s unusual behavior. She suspects he may be an imposter, but Matthew approaches the problem rationally, first suggesting that she talk to a local celebrity psychologist (Leonard Nimoy, in terrific form as a smug, shallow intellectual) about her relationship. Matthew is skeptical, despite the warnings of a raving man (Kevin McCarthy, in a cameo nod to the original film) suspiciously pursued by an emotionless mob. Despite the psychologist’s attempts to hand-wave her concerns, Elizabeth finds others with similar stories, and after answering a call to a local spa, the truth is revealed. Elizabeth’s paranoia is founded in fact; an alien force is indeed assimilating unsuspecting citizens of San Francisco. What remains to be seen is whether they can be stopped or if the entire human race is doomed to succumb to a silent invasion.

Kaufman looked to the original film’s noir-adjacent black and white cinematography as a starting point for the look of his own film, collaborating with cinematographer Michael Chapman—between his work on Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in 1976 and Raging Bull in 1980—to create an evocative, moody palette and, in Kaufman’s words, “get that film-noirish feeling in color.” Kaufman describes using these expressive lighting and framing techniques to “code” the film and clue the audience in to potential threats. “We would say, ‘What degree of poddiness does this character have?’ And we would put a slight purplish tinge around the gills. We had certain angles that we hoped would sort of indicate a pod creepiness to things.”

Kaufman gave similar attention to the film’s soundtrack. The film’s score, the only film credit from jazz pianist Denny Zeitlin, is a mixture of traditional Hollywood bombast with more experimental, electronically infused compositions, all contributing to the film’s classical, yet modern approach. Sound designer Ben Burtt (fresh off Star Wars) further contributed to the film’s sense of encroaching dread, employing still relatively new Dolby Stereo sound technologies to create a soundscape that shifts through the film, “highlight[ing] strong elements of nature amid bustling humanity in the early stages that give way to a more industrial noise.” The collective effect of these various elements is a remake that pays respect to the spirit of Siegel’s original film (and Finney’s original story) while achieving what Kaufman referred to as “a variation on a theme.”

Invasion of the Body Snatchers opened as the feel-bad event of the Christmas season, December 22, 1978, earning a healthy $25 million (over $100 million adjusted for inflation) in its initial box office run. Critics, too, lauded Kaufman’s remake, particularly Pauline Kael, who called it “the American movie of the year” and “maybe the best movie of its kind ever made.” Its reputation has only grown in stature since, with the film frequently cited as a top-tier blend of two popular subgenres of the era—socially-conscious dystopian sci-fi and post-Watergate conspiracy thrillers. It has also entered the rare canon of horror remakes that match or even exceed their original inspiration, a distinction shared by the likes of John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Anyone who has seen the film, particularly its unforgettable ending, is likely to understand its storied reputation and continued relevance. Philip Kaufman (now in his late 80s) has spoken about the film extensively in recent years, particularly around the film’s 40th anniversary in 2018, and he has not been shy about what he sees as the film’s appeal in today’s political climate. “I feel that ‘poddiness’ has taken over a lot of our discourse. […] What I like about the film and the original is the subtext that if we go to sleep we could turn into pods. We should not only say our prayers before we go to sleep, but we should examine ourselves upon waking in the morning […] In the end, if the film is valid — which I hope it still is — it’s really the loss of humanity that’s the tragedy.”

ONE FROM THE HEART REPRISE: Reviving and Reconfiguring the Golden Age Hollywood Musical

Tuesday, February 6th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Francis Coppola's One from the Heart were written by Nimish Sarin, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. One from the Heart Reprise, a newly revamped version supervised by Coppola himself, will screen on Saturday, February 10, at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Nimish Sarin

Coming off the commercial success of Apocalypse Now (1979), MGM had initially offered $2 million to Francis Ford Coppola to direct his proposed follow-up, One from The Heart. Instead, Coppola decided to handle the project at his own company, Zoetrope Studios. Working with screenwriter Armyan Bernstein, Coppola changed the story from a romantic comedy to a musical and shifted the setting from Chicago to Las Vegas. Reportedly spending over $4.5 million for elaborate matte-painted backgrounds and a miniature recreation of Fremont Avenue on the soundstages of his Zoetrope Studios, Coppola, along with production designer Dean Tavoularis, created a regal replica of the glitter gulch. The lavish sets were captured by the dynamic camera of legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (working in the traditional Academy aspect ratio of 1.37:1), bathing the bustling buildings in candy-colored neon lights that somehow seem to out-Vegas the real thing. In addition to the glitzy visual track, Coppola enlisted Tom Waits to create the Oscar-nominated soundtrack for the faux-musical. With accompanying vocals from Crystal Gayle, Waits provided jazzy mournful ballads in his trademark raspy timbre that often worked to fill in the gaps of what is left unarticulated, or perhaps, unvoiced.

To oversee this ambitious production, Coppola also employed a pioneering technological process, termed “electronic cinema”, where he ran production not on set, but from a high-tech trailer (called “Starfish”) equipped with state-of-the-art monitors and video editing equipment. Recording storyboards and rehearsals on videotape to pre-visualize the film, these stand-ins were later replaced by principal photography in real-time that was captured on videotape from the 35mm film camera using a special coding process, removing the need to look at rushes (a precursor to “video-assist” so to speak). Coppola, ever the forward thinker, saw this technology as revolutionary and thought it would change the process of post-production permanently. What’s ironic about One from the Heart is that these elaborate resources and new technologies were ultimately in the service of a simple, modest story.

One from the Heart follows Hank (Fredric Forrest) a misanthropic mechanic, and Frannie (Teri Garr), a wistful travel agent, whose relationship hits the skids on the eve of their fifth anniversary (which happens to fall on the 4th of July). After a heated argument sends them on their separate ways, both spend the weekend indulging in rebound romances: he meets ethereal circus performer Leila (Nastassja Kinski) and she meets dashing waiter/cocktail singer Ray (Raul Julia). After an amorous weekend with their new flings, both lovers reconsider the state of their long-term relationship, and, in a classic romantic climax, Hank chases after Frannie through McCarran Airport (another miniature recreation) hoping for one last shot at love.

Opening in February of 1982, the film was an immediate critical and commercial failure, failing to earn even a million dollars on its initial run. This investment ultimately led to years of financial turmoil and legal trouble for Coppola and ended with both him and his company Zoetrope filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1992. Contemporaneous critics lambasted the film for its obscene spending yet diminishing narrative return, although usually complementing the glamorous visuals themselves. Pauline Kael decried the film for its privileging of auterist excess over narrative depth stating that Coppola “didn't think out the character relationships but simply piled visual ideas…until the movie became so jewel-encrusted that the story practically disappeared from sight.” Similarly, Roger Ebert called it “a ballet of graceful and complex camera movements occupying magnificent sets” but ultimately lamented that the characters and story got lost in the process.

While the film received a slightly better response on its re-release in 2003 (with minor trims and changes), the uneasiness with its grand stylization but “wafer-thin” story persisted. The version being screened at the UW Cinematheque is a new 4K restoration titled One from The Heart Reprise that was overseen by Coppola himself and sourced from the original camera negatives. Despite a run time that comes in almost fifteen minutes shorter than the original cut, Coppola also incorporated roughly thirteen additional minutes of new footage sourced from the same negatives. “This new version is an improvement in many ways, and I am proud of what was achieved with One from the Heart Reprise” remarks Coppola, “despite the disruption it caused in my dreams for American Zoetrope,” he adds.

Whether read as an allegory for the malaise that set in during the new Reaganite America (we hear Hank remark that in America “there are no more secrets, it's phony tinsel, it's phony bullshit man. Nothing's real!”), Coppola’s take on a classic lover’s spat, or as yet another example of a New Hollywood director both reviving and reconfiguring the Golden Age Hollywood musical (see, for example, Scorsese’s New York, New York or Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love), One From The Heart is first and foremost a stylistic tour de force. Employing an almost blinding cinematic excess, the stock characters and predictable narrative tropes become a broad canvas on which Coppola unleashes his phantasmagoric flourishes. Utilizing trick photography, superimpositions, rear projection, matte backgrounds, and abrupt, dramatic changes in lighting between sequences, Coppola seems to privilege, rather than eschew, the artifice of Hollywood production. In this way, the setting of Las Vegas becomes a perfect synecdoche for his larger project; an uncurbed cinematic play of light and shadow is apt for the land of glistening neon lights and uninhibited vice.

However, towards the end of the film, as Frannie nears a life-changing decision, she hears Hank emerging behind her, pleading with her to come back to him. As the camera tries to capture Hank from within a bustling throng of people, Frannie tells him to stop. Undeterred, he continues to beg, eventually breaking out into a rendition of country standard “You Are My Sunshine”. For once, we are not greeted with Tom Waits’ guttural yet melodious voice. Instead, we only hear Hank, who serenades Frannie in a warbling, off-pitch rendition. The artifice is lifted, the proscenium revealed, and finally the ineffable is articulated, if only for a minute. It is debatable if the romanticized mawkishness combined with the stoic pessimism at play here ultimately works or not, if the bid to turn a banal tale of ordinary romantic rupture and reconciliation into an aesthetically audacious experiment succeeds. It is, however, undeniable that Coppola’s unabashed and utopian, if ultimately doomed production, is worth one’s time.

The Controversies and Visual Pleasures of Clouzot's MANON

Wednesday, January 31st, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on H.G. Clouzot's Manon were written by Pate Duncan, PhD Student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A new restoration of Manon will screen on Saturday, February 3, at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening is part of a series of new French restorations and admission is free!

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Manon (1949), a loose adaptation of Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescault (1731), occupies a strange position in Clouzot’s filmography. The film begins aboard a ship. As a crew takes in several boats of Jewish refugees fleeing postwar Europe, they discover two stowaways: Manon (Cécile Aubry) and Robert (Michel Auclair). Robert catches the crew’s attention when they recognize him from the papers as a man on the run, wanted for murder. As he and Manon tell their story to the crew, we watch the noirish story of these doomed lovers unfold in flashback with little to guide our interpretation of their journey towards a fugitive fate. Manon is a young woman accused in her village of both sexual immorality and collaboration with occupying Nazi forces, while Robert is a resistance soldier who believes her innocence and falls in love with her. Robert and Manon are swept up in the upheaval of postwar France, trying to climb their way into high society, though Manon’s independence and Robert’s possessiveness lead the couple through a series of violent spats and passionate reconciliations. Manon is not the stereotypical femme fatale; alongside her self-interest and sexual intrigue, she is in her own way a sincerely loving partner, a double-bind that proves difficult for Robert to resolve.

This genre play of romance and intrigue—even comedy at times—comes dressed in Clouzot’s characteristic low-key cinematography. Clouzot is an exquisite stylist, making use of languid, self-consciously high-contrast camerawork from Armand Thirard, who would continue to work on Clouzot’s movies that are best-known to U.S. audiences: The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diabolique (1955). The influence of then-recently imported American film noir and earlier works of French poetic realism can be seen in the fragmented compositions, ample shadows, and silky smoke that decorate Manon. These stylizations are cut by postwar film movements like Italian neorealism and the German Trümmerfilm that use location shooting to add a gritty realism to the whole affair.

Robert and Manon’s story ultimately collides with the displacement of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, a significant move for Clouzot considering his own ambiguous politics while working under the Occupation-era French film studio Continental, work that saw him reprimanded for collaboration and banned from filmmaking. He was reinstated after two years following support on his behalf from artists and intellectuals like Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre alongside arguments that his film Le Corbeau (1943) allegorized and agitated against Occupation policies. As Richard Neupert notes in French Film History, 1895–1946, “It is still unclear how much Clouzot supported the Occupation, but his cinematographer, [Nicolas] Hayer, secretly organized a resistance network among cinematographers.” Within this context, Manon can be viewed as a complicated attempt to clarify Clouzot’s political concerns and support a postwar ethos. Its finale, set in Palestine, is a politically flattened depiction of the region’s settlement (filmed in Morocco and released after the Nakba in 1948) and remains an object of critique among scholars of the film.

In French film scholarship, Manon remains an oddity, receiving just a brief mention in Alan Williams’ foundational Republic of Images and a fairly blistering critique in Noёl Burch and Geneviève Sellier’s The Battle of the Sexes in French Cinema, 1930–1956, who call it “[a] typically ‘revisionist’ film” and “a very good example, coming from a right-wing filmmaker, of how anti-Arab racism can replace anti-Semitism so as to draw a veil over the complicity of the French in the Jewish genocide.” Despite these contemporary views of the film, Manon was wildly popular upon its initial release and won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Manon marks a more explicit political turn in Clouzot’s filmography and remains striking as a document of his development as an auteur. Like Le Corbeau, this film focuses on a village’s accusations and recriminations, here in the form of the femme tondue: a shaven and marked woman paraded about as punishment for collaboration with Nazis and a phenomenon later depicted poignantly in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). On a technical level, the movie provides a showcase for Clouzot as a director equally capable in exquisitely detailed interior scenes and sequences set on sprawling locations. Manon is particularly memorable for its odd angles, high-contrast silhouettes, and Hollywood-style backlight sculpting using stray sunbeams on location. These stylistic innovations in Clouzot’s oeuvre would pave the way for the tense nitroglycerine delivery through the mountains in The Wages of Fear and Diabolique’s gothic psychological drama set in a dingy boarding school.

Manon is a work as ambivalent and complicated as the director behind it. The politics behind the film’s violent finale in the desert remain inscrutable, and at the same time the sequence provides exquisite stylistic pleasures when Clouzot adds his characteristic shadows, textured images, and poetic details to such a bright expanse. The film is a troubling work on its own and especially as a document of the ambiguities after Occupation, yet it holds an important space within the development of one of France’s most refined stylists of the moving image.


Monday, January 29th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Groundhog Day were written by Madison Barnes-Nelson, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Groundhog Day, courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research, will screen on Friday, February 2, at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular screening space, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Madison Barnes-Nelson

“What would you do, if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing you did mattered?” asks Phil Connors (Bill Murray) to a pair of bowling alley barflies. “That about sums it up for me,” retorts one of the drunks. Anyone who has ever felt miserable, run down, or even just stuck at home during the long winter months may find this to be an extremely relatable sentiment. For Phil Connors, however, this scenario is not a metaphor for the drudgery of daily life, but a very literal predicament with no end in sight. 

When misanthropic Pittsburgh weatherman Connors begrudgingly travels to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the town’s annual Groundhog Day gathering, he does so in hopes that it his last trip to the sleepy little burg. Phil treats everyone in his life with sarcasm and disdain, including his beautiful news producer Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) and wry cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) who accompanied him on the trip. Phil’s disdain only intensifies when a massive snowstorm (contrary to Phil’s own weather forecast) traps the trio in Punxsutawney for the night. When Phil awakens the next morning, he’s still in Punxsutawney, and worse, he’s still in Groundhog Day. So begins Phil’s unexplained cosmic quest, as he experiences the longest winter of his life and re-lives Groundhog Day, always unchanging, without consequences or means of escape. Of course, Phil does what any person with no care for others would do—use the time loop to indulge in sex, junk food, and petty grudges against local townsfolk, such as obnoxious but well-meaning insurance salesman Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky). But indulgence wears thin quickly, and soon Phil must figure out how to spend his days in this provincial purgatory, a journey that will force him to look plainly at himself and how he treats those around him.

Reaching a point of true misery, Phil finds himself drawn to the earnest Rita, a romantic with a penchant for poetry seeking a connection of her own. But even Phil’s (sometimes slimy, sometimes sweet) stabs at romantic love aren’t enough for him to break free. Instead, he must turn outward and let go of his own selfish desires. Over (an indeterminate amount of) time, he learns to experience the real, transformative love that can come from helping and caring for others, a feeling that may resonate for anyone lost and looking for greater meaning in their life.

Between Ramis’s work as a writer/director and as an actor, Groundhog Day was his sixth collaboration with Murray. Ramis helped launch Murray’s career as a leading man, co-writing 1979’s Meatballs, and his work as both a writer and co-star on Ghostbusters (1984) launched Murray to stratospheric heights of stardom. However, Murray was not the initial choice to play Phil Connors. Both Tom Hanks and Michael Keaton passed on the role, while screenwriter Danny Rubin suggested Kevin Kline. Chevy Chase, who Murray had replaced on the second season of Saturday Night Live, was also suggested as an option. As fascinating as they are to consider, it is arguable that none of these actors would work in the role as well as Murray, who imbues his usual sly, sardonic presence with a deep well of melancholy, in some ways presaging his future dramatic work with Wes Anderson and his Oscar-nominated turn in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003). Despite arguably career-best work from both men, Groundhog Day would prove to be their final collaboration. The two butted heads throughout the difficult production, leading to a decades-long rift that would only be resolved shortly before Ramis’s death in 2014.

Groundhog Day opened in wide release on February 12, 1993, (strangely a full 10 days after the holiday) to box office and critical success, grossing over $100 million worldwide. The long-term legacy of the film has been even more impressive. In 2017, a stage musical adaptation with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin transferred from London to Broadway, earning seven Tony Award nominations. The film also launched a veritable subgenre, with several films and shows adapting its time loop conceit across different genres, such as the sci-fi action film Edge of Tomorrow (2014), the college horror-comedy Happy Death Day (2017), and the Netflix dramedy series Russian Doll (2019-2022) to name a few. Perhaps most surprisingly, the film began the career of acclaimed character actor and Oscar-nominee Michael Shannon, who makes his screen debut in a small role as a WrestleMania-loving newlywed. Over thirty years later, what has made Groundhog Day endure is not its (thankfully unexplained) high-concept premise, but its simple yet poignant philosophical message. Sometimes all it takes to fix a selfish heart is a single day, even if some days are longer than others.

Waking Up to PEEPING TOM

Wednesday, January 24th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Peeping Tom were written by Josh Martin, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A new 4K DCP of Peeping Tom will screen on Friday, January 26 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Admission is free!

By Josh Martin

Helen Stephens (Anna Massey) sits in the dimmed private screening room of cameraman Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm), watching anxiously as the young, unsettling gentleman shows her horrifying and inexplicable home movies. She pleads for answers with a telling line: “I like to understand what I’m shown.” One can imagine a viewer encountering Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in 1960 and feeling quite similarly to Helen, begging for explanations as they experience a work of unprecedented sexual frankness and violent desire. That the film only burrows further into its world of depravity and perversion, without compromising its vision of our participation in dysfunctional practices of viewing, is a testament to its disturbing power.

The production and reception history of Powell’s film is now the stuff of legend. Prior to the film’s release, Powell was best known for his partnership with Hungarian-British director Emeric Pressburger. Paired as The Archers, working a stable of collaborators including cinematographer Jack Cardiff and stars Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook, Powell and Pressburger produced Technicolor confections that help to expand and refine the possibilities of the cinematic medium, including classics such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1949). Following the conclusion of the Archers’ partnership in the late 1950s, Powell turned his attention to Peeping Tom.

The film follows Mark Lewis, an amateur “documentary” filmmaker who is also a fanatical serial killer. Unlike the equally psychologically damaged Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), a frequent point of comparison in critical studies of Powell’s film, there is never any mystery about Mark’s murderous habits. Peeping Tom begins in a heightened version of the streets of London, where young Mark, camera in hand, solicits and begins following a streetwalking sex worker. Anticipating later killer POV sequences in films like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), the opening scene progresses from the merciless point-of-view of Mark’s camera – which, as Helen correctly identifies later in the film, is essentially an “extra limb,” inseparable from our protagonist. 

As we approach the young lady’s apartment, she becomes aware of the apparatus filming her, frightened by the bright lights as Mark and his camera close in for the kill. She lets out a terrified scream, culminating in a sudden cut to Mark as a spectator in his screening room, rewatching the film of the murder. In just a few short minutes, Powell’s film establishes its economy of motifs and devices: the ever-watchful eye of Mark, the unrelenting gaze of the camera, and the emphasis on spectatorship, on the act of cinematic viewing itself.

With decades of pictures influenced by (and often imitating) Powell’s violence and style, the opening scene may not feel as scandalous now as it did in 1960. Yet at the time, the film was vilified and lambasted, labeled as degenerate filth and “perverted nonsense” (Nina Hibbins, The Daily Worker). It is commonly understood to be the film that destroyed Powell’s career in the United Kingdom for good. As noted by Elliott Stein in Film Comment, the director once observed that, “The reception of the film was a disaster for me… This film ruined me. After Peeping Tom, it was impossible for me to get backing for other projects.” The response of the British tabloids is perhaps unsurprising, but more shocking is the lack of support from more cine-literate publications: Stein notes that even the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma “panned it unmercifully.”

Of course, the film is now properly regarded as an essential work. Critic Dave Kehr, writing upon its initial release in Chicago in 1979, called it “a shattering experience – it wakes us up from the movie-dream… and leaves us face-to-face with our own dark motives for movie-going.” Laura Mulvey, the landmark film theorist who initially posited the psychoanalytic theory of the “male gaze” in cinema, notes that Peeping Tom “[foregrounds] its mechanisms of looking, and the gender divide that separates the secret observer (male) from the object of his gaze (female).” Indeed, psychoanalysis, even in its most basic, pop Freudian form, is essential to an understanding of Peeping Tom. The film positions Mark’s “scopophilia” – which is defined by a psychologist late in the film as a sexually-driven “morbid urge to gaze” – as a hereditary perversity engendered by childhood trauma. The film reveals that Mark’s biologist father experimented on him, filming his studies of “fear and the nervous system” on the young boy. More importantly, the elder Lewis gifted his son his first camera, providing his outlet for engaging with the world and establishing his psychological and sexual malaise.

However, a refresher on the finer points of Lacan or Sigmund Freud is not required for Powell’s film to be vivid and involving. The film’s world is lurid and sensational, but it approaches these matters with a harsh, critical lens. Perversity is almost inescapable in the film. The line between Mark’s snuff films and the gaggle of tabloid journalists who feverishly photograph his murder scenes is portrayed as extraordinarily thin. A seemingly docile British gentleman grows quiet and sheepish as he asks for the pornographic images illegally sold at a neighborhood newsstand; “he won’t be doing the crossword tonight,” quips the shop owner. These transactions of commodified and objectified sexuality are direct and open in the film, a sharp contrast to the excruciating repression that eats away at Mark.

In the end, it all comes back to the camera itself. “It’s only a camera!” exclaims a policeman during the film’s climax, dodging the device thrown at him by a frantic Mark. The policeman’s partner responds: “Only?” A camera is never just a camera in the world of Peeping Tom: it does not take a perverted mind to see the clear symbolism in the apparatus, which Mark strokes, caresses, and grips with an orgasmic fervor. Yet far more than just a phallic substitute for our stunted killer, Powell’s film takes seriously the camera’s ability to observe the ineffable – or perhaps even nightmarish things that should remain hidden. Mark’s goal is to capture the human face at the moment of death – and to turn that image in on itself, forcing his victims to watch themselves as they die. “Other movies let us enjoy voyeurism,” noted Roger Ebert in his essay on the film, but “this one exacts a price… it doesn’t let us off the hook.” Ultimately, Kehr, Ebert, and Mulvey each identify this disruption of voyeurism as a central cause for the explosive controversy over the film. Much as Mark forces his viewers to watch their own reactions, Powell turns the camera back onto us, presenting viewers with a distorted mirror of spectatorship. Gazing upon the twisted faces of death, we see faces that reflect our own horror at what Powell’s film reveals.  

Sound and Image in THE ZONE

Monday, January 22nd, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on The Zone of Interest were written by Nick Sansone, PhD Student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison. The Zone of Interest has its first Madison-area screening at the UW Cinematheque on Thursday, January 25 at 7 p.m. The screening takes place at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Admission is free.

By Nick Sansone.

There’s an immediately striking image early in writer/director Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest that speaks to the film’s intended tone and message in a stark and chilling fashion that defines the film’s formal approach. A man we will soon come to know as Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), German SS officer and commandant of Auschwitz death camp, is beside his beaming wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) while their children play in the backyard of their house. The sun shines down on them through a clear blue sky that dominates the top of the frame. But this image of domestic bliss is intruded upon by a massive wall topped with barbed wire and a watchtower poking over the other side of it. The sounds of children at play are most prominent in the sound mix, but underneath we can hear an aural tableau of screams, gunfire, trains, and furnaces coming from the other side of that imposing wall, the sounds of human destruction as efficient machinery. This contrast, between what we are directly shown and what lies just out of frame, is the animating tension of The Zone of Interest, a film that foregrounds small-scale domestic drama amidst one of the greatest atrocities in human history.

Loosely adapted from Martin Amis’ 2014 novel of the same name, The Zone of Interest is only the fourth feature film in 23 years for Glazer—a former music video director—and his first since 2013. While Glazer’s previous two films, 2004’s underrated Birth (2004) and 2013’s Under the Skin, both demonstrate an almost Kubrickian stylistic discipline and gift for mounting dread, there was little in his career that pointed toward historical drama as his next outlet. However, Glazer’s formal approach should be immediately recognizable here, particularly for fans of Under the Skin. For example, in both films, Glazer begins by foregrounding the importance of score and sound design to the work, displaying a black screen as the soundtrack builds in volume and intensity before the first image is even shown. (As in his prior film, Glazer worked closely with composer Mica Levi and sound designer Johnnie Burn, to similarly chilling results). In doing this, Glazer conditions the spectator to be as attentive to sound as they are to image, to similarly scan their soundscape as they would the frame.

Johnnie Burn has discussed the film’s two distinct and clashing soundscapes that creates the chilling dichotomy that drives the film. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he discussed creating the first soundscape, that of the Höss family’s menial domestic existence. According to Burn, the sound department planted “20 hidden directional microphones” on set that would “capture the real sounds of the actors simultaneously performing in long takes across many rooms and spaces” and would limit the need for ADR, lending a sense of specificity and authenticity to what we hear. For the second soundscape, that of the horrors taking place in Auschwitz, Burn utilized a massive database of sound effects as well as a Poland-based foley team who would record the sounds of “20 prisoners being marched by a guard who is shouting,” along with period-appropriate guns and motorbike engines. All told, a single sequence in the film “ultimately used over 500 different incidences of sound.”

In addition to the careful, layered approach to the film’s sound design, Glazer also worked closely with cinematographer Łukasz Żal on crafting a historically accurate yet tonally alienating visual aesthetic for the film. Glazer and his crew were given the uncommon privilege of filming on location in Auschwitz, or rather right along its outside edge. The filmmakers also studied the real Höss estate in exhaustive detail to construct a historically accurate replica of how it would have looked in 1943. However, Glazer was adamant that he did not wish to glamorize the estate or the people who lived there, describing it as a desire for the images to seem “authorless”, devoid of style or artistic grandeur. Similar to his use of hidden cameras on Under the Skin, Glazer placed 10 cameras (and hidden microphones) at various places throughout the set, both immersing the actors on set and giving the film its enveloping and omniscient aesthetic, one that forced the viewer to bear witness to the banal quotidian lives of those committing unspeakable evil. The few moments when Glazer does break from his hyperrealist aesthetic, such as a series of stunning sequences shot in infrared, it is all the more shocking, as it pulls us violently out of the disquieting, yet almost placid rhythms of what has come before.

With The Zone of Interest, Jonathan Glazer has taken a well-trodden prestige subgenre, the Holocaust drama, and radically revived it in his own formal milieu. Rather than directly confront or wallow in images of inhuman violence and degradation, Glazer conjures overpowering moral dread by mere suggestion and implication, constantly asking us to look and listen closer and forcing us to consider how any human being could live so blissfully alongside such depravity, let alone perpetrate it against their fellow man.

Favorites of 2023: Lance St. Laurent

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

By Lance St. Laurent, Cinematheque and Wisconsin Film Festival Project Assistant and Programmer

My favorite movies released in 2023, in ascending order:

15. BARBIE (Greta Gerwig)

14. ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET. (Kelly Fremon Craig)

13. THE IRON CLAW (Sean Durkin)


11. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 (Chad Stahelski)

10. MAY DECEMBER (Todd Haynes)

9. FERRARI (Michael Mann)

8. THE BOY AND THE HERON (Hayao Miyazaki)

7. THE KILLER (David Fincher)

6. POOR THINGS (Yorgos Lanthimos)


4. THE ZONE OF INTEREST (Jonathan Glazer)

3. ALL OF US STRANGERS (Andrew Haigh)

2. OPPENHEIMER (Christopher Nolan)


Honorable mentions, in alphabetical order:

AFIRE (Christian Petzold)

ANATOMY OF A FALL (Justine Triet)

DE HUMANI CORPORIS FABRICA (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel)

THE HOLDOVERS (Alexander Payne0

MAGIC MIKE'S LAST DANCE (Steven Soderbergh)


YOU HURT MY FEELINGS (Nicole Holofcener)

The movies on the following list of favorites were all originally released before 2023, but I saw them all for the first time last year. In alphabetical order, they are:

LA DOLCE VITA (Federico Fellini, 1960)

THE DRIVER (Walter Hill, 1978)

THE FEARLESS HYENA (Jackie Chan, 1979)


ORLANDO (Sally Potter, 1992)

RUGGLES OF RED GAP (Leo McCarey, 1935)

THE SCARLET EMPRESS (Joseph von Sternberg, 1934)

THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW (Douglas Sirk, 1956)



Favorites of 2023: Ben Reiser

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

By Ben Reiser, Cinematheque Programmer & Director of Operations and Programmer, Wisconsin Film Festival

In alphabetical order, here is a list of 23 movies I saw that were released in 2023 (unless otherwise noted). These are the movies that stuck with me. 

THE ADULTS (Dustin Guy DeFa)

AFIRE (Christian Petzold)

ANATOMY OF A FALL (Justine Triet)


BOTTOMS (Emma Seligman)

CREED III (Michael B. Jordan)

DAD & STEP-DAD (Tynan DeLong)

THE DELINQUENTS (Rodrigo Moreno)

FALCON LAKE (Charlotte Le Bon)

FAST X (Louis Leterrier)

FREMONT (Babak Jalali)

GODZILLA MINUS ONE (Takashi Yamazaki)

THE GOOD BOSS (2022, Fernando Leon de Aranoa)


THE HOLDOVERS (Alexander Payne)


JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 (Chad Stahelski)


ONE FINE MORNING (Mia Hansen-Løve)

OPPENHEIMER (Christopher Nolan)

SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE (Joaquim Dos Santos, Justin K. Thompson, Kemp Powers)


WHEN EVIL LURKS (Demian Rugna)