LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN: Technicolor Noir?

Tuesday, November 5th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on John M. Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven were written by Tim Brayton, Ph.D candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Leave Her to Heaven will screen in our series tribute to 20th Century Fox on Saturday, November 9 at 2 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening will be preceded by an introduction from Schawn Belston, 20th Century Fox Film Archivist.

By Tim Brayton

The term film noir immediately brings with it several associations: high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, squalid city environments seen at the worst in the dead of night, hapless men being suckered into criminality by gorgeous, untrustworthy women. Almost none of these apply to the 1945 release Leave Her to Heaven: it’s a beautiful Technicolor spectacle (winning an Oscar for its cinematography), set in the Arizona desert and the forests of New England, seen in bright, soft light. There’s a hapless man, but he’s a novelist. The film has a femme fatale in the form of Gene Tierney’s magnificently sociopathic Ellen Berent, but she’s not looking to use a man and discard him; indeed, the plot hinges on how desperately she wants to stay with him. Despite all of this, many sources throughout the years have confidently described Leave Her to Heaven as a film noir. So what gives?

To begin with, we need to remind ourselves that American filmmakers of the 1940s weren’t consciously making a thing called “film noir”: that label was applied by French critics years later. At the time Leave Her to Heaven was new, it was something much simpler: the latest prestigious literary adaptation released by 20th Century Fox, during a decade where that studio was having great success with such projects. In this case, the film’s origins in a book by Ben Ames Williams are foregrounded in the most literal way possible: the opening credits are styled as the first pages from a copy of the book itself. It’s a far cry from the ripped-from-the-headlines or pulp fiction origins of the era’s great hard-boiled crime thrillers, positioning the film securely in a cycle of respectable melodramas cropping up throughout Hollywood in the 1940s. Cementing the film’s level of prestige, it was fashioned as a vehicle for Tierney, who was becoming a major star for the studio thanks to 1943’s Heaven Can Wait and 1944’s Laura (the latter being a much more conventional example of film noir style and narrative concerns).

For the first half of the movie, you’d never suppose this was anything other than a romantic melodrama, as Tierney and Cornel Wilde’s Richard Harland meet on a train and embark on a swift, passionate love affair, despite her engagement to attorney Russell Quinton (played by Tierney’s Laura co-star Vincent Price, years before he became a horror movie icon). The only hints of the darkness to come are situated entirely in Tierney’s subtle performance, which netted her only nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Much of the pleasure of Leave Her to Heaven resides entirely in her inscrutable facial expressions, with doubt and mistrust flickering around her eyes and mouth: this is a film in which much of the drama comes simply from watching her staring off-camera. This pays off in a startlingly savage mid-film twist, where we discover how fully Ellen’s desire to possess Richard outweighs every other human concern. We’ve seen the hostility in her face and heard the chilliness in her voice, so we can’t claim to be entirely surprised by the narrative developments of the film’s second hour, though the overwhelming bleakness of much of the plot from this point forward is shocking for a Hollywood film of the 1940s.

Which brings us back to film noir. While the term originates in visual aesthetics (it refers to the heavy shadows of high-contrast, low-key lighting), it has long been used more to describe a sensibility of hopeless nihilism and the fear that human life and American culture have become meaningless in the wake of World War II. Leave Her to Heaven demonstrates this sensibility in spades. In the remarkable character of Ellen, a woman whose desire for freedom and autonomy have curdled into a propensity for cruelty that must be seen to be believed, we see the American dream corrupted into barbarity, and Tierney’s performance holds back nothing. Ellen is a legitimately terrifying figure, all the more so since she’s so easy to find empathetic and engaging in contrast to Wilde’s milquetoast Richard. She’s much more than a mere femme fatale, leading the hero to a bad end: she’s the most active figure in the movie, the character whose goals and desires are most clearly laid out. That her pursuit of those desires proves to be so completely destructive is what makes Leave Her to Heaven such a powerful articulation of the post-war despair that was creeping into so much of American pop culture at the time.

The film was directed by John M. Stahl, one of the final films of his impressive but undervalued career, and he proves to be nearly as crucial to its effect as Tierney. Stahl’s characteristic approach to filmmaking, as seen in such films as Seed and Back Street (both screened earlier in 2019 at the Cinematheque), is to leaven melodrama through understatement and a lack of sensationalism. This restraint is on display throughout Leave Her to Heaven, though it’s perhaps most powerful during the mid-film lake scene where the drama takes such a decisive turn. In the hands of a more exploitation-minded director, this could easily be turned into a moment of drawn-out tension. Instead, Stahl treats it as a moment of swift brutality, letting stillness and silence (it is a notably music-free sequence) do the work of letting us know that something awful is happening, and then pushing through that moment so succinctly that it’s over almost before we’ve entirely processed the enormity of what we’re watching. It’s one of the most upsetting moments in Hollywood films of the 1940s, still devastating after 74 years of ever-increasing screen violence.

Despite all its bitterness and bleakness, Leave Her to Heaven was a massive success. It was one of the highest-grossing films of 1946, the peak year for cinema attendance in the United States; it would end up as one of Fox’s biggest box-office hits of the decade. It’s easy to see why: as black-hearted as it might be, it’s a feast for the senses, and Tierney’s performance is one of the most complex and modern you’ll find in any ‘40s film. It hasn’t aged well in every respect, but it’s suffused with a feeling of danger and emotional intensity that remain electrifying all these generations later.

INTERLUDE: Sirk Remakes Stahl

Monday, November 4th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Douglas Sirk's Interlude (1957) were written by David Vanden Bossche, PhD Student in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts and co-organizer of the Antwerp Summer Film School. A 35mm print of Interlude from the collection of the Chicago Film Society will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series on November 10 at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art. Admission is free!

By David Vanden Bossche

When the young wolves of Cahiers du cinéma created an idiosyncratic canon of American studio era directors deemed worthy of the “auteur” label, Douglas Sirk was not among the names they put forward. It would take well into the 1970s before Sirk’s melodramas—or “weepies,” as they were pejoratively referred to—would gain critical attention.

A 1969 Cahiers du cinéma article by Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni dealt with the way ideology functions in (mostly American) cinema. To Comolli and Narboni, a director like Sirk (they also singled out Roberto Rossellini and John Ford) was able to direct films that at first glance adhere to the dominant ideology, but in reality position themselves as critical of the dominant modes of representation. When Laura Mulvey and other feminist writers started to reclaim and recuperate the genre of the melodrama – focusing on representations of domestic spaces and repressed female sexual desire – Sirk’s reputation as one of the great auteurs of melodrama was further cemented.

The sudden critical and scholarly attention for such films as Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Imitation of Life (1959) obscured the fact that most of Sirk’s triumphs were actually remakes of older melodramas, usually from the 1930s. The late historical focus on Sirk’s films was in this way detrimental to the position of John M. Stahl within film history, as his earlier versions of Sirk movies like Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession, and Interlude (1957) came to be completely overshadowed by the later incarnations. The 2018 book Call of the Heart by Bruce Babbington and Charles Barr and a retrospective at both the Pordenone Silent Film Festival and Il Cinema Ritrovato festivals finally restored the Stahl versions rightfully as great films in their own right.

Among the John M. Stahl titles that gathered more fame in the Sirk versions, Interlude is probably the least renowned and while discussions on the merits of both versions of Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life are still ongoing, most will agree that Stahl’s When Tomorrow Comes (1939) is definitely Interlude’s equal, if not a superior take on the same material. When Tomorrow Comes, which screened at the 2019 Wisconsin Film Festival, is the only Stahl movie Sirk remade that has a bigger reputation than its 1950s counterpart. In the 1939 original, Stahl inserted some poignant social commentary and the real-life event of a 1938 storm in the New York area, resulting in one of Stahl’s most moving love stories. When Tomorrow Comes exemplifies both Stahl’s feeling for changing narrative trends (e.g., the bulk of the story is set during the course of a single night) and his remarkably consistent visual style.

Douglas Sirk’s take on the same story by James M. Cain (another adaptation was directed by Kevin Billington in 1968) is, as always, the work of a baroque stylist. The sumptuous Technicolor photography adds Sirk's typically heightened sense of color an extra element to convey meaning and emotion. Which by no means is to suggest that John M. Stahl’s stylistic approach is inferior (in this 2018 article for Photogénie, I dismissed the claim that Stahl had an “invisible style”), but that his approach definitely draws less attention to itself.

Sirk remains faithful to the 1939 screenplay. The story centers around a love triangle between a woman (Irene Dunne in the original, June Allyson here) and the married man she loves (Rossano Brazzi, filling Charles Boyer’s part), who can’t bring himself to leave his wife—an emotionally damaged person who depends on his love and affection. While the 1939 film was rich in its subtle observation of different relations, Sirk opts for broader dramatic touches, but through these he also adds a profound sense of loss to the doomed love triangle, an element that was missing in Stahl’s more subdued approach.

While not generally considered one of Sirk’s masterpieces, Interlude is still a vivid illustration of the German (he changed his name from Hans Detlev Sierk when he moved to the US) master’s virtuosic mastery of melodrama.

The Visible Hand: Lois Weber’s SHOES

Tuesday, October 29th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Lois Weber's Shoes (1916) were written by Erica Moulton, PhD. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A recent restoration of Shoes will screen in a special program highlighting the work of pioneering women filmmakers that will also include short works by Zora Neale Hurston, Ida May Park, and Alice Guy Blaché. The program has been curated by The New York Times' film critic Manohla Dargis, who will present the program in person and lead a post-screening discussion on Thursday, October 31 at 7 p.m. in 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Erica Moulton

When discussing the films of directors Lois Weber and Ida May Park, the phrase “socially conscious” typically comes up, as their films’ narratives frequently dealt with the tribulations of the impoverished and the downtrodden, treating cinema as a vehicle for social uplift and education. Throughout her twenty year-career as a director, screenwriter, actor, and editor, Weber spoke of cinema’s power to communicate messages to the public in ways that words never could, framing her films both in artistic terms but also as sociological projects akin to investigative reporting. The connections between filmmaking, ethnography, and documentary were further forged by Zora Neale Hurston, who took up a 16dmm camera in the late 1920s to capture portraits of everyday life for African Americans in the South. For her part, Alice Guy Blaché’s remarkable career as a filmmaker (she directed over a thousand films, with around 150 extant) spanned continents, multiple genres, and techniques that she was instrumental in developing—but her films, too, tended to foreground women. 

An interest in women’s shifting roles within society runs through many of the works of early female directors, unsurprising given the contentious times they were living through, with public debates around urbanization, poverty, labor, and voting rights raging in the national consciousness. For perspective, Weber’s Shoes (1916) was released four years before the 19th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing women the right to vote. Despite the scant rights and opportunities that women had in most areas of American society, filmmaking in the first two decades of the 20th century offered a rare avenue for artistic expression and control. In addition to writing and directing, Weber and Guy-Blaché owned and oversaw their own film companies—Lois Weber Productions and Solax Studios, respectively. And yet, the 1920s ushered in corporatization and vertical integration that gave way to rigid studio hierarchies which largely excluded women from positions of leadership and creative roles, especially directing, cinematography, and producing.

Even at the height of her career, Weber’s artistic achievements were qualified in the press by highlighting her close working relationship with her husband, Phillips Smalley. Smalley and Weber did co-direct dozens of features and shorts, but Weber was clearly invested in staking her own place in the burgeoning film landscape, going so far as to open her 1916 feature Hypocrites with an image of herself under a superimposed signature “Yours Sincerely, Lois Weber.” Her authorial hand is no less evident in Shoes, which takes its inspiration from a short story of the same name by Stella Wynne Herron and Jane Addams’s nonfictional treatise on prostitution, A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil (1912). The film follows young shopgirl Eva Meyer (Mary McLaren), who works long hours in a Five and Dime department store during the day, only to return home to hand over all her earnings to her harried mother each night. We learn that Eva’s job and her mother’s side-business bringing in laundry are the family’s only sources of income, as the father opts to sit and read novels in bed all day instead of looking for a job. Eva’s three younger sisters flit around the background of Weber’s shots of the Meyer kitchen, showing them struggling to meet their own needs (with one sister sneaking sugar into the watered-down milk that the mother serves her). 

Eva’s primary concern, as the film’s title announces, is her deteriorating pair of shoes, worn through from spending hours every day on her feet. In an early scene, when Eva walks up to a store window and gazes at the fine pair of leather boots on display, Weber cuts to a closer shot of the boots and Eva’s hand outstretched on the glass pane separating her from her object of desire. Shelley Stamp’s extensive writing on Weber’s career includes a 2004 essay on Shoes, which probes the role that consumerism plays in the articulation of female desire, especially given the commodity-filled department store that serves as a backdrop for much of the film. The daily business of buying and selling is linked to the unsavory transactions arranged at ‘Cabaret’ Charlie’s night club between men and women. Charlie takes a shine to Eva when he first sees her staring at the shoes, all but revealing his intentions to Eva’s morally dubious colleague Lil, who accepts the transactional nature of Charlie’s overtures. Eva carefully averts her eyes away from Charlie’s gaze, but her resolve is shaken as her shoes grow more and more tattered. With her incredible command of cinematic language, Weber elicits both the deep psychological hurt and anguish of Eva’s dilemma and the larger social causes underlying her suffering. For instance, as Eva sleeps one night, a hand with “poverty” scrawled on the skin is superimposed looming over her while she imagines what might happen to her family if she loses her job.

Shoes (1916) and many other films by female directors (including the ones featured in our Cinematheque program) remain to testify to the talent and vision of their creators. Although they were understudied for years, scholars including Shelley Stamp, Cari Beauchamp, Jane Gaines and Hilary A. Hallett have written books that fill in the historical lacunae of these filmmakers’ careers. While Weber died in 1939, she and Guy-Blaché, Hurston, and Park all lived to witness the remarkable rise of film as a commercial form of mass entertainment. Weber was alive to see the names of her contemporaries, Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith, enshrined in the annals of Hollywood’s self-made mythology—and see herself erased. What better way to undo that injustice than to do what all of these directors wanted the public to do—watch their films!

The Uncanny Undead of PARANORMAN

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Laika Studios' ParaNorman (2012) were written by Tim Brayton, PhD Candidate in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of ParaNorman, from the collection of the Chicago Film Society, will screen on Sunday, October 27 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art, part of hour Halloween Horror weekend and our ongoing Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series.

By Tim Brayton

Stick around through the credits of any of the five features made by Oregon-based animation studio Laika – including ParaNorman, the company’s second film – and you’ll be treated to a short “behind the scenes” snippet. Here, the filmmakers lay bare their process, showcasing the loving labor that goes into crafting and manipulating the puppets and physical sets that are photographed one frame at a time to produce the finished animation. These tiny, impressionistic snippets of backstage activity are part of Laika’s larger strategy of selling itself as a scrappy little artisanal outfit, fussing with the wildly labor-intensive medium of stop-motion animation, a lone hold-out of traditional craftsmanship in a world where everything is made on computers.

The reality is a bit more complicated, naturally enough. Laika’s house style is a far cry from the simple clay animation of earlier decades; it’s a sophisticated, elaborate hybrid form combining hand-made puppets dressed in hand-stitched clothing posed on hand-built sets, with the precision and detail made possible on computers. ParaNorman itself was one of the most important films in defining and developing this style, perhaps most notably in its creation of replacement heads for its characters. Extending at least as far back as director George Pal’s short fairy tales from the 1940s, a common technique in stop-motion puppet animation has been to build one body with several different heads that could be swapped out to express all of the necessary emotions of the story. Crafting a new face for every single frame is, unsurprisingly, an inordinately time-consuming process, and for this reason stop-motion animation has historically tended to rely on slower changes of facial expression, or having characters repeat the same face multiple times across the film. In making ParaNorman, directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler were anxious to give their adolescent heroes access to a much wider range of feelings than had previously been available, even in the same studio’s first feature, 2009’s equally boundary-stretching Coraline. To that end, they designed faces for lead character Norman and the rest of the cast in a computer, using similar software to that used in computer animation. These faces were then printed on a 3D printer and swapped out every frame, with the seam between the face and the rest of the head being painted out later on a computer. As a result of this effort, ParaNorman boasts some of the smoothest, most emotionally wide-ranging character acting in the history of stop-motion animation.

The filmmakers also used computers to help create the inhuman world of ghosts and zombies of the film’s kid-friendly horror. Towards the end of the film, Norman encounters the realm of the undead directly, in a sequence that bends physics and reality to emphasize the otherworldly qualities of the story. Much of this material could never be achieved using physical puppets, and so the animators relied on the same techniques as live-action filmmakers: they staged everything in front of a green screen. The computer-generated elements were then added to the completed footage later. There was still a desire to match the CG imagery to the stop-motion footage, however, and to this end the filmmakers animated reference versions of props and certain characters at the time they were animating the “live-action” material. The computer was then able to match these reference items frame-by-frame, replicating the distinctive movements of stop-motion puppetry in the final computer animation.

None of this means that ParaNorman has somehow become a “computer animated” film. While Laika’s insistence on the hand-crafted artisanal qualities of its projects oversimplifies the method by which they are produced, it only takes a few minutes of watching the end result to understand that there is something unusual and special here. The film depends heavily on the creation of a particular atmosphere, one that’s saturated by damp leaves and low fog and a sense of campfire-story spookiness. The physicality of the characters and the sets is a vital part of creating that atmosphere. The tactile qualities of ParaNorman’s forests and old buildings give it a presence that even the best computer animation would be hard-pressed to match, while the occasional stiffness and lack of fluidity inherent to stop-motion animation imbues the film with just a hint of old-fashioned charm. As the film itself attests, the best ghost stories are the ones that come down with a whiff of history hanging off of them, and ParaNorman’s hand-made aesthetic makes it feel a little bit out of time and archaic even with its bleeding-edge use of technology.

As the action transforms more fully to CGI spaces with CGI ghosts, so does the atmosphere. Images made in a computer are often criticized for being “uncanny”; that is to say, they almost look like reality, but something about them isn’t quite right. In ParaNorman, the uncanny is very much part of the appeal. This is a story about the undead and other malevolent psychic forces attempting to corrupt the world; a little hint that something is “wrong” with reality is exactly the right fit for this stage of the story. The gap between the computer animation and the stop-motion animation is used to signify the gap between the living and the dead, using technology in service to the story rather than as an end itself.

And that, ultimately, is the point. While Laika’s habit of calling attention to its own craftsmanship might serve to break the illusion of its films’ stories, the ultimate purpose to all of this technical wizardry is to create a rich world of vivid characters, the better for us to enjoy the comic and spooky adventures of Norman and his friends (and enemies). What Laika is best at isn’t creating tech demonstrations, but creating beautifully macabre genre tales for the whole family, and ParaNorman is one of their greatest successes in that tradition.


Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Revenge of the Creature (1955) were written by David Vanden Bossche, PhD Student in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts and co-organizer of the Antwerp Summer Film School. A 3-D version of Revenge of the Creature will kick off our Halloween Horror series on Friday, October 25, at 7 p.m., in our regular venue at 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening will be followed by a discussion with Bob Furmanek Founder of 3-D Film Archive, the organization responsible for the digital 3-D restoration of Revenge of the Creature. After the talk, at 9 p.m., Bob Furmanek will introduce a screening of the 1982 3-D horror movie, Parasite, also restored by 3-D Film Archive.

By David Vanden Bossche

During the thirties, Universal shaped the emerging genre of horror films by releasing a slew of now canonical titles: Frankenstein (1931) and its sequel The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) both starring Boris Karloff, The Mummy (Karloff yet again) in 1932 and Tod Browning’s iconic Dracula in 1931. By the 1950s however, monsters had taken different shapes. They became alien invaders (Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers tapped into the fear of Communism in 1956) or gigantic beasts (most famously ants in Them and the Japanese lizard Gojira, both from 1954 and premised on man’s scientific hubris and nuclear experiments leading to nature’s revenge).

When Universal released Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954, it was thus a decidedly old-fashioned and outdated take on the genre, with 3-D as an extra element to attract the targeted teenage movie viewers. The film turned out to be a success and the studio quickly commissioned director Jack Arnold to direct a sequel. Arnold had built a career out of similar fare from 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man to episodes of the disco-in-space television show Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981).

Like its predecessor, Revenge of the Creature ventured into the use of 3-D to lure viewers to theatres. The use of the format became popular from the early fifties onwards, as part of Hollywood’s effort to combat the rise of television and the subsequent dwindling attendance at movie theatres. 3-D became associated with horror films and youthful audiences, even though some more prolific directors experimented with the format, as Alfred Hitchcock did with Dial M for Murder (1954). Technical limitations prohibited 3-D from growing into a real marketable asset and it faded out quickly. It only returned very sporadically over the next few decades, until it was revived on a somewhat larger scale in the early eighties, which led to horror sequels like Friday the 13th Part III: 3D (1982) and Jaws 3-D (1983). It was not until new technical developments improved the process, that a film such as The Polar Express (2004) hinted at the renewed potential of 3-D and James Cameron’s record-breaking Avatar (2009) convinced theatre chains to invest in the equipment. With some auteurs (Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee, Werner Herzog and even Jean-Luc Godard) experimenting with the format and studios still launching tentpole pictures in 3-D, it seems the third filmic dimension will stick around this time, even though recent articles have shown that its market penetration is very different in various regions of the world and definitely on the decline in the USA.

Arnold finished the 3-D sequel in quick fashion and delivered another efficient monster romp. The Gill Man is now captured during an Amazon mission and transported to Florida, where it is chained to the bottom of a pool, helplessly drifting in between dolphins and sharks, until it – obviously – breaks loose and takes a page from King Kong’s book in pursuing the blonde female scientist who was conducting the experiments. The film contains numerous endearing 3-D shots of maritime life (sometimes it is hard to actually spot the creature among all the fish that float towards the viewer). Look for a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it performance by a very young Clint Eastwood as a laboratory assistant.

WAVES screening added to Fall Cinematheque calendar!

Monday, October 14th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

The UW Cinematheque has added a sneak preview screening of Waves to our Premiere Showcase series, on Thursday, November 7.

The latest film from writer/director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha, It Comes at Night), Waves has been garnering critical acclaim since its first screenings at the Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals last month.

Set against the vibrant landscape of South Florida, and featuring an astonishing ensemble of award-winning actors and breakouts alike, Waves traces the epic emotional journey of a suburban African-American family—led by a well-intentioned but domineering father—as they navigate love, forgiveness, and coming together in the aftermath of a loss. Waves is a heartrending story about the universal capacity for compassion and growth even in the darkest of times.

The November 7 screening will begin at 7 p.m. at 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is free and limited seating is available on a first-come, first-seated basis.

Electrifying Dysfunction: Jane Campion's SWEETIE

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Jane Campion's Sweetie were written by Tim Brayton, PhD Candidate in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Sweetie from the Chicago Film Society collection will be screened as part of our ongoing Sunday Cinematheque series at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, October 6 at 2 p.m.

By Tim Brayton

If you know the great Australian-New Zealander director Jane Campion only through her biggest hits – the 1993 Oscar-winner The Piano, or the 2010s TV series Top of the Lake – elements of Sweetie will seem familiar. Like many of her later projects, Campion’s first theatrically-released feature (after a handful of short films and the 1986 telefilm Two Friends) is a psychodrama about a difficult, at times unknowable woman. It does not ask us to like its protagonist, and indeed it puts some real effort into making sure we don’t like her, yet she comes across as a sympathetic and recognizable human throughout.

But it is a much more compact, small-scale film than her best-known work. If we consider only the one-sentence summary of the story – a woman in her twenties is forced to deal with the intrusion of her  pathetic sad-sack father and terrifyingly uninhibited sister into her staid life – it doesn’t sound especially far away from the genial domestic comedies that were about to become Australia’s most commercially reliable export, films in the Muriel’s Wedding (1994) model. There’s something concise and intimate about the scenario, enforced perhaps by the limited resources with which the first-timer was obliged to work.

Still, no matter how many different films we might call up as being similar to Sweetie in some way, or which might somehow contextualize it (in a directorial career, in a national cinema), it will always remain the case that this is a tricky, singular work, one that’s almost impossible to fully unpack. As seasoned a film viewer as Roger Ebert openly admitted that his first experience with the film left him confounded and unsure about his emotional reaction. This is a perfectly reasonable response: as small as it is, Sweetie is a daunting work, asking much of its viewer as it subjects us to the extremities of human feeling embodied by its two main characters. Summing up his second viewing, Ebert noted, “Most movies slide right through our minds without hitting anything. This one screams and shouts every step of the way.” That’s a fair synopsis: this certainly does scream at us, mostly through the raging emotions of its title character. But it also whispers and sometimes remains silent altogether.

Sweetie is named after one of its characters, Dawn (Geneviève Lemon), a titanic life-force whose childish greed and indifference to other people manages to cause significant pain to every other figure onscreen, but it’s actually the story of her sister, Kay (Karen Colston). It’s close to the one-third mark before we’ll meet Dawn, in fact, during which time we’ve seen Kay discard one romantic relationship and go a good long way toward sabotaging a second. It would be going too far to say we’ve gotten to know Kay. Indeed, one of the most significant facts about Sweetie is how successfully it prevents us from ever getting a good peek into the main character’s head. Dawn, in contrast, is an open book, her whims and appetites declaring themselves loud and clear at every beat. But pithily summarizing this as “one sister is closed-off, one is exuberant” is of no help at all; Kay’s opacity is much more complex than that, and much more dramatically compelling. The lead character’s unknowability is the story, in a sense: We spend the entire running time of Sweetie trying to figure Kay out, and other than implying that anybody growing up with Dawn for a sibling would tend to embrace an arm’s-length detachment from the rest of humanity as a survival instinct, the film never even feints towards providing an answer.

That arm’s-length remove is a literal one, by the way: one of the very first images of the film is a shot of a human arm jutting towards the camera, attached to a body that has been pointedly kept out of focus by cinematographer Sally Bongers. It’s almost as though the limb has been disconnected from the body it belongs to, and this fragmentary approach to depicting the human form will persist throughout Sweetie. Despite the everyday setting, Campion and Bongers are not at all interested in aesthetic realism: Sweetie is rife with weird distortions caused by atypical lens choices, unnaturally close shot scales that reduce characters to hands, legs, and parts of faces, and disorientingly rich colors, far bolder than the scenario or conventions of domestic character drama-comedy would seem to require. Simply put, we are not meant to be comfortable watching Sweetie. We are meant to be struck, over and over again, by the fundamental oddness of this world and these characters, with the visuals forcing us into a gut-level appreciation of the unstable, even dangerous situation at the film’s heart. The motif of bodily close-ups – a trope Campion uses elsewhere in her career – here seems to be primarily about emphasizing the isolation between the characters by visually demonstrating that they can’t even exist as complete human organisms, let alone as a satisfactory, functioning family unit.

It’s a demanding film, to say the least, but Campion isn’t looking to punish us. For all its severity,  Sweetie is ultimately a comedy – one of the bitterest, blackest comedies you’ll ever see, but a comedy even so. This is, at heart, a quintessential Australian tale of offbeat eccentrics, and simply from the incongruous physical appearance of the sisters, Sweetie is happy to lean into that eccentricity. Even more than it is an acute psychological study, this is primarily a very peculiar film, and that can at time means that it’s a bit goofy. It’s like Dawn herself, in that regard; thorny, unpleasant, maybe terrifying, but it also has a magnetism that makes the destruction in its heart somewhat alluring. It’s all too much for Kay, who shuts herself down in the face of this energy, but Campion has kindly allowed us to experience this electrifying dysfunction through the safety of the movie screen, in one of the most constantly surprising films of the 1980s.

AND LIFE GOES ON: Kiarostami and Neorealism

Monday, September 30th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Abbas Kiarostami's And Life Goes On (Zendegi va digar hich, 1992)  were written by David Vanden Bossche, PhD Student in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts and co-organizer of the Antwerp Summer Film School. The second film in Kiarostami's "Koker Trilogy," And Life Goes On will screen in Friday, October 4, at 7 p.m., in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By David Vanden Bossche

The Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami gained international attention in 1987 with Where Is The Friend’s House? after spending a decennium working on documentary shorts at the ‘Kanun’ institute for youth education in Iran. In his breakthrough film, a young schoolboy is looking for the house of one of his classmates in order to return the book he took with him by mistake, a crucial item the friend will need to be able to hand in an assignment the next morning. The film was shot in Koker, a small rural village that was hit by a devastating earthquake in 1990. Kiarostami returned to the village and, inspired by the display of human resilience he witnessed there, instigated this belated sequel (the second part in an unofficial ‘Koker’ trilogy that ended with 1994’s Through the Olive Trees). And Life Goes On ingeniously evokes the multilayered relation between reality, fiction and filmic construction, that became Kiarostami’s trademark. 

The film’s set-up is deceptively simple. An actor playing Kiarostami (the irony of the director ‘directing’ himself is only one of the movie’s clever reflections on the ontological role of the filmmaker) travels by car through Iran with a (fictitious) son in an attempt to reach Koker in the immediate wake of the earthquake. The entire voyage is presented as a search for the youngsters that featured as the leads in Where Is the Friend’s House?  and continuously recalls set-ups and situations from that film. While Kiarostami did in fact inquire about the faith of his young actors, we should definitely not look at And Life Goes On as a documentary. As pointed out by Tom Paulus in the Photogenie article “Truth in Cinema: The Riddle of Kiarostami,” Kiarostami is searching for a way in which ‘the lie of the cinematic construction’ can uncover the deeper truth of reality. The interaction between those two conceptions of reality is already on full display in the opening scene that uses the ritual of a car entering a tollway as a metaphor for the experience of the movie theatre, a similarity that is strenghtened throughout the film: the ‘frame’ of the car’s window is the equivalent of the cinema’s ‘framing’ of reality – a similar movement that guides the viewer’s eye.

Because the Iranian master has a tendency to record reality in a seemingly neutral way, he is often called a heir to the Italian Neorealists. Most arguments for this approach (non-professional actors, ‘realistic’ narratives) fail however in embracing ‘de-dramatization’ as the essential element of such films as Umberto D. or Paisà. As Gilles Deleuze has put it, the Italian movement meant the shift from film as an art of movement to film as an art of pure time and – like his Neorealist predecessors – Kiarostami does indeed ‘de-dramatize’ time by allowing ‘real time’ into the essentially artificial time of the filmic construction. That this perception of ‘realism’ is just as much a part of the ‘lie’ of the filmic construction is something we are asked to acknowledge time and again when the film makes us aware of the act of filming (and watching) itself.

Those instances also emphasize the aestheticization of reality, be it through a breathtakingly subtle color-palette, as well as the ‘flat’ imagery that stems from Kiarostami’s use of long lenses – a technical choice that merges the characters with the surrounding landscapes and recalls the ‘flat’ stylism of traditional Persian visual arts.

Behind the Blue Door: Kiarostami's WHERE IS THE FRIEND'S HOUSE?

Wednesday, September 25th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Abbas Kiarostami's Where is the Friend's House? were written by Zachary Zahos, UW-Cinematheque Project Assistant and PhD Student in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. The first film in Kiarostami's "Koker" Trilogy, Where is the Friend's House? will screen in a newly restored DCP on Friday, September 27 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The second and third films in the trilogy, And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees, will screen October 4 and 11, respectively.

By Zachary Zahos

When he died in 2016, Abbas Kiarostami left a body of cinema unique for its beauty, insight, and profound cohesion. His wonderful “Koker Trilogy,” consisting of the films that first won him laurels at European film festivals and launched his reputation among Western film critics, best exemplifies the artistic progression and omni-directional ballast of his oeuvre. The first film in this informal trilogy, Where Is the Friend’s House? (Khane-ye doust kodjast?), tells the story of an eight-year-old boy, Ahmad, trying to return the notebook that belongs to his beleaguered friend from school. The second film, And Life Goes On (Zendegi va digar hich), casts a Kiarostami-like director returning to Koker, a town in northwestern Iran, to search for the first film’s child actors, following a real-life, devastating 1990 earthquake. The third film, Through the Olive Trees (Zire darakhatan zeyton), builds a gentle romantic comedy plot around two actors playing newlyweds on the set of And Life Goes On. The geographic unity and reflexive games between these three films have led critics to group them as a trilogy, though Kiarostami himself drew a line around the latter two films and his 1997 Palme d’Or winner Taste of Cherry (Ta’m e guilass). However you split them, Kiarostami’s films speak to one another on levels of subject, form, and theme, not merely referring back to earlier films but seemingly anticipating future projects and signaling lifelong preoccupations.

To further illustrate his filmography’s backwards-and-forwards integrity, Kiarostami paired Where Is the Friend’s House? with his 1989 documentary Homework, having said the following: “In Homework the children talk about what is then seen in Where Is the Friend’s House?; and Where Is the Friend’s House? shows that what the children say in Homework is true.” What the schoolchildren discuss in Homework is, as one might guess, the burden of homework, even if the on-screen subjects in that film are conditioned to never voice their displeasure. The causes for that conditioning are on full display throughout Where Is the Friend’s House?, which features emotionally fragile children, the threat of corporal punishment both at school and at home, and an authoritarian schoolteacher straight out of a Louis Althusser case study. Developing ideas introduced in his first two films, The Bread and Alley (1970) and Breaktime (1972), Kiarostami thrusts the young protagonist Ahmad into a frightening world of negligent adults, labyrinthine architecture, and threatening impasses.

Thankfully, like his early short films and the rest of the Koker Trilogy, Where Is the Friend’s House? builds to an optimistic, if still ironic and suggestive, end. The specifics of the film’s ending aside, which I will not spoil, the overarching narrative charts the development of Ahmad’s intellect and moral sense—his dawning of conscience. The plot, again, follows Ahmad (Babek Ahmadpour)  as he seeks to return a notebook to his peer, Mohammad Reza (Ahmad Ahmadpour, Babek’s brother), who lives in the nearby village of Poshteh, though where specifically Ahmad does not know. Between his family’s village of Koker and Poshteh, Ahmad encounters a series of adults, who fail to help him whether due to ignorance, overwork, or loneliness. Kiarostami focuses on Ahmad’s lived experience during this trial through an empathetic approach to scene coverage. Here, Kiarostami punctuates long shots of Ahmad darting up and down stairs and across landscapes with shallow focus close-ups of Ahmad’s restive glances and pleas. The tight shots of Ahmad processing the world around him often lop off the heads of adults around him, filmed or angled as they are to the boy’s height.

While the symbolic dimension of Kiarostami’s work can be overstated, doors and doorways serve as thematic linchpins and even animate characters in Where Is the Friend’s House?. Two male adults Ahmad encounters on his journey craft doors as part of their trade, surely not a coincidence. The first is a brusque middle-aged salesman who hard-sells iron doors; the second, meanwhile, is an older man who likes to hear himself talk, droning on to Ahmad about his traditional, artisinal wooden doors. The disparity between the two indicates modernizing forces at work in rural Iran, and two narcissistic modes of masculinity for Ahmad to avoid.

As far as doors ‘behaving’ like characters, the first shot of the film consists of opening titles over a blue door, which flaps noisily for about a minute and 20 seconds. The yells of children off-screen indicate that this door just barely seals off a classroom, and the brisk swinging-open of the door after the credits announces the teacher’s arrival. The film’s climax similarly entrusts a door with an eerie sense of agency. While I will again refrain from disclosing the choice Ahmad makes here, the scene’s striking mise-en-scène positions a doorway at the center of the frame. In a long shot, a gust of wind flies the door wide open before Ahmad, who soon becomes transfixed on the doorway and the billowing sheets his mother placed on the clothesline beyond it. A fondness for aperture framing runs through Kiarostami’s career, up to his posthumous film 24 Frames (2017), as does the use of doors and windows to subdivide space and lend graphic impact, typified in his masterful Certified Copy (2010). The climax of Where Is the Friend’s House? and the final shot a few minutes later both showcase Kiarostami’s lifelong genius for transforming everyday objects (a door and a notebook, respectively) into reflective indices of his protagonist’s inner life. The heady, electric charge one feels leaving this film affirms the miracle, and just-dawning immortality, of Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema.


Wednesday, August 28th, 2019
Posted by Zachary Zahos

These notes on Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) were written by Ben Donahue, Associate Director of Alternative Cinema at WUD Film. A 35mm print of this film will open our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series for the Fall 2019 semester, "Chicago Film Society Presents!" this Sunday, September 1, at 2 p.m in the Chazen Museum of Art's auditorium. Free admission!

“I can’t tell if you want to be like me, or if you want to be me.” — Jesse James, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Most often, genres are not defined by the location in which the story unfolds but by a series of recognizable narrative and stylistic elements. It’s this small detail about genre that makes the western so unique. Relegated entirely to one region, the western transforms the vast landscape of the American frontier into a character just as vital to the genre as the ones John Wayne portrayed. The character of the frontier is instantly recognizable for its rough, empty, and unforgiving landscapes. This void demands to be filled by larger than life characters, outlaws and rangers alike elevated into mythical figures. Perhaps the most infamous of all the idols that ever occupied the sprawling expanse of the western frontier is Jesse Woodson James.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is not concerned with the sensational crimes or daring robberies of Jesse and the James gang. Andrew Domink’s quiet western epic from 2007 focuses on the man at the center of the myth. Brad Pitt gives a career best performance as the enigmatic but cautious outlaw. The film operates almost as a behind-the-scenes look at a rock star on tour. From the perspective of the audience, the life of a touring pop icon is glamorous, but we only see what’s on stage and never what’s off of it. Watching this movie, we fit comfortably into the shoes of Robert Ford, who is portrayed by a perfectly wide-eyed and awkward Casey Affleck. In the same way that moviegoers idolized John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, or Clint Eastwood for decades, Robert Ford idolizes Jesse James; he is more demigod than he is human to Robert. It’s easy for us to understand how excited Robert is to meet Jesse, but almost easier to relate the feeling of being let down when he learns his idol is human after all.

Westerns were always about brave and strong heroes of the story, but The Assassination of Jesse James changes the focus from idols to the act of idolatry itself. The film isn’t focused on one man, but instead on the relationship between two men: one infatuated with the other and one wary of the other. Robert’s obsession turns him into a shy puppy dog staring, following, and doing everything that Jesse does. When Robert tries to take Jesse James’s place, by killing him, he makes the mistake of assuming that his feet could possibly fill Jesse’s larger-than-life boots. Jesse James was a villain to some, a folk hero to others, but a legend to all. Robert may have assassinated the man known as Jesse James, but in doing so, he only bolstered the vitality of Jesse’s legend. Being unable to replace or become Jesse James, Robert is forced to repeatedly live out his role as the man who killed him. Robert now realizes the true loneliness Jesse lived in, and he becomes a mere footnote at the end of Jesse’s saga. Jesse and Robert’s relationship of idol and worshipper reveals something quietly sad about the western genre. Even at their most solemn and dirty, westerns share the idea of grand men who could fill the emptiness of the frontier. Dominik’s film is a humbling and humanizing film that strips back the legend of the Wild Wild West and reveals the lonely reality in which people lived.

Just as it tweaks well-established western themes, this film also builds on the aesthetic tradition of other westerns. Gorgeously shot on film by famed cinematographer Roger Deakins, The Assassination of Jesse James is truly a sight to behold. The open deserts and dusty hills of The Searchers have been replaced with rolling grassy plains right out of Days of Heaven and frozen tundra reminiscent of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. With the same reverence for nature that can be seen in all westerns, Deakins incorporates a stunning degree of natural light and darkness. With warm and dreamy sunshine and night that actually looks pitch black, Deacons lends the film an oneiric quality. This is best exemplified in the now famous nighttime train robbery scene early on in the film. By performing a bleach bypass on the film’s negatives, Deakins achieves a pitch black color that allows the bright light mounted on the train to cut through the forest and smoke with extreme contrast. Every shot in the movie is impressively realized, pitching men against the environment as well as each other through a powerful mix of light, color, and composition. The potent beauty and dreaminess of the visuals help to reinforce the rose-tinted glasses through which we and Robert view legends of the west like Jesse James.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is the quintessential modern western. Evoking the stylistic elements of the classics while simultaneously proposing a more nuanced perspective, this film is not just about the characters in the story, but about the nature of the western genre itself. It interrogates the old and builds off it, increasing our appreciation for previous westerns and the part they played in defining the American frontier.